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Rabinowitz didn't even open her eyes when the phone chimed. "Someone is damned impolite," she muttered, then said more loudly, "Phone: sound only. Hello?"
An unfamiliar male voice said, "Is this Ms. Debra Rabinowitz?"
"De-bor´-ah," she said instinctively. "The late Deborah Rabinowitz. Is there something the matter, Inspector?"
There was a pause. "How did you know...oh, because I sliced through your p–code. Very sly, ma'am."
"Compliments to be delivered only at the servants' entrance. I hope this call is worth overriding an ordinary taxpayer's privacy code."
"Well, I believe it is, ma'am. Would you mind if I dropped by your house?"
"In person, yes, that's what I was thinking."
"Call back in twelve hours. I'm sure the corpse will have risen by then."
"I had in mind more like five minutes. I'm just now crossing the Bay."
"Five minutes? Do you have a warrant?"
"Well, you see, I was hoping to avoid an adversarial relationship at this stage of the process." He paused. "Will I need a warrant?"
"Five minutes," Rabinowitz sighed. "Phone: off."
She rubbed her eyes to force them open, then turned her head to look at the clock. 2:14 PM. Not an unreasonable time for people who kept to local Earth hours. "The zombie stirs," she said with another sigh as she rolled her protesting body out of the waterbed.
She staggered naked to the bathroom, peed, then ran a brush through her mercifully short brown hair. She looked at the makeup case and cringed. "No makeup. Zombies don't wear makeup; against union rules."
More staggering back to the bedroom. She opened the closet door. She stared blankly into the closet for three minutes without moving. The doorbell rang.
"Punctuality. The hobgoblin of little minds. No, that's consistency. Intercom: sound only, front door. Just a minute. I'll be right with you. Intercom: off."
She grabbed a demure yellow–and–white sun frock and slipped it over her otherwise naked body. Almost nude, she descended the staircase leaning heavily on the banister and muttering, "Here's a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of hell gate, he should have old turning the key." By the time she reached the bottom she presented a fair imitation of consciousness.
She opened the door to confront an excessively neat man in an expensively tailored suit. He might have been in his early thirties, but it was hard to tell with Orientals. Despite the afternoon breeze, not a hair on his head was out of place.
"Ms. Rabinowitz?" he asked, looking her over with a very appreciative glance.
"Yes. That establishes one of our identities."
"Sorry, ma'am. I'm Detective William Hoy. May I come in?"
"Would it be déclassé to insist on some formal identification first?"
"Not at all. It was bad manners for me not to offer it in the first place." His hand slipped with one natural motion into his jacket's inner pocket and emerged with an ID card and badge. Rabinowitz had to squint to read it in the bright afternoon sun.
"Interpol?" She raised an eyebrow in curiosity.
"That's right, ma'am. May I come in?"
"Only if you promise not to call me ‘ma'am anymore. I feel ancient enough this mor...afternoon."
"Fair game." Detective Hoy stepped inside. "I would very much like to thank you for seeing me on such short notice."
"You gave the subtle impression I had little choice. Follow me, please. I hope you'll excuse the state of things. People seldom visit me in person."
"I'm not from House Glamorous. Though your house is pretty trumpy from the outside."
"Thank you. It's well over two hundred years old. The elite of Victorian San Francisco liked to build their summer homes here on Alameda."
She led him into the parlor and offered him a seat. He sat in the left easy chair while she took her position behind the broad antique desk. The desktop, at least, was not too badly cluttered.
He stared appreciatively at the shelves around him. "I don't think I've ever seen this many printed books together in one place."
"Call it an affectation. Listen, ordinarily I'm great at small talk, but fatigue makes me uncharacteristically impatient. I've had just two hours' sleep after veering all over the galaxy for the previous thirty–six. You didn't come here to discuss my house or my library. Neither one is Interpol's business. Please tell me what you're here for."
Hoy smiled. "And they said you'd be difficult. ‘She's a diplomat's daughter, full of evasions and half–truths. I like a person who speaks her mind."
"I'll speak a lot more of it if you don't get to the point."
"According to the phone company, you've done a lot of veering to the planet Jenithar in the past four months. Particularly to the office of Path–Reynik Levexitor." He shook his head. "Boy, that sure is a mouthful."
He looked at Rabinowitz. "Well, that is true, isn't it?"
"Statesman, yet friend to truth. Far be it from me to dispute the veracity of the phone company. Levexitor and I have been negotiating a multi–party deal for book rights on Jenithar. All perfectly legitimate, I might add. Levexitor is a high–ranking citizen of his world."
"High–ranking citizens have slipped before," Hoy pointed out.
"That is as may be," Rabinowitz said. "My dealings with him have been honest ones."
"You only sell works under copyright?"
"Primarily. I enjoy being my own boss, not a UN employee. I've occasionally mediated some deals for the WLO--"
"Your patriotic duty, of course."
"For a commission--but Earth benefited from each of the deals."
"Then you don't like literary pirates?"
"Are you asking me or telling me?"
"Please humor me, Ms. Rabinowitz."
"The answer is no. Art and ideas are our only currency in interstellar markets. I'd be cutting my own throat to undermine that."
"That sounds like a highly practical form of patriotism."
"Oh, I'm sorry, you must have been looking for Deborah Rabinowitz the Idealist. She lives about twelve hours' sleep from here. I'll let her know you stopped by."
Hoy laughed. It was a good laugh, without guile. "You're fun, you know that? I'm glad I made the trip out here."
"Then that makes one of us. My ‘practical patriotism' is wearing a little thin and I'm not having any fun at all."
"I'll get right to the point then. I have reason to believe your friend Levexitor is trying to buy some world domain material through the black market."
Rabinowitz leaned forward. "Wouldn't that put the matter in IPC's jurisdiction rather than Interpol's?"
"Well, after the fact, yes. We're trying to keep it from getting that far."
"Keep it all in the UN family," Rabinowitz suggested.
"Something like that," Hoy agreed cheerfully. "Have you ever had to deal with the IPC?"
Rabinowitz grimaced. "A couple of times."
"Then you know." He got up from his chair and started perusing the bookshelves. "Say, I think I had to read some of these in school."
"Am I officially considered a suspect, detective?"
He turned around and looked at her. "Oh, I hate to use the word ‘suspect this early in a case. It gives people the wrong idea." He looked back at the bookcase thoughtfully, then took one book from its spot and replaced it two titles to the right. "Sorry, that one was out of order. Knocks the hell out of me. You are arranging these alphabetically, aren't you?"
"Thank you. Feel free to come dust them sometime. If I'm not a suspect--"
"Let's just say you're someone I really wanted to meet and talk to. I'm not disappointed, either. You're as beautiful as you are charming. More beautiful than your file picture, even."
"My day is complete. Now if you'll--"
"Some people can be such a letdown, you know? You think they should be fascinating and they bore you to tears. But not you. You--"
Rabinowitz stood up behind her desk. "If you have no further questions--"
Hoy refused to take the hint. "Well, one or two. Was anyone else from Earth involved in your deal with Levexitor?"
Rabinowitz sat down again. "No. I was brokering on behalf of the Adler Agency, but I was the only one representing human interests on this deal."
Hoy nodded. "Did Levexitor mention any other names, human contacts?"
"Not that I recall."
"Any other deals he was working on?"
"No, why should he? I'm not his partner. I didn't tell him about any other deals I'm working on, either."
"I understand. Well, that's about all I had for now." Hoy stood up and smiled at her. "It was great meeting you, Ms. Rabinowitz. A distinct pleasure. If you remember anything else, you can reach me through the local office, just across the Bay."
Rabinowitz rose from her chair to show him out. "Of course, if you turn out to be involved in the black market sale," Hoy continued, "rest assured I'll put you inside for a long time. But if you're not the one I'm looking for, would you have dinner with me sometime? After the case is solved, of course."
"Sorry. I never eat," she said as she closed the door behind him.
As the door closed she turned around, slumped against it, closed her eyes and sighed, "So pestered with a popinjay." The next thing she knew she was jerking awake as her chin hit her chest. She straightened up and deliberately opened her eyes wide. Directly in front of her was the staircase leading up to the bedroom. Beside the staircase, the hall extended to the kitchen at the back of the house. Hoy's comments about dinner had aroused her stomach's interest. "I need the sleep more," she mumbled, "but there's all those stairs."
She walked slowly to the kitchen, sure that if she moved too fast she would tumble and fall asleep before she hit the floor. She found two starchy slabs that were very probably bread, placed some unidentifiable filler between them and wolfed the conglomeration down before she could examine it too closely. Unfortunately, while this filled her stomach it left her feeling too wide awake to sleep. And there was a trap waiting before she could get back to the stairs.
She stopped beside the open veering room door. She looked inside. "I'll regret this tomorrow," she muttered. "Hell, I regret it right now." So saying she stepped inside. "Veering: Jenithar, office of Path–Reynik Levexitor.
"With any luck," she added to herself, "he won't be in."
She found herself in a vestibule in veer–space just outside Levexitor's office. She faced two large wooden doors bare of any ornamentation. The very fact that she was here meant his veering unit was turned on and her arrival had been announced to him.
"Ms. Rabinowitz," Levexitor's disembodied voice said. "That you should visit again so soon is unexpected."
"If I'm intruding, Highest, I beg forgiveness. I can return at another time."
There was a strangely long pause before he replied. "I see no reason why we should not discuss matters now. It is not as though I were busy with anything else. You may enter."
Rabinowitz stepped toward the virtual door in front of her. It swung inward to admit her to the reality Levexitor chose to show his visitors.
Some people were creatures of fancy, creating elaborate virtual habitats of exotic design. The Jenitharp were not among these people. Levexitor's office looked exactly as it had every time she'd come here over the past four months. The walls were maroon with flecks of gold, while the floor was slick and slate gray. There were two doors--the one she'd entered and one at the other end of the room--and no windows. Light diffused from unspecific sources. The room was small; someone that important on Earth would have had a spacious office. It was a somber, cheerless room, almost like a barely furnished cave--but then, Levexitor himself was scarcely Mr. Personality.
Against the back wall was a low workbench where Levexitor's assistant, Chalnas, normally stood. Chalnas was a clerk of some kind who spent his time scribbling in a pad. Rabinowitz could not remember him ever uttering five consecutive words, and even that was merely to ask clarification of some point. Chalnas was not standing there now. He was one of those people you scarcely noticed when he was there, but his absence felt odd.
In the center of the room, at his own work desk, stood Path–Reynik Levexitor. The Jenitharp were bipedal, but humanoid only by a liberal definition of the term. They were shaggy cylinders, covered with a plumage roughly akin to marabou. Their two very long arms connected to the body at what should have been the waist; they could reach the tops of their slightly bulbous heads and the soles of their broad feet with equal ease. Their eyes were better hidden than a sheepdog's, and their voices seemed to resonate from their entire body.
Levexitor's veer–space projection was very tall, fully a head taller than Rabinowitz. His marabou was tinged with lavender, far more elegant than Chalnas's plebeian brown. He was so noble he scarcely needed to move.
There were no chairs in the room. Rabinowitz stood, Levexitor stood, Chalnas--when he was there--stood. The act of deliberately making oneself shorter in front of others was obviously unspeakable on Jenithar. If Rabinowitz had not been able to sit comfortably in her lounger at home while "standing" in Levexitor's veer–space, some of her long negotiating sessions might not have gone as well as they did.
"Welcome, Ms. Rabinowitz. I had not expected to stand with you so soon again."
"I do deeply apologize for the intrusion, Highest. There were still a few minuscule details left to settle, and I thought we could lay them to rest once and for all...but if Chalnas is not here to record them--"
"It is Chalnas's day of relaxation, but I can remember well enough what we say. Please continue."
Rabinowitz spent the next ten minutes discussing the precise definitions of underwater theatrical rights to the three Tenger novels and the exact duration of the options. While this was a meaningless exercise, it gave her a legitimate excuse to be here.
There were uncharacteristically long pauses in Levexitor's responses, and he seemed more ill at ease. There was obviously some task in his real space that was preoccupying at least part of his mind. When Rabinowitz commented that he might prefer to deal with local matters and get back to her later he dismissed that out of hand and continued the discussion.
When they'd nailed the subject to the wall more thoroughly than it ever needed to be, Rabinowitz said, "Highest, I hesitate to bring up such delicate matters in front of someone so tall, but something has disturbed me so much I feel I must speak to you about it."
"Please feel free to speak openly," Levexitor said.
"Very well, Highest," Rabinowitz said. "I've heard rumors on Earth that criminal elements are trying to smuggle some of our literature to outworld markets. I've heard no names, but only the lowliest of our people would stoop to such activity."
"It is curious that you should mention such a subject just now, Ms. Rabinowitz. Please continue."
"I know that you, of course, are above such things. As a friend, though, I worried that you might, however unwittingly, be deceived by these clever criminals into performing acts that would certainly diminish you. I thought also you might know how to spread the word to your shorter colleagues, some of whom might yield to the great temptation. These criminals are unscrupulous, and would diminish anyone they dealt with."
"Indeed," Levexitor said. "I can understand only too well how someone, even the tallest among us, could momentarily be tempted by such offers, especially coming from tall sources." There was another long pause. "Yes," he finally continued, "and I can also understand the ultimate diminution you mentioned. To speak plainly, Ms. Rabinowitz--"
Levexitor stopped abruptly and turned. His head bent back as he looked upward. Then, uttering a small cry, he leaned forward against his work table and was very, very still.
"Highest? Highest?" The room was utterly quiet. Nothing moved, nothing made a noise. Rabinowitz glanced around. There was no one in the virtual room but Levexitor and her. And Levexitor wasn't moving.
Rabinowitz stepped forward until she was right beside the large alien. She reached out to touch him. There was solidity, like touching a tree while wearing thick rubber gloves, but no more sensation than that. Levexitor's projected body was as real as the walls--and no more animated.
She walked slowly around the room. Her footsteps made no sound. Levexitor made no sound. The only thing she heard was her own pulse flowing through her ears and the breathing she was trying to keep regulated.
It would do no good to call out or ask whether anyone was there. In this virtual space there was only her projection and Levexitor's projection. Someone or something may have intruded in Levexitor's real space, and might in fact still be there, but she could not see it.
Someone should be notified. She looked around the sparsely furnished room for some communications device. There did not seem to be any. Chalnas's work desk was bare and featureless. There were some digital controls on Levexitor's table, but he was sprawled across them and she couldn't move him. Even if she could, the controls would not have been intuitive.
Levexitor's body jerked back from the table suddenly. It was not a consciously controlled motion. As Rabinowitz watched, unseen hands played across the control panel on the desktop. Then the alien office suddenly blinked out of existence and she found herself back in her own veering room.
She wrapped her arms tightly around herself and sat down on the lounger, trembling like a leaf. Her teeth actually chattered; she couldn't remember doing that since she first read "The Telltale Heart" at age fourteen. She closed her eyes and tried to regulate her sudden gasps for breath.
Slowly, very slowly, she regained control. She forced her trembling lips to say, "Phone: San Francisco, Interpol, Detective Hoy." In moments the detective's smiling face appeared before her.
"What a pleasant surprise, Ms. Rabinowitz," he said. "I didn't think I'd hear from you this soon."
"Not pleasant," she said. "Not at all. You'll need to contact the authorities on Jenithar. Something just happened to Levexitor. I think he was murdered."
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