‘Good morning, gentlemen, ladies.’ The man’s voice had a lilting accent and was quietly authoritative. Drowsing in the air conditioning vent, Persistent Smith came awake instantly. He listened to the soft bumps and thuds of furniture as people seated themselves around the big table in the top-floor room.
‘I apologise for the partial facilities,’ the man continued. ‘The new boardroom will not be complete for a few more days but we do have power, networks and, ah yes, environmental control.’
A gentle breeze stirred Smith’s hair as a cool, steady wind blew through the ducts. Smith lay still, the events of the previous day thronged in his mind: sneaking in, Ralf and the builders, Heidi, the mission itself. Excitement coiled within him, the Hand emerged and looked Smith in the eye. ‘Let’s take a look.’
Smith packed his toothbrush, torch, notebook and water bottle into the correct pockets then elbowed his way towards the nearest vent. When he arrived all he could see were legs: black wooden table legs, metal chair legs, and the legs of the humans sitting on them.
‘Item one, mining operations, progress in the past twenty-four hours,’ the man said.
‘No change in status, Mr Koponen,’ a woman replied. Her tone was authoritative, definite. ‘We dispatched another of the new drones at dawn. Once again we lost contact at a depth of approximately one point eight miles.’
Smith gasped and bit his lip. Markus Koponen! The man who owned all the Chrysler Imperials in Finland.
‘Continuing fair for at least another thirty-six hours. The Iron Herring remains at anchor above the mid-Atlantic ridge.’
‘An endless waste of time, money, and resources.’ Koponen sighed heavily. ‘We will cease operations and resume only if– No, when we find her. We have to find her, we must.’
Smith wanted to see Koponen. He wormed his way along to the next vent but could still only see legs. He remembered the suspended ducting in the ceiling void. ‘Let’s go,’ he whispered to the Hand.
At the far end of the room the ducting sloped steeply upwards. Smith started up, but as soon as his feet left the flat he slid back. The angle was too steep, the metal too smooth. Wriggling and twisting, he rolled onto his back. His knee knocked one wall, his elbow banged on the other. The thin metal bonged and wabbled like a mutant gong. Smith damped the noise with his hands and the noise subsided. He and the Hand exchanged a worried.
Koponen’s voice came from the room. ‘The environmental system has some teething problems. Let’s move on to better news ‑ the harvest is in and transhipment to the docks will be complete tomorrow.’
Flat on his back, with his feet pushing against the floor and palms pulling against the roof, Smith worked his way up the slope slowly and quietly.
The ducting ran across the roof in three parallel arms. Smith crawled into the first one. Immediately the ducting began to sway in its suspension rods. He waited for the motion to cease then moved cautiously forwards. The view from the first vent was poor, he continued to the next and could look down on the table. On the far side a paunchy middle-aged man sprawled in his chair, a black-haired woman in a low-cut red dress sat beside him.
Directly below Smith was a man wearing a white Stetson, his face concealed by the brim. Two more women sat on his left, the hair of one nearest to him was as white as the hat.
The man in the hat passed round sheets of paper. ‘This summarises projected mean yield per hectare, non-crop biomass above and below the soil level, petal cover as a percentage of area, total field albedo, nitrogen and CO2 capture, and so on.’
Now Smith could match the voice to the hat. He was right above Markus Koponen, if only he could see his face. Smith took out his pencil and pad ready to take notes.
The woman with black hair began to smoke an electric cigarette.
The paunchy man beside her scowled. ‘Do you mind?’
‘Not in the slightest.’ She tipped her head back and blew smoke into the air. ‘Markus, those yields are remarkable.’
‘Thank you. I am very pleased.’
Smith gazed down the front of her low-cut top transfixed by the sight of her breathing.
‘It’s a trap.’ Valiantly the Hand covered his eyes.
Smith jerked back, banged his head against the ducting and dropped his pencil. Metallic booms, pops, and creaks filled the air. Panicked, Smith scuttled backward. The swaying increased. With a bang like a gunshot one of the support rods sheared. Directly in front of Smith a joint in the ducting split open. Helplessly he watched the pencil roll through the gap and drop onto the suspended ceiling.
This was not safe! He hurriedly retreated.
Down below, the paunchy man laughed humourlessly. ‘That sounds like more than a teething problem. It’s not the only one you’ve got, believe me.’
Koponen spoke tersely into the desk phone. ‘I don’t care if it’s your day off, the system sounds like a dustbin full of spanners. Perkele! You’re the building manager, get out here and manage.’
He banged down the receiver. ‘Apparently he’s sending somebody called Ralf. Time presses, what is next?’
The white-blonde woman beside Koponen said, ‘Wassiter’s still looking for the cat.’
Koponen shrugged. ‘It always was a long shot.’
Wassiter? Smith’s heart raced. They were talking about Tim. Had he misheard? Were they really talking about a cat and not a car? He needed to write things down but the pencil was Missing In Action. He would have to remember.
‘I can help,’ the Hand said. ‘I’ll remember for you.’
‘Be quiet,’ Smith hissed.
‘But I can do Good Re–’
Smith forced his fingers open. The Hand vanished, its voice faded to an echo. Smith listened to the conversation below.
‘Wassiter’s keen,’ Electra said. ‘He’s put missing cat posters on half the lampposts in Brighton.’
‘Mr Jarglebaum, what about the car?’
A cat and a car. Smith had heard correctly. He paid close attention.
‘He’s doing better with that.’ Jarglebaum tipped a lady’s green jacket out of a black plastic bag. ‘I found this in the car park.’
‘That’s not his.’
‘Obviously. He’s got some help. I’ve met her and she’s as ditzy as he is. In her case it doesn’t matter, she’s a real looker.’
‘Do you know how they found it?’
Jarglebaum grimaced. ‘They’ll tell you it was magic, divination with a map and a pen. Wassiter’s a dreamer, she’s filled the part of his head that isn’t already stuffed with nonsense with her own rubbish.’
Koponen put his hat on the table, revealing thinning blond hair. ‘You underestimate Tim Wassiter. He’s an unusual man‑’
‘You’ve got that right.’
‘‑and this proves what I suspected. He has real talent and we were right to choose him.’
Jarglebaum folded his arms behind his head. ‘It’s your money. I think they got lucky. You’ll be surprised how much detective work comes down to getting the breaks.’
‘I’m sure you know.’
Jarglebaum pushed the green jacket across the table. ‘Any of you ladies want this?’
‘Not my colour,’ Electra said.
The body-language of the black-haired woman made it clear something about the jacket intrigued her. Smith was not surprised when she said, ‘I’ll take it.’
Jarglebaum stuffed the jacket back into the bag and pushed it across the table.
‘Thank you, Mr Jarglebaum,’ Koponen said. ‘That is all for today.’
Jarglebaum took a breath. ‘Mr Koponen, I need a word.’
Jarglebaum looked at the three women. ‘It’s private.’
‘Don’t mind us,’ Imelda said.
‘Sorry to disappoint, but I do.’
Koponen studied his watch. ‘All right. Ten minutes once we’re finished. What else do we know?’
‘She’s definitely here,’ Electra said.
Koponen spread his hands. ‘Of course she is. The missing cat proves it.’
‘I mean she’s been seen. In a pet shop. I talked to the shopkeeper.’
Now who were they talking about, Smith wondered. And why had the fat man Jarglebaum gone so still?
‘You’re sure it was her?’ Koponen said.
‘We had a very thorough conversation.’
‘Did you get her credit card receipt?’
‘She paid cash.’
Koponen slapped the table. ‘So close! You must find her. Everything depends on this. Everything. Forget about the car, it’s served its purpose. Use your electronic equipment. Do what you must.’
‘Our pleasure, Markus.’
The three women departed and Koponen and Jarglebaum were alone.
Now he had his moment Jarglebaum found himself reluctant to start. This wasn’t going to be easy. He braced himself. ‘Electra and Imelda are doing things you need to know about.’
‘The sort that could get you a lot of very bad publicity.’
Koponen doodled geometric shapes on his notepad. ‘My girls have been through a lot and it has changed them. They’re no longer carefree, I know that. Post-traumatic stress is a well-known phenomenon. I make allowances, so must you.’
Koponen looked up. Jarglebaum saw a degree of vulnerability he never suspected was there. ‘I don’t like it, Mr Jarglebaum. I accept it and do my best to help them. I don’t like it because their problems are a direct result of something I once asked them to do.’
Then Jarglebaum told Koponen about his interview with Gabrielle at the hospital. He didn’t mention her name, or the type of shop. As he talked Koponen embellished his doodles with overlapping squares and triangles, straight lines and spirals.
‘Electra and Imelda,’ Koponen said when Jarglebaum finished. ‘What about Dolores?’
‘She wasn’t involved.’
‘She’s a good friend.’
Jarglebaum shifted awkwardly. ‘Sure.’
‘We live in a litigious world, Mr Jarglebaum. Everyone has an eye on the main chance. How did that shop assistant first describe her accident?’
‘She said some boxes had fallen.’
‘Then she changed her mind.’
‘I don’t doubt Electra and Imelda asked her some questions, I don’t doubt they may have raised their voices. But do you not think that having realised her last customers were obviously wealthy, this low-paid shop girl might try a little blackmail?’
Jarglebaum believed in keeping his powder dry. ‘She was the owner.’
Koponen stopped drawing. ‘Many people would rather pay up than see their names in the papers.’
‘I saw the x-rays and the doctor’s notes. She made the first story up because she was frightened.’
‘Can you prove any of this?’
Jarglebaum’s shoulders sagged. ‘No, I can’t. Look, Mr Koponen, Electra–’
‘Is with me, Mr Jarglebaum. So are Dolores and Imelda.’
‘I know that, sir, I–’
‘You don’t have a partner do you?’
‘Married twice, didn’t work out.’ Jarglebaum tried a disarming grin, ‘Look, boss, you took me on because I know the law. I know what you can bend and what you can’t break. And one thing you can’t do is go around breaking people. Keep that up and you risk a whole world of unwelcome attention.’
‘If that’s what happened.’
Koponen’s words hung in the air. Jarglebaum felt himself becoming angry. He had something else to say and he was going to say it. It might be a bad idea, it might even cost him this lucrative job. He couldn’t help it, he tried not to shout and didn’t quite succeed. ‘There’s another reason. You shouldn’t hurt people. You shouldn’t smash their hands to make them tell you what you want to know.’
The silence after his outburst was deafening. Koponen studied his doodles and nodded his head. Finally he said, ‘I hear you.’
Jarglebaum had said his piece. He stood up and walked to the door.
‘One more thing,’ Koponen said.
Jarglebaum stopped walking but did not turn.
‘None of this leaves the room.’
Jarglebaum walked on. It seemed he’d kept his job. He was no longer sure that he cared.
Dolores reached the lifts well before Electra and Imelda and was already inside one when they arrived. ‘I’m going shopping. See you later.’ She gave them a little wave as the doors closed.
An unpleasant popping sound came from Imelda’s hands as she cracked her knuckles.
Electra pressed the button to call the other lift. ‘Does that hurt?’
‘She’s such a bitch,’ Imelda said.
‘She thinks she’s so special.’
‘Just because she and Koponen–’ Imelda scowled. ‘It’s not fair.’
Electra tossed her head. ‘I don’t care.’
‘Nor do I.’
‘We have Tuoni.’
‘And he has us.’
At night Tuoni, lord of the drowned underworld, called to them as they slept. When he fully woke they would join him in an embrace far more intimate than any they had ever shared with Koponen.
Imelda met Electra’s pale-eyed gaze and smiled. ‘He has Dolores too. She needs reminding.’
To be continued…