“I say, old chap! Who set you up?”
That was Sheringford Hope's voice coming in over the bug we'd planted on Oshon. Danny-boy was in sickbay, the victim of either food poisoning (fat chance on a Starways liner), or a botched assassination attempt. And it looked like he was spilling everything. Hope is the cousin and assistant to the famed detective Blueberry Rose St. Teresa. If she became involved in this case we were really up against it.
What to do?
We debated our options over breakfast, speaking in Suomea to avoid giving away anything in public. It was a stroke of good luck to team up with two Suomalainen who had insisted I learn their language. My accent was terrible, but I could make myself understood, and not many people spoke Uralic languages.
Chances were good that Dan Oshon had named Angela Croughton as his assailant. If so, she might be placed under "house arrest" and confined to her stateroom. That'd really kill it for us. We had to act fast, but the master passcard would not be ready until lunch time.
I pondered the merits on charging into Croughton's stateroom, incapacitating her and destroying the stolen data disks. Who would she, a thief, complain to? What would she say? "These people broke in and destroyed the industrial secrets I'd stolen?" And we'd answer, "What data disks?" Still, it was very dangerous.
We were about ready to leave when five stern-faced people walked up to our booth. In the forefront stood the Master-At-Arms, Pytor Potts, and Blueberry Rose herself. Behind them, Sheringford Hope and two Gunner's Mates with holsters plainly visable. Potts laid a wafer-thin transmitter on the table. "We believe this belongs to you."
Eija-Riita picked up the bug and made a pretense of examining it. She snorted and tossed it down. "I can make one ten times better than that. How many would you like?"
Potts seemed to grow an inch taller. "We know you've been following a Freeman Daniel Oshon. He's in sickbay now, and we found this on his person."
I mustered all my nonchalance. "If I'd planted a bug on him, I wouldn't need to follow him around, now would I? Conversely, if I was trailing him, I wouldn't need to plant a bug on him: I'd bug his stateroom." In all innocence I asked, "Did you find a bug in his cabin?"
"I'll ask the questions here, Freeman fforbes-Wainscotting," Potts stated. He thought that over and modified his statement. "Not here. Please come with us."
Nuts. I put my napkin down in preparation to obey, but Eija-Riita said flat out, "No."
I thought Potts was going to swallow his tongue. His eyes bulged and his face started to turn red.
"Suppose," she continued. "Just suppose, hypothetically speaking, that we are following this Ohson person to Pentosa -- "
"Oshon," Hope corrected.
"Whatever. If we are following him to Pentosa in order to extract wereguild from him because of a dishonor he committed against one of my sister Vespa Virgins, I fail to see what business it is of yours."
"The man may have been poisoned!"
"The food is not that bad," Eija-Ritta retorted.
"Can't collect wereguild from a dead man." I picked up the wafer and tossed it at Potts who fumbled it. The wafer fell to the floor. "Now, if there's nothing else?"
Potts opened his mouth to speak, but Blueberry Rose beat him to it. "We can learn nothing more here, Mister Potts. Their assessment of the situation has the ring of truth to it until we can prove that they are lying in whole or in part. I suggest our energies are best spent on other lines of inquiry."
Potts looked unconvinced, but St. Teresa turned on her heel and left with Sheringford Hope in tow. Just like that we were dismissed by the master sleuth. But I knew she didn't believe us.
Potts scooped the bug off the floor and stormed away with his security team. We had a reprieve. How long would it last?
We spent the rest of the morning in our staterooms, emerging at noon when Eija-Riita's forged master passcard was ready. We spent a good half hour wandering all over the ship in hopes any crew shadowing us would mark us down as harmless. We rendezvoused in the elevator well of B-Deck and settled into loung echairs against the aft wall.
Fifteen minutes later Satu and I got up and went into the passenger hallway furthest to port while Eija-Riita took the elevator up the the Promenade Deck for some very visible carousing to focus the crew's attention.
Satu and I strolled down the hall most casually, looking at door numbers, until a couple emerging from a stateroom walked past and out into the elevator well. Then we hurried back to door B-49 and used the master key to gain entry.
It was supiciously too easy. Angela Croughton's personal computer was on the desk with a case of data disks nearby. All but one were labeled in a woman's precise handwriting. The odd one out had an ugly scrawl on it that we couldn't quite decipher. I inserted it into my own computer and hacked into the files without too much trouble. Bang-o. We had it.
I handed our data disk with the fake information on it to Satu. While I gave the room a cursory search, she sat down at the desk with both disks and proceeded to copy Oshon's sloppy label onto the fake. We then put the fake in the case and departed the room.
I couldn't believe our luck.
I really couldn't believe our luck.
It was much too easy. I wanted to chalk up our good fortune to Croughton's youth and inexperience, but something itched in the back of my mind. It was really much too easy. Was Croughton so foolish as to leave the disk out like that? Wouldn't she have hidden it away?
I mulled this over during lunch. Satu ate quietly, knowing when to leave me alone with my thoughts. Croughton had to feel secure since no one but the Master-at-Arms had a master passcard. If no one can gain entry, why hide the disk? But we had gained entry. There was always the possibility someone could break into a room. So she should have hidden it, just to be safe. Now, if I were in her position I would ....
I groaned out loud.
"Is that a commentary on the fish or on the chips?" Satu asked.
I pushed my plate aside and leaned my arms on the table. "This is what I would have done in Croughton's place," I said in Suomea. "Make a copy and have it secured in the Captain's or Purser's safe. Then leave the original disk lying around so a sneak thief would think he'd foiled the attempt at industrial espionage."
"You want to break into the Captain's and Purser's safes?"
"I don't even know where they are on this ship. Probably in the Captain's and Purser's quarters. Christ on a pogo stick."
"You're assuming she's as smart as we are."
"Can we afford not to?
We retired to a table in The Hall on A-Deck and called up the ship's deck plans on our computers. We studied them, but didn't like what we learned. To get to "Officer Country" we'd have to sneak through the Boat Bays' access corridor -- no problem if we weren't seen because the doors were never locked -- and then past the officers' lounge, to access the Captain's cabin, or along the causeway to starboard and the Purser's quarters. Beyond Officers' Country lay the bridge, meaning that the corridors were heavy traffic areas. No... most of the non-officer crew would enter and egress through the two hatchways on the bridge. It could be that only a few officers and utility people in the lounge area at any given time. Unless they were called to emergency stations.....
"How about this: Eija-Riita gains access to a load center and starts an emergency. While that's going on, I slip into the Purser's room and crack his safe. If I'm caught in the hallway, I'll say I was on my way for a tour of the bridge or the officer's lounge when the emergency occurred."
"If you were a ship's officer, Hamilton, would you believe that?"
"No. But passengers often have a reputation for doing stupid things. How about this: you and I strike up a conversation with a junior officer, and while you're flirting with him in the lounge I'll remember an urgent appointment that'll take me away. Then I can slip into the Purser's room."
"Why the Purser's and not the Captain's room?"
"The Purser is more accessable by the passengers. That's who I'd approach if I wanted something stored away. Shall we give it a try?"
Satu frowned. "I need to think about this."
To tell the truth, so did I. But we only had two more days to wrap this up before we landed on Pentosa.
I wandered about the ship for a couple of hours, deep in thought. I finally hit upon a plan so simple, so unorthodox, that I thought it might actually work. I sought out my two companions and found them in the C-Deck elevator well. They sat in chair along the wall and waited for flute master Tomiko Takahashi to stop swaying to whatever music was bouncing around inside her head and actually put flute to lips. I sat down next to them. "Here's one for the books: let's tell St. Teresa what we're doing here and ask her to find out if the Purser or the Captain has a package belonging to Freelady Croughton, and if they'd give it up to us."
Eija-Riita and Satu stared at me as if I'd grown another head.
"We can verify that Mercury Chemical hired us, and that Croughton stole the industrial secrets. We can point out that Croughton must have poisoned Oshon which, if it doesn't solve that case, at least gives them a prime suspect. We can pay St. Teresa a finder's fee in exchange for a bit of discretion."
"Awww, I thought we were going to crack a couple of safes," Eija-Riita said.
"Too bloody dangerous. Well, what do you say?"
The two women exchanged glances. I figured they thought I'd gone off my rocker. After a long moment, Satu said, "It make sense, sort of. We'd be hiring this New Caledonian detective to reclaim stolen goods. I don't see why it shouldn't work, unless the woman is downright bloody-minded."
At that moment the lights went out.
Emergency lights bathed the elevator well in a pale glow. No alarms sounded, and everyone present ceased activity and waited for someone in authority to tell us what to do and where to go. Takahashi chose that moment to raise her flute and start playing an eeire tune that perfectly fit the current mood of her assembled audience: tense, fearful and impotent.
Four crew in vacc suits and carrying firefighting gear converged on load center 3 off to our left. Three stood ready while the fourth yanked the door open. No smoke or flames issued forth, and we craned our necks for a better view.
A man and woman had gone into the load center for a bit of adultery and tripped circuit breakers during their passion. I don't remember their names, but had seen them around the ship in the company of their spouses. They came out into the well sheepish and trying to straighten their disheavled clothing to scattered applause. This juicy story would be all other the ship within the hour, and the couple would get it good from their spouses. It's times like that I wish I was a divorce lawyer.
Takahashi stopped playing her flute and went back to swaying in time to a tune inside her head. The three of us went up to B-Deck's aft passenger section, starboard side, and knocked on St. Teresa's door. No one answered, so went tried the stateroom next to hers that belonged to Sheringford Hope. No answer there either. Eija-Riita held up her forged master passcard and winked at me. "Don't even think it," I said. "We want this woman on our good side."
Nothing better to do, we went up to A-Deck to hang out in The Hall. There we found Blueberry Rose St. Teresa and Sheringford Hope sitting at a table. I squared my shoulders and walked up to them.
"Freelady St. Teresa. Freeman Hope. Pardon this interruption, but my friends and I are in need of some assistance."
Blueberry Rose took the pipe from her mouth and pointed the stem at a chair. I sat down; so did Satu, and Eija-Riita grabbed a chair from a nearby table to join us. I quickly outlined our problem to the New Caledonians: we'd been hired to discretely recover stolen industrial secrets and knew that Angela Croughton had them, curtesy of her henchman Dan Oshon. I explained my belief that Croughton would have made a copy and stashed it away somewhere safe, possibly giving it into the keeping of the Purser or even the Captain. I offered to pay Cr500 if she could recover the data for us. Then I held my breath.
St. Teresa eyed us with that cold, penetrating gaze of hers. Finally, she said, "I agree that Croughton made a copy of the stolen data. And she might very well have placed it with one of the senior officers for safekeeping until planetfall. Or she might have hidden it under her bed in a luggage case along with a disk containing a college history course program and a disk containing indecipherable financial data regarding Sasparilla Chemical accounts."
Fuck me. I never thought to look in such an obvious place as under the bed. "You found the blasted thing, didn't you?"
"Of course. This case turned out to be much too simple a problem. The man Croughton hired wasn't really up to the task set for him. His indiscretion led us to her. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Oshon's illness is due to anything other than natural causes. Some virus he picked up on Regatta, or so the ship's surgeon thinks. That means the stolen data disks in Croughton's possession are not needed as evidence for trial."
"Ah. Then you wouldn't mind selling your copy to us."
"On the contrary, I mind very much. You see, the CEO of Mercury Chemical was so desparate to resolve his problem that he retained my services as well as yours. Your failure to find the backup copy would have proven disastorous to Mercury Chemical." She paused to relight her pipe. "Fortunately, I was able to retrieve it. I also switched labels with the disk of fake information you left on Croughton's desk. She'll find a disk labeled 'Backup Copy' in her valaise where she left it, and assume the information it contains is accurate. In effect, she'll thank her lucky stars that she got away with her little caper and bring the fake data home to Daddy. But the real backup copy will be turned over to the CEO of Mercury Chemical along with my report." She drew on her pipe and blew out a cloud of cavendish-scented smoke. "It really is the easiest money I ever made. Hardly worth the time."
Eija-Riita shoved her chair back, stood, and planted both fists on the table. "You bitch!"
"Here, now," exclaimed Hope. "There's no need for language like that."
"Shut your hole," Eija-Riita suggested. She turned her attention back to St. Teresa. "We busted our butts to solve this case. We almost had a bonus of two hundred thousand credits in our hands!"
"Almost only counts in ring-toss," St. Teresa commented, unperturbed.
Satu rose slowly and carefully took her wife's arm. "Come on, hon," she said softly. "We lost and nothing can change that. So let's not make a scene."
I stood as well. "Satu's right. I should have looked under the bloody bed. Congratulations, Freelady. And good night."
"One more thing," the detective said. "If you would be so kind as to leave your forged master passcard here I won't have to report your having it to Gunnery Officer Potts."
I thought Eija-Riita's head would explode, or that she'd start foaming at the mouth. Neither happened, and Satu fished the passcard out of her wife's pocket and dropped it onto the table. We virtually had to drag Eija-Riita out of the room.
The rest of the trip passed without incident. The ship's surgeon placed Oshon in cold sleep and he was transferred to a hospital on Pentosa. He later recovered, and no charges were ever brought against Angela Croughton.
We'd lost out on our chance to make two hundred thousand credits. That stung. But we had a bonus of Cr50,000 for keeping those barrels of acid from going out with Mercury Chemicals trash (saving them a hefty multimillion-credit fine) plus Cr500 a day for five days. Lex Tarson was fired from his job as Mercury's Security Chief. Eija-Riita came out of her funk when we made landed on Pentosa, and built a two-person Vespa grav sled she and Satu could run amuck all over the planet. The three of us also signed up for another drunk jump ball tournament, but that's another story. And if I run into you next week here at Sam Po's Tavern, I'll tell you about our trip to Sally's Island.
Author's note: the name Sheringford Hope was invented by A. Conan Doyle for the master sleuth he later called Sherlock Holmes. The name Blueberry Rose was coined by Teresa M. who once said to her boyfriend, "If we have a baby girl we could name her Blueberry Rose." And he shot back, "Sure. And if it's a boy, we'll call him English Muffin."