Man in the Field

By Paul R Green

The imposing bulk of Commander Topps dominated the room, drawing all eyes from the thirty six candidates seated before him.
“Morning, candidates.”
The assembled recruits chorused a response and he nodded.
“The fact that you are in this room tells me that you are better than ninety per cent of all those who applied. The fact that you are in this room tells me that you have been tested and judged to be in the top five percent of candidates with psychic potential. The fact that you are in this room means you want to work for me, and to work for me you need to listen to him.”
He pointed to a lean, weather-beaten man slouched in one of the second row seats. The man waved nonchalantly.
“Candidates, this is Palmer. Palmer has made over a dozen D jumps, has been point man on three discovery expeditions, and will be passing on his considerable experience to you over the coming months. I suggest you pay close attention if you wish to progress on your journey towards joining my department. Palmer, you have the room.”
“Thank you, sir.” Palmer unfolded himself from his seat and casually made his way to the front, as his commander exited the room.
He took a long moment to study the faces, seeing how they reacted to the revelation that the man in front of them that they’d assumed to be a fellow candidate was, in fact, to be their instructor.
As he did so he silently recited the mantra that put his mind on the correct path to skim those of his would-be students. In his head he watched as smoky green tendrils – his own personal manifestation of the probes – snaked out to touch foreheads. He was pleased to see that at least half of the class had guards in place and that the majority of the remainder pushed out his probes as soon as they realised they were there. He was less happy with the four candidates who either hadn’t noticed his intrusion, or had chosen to ignore it. He planted the suggestion that they should quit the course and withdrew his probes.
“I take it you’ve all read the field reports from my last assignment?”
The group murmured they had, except for the four students who stood, apologised for wasting his time as they didn’t think the job was for them, and left.
Palmer waited until they’d gone.
“Now that I have everyone’s attention I’ll give you a little background into those reports from my personal notes. Lesson one. Don’t take anything for granted.”

***

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 1 +++

It was raining when I arrived. That’s one of the problems with D-Hopping; you’re never quite sure what the weather’s going to be like at the other end. They never mentioned that in the briefings or training; a fact I will be rectifying next year when I get to pass on my wisdom to the next round of prospective Jump-Monkeys D-Hoppers.
A quick sweep of the area told me I was alone, so I was able to get to work.
First job was to get the sensors up and running. This involves me walking about half a klick from where I popped out and attaching a nifty little gizmo – an Automated Remote Sentry Beacon if you want the official title – as high up a tree as I can climb, then walking a roughly circular perimeter and climbing more trees to add more Arse-Beacons every two hundred meters or so until I’m back at tree number one. I like to amuse myself by calling it an arse-beacon in all my reports as I know it annoys the tech boys. Childish I know, but it’s the little things…
Actually – the first job I’ve got to do is pile a few stones up to mark where the D-Gate is, because we don’t want to be spending time trying to find it again later on. No we do not!
Anyway, once the sentries are positioned I do a quick diagnostics check and we are good to go. Now, should any of the local knuckle-draggers happen to wander by, the sensors will pick them up and prevent the D-Gate from opening and scaring the living shit out of them when someone steps out of thin air. It can lead to some awkward situations, that’s for sure – Gideon has his own religion on cL3 thanks to his first trip there. Still that was back in the day. Back when D-Hopping was in its infancy and the department was still finding its feet. Things are different now. There’s nothing like fucking things up to make you get it right next time.
My next job is to dig a big hole, giving me a chance to appreciate all the physical conditioning training I’ve been doing the last few months. Yay!
Once that was done I sent a message pod back home and they began sending my supplies through. The supplies went in the pit, along with the shelter I will be calling home for at least the next few weeks, and I then finish the job by throwing a Techatrek camo-cloth awning over everything just in case. That done, I sent the all clear pod, along with the air, soil and water samples I’d gathered, back through the gate, and seeing as how my next scheduled report isn’t for another week, I put my feet up and got a brew on.

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 8 +++

I’m sick of this fucking rain, that’s for sure. It’s still too early to tell how the seasons work here – we won’t know that until I’ve sent back at least two months worth of weather reports and star maps – but by the trees I’m guessing we’re well into autumn. The forest is mainly deciduous, and fairly untouched, at least in the immediate vicinity. There’s a crude road about ten klicks west of base camp which leads to a walled city on a lake at the head of mountain pass about twenty klicks to the north. I’ll know a bit more when I get closer. First I need to find a native and learn me the lingo.

***

Palmer finished speaking and looked again at his students. Most of them studied him straight back. A few frantically tapped notes into their tablets. A couple looked bored. He checked their names on his seating plan.
“Candidates Lyons and Hart your presence is no longer required. Report to Kane for your papers. Both candidates looked startled, but knew better than to question an instructor. They left the room in good order, albeit a touch sullenly.
“Lesson two. Pay attention at all times; you never know what might come in useful later on.”

***

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 12 +++

It took me a couple of days but I managed. In the end I tailed a party of travellers until they stopped for the night. Once they’d settled down I was able to slip into a couple of their minds. I’m only a mid-range psychic so it took all of my skills to get what I need despite their lack of defences.
I’m hardly fluent, but have enough of the basics to get me into the city without attracting too much attention and it won’t take me long to catch up once I’m there.
I also managed to grab a few pics of what the natives were wearing, so I was able to add that to my report and should have some convincing copies made up in time for my next supply drop. Those copies will, of course, be suitably modified and made with more robust (and waterproof) materials. They’ll also be thermo-reactive and provide a degree of protection against this world’s crude weaponry; so at least I won’t have to worry about freezing my balls off when winter sets in. Next step, currency.
The suits back home were kind enough to provide me with a variety of gemstones and samples of precious metals; the idea being that whatever the dimension, at least one of these elements will be rare enough to trade for some local coinage. Once I have a sample I can then send it back home and my next care package makes me rich enough to find a permanent base of operations within the society I’m infiltrating. Naturally, I am required to fully account for every purchase and expense; I am a government employee after all.
Of course, like most theories dreamt up by men behind desks, it’s not always the most practical on the ground. It’s very hard, for instance, to determine which of the many gems, jewels, metals and minerals are of value without revealing your stash to a local, or coming across like a complete idiot. Luckily, I am an experienced field operative with a diverse skill set and as such have little trouble, and fewer qualms about, simply stealing a selection of coins from some hapless native – or in this case party of travelling natives.

***

“Don’t write that down, Jenkins. I’ve basically just told you to commit larceny. That’s not a technique Commander Topps need ever know about. I’m trying to keep you alive here, and part of the lesson is about knowing how to apply what you’ve learned once in the field.”
Hearing how that came out, he worried he sounded idiotic, but the cadet blanched at hearing his name and bleated out an apology, whilst his classmates remained poker faced.
“Any questions?”
He didn’t even look to see if any hands were raised.
“Good. Then I shall continue.”

***

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 19 +++

I’ve watched the city – Stonelake – for a week now. By its size, building type and density I estimate a population of around thirty thousand, though that may be a little low if the area at the southern end of the town is, as I suspect, some form of ghetto area or similar. The gates and walls are watched by what appears to be an armed militia identified by their long white cloaks. I imagine the same troops also perform some form of police or area watch role within the walls. Those guarding the gate carry long, blade tipped pole-arms and those on the walls have crossbows. They all also have swords on their belts, though from what I can see these vary in size and style, so must be personal weapons rather than standard issue.
Not counting those coming off the docks to the west, there are three main gates into the city: the northern gate, also known as the Crevasse Gate, at the head of the pass, the southern gate, also called the Market Gate, which seems to be where most of the overland trade passes through, and the Citizen’s Gate to the east. Entry through the latter requires a special brass token issued within the city. The tokens are numbered and the watch are, by all accounts, rather efficient in detecting forgeries.
From the comings and goings through the gates, this appears to be a patriarchal society, with rudimentary trade based around food and mineral resources. So, they won’t be swapping me out for a female operative anytime soon. As far as I can tell, the population is made up of all manner of ethnicities, which from a distance don’t appear to be class restrictive. Hopefully this means that I don’t need worry about not being able to have access to certain people or places purely because I’m the wrong skin tone, or my eyes are the wrong colour. There’s only one way to find out though, I’m going to have to go in.

***

He smiled at their reactions.
“It is important to remember that the tolerant and enlightened environment in which you have been born, raised and nurtured is not the norm out there. In fact, it is in my experience, quite the rarity. That is why, you will always have a number of back-up operatives on stand-by, ready to take over your assignment should you find yourself in a D that has something against your particular gender, skin colour, or whatever random genetic marker they’ve decided is unacceptable. .”
He waited until the murmurs died down. In the front row Orla was looking particularly shocked; he might need to watch her.
“Palmer’s rule of thumb; assume everyone is an asshole until they prove themselves otherwise.”

***

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 20 +++

Well that was fun, and what I like to call typical of my luck. Apparently today is market day. And that means two and a half hours stood around waiting to get through the gates. The smells alone were enough to down a less hardy operative; the earthy ingrained sweat of the labourers and sickeningly sweet perfume of the traders, combined with the heady animal musk of the horses’ sheep, goats, and chickens, all mingling delightfully with the cloying shit-vapours emanating from the crudely dug pits positioned at regular intervals alongside the road, or from the steaming piles of manure courtesy of the aforementioned fauna. It was also, of course, the hottest day since I got here, allowing the sun to add its own extra little kick to the whole olfactory ambience.
When I finally got to the gate, a ‘what’s your name and business’ along with a cursory weapons check from the guards was all it took to go through, so at least there was that.
Once inside, I headed for a big building towards the centre of town that I’d noted from my vantage point and suspected to be where whomever is in charge was based. I wasn’t going to pay them a visit, but I wanted to find accommodation close by, as its more likely to be of a higher standard. I’ve had enough of country living.

The Abacus is what the tourist blurb back home would call ‘quaint’. The three storey building borders a quiet courtyard surrounded by other finely crafted stone buildings housing the town’s money men and their businesses. It’s funny, but even in a D as different as this one is to our own, you can always spot the money men; even the short-arses have a way of looking down on everyone.
Inside, the building is basic but fairly clean by the D’s standards. I find the Innkeeper, a worryingly scrawny man by the name of Quip who, once I’ve signed in – giving my name and nature of business – shows me to a room on the first floor. For the record, I did skim a few minds on my way here to help with the language and get a few names. I did this because names have meaning and don’t always translate.

***

“For just how important a name can be go ask Fi Nash about her hop to vM7 if you doubt me. Just make sure she’s in a good mood.”

The group in front of Palmer was about half the size it had been when he started. Over the past few weeks the various challenges of the recruitment process had taken their toll. Doyle had been responsible for over half of the drop outs, with his almost sadistic approach to physical fitness putting two candidates in hospital; though office gossip had it that he’d rejected one of the recruits when they refused to sleep with him.
Those that were left were starting to shape up; even Jenkins was a lot leaner, having lost the spare tyre he’d no doubt picked up in his last job working IT support for Department P. They were also much more focussed on his lessons now; eager to learn and starting to think like agents. He pushed out a quick probe out of habit, but every mind in the class was locked down tight. He smiled.
“Never underestimate the little things. You are going to be on your own for a long time. Yes, you can get resupplied, but depending upon where you are and how the land lies, that can sometimes take weeks. Do not be tempted to dismiss the seemingly innocuous items in your field kit; they can and do make a difference in the field.”

***

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 20 (cont.) +++

The room is tiny by home standards, with barely enough room for the single pallet, clothing trunk and small table with the wash bowl and jug it contains. In case you’re curious about the toilet arrangements, there’s a ceramic pot under the bed that will be emptied every day if I pay extra. I pay extra! I also congratulate myself on bringing along a Trekatech deodorising strip.
The bed is surprisingly comfortable.

***

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 21 +++

As a D-scout my job is to establish a foothold in new D’s and prep for a specialist team to come in and run an outpost. This new team does a six month tour of duty, during which they will set up the outpost as the main D-gate, leaving the original as an emergency exit. When their tour finishes they in turn will be replaced by another team who will run the outpost as a sort of inter-dimensional embassy, once the new D is deemed ready for more regular visits from our own. The embassy staff will be responsible for overseeing all comings and goings between the D and vX1, and helping D-hoppers with any local problems they encounter. That said, getting to that stage can take a while, and depends a lot upon the sophistication of the D and its inhabitants. At the moment, there are only three D’s officially open to vX1 residents, hD6, vM7, and vX13; the rest are in various stages of exploration or quarantine.
But all that’s a long way off, I’ve a hell of a lot of work to do before then.
I start by greasing the wheels of local bureaucracy so that I can register as a trading company with the necessary authorities. This gives me the right to rent property within city limits. It also gives me the right to pay taxes and guild fees. The grease only lubricates so much, apparently. Isn’t civilisation grand? I know what you’re thinking, and yes, I could have avoided paying with a bit of mind mapping and psychic embracing, but I’d been pushing my limits expanding the lingo the past few days and didn’t want to risk the burnout. Besides, messing with people’s brains is a slippery slope; once you make one clerk turn a blind eye, you inevitably have to make another, then their boss, then the official looking into the books, then the cop, and his partner…you get my drift.
It’s easier to just pay. It’s not like I have a shortage of cash!

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 22 +++

I have to go back to the D-gate. Someone’s stolen all my cash!

***

“That thing I said about most D’s not being as tolerant as ours. They generally aren’t as law abiding either.” He caught the look from one of his students. “And yes, Jenkins, I appreciate the hypocrisy given my earlier statement.”

***

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 26 +++

I’ve secured a warehouse close to the docks, and hired a crew of carpenters to partition a section of the floor space off whilst I procure a wagon and driver and spend the next few days ferrying kit from my campsite. A quick brain rummage and said driver – a miserable bastard named Upman -will conveniently forget exactly where he’s been and what he saw, so no worries there. The kit I’ve brought is covered by tarps, and, thanks again to some slight tinkering with their psyche, the workmen don’t have the inclination to investigate; so again no problems.

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 49 +++

The warehouse is now locked down. It took me longer than expected to set up as I came down with some virus that had me confined to bed for a couple of weeks. I was so weakened that I was unable to resist the local quack from feeding me some form of herbal concoction before I was able to run tests to make sure he wasn’t poisoning me. Still, I’m here and feeling better, so once I was back on my feet I made sure I got a sample and sent some back to Albert in the bio-division for analysis.
Anyway, as I said the warehouse is now safe from prying eyes. The locals will find the locks unpickable and the bars on the windows unbreakable. The sectioned off floor space now houses my office, where I have been spending most of my time collating more information on the dimension and its occupants – the fact that we’re heading into winter and the office is heated is purely coincidental.
My other priority has been in establishing myself as an up and coming businessman in the city. I’m pretty good at this. I know I’m pretty good at this because as well as being taxed by the authorities, I’m also now paying a local chap calling himself King B to ensure that no unfortunate accidents happen to myself or my goods whilst on his patch; or as his representatives put it, ‘donating funds for the upkeep of the community and the welfare of its inhabitants.’
I’ve also been spending my time setting up cover identities for the first wave of operatives to follow me here. They’re currently familiarising themselves with my reports in preparation for their arrival. As point man, I get to give the green light on anyone coming through; and if I’m honest, I want to hold off as long as possible because once the go is given I lose a great deal of my autonomy.

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 58 +++

The toilet is now installed. You have no idea how happy this makes me.

***

There were only six students left. Jenkins had proven to be quite a find, and Orla had potential now that he’d opened her eyes to a few hard truths. The others were satisfactory, but nothing exceptional. He didn’t have a quota, but felt it was his responsibility to only pass those he felt could do what he’d done and deal with the life.
“Lesson last; resolution is a narrative illusion; you are just one part of a long, on-going process. You need to understand and accept that if you’re going to work in the field.”

***

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 111 +++

Everything’s ready for the next stage now. I’m going back to the D-gate tomorrow to meet them as they come through and get them into the city. There’s to be eight of them in total; six pathfinders, who’ll be tasked with exploring and mapping the D and a two-man team to take over from me at the warehouse.
I’ve purchased a modest house off Stone-cutter street for my replacements, but I’ve just booked the pathfinders a few rooms in The Wayward Wayfarer, an inn favoured by out of town teamsters and mercenaries, where hopefully they’ll be able to blend in a bit more and pick up some useful info on travel routes and the likes.

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 112 +++

Well, they’re here, all bitching about the smell – it’s funny how you don’t notice it after a few weeks. The pathfinders are led by a giant of a man named Mout. Seriously, they could not have picked anyone more conspicuous; I’ve seen smaller barns. Did I mention his bright red hair? And the one eye? Okay, maybe not the eye, but still, he’s pretty hard to miss, and has a voice like a klaxon, to boot. I’ve set up identities for them as fish traders – the lake is renowned for its trout – and arranged for them to take a consignment through the pass, so at least they’ll only be here for a week or so. Normally the fish only gets as far as Valleyhead, the town at the other end of the pass, before spoiling, so I’ve had some special shipping crates sent from back home that’ll give them another few days; enough to give us an edge over the competition but not enough to cause suspicion. On their journey they’ll take samples and map as they go. They will stay on in Valleyhead to ostensibly set up a warehouse, but obviously that’s just an excuse for them not to come back with the rest of the caravan. I’ve got their paperwork in order and am just waiting for the man I’ve hired as their guide to get back from visiting his sister before they’re out of my hair. The guide, a man named Golan, says the pass won’t be open for another week anyway, due to a heavy snowfall last week. Once they’re gone, I’ll hand over the business to my replacements and leave town on the pretence of visiting relatives of my own.

***

“I realise it sounds corny, but sometimes the simplest explanations work best. Don’t get too caught up in trying to find clever excuses for what you are doing; honestly, people don’t really care, and will accept what you tell them. It is important, however, that you do have an out ready.”
He looked up again at the studious faces and smiled. He’d told them what he could. Whether they listened was up to them. Whether any of them made it through the final selection process and became D-Scouts was up to Commander Topps.
“Speaking of which, I have an elsewhere to be, so good luck and better judgement. Dismissed.”

***
+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 112 – personal addendum +++

My replacement is Cassius, a seasoned operative who I’ve worked with before, and his protege, an enthusiastic young rookie named Velane. I don’t mind Cassius, he keeps himself to himself when not working, but the rookie bothers me. It’s not that she’s done anything wrong per se, or that she isn’t following orders or protocols, it’s just that something in the way she always seems to watch everything and everybody gives me the feeling she’s hiding something behind that gap toothed smile.
Anyway, for the next few weeks I’ll be bringing them up to speed on the operation here and introducing them to some key locals. Once I’m happy they’ve settled in I’ll be able to go back home and put my feet up for a few weeks; maybe even take a break before I have to start the teaching job Topps has lined up. I might even try that casino on hD6 that Logan is always banging on about. Of course, I’ll need to spend two weeks in quarantine first, but such is the life of a Jump Monkey.

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Ashes

By Paul R Green

Orland Clay hawked and spat out a blackened gob of saliva. Bent double with hands on knees he watched wearily as the spitball hit the street, and slowly oozed down the soot-stained cobblestone leaving a slick silvery trail like a deformed slug.
The crack of splintering timber brought the young guard’s head up in time to see the final death throes of the burning building. The main roof beam rent in two, each part crashing through what was left of the first floor and stirring a cloud of glowing embers to dance and swirl like fireflies in the night sky. The searing wave of heat and debris roiling out from the conflagration forced the young guard to turn away and cough up another soot-blackened gob.
“You alright there, lad?” A meaty hand slapped him on the back, startling Clay for a second. The deep, mellifluous voice belonged to Clay’s sergeant and mentor, Churt DePard. Clay pulled in a deep breath, the hot air tasting of burnt wood and, rather disturbingly, roast pork as he inhaled and straightened to answer his superior.
“Just getting my breath, Sarge.”
“We’ve stopped it spreading at least. Get some water in you then come find me, lad. I want your knowledge on this one.” The big man put a fatherly hand on Clay’s shoulder before striding away to bellow orders at the townsfolk who had stopped passing buckets to gawk at the building’s final collapse.
Clay watched for a moment, wondering what knowledge he could possibly possess that the veteran sergeant didn’t.

***

The fire had burnt out, reducing the warehouse to a smouldering ruin of smoking ash and charred, stunted beams that to Clay’s mind looked like a giant, twisted hand clawing at the grey winter sky. Scattered amidst the wreckage, though the bulk of them were near what should have been the exits, lay a number of burnt bodies; most seared to the bone, and none of them promising any means of identification. A disturbing number of the them were too small to be adults. Clay looked at his ash-caked boots and tried not to think too hard as to just what that ash consisted of. He’d been stood for a while now, waiting for his mentor to speak; knowing better than to interrupt him while thinking. At least his feet were warm, he thought, thanking the gods the cobbles had retained some heat from the blaze.
“I’ve seen enough. Let’s go.” Clay was startled from his thoughts and forced to jog after his
sergeant as he strode away from the smoking remains.
“Where are we going? What did you see?”
“You’ve seen what I have. Tell me.”
Clay had half expected this, the gruff sergeant had for some reason taken the young guard under his wing; occasionally drawing him into investigations where other watch members would either not see the bigger picture or took the easy option and ignored it. Along the way DePard would challenge Clay, forcing him to think about his reasoning as well as his actions; teaching him how to be more than just a fight-breaker and a turn-key. For his part, Clay, quite liked the special attention and insight that his mentor was providing, though he could do without the occasional jokes made at his expense by his other more traditional colleagues.
“The fire was obviously deliberate.”
“Obviously?”
Clay smiled. This was all part of the game; he had to explain his reasoning.
“Yes; the warehouse was clearly being used as a doss house; with all the refugees arriving since Kerrigan started his crusade, they’re springing up all over town. And although it’s possible someone could have knocked over a lantern or candle or some such, that wouldn’t explain how the fire spread so quickly, nor why so many people were unable to escape. I spotted what looked like chains where the doors would have been, so it’s a reasonable assumption that the doors were fastened on the outside. You could argue that it was an accident and that the doors were regularly sealed this way to prevent either discovery of the unsanctioned dosshouse or theft of the warehouse contents proper,” he paused.
“But” DePard hadn’t slowed, another one of his quirks; he was of the opinion that it was always better to be going somewhere, even if he then had to change direction should new evidence present itself.
“I’m inclined to think that the killer either knew they’d be trapped inside or brought the chains himself and made sure of it. Either way, it’s murder.” He looked to DePard.
“Not bad, Clay, but without an explanation for the rapid spread of the fire you’re still relying upon conjecture as to it being a premeditated act of murder.”
“I’m no expert but looking at what’s left of the place, most of the damage is to the external walls. Agreed?”
DePard nodded.
“And, yes, the inside is badly burned, but the fire was fought from the outside in, which begs the question if the fire had started inside the property then why isn’t that where the worst of the damage is.”
DePard grunted.”Well then, lad, where do we go to act upon this deduction?”
“Seeing as the fire was on the edge of the Warrens; King B.”
The sergeant actually stopped. King B was a notorious criminal, running a city wide gang of
prostitutes, thieves, and assassins. He was also the de facto mayor of the Warrens. The watch, those of them not on his payroll at least, had been after him for years, but King B was a cautious man with a keen mind and had so far kept out of gaol. He was also very difficult to get close to, relying upon a chain of henchmen and go-betweens to act as buffers.
“You know where to find him?”
“He’s not hard to find. Hard to get to yes, but not hard to find.”
Clay turned back the way they had come, allowing himself the hint of a smug grin as his sergeant was forced to follow.

***

Churt DePard had seen a lot of things in his lifetime; been in some tough places, but there was something about the Warrens that he always found disconcerting. He tried to put it down to his watchman’s instinct reminding him that he was in an area of the city with a much higher than average crime rate, and a virtually nonexistent watch presence, but he knew deep down that it was something else; something much older and primal. It was in the way everyone moved; slow and deliberate, never turning their backs. It was the way everyone watched you, whether that be the bold stares of the bravos and street toughs, or the surreptitious glances of those lurking in the shadows. Even those that could be described as regular citizens, the merchants, smiths, butchers and beggars all seemed to stop what they were doing and stare balefully as the watchmen passed by.
For his part, DePard projected an air of calm authority, back straight, hand on sword hilt, though his eyes constantly swept his surroundings for any sign of trouble.
“In here.” Clay indicated a bakers and stepped inside. DePard followed.
The smell of fresh bread, a favourite of DePard’s at the best of times, was like an exotic perfume after the pungent smells of the city streets, and the heat from the ovens provided a welcome respite from the winter chill.
The bakery was busy as loaves were loaded into baskets to be delivered in time for breakfast to those as could afford it, the work overseen by a short fat man with arms that could shame a blacksmith. Seeing the two men enter he turned to face them as he continued wrapping bread. The broad, yet handsome face was marred by a scar running up from his chin through his lips and along one side of his nose; the light scar tissue vivid against his dark skin.
“Orland. How good to see you. If you’re here about my guild fees, though, you should know that I have strong views when it comes to extortion.” The deep baritone only slightly effected by the scar.
“Don’t worry, uncle, I’m not after your money.”
The baker mimed a relieved sigh. Then moved round to smother Clay with a powerful embrace; the young guard thinking it a good job his cloak was white as his uncle’s flour covered arms wrapped around him. The baker stepped back, affectionately patting Clay’s cheek.
“Well I know it’s not a social call. You rarely visit, and when you do you’re always considerate enough to come out of uniform.” He smiled and turned to DePard. “It’s not that we have anything against you Doves but the neighbours are apt to get nervous when a couple of white cloaks come visiting. Especially when one of them’s Churt DePard.” He held out a flour covered hand.
DePard was surprised at being identified but managed to keep his expression neutral as he
accepted the strong handshake.
The baker gave the sergeant an apologetic look.
“There’s a lot of folk round here still bitter about Goven Chandler.”
DePard sniffed. “Goven Chandler was a rapist with a taste for young flesh. I’d kill the bastard again in a heartbeat.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong, sergeant. Don’t get me wrong. Folks round here wanted him dead. They just wanted to do it their way; make sure he suffered.”
“He suffered.” DePard’s eyes were ice.
The baker still gripped DePard’s hand.
“Of that I do not doubt. However, his victims’ families don’t think it was enough. I think they were hoping for a more protracted experience for mister Chandler. That, and for him to go to his death with fewer testicles of course.”
“You don’t get fewer than none.” DePard’s expression hadn’t changed.
The baker grinned, slapped a floury hand on the sergeant’s shoulder and released his grip on the other hand.
“Are you sure you’re not from the Warrens, Sergeant?” He rocked back on his heels before moving back behind his counter. “Now what can I do for you?”
Clay stepped forward.
“I’ll get straight to the point and not insult you by asking if you heard about the fire on Wagonway Road.” Clay said as the baker returned to wrapping loaves.
“Terrible news. I hear there were folk caught inside?”
“At least twenty; some of them children. And not caught, trapped. The doors were chained so they couldn’t escape.”
The baker’s chestnut eyes, the irises rimmed with a speckle of lighter brown, flicked up to meet Clay’s. For a split second fire seemed to flash from the hazel specks.
“We need to know who did it, Uncle, they need to be stopped.”
The fire was gone, tamped down to a less noticeable, but much hotter slow burn.
“There’s plenty talk on the streets and in the inns, especially those around the docks about how the refugees are becoming a problem. How the city should be housing them elsewhere. Not our problem, sort of thing. That’s just human nature, though; no one likes to share too much and some people have a different concept of what constitutes too much. This though, if it’s true,”
“It is.” Said DePard.
“Then this is something else.” He stared at DePard, judging him. “My business is fortunate enough to get a lot of customers, Sergeant; it gives me an understanding of this community. I’ll keep my ears open.” He shifted his attention back to his nephew. “Now, do you want a couple of stotties to take away?” He was already wrapping a couple of the flat breads.
“Thank you, Uncle. You don’t get them up our way.”
The baker handed Clay the warm parcel as he saw the guards to the door.
“All the more reason to visit us more often, Lando; out of uniform though, eh?” He said giving Clay a hearty slap on the back as he ushered them onto them outside and closed the door.

The wind whipping down the narrow street stripped away all warmth and the comforting aroma of fresh bread, replacing them with the rotten smells of decaying street waste and the biting cold of winter. Clay tucked the parcel into his tunic, enjoying the warmth it provided, before pulling his cloak tight and looking to his sergeant.
“So your uncle knows King B. Should I be concerned?”
“No. I’ve chosen my side.”
DePard nodded his approval.

***

Bokeem Clay watched his nephew and DePard as they walked away. He was angry, and the anger was building. He was angry that the boy had come here in uniform. He was angry that he’d brought the sergeant. He was also angry that someone had committed such an atrocity on his patch. But that was nothing compared to how furious he was that someone had committed such an atrocity on his patch without his say so.

***

The glow of the lantern threw light into the open warehouse space as Hero pulled the door open and stepped inside. He winced at the overpowering smell of fish, wishing his boss had chosen any of the many other buildings he owned as he pulled his kerchief up over his nose in a futile attempt to suppress the stench. His boss followed him inside, his face only flickering slight acknowledgement of the offensive odour. The five other men, King B’s employees all, were also employed as dock hands and therefore seemed immune to the smell.
One of the men, a tall, heavy set bruiser, pulled the door shut against the winter night and took his place by The King. He somehow seemed even larger when stood by his boss. The others split up to light more lanterns.
Suspended upside down from an overhead beam at the rooms centre, three naked men – none of them over eighteen – their hands bound behind their backs, slowly twisted at the end of the ropes lashed around their feet.
Bokeem Clay approached his prisoners until he stood just in front of them. Three of his men moved behind the captives and held them so they faced their boss.
“It has come to my attention that one, two, or maybe even all three of you, can assist me in my enquiries.” The King’s voice echoed around the large room.
The captives said nothing.
“Let me make this simple for you. I know that your group was responsible for the fire and
subsequent deaths at the warehouse on Wagonway Road. I know that you three boys were in the Tack spouting your vitriol just before the aforementioned conflagration. What I would like you to tell me is who started the fire, and who gave the orders. That’s all. Two names and this all ends for two of you.”
The King studied the three men as his words sunk in. Their faces a curious purple, a combination of the cold and the blood settling in their heads. None of them had the look of real killers about them, though he knew they were responsible for the fire. They were cowards; hiding behind the mask of their cause, bravado swelled by the group they belonged to, committing their despicable acts through fear of losing face in front of their so called mates. Never realising those very same mates were as like to be feeling the same peer pressure and fear of rejection. Bokeem Clay despised men like this, but he knew just how to use them.
“Hero.”
His man stepped forward.
“That one.” He pointed to the largest of the three prisoners, and walked off to the manager’s office in the corner of the building where one of his men was brewing a pot of coffee. There was no need for him to watch as Hero lowered the selected captive to the ground and manhandled him through a side door.

***

As Bokeem was pouring his third coffee Hero entered and nodded. King B joined his man and they returned to stand before the two remaining captives. He took a sip of his coffee before speaking.
“I know you’re curious as to the fate of your friend. Right now your limited imaginations
are conjuring up all sorts of unpleasant scenarios involving red hot tongs, bread knives and
toasting forks. All you need to know, however, is that your friend told us what we wanted.”
He took another sip of coffee, savouring the warmth as much as the taste as the hanging men’s eyes darted from him to each other and back. King B smiled; they were his.
“Now what many people fail to recognise about using torture to extract information is that the subject, in this case your absent colleague mister Reeves, is just as likely to tell his questioner what he thinks he wants to hear as he is to tell him the truth.”
Again, he gave the men time to digest what he’d said as he took another mouthful.
“So, what that means is, and I’m sure you bright young lads have already figured this out, is that we require some form of corroboration; a verification of your colleague’s claims so that we don’t act upon inconclusive information. I’m sure you understand.”
“It was Solomon Pitt made us do it.” Both men spluttering out the name almost instantaneously. “He said it would send a message.”
The King nodded.
“Pitt planned the deed no doubt. And he did send a message; just not to the people you boys
think.”
A look of understanding appeared on the face of one of the prisoners.
“It wasn’t about the Northerners. It was about the warehouse. The message was for you.”
“Clever lad. And he chose you boys to deliver it. Obedient young pups, blinded by hatred and fear.”
He said waving his mug in their direction.
“And you two,” he said, “went through with it. You two, and your friend back there, carried out his plan and burnt those women and children to death over geography. And that, that’s on you. Pitt might have sent you but no one made you do it. That’s just how lickspittles like you justify your cowardly actions to yourselves.”
He handed his coffee to Hero, trading the tin mug for a bread knife.
“A man is responsible for his own actions. Always.”

***

DePard pulled the last of the potatoes from the patch he kept behind the barracks, checked it for rot, and satisfied there was none, added it to the sack by his side. The crop was small, he’d been busy and hadn’t been able to tend his garden as well as he’d have liked; he was also late in harvesting. Still, he’d have some good compost next season, he thought, looking at the pile of rotting waste he’d fenced off in one corner. He stood, brushed dirt from his knees and turned to see Clay waiting by the door.
“We’ve been left a gift.”
“Oh?” Said DePard.
“A man named Reeves was bound and left outside the Tack. Roper and DeMarc found him this morning when they went back to help with seeing to the remains.”
“He hurt?”
“Broken nose, a few bruises. More scared than anything. Claims some upright citizens overheard him bragging about his deeds and took the law into their own hands.”
DePard chuckled. “In the Warrens?”
“Don’t be so dismissive of the Warrens, Sarge. The watch might not be welcome but the folk there do have a code.”
“Don’t fuck with King B?” De Pard chuckled again. “Don’t pout lad, I get it. Places like that, they breed closeness. A sense of community you don’t find in the likes of Park Square and Temple Grove. But whether they think so or not, they still come under our watch, and as much as I’d like to believe that some good citizens handed over this Reeves out of a sense of community and public duty, I think we both know that your uncle wouldn’t have delivered him to us unless there was something to be gained. I think we need to have a word with this Reeves.”

***

The forge was an old guard tower at the rear of the western barracks. It had been heavily damaged in the big siege over twenty years ago and was now mostly a hollow shell. About ten years ago the then head of the watch, a man named Thorn, had had the rubble cleared from the one ground floor room that still had four solid walls, if not a ceiling, and began using it for the questioning of prisoners. The room was an old store and therefore windowless; light, what little there was, came from torches in the wall sconces of the room above – or at least those that could be safely reached.
Reeves was strapped to a single chair in the centre of the room. The chair itself bolted to the floor, but the main feature of the forge wasn’t the walls, or the light, or even the chair; it was the smell. The room reeked of fear, as if every man who had sat in that chair had sweated a part of himself into the porous stone floor and over the years that essence, that physical manifestation of hopelessness and defeat had spread drop by oozing drop until it permeated the whole room and the very walls were now covered in a nervous sheen.
Reeves watched fearfully as DePard and Clay entered and took their positions. The younger guard moved behind him leading Reeves to naturally try and follow his movement. The thick leather restraints prevented him turning his head far enough leaving him to speculate on, or more likely worry about, where Clay was and what he was doing.
A noise brought his attention back to the big sergeant who set down a small table in front of the prisoner. Resting on the table was a cloth bag. DePard pulled a scroll from his belt, opened it up and read from it.
“Crispin Reeves. Of an above average height and stocky build with hair of a clean straw colour and eyes of blue. Tattoo depicting the sigil of Crispin the Defender on right forearm.”
“Nowt wrong with that. Crispin is a hero to this city. Me Mam named me for him.”
DePard ignored the interruption.
“Lives with parents and three brothers above the kilns off Artisan Square. A few overnight
detentions for drunken affray and common assault. All of them off the back of trips to the Warrens. Seems to me you’re the type of boy who likes trouble. There’s no other reason I can see for you to be straying so far from home.
“I’m a citizen of Stonelake; can walk where I please.”
“True enough, lad, and as a citizen you’ll know the punishment for murder.”
“I’m not of age as to be hanged without witnesses to the crime. I know that much.”
The boy tried to hold DePard’s gaze but couldn’t and squirmed in the chair as his eyes broke away.
“A lawyer now are you, boy? Well, just so you’re clear, how you’re tried is at the discretion of the magistrate, and the opinion of the watch weighs heavily upon her decision. Which, as far as you’re concerned, means I get to decide whether you’re tried as man or boy, and whether your future’s in chains or on rope. What say you, Clay? Is Crispin here merely a confused young boy lead astray by a wicked bigot, or is he a true grown man who knows his mind?”
Reeves jumped as two hands clamped onto his shoulders. He tried unsuccessfully to jerk his head away from the hot breath that suddenly spread across his neck.
“These are the shoulders of a man, sergeant. Broad and strong. I say he hangs.” The breath
disappeared along with the hands, as Clay slipped back into the shadows.
Before Reeves could gather himself DePard suddenly leant forward, bringing his face within inches of the boy’s.
“The way I see it you’ve spent your time playing at being a big man. Well congratulations, Crispin, you’re being treated like one now. And will be right up to the point of your execution. No doubt you’ve been to a hanging, lad; stood laughing with your mates as the
prisoner danced his last jig. Will they laugh at you I wonder? Point to your soiled britches and makecrude jokes as you gasp your last, and your mother pulls at her hair and wails.”
“It was Pitt. Solomon Pitt.” The words came through ragged, tearful breaths.
DePard smiled as he leaned back.
“And where would I find this Solomon Pitt?”

***

For the second time in as many days DePard and Clay found themselves standing in front of a burnt out building. This time it was the remains of an inn called The Phoenix. DeMarc joined them from where he’d been talking with an old man.
“Let me guess,” said DePard, “a tragic accident. No witnesses.”
“Actually plenty. The old man says there were about a dozen of them. They nailed the doors shut, doused the walls in oil and put torches to the place. Anyone who tried to leave caught a crossbow bolt for their efforts.” He indicated the charred remains of a figure draped through what was left of a window. “They were all masked though, of course.”
“Of course. Any survivors?”
“Not sure. The old geezer reckons he saw someone jump from an upstairs window into the canal, but he also says he caught at least a couple of quarrels. Roper’s leading a search along the banks to see if a body or trail turns up.”
“Good work. Let me know if he finds anything. And see if you can’t get a better description from the old man.
“Will do, Sarge.” DeMarc headed back toward the witness who was starting to slope away. “Oi, Grandad! I’m not finished with you yet.”
DePard turned back to Clay, “I’m hungry. Fancy a stottie?”

***

“I hear the good citizens hereabouts found you your arsonist.” Bokeem Clay said from behind his counter where he was pre-slicing a loaf – ‘For the widow Fens, you understand. She has trouble with her hands. Arthritis.’
“Seems we may have a copycat. I’m sure you’ve heard about the Phoenix.” Said DePard.
“A tragedy. One of the oldest inns in Stonelake. Well, the site is. If memory serves this is the third Phoenix to be built there. The original inn was called The Refuge, believe it or not; burnt down during the trout riots. Stood less than a year before taking a direct hit during the siege. The second incarnation lasted a whole decade before mysteriously burning down one night. Funny thing was the landlord’s wife just happened to be visiting her sick aunt that night, so only her notoriously unfaithful husband was killed.”
DePard actually laughed at that, surprising his protege.
“And now this. Maybe they should change the name.”
“Or find a new trade?” said DePard.
“Indeed. Something less prone to incident and accident.” Bokeem mused.
“Like baking?”
“Ah, but baking can be a hazardous profession,Sergeant; too many ways the unwary amateur can be burnt.” The baker juggled a hot loaf as if for emphasis.
“And quite a competitive business I would think.”
“Cut-throat.” He said with a smile as he drew the serrated blade of his bread knife through the loaf. “Was there a purpose to your visit, Sergeant? Or is this just a social call?”
“Oh, let’s call it a bit of both. I just thought that now we’ve become acquainted I’d keep you abreast of what’s going on. Think of it as a public service.”
“Well, as you now know, we’re a tight-knit community in the Warrens, Our Lando’ll tell you; so you needn’t have bothered.”
DePard smiled a grim smile. “It’s no bother. I’m quite happy to call in whenever I’m passing, which will be much more often from now on I think, due to all the recent trouble hereabouts.”
“Oh, I think that’s all blown over now, Sergeant. The arsonist is safely locked up in your very own cells, and his co-conspirators appear to have befallen a tragic, yet poetic fate at the hands of the very community they purported to have represented. I did try and tell you that the people round here prefer our own form of justice.”
“And I’m sure I don’t need tell you that I represent the law here. Me, your nephew here, and any other man wearing the White. Much as we appreciate the community’s assistance in the capture of Crispin Reeves, we’ll take a dim view of any vigilante actions. You break a law in my town, I take you down.”
The two men’s eyes were locked on each other.
“As a respected voice of the community you can spread the word at your next resident’s meeting.” DePard said.
Bokeem Clay held the sergeant’s gaze for a moment more before shifting his eyes to his nephew. The younger guard, didn’t flinch, causing his uncle to give a grudging shrug of respect.
“Until next time then.” He said indicating the door.
The two guards exited the bakery and slowly walked back to their barracks as a light snow began to fall from the grey sky.

The Man in the Alley

By Paul R Green

Sergeant Churt DePard squatted down to examine the body at his feet, his white cloak parting enough to let in the early morning drizzle that threatened to become rain with the approaching dawn. He gave an audible groan as he settled; a combination of age, the old knife wound in his back and general aches and pains from his part in breaking up a brawl at the Tanner’s Arms at the start of the night’s shift.

He turned to look up at the young watchman standing over him with sword gripped firmly in his right hand and a lantern held high in his left.

“Shift that thing where it’ll be some use lad.” He growled. The young guard looked confused, then when DePard raised a questioning eyebrow and nodded toward the naked blade he quickly sheathed his weapon with an apologetic shrug.

“Give me your thoughts, Clay?” asked the older man. Orland Clay swung his lantern closer, causing shadows to dance and flit around the body sitting propped against the wall, staring into the afterlife with a bemused expression through cold dead eyes.

“Looks like natural causes to me, boss.” He replied, swinging the lamp to better highlight the knife jutting from the corpse’s bare chest where it poked out between the open folds of a stained linen shirt. “That is, given where we are and the time of night”

The big sergeant shook his head, “Give me that.” ordered DePard, taking the lantern. “How long?”

“I’ve been here about half an hour waiting on you, sir, and I was only a few streets away when the boy found me, so I would say that he’s been here at least forty-five minutes.” Clay quickly answered.

DePard snorted. No doubt the boy had known exactly where to find the young watchman at such a miserable hour of an even more miserable night because he’d have gone straight to The Gilded Lily, a brothel on Perfume Street, known to the locals as the Dove’s Nest, due to its popularity with watchmen looking for a moment or twos warmth on a cold, wet night just like tonight. Which put the forty-five minutes estimate closer to an hour, if not more.

Moving the lantern closer with his left hand, DePard, pulled the man’s shirt aside with his right and stared at the well-worn bone handle and the two or three inches of thin, grey steel still visible before leaning in close to take a sniff. Was that fish? It was hard to tell over the underlying rotten stench of the alley. He gave the knife a gentle tug, but it was caught between two ribs and stayed put. Probably why it was still there.

Pulling the shirt open further there were no other stab wounds that he could see so he turned his attention to the shirt; a common enough linen chemise, nothing fancy, yet clean enough despite the obviously fresh stains acquired over the previous day or two. So, DePard mused, the victim was either married or still living with his mother. In DePard’s experience, discerning age was easier with a man, and the lines on the victim’s face, coupled with the streaks of grey in his lank mane of mousy hair put him in his forties. Married then.

He reached for the man’s wrist, noticing the absence of dirt where his ring would have sat. There were a few specks of blood on the cuff too, though none on his hands. No cuts either. He’d hadn’t had time to defend himself.

The big man leaned in even closer, this time taking in a hearty whiff of the shirt.

“You’ve got five senses, lad. Remember that. They all have something to tell you, if you’ve the wit to pay attention.”

“Sir?” The youth leaned in to watch as the sergeant continued to run his hands over the body, checking for any hidden wounds and humming an old maritime shanty quietly to himself as he ran his fingers through the dead man’s rain soaked hair. He smiled at something.

He turned once again to the young guard. “You think this was a simple robbery? That the poor sod simply passed the wrong alleyway while staggering home pissed?”

“It’s not like it doesn’t happen at least three times a week.” Clay responded, “Especially around here.”

DePard sighed. He didn’t blame the youth; the bulk of the watch was made up of ex-soldiers, mercenaries and tavern toughs, employed by the city as fight-breakers and turnkeys. They tended to see only what was in front of their invariably broken noses, looking for the simplest solution to any problem and a safe end to their shift. Give them something complex, or heaven forbid a true mystery, and they were hopelessly inadequate.

“I hear they’ve got a necromancer over in Barderput.” the young guard blurted out just to say something and break the silence. The older man simply frowned. “We could do with one here. Don’t you think sir?” Clay missed DePard’s contemptuous stare and continued talking, “It must be a piece of piss for them. All they need do is ask the bloody victim who did for them and arrest the bugger responsible.”

DePard snorted his contempt. “Lazy, expensive and un-bloody-reliable.”

Clay looked confused, “Unreliable, sir?”

DePard smiled a knowing smile. “Everybody lies, Clay. Even the dead.” He gestured back to the body. “Look for the evidence, lad. That’s the only place you’ll find any truth. Don’t you forget that.”

The older watchman took a long hard look at the young man stood before him. Drizzle gathered on the youth’s forehead beneath an iron cap that was probably half a size too big; it made its escape down his broken nose, before falling as larger drops to be caught in the muss of what was obviously the lad’s first beard. Orland Clay shifted his feet under DePard’s scrutiny but met the man’s gaze with determined eyes. The older watchman sniffed and made a decision. “Why’d you join the watch, lad?”

The young man’s face took on a strange aspect in the flickering lamplight as he considered the question. Eventually he shrugged. “I thought the uniform might attract the girls.” He said with a nervous laugh. DePard’s head dropped as he let out a depressed sigh. “But,” he paused, dredging up something more personal, “but since I started, the more I see, the more I do, the more I want to be good at my job. Like you, sir.” His face flushed at that last and he shifted his feet as DePard turned his gaze back up to meet his.

“Well spoken, son. Now if you actually mean that, and aren’t just trying to flatter me, allow me to enlighten you.” DePard said with a smile.

With another loud groan the big sergeant stood, stretched his aching legs and handed the lantern back to its owner.

“Tell me what made you think this was a simple robbery.”

Clay looked from DePard to the body and back again. “Well the location of the body for one. The alley’s dark and away from prying eyes in a district not known for its curiosity regarding occasional cries in the night. Then there’s the bloody great knife sticking out of his chest, and we all know how the footpads love a knife.” He paused a second for a flicker of amusement from the gruff sergeant, quickly continuing when none was forthcoming, “Also his purse is gone and he appears to be missing a wedding ring. It all points to a robbery.” Clay reasoned.

Orland looked at his superior with expectant eyes and DePard could see by his face that the boy had actually thought it all through and was convinced of his reasoning. Oh well, he hadn’t really expected the lad to see it all straight off. DePard stood a little taller before he responded. “Firstly, I don’t think this was a robbery at all. Footpads are a cowardly lot who generally hunt in packs. This bloke’s been stabbed once. A straight thrust to the chest.” He said miming a jab. “Which puts his attacker in front of him, yes?” Clay opened his mouth, as if to question the sergeant, then decided better of it and closed it. “If you have an opinion, Clay, don’t be afraid to share it. Same goes for questions.” The young guard thought for a second before speaking. “How do you know that the attacker didn’t come from behind and reach around to stab him?”

DePard smiled. “See. Now you’re thinking. If our killer had reached around then the blade would be more horizontal. Like this.” Again he mimed the action, making sure the youth noted the position of his hand. “This blade in our unfortunate victim here is nigh on vertical.” Clay inspected the blade again and nodded his agreement.

“How many victims of back alley robberies you seen, lad?” asked the big sergeant.

“About a dozen or so, sir?” Clay quickly replied.

“And how many of them were killed with a single knife thrust to the heart? Not to mention a thrust the victim didn’t even try and stop.” DePard asked. He could almost see the thought process acted out as the youth pictured previous crime scenes in his head.

“None”, he exclaimed excitedly, “even the tamest had been stabbed at least half a dozen times, and most of the time you can’t get near the body without slipping in about a gallon of blood.” Clay was warming up now, “I even saw a man who lost most of his fingers trying to fend off his killers. This is the first one I’ve come across where I haven’t puked my ring!” he exclaimed, with just a hint of pride.

“Quite.” said DePard, stepping back. “You’re right though, Orland, your average victim wouldn’t look out of place in a charnel house.” He studied the corpse again. “Like I said, footpads generally hunt in packs, but once in a while you do get a lone wolf.”

“But you said you didn’t think it was a robbery.” Clay interjected. DePard smiled. The boy was learning.

“True. True. A lone wolf is a cautious beast and would attack from behind, usually slitting the victim’s throat or jamming a dagger into the brain through here.” He explained tapping a point on his neck at the base of the ear. “And as you pointed out, where’s the blood? Even his shirt is devoid, barring a few older specks on his sleeve.”

Clay crouched down by the body and leaned in for a closer look, tentatively taking a sniff as he did so.

“Is that fish?” he asked.

DePard smiled. There was hope yet. “And what does that tell us, lad?”

Clay remained quiet for a good few minutes, the only sound the percussive fall of rain on timber, cloth, metal and flesh as the sky gradually lightened, albeit to a still oppressive grey. Occasionally he reached down to examine some part of the corpse as his sergeant watched on.

“It’s the knife as smells of fish, not the man. There’s ink on his fingers so he’s more likely a clerk as a fisherman as he’s not wearing a friars robes. So I guess the knife is the killers and has been used for filleting fish recently.” The older man nodded his approval encouraging the boy to continue. “He’s still got his dagger and boots, which backs up, but doesn’t prove your theory about him not being robbed.” DePard raised an eyebrow. “They could have been disturbed.” he quickly explained.

“Go on.” DePard replied encouragingly.

Clay flushed once more and couldn’t help but grin at the praise. “He probably spent his last hours in the Witches Hole.” He added.

DePard was taken aback. Where had that come from? “What makes you say that?” he asked.

The young watchman paused, gathering his thoughts once more before carefully explaining. “His hair smells of weed and the straw stuck to his boots suggest a tavern around the Hay Market. The ale stains on his shirt have a slight smell of liquorice, which if memory serves me is the speciality of Brewer Bede at the Hole.”

“Very good, Orland. Very good.” And he meant it, he hadn’t picked up the liquorice, and he tended to avoid the Hole, as it was the haunt of callow youths by night and professional drunks by day. Still, a good watchman should know his beat and he made a mental note to reacquaint himself with the inns and taverns on his patch.

***

The rain had stopped and the clouds lightened to the colour of wet slate by the time DePard and Clay exited the Witches’ Hole.

“Well?” the sergeant asked as they crossed the square, weaving through vendors and hawkers setting up stalls in the wakening marketplace.

“They’re a bunch of unscrupulous, work-shy pissheads and the inn-keeper has all the warmth of a northern summer, but I doubt they know anything more than they said.” Clay surmised.

DePard grinned. The boy had acquitted himself well; friendly, yet assertive. Give him a few years and he might even make a good watchman. “Still, lad, we’ve a name for the poor sod; and an address. Let’s go pay our respects to the widow Penn shall we?” he said, increasing the pace.

***

The Penn’s house was one of many crammed against the town’s west wall. Its lower stone floor was well scrubbed, but the upper timber floor was weather-beaten and in need of some repair. The neat shutters of the single window on the first floor were open, revealing a simple clay pot holding a primrose that craved warmth as much as the two guardsmen.

The burly watchmen nodded to his colleague as they stopped at the door. The young man straightened up and, resting one hand on the pommel of his sword, rapped the heavy iron knocker before taking half a step back. DePard noted the move and was impressed the youth knew enough to give himself room should he need to draw his weapon.

It was almost a full minute, and Clay had knocked twice more, before the door opened a crack to reveal a small, mousy woman. Downcast eyes flicked up from within a shadowed face framed with long dark hair hanging loose, contrary to the current fashion of braiding that had swept the town since the mayor had married that northern girl. Her eyes widened at the site of the watchmen, before dropping back to the floor, and then with her face still partly hidden behind her hair she seemed to gather herself up before speaking “It’s Geoffrey, isn’t it?” Her eyes darted toward Clay. “He didn’t come home last night,” Clay fumbled for the right words, but the woman continued. “I’m afraid if it’s a fine you’re after he’ll have to stay in your cells a while longer ‘cause any money he’s earned has probably been pissed up a wall by now.” The young watchman turned to DePard for guidance.

Before the senior man could speak a deep voice boomed from the street behind them. “Is everything alright, May?”

The watchmen turned as one, Clay automatically part drawing his sword until a touch from his superior stayed his hand. A short, stocky man dressed as they were in the white cloak of the watch, though the new man’s held a captain’s knot, was crossing the square toward them.

“Dicken. Do you know this woman?” enquired DePard, and then stopped as he looked again at the two. “Your sister?”

The captain smiled beneath a huge moustache, which swept up to join bushy sideburns, both of a colour with the woman’s hair, and strode toward the door. “Indeed. Mabel Penn, meet Churt DePard and” he paused for a second as he studied Clay. “I’m sorry, lad, I don’t know you.” he finally confessed.

“Orland Clay, sir.” The youth replied with a salute. The captain rolled his eyes with a smile toward DePard and gestured toward the door. “Then come inside and dry your arse, watchman Clay; you too, sergeant.”

The captain ushered them all through the door, his sister quickly disappearing into the back kitchen with a mumbled promise of mint tea as soon as they’d passed.

The warmth from the fire gave blessed relief to DePard’s aching back and he stood close, massaging his spine as an excuse to remain stood by the hearth as he examined the room. He inhaled audibly through the nose, filling his lungs and winking at Clay.

The room was small but well maintained, the furniture solid, but obviously second hand, as there were many signs of wear and repair. There were very few personal touches, just a hand woven rug by the fire and another potted plant by the window; a geranium in an old cracked pudding basin, too big for the bowl that would likely die if it wasn’t replanted soon, he thought. He didn’t have flowers himself, but tended a small patch behind the barracks where he grew a few tomatoes, carrots and spuds, along with some herbs. He found it helped him relax.

The window to the narrow back alley was open. There was little danger of much light getting in, let alone any rain, but the slight breeze stirred the wonderful aroma of freshly baked fish pie around the room. DePard smiled as he saw a glint of recognition in his young disciple’s eye.

“Now my old friend. What’s this all about?” asked the captain. No one had made a move to sit down so Clay hovered by the door, watching the two men like a hawk, but keeping an ear out for the woman, Depard was pleased to note.

“What’s that no good brother-in-law of mine done this time. I swear I seem to spend as much time keeping that drunkard out of gaol as I do putting others in.”

DePard glanced toward the kitchen where May had retreated to make the tea. He took one more good look around the room before speaking. “Your brother-in-law’s dead, old friend. Seems he had a run in with a gang of cut-throats on his way home last night. I’m sorry, Med.”

The two men stared at each other for a few moments before the squat captain turned and spat into the fire.

“He’ll not be missed. May’ll take it hard at first, but she’ll soon see she’s better off. I’ll break the news to her if you like.” He stated. It wasn’t a question. Clay looked to his sergeant, the question forming on his lips stalled at a subtle shake of DePard’s head.

The big sergeant turned to the captain and smiled, “Of course. I’ll have the brothers tend the body and contact you about seeing him buried, or whatever.”

Captain Dicken held out his hand. “Thank you, my friend. I appreciate it.” The two old warriors shared a look. “My sister appreciates it.”

DePard took the offered hand and solemnly shook it. “No problem, old friend.” He let go of the hand and nodded to Clay. “Let’s go, Clay. We’ll leave the family to their grief. ”

***

Outside the sun was struggling through the cloud as the two watchmen entered the now bustling street. Orland Clay strode through the mud, cursing as a cart splashed the bottom of his white cloak. He suddenly stopped in his tracks, hand gripped tightly on the hilt of his sword, and rounded on his mentor.

“What happened in there, sergeant?” His eyes were wide, his knuckles white. “I thought you said it wasn’t a robbery.” DePard simply stood looking at the boy, allowing him to vent the anger inside. “He did it. He stabbed his brother-in-law.” He continued. The older man said nothing. “Is that it? Is this the mayor’s justice? We just turn a blind eye when it’s one of our own?” The initial outrage was gone but still frustration dripped from every syllable. DePard sighed and started to walk away.

“I thought you were better than that.” Clay called after him, struggling to fight back the disappointment he felt swelling in his throat.

The old sergeant stopped. “You’ve got potential with the watch, Clay, but you’re still a novice when it comes to murder, and as such you don’t see everything you should. You’ve spent a few hours with me and you think you know it all.” He replied. “You made some good observations back in that alleyway and led us to the man’s family. Well done. Seriously, that was good work.” He paused for a second, taking a deep breath. “But as soon as we got inside that house you fell back on all your old habits and took everything at face value. You saw a fragile woman and a strong brother, you got a whiff of that fish pie, connected it to the knife in our friend back there and found your killer.” DePard turned to face the young guard. “Am I right?”

Clay shifted under the sergeant’s steady gaze, searching for the right words. “You never even bothered to ask them any questions.” Clay mumbled, dejectedly; his anger spent. “One of them must have done it. Either she killed him for pissing away their savings, or he thought to rid his sister of a boorish husband. But now we’ll never know, because you didn’t ask.” He accused. As he talked the anger started to rise again, straining his voice. “You asked me why I joined the watch.” DePard’s head cocked. “I grew up in the Warrens. The Warrens, sergeant. And growing up in that shit-hole meant you joined a gang. You had no choice; not if you wanted to survive. The way I see it, the watch is simply another gang; they’ve just got more territory and better weapons. I like living so I simply made a choice and joined the biggest gang in the city. It made sense, and I fit in. Until last night.” He said, deflating.

DePard studied the young man intently. “And what happened last night?”

“Last night I saw what being a watchman could be. You opened my eyes and made me look at things in a new way. You showed me that there was more to it than breaking up brawls and rounding up drunks. But then, just as quick, you go and show me that I was right all along; the watch is no better than any other gang and the law is just another way for the strong to control the weak. We claim nobility and the pursuit of justice and then close ranks when one of our own’s at fault. That’s not justice.” He hissed, his body trembling slightly in his rage.

DePard stood for a moment longer, seemingly studying the bustling city around him, before answering in a calm measured voice. “I didn’t ask any questions because I didn’t need to ask any questions. The evidence told me what happened, as I said it would, and I acted upon that evidence.” His gaze returned to the young guard, his eyes fixing him with a piercing stare. “What do you think would have happened if I had questioned them? Do you really think they’d give up the truth just like that? Confess all in a moment of contrition? Of course they wouldn’t; they’d have lied like any bugger else in their situation. But the evidence doesn’t lie.”

“Isn’t the knife evidence?” Clay enquired.

“Oh, I’m sure that the knife can probably be traced back to the widow, yes.” DePard admitted.

“Then why not arrest her? Or her brother? Or both? Given a few days in the cells one of them will eventually confess.” Clay demanded.

DePard scratched his chin, enjoying the feel of the stubble just starting to come through. “You said you wanted justice? You said something about the weak needing a voice?” Clay nodded. “We are watchmen. It is our job to uphold the Mayor’s law without fear or favour. But you’re right; we also have an obligation to protect those in need and sometimes the lines blur. It is our duty to make sense of that blur, read between the lines and dispense justice as best we can.” He explained. “And the best way that I can think to do that is to collect as many facts as I can and base my decision upon the evidence. Not on gossip; not on speculation; not even on confessions, because even a confession can be paid for, or be a lie to protect a loved one.” He paused to let the last sink in. “When all else fails, go back to the beginning and look again at what you know to be true.”

Clay stood in silence, blocking out the sounds around him as his mind went back to the alley and the dead man in the rain. Before long he opened his eyes with a big grin. “No blood. He was already dead when the knife went in, so it couldn’t have been the murder weapon.” He explained. “But that doesn’t change anything. It’s still likely to be her fish knife, which means he was probably killed at home and then moved.” He said looking to his mentor for confirmation.

“You’re right about the body, but wrong about the knife not changing anything; it changes everything.” The older man stated. “You’ll soon find on this job that very few deaths are planned. Most are accidents of opportunity or quirks of fate; a drunken man walking past the wrong alleyway, that sort of thing.” DePard began.

“Or an abused wife finally standing up to a drunken husband?” Clay suggested quietly.

The old sergeant smiled.

Encouraged, Clay went on, speaking his thoughts as much for himself as his mentor. “Her hair covered the bruises. Hair! You smiled when you felt his scalp. You found a lump. She hit him with something heavy. An iron or some such?”

“More likely a skillet. Irons tend to leave a narrower contusion. And worse if they’re hot.”

“I suppose there’s some justice to it.” Clay conceded.

“It’s not exactly the Mayor’s idea of it, I’ll grant you, but there is justice there. And it’s not like she’s got off easy. She’s a widow in her forties with no man to provide for her, ‘cept her brother, and our good captain has four mouths of his own to feed.” DePard said as he turned and started to slowly walk back toward the barracks. It had been a long night and he was looking forward to the end his shift and putting his feet up by the fire in the barrack kitchen.

“The way I see it, you’ve three choices, lad. One, find a new trade; my brother Brayden’s always going on about taking an apprentice, I can write you an introduction of you like. Mind you, he’s off following that fool Kerrigan on his crusade down south, so you might want to avoid that. Two, continue as you are; breaking heads and turning keys; running with the biggest gang in the city. Or then there’s three; you follow me, listen to what I tell you and maybe learn a thing or two along the way.” he said, stopping and turning to face the novice watchman.

Orland Clay stood before him, tugging at the wispy fluff he called whiskers, his white cloak rippling in the breeze as he considered the options.

“Well? Are you coming?” DePard shouted back over his shoulder as he turned and strode off.

 

 

Arms and The Mind

By Mark Barrett

Commander Topps turned away from the fading i-comms screen and relaxed back into his Ergomaster Recliner. Three-dozen micro engines whirred at the edge of hearing, easing the chair into the exact firmness and tension for Topps’s body in this position. It maximised comfort.

Topps was not comfortable. Being the commander of the Psytech arm of dimension vX1’s Law Enforcement Agency meant that Topps often was not comfortable. He was called upon to make difficult and dangerous decisions on behalf of his agents almost every day, and knowingly sending close friends and colleagues into unknown perils in little known dimensions was not conducive to often feeling comfortable. He had just acted on one of those difficult and dangerous decisions, and so allowed himself twenty-two seconds of forced relaxation before acting on the next.

Topps reluctantly sat forward, prompting a series of reversals of engines, and contacted his personal assistant. This was easy. He could recognise her pale, yet ordered thought-patterns from three rooms away. Her mind was a palish amber set in a rigid pattern, with only the occasional flurry of unrestrained imagination or unchecked thought path – on a work day, anyway. She was directly through the wall to Topps’s right, and it took barely a second for his own sharp, focussed, streak of blazing orange thought to touch her mind and deliver his instruction. Even though he was not looking for it, he could not help but notice the fiercely intense, walled mind of a trained psychic not far from his personal assistant. This mind was now moving towards the door to his room, as he had requested.

The door opened. The mind’s owner entered. She was tall, but not overly so, and though her body appeared slender, she had a straight back and square shoulders which told of fitness and strength. Her face was freckled, and framed by loosely tied hair, fading through browns to blonde in the current fashion. She could easily have looked safely plain, were it not for eyes which were every bit as fiercely intense as the mind behind them. She stood squarely before him. Her greeting was sparse. “Commander Topps.”

Velane.” There was a pause in which neither agent nor commander felt uncomfortable. Then Topps offered. “Would you like a drink?” indicating the Beverator set into the wall of his office. He subdued the urge to say, “at ease.”

“No thank you, sir.”

“Please, one day, do try to remember to just call me Topps.”

Velane relaxed in the shoulders, but did not change her stance. The briefest flicker of a smile flashed the gap between her teeth, which always made her appear younger than she was. “Sorry, sir – Topps, sir.”

“That’s better.” Topps indicated one of the chairs before his desk, not an Ergomaster, and kept his hand outstretched long enough for Velane to know that this was not a request, and so she sat. He smiled. “Good. Good to see you, Velane.”

“And you commander.”

Topps waited for her to correct herself, but she did not. He continued. “I understand that you are familiar with dimension cL14?”

Topps had intoned it as a question, but Velane did not deign to reply. She knew that Topps would be fully aware that she had been the Psytech agent attached to the original exploration party in that most newly-discovered of dimensions, and she did not think it worth either of their time to point this fact out to him.

Topps had worked with Velane for almost two years now, and knew her ways, so he did not push her for a response. “Well, we have an active case in that dimension…”

“Already?” Velane had not meant to interrupt him, but she was shocked. Dimension cL14 had not yet been fully explored and authorised jumps to and from it were scarce. Velane would not have expected a Psytech case to be opened there so quickly. Regardless of this she silently remonstrated with herself at so easily revealing emotion. She calmed her mind for the remainder of the conversation, glad that Psycops never read each other without express permission.

“Yes. Someone’s dealing arms.” Topps sighed. “The bigger we get, the harder it is to control.”

Velane nodded, emotionlessly. Arms deals. These were a regular problem for Psytech law enforcement. Dimension vX1, the prime dimension, had extraordinarily high technological advancements – hence it being the only dimension so far discovered that had developed dimension-jumping technology. Certain unscrupulous citizens of vX1 were not averse to selling some of that technology on to less-developed dimensions for a high profit. And as war was pretty much the one constant that seemed to tie together the civilisations of every dimension, it was generally weapon technology that was most profitable. Every Psytech Law Enforcement Agent could expect fairly regular cases of weapon smuggling. This was one of the dangers inherent in the job, as arms dealers tended to be well-financed, well-equipped and violently-attached to their trade. With the sort of money that was often involved, they were willing and able to take on a Psytech Agent, and in several cases had won. And Velane was a fairly new and relatively inexperienced Psytech Agent. She had not expected a case like this for some time to come. “Are you sure, sir?”

Even without a reading of her surface thoughts, Topps understood her reservations. “Yes, Velane, you’re ready.”

Velane swallowed hard. “Is it a Ricker case, sir?”

“Yes.” Topps read her hesitation as self-doubt. “Listen, Velane, you’re one of the best damned recruits we’ve ever had. I mean, the feedback Cassius gave about you from your training jumps with him…”

Topps trailed off. Mention of Velane’s old mentor was still a difficult topic for both of them. He felt sure that she was as upset as he was about how Cassius ended, and he read her stony silence as self-control not to show the emotion. Topps raised his voice and the positivity again. “You could be as good as Logan. Better! I am sure. You are ready.”

The gap-toothed grin shone. Velane knew that she was ready, too. She could not believe her luck that she was being given this case – a high-profile case in a dimension that she knew well, had explored and been there from the establishment of the first dimension hoppers. She wanted it. She needed it. She also knew that she would close this case, just knew it. She was ready.

Topps saw the acceptance in her eyes, and inwardly suppressed the dread shudder he felt whenever he sent an agent into a potentially life-ending situation. Outwardly he smiled, as happy as Velane in the rule about Psycops not reading each other. “Would you like me to initiate a psytrans of the case details now.”

“Yes.”

***

Velane wondered if she would ever get used to the wretched squalor that some of these dimensions accepted as their general standard of living. Especially the very low-tech dimensions like cL14. She was currently shuffling through the make-shift tents of the camp of followers, family and traders that formed the tail of a large army that was passing through this district. And it stank. Human and animal waste interspersed with discarded and rotting food was mixed in with the thick, sludgy mud that the ground had been turned into by the treading of thousands of feet. It sucked at Velane’s impractical sandals and splashed up her legs onto her coarse, tattered skirt. She was glad that she was up-to-date with all of her shots.

The dimension-jump had thrown her out dangerously close to this large congregation of people, and she was lucky not to have encountered anybody on her arrival or in that sickly, disorientated few minutes that accompanied the end of any jump. She had made a mental note to inform the technical arm of Psytech LEA to move the destination hopper to a more secluded area.

It was nearing dusk, but the accumulation of tents was as bustling as daytime in any city. By listening to snatches of conversation, Velane had established that the army had stopped only moments before and that the huge job of feeding, clothing and weapons repair, and bedding down was just beginning. She tried to navigate her way closer to the soldiers, where talk of arms and armaments was most likely. The shanty-town of tents was confusing, though, and she quickly realised that the only way she was likely of being able to find her way would be to touch the minds of the better informed people around her. This was a risk, because if she touched the mind of a psychic from her own dimension attached to the arms dealer she was tracking, then she would reveal her presence. But there was no alternative so she did so, gently and carefully.

Snatches of thought came to her: mistrust of other peoples, units and races within the army; fear for loved ones in the battle ahead; desperation at a lack of food and alcohol for the soldiers; worry at the whereabouts of a scouting unit not yet returned; confidence in the new weaponry. Velane latched onto that particular thought and sent a pale orange line of mental inquiry back along to the mind from which it came. She turned and followed the thought past an ageing woman slicing soft onions into a watery soup and on to a large, high-roofed tent with a fire beginning to rage in a stone hearth within.

Two men were talking. One was stood nonchalantly, picking his teeth with a piece of straw, whilst the other was powering a huge set of bellows, driving oxygen into the raging fire trying to drive it on to a metal-softening inferno. Beside him a number of chipped and broken swords and spear-heads were lined up neatly. In the front of the neat line, though, sat an old-fashioned – well, old fashioned from where Velane came – six-shooter. The first man spoke. “I dunno know why I’m bothering to get my sword fixed, Brayden. That skirmish the day? It’ll be the last action someone like me’s gonna see. Are you gonna bother fixing it?”

Brayden’s huge shoulders never stopped working the bellows. “Yes.”

“Hmmm.” The first man, in an habitual manner, went to lean upon his sword hilt, but almost stumbled as his arm slipped down to meet only his empty scabbard. Instead he stepped forward and picked up the gun. “I wish I had one o’ these. These things’ll win the war.”

“No. They won’t.”

“How? I’ve seen them kill men from a hundred yards away. Punch through armour. Bring down horses. How will these not win us the war?”

Brayden paused in the stoking of his fire, turned to the soldier and took the gun from him. When he spoke his voice was deep and soft, and his words came out with the slowness of deliberate thought. “Firstly, they won’t win us the war, because the other side have them too. Secondly, this one’s broken and that seems a common state for these things. Lastly, men win wars, and we have more men than we can arm with these,” the distaste in the pause was palpable, “things.”

The soldier nodded. “You hate them. So why have you got this un’?”

Brayden was turning the gun over in his hands, appraising it with his keen, blacksmith’s eye. “Because, I’m going to find out how they work.”

The soldier looked concerned. “I’m pretty sure Ricker would have something to say about that. He won’t want nobody trying to work out these things.”

Velane froze. Ricker. That was a name known throughout Psytech. A shadowy, little-known figure whose name had cropped up in arms-dealing cases in three different dimensions but had never been traced. Nobody had any idea who Ricker was, what he was, or if he even existed. Yet here was this common soldier from an underdeveloped dimension throwing the name around as if he knew him. Velane had to risk a deeper mind-delve to see what this soldier knew. She let her thin, pale trace of thought slide deeper into the undulating orange haze that was the mind of this soldier, and then slowly widened it. As she did so she accessed more and more of his thoughts, his memories and his mind. She learnt about the army, its movements, his unit, the death of his girlfriend, his recklessness. But she learnt nothing more of Ricker. It was a name that he knew well, that all soldiers seemed to know well, but he knew nothing more than a smattering of rumours and stories that seemed designed to increase reputation and instil fear.

She made a gentle tweak in the soldier’s thought patterns. He turned to the blacksmith. “Anyway, you’re busy. I’ll head off and pick up my sword first light.”

Brayden merely grunted in response. His reaction was more pronounced when Velane entered the tent. “What do you want?”

Velane smiled, the disarming gap in her teeth lending her an appearance of youth and naivety which she often exploited. “I have been sent by my new husband to get a weapon.” She liked the gruff Brayden, and could sense his strong-will, so she wanted to avoid attempting to enter his mind.

Brayden’s rough grunt was tinged with amusement this time as he went back to his fire. Lots of young women fled their villages in search of new husbands in the trail of an army. And they sometimes found them. But all too often those new husbands were already old husbands of another woman, and so the new marriage seldom lasted beyond the campaign.

“Please. He needs one of those.” She pointed to the gun that Brayden had recently put down. “I would be safer if he had one of those.”

He stopped. He stared at her. His eyes were deep and a dark, dark hazel colour. His voice was quiet, yet captivating. He possessed a sense of presence and a strength of mind that had nothing to do with any psychic prowess. If Velane did not know for absolute certain, she would have believed that he was looking straight into her soul and reading her thoughts. He said, “Go back to your man. Tell him that you could not help him. You want nothing to do with these, or where they came from.”

As he said it, his eyes twitched upwards, as if he were looking through the tent wall at a place much further back in the camp. To a trained psychic like Velane, it was unmistakable. She knew where Brayden had acquired the gun.

***

Any trail of army followers is, by its very nature, dense and crowded. Here, though, as Velane approached the area indicated by Brayden’s involuntary glance, the crowds thinned, and whilst far from deserted, people tended to keep their eyes down and business to themselves.

They seemed to come from nowhere. Four men, armed with swords and intent on killing. At least one of them was from Velane’s dimension, as their minds were being hidden behind a blank, psychic wall. It was actually the blankness that had alerted Velane, giving her the split-second’s notice she needed not to be caught unaware and killed with the first blow. In an encampment this full of people in heightened states of emotion, the lack of any mental activity stood out.

Velane moved quickly, stepping inside the path of the first man’s brutally swinging sword. From here she could easily assess the threat that each man posed, and she did so at the speed of thought..

The man into whose path she had stepped had the searing, coldly-focussed mind of a practised killer. His lack of any psychic ability, and confidence in his sword-arm, spoke of a mercenary from this dimension.

The next nearest man was moving in. He was dividing his thought-patterns between trying to read Velane’s mind and trying to focus on his unwieldy weapon. A neatly-trimmed beard and immaculately styled hair. So, a killer from her own dimension more at ease with a gun than a sword. Velane could only think that their desire not to rouse the whole camp had prevented this man from shooting her.

The next two men were slightly farther away, and so posed less of an immediate threat. There was the balding psychic, in an anachronistic leather jacket for the dimension. It gave Velane a leap of confidence to realise that he was still maintaining the psychic wall, despite her now being inside its confines: inexperience or inadequacy, either was good. And the scruffy local-thug type, casually swinging his sword left-handedly, clearly expecting this to be an easy job.

Easy it would not be, Velane would ensure that. But, as fit as she was and with her combat training, Velane knew that as a slightly-built, unarmed woman fighting against four armed and burly men, she had virtually no chance of survival. Her heightened psychic powers, though, gave her an edge. Even so, she would find it difficult to hurt, let alone overcome, these men.

Despite her proximity to the first attacker, the stylish gunman swung his sword towards her. Velane knew that he was skilled enough to resist hasty psychic suggestion, so she focussed her efforts on the mercenary. Lightning-fast suggestion pierced his focussed mind and persuaded him to shift his weight to his left foot in order to ready himself for a parry. This proved fatal, as the shifting of weight pushed him straight into the path of the oncoming sword-swing from the initial attacker, which bit deeply into his hip with a satisfying crunch of bone. The two men writhed in confusion as one tried to heave his sword free of shattered joint of his wildly-flailing comrade.

Velane stepped out of this confusion and circled the, now wary, two remaining men. The local thug supressed any outward show of surprise at the predicament of the first two attackers. His demeanour was still casual and nonchalant. His mind, though, gave him away. Half-a-second before acting, a haze of thought shaped into the form of a feint with his sword to the right, then a devastating kick to the abdomen. Velane’s physical movements were fluid, as she ignored the feint and stepped around the kick. The thug’s foot met no resistance, and his leg overextended painfully, leaving him unbalanced with a widely exposed groin. Velane took full advantage of this and crunched a sharp knee into it with pin-point accuracy. She was even able to select the testicle to crush. She went left.

Even as she did this, she was bombarding the balding psychic with a multitude of random thoughts, feelings and ideas. He blinked and fell back. A psychic, yes, but not an accomplished one. Behind her, Velane sensed the surge of satisfaction. The stylish, bearded killer from her own dimension had freed his weapon from the ruined hip of the swordsman, who slumped sideways, gurgling and croaking even as his life blood emptied, spraying out of a deep, arterial wound. Velane ignored him.

Oblivious to the spray of blood that had soiled his immaculately-styled hair the second attacker, the psychic, inched toward her. His mind was as bright and straight-edged as the blood-stained sword in his sweaty hand. Velane could sense the pale orange spike of his mind trying to read hers, barely a split-second in front of his physical assault. She did not reciprocate. Instead, she sent a clear indication of her intention to rush towards the man, in order to get inside his range in exactly the same way as she did with the first attack. He checked his onrush in order to compensate for this and, as he did so, she turned and rushed away. Straight at the confused, balding psychic who had been the source of the, now dispersing, psychic wall.

He was in the process of regaining his mental composure, but not enough to deal with a young, aggressive and physically fit woman careering into him. He had not even had time to raise his thin, razor-sharp weapon before Velane had driven her piston-straight fingers into his throat. There was a satisfying organic click as his windpipe cracked under the force of her blow, backed up by her full body weight at speed.

As he fell with a rasping choke, Velane turned. Two men faced her. One was slick, smooth and used to seeing combat conducted in this way, though uncomfortable with the weapons and setting. The other was cradling a painfully throbbing testicle, confused and anxious, unfamiliar with seemingly defenceless young women who could so damage a gang of armed and brutal men. Velane focussed on this feeling of anxiety, fed it, stoked it, and watch its orange glow grow and spread until it filled the local thug’s head. Her slick, fellow-dimensioner watched with interest – both physically and psychically as he too saw anxiety flare into fear before burning into terror. Seconds before the local thug turned and fled into the night, the slick man pushed his sword, point first, into the ground, briefly nodded respect at Velane and then turned and walked away.

Even as the thug fled, Velane combed his mind for evidence of the mysterious Ricker. Yes, he was aware of Ricker, but in the same way that the soldier in Brayden’s tent had been. A series of rumours, legends and stories. But this man had no connection with Ricker. No, he was working for somebody else.

Two arms dealers in one, underdeveloped backwater dimension? Whilst absorbing the mental anguish of the dying killer, and ignoring the croaking gasps of the man with the cracked windpipe, Velane chewed her lip thoughtfully.

***

This time it was Velane who was hiding herself behind a psychic wall. But, unlike her clumsy attacker from earlier, Velane was channelling the surrounding, mundane thoughts of others into her wall, making it a psychic wall of noise that was as impenetrable, yet less detectable, than the blank wall she had earlier faced. She had constructed this wall before her in order to surreptitiously enter a ring of carts that had been arranged on their sides in a circle in order to construct a large secluded area that had been roofed with tarpaulin. Knowing that she was close, Velane had merely allowed the thoughts of others to wash over her as they had passed, rather than send out potentially traceable mind probes. These thoughts had slowly, unerringly guided her towards this enclosure. This enclosure from which the guns originated. This enclosure within which she would find her target.

Velane pushed a curtain of thick canvas to one side and strode tall between low wooden packing crates and into the makeshift warehouse. Two men were within. They were shocked to see her, but clearly not surprised. A lupine grin crept across the face of the shorter, stockier of the two men who wore the trading garments and facial hair of a local dimension trader. He started to move slowly and steadily towards Velane and spoke.

Meanwhile, the second man – tall and slender, clean-shaven and hatchet-faced – started to construct a psychic shield for the pair, interweaving strands of pure hard knowledge and certainty into a thick mesh. Velane did not give him the opportunity.

The Bomb: Base Overwhelming Mental Bombardment. It was banned across dimension vX1. Only the most accomplished psychics could even attempt it without risking mental damage to themselves, and guaranteeing mental damage to their victim – or even death. It relied on the attacker having absorbed and stored the most base, primal thoughts and feelings of other, heavily traumatised people. The attacker would then bombard their target with these thoughts and feelings, overwhelming their mind to breaking point. Velane had had ample opportunity over the years to absorb and store a significant amount of these base thoughts and feelings, and she spared none of them now in smashing the mind of the psychic bodyguard before he had the chance to complete the mental shield he had started to construct. It was not a blood curdling scream, but a somehow more disturbing hissing sigh that he let out as his eyes rolled backwards in his head and his legs crumpled beneath him.

The bearded trader had barely managed to utter, “Well, hello…” as the opening to his planned monologue before his companion had fallen insensible to the ground. He peered back over his shoulder at the man, before turning again to look at Velane. “What…?”

Velane gave a half-smile, desperately trying to maintain her focus and composure as the after-effects of using The Bomb left her with a dizzying sense of nausea and confusion. “It looks like he has suffered from a mental overload.”

Clearly shaken by the loss of his psychic defence, the trader had not noticed Velane’s unease. He simply asked, “But, how? I mean, he was one of the best.”

Velane remained hidden behind her half-smile as her mind refocused and stomach settled. She slid an arm out of her coarse clothing to reveal her Psytech identification in her hand.

“Oh, a fucking Psycop.” The man’s grin and confident swagger returned a little. “What the hell are the fucking D-police doing here to bother me, eh?”

Velane deliberately placed her identification onto a crate beside her before she spoke. “I’m looking for an arms dealer.”

“Well, look around you.” He spread his arms wide. “We’re in a fuckin’ army camp. There’s arms dealers everywhere. But I don’t know why you’d want to get involved in it, cop. Isn’t this a bit beneath your bosses’ mind-fuck radar?” Velane did not respond, so he continued. “Listen, sweetheart, I’ve got a team of top-drawer, well-paid lawyers at home who would just love to get their legal teeth sunk into Psytech’s ass. Arms dealer? I import and export antiques, darlin’. Every item of stock that I’ve got here? Back home they’re fuckin’ museum pieces. So don’t give me any of your precious tech-dealing speeches about interfering with lower dimensions and all that shite. They’re not covered by your laws. I’m a dealer in curios at worst. So run on, little girl, because you’d be wasting your time arresting me. I’m not exactly fuckin’ Ricker!”

“I’m not here to arrest you.” Velane’s half-smile broke into a full, gap-toothed grin as she nodded towards the discarded Psytech identification on the crate behind her. “And I’m not exactly here as a fucking Psycop.”

The arms dealer’s slight resurgence of confidence dissipated into confusion. “What? Then what the hell are you here for?”

Velane’s other hand slid out from beneath her clothing, and in it was clasped the balding psychic’s thin, razor-sharp sword. “I’m here because you’re imposing on my business.” The man’s face formed into the very picture of confusion. Velane continued. “Those people out there,” nodding in the direction of the army that was at the head of this train of people, “are my customers.”

“Your customers? What the fuck are you on about? They buy from me! The only other dealer out here that’s even been heard of is…”

She allowed him to mumble into silence, and watched the patterns of his mind as it gradually made the connections towards understanding. She then absorbed his feelings as he mentally tumbled into a maelstrom of fear and desperation. His mouth barely formed the R of Ricker before the sword slid effortlessly through his rib cage, piercing his heart.

Ricker surveyed the physical remains of this arms dealer’s operation. It reeked of small-time poor organisation. That was how it had so quickly and easily found itself on the Psytech radar. Ricker sighed. This would put her own trade in this dimension back months. And now she had to devise a convincing case-closing story for Commander Topps.

Velane retrieved her Psycop identification.