Blueberry Rose St. Teresa was on board the luxury liner Jefferson Davis and heading to Pentosa with the rest of us. On a scale of one to ten for competence as a detective, with Blueberry Rose as a ten, I -- Hamiliton "Ripcord" fforbes-Wainscotting -- was a zero point zero zero zero one. My companions and I -- Sharpshooters, Inc. -- were pretty good at our jobs, but we had to be as transparent as glass to Blueberry Rose. She had to know we were shadowing Daniel Oshon. If she became curious, she could easily find out why we were trailing him. I turned religious at that moment and prayed to every god there was that she was not the least bit interested in our little caper. But I also knew we had to be careful. There were no secrets kept from that woman.
Maybe we'd get lucky and she'd have an attack of appendicitis during the voyage.
I forced myself to concentrate on business. That night Satu, Eija-Riita and I came up with a plan to plant a tracker and a mini-mike on Oshon. Thus armed, we headed off to The Hall where we knew Oshon was already involved in a game of poker. Eija-Riita sauntered drunkenly over to the table -- it's amazing how drunk she can look when she's sober, and how sober she can look when she's drunk -- and took up a position next to Oshon, but on the far side. She bent at the waist, planted both elbows on the table and rested her chin on hands. The players cast an occasional and bemused or wary glance at this sphinx, but other wise left her alone. Ten minutes later Satu walked up to Oshon's near side and leaned across him to speak sharply to Eija-Riita in Suomea. Satu put one hand on the table to hold her weight, and the other hand across Oshon's shoulders for balance. And while she spoke, she slipped a wafer thin mini-mike under the back of his jacket collar.
Eija-Riita made whining noises but came away with Satu. Sometimes I wonder why these two never took up acting as a profession. They were good.
But best of all, Blueberry Rose was not in The Hall at the time. She would have instantly known what we'd done, but what she doesn't see can't hurt us.
Oshon seemed oblivious to what had happened. And after the incident in the bar when Eija-Riita had threatened to slice him up after some rude remarks, he'd learned to keep his mouth shut around her. Oshon had simply ignored the two women flanking him, probably hoping the lunatics would go away. Every other woman he ran into, save one, was a target for leers and comments.
All three of us wore tiny receivers in our ears, the better to pick up transmissions from our planted bug. Now that we didn't have to keep him under constant watch, Eija-Riita and I spent some time working out how to get into Oshon's stateroom so we could toss it. Eija-Riita worked on altering one of our own passcards to act as a master passcard. It'd take her the better part of two days to complete the job. Meanwhile, I worked on finding a way to de-energize the passenger stateroom door security locks. On losing power, all the stateroom doors would revert to manual operation via a simple latch.
I studied the deck plans yet again. The breaker for the primary power supply was in a load center in the elevator well on C-Deck. Unfortunately, the bottom level of the elevator well was considered a semi-safe area where parents can take their children to run and play. The crew had even installed some climbing toys and whatnot. Too chancy to try a break-in of that load center during the day. The alternate power supply breaker was more accessible, but both supplies converged in load center 3 in a small relay box labled Passenger Door Security. So number 3 had to be my target, perhaps in the wee hours of the morning.
The next problem was how to gain enough time for someone to get into Oshon's room when the power died. We'd need to use hand-comms, and time it just right. An engineer was always on duty in the EOS, and would pick up the interruption of power on the status board. Whoever tripped the breaker would have to get out of there quickly before someone came to see what was wrong.
The more I thought about, the better I liked the idea of changing a room key into a master passcard. Trying to cut power would depend on trickier timing -- Oshon had to be out of his room and the elevator well had to be clear at the same time -- and the power interruption would trigger an alarm. This was the kind of complicated plan one sees in holo-vids. Hero A trips the breaker and says "Go!" into an open channel mini-mike, then bugs out while Hero B slips into Target's room. Very dramatic. Not to mention impractical and dangerous.
I set it up as a backup plan, just in case, working out timing and everything. Eija-Riita suggested using a time-delay fuse on a small incindenary device to cut the power. A "teensy-weensy fire" to keep the crew busy while we ransacked Oshon's room. I turned that idea down on the grounds that teensy-weensy fires also carried teensy-weensy prison sentences.
Plan C involved breaking into the lower bridge area to hack into the main computer. If Plan C had to be put into operation and failed, Plan D would involve arranging bail before a Pentosan magistrate.
I also spent more time going over the passenger and crew manifests. My skimming of these documents had earlier failed to turn up the two New Caledonian detectives on board, and I wondered what other nasty surprises were lurking in these lists. I read every name this time, and cross-checked both lists against my Regatta database dowload for any bio-bytes. Wasn't really all that much there. Lots of famous people traveling to Pentosa for one reason or other. Regatta executives on vacation. Pentosans returning home from various interstellar journeys. Pentosans returning home after slumming on Regatta. Pretty run of the mill.
Eija-Riita's master passcard wouldn't be ready until day five of our seven-day voyage. Nothing much for Satu and I to do until then other than follow Oshon around and listen to his private conversations.
We hit paydirt that night.
I watched Danny Oshon lose heavily at poker. He left the table angry as all get-out and stormed out of The Hall. I followed him discretely to the bar where he proceeded to get stinking drunk. I struck up a conversation with senior steward Wu and discovered that he was, indeed, a retired commando and veteran of the Katanga Rebellion who also had a university degree in Psychology. Oshon stumbled out of the bar and I waited a few minutes before following.
He wasn't in sight when I got out into the hall. Since he'd used the exit closest to the door to the elevator well, I figured he was heading down to his room. I ran into Satu by the elevators. She gestured at one of the starboard doors leading back into the Forward Promenade Deck. "Looks like he's heading for the holo-gravs."
I grunted. "Maybe he wants to play poker with imaginary people he can beat."
There was a noise in my ear. I placed my finger there to improve reception. Satu did the same, and we heard Danny-boy arguing with a woman. He kept insisting that he should be have been paid more for his services.
The rat-faced little jerk was no one's idea of a stud, so we knew it wasn't that kind of service he was talking about. Satu and I hurried to the door and stepped through into the nearest of the two holo-grav corridors.
Luck was with us. Rat-Face was arguing with a tall, typically blonde Pentosan woman who looked at him as if he were something nasty stuck to the bottom of her shoe. She jerked her head around as we entered the corridor, but Satu and I turned to the right and out of their line-of-sight. Around the next corner to the left, so neither of our quarries would see us if they exited by the door we'd entered by, we paused to scroll through the passenger manifest until we found the woman's face.
Her name was Angela Croughton, about twenty-four years old and native to Pentosa. She had a high-stateroom B-Deck aft, farthest to port. No other info available.
We heard Danny-boy shouting, "You can't run away from me forever, you bitch!" Someone passed through the door to the elevator well and we heard the little rat-face mumbling drunken curses until he ran out of steam. He finally entered one of the holo-gravs to engage in some weird sex drama I've regretted ever over-hearing.
We returned to the stateroom where Eija-Riita was working on her master passcard. She'd heard the conversation between Oshon and Croughton too, and we discussed the ramifications.
"We need to find out who this woman is," Eija-Riita said. "I'll bet Rat-Bastard handed over the stolen data to her."
That shot my favorite theory to hell. I'd figured his contact was waiting on Pentosa. Obviously, once he'd hit the big time with his theft, he elected to retire to a garden spot like Pentosa rather than hang around a dump like Regatta. Hence his presence on the ship. From the way he behaved, I suspected he might not live to reach Pentosa, and certainly wouldn't live long if he did make planetfall.
"I don't have any doubt that Angela Croughton is his contact," I said. "But you're right about finding out more about her -- we should know what we're up against. When that passcard is ready, we'll search Croughton's room."
"Then we better start shadowing her and learn her habits," Satu suggested.
"Right," I answered. "We have to pick a time when we know she's going to be out of her stateroom long enough for us to do a thorough search."
Eija-Riita had kept working while we talked. She stopped of a sudden and frowned. "I just had a bad thought. What if Freelady Croughton wrapped up the data disks nice and pretty and had the Captain put the package in the ship's safe?"
That killed any chance of my getting to bed early. I now had to find out where that safe might be and start planning on how to crack it. Plan E.
Day Four of our journey. Am I having fun yet?
The name of our new target was Angela Croughton. Satu struck up a conversation with another passenger, one Dawn Rosen, on her way to Pentosa to marry a man she'd never met. Rosen loved to gossip and informed Satu that Freelady Croughton was the eldest child of Asp Croughton, CEO of Sasparilla Chemical of Pentosa. Rumor had it that she was in line to succeed him as CEO, but had to work her butt off or the job might go to her kid brother.
Sasparilla Chemical of Pentosa. Note that fact. We were working for Mercury Chemical of Regatta, and it doesn’t take a Blueberry Rose to arrive at industrial espionage as a motive for one chemical firm to rob another. I was now 99% sure Croughton had the goods.
Satu also dug up some info on the other detectives on board the Jefferson Davis. Blueberry Rose St. Teresa and her partner, Sheringford Hope, had been invited to Regatta to solve a case that had baffled the planetary police for months. Having completed her task within a few days, Freelady St. Teresa was supposed to be heading back to New Caledonia.
So why was she traveling to Pentosa instead?
Satu and I spent day four of our journey running down this info and working on backup plans. Eija-Riita stayed in the stateroom she shared with Satu to work on forging a master passcard with a only a bottle of Baracuda-150 to keep her company. Eija-Riita had developed a fondness for that beverage during the Scrapyard Riots, though mostly they used the stuff to make really deadly Molotov cocktails in defense of the barricades.
Satu and I also spent some time trailing Angela Croughton in order to learn her habits. Disciplined people are usually the best to keep track of, since they rarely deviate from form. Croughton left her stateroom at 05:30 every morning and went to a holo-grav for a work out. At least we assumed it was a workout, considering that she wore a gym suit and came out winded and sweaty. Then it was back to her room for a shower and change of clothes, to the dining room for breakfast, and then a stroll around the passenger decks - all three of them. Afternoons and evenings she divided between the theater, The Hall, and the holograv booths. She hardly spent any time in her stateroom.
We decided it was too dangerous to plant a bug or tracker on Croughton, being that she wasn’t as stupid as Danny Oshon.
Speaking of Mr. Stupid, he spent all day doing some serious drinking and gambling. I spent a part of the afternoon in a conference room where Bob “Buster” Bronco had finally caved in and reluctantly (I bet) agreed to give a slide-show presentation of highlights from his more interesting adventures. I figured him for an ego-maniac - c’mon, who else who carry around pictures of their triumphs? - but I enjoyed listening to his stories nonetheless.
Croughton went to another of Takahashi’s solo performances in the theater that night. Satu dragged Eija-Riita out of the stateroom and all three of us went to hear the Nihonjin flute master yet again. We used the flimsy excuse that we should be where Croughton was, but we knew it was flimsy because we couldn’t get enough of Takahashi’s music.
We trailed after Croughton to B-Deck after the performance. She went straight to her stateroom, and we hung around the elevator well for a while to see if Oshon might show up. Each passenger section had four separate hallways, and (aside from some emergency exits) each hallway only had one access point to the rest of the ship. We’d see Danny-boy pass through that door if he went to visit Croughton.
Which he did, at about 01:30 hours. Came off the elevator, shoved his way past us, and went through the door leading to the hall outside Croughton’s door. Over the receivers hidden in our ears we could hear Rat-Face pounded on someone’s door. A muffled voice responded, and Oshon started shouting, “You owe me!” Door opened and closed, and we now heard two people arguing. Oshon wanted more money from Croughton. Croughton debated the point. Oshon threatened to go to the police. Croughton agreed to hand over a debit card with a balance of nearly forty thousand credits, adding that she’d kill him the next time he spoke to her. “I’ll claim self-defense, and with the way you’ve been behaving towards women on his vessel, the police investigation will last a full minute and a half. Now, good night and good bye to you.”
Door opened and closed again. We moved aside as Oshon appeared and headed for the elevators. We retired to the stateroom shared by my partners and went over our plans for the next day. Eija-Riita declared the passcard would be ready by noon, roughly the time Croughton went to the dining room for lunch. We could hang around the elevator well until she passed by, and then hit her room. She might stop back in the middle of the after noon for a change of clothes, but that would still give us a good three hours to toss her cabin.
Nothing ever goes according to plan. You know that as well as I. Even the military knows that, for they say that the first casualty in battle is the battle plan itself. Some call it quantum flux, and others call it Murfee’s Law or Fubar’s Corollary or simply Mala Fortuna. By whatever name, random chance is one of the major operating principles in the universe.
Danny Oshon ended up in sickbay the next morning, laid low by some malaise that left him helpless and feverish. We lost our audio pickup when his jacket was taken away along with our mini-comm wafer hidden under the collar. But before that we heard him mumbling between groans, “Damn bitch set me up. Can’t never get a break. Goddamn kill her.”
Our bonus depended on completing this job with “maximum discretion,” and there is nothing discrete about an attempted murder investigation. How could we recover stolen data, and replace it with faked data, if Croughton was arrested and her stateroom sealed off or even searched. But before I could digest that thought, I discovered why they say Mala Fortuna is triplets.
Just before the jacket was removed, I heard a voice I recognized as belonging to Sheringford Hope ask, “I say, old chap! Who set you up?”