Authors: Patrick S Tomlinson
Theresa leaned back in her chair and hid an admiring smile behind a hand. “You really believe that, don't you? Even after dealing with people at their worst every day for years, you still believe in their fundamental decency. You're a strangely stubborn optimist, Bryan Benson.”
“Of course. The old rules will become extinct, but a whole new set will have to take their place. People will run to find the new boundaries as fast as they can. Somebody is going to have to be ready to jerk their chains when they finally reach them.” She held up her own little cup. “That's going to be us, sweetie.”
“Funny, you're not the first person today toâ”
“Christ, Devorah. What did I say about ringing first?” Benson was startled enough that he both said it aloud and into his plant interface.
“Aren't you Jewish?”
“Really?” Theresa scolded. “Hang up, Bryan. We're having dinner.”
Benson apologetically held up his hands. Theresa grabbed a segment of his perch roll with her chopsticks and angrily popped it into her mouth.
“I'm at dinner. A rather expensive one.”
“What's so important it can't wait until the end of our romantic dinner?” Theresa asked.
“Our dinner? You seem to be the only one eating.”
“Lucky you. You know what they say about a girl with an appetite.”
“That they're expensive dates?”
“I'm worth every red cent,” Theresa said confidently.
“That you are.” Benson admired her plunging neckline for a moment before he leaned in and pitched his voice lower. “The painting from Laraby's apartment is real.”
Theresa put down her chopsticks and rested on her elbows with a strangely hungry look in her eyes. “What's it worth?”
“Well now, that's motive in my book.”
Benson nodded. “Mine too, but for who? We don't have any suspects yet.”
A sly smirk tugged at Theresa's lips. “The museum gets to keep the painting now that it's been confiscated, yes?”
“Yes, Devorah's quite excited about it, too.”
“I bet she is.”
Benson cocked an eyebrow. “Are you saying she's involved?”
Theresa shrugged. “She stands to benefit. And that woman has always struck me as more than a little cold.”
Benson shook his head. “Why kill for it, though? If she knew about the painting before I found it, all she had to do was get a warrant to search the apartment, then she'd get to keep it anyway. No need to get her hands dirty.”
“Maybe she couldn't get the warrant? I read your report, his home was way beyond the pay grade of a tech, even one at his level. Maybe someone has been keeping him in comfort, and protecting him to boot.”
“A patron among the floaters?” Benson considered it for a long moment, but put it aside. “Devorah loves the chase. She's cunning, but as short-tempered as she can be, she's not malicious. I just don't see her being a murderer, even if I could see a tiny elderly woman disposing of a grown man cleanly. Besides, that assumes Laraby's dead in the first place.”
“It's been two days. Aren't we assuming that at this point?”
Benson looked at her sternly. “It's our job not to.”
Theresa looked as though she was about to take offense, but her face changed and she nodded instead. “Anyone else's DNA at his apartment?”
Benson shook his head. “Tests came back a couple hours ago. No DNA at all. From anyone.”
Theresa squared her shoulders. “That's not possible. I don't care how OCD somebody is, you can't live somewhere without leaving
“There are ways to dissolve genetic material. The old Triads had aerosols that could do it.”
“So a resurgent Chinese Triad broke into Laraby's home and wiped the scene clean to cover up a murder, only to leave a priceless French Impressionistic painting hanging on the wall?”
Benson perked up. “Well, you know what they sayâ¦ More Monet, more problems.”
Theresa visibly shuddered, then rubbed the side of her face. “You've been waiting all day to drop that bomb on some unsuspecting victim, haven't you?”
“Actually, I thought of it last night, right before bed. But you're right. As a theory, it lacks a certainâ¦ elegance.”
Theresa took another pull from her sake and let the hot rice wine percolate through her stomach before continuing. “So, Laraby's apartment is clean?”
“No evidence to contaminate?”
Benson's eyebrow cocked suspiciously. “Noâ¦”
“So, that perfect little bed with its silk sheets isn't being slept in? Seems like such a waste.” She pinched her tempura chicken between her chopsticks, then held it between her full, pouting lips and bit the tip off.
Benson waved over their waiter.
hen he awoke
the next morning, Benson felt like he'd been wrung dry. He reached an arm to the other side of the bed, but found it empty. He half-remembered Theresa sneaking out in the early morning hours. Her scent lingered on more than just the sheets.
The warm, sumptuous sheets called for him to pull them over his head and ignore the universe for a few more hours. Still, the evening had energized him. He'd been one of the first dozen or so people to eat real chicken meat in over two centuries, and as satisfying as that experience had been, it was only the first of his appetites to be satiated before the night was over.
With great effort, Benson extricated himself from the bed and dressed in yesterday's clothes. It was still twenty minutes before the morning lights warmed up, so he snuck around to the side of the apartment and off the main footpaths to avoid prying eyes. An easy job considering he knew where all the security cameras were, which ones were stuck pointing in one direction, and which ones were offline altogether.
The door opened on his small apartment. Benson sighed. “Back to reality,” he mumbled. He glanced at the time stamp on his wall display. There was still time for his morning run around the module's circumference, if he pushed. But Benson wasn't in the mood to hurry. Besides, he'd gotten enough exercise the night before.
Instead, Benson jumped in the shower and quickly rinsed off the remaining evidence of the evening'sâ¦ entertainments, then put on fresh clothes. The lights above flickered to life as he made his way to work.
Avalon's stationhouse was situated in the ground floor of one of the towers on the module's forward bulkhead, while a smaller outpost on the far end of the habitat served those residents. The layout was mirrored in Shangri-La, to give constables quick access to the lifts, if the two forces ever needed to come together for mutual support. So far, that hadn't been necessary, but Landing was in less than two weeks.
It was impossible to predict how people were going to react. Benson's counterpart, Chief Bahadur, had been gently suggesting a few joint crowd control exercises for weeks, an idea Benson was finally coming around to. They'd been adversaries once, playing for opposing teams. Their post-Zero careers had taken similar paths, and now instead of adversaries, they were close colleagues, even friends.
The stationhouses were an afterthought. Benson's was made up of just five rooms. A waiting area in front, Benson's closet of an office, two private debriefing rooms, and a storage area for equipment and the evidence locker. It lacked holding cells. Indeed, the ship had no jails of any kind.
The Ark Project had been suffused with almost delusional levels of optimism from its inception. The selection process that picked the first fifty thousand pioneers had many facets. Chief among them was physical fitness, disease resistance, and an absence of genetic defects. It was a chance to weed out the worst of the hereditary baggage mankind had accumulated over the last hundred thousand generations.
However, a parallel effort, not as well advertised, eliminated other troublesome traits. Criminal tendencies, antisocial behavior, and the predisposition towards violence were all factors that quietly moved candidates into the rejection pile, and moved criminality into the dustbin of history. The problem solved, the engineers hadn't bothered to waste precious space on jails that would stand empty for the entire trip anyway. At least, that had been the theory.
The program hadn't been without measurable successes. By and large, the population of the Ark was far less violent than the people who had lived on Earth, even eleven generations after launch. But some impulses were buried far too deeply in the software to be simply purged.
When someone did go off the script badly enough, sentences were simple by necessity. Minor infractions were dealt with through a combination of community service and house arrest. Serious crimes were a different matter. Since society couldn't afford to waste finite resources locking up someone who posed a danger to the ship, only one solution presented itself.
It kept recidivism down, at least.
Theresa saluted him as he walked into the stationhouse. He returned it jokingly, but the coy smile he'd expected to see on her face didn't materialize. Benson gave her a look that plainly said, “What's wrong?”
Her eyes darted to his office door, letting him know they weren't alone. Benson nodded almost imperceptibly, then entered his office.
“Officer Feng.” Benson threw a salute, a real one this time. “I wasn't expecting you, sir.”
Chao Feng returned his salute from Benson's own chair. “Unsurprising, as I only decided to come down here a half hour ago.” He motioned towards the only other chair in the sparse room. “Please, detective, sit.”
Benson did so. “You're here to tell me something I'm not going to like.”
Feng laced his fingers. “So, we're skipping the small talk about the Mustangs' chances to keep the series going?”
“I know you're more of a bandwagon Yaoguai fan, sir. And I doubt you schlepped all the way down from Command to chat about Zero.”
Feng smiled. “That's why you're the detective.”
“I do try. What's the story?”
Feng sat up straighter and leaned over the desk. “The truth is, I came down here to tell you directly. Magistrate Boswell has reviewed your request to unlock crewman Edmond Laraby's personal filesâ¦”
Benson inhaled. He'd submitted the warrant request first thing upon getting back to his apartment in the morning.
“â¦and has declined to issue a warrant at this time.”
Benson's shoulders slumped. “Is this a joke?”
Feng perked up at the question. “Not at all, detective. It was the magistrate's judgment that crewman Laraby's privacy must be respected.”
“The man is missing! I'm supposed to find him before he becomes compost.”
Feng opened his hands. “Which is why I strongly suggest you return to
for him instead of going through his dirty laundry.”
“Officer Fengâ¦” Benson tried to calm himself before continuing. “The odds that Laraby's disappearance and that his priceless, stolen painting are unrelated areâ¦ well, an appropriately absurd metaphor doesn't jump to mind at the moment. Let's just say they're really low.”
Feng shrugged. “It's the magistrate's call, detective, not mine. You know that, and I doubt your time would be any better spent arguing the point with him. Magistrate Boswell has made his decision for now, but he left the door open. Find crewman Laraby and you can question him about his taste in art all you like. But do it quickly, Director da Silva has been screaming at me for two days already about lost productivity. I suggest you go out and beat the bushes.”
Benson felt a scathing comeback surging in his throat, but it would be futile.
“I'll be in need of my desk in that case, sir.”
Feng stood up. He was rather more muscled than the average floater, but still leaner than people who spent most of their time in the habitats. They pirouetted in what little space was available and changed places. Benson threw a salute, then sat down as soon as Officer Feng had left. He was immediately replaced by Theresa.
“What the hell was that all about?” she asked.
“Oh, the usual. Boss refuses to give you the tools you need to do the job, then leans on you to get the job done faster anyway.”
Theresa sat down. “The magistrate denied the warrant?” Benson nodded. “Still think my theory about someone protecting him is crazy?”
Benson put his arms behind his head. “Interference from on high is looking more likely, but how does this help us find him?”
“Maybe we're not meant to.”
Benson stood up. “Well, then they're going to be disappointed.” He pushed past her on his way to the door.
“Going to go shoulder check the truth out of someone?”
“My job is a little more subtle these days.”
“You're not a subtle man.”
“I know,” Benson shrugged. “It's a real problem.”
the call button to Apartment #168, on the bottom floor of the Mumbai Building, Shangri-La module. Nothing happened.
It wasn't that no one answered the door, but that literally nothing happened. The button itself didn't ring. He tried it again with identical results. Instead, Benson dug deep into his bag of detective tricks and simply knocked on the door the old-fashioned way. When that didn't get a response after a handful of seconds, he tried beating on it.
“Police! I know you're home, Mr Kite.” Benson paused and listened for any movement, then knocked on the door again. “I can always just come to chat while you're at work.”
That got a response. He could hear feet shuffling on the other side of the door, then the sound of a deadbolt sliding open. The door opened a crack, held in check by a chain. An angry eye glared through the slit.
“Mr Kite. I'm Detective Benson.”
“I know who you are, detective,” the dry voice said impatiently. “Your jurisdiction ends at Avalon's lock. We're in Shangri-La. Unless you're stopping for directions?”
Benson shook his head. “It's not that kind of visit. You're not in any trouble. I just want some insight.”
“A young man is missing, and I think his hobbies have something to do with it. May I come in, please?”
The face peered out at him for a moment, but finally gave a curt nod. The door shut, the chain rattled, then it swung open again, revealing a gnarled man beaten down by the weight of a long life, yet standing as tall as his short frame would allow.
“Thank you, Mr Kite.”
The older man shrugged. “Call me Sal. Everybody else does.”
“OK, Sal. By the way, your call button is broken.”
“It ain't broke, I disconnected it. I got tired of people askin' to hear the old war stories.”
“Nobody thinks to knock?”
“You'd be surprised what nobody thinks to do.” He motioned at a small plastic chair that looked like it had been scavenged from a kindergarten. “It's sturdier than it looks. Can I get you anything? Tea? Something stiffer?”
“Tea is fine. Just between you and me, I'm still nursing a bit of a hangover.”
“Some honey with your tea, then.” Sal disappeared around a corner into his kitchenette while Benson sat down. The apartment wasâ¦ people trying to be polite would call it cozy and lived-in. In reality, it was a cramped dive. A strong scent of potpourri infused the air, trying to mask the undercurrents of something much fouler, but mostly failing.
The only bright spots in the otherwise dreary apartment were a pair of paintings hanging on the wall, right under a ceiling light in a place of honor. They were surrealist landscapes, one of ants and melting clocks, the other of a woman sitting on a shore with drawers in her chest.
Benson moved to inspect them more closely.
“You like my little collection, Detective?” Sal walked up behind him and offered him a plastic cup and saucer.
“They're certainlyâ¦ different. Are they real?”
“You mean, did I somehow manage to hold onto some of my ill-begotten loot? No, detective, they're fakes. I paid for them to be printed fair and square.” His watery eyes peered into Benson's when he didn't reply. “You don't recognize them, do you?” Benson shook his head. “I figured. An art aficionado would know the real
Persistence of Memory
is only as big as a sheet of paper. I had the printers enlarge it. But I did the brushstroke varnish myself,” he said, with a trace of wistful pride.
“I was never one for art, I'm sorry to say.” He pulled his tablet out of a jacket pocket, then brought up an image file of the Monet he'd found in Laraby's home. “But you, obviously, are. Can you tell me anything about this painting?”
Sal leaned in to get a better look. “Part of the Haystacks series. Monet painted a bunch of these things. The same haystack at different times of day. He was always experimenting with light and color. Obsessed with it, you could say.” Sal's eyes seemed to go unfocused for a second, before zeroing back in on the image like a hawk. “Where was this taken?”
“Two days ago. In Avalon.”
“And it's the real thing?” he asked breathlessly.
“Yes, Madam Curator confirmed it only last night.”
A flicker of intense anger burned across his face. But it was gone in an instant, like a memory of hate. “So,” Sal continued. “A Monet survived after all.”
“It certainly seems that way. That's why I'm here, why I want to talk to you.”
“Why? To warn me not to steal it?” His tone turned icy. “I'm a lonely old man. Why'd you come all the way over here to bother me?”
“Because the man who had this is the one who's missing, and I don't have much time to find him.”
Some flicker of understanding passed between the two men. “This was in a private collection, then? Not hidden away in the museum's vaults?”
Benson nodded. “Yes, exactly.”
“Of course it was,” Sal smiled viciously. “Old Benny would have fingered a piece like that in a heartbeat. Never could've kept that hidden from him.”
Benson sipped his tea and let the old criminal talk.
“We didn't do it for the money, you know. Not all of us, at least.”
Benson set his cup down on a small table. “The Heist was before my time. I've read about it, seen the vids, but you're the only person directly involved I've ever talked to. On this side of the law, at least.”
“Yeah, well, the Council made us hard to find, if you know what I mean.”
Benson did. Every one of the Heist conspirators had been executed but Salvador Kite, and he'd only been saved because he'd been a few months shy of eighteen.
“I understand,” Benson said. “You said you didn't do it for the money? Why
you do it, then?”