Tension filled the air in the Petra Roe Embassy boardroom like a thick, foul fog. The focus of all the tension, the locus of the miasma, radiated from Ambassador Huntington.
He stood at the head of a long table, glaring at lesser employees comprising the core of his administrative staff. He pulled one curled mustache tip out and let it snap back in place, repeatedly.
Four chairs down, Stuttgart swallowed nervously.
Stuttgart assiduously eschewed drugs, even caffeine. But he knew, along with most of the others in the room, that the Ambassador had a drug problem. The man did not even try and hide the bracelet on his wrist anymore.
Despite his personal preferences, at the moment Stuttgart might have been tempted to try a drug of some kind, himself. Maybe a sedative, or something for his nerves.
Oh well, he thought. I’ll just have to remain calm while lying.
Huntington finally broke the silence and said, “Everyone in this room knew details about the bank shipment that was stolen.”
Blood raced to the Ambassador’s face as he glared at each person in turn. Stuttgart met his eyes, trying not to look guilty.
The entire planet of Petra Roe felt ashamed that a huge amount of League gold was snatched right out of their solar system. The fact that PR tilted toward the League in this current conflict, despite their nominal neutrality, made the event even more embarrassing. PR officials found themselves in the awkward position of trying to explain to the League what happened when they themselves barely understood all that had occurred.
“Did anyone else know?”
All eyes turned to Lulu Vandiver, the nominal second in charge at the embassy. She sat directly to Huntington’s right.
Realizing she had the room’s attention, she shrugged in a self-deprecating manner.
“I’m just curious who else might have tipped the pirates off.”
She left the rest unsaid, Stuttgart thought. She could have continued with, “Because surely it couldn’t have been anyone in this room.”
Huntington said, “Why would anyone outside of Lute tell a pirate company . . . on Lute . . . about this?”
He pulled out a mustache curl in an irritable gesture, and let it pop back in place.
Stuttgart cleared his throat. He said, “I might have some information about that, sir.”
Everyone’s attention shifted to him.
Well, here it is, he thought. The moment of truth. Or rather, deception.
Stuttgart flicked his wrist and a holosheet appeared in the air.
He said, “I did some research, and I found that a certain percentage of the money on that drone came from Sergio Productions.”
That part was true, he thought. Sergio Productions had recently made a large deposit, and it could be inferred that a few million in gold could be traced back to the company.
Huntington shrugged. He said, “So?”
Vandiver cut in, trying to hog the spotlight from Stuttgart. For once, Stuttgart did not mind.
She said helpfully, “Sergio Productions is one of the wealthiest entertainment conglomerates in the galaxy, sir.”
“I know that,” Huntington snapped. “What does that have to do with anything?”
Stuttgart cleared his throat again, pulling the attention back.
He said, “Well, sir, it appears the scion of the family, Niles Sergio, was captured a while back by the same company that took the gold.”
This statement was met with shocked silence. Stuttgart held the Ambassador’s eyes steadily.
Finally, Huntington blinked and said, “Go on.”
“Well, here’s where it gets interesting, sir. They have held Niles Sergio a long time. Longer than any other passenger from the Coral Reef. But, almost immediately after the pirates broke into the drone . . . they released him.”
Huntington’s face dropped. He said, “That was his ransom.”
“We can’t say that for sure, sir,” Stuttgart said, holding up a hand in caution. “But, it certainly looks suspicious.”
“I’ll say! LuteNet, where is Niles Sergio?”
LuteNet’s rich contralto came down from the ceiling. She said, “I am sorry, Ambassador Huntington. Niles Sergio ported off planet less than an hour ago. Right now he is on his way to Petra Roe. His ship has been in transit for 32 minutes.”
“He got away! We’ll have to intercept him on PR. Vandiver! Prepare a dispatch, top secret. We’ve got to stop him!”
Niles Sergio sat at the bar in First Class, the center of attention. He was on his third whiskey, and felt pretty good. His tales had drawn a small crowd, and the attractive young woman to his left seemed to be hanging on his every word.
Since Sergio had not had attention from any woman in a very long time, he took this as a good sign, and devoted most of his narrative toward her despite having others listening in.
“So, there I was on the Coral Reef. The pirates had taken over! They ran everywhere with their blasters out, shooting and yelling and ripping the jewelry right off of women.”
“Oh, my!” the young woman said, covering her mouth.
Sergio nodded, then tossed back the last of his drink.
“Yep. Thuggish brutes, all of them. But I stood up to them! I was held captive for months, but I never gave them anything! I helped a Marshal who came and tried to rescue me, before some mumbo-jumbo legal loophole got in the way.”
“A Marshal! You don’t say!”
“Oh, yeah. There was a huge shootout in Mule Tower! I thought we were all going to die. But that Marshal . . . well, let’s just say you don’t mess with the Marshal Service. Even if you’re a pirate!”
Everyone chuckled. The group at the bar seemed to be mostly from Petra Roe, and thus sympathetic to the League.
“Let me tell ya,” Sergio said to the young lady while signaling the bartender for another drink. “It’s been a long hard time in captivity for me. Brutish deprivation, if you know what I mean.”
She smiled back at him and said, “Well, maybe you can at least have a pleasant trip to Petra Roe.”
He sipped from his fresh drink, just as the last one started to make its presence known in his blood stream.
His vision blurred and his words began to slur.
“I hope sho. I hope sho.”