“All right,” Cardenas responded. “If that’s the way you feel about it. But if you’ll tell us what this is all about, maybe the NFP can extend you some additional help. You wouldn’t be against that, would you? If you know something that we can use against Cleator Mockerkin that doesn’t involve an actual courthouse appearance on your part, there’s always a chance we can move against him while you remain out of sight here. That would remove the threat to you and your daughter without you having to return to the Strip. Wouldn’t you like to see that happen?”
For the second time, she hesitated. “You’re not going to force us to go back with you?”
The Inspector shook his head. “Can’t. This is the Central American Federation, not Namerica. You’re not accused of any crime, so extradition law doesn’t apply. You can speak freely.” He met her gaze without blinking. “I wouldn’t try to take you and your daughter against your will, anyway.”
She mulled his offer. Suddenly she looked younger than her years, more like a frightened teenager than a hardened survivor of the Strip. “It’s the money. The Mock’s money. Cleats’s cash. Wayne and I, we appropriated quite a bit of mutable credit. Nobody does that to The Mock and gets away with it. The fact that I was involved made it that much worse. Makes him look the goat as well as the goof. He wants his money back. He wants me back.”
The Inspector nodded comprehendingly, leaned toward her with- out smiling, and replied softly but firmly, “If you’re going to lie to me, Ms. Mockerkin, I’m not going to be able to do anything to help you. The money you and Wayne Brummel-George Anderson stole is only a very small part of this.”
Her face flushed with outrage and she half rose from the couch. “I’m not lying, you damn fedoco! Why else do you think someone like The Mock would want me back?”
Not in the least perturbed by her outburst, Cardenas tried to remain as sensitive and sympathetic as possible. “I’m not so sure that he does want you back, Ms. Mockerkin. But we do know that he wants your daughter.”
SHE STARED AT HIM. SAVE FOR THE RAINFOREST sounds that drifted in through the screened windows, it was dead silent in the room. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Inspector. Katla is a bright, perfectly normal, ordinary twelve-year-old, who suffers only from the problems that are common to girls her age. Beyond the fact that she’s his daughter, I can’t imagine what special interest my husband would have in seeking her return.”
Hyaki sighed resignedly. “Give us some credit for doing our jobs, Ms. Mockerkin. We found you, didn’t we? Besides, we can tell when you’re lying.” He nodded in the Inspector’s direction. “My partner is an intuit.”
Their host looked sharply at Cardenas. Most of the time he preferred to keep his particular ability in the background. This was not one of those times. She saw the truth in his eyes, and slumped.
“We’ve talked to your daughter’s friends, Ms. Mockerkin. Both inside and outside the soche you had her enrolled in. We know that Katla is rather more than ‘bright.’ We know that she is a tecant, and that she was working on some important project for your husband when you both disappeared.”
Fingers twisting and pulling against one another, Surtsey Mockerkin gave ground only grudgingly. “Katla’s my daughter, gentlemen, and I love her.” Raising her head, she gazed imploringly at the attentive Cardenas. “But I don’t pretend to understand her. Where she got her kind of smarts I’m sure I don’t know.” She laughed sardonically. “Not from me, I can tell you! Me, I’ve got street smarts, and plenty of them. But book smarts—maybe it comes from Cleats’s side of the family. I’m not so sure that’s such a good thing.
“She’s real shy, Katla is, but sometimes, when she was sure we were alone and unmonitored, she would try to talk to me about things. Cleats’s project was one of them. He—he told her that if she didn’t work with him, with his people, then something might happen. Not to her, but to someone else.”
“He threatened you to get her to work with him?” Hyaki remarked.
“Not by name.” Her attention shifted to the big man. “He didn’t have to. It was enough to suggest that something might happen to someone close to her. He might have been talking about a sochemate, or a casual friend. You’ve never been around him, Sergeant. There’s a quality to his voice. It’s unforced, natural, but The Mock can order take-out Chinese and make it sound like he’s going to commit serial murder. When he actually is making a threat…” There being no need to finish the sentence, her voice died away.
Cardenas pulled the conversation back to an earlier thread. “This project of his, the one that he had Katla working on: can you tell us anything about it? We don’t know any details, only that it’s of some significance. Apparently, others besides your husband are very interested in it.”
She spread her hands wide and shrugged. “I told you. Katla tried to explain it to me, several times. I only remember a little about it, and I don’t pretend to understand even the parts that I remember. It has something to do with a procedure she called ‘quantum theft.'”
The two federales exchanged a glance. “That’s all?” Cardenas prodded her.
“Oh no, there’s lots more. I just don’t understand any of it.”
Brow wrinkling, Surtsey Mockerkin struggled to remember terminology and designations, definitions and descriptions, that were clearly beyond her. As she rambled on, it became increasingly evident to Cardenas that much of it was equally beyond him and his partner. What was worse was that, in the absence of their charred spinners, they had only their own inadequate minds with which to try and record any of the details.
“It all centers on the remote controlling of the optical switches that drive the commercial ganglions of the Box. I’m talking about the global Box, not some local offshoot dendrites.” Seeing the expression on their faces, she added wryly, “I told you I didn’t understand it. I just remember some of it.”
“Go on,” Cardenas urged her, desperately wishing he had his spinner. Or the knowledgeable presence beside him of Aurilac the Wise.
The remembering seemed to help her relax. In between declamations, she drained the remainder of the beer. “Apparently the trick— that’s what Katla kept calling it—is to tune the relevant multiple amplifiers so that the lasers being controlled at the opportune moment exactly match a certain wavelength. If correctly pumped, this is supposed to create an onsite duplicate of whatever information is being scanned at that time. The instant this exact duplicate is created at the remote site, the original is destroyed.” She shifted her backside on the couch.
“It’s supposed to duplicate bank numbers, or stock details, or whatever information is being pumped, on someone else’s molly.”
“And at the same time,” Cardenas added, straining to make sense of what she was telling them, “the original information is rendered useless?”
“Not just rendered useless,” she corrected him. “It’s obliterated, as if it never existed. But it does, in the form of the perfect duplicate that’s been created elsewhere.”
Both men were quiet for a moment, trying to digest it all. As he so often did, Hyaki neatly summed up what they had just been told.
“The banks are gonna love this.”
“Very nifty,” Cardenas observed. “Not only do you steal information, you simultaneously eliminate the original record of its existence. Like running away from someone while brushing out the tracks you leave behind you.” His brows drew together slightly as he regarded Surtsey Mockerkin. “If it works.”
Setting the bottle aside, she extracted another from storage and flicked on the chill. Once again, she did not offer any to her guests. Cardenas supposed he couldn’t blame her.
“I couldn’t tell you that. I wouldn’t know if something like that was working right even if I saw it in action.”
“So you don’t know if this wild concept is anything more than a theory? You don’t know how far along any practical application actually is, or if your husband’s people have gone beyond just theorizing?”
“No,” she muttered, “I don’t. But I do know one thing. I got tired of watching my daughter be used, much less drawn into that bastard’s line of work.”
Hyaki nodded contemplatively. “The couple of million you and Brummel took off with had nothing to do with it, of course.”
Her voice rose. “What the hell was I supposed to do, fedoco? Get a job washing floors, or making beds in cheap hotels? If you’re going to run from The Mock, you’d better run far, and fast. That takes money.” She subsided a little. “Wayne wasn’t such a bad guy, considering.”