Chapter 10: The Pursuers and the Pursued
The 12th day of the fifth month.
In the Capital District’s old city center was a small park by the name of Bemarte Park.
It was a beautiful spring afternoon. A man sat alone on one of the benches.
He was in his late forties with cropped blond hair. The man had a large build and wore a commonplace grey suit with a very loose navy tie.
The man munched alone on a sandwich, a poor fit for the atmosphere in the park. A woman visiting the park with her child had pointedly chosen the furthest possible bench from him to sit at.
Upon closer inspection, it might become apparent to some that there was an unnatural bulge under his left arm—a holstered gun concealed under his jacket.
“Hmph. That was all right.”
The man finished his sandwich, rolled up the paper packaging, and tossed it at a garbage can three meters away. It landed inside the can.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” a younger man said between gasps, rushing into the park.
The younger man was in his twenties, wearing a navy suit with a tie. He had a slender build with brown hair and grey eyes, almost with the looks of a film star. In each hand he carried a paper cup filled with coffee.
“You’re late. I’ve finished my lunch already.”
“Then I suppose you could call this dessert, Inspector.”
“Tch. You eat up too.”
The younger man complied and started on his own sandwich. Though he was in a rush he was a little slower and calmer than the inspector.
The inspector paused between sips of coffee and exhaled.
For a time he listened to the sound of children playing in the park.
“Tell me. What made you decide to join the force?”
The younger man looked up, having finished his sandwich.
“That’s an unexpected question, Inspector.”
“I was just curious.”
“Well, I just wanted to keep the city safe.”
“Don’t make me laugh. I get you’re young and talented, but don’t bother trying to be the hero of the city. You’re never gonna wipe every drug cartel off the face of the continent. It’s a never-ending battle.”
“Oh? That’s not an answer I expected from the man who saw through the Dezer Pharmaceuticals executive’s fake suicide case and destroyed an entire cartel single-handedly.”
“I’m only stating the facts. And…I just got lucky with the Dezer case. The cartel was just small fry, too. There’s plenty more corruption to deal with out there. Now let’s get to it,” the stoic middle-aged man said, getting up.
“Of course, Inspector. We’ve still got work to do.” The younger man stood as well.
The empty cup the inspector tossed at the garbage can missed its mark.
“Get that for me.”
* * *
“Hey there, Meg. I never see you going home this early. What’s up?”
Lillia spotted Meg ahead of her on the grounds of the 4th Capital Secondary School. Meg turned with a smile, her pigtails bouncing.
“Hi Lillia! The newspaper club hasn’t been doing much these days, so I’m pretty much free. The chorus club is off today too.”
Lillia and Meg walked together conversing in Bezelese.
Other students stared curiously at the use of the foreign language.
“Really? I’m surprised. Don’t you guys at least get together for tea and snacks at the newspaper club even if you don’t have much to do?”
“The thing is…we’re under an activity cessation order.”
“I don’t know much about the details, but Jenny says we’re on information lockdown.”
“It means we’re limiting the number of people who know about it to make sure things turn out all right. Apparently it’s easier for the club right now if only the people directly connected to solving this problem know about it.”
“R-right…” Lillia was no stranger to being entrusted with confidential information. She smiled. “Well, I guess they don’t want to disrupt your normal life.”
“That’s right. We’re normal secondary school students, so we should live normal lives!” Meg replied, beaming. She and Lillia left out the gates.
“Look at ‘em, smiling without a care in the world. Rich kids make me sick.”
A man watched the smiling girls from a distance through a pair of high-power binoculars.
He was on the fifth floor of an apartment building across from the school, overlooking the front gates and the intersection. Beyond the gates he could see the classroom buildings on the left and the dorms on the right.
The man was about 30 years of age and wearing brown pants and a leather jacket. He was clearly not the type who made an honest living. He peered through the half-open window shades.
There was no furniture in the room.
The unit, forcefully rented two days earlier, only received the barest amounts of electricity. It was messy, with piles of store-bought food and bottles of water.
The man was accompanied by another, younger man who wore jeans and a black sweater.
The man in the sweater boiled water on a portable stove (instead of the dead built-in stove in the kitchen) and brewed tea. “Are you sure the kid’s gone back to campus?” he asked, handing a mug to his companion.
“He never went back home. Where else could he be? We’re switching shifts. Wanna at least drink tea in peace.”
The man in the sweater nodded and picked up his own pair of binoculars from the window. And he glanced at the photograph on the wall by the window frame.
The photo depicted Julio Edelmann, topless and face contorted in sobs.
The man in the leather jacket sat down on the bare floor and started on his tea. “It’s gonna be a battle of attrition, but we just have to find that sorry face and be done with it. It’s too bad the car accident plan didn’t work out, but what can you do. Once we get the order, we shoot his head off. Same for any students or guards who happen to be around. Make sure they don’t find out what we were really after. Make it seem like it was just some lunatic shooting at random. Well, the police will take care of that part for us. We just have to make sure we take off right.”
“Sounds easy enough. Shoot as much as we like, then go to another country,” the man in the sweater replied, and peered into his binoculars. He spotted a man in light blue coveralls.
The man in the coveralls was in his twenties. He had brown hair, a grimace on his face, and a large toolbox in hand.
He stuck out like a sore thumb among the students in expensive uniforms. The students gave him less-than-warm looks.
The man went up to the gates and spoke to the security guard. Several minutes later, a teacher in his fifties came to get him. The man in coveralls spoke again to the guard before disappearing inside.
The man in the sweater watched it all happen.
“A repairman of some kind. He just went inside,” he said.
“We don’t care who goes inside,” the man in the leather jacket replied dismissively, “all we need to know is who comes out.”
* * *
“Seron Maxwell! Where do I even start?” scolded the man in blue coveralls. “First off—why is this basement room still accessible? Why is Murdoch your advisor? And why do you have to stick your nose in such dangerous business?!”
The rapid-fire questions came from Theodore Hartnett, an investigator from the Confederation Police.
Roxche had multiple police forces. Each member state had its own force, as did the Capital District. The military also had a military police for internal incidents. The Confederation Police, however, had the largest jurisdiction, being in charge of cross-border incidents.
The Confederation Police was one of the most powerful organizations in Roxche and a source of awe and fear to citizens. At times the Confederation Police intervened with local investigations to take charge, earning them the enmity of other police forces.
The basement room was currently occupied by Hartnett, Mr. Murdoch (who had smuggled Hartnett into the school in the guise of a contractor), Seron, Larry (who was celebrating his birthday that day), Jenny, Kurtz, and Edelmann himself.
Other than Edelmann, who had collapsed into his chair, everyone was standing.
The room had no windows.
Three doors led out of the stone-walled room. The dimly-lit room was large enough, furnished with a small dresser, a rocking chair, a bed with metal framing, and the barest essentials. The walls were even adorned with several paintings.
The 4th Capital Secondary School had originally been built on top of an old building, and the basement of the building had remained, forgotten, under the campus.
Mr. Murdoch had discovered the basement several years earlier, installing electricity, water heating, and even plumbing to create himself a small private room.
And for about two years until the previous summer, he had hidden his younger brother in this room. The incident with the brother was when the newspaper club and Hartnett first became acquainted.
Seron answered Hartnett’s questions one by one.
“I’m sure you realized when we brought you in today, but the entrance that had been sealed was the second entrance.”
“Damn it! Why didn’t you say anything about this?”
“Because you never asked. Didn’t Mr. Murdoch tell you about it during questioning?” Seron played dumb. Mr. Murdoch looked away. The byzantine basement room could be accessed through a storehouse in the old school building. Mr. Murdoch was the teacher in charge of that storehouse.
“Forget questioning, we should have tortured you when we had you in custody!” Hartnett hissed at Mr. Murdoch.
“As for Mr. Murdoch’s status as our advisor, Jenny simply deemed that he was the right man for the job. Mr. Murdoch…happily accepted our request upon returning to his post.”
“You’re threatening teachers now? I don’t believe this…”
“And as for your final question, we stumbled upon this case by pure coincidence. But if we hadn’t, SC Edelmann here wouldn’t be with us anymore, wouldn’t you agree?”
“As much as I hate to admit it.” Hartnett ground his teeth.
Edelmann had been living in the basement room for the last three days. He ate and slept there, and Seron had bought him a tracksuit at the campus store to wear in the room. Edelmann was also attending classes every day and calling home at regular intervals from the newspaper club office to tell his parents that he was all right.
“I have some questions for you, Edelmann. I need you to be honest with me,” Hartnett said, giving him a sharp glare.
“You said you never looked inside the packages?”
“How big were they? Were they heavy?”
Edelmann put his hands together to form a circle. “They were about this big, in small plastic bags. But they were heavier than they looked.”
“Do you remember the face of the man who threatened you? Or do you have a photo of the woman?”
Hartnett turned to Seron. “It’s hopeless. This isn’t enough for the Confederation Police to act on,” he sighed. Hartnett was only at the school at the personal request of Seron and Jenny, not as an investigator on duty.
“But you don’t really think those were packs of flour SC Edelmann was transporting, do you?” Jenny pointed out.
“Yeah! We all saw him nearly get killed!” Larry agreed.
“Mr. Hartnett,” said Seron, “this particular incident with SC Edelmann may only involve our school, but the same thing must be happening at other schools around the Capital District as well. Maybe even at your own alma mater.”
Hartnett furrowed his brow. “I never told you where my alma mater is.”
“No, but you probably went to one of the seven other capital secondary schools, am I wrong?”
“What makes you so sure?” Hartnett asked. Seron’s answer was immediate.
“When you first visited the newspaper club office last summer, you spotted our lunches and said, ‘so this is the 4th’s famous cafeteria food’. Only students from other secondary schools in the city would call this one ‘the 4th’.”
Hartnett was silent.
“After that, you asked for our cooperation in your investigations without a hint of shame. You asked us to lend a hand if ever there was a crime involving the school. I had the feeling then that you must have gone to secondary school in the past, and that perhaps you had been witness to a case that had never been solved.”
“SC Edelmann’s safety is a serious concern to us, but he’s safe here for the time being. But there may be other unwilling runners out there being targeted for the next unfortunate accident. People will suffer. People will mourn.”
“Argh! Enough, Seron! I know! You think I don’t want to do something about this? Damn it all! Look, there’s so many awful people in the world that the Confederation Police already has its hands full. It’s not gonna act on a case without any evidence!” Hartnett spat.
It was only then that Kurtz broke his silence. “Mr. Hartnett. Isn’t there anyone in the Capital District Police whom you can deem completely trustworthy?”
Hartnett shook his head. The Capital District Police and the Confederation Police were separate organizations that were not on good terms with one another. Kurtz knew that well. “I see.”
“Man…police officers are supposed to be good guys, not criminals,” Larry sighed.
Police officers caught working with drug cartels were bound for prison and their lives would be ruined—which was why such people were very thorough about hiding their tracks. It would not be easy to find someone truly trustworthy.
“Then I guess it’s up to us…” Seron said. “Is there anyone in this school with a connection to the police?”
Jenny was in agreement. “We’ll have to ask everyone we can. It’s not likely, I mean, but better than sitting on our hands.”
“All right! Let’s do this!” Larry nodded. Seron turned to Hartnett.
“We’ll contact you as soon as we find someone who fits the bill, Mr. Hartnett. When the time comes, could you claim to have been the one keeping SC Edelmann under protection?”
“Of course. I’ll claim that I coincidentally happened upon the scene, saved him, and kept him here for his protection. The brass’ll be nosy about this, but I’m sure I can come up with something.”
“Thank you,” said Seron.
Edelmann, who had said very little until then, finally spoke.
“Don’t worry, young man. We’re not going to let you die. Let us adults handle it,” Mr. Murdoch said in a reassuring tone.
Seron, Jenny, and Larry exchanged glances, shrugging.
* * *
After saying goodbye to Edelmann at the basement, and Mr. Murdoch and Hartnett at the gates, Seron, Jenny, and Larry returned to the newspaper club office.
“Are we really gonna find someone?” Larry wondered.
“It’s not gonna be easy,” Jenny replied with a sip of tea.
“We’ll call the other members for help too. But don’t tell them any of the details. All they need to know is that we’re looking for a police officer we can trust. If anyone asks why, just say there’s some trouble in your neighborhood or that you’re trying to find someone. It doesn’t matter. In fact, we’ll be better off all using different excuses,” Seron said, “but the problem is, how long will we be able to keep SC Edelmann down in the basement like that?”
He looked up at the ceiling.
* * *
Seron, Jenny, and Larry braced themselves for a battle of attrition as they contacted the others.
“Found one. A Capital District Police Force investigator we can trust.”
Natalia brought them the information they needed the very next day.
“What? What’d you say, Lia?” Larry—wearing an apron—gasped.
Seron, Jenny, and Nick (who happened to be in the office that day) looked up in shock. Meg was at the chorus club that day at Seron’s request.
“Huh? I found someone. Somebody I know knows a trustworthy guy from the police,” Natalia repeated herself, munching on a waffle.
“That was fast! But, er…is it legit?”
“Hey, don’t bait me with a compliment if you’re gonna doubt me afterwards. Our informant is gonna be here soon. Private Hepburn, prepare another cup on the double!”
Just as Larry prepared a new cup of tea, there was a knock.
Jenny opened the door greeted the guest.
The guest was none other than Lena Portman, the blond empress of the orchestra club.
When Portman took a seat on the sofa, Larry quickly served her tea.
“My my, I’m impressed. Thank you. Do you always drink tea like this in your club? No wonder Natalia Steinbeck never attends orchestra practices.”
“Aw, shucks, SC Portman.”
“I don’t think that was a compliment, Lia.”
“By the way, where might Miss Strauski Megmica be?” Portman wondered.
“She’s not here today,” Seron replied. Portman shot Natalia a nasty look.
“Whoops,” Natalia shrugged.
“…Never mind. I’m here on different business today.”
The war ended without even starting. Jenny spoke up. “We’ve been told that you know someone trustworthy on the Capital District Police Force.”
“I certainly do. I don’t know what you people are doing and I don’t even want to know, but I can vouch for this man. He can be trusted.”
“What kind of man is he?” asked Seron. “And if it isn’t too much trouble, could you tell us how you came to know him?”
“You’ll keep this a secret, of course?” Portman demanded. Everyone nodded firmly.
“Very well, then. At the end of last summer, a middle-aged inspector visited my family. I spoke briefly with the man at the door. I can’t say what about, but I will state that I am absolutely certain that this man will not let evil go unpunished.”
Seron and Larry exchanged glances. Larry was entirely unimpressed—which showed on his face, but he said nothing.
“We won’t pry about your conversation, SC Portman. But was the conversation enough to convince you of this inspector’s character?” asked Seron.
“It was. I’ll also add that I spoke with my parents on this matter recently as well. They were in agreement with me. They said that the man was trustworthy, and that I should go to him should I ever find myself in trouble. I have faith in my parents’ judgement. This man can be trusted. Is that enough for you?”
Lena Portman—and the Portman family—had a secret.
Lena, the only child of the Portman couple, was not related to them by blood.
Sudden infant death syndrome had robbed the Portman couple of their infant daughter. The death led the couple’s relatives to even suspect them of murder, and the couple was almost driven to suicide—which was when a friend stepped in and gave them a tip.
“There’s a man in Tolcasia they call ‘Master’. He sells orphans to people in richer states.”
It was human trafficking under the guise of providing orphans with loving homes. A large number of children sold to the Capital District were never heard from again. No one knew what terrifying things must have happened to them.
The Portman couple invested a fortune into snatching a little girl who resembled their daughter from a deviant said to buy and eat young children.
Then the couple destroyed their real daughter’s death certificate. The girl they bought replaced the dead one.
And so, Lena was raised as the daughter of the Portmans—as their biological daughter, from a legal perspective.
After the sudden death of the Master, the Capital District Police obtained information on the human trafficking cases and visited the people who had bought children from him. Their intention was to pressure these people, to let them know that the police was on to them.
The inspector who always wore a grey suit was one of the men sent out to do the work of warning the inhuman buyers of children.
He visited the Portman couple and found that they were lovingly raising the girl they had bought. And the couple asked him to overlook their crime.
The inspector walked down the door, deep in thought, when Lena confronted him.
“It’s not like my biological parents are out looking for me now, is it? I’m never going back, you hear me? This is my home! The people in there are my real parents!”
Even Lena, who knew that she was not her parents’ daughter, had protested to the inspector.
And the inspector kept silent on the matter.
Afterwards, the Portman family had a discussion about the inspector.
And they came to a unified conclusion.
‘The man is trustworthy. Go to him if you ever find yourself in trouble.’
Seron looked at Portman.
“Is that enough for you? That is all I have to say.”
Portman was smiling. Elegantly, beautifully, and honestly.
And without knowing the reason behind Portman’s unwavering faith, Seron took the next step.
“…will you introduce us to him?”