Silence Of The Heart
Intuition isn't the world's most reliable source of information, which is why I preferred logic. Intuition had led me to expect tragedy at the tower of blue-lit windows and black steel that was the home of Racton's son. It had almost been right.
If Martz was going to watch the building's main doorway, he would need a vantage point, one where he could remain unseen, carry a weapon without raising suspicion. That point was an aerocar, docked in an alley between buildings so as not to obstruct traffic--and giving from its right front window a perfect view of the building's front door.
As the owner of a weapon shop Martz was undoubtedly familiar with a wide variety of killing instruments, but his citizen file had shown no military or hunter background, no special training or field experience in the arts of violence. That made all the difference. All his attention was focused on the building; he didn't have the military sniper's ability to monitor his own surroundings simultaneously. I came up on him from behind, autogun drawn, the pulsing blue sighting beam along the top of the weapon indicating that the Photon charge was armed and ready to fire. I opened the driver's-side rear door and slid into the back seat behind Martz. He was crouched in the front passenger seat, cradling a rifle in his hands. I doubted he'd so much as heard me until I spoke.
"Let go of the rifle, Oliver."
He flinched, both at my voice and at the cold kiss of my gun barrel at the back of his neck. Reflected in the window, I could see his face, drawn and tight with emotion. In the haunted eyes I almost imagined I could see his thoughts.
"It's not worth it," I said softly. "Peter wouldn't want you to throw your life away."
I reached across with my free hand and gripped the rifle barrel. I kept the gun to Martz's head while I pulled, just in case he tried something foolish. There was a slight resistance, and then the weapon slid from his hands. Martz shuddered, and I could all but feel the anger drain from him, to be replaced by a cold, numbing despair.
"Go on," he said dully. "Make it quick."
"I'm not here for that."
I powered down the autogun and put it away.
"You work for Racton; you're one of his killers."
"I work for Racton, yes. Other than that, you're completely wrong. My name is Sejanus. Racton hired my services through the Hunter's Guild for one job: to protect his life."
He turned to face me.
"I'm not here to kill you," I told him. "I don't do that kind of work." That there were hunters who would stained all of us.
"But...if that's true, how can you take Racton's money? Knowing as you do about Peter, about what Racton did?" There was a faint note of pleading, begging in his voice that was almost distasteful. It was the voice of a man at the end of his rope, who'd lost his emotional balance from too much pain and shock.
I'd sounded like that myself, more than once.
I glanced down at the rifle at my hands.
"This was Peter's, wasn't it?" I asked, running my fingertip over the initials carved in the stock. P.M.--Peter Martz. Oliver's son. "You recognized it as his."
"Peter was a hunter," he said. "He was working on a Guild quest down on Ragol, searching for a missing girl, but he vanished, too. A lot of hunters did. Now...now his weapon turns up back on Pioneer 2!"
That was about what I'd expected from hearing Racton's story and reading the file.
"Racton didn't have anything to do with your son, Oliver," I said, using his name to make it personal, help to create a connection between us.
"He had the rifle."
"That's true." I paused, then when he started to say something, I cut him off with a quick "But that doesn't make him involved in the disappearance."
"I'm serious, Oliver. Racton is strictly small-time. He's greedy, yes, but that's all. He snapped up a bunch of black-market weapons because he got a good price waved under his nose. There's a man who never learned of the concept, 'too good to be true.' I doubt he even knew that you had a son, let alone that he was missing. You know as well as I do that the missing hunters case was never publicized."
That was true enough. The police and government hadn't wanted it broadcast to the public because it suggested that they were less than in control, allowing a kidnapping ring to not only form, but to operate in the restricted areas of Ragol. The Hunter's Guild had concurred, since the events tended to cast doubt on the ability of hunters to do their jobs.
As I understood it from Guild scuttlebutt, the ring had been operated by a trader nicknamed Black Paper. His people had captured hunters on Ragol and stripped them of weapons and equipment, which they then resold on the black market. A girl named Kroe Waynes had engineered the capture and arrest of the kidnappers, but the missing hunters had not been found.
I'd heard other rumors, too, the kind that were whispered in shadowy corners instead of being spoken aloud. Those rumors suggested that Black Paper wasn't a single trader but a black-market syndicate involved in much more than just a single criminal operation.
And now, after the case was supposedly closed, an item taken from a missing hunter had shown up on the black market.
Of course, I couldn't mention any of this to Martz. If I did, it would just set him off in a different direction. He might hurt an innocent person; he certainly had access to enough weapons to cause a great deal of damage. Beyond that, if he actually went up against the real criminals, he'd come to a bad end. I'd proven that well enough when I slipped into his car.
Something of my thoughts must have shown on my face, because Martz asked, "What is it? Is there something else you know?"
I couldn't tell him what I was thinking, so I lied to him by giving him a different piece altogether of the exact truth.
"This rifle..." I said. "It's the same as the army issues to its private soldiers. My sister used one just like it."
I remembered how happy Vel was on the day she passed her entrance exam into the army. She'd had to come home and model her new uniform for the rest of us. Vel had been happier dressed in the camouflage-painted fatigues and red beret than I'd ever seen her in a beautiful gown. It was what she'd dreamed of ever since she was a little girl.
"My older sister, Velaria," I told him softly. "She was a soldier on board Pioneer 1." One of the thirty thousand people now missing without a trace. I ran my hand along the rifle's grip. "Believe me, I know what you're feeling. The pain of losing someone you love, the sheer, helpless rage at not being able to do anything, the anxiety of not knowing. Sometimes you wish they were dead, just so you could move on, start to grieve, and then you hate yourself for having those disloyal thoughts."
I sighed heavily.
"The worry, the frustration, they eat you alive until your spirit is so raw and worn that you'll leap at the smallest clue, desperate for something, anything that will give you an answer."
His eyes went to the rifle.
"Exactly," I told him.
He stared at it for a long moment, then raised his eyes, almost pleadingly, to meet mine. I kept my gaze firm and level.
Then, as if an emotional dam inside him had broken, a great shudder ran through his body and he buried his face in his hands, sobbing. He wept for nearly two full minutes, during which time I said nothing. This was something, I believed, that he needed to confront in his own way. At long last, he raised his head, his eyes glistening and red-rimmed.
"Thank you," he said softly but earnestly. "I never stopped to think things through. It was as if I was mad, insane with grief. If you hadn't stopped me...I might have done something horrible."
I understood what he meant. Martz was not talking about Racton, now. An eye for an eye was a principle much older than any law codes.
"Now, though," he continued, "I have to take action. This might be the last, lingering remnants of the black market operation, but the rifle turning up may mean that there is more to go on. This could be a lead to my son!"
This was what I'd been afraid he'd realize. Certainly, he would no more abandon his search for Peter than I would give up on Vel. Hadn't I pulled strings, called in favors to be named the head of the military investigation team so I could pry into the mysteries of Ragol?
I decided to take a calculated risk. I handed Martz the rifle. The move surprised him.
"You're giving it back?"
"You looked over the edge once. I don't think you'll be in any rush to go back."
Martz nodded solemnly.
"What I do think," I told him, "is that you'll take that gun and place it in the hands of the proper authorities. The military police will be able to trace it to its source better than either of us could."
"Won't they go to your client and interrogate him about his black-market dealings?"
"Most likely," I agreed.
Martz looked perplexed, which was not really a surprise given the emotional strain that he'd been under. He was still coping, and would be for some time, a condition which was not exactly conducive to clear, logical analysis.
"But...charges might be filed against Racton?"
"Ten minutes ago, you wanted to kill him," I pointed out. "Now, you're worried about him facing a minor criminal charge?"
Martz ran his hand through his hair.
"I'm just trying to understand. He's your client, and you say he's innocent--and now that I'm thinking about it, I believe you--but you're advising me to do something that could get him in trouble with the law."
"Racton hired me to protect his life, which I've done. I'm not his permanent employee with a duty of loyalty, or bound by any rules of confidentiality. Racton is not guilty of being involved in the disappearance of the missing hunters. He is guilty of dealing in black-market weapons. I'm not so enamored of the man that I put keeping him safe from legitimate charges ahead of finding out what happened to your son and the others. I'm a hunter too, after all."
He smiled in understanding.
"I see. Thank you, Sejanus."
"You're welcome. Just do me a favor, please."
"What's that?" he asked curiously.
I gave him a quick, wry smile.
"Just give me a chance to collect my fee from Racton before you set the police on him."