Spoiler Alert: If you are reading Yvonne’s Frohman’s War series, you might want to leave this one alone. Proceed at your own discretion.
Tuesday, 6FEB2018, 1139 Local Time (2039 AZT)
“I know this may be hard, but I’m going to need you to be as specific as possible. Who exactly are you accusing me of murdering?” The girl in front of me can’t be a day over 20, and aside from the pistol shaking in her gloved hand, looks like the picture of a well-bred Imperial youth. Fair skin, blonde hair, blue eyes, very petite, presumably with all those other features that the poets like to gush about, but most of it is hidden in layers of black. The whole outfit, from the boots on up to the lace-trimmed hat, is black. There’s a richness to it, a display of fine material and expert craftsmanship that probably costs what I make in a month, but no jewelery, no flashes of color, and not a hint of makeup. The mourning garb of the well-to-do. She’s young enough that security would overlook her as another student; classes don’t stop just because someone died, and these are my posted office hours.
“I already told you!” She says, doing a fair job of keeping herself calm, at least in tone. The way the muzzle keeps dancing about from the nervous death grip she’s maintaining tells a different story. “You killed my father!”
“Yes, you did tell me that.” I answer, moving my foot over to the pressure plate hidden by the right pedestal of my desk. A simple hydraulic mechanism that rings a bell in my teaching assistant’s office, which gets a quick double tap, completely silent on this end. The smart thing would be to use the shotgun strapped to the underside of the pencil drawer to bring this thing to an end, but then we’d never know the answer, would we? “And you think that repeating the same information only angrier is helpful. Going to throw out a guess here. Wherever you are from, you’re accustomed to people knowing who you are, and by extension who your father is. Am I right?”
“But… how could you not know?” She says, losing some of her momentum. “You murdered someone. How could you not know?”
“On the contrary, how could I know?” I answer. “Imagine if I walked into your home and started smashing up the furniture while demanding to know why you killed my dog. Even if you did kill the dog, how would you know what dog I was talking about?”
“We’re not talking about dogs, you sick bastard!” She says, getting fired back up again. “We’re talking about people.”
“I see my point was missed. How about a name?” I ask. “Did your father have a name?”
“Henri, the Baron Vogelsang” She says.
“Never heard of him.” I say, as a whistle sounds through the speaking tube. “And that’s my TA. If I don’t respond, they’re going to send someone to check on me, and find you. Mind if I answer it?”
“You’ve never heard of…” She starts.
“Not to be rude, but we have more pressing matters.” I say, cutting her off. “Do you mind if I answer the call?”
“Um, yes. I mean, no. Answer it.” She says. This girl has no idea what she’s doing. She’s too busy watching my hands and my eyes to keep an eye on her surroundings, brought along a pistol she clearly isn’t familiar with, and just gave me permission to talk to someone outside the room. Aside from the gun aimed at my head, her attempt is more sad than anything. To be completely blunt, I have more to fear from an accidental discharge than her actual efforts to shoot me. A small cork plug with a whistle sticking out of it blocks the tube, and needs to be pulled out before the person on the other end can hear anything.
“Yes, Francesca?” I say into the tube, making a show of leaning towards it.
“Professor, we’ve received a request from the Internal Records department.” She answers. Unlike the girl in front of me, the woman on the other end of the line is a professional. Frankie knows that the Institute doesn’t have a department called Internal Records, and that I never call her Francesca unless it’s serious. “Did our paperwork get scrambled from the last audit?”
“It’s likely. Eliphalet is always misplacing things.” I respond. “Resend form one-one. That should shut them up.”
“Right away, Professor.” She answers. “Should just take a few minutes.”
“Thank you, Francesca.” I respond, settling back into the chair and not bothering to re-insert the plug. “I’m sorry for the interruption. Bureaucrats. Can’t get by with or without them. You were telling me about your father. And accusing me of murder. So how about you have a seat and we discuss that.” She eyes the chair nervously. “I assure you, there is nothing wrong with it. Why would I wire up a chair I expect my students to sit in?” After a few seconds, she finally takes a chance on it, looking nervous the whole time, only relaxing again when she fully settles in. The arm of the chair lends a bit more stability to the pistol, but there is still some wavering. “Excellent. Now, explain it to me like you would to the constables. Who was your father, and what exactly happened to him?”
“My father is…” She says, clenching her jaw and trying not to give away her emotions. “… was Henri, Baron von Vogelsang, patriarch of the Vogelsang family trade network. One month ago, while traveling through northwestern Eichstadt he was attacked in an alleyway by a masked man with a pistol. My uncle opened fire on the attacker, but it… it was too late for my father. The coward ran, leaving the murder weapon behind. This pistol. Do you remember it?” She asks, in the pointed, accusing tone you only use for questions you think you know the answer to. Aside from the bright spots and excessive pitting around the muzzle, it’s just another overpriced, over-decorated, rolling block.
“No.” I say bluntly. “I prefer automatics. When did the attack take place?”
“Just after dinner, around 7 o’clock.” She says. “What does…”
“And the date?” I ask.
“Stop interrupting me!” She yells, standing up sharply and leaning across the desk to shove the barrel of her pistol into my chest. “I will kill you!”
“Perhaps, but I don’t think it will be right now.” I say. Even with the kevlar vest under my shirt, a gunshot to the chest would be a serious problem, but it’s no reason to get upset. And it’s certainly no reason to give the girl the impression that I’m worried, even if I’d prefer she had her finger outside the trigger guard while pulling this little stunt. “You could have walked right in the door, shot me in the head, and been on your way, but you didn’t. Why?”
“Because I’m not a coward, like you!” She says, more growling than talking.
“I’m not the one with shaky hands.” I say. “I think it’s something else holding you back.”
“Oh yes, let’s hear from the murderer.” She says. “What’s your expert assessment, Professor?”
“You’re a good person, like it or not.” I say. She seems to waver a bit at that. “Cold blooded murder isn’t easy. Anyone can kill, with the right provocation. Imperil their life, threaten their family, destroy what they hold dear and even a saint could slit someone’s throat. Take all that away and what happens? A lifetime of moral lessons and good education doesn’t just go away because it would be convenient. You spent the whole trip here steeling yourself for this confrontation, letting an image of me form in your head. Heard the rumors, I presume, while preparing yourself for this little assassination?”
“I’ve read about you in the papers.” She says. The pistol is still in my chest, but there’s a little less pressure behind it. “They say you’ve done all sorts of terrible things. Some of them even suggest you aren’t even human. Father used to say that men like you are proof that this world is damned.”
“Well, your father is entitled to his opinion, blasphemous though it may be.” I say. “And you’ve heard that terrible moniker they’ve assigned me? Go ahead and say it. I promise I won’t be offended.”
“They call you the Prince of Nightmares.” She says, repeating that ridiculous nom du guerre the local muckrackers assigned me.
“Quite the handle, isn’t it.” I say. “The rest of the faculty keeps threatening to buy me a chair made out of bones. Sounds like the villain out of a dime novel. The Lady Vogelsang versus The Prince of Nightmares. It must have been a disappointment.”
“What?” She asks, recoiling.
“A disappointment.” I repeat. “You had an image of what was going to happen. You were going to throw open that door, draw your pistol, and go toe to toe with the Prince of Nightmares for your family honor. A fight to the death in the villain’s own lair, right in the heart of the system that pays lip service to condemning his sins while compensating him for his time and his crimes. The reality is a lot less impressive isn’t it?”
“They do make you sound bigger in the papers.” She says, regaining some confidence.
“Not me. You.” I say, deflating her a bit. “You were going to come in here and be the hero. Slay the monster. Instead you find a skinny dork in a shirt and tie grading school papers. I’m just sitting here doing my job. So, what does that make you?”
“I’m bringing justice to a murderer.” She says, as much to herself as to me.
“No, you are trying to shoot a murderer.” I say. “Whether that is justice is a much bigger question. We still haven’t established when the crime happened, let alone why I would do it.”
“It was the Fifth of January, and who cares why you did it?” She yells.
“Well, I really wish you had said that first. Could have saved a lot of trouble. No, I did not kill your father.” I say. “On the Fifth of January I was in the Principality of Neufield delivering a lecture, and between the hours of 4 and 10 P.M. Western Eichstadt time I was at a dinner hosted by the Prince himself. A room full of people with no incentive to lie for me, located an entire time zone away from the scene of the crime. Alibis don’t get much more ironclad than that.”
“But… you could have…” She starts.
“Could have what?” I interrupt. “Faked a meeting with a Prince? Stuffed a pile of clothing with straw and a tape recorder and had it deliver a lecture on my behalf?”
“You are a murderer.” She states, trying to steel her resolve.
“Yes, I am.” I say plainly. “I’ve killed more people than some species of shark. The local constabulary has a code just for indicating me-related incidents. But that doesn’t change the facts of the case. You, young lady, are barking up the wrong tree.”
“But my uncle said you did it.” She responds through clenched jaw. “He saw the whole thing.”
“He saw a masked man in a dark alley in a high-stress environment.” I say. “Eyewitnesses have made bigger mistakes in better situations. He also described the attacker as the kind of man who can be startled into dropping his murder weapon when his victims shoot back. This implies that your father’s attacker was either an amateur or a coward. We know I’m not an amateur, and you’ve been looking into my eyes this whole time, and aiming a pistol at me for nearly the same duration. Do I strike you as lacking resolve?”
“If you didn’t kill my father, then who did?” She asks.
“Miss Vogelsang, 5 minutes ago I wasn’t even aware a crime happened.” I answer. “I’m going to need at least 10 minutes, a fresh cup of coffee and that pistol before I can tell you anything.”
“How do I know I can trust you?” She asks. The pistol isn’t trained on me anymore, but she isn’t handing it over either. “I mean, a man and a woman, alone in a room. Who knows what could happen?”
“Young lady, are you implying that a man of my position would take advantage of a young, emotionally compromised woman who attempted to kill him?” I ask, amused. “Read too many old books, have we?”
“Well…” She starts, blushing.
“It’s a good instinct.” I interrupt, standing up and heading towards the wall cabinet. The last occupant of this office had it filled with liquor and assorted items of prurient interest. A good hard scrubbing was required before anything could be done with it, but now it makes a fine place to keep assorted odds and ends. First aid supplies, emergency rations, hacksaws, grenade launcher. Nothing too fancy, just the essentials. “One should never base too much of their personal security on the goodwill of strangers. So, straight trade, pistol for pistol, or would you prefer a blade instead?” Her eyes have gone a bit wide. “Got about five pocket revolvers in here too, if they would be a better fit for your hand.”
“Why do you have all of that in here?” She asks in a quiet voice.
“Because it doesn’t do me much good at home if I have a problem here.” I answer. “It’s a rare treat when an emergency leaves us with enough time for a supply run. So, pistol? Bowie knife? Tomahawk? Philippine bolo? ”
“I have no real practice with the first, but I have no idea what the other three are.” She says, laying the pistol down on the table.
“You should see to that.” I say, pointing to the three items in order. “Bowie, tomahawk, bolo. I’m a Randall #1 man, personally, but you need more than one tool in your toolbox. For now, lets stick with the known.” Most of the pistols in here are semi-automatic, but there’s a single shot I keep around for target shooting. The guts are pretty similar to what she came walking in with, but everything else is different. Hers looks like it was designed to look good on the owner’s hip, with any sort of accuracy or hitting power just being a pleasant side effect. Dark blue finish, deep engraving in the floral scroll that sells so well West of the Arkadies, set into what looks like a rosewood stock with silver furniture. Mine is finished in a flat-ass gray, no decoration, and a pair of checkered plastic grip panels, but more time was spent installing and calibrating the sights than was spent on the engraving of hers, and the chrome bore lining costs more than every piece of silver on that stock put together.
“Very nice. Seems like I’m getting the better end of the deal here.” She says, catching me a bit off guard. “Is that the standard export model interrupted muzzle threading or a proprietary Cardenas setup?”
“I thought you said you had no practice with these.” I respond, inserting a round into the chamber.
“Oh, I never shoot them, but father said any time spent familiarizing yourself with the merchandise is time well spent.” She says, settling into the chair a bit more comfortably. “You really should have a thread protector on there.”
“You trying to sell me one?” I ask, sitting back down and setting the pistol down on the table. She quickly trades out hers for the target pistol, which she proceeds to inspect thoroughly.
“Sorry, force of habit.” She says, taking in the full details of my pistol, while I do the same with hers.
The bright finish loss around the muzzle is consistent with blood spatter that wasn’t cleaned promptly and thoroughly, and ejecting the cartridge currently in there shows a light mixture of gunshot residue and what I presume is more blood. Aside from that, it looks fresh. Too fresh. I can still see residue of heavy storage grease in the low areas, and a top to bottom inspection shows no evidence of an impact on a hard surface. No deformed metal, no scuffing of blue or varnish, zip. Unless her father got mugged in the only alleyway in the Empire with a cushioned floor, something doesn’t add up.
“Good habit. The real money in the gun trade is in ammo and all the add-on junk anyway.” I say. A toolkit in one of my desk drawers gives me what I need to start taking the pistol apart.
“It really is. Father always used to say that selling a good wagon is just a pretense to sell people good wagon wheels.” She says, losing interest in the new gun and watching my process with the one she walked in with. Whoever bought this thing not only lacked the good sense to clean it properly before using it, based on the amount of grease still in the action, but didn’t have the presence of mind to deal with the serial number on the underside of the barrel. “Is that what I think it is?” She asks, but before I can answer, there is a knock on the door. “Are you expecting someone?”
“Certainly am.” I say. “Come on in, Frankie.” The door opens to reveal Frankie, my TA, holding a coffee tray and backed by a 10-man security team in full body armor. Still a few years out from her full certification and scarcely into her 20s, but her rectangular wire frame glasses, tight black bun of hair and prim demeanor give her the presence of a mature woman. If she has an opinion about the armed girl in my office, or the mess of gun parts on my desk, she doesn’t show it. The lady is a professional, after all. My visitor, on the other hand, looks like her eyes are about to pop out of her head.
“How long have they been out there?” She asks.
“That’s sensitive information.” Frankie says, without bothering to look at the girl. “I wasn’t sure if your… guest would be joining you, so I took the liberty of bringing an extra cup.” She says, setting the tray down on the table. “Also, I spoke with the security squadron chief, he says they can keep an eye on her down in the office during your lunch, if needed.” Shit, my lunch appointment. In all the distraction, I had forgotten about it.
“I don’t think that will be needed. She really isn’t a threat.” I say, starting to pour the coffee. “The whole thing is just a big…”
“Professor, it’s not your safety I’m worried about.” Frankie says, looking over the girl with subtle concern. “The Captain’s displeasure is rarely a discrete thing, and all sympathy aside this girl did try to kill you.”
“Shit, you’re right.” I say. “The Captain would probably shoot her in the face before I can explain everything. You really should go with them.”
“Wait, security… are you going to have me arrested?” She asks, looking on the verge of a panic attack.
“No, I assure you it really is for your own protection. You are not under arrest.” I say.
“Can they be trusted?” She asks. The nervous death grip she had on her pistol when she came in is back.
“Ma’am, I can vouch for the reliability of the security team.” Frankie says, taking a seat on the edge of my desk and resting her hand on the girl’s shoulder. “I can also assure you of two other things. One, that going with them is the best move you can make right now. Two, saying ‘no’ would just give them an excuse to take you by force.”
“Stop trying to scare her, Frankie. No one is taking anyone in my office, by force or otherwise.” Out in the hallway, a commotion breaks out. One of the guards arguing with someone.
“Ma’am, we’re going to need you to wait here.” Says one of the Sergeants.
“Sergeant, unless you like the taste of your own scalp you had best step the fuck aside.” Comes a familiar voice, one not accustomed to taking lip from enlisted men.
“Speak of the devil.” Frankie says, smoothing out her dress and heading towards the door. “Good luck, to both of you.” Without any time for additional comment, she’s out the door, around the corner and gone. Can’t say that I blame her.
“Did… did she just run away?” Miss Vogelsang asks, worry creeping into her voice.
“Yes. You don’t make it as far in academia as Frankie without well-honed survival instincts.” I say, finishing pouring both cups of coffee and setting one in front of Ms. Vogelsang. “Ok, play it cool. If someone asks, you’re here seeking information about your father’s murder. If no one asks, sacrifice 100 bulls to Zeus in thanks. Ixnay on the assassination attempt, got it?”
“Um…” She stammers.
“Close enough.” I say, before turning to the door. “Let the Captain through, Sergeant, it’s alright.” Out in the hallway, boots shuffle as guards move aside, and the Captain walks though the doorway. Susan Frohman, Captain of the Airship Graywing, and technically my wife. Long story. The height difference between Minette and Susan is almost eliminated by their footwear, but even with the disadvantage of Air Corps issued boots Susan still comes out ahead. As much as Minette could be called a paragon of Imperial beauty, Susan could be the poster girl for Cardenas. Even under a blue jumpsuit, a brown leather officer’s jacket and a fire-resistant blue mask that obscures all but her eyes and mouth, she still manages to convey a fine mix of beauty and strength. Feminine curves backed by solid muscle, a lovely face traced with a few hard-earned wrinkles, and the upright bearing of one who knows that “woman” and “officer” are not mutually exclusive.
“What the fuck is going on here?” She asks, hands on her hips. “I show up on time for lunch and what do I find? Hassle from a bunch of security mooks and you alone with… New question, what the fuck is Baron Vogelsang’s daughter doing in your office… with your target pistol?”
“It’s for her peace of mind. Some people think I’m scary, oddly enough.” I say. “Have you two met before?”
“No, and don’t change the subject.” She says. “What are you two doing that would send Cesca flying down the hallway like the room was on fire?”
“I came here see the Professor in regards to a sensitive manner.” Ms. Vogelsang says, standing up and approaching the Captain, leaving her loaner pistol on the table in the process. She’s done a very good job of composing herself in the seconds before the Captain entered the room, and is now offering the Captain her hand. “Forgive me for introducing myself. I am Minette von Vogelsang, daughter of… I’m sorry, force of habit. Minette, Baroness Vogelsang and Matriarch of the Vogelsang family trade network. The change in title was somewhat… abrupt, and is taking some getting used to.”
“I understand how that can be. Good day, Baroness Vogelsang, I am the Captain of the Airship Graywing.” The Captain says, taking Minette’s hand and bringing it to her lips. Out here in the Empire, most people stop a few inches short, a tradition that the Captain often overlooks. Mostly it’s to try to rattle people, but sometimes it’s just a pretense to kiss a pretty girl. Minette seems neither rattled, or uncomfortable. “So, what are you consulting the Professor about that requires a full security detail?”
“My father’s murder.” She answers, doing an admirable job of looking the Captain in the eye. “Your husband is a noted expert in ballistics, urban combat and assassination.”
“My husband?” The Captain says with a laugh. Minette nervously repeats the laugh, but Susan doesn’t let go of the girl’s hand, instead pulling her closer. The height difference, normally negligible, is magnified as Minette reflexively leans away, letting Susan loom over the girl. “Don’t believe everything you read in the papers. They also say he’s a killer robot. And don’t try to distract me. If you were in fear for your life, it would be a private detail out there, and they wouldn’t be leaving you alone in a room with an exceptionally dangerous part-time mercenary. A university security team, lying in ambush outside the door, one holding a breaching tool, suggests that they were summoned in response to an armed intruder. So unless Cesca’s been trying to haggle a raise at sword point, you owe me an answer.”
“I have no idea what you…” Minette starts to say. Getting your arm wrenched around behind your back and being shoved face first into the door frame has a way of throwing off your train of thought. Reactions from the security range from borderline apathy to openly not giving a fuck.
“Child, I have cut you a lot of slack so far because of your recent tragedy.” The Captain says, pulling the pistol out of her shoulder holster, flipping off the safety, and planting the muzzle against Minette’s temple. The girl’s composure has completely given way to raw, unfiltered terror, complete with fully dilated pupils and quiet prayers to God punctuated with the occasional small inhalation of air. “But if you insist on fucking with me, I will blow out just enough of your brain to leave you a drooling, pants-shitting vegetable, and then I’m going to hand your brain-damaged ass over to the authorities to get incarcerated for whatever the hell was going on in here. So, if you want to spend the best years of your life in a damp, dim concrete box with just enough of your mind left to know what you lost, go ahead and fuck with me. Otherwise, this is your last chance to come clean. Tell me. What. Happened here.”
“I was told that the Professor killed my father.” She says, mostly out of breath, a tear running down her cheek. “I came here to confront him.”
“Captain, I think you’ve made your point.” I say, standing up from the desk. “You can let her go now.”
“Hardly.” She says, twisting the girl’s arm another fraction of an inch and wringing a sad whimper of pain and a few more tears out of her. “What was your plan? Ask her nicely not to be an entitled cunt? Talk her into being a better person? You know better.”
“Far from it.” I say, stepping around the desk and approaching them. “Someone blew away a well-connected Imperial nobleman and is trying to stick it on me. If we have a serial killer or contract assassin on our hands, this whole thing could turn into a clusterfuck of biblical proportions. The girl you have pinned against the wall is our best chance to get out ahead of this thing. You pull the trigger, and we’re going to have that much harder of a time sorting this mess out.”
“Damn it, Professor! Why do you have to be so damn reasonable all the time? Would it kill you to have an emotion once in a while?” Susan asks rhetorically, giving the girl one last frustrated shove against the wall before letting go. The safety goes back on, but the gun stays in her hand. “Pay close fucking attention. This isn’t forgiveness, it’s a stay of execution, got it? You fuck us over, you sandbag this investigation, it’s a bullet to the face, got it?”
“Yes.” Minette croaks out, looking like she just wants to curl up in the fetal position. Susan grabs her by the collar and hauls her up to a full, upright stand.
“YES WHAT?” She barks in the girl’s face, making her flinch away.
“Yes ma’am! Yes ma’am!” Minette screams. Soon, the screaming gives way to hysterical crying, Susan’s hand being the only thing still holding her up, and when Susan lets go Minette gets to take up that fetal position she showed an interest in earlier.
“Damn it.” I mutter under my breath.
“What?” She says, re-holstering her pistol. “She knows who is in charge now.” A typical military response; establish who is the butch and who is the bitch as soon as possible, and make sure you aren’t the bitch. Not exactly fucking conductive to an investigation.
“I was already in charge, and I didn’t need to give anyone a heart attack or an ulcer to get her to cooperate.” I say, gritting my teeth and trying to remain calm. “Do you really think this is helpful?”
“She was bullshitting me!” Susan says.
“She was bullshitting you on my orders, because I knew you were going to do this!” I yell, as I start pacing about the room. “Jesus Christ, could you at least pretend to respect my methods! I had her talking! She was cooperative! We were making progress! Now fucking look at her! Do you think she’s any use to herself, let alone anyone else in this state? So she tried to kill me. So the fuck what? If I got my shit in a twist every time someone tried to kill me I’d never get anything done. Sometimes you have to let shit like this slide in order to advance your own agenda.”
“Oh, fuck you!” She yells. “You let them get away with shit like this, it just escalates. We used to let these jackoffs get away with all kinds of shit. Gotta play politics, the higher-ups said. Cultural differences, they said. Then one day we wind up with a third of our field personnel dead and the same fuckers who told us to treat them with kid gloves holding their heads in their hands trying to figure out what we did wrong. I’ve already lost too many people to these cunts getting it into their heads that they can get away with things. So she gets a little traumatized. I don’t fucking care! I’d kill a hundred of her if it means I don’t have to see you get hurt!”
“Captain…” I start to say.
“I’m not burying another spouse, damn it!” She yells. The room goes quiet. One of the guards had the good taste to nudge the door shut while we were busy yelling at each other, and Minette is right where we left her. The sobbing continues. If Frankie returned to her office, and I’m reasonably sure that she did, then she heard everything.
“Frankie!” I bark towards the speaking tube while rubbing my temples.
“Yes, Professor?” She responds, just as expected.
“The Baroness requires a few moments alone to compose herself. Take one of the guards and escort her to the washrooms. See that she isn’t disturbed. Dismiss the rest of the detail.” I say.
“Anything else, Professor?” She asks.
“Yes. Call up a runner. We have priority correspondence for the airbase. That is all.” I say, not bothering to wait for her response before jamming the cork back into the tube. Frankie is just as efficient as she always is, but when you’re stuck in a room with a weeping noblewoman, your pissed-off fake wife and your own self loathing, 30 seconds feels unbearably long. Minette doesn’t question or resist when Frankie and the guard take her hands and help her off the floor. None of them look over at us in the time it takes to do their chore. The door shuts, and we’re alone again.
“I need a fucking drink.” Susan sighs.
“All I have in here is coffee.” I say apologetically.
“Close enough.” She says, taking up Minette’s recently-vacated seat, but not before sliding it a few feet to the left, closer to the coffee pot and out of the path of the under-desk shotgun. The second cup didn’t get touched before everything happened, so we don’t need to bother cleaning anything before getting her set up. I have just enough time to get the letter written out and sealed before the runner shows up, takes it out of the door slot, and heads off. Halfway through her cup, Susan breaks the silence. “So, that got a bit emotional back there.”
“Normally things don’t get that bad in here until the end of the semester.” I say. “It’s really shaping up to be one of those days. Sorry I raised my voice.”
“Likewise. Sorry I fucked up your interrogation.” She says, taking another drink.
“It’s cool. Nothing we can’t salvage.” I say. No marriage can survive without an understanding and tolerance for each others foibles, even a fake one. Strike that, especially a fake one. A shitty real marriage has any number of things that can keep it standing long after it should have come apart. Sex, children, social pressures, long-term property leases and the like can keep man from tearing asunder what God put together long past the point of good sense or sanity. Without the pain of having to divide real estate or the promise of occasional head, all a fake marriage has to prop it up is the good will of the participants and the pursuit of whatever goal the marriage was meant to reach in the first place. All the usual tactics for your partner to forget they’re pissed-off at you are off the table. Susan and I would never make it as an actual marriage, but we maintain a happy and reasonably healthy simulation of one.
“I get the feeling that you know more about the case than I do.” I say, changing the topic. “You recognized the girl pretty quickly.”
“She was the topic of conversation last time I ran into Vieve.” She says. Most of the Imperial public knows ‘Vieve’ as the Voice of Cardenas, a mixed group of semi-anonymous disc jockeys and PR shills who tell the folks out West the Eastern version of the truth, and write her off as just another pretty voice whispering half-facts and well-aimed lies into the waiting ears of the Empire’s youth. Genevieve Kemsley, Voice of Cardenas, mother of three, Susan’s old war buddy and full bird Colonel in the Combined Intelligence Service may just be the best informed person in Cardenas outside the General Staff, which sits her pretty firmly in the Top 100 most informed people on the entire Continent.
“She managed to squeeze another topic in aside from how much of a creep I am?” I say, taking a drink. “Damn, must be important to her.”
“Oh quit being dramatic.” She says with a dismissive wave. “She wouldn’t have been my bridesmaid at the wedding if she didn’t like you. And yes, it is important to her. The Baron does a lot of business with Cardenas, but most of it is bound up in short-term contracts.”
“He not fond enough of us to take the plunge on something long term?” I ask.
“On the contrary.” She says. “He was one of the early adopters. Made his first million gold speculating on the condom trade. Vogelsang wasn’t even a baron before we got here; he bought a hereditary title straight cash from the Emperor using the proceeds of the first cross-border rifle sales. Only reason he doesn’t commit to anything past six months is because he likes to tweak the rates and payout schedules to take advantage of inter-kingdom currency fluctuations. Most years he’s only shaving a few percent off his costs, but when you play the money game at that level a few percent can make for a shitload of cash.”
“And now that he’s gone, they need to make friendly with the new guy, or he can take the business and fuck off.” I say.
“She, and yes.” Susan responds. “Minette is the oldest surviving kid, and the mother’s been dead for a few years now. Everything that was Henri’s is now hers.”
“How about the uncle?” I ask. “Does he get a piece of the action?”
“Not a single dime that wasn’t directly bequeathed to him.” She answers. “Renard was the older brother, and got the lion’s share of the estate when their father kicked off, but what Henri did get was explicitly severed from the original estate of the Duke von Vogelsang. Besides, it’s not like he needs it.”
“Loaded?” I ask.
“Like you wouldn’t believe.” She answers. “Guy owns cities. Plural. He doesn’t have a reputation as a particularly bright bulb, but he does have one for tossing cash around. Parties, patronage, parties, investments, and parties.”
“You mentioned parties three times.” I say.
“He likes to party.” She responds with a shrug. “And not quiet little get-togethers. I’m talking huge, loud and exotic. Food and entertainment from all corners of the Continent, guest list that reads like a communist bomb-thrower’s wet dream, solid gold everything, you name it, he has it. Vieve said he once had an artificial lake built on one of his estates, and then had 4 teams of peasants on sailboats duke it out for a winner-take-all cash purse while the crowd watched and cheered. Body count ended up somewhere in the mid-double digits.”
“What a dick.” I say.
“It gets worse.” She continues. “After one team won, he had them led in a victory procession into the ballroom, and when they were in the middle of the room a cage trap was sprung.”
“He killed them to skip out on the payout?” I ask.
“Not right away.” She says. “Instead, he tells them the cage will be kept closed for 10 minutes. Anyone still alive at the end of the time would receive an even share of the prize. But if only one person was still alive, not only would they get the prize, but would also receive a, quote, mass of solid jade as tall as they are, unquote.”
“Can I guess from the quotes that this turns out to be one of those ‘instant karma’ stories?” I ask, complete with quotation fingers.
“Yes, you can.” She says. “So, you know how it only takes one asshole to mess up a party? Turned out that winning team had one asshole in it, and after they stuck a knife in someone’s throat it turned into a general melee. When the ten minutes were up, there were 9 corpses and one mangled, blood soaked, but living winner.”
“And that’s when they dropped a stone weight on their head, crushing them flat?” I ask.
“No.” She says, taking a drink. “That’s your problem, Bart. You keep thinking too well of people. The duke has a few mages on his staff. When they let the survivor out of the cage, they gave her one last chance to walk away with just the cash, and she insisted on getting everything promised. A few cryptic sentences later, and the party has a brand new jade conversation piece.”
“At risk of repeating myself, what a dick.” I say.
“It gets worse.” She says. “When the party started winding down, they repositioned the winner by the door, and hung a hammer and chisel around her neck so the guests could break off a piece as a memento of the evening. Rumor has it he gave the girl’s family a chunk of her hair as compensation, and kept the rest for who the hell knows what.”
“Damn.” I say. “Bet Genevieve is happy as a pig in shit that that sick fuck didn’t end up doing business with us.”
“Like you wouldn’t believe. I think she’s preparing an accident for him just in case anything happens to the remaining Vogelsang kids.” She says.
“Be sure to let her know that I do have the occasional weekend off if someone needs to cut themselves shaving.” I say. “Did she happen to mention any of the particulars of Henri’s death?”
“She got a copy of the official report.” She says. “According to the constables, it was a botched mugging, but the pigs in that area are notoriously cheap. No one buys them, but anyone can rent them for an hour or two. Bastards are worthless. Does the gun tell us anything?”
“Nothing mind blowing.” I say, flipping the barrel around so she can see into the breech.
“Contact shot.” She says, recognizing the crap jammed into the barrel. “Big .45 round, probably made a mess of half the alley.” Susan doesn’t have a background in forensics like I do; she got her schooling in the fine interplay of ballistics and fluid dynamics by way of the University of Hard Knocks.
“That it probably did.” I say. “If it were a fresh scene, and we were there, we could probably find the prick by doing a quick survey of inns and taverns for anyone coming in with fresh red on them, but that boat sailed quite some time ago.”
“So, got any working theories?” She asks, steering us back onto the topic at hand.
“A few.” I answer, getting the pistol put back together. “But they’re pretty vague at this point. Method was clearly gunshot at close range, but motive is fuzzy. It really could have just been a robbery gone wrong for all we know. Someone hungry enough to take their chances on a couple of well-heeled travelers in a back alley, but not so hungry to stand up against return fire.”
“Awfully classy pistol for a desperate and hungry person, don’t you think?” She asks, doubtful.
“Criminals tend not to be too picky about their firepower.” I answer, while remounting the barrel assembly. “Professionals like you or I can just walk into the airbase and place an order for whatever we need, but a criminal is limited to whatever they can steal or buy from other criminals.”
“What about a crooked dealer? Someone who can buy legally and then turn around and sell them to those who can’t for a markup?” She asks.
“I would file them under ‘other criminals’.” I answer. “Though it does raise the question of why they didn’t try to cover up the silver bits. Shiny metal isn’t the best accessory for a post-dinner ambush.”
“How about a business rival?” Susan posits. “The Vogelsangs have a lot of fingers in a lot of pies, and no doubt they’ve pissed more than a few someones off in the process. Some small-time trader who got ran out of business, or another trade network patriarch could have popped him off. If they were a small-time operator, or a bigger guy who didn’t trust mercs, they might have tried to do it themselves.”
“And they flake out when the shooting starts, dumping their lovely sidearm in the process.” I finish. “Definitely a contender. Good fit for the circumstances. Unfortunately, we’re working with a few handicaps. Namely, we don’t have access to the crime scene or the only witness.”
“Now that you mention it, what are the chances that someone was trying to blow away Renard and clipped the wrong Vogelsang?” She asks.
“Better than I would like, considering the Duke’s idea of a lovely party game.” I answer. “To say nothing of the possibility that Eichstadt blew him away to screw us out of a friendly trade partner.”
“Shit. This just keeps getting worse. How long are we willing to commit to this thing?” Susan asks, finishing up her cup. “It’s not like we don’t have day jobs already.”
“True. I’ve got classes and office hours through the rest of the week. You take off tomorrow, right?” I ask, topping Susan’s cup up and adding the usual amount of cream and sugar.
“Thanks, and yes. Heading the complete opposite direction.” She answers. “I know a few people in that area, but getting in touch with them isn’t easy or fast.”
“Now that you mention it, why has this been kept as quiet as it has?” I ask. “Easterners aren’t exactly welcome in Eichstadt on a good day, and I’ve been doubly persona non grata over there since that whole mess back in October. Why haven’t they pitched a fit yet?”
“They might have buried it.” She says. “Could you imagine what would happen if word got out that a well-connected man traveling through their territory was at risk for getting blown away by… well, you?”
“Ah, yes. My killer rep.” I say, suppressing an eye roll. “Come to Eichstadt, get malaria while standing in a city some dumbass built in a swamp, savor the rich sulfur tones of unfiltered coal soot, and for the grand finale, catch a bullet with your eyeball from the hardest working part-time lecturer on the continent. But remember, he only has seven rounds per magazine, so if you want one to have your name on it you must have a reservation.” Susan snorts a bit mid drink.
“Damn it, Bart.” She says, still smiling as I hand her a tissue. “I’m trying to drink here.”
“Yes. Root word ‘try’, it seems.” I say, finishing off my cup. “Aside from more idle thinking, there isn’t anything else we can accomplish here. Next step is to try and work some more information out of the girl.”
“She wasn’t there.” Susan says, stating the obvious. “What do you expect to get out of her?”
“Honestly? About jack shit.” I say, standing up and grabbing my keys out of my coat. “But she’s here, the uncle isn’t, so we take what we can get.”
“You could always declare a field trip, drag your class out to his house.” Susan says, rising from her seat and returning it to it’s original place. “Bet that would give him a scare.”
“Eh, I don’t think the Institute would sign off on the expenses, and there’s no way in fuck I’m paying that out of pocket.” I say, taking a quick look out the door. The security detail is long gone.
“Forgetting something?” She says, grabbing the pistol off the desk and handing it to me butt first.
“Not really. This thing is…” I start to say, taking the pistol and giving it a quick chamber check before letting down the hammer and sticking it into my belt.
“Tacky? Overdone? Badly laid out? Shit?” She volunteers.
“Yes.” I say. “You always did have a way with words. Especially the mean ones.”
“Flatterer. Now, let’s not forget to keep up appearances.” She responds, pulling a small tube of lipstick out of her pocket. “Do you have a preference for side?”
“Surprise me.” I say, tossing her a small bottle of aftershave out of my desk drawer. Appearances need to be maintained; a few stray traces of cosmetics, a hint of each other’s aroma, and the false impression that we are trying to keep something subtle goes a lot farther than any quantity of public affection would to create an impression. “Do we want to ‘accidentally’ leave the cap off one of the pneumatic tubes and do some moaning and desk shoving while we’re at it?”
“No, we have things to do.” She says, putting the makeup away and wiping her hand off on a nearby napkin. “Besides, what’s the point if Cesca isn’t in her office?”
“The point is to complete the illusion created by you putting my aftershave on your belt buckle.” I say. “Also, she isn’t the only one who could eavesdrop.”
“I know, but watching her keep her stiff upper lip after hearing sex noises always tickles me.” She says with a wicked smile.
“You’re a mean one, Frohman.” I respond. “Shall we?” I ask, extending my arm, which she accepts.
The walk isn’t far, but a number of twists and turns were built into the design to isolate the offices from any sights, sounds and smells that might emanate from the bathrooms. Six of them are lined up down a hallway, 3 per side, each one a full bath on it’s own. Aside from some slight difference in internal fittings, the guard physically obstructing one of the doors, and a conspicuous white spot on one of the floor rugs where the staff had to remove evidence of an instructor’s indiscretion with a student with bleach, they’re all pretty much the same.
“Anything to report, Corporal?” I ask.
“No one’s come or gone.” She says. “Frankie’s been in there with her the whole time.”
“Overhear anything good?” Susan asks.
“It would show a great deal of impropriety if I used my position to eavesdrop, ma’am.” She answers.
“Why, I would never suggest you do something improper,” Susan responds, feigning surprise, “I merely point out that, being attentive to your environment, you might notice some things, if only long enough to ensure it isn’t a matter of concern.”
“Well, phrasing it that way, there was a lot of crying in there, followed by some nose blowing, and it’s been quiet for a few minutes.” The guard says.
“Try shoving your ear against the door?” Susan asks.
“No, ma’am. It’s too thick for that to work.” The guard responds. “Trying a new look, Professor?” She asks, nodding towards the pistol in my belt.
“Yes.” I say. “The latest craze from out East. We call it ‘someone ran off crying with the holster’. Girls love it.”
“I bet.” She answers, letting the stern bearing slip a bit and giving us a bit of a smile. It goes away pretty quickly, disrupted by a knock on the bathroom door. As she knocks back and steps aside, the door opens. Minette has done an admirable job of recomposing herself; someone walking past might never know what had unfolded before unless they noticed the redness of her eyes. Frankie remains Frankie, though the dampness on the shoulder of her dress wasn’t there before.
“So, how are we feeling?” I ask.
“Better.” She says, turning to Frankie. “Thank you, Francesca. For everything.”
“You’re welcome, Minette.” She responds, embracing the smaller noblewoman in a hug. “Are you ok to answer some more questions? Perhaps grab a bite to eat?”
“I think so, but…” I lose track of the last bit, as Minette whispers it directly into Frankie’s ear.
“No, sweetie, the Captain isn’t going to kill you. Isn’t that right, Captain?” Frankie asks.
“That depends. Can she go a meal without trying to kill my husband?” Susan shoots back.
“How about we all just show a little good faith and presume we can break bread without a gunfight breaking out. Can we do that?” I ask.
“I can if she can.” The Captain says.
“And I as well.” Minette responds.
“Well, it looks like the three of you have things under control here.” Frankie says, giving Minette one last squeeze and whispering something in her ear before letting her go. “If there is nothing else…”
“No, it’s all settled, unless you and Corporal Akua are wanting to join us for lunch.” I say. “The tables are a bit oversized for just three people.”
“Tempting, but I still have paperwork to take care of.” Frankie says.
“And I still have a few hours left on my shift.” Akua says.
“Ok, then. Thanks for your assistance, both of you.” I say.
“You’re welcome, and don’t forget to fill out an incident report for calling out the squad.” Frankie says, as her and the Corporal head back the way they came. “The papers will be on your desk after lunch.”
“Thanks, Frankie.” I say, before returning my attention to Minette. “So, lunch?”