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Chapter Nineteen

There ought to be a better way to do this, but Georgia Sakristos couldn't think of one, and at least she was cautiously pleased with the contact she'd finally decided upon. She had to contact someone, and her choice should get it to the right people without letting anyone who knew about her own part in the operation guess she was the leak; if she hadn't been sure of that she wouldn't be doing this at all.


Unfortunately, that didn't mean no one on the other side could ever connect her to it. That would be almost as bad as having her employer discover she'd talked, and making personal contact added measurably to her risk, yet time was short, and she had to convince the other person her information was reliable. The absence of any documentary evidence would make that hard enough without fumbling around through time-wasting intermediaries.


It was a risk, but her com was plugged through enough layers of cutouts to make it effectively untraceable. The filtration devices should make her voice unrecognizable, and she intended to screen her contact's private and unlisted civilian number. Her ability to find that number should encourage its owner to take her seriously; more importantly, civilian exchanges incorporated antirecording security circuits which could be overridden only with a court order. All of which should make her risk minimal, but Georgia Sakristos, née Elaine Komandorski, hadn't stayed out of prison by relying on "should."


On the other hand, she thought, her lovely face (the best biosculpt money could buy) grim, some things were worth risking prison to escape, and she'd kept her own name, face, and voice out of the transaction. She'd handled the entire thing through blind drops . . . and deliberately chosen a specialist who would insist on knowing exactly who his ultimate client was.


She ran over her plan in her mind once more. The newest Earl North Hollow had an almost childish faith in his office's security systems, and they really were good. Sakristos knew; she was the one who'd installed them for his father. The only way through them from the outside would be by brute force, and that would destroy all those other lovely records and the power they represented. No, what she wanted was to remove one, specific file—hers—without damaging the others. It was a tall order, but there was one thing Pavel Young didn't know about his own security. When she'd set it up, the computers had listed him as his father's executor, authorized to enter the system in the event of the old earl's death. Pavel knew that; what he didn't know was that Georgia Sakristos had been listed as the backup, with command code authority if he were unavailable, incapacitated . . . or dead.


It had taken only one night, and the bruises that went with it, to convince her that even prison would be better than an unending sentence as Pavel Young's "lover," and she was still his chief security officer. In anyone else, that combination would have been too stupid to believe; in his case, Sakristos understood exactly how it worked, and her lips worked with the desire to spit. No one else was quite real to Pavel Young. That was especially true for women, but it applied to everyone else around him, as well. He lived in a universe of cardboard cutouts, of human-shaped things provided solely for his use. He had no sense of them as people who might resent him—or, indeed, who had any right to resent him—and he was too busy doing things to them to even consider what they might do to him if they got the chance.


It was a blind spot he couldn't even recognize, much less cure, despite the outcome of his vendetta against Honor Harrington, and that same sublime arrogance blinded him to the danger in forcing his own security chief to play sick sex games. Georgia Sakristos called up the security files on her terminal once more, and her smile was ugly as the verifying code blinked. The idiot hadn't even accessed the files to see who had command authority in the event of his death. Of course, he was a young man by Manticoran standards. No doubt he thought he had plenty of time to put his affairs in order.


She reached out and punched a com code into her terminal with rock-steady fingers.


* * *


Alistair McKeon stared down into his drink without seeing it. The ice had long since melted, floating the whiskey on a crystal clear belt of water. It didn't matter. Nothing much seemed to matter just now.


Andreas Venizelos and Tomas Ramirez sat with him, equally silent, eyes fixed on nothing with equal intensity, and the small, private compartment in Hephaestus's officer's club was silent about them.


Coming here had been a bad idea, McKeon thought emptily. The suggestion had been his, but it hadn't been a good one. His quarters aboard Prince Adrian were like a tomb, crushing in on him, and he'd known it had to be at least as bad for the others. Especially for Ramirez. It wasn't their fault, yet all of them shared the same sense of guilt. They hadn't been smart enough or quick enough to stop it. Perhaps it hadn't really been their job to stop it, but they hadn't, and in failing, they'd failed not just Paul Tankersley but Honor Harrington, as well. McKeon dreaded meeting her again, but Ramirez had acted as Paul's second. Unlike McKeon or Venizelos, he'd been right there on the field with Paul when Summervale killed him . . . and they all knew he was going to have to tell Honor how it had happened.


McKeon had hoped they could lend one another some comfort. Instead, they'd only reinforced their collective misery, and he knew he ought to break this up. But he couldn't. Grinding though this shared grief might be, it was still better than facing his demons alone.


The admittance chime sounded, and a spark of anger glittered inside him. He'd left orders not to disturb them, and whatever steward had violated them was going to regret it.


He hit the button, turning his chair as the hatch slid open. He could feel that first spark of anger growing into a blaze of rage, and he didn't even try to resist. He could regret the savage tongue-lashing it was about to spawn later; just now his pain needed that relief, however unfair it might be.


"What the hell do you—?!"


The furious question died an abrupt death as the hatch slid fully open. Two people waited just outside it: a tall yet delicate-looking, black-haired junior-grade captain he'd never laid eyes on and an admiral in a counter-grav chair whom he recognized instantly from the 'faxes.


"Admiral Sarnow?"


McKeon shot to his feet, followed an instant later by his companions, and confusion filled him. Mark Sarnow was a patient in Bassingford Medical Center, the huge Fleet hospital on Manticore, recovering from his wounds. It would be weeks before he was well enough to leave it; everyone knew that.


"Sit down, gentlemen. Please."


McKeon sank back into his chair. Sarnow's normally melodious tenor was husky and frail, and a hospital pallor overlaid his dark complexion, but there was no weakness in his green eyes. A light blanket was tucked over the stumps of his legs, and as the captain maneuvered his chair into the compartment, McKeon saw a complex med panel rigged on its back. He'd seen panels like that before. Sarnow's conveyance might not be a full life-support chair, but it was mighty close to one.


"I'm sorry to disturb you," Sarnow went on as the captain parked him beside the table and folded her hands behind her, "but Captain Corell here—" he gestured over his shoulder at the black-haired woman "—has something to tell you. She's doing so under my authority. As such, I should be here to assume responsibility for it."


McKeon closed his mouth on the questions quivering in his throat. What could be important enough to get Sarnow out of the hospital? For that matter, how had he even known where to find them? And—


He inhaled deeply. Sarnow was an admiral; if he wanted to find someone, he could damn well find them. What really mattered was why he'd found them, and McKeon glanced at Ramirez and Venizelos. Surprise had drawn all three of them out of their fog of misery, but the others looked as confused as he felt. Sarnow smiled at their expressions. It wasn't much of a smile, and it looked out of place on his grim, strained face, but there was a ghost of true amusement in it, and he waved a hand at Captain Corell.


"Captain McKeon, Colonel Ramirez, Commander Venizelos." The fine-boned woman nodded to each of them in turn, her brown eyes dark. "I'm Admiral Sarnow's chief of staff. As such, I became very close to Lady Harrington in Hancock, and I was shocked when I heard of Captain Tankersley's death. I was even more shocked when I learned who his opponent had been, but there didn't seem to be anything I could do about it, so I tried to put it out of my mind.


"This afternoon, however, I received a com call. There was no video, and the audio was heavily filtered for anonymity, but I'm virtually positive it was a woman's voice. It also came in on my private, unlisted com. Not on an official channel; on my civilian circuit. My civvy combination's known only to my closest friends, and it's flagged for extra precautions, both with the Service and the civilian exchanges, because of my security clearances, but whoever called me still had the reach to find out what it was."


She paused, and McKeon nodded understanding, though his mystified expression hadn't changed.


"The caller," Corell continued carefully, "informed me that she would neither answer questions nor repeat herself. That, as I'm sure she intended, assured my full attention. There wasn't time to get a recorder on it, and I can't repeat her exact words, but there wasn't much room for confusion in them.


"According to my caller, Denver Summervale was, indeed, hired to kill Captain Tankersley." Air hissed between teeth around the table. None of them were surprised, but the confirmation still struck like a fist. "In addition," Corell went on very levelly, "he's been retained to kill Dame Honor, as well."


Alistair McKeon's chair fell to the deck as he rose with a murderous snarl, but Corell didn't even flinch. She only nodded, and he made himself bend down to set the chair upright once more, then forced himself to sit back down on it.


"As you all know, Captain Tankersley wounded Summervale," Corell said. "It wasn't a very serious wound, unfortunately, and he used his need for medical attention as an excuse to leave the field, then disappeared on the way to the hospital. For your unofficial information, Marine Intelligence is working on the assumption that he was paid for the job, though neither they nor the Landing Police have been able as yet to turn up any evidence to that effect. In light of that, I had assumed, as the authorities also did, that he intended to remain out of sight, avoiding official scrutiny until the public furor died down, or even that he'd left the system. According to my caller, however, he's simply lying low until Dame Honor returns. He and whoever hired him assume she'll challenge him on sight, at which time he's to kill her, too."


"But . . . why?" McKeon looked appealingly at the admiral, then back at Corell. "Are you saying Summervale killed Paul just to get Honor on the field? Killing him was only bait to draw her out where he could kill her?"


"I don't think so. Or, at least, I don't think that's the only reason," Corell said after a moment, her voice low. "The fact that it will get her to go after Summervale is a classic defense for a professional duelist, of course. He won't have challenged her; she'll have challenged him, leaving him no choice but to defend himself. I think they also figure she'll be mad for vengeance, which may make her careless, and God knows she doesn't have any experience in something like this to begin with. All of that's true, and no doubt that would be enough from their viewpoint, but they want her to hurt, Captain McKeon. They want to know that before they kill her they've done the cruelest thing they possibly can to her."


"They have," Tomas Ramirez whispered. His face was as wrung with pain as his voice, and his hands were clenched in a double fist on the table before him.


"I know they have," Mark Sarnow's voice was flint, "and I won't allow anyone to get away with doing something like this to her if I can help it." He looked at Corell. "Tell them the rest, Ernie."


"Yes, Sir." Corell looked McKeon in the eyes. "According to my caller, Summervale has already recovered from his injury. It was only a flesh wound, and it's responded well to quick heal. He's waiting out Dame Honor's return in seclusion, until the proper time for him to 'accidentally' encounter her."


She reached into a tunic pocket and withdrew a folded sheet of old-fashioned notepaper. She laid it on the table, pressing it down with her fingers, and let her eyes sweep over all three of the seated men.


"At this moment, according to my caller, he's in hiding in a hunting chalet on Gryphon. I've checked. There is a chalet where she said it was, and the entire facility's been chartered by someone who's provided his own staff for his stay. Its coordinates are listed here, along with the number of fellow 'guests' and 'staff' acting as his bodyguards. Most of them, I suspect, are Organization professionals."


She stepped back from the table, and Sarnow spoke once more.


"Gentlemen, I can't tell you what to do. At the moment, I doubt the authorities could do anything, legally, with this information, and there isn't anything at all I can do—" a small gesture indicated the covered stumps of his legs "—except place it in your hands. I have my own suspicions about who's behind it, but I could be wrong. Dame Honor has certainly made enough enemies in the last few years, and too many of them have the resources to arrange this, either alone or collectively. That makes guessing about their identity—or even who Ernie's caller was, or why she commed—worse than useless at this point. But given how far they've already gone, just keeping Dame Honor away from Summervale, even assuming that were a possible task, isn't going to stop them. Even if he were to be eliminated, they'd just drop back and try another tack. Which is why I remind you all of your Tac classes at Saganami Island and ATC: in order to plan your defense effectively, you must first identify the enemy, his probable intentions, and his resources."


He held Alistair McKeon's eyes for one long, hard second, then glanced at Ramirez and Venizelos. They looked back in silence, and he nodded.


"I believe that's all I can tell you, gentlemen." He looked up at Corell. "You'd better get me back to Bassingford before Doctor Metier comes looking for me, Ernie."


"Aye, aye, Sir." Corell stepped back behind the chair and turned it toward the hatch. The door hissed open as they approached it, but Sarnow raised one hand. Corell stopped instantly, and the admiral looked back over his shoulder.


"Dame Honor is my friend, too, gentlemen," he said softly. "Good luck . . . and good hunting."


 



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