Ice Machine

A bit of juvenilia from John Scalzi

Hi there. This science fiction story was written in two different times, both long ago. The first two chapters were written in my senior year of high school, and the final chapter was written in six hours during my final year of college, after I learned about a literary contest, the deadline of which was the next morning.

This is not a very good story, I'm afraid. The characterizations are shallow, the dialogue is show-offy, the plot is lame and the final chapter is just two guys talking at each other for eight thousand words. What can I say, I was seventeen (or twenty-one, depending). On the other hand, the story did come in third place for that literary contest and got me $250. So maybe it isn't all bad. Okay, it is. I think the judges knew I needed the cash.

At the very least, you can see some of the same sorts of things that exist in my writing today, here in (very) rough form. Some things never change, they just get done better.



Chapter One

Paul Foster found William Shaeffer in Papa Garibaldi's Pizza Place. Shaeffer was sitting on a small stage, strumming a song on the guitar. Paul thought it might be something from the Beatles, but he couldn't be sure. Nobody listened to that stuff anymore.

Shaeffer saw Foster approaching and decided to ignore him. This wasn't very hard for him to do; during all the time that Foster was his immediate superior, Shaeffer had ignored him without any effort. Now that Shaeffer no longer worked for Foster, ignoring him was that much easier.

"Shaeffer," Foster said. Shaeffer did not reply, and started playing another song. If Foster had known his Beatles, he would have recognized the song as "Run For Your Life." However, he didn't, so this was lost on him completely.




Still nothing.

"Shaeffer, I know you can hear me. Stop being childish. You were always childish, you know."

"Foster," growled Shaeffer, "didn't I tell you that if I ever saw you again, I would rip your heart from your body with my bare hands?"

"No, as a matter of fact, you didn't."

"Well, I should have," Shaeffer said. "I suppose it's too late to threaten you now."

"It is, unless you don't want to hear me tell you that you can have your job back at Aaron, Brown, and Corum."

Shaeffer looked at Foster at for the first time. "And what makes you think I want the job back? I don't need the aggravation, Foster. I don't want to get fat and bald, like you."

"Shaeffer, anything would be an improvement over what you're doing now. What are you doing now, anyway?"

"I'm the entertainment coordinator at this fine establishment." Shaeffer stopped playing and swept out an arm to encompass the pizzeria. Two booths were occupied. In one booth, a teenage couple were kissing and otherwise being generally unsanitary with each other. In the other, a small drunken man had collapsed into his pizza. Papa Garibaldi's poodle, in a gross violation of federal health codes, perched on the table, eating the pizza that was not covered by the drunkard's head.

Shaeffer took this all in and smiled. "Face it, Paul. I've got everything here. Fame, fortune, and all the greasy Italian food I can eat." He started playing again. "I don't think you'll be able to pry me away from this gig."

"I'm also supposed to tell you that you'll be receiving a $50,000 bonus."

Shaeffer stopped playing. "Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind."

Foster smiled. "I thought you might come around to my way of thinking."

"My only problem with this is that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. First, you want to give me my job back --"

"I never said I wanted you to have your job back."

" -- and then, to top it all off, you're going to give me a $50,000 bonus. Since when did I start doing things right? You must love me, Foster."

Foster sighed. "I repeat: I never said I wanted you to have your job back. As a matter of fact, if it were up to me, I would send you out on the next cruiser and sabotage the engines. You were a disgrace to the investigative division of Aaron, Brown and Corum."

"I had the best record of successful cases, Paul. Some disgrace."

"That's irrelevant. Your practices were unsound, your methods unethical, and your sense of morals skewed. You're also an asshole."

"Hey," Shaeffer said. "Watch the language, Paul. This is a family place."

"Despite your faults, or more accurately, probably because of them, the new owner of Aaron, Brown and Corum wants to get you 'back on the team,' to use his quaint phrase."

"Wait a minute. Back up. 'The new owner?' What's been going on over at the beloved firm that I don't know about?"

"Shaeffer, don't you read the newspapers at all?"

"No. I don't know how to read."

"I'm not surprised. The firm of Aaron, Brown and Corum, Attorneys at Law, Inc., was purchased by the Percy Investment Group two weeks ago."

"Percy Investment Group. Ah," Shaeffer said. "The one with the cute acronym."

"PIG. Right. It's mostly in media and entertainment, but it's been diversifying into services. Bought into a number of psychiatric hospitals a year ago, and made an unsuccessful bid for UPS last May."

"So why would PIG want to buy ABC, Atty., Inc. ?"

"To quote J. Allen Percy, founder, chairman, and principal stockholder of the Percy Investment Group, 'Because it's there."'

Shaeffer picked at his strings. "Sounds like this Percy character woke up, took a shower, had some breakfast, bought the firm, and went to the links for his daily eighteen."

"It would have been fine if he had stayed on the course. But he went looking through the company's files instead. And found yours. He called me and told me to send you up. When I told him you had quit --"

"Quit? There's a euphemism."

"-- He told me to find you. When I said I didn't know if I could, he suggested that, if I did not, I ought not bother with coming in tomorrow."

Shaeffer smirked. "Sweet guy. I'd love to meet him."

"Don't worry. You will."

"I was joking."

"I'm not. I was told that upon your acceptance of reemployment, which I hope for my sake is not too far in the future, I was to give you a check for $50,000, and the address of Percy's home, at which you are expected at ten tomorrow, for tea and conversation. I think you'll like him, Shaeffer. He's an asshole, too."

"My, but aren't we in a testy mood today?" Shaeffer pulled up to Foster in mock concern. "What's the matter, Paul? Someone forget to wake you for your four o'clock feeding?"

Foster glared back. "Listen to me, Shaeffer. Today my job was threatened by someone I don't know in order for him to meet someone I wish didn't exist. These things don't happen to me every day. They are your fault. I'm not happy. In fact, I'm pretty angry. In fact, I am struggling, at this moment, to keep myself from wrapping my fingers around your throat. So, if you would kindly accept this offer of employment, I would be grateful, and you would walk out of here alive."

"Well," Shaeffer said. "How can I argue with that. I accept."

"Thank you." Foster pulled out an envelope. "Here is your check. You will find Percy's address inside the envelope as well. I'm sure you'll find J. Allen an interesting experience. And, Shaeffer, try to make a good impression. If you don't , he might fire me for finding you."


J. Allen Percy's idea of tea and conversation was rocketing around the grounds of his considerable estate in his souped-up Rolls-Royce convertible aircar with a can of beer in his hand. Shaeffer was not sure if their ideas meshed at all.

"Now this is living!" Percy hollered at Shaeffer, not for emphasis, but to be heard. "Here we are, in a fast car, wind whipping by at 200 kph-plus, a can of Bud in our hands, having the time of our lives! How could it get any better?"

"It could get better if there were seatbelts!" Screamed Shaeffer, who noticed that the odometer registered 220 kph.

"Seatbelts?" Percy goggled at Shaeffer. "Seatbelts are for wimps! I figure anyone who can't handle their aircar, regardless of speed, terrain, or weather conditions, shouldn't be driving in the first place! Whoa!" The aircar tumbled down an embankment. A third of Shaeffer's Bud spilled into his crotch.

"Gotta watch for those!" Percy yelled at Shaeffer. "You okay?!?"

"No, not really."

"Nonsense! Sure you are!" Percy took the aircar up another embankment at a ninety degree angle. "Anyway, when I got this baby, I took out the seatbelts! Haven't had any problems yet!"

"Don't be too sure," mutter Shaeffer.

"What? Did you say something?"


"Oh! Hell! Ain't it a beautiful day? When I bought this property twenty years ago, there was nothing on it but scrub brush! Look at it now! Ain't it beautiful! Best damn 100,000 acres anywhere! Don't you think so?"

"They would be a lot nicer if you slowed down so I could see them!"

Percy laughed. "I'll be damned if you don't have the best sense of humor!"

"Who's laughing?"

"Oh, come on! You think this is fast?!? Hell!" Percy swerved to avoid a deer and pegged the accelerator to the floor, smashing Shaeffer back into his seat. Shaeffer noticed that they were headed directly for a large grove of trees.

Percy turned to Shaeffer. "You like country music?"

"It's not my favorite, no," Shaeffer admitted.

"I love the stuff. Can't get enough of it. I got some really good tapes down here somewhere..." Percy reached down into his tape case, taking his hands off the wheel to do so. The Rolls dipped dangerously close to the ground. Shaeffer, who had been trying to keep hold of his seat and his can of beer at the same time, tossed the can and grabbed onto his seat with new determination.

The odometer registered 275 kph.

"You like Willie Nelson?" asked Percy.

Shaeffer decided not to argue. "Sure I do! Love his stuff!"

"I hate him. Can't stand him. Waylon Jennings, though. Now there's a real country singer. He went to prison, you know. Knows what life's about."

"Listen," Shaeffer said. "I'm sure glad to know about Waylon Jennings, but right now, we are heading towards some very large trees at --" Shaeffer checked the odometer "-- 307 kph, and if you don't put your hands on the wheel real soon, I think we are going to crash and die, and I don't know about you, but that doesn't seem like a good idea to me."

"Hmm?" Percy peered up from his tape case and looked judiciously at the oncoming trees. "Don't be silly. We have plenty of time." He went back to his tape case, got a tape, put it in, pressed the play button. That accomplished, he placed one hand on the wheel and the other on a small lever sticking out of the dashboard. The trees became dangerously large.

Waylon Jennings came on the speakers.

Percy pulled the lever. The aircar went on its side, slipping vertically through spaces that would have spelled death horizontally. Percy hummed and blazed through the trees as if there was nothing unusual about his driving at all. Shaeffer tore at his armrest so he would not fall onto Percy, who sat, humming, below him.

Shaeffer looked out briefly, saw a brown haze of trees, and decided it would best to keep his eyes closed.

A few seconds later, Shaeffer felt the car return to normal and opened his eyes. He glared at J. Allen Percy.

"You, sir, are mentally unbalanced."

Percy didn't answer this directly. "You know why I like country music?" he asked, turning Waylon Jennings down so he could talk.

"I can't imagine."

"Because it's so consistent. Ever since it began. It hasn't changed a damn bit. That's integrity. That's consistency."

"It's also boring as hell."

"Noted. Most consistent things tend to be. Most. You know what I like more than consistency?"

"Driving by sense of smell."

"I like boldness. The ability to look at something and make it work from a completely different angle." Percy stopped talking for a moment. "'Driving by sense of smell.' Should I?"

"I'd rather you not."

"Right. But that would be boldness. Taking something and reworking it from a new perspective."

"It would also get you killed."

Percy laughed. "You make me laugh, Shaeffer. You don't treat me with any respect at all."

"You haven't earned it. Driving through a small forest sideways intimidates the hell of out me, true. But it doesn't make me respect you."

"Well, that's fair enough. I should say, however, that I have a measure of respect for you."

"That's interesting," Shaeffer said. "Why?"

"Because if there's something I like more than consistency and boldness, it is someone who can synthesize the two together. Boldness in execution, consistency in results leads to the creation of a character who is larger than life. It is what legends are made of. Washington. Napoleon. Einstein. Mozart. Hearst. Myself."

"I knew that was coming."

"And you, Shaeffer."

"Oh, please," Shaeffer said, annoyed. "I'm nobody's legend."

"No, you're not, but you've got all the ingredients for full blown legendhood in you. Whether or not you achieve it is of no concern to me. What is of concern to me is that these ingredients make you the best at what you do. There is no one better than you, Shaeffer."

"That's not what Paul Foster thinks."

Percy waved a dismissing hand. "Paul Foster is confined by his own mind. He's too caught up in the trees to see the forest. Being a small tree, he expects the big trees to be just like him. The big trees, meanwhile, have other plans."

Shaeffer smiled. "And what plans do you have for me, O mighty redwood?"

"I have an assignment for you. Offworld, and I know you don't like those. But, as I said, you are the best, and only the best will do for this assignment. This assignment is a fairly big affair, and it could do one of two things. If handled badly, it could blow up in your face quite literally. However, if it is handled successfully, not only will it be good for Aaron, Brown and Corum's investigative division, but, in the process, you could become very, very famous. Very well known. Much respected, admired, and looked up to."

"In other words," Shaeffer said, "a legend."

"We understand each other, Mr. Shaeffer."

"Ooh. Appeal to my vanity, why don't you."

"Why not? It always works."

"On me?"

"On everybody. You're not that special. Yet."


Shaeffer was greeted at the door of the investigative division of Aaron, Brown and Corum by Paul Foster.

"I've been dreading this moment," Paul said.

"Jesus, Paul," Shaeffer said. "Give me a break. I haven't been on the floor more than ten seconds, and already you're on my case. Truce? At least let me spill coffee on your tie before you blow up on me."

Foster ignored this. "What do you know about Ceres?"

"Ceres?" Shaeffer blinked. "What, the goddess?"

"The asteroid colony."

"It's Las Vegas in space. And they do some manufacturing there too, I think. I don't know. Why?"

Foster slapped a folder onto Shaeffer's chest. "You're going there, that's why." He began to walk down a corridor.

Shaeffer followed, flipping through the folder. "What's at Ceres that needs me to go there?"

Foster looked back. "Shaeffer, when you told me you couldn't read, I thought you were joking. Now I'm not too sure."

"What do my mental deficiencies have to do with Ceres?"

"Because if you took the time to read the newspaper, you would know that there's been a series of murders on Ceres."

"So? Not that I condone wholesale slaughter of human beings, but I would assume that Ceres security forces could handle the job. Murders are commonplace in asteroid colonies, anyway. People figure they've got several million miles between them and anything else, get a little crazy, and shoot their neighbors out of sheer boredom."

Foster reached a door and stopped walking. "I'm sure you're absolutely correct, Shaeffer. However, it really doesn't concern me anymore, because I am not in charge of this case."

"What do you mean?"

"When you got rehired, Shaeffer, I specifically asked not to have you assigned under me. I have better things to do then pulling you out of the holes you dig for yourself. Thankfully, they granted my request."

Shaeffer look hurt. "Well, golly, Paul. And here I thought there were no hard feelings. I was going to get you a present."

"Get a clue instead. Goodbye, Shaeffer. Your new superior is behind this door. Welcome back. If you ever come over my side of the building, I will have you killed." Foster walked off. Shaeffer, mildly amused, watched him go.

From the other side of the door Shaeffer heard a female voice. "Doors work better if you knock on them," it said.

Shaeffer shook himself out of his daze. "Excuse me?"

"I said, doors work better if you knock on them. It keeps the person on the other side from having to guess if someone is there."

"I haven't knocked," Shaeffer said. "How did you know I was here?"

"I heard Paul Foster bitching at you."

"Well, now that you know I'm here, what's the point in knocking?"

"Because," the voice said, "it is the correct thing to do. Because if you don't knock, I won't give you permission to enter my office. Because if you try to enter my office without my permission, I have a very large caliber gun that has a bullet with your name on it."

"You're kidding," Shaeffer said.

"Possibly," the voice admitted. "What do you think?"

Shaeffer knocked.

"Come in," said the voice.

Shaeffer opened the door and went in.

It was a very classy office. The wall were paneled with oak. The furniture was made from the finest cherry, ebony and mahogany woods. Shaeffer looked at it all. "What did you do," he said, "deforest a small country?"

"Would you prefer plywood and lawnchairs?"

"That's what I have at my house, what's wrong --" Shaeffer stopped as he got his first look at the body from which the voice emanated. He was very impressed. The body was 165 centimeters tall, slender, with brown hair and brown eyes. It carried itself very well as it walked out from behind a huge oak desk over to a cherry file cabinet. Shaeffer stared as it opened the cabinet and flipped though some files.

"We can start as soon as you stop drooling," she said.

Shaeffer closed his mouth. "Sorry."

She nodded and pointed at a chair. "Have a seat," she said, sitting behind her desk and opening the file she had brought from the cabinet. She started to look through it.

Shaeffer sat down and extended his hand. "Hi. My name is William Shaeffer."

"I know," she said. She didn't look up from her file.

"What can I do for you?"

She didn't answer.

"I'm very good at doing things for people."

She flipped a page.

"How about lunch? I was going to take Paul Foster, but he's being anti-social. How about Chinese?"

Without looking, she flashed out a hand, grabbed Shaeffer by the tie, and pulled him onto the desk so hard his teeth clacked together. Finally, she looked at him.

"You are coming very close to annoying me, Shaeffer."

"What, you don't like Chinese?"

"Shut up. Listen to me, Shaeffer. Let's get something straight. I've heard about you. I have neither the patience nor the lack of self-esteem to put up with your pathetic come-ons or your sad attempts at wit and urbanity. I would ask you to try to elevate your mentality a few rungs on the evolutionary ladder when you speak to me. Try, in short, to be civilized."

"I was being civilized. I invited you to lunch. That's being civilized. It's not my fault you react so violently to Chinese food."

She tightened her grip on his tie.

"Look," Shaeffer said, "you can't strangle me until we've been formally introduced."

"Why not?"

"Because that's not the correct thing to do. I would expect you to know that, at least."

"My name is Andrea Percy."

"Percy? You're not related to that madman who I had the misfortune to take a drive with, are you?"

"He's my father, as a matter of fact."

"Oh. Listen," said Shaeffer, "why don't you kill me now, before I choke to death on my feet? I can't seem to do anything right this morning."

Andrea let go of Shaeffer's tie and pushed him away. "Get off my desk, Shaeffer."

"Gladly." Shaeffer sat himself back into his seat. "Let's start over, shall we? What can I do for you?"

"What do you know about Ceres?"

"There has been a series of murders that the security there hasn't been able to do anything about."

"That's not too bad."

"I was briefed."

"Two days ago, the management of the Ceres colony issued the following statement." Andrea handed a piece of paper over to Shaeffer. "What it says, basically, is that the Ceres management is accepting outside help in the search for the murderer, with the reward for this person's capture placed at one million dollars."

Shaeffer looked over the paper at Andrea. "I can read," he said.

"That's not what I was told."

"What it says, basically," said Shaeffer, tossing the paper back at Andrea, "is that the management is condoning bounty hunting within the walls of the Ceres colony."

"That's correct."

"Well, that certainly is  swell. You're going to have a lot of trigger-happy amateurs blowing holes in each other. And probably everybody else in the process."

"That's correct as well."

"And I assume that your father, who now runs this firm, wants me to go out to Ceres, guns strapped to my side, and find this psycho because it appeals to his sense of romanticism."

"That too is correct."

"Well, he can go to Hell, as far as I'm concerned. I'm not that romantic. What could I do, anyway? There are probably enough professional bounty hunters out there already. Probably too many."

Andrea handed him another paper. "It seems that the murderer is killing bounty hunters as well. This morning, as a matter of fact, two of them were found murdered in the same manner as the previous victims."

"And your father thinks I, a simple private detective, could handle this slasher?"

"He seems to think that you possess some sort of extraordinary ability that would allow you to do what the bounty hunters couldn't. I think he's probably wrong--"


"-- but my father also has a knack for choosing his people wisely. So there must be more to you than I have seen so far. But I wonder."

"If you would've let me take you to lunch, you would have seen a whole other side to me."

"You probably chew with your mouth open," Andrea said.

"I do not," Shaeffer said, indignantly.

"In any case," Andrea continued, "you don't have too much choice in the matter, as you are scheduled to leave for Ceres on the next cruiser."

"What?" Shaeffer gripped the sides of his chair. "Since when?"

"Since yesterday. You are leaving for Ceres in four hours."

"Four hours? Wha --" Shaeffer got up and paced angrily for about two seconds. "What the hell does you father get out of this anyway?" Shaeffer asked Andrea. "He doesn't need the million dollars, that's for sure. He makes that much in interest payments in an hour."

"I believe he has already discussed this with you. The benefits are thus: first, it would look good for you, because you would have captured the 'infamous Ceres Series Killer,' as they call him in the tabloids. You would receive the million dollars, as well as being the subject of numerous articles and stories, in addition to probably receiving offers for movie depictions of your life.

"Second, it looks good for the company, who will realize an increase in the number of clients, all of whom will be willing to pay through the nose to have the 'famous' firm of Aaron, Brown, and Corum on the case. Third, and most important to my father, it will make him look good, since he owns the firm. And, since my father has bigger plans, anything that makes him look good is good. Those are the benefits. For everyone --"

"Has your father considered the possibility that I could get killed?"


"And ?" Shaeffer motioned her to continue.

She shrugged. "I guess that he's decided that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages."

For him, sure. For me, certainly not."

"Than you should attempt to keep yourself from being killed." Andrea rose from her seat and glanced at her watch. "If I were you, Shaeffer, I would go home and pack. You don't have much time. That folder that Paul Foster gave you should have all the information you will need. Your tickets will be waiting at the spaceport. Please be prompt, as I'm sure World Spacelines won't want to hold back their departure time on account of you."

"They wouldn't wait."

"Yes they would. My father owns World Spacelines."

"Then why should I rush? I could take my rime and organize my socks, it I wanted to."

"Because I don't like to be kept waiting, either."

Shaeffer blinked. "Come again?"

"I'm going to Ceres also."


"Because I'm supposed to watch how you work. And something else. I've read your file, Shaeffer. Very impressive. My father thinks you're a genius."

"It's true."

"Nonsense. You've just been lucky. It's my personal guess that you are going to make a mistake on this one. I want to be there when it happens. And then, after you've made your mistake, I want to go to my father and laugh in his face."


Mrs. Grinowski, who lived down the hall from Shaeffer, looked through the peephole. Shaeffer was on the other side. When she opened the door, Shaeffer thrust his cat into her arms.

"Have a cat," he said. The cat, named Trotsky for the red streak on the back of its head, purred absentmindedly.

"Of course, I'll take care of Trotsky," Mrs. Grinowski said. "Where are you going this time, William?"

"I'm going to Ceres."

"Is that far away?"

"I have a vague feeling it's not too attached to reality, if that says anything."

"What are you going to do there?"

"Well, if everything goes well, I will shoot someone, become famous, get a million dollars, have a movie made on the incident, and retire to a life of quiet debauchery. If things do not go well, I will get hideously mutilated, and, after my body is processed at some fertilizer factory, a rather cold and frigid young woman is going to have a good laugh at my expense."

"Well," Mrs. Grinowski said, doubtfully, "I'm not sure if I approve of this."

"That's okay," said Shaeffer. "I'm not sure I do, either."



Chapter Two


Shaeffer hated space travel. More than anything else Shaeffer hated, from snotty waiters to Brussel sprouts, earthworms to evangelists, Shaeffer hated space travel. Given a choice of space travel and having earthworms and Brussel sprouts served to him by an evangelist with attitude, Shaeffer would have picked the latter, provided that he was on terra firma.

As it was, Shaeffer's in-flight meal was floating uneasily in his stomach, slapping up against the sides and occasionally traveling up the tubes and knocking on his epiglottis to see if anything was going on. To keep his mind occupied on things other than his dinner, Shaeffer looked through, for the second time, the file that Foster gave him.

The first section of the file gave information on Ceres Station. Ceres Station, a small elliptical asteroid positioned in orbit around Ceres itself, was touted as one of man's greatest architectural achievements. Shaeffer looked at the accompanying picture and thought that it looked like a rock with hoops sticking out of it. The hoops were habitation rings, which ran through the asteroid in some parts, occasionally bursting out of the rock, and submerging again when the asteroid coincided with the ring's circumference. There were three such rings, nestled one in another, providing different G's for different purposes. The whole asteroid rotated along an axis to maintain one G in the outer ring.

Ceres Station came into existence a half century before, not long after Dr. Alan Ring synthesized a jelly-like substance that possessed the interesting property: the ability to radiate heat out and away. It was, in effect, a one-way molecular conduit for heat, with the one way being out. A superthermal substance.

This substance had great and immediate application for things like refrigeration and air conditioning, and was particularly helpful on early low-relativistic-speed cruisers, whose reaction engines had an unfortunate tendency to overheat and explode, taking the ship (and attendant cargo, crew and passengers) with them. RingIce, as this substance came to be called, eliminated this messy and potentially embarrassing problem admirably, making space travel safe and effective, spaceship companies happy, and Dr. Ring very rich.

Later improvements in RingIce production achieved through production in low-G chambers dictated a move off-planet and into space. Ceres was selected by Dr. Ring because the presence of water on the asteroid (water of hydration, which gives Ceres its comparatively low density of 2.3 g/cm. cubed, a piece of information that Shaeffer found he couldn't care less about) would allow the Ringice Corporation to produce their product without importing water over interplanetary distances, a hugely expensive proposition. Ceres Station was constructed to house the RingIce corporation, its offices, its laboratories, its workers and their families.

In the time since its construction, Ceres Station had become the hub of commerce between Earth and the outer planets, pulling in a sizable chunk of revenue as a fueling depot, as a trade center, and as a vacation resort in the Las Vegas tradition. Presently, Ceres Station was home to some 530,000 inhabitants, and as many as two million people were On Station at any one time, buying, selling, relaxing, dealing, whatever people do.

The end result of this bustle and activity was to make the RingIce Corporation in the enviable position of being almost too rich. There were very few corporations that could equal its economic power and influence.

The end result of being almost too rich, however, was to make the quarterly board meetings of the RingIce Corporation, a publicly-owned company, the stuff of legend. The internal politics of the RingIce Corporation made the intrigues of the Italian city states of the Renaissance look like second-rate soap operas. Every quarter, the financial journals would speculate that this would be the meeting where the board of directors would finally turn against the Ring family, the largest, but by no means majority, stockholders, and install a new CEO. And every quarter, after long, bitter and sometimes physically violent meetings, the Ring family, headed by Dr. Ring's son, Charles, maintained their leadership of the company that bore its name. Rarely in the history of the world had so much agitation produced so little result.

Shaeffer read all of this, absorbed it, then put that part of the file down and picked up another section. This section was thick, due to the number of photographs it held. Shaeffer glanced at the pictures, grimaced, put them down, and read the report.

The report concerned the recent murders on Ceres Station. Twenty-three people had been killed on Ceres since the murders began a month back. Each murder had been performed in the same manner: The victim had been shot, the body disemboweled, and, for some reason known only to the murderer, the right hand sawed off at the wrist and taken. Someone on Ceres had a collection of right hands.

It was the opinion of Ceres Security that the victims had been shot first, and were therefore generally dead before the murderer proceeded with the rest of his agenda. Shaeffer looked at the pictures again and decided that this was a good thing, relatively speaking.

Added to the report was another slip of paper updating the file with the information on the two bounty hunters. These two loud and obnoxious men, it seemed, arrived at Ceres declaring loudly to all within earshot their intention to dismantle the station level by level until they found the scum that had been dissecting the good people of Ceres. Having said this, they bounded into the streets and were found twenty-four hours later, shot, disemboweled, and missing digits.

Shaeffer noted that his prediction concerning bounty hunters and their over-enthusiastic methods was correct: so far, three other bounty hunters were dead, shot by others of their kind who had concluded that anyone besides them who was carrying a gun must be the murderer. In addition to these, the casualty list included two bounty hunters who were wounded but unfortunately not killed, five wounded bystanders, a large dog, and a child-sized mannequin. Shaeffer felt sure that Ceres Security was beginning to regret its decision.

The final section of the file grated against Shaeffer's mind like sandpaper. The firm had decided that Shaeffer would be able to complete his job more quickly and efficiently if he were "undercover." To this, Shaeffer held no opinion. What he did have an opinion on, however, was the persona he was asked to assume. He was supposed to be a bounty hunter.

"Absolutely not," Shaeffer said to Andrea when he first read the file, immediately after departure. "It's bad enough I have to fly through space in this rinky-dink can. I have no intention of walking around Ceres like a Guns & Ammo poster boy."

Andrea, who had been resting, cracked open an eye. "What are you whining about now?"

"Why do I have to be a bounty hunter? Why can't you make me dignified?"

"Shaeffer, two bounty hunters were found dead."

"So? What about them?"

"What does the fact that these two men were found dead tell you?"

"That our murderer friend knew that these people were coming him, and got to them before they got to him. I realize this. I also realize that going in with my six-shooters blazing will put me at the top of this character's list of people to shoot and maim, a place I do not want to be."

"But since you are going to be so high on the list, he will come looking for you instead of you having to look for him. This will save you an enormous amount of time."

Shaeffer snorted. "Great. Unfortunately, I don't know what I'm up against, here. Who is doing this? What does he look like? Is he short? Tall? Green with mean little red eyes? Is he a he? Might not he be a she? Could he or she actually be a we? Do you know? I sure as hell don't. And by the time I figure it out, I'll probably have a few slugs in me and my right hand chopped off. So you can tell your father that I am not walking into this thing with a neon sign saying 'Kill Me First!' Your father seems to have a death wish for me. First the drive, now this. Why doesn't he just blow a hole in my head and get it over with? Why prolong my misery?"

Andrea gave up trying to rest. "My father doesn't want you dead, Shaeffer."

"Good. Then he won't mind if I go in there as a Certified Public Accountant instead."

"I'm afraid you don't have any choice in the matter."

Shaeffer pushed himself into his seat insolently. "I figured. Would you kindly tell me why?"

"Because Ceres knows you are coming. 'You' being Evan Sheen, bounty hunter. The firm has created quite a character. 'You' were a CIA operative who had a rather checkered but successful career in that agency before you entered private practice."

"Ah. I see. I just hope no one takes the time to ask the CIA about me."

"If they did, they would find that the CIA is perfectly aware of your existence."

"Which 'my' existence? William Shaeffer or Evan Sheen?"

"Evan Sheen."

Shaeffer glanced over at Andrea. "How did your father manage that?"

"A lot of people owe my father."

"Well. What does this assumed identity do for me?"

"Any number of things. First, we told Ceres Security that you were coming, and gave them your credentials. They are very interested in working with you, and have assured us that they would assist you in every possible way."

"Imagine my relief."

"Don't be ungrateful. The information they give you could keep you alive."

"I doubt it."

"Second, your arrival is being leaked."

"Big deal. Even if I have an impressive record, that record's on paper. No one has ever met or even heard of Evan Sheen."

"My father has taken the liberty of planting 'bounty hunters' who have heard of you."

"Your father takes a lot on himself, Andrea."

"My father wants this to go off without hitches, Shaeffer. Even you can appreciate that."

"Hmmph," Shaeffer said. "No doubt these 'bounty hunters' are filling the barrooms of Ceres with tales of my incredible intelligence, superhuman abilities, and inexhaustible sexual prowess."

"No doubt."

"Well, at least they won't have to lie."

Andrea looked at Shaeffer sourly. "You really are a disgusting human being, Shaeffer. When I met you, I suspected that the thin coating of slime you bear went further than skin-deep, but I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. I shouldn't have."

"Gosh, Andrea," Shaeffer said, "you're absolutely right. I am without any redeeming qualities whatsoever. As a matter of fact, I am so disgusted with the way I turned out that as soon as I am done talking to you, I am going to toss myself out the nearest airlock." Shaeffer stood up and started to signal for the stewardess.

Andrea grabbed his hand and pulled him back down to his seat. "Stop it," she said.

"Golly, Andrea, you've taken my hand. Does this mean we're going steady now? Gosh," Shaeffer tugged at his collar with his free hand, "I'm getting all moist and clammy all of a sudden...."

Andrea thrust his hand away. "You make me sick."

Shaeffer looked at her intently. "It may just be me, madam, but I think that I'm not the only one here with personality problems. Andrea, you are a very cold person. I imagine you have a hard time keeping your blood from freezing and rupturing your arteries."

Andrea's eyes narrowed. "What are you trying to say?"

"I just don't think it's very normal, that's all. I can't see how someone like you came from someone like your father. Your mother must have been a meat freezer."

"Wait," Andrea held up a hand. "What do you mean, you can't see me coming from my father?"

"Just that. I'd say your father is on the other siae of the emotional spectrum, if you know what I mean."

"No, I don't know what you mean at all. My father, Shaeffer, is quite cold-blooded and logical. Otherwise he could not have made it as far as he has."

"I'd say driving through trees at 307 kph is not the mark of a cold-blooded and logical man."

"Rest assured, Shaeffer, that my father ran you through that gauntlet for some reason of his own. It was a test, if you will."

"Test of what?"

"I haven't the slightest idea. I'm not my father. But I do take after him. You may count on that. All of this is digression, Shaeffer. The topic under discussion is your persona, Evan Sheen. I think you realize by now that this persona cannot be dropped, so I would suggest that you spend the time between now and arrival to Ceres Station getting into character. I want you to feel entirely comfortable being Evan Sheen by the time we get to Ceres." Andrea closed her eyes again, and appeared to go to sleep. Shaeffer grumpily started reading through his papers.

An hour into his reading, Shaeffer looked at Andrea, who still had her eyes closed. "And who are you supposed to be on this trip?" he asked, rhetorically.

Without opening her eyes, Andrea said, "I get to be your wife, Shaeffer. Consider yourself lucky."

"Lucky. Sure," Shaeffer said, looking out the port window at the blackness beyond. "Well, golly," he said to himself, "this is just getting better and better."


Just after arrival, Shaeffer belched loudly and hiked up his pants.

"What are you doing?" Andrea snapped, looking around to make sure none of the other passengers were watching.

"Listen," Shaeffer said. "You wanted a bounty hunter, you're going to get a bounty hunter. As long as I have to do this anyway, I might as well enjoy it." He grabbed Andrea and kissed her sloppily.

Andrea pulled away savagely. "If you ever do that again," she said, "I will kill you."

Shaeffer smiled at her sweetly. "There you are wrong, my little muffin. Because if you are supposed to be my wife, you might as well start acting that way in public. Now, given bounty hunters' lack of taste in general, and lack of taste in women in particular, Evan Sheen's ideal wife would be a bimbo." He looked Andrea up and down appraisingly. She was dressed like the female executive she was and wore very little makeup. "You, my dear, are not a bimbo. But we'll change that." Shaeffer saw the docking door open, belched again, and got up.

"Where are you going?" Andrea asked.

"We are going shopping. We need to get you out of these clothes and put you into something unrespectable." Shaeffer linked an arm around one of hers and pulled her towards an exit.

They hit a gift shop first. Shaeffer bought a T-shirt with "Ceres Station is Way out" written across the chest and a pair of shorts.

Andrea looked at the shorts. "These shorts are too small."

Shaeffer smiled. "I know."

"You're dead."

"I know. Go change." He pointed to the women's room.

Five minutes later Shaeffer slammed into the women's room. "Andrea!" he yelled. "Godammit, where the hell are you?!?" He belched. The women at the sinks stared.

From a stall at the far side of the restroom, Shaeffer heard a small voice. "I'm over here, dear."

Shaeffer went over to the stall and tossed a small tote bag he had over the top of the door. "I bought you a tote bag to put your old clothes in. You'll also find some cosmetics in the bag. I suggest you use them. Heavily."

From the other side of the door, Andrea hissed out a whisper. "Get out of here, Shaeffer. You don't just walk into a women's room."

"I just did. You forget, I'm a big bad bounty hunter. I can do anything I want." Shaeffer raised his voice. "Hurry it up, woman! I ain't got all day! Jesus!" Shaeffer belched, thought about it, and belched again.

"Shaeffer," Andrea whispered, and Shaeffer noted that it was the first time he had heard a pleading tone in that voice, "could you please go away? I'll be right out. Go away. This is very embarrassing."

"Hey," said Shaeffer, "I'm just 'getting into character."' He hiked up his pants banged his hand on the stall door, and looked lecherously at every female on his way out.

When Andrea emerged from the women's room, she found that Shaeffer had hailed a cab buggy and was waiting inside. As she got in, Shaeffer gave a nice appreciative whistle. "My, my," he said, sardonically, "don't we look nice."

"Eat it," Andrea said. "I'm getting out of this as soon as we get to the hotel."


"Whatever." She looked around. "Where's my luggage?"

"I threw it out," Shaeffer said, typing the address of the Ceres Motel into the cab buggy's passenger terminal. "I knew that you might want to 'get out of character' once we got to the motel. But, you know, this is a twenty-four hour a day job."

"Christ," Andrea said, and looked at her apparel. "This is humiliating."

"Sure is," Shaeffer said. "Almost, but not quite, as humiliating as having to be a bounty hunter. But don't worry. I'm not humiliated by the way you look. Really. By the way, I got you these." Shaeffer pulled out some long gold-electroplated rope necklaces and a pair of huge hoop earrings. "They should complete the picture quite nicely." He handed them to Andrea, who looked at them distastefully before putting them on.

"I'm not going to forget this," she said, as they pulled up to the Ceres Motel.

Shaeffer looked her up and down. "Neither am I," he said, and climbed out of the cab before she could retort.

The Ceres Motel was a dump.

"Welcome to the Ceres Motel." The clerk didn't bother with looking up from his newspaper. "What can I do you?"

"We'd like a room," Shaeffer said, as Andrea came up.



"You gonna want double beds?"

"Yes," Andrea said, quickly.

"Ain't got no double beds."

Shaeffer put his arm around Andrea's shoulder. "That's all right," he said.

"No, it's not," said Andrea.

"Of course it is, darling," Shaeffer said, constricting his grip.

"Are you going to take a room or not?" asked the clerk.

"Yes," Shaeffer said, casually putting his hand over Andrea's mouth.

"Room 13," the clerk said, and gave Shaeffer the room key, looking up for the first time and getting a gander at Andrea.

"Looks like you're in for a good time," the clerk said to Shaeffer.

"Don't be too sure." Shaeffer took the key.


"Hello," the man at the door said. "Are you Evan Sheen?"

"Sometimes," said Shaeffer.

"Pardon?" The man stared.

"Yes, I am," Shaeffer said. "Who are you?"

The man pulled out a wallet with a badge. "I am Security Agent James Brigs. I thought I might talk to you about this case."

Shaeffer took the badge and examined it. He handed it back. "Come in, Brigs. Anything new?"

"Well," said Brigs, entering and, after Shaeffer had motioned, sitting down, "There was another murder today shortly before you arrived. Another bounty hunter, it seems. The usual procedure: shot, gutted, and so on."

"Not very pretty, eh? Would you like something to drink, Brigs? I sent my wife out for a sixer about an hour ago."

"I suppose that would be fine, but --"

"Andrea! Andrea!! Get me two glasses of beer! You hear me?"

From the other room came a muffled reply. "I hear you."

"Well, speed it up! Jesus!"

Andrea came out with two plastic cups filled with beer. She handed one to Brigs, who took it and muttered his thanks. She turned to give the other cup to Shaeffer, caught her foot on Brigs' chair, tripped, and spilled the beer down Shaeffer's front.

"Thanks," said Shaeffer.

"It was an accident," Andrea said, mildly, and left. Brigs chuckled into his beer. Shaeffer glared at him.

"Sorry." Brigs put his beer down. "What I came here to tell you, anyway, is that our murderer is taking a new direction."

Shaeffer, who was putting a new shirt, looked over shoulder. "Really? How so?"

"It seems he doesn't have interest in the ordinary citizens of Ceres anymore. He's more interested in going after the bounty hunters now."

"Well, if I had a bunch of trigger-happy assholes after me, I'd be plugging them first, too. I imagine this guy has some amount of self-preservation. But we already knew he was gunning for the bounty hunters."

"You don't have the full story, Mr. Sheen. The murderer is leaving his victims where bounty hunters would find them first. The latest victim was found in the hallway of the Expressway Motel, where a Mr. Alvin Waters, bounty hunter, is currently residing. According to witnesses, there was a note addressed to Mr. Waters."

"What did it say?"

"We don't know. Apparently, Mr. Waters read the note, went into his room, got his guns, and left before the police arrived at the scene. I wouldn't be surprised if he lands on someone's doorstep sometime soon."

Shaeffer took a chair and sat down. "And you think he's going to show up on mine."

"Well, if not him, the one after him. Or maybe the one after. But eventually, this murderer is going to leave his calling card. You have a considerable reputation, you know."

"So I've heard."

"What I'd like to do is work with you on this. When someone shows up on your doorstep, I want to know about it. And I want to know what's in those notes he sends." Brigs rose from his chair and handed Shaeffer a card. "When anything happens, give me a call."

Shaeffer looked at the card. "Is this your office number?"

"Even better," Brigs said, pulling a portable phone from his belt. "It's the number for this. More direct, really."

"Fine," Shaeffer put the card away. "In the meantime, is there anything you want me to do in particular?"

"Not really." Brigs headed for the door. "Just do whatever it is that bounty hunters do when they're off duty. But, if you can, avoid shooting innocent people, would you? That seems to be a problem with your kind."

Brigs left.


"Wake up, Shaeffer."

Shaeffer was on the couch, sleeping off the night before. Shaeffer had spent the night before at the Ceres Convention Center cocktail bar, drinking CEOs of electronics firms under the table with a deliberate, and some would say grotesque, sense of purpose. He was not amused at Andrea's attempts to shake him awake.

"G'way," he said, swatting aimlessly with his hand.

Andrea pulled him off the couch.

"What the hell are you doing?" Shaeffer, and immediately grabbed his head. "Ouch," he said. "I feel terrible."

Andrea grabbed him underneath the arms and tried to lift him. "Get up, Shaeffer. Get up."

"You realize," Shaeffer was mumbling, rather indistinctly, "that if I were allowed to sleep on the bed for once instead of always sleeping on the couch, I might be in a little better condition. But no. I get the couch. Now look at me. I feel like my head was used for a nuclear test --" Shaeffer shut up as he got a good look at Andrea, who was dressed in a bathrobe. "You look about as good as I feel," he said finally.

"Shaeffer, there is a dead man out in the hall."

"Dead? Are you sure?"

Andrea nodded. Shaeffer sighed and lifted himself, unsteadily, onto his feet. "Oh, Jesus," he said, holding his head again, "I'm in no condition to deal with a dead man. Are you sure he's dead? Maybe he's just resting. I could deal with a resting man," Shaeffer said, reasonably.

"I don't think resting men are usually disemboweled," said Andrea.

"No," Shaeffer agreed. "They usually aren't. Damn." Shaeffer stood for a few seconds more, grabbed his robe, and went into the hall.

People, in general, do not look their best when they have had their intestines ripped from their bodies. The man outside Shaeffer's hotelroom was no exception. The fact that he was missing his right hand didn't help matters either. His remaining hand held a note addressed to Evan Sheen. Shaeffer leaned over and picked up the note.

It read: AJ and 193rd, 2:35.

A door opened down the hall. A man came out, glanced casually at Shaeffer, began to walk the opposite direction, stopped. He turned around again.

"What's the matter," said Shaeffer, "you never seen a dead man before?"

The man took off quickly. Andrea appeared in the doorway. "Is there anything you want me to do?" she asked.

"Call Brigs. The card's on the bedtable." Andrea disappeared. Shaeffer looked back down at the murdered man and glanced again at the note.

AJ and 193rd, 2:35.

"Hell of a way to send a message," Shaeffer muttered.


"Well," Brigs said, after he and Shaeffer had packed the body into the mobile transport unit that Brigs drove to the motel, "It looks like our friend is trying to arrange a meeting with you. Look. AJ and 193rd. North-south streets on the station are alphabetical-"

"North-south streets?" Shaeffer said. "Relative to what? This is a space station."

"Relative to the direction of rotation. North is the rotational direction, south is the opposite. Anyway, AJ. The first "A" means that the street is located on the "A" ring. That's this one, the one-C ring. The "J" is the location of the street. The eastern-most street would be "AA," the street slightly west of that would be "AB," and so on. East-west streets are numerical. AJ and 193rd would put you on the other side of the station. And as far as 2:35, I'd say that's when he wants to meet."

"AM or PM?" Shaeffer asked.

"AM," said Brigs. "The station runs on a twenty-four hour clock. Assuming the murderer has been On Station for any amount of time, if he wanted to meet you at 2:35 in the afternoon, he would have written 14:35."

Shaeffer looked at his watch. "That gives me about fifteen hours to get ready."

"Just about. Well, now that we know where and when, all we have to do is get him, eh?" Brigs grinned and got up. "Well, Mr. Sheen," he said, sticking out his hand, you're certainly living up to your reputation. You've done a damn good job for us so far."

Shaeffer took his hand and shook it. "Actually, I haven't done anything at all."

"That's what I mean, Mr. Sheen. You've shown remarkable restraint for someone of your profession and temperament. And tonight, when you meet with our murderer, please try to do the same. I'll be there with the Security Forces. Try not to fire on him, if you can. But if it comes down to it, better him than you. However it comes out, the capture will be credited to you. You'll get the reward."

Brigs withdrew his hand. "I'll be going now, " he said. Shaeffer moved to open the door for him. "Mr. Sheen," Brigs said, "do me the favor of calling me a couple of hours before you leave tonight. I would like to get things in order, if you know what I mean."

"Sure," Shaeffer said. "I'll make sure to do that. Goodbye, Brigs." Shaeffer closed the door behind him. Then he slid down the door, and grabbed his head.

"I want to die," Shaeffer groaned.

"That's a switch from what you said on the cruiser," Andrea said, above him. Shaeffer looked up. Andrea, still dressed in the bathrobe, was holding a steaming cup.

"What is that?" Shaeffer asked.

"Coffee," Andrea said. "It comes from one of those little packets that they thoughtfully provide in the kitchenette area. Freeze-dried crystals for your freeze-dried head." Andrea smiled, but it was strained.

Shaeffer took the cup. "Thanks," he said. "How're you holding up?"

"I don't really know."

"This your first dead body?"

Andrea nodded.

Shaeffer nodded back and sipped the coffee. He grimaced. "This is horrible."

"I didn't freeze-dry the stuff," Andrea said.

"No, but you added the water, didn't you. Fifty percent of the blame is yours. Admit it. You're not a very good coffee maker."

Andrea smiled again, and this time it was better. "No," she said. "I suppose I'm not."

"As long as you're admitting your shortcomings," Shaeffer said, "why don't you admit that you're not really a private investigator, either."

Andrea stopped smiling.

"Whoops. There I go again, ruining another perfect moment." Shaeffer took another sip of his coffee and grimaced again. "Andrea, why are you here?"

"I already told you why I'm here."

"Oh, yes. That great vote of confidence in my abilities. I remember."

"Do you think that I was lying?"

"No, not really," Shaeffer said. "I think that you mostly meant what you said. But I also think that your being here has more to do with doing your father's bidding than it does in thwarting his plans. That's right, isn't it?"

"My father's invested a lot in you, Shaeffer. He wants to make sure that the investment isn't wasted."

"Well, there's a mighty oblique statement. If your father's made the investment then he should know that I don't need a partner. No offense."

"None taken. Shaeffer, I'm supposed to watch you. I'm supposed to see how you work."

"Well, there's a funny thing," Shaeffer said, and took another swig. "Ugh. Because, so far, I haven't done anything. Haven't you noticed? My involvement in this case is entirely passive. I get here, the guy comes to me, and the Security Forces are going to nail him. My expenditure of energy is nearly zero. The only productive thing I've done this entire trip is drink the CEO of Apple Computers into oblivion.

"So, my question is, why observe me working if there's no work for me to do? What are you doing here? What am I doing here? And why am I still drinking this awful coffee?" Shaeffer drank the rest of the coffee and tossed to cup onto the couch, then turned back to Andrea. "There's something going on here that I'm missing. And I think you know what it is."

"And what do you think that something is, Shaeffer?"

"I don't know."

"Why not?"

"Because I'm too hung over to think clearly."

"Then don't worry about it too much." Andrea stood up. "Shaeffer, I'll be honest with you. I am here at my father's bidding. But all I know is that I'm supposed to observe what you do and what happens with this case. Other than that, I know as much as you do. Less, probably, because as you guessed, I'm not really a private investigator. I'm sure I'm missing what I'm supposed to be looking for. Give me your hand." She stretched out her arm to him.

Shaeffer took the poffered hand and used to lift himself from the ground, with the door as counterbalance. "So how am I doing?" he asked.

"What?" Andrea said.

"You're supposed to be observing me, right? How am I doing?"

"Well, you said it yourself, Shaeffer. You're not doing anything. But you do that very well."


"Why don't you go lay down on the bed, Shaeffer. You're not scheduled to die for another fifteen hours or so. You ought to rest up for the event."

Andrea trundled Shaeffer over to the bed and let him drop onto the mattress, and then went into the bathroom to dress. While she was dressing she heard Shaeffer mumble something.

"What did you say?" Andrea asked, cracking the door open to hear.

"I said, did you notice that we were civil with each other throughout that entire last conversation."

"I suppose we were, Shaeffer."

"Well," Shaeffer said, "We can't have that. The quality of our witty repartee will suffer."

"Don't worry, Shaeffer. I still think you're an overrated bag of wind."

"Ah," Shaeffer said, satisfied. "There we go. Old ways are the best, you know."

"I know." Andrea came out of the bathroom and headed for the door.

"Where are you going?" Shaeffer asked, somewhat fuzzily.

"Well," Andrea said, "I figure this little caper of ours will be over soon.


"And that means I can stop 'being in character."'


"Well, then," Andrea said. "It should be obvious where I'm going. I'm going clothes shopping. And when we are on the cruiser back to Earth, I'm going to take these clothes I'm wearing now, and I'm going to shove them down your throat. Sleep well, Shaeffer." Andrea walked out the door.

Shaeffer lay there for a few minutes. Then he said, to no one in particular, "She loves me, you know. I can tell."


Shaeffer woke at 10:53.

There was a shadow over him.

Shaeffer lay totally still and then spun quickly off the bed, hitting the ground rolling. He snaked his arm about, grabbed the leg of the bedtable, and tore it off. The table crashed to the ground. The water pitcher spilled over tabletop and shattered on the floor. Papers flew. Shaeffer rose to his feet. He prepared to brain his opponent.

"That's really very good, you know," Andrea said. She was holding a baggie in her hand. "Of course, if I were the murderer, I would have plugged you with a bullet by now. You'll have to pay for that bedtable, by the way."

"Jesus Christ!" Shaeffer said. "What are you doing, lurking around like that? I could have killed you!"

"No you couldn't," Andrea said. "And I wasn't lurking around. I was going to wake you up. I went out to dinner. I brought you a doggie bag." She jiggled the baggie in her hand.

"I'm preparing to crack your skull, and you're talking about a doggie bag?" Shaeffer prepared to continue, but stopped. He looked at the bag. He looked up at Andrea.

"What's in it?"

"New York Strip Steak."

"Give it here." Shaeffer dropped the table leg and took the baggie.

An hour later, Shaeffer was fed, cleaned, and dressed. Andrea took this opportunity to do a little house cleaning, tossing out the bedtable, cleaning up the shattered water pitcher, and recycling the soggy papers.

This presented a problem a few minutes later, when Shaeffer went looking for Brigs' card.

"Where is it?" He asked Andrea.

"If it was in the pile of papers on the bedtable, then I threw it into the trash machine," she said. "It would be pulp by now. Sorry."

"I ought to brain you with that table leg," Shaeffer said.

"You can't. I threw that out as well. Why don't you call the Security Forces office and get his number from there."

Shaeffer thought of various ways to humorously annoy Andrea while he dialed the Security Forces number. Shaeffer had a good imagination for those things, but he was cut short by an unusually quick connection to the Security Forces office.

"Ceres Security." The voice on the other end was pleasantly female.

"Hello," Shaeffer said. "My name is Evan Sheen. Could I talk to James Brigs, please?"


"Security Agent James Brigs."

"Who is this?"

"Excuse me? My name is Evan Sheen. I already --"

Shaeffer was cut off. "Will you hold?"

"What?" Before Shaeffer could say anything more intelligent he was put on hold. He seethed. Shaeffer hated hold.

"Mr. Sheen?" A new voice said. It was decidedly not female.


"This is Security Agent Tolson. Why do you want to speak to James Brigs?"

"He and I are working on a case together."


"Brigs and I are working on a case together. I'm a bounty hunter. I'm working with Brigs on the serial killer case."

"The serial killer case?"

"Yes," Shaeffer was beginning to get annoyed. "The serial killer. You know, the guy running around killing people in a series. You must have read about it, I'm sure. Or at least had someone explain the basic concept."

"You say you are working with James Brigs," Tolson said.

"Yes, I am. What, isn't it his case? Is there something wrong?"

"Mr. Sheen, Security Agent James Brigs has been dead for six weeks."

"Well," Shaeffer said, stupidly, "I suppose there is something wrong with that, isn't there." Shaeffer's brain ground into neutral.

"Mr. Sheen," Agent Tolson said, "Where are you?"

"Ceres Motel," Shaeffer said, absently. "Room 13."

"I'm sending someone over to you, if you don't mind."

"No, no, that would be fine," Shaeffer said. "Yes, I'd like that very much."

"We'll be over in about five minutes," Tolson said, and hung up. Shaeffer put the receiver back down on the cradle. As he did so, his brain skidded out of neutral and into drive.

"Holy Shit!" he said, stumbling into a chair. "Andrea!"

"What?" Andrea came into the room from the kitchenette.

"Are there any beers left?"

"I took the last one out of the fridge yesterday, but I didn't drink it. It's warm."

"I don't mind," Shaeffer said. "Would you give it to me, please?"

Andrea retrieved the beer and handed it to Shaeffer. Shaeffer took the beer, popped the tab, and drank it in about three seconds.

"Hope you're not planning to drive to AJ and 193rd," Andrea said. "Did you get hold of Brigs?"

"I sure did," Shaeffer said, and laughed wildly. "Jesus Christ," he said, after he stopped laughing.

"Shaeffer," Andrea said, "What's wrong?"

"Brigs is dead, Andrea," Shaeffer said. "He's been dead for six weeks. And if you hadn't thrown that card out, I'd be dead, too." Shaeffer looked up at Andrea, who was only now beginning to make the synaptic connections. Shaeffer grabbed her hand.

"Don't you get it?" He said, shaking her hand slightly. "Brigs did it. Brigs is the killer. And he's going to try to kill me tonight." Shaeffer let go of her hand and grabbed his head. "Holy shit," he said. "I would've walked right into it."


Shaeffer waited in the alleyway behind AJ and 193rd.

"Hello, Sheen," Shaeffer heard a voice say from behind him. He turned.

"Hey, Brigs," he said. "Where the rest of your crew?"

"Security will be here soon enough," said Brigs.

"No doubt."

"You didn't call before you came here," Brigs said. "I asked you we were working together on this. Why didn't you call?"

"Well, it's a silly thing, really," Shaeffer said. "Andrea lost your card when she was cleaning. Women. You know."

"Of course." Brigs started towards Shaeffer.

"Anyway," Shaeffer said, "I thought the same thing you did. We're in on this together. I wanted you to know what I was up to. So I called Ceres Security."

Brigs stopped. "What?"

"Well, you know. I figured they'd have your number. And, I was right, because they did, Brigs. But they told me your number was up, if you know what I mean. And I think you do."

Brigs began to slide his hand into his coat.

"I think I know why you've been killing people, Brigs," Shaeffer said. "I mean, it's probably so much fun being dead that you want to share the experience."

Brigs grabbed something in his coat.

"That would be your gun," Shaeffer said. "I bet it's got a shiny barrel and everything."

"I'm going to kill you," Brigs said.

"Of course you will," Shaeffer said, and looked up. "Now," he said.

Brigs ripped the gun from his coat and snarled at Shaeffer. Then he was on the ground, grabbing his legs, which had sprouted bullet holes courtesy of the security forces positioned on the roof. Shaeffer kicked Brigs' gun away.

Brigs turned on his side and looked up at Shaeffer, confused.

"You silly man," Shaeffer said. "When I said 'now,' I wasn't talking to you. I was talking to them," he jerked his thumb back at the security forces that were now beginning to flood into the alleyway.

"Now," Shaeffer said. "Who are you, really?"

"Come to me," Brigs said. "I'll whisper it into your ear."

"Not a chance," Shaeffer said.

"Well, then," Brigs said, and moved his hand inside his coat.

"Oh, come on," Shaeffer said, "We've been through this before."

"Tell Percy he's welcome," Brigs said, smiled, and jerked the arm inside the coat violently. He screamed.

"What?" Shaeffer screamed along with Brigs, but Brigs was louder. And then Brigs was dead.

A Security agent came up to them and held a gun at Brigs.

"Put that thing away," Shaeffer said, and looked inside Brigs' coat. A knife handle stuck out of Brigs' chest just below the sternum. The knife was serrated. Shaeffer knew what it would have been used for. He rubbed his wrist unconsciously.

"Jesus Christ," the Security agent said, and signalled the other Security forces to approach. "Do you know who that is?"

"No," Shaeffer said. "Should I?"

"You'd know him if you lived here all your life," He waved the muzzle of his rifle at Brigs' face. "That's Tim Ring. Chuck Ring's younger brother."

"What?" Shaeffer looked back at Brigs. "A Ring wouldn't want to kill his renters."

"He would," the Security agent said, waving his muzzle at Brigs/Ring again. "He's nuts. A pure nut case. He's been in and out of mental homes since he was a kid. Supposed to have been so smart he went crazy. Or something like that. Maybe it runs in the family. Chuck's not so stable himself. Neither was old Doctor Ring. Jesus," the agent said. "This is going to be bad news for Chuck."

Shaeffer felt the tumblers in his brain click into place.

"Holy cow," Shaeffer said.

The squadron of Security agents began to secure the area. One of the older ones came up to Shaeffer. "Evan Sheen?" the old agent said.

"More and more every day," said Shaeffer.

"I'm Agent Tolson. I'm assuming that," he waved back at the corpse, "is 'James Brigs."'

"One of your agents says it's actually Tim Ring."

"One of my agents talks more than he should."

"You're not going to be able to keep it a secret long, you know."

"I know that," Tolson said. "It's going to be a nightmare. But that's not your problem, now, is it?" Tolson forced a smile. "It seems that you have a rather large reward coming your way, Mr. Sheen."

"Yes," Shaeffer said, watching them take Tim Ring away, "I suppose I do."

"We have the whole thing on video, you know," Tolson said. "We even got what you were saying to him before he took a bead on you. You have steel guts, Sheen."

"What a wonderful way you have with words, Tolson."

"We didn't get what you said to each other afterwards, though. Too much noise coming from the agents coming down off the buildings. What about it, Sheen? What were Tim Rings' last words?"

"They weren't anything, Tolson," Shaeffer said. "They weren't anything at all."


Chapter Three

It was 4:30 in the morning when J. Allen Percy entered personal elevator. He found Shaeffer sitting at his desk.

"Hello, Shaeffer," Percy said, momentarily.

"Hello, Percy." Shaeffer swiveled in Percy's desk chair and fridge behind him. "Mind if I have a beer?"

"No," Percy said. "Not at all."

"Thanks." Shaeffer pulled the tab. He drank. "Nice office," Shaeffer said.

"Thank you."

"It's quite large."

"Yes, it is."

"I've seen parking lots that were smaller," Shaeffer said.

Percy's Rolls-Royce Convertible aircar was parked in the middle of the office.

"Do you mind telling me how you managed this?" Percy asked.

"You mean, how did I manage to slip into your estate, steal the car, leave a note, drive it halfway across the city and park it, intact, on the top floor of the highest building in three states without anybody noticing."

"That would about cover it, yes."

"Well, you know. I'm sneaky. It's in my job description."

Percy started around the car. "You might be a little more specific."

Shaeffer shrugged. "You own a private investigation firm, Percy. You figure it out. I will say, however, that the hardest part was getting it up 125 stories. The repulsion field's designed to keep a car a meter off the ground. It gives out after about three meters or so, you know. FAA regulations, and all that."

"What did you do, Shaeffer? Take a running jump at a speed bump?"

Shaeffer slapped his knee. "Ha," he said. "No. Actually, I noticed that your private elevator opens directly onto your personal car level, so I overrode the elevator's password and programmed your elevator to go down one extra level, to the executive car level. Then I opened the elevator shaft door on your parking level, used that nifty lever of yours to fit the car in the shaft. I then rode up the shaft, with the top of your elevator functioning as ground level, and the repulsion field set on a slow rise so as not to overburden the cables. Then I opened the shaft door at your level, and well! Here we are."

"Very tricky," Percy said.

"Unfortunately," Shaeffer said, "the unusual configuration of weight distribution caused by keeping your aircar tipped on end for such a long period of time has quite burned out your repulsion generator. I doubt very seriously if you'll be able to get it off those lovely Persian rugs, much less on its side and down the shaft. You'll probably have to take it apart to get it out. Try not to get any transmission fluid on the rugs when you do, would you? I suspect that they're authentic. It'd be a shame to ruin them."

Percy stared at the rugs, and then at Shaeffer. "You'll excuse me if I tell you that I don't find this little prank of yours amusing."

"I didn't think you would, Percy. It's probably about as amusing to you as our little Sunday drive was to me. I noticed, by the way, that the Rolls has had its seatbelts reinstalled."

"Of course it has," Percy said, annoyed. He sat down in one a chair opposite to Shaeffer. "Only an idiot would drive without them."

"And I don't really suppose that you often jet through your estate on lazy afternoons."


"Or that you really believe that crap you said about legends."

"Of course not."

"And I'll bet," Shaeffer said, leaning forward, "that you don't even like Waylon Jennings."

Percy looked at Shaeffer narrowly. "Get to your point, Shaeffer."

"Not yet. But let's start on the road there, shall we?"


"You created a very nice little scenario for me that morning, you know. The car ride, the country music, the heavily intoned philosophical musings, all of that. I don't suppose you'll tell me why."

"Well, that's easy enough," Percy said. "You want to toss me a beer?" Shaeffer reached over and took a beer out of the fridge and gave it to Percy. Percy nodded his thanks, opened it, motioned with it to Shaeffer. "Cheers."

"In your eye," Shaeffer said, and slumped back into his seat.

Percy took a drink. "I wanted to see what you were made of, Shaeffer. What sort of man you were. What went on inside your head. I needed to see whether or not you were the right person for this case."

"And so you ran me through some trees."

"Why not? It's as good a test as any. Better than most, actually, because running someone into a tree gives you an immediate and truthful glance into their psyche."

"I recall my psyche coming close to wetting its pants."

Percy reached over and slapped the desktop. "Exactly right. But, you see, that's the reaction I wanted to see. If you had come out of those trees like nothing had happened, or, even worse, raring to go through again, I would have wished you a good day right then and there. I'd've only been out $50,000 dollars at that point. What I was looking for, and found, was a man who realized that there was a very good chance he could die at any moment. My own estimation of you, Shaeffer, is that you would fly yourself through some trees, if you had no other choice in the matter. But you would prefer to go around them, if you could."

"I'd say that's right," Shaeffer said.

"I've read your file, you know," Percy said. "On the surface, it looks like you're fighting off a blood and sex laced death wish, and it confuses a lot of people. Paul Foster, for one, and my daughter Andrea, for another. But if you really read your file, Shaeffer, then you see that never once did you take an unnecessary risk. You've taken quite a few risks, to be sure. Some of them could've gotten you killed. But never once , if there was a saner way out."

Percy took another sip from his beer. "That's the person I was looking for, Shaeffer. Someone who looked before they leaped, would leap only if they had to, and then, if he had to, did. Our little drive was just confirmation of that fact. As for the country music and the philosophy, and the 'aw shucks' mentality, well, if I took you on that drive acting like I am now, you probably would've suspected I had some ulterior motive. That would've complicated things at that point. Would've distracted you from the task at hand."

"You mean, being bait for the murderer."

"Give yourself a little credit, Shaeffer," Percy said.

"I would, if I thought there was some credit to be given. But there's not, and you know it as well as I do. You didn't dredge me up out of Papa Garibaldi's because you thought I was the firm's best investigator, Percy. I am, sure, but that's tangential, really, isn't it? There wasn't any investigation here. There wasn't any mystery to solve. There wasn't any case. I didn't do anything."

"If that's true, then I don't see why I would have even bothered with you at all, Shaeffer," Percy said. "After all, I had an entire staff of investigators at my disposal. Any of them could have done nothing as well as you."

"But you don't really think that, do you, Percy?"

"What?" Percy glanced at Shaeffer.

"You don't really think that anyone could have done nothing as well as I do."

"You're being obtuse, Shaeffer. What you just said makes no sense."

"You said it yourself, Percy. What you needed was someone who wouldn't take a risk unless he absolutely had to. Someone who would follow the path of least resistance and allow the murderer to come to him. Someone without heroic delusions of grandeur, who wouldn't go off shooting into the night. Someone who wouldn't be stupid unintentionally."

Shaeffer leaned forward again. "Someone, in short, like me. You knew what I would do. After all, you read my file. You weren't looking for an investigator, and you certainly weren't looking for a legend. You were looking for bait. And you knew that I was the best bait you could find, at any price. And, like you said, our little drive was just confirmation of that fact. Isn't that right?"

Percy leaned back into his chair and drummed his fingers across the arm.

"Well," Shaeffer said, "now that we've tabled our first question, let's move on, shall we? You made an awfully big production of this whole case."

"That was my intention," Percy said. "I wanted it known who was responsible for bringing Tim Ring down."

Shaeffer grinned. "I like your choice of words."

"I don't see why," Percy said.

"You wanted it known who brought Tim Ring down. Who did you want to know?"

"Our potential clients, of course. I wanted people to know that Aaron, Brown, and Corum had the best private investigators."

"Like I said, you didn't need a private investigator. You needed bait."

"That's just the way it turned out, Shaeffer. You might have had to do some actual work if Ring hadn't gone gunning for you. And besides, the general public won't bother to think how little work you did."

"Aaron, Brown, and Corum was already known as having the best private investigators before you bought the firm. What did you have to prove?"

"That it was still the best after the change of management, Shaeffer. This is getting tiresome."

"You wanted the general public to know this."


"How much did it cost you to send me to Ceres?"

"I own World Spacelines, Shaeffer. It cost me very little."

"Who's being obtuse now, Percy? Let me tell you how much it cost to send me to Ceres. It cost you $50,000 to hire me, at least that much to hire your fake "bounty hunters" to spread the legend of Evan Sheen, however much money and however many favors it took to enter Evan Sheen into the CIA's files, and the expense of sending myself and your daughter to Ceres, of course. How much does that come to now?"

"Don't forget the million that I paid you after he was caught," Percy said, wryly.

"Of course not. How did you put it? 'Matching funds in appreciation of a job well done.' What can I say?"

"'Thank you' might be nice."

"But wait! There's more. Your daughter once joked that I would be able to sell movie rights to my story. And you know, just yesterday, I did. For a tidy sum of two million dollars, no less. I imagine you know which company bought the rights."

"Columbia, I believe."

"Which you own."

"Which I own."

"They were very anxious to get the rights to this particular story."

"I thought it would be nice to keep it within the family."

"I know. I'd bet that whoever plays you in it is going to have a lot of fun."

"Best Supporting Actor," Percy said, and Shaeffer smiled.

"Anyone else would think you were kidding," Shaeffer said. "So, let's see, after taxes, you ended up spending somewhere in the area of three and a half, four million dollars for me to catch just this one guy."

"That's right."

"Without any guarantee that I would, in fact, catch him."

"If you hadn't, you could subtract at least three million from that price tag of yours."

"But I did."

"Yes you did."

"Four million dollars is a lot to spend to catch and publicize just one man, Shaeffer said. "Particularly since, after overhead and salaries, the investigative division of Aaron, Brown and Corum nets about $250,000 a year."

"I can afford it," Percy said, testily. "The rest of Aaron, Brown and Corum makes up for that investment, and even if it didn't, the Percy Investment Group could absorb the loss without even noticing. Hell," Percy said, gesturing, "World Spacelines took a $125 million loss last quarter, and I'm still making money! Damn fare wars are killing me."

"It's not so much the money I'm concerned with, actually," Shaeffer said. "Like I said, you made a big production of this whole thing."

"Damn it, Shaeffer, I already said why!"

"I know. It's good publicity, and I think you truly are glad that Aaron, Brown, and Corum is getting the attention. But I think you're even happier that you are. Your daughter told me that you have plans."

"Listen, Shaeffer," Percy said, leaning forward, "I don't give a squirt what the general public thinks of me."

"I didn't think you did," Shaeffer said. "I think who you care about are the stockholders of the RingIce Corporation."

Percy opened his mouth to speak, and stopped. He continued to lean forward. Then, slowly, he leaned back. He took a sip of his beer. Finally, he looked at Shaeffer.

"What are you accusing me of, Shaeffer?"

"Nothing that could be proven, Percy, but you already knew that."

"I don't already know anything."

"Of course you don't. That way, if I'm wearing a microphone, they won't be able to use it as evidence." Shaeffer drained his can of beer, crumpled it, tossed it in the desk trashcan. "Percy, I'm not wearing a wire. This is just between you and me. I did a pretty fair job of being bait for you. I think you owe me."

Percy smiled, drained his own can, crumpled it, tossed it at Shaeffer. Shaeffer caught it and batted it into the can.

"Ah," Percy said, "You're saying that I can trust you with my darkest secrets."

"Of course you can," Shaeffer said. "You read --"

"-- your file. Yes, I did. Go on, Shaeffer. Ask your questions."

"How long have you been interested in controlling the Ringice Corporation?" Shaeffer asked.

"Forever, Shaeffer," Percy returned. "Who isn't? It's the largest single corporation in the system. It's the most important, too. Without it, space travel as we know it couldn't be possible. Once RingIce was developed, they never bothered to change the fundamental design specifics that were making those spaceship engines overheat in the first place. If they stopped making Ringice, they'd blow up today just like they did fifty years ago. It's a crutch, really. But a very powerful and profitable one."

"You don't think the RingIce Corporation is nearly as powerful as it could be," Shaeffer said.

"What do you mean, that it has the power to impose a stranglehold on space travel and doesn't? If the RingIce Corporation used RingIce as a bargaining chip in power politics, the U.N. Security Forces would be drilling into Ceres Station faster than you can say 'Nationalization.' Ringice is too important to play with that way. I think that RingIce's own internal struggles have kept it too busy to think about system domination, and that's as it should be. But I think the corporation is dangerous without some stability in its leadership. It has the corporate IQ of a brine shrimp."

"And that's where you would come in."

"That's where I would come in," Percy nodded. "There's something in me that hates to see incompetence run rampant. I already told you how important Ringice is, Shaeffer. Do you know how many times that company has gone to the verge of dissolution because of the jackasses who run that company, the Rings in particular? Christ, too many times to count. It's not just a matter of one company, you know. Every component of the interplanetary economic system relies on that stuff, my companies included."

Percy pounded his fist on the desk. "I refuse to let the system collapse just because a few idiots can't agree on some trivial matter," he said.

Shaeffer looked up sardonically. "You'll forgive me if I can't quite accept altruism as your actual motive," he said.

"Shaeffer," Percy said, "I don't need the money. I have all the power that I can wield, and more. I certainly don't need the work. It may be hard to believe on your end, but you can reach a saturation point on material goods, if you have enough brain in your head to know when you've reached it. After which point you have little other choice than to look at the bigger picture. RingIce is the weak link in an interlocked chain of survival, Shaeffer. It needs to be more secure than it is."

"You're still spouting altruism," Shaeffer said.

"Goddamn it, I am not!" Percy pounded the desk again. "Fuck altruism, Shaeffer! I'm talking pragmatics! If I was into altruism, I'd start a fucking foundation! The Jeremiah Allen Percy Foundation for the Congenitally Stupid! And you'd be my first customer!"

"Followed, I imagine, by the RingIce board of directors."

"Damn straight!" Percy bellowed. "Don't you get it, Shaeffer? This isn't about power or money or altruism. I'm thinking about the fact that the fifteen different human settlements from the Moon to Triton ought to be able to do their work without relying on a pack of quarreling yahoos positioned over an asteroid!"

Percy slipped back into his chair and rubbed his forehead.

"'Jeremiah?"' Shaeffer said. "'J.' stands for 'Jeremiah?"'

"Yeah," Percy said. "I hate that fucking name." Percy turned to face Shaeffer. "How much do you think you know?"

"I know enough to know that every major purchase the Percy Investment Group has made in the last fifteen years was made with the acquisition of RingIce in mind," Shaeffer said.

Percy smiled. "Is it that obvious?"

"No, Percy, it's not. But you already knew that, too."

"Yes. I did. But I'm still not saying I've done anything."

"Of course not."

"Perhaps you'd care to explain it to me," Percy said.

"In order to understand what you were up to, you'd have to understand the workings of the RingIce Corporation itself. Most important is the curious fact that, besides the Ring family, who owns a solid 25% of the company, there is no shareholder who owns more than 1.5% percent of the stock. Company rules, designed to keep the Ring family permanently at the helm."

"That's right," Percy said.

"Every now and again, a motion comes up at a director's meeting to have this particular rule rescinded, usually when the Ring family has the company do something spectacularly stupid. As they did, for example, twenty years ago."

"That was when they tried to bust the Chemist's Union, if I'm correct," Percy said.

"Actually, I was thinking of the habitation ring blowout at Ceres that occurred after a Ring-led coalition of directors voted down renovation funds," Shaeffer said. "But you get my point, which is that these votes have come up fairly often, because the directors hate the Rings.

"But if there is one thing that the board of directors hates more than the Ring family, it's another board member. The Rings have always been able to vote down a proposal to remove the 1.5% bylaw by playing up the fear that, if it were removed, someone even less competent than they would emerge as CEO after the position is declared up for contention. And since new directors are chosen by the stockholders only when one of them dies, resigns, or is removed, the directors know from experience how incompetent each of them are.

"The picture is further complicated by the fact that, thanks to another bylaw, purchases of more than one-half of one percent of the stock have to be approved by the board of directors, who have the option of refusing the sale by offering to purchase the stock at 10% above asking price. The catch is that director-purchased stock is administered by the Ring family, and every member of the board of directors would rather cut off his own...." Shaeffer smiled, "....right hand than to give the Ring family any more control than it already has.

"The end result of this rather Byzantine set of bylaws is to discourage the buying and selling of RingIce stock. And, indeed, the amount of stock that RingIce trades yearly is so small that the corporation doesn't bother to buy a seat at any of the major stock exchanges. Not New York, Tokyo, London, or even Ceres itself. And, finally, RingIce makes so much money for its stockholders that to sell one little share seems like a stupidity.

"Another beer?" Shaeffer reached into the fridge and pulled out two more cans.

"Please." Percy caught the beer Shaeffer tossed to him.

"Where were we?" Shaeffer asked.

"Stock trading," Percy said.

"Ah. Yes. So, if someone wanted to purchase RingIce stock, a considerable amount of RingIce stock, he just couldn't do it. The 1.5% or the .5% rule would catch the upfront and honest customer. And even if he could find someone who would sell, he'd have to pay enormously for it. Whoever wanted to buy a considerable amount of RingIce stock would have to be very sneaky, very patient, and very rich." Shaeffer opened a desk drawer and pulled out a small file of papers, and set it on the desk. "All of which you are, Mr. Percy."

Percy took the file. "What is this?" He asked.

"It's a file containing the names of companies and people that have been buying stock in RingIce for you over the last fifteen years," Shaeffer said. "You've been very careful about covering your tracks, I see. There are no less than three intermediaries between you and the purchasing agent. You deal with one set of intermediaries only, who are contracted to you for personal services: domestic staff, gardening at the mansion grounds, press clipping services.

"You pay all of these intermediaries about three to five times more than they are worth, but if you're negligent enough to let them get away with soaking you for services, there's no one to blame but yourself, right? And after the money's gone from you to them, you can't be held responsible for what they do with it.

"In fact, after the first set of intermediaries, none of these people or companies are legally connected to you at all. They've managed to acquire about over twenty percent of RingIce between them."

Shaeffer produced another file, tossed it on the desk. "Here's how much you pay out to all those people and companies every month. It's all from your own personal account, so there's no worry about a Percy Group auditor coming across it. And what you do with your own money is nobody's business but your own. Anyway, nothing could be proven. And, even if it could, you haven't broken any laws. At least, not yet."

Percy looked at the second file briefly, then closed it and dropped it on the floor along with the first. "You're forgetting one minor detail," he said. "Even if I did control twenty percent of the stock, I can't do anything with it unless the board of directors rescinds the 1.5% and .5% rules."

"That's true," Shaeffer said. "You'd have to influence the board of directors, wouldn't you."

"I hope you realize that, if I were to go through all the trouble and expense of purchasing the stock, the last thing I'd do is announce the fact by thundering in and offering bribes," Percy said.

"There's always blackmail," said Shaeffer.

"Well," Percy said, throwing his hands up. "You've found me out, Shaeffer. I'm keeping the directors' family members in the cellar."

Shaeffer slapped his knee again. "Ha, I say, ha. Really, Percy. Your true vocation is comedy. No, you wouldn't do blackmail either. That would be dumber than bribing. Particularly since you could get the board of directors to do what you wanted them to do, if you gave them a push in the right direction." Shaeffer pulled out yet another file and tossed it on the desk.

Percy didn't pick it up. "What's this one?" he asked.

"It's a record of your pushes," Shaeffer said. "You really are a fascinating man, Percy. You realized that that the 1.5% and the .5% rules wouldn't come up unless there was a reason. And they wouldn't vote them out unless something threatened the very existence of the company. Something like, for example, Tim Ring. You've been watching the news, I trust."


"Then you know what's been coming out about Tim Ring. He wasn't just crazy, he was totally off his hobby horse. His killing thirty people was bad enough for old Chuck Ring, but Chuck probably would've weathered it. But now the U.N. Bureau is looking up old unsolved murders at Ceres Station. They're starting to make correlations between some of them and Tim's recent little spree, you know. There's even some allegations that some of the earlier murders were hushed up by Chuck just long enough to bundle Tim off to a psychiatric hospital Earthside. Before anyone could ask the really interesting questions, he was gone. Now everyone is beginning to wonder how much Chuck really knew about his brother's activities. How much do you think Chuck knew, Percy?"

"I imagine he knew a lot," Percy said.

"You don't have to imagine it, Percy, you knew," Shaeffer said. "You bought the hospital Tim Ring was locked up in the last time you went shopping. And you bought a couple of other hospitals, too, just to be safe. So people would think you had an actual interest in the psychiatric field.

"But your interest was limited to one patient," Shaeffer said, and pointed to the sheaf of papers he had plopped down on the table. "his file is there, though I'm sure you don't need to read it again to know that Tim was diagnosed as schizophrenic with violent tendencies. He also ranks pretty much off the scale, intelligence-wise. He was, in fact, smart enough to escape from Webster, not once, but five times. They finally had to cuff an electronic beacon around his leg to track him down when he ran. But they didn't really have to, because they always knew where he was going: to the spaceport, back to Ceres, and back to his brother, who, according to record, Tim had developed a pathological hatred for after his incarceration."

"You've been watching too much tabloid TV, Shaeffer," Percy said. "You sound like that psychologist on the Today show that said the reason the Tim cut off the right hand of his victims was so --"

" -- the right hand wouldn't know what the left was doing. And that was supposed to represent the brothers' relationship. Yeah. I heard that one, too."

"Shaeffer, this is stupid. You're saying that I'd purchase an entire hospital to engineer the escape of one man. Who was so crazy no one knew what to do with him except pack him away."

"Yes, I know, it does sound far-fetched to the untrained ear," Shaeffer said. "But you're talking to me, a man in whom you've invested four million dollars for doing nothing more than being a living target. You used Tim Ring just like you used me, Percy. Anybody else would see it as madness, but I think you saw it as a sure bet. You knew what he wanted to do: he wanted to get back to Ceres and ruin his brothers' life. Tit for tat. You knew that, if he were given a chance to escape, that's what he'd do. I don't think you planned on him indulging in a self-destructive serial killing spree, but once he did, you saw how to use it for your advantage: track him down, capture or kill him, and let the horrible truth about the Ring family come out."

Percy opened his mouth to speak, but Shaeffer held up a finger. "Quiet," he said. "I'm not done yet. You knew what Ring would do, if he only could. And if you gave him a chance, he would. And he did."

Shaeffer jabbed a finger at the file. "Two months before Tim killed himself, he escaped from Webster Psychiatric Hospital in Detroit. He escaped during a test of Webster's electronic surveillance system, a routine examination that was carried out every month, on the same day, at the same time. SOP as ordered by the new owners, the Percy Investment Group. Oddly enough, one of the systems that was down at the time of Ring's escape was the system that tracked Ring's beacon. By the time they switched it back on and noticed Ring was gone, he'd already managed to remove it from his leg. The next time anyone heard from him was when he killed himself on Ceres.

"But what you did shows that you knew where he was and what he was doing. The day after the first body turned up at Ceres, you tendered an offer for Aaron, Brown and Corum. A week later, you bought the firm. You knew that you wanted to track him down, track him down fast, and pull out the dirty laundry. But no one at Aaron, Brown was what you needed, so you had to rehire me, and send me out. You even sent your daughter along to report back the events of the day. By the way, how much did Andrea know, really?"

"Nothing of what you're talking about."

Shaeffer nodded. "Good. From that point, the rest would be relatively simple. The board of directors would finally have a concrete reason not only to rescind the 1.5% bylaw and the .5% bylaw, but to challenge the Ring family's lock on the CEO position. So they'd vote the 1.5% and .5% rules out, declare the CEO seat in contention and prepare to buy up as much stock as they could in a rush to improve their position. But then you'd come out of nowhere with 20% of the stock already in hand, legally bought from a number of small stockholders, and with the intention of starting a stockholder war with the Rings.

"This is where all that publicity pays off, doesn't it? The stockholders already know you as the mastermind behind the capture of Tim Ring. Some of the stockholders will fall in line because of that, followed by the slightly brighter ones who recognize that you have some experience in business, and those followed by the stockholders who realize that you represent the quickest, cleanest end to the whole messy situation. Chuck Ring will vote his 25% for himself, and he might get an additional 5%. Some of the smaller directors could bite out as much as another 5% combined. But that still leaves you with 60% of the stockholder vote. A clear majority. Boom. You are running the RingIce Corporation faster than you can say "Anti-Trust Laws."

Shaeffer pointed again to the file on the desk. "It was a long shot, true. So many things could've gone wrong. The beauty of it all is simply that none of it would ever be traced back to you. You engineered Tim Ring's escape, sure, but only by giving him a window in which to escape. You didn't know if he would take that chance any more than you knew that I would track him down on Ceres. But in each case, it was a no-lose situation. Every purchase, every action, every thing you've done in the last fifteen years was legitimate and accounted for, right down the line. You are as clean as the proverbial whistle."

Shaeffer shrugged. "Besides, you could afford for this to be a long shot, couldn't you? This was just one long shot out of many." He tapped the file a final time. "There are a few in there, Percy, which are real doozies. I noticed one of your companies subcontracts for a company that provides RingIce with essential salts used in Ringice production. Isolate the wrong salt, and there's a batch of RingIce that's little better than jello. And whoops! There go a few cruisers. Darn shame. But accidents can, and probably will, happen, won't they?

"But this one with Tim Ring, Percy. This one must have been your baby. It was so totally devastating to the Ring family and so perfect for you. It really couldn't have come out better, could it? Tim Ring didn't think it could."

Percy jumped. "What?"

Shaeffer leaned into his chair. "Tim Ring. He told me to tell you you're welcome. That's when everything started to make sense to me. He knew what you were up to. He's probably the only person in the system smart enough and crazy enough to realize that there was no way he could have escaped on his own. I think he even knew why you did it, and was very happy to accommodate you. You're very lucky he gave his final message to me. If he had given it to anyone else, there's a chance that they might have done what I did, which was break into your files and dredge up the whole sick affair piece by piece. And anybody else would've busted your hump.

"But he did give it to me, so you get off easy, Percy. You got what you wanted, and all you had to do was allow thirty innocent people to die. I just want to you to know that I know what it is that you did."

Percy sat silently for a few moments, then opened his mouth. Shaeffer stopped him.

"If you feed me that 'I did it for the good of humanity' line, I'll break your lousy neck," Shaeffer said.

Percy smiled. "Fair enough," he said. "What are you going to do now, Shaeffer?"

"Now?" Shaeffer looked at his watch. "I'm going to go to bed, Percy. It's almost daylight. I've been up a long time, and talking to high-powered slime like yourself has simply tuckered me out. I've got to be at work soon."

"Yes, I suppose you do, don't you," Percy said. "Paul Foster won't be very glad to see that you're still around, Shaeffer."

"Oh," Shaeffer said. "Excuse me, Percy. You're under the impression that I'm still working for you. Alas, my good man, I am not. I quit the moment I slammed your Rolls down onto the office rug. I'm going back to Papa Garibaldi's. They pay less, but, ironically, the surroundings are less greasy."

Shaeffer swung out from behind the desk and went over to the elevator. "And then, after I'm done there, I may take some time off," he said, slipping into the elevator. "After all, I'm a millionaire. I've got spend it sometime."

"Try not to waste it," Percy said.

"If I wanted to do that," Shaeffer said, "I'd buy your stock."

The door closed before Percy could respond.


The door opened at the executive parking level. Andrea Percy was standing by the door.

"Christ," Shaeffer said. "1 thought I was done with your family."

Andrea held up a small tape recorder. "You weren't wired, Shaeffer. However, the refrigerator was."

"Cute," Shaeffer said. "So you heard the whole thing."

"Except for when you got out the cans of beer, yes."


"You planning to take this to the press, Shaeffer?"


"Why not?"

"Because there's nothing to take, Andrea. You know that. Nothing can be proven. And, now that it's fait accompli, your father is the best thing that can happen to RingIce. He threw the monkey wrench into the works, and he's the only one who'll be able to pull it out." Shaeffer rubbed his eyes. "What about you, Andrea? What are you going to do with that little tape of yours?"

"Nothing, now," Andrea said. "I have a few other tapes like this, Shaeffer. I keep them because it's good to know what my father's up to without him suspecting the fact. Call it security, if you like."

"This whole thing was a slimy piece of business, Andrea. I hope you know that."

"I do, Shaeffer."

"But you don't think that it's wrong, when you come right down to it."

Andrea smiled. "I told you once, Shaeffer, I take after my father. Slimy or not, it's business."

"What a marvellous philosophy you have there, Andrea. Remind me to have it printed on a T-shirt some time."

"Are you going home?" Andrea asked.


"Let me give you a ride."

"Thanks, no. I've already had one."

"Shaeffer," Andrea said. "I'm trying to be nice to you. Don't turn me into a bitch so early in the morning. Do you read a ride? I know you drove the Rolls-Royce here."

"Yes, I did. Yes, I do."

"Then allow me to give it to you." Andrea to her car and opened the passenger door. Shaeffer got inside. Andrea got in and started the engine.

Shaeffer looked at her for a minute. "As long as we're being nice to each other," he said, "would you like some breakfast? I know a nice Italian restaurant."

Andrea smiled into the front window. "Papa Garibaldi's, I imagine."

"You've heard of it."

"I don't think they're open for breakfast, Shaeffer."

"Doesn't matter," Shaeffer said, and held up his keyring. "I've got a key. After all, I work there, you know."