End of Summer
 

The Case of the Mining Mishaps

By Chaim Mattis Keller

A Star Hawkins Mystery

The entire casino room was quiet. My one remaining opponent and I stared intensely at one another across the poker table as well as at the huge pile of chips that had grown in the center of it. I further loosened the tie of my tuxedo and pushed in my last pile. "One hundred thousand credits," I declared.

The crowd oohed at the number. As my opponent attempted to decide whether or not I was bluffing, I spotted someone else taking an interest in our game. He had dark hair and a goatee beard and walked with an air of royalty. He addressed me directly. "I am Darius Richilieu, owner of this casino. And I see that you're quite the gambler, eh, Mr…?"

I looked him squarely in the eye. "Hawkins," I responded. "Star Hawkins."


What was a perpetually down-on-his-luck private eye doing in a high-class casino wearing a tux and playing with those kinds of credits? Working for the government of Earth, naturally. I've taken on some government jobs, and let me tell you, I very much enjoy the ones that include an expense account.

And why not an expense account for a case which could very well decide the future of all money in the Solar System?

Since Earth's recovery from World War III, the Earth government that emerged had turned to an old friend to ensure the universal acceptance of its currency: gold. But as Earthmen began trading with alien beings and remote asteroids began to be mined, gold began to lose favor in the eyes of sentient beings and various new metals were being touted as the new standard of value. One of the most often mentioned was providium, a substance that comes closer to being a superconductor than anything else found in nature, and which emits a rainbow glow when processed properly. Soon, the government intends to have a vote on whether to change the currency backing, and if so, to what, with providium the clear favorite amongst the alternatives.

Where do I come into this picture of politics and economics? Before I go too much further, I should introduce myself: Star Hawkins, top private detective of the year 2082, operating out of New City, North America, Earth. My right-hand "girl" is my robot secretary Ilda, who I'm unfortunately often forced to pawn in order to pay the rent between cases. As luck would have it, I'd just redeemed her when two men walked into my office. "Mister Hawkins?" she paged me.

"What's up, Ilda?" I asked.

"We have clients," she told me.

"Well, send them back here," I responded.

She ushered the two men in and then backed out the door of my office, closing it behind her. The men took seats without prompting. "Agent Harmon, Earth Government Secret Service," declared one of them, flashing a badge. He pointed to his friend, who introduced himself, "Agent Acer," not bothering to flash his.

"What can I do for my country?" I offered.

"You're aware that soon there will be a parliamentary vote regarding the backing of currency," Harmon said. "Whether to keep gold, switch to providium or some other backing system."

Acer continued. "There's a snag. In the past month, there have been two fatal accidents in providium mines. Mining is certainly hazardous, but in previous years, their safety record has been excellent."

I picked it up from there. "So you don't think they're accidental. Not that I'd mind the work, but why can't the government's own agents investigate?"

"We sent someone to do that last week," said Acer, "no word at all. We're afraid our agent might have been compromised, and we don't know what the enemy might already know about other agents."

"So my job is also to find your missing agent?" I asked.

"That's priority 3," said Harmon. "Priority 1 is finding out who or what's responsible for the mine disasters. Priority 2, if you can do it, is stopping it."

Harmon handed me a card. "At 10:00 AM tomorrow, this card will give you instructions of where to go to get more information."


A job is a job, and sure enough I listened to the card's instructions at 10. The card then self-destructed, and I headed straight for the location indicated.

"Mr. Hawkins, a pleasure to see you," said a woman whose name tag said only "M". "Thank you for accepting this job."

"No problem, Ms. M," I responded.

She looked down at her name tag and muttered "Damn." She then adjusted it so it properly read "W".

W then led me down several hallways. "The mines in question are owned by a man named Rigel Follup. He lives in the asteroids, but is often out prospecting. Here's his contact number," she said, handing me a business card. "He promised us he'd make himself available to you."

"Any suspects?" I asked as we rounded a corner.

"Not yet," said W, "but we think the motive is most likely anti-providium rather then a personal vendetta either against Follup or against the miners."

"Any possibility that it's eco-terror?"

"Doubtful, but we can't rule out anything yet."

We came to a heavily secure door, and W placed her finger in a scanner, which opened it for us. Before me I saw a room full of weapons and gadgets and vehicles. I'd done government work before, but never for this department, and I was amazed at how they operated.

"Mr. Hawkins," said W, "This is where I'll take my leave of you. You'll receive your equipment here, and after that, good luck."

She left me in the hands of an elderly gentleman whose name tag read "Q." "So, Mr. Q," I asked him, "which of these things are for me?"

He looked at his name tag. "Darned chocolate donuts," he muttered. He wiped it off, revealing that it was meant to say "O".

"We'll start with your transportation," O said. "This Cheford SX-97 is suitable for interplanetary travel. If you look at the dashboard," he said, pointing out what appeared to be ordinary dashboard buttons, "you'll note that it changes into a weapons console." He mechanically rotated it so that it showed an entirely different face. "It launches a variety of bio-reactive gases although of course, those won't be of much use to you outside of an atmosphere."

"Of course," I responded, trying to act like I belonged there.

"Now, I assume you have a hand weapon you're comfortable with," said O.

"Yes," I responded.

"Anything defensive?" he asked me.

"Like a force field?" I asked. "I didn't think such technology existed yet."

"It doesn't. You'll wear a bulletproof vest, but you'll supplement it with this," he said, displaying what appeared to be a pen.

I gave him a puzzled look. "A pen?" I said.

He pointed to someone in the far corner of the room. "You! Come at me with that sword!" The person obliged and ran over, swinging the sword at O. O pressed a button on the pen, and it expanded to a one-meter-long staff with which he parried the blow, resulting in an angry clang. "Super-hard metal. This pen is indeed mightier than any sword."

"And finally," he told me, "You'll want this." He handed me what appeared to be a standard credit card.

"What does it do?" I asked.

"It gives you access to almost one million credits. Use it wisely, because releasing more to this case's expense account could compromise the secrecy in which this issue must be conducted."

I shook my head, unable to believe the near-disappointment I felt at learning that this was indeed a credit card and not some unusual weapon. It was still something I was quite happy to have.

O led me back to the SX-97, and I got into it. "Godspeed, Mr. Hawkins," he told me, and I headed home to get Ilda and to pack.


"Glad you could make some time for me, Mr. Follup," I said. Ilda, with her usual efficiency, had set up an appointment with the elusive mineral magnate, and we came to one of his asteroid bases to begin our investigation.

"The pleasure's mine, Mr. Hawkins," he replied. "I certainly hope you can find out what's happening to my mines."

"Well, let's start with the obvious. What caused the accidents?"

"The official investigator's report is that the laser borers in those mines malfunctioned and let loose a destructive blast."

"Do you consider this likely?"

"Personally, no. I own dozens of mines and have never had a destructive discharge from one of those machines until now. On the other hand, I see no reason why the insurance company would lie about the accident and pay for the damages."

"Perhaps they expect to turn around and sue the equipment makers?"

"Could be. Maybe technicians from Cat-Rand are checking the equipment as we speak."

"Have you ever had any problems with their equipment?"

"Well, of course…but nothing like this, and I've got quite a few of those machines."

"So you suspect sabotage," I concluded.

He shrugged. "I don't know what else to think."


I placed a call to Cat-Rand, the heavy equipment manufacturers whose product was apparently the cause of the disasters. "I'm calling about your laser borer, serial number 487660012," I told them.

"What's the problem?" asked the technician on the other end.

Say what? "Isn't this machine in your database for complaints?"

"No," I was told. "Are you sure you have the right serial number?"

I double-checked. "Definitely," I replied. "You've received no report of malfunction for this machine?"

The technician breathed a weary sigh. "No," he said. "Can you describe the problem, please?"

"Not very well," I told him. "Could I speak to your legal department?"

While I was being transferred, I scratched my head. In the normal course of events, if a loss is blamed on a piece of defective equipment, the insurers would turn around and get compensated for their expense by the equipment manufacturers. They, in turn, have the equipment examined and attempt to deny that they're to blame, setting off a court battle that ends up benefiting both companies' lawyers more than either company's stockholders. The insurance report was dated almost a month ago, ample time for these proceedings to have been initiated. Why hadn't they been?

"Legal department, Marcia speaking."

"Marcia, I'm calling to find out if there's a pending insurance investigation centering around a Cat-Rand laser borer, serial number 487660012."

"What's your purpose in inquiring?"

"I represent Rigel Follup, who's filing an insurance claim regarding damage to his mines from the borer in question. The insurance company led me to believe that the matter has been forwarded to you."

Marcia left to check. "There's no record of any such thing on file," she reported.

I thanked her and hung up. What in the world was going on here?


I sat in my hotel room trying to digest the information. I stared long and hard at the copy of the insurance investigator's report that Follup had given me. Is any information missing? Everything appeared to be in order…accounting of equipment destroyed, estimated value of now-unreachable ore, man-hours of labor gone to waste, estimate of work that would be lost until the mine can be re-opened. Of course, lives were lost, but how does one put that sort of thing into a statement?

Life insurance, my mind told me. This was Follup's money to compensate him for his personal financial losses, but certainly the loved ones of the dead miners must have filed life insurance claims.

And once again, wouldn't those claims have gotten kicked back to Cat-Rand's technicians? Why hadn't any life insurance claims been filed…or had they? I placed a call to Follup, and after the customary exchange of pleasantries, I asked, "Did your miners have life insurance?"

"Of course they did," he said. "It's one of the standard company benefits."

"What company?"

"We offered a variety of plans," he said. "Our Sentient Beings Resources department handled those things."

"Could you have them send me a complete listing of the insurers and policy numbers of the deceased miners?"

"Certainly, Mr. Hawkins," he said, and I hung up, thinking about my next move, and that was answering the question: why haven't the defective machines been looked at? If I were the CEO of an insurance company, I certainly wouldn't be happy about swallowing a multi-million-credit (possibly even in the billions, considering the value of providium) payout. Only one answer made any sense: someone didn't want the cause of the accident to be determined, most likely the saboteur. I'd have to investigate the accident scene myself.


Ilda came to me later with the list of life insurance policies. I began calling the companies. "Asteroid Mutual Life," answered the secretary.

"Hello, I'd like to check the status of a claim," I told him.

I was transferred to the claims department. "Claims processing, Marcia speaking," came over the line. Cute coincidence, but nothing to be suspicious of…Marcia is a common name for any children born on Mars, especially from the early days of colonization.

"Could you please tell me the status of a claim on policy number LF-6659012?"

"This policy is no longer held by us," Marcia told me.

"Really?" I asked. "How could that happen?"

"Occasionally, other insurance companies will purchase a policy in the hopes of expanding their reach, and we'd price it according to premiums paid, actuarial data and other factors," Marcia explained.

Doesn't this require the insured's consent?" I asked.

"Certainly," she responded. "We always send a notice informing them of the impending sale and telling them they must respond to decline. The laws protect the insured from any raise in premium or lowering of policy value for a fixed period of time after the transfer."

"Really…" I said, pondering the implications of this. "Can you tell me who bought the policy?"

"Sure can. Cardinal Life Insurance."

"Can you check on the statuses of the following other policies for me?" I asked, forming suspicions in my mind. I listed off the policy numbers and sure enough, Cardinal Life Insurance had bought out every single one of them within two weeks prior to the mine accidents that took their owners' lives.

"Maybe you can tell me this, Marcia," I suggested. "Were there any refusals during that time period for Cardinal buyout attempts?"

She returned to me after a brief pause. "A few," she said.

"Can you send me the list of refusals? I have authorization from Rigel Follup for information relating to his employees," I added.

"Sure," said Marcia. I gave her my contact number, and hung up.

A few phone calls to other companies later revealed similar results: the acquisition by Cardinal Life of the policies of deceased miners. As the data about refusals came in, I had Follup's office send me a list of all his mines, the metals they produced, and which mines were operated by the employees who refused to allow the switch to Cardinal Life.

"Ilda," I said, "let's run some data."

"Sure boss," she replied.

"Can you project a holographic map of the solar system in the room?"

"Of course," she said, doing so.

"Mark in green all of the following locations," I ordered her, listing off Follup's mines. Dozens of green spots appeared on the map.

"Change to blue all that produce providium," I told her, and I saw a few of those change.

"Circle in red the two mines that had the accidents," I ordered, and two red circles dutifully appeared around two blue spots.

"Circle in yellow the following sites," I ordered, and listed off the sites employing the workers who refused to switch. Sure enough, it included only providium mines, and most of the unaffected mines had at least one refusal. There remained only three blue spots that were not circled either in yellow or red.

The answer here was clear: someone, it seemed, was targeting not merely providium mines, but specifically providium mines in which every miner was insured by Cardinal Life. I didn't yet have access to data about providium mines not owned by Follup, but I'm sure that with government permissions I could access that data easily enough. Meanwhile, I had some lives to save. I had Ilda place another call to Follup.

"What can I do for you, Mr. Hawkins," he offered.

"Forget about me; here's what you can do for your employees," I said. "Disable the laser capacities of the Cat-Rand borers in these three locations," I told him, listing them off. "Those are very likely the next sabotage targets. Mount hidden cameras around the machines. Hopefully we can catch the killer red-handed."

Follup promised to take my advice.


Now that I had baited my saboteur trap, I had to see what was up with the Cardinal Life Insurance company. Obviously they made a financial move to acquire these policies because they were expecting a nice profit. They blew it…luck of the draw…but they should at least be trying to cover their losses by suing Cat-Rand. The failure to do so only made sense if someone was out to ruin Cardinal Life, and was secretly working inside Cardinal Life. Perhaps one of their competitors was out to ruin them? But this still didn't explain why they were targeting providium mines, or why the property damage claim, which wasn't Cardinal Life's, hadn't gotten anywhere.

Nonetheless, the Cardinal Life connection couldn't have been coincidence. "Ilda," I said, "Can you connect to financial information databases?"

"Sure can, boss," she replied. "What kind of info do we need?"

"Cardinal Life Insurance company has been active in buying policies from other insurance companies recently," I told her. "Is this a publicly-announced strategy?"

She stood still for a moment and returned with, "No mention of it in the financial news databases."

"So it must be someone pretty high up who's pursuing this strategy secretly. Who runs Cardinal Life?"

She searched the database again. "It's run by a holding company called Insurance Carriers, Inc."

"A holding company? And who runs it?"

"I've checked that, boss…it doesn't say."

Curioser and curioser, I thought. Cardinal Life is as secretive about who makes the decisions as it is about what those decisions are. Time for some detective work. "Come on, Ilda," I said. "We're going for a ride."

"Let me guess…to Cardinal Life's headquarters?"

"Right you are, maid of metal. We've got to find out who's signing off on those policy acquisitions…and on their payment. And I have a hunch that this information isn't going to be given to us outright." We got in the special SX-97 and headed for Io, the Jovian moon where Cardinal Life was listed as having its corporate headquarters.

I disguised myself as an old man and entered the building. "What can I do for you?" asked the receptionist.

"Oh, my son, my Edgar," I wailed. "It's terrible enough that he died, taken from us so young, but where's the justice? WHERE'S THE JUSTICE?" I ranted.

The receptionist was clearly disturbed by my erratic behavior. "I'm afraid I don't understand, sir."

"You shouldn't understand!" I yelled. "You should never lose a child so young! Oh, the dreams he had…"

"What can we do for you here, sir?" she asked, somewhat annoyed.

"You are the life insurance company, yes?"

"Yes, we're a life insurance company. Was your son covered by one of our policies?"

"Yes! No! Maybe!" I yelled. "I thought he was on Asteroid Mutual, but now I find that it's you…who do I turn to? Who tells me what killed my little boy?"

"If your son was the victim of a crime, you should be speaking to the police, sir, not the insurance company," she said.

"But you give money for my little boy's life! Who did this?"

"Sir, I don't think you should be here," the receptionist stated.

I could see that she was on the verge of calling security, so I mentally summoned Ilda, who's connected to me through a telepathic spool in her cranium. "Oh, master, there you are. I got so worried!" she said, as per a practiced charade that we had arranged.

"Are you in charge of this man?" the receptionist asked Ilda.

"Yes, I'm his caretaker," Ilda said. "He really can't live by himself anymore. But he's been hysterical ever since he received a letter from your company informing him of the death benefits he was owed over his son."

"Is that why he came here?"

"Of course," said Ilda. "Poor Joe. I think he's too confused. I understand you bought his son's life insurance policy about two months ago?"

"I don't know, but I can ask someone," the receptionist told Ilda. As we had planned, Ilda's rationality was working to calm the jangled nerves of the lady I had upset.

"Please do," Ilda said. "The poor man is very confused by the whole matter. Perhaps copies of the documents will help him understand exactly what happened to his son and his son's policy."

"I'll do what I can," promised the receptionist. She disappeared from her desk for a while and returned with another woman, who held a folder. "This is Garrin," said the receptionist. "She might be able to supply you with what you need to help your friend."

"Pleased to meet you, Garrin," Ilda said. "My poor master is very confused by his son's death. He doesn't understand why he found out about it through your company and how your company has determined the details of his death."

She handed Ilda the folder. Ilda looked at the pages and found the one that authorized the death benefit payment. "What's this attached page?" Ilda asked.

Garrin looked at it closely. "It seems to be a waiver of the investigation into the cause of death in order to expedite the benefit payment," she explained.

"So your company is not looking at the cause of death at all?" Ilda asked her.

She pointed to the previous page. "No, the cause of death was determined to be the injuries he suffered due to a mine cave-in," she said. "The waiver merely means that the payment will not be held up in order to conduct further investigation to determine who can be held responsible for the cave-in."

Ilda looked through some more papers, but found none that looked interesting. "Thank you very much," Ilda said. "I'll get him out of here now and explain the whole matter to him when he's a bit more lucid."

"I am lucid!" I exclaimed. "I just want to know what happened…" I let my voice trail off into an incomprehensible mutter.

Ilda pretended to lead me back to the spacecraft. I ditched the disguise and congratulated Ilda on a job well done. "So what did we get?" I asked.

"Well, I couldn't find anything relating to the sale of the policy, but I did get the document waiving the investigation. That has a signature on it that I ought to be able to decipher, given time."

"Fine," I said. "You'll get time." We headed back to our hotel for a good night's rest.


I woke up refreshed in the morning. Ilda, had spent the night processing the messy signature. "Rich Front," she told me as soon as I woke up.

I was still fuzzy. "Does that mean that if a poor front blows in from the opposite direction we'll get a money storm?" I asked.

"No, the name. On the waiver form. It's Rich Front."

"Thanks," I told her. It was a name that didn't mean anything to me, but I was sure we could track him down and find out who he's really working for. "Can we get a line on the owner of Cardinal Life?"

"I'll try, boss, but he seems to want to remain hidden."

"Well, his money's in danger; if that won't draw him out of hiding, what will?"

Our conversation was interrupted by a call from Follup. "It happened again!" he said.

I was astonished. "Another mine was destroyed?"

"Yes," he told me, "With twenty-one people down below."

"Was it…"

"Yes," he interrupted, "It was one of the three you told me to take care of. I followed your instructions."

"Does anyone but us know about this?"

"Only the person who reported the damage and the rescue workers."

Darn! Much as I appreciate the important work they do, their body retrieval would mess up the crime scene. "Have the rescue workers hold back until we can investigate. I can't have the crime scene contaminated, and I'm sure they're all dead anyway. Meanwhile, keep a lid on it and tell the others to do the same. Don't touch anything."

"What if they aren't dead, man? You can't take chances like that!"

I didn't want to be in this position. "If we don't leave the mine alone, we'll have trouble tracking down the killer, and there'll be more deaths. The slim possibility that some of the miners are still alive isn't worth that," I said, my conscience plunging a dagger into my heart.

Follup agreed and I got Ilda and myself into our vehicle to investigate the crime scene. Since Follup had disabled the laser borer, there's no way this could have been an accident. That's why the claim was never passed on to Cat-Rand. The laser borer wasn't the problem to begin with. Someone, presumably Rich Front, was causing the accidents himself in order to ruin Cardinal Life.

So I had to see just what did cause the accident. Assuming it really was a laser, I didn't want any extra light hitting the crime scene. Lasers, like radio waves in the twentieth century, are used for communication, and every company that uses lasers of any sort is assigned a set of frequencies within which they must operate. With the specialized equipment that Ilda had in her body, we could read the exact laser frequency that caused the accident (assuming it was a laser at all)…as long as no other light contaminated the site.

Fortunately for us, this turned out to be the case. We arrived at the asteroid where the mine was and immediately proceeded inside. Within a few feet, the mine became pitch black, and I didn't want to use any light. How was I going to get around? After a few moments' thought, I extended the pen-shaft that O had given me, used as a cane and felt my way around like a blind man until Ilda could sense recent use of a laser. She noted the frequency. We retrieved the hidden cameras, but, as I suspected, they had been ruined by exposure to the lasers…I had been expecting a saboteur to mess with non-functional Cat-Rand lasers, not supply his own. We left, after which we told Follup that he could have the rescue workers take over.

"Who's registered for that frequency?" I asked Ilda as we prepared for takeoff.

"The Iris Corporation," she told me.

"The Iris Corporation? Don't they just make prosthetic eyes?"

She searched her database. "Yes," she told me. "They registered their lasers as focusing devices."

"I knew that," I said. "So how can a harmless little focusing laser be responsible for that?"

"Someone must have amped it up," she suggested, and I agreed.

"I'll see if we can find out whose eyes these are," I told her. "Meanwhile, I want you to work on tracing the owner Cardinal Life. He's sure to have some valuable insights into what's going on."

"Boss?"

"Yes, Ilda?"

"I think there's someone following us."

I checked the radar screen and sure enough, she was right. "How long had you noticed him?"

"He's been with us since we left the asteroid," Ilda said. "I'd guess he was waiting for an inconspicuous time to slip away, but when he saw we were investigating, he figured he'd better know who we are."

"Well, I want to know who he is," I told her. "Let's double back and see how he avoids us."

We did so, and our pursuer surprised us by not trying to avoid us, but rather, attacking us: two laser beams shot in our direction just barely missing us. "Ilda!" I shouted. "Can you read those lasers' frequencies?"

"Negative," she said. "Can't do it unless it hits something."

I couldn't afford to lose my ship, and there were no convenient meteors around to duck behind. I flipped over the dashboard panel to see what resources I had available. I saw the various gas jets and got an idea.

I zoomed daringly in front of the other ship. Just as I was entering his range, I hit the buttons to release the various gases, at least one of which I hoped was sufficiently opaque to prevent penetration by lasers. He fired his lasers, but the gases had instantly frozen into a colorful mist of crystals. The lasers lost most of their effect in the mist, and the gas discharge pushed us in the opposite direction, good enough to fool our pursuer into thinking he'd damaged our ship. As he sped off, I maneuvered our ship back to the frozen gases, which hadn't combusted, because there's no oxygen in space. Ilda stepped outside the airlock and read the frequency of the laser that had hit the crystals. She came back in and reported, "Same frequency. Or at least another Iris, and I can't imagine there's more than one of these guys."

"As we suspected," I responded. "Now, let's switch positions and let him play mouse to our cat for a while. We don't have to catch him; we just have to be able to read the vehicle's signature."

We stayed in stealthy pursuit until we got a sense of where he was heading. We then called headquarters to have another spacecraft along its projected route to scan the vehicle's ID. When this was relayed to us, we turned around to digest the information without interference.

"So who's the vehicle registered to?" I asked Ilda, who was looking it up in the licensing database.

"A fellow named Darius Richilieu," she told me.

"Do we know anything about him?"

"We will in a few seconds."

A few seconds later, she told me, "Darius Richilieu is a very rich man. His main assets appear to be high-class casinos. The most popular of these is his Rings of Saturn Casino-Hotel, located in orbit around Saturn."

"Sounds like a plan to me," I said. "Let's outfit ourselves properly, and hang with the high-rollers."


And that's how I came to be here: face-to-face with Darius Richilieu, as I had hoped. With him was what appeared to be a cyborg: his human face was surrounded by a metal cranium, and instead of eyes, he had two electronic devices…from the Iris Corporation, perhaps?

"So, you like to gamble, Mr. Hawkins," said Richilieu.

"No," I replied. "I never gamble."

"I beg to differ," he said with a bemused smile. "What do you think you're doing at this poker table?"

"Winning," I quipped.

His face darkened. He turned to my opponent and ordered him, "Call."

My opponent looked surprised. "Sir, I'm not sure…"

"CALL!" Richilieu barked. "If you lose the hand, I'll reimburse you."

"I…I call," said my opponent, nervously looking at his new master.

I laid my hand face-up on the table; all it contained was a pair of threes. My opponent breathed a sigh of relief as he revealed his, which contained three eights.

As my opponent happily scooped his winnings off the table, Darius smirked at me and said, "So, Mr. Hawkins, what do you think of gambling now?"

I coolly raised my left hand and snapped for effect, actually summoning Ilda through her telepathic spool. She came forward with another man who I'd met earlier that evening and with a casino official. "You win," said the man. "Here you go, five hundred thousand credits."

Darius turned to me, puzzled. "You bet half-a-million credits that you'd lose the poker game?"

"No, Mr. Richilieu," explained the casino official. "The bet was that Mr. Hawkins would be speaking to you in person before his game was over."

I turned to Darius with a smug smirk on my face. "I enjoy winning just fine, Mr. Richilieu."

Darius looked me over like a predator sizing up its prey. "There's more to you than meets the eye," he told me. "I'd like to comp you and your lovely assistant for the night."

"Thank you," I told him. "I will accept your gracious offer."

"Now, did you say you had been wanting to speak with me personally?" Darius asked.

"Yes," I told him. I thought about how to approach the subject. It certainly wouldn't do for me to accuse him of murder right off the bat. "I'm wondering what's your interest in the Cardinal Life Insurance company."

"I own it," he said, as we four…myself, Ilda, Darius and his bodyguard-cyborg…sat down at a table. "I'll be happy to answer any questions you have about it. But first, let's order drinks." He summoned a waiter with a wave of his hand. "Gin and tonic, please. Mr. Hawkins?"

"Vodka martini…shaken and stirred." I turned to the cyborg. "You're not having anything?" I asked him.

Darius answered for him. "Luxe doesn't drink when he's on duty," he said. "Now, what do you want to know about Cardinal Life?"

"It seems someone is trying to ruin the company," I said. "There's apparently been a push to buy up miners' policies from other companies, and those are very high-risk. There have already been several mine accidents in the last few months, I've heard."

"Well, that's the nature of gambling…you assess the odds and you take the risk," he replied. "I guess that's why the insurance business appeals to me as well. The danger of mining makes for high premium payments, and that's something that hasn't changed despite advances in mine safety. I figured that the odds would favor me, but sometimes you go bust."

"So that strategy came straight from you?" I asked, incredulous.

"Straight from the top," he said, as our drinks arrived.

I nursed my drink for an extra-long while as I pondered the implications. Richilieu claimed credit for the strategy of buying miners' policies, but also appeared to be the one responsible for the accidents, unless Luxe, the bodyguard, was acting against his boss, using his boss's car. But some questions still nagged at me, the biggest one being why only providium miners? This strategy would make sense (if indeed it made sense at all) for miners of any type, wouldn't it? No, I thought, Richilieu was not being completely honest (again, if he was being honest at all). But why would a life insurance company kill its own customers? It might make some sense if the company expected a large settlement from Cat-Rand by framing their equipment for the deaths, but that wasn't happening. Was Rich Front trying to ruin Darius by waiving the investigation?

I wasn't sure what more I could say about the case without exposing myself as a spy. I decided instead to change the subject. "I see your bodyguard, Mr. Luxe, has some high-quality artificial eyes there. Iris, unless I miss my guess."

"Correct," said Darius. "Mr. Kankil…Luxe is his first name…was injured and blinded in my employ. It was only right that I restore him in the most effective way possible."

"I'm sorry to hear about your injury, Mr. Kankil," I said to the stonily silent bodyguard.

"Thanks," he said, and then he resumed his silence.

Darius then addressed me. "Do you have life insurance?"

"Nah," I replied. "Too much like gambling."

Darius chuckled. "I'll bet I can change your mind about that," he said. "I'll send a salesperson up to your room later."

Great, I thought. Just what I need…a pitch from an insurance salesman. Nonetheless, I felt it was best to play along. "Thanks," I told him. "Don't be surprised, though, if you can't sell me on it."

"I'll admit it's a gamble," he said with a smile. "But then again, it's in my nature."


Ilda and I had been in our complimentary suite admiring the view of Saturn's rings for less than an hour when Darius proved to be true to his word. Rather than a salesman, he had sent a saleswoman, a possibility my weary mind should have considered earlier. "I'm Sadie Action," she introduced herself. "My boss, Rich Front, told me there was a hot prospect in this room. May I have a few moments of your time?"

I looked her over. She was a sight to behold…slightly shorter than my height, bust and hips properly proportionate to her slender waist, blond hair falling away from her face in the latest style, and dressed to show it off. Well, I wasn't going to let myself be sweet-talked into buying a life insurance policy, or into dropping the investigation, but her company certainly wouldn't hurt me. "Of course," I said. "Sit right down and show me what you've got."

Sure enough, she walked right past the desk and chairs and proceeded to sit down on the bed. She continued to be coy, though, and opened up her briefcase. "This here's one of our most basic policies," she said. "Payment of one hundred thousand credits in case of death or permanent injury, very affordable at twenty credits a month."

I sat down next to her to inspect her…sales documents. "But I'd have to pay this money every month, or else I lose coverage?"

"Well, that's term life," she said, inching closer to me. "We have whole-life policies as well…"

Ilda, who had been looking at her with suspicion since she arrived at the door, decided she'd better speak up. "Boss? I think you're getting yourself into trouble…"

Sadie interrupted. "Robot, do us a favor, will you? There's a dictionary at the front desk. Go down there and look up 'killjoy' for us."

Ilda began to get upset, but I decided to put her…and my own time…to good use. "She's right, Ilda. You head on out and have a good time. I'll find you when I'm done here." Mentally, through her telepathic spool, I sent Ilda a message, "I know she's trouble. Humor her to avoid arousing suspicion. Meanwhile, find out what you can about Rich Front."

Ilda left. Sadie said, "I thought she'd never go. Now, I may be here to earn a commission, but there's no harm mixing business and pleasure, is there?"

"None at all," I agreed. "As long as business isn't forgotten. Now, these policies…can I see a copy of one?"

"Sure, let me bring up a sample one here," she said, turning on a portable computer.

I decided I'd help her out. "Do you only have samples on there, or can I see real policies also?"

"I can call up the details of any policy from this console. Why, is there anything specific you're interested in seeing?" she said, wiggling aesthetically.

"Yes, as a matter of fact," I said. "I don't have that much interest in life insurance, but if I did, it would be in these policies that a friend of mine got as a perk from his employer. That one sounded very attractive."

"Well, if you give me your friend's name, I'm sure I could show you something you'll find very attractive," she offered, and she slipped out of her blouse, showing me something that was indeed very attractive.

I gave her the name of one of the dead miners. "Oh, this is an interesting one," she said, with more sincerity than everything else she said earlier, combined. "There's a flashing note here about an amendment to the payments section…"

She scrolled downward on her machine and showed me the amendment in question. It read, "At company's discretion, payment can be made directly in prevailing currency backing substance rather than in currency credit." My eyes opened wide. Another piece of the puzzle had fallen into place. These policies could be paid in gold…unless the currency backing is changed.

I decided that I'd done enough business for the night, and that the pleasure part could begin without guilt. "Now, was there something else you'd wanted to show me…?" I asked her.


Ilda returned in the morning. "I knew this was going to happen if I left the two of you alone," she said, disapprovingly.

Sadie jumped up indignantly. "Good morning to you, too, robot," she said. "Did you see your picture next to that dictionary entry I told you about?"

"No," Ilda responded, matching Sadie stare for stare, "but I saw yours next to the entry for 'slut.'"

"Ladies, please," I shouted. "Sadie, I had a great time last night, but I think we'd better part company for the moment. I think I have a busy day ahead of me."

"No problem, Star. I hope, for your sake, that you're not spending it with miss no-fun over there," she retorted, pointing her thumb at Ilda. She packed up her stuff and walked out, pointedly picking up her nose as she passed Ilda by.

As the door closed behind her, Ilda turned to me and said, "Well, now that she's gone, I imagine you can turn your attention to the mission we've been hired for."

"First of all, Ilda, I got us some valuable information last night," I told her, slightly annoyed by her lack of faith in me. "Second of all, all we did was watch a movie; we fell asleep during it. Timothy Dalton…what were they thinking? Third of all, I'd rather talk about these matters elsewhere."

"Don't worry, Richilieu doesn't have this room bugged," she told me. "I can detect listening devices."

"Well, that's good to hear. So, what were you up to last night?"

"Well, I spent my night working, I'll have you know. I managed to hack into the Cardinal Life employee database. Rich Front doesn't exist."

"Well, that's interesting. Why would Cardinal Life employees take orders from someone non-existent?"

"They think he does exist," Ilda told me. "He's listed as an official employee, there are taxes paid on his salary…but there's no record of his birth on Earth, where he supposedly comes from, and there's no record of who hired him. There's no evidence that any sentient being ever met him. And, here's another thing about him: remember the insurance company that covered Follup's material losses? Rich Front works there, too. The same non-existent employee, drawing paychecks that I was able to cross-reference through the tax databases."

"So someone invented that identity to use it as a…front!" I exclaimed.

Ilda nodded. "And I'll bet you can guess who."

"Oh, just an owner who likes to act within the company but prefers to remain anonymous in order to better protect his interests," I replied. She nodded mutely.

"Well, that clinches it: Richilieu, for all his claims to enjoy risk-taking, isn't leaving anything to chance. Those miners' policies weren't bought up as a gamble, he bought them specifically in order to kill them and pay them out."

"But why in the world would anyone do that, boss?"

"Here's part of the answer, Ilda," I said. "Remember I said I got us some valuable information last night? Cardinal is paying the beneficiaries of these policies in gold. Obviously, Richilieu's got quite a bit invested in gold, and thus, he has a motive for preventing the rise of providium as a currency backing. But still, if he's protecting his investments, why is he putting himself in a position to pay the gold to other people? Either way, he's out the money…plus whatever he spent to acquire the policy from the original insurance company."

"So, what's our plan, boss?"

"I'd like to talk to some of the beneficiaries," I told her. "Let's see if we can get a list of those."

She put together a list for me to call, and I dialed the first one. "Ma'am, I'm calling to offer my condolences on the loss of your husband."

"Thank you. Who are you?" asked the puzzled widow.

"Oh, my apologies," I laughed nervously. "I'm with Cardinal Life Insurance. And we here at Cardinal Life want all our customers to know that service doesn't end when benefit payments do. We genuinely sympathize with your loss, and understand that no amount of cash could ever truly make it up to you."

"Why, that's so sweet of you," she said. "But what do you mean 'cash'? I received my payment in gold."

I gave a start. "Oh, your husband was one of our special policies! Then yes, gold. Have a nice day, and when you think of service, think Cardinal Life."

Ilda had seen my reaction. "What's wrong?"

"I was guessing that perhaps Richilieu was just promising gold to the beneficiaries, with intention on giving it to them once it's worthless," I told her. "But apparently, Cardinal's made good on its payments."

"Sure they have," said Ilda. "If Richilieu's plan was centered around the gold becoming worthless, he wouldn't be destroying the providium mines."

"Of course!" I exclaimed. "You're brilliant, Ilda!"

"More brilliant than that bimbo of a saleswoman from last night," my robot secretary smirked.

"Drop it, will you?" I told her. "We're all adults here."

"Sure, boss," Ilda said. "Now that you're thinking again."

"I never stopped thinking," I growled, "but I have to admit I'm stumped here. I'm wondering if we won't have to confront Richilieu directly about this."

The door to our suite opened abruptly. We spun around in surprise. "You just might have to," said Darius. "Don't make any false moves, or Luxe, here, will burn you with his eye-lasers."


Darius and Luxe forced us into the elevator. Darius took out a key and placed it in a keyhole in the panel of buttons, turning it to reveal a secret panel behind. He pressed one of those buttons to take us to a level of the casino hotel unreachable by anyone else.

"I'm sure you're wondering why I'm taking you, Mr. Hawkins," said Darius. "Quite simply, I had thought I could gently dissuade you from digging too deeply into the Cardinal Life matter, but when we detected that someone was looking for data on 'Rich Front,' I knew that I couldn't afford to act kindly toward you any longer."

"You couldn't have dissuaded me anyway," I told him. "In any case, what do you have in mind?"

"I thought I'd show you what happened to the last fellow who asked too many questions," said Darius. The elevator opened to reveal a well-lit hallway. "Out," Darius ordered.

Ilda and I stepped out and followed Darius down the hallway while Luxe brought up the rear. At a certain spot, Darius stopped and pressed a button, which caused a door to open up, revealing a small gaming room. In the corner sat a man with a video monitor attached to his head, his left arm unnaturally forced upward by some form of body brace, and with his right arm completely missing. "My one-armed bandit here was sent by the government of Earth to halt my scheme," Darius said. "I offered him a sporting chance to avoid this fate, if he was willing to gamble with classified government information, but like you, he's not much of a gambler. So," Darius said, wallking over to his prisoner and yanking his arm downward, eliciting a shriek of pain from the poor man, "he's now a source of amusement to me." The man's arm sprang back up and two cherries and a lemon appeared on the video screen. "Eventually, I'm sure, he will be a source of information as well."

Darius then turned to me. "You, on the other hand, are not a government agent…you're a private investigator. What's your interest in this matter?"

"Catching a murderer isn't enough of an interest for anyone?" I responded.

"Ah, a do-gooder," Darius said. "Wonderful. Of course, you don't have government secrets to divulge, so there's no profit in keeping you alive, even in that kind of state. If I were to offer you the opportunity to gamble your way out of death, would that convince you to partake of a game of chance, despite your oft-repeated refusal to do so?"

"Certainly beats the alternative," I said. "What's your game?"

"You seemed attracted to the poker table last night," Darius said. "Let's play some hands of that, limiting our pots to one hundred thousand credits for each of us."

"I don't think that's quite enough," I replied. "As long as both you and I are free, I'm still a potential danger to you, and you to me. I'll see your bet and raise you: if I win, you allow me to arrest you for murder. You win, and I guarantee you, neither I nor anyone acting on my behalf will arrest you on the basis of information I've gathered."

Darius smiled. "Well, now, you're learning to play the game. Well done, Mr. Hawkins, it's agreed. Luxe, bring us a dealer from the casino upstairs."

"Ilda, how about you go with him?" I offered. Using her telepathic spool, I mentally signaled her. "I think I have a plan. Just play along with me."

Once I was alone with Darius (except for the poor soul sitting in the corner), I asked him, "I have to confess that I don't quite understand your dependence on gold. Surely the insurance business will remain profitable no matter what substance backs the currency."

"Ah, spoken like someone who's never had the pleasure of owning gold," Darius said. "My dear, late great-uncle Auric instilled in me an appreciation for that most wonderful of metals. I won't see it cast aside in favor of some new flavor-of-the-month."

"So this is a personal matter, not a financial one."

"Oh, it's financial as well," he assured me. "Thanks to my great-uncle, I own quite a bit of gold, and I'm loath to see my fortune diminished. But yes, it's personal. The more people own actual gold, the better the public will appreciate it…and the less likely their elected representatives will be to replace it with an alternate metal which, it appears, is dangerous to mine. Compared to what'll be lost, my minor expenditure of some of my gold is a paltry sum."


While Darius and I were discussing his crimes, I maintained a link with Ilda through her telepathic spool, and carried on a conversation with Luxe Kankil by proxy, which went like this:

"So, Luxe, what's it like to work for Mr. Richilieu?"

"Not bad," he said. "Good hours, full benefits package…"

"But what about the killing people part?"

He sighed. "I don't like it, but I owe him my life. I feel obligated."

"I certainly hope that feeling is mutual."

"I'm sure it is."

"Oh, I wouldn't be," I said through Ilda. "Once you've got some metal in you, all you are is a piece of property." Ilda sighed for effect at my command. "Don't I know that all too well."

"You were once human?" Luxe asked.

"Well, no, but it doesn't matter to humans. Once you're a machine, you can forget any respect. Do you know why I'm asking you about this?"

"Why?"

"Because I know that Mr. Hawkins will throw me into the pot when he runs out of cash to bet with. It's the sort of thing humans do with robots…even living, thinking, feeling robots."

"But I'm a cyborg."

"Doesn't matter to them."

"Well, I'm sure that Mr. Richilieu sees me as a human being, not just a metal machine. I'm sorry Mr. Hawkins treats you so cruelly."

"Oh, he's not cruel, he's just human. Anyway, you're so sure about Mr. Richilieu's sense of loyalty…care to put your money where your mouth is?" By that time they had already arrived at the casino, fetched a dealer, and turned back to bring him to officiate over the game between myself and Darius.

The spirit, as I had hoped, drew Luxe in. "What do you have in mind?"

"Let's see if Mr. Richilieu puts you into the pot in response to Mr. Hawkins throwing me in. I win, you make a citizen's arrest even if Mr. Hawkins, by the terms of his bet, can't."

"You're crazy. If I arrest Mr. Richilieu, I'll be implicating myself as the murderer as well. No deal."

"Don't worry about that. Mr. Hawkins and I can convince a jury that Mr. Richilieu just used you as a tool and you weren't in control at that time. We've got good credibility."

"I can't just let Mr. Richilieu take the fall for everything!" he said, horrified.

"Your loyalty is admirable, Luxe, but trust me…he's only human. He doesn't feel that way toward you."


Once the dealer arrived, we settled into a few hands of poker. Finally, with three fives and an ace, I felt I had a decent shot at winning the hand, so I raised the stakes. "I'll raise you twenty thousand," I said.

Daruis smiled coolly from behind his cards, the smile of a practiced gambler. "I'll see your twenty and raise you fifty."

I obeyed and drew another card, by happy chance picking up the fourth five. "See, and raise…" I didn't have much left. Time for a double-or-nothing gambit. "I'm pretty much out of chips," I said. "But I'll throw in my robot Ilda."

Darius didn't blink an eye. "You can't fool a pro, Hawkins," he said. "I know a desperate bluff when I hear one. I'll see your bet. I'll match Ilda…with Luxe. And call."

I smiled smugly. "Four of a kind, plus ace-high. What have you got to beat that?"

Darius grinned from ear to ear. "Royal straight," he said, laying the evidence before me. "Read 'em and weep."

Rather than weeping, I continued to smile, though I couldn't contain my disappointment at being beaten with my best hand of the night…or my relief at having an ace up my sleeve (such as it were) despite the strength of my hand. Darius, for the first time, began to act a bit nervous. "You're looking happy for someone who's about to die."

Before I could respond personally, I sat back and watched my carefully laid plan reach fruition. Luxe Kankil approached his employer. "Mr. Richilieu, you're under arrest."

Darius turned to his wayward employee. "Are you mad? What's gotten into you, Luxe?"

"I didn't think you'd be willing to wager me away," the cyborg replied, with more than a little regret in his voice. "I was sure enough of it to make a bet with the little lady here," he said, pointing to Ilda. Richilieu, for the first time showing fright on his face, looked over at his dealer, who nodded silently, having been a witness to the bet. Then calm returned to Darius's face, and he sighed in defeat.

That's when I again broke my silence. "I told you, Mr. Richilieu: I never gamble. I win."

Epilogue:

I returned to headquarters, where I was debriefed by W. "So, Mr. Hawkins, it looks like the government of Earth and its colonies owe you a debt of gratitude. Certainly our agent does."

"The poor man," I said. "How's he handling it?"

"As well as can be expected," W said. "He'll have quite a bit of psychological trauma to overcome before we can even think of rehabilitating his body and replacing his arm. So why exactly did Richilieu kill so many people? He couldn't find a more efficient way to give away his gold?"

"Well, he wanted, at the same time, to convince people that providium was an unreliable substitute," I pointed out. "Anyway, I'm led to understand that this uncle of his from whom he inherited the gold was a similar sort of person, who used to kill people by asphyxiating them in sprayed gold dust. So apparently he inherited quite a bit from him."

"And what of the providium mines? When will they re-open for operation?"

"Uncertain," I said. "Rigel Follup is having some trouble recruiting new miners and arranging for a benefits package that can't be hijacked the way his was. I certainly hope Richilieu doesn't end up getting his way in the end."

"Well, there'll be no way to gauge that. Even if the Earth Parliament does decide to stick with gold, they might have done that without his interference. So, what're your plans for the future?"

"Well, I'll be taking some R&R before returning to work. O is letting me keep the SX-97 for a little while longer; to go out with someone."

"Ah," she said, with a knowing smile as she escorted me to the vehicle bay. "Romantic getaway, eh?"

"Less romantic than you think," I replied. "I'm actually double-dating." I opened the vehicle's door, revealing Sadie waiting for me…and Ilda, to W's surprise, in the back seat with Luxe.

As we departed, I could see O smiling and asking the shocked W, "Don't they make lovely couples?"

Dedicated to the memory of Desmond Llewelyn, 1914-1999.

There have been many Bonds, but there's only one Q.

Letters Editor Chaim Mattis Keller, aka Legion-Reference-File Lad, is a computer programmer who lives in New York City with his wife and four children.

 
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