Chapter 37

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Stein had no family living with her, which meant the crime scene was devoid of grieving wails. Zoe hated dealing with those. She turned on the light of the small studio apartment, a surprisingly modest dwelling for a respected senior officer of the military. As she would have expected, everything was ordered with perfect balance and careful attention to tidiness. Her home office, a small almost closet sized room in the back of the small apartment, was likewise spotless. Other than the laptop and lamp on top of the small desk, there was nothing at all left out in the open. What caught her eye the most was the three drawers running down the right side of the desk.

Curiosity quickly over took Zoe. She opened all three in quick succession, grabbing the thin notebooks in each. None of the books were very heavy, and she doubted anything more than personal notes were recorded on its pages. The first few pages were, as expected, mundane. Unintelligible scribbles of grocery items, meetings at the Capitol, and seemingly random dates were riddled all over the sheets without any semblance of order or organization. Ironic, considering the spotless state of the rest of Stein's apartment. Zoe was about to close the book before it gave her a headache when she noticed a familiar insignia on the top right corner of the page.

A sketch of an eagle with open wings, the symbol for the Republicanist political party, was etched into the corner above a short list of words: Collusion, Energy Company, Central Bank.

She couldn't make out the rest of the sloppily scribbled words but what she had deciphered was enough to make her shiver. She ripped the page out of the notebook and folded it into a palm sized clump, hiding it in her jacket pocket. The two police officers guarding the front door to the apartment were thankfully too bored to pat her down or even give her a second glance. They were lucky. Zoe didn't feel like knocking two innocent women unconscious, but she wasn't above it either.

***

The next morning, Zoe found a mob of reporters and curious onlookers crowded around the property line to the Presidential Estate. A line of exasperated security guards in black armor carrying rifles tried in vain to shoo the group away. She dug her way through the human sea until she was at the gate.

"Let me in, I have a meeting here." She pulled out her military badge to preempt the guard's reluctance.

"I... yes ma'am," she said. With a grunt, the guard shoved the mob away as far as they could go and unlocked the gate, opening it just wide enough for Zoe to walk in by herself. It slammed shut seconds after she'd passed. A pair of armed guards with rifles accompanied her on either side during her long walk toward the distant building. They both towered over her, though that wasn't a particularly impressive feat. Everyone Zoe met always had something to say about her being shorter and lighter than expected.

The men halted just short of the line between the walkway and the front porch of the two story white building the Dannic President called home. Zoe continued forward. Another pair of guards came out to greet her, this time in more formal black and white suits though eschewing ties for obvious tactical reasons. The women stayed by her side all the way to the door of the conference room where she knew President Fritz would be waiting.

The Executive Conference room had been designed to seat more than two dozen officials at the round table. When Zoe entered, there were only two: President Fritz and Senator Marie Schmidt, leader of the Senate Minority Nationalist Party. This was going to be interesting. Stranger still, no guards remained in the room with Zoe, after they had left both her guns and grappling gear undisturbed on her body. She sat down directly across from the two leaders and cleared her throat.

"My subordinate told me this was an emergency. Are we losing the war again? Do I need to lead another raid into enemy territory?" Zoe asked.

"No. So far our progress is slowed but no serious opposition from the Angleyans have come," Senator Schmidt said. "From what I hear, they're too busy squabbling over politics among themselves to care what's happening to their colonial subjects."

"Yes. And any intelligent woman or man would recognize that as an opportunity to win instead of simply grinding more people into meat," Zoe grumbled.

"I understand how you feel. Truly," the President said, in his ever present meek voice.

"With all due respect Mister President... what exactly do you intend on doing with this so called understanding? We're still building a brick wall against ourselves by keeping the colonialists at least marginally more against us than they are against their negligent masters."

"I wish I could undo the Senate's decision but I am bound to their will," he said.

"What do you mean? You're the commander in chief."

"Who could be impeached for contempt of the Senate if I disobey a formal Resolution. Especially one which has the votes to override any veto I may attempt."

"Withheld from the public for wartime security I presume?"

President Fritz nodded.

Zoe sighed and shook her head. "With all due respect, sir, I feel duty bound to tell you that body of spineless weasels can talk up a lot of threats but they know they can't carry through. I should know. I lost count of how many hearings I've been to where they threatened my rank. Here I still am, a commissioned officer."

Senator Schmidt started laughing. "My son did tell me about your... humility."

"Ma'am. I'm good at what I do. I'm not bowing backwards to anyone with a dainty ego just to ignore that."

"Which has always served you well," Senator Schmidt said. "But now's not the time to take swipes at each other. You know what's going on in the news right? Why there are legions of reporters just outside the gates of the estate?"

"Another political stunt. I don't know why you're so worried about this latest one," Zoe said.

"I think you know. You were the one who killed the late Brigadier General's assassin. While local police didn't have any reads on the body, Federal authorities did." The Senator slid a folder sitting on the table down toward Zoe.

She opened it and perused the many pictures and pages buried inside. The profile pictures of the woman, who Zoe recognized as the assassin, were each laminated with an insignia, far different from the one she'd seen in Stein's notebook. The blood red lines traced around each picture to form a scythe.

"Paradisians. This has to be some sort of joke. The Reds have been gone for nearly a century," Zoe said.

"Well it's a serious enough threat that the Senate is subpoenaing nearly everyone in the Cabinet. According to them, Stein's death was a conspiracy by those lunatics. By me," Fritz said.

"That's rich considering this country's founders were Nationalists," Zoe said.

"Parties change. Especially if you start with a Single Party State," said Senator Schmidt.

Zoe pursed her lips. "You're not planning on letting me rejoin the frontlines anytime soon are you?"

Schmidt shook her head. "You did that to yourself when you got caught in this political mess. You're too observant to throw back into some meat grinder outside our borders. We need you to do a little digging on your own, see if any of these accusations are true."

"And if I end up siding with your opponents and having both of you arrested?" Zoe asked.

"We'll take that chance," Fritz said. The defiant tone of his voice was enough to end any further debate.

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