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By Aedh
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It was a bit late to go back to the office, so I went to my place.  It was only two stops and a short stroll along.  I lived in a building on the edge of the industrial district, not far from the TranspoLibria maintenance depot;  you could see the grey, hulking metal-roofed shops among steel power masts topped with blinking lights visible at night.  My street was drab, faceless, with lookalike fronts;  a wholesale electrical equipment dealer, a medical supply outfit, a food delivery service’s motorshop, offices of chemical engineering contractors, a commercial laundry.  If you went to the top floor of my building and looked out through the window of the top landing, you  might be able to see, tucked in among low hills to the west, the cooling tower of the Libria #3 power plant.

Down the block was a food store, a little one with long, narrow aisles run by a little old guy in an apron that looked as if he’d been standing there since Father was a schoolboy.  He sold noodles and pickles and dried fish and  packaged sandwiches and canned drinks to the lunchtime workers and said very little and saw everything with his rheumy eyes.  Twice in the past ten years he had wheezed a few words to me that had saved my life, but had never introduced himself.  So I called him Sal, because he looked like he ought to be called Sal, and he’d never blinked at that.  Correcting what I called him didn’t seem to be worth the verbiage to him.

My building had been office space at one time, then had stood vacant for some years, then been bought at a bankruptcy auction by a businessman who’d been betting on immigration reform, and he’d begun converting it into a series of slapdash apartments for a wave of guest workers that never arrived.  The work had been abandoned.  I had managed to rent myself an entire floor for what a studio would have cost in most other neighbourhoods.  I’d finished my own space myself, knocking out a wall here, rewiring there, doing a little plumbing somewhere else.  The owner didn’t care;  he seemed content to get at least something out of his investment, and it was still classified as vacant commercial property, so I escaped the periodic residential inspections that other Librians had to put up with.  

I liked it.  Very quiet during the day, if you didn’t mind the occasional noises from the laundry, the motorshop and some of the loading docks, and grave-like after five;  nobody on the whole block but me and Sal, who for reasons unknown stayed open until ten, and, it seemed, just turned the lights out and locked the door and stayed put until morning.  It was also my alternate gym when I sometimes didn’t want to train at the Ministry facility.  It could have been, and perhaps one day would be, my office as well;  but my space downtown was paid for by ConSec, along with my office assistant and equipment from LibMed, so I had decided to ride that train to the end of the line.

I had ‘net, thanks to a tap into the wires under the street which the TeleLibria maintenance people believed went to a ConSec router somwhere nearby;  which, in a sense, wasn’t wholly untrue.  I went up, pulled up the seat to my workstation, and, in fairly short order, pulled up some data on Citizen Sami Petanko.

He was an immigrant, as a small child, with his parents, father died shortly after the revolution, mother passed more recently.  Twenty-eight years old, married, one child, University graduate in computer engineering with top marks;  the Ministry of Education would have slotted him for juicy government work if he’d been native-born.  I didn’t have access to his health and review records here.  I’d need the secure connection to the ConSec server at the office for that.  But I had a few minutes’ reading on him and his, including a picture and his current workplace and duties, and that would do for now.





 
Outside the building at TeleLibria’s accounts center where Citizen Petanko worked, I hadn’t very long to wait.  I fell in behind him as the crowd of workers dispersed after their shift change, and went along as he stopped for a protein shake from a street bar and then down to the nearby tube station.  I boarded his car and held a strap near him as he settled into a seat.  About three minutes after the train began to rumble, I flashed him by Number Two engaging  grin.  “Citizen Petanko,” I said.  “Good day at work?”

His dark eyes, under their mop of hair, flashed over to me and took in the badge I had ready for him.  “Um … sure,” he mumbled.

“It’s been a while.  How’s the wife and baby?”

He said nothing.  I continued:  “How’s your mother been?  What say you and I stop off, catch up on a bit of this and that?  Eh citizen?”

“My mother’s dead,” he said.

“Two years.  Bone marrow cancer,” I told him.  “I’m sorry.  Let’s get off here, shall we?” I said as the cars began to slow.  He got up without a word;  hostile, suspicious, as he had, of course, every right to be. 

We got off at one of the larger station, and as we stood on the escalator, he looked at the metal treads and asked me:  “Who are you, ConSec?  What’s this about?”

“Patience, citizen,” I said.  “You’re in no trouble that I know of.  It’s about someone you know.  Just a couple of questions.”  We emerged on the sidewalk, and I steered him over to a bench backing on the low retaining wall of a sports complex.  We sat.

“So?” he asked.

“I’m Slater,” I said, producing badge and ID.  “I’m not an officer, but I do work for ConSec.  Then I pulled out my PDA and showed him Irina Madour.  “You know this girl.”

“Why should I tell you?” he demanded.

“She’s missing, citizen.  She’s been seen with you lately.  I thought we’d keep things off your record by just having a chat rather than taking you in for official questioning.  Which could be arranged, if you prefer.”

He shook his mop, making it no more of a mop than it had been.  This seemed to be his way of relaxing a tiny bit.  “Yeah.  Well, I don’t know her,” he said, emphasising the ‘know,’ “but I’ve seen her around a bit.”

“Had a drink or two with her?”

“Maybe.”

“What’s her name?”

“I don’t know.”

I tried again.  “What’s she call herself?”

“They call her Star,” he said.

“Who’s that?”

“I don’t know.  Just everybody.  She called herself that.”

“’Called?’”  I lifted an eyebrow and tapped my PDA pocket.  “Past tense, citizen?”

“I mean, when we met!” he exclaimed.  “You’re the one that said she was missing.  I don’t know what’s happened to her.  Whatever, it’s nothing to do with me.”

“Alright, citizen,” I said.  “You’re not accused of that.  Just take a minute.  We’ve got nothing but time.”

A sudden breeze blew a piece of discarded plastic wrap along the sidewalk.  He looked at it for a moment.

“Where did Star live?”  I asked.

“I don’t know.  I met her at a tube station.”

“The first time?”

“Every time.”

“How did you first meet?”

“Through a friend.”

“And that friend’s name, citizen?”

His eyes flickered.  “Dennis.  Dennis Teague.”

I said kindly:  “Dennis Teague?  The lacrosse forward for Team Excel?  You’ll have to do better than that, citizen.  I don’t think Citizen Teague mixes with Commo programmers in tube trains.”

Sami Petanko buried his head in his hands.

“Let’s try again, citizen.  The friend’s name?  For real this time.  Not someone you remember from being mentioned on ‘netcasts.”

“Keef Herzog,” he said through his fingers.

“Citizen Keef Herzog,” I said calmly, inwardly making a note to buy my office assistant  a dozen red roses, a rarity in Libria.  “A security officer at TeleLibria, where you also work.  Twenty-eight years old, the same year as you in school.  He was up for promotion to team leader.  That’s better, citizen.  Much better.  What were you and citizen Herzog into?”

“What do you mean?”

I hit him with the other one.  “You seem to have done very well for a junior designer,” I said.  “Your mother’s cancer case wasn’t fully covered by LibMed because as an immigrant she didn’t have any more children after your parents arrived here.  They cut the benefits.  You were left with some heavy bills which you paid in rather short order.”

“My wife makes good money.”

“We’re talking many thousands, citizen.  And you didn’t go into debt.  You have a flat in a building that’s mostly inhabited by people worth considerably more than you.  Now, talk to me, citizen, or talk to the officers.  You decide.”

He considered for a moment.  “You wired?”

“I don’t have to be. I’m not an officer.”

He made a gesture of a finger across his throat.  It was my turn to consider.  Then I reached in to my PDA pocket as if I were deactivating something. 

“I swear, I swear, it was temporary,” he said.  “That’s what I told myself.  I had Mother’s bills to pay and Lalia and I were on the outs then.  Baby blues.  She was yelling about divorce.  Herzog talked to me, and I agreed.  I’d meet someone who delivered the files on magcards.  I uploaded and ran them just like any others.  They never check, there’s too many citizens.  There’s no way to verify everything.  It was so easy.  Then I’d dot them and deliver the dots to Herzog.  I don’t know what he did with ‘em.”

“It’s not hard to guess.  He worked regularly with ConSec.”

“Of course.”

“Including the Citizen Safety Division,” I said as if to myself.  When he didn’t react, I went in for the kill.  “And how many false ID ‘bands would you say came out this way?  Through your work?”

“Twenty, thirty a week,” he said slowly.

“And this started when?”

“Six months after Mother died.”

“And your wife, Lalia.  She knows, of course.”

He shook his head.  “She thinks I inherited an annuity from Mother.  They route the money through an account.”

“And when did you start meeting with Star?”

“A few months ago.  Three months.  Once a week.”

“She was your information courier.  Not your first one, but the most recent.  The ‘bands would be made by CSD people and then delivered by someone else.  You got money.  What was Herzog’s price?  I doubt he was highly paid.  Security personnel are audited pretty closely.”

“He got nick.”

I exhaled slowly.  In cashless Libria, substances sometimes took the place of what money had once done in trade.  Tobacco would be perfect.  Light, easy to conceal, and—to use a pre-War phrase—worth its weight in gold;  considerably more.

“Was he a nickhead, then?”

“Not at first.  He started dealing in it when we were in the University.  It was perfect payment for eros, for guns and ammunition, for Lightning—“ a relative of the old White Magic, also illegal—“anything else you care to name.  Girls would sell themselves for a few nick sticks.  But he started hitting it himself.  He’s one now for sure.  Can’t go half a day without it.  Lucky he’s not married.  He moonlights as a night man at a distribution company over in the East Forties somewhere.”

“And you?”

“Not me, citizen,” he said decisively.  “I was already engaged to Lalia, and she’s into that BCI stuff.  She’d have had my nuts.  I had a kid on the way then, and twins on the way now.  With twins, we’re on our way to a pension from the Council.  Then I can kiss this goodbye,” he said with a descriptive motion.

“You into that?  BCI?”  I said.  “I’ve heard some men are.”

“Aw, I can’t get my head around it,” he said, seemingly glad of a change of subject.  “Seems to do her good, though.”

“What’s she do?” I asked him.

“She’s a key clerk at the Ministry of Commerce.  It’s a good position.  Not great money, but highly classified.  Her department relies on her—always having vidmeets like some exec while she was home on maternity.  Her next promotion will be big.  And she’ll get it,” he said confidently.  All that checked out from what I had read.

“Good for her,” I said.

“And now what, citizen?  Now, what will I get for this?”

“The truth,” I told him.  “You’re not the only one who did this, I’m sure.  And you being taken away from your family and sent to a Libria Service camp cleaning up War rubble out in the toolies for a few years helps me not a whit.  I’m dealing with something else.  So in exchange for this little talk, you and your peccadillo may walk, and I say good luck to you and Lalia.  I’m not saying you won’t get caught somehow.  I am saying I won’t turn you in.  Unless there’s murder involved.  One thing.”

“Yes?”

“For this you will put my PDA number into your PDA, and you will call me immediately  if and when you see Star again.”

“What’s going to happen to her?”

“Citizen, what’s going to happen to your family and own sweet self should be your chief concern,” I  told him.  “If you never see Star again, it will be well for you.  That will represent success for everyone concerned.  Think about that.  Understand that.  Dwell on that.  Repeat it to yourself every time you see Lalia and your baby across the table.  Will you do this?”

“I will,” he said.

I gave citizen Sami Petanko my number and watched him program it in.

“Now go your way, citizen,” I said, standing up.  “And do not fail to call me if and when.”

“I won’t,” he said, sprang up, and walked rapidly back toward the tube station.

I went for some falafel.





Back at my place,  I poured myself a Jax and kola,  fired up Old Betsy again and scouted around for some more info involving Citizen Keef Herzog, fake ‘bands, and CSD.  After that it was late enough so I figured Doctor Authier Madour would be home as Nedra had said.  So I gave him a tinkle on his home line.  I set my call to route through my office, which my background showed, suitably adjusted for evening conditions, complete to the occasional whirr of cleaning equipment in the background.  On the phone’s options menu it was called my ‘digwola’ screen, for ‘darling, I gotta work late again.’  Which, again, wasn’t untrue.

Citizen Nedra Madour answered it after a few moments when she was, undoubtedly, checking my caller ID.  Her window showed what I didn’t doubt was her real home.  Nice.  Probably a penthouse in one of Parkside’s tonier buildings.  “Citizen, good evening,” she said, putting a hand toward her hair momentarily.  “You’re working late.  Does this mean you have news already?”

“I have an avenue or two,” I told her. “I’ll inform you of anything definite.  Just now, though, I was hoping that Doctor Madour was back.”

“He arrived a few hours ago.  Via his office,” she said with a hint of resignation.  “There was a problem there.  Some kind of pilferage was discovered.” 

“H’m.  You’ve updated him?”

“Yes.  He seems comfortable with our arrangement.”

“How do you think he’d react if ConSec had to get involved?”

“Are you telling me something?” she said sharply.

“Not at all.  But it’s not impossible that things could play that way, and we shouldn’t be caught off guard if they do.”

“I’m trusting you, citizen Slater.”

“What’s your choice?” I said bluntly.

“True.  I always was a good student, citizen.  And I did my homework on you,” she said.  “You have law enforcement experience underlying your days at LibMed.  Somewhat more extensive than you care to publish.  That badge of yours bears a whiff of the double bluff.”  I made a mental note to straighten out citizen Lasseter.  “And don’t blame Vonnie,” she added shrewdly. “There’s file fixing, and then there’s real file fixing.”

“All right,” I said.  “Is he available for a minute?”

“I don’t see why not,” she said.  “I’ll put you on for a moment.”  A slideshow of pre-War images of what had been places in Europe, rebuilt from old liberated EC-10 and accompanied by pleasant contemporary music.  They’d been popular ever since the revolution.  I got to look at mountain valleys, grazing cattle, cobblestoned backstreets, and white sand beaches for a minute or two,  a pointed complement to the videos of pollution, overcrowding, and war that had gone out under Father’s imprimatur during Equilibrium.  I wondered idly what those same places looked like now.  Some people liked to discuss why those who lived in places like that would want to lay waste to them.  That I didn’t wonder about.  Too many years in my business had well acquainted me with the darker byways of human nature.

The pictures changed, and a voice said:  “Citizen Slater, is it?  Good evening.  What can I do for you?”  I was looking at a dark, handsome man with silver hair whose cut had cost, in all probability, more than his wife’s, and a short moustache to match.  I didn’t care for the two syllables that had followed my name.

“I trust your paper was well-received, Doctor Madour.” I began.  Doctors were not ‘citizens.’  They were something more.

“Oh, yes.  It will be appearing in the journals, naturally.  Our work is by far the most advanced in its field.”

“Although I’m sure Irina’s situation must have been on your mind.”

“Yes.  My daughter is one of my chief concerns.  Much is invested in her.  Of course, her welfare is of critical importance.  Do you have news, citizen?”

“Nothing definite to go on yet,” I said.   “I wanted to ask you a few things about her, though.”

“Anything.” he said with a gesture.

“She would go out, occasionally.  Sometimes stay away overnight.  This was forbidden behaviour for her, I assume?”

“It’s not good to have one’s underage daughter away all night, citizen.”

“True.  But did you talk to her about this?  Did she have any, mmm, consequences from you that might deter her?”

“I told her it would mean deprival of her charge cards.  That is a matter of some consequence for young ladies.”

“She was already undergoing a course of private counseling, shall we say?”

“Yes,” he said curtly.

“Did she have any consequences from you about that matter?”

“The, eh, counseling itself was a humiliation for her at first.  But she adapted to it quite well, and even, I believe, learned something about herself.  So we did not impose anything extra on her.”

“When did that begin?”

 “Six months ago.  There was a period of inpatient residence at first.  That therapy was followed by an outpatient programme which she was near to completing.”

“Will she have to do it all over again when she returns?”

“No, I am sure she was close enough to completion that they would simply continue where they had left off, as long as she had maintained herself during her absence.”

“What activities was she involved in besides her studies?”

“She kept busy.  There was Libria Youth, of course.  She was a senior leader.  Her sports were swimming, lacrosse, and riding.”

I wasn’t sure I’d heard right.  “Riding?  Horse-riding?”

“Mm.  I’m sure you know of the Equestrian Academy.”  I didn’t, really;  I only knew that it existed, somewhere in the countryside many miles out of the city, accessible only by private hover, and that it had a small and well-guarded membership.  War, then upheaval, then Equilibrium, had for so long kept domestic animals out of the hands of Librians that even after the revolution the idea had never become popular again;  some citizens, in the first few years, had kept dogs and cats, but stiff licensing and species-protection regulations initiated by activists had rapidly made ownership impracticable for almost everyone.  Some people kept imported fish from Koguryo;  wealthy citizens occasionally had a dog or cat, or a bird brought from the tropics of Amazonia;  Eastern immigrants were known to keep a few crickets or beetles in tiny cages.  The vast majority had only seen dogs and cats at the zoo, where they were very well kept;  but even the zoo didn’t have horses.  The idea of riding was still considered by most to be a pre-War decadence, now safely stamped out.

“You are, citizen Slater, by my wife’s account, sufficiently enlightened to know that riding isn’t the barbaric practice it’s made out to be.  Properly practiced, it is quite safe, and conducive to the fitness of both rider and horse, and the animals seem to enjoy it as well.  Horse and rider can develop a remarkable relationship.  Naturally, we take the precaution of disguising her visits there as time spent at Volunteer Service camps.  We are sure that your discretion can be counted on.”

“Yes, surely,”  I said.  “I’ve nothing against it.”

“I know.  I wouldn’t have informed you otherwise.  But I mentioned it to indicate to you the level of confidence we have placed in Irina.  If she were not an unusually mature and capable young lady, we would not have introduced her to that world.”  If he had meant to impress me, he had succeeded.

“Speaking of activities and pastimes, was she knowledgeable in computers?  ‘Net operations, programming?”

“More than competent for her age,” he said with a touch of pride.  “She won a number of distinctions for her projects.  I am hoping that she will assist me in my work when she graduates from the University.”

“Your wife spoke of her ‘acting up at home,’” I remarked.  “Irina sounds remarkably well-put-together.”  That elicited a smile from him.  “What did she mean by that?”

“My daughter is an intelligent young woman,” said Authier Madour, “with her own ideas about things, which is allowed in this house.  Her mother is also a woman of accomplishment, with the ideas of her own—our—generation, which a man of your age and wisdom will realize are different in some radical ways.  The society we knew when we were sixteen was different by an order of magnitude than that Irina knows today.  She and Nedra had marked divergences from which neither often backed down easily.  You are not a family man, but you are a licensed counselor, so you have experience of this, I’m sure.”

I agreed.  This man wouldn’t be needing any indirect approaches.  His composure, even with his daughter missing, would have done credit to a Tetra.  So I just said:  “Do you have any enemies, Doctor Madour?”

“There are those who oppose my work.  That is to be expected.  But if you are hinting at a possible abduction, I think it highly unlikely.  What would they expect in return?”

“What might they expect?”

“Other than capture and punishment?  I couldn’t say.  My work doesn’t generate any results that I could put into a delivery pod and leave somewhere.”

I didn’t bring up money:  Libria’s electronic credit and debit system was highly controlled, as I had demonstrated to Citizen Petanko, though Authier Madour might well be able to provide other things of value.  “You’ve developed patents and formulas for treatments and medications.”

“All of which would require facilities for their manufacture that rather exceed what would be available to a gang of kidnapers.”

“Perhaps it’s not so much what they want you to do, as what they might want you not to do.  What about politics?”

“I stand aside from Council factions, citizen.”

“You’ve lent your support to the Libria Family Foundation.  You’ve weighed in against Sasha Baker-Preston on euthanization testimony.  It could be simple hatred or revenge.”

“True. There are hotheads on various issues.  But that doesn’t sit well with the message that she sent to my wife requesting time.”

“That was my next question.  ‘We need time.’  Why do you suppose she said ‘we?’”

“That is an interesting question, citizen.  I have considered it myself.  There is obviously someone, or some people of concern to her.”

She was working for someone.  I knew that from Citizen Petanko.  But I wasn’t ready to tell that to Authier Madour just yet.  So I said simply:  “Any ideas?”

“Not at this time, citizen.  We will have to discuss that, she and I.”

“You sound pretty sure that she will turn up.”  I observed.

“It is highly likely.  Murder, as you know, is rare in Libria;  perhaps rarer, even, than before the revolution. And, barring that, we will see Irina back.”  I had no argument with the first statement.  Among citizens, homicide had actually been declassified as a crime.  Almost all unnatural deaths fell into the categories of misadventure, suicide, police action, or manslaughter, which occurred a few times a year among immigrants.  There was also euthanization, a highly controversial issue both on and off the Council, kept alive by the celebrated Baker-Preston case.  “We are hoping that your services will facilitate that in a way which keeps the consquences to a minimum, and will raise the chances that when she does return, she does so intact and unharmed.”

“Very well,” I said.  “I see no reason to detain you further, Doctor.”  We said our farewells and I sat back for some deep thought.













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