(Note; this otherwise unpublished story is a sequel to my earlier Trade Secrets.)
I knew the woman was trouble the moment she walked into my office. She was wearing - if that's the word - a purple vinyl mini-dress, with shoulder-pads that could double as dinner plates, fastened down the front with a visible zip. Her legs were getting more help than they needed from sheer black tights and platform heels. All this was backed up by some advanced engineering in the lingerie department. Her hair was a glossy black page-boy bob, and she had on far too much make-up, especially round the eyes, and it was very well applied. Her perfume was something French that came in tiny bottles, and she'd used all of one of them that morning.
Don't get me wrong. I'm a fan of late twentieth century popular culture myself. But I always did think that the clothes were the worst part. More to the point, that get-up was straight off last month's retro-chic catwalk shows, and I'd swear the vinyl was real. Which meant that this woman's idea of day-wear cost as much as I make in a good month.
And when someone with that sort of income visits a small-time independent freelance like me, you can be sure it's a "special" problem. Meaning that I'm going to be tempted beyond reason with a job that turns out to be even tougher than the money implies.
Like I said, trouble.
"Miss Lemsfield?" the fashion victim asked, superfluously. She'd have seen a dozen pictures of me before she came anywhere near the place, along with reading my complete biography.
"Yes" I said, pushing the remote I was working on into its padded carrier and slipping my soldering iron back into its charger.
"I have a possible contract for you."
"Your employer would require complete discretion..."
"Oh, please." I ran my hand through my hair, which was growing too long again, pushing out of my workshop hat and getting tangled. "First you have a job for me, then it turns out that you're just a messenger. Now you start talking about... Look, I use standard contracts, okay? I'm not vain enough to bother with anything else. I just pull 'em straight out of a legal library. And they always have pages about confidentiality. And you wouldn't be here if I'd ever broken one of them."
She smiled coldly for an eighth of a second. "As you say." She produced a pad, tapped it for a moment, and showed me a standard agreement-to-talk. I nodded, found my own pad in the desk, locked it to hers, and we both added our thumbprints. The lump of data that transferred to me included an address, and my diary asked me if a time the next day was okay. I said yes, and my visitor turned on her platform heel.
"Don't be late" she murmured over her shoulder.
I checked the details my pad had picked up. It said that her name was Georgina Callaghan; she was a junior partner at the classiest solicitor in Cambridge.
For a moment, I contemplated sending a remote to follow her down the road - just to annoy her - but she'd probably have sued me for that. Anyway, I was going to be busy for a while, finding anything in my wardrobe that would pass muster at the address she'd given me.
Actually, the decision didn't take long. I have one important-interviews suit, which doubles for classical concerts and funerals. So that was what I was wearing - freshly cleaned and pressed, and with my hair all nicely trimmed - when I stepped down from the bus in Haslingfield the next morning. The maybe-client's house was expecting me; one look at my face and one mumbled sentence from me, and the door unlatched itself. All very slick, and it made me feel that someone was taking excessive amounts of interest, to have my voice as well as my face on file. For one moment, I thought about getting paranoid, but I decided that it just meant that I really was dealing with serious money here.
"Well, hello there."
The house system had one of those annoying, mid-pitch, sexless voices that never go out of fashion among configuration shops, but its choice of words showed that someone was determined to prove that they had a sense of humour. It talked me down the corridor, through a dining room with a big real wood table, and out into a conservatory, where I shivered and pulled my smart suit close around me. The damn place was refrigerated. I'm no gardener, but I realised that it was all set up to grow alpine plants.
My host was sitting behind a desk at the far end of the room. He had steel grey hair, and strong features that were carved with the kind of lines that indicate real age, but which don't diminish a person's character. He wore a plain, dark suit over an open-necked shirt; the effect was very much that of a successful businessman at home.
"Hello, Ms Lemsfield" he said as I approached. His voice was smooth, perhaps a little too well-modulated, which told me something about him.
He was obviously pretty wealthy, used to being in authority, and probably professionally trained in psychological control techniques.
He was also a dorian.
"Hello, Mr Gordon. You're a dorian." I said.
"My congratulations," he said. "You are perceptive."
I shrugged. "Not really. For one thing, you've got a damn great solid desk out here in your conservatory." I leant forward pointedly, peering over the furniture in question. The desk's pedestal was actually a machinery housing, and a thick fibre-optic cable ran from there to the dorian's left hip. "Anyway, your software may be good, but you really don't show a lot of facial expression. I've seen a few dorians at trade shows; after a while, the body language starts to become noticeable. Besides which, there had to be something around here that involved my line of work."
He smiled. It was damned good expression control software, despite what I'd just said.
"As you say, it's your line of business. Would you like a drink, Ms Lemsfield? Rum, isn't it."
"It would be, later in the day. Look, I don't doubt that you've got a good file on me. Though I must admit that I'm curious as to why someone like you is hiring someone like me."
He shrugged a little. "Well, you were recommended to me by Peter-Joe Carter."
I nodded, a little carefully. I'd met Carter precisely once, very briefly, in the course of helping to engineer his divorce. I didn't know that was what I was mixed up in at the time - one of the dangers of sub-contracting - and luckily for me, he'd turned out (or been persuaded) not to bear grudges. On the other hand, he'd never fixed me up with work before, either.
"Doesn't answer the question, but never mind. What exactly is the job you've got for me, Mr Gordon?"
"I want you to find me."
"Uh-huh." I was still standing up; now, I took a step sideways, moved a convenient chair a little, sat down in it, crossed my legs, smoothed the fabric of my suit, and looked my client straight in the artificial eyes.
That bought me about three seconds in which to think. It was obvious what he meant, of course, but I was amazed that anyone with his sort of money should have got himself into this situation.
"Okay. How did you get lost?"
He smiled stiffly, and I don't think the stiffness was because his facial muscle emulation was bad. "It was easier than you'd think" he said.
I shrugged. "Possibly. I know that you have no awareness of your real body - the drugs suppress that, right?" He nodded. "Yeah, they'd have to for the whole thing to work properly. And I'm sure you're a busy man, so the last thing you'd bother doing is checking where your body is. But even so, I'd expect anyone who can afford a dorian rig to be able to afford decent security. And even if you're channelling control through the public net, it should be easy enough to do a physical trace. Unless - uh..." As usual, my mouth had been running ahead of my brain. Gordon smiled again, just a little bit patronisingly - but no more than I deserved.
"Yes," he said, "I think you've guessed. You're right on both counts, but that's the whole problem. I was very worried about security when I had this system set up, so I spent a fair amount of money making my body hard to trace. And I didn't tell many people where it was stored. All of my employees who knew have been checked, incidentally. So far, we have no idea which of them might be responsible."
"Can you let me see the files on them?" I asked.
"No" he said. "Sorry. I'm aware it might make your job a lot easier, but there are heavy confidentiality contracts involved. But anyway, all I'm hiring you to do is to try and trace my control signals back through the net. If you succeed, I have employees who can deal with things from there on. You will have access to all my protocols and encryptions, of course."
That was no more than I'd need to even think about the job, but even so I had to admit to myself it was also a sign how much he trusted me. "Come to think of it, didn't the security you set up include any trapdoor codes?" I asked.
"Nothing that worked" he said flatly. That struck me as a bad sign; it surely meant that his personal keys had been compromised. For all his claims, he had clearly been totally screwed over by someone he thought he could trust.
Anyway, it was my turn to shrug. "How much?"
"I suggest a retainer of a hundred euros a day." (Well, that'd just about buy me lunch, if I was on a diet.) "And a bonus of five thousand, less two-thirds of your retainer paid to that time, on success. I'll contract you for up to one month. Say, weekly progress reports?"
He didn't strike me as the type to haggle. I took his contract and his codes, which very nearly filled my pad's memory. I made a mental note to spend some of that bonus on an upgrade, if I got the chance. Then I said goodbye, turned, and walked away.
"Ms Lemsfield?" He said. I looked back from the door. "I just wanted to say thanks." He smiled slightly, and shrugged. His software's fine control of expressions and body language was definitely state of the art.
I shrugged back and walked out. I was already wondering if taking this job had been a good idea, but work was short, as usual, and to be honest, I don't get many chances to work with technology on this sort of level. As a matter of fact, I'd never been so close to a dorian before. Those trade shows get crowded.
And - well, I decided that Gordon must have been on some of the very best staff-management courses. I wanted to help the bastard. Which meant that his expensively trained charisma had got through to me.
There was someone else in the house. She was sitting on the stairs as I walked down the hall.
"Hello there," she said as I reached the front door, "have you been talking to daddy?"
She looked about eighteen, and she was wearing plain white from head to foot - something glamorously quirky, with white leggings and a short dress slashed up to her armpit on one side. Her voice shifted up and down the scale as she spoke, as though she was experimenting with different tones.
I looked back at her and nodded a little. "Talking" I agreed, and reached out for the door-handle. The door remained firmly shut.
"What about?" she asked.
"Business" I said. The handle didn't move. The girl put on an exaggerated pout.
"I wish he'd tell me what he's doing sometimes," she said. "After all, it's my company too."
"In that case, you must have guessed that I sign contracts that say I shouldn't talk to anybody."
"But I'm not just anybody." That pout was a silly trick. "I'm Claudette Gordon. Heir to half the business."
"But it's not yours yet" I said.
She giggled, but with an expression of irritated petulance. "Hah," she said, "as if anyone'd trust me..."
I decided that anyone would probably be right, and turned back to the door. "This looks like imprisonment" I said flatly and carefully. The door heard me and clicked open. I held it to make sure it didn't swing shut again, and I couldn't resist a glance back at the girl, who was scowling now. "These systems are good at keeping people out," I explained, "but they have lots of overrides to stop them from keeping people in when they shouldn't. Whatever you, as the owner, might tell them. It's for safety."
As I walked away, I mused on this family. I'd met just two of them, but I had some hints that made me wonder about the whole situation. Claudette had been given (or had taken) her father's surname, rather than her mother's, which made me think a little; I guessed that everyone's heart belonged to Daddy in that house. Or at least, they all knew who controlled the money.
Well, I was working for that same money myself, for now. But all I had to do was keep my mind on one specific job.
When I got back to my workshop, I found Georgina Callaghan standing around outside. This time, her dress and tights were both bright yellow, but the style was as before. To save my eyes and sanity, and for other reasons, I carefully didn't look at her as I walked up to the door, thumbed two locks and spoke to a third (I'm not paranoid, just a gadget freak), and stepped inside. Then I turned round.
"Okay," I said to her, "I'm sure that you're here for a reason."
She waited until she was inside and the door was closed before she answered. "I just wanted to know how easy you think it will be to find Mr Gordon" she said.
I shrugged. "I won't know until I look" I said. "There's professionals in this business could hide him away so well that I'd never find him. But if people like that were involved, I think that he'd know - or at least guess enough not to bother hiring me. Why do you ask?"
"Professional concern, of course. What's your best estimate as to how long you'll be?"
"Well," I said, "getting hold of all the intermediate protocol data and stuff takes a couple of days - it's all on line, but I have to persuade a few people to give me access to those files. Then - well, I suppose I'll have to monitor signals coming into his house, check some binary signatures against the current local net configuration... Less than a week if I get lucky, and if it goes much over two, it could take forever."
I hated this. One reason I'm a freelance is that I can be vague about job time estimates. I don't like guessing and I don't like lying.
"Well," said Ms Callaghan, "when you find you're getting close, call us. We may be able to help, and we are Mr Gordon's solicitors."
When she'd gone, I sat back and thought about the job. I don't like sub-contracting work out; my profits margins are tight enough already. Anyway, I only know one private detective, and I didn't owe him any favours right then.
So I told my sound system to play something baroque for five minutes while I thought some more. Then I picked up my 'phone and called my accountant.
The next day, I spent most of the morning wandering around a slew of under-used warehouses next to the levee east of the town. The area was mostly deserted (apart from some automated trucks, of course), and there was no-one in sight when I found the one I was looking for. So I did something a little bit illegal; I pointed my pad at the door and told it to play back the sounds I'd spent the previous evening carefully assembling.
"Well, hello there," it said, "open up."
The door clicked open. The kid was a complete amateur.
She was also sitting around the big open upper floor of the warehouse when I reached it. There was very little else there except for a big, rectangular box with rounded corners, a control panel, a heavy-duty feed from the a nearby power point, and a fibre-optic link, nearly as big as the power line, running into a data port.
"Oh," said Claudette Gordon, "it's you."
"Just doing my job."
"I guessed." She giggled. "I suppose you're going to tell Daddy now?"
"That's my job too. I won't stop you 'phoning him first, to tell him your version of the story. If you like."
"Maybe" she said, and began rummaging around in a big handbag.
There was a pause while I stood there, hands in pockets, not really wanting to know the story behind all this. "You must be good at your job" she said, "I really didn't expect anyone this soon."
"Not really" I said, not caring if she was smart enough to feel insulted at that. She didn't say anything, or even look at me.
Then she finished rummaging around. Unfortunately, she was now holding what looked very like a real, working gun. "Bring your hands out of your pockets, Miss Lemsfield. Very slowly, now, and empty."
There was something about the look in her eyes that made me obey immediately, suppressing any ideas about arguing. That was unfortunate under the circumstances; I just had to hope that she wasn't so jumpy that she'd squeeze the trigger on reflex.
I was lucky. Two of my remotes came through the warehouse windows, homing in on the dead-man's-handle control switch that I was carrying in my pocket. She swung around to see what was happening. What she saw were the usual light alloy ducted fans, with a lumpy bulb holding the instrument package behind the central motor; slow and clumsy. Her gun was tracking them before she finished turning.
Then another couple of remotes skimmed through the broken glass. These were fast and agile as swallows, and looked that part - black hypercritical crescent wings sculpted out of carbon fibre. Before Claudette could react, one of them swooped down and knocked her gun away. I think the impact broke two or three of her fingers, too. She gave a wail, stared at her hand, and sat down hard on the floor.
Georgina Callaghan stepped cautiously through the door behind me, looked around the place, then looked at Claudette Gordon. "Don't worry," she said to the world in general, "I've called the police, and an ambulance."
"Thanks" I said, as Claudette didn't seem inclined to say anything; she was just sitting there, clutching at her shattered hand and staring sullen resentment at both of us. Then I took five steps to the nearest packing case, and sat down hard. The shock was hitting. I'm not used to having guns pointed at me.
Ms Callaghan walked over towards Claudette, and carefully kicked the gun well out of the girl's reach with the pointed two of a stiletto-heel shoe. Then she looked back at me. "Sorry I was tracking you" she said.
"I'm not" I said. "Anyway, I'm sure you had your reasons." She just shrugged. Junior partner, I thought.
"The job was quicker than you expected" she said.
"No," I said, "if I'd got through all the trouble of tracing the signals back through the net, it would have taken a week. But I decided not to bother. I know what business is like; lots of companies like your employers have been paid in shares over time, right? So your coming to talk to me a second time gave me an idea. I had someone check your employer's shareholdings. No surprises there. Then I looked through some more stuff on shareholdings..." I was babbling as the shock hit. "More to the point, I guessed that Mr Gordon was perfectly capable of picking employees who wouldn't betray him. But we can't pick family. And this business looked pretty crazy, and she -" I indicated Claudette Gordon, who was now clutching feebly at the pain of her broken hand, moaning softly, "- well, she was the craziest person I'd met so far."
"How did you find this place?"
"I looked up some property ownership information. She bought it, more or less for cash, about a year and a half ago."
Then, as we looked at her, Claudette staggered to her feet, Ms Callaghan and I both grabbed for the control boxes for our remotes, but the girl didn't go for the gun; instead, she staggered over to the body tank and flicked back the top panel with a wild gesture.
"Look" she said, before staggering away a few steps and sitting down again to curl up round her injury.
I shouldn't have done what she said, but I do have a curious streak. Ms Callaghan tensed for a moment as I walked over to the tank, but didn't do anything to stop me. Then I looked.
The naked body inside was pale from months out of sunlight, and flabby despite the muscle-stimulators strapped along the limbs and torso. The hair was cropped to allow the dozen or so induction plates to make close contact, and the IV feed was doubtless dripping in the odd shot of hair-growth suppressant to keep things that way.
But despite all that, it was clearly a good-looking body, young and basically healthy. It was also female.
"Claudette's older sister." Ms Callaghan was looking down at it with a relaxed, neutral expression, maybe even a bit of a smirk.
"Right" I said. Ms Callaghan shrugged.
"All this is covered by your confidentiality clauses, of course..."
"Stop talking to me like that. I'm a contractor, remember?"
"Sorry." She carried on looking at the naked shape in the tank. "You might as well know the rest - it might save you from getting irritable. We think that the father died just under a year ago."
"The rich don't die any other way, these days." Something in her tone made me wonder if something exotic and maybe scandalous he caught Gordon; he was old enough to be carrying one of the late, long-gestation HIV variants, and possibly rich enough to keep the fact secret. But on balance, it was probably just something mundane. Money would be enough to explain the silence. "He'd been fitted up for the dorian a few months earlier."
"And his business was so completely dependent on him? Personally?"
She smiled again; apparently her cockiness would bounce back every time. "Nobody is indispensable, you think, Ms Lemsfield? Sorry. That's what people like him tell people like us."
So maybe the cockiness was more complicated than I thought. Or maybe it was very simple. I indicated the woman in the tank. "So she decided to hold everything together? She must be a damn good actress to make it stick."
"I imagine that she'd been studying her father all her life. And the software will have helped."
"Hmm. But if she could run the business or whatever as well as her father, why didn't she just step in and prove it?"
"It would have taken her a long time, and she's have lost too much on the way. And... I assume that you've never had many dealings with the very old rich?" I shook my head. "No, well. Some of them have ideas that are so old-fashioned that people barely recognise them any more."
"About women, you mean?"
"Who knows?" She pulled the cover back over the tank and turned away. "This will blow the whole thing open, of course, but I imagine that she's been hedging her bets against that. She's probably been slowly and carefully liquidating her assets for days. So she'll walk off with half of a lot of money."
"And little sister here will get the other half. Just like she no doubt wanted all along."
"Well... We'll nail her on quite a few things. But yes. But the money will probably be used to pay for a nice, quiet hospital stay."
I saw that, although Claudette was still sobbing steadily, her eyes were open again, and she was staring at us without blinking. Then I heard sirens. Ms Callaghan shrugged and sat down on the same packing case that I'd used earlier. "Oh well, time to talk to the cops. No-one ever did find a way to get away from them."
// END //
(Copyright Phil Masters, 1995.)
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