By Max Fauth, Lisa Hartjes & Michael House
[Note: This story is an immediate continuation of Second Nature, Part 1, and takes place before the DITL sequence for Turn 16.]

Simon told Epsilon II to let him know when the situation changed. Since the building was in the Zero Zone, it made sense that it would be dead, as far as electromagnetic scans were concerned: it would have been off the power grid for a long time. As for his new prospective client and her shadow, he figured that either they were still in the building somewhere, or they had left through an underground passage. Either way, there wasn't much he could do about it just then, short of going back and barging in. In his opinion, that was liable to be counterproductive at best.

So he decided to do something that might be more productive, before calling it a night. Once he was back in the city proper, he parked a couple of blocks away from the police precinct that included the HariChem facilities. He had Epsilon II download prints of the woman who called herself Zenshou Shinju to the data terminal in his car, and took them into the building, in one of his pockets.

As it turned out, he knew one of the detectives there, a tall, gangly woman named Bonnie Keel, who looked like she should have been a professor at an Ivy League college. Simon knew that appearance was deceptive, as was her affectation of caring about nothing but the money, as did just about everyone else around her. Like Simon, Bonnie was old enough to remember when things had been different. She just didn't let on that she knew.

She glanced around as Simon walked into her office. "Aren't you up a little late?" she said casually.

Simon smiled. "I'll get to sleep eventually." He leaned closer. "I need to run an ID for a case I'm working on," he whispered, his smile not wavering.

"So soon after...?" Bonnie trailed off. "What's it about?"

"My clients' business is confidential, you know that. But if there were something going on that the cops should know about, you know I'd tell you. I did last time."

"You didn't leave me much fuckin' time, though." Bonnie sighed. "So? Are we going to play 20 fucking questions, or are you going to tell me what the fuck it is?"

Simon stood up abruptly. "OK, I'll see you in an hour," he said in his normal tone of voice. Bonnie stood up and they shook hands, then Simon walked out, waving to the desk sergeant. Bonnie waited until she was sitting down again to look at the folded piece of paper that Simon had palmed to her.

Bonnie came smoothly into the bar where Simon was waiting half an hour later. She tossed the picture in front of him. "*Now* are you going to tell me what the fuck is going on?" she growled. "Is this supposed to be another meal-ticket missing-persons case or something?"

Simon smiled imperturbably. "I'm not sure what it is, yet." He gestured for a waitress as she sat down across the booth from him. "It might be nothing at all. What did you turn up?"

"Nothing much," she said after she'd had a swig of her drink. "Her name is Zenshou Shinju," she went on, managing a halfway decent pronunciation. "Born 2010. Apparently she's an orphan--seems the family died in the War. No particular occupation of record, not that that's any fucking surprise these days."

Simon spread his hands. "Then I guess there's no missing-persons case. Not a rich one, anyway."

Several moments passed as they drank their drinks. "Come on, out with it," Bonnie finally said. "

Simon put down his glass. "I ran into her earlier this evening. She gave me a real song-and-dance about the business at HariChem."

Bonnie looked askance at him. "Say what?"

"That's exactly what I thought," Simon replied. "She was doing a pretty good job of trying to keep from getting too emotional about it. And once I told her what I do for a living, get this: she offered me a retainer, three days at my usual rate, without batting an eyelash, to find out what happened."

"I see she has sense enough not to place her faith in New York's Finest(tm)," Bonnie said ironically. "So she's not entirely stupid. What do you think?"

"I'm interested," Simon said. "She told me enough to pique my curiosity. I want to see where it goes. There's always the off-chance that she just might be on the level, after all." And they both had a good laugh.

"Still, you have a knack for finding big-time crime in the damndest places," Bonnie said after they calmed down. "I try not to think about what would have happened if you hadn't come across that last business. But this time, it's just too fuckin' ugly. There's only one reason you kill people in such a messy way."

Simon nodded, uncharacteristically grim for a moment. "To make an example." They leaned back and took another pull on their drinks. After a moment, Simon added, "OK. I've come across something. I'm not sure what it is yet, or even if it's anything at all. When I am sure, you'll be the first to know."

"You're lucky I know you, you bastard," Bonnie said with a scowl. "I wouldn't take this shit off just anybody." Her expression softened when Simon merely smiled in reply, however. She shook her head ruefully. Like most females, she was by no means immune to his charms. "You don't even have to try, do you, you asshole? Well, it's been almost a month since we last saw one another, and I'm off duty now..." She let the thought trail off significantly.

Simon stood up, held out a hand. "Your place or mine?" he replied.

When the world stopped spinning, Gem saw that they were back at Zenshou's apartment in the Zone. She heard a soft moan and watched as her employer began to collapse and hit the floor.

"Boss?" Gem said as she watched in startlement. She knelt beside Zenshou and gently shook her. "Boss?" she said again, panic apparent in her voice.

Zenshou moaned again and her hear lolled to one side. A line of blood began to trace it's way out of her nose, over her lip and cheek and drip onto the floor.

"Pills... Bathroom..." Zenshou's voice was a whisper.

Gem nodded silently, and dashed into the bathroom. she flung open the medicine cabinet and immediately seized a small bottle of pills that lay within. she tipped some into her hand, and scurried back to Zenshou. "They're here," Gem said, offering her hand to her employer.

"Need.. two...." Zenshou's voice was weak. "Pushed... too hard... Brainburn..." The last word came out as a gasp. She swallowed weakly as Gem put the two pills between her lips.

After a few moments, the ashen color began to fade from Zenshou's cheeks. "Could you turn down the lights please, Gem," she asked. "The light's hurting my eyes."

"Those pills may be one of the thing that whoever hired Black Company are after." Zenshou closed her eyes again and weakly began to massage her temples and then the back of her neck. "My father had some of the chemists working on medication that would eliminate 'brainburn' in espers. They haven't gotten it to that stage yet, but they have been able to get it to help with the effects of it once it's happened."

"That makes a lot of sense then," gem muttered. she glanced at the pills still in her hand, and did a quick count of the ones remaining in the bottle. "Boss, do you have a way of getting more?"

Zenshou started to shake her head but winced and decided not to. "Not without going back to HariChem. I don't need them very often, maybe once a month or so. I only take them when it gets really bad. There were 42 of them in the bottle when I last looked."

Gem tipped the rest back in the bottle. She carefully screwed the cap back on, and tucked it away in her jacket pocket. "Just in case," she said.

Zenshou nodded very carefully then lets out a sigh. "Now we need to find out what else my father was working on..." She walked over to the computer and slipped the data crystal into it. The computer worked for a while, then Zenshou quickly entered a password.

Data appeared on the screen and she began to read. After a few moments, Gem heard Zenshou whisper "oh my god..."

"They were doing experiments on epser activation and stimulation drugs into the test subject to enhance performance. And there's every indication that they were close to something that was stable. Those pills were a side track on that research." Zenshou's voice trailed off.

"Gem, there's more. They've been working on animal hybrid stuff. Not the Lynxes and Pumas, but splicing in genetic material from frogs and lizards to allow a person to regenerate lost limbs." Zenshou shakes her head in disbelief. "There's a whole list of other combat drugs that HariChem has developed or is in the process of developing."

"Why didn't my father tell me about this," Zenshou said. "I mean, if I had known, maybe I could have done something and they wouldn't..." Her voice caught in her throat and she tried to swallow the lump that had formed. "No wonder Black Company was brought in. If either of those two projects were even the slightest bit successful, can you imagine the position it would put HariChem in?" She turned her head to look at Gem.

"Harichem would become the world's number one target." Gem sat beside her. "It's pretty clear that this is what they were actually after. The question is, how did they know about it before you?"

"Well," Zenshou replied, "my father obviously didn't want me to know about this stuff yet. He certainly wouldn't have told anyone, so there must be a leak somewhere. We have to find out who it is." She looked at Gem. "And what do we tell Heller? I sure as hell don't want him to know everything."

"That they were after a datafile, and it's safe. Safe, and nothing more. Plus, I think it's to your advantage to play the role of the minion. The less he suspects you, the better."

Zenshou nodded. "That's my intention. If he asks for specifics, I'll tell him that it's classified and that I'm not privileged to that information." She paused. "Maybe we could get him to look into that security leak too."

"It's worthwhile, considering how much you're paying him." Gem leaned forwards, staring at the screen. "Do they say what stage they've gotten to with those drugs? If there's any samples or anything?"

Zenshou turned back to the computer and read some more. "It says the esper drugs are in the testing stages, and that they were looking for test subjects." She looked at Gem. "Maybe that's why they didn't tell me. Because they thought I might object, or..." Zenshou's voice trailed off. "No, my father wouldn't do that to me, and he would not have allowed anyone at HariChem to use me as a guinea pig." Her voice was full of certainty.

Gem put a hand on Zenshou's shoulder and squeezed it. "I believe you. I can't imagine who would test on their own child." She removed her hand and turned to Zenshou. "Does it say if there are any samples, or where they're stored?"

"It doesn't say, but if they were getting ready to start testing, they'd have had to have some of the drugs ready for use. They'd likely be one of the research facilities, but I don't know which one."

"Then they would probably already have them." Gem sighed again. "If they were after the drugs, the obvious next move would be to search factories, labs and testing plants."

"If they were after the drugs, why not just steal them and the documentation? Industrial espionage happens all the time. Why kill my family?"

"Because they were trying to make a point," Gem replied.

Zenshou opened her mouth to reply, but stopped and sighed. "If we're going to go to that meeting, we're going to need different clothes," she said, changing the subject.

"Do I get a choice in this," Gem asks.

"No," Zenshou replied with an evil grin that quickly faded. "To look the part you have to dress the part, and that means everything you wear has to be correct."

"Is this some kind of revenge for that skirt?" Gem looked at Zenshou, who shook her head.

"No. We're not going to be in the Zone forever. Besides, very woman needs to have at least one set of really nice clothing, and deserves to have nice lingerie."

"Okay," Gem said. "There I draw the line."

"What? I'm not going to have you parade around in your skivvies. And I wasn't going to buy you anything kinky unless you asked for it. Gem, believe me, you haven't lived until you've worn silk right against your skin."

"I just don't feel comfortable not being... Well, looking..." Gem scratched her head. "Argh, it's hard to describe."

"That's the beauty of it, Gem," Zenshou explained. "Nobody but you has to know what you're wearing under that outfit. I buy things for myself that please me and make me feel good. That's the whole point."

"And you, of course, since you'd be buying them," Gem said.

"Then what's the problem? Wait a sec..." Zenshou looked at Gem in dismay. "You think... Oh no, Gem. I'm not going to be buying you stuff because I like it. I'll be showing you stuff that I think you'd like. You'll try it on in private."

"I didn't mean it like that," Gem hastened to say. "I've never worn anything like this before. Really."

"Then think of it as an adventure," Zenshou said with a smile. "But know this. By the time we are finished, you are going to own two complete outfits, from the skin out. And you are going to have some classy skivvies, even if they are only silk boxers."

"Yes ma'am!" Gem answered.

Zenshou chuckled. "That's better."

"I'm going to have to rely on your advice a lot here," Gem added.

"No problem. Now let me think. Where shall we go... No, can't go there because I'm too well known... Ok I know where we can go. Not my first choice, but they have excellent service, and are used to people coming in who don't want a lot of attention given as to who exactly they are.

Gem's face twisted in an odd kind of smile. "Let me guess... a shady, high-class boutique?"

"No, not shady," Zenshou explained. "Just used by corpers who don't want it advertised what they're buying and for whom. It's one of the few stores that aren't beholden to a corporation. They're not a "company store" so to speak."

"Very useful then," commented Gem.

"If you know what to say and how much to... "tip," nothing goes beyond the front doors." Zenshou slowly got to her feet.

"In other words, this is going to cost you a packet, right?" Gem looked at Zenshou.

"To be honest, a lot of corpers take their... female friends there to buy them good classical and stylish clothing." Zenshou shrugged. "It's going to be expensive, but that's not the point. We need the clothing, and I want to buy this stuff for you." She looked at Gem. "When's your birthday?"

Gem stared at Zenshou in silence.

"Come on, what's your birthday," Zenshou prompted. "Not the year, the day."

Gem bit her lip, and shook her head ever so slightly from side to side.

"You're not going to tell me... Or you don't know?" Zenshou spoke softly.

"I don't know, really," Gem replied.

"Hmm... Okay, now you do. It's April 2nd," announced Zenshou.

Gem blinked. "What?"

"We are going to celebrate your birthday on April 2nd. That's the day after mine," Zenshou said, "so we can have two whole days of uninterrupted celebration.

"Wow, Gem said. "That's... Really neat of you."

"So consider these clothes to be catch up belated birthday presents. Now you can't refuse them." Zenshou grinned, then the grin faded to a concerned and serious look. "Or are you being sarcastic...."

"No, I really mean it," Gem said. "I never really thought about that kinda stuff before. I used to just clock up an extra year on January one."

"Birthdays are important," Zenshou said, "but not for marking getting a year older. They're a time to celebrate life, and to share the happiness with friends and family." Zenshou suddenly bit her lip.

Gem nodded solemnly. "Yeah," she said. "But hey, look at it this way. Now we've both got new family to celebrate with."

Zenshou smiled. "You're right. So, cousin, shall we go?"

Gem smiled back. "Sure, sis."

Zenshou looked surprised, and a hint of moisture appeared at the corner of her eyes.

"Well, all I ever had was a sister," Gem tried to explain, "So I wouldn't know how to treat a cousin."

Zenshou nodded. "It... It was just a surprise, that's all." She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I think we'll take the scenic route this time. Ground travel, through the checkpoint, then grab a taxi. I've still got a nasty migraine brewing in here." She tapped her temple.

"I was about to tell you to take it easy," Gem said. "I'm going to have to protect you from yourself, too."

Zenshou chuckled. "Brainburn doesn't happen very often to me. The problem was I felt it coming and I pushed. Unfortunately, I didn't push the right way. I'll be okay in a couple of hours." Zenshou put her hand to her cheek. "I'd better clean up a bit before we leave."

"Sure thing," Gem said and nodded to her. As Zenshou headed for the bathroom, Gem suddenly spoke up. "Um... You don't mind 'sis,' do you?"

Zenshou looked back at Gem. "Oh no," Zenshou replied. "It's just... With everything that's happened I never thought to hear anyone ever call me that again. It's... It's good to hear." Zenshou smiled at her friend sincerely. "Who knows. Maybe we'll adopt a brother or two along the way."

Gem's smile grew, and she burst into a delightful laugh.

"You need to do that more often," said Zenshou.

Gem nodded her agreement.

Zenshou walked into the bathroom and cleaned the dried blood off her face. She did a quick inspection and saw a small drop of blood had dried on her blouse. Zenshou frowned and got rid of the stain as best she could, then sighed. She looked into the mirror and found she still wasn't used to seeing the new style of the green streaks in her hair. I don't know, she thinks to herself. Would it be that bad of a sign should I start to forget they were, or even feel uncomfortable when they're not, like Gem is about the thought of changing her clothes? This is such a different world from what I grew up in. As I learn more about it, and become more a part of it because of what I must do, will I lose what I was? Zenshou shook her head. But I have no time to worry about that now. Too much to do. If not fitting into the corporate lifestyle is the only worry I'll have by the end of all this, then I will consider myself to be very lucky.

She did a quick fix of her hair and walked back out into the living room. "Let's go shopping."

"Is the checkpoint always that bad," Zenshou asked as the got out of the cab in front of their destination.

Gem spared the driver a filthy look before turning to her employer. "Only when they're bored," she replied.

"And I take it they're almost always bored," Zenshou commented, then sighed. "Now I know why people prefer to have their own vehicles, or have the store come to them." Zenshou straightened her jacket, carefully picked some unidentified piece of trash off her skirt with her fingernails and a wrinkled nose.

"Dinks like them are always bored. It beats doing real work." Gem surveyed the area, and took a good look at the store before them. The area they're in would be described as dressed down upper class - better than middle class, but not quite upper class. The classical style building was nondescript, and looked rundown - not out of neglect but because of sheer age - and had a small, almost invisible nameplate saying "House of Sergio" on it.

Zenshou looked over at Gem. "Shall we?" She walked towards the entrance of the store.

Gem quietly followed, taking in her surroundings with barely concealed awe. The doors looked like old fashioned smoked plate glass, and the interior of the store was understated elegance, in creamy neutrals with the only splashes of color coming from the clothing.

"Nice," Gem breathed. she suddenly felt awfully out of place. She glanced next to her, and realized just how ridiculous the pair of them looked here.

There were several well dressed women walking around, who probably worked in the store. Zenshou walked towards one of them, her head held high as if she owned the place. "We need two complete wardrobes for each of us," she said.

The woman looked Zenshou up and down in obvious disbelief. "I'm sorry, madame, but I don't believe we have the style of clothing you are accustomed to wearing."

Gem grimaced at the comment, hoping her embarrassment wouldn't show. Gem shrugged. "Shall we?" she quietly asked Zenshou, and indicated the door.

Zenshou looked the woman up and down in return. "Fine, you just lost the sale and a large tip." She pulled a huge roll of cash out of somewhere in her outfit.

"You," Zenshou said to one of the younger women. "Do you think you would be able to help us?" The woman Zenshou had first spoken to looked like she was going to swallow her tongue.

Nice, Gem thought at her employer.

Zenshou hid a smile. The young woman came hurrying over to Zenshou, all apologetic for the other's blunder, and led Zenshou and Gem to a small alcove off to one side of the store.

What the hell do I do? Gem sent a nervous thought to Zenshou.

Zenshou sat down in one of the very comfortable look chairs, and quietly gestured to Gem to do the same. "By complete, madame," the woman asked, obviously nervous, "do you mean with hats, shoes and gloves?"

Zenshou shook her head. "We suffered a recent loss of our belongings and have only what we are wearing. We require everything, from foundation garments to outerwear."

Gem could almost see the dollar signs in the woman's eyes when she realized how large of a commission she was likely to earn.

A small smile crept across Gem's face. Are you sure you can afford this, she mentally asked Zenshou.

Don't worry about it. I made provisions for this kind of thing when I arranged for Zenshou's bank accounts, Zensou replied. Besides, this is all a business expense. Gem felt a grin of amusement from her.

"Very good, madame," the woman said. "We shall start with the basics and work out way outwards, if that is alright with you."

Zenshou nodded. "We'll start with my friend."

Gem blinked in surprise. "Me?" she almost squealed.

Zenshou nodded. "I know exactly what I want and need, and what my size is. It'll take a bit longer for you as you'll need to try on more things."

"Sure," Gem said and nodded, her confidence returning. "What do we do first?"

"Very well, madame," the woman said, looking at Gem. "First we need to get your measurements so we can determine your size."

"Small," Gem replied. "I don't know my precise measurements."

"The woman produced a tape measure. "That is what this is for," she replied with a shy smile, and began to take a series of measurements.

Gem surveyed the racks of underwear and lingerie before her, emitting a low hum. She eventually turned to the saleswoman, asking "Do they make them down to my size?"

"Yes, madame," the woman replied. She walked over to one end of the shelving and took down several pieces, ranging from scraps of lace and satin to more substantially covering items. "Any of these should fit you."

"Hmm..." Gem looked at the rows upon rows of underwear. Her first instinct was to panic. She'd never done this before, never been in this situation. Never had the chance to make herself... Beautiful. She reached out, and took two items; one in black lace, the other a racy red satin.

"Basic black is always good," Zenshou suggested.

Gem nodded. "I'm used to it at least. But this one?" she held up the satin piece for Zenshou to inspect.

Zenshou stood up and walked over to Gem. "No, I don't think that one suits you." She looked over at the rack and took another red satin one down. "I think this one would be better. More delicate, and more suitable to your frame."

Gem nodded her agreement. She turned to the saleswoman and added "Plus whatever matches this."

The saleswoman nodded and went to the rack.

"Add in a white and a nude colored in the same style, if you have them," Zenshou added. The woman nodded in agreement and took the clothes off the rack.

Gem shook her head. "No, not white."

"Yes madame," the saleswoman replied. "Now, stockings. Which style would you require?" She walked over to a large dresser-like display and removed several samples.

"Dark colours," Gem responded. She shut her eyes, trying to visualize herself in some of the samples. "Simple," she said.

"Very good," the saleswoman replied and presented two different styles. "These ones require garters, and these ones do not. Both are made of the finest quality silk, and come in a variety of dark colors." The woman paused. "If I might be so bold, I would recommend black. Far more versatile, and will work with almost any outfit."

Gem nodded. "It's what I was thinking of. No garters, though."

The saleswoman nodded and switched her samples around. "The stockings you are interested come plain, or with a variety of designs on the tops. Here is a selection I think you might be interested in."

As Gem looked at the stockings, Zenshou picked out some things for herself.

Gem picked out two pairs for herself - one plain, and one with a simple lace design.

The saleswoman added them to the pile. "Will you be needing slips or camisoles," she asked.

"Yes, we will," Zenshou replied before Gem could react. "My friend will be needing a dress and a pantsuit of... special construction."

Gem glanced over to Zenshou. ~I don't think they can make an armoured dress,~she thought to her boss.

~Yes they can,~ Zenshou replied, ~but that's not what we're getting. The pantsuit will be of the armored cloth.~

The saleswoman looked at Gem. "Which item would you like to choose first, madame?"

"The suit's easy," Gem said, keeping her eyes on Zenshou. "Plain black, white shirt. Silk look, if you can do it." A small smile crept across Gem's face.

"Yes, madame," the saleswoman said. "We can do that. This way, if you please."

"Certainly. But-" Gem stopped, and glanced towards Zenshou again. "not too formal. I want to look good in it."

While that conversation had been going on, Zenshou had gone to try on some clothes herself. She looked at herself in the mirror. Not bad, she thought to herself, not exactly what I wanted, but it's nice and will do. She stepped out of the changing room and looked around for Gem.

Gem slowly stepped from the change room. The suit hung well on her body, loose at the neck and chest but drawing marginally tighter around her slim waist. The pants were looser, allowing her freedom of movement while still emphasizing her shapely legs.

"Wow." Zenshou said. "You clean up real pretty."

Gem blushed slightly. "I never really tried before now." She brushed her face briefly, and pulled her hair back with one hand. "Is that better?"

"I feel kinda inadequate," Zenshou said. She looked down at the deep jade green knee length dress she was wearing. It fit her like it has been designed for her, not quite a second skin, more like a glove. The skirt of the dress looked to be made of yards and yards of material, moving like ripples of water at Zenshou's slightest movement.

Gem scratched her head. "I don't see why. I'm just in a suit, and you're..." She sighed, as she searched for words. "Breathtaking."

"You really don't know how good you look, do you, Aoi" Zenshou says in disbelief. "Have you ever really looked in a mirror?"

"Not really," she responded. She glanced at the assistant, trying to gauge her reaction.

"You and I, standing side by side. They'd look at me for my unusual coloring, but you... You're simply gorgeous. More beautiful than I am."

"If I may be so bold, madame," the saleswoman offered haltingly. "You would make most men forget about their dates."

Gem shied away. "No way." She shook her head. "Never."

"Believe her, Aoi," said Zenshou. "It's true. You've just never been in a situation where it you could see it happen."

Swallowing, Gem muttered "Thank you." She turned around, inhaling and hoping the others didn't see her eyes moisten. "So what about that dress?" She added, hoping to distract them.

"You are definitely getting that suit," Zenshou said, looking at the saleswoman. "She is going to need matching boots and an overcoat." She turned her gaze on Gem. "Do you want a trenchcoat or some other overcoat? And a hat?"

"I don't think a hat would be appropriate," Gem responded. She finally turned back to them. "But a trenchcoat is always useful."

"As for the dress, something simple, I think," mused Zenshou.

The saleswoman nodded. "I believe I have something that would be just perfect." The woman walked off and returned with a dress that almost matched the shade of Gem's eyes perfectly.

"What do you think, Aoi?" Zenshou looked at Gem.

"That is perfect," Gem said, nodding her agreement.

The saleswoman hung it on the hook in the changing room. "I will fetch a trenchcoat and the boots," she said, and left the two women alone.

Gem glanced in at the dress, then out to Zenshou again. "No," she said. "I couldn't do it justice."

"You'll never know if you don't try," Zenshou said.

"I guess," she said, and strolled into the change room.

Zenshou smiled. "Just try it on."

Some rustling noises came out, and were interrupted but an exclamation of pain. "Ow..." Gem wandered out of the change room, stumbling slightly. "No fair, I can't move in this."

Zenshou shrugged. "That can be changed. Slits can be added in the seams." She grinned. "And in that kind of dress, you're not supposed to be taking two meter steps."

"I guess. I'll just have to post huge signs all over the place. 'Don't cause trouble while Gem's in her new dress!"

Zenshou laughed. "Hopefully, wherever it is you go when you wear it, there won't be any trouble."

Gem found her boss's laughter to be all too infectious. At first she suppressed a giggle, then gave up and let out a her light, pleasant laugh.

Zenshou was still laughing when the saleswoman returned with the trenchcoat and boots for Gem.

Gem finally controlled herself, placing one hand over her mouth. She waved the other daintily, and managed to say "Don't mind us," before bursting into another laughing fit.

Zenshou shook her head and chuckled. "Just put the coat and boots over by that chair," she said to the woman. "We'll get to it presently. There's another outfit I wish to try on." Zenshou looked at Gem. "You going to be okay?"

Gem nodded, finally calming down. "Sorry," she said, still smiling broadly.

"No need to apologize," Zenshou replied. "It's good to get out and have some fun."

"Preferably not while people are trying to serve you."

"There's nothing wrong with that," Zenshou answered. "I doubt they see that kind of behaviour in here very much."

The saleswoman nodded. "Most of our customers are more... reserved."

"Concerned about their reputations and the chance of being caught, more like," Zenshou added.

"We're not most customers," Gem said. She thought for a second, then added "In fact, we're a very unusual pair of people."

"You're right about that in more ways than one," Zenshou replied softly. She turned and walked into her changing room and closed the door. A few moments later, she emerged wearing a suit very similar to what Gem had tried on, but in a deep purple. It's effect on Zenshou's figure was the same, but it clung ever so slightly more to her curves.

"What do you think," Zenshou asked.

"Gorgeous," Gem said, looking her up and down. She shook her head, then nodded. "You. And you said I looked good."

"Doesn't really go with the hair, does it." Zenshou grimaced.

"Well... no," Gem agreed. "Nor the lipstick. But I bet you're glad to be out of that outfit I chose for you."

"Oh, and speaking of hair," Zenshou addded, looking at the saleswoman. "I need a very good quality wig. Shoulder length, straight, dark chestnut brown." The saleswoman nodded and left to fetch it.

Zenshou looked at Gem. "You're just saying that. And to be honest, I was beginning to enjoy that outfit. It is so unlike anything that I normally would wear... And it certainly was fun earlier." Zenshou smiled, remembering the beginning of her encounter with Simon Heller. "I think we both need a clean-up before we go anywhere in these."

"That's a surprise, actually." Gem leaned back. "I wouldn't be seen dead in something like that any more."

Zenshou nodded. "And I know just the place. And we're going to get you some cosmetics too. Not arguments," she said, holding up her hand.

Gem shook her head. "Don't worry, I already know I can't win against you."

"You wouldn't be caught dead..." Zenshou looked at Gem. "You mean you used to dress like that? Oh, and you can win against me, you just haven't learned the secret yet." She grinned.

Gem looked surprised for a second, her face flushed with embarrassment. "Me? Never!" she blurted out.

"Yes, you. You just said 'I wouldn't be seen dead in something like that anymore'. That implies you used to dress like that."

Gem glanced around, searching for something to say. She then noticed the saleswoman had discretely disappeared.

"Ah, we'd better get moving," Gem quickly said. "Big day tomorrow."

"You're not going to get out of it that easily, Aoi," Zenshou said. "We can talk about this later, over dinner. Next stop is the mini-spa." She raised her voice slightly. "Miss, we'll take everything in the piles. I have a few more things to pick out and try on."

"More?" Gem exclaimed.

The saleswoman reappeared and quietly began to gather everything up.

"Yes, more," Zenshou said. She quickly scanned the shelves and pulled out a set of lingerie that was very similar in color to the outfit that Gem had picked out for Zenshou as her 'disguise'.

"You're kidding me."

"Check out the trenchcoat and boots while I try these on. And no, I'm not kidding. You can't expect me to wear the same thing all the time. No self-respecting kept woman would." Zenshou grinned as she disappeared behind the changing room door.

"I've created a monster," Gem muttered to herself as she pulled on the trenchcoat.

Gem heard the rustling of fabric, then Zenshou exclaimed "Perfect!" Zenshou peaked around the corner of the door and motioned to Gem. "Come here for a sec."

Dreading the result, Gem edged around the corner and peered in.

Zenshou was wearing the bright red suit again, but instead of the white t-shirt, she was wearing a bright red bustier that cupped her breasts like a pair of caressing hands, and left her well toned midriff bare.

"What do you think?"

Gem gaped for a second, before finally saying "Now you did not learn that from me."

"It's got matching panties too," Zenshou grinned. "And yes I did," Zenshou replied. "You said look at what the other wannabes and so on were wearing. I did, and this is what I saw. Is it too much?"

"Yeah, it is." Gem scrunched her eyes up, and stepped away from the booth.

Zenshou sighed. "Oh well." She frowned. "Seriously. Would someone like I was pretending to be not wear something like this?"

Gem sighed. "Yes, yes she would. But I still think it's too much for you."

"Why?" Zenshou finished putting back on her old clothes.

"Because that's more on the extreme of what she'd wear." Gem thought for a second. "The idea is to imitate city life without understanding it, and no-one in the city would wander around with her..." Gem motioned vaguely to her chest. "Well, you know."

"I see," Zenshou nodded. "Well, I'm still going to get them, I'll just wear something over it." Zenshou picked the items up off the chair. "There, I think we're done."

"Now you're sure you can afford all this?"

Zenshou looked at Gem with a raised eyebrow. "That wad of cash I pulled out isn't a one hundred dollar bill wrapped about a bunch of ones. I could afford to buy out this entire store if I wanted." She paused. "Remember, I have access to the company accounts. While we're not filthy rich, we're not exactly paupers. This will cost me, of, maybe sixty thousand. Money well spent, I think."

The address Simon had given Zenshou turned out to be just what she had thought: residential, not business--and a nice residential area at that. The building was one of those rare things in Neo York: upscale and understated at the same time. The lobby security systems let Zenshou and

Gem in without a murmur once they identified themselves; clearly they were expected.

Once they reached his floor, Simon met them at the door of his apartment.

The first thing Simon noticed when he saw Zenshou and her shadow was Zenshou's appearance - it was completely different from what he had seen the night before. Her hair was now dyed a deep chestnut brown and hung straight as a board, barely touching her shoulders. Instead of the bright red skirt suit she wore a simple but elegant deep jade green dress, the silk light and diaphanous enough that it flowed around her legs, hinting at their shape yet revealing nothing. On her feet she wore delicate-looking knee-high high heeled boots that looked painted onto her calves. Zenshou's face was different as well. The neon green lipstick and garish slashes of color across her eyes and cheeks, replaced by a simpler, more natural color scheme, well done but to someone with a trained eye, not done by a professional or someone experienced with cosmetics.

Simon registered the way both women were dressed at a glance. His initial impression, colored somewhat by Bonnie's early morning departure, was that this woman couldn't help being a sex bomb even when she was dressed for business. His professional instincts quickly took over, however, and he filed away the additional seeming contradictions that this woman presented

for future reference, even as he appreciated the contrast with her appearance the night before.

"I trust we're not late," Zenshou said, as her lips curved into a smile.

Simon smiled back. "One nice thing about being in business for oneself is that I can set my own hours. Come in."

The room they were ushered into was much like its occupant: well-appointed, but not ostentatious, with furniture that managed to be both modern and stylish at the same time. The chairs and sofa were all comfortable, and upholstered in leather. He himself was wearing what appeared to be a copy of his outfit from the night before, minus the blazer.

Zenshou walked through the apartment with hardly a sound, her eyes taking in and evaluating everything she saw. Gem was clearly examining the rooms she passed through with a suspicious eye.

After offering his guests a drink, Simon sat down in one of the chairs. "Talk to me," he said.

Zenshou sat down on the sofa, crossing her legs and revealing the faintest glimpse of thigh before she smoothed the skirt of her dress with practiced ease.

Simon noticed the gesture, but did not call attention to it. Now was not the time, and in any case, he wasn't yet sure of where she was coming from.

"My employer has agreed to meet with you. He is Nakata Miro, and you can see him any time between 10 am and 3 pm today. He will give you what you need to access the Harihatu family home." Zenshou leaned back slightly and rested against the back of the sofa.

"Is your residence secure from surveillance," Zenshou asked after a moment of contemplation.

There was a mere instant of hesitation on Simon's part, as he double-checked with Epsilon II before replying. "I take my clients' confidentiality seriously," he answered. "I've got countermeasures for all but the most extreme ELINT systems," he added, slipping momentarily into military jargon. "Let's put it this way: anyone with the resources to spy on us here will have better things to do."

~Gem,~ Zenshou sent through their link. ~Keep an eye on him. Watch for reactions of any kind, and the possibility that he might be lying and so on. We have to be careful as there are ways other than technology to spy on a conversation.~

~Check,~ Gem replied mentally. She shifted slightly in position behind Zenshou and fixed her eyes on Simon; her look not threatening, but carefully neutral.

While her poker face said that she was simply being a good bodyguard, her body language spoke instead of a more personal involvement in whatever was going on. It wouldn't have registered with most people, but that barely noticeable shift in stance spoke to Simon, in more ways than one.

Zenshou nodded. "I have been authorized to tell you that HariChem was working on some rather significant projects, some with possible military applications. Anything more specific, my employer has not seen fit to share with me." She paused and thought for a moment. "A confidential source tells me there may be a mole inside HariChem, and there are concerns about breaches in security. You are asked not to discuss any of this with Mr. Miro in person or over the phone, but send them to this secure email address." Zenshou handed him a slip of paper. "If there are any questions, you will be contacted by me and I will pass them along. Do you have any other questions?"

Simon glanced at the address on the paper long enough to memorize it, and to transmit it to Epsilon. Then he folded it, dropped it in an ashtray, and lit it with a cigarette lighter. "Two questions," he replied, noting with a touch of irony that he hadn't actually asked any questions yet. "First, when do I get the retainer we talked about? Second, where do I meet your Mr. Miro?" As he waited for her reply, he reflected that her manner revealed more about her than she might suspect, too. She was putting up a bold front to mask her skittishness, and that detail, combined with the change in her appearance, answered at least one question that he had about her. Whatever else she might be, she was an amateur, trying to appear professional. And that knowledge alone explained much.

"You receive the retainer now," Zenshou replied, looking up at Gem and indicating that she should give him the cred stick that she was carrying. "The stick is programmed to transfer the amount directly to whichever account you wish. I'm certain you understand why it is not being given to you in cash. I'm also certain you understand that the daily fee you are being paid takes into account any possible 'danger pay', so please, don't try to stiff Mr. Miro for any extra beyond reasonable expenses."

"Mr. Miro will be in his offices at the HariChem building," Zenshou replied. "And he's not 'my' Mr. Miro. He is the CFO of HariChem." She looked at Simon calmly. "Any other questions?"

"A wire transfer would have been sufficient," Simon said, unperturbed. He took the wand and dropped it into a slot in his desk. Once the transaction was complete, he handed it back with a smile. "All right, we have a deal," he said, standing up. "I am at your service. One more thing, then we can go see your principal. Who's running the business now? Is it Mr. Miro, or someone else?"

"Mr. Miro is Acting CEO," Zenshou replied, "and we will not be joining you for your meeting. We have other things to attend to."

Simon took his jacket off the back off his chair. "Now that is a shame," he said as he slipped it on. "But I'm sure we'll see more of one another." He came around from behind his desk, gestured toward the door. "After you."

Simon pulled into the HariChem visitors' parking lot fifteen minutes later, after cutting through the Manhattan rush hour traffic in his trademark powder-blue Porsche. A few words and a smile, and he was sent straight up to Miro's office. As with the receptionists downstairs, Miro's secretary perked up noticeably at his approach as well. "Please go right in, Mr. Heller," she said. "Mr. Miro is expecting you." Whoever he is, she thought, watching appreciatively as he strode through the door she indicated, he's definitely not the usual kind of visitor we get here.

Nakata Miro was looking over a quarterly report when the front desk informed him Simon Heller had arrived. He cleared his desk and sat back to wait. Miro was a rather plain Japanese man, probably late 40's, early 50's, and dresses in conservative suits. Despite his well-kept appearance, there was evidence of strain in the wrinkles around his eyes. The office was rather spartan, relying on classical furniture and clean lines for decoration. There are a few well placed paintings on the walls, and a bonsai sat on a mohogany plant stand near the windows.

"Good morning, Mr. Heller," Miro said. "Ms. Shinju told me you might be stopping by today." He looked at the time stamp on the computer screen embedded in his desk. "I've got fifteen minutes I can spare you right now."

"Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, Mr. Miro," Simon replied with a half-smile. Thanks to Epsilon II, he knew the time as well as Miro did. "Zenshou paid me a retainer this morning." He spoke her given name with just the barest hint of emphasis, to see what sort of reaction he would get. "She said you would be able to help me with a little matter of access, regarding the case she hired me for. If you would be so kind, then we can both proceed with our important business."

Miro nodded, showing otherwise no reaction to Zenshou's name. "Let me know when you intend to arrive at... the house. I will inform the guards to expect you." He paused for a moment. "I trust you understand the importance of swift and accurate completion of the business for which you have been hired."

"Just as much as I am sure that you ran a background check beforehand, to make sure that that would be the case," Simon said without hesitation. He spread his hands, taking in the room. "Otherwise, I wouldn't have been paid in the first place, and we wouldn't be here right now. So let's say, one hour from now. Will that be sufficient time?"

Miro nodded. "That will be sufficient." He gave Simon the directions to the HariChem arcology, and that he'd get more specific directions once he arrived.

"I'll be in touch." For an instant, as he said these words, a seriousness that belied Simon's seemingly easygoing attitude was clearly visible. Then he left as smoothly as he came, with a toss of his head and a rakish grin for Miro's secretary.

Once outside, however, Simon was all business again. He took an indirect route to the HariChem arcology, with some twists and turns all his own for good measure. Maybe no one knew he was involved yet, but there was no sense in taking chances.

He parked a block away, out of sight around a corner. He'd asked for the extra time precisely so he could see how the land lay when they weren't expecting visitors. After making sure he was suitably armed, Simon made a circuit of the surrounding area. He wasn't due to arrive officially for 40 minutes, and half an hour would be plenty of time for a once-over. As he walked, he also instructed Epsilon II to initiate an analysis, non-intrusive to start with, of the arcology's electronics, starting with its security and network systems, looking for strengths and weaknesses.

Thirty minutes later, give or take, Simon was back at his car. He waited a few more minutes, partly to get a preliminary readout from the satellite, then drove up to the front gate for his "real" visit.

An armed guard appeared from the security checkpoint. "May I see some identification please?"

Simon snapped open the wallet with his license in it. "Just an ordinary private investigator," he said, passing it over together with the pass from Miro.

The guard handed them to a second man in the security hut, who verified the documents and made a quick phone call. The guard in the hut returned the items to the first guard, who handed them back to Simon.

"Thank you, Mr. Heller. If you'll wait just a moment, we'll open the gates. We ask you that you park in the lot you'll see immediately past the security station, on your right. Someone will meet you at your car and escort you to the main house, and then anywhere else you wish to go in the HariChem arcology."

"All right," Simon replied nonchalantly as he slid the wallet back in his jacket. "A guided tour is just what the doctor ordered." As soon as the gates opened, he drove to the indicated space. Getting out of his car, he looked up at the sky for a moment, while he waited for his guide.

A middle-aged Japanese man in a suit approached Simon from the direction of the main complex. "Good afternoon, Mr. Heller. I am Jonas Nikkon." He gave a short and quick bow, the kind that one businessman would give another. "I've been assigned to you as your liason for your time here today."

Simon smiled. "How do you do, Mr. Nikkon."

"Security informs me that you are carrying weapons. We ask that you check them at the security station. They'll be placed in a safe that has a one-use code card, which will be given to you."

Cocking his head, Simon replied, "That sounds reasonable." And once he had his ticket for the two guns and the knife he was carrying, he turned again to his guide. "After you," he said, gesturing at the crime scene.

Nikkon led Simon through the grounds at a steady yet unhurried pace. The buildings and landscaping all had a Japanese feel to it, and when they rounded a corner and the Harihatu residence came into sight, it was like looking at a shogun's palace.

As he looked over the feudal-era architecture, Simon thought again about what he knew of HariChem's finances. While they were profitable, they were not one of the big corporations. And even if it were an imitation (entirely possible in this day and age), a display of this sort still wouldn't be cheap. He made a note to check into the company's money trails again.

The outside of the building and the meticulously groomed grounds showed no indication that anything untoward had happened here. When they reached the front entrance, Nikkon moved over to one side and pressed a button. An ornate wooden panel slid away to reveal a sophisticated security panel. Nikkon pushed a few buttons, said his name, and then leaned forward for a retinal scan.

The panel slid closed of its own accord, and the front door opened. Nikkon indicated that Simon should enter, then followed him into a small courtyard with a pond full of chubby koi. He continued on to a small covered porch, where he removed his shoes and slipped on a pair of moccasin-like shoes from a number of them stored on a small series of shelves.

Simon looked at the shoes on their shelves._When in Rome..._he said to himself as he started pulling off his boots. "Do you have those in an 11 Wide?"

When the footwear issue was resolved, Simon asked to be shown first to where the break-in occurred. "Has there been much reconstruction?" As they walked, he beamed images of Mr. Nikkon to Epsilon for future reference. "And was that biometric security system in place before the attack?"

"Yes it was," Nikkon replied. "The attackers blew a hole through the wall into the living quarters area of the residence," he explained. "You can't see it from here as it's on the other side of the building.

"Then let's start from there," Simon said.

"The residence and the grounds have been the home of the Harihatus for over 200 years," Nikkon said, and Simon could hear the pride in his voice.

"Must have cost a fortune to import from the homeland," Simon deadpanned.

"The homeland," Nikkon said, puzzled for a moment. "Oh no, Mr. Heller. The residence was built from scratch here, following very strict guidelines and requirements by the Harihatu's ancestors." He opened the inner door to the building and ushered Simon inside.

Simon's brow furrowed in puzzlement. "And it really happened 200 years ago? How did world history happen to miss such an event?"

"Oh, it didn't start out this large," Nikkon said. "It was a small and modest building, and has been added to by each generation. Most of the building was completed 50 years ago."

"Interesting," Simon said. "I thought Japan was still in its Shogun period of isolationism 200 years ago--no one gets in, and no one gets out. There were Chinese in California, but that was about it, or so I thought. I'd like to hear the story behind this later on."

As Simon was led through the building towards the living quarters of the Harihatu family, his guide pointed out various features of the home and several pieces of priceless Japanese artwork and sculptures.

"Impressive," Simon said thoughtfully. "And also removing any lingering doubts there might have been about robbery as a motive."

Nikkon came to a stop in front of a plain, unobtrusive door. "The private quarters are beyond this door," he explained. "Most of the house is used for entertaining and business purposes. If you don't mind, I'll wait here for you. If you need anything, please, don't hesitate to contact me.

Nikkon activated the security panel, completed the retinal scan, and the door swung open.

"I'll do that." Simon nodded once and went inside.

Whoever did the job did it as graphically and messily as possible. From the reports, about 20 people died. The servants and staff that were in the private quarters were killed swiftly and brutally, but the intruders took special "care" with the Harihatu family. Descriptions of what the scene looked like are in other stories on the web site, and if you need any more info, let me know.

The family was sitting around the dinner table when the attack happened, and most of the bodies were found in that room.

As I figured, Simon said to himself as he looked around, with his cybernetic and naked eyes alike. The killers must have had special instructions to make it messy. The message would be meant for the boss's successor, something along the lines of "Give us what we want, or you're next." Which brings us back to the question: who sent the message?

All of the bedrooms appear to have been ransacked, as has the home office. A record of the contents of the rooms show that only Midori's room is missing anything—a couple of personal items are missing, but the majority of the things that she prized (and would have taken with her if she never intended to return) were still there.

Only one of the bedrooms showed any signs of a fight-that was the bedroom of James Anderson, a.k.a. "One Eyed Jack," head of security. Bloodstains on the floor, and some of his things are missing too.

If the thing that these people had been killed over, the McGuffin, for lack of a better term, was here, it was hidden so well that no one else had found it. That meant it was down to Simon to determine whether it was here or not. He tried to match up the inventory reports with what he was seeing with his own eyes. He went through the rooms with a fine-toothed comb, on the off-chance he might find something that the police and the company's security team overlooked. He also instructed Epsilon II to begin searching for hidden rooms or vaults, anything concealed that might have an electrical lock that the satellite's systems could access through the household network, directly or indirectly. First he would exhaust the immediate possibilities, then he would see what was left.

The satellite reported back it could find nothing matching those parameters, but there were two areas of the building that were not on the household network, but had independent systems.

"Hmm...Now that is interesting." Simon promptly directed Epsilon to guide him to the areas in question, nearest one first. He had been given the run of the place, and had not been told to stay out of any particular areas. Besides, he believed in investigating anything of potential interest in a case, and this definitely fell into that category.

Epsilon gave him directions that took him into the bowels of the building, to one of the basement levels, and to what appeared to be a blank masonry wall. The satellite informed him that the system detected is behind the wall.

At that moment, a uniformed guard appeared, and politely informed Simon that this area was off-limits to non-HariChem employees.

While he felt certain he could take the guy, starting a fight here and now would be counter-productive. Simon turned around, keeping his hands at his sides. "I was told I had the run of the place," he said, smiling. "But I'm glad to see you people are on the bounce," he went on, slipping in a little military jargon and observing its effect. "I'll mention that when I make my report." Then he headed back upstairs, asking Epsilon to note both locations on the plans of the house. The guard's appearance had only heightened his interest. He would follow this up later, one way or another. Simon returned to the residence area to continue his investigation.

The inventory reports he received matched what he saw - an assortment of clothing and Anderson's personal weapons were missing from his room, and from Midori's, a small jewlery box, a old-fasioned hardbound journal, and the only clothing missing and unaccounted for was a black leather one-piece outfit with matching boots, and an armored trenchcoat. The reports stated that these were the clothes Midori was reported to have been seen wearing when she left the compound that morning.

"And the same outfit was missing after the attack as well..." Simon frowned in concentration. "Now why should that be? Even if killers like these collected souvenirs, it wouldn't make sense." He made a mental note to pay a visit to the coroner once his business here was finished.

Simon took a closer look at what was left of the family shrine, noting that the damage was even more deliberate here than elsewhere. As he sorted through the remains, he made a note to ask what significance such vandalism might have.

A small area had been cleared on the altar, and a small brass pot of sand had been righted and a stick of incense burned. As Simon looked at the altar, he spotted a small smudge of ash, like a partial fingerprint, on one side, near the base.

Since the 1990s, fingerprint evidence had been found to be not nearly as absolute as once thought in criminological circles. And that was with reasonably intact prints. Partial smudges were even worse. Besides, the notion of killers in powered exoskeletons leaving fingerprints at all was laughable on the face of it. And yet, there it was, clearly left after the attack. As he scanned the print, he eyed the incense pot, considering its significance, on its own and with other findings. Then he got down on his knees and checked around some more, finally coming up with a strand of hair so blonde it almost had to be bleached when he held it up to the light. He looked around once more, then put the hair in a sample holder, nodding to himself as he did so.

Simon commanded Epsilon to take another look at the household security access logs, this time starting from the time the house was attacked, and going forward to the point when he entered the building. Then he headed to the spot where the killers entered the house, as the first step in tracing their trajectory, and seeing what clues they might have left--impact points, scorch marks, anything that might shed light on them, whether confirming that it was Black Company, or pointing the finger at someone else.

Epislon informed him that aside from security and other official personnnel, there were no recorded entries or exits from the building.

Which means that whoever came in here after the attack was either able to hack the security system so as not to leave a trace, Simon thought, or else was authorized to be here. Either way, the physical evidence doesn't jibe with the security records. With that in mind, he had Epsilon scan the logs again, this time checking specific persons versus their recorded movements, to try to spot the odd man out—or woman.

Epsilon informed him that all recorded movements matched with the entries as to who was in the building and who had access to the residence area.

Then we have a high-tech locked-room mystery, Simon mused. But the physical evidence will tell us what the computer records don't.

As he examined the signs of the attack, Simon quickly came to the conclusion that based on all the information Epsilon had been able to obtain, it had to have been Black Company that did the hit. The scorch marks were too distinctive to be easily copied.

That was interesting too, both for its own sake as well as for what else it told him. Now that I can say for certain that it was them, I can start finding out what this is really all about. He made one more complete circuit of the house, then signaled that he was done, for now.

Nikkon met him at the entrance to the residence area and asked him where he would like to go next.

"I'd like to see the statements of whoever found the bodies," he said. "Also any relevant computer or security records." As they walked, he asked, "By the way, is there any way someone could get in or out that would not be logged by the security system? Any way at all?"

The man stopped and thought for a moment. "Not by conventional means," he replied. "The person would have to have a way to get into a place without going through the checkpoints. The system records all door openings for doors that are on the security system, regardless of who opened the door. A person would have to be able to get into the area without opening doors."

"Without opening doors..." Simon echoed.

He spoke with someone on his security radio, then looked back at Simon. "Copies of those reports will be available for you at the gatehouse."

Simon nodded. "Thank you. Before that, though, there's one more thing I'm wondering: did the action take place only at the main house, or was there danger elsewhere on the property as well? If so, I'd like to see it too."

The man shook his head. "The only damage was at the main house."

"I see," said Simon. "All right, let's have a look at those records."

The witness statements were from one of the secretaries (who was there because she needed to get some documents signed at the last minute for a big overseas deal with a supplier), and from other household personnel who arrived on the scene. All of the information in the statements match up with what Simon saw, confirming that there were bodies found in the residence area for everyone but James Anderson (the family head of security) and Midori Harihatu.

Confirmation of known facts is always good, Simon thought.

The security records show an entry at the back gate (the "service" entrance) - upon tracing, there's no name that goes with the code that was used. About half an hour later, the same code was used to exit the grounds. Before that code was used to exit, however, there's a notation that a high level code was used to exit. The code (the high level one) was one known to be used by James Anderson.

Everything continues to add up, Simon nodded to himself.

There had been some tampering with the video surveillance system - it went down shortly before the attack occurred, and didn't turn on again for the entire area around the building until the alarm security arrived when the alarms went off, and there is no surveillance system in the bedrooms of the residence area.

The security man, Simon thought. Now there's a blind spot for you.

There is a record of only one interruption of the surveillance of the "public" areas of the residence, and what would have been shortly after his encounter with Zenshou Shinju and her bodyguard at 93U. The security records state that the surveillance system was turned off from inside by one of the codes used by the family and other high ranking officials (no name assigned to the code). The surveillance was off for about five minutes, and came back on automatically.

The incident puzzled Simon. Assuming it was Zenshou, of which he was all but certain at this point, barring confirmation of the evidence, the time element was all wrong. She couldn't have got there from the building where Epsilon II had last seen them go, in such short time. At least, she couldn't unless she had access to considerable resources, such as a fast car in a tunnel leading all the way under the river from the building she'd gone into. And he'd seen no indication that it was anything other than a random derelict.

So, scratch that idea. The question remained: how did she do it?

This information wasn't in the initial reports Simon got - apparently the person who got him these reports had an override capability and got the full record (normally the high level accesses don't show up in standard reports on this system).

Well, she did allude to being close to the family, Simon thought. This would seem to clinch it.

"Thank you," he said finally. He pointed to the latter items. "These tell us how they cracked the system. I suggest you find a new chief of security, because I doubt you'll be seeing the old one again." Simon started toward his car, then turned around. "If Mr. Miro asks, tell him I'll be around to see him again later this afternoon."

Simon's next stop was another visit to his favorite police lieutenant. At first, Bonnie was not thrilled at his request that she run a check on the partial print and the DNA in the strand of hair. But her mood changed considerably when he whispered in her ear that it was directly connected to the Harihatu case. She whispered back that she would call him when she got the results, but he would have to tell her the story at that time. Then she affectionately called him a son of a bitch for holding out on her, before thanking him for the night before, all in the same breath. He smiled as he walked out of the station house.

Next stop: Mr. Miro's office in the Harihatu Building. The day wasn't half over, and already it had proven quite productive. Who could say what additional surprises lay ahead.

Upon Simon's arrival, he was told Miro was in a meeting, and could not be disturbed.

"A meeting," Simon repeated. "Fine by me. I haven't had lunch yet." He looked Miro's secretary in the eye. "What would you recommend in this neighborhood?"

"Well," the woman said with a smile, "there are several good restaurants nearby, so it depends on what you're in the mood for..."

Simon smiled back. "Instead of telling me, perhaps you'd be kind enough to show me."

She hesitated for a moment. "I'm not supposed to go for my lunch break for another half hour..."

Simon held up a hand. "As I am working with Mr. Miro," he said, still smiling, "any assistance you might render me on his behalf would be appreciated." He gestured toward the door. "Shall we?"

The woman hesitated for another moment, then punched a button on her console, telling one of the other secretaries she had to leave the office for about an hour or so. The voice at the other end of the line offered to watch Madelaine's desk and incoming lines, and that she'd look after Mr. Miro if he got out of the meeting early.

Madelaine walked out of the office and out of the building with Simon, chatting pleasantly about inconsequentials, and led Simon to a very nice seafood restaurant about half a block from the HariChem building.

Simon matched Madelaine's pace, keeping up his end of the conversation with his innate charm and wit. He complimented her on her taste. At the same time, he kept an ear out for anything she might let slip about the goings-on inside HariChem. It was an opportunity, and he took it, but only so far as she seemed comfortable. Besides, he intended for this to be what it seemed: a leisurely lunch with nice company. It was her boss with whom he meant to do the serious talking, after all. He also listened for anything else of interest, such as whether she was attached.

Madelaine blushed at his compliment, saying that her boyfriend liked to eat here, though Simon got the impression that the relationship was either cool or not very important to her. She spoke very little about her work, saying only that Mr. Miro was closeted away for a series of very important negotiations and secret meetings.

Simon nodded understandingly. "But just because he's all tied up doesn't mean you should have to stay inside too, not when it's so nice outside."

When at last lunch was over, Simon gave Madelaine a warm smile, his assurance that he would explain things to her boss if necessary, and his business card, palmed into her hand. The meaning was clear: she was welcome to call him if she liked. For his part, it would be nice if she did, but the world wouldn't end if she didn't.

Once back at the office, Simon leaned against the wall and said, "I'll wait." He took the opportunity to go over everything that he and Epsilon II had accumulated.

Analysis of onsite evidence points to the Black Company as the culprit.

Minimum Confidence: 85%

Relevant Details Follow: (abstracted)

Security System shows signs of being compromised at high and low levels. Patrol schedules show modifications that would allow a window coinciding with time and place of attack. One access code of unknown identity was used for entry and exit at back gate of house. Household video system disabled after this code used for entry. Unknown whether hacked from outside or suborned from within. Access code corresponding to James Anderson also used on exit at some point during attack, before unknown access code used again to exit rear gate, signaling end of attack. Video system came back online afterwards.

Preliminary Findings:

Circumstantial evidence suggests James Anderson compromised, either by Black Company or client of same. Details unknown. Blood found at scene includes that found to match Anderson's DNA, according to crime lab report. Age of bloodstains in question also found to fit with overall picture. Combined with other evidence cited, however, fakery cannot be conclusively ruled out at this time, either with injuries sustained for sake of verisimilitude, or previously prepared blood samples, as two immediate possibilities. Further investigation required, including access to personnel and financial records. Confidence at present time: 60-75%.

Addendum: household surveillance system briefly deactivated last night, using high-level unattached security code, from inside. Relevance to matter at hand unclear at this time; however, sufficiently unusual in manner and timing to warrant attention. Partial fingerprint and strand of hair recovered from scene; location at time of discovery suggests they were left there after attack took place. Identity unknown as yet; further inquiries in progress.

Message Ends

Simon ordered Epsilon II to organize, encrypt, and send the message, adding that the machine should also raise its shields after having done so, just in case.

Epislon II reports no attempts to trace the message back.

The response come through after a couple of hours:

Information received. Requested records to follow. Identity of person accessing residence confirmed by alternate sources. Not to be considered a suspect in this case. Principal advises no further investigation of that individual.

The records for Anderson arrive by courier the next day. The financial papers are clean, but the personnel record shows that some editing has been done, and there is a handwritten note with the papers, saying that certain information was deleted from the records, by order of the CEO, for the security of ongoing projects.

"So Miro's stopped even referring to himself as 'acting CEO'," Simon thought aloud, to the accompaniment of Miles and Trane. "That was quick, however practical it might seem. Still, I'm sure Madelaine won't mind being secretary to the big boss himself." He smiled for a moment, thinking about the night before. Madelaine had indeed called, and it had indeed been a nice way to spend an evening. Fortunately, she had left that morning before the courier arrived, though not before breakfast. The less she knew about what was going on, the better.

Briefly, the financial papers show no unusual or suspicious activity - no unexpected large deposits or withdrawls.

OK, money wasn't the motive, or at least, he had no debts that could be used to blackmail him. Either that or the payoff isn't going to show up here. The net result is the same.

The personnel records outline Anderson's rather distinguished military career (winner of several awards of bravery), but his career was cut short when he received injuries that required cybernetic replacement but he was found to suffer from cyber-rejection (or whatever the term is for someone who's body won't accept cybernetic implants). Having lost an eye due to the injury, he retired from the military (in good standing) and went to work at for the Harihatus (he works for them directly, not just for HariChem (the business)).

"Shit," Simon breathed. "I figured he was a vet, but I had no idea... Must've been before my time. So... His loyalty looks to be pretty much beyond a reasonable doubt, from what we've got here. What other explanation could there be for his actions, then? He's facing overwhelming force, effectively alone. He does what he can, but it's not enough. So he retreats, lies low, either taking Midori, the heir apparent, with him, or trying to find out who's behind it, or both. Whatever the case, I know what I'm doing today."

He sent off a message to the mail drop:

New findings cast doubt on possibility of complicity on part of James Anderson. Revised confidence estimate: 30%.

"That should put the cat among the pigeons," he said to himself. Simon then thought back to what he had seen in Anderson's room. There were things that pointed to Anderson's military service, though not out in ostentatious display. He'd received several decorations for bravery above and beyond the call of duty. There were also cleaning supplies for weapons that could possibly have been used for military-quality weapons and hardware. There was also an empty footlocker in Anderson's closet. There was no record on the household inventory of what was in the footlocker, other than "personal effects". There were pictures of all the units he was in, except for those shortly before his discharge - there was also no indication those pictures were ever on display.

Upon reviewing the personnel records, there was no mention of exactly what Anderson was doing (or where he was stationed) before he was discharged.

Simon nodded at that. A good portion of his time in the service was spent on just those kinds of assignments. He also felt he could make an educated guess about what Anderson had in his footlocker, because he kept something similar socked away as well, for a rainy day. Some old habits really do die hard. "Seems we may have more in common than just losing an eye, Jack."

Simon spent most of the day and into the evening dropping into places in and around town where vets would be, looking for places where someone like Anderson might go to ground if he were in trouble. He hadn't been able to get any solid info on Jack, though he did hear from someone at a bar in the Zone where some down on their luck vets were hanging out that a friend of a friend's cousin said they might have seen someone who looked like Jack near 93U, and he looked really banged up.

Simon thanked them and bought a round for the bar, then headed over in that direction. As he drove, he brought Epsilon II online, setting it to scan the vicinity of the club for Jack. It was a long shot, but no more so than the rest of the day. The satellite reported back that it cannot find anyone matching the description of Jack in the vicinity of 93U.

"Damn," Simon muttered. He pulled over to the side of the road. If Epsilon II didn't pick someone up in a given area, he either wasn't there, or was in cover deep enough to a door-to-door search. And even if he had the manpower for that, it would only draw attention he needed to avoid, for both their sakes.

He checked the time, decided there was enough to make his next move worthwhile. "OK, Plan B," he said to himself as pulled back into traffic, cutting across two lanes without blinking. He'd had no joy in town, so now it was time to hit the highway, see what he could find outside. As he drove, almost on automatic, he racked his brain thinking of what a fellow vet on the run would do.

The reports Simon had seen said that the hospitals had turned up negative for Anderson, just as with his car. In this area, the Zone was the easiest place to go to ground; like the Everglades, it was "where a man can hide and never be found/ and have no fear of the bayin' hound," to quote a song from his grandfather's time. As with that swamp, however, there was a flip side: "But he better keep'a movin' and don't stand still/If the skeeters don't get him then the gators will."

As he drove, Simon came to a decision. He left Epsilon on station, telling it to maintain surveillance in the area, and inform him if Anderson, Zenshou, or Gem did show up in the area. Then he made the rounds of hangouts outside of town, buying drinks, hanging around, and dropping word into the soldiers' grapevine where One-Eye could reach him if he wanted, by voice or e-mail, confidentiality guaranteed, no questions asked. Occasionally he would poke a finger in his own artificial left eye for emphasis. If Mohammed won't come to the mountain... he thought.

Having done what he could on that front, Simon drove back to town that evening to meet with Bonnie and get the inconclusive test results. "It looks like the same shade as the girl in that scan you had me identify yesterday," she said as she handed him the evidence bag with the strand of hair in it. "But that could mean fuck all these days. Whoever it is isn't registered with us, though, and I'd need a helluva lot more to go on before I'd try to go through the fucking red tape it would take to access anything with a higher security clearance. And the print wasn't even intact, you sonuvabitch. I don't know what the fuck you were expecting from that."

Simon shrugged. "I had to eliminate the possibility," he said nonchalantly, reflecting as he did so that his chances of penetrating electronic bureaucracy were almost guaranteed to be better. He had at least one other idea that might prevent it from even coming to that, though. But that was for later. "Now what do you say to a long dinner break, by way of compensation?" he asked, leaning across her desk.

Bonnie looked him in the eye. "I'd say don't fucking change the subject, you asshole," she shot back, but not quite as angrily as she would have liked. He just smiled, and she sighed. "Goddammit, if you were any sexier, you'd be illegal, you bastard."

His smile got even bigger. "Are you going to lock me up?" he said, holding out his hands.

She brushed them aside. "Do I look that stupid?" Before he could reply, she added, "Meet me out front in five minutes. That'll give me time enough to sign out."

"Done," Simon said as he stood up.

Later, after a hearty dinner and energetic sex, Bonnie and Simon lay wrapped around each other in that casual way that only comes with long familiarity. The bedclothes had been kicked off, an early casualty of the weather even in Simon's climate-controlled apartment. Epsilon was monitoring his communications as well as the 93 Underground area, with standing instructions to alert him if anything came through. As an afterthought, he had it run a scan for further news developments relating to HariChem or the case.

Epsilon reported the usual discussions about who did it and why. HariChem stock is dropping in value too, since the attack, though it did make a bit of a rebound when it was announced that the "chain of command" so to speak hadn't been broken, and that it would be business as usual.

Well, they're putting up a brave front, I'll give them that, Simon mused as he told Epsilon to continue monitoring.

She reached into her jacket for a cigarette. He had his lighter ready. They each took a drag, then she said, "All right, tell me what the fuck is going on."

Simon stared at the ceiling. "We can take it as given that Black Company did the hit itself. And like we said, that seriously limits the possible clients. I haven't yet found anything that the company had that would be worth that kind of effort, though, which means I have no idea who's likely to be behind it, not yet anyway. As for the hair and fingerprint, I found those at the scene. They were left sometime after the crime."

Bonnie raised herself up on an elbow and stared at him in disbelief. Simon nodded. "I pointed it out to my client of record and got promptly told to drop it, that they knew who it was. And there are also a couple of places in the house that aren't on the blueprints. It could be unrelated, but I'm not betting on it... And then there's the heiress and the security chief, who are both still missing, as well as the new CEO, who used to be the CFO. It keeps coming back to these people, but I can't see..."

"Simon?" Bonnie prodded when she realized he'd drifted off. "Simon, don't do a fucking fade on me now. What did you mean when you said 'client of record'? What don't you see?"

What Simon had been about to say was, "I can't see the connection, aside from the company. I can't see how these people interact..." But just then, he realized he was missing a piece of information that he had taken for granted, because it was so basic in missing-persons cases: no one had shown him any pictures of Midori Harihatu, and he hadn't thought to ask. He didn't know what she looked like. She could be right under his nose, and he'd have no idea. Stupid, stupid, stupid for letting the credit signs flash before his eyes, and forgetting to do the most basic background checks.

Well, better late than never, he decided. And it was as simple as adding another parameter to Epsilon II's news scan: track any recent stories or pictures in the media of Midori Harihatsu, recent defined as within the past six to 12 months. While he waited on that, he picked up the thread of his conversation in the real world.

"Hmh? Oh..." he replied eloquently. "Well, I'm getting paid by the new CEO. And I'm ostensibly reporting to him too. But I'm convinced he did it on the say-so of our friend Zenshou Shinju. She's trying to pass herself off as a middleman, and a servant of the family, but I think she's saying those things to try to keep from drawing attention to what she really is. Whatever her name is, I think she's the real action, and the new CEO is her mouthpiece, not the other way round. Just how she fits in, I'm not sure.

"One possible explanation is that she could be a company troubleshooter, working damage control, and thus needs a viable cover," Simon continued after a moment. "It would also explain how she could have the kind of security clearance it would take move around effectively undetected. That being the case, it wouldn't surprise me at all to find that the evidence I took from the house matches her, except that the timing is all wrong. That's what I don't see: how do you get inside a house where all the doors and windows are locked, and then open them from the inside, after having somehow covered a few klicks in a few minutes? The only thing I can figure is that she's got a twin, which could be valuable in that line of work--enabling her to be effectively in two places at once--so she'd naturally want to keep it secret."

But Bonnie shook her head. "Now you're thinking, or rather not thinking, like the old soldier you are," she replied. "You were doing fine up until that last part, when you put your head squarely up your ass. Now hold still and I'll help you put it back on your shoulders." Before Simon could retort, she went on, "There's one other possible explanation in this fucked-up day and age: she really did go from A to B, just like that." And she snapped her fingers for emphasis.

Simon stared at her, and the light finally dawned. "Shit," he said, closing his eyes in annoyance. "She's a spoonbender, is that it?" It was a swearword the way he said it, a particularly vulgar expression for espers. Along with the less common term "mindbender," it was on a par with a Southerner saying "damnyankee." On the other hand, given the rise in visibility and power of espers in recent years, combined with some judicious PR spending by certain corporations with vested interests in same, the expressions had both become dated in general conversation, though they were still common among soldiers, spooks, and vets, especially those who had seen action in the last war.

"Now there's a slam I haven't heard in a good long while," Bonnie replied. "But yeah, I think you've got the basic idea, and you didn't even muss your hair in the process. If we're right, though, and she turns out to be powerful enough to cover ground that fast, you could still be seriously fucked." She rolled on top of him, looked into his eyes. "Get out while you can. This shit isn't what you bargained for."

Simon shook his head as he pulled her into his arms. "No can do," he whispered into her hair. "If I walk now, I might as well tell them my suspicions. Either way, I'd be painting a target on my forehead. More importantly, though, we have an agreement. And just because nobody else's word is worth shit anymore is no reason for me to start breaking mine, just because it might be inconvenient to keep it. And besides, I've come too far to back out now anyway. I've got to find out what's really going on."

"Bastard. Sonuvabitch. Cocksucker." Bonnie sighed. "I knew it wouldn't do any good, but I had to try. Now fuck me silly, so we can get to sleep and I can stop thinking about this shit."

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