Falling Angel had docked once more at Vance Port. Monfort had travelled with her, rather than taking two ships on the same journey. Once the shuttle arrived at the ground port, he insisted on hiring a car and driving the rest of the way.
"Fair's fair, after all," he said as the sleek blue car hummed its way down a trunk road. Kodeyne watched scenery zipping by.
"How long have you been a PI for, Mr Monfort?"
He exhaled and stared into the distance.
"Twenty years or thereabouts. Before that, fourteen years as detective-sergeant in the FSS..."
She blinked and looked at him.
"Why did you leave? If you don't mind me asking?"
"Not at all, Commander. It was when I felt my concept of honesty and integrity were no longer compatible with those I worked with. You won't be surprised to learn that there is as much corruption in the FSS as anywhere else in the Federation. Or the Empire, the Alliance....you get my drift."
"Not surprised at all. When I asked Mrs Keenan, she said that FSS had not been able to trace Alison after Mars High. Nothing. Whereas you caught up with me fairly fast. I can't believe the police would be that incompetent, Mr Monfort."
He did not say anything for a minute or so. He seemed to be struggling with his thoughts.
"They're not." He glanced at her.
"Commander Myshkin. I do not expect you to tell me where your friend is; and I don't think it matters now. But it might be useful if I knew what had actually happened to her."
Kodeyne took a deep breath. Should she? A pang of fear went through her.
Believe in yourself, just for once.
"About two years ago, just after I became a pilot, Alison was offered an internship at Dobie-Bachmann."
He nodded. "The entertainment equipment company."
"She was reluctant, but her parents didn't want her to let such a chance slip away. After a few months, she got a transfer to their main offices in Olympus Village."
Monfort nodded, his eyes thoughtful.
"When we met up on Mars High, she told me that she had become pregnant....as a result of being drugged and raped. By someone at Dobie-Bachmann."
Monfort nodded. He did not seem surprised. "I guess she didn't say who?"
"No. Only that he was a superior. She was frightened out of her mind about what would happen next."
He sighed. "Sadly, I've seen this kind of thing before. Powerful people enjoy power. Sometimes, it can become addictive, where even a high-end job isn't enough. They crave power, total power over individuals. To control them."
Kodeyne swallowed. "Great gods below," she said, "that's awful."
Monfort glanced at the nav screen. "We turn off here," he said, then looked at her.
"So you offered to help her escape." It wasn't a question.
"Exactly. Took her somewhere safe, where she could get help and some respite."
The car followed a long, sweeping curve between coniferous trees, before emerging into a familiar landscape. She sighed.
"Hmm?" he said.
"This is where I grew up, Mr Monfort. Memories."
"Understood." They drove in silence for a few minutes, before Monfort also sighed.
"I do not like the way my thoughts on this are going, Commander Myshkin. I believe that once we have spoken to the Keenans, senior, we shall know for sure."
The hire car came to a halt on the gravel driveway. They made their way up to the front door. Kodeyne had contacted her friend's parents in advance this time, so when the door opened, Sophie stood next to her husband, Patrick. He was a few inches shorter than her, squarish face that always had the hint of a impish smile around the mouth; though it was serious now. Short hair gone salt-and-pepper; a powerful build and weather-beaten skin from years of working as a senior farmhand on one of the vast ranches.
"Ophelia," he said, with that same Gaelic accent that his daughter spoke with.
"Mr Keenan," she said nervously. He gestured them to come in.
"Ophelia, pet, you can call me Patrick, ye daft lass. We've all known each other for too long to be so formal!"
The door clunked shut, and Monfort gave a polite bow.
"Mr and Mrs Keenan," he said formally, "I am Cornelius Monfort. Private detective. Whom you apparently did and did not hire."
Sophie looked at him.
"Mr Monfort. Pleased to make your acquaintance; I can say right now I have never seen you before in my life." He nodded.
"Commander Myshkin has intimated as such, Mrs Keenan. I have a copy of the relevant messages on my datapad."
"Then let's have a look," she said, "Coffee, Mr Monfort?"
"That would be appreciated. White. No sugar, thank you."
Sophie winked at Kodeyne. "Hardly need to ask you, Ophelia!"
Kodeyne grinned back at her.
Sophie had gone very pale, and was shaking visibly as she stared at the screen of Monfort's datapad.
"That's not me," she said, "I don't know who that is, but it's not me!"
Patrick was visibly disturbed by his wife's reaction to the message being played back.
"How...could that be possible?" he said softly. Monfort turned the screen off. He closed his eyes.
"An actor. Some digital processing. Or even a totally computer-generated avatar. It's totally feasible, in this day and age. It's still complex and would definitely not be cheap."
"But, the voice, that background?"
Sophie stared at him.
Monfort winced as he answered; he was not going to lie, but he didn't want to distress her any more than he had to.
"Easily done. Hack into your phone, make some recordings..."
Kodeyne saw Patrick's jaw clench. It was bad enough to know your daughter had been raped. But to find someone had been spying on your wife as well?
She knew he had a streak of wild Gaelic anger deep within, and also knew that he controlled it well. But right now, he was struggling. Kodeyne watched Sophie take his hand and kiss it. "Don't explode, love. Please."
He screwed his eyes shut, nodded and took a deep breath.
Monfort looked uncomfortable, but continued. "My records show these calls were made from your number, but you never made them." His brow furrowed in thought. "I think if you get your comms box examined by a technician, you will find some distinctly non-standard equipment in there."
He slowly put his datapad away and let out a long sigh.
"Mr Monfort?" said Kodeyne.
"I've been had," he muttered, "I've seen a lot of things in my time, but never a deception like this. I've been had and I do not like it." He looked at Kodeyne then
"Our aims become aligned, Commander. I will do whatever I can to find out who is behind this and stop them, before it is too late. I was just being used to locate Miss Keenan; but you may be certain there will be someone else out there, waiting for the opportunity to silence her."
"Silence her..." whispered Pat.
"We all know what that means," Monfort said grimly. "Clearly, we do not dare communicate directly with Miss Keenan, for that can be traced."
"Even using encryption?" Kodeyne asked. Monfort shrugged. "What one person can encrypt, another can unencrypt. Especially, as is the case here, when there is enough money involved. But perhaps there is another way to find out who did this to her."
Sophie set her face. "And God knows however many other poor souls..."
Monfort suddenly looked at her, eyes alight. "Of course! That's brilliant, Mrs Keenan!"
"You'll have to clarify that for me, Mr Monfort," she said curiously.
"If we can trace any other victims of this vile man, not only can we find out who he is - but have more people to testify against him."
Kodeyne cocked her head. "That's an almighty task, Mr Monfort; Dobie-Bachmann must have hundreds of thousands of employees. But I guess you have a plan forming?"
"Oh, I do indeed, Commander. Our enemy has access to some unusual resources. As it happens, so do I. In my profession, you occasionally encounter people with certain talents; people who don't really care which side of the law you're on - as long as you have what they want."
Kodeyne nodded. "In the meantime, I should go about my business as normal?"
"Yes. We might as well give the illusion that we haven't worked out what's going on. But..." He paused and sighed, "...how long we can maintain that impression is another matter altogether."
He slowly rose. "I would like to thank you for your time, Mr and Mrs Keenan. If Commander Myshkin here hadn't smelt a rat, as the old saying goes, who knows how this might have ended?"
Sophie and Patrick watched them leave, then went back inside. As soon as the door closed, she put her arms around him. "Oh Pat," she said, "I'm so scared for Alison."
"I know. Same here. But there's nothing we can do now."
"This would never have happened, if we hadn't been so insistent she take that job," said Sophie quietly, "I feel awful."
Patrick held her close and sighed.
"Hindsight is a wonderful thing, love," he murmured, "but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. She would been stuck here otherwise. An agri-world is no place for someone of her intelligence and talents."
Sophie began to cry quietly. He continued to hug her.
He remembered that day all too well...
The Keenan household had never known such a barney. Things had been said in anger that weren't really meant, threats were made that were deeply regretted later. Alison had left the house in a fury like they'd never seen; she travelled into town and spent the next couple of days with her close friend Ophelia...
How strange, but how appropriate that the same friend was now all that stood between their daughter and an unspeakable demise.
May God guide your hand, Ophelia, he thought.
About half a mile away, someone else watched them leave. He tucked the powerscope in a pocket and got back in his own hired car.
Tall, golden-blond hair, the kind of chiselled good looks that you would associate with a sim star or teen pop idol. He was dressed in a smart navy suit, sky-blue shirt, navy tie. He clicked his phone into the dash mount and began to drive.
"Call Rusty," he spoke to the phone. The speaker hissed and clicked as it connected, via an encryption program, to Vance Port.
Blip. "Smiler. Report." The voice on the other end was harsh and throaty.
"The detective and the woman have just left the target's parents house. We can probably take that side of things as compromised."
"Gotcha. But we knew this could happen. It's not a big deal."
Smiler - his handsome features and winning smile gave him his nickname - gazed ahead as he swung onto the main road back to the starport.
"Get back up here as soon as. Take the Eagle. You keep an eye on Monfort."
"Let's hope he doesn't go too far. The Eagle hasn't the jump range his Diamondback has."
"Can't see him going a long way away right now," replied Rusty, then laughed. "Besides, Brick has been tinkering with the frame shift drive again. He's convinced he can get a couple more LY out of it."
"Or it'll blow up in witch-space," said Smiler, also laughing. They both knew that wouldn't happen. Brick might look like a Neanderthal throwback but he was a technical genius.
"Heading back to the port now," Smiler said, "be back up within the hour."
"Good. We'll take the Phantom. Keep tabs on the woman."
"We will to have to deal with her soon, won't we?"
"Yes. We will indeed."