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Shortly after thirteen o’clock, Nahmin knocked on the door of General Rand’s office.
“Come in,” Celia’s muffled voice called, and Nahmin entered.
Unlike the study, which had been designed for comfort, General Rand’s office was all Corps.
Everything—from the plain metal desk, with its teleph and tel-gram machines, to the maps of Fortune pinned to the walls, to the radio station at the back of the room—was utilitarian, if not downright spare.
The only nod to anything approaching luxury was the hot plate and tea station behind the desk.
Nahmin, in his role as General Rand’s valet, had been in the room many times before, but in that guise had never shown the least interest in the inner workings of the Corps.
Now, however, he allowed himself to study the maps, which marked with pins and bits of string the latest in troop locations, munitions caches and, most importantly of all, the crystal fields which had been the basis of the ongoing conflict between the Eastern Coalition and United Colonies.
A conflict the Colonies believed at an end.
He looked at Celia, seated at the desk which faced the entrance, digging through Rand’s files.
If the Colonies only knew, he thought. “Ma’am,” he said, “there was a teleph on the main house line, from the Fourth Precinct. They wanted to let you know Quinn is still at large.”
“Imagine my surprise.” She brushed a lock of hair from her cheek as she read through a file bearing the Eyes Only stamp.
“How long do you intend to give the police to take care of Quinn?” he asked.
She looked up. “You have doubts of the efficiency of Nike’s police force?”
“On the contrary, I have no doubt whatsoever that they will utterly fail to apprehend him.”
At that she laughed, and it was a credit to her talents that even that short sounding of amusement could send suggestive tremors all the way through to Nahmin’s cold, assassin’s core.
“You may be right,” she admitted, sliding a few papers from the Eyes Only file she held, and then returning the file itself to the drawer. “But even if they fail, Gideon’s criminal record, and the evidence of his current crime, will prevent his taking any effective action against us. Though I admit, I’d relish another confrontation.”
Nahmin didn’t think she meant the same sort of confrontation he’d have liked. “Assuming, that is, he is working alone,” he pointed out. “You’ll recall the general’s informant in Morton, the one who first alerted us to Quinn’s freedom?”
“Finch, yes. What about him?”
“Finch’s message indicated Quinn’s parole came from high up in the Corps, which indicates at least one member of the military believes there was more to the Nasa incident than previously suspected. Why else set a confessed traitor free?”
“Possible,” she allowed. “But even if they have suspicions, there is nothing for them to discover.” She pulled a new file out of the drawer. “Jessup, whatever his faults, was meticulous about his work. There isn’t a shred of existing evidence that Jessup framed Gideon in Nasa, while everything points to Gideon as Jessup’s murderer.”
Nahmin had to admit, it seemed quite rational when she said it.
Of course, Celia’s particular skill, and what had first brought her to the Midasian spy-master’s attention, was her ability to make the unthinkable seem perfectly reasonable in the eyes of her marks.
It was that skill which had Colonial engineers placidly handing over mockups of the latest in weapons’ technology during an assignation, airship captains sharing flight plans over a glass of wine, and members of parliament agreeing to a treaty that provided the Coalition states unprecedented access to crystal at one of Celia’s cocktail parties.
Even Nahmin, accustomed to Celia’s prowess, had been surprised at the gullibility of politicians.
And it was this skill which had subsequently convinced Jessup Rand—a loyal command officer without a mark on his record—to subvert every oath he’d ever sworn, in order to destroy Gideon Quinn.
Quinn, Nahmin thought, who was the only one of Celia’s marks she’d failed to turn…which was why, despite her formidable skills at manipulation, he was still worried over what Quinn might yet attempt.
Even as he thought this, the house bell clanged.
Nahmin looked at Celia. “Are we expecting anyone, ma’am?”
“No, but it is quite possible my sudden bereavement has reached the ears of the gentry.” She slid the last of the files back into the drawer and closed it. “Best answer it,” she said, stacking the papers she’d culled, which would be hidden until she could pay a visit to the antiquities dealer who served as her courier. “We shouldn’t disappoint the maudlin hordes.”
Nahmin gave the short bow suitable to a valet and departed the office while Celia began the transformation from efficient intelligencer to grieving widow. But when he opened the door, it was no maudlin aristocrat waiting, but Celia’s pet twins, Rey and Ronan Pradish.
“We found Quinn,” Rey said, elbowing her way past Nahmin, who found himself looking forward to the day Celia ordered the siblings’ deaths.
“Not we, exactly,” Ronan corrected, showing more clarity of thought than he’d exhibited since Quinn dislocated his elbow the night before.
“Then who has?” Celia asked from behind Nahmin.
He stepped aside, allowing her to face the twins. Tears, intended for a different audience, were already drying on her cheeks. “Surely not the police,” he said, taking a position at Celia’s left.
“The Ohmdahls,” Rey admitted.
“Do we know any Ohmdahls?” Celia asked Nahmin. “Are they on the social register?”
“No, ma’am,” he said. “The Ohmdahls are the buffoo—the friends of the twins who helped us apprehend Quinn the first time.”
“How lovely.” Celia turned her attention to the twins. “And have they apprehended him for you again?”
“Not this time,” Ronan said, as Rey appeared too angry to speak. “But Freya told us they spied him passing through their neighborhood. Being curious, she and Rolf followed him to some busted-up shack on the old Riverside docks. She also said,” he added, “that he looked bad. Injured, maybe, or sick.”
“I suppose being shot while jumping from a window could do that,” Celia murmured, looking at Nahmin.
He took the cue. “How well do you know these Ohmdahls?”
The twins looked at each other, and shrugged. “Pretty well. Well enough to know they’re not the quickest drones in the hive.”
Celia hummed. “Is it possible they only saw what Gideon wanted them to see?”
“I’d give it fifty-fifty odds,” Ronan said, after a considering beat.
“In that case, it would be a pity to disappoint him, don’t you think?” she said with a smile that went all the way to Nahmin’s toes.
“Should I fetch your coat, ma’am?” he asked, recalling her desire for another confrontation.
“Sadly, I believe it best if I remain here, and available to the police.”
“We can take care of him,” Rey said, her eyes flashing. “It would be my greatest pleasure.”
Ronan looked less certain, but he didn’t dissent.
“Then I will leave him in your most capable hands,” Celia said, giving each a caress on the cheek, the simple touch nearly enough to melt them, Nahmin noted. “And after, we will celebrate; just the three of us, yes?”
“Oh, yes,” Rey murmured.
Whatever lucidity Ronan had gained seemed to have been lost again, and he merely nodded dumbly.
Nahmin waited until the euphoric pair had departed before looking at his superior.
“Best follow them,” she said, all trace of the eager seductress gone now. “Make absolutely certain it’s done.”
“Ma’am,” he nodded. And then, because it was her, and he was only mortal, added, “And then we may celebrate?”
He took her smile for a promise, but, unlike the twins, held no illusion that her promise meant more than what it was, payment for services rendered, and as easily forgotten as the stack of starbucks Madame Rand had paid for the previous night’s catering.