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eBook by Colin Harvey
eBook Category: Science Fiction
eBook Description: At the white, freckled, cauliflower-like skin, Chau took a hissing breath. "This is Officer Chau. Confirm that the body is a Lenden." When Raphael Chau pulls the body of a dead alien from the water, he has no idea what he's getting into. It's a decade since a fleet of refugees parked in low-Earth orbit begging for sanctuary, and Vancouver has become a powder-keg of resentment on both sides. Assigned to an investigation that's a minefield of politics and media intrusion, Chau finds himself torn between divided loyalties, between his own people and what's right or wrong. A novella plus four other stories of distant colonies, alternate worlds and alien invasion by the bestselling author of Winter Song, Lightning Days and The Silk Palace.
eBook Publisher: Swimming Kangaroo Books, Published: 2009, 2009
Fictionwise Release Date: December 2009
6 Reader Ratings:
DESPITE HIS UNIFORM'S supposed waterproofing, Chau was soaked to the skin, and his teeth chattered with cold.
It was his partner who saw the shape in the churning water at the beach's edge. "Found it! Officer Burridge to Central, make that air medic for Spanish Banks a CSI team. Confirm one dead body, probably male from its size and build, age unknown... ah, shee--oot," he said as he turned it over in the froth. "Raph!" he called. They had tongued their implant mics on when they left the patrol car in the car park, and without his mic, Burridge's voice would have been shredded by the storm. "Over here!" He waded back out of the onrushing tide.
Chau ran to join him and leaned across so that his lamps shone on the corpse and the inbuilt micams could record the scene to supplement their testimonies.
At the white, freckled, cauliflower-like skin, Chau took a hissing breath. "This is Officer Chau. Confirm that the body is a Lenden. Will hold; use my signal as a trace." He felt beneath what passed for a chin, searching for a pulse. Burridge should know how to do this, he thought, suppressing irritation. He's done the courses.
He noted without comment that the Lenden had morphed human eyes that stared sightlessly at him, although it hadn't mastered or bothered with a nose and mouth. Apart from the shape, it could never have passed for human for more than a half-second, even in the poorest light.
"Jeez," Burridge snarled. "We're gonna have to work with the Queen of the Cabbages." He ignored Chau's warning nudge. "That's all we need, that bitch trampling all over the place."
"Greg," Chau said, pointing at his colleague's shoulder where the micams recorded everything.
Burridge shrugged. "The dyke knows what I think of her."
Chau was provoked despite his intentions. "Dyke? What sorta term is that?"
Burridge bared his teeth in a feral grin. "An old word. Look it up in them prehistoric papery books a yours, Raph."
They stood vigil in the rain that poured off the peaks of their rain capes' hoods, waiting for the CSI team. So near the shore, the wind was bending the pines with its ferocity and driving the rain horizontally. But the gigawatt-bright lights of North Vancouver's Saturday Night Light Display still glimmered faintly through the trees fringing the beach, almost drowning an occasional glint from out in Howe Sound. That would be where the freighters would line up, bows into the gale to ride it out, cowering in the shelter of the vast tidal barrage ringing the sound and therefore the city. "Think he went over the side of one of the ships waiting to dock?" Chau shouted.
"Dunno," Burridge said, a shrug almost audible in his voice. He didn't say, "Who cares?" He didn't need to.
The cloud cover was so thick that the alien fleet passing overhead on its nightly orbit would be invisible. Chau wondered how long it had been since there had been a new constellation in the sky, even if it was an artificial one. "They'll be up there," Chau shouted, darting a glance skywards. "What time do they fly by?"
"Dunno," Burridge repeated. "You won't see 'em tonight, whenever." For the older cop that counted as a speech. Instead he snorted in disgust. "Knew this gonna be a crappy shift."
Chau restrained the impulse to point out that it had actually been quieter than usual. It had only been twenty minutes since he'd watched his partner glance down from the wheel to the clock on the dash out of habit, noting Saturday night become Sunday morning, the end of the shift drawing symbolically closer. It had drizzled all evening but was now a downpour. When the restaurants emptied and the clubs closed, Vancouver was as quiet as it was ever going to get.
But then he had felt the tug of the alarm call and stiffened in anticipation. It was Chau's turn tonight to interface with the BCPD Database. "Something's happening."
"Yeah?" he had heard Burridge mutter as the patrol car rocked in a sudden gust of wind as they emerged from the lee formed by the Kitsilano Beach mansions.
Then Chau's world was full of symbols scrolling down in the front of his vision, his mind full of data pouring in faster than his conscious brain could absorb it, including the data that had brought them here to wait as sodden sentinels.
At last a helicopter roared overhead, the clatter of its blades almost muffled by the wind, its light playing over them. Somehow it squeezed down into the narrow strip between water and trees, searchlight bathing the scene in an actinic glare.
"You guys sure pick your nights for body-finding," a burly woman shouted as she approached them. "The water'll wash all the evidence away."
"Hey!" Burridge said. "Don't shoot the messenger, Johnson. We found the cell that the call was made on... in a garbage bin."
"Thanks. This is a mess. You guys got a change of clothes?"
"At the station."
"You're gonna stay wet awhile, then."
"Looks that way," Chau answered. "But we hardy souls."
The team leader looked at him, then waved them away from the scene to allow the techs to work. She followed them. "You found it?"
"Yeah," Burridge said.
"You move or touch anything? You know I gotta ask--procedures." She stretched the last word's syllables.
"I know. Answer's still no."
"Did you move anything?"
Chau took a breath. The inquisition was irritating, procedures or not. "No, ma'am."
"Good. Did you touch anything?"
"Only the body, to establish whether it was actually dead. I rolled it over, checked for vital signs."
Johnson chuckled. "Glad one of you stayed awake for the Xenobiology lectures." She added, "This all being taped, so once you sign the hard copy at the station, you're done." Then she stiffened as she went into deep-trance. After about thirty seconds, she let out a long sigh and relaxed, returning to shallow mode. "You two are gonna be facing the newsies tomorrow. Be in at nine. Oh crap--they have it already. Some hacker-brat musta breached the firewalls again... " She waved dismissal.
"Sit down, gentlemen," Sharp said in a clipped accent, pointing to his visitor chairs. Johnson pulled another from beneath a holo of the first Martian landing, a year before the Lenden's arrival. Apart from the high-end drinks machine in one corner and the holo of his family on his desk, it was the only hint of personality amid a landscape of efficiency.
A big swarthy man in his forties with a pencil moustache, the station commander dominated the office--as neat as his clothes--by sheer force of personality. His men called him Madonna, "'Cause he immaculate," one of his colleagues explained to Chau with a grin.
Sharp gazed at Chau. "We haven't spoken before, have we?" He waggled a cup delicately. "Tea? Coffee?"
"Coffee, please. No, we haven't."
"My mistake." Sharp passed a cup to Burridge without asking the other man's preference. "Six months since you transferred in from Banff, but they've been the busiest I've ever had." He wore retro-chic glasses so chunky that Chau guessed they were embedded with micro-Crays. Guess he don't wanna ruin that suit's cut by bulking it out with a picochip lining, Chau thought, looking ruefully down at his own smart-shirt.
Sharp sipped his coffee, wasted no further time on small talk. "You did well last night. It was unfortunate but almost inevitable in the circumstances that the newsies learned about the killing. But you handled the beast well."
Chau smiled at the surprisingly apt name; for all the technology available there had been a feral quality to the sustained frenzy of the briefing, reporters shouting questions over each other, even over Burridge's and Chau's answers, which--carefully prepped by Media Relations--had been as few, short, and noncommittal as possible. Periodically, Sharp or one of the media team had intervened. Johnson had sat to one side, watching.
Chau studied her surreptitiously. In daylight she was pretty but tough-looking, in her mid-thirties with shoulder-length, hennaed hair, and broad hips and a bust that strained her suit's seams. She caught him looking, raised an eyebrow.
"Inevitable, sir?" Chau returned his gaze to Sharp. "You conceding we lost the battle?" Data security went in a neverending cycle in the info war between the newsies and police.
Sharp stared at Chau but didn't answer. "Johnson and I've agreed you'll be seconded to Bureau Des Etranger Liaison." Sharp pronounced it crisply and sharply as a Quebecois would, Chau realized. "That means you"--Sharp nodded at Burridge--"will work days until we can re-roster you."
Chau wondered whether Sharp noticed the spasm of distaste that passed over Burridge's face. After ten seconds, Burridge pushed his chair back. "I'll be desk-working for awhile?" His voice was carefully neutral.
Sharp nodded. "At 0900 tomorrow."
His partner left without looking at Chau, who wondered whether Burridge's invite to watch the hockey game and have a beer that evening had just evaporated. If it had, he was unsure whether he was relieved or disappointed.
Chau cleared his throat. "This may sound dumb... "
"But?" Sharp said.
"Why the panic over one death? Yeah, there's sensitivity around everything about the Lenden--that's why we have the BDEL," he nodded at Johnson, "but surely this is not the first time a Lenden's died on Earth?"
Sharp glanced at Johnson, who looked down at the desk.
Finally Sharp broke the silence: "Tell me about the Lenden."
Chau thought, It's like taking a test without seeing the question aforehand. "Just the obvious, sir. A fleet of nine thousand ships, each carrying mebbe 12K passengers passed by the edge of the solar system. We agreed to let 'em refuge here; they poured down til the anti-immigrant lobby kicked up a fuss. Now there's an exchange quota, strictly applied. Want me go on?" Sharp nodded. Chau tried to sort out his thoughts, but unprepared, they wouldn't settle down. "Homo Flora Sapiens: human-shaped plants, but only on the outside. Infodump ends," he said with a grin that Sharp didn't return.
"How you feel about them?" Johnson said. "Like 'em, hate 'em, couldn't give a flying frig?"
Chau shrugged. "Best thing that ever happened to us--we stopped bickering among ourselves."
"Don't think they're a threat?" she pressed.
"Any reason I should?" he said. "The conspiracy feed's right then?"
She shook her head. "Just checking whether you share your bud's views on... cabbages... and queens."
He winced at the dig. She had listened to Burridge's rant on the beach. "Greg don't mean--"
"You're twenty-nine," Sharp interrupted. "Your parents came over from Hong Kong twelve years before they had you. That's a long time."
"They wanted things to be financially stable afore they had kids. Ma had problems carrying me to term, so no sibs after." But I'll never know. Wish we'd had longer. Probably every kid that's lost their Olds wishes that.
"Degree from Banff University in Psychology. You could have joined the grad program, fast-tracked by now. Instead you became a plod?"
"With respect," Sharp smiled as Chau said it, "I'd spend days in meetings like you, not catching perps." As always in his memory, the crackle of flames, the acrid tang of smoke, the screams--he jerked himself back to the present. "Sir?"
"I said, very commendable." Into the momentary silence a knock reverberated and a sumo-sized man entered. He looked at Chau with ice-hard eyes and sat on what had been Burridge's seat, his backside spilling out over the edges.
"This is Demetrious." Johnson waved a hand at the newcomer. "He's from... Ottawa."
"Want me to brief him?" Demetrious wheezed. Chau noticed the food stains on his shirt.
"No," Sharp replied, then continued, "This doesn't leave the room. You understand?" Chau nodded. "Good. This isn't the first but the third in as many months."
"Serial killer?" Chau said.
"Or someone who wants to make it look that way. We don't have a clue whether the killer is human or Lenden."
"The killings exactly the same?"
Demetrious lifted his massive head. "This one's different."
Chau noticed Sharp frown at the interruption but hid a smile. "Definitely nonpolitical?"
"Nothing's definite about this case," Demetrious said. "But it ain't Libre Quebecois' style--they'd rather mine the St Lawrence Seaway. And the Van Kong Rads are just fruitcakes with spray guns putting psychotropic drugs in the water. Far as we can tell, it's nonpolitical, but I wouldn't wanna bet your life on it."
"What about the Klan? Or Al Qaeda?" Chau said.
Demetrious tilted his head as if to say, You are a clever boy. "Not this far north; the Klan got no base. Their so-called truce with the blacks won't wash this side of the border. And Al Qaeda's ancient history, for all a few die-hards still hate The Infidel."
"The Lenden don't have serial killers," Sharp said and added, "apparently."
"But," Demetrious said, Sharp waved him on, "there a plebiscite in eleven days whether they stay or go. This could influence it. The Lenden so secretive that we don't even know who in favour and who against staying. Their politics is highly ritualized, and the clans even keep their views from each other until their leader ready to pronounce a verdict."
Chau frowned. "So no leaks about the other killings?"
Sharp and Demetrious both started to talk, but it was Demetrious who kept going: "First time we got lucky. Body found in a doorway near the station by a cop. He a thirty-year man, knew 'bout the running battle over scrambling calls, so he simply walked round and rousted the duty commander." Sharp and Johnson exchanged grins at the thought of that one. "The second time we'd got ahead of them for awhile, and they didn't catch on. We managed to get the same CSI team to the location. We ran out of luck this time. It was always going to happen sooner or later. Officer tells their partner or shoots their mouth off after a few beers in a bar."
Chau nodded. "And?"
"We've a problem." Demetrious shrugged his vast shoulders. "More people who know, more leaks to the newsies. But we chronically under-resourced, for all the case is a priority. We working on a cell structure. Most of the routine stuff done by grunts who know only 'bout their little bit. But sometime soon there'll be enough pieces for someone to put a picture together. You found the body, so you're slightly in the know, so we might as well co-opt you."
"And," Sharp concluded, "your results earned you a performance bonus the last couple of years in Banff. Plus, compared to some, you're a positive expert on the Lenden."
"I'm in?" Chau grinned delightedly.
"You're in," Sharp said. "Take the rest of the day off: You won't get much leave in the future." * * * *
If it was to be his last free time, Chau decided he would hire a car.
He then sat in Vancouver's perennial traffic, draining the battery. It was only when he reached the suburbs an hour later that he managed to get above 20 k's per hour. He drowned out the engine's protesting whine with classical music, racing the scudding clouds--now empty of their watery payload--out to his parents' house on the eastern edge of the city.
It seemed, though, that before he'd even removed his shoes, he was thinking of leaving. He tried Burridge's phone once more and for the third time got his partner's terse, "Can't speak now; leave a message." Charming as ever was, he thought, smiling inwardly. For all his gruffness, Burridge had looked out for the newbie in all kinds of small ways that he'd shrugged off whenever Chau tried to thank him. "Just get me a beer sometime," he'd say.
Chau didn't like the way Sharp had split them without warning, how Burridge would have taken it, and liked still less that if he didn't turn up to watch the hockey as they'd arranged, Burridge would think his now ex-partner had snubbed him. So he headed back, less than eagerly.
He was soon back in the near-perpetual monsoon. Ten minutes after the game should have started, he parked and donned his rain cape for the dash from the hire-car to the lobby of the Burridge's hive. At this time of year he seemed to need it constantly.
The elevator to the fifteenth floor gave him plenty of time to fold the cape over his arm and wonder whether he'd wasted his time. The cape dripped in only a few places, having absorbed most of the rain, and he thought, Had to come back tonight anyways.
"Chris, hi." He smiled down at the petite woman who answered the Burridges' door and tried not to look nonplussed. She probably got no idea of what she does to your hormones, he thought.
"Raph, long time no call." Her voice was a breathy alto, far deeper than the bird-like chirrup he had expected from such a delicate frame when they'd first met.
"Thought I'd stop by on my way back from my folks." As far as he was concerned, the Robideauxs were his family as much as his birth parents.
"How are they?" she said.
"Fine. They got a Nigerian to go with the Inuit." They had made a life of adoption; as well their own three children who lived nearby, there was him, two Caucasian kids, and the new ones. "It's drier than here." He shuffled his feet and looked down.
She laughed. "If I had the chance to live in Harrison Springs, I'd move in a flash."
He shrugged. As usual when he saw Chris Burridge, he felt the need to take a deep breath to steady himself. She looked as stunning as usual, even with her long chestnut hair scraped back and soil and bits of plants all over her hands.
"Greg said you were out tonight," he said. "We was gonna watch the hockey, scatter crushed beer cans across the carpet, smear pizza on the chair arms--you know how it is."
She laughed. "Behave just like he normally does when I'm out." She sobered. "He rang to say he's re-rostered." She pressed a collar stud on her smart-blouse to play what was definitely Burridge's monotone voice. "Hey, is me. Change of duty and gotta work late. Maybe go for a beer afterwards. Don't wait up."
Oh, yeah? Chau thought. Desk duty calls for short-notice overtime on a Sunday evening? "Sorry 'bout the confusion," he said, turning to go.
"No, no--it's okay," she said. "Stay awhiles. We never seem to see each other nowadays."
"Don't we," he agreed innocently. "But you busy. I should go."
"Only trying to do several things simultaneous." She smiled. "Come on in. Please." She took his hand for a moment, and he had to swallow. "I got paid a bushel of fruiting tomatoes for Friday night's talk and I'm just checking them over for mildew." Like many others, much of Chris' life was funded by barter rather than cash. Banks simply charged too much, she complained often.
He followed her through the kitchen to the balcony, which doubled as a tiny garden. An elegantly dressed woman sat primly on a kitchen chair. She had the same small frame as Chris but with blue-white hair in tight ringlets and makeup laid on so thickly that it resembled a mask.
"Oh, didn't realise you had company."
"Mother's not company." Chris laid a hand on his arm again, raising goosebumps. As always, he wondered if she knew how much she disrupted his equilibrium. "She comes over every so often"--her voice dropped to a whisper--"when Greg's pulling overtime, 'cause he can't cope with her dementia."
Chau had a vague memory of Burridge muttering about his "loony mother-in-law," but hadn't paid much attention; it had been one of many constant streams of complaints. He thought, There's what he's doing, just avoiding coming home. He's slid off for a coffee somewhere. "Hello." He nodded politely, unsure whether to offer to shake hands.
The old woman studied him with interest. "Christa, I told you before about bringing Chinky boys home. And you're certainly not marrying this one. I don't care how nice his manners are, he's only got one thing on his mind. Frank will sort him out. Frank!" She called into the house. "Frank!"
Chris shushed her mother and said, "She thinks I'm fifteen." She led him into the kitchen. "Dad's too sick to travel with her from the home, so they put her on the flight for me. I run her back to the harbour and call them and they pick her up in Victoria. Anyways, how you doing?"
"Fine. Been reassigned. Greg probably told you."
She made them coffee. "You allowed to talk about it?"
"Nope. They twitchy about leaks." He hadn't even been able to tell his foster parents much about it other than it involved the Lenden. "Good," his foster mother had said. "Maybe it'll stop you romanticizing them as much you do, eh?"
Chris snorted her disdain of official paranoia, and as she turned to the light he noticed a bruise above her cheek, almost covered by her makeup.
"You have an accident?" He reached out to touch it.
She winced, and her laugh was a rueful exhalation of air. "If I told you I walked into a door, would you believe me? I didn't realise it had swung shut until I turned around. It looks worse than it is." She swigged her coffee. "I wanted to ask a favour. I'm a bit pushed for time. Still gotta do that talk tonight."
So he found himself carefully driving the tiny birdlike old woman downtown to the harbour for the Victoria shuttle, weaving slowly through the lines of cars, taking care to drive steadily. She slept most of the way, and he didn't want to disturb her. She was, after all, Chris' mother and special to him, even if it was only by proxy.
When he gently shook her awake, she flinched, then gazed at him. "Have you brought the groceries?"
He looked as unthreatening as possible. "Mrs Peterson, time for your flight. Chris asked me to run you by." Holding up an oversized umbrella to shield her from the downpour, he walked her through miniature lakes of standing water to the attendant who waited for them in the terminal doorway. "You okay with her?"
The attendant smiled. "We're good."
The old woman looked dubiously at the attendant and then turned and gazed at him. "You keep your hands off my daughter. Christa's a good girl and I know a hawk from a handsaw."
With that cryptic comment, she followed the attendant to the check-in. Monday
The service for the Lenden who had died the month before was out at the Van Dusen Gardens, now the Lenden Consulate. "You'll attend as a mark of respect," Sharp told Johnson and Chau. "And double up by interviewing the mourners."
Demetrious added, "Lenden custom prohibits the family from talking 'bout the dead 'til the body's interred, case you summon the spirit back."
"Why not hurry the inquest through?" Chau said.
"'Cause they didn't agree initially that we could even do an inquest," Demetrious said. "This nothing new. Took the threat of going to the UN to get 'em to agree."
Johnson clipped a BCPD brooch to the lapel of Chau's suit jacket. "Micam?" he said. The combined microphone and camera was vital: BCPD filmed and taped everything when an officer was on duty for use if a suspect was charged.
Johnson nodded. "Let's go. We catching the bus; the Gardens're on a public route. Keep that carbon footprint light, buck."
"No problem," Chau said.
"Not like some, then." Johnson smiled. "Some of our dinos think we should live in a squad car."
The bus left the terminus half-empty on one of those rare spring days when the monsoon's conveyor belt of rain lifted to reveal electric-blue skies.
They sat at the back, facing each other across the aisle. "Okay," Johnson said, voice low. "We took every minute in the office to stuff your brain; tell me what stuck."
"All victims were Lenden," Chau said, equally quietly. "All male, morphs, shot to the base of the skull. No known criminal connections, though that's worth nada given how little we know about the Lenden."
"Two found inland, one by the water. All three had morphed eyes, but the last one,"--Chau squinted, trying to remember--"had no mouth. The first one's mouth was underdeveloped and the tongue almost nonexistent; it seems to be their biggest problem."
"What else?" Johnson said.
"First two had their stems cut, placed in their mouths. The third, stem was cut but missing."
"So--options?" Johnson asked as passengers boarded downtown. One or two looked toward the back, but Johnson glared at them and they sat further forward.
"We have one killer for all three deaths or we have a killer for the first two and a copycat. The killer is a Lenden. The killer is human. If we got two sets of killings, we may have both."
Lenden passengers boarded, dressed as manual labourers, their overalls the heavy-duty cotton and wool favoured by the aliens and fashionable among humans, though the colours were slightly off to human eyes. Their leaf-crowns were folded down, as was usual indoors. Further along Robson Street, some humans alighted and more aliens boarded, several dressed in dark, formal tunics. "Think they're mourners?" Chau muttered. "Clothing looks formal."
"Maybe," Johnson said, watching them. She turned back to him. "What you doing ten years ago, when their fleet arrived?"
Chau thought, One of them questions like "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?" to second millennium folks. "Touring through South America. First I knew 'bout it was seeing the UN mission docking with a Lenden ship on some LatAm Holo-News. You?"
Johnson shrugged. "Policing, same as now. BDEL just a career step for me--unlike you. They fascinate you, I guess."
Chau laughed. "Lotsa things fascinate me. Yeah, the Lenden amongst them. Example, how intelligent are they?
"They arrived in spaceships, Chau. You need a certain intelligence," she said, grinning.
"But," Chau said, "measuring intelligence assumes we think the same way. Do we? Spaceships could be inherited tech. They only sub-light solar-sails. That weren't so far beyond our capability when they arrived, just beyond our will."
"Yeah," Johnson said. "Space travel costs money. Chinese stirring up the Yanks and Russkis was the only reason we could fly out there. Else they'd a passed by the edge of the system before we could reach 'em."
The bus climbed through Billionaire Alley. Some mansions covered four thousand square metres--as much as some hives. Chau saw Johnson scowl, didn't feel much better himself. "Half the owners don't even live in the city limits," he said. "How they get building permits for these monsters?
"How d'ya think?" Johnson's thumb circled against index and forefingers. "Even their tap water's purified. No having to recycle their wash water for them." Seeing Chau's shocked look, she added, "Course they don't get round rationing during droughts by buying poorer families' allocations--oh, no, no, no... "
Gradually the bus filled so much that passengers took the seats around them and forced them to face forwards. Most were Lenden, Chau noticed. For all that millions had swarmed down in the few years before immigration controls were imposed, there was still barely one Lenden for every thousand humans on Earth. Outside their ghettos, it was rare to see even small groups of Lenden in public rather than singletons.
"We're here," Johnson said. They and most of the other passengers stood.
Outside, Chau breathed the heady scents of the flowers. It seemed obscene that there were vast, open spaces in the city when there were so many homeless, but the Lenden had insisted that to live among humans, they needed green spaces. For all that they yearned for the tech the Lenden rationed so carefully, the Canadian government was reluctant to unleash them unsupervised into the wilderness. If ceding them public green spaces was the trade-off, it seemed too many to be a small price.
And the only reason there's so many homeless is that all over the world we're leaving the countryside for cities; as if the land itself is tilting toward Vancouver and other polises. He could hardly condemn the migrants; he had done the same.
Standing in the gardens with the sun blow-torching his tan-bloc, the towers of downtown framed by the still snow-covered peaks of the Lions behind, Chau thought, It feels wrong to consign a body to the earth today. Rain woulda felt right.
The service was short and held in eerie silence except for birdsong and traffic sounds. Johnson and Chau lurked behind the crowd of mourners, the Lenden's sonar pinging backwards and forwards around them. An alien priest pulsed colours at the congregation and they replied with their own patterns. Many of the mourners took turns to shovel soil over the body. It was so human a gesture that Chau wondered whether the Lenden were putting on an act for their benefit or had absorbed the human ceremony into their culture. Maybe the rituals of grief are universal.
Johnson nudged him, pointed to a gravid female. Chau studied the alien surreptitiously. Pregnant Lenden never normally appeared in public; this was the first one he had ever seen. Whenever the loose maternity robes parted, Chau glimpsed two columns of pods hanging like giant chillies on either side of her torso.
Among the main group were smaller aliens that Chau guessed were children; they were even more rarely seen than expectant mothers. The Lenden taboos were what marked them most as alien; birth, food, and--according to Demetrious, their resident Lenden "expert"--politics were all intensely private matters. Yet they seemed to suffer no qualms at humans gate-crashing a Lenden funeral.
After the service, Chau met the consul. Verez Sen Url was tall, even for a Lenden--almost two metres with her crown folded down. She had morphed a nose, eyes, and a mouth that tilted up into a smile that didn't fool Chau for a second. He would have given a year's salary to have understood the sonar pings that rippled over his skin.
"Do you have news, Officer?"
"Only more questions, I'm afraid, Sen Url," Johnson said.
"This is difficult," the Lenden said. "Our people rarely commit crimes against society and still more rarely hide them. So we don't have policemen like you, and you understand your own kind. We accept that it's better for you to investigate; we recognise that you need to talk to our people, but some find your methods intimidating."
"Thank you for telling us," Johnson said.
"You can, of course, talk to whomever you wish. I only wish you to understand how frightened and how angry our people are becoming. Your news blackout only affects your media. It doesn't stop the rumours in our community."
"Of course, Verez Sen," Chau said, correcting Johnson's mistaken use of the ambassador's title. "Grief and anger are natural processes."
Colours rippled across the Lenden's features, perhaps denoting amusement or anger. But the Lenden's voice was flat when she replied, "Not for my people, Officer. But perhaps they're becoming more human?"
"You spoke to the family of Brik Nes Avry--the first victim--after his funeral," Sen Url said. "But the one who has just joined the soil, Merac Nes Olom, lived alone. His partner didn't survive the thaw. We don't recognize the latest victim at all."
For the rest of the afternoon and early evening, Chau felt as if he were continually running into a wall. None of the other mourners seemed to know much about Merac Nes Olom, the second victim. Asked where he earned his money, they said they assumed he worked in town.
Johnson alternated with Chau, but they took the bus back to town tired and frustrated. "No one's that invisible," Chau said. "No known means of support?"
"I think we got us a real live Lenden criminal," Johnson said. "Let's get a car and go trawling."
"It'll be quiet on a Monday night."
"Maybe we liven things up." * * * *
Chau was wrong. Even on a Monday night, the Gastown area was as raucous as the last time he had visited, at a weekend. That the night was unusually dry only drew even more people out onto the crowded streets.
Johnson had picked up an unmarked car. The cost would be assigned to the case, but if they caught the killer, the performance bonus would dwarf the costs.
Tonight, tourists mingled with the pushers and hookers who jostled the thieves and hustlers. Lenden and human alike bumped and shuffled in time to a silent tune with a beat set by strobes and neon from shops and restaurants, booths and apartments. The smells of cooking also jostled one another, Vietnamese with East Indian with local; all of it human, of course, since the Lenden did not "eat." It all made Chau's stomach grumble even though he had grabbed a burger on the way home.
To Chau's surprise, Johnson was obviously well known to some of the less salubrious denizens. "Hey, Ronni," one guy all tattoos and hair called. "You robbing cribs now?" He nodded at Chau and grinned.
She took Chau's arm. "Yeah. I like 'em young and fresh, not pickled like you." The guy cackled. She released Chau's arm, strolled over, and conjured an avatar of a Lenden for the man. "Know this character?"
The man looked at it, shook his head.
When they crossed into Chinatown, the people began to look a little harder, the surroundings seedier. There were a few Lenden hookers, and Chau wondered how many of the human-looking ones were Morphs. He wandered over to a tall acne-scarred girl with improbably large breasts who looked young enough to still be in school and who wore a skirt no bigger than a belt.
"Hi, pig," she greeted him in Cantonese.
He shook his head. "Sorry, no understand," he lied.
Her eyes widened, and her smile was that of a shark smelling blood. She switched to English. "Handsome foreigner huh? You want business?" Her eyes widened when he pulled out the shots and showed them to her. "You kinky for cabbages, baby? Sorry, genuine earth girl here." She leaned closer, and he blinked at the cheap perfume overlaying the musky smell of sex, as she whispered, "I give you very good rate."
"You sure you never seen these two?" He pulled out his ID and some money. When she cursed him in Cantonese, he said, "Talk English."
"Fishbelly. You been hanging with the round eyes, don't even speak our language, huh? Talk and walk like a gaijin, even queer like one."
"You recognise either of these two?" he repeated, never raising his voice. A small crowd of youths had gathered, watching.
She shrugged. "One look just like another to me, Gaijin."
He just stood, looking at her.
"Look, you scaring my trade away." When he still didn't speak, she shrugged, pointed to the picture of Nes Olom, the second dead Lenden. "It a hooker, maybe appeal to you."
"He work round here?" He passed her some money. "Come on, let's walk a ways."
She shrugged again, and they pushed through the youths. "He hassling you, amiga?" one called. She shook her head.
"What's your name?" Chau asked as they cleared the group.
He pointed at Nes Olom's picture. "He work round here?"
"Sometimes. They all look alike to me. But he probably lowlife. Cheap whore."
"What's cheap? Morph?"
"Naw." Her tone was derisive. "Cabbages that look like they is, they the cheapest. Only other cabbages and Freques pay for them. Come on, walk this way." She took his hand and he allowed it. She led him with a clatter of heels drumming on the sidewalk.
"Freques?" Imitating her, he gave the word a slight French accent as they walked.
"Guys or girls queer for cabbages. Don't you know nothing?" She squeezed his thumb.
"Assume I don't--but I a quick study. Morphs pricier?"
She nodded. "You got five levels of morphs. Most only stay looking human for a few hours, and some ain't too good. Better the imitation, more you pay." They reached a bar packed with drinkers--Vancouver never slept nowadays. "See that one?" She pointed to a tall, heavily built woman who sat at a table, sipping a drink. The woman looked up as a man passed her table and said something to him. The man shook his head.
"Built like a house," Chau said. "Sure it ain't a tranny?"
Tina laughed. "Naw. I knows her. That a Lenden. You can always tell by the build, though. They can't make 'emselves smaller, see. But it a royal compared to the one you asking for. That looked really rough."
"He weren't a good Morph?"
She shook her head. "Could make a mouth to talk and suck, but not much else. Nothing more I can tell you. They don't talk to us; we don't talk to them."
"They run by pimps?"
She shrugged. "Maybe. Some even by us." She meant humans. "Honest, nothing else I can tell you."
"Thanks," he said sincerely.
She smiled. " 'S-okay, Gaijin."
"Wrong language," he said in Cantonese and grinned.
Her eyes widened and she looked as if she were smothering a laugh. She leaned against the wall and nodded up at a small window from which light shone. "By amazing coincidence this my place. Sure you don't want come in? I not cheap, but I a bargain, baby. I squeeze you so tight with my pussy I make your eyes pop." She took his hand again and put his fingers in her mouth, then ran it over her breast.
He grinned. "I still can't afford you."
She looked sad for a moment. "You probably think this compost, but I don't get many as pretty as you." Then the predatory look returned. She barked a laugh and, leaning into him, poked a talon-like nail between his shirt buttons and ran it down his chest. "Hell, I'll do you for nothing and scream like a banshee if you see me no evil. Be my man, caro."
There ain't no way I'm going to be your protector or your pimp. "Tempting," he said with a sad smile as he thought of hidden cameras and leaks to the net. "But no thanks. Be around if we need you, yes?"
"Where I be going?" she asked sadly. As he walked back to Gastown to rejoin Johnson, she called, "How come you talk like a gaijin?"
"Because I am a gaijin," he said too quietly for her to hear. "Or rather, mo shcng ren, to get the language right." * * * *
After three more hours making no progress, Johnson said, "Let's finish for the night."
They crawled through the snaking lines of traffic, and for the in-car monitor's benefit, Chau asked as she took it onto manual, "Okay to talk?"
"Yeah. There ain't going to be no one out in this for me to mow down while I'm soooo distracted," Johnson said. "Freaking Health and Safety Gauleiters are going to drive me out of this job if they don't ease up on the red tape." It was a familiar complaint from older cops, although Chau had grown up with near-constant surveillance and couldn't see what all the fuss was about.
"Easy." Chau nodded at the monitor eye as a warning. "Don't get an ulcer." He laughed. "Look at the speedo--we've hit 20 K's an hour!"
"Yeah," Johnson said. "Don't worry, we about to hit the next queue. Gone one a.m. and still gridlocked."
"No such thing as rush hour no more, just rush day," Chau said, dutifully holding up his end of the cliche-fest.
As the conversation tailed off, Chau deep-tranced, checking the Database for updates. He surfaced. "CSI have flagged a torn pocket in the most recent victim's tunic. As if it held something heavy that split it open and fell out."
"Any ideas?" Johnson said.
"Nah," Chau said. "But they'll keep working on it."
As they crawled home, the rain started again. Johnson said, "The bit of the Lenden fleet in low orbit will probably pass over in, what, half an hour?"
"A bit less," Chau said. "You a Watcher?" Somehow she didn't strike him as an amateur astronomer.
"Naw." She snorted. "I look like I spend my time counting how many of the thousand I can see?"
"Eight hundred and fifty ships, actually."
She laughed. "I knew you'd know the exact figure. Nah, one of my partners is a Watcher, and he mentioned it. He's on days so he gets to put his eye to a telescope most nights."
"He doing just the one job?"
"Most of the time," Johnson said. "An he been at the Bank for years, so when they went over to twenty-four opening, the union was able to lock him into protected hours." She sighed. "Sometime he temp for awhile on nights to make the money up, especially if we not on overtime or the bonuses ain't coming through. You know how it goes."
"Yeah," Chau said, though he knew he was lucky. His birth parents had left him well provided for, and the Robideauxs had made it a point of principle to not touch that money. He was one of the few cops able to live alone and not need an occasional second job.
Something she had said suddenly registered. "Partners? How many you married to?"
"Two men and a woman," she said. "Gets a bit crowded in the bed at Thanksgiving, which is about the only time we're all home together, but the sex then is fantastic." He wasn't sure whether she was serious, so he didn't answer. She continued, "Pete--the Watcher--he'd know how many others there are in cis-lunar orbit. Do you?"
"Six thousand," he said, omitting the 311 that would have marked him as knowing a little too much for his own credibility.
Johnson put the car back on automatic. "Sometimes I swear I can feel the weight of all those ships," she said, her voice dreamy as she relaxed. "Why you think they're here?"
"Until we know better, why disbelieve them?" Chau said. "Assume that there aren't really very many worlds capable of sustaining life and that they've left only a few remnants in the less habitable way stations that they've passed."
"You so trusting," she said, with a little laugh.
Not of people, he thought, but that would have made her curious and his private life was none of her business, for all that she'd shared her own.
"Well," she said after awhile. "At least the Klan and their brother supremacists got one thing wrong. Two things."
"What's that?" he said.
"Profit and crime. We got that much in common with the Lenden. Where there's laws and you can make a loony breaking them, there'll be someone there--human or Lenden." She laughed, but it was a tired effort. Silence descended like a shroud until she asked, "Where you from, Banff Boy? I know they said in that meeting you born over here, but in Banff or elsewhere?"
"You don't know?" Chau said.
"Hell, no," she said. "I just a grunt. Sharp tell me nothing. What he tell Demetrious, I dunno. Demetrious Fed-er-al." She grinned and they said in unison, "Oooooh."
"What do Demetrious do?" he said, changing the subject. "Apart from get in pissing contests with the 'cap'?"
"Probably reports on us to Ottowa," Johnson said. "And why you so loathe to answer the question?"
"I born in Van," Chau said, shrugging, looking away. "Spent a few years here. Parents died. Fostered with folks lived in Harrison Valley. Born Chinese, raised all-Canadian, so I'm both--or neither." It's easier to say what you aren't than what you are, Raphael, Laura had said once. You give so little away.
"Oh." Her voice was soft. "Tough."
"Not really." His voice was flat, stopping further conversation. "Drop me off here, okay?"
"Sure. See you in the morning."
The apartment was dark and empty, as it had been for the two months since Laura moved out. He thought about calling her in Toronto--they were still friends, after all--but decided against it. She'll probably still be out partying. He heated a meal and sat down with an antique hard copy of Rex Stout. Only when he read the same paragraph four times did he go to bed and dream of hookers with Johnson's face--
--and was awakened by a pounding on his door. He stared at the clock--0315, barely an hour after he'd drifted off. He thanked every ancestor he could think of that the trust fund allowed him to live alone, but even so, he'd be getting complaints from the neighbours.
He wrenched the door open. "What?" he gasped.
On the doorstep, dirty and tired-looking, stood Chris Burridge.
"Hi," he said, too stunned to say much else.
She smiled wanly. "Sanctuary, Esmeralda," she said. "Can I come in?"
"Uh, sure." He stood to one side to allow her through. "Does Greg know you're here?"
"Nah," she said as she sat down, turning her face away. "I'd rather he didn't. I called him an hour ago to tell him I was okay."
Chau made coffee in the kitchen and gave it to her. "Puts me in a tough spot: He my partner. I owe him a lot."
"I owe him a lot, too!" She pulled her top up to show him strapping on her waist, then pointed at her face. "That bruise was only the iceberg tip."
He was too stunned to speak.
Finally he said, "Why?" Meaning, Why does he do it?
She seemed to understand. "Why not? If he needed a reason tonight, it were probably my cooking weren't right. Or that I breathed too loud."
"You've never sought... help... or counseling?" He groped for the right words.
She laughed scornfully. "Oh Raph, don't be so naive! You think I so dumb? Course we talked about it--when he's sober. Most of the time he's great, except when he's had a few drinks and a bad day. Afterwards, he's so apologetic." She pitched her voice lower. " 'It'll never happen again. I'm so sorry. I'll treat you like a queen from now on. Just don't leave me, baby.' " She smiled ruefully. "But tonight, aw... " She groaned. "It happened once too often."
"So what now?"
She shrugged. "One day at a time." She stared at him. "Can I stay the night?"
He felt such a rush of sympathy for her he felt lightheaded. She looks exhausted. "Okay. Just tonight. Tomorrow... you need to sort this out with Greg."
"I'll do that." She watched him pull out blankets. "Please. Don't say nothing to Greg. I gotta work this out myself. He go crazy if he find out you know he's beating me."
There was a very long silence whilst he studied her.
"Okay," he said finally. "I'll take the couch." Tuesday
Chau and Johnson drove north toward Lynn Valley, stopping just before the turning for the canyon. "You okay, buck?" Johnson said. "You not been at the races this morning."
"I'm okay." Chau slammed the driver door shut. "Truth is, I didn't sleep very well. Thinking 'bout the case. Sorry if that ain't exciting enough for you." It wasn't the whole truth. He had thought about the case but only when the temptation to knock on his bedroom door had proven almost overwhelming. He wasn't sure what he would have done if he had and Chris had answered. You kidding yourself, he thought. Course you're sure. That the problem, buck. Maybe he should go back and find that hooker, Tina, and get some relief. Yeah, right.
He suddenly realized that Johnson was talking to him, that he'd speeded up and pulled ahead of her. "Sorry," he said. "You was saying?"
"I was saying, buck, that it were plenty exciting enough seeing you getting irritated. You need to grow a thicker dermis. A miserable bastard like Burridge musta liked riding a sensitive soul like you."
They walked down from the car park to the Fraser Institute grounds, rain capes draped over their arms, not needed for the moment. On this side of the Fraser River the rain clouds had dropped their cargo and, blown by the cross-winds, were breaking up into raggedy strands.
Three hours earlier in the office Chau had said, "We assuming the second and third dead Lenden was local." He knuckled his right eye and yawned. "What if they from out of town?"
The others nodded. "Make it more likely that we dealing with two killers," Sharp said glumly.
"You not sleeping, buck?" Johnson flashed Chau a sly grin as he stifled another yawn.
"It would also make it that much harder to keep a lid on this thing," Sharp said, frowning at the interruption, "if we have to call every force containing a Lenden enclave."
"Maybe we compromise," Chau said. "We contact the nearest couple of places. Victoria, Calgary--Seattle?"
"Not Seattle," Demetrious said sharply. "Keep it provincial."
Sharp nodded. "Do it but discreetly. Make it a missing person enquiry."
It had taken twenty minutes before Johnson looked up. "I got something, only just beyond the municipality but outside the scope of the earlier searches."
Now Chau wished that they'd sent someone other than him and Johnson out here. She'd kept up the comments until he'd almost snapped at her, and she had clearly sensed it. Luckily, they had arrived just then and he had been able to walk off his frustration.
The Fraser Institute was a set of redbrick buildings. "They look so authentic," Johnson muttered, "they gotta be made of garcrete with a plastic veneer."
"I thought it weren't stable," Chau said. Several years earlier, five people lost their lives because of buildings made from concrete made up with treated water from recycled garbage. The scandal still reverberated. Chau had heard that some of the residual chemicals necessary to filter out the toxins, which couldn't be leached after the treatment, had dissolved in a monsoon downpour.
"They reckon they fixed the problem," Johnson said.
"How'd you know 'bout it, anyway?"
"I used to work in Municipal," Johnson said. "Enforcement of planning permit violations, all a that crap." Her grin was feral. "Bit tame for my likes."
"You bin around," Chau said, and then the implications of promiscuity that he'd made hit him and he spluttered, "I mean--" Ever since he'd learned she was a swinger, he'd been trying to come to terms with this new, exotic Johnson.
She let him flounder for a few seconds then said, "You blushing, Raph!" She laughed and squeezed his arm. " 'S okay. I knew what you meant. But you right 'bout that, too."
The institute was nestled in more than a hundred acres of gardens and playing fields dotted with maples and flowering cherry trees currently turning the lawns pink with falling blossoms.
Groups of students sat in the sunshine studying, lazing, or playing games on the sports fields. A few runners were on the tracks. Occasionally, a Lenden groundsman circled the edges picking up garbage with a long pole.
"Very nice," Chau breathed in admiration.
"Yah," Johnson muttered. "If you Mommy or Daddy got lotsa money."
"You just jealous," he said as they entered sunlit corridors down which their footsteps echoed.
"Me? I can read. What more you want?"
"Yeah, but you can't do it without moving your lips and running your fingers under the words." He winced as she hit his arm.
Principal Pinkeney was a tall man in his fifties, more administrator than teacher, as elegant as their surroundings. Everything about him said money, power, and influence. They declined coffee.
"Yes, we hired," he glazed into trance, scanning cyberspace, "Brik Nes Avry as a groundsman," he said between genteel sips. "My deputy interviewed him; she left last year to move to Calgary."
"He worked here eighteen months, yeah?" Johnson asked. She had begun to chew gum loudly, Chau suspected, to see if she could make the principal wince.
"Correct. He was never any problem. None of our Lenden staff are. They're all very hard working."
"And cheap," Johnson said.
"I beg your pardon?"
"How did the human staff and pupils react to the presence of Lenden?" Chau interrupted quickly.
Pinkeney pulled a face, seemingly surprised by the question. "We had no problems."
"So why'd this paragon of virtue leave?" Johnson said, her gum-chewing louder than ever. "You catch him munching the compost?"
"He quit. Didn't work out his notice." Pinkeney's voice was dangerously level. "If you'd like to ask my staff anything... " It was clearly a dismissal.
Outside, Chau turned on Johnson. "What was that all about? You trying to provoke a complaint?"
"Relax," Johnson said. "Jackass like that won't bother to complain. He'll be too busy bragging to his friends about his Lenden servants and his summerhouse out in one of the wilderness zones. Come on, let's talk to his staff. See if they all as pompous as him."
They left two hours later, no further forward. On the way back to Vancouver, the dash screen chimed. Sharp's face filled the screen. "CSI confirmed they found a few tiny grains of gravel in the third Lenden's pockets."
"Gravel?" Johnson said. "Like stones?" Sharp nodded. Johnson said, "Could it have come from the beach where he was found?"
Sharp shook his head. "This is ornamental gravel, like something out of a Japanese garden. We're already analyzing the surface to see if we can get a signature on the residual water trace to narrow down the source area and checking local garden centres to see who sells that type of gravel."
Chau wondered who was doing the checking. Scores of officers had been pulled off a profitable traffic detail onto a loss-making public service. He said, "Unless it was a Lenden ritual, in which case that changes the profile of the killer to someone who knows Lenden customs, I can only think of one reason to weigh the pockets down."
Demetrious nodded. "Dispose of the body. This changes everything--if it's the simple solution."
"Let's assume the simple solution is the one that applies," Sharp said. "In which case, we have two killers."
"We'll call in at Van Dusen on the way back, shall we?"
"If it's okay, I'd like Johnson and me to look around separately. I figure it might be less imposing."
"What are you expecting to get?" Sharp asked.
"Let's see if they can suggest how we find out who the third victim is without telling the world we trying to find out," Chau said. "Probably get nothing, but it's worth reassuring them we're doing something. We may get nada, but not for want of effort."
"Kid, he a natural politician," Demetrious said from off screen.
Johnson grinned. Kid? Chau mouthed at her. * * * *
Chau walked around the gardens with Verez Sen Url. The alien's reddish-green crest of leaves was fully extended to catch a rare shaft of late spring afternoon sunshine amidst the bands of showers, and she towered over him. Chau caught the glimpse of a Halide-vest beneath her swirling cloak, artificially irradiating the alien's skin. "Must be hard, living so far north," he said. "Isn't it cold for you?"
"It's not as comfortable as... Australia... or... India," the consul said carefully. "But there would be even more of us competing for fewer jobs if we were there, and our vests help us--otherwise we'd have to sleep all day."
"If you'd a come forty years ago," Chau said, "it'd have been too cold for you. See, climate change weren't a disaster for everyone." The alien stared, and Chau felt a fool. She alien, buck. She don't do humour--hell, half a humanity don't do humour.
Sen Url said, "How goes the hunt?"
"Slowly." Chau blew out his cheeks. "Most killers is known to their victim, or they're people we've got on record for something else so they stand out when we check them. If not, legwork or just luck can play a part."
"Which, by inference, you've not had."
"Yah. Police work takes time. We make huge lists of people and connections, then cross through 'em line by line." He wondered, Do you even make lists, or is it just another weird human custom?
"Do you have any theories?" Sen Url said.
"Too many," Chau said. "The common denominator's mutilation. That a Lenden custom?" Colours rippled across Verez Sen Url's features and Chau said, "I'm not trying to pin this on anyone. I'm trying to understand your people better."
"To answer your question, certainly not. Few of our people are so deliberately cruel, and we know of those individuals with such tendencies. This has the element of ritual. Don't your gangs perform such acts? I've read of ritual dismemberment such as cutting off fingers, as an initiation."
"The body seemed a little dead for initiation," Chau mused, then realized his tactlessness and looked up. The alien didn't seem offended. "Nearest I can think of to this is Latinos and other cultures cutting the genitalia and placing in the mouth. A stem equals a tail, equals a penis? No. They needed a mouth to put it in, and the third victim didn't have a mouth. Not so good at morphing, I guess." He added, "Tell me about that--can all Lenden morph?"
"Like all humans can run," the Lenden consul replied. "Some of your people can barely get to the nearest store; others can run a--what's the word?--a marathon. Our ability is a holdover from when we needed camouflage against predators." She paused, and said carefully, "What I say next may sound critical. That's not so. We're grateful you were brave and generous enough to shelter us. A huge fleet arriving as ours did those ten of your years ago is not something I'm sure we Lenden could have accepted so easily."
"But... " Chau prompted.
"The one thing," Sen Url said, "that seems to panic you is our ability to metamorphose. I watch your scandal channels and the stories they tell!"
"Yeah," Chau said. "But I wouldn't believe anything I saw on the scandal channels. That's why I'm asking you."
"They blow it up out of all proportion, like us worrying about you breathing and eating orally. Yes, we can all morph, but only generally. To pass as a convincing human as some suggest is near-impossible. The idea of hordes of simulacra roaming around is nonsense." She went on, "Just look at the size of us! Conservation of mass alone says that our size makes it impossible for us to shrink to anything smaller than the very biggest humans."
"What about children?" Chau said, thinking of the smaller Lenden at the funeral.
"Would you send children into battle?" Sen Url said. There was no mistaking the disdain in her voice. She paused. "You seem to have so many laws against offending each other--racism, sexism, ageism, so many isms it's as if you need some outlet for all your repressed aggression. So you take it out on the alien now."
"Perhaps that's true," Chau said. "But I'm just wondering if there's any symbolism in all the victims having eyes and most having mouths. Maybe morphing is the common denominator."
"You mean we don't have them except to communicate with humans? Perhaps there is something. We breathe through our stomata--our pores-- and our crowns. We ingest food through our stem"--the Lenden lifted her cloak and swished the stem that many had mistaken for a tail--"and communicate with facial colours, smells, and sonar. You reveal more than you realise in ways you never guess with us. Speech is something that doesn't come easily to most Lenden. Don't be fooled by the ones you meet. The people your government has allowed down have mostly been the ones who communicate best."
They walked back to the main hall where they were greeted by another Lenden, taller than Sen Url. The second alien bowed from the waist. Blues, yellows, greens flashed across both faces.
"Constable Raphael Chau, I present Tyndemion Nes Vitta. Tyndemion Nes is my equivalent in matters spiritual. It was he who performed the service for the dead."
"Constable Chau, I'm honoured. To what do we owe the honour of your visit?"
"More enquiries, Tyndemion Nes. And to learn a little about your people."
"You honour us. Such a visit is rarer than we would like. I often feel that we lock ourselves away too much, and this deters visitors such as you who seek enlightenment. Meanwhile what progress have you made?" Although the alien's voice was as flat as most were, Chau thought he detected an edge to the question.
"Sadly, very little. We gotta go through the process of elimination without knowing who the third victim is, which makes it even harder."
"In the meantime, our people continue to die." Tyndemion Nes Vitta held a hand up to forestall the protests. "I know that is harsh, but it is true. If I can be of help, Constable, please do not hesitate to contact me." He turned and walked away.
Chau thought it politic to leave promptly. * * * *
By the time he arrived home, the rain had returned in force. When he entered, the apartment was shrouded in gloom and the air was thick with the smell of flowers.
He drew the curtains back, but Chris said from the couch where she was sitting, head in hands, fingers pressing against her temples, "Leave them, would ya? I got a migraine."
He closed them again, resisting the urge to suggest that it was the flowers causing her migraine. They were starting to make him feel lightheaded. "Can I put on a sidelight?"
"I'll do it," she said and snapped on a small lamp by the window. It seemed dimmer than usual. "I got some flowers," she said, pointing to several vases full. You musta bought 'em, too, he thought. "Nereens," she said. "Thought it might soften this monkish cell of yours." She giggled and looked down. "Sorry, didn't mean to crit you. Just that you always seem so austere, Raphael."
Oh, if only you knew, my darling, he thought, trying to suppress a sudden image of them coupling on the couch. Instead, he looked around the room. "What you done with all my books?"
"Books?" she said.
"Books." He added sarcastically, "Rectangular blocks, 'bout so big?" He mimed the dimensions.
"Oh, yes," she said. "I put them in the cupboard. They just seem to be piled up anywhere."
He rummaged and found the one he'd been reading. "You was saying you'd like to read some the last time we talked." He'd guessed at the time that she was only being polite.
"Was I? Oh, yes... "
"Just this migraine," she said. She had made dinner, he guessed, from the smell of soup wafting from the tiny kitchen. "Thanks for letting me stay. Lucky you don't shift-share with an apt-mate."
"Hours too irregular," he said. "It's a great idea sharing a place in shifts, but it breakdown when people work irregular hours. When I was in Banff I had arguments with apt-mates about everything. Never seeing the other person but still having to share stuff ain't for me."
"Most people ain't that lucky."
Irritated at the implied criticism, he changed the subject. "You gotta talk to Greg; this be tearing him apart." He didn't tell her he hadn't seen his partner since his new assignment. Shag it, he thought. If he want sulk, let the little boy sulk.
"You think this easy?" She pointed to the now-fading bruises, almost invisible in the lamplight. "You think I wanted this?" She was wearing heavier makeup than usual, lipsticked lips glistening in the lamplight, her eyes as big as saucers, it seemed; she wore a new perfume as well, and she was too close, too close, he thought, his hand reaching out to touch the bruise. At the last moment he snatched his hand away and walked--almost ran--to the kitchen, where he grabbed a jug of filtered water from the fridge and downed it in great gulps.
She stood in the doorway, and he thought that he'd never seen anyone so beautiful. "I--" she started and stopped. "I ate earlier on. But I made soup. For you."
"Chris," he said, but what he wanted to say wouldn't come. He wanted to pound his head against the fridge to get her out of his thoughts. "I'll check into a hotel."
"No!" She folded her arms. "I can't chase you out of your own place." Before he could answer, she strode across to the cooker and put the soup on. "We grown-ups, Raphael," she said, her voice harsh. "We should be able to share a roof, but if not, I should move out."
"And go where?" He knew how little money she had.
"Do you want me to go?"
He didn't answer, but instead returned to the lounge, picked up his book, and began reading.
"Sorry," she said at last, bringing in a bowl of steaming soup and slices of crusty bread, which she placed on the table in front of him. "Not fair to put all that on you."
The soup was good, and focusing on it enabled him to regain his calm, at least for the moment. She, too, seemed embarrassed, for she wouldn't look at him while he ate; instead stared at the floor, and several times he thought he saw her shudder.
But the evening crawled by. Stilted small talk in too cramped an area; and every so often when one of them moved, they brushed against each other, and he felt her tense, as he was probably doing himself.
Soon after midnight, to escape the claustrophobia, he slid back the door to the balcony and gazed out over the lights of Vancouver. The rain had stopped, and miraculously, the clouds were breaking up.
"There," she breathed from behind him.
To the east, a few twinkling lights and stars, but moving as fast as an aircraft; and then over the next few minutes, there were more and more and more until they covered the sky like a sprinkling of snow on the ground, almost obliterating the moon and making the night sky--at least for a few minutes--as bright as twilight.
"Wouldn't you love to be up there?" he said. "I heard the ships are full of red-lit forests and woods shrouded in drizzle."
"And aliens," she said. "That wouldn't bother you? Not like here--here at least you're human."
"Tell that to some a the old Canucks," he said. "Here I'm Chinese. I went to China, and they thought I was a Yank. I'd be no more outta place up there than down here."
"So I guess that means you'd wanna," she said, laughing, slipping her arms around him from behind, hands into the gaps between his buttons. He gasped as he felt her push up his shirt with her head, and the touch of her lips on his back, gossamer-soft. He should pull away, he knew, but his feet seemed rooted to the spot, and he couldn't move his lips to tell her to stop. The smell of the Nereens seemed to have followed him out onto the balcony, or maybe it was her perfume addling his brain.
As the ships passed, the night slowly returned.
"You can sleep in the bed tonight," she said between the slow, regular kisses on his skin.
"Nah," he said, clearing his throat. "You take it."
"I've a better idea," she whispered. "Let's compromise. We'll share." Her lips moved around to his side. Then she ran her hard little tongue down his flank.
"Please," he murmured, stroking her hand. "Don't do this. It ain't right on Greg."
She paused. "Greg and me... well, I ain't saying it's dead, but think of this as a time-out. What happens here stays here--if that's what you want." She resumed kissing his side, with tiny featherlike touches.
He sighed. "I don't know what I want."
"That why you stopped coming around? 'Cause you don't really know what you want?"
He didn't answer directly but said as if thinking aloud, "I'm attracted to women who seem unavailable. Always go for the ones who can't or won't or shouldn't reciprocate." If he kept talking, intellectualizing, he could ease the pressure in his groin...
As if reading him, Chris pressed harder against him and wriggled. "What about Laura?" she said. "She reciprocated."
He shrugged. "And I pushed her away with indifference."
"Not 'cause of me?"
"Nah, course not."
"Greg thought so," she said.
"Greg knows... how... I feel?"
"Course he does," she said between kisses. "Used to laugh about it. Called you the puppy dog. If I hadn't a been so scared when he were drunk... " Her voice trailed off, and she moved around to his chest and stomach.
"Is okay," he said, tousling her hair. "No one'd expect you to take a beating."
"Maybe you just ain't met the right seemingly unavailable woman." Her hand moved to his waist.
"Not seemingly," he said. "What about Greg--Oh, Jeez!" He gasped, as she moved lower. Wednesday
"All the ships in Howe Sound been checked," Demetrious said. "No one missing crew. We pretty much ruled that out from the start--any ships missing, someone woulda sounded a Mayday.
"We found no trace of our third victim being dragged across the sand. We assumed it 'cause the traces were wiped by the kids. But what if he dropped in the water from a local boat? We should model the currents, see if we can work out where he came from."
"You assumed," Sharp said with a tight smile, pressing a button on the desk. The wall monitor lit up with swirls of currents. "That"--Sharp pointed at the red one--"is the Fraser River outflow just down the coast. The blue one is the English Bay subtides; the green ones are the main tides coming in off the Pacific through the Strait of Georgia. We have at least four likely drop-off points, including one in the USA. You still want to keep the enquiry provincial?"
Demetrious nodded. "For now. Let's eliminate all local leads afore going international."
Sharp nodded. "Chau? You with us?"
Chau, his head still full of Chris and the night before, managed to nod emphatically. "Sir."
Just after eleven, Verez Sen Url called. "I may have something for you," was all the consul's image would say.
Chau and Johnson booked a rickshaw out there, the Lenden driver pedaling furiously, raindrops running off the leaf crown into the blankness of his unmorphed face. He bobbed a thank you at Johnson's modest tip and silently handed over the receipt she asked for.
Sen Url waited on the grounds, a second Lenden close by. "Tyndemion Nes not around today?" Chau said.
"He works here and in Victoria," she replied. "He often spends time over there, then over here. Did you want to speak to him?"
"Not especially," Chau said. "Idle curiosity." The spirituality of the Lenden wasn't something that they often shared with humans, and he'd been looking forward to finding out a little more about it.
"We interest you," Verez Sen Url said. Although the consul's voice was flat, Chau had the impression that she approved. They walked away, and the consul tugged at Chau's sleeve. "I understand that the body was found in water? Is that true?"
Chau hesitated. Would he be giving out sensitive information by answering? "Yes," he said, watching colours flicker and scroll across the alien face. "What is it?"
"We had no large bodies of water on our home world, Officer. The thought of dying that way--if he drowned--is horrifying. It makes me ill even to think of it. The poor, poor man, whoever he was. And with that... " Sen Url brought forward the other Lenden--smaller, slighter. And Chau suspected younger from the body language: unsure of a human. It had no eyes, although there was a rudimentary mouth.
"This is Fush Sen Url. Sen Url, this is Officer Raphael Chau of the Vancouver Police," the consul said in English, "I believe he can be trusted."
"Sen Url?" Chau asked. "A relative of yours?"
"We're of the same clan," the consul said. "She came to me for guidance and I tried to provide it. She works in Schwartz Bay, hence the delay in coming forward."
And, therefore, the nervousness, he thought. He tried to look as reassuring as possible and then wondered what would look reassuring to a Lenden, especially an eyeless one. He took a very gentle tone. "So you work in Schwartz Bay?" he prompted. "Unusual, isn't it, to live here and work over there?"
"I suppose it is," the younger alien said, "but I'm closer to Verez than if I were living over there like most of the staff are." Her mouth was so badly formed that several of the consonants were mangled or indistinguishable, and Chau had to concentrate to understand what she was saying. "I work six days on, two days off. But I work double shifts," she explained. "I staff one of the ticket booths on one shift and double as a cleaner on the second. It's hard to make ends meet. And I sleep in a dorm there. It's basic; we don't get holo or anything like that."
He guessed she was making her excuses for not coming forward earlier. "Is okay," he said. "We know how it works. Most people we know have to work bits-and-pieces jobs to live." He knew how lucky he was to be paid enough not to need to work two jobs, although without the overtime... He snapped back to the subject: "What did you want to tell us about?"
"I've just finished my sixth night and slept through yesterday. If I'd seen it earlier this week, I'd have asked Tyndemion Nes for guidance, and I'm sure he would have told me to come and talk to you earlier--"
"Don't worry," he soothed.
"I'm sure that the officer understands," the consul interjected. "Go on with what you told me."
Her nod was a quick bob of the head. "I asked Verez, and she said to tell you: Saturday night I was working at the ticket desk, and just before the Tsawwassen Ferry sailed, so close that he almost missed it, this Nes foot passenger bought a ticket to Vancouver; and to make conversation, I asked him if he were going to visit our Lodge. It was as if I'd never spoken or even existed. He had the pilgrimage look about him."
"The what look?" Chau said.
"The final pilgrimage," she said slowly as if explaining to an idiot. "As if he knew he was going to meet Death."
"Who was this Nes?" Chau probed.
"I saw his image on our newsfeeds this morning. The Nes they found on the beach--the one that was murdered."
"Can you come to the station and make a formal identification?" Chau asked. "We'll arrange for you to be taken home afterwards."
Chau didn't need to be a Lenden expert to recognize a look of appeal, even from a blank-faced alien, that the younger one gave Verez.
"Go with the officer," she said and Fush nodded.
"I'll arrange a car to collect us," Johnson said. Humans and aliens separated slightly, but the two Lenden kept together.
"Why did he get on as a foot passenger?" Chau said to Johnson while they waited. "Surely, if he'd been travelling from Victoria, he would have got the bus straight through and never bothered to get a ticket at Schwartz Bay. He must have come from somewhere else."
"And walked or got a lift," Johnson said. "Somebody over there musta seen him. We'll get people onto it tomorrow." She mused, "The pilgrimage look."
"What about it?"
"She said he looked as if he knew he was going to meet death, with a capital D. How could someone know they were going to die, hours before they were murdered?"
She said, eyes glazing, "Something's breaking. Keep an eye on them while I deep-trance." Chau tried--without much luck--to make conversation with the young alien while Johnson communed. She relaxed, surfacing from the trance. "We re-called. Meeting at 1600. Good thing we going back anyway." * * * *
Back at HQ, they off-loaded the alien onto a uniformed officer to do the routine work: taking the witness statement and adding her physical description to the analog-DNA Database used to try to identify the Lenden--their greater number of genes and ability to mutate made a "proper" DNA bank a much more problematic exercise.
Chau rounded a corner and almost walked into his ex-partner. "Hey," Chau said. "How're you?"
"Okay," Burridge said. His former partner seemed to have aged a decade in the last few days; the sweat stains beneath the arms of his shirt were more visible than usual and Chau would have sworn he could smell body odour. Beneath several days' stubble, Burridge's face was pasty looking and his hair looked unwashed.
"You don't look it," Chau said. "You look like shit."
"Been busy," Burridge said and hurried off.
Chau grabbed a coffee and, holding it in both hands, backed into the office. Johnson sat in the corner chewing her fingernail. Demetrious pushed the door shut behind Chau, then shuffled around, looking as nervous as Johnson. "Sharp gone ballistic," the big man said.
Demetrious flicked on CBC Interactive and Chau saw to his horror that it had led with the story that a serial killer was stalking the Lenden community. "If he finds who leaked it... " The fat man drew a finger across his throat.
"Was it definitely a leak?" Chau said.
Johnson nodded. "Too much detail to be eavesdropping. Too wide-ranging to be one grunt mouthing off. Got to be someone with an overview."
And you think it's me? Chau wanted to ask but dared not, fearing the answer. "Can they nail the source?" he said instead.
Johnson shook her head. "CBC are claiming public interest, First Amendment--you name it, they invoking it."
Sharp entered the room, his mouth a line so thin it was invisible. He closed the door behind him carefully. "Switch all your com devices off," he said. "I've sent a no-transmit signal to the BCPD Database, but I don't want your partners or families interrupting us." He waited thirty seconds for them to comply, then cleared his throat. "There are four people who had all the info in that newsfeed," he said.
"Five," Johnson said.
Sharp stared at her. "If you're going to suggest the perp... "
"Why not?" Chau said. "Why is it assumed that we're responsible?"
"Because there's nothing in that feed that's new. Odds are that the perp couldn't help but let something slip in that's new?"
"Odds are," Johnson said wearily. "Can you be 100 percent sure that it couldn't have come from the perp? A hundred percent, Captain?"
Sharp almost visibly subsided. "Maybe not 100 percent."
"Innocent til proven guilty is the way our legal system works, Cap," Demetrious said.
"I agree," Sharp said. "In principle. But I can't allow sentiment to sway me. I've got a subpoena for your private call records. And I want you to allow us to tap and tag you."
Johnson shook her head. "I'll not be treated as a crim. I've seen guys hounded out this way after fishing expeditions have turned up something irrelevant at the time but useful later."
"You got something to hide?" Sharp said.
"Ain't that always the accusation?" Johnson said. "Say I fucking some married guy; you can guarantee me 100 percent no one will pick that up? And spread it round the station? What if wifey's a jealous type?"
"If if," Sharp said.
Chau spoke for the first time. "It sets a precedent, Captain. What next? Because someone's suspected of something trivial, but which the company deems unacceptable?"
"I take it that's a no, then?" Sharp looked grim.
"Is a no," Johnson said almost before he'd finished the question.
"No," Demetrious said.
"No," Chau said. "Reluctantly, but a no, Captain."
Sharp nodded. "Okay. I'll take it back to the regional manager. You may be removed from the case, but I'll see what he has to say."
"If you do, you'll have to re-train our replacements," Johnson said. "And you'll see our union reps. How secure will your case be, then?"
"That a threat, Johnson?"
"It's a statement, Captain," Chau said. "She's right. More people will know, and the more who know, the greater the risk. You know that stats say so as well as we do."
"So why we even having this conversation, Cap?" Johnson said. "You ain't incompetent."
"Because there's always a chance that I'm wrong." Sharp looked at each of them in turn and seemed to come to a decision. "Okay. But you can count this as a verbal warning. A written one will follow in the morning."
Something didn't feel quite right to Chau, but he had no time to ponder.
Sharp pulled back his shirt cuff and pressed a button on his watch several times. The watch clearly doubled as the signal to the BCPD Database to end its no-transmit instruction, for immediately alarms started pinging all around the room.
Chau became only distantly aware of the room around him as he lapsed into deep-trance.
siege situation, the message from the BCPD Database said, detailing the specifics and summoning the squad to attend the siege.
Chau seemed to have minutes to read of the attack on a single Lenden male--the interruption by a passerby.
Chau accessed the witness statement: "I saw this shape." The witness was a middle-aged woman, unmemorable, voice high and short of breath. "I realised it was a man standing over something. He was groaning, holding his head. I called out, thinking maybe he was in trouble. Dunno why I did," she added. "He ran off, weaving cross the road like he was stoned or something, so I followed him. I realised afterwards how stupid it was, at this time of night."
She had followed the fugitive to a bolt-hole while calling the police, who pulled back and called for backup once the man had threatened them.
Meanwhile, a unit confirmed one female Lenden dead, apparently after a struggle, but no mutilation, although the Lenden had a mouth.
As Chau emerged upwards, feeling as he always did as if he'd just dived beneath the surface of a pool, the others were still glazed-eyed in their own little bubbles of semi-conscious interface with the world of the Database.
"Come on," Sharp said when he had their attention. "A SWAT squad's mustering in Bay 5. You three hitch a lift while I oversee the situation from here." * * * *
Stepping from the MPV, Chau stared at the high-rise hive rearing a half mile into the glooming evening sky upon which a forest of search and spotlights shone.
The senior officer at the scene seemed glad to hand over to them, reprising the situation report in case the BCPD Database had omitted crucial info, unlikely though that was.
"Brave, that witness," Demetrious said.
"Stupid," the officer said. "Coulda got her throat cut." She seemed to suddenly remember their relative ranks. "Anyway, officers knocked on this guy's door and he flipped. Shouted that he'd use his gun. Neighbours IDed him as James Latimer, thirty-five, single, no children. Database flagged a history of minor sexual offences, indecent exposure, such like."
Johnson glazed into deep-trance as she accessed restricted documents. She snapped out of it. "He's a loner; worked odd jobs, some bringing him into contact with Lenden. Including," she said with satisfaction, "at the Fraser Institute. His psych consult is on his way over; may even be here by now."
Demetrious turned to Chau. "Escort him through."
Chau nodded. He surveyed the cordoned-off street packed with cruisers and riot wagons with lights flashing. Around the cordon, a host of reporters shouted questions at officers who studiously ignored them. Others babbled shrill-voiced, staring rigidly at whatever close shot their head-cams fixed on, filling the vacuum of information with the hot air of theory.
The tension-filled clamour of voices echoing around the street was descanted by the complaints of residents ushered to gathering points from neighbouring properties while SWAT teams occupied their apartments.
The consult appeared, looking indignant. "I'm Doctor M'Penza," he said as Chau scanned his retina and checked his thumbprint. "I was told to find you. Well, here I am." He folded his arms across his chest.
"Follow me, Doctor," Chau said. He led M'Penza to the SWAT MPV whose hood had become an impromptu command post.
M'Penza called from behind him, "I was at a concert, Officer. Do you know how much I paid for those tickets?"
Demetrious lifted his head slowly and stared at the psychiatrist. "If your patient has killed someone through your misdiagnosis, Doc, you'll have more to worry 'bout than a missed concert."
M'Penza opened his mouth and closed it again. He ran his finger down his thick, fleshy nose. "My patient?"
"James Latimer," Demetrious said. "Spill."
"It's impossible that it's James," M'Penza said. "He's essentially passive, limited to minor offences. When he first came to me for therapy, he'd formed a dependency on flash that was escalating toward addiction. Now he's down to only minor dosages, which until they create a substitute is as good as it's going to get."
"Unless he's been fooling you," Demetrious suggested.
M'penza was silent. "It is possible," he finally said. "But I've been seeing James once a week for eighteen months. His intellect's inadequate for such a level of deception." His voice faded as the pair turned away.
The next few hours were a mixture of fighting boredom and trying to stay alert in case of developments. The odour of coffee and food hung in the air. Police officers snatched naps where they could while the hysterical whine of the Vulture Squadron grew ever more strained as they tried to find ways of repeating their earlier bulletins without seeming to.
Chau dozed in the half-lit back of the MPV, and about midnight Johnson joined him, nudging him to make room. Within minutes she had slumped so that she was leaning against his shoulder. When he lost sensation in his arm, he wriggled slightly and she shifted. "Sorry," she said.
"It's okay," he said. "Just got a crick. You don't need to move." He glanced down at her face, at the lines forming a delicate map outward from the corner of her eyes and the slight downturn of her mouth. He wondered whether it had always looked so dissatisfied or if that came with the years. He realized that she was watching him watching her and closed his eyes.
"I must smell like a hyena," she murmured.
"No worse than usual," he said equally quietly and winced as she punched him.
"Why aren't you married?" she said so quietly she had to almost lean into his ear, and he smelled mint on the warmth of her breath. "Kid like you, place of your own, some chica shoulda gobbled you up years ago."
"Why aren't you?" he said. "Same applies."
"I was, 'bout fifteen years ago." She laughed at Chau's raised eyebrow. "One of the last Indefinite Marriages, no renewal option. Hard to believe me in white and pretty, eh?"
"He got fed up with coming last to the job. I coulda had three kids and varicose veins by now." She didn't sound too disappointed. "Now I'm strictly temporary, me."
"Yeah?" he said, thinking, For a minute, there, I thought you was going to make me an offer. As her resting head returned to his shoulder, then slid down onto his chest and she gently began to snore, he slipped into shallow-trance and surfed the BCPD comms, watching M'Penza phone into Latimer, studying the body language of both men in front of their cams.
M'Penza looked as bewildered as if he had learned that his house had been built on sand, and Chau suspected that his obvious bewilderment had cost him influence with Latimer.
The sallow-skinned Latimer looked equally confused. He kept saying, "I don't remember!" to the questions that were put to him, no matter how innocuous. He had told the psychiatrist that the evening was a blank before he was standing over the victim's body. He kept repeating that "they" were out to get him. "They" seemed to cover most groups from the government to the aliens to the National Hockey League.
Chau pulled up the BCPD evaluation; while only moderately accurate--it was based on simple parameters--it didn't reassure him.
He woke Johnson by wiping a thin line of spittle from the corner of her mouth. "Whup?" she grunted, shaking her head.
"You were dribbling." Chau tried to hide his grin.
"Oh, sheesh. Thanks." One side of her face was red and indented with the weave of his shirt.
"It looked quite cute," he said, and she shot him an incomprehensible look. He looked down and noticed that her blouse had come unbuttoned. Looking up, he saw her look down and her face flamed. She hastily re-did the buttons.
Clearing his throat, he outlined the reports he'd read.
"Standard paranoid," Johnson snorted.
"Not helped by taking flash," Chau said. "That would explain the memory loss."
"Or maybe he's lying," she said. "Remember, the simplest explanation's usually the right one."
"Is it always?" he said, not simply referring to the case and wondering if she would realize that. He felt a flash of guilt at flirting with a colleague while Chris sat in his apartment. But Chris is married, and she ain't gonna stick around anyways, he thought. He locked his gaze on hers until she looked away, then ducking her head, swooped and pecked his cheek.
"Usually," she said, pulling away, becoming suddenly brisk. "What's worrying you 'bout the reports?"
"The BCPD comparison is that he's only thirty-six percent likely to have committed the other killings."
She snorted again. "It's a box-ticking programme, Raph."
"The latest victim was the wrong gender." He held up his index finger with a grin that she returned as she grabbed the digit. He held up his forefinger. "It was the wrong time of the month." Third finger. "It was a stabbing, no mutilation."
"Maybe he getting desperate," she said. "Whoa, something happening."
Chau watched through the thousand different camera-eyes of the Database; Latimer abruptly broke off conversation with the psych consult and shouted from the balcony, "You've been taken over by them! You're their agents!" He ducked inside.
Afterwards, Chau spent hours going through the footage.
The sensors had been unable to establish whether Latimer actually had a gun in the clutter of his apartment or just something pistol-shaped. But when he appeared unexpectedly on his balcony a few minutes later, screaming abuse and waving his arms around, it was inevitable that several snipers opened fire.
Caught by the bullets, Latimer's body jerked like a ragdoll, then spun around as the rest of the SWAT team, unsure whether Latimer was shooting back, also fired. Within seconds it was over.
Once they were sure the siege had ended, Demetrious led the team into the apartment. Chau stared at the mutilated pictures of naked women and Lenden plastering the walls, many with their eyes gouged out.
Out on the balcony, a pool of blood was creeping across the floor toward the edge.
"Find some way of stopping that running off," Demetrious instructed one of the SWAT team.
It was after three in the morning when the ambulance drove off carrying the corpse of James Latimer. Thursday
Vancouver was getting ready for the weekend; even at four a.m., the bar was packed with shift workers on their way home via the bars, people going into town, or even stopping for a caffeine kick on the way into work. With more than a third of the workforce no longer in the nine-to-five that Chau's father had tried--and failed--to keep to, there were plenty of drinkers coming off-shift to keep Chau and the others company.
Several members of the SWAT team, as well as regular officers, had joined Chau, Johnson, and Demetrious on a wind-down drink.
Chau had added his jacket with its shoulder-mounted micam to the teetering mountain of coats spilling off one of the chairs. He felt as if he were on caffeine overdose, his senses almost too sharp, a problem in their current environment with its clamour, the smell of bodies sweaty and perfumed, the feel of Johnson leaning provocatively into his shoulder.
"I can't figure Latimer for it," Chau said. "I know how the evidence points, but the Database says it don't fit." As Demetrious and Johnson yawned elaborately, he continued, "What about the other victims?" and ducked a flurry of beer-mats. "Okay, I surrender!"
To change the subject, and because Johnson had kept ducking the question, Chau asked again: "What's with you and Burridge? You musta heard what he called you--Queen of the Cabbages."
"And a dyke," Demetrious said with a grin. "Man lives in the nineteenth century, using words like that."
"Can't keep his paws to hisself," Johnson said. "So I once told him what I'd do if he didn't look elsewhere for his extramarital entertainment. He's never liked me since."
Chau and Demetrious looked at one another and both mouthed oh.
Chau looked across to where--among the shouting, the shrieks of laughter, and the pounding music--a solitary middle-aged drinker gesticulated at the Lenden barman.
About ten minutes later, Chau went to order a refill and heard the man shout, "Frigging lettuce leaf!" The only gap at the bar was next to the drunk, so Chau reluctantly squeezed into it. "Taking our jobs," the man said to himself in what was probably meant to be a mutter. "'Nother beer! C'mon, I talking to ya!"
"Keep it down," Chau said. "It doing the best it can."
The drunk turned with ponderous gravity. "Well, slant-eyes, it should work harder if it wants our money. What are you, a sprout lover?" The man turned back to harangue the barman again, and Chau shook his head.
He closed his eyes. All week he seemed to have been rubbing shoulders with racists, and now he was reminded that even now, to many people, he wasn't Canadian. Maybe not even human, as far as Joe Hitler here concerned, he thought. Enough, eh?
Chau pulled a stim-tab from his pocket. He palmed it into his mouth, swallowed it, and felt the wave of nausea that followed it, followed in turn by a sudden rush as the alcohol was transformed into pure calories. Boy, am I going to pay for this in the morning, he thought. It'll turbocharge the hangover when it hits.
Still, it need to be done, Chau decided as the drunk continued his harangue of the Lenden barkeep. As the man moved, Chau "accidentally" knocked his shoulder. The customer turned and flapped a fist in his direction, which Chau swayed back from easily.
Someone screamed while someone else shouted, "End it now!"
All the days of pent-up frustration erupted; Chau pulled a taser from his pocket and slapped it against the man's chest. Even though it was set to minimum charge, the man's eyes bulged and his mouth opened in a soundless scream, his hands scrabbling at the taser. His body arced, then relaxed as after a second Chau pulled the scrambler away.
"Listen, foul-mouth," Chau said in a loud voice that carried across the now-quiet bar. "Don't abuse the bar staff. Don't foul up my evening drink, and don't give me lip. You got two choices: Go home and sleep it off or make an incident of it and we carry this conversation to the station. Oh yeah," he added. "It's Officer Slant-eyes to you, dumb-shit."
The drunk turned, slowly, ponderously, and swayed to the exit, followed by several other drinkers.
Chau told himself it had been necessary, but still he felt dirty. He swung through 360 degrees, making eye contact with as many people as possible. "Show's over, su zu." He sat down to slow, ironic applause from his colleagues.
Gradually, conversation resumed, although the atmosphere was quieter than before.
The barman dropped their refills at their table, waved away their money. "Thank you, Officer. My treat."
"For someone who really, really didn't want to come, you sure know how to show a girl a good time," Johnson slurred and leered. "What else you going to show us?"
"Leave it, Ronni," Chau said. Already the adrenaline was fading, and he wanted to lay his face on the table and sleep.
"My Sir Galahad," Johnson cooed. "I be your Guinevere, you want."
"More like Morgan le Fay," Demetrious said, and they both cackled as the Lenden put the last drink on the bar, bowed, and left them.
"You shouldn't have done that," Demetrious said. "What's it gonna do next time, when you're not here? Who's gonna defend it then?"
"I needed to do something, as much for me as for it. And I was around this time."
"My hero," Johnson said.
His shirt seam vibrated and the word Chris hovered in the air in front of him. "Hey," he said, aware of Johnson's sudden attention.
"You okay?" Chris's ghostly image said. "I been watching the news about the siege."
"Yeah, just winding down," Chau said. "Go to bed. I'll be home soon."
Ghost-Chris smiled. "Okay." She cut the line.
"She checking on you?" Johnson slurred. He nodded and she said, "You shoulda said you had someone."
He shook his head. "Ain't like that."
Johnson nodded, owl-like. "Buck's always like that." * * * *
Victoria was what Chau imagined England would be like, even to the lovingly maintained red double-deck buses bought decades earlier from London, which ran around the city-centre from the Gothic splendour of the Empress Hotel.
But when the midday shuttle landed in the harbour, Chau's headache was such that he could barely open his eyes.
A uniformed officer joined him, clutching scores of hard-copy images of the third Lenden. Demetrious and Johnson were concentrating on the ferry terminal at Tsawwassen. Others covered the other ferry terminal at Schwartz Bay and another unit targeted the bus terminus in downtown Vancouver.
They drew a frustrating blank; the alien seemed to have joined the ferry from nowhere and disappeared into thin air at Tsawwassen.
As they stopped passersby, Chau saw an elderly woman and thought, Chris's parents live here--I wonder how close? He checked their details.
His jaw dropped, and he called Burridge who looked even older than the day before. "Hey," Chau said.
Burridge started. "Hi, bud, how's it going?" Even his voice was tired.
"How long since you seen your mother-in-law?"
"Dunno," the older man said.
"Okay... " Chau said. You're lying, you s.o.b. Why?
He accessed BC Medical Records, confirming what he suspected, and turned to the uniformed officer who watched him with undisguised curiosity. "Cover for me for an hour," Chau said.
The traffic in Victoria moved like molasses, but unlike in Vancouver, it moved, so "accidentally" switching off his micam, Chau leapt into a cab.
The Hudson Bay Rest Home on the edge of Battery Park overlooked the San Juan Islands and Olympic Mountains beyond and reeked to Chau of corner-cutting, bill-padding, and giving excess tranquilizers to the livelier patients.
Chau's ID got him into the owners' office. A middle-aged Filipino and his wife, they were clearly unhappy at his arrival.
"I need to talk to Alan Peterson," Chau said.
"You have a warrant?" the woman said.
"It's a trivial thing," Chau said. "Be more distressing for him than a quiet chat. And in return we won't give you the deep-clean of an inspection that'd probably throw up so many violations. These building codes," he said, oozing sympathy, "so easy for an innocent misunderstanding to lead to closure."
"We run a good place here," the wife said. "We don't know anything about this."
"Never thought you did," he soothed.
"Thing is, he's getting weaker." The man's accent was much thicker than his wife's. "And we don't know how long he's going to last. The last thing we want is a scandal. Him having a heart attack under police interrogation... "
"No, no, nothing like that! He's helping his own daughter. I'll be very gentle. Much better, surely, than stressing him with warrants?"
"Fifteen minutes," the wife said.
"From when he wakes." He smiled. They nodded, looking worried. "One last thing: How often's Christa been to see him?"
"Maybe twice in three or four years," the wife answered. "Why didn't you ask her?"
"Never thought of it til now," Chau said.
"There'll be no publicity?" the husband asked.
"None 'tall," Chau said.
The husband led him to Peterson's room.
Chau saw the old man's frailty and realised he would need to be gentle. He sat, watching Peterson, wondering if he would end his own days alone in a cheap rest home. The old man must have once been young, vital, dreamed of his future; now he wheezed his last days away. I wonder if he ever had no idea who to turn to? Chau thought. Or was your life always so certain, Mr Peterson?
Chau switched on his micam. "Musta knocked it." A claim that wouldn't fool a six-year-old, but no one could prove it a lie.
As the nursing home owner grew restless, Peterson stirred. The owner leaned over him. "Mr Peterson, you've a visitor."
The old man wheezed, his voice a querulous rasp, "Come here so I can see you." Chau stepped forward. "Chinaman, eh?"
"Canadian, sir," Chau said. "Born and bred."
Peterson coughed until he was moist-eyed and panting. The owner helped him upright and plumped his pillows, fussing until Peterson waved him away. "What do you want?"
"To ask you some questions."
Peterson nodded. Chau suspected he was secretly pleased at the attention but would never admit it. "Leave us, please," the old man told the owner.
Chau sat down as Peterson drank a glass of water. Chau felt the tug of an alarm--call, but for once ignored it. Now wasn't the moment to deep-trance. "Your wife, sir."
"What's she done?"
"Nothing much. I wondered, where is she?"
"She's probably visiting our daughter and her husband."
Chau shook his head. "No, sir, she isn't."
"I dunno, damn it!" Peterson snapped. "She isn't on a leash. She'll be out shopping or visiting friends."
"Does she have many friends?"
"Not as many as she used to," Peterson admitted. "They're dying off. Bit like us. We were old to have Christa. When she reached adolescence, she was a bit... embarrassed of us. She married a good man, though I was surprised when she did--always wild til she met him. Maybe she needed a firmer hand." Peterson fell silent, staring into the distance.
"Must be lonely for you," Chau said, "stuck in here while your wife's out. How d'you pass the time?"
"I sleep a lot," Peterson said. "I read books."
"Same here," Chau said.
Peterson snorted. "Not your electronic junk."
"No, proper hard copies. My parents was librarians in the old country. When they immigrated, they opened a secondhand bookshop." He felt again the crackle of flames, the acrid tang of burning paper and smoke, the screams. Then flying through the air. He couldn't remember that, surely? Though he'd been thrown from the sixth floor...
He realized Peterson was talking. "...don't like the news: Full of murder and wars. And I dislike that damned box." He waved at the big screen in the corner. "Load of junk. Not like when I was a kid. Got a cigarette?" Chau shook his head. Only really old people smoked. "Just as well." Peterson chuckled. "They'll give me hell if they catch me."
"She doesn't shop, does she, Mr Peterson?" Chau asked gently. "Because the owner shops for you." When the owner had opened a drawer, Chau glimpsed a packet of cigarettes and a book before it was slammed shut again.
Chau let the silence hang.
The old man's eyes filled up. "I was so lonely," he whispered. "Christa never visits."
Chau sat quietly. Better not to talk now.
"Belinda knew towards the end she was going. Even though she wasn't always right," he tapped his head, "she knew. Said, 'Tom, what you going to do without me?' when she was okay." He began to cry, gently at first, then ragged sobs that shook his body and turned into a coughing fit.
Chau waited until the storm of tears and coughing had subsided and passed Peterson a tissue.
"So you hired a Morph?" Chau asked finally.
Wiping his eyes, Peterson nodded. "One of the agency night staff knew someone," he said so quietly Chau could barely hear him. "Didn't seem right, but Bel insisted. It sat with her, held her hand, said it was... " he groped for the word, " ...empathising. Not like copying her memories, her thoughts, but not unlike... "
"It was to keep you company?" Chau felt another alarm-call, almost strong enough to suck him into trance, but he'd set his override to manual. Not now, he thought.
Peterson nodded. "Forty-eight years we'd been married. I couldn't do without her." He shot Chau a look, begging him to understand. "But she hasn't been here for a week."
Chau sighed. I'll bet. You've served whatever your purpose is, old man. "Mind if I stay awhile?"
"I don't think Bel's coming back."
Chau opened the window, listened to the distant traffic. "I just thought you might like company."
"I don't need sympathy, young man!"
"I know." Chau held up his hands in mock surrender. "I wanted to talk about old times, if you don't mind, and when you're too tired to talk, to think."
"Much underrated pastime, thinking," Peterson said. "Most people too busy doing."
They sat talking until it grew dark. Occasionally one of the Filipinos looked around the door, but Peterson waved all interruptions away.
Eventually Peterson slept. Chau sat with him in the darkness, turning the different pieces of information over and over in his mind, trying to get one of them to fit, ignoring the occasional tug of the incoming calls.
He watched the monitor beside the bed, listening to a lone cicada outside. He guessed Peterson wouldn't survive to the next visit.
His hand brushed against his cheek, and he realized that it was wet. "Goodbye, old man," he said, gazing into the distance.
Finally he left and switched his phone back on. It immediately rang. "Where the hell are you?" Sharp said.
"Well, get back here," Sharp snapped. "We got another dead Lenden. And now they're fighting back." * * * *
Chau caught the next shuttle. On the way he checked the newscasts; two Lenden had bludgeoned a man to death in an apparently motiveless assault. Motiveless because the Lenden had been unable to form mouths to explain before being hacked apart by a mob of machete-wielding humans.
As he climbed the steps from where the shuttle was moored quayside, Demetrious was waiting for him. "Come on." The federal agent tugged Chau up further steps to a copter waiting on the roof. "Just arrived from Calgary, so I said I'd wait for you. But we ain't got all night."
On the way Chau said, "Odd how them Hom-Saps happened to be carrying machetes."
Demetrious grunted. "They gang members, lawyered up afore we even read 'em their rights. Nada coincidental 'bout it."
"Who the paymaster?"
"You find out, be sure to let me know."
They landed outside the grounds of the embassy. The body had been dumped in a fountain just outside the park gates, the stem forced into a ragged gash that might have been a mouth or simply a wound cut into the face. "Immersed in water again," Chau muttered.
"Timing's wrong," Demetrious said. "Nothing like a full moon when the other ones was done. Someone's copycatting."
Groups of Lenden stood in silent clumps more intimidating than any chanting or shouting. The uniformed officers shooed as many as they could into the grounds, but there was a hard core who would not disperse, filmed eagerly by the Vulture Squadron. Just waiting to feed on the corpse, Chau thought.
Verez Sen Url and Tyndemion Nes Vitta stood amongst the core. You don't need to know body-lingua to read their distress.
"Better odds on winning the lottery than finding witnesses, it so quiet round here," the duty CSI said to Chau.
"Our people continue to be hacked down by a madman," Tyndemion Nes Vitta raged, no doubt for the benefit of the newsies. "How many more must die before you cure your sickness?"
Verez Sen Url pulled the other Lenden away. He shrugged her off and stalked into the embassy grounds. When the newsies tried to follow him, Lenden guards barred their way. "You are trespassing," the consul said. "Leave this place."
"But Consul, this is a matter of public interest!" a reporter shouted.
"Your public; your interest," Verez Sen Url said. "Our only interest is in staying alive." She turned to Chau, now standing beside her. "Will you disperse these people?"
Chau turned to one of the uniformed officers standing by. "They can gather, but not here on private ground," he said, and with the aid of his colleagues, the uniform herded the ranks of reporters back metre by groaning, complaining metre.
"We thought we was making progress," Chau said. The alien turned to look at him, her silence inscrutable. He continued, "Seems every time we take a step forward, we're knocked back two."
"I presume you will need to interview our people again?" The alien's voice was flat; was it Chau's imagination that he caught a faint emphasis on the "again"?
"We will," Chau said. "I'm sorry."
Verez Sen didn't answer.
"I get the impression," Chau said, "that you not a great fan of Homo Sapiens."
"Have I ever criticized your people?"
"You're tactful," Chau said. "That just means you don't say what you think."
"You do realize that this killer is playing to the lobby who wish our people to leave?" Before Chau could answer, the consul had stalked into the embassy grounds.
Looking around at the micro-maelstrom of reporters, human sightseers, Lenden, and police trying to keep them apart while CSIs examined the body, Chau caught sight of the Lenden he had talked to the day before, trying to squeeze through the reporters to the gate.
"Fush Sen Url," he said, putting his body between hers and the reporters'. "I'll help you through."
"Thank you," the young Lenden said through her ragged-Plasticine-looking lips, ducking her head. "I shouldn't talk to you."
"Why?" Chau said.
"Verez Sen will be angry," the young Lenden said. "She tried to persuade me not to talk to you yesterday, but I felt it was my duty. Wasn't it?"
"It was," he said, guiding her with an arm on hers toward the gate where Lenden watched them. Trying to shield his face from the watching Lenden, he said, "Why'd Verez Sen try to keep you quiet?"
"She said that it might be dangerous. That I should keep silent until after the vote," Fush Sen said.
They reached the line of waiting Lenden, and he released her, thinking furiously.
Johnson walked over and nudged him. "C'mon, we got work to do. We need to give the flatfoots a hand door-stepping." Knocking on every door to talk to potential witnesses would be a huge job, and he guessed that he wouldn't get much sleep.
"Yeah," he said, absently.
"What?" she said. "Dreaming of your bint again?"
She grinned as he bit off a retort, and he grinned back. Then he turned serious and motioned her closer. "There's too many pieces that don't fit together."
"Yeah." Johnson tilted her head toward the fountain. "Timing's wrong. So we got a pair or someone who wants it to look like a whack-job."
"Something to do with the plebiscite--"
"Hold on," Johnson said and slipped into deep-trance. Moments later, she surfaced and said, "Shit. Third victim--the one you and Burridge found--has been identified. From Port Renfrew, a few miles west of Victoria: Koos Nes Url--"
"Url? As in Verez Sen Url?"
"There's more," Johnson said. "A story's breaking--"
They were interrupted by shouts from the Vultures.
Demetrious hurried across. "Get in the squad car, now!"
"What?" Chau tried to shake him off, but Demetrious held on and pushed him into the car.
As he got in, he heard one of the reporters shout, "There he is! Officer Chau, can you give us your version of the alleged assault?" A uniformed officer slammed the door shut on the questions even as Chau felt the tug of an incoming priority call.
"You're going home," Sharp said, voice only. "Get some sleep while we work out what to do with this mess."
Chau shallow-tranced and checked the news-feed; to his horror, he saw himself on camera tasering an old man, apparently without provocation.
"It was self-defence, sir."
"I'm willing to buy that given that we have the bar's footage, which shows his initial punch," Sharp said. "And we need every officer we can get at present. But I also don't need us under the spotlight, and I want to know who leaked doctored film to the newsies. So get some sleep. We'll talk in the morning."
"Am I suspended, sir?"
"We'll talk in the morning," Sharp said.
Chau leaned back in the seat and rubbed his eyes. "Shit," he said, praying silently that the newsies couldn't breach the locks around his data. The driver didn't ask; it was obvious that he'd been told not to talk to Chau. Without speaking, he put on the siren and slowly, reluctantly, the traffic parted for them. Even so, it was dark by the time the patrol car rounded the corner onto the road running across Chau's street. As it rounded the corner onto his street, he said, "Drop me here." He was working on instinct alone--he was so tired from the constant late nights and early mornings, the twenty-hour stress-filled days, and the alternate hours of boredom and concentration, that conscious thought was an almost unaffordable luxury.
He walked the rest of the way, noting the lack of lights in his apartment. Either Chris had gone or was asleep. Or, he thought, she's sitting in the dark nursing her bruises.
The door to his apartment opened and Chris stepped out. She looked around furtively. Watching from the shadows into which he slid, still on instinct, Chau started the micam. * * * *
An hour later, the apartment was still dark. Chau let himself in. Opening the fridge, he drank a pint of milk from the carton.
"You'll spill it," Chris said from the darkness.
He shrugged and turned to face her, tired and unsure of what to say.
"I missed you," she said. "I thought I'd have to put out a missing persons call." He said nothing but stared at her, at every pore, every incipient wrinkle. "What's wrong?" she asked, finally.
"The detail is amazing." He sighed heavily and, clicking on the holoscreen, played the footage from the micam on it.
On-screen Chris Burridge stood naked in the small shared garden, her clothes a small pile beside her.
In the moonlight, she began to change: First her mouth and nose and eyes flowed back into the skull, leaving the face a blank slate. Her hair shortened and broadened, slowly forming the crown of leaves on top of the skull. The alien's torso stretched slightly, the limbs shortening to compensate.
The Lenden squatted, and from the base of her spine grew an extrusion, small at first, then lengthening until the stem drilled into the ground for its nourishment.
"I shocked myself, then." He was surprised at how harsh his voice sounded in the silent kitchen. "For years I bin proud of my tolerance." Fury rose like bile at how she'd fooled him. "But I'd a cheerfully shot ya then."
She shrank back.
The fury passed, and he was left with mind-numbing fatigue and the evidence of his credulity staring at him.
"Are you pheromoning me?" He'd been shocked to discover how much the Lenden used pheromones; it felt suspiciously like brainwashing.
"We all pheromone everyone. Don't read anything into it."
"Huh. No wonder you never wanted the lights on."
She shrugged. "It seemed a good idea not to--what's the phrase?--tempt fate."
His laugh was bewildered rather than amused. "You're good. And so small--you're just a child?"
She shook her head. "No, I'm fully grown. A dwarf cultivar, to use a term Christa would understand."
"Where is she?" You bin so busy thinking about yourself--
"She's safe," she said.
He relaxed slightly. "Would you like to return to your real form?" He kept his voice casual with an effort. "It must be draining, keeping her shape."
After a few seconds, Christa's features flowed again into Lenden physiology. He peered at her, not caring whether she felt threatened; she had invaded his privacy first. Up close, the Lenden pores were greenish-white and really did resemble the florets on cauliflowers. The cauli-head jokes have some basis in reality.
The eyes remained, though her nose receded back into her face. "I need the mouth to talk," she said. "And I like the eyes. They're a nice feature." As the features settled, he pulled back for a panoramic view. "Happy now?" she said.
He shrugged. "Happy's not the word. Less uneasy, maybe. You kept Chris' voice."
It was a statement rather than a question, but she said, "I thought you liked it. You told her once after a few drinks what a sexy voice she had."
"Jesus," he breathed. "You even took her mind." He felt another surge of anger. How could he have been fooled so well for so long? "What was the point of this charade?" He realised his voice was rising and took a deep breath. "I want to know everything."
The alien shook her head, an oddly human gesture. "I didn't take her mind; she was happy to loan it to me. Morphing needs the cooperation of the original. She's perfectly safe in our keeping--"
"Who's 'our'?" If you keep interrupting, you'll learn nothing. "Carry on."
"I'm a simple pawn and I don't know anything."
"Crap. You working for Verez Sen Url?"
"I don't actually know."
"No good," he said. "Tell me here or down at the station. Your call. What's your name?"
Christa's huge blue eyes were unblinking. Finally: "Lissa."
Eventually he said, "Can you be anybody? Can you be me? Christa's mother?"
The alien's laugh was a humourless bark. "Catch that latent xenophobia: They are amongst us. They'll take our jobs, our places, even our bodies!"
"Spare me the moral outrage," he said. "Well?"
"Only a few of us can even mimic one person. No one can morph more than one person well enough to fool your kind. Even that much takes huge effort. Another one of us played 'my' mother." She paused. "You caught us by surprise, turning up on Sunday. The real Chris was just leaving to go into hiding when you arrived. She thought it for twenty-four hours, for a joke... " Lissa trailed off, then added, "Anyways, I decided if I was to meet you, it might as well be then and there."
"Why? So you can pretend to be me?"
"I can't pretend to be you or anyone else. That weren't what they had in mind."
"What who had in mind?"
"I can't tell you. Even if I could, they'd kill me in ways that'd make me long for a quick death." It may have been his imagination, but she seemed genuinely frightened. All part of the act, maybe, he thought. She said, "We ain't the simple, unified people we portray for your benefit."
"So what was the plan?" he said, but the Lenden shook her head. He changed tack. "Look, you in so much trouble it's hard to know where to begin: Probably illegal entry, definitely kidnapping, and conspiracy to commit murder."
Lissa said, "Won't get you anywhere. I'll refuse to speak. Ask yourself a question or three."
"What are they?"
"One: Ask Sen Url how many deaths there have been. Two: If the guy off the Tsawwassen ferry was a murder victim, why did a witness say looked like he knew he was going to his death? Three: Who benefits?" She held up a hand. "That's all you get. I'm going to bed. Coming?"
He burst out laughing. "You ain't serious."
"Okay, separate rooms then. Let's just sleep on it." He didn't answer. She said, "Or you could arrest me, take me to the station. Say goodbye to any chance of sleep. Course, that begs the question... "
"Shut up," he said, swaying and pinching the bridge of his nose.
She said, "Have I hurt you? I been any kind of threat?"
"No, but you could be."
"Then hold on to your gun. And work out what to do about this in the morning."
"You take the couch," he said. "I'll take the bedroom. Try anything and I'll taser you."
She said nothing but sat demurely on the couch, exactly the way Chris Burridge sat, he realized with a jolt. "Good night," she said.
Chau transmitted the micam footage of Lissa's change and their subsequent talk to Sharp, on low priority. It would buy him time to work out what to do, but he had communicated the information. That begs the question, she had said, but hadn't completed the sentence, of why you haven't already arrested me. He wasn't sure of the answer but wondered if he had waved goodbye to his career. If, after the transmission of the footage in the bar, he still had one.
And if he really cared.
"Good night," he said at last. Friday
Chau stirred and looked at the bedside clock. It said 01:55.
The taser was still half under his pillow where he had put it after falling into bed. What was different--and had probably roused him from deep sleep--was the small bundle of warmth tucked into his back. He debated throwing her out, but it would have taken too much energy. If she'd wanted to harm him, the weapon was exposed enough that she could have used it.
So instead he went back to sleep, and when he awoke to the clamour of his house phones and blinked at the ceiling, trying to think, she was lying on his chest, her arm draped across him. "Shit!" he said. "Accept!" With him still in bed, the house phones would default to avatar-only to callers.
"Where the hell are you?" Johnson's voice crackled with anger. "You shoulda been in an hour or more ago."
"Aagh," he groaned. "I overslept."
"Obviously," Johnson said.
Memory of the conversation of the night before returned. "Sharp hasn't said anything?"
" 'Bout what?"
Chau didn't answer. Obviously he's decided to keep me on the case--at least for the moment. He wondered whether to call the captain for clarification; decided against it. No sense in hunting down trouble. He realized that Johnson was talking. "Eh?"
"I said get your ass over to the intersection of Yukon and West 12th."
"An hour," he said.
"I need to shower, shave--"
"I'll be there."
His eyes felt as if they'd had grit rubbed in them and his head as if his brains had been removed and replaced with cotton wool, but five minutes in the shower with the sterilized dust's temperature set to minimum and the pressure to maximum cleared his head slightly.
As he switched the flow to air, the door opened. "Shouldn't you put some clothes on?" he said, noting that she was sexless in her true form.
"Why?" Lissa said. The almost perfect cupid's-bow lips curved in a smile, incongruous in the Lenden face. "I like to watch you when you see me naked. You don't recoil as I was told you would if you saw me in my true form. So if that wasn't right, what else isn't?" She squeezed into the booth, her back pressing against him. "Scrub my back, will you?" She turned the dust back on.
Her skin was slightly rougher than human, he noted absently, but no worse than some human sufferers of xerosis. "Well, Lissa of the Lenden, why you stalking a mere flatfoot?"
"I was assigned to watch you; you might be a threat to my cultivator's plans. Unlike most policemen, you appear to be sympathetic to us. Not like your Burridge who even as he takes our money despises its source--though he doesn't know where it really comes from. He thinks he's paid by some small-time human hoodlum."
"Burridge?" He stopped soaping her back, stunned into immobility, feeling the world seem to tilt on its axis. "Burridge on the take?"
"He knows your password. Where do you think the leak to your media came from?"
He leaned against a wall, paranoia washing over him. If your ID was used to leak to the newsies, Sharp knows that. So why'd he pretend he didn't? 'Cause he don't trust you! That's why you ain't suspended! And they'll be watching the apartment... "My sympathy's a threat?"
"It is to us," Lissa said.
"Who's us?" He said.
"Lissa Sen Ayrol; Pawn--"
"Pawn a rank? Not a chess analogy?" He'd seen Chris with a chessboard...
"Bit a both," Lissa said. "We fight wars like you play chess, all rules and codes and stuff. You closer to a horse--"
"Whatever." Lissa shook her head again, and he wondered if it was a Lenden gesture or whether she'd unconsciously picked up human habits.
He thought of Chris with another guilty stab at how easily he could be distracted by his interest in the abstract. "D'you leave Chris a vegetable? I mean--"
"I know what you meant. No, the short answer. Imagine me a copy. I know what she knows, but the memories inferior and they'll degenerate." She half-laughed. "That's why I didn't recognize your books. Chris knew they important to you, but she'd never seen one. You lucky I didn't put them in the compactor."
"No," he said, sliding out of the shower. "You lucky. Stop changing the subject. Why you here?"
"Name: Lissa Sen Ayrol. Rank: Pawn. Serial Number--"
"What the frig you on about?"
"Your Geneva Convention," she said. "A prisoner only needs to give--"
"Stop frigging about!" He slapped the wall, noting how she started. Christa's memories?
"Give me twenty-four hours?" Lissa asked. "Please. It might stop them killing Chris. If you go in frontally they'll kill her, eliminate a witness."
"Why should I risk it?"
He strode to the bedroom and began dressing; he did up his shirt and, shallow-trancing, activated the link to the Database. As he'd expected, Demetrious and Johnson had already interviewed the consul, who had refused to be intimidated. "There are literally hundreds in my clan, Officers. The one you mention is only a distant... relative isn't the right word, but it will have to do... "
"You don't know one a your own cousins, Sen Url?" Chau suspected that Johnson was deliberately getting the consul's address wrong to irritate her.
"Do you know all yours, Officer?" It was hard to tell if Johnson's ploy was working--the consul's voice was flat--but Chau had the impression that it was.
"If you have any questions that are relevant, I will be glad to answer them, Officer, but you need to ask them. If not, this interview is over."
As he surfaced from the trance, Chau realized that Lissa had padded in behind him. "You asked why you should risk it," she said. "Why you should trust me, in effect."
Lissa was clearly taking the equivalent of a very deep breath. "I was supposed to kill you tonight," she said flatly, sitting on the end of the bed--between him and the taser by his pillow. "Kill the young cop who only ever offered the Lenden sympathy and support."
He turned and stared. Swallowed.
"I don't intend following orders," she said.
"Why you think, Raphael Chau?"
"Dunno," he said, still wondering whether he could reach the taser. But if she wanted to kill you, why didn't she?
She stretched across and, before he could take more than one step, picked up his taser.
She took its barrel and offered it to him, grip-first. "You'll need this." He took it. She said, "Don't you have a phrase, 'Actions speak louder than words?' I can tell you I mean you no harm, but if I show you... "
He put the taser in its holster under his shoulder. "Again: Why?"
"'Cause against all the odds, the man I was supposed to kill wasn't a monster, wasn't anything but... " She gazed at him, and he felt sonar pinging off him. "I dunno. Maybe in growing me just for this purpose, denying me an ordinary life, they left an emotional vacuum that you filled with kindness." She shook her head. "Dunno. I just can't do it."
"Why won't you tell me everything now?"
"'Cause," she said. "If you catch them, everything you doubtless been recording will show I didn't participate. Think of this: Long as I'm here, you know where their agent is. They don't know that you know." She looked at his bedside clock. "You've twelve hours afore they realize. Afore they find another way of inflaming the crisis."
She sighed, an oddly human gesture, and he wondered again how much of Chris Burridge was in her. "Our people knew when we fled our system ahead of the nova that we weren't going to the Promised Land. Even so, we didn't expect murder to be awaiting us." * * * *
With obvious distaste, Johnson surveyed the riverside shacks huddled against the worsening monsoon. Even on a sunny day they would have looked forlorn with their once-gaudy blue and yellow paintwork now peeling and cracked windows and doors, many swinging by a single hinge. "I used to live on MacMillan Island," Johnson said, pointing at the shadowy bulk almost hidden in the mist. "In sheds like these."
They were the first friendly words she had spoken all morning; had been aloof, as if she thought he'd been the leak.
A litter-strewn communal patch from which a few yellowish blades of grass sprouted was almost covered by CSI equipment and tarpaulins where one of the neighbourhood dogs had dug something up.
Confronted with what looked like an arm-bone, the owner had called the police even as her dog convulsed and collapsed.
The lead CSI was waiting for them on the edge of the lawn. "Most of the body's burned to nothing by the chemicals," he said. "The animal that found it's already dead from toxic shock. We've moved the few last residents out; they've complained for months about tar oozing up into their lawns, but they're squatters desperate for somewhere to live. No one else would live here. The dump's old, considered low risk, and the municipality's overloaded with requests from higher-profile cases, so it just kept getting shunted down the queue."
Chau called Demetrious. "We need to keep the squatters from the newsies."
"Already done," Demetrious said.
Surfacing, Chau asked the lead CSI, "The body contemporaneous with the dump?"
The CSI shook his head. "No. The original dump's sixty, seventy years old, full of industrial effluvia and other crap. Someone fly-built these homes forty-odd years ago, then someone else reused the dump; maybe someone connected with the building project found out 'bout it."
"What is left of it?" Chau said.
"Just enough to be sure it's Lenden. So we called you, as per the big flags all over the Database."
They put on sterilised whites and respiratory masks. "Is this squat legal?" Chau's voice tinny was over the com.
Johnson shook her head. "I checked the records: Last official residents moved out eleven years ago. Squatters moved in seven years ago." Using a pair of tongs she lifted a lump from the viscous goo. "I've no idea what part of a Lenden this is."
"Maybe what passes for bone," Chau said. "Stem, interior bark, or something." He pondered. "So... someone killing Lenden, seven or more years ago. Soon after they first immigrated."
"And they never thought to tell us," she said.
"Maybe their record keeping's bad." At her sardonic look he added, "Really, really bad."
One of the CSIs shouted and beckoned to his team leader. Chau and Johnson hurried across. The lead CSI said, "It's only a guess at this stage, but we've either got a second part of the same body, which is unlikely given the distance apart and how corrosive the chemicals are, or two victims."
Johnson leaned down to the hole and picked up something. "Garcrete," she said. "Some of the unstable shit I was telling you about at Lynn Valley."
"Connected?" Chau said. Why would the Lenden be involved in a building scam? Or is it coincidence?
"Let's call Demetrious and Sharp," Johnson said.
Both of them glazed slightly at the BCPD Database's alarm call, their vision tingeing pink.
11.16 a.m. Major incident: Attack on human female, 31, and male, 4, by three Lenden in Burnaby. Two human fatalities.
11.27 a.m. Major incident: Attack on three Lenden in Burnaby by multiple humans. Three Lenden fatalities, one human.
Untimed. Incident at Steveston: Homicide of human, male, 51.
Major incidents in sixteen other North American cities.
BC Assembly debating emergency legislation with Lenden ambassador. Officers assigned to protective duty.
All leave cancelled. All available desk officers reassigned to civilian-calming measures.
UN calling emergency session.
Officers Chau and Johnson report to BDEL Office.
Chau surfaced and saw Johnson's eyes refocusing. "Shit," he said.
"Yeah," she agreed. "Come on, let's go."
They walked back to the hire-car, and Johnson stopped.
Chau followed her gaze. "What?"
"That car parked there," she said. "Cyan-coloured Mazda Electric MZE8."
"What 'bout it? We parked here as well." Chau's hand shot out as Johnson stepped toward the Mazda. "Leave it."
Johnson stared at him. "What's going on?"
"I'm being tailed," he said. "I know about it; is okay."
"Nah," Johnson said. "We don't have secrets. Tell me or I walk over there."
"Not here, in the open. Any satellite fly-by could see us. That'd blow it." He sighed. "Okay, we find a coffee shop. Call Sharp and Demetrious. Easier for them to come out anyways than for us to fight the traffic into town."
They drove for twenty minutes toward town before stopping at a roadside diner. "I messaged her," Chau said. "She'll join us in a minute."
"Her?" Johnson grinned. "Your girlfriend stalking us?"
"Something like that."
The diner was empty apart from a bored waitress who barely glanced at him. He poured coffee from the percolator and took a table. Minutes later, Johnson slid into the chair opposite Chau.
Soon after, another figure sat at the next table. Johnson looked up and paled at the sight of Chris Burridge applying another layer of blusher.
"Lissa, this Ronni," Chau said, "Ronni, this Lissa, a friend."
"Hi," Johnson grunted, barely civil. They studied each other. "Thought you were Greg Burridge's wife for a moment," Johnson said.
"Really?" Lissa said. "S'pose we do look alike."
The small talk tailed off, and they sat in silence until Sharp and Demetrious joined them.
"We good to talk here?" Chau said.
Lissa nodded. "I don't recognize the woman serving in here. I think it's safe."
Chau looked a question at Sharp who nodded. "Your meeting. You run it."
Chau told the others everything that had happened. "You knew my ID leaked to the media, didn't you?"
Sharp said, "Yes." He waited, but Chau didn't speak so he continued, "We were giving you enough rope to hang yourself--or to reel something in. The latter, thank God."
"So I s'pose you couldn't suspend me either," Chau said.
"Guess you got lucky," Demetrious said.
Chau didn't answer, just stared at Sharp, who looked at Demetrious. Chau thought, You ain't gonna get an apology or even recognition that you been used. He made himself slowly unclench his fists and breathe more gently, but it took real effort. To break the silence, he turned back to Lissa who was watching them, and heard the others exhale. He doodled in coffee that had slopped onto the table. "You're better at morphing than the Lenden we know 'bout. Say a level ten rather than a five?"
"More like fifteen," Lissa said. "Not good enough to fool a loved one in perfect light, but... "
"That implies the Lenden've been working on this for more than the decade you been here."
Johnson had watched the exchange wide-eyed. She opened her mouth but closed it at Chau's touch on her arm.
Lissa said, "Since we left what you call Epsilon Eridani."
Now Johnson spoke. "You're here to invade?"
Lissa's laugh was a raven's caw. "Quite the opposite." She took a breath. "One of your writers once said that from space the world looks perfect, that it's only when you get close that you see the imperfections."
Chau said, "Yeah, I think that was Ursula--"
"For Chri'sake, you two talking 'bout books?" Johnson said. "You are two of a kind!"
"You're right," Lissa said calmly. "He just hasn't worked it out yet. Good on books and theory, but show him a living body... "
"Yep," Johnson said, "but spare me the female solidarity. You're a Lenden and we pushed for time."
"So we come close enough to see the imperfections now. Many of our people want to move on."
Sharp said, "And the killings are playing into the moving-on group's hands."
Lissa said, "When we heard you some fifty-odd years ago bawling 'We're here!' like you had a loudspeaker to the cosmos, we had to take a look. But now many Lenden want to run for the stars, as far away as possible. Each world we've visited, we've left a part of the Mother Fleet behind. But not this time." She pushed her untouched coffee away. "If I drink that muck, I'll rot away. Assuming I could morph an iron gullet." She sighed, that oddly human gesture again. "There's another faction who like humans, who want to make our stay work. But as partners rather than as unwelcome tenants." She paused. "To answer the question Raph keeps asking me, I really dunno who I'm working for... "
"We think we know," Demetrious said. "But we need proof." Abruptly, he stiffened. "Gotta take this."
While Demetrious shallow-tranced, Sharp and Johnson talked. Lissa stared at Chau with Chris Burridge's deep blue eyes. He said quietly, "I think I liked you better as a Lenden. At least it's honest."
She checked that the waitress wasn't around and allowed her features to morph back to a blue-eyed Lenden. Chau found the heavy makeup over an alien face disconcerting, but he nodded approval. "Better," he said.
"You prefer me as Lenden?"
"Hmm." She wiped off some of the makeup.
"Listen," he said. "What you mean when you were talking to Johnson? You said I hadn't got it yet? Got what?"
Lissa smiled. "You pretty dim, in some ways. Maybe that's why I like you, Raph."
Chau felt as if he was falling through a trapdoor. "That mean what I think it means?"
"Maybe. Strange, huh? Those humans who're attracted to morphs--Freques?--and it never occurred to my cultivators that it could happen in reverse." She added, "Maybe 'cause you no ordinary human. You like a monk, one with his mind somewhere else mosta the time."
"Maybe it is," Chau said. He tried to damp down thoughts of his parents' screams and the aching loss. I learned to cope, he thought, but at what cost? * * * *
The rain beat down ever harder on the western end of Stanley Park. Can't even see the barrage, Chau thought.
He tried to watch the few people walking, in-line skating, or riding bikes, their faces hidden by hoods, wishing he had some way of telling human from Morph.
He checked the rendezvous. The prevailing wind blew from across the Pacific and struck the towering knoll of land so that the rumble of the traffic across the New Lions Gate Bridge seemed to come from a dark shroud of rain clouds. Water ran down the rock ledges, and cormorants muttered their displeasure at his disturbing their nesting. On an offshore rock, a solitary heron peered down from his perch into the water.
Chau shallow-tranced at the tug of a call. "Johnson here; bird sprung." Chau breathed a sigh of relief. Chris Burridge was safe, her husband in custody. The plan had taken most of the afternoon to work out and had seemed to Chau to be as prone to collapse as a house of cards.
His heart beat a little faster as he stepped out of sight and placed the compound-eyed micam in the bole of a tree. What if it's all a ploy--the real assassination's now?
There on the sightseer's bench was a small, trim figure. She had arrived separately and now stood and walked to where the path curved around. She gazed and walked a few metres in each direction in turn.
Lissa said in his ear, "It's perfect. From a couple of metres in each direction, you can't see the other way."
Both messages went out, tightbeam--recipient's eyes only--encoded. "This Lissa. Chau's dead; I'm hurt. I can't get away." Then: "I don't want to die."
Despite her insistence that she would say no more, they had spent hours quarrying away at Lissa for grains of info. "Can't tell you what I dunno," she had insisted. "Council's closed to outsiders. Us pawns dunno who wants to stay, who wants to go."
She described spending an entire life in a gro-box no bigger than Chau's apartment. "I was raised by a unit with a cell structure, meeting only nameless faces for brief periods, taken to Earth under supervision."
It never occurred to them that one of their experiments might have a mind of her own, Chau had thought.
Chau had made himself concentrate as Lissa said, "If we work this for after I'm supposed to kill Raph, then the guilty one will come to kill me to tie up the loose ends. I would--better than a potential witness running round."
The innocent recipient might also come. "Mebbe from curiosity," Demetrious had said. "And to limit any damage caused by contacting us without verifying the call. They'll think if it turns out to be a hoax and word reaches the newsies, could be as bad as if it's true."
But that last sentence they guessed--hoped--would bring the guilty running.
Huddling out of sight, Chau checked his watch: eight o'clock.
Now Chau licked his lips as she said, "Someone's coming."
Chau took the cut-off length of snorkel tube from his pocket and placed the wide end in his mouth with the other end past his right ear so it couldn't be seen from the path.
He lay down on his cape, feeling dampness through some of the inevitable gaps as, reaching around, he punctured the blood bag on his back. Then he immersed his face in the water, breathing as shallowly as he could in the circumstances. What if this is Lissa playing her own game? What if she's suckered us into setting both of them up for a coup d'etat?
He shallow-tranced; it would slow his breathing. They'd brought an interpreter from Ottowa that Demetrious said could be trusted.
Colours rippled across the newcomer's face as she bowed. "You're Lissa Sen Ayrol?" The translator murmured over what Chau hoped was still a secure line, although only time would tell. "I've come straight from meeting the Provincial Legislature, so I trust this is no joke."
"Verez Sen," Lissa 'said.' "I need help. He wounded me." She showed her the wound she had painfully dug in her own side. Watching her, it was then that Chau had really, really begun to believe in her.
"What?" Verez Sen Url said.
Lissa stood aside, pointing to where Chau lay face down in the water as Chau had suggested: "It'll jolt her."
"What have you done?" Sen Url 'said,' colours swirling, sonar doubtless pinging, and, watching via themicam, Chau thought her bewilderment and horror genuine but wasn't sure.
"Another one's coming," Demetrious said from his hiding place.
"One moment, Verez Sen," Lissa said, and clutching her side staggered away, toward the newcomer.
"What is this foolishness?" the second Lenden 'said.'
"Tyndemion Nes, I'm hurt." Lissa said.
"You foolish young woman," the interpreter translated, "what are you doing?"
"Trying to stay alive." She stood aside and pointed at Chau's body, lying face down in the pool.
"That's Chau?" Nes Vitta said. "Your message said Chau."
Come on, come on, thought the watching Chau. Get on with it!
"Look," Lissa said and walked toward Chau. Tyndemion Nes Vitta followed.
"Sen Url's walking toward you, Raph," Sharp said. "We may have to show our hand."
Chau lay still; if she was the anti-faction, then she would finish him as soon as she realized he lived. He gripped the taser he'd taken out as he lay down, his hand so cold he'd almost lost feeling in it.
Demetrious said, "He's holding something in his hand. Could be a gun! We're moving in!"
Verez Sen Url became statue-still as Chau took a deep breath and stood up, and taking the biggest leap of faith yet, the young man put his finger to his lips.
Tyndemion Nes Vitta stopped and took a step backwards.
"We could never work out the lack of commonality," Chau said, walking toward him. "Hardly surprising if they all had different killers."
"People who felt that they shouldn't be on Earth longer than they had to be, that a better idea was to carry on looking for our promised land," Lissa added. "A minority at the start, but fanatics who gained support as our people saw our community slaughtered by a native killer."
"You've been working too hard, Officer," Nes Vitta said. "Or she's misled you." The alien backed away, then looked around and stopped. Chau checked the micam, saw the line of policemen moving in.
"Suppose," Chau said, "a few extremists decided to ape their human hosts and adopt violence. A scapegoat like James Latimer, primed with flash--prop him up over the body and stand guard until he came round.
"And," Chau said, "my meeting a Morph who was trying to find a way into the BCPD gave the cabal the idea of killing a cop, so fanning the flames on both sides."
The Lenden shook his head. "You've bought into Sen Ayrol's paranoid fantasies." He stepped toward Lissa who backed away.
Chau held up his forefinger. "At 1729 we matched the gravel in the third victim's pockets to that found on your property!"
He held up his index finger. "At 1917 we traced Koos Nes Url, the third victim. He worked for you, despite his name.
"The net's tightening by the minute, Tyndemion Nes," Chau said. "It's only a matter of time. There's no way out."
Tyndemion's nerve broke and he ran.
"No you don't!" Chau screamed as he set off after the Lenden. "Hold your fire!"
Tyndemion reached the seawall and jumped onto it. He ran toward one of the boats moored there, but Chau tackled him and�