Dropping his duffel, Gates looked around his tiny apartment a last time and verified he had every one of his very limited assortment of personal items. Satisfied, he took his MobiGlas out and called the management company to let them know he’d vacated the premises.
Mundane matters complete, Gates cued the cutout software on his MobiGlas and placed another call. Angelique’s heart-shaped face appeared in the pick-up, smiling. The bruises Kitty had put there were already fading. “Armi!” she said, eyes too bright for complete sobriety, but not so high he had to take notice.
“Good to see you’re feeling better, Angelique.”
She nodded, picking up on the cool response. “What is it, Armi?”
“I’m leaving on business. You’ll be on your own for a bit.”
Angelique frowned, pretty brows drawing tight, “But who’s going to look after me?”
“You will continue as arranged. Nothing changes.”
He interrupted her, not wanting her to use the title, “Nothing changes. Deposits will continue. Keep happy and listen well. I will be in touch.”
“What about the other thing?” Angelique asked, brushing her bruised eye.
“Taken care of.”
“Just like that?”
“A word of advice: clean up, if you can. I won’t be around to correct such problems in the near future. Besides, you know that stuff does you no good.”
She bit her lip, looked away, “I know … thanks.”
“Be safe.” He closed the channel and put his MobiGlas away. She would either sort out her drug problem, or not. Either way, she was a good source on Senator Yaldiz’s secret life, being the central pillar of it. He gave the apartment a final glance. Two years, reduced to a single ruck and a couple new assets; some on and some off the books. Not bad, but not the best use of an old agent’s time. He sighed. It will be good to be back in the fold, back with Special Action. Picking up his ruck, Gates left.
An hour later he stepped up to the local Advocacy quartermaster’s counter to claim the tag for the ship he’d been allotted. The kid behind the counter smiled as he pushed the datakey across. “Avenger, designated A3301. That old bitch is on flight line two.”
Ignoring the kid, Gates signed for the tag and hit the locker room. Donning his flight blues lit the old excitement, putting a bounce in his step as he walked onto the flight line. Gates found her by the designator painted on her tail. Found her, and snorted. He was tempted to go back and punch the kid quartermaster out: A3301 was an early model Avenger, but at least a decade younger than Gates.
He shrugged, mounted the ladder. It’s been too long, he thought, slinging the ruck through the hatch of the old fighter.
Pre-flight was easy and quick, old skills coming back. Gates logged his ground-to-orbit flight plan and request to depart. Both were quickly approved.
He took off a bit gingerly, getting a feel for her. Been flying a desk for a long time, even before the suspension, after all.
Gates found an honest smile curling his lips. In comparison to the ships he’d piloted at Special Action, she was sluggish and long in the tooth, but A3301 was his for the next little while.
The trip to the Black Box was long and less than entertaining, requiring several transits and a few stops to confound anyone trying to track him. The irregular black asteroid wasn’t all that box-shaped. Gates was one of the few that knew its shape wasn’t the reason Special Action had named the place — it was their policy of wiping the black box nav recorders of ships that stumbled upon it.
The defense network surrounding the Black Box sent multiple queries to verify his ID. For a long moment the only evidence he had that he’d satisfied the security protocols was the fact he hadn’t been blown to tiny particles.
He was given a flight path and followed it to the last decimal. Some things you just don’t take chances with. He entered a blacker pit in the dark side of the asteroid and slowly linked up with the docking collar extended for his craft. The hull clunked as mag-locks gripped his ship, connecting his systems with those of the base.
Gates smiled as his sensors went off-line and all lights went dark before the docking collar started drawing A3301 into the asteroid. Advocacy agents were trusted, generally, but institutional paranoia was the name of the game with SA.
This way he couldn’t have told anyone what ships were in the docking bay even had he wanted to.
“Special Agent Gates, welcome back to Special Action,” a woman’s voice interrupted his thoughts, mild trace of an accent spinning the words in pleasant fashion, “I’m Vasser, Special Agent in Charge. When your hatch opens, follow the blue line to me. I’ll brief you in on your mission.”
The Special Agent in Charge briefing me in herself? Unusual. Probably wants to set the tone by putting the old warhorse in his place first off. Setting himself to keep his temper, Gates collected his bag and waited for the hatch to pop. When it did, he followed the illuminated line along a series of empty passages to a hatch. It opened under his hand, revealing a small room.
Vasser sat inside, fingers interlocked on the table before her. White-blonde hair, cut short to fit under a flight helmet or combat armor. All in all, a bit hard on the edges for his personal preferences, but quite attractive. Her expression was neutral as she shook his hand. Nice grip. Not trying too hard. Good sign.
Gates smiled, “SAC Vasser.”
She gestured him into the seat across from hers, “Special Agent Gates. I trust your trip wasn’t too trying?”
He shook his head. “Good to be back in a cockpit.”
She smiled, showing even white teeth for the first time, “You might grow to resent being in one before this is over and done.”
“I doubt it, but do tell.”
“All right.” She punched at the tabletop, calling up a series of files.
Gates heard his MobiGlas chirp as it received copies for later review.
“Three Advocacy agents have been murdered in recent months.”
That got his attention. “Why haven’t–” he snapped his jaw shut on the question when he realized why he hadn’t heard: if these were deaths of undercover agents on active investigations, they wouldn’t have been reported, not through any channels to which a suspended agent would have access.
She continued as if he hadn’t started to say something stupid: “We already have a team chasing down the primary suspect in one case, but I’m tasking you with looking into the other two. On the quiet, as a bounty hunter.”
Not adding up.
She read him too easily, or at least figured her explanation was lacking: “Problem, Agent Gates?”
He shrugged, “Just that I’m not known for the quiet quality of my investigations.”
Her smile returned. He decided he liked it as she continued, “No, you’re known for breaking things. That works in our favor on this one: in fact, as far as anyone but you, me, and your old SAC knows, you’re still on suspension.”
“About Oda, she’s not a fan of mine … And there’s the quartermaster who assigned the ship I came here on.”
“My problem, and already dealt with.”
A barely-visible eyebrow arched, “Just like that?”
He smiled, “If you say Oda is handled, then she’s handled. Same thing on the kid manning the ship depot. Beyond that, I’d rather get on with learning what you know about someone who thinks they can plant our agents without retribution.”
She looked at him a long moment, seeming on the verge of saying something.
Gates waited, expectant.
Vasser didn’t speak, instead looked down and called up an image of an agent in his academy uniform. “Agent Max Nawabi. Graduated twelve years ago. Most recent assignment: Customs Control and Enforcement. Sent in, undercover, at Corel, to investigate rumors of slave trading. Expected to be a long-term op, he was checking in regularly before his handler lost contact two months ago. He turned up dead in a back alley on Nexus last month.”
Another graduation image. “Agent Gage Knowles. Graduated ten years ago. Most recent assignment: Narcotics Investigations. Sent in at Nexus on long-term undercover operation regarding narcotics trade along the Magnus-Nexus-Corel systems. Made regular reports until contact was lost two months ago. Turned up on Nexus in a trash heap within days of Nawabi’s corpse.”
“Aside from the timing, what makes you think the killings are related?”
She looked at Gates, called up the autopsies of both agents. “They made almost no attempt to cover up either killing, and the weapon used was the same in both instances.”
“Exactly the same?”