The Grass is Always Greener... Part Nineteen
Thank you for reading my story. As always, reviews/criticisms are much appreciated.
Just a few more chapters to go...
All the usual disclaimers apply.
Roger P. Morgan leaned back in his chair, letting his toes swivel him from side to side. A pen danced among his fingers as he contemplated, wondering what it would take to ease the mind of agent Chang WuFei.
Wufei's idiosyncrasies were well documented among the Preventer staff. Besides being one of the strictest, best organized, hardest working perfectionists in the agency, he had an infallible memory and a scary attention to detail. Nothing got by him, and his intuition was legendary. This made his insinuations against Nathan Gale all the more frightening.
Roger remembered Wufei's first reaction to Gale, though he had easily dismissed it. Nathan was no doubt intimidating to anyone. It was part of why he was on the team. When someone meets a person who looks as menacing as The Terminator, a little reactionary unease is to be expected. But this business about secret meetings in the stairwell, a possible conspiracy to get at Relena… If it hadn't come from Chang, he would laugh it off as lunacy. But, it came from Chang; therefore, lunacy was not part of the equation.
Leaning forward, Roger began nosing through the security network. The easiest way to go about this was to obtain visual proof that there was no wrong doing. If he could simply find the video surveillance of the stairwell and show Wufei that it lined up exactly with what both Nathan and this Santiago fellow had claimed, perhaps it would be enough to quell his distrust. Roger smiled. Alas, some things were just too simple.
Wufei stared at the door long after it had shut. His fists were painfully tight at his sides, his entire body quivering with suppressed rage. Why did he have to be such a know-it-all? That's how it had always been with Heero, as though he were constantly waiting for everyone else to catch up with what he saw as obvious. He felt the sting of tears behind his eyes, but fought them off. Had the whole world gone mad? Relena and Sally had been manipulating his emotions in the most malignant ways and Heero not only refused to believe him but had actually sided with them, and he was the fool?
Nonsense. Utter. Non. Sense. And his head was throbbing.
Wufei forced himself to take a very deep breath and let it out slowly. There was nothing he could do, nothing he could think of to put his mind at ease. He felt like he was trapped in an M. C. Escher drawing, following paths that led into each other, winding in circles until all sense of convention was destroyed.
He walked to the center of his living room, forcing his hands to open and relax. His breathing continued in long, measured breaths, and he closed his eyes, letting the natural rhythms of his body carry him into the practiced stance he was so familiar with. Relena had deceived him, but Relena wasn't everything. He took a breath, his arms stretching up and out, then scooping down, and up again. He had barely noticed her for the past four years, why should any of that change now? He felt the weight of his body shift forward, then back, then forward again as his arms arced around him like branches caught in a breeze. He could forget her. He could do without her. He would just pretend the last four days had never happened.
That was it. Simple as that. He would forget her.
He took a few more steps in his dance of Tai Chi, arms shifting about as he focused on his movements. A face loomed in his mind's eye, dark eyes glaring at him. He scowled, blinking his eyes open. The last person he wanted to think about was Heero Yuy. He altered his stance, shifting into a more aggressive kata. Still, Heero's words wouldn't leave him alone, his final accusation echoing like a chorus in his head. "Trust Relena." He scoffed. "Why should I?" He launched himself into a series of kicks, his body twisting with momentum until he stopped, eyes facing his kitchen. He had spent his first evening with her there, cooking their dinner in that kitchen. He didn't have to think hard to remember the way her laughter echoed off the tile.
He spun around, determined to continue his movements, but her presence would not leave his mind. He thought of her warm blue eyes, her easy smile. Her smile had held no secrets, and though her eyes were capable of masking a few of her emotions, they held no traces of deceit. His arms fell to his sides as he straightened, remembering. Relena was no liar, yet he had been tricked. Just what had been their scheme, exactly?
He glanced around his apartment, feeling for the first time the loneliness that clung to every corner. It hadn't taken him long to get used to her company. He sighed, his gaze taking him to the window. It was impossible to keep himself from looking at the seventh floor, the position of her window etched into his memory. His eyes shifted to the left, narrowing as they locked onto the covered windows that hid her protection team. He felt his anger surging again, this time directed at Nathan Gale. In no time, he was settled at his kitchen table, fingertips clattering over the keyboard of his laptop. He couldn't forget Gale, nor the threat he posed, regardless of his feelings for Relena. He felt as though a monster were lurking very close to the Vice Foreign Minister – an invisible beast that had managed to bear its fangs without being noticed. If he didn't find a way to bring this beast out into the open, it would continue lurking until it landed its prey.
Heero closed the door with a sigh, his throat still aching. He hadn't expected Wufei's ferocity, but he felt he understood the reasons behind it. Unfortunately, it seemed Wufei still didn't realize it himself, and until he did, there was little Heero could do or say to help him.
"What happened?" Sally's pale blue eyes were edged with concern as she looked him over, hands clasped anxiously in front of her.
His reply was more to himself than to her. "A disaster."
He shook his head, taking her hand as he passed her to sit on the couch. He leaned back against the armrest, pulling her down to lie halfway on top of him, her head resting comfortably on his chest. They stayed like that for several moments, Heero absently toying with the end of one of her braids as he rested, Sally contenting herself to listen to the steady rhythm of his heart.
"He doesn't want to listen," he said finally.
He felt her sigh against him. It was a long moment before she spoke. "What did he say?" She sat up, looking him straight in the eye. Her expression told him not to hold anything back.
"He heard you and Relena in the lobby."
"When did—" Sally's eyes widened as she thought back, her demeanor shifting from confusion to fear. She remembered bits of what she had said. She'd been teasing Relena over who had won the bet – a point they soon decided was moot. Oh, no. "Relena… Does Relena know?"
There was the slightest hesitation before he answered. "I don't think he's ready to talk to her yet. Not even to accuse her."
Sally released a sigh of relief as she slumped against the couch. "So what do we do now? If he doesn't want to listen to the truth, then how do we—"
"Leave him alone. If he doesn't want our help, let's leave it at that."
Heero's tone was menacing. Just what had happened over there? "Heero?"
His eyes softened as he looked at her. He still couldn't believe how stupid Wufei could be. Yet in a way, he was grateful for his idiocy. Otherwise, he never would have let Sally pass him by. "Let's eat. I'm starved."
Relena stood outside her building, staring up at the slice of sky exposed between buildings. The weather was absolutely perfect, and the soft breeze felt warm against her skin. "I'm in the mood for cheesecake," she murmured, smiling a little as she pictured the dessert in her mind.
"Excuse me?" Steve leaned toward her, arms full with the boxes of pastry she'd already purchased. He regarded her with a cynical eye. "I thought you always said it was Heero who made you buy all that sweet stuff."
She laughed, giving him a playful shove. "I only bought so much because I wanted to share. Or are you going to pretend I didn't see you drooling all over the display cases?"
Steve reddened, averting his gaze. "I was just admiring the designs in the whipped cream," he protested.
Relena shook her head. "Come on. Let's put these away, then we'll come back out. I want you to show me where your wife buys her cheesecake."
Steve raised an eyebrow. "Alright, but let's take the car this time. It'll melt if we walk."
Relena scoffed. "I think that's an underhanded way of saying you're tired of walking."
Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. Roger watched the footage for a third time, still not convinced he wasn't imagining things. But there it was again. That flicker. Then suddenly, it was gone.
All three computer monitors spread across Roger's desk held images of the northern stairwell where Wufei had had his encounter. Each monitor displayed multiple images, allowing him to view the footage from all 22 surveillance cameras simultaneously. The system was entirely digital, so it was easy to find exactly what he needed and watch it directly from the network. But he still could not explain what he was seeing.
Going back, he watched the footage again. Just as before, he saw Ferdinand Santiago enter the stairwell at the lobby, looking about as he was expected to do on a security check. Roger had followed his movements through the shifting camera angles all the way to the seventh floor, but that was not what he was interested in now. It was that strange flicker he saw on the third floor, like a shadow on the wall, though Santiago had already passed to the floor above. Roger focused, slowing the footage down to play frame by frame as he enlarged the picture to full screen. It was definitely a shadow in the shape of a man. It hovered there for a few frames, then suddenly blinked out of existence. Roger wiped a hand across his brow, smearing the sweat that had beaded there. A cold knot was forming in the pit of his stomach. If it weren't for that shadow, he might've been able to explain what happened on the seventh floor as a coincidental glitch. Now he was starting to wonder if Wufei had been right.
As before, he watched Santiago ascend past the seventh floor landing just as Nathan entered the stairwell. It wasn't as if they had planned the meeting, Roger told himself. It was very reasonable to say that their security checks merely crossed paths. It was also reasonable to assume this would happen often enough that a sort of working friendship might be forged between the two, despite Nathan's cold demeanor, and that it was only natural for such friends to stop and chat for a few moments. But then, wasn't it all just a little too convenient?
It happened almost as soon as Nathan met up with Santiago, there on the stairs just past the seventh floor landing. The image from the camera above them – the only one that gave a full view of the pair – suddenly began to flicker. It was only a moment before the image gave way to static.
Roger sat back in his chair, sending his pen into acrobatics once again as he continued to watch the footage. On the bottom floor, Wufei entered the picture, casually jogging up several flights of stairs. On the fourth floor, he suddenly stopped, peering upward. Since there was no sound with the footage, Roger could only assume Wufei had heard something he didn't like. It was the only possibility given the agent's caution as he approached the seventh floor landing.
Roger set down his pen, leaning forward as he focused on the screen. He knew what he was about to see, but he still felt like he was missing something. Wufei was now on the sixth floor, easing his way up. The veil of static still covered the seventh floor, but now Nathan began a slow descent as Santiago emerged onto the eighth floor landing. He remembered hearing Santiago's excuse – he thought he heard someone above him and went to investigate – yet to Roger's eyes, it seemed as though he was much more concerned with the activity below him. It didn't make sense. He was about to give up when he saw something flash.
He immediately stopped the footage, rewinding it bit by bit. The flash happened again. It was something in Santiago's hand. Roger manipulated the footage until he got a clearer picture. It definitely wasn't a gun. It was more like… a palm computer. What did he need that for? Roger lapsed the footage forward again – and caught another anomaly. It was another flicker, a shadow on the steps leading to the eighth floor where Santiago stood. It was very light this time – too many floodlights – but peering closer, Roger could definitely see the grainy outline of a man's head and shoulders.
"A third man. There was a third man there."
Roger abruptly stood, pacing in front of his desk. His mind was racing with information. He just needed to sort it out properly. He was almost certain a third man had been there, but why? And why had they taken such pains to hide his presence? More importantly, how had they done it?
Roger slowed down to think. It was a digital surveillance system. Outside interference was basically impossible. The only way to manipulate the onscreen image would be from the inside, through the main server in the surveillance office. But how would he control it?
The palm pilot. That had to be it. If Santiago networked into the main system, he could control it with that. Then all he would have to do is freeze the camera with a control image after he passed to another floor, thereby letting his visitor pass without being seen. It was the sort of thing espionage movies thrived on.
Now, he just needed to prove it. But that might prove a little risky… Roger sat back down, his fingers flying over the keyboard. In moments, he was looking at Santiago's daily work schedule. He was due for his lunch break in a few minutes, which would put him out of the office for an hour.
Roger hunched forward, tapping his pen against the desk. He wondered if Nathan and Santiago were working alone. If so, it would be easy to give some bogus reason to enter the main surveillance room. Otherwise, any attempt he made to investigate might be noticed, and he could endanger his safety – or even Relena's life. It was risky, but he needed definite proof that the system was being hacked from the inside.
He shut down his computer, locking it with his personal security code. He stood, snapping open the holster that hugged his left side. He pulled his modified glock, brows furrowing at the unwelcome weight in his hand. He didn't like guns. Technology was a far superior weapon. He checked the safety and pulled the clip – it was fully loaded, ready to go. "Right." He gritted his teeth as he replaced the gun into its holster, snapping it into place. He pulled his suit jacket off the back of his chair, shrugging into it as he stepped toward the door. He hesitated, looking back at his desk. Sighing, he walked back, yanking open the top drawer. Shuffling beneath scattered papers and folders, he found his extra clip and shoved it into his pocket, praying to God he wouldn't need it as he headed toward the door.
Wufei leaned back with a sigh, folding his arms across his chest. As expected, his search on Nathan Gale hadn't turned up anything that wasn't already in his official record.
In AC 191, Gale had joined the army at age 17. After serving his military base for four years, he was dispatched for counter terrorism operations at locations throughout Europe, Asia, and South America. In AC 196, he entered training in the Special Operations Command where he became one of the top ranking soldiers in his division. From there, as Roger had said, he went to work for the UES, and was quickly assigned to Relena's protection team.
Leaning forward again, he set his fingers to work, this time searching for the name Ferdinand Santiago. After a few minutes, he was scanning his profile.
Unlike Gale, Santiago didn't officially join the military until AC 196, after Relena's new pacifist policies had begun to take full effect. Wufei scanned the details quickly, looking for his prior history. His heart sank when he read the words, printed in bold caps:
PRIOR HISTORY CLASSIFIED UNDER AMNESTY AGREEMENT ARTICLE 3 SECTION 2-201(4).
Wufei cursed under his breath. The amnesty agreement was serious business, agreed upon by nearly every country as a way to absolve those who fought against oppression as terrorists before Relena came in and united everyone. While it did seem fair to clear criminal acts against a criminal regime, in Wufei's eyes it was also a dangerous way to let unsavory elements mix in with the rest of society virtually undetected. In all probability, the UES had done a thorough background check despite the amnesty agreement. However, it was all too easy to use the agreement as a shield, deterring some from asking too many questions.
If he wanted to get the info he needed, he was going to have to use unconventional methods. Luckily, working in the field as much as he had, he knew a few unconventional sources. Downloading both Gale's and Santiago's files, he compressed them into an encrypted e-mail. Attaching a brief explanation, he sent it to the man he hoped could get him some answers – if, of course, he were still alive.
Roger could feel his heart hammering in his ears, his breathing working in heavy rasps as he stepped toward the door, all too aware of the loaded gun pressed against his side. Yet before he could wrap his meaty hand around the doorknob, it turned, the door opening inward, bringing smells of stale hallway air tainted with old, musty carpet. Nathan stared at him from the portal as Roger did his best to hide his surprise and calm his frantic heart.
"Where are you going?"
Nathan's gravelly monotone was unusually unsettling. Almost accusatory. "Uh, I was just—" That's right, Roger thought, understanding Nathan's tone. The rules expressly stated that the apartment had to be occupied by at least one team member at all times, except during emergencies or when given clearance to do otherwise. Nathan had caught him leaving, and Steve wasn't back with Relena yet. That's why he was upset. "I was just looking for you," Roger continued, injecting laughter into his voice. "I've been wondering when you'd get back. I'm starvin' for some lunch."
Nathan's eyes were unwavering. Finally, the man nodded, stepping past Roger to his desk near the window.
Roger breathed an inaudible sigh of relief when he passed, forcing himself to turn back when he reached the door. "I'm going to the deli down the street. You want anything?"
Nathan sat down, his attention focused on the papers on his desk. "The usual."
Roger nodded, then quickly made his exit, wanting no further conversation. He told himself to relax as he took a casual pace down the hallway. His palms were sweaty as he waited for the elevator. Once the doors chimed open, he pulled the small key from his pocket that would open the special panel behind the normal elevator buttons. He was heading to sub-basement level 1, the video surveillance office. Once there, he would be able to check for sure whether or not someone had hacked into the system. At least, that was the optimistic version of what might happen. He didn't want to think about the others.
Relena pressed the elevator button, surprised to see the counter move down to the basement before rising again to the lobby. Steve followed her inside, carefully keeping the boxes he held level. "You sure you have room in your fridge for all this?"
Relena smiled. "Trust me. There's room."
On the seventh floor, Steve dropped her off with her boxes before making his way next door. He was surprised to see Nathan sitting alone at his desk, absently shuffling through a stack of papers. "Where's Rog?" he asked, noting the tech's computer was turned completely off.
"He went to get lunch just now. Didn't you see him?"
"Must've just missed him. Where's he headed?"
"The deli on the corner."
Steve groaned. "If he gets me one more of 'the usual'… Did he just leave?"
"Yeah. Two minutes ago. You could still catch him."
Steve nodded, taking off. Something wasn't sitting quite right with him. If Roger did just leave, they should've intersected. Was it possible Nathan had mistaken the time?
Outside, he turned right, heading down 8th street. The deli was only a few blocks down. He should at least be able to catch up with him there, or else spot him on his way back. Still, why had he turned his computer off to make a 15 minute trip? Something just wasn't right.
Roger mentally crossed his fingers, meeting the skeptic glare of Sanjay Varma, the surveillance tech on duty. He had just given him a brief explanation of why he was there (leaving out the details, of course) hoping his credentials would be enough for him to get a look at the mainframe. Sanjay took another long look at his ID before reluctantly handing it back to him.
"Alright," he said finally, eyeing Roger closely. "But I'll have to accompany you. Government policy."
Roger nodded, releasing a pent up breath when the tech turned to inform his co-worker of the situation. So far, things were going smoothly, yet Roger knew if either of the two were in cahoots with Santiago in whatever nefarious scheme was being plotted, he might be in very serious trouble. On the bright side, if Santiago were acting on his own, the techs could be a witness to anything suspicious he might find.
Giving the man what he hoped was a confident smile of thanks, Roger followed Sanjay down a short, brightly lit hallway to the room where the surveillance mainframes were housed. The door and wall were made entirely of glass, about 3 inches thick by Roger's estimation, and most likely bulletproof. The tech swiped his ID card and entered his code, then stood back as the door slid open.
Roger hurried to follow the man inside before the door shut again, breathing in the sterile scent of electronics in filtered air. The hum of electricity was everywhere, almost like a welcoming chorus. With the mainframes in sight, he was able to relax a little, feeling a bit more secure as he passed between a double row of servers, each taller than he and twice as wide. The one that controlled the video to the stairwell was in the second row from the back.
Roger squeezed his way past the tech, absently licking his lips as he scanned the connections, his fingers lightly running over the loops of wires and cables that crisscrossed between control boards. Getting on his knees for a closer look at the lower connections, Roger was beginning to feel antsy. The tech was watching his every move with great intensity, but he was making no move to stop him. That, at least, was a good sign. Yet so far, he had found nothing out of the ordinary.
Roger sighed, forcing himself to concentrate. If someone wanted to hack into this system, what device would they use? He was almost certain it would have to be hardware. Software applications would be too easily detected. Unless they had an inside hacker on their team, but that was just—
Roger stopped, his fingers catching on a cable that didn't quite fit. All of the connections were identical, so what purpose did this stray cable have? Tracing the cable with his eyes, he saw it was not connected to another server, but to a smaller device neatly tucked between two of the control boards. This is it, he thought. I found it.
Turning his head ever so slightly, he stole a glance at Sanjay through his peripheral vision. The tech was still standing there, arms crossed. He seemed just as irritated as before, but not at all alarmed by what Roger had his fingers on. Focusing once more on the panel in front of him, Roger gulped at the dryness in his throat. He knew if he wanted to be sure, he would have to ask. "Can you tell me what this port is for?"
The tech frowned, but leaned in close, bending over to see what Roger was talking about. "Hm. I'm not sure. Santiago mentioned something about a new diagnostic device. He's the only one who could say for sure. He should be back from lunch in half an hour or so."
Roger's heartbeat was pounding in his ears. "Is there a manual? I'd like to check for myself, if you don't mind."
Roger looked up to meet his fierce dark eyes as the tech stood, his skepticism evident in his features. "There is. Follow me. I'll get it for you."
He followed the tech back to the control room where he pulled a two-inch binder from a bookshelf full of identical binders and tech manuals. He seemed reluctant to hand it over, watching as Roger flipped through the heavy book just as intently as he had at the mainframe. Roger paid him no attention, however, his eyes quickly searching through diagrams and explanations until he found exactly what he was looking for. A grin overtook him, satisfied now that his evidence was solid. "I need a copy of this page," Roger quipped, placing the manual in front of Sanjay.
The tech's featured darkened. Yet Roger no longer cared what the tech thought. He had seen on his ID that his security clearance allowed him to make such a request. Sanjay gave a stiff nod, his eyes like stones.
While the tech busied himself with the task, Roger made a mental checklist. He had shown Wufei's claims to be true with the video surveillance, but in doing so, he had raised the question of whether or not a third man had been there, and whether or not Santiago had used unconventional methods to hide his presence from the monitors. With what he had seen on the server, he felt he had pretty good evidence to support that claim. Now came the hard part. Just who was the man they were hiding? And why were they hiding him? The answers that came to mind were nothing short of disastrous.
The welcoming bell jangled above the door as Steve left the deli shop, echoing the warning bells that sounded in his head. He still hadn't seen Roger yet, and according to Jim, the manager who now greeted them as regulars, he had never been there. Something was definitely up. He had never known Roger to lie about his whereabouts before, especially on assignment.
He had purchased lunch for the three of them anyway, hoping against hope that he would find Roger on his way back. It was possible Roger had merely gotten sidetracked and he was overreacting; yet the unease in his belly told him it wasn't that simple.
He was still a block from Walnut Avenue when he saw Roger round the corner, his pace indicating he was in a hurry. When his eyes lit upon Steve, he hastened to meet him, the frenzied gleam in his eyes stifling Steve's questions in favor of Roger's quick explanation.
"Something's up," Roger huffed, before his legs had brought him to a stop. He wasted no time filling in the details of the morning, including where he had been and what he had found.
Steve's eyes glazed over as his mind grappled with the idea of Nathan being a traitor. He knew the guy seemed secretive, but he had never questioned his motives or his loyalty. Lady Une had played a part in his screening process, and he knew her background checks were as thorough as they could get. Any ties he might have that were less than honorable would have shown up as a red flag. "It doesn't make sense." Steve sighed, looking heavenward as if to find an answer there. "Are you sure he was plotting against Relena?" he asked, his eyes again meeting Roger's. "How much of the conversation did Wufei hear?"
Now it was Roger who sighed. "Only a few sentences. But he was positive he heard her name mentioned."
Steve shook his head in disbelief. He couldn't condemn a man – especially a comrade – on the basis of a few sentences, even if it was Wufei who had made the accusation. "There just isn't enough information."
"But what about the video?"
"We'll have to question Santiago about that. I'll contact Une and have her get a team working on it. In the meantime, you should talk to Wufei and get a record of what he remembers. But don't let him do anything on his own. Make sure any info he has gets to Une ASAP."
"Here, take this." Steve reached into his bag, handing Roger his lunch. "I'll use the 'old friend' story to cover for you."
Roger grinned, remembering the character they'd invented for situations like this. "Lester Bonham from the academy? It's been a while since I've talked with him."
Steve nodded, bidding his partner farewell. He sighed again as he started back toward the apartment, still unwilling to accept the fact that Nathan might be a traitor. There had to be another explanation. There just had to be.