The Curious Case of the Shot in the Dark
The Vorkosigan groundcar smoothly hissed to the pavement at the foot of the stairway to the Hassadar Opera House. Miles missed the obscene luxury and expanse of the Regency relic back at Vorkosigan House in Vorbarr Sultana, but still, it was spacious enough for the four of them. Tonight, he was accompanied by his beloved wife, Ekaterin, armsman Roic, and their newest armsman, Stanis. Pym, his senior armsman, was driving. Another armsman, Jankowski, was left at the Vorkosigan Residence with their two-year-old twins, Aral Alexander and Helen Natalia. His stepson, Nikolai, was at Vorkosigan House, working on a report he had to finish for school.
Stanis had just been seconded to Miles by his father, Count Aral Vorkosigan, currently the Viceroy of Sergyar. Stanis stood 193 centimeters tall with dark brown hair just touched with flecks of gray. He possessed swarthy good looks and an arresting smile when not in security-mode as he was now. He was ex-ImpSec, like most of the Count's armsmen; a 20-year service veteran sworn to keep the Vor safe and the Emperor and his domain secure. He had recently divorced his wife of 18 years and was already rumored to have acquired a girlfriend in Vorbarr Sultana.
'A fast worker;' thought Miles. Still, his service record was impeccable. What an armsman did in his all too limited free time was not really any of his business as long as the honor of House Vorkosigan was not compromised.
Stanis got out curbside, keenly surveying the area around the Opera House. His sharp brown eyes missed nothing. Roic exited from the other side, walked around the rear of the groundcar and flanked the opening canopy. Stanis reached down to lend Miles a sturdy hand. In the two years since his honeymoon and the infection he suffered from that cursed Cetagandan parasite, Miles had made a remarkable recovery. However, he was not as steady on his feet as he once was and would probably never be able to ditch the hated cane that was now part of his daily life.
Miles took Stanis' offered hand with his left as his right placed his cane firmly on the driveway outside the groundcar. With these two secure supports, Miles levered himself out of the comfortable back seat. "Thank you, Stanis," he said looking up to his newest armsman.
Stanis looked back down to him, sporting a blazing smile and said, "You are most welcome, M'lord."
The next few seconds were a blur. Miles heard a loud "CRACK," then his face was splatted with something sticky and warm. Stanis' body started to fall and Roic forcefully grabbed Miles and threw him back inside the groundcar. Ekaterin's hand enmeshed itself in the back of Miles' tunic and pulled him back into her lap. Roic's body then fell on them both, propelling them to the other side of the compartment. Pym had already hit the control to close the canopy. The groundcar rose as another "CRACK" was heard as something ricocheted off the bullet-proof acrylic right before it hissed shut.
Miles had never seen Pym panicked, but his voice seemed an octave higher than normal when he glanced over to the back seat and asked in a strained voice, "How bad is it?"
The groundcar barreled through the narrow streets. It made a left turn so fast that the three occupants tumbled over to the opposite side. Roic reached for Miles and he ran his hands over his Lord's head checking for injuries. His eyes were wide with concern as he asked, "Are you hurt, M'lord?";
Miles batted Roic's hands away and snapped, "I'm all right. It's not my blood." Realization then struck Miles that there were only three occupants of the compartment when there should have been four. "Where's Stanis?;"
Didn't make it," said Roic laconically and reached for Miles again, checking his hair line for possible injuries.
A vision of Lieutenant Murka belched forth from Miles' memory. "What do you mean exactly?"
Roic winced. "That first shoot took off half his skull, M'lord. He died instantly."
"Turn around, Pym!" Miles shouted from the back compartment. "I'm not leaving a man behind."
Pym had his hand up to his earbud. "I'm sorry, M'lord. Our ImpSec parameter is ordering us to Hassadar Hospital."
"But I'm not hurt."
"Never-the-less," said Pym in a tone that brooked no argument.
Ekaterin finally spoke. Her voice was shaken and pleading. "Please, Miles, I'd rather not go back."
Miles looked at his wife, his anchor in life. Her blue-gray eyes were wide and damp with unshed tears. Her lips trembled slightly.
[Get your priorities straight, boy!]
His wife had just witnessed a graphic murder and nearly lost her husband, again! Miles took her in his arms as she laid her head against his chest to comfort herself that his heart was still beating.
"Very well, Pym, but I assure you I wasn't hurt." Miles took out his own handkerchief and wiped off the blood from his splattered face. "Someone is going to pay for this. My word as Vorkosigan!" he grumbled.
The groundcar lurched to a stop in the emergency entrance to the Hassadar Regional Hospital, where a team was already waiting. Miles was whisked out onto a float-pallet, still expounding that he was not hurt. Once inside they were met by a thin, balding man in a spotless white lab coat. "My Lord Vorkosigan," the man said with an air of authority. "I'm Dr. Vorhendon. We are going to move you to an exam table and check you over."
"As I've been trying to tell everyone," Miles responded tersely, "I'm NOT hurt! The blood you see is not mine. It was my armsman's."
"Let's just make sure, shall we?" Dr. Vorhendon stated calmly as he reached down to take a closer look at the handkerchief Miles still held in his hand. "Let me see that, please."
The doctor carefully took the bloody cloth from Miles' hand and unfolded it. He stared at the smeared blood and the small bits it contained. "Please, let me take this. ImpSec will want this evidence." He turned around, took a plastic bag from a drawer, placed the soiled cloth within, and sealed it. "Now, please just lay back and cooperate, my Lord Auditor, and we will have you out of here in a jiffy."
Three hours later, a very nettled Miles and party departed the hospital and made their way back to Vorkosigan Residence in the heart of Hassadar. Miles was still dressed in the "scrubs" they had issued him after they took all his clothing as evidence. He hunched down into the back compartment with his arms crossed. He'd been scrubbed, poked, prodded, scanned, and palpated, only to be pronounced free of trauma and discharged. This Imperial Auditor was not happy! He needed to be out there, running his own investigation. He needed data, and he'd just wasted three hours.
Ever present to his moods, Ekaterin turned to her husband and said, "Miles, please calm down."
"Calm down? Someone took a shot at me tonight and Stanis paid the ultimate price for being in the service of the Vorkosigans."
The groundcar pulled up to the portico of Vorkosigan Residence. "We know the risks," said Roic as he helped them both out.
"It was a price that should have not been paid. How did this even happen?" Miles grumbled. "You bet I'll get to the bottom of this."
An ImpSec officer that Miles had never seen before stood by the front door. He walked up, looked at Miles and stated, "My name is Captain Stevenson and I'm afraid that is exactly what you will NOT be doing, my Lord Auditor."
"You may think that, Captain," Miles retorted. "Someone tried to kill me tonight and I WILL be running this investigation."
"With respect sir, you will not." Stevenson contradicted. "General Allegre and the Emperor have ordered me to tell you that ImpSec will be handling it. YOU are to, quote "Stay out of it!" unquote. Someone tried to kill an Imperial Auditor this evening. Be assured, ImpSec is going to be all over this with all its considerable resources. We will apprehend the perpetrator AND keep you safe while we are doing it," said the captain with a fiery glint in his brown eyes. Ekaterin and Roic glanced at each other, eyebrows raised, anticipating Miles' explosive retort.
"We will just see about that!"said Miles as he stomped through the front door to the comconsole in the first-floor study and sat down. He was aware of how juvenile that sounded, but it left his lips before his brain could stop it. He hated running to his foster-brother, the Emperor, but this was just too important for him to stay on the sidelines.
Captain Stevenson stood at attention just behind Miles as the face of Emperor Gregor Vorbarra, the absolute ruler of three worlds, coalesced above the unit. Roic stood behind his lord, wishing Pym would hurry and join them from the garage where he had parked the groundcar. Roic agreed with the captain and thought M'lord should be kept under wraps and safe while ImpSec investigated, but he was only an armsman and could not countermand his Lord's orders. Pym, however, had been in M'lord's service for a long time. He just might. A vision of Pym sitting on their squirming Lord sprang to Roic's mind. A slight smile tweaked his lips, then vanished under his mask of professionalism.
"Ah, Miles. I was expecting to hear from you. How are you?" The Emperor asked with genuine concern.
I'm mad as Hell! Someone tried to kill me again tonight, Gregor. I'm getting really tired of this kind of crap happening to me."
"Yes, I have been informed by Allegre. But you are all right? You were not harmed?"
"No, they missed, but one of my armsmen was killed. He was under my hand of protection and now he's dead, Gregor. I've got to find out who is responsible and bring them to justice."
[Or, maybe just meet out my own justice. I am an Imperial Auditor after all.]
"Yes, what's this I hear from Stevenson that I'm not allowed to be involved with the investigation?"
"Miles, you are too close to this. Allegre and I have discussed it. We would prefer you stand down at this point"
"No buts, Miles. We request and require you to distance yourself from this investigation. Let Captain Stevenson and his team run point in your place. They will receive anything they wish. Stevenson has an outstanding record. He will get to the bottom of this." Gregor hesitated for only a moment then continued, "I know you all too well, Miles. I have no doubt you would ferret out the perpetrator, but I cringe at the collateral damage that would occur in your wake, not to mention the personal risk you would put yourself through to solve this mystery. No, Miles. I won't have it. I am also increasing your security. Two more ImpSec men, besides Stevenson, will be joining your household in the morning."
"Babysitters..." Miles muttered.
"Think of them as extra minions assigned to you for the duration."
There was no way he would win this argument. "Very well," sighed Miles.
"I do not mean to impugn your honor, Miles, but I would like to have your word on this."
Taken aback, Miles responded, "You have it Sire, my word as Vorkosigan."
Gregor sighed in relief. "Thank you, Miles. Oh, and Laisa wanted me to say that if Ekaterin needs to talk to anyone, she is free to call her anytime."
"Thank you, Sire."
"Thank you, Miles, for being so unexpectedly reasonable about this. Now, get out of those ridiculous hospital pajamas and get some sleep. You look like you could use it." One of Gregor's hazel eyes winked as the comconsole shut down.
Ekaterin's hand gently touched his shoulder. Miles turned his head around and their eyes met. She leaned down and said, "Let these men sort all this out. Please come to bed with me." She then whispered. "I need to be next to you tonight."
God, how he loved this woman. Fate had almost taken him away from her this evening. He moved just a little more and brought their lips together in a deep loving kiss as his hand cupped the back of her head. She twined her hand in his hair, kissing him back with a passion, making him temporarily forget what had happened earlier that evening.
[Was this some plan hatched by his creative wife to distract him? Who cares? Go with it, boy!]
They made their way up to their suite and closed the doors behind them, oblivious to the envious stares of the men who watched them leave.
The morning dawned with a cold, grey drizzle, which matched Miles' mood perfectly. He was spooned next to Ekaterin, his nose nestled in her long brown hair. He should be happy and contented, but his mind kept on replaying the night before. The frustration of not being able to do anything about it was fouling his mood. Ekaterin stirred and rolled over to face him. She placed her hand on his cheek and said, "I can feel how tense you still are."
"I can't help it. I want to be out there, in the field, gathering information. I want to go back to the Opera House steps and see it all again. What happened? How did it happen? What did ImpSec and three of my armsmen miss?" Miles closed his eyes and hugged her close. "He died because of me, Ekaterin. Another one dead because of me."
"Stanis wasn't with us very long, but I assure you that if given the choice of you getting shot or him, he would choose himself every time. Roic, Pym and all your other armsmen feel the same. You know they do."
"Yes," Miles whispered, "I know, but it doesn't stop me from feeling guilty about it."
Ekaterin got out of bed, stretched, then put her hands on her curvaceous hips. "Well, it's been just over two years since someone's taken a shot at you," she said. "Is this going to be a reoccurring activity?"
"God, I hope not." Miles threw off the sheets, stood and looked up. "Ekaterin, my love, you should have married a gardener if tranquility was what you wanted."
"Good thing that wasn't what I wanted. I wanted YOU!"
Any further conversation was delayed as Jankowski knocked and entered their suite with a breakfast cart. Miles was not very hungry, but the coffee was hot and bracing and chased away any lingering somnambulance. They shared the groats and pastries in silence, then got dressed to face the stressful day ahead.
Their first stop was their children's room. Love, hugs, and kisses were shared all around. Miles was grateful beyond words that he was there to receive them.
[I really do have to be more careful and stay out of this. I really do. I can't run the risk of making Ekaterin a widow again and not being there for my children.]
Miles keyed his wrist com. "Jankowski?"
After only a few seconds the armsman responded, "Yes, M'lord."
"I'd like you to station yourself with the children for the duration. I just need to know they'll be safe."
"Of course, M'lord."
Miles and Ekaterin came downstairs to a flurry of activity. Captain Stevenson had taken over the big table in the library. It was covered in flimsies and a portable secure comconsole. There were also the two new ImpSec agents Gregor had promised as well as a man dressed in the uniform of the local Municipal Guard. Pym and Roic looked on attentively.
"Good morning, my Lord Auditor," said Stevenson. I'd like to introduce the rest of the team. Lieutenant Lawson." He nodded to the medium built, competent looking young officer with light brown hair and green eyes.
"It is an honor to meet you, my Lord Auditor," said Lawson in a deep bass voice.
"Lieutenant Lawson," Miles responded with a nod of his own.
"And this is Lieutenant Taylor." Stevenson indicating a fair haired, well built man with striking blue eyes.
"My Lord Auditor Vorkosigan, it is a pleasure to meet you," said Taylor.
Miles nodded, then looked at the last officer who was from the Municipal Guard.
"Lastly," Stevenson continued, "this is Officer Rawlins. He is the head of the Hassadar Municipal Guard. He possesses the best arrest and conviction records on the planet."
A man in his late fifties stepped forward and shook Miles' hand. His grip was warm and sure. With the typical Barrayaran dark hair and eyes, he did not stand out, but then in his line of work that was probably a good thing. His whole demeanor exuded confidence and capability. Miles was immediately glad to have him on the team.
"My Lord Auditor, it is good to finally meet you. How is my protegee working out?" Rawlins asked.
"Protegee?" Miles asked, confused.
Roic broke into the conversation. "Officer Rawlins was my old boss, M'lord, when I was in the Municipal Guard."
"Oh, I see," Miles said smiling. "Wonderfully, I'm happy to report. He's saved my life two...no three times so far."
"Glad to hear it," said Rawlins enthusiastically, his face breaking out in a wide smile.
Miles cleared his throat and drew Ekaterin closer to him. "And this lovely lady is, of course, my wife, Ekaterin Nile Vorvayne Vorsoisson Vorkosigan." A chorus of "Delighted to meet you, M'lady," followed.
Miles continued, "Now, I'd appreciate it if you would brief me on what you have learned overnight."
There was an awkward silence. Captain Stevenson finally spoke. "My Lord Auditor, we have been given explicit orders that you are not to be part of this investigation."
"I know. I know," said Miles waving a dismissive hand. "I gave my word that I would not take part, and I won't, not really. I'm not going to be doing any legwork, but I can at least help with the brain-work. Let me have access to what you dig up and I promise to stay nice and safe behind the lines."
Six sets of eyes shifted from one set to another. Pym took a deep breath and finally said, "M'lord, the Emperor was very clear that he wanted us to keep you safe."
"I will be. I won't leave the Residence without your knowledge. My word as Vorkosigan."
"Yes, M'lord, but..."
"Pym, my brain is going to be turning its wheels over this whether you give me any information or not. I suspect, if it is fed such information, I will remain calmer and much less distracting to you all for the next few days or weeks." He then continued with a certain glint in his eyes that Pym immediately recognized. "And you KNOW how distracting I can be to those around me when left to my own devices."
"M'lord has a very good point," Roic interjected.
Rawlins spoke up. "I have no objection to letting Lord Auditor Vorkosigan have access to the evidence. Another point of view has often proven helpful in such investigations."
"I concur," added Lawson. "If he stays protected in this Residence, I think his input could be very beneficial."
"Very well," said Stevenson in capitulation. "Don't make me regret this," his eyes narrowed down to the small, vibrant, determined man looking back up to him.
Miles walked over to the comconsole, placed his hands down on its desktop, and looked at the flimsies scattered about. Then his eyes locked back onto Stevenson. "All right, let's get to it."
"Please excuse me, gentlemen," Ekaterin interrupted. "I have logistics to attend to. I assume you will be staying with us for the duration." She really liked the idea of more bodies keeping her husband's impulsive energy in check. Hassadar House had plenty of room, but she was going to need more help. She turned to her husband, "Miles, I'm going to call Vorkosigan House and have Ma Kosti and a few maids flown down here."
"Wonderful idea!" Miles beamed, his dark mood already lifting at the thought of the apparition of Ma Kosti culinary delights. That was one invasion he would always welcome.
Ekaterin walked away and Miles turned back to Stevenson and asked, "OK, what have we got?"
Stevenson turned to the comconsole and brought up a large file. "ImpSec Hassadar has been busy last night," he explained. "By studying the angle of the shot, we've determined the shooter was on a roof four blocks away. Metal fragments were procured from the remains of your armsman's skull. They are being analyzed."
"You mean the killer used an old chemical expellant rifle? No one has used those since my grandfather's days during the Cetagandan War." Miles then asked, "Where would one even get a rifle like that?"
"Oh, private collections, reenactment groups. You'd be surprised," answered Rawlins. "I have sent the Guard out to check for any missing or stolen rifles this morning."
Lawson shook his head. "How is such a shot even possible? We are talking about one shot, traveling over 1,600 meters, getting within a half meter of its target."
"Oh, it's quite possible, Lieutenant," said Miles with a bit of wistfulness in his voice. "My grandfather, the Old General, often spoke of the ambushes he and his men would set for the Cetagandans. They had a special formula for gunpowder. They could nail their target before they realized they were under attack, and from even farther away."
"We've tested the trace residue around the sniper's vantage point last night. We will have a chemical signature of the powder used by mid-morning," added Stevenson. "With that we will be able to trace it back to its manufacturer. Good thing it didn't rain until after forensics got their samples."
Miles pursed his lips in thought. "Did they find any shell casing?"
"No," replied Stevenson. "The perp must have taken them with him."
Miles' forehead furrowed. "I keep on coming back to motive. If this is not connected to one of my Auditor investigations, they why?"
"We are going through your recent case files, My Lord," said Taylor. "So far, anyone connected with them is in no position to do you harm or has no real reason to do so."
"As far as you know," said Miles flatly.
"As far as we know, my Lord," Taylor conceded.
A sudden thought came to Miles. "There was a second shot. It ricocheted off the canopy. Have you found it?"
"No, not yet," said Stevenson turning to Lawson. "Please get on that immediately. Maybe we will be able to match it to the rifle when we find it."
Lawson saluted. "Yes, sir!" He spun and exited the room talking on his wristcom.
For the next few hours they talked and theorized as data was collected and collated. Miles itched to be out there himself but had to admit he was more comfortable inside. It was still raining miserably. He had not realized how much time had passed until Ekaterin opened the study door to announce that lunch was now being served. Eyes brightening, Miles asked, "Ma Kosti is here?"
"Yes, she arrived less than an hour ago," answered Ekaterin.
"Ah, you are in for a real treat, gentlemen," said Mile to the room. As they filed into the dining room his wife whispered that she had Jankowski take the children back to Vorkosigan House. He nodded with agreement. "Yes it is probably for the best. They will be safer there. Perhaps you should have gone with them?"
"No, my place is with you. Besides, who else is going to be able to guilt you from diving head-first into this dangerous investigation?"
He smiled. "A good point," he chuckled, then sobered. "If anything will keep me safely behind the lines it will be your presence and my desire above all to keep you safe."
"Good," she responded, looked a little smug.
[Out maneuvered again.]
As lunch finished, Lieutenant Lawson rushed in smiling. "We found it!"
"The second bullet?" asked Stevenson.
"Yes! Part of it was flattened, but there is enough left we will be able to match it to the rifle when we find it." His smile faded as his nose told him he had missed an extraordinary repast.
"Don't worry, Lieutenant," Miles grinned. "We saved you a plate. I always feed my troops well."
The rest of the afternoon was spent brainstorming and awaiting data. It was not forthcoming. Miles got impatient and exasperated and they decided to stop for the night, have dinner, and get a fresh start in the morning.
The next morning dawned bright and clear. "Anything new?" Miles asked as he joined the rest of the team for breakfast.
Neither the alloy of the bullet or the gunpowder matched any contemporary manufacturer. Miles thought this pointed towards someone that made their own gunpowder and did their own reloading. It was dangerous, to be sure, but not unheard of in the backcountry. Motive was still unclear. Miles knew he was well liked in the Vorkosigan district. It just didn't make sense.
[The answer won't be found here. It lies somewhere in the Dendarii mountains. I feel it!]
Miles looked at Ekaterin neatly eating a peach tart. "My dear, I need to get away from here for a short while. Let's go down to Vorkosigan Surleau this morning. I need to clear my head."
Pym, who was pouring coffee, suspiciously gazed at his lord, but kept his mouth shut.
"I'd like that, Miles," said Ekaterin. "I've been wanting to review the plantings by the lake garden."
Captain Stevenson stopped chewing and glared at the diminutive Lord Auditor suspiciously. Miles stared back innocently and said, "I'm assuming you have no objection to my wife and I, along with our armsmen, taking the aircar to the lake house?"
"No," Captain Stevenson said slowly. "But, take Lawson with you. There's plenty of room in that shiny new model you have down in the garage."
An hour later they were gracefully banking over mountainous, verdant vistas. Miles stared out the canopy, lost in his own thoughts.
[Someone wants me dead. Someone with the knowledge and skills of my Grandfather's sniper corps. Why? What have I done lately to warrant this? Things in the district are improving, better medical care, better education. Almost every community now has a powersat receptor or some other means of producing power. What have I missed and who have I pissed off now?]
Miles reached for the intercom to talk to Pym who was piloting. "Pym, change of plans. Head over to Silvy Vale." Pym dutifully banked the aircar and vectored off in the new direction.
Lieutenant Lawson turned around from his position next to Pym and pressed the com button on his side. "My Lord Auditor," Lawson said cautiously, "I need to call and get authorization or the change in destination."
"You do that," Miles stated flatly.
[Having this babysitter along for the ride is annoying. Now I have to justify this without sounding like I'm going off on my own investigation. Which I'm not really doing, Gregor. Really.]
"Ekaterin," Miles said sweetly, "Stanis' ex-wife lives close to Silvy Vale, doesn't she?"
"Yes," she responded with a certain amount of wariness in her voice. "I'm not exactly sure where, but Speaker Csurik would know."
"I think we should go and pay our respects," Miles continued. "Since she is now divorced, ImpSec might not have informed her of Stanis' death. We owe it him to talk to her."
"Yes, we should," Ekaterin stated. Her voice was soft, but suspicious. Her "Miles, what are you up to now?" went unvoiced. He reached over and patted her hand as his eyebrows raised twice in succession. His, "All will be explained later," was also not spoken out loud.
Lawson nodded, then turned to operate the mobile comconsole. A few minutes later he said to Miles, "The change in destination has been approved. I've been told to NOT let you out of my sight. Additionally, another ImpSec aircar has been dispatched. They will meet us at the new destination."
An hour and a half later their aircar set down in the clearing in front of a small settlement. Miles and his party got out. He turned to look at the valley and lake downslope. Earth pine trees had been planted several generations back. The smell of pine resin and the whisper of the wind through their needles was like a tonic. A few seconds later, another aircar descended and parked next to theirs.
[They must have broken a few speed regulations to get here so fast.]
Two more ImpSec agents exited and flanked Miles' party, their eyes wary and alert. A wiry young man exited the cabin ahead of them. He walked across the wide porch and down the steps grinning widely. "My Lord Auditor," he said. "It's so good to see ya!"
"Speaker Csurik," said Miles, smiling broadly. "It's good to see you too." He turned and introduced this young man to the others. "Gentlemen, this is Lem Csurik. He is the Speaker of Silvy Vale."
"Pleased to meet cha," said Lem.
"Lem, we need to bother you for some information. Can we go in and talk?" Miles gestured to the cabin.
"Of course, my Lord. I'm afraid Harra's not here right now. She's down at the schoolhouse. I don't have much to offer ya for refreshments."
"We're fine, Lem. We don't need anything to eat," stated Ekaterin.
The ImpSec officers entered the cabin first, then motioned that it was safe for the rest to enter. "My Lord, you have nothing to fear here. Nobody in the Vale would want ta hurt ya. You must know that." Speaker Csurik's tone was apologetic.
"Of course," Miles responded. "However, my security is a bit twitchy right now."
The inside of the cabin was clean and tidy. Sunlight streamed through the east window, caressing a vase filled with flowers from Harra's garden. Miles, Ekaterin, and Lem sat at the wooden table. The rest of the party stood surveying their surroundings. Miles took a deep breath and begun. "Lem, as you might already know, someone took a shot at me. One of my armsmen was killed. His name was Larkin Stanis. His ex-wife lives around here. Do you know where? Ekaterin and I would like to pay her a visit."
"Ehmmm," Lem cleared his throat and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Betsy Stanis, yes, she lives only a few hills away. She's a strange one, M'lord."
His interest peaked, Miles asked, "What do you mean?"
"None too friendly, that one."
Miles' party descended upon a small, shabby cabin. It sat on a rise by a stream, surrounded by sugar maple trees. They had parked the aircars in a clearing close by. One agent stayed with the aircars. The rest of their troop approached the rickety wooden stairs leading to the front porch.
They stopped at the front door and Ekaterin whispered, "Miles, this cabin really needs some work done to it. Could we please ask Lem to send up a few carpenters to help this poor lady out?" As to demonstrate her point her foot pressed down on one of the porch planks which gave about a centimeter and creaked loudly.
"Yes, of course," Miles whispered back. This whole trip had just been an excuse to poke his nose around the Dendarii mountains and scratch the investigatory itch he'd been feeling since that awful night at the Opera House. However, he was now glad he'd come. The least he could do for Stanis' ex-wife was to see to some basic home repairs. "Excellent idea, my love."
He knocked on the front door. A curtain in the front window slowly parted to reveal two icy blue eyes set in hard cold face. Pym and Roic sided closer to Miles. Instinctively, the men reached for their stunners. Ekaterin immediately took steps to deescalate the situation. "Betsy? You are Betsy Stanis, right?" The face disappeared from the window and the front door opened.
"Whacha want?" asked Betsy. Her voice was grating and high pitched. Miles inwardly cringed. He could not imagine tall, handsome Stanis being married to this shrew. Still, he could see the distant vestiges of beauty that must have once been there. He cleared this throat and in his most soothing voice said, "Betsy, it's Lord and Lady Vorkosigan. Could you spare us a moment of your time? It really is important."
"The house's a mess. Twernt expectin' no visitors."
"That's alright, Betsy. We just need to speak with you for a few minutes. We won't stay long," said Ekaterin.
Betsy was simply dressed in a black skirt and a rather shabby, patched white blouse. She reluctantly stepped aside to let them in. Roic entered first, taking in the contents of the small dismal cabin. The place looked like it hadn't been cleaned since the last Spring. Twigs and leaves littered the wooden floor. His eyes, however, were immediately drawn to the fireplace. Above the mantle was a scoped Dendarii Hill rifle, cleaned and freshly oiled.
Betsy did not close the door behind them, nor offer them a chair to sit on, or anything to eat or drink. Ekaterin was baffled at this lack of respect for her husband and his position, but was too polite to show any reaction. She did look to Miles and raised one questioning eyebrow. He raised one of his own in response.
"Well, spit it out. Whacha gots to tell me?" Betsy gruffly asked, her arms folded over her chest.
Miles stole a glance to Pym who looked like he wanted to slap this woman for her disrespectful attitude. He turned back to Betsy, took a breath and asked, "Has ImpSec contacted you recently?"
"No. Why should they?"
"We have some sad news. Larkin, your ex-husband, was killed the night before last." Miles searched her face for any sign of grief and found none.
"What's that gotta do with me?" Betsy asked flatly.
"We thought you would like to know," said Ekaterin somewhat shocked.
"Taint marr'd to him anymore. He don't mean nothin' to me. I even heard he's got himself a new honey," spat Betsy, venomously.
Roic was standing behind Betsy at this point. He took a small step towards the fireplace, his eyes darting to the rifle. Miles caught the movement and his armsman's significant glance.
"Well, we didn't mean to intrude," said Miles hurriedly. "We were just close by and thought we'd make sure you knew about your ex-husband." He put his hand out for Ekaterin. "We'll be leaving now. Thank you for your time." If what he feared was true, he wanted to get Ekaterin out here immediately. They filed out the front door and down the stairs. Right before Betsy practically slammed the door on his face Miles had an inspiration. He caught the old woman's eyes and said wistfully, "You know, I've been thinking about my grandfather a lot lately and all the stories he told me about what he and his men did during the Cetagandan War. I think I should write a book. The past should not be forgotten. Their sacrifices should be documented for the next generation. By any chance, was your grandfather with mine during the war?"
The door swung back open. "Yes!" Betsy's whole attitude changed. Her face lit with pride and she smiled. "Gramps fought alongside the Old General. 'Course he twernt old then. None of 'em were."
"I'd love to hear some of his stories sometime," Miles said eagerly. "Perhaps, I could come back another time and we could talk?"
"I can't stop ya, now can I, you bein' the Count's heir 'n all? But, sure," she said warily, eyes darting down to his. "Come again 'n we'll talk some."
Miles nodded and they all left without another word. Once airborne, on their way to Vorkosigan Surleau, Roic gave him an expectant stare. Miles said rather softly, "What if I wasn't the target? What if Stanis was? That would put a whole new light on this now, wouldn't it?"
Miles got on the com to Pym. "Pym, as soon as we are out of sight from that cabin, find a place we can land."
"That is not on our itinerary, My Lord," stated Lawson.
"It is now," said Miles curtly as Pym strained his neck to survey the terrain for a good landing spot. "Get on the com and tell Stevenson that I want that woman we just visited detained and fast-pentaed."
"Miles!" exclaimed Ekaterin. "That simple hill woman?"
"That simple hill woman with a well-oiled Dendarii marksman's rifle."
"It smelled freshly cleaned too," added Roic.
The two aircars settled down in a small clearing by a rocky outcrop of boulders and pine trees. Lawson jumped out and ran to the other car. A few seconds later he showed Miles a fast-penta kit that the other agents had brought with them. "We can take the other car and do that right now, my lord Auditor," he said.
"I'm coming with you," Miles stated.
"No, sir. You are not!" Lawson firmly stated. He may be only a lieutenant, but he refused to be intimidated by Miles' disapproving stare. He turned to Pym and Roic. "l will not go against the Emperor's direct orders. I believe you should accompany Our Lord Auditor to his Lake House. We can take it from here." He then turned on his heal, climbed in with the other agents in the second aircar and they lifted off to fly back to Betsy's cabin.
"Well, I didn't think he had it in him," Miles sputtered. He knew Lawson was right. He had given his word. It is just that old habits were hard to break. Besides, his first priority was to get Ekaterin home and safe.
Lawson's aircar rose and started to fly off back toward Betsy's cabin when a loud "CRACK" reverberated through the trees. As Miles watched, the aircar jerked and started to trail smoke from the left engine compartment. Pym and Roic immediately grabbed Miles and Ekaterin, hustling them off to cover nearby.
"That sounded familiar," Roic flatly stated, his stunner in hand, eyes scanning their surroundings.
"There!" shouted Pym, and pointed to the tree line behind the slowly falling aircar.
Miles turned and saw an airbike rising from the covering foliage. It had one occupant, a woman dressed in a black skirt and white blouse. She must have followed them to make sure they really left.
"M'lord," Pym whispered, "She has the range on us. There's no way we can hit her with our stunners."
"Where's a needle grenade when you need one," thought Miles.
"Miles," Ekaterin said hesitantly, "maybe you could talk to her."
Miles took a breath to respond and started to rise as another shot rang out and ricocheted off the boulder by Pym's head.
"NO!" both Pym and Roic yelled. "Bad idea, M'lord." Pym grabbed his lord's sleeve and yanked him back down behind their rocky shelter. He pointed to Miles' wristcom. "Time to call for backup."
Miles activated his wristcom and contacted Captain Stevenson. Before he could explain his situation, Stevenson interrupted. "My Lord Auditor, we've identified an airbike that was caught on a surveillance feed leaving the site of the shooting. It belongs to Stanis' ex-wife! We are on our way to her home right now."
"Well, you won't find her there," stated Miles flatly as another shot rang out. Pym flinched as the projectile grazed his right shoulder.
"My Lord," Stevenson shouted, "What's going on?"
"The subject of your search is currently approximately 100 yards from my location, on said airbike, shooting at us! Some alacrity on your part would be appreciated."
"Trouble just follows you, doesn't it, my Lord? We actually left Hassadar a while ago. We will be there in about 3 minutes."
Miles grimaced and cut the comm. At her rate of fire she could get 2 more shots off by then. So far, they have been lucky. She missed in her first attempt and Pym's wound was obviously superficial. A hovering airbike did not make a stable platform. He had to do something. But, what? He stared down to the useless stunner in his hand. ...Maybe not completely useless. He turned to Roic and asked, "How's your throwing arm, Roic?" Miles' fingers took the power pack out of his stunner and started fiddling with it.
Roic looked at his Lord, then looked over to the hovering airbike, realizing what Miles had in mind. "I can reach her, but we can't time the explosion that perfectly."
"That's OK, just get it below her," said Miles slapping the already vibrating power pack into Roic's hand.
"Of all the crazy things..." muttered Pym.
Roic popped up, threw the power pack, and dropped down just as another shot bit into the dirt behind him.
"When it goes off, we run into the trees," Miles said, grabbing Ekaterin's hand.
The flash came just a few seconds later. They jumped up and ran even as the concussion wave came towards them, flattening the grass in its wake. As they stumbled to the safety of the forest Miles looked back to see the airbike blown to the side. Betsy lost her balance as she had stood to aim for her next shot. She and her Grandfather's beloved Dendarii rifle fell into the tree canopy below.
Miles, Ekaterin, Pym, and Roic stood somberly by the black iron fence surrounding the Vorkosigan graveyard at Vorkosigan Surleau in the predawn darkness. The new marker had been erected by the freshly turn up earth. It listed a name, Larkin Stanis, and his date of birth and death. Miles knew the man had died in his service and would probably not be the last. He sadly withdrew a small set of scissors from his pocket and cut off a lock of his hair as he passed them on to his wife. Ekaterin did the same and passed them off to Pym, and then to Roic. Then they all passed their offerings to Miles, who reverently accepted them. Pym set up the tripod and brazier. Miles added the offering to the wood shavings inside and lit them. No one spoke as the smoke drifted into the brightening sky.
"Thank you all," said Miles finally breaking their silence. He hesitated for another moment, trying to form his thoughts into words. "When I think back on all the people who have died so I might live, I am humbled beyond words. It lays a great burden on me. I must do great things with my life to make their sacrifice worthwhile."
Ekaterin squeezed his hand. "You have done great things, Miles."
"Indeed, yes, M'lord," said Pym. "The Count-Your-Father once let me look at your ImpSec classified file so I could better understand what I was ...err...getting into when I was seconded to you. You've saved countless lives and saved the Imperium from possible war at least twice."
"He let you read my classified file!" Miles' eyes widened in disbelief and embarrassment.
"Of course. I'm ex-ImpSec, after all," said Pym proudly. "My oath to him binds me to you as well." He looked down to his diminutive lord and winked. "Your secrets are safe with me."
Roic looked a little jealous. He wished he could access that file. However, one stern glance from Pym answered that unspoken question. No, he would just have to learn the hard way. Miles cleared his throat. "Well, thank you. Let's hope my propensity for screwing up will never overshadow my future accomplishments." He then turned, took Ekaterin's arm and walked back to the main house and the Ma Kosti breakfast that was waiting for them.
Pym looked to Roic and smiled. "We can only hope," he whispered as they followed their Lord.