CID Detective Jeb Forrester hopped from the CID’s helo just before it landed beside the open lanes of the 805, then hoofed it down a steep hill at a decidedly unsafe pace. He landed without faceplanting. There was an autocar parked beneath the freeway, doors standing open. The sign on its roof read “Vacant”, adding insult to abduction.
Jeb slowed as he closed and pulled his stunner. Cowan’s last ping had come ten minutes ago. He reached the autocar and cleared the passenger compartment. The only thing inside was safety glass. The attackers must have pulled Cowan out and switched cars.
Four synthcops parachuted onto the scene, dropped from Corporate One’s carrier-sized airship. Satellites were searching for Cowan as well, and traffic cams, but they were useless without a vehicle to ID. Jeb had no idea what the attackers were driving now, but at least Cowan’s pings had given them enough data to box the abductors. He hoped.
“Four point perimeter scan!” Jeb shouted. It was quicker than flipping to his headdesk. He heard the CID helo lifting off, probably responding to another call somewhere. The rhythmic and deafening whump of rotors faded into night noise, wind and rolling tires.
The synths loped to compass points, sweeping the surrounding hills for blood or tracks, anything that could lead them to Cowan. Jeb doubted they would find anything useful. This job looked professional, and professionals didn’t leave trace evidence.
He walked around the autocar and spotted a pair of toeless shoes in the street beside the back wheel. Cowan had picked up Sonne before their autocar got hacked, which suggested she had been abducted too. “Dammit, kid, what the hell happened to you?”
“Forrester, you’ve got a guest incoming via private helo.” That was CID Director Ivana Stanton, running this search-and-rescue from the airship overhead. “She’s here by invitation of Corporate One, so be nice and don’t fuss.”
“Pardon me, ma’am, but I can’t fucking babysit right now.”
“Play nice,” Stanton said, “or I’ll take you off the search.”
As Cowan’s partner, Jeb shouldn’t even be participating in this search. He was too involved to be objective, or so the procedures said. Stanton was doing him a big favor.
“Yes ma’am.” Jeb focused on the scene.
Jeb scanned the surrounding area — rolling hills, open freeway, and lots of dense scrub. No street cameras, except up on the 805. No witnesses either. None of the synthcops had reported anything, and they were now toothpicks in the distance.
This wasn’t good. It was likely Cowan’s abductors had used military scrubbers to clean this scene, which meant military operators had taken him. Mercenaries?
Who would pay the exorbitant fees of private mercenaries to abduct Cowan? He’d just started at the CID a month ago. Was this related to whatever secret project he’d worked on as a PBA engineer? Something from his past come back to bite him?
Jeb examined Sonne’s discarded shoes with the fingerlight on his Helping Hand. He realized then that there was only one metal heel, not two, and the space where the missing heel had been was a shallow screw well. Sonne had detachable metal heels?
He flipped his hand to metal detection and swept it across the car. Nothing. That meant Sonne might still have that metal heel on her person, and Jeb allowed himself a grim smile. At least Cowan had someone competent watching his back.
“We’ve got a report from T-Conn,” Stanton said, and Jeb’s hopes rose. “They just discovered a camera loop.” Those hopes crashed again. “No footage of the autocar.”
Professional mercenaries included professional hackers, with someone who could hack into T-Conn and loop camera footage. Not that it was difficult. Still, it was frustrating.
As Jeb waited, the repetitive whump of a helo echoed in his amplifiers. Who else at Corporate One cared about Cowan’s abduction? He knew the helo was private as soon as he spotted it — Corporate One flew gold and blue, not green and white — but that didn’t explain who did. The helo landed smoothly on the asphalt off the edge of the 805 bridge, suspension skids flexing with its weight. Jeb hoped the CID had closed the road.
Jeb zoomed one eye on the helo’s tail number, archived the sequence, and queried the CID. The words “Benzai Corporation” popped up a second later.
Two women hopped out of the helo, flagrantly violating corporate dress codes, and the AR tags above their head read “Blocked”, which meant some big connections. Jeb popped into the Sim and checked all running processes, just to make sure IT wasn’t fucking with him. They weren’t. These women really were dressed for a runway show.
The shorter of the two women had light brown skin and Asian features. She wore a low cut dress with a decidedly racy hemline. It was just a bit impractical for police work.
The second woman was white and almost as tall as Jeb, thin, and built like an Olympic sprinter. She had a blond buzz cut and a sparkling red dress that hugged her small-busted frame, slit up one statuesque leg. She took short steps so as not to outdistance her companion.
“Detective Forrester!” The shorter woman had to shout over her helo’s rotor spinning rotors. “Kate Lambda, CFO of Benzai Corporation! I’m Sonne’s sister!” The tag above her head shimmered and cleared, confirming she was telling the truth.
Kate extended a hand which Jeb shook, once she and her tall friend were close. Kate didn’t introduce the woman with her, and that woman didn’t shake Jeb’s hand. She scanned the bridge, the rolling hills, and the cars cruising distant freeways instead.
This anonymous woman must be Kate’s corporate bodyguard. She was almost certainly cyberized, like Naomi, and probably had a HARM switch installed. Jeb had no doubt she could disable him if he caused trouble.
“Can I ask what you’ve found so far?” Kate shouted.
Stanton had asked him to play nice. “We believe an autocar carrying your sister and one of our detectives was hacked, but we don’t know who did it, or why! Our detective managed to send us route pings, and we’re setting up roadblocks, but it’s just a guess!”
Kate reached into her décolletage and pulled out a linkline. “I might! Let’s talk privately!” She popped the linkline into her port and extended the other end to Jeb.
Jeb hesitated — plugging a stranger’s linkline into his PBA was on his Never Do list — but Director Stanton had vouched for this woman. He plugged the other end into the port behind his left ear. There was a tingle, and then Kate spoke inside his head.
“As you’ve guessed, we were going dancing tonight.”
Their clubwear finally made sense. “You were Cowan’s double date.”
“A wonderful plan gone horribly awry.” Kate narrowed her eyes. “I understand you don’t know who hired them, but you must have some idea who actually hit the car.”
Corporate CFOs didn’t miss much. “My instincts say private mercenaries. Closed circuits. I’d wager at least four men.”
“I’d want a decent hacker, an evidence scrubber, and two experienced operators to handle an abduction like this one. That’s the lightest I’d take if I wanted to capture two targets, and there’s no reason to go in heavy if you want to get out quick.”
“Do you know of any reason mercenaries would abduct your partner?” Corporate executives knew, better than most, the type of people you could hire for the right price.
“I don’t know of any specific threat.”
“I might. Scan Corporate One’s criminal records for a man named Oleg Vasser.”
Jeb up’d a query to the CID. Vasser’s official arrest record was spotty — one count of cocaine possession, pled out, and two assault charges that went away when the victims recanted. Vasser had also been linked to the Bratva — the Russian mob — but the mob had a lot of fingers, so that didn’t necessarily connect this Doctor Anton Barkov.
“Is there something specific I’m looking for?” Jeb asked.
“Vasser’s a sex trafficker,” Kate said. “His crew lures women here from Free Russia, the Ukraine, and a dozen old Eastern bloc countries. He offers them modeling, secretarial work, or data entry. Once they arrive, he forces them into prostitution.”
That turned Jeb’s stomach. The CID didn’t investigate that sort of thing, and the official word from Corporate One was that PBAs had ended sex trafficking. Just like they ended violent crime, child abuse, and mass shootings by puppeted little girls.
“You think Vasser has a history with Cowan?” Jeb asked.
“Not Cowan.” Kate’s lips compressed. “Sonne.”
Interesting. “I’m listening.”
“Sonne heads up one of Benzai Corporation’s many charities, Second Chance. Most of the proceeds from her waifu parlor go there. We repatriate victims of sex trafficking to their home countries, get them paying jobs there and set them back on their feet.”
So this might not be about Cowan at all. “Sonne repatriated some of Vasser’s women.”
“More than a few. We’ve done enough damage to Vasser’s trafficking operations that I knew he’d hit back.” Kate’s shoulders slumped. “I simply expected him to hit me.”
While this was a lead, it felt too clean. “Do you have anything that specifically points to Vasser? He can’t be the only pimp in California.”
“My suspicions first arose around nine minutes ago, when Oleg Vasser sent me a direct message saying ‘Surprise, bitch!’“
Jeb accepted the admonition and nodded. “Give me one moment to coordinate with my superior, ma’am.” He flipped over to the CID’s private channel. “Director Stanton?”
“Present.” That was her idea of a joke.
“I believe a professional mercenary unit abducted Cowan. They might be Bratva, and this might not be about him at all. Sonne, Cowan’s date, is close with Miss Lambda. They’ve been poking the Russian mob with a stick.”
Stanton harrumphed. “Mob abductions are out of our jurisdiction, but hacking an autocar keeps us on the ball. You’re staying on this as support, but I’m calling in the VCD to take the lead.”
“Captain Barondale commanding?”
“Seems appropriate, given she owes you a favor.”
Good. With Naomi’s squad joining this search-and-rescue, and the VCD’s military resources, Cowan and Sonne’s chances had just doubled. “What about our guests?”
“What did I say, Forrester? Be polite.”
Jeb popped Kate’s linkline from the side of his head. Her helo’s rotors had finally spun down low enough that they could talk without shouting. He didn’t want anyone inside his head any longer than they needed to be.
“Based on your information, ma’am,” Jeb said, “we’re bringing in the Violent Crimes Division to take point. With their resources and ours, assuming we got our roadblocks up in time, we have a very good chance of finding Sonne and Cowan still alive.”
“Wonderful!” Kate beamed at him. “Where do we go next?”
“We don’t exactly know. It may be best for you to return to your home and—”
“I’m not leaving until Sonne’s safe.”
“You’re coordinating with Benzai Corporation tonight, Detective Forrester. Our resources are at your disposal.”
“And what,” Jeb asked, as politely as he could, “might those resources be?”
“Many and varied, but you should start by pinging the tracer imbedded in Sonne’s artificial heart. When you’re ready, I’ll up you the security code.”
Jeb forwarded that information to Director Stanton. “An excellent idea, ma’am.” He glanced at Kate’s idling helo. “Could I trouble you for a ride to the VCD’s airship?”
Moments later, they were in the air. Kate sat on one side, with her silent blonde bodyguard, and Jeb sat on the other. The helo’s engine noise was barely audible inside the passenger compartment, merely a dull thrum. This was one expensive helicopter.
“Once we start pinging for the auto-updater,” Kate asked, “how long will it take for you to trace Sonne?”
Jeb flipped to his headdesk and pulled up a calculator. “What’s the signal range?”
“300 meters on a clear day,” Kate said.
Jeb plugged a 300 meter detection radius into the sprawl of San Diego they’d boxed in using Cowan’s pings. “It’ll take us at least six hours to search the entire box.”
“Can’t you charter other helicopters?” Kate sounded disappointed.
Jeb flipped back to meatspace. “Unfortunately, ma’am, we already chartered all our helos.”
Kate patted his wrist like you’d pat a small dog. “Please, call me Kate.”
That went against every fiber in Jeb’s being, for the same reason David couldn’t slouch. Speaking as a formal CID detective had been Jeb’s life for decades. Kate’s blonde bodyguard watched him in silence, calm and incredibly intimidating.
“Kate,” Jeb said, and that took real effort, “do you know of any way to do this faster?”
“Well, I could certainly charter more helicopters.” She blinked into the Sim and out again. “On their way.”
Jeb stared at her. “Helicopters?”
“All six pilots are VIs, so they’ll have no trouble coordinating with your airship.” Kate sat back and settled her hands in her lap. “Will that assist you in your search?”
Six more helos certainly would. “Yes ma’am.”
She raised an eyebrow at him.
“Kate.” Benzai Corporation’s CFO fascinated Jeb, and not in the way she likely fascinated other men. In the short time he’d had to evaluate her, she’d been operating at a whole different level. Corporate One deferred to her.
Jeb couldn’t get a read on this woman. Was she genuinely afraid for Sonne? Or was she a dilettante playing detective because the financial game now bored her? He suspected he could watch her five nights straight without ever pinning down her motivations. Like many in the corporate world, she was a chameleon, and chameleons made him nervous.
Still, adding more helos to their search would cut their search from six hours to a little over one. Cowan needed him. He wasn’t going to let his partner down.
Kate leaned forward in her seat, giving him a sympathetic smile from across the cabin. “You really care about Cowan, don’t you? Have you been partnered long?”
“Six weeks.” Jeb didn’t like how easily she read him. “He’s a good detective.”
Kate’s helo approached the VCD carrier’s single landing pad. The carrier was a square metal bowl with boxy troop hangers running along each side. A big conning tower sat in its center, blinking with red lights. Giant vertical rotors at its four corners kept it flying. It was essentially a giant quadcopter, big enough to transport people and synthetics.
“I care about Sonne as well,” Kate said quietly, and as he stared into her eyes, Jeb finally got a read on her. She loved Sonne like family. She was terrified for her.
“We’ll find them,” Jeb said.
“I know. You’ll call me the moment you get a ping?”
“Yes ma’am.” Her helo landed and its door rolled open, blasting them with warm air. “I mean, Kate!”
* * *
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