JUST THE FACTS, MA'AM
I. Who Shall I Say Is Calling?
I WAS SO hot and sweaty that the warble from the desk comlink was almost a welcome interruption. Close, but not quite. The tone repeated as I considered my credit balance. Even after coming to the standard conclusion that answering the call was the prudent thing to do, I hesitated. For my taste, far too much bad news takes that path of least resistance.
Finally, I tapped the ANSWER pad, cutting off the tone. We all have to do things we don't like.
A young man's pale face came up in my screen. He had lots of freckles. If sunlight brings out your freckles, Tankur just isn't the place to be. I also noticed that the heat exchanger at his place must have been working better than mine. His skin didn't even look shiny. I was envious.
"Mr. Takent?" he said. His white, short-sleeved shirt bore a flowery "L" on the pocket.
I nodded. This was good. I could answer his first question without even doing any research.
"Kate--" he started. "Oh, just a minute. I've got another call. You mind if I put you on hold?"
My screen went flat and blank before I could even open my mouth to say, "No problem. You mind if I shoot you?"
I hate being put on hold and I really don't like the comlink all that much. One call is worth a thousand advertising handouts. I was sometimes surprised that I had gravitated toward a profession that required so much calling. I sat there staring at the gray rectangle, speculating about whether being put on hold this way might qualify as a trigger for justifiable homicide.
I wiped my forehead slowly and wondered why the people coming to fix the heat exchanger weren't here yet. Life is so full of questions. That must be the reason I do what I do; almost everybody is willing to pay for answers.
I leaned back in my chair. My shirt felt like a sheet of rumpled adhesive between the chair and my body. I tried to ignore the feeling as I reviewed a mental image of what had been on the screen. This guy must have been calling from a school. On the low partition wall behind him hung a few framed photos of what seemed to be a campus and a group picture with an advanced-degree seal on it.
A portion of a red emblem had shown near the bottom of one side of the screen. I'd bet it was the upper left corner of the University of Alteson symbol, a stylized blazing red sun. They had a branch here on Tankur, and the call was local; the man's comlink number showed in the status line on top of the screen. I could have had the computer look up the rest of the entry, but it was too hot to bother.
I hoped I was wrong about it being a school. Schools are notorious for paying poorly.
Several minutes later, the screen finally lit up again, showing the same smiling man still sitting in his comfortable, cooled room. I leaned forward, my shirt stubbornly coming loose from the chair and making a sound like a zipper.
"Sorry about that," my caller said. "What I was saying was--"
"Oh, excuse me a minute," I interrupted. "There's another call on my line." Before he could say anything, I tapped the HOLD pad.
I sat there a few moments, feeling better but almost guilty. It was a calculated risk. Sure, maybe I'd alienate a potential client. Sure, I was giving in to a rather pointless urge. But I felt a little happier by the time I tapped the HOLD pad again. Sometimes you just have to go with your feelings.
The man's image snapped back onto my screen. He had been busy typing something and he pointedly finished the last few seconds of it.
"Sorry," I said with my most winning smile. "Now what were you saying?"
He frowned slightly, just enough to make me think he suspected what I had done. So sue me.
"Kate Dunlet wants to talk to you," he said curtly, as though I should know who she was. "I'll put her on now."
Great. So this guy was just a secretary. And the whole time we had been on hold, Kate whoever had been relaxing in her own office, which I was sure was also properly cooled.
My screen went gray again, this time for maybe ten seconds. When the color came back, a face much more pleasant than the first one was in the screen. She was human, too. Her brown hair was hardly longer than my own and it looked good on her. It didn't quite cover her ears. Her tan didn't fit with the office environment, though. She must work outside a lot.
She was probably about my age. Her light blouse seemed more suitable for outdoors than a cooled office. She looked businesslike, efficient, even before she said a word. Maybe it was her eyes. I wondered vaguely if she were going to call someone else to the phone once she verified that it was me.
"Mr. Takent?" she said. "The private investigator?"
"That's me," I said. "What can I--Oh say, can you hang on for just a minute? I've got another call."
This time I came even closer to feeling guilty. Maybe she hated the comlink as much as I did. I readjusted the fan on my desk. I would have opened the windows, but it was even hotter outside. It always was on this dust-ball of a planet.
Eternally the optimist, I walked to the door, up a couple of steps, and peered out to see if the heat-exchanger people were in sight yet. They weren't.
The narrow, dusty street outside was sized and angled so the sun's rays never reached the ground, but the air was still warmer than in my two-room office. I was lucky enough to be on the bottom floor, half buried in the sand, so the ground could suck away the heat about as fast as the hot air could force it in. I didn't envy my upstairs neighbor his utility charges. But then he didn't have to shovel the dirt out of his doorway twice a week. Or more often if I had clients to impress.
Back at my desk, I waited a shorter time than before and then reconnected the call. I hoped the woman didn't know how remote the odds were that I would get two calls simultaneously.
"Sorry about that," I said when her face was back on my screen. It was a nice face. "Busy, busy, busy."
Her cool gray eyes stared at me for just an instant before she said, "Perhaps too busy for another case?"
I rarely get that busy. But you have to instill in your clients a sense of your value. "It depends on the nature of the case, Ms--"
"Kate Dunlet. I'm with the University of Alteson here in Dallad. We're doing the dig out west of town."
I couldn't remember if being with an employer ranked higher than being from or of, but it must be higher than employed by or work for. I said, "Go on." It certainly had to be higher than work at.
"I'd rather not talk about it on the comlink. How about if we meet?"
"Couldn't you at least tell me a little about the nature of the problem you want help with? So I can decide if I can work it in or not?" I could work it in. But I was curious.
She looked at me long enough to make me wonder if she knew my current workload, but at last she said, "Someone's been threatening me. I want you to find out who it is and rough him up. A friend of mine told me you do that sort of thing."
"You wouldn't be using 'rough up' in the sense of physically abusing him, would you?"
"Yes," she said evenly.
"I thought you probably were."
II. Don't Try Anything Funny. This Could Be Serious.
I had to meet Kate Dunlet. Even before she told me what she wanted, my curiosity had been aroused. Now I was even more curious. And maybe a little aroused. I certainly hoped that when we met I could find out why she was lying to me. No one who knew me would even think that I roughed people up unless I was defending myself.
I might have tried to gauge how much I could charge by how willing she was to come to my office, but it was just too hot. I had agreed to meet her at a bar between my office and the university. I planned to pick up my skimmer and travel most of the way in comfort.
Just as I was leaving my office, the comlink sounded again. It was the heat-exchanger people calling to say they couldn't make it over today after all. Since it was almost quitting time, I wasn't too surprised.
I strapped on my wristcomp, once again bothered by the need for communications. But if anyone were in a hurry to call me, being available was worth money. At the door, I grabbed a silvery, wide-brimmed hat.
The heat hit hard outside. If I had been starting out from a comfortable temperature, it probably wouldn't have bothered me for fifteen minutes. As it was, I immediately started sweating more heavily. I drew a sharp breath. Luckily, it wasn't hot enough to incinerate my nostril hair.
No one else was out as I walked down the narrow, shadowed street. Dust swirled past my feet and eddies formed near the doorways I passed. Up high I could see the sun-line exactly where it always was. It was hard to tell, since the brilliance above made the shadow below seem almost gloomy, but above the line the original texture of the wall had flattened and faded with continuous exposure to the sun.
There was no help for it, so at the corner I turned left onto a wide street much different from my own. Instantly the sun's direct rays made me hotter.
Few humans lived on this street. The buildings sloped away from the street bottom, making room for terraces at three levels, so people who had much higher temperature tolerances than humans could bask in the sunlight.
And bask they did, at any time of day. I still wasn't perfectly used to it, but the sun gives no clues to the time. Above this hot and dusty city of Dallad, the sun stays fixed in the cloudless sky. Millennia ago, Tankur had slowed down enough that its revolution period matched the orbital period. Sometimes the city seems to be just as slow.
On this street, at least there was some activity besides the rippling of heat waves. People lay sunning on their terraces and kids played quiet games on the ground. Most of the folks out were Derjons. With their love of heat, a lot of them would prefer to be on an even hotter world, but then they'd lose out on commerce with other races. Dallad was primarily a resort town because of the climate, but there was also some heavy-metal mining nearby. Between the sunlight and the dust, I sneezed. It was probably the loudest sound in the last half-hour.
I said "hello" to a few red-faced, spindly Derjon kids I recognized. One of them waved at me with fingers so thin that his hand looked like a skeleton's. I made it to the next intersection before anything happened.
"Hold it right there, mister," said a voice from the shadow just to my right. "Don't try anything funny."
"I don't feel very funny right now anyway," I said, turning toward the voice.
"Freeze," said the voice, insisting.
"Don't I wish," I said. "I'm too hot for this today, Berto."
"What's the matter, man?" Berto asked. He moved out of the shadow and put his pointed finger back at his side. Berto was a Venton. They are a pale, humanoid race, generally shorter than humans. Berto was only two-thirds of my height because he was still a kid. By the time he became an adult, the top of his head might reach my chin. His canines glinted white in the sunshine as he smiled and squinted at me. The sun was bright for his eyes, too.
I explained about the heat-exchanger in my office. "Maybe I'll have more energy tomorrow. You better watch out, though. You try that when I'm worried, and I might needle you."
"You don't even have your gun today, man," Berto said, grinning. "I looked."
Instinctively, I patted my hip. "Damn, you're right. I knew I was forgetting something again."
"You want me to run back and get it for you? I know how to get in."
I really didn't want Berto handling my needler, and the idea of his running in this heat, even if it didn't bother him, made me feel even hotter. "No. I won't need it for this case." If I'm a private eye long enough, maybe I'll eventually be right more often.
"You sure?" Berto didn't conceal his disappointment very well.
"Sorry." As long as I had stopped, I moved into the shade. "But there is something you can do. You can tell me if you've heard about anything funny going on over at the university."
This is the time when in a detective melodrama the kid says, "Not much. But they say that Kate Dunlet woman is one to watch out for. Her last five husbands are all dead."
Berto said, "What university, man?"
"You're as useless as a sundial," I said, and Berto grinned.
"I know the university, man. But I haven't heard any good jokes about it. They're just digging for things out in the dessert."
"Desert, Berto, desert. Dessert is what you eat after dinner."
"Right. Right." Our language came from a merging of human and Venton vocabularies. Berto still had trouble with the words from our side that didn't fit his version of common sense.
"Look, I've got to run," I said. "Or at least keep walking. I'll continue the language lesson another time, OK?"
"OK. See you later, bug eye." Berto waved as he started to run down the street. His pale face seemed almost pure white in the sunlight.
Two blocks away, I got my skimmer out of the parking lot. The seat stung my back as I got in. A covered lot would have made it a good deal more comfortable, but on Tankur it was almost criminal not to take advantage of solar power. If the heat of the skimmer were any indication, the power pack had enough charge to push me to escape velocity.
I drained half the energy by turning the cooler on strong enough to freeze tears, and pulled out silently onto the mirage-laden street. At least I had just enough intuition to wonder if this might turn out to be more complex than it seemed to be.
I'd had cases that ran in circles, cases that led straight into dead ends, but never a case that took such a right-angle turn.
III. And If You Believe That...
Of the hundreds of bars in Dallad, the Dark Tower Bar was one of the few that catered to humans. The atmosphere inside was easily fifteen degrees below body temperature. And it was properly dim. I wouldn't have suggested the place if I hadn't been in dire need of cooling off, but it was an OK bar.
I looked around for Kate Dunlet and didn't see her, but there was no point wasting time so I found a table and ordered a drink. The Derjon waiter who brought it was fairly old; the two knobs on his forehead had darkened with age and his red face had a weathered look. His heavy jacket was well worn. He clicked his appreciation for the tip and I leaned back in a comfortable chair to enjoy. My throat was so hot, the drink hissed as it went down.
Maybe if the heat-exchanger people didn't fix my unit soon, I could just buy a large refrigerator and spend part of the day in it. If I were lucky, I wouldn't even hear the comlink.
I was relaxing, feeling better than I had all day when my wristcomp beeped. "Yes," I said reluctantly.
"Mr. Takent? This is Kate Dunlet. I'm in a booth on the fourth floor. All the way at the end."
"That's nice. I'm at a table. Just to the left of the entrance."
"What I mean is, I'd like you to join me."
"I had a premonition that you were going to say that. I'll be up." I switched off, drained my glass, and got another before climbing the stairs.
Kate Dunlet was where she had said, alone. I nodded at her and sat down. "Much better than downstairs," I said, looking through the tinted glass and out across the city. In the distance, a lake that wasn't there shimmered in the heat.
"Tell me about this guy you want me to physically abuse," I said, not waiting for her reply. "And how much do you expect to pay?"
"I thought the seller usually determined the fee," she said calmly. She wore a high-necked, short-sleeved tan blouse with white piping, tan slacks, and shoes meant for walking rather than show. Her elbows were on the table as she held a drink to her mouth. Her biceps were large enough to show she wasn't lazy but wasn't a muscle-builder either.
I'd play along with her little game for now. "I suppose so. It depends on how many people you want me to rough up. I sometimes give quantity discounts. And if this person turns out to be someone I don't like, it gets even cheaper." I gave her my best sleazy-businessman's smile but she didn't reciprocate. Maybe I was losing my sex appeal. "How about if you tell me the situation?"
She gave me an obviously appraising glance with her clear gray eyes and then started talking. Her voice was smooth and soft. "I'm one of the archaeologists working on the digs out west of town. Maybe you read about the site that was discovered there a few years ago. We're uncovering a village that has been buried under the sand for probably ten thousand years. There's a lot of manual labor involved. We hire almost anyone who's willing to work. The Wompers are maybe the best workers because they're strongest, but we also employ humans, Ventons, and Derjons."
"This guy you want me to rough up. He's hired help?"
"He was. I fired him last week. Since then, he's been calling me at all hours, making threats. He's a Womper, so I take him seriously."
"Boy," I said, rubbing my chin. "Wompers are real tough. I might have to charge you extra."
"What do you suggest?"
"Well, I suppose it doesn't have to be all money," I said, leering at her just a little. I didn't like being lied to. Maybe that kind of treatment would stop her.
She swallowed noticeably. "Well, maybe we could work something out."
I drained the last of my drink and set the glass down heavily on the table. "I hate myself sometimes," I said. "I was wondering which one of us was going to quit lying first, and I have to admit I hoped it would be you."
"What are you saying?" Faint horizontal creases formed on her forehead.
"Oh, come on, Ms. Dunlet. You're probably an exceptionally good archaeologist, but you don't do everything well. It's nothing to be ashamed of, but you don't lie worth a damn."
"I'm not sure I understand." There was more color in her cheeks now, beneath the tan.
"I'm not sure I do, either. You want me for a job, but you don't want me to rough up anyone, which I wouldn't do anyway. You should have made some reference checks. If you had, you would have learned that I'm painfully honest, and competent. On the comlink you implied that you didn't know the man's identity. Now you do. If you really wanted me to beat someone up, you probably wouldn't have had your secretary place the call. You might not have even given me your right name, which I verified in the university database. Anyone who's at all cautious wouldn't even bring up the subject until she had sized up the potential employee. And you strike me as cautious. Besides all that, I've never known a Womper who could suppress an undeserved guilt complex long enough even to swear at a person."
"Why did you agree to come here then?" she asked, blinking at me.
"For one thing, it must be fifteen degrees cooler here than my office is today. For another I was thirsty."
"Maybe ten percent of it. I was curious. And I liked the way you looked on the screen. Is that too sexist for you?"
For the first time, she smiled. It was just a slight turning up of the corners of her lips, and a small dimple began to show. I had the feeling that for her it was a fairly unreserved smile. "No," she said. "I like candor."
It took me a moment to stop laughing. I was wiping a tear from my eye, trying to explain, when she added, "I know what you're going to say. This wasn't the most candid way to get you here."
"Before you say anything more, just tell me the job is honest."
She leaned toward me and put her hand flat on the table. "It's honest. It may not be easy, but it's honest."
I watched her closely, and she convinced me. I reached forward to order another drink with the table pad.
"OK," I said. "How much of what you said was true besides your name?"
"We are doing the dig. And we do employ quite a few workers." She pushed her own drink to one side. "I need help. And I need someone honest. That's why the charade--to see if you would do something illegal for money. The people I asked about you said good things, but I guess I was having a hard time convincing myself that if you were honest you wouldn't be working on a better-paying world or for a large outfit."
"The job," I said.
"First, I've got a question. Why do they call you 'bug eye?' You look pretty good, with the possible exception of your nose. And it gives you character."
"I'm not sure whether it's a flattering name or not, but it comes from the fact that besides being a private eye, I seem to do my best when the case involves non-humans."
"I'm sorry?" she said, shaking her head and looking puzzled.
"There are still a few bigots around who use the term 'bug-eyed monster' to mean people who don't happen to be human."
She smiled ruefully as she made the connection. "To tell you the truth, I'm not sure if this problem involves non-humans or not. Do you take only cases involving other races?"
"No reverse bigotry here, either. Tell me what you need."
"OK," she said, settling back in her chair, apparently deciding where to begin. She pushed her hair in back of her ears. After a moment, she started. "Collectors have existed for as far back as we have records. Antiquities collectors have probably helped the archaeology world more than their share of times by financing a dig and helping to make sure the finds end up in proper museums, where anyone can study them. But collectors can be just as damaging. By being willing to buy items illegitimately taken from digs, at prices high enough to ensure secrecy, they finance a black market that's very unhealthy for those of us interested in spreading the knowledge we get from our research." She held her glass between her flattened hands and rolled it back and forth.
My drink came at that moment. Based on the length of her preamble, I ordered another. "Don't you get a lot of intangible rewards, though? I mean you learn things from what you find that no one can take away."
"Of course. But if pot-hunters dig with road-building equipment to grab what they can, they destroy the stratigraphy. And often it's useful to have the actual artifact to study. Suppose someone had hidden away the Rosetta Stone or the Timkin Plaque and never let anyone else see it?"
"I don't know about them, but I think I get the point. So what's the basic problem? We can get to the details later."
"Artifacts are disappearing from our dig and showing up in the black market here in town."
I took a sip from my drink as I considered that. "Maybe you need a security team. That's not necessarily a job for a private investigator." I hated saying that, but it was true.
"We have a security team. I'm calling at the request of Sam Lund, the team leader. Those artifacts are disappearing from a locked, guarded, supposedly impregnable vault."
"I suppose you're using 'impregnable' in the sense that it's real difficult to break into," I said.
"I thought you probably were."
Kate Dunlet leaned back in her chair. "So. Are you ready for the background?"
"Yeah, but not here. I've got an idea. How about if we take all the money I've saved for retirement and squander it on dinner?"
IV. Will You Take the Case?
For a while, I wondered if I might not be better off really having to beat up a Womper. Maybe I'm a little precognitive.
Kate and I found a discreet table at Rajalto's, back in a maze of tiny, irregular booths. She turned off the house music and I turned down the thermostat.
At odd angles, almost everywhere you looked, were hung large square mirrors and square panes of glass. There was a weak resemblance to a fun house, but all the reflecting and transmitting surfaces were darkened so the overall effect was muted. The tabletop must have been a half-mirror, because I could see Kate's tan slacks through the surface, as well as the inverted image of her face.
Thanks to the tricks they played with mirrors, the other faces in the reflections could just as easily have been showing people a hundred meters away rather than right next to us.
"What will you have?" I asked her. At the same moment I pressed the switch that turned on the menus. The tabletop surfaces in front of us turned opaque and showed us the choices available. This was a classy place; only two sections opaqued, so the table mechanism must have figured out there was no one seated at the open side of the table.
I reached over and wiggled my hand in the general area that a third person would have occupied. Another menu section of tabletop opaqued. I took my hand away and that section of the surface turned clear once again.
When I glanced at Kate, she was looking at me with an amused expression.
"Just testing," I said. "In my business, you never know what little tidbits of information might save your life."
"Is that so?" The corners of her mouth turned up a tiny bit more. The doubt in her voice was transparent.
"Maybe we should order," I said. We did.
"You know," I said, ignoring my own recent deficiency, "I'm still surprised at how bad a liar you are. Most people get plenty of practice. And surely being with a university should keep you in good shape."
"What's that supposed to mean?" When she frowned, the overhead light made the faint creases on her forehead more prominent.
"Oh, I'm not picking on your school. I just had the idea that schools were pretty much the same as corporations. I worked in one for a while. At least in my current line of work, the pay is better when someone lies."
"Rough place, huh?"
"I had to carry a snake-bite kit and kicton-repellant."
"Oh, come on." Kate's eyes reflected the light as she shook her head and grinned. Images of her hair shifted in at least six mirrors.
"I'm serious. They actually employed lawyers. Can you imagine?"
"I'm having trouble making up my mind about whether you're serious."
"Deadly serious. They even had some criminal lawyers."
"So do lots of corporations."
"Not ones like these. With them, the phrase 'criminal lawyer' was redundant."
Kate smiled. "I think that dinner had better arrive soon. I've had enough to drink that it sounds as though you're making sense."
"How about if you talk? That way, you don't have to judge."
"OK. Where were we--oh, yes. I can show you the vault. It's out near the dig. It's a walk-in, probably ten meters on a side. Sure, someone could bust a hole through it. But no one could patch it so it didn't show."
"What kinds of things are stolen?"
"Small things--things that would fit in a pocket. But we scan everyone coming out of the dig, so nothing comes out that doesn't go into the vault. In the vault, tagged items that were too dirty when they were excavated get cleaned and formally inventoried."
"But they are being stolen?"
"Right. At least two items have shown up in town. They're unmistakably from the right time period and culture. That means our site. Unless there is another site or an old family hoard. And we don't have any evidence to support either of those theories."
Our food arrived, and I considered what she had told me so far. Finally I said, "Aside from wanting to test my honesty, why didn't you just call me out there to look it over right then? And why you instead of security?"
It took her a moment to finish a bite of bread. "Because they're worried. They don't want any overt contact with you. If someone is as good as our thief must be, he could just stop for a while. If you take the case, we'll hire you as an archaeologist. That gives you a good reason to tour the site and be there whenever you need to be."
"That might be a little obvious to the other archaeologists, don't you think? I mean I can dance as fast as anyone I know, but when it comes to fooling someone with years of training, I'll be as useless as sonar in space."
"We could let them in on it. If we can't trust them, we could be out of business anyway. So. What do you think?"
"I think I've got a better idea. Maybe while I'm at this I can give you some lying lessons. Lesson one: stick as close to the truth as you can. Hire me as a specialist. Someone who can help the archaeologists understand inscriptions and things like that, if they find any. I'm pretty good with puzzles. And that still gives me leeway on where and when I go."
V. Do I Have to Tell You Everything?
Outside the restaurant, the sun made it seem as though we had been in there for only a minute or two. Living in Dallad still gave me that sense of timelessness, as though I were locked in some recurring scene, caught in the land of perpetual early afternoon. The sun was a fixed, unblinking eye. The shadows never grew or shrank a millimeter, as if time waited for all men. Peter Pan would have loved it.
With the help of my wristcomp, I convinced myself that despite appearances it was late in the evening.
"So," Kate said. "I'll meet you tomorrow, and we'll go out to the site?"
"Right," I said.
"Thanks, Mr. Takent."
"Ben," she repeated. "Until then," she said, turning to leave.
I stopped her for a moment with one last question. "There's still something puzzling me about all of this. When you called me with that story about roughing someone up and I indicated that I'd be willing, why didn't you just hang up and try someone else?"
Kate gave me her smile again, the corners of her lips moving up just enough to make me want to grin back at her. "Maybe I was thirsty, too?"