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I got into the office a little later than I’d planned the next morning. The monorail system is a lot busier in the mornings and sometimes the trains run behind. It was a quarter past nine when I walked in the door.

Lily was already at her desk, scrolling through the Net on three big computer screens. “Good morning, Boss,” she said, flatly. She was not a morning person. She held a big cup of coffee in her hand and still had her coat on. “It’s cold in here.”

“Yeah, it is a little chilly. Anything on the schedule for today?”

Her right eye looked away from her computer screens and at whatever was on her transparent eyepiece. “No meetings scheduled. I don’t think we have any active cases right now.”

“We might. Someone left me a message last night, said she’d be coming in today.”

“Who was it?”

I shrugged. “She scrubbed all identifying information, even disguised her voice. I guess we’ll find out.”

“Assuming she shows,” Lily added.

I shrugged again and headed for my office door. “I guess we’ll find that out, too. Let me know when she arrives. In the meantime, check the corporate listings and see if you can’t scare us up some work.” I didn’t have to look back to know that Lily was making a disapproving face. The girl has no love for the big, powerful corporations that operate on Nova Columbia. That’s understandable, given how much pull they have and how many politicians they’ve bought off. “Not my first choice either, kid, but we got bills to pay.”

“I know,” Lily said. “Just be careful, okay?”

I looked back at her and grinned as my office door slid open. “When have I ever not been careful?” I stepped inside and closed the door behind me before she could rattle off a list of examples.

It was a slow morning. The business gets like this when you’re between clients. I made a fresh pot of coffee and tried to keep myself busy. I scanned the job listings for potential customers, checked on the finances, made sure that month’s bills were paid. I had enough money saved up that I could get by for a while without work, but I made it a point to not get complacent. Being your own boss requires a little discipline and a lot of work ethic. There’s no one breathing down your neck, but likewise there’s no one to cover for you if you slack off.

I was reading a news article when a video chat window appeared on one of my screens. It was Lily. “Find something interesting?” I asked, accepting the call.

“There’s someone here to see you. She said she called you last night.”

Well, I’ll be damned, I thought. “Is that right? Send her in.”

“Will do, Boss.” Lily ended the call before I could even thank her. I turned in my chair so that I was facing the door. I had an L-shaped desk and kept the computer off to the side so that when a client sat across from me, he wasn’t trying to talk to me over a wall of screens. My door hissed as it slid open on its pneumatics and there she was.

I knew she was trouble the moment she walked in. Maybe it was the way she carried herself, striding in like she owned the place. Maybe it was the way she held eye contact as she approached. Hell, maybe it was the tight violet dress she wore under her coat. She was tall, maybe five foot ten, made taller by knee-high boots with four-inch heels. There was an elaborate tattoo on her left thigh, partially visible below the hemline of her dress. It was a dragon, I thought, or some kind of serpent, coiled around her leg. Her fingernails were painted bloodred and matched her lipstick. She had long hair, black with dark blue highlights, which hung over her shoulders in loose waves. A scar ran down her right cheek, out of place on such a pretty face.

More than anything else, though, it was her eyes. They were pretty, blue like the girl next door, but they were hard. This woman, whoever she was, had seen some things. I stood as she approached my desk, leaned forward, and offered her my hand. “Ezekiel Novak.”

She grasped my hand and shook it firmly. “Dagny Blake. Thank you for seeing me on such short notice.” Her voice was smoky and troubled, noticeably different from the one in the voice message.

“It’s my pleasure,” I said. “Please, have a seat.” She sat down in one of the two chairs that face my desk and crossed her legs. I sat down as well, folding my hands together on my desk. “Now, Ms. Blake, what is it that I can do for you? You said someone is missing?”

She paused, looking down at her lap, and took a deep breath before responding. “Yes,” she said, looking me in the eye again. “My sister, Cassandra Carmichael. I haven’t heard from her in two months.”

I made a mental note that my client and her sister had different last names. It might be relevant later but wasn’t worth bringing up at the moment. “I see. I’m sorry to hear that. First thing’s first, what does your sister do? Was she in some kind of trouble?”

Ms. Blake sighed and shifted in her seat. She uncrossed her legs and put both feet on the floor, keeping her knees close together, her hands folded in her lap. I could tell she was worried. “I think so. Cassie works for Ascension Planetary Holdings Group.”

“Ascension? Oh, boy.”

“I take it you’re familiar with them?”

Just about everybody on the planet is familiar with the Ascension Planetary Holdings Group. They’re the biggest corporation on the planet. Their primary focus is planetary engineering, something most people call terraforming. They were one of the original sponsors of the Nova Columbia Colony Project a hundred and fifty years ago The company’s original owner, Rafael Taranis, was one of the colony’s Founding Fathers. Hell, there’s a statue of him in the Capitol Building.

“Tell me, what does she do at Ascension? How high up on the company ladder is she?”

“Her official title is Resource Coordinator. She works in logistics management. It’s nothing exciting so far as I know. She’s not even an executive.”

“I see. Then what makes you think she might be having trouble with Ascension? Mind you, I’m not doubting anything you’ve told me. I’m just trying to follow your line of reasoning so I can assess the situation for myself.”

Ms. Blake was quiet for a few moments. “It’s . . . complicated. You mind if I smoke, Mr. Novak? It helps me concentrate.”

“Not at all,” I said, digging an ashtray out from a desk drawer. I tapped the office environmental controls to get the air filtration system going so the smell wouldn’t linger.

She reached into her jacket and produced a black-and-gold cigarette case. Popping it open, she withdrew one long, skinny cigarette and placed it in between her lips. I held out a plasma lighter, the one that I always carry with me, and lit it for her.

“Thank you,” she said, inhaling. She tilted her head back and exhaled, sending a puff of smoke upward toward the air vent. “Our stepfather is an executive at Ascension. He helped Cassie get a position at the company straight out of university.”

“That’s not uncommon. A lot of families end up working for the company for multiple generations.”

“I know, and it’s been fine, from what she told me, at least up until recently.”

“I take it something changed.”

“A few months back she had me over for dinner at her place. We split a bottle of wine and talked about the old days. That’s always a touchy subject but Cassie is such a lightweight that a little wine really loosens up her tongue. We bonded like we haven’t for years. We actually talked about everything that happened between us. It felt good to clear the air.”

“What I’m hearing is that you and your sister weren’t especially close, at least not in the past.”

She looked down at her lap. “Not especially. We had a . . . falling out . . . a long time ago. We didn’t speak for years after that. That didn’t really change until Mom died two years ago. We were, you know, patching things up. It wasn’t always easy.”

“I see. I don’t mean to pry into your personal business. I’m just trying to get a feel for the situation. What else did you talk about at dinner?”

“Cassie wouldn’t get into it, but I got the feeling that there was something weird going on at the company. She said she’d had almost no contact with Arthur, our stepfather, in weeks. Some big project that was real hush-hush. She was concerned.”

“Tell me, what is your relationship with your stepfather like? He’s working for Ascension just like your sister. Did you contact him after she went missing?”

“I don’t have a relationship with Arthur,” she said, bitterly. “But that was the first thing I did. At first, he just ignored me, but I was persistent. About a month ago he left me a brief message. All it said was that Cassie is fine and that there’s nothing to worry about.”

It was clear that there was some bad blood between Dagny Blake and her stepfather, but it wasn’t yet clear if it was directly relevant to the case. It was obviously a touchy subject for her so I decided not to press her on the issue for the time being. “I see. Since we’re having this conversation, I presume you didn’t believe him?”

“I didn’t. This whole thing stinks.”

“Did you try contacting the authorities?”

“I reported her missing to SecFor. All they did was contact Ascension, and the company told them that she’s accounted for. They didn’t want to look into it any further.”

You didn’t need to be a detective to tell how frustrated she was—it was in her voice and all over her face, and with good reason. Delta City alone is huge, and the Colonial Security Forces Corps has system-wide jurisdiction. Even at the best of times they can’t keep up with their caseload, and a missing person whose employer says she’s accounted for is pretty far down on their list of priorities. “I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “When was the last time you saw your sister?”

“It was two months ago. We met for lunch at a sidewalk café uptown. She looked like hell.”

“Really? How so?”

“Wired and tired. You know, like you get when you’re not sleeping enough so you make up for it with coffee or maybe stims?”

“What did you two talk about?”

“It was strange. Cassie acted like she couldn’t speak freely, like she was worried somebody was watching her or listening in. I’ve never seen her act so paranoid. She wasn’t herself.”

“Who arranged this lunch date?”

“She did. Called me up that morning and asked me to meet her for lunch. She seemed, I don’t know, kind of desperate, like there was something she really wanted to talk about. I figured it was something to do with Arthur or her work but neither subject came up. She barely spoke and when she did, it was just small talk about the weather, or asking me how I was doing. She looked exhausted but kept insisting that she was fine when I asked her about it.”

“That is concerning behavior,” I said. “Is this why you didn’t believe your stepfather when he said that she’s fine?”

“Yes. Also, she hasn’t been home in two months now. She hasn’t answered any calls or replied to any messages.”

“That is unusual,” I agreed. I thought about it for a moment. “Are you sure she didn’t just run away, maybe off-world? That happens sometimes, people just up and leave without telling anyone. They get an idea in their head to walk away from everything and start over someplace else.”

Dagny shook her head. “No, not Cassie. That’s not her style. She was always careful. She had her whole life planned out from when we were just kids. I was the impulsive one, always getting her into trouble. Besides that, I went to her apartment. I don’t have access to her place, and the superintendent wouldn’t let me in, but he did tell me that she hadn’t broken her lease or moved out. If somehow she was going to up and leave without telling anyone, she wouldn’t go without settling her accounts, would she?”

“People can do surprising things when they decide to run.” I held up a hand before my client got angry with me. “I’m not saying she did run, mind you, only that I can’t rule it out yet. It’s not like your credit history follows you from colony to colony. Lots of people will book a last-minute flight off-world if they’re running from something, whether it be debt, personal problems, or something worse. It’s half the reason the down payments for everything are so big in this town. It begs the question, though—if she just up and left, why would Ascension and your stepfather lie about it?”

“Exactly!” Dagny said. “It doesn’t make any sense!”

“It doesn’t, at least not from what we know right now. Is there anything else you can think of that might be relevant?”

“The last time I saw her, she gave me this.” Ms. Blake reached across the desk and handed me a small plastic object.

“This is an electronic key,” I said, holding it up to the light so I could see it better. It was dull gray in color and just over an inch long. On one end was a knurled knob, on the other was a series of tiny electrical contacts. “What does it go to?”

The client shook her head again. “I don’t know. It definitely doesn’t go to her apartment door. I tried.”

I handed it back to her. “Keys like this usually aren’t used for residential doors. You see them used in safe deposit boxes, secure storage containers, things like that. It contains an encryption code that only works a specific lock, or set of locks. What did she say when she gave it to you?”

“She didn’t say anything at about it. We were leaving the café. She stuck this in my pocket as she was hugging me and saying goodbye. She didn’t tell me what the key was for. She just said that she’d message me that night, but she never did. She hurried off before I could ask her about it.”

I sat back in my chair and rubbed my chin. “What about before? Were you in regular contact with your sister?”

“I guess you could call it regular. We’d text back and forth once in a while. Every so often we’d have a video call. She likes to cook, sometimes she’d invite me over for dinner.”

“So you said. Maybe giving you that key was her way of explaining everything.”

“But I don’t know what it goes to! Why wouldn’t she have told me?”

“That’s a good question. Maybe it was as you said, she thought that she was being watched.”

“Oh, God. Do you think something happened to her?”

“I don’t have enough information to have a theory yet,” I said, trying to sound reassuring. “I’m just entertaining possibilities right now. What you’ve told me so far indicates that she believed that she was in some kind of trouble, if not in actual danger.”

The look on my client’s face told me she was more worried than she’d previously let on. I guess having it all laid out before her like that cracked the façade a little. “I’m afraid she’s dead. I’m afraid that they did something to her and I’ll never know what or why. Can you help me?”

I leaned forward, resting my elbows on my desk and lacing my fingers together. “Ms. Blake, I want you to know first of all that you’re not crazy. Your sister is missing and I think it’s obvious that something is wrong. You did the right thing by seeking help.”

“But?” she asked. “I feel like there’s a but coming.”

“But,” I continued, “a case that involves Ascension is a tall order. I’m just one man who runs a small business. They’re a trillion-dollar multi-planetary corporation with an army of lawyers and God-knows-how-many judges and politicians in their pocket.”

“Are you saying you won’t take my case because you’re scared of them?”

I furled my brow involuntarily. “What I’m trying to say is that a job like this might involve a lot of effort on my part, a lot of personal and professional risk, and that the chances of success might not be great. A larger investigative firm might be a better fit for this sort of job.”

“I went to Kensington already,” she said. Kensington Specialty Services is the biggest and best-funded independent investigations and personal protection company on Nova Columbia. They’re the ones who the wealthy and connected hire to protect them and smooth over their messes. “I couldn’t possibly afford their asking price. That’s why I came to you.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, how did you come to hear about my little business?”

“You have a good reputation, Mr. Novak,” she said, looking me in the eye again. “Your verified customer reviews are all positive. More importantly, an acquaintance of mine vouched for you, said you helped him out a couple years ago. He said you help normal people, not just the superrich.”

That is a personal point of pride for me, as a matter of fact. I grew up in Delta City. My dad was a robotics technician and my mom was a schoolteacher. We weren’t rich. Hell, rich people didn’t even pass through my old block; at most they glanced down at it as they flew over in their private VTOLs. I’ve tried my best over the years to not forget where I come from.

“I try to help everyone who comes to me,” I said, “and I’m willing to try in your case, but you need to understand . . . this kind of job is likely to be significantly more expensive than my usual fees. I want to be up front about that before we proceed. My assistant, Lily, can break down the specifics for you if you want. I run a pay-as-you-go business and I will always be straight with you about the costs as the case goes on.”

“I understand. That’s fair. I have been able to get the money for this, just not enough to hire Kensington. To be honest, I think they quoted me an outrageous price as a polite way of telling me they weren’t interested. I expect I’ll be able to manage your fees if you’re willing to take the case.”

“Okay then, it sounds like I’m your man. If you don’t mind, I’m going to bring my assistant in here and we’ll go over the contract and fees.” I tapped one of my screens and Lily’s face appeared in a video chat box. “We’ve got ourselves a client.”

“Got it,” Lily said. “I’ll be right in.” The chat box closed and, a few moments later, she entered the office with a data pad in her hands. Dagny Blake put out her cigarette.

“Ms. Blake, you met my assistant already.”

“Lilith,” she said, reaching down to shake Dagny’s hand. “Also, forgive me if this is unprofessional but I wanted to tell you that I love your look.”

Lily didn’t give empty compliments. If she told you she liked your clothes it meant she really liked them. Being perfectly honest, I liked my client’s look, too.

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