“Just one.” Turning, the Inspector indicated the single remaining door that stood next to the inset of mirror glass at the back of the room. “What’s in here? Another storeroom?”
“I don’t know. It is kept locked. I’ve never been asked to clean in there, if that’s what you mean.”
“Ever see anybody go in, or out?”
“No, siryore. I haven’t.”
That, Cardenas reflected, was interesting. In his mind, he had already dismissed the old man. “Thank you for your help.”
The custodian nodded. “You are welcome, siryore. If you will excuse me, this is my last work of the day, and I want to go home now.” Turning, he climbed slowly up the ramp. In his wake, the entryway remained open and clear.
If The Mock was dead, Cardenas reasoned restively, then someone else must have taken up his work. Some trusted lieutenant, or second-in-command. But who? He could understand an underling being intensely interested in the quantum theft project, however ephemeral its prospects, not to mention the complete records of The Mock’s organization—either of which would explain the ongoing effort to abduct Katla. But why follow through with the obviously Mock-ordered revenge killing of Surtsey Mockerkin? The Montezuma Strip was not ancient Calabria, or Sicily, or even Moscow. Modern-day criminals were interested in vacuuming crunch and credit, not in pursuing another individual’s personal vendettas. No matter how loyal a second-in-command might be to his former master The Mock, Cardenas could not see any reason for a subordinate to pursue a contract murder that he or she had no personal interest in seeing carried to fruition.
Unless, perhaps, Surtsey Mockerkin had covered her bets by dallying with another of The Mock’s minions besides the unfortunate Wayne Brummel, and had then left them in the lurch along with her late husband.
It still didn’t add up. Every time he pieced together a new scenario based on the facts as he knew them, it immediately fell victim to conspicuous flaws of internal logic. The obvious fix for the irritating conundrum lay in the acquisition of additional facts. The room in which he presently found himself was clearly the place to start searching for them.
While he pondered how and where best to begin, he kept a circumspect eye on the exit. Unless the old man was the greatest actor Cardenas had yet encountered in his long years on the force, the custodian was nothing more than the simple maintenance worker he claimed to be. Nevertheless, on the off chance the senior had patiently waited out the intruder’s questions only to sound the alarm elsewhere, Cardenas periodically walked over to the bottom of the ramp to check the approach through the storage closet.
When not occupied in making sure his escape route remained clear, he contemplated the multiple work stations that lined the walls of the underwater chamber. Which mollysphere was most likely to be susceptible to a probe? What sort of booby-traps might he reasonably expect to encounter? He had done this sort of thing before, most recently when he had been assigned to probe the dangerously compromised corporate box at GenDyne’s main research tank in Agua Pri. Invasive box sorties were inevitably fraught with treacherous surprises. The possibility that any of the mollys or the main box in a place like this would operate without some kind of integrated protection never once crossed his mind.
Eventually, as he had suspected they would, his thoughts returned once more to the door at the back of the room, and to what might lie behind it and the pane of thick mirror glass. If it was nothing more than a simple storeroom, why prohibit entry to the custodian already entrusted with the key code to this secluded chamber?
It would probably take only a few seconds of his time to check out. Alongside the door handle was a small vertical slot designed to accept a simple, straightforward coded key. From his belt he once more pulled out the sesame, slapped it over the slot, flicked it to life, and waited. In less than thirty seconds the device ascertained the combination and applied it. There was a click. Trying the handle a second time, he found that the door opened easily toward him.
He found himself looking into a small antechamber perhaps two meters square. There were a pair of storage cabinets, a small office-sized refrigerator, and on the wall a small holovit showing a pink tile-roofed house in a tropical setting. Within the holovit, the moon was slowly rising, casting golden glimmers on the stream that ran left to right in front of the house. To Cardenas’s immediate right, another door beckoned, temptingly ajar. Twisting and bending while remaining outside the antechamber, he found he could not see very much of the room beyond through the limited gap thus presented.
Worms and artful lures were designed to attract fish. Open doors invariably drew curious people. He had no intention of ending up gaffed and gutted in the presence of an obvious hook.
There appeared to be nothing to hinder his entry, which was exactly why he held back. After studying the antechamber for several minutes, he turned and strode back through the larger outer workplace and up the ramp. Seizing on the pair of old-fashioned mops he had seen during his earlier sojourn in the bathroom storage closet, he returned with them to stand once more before the door he had just unlocked. It stood ajar, exactly as he had left it.
Setting one of the mops aside, he grasped the other with one hand at the top and the other near the bottom. Holding it vertically, he pitched it into the antechamber.
There was a sudden flash of light that left multiple afterimages dancing on his retinas. Instantly and effortlessly sliced into sections, four pieces of mop clattered metallically to the floor.
Had he stepped unthinkingly into the alcove, there would just as efficiently, but considerably more messily, have been four pieces of him.
THUS STARKLY ENLIGHTENED, CARDENAS proceeded to reinspect the seemingly innocuous alcove.
He found two of what he was looking for concealed in the pair of cabinets, one hiding in the front door of the refrigerator, and the other artfully concealed behind the window of the house depicted in the holovit. Normally a brilliant crimson, the industrial lasers that had rendered the mop into instant scrap had been customized with canceling optics that nullified their conventional color without affecting their potency. Peering into the antechamber, a visitor saw nothing but empty air; stepping in, he would find himself sliced and diced without ever getting a chance to ascertain the cause.
There was no visible controlling switch, either for the harmless overhead lights or the rather less inoffensive optical sentinels that guarded the entrance to the room behind the inner portal. Intended to liberate him from minor inconveniences and allow him to enter locked rooms and boxes, his service belt offered nothing designed to cope with a sentry system quite this elaborate—or lethal.
After contemplating the unoccupied but deadly alcove, he turned and once more made his way back through the outer room and up the ramp. This time he did not stop in the bathroom storage closet. Selecting one of the two large wall mirrors that were installed above the bathroom’s double sinks and utilizing the tools on his belt, he soon had it pried loose from the industrial adhesive that kept it fastened to the wall. Retracing his steps, he carefully set the mirror aside and picked up the remaining mop. Following the first into the antechamber, it suffered the same fate as its sacrificial predecessor.
Turning the mirror on its end yielded a reflective shield that was nearly, but not quite, as tall as Cardenas. Sacrificing the second mop had allowed him to memorize, albeit hastily and imperfectly, the angles at which the beams of the colorless lasers crisscrossed the alcove. Hunching down to keep as much of himself as possible behind the mirror, he carefully and slowly edged forward into the antechamber.
There was a single bang, followed by a strong smell of burnt paneling. Advancing at a snail’s pace, he worked his way through the alcove, past the softly humming refrigerator and beneath the deceptively soothing holovit. Feeling the freely swinging lure of the inner door against his back, he pushed it open, stumbling slightly as he duck-walked through the now-unobstructed portal.
When he was as confident as he could be that he was beyond range of the invisible sentinels, he stood up and set the providential mirror aside. Deflected and reflected by the glass, the lasers had burned a pair of thumbnail-sized holes in the far wall of the antechamber and another two in the ceiling. The tiny black cavities smoked slightly and stank mightily, but he saw no flames, and no fire-detection alarms were sounding. This was not unexpected. Any place as important as this underwater redoubt would have been fabricated of fireproof and fire-retardant construction materials. It would take more than a little smoke to set off any integrated fire alarm system.