The mocking program by Alan Dean Foster

Cardenas wound his way through the maze, past busy techs and beat officers and bureaucrats, dodging self-propelled messenger carts and food trays, until he found himself outside the office he sought. Hyaki was visible within, conversing animatedly with Drosi Semagarya. Though their mouths moved, and Cardenas was not more than a couple of meters from them, he could hear nothing. Nevertheless, he was able to follow the gist of the conversation effortlessly. Almost as a by-product of their primary training, good intuits invariably made spectacularly adept lip-readers.

Glancing past Hyaki, Semagarya saw the Inspector waiting patiently outside. Reaching for his desk, he stroked a blue contact strip to mute the husher. When next he opened his mouth, Cardenas was able to hear his words.

“Come in, Inspector. We were just discussing the case.”

Actually, Cardenas knew from reading their lip movements, they had been debating what team to bet on in the office pool for this week’s big game between Chihuahua and St. Louis—but it would be undiplomatic of him to point it out. Instead, he replied casually, “Learn anything?”

“Uh, no sir,” Semagarya murmured after a hesitant glance at Hyaki. “There’s been no news.”

The sergeant chipped in quickly. “How did the bereaved widow, or whatever the hell she is, hold up on viewing the body?”

“I wouldn’t know.” Cardenas folded himself into a sterile but comfortable Lantille chair. The pressurized cushions immediately molded themselves to his back and buttocks. “She never showed.” Hyaki’s eyebrows rose as the Inspector turned to the stat cruncher. “The ident she gave us is uncompromised. She’s just not answering.”

Relieved to have something to do that let him avoid the Inspector’s gaze, Semagarya let his trained fingers dance over the inputs on his desk. A privacy shield promptly enveloped the cubicle in semidarkness, much as the husher insulated the sound within from the walkway beyond. Although they could still see staff striding past outside, none of the passersby could see in. The wall on the other side of the desk darkened, became a tunnel that filled with data.

“Sequence is valid.” When he was working, Semagarya’s tone was as flat as that of any artificial membrane. “Dialing.” Spark borders framed the dark tunnel, indicating that operation was continuing, but otherwise the screen void stayed blank. “No answer. Line-in is operational.”

“Do a penetrate,” Cardenas instructed him. At the spec’s look of surprise, the Inspector reacted sharply. “No, I haven’t got a warrant.”

Semagarya nodded unenthusiastically. Whirligigging the query, he dumped it on Procedures. A pause of several minutes ensued, during which time no one said anything of significance while Bolivian Azul played Inca background over the wall speakers. Five minutes subsequent to initiation the warrant arrived, duly approved, witnessed, and recorded. As soon as it joined the Anderson-Brummel file, a small glowing sphere appeared near the bottom of the tunnel.

Semagarya could have operated his console verbally, but that could be disconcerting if anyone else tried to talk over him. Better to separate commands from conversation. Images danced within the energized, agitated tunnel that stretched out before the three men. After another ten minutes or so of hard crunching, the spec sat back and locked his fingers behind his head.

“Damn impressive security for a private residence. It is a private residence?”

“As far as we know.” Cardenas was studying the screen. “Cogit a patch with Search and Rescue.”

Semagarya sat up pronto. “I can’t do that, Inspector! Those ports are reserved exclusively for emergency access.”

“This is an emergency,” Cardenas informed him dryly. “We’re dealing with the dead here.”

“That’s verdad,” Hyaki added. “A dead end.”

“Go on.” Cardenas exhorted the clerk gently. “I’ll take full responsibility if a monitor snaks the patch.”

“Easy for you to abla, homber. I’m the one sticking his pend into the grinder.” But he leaned forward and danced the inputs.

The tunnel appeared reluctant to condone the break-in. Frowning, Semagarya threw a second police gram at the target, and then a rarely used third.

“Creepy—I’ve got a triple hammer pounding on the portal, and it’s still resisting. Last gram is straight out of Vlad Targa Inc. and should be sharp enough to cut through a keiretsu’s firewall.” Curiosity won out over his initial trepidation as he looked up at Cardenas. “You bump up against this level of security at, say, city hall. You don’t find it guarding some commonplace cleanie’s codo.”

“It’s a house,” the Inspector corrected him, “but I take your point. Keep trying.”

“Oh, we’ll get in. It’s only a private box.” Semagarya was quietly confident. “It’ll just take a little time for the hooks to find the right corner. I just want you to know that somebody’s spent some real money defending their privacy.”

“What for?” Hyaki’s gaze was fixed on the depths of the flickering tunnel. “Your average citizen doesn’t need that kind of box wrapping.” He glanced over at his partner. “What would a straight cleanie like George Anderson have to hide?”

Cardenas’s attention was likewise focused on the tunnel. While box-probing in the background, it played back three-dimensional scenes of Semagarya’s family on vacation. “Quien sabe? Maybe Wayne Brummel.” Unlike his companion, the intuit did not fidget in his chair. He was used to leaving machines alone to let them do their work.

It took twenty minutes for the screen to resolve. That was nineteen and a half minutes longer than a standard electronic penetration warrant should have taken to respond, Cardenas knew. With the domicile’s communications system now under direct control of a police proxy, he found himself gazing intently at the interior of the residence at 482236 West Minero Place, Olmec.

The view was touching in its banality. The phone’s pickup showed a comfortable, deserted living room area. Visible furniture was of unexpectedly fine quality. There were framed art works discernible that, if originals, hinted at a higher income for the absent Andersons than the surrounding neighborhood would suggest. That was cause for interest but not necessarily suspicion, Cardenas believed. Citizens who could have afforded to live in larger houses in more exclusive surroundings often chose instead to apportion their income internally.

A Leeteg portrait glowed on the far wall, its accompanying audio muted. A bonded Swarovski crystal sculpture capered from one end of a free-form itapua-wood coffee table to the other, and then back again. There was no one present to admire them.

“Try the other rooms,” the Inspector instructed the spec. Semagarya worked his control strips. A view of the backyard included a modest swimming pool, characteristic desert landscaping, and a rather more impressive glitter fountain, its kaleidoscopic particulates held in splendid colloidal suspension. Semagarya shifted back inside, first to a bathroom, then several comfortable if undistinguished bedrooms, and finally to a below-ground workshop or storeroom. Within the house at 482236 West Minero, nothing moved but the art.

“That’s todos.” The monitor looked expectantly at Cardenas. “There are two more fixed terminals in the house, but they’re not vited. Aural only. I can trace but not access the three mobiles.”

Cardenas nodded accordingly. “Fine. Then just roto the audio.”

Flashing a look that said he was convinced they were wasting their time, the spec complied with the order. The tunnel blanked. Nothing issued from the speakers. “Casa nasa,” he declared with finality. “Nobody’s home.”

“Maybe she’s finally on her way over here,” Hyaki suggested. “Might even be waiting for you down in the morgue.”

Cardenas was doubtful. “Merriam would have flashed me if that was the case.” He stared at the tunnel as if he could take a shovel to it and physically dig out some answers. “You’re sure there’s nothing moving?”

Semagarya rechecked his readouts. “Everything registered to that number and that name is in the house. If they’re traveling, it’s without personal communications or under a different ident.” He waved at his board. “I show six registered terminals. Three fixed, three motile. Five static, one wiped.”

Nodding, the Inspector rose. “Verdad. Anderson probably had number six on him when he was vaped. First thing the scummers would have done is wipe the registration on any personal electronics so they could be resold without being traced.” Arching his back and stretching, he looked at the sergeant. “Warrant’s open. Let’s pay the house a visit. Merriam will let me know if the un-Ms. Anderson puts in an appearance at the morgue.”

“Maybe she’s out shopping for groceries.” Hyaki had to turn sideways to fit through the entrance to the stat cruncher’s cubicle.

“The morning after her husband gets extirpated?” Cardenas led the way down the hall. “Most people wouldn’t have much of an appetite.”

“She’s got a kid.” Hyaki sounded mildly defensive. “Besides, she said he wasn’t her husband, and people do all kinds of weirds when pushed into crisis.”

The Inspector turned thoughtful. “She didn’t sound weirded. Wary, but not weirded. And we had an appointment. She picked the time.”

“Like I said.” The sergeant’s conviction returned. “One woman is thrown into turmoil. She has a child to deal with. Crisis always lubricates logic.”

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster