the Cover illo of For-Print VersionNOVELS PAGE

still Wednesday, Halgary 24th

42. Lillith Mellbury's Revenge

Katuishann shook her head as they stepped out of the O/U train at Mitton Gardens. "I still don't believe you."
   "I can't think why," protested Sovershend. "When was the last time I lied to you?"
   "How should I know? You're always so convincing."
   "Thanks very much!" Sovershend was not sure how to take the remark, but he decided on compliment.
   "Where are we going really? Your flat?"
   "Wait and see, disbeliever."
   The couple passed through the revolving door and into the blue pre-reception area of the Mitton Gardens Hotel. Katuishann approached the sapphire blue counter fighting a growing feeling of embarrassment. She was expecting to be thrown out at any second.
   Sovershend surrendered his sleeve gun with the air of someone who had come to stay. "You too," he prompted.
   Katuishann took a stunner from her shoulder bag. "I still refused to believe this," she announced when she had satisfied the security scanners.
   "Suit yourself," grinned Sovershend,
   A blue-uniformed security guard cycled them through the double-doored entry filter and into the lobby.
   "Good evening, sir," said the receptionist, sounding as pleased as if he were receiving royalty. "Your suite is ready for you."
   "Ah, good," drawled Sovershend. He touched the proffered Class 1 tag to the back of his left hand, where it clung like a section of golden plastic skin.
   "May I have your card, please, vreitan?" asked the charming young man, making an extra effort in Katuishann's direction.
   In response to a nudge from Sovershend, she handed over her visitor's identity card and her passport. The receptionist ran her documents through a scanner, which interrogated magnetic stripes, verified that the documents were genuine and checked that they were not on the stolen list.
   "Suite thirteen-oh-eight," beamed the receptionist, returning Katuishann's documents, together with a Class 1 tag.
   "Where did you leave your bags, korolan?" asked Sovershend.
   "The sleeve room at Priadon Station," said Katuishann.
   "I'll have them collected at once," said the receptionist.
   Sovershend piloted his companion to the lift. "I'll let you into a secret," he remarked as they rose majestically. "The chap I was working for is paying for all this."
   "That's very nice of him," laughed Katuishann.
   "Actually, he doesn't know about it."
   "That's typical of you! An opportunist Good Time Devrel."
   "It's the thought that counts, not who's paying for it."
   "And it was a very nice thought."
   The lift doors zoomed apart at floor 13. The pair of ancients waiting there gave Sovershend and Katuishann a disapproving look apiece, then they pushed into the lift before Sovershend could get out. "Manners are a wonderful thing," he remarked with a pleasant smile, touching the 24 panel as he stepped out. The doors closed and the lift resumed its upward crawl.
   "That was a rotten thing to do," laughed Katuishann, who had taught him the trick.
   Sovershend shrugged. "Someone has to teach these senile 'lensters how to behave in polite society."
   "What would you like to bet they make a complaint about you, svey korol?"
   "Let them. If they want to look stupid, why should I stand in their way?"
   "You feel no compulsion to save humanity from itself?"
   "Not tonight, no." The door of suite 1308 clicked open when Sovershend touched his golden tag to the receptor plate. "Here we are." He waved Katuishann into the room. "Shall I order a bottle of Rienne?"
   "Marivodka and orange juice would do just as well if there's none handy." Katuishann began a tour of inspection, opening doors to find out which led to rooms and which to cupboards. "This looks very splendid."
   "It ought to," laughed Sovershend. "It's costing our friend enough." He lowered himself gingerly onto a long, padded affair in the middle of the floor. He sank a couple of inches, then came up against something firm yet mobile. Katuishann curled up beside him.
   "Cheers, m'dears," she said, accepting a glass.
   "Cheers! Where did you learn that?"
   "Oh, there was a funny little man on the plane. He kept trying to buy me drinks. I don't think his intentions were strictly honourable," Katuishann added with a giggle.
   "Less honourable than mine?" said Sovershend.
   "Oh, I don't think your intentions are dishonourable, svey korol," said Katuishann, keeping a more or less straight face. "I think disgraceful would be a better word."
   "We make a fine pair, then," grinned Sovershend. "And I see your Camerlish refresher course has taken well."
   "Camerlish? I thought I was learning Ferran," Katuishann teased.
   The former colonies Camerland and Norland spoke the language of Ferron, but each claimed it as its own. The videolink began to chime softly before Sovershend could come up with a reply.
   "Give me your glass," offered Katuishann. "I'll fill us up while you answer that."
   Sovershend struggled to his feet, finding the task surprisingly difficult. The nameless item of furniture began to fill in his dent. Katuishann had sunk to within four inches of the floor.
   "I don't think this thing's meant for two, Tish," Sovershend decided, taking one of the glasses and helping her to her feet.
   He perched in front of the videolink and touched the ACC key. His reflection swirled into a holographic projection of the receptionist.
   "The lady's luggage had been collected and should be with you almost at once, sir," he reported.
   "Thank you," said Sovershend, looking away as someone tapped on the door.
   "Good night, sir," said the receptionist as the screen shimmered before settling into a mirror.
   Katuishann's larger case had retractable wheels at one corner. She let Sovershend tow it into the sleeping room. Katuishann followed with the glasses and her smaller case. The sliding door was having status trouble. As soon as they were safely through, it began to close in two-inch jerks. After reaching the fully closed position, it began to open again. Sovershend perched on the end of the bed to watch its erratic antics.
   "How did your day go?" he asked as the door stopped just short of the fully open position.
   "Busy at times, boring at others," Katuishann told him. "And what incredibly illegal things have you done today?"
   Sovershend started to tell her about his adventures. Katuishann was fascinated by the Moby journey up the ship canal. Then, for no apparent reason, they found themselves in the middle of a violent argument, shouting and screaming abuse at each other. Part of Sovershend watched in horrified wonder as the rest of him surrendered to an overwhelming urge to kill Katuishann.
   "Keep away from me," yelled Katuishann, picking up a fragile, bushy, picollo plant in a solid pot. Sovershend continued to advance.
   Katuishann hurled the picollo plant at him. Sovershend dropped flat. The missile crashed into the grill on a ventilation outlet behind him. Thin plastic tore, allowing the pot to shatter inside the duct. Katuishann scrambled across the bed to the door. She raced for the bathroom and locked herself in. Sovershend hammered on the door a couple of times in frustration, then he realized that it was much too solid to penetrate. But she had to come out sometime. He poured a glass of orange juice and sat down to wait, simmering.
   The nerve of the dobokandar vrag! he thought. Calling him a... what?
   Sovershend drained his glass to ease the fire in his throat, groping at shadows. The reason for his boiling anger was just a vague blur. He could remember talking about his day and the descent into violence. But nothing remained of either cause or content. A numbing calm spread through him as he realized how their explosion could have ended. Badly shaken, he crossed the sitting room and tapped on the bathroom door.
   "Go away," yelled Katuishann.
   "Tish? I went to talk to you," called Sovershend.
   "Veichem!" Something heavy and made of glass crashed against the other side of the door to underline the refusal.
   "You don't have to open the door," coaxed Sovershend. "I just want to ask you something. I'll leave you alone if you'll answer one question. What were we fighting about?"
   "You know bockan well what it was about."
   "What, then?" urged Sovershend.
   A long silence followed.
   "I don't know," Katuishann admitted eventually.
   "Neither do I," said Sovershend. "Tish, what in bock happened to us?"
   Katuishann scraped the door open a cautious crack and peeped out. Sovershend retreated to the bar. Katuishann opened the door wider and stepped over a layer of purple crystals and fragments of glass. "Something's wrong, isn't it, Dev?"
   "Very wrong," nodded Sovershend.
   Katuishann advanced warily into the sitting room. "Could I have something to drink?"
   Sovershend looked at his empty glass. "I don't think we'd better touch the drinks. There might be something in them."
   Katuishann held out a trembling hand. "Have you got a cigarette?"
   Feeling none too steady himself, Sovershend went into the sleeping room to retrieve his jacket from the bed.
   Perhaps because he was keyed up, searching for answers, he registered the feeling of uneasiness within moments of crossing the threshold. An irritation began to grow. Feeling irrational anger surging up again, Sovershend grabbed his jacket and retreated immediately – to an unsettling calm in the sitting room.
   "Tish, would you do something for me?" he asked. "Would you go in there, then come out again the moment you notice anything strange."
   "What for?" asked Katuishann suspiciously.
   "Trust me for a minute. Just do it. Please, Tish."
   Katuishann walked slowly into the sleeping room. She reached the bed and smoothed the wrinkled coveret automatically. Then she turned and ran back into the sitting room. Sovershend closed and locked the door.
   "You felt it too?" he asked.
   Katuishann nodded uncertainly.
   "A sort of shaky nervousness?"
   "Yes, something like that."
   "And something stirring you up? Like an itch inside your brain?"
   "Yes, that was it exactly."
   "Someone set this up for us, korolan. But it's over now." Sovershend sat down on the sufan and lit a cigarette. Katuishann joined him. She failed to suppress shudder when he put his arm round her shoulders and passed her the cigarette.
   "You're all right, aren't you?" Sovershend asked cautiously.
   "Apart from a bruise on my leg, I think so. I never knew you had such a violent temper." Katuishann tried to make a joke out of the statement. Neither of them felt inclined to laugh. She drew on the cigarette and blew out a plume of uisge-flavoured smoke. "You looked ready to kill me, Dev."
   "Someone is going to suffer for that," Sovershend vowed angrily. "In fact, I'd better do some checking up."
   He crossed to the videolink and tapped out the number of the Sir Jerome Favour. Then be asked for Keith Dorry.
   "What are you doing out of bed?" Dorry asked with a broad grin and a knowing wink.
   "This is serious," interrupted Sovershend. "One minute Tish and I were chatting, the next we were at each other's throats. I don't know what someone's done to us, but if Tish hadn't been quick off the mark, I might have killed her."
   "It's not one of Rossiter's efforts?" Dorry's grin shrank inwards.
   "What, in the Mitton Gardens? How would he get in here? Look, it might be personal and it might be business. And if it's business, you lot might be next on the list. That's why I called you."
   Dorry's face became grim. "I see what you mean. The first thing to do is try and find out who's behind it. I know someone for that. Arrange a Class 2 for myself and a chap called Cardinal. He's a licensed investigator. I'll warn the others to stay put here till we know what to expect when we get home."
   "Right," nodded Sovershend. He broke the connection and keyed reception.
   "Good evening, sir," said a carefully-painted blonde.
   "Evening. This is Sovershend in 1308. I'm expecting a couple of visitors shortly. The names are Cardinal and Dorry."
   "Of course, sir," smiled the receptionist. "I'll vid you when they arrive."
   "Thank you," replied Sovershend.
   "What do you think is happening, Dev?" asked Katuishann.
   "Yogal if I know, korolan." Sovershend rejoined her on the suffan. "We'll have to wait for Keith and his maccar."

Thursday, Halgary 25th

43. Cardinal Resolves A Puzzle

Alex Cardinal and Keith Dorry arrived with the new day. They acquired silver visitor tags at the reception desk, then they followed Sovershend to the lifts. Sovershend had never met a private investigator before. Cardinal seemed to be mid-way between his own and Dorry's ages, slightly shorter than himself and of about the same build. His pale blue safari suit reminded Sovershend of a uniform. His bulky, black case said doctor.
   Cardinal's first action was to test the orange juice and the marivodka using a neat biochemical sampling kit. When he had pronounced them free of contaminants, he backed his judgement by accepting a drink. Then he invited Sovershend and Katuishann to describe their movements from the moment they had entered the suite. His expression became a frown of concentration as the tale unfolded. At the end of it, he took a palm-sized grey box from his bag and extended a telescopic probe.
   "I'll take a look in the bedroom now," he decided. "The rest of you had better keep back."
   Cardinal slid the door aside and advanced into the sleeping room, as the hotel preferred to call it, following the probe. After a few moments, he grunted significantly and turned towards his audience.
   "You can come in. There's no danger now. Let's have a look at what's left of it."
   A buzz from the outside door of the suite distracted his audience.
   "Who is it?" Sovershend asked into the intercom unit.
   "Hotel security, sir."
   "Let him in," said Cardinal. "I know that voice."
   Sovershend opened the door to a smart uniform. The man inside it was anonymous to the point of invisibility.
   "What can we do you for, Andy?" asked Cardinal.
   "They told me you were here, Alex, so I thought I'd better find out what was going on. I'm Commander Anderson, sir," he added to Sovershend. "Hotel security chief. What appears to be the trouble?"
   Sovershend shrugged. "I don't know. I'm waiting for your friend to tell me."
   "I think it's all in here," said Cardinal from the sleeping room. "How long has the hotel been putting plants in guests' bedrooms, Andy?"
   "It's a special service," said Anderson. "The guest has to request it, though. Otherwise, we might get sued for a few thousand for triggering an allergy."
   "I didn't," remarked Sovershend. "Request it."
   "Surprise, surprise," said Cardinal, feeling quite cheerful at making so much progress so soon after taking the case. He used a pair of tongs to transfer every fragment of the picollo plant to a sealable plastic bag.
   Commander Anderson frowned at the broken grill on the ventilation duct. Wanton destruction of hotel property could be seen in his expression.
   "I take it neither of you used the vid extension in here?" asked Cardinal.
   Sovershend and Katuishann shook their head.
   "Good!" approved Cardinal. "Well, if someone would pass my drink, I'll reveal all."
   Sovershend topped up glasses. Sensing that he was about to receive bad news, Anderson accepted a modest slug of marivodka.
   "Someone's slid past your outfit, Andy," Cardinal began.
   Anderson sipped his drink, refusing to be drawn.
   "First of all," continued Cardinal, "an intruder got into this suite. Second, the intruder left this rather sorry wreck of a plant for your guests and did some rather clever things to the vid. Third, the intruder very nearly got away with it."
   "But with that?" demanded Anderson.
   "Murder by proxy," said Cardinal in a casual tone. "Someone tried to make Vr. Sovershend kill his ladyfriend."
   Anderson took down the rest of his drink in one gulp, seeing his career sliding into the pit. An attempted murder in an hotel of the class of the Mitton Gardens would bring the wrong sort of publicity and a new security executive. If the news ever got out.
   "When I have this plant analysed," resumed Cardinal, "I expect the report to show the presence of a war gas. In this case, a liquid that evaporates slowly. One of the type used to breed aggression, to get the enemy soldiers fighting each other instead of your side. I also suspect these modules I've taken from the vid will contain a by-pass circuit that keeps it active permanently, and a small transmitter."
   "We know you're clever, Alex," remarked Dorry. "Now tell us what hit the floor."
   "It means the intruder was using the vid to transmit low frequency vibrations into this room. Frequencies below the threshold of normal hearing can be detected by the human body, but felt rather than heard. Select the right one and the victim becomes uneasy, feels threatened by an invisible menace. Brain-itch is a term often applied to the effect."
   "That's what you called it," Katuishann remarked to Sovershend, who nodded wisely.
   "A sonic stimulus, the vapour blooming from this plant – it's a combination guaranteed to send people into a homicidal rage over the slightest thing," said Cardinal. "The gases can be male or female tailored, as they say in the trade. I'd guess this is a mixture to get the pair of you screaming at each other, but biased towards a kill-rage for Vr. Sovershend."
   "That sounds about right," said Sovershend uncomfortably. Knowing that he could be manipulated so easily was both embarrassing and very frightening.
   "In some cases," added Cardinal, "the victim or victims have no memory of the reason for the rage when the effects of the vapour wear off, which happens within a few minutes of discontinuing exposure. In the case of strangers, there's some residual memory if one of them is the type of person instantly and irrationally disliked by the other, usually of an imagined insult. When the victims know each other, the rage is generally concerned with some minor personality defect, unless there's something else more serious.
   "Otherwise, they just shout meaningless, unconnected words. Usually swear words, but anything suitable for aggressive speech can be used. If the trigger is a personality defect, the victims always remember it afterwards, which can have a severely disruptive effect on their future relationship."
   "That's nice to know," observed Sovershend. "That we're mutually perfect in the minor personality sense."
   "How nice," agreed Katuishann. "Remind me to find out what that means."
   "You seem well up on the subject, Alex," remarked Dorry.
   "I read a report in a Ferran trade paper," Cardinal told him. "As research for a recent case. The client thought something like that was being used on him. But it turned out to be mild carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty gas fire."
   "Well, now we know what was done," said Commander Anderson, coming out of his state of shock, "the next things to think about are motive and opportunity. And hope they lead us to who did it. But a discreet investigation, Alex."
   Cardinal broke into a grin, which made him look years younger than his grey-dusted temples suggested. "Someone thinking about his job, Andy?"
   "The victims might not like the Prots asking them too many questions," suggested Anderson.
   "That sounds like a crude attempt at blackmail to me," remarked Dorry.
   "Let's give him a fair chance before we shout for the Prots," said Sovershend. "If his job's at stake, Commander Anderson's brain ought to be laser sharp."
   "I wish everyone would stop talking about my job," complained Anderson. "It's perfectly clear one or both of the victims isn't exactly lily-white. Not if they know you two." He stared pointedly at Dorry and Cardinal.
   "A definite slander," laughed Cardinal. "Well, what's your first move, Super Sleuth?"
   "First, I need to know how long that plant has been in the suite," said Anderson.
   "Impossible to say," returned Cardinal. "It could have been here for five minutes or five hours, depending on how much of the liquid was sprayed onto the leaves. But given the rate of ventilation, certainly not more than five hours."
   Anderson checked his watch. "It's fourteen past midnight now. Let's say six hours to be on the safe side." He walked back into the sitting room and keyed a number on the videolink.
   "Security control," said an earnest young woman.
   "This is Anderson." A red dot in the bottom-left corner of the screen showed that he had inhibited the visual circuit at his end. "An unauthorized person entered thirteen-oh-eight during the last six hours. Scan through the safety register and give me a list of everyone who entered since eighteen this evening."
   "Just a minute, Chief." The brunette's attention moved away from the videolink to the security computer, which kept track of movements as an anti-crime precaution and to assist rescue work in the event of a fire. "The only people to go into that room are the people there with you now, Chief. And one of the porters, Courtney, delivered two cases about an hour ago. But he didn't go in."
   "There has to be someone else, Grace," said Anderson very positively, leaving no room for a denial.
   "Here's something, Chief," nodded Grace. "We lost power on the surveillance system on floor twelve. An overload and a component failure. There was some carry-over to the floors on either side. That was from twenty-two twenty-four to twenty-two thirty-three."
   Anderson muttered under his breath. "Right, set me up pictures of everyone who left the building since the start of that overload. People who were on floors eleven to thirteen."
   "Right, Chief," returned Grace. "Ready in a minute."
   Anderson waved Sovershend over to the videolink. "See if you recognize anyone."
   "There's no one, Chief," reported Grace, demolishing the experiment.
   "Which means whoever did it has to be still in the building," said Cardinal. "Staff or a guest."
   "I think it's more likely to be a guest," Anderson decided. "A member of the staff would have suggested something other than a plant as the vehicle for the war gas."
   "We'd better take a look at a few guests," said Cardinal.
   Anderson chewed at his lower lip for a moment, then he made what was obviously a difficult decision. "Roll up the guest list for floors thirteen down to eleven, Grace," he ordered. "Pictures only with room numbers. No names."
   "Is that wise, Chief?" asked his subordinate, twisting her face into an expression of worry.
   "Probably not, but do it anyway," said Anderson. "Assuming Vr. Sovershend knows the assassin," he murmured to himself.
   "I think that's probably," said Cardinal. "The object of the exercise was to make Vr. Sovershend suffer agonies of remorse when he returned to his senses and discovered he'd killed Va. Verkeinen. I think the person responsible wanted to be around when that happened. That picollo plant needed a decent-sized container for transportation - such as an item of luggage. And the surveillance system was off for less than ten minutes, which indicates a room fairly close to here."
   Pictures flicked onto the screen. Green room numbers appeared in the top-right corner of the display.
   "Hell in a bucket! Is that me?" said Katuishann when the number became 1308. "I only put that wig on because I didn't have time to wash my hair."
   "You've got the eyes for a blonde," remarked Sovershend.
   "Would you mind keeping yours on the screen?" said Anderson. "Back two, Grace."
   Katuishann took her wig off. An impossible mass of dark chestnut waves tumbled to her shoulders. Dorry and Cardinal exchanged looks of surprise and admiration at her conjuring trick. Two ancients appeared, the ones whom Sovershend had sent up to floor 24 in the lift. The number on the screen became 1334, then 1337.
   "Floor twelve now, Chief," said Grace.
   The parade of faces continued.
   "Stop," said Sovershend. "Back one."
   The occupant of room 1220 reappeared. Sovershend reached to turn the videolink's sound off. "Who's that, Keith?"
   Dorry shrugged. "No idea. Never seen her before."
   "Have a closer look. Ignore the red hair."
   Dorry blocked the top of the screen with a hand.
   "Go on, who is it?" he invited, still mystified. "Hang on! That's Lilly. Lilly Mellbury. Is everyone wearing a wig today?"
   Anderson tapped at the keyboard. The name ‘Gillian Powers' and a citizen identity card number flowed onto the screen. "Does this lady have a reason for wishing you harm?" he asked Sovershend.
   Sovershend shrugged. "None that I know of. But I can't think why she should be here. And under a false name."
   "Her husband's in gaol on Lesten Island," explained Dorry. "Which is where we'd expect Lilly to be right now. Or at home in Nottridge trying to get him out. Certainly not here."
   "And you helped to put her husband in gaol?" Anderson asked Sovershend, assuming that he had reached the heart of the matter.
   "No, that was nothing to do with me," Sovershend told him. "He can get himself into enough trouble without any help from me. But Lilly's clever enough and cool enough to have set this up. And we're not exactly friends."
   "They say poison is traditionally a woman's weapon," remarked Anderson. "And that irritant gas that was used on you can be described as a form of poison."
   "And I have an idea Lilly took a good degree in something to do with electronics," added Dorry.
   "I think we'd better have a look at the rest of floor twelve and floor eleven before we have a word with the lady," said Cardinal.
   "I don't know about that," Anderson stalled, overwhelmed by natural caution. "Waking a guest at this time of night."
   "She's an old friend," Dorry assured him. "She may shout and scream a bit, but she won't say a word."
   Sovershend grinned at Katuishann as she puzzled over the remark, trying to eliminate the paradox in a recently-acquired. language.
   "I think we need a little more to go on," said Anderson.
   "We can always call in the Prots," Sovershend prodded. "And let them talk to her."
   "Very well," Anderson let out a heavy sigh of resignation. "We'll look at the rest of the pictures first. We might come across some homicidal maniac who's been trying to kill you for years."
   Sovershend and Dorry exchanged a glance which said: ‘Rossiter'.
   "I'll walk the Inland Sea if it is him," scoffed Sovershend.

44. Revelations In Suite 1220

As Commander Anderson had feared, Sovershend knew none of the other guests in the area affected by the power-cut. Not looking at all happy, Anderson summoned help from his security team.
   "Grace, come up to thirteen-oh-eight," he told an alert-looking, dark-haired woman over the videolink. "Drag Mike out of the canteen to spell you. Bring your stunner. Don't argue, just do it." Anderson broke the connection and finished his glass of marivodka. "And I hope to hell this works out," he added to his audience.
   "Just think of it as a spot of elementary job preservation," said Cardinal. "This Mellbury woman being here under a false name is reasonable grounds for challenging her."
   "It's not an offence to register under a false name," Anderson pointed out.
   Two minutes dragged by. Then Grace arrived. She was tallish and solidly-built. "What's going on, Chief?" she asked, flicking her gaze over the group in the room.
   "The less you know the better," Anderson told her. "Just follow me and look official. And say nothing. Let's go," he added to the others in the suite. He managed to sound less than happy.
   The security monitor camera in the corridor followed them curiously as they walked down the corridor to the lift. Grace folded her arms in order to keep her stunner concealed but ready for use. The rest of the party stopped at suite 1218. Anderson and Grace carried on to the next door.
   "Ready?" asked Anderson.
   Grace nodded uncertainly.
   "Right, let's get it over with."
   Anderson placed his master disc on the door plate and pushed. The sitting room was in darkness. Anderson nodded towards the sleeping room. The figure on the bed lay still when he slid the door open, admitting a thin slice of light from the corridor. Anderson stepped into the room and switched on the light. The woman in the bed scarcely moved, but her hand slid under the pillow.
   "Security! Freeze!" shouted Grace, aiming her stunner.
   "Yes, we are hotel security, vreitan," added Anderson politely, displaying his identity card, He took a stunner from his shoulder holster and aimed it straight at the well-developed chest behind a pale blue sheet. Grace moved round the bed and lifted the pillow. Anderson relaxed slightly when his colleague she removed a small gas grenade. The hotel did not frown on such minor defensive weapons.
   "I am Commander Anderson," he announced in an ultra-formal tone. "Head of the hotel security unit. This is Senior Guard Grace."
   "What do you want?" Lillith Mellbury asked in a timid voice, dragging the sheet up to her neck.
   "I'm inquiring into the circumstances that led to a murderous assault on another guest, vreitan," explained Anderson in his formal voice. "I must warn you that I have an active recording device on my person and that anything you say can be given in evidence."
   "How dare you!" Lillith Mellbury tried indignation. "How dare you burst into my room like this. I demand to see the manager."
   "Get dressed, vreitan," said Anderson in a bored tone. "We both knew you did it. Your confession is just a formality. We've got enough on you to sink a saint."
   Anderson obligingly turned his back. Lillith Mellbury struggled into a dressing gown, muttering furiously. Grace remained facing the prisoner, stunner at the ready. Anderson led them into the sitting room. Lillith Mellbury came to a dead stop when she noticed Dorry and Cardinal. Sovershend and Katuishann were still in the corridor, listening.
   "Hello, Lilly," said Dorry gravely.
   "What the fervoek's going on?" she demanded, becoming her normal, assertive self.
   "All the way into the room, please, vreitan. And sit down, please." Grace resisted the temptation to prod Lillith Mellbury in the back with her stunner. Dorry had warned her that the prisoner would take her arm off if she tried it.
   "You know Vr. Dorry," said Anderson. "The other gentleman is Vr. Cardinal. A licensed investigator."
   "These are yours, I believe," said Cardinal, stepping to one side to reveal a sundered picollo plant in a plastic bag and two circuit modules on the table behind him.
   "You weren't bluffing," Lillith Mellbury said to Anderson.
   "No, vreitan," replied the security executive, hiding relief behind a mask of confidence.
   "Right," said Lillith Mellbury in resignation. "What happens now? Not that I'm admitting anything."
   "Why don't you just tell us about it, Lilly?" suggested
   "Let's keep it in the family for the moment," added Sovershend, stepping into the room.
   Lillith Mellbury leapt to her feet with a cry of anger. Katuishann grabbed a half-full bottle of uisge from the writing desk and prepared to use it as either a missile or a club.
   "Sit down, vreitan," said Grace firmly.
   "Tish!" said Sovershend. He prised the bottle from her hand. "Slide it for the moment. We're going to have a chat first. You can mince her later."
   "What now?" asked Anderson, running out of inspiration.
   "Thanks for your help," said Sovershend. "There won't be any trouble. Not in the hotel, anyway."
   Anderson looked relieved, but his training urged him to turn Lillith Mellbury over to the police. He looked to Cardinal for guidance.
   "It doesn't look like he's going to press charges, Andy." Cardinal shrugged. "There's nothing for you to do if there's no official complaint."
   "What about...?" Dorry nodded to Grace.
   "You can count on me, Chief," she said efficiently as she put her stunner into a side pocket.
   "All right," conceded Anderson. "I don't pretend to understand that's going on, but whatever it is seems to have been prevented. I'll take your master disc, vreitan," he added to Lillith Mellbury. "I'm sure you have no further plans for visiting other suites tonight."
   Lillith Mellbury went into the bedroom, watched closely by Grace, and returned with a small heap of components and a square of circuit board. Anderson stored them in a pocket, then he crossed the room to the door to the corridor.
   "I can't very well put you on the blacklist without giving a reason, vreitan," he told Lillith Mellbury. "But I don't expect to see you here again. Good night, everyone else. I hope the rest of your time here is very dull and uneventful. Come on, Grace."
   "I'll be going back to bed, then," said Lillith Mellbury when the door had closed again. "And I'll thank you lot to get lost."
   "Hang about, Lilly," said Sovershend. "You're not flying free yet. I want an explanation. And if I don't think it's reasonable, you're going to have an accident."
   "Are you going to stand there and watch him murder me?" Mellbury asked Dorry and Cardinal, trying helplessness.
   "In view of what you tried to do to him and his friend, I don't feel inclined to stand in his way," returned Cardinal in a neutral tone.
   "Come on, Lilly, tell us about it," urged Dorry. "You're not going to be any use to Ambrose if Dev cancels your membership card."
   "You too, Keith?" protested Mellbury, looking deeply hurt.
   "Don't give us the injured innocence, Lilly," sighed Dorry. "Be sensible."
   "All right," said Mellbury. "I had my chance and I fubbed it. And perhaps you ought to know what sort of madky sobok he is. Get me a drink, Keith. I know you set Ambrose up to cover your run," she added venomously to Sovershend. "And I wanted you to suffer for it." The firm set of her mouth relaxed somewhat when she turned to Katuishann. "There was nothing personal as far as you're concerned."
   "Nothing personal!" hissed Katuishann. "Let me at her."
   "Not yet, Tish." Sovershend tightened his grip on her. "I'm still waiting for something more than words, Lilly. I had nothing to do with dumping Ambrose in the madek. I had no reason to."
   "Lilly." Dorry handed her a glass.
   "Thanks, Keith." Mellbury poured neat uisge down her throat without tasting it and held out the glass for a refill. "You shouldn't have collected the bounty from the CustEx in person. You were seen."
   "You're dreaming!" said Sovershend in amazement. "Seen by you?"
   "By someone reliable," returned Mellbury. "We got a tip off about when the bounty would be paid."
   "And when was this?" demanded Sovershend.
   "You collected it at half-past ten this morning. At the back of the law courts, here in Dungard."
   "At half-ten, I was still tucked up in my bed, in spite of the cleaners' best efforts to winkle me out of my room," said Sovershend. "The hotel's emergency register can confirm that. So you're telling me that on the strength of some sobok's rotten eyesight, you tried to make me kill Tish?" Sovershend's voice had become level and deadly calm. "You're not safe to be out on your own, Lilly."
   "Bob Tork saw you, and he'll tell you so to your face," persisted Mellbury,
   "Bob Tork?" repeated Sovershend in surprise. Tork was another of his contacts in the North. "All right, there's nothing wrong with his eyes. But he's made a mistake. Our operation want so smoothly it didn't need any cover. The chap who thought it out is a bit of a genius at transport. And why Bekker, Lilly? I know we're not friends, but we're not rivals either. Wrecking Ambrose's organization wouldn't do me a bit of good. And where would I have got all the information on timetables and landing points? From Ambrose?"
   "That's a good point, Lilly," said Dorry, refusing to believe that Sovershend would inform on a fellow importer. "Nobody outside your organization could have known so much. Enough to wreck every bit of Ambrose's operation."
   "So you're trying to tell me it's just a coincidence?" said Lillith Mellbury scornfully. "That he's not working for the bunch that's been trying to sell Ambrose protection?"
   "Like who?" asked Sovershend.
   "A bunch of Belldans, as you well know."
   "All right, so I was linking for some Belldans." Sovershend shrugged. "But that's no reason to think it's the same bunch."
   "Suppose we do something a little more constructive than hurling accusations?" Cardinal suggested. He took a jade box the size of a compact dictionary from his case and set it on the writing desk. "Now, I know a truth meter isn't one hundred per cent reliable. But I doubt Vr. Sovershend has taken the precautions necessary to junk the results."
   "Just whose side are you on?" demanded Lillith Mellbury suspiciously,
   "It's not a question of sides," said Cardinal. "The object of an investigation should be to establish fact, no matter how inconvenient. I'd like to get on with that before we're hip-deep in dead bodies."
   "You want Dev to prove he's innocent?" said Katuishann, outraged. "After what that dobokandar vrag did? She's mad. She should be locked up."
   "It would be the quickest way of clearing the air," Cardinal pointed out. "What do you say, Vr. Sovershend? It looks to me as if you'll be outnumbered if you start a war with the Mellburys. It sounds a good way to come second."
   "That makes sense, Dev," added Dorry.
   "Since when did the victim of a murder attempt get the truth meter?" said Sovershend obstinately.
   Cardinal and Dorry just looked at him.
   "Go on, what do I have to do?" he surrendered. "Let's try your way."
   Cardinal waved him to a chair. He smeared electrodes with a conductive jelly and attached them to Sovershend's temples and wrists. Then he asked a series of questions, noting Sovershend's responses when his replies were the truth, a deliberate lie and evasion. The results of the test were fairly crude at that sort of level, but useable.
   "Right," said Cardinal, satisfied. "Did you inform on this lady's husband?" he added in the same breath.
   "No," returned Sovershend, feeling something of a fool.
   "Did you collect a bounty from the CustEx?"
   "Where were you at half-past ten this morning? Or yesterday morning, as it is now."
   "In bed asleep. I was up all night."
   "All responses have the character of truth," said Cardinal.
   "What's the name of the blonde? About twenty-five with a deep suntan?" demanded Lillith Mellbury.
   "I've never met her," returned Sovershend.
   "What about the small man? Dark hair, half gone. With jug ears and a stink of aniseed liqueur?"
   "No idea. Don't know him," said Sovershend.
   "Both responses truthful," said Cardinal.
   "Unless that was a character called Demirell," Sovershend added. "I never met him."
   "Demirell?" repeated Cardinal
   "That name slipped out," nodded Sovershend. "Something my Belldan contact said. Why, do you know him?"
   "Can't be the same one," said Cardinal.
   "Satisfied yet, Lilly?" said Dorry.
   "How about letting this box of tricks find that out?" Sovershend said. "So I know whether to arrange that accident."
   "All right, that's fair," nodded Lillith Mellbury. "I admit I was wrong about you. And I'll do it with that gadget strapped to me. I don't suppose we can shake hands and forget this, but for what it's worth, I'm sorry, Devrel. Everything pointed to you. And when Torky saw you... It must have been your double picking up that bounty. We're in your debt."
   "Aren't we going to break a few of her arms?" murmured Katuishann for Sovershend's ears only. She continued to keep a wary eye on Lillith Mellbury, despite the truce.
   "I wouldn't advise trying, korolan," replied Sovershend. "She's a lot stronger than she looks. And she knows every dirty trick in the book."
   Lillith Mellbury took Sovershend's place in the chair beside the writing desk. Cardinal connected the electrodes to her temples and wrists. After asking a series of questions to calibrate her responses, Cardinal allowed Sovershend to learn her intentions towards him. Satisfied that they were peaceable, Sovershend let Lillith Mellbury remove the electrodes and swab away the now sticky conductive jelly.
   "All right, Alex," said Dorry, looking extremely relieve that he had not been forced to choose between two friends, "what do you make of all this?"
   "Well, from what's been said," replied Cardinal, "and from what I remember from vid reports, it looks like some rival group has been trying to sell protection to Vr. Mellbury. And when that didn't stick, they using what was most probably inside information to arrange for him to come unstuck in a rather spectacular fashion. As for Vr. Sovershend's part in the affair, he seems to be a rather unnecessary scapegoat."
   "Tell us about the bounty, Lilly," said Sovershend. "Who told you I was collecting it?"
   "No one actually told me it was you," Lillith Mellbury admitted. "It was all very quick. I got a vid call to tell me someone had informed on Ambrose. About ten-fifteen. No picture and he was on the line long enough to tell me whoever it was would be picking up the bounty at the office behind the law courts very shortly and I had just about time to get someone there to watch."
   "Virtually an anonymous tip-off?" said Cardinal.
   "I suppose so," nodded Lillith Mellbury. "As I said, at the time I just accepted it and tried to find someone to be there to see it. Torky lives just off Tibbold Street, so he had just enough time to get there."
   "It sounds to me like Vr. Sovershend has upset someone," said Cardinal. "Someone who knew his movements and that he'd be here in Dungard yesterday morning. And clever enough to manipulate Va. Mellbury into becoming an unpaid assassin. Have you heard of a man called Emile Duncan?"
   "Crazy Emile?" said Lillith Mellbury. "Who hasn't?"
   "I haven't," offered Katuishann.
   "He was in your line of business. And he turned up on one of those islands in the Gulf of Meermond recently. Found drowned, according to the official report. I happen to know that because I wanted to ask him some questions in connection with other activities of his." Cardinal decided not to mention that he and Major Tarpigan had intended to take action against a generous contributor to PSF funds, but they had been beaten to the punch. "Duncan was knocked on the head and tipped into the sea. I caught a whisper he was suspected of being an informer but his closest colleagues denied it vigorously."
   "Are you suggesting there's some sort of conspiracy going on?" Sovershend asked. "Someone trying to set up a nation-wide protection scheme for the importing trade?"
   "I don't have anything as specific as that," said Cardinal. "Just a few odd facts, But there have been discussions in official police circles about something as lucrative as importing contraband goods attracting hardened criminals."
   "What about that business with Les Talbot a couple of weeks ago?" said Dorry. "She had a breakdown on the expressway with a load," he explained to Cardinal. "And when the Prots turned up, someone started shooting at them."
   "Art Summers," added Lillith Mellbury. "Blown up with his cargo a few months back. He was supposed to have been ambushed by 'lensters."
   "Every death isn't necessarily suspicious," Cardinal warned.
   "Just same," said Sovershend, "I don't think there's any doubt someone's had a go at Lilly and me. And Tish."
   "If you want a job, you could do some digging for me," said Lillith Mellbury. "And I could use a reliable intermediary to pay off my husband's fine."
   "I'm sure we can come to an arrangement." Cardinal handed her one of his business cards. He would have to contract out some of the work in view of his commitment to the Refuse Barons but Lillith Mellbury looked financially sound enough to accept Class 4 or even Class 5 charges without protest. "As there appears to be an information link between the people who tried to sell protection to your husband and the people Vr. Sovershend was working with," Cardinal added, "I think we can start with them. I'll need every scrap of information you can give me about them – names, descriptions, accents, likes and dislikes. The most trivial things are often the most useful."
   Cardinal, Sovershend and Lillith Mellbury went into a huddle around Cardinal's pocket memory, leaving Dorry and Katuishann to sit and yawn, and exchange a few remarks about nothing in particular.
   "Right," said Cardinal after ten minutes. "I think that's enough for a start. And I have a plane waiting for me." He glanced across the room at the electric clock. "Ten to one. I hope the pilot's still awake."
   "Before you go," said Lillith Mellbury, "how did you get on to me? Was I really so obvious?"
   "Well," said Cardinal with a hint of a smile, "at the risk of disillusioning a client, it tended to be by leaping to conclusions rather than slogging the problem out by pure elimination. But a little luck and a little specialized knowledge can smooth the path of any investigation wonderfully."
   "Let's hope you're even luckier with my case," remarked Lillith Mellbury.
   "Time I was getting home to bed," Dorry hinted. "And time I was letting the others know it's safe to head for theirs."
   "I'll see you out," said Sovershend. "Good night, Lilly. I'd like to say it was a pleasure meeting you again, but..."
   "We're very alike, Devrel," returned Lillith Mellbury with a wry smile. "I'm sure you understand how it was for me."
   "I'd like to think I'm not so trigger-happy. But I hope I don't get the chance to find out," said Sovershend.
   He sent Katuishann up to their suite with instructions not to open the door for anyone other than himself, hoping that a display of concern would smother thoughts of sneaking back to suite 1220 to start a fight.
   After escorting Dorry and Cardinal to street level, he took the fast lift to the thirteenth floor, feeling rather worn out from the excitement of the last two hours. When he closed the door of their suite, he found Katuishann hiding behind it, marivodka bottle raised to a clobbering position.
   "So that's where you are!" Sovershend remarked.
   "Just being careful," Katuishann told him. "It might have been that double of yours."
   "I'll say this for you, Tish. You're taking this very well. When you think what could have happened."
   "I know," shivered Katuishann. "But when you think about it, very little did. And you're always saying there's no point in being frightened of things that might have happened. Even so, it's a pity they don't have bigger bottles in this place. You might be friends with that woman now, but I still feel like splitting her skull."
   "Yes," laughed Sovershend, rubbing the back of his head, "I know how handy you are with a bottle, Remember that one you chucked at me?"
   "I didn't chuck it," protested Katuishann. "It was all wet from the cooler. It slipped out of my hand. Anyway, I missed you."
   "But I didn't miss that wall when I dodged. Neither did the bottle."
   "I warned you that chair was unsafe."
   "You don't tend to think of things like that when there's a bottle zooming towards you, korolan. And I still think I should have sued the hotel for having defective furniture."
   "I spent five minutes picking glass out of your hair before you came round," Katuishann remembered.
   "Tidying me up before the doctor arrived."
   "And the look on his face when you told him that story about how the cork came out with a rush and you fell over because of the chair."
   "Well, if I'd told him the truth, the hotel would have made a charge for his services. And we wouldn't have been presented with that demi-case of very drinkable wine. Not that it was any of his business what really happened. And it kept you out of gaol for common assault."
   "I seem to remember a certain person telling me he wanted to keep me handy for when he'd plotted his revenge."
   "I don't think I ever got even with you for that," mused Sovershend.
   "I'll get that nice private investigator back to protect me," said Katuishann with a provocative smile.
   "Fancy him, do you?"
   "I'm sure he's very nice when he's not busy investigating."
   "He'll be half way to Leviton now, so you're on your own."
   "Want to try something, maccar?" Katuishann adopted a defensive pose, the marivodka bottle held in her left hand, her right hand ready to deliver an outward chop.
   "You wouldn't hit an unarmed man, would you?" Sovershend took a step forward, just into range of the bottle.
   "Don't bet on it." Katuishann tried to take a step backwards, but she came up against the wall. Sovershend took another step forward. Katuishann tapped him on the head gently. "Consider yourself bonked."
   Sovershend sagged at the knees and collapsed onto the green and black tufted carpet without a sound. Katuishann prodded him in the ribs with a toe. "Come on, get up."
   The inert body stayed up.
   "Dev?" Katuishann dropped to her knees beside him. "Dev?"
   Sovershend opened his left eye. "I'm waiting for you to come down here and give me the kiss of life to revive me." The eye closed again.
   "That sounds like fun," laughed Katuishann. "What is it?"
   "Come a bit closer and I'll show you," offered Sovershend.

previous section
next section

Created for RLC by HTSP Web Division, 10 SK6 4EG, Romiley, G.B. © Philip Turner 2005.