Chapter 2 – A Strange Request

The shuttle to New Marseilles was slightly ahead of schedule, so he had more layover time than he’d expected.  And what a layover- almost 24 hours!-  but the ticket price had been worth it.  He’d been surprised when his new employers had found him a flight from the orbital colonies to Mars that left from New Marseilles – Atlantis still served the most shuttle traffic. On the upside, it had given him all day to wander around the colony.  He’d only been there once, as a child, and upon his second visit, it had proven better than he remembered.  And the food had certainly lived up to the colony’s reputation.  His flight to Mars Colony was due to leave in about an hour, and he’d been on his feet enough.  He found a comfortable couch in the departure lounge not far from an enclosed cafe made to look like something picked right out of downtown Paris (and to hear locals tell, it may have been), set his carry-on pack on the seat next to him, and kicked back with the second of the textbooks he’d brought.

He still had trouble believing that they were paying for his Masters.  They must have been very impressed with his presentation.  It meant a lot of work for him, but he didn’t have a busy social life to service.  It still amazed him how much extra time he had to himself now- he had joked with a classmate earlier that month that breaking off following Alex had been like cancelling a StreamRPG game account.

Both were fantasy worlds, he had later observed to himself.

More than anything else, he had discovered how much he enjoyed not having to worry about scheduling everything.  For years, he’d been a master of making schedules work. He’d organized his entire life around following a woman, sometimes within her sight but more often not, and then for the past three months making sure he stayed out of her way completely- which was much easier, but still demanded some attention.  He’d rediscovered the joy of sleeping in late- his class schedules had all landed later in the morning, which had given him time to follow his obsession before – and allowed him to sleep as late as he liked now.

And now, off to the private sector.  Being a student had allowed him a lot of latitude, personally and professionally, but when he’d discovered that his education had earned the attention of such a company as this- 50% of his student loans paid!  He still had trouble believing it sometimes.  But this was as real as it got- he was waiting for a plane to take him to Mars, and a new life was unfolding in front of him. After trying so hard to control everything for so long, letting go was so much of a relief.

His thoughts were wandering a lot lately.  For the most part, he allowed them to.  He’d be focused plenty on the job.  His eyes were pointed at the book, but his thoughts were scattered everywhere.  It took him a moment to realize that four people were approaching him.  Normally, he’d have spotted them coming a long way off, especially when two of them were obviously law enforcement of some sort.  The man leading them should have set off his alarms a long way off.  They stopped ten feet or so from the couch.

Trent lowered the book, and shook his head.  “Joe, I swear to God I was only calling her to say goodbye.”  He used the first name deliberately- he’d always said ‘Mr. Jefferson’ before.  He had figured there was a chance of something like this happening, but he’d expected it in days ago, and not on the way between the two.

Alexandra’s father didn’t say anything.  He was dressed in a very nice suit, probably Saville Row, and he wore the familiar, old-style glasses, still refusing the simple procedure that would adjust his vision to standard.

In the past, he had always looked perfectly groomed when they’d encountered each other- Jason had thought it was his way of trying to intimidate him.  He guessed being a Senator to the UN made people think that way.

Joseph Jefferson didn’t look that way now.  His jacket was unbuttoned, his clothes slightly rumpled, in need of being pressed.  He looked as if he hadn’t slept in a few days.  His hair had greyed a little more since they’d last seen each other at the hearing.  Either that or he needed to color his hair again. He didn’t speak, so Jason continued talking.

“If you could find me here, then I’m sure you’ve heard the call,” he said.  “How many times have I ever told her I was going away, and not coming back?”

Joe took a deep breath.  “Jason, Alex is missing.  Someone broke into her apartment, messed the place up bad like they were looking for something… and there’s-“  His voice cracked.  “We think she may have been murdered.  Her- her body isn’t there, but there’s so much-“  He stopped again.

Jason’s eyes went wide.  Then he took another look at the three men flanking Alex’s father.  Two of them were obviously Interpol types, he decided.  One carried a briefcase.  Not positioned to block his escape routes, so they didn’t think he was going to run off on them, but still… It was the third one that bothered him – over three meters tall, broad-shouldered, and despite the long, loose clothing, Jason could see the glint of copperish metal at both wrists.

Even sitting, Jason felt himself shrink back slightly. “You don’t think it was me-“

Joe held up a hand.  “No, no, they say it happened yesterday evening, between 6:30 and 7:30 standard.” The weariness in his voice was growing stronger, but there was something else there.

“I was on a shuttle, on the way here.”  Jason cocked his head.  “But you still came looking for me.”

Joe nodded.  “I, uh… I came to ask for your help.”

Jason took a long breath, then let it out slowly, almost whistling without meaning to. Okay, he thought, we have officially arrived at the looney bin.

“Whoever did this, you’re the one who has the best chance of finding them.”  Joe took a deep breath.  “I know I’ve been… harsh… with you… but there isn’t anyone else that can help the way you can.”

Harsh was a bit of an understatement.  Joe had hired thugs to rough him up twice, he remembered, and had threatened to have him ‘disappeared’ not long before the hearing.  But in retrospect, Jason had been stalking the man’s little girl.  It’s hard to blame someone from protecting their child, and being a Senator gave him access to resources most parents didn’t have.

Then the full force of what was being asked of him hit Jason, and he leaned forward. “Well, I’ve got an hour or so before the plane boards, so if you’ve brought stuff for me to look at,” he gestured toward the briefcase in the hand of one of the officials, “I’ll do what I can-“

“I came here by private shuttle.  I’ll take care of getting you to Mars if you’ll help.”  Joe took another deep breath.  “Please, Jason.”

Jason nodded.  He stowed his book back in his carry-on, shouldered it, and followed the others across the lounge, toward one of the escalators.

*****

The images were difficult to look at. The officials had produced a large screen from the briefcase, a 30cm unit with excellent picture. Jason’s eyes took in a little too much detail.  Her unit did look ransacked, but having never seen it before, Jason would be no help in determining if anything had been stolen. If Alex was still Alex, the only things in the apartment of any great value would be personal belongings, or would be tucked away inside her head. Her research was all streamed from and stored at the university, so if someone was after any of that, they’d come to the wrong place.

The wall display was cracked, as if someone had been thrown against it – but her screen was on its charger, seemingly untouched. Two of the couch cushions were destroyed, perhaps by a knife. A plate of food had been knocked to the floor, just outside the kitchenette area.

The hardest part was the sight of all the blood – a large pool had soaked the grey-blue carpet, turning it black, right in the center of the room. It would take most of a person’s blood to spread that far.

“So if she was stabbed,” Jason said, dragging his finger across the screen to skip between images, “there would be spray on one of the walls, right? I don’t see any. Do you think she was shot, or something else?”

“We’re not sure,” one of the officials said. “The cushions were definitely cut, but you’re right about the blood spray.”

“Blood spray?” Joe asked, looking up. “I thought you were an engineer.”

Jason shrugged. “I’ve taken to watching Crime Science shows.” The two officials snorted a laugh, then looked back at the screen. “There’s an odd mark here,” Jason said, pointing at one edge of the pool where the blood pushed away from the center farther, as if flowing downhill.

“We see that sometimes,” the taller of the two officials said. “If they wanted to get her out of the unit and down the hall without getting blood everywhere, they might have put her in a bag.”

Jason looked up to Joe’s face – he’d heard this a few times, but it still stiffened him to think of his daughter being killed.

“Makes sense,” he said. “So no one saw anything? How was this discovered?”

“One of her friends at the university has a key, and came looking for her when she missed a dinner date,” the taller official said, sighing. “That was around 10:00.”

Jason nodded. “So her locators haven’t gone off, or you’d have found a body, right? Anything else going on that’s strange?”

“Yes,” Joe said, taking another deep breath. “One of her financial accounts shows a withdrawal from today, planet-side, not far from the New Rio beanstalk.”

Jason’s head snapped around. “What?” he asked, automatically.

Joe just nodded. “It was from one of her smaller accounts, one she’d set up within the past year. I think she wanted one or two that I didn’t know about.”

Jason couldn’t help but laugh. “Y’know, when I stuck my nose where it wasn’t wanted, you sent a guy like that after me.” He pointed his thumb back over his shoulder at the bodyguard, who stood still as a statue a few meters away.

“It’s different for dad,” was the only reply.

“Understandable, especially when there’s people out there like I used to be.” Jason sighed. “So, either she was forced to make a withdrawal there, or her killers got into the account. Is that what you’re thinking?”

Joe nodded, eyes downcast. “If you’ve seen anything, I hope you’ll tell us.”

Jason shook his head. “Not for months. You heard the call. No, I guess if anyone would have spotted someone watching her to plan a break in or kidnapping, it would have been me.  Of course, if they knew about me, and my history, they might have been able to avoid being spotted by me, too.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I suppose they could have figured me into their plan – break into her place, and make it look like the guy who had been following her for years finally snapped. If I hadn’t been on a shuttle last night, this could all be laid right at my feet.”

The four of them looked at the screen in silence for a moment. Finally, Jason stepped back, and folded his arms across his chest. “So where does the New Rio lead take you?”

“Nowhere yet,” the shorter official said. “We just heard about it 15 minutes before getting to you.”

“Better get on it fast,” Jason said, looking at Joe. “Rumor has it that’s a good place to disappear, whether you’re up on the New Rio colony or planetside.”

Joe locked his gaze with Jason’s. “I want you to go, and see what you can find out.”

He saw the words come out of the older man’s mouth, but his brain couldn’t seem to process them.

“Wha… what?” Jason shook his head. “No, I’ve gotta be on Mars in less than a week. I start work there at the end of the month. I’m not going to go chasing off after her now, I’m done with that.” He gestured to the officials. “You’ve got plenty of people available to look for her. You never had problems getting people to look for me.”

“If I were to send someone else, they’d have to go with pictures, written descriptions. You know what to look for. You’d spot her with different hair, different clothes… We’ve had pros try to hide her from you, and you’ve scoped her out every time.” He paused. “Jason, I don’t know what they’re going to do, how much time she has… I want someone who can just go, and hit the ground running. I can pay you for your time and inconvenience, you know that. No one else knows how to find her the way you do.”

Jason had to work hard to keep from saying you’ve been offering me money to leave her alone for years, but somehow he managed. He stayed quiet for a long time, allowing the emotions to war in his head for a few minutes before speaking.

“All right – New Rio, but that’s it.”

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