Saturday, November 17, 2007

Chapter eleven: One might as well believe the legends of Colonel Maximilian's ghost.

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We picked up readables of the reports from the secretary, and she promised to pump the data sets over to PD headquarters that afternoon. Then we got into our waiting motor squid and left for the station.

"I don't like the way this is going," said Calvin as we pulled away from the Column.

"How so?" I asked.

"I don't like the way this case keeps expanding. Every time we see somebody it gets bigger. First we were looking into the history of Sheila Mason. Then we find ourselves looking for Doria Adams. Now we're trying to locate Thomas Grayling, and maybe Michael Deere as well. Every loose end leads to another loose end. And it's all a big tangle."

"Thus do I cut the Gordian Knot," I quoted.

"Huh?" he said, then caught the reference. "Yeah, maybe we need some sword work here. Damned if I know what to do about it though." He looked at me expectantly, but I was fresh out of wit.

"I haven't an inkling," I told him.

"In most homicides," he said, "at least here around Sky City, you get pretty simple situations. A cut up at a lifter bar is easy. Either you have the guy immediately, or 'nobody seen nuthin.' If you spend the time on those, sometimes someone will get convinced to help you out and you make an arrest. Otherwise, you're out of luck.

"Then we get the family kills. Some husband hits his wife too hard, and she dies. Or he hits her too hard and she sticks a knife in his gut for it. Or her brother does. Or somebody's father snores too loud and he has a little too much life insurance. It's a nice circumscribed situation and you either get it or you don't."

I wasn't quite sure why he was telling me all this. Maybe he was just trying to reassure himself that he really was an experienced homicide detective; that he had plenty of experience with murders, even if he was feeling a little out of his depth on this case. Or maybe he was trying to delimit our problem by listing all the things that it was not. For whatever reason, there was an uncustomary edge to his voice, a note that said that maybe this case was beginning to really get to him.

"Or maybe somebody kills somebody for money," he continued, a little louder than before. "Find out who profits and you find yourself a killer. The tough ones are where too many people make money off the deceased. Or there's a heist and somebody shows up who shouldn't and we find the body later. Those we usually write off. The trail goes cold 'way too fast.

"Sometimes people just disappear and we suspect foul play but have no corpus delicti. We usually don't solve those. If the killer manages to dump a body over the side or through the floor, we're clutching clouds. Nothing to go on, no investigation.

"Now we're stuck with not one but maybe three disappearing acts. If all three were cloud dumps, we're screwed."

"Sheila wasn't a cloud dump," I observed.

"That's right," he said. "So maybe the other three are still alive. Or maybe they're in some waste dump and mostly decomposed by now. We only found Sheila's body by accident, remember."

"I remember," I said. "Maybe it would have been better if you hadn't."

"Well, it's too late to put her back," he said. "We'll follow this as the tangle takes us."

# # #

We interviewed Grayling's investigators that afternoon and the following morning, but there wasn't a lot to learn. Mickey, Thomas, and Doria had last showed up on the data nets using Thomas' debit card in a small club called Turbolift, on the edge of the warehouse district. That had been nearly three weeks back, and no one at the club remembered seeing them, even though Grayling's people were willing to pay for information. The club personnel certainly weren't going to have better memories for the police.

Deere even addicted himself to prescription painkillers so he could go through the treatment program with the kid.

The trio had clearly been club hopping, since the money trail showed up in half a dozen clubs over the course of two days. In a couple of those clubs someone did remember something, usually just Doria's face, which was the sort that men sometimes remember. But that was it, just a couple of good-looking kids with an older man watching over them. Not the sort of contingent that tends to get into much trouble, not with as competent a chaperone as Mickey Deere seemed to have been.

Then nothing. Dead end. Deere had apparently left the City the following morning, but never again used e-money.

"Why would he leave?" Calvin asked me. "What could have made him abandon the kids and skip?"

"I don't think he did," I told him. "I don't know about Thomas or Doria, but I'm pretty sure that Deere is dead. At first I thought he might have turned somehow, thrown Thomas over for someone. But looking at his record, the photos of him and Thomas, the clinic records, there's no way. The man loved Thomas, maybe more than Grayling Senior did. Certainly he spent more time with Thomas than the father did. Christ, Deere even addicted himself to prescription painkillers so he could go through the treatment program with the kid."

"So why did he leave the City?" Calvin asked me.

"I don't think he did," I told him. "At least not through one of the checkpoints. I think one of his fingers did."

Calvin closed his eyes. "Oh, Jesus," he said softly. "I thought the ID mechs could sense a dead finger."

"Not if you attach it to the right machinery," I told him. Give it artificial blood and an artificial beat and the check-mechs will dance to it. You probably don't get that much of it here."

"So somebody really knows what they're doing," he said.

"Not really," I said. "They just think they do."

# # #

So loose ends became dead ends and night fell. Calvin told me that he had a few other things to follow up on and hinted that he had an important package on the way, but he wouldn't say from where. I didn't press him on it.

My internal clock was jangled again. The dark had come and I was wide awake. I wanted to make a couple of air runs, just to get away from people, or maybe go train at Sensei Mack's, but neither of those were available at that hour. I decided to go home and think about it. But when I got to my room, there was somebody already there.

Locks give a false sense of security, I think, which is one of the reasons why I don't have use them. I don't own anything worth stealing, and maybe once a month I come home to find that someone has been in my room, looked through my stuff, and left empty handed, probably cursing me for being a pauperous ass.

Locks give a false sense of security, I think…

I do have ways of letting me know if my door has been opened in my absence, however, and whether or not anyone is still there. What I came home to that night was telltales that told me of entry and the way the zipper was placed showed that they were still there. So it was with some caution that I unzipped my room door. I heard a voice coming from inside as soon as I began to open the second flap, and light spilled out into the darkened corridor. I relaxed a bit. People don't usually announce an ambush.

Robert Grayling was there with two of his men flanking the door. Grayling himself was on a mobile comm unit. He had noticed my entry immediately.

"Hey, Charlie, can I call you back later? ....Yeah, I know, but someone just arrived, and it's important that I meet with them... No, I'm not at my office... Yeah, give me maybe an hour, I'll get back to you."

Grayling looked at me. He was seated in the inflatable chair that Calvin Lee had left behind on his first visit.

"Hello, Mr. Honlin," Grayling said as he rose and held out his hand toward me. I ignored the proffered hand and looked at the two men who now stood beside me after my entrance. One of them was Smith, the other had also been in Grayling's office when Calvin and I had come calling.

"I don't think you've introduced me to your other shadow," I said.

"Oh, excuse me," said Grayling. He turned his outstretched hand and made a gesture. "Ed Honlin, Richard Lusk. Mr. Lusk is one of my personal assistants. I believe you have already met my other assistant, Mr. Smith."

"Yes, I believe we've met," I allowed.

Grayling looked at me and I looked back at him. I didn't figure that I had an end of the conversation to hold up, so I said nothing more.

After the awkward pause, Grayling said, "Walter, Richard, would you please wait outside in the corridor?"

"There's a lounge down at the end of the corridor to the right," I told him. "Plenty of light there, if your assistants want to read a book or something."

"I believe they will probably wait just outside your door," Grayling said in a neutral tone.

"Suit yourself," I told them. "If anybody asks, just tell them you're part of a new security system I'm thinking of buying. We've had a lot of break-ins around here lately."

Grayling forced a chuckle in appreciation of my sparkling wit, and his two men left the room. "If you don't want people coming in, you should get a lock," said Grayling.

I didn't figure that I had an end of the conversation to hold up.

I shrugged. "If I got a lock, someone might think I had something worth stealing," I told him.

He looked around the room. "I don't think there is much chance of that, do you?"

I shrugged again. "Should I flip you for the seat, or will you accept it as hospitality? Maybe as a going away gift?"

That one he actually found funny, for some reason. He laughed out loud. "Okay," he said. "You have me off balance. I have no idea what I expected when I came here, but this isn't it. You are a strange man, Mr. Honlin, and I think I may need your help."

"My help, or that of the police?" I asked him.

"Your personal help," he said. "Oh, I know. Before you say something about your relationship with the police, let me add that I do not propose that you do anything illegal or unethical. It is just that...." His voice trailed off, and he shook his head.

"Let me get to that later," he said. "You no doubt realize that I can and have performed a bit of an investigation on you. I have numerous connections back on Luna, so it was fairly easy to get your basic files and service records."

I shrugged. "Actually, that seems to be a common sport, these days."

He nodded. "And so you also know what those records contain, and maybe more to the point, what they don't contain."

"That has come up in conversation recently, yes," I said.

"The police here might not recognize your name, however," he said. "Whereas a Luna native might. Winslow Honlin was a relative of yours, yes?"

"If you got my full file, you know he was," I said. "My twice great grandfather. He was in Maximilian's first cabinet, then later he was mayor of Copernicus."

"He also had four children, according to records," said Grayling. "Again, a fact of significance to Luna citizens."

"He did it more honestly than some," I said. "He had four wives, one at a time."

"Ah, yes," he said. "Great Grandpere Grayling was also somewhat fecund. Two legal children and three illegitimate ones. Fortunately for my social standing, I am from the legitimate side of the family."

Well, it was really great to stand there and compare family bibles, but I was beginning to wish that Grayling would cut to the chase.

"Here on Venus, money counts for a lot," Grayling continued. "At least as much as position, maybe more. Quite the reverse is true on Luna, but of course you know that. You were born into a family of importance. Then you took a career of importance. One would have expected great things from you."

"One could always be mistaken," I said.

"Fortunately for my social standing, I am from the legitimate side of the family."

"Perhaps," he replied, "But I may doubt that a little. Your records come to a blank nine years ago, and don't unblank until you emigrate to Venus, where you live in a hovel wearing a hair shirt. Why is that?"

"Well," I pointed out, "All bloonsilk fabrics are technically made of hair. It's a spun protein, after all..."

"Stop it!" he demanded, clapping his hands together and startling us both by his loud vehemence. "Stop making light of this! This is my son's life at stake here! I need to know who you are and why you are here and whether or not you can help me find my son! Answer me! What happened to you on Luna, and why are you here?"

"I think you should lower your voice," I said quietly. "Your two goons are right outside my door, and if they come in here too quickly, I might have to do something we'll all regret a little later."

Sure enough, a little beep at Grayling's waist gave a yelp, and Grayling lifted the comm to his mouth and said, "It's okay, remain where you are."

Well, that answered the question of whether or not the guys outside were hearing the whole exchange. Grayling didn't want them to hear any more than they could get through a sound absorbing door.

Grayling was pacing now, shooting me little darting glances while he talked. He was doing a really good job of looking like a man at the end of his tether, ready to crack from the strain. I think I mostly believed that he was actually what he looked like.

"My business success depends in large measure on my family contacts, I admit that freely," he said. "I have an uncle who is on the Skyhook Authority, and relatives back on Luna who can keep me informed on the latest fashion trends. Actually, not a few of them help to set the trends. A man of your background must be aware of the importance of family, yes?" I nodded, as much to mollify him as anything else.

"Some of my contacts tell me of some odd occurrences over the past ten years. Nothing that you can really get your fingers around, but odd nonetheless. When a few too many of a certain sort of person die within a short period of time, there is talk. When well-placed people resign for reasons of health, or to spend more time with their families, there is likewise talk. Such talk leads to rumors, and sometimes the rumors get specific. They name names. They are fabulous yarns. One cannot believe them all. One might as well believe the legends of Colonel Maximilian's ghost."

I continued to say nothing. He'd get to the point eventually, and this not a man to prod. Nor did I want to tell him about who and what Maximilian's ghost really was.

"Have you ever hear of Operation Andorra?" he asked me.

I pretended to think. "No," I said, which was the truth.

"You would say that even if you had heard of it, of course," he said.

"Yes," I admitted. "But I haven't heard of it nevertheless." I had a good idea of what it was, though. Pretty much the same as Operation Monaco, would be my guess.

They are fabulous yarns. One cannot believe them all. One might as well believe the legends of Colonel Maximilian's ghost."

He looked at me sideways, a wave of considerable anguish washed over his face. "I've said too much," he said. Nice to know that reason hadn't completely left his grasp. "This doesn't get us anywhere."

"I'll second that," I told him. "Why don't you just tell me what you want from me?"

"Find my son," he told me, to my complete lack of surprise. "Alive, if possible, but if he is dead, find out who killed him and why."

"I'm sure that the police will spare no effort..." I began.

"Of course, of course," he interrupted me with a wave. "Just as they are sparing no effort to find the killer of this Mason woman. Maybe her death has something to do with my son. I hope not, God, I hope not, but it may. Either way, I want word of my son. I'll make it worth your while, if you wish. I can be quite generous to those who do me favors."

Yeah, I thought. I have a real knack for doing favors for important people. "Look," I said. "I'll do what I can. But I'm not Superman, okay? I don't have any magic powers, no matter what sort of crap you may have heard from your folks back on Luna. And I do things for my own reasons, and nobody else's. Right now, it looks like finding your son would suit me very well, so I'll give it a shot. But that's all I can promise. I'll give it a shot. And I don't like to have my elbow jogged while I'm working, so lay off me from here on out, got that? If I find something, I can tell you what my price will be, and that's to leave me alone after this is over, too. I like to be left alone, in case you haven't picked up on it yet. Maybe I'm wearing a hair shirt, but it fits me swell, and I like it just fine. So just leave me alone, okay?"

Yeah, I thought. I have a real knack for doing favors for important people.

My little speech was complete with hand gestures and intonation changes, and I watched his face during the performance. Somewhere about the middle of it he finally got his mask muscles working again. That was something at any rate. And maybe he got what he came for, whatever that was. I got what I wanted too, because he turned and left without saying another word.

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