Back | Next
Contents


Chapter Twenty-Four

The trio of men who popped out of the cross corridor had "newsie" written all over them, and their leader was keying his shoulder-mounted HD camera before Honor even saw him.


"Lady Harrington, would you care to comment on—"


The newsie's voice broke off on an odd note as Major Andrew LaFollet stepped in front of his steadholder. The major wasn't a large man by Manticoran standards, but neither was the newsie. LaFollet probably out-massed him by a well-muscled thirty percent; more to the point, the major's expression was not amused. Everything about him, from his close-cropped hair to the cut of his uniform, proclaimed that he was a foreigner, and the look in his eyes suggested he might not give much of a damn for the traditions of the Manticoran media.


He stood there, regarding the newsman with cold dispassion. He didn't say anything, and he made absolutely no threatening gesture, but the newsie reached up with one hand, moving very carefully, and deactivated his camera. LaFollet's nostrils flared with bitter amusement, and the covey of reporters parted magically to clear the passage.


Honor gave them a courteous nod, as if nothing at all had happened, and stepped past them, followed by Corporal Mattingly. LaFollet waited a moment longer, then fell in behind. He overtook his charge and took his proper place at her right elbow, and she turned her head to look down at him.


"That's not quite how things are done in the Star Kingdom, Andrew," she murmured. He snorted and shook his head.


"I know it isn't, My Lady. I spent some time viewing the garbage the Manties—beg pardon, My Lady. I meant I've viewed the Manticoran coverage of the Young court-martial." His tone made his opinion of that coverage clear, and Honor's lips quirked.


"I didn't say I didn't appreciate your efforts. I only meant that you can't go around threatening newsies."


"Threaten, My Lady?" LaFollet's voice was innocence itself. "I never threatened anyone."


Honor started to reply, then closed her mouth. She'd already discovered that arguing with the major was a losing proposition. He listened with infinite, unfailing courtesy, but he had his own ideas about what was due her, and he was even stubborner than she was. No doubt he would have obeyed her if she'd ordered him out of the newsie's way, but only a direct order would have moved him.


She sighed mentally, torn between wry amusement and resignation. She hadn't realized until this morning that her Grayson armsmen had become a permanent fixture in her life. Which, given her recent mental state, probably wasn't surprising but still bothered her. She ought to have been paying more attention, and, if she had been, she might have been able to nip it in the bud.


Now it was too late, and she suspected adjusting to their presence wasn't going to be the easiest thing she'd ever done. Not that she seemed to have a vote. It was clear LaFollet had been briefed on her, because he'd been ready not only to cite chapter and verse from the relevant Grayson law codes but to trade shamelessly on her own sense of duty. She'd detected Howard Clinkscales' hand behind the major's shrewd choice of tactics, and the discovery that LaFollet was ex-Palace Security only reinforced her suspicions.


Be that as it may, her chief armsman had politely demolished—or ignored as unworthy of demolition—every argument she'd advanced against his presence, and she hadn't even been able to fall back on Manticoran law. A special writ from the Queen's Bench had arrived in the morning mail, granting a Foreign Office request that Steadholder Harrington (who just happened to live in the same body as Captain Harrington) be authorized a permanent armed security detachment—with diplomatic immunity, no less! The fact that Tomas Ramirez had obviously signed on to the conspiracy, coupled with MacGuiness' patent approval, had given LaFollet an unfair advantage, and her last resistance had crumpled when Nimitz insisted on tapping into the major's emotions and relaying his deep concern for and devotion to her.


LaFollet had allowed no trace of triumph to color his expression or voice, but Nimitz's link had still been open and she'd sensed his intense satisfaction. She was thirteen T-years older than he, but there was something uncannily familiar about his emotions where she was concerned. Somehow, without realizing it was happening, she'd acquired a MacGuiness with a gun, and she suspected her life would never be quite the same again.


She and her bodyguards stepped into one of Hephaestus' personnel capsules, and her mind shook off its consideration of her armsmen. She had other business this morning, and her brief amusement faded into focused purpose as she watched the location display creep toward Dempsey's Bar.


* * *


The slender, fair-haired man helped himself to another pretzel and nursed his half-empty stein while the early lunch crowd filtered in. He sat with his back to the doors, paying the bustle about him no obvious attention, but his opaque eyes watched everything in the mirrored wall behind the bar, and it was just as well his expression gave no sign of his thoughts.


Denver Summervale was a passionate man. He'd trained himself, over the years, to hide that passion behind a facade of icy control, and he did it so well that even he often forgot the fires that drove him. He was well aware of how dangerous personal fury could be in his line of work, but this time his control had frayed, and he knew it. This assignment was no longer a mere transaction, for he wasn't accustomed to being mauled. It had been too many years since anyone had dared lay hands on him, given the aura of fear his reputation provided. That aura had always been a pleasant thing, yet he hadn't quite realized how much he truly relished and relied upon it . . . or how infuriated he would be when enemies refused to cower before it.


He chewed on his pretzel, face expressionless, and felt the hatred washing about his mind. His path had crossed Honor Harrington's before, though she didn't know it. Her activities at the time had cost him a lucrative if highly illegal income, but he'd been able to accept that—more or less—as the breaks of the game. This time was different. He hadn't hated anyone this much since the Duke of Cromarty had refused to lift a finger to stop the Royal Marines from cashiering his distant cousin.


He snarled mentally as he remembered what Harrington's allies had done to him. His beating at Tankersley's hands had been degrading and humiliating but tolerable, since it had helped him get on with the job at hand, and he'd settled that account with interest. The single round the captain had gotten off had come frighteningly close to being more than a flesh wound, yet that, too, was acceptable. Like his sense of personal vengeance, it had actually lent an added, sensual edge to the adrenaline rush when he saw his target fall.


But what happened after that, on Gryphon . . . there'd been no adrenaline rush in that, no sense of power, no awareness that he was the very angel of death. There'd been only fear and pain—fear that had become instant terror when the pain blossomed into agony—and shame that was worse than any pain. Tomas Ramirez was a dead man. No one would have to pay for the colonel; this one would be a freebie, almost an act of love. He'd have to wait for the right moment, when no one, especially any of his previous sponsors, would have any reason to suspect his reasons, but that was fine. The wait would only make the final kill sweeter, and, in the meantime, he would hurt Ramirez.


The first hint of an expression, an ugly little smile, touched his face. He banished it the moment he saw it in the mirror, but inside he gloated. He knew how to punish Ramirez. The stupid fucker had told him how to do it himself . . . and he'd already been paid for the job.


He checked the date/time display and settled himself more comfortably on the bar stool. He'd hoped and expected to see newsies in Harrington's face from the moment of her arrival, for the way she handled them would have given him more insight into her state of mind, but there'd been a strange dearth of coverage on her since her return from Yeltsin's Star. Everyone knew she was back, yet she'd managed to elude the media with remarkable success.


It was disappointing, but he knew all he really needed to know, for he'd studied her record carefully. Given what he knew about her, it was inevitable that she would come looking for him, burning for revenge, and when she did, he would kill her.


He smiled again, almost dreamily. She was a naval officer, and a good one, with a skill and competence in her chosen field which he would never have challenged, but this was his area of competence. He was willing to concede that she had guts. And, unlike many naval officers, who thought in terms of the sanitary mayhem of deep space warfare, she'd proven she was willing to meet her enemies and kill them face-to-face when she had to. But she'd never fought a duel, and Tankersley's death would be the perfect goad. At this moment, nothing in the universe would matter more to her than spilling his blood, and that was good. He could no longer count the men—and women—who'd stepped onto the field with him, filled with the passionate need to destroy him, yet he was still here . . . and they weren't. Righteous fury was his ally, for it made his enemies rash, and an enraged amateur stood no chance against a professional.


He didn't even have to hunt her. All he had to do was wait. He could already hear her savage challenge, and he knew exactly how he'd respond, for, as the challenged party, the terms would be his to set.


He washed down his pretzel with a sip of beer and sneered inwardly. Some members of Parliament had tried for decades to outlaw the Ellington Protocol; perhaps they might even succeed some day, yet it was legal enough for now. Society frowned upon it, and the alternate Dreyfus Protocol was much more acceptable, but it would be child's play to manipulate a bereaved lover into using language intemperate enough to justify his insistence upon it. The Dreyfus Protocol limited the duelists to a total of five rounds each and allowed only the exchange of single shots. Perhaps even more importantly, the Master of the Field was charged with convincing both parties that honor had been satisfied after each exchange . . . and any duel ended with first blood.


Under those rules, he'd have to make certain his first shot did the job, but the Ellington Protocol was different. Under the Ellington rules, each duelist had a full ten-round magazine and was free to fire without pause until his opponent went down or dropped his own weapon in surrender, and Denver Summervale knew his own speed and accuracy with the anachronistic firearms of the field of honor. They were specialized tools, not something a naval officer would be familiar or comfortable with, and he could put at least three shots into her, probably more, before she fell.


He pictured the agony on her face as the first round hit her, watching her in his mind's eye as she tried to fight past the shock, her stubborn hatred keeping her on her feet while he shot her again. And again. The real trick was to make the last round instantly fatal, leaving the medics nothing to save, but he could make her suffer before he delivered it . . . and her precious friends would know he had.


He smiled again, and raised his stein to his mirrored image as he promised himself the treat to come.


* * *


Honor paused two meters from the swinging doors that served no real practical purpose aboard a space station and drew a deep breath. A prickle ran up and down her nerves, glittering in her blood like sick fire, but none of it touched her own ice-cold control as she glanced at her armsmen, and she was glad she'd left Nimitz aboard Nike.


"All right, Andrew. Simon. I'm not going to have any problems with you two, am I?"


"You're our Steadholder, My Lady. Your orders to us have the force of law," LaFollet said, and Honor felt a sudden, inappropriate amusement at his sober tone. He actually sounded as if he believed that, but his next words gave him away. "We don't like the idea of your risking yourself, but we won't interfere as long as this Summervale offers you no physical violence."


"I don't like qualifications from my subordinates, Andrew." Honor's voice was quiet, but the urge to laugh had vanished, and her tone held a snap LaFollet had yet to hear from her. He didn't—quite—blink, and she frowned. "I won't try to tell you your duty under normal circumstances, but when I tell you that you will do nothing, whatever happens between Summervale and me, that's precisely what I mean. Is that understood?"


LaFollet's shoulders straightened in involuntary reflex, and his face went utterly blank. The fact that he hadn't heard it from her yet didn't keep him from recognizing command voice when he did hear it.


"Yes, My Lady. I understand," he said crisply, and Honor nodded. She cherished no illusion that the major would abandon his polite intransigence in all things. Hard as it might be for her intellect to accept, the overriding concern in Andrew LaFollet's life was to keep her alive. She wasn't used to the concept, yet she could accept that it would put them at loggerheads from time to time. She didn't look forward to those occasions, but she respected him for his willingness to argue when they arose, and what mattered at the moment was that now both of them knew there was an uncrossable line and where it lay.


"Good." She inhaled again and straightened her own shoulders. "In that case, gentlemen, let's be about it."


* * *


The doors behind him opened, and Summervale saw a black-and-gold uniform in the mirror. He didn't even twitch, but recognition of his target was instant. She was paler than her pictures, and they hadn't done justice to her beauty, yet she was unmistakable. Anticipation stirred as he watched her scan the midday diners, but another, unexpected element tugged at his attention.


Two men in unfamiliar uniforms flanked her, and their postures sounded a mental alert. They were bodyguards, and good ones. They faced slightly away from one another, dividing the restaurant and its patrons into sectors of responsibility almost by instinct, and the pulsers at their hips were as much a part of them as their hands or feet. He didn't know where she'd gotten them, but they were far more than mere hired muscle, and that bothered him. Who were they, and what were they doing with Harrington? Was more going on here than his patron had seen fit to mention?


The armsmen's presence drew his attention away from his target. They challenged him as he tried to figure out where they fitted into the equation, and he realized how they'd distracted him only when he discovered Harrington was already halfway across the room toward him.


He gave himself a mental shake. Whatever they were, they were a secondary consideration, and he switched his attention to his target. A tiny, anticipatory smile touched his lips, but it faded into something else as he truly focused on her for the first time.


There was no expression on her face. That was the first inconsistent note, for there was none of the fury he'd anticipated, and inner alarms sounded as he watched her reflection cross toward him. People got out of her way—not obviously, not even as if they realized what they were doing, but almost instinctively, as if they recognized something in her he was accustomed to seeing only in himself—and he felt a sudden urge to swallow.


She walked straight up to him, the only sign of emotion a slight twitch at the right corner of her mouth, and it was suddenly hard to keep his back to her. His spine itched, as if she were a weapon trained upon it, and it was all he could do to remind himself that he'd planned for this. That she was doing exactly what he wanted her to do.


"Denver Summervale?" Her soprano voice was an icicle, not the fiery challenge he'd expected. It was leached of all emotion, and it took more effort than he'd expected to put the proper curl into his lip as he turned to her.


"Yes?" Years of experience honed his voice with exactly the right note of insulting dismissal, but her eyes didn't even flicker.


"I'm Honor Harrington," she said


"Should that mean something to me?" he asked haughtily, and she smiled. It wasn't a pleasant smile, and Summervale's palms felt suddenly damp as he began to suspect how terribly he'd underestimated this woman. Her eyes were leveled missile batteries, untouched by any human emotion. He could feel the hate in her, but she was using that hate, not letting it use her, and every instinct shouted that he'd finally met a predator as dangerous as himself.


"Yes, it should," she said. "After all, I'm the woman Earl North Hollow hired you to kill, Mr. Summervale. Just as he hired you to kill Paul Tankersley." Her voice carried clearly, and shocked silence splashed out across the restaurant.


Summervale stared at her. She was insane! There had to be fifty people within earshot, and she was accusing a peer of the realm of paying for murder? He floundered, stunned and unable to believe she'd actually said it. No one—no one!—had ever accused him to his face of taking money to kill someone else's enemies. They'd known what would happen if they did—that he'd have no choice but to challenge and kill them. Not just to silence them, but because he would become an object of contempt whose challenge no man or woman of honor would ever have to accept again if he let their charge pass.


Yet she hadn't stopped there. She'd actually dared to identify the man who'd paid him to kill her! He'd never counted on that, and he cursed himself for his complacency even through his shock at hearing the words. No one had ever before known who'd hired him. The anonymity of his employers had been one of his most valuable wares, the ultimate protection for both of them. But this target did know. Worse, she had his own recorded voice identifying North Hollow, and his mind raced as he tried to sort out the implications.


No prosecutor could use it against him, given the circumstances under which it had been obtained, but private citizens weren't bound by the same constraints as the legal establishment. If he or North Hollow brought charges for slander, they'd have to prove her allegations were untrue. Under those circumstances she could damned well use it in her defense, and where it came from or how it happened to be in her possession wouldn't matter. What would matter was that she had it, and those were only the legal consequences. It didn't even consider what would happen if his other employers realized he'd talked and—


"We're all waiting, Mr. Summervale." That icy soprano cut through his whirling thoughts, and he realized he was staring at her like a rabbit. "Aren't you a man of honor?" There was emotion in her voice now, contempt that cut like a lash. "No, of course you're not. You're a hired killer, aren't you, Mr. Summervale? Scum like you doesn't challenge people unless the odds and money are both right, does it?"


"I—" He shook himself, fighting for control. He'd expected her to challenge him, not for her to goad him, to force him to challenge her, and shock had him off balance. He knew what he had to do, what his only possible response was, but it was as if the stunning speed with which she'd upset all his plans had blocked his motor control. He couldn't—literally could not—get the words out, and her lip curled.


"Very well, Mr. Summervale. Let me help you," she said, and slapped him across the mouth.


His head snapped to one side, and then it snapped back again as the same hand struck on the backswing. She crowded him back against the bar and slapped him again. Again and again and again while every eye watched.


His hand shot up, clutching desperately for her wrist. He got a grip, but it lasted only an instant before she broke it with contemptuous ease and stepped back. Blood drooled down his chin and spotted his shirt and tunic, and his eyes were mad as someone manhandled him yet again. He tensed to attack her with his bare hands, but a tiny fragment of sanity held him back. He couldn't do that. She'd driven him into the same corner he'd driven so many victims into, left him no option but to challenge her. It was the only way he could silence her, and she had to be silenced.


"I—" He coughed and drew a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his bleeding mouth. She only stood and watched him with icy disgust, but at least the gesture gave him a moment to drag his thoughts back together.


"You're insane," he said finally, trying to put conviction into his voice. "I don't know you, and I've never met this Earl North Hollow! How dare you accuse me of being some—some sort of hired assassin! I don't know why you should want to force a quarrel on me, but no one can talk to me this way!"


"I can," she said coldly.


"Then I have no choice but to demand satisfaction!"


"Good." She let an emotion other than contempt into her voice for the first time, and Denver Summervale wasn't the only person who shuddered as he heard it. "Colonel Tomas Ramirez—I believe you know him?—will act as my second. He'll call on your friend—Livitnikov, isn't it? Or were you going to hire someone else this time?"


"I—" Summervale swallowed again. This was a nightmare. It couldn't be happening! His hand clenched in a fist around the bloody handkerchief, and he drew a deep breath. "Mr. Livitnikov is, indeed, a friend of mine. I feel confident he'll act for me."


"I'm sure you do. No doubt you pay him enough." Harrington's smile was like a flaying knife, and her eyes glittered. "Tell him to start studying the Ellington Protocol, Mr. Summervale," she said, and turned on her heel.


 


Back | Next
Framed