Harry turned around and pushed his way back through the crowd to Lehman Export/Import. He re-entered the building and found it exactly as he had before, only this time the beautiful young woman was seated at the office console trying to cross-reference the items off the manifest.
The girl looked up as Harry came in. “What are you doing back here?” she asked.
“I wanted to talk to you,” he said.
“What’s wrong with now?”
“Well, first of all, I’ve got all this work to do and what was wrong with talking to me either on the trip from Earth Prime to Emerson-5 or from E-5 to here?”
“I didn’t think you wanted to talk to me,” Harry said. “You seemed pretty involved in whatever you were reading whenever I saw you.”
“You’ve never walked up to a stranger and said ‘hello’?”
The girl stopped doing what she was doing and looked at Harry. “I can’t believe that.”
“What... do strangers intimidate you?”
“Strangers, no... You... yes.”
She stood up and walked to the counter. “Why?”
“Because you’re so incredibly beautiful, I didn’t know what to say and I didn’t want to come off sounding like a fool.”
“How about ‘hello, my name is Harry Salem’.”
Harry smiled. She had remembered his name. “Um... hello... my name is Harry Salem.” He held out his hand.
“Hello, Harry Salem,” she said reaching out and shaking it. “My name is Allyson Lehman. Most people call me Ali.” She shook his hand using that firm handshake that he was so adverse to, but this time, Harry didn’t mind. There was something about the pressure of her skin against his that he found provocatively appealing.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ali,” he said. He kept the pressure on until she released his hand. Even after she let go, he felt the tingle of where she had touched him.
“So what brings you all the way out to Magnum-4?” she asked.
Harry told her. He couldn’t stop himself. There was something about the way she looked at him that released the floodgates of his initial inhibition. But it was more than the way she looked at him. It was the sound of her voice, the feel of her hand, the blue of her eyes, everything about her. She suddenly stood out like a jewel among common glass. He told her about his assignment to get Lydia back to Earth Prime. He told her about getting robbed and shot on Emerson-5. He told her what he knew about the murder of Steve Somerset. And, to is own surprise, he told her about getting kicked in the ass.
She laughed. “You certainly have been leading an exciting life since you left Earth Prime,” she said.
“No fooling. A month ago, I was quietly seated at my desk running a program like the one you are using, tracking commodities between three supply planets and Earth Prime, and the next thing I know, I’m wearing an uncomfortable pressure suit and I’m hurtling across inhabited space towards the unknown.”
“It’s not really the ‘unknown’, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you might not have known about it. But those of us living here do.”
“Do you really know about shipping and receiving programs?”
“I can run them in my sleep,” Harry said.
“No, really. I’m serious,” Ali said. “I’m really useless at this and mother wanted finished before she got back.”
“Where was she going?” Harry asked.
“She said that she and Tom, that my brother, had to head over to the warehouse. The men from the mines are a big help, but they really know nothing about storing something that you may have to get at quickly.”
“You know there’s a shortcut for what you’re doing,” Harry said.
“Show me,” Ali said. She walked to the end of the counter and triggered something under the lip. A section of the counter opened and she waved Harry through. She handed him the electronic invoice.
It took Harry only seconds to ascertain exactly where the program had been giving her the trouble. Both the program on her electronic notepad and on the business console were hopelessly out of date. He had to access the programming language to synchronize the invoice information with the main computer and superimposed the invoice with the manifest.
“There,” he said. “Now, any discrepancy will be flagged for you on the main invoice. You’ll see whether they sent you too much or too little or none at all.”
“You really do know your stuff. I’ve been doing this practically all my life and all this tracking still gets the better of me.”
“How does it work?” Harry asked. Quincey had already given him an overview, but Harry wanted to hear Ali talk.
“Well, when somebody wants something, they come in here and see if we have it listed in our electronic catalog. If it’s not there, then they place a special order for it. From that list, we create a general manifest. We then send that manifest over to Central. They take the manifests from all the mining companies and ours and make one general manifest which is sent to our procuring agent on Emerson-5. That agent then arranges with the various suppliers, and all the merchandise is accumulated there then shipped to us. We have to sort it all out as we put it in our warehouses.”
“How is it all paid for?” Harry asked.
“The agent on Emerson-5 has a special fund. He pays our suppliers and then we reimburse him on the next red-ore shipment.”
“And all anyone has to do is come in here and fill out an order form.”
“That’s right.”Ali smiled impishly. “Is there something special I could order for you?”
“Something that I might not want anyone to know that I ordered?”
“If that’s the way you want it.”
“But then YOU’D know.”
“I haven’t even ordered anything yet.”
“No, but I can see that you’re thinking about it.”
Harry smiled. “Kind of damned if I do or damned if I don’t,” he said. “By the way, did Steve Somerset ever order anything out of the ordinary?”
“Not really. Why? Is it important?”
“I have no idea. I’m still trying to figure out how things work around here.”
“Well, if you need any help... don’t be afraid to ask.”
“I won’t.” Suddenly, Harry didn’t know what else to say. It was an awkward moment for both of them.
“Well, I guess I’d better get back to work,” Allyson said.
“Me, too.” Harry turned and walked through the opening in the counter. Allyson followed and triggered the counter closed as soon as Harry passed through.
“I hope you find who ever killed Mr. Somerset,” Ali said. “For Jane’s sake. I know what it’s like to lose a father and not have any closure.”
Harry wanted to say something consoling, but the only phrases that raced through his mind were too trite and meaningless. Not wanting to rub salt into what might be a still open wound, Harry nodded and then left the building.