Sandra blinked several times. There was something downright intimidating about this woman. Although she was very attractive, Sandra immediately rethought her guess about why she had been hired— she just didn’t seem like the type to have used a physical relationship with Max to get a job.
“Uh, hi,” said Sandra, shaking the stranger’s firm, well-manicured hand.
An awkward silence stretched between them.
“So,” Venus said, her smile tightening as she sensed the tension, “Where do we start?”
“What did Max tell you?”
“That you would fill me in.”
Great; I’m training my replacement. Aloud, she said, “Okay, first how about you fill me in on who you are?”
Venus shrugged. “Well, sure, but there’s not much to tell. I was an officer in the Federal Espionage Service for the past seven years—handled various projects; breaking up arms dealers, smugglers; stuff like that.”
Yeah, boring stuff like that. “Why’d you leave FES?”
Venus bit her lip slightly before answering. “I just felt like I needed a change—needed to spread my wings a bit, y’know?”
“RIF’d in the big defense draw-down, huh?” Sandra said, an edge to her voice.
“Uh… yeah,” Venus replied softly.
“Well, look; I dunno how they did business in the Service, but here, we don’t have big budgets and lots of support staff to throw at a problem. We use our wits, and we do everything we can to help the clients. Because the client is the bottom line, okay? The way we stay afloat is by providing the best service we can to everyone who hires us. The client comes first, last, and in the middle, got it?”
Before Venus could respond, Max’s voice crackled over the comm cube on the desk. “Wonderful!” he said, “Now that you two ladies have gotten acquainted, let’s get started. We’ve only got a few moments before Mrs. Lurge should arrive.”
Venus took a chair at the conference table, while Sandra hastily swept the bulk of the detritus on the spare desk into one of its empty drawers and perched atop the desk.
“Here’s what we know. On the morning of October the 1st, at about 4AM, an emergency call was received from the Lurge Robotics Factory. The night watchman reported that he’d found the body of Mr. Lothar Lurge on the old factory floor, cut to pieces by a laser grater.” Both of the women grimaced.
“To the watchman’s knowledge, there was no one else inside the factory that night. He said he had remained in his office throughout the night, except for checking on the assembly lines and floor area only every three hours, as outlined in his schedule. This puts the time of death for Mr. Lurge at some time between 1 and 4 AM. The record of the watchman’s keycard swipes corroborates his story.”
“Did the watchman say why Mr. Lurge was there so late?”
“No, he did not. He says he was not notified of his presence there. Which brings us to another important point: Mr. Lurge entered the factory through a little-used back door, rather than via the main entrance, which all personnel are required to use. There is no record of him swiping at the front door, and this maintenance door was left ajar.”
“Hold on a sec, Max,” said Sandra.
Venus had been hesitantly raising her hand while Max had been speaking, and she now pointed over Sandra’s shoulder. “Now what?” she said with more annoyance to Venus.
“Is that lady at the door our client?”
Sandra whirled around, and saw a woman in a black dress and jacket standing outside the office door, staring at them with some confusion.
“Oh, uh, yeah, maybe,” she said, scurrying across the room and opening the door. “Sorry about that, ma’am.”
The petite middle-aged woman walked in and took the chair Venus offered her. Her demeanor was haughty and reserved, but her face was drawn, and her eyes were tired and a little puffy.
“Mrs. Lurge, so sorry to meet you under these sad circumstances. I’m Sandra Darcy, this is Venus Miles.”
Venus added, “Mr. Lurge was so important to the community,”
“Thank you, I appreciate that.”
“My condolences as well, Mrs. Lurge,” Max’s voice crackled over the comm. base station on the desk, causing the older woman to jump slightly, while Sandra only folded her arms in annoyance at Max’s love of joining unexpectedly.
“My apologies for not appearing in person. When you’re spread as thin as I am, you have no choice but to try to be in multiple places at once. My team and I have just finished reviewing the basic facts surrounding your late husband’s demise. Perhaps you can shed some light on certain points in the police report. To begin with, did your husband tell you why he was going to the factory in the middle of the night? ”
“He did not.” replied the stone-faced widow.
“Do you know why he would have used the back entrance?” Sandra tried again.
“No! He wouldn’t have,” the older woman snapped. “And even if he did, you can be damn sure he’d lock the door behind him! That’s why I know it was no accident! That’s how I know he was—was…”
She trailed off, choking back a sob.
Max coughed softly and resumed. “Curiously, the police made a thorough search of the area, and about 300 yards out from the factory, they found a trail of footprints leading down from a back road a mile or so behind the complex.”
All three women leaned forward on hearing this.
“Were they Lurge’s footprints?” Sandra asked.
Max paused portentously. “Definitely not. They were a size smaller and did not match the dress shoes Mr. Lurge was wearing when he was discovered. They appear to have been a man’s work-boots.”
“Now, you say they were about 300 yards out,” said Venus, a little hesitantly. “So what, these prints just stop 300 yards away?”
“Well, yes—they stop, turn around, and go back the way they came. The police’s working theory is that someone parked on the road, approached the factory, and left.”
“Well, hell; Max that’s suspicious as all get out,” exclaimed Sandra.
“Yes, it is. But at the same time, there’s no obvious connection between that and the death of Mr. Lurge. It’s an odd coincidence, to be sure, but—”
“McIntyre,” said Mrs. Lurge. She spat out the name like an obscenity. “It had to be that bastard McIntyre!”