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Perseus Spur 11
Ivor's face was screwed up with horror. "But what about Clive? Do you really think the poor man—"
"Get out of there!" I broke the connection with a savage jab, praying that the luckless executive had committed suicide. The alternative would be very bad news indeed.
I called Simon's personal code, cancelling the view option on the room phone. It was going to be bad enough telling him about the fiasco without having to look him in the eye as well. The great man was mighty annoyed at the interruption, being engaged in a tennis game on Cousin Zed's estate. I squelched his protests and waited until he reached a place where he could not be overheard and then engaged the encrypt.
"Simon, do you know anyone in Rampart security on Seriphos whose loyalty to you is above question?"
"Our Vice President for Confidential Services, Ollie Schneider, has my complete confidence. He's Rampart's top security officer."
"Would you trust him with your life? With Rampart's very survival?"
"Urn... no. I guess not. He's Zared's man, not mine. What the hell's this all about?"
"I need somebody with top-notch cop skills. Somebody you can vouch for personally, who can clean up a particularly nasty mess and see that no one in Rampart top management raids out about it."
"Well, there's Karl Nazarian," my father said. "He was Ethan's head of security for over thirty years, prior to Ollie. He's semiretired, in charge of Corporate Archives, but still sharp as a straight razor and smart as a Coconino coyote."
"He could be perfect. Does he have full data access and command authority?"
"If I authorize it."
"Then do it," 1 said.
"Why?" my father demanded.
"Because I am a horse's ass," I said, and told him the tale of Clive Leighton, Galapharma mole, including its dismal conclusion.
Simon listened without interruption, then hissed, "Jesus H. Christ, Asa! This time you really shat in your hat and pulled it down over your ears! Why didn't you wait—"
I broke in firmly. "I need somebody to put a lid on this. If Nazarian agrees to do it, have him toss Leighton's place for clues to other conspirators. The guy's data files will have to be confiscated and checked out. His house should be sealed and the goddamn blue suede shoes taken away. Ultimately, we'll need a foolproof cover story for Leighton's death."
"Hmph. Karl might just be able to do it."
"I hope to hell you're right." Another bright idea struck me. "Do you think Nazarian might have old friends on Hadrach, Plusia-Prime, and Tyrins who are as sneaky and trustworthy as he is?"
"He probably knows every over-the-hill security agent in the Spur. Why?"
"Stop asking why and just listen! Tell Nazarian to get on the encrypt subspace com right away, before he does anything about Leighton. Have him contact some of his old associates on those planets—people he can rely on absolutely, who won't stickle at keeping this business outside of the Rampart Central net. We have to locate three Rampart executives named Mario Volta, Oleg Bransky, and Tokuro Mat-sudo. They're cronies of Clive Leighton." I spelled the names and recited the home addresses and phone codes in case the men weren't in their offices. "These three are to be taken into custody somehow or other and held incommunicado under suicide watch. Make arrangements for Nazarian's people to bring the executives to Seriphos on the fastest ships available— even if you have to use the Mogollon Rim. Absolutely no one questions the suspects but me. Got that?"
"What am I," Simon roared, "your friggin' errand boy?"
"You were the one who asked me to come here and get involved," I reminded him. "Who else can I ask to do the errands? Now repeat what I just told you." A whole lot of cussing ensued, but when he finally simmered down, Simon reiterated the details in furious mutters. His memory was still eidetic. "You realize it could take days to find these men?"
"It better not," I retorted. "And tell Nazarian we also need to track down and hold a woman named Lois Swann-Hepplewhite. No need for secrecy with her. She's Leigh-ton's girlfriend and she lives here in Vetivarum."
"Dammit all, Asa—you should be talking to Karl about this yourself! Let me have him call you."
"It would only waste time. If he agrees to work with us, I'll see him right after the board meeting. I may have a whole lot more for him to do." I thought of one more thing. "Hold on a sec. Is your phone loaded with a blank disk? I'm going to shoot you some poop." I got the dime out of my wallet, stuck it into the handset, and transmitted. "Extract the face of the man in the freeze-frame close-up at Minute 343:03-07.
Label him John Doe and send the data via public subspace com—not Rampart!—to Beatrice Mangan, BM7366-2ADM, Fenelon Falls, Ontario, Earth. She's an old friend, a chief inspector in the ICS Forensic Division, and that's her private mail code. Tell Bea that you're my father, and I'm calling in my marker and urgently need an ID on the John Doe. Explain that this individual tried to murder me—"
"You actually got the fucker's picture?"
"Simon, shut up. The hired gun probably had cosmetic surgery or quickie genen work. I want Bea to run a skull analysis of him through the Galapharma employee mug base, paying special attention to their internal security personnel. If she gets a positive match, have her send the man's dossier to Karl Nazarian's private mail code as soon as possible. You got that? The private code. It's imperative that we don't let any of this data get into the Rampart Central net."
"What about having Karl find out if the sidewinder's here on Seriphos?"
"Absolutely not. I'll go after the guy in my own way and I don't want him spooked."
"Do you intend to discuss this sorry screw-up of yours at the board meeting this afternoon?"
"I doubt it. Don't forget to notify your floor guards to admit Helmut Icicle to the hallowed premises."
"Like squat I will!" he bellowed. "You're my son and—"
"My name is Icicle until I decide otherwise. Now get busy."
I hung up on him. The phone purred immediately with the belated wake-up call, and before I could even make it to the John it went off again. This time it was Mimo, anxious because of the message left by Ivor. I told him the bad news, which he received in nonjudgmental silence, and outlined the investigations I had hopefully set in motion. I warned him that he might have a whole lot of tedious work to do if Karl Nazarian didn't pan out.
He said, "No importa," and then: "I can be at the hotel in a few minutes. Would you like me to drive you to the board meeting?"
"No, thanks. I'll take a taxi. What I would like you to do is go over to Ivor's apartment in an hour or so. Pay him. I'll reimburse you. Ask him if he's interested in a new job that might take him to Tyrins and God knows where else. Really excellent money, really hazardous duty."
"So! You intend to begin the search for your sister immediately?"
"Maybe. Listen, Mimo, I've got to sign off and get myself pasted together. Let's meet in the hotel bar around 1830 and I'll tell you how I made out."
"Very well. I'll see you then. Be sure to wear some impressive clothes to the Rampart board meeting. It will give you an edge."
I laughed wanly. "Clothes? Hadn't given it a thought."
"Well, do so. Remember the immortal words of Epictetus: 'Know first who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.' " He broke the connection.
Huh. Easy for him to say. And who the hell was I, anyway, at this point in time? Divisional Chief Inspector A. E. Frost was long dead. Cap'n Helly the devil-may-care submariner was beached for the indeterminate duration. Helmut Icicle was a wounded nonentity, even though I'd pushed him up Simon's nose for spite.
I shuffled into the bathroom, took a leak, and then stared at myself in the full-length mirror. My sojourn in the dystasis tank hadn't diminished my normal muscle mass. The tan and the vaguely military haircut and the tropical squint lines around my eyes gave the lie to my actual physical condition. 1 looked robust, maybe even dangerous. I grimaced at my reflection and set about cleaning my teeth and saucing my armpits. I decided to leave the beard stubble.<
The hotel suite's malle-armoire had a huge selection from the best stores in Vetivarum, including Bean & Abercrombie. I gave the matter a good think, then ordered a pair of poplin briar pants, lightweight Gokey snakeproof boots, a Navajo-motif Pendleton shirt, and an Australian Sidelock waxed-cotton hunting coat. I put the things on and surveyed the exotic result. Whoever he was, you might think twice before messing with him.
Precisely an hour later, as I was finishing a wimpy breakfast of poached eggs, white toast, and mint tea, the concierge called to pass on a message from "your father." It was very short:
All four subjects have disappeared. Data sent to Earth. Inquiry proceeding via KN.
* * *
Rampart Central had changed drastically since the last time I had seen it, twenty-three years ago. The Starcorp's Perseus Spur headquarters was now housed in a three-hundred-story, snow-white ziggurat with glittering beveled windows framed in blue and gold. It was surrounded by formal gardens and stately promenades, and it bulked above the adjacent urban structures like a man-made mountain with a base that encompassed at least ten city blocks. At the top of the great truncated pyramid was a hopperport where aircraft ceaselessly took off and landed.
Rampart limos and other imposing ground vehicles discharged their privileged passengers at the building's vaulted main entrance; but corporate traffic regulations obliged my humble taxi to drop me off in a subterranean garage. I took an escalator to the colonnaded lobby, an Art Deco extravaganza of white marble, blue glass, and semiabstract brushed-metal ornamentation. String music from some baroque composer diddled and skirled in the background while serious-faced men and women marched purposefully to what were undoubtedly important destinations. Apart from me in my anomalous hunting gear and the uniformed Rampart External Security guards, nearly everyone was attired in regulation corporate-pawn fashion mode: monochrome three-piece suits and matching roll-neck shirts in subdued colors such as navy-blue, mulberry, charcoal, and loden-green. The only vestiges of individuality were provided by quietly patterned neck scarves centered with pins or brooches. In this tasteful commercial environment, I stood out like a Comanche in war paint at a Victorian garden party.
But the apparel proclaims the man, and old Mimo's advice had been right on the mark. I felt confident, mean, and ready for anything.
I ambled over to the security desk that walled off the elevator bank, where visitors were presenting coded plastic business cards to the guards in the appropriate manner. Picking the largest and toughest-looking functionary of the lot, I announced, "Helmut Icicle to see Simon Frost." The guard's dubious gaze raked me from head to toe and he held out his hand for my card. I waved dismissively and said, "The old boy's expecting me. Just let him know I'm here."
"Simon Frost is expecting you?" Give the bruiser credit; he didn't laugh out loud. "The Chairman?"
"That's the guy," I said airily. "This is Simon's place, isn't it? Rampart Central? Don't tell me that damned cabdriver dropped me off at the wrong address."
The guard's face turned a dull red, but he wasn't going to let my yokel wit get to him. "This is Rampart Central. May I have your card, sir?"
"Haven't got one. You just get Simon Frost on the horn, he'll tell you to unbar the gate for Helmut Icicle."
"Would you please spell your name, sir? I'll consult the appointment computer."
I did. And lo! Helmut Icicle's bizarre handle checked out. The guard concealed his astonishment very well as he gave me a visitor's badge. "Your escort will be here in a few minutes, Citizen Icicle. Please wait by the Number One elevator."
I gave him a friendly nod and complied, not bothering to correct his mistake about my social status. The corporate clones exiting and entering less prestigious elevators did double takes as they caught sight of me loitering in the royal precincts, then sedulously ignored my presence. Finally the doors of Number One slid open and a formidable female emerged. She was tall and square-shouldered. Her silvery hair was worn in an uncompromising chignon and her garb was a symphony in mocha. The tiger-eye cameo pinned at her throat bore the image of the Gorgon Medusa.
"Mr. Icicle? How do you do. I am Mevanery Morgan, executive secretary to Zared Frost. You're twenty minutes late for the meeting."
I smiled winsomely and said nothing. Taut with disapproval, she motioned me to enter the elevator car. I noticed that it had only one destination floor: 299. We zoomed skyward inertialessly.
"It's been a long time since I had anything to do with Rampart," I said in a conversational tone. "You mind telling me who's on the board these days?"
The doors slid open and Mevanery Morgan preceded me into a hushed, blue-carpeted anteroom that had its own bank of restricted elevators. A sculpture that might have been a Braque was spotlighted on a white pedestal. One of the walls held a surrealistic painting by Rob Schouten of improbably balanced rocks in a nonterrestrial tide pool. The secretary's desk was backed by a computer console that looked as though it belonged on a starship, and on either side of it were tall doors. The one on the right had Cousin Zed's name on it and his title, President and Chief Operations Officer. Mevanery Morgan beckoned me toward the other door, which bore a golden plaque that said boardroom. "With the exception of Citizen Katje Vanderpost and First Vice President Eve Frost, all of the directors are present for today's meeting. I'm sure the Chairman will introduce them to you."
So my mother hadn't come ... That would make things a little easier.
I touched the Gorgon's arm to detain her when she would have opened the boardroom door. "Wait just a moment, please. Are Eckert and Abul Hadi and Jernigan still board members?" They were old friends of the family whom I had seen occasionally at dinners and other social affairs sponsored by my mother.
"Citizen Frederick Jernigan retired last year. The Other two directors are still sitting. Please! The Chairman has had to delay opening the meeting because of your tardiness."
"Slap my wrist with a ruler," I suggested waggishly.
She gave me a terrible look. I failed to turn to stone, whereupon she flung the door wide and announced, "Mr. Helmut Icicle."
I walked into the boardroom. It was windowless and rather dimly lit. Simon was seated at the head of the long table, flanked by the eight directors. At each place glowing computer screens were recessed into the dark, polished greenwood. There were carafes of water and crystal tumblers. Cousin Zed sat on Simon's right. On his left was my older brother Daniel, a humorless, ambitious man who served as Rampart's Secretary as well as its Chief Legal Officer and Syndic. Others I knew included Ethan's widow, Emma Bradbury, and the two charter directors, Gunter Eckert and Yasser Abul Hadi. The second woman and the two men sitting on Zed's side of the table were strangers.
Simon said, "It's about time!" There were two empty seats below Abul Hadi, and he motioned me toward one of them. "Let's get this damned show on the road." Dan tipped me a minimal nod. If he was surprised to see me, he gave no sign of it. Zed reacted with puzzled suspicion, apparently not recognizing me. Aunt Emma murmured "Helmut Icicle?" in an incredulous voice. We hadn't seen each other in over ten years.
"You know him better," Simon said, "as my youngest son, Asahel Frost. He's told me he prefers to keep the alias for the time being."
There were smothered exclamations. Zed turned angrily to Simon. "What the hell's going on? Why is he here?"
"He's going to address the board on a matter of moment," my father said, flashing his rare, brilliant smile. "And then I'm going to move that we make him Vice President for Special Projects."
"Now hold on just a damn minute!" I exclaimed.
Simon said, "I call this meeting of the Rampart Interstellar Corporation Board of Directors to order ... Asahel, sit down! You'll have a chance to speak later."
He was wearing his signature rancher's outfit, in faded blue denim this time. Around his neck was a skinny bolo tie ornamented with a flat chunk of turquoise set in silver. His Stetson was parked on a greenwood coat tree in the corn
er. He turned to Dan. "Mr. Secretary, since this is an extraordinary meeting of the Rampart board, I move that we dispense with reading the minutes and proceed to the first order of business."
Gunter Eckert said, "I second," and the motion was approved unanimously.
The three younger directors sitting across the table studied me with frank curiosity. Like Zed, they were in their late thirties or early forties, wearing elegant bespoke business attire that bore only a superficial resemblance to that of the lower-status drones I'd seen down in the lobby. Aunt Emma, who seemed frail and wispy, was swathed in burgundy chiffon and pearls. The two old hands, like Simon, indulged their penchant for sartorial eccentricity. Eckert had on an oatmeal-colored silk tweed jacket with suede elbow patches and binding at the cuffs. It looked about a hundred years old and so did he. Abul Hadi wore spotless white robes and a head cloth. His beard had gone iron-gray and his skin was an unhealthy color. He closed his eyes and took out a string of worry beads, fingering them below the level of the table.
"Before we go any further," Simon said, "I'll introduce certain members of the board who may not be familiar to our guest." He indicated the men and woman sitting below Emma. "Leonidas Dunne is Rampart's Chief Technical Officer. Gianliborio Rivello is our Chief Marketing Officer. Thora Scranton is one of our four Directors-at-Large. She represents the interests of Rampart small stakeholders. You remember Gunter Eckert, our Chief Financial Officer, and Yasser Abul Hadi, who used to be Chief Counsel and now serves as a Director-at-Large..."
I whispered, "Glad you and Gunter are still here, Yasser."
The sunken dark eyes opened but he didn't look at me. "Perhaps not for long," he murmured.
Simon said, "The first order of business involves Gala-pharma Amalgamated Concern... As you all know, Gala has made numerous acquisition overtures to us over the past four years. We've rejected all of them. Six weeks ago their chairman, Alistair Drummond, met with me informally at the Sky Ranch in Arizona. He informed me that Gala is prepared to proceed with a hostile takeover effort unless we immediately enter into merger talks. I intend to tell him to go to hell. Does any director wish to move that we entertain the Gala-pharma bid?"