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Perseus Spur 7
Another phantom wallop jolted my innards. So Eve was the one "on hold"—whatever that meant! And my older brother Dan, my sister Beth, and my mother were presumably the "three at risk" unless Simon capitulated to whatever pressure was being exerted on him. For the first time I noticed that my father's features were not truly impassive. Behind the masterful glare lurked an emotion I had never seen in him before.
"When was Eve discovered missing?" I asked him.
"In mid-January, by Earth reckoning. Thirty days ago— nine days before your run-in with the comet. I finally got hold of Tyrins External Security, but they referred me to Zared on Seriphos. He said Eve told her staff that she was taking some time off, supposedly to recuperate from overwork. She never returned. The manager of the secluded little Tyrins resort where she'd booked a cabin said she personally cancelled the booking via vidphone. Eve had stayed there before and the manager knows her. She didn't give any hint of why she'd changed her plans or where she might be going. Zared claims that Rampart security agents turned Tyrins upside down but failed to find any trace of her. They're still looking. The investigation has been quietly extended to the other Spur worlds, including the freesoil planets."
"What about the Commonwealth police? Have they been notified?"
"Zared didn't bring in Zone Patrol for fear of Eve's disappearance being leaked to the media. He thought that might compromise our ongoing efforts to be granted Concern status and leave us wide open to ... our business rivals. When I asked him why he hadn't told me earlier that Eve had vanished, the imbecile claimed he was just finalizing the investigation report and would have sent it on within a few days. Zared seems convinced that Eve's gone to ground for some personal reason of her own and she'll surface when she's damned good and ready. I call that complete horse puckey!"
"Did you tell Zed or Rampart ExSec about the mystery message?"
I wondered why. I also wondered whether Branson Elgar had made a stopover on my sister's planet before coming to Kedge-Lockaby. "Well, what do you intend to do now?"
Simon studied me with an oddly speculative expression. He was silent for some moments, then said suddenly, "Matt Gregoire, Eve's Chief of Fleet Security, will be meeting with Rampart's Board of Directors on Seriphos day after tomorrow for a confidential briefing on the disappearance. I want you to join us, Asahel. Help us find Eve."
But he rarely joked, and his face had abruptly regained its invincible confidence. He checked the Rolex Scheduler on his wrist, got up, and started for the door. "Come to my suite at the Nikko Luxor tomorrow. Breakfast at 0730 hours, then we'll fly to Seriphos together in the Mogollon Rim."
"No," I said, lowering my bare feet to the floor and sitting on the edge of the bed. "I've got other plans." I'd investigate my sister's disappearance, all right—but I'll do it unemcum-bered by Simon, Rampart Starcorp, or anyone else.
When I tried to rise, the room began spinning. I tottered like a mesquite tree undermined by a desert flash flood and dropped back, cursing.
My father returned to my bedside. He flipped open the draggled sheets, picked up both my legs, swiveled me around on my butt, and forced me to lie down. Then he covered me up, hit the bed control, and rendered me horizontal. "You're supposed to rest. Your pal Jake Silver said so."
"Stop ordering me around!" I struggled to get up again. "I'm not one of your Rampart stooges, and I'll be damned if I waste my time at this corporate confab of yours." Sudden weakness sandbagged me. I flopped back onto the thin pillow. "Maybe Eve finally got sick and tired of your bull-dozery and Cousin Zed's fusspot shilly-shallying and just packed it in."
"You know she wouldn't do that."
Yes, I knew. I was just rattling my father's chain. Eve was as indomitable and loyal to Rampart as Simon himself, but without his ruthlessness or contempt for human frailty.
And she was "on hold."
Bending over me, Simon forced the words out. "Please come to Seriphos, Asahel. Your professional experience could be invaluable to this investigation."
I threw it at him without warning. "Galapharma's engineering a takeover attempt on Rampart. Right? And you suspect they're mind-fucking you by abducting Eve and trying to kill me."
A brief nod. "There's more to it than that, but you're on target."
"Do you know about the Haluk connection?"
"Not so loud." I peered up at him with sour satisfaction. He was no longer making any effort to hide his dismay.
"Are you serious? What Haluk connection?"
"I could be mistaken." He was ready to persist in the questioning, but 1 shook my head tiredly. "Not now. We can talk about it later. I feel lousy. You'd better go."
"Asahel, at least come to the board meeting. Please."
I refused to look at him. "Why?"
"Because I need you. You may be the only one who can save your sister from the bastards who have her—you, with your ICS background, your knowledge of Concern skulduggery. Rampart has been in a state of managerial crisis for nearly two years. Eve's disappearance renders us more vulnerable than any of the others realize. I want you to listen to what Gregoire and Ollie Schneider, our Vice President for Confidential Services, have to say about the situation on Tyrins. I'll also see that you're completely briefed on the Galapharma takeover bid and the internal problems. Give us whatever advice you can. Help us find Eve. Then turn your back on us and go back to your island, if you still insist."
He was very persuasive, damn him. It was unthinkable that I not do everything in my power to find my sister. If Galapharma was behind Eve's disappearance, as both of us suspected, the job of locating her would be easier if I knew as much as possible about the conflict between the family Star-corp and the big Concern.
Another notion came tiptoeing into my mind. I pulled myself up on my elbows. "Do any of the other Rampart directors know about the attempts on my life?"
Simon looked surprised. "There was more than one?"
I sighed. "Just answer the question."
"Nobody else knows. Not even Daniel." He was referring to my older brother, Chief Legal Officer and Syndic of Rampart. "I did tell him about Eve's disappearance. He flew with me to Seriphos on the Mogollon Rim. I left him in Vetivarum to organize the meeting and came to K-L yesterday for your roll-out. Nobody but the Rim's pilot knows I'm here."
"Do you intend to tell the board members that I'm attending the meeting?"
"No. I didn't even decide to invite you until—until I got here." The hooded eyelids lowered. His mouth became an obstinate line, and it was clear that he was not going to say anything else on the subject. I was forced to consider the amazing idea that Bronson Elgar might have been right in his extraordinary judgment of my father's feelings toward me.
Unless Simon was trying to manipulate me as he'd manipulated so many others ... but I'd already made up my mind to go to the Rampart board meeting by then, for Eve's sake.
"All right," I said. "Forget about doing breakfast and toting me along on the Mogollon Rim. I'll get to Seriphos under my own steam and arrange my own accommodation. Schedule the meeting for 1300 hours at Rampart Central, day after tomorrow. Don't tell anyone I'm coming."
Simon nodded curtly. His anxiety had receded and I had no doubt that he felt he was in control once again. He had compromised his iron principles by pleading with me; now that I had agreed, there would be no thanks.
I said, "Give me your personal phone code."
He took out a card and placed it on the bedstand. "Asa..."
I deliberately turned away from him and closed my eyes. "Go away and leave me alone."
After a while I heard the door close. When I sat up there was only a little vertigo. The telephone was in the bedstand drawer. I punched Mimo's code, caught him in Nordhoff's Raiatea Bar with the gang, and asked another great favor of him: a ride to Seriphos. Without hesitating, he agreed.
Clive Leighton, one of the sport diver
s, lived on that planet. With luck, I might wring something useful out of him before the board meeting.
I lay back again and went peacefully to sleep.
Mimo Bermudez and I took off for Seriphos as soon as I was discharged from the hospital late the following morning. The trip from K-L to Vetivarum, the planet's capital, took a little over two hours at a sizzling sixty ross, ULD max for El Plomazo—the Bullet—and for virtually any other ship in the galaxy. No protests of mine could discourage my friend from demonstrating the awesome capabilities of his expensive new toy. When we reached the Seriphos system, he switched to subliminal drive and began juking around like a bat out of hell, performing inertialess vacubatics at engine redline velocity (a hundred million kilometers per hour) and showing off the ship's guns by demolishing blameless little asteroids.
I supressed my queasiness—which might have been attributable to my invalid status, but was more likely apprehension over things to come—and expressed admiration for his skills, while tactfully pointing out that time was a-wasting. I had important business to transact on Seriphos before meeting with the Rampart board members tomorrow. Besides, Plomazo was getting low on fuel.
Then I made a mistake. "But don't worry about that, Mimo. I intend to see that you're reimbursed for this trip's costs—and my hospital expenses and the loss of your other ship as well."
"That's not necessary," he said.
"My father can afford it."
" I would rather not."
"For God's sake, be reasonable! At least let me get you compensation for La Chispa."
"It was I who sent you out in her! Should I accept a reward for saving a life I myself had endangered?"
"I'm still going to see that you get a new starship," I muttered mulishly.
At that, Mimo lost his temper in a way I had never seen before, cursing me out in eloquent Spanish that my own knowledge of Arizona-Mex couldn't half follow. When he wound down, I managed a lame apology. "I didn't mean to insult you."
"But you do, damn you! You were gratified by the charity of los pobres del arrecife who rebuilt your house, gathered furniture and food for you, but my generosity is unacceptable! Is it because I break stupid laws? Do you fear that one day I'll ask something from you in return that would affront your tender conscience? Or is it that I'm rich like your father, and the only good gifts are those that come from raggedy-ass Throwaways like yourself?"
"Don't be silly. You're the best friend I have on K-L. I don't give a flying fuck how you make your money. But—"
"Helly, there's a little known virtue called magnificence: an unostentatious liberality of expenditure in doing good. You would deny me the practice of it. Mierda! I should have left you on the comet."
I took a deep breath and said in careful Spanish, "I have behaved like an imbecile, and you are in truth magnificent, Don Guillermo. Thanks for all of the good gifts, but especially for that of your friendship."
His English reply was a mollified growl. "We will say no more about payment—at least of the monetary sort! I was touched that you were willing to confide your great secret to me, back there on the beach at Kedge-Lockaby. 1 also confess that I find this predicament of yours fascinating, with a far greater potential for amusement than the other activities I've indulged in lately. If you truly wish to compensate me, then let me help you in whatever way may be most useful. Keep me in your confidence. You won't regret it."
I said, "It's a deal... up to a point."
"Clam! That goes without saying. My offer includes taking you anywhere in the galaxy. But you will forgive me if from now on I do the piloting myself."
* * *
I had been to Seriphos only once before, when I was a child. The planet is a limited T-l with two major continents. The larger, wrapped around the equator like an enormous rusty scab, is geologically ancient and worn down almost to sea level. Tangled, almost impenetrable salt marshes fringe the muddy shore, and the hot arid interior is almost totally devoid of vegetation and inimical to higher forms of life. Only insectiles and the flying animals that prey on them survive there. The north polar continent is more user-friendly—if you like jagged glacier-crowned volcanos, roaring torrents, hot springs, boiling mudpots, and precipitous valleys almost entirely devoid of level ground.
The local Indigenous Sapients sensibly built most of their permanent settlements along the deeply indented seashore or on the river deltas of North Continent. The invaders of Galapharma AC followed suit, evicting the Insaps from the most inviting locales and terraforming them for the human colonists brought in to exploit the world's natural resources. When the Concern abandoned Seriphos, the scattered company towns reverted to temperate jungle, being considered cursed—for good reason—by the native peoples.
Rampart's recolonization plan (which proved so successful that it was replicated on the Starcorp's other Spur worlds) minimized the number of outlying human communities and concentrated most of the Earthlings in a single conurbation, the city of Vetivarum and its satellite townships and spaceport. Situated on a spectacularly beautiful bay, it eventually became the largest human settlement in the Perseus Spur, the center of Rampart's planetary operations.
Plomazo wowed the ground crew at Vetivarum Starport's General Astrogation terminal. They had never seen her snazzy like before. The port agent who attended to our brief landing formalities seemed well-acquainted with Captain Bermudez and gave us an obsequious welcome. My friend slipped him a small package, which the official tucked without comment into an inner jacket pocket. We were not asked for corporate passports or any other identification.
The two of us took a short walk to the rent-a-car parking lot to pick up our hired ground transport. I suggested that we travel as inconspicuously as possible, but Mimo ordered a Jaguar four-seater convertible with a heather metalflake paint job and goldplate trim. I did persuade him to leave up the black lame top.
We headed into the city through heavy late-afternoon commuter traffic. Mimo was at the wheel, driving manually with careless expertise. He had programmed his favorite sentimental Latin ballads on the car stereo.
"Now, Helly! What about this important business of yours?"
I hesitated. I had intended to drop the old man off at our hotel and deal with Clive Leighton alone, but even the brief stroll at the spaceport had brought on an ominous fatigue. I was still a sickie, and the person I intended to interview was in excellent physical shape. To get what I wanted, I'd probably need backup.
"Jake Silver gave me four addresses when he visited me in the hospital. They belong to the young Rampart executives who accompanied Bronson Elgar on the diving trip. It's possible that these guys have no connection with Elgar, but I intend to check them out. One of the men lives here in Vetivarum. I'm going to go shake his tree and hope something useful falls out."
"Ah." Mimo's tone was dubious.
"Ordinarily, I wouldn't hesitate to tackle the job by myself, but I'm not in the best shape yet, so I'll need a little help. A frightener."
"I don't think I shall volunteer." Mimo gave a self-deprecating chuckle. "At first glance I'm lovably eccentric, not intimidating. It takes time for people to learn to fear me ... No, you require a specialist. Let me think. I have many friends in Seriphos."
"The muscle will receive a substantial fee, payable by Rampart. We'll tell him up front who I really am, and that the job could be dicey if Elgar shows up."
Mimo considered for a moment, gave a judicious nod, and picked up the car phone. After he finished a cryptic conversation, he said to me, "I think we've got our man: the son of an old business associate. He should be completely dependable— and discreet."
We drove to a gym near the Vetivarum waterfront called Sluggo's. I stayed in the car while Mimo went inside. He returned almost immediately, accompanied by a placid-faced mountain of male flesh, aged somewhere in his early twenties. He was at least two hundred centimeters tall, with a torso shaped like a meaty inverted triangle. His blond hair was pulled back
in a tight ponytail and he was attired in a gray velveteen track suit adorned with tasteful blue stripes. He wore gunboat-sized Nike athletic shoes. Around his neck, which was roughly the circumference of my upper thigh, was one of those myostimulator collars that provides extra oomph to the large muscles whenever the wearer flexes his sternocleidomastoids.
Mimo introduced Ivor Jenkins. The young man gave me a sunny smile and shook my hand gently through the open car window. His voice was soft and cultured. "I understand your requirements, Citizen Frost. Your financial terms are very generous. I'll endeavor to give satisfaction."
"Call me Helly," I said. "There's an off chance that the job could be dangerous. Not the guy we're going to roust, but the people behind him. They might come after you later."
Ivor Jenkins shrugged. "Then I'll deal with them—and bill you."
I grinned at him. "Ivor, I like you. What's your usual gig?"
"Physical fitness coach. I find it rather humdrum. Your assignment will be a welcome break in the quotidian ennui."
Heavens to Betsy! A literate Goliath. "Climb in," I said. He shoehorned himself into the back of the Jag and its suspension groaned.
Primed with the address Jake Silver had obtained for me, the car's computer took us to the gated foothills community where Clive Leighton, Associate Legal Analyst and sometime sport diver, lived. We arrived a little after 2100 hours, local time. The high latitude sun was still brightly shining in a buttermilk sky.
A live human security guard came out of the kiosk at the entrance to the compound. Mimo told him that we were offworld friends of Leighton. We didn't want to be announced because the visit was a big surprise. As a token of appreciation for the gateman's cooperation in the jest, the old smuggler handed over another of his little surprise packages.