Right. "Anything you say in this office is confidential, but not privileged, meaning it stays between us unless we're hit with a subpoena. It would save all of us a lot of time if you just lay it out, so we can decide if we'll take the job or not."
Rene opened the envelope and shook the contents into her hand. A photograph slid into her palm. She placed it on the desk.
A man who looked to be in his early fifties stared back at me. Curly brown hair, going gray; a pleasant enough face, neither handsome nor ugly. Deep lines around the mouth. Sad eyes. He looked like he'd been gutted by life and managed to pull himself together, but some part of him hadn't quite made it.
"Adam Kamen," Rene said. "Thirty-eight years old. Brilliant engineer, genius applied-magic theorist. We were hired to guard him while he worked on a valuable project. Adam was financed by three separate investors."
"How well?" I asked.
"Well enough to pay for an elite guard unit."
That was some serious cash. Elite Red Guard units didn't come cheap. "We put Adam into a safe house in the middle of nowhere. The property was protected by two defensive wards: an innerperimeter spell that shielded the house and the workshop and a wider, outer-perimeter spell that protected a quarter-acre area with the house in its center. The house was watched by a crew of twelve people: four per eight-hour shift. I cherry-picked every one of the guards. All of them had passed background checks and showed long records of distinguished service."
Rene leaned back. "Last night Adam and the prototype vanished. His absence and the mutilated body of one of the guards was discovered this morning during a shift change."
Okay. "Mutilated how?"
The line of Rene's mouth hardened. "You would have to see for yourself. I want you to find Adam and retrieve the device."
"Which of those two is top priority?
"Obviously my employers would prefer to recover both. The official line says the device has priority; personally, I want Adam saved."
Once a bodyguard, always a bodyguard. Rene had been hired to guard Kamen, and she took her job personally.
Rene braided her long fingers on her knee. "Right now only four people besides the guards and those of us in this room are aware of this issue. Three of those four are Adam's investors, and the fourth is my direct superior. It's essential that no information is leaked. The damage to the Red Guard's reputation would be catastrophic."
Lovely. We would have to look for him without making any noise. My investigative technique mostly consisted of going through the list of interested parties and making as much noise as possible, until the culprit lost his patience and tried to shut me up.
Rene focused on me. "Being subtle is very important in this case."
"We can do subtle," I assured her.
"It's our middle name," Andrea added.
For some odd reason Rene didn't look convinced.
I took out a pad of paper and a pen. "What was the nature of the device?"
Rene shook her head. "We weren't privy to that information. To my knowledge, it was never successfully tested."
Okay. "I need the inventor's full name, address, family, and known associates." "His name is Adam Kamen. We know that he is thirty-eight, a widower. His wife had diabetes and was undergoing dialysis for kidney failure. Eventually, the disease killed her. Adam was severely traumatized by her death. His work is connected to that event, but I can't tell you how. He spoke without an accent, he didn't seem religious, and he expressed no strong political views."
"How long have you had him?" Andrea wrote a note on her own pad.
"Ninety-six days. He had no visitors while in our custody. Beyond that, we know nothing: no address, no known relatives, no information about enemies or friends." Rene picked up another piece of paper. "This is the latest image of the device in question."
On the picture a metal cylinder stood level with a worktable, approximately three feet tall and probably a foot in diameter. Odd patterns covered the gray metal, some pale, almost white, some with a familiar yellow sheen of gold, others a dozen shades of silver and blue. They twisted and overlapped one another, some so elaborate it must've taken hours of work and jewelers' tools to create them.
I glanced at Rene. "The main cylinder is iron?"
"Iridium. The squiggles on it are gold, platinum, cobalt, and lead. He has half of the periodic table in that thing."
Hmm, all metals, all rare, all expensive, and all took enchantment extremely well, except for lead. Lead was magically inert: magic bounced off it like dry peas from a wall. Why build a magic device and add lead to it? "Any idea at all what it was supposed to do?"
Rene shook her head.
"Do you have any thoughts as to who might have wanted to steal him or his device?" Andrea asked.
I tapped the paper. "Can you give me the names of the three investors?"
Andrea frowned. " `No' as in you don't know who they are, or `no' as in you won't tell us?"
I tapped the paper with my pen. "Rene, you want us to find you-don't-know-who and to retrieve his you-don't-know-what for you-won't-tell-me-whom?"
Rene shrugged. "You will have full access to his workshop, the safe house, and the body. You can interview the guards and you will have our full cooperation. I'll give you a code and advise the master sergeant that you'll be coming. The investors' identities are confidential by contract--if they want to approach you, they can, but we can't force them to do it, so my hands are tied there. As to Adam, we were hired to guard his body and his work, not interview him about his family history." "I heard background checks are a standard requirement for the Red Guard." I tapped my paper with my pencil.
"So why didn't you do them?"
"Because the client gave us a truckload of money." Rene smiled, a controlled sharp baring of teeth. Some unsettling emotion flickered in her eyes and vanished. "We aren't investigators. We're bodyguards. We need a professional to resolve this situation. Hiring the Mercenary Guild is out of the question: they don't know how to be discreet. Hiring the Order isn't an option either: I don't want their fingers in our pie, because they'll try to claim ownership of the whole thing. That leaves us with a private firm. I know you, I've seen you work, and I know you will do it cheaper than anybody else in town, because you have no choice. You opened up shop a month ago and you have no clients. You need a significant case to put your name back on the map, or you'll go out of business. If you succeed in assisting us, the Red Guard will publicly endorse you."