Pritchard on the Frontier

Matthew A. Fossa

Chapter Thirty-One

"Frank Best is in prison!!?" I still couldn't believe it. The seven of us clustered around Steve Mandrake's communication panel. The communications tech had just finished playing the transcript of Weaver's conversation with the GalCop Lieutenant Yorick Fritz.

Weaver took the cigar from between his teeth before replying, "That's what Lieutenant Fritz told me. The original reason he called was to ask me about a conversation Frank and I had the day before they took him in."

"Well, did they at least tell you why they took him in?"

The executive nodded and took another drag from his expensive roll of tobacco and brown paper. He exhaled, sending gray smoke toward the air recycler and then answered.

"The GalCop folks discovered that on the day Mitch Williams died, someone had checked out a Slip-Stay dispenser gun from the Arcology Three headquarters."

"You can't believe that a civilian, even one as high up as Frank Best could be given access to their hardware!" I couldn't believe I was shouting, but I also couldn't believe that the wrong man was taken into custody. If anyone was responsible for Williams' death, I really believed it couldn't have been Frank Best. A few grunts from the other members of the crew assured me that I was not alone in my line of thinking.

Weaver's response was cool as the skin of the ship. "Actually, Mark, that's exactly what happened. Remember, some of the folks in the station had to be sympathetic to him, or at least trusting enough not to think that their elected representative would use any of their hardware with malicious intent."

I took a deep breath. On the other side of the console, Jenny Rayburn asked, "Did they mention anything about a trial?"

Weaver replied, "They said a court of inquiry would be held first, but that's supposed to happen tomorrow. If they proceed with a full court hearing, chances are it'll be because the evidence against Best will be overwhelming."

I shook my head, not believing any of this. Beside me, Hank Middlewell spoke up, "It sounds to me like it's quite circumstantial."

"Well, not if they take the message from Williams at face value," I added, seeing how events could be twisted against the Vice President of Personnel and Stores.

"You mean the message that Louis Smart had to have written and then managed to route it through Williams in order to implicate Best?" Steve commented.

Before anyone managed to grumble their assent to Steve's remark, Weaver held up his hand and said, "Wait a second. We don't have any evidence to prove that either."

"Well, maybe we need to go and talk to that Kevin Stevens guy. He runs the network node in Arco One. Maybe he can at least clear up that mystery."

Williams nodded, "Yes, maybe it is time to get that straightened out."

* * * * *

I suppose under normal circumstances, four people is at least two too many to send on an information gathering mission of this kind, but Max Weaver didn't seem to notice or care about the fact that Jenny and Hank had decided to come along.

We took the transport tube to Arcology Three and not a word passed between us. It seemed as though we all knew why we were making this trip, but something inside me felt a bit unsettled. I remember the old cliche about how, in a mystery novel or movie, the hero gets the name of someone who could give some vital clues or important evidence and then finds the person dead or missing.

This is reality, I thought, not some cheesy story... But still, I was concerned.

* * * * *

"Let me handle this, Mr. Weaver," Inspector John Wynn turned from our small group and back toward the network node's security door. He reached out and pressed the call button, then said, "I still find this kinda hard to believe."

"Can I help you?" A male voice crackled through the speaker.

"This is Inspector Wynn on official GalCop Police Business. I'm here to see Kevin Stevens."

My stomach knotted as the idea of Stevens being missing entered my head again. I did what I could to brush the thought aside and focus my attention on the moment.

To my relief, the heavy security door slid aside and we all stepped through. Once we were all on the other side, the door slid closed again and Wynn turned toward us again. His expression was quite serious and when he spoke, it was thoroughly businesslike.

"Now listen, all of you. You did make an impression on me back at headquarters with this... theory... of yours, but we can't go in there assuming Stevens did anything more than forward a message that Williams himself had written."

Reluctantly, I was able to see his point and gave a nod.

"We all understand that, Inspector." Weaver said. Wynn nodded back, then turned and strode in the direction of the glass door leading into the network node itself. The receptionist simply stared as we passed.

* * * * *

"Mr. Stevens?" Inspector Wynn approached the small group of technicians seated around a bank of computer consoles. One of them looked up and pointed toward a small office off to the side. Wynn nodded his thanks and then turned in the indicated direction.

Standing in the doorway to the little office was a short fat man in a business shirt and slacks. He leaned against the doorframe, supported by one arm, and wore a slight smile. To me, it looked almost as though he was expecting us. Of course, I may have just been trying to see him in as much of a guilty light as possible.

"Inspector Wynn, this is unexpected. What can I do for you?"

"We need to ask you a few questions about some events that transpired just before Mitch Williams died."

Stevens blinked and his face lost the smirk, then gestured inside of his office, "C'mon in."

* * * * *

Stevens' office was very small. It appeared that space in the Network Node was being used as efficiently as possible. Jenny and Hank had to stand outside. I chuckled inside, wondering how the two of them were getting along on the other side of the now closed office door.

"Mr. Stevens, this is Mr. Weaver and Commander Pritchard," Wynn gestured toward the two of us standing beside him. Stevens gave a nod from the other side of his desk but said nothing.

"These two have been assisting us with our investigation into Williams' death and they've made some... interesting discoveries."

Stevens shrugged and said, "Okay, so why come to see me?"

"Well, it appears that a message, presumably written by Williams, was sent from Louis Smart's network mailbox to here and then it was forwarded to both Williams and then to Frank Best."

"Well... so?"

"So, I need to know if you, in fact, had anything to do with this message being forwarded."

There was a pause, then Stevens looked back up at us and replied, "I'm sorry, I really don't remember."

That's total bullshit, I thought, The whole thing happened only a week ago!

Weaver then asked, "Well, you should have some kind of readily accessible log that can show us what happened to that message when it was received here."

Stevens response was immediate, "Those message logs are locked for security reasons."

Wynn looked back at the computer technician and said, "Well under the authority vested in me by the GalCop, I'd like to see the records unlocked and made available to my team here."

The man on the other side of the desk glanced around himself and said, "Well, I guess I'll just have to open it up then." With fumbling hands, he reached toward his computer terminal and began typing. John Wynn strode around to where he could see what was being typed in. Stevens, undoubtedly feeling pressure, began to quicken his pace.

Suddenly, the Inspector's eyes grew wide and, before Weaver and I could do anything, we watched as Kevin Stevens was hurled back away from his desk. His rolling leather chair bounced off the wall, nearly launching the portly man into the air. Wynn immediately had a fistful of Stevens' shirt and his other hand was on a long black rod with a forked end. Even I recognized the age-old "Billy Club" and knew that a man like Wynn had to be well trained in its use. All Stevens could do now was emit pathetic little sobbing breaths and stare guiltily at us.

Weaver was the first to recover, "What was that all about?"

Wynn's expression was grim, he gestured with his head toward his prisoner, "He was about to delete a message file dated sometime last week."

"It's not what you think!" cried an out of breath Kevin Stevens.

Wynn, with strong arms, twisted his captive so he could look directly into his eyes and said, "Well, maybe you'd better tell us what the hell's going on."

"If I tell you, I'm a dead man!"

"Well, if you don't tell us now, we'll get the truth out of you another way and then you'll be facing a shitload of a prison sentence for obstructing justice!"

The computer technician caught his breath in quick gasps, stared wildly around him, and then whispered, "Not here... Let's go to my... other office... We can talk there."

Wynn looked at us, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Weaver shrug his shoulders. The police officer then returned his attention to Stevens.

"All right, Stevens, but I'm cuffing you all the same."

Stevens let out a heavy sigh as Wynn produced a pair of narrow electronic restraining collars and placed them around Stevens' upper arms. At the touch of a button, a very small device, whose operating details I still don't understand, deadened the nerves from Stevens' elbows down to his fingertips. It was a much more effective restraint system than the ancient metal wrist manacles from days gone by and they could be operated by remote control.

Wynn still kept a grip on Stevens' shoulder as the four of us slowly made our way back into the main network lab.

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty

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