“Also, we got a clue,” Amos said, pausing dramatically to sip his coffee.

“About Mei?”

“Yep,” Amos said, adding a little more sugar to his cup. “Prax, send him that message you got.”

Holden watched the message three times, grinning wider with each viewing. “The security video on your presentation. I believe I know the man in it,” the elderly gentleman on the screen was saying. “But his name isn’t Strickland. When I worked with him at Ceres Mining and Tech University, his name was Merrian. Carlos Merrian.”

“That,” Holden said after his final viewing, “is what my old buddy Detective Miller might have called a lead.”

“What now, chief?” Amos asked.

“I think I need to make a phone call.”

“Okay. The doc and I will get out of your hair and watch his money roll in.”

They left together, Holden waiting until the deck hatch slammed behind them to send a connection request to the switchboard at Ceres M&T. The lag was running about fifteen minutes with Tycho’s current location, so he settled back and played a simple puzzle game on his terminal that left his mind free to think and plan. If they knew who Strickland had been before he was Strickland, they might be able to trace his career history. And somewhere along the way, he’d stopped being a guy named Carlos who worked at a tech school, and became a guy named Strickland who stole little kids. Knowing why would be a good start to learning where he might be now.

Almost forty minutes after sending out the request, he received a reply. He was a little surprised to see the elderly man from the video message. He hadn’t expected to connect on his first try.

“Hello,” the man said. “I’m Dr. Moynahan. I’ve been expecting your message. I assume you want to know the details about Dr. Merrian. To make a long story short, he and I worked together at the CMTU biosciences lab. He was working on biological development constraint systems. He was never good at playing the university game. Didn’t make many allies while he was here. So when he crossed some ethical gray areas, they were only too happy to run him out of town. I don’t know the details on that. I wasn’t his department head. Let me know if you need anything else.”

Holden watched the message twice, taking notes and cursing the fifteen-minute lag. When he was ready, he sent a reply back.

“Thank you so much for the help, Dr. Moynahan. We really appreciate it. I don’t suppose you know what happened after he was kicked out of the university, do you? Did he go to another institution? Take a corporate job? Anything?”

He hit send and sat back to wait again. He tried the puzzle game but got annoyed and turned it off. Instead, he pulled up the Tycho public entertainment feed and watched a children’s cartoon that was frantic and loud enough to distract him.

When his terminal buzzed with the incoming message, he almost knocked it off the table in his haste to start the video.

“Actually,” Dr. Moynahan said, scratching at the gray stubble on his chin while he spoke, “he never even made it in front of the ethics review. Quit the day before. Made a lot of fuss, walking through the lab and yelling that we weren’t going to be able to push him around anymore. That he had a bigwig corporate job with all the funding and resources he wanted. Called us small-minded pencil pushers stagnating in a quagmire of petty ethical constraints. Can’t remember the name of the company he was going to work for, though.”

Holden hit pause and felt a chill go down his spine. Stagnating in a quagmire of petty ethical constraints. He didn’t need Moynahan to tell him which company would snatch a man like that up. He’d heard almost those exact words spoken by Antony Dresden, the architect of the Eros project that had killed a million and a half people as part of a grand biology experiment.

Carlos Merrian had gone to work for Protogen and disappeared. He’d come back as Strickland, abductor of small children.

And, Holden thought, the murderer too.

Chapter Thirty-Five: Avasarala

On the screen, the young man laughed as he had laughed twenty-five seconds earlier on Earth. It was the level of lag Avasarala hated the most. Too much for the conversation to feel anything like normal, but not quite enough to make it impossible. Everything she did took too long, every reading of reaction and nuance crippled by the effort to guess what exactly in her words and expression ten seconds before had elicited it.

“Only you,” he said, “could take another Earth-Mars war, turn it into a private cruise, and then seem pissed off about it. Anyone in my office would give their left testicle to go with you.”

“Next time I’ll take up a collection, but—”

“As far as an accurate military inventory,” he said twenty-five seconds ago, “there are reports in place, but they’re not as good as I’d like. Because it’s you, I’ve got a couple of my interns building search parameters. My impression is that the research budget is about a tenth of the money going to actual research. With your clearances, I have rights to look at it, but these Navy guys are pretty good at obscuring things. I think you’ll find …” His expression clouded. “A collection?”

“Forget it. You were saying?”

She waited fifty seconds, resenting each individually.

“I don’t know that we’ll be able to get a definitive answer,” the young man said. “We might get lucky, but if it’s something they want to hide, they can probably hide it.”

Especially since they’ll know you’re looking for it, and what I asked you to look for, Avasarala thought. Even if the income stream between Mao-Kwikowski, Nguyen, and Errinwright was in all the budgets right now, by the time Avasarala’s allies looked, it would be hidden. All she could do was keep pushing on as many fronts as she could devise and hope that they f**ked up. Three more days of information requests and queries, and she could ask for traffic analysis. She couldn’t know exactly what information they were hiding, but if she could find out what kinds and categories of data they were keeping away from her, that would tell her something.

Something, but not much.

“Do what you can,” she said. “I’ll luxuriate out here in the middle of nowhere. Get back to me.”

She didn’t wait fifty seconds for a round of etiquette and farewell. Life was too short for that shit.

Her private quarters on the Guanshiyin were gorgeous. The bed and couch matched the deep carpet in tones of gold and green that should have clashed but didn’t. The light was the best approximation of mid-morning sunlight that she’d ever seen, and the air recyclers were scented to give everything just a note of turned earth and fresh-cut grass. Only the low thrust gravity spoiled the illusion of being in a private country club somewhere in the green belt of south Asia. The low gravity and the goddamned lag.

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