No more bothersome, I suppose, than having spare time on the trip out. I was already very familiar with the details of the case, and the others had caught up easily. Our general strategy for apprehending Brisbois had already been outlined, pending further information on the exact terrain in which we would be working. Naturally, this left room for idle chatter.
It wasn't that I didn't want to talk to them. I just didn't need to know the precise details of their lives. They were well, happy, healthy. What more did I really need to know? And if I learnt about their lives, then they would have to learn about mine. I wasn't very good at storytelling. Predicting what details people would be interested in still didn't come naturally to me.
I was dwelling on possibilities I shouldn't have been dwelling on when Quatre said the inevitable. "Heero, tell us more about what you've been up to these last five years."
I didn't know what they'd been up to, really, but I didn't go asking each of them about it, now did I? But it was four against one, so they won. I put away my thoughts on Zero, somewhat glad to be rid of the dreary things. "What did you want to know? Like I said, I've mostly been in school. I qualified for my bachelor's in May, actually, but I didn't file my petition to graduate."
"Don't tell me you forgot?" Duo inserted, an amused lilt to his voice.
I shook my head. I didn't forget very many things. "No. I just wasn't sure what I wanted to do afterwards... and there were so many classes I hadn't taken yet. I thought I'd just stick around for a while. I can always file any time I want, if I change my mind."
He snorted. "Professional student, eh? Aren't those usually the types that aren't ready to face the real world?"
"I've been in the real world, thanks." And in that world where so many of the decisions I made had to be made in less than a blink of an eye, it was nice to be able to sit back and consider things at my own leisure. "And you, Duo? What was 'this and that', and where was 'here and there'?"
He did not seem especially pleased that I turned the conversation back on him. "Well, guess I haven't found my calling either, yet. Colony-hopped for a while. Did some odd jobs, met up with some old friends. Of which you weren't one, since you didn't leave us any contact information."
Okay, I was beginning to understand that this would probably be a sore point with him. I hoped that perhaps Quatre would chide him for his bluntness, but no such luck. The others seemed content to let us hash this out for ourselves, and it needed to be done to make sure this matter didn't interfere with our work, so I went ahead and hashed away. "It's not like I just disappeared one day, Duo. I let you know I was leaving."
"And then you disappeared the day after."
"I think what Duo is trying to say," Quatre stepped in diplomatically. I was almost beginning to feel sorry for the role he had to play in this group. It hadn't taken long before he decided to smooth the ruffled feathers. "Is that you didn't have to cut yourself off from us. We respected your decision to leave."
"No, I did have to." I had thought that they understood. I needed the clean break. I wanted to be thrown out into the wild to fend for myself, completely unable to turn back for shelter in the life I had known. I needed to force myself to get out there and create something new and different with my life. I wouldn't have been able to do that as effectively if I had known there was always a safe haven to which I could return.
"We weren't good enough for you anymore?"
I was beginning to wonder how many more negative ways Duo could interpret my absence. "I wasn't trying to put you all behind me. I wasn't running, or hiding, or anything. I just let you know that you probably wouldn't hear from me for a while."
"I think we figured that meant a few months, maybe a year," Wufei pointed out evenly. No accusation. Simply a statement of fact.
Trowa followed with a soft-spoken question of his own. "If this hadn't come up, would you have reestablished contact with us?" I think I liked it better when it was just me versus Duo. It was better than the four to one odds I had going now.
It took a short moment's thought to answer. "Yes. I think I was getting to that point, where I was ready."
"When you ran out of classes to take?" Duo sniped.
What was wrong with that? Although I saw it more as, when I felt I had learned everything there was to learn at the university. I had reached that point where I was settled into my life, my personality, my identity. The only thing that had stopped me from leaving the university last May had been the fact that I hadn't yet figured out what I wanted to do with all of me.
"I looked for you," he threw out. "Didn't find ya. Don't call that hiding?"
"Oh? I didn't know that."
Duo smirked at me. "I know how to hide my search strings behind a hash function, thank you very much. I didn't look all that hard, but if you'd been in the system, I woulda found you."
"I was in the system," I answered mildly.
"Changed your name, then? That's still hiding, in my book."
"In a manner of speaking."
He cast me a suspicious look. "And what's that supposed to mean?"
"Are you sure you want to know?"
"And what's *that* supposed to mean?"
"I don't think you'll be happy to know why your search failed."
Trowa chuckled. "Forget 'happy'. Now I'm just curious."
I think the guarded, narrowed expression of Duo's eyes meant he was curious, too, though he wouldn't admit it. Hiding and hunting was his game. I was stepping on his professional pride now, even if he hadn't been looking very hard for me, a fact which, incidentally, I didn't know what to make of. It could be that he had been respecting my wishes, or that he just hadn't cared enough, or that he was just having a little fun, or anything, really. "You were searching for 'Heero Yuy', right? You should have been searching for 'Hiro Yui'." Naturally, they gave me only a couple of blank stares since the two names were pronounced about the same, so I spelled it out for them.
Duo blinked at me incredulously. "You mean, if I'd spelled your name wrong, I would have found you?!"
Trowa gave me a nod of respect. "Clever."
"I wasn't trying to be. I just wanted to discourage casual searches. It would never have stood up against a human search pattern, but computers are literal like that. They don't know much about phonetics, so it's unlikely they'll return the misspelling in their result set unless you're using a very fuzzy pattern matching. Especially if you're running it through a good hash."
No, I hadn't meant to be clever. It just worked out that way. Truth was, I hadn't wanted to change my name at all. After years of not having a name, I didn't want to give up my name, even if it had been arbitrarily assigned to me. I had grown into it, fleshed it out and made it mine, changed it from just a code name to a person. By spelling it in a different manner, people could still address me as they had been for the two years prior that I bore the name, and that just seemed right to me. I rarely saw my name on paper, after all, but another added bonus was that it was easy enough to alter what paperwork I did have bearing my correct name.
I looked to Duo to see what he thought about the matter, but he pouted at me. "I'm not talking to you."
It was just as well. My phone rang moments later. It was IA, calling to tell me they had found our suspect.
We met the IA agents outside the small hotel. They had confirmed his entrance into room twenty-one earlier that evening, and surveillance indicated that he was still alone within, his attention now occupied by a dinner delivered by room service.
"Suppose we'll have to do this by the book," Duo said, eyeing the pair with us. It would be quite difficult to find anyone more straight-laced than the agents from Internal Affairs.
"How else would we do it?" Wufei asked, hopefully a hypothetical question laced with irony spoken for the benefit of our observers.
I wasn't as well-versed in procedure as he was, but I could make a few accurate guesses. Even so, it would be a handy excuse to take a back seat in the proceedings. I had been issued a service revolver for the mission, and it sat uneasily in my shoulder holster. Unfortunately, I had to admit that it was not because I was unaccustomed to packing a weapon, but because it simply was not a gun I would have chosen for myself. I preferred something a little more compact.
I wanted to hold on to my role of 'consultant' for as long as I was able. My comrades were more than capable of handling the other side of things. Since the end of the wars, I had been officially licensed to carry and use, but the last time I had pulled the trigger was when I had been aiming at Mariemeia. I wasn't ready for that not to be the last time anymore, not quite yet. I wasn't opposed to getting back into this life if circumstances dictated it, but I wasn't going to welcome it with my arms wide open.
"How many other guests are checked into this hotel?" Quatre was asking the agents, planning as always.
Agent Barney replied. "We haven't established contact with the hotel administration yet, but observation has shown the hotel to be moderately populated, maybe eighteen or so rooms checked out."
"We'll need to talk to the manager. He can open the door for us, and he can help us clear out the rooms in the surrounding area, if any. Someone will need to continue surveillance until we begin our operation."
It was clear he was referring to Barney and McCarthy, even if he didn't specify. They had a somewhat sour look on their faces. A lot of their work had gone into this, but once again, they knew all about operational security. They were aware that something classified had been taken from the Preventers, something they were not cleared to know about, and it would be a violation of opsec if we took them in with us. The case had started out in IA after security reported the log blips, and it had stayed there only as a matter of convenience when speed became crucial and our team had not yet been assembled.
They submitted with surprisingly good grace, perhaps because Quatre had been wise enough to phrase his dismissal subtly. Once they re-stationed themselves outside, we went ahead and spoke to the hotel manager. It took a little while to get through to him. He was a bird-like man, more upset by the possibility of bad publicity than by the fact that his hotel was currently harboring a fugitive from international justice. After assuring him that the more he cooperated with us, the more smoothly things would go, and the less of a stir we would cause, we secured his generous cooperation.
We quietly collected the five guests that were in the same area as Brisbois and shuffled them somewhere out of the way before we got into position. Quatre notified the two agents from IA via the commset he had borrowed from them that we were about to enter, and then we knocked on the door. Brisbois was not foregoing his creature comforts. How fortunate for us that a bottle of wine was scheduled to be delivered to his room at this time.
"It's open!" came through the door, prompting me to shake my head. Honestly, had civilians absolutely no concept of opsec? It almost made me glad I wasn't quite one of them.
Wufei was designated our point man since he was the only full-time agent among us. He threw open the door with his gun at the ready. "Preventers!" he shouted, muzzle homing in on the man in a bathrobe seated on the edge of his bed in front of a dinner cart. Brisbois started, dropping his fork into his meatloaf, but he was pinned by both his dinner and Wufei's gun, and made no effort to escape.
Trowa followed Wufei in immediately after and covered the sides of the room with his own drawn weapon. "Clear," he announced, sliding over to the bathroom, and then the closet to secure those as well. As expected, Brisbois had been alone in his room.
The rest of us entered after he gave us the sign. Duo moved forward to secure the prisoner while Quatre and I looked around the room. Brisbois said nothing as he was cuffed, frisked, and informed of the charges and his abbreviated rights, but I didn't know if that was because he was frightened or confident. The smug little smirk that had been in his profile was almost on his face now, but it quivered slightly. Perhaps he was both. Either way, we would get what we wanted out of him.
The man looked as if he had been planning on staying for a few days, a fact confirmed by the manager's registrar. A couple of shirts had been hanging in the closet, his toiletries spread out across the bathroom countertop. I spotted a case peeking out from beneath the bedskirt, and lifted it out into the open immediately. Before I even set it down on the bed to open it, I knew something was wrong. I scowled, the case still in my hand.
"Is that it?" Quatre asked, cautiously hopeful that our quest had ended here.
"It resembles the one caught on tape," I answered, laying the matte silver carrying case on the sheets. The agents had seen him bearing only the suitcase I saw against the wall by the dresser. The carrying case was about fifteen centimeters in thickness, but it could have been easily packed and concealed within the suitcase. That conclusion didn't solve our immediate problem, however. "But it's too light."
I snapped open the catches and lifted the lid to have my suspicions confirmed. The foam packing material inside held nothing. For a fleeting moment, I was furious. Did this fool not understand what he had released into the world? Did he not appreciate all of the blood, sweat and tears that had gone into bringing peace to the world, that continued to be spent protecting and nurturing it?
I closed my eyes for a brief moment, calming my anger until I no longer felt the need to grab him by the lapels and slam him against the wall. After that moment had passed, I turned to him, the motion a brief, concise jerk of the head that startled the analyst into a jumpy twitch that persisted as I pinned him with an icy glare. I wasn't going to be 'good cop' this time around. "What have you done with it?"
"I don't have it," he sneered, not bothering to deny his culpability. "You're too late!"
A shiver like a cold breath down the back of my neck seized me. I could only hope he meant that we had been too late to reclaim Zero from him, and not that we were too late to turn aside whatever nefarious plot he had up his sleeve. The fear made me want to do hasty, unadvisable things to him again, but I wisely stayed my hand.
"You've passed it off already," Duo said in my silence. In the background, Chang had claimed the commset from Winner and was informing the IA team of our status. Barton took it upon himself to begin searching the room for hidden clues.
Brisbois had clammed up, but the smug satisfaction still lingered on his lips, serving as answer enough. He had gotten over our entrance and was once again confident in the fact that he had beaten us.
"Shit," Duo muttered. "He could have done it any time, before he left Brussels, even."
My logic jumped on the puzzle. Personally, I would have done it on the train. If I had been a third party wanting to keep my hands clean, I would have waited until the merchandise had been carried out of the city to some neutral, populated area where no one kept track of the faces around them, like the commuter train Brisbois had taken. I wouldn't have done it here, in Wimereux. Then I would have arranged for something like Brisbois getting up at some pre-planned time to stretch his legs, leaving the case unattended for me to pick up or replace in passing. We would never have had to meet face to face. I could have gotten on at any stop, probably a couple before the pick-up spot, and then disembarked afterwards and headed off to absolutely anywhere. Zero was long gone.
But Brisbois was not. "Who did you give it to?" Duo asked next.
When the man again offered nothing but the annoying, self-righteous twist of his lips, Quatre attempted to reason with him, though I predicted it would get nowhere. "Do you have any idea what you've done? People may get hurt because of your actions, do you understand that? Will you be able to handle having that on your conscience?"
His smile stayed as he shook his head at us as if we were children. "You're the ones that don't understand."
"You're right. I don't understand why you'd want to do something that could plunge this world into war."
"This isn't about war or peace."
Wufei made a disdainful sound. "Money?"
Brisbois held his tongue in his own disdainful elegance. I was glad the two IA agents appeared at the door at that point, because I was certainly contemplating making him the first casualty.
"Didn't find it?" McCarthy asked, quickly taking stock of the situation with a trained eye. The empty case on the bed made things obvious enough.
"It's long gone." Wufei shot a discreet glare in Brisbois' direction.
"He is our guy, though?" Barney put in, not wanting to hear that another mistake had been made. His own training made him circle our captive and make sure the bindings had been applied properly. I didn't think it was a criticism of our skills.
"He's the right guy. He passed it off en route." IA had already confirmed that Brisbois had met with no one else and visited no other sites while in the city.
"Damn." That was an understatement. "Any idea where it is now?"
Quatre dictated our next move. "Wherever it is, we won't find it here. Let's head back to HQ. We can chat with him on the way there."
Trowa finished packing the man's belongings to bring with us as evidence, along with his laptop, indicating silently to us that he had not yet found anything of particular interest. We were about to usher Brisbois out the door when we finally squeezed another word out of him. "Ahem, pardon me, but aren't you forgetting something?" he huffed. The room's collective eyebrow rose, prompting him to sputter a little in indignation. "Some clothes would be nice!"
Ah, yes. He was still in his bathrobe. Personally, I wouldn't have minded putting him through a little embarrassment. In theory, it would make it less likely that he would flee our custody, only it probably wouldn't make him any more cooperative, and it would also attract undue attention. Trowa shrugged, popped the suitcase open and pulled out the first pair of pants that came to hand. He tossed it at Brisbois, and it landed neatly across his shoulder.
Brisbois scowled, turning around halfway and jerking his cuffed hands at us, resulting in a strange little butt wiggle. "Well?!" he demanded.
Wufei uncuffed him, mostly because it was better than dressing him ourselves. Brisbois then attempted to demand some privacy, but all seven of us glared him down. Next thing we knew, he would be insisting we let him finish his dinner. He fumbled a bit pulling on his pants beneath his fluffy robe, and when he was done, a wrinkled shirt landed on his head, courtesy of Trowa, who then snapped the suitcase shut with a professional flair. We allowed him no time to primp before we pushed him out the door.
last modified : 12/30/2005 14:41:38 PST