“Murder in Space” by Les Johnson
December 1, 2086
Charlie Shattles looked at himself in the hotel mirror and did not like what he saw. Here he was, a man in his early fifties with more than enough money saved to retire early and recline on a beach somewhere studying heavenly bodies. Yet he was in a run-down hotel near Zvyozdny gorodok, Russia, freezing his butt off because the owners of place refused to turn up the heat beyond what was needed to keep the pipes from bursting. Global warming or not, Russia in the wintertime was cold. Damn cold. But he was on a job and the cold and other inconveniences did not really matter. He liked putting the pieces together and getting to the bottom of a case. In cases like this, if murder were involved, then ninety percent of the time the motive was money, sex, or power. He corrected himself; the ninety percent was for men, who committed the most murders. If the perp was a woman, then he could add jealousy to the list and be within the same ninety percent statistic. For this case, he had not even determined if it was murder. Time would tell.
After showering with the water temperature on the highest possible setting, he was finally warm. He quickly dressed, gave silent thanks to the makers of the heated undergarments he wore, and paused only long enough to get the latest update on the proposed rescue mission to Proxima Centauri via his corneal implant. The news was broadcast in Russian, which suited Shattles just fine. He was fluent in five languages and he needed to make the transition to thinking in Russian, not just translating it in his head, if he were to pick up on any nuances in the upcoming conversations. He knew his hosts could speak English, but Shattles preferred to conduct these meetings in the native language of the key players.
Like the rest of the world, Shattles was intrigued by the notion that there were apparently people living on a planet circling one of the closest stars in the sky. Who wouldn’t be? But, as interesting as it was, it certainly wasn’t relevant to the task at hand. He pulled himself away from the virtual heated debate between the talking heads who, thanks to the implant, appeared to be in the hotel room with him debating whether or not it was wise to make physical contact by sending a ship to Proxima Centauri. It looked like they were close to coming to blows. In his room.
It was time to leave and get to the business that had brought him to Russia. He was to meet with the executives who hired him at RKK Energiya, Russia’s largest and most profitable space company. It seems that their CEO, one Maksim Kezerashvili, had gotten himself killed when he and his expensive space yacht became interplanetary dust and gas after the ship’s fusion drive lost containment allowing superheated plasma to rapidly escape from its formerly highly condensed state and vaporize his ship—as unconstrained superheated plasmas were likely to do. Such things were not supposed to happen and there were fairly robust safety systems used in fusion drives to make sure they didn’t. In this case, the systems failed. The experts who looked at the wreckage said the chances of accidental containment loss were next to nil. But it happened. And it killed one of Russia’s most wealthy men. A man who just happened to be running for the Russian parliament and who some were saying was on his way to becoming the future president of the Russian Federation. When a person like Kezerashvili is killed in a freak accident, people begin to suspect that it wasn’t an accident. Shattles’ job was to find out what really happened.
Shattles’ current bet was murder. A great deal of money was on the line. A high stakes political battle was in play. And Shattles would bet his life savings that Kezerashvili or his wife were unfaithful, perhaps both. He had been wrong before, but rarely. And rarely on such a high-profile case. All this was racing through his mind as he made his way from the hotel to the offices of NPO Energiya. The day was overcast and the weather forecast was for snow to begin by noon. The biting wind made his nose and ears cold as it blew against his face. The buildings provided no respite from the unrelenting wind that seemed to permeate Russia in the wintertime. As he walked, he avoided the occasional pedestrian as he reviewed the details of the case using his implant. As he passed the commercial district, he was reminded of how thankful he was that he paid the monthly ‘advertisement free’ net connection fee so he wasn’t assaulted by the various merchants’ pop-up ads that were so distracting to those who could only afford the basic implants.
The woman who had contacted him, Lada Agapov, was waiting in the lobby when he arrived. Looking to be in her mid-forties, Agapov was energetic and greeted Shattles with a smile and nearly flawless British English. After the usual pleasantries, she escorted him to the elevator, which promptly took them to the thirty-fifth floor—nonstop. RKK Energiya’s offices were typical corporate style and would have been indistinguishable from any other twenty-first century conglomerate. Just about every wall was made of glass that could become opaque when needed, the chairs were the type that automatically adjusted to your body contours, and the active background noise suppressors made what was an obviously busy office seem eerily quiet. Were it not for the old-fashioned oil paintings on the walls depicting what Shattles could only presume to be the halcyon days of the Russian and Soviet space programs, he would not have known where he was. After reaching a suitably plush and warm office, Shattles greeted Joseph Bychkov. Judging by his grizzled and pockmarked face, Bychkov looked more suited for filling holes in the sidewalk than sitting behind the austere wooden desk in front of a clear glass window that provided a view of the city and flat, nearly-featureless Russian countryside below. A few snow flurries were in the air, some touching the glass and immediately melting.
Bychkov fulfilled the Russian stereotype by rising from behind his desk and greeting him with a handshake that felt like a vice grip. Shattles, having met and worked with Russians in the past, was prepared and returned the grasp with his own firm squeeze. Both men paused, hand in hand, until Bychkov grinned and burst out laughing.
“Welcome to Star City, Mr. Shattles,” Bychkov said, releasing his grip.
“Thank you. Dr. Bychkov, I am glad to be here,” Shattles replied, having done his homework and learned that Bychkov had earned his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering at The Moscow Aviation Institute. In addition to being the Chief Operating Officer at RKK Energiya, he held twelve patents and had published over twenty peer-reviewed journal articles. Though he was overweight, Bychkov was far from a fat, dim-witted Russian bureaucrat.
“I trust your accommodations are acceptable?” Bychkov asked.
“The room is fine, though they could use a replacement furnace. I was worried I might freeze to death in my room and my body wouldn’t be found until the spring thaw,” Shattles replied.
Bychkov responded with another deep laugh. “My assistant will see to having that problem fixed,” he said, giving Agapov a nod. The big man took his seat and motioned for Shattles to take one conveniently placed to the left of his desk. Shattles sat.
“Let’s get down to business, shall we?” asked Bychkov as he picked up a large coffee mug that was sitting on the right-hand side of his desk. Shattles noticed that someone had placed a similar cup on the end table just to the left of the seat in which he sat. He picked it up and took a sip. The coffee was strong, but hot.
“You want me to investigate the death of your CEO and determine if it was actually an accident and, if not, to help the police catch whoever killed him,” Shattles said, taking another sip of coffee. It did not seem quite so bitter on the second sip. “Why do you believe it was not as the initial police report claimed—a tragic accident?”
“Mr. Shattles, do you test me? You are an actuarial expert. You know as well as I do that the likelihood of a man such as Maksim Kezerashvili being killed in such a fluke accident as this are nearly zero. Zero. Given that he was one of the wealthiest men in Russia and a rising politician only add to the likelihood of this being intentional, not accidental. No, Maksim was murdered just as sure as you and I sit here discussing it. My team is looking into the technical side of the problem, the misalignment error that allowed the drive to fail. They are searching for any traces of tampering. I need you to look into the other factors,” Bychkov said, leaning forward and staring intently at Shattles.
Shattles was not impressed. Of course, they were looking into the technical side of the accident, as had the police and intergovernmental regulatory authorities who made and enforced the rules for such things in deep space. None of them had found any sign of foul play and ruled the event to be an unfortunate accident.
Money, sex, and power.
“Dr. Bychkov, who could possibly want Mr. Kezerashvili dead?”
“Many people. As you no doubt already know, I stand to become the CEO of RKK Energiya when the board meets next week to name his replacement. They’ve already informed me that I am their choice. If I were you, I would begin with me,” the burly man said, leaning back and trying to make light of the situation with another deep and resonating laugh.
Shattles only nodded. Misdirection. Doublethink. He’s trying to play me. And yes, you Russian SOB, I will be looking into you . . .
“And then there would be the lovely Mrs. Kezerashvili, the bitch,” said Bychkov. “She stands to inherit the bulk of his money, including a sizeable number of shares in this company.”
“She’s not among your favorite people, I gather.”
“Lana disgusts me. She is a gold digger and has been openly cheating on Maksim for more than five years.”
“Who’s the lucky guy? Or is it a woman?” asked Shattles.
“Colonel Viktor Fedorov. And, yes, he is a man. And not the first. By my reckoning, Viktor is the fourth. They are always military men and always younger than she.”
“Is there anyone else you suggest I look into?” asked Shattles.
“Martina Egorov. It is her seat in the Russian parliament that Maksim was planning to challenge. It was not going to be a collegial competition. Both were looking at everything possible in each other’s backgrounds in search of scandal,” Bychkov said, leaning back in his chair trying, and failing, to look thoughtful.
“Were there any major business dealings upcoming that someone might want to derail? Dealings that his successor might take in a different direction?”
“Since I am his successor, I can tell you that there are no major deals pending with Energiya that will change under my leadership. Maksim and I were very closely aligned in our business strategies. Though I suspect his widow won’t follow through with how Maksim planned to divest himself from much of his personal fortune.”
“Oh? And how was the late Mr. Kezerashvili going to spend his fortune?”
“By helping to fund the mission to Proxima Centauri, of course. Maksim was a dreamer. And for most of his career, he managed to turn his dreams of developing space into developing a very profitable company. When he was approached to help fund a starship, how could he resist?” asked Bychkov.
“How indeed. Who was he working with on the starship project?”
“That would be the most-persuasive Dr. Enrico Vulpetti. He is a shrewd businessman, from Georgia, the U.S. state. He is a smooth one. I would think twice before entering into a business arrangement with him. I will send you his contact details.”
“That’s quite a list. Since she has the most to gain, I’ll start with the grieving widow,” said Shattles.
He found her over the Moon. Literally. Lana Kezerashvili was in lunar orbit staying in the apartment she and her late husband were provided aboard the Admiral Kuznetsov, RKK Energiya’s space dock. She initially did everything in her power to avoid meeting Shattles, but when her lawyers received the letter from the attorneys for the insurance company saying that if she did not comply with their investigation of Maksim Kezerashvili’s untimely death, referencing page 4, subsection 2, paragraphs 6a and 7c of his very sizable insurance policy, then she would get nothing. After that, she was, of course, ‘willing to help in any way she could.’
For a PI who specialized in space-related cases, Shattles hated going into space. Even having someone else pay for the trip, which was not cheap and for many, amazingly enough, would be considered the trip of a lifetime, was not enough to allow him to enjoy it. He dreaded takeoff and, when it came, the acceleration pushed him back into the padded seat in the passenger cabin of the ten-person ferry that took him from the Baikonur Cosmodrome to the Russian space station in low earth orbit. He was still cursing God, Werner Von Braun, and Jeff Bezos under his breath when he transferred from the ferry to the luxury liner that carried him the rest of the way to the Moon. He did pause to take in the spectacular views of the earth and the Moon as they crossed the quarter million miles from one to the other. If it hadn’t been for the space sickness medication he was taking, he would have been worshipping the toilet gods for the entire trip. Now he was walking the halls of the slowly rotating Kuznetsov, enjoying the one-half earth gravity pull the rotation provided—the only part of going into space that he liked.
Shattles also liked not being made to wait to interview persons of interest in his investigations. Funny how no one was eager to speak with a private investigator. They could not easily put off the police as easily as they could him. They also knew he was not as likely as the police to follow all the rules when conducting his interview and investigation. Such was the life of a PI.
His interview was granted on day three aboard the Admiral Kuznetsov. It was to be an after-dinner meeting. In her private cabin.
Shattles arrived exactly on time, 19:00, and rang the buzzer beside the door. There were not many private cabins, no more than twenty, since this was a space dock with over a hundred workers assembling and servicing the many ships in RKK Energiya’s commercial cis-lunar fleet. The workers lived in barracks style housing, each getting their own hammock and locker to store their personal belongings. Only the VIPs warranted private cabins and, on this trip, Shattles was an RKK Energiya very important person.
When the door opened, Shattles immediately noticed two things. The first was that Lana Kezerashvili’s cabin was at least three times larger than his and much more nicely furnished. The other was the revealing nature of Mrs. Kezerashvili’s almost nonexistent negligee. It was going to be that kind of interview. The kind that was intended to keep him distracted so he would not ask the tough questions. Her immediate attire aside, Mrs. Kezerashvili almost certainly had something to hide. He began to channel his inner Dashiell Hammett.
“Please come in, Mr. Shattles. Our dinner will be here momentarily and I am absolutely famished,” she said as she motioned for him to enter.
Shattles moved forward, accepted her offer and was careful to not brush against her as he entered the room. The door closed and before he could take in the surroundings, she was handing him a drink—evidently preprepared.
“Scotch, neat,” she said, handing him the small glass. “Pappy Van Winkle. I hope you enjoy it,” she said.
Shattles couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at her grossly incongruous statement, but he said nothing. Instead of correcting her, he said a simple, “thank you” as he briefly admired the color and odor of the rare Kentucky whiskey before he imbibed.
Shattles finished his glass and nodded toward his hostess. “I must say, I feel over dressed,” he said.
Mrs. Kezerashvili looked down at what she was wearing and laughed. “I decided I’d had enough puritan modesty for the day and that it was time to get cozy. If I am making you uncomfortable, then I can get a wrap.”
“That’s okay. If you aren’t uncomfortable, then neither am I.”
“Good,” she said, motioning for him to sit in one of the room's three cushioned chairs. She reclined in the other. She then said nothing, looking expectantly at Shattles.
“I am sorry for your loss, Mrs. Kezerashvili. I know you and your husband had been married for just over sixteen years. That’s a long time.”
She sipped her drink before she replied. “We had our ups and downs, but yes, I do miss him dearly.”
“So, you were happily married?”
“I would say we were,” she said, placing a bit too much emphasis on the word, “I” for Shattles to ignore.
“How do you think Mr. Kezerashvili would have answered the same question?”
“Maksim was a powerful man. He had many loves in his life—work, politics, making money, me. To be honest, sometimes I felt he was not as happy with me as he was the others. But, all things considered, for the kind of man he was, I think he would have said he was happy with our relationship.”
“You stand to inherit a great deal of money plus a rather tidy sum from an accidental death policy administered by my employer,” Shattles said, intentionally provoking her.
“That’s true. But I had virtually unlimited access to the bank accounts before his death. All this was paid for with his full knowledge and support. And I didn’t have to worry about administering the accounts, running the companies, or doing anything to get whatever I wanted. If you are looking for a connection between me and my husband’s unfortunate demise, you will find I had no motive to have him killed. Money was never an issue. I expect I will have to hire someone to handle all the financials now that he is gone. I have absolutely no interest in doing so.”
“Perhaps Colonel Fedorov can help with that,” Shattles said, leveling his gaze, looking for any reaction to his provocation.
“Mr. Shattles, come now. If you expect me to deny having a relationship with Viktor, then you are mistaken. Maksim knew all about Viktor and did not seem to mind. In fact, I think he liked the idea of me having a relationship with another man while he was away running his company and campaigning for office. Viktor did not seem to mind either. When Maksim was around, Viktor took his leave and vice versa.”
“Did your husband pursue any similar relationships?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“I would like to speak with Colonel Federov and I’m working to get an appointment through his staff. If you could put in a word to him to help expedite getting it set up, I would appreciate it,” he said.
Neither spoke as his hostess poured him a refill.
“Is there anyone else you think would like to see him dead?” asked Shattles.
“Well, there are always those who he got the better of in his business dealings, I suppose. There are quite a few. Maksim was a clever and sometimes ruthless businessman. And then there’s his political opponent, Martina Egorov. She knows her seat is vulnerable, but I don’t believe their political disagreements were strident enough to provoke murder.”
Shattles looked around the room as he considered his next line of questioning. The room was, as would be expected, poshly furnished with at least two virtual photo galleries that scrolled through still images of Mr. and Mrs. Kezerashvili in various places around the world and more than a few on the Moon. The rest of the interview went by quickly and he gleaned little new or seemingly useful information.
“Thank you for your time, Mrs. Kezerashvili. I’ll be in touch,” said Shattles as he rose to depart.
Mrs. Kezerashvili did not join him in standing and instead returned his gesture by giving him a smile. One of those ‘this was interesting and I am glad you are leaving’ smiles. “Have a safe trip, Mr. Shattles. Based on the results from the police inquiry, it certainly appears that you are wasting your time.”
“We’ll see,” Shattles said as he exited. But I don’t think so.
Shattles paused at the open door and looked back toward the woman who was still his prime suspect.
“Yes, Mr. Shattles. You have something else?” she asked.
“As a matter of fact, I do. I’m wondering if you are going to fulfill your late husband’s plan to help fund the mission to Proxima Centauri?”
“No, Mr. Shattles, I am not. I cannot imagine a more wasteful way to spend money,” she said without hesitation.
“Well, thanks again,” he said as he crossed the threshold and the door automatically closed behind him. Money—yes. Sex—almost certainly. Power—maybe. The motive was certainly there, but was there opportunity?
The next day Shattles boarded a shuttle and returned to Earth. He had an appointment in Moscow with Martina Egorov that he didn’t want to miss. The Russian Federation Council was soon to go into recess and he needed to catch her before she left town. For this reason, he took the suborbital ballistic from his landing at the DFW spaceplex directly to Moscow, arriving there just three days after his lunar meeting with Mrs. Kezerashvili.
Moscow was as dreary as ever, the cold grey sky meeting the ground where a fresh layer of snow had recently fallen. The meeting with Ms. Egorov was to be held in her office near the Duma. Shattles had the address and planned to use one of the autotaxis to get him across town for the meeting as he left his hotel. Thankfully, Muscovites knew how to keep warm. His room was quite toasty and much nicer than the one he had in Zvyozdny gorodok, allowing him to depart for this meeting quite comfortably refreshed.
As Shattles left the hotel, the usual line of waiting taxis was nowhere to be seen. He asked the attendant, who merely shrugged his shoulders and said something about there being a conference in town. The attendant did, however, offer to summon one for him. As he was waiting, another man exited the hotel and spoke with the attendant, who motioned the newcomer to stand with Shattles.
“Good morning,” said the newcomer with English-accented Russian. “I’m told there is a taxi shortage this morning and that I should wait here. I hope you don’t mind,” he said.
“Not at all,” replied Shattles.
As they waited, the newcomer acted anxious, tapping his foot, and looking expectantly toward the passing traffic.
“Running late?” asked Shattles.
“Yes, unfortunately. I have a job interview in the Tverskoy District and I absolutely cannot be late,” the man replied, looking again for an approaching taxi.
“That’s close to where I’m going. We can share when mine arrives. It can drop you off first. I have some time left before I need to be at my meeting,” said Shattles.
“Really? Thank you,” said the man, looking away from the line of cars and at Shattles. “My name is Grimes, Roger Grimes.”
“Charles Shattles, it is nice to meet you,” said Grimes. Grimes was unremarkable in appearance, dressed in a heavy black overcoat and wearing an old-fashioned hat reminiscent of what American men might have worn in the 1930s or 40s.
A few minutes later, an autotaxi pulled up in front of the hotel, which Shattles entered first, followed by Grimes.
Neither man spoke as the taxi wound its way through traffic. Looking out the window, Shattles was struck by the demographics of the pedestrians he saw. Unlike the rest of Europe and the Americas, there was almost no racial diversity to be seen. The streets were filled with Caucasians. In the modern, highly connected world, Russia continued to be a throwback to an earlier time. With their declining population, unless something changed, these proud people would soon be in a permanent state of decline.
As planned, the automated taxi pulled up in front of the address Shattles’ fellow passenger had provided. The car had barely rolled to a stop when Grimes thanked Ray again and exited the car.
As the car accelerated away and re-entered traffic, Shattles noticed a small black ball on the floorboard where Grimes had been sitting. He reached down to pick it up, noting that one side of it was somewhat sticky, like it was recently adhered to something. He looked back, wondering if his fellow passenger had dropped it and whether he should stop the taxi to take it back to him. He never had the opportunity. The autotaxi began to accelerate, forcing Shattles backwards into his seat. Ahead lay a mass of slow-moving vehicles and instead of accelerating, the autotaxi should have been slowing down. Unless it quickly braked, he and the taxi would smash into them.
“Emergency stop!” shouted Shattles. The command should have immediately overridden almost any of the autotaxi’s driving commands and taken the vehicle to a safe stop out of traffic. It did not.
When he saw that the stop command failed, Shattles unbuckled his safety harness and hit the big, red stop button in the center of the front dashboard. No effect.
With the rear of another vehicle growing ever larger in the front window, he grabbed the steering wheel and turned hard toward the blessedly empty sidewalk to the right. Thankfully, the car responded, but it was still accelerating. With only seconds left before the car ran out of sidewalk and T-boned into stopped cars on the cross street ahead, Shattles took out his quite-illegal-thank-you-very-much personal stunner, basically a super-charged version of yesterday’s taser, and discharged it completely into the dash of the taxi. The vehicle immediately lost power, activated the emergency braking system, and came to a stop just inches from a car carrying a commuter who was blithely unaware that he almost met his maker.
By this time, the incident was getting the attention of those in the immediate area and some were rushing forward to the now-stopped car to see what was going on.
Shattles knew what was going on. Something supposedly impossible, overriding the control and safety features of an autotaxi. In the seconds he needed to recover and come down from the adrenaline high that his near-death experience invoked, he was completely convinced that the death of Maksim Kezerashvili was not an accident. He was now more determined than ever to find out who was behind the killing and why. Now it was personal.
Dealing with the police and explaining why he had a stunner capable of being set for lethal discharge took some time. Fortunately, he only had to pull a few strings to get them to let him go, sans stunner. As they so insistently and not-so-politely escorted him to the local police station, he sent a message to Egorov explaining the reason for missing their meeting and requesting it be rescheduled. Thankfully, she agreed to meet at the same time the next day.
Shattles did not sleep well that night. Near-death experiences like that just didn’t go away like they did in the entertainment vids where all the ‘tough’ guy or woman needed was a stiff drink and the company of the opposite sex. He awakened more than once shaking and unable to go back to sleep. The next morning, he did not recall any of his dreams, but he recalled enough to know that they were unsettling.
This time, Shattles found an old-fashioned taxi with a driver to take him across town.
The meeting with Martina Egorov was mostly perfunctory and unenlightening. Unlike to opulence of Joseph Bychkov’s office at RKK Energiya or the decadent quarters of Lana Kezerashvili, Egorov’s office was spartan and simple with only one small window, faux wood paneling, and standard issue compudesk and conference table. There was nothing remarkable that could be said about it. The same might also be said about Egorov, who looked capable, competent, and energetic, but not overly so. Her well-manicured appearance bespoke of education and likely birth into an upper-class family, but totally without ostentation. In short, she looked like the kind of person one would want to run the country. Interesting how she just happened to be in the majority party doing just that.
Shattles went through his standard list of questions, finding out that she and Kezerashvili had known each other for years (no romance involved), that he had been a financial supporter of hers when she first entered politics, that their political disagreements were strictly policy driven and that there had been no major personal argument between them, and that they had had dinner together just a few days before Kezerashvili was killed. That last fact was the one Shattles decided to dig into.
“Is it normal for political opponents in Russia to have dinner dates in the middle of a campaign cycle?” asked Shattles.
“No. Probably not. But then ours was not a typical political rivalry. Maksim and I were friends before we became rivals and that friendship did not end when he announced his candidacy, though both of us were afraid it might. That’s why we decided to have dinner together. To affirm our friendship and assure each other that the contest was not personal,” Egorov replied, looking earnestly at Shattles.
“What did you talk about?”
“This and that. We talked a bit about our families. He told me about the trip to China he planned to take with wife later in the year, about his business, and, like just about everyone else, a great deal about the whole Proxima situation. We tried to stay away from the campaign,” she said, giving him that “you know what I mean” look.
“Did he express any concerns about his marriage?”
“No. He and Lana seemed to be perfectly happy with each other. He spoke fondly of her.”
“Ms. Egorov, I have it on good authority that the campaign was about to turn particularly nasty with both sides, you and Maksim, digging up dirt on the other. Was this not the case?” Shattles asked.
She paused and moved her eyes to briefly look up and to the top right corner of her vision. From what Shattles knew from his years of reading people, this meant she was sincerely trying to recall information from memory. Either that, or she was counting on him knowing that bit of psychological trivia and was intentionally misleading him. Sometimes he hated having to always be reading people. He longed for far a day that he could take people at face value. Maybe someday . . .
“I cannot think of any time I asked my campaign staff to find—or was informed of—dirt on Maksim or any of my political opponents. Background statements and actions relating to matters of policy difference, yes. Personal information that could be damaging, absolutely not. And I doubt he was doing so either,” she said.
Shattles would have to square this bit of information with what he was told by Bychkov. He didn’t like inconsistencies. Before he departed, he had one more line of questioning to pursue. One that nagged at him only because it seemed to coincidentally come up in his interviews. He did not like coincidences. “You mentioned you discussed the Proxima Centauri situation. In what context?”
“A quite simple disagreement. Maksim was in favor of sending a ship to meet them. I’m adamantly opposed. Just one of many issues upon which we respectfully disagreed,” she replied.
The interview lasted for a few more minutes, allowing Shattles to create a small shopping list of similar issues upon which Kezerashvili and Egorov disagreed before the interview ended. All in all, Shattles got a good feeling from the politician and earnestly wanted to eliminate her from his suspect list. But weren’t politicians by nature people who caused other people to like them?
“One more thing, Mr. Shattles. Please hang on,” she said as she vacantly looked past Shattles, apparently receiving a message of some sort via her corneal implant. “I just received a bit of news from the police regarding your accident yesterday.”
“It seems that the autotaxi’s safety system was disabled when it was taken over by a localized virus introduced via the car’s wireless update feature. That black ball you found just before the taxi malfunctioned contained the virus that took over control of the car. It hacked the encrypted key for automatic software updates and installed the program which nearly got you killed. They are looking now for this Mr. Grimes who shared the taxi with you.”
“Thank you for letting me know,” Shattles said. I must be getting close to something if someone thinks I need to be taken out.
“Please be careful. I will let you know if the police find anything else they can share with you,” Egorov said.
Money. Sex. Power. Jealousy . . . aliens?
Shattles was sure the connection to the Proximans was there somewhere. But what was it? Who could possibly be so against politically or financially supporting the mission to Proxima that they would be willing to kill someone? He ran through the various suspects and motives as he cross checked them with the alibis for each provided to him. Of course, whoever actually pulled the trigger and murdered Maksim Kezerashvili almost certainly was not among those he was interviewing. No, they would have paid someone else to do the dirty work. That much was evident and only reaffirmed by the recent attack on Shattles’ life. Someone, one of his current suspects or someone else entirely, was pulling the strings.
What was certain was that he did not yet have enough information to put the puzzle together. One step at a time. He had one more person with motive to interview. Viktor Fedorov. Thanks to a surprisingly cooperative command structure in the Russian Space Force, he had an interview with Colonel Fedorov tomorrow afternoon. They were actually flying him in from one of their space stations to meet with Shattles while he was in Moscow. Given the lateness of the hour, Shattles decided to splurge on a meal at the French restaurant around the corner from his hotel. After all, for this job he did have a rather generous expense account.
The next morning, Shattles had a message waiting from the colonel asking him if their meeting could take place over lunch instead of at the Moscow Aviation Institute, as had originally been planned. It seemed that the colonel was tired of military food and in the mood for Italian. That suited Shattles just fine.
He spent the morning going through the list of donors to both Kezerashvili and the smooth Ms. Egorov, noting only a few that would require follow up. The first was a rather large donation to Kezerashvili from none other than a subsidiary of RKK Energiya. Wasn’t there a law to prevent that sort of thing? But then again, this was Russia and having your company underlings and sycophants donate to the boss’s political campaign was probably standard operating procedure. The other was a similarly large donation to Ms. Egorov from an aboriginal rights group headquartered in Latin America. It seemed odd for such a group to care one way or the other about an obscure Russian parliamentary election. The rest of the donations on both sides otherwise looked like the usual dross of companies and people hoping to curry favors from the winner once they were in a position to affect governmental policy.
The restaurant at which their meeting was to take place was only a few blocks from Shattles’ hotel, so he elected to walk. Given the previous attack on his life, Shattles took every precaution to see if he was being followed by varying his pace, taking spur of the moment detours, and paying careful attention to those who crossed his path. Not knowing the capabilities of whoever was behind all this, he took the added precaution of placing his implant in stealth mode. Of course, all this would be moot if Colonel Fedorov did not take similar precautions.
The colonel was waiting on Shattles when he arrived, sitting in a booth near the rear of the restaurant. Fedorov would have appeared quite at home on an army recruiting poster, modeling men’s fashions, or on the arm of any female movie star. He was tall, at least 6’ 2”, had blond hair, green eyes, and looked like he lifted cars in his morning workouts. In other words, his mere presence would intimidate most men and attract most women. After the obligatory handshake, small talk, and drink order (vodka, what else?), Shattles got down to business.
“Colonel Fedorov, I understand you have been seeing Mrs. Kezerashvili for at least eighteen months, correct?” Shattles asked.
Fedorov’s first reaction was to smile. Then he replied, “That is correct. Lana and I have been lovers for nearly two years.”
“You realize this places you and her near the top of the list of those who might want to see her husband, her late husband, in his present state—dead.”
Fedorov poured another shot of vodka and downed it before answering. “I had no ill will toward Maksim. He and Lana had an understanding and that understanding included me. Besides, the police investigated the matter and concluded that it was a tragic accident that killed her husband. You are a private investigator hired by his company and I have no obligation to answer any of your questions.”
The look that Fedorov gave Shattles was more than a little icy. Shattles momentarily thought about how easy it would be for Fedorov to bench press him to the ceiling just about any time he wished.
“Then why are you here at all?” asked Shattles.
“Because my commanding officer knows that if it were not for the advocacy of RKK Energiya in the Duma, then the funding might not be there for the missions we perform. You understand.”
“Has Mrs. Kezerashvili told you her plans now that she is inheriting the business and collecting a rather generous life insurance policy?”
The question brought another big smile to Fedorov’s face. “Yes, on my next leave we plan to take a vacation. A long vacation.”
Shattles was beginning to think Colonel Fedorov might be a bit short on the IQ scale. As he considered his next question, he thought it was time to see how the colonel reacted to a throw from left field.
“His death also makes it easier to stop all that money from going to the Proxima Centauri project, saving more for you and her, eh?”
Fedorov’s head twitched, his smile faded, and he said, “how did you know about . . .”
It was at that moment that the colonel’s body abruptly jerked backward as a dark red splotch appeared on his upper chest. Fedorov looked briefly down at the growing patch of his blood and muttered, “what the . . .”
As soon as Shattles saw the bullet strike his dinner companion, he threw himself to the floor and cursed the fact that not only was he without his gun, which he would have had if he were not in Russia, but also his stunner, which was now in the custody of the local police. The other diners did not reach nearly as quickly, some were still sitting in their chairs trying to figure out what was going on when the next high caliber round hit the glass window and shattered it passing through. The first round had likely weakened the glass enough that not much more was required for it to catastrophically fail. With the second shot, most were figuring out that they’d better take cover and were joining Shattles on the floor.
The second bullet caught Fedorov in his shoulder as he slumped out of his chair and onto the floor. He was still alive. Barely.
Since no one had rushed into the restaurant and the shooter seemed content taking distance shots, Shattles decided to turn over the heavy wooden table at which they had been eating appetizers and use it as a shield. He positioned it to provide cover from any more shots coming from outside and crawled over to Fedorov.
The colonel’s eyes were open, but Shattles could tell the life was draining from him. Fedorov had lost a great deal of blood and there wasn’t much that could be done to stop the bleeding.
“Colonel, it appears your lover wants us dead. What else can you tell me? We can’t let her get away with this,” Shattles said.
“It wasn’t Lana. No, not Lana at all. We love each other. He said it would be easy. Just find a way to get the little ball into Kezerashvili’s yacht and the problem would go away. Then I would have Lana and he would slow down or stop the crazy plan to send a ship to Proxima,” Fedorov said, blood starting to trickle from the corners of his mouth.
“He? Who is he?”
“Grimes. Ray Grimes.” Fedorov croaked.
“Ray Grimes? Don’t you mean Roger Grimes?”
But the distinction was lost on the now dead colonel, his eyes staring vacantly ahead. In the distance, Shattles could hear the sirens and no more shots were fired into the restaurant.
Later, after Shattles spent four hours explaining to the Moscow police how it was that he happened to be at the site of an apparent terrorist attack just days after being the victim of an attempted vehicular homicide, he was met at his hotel by Lada Agapov, his boss’s emissary.
“Good evening, Mr. Shattles. I understand you’ve had a rough day,” Agapov said without any expression whatsoever. Not a shred of empathy or even a telltale smirk to acknowledge her understatement. Like at their first meeting in Zvyozdny gorodok, she was all business.
“I’ve had better. It might take me some time to get Colonel Fedorov’s blood from under my fingernails, but, then again, maybe not,” he replied.
“Dr. Bychkov sends his regards and has authorized payment of your fee plus a 25% hazard bonus for all you’ve been through investigating this matter.”
Shattles activated his corneal implant and queried his bank. The deposit was pending and would be credited by the end of the business day. “Thank you, but I don’t believe I’ve uncovered the true circumstances behind Kezerashvili’s death.”
“Proving that it was not an accident is all the was needed. Thank you. Your services are no longer required,” she said.
Shattles could not argue with what the woman said. Finding out if it was really an accident was all he had been hired to do. And the pay was excellent. But he was troubled that he didn’t know who was behind the whole thing and what was so important about stopping the trip to Proxima Centauri. He didn’t like loose ends, but his need to be paid for his work was ultimately stronger than his curiosity. He had another job pending, one that involved the untimely death of a banker in Switzerland. And the new job had a particularly good expense account, making that future beach retirement, heavenly bodies and all, that much closer.
Copyright © 2021 by Les Johnson
With Travis Taylor, Les is the co-author of Saving Proxima (book one of a three-part series), a new Baen universe in which this story is set. If you enjoyed this story, you might want to read Les’s 2018 novel, Mission to Methone, or the forthcoming, The Spacetime War. You can learn more about Les on his website: www.lesjohnsonauthor.com