Murder Beyond The Milky Way

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Chapter Seventeen


Lehman Export/Import occupied the corner of a building that was flush against the western wall of the terraforming plant. It was not on the main street but set back several hundred yards and was surrounded on three sides by other buildings. Access was down a long alley that dead ended against the plant’s wall. On the ride over, Harry noticed that vehicles were only allowed in the circular avenues and not down the side streets and alleys which were more like the pedestrian malls on Earth Prime.

In Nova-3, all the buildings were made of red-ore building blocks and none were more than three stories high. Quincey told him that the height restriction was necessary to keep the air flowing properly from the terraforming plant. Because of the red-ore, everything had a red hue. Even the shadows were magenta. It made his eyes water. Harry looked up at the red shimmering sky above the LifeShield. He had trouble getting his mind around a “red” sky. Despite all the man-made structures, Earth Prime’s sky was blue because sunlight was still reflected from the surface of the world’s oceans. On Magnum-4, there were no oceans to reflect the light from the planet’s yellow sun only the vast, planet-covering red-ore that, except for the one black scar, sheathed the planet in its mantle of unimaginable wealth. Harry could hardly believe that in all the fabled places in the galaxy, this was the only one where the streets were literally paved with gold. Everything was made with red-ore blocks.

Harry and Quincey left the cable-car in a designated waiting area on the main road and walked down the alley. There were a lot of people moving about. Everyone seemed to be going some place, moving with a definite purpose. Most of them were men dressed in a kind of khaki colored, one-piece jump suit that zipped up the front.

“Is it usually this crowded?” Harry asked. He had not expected to see so many people in one place this side of Earth Prime.

“Freighter’s in,” Quincey responded. “A lot of merchandise and supplies have to be moved and stored. Everyone lends a hand. Right now, the mines are practically deserted.”

Harry nodded. What was the point of having warehouse workers when most of the time they were not needed? The miners could double as both. It’s not like the mines had a quota... or did they? Harry filed that question away for later.

Harry and Quincey pushed their way down the busy alley and into the front door of Lehman Export/Import. Unlike the hustle and bustle outside, Lehman’s was practically deserted. There was no one in the narrow lobby area with its cramped display stations for ordering and only a single woman behind the counter that separated the front of the room from the back. The woman was wearing the same style ubiquitous jumpsuit that the people outside were wearing. She was busy at one of the desks checking things off from a hand-held electronic invoice pad and transferring the information to a permanent office workstation.

Harry guessed her to be in her mid-forties. She was on the short side, a little robust, with a thick waist and hips. Her hair was swept up and held under the kind of hard-hat that also shielded the back of her neck.

She had looked up quickly when they had entered, but then turned back to her work as they approached the counter. “You boys will have to wait. I’ve got three shuttles in line right now. Our containers won’t be off-loaded for another hour or so... so whatever it is you came in for won’t even be on the surface much before the shift changes.” Her voice was coarse and raspy.

“We're not interested in any merchandise,” Quincey said.

“Then what the Hell are you taking up my time for?” the woman demanded. She continued to work without looking at them.

“We want to talk to you, Mrs. Lehman.” Quincey said.

“Can’t you see it’s a bad time. I’ve got shuttles in orbit and an empty warehouse just screaming to be filled. Come back in a day or two.”

Over her shoulder, Harry recognized the program she was using. It was similar to the one he used back on Earth Prime but far less sophisticated. Watching her, he wondered why she was bothering to individually check the items? All she had to do was transfer the information from one device to the other. The program itself would red-flag any discrepancies.

“Steve Somerset is dead,” Quincey said.

Karen Lehman stopped what she was doing and turned her undivided attention towards them. “So what does that have to do with me?” she asked.

“According to his personal schedule, you made an appointment to see him last night. Right about the time he was killed,” Quincey said.

“So what.”

“So what was your business?”

“None of yours.”

“You got that wrong.”

“Who in the Hell do you think you are? The Vigilance Committee?”

“Yes.”

Harry had never seen change come over anyone so quickly. The bluster and confrontational pose was gone, deflated by fear. The electronic pad in her hand began to shake ever so slightly.

“Well, anyone can say they’re Vigilance Committee.”

“Not if they want to live for any length of time,” Quincey said.

Harry snapped a quick look at Quincey and then back at the woman behind the counter. He was beginning to realize the star chamber fear that the Vigilance Committee engendered, and he wasn’t sure that he liked being associated with it. Sure, he liked power, even reveled in it at times. But, he was more interested in the respect that power brought. This was the first time he had encountered someone who was actually afraid for their life or had any direct dealings with someone who could so easily take it.

“Well?” Quincey asked.

“I was there,” Mrs. Lehman said.

“Was there anyone else there with you?” Quincey asked.

“No. Just the two of us.”

“How did you get in?”

“What do you mean?”

“Did you use the walkway entrance or did you come in by the front door?”

“Front door. I took the cable-car and got off right in front of the place.”

“Anybody on the car with you?”

“Just the gripman.”

“Do you think he will remember you?” Quincey asked.

“Don’t see why not.”

“What did you want to see him about?”

“None of your business,” she answered.

Harry saw her stiffen and stand a little straighter. She was making a stand.

“His dead body makes it my business,” Quincey said. “How long have you known Mr. Somerset?”

“Been on this planet 18-years and last night was the first time I ever had call to talk to the man,” she said.

“But he ordered all his personal supplies through you,” Quincey said.

“That’s right.”

“Seems unlikely that you never talked to him,” Quincey said.

“Never had the need,” Mrs. Lehman answered. “He made the initial arrangements with my husband and every month after that, he sent over his order electronically. We would process it and he would send someone to pick it up when it reached the warehouse. Things ran so smoothly between us, there was no reason to talk.”

“What happened when you got there?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, you got off in front of the mansion. Then what?”

“Well, I walked down that arbor like thing he has to the front door...”

“Were the lights on?”

“Lit up like a night shuttle launch.”

“Then what?”

“I knocked on the door. Mr. Somerset answered and took me through to the kitchen. He made me a cup of coffee using some weird looking contraption that boiled the water in a bulb-like beaker and bubbled it through the coffee grounds. We drank coffee, conducted our business and I left.”

“Did you see anything strange while you were there?”

“Other than that museum he called a kitchen... no.”

“No one else was there? No one was waiting to meet him when you left?”

“No.”

Suddenly, the front door opened and two people walked in. “Hey, ma... look who I found trying to tell the warehouse guys how to unload a shuttle container!”

The first person through the door was a tall young man with dark hair, blue eyes and wearing a worker’s jumpsuit. The second person through the door was the beautiful black-haired girl from the STAR. If the eyes were the windows to something (Harry couldn’t remember the old adage) then the tall young man leading her in was her brother. And if his “ma” meant anything, then the black-haired girl was Mrs. Lehman’s daughter.

The young woman stepped through the door, saw Harry and stopped. “What are you doing here?” she asked.

Harry had never heard her speak before, but he wasn’t disappointed. She had the same distressed tone to her voice as her mother. But it was rich and throaty with youth, and Harry was immediately sorry that he had not found some reason to talk to her on the flight to Emerson-5.

“You two know each other?” Quincey turned to Harry.

“We were on the same ships getting here,” Harry said. “But we haven’t officially been introduced.” Harry followed an irrepressible urge. He stepped forward and held out his hand. “I’m Harry Salem...”

He hardly had time to finish when Mrs. Lehman spoke up, “Vigilance Committee.”

The girl quickly stepped behind the tall young man and he put his arm around her and turned his body to shield her as if he expected Harry and Quincey to launch some kind of attack.

Harry stopped and lowered his hand. “We’re not here to harm you,” he said. “The father of that other young woman on ORION’S STAR was killed last night. We have to ask a few questions.”

“Why?” the girl asked. “Last night you and I were still in quarantine.”

“But your mother wasn’t,” Quincey said. “And she had an appointment to meet with the deceased.”

“You can’t think mother had anything to do with it?” the girl said coming from behind the tall, young man.

“No. We know she couldn’t have done it,” Harry said. “She’s too small. Quincey, here, thinks Mr. Somerset was killed by a man who was about his size and fairly strong...” As Harry described the probable killer, he looked at the young man and realized the he could as easily have been describing him. “Where were you last night?” he suddenly asked.

“He was working,” Mrs. Lehman said a little more loudly than necessary trying to attract the attention back to her.

“Where was he working?” Quincey asked. Quincey never took his eyes off the young man as he spoke.

“Hell, we had a freighter coming in and a shit load of containers to unload... where do you think he was working?” Mrs. Lehman came up to the counter and stood directly behind Quincey. Quincey turned and stared at her until she stepped back a couple of steps.

“Can he speak for himself?” Quincey asked.

“Of course I can speak for myself,” the young man said. “I had to schedule the workers from the mines who were being assigned to warehouse duty and make sure the shuttle pilots were going to be sober enough to make the hop.”

“So, you didn’t go with your mother to see Mr. Somerset?” Quincey asked.

A look passed between mother and son. “No. I didn’t,” he said.

Quincey turned back to Mrs. Lehman. “So, you went to Somerset’s and had some coffee and conducted your business.”

“That’s right.”

“You saw nothing out of the ordinary.”

“I guess,” Mrs. Lehman reached up and took her hard hat off and shook out a head of brown hair not quite as full as her daughter’s. “But then, I wouldn’t know what was or wasn’t ordinary for someone like Steve Somerset. He invited me in. Took me to the back of his house. Gave me something to drink.We conducted our business and I left.”

“And what business was that?”

“Nothing that got him killed, that’s for sure,” Mrs. Lehman said. “Now, if you don’t have any more questions, I got my portion of a space freighter to unload and merchandise to get to a lot of anxious people.”

Quincey moved away from the counter. “We may be back.” He nodded to Harry to leave first.

Harry did, but he wasn’t happy about it. He wanted to stay and talk to the girl as if he could somehow make up for all that lost time on two different space flights. They walked back to the waiting private cable-car. While they were walking back, Harry started to say something, but Quincey silenced him quickly. “Too many ears.”

Once inside the cable-car, Harry asked, “So what do we do now?”

“We check out the young man’s story and see if his alibi checks out,” Quincey said.

“And how do we do that?”

“Central Planning is located on the south side of the terraforming plant. They will have a record of what miners were scheduled to work and where.”

As Quincey explained how to check on the young man’s story, Harry noticed Karen Lehman and her son come out of the alley and head in the general direction that Quincey had indicated. “It looks like they have the same idea,” Harry said. He got up quickly and stepped out of the car. “You check out Central Planning.”

“Where the Hell do you think you’re going?” Quincey asked none to gently.

“I think I should go back and talk with the daughter. They’ve left her alone. Maybe she has a clue on why her mother needed to see Somerset last night.”

Quincey looked at him and then in the direction the other two had taken. “That’s not such a dumb idea,” he said. “Don’t get lost.” He turned to the gripman. “Get me to Central Planning as quickly as you can.” The cable-car moved off leaving Harry standing alone in a crowded city.

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