A Message to Director Karsh
Flare's record was unimpressive. A few minor operations here and there, none of them particularly remarkable. She hadn't been known to have been active on any of the Dai Zhani worlds or to have come into contact with any Dai Zhani agents before today. There was absolutely nothing in it to indicate that she was anything out of the ordinary run of intelligence operatives. She didn't even appear to be heavily cyborged. He wondered what was missing from the dossier, what made her so dangerous that she had drawn the particular attention of Ascendancy Intelligence. Whatever it was, it wasn't in her dossier.
That led him to his next question. Why had she contacted him and what was her purpose? She had referred to his employer. It was such an ambiguous choice of words. Was that intentional on her part? Was it possible that she knew of his secret relationship with AID? Or was she simply contacting him in his capacity as House Dai Zhan's agent on Valatesta?
He pursed his lips. Highest priority. That meant no risks and no surprises. First, he would send a message to Director Karsh. Even by x-boat courier, it would take two weeks to get a reply from Terra, but at least Karsh would not be given any reason to question his loyalties. And then, he would see about hiring a team of armed private security to back up the two policemen. Such teams did not come cheaply, but then, highest priority also meant highest value.
For a moment, he toyed with the notion of attempting to take Flare off guard and flying to Forpania tonight in order to intercept her upon arrival at the hotel. But on further reflection, he dismissed it as too risky. Her record might be mediocre, but she was trained and she might well notice something amiss before the trap closed upon her. She might even be there now, outside the hotel, watching it to see if he would take any such action. And then, there was the intriguing question of what might be missing from her dossier. No, it would be wise to play the meeting precisely as arranged. His men would take their places beforehand, he would meet her at the appointed time, and then, on his signal, the police would arrest her.
It occurred to him that he would need to find a map of the hotel in order to determine where to place the hired men. But first, there was the small matter of a message to Director Karsh to which he must attend.
At precisely fifteen fifty five, Shek walked past the armored police aerovar parked outside the entrance and strode confidently into the marble-floored lobby of L'Albergo sul Mare. Men, women, children, he quickly surveyed them all, seeking a face to match the one now engraved in his memory. Flare's red hair should make her easy to spot, particularly on this predominantly dark-haired planet, but the only red head he saw belonged to a wealthy old woman whose hair was dyed an absurd shade of scarlet. It made him wonder if perhaps Flare might have changed her hair color.
As he scanned the lobby, he registered the two security guards he'd stationed near the stairs and elevator. To his educated eye, they were as obvious as foxes in a henhouse. For a moment, he was convinced they would be equally obvious to Flare and frighten her into running. Shek took a deep breath and forced himself to remain calm. After all, why wouldn't a hotel have private security? It had a casino, it had a jewelry store, nothing would be more natural than a few guards in plainclothes. Even if she made them, Flare would have no reason to assume the men were connected with him. Trained or not, once she entered the lobby she was as good as caught. He might be unarmed, but all six of the hired men he'd stationed on the premises carried a MiniNova ZZ4 set to stun. And even if she somehow managed to elude the seven of them and get outside, she wouldn't escape the police waiting in their var.
Thirty decaseconds passed. Women of various ages and shapes descended from the elevators, entered from the front, and descended from the stairs, but none of them was in her late twenties, slender, and red-haired. As the appointed time came and went, he began to fret. What was delaying Flare? She had sought him out yesterday, so why would she fail to show up at the very meeting she had requested? Surely she couldn't have made his men so easily! Was it possible the police car waiting outside might have scared her off?
As he frowned and sucked at his teeth, a cleaning robot began mopping the lobby's marble floor. It made three passes back and forth before stopping in front of him and spinning around to face him. It was faceless, but there was a small visicam lens on its front.
“Greetings. I have a message from Myranda Flare for Mr. Shek,” the little device informed him in a synthetic voice. It only came up to his knee. “Vocal identification is requested.”
Shek grinned and relaxed, even as he felt a moment of chagrin. Clever little minx! Flare was well-trained indeed; she had obviously anticipated the possibility of a trap and adroitly avoided it. Well, even if she gave him the meeting's real location now, he would still bring her in. He might not be armed himself, but his two policemen were and they could track him anywhere she might send him.
“I am Mather Shek,” he confirmed.
Outside the hotel, the two waiting policemen cringed as a thunderous boom erupted despite the clear blue sky overhead. As their var rocked from the force of the blast, it took them a moment to realize the explosion had come from inside the hotel. Thick black smoke and flames belched forth from the gutted lobby, and there was a deafening clattering as the var's armor withstood a brief barrage of stone and metal debris.
“What was that?” the policeman in the passenger seat cried out in alarm as the unexpected bombardment came to an abrupt end.
His companion, older and more cynical, had already put the var in gear and was beginning to lift off from the ground. “That's why you always make sure they pay up front, kid.”