Authors: TB
Pairing: 6+2
Rating: R
Notes: Takes place five years after EW

Caveat + Part 16

It was rapidly clear that Zechs and Tropic were not the appropriate persons to be interviewing young Arabic women.

Their blonde hair and pale skin caused little enough stir beyond a few curious stares; foreigners were common enough. It was their height, their muscles, their uniforms, and their inescapable masculinity. Girls who talked freely amongst themselves turned silent and troubled when they approached. Even with the support of their translator, a local widow, they got no-where as soon as their presence was noticed. It turned Tropic surly and impatient. Zechs could think of no way to defuse the situation that wouldn't take weeks of acclimation, assuming any of the girls would ever get used to them.

'It's the most under-reported crime in Syria,' Bassam, their guide, shrugged. 'Even more than rape. Even when the police arrest people, they just send them off to the border, and their pimps bring them right back. The girls who come here are lucky. The government don't support the laws. No-one is ever put on trial. Before the war, we knew who was involved in prostitution. The taxi drivers knew the pimps, and the pimps knew the government men, and we knew because the police wouldn't touch them. Now, though, it's much worse. The police ignore the foreigners entirely. Iraqis and Lebanese, mostly, but a lot of whites here, too-- Russians and Eastern Europeans. They hand out pamphlets in the markets. If you see a girl in a club, she's trafficked. No question.'

'It can't all be war-time displacement,' Tropic said, disbelieving.

Bassam gave his weary shrug again. He was a drawn-looking man who smoked viciously and drank thick Arabic coffee as if it were water. He hadn't smiled once that Zechs had seen, but the girls didn't flinch at his stern presence. 'There's always a crowd for commercial sex,' he told them in his fluid English. 'Tourists, locals too poor to get a wife. A young girl goes for five hundred, an older girl maybe only a hundred. A sick one or an ugly one, less. The girls here, we don't get many in their prime. Mostly girls who are pregnant, or infected. We do a lot of drug rehab. And if they're lucky, they can stay here. If they're not...'

'And what about the pimps?' Zechs asked him. 'It's a little more professional than just the exploitative uncle or the poor family relying on the girl's income.'

'I think so too,' Bassam said, 'but finding a girl who's not too terrified to speak isn't easy. They're told their families will be killed. That their sisters and schoolmates will be taken. And they see we can't protect them for long. We ask the same questions you do, Agents. If we had answers, we wouldn't need you.'

'It's no good,' Zechs finally told Sally. 'We've been at this for a week and we've made no progress. There's too much cultural and sexual baggage here. We're talking to the two pimps they've detained, but they're little more than drivers. We're not going to get much information here.'

'One disappointment after another. Cobra and Mamba struck out on their West Africa uranium chase.' Sally sighed, and their web camera connection pixellated into fragments before reforming seconds later. 'At least we have a solid win from L4. Mavise Winner agreed to go back in on FreeSpace as an informant. It was your idea-- if you want lead, why don't you just come back and take over? We can put Cobra and Neptune on the prostitution rings. Probably they should have been on that from the beginning.'

'We're learning from our mistakes.' Zechs offered a conciliatory shrug. 'Probably you were right. We're spread too thin and we're taking on specialised tasks beyond our capabilities. We're better prepared for something like the FreeSpace op.'

'Here's hoping.' Sally's smile was grim. 'Zechs-- we have a fight coming. Trying to change our direction and keep ourselves afloat at the same time. Can I count on you?'

'Of course.'

'Then I want you to formally reconsider the question of becoming my Deputy. You don't have to answer right this moment, and I'd prefer you not to-- I want you to really think about this. I need someone in full support of my agenda, and I need someone who brings influence, competence, and respect. That, my friend, is you.'

'I... heard you might be entertaining other candidates.'

'Only if I have to, Zechs.'

Zechs rubbed the stubble on his chin, and heaved a sigh of his own. 'I'll think about it,' he agreed quietly. 'I'll let you know.'

Tropic announced himself with a knock just as Zechs was disconnecting. 'They're starting to put dinner out,' he told Zechs. 'You hungry?'

'Better eat your fill. We'll have to head out before dark if we want to make it to the airport in time for our flight.'

'Leaving so soon?' Tropic stripped his sweat-soaked shirt and shook out a fresh white tee. 'I can't say I'll miss it here. This climate is deadly.'

'We're made for northern weather,' Zechs agreed. 'The Director thinks maybe the women will do a better job than us.'

'Not a better job,' Tropic muttered righteously. 'Can't make those idiot children talk to us.'

'They're not idiots. They're hurt and frightened. Men have treated them badly.' Zechs wiped a hand over his own damp brow. 'But no longer our case. I booked us a flight out early tomorrow morning. Let's eat and then get on the road.'

'You know, there is one thing we didn't try.'

'I thought we were in agreement it would be too difficult to train the translator to conduct the interviews.'

'No, I'm thinking more about how to remove the middle man entirely.' Tropic sat on his bed with a boot between his knees, picking out pebbles with a pocket knife. 'They tried it on the Turkish side of the border, but more than a year back, and anyway you know how they are with trafficked women-- they arrested all the girls and deported them instead of trying to trace them back to the source. But if we start here, I mean if we managed to get a foot in the door on this side of the border, we might be able to find out who's running the Syrian ring. We could, potentially at least, trace these girls back to the men who are picking them off the street.'

Zechs cracked his knuckles, thinking that through slowly. 'Are you saying what I think you are?'

Tropic nodded sharply. 'We go under cover. Buy a girl. And turn her pimp on his higher-ups.'

'We're not authorised,' Zechs answered. 'Besides which, an operation like that could take weeks to plan, much less carry out.'

'Aren't you the one who's always stretching the rules? We give it a try, and if it flops, it flops. We'd be no worse off than we are now.' Tropic waved his knife in a little circle. 'Our identities are only known to the staff at the centre. We know the names of the dance hall dealers from our two pimps in jail. All we'd have to do is walk into a disco and lay down cash.'

'And what do we do with the girl?' The more he imagined it, the more it disturbed him. 'I'm not sure there's not an ethical line being crossed in there, somewhere. And you're the one who's always so keen on ethics.'

'We send her off with the money and a warning. We'd be saving her, really. What's unethical about that?' Tropic dropped his boot to the carpet and stuffed his foot into it. 'Let me put it to you this way. We go home empty handed if we leave in an hour. Or we waste a few extra hours tonight trying something that might just yield good intel. I don't see a reason not to try.'

There were certainly arguments he could have made, Zechs thought later. Arguments he should have made. Not least of which, if he were going to apply to be Sally's deputy, that it was the wrong time to be flouting the chain of command. But that wasn't what made him so uncomfortable as they paid their fee at the door of a dark, green-lit dance club. The music was deafening, metallic where it spewed from man-sized speakers, bleary renditions of traditional tunes. Small bistro tables formed a ring around the open dance floor; Tropic and he were escorted to a table near a corner, seated with other conspicuously white guests. One spoke in drunken French, and raised his glass to them as they took their seats. Zechs turned his face stiffly forward.

The dance floor was almost exclusively occupied by girls. Though the men attending the hall were mostly middle-aged, Zechs didn't see a single girl who looked twenty. One who passed in a green satin skirt with down-cast eyes had the flat chest and slim hips of a pre-teen, her cheeks still chubby with childhood. Zechs poured water from their table's carafe and drank all of it. 'We shouldn't be doing this,' he told Tropic.

'You're a prude,' Tropic replied. He was hawk-faced, staring around him attentively. 'We're not doing anything wrong, Wind.'

It didn't feel that way. Zechs had never done anything so consciously-- dirty. 'What do we do now?'

'Now we choose. One who hasn't been in it too long, I would think. But one who's been around long enough to know something.' Tropic tapped his fingers in time with the heavy beat as girls shuffled, bored and tired, past their table in pairs. 'There,' Tropic said, and pointed. 'In the blue and gold.'

Zechs squinted. It was so dim it was almost difficult to pick her out. 'I don't know.'

'We give it a try. If she's not a likely prospect, we'll pick a different one.' Tropic caught the eyes of their escort, and pointed at the girl again. The man disappeared into the crowd. Zechs poured another glass of water, but it didn't help him much.

In less than a minute their escort was back with the girl. She was pretty, or would have been, without the heavy make-up and skin-tight dress. Her eyes slid away from them as she arrived at their table. Their escort provided her a chair, and she sat, skittishly tucking her hands beneath her thighs. Her dark hair fell over her shoulder as she ducked her head.

'What's your name?' Tropic asked her. 'You speak any English?'

'Fatimah,' she mumbled. 'I speak a little.'

Her voice was high and clear as a flute. Zechs revised his estimation of her age downward. Fourteen. He clutched his waterglass so hard his fingers ached.

'Don't be scared,' Tropic told her. 'We only want to talk to you. Do you mind talking to us, Fatimah?'

She glanced up, hazel eyes peeking from under streaks of kohl. 'Only talk?'

Tropic took the last of their travel cash from his shirt pocket, and laid it on the table. 'Only talk,' he said firmly, and shifted the top bill with a finger, so that the face of his badge was just visible.

Fatimah's gasp was loud enough to attract the attention of the drunk Frenchman at the next table. Zechs made no move to stop the girl's sudden run, though Tropic swore and almost stood.

'What you ask for?' the Frenchman leered at them. 'These shy beauties need a gentle touch, my friends, oui?'

'What did you expect?' Zechs told Tropic. 'Let's just go. She'll only tell her friends to avoid us.'

'Then we'd better get to one of them before she has time to spread it around the room.' Tropic swept up the cash and pocketed it, then thrust out a finger. 'That one. With the braid.'

'Hold on.' His mobile was buzzing. Zechs recognised an HQ office number, and ducked out for the nearest hallway. Sheltered at least a little from the noise, he accepted the call, and pressed the phone to his ear. 'Wind.'

'It's Neptune.' She paused, and added curiously, 'Do I hear music? Where are you?'

There was no possible way to explain. 'What's up?' he asked her instead. 'News?'

'Right. Your call you were waiting for, from Sanq. I have bad news.'

'What's happened?' He checked his time. They were still in afternoon hours in Brussels. 'They didn't find Miles Pargan?'

'They did, actually. Buried in the yard under the perennials.'

Of all the things he'd expected to hear, that was not one. His stomach sank. 'Murdered?'

'As much as two weeks ago. He died from massive brain injury. Half his head was bashed in.'

Zechs leaned his head back on the wall. 'Damn. What a terrible way to die.' Then he straightened. 'The boy. His grandson?'

'Missing. Whatever sparked him to do this, he apparently tried to ride it out at first-- he showed up at his parole programme, answered the phone for a few days. When the local Preventers first came around looking for Pargan, though, he spooked. He was gone when they came back with a warrant. And he took the time to leave a false trail. They grounded a flight thinking he was on it, but it seems he used the time to slip past the border in a stolen car. The car didn't turn up on our radar until they'd found the body. They're trying to trace his steps, but he's gone.'

'What's been done to secure Relena-- the Princess?' he corrected quickly. 'Spider and Orange?'

'With her everywhere she goes. She's as safe as she can be made without a total lockdown, and so far that's not been warranted.' Neptune was silent long enough that Zechs checked his phone for their connection. 'All right, I'll be blunt. When are you coming back? Your case just blew open.'

'We're on a flight in--' He checked his phone again for the time. 'About eight hours, now. We'll be on the road in five minutes.'

'I'm on the road too. I'll watch Duo tonight.'

'He'll let you in the apartment. Tell him I asked.' Zechs blew out a deep breath. 'All right. We're moving.'

'Check in when you land.' With that, Neptune disconnected. Zechs pocketed his phone, and went back to the dance hall.

'We need to go,' he told Tropic, bending down to speak quietly. There was another girl at their table. If the first one had been young, this one looked older, jaded to the idea of two foreigners looking for a night out. She gave him a brief, joyless smile at his approach, but her eyes dropped quickly to his clothes, assessing his worth.

'I think she might have useful information,' Tropic muttered back. 'She claims to be eighteen.'

'Does she claim to be able to count?' She was older than the last girl, but not that much. 'Árni Olsen murdered his grandfather and fled Sanq. We need to get back to Brussels immediately.'

'Olsen?' Tropic twisted to look at him. 'He-- who?'

'Árni Olsen,' Zechs repeated impatiently. 'The one stalking Relena Peacecraft, the one behind the threats to the Gundam Pilots. And he could be anywhere, which means we have to be in Brussels, now.'

In the dim flashing lights of the club he couldn't read Tropic's sudden tension, but there was urgency in it, enough to hesitate him in his attempt to speak. 'What about this case?' Tropic said finally. 'This case is just as important.'

'And won't be any worse for waiting until we can get back to it. Come on, Tropic.' He liberated their cash from Tropic's pocket without waiting on an answer, and passed it to the girl's startled hand. 'Now.'

'Wind... Maybe I can stay behind, finish up here.' Tropic stood when Zechs dragged at him, but didn't make it past his chair. 'It doesn't need both of us.'

'With the Princess of Sanq in danger?'

Tropic heaved a deep breath. He nodded once, and followed Zechs out the door.


**


He had three updates in the air, one notifying him that seven reports had come in potentially identifying Olsen at a bus depot and two different airports, and another from Spider reporting that Relena had cancelled a public banquet under the pretence of grief for her murdered driver. The third was from Neptune, a cryptic little message that Duo was three kinds of trouble and all of them smart-mouthed. But that didn't mean danger, so Zechs didn't try to reply. The moment their plane landed, he and Tropic bullied their way to the tarmac, not even waiting for the plane to pull up to the gate. Security provided their luggage, and escorted them through Staff Only doors to the big cargo lifts. Zechs tapped impatiently all through their ride, trying to school himself into the proper professional reserve and failing, he was sure, rather miserably. Tropic was appropriately stone-faced, ignoring both his partner and the rest of the world as they climbed past the concourse and to the lobby. Zechs didn't ask if Tropic wanted to drive; he was in no mood to let anyone else delay him. He had them rolling almost before Tropic was seated in the passenger side. He waited only until they'd sped out of the parking garage to activate the hands-free car phone. 'Call HQ,' he commanded. 'Extension 4583.'

Tropic broke their silence as the ring tone began to chime. 'I thought you'd be heading toward Maxwell,' he said.

Zechs spared his partner a sideways glance. 'Neptune is with Maxwell,' he replied shortly. 'We need to check in and find out the entire situation.'

'Including the colonies?'

'What?'

'Including the colonials. The three Gundam Pilots in Space. I thought you thought they were connected to this stalker threat, too.'

'I thought you thought they weren't.' They were in mid-day traffic. Zechs kept his hand off the horn with considerable effort. His eyes were sandy and his head felt stuffy after so long travelling, and he knew his temper was too short for courtesy. 'Did you change your mind?' he asked, striving for a tone of polite curiosity, and saved only by the fact that Sally finally answered the call.

'Wind,' she opened abruptly. 'You're back in country?'

'In Brussels and headed for HQ. Tropic is here with me.'

'Welcome back,' she greeted them. 'We've had a confirmed sighting of Olsen. A port attendant identified him by his tattoos. We know he boarded a commercial carrier that puts in to both Hamburg and Rotterdam. We put out alerts, but no-one saw Olsen debark at either, and it'll take us hours still to process the passenger manifest. But he fooled us with the plane ticket, before. At this point, we can't be sure where he is. Or if he just took off for climes unknown to find himself a new life.'

'Leaving justice behind him.' Zechs forgot to signal before he turned, and a horn trailed him as he zipped around the curve. 'Has the Princess been told about Pargan?'

'Yes. She's devastated. We've moved both her and Yuy to her summer residence in Malmö.'

'It's not as well-known as the Sanq Palace, but is she really safest there? The palace staff would know Olsen by sight, wouldn't they?'

'We discussed the options and felt she'd be safer at a place with limited personnel and greater security. The palace is too open to the public, and Olsen can be expected to know his way around. Malmö has only ever been open to members of the immediate family.'

That mollified him. 'What about Maxwell?' he asked then. 'What are our options for his safety?'

'We can't remove him from Brussels, obviously,' Tropic said sharply. 'It would be illegal.'

'No, we're much more limited with Duo,' Sally agreed grimly. 'We can move him to a hotel, but we can't swing that in the budget without credible and immediate threat, and without knowing where Olsen is, we don't meet the criteria. Neptune and Hydra are scheduled to Maxwell until further notice.'

There was a subtle point going unspoken in that-- namely, that Neptune and Hydra alone were assigned to Duo, and not Zechs. He could no more go home to his lover now than he could drop in on his sister. He was Preventer Agent Wind, right now, and any identity outside of that was as good as vanished. And he had no recourse but to accept it. And hope Duo would listen to Neptune.

'And the three Gundam Pilots in Space?' he asked Sally, finally coming back to Tropic's question. 'Are we still watching them?'

'They're together at the Winner complex on L4. Mèo is alert to the Olsen problem, but he doesn't have the people to actually guard them. There's an APB out to the shuttleports.'

'I think,' Tropic said cautiously, 'maybe Wind and I would be better placed in the colonies.'

'What? Why?'

'Maybe,' Sally agreed, and Zechs' stomach sank. 'Let's give Olsen another few hours to surface-- I'd hate to relocate two agents only to find out Olsen was headed here all along. For the moment, the Earth-bound vics are the ones that worry me. So get back to HQ and we'll sort ourselves out.'


**


The Kalmar office had forwarded him the photo record of the search of Pargan's house in Sanq. It made for grim observation.

The neat kitchen Zechs had sat in was completely overturned. Dirty dishes and discarded food marked Olsen's life after Pargan's murder-- a boy unused to caring for himself trying to cope with daily life. Preventers had added to the chaos by ripping out cabinets and sinks, turning out cupboards. The small bedroom that had housed the old man was tidy and clean in initial video, but Olsen's room, in contrast, was everything that could be expected from a dangerous and unbalanced mind. The walls were hung with hand-drawn arcana: disturbing symbols and scenes playing out in stark black and white. There were dozens of close-ups of the artwork, and Zechs printed a full ream of them for study. He carried them to one of the interview rooms to spread them out over one of the big tables.

'What's this in the centre here?'

Sally. Zechs spared her a glance and then turned his attention to the photograph she was examining. 'I'm not sure,' he admitted, 'but it appears in several of these. Look.'

'I think it's a monogram.' Sally lifted the print to their projector, displaying the image in man-size proportion on their screen against the wall. 'An angel?'

'Those do seem to be wings.'

'And some kind of crown.' Sally traced the edges of it with a finger. 'What's this long piece, then?'

'Let's run a search on some images.' Zechs stepped into the adjacent room to fetch a laptop, and started it on a database inquiry of angels, angelic iconography, religious symbols. When he returned, Sally was re-arranging his photo array. 'Seeing a pattern?'

'Not sure.' She stood back with her hands on her hips. 'I keep thinking these look like monograms, but the closer you look the more it seems not. Have you been in touch with the Kalmar office? Have they figured any of this out?'

'Not as of an hour ago. They're mostly absorbed with the clean-up and with securing Relena.' He twitched one print closer to another. 'Stand back here. Further. Does it look different from farther away?'

He watched her squint and frown, turning her head this way and that. 'Switch the third and fifth prints. And up-end that one-- no, left. There. You know, I think you're onto something. Come look.'

Zechs joined her against the wall. At first all he could see were the individual letters, hidden within swirls of ink. 'A word puzzle?'

'An anagram, maybe. Or an acronym.' Sally grabbed a pen and began to copy down the letters. Zechs pointed out two more wrapped in drips of inky blood dripping from a sketched dagger. 'Get the computer working on this too.'

'I will.' Zechs checked his mobile. 'Where did Tropic go?'

'A nap in the crib. You should join him. You're looking rough.'

He let that pass without comment. 'I've had a call from Mèo. He doesn't want to lose momentum on FreeSpace. He's right. If this is an op we're going to run, we should be working on it now.'

'Are you telling me that because you want me to order you to pick a station?' Sally asked tolerantly. 'I can give you orders if you want them.'

'No.' He settled himself with a deep breath. 'I can balance the two. I'm-- informing you that I'll be splitting my time.'

'All right.' Sally handed over her pen and paper. 'Go run that search on the monograms and keep me informed of any developments.'

'I will.'

He managed to distract himself for several hours by working on mission specs for the FreeSpace undercover operation. There was certainly plenty of interest in it, and Mèo had supplied a good amount of information on a short turn-around. Mavise Winner's interview notes made for interesting reading, as well, rife with Colonial politics. That was an insular and complex world, and Zechs had only brushed against it in his tenure in White Fang. Every faction had a deadly enemy, and alliances between groups tended to be issue-based, short-termed and changeable. FreeSpace were not new, but rather revived, and from Winner's debrief it seemed that they'd only recently become violent. The Winner resource mines were not the only target, and FreeSpace would be emboldened by their success with the bombs. There would be more incidents, surely. If Mavise could convince FreeSpace to let her in on their plans, Preventers had a real chance to halt the next atrocity before it happened.

But inevitably he found his attention falling back to those photographs of Pargan's cottage in Sanq. Though he hadn't known the man in a long time, it seemed such an unjust thing, this final murder. To have survived the fall of Sanq, the long years of war after, to have stood so loyally by Relena's side, only to fall prey in old age to a grandson who had been loved despite terrible flaws. Did Olsen feel any remorse? Zechs couldn't even imagine it, living in that cottage while his own flesh and blood lay buried in the garden just outside the front door.

When he checked on the search inquiry results, he wasn't much enlightened. Several thousand entries had been returned on the search for angels, and there were just as many results in the search for angelic art. Zechs gave up after only a quick perusal. The anagram decoder had made considerable progress on the monograms he and Sally had picked out from Olsen's bedroom posters, and Zechs scanned the list looking for anything that made any kind of sense. He printed the list and began to circle the ones that seemed like real possibilities.

Armies Ink. Airmen Ski. A Mine Risk-- that twitched the old nerve wanting to connect Olsen to the L4 disaster, but he reluctantly concluded that was unlikely. They hadn't found any evidence that Árni Olsen even knew FreeSpace existed, much less that he cared about Colonial environmentalist movements. A Miser Kin. Maker I Sin. That might work with the angel imagery-- except that in the rest of the cottage there were no real religious indicators like crosses, holy books, rosary beads like the plain coral rope that Duo kept in his bedside drawer. Amen I Risk. Mean I Risk. Risk I Name. I Ink Smear. Arni Misken-- what had been the mother's name? The father's? Zechs diverted to check the file, but that was a bust. Bara and Latham. No good there. Air Me Inks. As Rime Kin. Rank Em I Is-- no, slang like that wasn't common in Europe. An Me I Risk sounded more poetic, oratorial, but it wasn't a quote he recognised and it didn't seem to bear any relation to the rest of Olsen's drawings.

Something was tugging at a memory. He checked his shortened list again, wondering-- might be--

He headed for the door at a run, and met up headlong with his partner. 'Come with me,' he said, snagging him by the elbow and dragging him toward the lifts. 'I think I've hit on something, but I want the Director to hear it.'

'On the Olsen case?' Tropic followed him into the lift, and hit the button for Sally's floor. 'I just talked to Hydra, by the way. All's quiet with Maxwell. Neptune is back with him for the night. So far it's quiet on L4, too-- no sightings at the ports. Though that isn't to say Olsen couldn't get through. Port security isn't airtight.'

'Do you think Olsen is capable of sneaking on through Baggage? Half who try it die in transport.'

'And the other half make it past Immigration without so much as a whisper.' Tropic rubbed at his stubbled jaw. 'Still, he'd have better luck at any port on Earth. If this kid has any brains, he'll disappear and leave us a cold trail to track.'

'I'm not sure he's all that smart. In fact, I think we can count on him to make more of these wild mistakes.' They exited into the management offices, and Zechs led the way to Sally's door. It was propped open, and he knocked once as courtesy. Sally gestured them in.

'I don't know why I didn't think of it earlier,' Zechs told her. He placed his pad on her desk facing her. 'Those monograms. They spell out a word, just as we thought-- but Olsen isn't a primary English speaker. He was raised in Sanq-- or, as the borders were then, in Norway. And I think the word this spells is Maskineri.'

'Mask what?'

'Maskineri,' Tropic repeated grimly. 'It's the Norsk word used for mecha.'

'Mecha?' Sally looked at him sharply. 'As in mobile suits?'

'Exactly as in mobile suits,' Zechs said. 'And perhaps a certain mobile suit in particular.' He flipped to the print where they'd found the 'M'. 'Rather than a crown and sword, I believe these are the crest and dober gun attachments for the suit. And with the wings, we can narrow it down even more. This has to be Wing Zero, the Gundam that Heero Yuy piloted.'

'God, I think you're right.' Sally held the print up to the light of her desk lamp. 'It's so stylised I wouldn't have made the connection, but I think you're right. And it fits perfectly with the entire case profile. Olsen sees the Gundams as threats.'

'So he's headed for Heero Yuy?' Tropic guessed. 'But then, he can't be. Yuy's in Sanq.'

'But Olsen might not have known that when he cut out of town,' Sally pointed out. 'There's been very little news coverage that Yuy was moved out of Brussels.'

'So we assume he's coming here, then.'

'That's my best guess,' Zechs confirmed. 'And he's had time to get here by now. I think we should act on the assumption that he'll turn around the minute he learns the truth. But we might have a second opportunity in this. If Olsen does have a partner we haven't caught yet, then they're likely to be meeting to share information while Olsen is on the lam. We might have a chance to net both of them.'

'Very well done, Wind, Tropic.' Sally gave him back his pad. 'Get in touch with the locals and have them issue an APB. And let's get tight with border control. See if you can get a warrant for the security cameras at every crossing between here and the water-- who knows? We might get lucky and catch him when he heads back for Sanq.'

'I'll get on it.' Tropic nodded sharply to Zechs. 'Good job.'

Zechs clapped his partner on the shoulder. 'Let's find Olsen and close our case.'


**


'So we're allowed to talk?' Duo asked him.

'On private time,' Zechs admitted. 'Nothing case-related. But I wanted to check in.'

'Just feeling cooped up.' There was a short, tight silence on the other phone. 'Choudhury is effing killing me. He poked into all our stuff.'

'He's sweeping--'

'I know how to perform a sweep. He's poking. Into our stuff. Rebeka is like nine million times better at everything.'

'Should I be jealous?' Zechs checked the clock on his mobile's display, and stifled a yawn. 'Please use code names, Duo. We have them for good reason.'

'Some reason, anyway.' Duo sighed. 'I'm not all that good at waiting. It's a character flaw. Distract me. Tell me Heero and the Princess are suffering every bit as much as me.'

'Quite probably.' The summer residence was hardly a hovel, but it was much smaller than the Palace, and their movements would probably be limited to just the enclosed garden, if Agent Ulv let them venture even that far. 'It won't be forever.'

'I know.'

'Duo?'

'Hold on.' There was background noise-- Zechs couldn't be sure what it was. It went on and on, with a loud bang at one point and then more talking he couldn't understand. Then Duo's voice again. 'Wind,' he said, 'I have to go now. Neptune and I have to go.'

'All right,' he answered, a little mystified by that. 'I'll call again later.'

'It's not like I'm staring down at the street waiting to catch you, Wind.' There was more background noise, a voice, but too muffled to be intelligible. And then Duo hung up.

That was cryptic. Zechs thought at first they'd been merely disconnected, but the call was ended, one way or another. He rang back, but it went right to voicemail.

He was distracted by the trill of his desk phone. It was Mèo, calling from L4. Zechs offered a smile as he switched on video. 'Good to see you, Agent,' he greeted the other man. 'Although you look about as rested as I feel.'

'No rest for the weary,' Mèo replied, though he sounded rather more cheerful than Zechs could manage. 'So I understand you're my new boss.'

'From what I hear, you're in line to be taking charge yourself.' Zechs tilted his webcam in. 'I've reviewed the FreeSpace profile. I think we have a lot to go on here.'

'Agreed. I took the liberty of priming Mavise Winner on undercover protocols. She's shaken, but I think she'll hold over the long run.'

'Good. Excellent.'

'Her family are putting up some resistance, though. They want legal immunity for any criminal liability incurred during the operation--'

'Standard. We can agree to that.'

'Their lawyer's drawn up about a thousand forms. I'm having them scanned for you. Not much of a problem, but there is something that is. Quatre Winner is telling her not to do it.'

'Damn. How effective is he being?'

'There's a lot of crying together and holding of hands.' Mèo offered an uncertain shrug. 'Like I said, I think she'll hold, but we could stand to finesse her brother a little. That, boss, I leave to you.'

'I think I'm going to have to be there in person anyway.' He'd concluded that hours earlier, reading about FreeSpace and the situation on L4, but he was reluctant to admit to it. He'd handled multiple cases since coming on with Preventers, but never with such personal investment. 'We're dealing with an unrelated case here. I'll be able to be on a flight in perhaps two days. Maybe tomorrow. I won't stretch it.'

'With your permission I'll just keep working the protocols with Mavise, then. I don't think it hurts our story at all for her to be in continued custody. We're monitoring all social media feeds for FreeSpace, and she's building some caché in the community.'

'But the longer we hold her the longer we risk a leak. The Winner clan is anything but small.'

'Yes, sir.'

'Wind is plenty formal for me.'

'Then Wind it is. I look forward to working with you again.' Mèo inclined his head, and signed off.

Zechs tried to ring Duo again. Voicemail. He let the message play out, and said, 'Me again. Just wanting to let you know I have to leave town soon. I hate to do it now, but it can't really be avoided. Call me back, all right? I want to talk to you about it. It's--' He checked the clock. 'A little after nine. Call me when you can. Don't spend all night cooking for Neptune, even if she is your favourite.'

He made a short trip to the gym, but didn't have much energy for it. He confined himself to the bicycle for an hour, and took a longer shower than usual to pound out muscles sore from too much travel and tension. He checked his phone, before and after, but there was no message from Duo. Maybe Neptune was keeping him busy to distract him from his boredom. Wise of her.

He picked a lower bunk in the crib, and turned off the lights. It took some tossing to find the most comfortable angle, with springs from the thin mattress digging into his back. He finally stuffed the pillow under his chest and rested his head on his folded arms. He checked his phone one final time, and made sure the sound was on so Duo's call would wake him, whenever it came.

But when he woke six hours later, there were still no messages waiting.

[part 15] [part 17] [back to TB and Marsh's fiction]