“What about Nerala?” Odo suggested. “It means 'little dove' in Bajoran.”
“No,” the girl replied. “I like it, but that's not the one.”
“Well, what should we call you, then?” Ezri asked.
“Gagh!” the girl exclaimed.
“Gagh?” Ezri returned, mildly horrified. “Why?”
“Because I like the way it wriggles. I can do it too! See?”
The girl proceeded to roll around the floor of the Dax's office, doing an impressive impersonation of the worm-like creatures featured prominently in Klingon cuisine.
Ezri looked to Odo, grinning. “Where in the world did she get that from?”
“Her dinner, I presume,” Odo replied. “Nerys lets her pick her own food. She picked gagh off the pictogram menu last night. Nerys explained what gagh was, but she insisted. She loved it, ate every bite.”
“All right, Gagh,” Ezri smiled. “Come sit on the couch like a good little worm. I'd like to talk to you.”
Ezri patted a place on the sofa across from her. The girl stopped her squirming, and looked uncertainly at Ezri. Rolling slowly up from the floor, still keeping a wary eye on Dax, she streaked passed the counselor in a streaming flurry of dark hair, and jumped into Odo's lap. Odo caught her with a mild ‘oomph.’
“No,” Gagh proclaimed. “I sit here.”
Odo shrugged, giving Ezri an apologetic look. “It's about the only place she'll sit in our quarters, too. Nerys says if I'm not there, she sits with her back in a corner. She won’t play. She won't talk to Nerys or let Nerys touch her, unless it’s time to eat, or to help her with her hair. That she actually seems to like.”
“Well, that's not so abnormal,” Ezri replied. “Children in these cases will display a whole host of unusual and antisocial behavior. Tell Colonel Kira not to take it personally, and let Gagh go at her own pace. She’ll come around…But maybe something about the hair grooming reminds her of this mother she mentioned. Has she said anything about her? About where we might find her?”
“No,” Odo replied, “and I’ve asked, several times, but when I do, she starts humming a song under breath and ignoring me. She won’t tell me anything.”
Ezri studied Gagh as she rested in Odo’s lap, not the least bit interested in the discussion going on over her head. She stuck her thumb in her mouth and laid her head on Odo’s chest, sighing contentedly.
“To be honest, Odo, I am a little worried about her quick attachment to you,” Ezri said. “Have you considered what will happen to her if we can't find her family?”
Odo looked down at the girl resting peacefully on his chest. “See those toys over there?” he asked her, pointing at Ezri’s play-therapy room. “Can you go play while I talk with the counselor?”
Gagh's eyes widened. Ezri's collection was impressive, and the lure of such bounty to a five-year-old was quite strong. Still, Gagh hesitated.
“Go on,” Odo encouraged. “I'll stay right here, I promise.”
Gagh stared at Odo for a long, assessing moment. Finally, she decided he was telling the truth. She hopped off his lap, and made a beeline for the playroom.
“Nerys asked me the same thing,” Odo said as Gagh scurried off, “but I really didn't have an answer. I've been so busy with this case, I haven't had time to think about it.”
Ezri decided blunt was the best tactic with Odo. He always related best to frank speaking. “Odo, if we can't find her family, she'll be sent to an orphanage.”
“Of course, I...knew that, I guess.”
“Have you and Nerys ever talked about having children?”
“We did. Before we were married. I can't give her children, and didn't want any illusions about it. We talked about adoption, but we both decided that neither of us were really cut out to be parents. We both work too damned much, and neither of us is willing to give up our careers.”
Odo didn't know it, but to Ezri, his actions and Kira's had already belied those statements. They had both taken exemplary care of this child, and more than just her physical needs. Ezri knew about the hoops they'd jumped through to arrange their schedules so one of them was home with the girl, and they didn't have to leave her in child care, or put her in the hospital with the others. The bond the child was forming with them was atypically quick considering the history of the patient, proving that Kira and Odo made better parents than they thought they did. But if the Kiras wouldn't consider fostering the girl long term, or adopting her if it came to that, it seemed pointless to let her continue to develop that bond.
“If that's how you both feel, Odo, I think you need to consider placing her with the other children. She’s in a delicate place right now. Her attachment to you will only grow. What will it do to her emotionally if she doesn't get claimed, and then what's worse, gets taken from you just when she's starting heal? Have you thought about that?”
Odo sighed heavily. “No. I guess I hadn't.”
“I'm not going to change anything today, Odo. The child is fine with you and Nerys for a few more days. But you need to go back to your wife, and have a long talk about this. We're still investigating, you're still investigating, but I'm feeling doubtful that anyone is going to claim her. So many of the children have been claimed already, but no one, not even the other children from the ship, knows anything about this girl. I took her holo-image to the hospital with me yesterday, and asked them, but they’d all claimed to have never seen her before. I also have a sinking feeling there aren’t any parents for us to find for her. And if that’s case, the sooner we find her permanent placement, the better.”
Odo took in Ezri’s words, frowning. His glance moved to Gagh as she played happily with Ezri’s toys, and his scowl deepened. “Of course, Lieutenant. You’re right. I’ll do as you ask.”
“By the way, Odo,” Ezri said. “There is one major mistake you've made so far as a foster parent.”
Odo swung quickly back to Ezri, his expression aghast. Ezri smiled broadly at him. “Jadzia would’ve been appalled. You can't let that poor child eat replicated gagh. It's an abomination.”
A grin spread slowly over Odo’s face. “It's an abomination when it's unreplicated, Lieutenant. But next time, I'll take her to the Klingon restaurant instead.”
Odo left the counselor’s office, and returned Gagh to a waiting Nerys. After their first disastrous attempt to leave the child with a sitter, in which the girl bit the sitter three times, the Colonel had decided to take second shift in Ops for a couple of weeks until they could get a more permanent solution worked out. Sisko had approved of this arrangement, grudgingly. They were, after all, in the middle of war, and the current crisis was only one of the station’s many worries. Odo and Kira had both stood behind the decision, however, not to leave the girl in child care. She wasn’t ready. She’d also bitten Nerys twice in the two days they’d had her, and was prone to strange fits of rage and other emotional outbursts. Mainly they were triggered if Nerys got too close to her without a direct line of sight, or without the girl’s permission. Putting her with the other children had seemed unwise.
Ezri had spent some time with the girl during their appointment, watching her play, making her counselor’s assessment. The girl was underweight and undersized for the age the Computer had estimated. She wouldn't answer Ezri's questions about her background any more than she would Odo's, but she seemed familiar with using a children’s computer. Ezri set one up for her with some cognitive testing, disguised as games, and the girl seemed perfectly at ease using the computer on her own. She could read on a much higher level than she should be able to, yet her math skills were far below par. Spatial orientation, logic and reasoning skills all seemed on the level, if not above. She failed all of the social sciences tests.
Overall, Ezri concluded that the girl was behind her peers on most levels, her social skills immature for her age, her interactions with anyone but Odo stunted, and therefore, she was in need of behavioral therapy. Her education was also behind, and incongruous, but it had nothing to do with the child herself. She was bright, very bright, and Ezri attributed her lack of development to neglect. Whatever parents she’d had before Corixian stole her had to have been to blame. She couldn’t have been with him for long, because she wasn’t anywhere near as traumatized as the other children from the freighter, and her physical condition was much better. It might also explain why the other children didn’t recognize her. Ezri encouraged Odo to continue as he and Nerys had been, and to try to get whatever information he could out of the girl. Ezri also encouraged Odo to ask questions of the one other person on the station that might know something about her.
That, of course, was Lephon Corixian.
Odo and his deputies had interrogated Corixian’s crew over the last two days. Their statements alone were enough to hang Corixian, no matter what that scum had to say for himself. Each of them had turned on Corixian and had given full disclosure of the activities on the ship, likely thinking to save their own hides. As if it would. Odo still needed a full statement from Corixian, however, and had been saving the worst for last. With his own feelings in this case so close to the surface, Odo had put off the interrogation, wanting to be sure he’d be completely objective when he conducted it, and besides, he wanted the rest of the crew’s statements first so he could keep Corixian boxed in a corner when he did talk to him. Now, however, with the need to solve the mystery of his new charge taking a spotlight, Odo decided it was time he paid Lephon Corixian a visit.
Odo tapped his comm badge and had Deputy Ridia meet him in security. Ridia was his best deputy, his right hand, and Odo wanted his best with him when he dealt with Corixian.
When Odo got to security, Ridia was waiting at the doors. They entered security and checked in with the deputy minding the fort at Odo’s desk. Odo grabbed a data PADD, and he and Ridia headed for the holding cells.Corixian was right where Ridia had left him, locked up in isolation. They hadn’t dared put him with the other crew in common holding. Odo also knew better than to escort him to an interrogation room, giving him the chance to get out of his cell. They would have their little conversation right here in the hall. Corixian had his back to them, laying on his bunk, but Odo didn’t bother to get his attention. They’d have it soon enough. He made an adjustment at the comm panel next to Corxian’s cell so audio could pass through, and began his interrogation.
“Computer, begin recording. Mark date and time stamp. Security Chief Odo, Deep Space Nine, interrogating suspect Lephon Corixian. Witness: Deputy Ridia Sy’laal. Corixian was arrested on stardate 07663.9. Corixian is charged with one hundred twenty-four individual counts of kidnapping, child abuse, child endangerment, solicitation of a minor, enslavement, and one count of assault on a Bajoran officer.”
“Computer, recognize,” Ridia added. “Deputy Ridia Sy’laal, witness.”
The computer chirped its acknowledgement. Corixian rolled over on his bunk and sat up. His eyes went straight to Odo, and he smiled, a leering, derisive sneer exaggerated by the scar above his upper lip.
“Well, well,” Corixian said. “The Man himself. I was wondering when you’d show up.”
“Computer,” Odo continued, “merge data from Corixian’s medical scan with interrogation file. Repeat basic details on audio.”
“Lephon Corixian, Terran, aged forty-seven years and two months. Place of birth: Non-allied Terran colony on Praxis II. No current homeworld on file. Lephon Corixian is currently in good health. Lephon Corixian is cleared for residence aboard Deep Space Nine.”
“Fancy that, Corixian,” Odo said. “Cleared for residency, even if you never asked for it. And how has your residency been so far?”
“Can’t complain,” Corixian said, still holding his arrogant smirk. “Three hots and a cot. Though it is a little small in here.”
“Speaking of small,” Odo returned, “let’s skip through the little details, like your ship’s registry, and your status as its captain. That’s all on interstellar record, and you can’t dispute any of that at trial. It’s your ship, your responsibility. Do you deny ownership of the freighter?”
“Nah,” Corixian replied. “Old bucket’s mine.”
“Let’s talk about what wasn’t yours, then,” Odo began. “Let’s talk about what we found on your ship that had no business being there. One hundred twenty-four children, from multiple species, ages ranging from five to thirteen, all of them accusing you and your men of kidnapping them and imprisoning them on said ship…Do you deny the accusations?”
Corixian sat up straighter. “One hundred twenty-four, you say?”
“Yes, Corixian,” Odo returned, his irritation rising. As if the trash didn’t know. “One hundred twenty-four children stolen from their homes, abused, starved, neglected, and in some cases molested by members of your crew. Do deny the accusations of these children?”
“We both know I can’t, security man, so get on with it.”
“What was your intent in kidnapping these children?”
“Why they were for sale, of course.”
“To many, security man. To many. To whoever would give me the best price for a pound of…tender flesh.”
Odo deliberately ignored that remark. “Why were you holding so many at once?”
“Had a deal with a guy,” Corixian said. He rose and made the short stroll to the door. “He was supposed to buy one hundred units for labor on Serus. It fell through, and I got stuck with them. We were planning on dumping the excess into the Badlands. It takes a long time to gather that much stock, and most of it was going bad. Frackin’ warp reactor coil wrecked that plan, and I had to stop here first…And then I got the privilege of meeting you.”
Privilege, indeed, Odo thought, holding back a smile. This is where Quark had come in. Odo had arranged for a Dopterian contact of Quark’s to trail Corixian, sneak onto Corixian’s ship at the right port, and sabotage his engines, leaving him no choice but to divert to DS9. At exactly the appropriate time, of course.
“Serus? “ Odo repeated. “The children were being sold into the silk industry, then?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. You know I can’t tell you that, shifter. It would take you too close to my buyer. And I never sell out my buyers.”
“What about the rest, then? Who were they for? Who were their buyers?”
“I told you, security man. Many. Self-important son of targ like you would be so surprised at some of the people on my list. Rattle your shape-shifter cage, it would. I even have clients here on Bajor. But as I said, you won’t get their names from me, so you’re just wasting time.”
“You know it is a simple matter for me to arrange for a telepath to come here, and find out what it is you aren’t telling me.”
“And you know as well as I do, you can’t do that, or this whole thing’s a bust. You had me arrested under Bajoran law. Using telepaths in legal proceedings is against the law on Bajor. Try again, security man.”
Odo exchanged a brief look with Ridia. Corixian was right, of course, and had called Odo’s bluff. The dirtbag was smarter than Odo had given him credit for. However, considering it had taken him this long to get caught, Odo shouldn’t have been surprised. He let go of the hope of getting Corixian’s buyers the easy way.
“You’ll be pleased to know,” Odo intoned, “all of the children you’ve taken are being returned to their homes.”
“How nice for them,” Corixian sneered.
“There is one, however, I need to ask you about.” Odo pulled up a holo-image of his foster child on the data PADD, and turned it around for Corixian to see. “Who is this girl?” he asked.
Corixian stepped forward, and took a long look at the PADD. Odo watched his leering, pasty face carefully, waiting for a lie, looking for a tell. Corixian didn’t give one. He was still wearing that same smug smirk as he studied the image.
Corixian looked up at Odo, and said, “Never seen her before.”
“She was on your ship, Corixian,” Odo said. “What planet did you take her from?”
“Dunno,” Corixian replied, shrugging. “My men find new stock every time we stop in port. She could be from anywhere. I’m sure you’ve checked my navigational computer by now. Why don’t you look there, see if you can trace our path back?” Corixian made a mock smack to his forehead. “But wait! Oh, that’s right, security man. We erase those records every stop we make…Guess you’re outta luck.”
“When did you get her, then?”
“No idea,” Corixian replied. He looked at the photo again. “She looks Terran, doesn’t she? But then we Terrans occupy over fifty planets on non-Federation worlds, never mind the ones that are. Sounds like you’ll be busy trying to figure this one out for a long time.” Corixian’s gaze shifted up to Odo. “But why, security man, are you so interested in this girl?”
Odo didn’t answer, careful to keep his expression neutral.
“She’s a cutie, isn’t she, security man? Pretty, even. Gonna be a looker when she grows up…But maybe you’re like my buyers, security man. Some of them are cops, too. Maybe you’re just like they are, and you like your girls before they’re all grown up, when they’re still so small and so sweet…If you like her so much, maybe we can make a deal. I swear I won’t say a word to that smoking-hot wife of yours.” Corixian licked his upper lip lasciviously, and grinned. “In fact, maybe we can make a trade...”
Odo was careful, so careful to keep his expression calm, not to give Corixian the satisfaction of goading him.
“What’s the matter, security man? Child got your tongue? Or did she get something…bigger?”
Odo’s form went perfectly still, as if stopped dead in the middle of real time. His glare was ice cold. Ridia knew that halted stance, that frozen stare. It meant that on the inside, Constable Odo was anything but cool. Someone was about to get served a massive dose of Changeling fury. He laid a hand cautiously on Odo’s shoulder.
“Stay chilly, boss,” he muttered. “Don’t let him see you sweat.”
Odo took a deep breath, held it, and blew it out slowly. “Corixian, I will give you one last chance. Who is this girl?”
Corixian’s glance flashed down at the holo-image, and up to Odo. “I told you, shifter,” he snarled, “I don’t know!”
There…His left eyelid, Odo, there’s his tell. “You’re lying!” Odo returned. “You know exactly who she is, and you will tell me!”
Corixian stuck his hands in his pockets. He sauntered back to the bunk and sat down. “Actually, I won’t,” he smiled.
“Tell me, and I’ll drop the assault charge.”
“Well, how generous, security man, considering it was you that I punched. But we both know that charge is the least of my worries. No deal.”
“Boss, this is going nowhere,” Ridia said. “Let’s file what we got, and I’ll see what I can do with it. We can come back later and try again. This asshole’s not going anywhere anytime soon.”
“You’re right, Ridia,” Odo replied. He kept his gaze locked on Corixian, and said, “Lephon Corixian is indeed going absolutely nowhere I don’t personally send him…”