Thursday, March 9, 2017

Undercover

I have never liked undercover assignments. And this was one of the worst . A Terran ambassador and his daughter had been murdered in Puglatonian territory. The Puglatonians were our chief competitors on the eastern side of the empire. There were those on our side who were pushing for war. Some were speculating that some Puglatonian had done this because they wanted a war. Also, the Puglatonian desire to save face was making them unwilling to back down. They were refusing entry to all Terran officials. So I was being changed from John Talltree, agent of Terra, to John Talltree, media reporter. Even this was highly suspicious, needless to say, but I had to have some sort of excuse to hang around the scene of a murder and at least try to ask questions. And I was quite likely to be arrested as a spy. So here I was in Puglatonian territory, on Tuttion, the world where the ambassador, Thomas Ridgecraft, had been killed. My guide was Yr'runtitaia, Ridgecraft's majordomo the manager of his household, and the only one there who knew my real purpose. He was a Weqtiuziotian, and was humanoid, with leathery skin and six tentacles in the place of arms.

"Tell me about Ambassador Ridgecraft," I asked.

"He was very old-school," Yr'runtitaia answered. "Very upright and full of the glory of the empire. He was very forceful and ambitious, but also very fair-minded. He seemed always in a dream world, where the empire was much better than it really was. But it took a lot of his vigor out of him when his wife died seven years ago. His children, Darla his daughter, who was his chief assistant and died with him, and his son Tony, who is an ambassador on Guidoriwia, at least seem to have followed closely in his steps.'

"You were the one who found them dead?"

"Yes, Rutianus, the ambassador's maid, and I walked in together and saw them lying dead, with blaster burns on their chests and a look of very definite surprise on their faces. It looked like they had gotten up from his desk and were walking to the door to receive a visitor when they were shot down. Also, there was written on the wall of the office by blaster fire the word 'nouton'. It is a Puglatonian word that defies translation but it means loosely, 'Honor has been satisfied.' The blaster that did it was never identified, though it seems to be a standard Puglatonian model."

"Who were the last ones to see them alive?"

"As far we could tell, it was the Puglatonian official, Third Officer Vupthis Raber, his son Tabin, and Zoitarus, Ms. Ridgecraft's maid. Zoitarus saw the father and son leaving the ambassador's office, and Ambassador Ridgecraft and his daughter came out to see them on their way. She said the ambassador and his daughter looked in perfectly good health and seemed in reasonably good spirits. Vupthis, however, seemed aloof and uncomfortable, and Tabin was looking daggers. She says she saw the ambassador and his daughter go back into the office and Raber and his son go out the front door towards their air-cab."

"I would like to speak with the staff. Ask the Rabers very politely if they will allow me to interview them."

The first one I spoke with was Samuel Morton,  financial advisor. He was an old, rumpled individual who looked like the stereotype of an accountant. He clearly felt uncomfortable speaking with the press and was seeing me on sufferance. I was trying to ask politely, as a reporter, rather than demand. Not always successfully. "Do you know of anything that might throw light on this murder? Did anyone hate him?"

"There were a number of Puglatonians who were hostile toward him, but there is only one that clearly stands out. His name was High Second Officer Purthan Davanus. He was always putting the ambassador down in public places, and the ambassador would always give as good as he got. The First Ambassador, Luton Teramus, the ambassador's opposite, also appeared more cold and aloof than normal. But otherwise I can think of no one."

"Was there anything in the ambassador's finances that would suggest why he might have been killed?"

"I am not in the habit of discussing my employer's finances with the press."

After he left, I turned to Yr'runtitaia and asked him, "Could you ask for an interview with all the major Puglatonians who dealt with the ambassador. I want to talk with Davanus, but I do not want to single him out. By the way, was there anything irregular about the ambassador's finances?"

"Not that I could tell, sir," he replied.

 Rutianus, the ambassador's maid, was a Quitpozian. She had four arms, with a torso that went all the way to the floor and no legs. She seemed to ooze along on the base of her torso. She confirmed all that  Yr'runtitaia had told me about finding the bodies.  Yr'runtitaia was there listening but did not seem in any way to be coaching her.

"Do you know of anything else that might have a bearing on the case?" I asked.

"Well, I have not told this to anyone and was waiting for some real proof, but I think we have a spy among us," she replied, "The ambassador received most of his information and orders on independent vid cards, to prevent them being hacked into. There were a number of times I found them disarranged, like someone had sorted through them."

"Did the ambassador notice this?"

"I do not know, but he never mentioned it to me."

Darla's maid, Zoitarus, was the same species as Rutianus, but had a very different personality. She was greatly enamored with the idea of being in a vidcast and even offered me pictures of her for the feature, which I reluctantly accepted. She confirmed she was one of the last people to see the victims alive. She spoke on and on for hours about various things, particularly humorous tales about the practical implications of the Pugtonian code of honor. But I have picked out the those things that seem relevant.

She said that Davanus once stalked out of the room when Ridgecraft suggested that the strategy in how he handled one of his early military engagements was flawed. She said she had once seen Tabin spying on Darla, watching her from a distant hiding place behind some bushes  as she went about her business. When told, Darla had grimaced and asked to be notified if it ever happened again. She also mentioned walking in on Ridgecraft and Darla when they were arguing over how to deal with Teramus, who seemed to be being particularly, and perhaps unreasonably, stubborn over two key points in the negotiations.

Then  Yr'runtitaia came in with some news. "The Puglatonian officials have almost uniformly refused to talk to the press. The only exception is the Rabers, father and son, who are on their way."

"Is this all of your staff?" I  asked.

"Yes. We take on extras sometimes when needed, but we have not done so this trip. The ambassador made a point of the fact he cooked his own meals and did many of his domestic duties himself."

While I was waiting, I visited the crime scene. As usual, it was almost totally cleaned up, except for the word burned in large letters on the wall.

The Puglatonians were humanoid and might have been considered good-looking from a human point of view. They were, however, covered with iridescent scales and had a crest instead of hair. The older Raber seemed slightly truculent, "Yes, we saw them last. We were discussing a couple of issues that needed to be settled if I were to endorse  Ridgecraft's program. My son and I were seen leaving the place, we got in our air-cab and went home. We were seen to arrive at 3.15 tor, which was .18 tor after the body was found. If you check the driver's record, we made no stops along the way. Any other questions?"

"When you left the ambassador's house, did you see anyone in or near the house except his staff?" I asked.

"No."

The younger Raber was more withdrawn. He confirmed his father's story and then fell silent. "Did you see anyone in or near the house except the ambassador's staff?" I asked after a pause.

"I do not remember seeing anyone," he said reluctantly.

"Do you know of anyone who would want to kill the ambassador?"

"He was a Terran, but not particularly."

I got in my air-cab to return to my room for the night. I would rather have driven myself, but it was considered a point of honor for everyone with any significance to have a air-car with a driver. As I sat there, running over the case in my mind, I was interrupted by the perception that the cab was accelerating under me at an ever increasing speed. I began to hear the warning blasts (the Puglatonian equivalent of horns) and the sound of swerving cars outside. I ran up front and pushed the buttons to speak with the driver, with no response. I pounded on the plastic shield that covered an opening between me and driver until I realized it was probably a vid screen rather than a window. The doors were locked, but I pulled out my blaster and blew the lock. Outside I could see that we were going with increasing speed straight through the center of of a high traffic area. Other cars were dodging in various directions to get out of way. And we were already going too fast for me to jump, especially in this crowded area. I am not a mechanic, but I tried to remember everything I had been told about this type of air-car. I thought I remembered that if you disabled the cooling system, it would conk out the engine somewhat slowly. I took aim at where I thought the key control for the cooling system was, and fired. Going back to the door I was pleased to see the car was slowly losing momentum. It helped that the other cars were hurrying as far as possible out of our way. As soon as the speed seemed down enough, I jumped for it. I skinned both elbows, both knees, and one thigh, but I did want to follow the air-car all the way to a stop. In the end it rolled, smashing in the ceiling of the car, though not entirely. When it had come to a full stop, I ran over to it and blasted open the driver's door. Inside was the remains of a fairly common robot, such as you buy at a standard electronics shop. It had arms and legs and could be programed to carry out basic commands. It had almost killed me, but it had given me the answer to both my problems.

It took far into the night to go through the hoops of the Puglatonian police system. And I still wonder what Central thought about all the bribes I put on my expense account that night. But I was still up bright and early to settle the thing, once and for all.  Yr'runtitaia was sitting there, waiting where he had said he would be. He was good, but I could tell he was surprised to see me. "Why did you do it?" I asked. "Why did you betray your trust?"

"What makes you think I did?" he responded.

"It had to be you. The only thing worth killing me for was to prevent me from reporting there was a traitor among you. And you were the only one besides me who heard that. You are the obvious culprit."

"Yeah, it was me. What has the Empire ever done for me except make me a lackey in carrying out its program? Besides, they paid well and promised me freedom for my home planet when they conquered. I am the traitor. But I did not kill Ridgecr. . . ." He fell over dead.

The old poison trick. It was to be expected. But he was right about one thing. He did not kill Ridgecraft. Ridgecraft was a cash-cow for him. And I did not see the Puglatonians trusting him with an assassination  And he had seemed happy enough to have me here until I got onto his secret.

Tabin Raber did not want to see me, but I told him I had something to tell him that he needed to know. "Did you know that your model of air-cab has a weight sensor? It will tell that there was only one person in it on the return ride that day." It was, of course, a total bluff. By the time I had managed to impound that car, his father would have found a way to dispose of it. But did he know that?

Suddenly his eyes, which had seemed so blank, blazed with fire. "I wanted her. I had to have her. The red-haired, green-eyed wench, so unlike our people. I would have settled for just one time. She tried to tell me nicely. But then she said I disgusted her. Did she not see it was a matter of honor? Did she not see I had to avenge myself?"

"But why kill her father?"

"He had produced her, the brat. I needed to cover my tracks. There were more reasons for killing him than her. I thought they would think it was political."

"At the price of a war?"

"Who cares if our brave soldiers killed a few Terrans? It was my honor that was at stake." He pulled up a blaster, aimed it at his head, and fired. My guess is, it was the same blaster.

I had no authority there. But I had recorded the whole confession. I did not dare take the blaster for fear of starting a new manhunt. I hoped that what I had would be enough to stop a war. But I could not be sure. The whole thing had looked from the beginning like something personal. I did not see a any basis in thinking there was a point of honor between the Ridgecrafts and the Puglatonian empire as a whole. Tabin's change in observed attitude before and after the murder was suspicious. And his spying on Darla's movements seemed to serve no espionage purpose. But he seemed to have an alibi. Until I realized that there was generally no need for the passengers to see the driver or vice versa. His father would have considered it a point of honor to cover for his son. He may have even put the son up to it. Tabin could then have obtained a rental car and used every trick and shortcut he knew to get home first. His father may have even requested a scenic route. They then went in together.

People have foolishly thought casual sex would help solve certain problems such as jealousy. It does not; it aggravates them. Under conventional moral standards, you looked for the right person for you. If someone refused you, they were not the right one and you went on looking. But under the new system, every refusal was personal. For Darla, sex with an alien was disgusting. There are different personal opinions on that (it is a matter of morality that theologians and philosophers still debate). But under sexual freedom, it was a personal affront.     

        
  

  

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