It’s amazing how time seems to slow to a crawl when you are anticipating something. My fingers drummed the armrests of my chair and my foot tapped in rhythm. AIS personnel tend to be obsessively punctual.
Drives me nuts. I’m more of a get there early type of person. Probably a holdover from the old days where Crowley and I would arrive at a job early to make sure no variables had changed. My fingers curled into a ball at the thought of Crowley.
Five ’til. Ugh. I tried raising Jules again on the comm she gave me. Like the forty other times I tried, I got nothing. I stood up and started to pace. Two steps one way, two steps back. I do not have much room in my office.
A business-like knock sounded and the door opened before I could even muster the k-sound in come in. A muscular bald man in a government issued suit and shades entered my office, head turning as he scanned for threats.
I sneaked a quick glance at the clock. The second-hand had just swept past the twelve. 10:00 exactly.
Baldy turned and nodded to a figure behind him. An older African-American woman who can best be described as “stout” strode into the room. She wore a cream-colored pantsuit that barely showed the bulge of her pistol in its shoulder holster. Her hair lay short and square on her head, matching the rest of her body. A pair of diamond earrings served as her only extra-adornment.
I had a feeling if anybody stole those earrings, she would track him down and that person would die slow.
“Douzeper.” She didn’t ask. She merely identified me, a nod to social pretext. She acknowledged me in a clipped tone, as if pointing to a dog and saying “dog.”
“You lost contact with Stargazer. What do you want with me?” Two can play that game.
Her eyes narrowed, almost lost in the fleshiness of her face. Lips hinted at curving down, but didn’t quite move. She lowered herself into one of my client chairs, Baldy standing guard behind her like a faithful hound. “I see you are familiar with who I represent.” A hint of warning colored her tone.
I waved it off. “I was at San Francisco. I keep up.” I perched on the edge of my desk, purposely putting myself in her space. My arms folded across my chest.
She didn’t seem to notice. “How did the Brannigan case go?” Her serve and it was doozy. My muscles tightened imperceptibly as I fought the urge to give her a Diamond-Cutter across my desk.
Maybe not so imperceptible, as Baldy shifted his stance, ready to intervene in case I lost all sense.
I hadn’t…yet. “Poorly, as you well know, or you wouldn’t have brought it up.” I back-flipped over my desk and landed in my chair. It’s specially reinforced to handle my more crazy maneuvers.
I’m just glad I hit my mark this time.
I waved a hand to dispel the tension. “Listen, I would love to sit here and snipe at each other all day, but my friend is in trouble. So, how about we just get down to brass tacks, huh?”
She nodded, as if my retreat secured her alpha-dog status. Have I ever mentioned that I dislike bureaucrats and the petty games they play? If not, I should have. If I have, then repetition should let you know I mean it.
“My name is Veronica Chase, and, as you have surmised, I am with the AIS. Approximately 48 hours ago, Stargazer and Celia left on a diplomatic mission to the planet Tol to seek a treaty with them. We know she arrived safely, but she has missed every check-in since.”
“You’re sure it’s not just equipment failure,” I blurted.
She gave me a look usually reserved for dog poo being scraped off shoes. “We have the finest machinists in the world, including Stargazer, working for us. Celia also has a homing beacon built-in, in case of such problems. The homing beacon has disappeared, as well.” She arched an eyebrow.
I read eyebrow rather fluently. This one said, “Any other stupid questions, idiot, or can I go on?”
I nodded, properly chastened. She cleared her throat and continued. “Normal protocol calls for a strike-team to mount a rescue mission. However, since these are potential allies in the war against the Hytians, that protocol has been set aside for the moment.”
Now I knew what she wanted with me. “You want me to go to Tol and find out what happened.”
She nodded, clearly unhappy with entrusting this type of mission to any outsider, much less me. “We need someone deniable and expendable to investigate what happened. We have…intelligence that there is a faction on Tol that actually seeks subjugation by the Hytians. They believe that being ruled is better than dying by defying them.”
“We need to know if this faction has sabotaged the talks.”
I grinned, but it didn’t reach my eyes. “Well, I’m nothing if not deniable and expendable. I’ll do it.”
She stood and Baldy opened the door for her. She turned back before she left. “You will be on your own. If you get caught, we will disavow any knowledge of your actions. Don’t tell anybody about our meeting.”
Anything I said in response to that would be a lie, so I kept my mouth shut. She walked through the door and something occurred to me. “Hey, how am I supposed to get there?”
She paused and glared at me. “That is entirely your problem.” She strode off before I could say another word.
Baldy hesitated long enough to sneer at me before he made his exit.
Both of them are so going on my “to-punch” list.
Until next time,