A World Of Assassins [Revised Version] (2012)

A World Of Assassins

Synopsis

Humans are being murdered on the planet Dirve. No one seems particularly bothered, except the humans of course, but they don’t count. As long as the problem stays in the Human Sector it can take care of itself. But then the news leaks out, to Earth, to other galactic worlds. Tourism on Dirve begins to suffer, potential holiday makers worried the murders might spread to other races. Now Earth want to send a man of their own to investigate.

Detective Inspector Tom Gates is perfect for the job. Currently suspended for killing a murder suspect and something of an embarrassment to his superiors, he is an ideal candidate for an off-world investigation.

When he arrives on Dirve, two things are very quickly apparent to Tom. One, Dirves don’t like Humans. And two, the killer is a professional assassin. Tom should know. He used to be one himself….

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Chapter 1

Dirve Sector/Human Sector of Scoturna, Dirve

The escalator spiralled down the side of the building, carrying the crowd of early evening shoppers towards the street below. The air buzzed and chattered with a myriad of tongues. Scoturna, capital city of Fingle on the planet Dirve, was known throughout the civilised galaxy for its many eclectic shops and markets, its attractions that catered for both the intellectual and visceral requirements of the millions of visitors, native and off-world, who travelled through the brightly lit city centre each year.

The Sadis stood as part of the crowd, allowing the gentle speed of the escalator to carry him. The incessant babble of excited shoppers did not break his concentration, his focus. Today was the beginning.

Stepping off the escalator, striding down the street, he occasioned several second glances, his tall figure overshadowing even the native Dirves with their long, slender necks. He enjoyed the attention, comfortable among the racially mixed inhabitants of Scoturna.

Of course, even the liberal Scoturna realised there was a limit, a point beyond which it was not decent to proceed.

There were no humans among the crowd.

The Dirve Sector of Scoturna was exclusive to the acceptable, less odious races of the galaxy. Humans were confined, quite correctly, to their own squalid ghetto.

He loathed humans.

The Sadis were superior to all other galactic races, he knew this with a certainty instilled in him since his earliest days, but most races were, on the whole, tolerable, sometimes even making pleasant company. Humans, however, were barbaric, animal, too stupid to be widely accepted, too objectionable to be tolerated by all but the most charitable. It made his current assignment even more pleasurable.

The Dirve Sector had been designed with an artist’s disregard for expense, and he admired the achitecture. The buildings did not merely stretch into the sky, they swooped, arching with a fluidity that was almost alive. Dirve cities were deservedly renowned galaxy-wide for their almost seamless matching of utility and art.

There was the merest semblance of a smile on his face as he strode against the flow of those around him, heading outwards towards the suburban ghetto that festered at the edge of this great city. Towards the Human Sector.

The art around him quickly fell away, leaving nothing but practicality and utility. Nevertheless it was still easy on the eye and those people he passed were pleasant both in appearance and demeanour. The Sadis were not known for their social graces but he nodded politely to those who smiled or spoke a greeting in his direction.

Gradually even the practicality began to fade, buried beneath rubble and decay. There were few people now, and no non-Dirves. Tourists and visitors did not stray this far out. He walked between single-storey buildings, shops with grills and shutters over their windows, homes with overflowing waste bins outside their front doors. The poor outer suburbs were similar on all galactic worlds, and yet even this was favourable to his ultimate destination.

Night was falling fast and he picked up his pace. He was close, so close that even the poorest of homes were left far behind. No Dirve, however down on his luck, would live this close to the border. The smell was growing stronger, almost tangible in the fading light of Bapr on the horizon, and he was glad he had come prepared.

Even so, it wasn’t the worst place he had ever worked.

Once, when he had been fairly new to the profession, fresh out of college, eager to take on anything, anywhere, he had actually taken an assignment on Earth. It had been a mistake, never to be repeated. The smell, the sheer offensiveness of the stench from all those humans had been terrible. He had been glad to finish his job and leave, back to more civilised worlds.

It was his own opinion that the rest of the galactic races should have forbidden humankind to ever leave their miserable, foul little planet. That many had actively encouraged human immigration to boost their industry was almost unbelievable to him.

I would repatriate them all. Immediately. By force if necessary!

Ahead of him, silhouetted against the darkening sky, rose the overhead tramway, its great pillars marking the border. It did not enter the Human Sector. Humans were not allowed to ride the trams.

With graceful stealth he passed beneath the huge structure, keeping, without thought, to the shadows, and stepped into the Human Sector. He adjusted his nose filters, making certain they were secure.

The land around this section of the tramway was flat and wide, scattered clumps of weeds forcing their way through the broken concrete like cancerous growths. In the early days of immigration it had housed factories, offices, now it was a wasteland.

He moved quickly, almost skipping over the jagged reminders of more prosperous times, bricks and concrete, twisted fronds of rebar, frayed ends of electrical wiring.

The angry shouts and screams of a confrontation, one of the many between Dirve and Human youth along the Sector border, spilled across the open ground, distant but clear. Tension had soon given way to open hostility as immigrants, tempted by the offers of steady work and homes, had rushed in their thousands to leave their overcrowded homeworld. The Dirve authorities had been quick to instigate quotas but fear and bigotry had already taken hold. The border area was a dangerous place to be.

In less than two minutes he was off the wasteland and onto one of the many narrow streets that crisscrossed this industrial area. Warehouses loomed either side, many obviously derelict, their broken windows, open doorways and graffiti-scarred walls evidence of neglect and vandalism. Further in-sector, the warehouses gave way to working factories and low, prefab office blocks, still daubed with graffiti but with most windows and doors intact. Several of the factories were running night-shifts, others had signs warning of 24-hour security. He needed to be cautious, keeping to the shadows, all but invisible. It was important that his entry and exit from this Sector be unobserved. There would not be many of his race on this planet, he was sure. The police would not find it hard to track him down, if they knew they were looking for a Sadis. He did not intend that to happen.

The factories and offices gave way to apartment buildings and cheap hotels. The street widened and the first working street lamps leaked their halos of light into the darkness. For the first time that night he saw humans, mostly drunk or high, and grew even more cautious. There were some, prostitutes looking for clients, dealers looking for users, who would remember him if they saw him, but he had spent years training, learning how not to be seen, and he used that knowledge now to slide from shadow to shadow, doorway to doorway, moving quickly but carefully towards his destination.

In less than half an hour he had found it, a hotel much like any other in the Sector. But if the data he had received was correct, his target was inside.

He took one last look along the street. A drunk lay in the roadway, talking incoherently to himself. A young couple argued, the woman slapping the man, the man pulling a knife and threatening her. A few others wandered aimlessly, but none were looking his way.

When he moved, it was as if part of the night had shifted from its companion shadows. Nothing definite, just a suggestion of something crossing into the gloom of the building.

The door to the target room was easy, almost as easy as slipping unseen past the young human male lounging half asleep behind the reception desk. It swung open silently on hinges he had oiled moments before, the lock sprung with a grace and swiftness his old masters would have been proud of. He glanced once again into the darkness of the narrow third floor corridor, the solitary light disabled by an exact twist of the bulb. Empty. He checked his nose filters, fearing that the terrible stench was slowly worming its way through the treated material. Satisfied they were secure he drifted noiselessly into the dimly lit room.

His eyes adjusted quickly to the new light and instinctively he merged his body with the deep shadows that angled across the room. The occupants were silhouetted by the halo of light from the bedside lamp, momentary highlights catching the toss of a head, the stretch of a leg, the thrust of a buttock. The male grunted, occasionally muttering an obscenity as he drove harder and further into the female. Every vicious thrust rocked the bed, tearing a scream from the springs, a scream that was poorly matched by the female as her legs jerked in the air, forced there by the male’s arms hooked behind her knees. Her screams were faked, as were her writhings and her moans. A professional doing her job.

All this he saw and heard and noted from the safety of the shadows.

The weapon? He had chosen that long before he set out on this assignment. That there were two instead of one to be dealt with caused only a momentary pause for thought. He considered waiting until the customer left, but he preferred to spend as little time as possible in this Sector. One more human than he had anticipated would only add to the pleasure that went far beyond that found simply in a job well done.

He approached the bed as silently as he had entered the room, confident that he was invisible even to the eyes of the female as she searched for some point of interest, occasionally letting slip the practised scream or moan that was second nature to her. He could see the boredom in her eyes, the wish to be somewhere else, somewhere more exotic, with someone who gave a damn about her and was not just interested in his own satisfaction. Had it been in his character he might have sympathised. As it was, he understood everything but felt nothing.

He raised his right hand. The special glove seemed to mould itself to the bone, the long slender spike dripping from the glove like a deadly stalactite, serrated and smeared with poison. He held it motionless over the male’s heaving back. A smile broke the seriousness of his face. It was so easy. These humans were blind to all but their own selves, the male in the last thrusts of self gratification, the female in her dreams of a lover who might care for her. He summoned all his strength, feeling it rush into his raised arm. Concentration. Professionalism. Pleasure!

He thrust his hand downward, driving the spike through the male, bone and muscle alike, thrusting it deep into the female, straight through her heart, and into the mattress.

Neither had time to scream as the shock and the poison attacked their systems. Both died instantly, and in death the man achieved the gratification he sought as, with a final muscle spasm, he orgasmed, the last living part of him condemned to death inside a contraceptive sheath.

Chapter 2

Mid-West United Britain, Earth

 

The boy was eight years old. He was small, thin, dirty and dressed in what was left of a dark blue anorak, grey T-shirt and long black trousers. His feet were bare and callused, caked in the dirt of the alleyways where he slept at night. His hair was long and unkempt, and only its natural muddy-brown colour helped to conceal the matted filth that clung to each strand. He smelled, if anyone had cared to get close enough to smell him, of the garbage and shit that he burrowed in each day for food. But the eyes were bright. The eyes, glaring out at the world from behind his wild curtain of hair, were alive, eager, aware, animal certainly, but with an undeniable intelligence burning behind the predatory stare.

The boy huddled deeper into the shadows of the doorway as the adult world hurried past him, surging forward in a single direction. He knew where they were heading. The spaceport. He couldn’t read that well but he had managed to decipher the numerous posters. The great push was almost over. The great adventure. The Great Colonisation Exodus of 2349 AD. The last ditch attempt by the governments of the Earth to ease the burden of chronic overcrowding and persuade people to colonise new worlds or step into waiting jobs in alien cities eager for the relatively cheap labour of humankind. The politics and economics were beyond the boy, but he could smell the excitement, the fear, the anticipation, and he could feel the coiled energy in the flow of human beings as they rushed by him.

One of the old men who shared the back streets with him had told him that this had been going on for fifty years. Fifty years! That was an eternity to the boy. He had wondered at the time how there were so many people on Earth that they could leave in such numbers for fifty years and still keep coming up that road to the spaceport, although even he had begun to notice the quieter streets, the fewer passers-by, the increasing difficulty of finding food thrown out by wasteful residents.

“They’ll come for us next,” the old man had said. “When there’s room in the cities once more they’ll have no excuse for leaving us living like animals. They’ll have to find us somewhere to live boy. Won’t that be fine?”

Fine! The boy knew nothing but the streets. If he had parents they had abandoned him. He was alone. The streets were his home and he was a survivor. He didn’t want to be anywhere else.

He tried to merge with the shadows, the closeness of so many adult strangers suddenly frightening. They seemed to be pressing in on him, crushing him, blocking his light, his air, reaching for him, swallowing him up in the tidal wave of a life he knew nothing about.

In sudden panic he leapt into the crowd, pushing his way wildly through the shouting, cursing mob. A hand grabbed his arm and he bit, tasting blood spurting into his mouth. He scrambled on, almost laughing now, hysterically, maniacally. A great shadow reared above him, trying to block his way. He lowered his head and pushed forward, hearing with satisfaction the grunt of pain as he slammed into the man’s groin. One final burst and he was free, exploding out of the crowd into the small alleyway he knew so well.

He crawled between two ancient metal garbage cans and almost snarled, his breathing quick and shallow, his eyes darting fitfully about the crowd of people moving past the end of the alley, waiting for them to come for him.

No one came.

The crowd quickly re-organised itself after the excitement and continued on its way. They were individual cells of one giant body, striding forward with a single purpose.

The boy laughed in relief and noticed, for the first time, and with some embarrassment, that he had wet himself.

Tom Gates woke suddenly as the alarm clock on the bedside table exploded into unmerciful life. He took a moment to let the dream fade and the reality of his apartment reassert itself. It had been a restless night, the bed sheets knotted around his legs, the pillow damp with sweat.

Untangling himself, he slapped barefoot across the cold tiles to the bathroom, turned the taps and splashed water over his face, trying to shock the sleep out of his head. It was a long while since that particular time had surfaced in his dreams. He wondered why it had come now as he squeezed out the last of the toothpaste and brushed his teeth. As he rinsed and spat he caught sight of himself in the bathroom mirror and, for a moment, thought he saw the boy. But the face was too angular, the expression too world-weary. Only the muddy-brown hair, collar length and tangled by sleep, and the bright, aware brown eyes remained.

That boy was a long time ago. Twenty-five years long. I am Detective Inspector Tom Gates of the United Nations Police Force, British division. The past is long dead.

For a moment he faltered.

So why has it reappeared so vividly in my dreams?

He pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, hoping to prevent the threatening headache and clear his head of unsettling memories. He didn’t need the distraction. There were enough things to worry about in the present without dragging up the past.

Turning the shower full on, he stripped off his shorts and threw them towards the laundry basket in the corner of the bathroom, missing by several inches. After a moment’s consideration he decided he could pick them up later and headed back into the main room to straighten the bed while the water from the cheap, inefficient shower warmed up. He sighed. The bed needed a complete change of sheets and, at the moment, he was too tired to attempt it. Accepting defeat, he dropped heavily into the second-hand armchair opposite the bed, wincing at the feel of cold plastic on his bare buttocks. He was getting lazy. Living on his own was making him sloppy, untidy and careless. Too much time had passed for him to continue blaming the grief. As crippling as his loss had been, he needed to move forward, stop plodding from day to day with only his job to give him purpose. He needed his life back.

As the soothing sound of the shower combined with his weariness, his sadness, he closed his eyes.

The boy first knew something unusual was happening when he saw the men in blue uniforms, the policemen, pushing the crowd back, stopping the previously unstoppable flow with linked arms and pushing bodies. Curious, but frightened of the authority the uniformed men represented, he crawled closer to the open end of the alley, stopping every few feet to see if he had been spotted. Gradually he reached a spot where he could see beyond the edge of the crowd to the space formed by the line of policemen.

A long, black air car had drifted almost silently in and gently rested itself on the ground before the open gates of the spaceport. There were TV and digital film cameras all around, some manned, some floating under remote control. Reporters jostled impatiently with each other, thrusting microphones forward, shouting questions. The boy strained to hear what they were saying but it was almost impossible in the general wall of noise. But two words were repeated at the head of almost every question.

“Prime Minister.”

For the first time, as the reporters were eased back by more policemen, the boy saw the other men, the men in dark suits and dark glasses with their arms held loose at their sides, their eyes searching the crowd, the buildings. One of them looked straight at the boy and he prepared to run, but the man wasn’t interested in a small child. The boy relaxed again and crawled a little further up the alley.

Now he saw the other man, the older man, ringed by those in dark suits and dark glasses. This man was smiling and waving towards the crowd. This, the boy guessed, was the Prime Minister. He felt nothing. The crowd seemed excited but the man meant nothing to him.

The boy saw a movement along the perimeter fence of the spaceport. A figure dressed in black. Not like the men in dark suits but a deep black that covered the whole body, even the head.

Fascinated, the boy screwed up his eyes, trying to bring the image clearer. The figure had something in its hands, something metallic, small and metallic. He, she or it was lifting the object, looking along it towards the small group of men moving towards the spaceport gates. The boy wondered for a moment why the men in dark suits and dark glasses didn’t also see the figure, but then realised that there was a fence post behind which the figure was hiding. Only the boy, from his unique viewpoint in the alley, could see it.

His heart raced. He didn’t know what the figure was doing, but he was certain that it should not be that close to an important man like the Prime Minister, not dressed as it was, not with such a strange metallic object.

Even at such a distance the boy saw the small tremor of the figure’s arm. A moment later he heard the first scream from the crowd, followed quickly by another, and another, until everyone seemed to be crying and screaming. In front of the gates to the spaceport lay the Prime Minister, sprawled on the ground, a pool of blood around his head, spreading along the cracks of the paving stones. The men in dark suits and dark glasses had guns drawn and were desperately searching for the source of the attack. Only the boy knew where they should look. Only the boy watched the figure as it moved lithely along the fence, almost invisible even though the boy knew it was there.

Suddenly the figure stopped and turned. The boy’s heart seemed to skip and, unknowingly, he wet himself again. The figure was looking straight at him! Then it was gone.

The boy shook his head and looked again. One moment the figure had been there, the next… nowhere. He was frightened. He could feel himself shaking, smell the sweat rising above all the other smells of his body and clothes. He knew he had to move.

He scampered back down the alley, away from the crowd, away from the screams and, he hoped, away from the figure.

The boy’s street sense told him he was in danger, that he had seen something he was not meant to see. He knew instinctively that the figure would want to stop him telling anyone else of the events he had just witnessed. He knew instinctively that the survival he had worked so hard at these years on the back streets was threatened by the stranger in black.

With increasing urgency he skipped from shadow to shadow down the alley, hoping to remain hidden from whatever might be following.

A moment before it happened the terrifying thought exploded in his mind. What if the figure wasn’t following? What if it had worked its way around and was waiting up ahead?

He skidded to a sudden stop, stumbling in his haste, scraping his knee bloodily on the hard ground. Gulping back the rising sickness of fear his eyes darted from one shadow to the next, in front and behind. Some inner sense told him it was all useless.

The shadows moved, seemed to grow out of the wall. He wanted to cry. He wanted to urinate again but there was nothing left. He shit himself instead. He opened his mouth to scream just as a black gloved hand closed over it. He saw another gloved hand flash before his eyes…

 

“You should have killed him!”

These were the first words that the boy was able to make sense of as he struggled towards consciousness. They were spoken in a piercing whine of a voice, a voice that stumbled over each word. A voice that, even to the inexperienced ear of the boy, was undoubtedly not human. He trembled.

“I saw something in him. The way he kept to the shadows, almost managing to become invisible. We trained years to achieve that. He’s a natural.”

The second voice was comfortingly human, a slight accent betraying its owner’s Australian origins.

The boy struggled to hear more as a sudden wave of nausea threatened to return him to unconsciousness. He held on desperately and, slowly, feeling began to return to his body, a tingling ache of feeling crawling through him from his feet upwards until it reached his head and pounded inside his skull. He felt sick. He tried to move and realised he was bound hand and foot. He opened his eyes but saw only blackness, the blackness of the inside of a blindfold. He tried to call out and gagged on the cloth covering his mouth. He wanted to panic, to struggle, but an inner sense, his street sense for survival, warned him to stay still.

“He saw you carry out the assignment. He’s a witness. Remember your training. Kill him!”

The alien’s voice spat the last two words out with venom, despite his trouble with the human tongue.

“I still say the boy’s a natural. He should be taken to Mort, nurtured and trained. It’s so rare to find someone at this age with a natural affinity for our skills.”

The human voice was pleading and the boy sensed, with a cold fear, that it was the alien who would have the final say on whether he lived or died.

“I am only authorised to take the children of our graduates to the college for training. That is how we have always continued our line, continued our work.”

“I have no children of my own. Why can’t this boy go as my child?”

There was silence. The boy knew that the decision was being made in the alien’s mind. He struggled to hold on as he felt the blackness of unconsciousness sweeping up towards him. His head was spinning as he desperately tried to will himself awake. He couldn’t give in, not yet, not until he knew…

“He will need a Mort name.”

The human voice sighed in relief. “I name him Joz”

“You had better get Joz to the ship. It leaves in an hour.”

The boy lost his fight for consciousness.

The insistent buzzing of the doorbell dragged Tom from the sleep he had fallen into. He knuckled the grit from his eyes.

“Yes?”

“It’s Alison,” called a voice from the other side of the door. “We’ve got another murder. Looks like our man again.”

Alison. His partner.

“So the Chief sent you to drag me out of bed? Shit. I’m bollock naked, you’ll have to wait.”

“You got something different then? Does it bend the wrong way or what?”

Smiling, Tom climbed to his feet and unlatched the door.

“Make yourself at home, I’m going to have a quick shower.”

Detective Sergeant Alison Riley stepped into the apartment and shut the door behind her. She gave Tom a playful slap on his bare backside as he moved off towards the bathroom and locked himself in.

“Not too much soaping yourself now,” she called. “We’re meant to be heading straight to the scene. You know what Granger’s like on ‘speed of response’. He’ll probably check up on us.”

She smiled at his grunted reply and sat herself on the edge of the bed, shaking her head at the twisted mess of sheets. She had never been in Tom’s apartment before, although they had been partners for almost two years. There had simply been no need.

The main room was split into two levels. The lower level, in which she was sitting, was the larger, housing the bed, bedside cabinet, a couple of worn easy chairs, a bookcase, music system, television and the door leading to the bathroom. Two narrow steps led to the upper level, with two upright chairs around a circular table and, against the far wall, the fridge, cooker and a sink. She supposed an Inspector’s pay couldn’t be much more than a Sergeant’s, and she knew how much she struggled to find spare money once the rent was paid. It was little wonder Tom’s apartment was so sparsely furnished.

She stood and walked to the bookcase, looking curiously at the small number of old statuettes arranged beside the books, their paint fading, their pottery chipped. Early in their partnership Tom had confided that he had a passion for history and archaeology, particularly the late 20th century. It was not something she could personally understand or appreciate but she accepted it as a quirk. The presence of the statuettes did not surprise her.

The music system stood next to the bookcase and, as she heard the shower turned off, she idly flicked through the tracks on the player, shaking her head with amused despair. Classics, oldies, one-hit-wonders. Didn’t he have anything modern?

He was only seven years older than her twenty-six but his musical tastes were at least a generation behind. Still, at least he was open and honest about it. He liked what he liked and made no attempt to hide the fact. She wished there were more men like him around.

Smiling slightly she thought of his slim, muscular, naked body, an athlete’s body, walking away from her to the bathroom. Yes, she definitely wished there were more men like him around.

She turned as the bathroom door opened and Tom, a towel wrapped around his waist, emerged, his hair plastered wetly to his head. He smiled at her, “be with you in a minute”, grabbed up his clothes from the bedside cabinet and disappeared back into the bathroom.

Alison walked to the mirror opposite the music system and looked at herself, at straight blonde hair just reaching her shoulders, an oval face, a trace of make-up around blue eyes and a full mouth. She was not unattractive, too many men had made too many passes for her to believe that, so why had Tom never shown anything more than professional interest in her? They were partners, perhaps even friends, but sometimes she found herself wanting more.

She turned, embarrassed, as Tom suddenly re-entered the room fully dressed in sweatshirt and jeans, and then she was all professionalism again, an androgynous being called a police officer. She grabbed up his jacket from where it lay over the back of one of the easy chairs and threw it to him.

“Shall we go?”

Tom slipped his jacket on and pulled the door open. For a moment her mind slipped once again as she brushed past him but then her training took over and she thought of nothing but the day’s work ahead of them.

Chapter 3

Human Sector/Dirve Sector of Scoturna, Dirve

 

John Draye bolted the old wooden framed shop door, the metal grill that had replaced the vandal smashed glass many years ago complaining at the disturbance. He peered through to the outside and the rare quietness of the alley. There was no one there, no movement save the driving rain ricocheting off the ground. He sighed, relieved. Each night without trouble was one more than he expected. Pulling down the grease smeared blind, pushing a tired veined hand through his grey hair, he turned smiling to his nineteen year old daughter.

“Business has been picking up these last few days.”

Jean Draye looked up from where she was counting the day’s takings just long enough to return her father’s smile without losing her place.

“If we keep it up maybe we can afford a computer to keep track of the money.”

John laughed, “I don’t trust the things. I trust you.”

His eye was caught by a shadow on a low shelf. Someone had bought a tin of ‘Real Earth Peaches’ and neither he nor his daughter had found the time to face-up the remaining tins. He walked to the offending gap and rectified the error, wincing at the pain that shot across his lower back as he bent.

I’m getting old. Most men on Dirve of sixty-one have retired from business. Mine is just beginning to make a profit.

“When I first opened this place everyone said I was crazy. Did I ever tell you?”

Jean packed the last of the money into the small plastic bags and placed them carefully one by one into the wall safe, far behind the counter, out of the line of sight of customers.

“Hundreds of times.” She glanced at her watch. “And it’s getting late. Alan’s expecting me soon.”

John didn’t seem to hear her. “They told me I was committing suicide, opening my own shop. Told me I must be insane.”

Jean checked her short brown hair in the freestanding mirror on the counter and sighed. It would just have to do. What did she expect after a long day’s work in the shop?

John watched her with a sad smile on his face. She was so like her mother when she gave that sigh, and she had the same deep brown eyes.

Susan Draye had died in the race riots of six years past when thousands of dirve youth, angry and violent, armed with sticks, stones, knives, guns, anything and everything that could harm, had crossed the border from the Dirve Sector to the Human Sector, killing any human unfortunate enough to get in their way. Susan had been on her way home from shopping. She was one of seventy people murdered that day. Seventy humans. There had been no arrests. Who cared about a few humans?

Jean picked up her bag from behind the counter and slung it over her shoulder.

“I must go. Alan will be waiting.” She hurried over to her father and kissed him. “See you later at the house, ok?”

John nodded. “Have a nice time.” He watched her run out into the night. “And say hello to Alan for me,” he called, but she was already gone.

He reached for the heavy overcoat that hung from an antique coat stand he had saved from the incinerator and looked around his shop, shelves full of tins and bottles and jars and cartons. Everything his customers wanted, he hoped.

They were right, of course, he thought as he checked over the counter and the floor for anything Jean had missed. It is suicide to open your own shop here, to be independent.

His back straightened with pride. It had taken him many years to build up a small but faithful group of customers, people who had withstood the threats and warnings. His shop had been burglarised and vandalised more than any other building in the area but he had never given in, never wavered in his determination. It was the only way he knew to fight back at the people who had killed his wife.

He pulled his overcoat on, turned out the lights and headed for the door.

Out in the alleyway he quickly padlocked the shop and pulled the metal shutter down. It had cost him a large proportion of his meagre profits to buy this protection but it had reduced the damage by vandalism.

Through the smog and rain of the Human Sector he could see the bright green of the night sky, lit by a full Tol, the green satellite. In less than an hour’s time the blue Saz would roll above the horizon and blue and green would melt together into the distinctive colour of a Dirve night.

Thrusting his hands deep into his overcoat pockets he tramped off towards the distant graffiti scarred concrete bungalow he and Jean called home. The wind clattered an empty beer can down the street and he twisted around with nervous alarm. The world of Dirve was not a safe place for humans.

To his right he could see the silhouette of the overhead tramway rising out of the smog. It would never have been his choice to open a business this close to the tramway, but it was the only place where the rent was just about affordable. Hunching his shoulders against the cold he hurried down the dimly lit side street that was the shortest route home.

He thought of his daughter, working alongside him to build the business and, as always, his conviction faltered for a moment. He took responsibility for his own life but was frightened he may have jeopardised hers. He had tried to dissuade her, but after her mother’s death she had become every bit as determined as he was to strike back in some way. Other humans foolish enough to try what he was trying had been found dead before now, killed by the employees of the dirve businessmen who effectively owned the Human Sector. No one had been charged with the murders. The human authorities did not have the power to investigate the dirve business community and the dirve authorities did not have the will. He could only hope that if and when he became more than a slight irritation they would only kill him, not his daughter, not Jean. He could not take the responsibility of her murder.

He jumped back against the wall, startled by a dog that barked and snarled at him. It scampered away as he swung a kick at it.

He peeled himself off the wall, growling at the wet paint that clung to the arm of his coat, smearing the edifying message that ‘Ralph fucks dirves’. He wiped his sleeve on an unadorned section of wall and peered into the darkness. Wet paint meant vandals nearby. Vandals meant danger. He was glad he had not walked quicker and interrupted them at work.

He promised himself that when his business really took off he would buy himself a car so he wouldn’t have to walk home anymore. Until then he could not afford the exorbitant prices demanded by the dirve owned garages. Few humans could. There was no public transport in the Human Sector after dark, it was too dangerous, and what few taxis there were charged so much for even the shortest journey that few people could afford to use them. They were ultimately dirve owned, of course. Walking was the only way.

Another heavy gust of wind thrust the rain into his face, each drop spearing him like a sharp needle. He turned his back until the wind dropped again.

These Fingle winters were notorious on Dirve and here, in the capital city of Scoturna, the weather always seemed to be at its worse. He pulled the collar of his coat up around the back of his head and hurried on.

A shadow moved in a doorway across the street. He stopped and stared anxiously in its direction.

A trick of the light? Is somebody there or not?

His heart pounded, drowning the roar of the rain as he stood and stared.

Are the vandals there, watching me, waiting to attack me and rob me? Is anyone there at all?

There was no further movement and, after several agonisingly long seconds, he began to walk again, slowly and nervously, his eyes forever twitching back to the doorway, watching for any indication of life.

Perhaps I’m seeing things, my imagination working overtime again? That’s it. There’s no one there at all.

Again he saw the movement. Again he stopped and stared, mesmerised by the danger. He told himself that he should be running but his legs failed to obey and his eyes could not leave the shadows, hypnotised by his own fear.

Something metallic glinted in the green Tollight as it span towards him.

He raised his arm instinctively to protect his head. It was a useless gesture. The metal disc thudded into his chest and his legs folded beneath him. He fell to the wet ground gasping for air. He thought of Jean and hoped she was safe. Another disc split the night and sliced into his throat. He gurgled blood in a froth from his mouth and fell silent. Dead.

A tall, dark figure bent to retrieve the weapons.

Detective Jenkins of the Human Sector Police Department yawned, not bothering to try and hide the fact from the assembled group of uniformed officers, a police photographer and the pathologist. He should have been off duty three hours ago, but ever since Chief Isaacs’ ‘retirement on medical grounds’ and his own temporary promotion, as senior detective, to stand-in-Chief he found himself working double shifts just to try and keep his head above the sea of reports in the Chief’s office.

Being called out to a double murder in some cheap hotel at five o’clock in the morning did nothing to improve his general bad temper.

“Was she a regular?”

The young night-clerk glanced nervously over the middle-aged detective’s shoulder towards the two bodies on the bed. No one had bothered to cover them. Except for the blood it might have been a photograph from one of the magazines he kept behind the counter to liven up the dull nights. Except for the blood it might have been erotic. It was the blood that made him want to throw up.

He cleared his throat as he felt the detective’s eyes still on him.

“I’ve seen her before I guess, I don’t know. You tend not to take a lot of notice. It pays not to. Some of their clients can be a bit…edgy, you know.”

Jenkins sighed.

“I know. So it’s not much use asking you if you’d seen the man before then eh?” His tone was tired and sarcastic.

The young man shrugged apologetically and peered once more over the detective’s shoulder. Jenkins placed a hand on his arm and gently pushed him out into the corridor.

“Go back to the desk. We’ll call you if we need you.”

The young man turned to go, hesitated.

“I would have called sooner but, well, sometimes if the trick’s got enough money they’ll go at it all night.”

“I understand,” said Jenkins as the man hurried down the old staircase. Turning back to the room he mumbled, “It’s a miracle you called at all. Most people round here wouldn’t.”

“You say something?” Dr Trueman, pathologist, glanced up from his bag of instruments as Detective Jenkins walked back into the room.

Jenkins shook his head. “Nothing. What did you find out?”

The pathologist glanced back towards the bodies on the bed, now finally being separated and wrapped in body bags, and scratched idly at his head through silver grey hair. In twenty years of pathology with the Human Sector Police Department he’d seen too many similar scenes.

“Nothing much. I’ll be able to tell you more after the autopsy. They were engaged in sexual intercourse…”

“No shit!” Jenkins’ voice was hard with sarcasm.

“And judging from their unchanged position, they probably died pretty much instantaneously.”

“What from?”

“One weapon. One wound in fact, straight through both of them.”

“Jesus.” Jenkins scratched at the stubble that shadowed his chin. “Gun? Knife? What was it?”

“Not a gun, that’s for sure. But the wound is like no knife wound I’ve ever dealt with.”

“Shit. Just what we need. Something new on the streets.” He looked round as he heard feet rushing up the staircase outside. “Let me know what the autopsy shows.”

He turned to meet the young uniformed officer hurrying along the corridor.

“Yes? What’s so urgent?”

The officer gasped for breath. “Sorry sir. Dispatch says there’s been another murder not ten blocks from here on the border. Thought you might like to cover it as you’re already in the area.”

Dr Trueman clicked his bag shut. “I’ll come straight with you if you like. Nothing more I can do here.”

Jenkins nodded and sighed. Another murder. And all he wanted to do was go home and get some sleep.

Constable Pete Lewis relaxed against the door of the white, rusting police car and took another drag from his cigarette. He scratched at his head through regulation short brown hair and adjusted the police badge on his dark blue uniform for the umpteenth time.

Art Green sat on the bonnet of the car and tried to ignore his partner’s fidgeting. On Earth, where his grandparents had come from, he would have been called African and his partner, Pete, East European. On Dirve they were just human. He remembered stories his grandfather had told him of hatred between humans back on Earth just because of skin colour or nationality. It was difficult for him to comprehend. On Dirve the only racial tension was between humans and dirves. He shrugged and took another drink from the can in his hand. It was meant to be orange juice but tasted like every other artificially made fruit drink on Dirve. There were no natural Earth fruits on this planet and the Dirve variety was largely unpalatable to humans.

“Look at them.” Pete Lewis stopped fidgeting for a moment and turned to his partner. “Look at the bastards. Enjoying every second of it.”

Art shrugged. He knew that Pete was referring to the two dirve police officers leaning against their own car some three hundred yards opposite, just inside the Dirve Sector. He envied them. The Dirve Sector Police Department was equipped with the latest air cars, not the wheeled monstrosities they had to drive. The dirve officers seemed to sense his envy and for a moment he thought they were laughing at him. He tried to ignore them.

The supposed centre of attention for all of them lay twisted on the rubble-cluttered wasteland that separated them. A dead body, already hazy with a mist of strangely shaped Dirve insects that feasted on death. A rivulet of blood ran sinuously from the corpse’s throat.

“Who is it?” Pete yawned and crushed his cigarette beneath his boot.

Art reached for his note pad. “Somebody called John Draye,” he said, reading his hastily scrawled handwriting with some difficulty. “The first unit on the scene found his wallet and did some checking. Owned a shop over on Solar Street. Independent.”

Pete shook his head. “Must’ve been mad. What’s the point in owning your own place if you’re going to get killed for it? Doesn’t make sense.” He shook another cigarette from the packet and lit up. He offered the pack to his partner but Art declined. “Any family?”

Art checked his note pad. “Teenage daughter. Another unit’s got the pleasant duty of breaking the news to her.”

“Thank God it wasn’t us. At least this is easy.”

Art waved his hand in front of his face, trying to clear the smoke from his partner’s cigarette before he inhaled it. “You smoke far too much, you know that?”

Pete shrugged. “So you keep telling me.”

“You’re killing yourself with those things.”

“The way things are going in this city those fucking snakes will get me first.”

Art looked warily at the small heads and long sinuous necks of the dirve police officers. It was little wonder that humans had taken to calling them ‘snakes’, he just wished that Pete wouldn’t say it so loud when there were two of them close by.

The sound of a car pulling to a stop behind them caused both to turn. Art grinned as Detective Jenkins and Dr Trueman climbed out.

“The fucking cavalry’s arrived.”

Jenkins nodded curtly to the uniformed officers and strode towards the body with Dr Trueman close behind.

Pete looked up at the lowering sky, faintly orange with the light of the almost hidden Bapr, just rising above the horizon.

“It’s going to piss down later on.”

“Bad last night. What a way to go, in the pouring rain.”

“The poor sod was asking for it.”

Pete sighed, a sigh that was echoed by Art. Both had seen too much death for men still only in their late twenties.

“I wish those two would hurry up. We’re off duty in ten minutes. I want to grab something to eat and get to sleep.”

Art smiled. “Not seeing Judy today?”

“Maybe later. You seeing Sandy?”

“As soon as we’re done here. Picking her up from work.”

 “Of course. It’s your turn to have the car tonight. I forgot.”

“The way the department keep putting the fees up we won’t be able to afford it much longer. It’ll end up being cheaper to buy our own car than rent the department’s.”

“At least we get the use of a car between us. It’s one of the few perks of being in this job.”

Pete took another drag from his cigarette.

“I wish those two would hurry up with that corpse and shift it to the morgue. I’m tired.”

He yawned again just as the first drops of the day’s rain began to fall.

Faul Forrow was a typical Fingle-dirve in appearance, or so he thought as he stood before his bedroom mirror. Six foot tall, dark blue skin, totally bald, none of this new style artificial hair transplants into the skull. Kids’ stuff. A fashion that would pass, he hoped. He supposed that a normal human was similar in some ways. Two eyes, ears, a nose and mouth, two arms, two legs. Similar, smaller but similar. However, humans stank like the rare pig-like animals Swinds, found exclusively in the swamp lands of Haf. Indeed, dirves would often refer to humans as ‘swinds’.

An appropriate name, thought Faul.

The smell was, perhaps, the most obvious difference, and the main source of complaints among the less odious races of the galaxy.

There is also, of course, their annoying lack of intelligence and, in some cases, blatant stupidity.

He lifted a claw to his face and scratched at his nose with a sharp needle-like finger. He held the claw to the mirror, its three fingers and razor-like thumb unsheathed. Humans had fleshy fingers and thumbs, weak and largely useless. Sometimes it was beyond him how humans had survived as a species for so long.

“Admiring yourself?”

He turned and smiled at his wife, a young ninety-three year old dirvorn, still in the first third of the average three-hundred-and-ten years of the dirve life cycle. She was sitting up in the large conical basin that was a luxury dirve bed and yawning widely.

“And why not? I’m nearing middle age and there’s not a hint of flab on me. All muscle.” He patted his stomach with a soft paw, the fingers and thumb safely sheathed inside folds of skin.

“If you showed your age do you think I’d still be sleeping with an old man like you?”

She threw back the shimmering temperature sensitive bed covering and stepped up to floor level, reaching for her clothes neatly folded on a chair. The chair had been a wedding present from her mother and it curved and swept in a continuous line that sometimes made her feel quite nauseous. It was old fashioned and she hated it, she just didn’t have the courage to throw it out.

“Sometimes, Melizer, it’s hard to tell whether you’re joking or not.”

“When I stop joking, believe me you’ll know.” She yawned again, picked up his clothes from the arched bedside cabinet and threw them to him. “And what has the Commissioner of Police got to do today? Any crimes to stop? Any criminals to catch, or just politicians?”

“Same thing.”

“You should know.” She tugged her thick jumper down over the belt of her trousers and headed for the bedroom door. “Breakfast should be ready by the time you get down, if I don’t fall asleep.”

“Thanks.”

He watched her leave and then turned to study himself once more in the mirror.

Not bad for a middle aged dirve with a young and demanding wife. Not bad at all.

 

“The Commissioner should be in soon,” said Detective Inspector Sdam Merald, glancing at the ancient digital wall clock above the squad room’s equally ancient door.

Detective Inspector Voris Lasper grunted agreement without looking up from his morning paper.

Sdam gently tapped on the wooden desk top with the butt of a pen and hummed a slow tune he had heard on the radio earlier that morning. He had no great liking for the night shift but there were some advantages. The quiet squad room for one. By the time the next shift got under way the day’s intake would have started, the burglars, the pimps, the whores, the killers, right down to the domestic arguments and lost pets. The Dirve Sector of Scoturna might be relatively prosperous with little unemployment, but it had its fair share of crime and misery just like any other big city. He sighed and looked again at the clock. Not long to go now.

Voris folded the paper and dropped it into the waste paper basket at the side of his chair. He looked around the windowless squad room, old creaking desks, chairs left in the haphazard positions the previous shift had pushed them to. The room was empty except for himself and Sdam.

His eyes fell on ‘the cage’, a small cell on one side of the room for holding prisoners until they could be taken elsewhere, and noted that the key was in the door. That was contrary to department rules, even though ‘the cage’ was unoccupied. He considered getting up and returning the key to its correct position on the squad room key rack, but decided it was not worth the effort. He had not left it there. Let whoever was guilty do it.

“Hey,” said Sdam suddenly. “Did you see the new wordcom operator down on the third level?”

Voris shook his head. “Didn’t know we had one.”

“Started yesterday.”

“Nice?”

“If you like them big. Fucking enormous!” He gestured with his paws, indicating the impressive size and shape of the dirvorn’s breasts.

“Bad case of arthritis there Sdam.” Commissioner Faul Forrow closed the squad room door behind him and strode to the walled off alcove that was his personal office.

“Morning Commissioner. You look worn out. How’s Melizer?” Sdam winked broadly at Voris. The age difference between the Commissioner and his wife was the source of many a squad room joke.

“Tiring.” Faul threw his attaché case onto one of the three plastic bucket seats lined along his office wall and sat himself behind the large plastic desk. A panoramic window, facing him, looked out over the gleaming spires and turrets of the Dirve Sector. “What’s been happening while I’ve been sleeping? Voris? Sdam?”

The two detectives rose from their seats and entered the private office. They left the door open. There was no one to overhear.

“Well? Anything important?” Faul leaned back in his adjustable high backed chair and swung his legs up onto the desk.

Voris shook his head. “Pretty quiet night all round. A few street fights, muggings. A big shot doctor’s wife got frightened by an intruder and he’s been stirring the shit over the phone for the past hour. A uniformed unit’s gone to try and calm him down. Oh, yes, almost forgot. We had a report from the Human Sector that some swinds got themselves killed. They think someone from our side was probably responsible.”

“Let the swinds think what they want. Concentrate on this doctor. He can cause us more trouble than any human.” Faul paused for a moment. “Have we heard anything from the Mayor’s office? The new Mayor should have settled in by now.”

“No news so far,” said Sdam. “He’s been keeping pretty quiet. Obviously doesn’t want to see you yet.”

“He will. I just hope he’s sympathetic to us.” Faul reflected for a moment on the problems caused by a political system in which the Commissioner of Police was not involved nor invited to anything connected with the election of a new Mayor. “I’ve no idea what his views are. Either of you any idea?”

Voris and Sdam shook their heads, Voris unsuccessfully trying to stifle a yawn. “Sorry Commissioner, it’s been a long boring night.”

“You must be due off soon. What time’s the next shift in?”

Voris checked his watch. “Five minutes or so.”

“Well, that’ll be all. You might as well get ready so you can go as soon as they arrive. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything of great importance to keep you hanging around. Sounds like you had a dull night.”

Chapter 4

Mid-West United Britain, Earth

 

“Have you heard a word I’ve said?”

Alison took one hand from the wheel of the unmarked police car long enough to nudge Tom’s shoulder.

Tom jumped, startled, and turned to look at her. “What?”

“I said we’re almost there. You’d better be awake when we arrive in case Granger’s on scene. You know he’s been getting a lot of heat from up high about this case. The press love a messy lunatic on the loose.”

“And it gives the department a bad name, I know. I’ve heard the gospel according to Chief Granger a hundred times over the years. He’s more concerned about the press than he is about the poor bastards getting murdered.”

Tom wiped a hand over his face and yawned.

“Thanks for the wake-up call though. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I keep falling asleep, keep dreaming…”

“What about? Are they dirty? Am I in them?” Alison was laughing quietly.

“Sorry to disappoint you,” smiled Tom. “They’re about my childhood. Only not really like dreams. They’re too coherent, too vivid, too accurate! Correct down to every last detail.”

Alison glanced sidelong at him. She was no longer laughing.

“Are you all right? If these things are bothering you maybe you should go see the department shrink.”

Tom dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand.

“I’m fine. Forget I mentioned it. Give me an update on the case will you?”

Alison hesitated, concerned at her partner’s apparent absent-mindedness. He had never needed to ask for an update before. Surely these dreams, whatever they were, couldn’t be bothering him that much?

She punched the code number of the case into the in-car computer.

“If this is our man again it’ll be the seventh attack in as many weeks.”

Tom sighed and turned to look out the side window at the passing houses, well-manicured lawns glistening with a touch of morning frost. Here and there a light was on but most were in darkness. People were sleeping in their beds, secure in their identical suburban boxes, ignorant of the horror and death he and his colleagues had to face every day. Sometimes he envied them.

“How many this time?”

“The first unit on scene reported six bodies. Looks like he’s wiped out a whole family.”

“Jesus. This is getting like a fucking war!”

More out of habit than need he quickly checked his Browning 9mm automatic pistol and slipped it back into its shoulder holster.

Alison smiled, glad of the distraction from the morbid details of the latest murder. Tom’s taste in weaponry was as old fashioned as his taste in everything else. She shifted slightly in her seat, feeling with satisfaction the comforting weight of the Angleton machine pistol nestling against her left side. Angleton were relatively new to the guns market, without the long history of a company like Browning, but their light, rapid fire weapons had quickly found favour with the world’s armies and police forces alike. Tom’s stubborn refusal to update his armament was as puzzling to her as almost everything else about him.

Maybe that was why she liked him so much?

The first body was sprawled in the hallway, face down, feet towards the door. Male. Mid fifties. Casual dress.

“Probably answered the door and then turned to run from whoever was out there,” said Alison as she and Tom stood in the still open doorway.

Tom nodded, estimating at least twenty stab and slash wounds in the body’s back and head. God knew how many more would be found on closer examination. He noted with an emotionless professionalism that the right ear had been almost completely severed.

“Just like the others. He doesn’t just stab, he slashes, hacks. It’s frenzied, uncontrolled. Drugs maybe?”

“Maybe.” Alison pushed past him and stepped carefully over the body, unable to completely suppress a shudder. “I don’t care how often I see it I can never get used to it.”

Tom continued to study the body, thinking that the job was sloppy, messy and unprofessional. He found it offensive, and not just the obscenity of the murder itself. It offended him in the same way that mass-produced furniture offends a true craftsman. It offended his professional and artistic pride. And that thought chilled him more than any murder, however brutal.

I thought I’d left all that far behind. Assassination is not an art. It’s murder for money!

For the last twelve years he had believed that, contrary to all his training and conditioning. He wouldn’t let go of that belief now.

“There’s another one in here,” Alison called from the front room.

Tom regained his concentration and quickly glanced at the uniformed CSI officers busily searching the house for anything that might give a clue to the killer’s identity. They were paying no attention to him. He was lucky. He had to get this under control…quick!

Alison was looking pale as he joined her by the mauve coloured three-piece-suite. In the corner of the room the television was showing an ancient 2D movie and for a moment he stared at it. There was a quality to the old 2D movies that just wasn’t there in the new releases.

“Will you stop watching the television and pay attention? What’s got into you tonight?” Alison nudged Tom’s elbow and hissed, “Granger’s upstairs with more bodies. Watch yourself.”

Tom pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger.

“Where’s the body?”

“Bodies. Plural. There’s two of them on the floor behind the couch. Looks like they were trying to hide.”

The child was in the corner. Ten years old. A boy. There were so many wounds the body was little more than a mass of blood soaked clothes.

The woman, possibly the boy’s mother thought Tom, was stretched out, sightless eyes staring at the ceiling. She had been hacked repeatedly and there were obvious defensive wounds on her hands. Several fingers were missing. Her skirt was around her waist and she was naked from there down. For the first time Tom felt a twinge of emotion in his stomach.

“Make sure they get any semen samples they can.” His voice was flat, emotionless.

“Tom, if this is our boy again you know he never goes that far. Maybe he can’t or maybe he’s just clever.”

“I don’t give a shit if the man’s a fucking genius! Some semen can be ejaculated before actual orgasm. He’s got to slip up sometime.”

Tom strode angrily back into the hallway.

It was starting. The emotional build-up, twisting in his stomach, filling him with disgust and anger. Every time he tried to control it, and every time he failed when he saw what the bastard did to the women. It made him remember Helen. It made him remember his wife that night when he wasn’t there to protect her.

He forced a smile as Alison joined him at the foot of the stairs.

“Sorry about that. Sometimes it still gets to me.”

“No apology needed. Now, let’s go join Granger and show that we’re here and on the job.”

Chief Granger met them half way. A tall thin man in his mid fifties, Granger had a face that showed, in every line, blemish and scar, all the horrors he had seen in his thirty years on the police force. Nevertheless, at that moment, his usually hard and fixed features were drained and limp. His voice, normally deep and steady, was weak as he stopped to talk to his two detectives.

“This is the worst yet. Three up there, all kids. The oldest is a girl, early teens I would say. She’s been sexually assaulted. The others… one’s a boy, about five. Head almost sliced off by that bastard!”

Granger hesitated, glancing back over his shoulder towards the murder scene.

“What about the third?” prompted Tom.

“The third.” Granger closed his eyes and, for a moment, a tear threatened to escape. He brushed it away angrily and opened his eyes, glaring at the ceiling as if it held some answer to the massacre.

“The third. A little girl, no more than eight. Mutilated almost beyond recognition.”

He eased his way past Tom and Alison, stopping at the foot of the stairs, turning back towards them.

“My youngest has her ninth birthday in two days time. I keep thinking that could be her up there.” He paused, barely keeping his emotions in some sort of check. “I want this psycho found!”

Tom Gates sat in the passenger seat of the stationary police car, one foot jammed against the open door to stop it swinging shut. His eyes were closed.

All around him was the movement and noise of a murder scene investigation. Uniformed and plain-clothes police stalked the grounds of the house searching for anything out of the ordinary. Inside the house CSI officers examined every detail. White coated medical personnel carrying stretchers removed the dead bodies to waiting ambulances which then screamed away into the night, sirens blazing, on their way to the closest pathology lab. Already, Tom knew, a team of police pathologist would have been woken from their beds and be waiting for the first delivery. These days he was used to the sights and sounds of the aftermath of a murder, but there had been a time when it was the moments before he was more familiar with. Then there had been that night…

The target was a young rising politician. At least the papers called him young. To the man who waited patiently in the dark room and who had only recently celebrated his twenty-first birthday, forty-five was not young. But then Joz did not consider himself to be young anymore. When you had assassinated four people before the official ‘coming of age’ you might be young in body but your character was old and hard and cynical.

He smiled. It amused him how he always slipped so easily into thinking of himself by his Mort name of Joz. Here he was Joz, a paid assassin, waiting for his target. Somewhere else, somewhere seemingly so far away he had difficulty thinking of it at times like this, he was Officer Tom Gates, on temporary loan to the short staffed detective squad investigating a series of gang protection rackets and intimidation and, just two days ago, murder. The irony did not escape him. Most of his working life he spent trying to track down killers and then, for the right price and through the right contacts, he became a killer himself. But there was a difference, he told himself. Murder was murder, but assassination was an art, a skill. You planned, you waited, you killed, you escaped. All so graceful. He saw little connection between his own actions and those of a blood crazed gang.

The door to the room opened and the ‘young’ politician entered, waving his security people away at the door. Joz heard his voice, a pleasantly deep voice, one used to public speaking.

“I assure you I do not need an armed escort from my hotel room door to my bed. Thank you and goodnight.” The voice was laughing, relaxed, confident. Joz smiled too. It was so easy at times.

He slipped the knife from his pocket and held it loosely in his hand. It was only a small knife, and the blade was fat and stubby, but the size did not matter. It was not the blade that killed but the poison it had been carefully smeared with.

Joz watched as the politician lifted a photograph of his wife and family from the bedside table and kissed it gently. For a moment Joz thought of Helen, his own wife for some short three months, who, as Tom Gates, he loved with every part of his being, every part but Joz who must remain locked away from her forever. He thought of how she would be sitting at home at that moment, waiting for what she thought was night shift duty to finish. Perhaps she was already in bed, lying naked beneath the duvet, dozing while she waited for him to return and climb into bed alongside her. For one brief moment he imagined holding her and making love to her and then he threw all such thoughts from his mind. He was not Tom Gates. He was Joz. He was a Mort assassin.

He rose from the shadows as the politician neared his position. The blade slid smoothly into the man’s throat. There was a look of surprise, of shock, and the mouth opened as if to scream. No sound ever made it out between those lips that froze in death as his heart shattered with a dull thud that Joz, slipping the knife back into his pocket, heard with satisfaction.

Tom Gates jerked back from the edge of sleep to find himself in the present, police lights strobing the early morning into a riot of shapes and colours.

It had all seemed so simple and straightforward in those days. People paid you and you did your job, then you went home to your new wife in your new home and got on with your life as though it were typical and average. That was before he returned home from the assassination of the young politician. That was before he fought his way through the assembled police officers, pushed past the homicide detectives and saw the crumpled bloody heap on the living room carpet. Helen. His wife.

Later, when his fellow police officers had managed to calm him down, he had learned how the evidence pointed towards a revenge attack by the gang he was helping investigate. Two other police officers on the case had been attacked that night. One was badly injured. The other had been alert and lucky enough to find his gun in his bedside cabinet and fight them off. Only he, Tom Gates, had not been at home. The gang had called and found nobody but his nineteen-year-old wife. They had killed her instead.

Much, much later the investigating detectives had found the courage to tell him that his wife had been gang raped before she was hacked to death with an axe.

Tom Gates, now thirty-three years old and still not completely over the loss of his wife, fought to hold back the tears. Every time he saw what this latest bastard did to his female victims he remembered Helen and he remembered the guilt when he had realised that, had he not been on an assassination assignment, he would have been home. He was certain he could have fought off the attackers. He was certain his wife would still be alive, waiting for him now in their own house, not unlike those he found himself staring at all around him, curtains drawn back to look at the horror that had happened in their midst. He had never accepted an assassination since and had cut off all ties with Mort. Police work had taken over his life and he had risen quickly to his present rank. But he never forgot Helen. They had never tracked down the gang responsible, but every time he solved another case, caught another murderer, he thought of it as just a small point in his favour, a minute spot off the stain of guilt that still hung over his life.

The shout from the front garden to his left snapped him back to reality and he leapt out of the car. He was joined by Alison as he reached the uniformed officer who held a plastic evidence bag containing something he had found on the grass.

Tom took it from him and examined it. It was a rectangle of black plastic, about a quarter of an inch thick.

“What is it?” said Alison, peering at it as it turned in Tom’s hand. “Looks like some sort of cartridge or something.”

Tom smiled, a genuine smile, a smile of satisfaction. He was not surprised that Alison did not recognise it. They didn’t make them like this anymore. It was a collectors’ item. He himself had not immediately seen it for what it was and the late twentieth century was a time period he had made something of a hobby.

“It is a cartridge,” he said as he handed it to his partner. “It’s the reject from an old Polaroid instant camera after all the pictures have been taken, from way back before digital and 3D imaging. The sick bastard was taking pictures of his night’s work!”

Chapter 5

Human Sector of Scoturna, Dirve

 

The Human Sector morgue squatted ugly and broken half way down Hellstrom Drive, it’s scarred red-brick face looking over an eerily silent quarter of the Sector. The ornate pillars that stood either side of the great doorway were as out of place as a human on the tramway.

Detective Jenkins noted grimly that most of the surrounding buildings were deserted, their doors and windows broken and smashed. He couldn’t help feeling that was the most likely, and possibly best, future for the morgue as well.

As the police car pulled to a halt by the path leading to the doorway, Jenkins told the uniformed driver to wait for him. He did not intend to be here any longer than necessary. He would not be here at all if Dr Trueman hadn’t called and said he’d found something that might be important. He wouldn’t talk on the vidphone, said he had to show him something in person. Jenkins would have taken his word for it, whatever it was, as long as it meant not having to come here. He shuddered and climbed out of the car.

Dr Trueman met him in the hallway that stretched the length of the morgue like a sinuous spinal cord, offices, examination rooms and storage areas opening up to each side, all the same faintly yellowing white colour on the walls, floors and ceilings.

“What’s so important?” said Jenkins as the doctor led him to a room somewhere deep in the building. The detective tried to ignore the blood-spattered apron that the doctor wore. He looked more like a butcher than a doctor.

“I wanted you to see this in person, not on a vid screen.” The doctor seemed to hesitate, then continued. “Remember the three murder victims from a few days ago?”

Jenkins frowned. “The murder victims? You’re not exactly short on bodies here doctor. Give me more of a clue.

“The prostitute and her client in the hotel room? The shop owner out on the wasteland?”

“Oh them, sure.” Jenkins nodded. “You only just got round to the autopsies?”

Dr Trueman ignored him. His workload was heavy, and he knew that Jenkins was aware of that. The detective looked tired. He allowed the comment to slip by without argument.

“The cause of death was painfully obvious once they were opened up.”

He closed the door of the examination room and gestured Jenkins over to the nearest table, a slab in the centre of the floor. On it, beneath a white cloth, lay a body.

Jenkins hesitated. “Listen doc, I might not mind seeing them dead but I don’t relish the thought of poking around their insides!”

Dr Trueman seemed to sigh. It might have been a trick of the indirect lighting in the place, but Jenkins could have sworn the doctor looked about ten years older than he had in the hotel room and at the wasteland those few short days ago.

“I’m not asking you to look at the body, but look at this.”

Jenkins felt his stomach turn as the doctor lifted a metal tray from behind the slab. On it was a shapeless mass of blood and meat. He felt his stomach turn.

“What is it?”

“It’s his heart, what’s left of it.”

The doctor indicated the body on the slab and Jenkins, for the first time, noted the tag on the corpse’s toe. Richard Swales. The man from the hotel room.

“What happened to it?” Jenkins had managed to regain control of his stomach with some difficulty. Now he took three deep breaths to try and calm his turbulent insides.

“It’s been blown apart, from the inside. I can’t be sure, but from initial examinations I reckon it’s some form of poison. That explains how he died so quickly from just one wound. The poison runs to the heart, probably knocking out the nervous system as it goes I would guess, and then just bursts everything in sight! The heart’s a tough muscle but this thing just ripped it to shreds. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Shit!” Jenkins shook his head grimly. “What have they got out on the street now, and how did they get it?”

“It’s not Dirve in origin, or not anything I’ve come across. In fact I’ve no idea on what planet something like this could originate. It’s been kept damn secret, that’s for sure.”

“What about analysis of the poison? Have you done any yet?”

The doctor shook his head. “I said I reckoned it was some form of poison because that makes some kind of sense, but I can’t find any trace of it. There’s nothing there. Nothing in the blood, other bodily fluids, fat, muscles, skin, bone. Nothing. I’m presuming it’s a poison because of the death from one wound and there being no residue of any kind, no shrapnel from a minute explosive capsule, that sort of thing. But I found no evidence at all.”

Jenkins wiped a hand over his face. Extra money or not, he did not at that moment want the job of temporary Chief. He wished Isaacs would just come back and take over and tell him what to do next. He fumbled for what he hoped was an intelligent question.

“What about the prostitute?”

“The same. Heart blown apart. That much you could have guessed, after all they died together. But you remember that other body? The one found on the wasteland? Draye?”

Jenkins nodded. “What of it? That was a totally different weapon, you said so yourself. You said you couldn’t tell what at that stage, but you never mentioned any possibility of it being the same thing that stuck those two in the hotel room.”

“It was a different weapon, certainly,” agreed Dr Trueman. “I still don’t know what, any more than the one used in the hotel is something I’m familiar with. But I will tell you this.” Dr Trueman jabbed a finger at Jenkins and the policeman suddenly felt like he was back at school, being lectured. “Whatever sliced into this Draye character was covered in the same poison or whatever as the weapon used in the hotel room. We’re still scraping bits of his heart off his ribs. Two cuts remember? A double dose.”

Jenkins glanced towards the metal tray that held the remains of Richard Swales’ heart and looked away again quickly.

“If you’re telling me that they were all killed by probably the same person using some kind of weapons covered in some kind of poison we know nothing about then I’m not sure I want to know.”

He took another deep breath to calm his nerves. He hated the morgue at the best of times.

This was not the best of times.

“So, what do you think?”

Dr Trueman smiled grimly and shook his head. “I don’t think you want to know.”

The ancient tramway perched uncertainly on its fifteen-foot pillars, spaced evenly along its twisting length. It moaned in the evening’s wind, complaining as it faced yet another winter’s night, the cold wriggling through the cracks in its painted skin like some scavenging insect, scratching at its innards, clawing into its structure, the natural slowly destroying the unnatural.

It had faced this slow torture since the early days of the city it now dissected, when the city was little more than a few buildings scattered either side of its then shining new pillars. The tramway had stood silent, overlooking the sprawling expansion of the city, gradually becoming dwarfed by the gleaming skyscrapers that sprouted around it. In those days the tramway had been the lifeline of the city, moving its workers and commodities in and out of its growing heart. In those days it had been cared for, cleaned and painted, serviced regularly, before the advent of the air cars. Now it grew old and weary, creaking with age and neglect, showering the ground beneath with slivers of rusted metal as a tram roared overhead. The city was alive, still growing. The tramway was a dying relic of a style of transport fast approaching its end. But the tramway had taken on a new significance, a new importance in the heart of the city that tried to smother it.

In the shadow of the tramway moved a man. His pace was quick, hurried, a trace of panic in the gaunt face, the ever-watchful eyes.

What am I doing by the tramway at this time of night?

He asked himself that question again and again as he hurried from shadow to shadow. With the aid of alcohol it had seemed a convenient shortcut home, now he doubted its wisdom.

Gerald Fielding moved with a staggering speed born of fear and alcohol, although he found the night air and the adrenaline were quickly sobering him up. He knew, deep inside, that he should not even be heading this way, heading home. There was a meeting. Many of his fellow human businessmen were gathering that night, but he had been reluctant to leave his small shop for any more time than was absolutely necessary.

Let the others have their meetings. I’ll continue as I’ve always done, quietly and efficiently. Making a little money here and there and doing my best to ignore the threats and warnings from those dirve owned businesses nearby.

There had been murders, but he couldn’t see why anyone would be interested in such a small concern as his.

He didn’t see the figure seemingly form out of the shadows of a tramway pillar. He didn’t see the disc that span his way, sparking in the occasional shaft of Tollight or Sazlight that speared through momentary gaps in the clouds.

He hardly felt a thing as the spinning razor sharp edge thudded into the side of his head, slicing the top of his ear off, finally stopping halfway through his right eyeball. He had almost hit the ground before his heart exploded.

Mark Wild sat behind the wooden table that had, until just a few hours ago, been at home in his kitchen. Now it stood at right angles to the small head-height window in the storeroom of his shop. There was barely enough room between the back wall and the table for him to squeeze through and sit in the old chair that was also borrowed from his kitchen, but at least that minor discomfort gave more room for the others gathered in the dim light of the room.

He was forty-seven years old and had run his own little corner shop for the last eight. In that time he had met most of the other human businessmen who dared to stand up to the dirve monopoly in the Human Sector. He had met them singly, or in small groups of two or three. Never had he imagined he would be sitting at a table facing an assembled mass of some twenty-three or more. He had organised this meeting, sent out the invitations only days before. He had never expected so many would actually turn up.

Outside the window, Tol and Saz had risen in the night sky, but both were hidden behind a heavy cover of cloud, the kind of cloud that carried rain in its belly, waiting to unload it on those scurrying about below.

Jean Draye stood at the back of the storeroom, leaning against the closed door. It had been less than a week since her father had been murdered and she knew she should still be at home, in mourning. But she was too angry, too driven by an overwhelming desire for revenge, to play the part of the grieving daughter. Some of those around her glanced nervously in her direction, unsure how to treat her, what to say, but she ignored them. She had loved her father dearly but she had shed her tears, said her goodbyes. Now it was time for action. When she had received the invitation to this meeting as a courtesy in her father’s memory, she had accepted. John Draye had been a friend to many of those gathered here, a colleague to all, and she felt certain that his death, and those of others, would be avenged.

Mark Wild cleared his throat and rapped his knuckles on the varnished wood of the tabletop. The low rumble of voices in the room quietened and he felt his stomach turn nervously as all eyes focused on him.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he began, his voice wavering slightly. “First, I would like to thank so many of you for coming. It’s nice to know you’re as concerned as I am about the situation in this Sector. It’s getting worse, not better.”

A mumble of agreement rolled around the room. There had been little conversation about anything else the last few days.

“John Draye may be the latest victim, but he’s not the first. We’ve all suffered attacks, threats, vandalism. We’ve all known that murder was a possibility. God knows it’s happened before. I fear that John’s life may not be the last to be taken. I look around now and I don’t know whether the familiar faces missing have just decided not to come or are lying in an alley somewhere. It’s time we did something about it.”

Jean Draye said nothing but bit her lower lip so hard a drop of blood trickled down her chin. She remembered an early morning visit to the morgue. She remembered being asked to identify a cold, grey something that resembled her father. She remembered sobbing bitterly in the corridor.

A man sitting not far from her, she recognised him as the owner of a small Tailor shop not far from her father’s, raised his hand like a schoolboy asking permission to speak. Even in her dark mood it made her smile.

 “What have the police done? Surely they must have some sort of clue as to who’s behind all this?”

Cynical laughs and muttered swearing growled among the gathering. Mark Wild spoke for them all.

“The police in this sector are next to useless, and the dirve police aren’t likely to get involved. As to who’s behind this? I think that’s obvious. The dirves don’t like their monopoly on the businesses in the Sector threatened. The only surprise is that they’ve taken so long to start killing us off. There’s no mystery about who is behind this.”

“But what can we do?” The speaker was a middle aged woman. She ran a Bakery over on Regal Street.

“Fight back.” The young male owner of a coffee shop on Wildside Avenue. “They’re trying to destroy our businesses, we destroy theirs. Hit the dirve owned places like they hit ours!”

Jean Draye pushed herself away from the door. This sounded promising. This was what she had hoped for.

“We wouldn’t stand a chance,” shouted Mark above the rising clamour, calming the growing tension in the room.

Jean Draye sank back disappointedly against the door. For a moment it had seemed to be going as she had wished. Now she felt that compromise and peaceful ‘protest’ were about to be suggested. She felt sick, sick and angry, at the weak and cowardly old men who ran the businesses.

My father was worth ten of any of them!

“We’d be destroyed in a week,” reasoned Mark, his eyes pleading for sense among the anger in the room. “As soon as the dirves realised who was behind the attacks we’d be closed down, officially. At least at the moment they can’t use the law against us.”

“No.” The young man again. “They just kill us instead!” His voice was harsh with sarcasm and hate. Another rumble of agreement, more angry voices rising in volume.

“I do have an idea,” said Mark, not shouting but raising his voice just enough to be heard, knowing his words would intrigue the majority who were wary of violent confrontation with the far more powerful dirves.

He waited until all was calm and quiet in the room before continuing.

“I didn’t call you here just to talk. I have a suggestion to put to you.” He paused, checked that everyone was attentive. “I want to bring Earth in on this.”

“Earth?” The word travelled about the room in thick waves of incredulity and awe. Earth. The mother world.

“Yes, Earth. I feel sure that if Earth were aware of what was happening they would do something about it. Approach the Dirve government here in Fingle. Complain to the Galactic Court. I don’t know what, but I’m sure they’d try and do something. We are humans after all. We are all descended from Earth men and women. They’d be morally bound to do something!”

A murmur of agreement rose in the darkness and Mark Wild nodded, satisfied.

“I’ve drafted the letter and I’ve got a contact on one of the few Earth-bound freighters that come through the spaceport here. It’s in dock now. My contact’s just waiting. All I need is your signatures. They can’t ignore it if it has all our signatures on it.”

As the assembled Human Sector businessmen rose to sign the presented letter Jean Draye slipped unseen out of the door. This was not what she wanted. This was too tame, too long term. There had to be some way to hit back, some way to gain the revenge she needed. She would not be whole again until she exacted revenge for both her mother’s and her father’s deaths.

Deborah Wendel curled forward over the toilet bowl and threw up.

Through the small broken window she saw the man, her client, hurry out of the apartment building below her, nervously looking about him, frightened he would be seen by someone he knew, or perhaps just generally frightened. She watched as he quickly slipped a hand down the front of his trousers, hoping no one would notice, and adjusted himself. She doubled up once more and heaved. She could still smell his sweat, still taste him in her mouth. She threw up again.

She flushed the toilet as she climbed to her feet, turning the taps in the small wash basin and splashing cold water over her face, into her mouth, rinsing it round and spitting it out. She reached for a half empty tube of toothpaste.

The tricks pay extra for this, but if I have to take one more man in my mouth… if I have to look up at one more sweaty grinning face… if I have to fake one more smile as he comes, I’ll kill the bastard, extra or not.

She reached for the pink toothbrush at the edge of the basin.

Who am I kidding? Donavan would never let me.

Donavan, her pimp, had spotted her ‘potential’ right away and he wouldn’t let go of the extra income easily. She looked at herself in the mirror. Even the way she looked had been dictated by Donavan.

Three years ago he had taken her, fourteen years old straight out of school looking for a way to make the money she needed to leave home and get a place of her own. Three years ago he had realised that with her slight frame and short size, with her almost flat chest and innocent face, she could pass for twelve. Donavan knew a jackpot when he hit one. Now here she was, seventeen years old but looking not much more than thirteen or fourteen at the most, her brown hair tied back in a pony tail, her pretty face totally devoid of makeup, especially her full lips, her pouting mouth, “a mouth that most men would pay a fortune to fuck” as Donavan had said all those years ago. Now it was her speciality, the little schoolgirl going down on ‘daddy’ or ‘teacher’ or whoever the fuckers wanted to be in their sordid fantasies.

She threw the toothbrush away into a corner. That had been Donavan’s answer. “If you don’t like the taste buy a toothbrush!” Fucking bastard!

And if that wasn’t enough, now somebody was going around killing her friends. Three of them in the last few weeks.

With a trembling hand she opened a drawer in the bathroom unit and smiled at the syringe and small bottle that rattled with the movement. Now here was the only thing Donavan supplied that she had the time for. Here was her escape.

Twenty minutes later, when she heard the door to her apartment open, she was too far-gone to do anything but call out to the unseen visitor, “I’m busy daddy, or sir, or whatever the fuck you want me to call you.” She laughed, a laugh that was too brittle, too manic to be natural.

“Deborah is temporarily out. Out of her head anyway.”

The laugh rose to little more than a squeak. She felt good. She felt a lot better than she had all day. Nothing was going to ruin that.

She didn’t even move as a figure slid into focus before her. She made no sound as the spike was driven through her forehead and into the wall behind. Only her heart made any sound as it shattered in her chest.

Junior navigator Simon Lake folded the envelope into the inside jacket pocket of his uniform. Mark Wild had been a friend of his father before his father died some two years ago and, although Simon had taken the first opportunity to get away from Dirve, he still liked to visit home when his ship, ‘The Charlemagne’, reached this part of the galaxy. He had been more than happy, despite the small risk if he were searched at customs, to smuggle a letter out for his father’s old friend, especially once the circumstances had been explained to him and a not inconsiderable amount of money handed over.

In less than a month, thanks to the system of traversable wormholes even human ships were allowed, however reluctantly, to utlilise, he would be landing on Earth. He saw no problem in delivering the letter to someone in authority. Anything that caused trouble for the fucking dirves!

Chapter 6

Mid-West United Britain, Earth

 

“Still having those dreams?” Alison steered the car smoothly around a tight bend and accelerated along the straight.

Tom shook his head and smiled. “Not for a few days, thanks.”

“Ever figure out why they just appeared like that?”

Alison eased off the accelerator and checked the address currently displayed on the in-car computer. She glanced at the house number to her right and, seeing they were still some way from their destination, pushed her foot to the floor again.

“Who knows? I’m just glad they’ve gone.”

In truth he had given a lot of thought as to why those dreams should have suddenly reappeared, so vivid, so real. Even now, when they had stopped as suddenly as they had started, he could not dismiss the thought that they were a warning. As a Mort Assassin his mind had been trained just as fully as his body, and intuition was a highly regarded skill. Was that what was happening? An intuitive sense that his old life was about to invade his new? As completely as he had tried to sever all ties with the assassins of Mort, he knew he could never be truly free of them, not until his death.

“Almost there.” Alison had slowed the car again. “How many does this make now?”

Tom did some quick mental arithmetic. “Nine,” he sighed.

With the aid of the Head of Antiquities at the British Museum they had identified the item found at the scene of the crime as the spent cartridge of a 600 Plus Polaroid film. He had also been able to put them in contact with the only company, a small subsidiary of Polaroid, still manufacturing old photographic films and cartridges.

The Sales Manager at Camera Collectibles had been only too eager to demonstrate how, since all their business was via computers, they had a full database of their customers and a history of their purchases. Only eleven people had ever bought 600 Plus cartridges and their names and addresses were quickly printed out.

“We’d have been a lot quicker at this if so many of them hadn’t moved house since they last bought a cartridge.”

“I guess collectors don’t take that many pictures with their antique cameras.”

“Maybe number nine will be the lucky one.”

“Maybe.”

“At least there hasn’t been any more murders while we’ve been tracking this down.”

But there will be, thought Tom. He’ll need another fix. He’s no professional, just a sick psycho, and he won’t be able to do the sensible thing and lie low.

Alison checked the house numbers again and pulled the car tight in to the kerb.

“Here we are. Number twenty-four. Home of a Mr Harold Spright.”

The house was old, dating back to the nineteenth century, although it had been well maintained. The shine of new paint glinted at them from the guttering as they climbed out of the car.

It was just past midday, the sun almost directly above them so that, even though the garden path was lined with trees and bushes, few shadows fell across their grim faces. Alison pressed her finger against the doorbell.

An elderly white haired man who, despite his age, seemed slim and fit opened the door. Tom flashed his I.D. card and forced a smile.

“Mr Spright? I wonder if we could have a word?”

The man hesitated for a second and then took a step backwards.

“Please come in. If you tell me what it’s all about I’ll see if I can help.”

As Tom and Alison entered the house, Tom caught a look from his partner that was heavy with disappointment. He understood. Harold Spright had let them into his house too easily for him to have something to hide. The man was almost certainly as innocent of murder as the previous Polaroid owners they had interviewed. Nevertheless, they had to go through the motions.

They were shown through to a small living room, sparsely but comfortably furnished. Nothing but the television in one corner seemed to date from later than the mid twentieth century. They were in the home of an historian and collector, that much was obvious to Tom. He had a part time interest in such things but Harold Spright was obviously a devotee.

“Can I get you anything? A cup of tea or coffee perhaps?” asked the elderly gentleman as he gestured to two plush armchairs.

“No, thank you,” smiled Alison, settling herself into a chair.

Tom remained standing.

“We don’t want to take up too much of your time. We won’t be long.”

Harold Spright smiled. “Oh, don’t worry. I’ve got plenty of time, have had ever since I was made redundant. Wasn’t worth trying to find another job at my age so I decided to retire. You sure you won’t sit?”

Tom returned the smile. It was hard not to relax with this friendly old man.

“I prefer to stand, but you sit by all means.”

Harold sat with a surprisingly fluid motion, showing none of the usual signs of old age and weary bones.

“We just have a few questions we’d like to ask.”

“Please, feel free. It’s a long time since anyone asked me any really interesting questions.”

There was a sadness behind the smiling face that told Tom that Harold Spright was more than a little lonely, shut up in this house with all his beloved antiques.

Collecting the past was fine as long as you didn’t find yourself trapped there.

“We believe you own an old Polaroid instant camera?” said Alison, sitting forward in her chair. “One that takes a 600 Plus film?”

Harold’s smile positively beamed. “I certainly do. A ‘Supercolor 635CL’. I’ll get it down for you if you like. It’s in a box upstairs.” He made to stand up.

“No, it’s all right Mr Spright.” Tom waved him back into his seat. “We don’t need to see it. Do you use it very much?”

Harold shook his head. “No. I don’t find myself in a position to take many interesting photographs these days. Got plenty of film cartridges though. Bought a stockpile of them with my redundancy pay.”

“But you don’t use them,” said Alison, shooting a look at Tom that said ‘we’re wasting our time here. Let’s go’.

“No,” said Harold. “If it wasn’t for my nephew, Walter, the old thing would never get used at all.”

“Your nephew?”

Tom, who had been busy trying to think of a way to leave quickly without hurting the old man’s feelings, now snapped fully alert. His Mort trained intuition was one of the abilities that had seen him rise to Detective Inspector at only thirty-three years old, and it was screaming at him now.

Alison did not possess Tom’s ‘clue sense’, as she had once described it, but she knew enough to recognise when it took hold of him.

“Does your nephew use the camera much?” she asked calmly, struggling to control the turmoil in her stomach. Tom was rarely wrong about such things.

“Quite often, yes. He borrows it for a couple of days then brings it back. At least he pays me for the films. Can’t get them in the shops you see and he reckons it’s too much bother to send away for them, so he just uses mine.”

“What sort of photographs does he take Mr Spright?”

“You know, that’s the funny thing.” Harold Spright laughed. “He never let’s me see the things. Says they’re his private art or some such rubbish. He’s something of a strange young man is Walter, but…” he shrugged, “…you can’t ignore your only brother’s son now can you?”

“When did he last borrow the camera?” asked Tom.

“Last…well, let me think. Last Monday I think. Yes. Brought it back Thursday.”

Tom turned to look at Alison. She nodded. They both knew that the most recent murder had taken place Tuesday night of last week.

“Mr Spright,” said Tom, forcing the calmest of smiles onto his face. “I wonder if you could give us your nephew’s address? I think we’d like a word with him.”

The address on Walter Spright, given them by his Uncle Harold, led Tom and Alison to a smart suburb north of the city where both the lawns and the people were well manicured.

The houses gleamed in the afternoon sunlight and the smell of fresh paint drifted on the gentle breeze. The houses were new, their occupants young and, if not actually rich, then at least comfortably off. Neatly designed estate followed neatly designed estate in rectangular blocks of conformity and order. To some it spoke of affluence and well-being. To Tom it spoke of boredom and stagnation. It lacked originality. The nearest any house came to being different from its neighbour was in the colour of the curtains or the addition of a replica antique coach lamp above the front door. Tom remembered sharply and painfully when he and Helen had aspired to such a home. He pushed the thought firmly from his mind.

“Here it is,” said Alison, swinging the car between two tall stone pillars that marked the entrance to ‘Wellington Court’, not named after the ancient originator of the boot but after Sam Wellington, one of the pioneers of other-world colonisation. Earth had discovered new heroes in the centuries since Neil Armstrong first set foot on the Moon.

Tom searched the nameplates on the gateposts wishing fervently that the houses just had numbers like everywhere else. He spotted it just before they turned a sharp right hand bend to delve further into the estate.

“There,” he said, pointing out the side window. “‘The Hawthorns’.” He laughed grimly. “No-one ever said psychopaths had any originality.”

“We don’t even know if he’s our man yet,” said Alison, easing the car to a gentle stop. “Don’t go calling him a psychopath just yet.”

But Tom knew. His intuition was going haywire. He couldn’t explain how it worked, but he knew that Walter Spright was the killer. All he needed was that little bit of proof to satisfy everyone else.

“Looks like we’re in luck.” Alison indicated the car parked in the driveway of ‘The Hawthorns’.

They climbed out and headed up the path. Tom glanced in the stationary car as they passed.

“It’s clean, as far as I can tell.”

Alison smiled at him. “You didn’t really expect it to be that easy did you? Come on. Let’s have a word with Walter and ask him about these private photographs.”

Walter Spright, when he answered the ring of his doorbell, was in his mid twenties, tall and muscular with close cropped blonde hair and a chin so smooth you would never have known he grew whiskers at all. He looked, Tom thought, to be the sort who worked out in the gym three times a week, had a beer with ‘the lads’ afterwards and complained bitterly about the number of ‘niggers’ and ‘queers’ that they allowed in the suburbs these days. Human society had moved on from the ancient times he like to read about in his books but some, like Walter Spright, were like living fossils, throwbacks to an older, less enlightened time.

His imposing figure filled the doorframe and Tom fought to resist the urge to snap him in two right there and then.

It was Alison who spoke calmly and politely.

“Excuse me sir. Walter Spright?”

The man nodded, looking suspiciously at the two detectives.

“I’m Detective Sergeant Riley,” continued Alison, “and this is Detective Inspector Gates.” She flashed her I.D. at him. “We’d like a word if we may?”

“What about?” The man made no move to allow them in.

“We’d like to talk to you about your uncle’s antique instant camera,” said Tom.

He saw the momentary flicker of panic in the man’s eyes. Further proof, if he had needed it, that they had found their killer.

“I don’t think I want to talk to you,” Walter said hesitantly. “Don’t I have a right to a lawyer or something?”

Alison smiled as sweetly as she could manage.

“We’re not arresting you Mr Spright, we’re not even accusing you of anything. We just want a word.”

“No. Sorry.”

He was beginning to sweat. Small glistening beads on his forehead.

Walter Spright began to swing the door shut but Tom’s foot jammed it open. He drew his Browning 9mm automatic and pointed it steadily at the big man’s face.

“I think we need to talk,” he snarled, edging forwards into the house.

Alison followed, glaring. She hissed at him, “Are you fucking crazy? We could get busted for this. Where’s our probable cause?”

Tom didn’t look away from the retreating man.

“I know he’s guilty.”

“Yes, well, unless they cut you open and put this sixth sense of yours on the witness stand we’re fucked!”

“Sit,” ordered Tom.

Walter half fell and half sat in a large armchair by a dormant coal fire.

“Search the place,” Tom snapped in a voice that left no doubts that he was pulling rank on Alison.

She obeyed without question. Tom hardly ever used his superior rank in their partnership, but she knew enough not to argue when he did.

Walter was getting edgy, shifting nervously in his seat, his eyes darting to where Alison was pulling open cupboards and drawers, searching shelves, wall units, anything that could hold some piece of incriminating evidence. Tom doubted Walter had ever really expected to be caught, amateurs like him tended to believe they were invulnerable, so he also doubted he had taken any great care in hiding things.

“Are you married Walter?” Tom never let the gun drop from the seated man’s face.

Walter shook his head.

“Didn’t think you would be somehow.” Tom smiled, a smile that hid the loathing that burned behind his eyes. “You don’t like women very much, do you Walter?”

Walter said nothing but his whole body tensed. Tom saw his hand slide down the edge of the seat cushion. He should have told him to keep his hands clear. He knew that Walter was reaching for something. He should have stopped him right away. He didn’t. He didn’t want to.

Alison held up a handful of Polaroid photographs pulled from the back of a deep drawer. She glanced at one or two.

“We’ve got him!”

Tom could have just shot Walter as the big man pulled the knife from under the seat cushion and lunged at him. He could have, but he didn’t. Instead, he dropped his gun and sidestepped, grabbing Walter’s wrist as it flew past his chest and snapping it backwards.

Walter screamed as his wrist broke and the knife clattered to the floor. Tom stepped behind him and wrapped one arm around his throat. He held him steady.

Alison had drawn her Angleton machine pistol and was aiming squarely at Walter’s broad chest, which heaved as he tried to escape from Tom’s iron grip.

“You ok?” she called to Tom, who nodded in answer. She pushed her gun back into its holster. “I’ll call for a wagon. Don’t see why we should drag him in alone.”

Tom watched as she left the house to radio from the car. He hardly noticed Walter writhing and struggling to get free.

It would be so easy to just hold him there until help arrived. Restraining holds were among the first things he had learned on Mort. But now, as he held on to his prisoner, he remembered other more deadly lessons, and, scattered where Alison had dropped them, he saw the photographs of Walter’s victims.

Photographs of the women. Women he had butchered. Women he had assaulted.

Tom thought of Helen and, in one sharp movement, snapped Walter’s neck.

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