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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Birdseye

By Paul R. Green

As the black limousine made its stately way off the wasteland the man watched through rheumy eyes as the three idiots began arguing and hitting each other once more. They obviously hadn’t seen him when they’d made their half-arsed check of the place on arrival at the bit of derelict land; no doubt dismissing his huddled, dishevelled shape as just another piece of detritus on the pile of rubble at the edge of the abandoned site overlooking the grey northern river.
He waited until the men had got back in their own car and driven off before moving, joints screaming as much through his meagre diet as his age. His movement startled a couple of black headed gulls that were checking the heap for whatever it is they looked for on piles of old bricks and timber, and the man jumped as they suddenly took to the air with hideous shrieks. He shuffled over to where the idiots had stood, and was happy to find a discarded half-smoked rollie, which he didn’t hesitate in retrieving with grimy fingers and bringing straight to his eager mouth.
He drew deeply on the fag-end, determined to glean as much of a hit as possible. The smoke filled his lungs and he coughed violently, before being forced to hauk out a disgusting wad of phlegm.
The second draw produced the same reaction, but he still went back for more, sucking at the tobacco until there was nothing left, his eyes looking along to where the cars had returned to the road and back to the city proper.
From where he’d watched in the rubble he hadn’t heard much of what the men were discussing, but he had seen the man who’d been retrieved from the boot of one car and transferred to the limo after having his feet encased in concrete. Or at least he thought he had; he often got confused these days. No; the splashes of hardening concrete and the discarded cigarette suggested that what he had witnessed was no hallucination.
He wondered what to do now. He was a smart man, or at least he had been once, and he knew that what he’d seen meant something, and that if it meant something it had power. His problem was that without knowing who these people were he didn’t know how he could use it. He decided to talk to Jesus.

***

His lungs were on fire as he walked up Dean Street’s arduous slope and he had to stop to catch his breath before attempting the steep stairs up toward the cathedral. He was thankful that there were few people about at this time on a Sunday morning, just the occasional couple – no doubt on a romantic weekend break – hand in hand as they headed down to the Quayside: or the odd straggler from last nights debauchery, looking almost as dishevelled as himself, though their clothes were much more stylish. None of them looked at him; not really. The couples always just happened to cross the road before coming to him, and the stragglers were too drunk or hungover to see anything but the two feet in front of them in their quest to find their way back to wherever it was they’d come from.
At the top of the steps he stopped again to cough up another wad of phlegm and try and get his breath back before making his way to an ornate doorway that stood across from the majestic grandeur of St Nicholas’ Cathedral. Above this particular doorway a grotesquely carved rabbit, black as coal with blood red fangs sat and stared with baleful eyes at all who crossed its path. The man smiled; he liked the gargoyle, remembering the first time his dad had shown him it, back in that other life. Beneath the rabbit, sitting in the recessed doorway, nursing a cheap plastic bottle of wine, was the man known locally as Jesus.
“Captain Birdseye!” Jesus shouted as he spotted him approaching. He hated the name; it being taken from his vague resemblance to an old advertising character. He hated it, but tolerated it all the same as he didn’t feel he deserved his other name; the name belonging to the man he was before now.
“What news on the Rialto?” Jesus stood and beckoned him over to the stand in the shade of a tree that stood in the cathedral grounds, offering him a drink as he drew closer.
The bottle buckled slightly with a plastic crackle as the man accepted it and took a hearty swig. The red wine was cheap, but welcoming. He licked his white moustache and beard, savouring the tiny beads of alcohol he found before he handed the bottle back.
“I’ve got some news to trade, but I don’t know who with. Thought you’d be the man to see.”
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” Said Jesus, spreading his arms wide as he spun around to salute the edifice behind him, before coming full circle to face the man known as ‘Birdseye’. “So ask away, my son. Ask away.”
“Dodgy bastard in a flash suit. Drives a limo; actually, a chauffeur drives it, but you know what I mean. Who is he?”
“And did this snazzily attired chauffeur driven gentleman of questionable birth wear anything distinguishable upon his feet?”
“Couldn’t see proper, like, but he might’ve been wearing them things gangsters wear. You know what I mean? Like socks, but that go over your shoes.”
Spats.”
“Aye, that’s them. Spats. He might have been wearing spats.”
“Their feet run to evil, And they hasten to shed innocent blood; Their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; devastation and destruction are in their highways. Isaiah.”
“Isaiah who?”
“I was quoting Isaiah. The man you’re referring to is Keith Lawrence, calls himself The Don. Trying to make a name for himself. Whatever you want him for I’d say forget it. He’s trouble.”
“A man trying to make a name for himself has enemies. I’ve seen something they might find useful. Who are his?”
Jesus gave the man a sorrowful look.
“You don’t want to get in between men like these, my friend.”
“Want’s got nothing to do with it. We don’t all have the faithful leaving donations on our doorstep.”
The man known as Jesus raised his arms in surrender.
“It would have been remiss of me not to say, that’s all. The path you choose to walk down is your own. So seeing as you seem to know your way, allow me to enlighten you. Now the Don is enjoying, what you might call, a bit of a purple patch at the moment. Since Jimmy the Vampire got put away a few months back things have been fairly quiet. Well, except for a few internal disagreements, that is.”
Birdseye took a seat on the low wall. He’d been hoping for more than this. He’d thought about contacting Jimmy the Vampire, but even if he wasn’t in the nick there was no way Birdseye was going to go all the way to Sunderland to try and find him; and the Vampire never came to Newcastle. He’d earned the nickname due to his refusal to cross the river for fucks sake!
“There must be someone.” Birdseye said.

“Look, mate, the only one who’s anywhere close to the Don’s level at the moment is Sister Mary, but she’s been savvy enough to stick with nicking motors in Hebburn.”
“How do I talk to her?”
Jesus sighed.
“I’ll set it up.”

***

Even the hum of the electricity station didn’t spoil his walk towards the meeting place by the Tyne. The sun was out, and for once there was no wind blowing up the river to chill his aching body. As he made his way to the car park off South Shore Road he went over what he planned to say to Sister Mary. He needed to play this smart, think about the long game, but it was hard when he was so accustomed to concentrating on where the next meal was coming from. He just had to make sure he got a good trade for the information, and not just settle for the first thing she offered. He also had to trade smart; no fags, no booze. He wanted a job, or if not that then at least the chance to prove himself an asset. He had skills. Useful skills to someone with ambition. Or at least his other self did. All he needed was a chance. That, a hot shower and a real bed for the night.
As he approached the rendezvous point he began to sweat. It wasn’t just the exertion from walking all the way down here; he was nervous. What if she laughed at him? Would she even come? If she sent one of her cronies would they be able to make a deal?
He grew short of breath and had to stop. He bent over and drew in air in an attempt to sort himself out. He forced himself to clear his head of all the negative thoughts, finding the song of a small bird in the nearby trees to focus upon and blotted everything else out.
He let out a long, slow breath as he straightened and calmly walked to the car park.
There was already a vehicle there; a black something expensive. He was no good with cars; and what was it with gangsters and black cars? They always showed the dirt up, especially on sunny days like today.
The car flashed its headlights and he made his way toward it, feeling like some kind of spy in one of those films he’d watched back when he was someone else. He instinctively went to the back window which was, of course, tinted.

As he stood waiting he saw his reflection properly for the first time in as long he could remember, and chuckled to himself – He really did look like Captain Birdseye!
The window descended with a subtle hum and his face was replaced by the occupant’s.
“I believe you saw something you shouldn’t.”
All the warmth of the day leeched from his body as he stared into the eyes of the Don.

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.

 

 

The Jump

By Paul R.Green

Almost there. Just one more step and it’ll all be over. Just one. All I need do is put one foot in front of the other and this all goes away.

Up here on the roof I can feel every shift in the cold winter air as it swirls around the buildings around and below me, almost as if the capital itself is a living breathing thing and it would only take the slightest of sighs for me to be sucked into its fatal embrace.

It’s obvious now that I should never have listened to her, but she was wearing the blue pinstripe; the one cut to perfection that shows off her every curve. And her perfume; when she leaned in close to make the oh so innocent initial suggestion, coupled with the subtle, yet clearly deliberate, pull of white cotton across her chest, slipped through my already crumbling defences and cut off my brain at the dick.
She said she just wanted to see the jump logs; to see how the system worked, as she was considering transferring out of fieldwork and looking for an alternative that kept her within the department.  And I guess of all the Jump-techs I was the most gullible. Of course at the time, I thought it was because I was the smartest, youngest and most attractive, but we’ve already established who was doing my thinking back then.
Anyway, I waited until I was working a solo shift and showed her the ropes. She was a quick study and pretty soon she was asking questions that I really shouldn’t have answered; but I went along anyway, risking my career for the suggestion of a hint of a promise. I said I was smart, not that I had any common-sense. But that body, that scent, those eyes had a way of making me forget everything else. Of course, with hindsight, she may have just been playing with my mind. Part of me wishes that were true, but if I’m honest, most of me doesn’t. I like to think that my training would be enough to keep her out, but if she’s managed to keep off Topps‘ radar this long then getting into my head shouldn’t have proved too difficult.
As the wind buffets me, the sudden lurch of my body brings me back to the present and the ledge. My train of thought arrives at its inevitable destination and the question I should really be asking before I take this step; am I here of my own volition, or is this a suggestion she’s dropped into my brain. An emergency backup procedure of sorts, designed to tie up any loose ends in the event of an investigation.
How would I know? Who can I ask for help? The very people who could help me are the ones doing the investigating. Asking for help would put me smack in the middle of their sights.
What if I went to her? Have her help me make a jump and cover my tracks, just like I’ve been doing for her these past couple of years. I could jump to one of the more densely populated Ds. One with a decent but lower tech level and minimal psych abilities. But, she’s on assignment again, tracking down an arms dealer on cL14, and I don’t even know when she’ll be back.
I guess there’s only one type of jump I’ll be making and it’s a definite one way trip.
The wind drops and there’s a beautiful moment of stillness as the sun breaks through  the grey clouds. I close my eyes, picturing her as I savour the warmth that spreads across my face, and take a step.

The Dustman

By Paul R. Green

“You can go through now, George.” Christine said with a friendly smile. Doyle stood, fastened his suit jacket, and returned the girl’s smile with an added wink before opening the door to his CO’s inner office.

Topps’ heavy-set frame blocked out most of the light coming through the large window that provided such a spectacular view of the capital. He was out of his seat, which was never a good sign. Not that Doyle was ever called in for anything that was. He positioned himself before his chief’s desk, as if the man was sat behind it, stood at parade rest and waited.

“What do you know about vX13 George?” The big man said without turning.

“vX13. The thirteenth dimension our boys have discovered; back in ’08, I believe. They’re the first D we’ve come across that comes close to ourselves in both tech and psychic ability. We run a small team out of the capital as S.O.P. but migration has been rather limited, presumably due to them being so close to us in a lot of respects. Though obviously they haven’t learnt how to D-hop yet.”

Topps turned away from the window with a meaningfully raised eyebrow and lumbered across to his seat. He dropped into it with a sigh and made himself comfortable before looking back at his agent with steely eyes that defied his jowly features. “We think they might have rampart tech.”

“Who’s the source?” Doyle enquired.

Logan.”

“A good man. How’d he come across it?”

“The usual. He was working a case, tied most of it up but lost a lead on a tenuous link. Not enough to keep the case open, but enough of a niggle for him to mention it to me. And now, I’m mentioning it to you.” He nudged a hard copy file across the desk toward Doyle – the Dust Squad didn’t use electronic files. The file would be read and burned after reading. Doyle picked it up and turned to leave.
As he went to open the door his boss added, “Be careful, George” a note of genuine concern in his voice. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this one.”

***

The oppressive humidity hit Doyle the second he stepped out of the air-conditioned comfort of the commercial airliner and followed the rest of the passengers, most of whom were clearly visiting the tropical island resort for reasons other than business. Once he’d collected his luggage and checked through customs – which included a discrete mind probe that he’d been half expecting and therefore prepared for – he hailed a cab and soaked in the sights on the short trip to his hotel.

Once checked in he unpacked and went through the ritual of leaving himself indicators should anyone decide to rummage through his possessions whilst he was out. Satisfied, he exited the room – leaving a hair stuck with a dab of saliva attached to the door and jamb – and headed downstairs.

From his place at the bar Doyle looked out at the pool as he savoured the rum he’d ordered. The alcohol nicely topped off the buzz he had received from the couple of vodkas he’d enjoyed inflight. He watched with barely disguised admiration as the lithe, sculpted figure of a man so white he couldn’t possibly be a local towelled himself dry as he approached the bar. The man smiled as he approached Doyle, and the agent returned the smile, greeting him with a hello and asking if he’d like a drink. The man, who introduced himself as Thorsson, took the stool next to Doyle and ordered a local beer.
Doyle took another drink and sighed contentedly. He much preferred assignments in the more advanced dimensions. Sure, there was usually more risk involved, and the locals weren’t so easy to impress, but advanced thinking tended to lead to more liberal attitudes, and Doyle was all for that. Especially, when Doyle considered fraternising with the indigenous population a vital part of his job. And the more intimate that contact, the more he could exploit that relationship towards advancing his mission.

Of course, Doyle’s chance meeting with Thorsson was anything but. He’d gone through the file Topps had given him and judged him to be the best route into Hart-Tek. Once he’d established that, it was simply a matter of having the local team knock him up some Bona-Fides, and book him a place at the seminar Thorsson was due to attend on tropical Tatimi.

“What’s your speciality, George.” The big man enquired. “I take it you’re here for the seminar.”

Doyle smiled, knowing he had the man hooked now. “I shouldn’t really say, my friend. Confidentiality clauses and all that. Let’s just call it data security, shall we?”

Thorsson grinned back. “Then I too am a data security specialist.” He ordered two more drinks and held his up in a toast. “To the unbreachable wall.”

Doyle clinked glasses. “May it never come and keep us out of a job” he replied. The two men knocked their drinks back in one, and Doyle signalled the barman for more.

***
They were back in Thorsson’s room; Doyle was searching through the man’s belongings whilst the big man slept away their afternoon’s excess. That and the mild sedative Doyle had slipped into the post-coital glass of juice he’d poured meant he had at least a couple of hours.

He had swept the room for bugs and weapons as a matter of course and was now going through Thorsson’s briefcase. He located the man’s ID and pass and settled himself on the end of the bed, stretching out his consciousness to touch the thoughts of the sleeping Thorsson.

The first time he’d tried to access the mind of a drunk and sedated mark, Doyle had been pleasantly surprised. He’d expected the thoughts to be vague and confusing, the thought paths to be myriad and clouded, leading to a host of dead ends and tangled threads, but he’d found the opposite to be true.

Thorsson’s thoughts were dominated by the bright golden rope of his subconscious dream state, making it easy for Doyle to follow to the nexus point of the scientist’s memory. From here Doyle quickly found the branch he was looking for and due to Thorsson’s state it was a simple matter to navigate the natural barriers and steal his passwords. He was just about to break the link when an associated thought strand gave off a slight pulse. Intrigued, he accessed the thought which led him to the image of an attractive looking man named Campbell, who was some form of consultant. The nature of the image suggested it to be part of Thorsson’s fantasy world rather than an actual memory and as there was nothing much else related to the man, just the letter ‘V’, Doyle put it down to some form of office crush. Still, he made a note of the name, just in case.

Before breaking the link he couldn’t resist slightly nudging the man’s memory of their time together, suggesting it had been even more pleasurable than it had been. That done he detached himself from Thorsson’s mind and pepped himself up with another stiff drink.

The ID and pass were sophisticated for this D but relatively simple for Doyle to replicate. Within half an hour he had one of his very own. Then, using Thorsson’s tablet and ID, he hacked into Hart-Tek’s systems and added his details to their personnel files. He also searched for Campbell, but came up blank. Once finished he returned everything to where he’d found it, poured himself a drink of rum, took a generous sniff to savour the aroma and sat on the balcony to await Thorsson’s return to the land of the living. After all, the thought, he might as well enjoy himself a little more before starting the next stage of his mission.

***

Dark skies and freezing cold weather greeted Doyle in Helso, home to Hart-Teks scientific division. He’d had no problems getting through security at the gate and was in the process of orientating himself to the large complex that they worked from.
Inside the main building he found a locker room and had to stop himself from laughing aloud at how easy it was to access the locker he needed. Earlier he had dropped into a security office that stank of stale coffee on the pretence of having found a mobile comm device in the rest rooms. Whilst there he had been able to catch a glimpse of the shift rota that was written for all to see on a white board at the back of the room. He’d made a mental note of a couple of names who weren’t on shift until next week and then searched their lockers until he’d found one whose uniform would fit.

Now, with most of the staff having left for the day, Doyle made his way to the executive offices on the top floor. Once inside he made short work of accessing the database, locating the information he was searching for, and replacing the files in question with a nasty little virus that would destroy any further copies on other systems, as well as any files that contained certain key words.
Now all he had to do, was destroy the prototype, that according to what he had just read was in a separate annex lab to the rear of the building.

***

Doyle crouched behind a large chrome machine, his psychic defences on full alert. He shouldn’t need them, but if these boys were fooling around with rampart tech then best be prepared. There were five of them, two pairs coming from opposite ends of the large lab building and a single overseer who was waiting by the main exit. Getting out was always the hardest part.

Adrenalin focussed their minds upon their task, making it trickier for Doyle to find an in. Tricky, but not impossible. One of the men approaching from the North was new, and every now and then a wispy thread of red fear would detach itself from the white line of his determination and attention.
Doyle bided his time, waiting for just the right thread to pop up. There! He was in. With a grasp on the strand it was a simple matter to tug on it; gently though, just enough to make the man nervous. More wisps appeared; bigger and more frequent. Doyle smiled to himself. Now for some fun.

A quick sweeping probe allowed him to place his opponents upon the map he had created in his mind. The two pairs of guards were getting closer and their leader still hadn’t moved. All he had to do was wait until they were in just the right place.

Now.

With a deftness that came through years of experience Doyle pushed through a thought to the new man, then cut off all links with his foes. The guard’s subconscious took the suggestion and reacted accordingly, telling his brain that his eyes were seeing an armed intruder up ahead. The brain responded by instructing his body to raise the pistol and fire.

The lab came alive with a cacophony of noise, lit by sporadic flashes of muzzle flare as the pent-up emotions of the guards were unleashed in a hail of bullets.

From the direction of the entrance he could hear the shouts of the overseer as he tried to ascertain what was going on and gain control of the situation. The distraction made it easy for Doyle to fix on the man and enter his mind. Orange sparks of confusion spun around a branching line of yellow light as the man fought over what to do next. It was a simple matter for Doyle to suggest he leave the door and go help his men.

With the man gone Doyle slipped unnoticed through the door. Behind him the gunfire had ceased as the overseer managed to convince his men they were shooting at each other.

Once outside the agent took a bracing sniff of the cool night air and walking calmly and casually away from the building triggered the explosives.

***

Doyle was back in Topps’ office, staring down the barrel of one his boss’s legendary disapproving glowers. He shuffled a bit, and became suddenly aware of just how uncomfortably sweaty he was feeling and how dry his throat felt. He could do with a drink. Shame that alcohol and other stimulants were banned on his home dimension.

“Industrial accident caused by faulty wiring; that’s how it’s been reported on vX13,” the big man finally said after what seemed an age as he dismissively dropped the file on his desk.

“Thank you, sir. I try my best.” Doyle acknowledged with a smile of relief. The smile soon dropped under Topps‘ stern gaze.

“You were lucky at best, Doyle. Careless at worst. That was bloody sloppy work. I expect better from my agents.”

Doyle knew better than try and make excuses, he simply stood quietly and waited to hear what his boss wanted to say.

The big man pinched the bridge of his nose as if bracing himself for something, then seemed to change his mind. “Still, you were ‘Jonny-on-the-spot’ and I hate to second guess my boys in the field, so we’ll let it go this time.” He picked up the file again and waved it at Doyle. “This time.” He stood with a grunt and moved across to a steel cabinet which he unlocked with a key attached by a chain to his belt.
Doyle took the cue and slipped quietly from the room.

***

Topps watched his agent leave then moved to stand at his window. He often stood here when he had a lot on his mind, or something bothered him. Right now it was a single letter:’V’. It could be nothing but Topps was a careful man. He liked to think of himself as an iceberg. On the surface huge, cool and imposing, but with a lot more going on beneath the surface. And dangerous, too, especially to the unwary.

“Are you one of mine, V?” He asked himself quietly, not really wanting to think it even may be true. After standing for a few more minutes he came to a decision and returned to his desk and hit the inter-com. “Christine, could you clear my schedule for this afternoon then come in please? We have work to do.”

Cole

By Paul R. Green

The cut on his eye stung like a bastard as Otis rinsed away the blood and smeared Vaseline over it. “I told ya to watch his elbows” the corner man hissed as he threw the bloody sponge into the bucket and removed the ice-pack from Cole’s neck. His trainer’s words were clear to Cole, despite the incessant baying of the twenty thousand plus crowd outside the cage that had come to the Seers to see him take on Martinez. “Relax, coach, ain’t nothing coming between me and that title. Certainly not that preening cock” he snarled, eyes fixed on the wiry Latino currently stood atop his stool, arms held wide like the statue of Christ the Redeemer in his native Rio. He raised them up, flexing the muscles and whipping the crowd into a further frenzy. “You must admit he has a certain flair, though” the trainer conceded as the bell sounded for the fourth round. “Now go knock his punk ass into next week.”

***

Cole’s rise from a minor player in the Nevada leagues, fighting in clumsily welded cages for a hundred bucks a night to having a shot at the title could only be described as meteoric ; a term he’d never understood – didn’t meteors come crashing down?

Like most things in life in Cole’s experience, it had all come about thanks to dumb luck, or to be more accurate a dumb fuck, stupid enough to try and mug him outside the bus station in Parumph. Cole had been walking to his motel thinking of the steak he was going to order from the diner off of East Street, when the guy had sidled up alongside him, pulled a knife and demanded Cole’s wallet. Cole had stared at the knife for a few seconds, not exactly in shock, more out of disbelief; not comprehending why the guy had picked him when he had the choice of any number of potential victims, all of them less physically imposing than Cole’s six foot two, two hundred and forty pounds frame. He shifted his gaze to the man’s eyes. They were a rich hazel colour, though the whites were tinged with red as if the man had rubbed them recently – probably trying to keep the flop sweat that covered his forehead from blurring his vision. His hair was a short, mousy brown fuzz, as if just growing back in after being shaved to the scalp. That and the slightly too big clothes, all of them at least five years out of date, worn beneath a denim jacket that had seen better days and a crudely drawn skull tatt on the back of his hand suggested his would-be assailant wasn’t long out of prison.

Cole’s eyes quickly swept across his surroundings, the street was quiet but not deserted, though the nearest person to them was a good hundred yards away and oblivious to all but their destination and the music pumping through their oversized headphones. Cars passed, but no-one was really paying any attention to Cole and his mugger. Back from where he’s came he saw the bus pulling away from the station.

“Look, friend, walk away. You don’t want to do this” Cole said calmly, as he subconsciously flexed his fingers and shifted onto the balls of his feet. Apparently the man had wanted to though, and Cole had been forced to defend himself, neatly side-stepping the attack, blocking the clumsy lunge with the knife, and breaking the man’s arm in the process. The move that instinctively followed had caught the stumbling attacker across the back of the neck speeding his rendezvous with the sun-baked asphalt and leaving his assailant with a broken nose, a shattered jaw and three missing teeth.

And that could have been that if not for the girl on the bus who’d caught the whole thing on her phone. It had gone viral. Within a week he was competing in matches in Vegas, within a month he had an agent and had fought on both coasts. And now six months after ‘PUNK GETS PUMMELLED’ had took the internet by storm, Cole was back in Vegas – and this time he wasn’t just on the Strip, but sharing the bill with Hector ‘El Gallo’ Martinez at Seers Casino in a title fight with a purse worth a cool five mill.

***

“You think you can take me, Puto?” The words were sharp in his ear as Cole desperately struggled for air as Martinez pushed his face into the mesh of the cage. The champion was a lot stronger than his size suggested and coupled with his speed he’d caught Cole a sucker punch to the kidneys that had resulted in him being pinned to the cage as the crowd outside bayed for blood. And he was pinned. He’d exhausted all his options and knew his opponent had enough experience not to give him an opening. Not now. Not with the title so close.

Except?

What the hell? Martinez was switching his grip on Cole’s wrists where they were painfully held halfway up his back. This was it; time to man up and take the title, or go back to being paid peanuts to fight has-beens and wannabes in Fuknows, Nevada.

***

Cole groaned as he pulled himself out of bed, grimaced as he stood and the arthritis in his knees sent knives of fire screaming through his body. Five years at the top were beginning to take their toll; a fact confirmed as he stared back at his haggard reflection in the bathroom mirror as he took his first piss of the day. Maybe he should get a face-lift? Would that help or hinder his acting career? Probably hinder; action heroes were meant to be rugged. Maybe he should grow a moustache? But a proper one like Charles Bronson or Warren Oates. He had a few weeks before he started shooting his next picture; he’d start today.

He pulled on a pair of sweat pants and a T-shirt and headed downstairs, instructing Maria, his cook, that he’d take breakfast by the pool this morning as he grabbed a mug of coffee and stepped into the California sun. He paused at the door, letting his eyes adjust to the glare, and smiled as he watched Rachel glide through the crystal clear water as she carried out her morning ritual of fifty lengths before breakfast.

***

Cole stared at the leaves floating on the pool’s murky surface, wondering if he should take the deal. He hadn’t fought in over three years – a long time in the MMA game – and, if he was honest with himself, wasn’t sure if he was in good enough shape to defend his title. He’d managed to avoid it so far thanks to his agents and management team, who used his Hollywood status and shooting schedules to sidestep any challenges, but his last couple of films had thanked and the same people who had been so keen to help were now worrying about where their next slice of Cole Tanner pie was coming from. Still, if he won, it could just be the boost his career needed. That and the five million fee, regardless of whether he won or lost, meant that deep down he already knew the answer.

***

Cole roared his contempt for his opponent as he slammed his forearm across his chest, sending the punk crashing to the floor. He quickly followed up by dropping onto him, leading with an elbow to the gut that forced the air from his lungs in a violent, spittle-flecked gasp. Whilst the challenger was still recovering, Cole flipped him onto his stomach and locked his arms behind his back. The crowd were going frantic. They were chanting his name. This was it. The match was almost his. All he needed to do was hang on for ten more seconds. Ten short seconds.

Not that short. Not short enough. Maybe he should just switch to a more secure group? Yeah, the more he thought about it, the more changing his grip seemed like a good idea.

Cole eased off for a second… Continue reading