Popov would be there in less than a minute.
His office wasn’t far from Ambassador Hunley’s after all. Belgrano paced back and forth rapidly, mumbling some indecipherable nonsense. He was trying out various excuses one after the other, but as soon as it wasn’t satisfactory he moved onto the next one. For my part, my brain was in a complete fog. Worse yet, I became distracted by my reflection in the bathroom mirror. I don’t consider myself especially vain, but the way I looked now shocked me. The terrible air inside the encounter suit had apparently turned my skin pallid and wrinkled.
“Don’t worry about that. It’ll wear off soon enough,” Belgrano said, noticing my distraction.
That was good enough for the moment. Still, I had the issue that I couldn’t think of any good excuses for the situation. With Ambassador Hunley’s suit washing, I didn’t have any way of disguising my identity. Luckily Belgrano did have a solution.
“Well, we’ll just have you be you. Say that you’re here to debrief from your mission. We can go from there,” Belgrano said.
Just then, the door chimed.
“I…” I muttered.
“There’s not time. Go along with it,” he said.
We quickly shifted out to the office and arranged ourselves with me standing at attention reporting to Belgrano as Belgrano opened the door. I felt queasy, my legs shifting beneath me. It got even worse as I heard Popov’s stiff gait come up behind me. I felt this large presence stop right at my side. His face peered around the corner from my shoulder. He had this rancid breath that reeked of a combination of alcohol, fermented Drezian meats, and something else I couldn’t put my finger on. This was pretty standard for chiefs of embassy security. Outwardly an orderly appearance, but just foul personal health habits.
“So, this is Ms. Fiona Reinhardt. I’ve been looking for you, you know!” he said cheerily in his slow drawl.
“Ms. Reinhardt came to report her mission to me,” Belgrano said. “She was doing very important work for Ambassador Hunley and I don’t think it would interest you.”
“I disagree, Belgrano. It might be very interesting to me,” Popov said, a sickly smile coming over him. He withdrew a small data crystal, about the size of his thumb. “I noticed that you and Ms. Reinhardt had been doing some work together coming out of this office.”
“What are you talking about?” Belgrano asked with a weary sigh, trying to create the impression that he didn’t care about what Popov was saying.
“That security drill. Not the one an hour ago, but the one before that. You never actually gave me a performance review,” Popov said, feigning that he was emotionally hurt from the lack of a review.
Belgrano’s already ashen face drained of still more color.
“It wasn’t satisfactory, clearly,” he said.
Popov hopped on his feet and chuckled.
“I knew you’d say that. However, there’s no record of you retrieving any of our files. That’s very strange for you, Belgrano. I’ve never known you to overlook something like that. So, it convinced me that the drill was a sham.”
“A sham?” Belgrano replied, trying to appear insulted by the insinuation.
“Yes. That became clearer to me when you called for the second security drill. I usually don’t review our security drone footage quite so soon after these incidents, but I thought you might be up to something that Ambassador Hunley or the Secretary of Interstellar Defense might want to know about. Can I show you a few moments from that first security drill?” Popov asked, going toward one of the display screens.
Belgrano nodded with palpable reluctance. I could only imagine what he was thinking. Popov cheerily inserted the data crystal into the display screen and it began playing the footage from the atrium just after that first drill commenced.
“Normally, atrium security drill footage is very boring. After all, no one should be there after a minute or two,” Popov said, laughing a bit as he fast forwarded the footage to the relevant part. “Ah, here we are.”
Sure enough, the footage showed Belgrano and me carrying the crate that contained Ambassador Hunley’s corpse. Of course, Popov had no reason to suspect that’s what it was. He cut out the footage right after we made our way into the kitchens.
“Care to explain any of that?” Popov asked as he paused the footage. “Or your return visit to the Ambassador’s office some time later? Whatever could you have been doing in the kitchens that would take as much time as that?”
Belgrano stood from his chair while directing me to sit in his place. He must have been worried that I would tumble over from this inquisition. I was getting quite wobbly after all.
“As I’ve said before, Ms. Reinhardt is conducting very important business on behalf of Ambassador Hunley,” he said. “If you need some details as to what that is, I can…”
“Oh, that won’t be necessary. I checked in with my sources in each Drezian ministry and none of them have heard anything about a human doing work for the Ambassador,” Popov said, his voice trailing. “In fact, the only thing I heard related to the Ambassador at all was something from Minister Anu’ra’s office. They thought Ambassador Hunley had been behaving a bit strangely and…”
“Just make your accusation, Popov,” Belgrano said.
Popov backed up a step and dropped his smirk he’d had on his face. My heart beat so hard that my eyes were shaking. Belgrano folded his hands behind his back to covertly wipe off his sweaty palms.
“I don’t know how to put this nicely,” Popov started. “Belgrano, where is Ambassador Hunley?”
“Off on a mission to…”
“Funny that. Her shuttle is here. There’s no evidence she’s left the embassy since she came back from her last mission. Oh, and also her encounter suit is sitting right over there being washed,” Popov said, pointing toward the storage closet where, indeed, the encounter suit was sitting on a washing station. I’ll confess, Popov certainly wasn’t incompetent. “She should be here and yet she isn’t. Want to try again?”
This was the first time I’d seen Belgrano have an utterly defeated expression on his face. He truly didn’t have any response for the evidence. There wasn’t any plausible one.
“Further, Ms. Reinhardt has the look of someone who was just in an encounter suit,” Popov continued. “And Ambassador Hunley’s encounter suit is over there being washed. And Ambassador Hunley isn’t anywhere to be seen. And Ambassador Hunley’s behavior seemed a bit off to some of the Drezians. Well, Belgrano, what should I think?”
At this point, Belgrano’s eyes became almost frighteningly icy. I noticed that he grabbed a small statuette behind his back that was made of that spongy Drezian metal I’d seen around in various roles throughout the planet. Based on a grimace he made, I suspect he was hoping it would be heavier.
“If you care about Earth’s continued survival, and your own, I suggest you stay focused on your ordinary duties,” Belgrano growled. Popov smirked and shook his head. Belgrano sighed. “Oh, Popov. I never could stand you.”
Belgrano swung the statuette at Popov’s head. It hit with a crack. Popov fell to the ground screaming. Belgrano then stomped on Popov’s arm, crushing his wrist communicator. Popov then used his other arm to sweep Belgrano off his feet. Belgrano fell, even as he grabbed for something to stabilize himself.
“Reinhardt! Grab something! Hit him!” Belgrano screamed.
Popov started to stand again, though his balance was wobbly. I grabbed what looked like a ceremonial Drezian egg clutch, made of some kind of glass. I swung it at Popov. He blocked it. The glass shattered and sprayed in every which direction, most of it at Popov. Shards hit his face, including his eyes. He tumbled backward and reached clumsily for his side arm. Belgrano quickly took off his boot at threw it at Popov. It hit Popov right in the nose, impacting with a crunch. Popov grunted and held both of his hands to his nose. Belgrano grabbed the statuette again.
“Let’s try this again!” Belgrano yelled as he brought the statuette down again.
Smash! First he broke Popov’s hand as he tried to block the strike. Smash! Then he broke Popov’s other hand. Crunch! Then he brought it down on Popov’s skull. Again and again, he struck downward. He swung so wildly that his hairs all began to detach from his head. They swayed wildly with each blow. It was like watching an old movie with a blacksmith striking a forged sword with his hammer. Popov’s feet twitched violently. Blood splattered against the walls and over onto the couch where Hunley’s body had been just about a day before by that point. Now there would be another body to take care of.
Belgrano kicked Popov’s body several times to make sure he was dead. I, meanwhile, had a hard time believing what I had seen. The chief of embassy security had just been bludgeoned to death by the deputy ambassador and I was the only witness to this spectacle. Belgrano, his face speckled with blood, looked down on Popov’s smashed in skull and straightened his uniform.
“I’ll be cleaning myself up in the bathroom. Don’t let anyone in here,” he said sternly and picked up his boot that he had thrown at Popov.
“Of… of course.”
For several minutes, I stared at Popov’s mangled head and wondered how we could possibly go on after that. I suppose it was all means to an end, or at least that’s what I had told myself.