I stopped just inside the door. Natalia followed, keeping the cap low over her face.
I said, "We're here to see Deborah Kelly."
"I'm Deborah Kelly," the woman said. "Senior Vice President. Chief Operating Officer." She gave me an appraising look, then said, "Your... associate contacted me. I agreed to meet, but something tells me this is out of the ordinary."
"Not normal S.O.P.," I said. "But under the circumstances..."
"Miss Renaldi is missing," I told her.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Natalia shoot me a furtive look from beneath the ballcap. I kept my eyes on Kelly.
I went on. "She was abducted about an hour ago by an unknown number of persons."
"I see." Kelly took a seat at the table then settled her gaze on me. "And this is what we paid you for? To lose your client?"
"It happens," I said.
"How nice. I'm sure Mr. Renaldi will be happy to hear that."
"We will get her back, Miss Kelly. Count on it."
"Don't tell me. Tell Mr. Renaldi. Although I don't think he'll appreciate your incompetence in this matter." She shook her head. "He should've hired Excalibur, the old fool--"
Natalia inhaled sharply and started forward. I stepped between her and Kelly.
"We do just fine, thanks," I said. "But my partner is kinda touchy about that. I wouldn't get her angry if I were you."
Kelly's eyes narrowed. "Is that a threat?"
I shrugged. "A warning."
"Our security teams are very quick."
"You don't want that. Could get messy."
Kelly studied me for a long moment. Then she said, "How do I know you're not making this up?"
"Would I be here if I was?"
"It could be a trick. Some kind of ploy to get more money out of Mr. Renaldi--"
"I never said anything about money."
She gave a start, then recovered. Too late. I caught it.
She said, "Then your fee hasn't changed?"
I looked at her. Her face had become expressionless again, but something flashed behind her eyes. Something predatory.
I smiled. "Tell Mr. Renaldi he'll probably get a call from the abductors demanding a ransom of some sort. Have him contact me through my associate. We'll help out as much as we can."
"You'll do more than that," a voice behind us rumbled.
I'd heard him padding down the hallway ten seconds before he spoke. Necessary skill in my line of work. Still, I turned around with the others.
Phillipe Renaldi stood in the doorway, suit jacket slung over one shoulder, tie loosened, sleeves rolled up. He looked as he did in the 'zines: tall and darkly handsome, like the leading men in one of Mouse's vids. The Aussie who played an ancient warrior, for instance.
But a scowl etched itself on his features. I'd seen that look before, on the faces of people I tend to encounter.
Out for blood.
Renaldi looked at me. "You are going to get my daughter back."
* * *
Renaldi followed me and Natalia back to the underground parking garage. He told us he had gotten the call from the abductors during his meeting, half an hour before he arrived in the conference room at the AstraNova building.
"By 18:00 tonight," he was saying.
I checked my optic clock. Two and a half hours. "Where?" I asked.
"They'd tell me. Half hour before."
Typical. "How much?"
I whistled. "Lot of money."
He grunted. "Chump change. We're talking about my daughter."
"I believe you do."
We reached the loaner. Natalia got into the passenger seat.
I pulled open my door.
Renaldi put a hand on the doorframe. "Despite what my colleague in there said, there's no blame. I knew the risks."
"We'll get her back, Mr. Renaldi."
"I know you will. When you do, I'll triple your fee."
I started to shake my head. "Sir--"
He smiled for the first time that evening. "Chump change. We're talking about my daughter."
I returned the smile, stared to get in the car, then stopped. I turned back to Renaldi. "Mr. Renaldi," I said, "I have a favor to ask."
* * *
We came up the parking garage ramp onto 6th Street in Renaldi's black BMW sedan. Behind us, the AstraNova building disappeared among the steel and glass towers of Corporate Plaza.
My cellphone chirped. Fast Eddie.
"You got something."
"Don't I always?" Eddie said.
"Spill it, choom."
"Better if I show you. Come to the shop."
"There in fifteen."
* * *
"She's dead," Fast Eddie said to me and upended another can of Tsunami Cola. "Or she's not."
We were in Fast Eddie's shop, an abandoned autobody shop off Edge Road on near the northeastern tip of the Southside District. Inside the converted repair bay, Eddie sat in a high-back leather chair in front of three tables connected in a U-shape set up against the wall. Empty soda cans and assorted electronic equipment trailing wires and cables occupied the two side tables. Three flat-screens, two keyboards, and a cyberdeck dominated the middle table.
Natalia sat on a stool off to one side. We exchanged looks. I turned back to Eddie.
"Say again?" I said.
"Deborah Kelly," Eddie said, tossing the empty can aside, "died 35 years ago. Or she's a 96-year-old widow still living in the Alliance." He leaned his wiry frame back into his seat, adjusting his rumpled white lab coat. "I'd go with the deceased."
"You're not making sense, Eddie," I said.
He swiveled his chair toward a keyboard and typed. A display window popped up on the center screen. Medical records. "Kelly, Deborah Anne," he read from the screen. "Born 12 April 2007 at 11:25 a.m. to Martin and Dana Kelly. Boston. Premature." He looked over his shoulder. "Died of complications two days later."
"So who were we talking to half and hour ago?" I said.
"Watch this," Eddie said and displayed another window on the monitor.
AstraNova's personnel files.
"Kelly came to work for AstraNova eleven years ago," said Eddie. "Personal data matches the baby from Boston. 'Cept for place of birth. That's registered as Chicago Metroplex. But I cross-reffed." He looked over his shoulder. "Her records are blank until eleven years ago."
"Not a damned thing."
"What's her personnel file say?"
"Climbed the ladder pretty fast. Made some choice deals that got her noticed. Took over as COO five years later. One year before the previous COO stepped down. Scandal."
"Lucky nothing." Eddie typed on the keyboard. Five display windows appeared on the monitor. Company profiles. "These are the companies she won contracts with three years after starting." He spun around, looked at me and Natalia, a smile creasing his face. "Guess what they have in common."
"Besides Kelly winning the contracts?"
"Family ties," Eddie said.
Son of a bitch.
Natalia's brow furrowed. "Family ties?"
"Crime Families, luv," Eddie said to her. "Organized crime."
(to be continued...)