Aphelion Issue 220, Volume 21
August 2017
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
   

The Queen's Head

by Rob Hunter


Thistlewaite's Planetary Baedeker 134th edition, page 335. Entry: Chalifoux

"...The Chaligonians, a weasel-like race, had attained a high degree of sophistication without discovering any need for space flight. Inveterate tinkerers, the weasels of Chalifoux directed their creative drives toward household appliances, furniture and the arts. They were tightly bound within a social fabric of obligation that reached past their warring clans and (eventually) all the way to a Queen Empress. Chalifoux was not their name for their world. Bernard Chalifoux, an exobotanist on a voyage of accidental discovery, named their world after himself. Chalifoux' name had a musical quality that they found pleasing, and they used it without demur when dealing with visitors..."

The storyteller appeared ancient beyond remembering to the elementary graders who filed in for story time each week. He carried a bag conspicuously knitted with interlocking swirls, the symbols of immortality. He undid its lanyard and pulled forth a lyre, its sounding board made from the body of a dried gourd, gilded and painted with red stripes. This he set nearby on the floor, ready to hand.

"Good morning, Uncle Tizrach!"

"Ah, humph... Good morning children." The storyteller had come early; he had dozed off.

That the children might be actually glad to see him never ceased to amaze the storyteller. These sessions were officially Language Lab II -- Skills and Comprehension: Tales of the Ancestors. "Good morning, good morning, children. So, it would seem we are all here." A little corner of the library was set aside for his weekly visits. The young ones looked forward to these tales of the ancestors as a break from parsing grammar and arithmetic drills. There were the usual rustlings and pokings as the young ones settled in.

"This morning I shall tell you of a time before the landings of the humans and the amalgamation of the clans. You will hear the tale of a lone brave copper who, against his own sleepy inclinations and a careerist lethargy, fought for honor in the days of the Tetrarch and his Queen."

"A copper? That is a policeman, Uncle?" Young eyes grew wide. "What is a lethargy, Uncle?"

"Our hero would call it an 'ability to move deliberately in the face of danger.' Some would call it laziness. The ancestors were humble folk, in tune with the seasons and wedded to the land. With the coming of the humans, the ancestors found a common bond."

"Did they fight one another, Uncle?" Meaning the humans and the ancestors. The child knew the answer; she was drawing him out, hoping for a longer story time before returning to irregular verbs.

"No. Surprisingly, children. Not the humans, not at all. Chalifoux -- as the humans called our world -- had nothing they wanted. And we were kept busy fighting amongst ourselves. We, our world -- This Place Here in the old language -- had nothing the new folk desired but for a square plat of real estate whereupon to land their flying boxes."

"Spaceships, Uncle." The storyteller's words -- often strange, large, and archaic -- did not dampen the children's enthusiasm. They had caught the scent of a story. The honorific 'Uncle' was to show respect for the white hairs at the storyteller's tail tip. It was said that a white-tufted tail signified the wisdom that came with advanced age.

"Correct, my dandelions! Ahh, the stars, children!" The storyteller raised his arms and, with his eyes rolled inwards so that the pupils were hidden, described an arc that encompassed the universe. "The ancestors were familiar with the idea of flying between celestial objects. However the Tetrarch and the Queen raised an immense pyramid of obligation and dependency that flattened the folk. They felt small inclination to explore realms beyond the complications of everyday life -- observance and duty, rituals to please the ancestors. We had the scientists, but we did not have the inclination. We had no time for curiosity in matters that did not rightly concern us. Breakfast and dinner, our clans, sub-clans and the families with their never-ending genealogical squabbles took our full attention. Our interrelationships with the spirit world and its temporal representatives became so top-heavy with ritual that boiling the morning porridge itself assumed the proportions of a flight to the stars. Thus we entered our new era as an island at the far end of someone else's empire."

"Things were pretty bad then, before the humans came?" asked young Speedwell.

"No lad, things were good. The times of the ancestors were stable and prosperous taken all in all. The folk were well-fed and knew who and where they were. There was no disruption of the social fabric." The storyteller nodded and smiled as though to himself. He plucked a dolorous chord from his lyre. "'There are strange things done 'neath Califoux's sun...' A human song. They styled themselves merchant princes come to seed the stars with a gospel of wealth without work: a thing they called 'growth.' I have heard them at it myself. They said they were only seeking a place to land and trade..." The children sensed a wondrous secret about to be divulged. "And pay their taxes... Heh-heh-heh. The Queen and her Tetrarch in His wisdom allowed them to land their starships." The storyteller rocked back and forth on his heels, pleased, and waited to be asked for more.

"And thereby hangs a tale!" the young ones cried together.

"And thereby hangs a tale of three tails, much like yours." The storyteller leaned over and spat. A thin, amber stream exited between missing teeth and splashed into a pottery jar provided by the Library for the purpose. A mildly addictive upcountry weed had stained his few remaining teeth a deep red. He became thoughtful. "And a head. Not a head for forgetfulness... hmm. Ahh... yes. A head for remembering. And a schoolyard fight in the days of the ancestors..."

####

Nursery One recruits were by tradition left on the Academy doorstep. Vorn and Pingold arrived dry-eyed and stoic -- infants really, just past cutting a final row of incisors and successfully completing a course of dry-bed training. An impassive sept-uncle -- a mother's mother's brother's son delegated by the boys' clan -- left the two at the gate. There were no farewells from the sept-uncle; he turned his back and strode away. While merit and nepotism were the engines that drove civil government, the Queen's Own Civil Militia recruited along traditional genetic lines. Admissions to the Academy were by lottery to achieve the appearance of even-handedness among the clans. This façade of impartiality had kept the fractious clans quiet for generations. Vasshon Pingold and Cleptath Vorn wore identical brown and white striped jumpers. Their vertical uniform stripes identified the gens, clan and sept of their houses while intricate braiding at the tips of the youngsters' tails advertised their maternal line.

The Ones' tender age made it hard to tell the children apart. Even Vorn and Pingold were sometimes caught out checking each other's tail braiding to see just who was who. By temperament they were polar opposites. The two played well and studied diligently except when they fought or cheated. It was the staff's considered opinion that the lottery of life preordained them to be perpetual enemies or the fastest of friends.

They were sturdy lads who excelled at games. Preceptors and tutors agreed the two were as alike as peas in a pod: a strange pod, but a pod, nonetheless. At school they progressed together through the Infants, Juniors and into the Forms. Their destiny played itself out by fits and starts. Given any question -- opinion, contested treacle left at the bottom of the bag -- they would fight:

A disputed goal -- well placed, successfully defended, and two heads in collision drew some small blood. "You turd!" Pingold flared.

"Retard. How impaired are you, you fool?" Vorn rubbed at the welling blood filling his eye and kicked Pingold's shin. The exchange grew more heated as the two cadets rolled and flailed in a cloud of playground dust.

The Games Proctor, large and polite, radiated self-assurance. "Tush, lads, tush. Enough there." He could handle any situation from murder to a kitten up a tree. Young Vorn had just extracted a tissue sample from Pingold's left ear and appeared to be attempting rough and ready brain surgery by thrusting two taloned digits deep into his opponent's nostrils.

"Apprehension: detention, suspension. Choose one, please." The kindly proctor spoke more in sorrow than in anger. This was his I Was A Boy Once Myself approach.

Distracted by the proctor, Vorn was flipped face down in the dirt with Pingold astride his back. Pingold, unconcerned by the appearance of authority, did his best to tie a knot in young Vorn's tail. Vorn dug his talons into the ground and with a mighty effort dragged his tear-stained face within striking distance of the proctor's foot.

The Games Proctor spoke confidingly, "The talk at table in the Deanery is by habit light dinner chatter -- miraculous apparitions, trysts in the watchtowers, record-setting pumpkins. Tonight, my lads, we could be speaking about you. When play is bloody, play becomes work and we are rightly frightened. Fear is bad for the digestion. Stop now and save all our dinners."

Pingold giggled, putting by his knot tying. "I say, Vorn, this is jolly. I'm riding you like a toboggan."

Vorn, not content with being the underdog, sought a diversion. Vorn sunk his fangs into the proctor's foot.

The Games Proctor, large and polite, ceased radiating self-assurance. With a roar that rivaled a cow fallen into a well, he tried to wrench himself free from the impaling fangs, lost balance, and fell forward onto his face. As the proctor went down a circle formed around the combatants, as circles will in the absence of any countervailing geometric duties. At the sight of blood, schoolfellows shouted with enthusiasm. Subjective time turned the instant into a frozen tableau. In awe, Pingold and Vorn studied the proctor's descent. The convened circle quickly dwindled and scattered. The three were left alone together. The fallen Games Proctor uttered a stream of invective.

That evening the Academic Dean chanted the invocation with emphasis on form rather than content. The blessings at table were a hallowed mumbo-jumbo from the rituals of sept-lodges hopelessly garbled by centuries-long repetition. The Dean dozed off during his blessing and there was a respectful silence of several minutes until his nodding head fell forward onto the table and he awoke with a snap of the neck. "Bellafagh will it!"

"Bellafagh will it so!" The proctors, preceptors and tutors chorused and fell to the business of dinner.

Bangtree, Dean of the Proctory spoke. "I hear of mayhem and bloody doings at games. Who is perpetrating all this nasty stuff and why are we so obsessed by it?"

"There was a fight..."

"Aha! A contravention of discipline. And we need someone to blame. Ho-hum. Mayhem. This is what schoolboys do. Are we really interested in the perpetrators of said mayhem or are we merely seeking a surrogate victim to settle the score for the soul-destroying ennui of our never changing dinnertime menus?"

"There are rules. We must obey the forms."

"Very well, then. Who won? Not one of your toadying sycophants, Baneberry?"

"No, my lord. Uh, hard to say, my lord dean. Pingold was on top when we got them apart."

"Fine. Pingold will be games captain for the next fortnight. The loser...?"

"Vorn, my lord."

"Vorn, then, is under indefinite expulsion, reinstatement at the Proctory's pleasure. Pass the radishes."

####

Thistlewaite's Planetary Baedeker 134th edition, page 337. Entry: Chalifoux

"On Chalifoux the consolations of religion offer no hope of an afterlife below the rank of Adjutant, Hdqtrs Attached. Tech Spec 5 and up might hope, but the paperwork required to hold open a place in line for Paradise is considerable and most give up on it. Poachers, mopers, gawkers, evaders of the excise -- the common lot, enlisted personnel included -- are encouraged to take their pleasure in the here and now..."

The fresh young faces filed into the storyteller's nook the following day. "Now then, where were we?"

The children pushed their faces into the center of the storyteller's circle. "Was Vorn bad and Pingold good from the very start?" "Did they hate each other?"

"Oh, my pretty little dandelions. Hate is such a strong word. Certainly not at the start, for the ghost of creation inhabited them both. Both Pingold and Vorn were reflections of the other's soul."

"But they did not like one another?"

"Well, dandelions -- like. That is indeed a bird of a different fledging. Vorn and Pingold most definitely followed one another's careers and presented roadblocks to the other's preferment whenever and wherever possible -- a snide comment -- the rolling of eyes at a staffing performance review -- as the years and careers rolled on. A well-fertilized rivalry matured into ripe hatred even as it formed their characters. Although the two were destined to meet face-to-face only one more time after the embarrassment of the Games Proctor at Academy, the rivalry between Pingold and Vorn extended through their growings-up. There was no shortage of 'friends' to carry tales between the two. Tellers-of-tales -- busybodies with too much time on their hands, the quidnuncs of the government bureaucracy -- kept Vorn well informed of his rival's progress and Pingold of Vorn's.

"When he was your age, children, our fat old copper had excelled at games and demonstrated courage in many a rough-and-ready enterprise of the sort young lads rejoice in. He had a potential for greatness, our young Pingold, but year after year the weight of everyday routine turned him into a time-server, a desk-bound bureaucrat of a policeman. Pingold advanced to the levels where they dealt with paper rather than people. In the carpeted offices where he earned his bread, his muscles became flabby; his sharp mind acquired the consistency of treacle."

"That does not sound heroic, Uncle."

"Correct, young Speedwell. What are heroes made of? Knocking folk about? Blowing things up? Daring escapades? Surely, young ones, for we all enjoy a snappy tale of derring-do." The storyteller paused to peel a large, succulent purple fruit with his talons. There was a squish as he sunk both fangs into the fruit; juice flew. A crimson droplet clung to the tip of his nose. "Alas, action willy-nilly is, I fear, over appreciated. However, our Pingold carried the philosophy of inertia to an extreme. His sun, and he liked to think of it as his, though it shone on friends and detractors alike, in and out of the Queen's Own Militia, was large and yellow and distant enough to be beyond concern. Overweight and under-valued, Pingold gloried in food, drink and office intrigues..."

The storyteller's tongue shot forward to capture the shivering droplet. The children giggled, then applauded.

####

There had been a summons to the carpeted office at the end of the file-drome. Miss Queazing, gelid but demure in a starched blue jumper, collared him as he ambled out to the canteen for a mid-day snack.

"Hi Pin, the Worm wants to fry your tail. His office -- soonest." She flashed him a melting smile, exposing a dazzling six-inch length of polished incisor. One of her fangs had been drilled and inlaid with an intaglio Tree-of-Life design. It sparkled with diamond chips.

Miss Queazing -- Dilys -- thrust a brochure under his nose. The nose, long and gray, hovered over a flyer for Honeymoon Hotel Getaways. It was a lavish print offering done in bright pastel colors. A preponderance of pink, fluffy clouds and blue, blue sky.

Pingold sniffed, drooping whiskers flecked auburn and sable. "Dilys, ahh... Miss Queazing, you are very nice, but you are not as paradisical as your name suggests. The Elysium you evoke is between the sheets, not on other, ahh... distant shores."

Dilys Queazing was a sensitive and determined young woman with a bushy, striped tail that spoke of a careless liaison somewhere up her family's tree. And on the cusp of becoming a no longer young woman, she heard the call of the blood, demanding babies. That and her aunts. She dreaded going home on holiday. "What, you are not married yet? What has it been now, you and that policeman, fourteen years?" It was closer to eighteen. While Miss Queazing and the inspector were intimate at regular intervals, the depth of their commitment was not open for discussion.

"This is a repeating fantasy, my dear. I have not met your family, nor would you care to meet mine. Furthermore, putting our careers on full stop to raise a family is simply not in the cards." The brochure brought Vasshon Pingold little joy. "'Pregnancy Hotels -- Your Gestation Getaway!' Dilys my old and rare, the call of the glands is strong. I hear the echoes of our last discussion yet rattling about my head. Has it been a year?"

Maternal drives were not to be denied, but tradition was strong. Clan law governed the apportioning of bloodlines. Respectable people went to earth, ate no proscribed foods. After a successful penetration before a critical audience of fierce uncles and fussy aunts, the bridegroom was ritually unclean and the happy pair were kept apart until a scampering brood was safely delivered. A double confinement of months' duration. In sept law the marriage though consummated was not binding before the bride/mother lying in state on furs and silks with a brood of fuzzy, squirming mites nuzzling at her bosom greeted her lord who advanced through a double phalanx of her mother's male relations, grinning and armed to the teeth.

All this took time. A good year of it, eating bitter roots and picking at sand fly bites.

With the connivance of the Church and the Government a compromise was struck with tradition. The bureaucracy could not afford the accumulated years of courtship and pregnancy leave. It was realized early on that unless things were speeded up, nothing was going to get done.

"You are suggesting we do our duty by the Mother Church before we slide into the realms of contravening darkness." Pingold fished a pastry off the food trolley and, stuffing it in his mouth, stalked off down the double rows of file cabinets. "I had been led to believe that our relationship was a pleasure of the moment. Many moments, but not this one."

Time hung heavy on the hands in the executive suite, manicured hands that toiled not where the carpets grew. Pingold entered the Glow Worm's office, touching a perfunctory salute to his crisply pointed red uniform cap. He moved to a chair.

"Don't sit. We shall discuss this first." There was a thick pile of transcripts on the desk.

"This is an official interview?" Trouble.

The Glow Worm nodded and, putting one manicured talon at the side of the stack, collapsed it to describe a neat fan that covered the polished, empty desk top, an ascending semi-circle. "Delights the eye, does it not?" He struck the pose of a housewares demonstrator showing off swatches of wallpaper. "I am holding back an eruption which at any instant may well boil over into a screaming fit, poaching you and wiping away your stripes in the process, Inspector Pingold." The emphasis on Pingold's rank suggested that it might be subject to review. The Glow Worm studied the spiraled paper castle. "Beautiful, is it not? Perhaps I shall grow miniature arboretums in some quiet asylum during my retirement. I feel I have achieved some delicacy in the presentation of such arrangements of paper. THANKS TO YOU, PINGOLD! DO YOU REALIZE HOW MUCH STENOGRAPHIC TIME THIS PILE OF TWADDLE REPRESENTS?"

Pingold squatted before the Glow Worm's desk, swinging his tail forward across his knees, his long, supple racer's shoulders bowed, talons curled in -- a pose of ritual deference, in this situation a not too subtle irony. There was no invitation to sit. He hooked a nearby chair with a foot and slid it under himself. "Ahh..." The Glow Worm scowled. Mushrooming paperwork was ground they covered regularly. The report for the biennium preceding -- psychiatric profiles of nonviolent criminals, currency manipulators, kiters of inflated securities -- had been authorized by the Worm himself. He had forgotten. Pingold had a ready answer, but had a mouth full of pastry. He balanced a napkin on one razor-creased knee, intent on saving the tailoring of his powder blue jumper as he contended with the raspberry tart. Whipped cream made these tarts slippery customers.

"Yes, Sah!" was pronounced with less than parade ground emphasis as Pingold set his tart on the edge of the Worm's desk and rose to pour himself a cup of tea at the sideboard. Five shell-thin translucent cups had been arranged in a neat quincunx on a pleated paper doily. A china pot with regal insignia and the motto of the service, 'Diligence,' perched on a spirit lamp. 'Diligence' was lettered on every cup. Pingold selected the center cup, figuring that would least disturb the pattern.

"Yes? Yes to what?"

"Yes, I realize how much stenographic time is involved in the production of such a report."

"Don't be flippant with me, boy. Watch your tea, there's a good fellow."

The announced purpose of these audiences was 'attitude correction,' and intended to inspire an upwelling of warm and loyal feelings. The emphasis was on the forms when one was invited to tea in the front office, and a balancing act every time. Ziv Galborn, the Glow Worm, Chief Inspector, liked to observe the niceties. One got used to it. The Inspector's balancing act was an embellishment of recent memory. The carpet had been the life work of several generations of an impoverished highland village. Spills were discouraged. One stain on the carpet, a single slip of etiquette at the Ministry, and one's career could achieve the potential of yesterday's suet pudding. Somewhere in the confines of the Ministry an air compressor had cut in. Concentric circles puddled out across the surface of Pingold's cup. There was a distant jackhammer.

The Worm harrumphed as an exercise of authority. "You're a good man. Hate to lose you."

"Are you?"

"Am I what?"

"Going to lose me. Just asking; sudden career moves are upsetting to the digestion."

The Glow Worm grew heated to cover his embarrassment. "By the Tetrarch's tufted tail, Pingold," he bellowed, "That was only a figure of speech. Look at all this paper! If I had wanted a psychiatric social worker, I would have asked for one. What is this dismal seepage? Let the underworld take care of itself. We are policemen. You are an Inspector. The best. And you waste your time -- my time -- seeking insights to the aberrative thinking of cimmerian nogoodniks beyond redemption -- thugs, cutpurses, evaders of the excise. Then you write it up in triplicate. Intelligence! We don't need intelligence; the criminal class needs intelligence. We are here to keep the lid on the stew, not pick out the parsnips."

The Worm got a dreamy look and Pingold realized he had lost him. The boss was already tending his miniature arboretum. Tea and tarts, now stew and parsnips. The bureaucratic buffet was full today.

"I am not losing you, Pingold. In fact, I have something very special for you. You are a policeman," the chief was repeating himself, "correcting the deviant opinions of proper folk is not your concern. Come." The Glow Worm beckoned Pingold to follow through a curtained alcove paneled with fruitwood and polished aluminum. The elevator to the Upper Ministry, Queen's Own Civil Militia.

"Spy stuff, then?"

The Glow Worm pulled Pingold close, "People are missing. Many..." He spoke in a loud, hoarse whisper. "...so broadly spread across the statistical spectrum as to be politically transparent."

There was a knowing wink and the whisper grew closer and soft. "Just to let 'em know we're on the job, eh?" The Glow Worm cupped an ear and rolled his eyes about the room, insinuating a potential for eavesdroppers. There being none in evidence, he pressed a button and there was a crystal 'ding' and the elevator doors slid apart as a hubbub broke out in the Glow Worm's outer office. He released his hold on Pingold's elbow and turned just as the door to the his executive space was shouldered open. "Harrumph. Our quorum has arrived. The discussion on the profligacy of your paperwork will continue later, Vasshon." The Worm spoke loudly, with an overstated articulation.

An elderly party wearing a yellow skullcap and bent double with the urgency of his errand, age, or both shook himself free from a pursuing subaltern and plonked two worn shoeboxes on the Worm's desk. "Sah!" The subaltern braced in the presence of Pingold and the chief.

"He's all right Smee; you did your best. That will be all."

"Sah!" Smee's uniform cap snapped to and, looking aggrieved, he executed a right about face, plowing through the gaggle of junior desk-warmers who had piled up behind him in the doorway. The Glow Worm glared and slammed the door in their faces. He locked the door and turned to the intruder.

"Procedure, man. Procedure. You can't just go bruising the feelings of headquarters staff any old time you feel like barging in, y'know. There is a certain punctilio we try to maintain." The elderly party suppressed a partial grin at the Glow Worm's bruised propriety. "Procedure -- have yourself announced. Headquarters staff are here for a reason. A paramilitary organization demands an orderly progression of referrals. You can't ignore them and charge on in like you are rummaging through a bin of apples. Come."

The Glow Worm held back the curtains and the three entered the elevator. There was a lurch and a thin, distant whine as basement hydraulics were called into play. They were silent as the elevator rose. The doors opened on a glassed-in penthouse room with a view to three sides and a blank white wall at the fourth. Clustered in the center of the room were a zinc-topped table covered with neatly arranged file folders and three metal chairs with the sturdy anonymity of mass-produced office furniture.

"Room clean?" Pingold made a circuit of the room, running a fingertip along the cove lights near the ceiling. He turned to the Glow Worm.

"As of this morning. Nothing local, at least -- no bugs and certainly not our friends' usual technology. But they are always coming up with new... improvements?" The statement ended in a shrug.

Pingold dropped to one knee and disconnected a communications terminal at its wall receptacle.

The elderly party -- Deleld Leet, Chief Pathologist to the Civil Militia -- sat wearily, poking about his person for a handkerchief. "I have kept the lid on for about as long as I can. I needed to see you both, and now. The Defenders of the Statute are sniffing around." Giving up the search, he blew his nose up his sleeve. The Glow Worm handed over a box of tissues, but too late. "A dirty business. Dirty, dirty business." The kerchief was found, examined and replaced unused. A droplet still dangled at the tip of his nose. "And those scum suckers will only muddy the water."

Pingold leaned over. "Leet, how many so far?"

"Forty-two. Without a trace. Wait -- Vasshon, my boy, let me retract that fallacious assessment." The Chief Pathologist patted his shoeboxes. "The traces I have here."

"Let me say it first..." the Glow Worm settled his considerable girth into one of the remaining chairs, "have we here a real crime defined by a genuine criminal awaiting the Queen's justice? Are we entirely sure we are not dealing with the remains of activity by the Defenders of the Statute? Those devils do have a penchant for lethal sport with harmless derelicts."

"No, we would appear to be dealing with a genuine, garden variety psychopath -- I do not see the tetanus-tinctured claws of the Defenders of the Statute in this. This is our business, proper police business, not an operation by the self-righteous sociopaths of our political police. This was done for, well... fun, and not by our beloved DefStats, which is not to discount the possibility of a roving band of hyperthyroid zealots of one stripe or another."

"Then we are dealing with a mass-murderer. A pattern killer. But what pattern?"

Leet struggled with a knot on one of the boxes. "No pattern. There is nothing connecting the vanished to one another. And in that dissimilarity lies a clue. These folk were transparent in a regulated, controlled polity. The Defenders administer the cards of identity. In their zeal for political enforcement, their files bulge with dossiers. They have chapter and verse on everyone, all the time," Leet sneezed, casting a shower over the table, "even we three." The tissues were again offered.

"I would be disappointed if they did not have a file on me," said Pingold. "Anonymity is not the DefStats' pail of mollusks whatever their other failings; so we are looking at the work of a serial killer, a loner obsessed with control, getting even. The Defenders skirt the law but, living outside the law by royal fiat, crave recognition. It is not their style, going unheralded."

"That, my dear Pingold, is the conventional wisdom. And most likely correct." The knot finally gave up. Victorious, the Chief Pathologist pocketed the string. "However, I have an alternate hypothesis. Not all have disappeared without a trace. At five sites we have been able to establish as a victim's point of departure, we have discovered cast-offs -- accidents of haste, perhaps. Blood puddles and such. And, ahh... artifacts."

He lifted the lid and the smell of ripe flesh blossomed forth. "Three tails and a head. Severed, naturally. Or unnaturally. I wanted you two to see this."

Pingold fought back a spasm of gagging.

"Hypothesis number one: a stalker. They were the prey of someone or something. I think not."

Leet unrolled a kit of surgical instruments. "Sorry about this Ziv, but secrets are not safe at the coroner's office; the technicians hit the public houses after work and tongues wag."

The Glow Worm was leaning back, a kerchief to his nose, dreaming of tending his miniature trees.

The pathologist reached in front of the Glow Worm, "Do you mind?" and, without waiting for an answer, replugged the disconnected communications terminal and mashed the button that summoned Miss Queazing from the file-drome floors below. "Dilys, fetch us a carboy of formaldehyde from Stores would you? There's a love..." There was muttered assent from a small grilled speaker on the desk. "Oh, and Dilys?.. requisition some chilled mineral water and three lemons while you're at it." The button was un-mashed and he turned to the two policemen. "I brought some distilled spirits. For the sinuses. We will be wanting spritzers to clear our heads."

Pingold spoke, "Your handkerchief, please." Leet handed him the unused linen. Holding it to his nose the detective leaned over the open box. A face stared up at him, a death mask hung to dry on the cenotaph of a forgotten queen. Pingold stared, drawn to the face; he felt a shock of recognition. A long, long muzzle set off a face of ageless patrician beauty, black fur blending with white and an incongruous red hue toward the flared nose with its dappling of freckles. The proportions were perfect.

These were unproductive thoughts. He shook his head to clear it.. He shook his head to clear it.

The eyes -- languorous, not corpse eyes -- invited him to join her in her silence; their lashes were tipped with iridescent moondrops. Her drooping whiskers were dusted with gold. There was an immediate aching sense of loss. He had met his love, tragically dead.

A rubber sheet was produced and rolled out to cover the desktop, papers and all. Leet wiped his nose on his sleeve and dumped the head out on the table. Its momentum carried it toward Pingold. He turned away.

"Looks real doesn't she?" The whir of a hand-held power saw pulled the Glow Worm back from his reverie of retirement gardening.

"I say, Deleld, you're not doing an autopsy on my desk, are you?"

The saw bit flesh, then bone, and scissored a path across the top of the skull from ear to ear. "This will be a mite smelly." The stench was horrendous. Leet was digging into his work with a disturbing gusto. He looked up and smiled, "Rather like cutting up a holiday pumpkin with the face already on it, eh? But this one has spoiled on the way to market."

Pingold held the handkerchief more tightly against his muzzle, trying not to gag.

The elevator doors slid open as Miss Queazing chose that moment to arrive with the tray of spritzers, followed by a Stores orderly trundling a dolly. "Where do you...?" She saw what was on the desk and opened her mouth to scream. Nothing came out.

Pingold took the tray and, putting an arm around her, steered her and the orderly back into the elevator, closing the door behind them.

"This was not necessary, Leet. Now she will have bad dreams."

Pingold squeezed a lemon into his kerchief and held it to his nose.

Leet grunted, dismissing the episode. "Why here? I have noticed a sudden flowering of new faces at the lab. In the last day only. Someone is as curious about all this as we are. Someone who thinks that because everybody who puts on a white lab coat looks the same, a spy will disappear into the wainscoting. An error of the regimented mind."

He peeled back skin and hair and, working his gloved fingers into the incision, popped the back off the skull. Pingold and the chief watched, mesmerized, unmoving. He poked about at the base of the brain with a pencil. "Ah-hah. It is good to have my surmise verified. The best analysis is guesswork without empirical confirmation."

Straightening up, the pathologist snapped his fingers. "Spritzer, please." Pingold fetched the tray. "A whole lemon, please. And alcohol three parts to one. The bottle's in my bag." He looked apologetically at his hands, "Would you mind, Vasshon?"

Pingold squeezed the lemon while Leet snapped the head back together, arranging the hair to cover his cut. Using a napkin to hold his glass, he drained it at a gulp. Then lifted the head high in both hands.

"Lovely, isn't she?" True. The face even in death held an ethereal beauty. He held his glass for a refill.

"Well, save your tears. She never lived." Picking up a scalpel, he cut the string on the second box and shook it out on the desk. There was a sharp intake of breath from the Worm and Pingold. They were steeled for yet another head, tumbling and macabre. Three tails with a full glossy sable summer growth at their tips flopped dispiritedly onto the desk. "And neither did they. Galborn, could you open your washroom door for me, there's a good fellow. I require a scrub before I rejoin your fastidious society."

The Chief Pathologist's voice echoed from the tiles as he waved his hands haphazardly under the running water. He talked loudly over his shoulder.

"Chief Inspector, I am a scientist and a doctor, and as a scientist and as a doctor I tell you you are too fat. Take off some weight. You, too, Pingold."

The three sat with the head and the tails. The face had a plaintive, evocative beauty. Pingold still smarted at having his overweight enter the conversation.

"It brings you joy to niggle at the police? Prescribing diet and exercise unbidden for the living rather than carving up the dead?"

"It is a refreshing diversion, I admit, to have a patient answer me back; the usual run of my prescribing is cremation or interment. I submit that a while a paunch is emblematic of your successful careers, I will be soon seeing you both on my table." Leet tossed back the dregs of his spritzer and snapped closed the lid of his instrument case.

"Just something to think about. And while your brain cells are yet a-quiver, here is something else to occupy your minds. I have some friends... the DefStats are not all empty-headed bullyboys. A former employee of the police lab ran the victim profiles through their database after hours."

Vasshon Pingold had been staring at the head, lost in his own private thoughts. He reached out and closed the moondrop eyes. The owner of this face he had met before.

"I shall assume in the absence of any evidence. My conjecture is that there is a living person who bears that face." Leet sat comfortably, feet up on the polished metal table designed to hold the Glow Worm's miniature forest. "Our perpetrators get an 'A' in esthetics, but in basic biological science they will have to scrabble for a passing grade. We checked the genetic code -- or my friend the technician did, trying for a matchup with the reported missing. Then he noticed a similarity -- they were identical, tails and head. Triplets? In-bred sept? Possible but not jolly likely. There are crucial connections missing. The pineal gland, f'rinstance."

The Glow Worm began to pace, his tail draped magisterially over one arm. "A criminal genius on the rampage. The mad scientist scenario. Oh, spare me that, Leet! However, it does have a certain appeal."

The pathologist scooped up Ziv Galborn's wastebasket and, dumping the contents on the floor, handed it to Pingold. "Would you mind decanting a few inches from the formaldehyde carboy? They always come topped-off." He nodded to the executive washroom. "Just dump it down the sink." Picking up the rubber sheet from the Glow Worm's desk, Leet gingerly carried it to the waiting carboy and, tipping it taut at the lip, funneled in the tails, the head and all his loose instruments. Where there had been the smell of decaying flesh there was now a mortuary reek.

"Let us think together, if your tiny minds have not been detained by this morning's vigorous consumption of alcohol. Clonal manipulations are done at the level of a single cell. Then you let it grow, watch and study. These putative individuals -- the young woman and her three tails in the jar. How old would you say her to be, Pingold?"

"Well... hard to peg in that state. She has an ageless beauty. The early middle years."

"Fine. Call her somewhere between fifty and eighty-five years then, just for argument's sake. As I said, we change a cell, then let it grow. And we have been investigating cloning as a serious discipline for only thirty years. Conclusion..."

"Conclusion... the jar is empty or there is a rogue scientist at large. I agree, this is unacceptable. We would know about it. You are hinting at something else."

"Correct. A botched clone on this scale -- and it has been tried mind you –should resemble a kidney pie or a runny puddle of bullion broth, not a person. In my opinion we are being had on. A send-up. Somebody is trying to get our attention."

As something unpleasant crept up his spine. Pingold hunched lower into his chair, trying to escape the memory of a face in a museum, seen long ago. "Leet, if this is a fool's trail masquerading as the garbage of an experiment gone awry, if these mementos are supposed to have never lived... why make up the eyes?"

####

Thistlewaite's Planetary Baedeker 134th edition, page 340. Entry: Chalifoux

"A Queen Empress is dependent on handouts from a thousand squabbling feudal overlords. The feudal lords are at the mercy of their clan chiefs. The chiefs can't make a move without approval by their clans, and the clans their septs. In late feudal times, a new ruler appeared -- the Tetrarch, thus named because he holds administrative authority at the pleasure of the Four Houses: The lords, the chiefs, the clans, and the septs. The Queen, in theory, stands above the Tetrarch, while in practice she is ceremonially seated -- higher by an inch or so, and slightly to the rear..."

The pathologist departed and Pingold and the Glow Worm, slightly inebriated, disembarked from the private elevator into the cool confines of Ziv Galborn's carpeted office.

"Inspector -- Vasshon, my boy -- we are being watched on this one." The Worm became close, moist and confidential. "Keep a low profile, but keep a profile. The Defenders of the Statute will be monitoring us every step of the way. Results are called for, not necessarily a solution. Definitely not a solution." The Glow Worm spun a talon in the air as though winding the elastic of a tiny motor and rolled his eyes to the ceiling, indicating that whatever mechanical ears lay buried in the plaster were welcome to the conversation.

"You think this is one of theirs?"

A shrug. "It's ours until we can effectively distance ourselves. They are muddying the water to make our service look bad -- muddy it back at them. They have presented us with a problem that cannot redound to our credit no matter what happens. They are untouchable and we are not. The Tetrarch's annual review, our budget. You will have your choice of operatives to assist you. We suggest Sgt. Spurdick. You have a rapport."

"We?"

The Glow Worm stood. The audience was over.

From outside the air compressor again shattered the quiet. The Worm spilled tea on the rug as their feet vibrated to a distant jackhammer. "Ahh..." A box of tissues appeared from a desk drawer. The Worm wadded some up and applied the wad to the stain. "It's had twelve good years," he sighed, referring to the rug. "One can't expect things to go on forever, can one?" He had looked up, smiling, "Except for us, eh?"

The Inspector scrumped himself another raspberry tart on the way out. It might be a long time between dinners. As it turned out, it was not. In Reception Miss Queazing sat at her desk, staring ahead. "Dilys?"

"You knew, Vasshon. You might have prepared me." She bit back a sob, swallowed and began to choke. Pingold held her while pounding on her back.

"I did not know, and by the time you and the Stores orderly arrived it was too late to stop you. You have had a nasty shock. I apologize."

Miss Queazing's spasms subsided to hiccoughs. Bright-eyed with tears, she slowly disengaged from his embrace. "That will cost you dinner, Vasshon. An expensive dinner."

The expensive dinner would have been followed by a romantic interlude, but Pingold pleaded a fast of obligation.

"If you had to forego something, it could have been the dinner. We might have adjourned to my place for tea and biscuits," said Dilys.

"The Feast of Harvest Home," Pingold lied unconvincingly, "I am bonded for a month of holy celibacy. My clan is rooted in the mountains; these things are always popping up. One forgets."

"Doesn't one."

They parted at her door.

"Good night, Vasshon. I suppose you will have to go to your room and braid jolly ribbons in your tail."

"Something like that. Good night, Dilys."

####

Before lying on his cot in the officers' barracks, he chased a dusty demijohn of wine out of the recesses beneath his bed and undid a red ribbon from the seal, picking away the wax with his teeth. He knotted the ribbon in the straggly remaining hairs of his tail tuft.

"For show, for Dilys. For the Queen, whatever." For Vasshon Pingold, Inspector, sleep did not come easily nor long. He met with nightsweats and a dream of a visitor in a familiar place he had never been:

They sat, policeman and Queen: she, a head atop a fluted sandstone pilaster, a radiant face, he, a soul thrown out of heaven, beyond loss. He leaned forward to close the gap between them. At a table spread with oiled silk slick and shiny they drank brandy poured by the wife of this house of high dormers -- fruit brandy from a lead flask crystallized by moisture and age and air. The Queen lifted and poured, a thin amber stream. The Inspector did not ask how she could speak, sit with him and without hands manipulate the flask.

"Have we known each other thus?" asked one, their voices and their thoughts indistinguishable one from the other.

"Yes, we have, and this is our wife, the Ashaksi," replied the other, without hands swirling the brandy so it touched the lip of her cup.

The Ashaki, the ancient name of a Queen, spelled with different characters but sounding this way. Ashaksi. In a city of flat-roofed buildings with airy windows and palisaded dormers, high fan-lit windows that neither of them had seen in life but both now dreamed.

"We deaden our minds so our souls may flow together. We here await the silent strike of a flight of arrows," said the Queen's head.

He awoke on the floor, knotted in sweaty sheets, in a panic for the promised flight of arrows. Pingold swept away remembering with vague, uncoordinated movements, trying to catch at the dream -- wriggling, reforming, deciding -- before it was lost. The burrowing of a trespassing insect made him scratch at his crotch. Had they tied a lizard to his loins? Then the feeling was gone. He lay exhausted, crippled by longing to know -- what? -- something ephemeral, just beyond his grasp.

The face of an ancient queen. The Sender of Dreams had sent him either a true dream or a false dream. It was for him to find out which. The heart-breaking beauty, the original of the flesh and blood face with the moondrop eyes, resided, a carved and painted sandstone effigy, in the Bureau of Antiquities. Queen of the pillar and wife of the house of high dormers.

He had seen her first as a cadet bunking from the Academy. The young Pingold was after a pleasant amble through the aisles of ancient dreams and lost in the haze that comes with peering overlong at artifacts. These unauthorized absences were smiled upon, the assumption of the proctors being that the nearer the trappings of a higher sensibility, the more tractable the rowdy corps of cadets. By exposure to culture, some small iota of finesse must percolate through their charges' dense crania. Besides, empty desks gave proctors, monitors and preceptors their own excuse to cut the occasional class.

She was revealed to the passerby in a moment of sudden recognition, positioned at a turning of the ways where the corridor branched. To an unfocused eye, she was real and living. A muttered self-conscious apology at being caught daydreaming.

"Oh..."

She held herself with grace and authority, as befitted a queen.

"Hello there, pardon me..."

Then the realization that it was a sculpted head proportionately positioned on a fluted stone column at a level the face would have been in life.

"Oh..." A different inflection, a soft exhalation.

She was an apotheosis of dynastic yearnings -- haughty, distant, and impossibly lovely. An idealized face, not a portrait, for such perfection could never have lived.

She had been a queen, a lady of a settled estate, surely. That she was a queen implied a king. With a twinge of jealousy Pingold studied the frescoes. The queen, his queen, was not a part of the wallpaper of the ancestors. The display of which she was the centerpiece was a reconstruction, millennially dry plaster scraped, chiseled and reassembled from a hill country manor house dug up from the detritus of centuries where energetic scholars robbed the graves of their ancestors. We were quaint, now we are enlightened. There was ready funding for the looting of the past while the future went to hell.

The relocated frescoes were of a bridal party. The bride was not the head on the pedestal. In ancient times the happy wedding couple spent a half hour pressed into wet plaster standing on a raised dais leaning into the wall as motionless as their passion allowed. They would be removed on the signal of the chairman of the gens and rushed naked into the courtyard to be hosed off, dried, oiled and pomaded by a troupe of giggling sept children while an artist added lifelike colors to the moist relief images they left behind in the wall. The colonnaded exhibition hall was a connected caravan of wedding portraits; scrollwork of the vine of generations past and the posies of long-lost springs intertwined with couples in relief. Their families were painted flat, two-dimensionally, heads turned toward the sept-parents.

Pingold visited at the branching of the ways often after that. And this day he had again seen his beloved, also only a head. But she had lived, been born in this time... his time. And he had missed her. She died illiterate and squalid in some Old Town stews -- a brutal lover, a bar fight, the thrust of a pimp's knife, and she had been wheeled in cold and lovely for the coroner's mercy.

He rubbed spidery sleep trails from his eyes and stumbled to the lazaret where the bachelor officers were allowed a basin. He ran cold water on his wrists.

Such beauty could never have been invented without a model, somewhere in time. And somehow the carved stone had antedated by a hundred generations that morning's flesh and blood copy, filtered through a light of memory -- sunny afternoons that once stretched on to an indefinite rosy future. In the small light of early morning creeping through the slits in the window blind, Pingold caught sight of himself in the mirror.

"Well, I am still here, at least. The Dream Sender has not sucked my soul away to the Red Lands."

He looked back at himself from the glass, bleary-eyed, whiskers drooping and body covered with disorganized tufts of fur. He ran a brush over his sides and down his back as far as he could reach and slipped on a fresh jumper.

The carpeted office, the file-drome and the anteroom were empty. It would be hours before the throngs arrived to start the day. Dilys' work was neatly piled, her chair parked at right angles to the anticipated flow of paperwork. He turned under a lacquered marble arch with the motto of the Queen's Own Civil Militia, 'Diligence,' carved into the stone amid twining vine leaves. It was as though tired, the word had paused to rest among a salad offering.

The map room was not on his usual way; he was demonstrating that erratic behavior the DefStats loved to report. He closed his eyes and he was visited again by that head as it bounced and rolled toward him on Deleld Leet's rubber sheet. The face on the table had shaken him and he needed to be alone; his feet had taken him and he had followed. "What am I doing here? No answer, Inspector? Well..."

He released a bunch of keys from the tangle at the bottom of his dispatch pouch and tried three in a metal door near the arch. The third try was successful. Pingold clambered down dusty flights in the yellow glow of maintenance bulbs and was soon moving through an underground maze of corridors. Twenty minutes of brisk walking brought him to the far reaches where yet another metal door, identical to the scores he had passed, waited. The third key again fit the lock. He let himself in, closed the door and leaned against it panting. "Have I been followed? The Spirit of Diligence, perhaps, rising from its bed of wilted leaves?"

If he had been seen, he could expect a memo in crabbed handwriting under the DefStats' seal to appear on the desk at his next performance review. He ducked his head back into the hall.

No followers, the coast was clear. He mopped his brow, wet from unaccustomed exercise, and teased his drooping whiskers into order with a pocket comb.

The map filled one end of the room; wall to wall and floor to ceiling it commanded the eye, ending just short of a low vaulting where a tangled forest of pipes and wires carried steam and electricity through festoons of peeling paint. The map was two-sided, a thick block of transparent plastic material now barely translucent, opaque and milky with layers of dust. Behind it was a walkway where the map's attendants had scrambled in the plague's heyday. Mapping the epidemic's spread. With paintpots and sheaves of notes they detailed its advances and withdrawals, an inflammation spreading red tendrils from a yellow center. There had been no updates for years; the territory of death had stabilized, balanced with births and in-migrations. Pingold sucked in a paunch whose alarming proportions seemed to have crept up on him. How many years had it been since last he slipped behind the map, a cocky subaltern dripping red paint on his blouse from the brush back of an ear? One day the plague had stopped, simply stopped, leaving researchers without a clue as to its cause or cure. The Old Town was abandoned to the undocumented.

"The plague was satisfied, then were we also -- satisfied to let the political police have free run in the forgotten zones."

The livid threads reminded Pingold of the progress of blood poisoning up an arm and eventually to the heart. There was an access way to the far side of the map. The aperture was designed for slim cadets.

"Suppose I am trapped in there, then what? If I am discovered, what explanation could I give?"

The corners of Pingold's mouth bent as he allowed a giggle. "Oh, Inspector, my but you are the naughty boy."

He squirmed behind the thick plastic. It was a tight fit and he was not surprised to find himself again short of breath. "If thirty seconds of holding your gut in has you near a heart attack, you had better get back on the exercise machines, Pingold." He examined the tip of his tail, blowing off a drop of smut leached from the wall and brushing a telltale white smear from his blue uniform jumper. Staring at the opaque traces of paint on the map's backside, he noticed numbers written on the tempera: yesteryear's dead. Pingold unsheathed a claw and scratched one line, then another, etching a mark. There was a satisfying, shivering sound as he excised the grooves in the plastic. "Willful defacing of Government property. Things could go hard for you, old fellow."

He studied his curved talon and removed several small curls of yellow paint, then retracted. People had lived here, beneath the X, and within his memory.

He draped his tail over an arm, out of harm's way and, back against the wall, allowed himself to slide to the floor in a comfortable squat. The image of the face with moondrops on her lashes followed him. He closed his eyes and remembered Old Town, now a cordon sanitaire holding society's castoffs: carcasses burning atop trash heaps in the streets, vandalized streetlights whose empty globes dangled forlornly by a scrap of wire. His last visit was while the civil police still ventured in, marching two abreast in platoons. Even then it had been a training field for roving DefStat terror squads, the wreckage of their midnight wildings left for the dawn patrols to mop up. Interrogees were dropped and left to die where they had tired of playing with them, often as not with a festering sore where a broken needle lay embedded beneath the skin.

Sloppy operators though enthusiastic tormentors, the DefStats -- in such a rush to get their syringes into some poor devil, all stabbing at him as he thrashed about, pinioned but not yet paralyzed by their injections. Pingold had cleaned up their messes all too often.

He had tried their serum once on himself, out of curiosity. It had taken no great sleight-of-hand to liberate a standard DefStat field pack. In carpet slippers and baggy, comfortable drawstring pants, he had checked the mirror, trimmed his whiskers and looked to his nostril hair, bolted four fingers of brandy, then reclined in a comfortable chair. Pingold sent a prayer of thanks to Seven-Handed Bellafagh that he had done his experiment locked in his room in the bachelor officers' wing of the police barracks. He jabbed all four syrettes into his arm. He had had three days accumulated leave.

Feeling the mixture of anesthetic and psychotropic drugs take effect, he had only time sufficient to throw himself at the door, wrench the key from the lock and slide it under and into the hall, effectively isolating himself. Alone and uninterrogated he had had compulsion fits to warble arias of guilt. In the hands of a skilled, vindictive questioner, he would have been scampering, howling at the sun. And he was an Inspector, one of the force's anointed. Undocumented civilians caught alone and unawares would say anything. A few c.c.'s of the stuff and he would have confessed to peeing on the Tetrarch's radishes. He had slept it off for a day and a half and awakened with a punishing hangover.

"Woolgathering, are we? Visiting the scenes of our youth, Inspector Pingold?" It was the Glow Worm. The aura of senile dementia was gone. Pingold struggled to his feet and wriggled out from behind the map.

"You followed me."

"I, too, am a policeman in case you have forgotten. This is what I do; I follow people and second-guess my subordinates. You do not have a patent on curiosity." Ziv Galborn closed the door and fixed the latch, locking them in together in the map room. "We shall talk about survival, yours and mine. Here, in a privacy no longer guaranteed, alas, by my own office." The Glow Worm stood erect and alert. He groomed his whiskers with a talon as smile lines tried and failed at the corners of his mouth. "I like you, Vasshon, and have decided it were best for all concerned that you took a short vacation from the Queen's Civil Militia."

"But, sir..."

"This morning's display has troubled you. You would preserve the polity from a wandering axe murderer, yes?"

"The Chief Pathologist's explanations were a bit bizarre..."

"Bizarre! Bellafagh haunt the Red Lands, the whole thing reeks! Our Ministry, our very pensions, are at hazard. Our beloved Chief Pathologist had been got at." The Glow Worm was agitated, pacing a tight circle before the Inspector.

"Leet? But why...?"

"The Defenders of the Statute, you pompous, over-stuffed ninny! And why? When did they ever need a reason beyond keeping things stirred up? Now we must operate on two levels -- solve the mystery of these killings, biological tamperings, or whatever and slow the DefStats' political intrigues at the same time. Space aliens! Mad scientists! Bloodthirsty serial killers, indeed! Where is your vaunted analytical prowess? These artifacts are a manufactured boggle, designed to cling to whomever touches them last. Us!"

"You accuse the Chief Pathologist. We are talking about our friend, Galborn, yours and mine, and I would want some confirmation."

"I shall excuse the rank familiarity, Vasshon, since you speak in the heat of the moment. Confront him yourself if you crave confirmation, but not until I tell you." The Glow Worm was shouting now, holding his tail and waving it as a baton. He held it in Pingold's face, the triple-braided sable hairs intertwined with red and gold threads signifying chairmanship of his sept. "I saw the recognition in your eyes. You knew that woman."

"The woman. The head. Yes, I had seen that face."

"Everything comes from somewhere. A head presupposes a body. I had hoped you could winkle out some clumsy allegory from the DefStats' blood-spattered show and tell. Now you are personally involved. She was not a sept-cousin?"

Pingold shook his head.

"Good. The last thing we need is a blood feud. Street girls go missing every day. But you are, nonetheless, involved and this will cloud your judgment. I want you away. The DefStats are weaving a net of innuendo; they have falsified police records, too. Did you know? No, I thought not. Forty-two of the undocumented are not missing; they are all the same person reported again and again in differing locations. I discovered this, at least, before the records, too, went missing. I am an older and wiser hand. Let me play the game in the corridors of officialdom. They have marked you. You! Look at your posture -- sadly out of condition. Straighten up, boy! You are a disgrace. There is a theory that in the animal world the very shape of a creature changes to enable it to reach its favorite tidbits. You and I have been too long rummaging in the gutter chasing after common criminals. Straighten up! Get away, I want you out of the way. I am not so befuddled as I make out, but you guessed at this, did you not? Bask in the sun and breathe fresh breezes while I cover our tracks. Your devotion to duty has clouded your discretion. I cannot protect you and cover our tails both at the same time."

"Spurdick, my sergeant, whose name you dropped in your office for whatever hidden listeners, has a hideaway upcountry. If there were listeners and you, as our superior officer, have now compromised him, he, too, should be entitled to some furlough."

"Your vacation time will be approved. Oh, and Vasshon?"

"Yes."

"There is a silver lining to all this, you know. They have presented us with a genuine problem, beyond just cleaning up. There is a subtle mind at work here, weaving nets of intrigue. A challenge for you and for me, a challenge worthy of us. I shall now return to bump into things, fiddle with miniature trees and mumble incoherently to myself where the staff can hear. This conversation of ours did not take place."

Pingold saluted. "Sah!" For the first time since the Queen's head with its moondrop eyes came rolling across the table Vasshon Pingold felt the slightest thrill of hope for the future. The Glow Worm left the map room, closing the door. There were voices of loud salutation in the hall.

"Hail brother."

"And you, brother, hail."

The Glow Worm was speaking too loudly, a warning. "These antique halls are seeing remarkable traffic after so many years." There was a muttered reply. Two sets of footfalls retreated in separate directions.

Pingold squeezed back behind the transparent wall and remained quietly with his thoughts for several whiles. He decided to reserve judgment of the quality of his opponent. The Glow Worm's warning him off Leet was a clear invitation to disobey a direct order. He would defer to the Glow Worm and chase down Lap Spurdick at his filing -- a dreary, thankless job -- Spurdick should enjoy a trip to the country.

####

Thistlewaite's Planetary Baedeker 134th edition, page 344. Entry: Chalifoux

"...As we have said, Chalifoux is a planet inhabited by a weasel-like race large by terrestrial standards: the Chalifoux variety approaches two meters in height. Except for the weasels and its two moons with their shallow, swirling marsh tides, the planet is unremarkable. Over time the weasels hammered out a modest feudal civilization, the taller subjugating the smaller..."

Inspector Pingold straddled a piece of furniture that allowed an occupant to rest comfortably on his haunches in a supported crouch as if he were deep in meditation. A word processor beeped impatiently; he had not struck a key for ten minutes. "Pathetic what we have come to," he stood, struggling free. "We were highlanders, squatting by the fire and honing our blades by its light." His eyes were dark-rimmed from lack of sleep. "It is the right, is it not, of each and every honest fool who toils under the sun to expect no less than a good night's sleep?"

"Correct as always, Inspector." Lapwith Spurdick, Sergeant, slammed home a file drawer. "And perhaps a little something in his stomach to tide him over and a mite to put away against clearing his marker from the tax rolls."

Pingold climbed back into the chair's flowing, coiling design. These chairs were new and the Inspector didn't like new things. "Damn." His foot had become stuck in a rear aperture.

"Tail hole. The latest thing," said his sergeant. The word processor beeped again. "Look at you, you never turn it off. You are scrolling and spinning inside your head -- positively spattered rather than an alert proper copper. Frankly, Vas, you are a nervous wreck. Calm down. You're working yourself into behavioral modification therapy. Get a life." Spurdick enjoyed the familiarity they allowed themselves in the confines of their office. He had been waiting with a consoling cup of tea and mountains of paperwork to be read and initialed.

"I knew her, Lap. No, I mean I recognized her. The head." Pingold scrubbed at his long, curved incisors with his tail tip.

"This is ground we have already covered. You don't appear lost in immediate grief. Not a sweetheart, wife or mother. What then? Someone you ran in shaking down the prostitutes of Old Town?"

"I saw her in a museum."

"She was a scholar? A guide?"

"She was, is, an exhibit. A queen of the hill people."

"We have been friends for... how long? Twenty years or more. And the woman troubling your sensibilities has been stiff as salt fish for thousands of years. I have never seen you like this. Twenty years mopping up after the DefStats and enforcing the Queen's justice. Take a rest, Vasshon."

The sergeant paused, eyeing the tail in Pingold's hand. From much use its sable inflorescence resembled a brush left to harden in a pail of turps.

"Damn!" Pingold stuffed the tip in a rear pocket of his uniform fatigues. "An uncle from your mother's sept willed you a hideaway. Let's take a break. You must have two years' accumulated leave. What say you, old friend?"

The appeal of time off was undeniable.

"Yes! We'll do it. But suppose you first tell me more about your mystery lady. I wouldn't want to think that I am going camping with a maniac."

Pingold told about the dream while Spurdick shuffled a stream of papers under his hand for initialing.

The story of the Queen ended concurrently with the signing of the final memorandum. The sergeant was enthusiastic.

"Then we shall go back to nature and loosen the bonds of care. For a few days, at least. There are those among us who favor the opinion -- held in high places, though not approved -- that we are evolved from the primitives, the indigenes, the small rulers of the high heath who now mop our latrines."

"'Indigenes now mop latrines.' A not inept turn of phrase, sergeant. Infelicitous but accurate. Your snappy jingle is a paradigm of evolutionary theory, although a regrettable delusion. Seven-handed Bellafagh, through His archiepiscopate, argues differently." Pingold had no problems with public espousal of a doctrine which privately all reasonable people found foolish.

####

The transport left them off where the road ended -- abruptly, as though the construction crews had broken for lunch, wandered off and lost their maps. As the borrowed constable sped the commandeered flitter back to the motor pool Pingold and Spurdick watched the dot shrink and disappear on the horizon, feeling the thrill of aloneness. Hitching their packs, the two detoured a quarter mile around a vast thicket of wild roses in berry and headed to the hills. The two were officially out of touch; the constable would return in a month. The day's hike upcountry to Spurdick's camp wore them out, their city muscles weary from the unused toil.

They undogged the simple latch of the door and, flushed with accomplishment, stumbled into the welcoming dark. The Inspector fell into one of a pair of rickety chairs that had been reinforced with twisted wires at the joins. As their ragged breathing subsided, the wilderness quiet welled up to envelop them.

Lapwith Spurdick, Sergeant to Her Majesty's Ministry of Public Safety, Queen's Own Civil Militia, flung his pack across the room into a hammock and, careless of his tail, slid gently to the floor as he undid the stopper of a water flask. "Every year it is the same. I find this shack a getaway that fills a soul emptied in service of the Queen's archive. Filing is hardly proper work for the descendant of fierce warrior chieftains."

The single room was sparsely furnished with a plank table covered with wind blown litter that had entered through the leeward window where a broken shutter banged listlessly. An insect voice -- a big bug, either hungry or passionate from the loudness of its call -- rang in the bush. Pingold rose and checked the fastening of the door. It was synthetic material, bolted to a modular frame. Spurdick noticed his interest.

"My mother's uncle had it airlifted in by flitter. He was a duff old coot, a loner and versed in the lore of the primitive life, but he liked the weather kept outside. He glorified the savage highlanders, ate roots and roamed the woods when he tired of his stock brokerage. Which was only so often as his growing families allowed," Lapwith Spurdick wryly added.

Pulling on a ring set into the floor, the sergeant upended a trapdoor. "I'll show you a trick." A blast of cool air burst into the cabin with the sound of running water, down and distant, far below. "Hold the door." Spurdick lay prone and fished about, retrieving a braided handle of rope from a peg within the hole.

Standing away, wary of the drop, Spurdick drew in the rope hand over hand, neatly coiling it at his feet. This was heavy work and shortly he belayed the line to a cleat in the floor. "A parable, my friend. If one works hard enough and long enough, there are rewards at the end of the rope. My sept uncle put these by the year I was born and I am ready to share them with a friend. My muscles are flabby from a year behind the desk. You give a try, but have a care, this is a precious cargo."

Pingold wiped his hands on the front of his jumper and took hold of the line. A final ten meters and a metal cage was pulled from the hole.

Glistening black bottles, icy cold and dripping, filled the cooler.

"A rare treasure your uncle has left us!"

They ate dry rations washed down with the set-by cider and slung their hammocks near the stove. That night Vasshon Pingold enjoyed his first undisturbed sleep in a week.

At high noon on their second day a tiny creature tattooed and wiry, carrying a wild pumpkin almost its size, appeared at the door. "Selly-selly. Good tasty pumpkin for big fella boss. Make nice soup."

This was the first primitive Pingold had seen in the wild. He felt positively huge. The little fellow came barely to his waist. "But soup I will have to make, and I am on vacation. Sorry, old chap. Send me a cook with the next pumpkin and then we'll talk." Seemingly undisturbed by the rejection of his wares, the primitive shrugged and departed. The Inspector was dumfounded. "It looked... almost normal. That indigene."

"Everything looks 'almost normal' if you delve deep enough. Unwind enough strands of the genetic code and the whole world is related. How many tears did you shed for last night's dinner?" Lap Spurdick was irritated. "We could have used that pumpkin. I would have cooked up a fine soup and now you have offended the source of supply for trustworthy vegetables. Pray he will return."

The next night the nightmare of the Queen and the house of high dormers was back. Pingold opted to stay awake. He squatted on the lean-to veranda and studied the stars, keeping his own counsel. He was drowsy enough by false dawn to creep back to his hammock for a nap.

Spurdick was up before the dawn, rattling about with breakfast chores and unbearably cheery. "Well, to coin a phrase, here we are."

"Lap, the years have neither dulled your powers of observation nor the childlike glee with which you belabor the obvious. We were here yesterday. Come." Pingold walked out onto the porch. "I am now to sit in the shade of that faranga tree and draw sustenance from the earth."

Spurdick stretched, his arms high above his head and slammed his talons into the exterior clapboarding of the cabin just under the eaves. He arched his body in the long rays of the early morning sun and lashed his tail. "Gods, I feel good! And you... you have just made a joke -- feeble but a joke. Pin, we are like two boys on a holiday."

"It was an irony, not a joke. And this insect-infested wilderness possesses a beauty all its own. At the office I had become useless, turned into a bag of synapses with a taste for raspberry tarts. When that head came bouncing out of the pathologist's surprise package, I felt emotions I have not allowed myself for decades. The luxury of animal panic -- fear, terror. I have become mentally incompetent," he allowed himself to slip into the jargon of the career civil servants, "and will soon be fit for nothing but weeding the Tetrarch's radishes. I shall opt for early retirement."

"At half pay. Don't be a fool, Inspector, hang on for full term and retire like a gentleman copper. Relax. Read a book," Spurdick leaned inside the door and reached down a complex-looking rod and net arrangement from the wall, "and I shall pursue our dinner at a noble fishing hole known only to me and my uncle. Give us a hand with the well hatch, there's a love."

The same cooler that had given up the cider proved to be a fountain of live bait, too. "There's a reason the old-timers left loose joins when they set the stones for their well casings. They live in the crevasses. Hang on to my tail would you?" Spurdick's head went over the edge, then his shoulders. Pingold held on and dug his heels into the floorboards. Spurdick scooped out a few handfuls of wriggling slugs and popped them in his creel. "See you." And he was gone.

####

Thistlewaite's Planetary Baedeker 134th edition, page 336. Entry: Chalifoux

"Majestic panoramas are not Chalifoux's strong suit. The two moons' cyclical alignment pulls sixteen-centimeter tsunamis over thousands of kilometers of Chalifoux's surface to where, over their generations, patient wading birds had learned to wait for shoals of fish to come cascading up an imperceptible gradient to the dusty coastal plain..."

Pingold started at a small sound almost below the auditory threshold. The country stillness and the constant thrumming of mating insects only served to amplify his own pounding pulse and the rush of blood through his ears.

"A city copper gone winko in the bush. This is indeed bizarre."

Smack, bounce, bounce.

There it was again -- the sound of small, hard fruit, ripened and falling from the tree.

There were no nut trees near Spurdick's hunting cabin.

Smack, bounce, bounce.

He walked to the door and, opening it a crack, peered out. An indigene, generally of his proportions but half his height, was outside. The highlander squatted in the clearing in the center of a circle of nuts, evenly placed. A white stripe painted down the length of his muzzle marked him as a shaman of the hill tribes. He was naked but for a belt braided of what looked like sable tail-tufts. Whose? Pingold suppressed a shudder. The lone faranga tree covered with feathery vines of strangle peas that eventually would suck its life away gave him minimal protection from the pounding midday sun. His eyes were closed and his head thrown back. As Pingold watched, the person dipped forward, picked up one of the nuts and shied it at the cabin. Smack, bounce, bounce. Eyes still closed, he reached into a woven grass bag carried slung over one shoulder, withdrew a fresh nut, and placed it in the empty space in the circle. He bobbed forward a few times as though at prayer and his head lolled back as a peristaltic wave rippled up his throat. A whistling insect call exited his nostrils.

Pingold opened the door fully and stepped out onto the rough-hewn planking of Spurdick's veranda. "Hello."

The insect call ceased, but the bobbing continued.

"I say, hello there."

Ignoring him, the highlander spoke to the sky, "Bellafagh, enny, Bill?"

"Beg pardon, but I'm not Bill. I am Pingold, Inspector Vasshon Pingold, and I do not have your language. Do you speak the Queen's tongue?"

The ritual, if a ritual it was, continued. There was no acknowledgement of Pingold's existence. The highlander resumed his insect trills, leaned forward to pick up another nut, and shied it at the house. The nut bounced off Pingold's paunch. The Inspector sighed and went back into the house.

Smack, bounce, bounce.

The highlander's target practice continued into the afternoon. Pingold managed to ignore it and dozed off over an ancient romance. When he awoke, the medicine man was standing beside him.

"Bang the wee whangee down fr' the williwagh."

"Yes, of course. Whatever you say, old chap. I don't recall inviting you in."

The diminutive highlander smelled. Not badly, but pungently, as of wild grapes rotting in the sun mixed with freshly dug earth.

"But you did."

"What?"

"You did invite me in."

"You speak my language."

"The inference I could not was yours, Inspector."

Pingold marked his place and set his book aside, swinging his legs over the side of the hammock. "Vasshon Pingold, Inspector. And I fear you have the advantage of me."

"Diarmuis Kleg O'Klugh."

"Well, Kleg O'Klugh, how may I help you?"

"The answer, Inspector, is more rightly another question; how may I help you?"

"Since we are being terribly civilized, I should point out that you are a trance-practitioner, a priest of the wild people, while I am a civil servant, a copper, the muscle of the Established Church. Have you a license for whatever mumbo-jumbo you were performing in the dooryard?"

Kleg O'Klugh backed off two paces and produced a melon from his bag. "Knock inta fibrejuice, felly nice gomba gomba." He handed the melon to Pingold and walked out the door.

"We appear to have lost the gift of tongues." Toting the large and very ripe fruit, Pingold followed. He noted that the melon was the source of the aborigine's musty odor. Kleg O'Klugh was again seated under the faranga tree, his eyes rolled back, his throat rippling with the beginning of another insect trill.

"I say, old chap, must you do that in the yard? I mean, I suppose these displays are to help you cope with the incessant boredom of survival and have any number of therapeutic advantages, but shouldn't you be in the hills adoring a petroglyph or something? I am trying to read and relax."

The shaman's eyes rolled down and focused on the Inspector. The insect trill likewise descended, sliding down the octaves to become speech.

"We have been told you would be intransigent but trustworthy. You have been lying with women with pale salty water for blood. This rots the mind. I will give you blood. And answers." Upending his bag, he dumped his collection of nuts on the ground. "Come, sit inside my circle and bring the melon. We shall refresh your recollections. You are reaching for a rung on the ladder of the law that you can't quite reach. You have dreamed of the Ashaksi, not the Tetrarch's puppet, but the Queen of your dreams."

"Then you are the Dream Sender."

"An apparition of the Queen is essentially an appeal to knowledge. Your abilities to see have atrophied -- they are not non-existent. You cannot see what is making this happen, only that it has happened. You can feel and breathe in a blossoming of reality. And reality is an appearance. So let us say that you appear to me to be sincerely here, Inspector Vasshon Pingold. The Dream Sender is merely trying to get your attention. Therefore you and I are a purely natural occurrence. Let us therefore just enjoy one another's company. I am the Ashaksi-singer, no more."

"The Queen of my dreams is a face, a portrait statuary, a childish obsession. From the museum."

"A foolish love for an ancient queen. She, that one of carved stone, is dead."

"Her face... I saw it alive. Or recently dead. She lived."

"Perhaps she lived, imperfectly. And with your help, Inspector Pingold, an imperfect justice will be done."

"This is no blood feud, I have not called vendetta. These are the old ways."

"She was not your sept-cousin, sept-sister, but ours. There will be a blood price. You shall exact it. We will be satisfied. She will come again."

"We? Everyone I speak with is a 'we' these days except me. I am alone."

"Aye, truly, Inspector. Go about your business. Enjoy your vacation; we will be in touch. We owe you a favor. Oh... and, Inspector," the Ashaksi-singer rose to leave.

"Yes."

"Take off some weight."

####

Thistlewaite's Planetary Baedeker 134th edition, page 343. Entry: Chalifoux

"Although the tale of Pingold is an everyday legend of the folk, surprisingly, his greatest triumphs were in his sunset years. Of Pingold's middle years we hear little, for he wasted them..."

The police pathology laboratory had the smell of institutionalized death. The place reeked of sound sanitation and modern hospital practice, a denial that anything out of the ordinary happened here. An antiseptic heaviness hung in the recirculated air. The bay lights were still dimmed to nighttime values, adequate for mopping the floors. Pingold walked on followed by the soughing of the ventilators. Ahead a fanlight spilled subdued radiance into the hall.

Even at this early hour an indigene janitor was mopping the halls with an astringent solution. He looked up, recognized the inspector, grunted a pleasantry and levered the foot pedal on his tub of weak yellow suds. "Lo, Inspector."

"Jukes, isn't it? They have you on hall duty this week?"

"Aye, that they have, sir." Jukes labored to stand erect. Using his mop handle to steady himself, he drew himself with obvious pain to his full height, half of Pingold's. He touched his cap, seeming pleased that officialdom had remembered his name. The porter had for decades labored mightily breathing reason into the aged plumbing of the clerical wing.

"Steady as she goes, old-timer." Pingold could not recall ever seeing Jukes other than bent over -- over reluctant sinks and toilets, a bucket of scrub water. Why, the man was so small.

"Aye, sir." A wry twinkle in Jukes' deep-set eyes set off the deeper lines and scrofular patches of missing fur on his muzzle, the piebald effect of a toy loved long by many child hands. "Old joints, Bellafagh's mercy catching up with us all." A buoyant smile decorated a face etched by years of unforgiving toil. "There's someaught got here before you, sir." Jukes made a gesture of aversion -- high country magic for deflecting the Evil Eye. He spat into his mopwater.

"Eh, what? Oh, thank you, Jukes." Outside the door he sought was an officer of the political police. The DefStat hardly suppressed cold, sullen malice at seeing Pingold. "You have become fat, militiaman."

"Cleptath Vorn! What have I done to deserve this?" Pingold stared down his long gray nose at the DefStat's epaulets, allowing his whiskers to droop with returned disdain. "How we have treasured our grudges. From the schoolyard to the boneyard and you have precious little to show but a new suit -- a brevet colonel, I see. You have come far since we were at the Academy, you pathetic little pissant. What are you after? You have no authority here and are on Civil Militia precincts on sufferance."

Vorn was whistling tunelessly and slapping his palm with a truncheon. "Ahh, Pingold. What would satisfy the polite commonplaces for this long deferred meeting -- 'We have been strangers all too long, Vorn?' Hardly long enough! Spare me your careerist effluvia, Pingold; save your inane banter for senile superintendents."

"Vorn! You miserable snitch! What business have you here poking at bottled bodies? Are we now cataloging the afterlife? I once naively believed being a policeman to be a noble calling: redeeming young ones wandered from the sept and the like. But you DefStats have perverted our calling. You have become retailers of obloquy, vitiated seditious schemers. You keep a dossier on everybody. You have all the dirt on all the living and now you tamper with the dead."

Pingold noticed his tail in his hand; he was agitatedly picking at the braiding. Smoothing the ragged tuft, he glared at his old nemesis. "Little has changed since you were a pimply, runny-nosed wart. At least, you have found yourself a better tailor. If clothes make the man, your suit should rise far."

The inference pricked a sore spot in the brevet-colonel's self-esteem. Pingold regretted that, but now it was too late. The policeman and the DefStat faced off; each prepared to deliver a savage head butt. They absorbed one another's impact and dropped to the floor in a scratching, biting tangle. Vorn raked the Inspector across the eyes with his truncheon while reaching inside his tunic with the other hand.

Wrenching himself free, Pingold threw himself into a backwards somersault, rolling on his strong, sloping shoulders. Vorn had done foot patrol and knew hand-to-hand combat; his answering leap was reflex, a tribute to the Academy. But, surprising them both, Pingold was faster. Vorn turned backwards, protecting his flank as if seeking an attacker other than, more fierce than, an overweight policeman with a ragged tail and baggy jumper. Using his tail in a quick snap, Pingold propelled himself to another trajectory the instant before touching down. Tail for leverage -- a trick of back alley scrappers where a discussion over favored lottery picks could easily end in death sudden and unannounced. His spring was at 90 degrees to its apparent momentum, not in the rulebook of gentlemanly martial arts. Vorn fell, incisors flashing strong and yellow where Pingold should have been, the wind knocked out of him. He was brought up short and snapped to his knees, the Inspector's tail pinioning his legs, a chokehold threatening to snap his spine.

Pingold shook his head to clear the blood from his eyes. "You seem to have fallen on your face, citizen, and no Games Proctor to bite this time. Alas, I have become pathetically overweight. Had I suffered a heart attack, the medical plan would have billed your division. It is a neat maneuver I have just illustrated, thus removing it from the effective repertoire of surprise. I hope you appreciate this. Remember it well. Practice it, for next we meet I shall have the pleasure of demonstrating the counter ploy."

"Vermin!" Vorn spat a bloody tooth, attempting to pull his adversary over his shoulder with a forward roll. The hold tightened and his eyes bulged. "Indigene scum..." The words were cut short. Jukes stood nearby, ready with his mop and bucket.

"Your fall has deranged your wits. The stress of the moment, I wot. We are sensitive about the antecedents of our maintenance staff. Be advised."

"Bellafagh damn your flaming ego, Pingold. I shall rejoice to fill you full of lead at a distance." Frothy red bubbled at his lips as the hold tightened further.

"Your happiness is my dearest wish, Vorn. Now that we know the rules, my heart leaps at the prospect of your speedy recovery." With his free hand, Pingold patted him down, liberating a set of syringes and a standard issue pistol from an inside tunic pocket. "Perhaps some of your own medicine."

Pingold shrugged himself free, unwrapping his tail, and stood back a good three paces.

He tossed the packet of hypodermics. "Inject yourself, please, and save me the trouble of dispatching you with your own weapon."

"There is an unbearable shame at being bested by you, and while that disgusting upcountry kaffir watches, gnawing a sweet and itching at his louse bites."

Pingold looked over at Jukes. He was picking his nose and smiling a smile of many fine, yellow teeth.

"They save their shit and send it home to be buried, did you know that? And the thought of your gloating over this in the civil coppers' mess..." Vorn gingerly tested the purchase of a fang. It came loose in his hand. A trickle of blood ran down the front of his uniform. "Pingold. You fool, you oaf. Rejoice with your disgusting friend."

With a practiced hand, Cleptath Vorn limbered all four syringes simultaneously and discharged them into the side of his neck. "May Bellafagh's mercy crush you like an insect."

Vorn's eyes grew wide with surprise as a convulsion seized his body. He collapsed, twitching spasmodically. A stain spread on the front of his jumper; there was an odor of urine.

Pingold knelt beside him and felt for a pulse.

Jukes came over and poked the DefStat with a toe. He peeled back the wrapping from a gooey nut roll. "He's dead, you know, stiff as a doodle-bug on a pin." The last words were all but lost as he took a bite. Jukes had watched the entire exchange seated on an overturned waste barrel. With the candy he looked like a carnival-goer awaiting the entrance of the acrobats.

"Eh? What?" Pingold looked up from the corpse. "Those syringes carry a paralytic -- DefStat standard loads. But Vorn is dead."

"Eh, what, indeed, Inspector. You are a scrapper for a fat old bugger, no disrespect intended. Those syringes carried a lethal load -- intended for you. Should I have interrupted? Are you surprised? I had no doubt what that you would prevail, else I'd have fetched him a knock with my mop end. It was a dandy show."

"Lethal? For me?"

"Aye, a toxin they make out of green algae. Quick and nasty. Innovative. I'd rather have the treacle, meself. Care for a bite?" The remaining nut roll was offered. Pingold stared, his mouth open. "No? Well, then, no need to ask me how I know, the evidence is on the floor, and could be an embarrassment for your career prospects. And I did hear you threaten the recent departed with death by his own weapon. You know how we gossip, we poor upcountry savages. But you have business to do. I'll just get a hand trolley from maintenance and trundle the deceased to the freezer. No questions. If you want him, you'll know where he'll be."

"Jukes..."

"Have a nice day, Inspector. And, now we have had words other than master and man, I suppose you will be wanting your files back."

"You, Jukes. You are a... an..."

"A pathetic indigene? And all got up like a proper savage, the pervasive, invisible serving class? Yes. We have crept down from a savage outback? Yes. Where did you suppose we came from to fetch and carry for your master race, Inspector? Rather dense for a policeman, I warrant. We are the atavars, you and your kind the inheritors. Are you ashamed of your sept-uncle, my child? Poor little big folk, you know this, you just don't allow yourselves to know it."

"Of course. I did not mean to give offense. You make it sound as though you are forgiving me."

"None taken; and, yes, I forgive you. Come, give us a hand." Jukes wheeled back a two-handed dolly and parked it next to the corpse of Vorn, "He is too big for me to wrestle unassisted."

Jukes set the hand truck flat on the floor, balanced between its two wheels and its handholds. They laid the body on the cross braces and belayed it with rubber lading straps.

Jukes hefted the dolly, testing its balance, and found his strength adequate to the load. "He's going to the incinerator, not the freezer." A broad grin rippled the nap of Jukes' facial fur all the way up the bridge of his nose to form a cowlick on his forehead. "I lied. Bye, now, Inspector."

"But... you mentioned the files."

"Ahh. Those missing records -- records of the missing that have got your Chief's tail in a knot. So I did. Mention them, that is. The files are not that important, but you shall have them if you want them, all in good time. The why, not the what, Inspector. The Glow Worm has been feigning senile dementia for so long, he sometimes surrenders to its obsessions. Think of this as a test; we'll be in touch. As for your discretion: remember..." he gave the dolly a heft, "...the killing of an officer. You know and I know -- this should go no further. I'm sure we can rely on you."

"We? You highlanders, then, form a de facto intelligence network, all-pervasive, paralleling the DefStats."

"Perhaps. You said that, Inspector, not me. But if we did -- if, mind you -- we would be playing our own game, not the DefStats', not the Civil Militia's. Perhaps the Queen's, whose face you recognized. The old Queen: ours, not yours, not the Tetrarch's knee-dummy."

"You shall be requiring a return favor. What do you want me to do?"

"Doing nothing at the appropriate moment may be more important. You, Vasshon Pingold, desire most of all to collar a crook and receive commendations at your performance review. The Defenders of the Statute create confusion so that they may cling to power. We only wish to live unmolested. The Holy Mother Church has co-opted Bellafagh's teaching and put us under their interdict. We are an embarrassment, confounding dogma, and living proof of evolvement: you from us. You have gained in size and lost in perception. It is not that we have supernormal powers, it is that you have subnormal perceptions."

Jukes elbowed open the doors of the maintenance elevator and entered, pulling the dolly behind him.

"The files..."

"Are meaningless. Forget them. You are a policeman: think like one. Incise out the histories and meaning of little bits of bric-a-brac and the life's history of a canceled postcard: who saw what through the lenses of forsaken eyeglasses. Be creative and as your boss says, get out of the way. Give the little people a chance. Wrestle with these imponderables and we'll be in touch. Goodbye, Inspector."

The doors slid shut.

Pingold again used the third key. It did not work on the door of the Chief Pathologist's office. He found his dispatch case where the fight with Vorn had thrown it and extracted a larger assortment of keys. Fifteen tries down the ring, the lock turned.

Inside and seated on a chair facing the door, was Leet. The pathologist was withdrawing a syringe from his arm. "Ahh, Inspector. Vasshon, my child, you might have knocked. How wonderful to see you alive and looking so well."

"Small thanks to you, Leet. It is time we had a talk."

"Talk, there is so much talk. Idle chatter, words and music. Have you noticed what conversation does best is celebrate itself? A recording of music is to the song what a photograph is to a living person. What then are we celebrating here, where corpses come to be opened and studied? Life, Death... or the process of civilization itself. What are we doing here in this place dedicated to capturing the gasses and fluids of expired citizens, determining what and who caused the cessation of a productive, taxpaying unit? Does a corpse really care if it was happy before it came here? Alas, the song is gone and we are celebrating the phonograph."

The usually placid, rational pathologist was wild and confiding. "The brave days, the student days. We were the young and the valiant... and the lasses down at portside, eh? What a time we had."

As Pingold tried to keep him quiet, the doctor twisted free and his mood swung from combative to lugubriously reminiscent. Leet clapped his hands flat on the slate desktop and throwing back his head, bellowed a student song:

"Brave lads share a cup of dalliance

Then pass the cittern 'round.

Tell Sweet Belette of Teaseltown

To the hill wars we are bound."

The old lungs had unexpected power. The inspector was alarmed. This caterwauling would have the patrol upon them before they had finished the necessary business.

"Wait, I need to know..." Pingold put out a hand but the pathologist scrambled away, keeping the worktable between them. There was a light of transparent madness in his eyes; he looked every bit the wily schemer. The drug-induced palette of emotions was exhausting him.

"You need to know. They need to know. Oh, my, we all want to know. Such a yearning after wisdom. And so you all come to me."

"About the girl. The head in Ziv's office..."

"Are you in love, nephew? I am sorry then that I have misplaced the rest of her. A tart. A bimbo dead out of the Old Town. That she was on a slab when we needed parts for our charade was coincidence. The young woman was real, alive. Who she was and where she came from, only Cleptath Vorn knows for sure. Perhaps not he. She was a prop, just to confuse the police. I tried to give you enough clues to draw you to the truth without giving myself away. Pretty little thing, too bad. She was knifed to death."

"Cleptath Vorn has joined her, the woman. He is dead; I was there."

Leet's eyes bulged apoplectically as if he and not the inspector was responsible for Vorn's death. Drops of perspiration trickled down his muzzle and dangled at the tips of his whiskers. The drug's elevation faded and the old doctor breathed slowly and deliberately as he gripped the thick slate of a chemical sink. A spasm racked his body and he threw up. Pingold grasped him by the shoulders.

With some cost of effort the doctor composed himself. "Two old geezers grappling. Mustn't let the patrols catch us, we'll be up on a buggery report f'rsure." He smiled weakly. He appeared sane again. Bellafagh damn the Defenders of the Statute! Pingold knew he would forever after see Leet with the glimmer of madness on him. The physiological cravings brought on by the drug went deep for all their superficiality, an analog of the DefStats' quickly cobbled politics.

"Sorry about the outburst, Vasshon. I have my little spells."

"Little spells. How long have they had you addicted, old friend?"

"Long enough. Do not trust me. But however appealing it may be, we cannot blame our omnipresent secret police for all our troubles. Their power resides in indexing. Their database never forgets. I was a student experimenter; we all did -- play with the drugs. When one is young one wears a mantle of indestructibility. I became addicted and my sept-parents sent me for a drying out. It is all there in the records. And there I was, ready to their need when it suited their plans to sow discord and confusion in the ranks of the civil police. They burst in one evening and it was all over. A quick whack with a DefStat syringe, administered by the beloved Cleptath Vorn while a brace of his bullyboys held me down, and I was theirs. Still am, my friend. Ask me what you will, and then kill me, for this tranquil plateau will not last long. Then I shall betray you. But I am sorry for the girl. I see by your face that she meant something to you."

"No, we had never met." Pingold bit out the lie, regretting that it was true. He looked at his hand; he had been cleaning his teeth with the tip of his tail. The tail tip he stuffed into a rear pocket of his fatigue jumper. "The ruse almost succeeded. But Vorn couldn't let well enough alone. In the end he didn't trust his own scenario and came sniffing after me himself. He has had an accident."

"Telling me this you have signed a warrant for exile or death, old friend. Either yours or mine."

"I think not."

"How so?"

"Vorn's last wish was that you be his sole legatee." Pingold tossed a packet of syringes on the slate. The sweat was flowing again as Leet reached for the drugs. The gleam of madness had returned.

"I am an old man and would have been happy with a glass of tea, nephew. You are a very good boy."

"Enough to keep you through a quiet drying out at my apartment."

"Thank you for your consideration, Vasshon. But it doesn't work that way. The drug is my madness. You are good at what you do. Very good." He had been testing a syringe against the light, admiring the amber fluid. "But as much as I love you, you are still an unimaginative, plodding policeman." Dancing to the window the pathologist plunged the needle into his throat and pushed the plunger. "And a madman is mad all the time, no matter how sane he may appear."

"Leet, you will awake to the same cravings and despair. The fluid in those syringes is only psychotropic toxins, the standard DefStat venom -- nasty, but not lethal -- unlike the batch you prepared for Vorn to use on me. A constable will be waiting with you in the prison dispensary when you awake from your stupor."

####

Thistlewaite's Planetary Baedeker 134th edition, page 346. Entry: Chalifoux

"...Chaligonian storytellers maintain that there was a real, flesh-and-blood Pingold. In the formula of their sagas: 'long, long ago but not so far and as close as the day before yesterday, when the Tetrarch trembled at the whim of the Queen, the Queen ruled. The folk loved her, but none loved her as did our policeman...' Thus Pingold would appear to be the 'Holy Fool', a character common in many folk traditions..."

An imitation of ancient temple architecture had been indicated for the approaches to the Bureau of Antiquities. Long twilight rays silhouetted him against the rising field of steps. Pingold turned sideways and studied his shadow.

"Not fat, exactly. Orotund rather, pear-shaped and desperately in need of less sedentary pursuits," he spoke out loud to the moving shadow.

He swung his tail behind, lashing it in a highlander's ritualized prelude to combat. The shadow took on the aspect of some savage tribesman, ludicrously fat and furious. He sighed and leaned into the ascent. So many steps. The bureaucrats measured a career by the cubic meters of gravel and cement they expropriated for their monuments over a lifetime in the public service. I am a bureaucrat; how much stone have I moved with this day's work, eh?

He didn't remember the stairs being so many and so steep. A barrier to keep out all but the nimble-kneed, hale of limb and lung. Pingold stopped to catch his breath. Defying gravity, an avalanche of school children went rollicking past him up the steps. An ancient storyteller hobbled to keep up with them. He was gotten up in the kilts and feathered headpiece of the hill tribes.

Giving up the effort Pingold sat, adding his weight to the building's. She would wait -- his Queen, the Ashaksi. She had waited the silent millennia. She had the time. He gave himself over to a self-indulgent melancholy, feeling the ache of love lost beyond all recall. So... she had not been the imaginings of an inspired craftsman. She had lived. And lived again, the promise of a new spring, fresh and eternal. The love of his life, dead in a chance mishap. The genotype of the ancient warrior queens, carried sleeping down eternity in the DNA of, what, whom? A starveling hill farmer, scratching the dirt with a stick, the secret splendor of the race swinging hidden in his loins.

And he had missed her. Pingold felt a prick of pain and looked to see blood welling at his hand. A clenched fist had driven sharp talons into the palm. His vision was blurred and he realized he had been crying. "Such a display from our big, grown-up policeman." He knotted a kerchief about the wounded hand, teasing it tight with his teeth.

"Inspector..." The storyteller had returned, for a moment without the children. He winked, gave a slight bow in Pingold's direction, then hurried off. It was Kleg O'Klugh, the Ashaksi-singer.

This then was a dispensation, a blood sacrifice for atonement. "A rueful self-assessment." Pingold was smiling now. The school tour had passed when he arrived at the parting of the ways; their child voices accompanied by the thrumming drone of the Ashaksi-singer echoed further on, deep in the building's interior coolness.

The Queen's head was still there, a myth dreamed in the mists of the race's dawn. Beauty beyond desire.

"Here I have been blaming you for what rightly is my fault. Born too early, born too late, what matter? The miracle is you had ever been at all." He talked to her as to an old friend.

THE END


© 2010 Rob Hunter

Bio: With the onset of late middle age Rob Hunter is the sole support of a 1999 Ford Escort and the despair of his young wife. He does dishes, mows the lawn and keeps their Maine cottage spotless by moving as little as possible. In a former life he was a newspaper copy boy, railroad telegraph operator, recording engineer and film editor. He spent the 70s and 80s as a Top-40 disc jockey.

E-mail: Rob Hunter

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.