Sunday, 1 June 2008

Nostalgia Trip #15: THEM'S THE BREAKS

Published by SDO DETECTIVE Issue #1, April 2003


The view of Great London at night from the cockpit of the Police patrol car was both startling and beautiful. It was almost enough to make North forget his fear of flying. Almost. The pilot effortlessly guided his machine between the towering obsidian blocks, each course correction flipping North's stomach over. Then they were suddenly hovering above a triangular patch of blackness amid the sea of artificial light. The patrol car dropped like a stone while North held on for dear life. If the pilot noticed his passenger's terror, he gave no sign.

Macauley of all people was waiting for him, a cup of tea in one hand and a sandwich in the other. Heaven forbid that Macauley should be denied his midnight snack—he'd fade away to a shadow. North climbed shakily out of the cockpit and lurched toward him, relieved to be on solid ground again.

"Good of you to drop in, Laddie," Macauley shouted above the rising din of the patrol car's thrusters. "The rest of us can go home now that you're here."

North didn't smile. He didn't like Macauley or the way the man worked. Macauley was a dinosaur who still thought detective work should rely upon gut instinct instead of systematic and exhaustive microanalysis of data gathered at the crime scene. In North's opinion, Superintendent Morgan should have bounced him off the team long ago. They watched in silence as the patrol car lifted off and swung back to retrace its path, its navigation lights flashing like miniature explosions.

"What's this all about?" North asked wearily once the noise of the thrusters had faded. When Morgan had called to tell him the patrol car was on its way to pick him up, he'd neglected to provide any details, or warn North that Macauley was already at the scene. Deliberately? North couldn't help but think so.

Macauley nodded toward a mock wrought iron bridge that crossed a narrow river with shallow banks. Through the trees on the other side, North could see the forensics team moving about, dressed like spacemen. Harsh floodlighting cast elongated shadows as the team checked out the area. The place was called Vader Park, named after some obscure VR actor whose face eluded North.

"Male, aged forty," Macauley said. "Name's Jessica-Ann Smythe. Apparently he was cruising the park looking for company. A Police patrol saw him two hours ago. He tried to tempt both constables into the bushes but they turned him down. According to them Smythe had already had three liaisons with passers-by. He must have been saving it up for tonight, hmm?"

North nodded, accepting it all without comment. It didn't affect him any more. In this sprawling city whose population was three-quarters gay, boygirls like Smythe were the norm rather than the unusual.

"Why am I here?" he asked.

Macauley swallowed the last of his sandwich and licked his fingers before answering. "Why don't you come and see for yourself?"

North followed him across the bridge and past the flashing blue POLICE LINE beacons. The electrical barrier switched off for a moment, long enough for North and Macauley to step through. There was no one around but you never knew when sightseers might appear to ogle the corpse and tramp all over the crime scene. Chinese tourists were the worst, with their satellite-linked cameras which relayed everything they saw live to the news channels. They even had a retired Chief Inspector of New Beijing Police on hand to laugh at lamentable Western procedures. North didn't need any of that going on while he was trying to work.

He stopped in mid-step when he recognized Samantha Harley, the forensics team leader. They'd shared an apartment for six months before they got bored with each other. At least, that was what North kept telling himself. The bitter truth was, Harley had left him for some skinny girl in Uniform Division. As far as he knew they were still together.

Her smile, when she looked round and saw him, was genuine enough. "Peter, hello. How are you? They've got you working the graveyard shift now?"

"Not really," he said, aware of Macauley's leering smile. "They woke me up especially. Must have decided I'm the only policeman in the entire bloody city." He glanced at the bundle beneath the plastic sheet. "I assume that's the body?"

She nodded, and they went over to where the corpse lay. Crouching down, Harley lifted the sheet back.

Jessica-Ann Smythe was a knockout, a stunning redhead wearing a shimmering purple lame dress that showed off every curve and bump. The black-stockinged legs and the rocket red stilettos completed the vision of blatant transsexuality. Macauley gave a low whistle of appreciation, which brought another smile to Harley's lips. North still missed those lips. He crouched down beside Harley, careful not to brush against her. "Is the jewelry real?" he asked.

Harley nodded. "Yes, it's real, all right. Matching necklace, nose ring, ear rings and wristlets, designed by Kamaahl of Rio de Janeiro. Valuation is around one hundred and fifty thousand Adjusted Euros. Jessica-Ann was also carrying six hundred A-Ds in her—sorry, his—purse."

"So it wasn't a robbery," Macauley said. North slowly turned his head and looked up at him. Macauley shrugged and grinned. "Well, someone had to say it."

"It doesn't look like it," Harley agreed easily.

"What killed him?" North asked softly. The too-bright lights were giving him a headache. He should have thought to bring sunglasses along.

"Listen," Harley said.

He waited, but surprisingly she didn't say anything else.

"I asked you what killed him," he said, suddenly annoyed with her, and with Macauley, and especially with Morgan for not picking someone else for this middle-of-the-night wild goose chase.

Harley gave him a look that said, You haven't changed.

"I said, listen. Don't you hear it?"

He didn't, not at first, but then he perceived the faint sound. It put him in mind of pieces of broken glass being ground together. He looked around for source, confused.

"Where is it coming from?" he asked.

"Where do you think?" Harley indicated the corpse. "Miss Smythe died of a massive calcium deficiency. That's something you don't hear every day—at least, I don't. The removal of over ninety-seven percent of calcium hydroxyphosphate from his body has rendered all his bones super-brittle. Outwardly, you can't see the damage. But go beneath the skin and you'll find almost every bone broken, and in some cases shattered, just by the pressure of his own body weight. That's the grinding noise you're hearing. Technically speaking, Miss Smythe is a bag of jelly."

She stood up and unclipped her data plate from her belt. "Have a look, Inspector. It makes fascinating reading." She turned away to talk to her forensics people. North read the text, then switched to graphic mode and studied the chemical analysis. As always, Harley's work was meticulous. She'd been a doctor for nine years before switching to forensic pathology. It looked like she was right. Smythe was a perfectly healthy male specimen with superclean DNA, who might have been expected to live to one hundred and twenty. Or even longer if he could afford longevity treatment, which wouldn't have been a problem judging from his designer jewelry and the amount of loose change he carried in his purse.

The forensics people began packing their equipment. North stood up and gave Harley her plate back. "I'm sorry," he said. "I shouldn't have snapped at you."

Her smile returned as if it had never been away. "It's the middle of the night, you're entitled to be irritable. What do you make of it?"

"I don't know what to make of it. I can't very well argue with your analysis. But is that really what killed him?"

"There's nothing else I can detect that could have caused premature death. No marks on the body, no poisons in the bloodstream, no damaged internal organs. I don't think the autopsy analysis is going to reveal much else, but you never know."

North contemplated this for several seconds before he said, "When you say the removal of calcium hydroxyphosphate, what exactly do you mean?"

Harley pursed her lips thoughtfully. North wondered whether they performed the same miracles for the girl in Uniform Division as they used to do for him.

"Something like this just doesn't occur naturally, not this quickly, not all at once," she said. "There has to be an external cause. I've checked for traces of foreign chemicals, diotoxins, anything that would cause a breakdown on this scale—but there's nothing. Which is the point where forensic analysis stops and detective work begins, I think." She bent down and pulled the sheet up to cover the late Jessica-Ann Smythe's beautiful face. "She's all yours, Inspector."

§


The body was flown off to the City Morgue for full medical analysis before recycling. North and Macauley returned to River Tower, where they each occupied a viewer booth and got down to business. There were seventeen Police surveillance cameras in and around Vader Park, which gave them thirty-four hours of vid-chips to watch, since the deceased could have died any time during the two hours between trying to entice the police constables to have sex in the woods and being discovered dead. This was tedious detective work, but North accepted the necessity. There were times when human eyes were the best tools.

Three hours later, having fast-speeded five vid-chips and found nothing of interest, his eyes needed a rest. He wondered how Macauley was doing, but didn't want to ask. He sat back in his chair and idly glanced at the police report, which contained the name of the person who'd found the body. Police cameras had confirmed that Kirsti Monroe—nineteen years old, student, too young to engage in open sexual activities in public but old enough to get a kick from watching—had entered Vader Park, skirted around the trees, crossed the bridge and stopped as soon as she saw Smythe lying there. She hadn't gone near the body. Instead she'd located the nearest public vidphone and called it in.

Maybe she could shed some further light on the incident. He pasted her home number into his vidphone and selected the CALL button before it occurred to him that it was still the middle of the night. To his surprise the call was answered immediately. She was fully clothed and didn't appear to have been asleep. A large coffee mug filled her left hand.

"Yes, who is it?"

"Inspector North, calling from River Tower," he introduced himself. "I hope I'm not disturbing you, Miss Monroe?"

She shook her head. "Not at all. I just couldn't sleep, not after. . . . Well, you know. How can I help you, Inspector? That's why you're calling, isn't it?" She was talking so softly that North had to adjust the speaker volume control to maximum. He suspected she'd turned her own volume down because she didn't want anyone else in the house to hear his voice. Her personal file listed her as still living with her parents, an old-fashioned arrangement that was rare these days but certainly not unheard-of. Maybe she didn't want her parents to know she was a voyeur?

"I'd like to ask you who and what you saw on your way into Vader Park, Miss Monroe."

"Please, it's Kirsti," she said. "Every time you call me 'Miss Monroe' I feel like I'm a hundred-year-old spinster." She took a sip of coffee. The sky blue dinosaur painted on the mug was the same color and shade as her eyes. North found himself appraising her in what could only be termed an unprofessional manner. He chided himself for being a pervert—she was half his age. Well, almost. Ten years of difference, which meant that any kind of relationship would be illegal. He blamed it on fatigue.

"I remember there were two constables in a patrol car, near the park gates," she said. The same pair who'd seen Smythe, presumably. "An old man was out walking. He wasn't too steady on his legs. He had a dog with him."

"You mean a guide dog?"

"Of course. If it had been a real dog in a public park, I would have called the Police right away. It was talking to him, telling him watch his footing."

"Did you see anyone else?"

"I heard someone moving around in the trees near the fountain, near the park gates. They sounded like they were having a jolly time. I went over to look, but they shooed me away."

"Are you in the habit of watching other people copulate?"

She shrugged, not at all abashed. "There's no harm in it, is there? I don't think so, anyway. Last I heard, it's not illegal."

"What about near the bridge?"

"No, I didn't see anyone near the bridge. I admit I was nosing around, looking for some excitement. That's when I saw the body. Poor woman." She stared at her mug for a moment, a sadness in her eyes. "I hope you get whoever did it."

"The deceased's name was Jessica-Ann Smythe," North said. "You don't happen to know him, do you?"

"Him? Oh, I see. No, sorry, I'm sure I don't. None of my friends are into dressing up, and my parents and their friends aren't, either. My parents hold to the old values, Inspector. That's why I'd rather—"

"I have no need to involve them, Miss—sorry, Kirsti."

"Good. I wouldn't want them to know what I get up to."

Her blue eyes shifted and North knew she was glancing at Macauley, who'd just come into the booth behind him and would be visible to the camera lens.

"If you think of anything else, anything at all, will you please call me?" He sent his number through. She copied it to her wristwatch and nodded goodbye. North closed the connection and turned his chair around to face Macauley.

"Tell me you've found something," he said wearily.

Macauley nodded. "Oh, I've found something, all right. While you've been chatting up underage girls, I've been working my buttocks off. Do you want to come and take a look?"

North followed him through to the next room and sat down as Macauley replayed the section of vid-chip he'd been examining. North watched the miracle happen while Macauley sat on the edge of the table and chuckled.

"Told you I'd found something," he said. "You get the teas, I'll sign out a car. See you on the roof in five minutes?"

"Can't we just take the tube?"

"We're detective inspectors, remember? We always have to arrive in style." He was still chuckling when the door swung shut behind him.

§


Police pilots were made of stern stuff and didn't throw up no matter how many gees they had to pull. Unfortunately North wasn't cut from the same block of granite. He filled his empty tea cup all the way to the top, then filled Macauley's cup, too.

Dawn's early light had touched the distant horizon when they finally landed in Vader Park and the cockpit swung open. North headed for the river and emptied the cups, then threw them into a recycling bin before crouching down and wiping his fingers clean on the dew-soaked grass.

"You're a swine, Macauley, do you know that?"

Macauley locked the patrol car. "The old man went this way," he said, pointing along the path.

They set off past flower beds and bushes and trees, walking until they found the fountain Kirsti Monroe had mentioned. From here they could see the building they were looking for. It was one of the few constructions in the area still owned by the City instead of some corporate giant. They had various queer nicknames—funny farms, chicken coops, wrinkle bins—and their occupants bore similarly uncomplimentary nicknames like cottonheads, coffin dodgers and zimmer dimmers, to name but a few. Old people lived here, spending their reclining years in protective custody, being looked after by caring nurses who sent their charges across to the park to be exercised by robot guide dogs.

The same two police constables were still on duty, sitting in their patrol car by the park gates, the cockpit open. One appeared to be asleep in his seat, his helmet visor covering his eyes. His partner nudged him and they both sat up straight, pretending to be alert. North wasn't going to bother them, he knew how tough it could be having to watch the Police cameras all night. By the end of your shift your eyes were ready to fall out.

"Morning, Inspectors," the pilot said. His partner, the systems man, just nodded.

"Morning," Macauley said, leaning nonchalantly against the side of the vehicle. "Camera Echo Baker Five Six Three. Index time zero-one-two-seven."

The systems man set to work, punching up the named camera's records which now resided in Central's permanent database. He selected the correct time frame and fed the results to the main screen, which the pilot obligingly tilted so Macauley and North could also see the results.

An old man and his guide dog came out of Vader Park. The dog paused to look left and right, scanning for traffic, then barked a warning when its human stepped out onto the road before it gave the all-clear signal. At this time of night there was no ground traffic, but this wasn't what had attracted Macauley's attention when he'd watched the sequence. The stooped old man suddenly straightened and set off across the road like someone half his age. The guide dog had to break into a run to keep up with him. They both went up the wide rampway that led to the wrinkle bin—the old folks' home—opposite Vader Park.

"Do you remember seeing him last night?" Macauley asked.

Both constables shook their heads. "We weren't here all the time," the pilot said. "We circled the park once or twice, and there was a disturbance by Heathrow Spaceport—nothing serious, just some spacemen on shore leave letting off steam, but it took us off station for twenty minutes." He shrugged. "Anything could have happened then."

"All right. Thanks." Macauley moved away from the patrol car. North followed him, wanting to hear what was on his mind.

"We need help with this," Macauley said.

"Who?"

"Your friend Samantha."

"Harley? Why her?"

"Because she has all the right equipment—and I don't just mean her anatomy, which is impressive, incidentally." He looked at North. "Let me put it this way. If we go through channels and call in a medical team, and it turns out we're wrong, we're going to be scraping egg off our faces for the next six months. We'll be the laughing stocks in every Police station from here to the coast, and all the way down into the Atlantis colonies."

"Then you're thinking what I'm thinking?"

"Maybe. Why don't you call Samantha? Then we'll go and knock on the door. With luck, whoever's on duty will recognize the old man with the guide dog."

§


North moved away from Macauley and stood beneath one of the permanently flowering trees, looking across to the spot where Jessica-Ann Smythe had died. Reluctantly, he made the call.

"Yes, what is it, who's this?" the unexpected face that filled his wristwatch display demanded. North felt like he'd been punched in the stomach. He wasn't talking to Harley, he was talking to her lover, the girl from Uniform Division. What was her name? Huxbridge.

"I'm looking for Samantha Harley," he said.

"I'm her live-in, Moya Huxbridge. May I ask why you're disturbing us at five in the morning?"

"Police business."

Huxbridge swept her long blonde hair away from her face and peered suspiciously at her vidphone camera lens. "Who are you?"

"Inspector North, River Tower, requesting Doctor Samantha Harley."

She glared at him for long seconds, willing his head to explode, then she turned away from the lens. North caught a flash of naked back and buttock, and heard muted voices. Then Harley came into view, wearing a black towel dressing gown with a silver S sewn over her left breast.

"Peter, why are you calling me here?"

"Sorry," he said quickly, sensing her anger. "How quickly can you get to Vader Park with your equipment?"

Harley blinked. "What have you got?"

"Something we wouldn't want to appear in an official report until we're sure it's solid. I'm not trying to mess you about, honest. I'm in Vader Park now. Macauley's with me."

Huxbridge said something he couldn't make out. Whatever it was, it didn't sound too friendly. Harley spoke to her over her shoulder, her voice lowered. The harsh tone of Huxbridge's reply told him she wasn't pleased.

"Fifteen minutes," Harley said tersely, and she angrily stabbed the OFF button, closing the connection.

North returned to where Macauley stood waiting, his hands thrust into his coat pockets, still watching the old folks' home. North could see a sign beside the arched front entrance that read, Tranquility House.

"What did your girlfriend say?" Macauley asked.

"She said if you call her my girlfriend again, I'll knock your teeth out."

"Goodness, we're a little touchy, aren't we? Is she coming or not?"

"She's coming."

"I can't say I blame her for giving you the heave-ho. That Huxbridge is a good-looking girl."

North glared at him but Macauley made a drama out of picking a piece of food from between his teeth, studiously ignoring North while he engaged in this absorbing activity.

While they were waiting for Harley to arrive, North watched the park cleaners at work. They emerged from a slow-moving truck that stopped at the park gateway, and rolled across Vader Park with a single-minded robotic determination that he found fascinating. Some emptied the recycling bins, others swept the grass and paths for foreign matter. North found their smooth choreography almost therapeutic.

Leaving Macauley alone again, he wandered over to where one of the machines had stopped on the edge of a flower bed. The hybrid flowers, like the trees, were in a state of permanent bloom, which was possibly why the cleaner hesitated to intrude, it case it damaged the bed. North squatted down beside the machine. Its twin camera eyes, set wide apart so it could judge distance accurately, looked up at him questioningly.

"Police. I'll handle this," he said. The cleaner moved off like an obedient dog and continued working its pre-defined pattern, before returning to the slow-moving truck along with the other robots.

Macauley ambled over, overcome at last by curiosity.

"Something interesting?" he asked nonchalantly.

North saw Harley emerging from the tubeway exit outside the park. "We'll find out soon enough," he told Macauley. She hurried across the road and came in through the gates. North stood and waved to her. When she arrived she was red-faced and out of breath. He helped her take her heavy equipment pack off and put it down on the grass.

"Thanks for coming," he said.

"I'm telling you, Inspector North, this had better be good," she growled threateningly. In reply, he indicated the object the robot cleaner had found in the flower bed. Harley pulled a pair of transparent gloves out of her pocket and slipped them on, then extracted a long-necked probe from the top of her pack and used it to pick the object up.

"Do you know what it is?" he asked.

"Of course I do, I'm a doctor, remember? It's a ten-shot hypo-syringe. It's used to administer a variety of medications that must be taken regularly. Insulin, vitamins, AIDS blockers and the like." She turned the object around and peered at it closely. "There's a chalky residue."

"Aren't you going to dust it for fingerprints?" Macauley asked.

"Thanks, I never would have thought of that. How come you never applied for a job in Forensics, Inspector? We're always looking for clever people like you."

Macauley didn't reply. Maybe he wasn't used to someone answering him back. Ignoring both of them now, Harley bent over her pack, sprayed something onto the syringe, then dropped the plastic cylinder into a wide slot. Green lights winked on the pack's mini control panel. North had once heard a lecturer complain that technology took the thinking out of Police work, but there was nothing vacant about Harley's expression as she studied the pack's display. When the analysis results began scrolling into view her eyes widened and she swore softly.

"What is it?" North said, beating Macauley by a half-second.

She pointed at the display. "Influenza vaccine."

"Is that all?" He didn't bother telling her he was in no mood for jokes.

"That's what the syringe contained originally. Whoever decided to re-use it didn't do a very good job of sterilizing it. There are two different skin tissue samples on the injector nozzle." Her pack pinged. "They're on the Police database. I've got DNA matches for both of them."

"Keep this up," Macauley said, "and we'll all be tucked up and cozy in our beds before you know it." He winked at North behind Harley's back. "Some of us more cozy than others, of course," he added, just loud enough for Harley to hear.

"Who's the second match?" North asked, wishing Macauley would choke on his attitude.

Harley raised an eyebrow. "You're assuming the first is Miss Smythe?"

"Isn't it?"

"You take the fun out of everything. Yes, it's the deceased's DNA. The second DNA on the syringe belongs to a woman. Her name is Margot Fyfe." Harley had transferred the information to her plate and held it up for him to read. "Age one hundred and twelve, registered severely disabled. Just make sure we're there when you make the arrest. These old folks fight like trapped rats when they're cornered. You'll need all the help you can get."

North pressed his lips tight together and exhaled through his nose. "Damn. I was sure—" He looked at Macauley, who shrugged.

"You were sure it was what?" Harley demanded.

"The cameras caught an old man walking in Vader Park with a guide dog. An eye witness told me he wasn't too steady on his legs. When he left the park, he suddenly began walking like someone much younger and healthier."

Harley almost laughed, but not quite. "And you thought—?" She looked at Macauley, who shrugged and spread his hands as if to say, Don't look at me, this was his idea.

North's cheeks burned with embarrassment. "I thought the old man had discovered a way of stripping the calcium out of Smythe and injecting it into his own body," he said, talking to Harley while looking daggers at Macauley. "Isn't that what cripples old folks? Bone decay?"

Harley's smile faded. "In a general sense, yes. But what you're suggesting isn't possible. Not under these conditions."

"What's the chalky residue?"

"Just that, a residue."

"Thanks, that helps enormously."

"There are traces of calcium, but I really can't break it down any further."

Harley's wristwatch chose to give a soft musical chime at that moment. She turned away to answer the call and spoke in low tones so North couldn't hear. Huxbridge, he assumed. North sighed with frustration, then caught Macauley grinning again.

"What are you so happy about? This puts us back to square one. We haven't the faintest idea how Smythe died. We can't even say for sure whether he was murdered, or whether he died of natural causes."

"Natural causes?" Macauley said. He pointed his chin at Harley. "Maybe your girlfriend has put a stake into your bone vampire theory—"

"My bone vampire theory?"

"—But something killed Smythe, and we still have to find out what that something is. It's back to watching vid-chips for us, Laddie." He smiled. "Superintendent Morgan is going to be very disappointed with you come morning."

"With a partner like you, Macauley, who needs enemies?"

Harley had terminated her call. She closed her pack, hefted it and slung it over her shoulder. "Well, thanks for the early morning exercise. Maybe we can do this again sometime." Her tone said otherwise.

"Sorry, Harley," North said, feeling the need to apologies again. "I thought we were on to something."

But she was already moving toward the park gates, ignoring him. He cursed under his breath and turned to go back to their patrol car, but Macauley remained where he was, hands still thrust into his coat pockets, looking across at Tranquility House.

"What's the hold-up?" North demanded.

"We're here anyway," Macauley said. "Let's knock on the door and see who answers?"

"Harley said we're wasting our time."

"You weren't listening, Laddie. She said the bone stuff was impossible under these conditions." Harley had already passed through the gates and was jogging toward the tubeway, working off her anger. "Which suggests to me that it might be possible under other conditions. Maybe she meant a laboratory."

"So you haven't dismissed the theory completely?"

"Did I say I had? Come on, Laddie, the night's not over yet."

§


Their IDs got them in to see the home's nursing sister, who took them into her office and closed the door so as not to disturb anyone. She invited them to take a seat. North explained why they were here and asked whether anyone in Tranquility House might have seen anything unusual in Vader Park? Sister Bernice O'Hanlon told him she hadn't seen anything herself, and the sleeping residents were unlikely to have been looking out of the windows in the middle of the night.

"Police cameras picked up an elderly gentleman walking in the park a short time before the deceased was found," North said. "He had a guide dog with him."

Sister O'Hanlon shook her head, causing her curly red hair to jiggle. She was perhaps forty or forty-five, heavy yet still very shapely, the kind of mature woman North had fantasized over in his early teens. Her name and appearance suggested Irish ancestry but her accent was clipped New England. Like Kirsti Monroe, Bernice O'Hanlon lay outwith his legal relationship boundaries because of her age.

"That's very unlikely. We are not in the habit of sending our residents outside in the middle of the night."

"Is there any way you could check, Sister?"

"I can't see any point—"

"We really would appreciate your making the effort."

She made a fuss of it, punching her desk touchpad hard and squinting at the displayed results, then sighing heavily before performing another query. North studied the diplomas hanging on the wall behind her chair, and a painting of a yacht in mid-bay, its rainbow-striped sail at full spread, taking it ahead of the other yachts that were following. He wished he was there instead of here—at least it would take him further away from Samantha Harley.

"One of our residents left Tranquility House at five o'clock yesterday evening," Sister O'Hanlon said, just as his patience was fraying. "Mrs. Rubenstein was taken out by an assistant nurse and they returned at six-twenty. Mrs. Rubenstein requires a wheelchair at all times. The assistant nurse did not leave her unattended."

"The time we're interested in is between midnight and two in the morning," he said, trying to keep the irritation from his voice. "We're sure someone from Tranquility House was over in the park then, being walked by a guide dog. They were seen coming back here."

"I came on duty at ten last night," she said. "The doors were locked then. There are only two keys. I have one and the other is in the safe, which can only be opened by two other trusted staff members who are not on duty tonight. The safe will only open automatically if there is a safety alert, such as a fire alarm. There have been no such alerts."

"You're saying that none of your residents could have left the building?"

Sister O'Hanlon nodded. "That is exactly what I'm saying, Inspector. I'm sorry, but you must be mistaken. No one could have left the building, and no one could have entered either, without my knowing about it. They would need my key, you see." She lifted the chain around her neck and showed the key to him, proving she still had it in her possession, and also proving that it would be difficult to get hold of unless Sister O'Hanlon were unconscious.

Remembering the front door, a heavy synthetic wood affair with mock iron hinges and a double security lock, North seriously doubted whether it could be forced open by anyone who didn't possess the key.

"There's a doggie door, isn't there?" Macauley said. He'd been so quiet that North had almost forgotten he was there, which was not an easy thing to do.

Sister O'Hanlon looked at him. "There is an access hatch which allows our guide dogs to come and go as required, yes."

North tried to imagine why guide dogs would be sent out alone. The answer struck him a second later. "They retrieve patients from Vader Park?"

"Why, yes." She appeared surprised by the question. "Of course. Sometimes our residents need help in finding their way back. We haven't enough staff, so we employ the guide dogs. It's standard procedure."

"What if the person falls and is injured?"

"Don't be absurd, Inspector. In such rare instances the guide dog will transmit an emergency signal and paramedics will attend immediately. We have a contract with one of the best ambulance services in Great London. Their response times are a matter of public record."

Macauley leaned forward in his chair. "We're not here to question your procedures. The fact is, a Police camera saw a man leaving Vader Park. He crossed the road, with a guide dog, and walked up the ramp to your front entrance."

Sister O'Hanlon pursed her lips thoughtfully. "I imagine you wouldn't be here unless that were true," she said. "But I still find it very hard to accept anyone could have entered the building at that time." She glanced from Macauley to North and back again. "Did your camera actually see him enter Tranquility House?"

After a long pause, Macauley said, "No. The trees lining the front of the building blocked the camera's view at that point. We didn't see him open the door and come inside. But there's nowhere else he could have gone."

"Then I am at a loss to explain. As I said, there are only two keys, and I know where both are."

"Can you open the safe and show us the second key?" North asked.

Sighing again, Sister O'Hanlon rose from her chair. She passed her hand across the painting of the yacht, which rolled aside to reveal a polished square hatch. She pressed her hand against a sensor square and punched a code into an old-fashioned numerical keypad, shifting position so they couldn't see the numbers. The safe hatch popped open.

"See for yourself," she said.

North and Macauley looked. The second key was there, a twin of the one Sister O'Hanlon wore around her neck.

"Sorry to be a pain, but do you have a bathroom I could use?" Macauley asked. He looked apologetic and uncomfortable.

"Outside and turn left. The bathroom is two doors down."

"Thanks. Perhaps while I'm gone you can show my colleague a list of all your male residents over five feet six inches in height. The man we caught on camera was quite tall."

Before she could reply, Macauley had opened the door and exited.

"I really don't see why such information would be useful to you," Sister O'Hanlon said to North. "We've already established that none of our residents was outside at any time during the night."

"Do you have monitors in every resident's room?"

"We'd lose our license if we didn't," she said flatly.

"Then I'd appreciate seeing the list my partner asked for, and I'd also appreciate your checking the room monitor of each resident as you go through the list."

"Heavens, you're not suggesting one of our residents might have been accidentally left outside? We check them every fifteen minutes, and sometimes even more frequently. Every bed is occupied, I can assure you. This is a complete waste of time. I have far more important work to do."

North silently cursed Macauley for dumping this on him while skipping out to the toilet. "I hope you can see the necessity, Sister. I'm more than willing to take your word for it, but we either do this now, or your employer will receive a cooperation request from River Tower within the hour."

She sat down at her desk again and punched her touchpad even harder than before. Her display cleared, then showed four neat columns of names with associated room numbers plus seemingly random strings of letters, which North assumed meant something to Sister O'Hanlon and the staff of Tranquility House.

"I'm setting up a command subset," she told him. "It will cycle through all the names on the list. You'll see I've sorted our residents by height. As the subset runs you'll receive a five-second feed from each room monitor, allowing you to check the residents are where they should be."

"Thank you."

"Don't mention it," she said through clenched teeth. She got up and gave him her chair. North sat down just as the loop began. Arnold Sternhaser, one hundred and eighteen years old, height six feet seven inches, Room 132 West, asleep and passing into dream cycle, bladder full, nurse flagged to attend. Martin Sanka, one hundred and three years old, height six feet six inches, Room 178 West, asleep (delta), bladder full, nurse flagged to attend. John Chisolm, one hundred years old, height also six feet six inches... nurse flagged to attend. Faceless bundles beneath heavy blankets, constantly scanned by their beds, the information relayed to the duty operator in the control room.

"How many nurses are working right now?" North asked, not taking his gaze from the display.

"Six, including myself. We have two hundred and twenty residents at the moment. Every room is occupied."

"You must be run off your feet."

"Exactly so. We don't even have the opportunity to go to the little girl's room—we all wear urine bags instead. It's much more efficient. You ought to try it."

North felt suitably sheepish. "I should be apologizing for taking up so much of your time, Sister."

Macauley opened the door and came in. "Everything okay?" he asked casually.

"I'm checking through the list now," North replied.

"Good. We'll need to take a copy with us."

"The information in our database is confidential," Sister O'Hanlon said.

"I applied for a data warrant while I was in the bathroom. It's been approved. If you check your mail, you'll see a copy. Don't worry, Inspector North knows how to download your data without breaking anything. At least I think he does."

North kept his anger in check as he transferred the database to his plate, while continuing to watch the room monitor feeds. There were forty-six male residents over five feet six inches in height. The command subset expired in just under four minutes. He got up and nodded his thanks to Sister O'Hanlon. She'd been right, they were all safely tucked up in bed—which didn't exactly make things any easier. They were still looking for a nameless unknown who'd apparently returned to Tranquility House, but couldn't have got inside because the door was locked. And everyone who matched his height was accounted for.

Sister O'Hanlon showed them out and bade them a frosty good morning before closing and locking the door behind them. It was morning in the truest sense now; the sky was light pink turning to blue and a thin black line angling upward into the distant horizon marked the departure of the early transAtlantic stratoshuttle from Gatwick Hub.

North felt defeated. They were no nearer to suggesting how or why Jessica-Ann Smythe had died.

"Let's get some breakfast," Macauley suggested.

"All right. Do you have somewhere special in mind?"

"Any place that has a bathroom will suit me perfectly. My bladder's fit to burst."

"I thought you just went?"

"I got distracted."

§


The cafe was two streets away from Vader Park, on the corner of a busy intersection that linked to the English Channel Bridge. Traffic was light, just the occasional Europe-bound truck and family cruisers heading out of the country for the weekend before the roads got busy. The tinted cafe windows deadened the noise from outside.

They punched their orders into the table waitress after Macauley returned from the toilet. North selected coffee and a hot bagel. Macauley chose for a Double-B with extra eggs and bacon and a Big Bucket of Fries. North's arteries hardened at the very thought.

"What did you think about the nurse?" Macauley asked while they waited.

"I don't think she was lying, if that's what you mean."

"No, I was talking about that oversized bottom of hers. I'll bet her chair was nice and hot when you sat down."

"You're a sick man, Macauley."

"It's been said before. Let me see the list of patients."

North slid his plate across the table. Macauley scrolled up and down the list, his expression showing his disinterest. What was there to see? They'd have to go back to the vid-chips and try to guess where the man with the guide dog had gone. He'd pulled a clever vanishing act, leaving North and Macauley with absolutely nothing.

"You pulled the entire database," Macauley said, surprised.

North shrugged. "Force of habit."

A human waitress brought their trays, unloaded them onto the table and wished them bon appetit. North sipped his coffee and nibbled his bagel, while trying not to watch Macauley stuff all his breakfast into his mouth at the same time. Macauley wiped up the remaining yoke with a handful of fries, closing his eyes and savoring the moment when he scooped the mess into his mouth. He washed his stomach-destroying breakfast down with several cups of tea, then ordered a refill. The human waitress brought a new pot over. She looked at North's empty cup questioningly but he shook his head, no.

Macauley gave North back his plate. He'd managed to get some egg on it. "I've marked a couple of entries," he said. "You might find them interesting. Oh, and you might want to take a look at this, too." He pushed a vid-chip across the table.

North used his napkin to wipe off the egg, then read the index and saw the red flags. He punched them up and studied the entries with a growing sense of disbelief. Then he inserted the vid-chip into the slot, only it wasn't a vid-chip, it was a data drive, which shared the same universal format. When he looked up, Macauley was grinning again.

"Let me finish my coffee, Laddie, and we'll go back and try again. Why don't you give your girlfriend another call? That should be fun."

"Harley? You're not serious. What makes you think she'll even talk to me?"

"If you have to ask, maybe you don't know her as well as you think you do." He turned and stared out the window, watching the traffic go by while he drank his tea. North sat in silence, grinding his teeth, wondering when Macauley had become such an expert on women.

Then he gave up and made the call.

§


Harley had answered her vid-phone this time, but hadn't said anything. She'd just listened while North explained what was on the Tranquility House database, then closed the connection without a word.

"She'll come," Macauley had said. North wasn't as certain, but they waited at the entrance to Vader Park. People were already out walking, not really doing anything except enjoying the scenery before going to work.

Harley came bounding up out of the tubeway, no less angry than before. She looked around and saw them. North swallowed hard as she approached. She was wearing sunglasses that hid her eyes, but her lips formed a tight line, telling him exactly what she thought about him.

"Here," she said, unslinging her pack and handing it to North. "You can carry this." He took it without protest.

"Shall we go?" Macauley said, obviously enjoying himself.

They climbed the wheelchair-friendly ramp and North pressed the door buzzer. The vidphone screen lit up and Sister Bernice O'Hanlon stared at him, surprised.

"Inspector North. What do you want?"

"We need to speak with you again, Sister."

"I'm very busy. We're getting ready for breakfast."

He could only imagine what it must be like trying to feed two hundred and twenty people, but this wouldn't wait.

"Please, Sister," he said.

Macauley leaned forward. "Open the door now, or you'll be arrested for obstructing a murder investigation."

The door clicked open. They went inside and along the corridor, passing by an empty staff room with a coffee waitress and magazines on a table, then a room containing racks of guide dogs on recharge. Sister O'Hanlon was waiting for them outside her office, looking none too happy.

"This had better be good," she said, glancing uncertainly at Harley.

"Where's Kirsti Monroe?" North asked.

"Kirsti? Why, she's. . . ." Sister O'Hanlon's eyes widened. "Why do you want to know?"

"Answer Inspector North's question," Macauley said, his tone leaving no room for argument.

"Nurse Monroe is in the East Ward, attending to her residents. She only started work half an hour ago."

"Take us there, please," North said.

"I wish you would tell me—"

"What Inspector North means, Sister, is take us there now, not sometime tomorrow," Macauley said. "Tempus fugits, as the Romans once said."

Sister O'Hanlon blinked, confused, then turned and led the way. They passed along a wide corridor with numbered doors to left and right. Some of the doors were open. They glimpsed elderly residents being washed and dressed by nurses. In one room an old man perched on the edge of his bed while a guide dog sat at his feet; it wagged its tail like a real dog while the old man spoke to it gently, as if it were a pet.

"There's something to look forward to," Macauley said quietly.

They turned into another corridor just as Kirsti Monroe stepped out of one of the rooms. She and North recognized each other at the same time. Emotions washed across her face, surprise turning to realization in the space of a heartbeat.

Macauley had her cuffed with her hands behind her back before she could even think of running. "Your rights are herewith suspended," he told her. "You are under Police arrest until such time as a Judge restores your rights."

North and Harley found Room 14 East further along the corridor. The small, frail-looking woman occupying the bed was awake and her gleaming, suspicious eyes said she was more than aware.

"Margot, this is—" Sister O'Hanlon began, but North stepped past her.

"I'm Inspector North, River Tower," he said. "This is Doctor Samantha Harley. She's going to take some samples for analysis, Mrs. Fyfe. You won't feel a thing."

"I refuse permission, and will not say anything without my lawyer being present."

North and Harley looked at each other.

"Sorry, Mrs. Fyfe, you're a little out of touch," he said, trying not to smile. "Fifty years out of touch, to be precise. In a Police investigation, you are required by law to cooperate fully and in any manner so directed by the authorities."

He put Harley's pack down beside the bed, and looked up in time to see the punch coming. Fyfe would have brained him if he hadn't jerked his head to one side so her tiny fist glanced off his jaw instead of shattering his temple. He staggered back, raising his hands to defend himself as she threw the blankets aside and jumped up, moving with a fluid grace that defied her years. Registered disabled, Harley had said. Margot Fyfe leapt into the air, cocking her leg beneath her twisting body, and North knew that when her foot flashed forward it would bring down the curtains.

Macauley's shot from the doorway came as a complete but welcome surprise. The heavy bullet thundered past North's head, changing shape in mid-flight so it was half a meter wide and thinner than a sheet of paper when it struck her, slapping her back down onto the bed. Fyfe lay on her back, stunned and unmoving, her eyelids fluttering. The bullet had accumulated 50,000 volts en route to its target.

"Jesus, Peter, are you all right?" Harley asked, moving in to steady him, while Macauley shifted position to cover the old woman who'd come within a hair's-breadth of killing him.

"T'ink m'jaw's broke," he managed to say through the pain. Harley swung around and thumbed her pack open, extracted a syringe, touched it against his jaw and thumbed the trigger. It dulled the pain instantly, though his jaw still felt like it was the size of a large melon.

Macauley cuffed Margot Fyfe, securing the cuffs to the bed frame with a locking ring. He checked for a pulse and nodded, confirming she was still alive and breathing. Then, while Harley fussed over North, he went around the room, opening cupboards and drawers, searching for. . . .

Man's clothing. Padded, of course, the back and shoulders cleverly shaped. The shoes were high platforms with ankle braces like stilts. The combination would have made Margot Fyfe appear taller, heavier; they would have transformed her into the old man Kirsti Monroe had reported seeing in Vader Park, the old man who'd appeared on the cameras. Was there irony in the fact Jessica-Ann Smythe had dressed like a woman, and Margot Fyfe had dressed like a man to murder him? No, North concluded, just a strange kind of sadness.

Harley guided him to a chair and made him sit down. "Do you still want me to take the samples?" she asked.

"They can wait," he replied, surprised he could still talk. His words sounded slurred, inhuman. "Fix me up first."

"Fix you up? I'm a forensic pathologist, remember? I only had that syringe in my pack because I got a sore shoulder from carrying it the last time. Luckily for you." She looked at Macauley, who was holding up the padded jacket Margot Fyfe had worn last night when she'd left Tranquility House, went across to Vader Park and murdered Smythe. "That answers the who," she said. "But not the how, or the why."

North didn't have all the answers—not yet, anyway. "Macauley will tell you," he said, shifting the responsibility squarely onto his partner's shoulders.

Macauley chuckled. "I wouldn't want to spoil anything," he said. He put down the jacket, went out into the corridor and spoke with Sister O'Hanlon, who was still visibly shocked by what had happened.

"Damn you, Peter, you have to tell me. How did you know?" She'd taken a portable X-ray scanner from her pack and now held it to his face, ignoring him as he flinched away.

"Too sore to talk," he said.

"It shouldn't be. It's only bruised, not broken."

"Oh."

"You said this place was sealed tight as a drum at night. How did she manage to get out?" Harley jerked her thumb at Margot Fyfe, who still lay unmoving on the bed.

"The doggie door."

"What?"

"Look at her. She must weigh less than eighty pounds. She's small enough to have squeezed through the doggie door. After she took her padded clothes off, of course."

"Clever. You figured that out all by yourself?"

"No, Macauley did," he replied, knowing it was the truth. Macauley had asked Sister O'Hanlon about the door the guide dogs used. He'd been on the right track all along, while North was still clueless and looking around for signposts. And while North was talking with Sister O'Hanlon, Macauley had gone into the room where the guide dogs were left to recharge and checked their data drives. He'd found the one that had been outside with Margot Fyfe and confirmed the path they'd taken around Vader Park—and also that the guide dog had been trying to convince Fyfe to return to Tranquility House, not encourage her to go for a late-night walk. But the dog couldn't furnish any information on how the deceased had died.

"Who's the nurse Macauley cuffed?" Harley asked.

"Kirsti Monroe. She found Smythe's body. It still hurts like hell."

Harley applied two more hits from the syringe, numbing the side of his face. He nodded his thanks.

"Is she involved?"

"I'm betting Margot Fyfe paid her to provide the padded clothing and platform shoes. It's unlikely she could have made them herself in here."

"Does that mean Monroe is an accomplice to murder?"

"I really don't know. That's for a Judge to decide." He didn't think the charge would stick. All Kirsti Monroe had done was bring Margot Fyfe some unusual clothing. When she'd told North she'd seen the old man with the guide dog in Vader Park, had she known who it was? Possibly. But there was no way of telling whether or not she knew Margot Fyfe had murdered Jessica-Ann Smythe.

Harley's wristwatch chimed. She said, "Excuse me," and went out into the corridor to take the call. He watched her, his gaze following the line of her back, down over the curve of her well-defined buttocks and onto her shapely legs. She shook her head several times and spoke in whispers, plainly not wanting anyone to hear, although it was obvious she was arguing with someone. Huxbridge? It went on for a while, then Harley's shoulders slumped and she terminated the call.

North didn't ask and she didn't volunteer any information. Macauley followed her in. "Central is sending a unit to pick them up," he told North. "When she wakes up, Mrs. Fyfe may not find her surroundings quite so pleasant. Not to mention the permanent cuffs she'll have to wear. How long has it been since martial arts were outlawed? I thought all those psychopaths would be dead and buried by now." He shook his head. "Oh, bad news about your friend Miss Monroe, by the way. The Judge restored her rights. Insufficient evidence of knowledge or involvement."

"I thought so," North said. "You've released her?"

"Didn't have a choice, Laddie. So, how did she do it?" He indicated Margot Fyfe with a nod.

"I'm about to try to find out," Harley said.

"Hurry it up, will you? We're dying to know." He looked at North. "How's the jaw, Laddie?"

"Sore."

"It's not broken," Harley said. "He's just being a baby." She pulled her pack's hinged doors open and began connecting up her gear. Her pack was a miniature standalone laboratory, equipped with the latest analysis tools. The bad old days of scalpels and bonesaws were long gone, and good riddance. One of his lecturers at the academy had complained about technology taking the thinking out of Police work. Perhaps he was right, but it had also taken the blood and guts out of it, too.

"I'm not being a baby," he said. "It's bloody painful."

"How hard can a little old lady punch?" Macauley wondered aloud. Harley smiled, while North ignored the question with the contempt it deserved.

Harley slipped a tube over Margot Fyfe's forefinger and hooked it up to her pack, then began adjusting the controls on her panel.

"Why her finger, why not a spinal probe?" Macauley asked.

"Because she's not dead," Harley replied without any change of expression, and without taking her eyes off the display. "I always like my subjects to be dead before I start bombarding their spinal cords with radiation." She frowned, then tapped the control panel. "Something's wrong here. Readings are too low." She looked around the room. "I've isolated the bed monitors, so that can't be what's causing the interference. Can you look around for anything else that might be generating an electromagnetic field?"

Macauley began opening the cupboards he hadn't checked yet, while North, for no good reason, bent forward and looked under the chair he was sitting on. "Harley?"

She came over and bent down to examine the object, removing and opening the canvas bag surrounding it.

"What is that?" North asked, standing up.

"It's exactly what it appears to be." She knelt down on the floor and pulled the thing forward so they could see it. "It's a field medical pack, the kind used by paramedics. If I'd known it was in the room with us I could have isolated it, but I didn't." She popped the pack's doors open.

"It's not something they'd use here?" North asked.

"No, they have trolley-mounted equipment here instead of the streamlined portables. Oh, my." She sat back on her haunches, studying the medical pack's innards with a professional eye.

"What is it?"

"The contents have been substantially modified. For example, that's not a stomach pump, it's a skin-graft kit. And that's not a cellular probe, it's an accelerator."

Macauley said, "Should we care?"

"Yes, we should," North said. "You're looking at the tools that were used to extract calcium hydroxyphosphate from the deceased and reconstitute it in Margot Fyfe's body. Harley, that syringe we found in Vader Park? It contained influenza vaccine, you said?"

"Yes."

"One of the broad-spectrum types?"

She blinked in surprise, then nodded in understanding. "Damn it all, I need my head examined. I'm sorry, Peter, I should have made the connection."

"You've been up most of the night. No apology needed."

"Would anyone care to let me in on the secret?" Macauley said, sitting down on the edge of the bed and waiting.

North nodded. "The influenza vaccine is one of the newer types, designed to combat all strains. It's such a potent soup that it's delivered along with an anesthetic, so as to avoid patient discomfort. Several shots delivered one after the other would act as a tranquilizer. Enough of those would knock out an elephant." He saw how it must have been. Fyfe had rendered Smythe unconscious with the syringe and then set to work with the modified medical pack. Perhaps, during the horrifying process, Smythe had begun to recover, requiring Fyfe to administer more influenza vaccine shots? That would explain the chalky residue found on the syringe, evidence that the calcium hydroxyphosphate in Smythe's body had begun to break down. "My guess is that skin kit was used to conceal any puncture wounds inflicted during the assault. Why don't you make yourself useful? Go and arrest Kirsti Monroe again. Suspend her rights, and tell her she's going to prison with Margot Fyfe for the murder of Jessica-Ann Smythe."

Macauley got up again. "If you say so. Are you sure it'll stick this time?"

"Supplying outsize clothes to a resident is one thing, but illegally supplying a registered field medical pack which has been used to murder a person is something else entirely. While you're at it, ask Sister O'Hanlon whether Nurse Monroe has a boyfriend who's a paramedic. If she talked him into letting her borrow this pack then he's in trouble, too."

"Sounds like you're on a roll, Laddie. Anything else?"

"Yes. Call River Tower and tell them to send a ground car to pick me up. I'm damned if I'm going to allow you to fly me back there."

"Forget the ground car," Harley said. "Traffic will be too heavy by now. The tubeway is a lot safer." She deactivated the field medical pack, returned to her own, and ran the tests on Margot Fyfe. None of them were surprised by the results.

§


Superintendent Morgan called and congratulated North on the fast result, then gave him the rest of the day off. "Make sure you get someone to look at that jaw of yours," he said just before he cut the connection. Evidently he'd already received a full report from Macauley, a fact which irked North more than somewhat. Partners were supposed to work together, and that included submitting case reports.

A second call came through on North's wristwatch moments later, from Thames Valley Legal Office. The sysop confirmed that convictions had been obtained for both Margot Fyfe and Kirsti Monroe, and requested North's closing remarks. It took North a few moments to realize that Macauley must have put him down as the arresting officer.

"We don't know if Monroe knew the medical pack would be used to commit a murder," he said. "She may have been an innocent party in this respect." The court sysop agreed and reduced sentence by 15 years. But Kirsti Monroe would still be confined for thirty months. Most of that time would be spent in solitary with only a Talking Bible for company.

"Anything to add to Margot Fyfe's file?" the sysop asked.

"No. Let the punishment fit the crime."

"Understood and recorded. Have a nice day, Inspector."

North sat back in the tube car, finally allowing himself to relax. Harley, sitting opposite him, smiled.

"It turned out well," she said.

"Better than I'd expected," he admitted. He glanced up at the tube car's location display. "It's your stop next."

She nodded thoughtfully, and at that moment the tube car began to slow to a gradual and effortless halt. The doors opened and some passengers further along the car got out.

"The least I can do is carry your pack for you," he said.

"Yeah, you're right. Make yourself useful, Laddie." She grinned, got out and climbed out. He followed her, the heavy pack over his shoulder. They went up the steps and into her building. The mock antique elevator took them up to the 151st floor without a sound, riding on an invisible magnetic field. Neither of them broke the silence.

She unlocked the door of her apartment and went inside, not inviting him to come in, but not denying him, either. He lugged the pack over into a corner and put it down beside a giant rubber plant.

"Huxbridge isn't here, is she?" he asked, as Harley went through into the kitchen and started making coffee.

"No, she isn't."

"How are things between the two of you?"

"Bad."

"Nothing I did, I hope?"

"No, it's something I did. When I came home last night and we made whoopee, I called out your name. Or at least she says I did. I thought I shouted 'Moya' but she heard it as 'Peter.' The names don't sound the same to me no matter what way I try to pronounce them. Maybe she was just looking for an excuse." To his surprise, tears were running down her face. She wiped them away with the back of her hand. "Them's the breaks, huh?" The kettle began to hiss.

"Did she move out?"

"Yes. In five minutes she had everything packed and ready to go. She didn't even say goodbye. I think she did that deliberately, just to hurt me."

"I'm sorry, Harley."

"Don't be, it's not your fault. You probably never liked her anyway, did you?"

"No, but I like you. Does that help any?"

She smiled. "Thanks. Listen, thanks for carrying my pack up. My shoulder's still killing me."

"Don't mention it. It made me feel useful for a second."

His wristwatch beeped again.

"Don't answer it," she said, but he'd already raised his forearm and touched the receive stud.

Macauley's distorted face grinned at him from the oval display. "Did you get a call from the Legal Office?"

"Yes. Everything's approved."

"Good result, eh? It'll look good on your arrest record."

North shook his head. "Why my record, Macauley? Why not ours? Or yours, since you were the one who put two and two together with the dog."

Harley was listening while pretending to make tea.

"What the hell," Macauley said, "my arrest record goes up one arm and down the other. The sysops keep complaining they can't fit any more commendation data into my file. You take this one. We'll split the rest down the middle, hey?"

North returned his grin. "It's a deal," he said.

"Something else you might want to know. I got a call from our lab boys. That's a very interesting box of tricks the Fyfe woman had put together. It turns out she used to be a research chemist with one of the big corporations, which dismissed her because of her age when she turned ninety. Word gets around fast—a couple of universities are already asking for details of the calcium transfer process. The Legal Office is trying to decide if Margot Fyfe owns it or whether it's public domain now. It's out of our hands, but who knows, maybe the old folks will get something out of this. Wouldn't that be something?"

"Yes, it would. I'll talk to you later, Macauley."

"All right. Oh, there's just one more thing, Laddie." His face swelled slightly as he leaned closer to his own wristwatch so he could shout, "GIVE HER ONE FOR ME, WILL YOU?" He broke the connection. North's wristwatch display changed back to a clock face and he looked up at Harley, embarrassed. But she was grinning from ear to ear.

"Is it my imagination, or are you and Macauley getting on okay now?" she asked.

"It seems that way. But I think that's my cue to leave."

She shook her head. "You've got today off, haven't you? You can spend it with me, I'm feeling lonely and unloved."

"What about the tea?" he said.

"Bugger the tea."

They went through to the bedroom, laughing, and didn't even stop to change the sheets.

The End

Published by SDO DETECTIVE Issue #1, April 2003
Mark Anthony Brennan, Fiction Editor
Fiction by: Megan Powell, Stephen D. Rogers, Shawn Madison, Derek Paterson

1 comment:

elarasophia said...

This one's brilliant, one of your best, I reckon. Smooth, fast-paced, great stuff.