The name on her passport was Eija-Riita Koiva. She was a Vespa Virgin and had the tattoo and wife to prove it. She also had a scar across one check and a barrel full of rumors to go with it. The truth, what there was of it, came from police records. A young nobleman and his drinking buddies decided to have some fun with a street waif. The young nobleman was armed with a rapier, and I don’t mean one of those fake holo-vid ones. It was over 116 centimeters long, razor sharp and weighed eleven kilograms. An expert with the rapier could lunge and strike from a distance of three or four meters, and penetration by the first seven and a half centimeters of the tip almost anywhere in head or torso was usually fatal. So the nobleman had his rapier out and trying to cut off the girl’s clothes bit by bit, and he went down with a screwdriver buried deep in his eye socket. No one saw how it happened, but Koiva stood ready with another screwdriver in hand, so his buddies took off. She was 13 or 17 at the time, depending on who was telling the story. I had better sense than to ask her about it; I will say she always won at darts.
Koiva’s wife’s name was Satu Kuusi, which translated as “Fable Spruce.” I'd say it was an alias, but who am I to argue with passports, or with Vespa Virgins bearing screwdrivers. The demure Satu handled all the domestic chores. Eija-Riita wore the toolkit. Both were usually decked out in long, sleeveless and high-necked tunics, black panty-hose and heavy, knee-high boots. Satu’s hair was long and neat; Eija-Riita's a rat-ness of a shag.
We made a pretty good team, all in all. Domestic Kuusi, energetic and boisterous Koiva, and brainy (ha!) Hamilton “Ripcord” fforbes-Wainscotting. (And yes, spelled with two f’s, no caps.) Sharpshooters, Inc. That's us.
We were on foul-aired Regatta, a planet orbiting one of the two G-class stars that made up Gilliam system, and we were half a team in a game of drunk jump ball. Eija-Riita was very drunk, and terrorized the court. The only person who matched her that day was a bear of a man called Lex Tarson (and whom Eija-Riita insisted on calling "Tex Larson" until she sobered up). Fortunately, he was on our team. We won the cup. The cup had thirty thousand credits in it. With five thousand in each of our bank accounts, we could afford to drink a lot of boiler-makers in the celebratory wing-ding at Curly Jo's after the match.
Lex had enough booze in him to let down his guard, and people have a tendency to unload their troubles on Satu who is a good listener and has a sympathetic face. I won't mention the number of stray cats she took in, petted and cooed over, and sliced up for the cook pot. A very deceptive woman, our Fable Spruce; we picked up a lot of information through her, some of it even useful.
In a nutshell, Lex was chief of security for Mercury Chemical Company. Soon to be ex-chief. One of the ronin employees had penetrated the computer files and made off with an entire database detailing Mercury's manufacturing secrets the day before the main plant shut down for a refit. All the employees were now scattered across Regatta. Lex had literally staked his job on the electronic protections he'd built around the computer files. He was up against it.
I love desperate people. They hire us.
We rose at the crack of noon the next day and had some hair of the Vargr that bit us. Once my head stopped trying to fall off, I was able to access our mail. Our buddy Lex had come through for us: Mercury Chemical's CEO had authorized Sharpshooters, Inc. to hunt down the thief and reclaim the missing database. We had full access to M.C.'s plant and systems, and our own expense account. We'd be paid five hundred credits a day, and a bonus of two hundred thousand if successful in recovering the database. The catch -- and isn't there always one -- was that we had to do this with "maximum discretion." Legal action being terribly expensive on Regatta, bankruptcy would be cheaper than going to court and winning.
I decided on checking out the chemical plant first. Lex provided a company car, and we donned respirators and goggles before crossing the deadly distance from our flat's door and the car. Satu and I did, at any rate. Eija-Riita let the respirator mask dangle from her neck and bee-lined for the car as though nothing was wrong with the air. Presumably, she held her breath, but she's always pulling stunts like that, as if she has to prove how tough she is. This is a woman who normally walks around like she owns the streets, and wears a smile that suggests she knows something you wish she didn't.
The employee parking lot was vacant except for one of those monster garbage trucks common to Regatta, garbage actually being the major item produced on that planet. Judging from the size of the overflowing dumpsters, I'd say those big trucks had their work cut out for them.
Again we had to don our respirators to move from the car to the walkway tubes. As I said before, the plant had been shut down. We found it deserted. Trash and dust and assorted debris, and a senior citizen of a janitor tackling the mess with zen-like calm. The only other person in the building was a secretary in the front office processing data for the next batch of incoming personnel for when the plant re-opened. Lex took us to the general access terminal where he thought the hacker had wormed his way into the system. One of those large Regatta elephant flies had found its way into the building and decided to dive bomb us. Maybe he thought he could carry one of us off. Annoying things, flies. Lex popped open a closet door and started rooting around for a weapon to use against the damn thing, but Eija-Riita simply batted it with her hand. It bounced off the wall and fell to the floor where it struggled a bit before giving up the ghost. Lex was surprised, and Eija-Riita gave him one of her pirate smiles.
We turned our attention back to the terminal. "This is a general access terminal," Lex explained. Like, duh. "Every ronin who has ever worked here must have used it at one time or another. And that includes the last group when they signed out for their final paychecks." He opened the secure files with his password and I plugged my gear into it. We saw that the system had been compromised from this very terminal 20 hours before the ronin began checking out. The time corresponded with the company party. I did my usual brilliant voodoo and discovered that the security system was probed twice about a week before the actual theft. Probably practice runs.
"Could the thief be a manager?" Satu asked.
Lex looked surprised. "Mercury Chemical's managers have been with the company for several generations. They would not dishonor their families in this manner. Besides, all of the managers, executives and secretaries in the plant were either in the front office or singing on stage at the time."
I let that last remark pass and pulled data from the system. Personnel records listed 492 workers with access to this building when the theft occured. I also discovered that the security breech involved a list of commands that indicated the hacker was not trained in computer operations. He or she had simply followed a tedious, blind, and thorough algorithm designed to produce results that even a chimp could recognize and use. That meant a conspiracy: one talented person to plan the operation, and a lower life form to implement it.
That was the extend of the information we could gather from the terminal. The next step was to search the trash bins for clues. Eiji-Riita's suggestion -- the scavanger in her loved pawing through dustbins. The dumpsters were empty when we got out to the parking lot, but we caught the monster garbage truck just as it was about to drive away. The trash collectors did not relish the idea of falling behind schedule, but Lex's security ID turned their complaints into low grumbles. Eija-Riita and I climbed into the back of the truck and started sifting through the trash. Hot work in respirator and goggles. Satu and Lex went back into the building to rifle the employee lockers in the nice, clean air.
Eija-Riita and I found a ton of shredded faux paper, smashed data disks and rods, party favors and empty beer kegs. Eija-Riita sighed and said she never got invited to the really good parties. We also found several drums of acid mistakenly put out with the trash. If this had gone out the gate, Mercury Chemical would have faced a government investigation and probably a good Cr5 million fine. We made the trash men unload the drums and I promised myself to ask the company for an extra bonus.
It was a big truck. We found old cloting, magazines (including some issues of "Female Sophonts With Guns" I hadn't seen), newspapers, a dead plant, a crushed radio, four calling birds, three french hens, two turtle doves -- well, you get the picture. But we also found a large number of travel ticket jackets for various public transports. Most were printed in dull colors on cheap faux paper, but one stood out in brilliant red and gold on real paper. The Starways logo. You may have heard of Starways. They offer the best in luxury accommodations to discerning (read: stinking rich) travellers on their way to Pentosa. We hadn't been on Regatta very long, but knew about Starways. Pentosa was the playground of Regatta's upper crust who could afford to vacation off this garbage dump of a planet. A ticket on a Starways liner cost ten months wages for a ronin worker, so I assumed the discarded ticket jacket belonged to one of the upper executives. Magpie that she is, Eija-Riita tucked the empty ticket jacket into her tunic pocket.
We met up with Satu and Lex in the front office. Their locker search had turned up one locker stuffed full of trash bags containing printouts of all plant personnel and their personal information. (Lex logged the name of the locker's owner for later investigation.) A second locker contained three confidential manuals on procedures involving elemental mercury. Curious, but of no concern to our present investigation. A third locker held the unclaimed personal possessions of an employee who had died five days earlier. I crossed his name off the list of suspects.
Lex was excited by the discovery of the ticket jacket. Sasparilla Chemical Company of Pentosa was a major rival of Mercury Chemical. Lex was certain the culprit was fleeing to Pentosa. I had to agree. A ronin worker might not scrape up the money for a ticket, but a well-off patron could. I figured that, if the culprit got his stolen goods to his employer before we caught up with him, the only way he'd be found then would involve dragging the river bottoms.
Lex had the secretary on duty check the Starways flights to Pentosa. The liners departed about a week apart, and the next flight was in six hours. Passengers had been boarding for the last six, so we figured our thief was either on board or heading that way. The next stage of the investigation would be aboard the liner Jefferson Davis, named for a famous Regattan statesman from a couple of centuries ago. Lex didn't like the cost, but bought three tickets for us anyway. Eija-Riita and Satu would share a room, so that saved the company ten thousand credits.
Regatta Spaceport had a new wing constructed for Starways' luxury liners. The original starport's concourse was full of shops offering spacefaring supplies and new upper-class stores offering expensive wines, designer clothes, luggage and other travel accessories necessary for "fine (i.e., stinking rich) people everywhere".
We hung about the concourse and terminal to observe everyone boarding the Jeff Davis, and took turns going into a clothier to purchase some upscale outfits. Dressed plainly, we stood out like panhandlers at a coronation. The air in the starport was purified and perfumed, so the respirators and goggles hanging from our belts were very out of place. We eventually stowed them in an Avanti designer carry bag Satu purchased.
The gangway checkpoint was very thorough. Not only were there several stewards in white vests and black pants, but two guys in fancy ship uniforms also checked out each boarding passenger. A probing machine for carry-on luggage was near them, as well as a weapons detector. We weren't carrying any handguns or rocket launchers, and knives and swords were considered carry-ons, so I wasn't worried about passing inspection. If we got some upscale clothes.
Satu went to buy clothes first. Eija-Riita and I scanned the crowds, but no one appeared overtly suspicious. Not much out of the ordinary at first: one passenger had a fit because his luggage hadn't been loaded as yet (there's always one); an old man very well-dressed and courteous came out of the ship, said something to an officer about doing some last minute shopping, and hobbled towards the mall (there's always one of those, too -- he'd get back just as the gangway is ready to be raised and take his sweet time getting on board); an exhausted mother dragging a small child in the midst of a temper tantrum (there's always one of those on every public transport).
I hate it when people bring small children or other pets that aren't housebroken onto public transport. Gods, but this kid was noisy! And while the woman is trying to pull out her ticket at the boarding gate the kid makes a break for it. Mothers should do like bounty hunters and handcuff themselves to their responsibilities. The boy thinks he's clever and climbs into the baggage probing machine to hide. Good way to get a massive dose of radiation. The security people were running around like headless chickens looking for the main switch to shut the machine off. I turned to Eija-Riita to make a comment about this fiasco, but she was no longer standing beside me.
My eyes tracked a blur, and I realized that Eija-Riita had crossed the gap to the baggage probing machine. She dived into the works after the kid. By the time someone cut the power to the machine, Eija-Riita was climbing down with the kid tucked under her arm.
The kid was still struggling and wailing, but stopped long enough to look at the recorded probe image of himself that the security man showed him and his mother. Upon learning that he'd just received a dose of radiation, the kid began crying again. The ship's doctor showed up and explained that the boy didn't get enough radiation to become sick.
Eija-Riita squatted down next to the kid. "Hey, there, boy-o! A little radiation doesn't bother anyone as tough as you and me, ei? Could have been worse, and next time," she added ominously, "it might be."
That shut the kid up. The mother thanked everyone profusely and took the cowed child aboard. Eija-Riita strolled up to me. "You must be part cyborg," I said. Eija-Riita stared at me a moment, then threw her head back and laughed.
Satu put in an appearance. Damn, but she looked good all dressed up. She nodded towards the gangway. "Take a look at him."
Coming down the gangway out of the ship was a small, rat-faced guy wearing shabby clothes and a shit-eating grin. He headed towards the luxury mall and ducked into a clothiers. "What about him?" I asked.
"Looks out of place here, doesn't he?"
"Maybe they threw him off," Eija-Riita suggested.
"No," I said. "He's too happy. He'll buy some good clothes and they'll let him back on bo--"
Then it hit me. A man like that couldn't normally afford a Starways ticket any more than we could unless someone else was paying for it.
"I think I'll buy my outfit in that store Rat-Face just went into. Excuse me, ladies."
Inside the store, Rat-Face was loading up a fair-sized quantity of high-class clothing and taking his time about it. He was rude to the clerks when they tried to assist him. I couldn't really split my attention between choosing a wardrobe and keeping an eye on him, so I graciously allowed the clerks to select a suit for me. Rat-Face took an arm-full of clothes into a changing room, so I took some stuff into the room next to his.
Rat-Face was humming to himself, and even murmured a lyric: "I'm in the money...." He fell silent a moment, then said, "Ah, Danny boy, you've hit the big time."
We left our respective changing rooms each wearing a new suit. I paid cash for mine and the other stuff I wanted but got a receipt to get reimbursed by Mercury Chemical. Rat-Face got into an argument with the cashier because his debit card wasn't any good. He loudly informed the girl that he'd just gotten paid. I pretended to look at some silk scarves (at eighty credits a whack, I wasn't planning on buying one) and waited to see what transpired. Rat-Face-- or Freeman Oshon, as the cashier called him -- had to wait until the funds cleared the bank or some such. It took about ten minutes, and his purchase went through. He grinned and said, "For a while there I thought I'd been played for a sucker."
Now, that's an odd thing for a company worker, ronin or otherwise, to say. I pulled out my pocket office and checked his name against the 491 suspects on my list. And there he was: Daniel Oshon, age 32, junior assistant line supervisor for the past three months at Mercury Chemical.
And Bingo was his name-o.
I was sure we had our man, but he'd already been on the ship and wouldn't be carrying the stolen data around now. I sauntered out the door after him and pretended to window shop while Danny Rat-Face purchased several bottles of exceedingly expensive wine. Loaded down with his purchases, he headed back to the boarding checkpoint with me close behind. He dropped one of the bottles at the screening gate, but shrugged it off with a cheerful "What the hell," and tried to tip a security man and the steward who took the load from his arms. One hundred-credit bills. The steward thanked him and carried his luggage on board. The official waved it off and checked Rat-Face's credentials before letting him board.
Satu and I waited for Eija-Riita. Nothing of much interest occured except for one man who was arrested and led away after a search of his luggage turned up something he wasn't supposed to have. Things like that made me sweat because I never knew what Eija-Riita might be carrying on her person.
When she joined us, Eija-Riita was still decked out in a long, high-necked tunic, panty hose and boots, but all of obviously top-of-the-line quality. She looked casually well-off (read: so stinking rich she doesn't have to prove it). I handed her my computer tools and related gear. Eija-Riita carried that and her own heavy toolkit, leaving Satu to carry her other luggage.
We were ready to board when Lex showed up with a change in the game plan. He looked visibly relieved when I told him about Oshon.
"He must be the one. Okay, my boss thinks you're doing splendidly so far, but he wants you to substitute a set of false data for the real stuff you recover."
"Confuse and confound the enemy," I said.
"Right." He handed me the set of faked data disks. "The CEO has authorized an additional fifty-thousand, whether you win or lose, for keeping that acid from going out with the trash. And he'll give you another fifty-thousand if you can plant the fake data disks in place of the real ones."
Lex also gave us the name and comm number of a senior Mercury rep on Pentosa, along with a security code so he'd know Lex sent us.
We shook hands all around and headed for the gangway. Behind the glass wall the Jefferson Davis was visible. Four decks high, painted a glowing scarlet with the golden Starways logo up on the curve of its bow. A beautiful ship. I tore my eyes away and concentrated on the officials at the gate. The two uniforms standing were the Purser and Master-at-Arms for the Jeff Davis. They greeted us pleasantly enough, probed our baggage, allowed Eija-Riita to continue to wear her knife collection, and frowned over the various tools she carried.
"What's all this for?" the Master-at-Arms asked.
"Oh, I'm a Vespa Virgin. I'm heading to Pentosa to build a Vespa grav-sled and challenge all comers to a race along the back roads. Do a cross-country race if they allow it." The ship's officer looked unconvinced. "Besides, we Virgins always carry our tools with us in case we want to take on some ronin work."
Well, everyone knows that Vespa Virgins are some of the best mechanics around, so being dressed to the hilt seemed plausible enough for a ronin of that stature. Master-at-Arms turned his attention to me. "Are you travelling with the Vespa Virgins, Freeman fforbes-Wainscotting?"
I tried to appear indifferent. "Yassss. We amused ourselves with a game of drunk jump ball and hope to repeat our triumph on Pentosa. We won the trophy. Amusing little trinket."
Okay, so I laid it on rather thick. We passed muster, that's all that counts.
We boarded the luxury liner. Next stop: Pentosa.