Shek, she knew, was a Dai Zhani agent. Or so it seemed. Unlike Prince Li-Hu, Myranda also knew that Shek was a double agent who had been suborned three years ago by Ascendancy Intelligence. She idly wondered who the man would decide to contact first.
Shek answered, his voice showing no surprise that his screen provided no visual image of the caller. Nor did he identify himself by name.
“Hello,” he said.
“Is this Mather Shek?”
“Who is this, please?” Shek's voice was sharp and decisive.
“My name is Myranda Flare. I work for Golem Gregor,” she replied. She heard an inadvertent exclamation and suppressed the urge to laugh. Telling Shek she worked for Golem Gregor was tantamount to an open declaration that she was an Integration operative. As the entire galaxy of intelligence agents and covert operatives knew, Golem Gregor—called Dr. G by friends and enemies alike—directed the intelligence network for the cyborg worlds.
Of course, it wasn't necessary to spell it out for him. Shek was sharp, being one of the very few intelligence operatives on Valatesta who had a direct connection to the Directorate's sectoral headquarters on Kantillon. That, she presumed, was why she was calling him.
“Did you just say Gregor?” Shek spoke sharply, as if he couldn't believe his ears. “As in the good doctor?”
“I did. Are you Mather Shek?”
“Yes, this is Shek,” he hurriedly acknowledged.
“I'm new to town. Would you care to show me around? I think we might find that we have much to discuss, in light of certain rumors I'm sure are of interest to your employer.”
Which employer that might be, she didn't say.
“I'd be delighted, Miss Flare. How would a late afternoon apéritif suit you? I know some excellent restaurants in the old city that might appeal to a woman of discerning tastes. Serving proper Valatestan cuisine, not the tourist versions.”
“How very kind of you,” she breathed flirtatiously. “That sounds splendid, Mr. Shek.”
“I am free this evening,” Shek suggested eagerly. “If it suits you.”
“Tomorrow,” she said firmly. “Shall we say sixteen hundred?”
“Yes, of course.” She smiled at the restrained frustration in Shek's voice. So close, he was, and yet so very far. “Where are you staying, Miss Flare?”
“I haven't decided yet. But tomorrow I will be at L'Albergo sul Mare,” she told him. “In the lobby.”
“You're in Forpania?”
“I will be,” she said ambiguously.
She smiled, knowing Shek was finding it difficult not to press her any harder, and closed the connection on him without saying anything more. As she did so, a number appeared in her mind, but without a name to accompany it. She shrugged and dialed it.
“So good to hear from you, Seenoreen Dorcas” she heard an unfamiliar voice say. “Have you spoken with our mutual friend?”
“We have arranged the meet at L'Albergo sul Mare in Forpania tomorrow afternoon.”
“I'm pleased to hear it. Time and place?”
“In the lobby. Sixteen hundred.”
“Very good. I wish you a nice day, Seenoreen.”
After closing the connection, Myranda stepped to the side, removed the tape from the visicam, and rolled it into a tiny ball between her thumb and index finger. Humming softly to herself, she flicked it into a garbage receptacle as she joined the line of the travellers boarding the orbital shuttle.
Exactly sixty decasecs later she was rising rapidly through the atmosphere, on her way to the Weksler system.
Mather Shek was a disciplined man who seldom openly expressed his emotions, not even to himself. But upon hearing the cyborg operative go offline, he murmured a prayer that was half an expletive and rapidly began considering his options. For a moment he was thankful that Flare hadn't agreed to an immediate appointment. He had until tomorrow to figure out his next move, and whatever he decided, it would take time to summon the resources he would require to prepare a snare for the woman.
The Ascendancy would pay handsomely to know the cyborgs were making contact with House Dai Zhan. And they would pay even more handsomely if he could arrange to hand her over to them. A captured Integration operative was worth a small fortune.
But perhaps there was another way. Once he had Flare in his possession, could he not hold her, set up an auction, and tell the Ascendancy and House Dai Zhan to bid against each other? No! He rejected the greedy thought with a shudder. No one played that game with August Karsh, the saturnine genius at the heart of Ascendancy Intelligence, and survived for long. Karsh was as ruthless as Prince Li-Hu was ambitious, and the AID director was the considerably more dangerous man. Between his intelligence network and the influence he had with the Navy, Karsh's reach extended to the very ends of the galaxy.
No, he would simply have to be content with whatever Karsh saw fit to pay him, Shek decided. But, he reminded himself, whatever it was, the amount wouldn't be inconsiderable. August Karsh wasn't niggardly when it came to spending the Directorate's sizable discretionary funds.
After activating his comm unit, he made arrangements for tomorrow with two members of the Sivorno police with whom he had what was delicately described on Valatesta as “an understanding”. With those in place, he decrypted a secret file containing dossiers on various operatives he maintained and called it up on his screen. It only took a moment to find the one he wanted.
He studied the picture, etching the woman's face in his mind. She was attractive. Slender, with a rather smallish nose and red hair, twenty-nine years of age, a graduate of the School of Data Analysis in Yuni, a city on the cyborg planet of Kurzweil. Data analysis, he knew, was a euphemism for intelligence; the university was a breeding ground for larval agents. Then he blinked and re-read the final line of the dossier.
It was in code. A simple combination of letters and numbers. And it indicated, for no reason that Shek could see, that any information about her was to be given the absolute highest priority.