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At All Costs: Chapter Fourteen

       Last updated: Friday, August 12, 2005 19:45 EDT



    "Well, well, well . . . there you are," Jean-Claude Nesbittt murmured.

    He studied the lines of alphanumeric text on his display for several seconds, then frowned thoughtfully and began very carefully copying the critical passages of the document for safekeeping. He made certain he had everything he needed, then closed the file and withdrew from the "secure" memory bank as tracelessly as he had entered it.

    He punched up another file, running down the checklist he'd assembled over the last three arduous weeks. Putting it together would have been a full-time job under almost any circumstances. Given the fact that he couldn't afford to let any of his erstwhile subordinates guess he was working on a completely private black project of his own, it had become a monumental pain in the neck. But unless he was very mistaken, he had all the pieces he needed now.

    He reached the end of the list, grunted in satisfaction, and then closed that file, as well. It wasn't easy. In fact, it was extraordinarily tempting to move ahead quickly now that he'd completed the preparatory groundwork. But it was late, he was tired, and he'd seen entirely too many fatigue-induced errors in his time. Besides, Giancola's instructions to replace Grosclaude's letter of instruction to his attorneys had been carried out over two months ago. Even if something happened to Grosclaude before the colonel got around to completing the rest of project, he was covered. So best to take things slowly and cautiously.

    He powered down his console, nodded to his own reflection in the blank display, and pushed back his chair. Time for bed, he thought, but first, a well-earned nightcap.



    "Are you really serious about this, Boss?" Special Senior Inspector Abrioux asked quizzically.

    "And just what about my clearly phrased directive makes you think I might not be?" Kevin Usher, Director of the Federal Investigative Agency of the Republic of Haven inquired.

    Usher was a huge, powerfully built man. Danielle Abrioux, on the other hand, was delicately petite. Like Usher, she'd come up through the Resistance before joining the FIA, and if she looked like a slender, brown-haired child, appearances could be deceiving. She was a very dangerous "child" . . . as the shades of over a dozen assassinated InSec and StateSec officials -- and far more currently carnate inmates of the Republic's penal systems -- would have vehemently attested. At the moment, she was perched on the corner of Usher's desk, sipping coffee, and a matching coffee mug sat on his blotter, because Abrioux was one of his most trusted investigators. She knew all about his alleged drunkenness, and it was a relief to be able to abandon the charade during their meetings.

    "Boss," she said now, her tone just a bit plaintive, "you know you've got a screwy sense of humor. Just look at what you put Ginny and Victor through, for God's sake! So, yeah, when you call me in for something like this, I've got to wonder whether or not you're trying to see if my legwill come off if you pull it hard enough."

    "My sense of humor isn't the least bit screwy," he said with dignity. "Everyone else's sense of humor is. But in this particular instance, I'm serious as a heart attack, Danny."

    "My God." Abrioux lowered her coffee cup, her smile fading. "You really are, aren't you?"

    "I am, and I wish to hell I wasn't."

    Abrioux felt her stomach congealing into a lump of frozen lead. She set her coffee cup down and pushed the saucer away from her.

    "Let me get this straight, Kevin," she said very quietly. "You're telling me you think we may have gone back to war against the Manties not because they altered our diplomatic traffic, but because we did?"

    "Yes." Usher's always deep voice sounded like a gravel crusher, and he inhaled deeply. "I'm not saying I'm convinced that's what happened, but I'm afraid it may be, Danny."

    "Why?" she demanded.

    "Partly because of Wilhelm's reports." Usher tipped back in his float chair. "We lost a lot of our best conduits when we took down Saint-Just's organization, but he's still got a few sources in place inside the Manty Foreign Office. Not as highly placed as they were, but high enough to have access to the sorts of insider shop talk permanent assistant undersecretaries get to hear. And according to them, everyone -- everyone, from the top down -- is convinced we did it."

    "That may not indicate anything," Abrioux countered. "Putting something like this together successfully would have required very tight security. Not only that, but it would have been put together by the High Ridge Government, not the current one. So anyone who'd been in on it would probably be out of office by now, anyway."

    "Agreed. But the people who are so thoroughly convinced we're the heavies of this particular piece are the people who replaced High Ridge's cronies. Every other bit of gossip Wilhelm's sources have given us only confirms the utter contempt they have for their immediate predecessors. If there were even the tiniest sniff of a possibility that anyone in the High Ridge crowd had been responsible for this, someone would have picked up on it by now. You know as well as I do there are always conspiracy theorists hiding in the woodwork, Danny. Combine that with the blinding rage most of Manticore feels for anyone remotely associated with the High Ridge Government, and one of those theorists would certainly have pounced on any possibility, even if it was only as one of those shivery 'no-shit' urban legends to share over a coffee break. And no one's dropped a single word about it. Not one."

    "Hmmm . . . ." Abrioux plucked at her lower lip, then shrugged. "Maybe. But I've gotta tell you, Boss, it sounds mighty flimsy."

    "I said that was part of the reason," Usher reminded her. "There are other factors -- straws in the wind, you might say. One is how well I know the players on our side."

    "Boss, I hate Giancola's guts myself. And I wouldn't be too surprised at anything he did. But much as I might like him as the baddie for this one, I think you're reaching. First of all, he's smart. He has to know that sooner or later whoever wins this war's going to get her hands on the other side's diplomatic archives. Second, however much I may despise and distrust him, I don't see even him as deliberately starting a war just to serve his own personal political ambitions. Especially not when there's no way to be sure we're going to win the damned thing. And, third, how the hell could he have pulled it off without someone else at State realizing he'd altered the original notes?"

    "I never said he was stupid," Usher said mildly. "And taking your first and second points together, I also never said he deliberately set out to start a war. If my more paranoid suspicions are on track, what he wanted was to create a crisis he could then successfully 'resolve' as a demonstration of his own competence and tough-mindedness to strengthen his hand when he runs for the presidency a few years down the road. If he'd managed to pull off what I think he was after, there wouldn't have been a war, and neither side would have access to the other's archives. At the very least, it would probably have been decades before anyone had a chance to compare originals."

    "Maybe so, but there's still the question of how he could have pulled it off." Abrioux shook her head. "Somehow he'd have had to alter at least the Manty originals after they were received and logged in. And given what the Manties have published as their version of our correspondence, he would have had to alter that from the version the President and the rest of the Cabinet had seen before it was sent, as well."

    "Altering the outgoing correspondence wouldn't have been difficult," Usher responded. "He has personal, direct access to the traffic. He's the Secretary of State, after all! And he also has access to the State Department's internal recordkeeping, chip-shredding, and security systems. And, yes," he waved one hand, cutting off her interruption, "I know he still should have stubbed his toe after the Manties published their version of the documents. After all, our 'Special Envoy' also had access to the documents actually delivered to Manticore. He must know whether or not what they've published matches the notes he actually delivered. And Mr. Grosclaude hasn't said a word to indicate they did. Which means that either the documents they're publishing are, indeed, false, or . . . "

    "Or else Grosclaude was in on it, too." Abrioux's dark eyes narrowed thoughtfully, and Usher nodded.

    "Exactly. And Yves Grosclaude and Arnold Giancola go way back together. It's only reasonable that the Secretary of State would have picked a special envoy in whom he had complete faith, of course. But what, exactly, did he have faith Grosclaude would do for him?"

    "Jesus." Abrioux rubbed her forearms as if she'd felt a sudden chill. But then she frowned again.

    "Okay, granted he could have altered the outgoing correspondence, and, assuming Grosclaude really was willing to put it all on the line for him, he could have gotten away with that part of it. But what about the Manty notes? Surely they all carried the proper authentication codes!"

    "Which is why I called you in," Usher said grimly. "I've had to be very circumspect, but last week I finally got my own hands on a copy of one of the original Manty notes."

    "Wait a minute." Abrioux looked at him with the beginning of genuine alarm. "Got your hands on a copy? Why the hell didn't you just ask for one? As I recall, you and the President are supposed to be on pretty good terms, Boss. So exactly whose back are we sneaking around behind this time?"

    "Oh, be serious, Danny!" Usher snorted explosively. "Eloise -- and LePic and Tom Theisman -- are all absolutely dead serious about the 'rule of law.' Well, so am I. But we're not really there yet. And think about the military and diplomatic implications of what we're talking about here. If I asked Eloise for access to the original diplomatic correspondence, I'd have to tell her why I wanted it. She probably trusts me -- and distrusts Giancola -- enough to give me the access. But then she has to take official cognizance of what I suspect. So does she just quietly give me the access I'm not supposed to have without State's knowledge and approval or the congressional oversight the Constitution mandates, or does she order LePic to begin a full-press covert investigation? And what happens if and when word leaks that one of our own Cabinet secretaries may actually have created a completely falsified diplomatic exchange which prompted us to go back to war against Manticore? At the very least, it would probably cripple her administration, and the possibilities go steadily downhill from there. At the moment, exactly two people know what I suspect, and we're both in this office right now. And until I'm in a position to tell Eloise something definitive, one way or the other, this stays a completely unofficial, unacknowledged, totally 'black' investigation. Is that clearly understood?"

    "Yes, Sir," Abrioux said with unwonted formality. His hard eyes held hers for several seconds, and then he grimaced in satisfaction.

    "Didn't mean to sound hard-assed about it," he said, "but this is one operation we literally cannot afford to have go public until we've dotted all the 'i's and crossed all the 't's."

    "I see you haven't lost your gift for understatement, Boss," Abrioux said dryly. "But you were about to say something about the Manty authentication codes?"

    "I was about to say that the fact the dispatches did carry proper Manty authentication actually tends to reinforce my original suspicions."

    Abrioux looked confused, and he chuckled. It was a remarkably humorless sound.

    "There are a lot of things I'm officially not supposed to know about, Danny," he said. "In particular, the President -- and Congress -- were remarkably clear about the cast-iron firewall they want between our domestic police agencies and our espionage activities. Hard to blame them, with InSec and StateSec's horrible examples. And, in principle, I couldn't agree with them more. That's why I'm being so careful to establish the official precedent of respecting that firewall. Whoever takes over this chair after me is going to be stuck with it, and rightly so. But given the incredibly tangled can of worms StateSec left us with, it's literally impossible to draw those neat dividing lines this soon. So I've got my unofficial and personal feelers spread as wide as I can get them, which is how I came across an interesting tidbit of information.

    "Which was?" she demanded just a bit testily as he paused.

    "Which was that shortly before Citizen Chairman Saint-Just had that unfortunate encounter with a pulser dart, StateSec actually managed to steal the Manties' Foreign Office key. Not the Foreign Secretary herself's, but they did get the departmental key."

    "You're joking!"

    "No, I'm not." He shook his head. "I'm just guessing, since I don't have access to the full case files on the operation, but I suspect StateSec had planted someone on Descroix years ago. God knows she was twisty enough she might actually have knowingly allowed them to, if she thought it might give her some advantage. New Kiev might be an idiot, but she's a principled idiot, and I doubt they could have gotten anyone deeply enough into her confidence to have the necessary access. But when High Ridge shuffled his Cabinet after accepting the cease-fire, whoever they already had in place on Descroix managed to get them a physical copy of the key."

    "Which made it the current key," Abrioux said.

    "Exactly. They changed keys when Descroix took over from New Kiev. And if Giancola had the right contacts, he could have found out we had the key. You know we've still got open back doors all through our security systems, Danny. There's no telling who he might know who might have had that information or been able to hack it for him."

    "But you haven't established that someone did, have you, Boss?"

    "No. Not yet. That's one of the entertaining little chores I had in mind to drop on you."

    "Golly gee, thanks," she said, and her forehead creased in thought.

    "Even if I manage to establish that," she went on after a moment, "the mere fact he had access to the key wouldn't prove he actually did anything with it."

    "It might. Or, at least, it would be highly suggestive. Enough so for me to feel confident about showing probable cause."


    "Because the only key the original diplomatic note I saw carried was the one we've managed to compromise," Usher said grimly. "It's not unheard of for a note, even a high-level one, not to carry the Foreign Secretary's personal key, but it is unusual. So suppose we're able to establish that Giancola had, in his possession, the general key. And suppose we go back and examine all of the disputed correspondence and we find that none of the Manty originals carried Descroix's personal key?"

    "Probable cause out the ying-yang," Abrioux said softly.

    "Bingo." Usher raised his coffee cup in ironic salute, took a sip, and then smiled thinly at her.

    "So, Special Senior Inspector Abrioux, just how do you plan to begin your totally unauthorized, off-the-record, rogue investigation?"

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