Author: Maldoror
see chap. 1 for warnings, notes, disclaimer

AN: Dedicated to Dacia, as always!

I've lived in three different countries in my life, and thus get confused about such things, so I'll just mention that I use the US-English way of talking about floors. IE, the second floor is the one just above the ground floor (it's different in other countries, yasee...). Also, bit of a 'blood and gore' warning for this chapter.

Freeport + Chapter 13

We know the road to freedom has always been stalked by death.

- Angela Davis

---

The tension and the anxiety mounted the closer Duo and Wufei got to their destination. It was obvious that their summons had something to do with the murder. Wufei followed Duo in silence; the streets were too crowded to talk freely.

There was a loose ring of people around the door at the address Braun had sent them. Three Red Bands stood in front of the building.

Wufei expected Duo to walk up to them and identify himself, but his friend strolled on down the road with barely a glance. Wufei trailed after him, puzzled.

Duo picked up the pace as soon as they reached a dark alley leading away from the packed street. They circled the block of buildings until they were one edifice away from the murder scene. There was nobody in the roads on this side, so Wufei leaned towards his informant.

"What are we doing?"

"We're going round back to get in. More discreet."

"Oh. But why did Braun call you?"

He thought he caught the slightest flicker of blue eyes, though Duo's expression stayed open and, to all appearances, honest. "Donno. I suppose there's a reason. Maybe it's Mako who got recycked, and Braun thinks I'm to blame."

In other words, I might know, but I won't tell you. Fair enough; Wufei would figure it out soon enough.

"Why's everybody so upset?"

"Because they have a dead body on their hands." Duo looked a bit surprised at the question.

"From what I've seen, dead bodies aren't exactly in short supply in Freeport. We've produced one of those already, and nobody in Zapata looked quite this disturbed. And they certainly would not have been this distressed if we'd been the ones to bleed out on the pavement." In fact, the spectators in Zapata had been rather looking forward to it. By contrast, the worry in the streets of Kropotkin had been almost palpable.

"Ah, but there's a difference. In this case, it's murder."

"What the fuck would it have been if Ericson had had his way?!"

"Duel. Confrontation. Accidental death, if you want to get cute."

Wufei stared at him, but there was no indication that Duo was joking, not even a little bit.

"Of all the-"

“Murder’s different.”

It was, in fact, Duo’s very seriousness that interrupted Wufei’s tirade.

Duo stopped and glanced around carefully, then he put his hands in his pockets and stared straight ahead, face hard.

“Look, we’re a violent bunch. You've seen enough by now to realize that life is easier to lose than your car keys in Freeport. I got no excuse for that. It's the way we are. Conditions are brutal here, life is too. But at least we're open about it. If you hate a man's guts enough to want to ex him, well, you call him out on it. Knowing and accepting the consequences. That's the way it works. Murder breaks the rules."

Wufei shook his head minutely. Rules, what rules?! Sometimes, when Duo talked, Wufei had a....a feeling, a taste of some strange sort of balance, like a top spinning on the edge of an abyss.

Then he actually listened to what Duo said and lost whatever shred of illusion he had.

“Murder is when somebody finds a dead body somewhere, and there's nobody obviously responsible. Somebody died, and the reason wasn’t one that his friends, or even the people around them, would find acceptable. And that’s wrong. I told you that what motivates us desperate creeps is survival. We don’t let anybody take that from us. Everybody's got to die; in Freeport, we know that better than anyone, but we won't die for no good reason, or for something we didn't do."

Duo slowly looked up and pinned Wufei with an all-too-old gaze.

"I deserve to get crucified for some of the stuff I did, during the war," he added, completely matter-of-fact. "Well, when that day comes, I’ll go down with a grin on my face, ‘cause I’ll know exactly how I got there. I'm the only master of my life, and the one who's responsible for it. I won't die as some statistic, I'll die because of what I did, I'll die as me. And I don’t know any better way to go. Do you?”

Wufei was silent for a moment; two sets of instincts, frequently in conflict, were arguing over what Duo was saying. The Preventer was more than appalled. The warrior, however, understood.

“That works for the individual,” he finally said. “That worked for us five years ago, because of circumstances. But a society-“

“Is made up of individuals, and our circumstances have always been a bit desperate here,” Duo interrupted with a shark-like grin. “Which is why we don’t need some kind of festering, secret war erupting under our noses, in the shape of people dropping dead for unknown reasons. Especially in Kropotkin. There are places where things are hazier, and murder happens. Gang wars and such. It's messy. But Kropotkin is one of our best, most orderly sectors, and for this to happen here...yeah, that'd get even the Elders worried. Something damn heavy must have gone down, and this is just the ripple on the surface, the first warning sign..."

Duo's eyes had narrowed and wandered over the blind windows, the empty streets. Wufei followed his gaze.

What was it that Duo saw? To Wufei, the buildings were metal bars, the sector wall was a prison cell; one of the inmates had just murdered another, while all the guards were long gone. The chemical and metallic stink in the air seemed to reek of blood. And yet, a small part of him understood this chaos, and was beginning to see a thin thread of guiding logic in- the anger he felt at his own small lapse of judgment fuelled his voice.

"Duo, this place is a zoo! And I can't believe you-"

A finger was pressed against his lips; he'd barely saw Duo move. The leather of the glove was cold. Wufei, silenced, gaped at Duo, who was now examining the unlit windows staring down at them.

"I'd love to have this debate, but I don't think we should do this now. Or here; not in the circumstances. Come on, we can fight about all this later." Duo turned to Wufei with a smirk, his eyes shining roguishly once more. "I got to admit, you’re a bit more fun to argue with than Heero is. But now’s the time to focus. We got a dead geezer in the next house over, and apparently Braun thinks I should be informed.”

The braided man opened the door to the nearest building and walked in on cat's paws. Wufei followed, surprised and disturbed by his own passion a moment ago. He knew what Freeport was, he'd known before coming here, why was he getting so upset - focus! Duo was right. It was this bloody place...it just kept him so off-balance...

The hallway they had entered was silent, and Wufei saw Duo's shoulders relax. They were in a five-story building with four numbered doors on each floor. Duo ghosted to the door at the end, and glared at it.

"Damn, yard door's in someone's house. We can't go through there..."

Before Wufei could ask a question, Duo turned and walked silently towards the stairs. He climbed up four flights of steps, pausing at the window at the end of each hallway to stare out in the eternal night of Freeport, his face slashed by shining neon streetlights outside.

They reached the last floor and made their stealthy way up a short flight of iron stairs. Duo produced a couple of lock picks from about his person like a magician pulling a rabbit from his hat, and had the door to the roof open with two twists of his wrists. He moved out, looking around carefully.

The rows of buildings on each side of the block were not back to back; communal courtyards kept them separated by a dozen meters. Duo walked silently to the edge of the roof and glanced down. His eyes glinted in the light from the small yard five floors down. He examined the building opposite, and the blind eyes of darkened windows around them.

With barely a murmur of leather, Duo swung himself up and over the parapet and down the rungs of an emergency ladder which ran down the back of the building, passing by each of the windows, a possible out in case of fire. Wufei followed, trying to mimic Duo's utter silence, and cursing inwardly at every scuff of boot against metal. They could hear people talking and moving in the street on the other side of the silent building, echoes rising and bouncing around the sector streets. It made Wufei feel watched as he scuttled down the ladder like a roach fleeing a spotlight.

Duo was waiting for him at the bottom. The braided man nodded slightly, eyes on the back door to the building containing the crime scene; he rubbed his nose with a gloved thumb and squared his shoulders.

"Let's do this," he muttered.

The back door was locked, but Duo made short work of it. He cracked the door and peered inside cautiously. Wufei leaned over Duo's bowed head and applied his eye to the crack as well, fingers on the strap of his sword.

This door led to a hallway, and not someone's apartment. Two men were visible through the crack in the door. Wufei could barely see the first; he was at the front door, blocking it. Probably one of the Red Bands they'd seen earlier. His back was turned to them; he was facing the crowds of the curious outside. Another man was standing at the stairwell halfway down the corridor. He was scowling, his arms crossed and his eyes fixed on the front door.

Duo let the door swing open a bit more and hissed very quietly.

The man started and turned his head sharply. Wufei got a better look at him. He was in his late fifties, his face deeply carved with lines like vertical ravines marking the long, mournful cheeks. His cropped hair was grey, nearly white, and it looked like he hadn't shaved that day. The bristles were dark grey and black against the pallor of papery skin.

The tension that had wound the thin shoulders tight loosened a bit as he saw Duo. The man made a wait-a-sec gesture and turned towards the front door. Duo silently shut the back entrance, though he left it open just a crack.

That must have been Braun. He hadn’t looked as old as Wufei had expected. Then again, becoming an Elder was not dependant on your physical age, but the number of years you’d lived in Freeport, and a vote of approval by the other Elders. There were two Elders per sector. They didn’t control Freeport, Duo had mockingly hastened to assure Wufei; but their full-time job was to make sure everything turned over alright. They were too old for the physical labour in the shipyards and factory floors, so they spent their time organizing the shipbuilding contracts, setting up the Red Band lotteries, keeping an overall view on things. They didn't control Freeport's heading, but they did sort of make sure the colony didn't drive itself into a hole.

Duo had told Wufei about the Elders a couple of weeks back already. He’d expected Wufei to be shocked. Since Wufei’s clan had had pretty much the same system, Duo had not gotten the rant on the virtues of democracy that he’d expected, and had been rather disappointed at that.

Wufei heard a quiet murmur, and then the sound of the front door being closed. Steps came towards them. Duo opened the door after a last glance around the courtyard, dark and echoing like the bottom of an empty aquarium. He slipped inside, followed by Wufei.

"Duo," the man breathed. Up close, and despite his unshaved condition, his face looked hard and commanding. It showed no relief at Duo's arrival, and neither did his voice, but he'd definitely lost a few ounces of the tension winding him up earlier. "Second floor."

"What-"

"You'll see." The words sounded ominous, angry. The brown eyes that scrutinized Wufei weren't as hard as the exterior though. They looked pained.

Wufei smelled the blood before he reached the landing. Whatever had happened had been fairly recent. The streets outside were still humming; Wufei heard the muffled voice of a Red Band asking people to disperse. The silence of the first floor was oppressive by contrast. A murmur threaded its way through the cloak of stifling quiet; a gentle, soothing tone.

There was only the slash of light from outside to illuminate the hallway; apparently Braun didn't want to switch on the light in view of the spectators in the street. Two people were sitting on the stairs to the third floor, barely visible in the darkness. Wufei made out a woman's face, whiter than the whitewash that reflected the light from crude plaster walls. The person next to her was murmuring, a gentle threnody of compassion. Sounded like a man; Wufei couldn't make out the details. The murmur ended in a gentle question.

"...want to leave?"

"No!" the woman snapped harshly. Wufei heard the hysteria barely leashed in her voice.

Duo paused at the door near the landing to glance at her. Then he obeyed Braun's nodded instructions and stepped through the door. He stopped and whistled under his breath. Wufei glanced over his shoulder and took in the sight with a glance.

Victim was male, around thirty years of age, lying flat on his back with his head thrown back and his left arm open and near his head. The right arm was partly hacked off, hanging by a curdling thread of skin and ruptured muscle. Bone glistened whitely through the blood clots.

It was that cut, more than the actual deathblow, that caught Wufei's attention. The arm had been nearly severed, but even from where he stood, it was obvious that there were no hack marks.

That cut had been made with a single blow from a heavy, long-bladed weapon.

Something like a very sharp machete, for example.

Wufei glanced at the man who'd followed them in, whom he presumed to be Braun. The air of authority suited the position of Elder, though there was nothing else to indicate any rank; he was dressed in the same utilitarian grey most of the factory workers wore. He was leaning against the door as if to block access or exit, he'd crossed his arms again, the tension tightening again like a noose as he stared at the fallen man. Then he met Wufei's gaze. His eyes were flat, hard. They were expecting something from him. Wufei wasn't sure what. The man looked hostile and wary.

A whisper of leather brought Wufei's attention back to where the corpse lay. Duo had gathered up his coat to lean over the body without letting the hem drag in the thickening bloodstains. Wufei made a motion to hold his friend back, but what was the point? There were no local law enforcement to cordon off the scene, there were no Preventers to bring in a team of forensics and interrogate the neighbours or-

Duo glanced up at Wufei. There was none of Braun's hostility in his gaze. It was simply a question, and it did not look like Wufei would be blamed if he turned down the silent request that lay behind it.

As far as Wufei was concerned, the question did not need to be asked. There might not be any police force and forensics team available. But by the Gods, there was at least one Preventer present, and he was going to do his job. Whatever the unusual, not to say surreal, conditions and circumstances. Given the chance, he'd have done it even without that bastard Carver possibly being involved.

Wufei removed his jacket and laid it on a table nearby, after carefully examining the surface for anything he might disturb. He turned towards the body, after removing from his inner breast pocket the small flashlight Duo had given him the first day they'd arrived in the colony. 'The lights tend to fail in Freeport,' Duo had explained in a lazy drawl that implied this was a frequent and exciting event. 'You never know when you might need it.' Truer words...

Leaving the corpse aside for a moment, Wufei examined his surroundings. The room was the width of the building, twenty one feet by fourteen, Wufei estimated. It wasn't an apartment; the area looked like it had been set aside as a tool shop. Waist high bins of leather, cardboard, thick cloth and sheet plastic lined the wall. An open cupboard showed paintbrushes, tubes, bottles and boxes. Tables along one wall bore works in progress: simple slippers, gaily painted bags and purses, toys; it looked like a crafts' fair presentation.

The victim was near the window. Strangely enough, the chair nearest to him was not pulled out, and there was no work on the table. There was, in fact, no indication of what he'd been doing here.

He had been killed here, that much was certain. The quantities and splash pattern of blood confirmed it. And his clothes weren't ruffled or torn, as you'd expect if he'd been dragged here against his will. No bruise sign of a gag, either, and Wufei knew Freeport's overcrowded conditions well enough to know that nobody could drag an ungagged man anywhere without ten citizens knowing about it.

So what had the man been doing...? Standing near the window...?

Duo had moved impatiently at one point, then stilled, apparently catching Wufei's intent scrutiny of the room. When Wufei finally approached the victim, Duo stood back and let him have the floor. As they passed each other, Wufei caught Duo's eye and glanced back at their silent companion.

"Braun, this is Agent Chang," Duo said very softly, in answer to Wufei's unvoiced question. "Wufei, this is Elder Braun."

Braun grunted. He didn't look happy about any of this. In the bad light, his cheeks sagged; he looked like an elderly basset hound, and a cross one at that. But he nodded minutely in Wufei's direction as the Preventer glanced at him.

So, with Cesar in Zapata, that made at least two people who knew about Wufei's real purpose in Freeport. And Braun was someone in authority, if you could call it that. Someone who knew enough of the details to call Duo and Wufei in for this murder. Interesting.

Wufei crouched near the corpse, careful to keep his boots out of the rivulets of blood that had snaked their way along near-invisible indentations in the linoleum. Wufei glanced around the corpse, staring at the cheap flooring and flashing his light's beam around. His fingers traced a deep cut near the body, lifting white plastic edges towards his illumination. Recent, he judged, the plastic had not had time to yellow and curl. The cut was precise, and near the victim's side.

In Wufei's mind, different scenarios played out. Two men near the window, arguing, the flash of a blade...or else, the murderer had burst into the room, catching his victim doing something near the window.

A first fierce blow towards the man's arm - he'd probably lifted it in defence. Or...

"Duo? Look around for a weapon."

"Would he have left it here?" Duo sounded dubious, while apparently reluctant to question Wufei in front of Braun.

"The victim's. Also, anything else you can find."

"Oh, right." Footsteps shuffled behind him, and the click of another flash light turning on.

"Don't disturb the evidence," Wufei added, then scowled down at the corpse. There was no need for such caution in Freeport.

"'Fraid it won't be telling us much either way, mate, but I'll do my best," Duo answered placidly. A glance showed Wufei that Duo was moving carefully, watching where he put his feet. He turned back towards the victim.

So, a fierce blow to the arm which had been lifted in attack or simple defence. The hack of metal against flesh. The victim's cry as the bone split and muscle gave way. Stagger - the table and chair near the window had been knocked out of alignment with the others, and there was a wide smear of blood on the plastic table top; the man had probably stumbled against it.

Once the victim was on the ground...first that blow to the floor. The victim must have rolled away from it as it came at him. Then the killing blows.

Wufei wished he had some latex gloves handy. He hesitated, but what the hell. He was vaccinated against most things, his immune system was still abnormally boosted, five years after the war, and he had no cuts on his hands. He slipped the torch between his teeth, long practice keeping the beam perfectly steady. His fingers teased apart the cloth of the jacket, shirt and t-shirt from the wound, noting how the threads had been sliced as cleanly as flesh, and dragged into the resulting incision.

The murderer had caught the man at a slight oblique. It looked like part of a rib was sectioned. Wufei grumbled to himself, remembering that he would not be getting an autopsy report on this one.

The blow had beaten in the ribcage. Pink-white tissue clung to the edges, dragged out as the blade had been removed; lung tissue, probably. It curdled against the victim's clothes.

The blow at the neck had been next, in all likelihood; the killer wouldn't have bothered with a wild blow to the man's torso if he'd managed to score the neck first. The blow was off-center though. The victim must have been thrashing in agony. It had caught half the neck, tendons gleaming grey under Wufei's flashlight. The blood had stopped flowing awhile ago already. It had spurted as far as the wall; the blade had hacked into the carotid. From the angle of the blow, the killer must have gotten hit by some of the flow.

Wufei carefully pushed the victim aside. He had to bludgeon his conscious into submission first. It was shrieking that he was tampering with a crime scene, and waiting in vain for the flash of light from photographs who would never show, or coroners and forensics who would never have the chance to examine the man's position before moving him.

The weapon had scored the floor through the torso and the neck. The cuts in the cheap wood amalgam beneath the linoleum looked deep.

Wufei stood up and glanced around, then walked up to the cupboard.

Braun watched him in silence. Duo had stopped examining the room and was standing near the window, far enough away where he wouldn't hamper the investigator, and invisible from the street. He was scrutinizing the crowds. His eyes were sharp and hard. Wufei wondered what he was looking for. Seeing if anyone unexpected had shown up to check out the crime scene? As an investigator, Wufei knew that the old adage of 'the criminal returning to the scene of the crime ' occurred more often than people expected.

The cupboard yielded a tape measure. He used it to feel out and measure the incline of the cut in the floor, scraping out clotted blood with a piece of cardboard first. From the angle, the killer must have been standing or not crouching much, and he'd hammered down with the point of the weapon. It had sunk deeply and sharply into the floor. Strong motherfucker. That put the killer's strength to way above average, and the weapon must have been heavy. The end of the hack mark in the body and the floor did not correspond to a sword or sabre. Wufei was not a certified forensics expert, but he knew his blades, and this really looked like a machete, however much he tried to keep an open mind about the possible identity of the killer.

A pat-down of the corpse's pockets revealed no papers that Wufei could find, but it did turn up a long hunting knife strapped to his back. There had been no effort to unsheathe it, apparently. The man's clothes weren't even rumpled. The murderer had taken the victim by surprise.

This had all happened one to three hours ago, Wufei judged by the gathering rigor mortis in the body's joints and muscles and the cold in the room that would have delayed it.

"Find anything?" he threw over his shoulder, as he carefully washed his hands in the small sink surrounded by cleaned paint pots and brushes.

"No." Duo didn't look away from his scrutiny of the street and the opposite building.

Wufei turned, wiping his hands on his sweater, and caught Braun looking at him. The Elder was frowning, but his eyes were sharp, curious, and had lost some of their previous hostility.

The Preventer walked towards the door. Braun looked surprised, then a bit worried as Wufei strode right up to him. Duo shifted near the window.

"Excuse me," Wufei said crisply.

Braun stared at him, then he followed the beam of Wufei's flashlight, towards the bloody handprint on the doorjamb just above his head. Braun jerked away, mouth dropping open; he fetched up against the other jamb, and leaned there a split second until he started and spun around to stare at it wildly, in case he'd missed other gory testimonies there as well.

Wufei didn't pay much attention to the Elder; he concentrated on the bloody handprint. He'd been expecting some kind of trace. The killer hadn't gotten any blood on the soles of his shoes, but he had been doused with it, so there would surely be something. He'd been wearing gloves, of course. Not that that mattered, since Wufei didn't have a fingerprint kit, or anything but his eyes and his flashlight.

The victim must have screamed. The killer lost precious seconds dealing the deathblow. After that final cut to the neck, he must have gotten out as quickly as possible. He would have leapt to the doorway, nearly slamming into it as he halted to cast an eye around, before running down the hall towards the stairs. His right hand had come to rest here, and smudged his victim's blood on the white paint. Wufei had noticed other traces on the banister as he'd climbed the stairs earlier.

It was on the right of the doorway; he'd carry the weapon in his left hand. In the circumstances, he'd have put his hand nearly at head height, to stabilize himself. The print was very high up on the doorjamb. Wufei used the tape measure to confirm that it was at five eight.

Carver was over six feet high, and left-handed.

Wufei felt the cold prickle of the hunter lift the small hairs on the back of his neck, but he ruthlessly crushed the excitement. He had to stay objective and focused.

He turned towards Braun, lifting the flashlight so the beam cut the air between them, illuminating both their faces faintly.

"Did you know the victim?"

Braun blinked, obviously startled at being addressed. "No, I don't. Oh, I do know his name, though, if that's what you mean. Joshua Brindlow."

"Who's the woman outside?"

Braun once more gave him that appraising gaze. "Marta Bernstein. His partner."

"Business or-"

"Family."

"Did he live in this building?"

"No, he's not even from this sector."

Then what the hell is he doing here? "Who does this room belong to?"

"Nobody. It's a communal room for several buildings," Braun answered without hesitation.

"What are you doing here?"

There was a tense silence, and Wufei remembered that he was a Preventer, but waaaay outside his jurisdiction. Braun's eyebrows had shot up. Then he smiled slightly, coolly amused by Wufei's audacity. He did not appear further ruffled by the question.

"I mean, are you the Elder of this sector?" Wufei elaborated stiffly.

"No, and I know what you meant," Braun answered, an edge that veered between offence and amusement in his voice. "I can assure you, I was not here when this happened. I was in the Compound when this news came down the lines. That's in Lao Tzu sector, nearly an hour from here," he added, interpreting Wufei's blank look.

"I...keep an eye out for these sorts of things," he added. The brown eyes flickered ever so slightly in Duo's direction. "So I decided to look into it. Heral, the man outside, is one of the Elders for this sector. I got him and we came to investigate. We had one of my Red Bands check the man's ID tattoo; we traced him through central records. Found Marta at their home, had her brought here by one of the Red Bands."

And then he'd sent for Duo. Why, Wufei wanted to ask, but he wasn't sure the question would be answered. Braun's attitude seemed to discourage any further comments. Though the hostility was gone, he was still treating Wufei's presence here as something he'd rather not know about. Considering he'd called in a Preventer into something that had Freeport in turmoil, Wufei found that understandable. If the crowds outside heard about any of this, Wufei and Braun might end up both swinging from the same lamppost.

"Which sector does this man come from?"

"Mooncurse."

"That's like five or six sectors away from here," Duo interjected thoughtfully, tapping his chin with his gloved finger. "It's a sector full of freetraders and pirates, hence the name. Were there any witnesses?"

"No. A woman down the stairs saw somebody running out the door and down the street, but I couldn't get much of a description out of her. Tall, was what she said first, fairly short brown hair, and dressed in a knee-length brown coat, leather or similar. Then she started elaborating wildly and I stopped listening."

That fitted Carver. It also fit a fourth of the male population of Freeport, Wufei added severely, batting down once more the hope that they'd finally found some proof that the man they were chasing wasn't a ghost.

"Nobody else heard Brindlow scream several times, fall to the ground, and then notice a very tall man with a machete and bloody clothes run out of the building?" Wufei asked tightly. "Who lives beneath this room?"

"Nobody. It's a crčche."

"Wonderful," Duo muttered.

"The screams were heard," Braun added. "It's - it was the middle of the night for the dockers here. Everybody was asleep. The two families living opposite this room heard a door slam open, a shout, a scream, sounds of a brief struggle and then someone running down the stairs. By the time they went to investigate..."

"And outside?" Wufei walked towards the corpse again.

"If somebody had seen him, they'd have come forward already."

Great. Carver had disappeared into thin air again. Still, he had been here. Wufei would never be presenting this murder scene to a court; he could drop the 'presumably' and the 'alleged', and go with his gut instinct, and that was telling him he'd found his man, albeit briefly.

He stared down at Joshua Brindlow's tightening features, lips pulled back over teeth, eyes wide and staring. Since Wufei was the coroner here as well as everything else, he passed his hands over the eyes, closing them. Then, remembering the woman in the hall, he did his best to pull the man's features into something a loving partner could carry with her in her memory.

"Does anybody in this building know the victim?" he asked.

"No. Or they're not saying." The last was added very reluctantly. Braun, like Duo, apparently wanted to believe in the crude honesty and openness of Freeport, even with the evidence to the contrary under his nose. "That's why we had to look up his tattoo. Nobody's even seen him around before. I checked with Marta. Joshua was a freetrader. A solo operator, for the most part. His ship is - was the Jolly."

"The Jolly?" Duo murmured thoughtfully.

"That's what Marta said. She also said that Joshua was doing something for a friend these past two days; Marta didn't know what."

"Duo...? What route did the Jolly run?" Wufei asked slowly and quietly, as if the answer were a small animal that could be frightened away if he barked the question out.

"If it's the Jolly I'm thinking of, exclusively L4," Duo answered glumly, in a 'don't get your hopes up' tone of voice. Braun looked from one to the other curiously. Apparently he knew some particulars of the case, but not the details.

Damn. So this wasn't a Freetrader who could have fingered Carver as a passenger on his ship coming from L2. Wufei stared at the features, which were somewhat more peaceful now, as if accepting the trip that lay ahead of him with the serenity that befitted the dead.

Why did he kill you, Joshua?

---

Marta Bernstein was a small woman in her thirties, about Joshua's height and a few years older. Her face was still colorless in the dark hallway. Heral, the sector's Elder, looked up as Wufei and Duo approached.

This time it was Wufei who stood back and let Duo operate. Duo didn't insult the woman's grief with pity. His face was open and friendly, a trace of shared sorrow at the corner of his eyes and mouth. His voice was firm and matter-of-fact.

Marta listened to his questions in silence. She wasn't crying. Her wide eyes were dull and flat, and her attention wandered to the door of the bloodied room at one point while Duo was talking. Wufei wondered if she'd seen the body yet. Duo brought her attention back to him gently.

Unfortunately she didn't know much. Or, the Preventer's paranoia added, she wasn't talking. Wufei wanted to ask her where she'd been a few hours ago, what she knew of Joshua's movements these past two days, and if she knew a big tall son of a bitch who carried a machete around. Duo's questions and gentle insistence seemed to take ages and didn't get them anywhere, but Wufei reined in his impatience. This was not a crime-scene, or a witness interrogation. Freeport citizens had a mentality that still escaped Wufei for the most part. But they didn't respond well to threats and orders, he knew that much. He leaned back against the wall, and caught Braun giving him that searching, speculative look again.

"I'm sorry." Marta's face was loosing the stiffness of shock, and starting to crumple. "I just don't know- I'm not- he didn't say, he said it was for a friend, and he was looking into something- but Josh isn't- isn't a rat-catcher or- or anything!" She seemed distressed that Duo might think so. "He just-...a friend- a friend asked him-"

"Shhh, s'okay, Marta." Duo patted her shoulder, and then drew her into a hug as she slowly folded forward. Heral stroked her back and looked at her sorrowfully. Duo held her for a minute in silence, then glanced up at Braun.

"We have a Red Band outside who can take her home. Or to a friend's house."

"Marta?" Heral gathered the woman out of Duo's arms.

She was shuddering and her eyes were narrowed now, as if she didn't want to look ahead and see what was waiting for her there. Duo looked like he wanted to tell her that it would all be alright some day, but he probably knew better. Wufei, inured by his own widowhood, his losses, and too many interviews with grieving parents and spouses, felt nothing but fatalistic. The future was there, waiting for her, and there was nothing he or anyone could do about it. Hopefully she had some friends to stay with, to help ease her into it. Ultimately, she would face it alone.

Duo was silent as he led Wufei back to the courtyard behind the building. They'd parted with nothing more than a wave from Braun, who looked like he was gearing himself up for some serious organizing.

The silence between them felt leaden and heavy. Though Wufei's head was telling him there was nothing he could have done to save Josh's life, his soul still writhed in guilt. And something told him Duo felt it too.

"Braun knows. About me," Wufei murmured finally, knowing that shroud of silence had to be broken sooner or later.

"Yeah." Wufei could barely hear Duo's soft voice above him as they started to climb the ladder. He trod extra lightly on the rungs to avoid covering the near-inaudible words. "When Tro asked me the first time...to get Heero in...there's no rules, here, but it's still a good idea to get the approval of an Elder when you're trying something like this, yanno? It'll stop me from getting spaced if ever this stuff gets out. I'll probably get clobbered, mind you, but at least I won't get recycked."

"You mean," Wufei paused to haul himself over the parapet. "You mean Braun's known about this, about Heero, from the start?"

"Yes. Him and another Elder. It's Braun who checked for me that Carver wasn't hiding out in quarantine. Like all Elders, he's got unrestricted access to the ID and computer system."

Wufei stared at Duo, measuring the import of that. "Why?" he asked bluntly. "Why does he help you? Why does he let you do this?"

Duo rubbed his nose with the back of a gloved finger. "Braun's got a sister; she's sixty years old and a real shrew, but I'm pretty damn sure he doesn't want Carver dating her anyway."

Wufei rolled his eyes in annoyance which was mostly feigned. Inwardly, he was unaccountably reassured at the reappearance of the cheeky grin that had been momentarily dampened by Marta's raw grief. Duo was no stranger to dead bodies, but Marta's pain had affected him where Josh's bloodied corpse hadn't. He put up no barriers against that sort of thing. He certainly wouldn't last long as a Preventer. But he was already casting off the sorrow and the gloom, and moving on.

"I take it we're both fairly sure it's Carver who's involved," Duo continued, eyeing Wufei for confirmation.

When Wufei nodded, Duo rubbed the back of his neck in the familiar gesture. "That's weird, though. This guy's been living in Freeport for years now, as far as we can tell. I don't think he's ever cut anybody up on his home turf before. 'Don't shit in the kitchen' is kind of a motto for a lot of criminal characters in the colony."

"Would you know it, if somebody had been murdered this way before?" Wufei inquired, scrutinizing Duo's face.

Was that the slightest flicker of blue eyes away from his? The barest flinch? "Oy, sure; rumours fly about this place faster than wildfire."

"I see," Wufei muttered, unconvinced. Then he rubbed the bridge of his nose, concentrating on the matter at hand. "In my line of work, criminals often reveal themselves when an investigation puts them at bay."

"Ye-ah," Duo drawled. "And you really think our poking around qualifies? We barely got started."

"It's too big a coincidence for me: I can't believe my presence here and Brindlow's murder are completely unconnected. Though I fail to see how."

Duo didn't answer; he was staring thoughtfully at the building opposite the courtyard.

"I think she knows something..."

"Marta? About the murder?" Wufei asked sharply.

"No...I think she knows something about what Josh was doing here. No details, but..."

"Why wouldn't she tell you?" Wufei's paranoia was getting into full gear. Nine times out of ten, the spouse was in on the murder...

"Because it's a small detail that she doesn't see as immediately related to his death. Because she doesn't know me from Adam. Because...because she trusts the 'friend' who sent Josh here a hell of a lot more than she trusts me...Any of those reasons, or all of the above. I'm not sure she's actually thinking at this point. She's reacting. If I could get her to trust me...but I don't see how that'll happen. Maybe I'll ask her later, but I think I'll have more luck getting someone from my network to watch her. See who she talks to. That might-"

The soft musings were interrupted by a metallic noise from a nearby building - the sound of a roof door creaking open, and then shutting again. Followed by footsteps against rough concrete.

Instantly both men were crouched. Their rooftop was higher than the others around it by an extra floor or two; as long as they kept their heads down, they could not be seen. They glanced at each other in surprise.

Wufei looked pointedly at the door down from the roof, and Duo turned slowly, walking towards it as noiselessly as a cat, keeping low. But he kept glancing over his shoulder towards where the noise had come from, curiosity plain on his face. Wufei wasn't surprised when Duo stopped his prudent exit halfway to the door and turned around, heading towards the parapet instead. Wufei resisted the urge to grab Duo by the back of his coat and haul him away by force. If they were discreet, it wasn't much of a risk. Might as well indulge the famous Maxwell curiosity.

Duo glanced over the parapet. The way he tensed indicated that what he'd seen was unexpected and very interesting. Wufei crept nearer, trying to move as quietly as his friend, and took a look as well.

A man was kneeling at the edge of the roof of the neighbouring building, staring through the railing. He was looking straight at the second floor window on the other side of the courtyard; the window showing the room of the murder scene.

The man was small, and the way he crouched in the shadows hid many details; Wufei thought he was dressed in a rough, dark-blue woollen coat. His hair was lanky and greying, falling in thin threads over thinning spots and the collar.

As Wufei and Duo watched in silence, the man lifted something dark to his face. A pair of night-sight binoculars, Wufei realized, familiar with the shape. From the angle he was holding them, he was looking at the second floor, at the window of the long room that contained the body. The building the stranger had chosen as his vantage point only had three floors; the angle wasn't too sharp, he had a pretty good view of the entire room. Wufei was suddenly very glad the man hadn't been watching ten minutes ago, while they were investigating the body...

Duo and Wufei exchanged a glance. This seemed like a lot of effort for just a curious bystander.

As they watched, the man glanced from the view in the binoculars to the nearby emergency ladder, visibly hesitating. The ladder lead down to another courtyard; he would be one scramble over a low fence away from the murder site.

Somebody moved in the window on the second floor; the binoculars were in place again in a flash. There was a window to the hallway as well as into the room. Wufei wondered if Marta was visible through that window, if she was still there; he felt a flicker of anger that those grubby, curious binoculars might be scrutinizing her in her grief.

Neither Wufei nor Duo had made the slightest noise, yet the man suddenly jerked away the binoculars and glanced over his shoulder, hunching down further into the shadows. Instincts of a rat, Wufei thought, eyes narrowed as he tried to get a look at the face...something was setting his instincts stirring-

Duo had ducked behind the parapet already, and he was tugging urgently at Wufei's sleeve, but the Preventer barely noticed; he leaned forward, eyes scouring the darkness, trying to see the man better.

The man started like frightened vermin, eyes widening as he spotted Wufei in the faint light from the sector ceiling. The movement gave Wufei a good view of his face.

They stared at each other for a tense second. The man's eyes were confused, he wouldn't know who Wufei was, and he would not know what he was doing there...but the rat-like instincts must have told him that Wufei was not a curious bystander either. With a flick of the blue coat and a scurry across the concrete, the man darted towards the door down from the rooftop.

Wufei straightened- he might sprain an ankle leaping to the other roof, two floors down - he was the faster runner anyway-

"Wu?!"

Duo's startled exclamation was abruptly cut by the roof door swinging shut behind the Preventer. Wufei leapt from the iron stairs and raced towards the next flight at full speed.

This might have something to do with Carver, or nothing at all. Wufei only had one certainty. This particular bastard was not going to get away from the law again.

[chap. 12] [chap 14] [back to Maldoror's fic]