The Jefferson Davis wasn't too bad as luxury liners go. Overpriced a bit, but that was probably to keep the riff-raff from buying tickets and polluting the ship with their presence. You know the definition of a conservative, don't you? It's someone who believes in maintaining the status quo with all its good and bad points as long as the bad points remain among the middle and lower classes where they belong. But I digress.
We went through the usual pre-flight review of emergency equipment and procedures. The lift-off itself was excuse enough for a big party. All the drinks were free for the first few hours, believe it or not. We didn't get plastered, believe that or not. Several impromptu contests were held, including a beauty contest. Eiji-Riita loudly demanded a talent contest and declared she could field-strip a Gauss rifle in under four minutes. No one paid any attention to her.
Odd thing happened at the lift-off party, though we didn't know it was odd at the time. First of all, we didn't pick up on Oshon's total disregard for his fellow passengers and the crew, but over the coming days it became apparently that he was totally ill-mannered and boorish. The odd thing was that he caught the eye of a female passenger at the lift-off party and raised his glass in a silent toast to her. She frowned and turned her back on him. We figured, at the time, that it was a preliminary to a pickup. That turned out not to be the case, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
The crew kindly offered tours of the bridge and engineering spaces. Our trio took turns taking the tour and asking some interesting questions. Before embarking, I had downloaded a map of the ship and we familiarized ourselves with it. We had adjacent rooms in the forward passenger section of B-Deck while Rat-Face Oshon had a stateroom in the aft section of C-Deck. One of us would hang around the lounge in the B-Deck elevator well and follow Oshon wherever he went. The shadow on duty would wear one of Eija-Riita's portable computers -- transparent visor that acted as monitor, pocket server, controls strapped to the wrist -- and pretended to be absorbed with some program or other. Oshon was easy to follow; he spent most of his free time on A-Deck -- the Promenade Deck -- in the bar or The Hall.
The Hall was something to see. Regatta Starways must have spent a small fortune on the furnishings. Top of the line artwork, artfully molded walls with ornate brass and silver fixtures everywhere. The outboard hull was mirrored to make the room look twice its size. An overhead projector displayed an image of an ornate baroque ceiling with a dazzling, crystal chandelier. The wines available were also top of the line, but reasonably priced.
An on-going poker game occupied one of the tables in the far corner. Oshon invited himself to sit down and play, so I parked myself in across the room and pretended to be absorbed in my computer. To tell the truth, I was studying the layout of the ship again, noting the various damage control stations, lockers, electrical control boxes and so on, and running down bios of some of the passengers (also downloaded before we came on board).
A couple from New Caledonia occupied the table next to mine. They were dressed in kilts, brown shoes and knee socks. The man had sideburns and wore a vest. The woman had dark hair cut at the jawline and wore a russet sweater and black beret. The man was easy-going and cheerful; the woman somber, smoking a pipe with Zen-like ease. But her darting, piercing eyes seemed to observe everything around her. I was mildly surprised that the couple weren't in one of the holo-gravs playing a round of golf. Many New Caledonians are avid golfers, and will play anywhere, anytime no matter what the weather. If it were pouring rain, they'd be out on the golf course. I actually saw this when I was on New Caledonia. "Who's on the green in this downpour?" I asked a bartender at the "nineteenth hole." And he says, "Four Arcturians and Mad William."
Well, one of the senior stewards walked in with a passenger called Dawn Rosen. I had some info on her that Satu had picked up in a conversation; the woman was on her way to Pentosa to commence an arranged marriage and was less than happy about it. There's an old, beat up piano in the lounge, and Freelady Rosen and Satu had pounded away on it while singing ancient drinking songs.
The New Caledonian man turned to his companion and said, "Look, Rose. There's senior steward Wu. Charming fellow. Have you met him?"
The woman removed her pipe, glanced at the steward and said, "Are you referring to that retired commando?"
"Oh, you have met him, then."
"No, this is the first time I've seen him. But he's a college graduate and retired commando who was involved in suppressing the Katanga Rebellion. He's recently divorced or widowed, and probably works out every day. Other than that, I really know nothing about him at all."
The woman's companion stared at her. Hell, I stared at her.
The man finally found his voice. "I say, Rose, you never cease to amaze me. I can understand the bit about him being a commando becau--"
"Retired commando, Sheringford."
"Alright, then. A retired commando. You probably guessed that from the way he holds himself or some such. But how the deuce did you get the rest of it?"
"I don't guess, cousin. It's all very apparent. That mark on the back of his hand is a tattoo worn by all commandos who survived the operation on Katanga. You will note the thin, white discoloration on the third finger of his left hand which spoils his otherwise healthy tan. He obviously wore a ring for a long time, and only recently removed it. When people remove or lose jewelry they usually replace it, unless it's a wedding ring that is no longer needed. Speaking of rings, there's a university class ring on his right hand. And it doesn't take a degree in transcendental mathematics to realize that there isn't an ounce of fat on that body. It's as if he was chiseled from marble. Please try to be a bit more observant, Sheringford; there's a good chap."
What a condescending bitch.
"Of more interest is the personality of the Master-at-Arms," she said. "It only took ten minutes of conversation with him this morning to determine that the man is a complete paranoid. And he's rigidly controlling himself to keep his paranoia in check. I think you'll find that he has less than a year to retirement and is afraid of losing everything he's worked for. I imagine he thinks the passengers are conspiring to take away his pension."
What a blowhard of a bitch.
But when she turned that cold, penetrating gaze on me I thought I'd wet my pants. No other woman ever had that effect on me except for Eija-Riita.
I finally stirred out of my chair, went to the bar and had a couple of quick drinks to steady myself. Someone sat down beside me and I turned to find Satu there. "A bit early for that, isn't it, Ripcord?"
"Had a bit of a shock," I muttered. "Nothing to do with our case," I added. "Rat-Face is playing poker."
Satu glanced at the poker players. "Don't let Eiai-Riita find out; she'll want to join their game."
"Find out anything of interest?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact. Freeman Oshon has only been aboard for a day and a half, but he's already making friends among the female passengers. He makes impertinent and suggestive remarks while ogling their bodies. You should have seen him this morning. We were in the lounge and he made some comments I won't repeat about me and Eija-Riita, and the next thing you know she's crossed the distance and rammed the point of a knife into the bartop beside his glass. And she says to him, 'I didn't quite make out what you said; could you repeat it, please?'"
"Good God!" I stared at Rat-Face, then turned back to Satu. "He doesn't look any the worse for wear."
"A steward came up and interposed himself between Eija-Riita and Oshon. Apparently, his distaste of authority is greater than my wife's, and they both gave the steward a hard time, but Oshon was particularly abusive. The bartender summoned the Master-at-Arms. Eija-Riita suggested a tactical withdrawal, and we left Oshon to argue with ship's security."
"Okay. We know Oshon is a flaming asshole. Has he been approached by anyone to whom he might pass on the stolen data?"
"No. And I don't think he's the subtle type. The contact must be on Pentosa. Oshon probably got half-payment in advance, and will get the rest upon delivery."
I had to agree. Still, there was no harm in keeping the little jerk under surveillance.
"Have you tried hacking into the ship's computer?" Satu asked me.
"Hmm? Oh, no, I haven't. The main computer is on the lower bridge with the sensors and can only receive programming from there. The door is always locked, so I'd need a passkey."
Satu sighed and ordered a "Bomber Command." She knocked the drink back, wiped her mouth on a napkin and stood to leave. "I'm going to prowl around and talk to more passengers and crew. You know, his contact might just be one of the crew. In fact, they might already have made the switch."
"Doubt that, Satu. Rat-Face went on and came off the ship once. He wouldn't have needed to come back aboard to travel to Pentosa if he'd planned to pass on the stolen data to someone already on board. He must still have it."
Oshon chose that moment to rise from his seat, curse the other poker players, and start for the exit. Satu and I followed him out. In the corridor, he nearly ran into the woman he'd toasted at the lift-off party. He stepped aside with exaggerated, mock courtesy and a sly grin. He didn't ogle her or make any rude remarks. She ignored him anyway.
"Now that," Satu whispered to me, "is exceedingly strange and out of character."
"Maybe he's in love," I shot back.
Oshon went to the dining room to have lunch, and I followed him. Eiji-Riita joined me for a meal, and when Oshon departed, she trailed after him. I continued to study the passenger lists, but couldn't come up with any hints as to who Oshon's on-board contact might be. I clung to the theory that his contact must be on Pentosa.
I also spent some time wandering about the Promenade Deck. One of the conference rooms had been set up for a chess exhibition. One of the passengers was a teenager from Regatta on his way to a tournament on Pentosa, and the exhibition pitted him against ten --count 'em, ten -- simultaneous opponents. I overheard someone comment that the kid was "another Bobby Fisher," whoever she was.
Another conference room was the home of an ancient Solomani history seminar, and the panel bored everyone with debates on people and places most of us had never heard of. Beats me how these experts were able to keep fifteen thousand years of recorded history in their heads. Sure, we all remember bits and pieces we pick up over the years from school or whatever, but I couldn't see wasting my time cramming all of it into my head. I mean, who cares that Herman the German ambushed American legions at the Bulge Forest, or that Macaroni invented the radio? These guys were arguing over how many men some queen named Kleopatra slept with. Like I care.
(Oh, you want to know? Well, they maintain that, despite the myths surrounding this queen, she only ever slept with two men, generals named Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius. Caesar I've heard of; they named a month after him.
(See what I mean about picking up bits and pieces?)
I eventually wandered out and towards the theater beyond The Hall. The Nihonjin flute master Tomiko Takahashi was giving a performance. I'd run across her the evening before practicing in the elevator well because the acoustics there are so good. She'd drawn a crowd both there and in the theater. Hell, she draws crowds throughout the sub-sector. The theater was standing room only, but I stayed for the whole performance. Better entertainment than watching a chess savant or listening to a bunch of old crocks discussing whether or not this Kleopatra person had a big nose. (Yeah, she did. So what?)
After the performance I headed forward to the lounge. The bar was doing a brisk business. A top-ranked underground fight club champion was signing autographs. He was on his way to a scheduled fight on Pentosa even though this sport was banned on both Regatta and Pentosa. You can't beat popularity. He was scarred and very fit and drinking way too much. He noted Eiji-Riita's Vespa Virgin tattoo and explained to her that she needed a good humping. She suggested that he needed one as well, and offered to ram the business end of a Gauss rifle up his backside. He called her a name. She decked the dumb sonuvabitch even though he was easily twice her size. Surprised everyone but me and her.
The brute picked himself off the floor, but his trainer got in his face and convinced him to come away. They left just as Bob "Buster" Bronco walked into the room trailing his own entourage of wannabees. (You know, I've never been around so many famous people until I took passage on the Jefferson Davis.) Bronco planned to hunt the raptors on Sally's Island. He dressed very casually in khaki pocketpants and a hunting vest. Big smile, big arms, big suntan. A real outdoors type. It's true what they say about his scar; long and nasty-looking, but doesn't seem to detract from his looks. Fascinating story about how he got it, but I can't tell the story as well as he can. Master hunter and master storyteller. Someone set up a target board and he and Eija-Riita had a knife-throwing contest, her vorpal blades pitted against his bowie knife. I knew that half of all hunters who venture onto Sally's Island end up as raptor lunchmeat, but if I was a Sally's Island raptor, and knew that either one of these two was hunting me, I'd save them the trouble and throw myself off a cliff.
Satu entered the lounge escorted by a crewman in orange utility coveralls and a carry bag slung over one shoulder. Satu jerked her head towards a table and I joined them there. She introduced her new friend as Engineer Horvat.
"Pablo likes to build hand-made spy equipment," Satu beamed. In Suomea she added, "He's a spy wannabe and reads all the cheap spy vids and detective magazines he can get his hands on. I spotted him walking around with a magazine stuck out of his back pocket."
"Oh? Pleased to meet you, Pablo."
Turned out that friend Horvat was interested in selling some of his geegaws. The three of us headed down to my stateroom on B-Deck where he opened his carry bag and spread out his wares. Bugs, trackers, comm devices ... crude but serviceable. Nothing I or Eija-Riita couldn't manufacture ourselves, and better, but buying some of his stuff could save us some time. Suddenly, I was itching to plant a couple of these things on our buddy Rat-Face. I handed Horvat a cock-n-bull about some detective work we needed to do when we got to Pentosa. I didn't see any need to inform a member of the crew that we were spying on a passenger.
I tested his stuff and pronounced it sound, then purchased a handful at a reasonable price. Horvat tried to pump me about our alleged job on Pentosa, but told him our client disappeared those who crossed him. That had the effect of both silencing Horvat and rewarding him with a wet dream. You should have seen his eyes light up when I mentioned our client's solution to problems. Horvat reminded me of a bloodhound straining at the leash. He wanted to be in on something like this I could imagine him drooling at the prospect. This clown wouldn't last half a day on a real spy mission.
"There's a couple of other detectives on board," he told us. "I wanted to show them my stuff, but they weren't interested. The woman said her best piece of equipment was her brain." He leaned closer and near-whispered, "You've probably seen them around. Two New Caledonians. The woman's name is Blueberry Rose St. Teresa, and the other is Sheringford Hope."
That brought me up short. I must have looked a fright because Satu asked, voice heavy with worry, "Hamilton? What's wrong? You're white as a sheet."
"Blueberry Rose," I breathed. I finally shook myself. "You've heard of the legendary and semi-fictional detectives Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot?" Satu and Horvat both nodded. "Pikers compared to Blueberry Rose St. Teresa. What the great goddamm is she doing aboard the Jeff Davis?"