Aphelion Issue 224, Volume 21
December 2017 / January 2018
 
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That Devil Cantori

by T. Richard Williams


1.

These things always seem to begin with a scream, so we're off to a good start.

That's Mars for you.

Always a scream.

2.

Her scream is in the distance, but it still manages to penetrate the noise of the crowd jammed into the chapel auditorium.

At first, the hundred or so people gathered for the annual Fair think it's someone having a great guffaw, the wild reaction to a joke.

Or the scream someone makes when seeing a long-lost friend after too many years.

But when it happens a second time, everyone knows it's the real deal—a genuine, blood-curdling scream—the stuff of late night holofilms.

The band stops playing.

Conversations quiet down, then cease.

"Where'd that come from?"

The third scream.

"I think it's from back there." Someone points to the rear of the auditorium.

"The offices—or maybe the sub-level."

The fourth scream is followed by "Oh my God. Help."

A small group runs into the hallway.

The fifth scream definitely pours up from the sub-level.

Four or five men rip down the stairs.

Twenty feet away, Sybil Stanwyck is standing outside the chapel storage room, the door open wide—pointing.

She lets out a sixth scream and then collapses to the floor.

Deacon Riley's the first one to her side.

He looks down at her, then into the room.

The overhead lights blare.

There on the polished slate floor, the good Reverend Solomon Whitby's body is sprawled out, spread eagle, dressed in his Sunday best.

His severed head, placed between his legs, stares out into the hall, wide-eyed and stunned.

A halo of blood spreads into a viscous pool around the body.

The final touch: A grotesque dribble of blood oozes from his stern blue lips.

3.

And that's how it began.

I wasn't there.

I never go to chapel events; they're just not my thing. I'm one of Mystic Base's agnostics and proud of it. As far as I'm concerned, religion's caused too much grief—back when there was an Earth worth living on, for sure—and here on Mars, too.

I'm not "in your face" about it. Live and let live, I say. If some of the folks in Mystic get peace and satisfaction from going to services on Sunday—and then run off to gossip about their neighbors during the week—then more power to them. None of my business.

But I've got to say, no one presses the issue with me. A few of the deacons—like Milo Riley—tried to invite me to services when I first moved here from Philo Base a couple of years back, but I politely refused, stating my position clearly. They left me alone and respected my independence. I wouldn't bother them; they wouldn't bother me.

Which is why I heard about Reverend Whitby's ugly demise over breakfast at the local café.

Like those found at most of the forty bases on Mars, the Day Break Diner is an old time village meeting place where all the locals pass through at least once a day. Here at Mystic, they come for one of Millie Thurgood's outrageously decadent chocolate chip muffins and several cupfuls of local buzz—who's doing what to whom and how.

"Morning, Professor Finley." Millie—maybe 70, blue-rinse curls, half glasses on a beaded chain, a hint of Portland Base rose water—insists on the formality of my former professional title for some reason even though I've asked her to call me Rick several times. "Did you hear?"

"Yes, Plumber Tommy told me when I walked in. It's terrible."

"But it's how he died. How gruesome can ya get?"

"It certainly sends a message, doesn't it?"

She nods seriously and pours my coffee.

"The usual?"

"Absolutely."

And she places one of her equally sinful pineapple Danishes in front of me.

"Millie, you'll be the death of me."

She gives a half smile—the closest she gets to an expression of any emotion—and then leans in again. "Chief Vince is calling in witnesses at the station. A lot of people already have their suspicions."

"Such as?"

"Such as that devil Lou Cantori." She wipes her hands on her apron—floral-print, faded. The one that was her mother's when she settled in Mystic; the one Millie's worn for years.

"Why him?" I know the answer, but I want to hear her say it.

"That man's been nothing but trouble since he blew in from Chicago Base."

I take a bite of the pastry, my eyes automatically shutting with delight. "You've done it again, Millie."

She goes on: "Some people said they saw him leaving the chapel just before the Fair started. That would be right after the murder."

"Circumstantial, isn't it?"

"Maybe, but he's always been a sneaky fellow. Trouble, trouble, trouble."

"How? He was here when I moved from Olympus a couple of years back. I don't seem to recall any problems." I actually knew him from the local A. A. meeting we both attended in Danford Base. I always felt he was a bit strange—dressed in ill-fitting clothes, talking to himself when he felt no one was looking—but who isn't a little strange these days? Mars is strange. People are strange. Me included.

"Well, maybe nothing we can prove, but," she's practically in my face, "you know he's been in prison for theft and he used to drink like a fish, they say." She pulls back. "And since he's been in Mystic, there've been at least three or four house thefts." She nods knowingly, her proof complete and irrefutable.

"So they say." I take a sip of coffee.

She picks up my emphasis. "You don't believe me?"

"It's not a matter of believing you or not, Millie, but it's easy to point a finger at the obvious suspect. Or better put—to make a somewhat eccentric odd ball into an obvious suspect. Hell, I'm sure a whole bunch of people on this base think I'm the odd duck, too."

"But you weren't there." She then sees the moment as an opportunity to make a further point: "Actually, you're never there. Chapel services aren't for you, I understand." She attempts a tone of disinterested, neutral observation, but the subtext is fully barbed. I detect a flicker of self-satisfaction, having scored a point for the team.

"True enough. But let's face it, I'm as much an outsider as Cantori is. I'm surprised I'm not on the Chief's short list, too. Just because."

"Yes, but you're a retired college professor. You're a writer. He's an ex-con. Served time at Langley Base."

"Because we know all ex-cons are bad and all college professors are paragons of virtue." I chuckle. "Trust me, Millie, try a few weeks of university politics and you'll think Lou Cantori's two steps off Saint Francis."

"Well, you get my point, Professor. You may not be born and raised in Mystic, but you keep your peace, you're friendly, and you respect other people's business. Cantori doesn't. He's always making an argument about something, always stickin' his nose where it doesn't belong."

I finish the Danish in one large, final mouthful—"I do get the point, Millie"—swallow—"but I'll bet you one of your chocolate muffins"—and wipe my lips—"that Lou Cantori's innocent. Your theory's too easy, too neatly wrapped."

"And if Cantori is our man, what do I get?"

"I'll dedicate my next story to you. Deal?"

Her stony face actually breaks into a bashful grin—"Really?—and her eyes beam.

"Really." I get up from the counter. "So it's a deal?"

"Absolutely." And she extends her hand to make it official.

Gee, that was easy.

4.

The local News at Noon on VH-1 with Bill Tomby makes it the top story.

Virtual Bill stands behind my kitchen counter—blue blazer, white turtle-neck, silver hair, the epitome of a trustworthy Alliance reporter. He nods or points towards Holo images that float next to him.

There's the AmbuPod outside the Alliance Universal Chapel last evening, then various shots of parishioners gathered in front of its Neo-Classical façade this morning, with a few folks sharing their disbelief.

Finally, an interview with a very stern-looking Security Chief Vince Janowsky—a 5 foot 5, 56-year-old kinetic wire—who tells us the Pastor had been stabbed, probably with a screw-driver, and then decapitated with a small hand saw. Neither object could be found. No fingerprints and no footprints on the floors—the killer may have wiped up after himself—but Alliance forensic officers "are gathering evidence, looking for DNA that might lead to an arrest."

I shut off the broadcast—Bill shrinking to a small blue dot with a pop—and toss the remote to the couch.

I hike into the kitchen.

My home's on the outskirts of the base near the stream that was created about 50 years ago, its tumbling waters tapped directly from the deep Martian aquifer. I can hear it at night when the windows are open and love to go there with my NotePad to sketch out ideas for my stories.

Which is exactly what I decide to do.

I pack a small lunch and wander down to the rocky bank at the edge of my property—a wooded acre with the house along the highway on the south side and the stream running parallel on the north end—the water rippling westward towards Hampton Base about twenty-five klicks away.

Sometimes I think I'm one of the few who takes advantage of the stream—writing there, swimming, just enjoying the serenity.

The latest fad is going to the new amusement area built outside the base's northern perimeter, where someone can romp around in actual Martian gravity. The new energy wave belts—everyone calls them Dynamos—mean you can wear street clothes out in the Martian environment—where practically no atmosphere, deadly radiation, and constant dust storms would spell instant death. Those bulky radiation suits and air tanks from the old days are long gone. Your Dynamo's field surrounds you like a contoured air bubble.

It's the same basic tech as the base energy fields.

Mystic has four towers—allowing for the base's five-klick diameter and one-thousand-meter ceiling. Some of the newer bases have fifteen towers and are nearly twenty klicks wide.

But I prefer staying in Mystic's energy dome with its gravity boosters and heading down to my "babbling brook."

No one alive remembers life before the OGGs—one-gee generators. Now all forty bases—and the highways connecting them—have them. Earth's gravity wherever you need it.

Such advances allowed humans to survive on Mars with few, if any, side-effects. No muscle-deteriorating low gravity, no life-threatening radiation, plenty of air. Just as good as Earth used to be before the environmental apocalypse made above-ground habitation impossible.

Of course, Whitby's murder seems to prove once again that just because we're not on Earth any more doesn't mean Earth's problems haven't followed us. Yes, we may have moved from our dying world, but guess what? When you move, you move with you—your damned political machinery, your attitudes, your prejudices, your crimes.

Including murder.

Though only a handful remain who were born and raised in one of Earth's underground metropolises, even the best of us reveal humanity's darker instincts from time to time. It's just how we're wired, I guess.

Still, a place is what you make of it, and—despite its flaws—I like it in Mystic, especially here at the outskirts, in the woods.

Anyway, I decide to go to the stream. I stick in my feet and write on my NotePad much of the afternoon.

I'm in heaven.

Autumn is my favorite season. The 2nd September light is rich, deeper to my mind than 1st September's—or 1st October's for that matter when the sun's lower in the sky.

Because each base has a team of weathermen who generate climate patterns specific to that town, today's been programmed to be what the locals like to call a delightful "autumn-warm" day.

What's the weather like, hon?

Oh, it's autumn-warm.

There's a slight breeze, cool enough to remind me of the month, but still warm enough to keep me comfortable in the dappled light along the stream bank.

And the first leaves turning on the maple hybrids are always an inspiration: Fuchsia, purple, cornflower—all the blues and purples one associates with the season.

All the more delightful because I'm not teaching—or dealing with my department's usual blend of intrigue and back-biting. The University at Olympus Base about sixty klicks west is probably a hive on a day like this.

But after twenty-five years in the classroom, this bee decided to retire.

By late afternoon, I head back home—a comfortable Synthwood reproduction of a small two-storey New England gothic, replete with a widow's walk. There, I transfer my notes to my office screen, listening to one of my eclectic 20th century mixes: Zeppelin, Sibelius, some Puccini arias, Tracy Chapman, Enya, Metallica. No one will ever pin me down when they ask, "What's your favorite music?" or "Who's your favorite composer?" I pretty much find something to like in just about every genre, though I do tend to steer clear of overly-twangy 21st and 22nd century stuff.

I put the final touches on a first draft and am about to make a sandwich, when my housecom sounds. I replaced my subdermal com last year for the newer model. Optic readouts as well as audio. I use it for everything, so when my home com chimes, it's truly an oddity.

Should I answer?

Some Mystic politico sending a campaign message?

A sales pitch?

A request from an Alliance-approved charity?

For some reason—maybe I feel like being feisty—I decide to answer, figuring I can tell the "invader" to take me off their call list.

I touch the wall pad.

"Hello?" I try to sound pleasant, in an overtly strained way, but clearly, I'm saying: You've disturbed me, but out of my largesse I'll grant you a minute of my valuable time.

"Ricky?" A woman's voice.

"Yes?"

"Rick, it's me. Pepper."

Pepper—whose name is actually Marion Salt—and I used to teach together at the University—one of the few people I trust and genuinely like. I retired two years ago; she's still there, teaching uneager freshmen the grammatical joys of English—the now universal Alliance language—and slightly more motivated seniors the depths—and linguistic complexities—of Martian Lit, often composed in the particular/peculiar patois of a base.

"I'll be here 'til I drop," she always jokes.

I chose, instead, to have my Joseph Campbell moment and "follow my bliss."

Vive la difference!

"What's up?"

"He won't let me use my subcom, that's why I'm calling the old-fashioned way."

"Who? What's going on?"

"Rick, I'm down in the Chief's office."

"Because?"

"He's gonna question me about Whitby. Could you come down? Please?"

"I was just about to …"

"Please?"

Hell, I hate to say no, but frankly I don't want to get involved in some base murder, especially one that's had such bizarre overtones, but my twenty-three-year friendship wins out after a momentary tug.

"All right. Give me a few minutes. I'll be there."

"Rick, you're the best."

"Yeah, yeah. So they tell me."

I change my tee-shirt and hop into my decade-old Fuzer—bright yellow, thirty thousand klicks. It's a four-seat fusion-powered rattle box with broken Muzik, but dependable as your favorite Boston Base Collie to get from point A to point B without a hitch.

Five minutes later I'm on the east-end of Mystic's Main Street walking into the three-level Queen Anne-style mansion that serves as Town Hall, the Security Chief's Office, the local jail, and the post office. Faux New England utilitarian pragmatism at its best.

What once might have been a small den is now a waiting area outside Vince Janowsky's office—the former dining room. Everyone calls him Chief Vince.

Pepper's sitting in the corner, staring out the window. When she sees me, she jumps up and envelopes me in a fully-committed size 22 embrace. "Thanks so much, Ricky. This is just awful."

We sit down. "So what happened?"

Pepper—just turned 50, penetrating green eyes, short-cropped red hair gelled into spikes, a peaches-and-cream complexion—looks scared. "It's Whitby. He's dead."

"I heard."

"Did you hear how?"

"Stabbed, then decapitated."

She shudders. "And they're questioning me."

"Why? Were you at the Chapel Fair?"

She gives me her best Are you kidding? look. "Gimme a break. No, I was home, but I think I know why."

"Well?"

She begins to blush—something she does a lot when she's anxious; you should see her when she has to speak at school functions: virtually a FirePod in color and—as some irreverent souls might say—in size as well.

"Peps, you know you can tell me anything." And she does. We share more personal dirt with each other than a pair of twin sisters.

"Yeah, but this is embarrassing. I don't know how Vince figured it out."

"Figured what?"

She looks at me, ashamed. "Me and Whitby."

"What about you and …" Then I get her meaning. "You and Whitby as in you and Whitby."

"As in me and"—she winces—"Whitby."

"As in …"

"As in clandestine affair."

"Well, aside from the fact that I thought he was a self-righteous ass, what's the problem? He was divorced, right? It's not like he was cheating on his wife or anything."

In one moment I realize I've said about half a dozen wrong things, as I sometimes tend to do. I think my diplomacy filter retired when I did. Now, if something's in my head, it just tumbles out a little too bluntly. It's definitely a "love me, love my dog" mentality.

She turns her head away; she's about to cry.

"Hell, Peps, I'm sorry. Not too sensitive of me. I'll shut up. You tell me."

"I know many people saw him as pompous …"

"To put it mildly."

"Rick, you said you'd shut up."

"Sorry." I sit back, pretending to become small. "Lips zipped." I imitate the action.

She half-smiles—"Fat chance"—then continues. "Like I was saying, he wasn't always popular with some folks, but he did have a following. Not just at the chapel. He did good stuff in the community, here in town and elsewhere. He really was a good man."

"OK, I'll believe you, so what's the problem?"

"That he was seeing someone else. Yes, he was divorced, but he was dating someone else—someone besides me. I don't know who, but I know it."

"How?"

"One night last week when I was over at his place, I saw a card on the kitchen table. Not a NotePad image, but a genuine old-fashioned card. I couldn't resist. It was clearly a love note—hearts and everything on the cover—and, as I discovered, not an old one he'd saved from the ex-wife. It was dated a few days before and signed 'Love you, Dee.' I didn't know what to do. I felt so fucking betrayed." Now the tears really well-up.

"What happened?"

"When he came back into the kitchen, I was holding the card in my hands. He got instantly angry, screaming I had no right to go through his personal things. He didn't even try to make an excuse. I mean, Rick, if I had any doubts, his reaction proved the worst. It was like a kid getting caught red-handed stealing the proverbial candy."

"What happened?"

"I didn't do anything. I just stormed out, with him screaming after me down the front walk. I went home, fuming. If I'd had a voodoo doll, I would've stuck him with curse needles up the behind. And, just in case you're wondering: No, I didn't kill him. I wasn't near the chapel on Sunday evening. I was home."

"Can you prove it? Anyone visit? Were you talking to anyone on the com? Anything to prove you were there? A securitylens?"

"Nope," She says. "I disengaged my lens ages ago—privacy. I didn't like the idea that it could be hacked or that some Peeping Tom with the right access code could watch me."

"Did the same thing after I moved in to my place. They gave me some hassle, but eventually gave the okay." I was trying to reassure her, but we didn't have time to digress: "So anyway, no com calls. No lens."

"Just me and an old holo on HV-2." Then she looks at me sharply. "Rick, I didn't do it."

"I didn't think you would. You're too nice a person."

"I ain't that nice. In fact, when I heard, part of me was guilty because I'd actually been wishing him dead all week. The other part started doing the happy dance."

"I'd suggest not sharing that last one too loudly." Half-jokingly I put my finger to my lips and then use my best HV-3 crime drama voice: "Remember, anything you say can be used against you in a court of law." I lean in: "Remember, you've just described probable cause and motive."

That makes her blush even more deeply. "Oh, Rick, why do I get myself in these messes?"

"Hey, not your fault. You fell for the guy. He obviously let you believe he was available. You can't help he was a scumbag."

"But Ricky, I keep picking these guys. I'm fuckin' fly paper for schmucks."

I lean over and hug her—and the waterworks begin in earnest.

Of course, that would be the very moment Vince opens his door and says coolly, "Dr. Salt. Please come in."

She breaks away and smiles at me.

I smile back. "I'll wait."

She goes in.

The door shuts definitively.

5.

Ten minutes later, the door re-opens and Pepper emerges like a sad-faced bear cub in the Portlandia Base Zoo.

"I'm free to go." She motions me to follow.

Outside, walking down the front walk, she says under her breath, "That bitch Sybil Stanwyck who works at Alliance Energy Control ratted on us. Evidently she saw me going into the parsonage a few times."

"How?"

"Turns out she lives across the street."

"Jesus, doesn't the AEC—or this base—have anything better to do?"

"Guess not. Fuck, that's why you and I both bought our homes on either side of the central district, supposedly out of harm's way. Guess that's a laugh, right? No matter where you live, someone's watchin'. Fuckers." She blusters down the sidewalk. "Anyway, she saw me leaving the night I found Dee's card, whoever the hell Dee is. Sybil heard Whitby screaming at me. Saw me roar off in my Fuzer. She felt it was her 'civic responsibility'—Pepper makes air quotes with a roll of the eyes for good measure—'to tell the Chief about my visit after she found the good Reverend's body. Civic responsibility my big fat ass."

Oh, Pepper's pissed off. Not that I blame her. I'd be freakin' livid if someone had tattled on me. Especially when I knew I'd done nothing.

Yet I also understand what Sybil's done, too. It obviously raised flags when she discovered the body and then remembered the sidewalk scene between Pepper and Whitby.

Still, Peps is a friend.

And when you're my friend, you learn very quickly that I'm loyal to the end.

And when you piss off my friend, you'd better watch out.

This bastard wears steel-tipped boots.

So we go back to my place.

I make a salad and let her rant and be embarrassed and guilty and feel stupid and every other feeling that floods through her for the next hour.

She leaves in a calmer state of mind, the Finley magic having worked a little.

Suddenly, I've got the evening to myself.

I try working on my story but just can't—my mind keeps circling round to the bizarre murder and my friend.

Then—the clock chimes midnight—the strangest thought enters my head: "What if you tried to clear Pep's name?"

I fall back into my chair in amazement and say aloud, "What did you just say, Richard Finley?"

What if you tried to…

"I heard you the first time."

I pace around my living room for a few minutes, mulling this strange idea. Me—the guy who never gets involved in religion, politics, issues. Me—who stays away from trouble at all costs.

"And now—all of a sudden—you wanna become Hercule Poirot?"

I can't help but burst into laughter.

Then the inner voice says, with a sly, winky smile "I dare you."

Fighting words.

6.

I get a decent night's sleep and head to the Day Break. I've got no idea how I'm going to help Pepper, but there's got to be a way to prove she didn't do it.

Couldn't do it.

She was nowhere near the chapel.

First note to self: We need to prove she was alone at home watching her HV2 holoflicks. How do I do that? With her security system shut off, is there a way?

I sit at the counter.

Everyone in the café seems to be in deep conversations.

Then Millie hikes over with a smug grin. "Hope the story's a good one."

"Huh?"

"You said if Cantori did it, you'd dedicate your next story to me."

"Yeah, but what are you talking about?"

"Chief Vince picked him up this morning. He's being transferred to the Langley facility as we speak." She's actually grinning.

First thought: She's gloating.

Next thought: Pepper's off the hook.

Thought after that: What's their evidence? A fiber of clothing? A strand of hair? A drop of blood?

"Did he confess?"

"No."

"Then how?"

"Whitby's ex-wife, Naj, saw Cantori coming up from the sub-level just before the Fair started. She said he was drunk and she chased him away. She didn't think anything of it at the time."

I think, Jesus, it's true. That really is all people in Mystic do—wait for others to walk up stairs or emerge from doorways.

But I say: "Why wait 'til Tuesday morning? Why not make a report Sunday night?"

"She left before Sybil found the body. She was up in Danford Base visiting friends. She'd disengaged her subcom, so she only found out about the murder late yesterday."

"What was she doing at the Fair in the first place? Ex-wife and all that, I mean."

"She's still friends with the parishioners. Besides she and Reverend Sol made their peace."

"Didn't she walk out on him? Disappear for a couple of years?"

"True, but it wasn't all out war by any means. It was a friendly divorce."

I can't resist: "Ah, a good Alliance divorce. Family values stuff just like the church teaches."

She stares at me for a moment, clearly disliking my innuendo.

Finally, she backs away: "Danish? Muffin?"

"Coffee and the pineapple—like always."

She gives me a "humph" and serves me in silence.

Which leaves me time to think about my next move.

I bet they allow visitors at the local jail—maybe I can see Lou before he's transferred to Langley.

I gulp down my food and leave Millie a generous tip. If I'm gonna play detective, no need to piss off the locals—or one of my principal news sources.

Keep the Gazette happy.

7.

So I walk down to the one-size-fits-all Town Hall/jail/post office/Chief's Office and ask the starch-faced secretary—probably a college kid earning tuition money—if Vince is in.

All business, she taps her desktop com twice: "Your name?"

"Rick Finley. Professor Richard Finley." I generally know when to pull rank for faster service. Sometimes it works. Several current and former University and Academy instructors and staff live in Mystic. For a few, a title's impressive; for others, a yawn.

The Chief responds curtly: "I'll be with him in a moment."

She glares at me. "Have a seat." Dramatic pause. "Professor." And motions me to one of the utilitarian chairs.

A moment becomes ten minutes.

Guess he's trying to prove a point: Don't try to pull rank with me, buddy. I ain't fallin' for it.

When his door opens, he waves me in and asks pleasantly enough, "What can I do you for?"

"Is Lou Cantori still in your holding cell?"

"Why?" The tone and look immediately devolve to granite.

"I was wondering if I might see him before he's transferred."

Another "Why?"

"I'm a friend and I assume he's allowed at least one com call and a visitor—all the usual Alliance Security protocols."

"Well, you assume wrong. He's a murder suspect."

"Oh, Forensics found evidence?"

He ignores the question. "They're coming for him in less than an hour."

"Well, I'm sure there's no harm. You can monitor our conversation. Just want to see him."

"A friend you say? For a bright guy, you keep strange friends."

The moment of decision. I can go one of two ways—friendly or in-your-your-face. Guess which one I choose?

"Listen, I don't need you judging me or my friends. Just because folks in Mystic think he's a crackpot doesn't mean he's a murderer. Unless you have hard evidence, he's innocent."

He cuts me off: "Jeez, cool your jets. You University types get all uptight so easy. Get off your high horse, pal."

"For Chrissake, I'm not about to tutor you on respect or civility. All I wanna know is whether I can have five minutes with the guy. You can stand and watch if you want—or not. I really don't give a snake's ass. I'm not about to sneak him a ruptor or erase his cell's memlock."

"That attitude won't get you far."

"Too bad. All I want is five minutes with your prisoner—for a visit with my friend. He's entitled. I know the law."

And then there's one of those ridiculous alpha-male stare-downs for a few seconds. He relents: "Five minutes. I'll stand watch."

"Fine," I say, wiping away the testosterone drool.

8.

Like I said, I know Lou from meetings. I've been sober a while—28 years, actually. Being sober's the only reason I was able to have a career. He came into Program shortly after I moved to Mystic—so that means about 22 months or so. I was one of his first sponsors, helping him get to meetings, talking to him about the Twelve Steps, listening to his struggles.

The guy's got a hard-core litany:

Born in tough-to-live Marineris Base.

Abusive parents.

Incest thanks to some sleazy uncle.

Robberies.

Drugs.

Booze.

Women.

A few men.

Already some prison time at Langley.

Pretty close to my own story, minus Langley. Funny how we "just happened" to be at the same meeting that first night. Which proves again the AA chestnut: "For every nut, there's a bolt."

In our case, I'm not sure who's who.

Anyway, I did the most important thing a sponsor can do—listen. Then I did the next most important thing—I didn't let him get away with jack. After a few minutes of woe-is-me, he knew I'd make him get off his ass, even if he felt like crap.

Chief Vince walks me to the back where a former bedroom's been transformed into a prison cell, it's old door replaced by a force field.

Lou's sitting head down in a straight-back chair.

There's a cot in the corner.

Obviously no windows—they were closed off when the room was made into a cell.

The only thing about the room that doesn't seem hard-edged is the recessed ceiling lighting

He looks up—and you'd think Santa Claus had just arrived.

"Rick." He leaps to his feet. "Jesus, it's good to see you."

He starts to extend his hand, but remembers the field.

Vince stands there like a vulture—"Don't try anything"— waiting for one of us to screw up.

I ignore him. "Lou. I'm so sorry. What the hell happened?"

"Whitby's ex saw me coming up from the chapel's sub-level before the Fair and decided to say something."

"Why the hell were you down there?"

He brings his rock-hard six-foot frame up close to the field. "Rick."

I move closer, but still keep some distance, just in case Chief Eagle Eye decides to attack.

He looks at me with his mournful brown eyes, his mop of wavy black hair strewn about: "Rick. I had a slip."

I figured as much—Millie let that one out earlier—but I play dumb:

"When?"

"A few days ago. I know I shoulda called you, but you know how it is."

I do. I've seen a lot of guys struggle when they first came in, so I never judge when someone slips up. "Yeah, ya should of, but ya didn't. Long over, long gone. Meanwhile, connect the dots for me. You had a slip. What does that have to do with Whitby?"

"I was real drunk Sunday evening. I went over to Whitby's office to give him a piece of my mind."

"What the hell about? You don't even go to the chapel."

"You know how I can get, Rick—I obsess on shit and once I get a bug up my ass, I can't let it go. And that's when I'm sober. Multiply that by ten when I'm soused."

"So what were you obsessing about?"

"Whitby's fucked-up morality. He's all holier than thou and then he goes off screwing half the women in the base."

The Sheriff coughs.

I ignore him.

"Really? Just half?" I try to make a joke.

"Seriously, man. The guy's fucked up. First he divorces his wife, then he makes regular visits to Philo Base to score some of the Academy beauties, then—recently—he starts screwing around with one of the office associates at the University, then he starts up with one of the professors. Endless pussy. A freakin' sex addict."

Which, of course, I'd figured out. As for the recent conquests, Pep's the professor and I assume the mysterious "Dee" might be the associate—I'll have to investigate that one.

"And his behavior is your concern because …?"

He shakes his head. "I know, I know. It's none of my fuckin' business. But like I said, I was drunk off my ass and decided to pick a fight with someone. I was walking past the chapel and my opportunity presented itself. If I'd been by the local Clinic I woulda probably chewed out a doctor or nurse about something or other."

"So you went into his office…"

"Actually he wasn't there. And by then I had to take a wicked leak. A sign said the johns were in the sub-level, so I went, pissed, and when I was walking out, I saw him opening the storage room door. When he saw I was looped, he dragged me in, acting all reverend-y. I started yelling at him about how fucked up he was, but all he wanted to do was pray and tell me what an unfortunate drunk I was and that Jesus could save me. After about five minutes, my Attention Disorder musta kicked in 'cause suddenly it wasn't fun anymore. It's hard to argue with someone who thinks they're right about everything. I just left and when I got to the top of the stairs, Naj was down the hall getting something from one of the lockers. She could tell I was smashed, and she told me to get the hell out. I went back to my apartment and finished off the next six-pack."

Another cough from Vince: "One minute. Then you've gotta go."

I mumble something like "Whatever" and continue: "You're telling me you didn't do it, right? Don't bullshit with me."

"I'm not bullshitting. I didn't do it. I'm here because Naj Whitby saw me in the chapel on Sunday afternoon. That's it."

I want to believe him. He's clearly sober again and though he might have his eccentricities, I can't see him murdering anyone, let alone chopping a guy's head off.

"Listen, Lou. They're gonna transfer you to Langley again. I'll visit, I promise. And if they give you com access, you've got my code, right?

"Yeah. And this time, I'll use it."

"Good. I've also got the new subcom, so I'll be able to see you, too. Like bein' there."

"I feel like such a fuck-up, Rick. If I hadn't been drunk, I wouldn't be here."

"Sometimes we need the slap to make us see reality. Trust me, I know."

He manages a smile. "Thanks, man."

"All in a day's work." I give him a wink and a smile and walk out, purposefully avoiding Vince's gaze.

By now, I'm a man on a mission.

First Pepper.

Now Lou.

I'll get to the bottom of it—preferably without having to deal with the Vince, a.k.a. The Sheriff of Nottingham.

9.

Tuesday evening.

I glance up at my kitchen clock that blinks its gentle blue numbers—hours, minutes, seconds in a subtle fade from one number to the next.

A Winter Solstice gift from Pepper last year.

Which brings back a fleeting image: Me standing at the sink looking at my old clock—silver with a dim neon-green readout screen—the one I got my first year teaching at the University.

A Solstice gift from a student. What was his name?

Greg? George? Garrick?

Before the conversion to the new Chronolog last summer, we used to add 90 seconds to each hour to compensate for the forty extra minutes in the Martian day.

New arrivals from Downstairs had to get used to weird times like 10:61:30 PM.

When new arrivals stopped, we still kept the system. Some of the old-timers who still had terrestrial roots thought it was a tribute. Some called it "Memorial Time."

But with no remaining political connection to Earth—the forty Martian bases formed their Alliance decades ago—there was increasing pressure to create our own means of telling time. The last Earth-born "colonist" died five years ago—and we "Martians" saw little reason to keep up the premise.

We still use the notion of twenty-four hours in a day—a compromise with the handful who wanted to keep a little touch of Downstairs—but we slowed the official length of a second. Now we're back to good old fashioned 60 seconds per minute, 60 minutes per hour.

I shake my head at the weird stuff that comes into my head. Memories, facts, events, a piece of lecture. Who knows what triggers it?

So anyway, I look up.

10:00 PM. Martian Standard Time.

Forty-eight hours since Whitby's death.

My windows are open wide, letting in the generated breeze, the scent of changing leaves and yellowing wood grass in the air.

I sit with my NotePad—making lists.

What do I know?

What do I need to find out?

What would an HV3 detective do? Virtual investigators always seem to have the right ideas.

And I laugh aloud.

"I have absolutely no idea how to go about this." I slump back in the chair just as my subcom buzzes.

It's Pepper—guess she remembered not to use the house link. And without a lens in either her place or mine, I feel reasonably safe to talk.

I tap my left temple. Her image pops up in the corner of my vision. "What's up, Peps?"

"I heard about Lou. That sucks."

"Tell me about it. I saw him before he got transferred out to Langley. He was pretty bummed out. He's blaming himself."

"For what?"

"He got drunk Sunday evening and decided it was a good time to give Sol a piece of his mind about his love life. Naj Whitby saw him as he was leaving."

"About Whitby's love life?" I can hear the sudden tinge in her voice. "Shit. Even Lou knew about me?

"And apparently mystery woman Dee, too. Didn't mention you guys by name—he just knew that Whitby was shagging a professor and a secretary."

Indignation. "I wasn't shagging him. I thought I was developing a relationship with the schmuck."

"Listen, Peps. You might've been developing a relationship, but his holiness was out shagging."

Silence.

"So anyway, Peps. Bottom line: Lou knows if he'd been sober he'd never've tried to pick a fight."

"Does this mean I'm not a suspect anymore?"

"Probably not, but you never know what the good Chief Janowsky's thinking. Hopefully he's as lazy as I think he is and sees Lou as the perfect scapegoat."

"That's a shame. The guy's been struggling to stay sober for a couple of years, right? Just cos he slipped up doesn't mean he did it. Or do you think it's possible?"

"Not for a sec. Lou's an angry guy, but he's no murderer, Peps—and God knows he wouldn't cut somebody's head off."

"You positive? I mean the guy's a bit spooky."

"E tu Pepper?"

"I'm sure he didn't, Rick, but let's face it, anyone can get angry enough to kill, to do somebody real harm. We may not like to admit it, but there's a little sadist in everybody." She realizes what she's saying and blushes.

"True enough, but that's not where I'm going tonight. I wanna find out who really did this. I want some justice."

"Why? What's it to you?"

"Good questions, Peps. I haven't a clue. It's just something I wanna do. Maybe I want some excitement. A purpose."

"Retirement's that boring?"

She knows me well, doesn't she? No use lying: "Not exactly bored, but purposeless sometimes. Sure I write. Yes, I draw. Take photos. Give a few lectures at the nearby bases. As much as I hated all the University politics and grading those God-awful papers from totally dull students caught up in their own worlds, teaching gave me a schedule, a purpose, a goal."

"But your art's selling. You've had a photo show. Your latest story just got picked up by Mars Analog. Not too shabby."

"It's not. And all that's really terrific, I don't deny it. But I guess what I miss is the involvement. The people contact. These last couple of days've actually been fun in a strange way. I'm out there doing something."

"And so you wanna solve a murder?"

"Why not? Even if I don't know where to start."

"Start by asking questions."

"How? If I nose around, people'll start tipping off Vince. He'll wanna know what I'm doing. He'll lecture me about his job as Chief and my job as a citizen who should mind his own business."

"Remember Ricky, this is me you're talking to. You're giving me all the excuses, but I've known you for years. I saw you in operation at the University. As much as you say you hated the politics, when you saw an injustice or a potential cause to fight for, you were right in there, sleeves rolled up."

She's right, of course. "Well, you got me nailed, don't you?"

"Yup. So right here and now, with Whitby's murder, what's the Cause with a capital C? Who are you fighting for? Or fighting about ?"

"You, of course. And Lou, too. You're both being treated as suspects for something you didn't do—and all based on eye witnesses who love nothing more than being in everyone else's business."

There's a pause—then out of nowhere: "So let me help."

"But …"

"Seriously." She laughs, "Not that these people deserve our effort. Bunch of gossiping bastards."

"But …"

"Listen, it'll give me a way to find out who's spreading stuff about my private life—and why—and gives you a chance to feel useful for a change. Win-win."

"But …"

"Dr. Finley, you really need to develop a richer vocabulary."

"But …"

She rolls her eyes.

And that's how we begin.

10.

And to my surprise, the beginning is quite easy.

It's Wednesday and it turns out to be Solomon Whitby's wake—two viewings: 1 to 4 and 7 to 10.

A perfect opportunity for Peps and me to mingle with the locals and ask some discreet questions.

We arrive a little after 1 PM.

"Let's be careful," she reminds me as we enter Fillmore & Wickham Funeral Home—Where the one you love is loved by us—and leave our jackets in the cloak room. "We never hung out with any of the chapel people, so we can't seem too concerned. It'll look suspicious."

"Yeah, but beyond the chapel, he was a fixture in the community. So we're here as concerned citizens, not parishioners."

"I can do concerned," and she demonstrates with cinched brow and glistening eye.

She always makes me smile.

Our first test comes five minutes later. Millie Thurgood spots us and can't resist a bit of sparring: "Well, well, I'm surprised to see you here, Professor Finley." She ignores Pepper for the moment.

"Why's that Millie?" Let's play, honey.

"You didn't seem to be a fan of the Reverend."

"We may not have seen eye-to-eye on religious matters, but I'm here to acknowledge his good works for the base. If it weren't for him, Mystic's library would've closed last summer." A pause. "Among other things."

She eyes me suspiciously and then turns her beak towards Pepper. "But certainly you mustn't be too comfortable."

"Why would you say that, Millie? I'm perfectly comfortable."

"Well, you were brought in as a suspect in his death. It must be terribly awkward for you."

"Not in the least, but thanks for your concern, Ms. Thurgood." Glare, smile, turn, walk away fabulously on her four-inch fuck-me pumps.

I just shrug an unspoken "Oh well" at Millie, and follow Pepper to the front of the room.

An open casket?

Not traditional, especially since everyone's cremated—no in-ground cemeteries on Mars. A concession to those wanting to preserve as much of the fragile desert ecosystem outside the bases as possible. Since the discovery of small colonies of native microbes in the last century, there's been a war between the Terraformists and the One Mars factions.

Hence, people get turned to ash with the remains stored in strictly monitored mausoleums. Eventually they get transported out to deep space. Guess it's all right to pollute the Cosmos just as long as we don't sully the soil.

People.

Anyway, most folks save their Martian yens and have a memorial after Aunt Tilly or Uncle Gus are already disposed of.

So having an actual coffin—and an open one at that involving make-up and preservation—is practically unheard of.

But that's what Whitby wanted; he always seemed to love a good show.

Of course, the real draw for most—including us—is seeing what they did about the severed head.

We lean in.

Sure enough—all back together again. "Guess they taught Joe Fillmore sewing in mortuary school," I whisper.

"We'll never know for sure. The tacky sweater could be covering Frankenstein's mess."

We pay our respects standing—kneeling would have been too much of a show, not to mention an outright lie.

Pepper looks down at the body—Navy blue suit, white turtle neck, perfectly combed gray-flecked brown hair, and a hint of that familiar smug smile.

"Bastard," she mumbles. So much for being careful.

"Watch it, Peps, you don't wanna be overheard. All we need is you back in the slammer."

"Don't worry. I'll be good. The Nick and Nora show's still on."

"Who?"

"Philistine." She rolls her eyes. "I'll show you the holo sometime. A twentieth-century original. Nick and Nora Charles and a dog named Asta. Brilliant stuff."

We walk away from the casket—a box made from inexpensive Martian pine lined with equally inexpensive hemp, the humility of it all part of the show, I'm sure. We take a seat along the side towards the back.

The room's large and filling up. There are at least fifteen rows of padded folding chairs in the center and dozens of seats along the perimeter, enough for at least a hundred-fifty. At first, I recognize only a few faces from Day Break Diner, but then—someone I know quite well.

I get up. "Sam? Is that you?"

He looks surprised. "Geez, Professor Rick." He walks over. "Wow. What brings you here?"

Sam Trent was one of my prize students during my last semester of teaching. In fact, he and a few of his buddies left a very good taste in my mouth after a dreadful fall term. That semester had been a disaster—I taught three sections of Senior-level lit classes, one worse than the other—so I dreaded the spring. Fortunately, Sam and a few others made my last two classes—The Existential Vampire and The Uses of Fantasy and the Fantastic—completely worthwhile. They knew how to read a text, how to delve beyond the surface, and, above all, how to write well. In fact, I encouraged Sam to submit one of his Existential papers to a journal. The suggestion paid off; it was published.

"Just paying my respects, Sam. You look great. Life's treating you well?"

"Yeah. Doin' OK. I'm taking grad classes at the Academy."

"Not the University?"

"Better program for me at the Academy."

"Fair enough."

"I start up again next week. I was over here for the summer. I'm dating Barbara. You know, Barbara Whitby, the reverend's daughter."

"I didn't realize. Sorry, then, for your loss."

"Well, I didn't really know the guy that well. I'm here for Barbara. Support and all that."

We're interrupted by a quite beautiful forty-something woman in a simple blue dress. "There you are," Sam says, giving her a hug.

"Professor Rick, I'd like you to meet my Mom."

"Mrs. Trent. A pleasure."

"Call me Doris, please." We shake hands. "I've heard so much about you from Sammy."

"I have to tell you your son was just terrific in the two classes he took with me a couple of years back."

She beams.

Pepper gets up. "I'm Marion Salt. Pepper to friends."

"Oh, I'm sorry Pepper. Being rude as usual. Dr. Salt teaches in the Language and Literature Department at the University."

"Guess I missed out on one of your classes," Sam says to her.

"It depends on who you talk to." She laughs as she shakes his hand, then Doris's.

Doris is looking around the room. "I guess we should see Barbara, shouldn't we?"

"Yeah, I guess. Let's get this over with," Sam said. "Excuse us." There's more than a twinge of anxiety in Doris's voice.

Sam doesn't look too thrilled either.

Fear of an uncomfortable moment?

Or something else?

After they leave, Pepper raises an eyebrow. "Something seem a bit off to you, too?"

"Maybe. But lots of people aren't comfortable with wakes or memorials. The whole death thing."

"Yeah, I know, but I'm sensing something else."

"Your intuition, huh?"

"Possibly, but we know how off-target my intuition can be. If it were any good, I wouldn't have dated Whitby."

I watch Doris and Sam go up to the front row, and through the crowd, I see an exchange of hugs and kisses on the cheek. First with Naj, looking suitably grief-stricken in black and a severe hair comb—then Jack Whitby, the reverend's 23-year-old jock son—and finally Barbara, 26, tall, blonde, stunning. It all seems friendly enough.

But as quickly as they offer their condolences, Doris and Sam make their way to the back of the room, not even stopping at Sol's casket.

They speak with a few people in the back and then go, Doris leading the way.

"Guess this is one time you can trust that intuition, Peps."

"Yeah," she says, "that was weird."

"Wish I could ask them what's up."

"You could follow them to the parking lot and ask," she suggests.

"Hell, Peps, this isn't an episode of Mars Patrol. It's us."

"Well, you're the one who wants to play detective, and as your official Gal Friday, I'm saying to you: Get your ass out there a.s.a.p."

"Really?"

"Move it."

I do. You don't mess with Peps.

Luck's on my side.

They're still in the lot.

In heated conversation.

I walk closer, very slowly, able to overhear the last snippet before they notice me.

"This was a stupid idea," Doris says vehemently. "It's rubbing it in her face."

"Well, too bad, the guy was a first class dickhead."

Doris sees me first, immediately morphing her face into something resembling pleasant. "Professor."

"Doris."

Sam doesn't bother changing his expression.

"Don't mean to intrude. I'm parked over there." I point. "Everything OK?"

Sam turns away, fidgeting.

"Everything's fine. Really," Doris insists. "It's just been a rough day for us. We're leaving." She digs out the access fob for her Fuzer from her shoulder bag.

"Yeah, it's been rough for a lot of folks. Murder isn't pleasant."

Sam whitens.

"Sam, it's good to see you." I extend my hand. "If you're in town for a few days, maybe we could do supper. Only if you'd like."

He takes my hand, then looks at me. "Yes" is all he says, slides the passenger panel back, gets in the silver-grey Fuzer, gives me a quick sideways glance, and shuts the door.

I watch them pull away.

It's only 2 PM.

After that, I wonder what the next couple of hours might bring, but nothing out of the ordinary happens.

A slew of people come and go solemnly—Whitby, as I now see first-hand, had quite the following in the entire region, not just our base.

The family sits there, receiving everyone with poise.

To me it seems a bit rehearsed, but like I said earlier, everyone reacts differently under the stress of grieving. Especially when it's such a brutal death.

At 4, we leave with everyone else, both of us making idle chit-chat with a few of the locals, including Millie, who seems less persnickety—she even says to me: "After the funeral service tomorrow, I'm having a few people over at the Day Break. I hope you can be there." It actually seems genuine.

Wonder of wonders.

No figuring these people out.

Pepper decides to go home until the evening viewing hours.

I don't feel like cooking, so I head to McCrory's, a fairly decent restaurant on the main road near my house. It proves to be a felicitous choice.

11.

Felicitous?

Because sitting there at a small corner table is Sam Trent.

By himself.

If this were an episode of Roma Crime, I'd say "How contrived is that? The guy wants to talk to Sam and coincidentally Sam just happens to be there when the detective arrives. Gimme a break."

Well, that's what's happened—and my mind fills with clichés like "Truth is Stranger than Fiction"—which, of course, I'd never say if I were writing a story.

So there he is and I walk right over.

"Sam."

He looks up from a bowl of soup—Minestrone? Beef barley with veggies?—and for one microsecond seems to panic. Clearly I'm not the person he wants to see right now. But he covers it well: "Professor Rick. What a surprise."

"Yeah. Just wanted to say hi. Don't want to interrupt anything. You look like you're thinking stuff through."

A pained face: "I am."

"So I'll just get a table"—making a nearly imperceptible move away from him—"unless you'd like some company?" I've put him on the spot, for sure, but that's the idea, isn't it? "Of course, I'd understand if you didn't."

"Sure. Join me." What else can he say to his former professor, the guy who gave him two of his A's?

I sit down.

The small table means dinner for two would be a tight squeeze.

Before I can continue with any small talk, an observant server comes over. His name's Clark; he's waited on me a few times; nice kid: "Professor. How are you this evening? Do you need a menu?"

"No. I'll have the veggie burger deluxe, mashed instead of fries, some balsamic dressing for the lettuce and tomato. You can bring it out with his main course."

"Actually, I'm just having the soup."

"Well then, do you mind hanging out while I eat?"

More discomfort: "Sure. Why not."

I look up at Clark. "So just bring it as soon as it's ready, OK?"

"Not a problem." Then adds: "Water? Lemon?"

"Yes, please." Smile. "Good memory, Clark."

"Thank you." Wink. "Good tipper."

We both laugh.

I'm such a shameless flirt sometimes.

Sam continues with his soup, small spoonfuls at a time.

I dive right in. "I hope I didn't interrupt anything before in the parking lot. Looked like I walked into some tension."

"You could say." Spoon of soup. "But, no, it's OK."

"The situation? Or me walking in on it?"

"Both I guess." Then he puts the spoon down and looks at me. "Listen. I'm not very good company right now. I'm …"

"It's OK. I get it. Your girlfriend's father was just murdered. That's a lot to take in. Not a problem." I start to get up, but he takes the bait.

"No, no. Stay. Please. All I meant was that I'm …"

"Upset. You're really upset. That's all right."

He looks at me and his eyes well up. "Listen, Professor Rick. I …"

That's as far as he gets—the tears fall.

A napkin to his mouth controls a sob.

I sit there quietly for a few moments, letting him get it out. The kid's totally embarrassed that he's making a public display, something Martian men avoid.

My only thought: It has to be more than his girlfriend's father.

I lean in and take the next risk: "Wanna talk about it."

He nods.

"Here? Somewhere else?"

He's gained enough composure to talk: "Here's OK. You just ordered supper."

"I could have him wrap it as take-out?"

"No. It's OK. Really."

"So tell me.

"Is it about Barbara?"

He pauses. "Yeah." He picks up his spoon again. "She was seeing someone else—she told me a few days before her Dad died."

He takes some soup.

"That must've hurt."

"Hell, yeah." There's the tiniest flash of rage in his eye and voice—then back in control. "The guy's a first class dick. A fuckin' drunk. An ex-con."

My heart sinks, but I want to hear it: "Who?"

"The guy she's dating? You know him, right? Lou Cantori. Everyone knows about Lou. Turns out she'd been seeing him for a few weeks."

"Did you suspect anything? Is that why she told you?"

"No, that wasn't it at all. Turns out she was upset about something else and it just kinda spilled out."

"How?"

"I came over last Tuesday like I usually did—we like watching the Tuesday music line-up on HV4 together—but she was all pissy from the second I walked in. Evidently there'd been a fight between her Dad and someone else. When the person left—Barbara never told me who—her Dad was storming around the house screaming about busy-body bitches and folks not minding their own business. Somehow it came out that her father'd been dating someone and then that woman found out that he'd also been seeing someone else. And that someone else was none other than my Mom."

My mind buzzes. "Really?"

Clark brings over my burger.

I stare at the plate for a second—and say aloud, "Dee."

"What?" Clark asks.

"Nothing. It looks Dee—as in Dee-lish-ous." Hoping Sam buys the lie. "So your Mom—Doris—was dating Whitby?"

"And Whitby was two-timing her."

"So why would Barbara tell you about Lou?"

"Because she was pissed that my Mom was dating her Dad and making trouble in the house. She blurted it out in her anger. 'You're Mom's nothing but trouble. Hope she's better in the sack than you. That's why I'm screwing Lou Cantori. To make up for losses.' Yelling stuff like that. She was off the wall."

"Holy crap. I might've hauled off and punched her."

"Don't think I wasn't tempted. But I restrained myself. I told her to go fuck herself and raced home."

I wonder if Sybil Stanwyck caught that exit, too? Sure was a busy night at the parsonage.

"And once home, you confronted your Mom."

"Yeah, and she told me she'd been dating Whitby. Evidently she didn't know about the other woman."

"Ouch."

"Yeah, I felt like a bastard being the one to tell her, but once it was out, I couldn't take it back."

"What a mess, right?"

"The whole family's a bunch of fuckin' hypocrites." The spoon lands on the table first then bounces to the floor. A few people glance over.

"So with all that baggage, you must've been mighty pissed off."

Pissed enough to kill?

"Believe me, when I heard the schmuck was dead, I was fuckin' happy, man. He deserved every bit of it." His eyes are wide. "Hope he fuckin' suffered." He isn't yelling; in fact, it's the kind of controlled, nearly-whispered rage that can be more terrifying than an outright scream-fest.

I lean back.

He catches his breath—then stares at his half-empty bowl.

"That's a lot to take in." I say quietly, more to myself than him.

"Ya think?"

Clark comes over and diplomatically plucks the spoon from the floor. "Everything OK?"

"Fine, Clark. Listen could you wrap this and give me the check—for both of us."

Sam's suddenly much more controlled. "No, please, you don't have to."

"Not a problem. You've had a rough week. I think I can spring for some soup." I press my thumb into Clark's credipad, which he then places in front of my right eye for a final verification scan.

He leaves and I go for the final question. "So with all that, why bother showing up at the wake?"

"That's what Mom said, but I wanted us both to go—to rub it in their faces. Especially Barbara's. Mom was angry enough to play along. At first."

"They all appeared to be OK with your showing up from what I could see. Hugs and kisses all around." Of course, I've just let on that I'd been watching him at the funeral parlor.

But Sam doesn't seem to pick up on it—or care: "Of course, they'd be OK with us and act like everything was cool. They've obviously made a fine art out of letting the outside always look neat and clean even if the inside's a total mess."

"So that's what you and Doris were arguing about in the lot."

"Yeah. The whole thing made her uncomfortable. She felt manipulated into going."

I ask rhetorically: "And was she?"

"Of course, she was. I wanted both of us to make the Whitbys crawl in their skins. They didn't show it, but I bet Barbara pissed herself"—he smirks—"Now I'm sorry I did it, but in the moment, I just couldn't resist. Both of them treated us like crap. Here my Mom thinks she's Whitby's steady girlfriend, and then it turns out he's playing the field."

"And the same thing with you and Barbara."

"Exactly. She told me she loved me and everything—and then she ends up screwing around with somebody else. And of all people. Cantori."

Yes , I thought, of all people.

It seems that Lou'd left out some important details in our jail house conversation, hadn't he? What if the scenario had been a little different? What if Lou'd come to the Fair drunk and it was Whitby who'd called him into the office? What if it was Whitby who'd confronted Lou about his relationship with Barbara—a young woman at least 20 years his junior? Daddy protecting his little girl. That might make more sense than Cantori suddenly reaming out Whitby over the reverend's salacious lifestyle. Something to chew on.

I drop a few yen in the tip jar, wink at Clark who's behind the counter—is there no end to me?—and walk out with Sam.

Clearly more than a couple of eyes are watching—and mouths whispering.

God knows what they've made of our tête-à-tête.

"I'd suggest staying clear of the funeral tomorrow."

"I don't think that'll be a problem, Doc. I believe I've learned a valuable lesson."

"Which is?"

"Getting even just doesn't work."

"Or just plain backfires."

"Yeah. That, too."

12.

Within two seconds, I'm tapping my subcom—I know, I know, there's a law about driving and coms, but this is important—and fortunately Pepper taps in almost at once: Today, she's got orange hair. I laugh.

By the time I finish the short ride home and am pulling into my driveway, I've filled her in.

"So his mother was the woman who sent the card?" I can hear the coolness—and see the wince.

"Yeah. Unfortunately. But in her defense, like you, she thought she was the only one he was seeing. He was playing you both."

"Scum bag."

"What gets me is that other people—like Lou—seemed to know before you two gals did."

"If you're trying to make me feel any better, you're bombing out, mister."

"Sorry, kid."

"Yeah, well, it's long over. The schmuck's dead and the whole freakin' base seems to know all about me—maybe not by name but certainly as the 'other woman'."

"The irony is that most people don't seem to care a hoot about his indiscretions—at least on the surface. There's no outrage, a whole ton of folks willing to look the other way."

"Fuckin' people."

We talk a little more along the same lines—Pepper venting, me listening and trying to say the right things.

When I walk in my front door, we synchronize: It's 6:30. We'll meet in the Funeral Home parking lot at 7 and take it from there.

I change into a pair of cargo slacks and throw on a blue button-down shirt and my elbow-patched tweed jacket. Neatly retro. The very picture of a retired professor.

When I arrive, Pepper's standing next to her Fuzer, still in her simple blue dress. She might be "full-figured," but she always chooses the right clothes to make herself look terrific.

She's watching something intently.

"What's up, Peps?"

"Be discreet. Check out the corner of the lot."

I turn.

"Jesus, Ricky. I said discreet; why not just throw on a spotlight?"

"Sorry." I move closer to her and pretend to be picking some lint off her shoulder, trying to see what she's pointing out. It's getting dark and I have to strain a bit.

Then I see.

There in the far corner, next to a pickup vehicle of some kind—I never took enough interest in Fuzers to know models and years—is Jack Whitby, pacing about. At least twice he kicks one of the rear glide skiwheels.

"OK, what's up with that?"

"Good question," she says. "Why don't I find out?"

"Alone?"

"Hey, you got Sam for supper. I'll get Jack for dessert."

I give her a look.

She gives her best pixie face: "What?" Then: "Besides, I taught him Martian Lit a few years back. He knows me."

"I got a bad feeling, kiddo. He looks pretty pissed off."

"And Big Mama will find out why."

Before I can say any more, she's marching over the gravel in those signature high heels of hers, never once wobbling.

How does she do that?

******

"Jack? Jack, is that you?"

He stops circling his Fuzer RovTruck and looks up.

"Who's that?"

"Marion Salt. Dr. Salt from Language and Literature."

It takes a second, then: "Oh yeah." He squints. Is he drunk or on something? "Hey, Dr. S. How are you?" She's guessing Olympus Brew.

"Hey, yourself, Jack. So how you holdin' up?"

He doesn't try to hide his condition. "Not so good, I guess." He lifts a Chicago Ale bottle out of his coat pocket and gives her a sloppy smile.

Right idea , she notes, wrong brand.

******

I sit in the same chair I had during the afternoon, watching people file in. There are repeats from earlier, but a lot of new faces pop up, including Sybil Stanwyck who makes sure we all see her greeting the family—generous hugs, consoling glances, calculated tears.

Barf.

About ten minutes after I'd left Peps in the parking lot with Jack, she walks in, spots me, and gives me a nod to come over.

"Anything interesting?" I ask.

"Oh yeah." She pulls me out of the room towards the emptier end of the hallway. "Listen, come outside. He's agreed to talk to you, too."

"You've got my attention."

"He started laying some heavy stuff on me—stuff you'll wanna hear, for sure. I told him he could trust you."

I jump ahead: "Did he do it?"

"I don't know—but if he did, I wouldn't blame him."

"Officially hooked."

******

It's ten minutes later.

We sit in his RovTruck, Jack in the driver's seat, me on the passenger's side, Pepper in back behind me.

His window's rolled down half way but he has the heat going—Second September chill has definitely set in.

An air freshener gives off a slight whiff of Martian cedar.

Jack pulls out his cigarettes. "You mind?"

Of course, I do, but I'm not about to make him more uncomfortable than he already is. "Go ahead," we both say—though I know she hates smoke even more than I do.

She props herself on the edge of the back seat and sticks her head between us. "You can tell him, Jack."

He tries his lighter a couple of times before it klicks awake and then holds the small flame to his cigarette—something unfiltered—drawing in deeply.

He gives me a quick glance, then exhales smoke towards the window.

After a few moments, he looks down, finally shifting in his seat, facing straight ahead. He lays his head on the steering wheel. "Day after fuckin' day," he slurs out. "Day after day, I put up with that bastard growing up." He lifts his head to take in another deep hit. In a murmur: "Day after day."

Pepper puts her hand on his back. "It's OK."

He gives a half-hearted shrug. "A lot of good it does me now. I shoulda said something fuckin' years ago, but I never did."

"You were scared. You didn't have a choice."

"Not at five or six, Dr. S. But at eighteen and nineteen, yes, I could've said something to someone."

"Abuse isn't easy, Jack. Especially when it's coming from a parent, someone you're supposed to be able to trust."

He straightens up in his seat, his head brushing against the cabin top: "Not even my mother. She just left me with the bastard."

I ask very cautiously: "What was going on, Jack?"

He slouches again, stares ahead, takes a final drag—"My father beat me"—and tosses the butt out the window.

I say something lame under my breath like—"Jesus, that's terrible"—and his floodgates open: "Day after day for as long as I can remember. Whenever he thought I'd disobeyed him or sassed Mom or interrupted a conversation or walked in when he was watching a holo or I had a fight with my sister or whatever excuse he needed." He reaches under the seat and pulls out a beer. He unscrews the bottle cap and tosses it into the parking lot. It bounces with a metallic ping.

"There were times"—a deep swig—"he'd tie me to a chair with rope and lock me in the sub-level, my mouth gagged so no one would hear me screaming. I'd be down there for a whole day sometimes, sitting in my shit and piss." Another gulp. "Once he tied me to a chair in my bedroom and used his belt to beat me so hard it drew blood. I had welts for weeks." He turns to me. "See this?" He points with the bottle neck to a scar on his forehead, near the hairline. "He did that with the buckle of his belt." He drains the bottle and shoves it under the seat, pulling out a fresh one.

During all this, Pepper and I sit there in silence. At one point I gave her the "Just let him talk" glance and she nods "Of course" imperceptibly.

"Mom knew. Barbara knew—though she wasn't much older than me. And no one said anything. Like it wasn't happening. How the fuck did they explain the bruises to themselves? Fuckin' stigmata, for Chrissake?" He stops.

A young couple crosses the lot in front of us—they get into the Fuzer next to us. They pull away after a few moments.

Another swallow: "Mom left when I was 14. They had lots of fights—but I don't think he ever hit her. She just left me and Sis—who was 17—with Dad. She disappeared for almost two years before coming back to visit. They acted like nothing had happened. By then Dad had filed for divorce—on abandonment charges—and had started dating a few people. Whatever."

He takes a last swig and reaches under his seat once again; the bottle clanks against its companions.

"Meanwhile, when I was 18, I started the University. I'd come home weekends and still got the crap knocked out of me. Like it never once dawned on me to fight back—punch him—do something. He didn't try the chair any more, but the belt would come out and he'd chase me through the house. Of course, only when Saint Barbara wasn't there. Around her, he was an angel and he treated her like gold. Fuck her, too."

He lights up another cigarette.

"I finally got balls enough to take a job and pay for a boarding house room near school. Of course, that was good for a beating—How dare I waste money when I could live at home and commute with a neighbor to school? It was the first time I'd defied him—done something on my own. Guess something finally broke inside me.

"Anyway, I went to school, where I met you, Dr. S"—it's the first time in several minutes that he actually acknowledges our presence—"and finally graduated this past May. At fuckin' 23. Jesus, I couldn't even manage regular class loads—I was too fucked up." Big chug. "Now look at me." Another. "Working as a mechanic in Camden Base until I figure out what the fuck to do with a degree in philosophy." He lets out a brief laugh. "You can only imagine how Dad ranked on that one—What the hell was I gonna do with a B.A. in philosophy? How would I support a wife or get yen credits for a house?"

He takes in a deep lungful of smoke, holds his breath, and then exhales the bluish cloud in slow motion: "Then I heard. The bastard was dead. And not just dead, but murdered. And not just murdered, but his fuckin' head cut off." He tosses the butt. "With a freakin' Buck saw."

He turns to me suddenly and jabs a finger into my chest: "Well, fuckin' good for them. Whoever did it, fuckin' good for them!"

And as quickly as he's faced me, he settles back in his seat, gripping the wheel.

He speaks more calmly: "So you must think I'm a real wuss, right? A grown man who can't stand up to his fucker of a father."

"Not at all," I say quietly, trying desperately not to say the wrong thing.

"In fact," Pepper leans forward more, "I think you're very brave."

He shifts uneasily. "Brave. Yeah. Gimme a break."

"I think Pepper—Dr. S—is right. It took a lot of inner strength to make it through all those years—and even more to break away to be on your own. Trust me, I know. Now's not the time, but someday, I can share a bit of my own story, if you're interested—which includes highlights like living on the streets of Philo at 14."

He looks at me intensely.

"You're no wuss, Jack." I lean in to make sure the point drives home: "Kids like you and me got more balls than we think. Survival skills."

I hope I've said the right stuff. I'm not trying to minimize his experience, but I want him to know I've been through shit, too. Raped in an alley at 15. Prostitution at 16. Becoming a father at 17. An alkie.

He wasn't alone.

Yeah, I know a kindred soul when I see one.

But is he a murdering soul? Is that the pain I'm seeing? Guilt that he finally dared to do what he'd probably wanted to do since he was a kid?

"I don't know about balls, mister. But I'm still here. And he's not. The Reverend Solomon Whitby. Pastor of the Alliance Chapel of Mystic Base, Mars. Amen. Hallelujah. Gone—but not fuckin' forgotten."

Pepper decides to break it off—"You can talk to us any time, Jack"—and starts to move her hand towards the door handle.

"I wanna leave Mystic." It's a calm announcement. "Now. Get the fuck out of here. Outta this fuckin' cesspool base." For all his anger, he also seems utterly crushed.

"But we should all go inside," she says. "Right? Aren't your mother and sister …"

"Fuck 'em."

"But they'll be looking for you," Pepper says.

"Let 'em look."

And I add: "Let 'em squirm."

Jack likes that.

"I'm leaving," he says.

"Jack," Pepper intervenes, "you shouldn't be driving like this."

"I've been worse, believe me."

It takes us five minutes, but we finally reach a compromise.

He doesn't have to go back in; he can drive to his motel—The Blue Spruce, at the north edge of the base—but Pepper and I will follow in my Fuzer and make sure he gets inside his room safely.

Just before we leave, he says to me through his window, "Thanks."

Simple and direct.

But is he innocent?

Or Sam, for that matter?

Or Lou?

Oh, how I'd love to get hold of the forensic report.

That's when it really hits: We're on our own.

13.

Thursday.

The funeral.

Jymal Chin, the minister from the Alliance Chapel in Danford—and a close friend of Whitby's—officiates.

As I expect, it seems like the population of several bases has shown up. Standing room only. Probably the closest thing we can get to a State Funeral on Mars.

Peps and I sit in the soundproofed Quiet Room: The back two rows of the chapel had been put behind a glass wall with a speaker system that allowed parents and their squally kids to hear the service without disturbing the rest of the congregation.

The Room's practically empty this morning—just a young couple with a baby girl and an elderly man. For us, it's the perfect roost while the rest pray, sing hymns, and listen to endless testimonials from friends.

"So what do we have?" I speak as quietly as I can.

"First, let's see who's missing."

Craning our necks, occasionally standing, we scan; it's a laugh at how inconspicuous we try to be compared to how obvious we really are. What a pair.

"Sam and Doris didn't show—surprise, surprise."

"But," Peps double-checks, "neither did Jack. That should send tongues wagging."

"Obviously Lou isn't here, so what other suspects do we have?"

"There's the ex, Naj. The daughter, Barbara."

"What's Naj's motive?" I ask. "She's suddenly jealous of husband's new lovers?"

"Maybe she served to gain through an insurance policy or something, assuming Whitby didn't change his beneficiary."

"Doesn't seem likely," I say. "She's the one who abandoned him. He probably changed the policy two seconds after she left."

"What gets me is that, at least according to Jack, the bitch knew what was going on—the beatings and all that."

"Then why leave?" I ask. "Wouldn't a mother want to protect her kid?"

"If she knew what was going on all those years, she obviously didn't care. Or …" Peps is formulating aloud, the permutations running across her face, "… she just couldn't deal with all the emotions. She runs away from home—literally. In one scenario, she's a bitch. In another, she's a coward. And in another, she's just a frightened human being who's emotionally overwhelmed."

"Wonder what really drove her out then?"

"Whatever it was, it left a ruined family, for sure. But more to the point, does it have anything to do with this case?"

"Or—building on one of your ideas—she knew what was going on with Jack, was as terrified and angry as her kids were at first, but then finally gummed up the courage to off the bastard."

"Why wait so many years? She left Whitby when Jack was 16, so what's that? At least seven years ago? Does that make sense?"

"Good point. Back burner." I move on: "What about the daughter?"

"The apple of Daddy's eye?"

"And just how apple was it, if you get my drift?"

"Incest?"

"Possibly. He beat the son. Maybe he sexually abused the daughter. She wouldn't be the first girl to make excuses for something as horrifying as that." Then I remember my conversation from supper yesterday. "You know, something Sam Trent said to me yesterday would fit with the whole sexual abuse theme. He said Barbara was pissed that Sam's mother was dating her Dad and"—emphasizing the words—"making trouble in the house."

"Trouble?"

"Yup, Sam's word. Trouble. So what kind of trouble was Barbara referring to? Was she the one jealous of Doris—or you for that matter? That you gals, perhaps even her Mom, were a threat to her relationship with her father."

Though we're speaking in whispers, the Mom—with a capital M—gives us a hearty "Shush."

We shrug our regrets, Peps moves us to the farthest corner, and we continue.

"Ah, but then why was she dating Lou Cantori? And why rub that in Sam's face?"

"Stump me there. Good point." Then a different thought: "Or there never was incest. There never was anything. Sure, he gave her attention—praised her, was nice to her, never scolded her—but not the complete attention she really wanted. When Mommy left, she thought she could have Daddy to herself. Instead, he still put all his focus on Jack and, to add insult, on his several girlfriends. Dating Lou then becomes an expression of rebellion."

She looks around the crowded sanctuary. "Makes you wonder how many other people had some kind of secret beef against this guy. Who knows who else he pissed off?"

"If that's the case, then what's really scary is how much seething anger this base has. Everyone's so nice on the surface, but underneath—rage, rage, rage." I intone a decisive humph.

"And that's for …?"

"Just pondering the human condition. Once again."

"Any conclusions?"

The final hymn begins and everyone rises.

"From our earliest history, when someone gets a little power—a politician, a boss, an entertainment mogul, a religious leader—that person inevitably changes. They start acting a part. And on some levels we the people expect it, maybe even embrace it, despite our railing against it."

The chapel's pipe organ intones rich, full chords.

"And from acting the part," Pepper adds, looking out on the congregation, "they can move rather quickly into abusing their part."

"Sad to say. Not everyone, of course, but many. The most well-intentioned guy or gal can transform into a greedy alpha, totally besotted by position, title, and the ability to snap a finger and get a result."

The singing begins. Praise God from whom all blessings flow …

"Like you said—part of our condition. I guess that's how some of us are wired."

Praise God all creatures here below …

"True. But then Whitby becomes just another cliché. The spiritual 'leader' who ends up doing the very thing he preaches against."

"Not the first. Not the last. Clichés are clichés because there's usually some basis for truth."

Another humph. "Well, that's sad."

The hymn ends, the minister gives a brief benediction, and the coffin is carried down the aisle, the organ playing something suitably sweet and elegiac.

The four others in the Quiet Room have long since left.

Alone, Pepper doesn't whisper any more: "And we haven't even talked about Lou, Sam, or Doris yet."

Directly behind the coffin, Barbara is holding her mother's arm on one side and Sybil Stanwyck the other.

Which is when another idea strikes. Maybe an astonishing idea. Maybe not. But it's a potential epiphany I can't—won't—ignore.

"Come on, Peps. Let's beat the crowd."

"Why?"

"A brainstorm."

"Crap. What are you thinking?"

"I'm working it out as we speak."

"That's what I'm afraid of."

14.

What the hell.

This is as good a time as any to give you all the details.

You already know a bunch of stuff about me.

I'm a recovering alcoholic.

I'm a retired Language Arts Professor.

You've probably guessed I'm bisexual—and, no, I'm not in denial. Some of my gay friends insist that bisexuality is a myth. One friend yells: "Jesus! Just come out of the God damn closet already!"

Well, sorry, I've been pretty much equally attracted to both sexes since I was a kid. Or as one friend quipped, "Rick's never worried about a date on Saturday night. No one's safe." I like to say with a wink that I'm heteroflexible.

But living on the streets of Philo Base at 14, being raped by a gang at 15, becoming a male hooker at 16 to pay for food, and becoming a Dad at 17 certainly didn't make my sexual awakening easy, clear, or fulfilling.

That came later.

You'll have a couple of questions, right?

Why did you live on the street?

What happened to your kid?

The story of the kid? I banged a woman prostitute—I paid for her with money I'd gotten from one of my tricks, a particularly repulsive guy. I wanted to forget what I'd just endured with that tweed-suited grease ball. Two hours after him, I was in a flea trap with this gorgeous blonde. I'd seen her a few times in the area—the still-notorious Northeast Quad of Philo. She was working North Academy Avenue that evening, I approached her, and we ended up spending the whole night together—all for fifty yen—a huge price back then, at least for me it was.

That night helped scrub my soul.

About two months later I saw her in a local bodega.

After cursing me out in three languages—Spanish, Italian, and English, all intertwined with a few spits and kicks—she said she was a good Catholic girl—Oh, really? You don't say?—and wasn't gonna have an abortion. Remember this was thirty-six years ago. Most bases still had their ban on "birth termination." Some dirty sub-level was about the only clinic a girl like Carla had—I'd found out her name when we went to her local parish in South Philo. To their credit, the good sisters didn't judge her—or me—and they helped her through the pregnancy with food and clothes. They even gave me a few yen.

The baby came and it went up for adoption.

A baby boy.

I have a son in his early 30's in one of the bases out there.

Yes, it might be nice to meet him.

Someday.

Meanwhile I never saw Carla again.

It was the turning point.

I got my high school degree, toned down my drinking, and eventually got into the Academy on a scholarship—no mean feat.

By my mid-twenties, I had my Master's degree and started teaching that Fall.

That was also the year—after a very rare vodka-fueled bender, replete with a numbing black out and an Apocalyptic hangover—that I joined A.A.

I got my Doctorate.

I started teaching at the University in Olympus.

I retired two years ago.

Somehow that brings us back to that first question about living on the street.

In some ways, this is the hardest part of my story.

My full name is Richard Abdullah Finley.

My mother was raised in Philo, but my father came from Jakarta Base—a very devout Muslim.

Mom converted and, with my father, kept a Muslim household in our small quarters in the Philo's Dormitory district—for those, like us, who couldn't afford an actual home or apartment.

Growing up, I began to hate every second of it.

The dietary laws—similar to Kosher—and the constant prayer times put me at odds with the other kids, a tough bunch who ran the streets and avoided school.

I had—as they said in those days—fallen in with the wrong crowd.

I started experimenting with smoking, with drinking, with pot, and with sex.

Lots and lots of sex.

First with some local girls—as far as I know, there weren't other pregnancies—no one used condoms in our neighborhood—that was for weaklings.

Then one afternoon, one of the local boys and I got drunk at the edge of Liberty Park.

We got it on right then and there.

Of course, you can guess who was taking a walk that evening through the same park. Yup. Dear 'ol Dad.

He'd heard some noises behind the trees and rather than walk away like a sane person would, he decided to investigate.

There I was with my pants down—literally—and, after a beating with his walking stick, was out on the street by that night, my father cursing me, my mother screaming—half in rage at what I'd done, half in agony that I was being kicked out.

I tried coming back a few times, but I was locked out, my clothes thrown onto the sidewalk, where they were quickly picked through by everyone but me. I was able to retrieve one pair of jeans.

I was 14.

Alone in a base of one hundred thousand people.

I lived—actually hid—in an abandoned warehouse outside the base—I didn't want to meet up with my parents.

The warehouse still had SLAP—Sea Level Atmospheric Pressure—but no OGG. That the Martian gravity didn't do me permanent damage is a miracle. I guess I made it back into the base enough for the ill-effects to be negligible.

Anyway, I begged for or stole my food and hung out with a dangerous crowd that protected me only because I was able to talk a good talk.

Until I was 15 when some members of the gang thought I'd stolen some drugs from them—which I hadn't, by the way.

They taught me a lesson that landed me in Philo Hospital, needing 35 rectal stitches.

The next year I was out on the streets selling myself.

You know the rest.

So why interrupt our story with all this back story?

Well, it lets you know why I empathize with guys like Lou and kids like Sam and Jack.

It also gives you the reason why, for all my hatred of busy-bodies, I actually have some sympathy for them, too. People like Millie Thurgood and Sybil Stanwyck are empty. They fill the holes in their own lives with the experiences of others.

Millie sponges up gossip and serves cake. She provides a place to gather so she can be loved by the community, and she takes in all their tattle to give her life meaning. If I tell you my secrets, if I tell you what I saw or overheard or guessed at, then you'll feel loved, important, useful, meaningful—necessary.

Meanwhile, Sybil sits at her window watching the rest of the base to forget that she's really just sitting at her window, by herself, watching everyone else have a life of his or her own.

There's a lot of hurt in these women—and many others in Mystic, including guys like Chief Vince. And I've learned a long time ago—starting on the streets of Philo—that hurt people end up hurting people.

Folks like Lou, Sam, and Jack are obvious examples of such hurt—although, I ask myself, were any of them hurt enough to murder someone?

Doris, Barbara, even Naj are a little less apparent. Hurt, yes, but probably more passive-aggressive in their retributions.

But Mildred and Sybil—ah, now they're more subtle cases. Their hurt isn't all that visible, but it may be the deepest.

But what about their revenge?

How—or when—did they ever hurt people?

Would they?

Could they?

And so my brainstorm comes upon me as I watch Sybil walking down the aisle with the Whitby women. For that moment, she's one of them. She's mourning with them, supporting them—needed by them, or so she wants to believe.

But is her presence at this funeral also a performance—not just an exhibition for the base or a show to convince herself of her own goodness.

No, what if there's something else?

That's what I want to find out.

******

"You want us to go where?"

"Sybil's."

"Why, for God's sake? She's the bitch that nearly got me locked up."

"True. But we're gonna bring her some of Millie's muffins and tell her how sorry we feel for her loss because we know how close she felt to the Reverend and his family—and then you're going to forgive her for telling the Chief about what she thought she saw you doing."

"You're kidding me, right? Are you freakin' nuts? Forgive her?"

"You don't have to mean a bit of it. I just want to see her body language. Hear how she responds to you. You might be saying words of forgiveness, but what you're really doing is confronting her, exposing her game."

"Why would we do this?" Then she takes a step back. "You don't think she's the murderer, do you?"

"I honestly don't know."

"What possible motive would she have?"

"I'm working on that. I have a theory, but I need you, Peps, to put it in motion."

She walks towards her Fuzer; I follow.

"I don't like this one bit."

"But it might help us prove other people's innocence." And I lay it on thickly: "People like Lou Cantori who's sitting in Langley Prison right now while Vince tries to scrounge for any evidence he can find to prove Lou's a murderer."

"Ya know, you're just as bad as the rest of them for making me do this."

"Ouch. I'd like to think I'm being creative."

"Yeah, right."

She looks at me for a long moment with those big hazel peepers.

"If I didn't love you so much …"

"Am I hearing a hint of Yes?"

"Maybe." She's caving in before my eyes. "And if we did this good will visit, when would …"

"This evening. She'll probably invite herself to Millie's post-burial lunch at Day Break. After that she'll head home. Maybe we'll show up six-ish, muffins in tow."

"If Millie's is closed for a private party, how'll we get the muffins?"

"Not to worry. I keep a supply in the freezer. My not-so-secret vice." I pat my emerging love handles. "I'll thaw a few, put them in a basket, and like Little Red Riding Hood, we'll go off to see Granny."

"Need I remind you that Granny was a big bad wolf—and I don't think a hunter's gonna come and rescue us."

"We're the hunters, honey—and we can handle Miss Wolf anytime."

"Great. Living la vida lupo."

I roll my eyes, groan, but forge ahead: "Pick you up at six, then?" I put on my most innocent boy face.

She just rolls her eyes and says, "Incorrigible."

I blow a kiss and walk to my Fuzer. Whistling.

15.

We ring the door chime, though I know she's already seen us. A drape panel in the front window had moved slightly as we came up her walkway—cracked cement slabs, a few weeds.

The door opens.

"Yes." It's pure ice.

I make sure the basket of muffins is prominently displayed. "Hello, Ms. Stanwyck. Dr. Salt and I just wanted to pay our respects. I know you were close to Pastor Whitby."

She's clearly deciding whether to be civil—thus keeping her public persona of saintly virtue intact—or turn us away. Expectedly, she opts to maintain her veneer: "I appreciate the thought."

"We brought you some of Millie's muffins. We thought you might like them. I know sometimes I don't feel like cooking when I'm upset."

Still struggling to remain pleasant: "That was thoughtful."

Then Pepper steps up to the plate. "And I wanted to make sure you knew that I totally understand why you had to tell Chief Janowsky that you saw me leaving the parsonage last week. I'd probably do the same thing."

"I'm sure you would, Dr. Salt." It's difficult to read her face—but she's skittish and unready to let us into her home just yet.

"You were doing what you thought was right." This must be killing Pepper, but she's being very convincing.

"Exactly, Doctor. I've seen you coming and going from the Reverend's house many times," she makes sure the emphasis is implicit. "When I heard you screaming at him when you left last week, it was very upsetting." She glances across the street towards the parsonage—every curtain there drawn shut.

"I'm sure it was," Pepper says, leaning in a bit towards her, dripping reconciliation. "And I'm truly sorry for that. I had no right to air our business on the streets and disturb the neighbors."

Evidently that's the right thing to say. Sybil's face unhinges a bit. "I'm glad you understand my meaning."

"I certainly do, Ms. Stanwyck."

The face tightens again momentarily: "I prefer Miss. I think terms like Ms are needless. That's Capital or University talk."

'Ah, I see. Again, I mean no disrespect."

I can't take the tension any longer. "Would it be all right if we stepped in for a few minutes—or are you busy?"

"Yes, I'm busy," she says pointedly, "but you can come in if you'd like. What I'm doing can wait." It's an opportunity to show us the sacrifice she's making—especially for people she doesn't particularly like.

She steps out of the way and lets us pass into her foyer.

If I'd been asked to guess about Sybil's décor, I couldn't have gotten it any more correct. It's pure 19th century European Revival: Lace, floral wall paper, bric-a-brac, over-stuffed furniture everywhere, scatter rugs and Persian carpets.

In a phrase: Queen Victoria's country house.

I hand over the basket, which she places somewhat dismissively on a small table.

Without offering to take our jackets, she leads us into the even more crowded living room. Which I'm betting she calls her parlor.

"Please have a seat," she points to the chintz-covered sofa. "I don't have any tea or coffee on hand, but if you'd like a glass of water, I could …"

"Oh, please don't trouble yourself," I say. "We're only here for a minute."

Before any of us can say anything more, the house com rings—a loud, rotary model replica on an end table.

But rather than answer that one, she excuses herself with a wave of her hand, and goes back into the foyer.

Though we can't see her, I remember seeing another vintage phone on a little table when we walked in. Again, a total anachronism. On the third ring, she picks up.

Despite straining our heads in the general direction, we can't hear what she's saying—just muffled words—but she doesn't sound happy. There are several stern-sounding exchanges before she hangs up.

She comes to the doorway. "I'm sorry to be so abrupt, but I've got to leave on an errand. I'll have to ask you to leave; I'm quite sorry."

We get up. "Not a problem," I say. "We understand. I hope everything's OK?"

"Just fine. Thanks for your concern." She's back to playing the Snow Queen.

She practically slams the door on our backsides.

"Well, that was fun." Pepper's pissed off. "Hope you got what you wanted."

"Actually, I think I did. Which is why we're now going to play her game for a change."

"What do you mean?"

"Let's see if she actually goes some place, and if she does, we'll follow."

"Are you nuts?"

"Seriously. We'll tail her and see what she's up to."

"What the hell for?"

"I think Miss Stanwyck is covering something."

"You got that from a two-minute visit?"

"My gut's buzzing. She's nervous about something. I can just sense it. Nervous and scared."

"Maybe she's still freaked out about finding the body. That could do a person in for a long while."

"True. Could be that—but I think it's a little more." We walk briskly; we've parked half-way down the block. "Let's see where she's going."

"Probably meeting someone for shopping." Even she hears how flimsy that one sounds.

"Would that make her so abrupt and edgy? Hardly. No, Peps, that call wasn't good news."

She knows she isn't going to win this one, so she gets in.

I drive us around the corner and park again, lights off.

And we wait.

Five minutes later, sure enough, we aren't disappointed.

Dressed in a light coat—the Weathermen have conjured another cool evening, the leaves beginning to drop and whirl in the gutters—Sibyl walks around to the back of her house carrying a small hand bag. A moment later she's heading out of her driveway in a small, well-maintained Fuzer pickup.

Two things. One: I hadn't noticed it when we went to her house because it was parked round back.

Two: Sybil driving a pickup Fuzer? Let me digest that.

"Seriously?" Pepper chortles. "Go Mama. I may end up liking this bitch yet."

"Don't get carried away, dear."

She drives down Main Street, heading west.

After a few minutes, it's apparent she's aiming for Route 3.

As we follow, I have a flashback.

Ten years ago.

Pepper and I taking our "Round the World in 50 Days" trip.

I was still teaching. We had off July 1 and July 2—twenty-nine and twenty-eight days long respectively—and decided to take a road trip in my new Fuzer on the InterBase highway system that circles Mars, a twenty-one thousand klick journey—all in fifty days.

Our plan was to hit all the equatorial bases, including exotic Marineris Base in the Great Rift (modeled after the classic architecture of Earth's Asian subcontinent), London Base (Victorian buildings with a 22 nd century twist), and Beijing Base (which included the remarkable pagodas of the central district).

It was the first time I'd ventured beyond my "home turf"— the clump of bases between Chicago and Philo where I'd lived and worked my entire life.

Which meant it was also the first time I'd travelled the famous Route 11 that stretched thousands of kilometers across the Elysium Plains, a two-day journey even at fusion speeds.

Maybe it's the nervous excitement in the air tonight that rouses the sense memory of that trip.

We pass into the Highway, a self-illumined energy field tube paved with a concrete-like amalgam processed from Martian sand. Along the "ceiling" of the tube are two parallel rails for the high-speed trains that interconnect the thirty-three mid-latitude bases, and those seven that lie in the north where the topography is generally flatter. There aren't any bases south of the equator where the relentlessly rugged, mountainous terrain frightened off many early colonists and engineers. New advances in tech may change that as the planet's population—now close to eight million—continues to bulge.

Biggest base?

Olympus.

The one mighty exception to the gentler topography of the north is Olympus Mons, a dormant shield volcano rising over twenty-five klicks from the rolling plain. The great base sprawls at the southern foot of the Mons Cliffs—a three-klick high wall that dwarfs everything and anything around it.

To see it nestled there is breathtaking.

I shake away the memory.

To the task at hand.

At this time of day—early evening—there's still some left-over rush-hour traffic.

Leaving Mystic's western force field—I suddenly feel very committed to the adventure.

I think aloud: "Where's she heading? Camden?"

"That's far. I'll bet on something closer. Danford up 3A or Hampton straight ahead."

Our answer comes in less than ten minutes as she exits the highway, enters Hampton Base, and slips into the parking lot adjacent to the main shopping mall.

I slow down and keep some distance.

She parks in front of Hampton Hardware.

I immediately turn right and aim for a far corner of the lot, trying to be inconspicuous.

"Because no one's gonna notice the bright yellow clown Fuzer, right?" Pepper quips.

"Hey, no making fun of Becky."

"You named your Fuzer Becky?"

"Shush. Keep focused."

I reach into the glove compartment and pull out a small pair of binoculars.

"Well, look at you, Inspector Gadget."

"I have them for when I bird watch at the Sanctuary."

"I bet."

"Bird watching, I swear."

"Yeah, Dickie Birds and Yellow Crested Boobies."

"You're disgusting."

"And you love me."

"I do."

Sybil gets out of the pickup and looks around the parking lot.

"She really doesn't want to be noticed, does she?" I say.

She walks through the sliding doors into the store.

"OK." I try to see her, but she's moved too far into the store and we're parked at the wrong angle. "Whoever called her wanted to meet her here. Of all places."

"Maybe she's got a secret life. Mild-mannered busy-body by day, construction work by night—pickup and all."

"Should we get out and follow her?"

"If you think she's up to something and she saw us," Pepper says, "that would blow our little operation out of the water."

"Let's see if she walks out with someone."

"Or some thing—like a new Buck saw."

I give her a look.

"You laugh," she says, "but stranger things have happened."

"Actually, you're bringing up an important point. Would a pencil-thin woman like Sybil —whom I'm guessing to be in her early 60's—have the physical strength to stab a fairly substantial guy like Whitby with an eight-inch screwdriver—up to the hilt, no less—and then saw his head off. And then have the cojones to pick up the aforementioned head and create that macabre tableau. I'm not so sure."

"I know it's far-fetched."

"Besides, what's her motive?"

"Maybe she was another one of Whitby's gal pals," she says.

Our banter is interrupted when Sibyl re-emerges from the store.

I quickly look through my glasses. She's stuffing something—a small brown envelope?—into her hand bag. Again she looks around to see if anyone's spotted her, gets in her truck, and drives off with a pedal-to-the-floor blast. "Wow, there's an old fashioned lead foot."

"So what's our move?" Pepper asks. "We follow her back? Or—my suggestion—we pop in the store and try 'n figure out who she was seeing."

"Let's do it. Let's see what or who was so important in some store miles from home."

I decide to keep Becky parked where she is and walk across the lot.

"What if we gotta make a quick getaway?" She jokes.

"We're screwed."

"That's reassuring."

"I do my best."

We're nearing the front doors.

"So," I say, "Sybil gets a phone call about 6:15. We know she's ticked about something. She rushes to the Hardware one base west by 7:00 and walks out a couple of minutes later with an envelope—and then roars off. Who called? Why the hurry?"

The sun's already set behind the trees and the breeze picks up slightly.

Definitely an autumn dusk.

"Hopefully, we're about to find out." We look at each other and then walk through the sliding doors.

16.

The store is huge—row after row of goods with massive shelving reaching up to a thirty-foot ceiling.

"Feels like a shuttle hanger," I say quietly as we're approached by a young man in a blue apron—the store's logo sewn onto the right breast pocket.

"I'm Kevin. Welcome to Hampton Hardware. Know where you're going?"

"Thanks, just browsing—getting ideas for the house," Pepper answers quickly.

"Cool. You've come to the right place."

And we're off, leaving Kevin behind.

"Where to, Sherlock?" Pepper looks down the Electrical aisle.

"The place's immense and she was only in here for a few minutes, so I say we stay up front."

We walk slowly, looking down each aisle casually.

Electrical.

Tools.

Then the paint section.

Bingo.

Standing by the brush and roller display.

We look at each other.

Pepper whispers, "Crap," and I want to get away fast, but he's spotted us.

Too late.

I try to hide my guilty boy's face, and instead of bolting, I walk over.

"Hello Chief. How are you?"

Vince has on his poker face. "Fine. And you?"

"Great," I say. "Just getting some ideas for fixin' up the house."

Vince and Pepper make eye contact.

"Popular place this evening," she says innocently—and then adds the bombshell: "We just ran into Sybil as she was leaving."

My heart skips. Here we go.

"Yes, small world."

My turn: I can't believe you're about to say this, Ricky boy: "Yeah, she said she saw you, too."

"Did she?" His left eye gives the slightest of twitches.

Busted.

Pepper picks it up: "Yeah, something about having to pick up a package from you."

For one brief moment, I think I see a flash of anger—which makes me skip another beat—but he hides it with a smile. "Some business papers I wanted her to go over. Sybil was a fine copy editor in her day. Still has a good eye."

Clearly a lie.

"Well, nice seeing you." Pepper says, as if to leave.

"No need to lie, Dr. Salt. I know you hate my guts."

She turns. "Just trying to be civil." And then moves a few inches forward. "But, you're right, it's awkward with you because I really do hate your guts."

Jesus, Pepper, please don't turn this into a mall fight.

"I was just doing my job, Doctor."

"Of course you were. Someone sees me leaving the victim's house days before he dies and that immediately puts me on the A-List. Makes sense to me." Pepper's delighting in this. "But, gee, how about the others? I've heard the Rev practically needed a traffic scanner over his bed."

Oh shit, Pepper, shut up already .

"Listen, missy, keep your University attitude to yourself." The poker face is long gone. "You think you're so much better than us folks, don't you? Well, hear me good," he's a foot away, his index finger ready to jab her, "I'm a trained professional. I do my job. If I get a lead, I follow it cos that's what a good cop does. And I'm a damn fine cop."

"A damn fine idiot who puts innocent guys like Lou Cantori in jail."

In one flash, he pushes her against the shelf with one hand and holds out his other arm to keep me from reaching her.

Then, just as quickly, realizing what he's doing, he backs away.

Slowly.

"Don't you ever impugn my ability or my credibility again."

I step in: "You do know I could report you to the Alliance Commission for what you just did to her, Chief."

"Well, you just do that Professor Know-It-All." He takes another step back. "You two fuckin' disgust me."

A store employee appears around the corner. It's Kevin.

Now I'm the one who's angry and what little social filter I've got disappears completely. "Well, cops like you disgust me." And out of nowhere, I blurt my burgeoning suspicion: "Copy work, my flat ass. I'm betting there was a whole lot of somethin' else in that envelope."

A couple of customers appear at the other end of the aisle.

I can see how desperately he wants to take a good swing at me.

Instead, he does the most remarkable thing.

The most stupid thing.

He lets it slip.

"Fuck you. She's the one who's demanding the money."

I look at Peps: Money?

A raised brow: A payoff?

Wide eyes: Blackmail?

I wish you could be here.

The absolute horror on his face.

He knows he's made a slip-up—a really dumb, stupid, ridiculous fuck-up—and there's nowhere to retreat.

What actually surprises me is how quickly he's cracked. It's the second time this week that something's unfolded with such remarkable ease. First, there was Sam Trent miraculously being in the restaurant at the exact moment I happen to come in for dinner.

Now, Vince.

Just giving it up.

In fact, with apparent relief.

The poker face, the tough act, all of it—only tissue-paper deep.

But why?

For now, he's a completely flummoxed man standing in front of me, Pepper, and a small aura of customers, two store managers, and Kevin the Greeter, looking like he's just accidentally posted the combination to Mystic Bank on the Internet.

"Demanding money?" I ask.

What I don't see is Pepper tapping her com and calling for police back-up. She'll end up with either the Mystic or Camden police—Hampton Base doesn't have its own force.

"What for, Vince?"

Then the next wild twist: His eyes fill with tears.

All these abrupt shifts—from Chief-in-Charge to flustered, emotional man—seem so contrived. I doubt its truth—or believability—even as it's unfolding. This is just not how actual life works. Or does it? I may be 53, but I guess I still have a lot to learn.

After a few minutes, I realize he's being genuine—which then tells me … tells me what? That the guy's totally screwed up? That he might actually be a good person who's gotten caught up in something bad? But just how bad? We're about to find out.

"Why was I giving her money? Because she threatened me." He's trying to keep what he's saying as private as he can from the dozen or so people gathered at each end of the aisle.

"With what?" I ask.

"Threatened to tell everyone about the baby."

This is an agonizing embarrassment for him.

"Whose baby? What baby?"

"My baby with Naj."

You're fucking shitting me. I have an image of water bursting a levee.

"When?" Pepper asks, still angered.

"A long time ago." He's stubbornly trying to maintain himself. The tears are gone. He stands straight. "That's all."

"That's all?" Pepper's exasperated.

"Fuck you."

Christ, this guy's all over the map.

And then he talks anyway: "I was a rookie in Mystic and the two of us had a one night stand after she'd had a row with Whitby. We were both drunk and felt terrible after. A few weeks later, she found out she was pregnant. Whitby found out, too—but rather than going crazy, he made sure everyone thought the baby was his. He laid out the rules: I wasn't going to leave the base, or he'd tell the Alliance Commissioner. If I wanted a job, I'd better stay put; he said he wanted to keep his enemies close and wanted to see me suffer while I watched the kid grow up."

"Christ," I blurt out, "it's Barbara—or is it Jack?"

"Jack."

Though he's trying to keep his voice low, one of the managers hears what he's said and then the murmurs start.

I give it an hour before he's the talk of the Day Break crew.

"Jack." I say the name and look meaningfully at Pepper. "Explains a lot. Like Whitby's behavior towards the kid."

She nods, then knots her brow. "But that was over twenty years ago. Why would Sybil ask for money now? Why threaten you at all?"

The next unexpected thing: He no longer gives a damn who sees or hears anything. "Because I know who killed Whitby, and if I told, she threatened to ruin me. Threatened to tell about Jack and I couldn't have that. Jack's innocent; he doesn't need to be dragged into all this crap."

Any modicum of empathy I might have for the creep evaporates. "So you'd let a twenty-year-old scandal and a tarnished reputation keep you from arresting the right person—because you know it's not Lou Cantori."

"No, it's not like that. I want to protect Jack. Finally." He looks up at everyone in the aisle. "I know what his father did to him. I think a lot of folks did. But no one said anything." Suddenly he's pointing at people. "We're all fucking guilty here. Every one of us. No one said a fucking word while that bastard kicked the shit out of the kid. How do you think Jack would feel knowing he was illegitimate on top of it? Or that he had two fucked-up Dads—the one who conceived him and the one who raised him."

"That's still no reason to let an innocent man take the rap."

I hear the siren outside.

"Don't you think I know that, Finley?"

Running footsteps.

"But it was Lou—or me. Lou—or the kid. My kid. The kid I let get beaten to a pulp by that holier-than-thou fuckin' son of a bitch. and I couldn't let that happen. It had to be Lou."

The noise of com chatter grew louder.

"Lou? Let him fuckin' rot," he yells. "Fuckin' Lou Cantori, for Christ's sake? Who'd miss Lou?

Two cops round the corner, weapons drawn.

"I would, Vince," I shout right back. "I'd miss Lou."

"Fuck me," he says bitterly—then looks directly at me: "And fuck you."

"You son of a bitch." It takes the two cops to pull me back—I so want to kick the living shit out of him.

"Then who did it?" I keep yelling as I'm tugged away further. "Who did it? And how did you find out?"

Pepper joins the officers in holding me.

"Who did it?"

The shoppers and managers look on.

It's become the HoloDrama of the year.

He doesn't try to run.

He just stands there, frozen in place, the last moments of an impossible scene.

Beyond belief?

Of course.

But very real.

The unexpected, unexplainable wind that blows away the dust covering once hidden things.

17.

More Mystic Security are waiting for us out in the parking lot.

After the obligatory warning not to start trouble, Pepper and I are allowed to leave.

As ordered, we get into my Fuzer and follow the two cops who've taken Janowsky into custody. We turn out of the lot and head east.

I finally say: "What a friggin' night."

Silence.

"I still can't picture her murdering anyone, let alone Whitby. Of course, there's the motive—like half the women in this town, evidently. But still."

"And that Sybil was willing to protect her—the lengths she was willing to go. And for what reason? To be loved? It's truly pathetic."

We reach the edge of Hampton's dome, experiencing the familiar sound of static buzz as we exit the energy field.

We enter the Route 3 Tube.

The Squad van's about thirty meters ahead of us.

"What'll happen to her?"

"I'm sure the base cops are at her house as we speak making the arrest."

"And Sybil?"

"Same, assuming she went directly back home. They'll both be in the slammer in an hour."

Pepper looks over. "Of course, you've got to know how not sad I am. About either of them."

"Oh, I know."

"This whole town's one big dirty secret after another, isn't it? I thought the University was bad, but this place makes ancient Rome look like Friendly Village on HV-3."

I try to smile. "At least we can take some consolation in the fact we helped break the case." I pat her hand. "Not bad, Detective Salt."

She pats right back: "Not at all, Detective Finley."

"It would've been nice if it hadn't been so … so damn ugly."

"Hey, this is life, kiddo, not some board game at a party—Miss Scarlet in the chapel with a screwdriver. This is the real deal."

That word again: Real.

"Yeah, the real deal."

The words are no sooner out of my mouth when it happens.

Quickly.

The blue, aurora-like haze of the Tube's energy field wavers and then blinks out with a flashing crackle.

The lighting—recessed in the shuttle rails overhead— fizzes into darkness, plunging the entire length of the highway into the depths of Martian night.

In that very moment, we can hear the air rushing away into the starry blackness, dissipating into the landscape beyond with the loudest roar I've ever heard, a roar that immediately becomes utter silence.

"Christ!" Peps screams and grabs my arm. "What the fuck's happened?"

"The grid's failed."

"That's impossible. The failsafe …"

"… didn't work."

All Fuzers are self-contained, so we're fine for now. Every vehicle—from passenger carriers to trucks—has four hours of life-support: lights, heat, air.

In the unlikely event of environmental failure, each vehicle is furnished with …

Yeah, right.

Then a violent jolt—and our Fuzer starts lifting off the road.

"Fuck. The OGG, too?"

No force field.

No gravity generator.

We're screwed.

The Squad van ahead begins to swerve, then lifts from the pavement.

And now I fully understand the phrase I feel totally helpless.

We watch as it begins tumbling end over end through space towards the surrounding desert in dream-like slow motion—the low Martian gravity playing its horrifying tricks.

And in the blink of a quartz clock, we start lifting off the pavement, too.

Pepper taps her subdermal com—nada.

Then the Fuzer's com—nada.

"The com relays are out, too. What the hell's going on?"

I try the steering wheel, and a second latter laugh. Total futility— there's no road beneath us—we're not touching anything—there's nothing to steer.

Fortunately, our much smaller, more aerodynamic vehicle remains fairly stable—no tumbling—but we're rising, and in a few moments, we're in mid-air, slowly descending towards the desert fifteen or so meters below.

"Hold on, kiddo," I shout.

We both grip our shoulder safety straps.

In what seems like a very long minute—actually 10 or 12 seconds—the headlights of our Fuzer begin to illuminate the rusty, undulating sand.

We slam onto the ground violently and continue our forward momentum, the laws of inertia operating under a new low-gee playbook.

We lift off again, sail through the air a few meters, then slap into the sand in a whirl of dust, then rise.

Over and over.

Until we finally plow to a rest on the downslope of a dune, our headlights creating two eerie halos ahead of us.

We sit in breathless silence for a beat.

"You OK?" I ask.

"Think so."

Another pause.

She leans forward. "Can we see them?"

I switch off the cabin lights.

Just the glow of our headlights in the sand.

Our angle's too steep to see anything ahead.

Above us, the dim glow of the Martian night sky comes through our roof panel.

No moons.

Just countless stars casting icy light.

"We need to put on our Dynamos and find them."

Before I finish my thought, Peps has leaned into the back of the vehicle.

Situated between the two back passenger buckets, there's a storage bin. She pulls out two energy field belts.

We unbuckle our safety harnesses and wriggle into our Dynamos. They fit snugly around our waists.

"That'll teach us to eat Millie's damn pastry."

But Peps doesn't laugh. Instead she gives her voice command—"Activate"—and a membrane of glossy energy slowly encompasses her.

I do the same—and push the emergency release button that opens our doors.

The air in the cabin immediately dispels.

We get out slowly, the force field around us expanding to its full, flexible depth—about five centimeters.

We hear the purr of the belt as it recycles our breath, creating a constant flow of breathable air.

It's a marvel of science whose mechanics I can't even begin to fathom.

I don't have to. It works—that's all I want or need to know right now.

"They were following the same trajectory, weren't they?" She reaches back into the Fuzer and pulls out two torches. She hands one to me.

"Yeah. Let's walk ahead."

And we set off into the desert night.

We move past the dune we crashed onto and into the slightly flatter terrain beyond.

The golden circles of torch-light bounce as we try to learn how to walk in low gravity, both of us tripping and nearly falling every few steps.

Then, behind us: As suddenly as they went out, the lights in the highway Tube sputter back to life, starting in Hampton and moving quickly down the tracks towards Mystic—blue-white, intense, and reassuring.

"That'll help." She looks closely. "But the field's still out."

Then the next mystery.

We feel a thud near us.

Our coms only seem to be working short-range, person-to-person and the Martian atmosphere is far too thin to carry sound—so we don't actually "hear" anything; instead, we feel a slight vibration, a "plunk" rising from our feet.

We stop.

Another thud.

Another.

We cast our torch light around.

There.

We move forward gingerly.

Thud.

And there.

"Crap," I mutter.

Another.

"Oh no."

A crow.

Or what's left—burst open flesh, bloody feathers, exposed skeleton.

We look back towards the highway.

The edge of Hampton's energy field glows about half a klick away.

Small, unsteady shadows are moving out from the circular exit/entrance opening into what should be the containment field of the Tube

The frantic fluttering expands into ever-widening gyres.

Birds—hybrid clones created from about a dozen Earth varieties—usually in flocks of fifty or more—use the Highway Tubes to move freely from one base to another, some species—like crows—moving around the entire planet on an annual basis.

Most Martian avians prefer travelling in the well-lit Tubes after sunset when traffic is minimal.

The creatures emerging from the Hampton dome are clearly in dire stress.

With no force field to maintain air pressure and no OGG to simulate stronger gravity, these poor beings are instantly doomed.

Peps puts her hands to her face, the Dynamo's energy sparking slightly where her hands touch the field around her face. "Jesus Murphy." Her voice is barely a murmur.

I stand next to her, glad beyond words that we can't actually hear their death screeches.

Seeing the carnage is bad enough.

Birds—or what's left of them—dive into the desert around us.

But we've got a more important goal right now—find the Squad car.

"Peps, we gotta find …"

"… but the birds," she chokes.

"I know, but there's nothing we can do. We've gotta find them. They can be saved—these sad fuckers can't."

And so we resume our trek into the desert as the last of the crows pitch into the sand.

We've only moved a hundred meters, when our world changes yet again.

Our coms crackle to life, filled with police chatter, and behind us, the Tube's energy field reactivates with a stunning surge of indigo light, the brilliant glow moving along the roadway towards Mystic like a dazzling electric eel coming to life.

As we continue our trek, I tap my com: "Rick Finley here, calling Hampton Security Headquarters. Rick Finley calling …"

"Finley, this is Headquarters."

And we tell them we're all right and about our search for the Squad car.

"We're sending out another van, ASAP. We're tracking your location, so we'll find you in less than ten."

Relieved, we press ahead, and in a couple of minutes—in the glow from the highway and the light of our torches—we find the van.

Flipped on its left side, its right door slides open, and the two cops—Daryl and Jenna—then Chief Vince—all three in their Dynamos—climb up, then over, and finally down to the ground.

We meet up, all of us in good shape.

In that moment, all the anger of an hour before seems dispelled.

There'll be time enough to remember murder, cover-ups, and blackmail.

18.

"Sybil still had access to the codes?"

"Evidently."

"Shit," Peps laughs. "That's one determined dame."

"And so much for tight security."

We're parked outside her home.

Dawn-light begins to spread its rusty embers.

"Guess Energy Command'll start rethinking its protocols." She reaches over and turns up the heat.

"In a hurry."

"Actually, it's kinda scary that it was that easy for her to disrupt the Highway like that."

"And for what? To get away? To hide? Where? Christ, there's only so many bases on the planet. It's not like she wouldn't eventually be found."

"Desperate situations make us forget logic." Peps sinks back in her seat, letting the warm air from the vent pour over her.

"So there's really a bunch of stories here. We've got the Rev's murder, an illegitimate kid and his seemingly uncaring mother—who happens to be the Rev's ex-wife. Then we've got the minister beating up on that kid. We've got a police chief who fathered the illegitimate kid and allowed himself to be blackmailed. And last but not least, we've got the Rev whoring around town leaving nothing but pain in his path. Enough pain to drive someone to murder." I take Pepper's hand with the last comment. "Christ, you can't make this shit up."

"And every story involves the beloved Reverend Whitby." She shakes her head. "So much for religious values."

"What's that?"

We laugh—then sit quietly for a couple of minutes.

Finally, I say: "So if it's sad that Whitby morphed into a caricature of the cleric mesmerized by power, how much sadder is it that all of his women became equally mesmerized by his inestimable charm. They fell for his routine. It's Pavlovian."

Pepper stares at me and I realize what I've just said.

She tries to control the tear forming in her eye. "Pavlov's dog?" She looks out the window. "Is that what you think I became?"

There's no pulling back the words. "Sorry. I'm an idiot again. Trust me, I wasn't even thinking of you." Which puts me in deeper.

"No, you weren't."

"What I mean is I don't think of you that way. You're a person who fell for a guy—a charming, intelligent guy."

"A dumb dog beguiled by a bone?"

Crap. "I'm sorry, Peps. Really."

Silence.

"I can't talk my way out of this, can I?"

"No."

Cool.

Definitive.

Followed by a deep exhale: "Fuck, Rick." She's looking at me again. "I keep telling you: Think before you speak, shithead. Filter, baby, filter."

"You're right."

"Which you always say."

On purpose: "You're right."

Is that a smirk or a smile?

A sigh of resignation.

An eye roll.

"I wasn't thinking of you, Peps, because I don't see you like the others. I was thinking of Sybil and Mabel who could be so taken in by the guy that they were willing to form a coalition when one of them snapped. No longer rivals in the harem but co-conspirators. Medea and her maid-in-waiting on the warpath."

Another cloud passes over her face.

"Oh for Christ's sake, Pepper. You're not a dog. You're not Medea. You're a good person."

She looks right into me: "Duped by a charming man."

Her stare—her implication—is more than a knife.

"Please believe me, Peps. I don't see you that way. You're not Sybil or Mabel or Doris or Naj or any of them."

Her look digs in. "Sometimes I hate you." A quivering smile. "Because you expose me."

"Expose?"

"In many ways, I'm exactly like them. We're all intelligent people who somehow put our intelligence aside and succumbed to Lucifer's charisma."

"Back to the human condition, huh? It's how the Hitlers and Fenbacks attain their goals. Even the smartest men and women fall under the spell."

Then she laughs and shakes her head. "Oh, Rick, Rick, Rick."

"What now?"

"You can frustrate the hell outta me, you can be a clumsy fuckin' ox, but you're a good man at heart."

"Yes I am. I'm not Whitby. You're not a sycophant."

We both smile.

She leans over and pecks me on the cheek.

"So smartass," she leans back in her seat, "how'd we escape it?

"What?

"The gravity of power? Why didn't we become Whitby? How did we avoid becoming position-hungry politicos at the University? Or seducers of our students? That's always there, right? The vulnerable student who can be lured into the den, a chicken among the hawks."

"When you figure all that out, Peps, you'll write the book and become the most famous person on Mars."

And we settle into a long, comfortable silence.

The sun cracks through the trees.

Another day.

I stretch. "Hey."

"Hey."

"I know you're home, but ya wanna get away from here? Just drive someplace else?"

"Please." She re-buckles her restraint harness.

"Crazy as it sounds, I'm famished. Wanna grab something at McCrory's." I check the dashboard clock. "They're open."

"What the hell. Sure."

I drive back east.

I tap on the Muzik and select an oldies track from Danford Base.

"Ya know, I still can't get over how angry she must've been to kill Whitby." I moderate the sound level in the cabin. "I mean, I get it. She discovers she's just one of many jilted lovers. She wants revenge. She's enraged."

"Enraged enough to stab someone. Enraged enough to cut off a head—and then stage it. Smart enough to clean up a mess. But stupid enough to be seen leaving the room."

"Well, if Sybil hadn't come down to get some bunting from the Storage Room, and Vince hadn't come down to the john, she just might've gotten away with it." I shake my head.

"So Sybil sees Mabel just after she's killed Whitby and promises to keep her mouth shut, probably demanding something."

"Or just appreciating that Mabel's done something she's wanted to do for years."

"Then Vince walks in on them and Sybil threatens him with her blackmail ploy."

"Which means the three of them end up in cahoots after that."

"Which also means they all had their feelings about Whitby." I'm trying to let that one sink in. "Christ, doesn't anyone in Mystic like anybody?"

"We like each other."

"That's two. Twenty thousand to go."

She laughs.

"And then Lou shows up, sees the body and runs." Another gnaw in my gut. "All the tumblers locked into place—for each of them, that's for sure."

"And if Vince took the next step and planted evidence or rigged the genetics results, Lou could've been sent away for life."

"Did Vince actually think he could pull any of this off with Alliance Forensics overseeing everything?"

"Who knows?"

Music plays quietly.

"You know what makes me really sad?"

"What?"

"That Lou lied to me. He made up a whole thing about confronting Whitby—a lie."

"True, but let's go easy on the guy. First, he was drunk off his ass. And when Lou got to the chapel looking for Whitby, Vince saw an opportunity and purposefully sent him to the storage room. He set him up. Can you imagine seeing a body mutilated like that? I'd fuckin' run, too.'"

"I wish he could've told me. I wouldn't have judged him. Not after all the shit I've done in my life."

"Have you ever thought Lou was so drunk he might've been in a black out?" Pepper wonders. "Maybe he really did think he'd had an argument with Whitby. Maybe he even believed he could've killed Whitby when Vince confronted him a couple days later. Like you've told me, you did things you can't remember when you were high."

"You're right, of course. Who knows?" I turn down the heat. "And then there's Naj seeing him leave. I wonder if she's in on it, too? A group of women with the common bond—hatred of Whitby."

"I've given up trying to figure any of these people out."

I let out a deep breath. "Probably our best move at this point."

"In all this, I really feel sorry for Jack. For Sam, too, of course. But Jack most of all. What hell that kid's been through."

"Do you think he'll find out about Vince?"

"In this town, Peps, I'm betting someone's already got Jack on his com."

We pull into the lot.

Though it's early, a few other Fuzers are already parked there.

"Well, I guess this'll boost their business," Pepper says. "Especially for breakfast—'cause Millie's won't be open for a long time."

"Yeah. Who knows who'll take over. And when." But then the shadow of a wicked smile crossed my face.

Peps saw. "What?"

"Nothing, really."

"Oh, come on." She pokes me gently. "What's my pal thinking?"

"I know this is bad to say, but I'll really miss Millie's pineapple Danish."

She laughs. "That's naughty. But, yeah. Me, too." She leans back in the seat and sighs. "Why'd she have to do it?"

And then, as if the imps have taken us over, we look at each other.

"Miss Scarlet," I say.

"In the chapel," she says with a wink.

"With a saw."

And scream in unison: "CLUE!" And burst into laughter.

THE END


Copyright 2017, T. Richard Williams

Writing under the pen-name of T. Richard Williams, William Thierfelder is a Professor of Arts and Humanities (Retired); Visiting Guide, American Museum of Natural History; as well as a lecturer and artist. His web site is at: www.makingwings.net

E-mail: William Thierfelder

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