Eric gained his compusure after Li finished the story of his sensor peeling itself off his body and moving of its own accord across the room, folding itself, and releasing control of his body back to him. He shuddered.
“Li. You know I hate those things, right?” he said.
Li giggled then said, “No shit, Sherlock. This doesnt help, right?”
Eric nodded. He remained silent, opened his mouth to speak a couple of times then shut it again. Finally he spoke, “You dont know the half of it Li. I have secrets. Big ones. I dont know who to trust, so I never trusted anyone. When I stop to think about it, it eats me alive from the inside out. You can live with secrets like these!”
Li’s giggles and smiles faded and her voice took on a serious tone, “Who on this ship doesnt have secrets? If we didnt we wouldnt have signed up for the decade of indentured service on the frontier with no-one but the five others on board ship for company. After what I saw today, I wonder if there are more on board than we thought. What if we have other _passengers_ along for the ride? Six of us, six sensor-nets, James in isolation … a full coven if you’re into that sort of mysticism. Covens never work in the light do they? Sky-clad at mignight somewhere in the isolated reaches of a planet … ” her voice trailed off.
Eric gave her space before speaking, “I dont know about covens. I know that there’s something seriously messed up going on here. Where is our freedom if those _things_ are running the show? What about the Captain? I know one thing: I’m never wearing one again!”
Li moved away from him and started packing her kit bag. Over her shoulder she said, “The reason I blundered into your quarters earlier was that I was deep in thought. I need you to fly the shuttle for me, we’re going _inside_.”
“You have the Captain’s approval?” Eric asked.
“Yes. I need a pilot, so it’s either you or Shawna. I dont know what I will run into so your experience with combat will be more useful than genetics and biology. Anyhow, she wanted to test the specimins we collected.”
Eric stood and moved closer to Li, “I would be happy to join you. Protecting you comes naturally, I’d have been offended if you’d _not_ asked me along. I’ll go prep the shuttle for takeoff, and Li?”
Li stopped packing and turned to him, “Yes?”
“Whatever you do, _do not_ bring your sensor-net.”
Li returned to her lab carrying her kit bag. Shawna was going to get her fifteen minutes of fame, her time in the limelight. She would milk it for what she could get, Li knew that, and the process would be bad for the rest of the crew. If Shawna didnt feel like she was advancing, she would find ways to undermine the others so her own prgress stood out form among the group regardless. Li sighed.
An error on the computer screen grabbed her attention immediately and with a frightenned wimper she dropped the kit-bag and raced for the console. The VR matrix was losing integrity. James was rejeting the programming. Her fingers danced across the console but the VR matrix integrity had been falling for some time in an accelerating downward spiral. What had started it? Sabotage? She dug into the log files from the data-mining activity for answers, alternating between scenes in James life as pointers were raised in the log.
James woke up with his head leaning against the bookshelf next to the toilet, eyes looking directly at his wife’s jounal. His pants were around his ankles and as he moved a leg, he found that his thighs were stuck to the toilet seat from sitting there for too long. He glanced down. Had he wiped before going to sleep on the pot, or had he gone to sleep thinking he’d get tot he paperwork later on? To make sure, he wiped anyhow. With a world weary sigh he got up and wished that he hadnt. Blood rushed to feet that had been starved for too long and they prickled horribly. He hopped from one foot to the other hoping it ouwld help the pins and needles feeling. He stamped out of the bathroom to his bedroom then back. Finally his feet seemed to belong to him again.
Looking in the mirror he ran fingertips across his chin. Yes, a shave was needed so he pulled the soap, shaving brush and straight-edge razor from the cabinet under the sink and went to work.
Li almost cheered. “So, that’s where you keep it!” she said to James. Again, she was glad that there was no answer but the spiralling count-down on the display showed that she didnt have a lot of time until he could answer her question.
“Well, well, Detective McMannus!” the police constable on duty said as James entered through a “staff only” entrance.
“Is he in?” James asked.
“Who, Chief Inspector? Yes, but he’s in a closed meeting, some _toff_ from the housing authority. I’m sure if you wait he’ll see you though.”
James nodded, “Thanks.” He walked the familiar hallways, occasionally saying ‘hello’ to a passing co-worker, but mostly keeping himself to himself and his head down. He’d not been in the office to work for months. There would be questions for sure. Officially it had begun as “compassionate leave” after the death (“the _murder_!” James corrected each time) of his wife. Compassionate leave had stretched from days to weeks as the drinking had taken hold. The Chief Inspector was old-school, always talking about honour, duty and maintaining an image. James knew that the old man wouldnt want him representing the policeforce, not in his present condition, but couldnt cut him off from the force for largely the same reasons. The “police take care of their own” the Chief Inspector liked to say.
James has heard stories of the dark side of that statement of course, everyone had. Police officers who’d taken bribes, officers who had joined the payroll of criminal organizations, those who were a liability … they all had been “visited” by some of the Chief’s inner circle. Most, if not all, had taken a permanent leave of absence after the visit. James had also noted that a file for an unrecognizable body had been added to the cabinet of unsolvable cases after each visit.
He knew better than to ask questions about the practice. The code of silence was upheld by the entire workforce under the Chief. However, it didnt stop him from checking the files for other “unsolvable” cases, wondering if there were other patterns to crime in the city that the force was being deliberately silent on. What he’d found seemed too large for such a simple conspiracy. It had taken him to the archive building, attached to the city library, to go back through cases spanning decades before his birth. There was a cycle of killings reported every nine years. A small cluster of bodies, murdered over the course of a few days, up to a week in one case, all from the rougher parts of town. Every one of them a person of no consequence, someone invisible, a no-body that society as a whole had either discarded or merely ignored. Dock laborers, prostitutes, street sweepers, thieves … the list was endless. All had died if “grievous wounds” according to the report but when he looked for more detail it was conspicuous by its absence. So, every nine years. He did the math: the previous cycle of deaths had been seven years before his marriage to Sarah. James stopped the investigation the day after the Chief Inspector had asked him about it, not wanting to become a statistic himself.
Sarah! James felt a surge of pain rise in him and he stopped to regain composure. This was definitely not the place for an unseemly display of emotion! He stepped into an empty office pushed the door almost closed and leaned against the wall behind it. Memories of their wedding day flooded back. Memories of their first anniversary – staying in a 4-star hotel that was so far out of their league that they couldnt even _see_ their league from there. The food was art. The wine list personally selected by some high-falutin’ mucketty-muck who had time to write that a wine had “a good nose” or “a feisty little number” or his favourite “has hints of ginger, mushroom and old-shoe leather”. No. The best food of the entire weekend away came when they had checked out and found themselves eating at a small country pub – rough wooden table, sawdust on the floor and a good fire in the grate. The food had been plain, hearty and in plentiful supply with a good pint to wash it down.
She had been stolen from him!
The crisp air and fresh snow on the ground had made her cling to him “for warmth”. She had been in one of her “civilizing” kicks, introducing James to her passion for live theatre. To her horror he’d slipped into a restful sleep during the first act, begun snoring near the beginning of the second, and woken with a jump during the applause at the end of the show. Still, it had been better than the opera she’d taken him to – his loud whispers of “what did she say” and “why are they doing that now?” had elicited a noisy “sshhh!” from the opera aficionados around them. Finally two burly ushers had arrived to escort James out of the building, citing his distruption of the presentation as reason. Merely sleeping in the theatre was a great improvement!
They had been late leaving the theatre and as a result the waiting cabs had all departed, leaving Sarah and James standing in the snow facing a _long_ walk home.
“Lets take a short-cut, through a few side streets, see if we can pick up a cab on the main-street. Its only about 15 minutes walk from here.” he said, and they’d taken off. The side-street they’d chosen connected Broad street to Friary Street and was known locally as “smelly-alley” – a collection of shops selling fresh fish, fresh meat, vegetables along with others displaying a motely assortment of trinkets, books and collectables. “Smelly-alley” had a name – Sarah pointed to a sign above their heads.
“Union Street. Well, I’ll be!” James had laughed, “Still not going to stop me calling the place Smelly-Alley though! Get a whiff of the place!”
A particular scent hung in the air. It was more than the smell of rotting vegetables, stale milk or two day old fish parts that lined the gutter. There was the smell of death in the air. James closed his eyes and tried to pick it out from among the rest of the ripe aromas. It was familiar. He’d encountered it before, a long time ago. He couldnt recall exactly where and the insistent pull on his arm from Sarah broke the train of thought.
“Come on. Im getting cold here.” She’d said and before she’d taken her next breath James had found himself thrown across the alley. It was a blur, his head hit the stone step of a fish shop at the same time as Sarah had begun screaming. Moments later her scream was replaced by sickening, wet sucking sound. James fought against the darkness that was enfolding him. Sarah! He’d woken some time later with her name still on his lips and his face planted firmly against the stone step. Blood flowed from a wound to his forehead and stung his eyes. He crawled over to where Sarah lay, a crumpled form hardly recognizable as a person. He tried to wipe the blood from his eyes with one hand, only to find that he was adding to the problem, his own hands soaked with blood. Looking down he saw it: a deep crimson circle spreading out from her body, the edge clear and distinct against the backdrop of the snowfall.
James screamed, long and loud. Sarah’s throad had been torn out. It looked at first glance like an animal bite. Something had bitten and torn away a great chunk of flesh. He looked around. The pool of blood was remarkably small for a wound that had opened an artery like that. Her clothing had been torn away and there were bite marks elsewhere on her. These were less severe than the first. Then James caught sight of the most grievous of all wounds. He couldnt help himself, and threw up. Just below stomach level her body had been laid open. Where he’d expected to see pelvic bones there was nothing. Great vertical slashes in her thighs connected to the horizontal evisceration and the big thigh bones were also missing.
In the distance he heard a cracking, crunching sound. Then another some moments later. He stood and oriented himself on the sound – Friar Street heading toward the railway station. He howled in emotional pain. They were going to catch a cab from the station!
He stumbled into a run heading for the sound of crunching. As he got closer it gained definition and sounded like it had rhythm. A big crunch followed by smaller ones. No! Was some animal crunching on the bones, chewing them, eating the trophy of his murdered wife? James yelled incoherently and ploughed onward. Out of the late evening smog emerged a figure walking at a good pace toward the railway station. The man was a clear six feet tall. His long balck hair hung loose to his mid-back and James could see a dark beard along the jaw-line. In his left hand was a bulging hessian sack, soaked in places with blood. The right hand looked to be holding … a bone … the man was walking along eating the femur he’d stolen from Sarah!
As James approached the smell of death became stronger. It brought to mind memories of a very bright light, of pain and a sense of abandonment. It was the smell of a rotting corpse on a summer day. It was the smell of a sepulchre. A smell from beyond the grave that had no right clining to a man walking along a night-time street in the middle of town.
James threw himself at the man. By rights he should have landed on his back and wrestled him to the ground but with uncanny speed he had simply stepped aside and kept walking. James hit the pavement hard and the wind was knocked out of him. When he’d pulled himself together the man was gone, swallowed by the night. James returned to “Smelly Alley”, to the dead love of his life, and wept. A passing police constable had found him at dawn, clinging to his wife.
The official report stated that she had been killed by a wild dog. James had told his statement to as many people as would listen, saying that a tall man with long black hair had been responsible, but no-one had listened. Sarah’s file had ended up in the filing cabinet of “unsolvable murders” alongside the many others.
As he leaned against the wall of the deserted office he couldnt help remembering that they’d been out celebrating their anniversary. Their _second anniversary_ in fact. An idea landed in his brain with the force of a small hurricane. Nine years. It had been nine years since the last batch of murders! The cycle of death going back for generations had chosen his wife as its victim. This time it was different. She hadnt been a common street walker or footpad. She was the wife of a police detective. She was the daughter of a mayor, albeit in a small-town, but a mayor none-the-less. The dark cycle that claimed the invisible underclass had broken out into the light of day, and James was determined to trace it back and stop it once and for all. At the centre of the whirlwind, one man, six feet tall and wearing his hair far longer than society would have allowed.
James pulled himself together, pulled his thoughts back to the present, but something fought him every step of the way. There was a smell in the air that pulled him back to the scene of his wife’s death. His nose burned with it. Then he heard two sets of footsteps in the corridor outside the office.
The voice of the Chief Inspector was speaking, “You have my word Mister Wainwright. I’ll see to the matter personally. Rest assured that this is the last you will hear about him.”
Another voice spoke, presumably Mr. Wainwright, “See to it that you do George. I dont want to have to get _them_ involved again, it gets so messy, they are _such_ a blunt instrument. You wont fail me in this task will you?”
George? Was that the Chief Inspector’s name?
The Chief Inspector spoke in a defferential tone, “No Sir.”
The voices and footsteps faded. A door opened and closed. James realized that he’d been holding his breath and took a deep, refreshing lung full of air. He noted that the smell was gone too. He was about to leave the office when he heard returning steps that walked along the corridor past the office he was hiding in, heading back toward the Chief Inspector’s office. James waited then ventured out. He sniffed. The smell of a sepulchre still tainted the air but it wasnt the strong aroma that it had been. He turned and walked slowly toward the Chief Inspector’s office. Sniffing as he walked, he noticed that the smell subsided. He turned around and walked back along the corridor – the smell was newer and less faded at the other end. He made a mental note and walked back up to the Chief Inspector’s office to check-in with him. The Chief Inspector wasnt defferential toward _anyone_ … he ran the police department with an iron rod. It made no sence to James that the Chief Inspector would bow the knee so completely to another man.
James knocked on his door and entered.