4-10-2002

Title : The Killing Tide 13/20
Author : Dalton (AngelDalton6@aol.com)
Rating : R
Category : AU only in the fact that this takes place 10 years after Endless Waltz
Warnings : Swearing, angst, violence and death.
Disclaimer : Gundam Wing is the property of Sunrise, the Sotsu Agency, and Bandai. No infringement is intended upon their rights. (4/10/2)
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The anguished moment spent in Relena's secure embrace might have eventually brought Heero some relief, but the uncaring world barged in upon the two, bringing Preventer business back to the fore. Noventa entered first, apologetic but grinning that Cheshire's grin. Noin was right behind him, quiet but creating an atmosphere of competence with her calm sense of determination. Une completed the group, towing a plainclothes cop in with her. Through the myriad of questions and answers, Heero was only able to focus on Une's insistence that he accompany the police officer to the station house for further investigation. It seemed imperative that relations between the Preventers and the police be maintained, and Heero's cooperation was a previously set-up agreement no matter whether he liked it or not. By the time Heero joined Captain Coleman in his car, the recent overwhelming tide of emotion had been squelched, folded up and tucked into the nether reaches of Heero's soul.

When they arrived, the station was in its typical bustle of activity on a Monday afternoon. One officer had a couple of ladies lounging around his desk while they waited for their pimp to arrive. Heero saw Coleman grin at a plainclothes cop as they walked past the two chattering sirens. There must have been an office poll on how many prostitutes were collected, because he noticed the other cop tap his pocket book in response to Coleman's grin. A sudden vocal outburst from the colorful women seemed to have been cued by the sight of the handsome newcomer under Coleman's charge. In loud voices they shared their appreciative opinions, interspersing them with a few coos and one particularly enthusiastic, "Honey, give me a night with that one and I'll give you my street corner, 'cause this hen would be right done!"

The comment and the following hoot of agreement from the second lady didn't faze Heero as he followed Coleman toward the back of the open work area to a glassed-in office. Heero was more preoccupied with the occupants of the little office--three people who didn't seem to be enjoying each other's company. Howard's goatee poked upward as he glanced over Hicks's head, and his pinched face seemed to relax a bit as he winked at the approaching Preventer.

Sitting with his back to the window was a redhead who seemed to be quibbling about something with a balding cop, and as Coleman and Heero entered the office, they caught the last bits of the conversation: "Say... when people hate, is this how it has to be? Doesn't it ever stop until someone's dead?"

"Ya dumb kid... It doesn't stop even ~when~ someone dies...not...really...." Hicks's voice trailed off as he took in Coleman's return and the young man he brought with him. Heero had a hard time placing the look that came over the policeman's face as he studied Heero. Obviously Heero's presence made the officer uncomfortable.

"~He's~ the one you went for?" Joey's eyes seemed like they would bug all the way out of their sockets as his face went pale beneath its sprinkling of freckles.

"This ain't just your party, kid." Hicks leaned back in his chair, tucking his hand under the sling that curved across his chest. "If you're going to point fingers, you better be prepared to look at what you're pointing at."

Howard shifted down on the bench to make room. "Heero, man, how's Duo? These goons nabbed me before I even had a chance to leave for the hospital. I hope you got more news than I've been told, 'cause last I heard he was doin' pretty bad."

"He'll live." Refusing the nonverbal offer of a seat, Heero remained standing near the door with his back to the wall. Heero recognized the other police officer as the smart one who had wisely shielded himself behind the pillar at the Market, and lived. A negative reaction to the news about Duo wouldn't have surprised Heero, and he looked at Hicks as if daring the man to complain.

If the wounded man had a problem hearing that the person who shot him would survive, he never showed it. Instead, Hicks returned Heero's glare, sizing up the young man connected to his partner's death.

A slight frown looked out of place on the normally warm, chocolate features of Coleman's face. "Where is Preventer Wind?"

Hicks reluctantly broke the stare-down with Heero to answer. "He's been paged, and the people at their main office ~say~ he's on his way. They're a pretty damn inefficient bunch of--"

"Thank you, Hicks. I'm sure he'll be here, since this involves his people." Coleman spoke quickly to stop his friend's biased opinion and remind him that the meeting would assume a more professional air. Taking a seat behind the desk, he leaned over to flip the blinds closed for some privacy. "What Mr. Yuy said is true; Mr. Maxwell did survive the surgery, but he may never wake from his unconscious state, which is why you all are here. We can't question Mr. Maxwell in his condition, so we have to rely on the only people who were with him before this incident. I should apologize for the inconvenience, but I'm hoping I've got adults here who don't need to be told how important a matter this is. People have died--police officers have died--and we want to understand why."

"Hey, but I didn't kill anybody!" Hilde's photographer friend squirmed in his seat as Hicks and Heero turned their attention on him.

"Mr. Carmichael, we aren't charging anyone with anything yet." Coleman waved a hand gently to calm Joey. "Right now we want to confirm some things and get verification on the items gathered from Officer Schbeiker's residence."

Heero's spine straightened from its slight curve as the police detective opened a box that sat next to the desk and removed a plastic-wrapped laptop. His scowl deepened. The police had already been to Duo's apartment and were moving faster than he expected--faster than they had with Trowa or Quatre's cases--but then, those incidents hadn't involved the deaths of law enforcement officers.

"A laptop? I was thinking you had a weapon or something more dangerous, you know? Considering it's a murder and all." Joey winced, knowing how idiotic he sounded, and wiped his sweaty palms on his pants.

Heero sourly figured that it wouldn't take much to push the redhead into selling his grandmother if it only meant he could get out of there. Heero wasn't thrilled about being there, either, but he had been trained to endure uncomfortable situations; to tell the truth, he took an odd sort of pleasure in seeing the photographer's discomfort. Despite his training and his current pleasure, there were duties he needed to get to, so Heero decided to speed things up. "The laptop's mine. It was used with Schbeiker's CPU to locate and access data." He flashed a no-nonsense look at Coleman as he nodded toward the laptop. "Unless you're considering holding it as a suspect, I'd like it back."

Howard grinned at the grim-faced man who leaned against the wall. Heero was still as verbally efficient as ever, but he seemed to have gained a slice of sarcasm from Duo. However, Hicks didn't seem to appreciate the humor, and Howard swallowed his chuckle after receiving a red glare from the rough cop.

"Thank you for clearing that mystery up; but regretfully, we're going to have to hold on to it for a bit." Coleman taped a piece of paper to the plastic bag and jotted a note on it. "It's routine, I'm sorry."

"Why don't you tell the truth?" There was no accusation in the statement, only an admission of prior experience. "You're going to hack into its active history until you find what you want."

Irritated by Heero's correct assessment, Hicks spoke up, "You worried we're going to find something you don't want us to see? Whatcha hidin', kid? Secret bank accounts in Denmark? Instructions on how to build bombs out of household items? Nasty pictures of little boys?"

Joey choked at the accusations, but Heero dryly stated the truth. "Case files. Preventer files. Police files--from this location."

Coleman glanced at his old PC on the desk and folded his arms over Heero's laptop with a slight grin and shake of his head. "Since you're being nice enough to admit this much, Mr. Yuy, would you mind telling me what you were looking for in our files?"

A sharp clicking noise escaped from the side of Howard's mouth, and he poked Heero in the hip with a bony elbow. "I believe here is where you ask for a lawyer."

Heero could care less about lawyers. What he cared about was getting this petty interrogation out of the way so he could get his own answers. He shrugged off Howard's warning and replied, "I wanted information on Quatre Winner. His cause of death had been changed from food poisoning to alcohol and drug abuse. Why?"

"None of your business," Hicks barked. "Why d'you want to know?"

"That's my business." Heero's tone of voice made it clear he would deal with no one beneath the captain's status.

Coleman understood and shook his head at Hicks in silent communication before he addressed Heero. "If you were researching the Meadow View death, that would explain why these pictures were in the apartment." His hand dove back into the cardboard box and pulled out a baggie crammed with 8x10" glossy photographs.

Howard leaned in to look at the subject of the pictures and shoved his shades on top of his head. "Oh, man." He frowned. "This isn't right. Something's not kosher here, and I'm not talkin' about the present porkers." He looked up at Heero, who viewed the photographs of Quatre with an emotionless mask.

When Heero's cold gaze turned on Joey, the photographer began to squirm uncomfortably. He suddenly blurted out, "Okay! Okay! I took the pictures, but it's my job, man! How many times do I have to tell you? It's a job. I'm sorry it's a friend of yours and all, but it's my job!"

Coleman nodded in agreement, speaking calmly to assuage the young photographer's unease. "No one's complaining about your work, Mr. Carmichael. I'm just curious why they were found in Officer Schbeiker's home."

"Well, uh--" Joey looked positively miserable, not at all convinced he wasn't going to get in trouble. "Hilde asked for them." He went silent then, afraid to perjure himself with further explanation.

The young man got a reprieve from his worries as Hicks stole the room's attention by letting a groan slip by his stern composure. Raising a hand to rub at his forehead, he voiced the cause behind his moan, "I shoulda known she'd pull something like that." He sighed and looked at his friend. "She was poppin' a lot of questions at me about that one. I tell ya, she was too nosy for her own good--was too interested in fixing things that didn't concern her. Got too far into something she wasn't prepared for and got herself in trouble. Damn girl."

"Those aren't mine," Joey piped up quickly when Coleman placed a second set of bagged prints on the desk.

"I know that, son." Coleman grinned softly as he reached back into the box. "I was trying to get to this." There was a slight clunk as a plastic-sealed gun was set on the metal desk. "I also know whose gun this is, but the interesting thing is whose prints are on it."

Heero met Coleman's pointed stare with detached interest. He knew where the man's thoughts were leading. "Hilde wasn't killed with that gun."

"No," Coleman quickly agreed, "I don't think she was killed that way, either; but an autopsy is being performed as we speak, and we'll soon get more detail than we have now. Any bullet wounds she received could have come from the gunfire that happened later. Forensics will have to get involved, before we can determine anything. All we know is that, besides obvious signs of struggle, scratches, bruises and the like, her throat was cut. She was hanging upside-down, like an animal prepared for butchering."

"Oh, Christ."

Heero glanced at the redhead who was beginning to look a little green. The photographer was starting to understand how different death looked when it involved someone he knew. Heero returned to the point of the gun. "Your information makes the matter of the fingerprints inconsequential."

Coleman rested his forearms on the scribbled-up desk pad. "An officer of the law never willingly relinquishes his weapon unless asked to by a superior officer."

Heero didn't give the detective a response, but continued to study the fidgety photographer. He wondered just how much the boy had told and how much he had exaggerated. Heero knew Coleman wanted him to confirm a statement Joey made--most likely about the use of Hilde's gun in the apartment. Heero wasn't going to get Duo into further trouble by admitting his friend had been out of control enough to warrant interference. Even though that might have been the truth, Duo had only been angry and hurt; he had not been out of his mind. Having lost so many loved ones in his life, the ever-mourning orphan was emotionally incapable of harming the friends who still lived.

Heero's silence was not only protecting Duo, but Hilde as well. Though he had never been trained as a police officer, Heero knew from experience that a weapon was to be treated like a vital organ--you mishandled it and you suffered the consequences. To let someone gain access to it would bring down all sorts of reprimands and punishments from superiors. Even though Hilde was dead, Heero did not want to tarnish her standing with the force by stating that she had been careless and left her weapon out on the counter where anyone, not just himself, could have picked it up and used it as they wished. It was best they thought what they wanted of him, but Heero would not inflict any more harm on his friends.

Coleman weighed Heero's non-response considerably before he altered his prepared line of interrogation. He looked at Hicks and nodded his head slightly, a silent communication that Hicks understood and immediately acted on.

"C'mon, kid." Rising from his chair, Hicks put a hand on Joey's shoulder. The young man jumped under the unexpected touch. "Let's take a walk."

"Wh..." Joey's eyes darted nervously back and forth between Hicks and Coleman. "Where are we going?"

Hicks rolled his eyes. "Christ, you academy kids. Grab that rubber backbone of yours and take it to my desk. I just want to go over your statements before I let you go. I swear, Schbeiker had more balls." He tucked a large paw around Joey's skinny forearm and escorted him out, giving Heero one last encompassing look. Stopping in the doorway, Hicks motioned back to Howard, whose sandal was slapping in irritation at the bottom of his bare foot. "You too, old man. You done with him, right?" He looked at Coleman, who nodded in response.

"I've got the book." The detective nudged the box of collected items next to the desk. "You might want to get a sworn statement disclaiming ownership before you let him go."

"Hey." Howard took the sunglasses off his head as he stood up. "Like I told ya, I'm a pure "Models and Metals" guy--strictly devoted to Bernie's newspaper stand on 12th and Main. I haven't been in a library since these blues were baby blues, and I'm not one for nostalgia." He smirked good-humoredly at Heero as he followed Hicks out of the office.

Heero caught the mostly-hidden look of concern Howard shot him before he grumbled some nonsense complaint about being called an old man. Heero found himself curious about the book Coleman seemed to have confiscated from Duo's business partner.

Coleman watched the door until it closed completely, and then he turned to Heero. "I'm sorry; I didn't feel an audience was needed for the rest of this."

Heero pushed away from the wall and helped himself to the plastic-wrapped book in the box. He had considered telling Coleman just what he thought about the whole messy affair, but he was tired of talking.

Coleman allowed Heero the trespass, watching over steepled fingers as the Preventer removed the item's protective covering. The "book" was actually a thick magazine, whose clear cover stating "Property of Berks County Library" protected an issue from 196. "That was found tucked among other magazines on the front seat of Mr. Maxwell's transport," Coleman explained.

Heero's brow creased as he opened the Time magazine to the bookmarked page where the lead story began. Page 32 was full of pictures that elaborated the victory of the war of '95 in colorful tribute to the efforts that brought the earth its year of peace. It was ironic that the article was published just a month before the Eve War began, but Heero wasn't dwelling on that detail. His mind was busy reliving each photo he encountered: a snapshot of the gundams standing like sentinels on the runway of a now-decimated base; a shot of Une and Sally in their original Preventer uniforms; Relena smiling tiredly but majestically at the news-hungry press; and a rare picture of the five gundam pilots together at some inescapable awards banquet. Heero spied Hilde in the photograph, her smiling eyes peeping out from behind Duo's shoulder as she shoved him toward the eager photographer. Hand-written in bold red script above the nice pictorial presentation were the words "Oink Oink".

Something clicked in Heero's mind like the first of a series of bolts slipping into place within a lock he was trying to pick. The rude commentary written over the pictures reminded Heero of something he had seen regarding Sally's situation. Coleman obediently sat back as Heero rifled through the collected items on the desk. Tearing open the bag that contained Hilde's pictures from the Chinese restaurant, Heero flipped through the batch until he found what he was looking for.

Coleman quietly watched Heero, learning more from the man's actions than he had previously tried to learn through questioning. As the intelligent Preventer mulled over his find, Coleman dared a comment. "You've got the photograph with the pig jar, don't you?" Heero's head didn't rise, but Coleman saw a glint of a blue iris behind the ragged hang of hair. "We caught that connection, too. The pig jar and the oink words above Officer Schbeiker's picture were too odd not to catch. It's obviously some hate crime, cop-hater, whatever you want to name it. Hicks seems to think the perp was still at the restaurant when he and his partner entered, and seeing that they had interrupted his work, decided to punish them."

"That would have been a waste of effort." Heero spread the pictures out over the desk, searching each one for anything that might have gone undetected during the first look. "And an unnecessary risk."

Coleman nodded. "I'd agree with you on that, but I don't want to rule it out as a possibility. Besides, this assumption would take the blame off Ms. Po, something I thought you Preventers were pursuing. Making her a victim, not a suspect. Now, the restaurant scene and Officer Schbeiker's situation may not even be connected. We're just grabbing at straws. The pig reference in the magazine could definitely be from some cop-hater who got a chance to vent his anger and has no link to the pig jar, but we've asked the restaurant manager and she claimed they didn't have a cookie jar of any kind. If the suspect left these items, then it's possible we could be dealing with a serial killer. Typical criminals don't leave calling cards."

"You are following nothing but assumptions."

"We could go with what's most evident and put the blame on your co-workers." Hicks expected the glare he received from the younger man, but he wasn't out to push the wrong buttons. "But you and I both know that there's always more to something than what meets the eye. You've got to understand that assumptions are all I have to go on until I get more evidence. I can't ignore the obvious, but I am willing to question it. And trying to connect the two crimes may be a waste of time."

"Then stop wasting it." Too many words and not enough action were making Heero irritable. "If there are pros to support the connection, what are the cons?"

"The location of Officer Schbeiker's death, for one." Coleman relaxed in his chair, happy to bounce his ideas off someone else. "It bothers me. If the perp from the restaurant followed her to the terminal and killed her when a private opportunity presented itself, that would make sense. But then Mr. Maxwell's presence and his attack on the investigating team can't be explained. And two: if Ms. Po was meant to be a victim, why was she left alive? Her condition would have left her defenseless. Then there's the unexplained reason why she was at a restaurant after hours with five men who have no connection to her."

Five men. Another bolt began to slip into place within Heero's rapidly-turning mind as he contemplated the significance of that number. There had been five gundams and five gundam pilots. Wufei originally came from the L5 cluster, and his appointed code number had been 05. There had also been five scientists from five clusters. Heero could have come up with many representatives for the five count besides the ones closest to him, but he was positive the number referred to something involving the Preventers. Since Sally had been found at the murder site on Saturday, too many things had happened to cripple the core of the Preventer team. It could not be mere coincidence.

He picked up the discarded restaurant pictures and flipped through them. The remains of the victims were hard to distinguish as human. "Have you discovered the identities of the men?"

Coleman took a folder out of the desk drawer and began to search its contents. "I've got their names in here somewhere, but I can tell you that they weren't any people Ms. Po could have known. They're a group of foreigners we got a missing person's report on...here it is." The stiff paper crackled as he removed it from the file, "Mohamed, Abdul, Mustafa, Ahmed and Amir. All Arabian--"

Heero ripped the paper out of Coleman's hand and reread the list of names and their accompanying information. The report stated that the five men had been missing since the past Friday night, when they last had been seen together at a local bar. Because the men had a habit of disappearing on "fun sprees," their absence had not been reported until Sunday, when a sudden emergency caused their remaining companions to seek help in locating them. A few tests on the remains from the murder scene had been compared to the missing men's medical and dental records and a positive match had been made.

This news made Heero wonder if he should have questioned Zechs about his investigations. He could have learned of this earlier, if Zechs knew of it, but he wasn't all too sure the blond Preventer would have shared the information. There was the chance that the man could have been purposefully keeping his discoveries to himself. It was something Heero might have done instinctively, but he could not see how it would benefit Zechs to withhold information that might help others. Knowing that Noventa was working with Zechs, Heero decided to pay the lesser Preventer a little visit and see just how much the team had learned. For now, he only had whatever Coleman could release, and even that was insufficient. The detective did not even have enough background on the Preventers to make the connection between Po and Quatre's former comrades, the Maguanacs. "Does Preventer Wind know that some men from the Maguanac Corps were murdered?"

Coleman rubbed his neck and asked with slight confusion, "Maguanac Corps?"

"A group of Arab rebels during the Eve Wars: loyal men who live a very passionate life." The man who answered the question stood within the doorway, surprising the two who had not heard him enter.

"Well, that answers my question. Thank you, Preventer Wind. I was expecting you much sooner. Have a seat."

Heero gave no response to Zechs's curt nod of greeting, as the man took a chair. The air seemed to be charged with a violent static electricity that pulsated between the two, but it became muted as the blond Preventer turned his attention to the detective. "Please excuse my late arrival. An important task needed to be finished."

"Some things can't be helped." Coleman grinned in understanding. "I think you already know most of what we've already discussed. Yuy was just asking if you had been informed about the victims identified in the Po case, but I don't think I've talked with you about that yet."

Zech's eyebrow rose, but it was the only sign that the news interested him. "Are you perfectly sure the men are from the Maguanac Corps?"

"We have their names." There was doubt in Coleman's tone of voice. "But it's only just been hinted that the men were these Maguanacs. I'll have someone work on confirmation, but I don't find it too important to rush. There are other things we need to clear up first."

Heero tossed the pictures and the paperwork on the desk, speaking to Coleman. "They are connected. These men worked with someone who worked with Sally Po."

"Is that so?" Coleman leaned forward, examining the collected data with renewed interest. "I'm afraid that puts Ms. Po back on the suspect list, and it makes Hicks's assumption of a connection with Officer Schbeiker less plausible."

Zechs watched the two men hunched over the pile of evidence. "So you don't completely believe Maxwell killed Schbeiker?" He tapped a long finger on his knee as he considered things. "It's true the young woman was at the restaurant where Po was found, but she was also at Winner's home, and Barton's, and Mr. X's, and Miss Doe's. I'm sure the real list is longer. She was a police officer and, please correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that officers are a common sight at crime scenes. If you consider linking Schbeiker's case to Po's simply because she was present, then you must consider a connection with every single crime scene she attended in the past ten days. It's too broad a suggestion to pursue seriously."

Heero looked at Zechs, his distrust and suspicion apparent. "And your allegiance to any one institution is too broad to take seriously. Why did you really come back from Mars?"

Coleman was confused by the sudden question, but Zechs knew it for what it was and regarded it with a frown. "Your suspicion does not deserve an answer. Don't insult me again, Heero. I meet my opponents openly and equally. If you wish to challenge my word or question me further about my past, you would do well to prepare your own defense."

Instead of responding, Heero turned and stared out the glass door. He couldn't argue Zechs's point, but the man's statement did not give Heero the explanation he wanted. The pieces of the puzzle were coming together, but they weren't making the right picture. Hilde was the link between Duo's current state and Sally's incident. Quatre could be included in the collection of links, because the Maguanacs had been the victims at the restaurant while in town visiting their "little master." Heero wondered who else might be unexpectedly connected to these deaths, and who might hold the last piece of the puzzle.

As if reading the pensive young man's thoughts, Coleman confirmed an assumption Heero already had. "You're a suspect, too. I didn't think I needed to tell you that, since you seem an intelligent fellow and most likely guessed what was going on. But Preventer Wind is correct: things should be set out in the open between the three of us. We have enough assumptions to waste our time; no need to create more."

Heero nodded in curt agreement, but kept his gaze on the men outside. Hicks seemed deep in conversation or argument with Howard, gesturing awkwardly with his sling. Meanwhile, Joey rose from his seat at the desk and looked around before moving to a side hall. Heero's attention was pulled back into the room when the computer on Coleman's desk beeped.

Coleman ignored the beep that heralded the arrival of a new message. "I'm going to be honest with you: I don't know what to think or make of this, and if you know anything that can clear things up, I'd appreciate being let in on it." He paused, and when no opposition came from either of the men, he continued, singling out Heero. "The statement detailing what went on in Officer Schbeiker's home among you, Mr. Maxwell, Officer Schbeiker and Mr. Carmichael is legal hearsay, but still damaging." The computer beeped again, and the detective pulled up the message as he continued, "The prints taken off Officer Schbeiker's gun confirmed that you used it. If it's true you used it to keep Mr. Maxwell from attacking her, then it can be assumed that he is the prime suspect for her murder." Coleman paused to scan the computer message and pushed a button on his keyboard. "If you claim you didn't use the gun against him, I could assume you used it against ~someone~--possibly Officer Schbeiker--because Mr. Carmichael also recounted a particularly threatening comment you paid her before you left the apartment. As I said, this is all hearsay, but your willingness to cooperate can either cast doubt or confirmation on these suspicions. And it won't go well for you if you're protecting someone; that's not quite as bad as committing the deed yourself. Just a warning, son. I'm not trying to threaten you here."

Heero listened to the man's monologue without claiming either acceptance or denial. He turned his eyes from the area outside to the piece of paper that was coming out of the printer next to him. A round image was taking shape on the printout.

Steepling his fingers, Coleman studied the image on his computer screen. "Well, now. I've got something else to toss on the pile." He nodded for Heero to take the printed picture, but the young man didn't move. Zechs stood and took what Heero had refused, turning the printout around to see it. "That's from the man I've got at Schbeiker's autopsy. He says this button was found in her esophagus. They think she must've bitten it off her attacker during the struggle. If that's so…well, it's only a button, but it's traceable." He tapped the computer screen with his callused finger,
"It's not your usual four-holed button; it's got a design on it. What's that look like to you? The letter 'P'?"

Heero had already noticed the letter as the picture printed, and he had recognized the button with its "P" so proudly displayed. He had seen that button nearly every day for the past eight years. They were small bits of decoration that adorned the front of the Preventer dress shirt: buttons with a "P" for Preventer. Heero had thought the decoration quite unnecessary, but Quatre had assured him it would be the only touch of eloquent nonsense to grace the uniform. That bit of nonsense had just become an incriminating piece of evidence. Heero's hand slipped inside his jacket and he fingered the row of buttons on his shirt. His questing hand encountered a gap between the second and fourth buttons--the result of his earlier dressing mishap at Quinton.

Coleman looked at Heero for an answer, but the young man stood stock-still, looking like Napoleon with his hand tucked in his jacket. The detective was about to rephrase his question when an abrupt knock interrupted him.

The intruding officer didn't wait for permission to enter before he pushed open the door. "Captain, we got a situation down at that Preventer hospital." He glanced at the stranger who had moved closer to the door, wondering if either of the visitors should be privy to his information. He chose to speak anyway. "The Chinatown suspect's gone missing."

Heero paused. He had planned on using the urgent distraction to slip away, but he was sure the "Chinatown suspect" was Sally Po, and that information was more important than covering what he had found. Heero watched as the little office suddenly burst into chaos; Coleman had immediately picked up the phone while the other officer related the details behind the report he was given. When Heero heard the words "Quinton," "blood" and "Po" he felt his presence there was no longer beneficial. He would rather have stayed to find out more of the details behind his friends' deaths, but Sally's seeming abduction or escape from the hospital added urgency to his mission.

He was halfway out of the office when Zechs caught him. "Yuy." His hand snaked across Heero to clamp onto the arm closest to the door.

Howard, whose curiosity had pulled him to the suddenly active office, caught this small interaction as he sauntered up to the door. He had also caught the look of urgency in Heero's halted pose. Howard was a little surprised when the younger man glanced at him and discreetly straightened two fingers beneath the cross of Zechs's restraining arm, creating an upside-down "vee". Howard groaned. Heero was using Duo's peace sign that had been a signal for a diversion--when things were going to get anything but peaceful. Howard's young pal must have shared the signal with Heero, because the Japanese man was just too serious to suddenly turn into a flower child. Taking on his expected role, Howard instantly doubled over, arms hugging his middle, and groaned, "Oh, man, what's in that coffee you guys got here? Ugh...uh oh...eh...I think I'm... Where's the restroom? Uuuurrghh..."

His moaning complaint drew the required attention, distracting Zechs and alarming Coleman. Heero joined in the ruse. "I'll take him."

Since the bent man looked ready to lose his stomach on the office floor, Coleman was convinced of the urgency. He nodded an approval to the waiting twosome. "Ten minutes, Mr. Yuy. I'm going to need you back here."

Heero nodded, noticing the distrust lingering on Zechs's attentive face. As the man's hand released Heero's arm, it caught against his jacket, pulling it open. Heero calmly shrugged the material closed as he reached around to put an arm over Howard's shoulders. He couldn't help wondering if Zechs had seen the missing button, or had already known of its absence and intended for others to see. As he retreated with his ailing burden, he risked a glance at the deceptive Preventer, but Zechs had been distracted by an incoming call on his compact com-phone, no longer concerning himself with Heero's activities.

They made their way down the side hall to the men's restroom, which was on the opposite side of the station from the exit. The bathroom and its surely windowless state was not the best place to go to exit the building. "What's the low-down?" Howard muttered just loud enough for Heero to hear, but he didn't get an answer as their awkward maneuvering through the restroom door hitched to a stop.

Unwrapping his arm from around Howard, Heero eased the door shut behind them to keep the room's third occupant ignorant of their entrance. Near the sink with a portable com in hand, Hilde's old school chum stood deep in conversation, too engrossed to notice who had entered. He must have heard them come in, for he hunkered tighter into the corner near the last stall, face to the wall in order to keep his call private.

The young man was not too successful keeping quiet, for his words were too strained by nerves to handle proper volume control: "Look, I got you the photos you asked for, but I can't get you anymore. Not these. I'm telling ya, there's no pics, none at all. I couldn't take pictures of this one; Hilde, she... Yeah, of course I got the money, but I'm not..." As Joey's words changed to an incomprehensible mumble, Heero left his station at the door and moved toward the unsuspecting man.

Heero spoke three precise words: "Watch the door," and Howard knew the shit was going to hit the fan.

"I've got a bad feeling, that's all....I don't want to get the blame if--" The phone suddenly lost its place next to Joey's ear as a new, stronger hand laid claim to it.

Heero sent a feral look toward Joey as he held the stolen com up to his ear. The person on the other end must have discovered the trespass, because Heero was only greeted with the annoying buzz of a disconnection rather than the voice he hoped to recognize. Slapping the palm-sized device shut, Heero tossed it at Joey, who still looked owlishly shocked. "Who were you talking to?"

With the phone back in hand, Joey seemed to regain some sense of security and bravely refused to co-operate. "Hey, I don't have to tell you anything. What are you going to do? Push me around like your bully friend? We're in a police station, and you can't threaten me. My business is my business, and I got a whole squad of cops out there to back me...eep!" The brash young man suddenly lost his voice as he found himself inches from the deadliest blue eyes he had ever seen.

Hanging by his side, Heero's right hand mimicked the death grip his left had on the front of Joey's shirt. "Who-were-you-talking-to?" the perfectly clipped words demanded an answer.

Joey's bottom lip quivered for a second before words began spilling out: "This guy, some guy... I don't know his name, I swear! He always contacted me, and I figured he wanted to keep things quiet. I gotta respect that, you know. So, I never asked--he never told. But he's one of you guys, you Preventer guys. He had the same clothes, you know? That same kinda uniform you're wearing. I only once got a glimpse of him, but the threads were the only bit I remember about him. I never got his name. That's all I kn--"

"Remember more."

Joey's hand closed over Heero's wrist as he took a moment to think. "I...uh,...I dunno. I only met him once at night and there wasn't any good light around, just a street light, and..." He meeped again and clutched Heero's wrist with both hands as the Preventer's grip popped the threads from a seam in his shirt. "I swear! I... I can tell ya he was one of your guys. I recognized his clothes. Uh, he had no beard or mustache, but it was pretty shadowy where we met. I don't know! Damn shadows and stuff... Man, I don't stare a person down at first meeting like you do. Christ, you don't have to...uh, could you stop doin' that? I swear, it's just another person I was doing business with!"

Heero could tell from the terrified look in Joey's face that he was telling the truth, but Heero needed to know who the Preventer was. The photographer had done nothing but support the trouble surrounding him, and if it was a Preventer spurring him on, Heero wanted to know who and why. "What business did he have with you?"

"Takin' pictures. What else?" Joey looked momentarily confused. "He commissioned me to take pics of some crime scenes, that's all. Heck, you guys are investigating them anyway, so it's not like I was doing anything illegal or something!"

Heero wasn't too sure pictures were the only use the mysterious Preventer had for the photographer. Heero's time was running out, and if he were going to slip out of the station without trouble, he had to do it soon. He released the man's shirt and, to Joey's further astonishment, began to strip him of his fall coat.

"Wha...?" Joey tossed a confused look at Howard, who just grinned and let his shades drop over his eyes. As Heero began to take off his uniform jacket, Joey squealed, "Hey, man, I'm not like that! Oh, God, oh, God. I've got scabies, man. Uh, crabs, too. And it's contagious! You don't want to be touching me!"

"I'd rather kill you." Heero finished slipping his arms into the man's large coat and shoved his balled-up jacket deep inside before zipping it up. "But that's outside the current mission's parameters." He glanced up at the suddenly quiet man and pulled the ball cap off his head. When the coatless and hatless man opened his mouth for further protests, Heero added, "However, mission limits can be altered."

Heero plucked the small com-phone from Joey's shaking hand, and the action, as if it were a huge affront to Joey's pride, spurred the young man to further complaint. "Look here, you little Asian Chihuahua. You can't go around threatening people and taking their stuff. I don't know about you, but I was taught manners and you ask for..."

Heero's glare halted the man in mid-sentence. "I was taught 250 ways to kill a man. Quietly."

Joey suddenly became very chummy with the urinal as the dark-haired man walked past him for the door. Howard took a quick look outside while Heero adjusted the cap over his mop of hair. "Coast seems clear. Good luck, bud." He patted the semi-disguised man on the shoulder and opened the door for him. "I'll keep Jimmy Olsen here for a bit. Give him a little company. What do you think, Jimmy?"

Whatever Joey said went unheard by Heero as he ducked out of the restroom, but he caught Howard's teasing response: "Yeah, and it's a good bet he personally created 200 and 49 of 'em."
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Dalton