by Dennis M. Myers, 04/7/2021
Miku enjoyed a rush of exhilaration as the shuttle's thrust into low orbit pushed her deep into the seat. The rest of the flight excited her less. Zero gravity had her last meal free-floating in her stomach. A couple of tablets helped with that. By the time the shuttle started it's flip in preparation for landing, she was more than ready to be back on the ground.
Miku's personal phone chirped.
"Miku, you need to abort." Geday looked worried. "We found him and traced him getting on the loop to Petrov. Looks like he laid low for a few days, then took a shuttle for Ujuseon. He's already there."
"That's not something I expected," said Miku. "And my shuttle is already in freefall. I'm kind of stuck, Boss."
"He can't know you are on his trail, so you need to turn right around and take the next shuttle out of there. I don't care where it's going, you bounce, got it?"
"Are you sure? I mean, we have him as the prime suspect for the one murder, and he looks good for sixteen more back in Drygalski. This guy needs to be brought in."
"He's in Shelldale territory," said Geday. "You had permission to investigate at Riqueza de Luna. You won't have that up there in slaps-oh-butt."
Miku giggled. "Fine. I'll bounce. Any budget limit?"
Geday scoffed. "Stay on Luna. And stay alive."
"How about if I agree with that last one, with all my heart, but we leave the first one as a suggestion. I've always wanted to visit Venus. Planet of love."
Geday rolled his eyes. "Vacations are for your own time. I'm already having to justify you heading up northside and then bouncing right back. You stay safe, Miku."
"Okay, Boss. Talk to you soon."
After the connection dropped, she pulled up the scheduling assistant for the shuttle. A Valkyrie Transport Limited vehicle, already booked solid for the outbound flight. She poked around and saw another shuttle scheduled to launch the same day, but with a different company, Tataslavic Transport. She tried pulling up their scheduling system, but to no avail. Valkyrie blocked access to its competitors during flight.
This is so frustrating.
When the shuttle touched down at Ujuseon and she finally disembarked, she pulled up the Tataslavic schedule and saw that the shuttle she wanted left in thirty minutes, already fully booked. After a frantic and painful search of the two shuttle company's schedules, she booked a Tataslavic flight to Plato in three days.
Not exactly a bounce.
She noticed a young woman sitting on a bench facing her general direction. Thin, medium height with caramel colored skin. Maroon hair with uneven splashes of white at the tips and either green or hazel eyes. Lipstick matches the hair. Miku caught herself. Why am I looking at her like a suspect?
She pulled up the local directory, and after again acknowledging the roaming fees, she found a hotel nearby with space. She even had a choice, so she opted for the least expensive room. No need to make matters worse. She booked it for the two nights she needed and headed in the direction indicated. She took a pod from the shuttle port to the plaza in front of the hotel.
As she checked in she glanced back out the lobby door. Maroon hair with uneven splashes of white at the tips. The caramel skinned woman had moved, and now faced the hotel. Miku turned back to the automated check-in machine and pretended to select options. Did she move to follow me? How would she know who I am, or what I'm doing? Am I being paranoid?
Miku headed to the lift and soon entered in her room. A modestly appointed space, double bed, entertainment console, and a fully equipped fresher. She shook her head. Luxury compared to the Ashbrook Security quarters.
She sat quietly for a moment, then called Geday.
"You okay?" he asked.
"I'm fine, Boss. Next shuttle out isn't until a couple of days from now. I'm in a hotel. I might have a tail, or I might be really paranoid. I don't know which."
"Understood. Look, if you are stuck there anyway, I have a contact for you. Maybe he can help calm your nerves."
"You think it's just nerves?" asked Miku.
"Probably. But you give Daeyong Park a call. Here's his contact info. Tell him everything. I've already forwarded him what I have on the case. Shelldale doesn't have any way for me to make you an official investigator. So no investigating, officially, got it?"
She sighed. "I got it, Boss."
"Make sure you take that shuttle and get out. Then get home as soon as you can. I have three more people out today. Some kind of virus running loose."
"Is it serious?"
"The panic is serious, the virus looks to be a new influenza strain, and the epidemiologists already have a vaccine for it. So no, it is not serious. Just annoying."
* * *
She found the place easily enough. Not far from the hotel plaza, Rico's was a small lounge near the main entrance to the port complex. Filled with people waiting for the next flight, and the occasional crew kicking back before the next shift.
She found Park hunched over the bar, almost trying to hide his height. Lanky didn't do him justice. Dark hair, black jumper and hard shoes, the kind that are good in a chase or a fight. When he stood, he towered over Miku, siling at her with his deep brown eyes, freshly shaven, no sideburns, smelled nice. Nice? Hey, stop that.
"Hi," he said. "You're Detective O'Conner?"
"Call me Miku. My boss says I am not here in any official capacity."
"Then you can call me Dayo. Let me buy you a drink." He motioned for her to take the next seat at the bar.
"I could use one. Nothing too toxic. Do they have a wine selection?"
Dayo laughed. "Yes, they have both kinds. Red and white." He brought up the menu on his handheld and slid it over to her.
The list under each of those headings wasn't terrible, though not long. She selected a sweet red wine.
Dayo chose apricot brandy, on the rocks.
"I've never had apricot brandy. Is it good?"
He nodded. "It's sweet, but it's for sipping. If you drink it too fast, you'll be done for the night fairly quickly."
The automated bartender placed a short, wide wine tumbler in front of her. The liquid sloshed gently up the sides. Dayo's drink came in an enclosed glass. The top shaped for sipping. A spout on one side, and a vent hole on the other. The ice inside swirled gently.
Dayo lifted the drink to his lips and took a small taste. "So, you had a suspect and he got away, then you traced him back to where he came from. And he came from here?"
Miku nodded. "He has a trick where he can erase security footage. It's really obvious if you do it in a public place. Too many people around. But he has this way of finding passages with low traffic. He erases his path near the crime scene and only appears again as he's boarding a hyperloop capsule, if he appears at all. In the first case, he fudged a video of himself getting onto a capsule. Not sure how he did that, but when he didn't arrive, we thought we had lost him. He actually had hidden out for a few hours, then took a different capsule out. We tracked that, and found him coming here."
"Is that why you are here?"
"No, I came from the other direction. This is where he came from to get to Drygalski."
"So you wern't actually following him," said Dayo. "Lucky break."
"Not really. My boss doesn't want me to engage. Plus, your company and my company don't seem to get along well. I have been ordered to contact you, give you whatever you need, and run away."
"You don't sound happy about that last part."
"Of course not," said Miku. "This guy has killed at least seventeen people in less than a month."
Miku nodded. "Sixteen in Drygalski. One in Wexler."
"Ah, so two events. I see. Not really that busy, but certainly dangerous. And he's here in Poczobutt."
Miku sipped her wine. A little less sweet than advertised, but not bitter.
Miku nodded. She tapped her built-in phone and sent the image data to Dayo. "This is the face data we are using to track him. If you store it in a main system, it's vulnerable. We had to reconstruct this. In Wexler, he put my boss's face where his belonged."
She tried not to smile. "Took an hour to clear it up and get him released."
Dayo snorted. "That's classic."
Miku filed the snort away. Cute. Kind of... endearing?
She caught him glancing at her legs. Oh crap
. "Hey, oh yeah, there's one more thing. I might be paranoid, but there was someone facing the dock when I got in, and later, she sat facing the hotel I checked into. Could be nothing."
Dayo nodded. "Could be. What was your arrival time?"
She gave him the flight information and an indicator of where she saw the woman, and her hotel. Wait, you gave him your hotel room?
He poked at his phone a few times, then frowned. He pulled it wider, and poked again. "This her?"
"Yup. Maroon hair, splashes of white at the tips."
"She was there for a half an hour before you arrived. Then look at this. See how she casually turns herself. Looks like she is getting comfortable, but it's keeping her facing your direction."
"Wait, are you sure?" Miku frowned.
"Then when you enter the hotel, she gets up and walked over here."
Miku's stomach did a backflip. "I thought I was being jumpy. Paranoid after the last time. But it looks like I was her subject, alright."
He nodded. "I'll flag it, get a warrant for a trace in the morning. It still doesn't explain how she knew you would be there."
"Okay, now I'm nervous. Should I even go back to the hotel?"
"If it's connected to the guy you are looking for, as long as you don't pose a threat, I doubt he'll make a move. But I'll walk you back to the hotel. I want to see if that lady friend of yours is still around."
* * *
When they arrived at the hotel entrance, Miku couldn't see anything out of the ordinary. No lady with the white tipped hair, though there were other people on benches scattered throughout the open area. She turned her attention to the matter at hand.
"I think I'll be good from here. Thank you."
Dayo smiled and nodded. "Certainly. Get some rest. I'll let you know if I find anything. Maybe we could meet again. Breakfast, perhaps?"
Miku's cheeks grew warm. Damned tempting. "Tentative yes. Call me in the morning to confirm."
"Fair enough. Until then, stay safe, Detective O'Conner." He turned and headed towards the tube platform.
Her heart sank when he addressed her formally. I wonder what he meant by it?
Her room remained as she had left it. Even the single strand of hair wedged in the door. With the room secured, she showered and climbed into bed. Sleep proved evasive as her mind replayed the day's events. Eventually her memories became dreams. She woke abruptly at the loud knock at her door.
"Yes, who is it?" asked Miku.
"Shelldale Security," said an authoritative male voice. "Open the door at once."
She leapt to her feet. "Verify your identity."
The verification popped up on the embedded Minguard phone in her arm. She opened the door. "What can I do for you?"
"We need you to answer a few questions." He glanced at her legs and took a step forward. "Please step back."
She flushed, but stood her ground. Taking the time to put on pants with security at the door, never a good idea. Nothing in your pants was more important than showing them cooperation. Dignity simply wasn't an option. "Do you need to search this room? If not, I would feel more comfortable if we went somewhere public."
"We have a warrant to search the room," he said. "Is there anything we need to know about?"
She took a step back and spread her arms wide. Her t-shirt lifted allowing a gust of cool air to chill her abdomen. "I am unarmed. There is a service stunner in my jumpsuit over on the hook. My luggage is in a compartment to your left. It's a MinBag, black. I am a MinGuard corporate security officer from Wexler Station. I had been following a lead which brought me here. Before you arrived, I was sleeping, and have been here alone all night."
One of the guards rifled her jumpsuit. His blue gloves darted into each pocket. He retrieved the stunner and placed it into an evidence bag. The jumpsuit went into its own bag.
Miku nodded at her MinBag. "Could you verify a new outfit as clean so that I can get dressed?"
The first officer nodded at the other, who checked then laid out a new jumpsuit, along with new undergarments. He handed her an evidence bag. "We'll need what you are wearing in here. Then you are free to dress in these items."
She arrived at the security office with her dignity intact only through sheer force of will. They hadn't made any formal charges, but the whole routine reeked of a murder investigation. The thought made her stomach clench. Who died?
The thought kept echoing in her head.
"Miku O'Conner?" Dark hair, rounded nose, warm smile, cold eyes. "I'm Senior Agent Jeong-hoon Hong, Poczobutt Investigation Agency. Have a seat. Can I get you anything? Water? Coffee?"
"Coffee, please," she said. "Light and sweet."
Hong tapped on his screen then nodded. "While we wait for that, would you please answer a few questions?"
"Absolutely. Ask away."
He smiled. "At twenty-one oh eight last night you were in front of your hotel. Do you remember who you were with?"
Miku nodded. "I was with Officer Daeyong Park. A local security officer my boss, Chief Charles Geday of Wexler Security, had referred to me as a point of contact. We met in an unofficial capacity, since I have no standing here."
"And from there, where did the two of you go?"
"Nowhere. He headed for the tube platform. I went up to my room."
"He didn't come with you?" asked Hong. "It wouldn't be an issue if he did. Nice guy. Handsome, really. Attractive woman."
"The thought didn't even cross your mind?"
"Crossed my mind," said Miku. "His too, if I read him right. But we had just met. There wasn't enough of a spark to override that."
He sat back in his chair as the service bot delivered her coffee.
She took a sip. Warm, sweet, light. Not terrible, but nowhere near as good as home.
"How's the coffee?" he asked.
He chuckled. "That's a good term for it. Now, what did the two of you discuss when you met?"
"I was tracking a murder suspect. I gave him everything I had."
"Mind sharing that with us?"
Miku held out her arm. "It's all on my phone."
Hong poked his phone, and the permission request popped up on hers. She granted full access to him. A few moments later, she saw him log off.
He sighed. Scrolled through the files on his desktop. Shook his head. Then frowned and looked at Miku. "Usually by now, people in your position have already started asking why they are here."
"Sorry to upset your routine," said Miku. "As an investigator myself, I have a fair idea this concerns a murder, I have a growing suspicion who it may be. Dread, really. I liked him. And I know that you won't tip your hand until you are ready anyway. You are in control of this interview, and I have no need to change that dynamic."
A light flashed on his desk. He poked at it and grumbled. "There's no evidence you are lying. The only trace of agent Park is on your left cuff. One stray hair. Everything else is clean, and corroborates your story."
"Thank you." She leaned forward. "How can I help?"
"You cannot. You've done everything we have asked of you. Now, ask your questions. I know you have some."
Miku nodded. "Who died, when, and where. How did it happen?"
He sighed. "Agent Park's body was found early this morning in a residence in Pongchon. That's a little settlement on the eastern rim of Cannizzaro crater. There was a fire, his body, severely burned, was discovered alone inside. When we tracked his movements to see how he had gotten there, we found that all of the logs for that settlement, and for this one had been scrubbed. The very last image we have is him standing close to you in front of a hotel. The one we found you in. How he got from there to being dead..." He shrugged. "That's the mystery."
"Who owns the flat?" asked Miku.
"It is listed as unoccupied. It's been unoccupied for a decade. Corporate property, marked as an investment. We have a few of those. Used as luxury vacation spots for corporate big shots."
"Shelldale, of course." Hong frowned.
"So where does the investigation go from here?"
"You, go home. We, will look into it as far as we can. My primary concern is the security breach. If that hadn't happened, we might have been able to capture the culprit. As it is, they are probably long gone by now."
"You could take that facial data and run a match for it," said Miku. "Send it out, spread it around until we find this guy."
"We don't even know if this is connected to your case. Agent Park had been working on a dozen different cases, any of which might have gone sideways."
"And the fact that the last image left undeleted of him facing me, standing in front of my hotel, right before we parted?"
"Pure coincidence, most likely," said Hong, not sounding convinced.
She huffed. "Seems like too much of a coincidence to me."
He nodded. Then sat back. "Have you ever had a case pulled out from under you by the Auditors?"
She crossed her arms. "No. I have not."
He leaned in. "It is not a way to find justice. Do you understand me?"
Miku thought about it. A third corporation involved in a killing spree. She nodded. "I think I understand."
"Good," said Hong, "because this next part is going to be very uncomfortable. You'll thank me for it later." He nodded to someone behind her.
Hands landed on her shoulders with a firmness she recognized at once.
"Miku O'Conner," said a voice from above, "you are under arrest. Please come with us."
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