Perseus Spur

Perseus Spur

Perseus Spur 13

  He touched a pad on his personal terminal. The voice of Mevanery Morgan said, "Yes, sir?"

  "Please ask Oliver Schneider and Matilde Gregoire to join us." He pronounced the unusual proper name mah-teeld.

  The door opened. The Vice President was a somber bulldog of a man in his early fifties, wearing corporate mufti. The Fleet Security Chief, whose job description entailed coping with ass-busting starship captains, frenetic shipping executives, and galactic buccaneers, was a young woman.

  But not the amazon I might have expected.

  Matilde Gregoire was the perfect embodiment of an old Latin ballad (Mimo had played the Nat King Cole version on the car stereo) that celebrated ojos negros, piel canela— black eyes, cinnamon skin. Her short curly hair was the color of strong coffee. She had a small tip-tilted nose and an upper lip ever so slightly retrousse. The blue-and silver uniform she wore outlined her slim, small-breasted figure. She was not very tall. It was impossible to tell her age. Her flawless complexion suggested eighteen, but the eyes that swept in cool assessment over the boardroom occupants belonged to a woman who was much older.

  One of her arched brows rose a disbelieving millimeter as she briefly met my gaze, and I knew she'd made me.

  Simon didn't bother with any preliminary remarks or introductions. All he said was, "Please present your reports. You first, Matt."

  Matilde Gregoire declined a seat and chose to address us standing at the foot of the table. Her voice was deep and husky, charged with the sort of mesmerizing authority that makes the best actors unforgettable. Her manner was easy, full of self-confidence, entirely professional. She spoke for nearly an hour, occasionally consulting a computer notebook and transposing data from it to the terminals at the table, presenting a cogent summary of the coordinated efforts of Fleet Security and the special ExSec task force sent to Tyrins from Rampart Central by Schneider. I was impressed by the fact that the Vice President had left Gregoire in charge of the main investigation, rather than taking control himself.

  To an ex-agent like me, the minutiae of her report were fascinating and an affirmation of her own competence. She was a good one, all right, and she'd covered the ground as well'as anyone could. The male animal in me also enjoyed contemplating Matt Gregoire as an objet d'art—with any more interesting considerations regretfully postponed until I was off the sick list.

  When Gregoire concluded, Schneider rose from his seat and discussed the search operations being conducted on other Spur worlds by Rampart's External Security Force. The hunt had been severely limited by Zared's directive not to identify Eve as the missing person, in order to avoid tipping off the ever-curious media.

  It was Schneider's considered opinion that my sister might very well have dropped out of sight voluntarily. She was a qualified starship pilot and Tyrins was the busiest port in the Perseus Spur. In addition to acting as the hub for all Rampart traffic in Zone 23, it served CHW Zone Patrol, innumerable private vessels, most of the independent transports fueling for the Orion transit, and God knew how many smugglers and human pirates. It would have been relatively easy for Eve to leave Tyrins—or be taken from it—without a trace.

  As he wound down, Schneider said, "Are there any questions?"

  "Where do you go from here?" Simon asked tiredly.

  "Chief Gregoire will redouble our efforts on Tyrins, while I expand the wider-scale search on the other Perseus worlds and into the Orion Arm. But you should understand that our investigations will be hamstrung unless you rescind the secrecy directive and permit ExSec to identify Eve Frost to local planetary authorities and Zone CID. We've been able to keep her disappearance secret thus far, but it's only a matter of time before it leaks out."

  "Or she surfaces," Zed muttered, "and asks what all the fuss was about."

  Simon ignored him. "Ollie, I want to thank you and Matt for coming here today and briefing us. From here on in, I'm transferring complete responsibility for this investigation to our new alpha-level Department for Special Projects and its Vice President, Helmut Icicle. Please give his agents your complete cooperation."

  Schneider's bulldog jaw dropped open as if he were about to protest. But he caught himself and said only, "Very well, Chairman. Will that be all?"

  Simon nodded and the two security officers rose to leave.

  I called out, "Stay a moment, please, Chief Gregoire." She turned and waited. Schneider went out, closing the door behind him. I said to my father: "Carte blanche?"

  He growled, "Yes, goddammit!"

  "Then I'd like to ask Matilde Gregoire to be my principal associate for the Eve Frost investigation. And Karl Nazarian to be number two."

  Zed broke in anxiously, "But, Simon—Ollie Schneider has to be slotted in somehow!"

  I rose from my seat and put my coat on. "Sorry. I'm fresh out of slots."

  Disapproving murmurs came from Rivello and Dunne. Even my brother Dan looked dubious.

  My father said, "Will you agree to this arrangement, Matt? Karl Nazarian has already accepted. I realize that the setup is totally unorthodox and will require some drastic reshuffling in your offices back on Tyrins, but... I also know that you and Eve are close friends. Help us find her."

  Matilde Gregoire had been staring at me in blank disbelief from the moment that I proposed her as my associate. Now the lovely cinnamon skin of her cheeks took on a resentful flush and she said, "Chairman, am I to understand that this is the man now in charge of the investigation? This is Helmut Icicle?"

  Through gritted teeth Simon said, "He is." When she remained silent, he added in a low, pleading voice, "Matt, please work with him. For Eve's sake."

  Since the beginning of the briefings, Yasser Abul Hadi had seemed to be dozing, his head bowed. Now he suddenly spoke up as the Fleet Security Chief continued to hesitate, his voice full of urgency. "I beg you to do this, Chief Gregoire. He is the best man for the job. Maybe the only one who can do it. He'll explain why."

  She had to force the words out. "Very well, then, I accept. But only for Eve's sake."

  "Thank you," said Simon. He sat back, seeming suddenly withdrawn and shrunken.

  There were more murmurings. Thora Scranton and Gunter Eckert appeared to be pleased. Aunt Emma was puzzled. Dunne and Rivello exchanged looks of frank disgust, and Dan gazed stolidly at the table, toying with a silver computer stylomike. Zared had the appearance of a dapper volcano about to erupt.

  I politely asked Gregoire to come along with me and headed for the door. As I opened it, letting her precede me, I turned and said, "We'll talk tonight, Simon, or maybe tomorrow. Be available."

  Somebody gasped at the saucy effrontery of it all. I left the boardroom and closed the door, truncating a sudden tirade from Zed.

  The redoubtable Mevanery Morgan eyed me sardonically from her command post. "Is the meeting over, Mr. Icicle?"

  "Only for the two of us. I've been appointed Vice President for Special Projects. Please call Karl Nazarian of Corporate Archives and say Chief Gregoire and I would like to confer with him immediately."

  The secretary hesitated only an instant, then whirled about in her swivel chair and addressed the computer. Gregoire had distanced herself from me and was putting her electronic notebook into a shoulder bag. She said, "You don't waste much time, do you?"

  "With luck, I'll get around to it. Time-wasting used to be my principal occupation ... May I call you Matt? You can call me Helly."

  The briefest of smiles, chill and unfriendly, flickered over her lips. They were full, touched with a dark red gloss. She said in a nearly inaudible undertone, "Do you intend to let me know just what's going on—aside from the obvious fact that your father is a very frightened man?"

  "Soon," I whispered. "Did you know who I was from the beginning?"

  "You'd better believe it. Felons are my business."

  "I was framed."

  "That's what they all say."

  Mevanery Morgan turned around, cutting short the sotto voce dialogue, and announced that Karl Nazarian was
coming to collect us personally. I thanked her and she said, "Not at all, Mr. Icicle."

  "Better make that Citizen Icicle," I corrected her. "From now on."

  Chapter 10

  Karl Nazarian didn't even bother to emerge from the elevator that had conveyed him to Level 299. He stood inside waiting for us, an amiable expression on his jowly, eroded face. He was probably in his eighties, but his hair still had most of its color, his eyes were sharp, and his keg-shaped body seemed sturdy. He wore a moss-green worsted suit and shirt, a black neck scarf, and a heavy gold brooch in a complex ethnic design.

  "Let's go to my place," he said without ceremony. Gregoire and I entered the elevator and I waved bye-bye to Morgan the Gorgon. When the doors closed and we started down, Nazarian said to me, "Well, Asa! The last time we met, you were a zit-faced brat of thirteen, touring my security facility with Ethan—God rest him."

  "I remember. I'm surprised you do."

  He gave a rumbling laugh. "Your father and uncle had such great plans for you in those days. Strange that you've finally come .to Rampart after all—and under these sad circumstances." He nodded to Gregoire. "Don't tell me Simon's coopted you for this rump operation, Matt."

  "So it seems," she said without enthusiasm.

  "Matt started in at Rampart as my administrative assistant when I was VP Confidential Services," Nazarian told me. "That was sixteen years ago. She's one of the best we have."

  "I figured that out. It's why I asked her to help." Sixteen years! She was probably as old as I was. I tried to catch her eye, but she looked straight ahead at the elevator door. It was easy to justify coopting her assistance, but the truth was that the decision had been purely instinctive, the impulse of a crazy moment, inspired by that fabulous piel canela ...

  The elevator opened on the 140th floor of the ziggurat and Nazarian guided us to a transport tube that would carry us to his office at Corporate Archives. As we strode along I felt a hitch in my step, a momentary faltering of the heart, a wisp of light-headedness, and I thought: Oh, hell. Not now!

  We had the transporter car to ourselves. I lowered myself carefully into the seat and was relieved when my body seemed to resume its normal operation.

  "Simon sent me a confidential note about your organization this morning," Nazarian said. "I'm damned if I know what you want with an old fart like me. You better not expect me to do all-night stakeouts or go hippity-hopping around the Spur chasing kidnap suspects."

  "You're on my team because Simon says that you're completely trustworthy—and you give a damn about the Star-corp's future. There's more to this operation than Eve's abduction."

  "Hmm. How do you intend using me?"

  "You'll be my number two. Matt is number one. I'd like you to take charge of the operation's coordination and data retrieval. I intend to run a very compact ship with as few personnel as possible. You'll need to recruit five or six associates who are loyal to you and to Rampart, and who aren't afraid to resist pressure—and temptation—from high places." I told him what kind of hefty salary to offer. He and Matt would be getting triple their present compensation, plus additional Rampart shares.

  "Will our lives be in danger?" Karl Nazarian asked.

  "Probably. Want to pull out?"

  He grinned. "No."

  I turned to Gregoire, taking a figurative deep breath. "And you, Matt? My father is a cosmic arm-twister, but if you'd prefer not to be part of this organization, you're free to withdraw—no prejudice."

  She said, "Ask me again after we've found Eve."

  The car stopped at a door with Nazarian's name on it and he thumbed the lock. We disembarked into a spacious room • that seemed more of a private study than an office. To the left was a wall crowded with glowing routing displays and multicolored device-driver telltales pertaining to the corporate archives. On the right, comfortable leather chairs and a low coffee table were grouped around an unlit fireplace with a potted fern between the andirons. The wall opposite the entry was a floor-to-ceiling artificial window with a holo of a springtime meadow on Earth featuring a grazing black stallion, a venerable tree with fresh leaves trembling in a breeze, and droves of cyclamen and asphodels blooming around a stone fence. In front of the scenic projection stood a huge blondwood tabledesk combined with a computer console that made Mevanery Morgan's look like a pocket calculator.

  Nazarian said, "Let's sit down," and led us to the fireplace.

  I was ready for a chair. My heart had started to thump and I was beginning to feel vaguely feverish. It was plain that I'd reverted to my walking-wounded state. I held off using the medicuff for fear of undermining my authority with the troops.

  Karl offered refreshments from a well-stocked drinks cre-denza. Gregoire asked for a Campari-soda and I gratefully accepted a cool glass of Dortmunder Kronen from a cask imprinted with a golden elephant, wondering if Mimo himself had smuggled it into the Spur. God bless real beer! It's nourishing, it bolsters sagging vitality, and it cools the hectic brow. The terrestrial brews are so much better than the local product that it's no wonder bootleggers prosper.

  Nazarian said, "Do you know a person named Beatrice— and do you have any idea why she would use my personal ex-net code to send me a top secret dossier filched from the personnel files of a certain business rival of Rampart's?"

  "It came!" I cried jubilantly. "Good old Bea! Who's the subject?"

  "His name is Quillan McGrath, and he's Galapharma AC's Deputy Chief for Internal Investigations, based at Concern HQ, Glasgow."

  "Yes! I knew I'd seen that fucker before! The Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in 2227. A regulatory update meeting sponsored by the ICS. He asked a question at a symposium I led."

  Nazarian went to his desk, retrieved a bound printout, and tossed it to me before sitting down with us before the fireplace. "What's your interest in this man?"

  "Keeping him from trying to kill me for the third time, for starters." I flicked through the dossier. It included a picture of the subject with what I presumed were his original features. The makeover was extensive but they'd left the close-set, opaque blue eyes alone. Only an expert could tell that even then he'd had an iris job, doubtless with a nanoimplant capable of projecting any number of false patterns into an ID scanner.

  "Do you think he might be on Seriphos?" Matt Gregoire asked.

  "Maybe not yet. This man could be very important to us. He might lead us to the persons responsible for a whole lot of bad luck Rampart's had lately... and even bigger trouble upcoming in the future."

  "Ah." She looked uncertain, but said nothing more.

  "Karl, how much did Simon tell you this morning?"

  "He was very agitated. He told me about Eve's disappearance, which I'd already heard through the corpnet grapevine. He restored my line authority and gave me some very unusual orders, which he justified by sharing suspicions about certain top executives of Rampart. That should have shocked the pants off me—except I'd already been wondering about the situation myself. Then he delivered the final zinger and told me that Rampart's survival is probably in your hands. That made me wonder whether my poor old friend had lapsed into senility. I took care of the jobs he laid on me and did some heavy cogitating."

  "What do you think now? Is Simon crazy? Am I?"

  "I think you're both in a hell of a mess, boy—and so is Rampart. Beyond that, I'm reserving judgment."

  "Suppose," I said, "that you tell us about Simon's suspicions."

  He hesitated. "Some of this might be a nasty surprise for Matt."

  She said, "Just answer Helly's question."

  "Helly?" Karl's right eyebrow lifted quizzically. "Short for Helmut Icicle, I presume? Or are you officially Asahel Frost now that you've signed on with Rampart?"

  "I'm a man of many monikers," I said alliteratively. "For good and sufficient reasons I'm using the alias for the time being, and you should, too. It might also help you dissociate me from the thirteen-year-old zit-faced brat." I repeated my query about Simon's suspicions.<
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  A shadow passed over the old security officer's craggy features. "There isn't a lick of proof to support this, Helly, but Simon is afraid that your cousin Zared is actively encouraging the Galapharma hostile acquisition bid. You probably know that Zared expected to be named CEO after Ethan's death. When it didn't happen, he swallowed his resentment because he thought that Simon would step down in his favor eventually. But your father has become increasingly dissatisfied with Zared's handling of corporate operations—especially his tardy responses to certain crises we've endured over the past couple of years. This morning Simon told me he had intended to bump Zared and name Eve President and CEO at the next general board meeting."

  "I had a feeling something like that was in the wind," I said.

  Matt looked profoundly shocked. "You think Eve's disappearance might have been engineered by Zared?"

  "Simon wouldn't go so far as to accuse the President openly," Karl said. "But if it's a coincidence, it's a mighty convenient one." He turned to me. "And those three questionable middle-management execs Simon put me on to ... they represent the first concrete evidence that a Galapharma conspiracy has penetrated Rampart itself. I'll have more information on them and on the late Clive Leighton in a day or two. The cover story for Leighton's death is already in place."

  "Good. We have to presume that the Swann-Hepplewhite woman told the others that the jig was up. All of our suspects are probably on their way back to Earth on express starships—unless they're already pushing up daisies in the canyons above Vetivarum. Any other turncoat employees or stakeholders will be especially careful to cover their tracks from here on in. By the way, I don't want Oliver Schneider or his security organization to be any part of our investigation. We don't use them, we don't scrutinize them. Simon seems to think the man is reliable, but I don't want to take any chances. If I were directing Gala's penetration of Rampart, Security would be my first target. I want you to be damn sure that the people we take into our little bucket shop have no ties to Schneider."

  Karl nodded in agreement. "I can find the researchers and operatives we'll need. Some of them might be a little long in the tooth, just like me." He pointed to the McGrath dossier, which lay on the seat beside me. "Is that the fellow Simon said marooned you on a comet?"