Belgrano didn’t take long before he was out of the bathroom, looking as he always did with his wisps of hair slicked back onto his head and his uniform once again tight and pristine. He walked around the office, examining the damage. He appeared to note, with satisfaction, that none of the computer equipment had been damaged in the scuffle. Then he stood over Popov’s still bleeding corpse with a great deal of pride. I could only speculate at how much repressed anger had powered his assaults on Popov.
“I know Ambassador Hunley wouldn’t approve of this, but he’ll have to go in the emergency rations freezer with her,” Belgrano said dispassionately. “The same goes for anyone else we’ll have to dispose of.”
“Anyone else?” I gasped.
“Hrm, yes. If anyone else begins discovering your identity, they must be disposed of. Well, besides Vittorio. We can trust him.”
“Why him, though?”
Belgrano rolled back and forth on his feet a few times and swished his mouth around his face as he thought of an answer.
“Now that you mention it… I’ll wait until he becomes a problem,” Belgrano said. “This should be the only one for a while. I’ll add security chief to my portfolio of assignments with approvals you’ll give me. That should keep the security staff under wraps.”
“Will that work?” I asked.
“If it does, we keep up this charade until the treaty gets signed. If it doesn’t, we die. And because it’s our only option, it’s not even worth considering what failure means.”
I suddenly recalled what I had agreed to do with the Sticky Tongue, or rather what they had told me was the case. Each time I looked at the clock and saw the time to achieve their mission tick away, I felt a little closer to my own doom.
“I should tell you… The meeting I had with the Sticky Tongue. They asked me to do something on their behalf,” I said with a guilty tone.
“Asked or told?”
“This was definitely a command. A command and a threat.”
“Alright, what was it?” he sighed.
“I have to poison Minister Anu’ra and do that within the next 24 of our hours,” I mumbled languidly. I was realizing at this point just how tired I was and why Ambassador Hunley would rely on stimulants to power her through these sorts of stretches.
For his part, Belgrano seemed strangely energized by this mission. I suppose that came from the fact that he hated Anu’ra so much that the thought of killing him must have been delightful. I’ll never understand what their problem was. The disdain was truly mutual. I’m not even sure which of them hated the other more.
“Indeed,” Belgrano replied, fighting back a smile. “And did they say why?”
“Apparently Anu’ra wants to crack down on the Sticky Tongue and is angry that the Broodmother has tolerated their presence for this long.”
“Hrm. Their urgency is the thing I find most puzzling. To fall in the middle of the holidays. One wonders if they’re trying to make a point that no one is safe from them,” Belgrano grumbled. “This all would explain that vial of poison I found in the Ambassador’s encounter suit’s storage unit.”
“What did you say?!”
“Yes, they must have slipped a poison vial in Ambassador Hunley’s storage unit. Lug’relb, I think it is. Devastating stuff,” Belgrano said, almost preening himself over his impressive knowledge of Drezian poisons. “It’s one of those that produces a swift death and then covers up its own tracks very nicely. For an older Drezian like Anu’ra, the sudden death isn’t that shocking.”
When I looked into it a bit more later, indeed he was right. Like frogs on Earth, Drezians are prone to all manner of diseases that soak in via their permeable skin and can quickly alter their homeostasis. What the poison in question did was cause its victim to overheat drastically in a short period of time. It does that by closing off some of the Drezian body’s thermoregulation mechanisms and causing a chemical reaction in their blood that causes body temperature to rise by a full 19 degrees Celsius in the space of twenty seconds. Death is swift, certain, and terribly painful. If any autopsy is done more than thirty minutes after death, there will be no sign at all of what killed them.
In any case, we then turned to the more immediate issue of cleaning up the Ambassador’s office and having Belgrano call yet another security drill, this time under the authority of acting security chief.
“This is Section Chief Belgrano. Captain Popov has been relieved of his command following several security failures in this embassy,” he broadcast over the embassy’s systems. “Ambassador Hunley has named me acting chief of security for the embassy and Captain Popov has been sent back home to Earth. As part of my new duties, I would like to conduct a security drill for the east campus again. See if we can get it right this time. The drill begins now.”
Once the sirens started blaring again, we stuffed Popov’s body in a container just as we had with Ambassador Hunley. We also had to tie a bag around his head to prevent his still bleeding wounds from pouring out all over the place. He was a much heavier lift than Ambassador Hunley had been and I strained my back and shoulders trying to carry my end. Because Belgrano wasn’t that strong either, the entire process was a bit of a mess. I think we both were risking hernias.
Again, Belgrano messaged Vittorio to meet him in the kitchens with the drill underway. This time, I noticed Vittorio was much more rattled by the situation. It was one thing to try to cover up a death stemming from excessive drinking. Covering up a murder, on the other hand, made Vittorio a lot more squeamish. I can’t say I blamed him. I just worried what it might mean for future jaunts to the freezer.
“Why did you do this? Oh! Why did you do this, Belgrano?” Vittorio whimpered.
“We had no choice,” Belgrano growled as we hurled Popov’s body into the same corner as Hunley’s. “He was going to ruin all of our negotiations and I can’t let that happen.”
“He was always such a good customer! He loved my meatballs so much! And fried Tilg’frot. He ate for three with that,” Vittorio babbled, running his hands through his hair over and over. “I already ordered so many more shipments just for him. What will I do now? What will I do?! This is bad! I’ll have no place to put them if they pile up and…”
“Vittorio,” Belgrano interrupted once we were done with the body, “shut up.”
“Yes, sir,” Vittorio said, deflated.
We finished depositing his body and covering it with some old packaging from the other parts of the kitchen. However, as we locked the door, I noticed that Vittorio was on the verge of convulsing in panic. I tried resting a hand on his shoulder, but this made him shriek. Belgrano turned around, the kitchen’s harsh glare catching his eyes. They were far wider than normal, and deeply focused.
“Is there a problem, Vittorio?” Belgrano asked, his hands each clenching into fists. Even though Belgrano never struck me as an intimidating type, there certainly was something petrifying about his gaze just then.
Vittorio’s mustache seemed to sag a bit. The old chef’s face collapsed with his distress at the whole situation. I felt bad for him. This certainly wasn’t what he was cut out for. He had apparently helped Ambassador Hunley do some smuggling operations before to get out from under the watchful eye of Captain Popov. But all of that had been relatively innocent. Hiding bodies, especially a murdered body as in this case, may have been more than a few steps too far.
“I don’t know if I can do this. I’m a chef, Belgrano. That’s all I am! I’ve never harmed another person in my life!”
“And you still haven’t,” Belgrano grumbled.
“But I can see where this is going. No, I can’t do anything more than this. Not one step more! I refuse!” Vittorio declared, waving his hands as though he could conjure a wall.
Belgrano stepped forward until he was almost face to face with Vittorio. Even though he had to crane his neck up slightly to confront Vittorio, his dominance of the situation was clear.
“Listen to me, Vittorio,” Belgrano started with a gruff growl, “what you want or what you think about any of this counts for precisely nothing. Not one thing. Do you understand? This is about Earth’s survival and I will be dead and in the ground before I let your delicate sensibilities prevent us from doing what we have to. You’ll continue doing what I tell you to and you’ll stay quiet about what you know. Is that understood?”
Vittorio paused and then nodded.
“Yes. Yes it is,” he said, utterly broken.
“Good,” Belgrano said and turned to leave.
When we left, Belgrano told me that he clearly couldn’t trust Vittorio for long and that he’d almost certainly have to either further intimidate him or, well, the other options was obvious after what we had done to Popov. I tried to pretend I heard something else. I didn’t want to accept it in any way. The problem was that Belgrano communicated very clearly. He almost never needed to repeat himself, after all.
Our next mission, however, was much more complicated. I spent as much time as I could understanding the poison that I was to give to Minister Anu’ra. It had been used in a number of famous Drezian assassinations over the years and it was one of those things that Drezians feared most. It had actually developed its own perverse mythology by this point, which was that Splorxx herself rained it down on the wicked to punish them for violating the “moist harmony” Drezians prized so much. Because it was almost impossible to confirm the poison’s presence even mere moments after it had killed, it indeed did seem to be a punishment from Splorxx.
They way in which it killed was something else altogether. Drezians, like our frogs on Earth, are ectothermic. In order to avoid overheating as they draw in warmth, they have a series of specialized organs that serve as heat sinks that then expel excess heat as a gas that has contributed to the toxic atmosphere for humans, and pretty much any mammalian life, on Jin’Drezia. The poison I was given, Lug’relb, shuts off those organs for a brief time. Worse yet, it causes a chain reaction within Drezian blood that causes their body temperature to rise drastically, essentially boiling them where they stand within about twenty seconds. I scanned our video archives for any instances caught on film of Drezians being killed in such a way. In fact, there had been a prior Drezian emperor who had met that fate, Hib’vulg IV. He died from it at a religious ceremony that went terribly wrong. The video of watching him die in a spasming heap would greet me every time I closed my eyes.
Meanwhile, I noticed all of the security messages coming through Ambassador Hunley’s comms feed. So many of these messages were intended for Captain Popov. I politely reminded each of them that Belgrano was the new acting chief of security as per my orders. I stopped myself at times, realizing that by any definition I was an accessory to a man’s murder. Then again, I had committed so many offenses by that point that I knew I just had to keep proceeding along as though nothing had happened. I had no other choice as I could tell.
I watched my time until this reception with Minister Anu’ra tick away much faster than I wanted. It’s always true that things you want to happen take forever to arrive and things you don’t want to happen sneak up on you quickly. That vial of poison I’d been given, the Lug’relb, sat in front of me as I let the time pass by. Staring at it, I was imagining how horribly I’d be executed if the Drezians caught me with it. I imagine that there was a chance I could be swallowed alive, which was the most primitive Drezian form of execution and also one of their most popular. Humans were almost a perfect size for this punishment as the typical Drezian had a large enough body cavity to accommodate us. That became clearer to me later.
Belgrano stopped by the Ambassador’s office to tell me one more thing that made my life miserable.
“I won’t be accompanying you,” he said coldly. “Becoming acting chief of security means that I have to remain here for the moment. I’ll try to find appropriate toadies I can trust to leave behind in the future.”
I don’t know why this surprised me. It shouldn’t have. Nothing was going right by this point, so why shouldn’t I have expected being forced to handle this entire mission myself. Still reeling from the ill effects of the tranquilizer and suffering from serious sleep deprivation, I panicked.
“But… I have no idea what I’m doing. I’ve never done anything like this. What if I get caught?” I whimpered.
Belgrano scowled at me.
“Remember what happens if you fail. Don’t even contemplate failing. Minister Anu’ra must die and that’s the end of it,” he rumbled.
With the greatest reluctance, I took the stimulants I’d need to be alert for this mission. They caused me to panic utterly, however. The entire room buzzed and all of the colors began to blur together. An injection of mood stabilizers by Belgrano settled that down, though. As it was, it felt like all of my organs would burst out of my body.
Belgrano saw me off as I boarded the Ambassador’s shuttle and used its auto pilot to fly to the newly constructed museum and my target: Minister Anu’ra.