Murder Beyond The Milky Way

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Chapter Twenty-One

Harry Salem yawned. His body was still 8-hours off from the local time. He needed food, and he need a good night’s sleep, but it was obvious that he was going to get neither for some time. He began looking through the cable-car’s cabinets for something to eat and drink.

“Hungry?” Quincey asked.

“Famished,” Harry responded. “My body hasn’t had a chance to acclimate. The captain of the STAR didn’t align our biological clocks with the planet’s. He also had some idiotic idea that fasting was good for you.”

“Go sit in that chair,” Quincey said pointing to one on the left hand side of the car. “It was Steve’s favorite spot. He always kept a couple of peanut butter stimulant bars in a secret compartment under the right arm rest.”

Harry did as he was told. He found a stash of four bars and took two. He took the first one, peeled back the wrapper and slowly bit into it allowing the sweetness to burn his taste buds. He chewed slowly through the pain on either side of his lower jaw.Suddenly, the tiredness left his body and he became physically aroused. He looked over at Quincey.

“Yeah, they will do that to you, too,” Quincey said.

“How long have I got?” Harry asked.

“About two hours per bar,” Quincey said. “After that, you’ll crash fairly quickly.”

“Well, let’s hope it doesn’t take us that long search the files.”

They made their way back up to the south side of the central core. The cable-car stopped and Harry and Quincey got out. Harry looked around. Nova-3 Central was an unimpressive building. To Harry, it looked a lot like the buildings around the Lehman Export/Import offices. But there were no alleys separating the buildings. Nova-3 Central was one, long, continuous front with several doors spaced several yards apart. Harry noticed that there was a lot of people moving about despite the fact that the afternoon sun was beginning to cast long, plum-colored shadows along the street and across into the greenway on the opposite side of the road.

Quincey signaled for Harry to follow him. They walked along the front of Nova-3 Central and entered the last door on the left. Inside, it lookedlike a regular office building. The floors were carpeted with a dun-colored fabric, and the recessed lighting removed any traces of the planet’s red aura. There was a desk with a receptionist in the center of the room and behind her a holographic directory of the building with the office locations. The woman was wearing the ubiquitous khaki jumpsuit that passed as a planetary uniform. Her hair had a touch of gray and was swept up off her neck. Harry felt more comfortable. The place looked like any Directorate office building on any Directorate planet in all of Directorate space. Thank God for bureaucracy, Harry thought.

Quincey walked up to the desk. “Is Mr. Keith in?” he asked.

The woman behind the desk touched a few buttons and a red star appeared on the holoscreen behind her. “He’s in and at that location,” she said without turning around to see where she had indicated. “Do you have an appointment?”

“We don’t need one,” Quincey said. “Vigilance.”

The woman inhaled sharply. “Would you like me to inform him of your presence?” Here voice was totally devoid of emotion.

Harry realized her conundrum: either let Mr. Keith know that they were coming to talk to him or don’t let him know so that they could kill him quickly.

“It’s all right to let him know,” Quincey said. “This is a fact-finding mission. No one is going to die tonight.”

The woman looked markedly relieved as she touched a communications device attached to her ear.

Mr. Keith was waiting for them when they reached the third floor. He smiled at Quincey and they shook hands.

“Your receptionist thinks I’m here to kill you,” Quincey said.

“I don’t advertise that I’m on the committee,” Keith said. “What’s up?”

Quincey told him. “So, you think something or someone set Steve off?” Keith said.

“It’s a logical conclusion,” Quincey said. “We need to take a look at every message he received and the cargo and passenger manifests for, say, the last three freighters.”

“Only three?”

“He was acting normally until the last freighter.”

“Come on into my office.” Keith turned around and lead them down the hall.

Harry brought up the end of the line. As they walked along, he looked around. The hall was carpeted with the same dun-colored fabric as the main lobby. The walls were bare, the lighting recessed. The place lacked any kind of personality. Harry was used to offices with character, with walls decorated with art, nooks with statues. It was as if the people who worked here had made no effort to take possession of their work space; as if they had already abandoned it in their minds.

Keith led them to the last door on the left. He opened it and Harry and Quincey followed him in. “Do you want me go get someone for you?”

“No,” Quincey said. “Harry, here, is a specialist with these things.”

“Have at it,” Keith said. He steered Harry towards a large, flat desk on the far side of the room. Before Harry sat down, Keith released the safeties that allowed only him to access the information.

Harry sat down behind Keith’s desk and looked at the console set into the desktop. He called up three holoscreens and suspended them in a triangular pattern in front of him. “Is there anything that I’m going to be locked out of?” he asked.

“Not from this console,” Keith said.

Harry ran his fingers smoothly across the keys and function buttons. The three screens came alive. He couldn’t have felt more at home. He called up the manifest for the latest freighter. Then, he called up the manifest for each mine and removed their orders from the main one. Then, he called up Lehman’s and removed those orders from the bill of lading. Harry smiled. He didn’t have to look at the two men standing off to his left to know that they were impressed. He was impressing himself. But then, he also realized that he had just ingested some kind of stimulant.

Once he had verified that everything ordered from and shipped to the planet was completely accounted for, he began on the messages. They posed less of a problem since messages could only be received by an outbound or inbound freighter at specific points on their trip or by a ship cruising through the lower arc at the edge of the nebula nearest Directorate space. Harry accessed all messages to and from Somerset and had them transferred to Quincey’s PCD for further study. To Harry, they all seemed rather innocuous. But then, there could be a code embedded in them and Keith’s office was not equipped to do any decoding.

Quincey looked at the information that Harry had forwarded to him. “It looks pretty straight forward,” Quincey said.

“I’d pay closest attention to the ones Somerset sent every thirteen days,” Harry said. He shut down Keith’s desktop and stood up.

“Why?” Keith asked.

“Your freighters come in every twenty-four days,” Harry said, “which gives you a window of about ten days per freighter in which to send and receive messages. But Somerset sent a message every thirteen days whether a freighter was in range or not.”

“So he caught a ship cutting through empty space,” Keith said.

“But how did he know?” Harry asked. “He did it religiously. He could only have done it if he knew the other ship’s schedule...”

“... or arranged it,” Quincey said.

“So, why would he be arranging to send and receive a special message every thirteen days?” Keith asked.

“When we know that, maybe we’ll know why he was killed,” Quincey said.

“There’s nothing particularly special about them,” Harry said.

“Are they all the same?” Keith asked.

“No,” Harry said. “In each message he asks the ship’s captain to forward an ‘hello’ to an old acquaintance.”

“What changed?” Quincey asked.

“Twenty-six days ago, he sent the usual message, but this time he received an answer,” Harry said.

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