All the Stars Within Our Grasp (Chapter 3)

"Mr. Bella clearly had old-fashioned tastes."

The main living space of the target's apartment was typically dingy and disordered, which was no more than what Jennifer Shen ever expected when she entered the private quarters of a runner. She seldom found herself on the trail of an orderly thief - ironically, the very character that made that type so skillful at larceny, their obsessive planning and well-developed practices, also made them easily traceable. An algorithm could find a man who planned everything in advance, his own techniques turned into an invisible trail of data that followed him wherever he went. It was the man who didn't even plan one second in advance, the one who acted based on simple cunning and raw impulse that so thoroughly vexed the authorities. And it was in their messy personal lives that Jennifer would find the proof of some stray bit of forethought.

Mr. Bae, her current employer, was not quite so enamored with her attention to detail. "Might you hurry up? He could be headed out of the Stretch with my company's millions as we speak."

"I doubt it. There are too many sentimental odds and ends lying around. I'd say we interrupted him in the middle of packing." Jennifer stopped before the most prominent object in the room - a throwback phonograph and matching sound system, a sizable collection of albums straining the shelf above it. "Everything in the room is a wreck but this. Doesn't that tell you something?"

"So he had a hobby," said Mr. Bae, his foot tapping out an agitated cadence. "Knowing this helps us how?"

Jennifer slid one of the albums out of its colorful sleeve and studied it in the light. "Real vinyl. They don't mass manufacture these the old way anymore, not since those high-fidelity superdense discs went on the market - that's all anyone has sold in close to three hundred years. If he has the real deal, then he either got them from a collector..." She drew in close to the flat black surface, eyeballing the grooves, searching for minute imperfections. "...Probably not, they're too clean. Odds are that he went to a molecular fabricator. Wouldn't be cheap with an unusual material like this - have to be a hundred thousand worth on this shelf alone."

"Purchased with our money," said Mr. Bae. "We can trace that, find the fabricator in a day or two."

"You could, but I think we can wrap this up sooner than that." Jennifer returned the album to its proper place and leaned back against the shelf. "Can I assume that you've already checked with his family?"

"Parents, his brother...not a lot of friends, this one, but we grilled anyone who knew him," said Mr. Bae.

"And no organized criminal affiliations, I assume?"

"I should say not. We screen our applicants better than that, I assure you."

"Then it's simple. A loner like this doesn't have a lot of places to run. Once you've excluded anything specific, you're left with two possibilities. He either goes home..." Jennifer gazed across the apartment, letting her eyes rest briefly on each nostalgic bit of bric-a-brac that cluttered the available space. "...or he goes to the Cradle."

Mr. Bae nearly staggered back at the suggestion, staring back at his manhunter with open disdain. "The Cradle? You mean the old homeworld? That's preposterous! The finest deep-space astronomers have been trying to rediscover it for, what...almost a thousand years?"

"Approximately, yes."

"And you'd have me believe that a cheap embezzler like Bella could find it?"

"I didn't say that he would find the Cradle, I said that he was going to the Cradle. They always go to the Cradle." Jennifer rested a hand on her sidearm - a vintage semiautomatic ballistic weapon, chambered in a technically obsolete but still widely available .45 caliber chemically-triggered cartridge - easing away the securing strap with a twist of her fingers. "Criminals are pretty predictable, Mr. Bae. I've yet to meet one who doesn't talk about the Cradle like it's last salvation. You can talk with embezzlers, con artists, robbers, traffickers...every one of them firmly believes that if he finds his way there, then he's home free because he'll never, ever be brought back. There's truth to that, no?"

"To be sure, I'd never send a crew that far to recover any sum of money, even if it was remotely possible." Mr. Bae, regaining his composure, slid both arms behind his back and straightened his spine in a statuesque pose. "It still seems like foolishness."

"If it helps, I don't think he's headed out just yet. Like I said, he's still in the Stretch. Still in the Concourse, too. And I'd even bet..." With a snap of the wrist, Jennifer brought her sidearm to bear on a section of the wall overlooking the room. "You can come out now, Mr. Bella. And don't act like you're not there, I will put a warning shot into the wall if you don't comply. Not my fault if it hits you, I don't know exactly where you are."

There was a curious shimmer over the wall as an unseen hand clicked off the hologram generator. Behind the false wall was a disused ventilation shaft, into which a man - Mr. Bella, Jennifer figured, though it was hard to tell with his limbs so painfully contorted to fit into the cramped space - had awkwardly inserted himself. There followed several anguished moments as he wrenched himself free of the tiny space before falling with a unceremonious thud onto the ground.

"Mr. Bella!" Mr. Bae's eyes flicked back and forth between his thieving employee and the cramped gap from which he had emerged.

"That's right," said Jennifer. "Now, we're going to sit down and wait for the police, and I'm sure you're not going to try-"

Mr. Bella didn't wait for the end of the sentence to make his move. He lunged for Mr. Bae, seizing him by the arm and shoving him toward Jennifer with panicked strength. By the time Jennifer had recovered her balance, Mr. Bella was sprinting for the door, smacking against one wall before righting himself and speeding outside.

"They always try to run." Jennifer hastily holstered her sidearm and broke for the door. "I'll be right back."

Of all the dirty tricks that a target might pull, all the novel cruelties and unexpected bursts of violence, nothing irritated Jennifer as much as when they made her run. They usually ran, even the ones whose less than athletic frames gave them little hope of triumphing in a foot chase against a professional manhunter. It was always an tiring chore, even on those occasions when the target happened to live in a tranquil place with plenty of open areas to help maintain line-of-sight. Mr. Bella, naturally, had not opted to live in such a place. His hovel was a stone's throw from the Concourse Exterra, a hub for economic and political meetings between the various Exterran powers and those of the planets that lay beyond. It was the middle of the day, and the inventively curving avenues were packed with a colorful crowd representing a dozen species and countless cultures, none of whom were quite expecting an embezzler and an investigator interrupt their daily business.

For his part, Mr. Bella put forth more of a challenge than Jennifer had expected from a lifelong bean counter. She would come within arm's reach of the criminal, only to have him unleash a second wind or slither his way through a crowd and put her several paces behind. He pivoted into alleys, vanished around corners, darted into whatever shadows existed in the midday pavilions, did whatever he could to shake his pursuer, but she wasn't about to let this one get away so easily. Inch by inch she closed, drawing some sick strength from the panic and exhaustion she glimpsed every time he dared to glance behind him.

As as they sped past an outdoor bistro on a quiet side street, Jennifer - already tired and frustrated by a chase that had lasted far longer than it should have - tried for a gambit. Vaulting off a patio railing, she launched her entire body at Bella, nailing him between the shoulder blades with her elbow and sending them both skittering along the artistically anachronistic brick street. She rose up on one knee, staring down at her target. "This time, I'm sure you're not going to try anything clever. Right?"

Jennifer would have killed to be right about that, even just one time. Bella vaulted to his feet, fell back against the outdoor counter and scratched around until his hand brushed against a oddly-shaped knife, the butcher's tool from some alien culture that Jennifer could not (and cared not to) identify. "Back off! I'm not going down like this!"

"That's not your choice." Jennifer reached for her sidearm. "The only choice you get to make is whether you're walking away with me or getting dragged."

Bella launched himself at Jennifer, the space between them filled with wild slashes as he swung the knife in a panic. None of the slashes came close to connecting – this was a desperate man of privilege who never expected to be in a knife fight and had no clue as to how to defend himself. Jennifer halted his weapon arm with her own forearm and returned a blow with her free hand, smashing in his nose with a firm palm strike. Bella was on the ground again, both hands clasped over his shattered nose to staunch the blood flow. Jennifer pulled her sidearm, keeping it level at her side. "Do that again, and I will shoot you in the knee. Are we clear?" The words came out in bursts through her own pained breathing, but it was clear from her vantage point that Bella wasn't interested in a second round.

It took little time for a crowd to form around Jennifer and her prey, the ostensibly genteel diplomats and businesspeople letting their guises drop long enough to gape at the action movie scene before them. Jennifer had never quite mastered dealing with crowds like this. They were always fascinated by the chase, even the ones who tut-tutted as they spoke with their proper friends on the degeneracy of those lowly Stretch types and their crass love of violence. At least this time no one was in a mood to chat - no one asking for war stories or making clumsy passes.

When Mr. Bae finally stumbled across the scene, it was all he could do to slither his way through a dense ring of Federation captains of industry and their Agolgan bodyguards in order to confirm that the contract had been fulfilled. "Your thief, Mr. Bae," said Jennifer, her lungs still filled with fire from the exertion.

"You could have been a bit more discreet," muttered Mr. Bae.

"I could have waited for him to leave the planet, but I was under the impression that this was urgent," said Jennifer. "Does this complete the deal?"

Mr. Bae stared down at his disgraced employee, his inner rage at Bella betrayed only by the slightest of tics in his well-creased forehead. "That it does, Ms. Shen."

Jennifer extended her free hand. "One-fifty. I hope you won't try to negotiate over the price."

Mr. Bae fished out a clumsy gadget - a secure biometric communicator, the only way any serious professional accepted payment. "One hundred and fifty thousand, as promised. But really, this exhibition was hardly what I had in mind."

"Fair enough." Jennifer caught a glimpse of corporate security descending on the scene, ready to lead poor Bella off to some legally dubious location to extract the location of his ill-gotten gains. "Looks like you've got this in hand."

"That we do," said Mr. Bae. "Hopefully this will be our last transaction."

"We're in agreement," said Jennifer as she vanished into the crowd, headed back to her own hideaway.

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