There were better ways to start the week. There were better ways to die.
Detective Sergeant Darkwood stared blankly at the corpse for a few seconds, nausea and terror battling for supremacy inside his head. A burned-out corpse was lying on its back next to the drinks machine, surrounded by an uneven pile of thin black ash. A terrible stench of charred flesh filled the air, along with a repulsive acrid smoke, and Darkwood covered his mouth with his free sleeve in an attempt to ward it off.
The cadaver’s crisp blue shirt bore a jagged, blackened hole around the stomach area, and the exposed midriff of the victim had suffered a nauseatingly similar wound. Through the sickening pall of smoke rising from the body, an actinic green-blue flame was visible, burning fiercely in the pit of the corpse’s stomach.
Darkwood narrowed his streaming, red-rimmed eyes, and choked his way back through the stinging fumes. There was an efficient whirring from above, and the sprinklers hissed into life. As the detective sank to the blackened carpet, more through lack of higher brain functions than any conscious attempt to escape the smoke, the artificial rain did its best to wash away the evidence.
DS Black’s lighter hovered warily in the air for a moment, inches from the tip of an unlit cigarette. The smoker frowned slightly, and flicked the lighter off. The clean orange flame died. The wailing fire alarm grumbled into silence.
“Well,” said Black, removing the cigarette from his mouth and tucking it neatly into his jacket pocket. “I must say I applaud the station’s new anti-smoking scheme. A mite close to overkill, perhaps, but I can see it working.”
He screeched the window into a closed position, and strode back over to his desk, collapsing expertly into his shiny leather chair. “Very efficient, anyway,” he said, obviously impressed, “How’s it done, then, Crowley? Tiny hidden smoke sensors? Infra- red? Magic?”
Detective Inspector David Crowley looked up from his computer. He sniffed the air thoughtfully. “Coincidence,” was his verdict. The Newcomer winced a bit as he detected the faint scent of cooked meat hanging in the air. “Canteen staff have burnt something. Can’t you smell it?”
Stephen Black warily inhaled deeply through the nose, but, being a mere human, and a human with a rather bad cold at that, failed to register anything. “No,” he said. “Not the sausages, is it?” he added, with a vague trace of concern.
Crowley had wandered over to the CID office door. He pushed it open about a complaining hinge, and, poking his head out into the corridor, gave a few critical sniffs.
He froze, his face swiftly claimed by nausea, and his irises faded to a terrified shade of grey.
Black rightly thought something to be amiss. “What is it?”
“Charred flesh,” said Crowley, disappearing purposefully out into the corridor. “Tenctonese.”
“Could well be the sausages, then,” mumbled Black to nobody, looking for his notebook.
Keith Darkwood croaked and spluttered helplessly in the car park of Vyse Street police station, taking in the thinly polluted Birmingham air and hoping it’d do him some good. He waved his unbandaged arm at DI Morgan, who’d helped him stagger out of the station into slightly healthier environs.
“I’ll be fine,” he said, falteringly, although his heart clearly wasn’t in it.
“You’re sure you’re alright?”
Keith coughed horribly. The mild toxic poisoning had given him a skin tone that was rather more pallid and yellow than it usually was, and his left arm was firmly bandaged after a knife wound of weeks previous. If mummified Egyptian corpses had worn dark suits and sported untidy haircuts, Darkwood could have mingled with the best of them.
“As alright as I ever get,” he croaked. He looked up as Crowley emerged from the station, fiddling absently with his portable phone. Despite the chill October wind, the Tenctonese detective was casually wearing a thin short-sleeved shirt. David Crowley was one of some two-thousand Newcomer slaves bred to labour in sub-zero temperatures - most of them had moved over to Britain soon after arriving on the planet.
“Just been talking to the Newcomer department at Birmingham General,” he explained, waggling the cellphone as if proof were required. He joined Darkwood and Morgan. “It’s nothing serious, apparently. They think you probably just inhaled...” Crowley followed this up with a rather strange noise, which seemed to involve the use of his nasal passages at some point. He made a wretched sort of face.
“Was that the name of a Newcomer chemical, or a sneeze?” said Darkwood warily.
“A sneeze,” sniffed Crowley, and rubbed at his nose. “I have a cold,” he explained. The sub-zero Newcomers had proved particularly susceptible to the current strain that was touring the British Isles. Darkwood found it all vaguely amusing.
“Be careful, then,” said he, waggling a finger in admonishment. “That’s what got the Martians, in the end.”
“Really?” said Morgan, doubtfully, “I thought it was just general Earth bacteria that killed them?”
“The common cold,” insisted Darkwood, with little conviction.
Crowley’s eyes narrowed. “What are you two talking about?” he asked, somewhat cautiously.
“Earth was invaded by Martians back in ’53,” said Darkwood, in all seriousness. “Landed over in New Jersey, they did. Grover’s Mill. Big metal spaceships, heat rays and stuff. Wiped out by the common cold, in the end. Surely you heard about that?”
David stared blankly at Darkwood for a few seconds, and tried to decide if this was a joke or not. It was something of an old tradition between Crowley and Darkwood, this, started back in ’92, the year they’d both joined the force. Neither of them had known anything about the other’s culture, back then. Sat killing time in the station canteen, Crowley had jokingly claimed that he could digest polystyrene cups. Keith had effortlessly responded with dire warnings about the alligators that lived in Birmingham’s canal system, and the game was born. Scoring any points in it had become more and more difficult over the past six years, of course, but Crowley was still winning by a clear two dozen.
“Piffle,” accused Crowley, the standard response. He pointed a dramatically wavering finger at Darkwood, who nodded guiltily.
“Anyway. It looks as if you inhaled a bit of ackhian,” said David, looking through his biroed notes. He glanced up at Darkwood, who was obviously on the brink of asking whether that was another sneeze or not. Crowley didn’t give him the chance. He plunged on.
“It’s a chemical produced by the mata gland in adult gannaums, evidently thrown out when the body was burning - that should explain the greenish flame, anyway. The chemical’s slightly toxic to humans, if directly inhaled, but not too serious. You’ll be fine in an hour or two.”
“Splendid,” said Darkwood weakly.
“Any news on what actually happened to Paul, incidentally?” said Morgan. Paul Bearer was the Newcomer police officer currently lying next to the drinks machine looking like the aftermath of an overly enthusiastic barbecue. After the air had been cleared, a group of forensics had turned up to peer critically at the cinders. They’d been shrugging at each other, more than anything.
Crowley shook his head bleakly. “Nothing yet,” he said. “The sprinklers have apparently ruined the crime scene a bit. They think it was probably a welding torch or something, that got him, though; the ribcage has actually been reduced to ashes. A normal fire wouldn’t get anywhere near the temperature required there, not in the time it had to do its work in.”
“Even crematoria can’t completely reduce corpses to ash,” commented Darkwood, throwing in a bit of morbid trivia from his collection. “They have to grind the bones down afterwards.”
Crowley shrugged, and flipped away his notebook. “You’re sure you didn’t see anybody else there, though?” he asked.
There was an almost audible click as Darkwood’s sarcasm switched on. “Oh, now you come to mention it, yes,” sneered Darkwood. “Yes. There was a bloke holding a damn great welding torch to Paul’s stomach. He had a couple of bloody great acetylene tanks with him, so he probably ran off quite quickly.”
He was beginning to sympathise with the general public, who were invariably unimpressed when CID turned up and asked them to repeat what they’d just explained at length to the uniformed officers. “Nobody else was there. I have said this already,” he added, bitterly. “Twice.”
“There was a lot of smoke about - you’re sure you didn’t see anyone?”
“Yes,” said Darkwood, pointedly. “I’m sure.”
Crowley shrugged, and decided to await the official forensic verdict. “Back to the office, then,” he said. He glanced at Darkwood, who still looked unnervingly like a plague victim in a shirt and tie. “If you’re up to it.”
Keith shrugged non-committally, and awkwardly adjusted his sling. “I’m never up to it,” he grumbled. The three detectives headed for the door.
DS Black spluttered in loud disgust, and spat a mouthful of tea into - more through luck than judgement - the nearby wastebin. Normally a black-coffee drinker, he’d opted for a milk-and-sugar darjeeling when the drinks machine had denied him his usual. He couldn’t see himself making that mistake again.
“I don’t know how you can drink this stuff,” he scowled, raising the flimsy plastic cup as Darkwood strode into the office. “Nice tan, by the way,” he added. “Chernobyl, was it?”
Darkwood grinned sarcastically at Stephen, and plucked the tea from his desk. “Darjeeling?” he mused. Black nodded.
“I’ve got ackhian poisoning, or something,” grumbled Darkwood, and swigged back a mouthful of the brew. He would have gone on to comment on Paul Bearer’s unpleasant death and make some sneezing jokes, but had a sudden and rather dramatic urge to empty his mouth. The contents of the wastebin received another rain of unwanted darjeeling.
“Ye gods,” he spat, wiping his tongue on the back of his hand and wincing horribly. He carefully placed the demon cup on Black’s desk. “What the hell is that?”
“Drinks machine tea, so I’m told.” Stephen regarded the drink with a wary terror. “Shall we bag it for forensic?”
Darkwood ran his tongue over his teeth, and grimaced weakly. “Perhaps.”
Crowley and Morgan entered the office, nodding a greeting to the reluctant tea-drinkers and heading for
David sniffed the air quizzically, and joined Darkwood and Black at the latter’s desk. He peered down at the mysterious cup of tea through darkening irises, and glanced dubiously up at the two human detectives.
“Do either of you want this?” he asked.
Black and Darkwood shook their heads fearfully. “It’s bloody poisoned, or something,” was Black’s conspiratorial view of the whole thing. He leaned back in his chair and made with the paranoid glances.
“Nonsense,” said Crowley. He picked up the cup and drained it in a couple of swigs. Black and Darkwood looked on with open incredulity. “Nothing wrong with it,” was David’s verdict, and he crumpled the cup into a jagged plastic mess, dropping it neatly into the bin. “A bit warm, perhaps,” he added, with a shrug. Given the preference, British Newcomers preferred their drinks cold.
Stephen and Keith exchanged mystified looks.
“The milk’s just a bit sour,” explained Crowley, with a shrug, returning to his desk. He frowned at the random scattering of papers for a while, his irises swirling through the darker corners of the spectrum. A quick shake of the head cleared it. “The drinks machine in question was probably overlooked this morning,” he added, by way of an explanation.
“All the better for us lot, anyway. Think I’ll nip down and mark it–” Crowley suddenly gave an impressive sneeze, which faded away into some depressed muttering. “Damn this cold,” he grumbled, sniffing. He wrenched open his desk drawer and fished out a tiny cardboard box emblazoned with the word “Ecrudex” in bold green letters. On its front was a silhouetted side-view of an unmistakably Tenctonese head, the nose and throat highlighted in a dramatically bright shade of orange.
“Cold cure, is that?” mused Black, doing his bit of police deduction for the day.
“Apparently,” said Crowley. “The latest thing from the boys and girls at Diamos Pharmaceuticals. Haven’t you seen the ad?”
Darkwood looked up. “Not that one with the flu-suffering Newcomer talking to the pretty young hospital receptionist, is it?” He’d sat there and watched it a few times, trying vainly to work out what the Tenctonese conversation translated to. “Where she slaps him?”
“Because he asks if he can see the doctor, yes. It’s a terrible joke, really.”
“Joke?” said Darkwood doubtfully.
“Well, I use the word ’joke’ in its loosest sense,” said David. He slid a finger underneath the cardboard flap of the box, and tugged out a foil-covered tray of brightly-coloured pills. “It really only works in Tenctonese, anyway, which is why they didn’t bother dubbing an English version of it.”
“Plus, of course, the drug’s fatal to humans,” commented Morgan cheerfully. “And the purchasing power of potential suicides must be fairly minimal, if only from a brand loyalty viewpoint.”
“Fatal?” said Darkwood fearfully.
“Well, it can be,” said Morgan. “The drug’s rigged for the Tenctonese physiology, so it’s rather too powerful for humans. One Ecrudex is roughly equal to three-hundredparacetamol, I think.”
“Ah,” said Keith, not a little warily. He peered across the room at the tiny orange pills. Hard to imagine that such innocent looking things could be so dangerous. “Thanks for the tip.”
Somebody cleared their throat, in the theatrical manner employed only to get attention. Four heads turned to face the door to the DCI’s office. Crowley, who’d been rather enjoying his temporary position of authority these past few weeks, groaned silently. DCI Richard Chesterton was back.
“Morning all,” said that very man, smiling falsely and waggling a beige cardboard folder at the world. “We have a new case. Who’s not doing anything?”
Darkwood remained silent, and gestured grimly at his computer screen. A fiendish-looking piece of spreadsheet software glowed out at him. He still hadn’t forgiven Stephen for mentioning that he, Darkwood, could type adequately with just his right hand.
Black grinned vaguely. “I’ve got some leads to follow up on the pub burglaries,” he said, looking smug. A couple of the local drinking houses had lost a few barrels and bottles in recent weeks. He glanced over at an empty desk. “Smith’s got some house- to-house planned for Greenwood, I think.”
The two detectives shrugged blankly. “Nothing that can’t wait,” said the first. He raised what passed for his eyebrows, and rose from his chair. “What have we got, then?”
“A suspicious death in a house out in the suburbs,” said Chesterton.
“A Newcomer burned to death in his living room some time last night, down Harborne way,” shrugged the DCI. “Possibly just an accident with a cigarette or something; we’re not sure. SOCO’s on the scene as we speak - take a look at it, if you would.”
“On our way,” said Crowley. He patted his pockets experimentally, and sighed in defeat. Half a mile away, Maelstrom the goldfish peered at David’s car keys through the glass of his bowl. A mile or so in the other direction, a garage mechanic sat on the bonnet of David’s car, drank his third tea of the morning and looked at the pictures in his newspaper.
“You’re driving, then, Morgan.”
“Sorry,” said Crowley bleakly, wiping the dashboard with his handkerchief. He sniffed wretchedly, and surveyed the spattered plastic surface. He dabbed at it further. “Sorry,” he said again.
“I thought Newcomers just blinked a lot when they had a cold,” said Morgan, with evidently pointless optimism.
“Normally yes,” said Crowley. He produced another handkerchief from a pocket and polished the dashboard back to its former glory. “This particular strain seems to be bringing out the worst in us, though.”
The Fiat drew to a halt in Ferncliffe Road, finding a space between a squad car and an ambulance. Crowley clambered from the passenger door and took in a lungful of suburban air. Situated upwind from the industrial centre of Birmingham, the usual thin trace
of pollutants was absent. Crowley rather missed
A few dozen straggly trees rose from muddy circles of soil at the roadside, determinedly hanging onto a few leaves despite the closing of the year. Identical semi-detached houses sat behind identical front gardens, bordered with oppressively tall and sturdy hedges.
“Nice place,” said Morgan, emerging from her side of the car. Her breath clouded opaquely in the chill October air. Crowley’s didn’t.
“Not bad for a Newcomer, anyway,” he conceded, with a half- impressed shrug. Crowley and Morgan approached the scene of the potential crime. It wasn’t terribly inconspicuous - uniformed officers stood around in the garden looking purposeful, and an ambulance crew was emerging dejectedly from the front door. The crackle of police radios broke the otherwise peaceful morning.
Crowley made his way into 37 Ferncliffe Road, pausing only to sneer at the pebble-dashing. Morgan followed him in.
She sniffed the air momentarily, and didn’t flinch. It was marginally more unpleasant than the station canteen after an overcooked lamb curry had been perpetrated, but bearable.
Crowley nearly vomited. He gagged and retched, eventually covering his grimacing mouth with a soiled handkerchief. Disgusted, muffled mumblings made themselves heard through the cloth.
“Morning sir, ma’am,” said the scene-of-crime officer, who was stood in the living room with a clipboard and a doubtful sort of expression.
As the detectives strolled through into the room, Morgan’s reaction to events was suddenly as bad as Crowley’s. Sprawled in an armchair facing the television was the owner of the house, or at least what remained of him. The majority of his torso was a hollow, blackened wreck, and his limbs had suffered horrific burns. A bulbous Tenctonese skull lolled grimly to one side on the headrest, the flesh toasted cleanly away from the bone.
The whole scene was illuminated with a faintly purplish light. Morgan turned to the bay windows in the front wall, and regarded the dark pink coating on the glass. She shuddered involuntarily.
Crowley had since overcome his nausea and was warily examining the corpse. He mumbled incoherently, grinned faintly beneath his mask and briefly removed the handkerchief from his mouth and nose. “What’s your theory?” he croaked.
The forensic pointed to the coffee table in the centre of the room. Next to a half-empty milk bottle was a half-full ashtray. Beneath the light covering of greasy cinder that had fallen throughout the room, a few cigarette stubs were visible.
“We’re going for ’carelessness’, at the moment,” said the SOCO, shrugging. “Fell asleep with a cigarette in his hand, and burnt himself to death. Seems likely enough.”
Morgan smiled knowingly, and nodded in a prompting fashion at Crowley. She got a blank look in return. “What?” said David, suspiciously.
“Newcomers don’t smoke, remember?” she said. It was true; nicotine could have very unfortunate effects on the Tenctonese. DS Black often had to waft his cigarette smoke out of the office window if he didn’t want to witness the spectacle of Crowley coughing his lungs up.
“Er,” said Crowley. “Er, yes. We do, actually.”
“Afraid so. We react badly to tobacco smoke, of course, but there’s all sorts of other rubbish we can attack our lungs with,” explained David. He looked almost apologetic.
Crowley turned to the forensic. “Any sign of anyone else having been in the house?” he asked. The SOCO shook his head.
“No,” he said, “Mr. de Fey apparently lived on his own; there’s no sign of a forced entry, and the carpet of ash hadn’t been disturbed when we got here. We’ll have to take a closer look to be sure, but I don’t think we’re looking at a murder.”
“Most likely an accidental death, then?” said Morgan, asking rather than suggesting.
“Either that or a very level-headed suicide,” shrugged the forensic. “There’s no sign of any traditional accelerants being used; once we’ve done the toxicology and our Tenctonese expert has ruled out the chemicals given off by a burning Newcomer body, we’ll see what we’ve got left.”
“Hmm,” said Crowley. “But you think it’s possible that this was all caused by a careless cigarette?” he asked, waving a hand at the carbonized remains of the Newcomer. It did seem a bit unlikely, really. Even DS Black managed to wake up when he dropped a lit cigarette on his trousers.
“Very probably, we suspect,” nodded the forensic. “There’s an empty milkbottle on the table - he was probably too drunk to do anything about the fire when it started.”
“You’re sure the fire was the cause of death, then?” wondered Morgan, who liked to wonder things like that. “Not a cover-up for a more betraying form of murder, perhaps?”
“Difficult to be sure,” shrugged the SOCO. “As I say, once we’ve had a better look, we should be able to find out if anyone else had been in the house. The actual cause of death is rather harder to check - as you can see, the corpse has been torched almost completely. Again, we’ll have to wait before we can rule out the use of an unknown accelerant. There are some pretty weird chemicals in the ash, but –” he grinned bleakly at David, “you blokes have got some pretty weird chemicals in you to begin with.”
Crowley glanced up from the blackened cadaver and smiled faintly at the forensic officer. “Well, I’ll leave you to get on with it,” he said.
The SOCO nodded, and returned to his work. Crowley and Morgan strode from the ash-covered living room of the late Mr. de Fey.
DS Black rose awkwardly from the pavement, and groggily span around, trying to focus. He pressed his hand to his nose, which was hurting like hell, and he wouldn’t have been vastly surprised to learn that it was broken. His palm came away with blood on it, and the detective groaned.
“Right,” he said, waggling a threatening finger at Rob
Erbank. His voice carried a nasty mix of anger and
determination, and he was doing his best to restrain himself from taking revenge. It was probably a good thing that the British police didn’t carry guns, at least in the case of this particular officer. “You’re bloody nicked, you are,” added Black. He fumbled clumsily through his pockets in search of handcuffs. “And don’t bloody try anything, either.”
Erbank, a tall, gruff-looking Newcomer, eyed Black with distaste. In his left hand he held a sturdy “Milk is Thine Enemy” placard, which now had a colourful streak of human blood running across it. There was an organisation behind all this, apparently; the Arcleaclay Group, religiously campaigning that sour milk did unhelpful things to the Tenctonese soul. Posters had been going up in prominent places throughout the city, and they’d staged some sort of protest march outside a brewery last week.
Black has turned up to the Cooper’s Arms on his pub-crawl burglary investigations, only to find Erbank standing by the door acting as an unofficial bouncer for any Newcomers who fancied a swift half. Stephen’s attempt to sort matters out had gone rather badly, as his bleeding nose testified.
“Handcuffs, handcuffs,” muttered the detective under his breath, as if the mantra would summon the things into existence within his pockets. It failed to work, as ever, and they remained firmly in his desk drawer. He swore a bit, and grappled with his radio.
“Backup requested at the Cooper’s Arms, Nightingale Road,” said Black numbly, speaking into his radio. “A Newcomer’s just...”
A placard clattered to the pavement. Stephen groaned inwardly, and looked up. Further along the pavement, Erbank was climbing into a car. Black dithered awhile before clambering into his own. He battled with the ignition.
“...buggered off, the bastard. He’s driving a dark red...” Black squinted at the escaping car, which was now speeding off in the direction of the city centre. Not being a great expert on cars, Stephen faltered. “A dark red estate,” he concluded, lamely. “Didn’t get the number. Am in pursuit. Assistance required.”
The engine of Black’s Cortina coughed unhealthily. He gave up on the ignition, and awarded the dashboard a few angry thumps. Violence was his usual method of attempted engine repair, despite the system’s poor track record. That and swearing.
“Bastard bastard bastard,” he observed, punching the steering wheel and rattling it about angrily. The car sat there in with a sullen lack of enthusiasm. One of the more arcane dashboard lights gave a few half-hearted blinks, and the defunct car-stereo gurgled quietly. “You’re doing this on bloody purpose, aren’t you?”
There was a moment of silence. “I’m sorry?” said a hesitant voice on his radio.
“Ah. Sorry. Wasn’t talking to you,” he said, grinning weakly for all the good it would do him.
“Oh, and correction, control,” he added, with a sigh. The air condition made a sniggering sort of rasping noise. “Am no longer in pursuit.”
“A dark red Volvo, Newcomer driver?” Darkwood saidto his radio. He was stood on the pavement just down the road from the station, carrying a six-pack of fizzy drink. After the nasty experience with the tea this morning, Darkwood’s deep distrust of the station’s vending machines had fallen to lower and bleaker levels. Black’s latest jokey conspiracy theory was that PC Bearer had died after drinking a cup of the infamous vending machine oxtail soup, and Keith wasn’t taking any chances.
“Yes,” said the voice of the conspiracy theorist himself, via the lower echelons of the electromagnetic spectrum. “Big bloke. Forehead like a bar-code.”
“He’s here,” said Darkwood. Parked at the currently-red traffic lights was a the car in question, Robert Erbank idly drumming his fingers on the dashboard and peering nervously into his rear-view mirror.
“What, in the office?” said Black, but Keith wasn’t listening. He’d clumsily slipped a can of cola from its plastic-ringed container and was deftly sloshing it from side to side as he approached the car. The lights were still red. Darkwood tapped cheerily on the passenger window with his free hand. Erbank glanced over at him distractedly. There was a dull whirr as the Newcomer thumbed the relevant button and the glass slid downwards.
“Clean your windscreen, sir?” said Keith, peering in at the driver. There was a clunk, a hiss, and Robert Erbank received an unexpected faceful of thoroughly-shaken fizzy drink. Sugar, water, caffeine, numerous mysterious chemicals with numbers for names, and - most importantly - lots of carbon dioxide.
As the sticky brown liquid dribbled down the Newcomer’s suddenly blank face, Darkwood reached in and unlocked the door. Erbank fumbled groggily with the gearstick, before losing most of his consciousness and collapsing forward onto the steering wheel.
The horn blared. Darkwood grinned.
“Three crates of White Gold and a barrel of...”
Phil the barman shrugged. “Glihab something,” he concluded, and glowered pointedly at a Newcomer who’d just slunk in through the now unguarded doorway. “Some cheap slag muck.”
“Glihablazichni?” hazarded DS Black, looking up from his laptop. There were really only four major brands of sour milk, and, after a week of inquiries on the pub thefts, he’d very nearly got to the point where he could pronounce them all.
“Probably,” yawned Phil, who was a bit xenophobic and couldn’t really care less. “I only stock it on the brewery’s orders.”
Black tapped away at the keyboard of his computer, producing a few efficient bleeps and whirrs. “And just the one barrel, you say?”
“It’s all I had.”
Stephen nodded, and stabbed at his laptop’s keypad. “No alcohol stolen, though?” he added.
Phil shook his head. “Not a drop,” he said. “God knows why they didn’t help themselves to the whisky or something; sour milk’s virtually bloody worthless compared to some of the stuff I’ve got down there.”
That had been the case in several of the recent pub burglaries, and Black was beginning to suspect that a Tenctonese gang was stocking up. A couple of pubs had lost some alcohol, but that was probably just a half-hearted attempt to cover things up. Every burglary had taken place in pubs that stocked Tenctonese drinks, and the cellars had been emptied of sour milk in each case.
The two humans looked up as a Newcomer joined them at the bar. She cleared her throat. “We’ve only got canned,” said the barman, in the surliest voice he could manage.
“Fine,” said Kathryn Wheel, and sniffed a bit. Phil took a half-litre can of White Gold from the shelves behind him, and thumped it onto the bartop.
“One ninety-eight,” he announced gruffly, and Kathryn handed him a couple of pound coins. Phil wandered off to the till, grumbling.
Black smiled weakly at Kathryn. He was always vaguely uncomfortable around Tenctonese women. He’d once misread a pregnant male Newcomer’s gender and such memories always unnerved him when he met a linnaum. It was the lack of hair, as well; at least his fellow humans had some sort of distinguishing cranial decoration, rather than - it seemed to him - an unreadable random spattering of pigment.
Oh, and there was their third sex as well, of course, just to make things even worse.
“Got a cold, have you?” he said, eventually, not being able to come up with any better conversation openers.
“Er, yes,” said Kathryn. “Can’t seem to shift it.”
“Hmm,” Black tried to look sympathetic, but didn’t really have the face for it. “Have you tried Ecrudex?” he asked.
Kathryn nodded, seeming surprised that a human would suggest it. “I took a few this morning, yes. They’ve cleared it a bit, but it’s still there,” she said, and sniffed again.
Black gave one of his typical funny-old-world shrugs.“A man on the moon yet we can’t cure the common cold,” he said, hopelessly.
“Superluminal spacecraft translocation and we can’t either,” said Kathryn. “What hope is there?”
“What hope indeed.”
Barman Phil returned from the till, bearing tuppence. He slid it across the bartop, slaloming it through a few sticky rings of spilt alcohol.
“There,” he said, still surly.
“Thank you,” said Kathryn, and pocketed the coin. She levered open the ringpull of her drink and took a mouthful of sour milk. Black smiled weakly, trying to ignore the unpleasant smell.
“Well, I must be off,” said the linnaum, picking up her bag from the bartop. “Nice talking to you.”
“Likewise,” said DS Black, somewhat surprised.
“See you again, perhaps.”
He sat on his stool in a thoughtful and somewhat dazed silence, watching Kathryn walk out of the pub door. Strange thoughts sailed through the detective’s brain. It had been a while since a female of any species had shown any interest in him. Usually his deeply suspicious and conspiratorial brain put paid to any attempt at a proper relationship. That and a somewhat grim face that looked very much at home in front of a suspicious and conspiratorial brain.
He looked up at Phil, who looked as if he’d just finished saying something.
“Hmm?” said Black warily.
“I said, is that it? Are you done?”
“What?” He pulled himself together. “Oh. Yes. No problem. Thanks for your time.” He tapped distractedly at his laptop for a few seconds, before clicking it shut and rising from his barstool. “Cheerio,” he said vaguely, heading for the door.
“Here, don’t I get an insurance reference?” called Phil. Black turned around.
“Hmm? Bugger, yes. Sorry,” He folded his laptop open again, and began stabbing angrily at its tiny keyboard. “Won’t be a minute,” he said.
Phil went off to polish a few glasses, while Stephen battled helplessly with his portable computer. He squinted into its printer slot and prodded at it with the sharp end of his biro.
There was a scream from outside, and the detective looked up, his face vanishing into a shadow. It had been a female scream. Certain pessimistic areas of Black’s brain were making pretty good guesses as he sprinted clumsily out into the street.
“Control to all units,” said Black’s radio, lying unregarded on the bartop next to his computer. “Assault reported on Nightingale Road. Please respond.”
Phil looked slowly to the door, shrugged, and went back to polishing a glass.
“341 to control,” said Morgan. “Crowley and myself are on our way to the scene of assault.” Her partner sniggered weakly at the irony, and regarded the gridlocked rush hour traffic.
“Where are we, anyway?” he queried, sitting up and giving the scenery his attention.
“Bristol Street, I think.”
“Oh,” said the Newcomer, taking a quick look at his mental map of the city. “It’s just down the
end of the road, then. I’ll get out and walk. See you
He tugged at a likely-looking handle on the door. The window squeaked down a few inches.
“It’s that one,” said Morgan wearily, pointing to another handle on the inside of the passenger door. “Unless you’re trying to be dramatic and exciting.”
“No,” said Crowley, pushing open the passenger door and thudding it against the car next to Morgan’s Fiat. He squeezed out through the slim gap it afforded him, and wondered if he’d have been better off climbing out of the window in the first place. “No, not quite my style. I could sprint over the car rooftops, though, if you like.”
“Just do your job, Crowley.”
In the shadows of thought, a night-black shape opened its eyes. It stretched its tattered wings and blinked pensively at its unfamiliar environs. A jagged mouth frowned uneasily. A hesitant talon prodded invisible walls.
Something was different. The darkness of this mind was tinged with strange, new colours. Something had gone wrong.
The dark wraith gently closed its eyes. It would wait.
It had little choice.
Black grappled numbly for a radio that wasn’t there, planning to call an ambulance that wouldn’t have helped. Kathryn Wheel was lying face-up on the grimy pavement, a large section of her torso burnt clean away. Varying-coloured flame guttered in the pit of her stomach, and Stephen pulled off his jacket. He patted it against the blackened mess, extinguishing the half-hearted blaze.
Stephen lapsed into a vaguely automatic police response, ordering the assembled crowd of passers-by to keep their distance. “Did anyone see anything?” he heard himself say, warily scanning line-of-sight windows for bizarrely-armed snipers.
This is just bloody typical, he thought. Bloody typical. Thanks very much, whoever’s running the universe. Someone shows half an interest in me for once, and they get struck by bloody lightning ten seconds later. DS Black glowered up at the sky, half- expecting to see a tiny thundercloud scudding back to the gods now that its job had been done. Bastards. He shook a fist at the overcast sky. A few pigeons croaked back at him.
A heavy hand clapped Black on the shoulder. “Are you alright, Steve?” It was Crowley.
Black’s gaze returned from its baleful examination of the heavens, alighted briefly on the concerned face of DI Crowley, and fell to Kathryn’s blasted corpse. “No,” he said. “No, I’m bloody well not.”
“Did you know her?” said David, carefully.
“No,” Black shook his head. “Probably not.” He grimaced vaguely and took in a deep lungful of inner-city air, trying to purge the fog that had suddenly claimed his brain.
David looked down at the dead Newcomer, and lifted Stephen’s smoking jacket. He grimaced, and took up a thoughtful look. The stomach area had been charred to cinders in a similar way to that of Bearer and de Fey - something was going on here. He was sure there was a Tenctonese legend about this sort of thing, somewhere. There was a Tenctonese legend for pretty much everything, if you knew where to look. He’d have to ask Morfran about this one.
David shook his head vaguely. “Should be able to get a tissue scan, anyway,” he decided. “Have you got your computer with you?”
Black gave a weak, hopeless shrug, not taking his eyes off the dead Tenctonese woman. “It’s, er,” he sighed, “It’s back in the pub.” A vague and needless gesture indicated where the Cooper’s Arms was. “Sorry.”
“So,” he said, and glanced up at the assembled crowd. Their attention was currently divided between him and the corpse, according to their individual ideas of street entertainment. If any of the audience had been responsible for the death of Kathryn Wheel, presumably they’d long gone.
Black turned to Crowley, and groggily rubbed a hand over his stubbled chin. He scratched his nose. “Probably best if we, er, commandeer the pub to take statements, sir,” he said. “I assume DI Morgan’s on her way?”
David nodded. “I’ll see if we can rustle up a few plods, as well,” he said. “You get the body sorted, I’ll organise the statements.”
“Be with you in a minute,” said Black. “Oh, and look after these,” he added, pushing a half-empty packet of cigarettes and a lighter into his superior’s hand. “I can’t face them.”
Crowley turned to the crowd of onlookers, and began politely shouting at them. Detective Sergeant Stephen Black headed back to the pub for his computer. And - forget the rules - a big, big drink.
“We’ve got a dozen witnesses who saw you hit DS Black with the placard - even if you did think he was a member of the public, you’re still breaking the law,” growled DS Darkwood, playing the less pleasant half of the nice-cop-nasty-cop cliché for all it was worth. He’d untied and untidied his hair, and had placed a cigarette between his sneering lips. He had made to light it a few times during the interview, but had flown off on an angry tangent every time. DC Smith sat next to him, looking attentive and concerned.
“We’ve also got tissue traces on the placard,” he added, with a scowl. “And the boys at the lab have matched them up with your DNA profile. So don’t–” The non-smoker waggled his unlit cigarette at Robert Erbank, “don’t think for a minute that you’ll get away with this.”
Darkwood gave a final sneer and leaned back in his plastic chair, awaiting Erbank’s response. He really, really hoped he wouldn’t have to light the cigarette.
Robert turned to his duty brief - Jonah Varque, a smartly- dressed middle-aged Newcomer who had the arrogant look of an Overseer about him - and raised a hairless eyebrow. Varque nodded carefully, and Erbank turned slowly back to face the two detectives.
“I didn’t realise he was a police officer,” he said, without emotion, in more or less exactly the same manner he’d said it in three minutes ago. “And I have no
“You’re not bloody–” Darkwood began, sitting up.
“My client has nothing to say on the matter, unless you wish to reduce the charge to ABH,” said Varque firmly. He nodded disdainfully at Keith’s unlit cigarette. “And I’m sure I needn’t remind you that smoking whilst interviewing a Newcomer suspect would be in breach of several police regulations.”
Keith Darkwood stared daggers at his interviewee, reaching out with his right arm to stab a button on the recorder.
“Interview suspended at 10:13am,” said a soulless pre-recorded voice from the machine. An LED on the device flickered to orange to show the world it had stopped recording the interview. Somewhere beneath the sleek plastic surface of the machine, a compact disc ceased its spinning.
“Just off for a smoke, Jayne,” lied Darkwood, and stomped grimly out of the room. The door flapped dismally in his wake, and was pulled shut with a dull clunk of finality.
In interview room three, a bored sort of silence descended. It was finally broken by the solicitor, a minute or two later. He had removed a pack of Tenctonese herbal cigarettes from his pocket, and began to remove the plastic film. But stopped. He smiled with false politeness at DC Smith.
“I’m sorry - do you mind if I smoke, Miss Smith?” Jayne wondered if the conversation was going in the direction she’d been expecting it to. With Erbank having obvious links with the Arcleaclay group, and Varque being more than keen to represent his interests, it was clear that something was going on here. Darkwood - currently leaning on the outside of the door with his ear to the varnish - had agreed to leave Smith alone with the pair of them for a few minutes, to see if Varque would try anything.
It looked like he’d just started trying it. Smith glanced with open distaste at the packet of cigarettes Varque was opening.
“Yes,” she said, with conviction. “I find smoking repulsive. It destroys the body.”
Varque gave a thin smile and returned the mint-leaf smokes to the depths of his jacket. “Quite right, quite right,” said he. “A filthy habit. As it is said, the body receives enough–”
“–toxicity without further being self-inflicted,” chorused Smith, quoting from a textbook she’d read up on in preparation for this unrecorded part of the interview. Varque raised what passed for an eyebrow.
“You’re familiar with the teachings of Maolen?” he said, slightly taken aback. This was far better than he’d hoped.
Jayne nodded. “Of course,” she said, making the sign of Zel. “My parents were both Zelians, as am I.”
There was a thoughtful pause, and Varque offered another of his thin smiles. “Myself since birth,” he said, nodding reverently. “As is my client, Mr Erbank.”
Robert gave an affirmative sort of sneer.
“Tell me, Miss Smith, are you familiar with the full details of Mr Erbank’s assault charge?” asked Varque politely.
Jayne flapped the corner of a beige document folder. “Only what I’ve read in the report,” she lied. “He got violent when DS Black attempted to question him, and escaped from the scene of the crime. DS Darkwood picked him up a few minutes later.”
“Ah,” said Jonah. He steepled his fingers. “You aren’t aware that Mr Erbank was stationed outside the public house as part of the Arcleaclay Group’s anti-toxin campaign, then?”
Smith’s irises blanched in feigned surprise. “Arcleaclay? I had no idea.”
Jonah gave a broad smile. “It’s part of our sour milk deterrent programme,” he said. “Mr Erbank was simply handing leaflets to potential drinkers as they entered the establishment - a completely non-violent protest. On seeing your Sergeant Black approach in such an antagonistic manner, he mistook him for a–”
The door opened, and Varque’s voice tailed off as Keith Darkwood entered bearing a scowl pointed directly at him. Although there wasn’t actually a tiny raincloud hovering above the human’s head, there might as well have been for all the cheeriness he was displaying.
“Ready to talk, Robbie boy?” sneered Keith, waggling a new packet of cigarettes at the Newcomer. Erbank returned the sneer with redoubled vehemence.
“No?” said Keith, politely. He smiled, and turned on his heel. “I think I’ll go down the pub,” he said, making for the door. “Lock him back up, Jayne.”
Varque rose to his feet indignantly. “You’re planning to return my client to the cells?”
“He’s been charged - we can keep him for twenty-four hours until we’ve finished questioning him. Perhaps even forty-eight if we drop it to ABH at the last minute,” said Darkwood. He examined his wristwatch with a theatrical flourish, and the device bleeped a few tinny notes at him.
“See for breakfast tomorrow then, Robert,” smiled nasty-cop Darkwood, going back to his office. Smith shrugged with feigned helplessness, and followed.
“E kleezantsun’!” cried the elderly Tenctonese vagrant, continuing on the theme he’d been extolling ever since Black had asked him if he’d seen anything. There was a tinge of madness in his eyes, and more than a hint in his voice, but Stephen hadn’t quite yet dismissed him as a nutter. “E kleezantsun’ roost ress!”
“An Overseer,” said the monotone voice of Black’s personal translator. It was a clunky hand-held device, a cheap Japanese import. Black always carried it with him, in case he had to interview any of the older Tenctonese who didn’t speak English. A clumsy length of RS232 cable connected it to the side of his battered police computer, which was dutifully recording the conversation.
“An Overseer killed her,” added the device, emotionlessly.
“Okay, okay. Quiet,” said Black, who was getting a bit sick of this. The translator analysed his words and made a noise like a coffee machine.
The dishevelled elder bit warily on his lip. “Kleezantsun’,” he whispered. The translator did its usual translation.
“Where did this Overseer go after he’d killed her?” said Black. His translator echoed his question in Tenctonese.
“Back,” came the reply, translated.
Black looked doubtful. “He ran into a building?”
“No. The Overseer returned inside.”
“Someone else,” said the gannaum, levelly.
“What?” Black wrinkled his nose. The elderly
Newcomer’s breath carried a faint tinge of sour milk,
and the detective groaned weakly. “Can you describe this assailant to me, sir?” he asked, doubtfully.
The gannaum’s cheerfulness did nothing but deepen Black’s sneer. “About four feet tall, had big white eyes and floated about three feet above the pavement,” he said. “Dark-skinned, as well. He flew off into the pub, flew into someone else. Only missed me because I was hiding.”
“Behind a mauve pachyderm, no doubt,” concluded Detective Sergeant Black, shaking his head sadly. He scowled a goodbye to the Newcomer, and pressed a button on his police computer advising its conversation-recording device not to waste the disk space on this drivel.
“The phrase ’bugger off’ is not in my lexicon,” commented a non-plussed electronic translator. Black thumped it.
There was a clunk, a hiss, and DS Keith Darkwood inadvertently demonstrated his earlier arrest technique, this time with himself as the victim. He grimaced a bit.
“So what do you think Varque was up to?” said Keith, mopping at his face with a dark grey handkerchief. He and Smith were sat at their respective desks in the otherwise empty CID office, enjoying the beverages of their choosing.
Smith sipped at a vaguely-sour cup of cold tea, and gave a noncommittal shrug. “He was clearly trying to get me on his side,” she said. “Getting the charges dropped seemed something of a priority.”
“He certainly seemed to be sticking his neck out a bit,” said Darkwood. “Rather unusual for our dear Mr Varque. Normally he tends to play it somewhat safer, particular for thugs such as Erbank.”
“Varque must be heavily in with the Arcleaclay Group,” reasoned Smith. “And he jumped at the chance of defending Erbank. He’s up to something, there.”
“Indeed, indeed,” nodded Darkwood. “Wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest.”
He turned his attention to the screen of his computer, which was sporting several hundred tiny blobs of cola. The light of the cathode rays was twisted in interesting and colourful ways. A wipe with the handkerchief reduced the spattering to a nice rainbow smear, and Darkwood peered through it as he typed single- handed at the keyboard.
The computer warbled a bit. A sneering photo of Robert Erbank dropped onto the screen, and numerous lines of text formed a criminal backdrop.
“A couple of ABHs, a few GBHs - our Mr Erbank seems to enjoy his fisticuffs,” said Darkwood. “Oh, and a nice armed robbery back in ’95. Charges dropped due to lack of evidence.”
Smith nodded thoughtfully.
“Freeing a blagger so he can keep his appointment for a blag in the afternoon is the cliché we reach for here, I believe,” shrugged Darkwood. “Varque’s urgency probably indicates that Erbank is due to take part in something later today.”
“Drop all charges and put Erbank under surveillance, then?”
“Worth a shot,” shrugged Darkwood, reaching for his coat, laptop and police radio. It took a while, with one arm in a sling. “Black can always go and get beaten up again if we change our minds.”
The saloon bar of the Cooper’s Arms was now empty but for half a dozen police officers and the gloomy figure of Phil the barman, stood in the shadows idly polishing a glass. Doors barred and witnesses shooed away, the police collated information.
“We’ve got a couple of people saying that Kathryn collapsed onto the pavement before bursting into flame,” said a young WPC, reading from her notebook. Expensive police computers hadn’t quite made it throughout the force, yet. “Most of the others didn’t notice her until the fire started, though.”
PC Steel nodded. “I’ve got one witness saying that she clutched her stomach before collapsing,” he said. “It’s looking - particularly from the corpse - as if the fire started somewhere on her lower torso.”
“I don’t suppose anyone got a description of the attackers?” said Crowley. “If there were any attackers?”
“How does a flying midget Overseer strike you?” said Black. He giggled quietly to himself, having downed a few pints in the past few hours. He was now, as the man said, “nice drunk”.
“I don’t know, how does a flying midget Overseer strike you?” said PC Steel, who was in that sort of mood.
If Black had a punchline, Crowley drowned it out with a pointed cough. “No signs of it being murder, then?” he asked.
“Not a direct assault by the look of it,” said DI Morgan. “Although I could probably think of a few ways to set fire to someone from a distance.”
“We’ll see what forensic makes of the corpse,” was Crowley’s decision. He rose from his chair. “Thanks for your time, people,” he said, nodding to the boys and girls in blue serge. “I trust that Black’s OCRed all of your notes?”
Stephen proudly waggled a peripheral of his battered computer. “Yes,” he confirmed. The tiny bar of light had scanned and deciphered the biroed notes of the uniformed officers, storing them neatly on the hard disk of his portable.
“Back to the streets of terror, then,” said Crowley, indicating the pub door. The uniformed officers nodded in a businesslike fashion and filed out onto Nightingale Road, before going their separate ways. The three CID officers clicked shut their computers, fiddled with biroes and headed for the door.
Crowley and Morgan emerged into the gloomy late-morning sunlight, but Black was stopped by Phil the barman.
“Can I open up again, then?” he said, having lost a good half- hour’s worth of takings.
Black looked over at the door, which swung slowly shut behind DI Morgan. He turned his attention to the beer engines, and warily patted a pocket. Loose change clinked.
“Five minutes,” said Stephen Black, pulling up a stool.
Smith’s Metro slowed to a crawl as it drove down Ryland Street. Erbank had parked his car halfway down the road, on the left, and was striding up a littered front path towards number fifty-eight.
“Pull over and we’ll watch,” advised Darkwood to his driver.
“Er, any ideas where?” said Smith. Both sides of the street were full of cars, and the few adjoining roads offered nothing in the way of a vantage point.
There was a whine and a clinking rattle as a milkfloat vacated its parking space and went about its business. Darkwood shrugged. It was perhaps a bit near to Erbank’s car, but on the opposite side of the road. “That’ll do,” he said, and Smith performed a near perfect bit of parallel parking.
Darkwood slumped down in his seat slightly, and clumsily pulled a magazine from his pocket. He feigned reading it, instead peering across the street over a satirically-captioned cover photo. Erbank knocked urgently on the front door of number-fifty eight, giving the odd shifty look up and down the street.
The battered plywood door was pulled open, and a pale Tenctonese face peered out into the daylight. Darkwood gave a surprised look.
“Well, well, well,” said Keith. “Ford. There’s a thing.”
“Shh,” hissed Jayne, and with a low whine she thumbed down the electric window on the passenger side. The Tenctonese detective tilted her head slightly. She listened carefully for about thirty seconds, after which time the two suspects vanished into the house.
“They said something about a group meeting later this afternoon,” she said, her acute hearing having picked up every word. “Erbank’s been laughing about how Varque managed to get his charges dropped, and they’ve just gone in for a quick drink before departing.”
“Ah,” said Darkword. He gave a vaguely impressed smile.
“What were you saying, anyway? You know the guy in the house?”
Darkwood nodded. “Ford Anglia. He was involved in that sjabroka dealing thing a few years back,” he said. His voice faltered slightly. “The case where Crowley fatally injured that Overseer.”
“Andrew Christ, yes,” said Smith. “Before my time, but we’ve all heard of it. What was Anglia’s involvement?”
“Manufacturing the stuff,” said Darkwood. “Although he claimed he was being controlled by Christ, through Holy Gas. Fairly probable, really - he was being very lethargic and cretinous when we arrested him. He got off with two years suspended when it went to trial.”
Darkwood kept a wary eye on the window of the house. Erbank and Anglia were half visible in a couple of armchairs. “He must have been out for a fair while, now - don’t think he’s been up to much since, though.” He idly turned a page in his magazine, and glanced down at his watch. “Apparently a born-again Zelian, these days. Doesn’t drink, smoke–”
Erbank and Anglia seemed to draw their conversation to a close, and Jayne nudged her assigned partner. The two suspects emerged from the terraced house and pulled the door shut behind them. Jayne listened.
“And they’re now apparently going to pick up someone called Anne,” explained Smith, with half a shrug.
“Start the engine, then,” said Darkwood. The presumed partners in crime approached Erbank’s car, talking to each other as they walked towards it.
And past it. Into the road. Towards Smith’s Metro. Darkwood suddenly looked very nervous indeed.
“Either Anne lives on this side of the road, or we’re in trouble,” he whispered shakily. The two criminals were still chatting to one another, not looking in the detectives’ direction. “Kiss me,” said Smith flatly.
Darkwood turned to face her, and raised his eyebrows in a non- plussed fashion. This was, to say the least, a rather unexpected request. “Er, what?” he said warily, harbouring some doubt of his aural systems.
“Kiss me,” she repeated, with urgency. “Quickly.”
“Dear gods,” said DS Darkwood. “Well, if you insist.” With a slight shrug and a certain degree of hesitancy, he launched into one of the oldest clichés in the book.
Paul Bearer lay on a marble slab with a blank expression, the ash and soot washed from his corpse. Karen Henderson, Vyse Street’s resident pathologist, was poking around the torched stomach cavity, pointing out items of interest to DI Crowley.
“It’s fairly clear that the fire actually started behind the ribcage,” said Karen, poking at the charred internal organs with a pinkly-stained metal implement. “Which would seem to suggest that something flammable was stabbed or shot into his stomach, and it ignited the gases within,” she shrugged. “It’s the only theory we’ve got.”
“I don’t suppose you can tell what he’d been eating lately?” said Crowley, a shade optimistically.
Henderson smiled weakly. “Nothing survived the fire, no,” she stated. “Although there are traces of tannin on the throat lining.”
“Tannin? As in tea?”
Karen nodded. “Probably the last thing he drank, unless the smoke brought it back up.”
Unlikely as it seemed, the evidence pointed to a distinct lack of direct assailant. If they’d found a pint glass of rocket fuel and a packet of smokes on the scene of the crime, it would have been easy to work out. But tea? Would it be possible to dose it with a taste-free and very effective accelerant? And perhaps to slip a tiny igniter in there?
“Do we know anything more about the tea?”
Karen nodded. She pointed to a slightly buckled plastic cup, dusted with ash. “Drinks machine darjeeling,” she declared. “We found this on the floor nearby, with his saliva on the lip.”
DI Crowley frowned slightly as memories of darjeeling returned to him. Black must have collected his tea about five minutes before Paul Bearer burst aflame at the foot of the vending machine.
“Was the milk slightly on the turn?” asked David warily. The taste of slightly-sour milk was still on his tongue.
“Yes, now that you mention it. Why do you ask?”
Crowley’s stomach rumbled.
“Excuse me,” he croaked, leaving in something of a hurry.
DC Jayne Smith withdrew from the embrace, and Keith Darkwood, looking somewhat dazed, sat back up in his seat.
“Sorry,” he said, vaguely, shaking his head slightly to clear it. He felt like an atheist who’d just had a glimpse of a previously doubted heaven. It was his first proper kiss in twenty-six years - such feelings were only to be expected, really.
“I’m not terribly good at this sort of thing,” he added, which was nothing if not true.
Smith turned her attention to her Metro’s steering column, and tinkered with a few things. The engine rumbled into life. “They’re taking Anne to a meeting at a community centre in Malton,” she said, checking her rear view mirror. “Apparently some sort of Arcleaclay Group gathering.”
Darkwood sat up straight, picked his magazine up from the floor and put on one of his less inspiring doubtful frowns. Erbank’s Volvo was turning off along Grosvenor Street West, with two passengers in the back seat. With some surprise, he realised that he’d been completely unaware of outside events during his unexpected kiss with Jayne.
“They said the meeting starts at eleven,” said Smith, who gave the impression of being unaware of the kiss during outside events. The Metro pulled out into the road. “Sounds like a fairly big gathering - I recommend we tail them, and get hold of a couple of undercover Tenctonese officers to go in.”
Darkwood shook his head weakly.
“Whatever,” he said absently, and regarded his reflection in a cracked wing mirror. He still looked like a corpse with a hangover. The kiss can’t have meant anything to her, he told himself. Keith sneered at his mirror image and drummed fingers on the dash. A glance in Smith’s direction saw her impassively concentrating on her driving.
“What’s up with Crowley?” said Stephen Black warily, as he returned to the CID office from a visit to the canteen. “Hmm?” replied Morgan, looking up from her computer. “Just saw him sprinting along the corridor downstairs,” said Black, jerking a thumb back over his shoulder in case Jenny had forgotten where downstairs was. “Grabbed me by the lapels and asked if me or Darkwood had drunk any of that tea this morning.”
“And had you?”
“No fear - spat into the wastebin, my sip of it. Darkwood likewise.”
“After that he just ran off down the corridor looking scared,” Black scratched vaguely at his beard. “He’s in a strange old mood today, isn’t he?”
Jennifer shrugged, and returned to her work. “Probably nothing serious,” she surmised. “I shouldn’t worry about it.”
The fire alarm had other ideas.
PC Naytor was the first on the scene. The station’s arcane fire control system had neatly pinpointed the blaze to a gents toilet on the ground floor, and a few officers were converging there. Hesitantly, Naytor touched the back of his hand to the metal handle of the door. Cold.
He kicked it open dramatically, revealing the fairly grim interior of the toilets. A very thin trace of smoke hung in the air, and Detective Inspector David Crowley lay flat on the tiles, his face resting in a puddle of unpleasantly bloody vomit.
Naytor rushed across to the fallen Newcomer and rolled him over onto his back. Crowley coughed and spluttered, bringing up a fresh tide of digestive juices. Pink blood bubbled from his nose.
“It’s alright,” called the young Newcomer constable, dismissing the other officers with his free hand. He hauled Crowley into an upright position, tilting the detective’s head forward. A thin dribble escaped from his lips onto the tiles.
Dominic Naytor coughed mildly, inhaling tobacco smoke from somewhere. Looking over his shoulder, a packet of cigarettes was lying discarded in an empty cubicle. A single tab was smoking gently on the floor, alongside DS Black’s lighter. Thin grey smoke curled upwards into the ceiling-mounted smoke detector.
“He just needs some fresh air,” called Dom, lifting Crowley to his feet. “Give me a hand, here.” A couple of other constables dutifully helped drag the groaning detective out through the nearby pair of fire doors.
Smith’s Metro was parked on the corner of a dark street in Malton, the murky inner-city area of Birmingham claimed by the Newcomers since their arrival. The Tenctonese population of England was pretty much divided up between here and Greenwood house, with the wealthier Newcomers finding residence in more pleasant parts of the city.
“Malton” was an old Tenctonese word, translating to something along the lines of “cursed place”. Darkwood could see the thinking behind that one. Nearby buildings cast their inky shadows over the streets for the majority of the daylight hours, and there was a palpable air of gloom and decay to the area. Every window seemed to be either boarded up or shattered, every door nailed shut or home to a slumbering unfortunate. Tenctonese and humans shuffled to and fro along the littered pavements, generally ignoring each other. Now and again an isolated fight would break out, occasionally a full-scale riot would develop, but peace was generally maintained until after the pubs closed.
“Control to Smith,” whispered the detective’s radio, its volume having been wisely turned down. The Maltonians had a very dim view of the police force, and the acute hearing of their Newcomer populace meant that any bobbies walking through the area with their radios on might as well be spilling blood in shark-infested waters.
The car’s stereo thumped out Touss la Duga’s latest single, a passable cover version of one of Darkwood’s favourites, “Eebta”. The long-haired detective drummed his fingers rhythmically on the dashboard, and the music covered up the police radio decently enough.
“Smith here,” said Jayne, talking into the radio without drawing too much attention to it. “Any luck?”
she asked. Five minutes ago she’d called in a request for two undercover Tenctonese officers.
“Negative,” replied the voice. “Tertip and Firmer are out on a call over the other side of the city, Ceide’s with an arrest as we speak, Faustus is at a training conference, Stupidname is off sick and Bearer’s no longer with us. We can only give you PC Naytor, I’m afraid.”
Smith looked up at Darkwood, who obviously hadn’t heard her radio and was quietly singing to himself, eyes on the street. The long-haired detective pointedly directed a lyric, or at least its English translation, at the cloudy heavens. “That’d be fine,” she said. “Absolutely fine.”
“ETA ten minutes,” said the voice.
“Acknowledged,” said Smith, and turned her radio off. She turned the stereo down a bit, and Darkwood’s imperfect singing voice croaked into silence. He turned to face her, wearing a quizzical look.
“We’ve got backup,” she explained, tapping her lapel.
“Oh,” he said. “Who?”
Darkwood regarded middle-distance for a short while. “Short bloke? Triangle on his forehead? Vegetarian? Seems to have picked up most of his police training from American cop shows?”
Jayne smiled faintly. “That’s him.”
Keith nodded to himself. He’d had vague dealings with Naytor before, during the sjabroka investigations a few years back. A reliable officer. There was silence. “And who else have we got?” he prompted.
“Oh,” said Smith. “Nobody else. They’re all off on calls, or sick. Very sick, in Bearer’s case.”
“So, er, are we calling it off?” Sending a lone officer into the meeting hall was probably a bad idea, and breached a few regulations in any case.
“No, I’ll go in with him,” Smith declared.
Darkwood thought to say something, but didn’t. He deflated a bit. “Well, if you’re sure,” he said. Keith looked up through the windscreen. Malton Taffacalpa - a vague translation of Malton Town Hall, which was what the building used to be - was on the other side of a crossroads. Newcomers were slowly filing into the building. As he watched, the barcode-patterned head of Robert Erbank ducked through the front door, closely followed by Ford Anglia and Anne Algesic.
Keith examined his wristwatch. “How long have we got?”
“Ten minutes ’til the meeting starts. Dom should be here in about five.”
Darkwood shrugged. “Marvellous,” he said, and glumly returned to his magazine.
“Here’s your lighter,” said Crowley, staggering into the office and dropping the cheap plastic device onto Black’s desk. It bounced away under a teetering pile of papers. “And your cigarettes,” he added. A half-empty packet of smokes followed a similar trajectory.
“You feeling alright, David?” asked Morgan, “You look a little ill.”
Crowley smiled weakly, his face looking rather pallid. His eyes bore a greenish tinge, a colour signifying pain. “Vomiting copiously, is all,” he said. “I nipped into the toilets for a quick smoke - that’s why the fire alarm just went off.”
Black was warily regarding his cigarettes. They were damp with sprinkler water. “One of mine?” he asked, doubtfully, filing away the packet in a desk drawer.
The Newcomer detective nodded. “Indeed,” he said. “It seemed the best way to throw up in a hurry. The finger-down-the-throat trick is a bit hit-and-miss with us lot.”
“Dare we ask why you needed to throw up in a hurry?”
Crowley coughed thinly. “I think I’ve finally sussed the Cold Fire deaths,” he said, rather proudly. This impressive declaration was greeted by silence from his two colleagues.
“Er, what cold fire deaths?” frowned Morgan.
“Bearer, de Fey and Wheel.”
“Cold fire?” asked Black, “Er, what?”
“You’ve never heard of the Cold Fire legend?”
“Can’t say I have,” frowned Black, who rather prided himself on being up to speed with most legends and mythologies. Even a few of the Tenctonese ones, after a few long nights in the pub with Crowley.
The Newcomer DI waggled a finger beckoningly. “Take a look at this,” he suggested, wandering over to his desktop computer and prodding a few buttons. A piece of electronic mail scrolled its way onto the screen.
You're right, Lethaka, said the message, There is a legend about this sort of thing. An obscure subsect of the Ionians, if memory serves - they believed that any sort of voluntarily ingested toxin would cause their bodies to burst aame. Standard wrath of the gods rubbish, pretty much. A couple of holy texts featured deaths like this - Cold Fire is the approximate English translation of the term for it. So called because - well - the re actually seems to be cold. Straight oxidisation whilst giving out hardly any heat to surrounding objects.
It was all dredged up again on the slave ships by the Overseers, as much of our mythology was. Details on this are pretty sketchy, but there were definitely at least a dozen Cold Fire deaths during my time on the ship. From what we could make out, the Overseers had engineered some sort of poison that - after remaining dormant for a while - set ame to the slaves' stomach juices, throwing out a few highly ammable chemicals to keep it going. Hell knows why, but there we are.
Sounds like some Overseer's found his old chemistry set and is in a vindictive mood. Check what stomach contents remain, I should. Throat linings and such.
Fear the light,
“Hmm. Who might Morfran be, then?” asked Black, looking up from the tiny screen and glancing questioningly at Crowley. His knowledge of Welsh mythology provided an answer that he rather hoped wasn’t the case. The Newcomer smiled.
“An old, old friend of mine from the ship. He knows a lot about this sort of thing.”
Jenny squinted at the message’s cryptic headers. “An Icelandic email address?” she said doubtfully. “I thought you all lived in Birmingham or around Los Angeles?”
“Oh, a few went elsewhere,” said Crowley. “A few.”
“Hmm,” said Black. “Well, anyway,” he added, tapping the screen, “You think this is what’s happening? Explosive poisonings?”
“Could well be,” nodded Crowley. “The deaths are looking dangerously similar to the Cold Fire legend.”
“And you coughing your lungs up in the toilets was because...?”
“I think I probably swallowed some of the poison,” said Crowley. “The last thing Bearer drank was a cup of tea. Drinks machine darjeeling. Milk slightly on the turn.” He regarded Black’s horrified look.
“It’s bloody poisoned, or something...” whispered the detective sergeant, echoing his darjeeling-based conspiracy theory of this morning. “So that’s why you asked me if I’d drank any of it.”
“How come you didn’t burst aflame instantaneously, though?” frowned Black. “After all, Bearer must have done - he was dead next to the drinks machine.”
“Perhaps,” said Crowley. “He might just have been walking back past it, I suppose, but it seems unlikely. We’ll know more about what we’re up against when the boys in the lab have given the drinks machine closer inspection.”
“Hmm,” said Black.
“But how about de Fey and Wheel, though? Surely they didn’t touch the drinks machine darjeeling?” asked Morgan.
“De Fey had a milkbottle on his table, you’ll remember; the forensics found a shattered tumbler in the wreckage of the corpse, with traces of sour milk,” said Crowley. “And Wheel downed a can of Glihablazichni shortly before catching fire, of course.” He darkly raised a bald eyebrow.
“My god,” breathed Morgan. “Somebody’s poisoning all of Birmingham’s milk?”
“Maybe not all of it, but this certainly fits in with the pub burglaries,” said Crowley. “Barrels of sour milk being stolen, arcanely drugged and resold on the black market, very probably back to the pubs they were taken from.”
The two human detectives shook their heads helplessly for a moment, struggling to take in the sheer horror of this turn in events. “Issue a public warning, phone the pubs and off-licences, and stop drinking vending machine tea?” suggested Black, weakly.
“Better safe than dead,” shrugged DI Crowley.
“Have you read this?” laughed PC Matthew Steel, looking up from his newspaper at the none-too-cheery DS Darkwood. Keith was gazing down the road at the looming brickwork of Malton Taffacalpa, occasionally glancing at his watch. Now and again a couple of stragglers wandered into the building, but nobody was leaving.
“Have I read what?” said Keith, distractedly.
“Undead Newcomer Arson Attack,” read the PC. “Apparently some zombified slag was seen setting flame to an office block a few weeks ago - some witness has just come forward.”
“Oh yes?” said Darkwood, mildly. There had never been a proper investigation into the Eric Praline case, since the corpse never underwent autopsy. The official verdict was that Praline was alive throughout - he’d been heavily drugged on the night of his “death”, assumed to be dead by the doctor who examined him, and Praline was wheeled away to NecroTech cryogenics as requested in his last will and testament. He had recovered three weeks later, escaped from his cryogenic chamber and attempted to return home. Eventually the strain of events proved too much for him, and he died peacefully in his flat on Wednesday the ninth.
Darkwood had seen Praline’s face. No living person, alien or otherwise, could possibly look like that without being six foot under. He gave an involuntary shudder at the memory.
“Come forward to the press rather than the police, I take it?” said Keith weakly.
“So it would seem.”
“No surprise there, then,” yawned Darkwood. “What does he or she have to tell us?”
“Says he saw a half-skeletal spongehead petrol-bombing the NecroTech Cryogenics building on Smith Street back in September,” said PC Steel. He sniggered to himself. “Probably an unsatisfied customer.”
Darkwood gave a false, weak smile. “Probably.”
“All sour milk products obtained within the past seven
days should be returned to their place of purchase,” said
the serious- looking face of Detective Inspector Crowley, looking out at the viewers of Central News via a few thousand cathode ray tubes. As seemed to be the case with all police officers appearing on television, an unexplained grandiloquence was creeping into his speech, and an air of solemn gravity was claiming his visage. “This is believed to be a minor oversight on the part of the area’s major sour milk processing plant,” he continued, “And is nothing to become alarmed about. Products can be –”
Ford Anglia thumbed the mute button on his remote control, and Crowley took to silent miming. “Maolen smiles on us,” said Ford. “Less toxin for the weak-willed. Good news, eh?”
Anne Algesic gave a weary shrug from her side of the desk. The two of them were sat in an office in the upper storeys of Malton Taffacalpa. “Don’t be optimistic Ford; at best it’s just a dodgy batch of milk - replacement crates will be on the shelves before the end of the week.”
Ford frowned with disappointment. “And at worst?”
“It’s more than likely that DS Crowley has been investigating our actions and reached the wrong conclusion...” she said. “I understand that one of our victims was a police officer at Vyse Street - it’s almost certain that the resident CID officers are investigating. This warning may be a result of that.”
“Oh,” said Ford. He half-heartedly made the sign of Zel. “May Maolen smile on us,” he said.
“Let’s hope so,” Anne said weakly.
“Really?” said Darkwood, tiredly. His tone of voice suggested that he was likely to contribute the words “Look, just shut up, will you?” to the conversation sooner rather than later.
“According to this,” said Steel, having just read out a rather laughable article about a four-thousand year old Tenctonese corpse being dug up somewhere in Wiltshire. He gestured to page nine of the paper. It sported an unconvincing artist’s impression of said cadaver.
“Must be true then,” yawned Keith.
Darkwood looked up at the gloomy facade of Malton Taffacalpa, blankly watching silhouettes on a curtained window, before glancing down at the wristwatch strapped around his bandages. “Eleven thirty,” he observed. “What time does this meeting end?”
“Any time now, apparently,” said Steel. He nodded at the building over the crossroads. On cue, a group of Tenctonese had emerged from the double-doors and were making their way down the stairs to the grimy pavement. As the policemen watched, further Newcomers left the building and went about their business.
“Can you see Smith or Naytor at all?” said Darkwood, squinting at the shuffling crowd. Steel joined him for a moment.
“There’s Dom,” he announced, nodding in the direction of the town hall. “Just walking down the steps now.” The two surveillance officers watched as the Arcleaclay Group members filed out onto the pavement. The unmistakable face of Dominic Naytor bobbed out of a shadow into the murky sunlight. It bore a smile.
“Is that DC Smith that he’s got his arm around?” asked Matthew.
Keith Darkwood realised with some surprise that he was actually grinding his teeth. He stopped to let a syllable escape. “Yes.”
The CID office door creaked open, and DI Crowley entered from the corridor bearing a beige cardboard folder and a plastic cup of similar hue. He nodded a greeting to his colleagues. “Talk of the devil,” said Black, on general principles. “What’s that you’ve got there?” “Tea and toxicology reports,” said David, placing both of them on his desk. The brew had a certain blackness to it, since he wasn’t in the mood for taking chances. He sipped the ice-cold liquid thoughtfully, and began to leaf through the report.
“Toxicology of what, precisely?” asked Morgan.
“The corpses and the sour milk,” said Crowley, examining the sheets before him. “I got the forensic boys to collect traces of milk from the three Cold Fire deaths and throw it under the microscope. See what we’re up against.”
“And what are we up against?”
“Absolutely nothing, it would seem,” frowned Crowley. The computer printouts showed that in each case the sour milk had been normal in every respect. Not a rogue accelerant or tiny igniter to be seen. “Oh, well that’s alright, then,” said Black, with false cheeriness. “We can all go home.”
Morgan ignored him. “Nothing at all?”
“Perfectly ordinary sour milk, as far as we can make out.”
“And what about the corpses themselves?”
Crowley flipped pages. “Nothing odd in the bloodstreams, and just carbon and sour milk on the throat linings,” he said. “But the remains of a very nasty accelerant in the stomachs.”
“Has it been identified?”
David shook his jaggedly-striped head. “Not yet.”
Crowley shuffled the papers into formation and neatly closed the folder. “I suggest we contact the doctors of the victims and see if any medical condition or prescribed drug might have provoked this,” he said. “Since we can pretty much rule out the sour milk as the entire cause of the Cold Fires, and we haven’t yet found any signs of a catalyst, there must be something internal that caused the reactions.”
“I’ll get onto it,” said Morgan.
“And what shall I do?” said Black, who was still just about on the wrong side of sober and had quite forgotten what he was supposed to be doing.
“Drink lots of black coffee before the DCI gets back, if I were you,” suggested David Crowley, rising from his chair and disappearing into the corridor.
Smith’s Metro rolled through the shadows of Malton’s dark streets, diving from patchy sunlight into utter blackness and out again. A few streetlights had awoken a few hours early and were casting their unnatural orange glows here and there, but apart from that, the afternoon shadows had claimed most of the area. Further down the road, Erbank’s Volvo drove to an unknown destination, carrying two unfamiliar
passengers. The two detectives maintained a respectful
“So, Naytor’s a friend of yours, is he?” said Darkwood, turning away from his inspection of the wing mirror to face DC Jayne Smith. She giggled vaguely, for the first time Keith could remember. He began the makings of a frown.
“A fairly old one,” she answered. “We met here on Earth, years ago. Before we’d joined the force.”
“Oh,” said Keith. He frowned crookedly for a few moments, and shrugged. “So what happened at the meeting?” he asked.
“Nothing much, really,” said Jayne. “A couple of speeches about the dangers of drink, some anti-smoking stuff and a tirade against sjabroka from Mr Anglia.” She yawned quietly.
“No calls to arms, or dark plots to bomb the Houses of Parliament, then?” said Darkwood. Jayne smiled.
“Not in the slightest.”
“Oh,” said Darkwood. “Sorry you wasted your time, then.”
Jayne gave a dismissive shrug. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “The day could still prove eventful.” She nodded at the car in front. Erbank had left the meeting with a couple of Newcomers, while Anglia and Algesic had mysteriously vanished from the crowd after the former’s speech.
Erbank’s first companion was unfamiliar, but both Smith and Darkwood had recognised his other passenger. It was none less than Brian Damage, the Newcomer responsible for putting a knife into Keith’s arm a few weeks ago. Brian had been released on bail pending the trail. Casting his mind back, Darkwood could recall Jonah Varque handling the case when Damage was brought back to the station. He frowned mildly.
Keith turned his thoughtful gaze back to the windscreen, and watched as twin red brakelights vanished into the shadow of a derelict office block. Erbank’s car swerved to the right for the briefest of moments and then, rather unexpectedly, exploded.
Morgan replaced the receiver with a faraway look in her eye. She fumbled the lid back onto a dying biro and dropped it into a chipped pen-filled mug.
“Colds,” said Morgan, blankly. “They all had colds...”
Black looked up, and sniffed. “Who did?”
“The Cold Fire victims,” said Jennifer. She nodded at the telephone. “I’ve just been talking to their doctors - no drugs have been prescribed to any of them. And the only shared medical condition between them is that they’d all been struck down with Britain’s current batch of common cold, within the past week.”
Black considered this for a moment, and his face fell slightly. “So that’s what triggered the fire?” he said, “Some chemical from the cold bursting aflame when it hit sour milk?”
“Hell’s teeth,” he muttered, finishing off his fourth black coffee and sitting up straight. Something inside him was stirring him to uncharacteristic enthusiasm. Caffeine tended to do that to him, on rare occasions. “Whatever shall we do?”
“Another television announcement?”
Black considered this. He wondered how he’d feel if Crowley popped up on the news and told him that a swift pint would kill him instantly. ’Panic’ would probably be a very good word for it. “Er,” he said. “Word it carefully. Get all cold sufferers to see their doctors, so that they can prescribe a lack of sour milk until it clears up?”
Morgan nodded warily, and made a couple of phonecalls. Black drank another couple of coffees.
“Oh,” said Morgan, replacing the receiver again.
“Do you know how many Newcomer cold sufferers there are in Birmingham at this point in time?”
Black shrugged. “Er, not off-hand, no,” he admitted. “Pray tell.”
“Well over a thousand,” Morgan revealed.
“Ah,” said Black, nodding grimly. “Ah.”
Erbank’s Volvo had swerved off of the road, across a patch of scrubland and had smashed radiator-first into a brace of sturdy concrete bollards. Orange flame roared within the vehicle, and thick black smoke boiled out of the shattered windows. A few feet the other side of the posts, Erbank lay motionless in the mud, flung neatly out through the windscreen. With a strained creak, a door was pushed open, and Brian Damage slumped out groggily onto the ground. He gave a few feet’s worth of half-hearted crawl before losing consciousness.
Smith’s Metro slewed to a halt at a safe distance from the crash, and the two detectives emerged. “Ambulance and fire engine to the wasteground on Vauxhall Road,” called Smith into her radio as she sprinted across the mud. “Priority.”
Jayne began to look distinctly uncomfortable as the two detectives neared the blazing car. She instinctively backed away from the growing inferno as its heat hit her. Curling flames reflected in her green-shaded eyes, the twin images themselves reflecting the terror in her soul. Bred for sub-zero labour, none of the British Newcomers were overly happy in the presence of fire. Approximately one in five were mildly pyrophobic. It gave the Cold Fire deaths a particularly ironic twist.
Smith continued to back away. “I’ll get these two out the way,” she shouted, skirting around the bollards to approach the two injured Newcomers. “You deal with the car.”
“Wonderful,” hissed Darkwood to himself, warily approaching the blazing wreck. The crimson paint was peeling away from the doors, revealing the bare metal beneath, and Keith winced. Clumsily, he tugged a handkerchief from his pocket and wrapped it around his free hand. He stood and stared at it blankly for a moment, doubting its ability to spare him from the fire.
“Er,” he dithered, trying to remember if he’d ever been trained for this sort of thing. The plastic doorhandle has also chosen to melt in light of recent events, which wasn’t overly helpful. Darkwood bit his lip, and craned his neck to look inside the wrecked car.
“Over here!” shouted Smith. “Quickly!”
There was no point in Darkwood trying to rescue the second passenger, she had realised. Not when her charred skull was lying in the grass ten feet away.
Darkwood glanced over at Jayne, who was dragging the unconscious Robert Erbank away from the scene of the crash. She nodded urgently at Brian Damage who was clumsily crawling away from the blaze. “Get him out of here!”
Flinging his handkerchief to the mud, Keith Darkwood bounded across to the fallen thug and made the best attempt he could to pull him to safety. One arm in a sling with a knifewound wasn’t terribly conducive to this. He sat Damage up, wrapped his free arm around the Newcomer’s chest and slowly began to pull him through the mud. His eyes rose to the car. The fire was spreading.
“It’s going to hit the petrol tank, any minute,” thought Darkwood, and began a panicked hurry to safety. Brian’s slumped body gouged a trench in the mud and grass as it was pulled onwards with increasing urgency.
For the second time in as many minutes, Robert Erbank’s Volvo exploded. Splinters of flaming metal shrapnelled away at dangerous velocities as the fuel tank decided to finally get out of the metaphorical kitchen. “Thought so,” was Keith Darkwood’s last thought process for some while.
“Over a thousand with colds,” said Morgan. “Consider how many of those have drunk sour milk since catching the strain, and we must have had an improbable number of unnoticed STCs.”
“STCs?” said Black warily.
“Spontaneous Tenctonese Combustions,” said Morgan, who had already started writing the report. She gave a thin smile. “Looking at deaths by fire for the past few weeks, we’ve had just three, plus the established STCs.”
“Oh,” said Black. “Yes. Good point. We must be missing something.”
Morgan considered Black’s talent for stating the obvious, and shrugged. “We must be,” she echoed, stating the obvious herself.
But what? Unless heavy coincidence was at work, the sour milk had a hand in the STCs somewhere. And the cold virus. But there had to be something else, to account for the minimal number of cases. Morgan shuddered slightly. Could it just be an unfortunate cocktail of household snacks? Milk, a nasty cold strain, a certain brand of chocolate cake and the next thing you know you’re up in flames? A frightening thought.
“Well, I’ll leave it in the capable hands of you and Crowley. I must be off,” said Black, rising unsteadily from his seat. “Crimes to solve. Wrongs to right. Pubs to visit.” He picked up his computer, donned his fire-damaged jacket and headed for the office door, away to the streets of Birmingham to further investigate the sour milk burglaries.
He bumped into Crowley just as he passed through the door, and mumbled a farewell before vanishing down the stairwell. David entered the CID office, Dominic following him in.
“DI Jennifer Morgan, this is PC Dominic Naytor from uniform,” he said, waving an introductory hand between the two of them. They exchanged greetings. Crowley turned to Dom, and raised a brace of hairless eyebrows.
“Tell her what you told me,” he said, very seriously indeed.
Darkwood’s alarm clock sounded somehow different this morning. A bit more of an urgent sine wave to its wake-up tone. And it seemed rather louder than usual. The detective warily opened his bloodshot eyes.
He regarded the bedroom ceiling. It looked a mite more metallic than it normally was. A blue light was flashing in through darkened windows. And aside from the alarm, background noise consisted of some crackling radio static and a few important- sounding bleeps. And a rumbling engine. Keith frowned in groggy puzzlement.
“He’s coming around,” said an ambulance crewman.
Slightly numb with unknown sedatives, and with a nagging pain in his right arm, Keith Darkwood closed his eyes again. “Not if I can help it,” he muttered.
DS Black removed a slim plastic pipe from his mouth and squinted at a tiny bank of LEDs on the side of an impressive little black box. One of them was blinking cheerily back at him.
“It’s green,” said Stephen, looking up at PC Matthew Steel. “I presume that’s good?”
Steel nodded, and reclaimed his breathalyser. “Yes,” he said, pocketing the tiny device for future use on the streets of Birmingham, “You’re safe to drive.” Matthew paused as he considered Black’s battered old Cortina and slightly careless driving technique. “From the alcohol viewpoint, anyway.”
“Much thanks,” said the sober detective, rising from his seat in the canteen. He rose to about three-quarters of his considerable height before a hand clapped him on the shoulder.
Black turned around. It was Smith. He grinned warily.
“You’re on the pub burglary cases, aren’t you?” she asked.
Stephen nodded. “Just away to solve them now, as it happens,” he said. “Whyever do you ask?”
“We’ve got a couple of prisoners for you.”
“Oh?” said Black. His grin broadened.
“Robert Erbank and Brian Damage,” she said. “Turns out they had a Volvo full of stolen milk. Rather fire-damaged now, admittedly, but we’ve traced some of what’s left. Stolen from the Cooper’s Arms on Saturday.”
“The lads are in custody, are they?”
“As we speak. Cells three and seven.”
Black clapped his hands and rubbed them purposefully together. He grinned brightly. “Marvellous.”
In the back bedroom of a suburban terraced house, Anne Algesic fiddled with a bunsen burner. A beaker of sour milk bubbled gently above the clean blue flame. She leaned forward and sniffed the thin steam it was giving off.
Surreptitiously, she turned her head to face the door. Her strikingly mauve eyes peered out along the empty hallway, warily looking for Ford Anglia. Clearly he wasn’t about.
With the makings of a smile, Anne lifted the beaker from its tripod, to her mouth. She sipped the lumpy white liquid. Her gaze dropped to the flickering blue flame of the bunsen burner.
The dancing fire reflected prettily in her dark purple irises. She smiled.
“I used to work on deck twenty six, the gurdmeena processing plant,” said Dominic, sat at Black’s unorganised desk and recounting his story over a cup of ice-cold orange juice. Morgan sat opposite, and Crowley sat at his desk looking thoughtful.
Morgan considered her Tenctonese Linguaphone course. “Gurdmeena - er, drug water?” she hazarded.
“That’s what we called it,” said Naytor, with a shrug. “We had no idea what it actually was - just a thin white sludge that caused intoxication when ingested.”
Morgan frowned. “Not sour milk?”
“Probably not exactly. Something very similar, though,” said Dom. “There were a dozen of us on the production line, basically just fishing out a few nasty things that floated in it.”
“Nasty things?” said Morgan, who was vaguely aware that she was losing her usual interrogative talent, here.
“Some sort of swimming insect things,” grimaced Dominic, remembering the evil eight-legged horrors he had to fish out of the slime. “Andarko knows what they were doing in there. It was our job to take them out and toss them into the recycler.”
Morgan nodded warily. “And how does this fit into our investigations?”
Crowley sat up in his seat and adopted a deadly serious expression. “There were thirteen Cold Fire deaths on the Gruza, all in all,” he said. “I’ve been checking with Morfran. Every last one of them occurred in the gurdmeena processing plant on level twenty-six.”
“I knew three of them,” said Dom. “They all died after stealing a mouthful of gurdmeena from the production stream. Within seconds.”
“The Overseers told us that it was Cold Fire,” he continued, “The gods destroying us for daring to pollute our bodies.”
Morgan wore a look of blank horror.
“The Overseers also gave them special pills before they started work,” added Crowley, darkly. “And they couldn’t just pump the air full of Holy Gas and order the slaves not to drink the gurdmeena, since the Gas would pollute the stuff.”
“Hmm,” said Morgan.
“And there’s one Overseer in particular that you remember from the plant?” added Crowley, prompting Naytor.
“Through here, Mr Varque.”
Jonah Varque ducked through the doorway of interview room three. He strode across the cigarette-scarred lino for a few paces, before taking in the contents of the room and slowing to a wary halt. He looked down at the faintly grinning faces of DIs Crowley and Morgan. Behind him, PC Naytor entered the dingy room and quietly closed the door.
“What is this?” said Varque, gesturing at the brace of empty chairs opposite the detectives. “Where’s my client?”
Crowley’s eyes rose to Jonah’s somewhat testy visage.
“You are he,” said the Tenctonese DI, who was smiling. “Sit down.”
“What do y–”
“Take a seat, Varque,” snapped Crowley. “We’d like to have a few words.”
“This is preposterous,” spat Varque, turning back to the door. He pushed Naytor out of the way. “You can’t possibly–”
“We can, Kleezantsun’,” said Crowley, quietly.
Varque froze, his hand hovering motionlessly a few inches from the door handle. After a moment or two of quiescence, the duty brief regained his composure and span to face DI Crowley.
He gave a hollow laugh. “Kleezantsun’?” he said, derisively, “Whoever have you been talking to, Crowley?”
“Me,” said Naytor, striding back into Varque’s field of vision. “Rehgal. I used to work for you on the gurdmeena processing plant, deck twenty six.” He smiled. “Remember?”
“No,” lied Varque, firmly. He turned to Crowley. “Is this what you’re charging me with, if charging’s the right word for this farce? Being an Overseer on the word of some–” he gestured vaguely at Dominic, “–some plod?” Jonah gave a mocking sort of laugh. “The Gruza bill hasn’t made it through the Commons yet, Crowley - you wouldn’t be able to charge me for any alleged crimes aboard the slave ship, even if you could prove I was Kleezantsun’. You’re clutching at straws, man.”
“Quite right,” said Crowley, deflating. He nodded to Morgan. “Charge him formally for whatever you can think of, take him away to a cell and we’ll question him later.”
Varque smiled very weakly indeed.
“We haven’t got any free cells, I’m afraid, sir,” said Morgan, in something of an intentional reading-from-a-script voice.
“Oh, haven’t we?” said Crowley, in a similar tone. “Best put him in with another prisoner, then.”
Morgan consulted a blank piece of paper. “Brian Damage in cell three?” Aside from a slight blanching of the irises and a contraction of the pupils, Varque did not react.
“Perfect,” said Crowley. He frowned with sudden false realisation. “Oh, but wait - if we take Varque’s watch off and happen to mention that we think he’s an Overseer...”
Jonah’s left hand twitched involuntarily. Beneath an expensive wristwatch, the faint markings of an imperfect tattoo removal were still just about visible. Crowley grinned darkly.
“Oh, of course,” said Morgan, emotionlessly. “What with Damage being a suspected member of the ORS, and everything.”
“The ORS?” asked Naytor, innocently.
“Oontsi Rof Sansol,” said Crowley, happily, looking directly at Jonah. “Justice For Slaves.” He laughed weakly. “After all, we wouldn’t want him trying to kill our Mr. Varque, here, would we?”
Varque crossed the floor and descended into one of the battered chairs. He glared at Crowley. “All right, you win,” he sneered. “What’s all this about?”
David nodded to Naytor, who silently left the interview room, closing the door behind him. Crowley lifted a thick beige folder from the corner of the desk, and removed a bundle of documents. He slid them across to Varque. Top of the pile were a handful of glossy black-and-white photographs, grimly depicting the corpses of de Fey, Bearer and Wheel from various dramatic angles.
“Ring any bells?”
“None,” said Varque, with an air of finality, and pushed the papers back across.
Crowley sighed wearily. “Don’t waste our time, Varque,” he said. “Cold Fire deaths. Wrath of the gods for gurdmeena drinkers. Remember?”
Varque shifted uneasily in his seat.
“Cooperate and we’ll forget we ever had this conversation,” said Crowley. “Keep up this rubbish and we really will throw you in a cell with that nice Mr. Damage.” He gave Jonah a dark stare, and pushed the documents back across the desk.
“Alright, yes,” said Varque. “Cold Fire deaths. We had a few at the processing plant. That’s all I can tell you. I don’t know any more than you do, Crowley.”
“But what caused them?” said Morgan.
Varque blinked. “The wrath of Zel,” he said, simply.
Crowley leaned back in his chair and sighed. “Yes, yes, very amusing,” he said. “Now what really, actually, chemically caused them, Varque?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea how the gods work on a molecular level, Crowley,” shrugged the Overseer.
“It wouldn’t have been those little pills you gave to the workers before they started their shift, then?” asked David, with a cruel air of sarcasm.
Varque looked lost for a moment. “The antibiotics?” he said, warily. “No, they were just to protect against the toxins of the swimming insects. Whatever made you think it was those?”
“What the hell else could it possibly have been?” said the Newcomer detective.
“The wrath of Zel,” said Varque, again. A staunch Zelian since the day of his birth, he genuinely, honestly believed this to be the case. “This is obviously what’s been happening to your victims here,” he added, gesturing to the autopsy shots. “Zel thinks we should be taught the error of our ways. He has made an example of these three.”
Atheist Crowley glowered for a while. It was broken by a blink which suggested the arrival of a new and potentially promising line of enquiry.
“These antibiotics - who supplied them?” he asked.
Varque looked at him blankly for a moment. “One of the pharmaceutical laboratories, of course.”
Varque shook his head slightly. “I don’t remember.”
“Was it deck nineteen?” hissed Crowley, leaning over the desk urgently.
Jonah’s brow creased for a moment.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I believe it was.”
Crowley stood up. “The bastard.”
“Who?” said Morgan, as Crowley made for the door.
“Anglia,” called the DI, his voice echoing down the corridor. “Ford bloody Anglia.”
A fist rapped on the plywood front door of 58 Ryland Street. Police Constable Naytor and Detective Constable Smith stood on the scuffed doorstep, the latter peering between a crack in the front window’s crude planking.
“He’s coming to the door,” said Smith, who could hear footsteps within the house. Naytor nodded.
The front door opened a crack, and the pale visage of Ford Anglia regarded his visitors. It looked mildly alarmed at Dominic’s police uniform. “What do you want?” said Ford.
“A look around your house, if you’d be so kind, sir,” said Naytor. He produced a search warrant from inside his jacket and passed it through the gap in the door to Anglia. Ford briefly read the document, and nodded. “Okay, hold on, I’ll just take the chain off.”
The door clicked shut, and there was the sound of scratching metal as Ford fiddled with the security chain.
This was followed by the unmistakable and rather disheartening sound of carefully retreating footsteps.
“Oh dear,” sighed Dominic Naytor. He looked at his partner. “Shall you, or shall I?” Jayne Smith shrugged and waved him at the door. He police constable took a few steps back along the weed- strangled path, and sprinted shoulder-first at the front door. He connected dead-on with an impressive crash, and the hinges burst clean out of the doorframe in a shower of sawdust. The plywood door fell through onto the carpet, and Dominic bounded over it into the house.
He stood in the hallway for a moment, looking to see where Anglia had run to. There was a crash from the upstairs landing. Dominic bounded athletically up the staircase. DC Jayne Smith followed him up.
“Police!” called Naytor, in his best police-shouting voice. “Hold it right there, Anglia!” Dominic arrived on the landing just in time to see a bedroom door slam. He kicked it open without a thought. And froze momentarily when he caught sight of the room’s contents.
If Doctor Frankenstein had been living on state benefit in a run-down Birmingham suburb, his laboratory would probably have looked something like this. Crammed into the tiny back bedroom was a bewildering collection of scientific equipment, all of it looking distinctly second-hand. Ill-matched electronic devices were strung together with varying styles of cable. Grimy lengths of glass piping connected chipped test tubes and retorts, and a faltering fluorescent light illuminated the room, the back window having been determinedly boarded up.
The unmistakable smell of sour milk hung heavily in the stale air of the bedroom. Three dozen or so bottles of various brands were stacked in the far corner.
As Dominic stood there, a young linnaum turned her attention from a rack of test-tubes on a dressing table. She clutched a handful of orange powder in one hand, and a large beaker of thick white liquid in the other. And wore a slightly crazed smile worthy of any mad scientist.
“Sorry to resort to cliché, officer,” said Anne Algesic, “But if you step any nearer I’ll be forced to throw these at you.” She gave another unhinged smile. “They’re flammable when mixed.” A rather nervous looking Ford Anglia stepped behind her. He stared down at the beaker, then up at Naytor.
“She’s right,” he said.
Jayne slowed to a wary halt on the stairway. Behind his back, Dominic was making urgent “back away” gestures with a hidden hand. She silently made her way back down the stairs.
“Lie down on the floor,” suggested Algesic firmly. Carefully, Naytor dropped to his knees, and slowly laid his body flat on the dusty floorboards. Anne took a handful of orange powder and threw it over the prone officer.
“Now give me your radio.”
“He was working for Diamos Pharmaceuticals back in 1994,” said Crowley, as Morgan’s car sped towards the domicile of Mr Ford Anglia. “Happily using his spare time and laboratory equipment to manufacture sjabroka, along with unknown accomplices. Andrew Christ was taking the stuff and distributing it via his network of dealers, until we, er, put a stop to it in the May of ’95.”
Morgan nodded to herself. She had the feeling that Crowley was launching into one of his soliloquys, here. Best to leave him to it.
“As it turned out, Anglia had been doing much the same thing aboad the slave ship,” continued David, “Manufacturing sjabroka in one of the pharmaceutical labs, for distribution by Christ. With a good twenty years of experience behind him, he knew precisely what he was doing.”
Morgan’s Fiat swerved around a bus and turned off down a side road on its way to Ryland Street.
“So presumably he’s doing the same with the Cold Fire drug?” said Jennifer. “Using his knowledge from its manufacture aboard the ship to duplicate it here in Birmingham?”
“I’d guess so,” said Crowley. “Apparently he got his old job back at Diamos - there are precious few Tenctonese chemists on the planet. But the question is how he’s getting people to take the drug.” He tapped distractedly at the dashboard. “No common medication between the victims, you say?”
“None that we know of,” said Morgan. “No prescribed drugs, at any rate.”
The two detectives drove on in thoughtful silence, but for the rather static-ridden piece of classical music that the stereo was just about picking up. Suddenly, Morgan chose to apply the brakes, and the car screeched to a halt. Crowley’s overlarge skull nearly bounced off of the windscreen. He turned to face his partner, and caught her worried expression.
“Colds,” said Morgan, in a quiet voice, realising that Crowley hadn’t been told this yet. “All the Cold Fire victims had colds.”
Eyes wide and knowing exactly what she was thinking, Crowley reached into his shirt pocket. From it, he removed a slightly crumpled cardboard box, bearing a silhouetted Tenctonese head and the word “Ecrudex” in large green letters. David flipped it over and scanned the writing on its reverse.
“Manufactured by Diamos Pharmaceuticals, Birmingham.”
Keith Darkwood frowned at the television set from his uncomfortable NHS hospital bed. He’d been frowning steadily at the broadcast for the past minute or two. A smartly-dressed Newcomer doctor was clutching a box of Ecrudex and saying urgent- sounding Tenctonese words, few of which meant anything to the hospitalised DS.
“I still don’t understand this advert,” he commented to the patient in the next bed. Keith waggled his unbandaged left arm at the television screen. His other arm had been badly hit by some flaming component of the exploding Volvo engine, and was bound up with various liquid-filled tubes snaking to and from it.
“It isn’t an advert,” said the man in plaster, turning his head to face the complaining detective. “It’s an urgent statement requiring all of the pills to be returned to their place of purchase.”
“Oh,” said Keith, weakly. He slumped back into his pillows a bit. “That’d be it, then.”
Ford Anglia regarded Anne Algesic with a certain wariness. In the past few minutes, she seemed to be gradually losing her grip on things. He’d never seen her like this before - not once in the twenty years he’d worked with her on the ship.
Anne looked back over her shoulder, directly at Ford. “Destroy the equipment,” she said. Her irises glistened a dark, dark shade of black. “Destroy it all.”
“What?” said Ford. He nearly followed up with “Are you mad?”, but stopped himself just in time. “Is that wise?” was his chosen alternative response.
“It must all be destroyed,” she insisted. For a moment, her stygian pupils gazed into middle-distance. “Evidence,” she added. “It must be burned. All of it.”
Algesic looked down at Naytor, who was still managing to look fairly bold and purposeful despite lying face-down on the floor. Anne gave an unmistakably evil smile, and stepped over him into the corridor.
Ford had taken a screwdriver to a couple of large white plastic bags. Tiny orange crystals were hissing out through the jagged holes, piling into tiny dunes on the grubby floorboards. Anglia moved a few bottles about, here and there. They were full of branded sour milk, kindly taken from the local pubs by Robert Erbank and his associates.
“Okay, if we throw something to kn–” began Ford, turning to face Anne. He stopped. She was still clutching a large glass beaker of sour milk, and half a handful of orange powder. And wearing a very deranged smile.
“Er, Anne?” said Ford carefully.
“All evidence must be burned,” she said, in a disturbingly calm and level voice. “Lie down on the floor, Ford.”
The door to 58 Ryland Street was quite definitely open. It lay on the front carpet bearing two sets of muddy footprints. Crowley stepped gingerly over it, planting a foot very carefully onto the carpet. At the top of the staircase, Anne Algesic had her back to him, and was conversing with Anglia. DC Smith stood out by Morgan’s parked car, keeping an eye on the crumbling terraced house. Morgan herself stood outside the front door, idly swinging her car’s miniature fire extinguisher and regarding Crowley’s progress.
He tiptoed silently to the foot of the staircase, and tilted his head to peer up at Algesic. Her beaker of sour milk glinted in the light of the bedroom laboratory’s dying fluoroscent bulb.
David smiled. His hand reached into his shirt pocket.
Ford had grudgingly dropped to his knees, but was hesitant about flattening himself any further.
“Are you sure about this, Anne? Without the blueprints,” he said, nodding to a box of floppy disks sitting on a dusty shelf, “I’d be the only one with sufficient knowledge to recreate the drug. And I’m certainly the only one who’d be able to get it put into the Ecrudex.”
Algesic’s smile hadn’t faltered yet, and her irises had been darkening further during the past few seconds. “I know,” she said. She lifted the beaker of sour milk to her lips and took a swig. Ford blinked at this rather blatant breach of Maolen’s Third Precept.
“Lie down, Ford,” she said, wiping the brew from her upper lip with - wisely - the hand holding the beaker. “On the floor,” she added, for clarity.
“But if you–” said Ford, desperation creeping in.
Anne felt something brush against her hand, and there was a dull plop from the beaker of sour milk. She looked down. A bubble rose to the surface and popped. An inch or two beneath, a single Ecrudex pill was slowly making its way to the bottom of the glass. It took a couple of seconds for the slightly crumpled coating to dissolve.
Anne Algesic’s right hand exploded in a burst of cold fire.
Doctor Alexander Pike flicked off his pocket torch. The device ceased shining its sharp white light into the now-mauve left iris of Anne Algesic, and the instrument vanished into one of the doctor’s clean white pockets. As Pike let go of Anne’s eyelid, it gently closed.
“She’ll be fine in a few days,” he said, with a shrug. “She’s lost her hand, of course, and has a few minor burns and glass wounds to her right leg and torso, but she should be well enough to be interviewed.”
Anne was lying in a hospital bed of Birmingham General’s Newcomer ward, looking distinctly worse for wear. Morgan had managed to extinguish her flaming clothes fairly quickly, with the added benefit of the carbon dioxide’s anaesthetic qualities, but she’d been burned pretty badly. Pumped full of sedatives, Anne Algesic was sleeping, dreaming uneasy dreams of fire and demons.
Sat glumly in the next bed was Ford Anglia, who’d caught a bit of glass shrapnel to the skull and had managed to burn his legs rather nastily. His head was bandaged, and he was idly flicking through a magazine.
Further down the ward, PC Dominic Naytor was sat up in bed watching television. On the screen, a couple of fire engines were parked in the gutted remnants of 58 Ryland Street. Stumbling to escape, Ford had knocked a bottle of milk over, spilling the sour contents over a slashed bag of orange powder. It had exploded instantly, scattering flaming debris all over the room. The house had been pretty much consumed by fire by the time that the fire brigade chose to show up.
Dominic rubbed a tiny scar on his forehead. He’d already been half-way down the staircase by the time Ford had spilt the milk, and was suffering from nothing more than minor concussion. He’d be back on duty in the morning.
The television report cut to a blank-looking warehouse on an anonymous Birmingham industrial estate. A jagged sign above the double-doors read “Diamos Pharmaceuticals”, and heavy crates were being steadily carried out to waiting lorries. People in lab coats wandered about looking distressed.
“Thanks for your time, doctor,” said Morgan, turning from Anne’s bed and heading for the corridor. Crowley followed her, and Pike returned to his duties.
“Erbank and Damage have apparently confessed to the sour milk thefts,” said Crowley, having spoken to Black, “They were giving a few bottles to Anglia and Algesic for their research, and just dumping the rest in the canal. We suspect Varque was masterminding it, but without evidence or admission we can’t prove an awful lot.”
Morgan nodded thoughtfully. “And the third person in the car?”
“Their accomplice,” said Crowley, “We’re guessing that she took a sip of sour milk from one of the crates they had in the back, and went up in flames. Erbank claims that her name was–” Crowley half-smiled weakly. “Bonnie Fire. We’re still checking that one.”
The two detectives walked on in grim silence.
“Oh, did I ever tell you de Fey’s first name?” said David.
Morgan looked intrigued. “No.”
He didn’t tell her then, either, because he managed to collide head-on with DC Jayne Smith. She was striding down the corridor in the opposite direction, bearing a huge bunch of flowers.
“Sorry, sir,” she said, looking out from behind the colourful array of stems and petals. There were a few beautiful alien flowers poking from between their local counterparts, bred from seed cultures salvaged from the Gruza.
“Flowers?” said Crowley, raising a bald eyebrow. “You shouldn’t have,” he added, with theatrically false gratitude.
Smith smiled prettily. “They’re for our wounded officer,” she explained. “Thought he might appreciate it.”
“Ah,” said David. He stood aside, and motioned for Jayne to pass along the corridor.
As she strode onwards, Morgan and Crowley headed for the front doors, returning to investigate whatever crimes the early evening held for them.
In a dark and near-empty ward, a lone figure looked out from the blackness, watching with surprise as the young Tenctonese officer walked directly towards him. Flowers? He smiled. What a nice thought. Especially after Crowley and Morgan didn’t bother visiting him.
Jayne Smith continued to walk towards the darkened ward, her shoes clicking rhythmically on the brittle linoleum. Flowers. This was a turn up for the books, and no mistake. The injured policeman sat up in bed and tugged his dressing gown into place. He fumbled for the bedside light, and clicked it on.
Half way down the corridor, Jayne turned off to the left and entered the Newcomer ward instead.
“Oh,” said Darkwood, dismally. He reached out with his only working arm. With a click, Keith’s world was plunged back into darkness.