Danielle stared at the creature currently known as Lilith Cytherea. What was she? A mutant? A throwback? Earth’s history was littered with stories of her kind. Myths, faerie tales. The only thing standing between her and the creature’s wrath was the reinforced glass even Lilith couldn’t break through. Not that she hadn’t tried, and Danielle had no doubts that the woman could and would kill her if she ever got free.
But for now, Lilith was her prisoner, contained within a four meter square cell, within which she paced furiously, screaming invectives that shocked even the worldly twenty year old, glaring at her captor with a look that would cause most people to run away. And Danielle was indeed afraid of her. But she steeled herself and met the creature’s glare with with well-honed indifferent stare.
She activated the two-way speaker. “Lilith Cytherea. I hope you find the accommodations comfortable, excepting of course the fact that you cannot leave your room.”
The creature was on the other side of the room when Danielle spoke. Without a moment’s hesitation, and in a single leap, she was at the window, her face just inches from Danielle’s. Danielle instictively backed away several steps. Damn creature. She made her flinch.
Lilith’s voice was like ice. “Who are you? What do you want with me?”
Danielle allowed a small smile. “Straight to the point. I like that.”
Lilith’s lips pulled back, revealing teeth clenched together. It was a ghastly look, and an unexpected shudder ran across Danielle’s shoulders.
Lilith spoke again, her voice like velvet. “When I get out of here, sweet thing—and I will get out of here—I am going to hunt you down and kill you. Slowly.” Then she walked across the room and sat on the floor with her back against the wall farthest from Danielle.
“Tell me, Lilith. Does the name Richard Mhyrr mean anything to you?”
When her captive said nothing, she continued. “A handsome young man. Worked in engineering. Found dead a few months ago. Not a mark on him. No discernible cause of death. Almost as though the life had been sucked out of him.”
Lilith’s eyes narrowed, and the heat from them seemed to reach across the room and through the glass and into Danielle’s head. If looks could kill . . .
“And then there was Arlywin Catagonia a few months before that. And Lem Jacoby before that. And that’s just on Terra One. Three more on Rongo, although you went by a different name there. And Mars City. Oh my, Mars City. That was a target rich environment for you wasn’t it, Lilith.”
Long seconds passed. Then Lilith spoke, her voice like iron. “Whatever it is you want me to do for you, the answer is no.”
A growling stomach woke Frankie from his nap. Time to eat. The dim sounds of the day told him it was second breakfast time. He rolled out of bed and ended up on all fours on the floor, where he carefully stretched each muscle group in his larger-than-normal body. Nosing his way past a pile of dirty clothes, pausing only to examine a particularly interestingly smelling sock, he wandered into the kitchen where, on a plate in the sink, he found some left-over lasagna, which he daintily consumed. A few swallows of water from a half-empty glass, a quick visit to the litter box, and he was ready to head out into The World Outside.
There were three ways to reach The World Oustide, besides the door, which Frankie had never figured out how to open. He chose the gap in the wall under the kitchen sink because it was the safest way to approach The World Outside. He squeezed into the tight space that separated his apartment from the neighboring one. A spider web attached itself to his whiskers, and its owner dropped to the floor and skittered away. He lunged after it, but the narrow confines of the passageway pressed in on him, making pursuit a difficult proposition at best. He really needed to lose some weight.
He pushed his nose against a tiny crack under the neighbors’ bed, and sampled their scents: The woman’s perfume, nose-twitching perfume, sneeze-causing perfume; the man’s oily smelling work clothes; the baby’s bewildering supply of smells. They’d had pancakes for breakfast, and the man had made a ham and cheese sandwich to take with him when he left for work. And the mixed smell of sweat and sex. Jeez, you’d think with a baby, they’d put it on hold for a while.
Continuing down the narrow passage, he came to a grate, where he took his time sampling the smells and gathering the sounds. When he was sure nothing was amiss, he bumped his head against the grate, which gave way enough to let him squeeze through and drop to the floor. It snapped back into place behind him. He’d have to return by a different route.
The utility corridor was dimly lit, which was how Frankie liked it, and presented a maze of cast-off furniture and ancient equipment that had accumulated over decades. Little had changed here in the years since he had first ventured into The World Outside. He could visualize every desk, every chair, every cabinet, every tipped-over bookcase. He knew the labyrinth like the pad of his paw.
He dashed under a decrepit coffee table partly buried in rolls of carpet, and peered out from the safety of his cave. There, atop a filing cabinet not ten feet away, was Blackie. Watching him. Princeton was nowhere to be seen or smelled, but wherever Blackie was, Princeton was sure to be nearby. They considered this their territory, and Frankie was trespassing.
What was Blackie doing in the World Outside in the middle of the day? He and Princeton hardly ever came out during the day. That’s why Frankie did. He sized up his opponent, and his recently full stomach suddenly felt empty. Like the bottom had dropped out of it. Frankie was old and fat and one-eyed, no match for Blackie, even if Princeton wasn’t around.
He looked over his shoulder to make sure Princeton wasn’t sneaking up on him. When he looked back, Blackie was on the floor and had cut the distance between them by half. Damn, Frankie hadn’t heard him move. Now he stood sideways to Frankie, tail twice it’s normal size, hairs on his back standing.
“Eeooowha,” Blackie said, challenging Frankie’s right to continued existence.
Frankie turned sideways to Blackie, and began backing away, crab like, one careful step at a time. Maybe they would leave him alone if it was clear he was retreating. A low warning growl behind him ended that thought. He didn’t have to look to know it was Princeton. His breath caught in his throat and something warm ran down his leg.
“Yaoooogh,” he whined, mortified.
A heavy weight hit his back, and needle-like claws dug into this shoulders. He rolled and broke away from Princeton. Blackie pounced as he tried to galloped past him, and they careened together into a stack of cardboard boxes. Then Frankie was up and running. He headed for high ground, leaping from boxes to tables to cabinets, and finally into the pipes that ran along the ceiling of the corridor. His heart was beating at a ferocious rate and he was gasping for air. He came to a damaged section of the corridor that opened on to a warehouse, the floor far below, steel girders criss-crossing the space a few feet beneath the ceiling.
He looked back, panting. Blackie was scrambling up into the pipes behind him, and Princeton was loping along on the floor. Frankie looked at the girders. The nearest one was a very long jump away.
“Yaoooogh,” he whined again and leaped across the chasm.
Had Frankie still had both eyes, he might have made it. But with only one eye, he misjudged the distance. His front paws caught the girder, leaving him clawing desperately at the smooth surface, kicking with his hind legs to get hold of something, anything. But his massive weight pulled him relentlessly downward until his paws slipped off the edge of the girder. Eyes wide with fear, he fell silently toward the floor far below.
Rae Ann had a problem. Two problems, really. The first was the Chief Inspector’s scowl, which was aimed at her. He was good with scowls, having polished them into an art form over the years. First, his eyes narrowed, with the left eye dooping a little more than the right eye. This caused a web of wrinkles to spread from the corners out toward his ears and up across his forehead. His lips pursed into a thin line, with the ends plunging toward his chin. Finally, his nostrils expanded to half again their normal size. The result was a picture of frustration and dissatisfaction.
“Well?” He growled.
Rae Ann’s second problem was the corpse. It lay naked on the autopsy table between them, eyes still wide open, mouth still frozen in an absurd grin.
“I ran every scan I can think of,” she said. I analyzed the blood forward and backward. I analyzed the organs. I did trace EEGs.” She caught a glimpse of her image reflected in the polished metal surface. She looked like she hadn’t slept in twenty-four hours. Which was most likely because she hadn’t.
“I don’t know why this man is dead.” There, she’d said it. She’d admitted that the corpse had defeated her.
Oz’s scowl gave way to something resembling sympathy. “You ever been stumped on cause of death before?”
She looked him in the eye. “No.”
She wasn’t expecting that. “Oh?” She said.
“Eight times. Nine if you count this one”
She waited for him to decide whether to continue.
“They were all just like this one,” he finally said.
Rae Ann swallowed. “You think we have a serial killer.”
“I’m sure of it.”
“On Terra One.”
“Three that I know of on Terra One. The others were on Vesta and at Mars City. I’m still looking at the other colonies.”
Rae Ann shuddered. Murders were rare in the inner system colonies. She couldn’t remember any serial murder cases. She stripped off her gloves and gown, and they moved to her closet-sized office. She brought her autopsy report up on a tablet.
“I have two other pieces of information you will find interesting,” she said. She turned the tablet around so Oz could see it.
“The victim had sex just before he died, or was engaged in sex when he died. Or both.”
“Here’s the thing,” she said. “There are two DNA signatures, not including the victim. Neither one showed up in a records search.”
“How can that be?”
I don’t know.” Everyone had their DNA recorded at birth. “Maybe zeegees?”
“Not likely. The perp is operating in gravity environments.”
Rae Ann nodded. “Another thing. The DNA signatures are anomolous, but I can’t quite put my finger on what’s different about them.”
Oz straightened up. “Run it by Mars City. Priority One.”
“Priority One? For a murder? That’ll be a tough sell.”
The old detective smiled. “Call in some favors if you have to. This is the break I’ve been waiting for.”
Oz spent the rest of the day in the disaster that passed for his office, with the door shut, with an old yellow folder parked in front of him on his desk, with his feet resting on the folder, with his hands behind his head as he leaned dangerously far back in the chair, with his eyes closed. He didn’t need the folder. Nor its electronic counterpart on his tablet or his ePaper. The contents of that particular folder had long ago taken up permanent residence in the mountains and valleys of his ancient but infallible memory, where he now wandered, an explorer searching for patterns that he knew were there but which continued to evade him.
Three unexplained murders on Terra One in the last year. Two on Terra Two the year before. And four at Mars City. By comparing transit records, he had narrowed the list of suspects down to twenty-two people who were at each of those locations when the murders occurred. He needed more data points, which he would soon have. As if it had anticipated his thought, the incoming message light blinked on his tablet.
“Wilde,” he said, sitting up.
“Oz, you ol’ goat. How you keepin’ these days?” Ashton Schwartzenneger’s face appeared on the tablet.
“Good as can be expected at my age. And you?”
“How’s Trixie?” Schwartz was one of the few people in the system that Oz thought of as a friend.
“Oh, same as always. And what about that ol’ curmudgeon of a cat? He still alive and kicking?”
Oz grinned. “He’ll probably outlive me.”
“I hope not. He gets meaner every time I see him.” He let his smile fade. “I’ve got what you asked for.”
“Yeah. You were right. Three inexplicable deaths on Vesta. Same MO.”
“Thanks, Schwartz. I owe you one.”
“No problem, Oz. Take care.” Schwartz’s image vanished.
Oz gave the tablet a few commands and studied the results that came up on the screen almost immediately. Vesta was a mining colony in the Asteroid Belt. Not a lot of people went there. His list of suspects was down to three people. He leaned back in his chair again, his hands behind his head.
After a while he said, “I’ve almost got you.”
When he got home, Frankenstein was no where to be found. He called Wileyanie.
“Did you come by my place today?”
“No,” she said. “Why?”
She came over and did another search of the apartment while Oz sat in in chair and stared at the floor in the middle of the room, where Frankie usually sat and glared at him. Wiley gave up and joined him in the living room.
“You need a drink, dad?”
Oz said, “I wonder if he’s gone off somewhere die. Alone. Animals do that, you know.” A single tear rolled down one side of his face.
Frankie had been hiding for some time behind a steel planter containing a small tree and overflowing with ivy that threatened to take over this entire corner of the little cafe’s patio. He was safe here. He could see out, but no one could see him.
He was hungry. He must have missed first and second lunch. Maybe even third lunch. And he was thirsty. And his right thigh throbbed with a dull ache all the way up his rump to his tailbone. That’s why he had finally stopped walking. His leg hurt too much to keep going. Besides, he didn’t know where he was.
He had landed on all fours, of course. But he had landed on a tall stack of soft containers and had bounced off on to an unforgiving floor. Searing pain had raced up his right leg, and he had collapsed with a yowl. His head must have hit something, because everything sounded muffled in his right ear. He shook his head, but it didn’t help. Then he slinked behind some crates and laid down to rest. Later he wandered through several warehouses and back corridors until he found the cafe.
A woman appeared and seated herself at a table nearby. She ordered a chicken salad. The smell of chicken made Frankie’s stomach growl. Could he steal some? Maybe leap up on to the table, grab a mouthful, and run? Not likely. His leg had stiffened. He wouldn’t be running anywhere anytime soon. But the smell of that chicken was mouth-watering.
A man joined her. She did not look pleased.
“Perch. What are you doing here? I can’t be seen with you.”
The man sat opposite her and smiled an ugly smile. At least, it looked ugly to Frankie, who was pretty good with human expressions.
“Ms. Pergola,” he said. “It’s so nice to see you as well.” He pinched an olive from her salad and popped it into his mouth. “I have a bit of news for you. Something I think you will be interested to hear.”
The woman sat still and silent, ignoring her salad. If Frankie was lucky, she’d forget about it entirely and leave without finishing it.
The man continued as though they were having a pleasant conversation. “It seems that a certain Chief Inspector Oscar Wilde” — Frankie’s ears pivoted forward — “has taken an interest in a series of unexplained deaths.”
Frankie sensed the woman’s agitation even though she didn’t move or make a sound.
“He has connected them to similar reports from other colonies.” He picked out a cherry tomato and pushed it into his mouth.
Neither of them said anything for a long time. Then the woman said, “It may be time for Inspector Wilde to retire.”
The man smiled again. “My thoughts exactly.”
A nameless terror spread through Frankie’s trembling body. He didn’t understand all of the conversation, but he knew that Oz was in danger.
Frankie limped across one side of the broad cobblestone boulevard, to the grassy strip that ran down the middle of the street, where he hid in a cluster of shrubs behind a park bench, and made himself as small as possible; a challenging proposition for a cat of his girth. From here he hoped to observe without being observed. A lot of people were walking by and he did not want to attract attention to himself. He wasn’t really a people cat.
He had been dragging his couch potato body around all day, and it wasn’t holding up well. What he wouldn’t do for a couch about now. The woman at the cafe had experienced a sudden attack of civic responsibility and had dumped her uneaten food in a disposal unit rather than leaving it sitting on the table when she left. He hadn’t found any further opportunities to snatch a quick meal.
Then there was his hip, which was a throbbing mass of hurt. And he still had no idea where he was or how to get home. He crouched in his hiding place and panted, trying to draw on the feline stoicism for which his species was known. But the truth was that he was philosophically more inclined toward hedonism than stoicism.
The boulevard was lined on both sides with row houses, each one nearly identical to its neighbors, distinguished from each other only by their garish colors. Even with his limited color vision, Frankie could appreciate their complete lack of any sense of artistic balance. His ears pivoted in response to the sounds of the neighborhood: The shouts and laughter of a group of children who had commandeered the width of the street several houses away, and were kicking a large ball back and forth; two women arguing with each other from neighboring balconies; two old men on the street bantering with a third sitting in a rocking chair on his balcony smoking a cigar; a Capuchin monkey sitting by itself in a tree banging two cymbals together.
The smells of meals being prepared assaulted his nose. His head bobbed and his nose twitched as he gathered them in. A beef stew about three houses down. Stir fry across the street from his hiding place. Bread! Some one was making bread. He wasn’t especially fond of bread, but it smelled so good that he would gladly accept some. Especially with a little butter.
A familiar creaking sound, like someone settling into a chair, caught his attention. It reminded him of Oz settling into his stuffed chair. Would he ever hear that sound again?
A man wearing a hooded robe was sitting on the bench not a foot away from him. Frankie had dozed off and had not noticed the man’s approach. He was getting careless in his old age. Fortunately, the man hadn’t noticed him either.
From somewhere beneath his robe, the man retrieved a bag from which he extracted a hunk of smoked salmon, which he absent-mindedly ate as he read from a tablet. Frankie bobbed his head up and down to take in the scent. His tongue traced his lips. His stomach rumbled.
“Would you care to join me, friend?” he said. He had a gravelly voice.
Who was he talking to? No one else was anywhere near them. Frankie went into fight or flight mode, fully attentive to his surroundings, ready to flee. Not that he could really flee. His leg has stiffed up so badly that he wasn’t sure he could even get up, let alone run away.
A piece of smoked salmon dropped to the ground in front of him. The smell pulled Frankie’s nose toward it, and it was all he could do to keep his body from following. He bobbed his head up and down again. So close, but so far. Finally he extended a tentative paw and batted it toward himself, where his mouth promptly vacuumed it up. Flavor exploded in his mouth, and his tongue engaged in an ecstatic, possibly illegal, dance of almost erotic proportions.
He peered up at the robed man, who continued reading as though nothing had happened. Pretty soon, another piece of fish landed on the ground, this one larger than the first one. Frankie’s one good eye dilated as he moved forward far enough to pick it up with his teeth, and then retreated back and waited for a reaction from the man. When nothing happened, he made quick work of the fish.
He licked his chops while he waited for his new best friend forever to drop another piece of fish, but when no more was forthcoming, he cautiously stepped out from the bushes and settled under the bench. The man continued reading and eating pieces of the fish, which was disappearing at an alarming rate. Franky couldn’t stand it any longer. He leaped on to the bench beside the stranger, a tiny mew escaping his mouth as a searing pain shot up his leg and into his hip.
The man’s face, partly hidden within the hood, was almost as wrinkled as Oz’s. His chin was square and firm, his mouth a straight line. He did not look like a man who smiled much. But he did have laugh lines radiating away from the corners of his eyes, which Frankie took as a good sign. And there was a twinkle in his gray eyes as he stared back at Frankie.
He placed the remainder of his salmon on the bench between them and went back to reading. As hungry as he was, Frankie nonetheless took his time, daintily pulling off tiny pieces, savoring each bite. He had always been a dainty eater. When he had finished off the fish, he proceeded to wash himself, licking his large paw and wiping it across his face. A low rumble emerged from somewhere deep inside him as he engaged in that old, familiar ritual. Things were looking up.
“You seem to be lost,” the man said. “I haven’t seen you around here before, and I know all the local cats.”
What kind of human bothered to get to know all the cats in the neighborhood?
“Perhaps you would like to come home with me,” he continued. And then, as if to reassure Frankie, “Just until we can find your owner and return you.”
The man moved faster than Frankie would have thought possible, and he found himself tucked under the man’s arm, with his rump securely pinned between the man’s body and his elbow, and his front paws held firmly in the man’s fingers. Then they were moving, walking down the street.
Frankie struggled at first, but even though the man was holding him loosely, he couldn’t get any traction with his claws. He was stuck. Where ever the man was going, it looked like Frankie was going there as well. However, if the recent feast was any indication of the man’s generosity and culinary taste, Frankie was okay with that.