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Freedom's Price

Part XII


"So what did we get out of that?" Risa said after the three goons had left and their skimmer was gone from the street outside. "We already know it was some kind of power game inside LIM; though this confirms it, we didn't learn anything more."

"We got a description of the guy who's doing this--probably the man who Stephens wanted to blackmail. That can be checked; Melora's file said it was Stephens' boss whom he was after, and since Eric was a section manager that probably means either the division chief or sub-chief." Knowledge of Luveno's organizational structure came in handy. "If this is a counter-blackmail operation he wouldn't farm out the recruiting job to some aide."

Tyler's face fell suddenly.

"Something's not making any sense here."

"Oh? What?"

"We know Stephens had something on his boss. We're assuming that what's on the encrypted chip is the specific incriminating data, right?"

Risa nodded.

"That's right."

"And that it's this 'boss' who killed Stephens or had him killed, ordered Melora's kidnapping, and is trying to recover the chip, all to cover up whatever he's done?"

"Uh-huh."

"Then what's he doing with a couple of sec-agents backing him up? When you're trying to hide blackmail material, you don't invite extra witnesses along. To say nothing of the ones in the white coats. That sounds like doctors, nurses, or researchers, something like that. That means three more people who could learn that he is staging an illegal operation in order to cover his own personal weaknesses."

"Doctors?" Risa said. "I thought the point was to interrogate her?"

Tyler nodded.

"That's a little odd, but not completely out of line. Drugs are a part of the questioner's arsenal, and trained medical staff are often needed to regulate dosages and monitor the subject's condition. It's standard--but, again, the problem is loyalty. The first rule of cover-ups is that you don't put anyone who's out of the loop in a position to learn the truth. The bodyguards I can accept; they're probably used to their boss being involved in various gray-side projects and don't need to be told the details of any particular job, but the interrogators...I really didn't expect him to be using professional resources for this. I half-assumed the rat pack there was holding Melora, since they don't have the inside data to make use of anything they learn and are, from their client's point of view, completely disposable."

Risa folded her arms across her chest.

"Maybe they do have her. Maybe they sold us a bill of goods and are off laughing at us right now." The idea was clearly not one she liked to think about.

"I don't think so," Tyler disagreed. "I didn't get a hint any of them were lying."

"Are you saying you can't be fooled?" Risa challenged him.

Tyler shook his head.

"No, I'm not infallible. Under those circumstances, though, with that class of thug, I'm fairly confident that I'd have picked up on it if they were lying, at least from one if not all three. Unless they were professionals who pretended to be street muscle and let themselves be captured to feed us disinformation." Tyler shook his head, amazed that his brain had twisted itself around enough to come up with that last thought. "Paranoia may practically be a job skill in this business, but there are limits."

"That did sound pretty crazy, Tyler. All right, I didn't think they were lying, either, until you started talking about it, so I ought to believe you know what you're talking about."

"Thanks," he replied dryly.

"Don't mention it. Now, where does that leave us?"

Tyler dropped into a chair, wheels turning in his head.

"Not much farther along than before. If that pickup went down the way those goons say it did, though, then we're missing something. It doesn't feel like one exec covering his backside against a blackmail scam. It almost had the taste of a sanctioned operation."

"Are you sure it's LIM at all? That skag might have flashed a fake card on purpose to lay a false trail."

"You're getting good at this," Tyler remarked. "That would explain everything, if some other corp kidnapped Melora over something that had nothing to do with Eric Stephens and his blackmail job."

"Do you believe it?"

"Maybe. Probably not."

Risa's dark eyes looked him over appraisingly.

"Why not?"

"Hmm." He paused thoughtfully, trying to articulate what he was only now starting to realize. "It's those alarms Ham tripped on Stephens' file. Someone had to set those up, almost certainly someone in LIM's CompSec. We know that Stephens worked in Robotics, so either the one he was trying to blackmail is an angel supreme capable of hacking the system and setting up private traps that somehow leave no record when they're triggered, or..."

The green-haired girl had followed his train of thought exactly.

"Or it's something other than blackmail--something about which he's not afraid to go to security and get help."

Tyler nodded.

"Not a coverup, but a company-sanctioned shadow op," he said. "But why? What did Melora fall into that would make Luveno circle the wagons like this?"

Neither he nor Risa had an answer to that, but they both knew where one could be found: recorded on a tiny crystal cylinder that, with luck, the upcoming meeting at Shadowedge would lay open for them.

* * * * *

To say that Captain Alana Nile was not pleased was grossly understating the situation. She was furious, positively irate. Most people in her state of mind would have been screaming and pounding the table; by contrast the Steel Hawk's control was such that her voice became a bit more curt, a little tighter than usual, but that was all. It didn't matter, though. The force of her anger filled the office like a living, breathing thing. Conn Derrek could feel it, and somewhere in the back of his mind he was on his knees begging whatever gods were out there that she wouldn't let that emotion out. At least not at him.

"You were given a task, Lieutenant Derrek. It was not necessarily simple, but it was well within your capacity. I thought it was, at least." She folded her hands on the desktop. "For the past hour I have been on the phone with various members of the top brass. I have spoken with my superiors in the DLE, with military authorities, and with the Executive Director of LIM herself."

"I presume this concerns my visit to Gage Worthmann?"

"It does," she said flatly, not bothering with sarcasm. "That may have been the dumbest thing I've ever heard of."

"Captain, he knows something he's not telling--"

"That's not what I'm talking about!" Nile cut him off flatly. "I came up the hard way, through the ranks, and got used to rousting suspects. You, on the other hand, are supposed to be some hotshot designated for top-level status, which means that you should know when to exercise tact."

Conn winced painfully as Nile continued speaking, snapping off each word like a bullet.

"I've examined your report on the Hamdak incident. I agree with your conclusions as you spelled them out to Worthmann. Sabotage from within is the only reasonable explanation. What I cannot comprehend is how you could go storming up to LIM headquarters, dropping heavy-handed hints that you suspected him of being involved--suspicions that, I may add, I do not necessarily agree with."

"He knows too much. He knew that Hamdak had been killed."

"Did it ever occur to you that LIM is hardly going to sit back and wait for us to dole out whatever facts we care to? Worthmann is heading the corporation's share of this investigation; of course he has his sources. There's nothing incriminating in his knowledge; frankly, I'd be more suspicious if he didn't know. That would mean someone was deliberately keeping him out of the circle of information and point directly to a conspiracy."

The captain's eyes burned with cold fire as she looked at Conn, her stare unwavering.

"Putting all that aside, let's say for a moment that he is involved somehow in these crimes. What good did confronting him accomplish? Even if you were on to something, all you've done is to let him know you're a threat. Now, he can throw so many official roadblocks in your path that you'll never get close to him. You aren't some storybook detective, Derrek, who solves crimes for the intellectual challenge of it. Your job is to catch criminals with enough evidence that they can be convicted and jailed. There's no point to it otherwise."

"A point of correction," Abren stated. "Under authority of current statutes, it would be possible to construe the theft of data relating to Project Nuada as treasonous espionage. As such, there would be no need for a criminal trial with the benefit of the legal rights and protections afforded by civilian law. The suspects would face a military tribunal instead, where power and influence could not shield them."

Conn glanced at the android in surprise. Abren was defending him?

"I'm quite aware of that," Nile said. "I'm also aware that the news media are extremely vocal when the government takes end runs around people's legal safeguards. Do you know about the Venkler scandal in 1263? Those four were guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt, and there were still almost riots in the streets because of how things were handled. The people don't want to see death sentences come out of closed trials and star-chamber sessions. That's why the DLE was assigned to spearhead this investigation, to make sure that things were handled in a way that wouldn't cause more harm than the original crime did."

"That is an accurate assessment. I merely wished to point out that should Gage Worthmann be guilty in this matter, there would be a remedy available."

"Admittedly," Nile granted, "it can be hard to balance various goals." She was always fair, Conn had to give her that. "That doesn't mean you have carte blanche to act stupidly. Do you understand? You gained nothing and have enraged the executives at LIM. Cooperation from a major corp--the major corp--is rarer than laconia, and you may well have cost us that advantage. Meanwhile, Tyler Jorran--the man you were actually sent out to catch--is still out there, killing, stealing, or just covering his tracks."

"I'm not entirely sure we should be after him," Conn stated. "He's beginning to look more and more like a false scent, a shiny, attractive lure dragged through this investigation by Luveno to confuse us."

"The best way to find out is to take him into custody and interrogate him. You should have been confronting every contact you have, trying to track this man, instead of playing games with LIM."

Conn wanted to lash back, to defend himself, but the problem was that she was right and he knew it. He should have listened to Abren's advice and not tipped his hand. Yet he was, at least on some level, glad he had done it. Nile was wrong about Worthmann's motives, he was sure of it, and Conn now knew what kind of game he was caught up in. It wasn't just the chase for one terrorist band, but the power games of corps and government ministries, and Conn was determined not to be a pawn. Pawns in those kind of games were often sacrificed.

"I have received one piece of good news," the captain continued. "One of our informants reported that there's going to be a meeting tonight at a club called Shadowedge. Tyler Jorran is going there to recruit new talent. You'll be there."

"An informant?" Conn asked. "This didn't come from LIM?" Stupid question, he thought almost as soon as he had asked it. He didn't need the sharp shake of Nile's head to tell him it would be no one with a connection to Luveno who had passed on this lead. If the corp was responsible, they would work through third parties, now that they knew Conn suspected them. Of course, the tip might also be legitimate, in which case there would certainly be no LIM connection. "What time is he supposed to be there?"

"Apparently this Jorran had a taste for the melodramatic. The meeting is supposed to be scheduled for midnight."

"In that case, I'd better not keep him waiting."

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