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.