Monday, January 24, 2011

Return of the Judi

It was the first murder at the orbiting Worldview Arms, and Security Chief Bryon Lasko knew his employer Cosmocorp wanted it kept quiet. Byron wasn’t sure he could oblige. He hadn’t expected ever to face such a quandary in this job. Until now, Byron’s security work had been routine and pedestrian. It just happened to be pedestrian in orbit.

Byron once had a modestly successful career as a private detective in Denver, until a difference of opinion with two federal law enforcement agencies motivated him to leave the United States. A creative resume helped him get the security position at The Worldview Arms. Sometimes he suspected his employers knew perfectly well he had lied about his past and preferred it that way.

The Worldview Arms catered to the very profligate among the very rich. The cost of a week’s stay exceeds the lifetime earnings of a typical middle class family. The hotel is sovereign territory of the nation of Kiribati, the island group once known as the Gilbert Islands. The spaceport from which all shuttles to the hotel originate and depart takes up nearly all of Abemana Atoll in Kiribati. The spaceport’s location near the equator simplifies launches, and Kiribati sovereignty places Cosmocorp safely outside the reach of the civil and criminal courts of the big countries. It also placed Byron outside the reach of his creditors and the feds in the USA, at least for as long as he kept the job.

The hotel was the image of the classic 1950s notion of what a space station should look like. It was a great pinwheel spinning on its axis to create artificial gravity inside. The gravity was nowhere higher than .20g, because any higher rate of spin would make the guests sick. The slight difference in speed between guests’ heads and their feet was the source of the problem.

In the hub of the wheel, where the gravity was zero, a large spherical globule of water formed a swimming pool. Few guests used it more than once, but all visited it at least once. It was featured in all the travel ads, because it looked interesting, but most visitors found the experience of swimming in it disturbing. The hub also was where shuttles arrived and departed. The docking bays abutted the swimming pool room on two sides. Once a shuttle was properly docked, arriving passengers took an elevator four at a time from the bay to the lowest, which is to say outermost, level of the station. Luggage, no more than one small bag per customer, would be unloaded by the hotel staff and delivered separately to the guests’ rooms.

Byron tidied his uniform and strode to the lobby to greet the newest batch of guests. His employers believed that his presence in the traditional accoutrements of law enforcement helped make new guests feel more secure. Byron enjoyed doing so anyway. He met many celebrities. He also met many wealthy and powerful people who preferred not to be famous. It never hurt to make contacts of this sort. After all, what job was permanent these fays?

He did little actual security work on the station. Theft is nearly impossible on an orbiting hotel where all baggage is examined on entry and exit. Not a single theeft ever had been reported to him. Violence was all but nonexistent. Billionaires are a pretty mellow lot. On very rare occasion he intervened in a domestic dispute. Once he explained he had the authority to order the two sedated until the next shuttle arrived, the fighting couple always settled down. No one wanted to spend such an expensive trip asleep.

The elevator door slid open. Byron hid his surprise.

“Welcome to Worldview,” Byron said as he smiled and bowed.

Judi’s double-take when she recognized him was so quick that her companion never spotted it.

One hand grasping the arm of a gray-haired gentleman 30 centimeters shorter than herself, Judi held her nose aristocratically in the air and walked past Byron a sureness of step uncommon in someone unused to low gravity. The coiffe of her dark hair looked more expensive than everything Byron was wearing combined. The other two guests, also a couple, were two men of vaguely Eurasian appearance. They responded to Byron’s greeting with a perfunctory nod. The elevator returned to the hub for four more of the new arrivals.

In a way, Byron wasn’t surprised by Judi’s presence on the station. She always had a knack for keeping company with the very rich. He had no intention of disrupting whatever game she was playing.

When the guest last guest had been welcomed, Byron returned to his office and poured himself a cup of coffee. He called up the new guest list on his computer.

“Hello, sheriff.”

Byron hadn’t heard Judi enter.

“Chief,” he answered.

“Chief? How primal. It doesn’t suit you. Of whom are you chief?”

“I am the whole security staff, so I’m chief of myself.”

“As are we all.”

Settling lightly into a chair in the low artificial gravity, she added, “Thanks for not raising a fuss back at the elevator.”

“The hotel management frowns on fusses. So does the whole nation of Kiribati. It has a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy with regard to vacationing international criminals. The space tourism business comes first.”

“You mean Cosmocorp pays off the government officials.”

“They prefer to think of it as a tip. I suppose you are here to see if I plan to call the earthside authorities, but, you see, they don’t care. You’re safe. Enjoy your stay.”

“You still could cause trouble by informing authorities outside Kiribati. I’d like to leave Kiribati someday.”

“Not to worry, Judi.”

“Please don’t call me that.”

“Right.” Byron tapped his LED screen. “I see your travel documents identify you as Cadence. Very euphonious. This is quite a pricy holiday, Cadence. I’m impressed.”

“I wish I could say the same about you.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere. I like my job, Judi.”

“You’re better than this. You’re just a hotel snoop, even if the hotel is in space.”

“No, I’m not better than this. Thinking I was is what got me into trouble down there.”

“Do you hate me?”

“Yes. But don’t let that worry you. I hate lots of people. I don’t plot revenge on any of them. I am curious, though. What happened to all the money?”

“What makes you think anything happened to it?”

“Your new Mr. Right makes me think so. You say I shouldn’t have to be a hotel snoop. Well, you shouldn’t have to be an arm decoration.”

“I’m not. I’m Madam Trang.”

“So your documents say. My observation stands.”

“The money from our little enterprise wasn’t so very much, really, Byron. Oh I could have retired in a nice beach house somewhere, but I wanted something more. I wanted to play in a bigger league.”

“Nguyen Trang is a bigger league?”

“The biggest.”

“Well then, congratulations.”

“Always congratulate the man, Byron. Best wishes go to the woman.”

“On the theory that he won a prize but she’ll need all the luck she can get, I suppose. Well, best wishes then.”

“So where is the swimming pool? It’s the big attraction, isn’t it?”

“Climb any ladder. Follow the signs.”

“No elevator?”

“Yes, but you usually have to wait for one. It is quicker to climb. It’s easy. You can climb with one hand. By the time you’re halfway to the hub you can use your pinky. But don’t go today. Wait until the day after tomorrow. Everyone goes there the first day or two but hardly anyone ever goes back. In a couple days you’ll have it all to yourself.”

Judi looked thoughtful. “Thank you, maybe I’ll take your advice.”

“I guess anything can happen once.”

“Is it really a melted comet?”

“The pool? Yes, basically. Capturing it with a robot spacecraft was a big publicity stunt and it was cheaper than hauling water up from earth.”

“So what else is there to do in this tin can?”

“Try the observation bar. There is a spectacular view.”

“At these rates, there had better be. Until later, Byron.”

“Until later, Judi.”


“My apologies, Madam Cadence Trang.”

**** **** **** ****

The next day was unusually busy for Byron. There were two domestic disputes, but the sedation threat was, as always, effective. Next he was called by a nervous bartender to the High Point Lounge. As Byron entered, he spotted the Trangs in a booth with a breathtaking window view of earth. Nguyen ignored the view. His eyes were locked on Judi. Byron wondered how long they had been married. The bartender waved at him and pointed to two men at the bar, who were in an animated argument over some South American political issue. He interposed himself.

“Gentlemen, I’m willing to bet you won’t resolve your differences here.”

“This is not your concern, Officer.”

The other fellow nodded. They at last had found something on which to agree.

“I’m Chief Lasko. The tranquility of this hotel and the peaceful enjoyment of it by the other guests are my concern. I can order anyone I deem a threat to that tranquility to be sedated.”

“Do you realize how much I paid to be here?”

“To the penny. Please consider it yourself.”

“I see your point.”

“Do you?” Byron asked the quieter man.

Once again, he nodded.

“I was hoping you might. Good night then.”

The two shrugged at each other as Byron walked away. They did not resume their argument. Byron kept watch on the Trangs in his peripheral vision. He had caught Nguyen’s attention, but Judi studiously ignored the affair.

The following day passed without incident. Chief Lasko caught up on his reading rather than attend yet another showing of 2001, a Space Odyssey in the hotel theater. It always was a favorite of guests who enjoyed its quaint vision of space travel.

On the day after, he was not so lucky. His phone vibrated. He answered it.

“Emergency in the pool room,” said the desk manager’s quavering voice. “Get up here now, Lasko.”

Byron climbed a ladder to the pool. He hoped one of the guests hadn’t drowned. It had happened before. No publicity had reached the ground thanks to a generous settlements from Cosmocorp to the victim’s family. The hotel doctor drained the lungs of the victim and passed off the death as a heart failure. Other swimmers had had close calls. The absence of any sense of up and down in the weightless sphere of water disoriented most swimmers. It was an unpleasant feeling and was one reason few people returned to the pool after the first visit.

Byron entered the pool chamber. Nothing appeared to hold the central ball of water in place, which gave it a menacing appearance. Electrostatic charges in fact acted to stabilize the sphere, but it was possible to overwhelm them by mechanical forces, which is to say by splashing around energetically in the water. The ball then might bounce from wall to wall until equilibrium was reestablished. This was scary for any guest who happened to be against the wall.

Byron pushed himself into the chamber and peered into the pool. The naked body of Nguyen Trang rotated slowly inside it. It looked like a drowning. Judi held onto to a wall rung as her hair floated in the zero gravity. She wore only a large bath towel. The desk manager looked far more distraught than she.

“Why is Trang still in there?” Byron asked.

Without waiting for an answer Byron reached through the surface tension and grabbed an ankle. The sphere wobbled like a shaken bowl of Jell-O as he pulled Trang out. Trang was dead and past hope of revival.

Doctor Melo, hotel physician, entered the chamber. Her eyes were glazed. Byron assumed she was self-medicated as usual.

She quickly and carelessly checked his vitals.

“He’s dead,” she said.

“Thanks.” Byron turned his attention to Judi. “What happened, Mrs. Trang?”

“You can see damn well what happened.”

“Tell me anyway.”

She huffed, but answered, “I was in the dressing room and when I came out he was like this.”

“Did you try to get him out?”

“He’d already drowned.”

“That’s not what I asked you.”

“No. What would be the point?”

“Resuscitation. It’s been done, you know.”

“I called for help.”

“Mr. Trang was a very very rich man, was he not?” Byron asked.

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“You now are a very very rich woman.”

“You son of a bitch.”

The hotel manager’s eyes gleamed with respect for Lasko. Here was a chance to pressure the widow into keeping mum about the accident without even a cash settlement. The threat of murder charges might be enough. In truth, Cosmocorp wouldn’t want any publicity about a murder, but she needn’t know that.

“This man didn’t drown,” Dr. Melo stated. “He’s been shot.

“That’s impossible!” said the manager. There are no firearms on the station.

Melo repeated, “He’s been shot.” She looked at Byron. “Let’s get the body to the medical station.”

“Wait! You can’t drag the body through the hotel corridors,” the manager complained.

“There is not much choice.”

“At least bag it first, and try to avoid being seen by other guests.”

“My husband is not an ‘it,’” Judi objected.

“I apologize, ma’am.”

“Madam Trang, was that the changing room you used?” Byron asked.

“Yes, why?”

Byron floated over and looked in. There was a smock and a purse. He opened the purse.

“Hey, you can’t do that without a warrant!”

“Yes, I can, Madam Trang. You signed a waiver before you bordered the shuttle. All our guests do.”

There was nothing in the purse but make-up. He put back the purse.

“I’ll help Doctor Melo move the body and then give her a chance to work,” he said. “Madam Trang, I’ll have more questions for you.”

“I’m obviously not leaving the hotel before the next shuttle.”

“Please don’t speak to the other passengers about this until then. One of them, it seems, is a murderer and you may be placing yourself in danger.”

If there was a firearm on board, they all were in danger. A bullet puncturing the hotel’s hull would be very bad.

**** **** **** ****

“Are you sure he was shot?” Byron asked Dr. Melo.

“Chief, you know I wouldn’t be in this tin can if I were competent enough to get a decent position on the ground.”

“You judge yourself harshly.”

“No. I wrap scraps, bind sprains, dispense aspirin.”

“And opiates.”

“Where they’re needed,” she answered. “But even I can see a bullet hole.”

“What caliber bullet?”

“There is no bullet.”

“You mean it passed through him? Then the bullet is still in the pool room.”

“No, there is no exit wound. There is trauma from a bullet but no bullet. I don’t have an explanation.”

“An explosive round?”

“No fragments. Nothing. Besides, explosives would have shown up on our chemical scans of the passengers.”

“What is your theory?”

“I don’t have one.”

“That’s not good enough. Keep working on it. Come up with an educated guess. Something.”

“I’ll do what I can.”

“Thank you.”

**** **** **** ****

For the second time since her arrival, Judi sat across from Byron in his office.


“Cadence. You’re lucky I’m letting you call me by any first name after what you said in the pool room.”

“Let’s get the obvious question out of the way. Did you kill him?”

“Of course not.”

“Tell me again what happened.”

“There is nothing more to tell. I went into the dressing room and when I came out I found Nguyen drowned.”

“Not drowned. Judi, who exactly was Nguyen? Did he have enemies?”

“Lots. Arms dealers make enemies even when they sell to both sides. Maybe especially then.”

“Are any of these enemies aboard this station so far as you know?”

“Any one of them could have interests threatened by my husband’s customers.”

“I see.”

“Nguyen’s death hasn’t been mentioned on the hotel news feed.”

“I know. We’ve shut the swimming pool for a couple days. We’re telling everyone it is for filter maintenance.”

“Unless you have more questions I’m going to the bar. If it makes you happy, I won’t talk about it to anyone yet.”

“That will make me happy. ”

**** **** **** ****

Byron returned to the pool room to search for a weapon or a bullet. He expected to find nothing but he had to be thorough. The lights in the room went out. Someone shoved him. He found himself underwater. He kicked and stroked though for all he knew he was swimming in a circle. Just before his breath ran out, he broke the surface and gasped. He nearly had drowned.

Without stopping at his quarters to change, Byron dropped down the ladder tube to the lobby. Several guests stared and whispered as he squished his way back to his office.

A message from Omar Tyler, the Cosmocorp CEO himself, was flashing on his screen. It ordered him not to search guests for weapons or to harass them with questions.

Byron left his office and climbed two levels to Melo’s medical station.

“Doc. Turn up anything new?”

“Most people shower without their cloths.”

“I’ll try to remember that.”

Dr Melo said, “Nguyen Trang died of a heart attack.”

“What are you saying? The bullet impact scared him to death?”

“If you’ll recall, there is no bullet. There is no bullet wound anymore either. I’ve been ordered to do a partial autopsy that will obscure the entry wound and then to issue a death certificate saying ‘heart attack.’”

“The order came from CEO Tyler?”


“Was Madam Trang consulted about the autopsy?”

“Mr. Tyler said she was.”

Byron left Dr. Melo’s office and headed for the trash bay. Tyler hadn’t ordered him not to look for evidence there.

**** **** **** ****

Byron sat in Judi’s room and waited for her. She showed no surprise when she entered and saw him.

“I don’t have to talk to you,” she said. “Your boss told me Nguyen had a heart attack and I agree.”

“I’m pleased you’ve grown so much more agreeable than when we knew each other years ago. Cosmocorp is my employer, not my owner, Judi, and I have a question. I’m sure you’d rather I raised it with you rather than with, say, some tabloid columnist.”

“You’d be fired.”

“I’ve been fired before.”

“OK, ask.”

“You use little or no makeup. Why would you need a purse full of it when you went swimming?”

“Do you empty all your pockets of unnecessary items every time you walk out the door?”

“No, and that is what I thought at first, but it bothered me all the same.”

“What’s your point?”

“How do you make a bullet disappear? Imagine a bullet made of an organic resin that dissolves inside the body or when in contact with water.”

“Ok, I’ve imagined it.”

“Could you please hand me your lipstick?”

“I don’t think it’s your color.”


“I seem to have misplaced it.”

He reached in his pocket and withdrew a lipstick case.

“Are you playing magic tricks now?”

“No magic. I found it in the trash. It was scheduled to jettison and burn up in the atmosphere.”

He removed the cap. The tube was hollow. He sniffed it. He wrinkled his noise from the acrid odor.

“When you boarded, the scanners didn’t pick up the propellant because the projectile, which looked like lipstick, made an airtight fit. Did Nguyen sell many lipstick guns?”

“No, it isn’t practical in most circumstances,” she answered matter-of-factly. “You need to be very close to your target and you need time to mount the lipstick on a handle to spread the recoil or else you’ll break your own fingers and hand. The face powder case is the handle – there is a slot for it. The target is almost sure to be alerted by the time you are ready to fire.”

“Unless he is distracted. By swimming in zero g, for example.”

“So, what do you want from me?”

“I want to know why.”

“Pre-nup. I get nothing from a divorce. This way, most of Nguyen’s money still goes to his kids, but a very respectable sum comes to me.”

“You always liked to be respectable. Did you expect to divorce?”

“Odds favored it, don’t you think? I don’t like playing against a house advantage.”

“And why did you try to kill me? Never mind. I guess that one is obvious. I gather you know Omar Tyler, the Cosmocorp CEO, personally.”

“We’ve met. I honestly didn’t know you were here, though, before I arrived. It never occurred to me to ask Tyler the name of the security chief.”

“I believe you.”

“So what happens now?” she asked.


“That’s it?”

“That’s it. Nguyen died of a heart attack. The hotel physician says so.”

Byron got up to leave.

“You know,” she said as the door slid open, “you could have gotten me to do anything for you by threatening to expose me to Nguyen’s family.”

“I know.”

“You are really over me.”

“Let’s just say I’m letting you go. Enjoy your widowhood.”

“I will.”

“The shuttle arrives tomorrow. Stay out of trouble until then.”

“Anything for an old flame, Byron.”

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