Of all the private investigators' offices in all the towns on all the planets, he had to walk into mine. Of course, my name being on the door might have had something to do with it. I could see it there on the other side of the cracked frosted glass:
IP SINNATS ANNEJ
"Hello, Avon," I said. I didn't bother getting up. I was much more comfortable slouched behind my desk with the blaster on my thigh aimed straight at where most people kept their hearts.
He squinted and lifted his hand against the light from the window which lay in slanted stripes across his face. "You couldn't close that blind, could you?"
"You're right. I couldn't." Being an indistinct silhouette while my client is half-blinded so to speak gives me an unfair advantage and I like it that way. "It gives the office a nice noir look. And noir's your colour, isn’t it, Avon?"
"What do you want?"
"To find Blake."
"So that you can put holes in him like you did last time?"
"That wasn't Blake. It turned into a pool of green slime."
"Yes, but you didn't know that when you shot it, did you?" I tightened my finger on the trigger. "You fired on an unarmed man." And, damn it, I was coming close myself.
He looked disconcerted. "Who the hell--"
"Never you mind. I protect my sources."
He hesitated. "I will pay well." Then he had to have a go, didn't he? "I daresay you spend most of your time finding lost pets and faithless spouses."
Damned if I was going to let him get to me, even if it was true. "Why not? It's surprising what people will pay." That was true too: that fellow Krantor had set me and my staff of one up for several months on what we got for finding that white fluff-ball of his. My assistant, useful fellow, found the creature in the walls of Krantor's boudoir within a day, but we let him stew for several weeks. Bumped the price up, and besides, I think my staff got fond of the thing.
"I know your rates. I'll give you better: five thousand credits down, expenses, and ten thousand on completion of the contract."
"And you'll tell me why you want him. So you can find out if he isn't the slime you are?"
Avon pulled a plastisheet out of his pocket and slid it over the desk towards me. I picked it up with one hand, keeping the other on my gun. "A will?"
I scanned the words. Cally had left all her worldly goods to be divided equally between Blake and the crew of the Liberator, provided that Blake was still one of their number. "She can't have had much to leave."
"Just half of Auron. She was the sole survivor of several very wealthy families."
"Ah." I considered demanding a cut, but there was no point. I sneered. "Even if I could produce a Blake, you'd need the Liberator, and you were a bit careless with that, especially considering how much you wanted it. This--" I waved the document over the scanner hidden in the edge of the desk facing me "--isn't worth the plastic it's printed on." I tossed it back at him.
Avon frowned and shoved it back in his pocket. "The words 'crew of the Liberator' do not necessarily preclude said crew no longer actually being in possession of the ship. I think it's contestable."
"If you have Blake." I narrowed my eyes at him. "There's one we both know about, though I suppose you don't care to face a Blake with IMIPAK. He might fire first."
Avon looked down his nose at me, not that he had much choice, still standing as he was, and with that schnoz. "He's a clone and therefore wouldn't qualify anyway."
"Oh? I thought the Auronar granted full rights to clones."
"They do, and each is regarded as a separate individual so he would not be legally Blake."
"I see your difficulty."
"Jenna." Avon smiled in what he probably thought was a charming way and leaned on the desk, trying for persuasion and threat simultaneously. Neither worked. "If you find Blake, you do of course get a portion of the legacy."
If I was alive to collect it. The way that will read, Blake got half and the rest got split up among the crew; I couldn't see Avon settling for that. "I'd be tempted," I said regretfully, "but no one could have got out of that fire on Jevron alive."
Avon's shoulders slumped and the life seemed to go out of him. I'd have felt sorry for him if I hadn't known it was the money he was mourning.
"Want anything else recovered, Avon? Like your honour or your self-respect?"
For a moment I thought he'd hit me and I’d shoot him, but he turned and walked out, slamming the door behind him and lengthening the crack in the glass.
I got up and moved silently to the door which led to the utilities room where I had a kitchen, two camp beds, and, at the moment, my staff. I opened the door fast and Vila, who'd been leaning against it, almost fell out. "Did you hear everything?" I asked him.
"Yeah." He looked around, nervously. "Has he gone?"
"For the moment." I printed out a copy of the will, and he peered over my shoulder at it.
"Bloody hell. Gives a whole new meaning to 'worldly goods', doesn't it? Pity about Blake."
I grinned. "I just said no one would have survived that fire. I didn't say he was in it."
Vila managed to look both relieved and alarmed. "Avon'll figure that out, you know."
"So we'll have to find Blake first. There're a few rumours I can follow up." I stopped; Vila had a strange look on his face. "What is it?"
"Well, this might sound a bit funny, but I might know where to lay my hands on a Liberator."
So there we were, carving out a big search pattern round the system where we blew that nuclear plant back in the old days, in an old ship we had... acquired, with lumps of plutonium 241 attached to the hull like limpet mines. If you must know, Vila's explanation was "My mum couldn't get enough cheese and curry when she was pregnant with me and look how well that took." He spent a lot of time broadcasting sweet nothings into space. I swear I heard him calling "Here, Libby, Libby, Libby!" once when he thought I wasn't there, and I was beginning to doubt both his story and my sanity.
Until the DSV turned up, rushing towards us, all elegant white lines and glowing purple bulb. There was no way I could manoeuvre the old rustbucket out of the way and I was bracing for impact (and the sudden death that went with it) when it stopped, its huge prongs surrounding us.
"Awwww!" said Vila. "She's hugging us! She remembered me, my Libby." His face was wet with tears.
No comment about the state of mine.
So here we are, on Vila's Libby--and she is his--following up old rumours in the search for Blake. Vila isn't that keen. As he says, "Blake comes with a side-order of rebellion," but as my mother would say, TANSTAAFL: there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.