Mike Scantlebury - Science Fiction


C h a p t e r O n e.

Archdeacon Tranton was lying at the foot of the great ornate staircase, dead, and I was standing over him. I didn't blame the policeman for being suspicious.

"Don't move a muscle," he bellowed, and I obediently stayed exactly where I was, not stirring, but shifting uneasily from foot to foot; remembering my childhood lessons, I fought my fear and anger at Tranton's death, and succeeding in standing loose, easy and relaxed.

After all, I remember thinking, I had no cause to worry; whatever had happened, it hadn't been caused by anything I'd done....

"He's dead," I said quietly, not turning round. "There's no doubt about that. Come on in; it's irreverent, but you won't disturb him."

The policeman moved round in front of me, so that I could now see him clearly, and I heard the sound of several of his companions going into the other rooms of the mansion, perhaps searching, cautiously.

"You a medic?" the man said, sneering. "Perhaps you're a priest. You want to give him the blessing now?" He bent over to look at Tranton's face. I knew he'd see what I had seen: the staring eyes, the trace of blood dribbling from the mouth. And the heavy bruises on the frail old head, where he'd hit, bumping, on his way down the huge flight of intricately decorated stairs.

"We had reports of a prowler," the policeman said. "Someone in the grounds. We came as fast as we could."

"Obviously not fast enough," I snapped. "You know who I am?"

"I know who I am," he said, the aggressive tone still strong. "I'm Guard Inpector Cresnik, and this looks like MY business. It's a body, maybe nothing suspicious to it, but I'll have to investigate. It's my job. It's my land, this spot: Capital City, the middle of America, its heart, and nothing happens here or fails to happen that I don't find out about. You, I don't know you, and that makes me worry. I worry a lot. Maybe you'd better tell me what did occur; tell me slowly."

"I let myself in," I said heavily, keeping my breathing steady, "a very small number of minutes ago. As I walked across the hall, I heard noises, the sound of voices, upstairs; as I came across the hall, the Archdeacon emerged from a room up there and saw me. He rushed forward to greet me. I don't know what happened then, perhaps he slipped; anyway, he tumbled over and over, and landed here, at my feet. I suppose even you, with your trained mind, would have to conclude it was an accident. Unfortunate, undramatic, but that's all there is to it. The whole story."

Cresnik was small, and thin. He stared hard at me, and his small brown eyes were about level with my shoulders. He was older, nearing middle-age, and his forehead was strongly lined and troubled by what I was saying. He seemed to doubt every little phrase I'd used. It was a strange feeling he brought out in me, even though I was far his superior: it was a strange unease. He made me nervous.

"You let yourself in," he repeated. "Is that usual? I mean, what would you say: would you say it was usual for the Archdeacon of government, the Elder of Elders, to program his automatic doorguard to let in a young unknown like you? This is Capital City, friend, and every mansion on this street is occupied by a figure of state; what brings you here? You have plans to join the world government?"

I'm in it, I was thinking to myself, but aloud I said: "Look, Inspector: listen to me. I was expected by the Archdeacon. I'd called him days ago and he knew I was coming. He left the door ready for me. He came out of the room up there and wasn't surprised to see me. He was GLAD to see me. I don't know, maybe I should blame myself: if he hadn't rushed forward to meet me, he might not have stumbled."

"He might not," the policeman agreed. "If he ever did stumble...."

He was searching my face for reactions, but I was forcing my feelings down. A powerful wave of sadness was swelling in me for the loss of my old mentor, Tranton, and not even the ways of peace and resignation I'd learnt in my time in India was proving much comfort. He was dead, we had lost him, and it was not worth much to think he might merely have 'translated' to another plane, as their religion has it. He had gone.

I scoffed: "Aren't you ever going to ask me who I am?"

"I was coming to that," he said slowly.

I couldn't wait; I reached into my jacket for my identicard. I didn't blame the man: I was wearing street clothes, nondescript, deliberately, to avoid being noticed. I hadn't been in the Americas officially for nearly three years, and I knew my presence might have caused some public attention, IF they chose to announce it. I didn't want that. I was a worker, not a show person. The crowds, the phalanx of Guards, the servants, would have delayed me and distracted me; there was much to be done, and I didn't need that sort of thing to take up my time.

I reached for my card, as I said, but didn't make it. I heard rather than felt the buzz of a stunner from behind me, and, as the slight smell of scorched fabric teased my nostrils, I was frozen into immobility. I tried to turn, to move, but was paralised. It was a moderate energy bolt, aimed low, and soon I found that my head was free and I could still talk, but my body was no longer my own.

Cresnik moved closer, regarding me with interest, like a specimen, like I was already his prisoner. A half smile curled around his lips. He brushed his sandy hair out of his eyes, and looked up at me.

"Now what would you be reaching for, in there?" he wondered aloud. "Well done, Denis; this character might well be armed and dangerous. You were wise to take no chances."

"My identicard," I explained, but it did no good. He insisted on moving my hand personally and checking all my pockets. When he only found my card and nothing else, it only served to increase his irritation and he stared at it for many minutes, mouthing the words he could see, not wanting to believe them.

"Jeremy Sandford," he read aloud.

"That's right," I agreed. "Lord of the South."

"One of the world's Three Emperors," he mused. "The second most powerful man on Earth...."

"Fourth," I corrected him, "if you count World President Fisk, and I've never seen any reason to discount him."

He shrugged. "We need corroboration."

"You have any reason to doubt me?"

"I've never seen you, Emperor," he said, "if that is what you are. I've no reason to: I was working OUR southern continent up till March the year before now, so missed your last visit. I've never seen your picture. My beat is Criminal, not Diplomatic Protection. If it really is you...."

"You have my card."

"Insufficient. Denis: bring your scanner over here."

One of his team, the man called Denis, moved round in front of me, a retina scanner in his hand. He was taller than me, a real giant, so had no need to stretch as he put the clear front to my eye and took a picture. Then he stepped back, clicked the apparatus and sent off the data by its internal transmitter; he set the box down on a step, where it could await a reply from Records in the Capitol building.

Cresnik was impatient. He looked around him, at the high-domed marble hall and the huge paintings, and shifted uneasily. I was wondering what he was waiting for. Where was his medic team? Why weren't they attending to the body? Where was the priest?

"Perhaps you have someone who can vouch for you?" he mused, not looking at me, and stroking his leathery chin.

"You want to ask the President?"

"I don't think so," he said quickly, sneering again. "I don't think I'll disturb Mr Fisk just yet. Perhaps you have another suggestion? The Emperor of the Americas, for instance?"

"Petersen will speak for me," I confirmed.

His look was mild, but still full of disbelief. Anyway, his train of thought was disturbed then, for a policeman came hurrying up, holstered his stunner and reported that all the ground floor rooms were empty. Cresnik told the junior officer that he'd need to use all the men, his, and the rest of the teams, and start on the upstairs. Then he waved his hand and a medic team came bustling forward at last, photo-logging the body of Tranton and checking the stairs for any traces of evidence. After a minute, they pronounced it clear and let the policemen through to go up to the next floor. They did, gingerly, taking their time, their guns out and ready. I admired their caution: they couldn't be sure of anything. If there had been a prowler, then he might have been surprised in the act, and could still be hiding in one of the rooms up there....

The machine on the step buzzed and Denis checked it over and reported to Cresnik. The news only made the Inspector more truculent, but he grudgingly took Denis's gun, reset the charge and negated the paralysis I was suffering. I rubbed my arms, getting the circulation back in, and stamped the pins and needles out of my feet.

"It's not enough," Cresnik announced. I turned. "Someone you know," he said. "I want someone to verify your identity."

I nodded. It wasn't a problem. "Davis," I told him. "My Personal Guard. He's down at the Summer House we're using, over by Crater Lake."

"He travels with you?"

"He's been with me since I left Delhi," I said. "He dropped me down here tonight and went back with the jumpcar. He's expecting me to call him, to tell him when I want to be collected."

"So call him."

We started to walk across the clattering marble floor of the hall, but had to pause when the priest came through the front door. He was low grade, recognisable by his pale blue cloak, and that meant young and enthusiastic; he saw the body, said a few words over the scene, then wanted to know the story. Cresnik told him I'd been first there, so the man gave me the full unction, the cleansing. Then he blessed Cresnik and his followers, prayed for their work to be successful, and said a few pious words about the futility of violence. He only let us off the hook when he turned his full attention on the corpse, and began the Death Ceremony.

As we carried on, I saw the gleam in Cresnik's eye and the set of his mouth: it was obvious that he didn't believe a word of it, perhaps thought it all superstitious nonsense. But now, fearful that I might be indeed who I said I was, he was too clever to appear sacrilegious, knowing what a bad report from me could do to his career.

We passed under the sculpted arch and arrived in the big, panelled room at the back of the house, the Library. There was a comm board in there, and a projector. While I was making the connection, Cresnik scuffed across the thick carpet and walked along the lines of shelves, admiring the collection of books and tapes.

"We weren't informed," he was muttering to himself. "You weren't expected. You do understand, I have to check. It's procedure." He took a thick volume off a shelf and began to flick through the ancient pages with his sticky fingers.

Davis's familiar friendly face swam into view on the vidscreen. He was laughing, a drink in his hand. He put it down when he saw it was me, respectfully, and tried to look dutiful. I suspected he wasn't alone.

I told him briefly that I was at the Tranton house and there had been some trouble. Cresnik walked behind me so that Davis could see him and he could see Davis on the screen, then introduced himself and asked a few questions. At last, he said to me: "Bring him in." I tapped the enlargement button, the projector in the ceiling warmed and Davis's 3-D image took shape in the middle of the floor. Cresnik walked over and began questioning it particularly, as if it was a real person, then turned to me to bear out the details of the story.

"The two of you have been here several days?" he asked. "Your man says you spent some time in the western states. Doing what?"

"Private business," I said abruptly, and saw Davis shut his mouth too, following my lead. He was used to doing what he was told. Still, his blue eyes twinkled, as if it was a game we were playing.

"Are you going to tell me?" the policeman wondered.

"No," I said firmly.

He turned to Davis. "You say you're a Guard. Do you always dress so informally?"

The image of Davis looked itself up and down, and a hand strayed to brush some fluff from the front of his gaudy shirt. He looked self-conscious. I had to admire Tranton's equipment: from where I was standing, Davis looked completely real, living and breathing. Even taking into account the dim light of the Library, it was impressive technology, much more advanced than we had at home.

"We're visiting another Emperor's territory," Davis said, a smile coming easily to his wide face. "It's customary not to wear uniform until given permission."

"Does Emperor Petersen know you're here?"

"Not yet," I told Cresnik. "But Fisk knows we were on our way; he invited us."

"I see."

"I doubt that," I snapped, my patience wearing thin. It was ludicrous to think that the Archdeacon was dead and this man, this fool, was wasting his time quizzing me, when he could have been better occupied looking for the murderer. More than that, of course: I wasn't used to being treated like a criminal. I was used to subservience, back on my sub-continent.

I said: "You really don't know me? Don't you EVER watch the vidnews?"

"There is no news in America," he said flatly. "Not any more."

"I've had enough of this," I stated. "Davis, get in the jumpcar and get down here; I'm ready to go." I slammed my palm on the board and his image faded, still confident, still smiling. He was altogether too good natured, I reminded myself; if he hadn't been so conscientious, so keen and devoted to his work, he might have been replaced months ago.

I turned to Cresnik. "If you've got any more questions, then hurry," I said. "Otherwise, I intend to leave."

"Oh, you're free to go, Emperor," he said, coming towards me and taking my arm. "But surely, you're curious? While you're here, why not take the opportunity to look around? Yes? Let's go and see how my men are getting along with their investigation; perhaps they've turned up some clues, eh?"

He walked me back into the hall and towards the stairs again. We could hear voices from the floor above, and I thought I saw several of Cresnik's uniformed team moving in and out of the rooms.

"Let's look up there," the Inspector suggested coolly, and we started to climb.

"Tranton's body is gone," I said, moving with him.

He shrugged. "We have a record. I think we can learn more from what we have if it's back in the laboratory, rather than here, don't you?"

"That's a rather profane attitude," I admonished him coldly. "You should learn to speak more respectfully of the dead."

"Oh, I respect them," he replied. "Especially when they provide me with evidence...."

I crossed myself, trying to shame him. But his gaze was directed straight ahead, and he must have missed it.

We climbed. There were noises coming from the rooms upstairs, voices, the slamming of doors, the rattle of handles, locks and clasps. If the intruder hadn't have gotten out yet, I was thinking, he surely could have among all that confusion. Still, I was anxious to see what was happening, up there, and, possibly, discover what had made Tranton look so harrassed and preoccupied; I'd only seen his face for a moment before he fell, but his expression was clear and vivid in my mind, and it was odd, disturbing.

"You knew the deceased well?" Cresnik said, inclining his head towards me. "Eh? You were close?"

"He looked after me for a time when I was younger," I told him, and stopped, not wanting to be drawn.

Yes, I'd known the old man well; he had practically been my guardian after my parents died in the plane crash. I guessed, though I wouldn't tell the policeman, that Tranton felt vaguely guilty about the accident, since it was mainly his fault, and the fault of his position in the Council of Elders, that had caused my father's stress, and his need to dash south on the investigative mission from which he never returned. It was no coincidence, it had always seemed to me, that the Archdeacon had firmly supported me in my political ambitions when I was younger; perhaps making up for the career he had robbed from my father, I often thought.

Still, it wasn't something I wanted to share with the Inspector. Now that he was near me, I could see the vestiges of a scar on his temple: the remains of a lens-changing operation, no doubt about it. So, he was coarse, but he was also vain, vain enough not to want to wear glasses; determined enought to undergo surgery to repair his eyes permanently. Rich enough too, or careful enough to put aside regular savings to afford the treatment, for no mere street person could afford that kind of thing. Somehow, seeing that, and thinking about it, it made me feel I knew the policeman a little better....

There was a shout from one of the back rooms. Cresnik leapt up the remaining stairs like an athlete, and left me to trail along behind. I came into the room, a short time after, to find a squad of the police excitedly crowded round a window in what must surely have been the biggest of the bedrooms.

Cresnik was being shown something. I came up behind him, and noticed that he was breathing hard; obviously that short run had affected him badly. He wasn't as energetic as he might like to believe, I concluded. Grinning at his discomfiture, I asked the Inspector what was interesting the investigators.

"It was open," he remarked proudly, between gasps of breath. Then added, just so that I didn't miss anything: "It's a short drop onto the roof of the dining area downstairs. An intruder, if there was one, could easily have come up this way, and descended. It's the back of the house; they wouldn't have been seen from the avenue."

It was a possibility, I had to agree, but as he had said before, it wasn't enough. "Any clues?" I asked heavily.

The policeman nearest the sill looked up. He stared at me blankly for a moment, not recognising me or my clothes, so there was no respect in his attitude or tone. Nevetheless, noticing that his Inspector deigned to speak to me, he must have concluded he could do too. Besides, he was excited by the squad's search, and was pleased to share their discoveries.

"No footprints," he said, "if that's what you mean, sir. Though I dare say there may be traces of dust on the roofing material. We'll have to check."

On cue, a lab crew bustled into the room, deposited several cases on the bed, sorted through, then came up with some large tongs and an assortment of glass jars. They moved determinedly towards the window and I backed out of the way. The rest of the policemen, including their leader, formed a cordon round them, pushing forward with eyes gleaming, impatient.

They were enjoying themselves so much, I felt like an intruder. I backed up some more, along the far side of the bed, and came up against a door to an adjoining bathroom. There was a low narrow table there, against the wall, with some drawers beneath. I sat down on the edge of the unit and watched developments morosely. Idly, I pushed things out of my way, then stopped; directly under the mirror on the back, almost resting against my leg, was a book, bound in red material, with a metal clasp. It had no printing on the front, so was obviously not entertainment. I lifted one corner, cautiously, and saw handwriting I recognised, it was so thin and scrawny. Each page was dated: it was a diary, hand written by the old man. I closed a hand over it, meaning to look at it more closely, when a voice that was familiar made me stop.

"Nothing," he moaned.

I looked round. It was the policeman, Denis. He had just come in with several others; obviously they'd finished their part of the search, in another part of the house, and had nothing to report. They were disgruntled, and watched their colleagues' enthusiasm and antics with undisguised amusement. Denis seemed to think I shared his attitude and included me in his ribald comments. Then someone noticed the bathroom behind me, and Denis and another of their number leapt over the bed, walked in and looked round. They seemed more taken with the luxury of the fittings than the chance to find anything suspicious, and continued to joke loudly. As Denis's back was towards me, I took the opportunity to lift up the diary and slip it into my inside pocket, simply so that I could examine it later, in peace.

There was a shout from the direction of the window and this time I joined in the rush to see, stirred by the hope that perhaps they had found something. It wasn't that; the man on the roof outside had seen an approaching jumpcar and was yelling at somebody else to check whether it had clearence. A man beside me, who had a headset on, yelled back that no vehicle was expected, and that made them nervous. There seemed the chance, if only for a moment, that we may have been under attack: perhaps, they must have thought, the assassins had returned. No such story. I recognised the colour code of front lights and was able to disabuse them of that fear.

"It's for me," I announced in a clear voice. "That will be my man Davis. Please do not do anything premature. Cresnik, I'm holding you responsible to control your men."

It seemed a timely warning, since some of them were still carrying their guns in their hands, rather than their holsters; however, I didn't wait for a reaction, but turned on my heel and walked quickly down the staircase. I soon saw that it was Davis all right, as I'd anticipated. Before I reached the main door, I could see that he was facing a trio of trim uniforms bemusedly. I had to identify myself and then him, all over again.

"Davis, we're going," I stated, and went down the steps and towards the car rim without a pause, glad to be out of the limelight and off to a rest and a good night's sleep.

Cresnik was a good few paces behind me, but catching up. "Wait," he barked. I stopped, one foot into the craft. I looked at him, then looked him up and down coolly, waiting for him to get his breath back and speak. He was ten years older than me, I calculated, and a good deal less fit. He stood at the bottom of the steps, and, in the glare from the spotlights that illuminated the front of the house, I could see that he was sweating. Behind him, the three Guards were huddled together, waiting for orders, their hands on their belts, close to their guns.

"You can go," he said at last.

"I should think so," Davis muttered coolly, a grin on his face. He wasn't impressed with Cresnik, but then, Palace Guards were rarely happy with local police. He looked at me, meaningfully. I shrugged. There was no point in acting upset.

"We've no reason to hold you," the Inspector went on. "Now. We've no evidence, either way. If something emerges in the next few hours or days, then I'll be in touch. I'd be glad of another chance to talk, anyway. You were here: anything you noticed will be useful."

"I'll be glad to meet you," I said, mimicking his cordial tone.

"Now we have confirmed who you are...."

"The Emperor has agreed," Davis snapped, cutting in. "I see no reason to prolong the conversation. We will now go."

"Davis," I said, mildly rebuking him. "The Inspector is not used to our oriental customs; you must forgive him. Don't worry, Inspector: I'll be in touch with you. We are staying at our Summer House, and you can reach us there. If you don't have the code, then ask Diplomatic Protection at the President's office. I'm sure they'll be pleased to help."

"Yes, of course," Cresnik said, as though he really hadn't thought of that. He was looking at me so uncertainly, as if he hadn't made his mind up that what he was doing was the best thing, that I decided Davis was right, and I'd better cut the conversation short. I turned my back on the policeman and took my seat in the car, waving a hand at my driver.

Davis let in the avionics fast, his usual way, and we bounced off the concrete and leapt into the air in one movement, not that smoothly. It caught my breath, and I had to turn to inspect the view to cover the sick feeling in my stomach. It was Davis's style, so rough, so abrupt, but I valued him too much to try and make him change.

We soared straight up, out of the spotlights and into the darkness, and I could suddenly see the whole length of Monument Avenue, with the lines of mansions as Cresnik had pointed out, all belonging to the Council and all more or less huge, set in their own grounds. They were impressive, so massive and grandiose, and, of course, illuminated this time of night, so that all, casual passers-by or curious sightseers, could see them in their glory. It was ostentatious, and served the same purpose as my palaces in India, to subdue the population. I couldn't argue with that. Besides, it was all the Elders had; apart from their homes, these world leaders led modest lives, far less opulent than the luxury we took for granted in the east.

The car was pulling upwards and backwards, but then Davis cut in forward drive, and we swung round in a smooth arc, out over Crater Lake, then back to hug the shoreline and follow it along to our particular beach-house, the one we were occupying.

It was a clear night, with a clear sky, and the stars shone in crystal clarity in a perfect black sky. The dry desert air was blowing gently against the humidity from the lake, and the breeze was sweet, light and chilled. I felt that old pleasure, the thrill of being a visitor and a returning resident. It made me think of my youth. That, of course, only led me back to Tranton, and I began to think of him again, and his daughter, and the childhood we shared.

Davis interrupted me, me this time, with more of his directness. "Did you tell the uniform the truth?" he demanded.

I could have chided him for his lack of respect, but it was getting to be a habit. Instead, I replied with candour: "No. Tranton didn't trip."

Davis was too experienced to say anything, but I could almost feel his curiousity. I fed it by saying more. "He went down the stairs all right, but he was practically running when he hit the top. It was almost like he jumped. He was going so fast, he just launched himself out into space."

"Was he being chased?"

"He could have been," I mused, and told Davis what the police had said about a possible prowler. "But I didn't see anybody," I had to admit. "The strange thing is, I don't think that Tranton saw me: his eyes were almost glazed, distant, like he was drugged or dreaming."

"Is that possible?"

I shook my head. I knew the man well, better than I knew my own father, and it was inconceivable that he was under the influence of some intoxicant. I said so; if the Archdeacon had been addled or confused by something chemical, then it had been given to him without his knowledge or consent.

Davis kept one hand on the steering button, but the fingers of the other were scratching the side of his head as he thought about it. "What does it all mean?" he asked, finally.

"Well," I shrugged, measuring each syllable. "If he didn't slip and he didn't jump, then there's only one possible conclusion: either he was pushed, or forced, or deluded into taking the fall."

"Yes? So that means, in other words...."

"In other words? He was murdered," I told him. "And THAT means that I have to find the murderer. I promise you: we won't leave this country until I do."

C h a p t e r T w o

Extract from Mike Hamer's "Merrin".


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