Series Five Rangers' office, BETA Mountain
Zachary Foxx entered the office, paper bag in hand, to find his teammate Niko already there. He tried to squash his dismay; as a telepath, he knew, she was more likely than most to pick up on the fact that he wasn't completely happy to see her. But four faces stood in his mind's eye: four men from the League of Planets Peacekeeping Forces, four voices maintaining their innocence in the matter of the cargo ship Saoirse.
Damn. I was hoping to get the arrest report from yesterday done before anyone else was here. Having to arrest those four PKF officers... I don't ever want to have to do anything like that again. I'm not sure Commander Irving could have looked worse if I'd pulled out my service pistol and shot him.
"Good morning, Niko," he said, and set down the bag on his desk. She glanced up at him with concern in her eyes, but something in his expression must have warned her against asking how he was.
"Good morning, Zachary," she answered. "Great news. I picked up a call just now from one of our colleagues in New Pigalle. Another one of Jackie Subtract's mob got arrested yesterday, and the New Pigalle police managed to find a witness. Officer Moana is very pleased. He says it looks like Moxie will be going back to jail for a long time."
"That's nice to start the morning with, especially considering the day Goose and I had yesterday." Zach rummaged in the paper bag. "Would you like a muffin? Little Zach's experimenting with baking—says he gets tired of waiting all week for Jessie to come home and make him cookies. They're pretty good."
"Thanks." Niko accepted the purple-spotted muffin with a smile and inspected it briefly before breaking it in half and taking a bite. "Blueberry," she noted after swallowing.
The door slid open, and Goose came in, an oversized mug of coffee in hand. His nose twitched. "Baked goods," he said succinctly. Niko giggled.
"Zach, Jr., made blueberry muffins," Zach explained.
"I was wondering about that purple spot on Niko's lip." Goose winked at Niko, who snatched up a napkin and dabbed, pink-faced. Grinning, Goose snagged two muffins from the bag and sauntered to his desk.
"Niko, you don't have—" Zach broke off as his comm pinged. "Never fails," he sighed, and Goose laughed. Zach pushed his chair back and settled into his seat. As Zach hit the Answer button, he heard Niko whisper, "Very funny, Shane!" and held back a smile.
"Zachary Foxx here."
The screen cleared to show a dark-haired, narrow-faced man in a Ranger uniform that was unfastened at the neck. His skin tone and bone structure hinted at an ancestry that hailed from at least three continents. He was not smiling.
Zach blinked in surprise. "Edward," he said wonderingly. "Ed Robbins. Well. You weren't too high on my list of people I was expecting to hear from today. Nice to see you. How are you doing?"
Lieutenant Ed Robbins grimaced. "Wish I could say I was great. Things okay with you? How are the kids?"
Zachary quirked an eyebrow. "Things are okay. The kids are fine. What's up? You still doing detached duty on New Petrograd?"
"I am, and that's why it's not great. I've been here for months now, working on building a case against Aleksei Leonov. You familiar with his reputation?"
"Unfortunately. What pie is it this time? Gambling, prostitution, extortion?"
Robbins' mouth acquired a grim line. "His half-sister, Uliana Leonova, has disappeared. A friend of hers reported her missing a little over a week ago. We did a quick search of her apartment but didn't find anything obviously suspicious, although I did seal the place—with this man it's good to be careful. Then, last Tuesday, one of my informants heard a rumor she was dead. We went back, did a thorough search, and came up with some trace evidence, and I sent it off to BETA. The report has come back to me, and there's nothing conclusive. But I just have a bad feeling about Leonova."
"You think she's dead?" Zachary asked. "Would Leonov have any reason to kill her?"
The door slid open, and Doc hurried in. From the corner of his eye Zachary saw a few of the tweakers whizzing around the hacker's head. One of them squeaked a complaint, hastily shushed as Doc noticed Zach's live call session.
Robbins snorted, and Zach snapped his attention back to the comm screen. "Well, it's common knowledge around here that Alex Leonov's taste in women runs close to home."
Zachary stared at his old friend. "You mean—" He shifted in his seat and fought an unwillingness to say the words.
"Alex Leonov," Robbins said precisely, "has been shagging his sister for years now. We even found a little genetic calling card on the bedding when we searched the place. And he's possessive as hell."
"Doesn't New Petrograd have laws about this sort of thing?"
"Well, sure. But when both of the people involved are over the age of consent, even when one of them probably isn't all that happy about the arrangement, and no offspring results, well... Unless Uliana Leonova wanted to press charges against her half-brother for rape, there's not much we can do about it."
Zachary rubbed one hand over his face. "Yuck," he said, with feeling. "So what is it you think I can do for you?"
Robbins looked slightly uncomfortable. "It's not you exactly. It's one of your team members."
"Are you really sure you want to do this, Niko?" Zach asked.
"There's no other easy way of finding out what happened, Zachary," Niko reminded him with, Goose thought, commendable calm for someone who's just been asked the same question three times in a row.
Niko sat at her desk holding a small plastic evidence bag in her right hand. She gazed down at it, studying the charred shreds of yellow silk the Samara police had recovered from the fireplace of Uliana Leonova's apartment. "Well, here goes," she said, and touched her badge. Her eyes turned violet as her psychometric Gift took hold of her.
Goose watched closely as beads of sweat came up on his teammate's forehead. Don't let yourself get dragged in this time, girl, he told her silently. Her mouth trembled, she swallowed hard and blinked, and slowly she raised her eyes to her teammates.
"Uliana Leonova is dead," she said softly. "Aleksei Leonov was at her apartment. They quarreled about something. He—assaulted her, and then he strangled her. With a silk scarf," and she held up the bag in hands that shook slightly. The bits of silk gleamed in the cold light of the office.
Zachary splashed coffee into a mug, hastily added cream and what looked to Goose like far too much sugar, and set it down in front of her. She thanked him with a strained smile and took a sip, wrinkling her nose at the cloying sweetness.
"Well, now what?" mused Doc. "We don't have a body, and there's nothing in the apartment to prove Uliana's dead."
"There's a body," Niko answered. "Leonov had one of his men bury it."
"Did you get a location?" Zach asked.
"A vague one. To find the body, I'll have to be on the planet."
Zach nodded. "I'll call the Commander and Ed Robbins and make the arrangements. In the meantime, Niko, take an hour off. That's an order."
Goose took it as an indicator of Niko's state of mind that she made no protest, only stood and left the office.
"Commander, have you received the paperwork—"
"I suppose you're calling about Ed Robbins' request for assistance," said Walsh. Zach blinked and nodded. Walsh continued, "I don't see a problem with sending you and Ranger Niko out to look for Ms. Leonova's body, but I need Doc here. There are some recurring problems with the main science databases, and it's making our AIs twitchy."
And for once, I get to stay home! Aloud Doc said, "Hey, I'll take twitchy AIs over most anything, any day."
"All right, commander," Zach answered, shooting Doc an irritated look.
Hey, not my fault Goose blew out of here like a spell of bad weather. Wonder if—
"Gooseman just texted me a message, requesting permission to go," Walsh added. Doc blinked in surprise. The commander continued, "If you have no compelling reason why he shouldn't, I'm sending him along. He said Niko probably won't be in any condition to handle the body in addition to using her psychometry, and considering what she'll be working on, I tend to agree with him."
"Yes, sir," Zach answered, looking torn between annoyance and amusement at Goose's usual skillful gaming of the system.
"And Zach—I expect you to keep me posted on her mental condition, and to take her off active duty at any time you feel it necessary."
"Of course, sir."
Walsh sighed. "It's an ugly business. Let's hope it winds up with Aleksei Leonov's arrest. He's one of the worst gangsters in a field of bad ones. Keep me posted, and take my compliments to Ed Robbins. He's earned them. Walsh out." The screen went dark.
"Well." Zachary sat back in his chair. "That probably shouldn't have been a surprise."
"Seriously," Doc agreed. Does Goose actually think nobody's noticed his partiality? he wondered. Ha. And let's not even talk about that Lady Liberty–sized torch Niko's carrying.
Zach ran a hand through his hair. "I guess I'd better get my arrest report done," he said—to, Doc rather thought, nobody in particular. "I'd got someplace to be."
"Yeah, and New Petrograd is so pleasant this time of year, too," Doc said, feeling disgustingly cheerful that he didn't have to go. "You better pack rain gear, because it pours for days on end, and you're gonna be out in the middle of it, hunting for a body."
"Thank you, Doc," Zach said sourly.
Doc grinned. "Why Zach's sorry he became a Galaxy Ranger," he murmured. "Reason number eight hundred fifty-three..."
Samara Police Department, New Petrograd
1300 local time
Ed Robbins extended a hand toward the two Samaran officers. "Zach, folks, this is Anna Lisenkova and Marek Goral. They're working with me on assembling data and evidence regarding Aleksei Leonov. Annushka, Marek, this is the Series Five team: Captain Zachary Foxx and Rangers Niko and Shane Gooseman."
As Robbins made the introductions, Zachary studied his two partners. Marek Goral was smiling affably, his brown eyes welcoming. Dark-haired, he stood nearly as tall as Goose, but his frame was larger than the Supertrooper's. Likewise, Anna Lisenkova was a tall, sturdy blond woman who looked perfectly capable of tackling your average thug and pinning him to the ground while simultaneously handcuffing him. At the moment—Zach bit his lip to hold back a smile—she was looking speculatively at Goose, as if he were a new and unfamiliar pastry and she were wondering what he was filled with.
That seems to be a trend with Gooseman, he thought, recalling a not dissimilar look on the face of the Mars City PD's Brianna Lee.
"So," Robbins said, indicating that everyone should sit, "do you have any questions on the local Bratva? I tried to make the briefing materials as clear as possible, but—" He spread his hands in a shrug.
"Why are they still in business?" Goose asked bluntly, pulling back a chair and settling into it.
Lisenkova chuckled from her seat. "Are you sure you're not Russian?" she asked mockingly.
Zach winced. "Gooseman..."
"No, it's a fair question," Robbins said. "You know we've had problems getting people to testify in the past. People are afraid of retribution. And —" Robbins hesitated.
"We might as well tell them," Goral said, his voice a basso rumble, and folded his hands on the table. "There is someone in the department who is not honest. Evidence disappears, suspects learn of arrest orders in time to leave town, this kind of thing. It began not long after Aleksei Leonov took over the business in Samara, so plainly he bought someone."
"So we asked for help," a new voice said. Everyone turned toward the doorway of the meeting room, where a small, thin, dark-haired woman stood, arms folded. Robbins came to his feet; pushing back his chair, so did Zach, followed by his team.
"Captain," Robbins said. "May I present the Series Five team? Please meet Zachary Foxx, Niko, and Shane Gooseman. Rangers, this is Valentyna Marianich, captain of the Samara PD."
Marianich came forward to shake Zachary's hand. "So you have heard the worst from Marek," she said. "It's a bitter thing for me, to admit that one of my own people let Leonov buy him—or her. For almost ten years this department has been my greatest pride. Now..." She shook her head. "Someone has put personal gain before his oath to the people. Any help you can give Edvard in bringing Leonov down, I will meet with gratitude." Her eyes came to rest on Niko. "And to you, Ranger Niko, our debt is greatest. The story of telepaths on Earth is not well remembered any longer, but my grandmother was one. She lived in the camps when she was a young woman. I have a great respect for all psionics who have the strength to live openly, and for you, who have chosen to use your gift to help find justice for the Leonova, my respect is so much the greater. Thank you."
Color rose into Niko's pale face, and her eyes warmed.
"You're welcome," Niko said quietly. "And speaking of justice—this won't get any easier, waiting. Ranger Robbins, could we please head out now?"
Ed Robbins stood. "Yes, of course. Will you need any special equipment?"
"No," Niko said. "Thank you."
Robbins wavered a moment, then: "I'm coming with you."