Halfway across the neighborhood, Alyi Sykes was having her own problems. First there had been the issue of being sure she wasn’t followed while maintaining her cover, without making overly amateurish ‘mistakes’ that would draw attention. Then there was the fact that the people she was supposed to be meeting were nearly twenty minutes late already. They hadn’t been late the last three times, so maybe they’d been caught. If that was the case, she should be running before the Imps broke them, not hanging around here, she knew. She didn’t know how many other illegal Imperial refugees there were in Burkeport, those seeking illegal transport to other nations that was, but the smugglers implied they’d been working for a lot of people this time.
She ducked behind a pallet of crates as the grating screech of a rusting hinge shattered the warehouse’s silence.
Peeking between pallets, Alyi spotted three people approaching the meeting spot. As they came down the narrow row between stacks, she decided two were Humans. By bulk, the third must be a Troll, she’d decided before they crossed a bit of light. No, not a Troll, wrong color. An Ogre? That meant . . . they must be the Republic smugglers. She’d been fed enough Imperial propaganda about Ogres to know the Imps on planet wouldn’t hire one. And, she double checked, no uniforms so they probably weren’t security. Not that that fact meant much, Alyi thought, since Salma’s security didn’t do uniforms either.
Alright, do like Berl or Tam, she decided. Either shoot it out, she had the small holdout blaster that most residents carried, or bluff.
Emerging from behind the stack, Alyi glared through the dim lighting as best she could and demanded, “Where the frek’ve you been? I’ve been waiting.”
To their credit, the trio neither jumped nor tried to attack her. At least they were professional, though one of her friends from the bar would probably read their reactions better than she could. Especially with her heart thumping against her ribs.
One of the Humans, a man she’d met before, tossed his shaggy head. “Patrols held us up. Imps and bar rats’ve at least doubled their people on the streets and Hawks’re going freksheis for the last hour. Gonna be at least a week before we can move, maybe a couple months.” He ignored his partners, so Alyi decided to follow suit, even if she thought they could have made better time without the Ogre.
“A couple months?”
“If things get worse with the Imps and bar rats. Might be all out war between ‘em. Could get you across the ILF line tonight, but no port and our ships here. It’ll be at least a week, we think, before things die down enough to move.”
Alyi ignored the second use of her co-workers’ nickname, insulting though it was. There were things more important than pride, besides she was only with them for a short time, not truly one of them. “Still. A week? It’s not that bad, I thought your crew was supposed to be good.”
That got a reaction from the woman and the Ogre. The one bristled, the other reached for the axe on its belt. Both stopped when the man raised a hand. He shook his head, clearly communicating how little regard he had for rank amateurs. “They are good, not the best, but much better than average. See, I’m still being honest here, most would claim to be the best, kid. Part of being good is not being caught. And the best way to avoid being caught is to know when to move.”
“Why not now? Lots of ships are still leaving all over.”
“That’s as may be. They’re all being searched close too. ‘Specially by the Imps, bar rats, and corps.”
Even her short time on Burkeport was enough to make the political connections: the injured party, the accused party, and the injured’s questionable ally. Only Warrl wouldn’t care to search. The sorcerers there would probably give the squad killer a small parade on his way to their port. Even so, “Makes sense, but won’t they be worse later?”
The woman gave a short bark of laughter. Alyi felt a bit of red tinge coming to her complexion as the man explained, “The patrols and border guards. Most of our passengers need to be smuggled here first. Not that your bar rat bosses care, if we aren’t too obvious. So, a week at least. No extra charge. We’ll contact you if we need another meeting.”
Well, that’s something new, Alyi thought as the trio left. She glanced at her watch, four more minutes. She’d thought the smugglers were being paid by someone else, they’d been so cheap that she had been concerned at first. Working at the bar taught her a rough scale of smuggling rates, and people were always the most expensive, especially those wanted by the Imps. Probably the Alliance or Republic, if the Clanhold destination they’d told her was right. Weste had told her the Gnome territory was a notoriously unstable and little patrolled border. Either government, she guessed, would want to free and interrogate Imperial citizens, not that she really knew anything.
Time was up. Five minutes gave the smugglers enough time to move away, enough not to appear suspicious. She checked the alley before leaving the warehouse and kept to the shadows until she found a busy street. There were threats other than Imperial patrols and spies in the neighborhood, not as many as in the Popular Front’s turf, sure, but still. Alyi walked along, ignoring the minimal vehicle traffic, and pretended that she was exactly what she appeared: someone out shopping after work. It helped that she spotted and nodded to a few of the security patrols, people she knew from the bar who’d been pulled to keep the streets quieter.
In order to maintain the charade, Alyi stayed on public streets and entered the occasional shop for a few hours. That was something the couple that took her in after her parents were sent to Svalgard had taught her. It created an alibi, being seen in public by lots of people about the same time as something illegal or illicit was done, because people were rarely specific about times. Or so they said. Nice people overall, nothing like some of the neighborhood rumors she’d heard before her parents were arrested and sent to prison. A few days later, the government demolished her home and started a new military base.
Alyi spared a glance at her watch. 1958, or close enough. That should do, she decided and turned toward home.
At the same time, Berl stood outside an apartment a few blocks north of the bar. She knew the other three security personnel with her by reputation and looks only, having reviewed personnel files the other day. While they waited for Kel to come back out, she grilled the patrol.
“When did you get here?”
“’Bout nine, ten minutes ago. Heard a scream from his neighbor, must’ve just found him.”
“Neighbor didn’t see anything.” It wasn’t a question. She was certain of the fact.
“No, says he heard and saw nothing.”
The Elf rolled her eyes. “The day someone sees something, we’ll know they’re lying,” she waved them off, “Go on and keep the civilians away.”
A few minutes later, Kel left the building. He shook his head, “Linked?”
“Of course,” she replied, “one night an Imp squad’s wiped, next night Cairik, a known Imp informant in our turf. Single precise blaster shot, probably close range. Can’t confirm that until the autopsy, but that’s too much to be coincidence. They’ve got to be linked, and our Riven’s been out of sight since he left Salma left night, which no one saw him do.”
“Evidence seems to point that way, doesn’t it?”
Berl barely nodded as her comm set buzzed.
“Funny how all the clues go that way, “Kel continued before he realized his employee wasn’t listening.
After a couple minutes of subvocalizing, the Elf said, “Alright. Keep me updated if anything else comes up.” She thought a few heartbeats before asking, “What would you guess for time of death, based on our experiences with corpses?”
He shrugged, “Within the last hour?”
“That was my guess too,” she shook her head in frustration, “So our Riven’s off the hook. Port says he left around 1710. They forgot to call because of a fireball streaking across the tarmac about five, ten minutes later. And the shoot out alert.”
“Launched with a robot pilot to throw us off?”
Berl grimaced, “And leave himself stranded on a planet with one settlement and no means of leaving? Doesn’t make tactical sense. I’m thinking our Riven pulled the BCC job and someone else is doing these. Tam’s best guess said six Riven planetside, now one’s been executed and one left, so what have the other four been doing? They’re supposed to be bodyguards . . .”
“Convenient way to bring a hitman planetside. Director Wroth might send out an Imp hunter, Dane definitely wouldn’t. The others, who knows. I’ll see if Tam can’t track who the other four work for, but I’m guessing they’ll all be anti-Imp directors or neutral on that alliance. Unless Mrs. Dane’s was a warning to others.”
“Think Warrl’s hiding one or more? I wouldn’t put it past him, but can he afford it?”
It was Kel’s turn to shake his head. “If you’re talking about hiring one, I doubt Warrl could afford it. Our contacts say he’s mostly flash these days. Unless he’s got some good sales going on without our knowledge. Is he harboring one and looking the other way? Could be, but our informants can see most of his income. If they’re as strapped as we think, I can’t see Warrl passing up significant bribes, even if he’d normally do it gratis to hurt the Imps.”
The Elf nodded, “That’s what I hoped. So, maybe the Riven’s a bad route, unless the BCC pan out.” Which just left about three quarters of the rest of the city’s populace with a grudge against the Imps. Thinking tactically, who’d stand to gain from the Imps and Salma going at it? Again, nearly everyone. No revise that. The ILF and Pop Front had not means of off-world travel, so most ILF foreign support was smuggled through Salma or Warrl’s. Neither the ILF nor the Republic would want the Imps taking Salma port. Pop Front could gain thanks to Imp and Warhawk pressure. But they were a trumped up street gang, they lacked the training and organization.
Probably two factions out. Warrl, though, would gain from anyone directly fighting the Imps, especially Salma. He had his own port and could increase income from the ILF and PF with Salma port closed or destroyed. Some BCC factions too, an open fight could drive more support to the pro-Imp faction. But no one stood to gain territory except the Imps . . . no, Colonel Daack wouldn’t authorize attacking his own troops. His subordinates, well they might be another story. They were corrupt enough, she decided as the clean up crew did its job, but they also benefited from the smuggling that went through Salmagundi, most of them actually funded the smugglers. Warhawks could gain territory too. A couple years ago, she’d dismiss them immediately, but they seemed to be moving away from their Imperial masters. And they had Imp funding. But she’d heard Monty say Commander Shiva was using Salma to negotiate with the BCC, maybe even Warrl, so there was neutral territory to lose. Unless Shiva’d joined with Warrl to split Salma and oust the Imps, with BCC factions as local support . . . that alliance might protect them from the ILF-PF alliance that would be certain to come.
Local politics were a matter of survival, one didn’t survive long without paying attention to the factions.
Assuming the theory was sound, and assuming Warrl would frek Shiva once the dust settled and vice versa, where would that leave things? Three options came to mind. She tapped her comm, “Tam? Realizing this is a silly question as I ask, can you find out how many mercs have landed at the ports in the last three days?”
“You mean better than ‘a couple hundred,’ I s’pose?”
“Right. And assume Warrl’s people are lying. Tell the Imps it’d help our investigation.”
“Will do. Should have it by morning.”
She signed off too. One route, but not the easiest. Option two was one of the four remaining Riven, their original theory. The last would have to be corpsec, one of Warrl’s partisans, or a Hawk. If Warrl was unleashing sorcerous assassins all over, they were in trouble. Corpsec were unlikely, even with outside talent. The kind of talent they’d need would cause a blip on the rumor radar, and if they had a native that good, everyone would know by now, she guessed. Then again, who knew what experiments the corps were conducting. A cybernetic killer could probably do it, with Imp level cyberware, and get away in seconds. That might be Dane’s area of expertise, maybe. One of Warrl’s people might do it with sorcery helping, maybe an enchanted item or two.
The elf came to life and snagged a member of the crew. “Just get the body, leave the rest for now,” she ordered, “and keep the body and its personal effect locked up, not even the doc, until Kel and I come by. Same with the apartment.” As the cleaner jogged off, Berl shrugged, contamination and possible theft of evidence could happen. She wasn’t certain how sorcery worked or might help, but it was something. She turned toward the bar and called Kel on the way to berate him about their lack of a staff sorcerer.
Half an hour later, Berl was back outside the apartment with her boss. Both were watching a young Goblin mumbling to himself as his hands ran over the door frame. In a stage whisper, to keep from distracting the sorcerer, she asked, “And why is it that we don’t have a sorcerer on staff?”
Kel looked mildly uncomfortable, “Lazi’s never trusted them, after the first two applied, word got around. We haven’t has a sorcerer apply in four years now.”
“Maybe the policy should be reconsidered.”
“Maybe. By now the other factions know about our lack. Bring it up at the next staff meeting, call it a hole in security. She might buy it.” His tone said he wouldn’t be going blue in the face over his wife’s agreement, but it was an opening.
Whole sorry business could have been done already, the Elf thought, and we could be checking other intel. Not that she like sorcerers much either, but they could be useful. Like this one who might narrow a broad list of suspects. She’d run through her mental to do list and collection of theories three times before the Goblin rejoined them. The lack of excitement on his face answered her unasked question, but she asked anyway for the details.
“Nothing unusual,” the sorcerer confirmed, “Someone set up a ward around the apartment a year or two ago, against divination and scrying I think, it’s hard to tell for certain after so long. It wasn’t meant to be permanent or long term. I would guess it lasted six, maybe seven, months. Cheapest possible ward that a sorcerer will cast for pay.”
Kel must have given him a look, Berl thought, when he continued.
“Anything shorter term isn’t cost effective, can’t make a profit. But, no active sorcery on or in the apartment. Nothing in the last six months at least.”
“If someone cast a spell on themselves before going in, would it leave a trace?” Berl asked, to be sure.
“I don’t think so. Even if it did, it would be so faint that, well, I don’t think there are even a dozen sorcerers in the galaxy who could detect it. I can think of two or three off hand, but they would require a fact to face meeting to even consider any offer you make. And they all work for mid-six figures, Commonwealth, or more.”
The Elf nodded, “So no shot in Orell. Would you mind checking over the victim’s body and personal effects? For the sake of thoroughness?”
He looked at Kel, who nodded. “Sure, it’s your credits. And there might be something, but only if he’s picked up a recent enchantment. Anything less would have rubbed off on the apartment over time, say a month of living here.”
“And it looks like he was shot in the head at close range with a blaster, so chances are no one used a spell on him, but I would like to know for sure.”
Nearly an hour later, Berl stretched and stifled a yawn as she and Kel left the office of the doctor who moonlighted as Salma’s coroner. Kel paused to light a rolled paper filled with, well she didn’t really want to know. The smoke that rose from the end was faintly sweet, a decidedly positive change from his usual. After a couple pulls, he looked her way, “It was a good idea. Just didn’t pan out. Not sure what we’d do if it had, mind.”
“We haven’t proven Warrl’s people weren’t involved,” she countered, “just that they might have covered their tracks better than our hound. Or only used their spells on their assassin.” There, call it what it was, even if she still preferred to think of the opposition as guerilla fighters. Which they were, to an extent, too. After all, they’d only targeted soldiers and spies so far. The fact that the Imperial refugees who’d come to Salma weren’t targets told her nothing new. Nor did the systematic approach they seemed to be using.
Kel’s shoulders heaved with his resigned sigh, “Probably should’ve pushed Lazi harder on a sorcerer or two. Let’s hope Warrl’s not involved, or things might step up a few notches if the mundane is caught.”
“Let’s hope. Somehow I have trouble seeing the Imp’s giving us sorcerous protection out of gratitude,” the Elf looked at the sky, “Go on home, sir. I’m going for a walk. See if that helps clear my head. If not, helping a patrol might.” After parting pleasantries, she watched her boss until he was out of sight. Then she picked a different direction at random and walked into the night made day bright by warehouse, casino, tavern, and brothel lights.