Part Forty-Five: In Shades Of Gray
Now frontiers shift like desert sands
While nations wash their bloodied hands
Of loyalty, of history, in shades of gray
--- David Gilmour
A cell phone rang, and Alan held up a hand for quiet as he answered. "Kessler. Yeah. Send him up." Alan snapped the phone away and tucked it back in his suit pocket. "Now, Mr. Young, we require your assistance dealing with Mr. Barlow."
"My assistance." Heero phrased it as a statement, not a question.
"I arrived with eight men," Alan replied, chuckling softly. "However, seven of them are downstairs restraining your colleague. He's a good boy, but he has a temper. He wasn't pleased at the news."
Heero nodded, but his expression didn't change.
"I was given to understand you once took on seven men at one time, at Pop's bar. Tariq here can handle five." Alan jerked his head at the broad-shouldered man standing behind him. Tariq bared his teeth at Heero, obviously unimpressed by the shorter, slimmer man. The copper-headed manager smiled wryly. "I'm hoping between the two of you, you'll be able to assist me in convincing Mr. Barlow to go peacefully."
"What do you plan to do with him?"
"Keep him, for the time being," the other man said, and shrugged. "Although if the mafia are as obstinate as they usually are, Mr. Barlow will be our trump card. Our sources indicate that he was most likely the pilot of Heavyarms. That was the Gundam that killed a number of European mafia while in Italy."
"I doubt he was aiming for them. I seem to recall the Gundams were fighting OZ and the Alliance, not the underground." Heero's voice was flat.
"You know your history." Alan laughed and leaned against the wall. "No, but many of the mafia now were OZ members then. And they have very long memories. If we need to appease them to achieve an agreement, Mr. Barlow will suffice as a trading card. Now, if you don't mind, I think we should get on with this." He led the way down to the end of the hallway, to the door of Trowa's and Jeet's room. Alan rapped softly with his knuckles, and several seconds later the door swung open.
"Yes?" Trowa looked tired, but his green eyes were sharp. He flicked his hair out of his eyes, his gaze measuring Heero, Tariq, and Alan's smooth smile.
"Mr. Barlow," Alan said. "We'd like you to come with us."
Trowa didn't say anything, but frowned slightly as he stepped into the hallway, closing the door behind him. Alan smiled, pleased, just as Tariq pulled out a set of handcuffs. The clink of metal warned Trowa and he spun in place, bringing the heel of his hand against Heero's jaw. The dark-haired man barely dodged the strike, and Trowa was swung sideways with his elbow, jamming Tariq's chest. The larger man cried out, clutching his body as he stumbled backwards. The handcuffs fell to the floor.
"Enough, or he dies!"
The three instantly froze. Slowly Trowa lowered his arms, able to see what Heero couldn't. Heero flexed his jaw, and turned to see Jeet at the other end of the hallway, his brown eyes wide in terror. Tiny was behind him, holding a six-inch switchblade to the young man's jugular.
The blue-haired artist flinched, and a thin trickle of blood ran down his neck.
"Now that we have that straightened out," Alan said, "I'd appreciate it if you'd follow us calmly and professionally. You make another move, and I'll instruct Tiny to slice the kid to ribbons. You try to get away, and I won't call Tiny in a half-hour to let him know the kid can live. That clear?"
Trowa nodded curtly.
"Good," Alan replied. "In that case, Mr. Young, we now longer need your assistance. Carry on."
Five minutes later, Heero was alone in the hallway. Tariq and Alan had left with Trowa. Tiny had hauled Jeet into Trowa's hotel room, slamming the door behind them. Heero leaned against the wall with one hand, and exhaled slowly. The trap was closing in on them.
Heero was awake at five the next morning. Blinking, he stared groggily at the ceiling before hauling himself out of bed, throwing his pillow at Duo's sleeping form as he stumbled past.
In the shower, he contemplated the previous evening's events. The team had spent two hours after dinner rearranging to cover the gap left by Trowa's absence. Heero had only been able to determine Trowa was probably still in the hotel, being held somewhere for quick production should the syndicate require his presence. Jeet had reappeared for dinner, shaken up and quiet, but willing to continue his role. Hilde was drawn and exhausted, but her jaw was set. Duo was bruised and his hip was bothering him, and his countenance flashed fire at anyone who approached him. Most of the hotel staff figured out quickly that last-minute questions would have to wait until the morning.
The dark-haired man washed the soap out of his hair and stood in the shower for several minutes more, enjoying the hot water slamming against his back. At some point, he promised himself, he would figure out how he felt about Duo's confession, and the strange feeling he got that Duo still didn't trust him. But not now, he decided. There simply wasn't time to deal with that, not yet.
Dressing quickly in the bathroom in a white button-up shirt, and black slacks, Heero returned to the bedroom to find Duo waiting his turn at the shower. Nodding a greeting, Heero started up the room's coffee pot for Duo, pulled on his black boots, and let himself out of the room. Some of the night staff would be returning in the afternoon for second shift, and he needed to be there to answer any final questions.
At eight, the team was in place. Enny was at the door, assisting the security guards checking identification from the attendees, while Hilde was helping attendees find their seats. Jeet was with the video security guard, in the downstairs staff area, watching the cameras. Duo had gone for more coffee, while Heero had taken up position on the north wall, where he could see the entire room and the entrances.
The room was large, with high ceilings. The dampeners were set on low, muffling the voices but allowing Heero and Duo the ability to hear raised voices clearly, and to speak softly over the commlink, if needed. The tables were set in a U-shape, with the attendees along the outside perimeter. The seating labels were of regions, not personal names. L2 was on the far end, facing Heero, while L4's representative would be on the near side, with his back to Heero. There were two seats for the North European Alliance, facing the doors, flanked by three seats for the Asian regions. Two seats for North America were on the North European Alliance's other side. The South American representative was at the far end of the near wing of tables, being seated next to the heavy-set South European representative.
The men and women of varying ages were dressed nearly identically in dark professional attire, and all had one bodyguard per person. The bodyguards stationed themselves behind the chairs, standing in an informal row about three or four feet back from the tables. There were six assistants seated along the outer wall, behind the head of the table. Many of the assistants were chatting quietly with each other, introducing themselves as they shuffled papers and prepared to hand out each representatives' reports.
Heero leaned against the wall where he stood on an orchestra platform, able to see over the heads of the bodyguards to the people being seated. The crackle in his ear indicated Jeet was running the test on the conference system Duo had selected. The hotel security was running on one channel, with the team on another. The young artist would be able to switch back and forth between each to relay intermittent news. Heero had argued against two systems, but Hilde's decision was final. She didn't want the regular staff communication lines cluttered with their organizational chatter.
Heero nudged the device attached to his belt loop, and switched over to the main security system, listening for several minutes as the staff reported in for regular checkpoints. Two male employees had just completed the check of the back loading dock, while another reported all clear on the fourth floor. There was a pause, and a recording broke in to remind specific staff positions to switch to a different location. In five minutes, three more employees would register their locations and confirm completion of their circuit, and the system would issue another reminder. Heero bumped the small device with his elbow. Immediately the line was quiet except for Hilde's soft conversation with a gentleman from Kenya, one of two representing the African continent's interests.
"Here's your caffeine," Duo whispered. He frowned when he seemed to realize he hadn't startled Heero, who took the drink without comment. Shrugging, Duo made his way to the southern end of the conference room, and hopped up on the platform at that end. His braid swung against his backside as he moved, and in the movement of bending and leaping, Heero could make out the Ruger tucked into the holster under the man's shirt.
By eight-thirty, the room was nearly full, rumbling from the chatter of people meeting in person, some for the first time. The representative from the Japanese yakuza was discussing trade agreements on prostitution rings with the South Asian and African regional representatives, while the Russian kombinat was laughing over Polish jokes with the American underground. The bevy of accents assailed Heero's ears, and he relaxed his focus, letting his soldier's training take over. He didn't registered single statements but tracked the rise and fall of the conversation volumes.
Thus, when the room fell silent, Heero was instantly on guard. Four people had entered, one of whom approached Alan and was shaking the L2 representative's hand over the table. The woman behind the man was instantly recognizable anywhere on earth or the colonies. Heero checked his vitals: respiration normal, pulse normal, expression blank.
Relena Darlian was chatting with the representative from L1. Behind her, Wufei Chang was looking bored.
The young woman was wearing a crimson suit, the bright shade making her stand out in the dark-suited crowd like a cardinal in a field of jaybirds. Relena's hair was pulled back in a short ponytail, and Heero noted she'd cut her hair to just past her shoulders at some point. Her skirt was short, and her legs were long. He was amused to note her shoes matched the suit. Behind her, Wufei was dressed in dark gray slacks and a steel-gray Chinese shirt, knots leading from the monk collar down to the hem. The man's long hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail at the base of his neck, and his eyes darted around Relena's personal perimeter.
Heero glanced over at Duo, who had been watching another group being seated by Hilde. Duo turned his head, and Heero noticed Duo's smile became even wider. He was certain that Duo's eyes were blue ice chips at the sight of Relena's entrance. Something was not right. Heero registered his soldier's instinct as he observed the easy elegance with which Relena moved to her chair, laughing at her neighbor's words as Wufei helped her into her seat.
The man on Relena's right was older, graying at the temples and slightly heavy-set, but his double-breasted suit fit him neatly. His jocular expression didn't match with the stern Asian faces arrayed along his right, but the nearest representative was nodding politely.
"That's President Haune," Duo's voice whispered into Heero's ear.
"Roger that," Jeet replied immediately, a strange note of pride in his voice at the military term. "Recognized him from the media reports."
"Everyone in," Enny interrupted. "Lock-down proceeding." She was stationed outside the door, and Heero saw her poke her head in the room. She nodded at Duo, waiting for Hilde and the two catering staff to leave before quietly shutting the door. A second later the locking mechanisms on the doors were bolted home, and the room was silent for a minute. Alan stood up, bowing formally to the entire group before moving to the podium that stood between the two entrances. He shuffled the papers in his hand for a minute, cleared his throat, and began speaking.
"Greetings to everyone, and thank you for arriving on such short notice," he began, his smooth baritone friendly and warm. "This is truly an historical occasion. But first, because so many expressed anxiety over the arrangements, let me assure you again of two facts. First, our elite teams have made sure the security is impenetrable while we meet. And second, there will be no one knocking on the outer door because there is no one to knock. I am pleased to announce that Mr. Haune, President of the Interstellar Earth Sphere Council, has joined us. With his assistance, the Preventers are... " Alan paused to chuckle at his own joke. " ...prevented from interfering."
There was a rustle as a number of the attendees murmured to their neighbors. Duo's gaze was wandering, assessing the faces of the people he could see. Heero did the same, and noticed that many seemed to relax for the first time since they'd arrived. One of the assistants stood up, a sheaf of papers in his arms, and began placing them in front of each representative while Alan spoke.
"And now, I'd like you to turn to the first page of your packets. The L2 business statistics are outlined here, and I'd like to walk you through an overview of our holdings in the Earth Sphere... "
Two hours later, Heero was wondering if he was going to die of boredom. Five years ago, Relena had asked him to become head of her security, but he'd left that offer behind when he'd gone back to L1. Now, as he shifted quietly in place, he decided he had made the right move. If all her meetings droned on like this, there was no way he could've stayed sane in the job. Frankly, he found himself wondering how Wufei could continue to stand there, his eyes like flint, unmoving for three hours behind Relena's chair.
For that matter, Heero thought, studying the head table without focusing his eyes directly on the young woman, he wondered how Relena could sit through this and not fall asleep. Alan had spoken for ten minutes, outlining the extent of L2's involvement in the world's underground markets, and its recent acquisitions of several mining asteroid contracts. When he sat down, an L1 representative stood up and began the same type of speech, but focused on L1's activities. The first five speakers were fascinating, Heero had thought, detailing such complex networks of guns, drugs, prostitution, extortion, and other illegal activities, as well as the legit businesses acting as cover, the number of people employed, and even the health benefits offered by several of the syndicates.
The eighth speaker had been Relena. The North European Alliance holdings were virtually identical to the two speakers who had preceded her, and she delivered her speech in a friendly tone as though she were simply discussing the weather. Heero struggled to reconcile the young woman discussing stolen code rings with the girl he'd once kissed, and couldn't. Finally he gave up, and fell back to musing about whether the speechwriters had all been working from the same template. Relena sat down to applause, and a nervous young man from China stepped up to the podium. Heero found it amusing that these paragons of illegal activity were essentially presenting business cases for their organizations. It was likely, he decided, that these speeches would become the basis for any jockeying for power during the afternoon's negotiations.
At noon, the earpiece crackled softly. "Doors unlocking," came the soft announcement in Heero's ear. "Enny's bringing lunch."
The doors were unlocked a second later, cutting off the last few words of the young woman from South America. She finished to a smatter of applause, and Enny entered at the head of a number of staff pushing white-clothed kitchen carts.
"Everything's all clear out here," Hilde reported over the line. "Jeet caught two reporters a half-hour ago. Security hauled them off without a problem."
"Reporters?" Duo sounded skeptical, and Heero looked up to see the other man's cold grin.
"Cameras and everything," Jeet replied. "That's what their identification said."
The line fell silent again, and Heero nodded as one of the hotel security staff relieved him. Stepping outside the room, he joined Hilde as she ate at a small table opposite the doors. A few minutes later Enny and Duo were poking at the chicken, filling their plates and settling on folding chairs beside the other two. They watched as a number of attendees took bathroom breaks, followed by vigilant bodyguards. Additional security was in place outside the bathrooms, and inside.
Hopefully there would be no altercations between guests during the break, Heero thought. He nudged the transponder and switched to the hotel security's comm channel. For several minutes there was silence, then a recorded message reminding staff came through, and he relaxed.
"How're you doing staying awake?" Hilde nudged Duo, who shrugged.
"It's one big business meeting," he replied around a mouthful of salad.
"Any word?" Enny glanced up at Heero, and mouthed Trowa's name silently. Heero shook his head.
They ate the rest of their meal in silence.
Heero was finding himself almost disappointed with the lack of fireworks. The meeting had been proceeding relatively peacefully for an hour, with minor debate over market exchange rates between the continents, with the colonies agreeing to be fixed against the North European underground market prices. Currently the Russian and Chinese representatives were holding a civil debate about whether Northern Asia should ally with the European or Asian syndicates in the weight of their markets.
"Guys, just want to let you know the security comlink is moving to a different channel," Jeet announced through the earpiece.
Heero frowned, and uttered a single quiet word. "Why?"
"Hold on," the young man replied. "Want to make sure I get this right." There was a click as he switched over. A minute later he was back. "There are two systems administrators who control the communications systems, along with reservations, restaurants, maid service, and the rest of it. Everything goes through them, and they're having some sort of problem with the computers."
"What kind?" Hilde's voice was bewildered. "What does this have to do with the security comlinks?"
"The computer record all the conversation on the channels, but the system also sends out recorded verbal reminders every fifteen minutes."
"What about it?" Heero shifted in place, annoyed at being told what he already knew. How like a hotel, Heero thought, nearly rolling his eyes in exasperation. They don't trust the employees to do their own jobs, but have to remind them.
"So what's going on?" Enny sounded irritated. "Get to the point."
"The computer guys have discovered that parts of the conversations aren't being recorded. Like, for five-minute periods, and then everything's fine. And the reminders for people to move from one place to another aren't coming through, either." Jeet paused, and Heero heard the click as the artist switched lines again, and then Jeet was back. "Terry says it's been going on since mid-morning, but the computer guys think they'll have it fixed soon."
"Cause?" Duo's whisper. Heero could see Duo's eyes narrow as he swept his gaze across the debating representatives.
"Uh... something about upgrading the management systems over night that might have caused an error in the server," Jeet said. "I don't know what that means, but that's what Terry is reporting. He's going upstairs to check it out."
"Good," Hilde replied. "Does it work if they switch to a different channel?"
"Well... they don't know. They're just now trying that." Jeet's voice contained the sound of a shrug. "Right now they're on channel four, in case you want to listen in. I'll let you know if it changes again."
"Roger that," Hilde told him.
Heero watched the Asian representative finally agreeing to Relena's persuasive arguments about market weighing. At the back of his head, he was impressed and dismayed by her ability to diplomatically sway nearly any representative present as she mediated the debates. At the front of his mind, however, he was studying the comm issue. It was one more thing that simply wasn't right, but he couldn't put his finger on it. Jeet's voice interrupted his thoughts.
"Terry says the day manager doesn't think the computer guys know what they're doing. He wants to know if any of us have the skills to figure it out."
Heero's eyes shot over to Duo, who nodded once. Heero narrowed his eyes in response, and gave a subtle twitch of his head.
"Day?" Hilde asked.
"No," Heero replied immediately. Taking cover under the rustling and conversation as the attendees prepared for the next agenda item, he hissed his instructions quickly into the slim mouthpiece. "The doors are locked. If we unlock them, we're admitting there's a problem. Give the sys admins until the break. Switch Day and Hel, then, if it's still a problem."
There was a pause, and Enny's voice came over the line. "He's right. We open the doors to switch guards, and the rest of the crew will know something's not right."
"Yeah," Hilde said, voicing her final decision. "Day and Hito stay in place for the time being. Keep us informed."
"Okay," Jeet replied. "Over and out," he added, a little too gleefully.
The dampeners' ability to muffle low conversation was overridden as the South European Alliance representative, Mr. Fiori, pounded his fist on the table. His bald scalp was nearly red with fury. "I did not fly all the way here to relinquish control of our region," he barked, nearly coming out of his seat.
Heero's eyebrows went up involuntarily, and he hissed into the mike. "Did you catch the start of that?"
Duo shook his head. "Couldn't hear it over the dampeners," he replied. "I think he's talking to the L3 representative. But that Italian has been getting annoyed over the past half-hour."
"Roger that." Heero sighed and checked the clock on the wall: an hour until the break.
"Mr. Fiori," Alan began, but he was cut off when the Italian representative turned to him with a snarl.
"L2 is not the center of the universe, and we are not going to lay down and let you run things simply because you managed to finally bring L4 into the group. You rely on our raw materials to produce anything, and don't think we've forgotten that for a second."
"It's been six years, Vincent," Louise Mendoza, the South American representative, snapped. "You can get over your hatred of the colonies at some point."
"We'd like to make peace," Alan said, smiling at the young woman who was bristling at the Italian representative. "And the colonies are aware that there are hard feelings that still remain."
"Here it comes," Duo whispered.
"We have a peace offering for you," the copper-haired man said. "We will turn over the Gundam pilot known as 03, if in return you agree to the terms of our agreement on the raw materials shipments."
There was a stunned silence in the room. Heero could see several of the representatives staring outright at Alan, who leaned back in his chair.
"How dare you," someone breathed, just loud enough to be heard over the dampeners.
Heero frowned, unable to tell who'd spoken.
"Mark Hewlett, from L3," Duo informed him. Duo's eyes were fixed on a man whose back was to Heero, but the dark-haired man could see the representative's gaunt shoulders were hunched in anger.
"Don't even try, Representative!" Louise's blue-black hair swung against her shoulders as she leaned over the table at the man from L3. "You've never expressed any interest in your Gundam pilot. You can't convince us now that you have any claim. I say let the South European Alliance fulfill its vengeance."
"What's going on?" Enny's voice broke in.
"They're turning Trey over to the South European Alliance," Heero hissed.
There was a quick whine that was cut off, and Heero realized Duo had turned up the sensitivity on his mike. Heero glared across the room at Duo, who shrugged. The mike had a split-second delay, but enough to produce a strange echo in Heero's ear.
"Everyone, please," Relena said, standing with her hands out, palms down. "We can discuss this civilly. First, Mr. Hewlett, the L3 syndicate did not fund Heavyarms. The Barton family did, and they've had no ties to the syndicate since Mariamaia was defeated."
Several heads nodded, and the L3 representative shrugged. Hewlett turned to the L4 representative to mutter something, and Heero could see a sour look on the man's profile.
Relena, however, waited until he was quiet, and smiled sweetly. "The long-standing... wish on the part of the South European Alliance to exact retribution for their families' deaths is well-known. Assuming the L2 representative, Mr. Kessler, can actually produce the pilot, shall we consider this a peace offering?"
"Fuck," Hilde breathed, listening through the mike system.
"We can produce him," Alan said casually. "He's here in the hotel, in a safe location. I'll have him brought in after the break, if you'd like to see for yourself."
The room was quiet, and Relena slowly sat back down, her sharp eyes glancing between the L2 and South European representatives. Eventually Hewlett nodded, and the young woman graced him with a beaming smile. Heero narrowed his eyes, the uncertain sense in his gut roiling back up to the surface. The Wing Zero pilot looked over at Duo, who had pulled his braid around and appeared to be studying the hair for split ends. Heero gritted his teeth.
"Of course he's still in the hotel," the L3 representative suddenly said, and shifted to point a finger at Alan. "From what I hear, you didn't find out until last night that you even had a second Gundam pilot working for you!"
"A second?" The Russian representative sat bolt upright, his broad face the picture of shock. Mikhel Vasilchikov glanced up at Heero, and then pointedly turned around to stare at Duo, who ignored the movement. Mikhel chuckled hoarsely. "What are you doing, growing them in vats?"
A number of the group laughed, but Mark was having none of it. The gaunt man shook his head. "You're trying to convince us that L2 can run the colonies' combined syndicate, yet you had a wanted man on your payroll for nearly a year!"
The tension in the room shifted suddenly, and one of the North American representatives shook her head. "Alan, this is not acceptable. L2 has been jockeying for the lead position on this council. Do you really believe it would be secret for long that you allowed a Gundam pilot to infiltrate your ranks?"
"He didn't infiltrate," Alan retorted, but his voice was low.
Heero nearly blinked. There was no way he should have been able to hear that over the dampeners. Something was wrong. He jerked his chin curtly at Duo; suddenly aware of the way Duo was also regarding the attendees with a vaguely delighted expression. Duo caught Heero's movement, and the thief brushed the end of his braid against his ear, and then nodded once. The dampeners were definitely malfunctioning. Heero wondered if it was connected to the issues with the computer system, but now that the representatives' voices weren't muffled thoroughly, his own voice might be heard if he checked in with Jeet for an update. Heero scowled and turned his attention back to the meeting.
"We hired him, because he had the skills we want," Alan continued with a casual shrug. "We would have had no problem keeping him, but our debt to the South European Alliance was paramount."
"In the future, keep us better informed," Relena murmured, but clearly enough that everyone could hear her. She tempered the comment with a smile, but it was an expression Heero recognized from the war. Relena was not pleased, but few other than the Gundam pilots might have recognized the subtle movement of her chin that indicated her irritation. "The North European Alliance has placed faith in your ability as a leader, Mr. Kessler. Do not prove us wrong by refusing to acknowledge your shortcomings when necessary."
The Russian representative started at that, but quickly ducked his head when Relena glanced his way. She held the silence for several more seconds as she pointedly studied each representative in turn, then nodded, satisfied. She calmly sipped her tea, but Heero noted the tilt of her head. The young woman was definitely planning something, and Heero's skin prickled, a thread of cold up his spine.
"What? Are you lost?" Jeet's voice interrupted the moment, coming through the comm. Heero frowned, shifting as he tried to determine to whom Jeet was speaking. There was a laugh, and the faint sound of a woman's voice. The young man replied with another laugh. "Oh! I don't know who's there. I'm just here for the day. Maybe Terry would know, but he's still upstairs. Do you want me to... "
The voice trailed off. Heero's eye was caught by Duo raising his eyebrows and dropping them in an abbreviated shrug. Heero took a deep slow breath, and released it through his nose as he focused on Relena, introducing the next topic on the agenda. The break would be in an hour. Trowa would be handed to people more than happy to end his life, probably after making the last few hours of it a living hell.
And there wasn't a damn thing Heero could do about it.
On to Chapter forty-six