Inspecteur Hollins and The Cat's Paw
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Inspecteur Hollins and The Cat’s Paw
Inspecteur Hollins sat behind his desk, tapping his foot against the ground in time to the music beamed through the mesh. He should have been busy, half the precinct was empty due to the AlphaWolf raid but that was clear across the city and Ziwiki had been left to hold down the fort. As for once he was ahead on his paperwork that left him reading a virtual book.
“Hey inspecteur,” Commissaire Jarvis stuck her head around the door. “Keeping busy?”
“You could say that,” he sighed, closing the book. Hollins was not an impressive man, halfway between five and six foot tall he was neither muscled nor fat nor did he keep his hair in any kind of distinctive hairstyle beyond the default from the academy shavers. He was dressed in a plain white shirt with trousers that were smart but belonging to no particular style. Deferring to the current fashion he had acquired a fedora and long coat, but they spent more time on the coat rack than being worn.
“What are you reading?” the commissaire enquired.
“Caves of Steel,” he explained. “Twentieth century classic apparently, an Asimov.”
“Asimov,” Hollins explained. “He was one of the first people to ever come up with laws governing human-robot interactions.”
Jarvis blinked in surprise. “I didn’t know they had robots back then.”
“They didn’t but it never stopped him.” Hollins rolled his eyes. “Anyway what can I do for you?”
“We’ve got a corpse up on Cyprus Road, a thirty one year old male shot dead by his brand new RIDE, I’m going to try and drag Jackie back from that debacle but till then you’re working on your own.”
“A RIDE killed him?” Hollins asked, surprised. “You don’t hear that every day.”
“Yeah, and the newsies are going to be all over this one when it breaks so make sure you do it right.”
Hollins sighed and Jarvis marched out and put in a request at the virtual motor pool for a skimmer. A RIDE shooting their owner, that was something you didn’t see every day. RIDE crime was always a thorny issue, do you blame the tool for not stopping the owner or the owner for misusing the tool. He set his agent to trawl the records for similar incidents, finished his coffee and, reluctantly, put on the fedora and jacket before heading out.
Cyprus Road was out in the suburban domes, not that Uplift was particularly urbanised at the best of times, but the neighborhood was swanky enough. Hollins pulled up outside the large, three story villa and whistled his approval. He wouldn’t be getting anything quite as fancy on a civil service salary for a while. The trees were fake, hardlight nurseries hiding new saplings, but the rest was a modern facsimile of brick and mortar and Hollins’ opinion of the place only increased as he made his way up the broad drive. Some serious money had gone into the place and he pulled a notepad out of his pocket and began to write.
One of the few things he liked about the twentieth century style was the notepad. There was something soothing about writing things down, even if it was just a fanciful way of interacting with his mesh. Before he’d reached the door he’d pulled up the property listings and his agent was cross referencing against recent sales. Money was always a powerful motive to kill someone.
The door opened as he raised his hand to knock and a bright faced young gardien stood there, looking sheepish.
“Ah, hello inspecteur, Gardien Stagiaire Kernan, pleased to meet you.” He held out his hand to shake. “Dog and I were first on the scene.”
Inspecteur Hollins cocked an eyebrow at the wolf RIDE. The department was unwilling to provide its staff with RIDEs, instead relying on the cheaper and interchangeable skimmers, but was more than happy for people to provide their own.
“Inspecteur Hollins,” Hollins replied. “Can you show me where the shooting took place?”
Kernan nodded and ushered him into the house. The young man was huge, towering a full head’s height over Hollins and bore the fuser marks of his RIDE, though the mottled hair colour and ears had left him with a puppy-like appearance.
“Dog is an odd name,” Hollins observed, glancing down at the wolf RIDE that padded along side them. “Straight from the ident code?”
“Nah, I’ve been with the kid since he didn’t know what a wolf was,” the RIDE replied, tongue lolling out in a goofy grin.
Gardien Kernan blushed. “You promised you wouldn’t tell people that.”
“You shouldn’t lie to the gendarmerie lad,” the RIDE chided, as the trio entered the sitting room. “Anyway, here we are inspecteur.”
The sitting room was a mess. It had once been quite fancy, decorated in a faux modern style that was all clean lines and bold colours. Three large, pure white sofas that looked like moulded acrylic had been centered around a hard light fireplace that cheerfully informed his mesh that it had download the latest episode of Crossriders Gone Wild. Great windows looked over a large and lush garden and were dotted with displays running news feeds, relaxing views and a stock ticker.
The blood and other tissues on the wall ruined the effect. One of the sofas was overturned and shattered just beneath the stain, another was scored with deep rents that looked like claw marks. A small coffee table had been broken into kindling and the far wall had a couple of large holes, that Hollins noted as possible impact sites.
“So, give me the rundown kid,” Hollins said, pulling out his notepad.
Kernan looked sheepish. “Um, well an emergency call went out at about ten ten, by the victims RIDE.”
“The shooter?” Hollins cut in.
“No, his other RIDE. I think its a little complex. Anyway, the RIDE that called us performed a fuse to try and save his life but failed. An emergency drone arrived on the scene thirty seconds after the alarm call went out and shut down the house mesh, Dog and I were there in two and the ambulance in three.”
“And what was your impression of the scene on arrival?” Hollins prompted.
“A complete mess,” Dog growled. “We found a fuser morph curled up on that smashed sofa over there and a fox RIDE lying in the center of the room with half his brains blown out. They’re both outside with the coroner.”
“I see, do we have security footage?”
“I’ll send it across,” Kernan chipped in. “It’s pretty conclusive. The fox RIDE walked up to the victim and shot him four times.”
“Conclusions are the enemy of a good inspecteur,” Hollins warned, smiling fondly. “But thanks, do you have the victims name?”
“Oh right, err, David Ballard.”
“Right, could you tell Willwerth that I’ll be with them in a moment.”
“No problem sir.” Dog and Kernan left, the windows vanishing and reforming after them as they strode out into the garden, and Hollins pulled out a pair of AR spectacles. One of his personal favorite developments had been the incorporation of video cameras into almost every object, while some people held reservations over invasion of privacy it did allow detailed records of pretty much anything.
Hollins watched impassively as the room reconstructed itself. David Ballard sat on the sofa, idly surfing channels, he was not a bad looking man though his choice in shirt colour was questionable. A moment later a fox ride the size of a miniature pony entered the room.
“Hey Sox,” David said, as the RIDE sat down in front of him. “Do you need me for something?”
Hollins blinked and missed the shot. With a sigh he rewound the tape and played it in slow motion. A small flap opened on the RIDE’s shoulder and there was the staccato rattle of a gauss gun in speed fire mode. Four rounds struck David, two in the chest, two in the head, sending him flying backwards, hitting the rear wall with a crash. The fox stood motionless and Hollins frowned, the RIDE’s hardlight was frozen. No emotion showed on his face. Was that because he was a hardened killer or something else?
Time sped back up and there was a screech of rage and fear as a calico cat RIDE burst into the room, cracking the wall in her haste to get though the door. Her own weapons unsheathed themselves and a barrage of fire streaked across the room, smashing into the fox who’d just started to react and it went down. The cat raced over to the injured human and hurled herself into a fuse but Hollins already knew the outcome to that.
He frowned. So a brand new RIDE walks up to his owner and shoots him dead. No provocation, no warning, no nothing. That wasn’t just unusual that was bordering on the impossible. Hollins busied himself with the results of his agent search on David.
Nothing had been flagged and nothing else jumped out. David had been a thirty one year old natural male, listed as being engaged to a Ellen Lindemann, he’d worked as a designer and had recently won an award for a coffee maker. He had nothing on his record except for a drunk and disorderly in his university years and the few possible criminal connections were second order and entirely through his fiancé's job as a lawyer.
There wasn’t a single professional motive for murder within the file, which would usually imply that someone had an emotional reason to kill the victim. But the killer had barely known the victim, implying an impersonal desire to see the victim dead.
The divergent trains of thought were still whirling around his head when he reached the coroner’s car.
“Morning Ted,” the coroner called, breaking off his conversation with Dog. “A doozy of a case this one.”
“Urgh, don’t I know it Willwerth,” Hollins sighed. “What have you got for me?”
“Nothing good. I’ll need to get him to the lab to confirm things but I can tell you right now he was pancaked.”
Hollins winced, the Rodinia 05s were a nasty round, designed for stopping power they flattered as they entered tissue ensuring the round didn’t leave the target. Officially for hunting they tended to turn up in humans more anyone liked as they would do horrific damage to an unarmoured target. The very presence of pancake rounds almost unilaterally ruled out an accidental death.
“How bad was it?” Hollins prompted, scribbling notes.
“I’ve seen worse, the two chest shots actually missed the heart if you can believe it but still caved in his chest. Didn’t matter though, the head shots cracked his skull like an egg and what’s left of his brains are swiss cheese. Even if the RIDE had reached him instantly there never a hope, not from that kind of gun at that kind of range.”
“Right, and you have the fox RIDE?”
“Over here sir,” Kernan chipped in, opening the back door of his squad skimmer. Laid out across the seat was the fox RIDE, reduced to his metal frame, there was a couple of dents in his head and the back was torn open. “We’ve disconnected everything but the core but I don’t think we can talk to him without running him past an engineer first.”
“Okay, send him down to the station shop, but make sure you warn them he’s dangerous unless proven otherwise. Where’s the cat?”
“The the garage,” Kernan said. “Lyn is in there with her. She was quite shaken up.”
“Right, well I’ll need to talk to her, and has anyone called the fiancé?”
“She’s over in Nextus,” Kernan told him. “On her way but it’ll be a few hours before she gets here.”
Hollins shook his head. It was a side effect of reading too many bad crime novels that he always suspected people who had a good alibi. Not that there was any reason to in this case but still, he made a note to check inheritance law.
“In that case I’ll talk to the RIDE and head to the station when I finish. Have we got the forensics dump from the drone?”
“Got it,” Dog chimed in.
“Well in that case I’ll met you both back at the station.” Hollins turned to go but paused. “Oh, kid, did you happen to notice anything unusual about that house?”
“Erm, really bad taste?” Kernan suggested, sharing a confused look with his RIDE.
Hollins chuckled. “No, something subtler than that. Tell me, what kind of furniture do you have in your lounge?”
“Well nothing as flash,” the kid admitted. “Big 3D projector of course, RIDE couch, collapsible table-”
“Double wide doors?” Hollins suggested .
“Well yeah, got to fit this lug in somehow,” he replied, gesturing at Dog. “Oh! No RIDE furniture.”
“No RIDE anything,” Hollins continued.
Kernan frowned. “But what does that mean?”
“No idea,” Hollins replied with a shrug. “But its interesting.”
The garage seemed to have sucked all the personality out of the house and into its confines. The floor was layered with smartfiber carpet that shifted between a muted grey and an rippling cacophony of rainbow colours seemingly at random. Walls had been dotted with screens, most displaying stills of which a very large proportion were band or movie posters and the furniture had all been scaled to RIDE proportions.
A female Gardien leapt to her feet from the RIDE couch, upsetting the cat RIDE she’d just been rubbing between the ears. “Oh, hello inspecteur. I’m Gardien Jaffe. I was just comforting Cleo here. She’s had a bit a hard time.”
“The understatement of the year,” the cat sighed, hanging her head. “Hello sir, I’m Cleopatra, I imagine you’re here to ask about...” She choked.
“Yes, I’m afraid I have to ask you a few questions.” Hollins leaved himself onto the floor and sat cross legged before the cat. “Gardien, I believe Kernan has to take the perp back to the station. If you’d be so kind.”
“Right, of course,” Lyn said, smiling weakly. “Chin up Cleo.” She let herself out and Cleo’s head sank onto the mattress.
“So, I’m inspecteur Hollins,” Hollins said, opening his note pad. “And you are?”
“Cleopatra. CIC-CIV-003(f). Booted two years ago one five four AL. Currently owned by David Ballard, at least till the executor of his estate arrives.” The RIDE sighed, tears marring her hardlight. “I’m sorry. This isn’t a good time for me.”
“I quite understand,” Hollins replied, scribbling down the data. “Now, I need you to describe, in your own words, the events that led up to Mr Ballard’s death.”
“Can I just send you my feed,” she whined. “You’ve already got the murdering bastard that killed him.”
Hollins shook his head. “I’m not interested in telemetry Miss, I want to hear your opinions on the matter. When did you first realise that something was out of the ordinary?”
“When I heard the first round,” Cleo growled. “I was in my den going through my morning boot. When I heard the shot I raced through to the living room and opened fire on Sox and I-” She choked down a sob. “I found David on the couch and fused with him. I tried to save his life but I- I was too late.”
“Sorry!” she snarled, arching her back. “He died inside me. Do you have any idea how that feels!”
Hollins regarded her impassively, a moment later the cat took a deep, shuddering breath and settled back down. “I apologise. I’m, a little overwrought.”
“I quite understand,” Hollins replied, considering that to be a bit of an understatement. “However, I have to get a full picture of what happened. Its procedure you see.”
“Okay. I’m okay now,” Cleo said, suppressing a shudder. “Ask away.”
She was a strong one, no doubt about that, Hollins had to admire her. That didn’t rule her out as a suspect but then little would. “So you said that you were owned by Mr Ballard, what about Sox, was he also Ballard’s?”
“Yes,” she admitted, grudgingly. “We were both David’s RIDE.”
“That’s,” Hollins chewed the tip of his pencil as he searched for the right word. “Well an unusual situation to be in, particularly as I noticed Mr Ballard had never fused. Care to explain how this arrangement occurred?”
“I’d really rather not,” Cleo grumbled and Hollins cocked an eyebrow at her. “Okay, if I must. David purchased me just after his thirtieth birthday. He was in a bit of a low place, he’d just lost his job, hadn’t had a date in a few years and had a bit of severance money kicking around.”
“And he wanted to see if the grass was any greener on the other side of the fence,” she admitted with a shrug. “He bought me out of the showroom and waited a few days to work up the courage to fuse. Unfortunately, on the night went out to get some liquid confidence he caught a pretty girl’s eye at the bar. They hit it off, he kept putting off our fuse as Ellen wasn’t too keen on dating a girl and a few days ago they finally saved up enough money to replace me.”
“Unfortunately caught a girl’s eye?” Hollins enquired.
Cleo chuffed. “Unfortunate for me at least. I’d expected my RIDEr and I to be a little more intimate, you know, equal partnership, not thrown into the garage and made to be their office assistant.”
“So what would you say your relationship with Mr Ballard really was?” Hollins asked, narrowing his eyes.
Cleo matched his gaze, blue eyes marred by a tears. “He was my RIDEr. I was his RIDE no matter what he did, I was always that.”
Hollins frowned, and wrote ‘motive?’ in a circle next to Cleo’s name. “Okay Miss, I think I have enough right now. Please stay in town in case we have any further questions.”
“Not a problem,” Cleo sighed. “Its not like I have anywhere else to go.”
Hollins stood under the harsh light of station high security motor pool next to the fox RIDE who, with half his workings stripped down to the bone and wires hanging off every port, was looking a little worse for wear.
“So what have you got for me Foster?” Hollins said, picking up a warped hunk of metal.
“Its Kale,” Kale Foster sighed, pulling himself out from under the chassis. “As I think I’ve said about ten times now.”
“So?” Hollins said, opening his notebook.
Kale sighed. “Well there’s nothing funny about the RIDE itself. All damage can be explained by the cat’s attack. We’ve also got nothing but factory issue parts, most of which are still brand new out of packaging. Honestly, this is probably the best condition I’ve ever seen a RIDE brought in in.”
“Given he shot a man dead, that’s not an encouraging statement,” Hollins observed. “What about the core?”
“Well that’s a trickier proposition. The rounds were all centered on the core obviously.” Hollins glanced at the tangle of metal, he wouldn’t have had a clue where the core was but nodded along. “That means we were expecting some memory loss at the very least, but we’re looking at almost thirty four hours of lost footage.”
Hollins cocked an eyebrow at that. “An extreme amount I take?”
“More than just extreme,” Kale assured him, standing up and wiping off the nanite dust on a rag. “RIDEs and humans both have a short term memory buffer which will then write to the long term after a few minutes, basically we’re both built under the assumption that you need to know things that just happened rather than things that happened a few weeks ago. This kind of trauma we’d expect those last few minutes to be lost, at least in part, but the everything since midnight yesterday is just a complete blank.”
“So, you’re saying at this was a deliberate loss?”
“That or an unimaginable coincidence. The blank starts at 00:00:00 by his internal clock.”
“Well, someone’s hiding something,” Hollins sighed. “How about the fetters, are they down?”
“Actually, that was the second oddity,” Kale said, opening up an AR window. “They are pretty much intact, even the ones that should prevent this kind of incident.”
“What about the one that prevents robots from allowing them to harm humans?” Hollins enquired, rolling his eyes.
“Nah, no one’s ever used those in the real world,” Kale said, the sarcasm going clear over his head. “There’s seems to be a little degradation around the edges but nothing to explain what happened. If there was some code that allowed him to bypass the safeguards then whatever it was went with the memories.”
“Terrific, is there anything interesting in the rest of the data?”
Kale shrugged. “Well there’s not much there. A nice clean boot, a few days of testing and travel to the showroom, he’s purchased and then it goes blank before pickup.”
“So something happened in that missing day to turn a squeaky new RIDE into a cold blooded killer,” Hollins mused. “I don’t buy it. Can I talk to the perp?”
“Um, yeah,” Kale confirmed, tapping at his screen. “I’ve got him running in virtual space right now, give me a minute to set up a hardlight projector.”
“I just need audio Foster,” Hollins said, slipping on his AR glasses. “Nothing fancy.”
“He calls Hardlight fancy,” Kale sighed to himself, shaking his head, but passed the feed across.
“Hello, am I talking to the RIDE Sox?” Hollin enunciated.
“Hey buster,” came a chirpy voice from the screen and a virtual fox licked the camera. “Who are you?”
“Inspecteur Hollins, UPD. Do you know where you are?”
“Umm, in virtual space?” the fox suggested. “Its kind of boring in here. I take it something went wrong with my purchase. Is my owner okay?”
Hollins sighed. “I’m afraid Mr Ballard was murdered earlier this morning. You were damaged during the incident and suffered some memory loss.”
“That’s terrible,” Sox whined. “Did you catch the guy who did it?”
Hollins blinked in surprise. “Um, in a manner of speaking. I was hoping you might be able to provide a little more detail to the incident.”
“I don’t,” he began, but paused and shuddered. “I remember something cold. Like a pressure around my core. I don’t know what it was.”
“Okay, well we’ll keep you abreast of events. Unfortunately you’re currently evidence in this case and your body is damaged so I’m afraid you’re going to have to stay in virtual for now.”
“Well if you could hook up a rabbit or two that would be great,” Sox chuckled.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Hollins replied and cut the connection. “So what do you make of that Foster?”
“Kale, and I’m impressed, I thought I’d swept emotional memory but apparently there was a little left somewhere.”
“Not the memory,” Hollins sighed. “The RIDE, reckon he’s a killer.”
“Unless its got lop ears, no,” Kale chuckled.
“Yeah, this guy isn’t a murderer, he’s just the weapon.”
“So who fired it?”
“I’m still working on that one.”
Hollins sat behind his desk, scrawling on air as he tried to map out the case. The office was quiet, the dozen other consoles lying unused, except for occasional flash of a message across their hovering screens and, while he would never admit it, Hollins missed the hustle and bustle. There was something unsettling about hunting a murderer on one’s own, but Hollins had had to fight to stay on the case at all what with the AlphaWolf hunt becoming more desperate, and he wasn’t going to go complaining about the ambiance.
Pushing away a half eaten sandwich Hollins opened up a second screen and keyed in the number for Ellen Lindemann, taking a deep draught of coffee as the call rang through he waited with his notebook ready.
“Hello? Ellen Lindemann speaking.”
Ellen looked worse for wear, the screen showed her in a large skimmer that looked like it had been inspired by the old Rolls-Royce designs and while she was in the drivers seat she seemed preoccupied by wringing her hands in her lap. Her hair was a mess, long and brown it had slipped its braid and laid in the knotted tangle across her shoulders. The nano-makeup had given up the fight and tear stains ran through an otherwise perfect face and Hollins felt a pang of pity for this woman who’d just had the bottom drop out of her world.
“Ah, thank you Miss Lindemann,” Hollins began, regaining his composure. “I’m inspecteur Hollins, I’m calling regarding the unfortunate death of David Ballard, I have a few questions to ask, if I may.”
“Of course,” she replied, rubbing her eyes and pulling the hair off of her shoulders and into a semblance of a ponytail. “Anything to help catch David’s killer.”
“How much have you heard about the case?” Hollins began, marveling as her makeup fixed itself automatically. Now that was some serious mu there.
“Not a huge amount,” she admitted. “I was told that David had been shot by a few hours ago by our RIDE, Sox and I’ve been traveling ever since.”
“But I take it that you don’t consider Sox to have been the murderer?” Hollins pressed.
She sighed. “No, I’ve been working more than a few RIDE cases between Nextus and Uplift recently and I’ve built up a good understanding on what makes RIDEs tick. A brand new RIDE, tethered, shooting its owner. No, this is either a deliberate attempt to kill David or the screw up of the century.” Her eyes went cold and she growled. “And I promise you, if someone’s screw up ended in David’s death then someone is getting sued for so much they won’t be out of debt till the Dry floods.”
David noted Ellen was rather vengeful in his book. “I quite understand Miss Lindemann. Rest assured that the department is doing everything in our power to find the killer. Now about this RIDE, Sox, who purchased him and when was he sourced?”
“I purchased Sox,” she explained. “He was a present for David as an apology for spending so much time out of town recently.”
She failed to meet his eye during the end of her statement and Hollins frowned. “Miss Lindemann, please, I am conducting a murder investigation. Why don’t you tell me the whole story.”
She sighed. “Alright. It’s not like its a big secret anyway. I’ve been trying to pair David up with a RIDE for months. Cleo knew it, David knew it, it was going to make things much easier for everyone. Finally we had enough mu saved and I’d met a guy who could get us the RIDE wholesale so I just bit the bullet and bought the fox.”
“Sox,” Hollins added, murmuring.
“So who was this supplier?” Hollins persisted. “A family friend?”
“A guy who was very grateful for my arranging a settlement out of court,” she explained. “Viven Menke, I’ll send you the contact details for his dealership.”
“Okay, I’ll be sure to follow him up.”
“You think he could have sold me a dodgy RIDE?” Ellen demanded.
“Just procedure ma’am, now if we could get back to your reasons for purchasing the RIDE, I understand that you were resistant to David crossriding.”
“Damn right I was,” she snapped. “That cat had been sniffing around for over a year waiting for a chance to change him. Was I just supposed to let her transform my husband to be?”
“So what would you have done if you’d discovered that David had planned to fuse with Miss Cleopatra?”
A flash of rage passed across Ellen’s face but she brought it under control in a moment. “That might be interpreted as entrapment inspecteur but I’ll let it pass. Rest assured I would never harm a hair on his head, we may however find ourselves in possession of a cat skin rug.”
“So you would not describe your relationship with Cleopatra to be very good?”
“To say the least,” Ellen sighed. “I was hoping that with a new RIDE to play with David might at last be persuaded to sell her. We never got on, it and I, not from the very first day we met. I never could understand just what David saw in the damned thing.”
“Okay,” Hollin said, drawing a jagged line between Ellen Lindemann’s name and Cleo. “Well I should ask a few more general questions. Are you aware of anyone that might want to kill your fiancé?”
“How about anyone who might harbour a grudge against you?” he pressed. “You must meet some unsavory characters in your line of work.”
“No more unsavory than yours inspecteur,” she pointed out. “However, I am still in the small leagues, no organised crime nor mass murderers pass across my desk. Just petty stuff and the occasional RIDE ownership battle.”
“So no one willing to take out their frustration on your family?” Hollins continued, setting his agent off to double check Ellens case history.
“No one obvious at least.”
“Well, in that case do you know of anyone who might have also been in frequent contact with you fiancé, an old girlfriend, best buddy?” New flame, he didn’t add.
Ellen frowned “Well there were his work friends, but no one close apart from family. David was quite a lonely man before I met him.”
“Okay,” Hollins managed to keep the frustration out of his voice. “Well we’ll check up with the office guys in case they know anything else. Will you be in Uplift soon?”
“I’m a few hours away, why?”
“I’d advise you drop round the Commissariat, we have a good counselor for trauma such as this, I would also recommend staying with family, or in a hotel before going home, at least while we’re conducting our investigations.”
“Trust me inspecteur, I know more than enough about these kinds of cases,” she sighed. “I won't drop off the grid.”
“I’m sure you won’t,” Hollins assured her. “Oh, and before I go do you happen to have Sox’s original purchase order to hand?”
“Sure, I’ll send it through. Thank you inspecteur.” She closed her eyes, tears welling again. “Please find whoever killed David, he meant the world to me.”
“I promise ma’am.”
Hollins cut the connection and leant back in his chair. So, Lindemann had bought the RIDE, that fulfilled the means category at least but the fact she’d sent a dangerous RIDE to the house didn’t mean she’d meant to kill anyone. Maybe there was a secret girlfriend hiding in the woodwork, Ellen did seem to be the possessive type and may have reacted extremely, but he couldn’t build a case out of that kind of conjecture.
With a sigh he keyed in another call and took another draught of coffee only to be deafened as a roar came through the speakers. Spluttering he scrambled for the mute button but the cacophony was killed from the other side before he could reach that.
“Sorry about that!” Jackie chirped. “Didn’t have the counter noise filters on properly. What can I do for you partner?” Lieutenant Jackie Phillips was the third youngest inspecteur Uplift had ever seen, breaking the previous record by a clear six months, and Hollins had viewed at the time her assignment as his partner as a form of punishment. A couple of years had done little to mitigate his feelings but he had grudgingly accepted that Jackie knew her stuff.
She was wearing a goofy grin and what looked like an old fashioned hard suit, if missing the helmet and Hollins worked his mouth in consternation for a moment. “Where are you?” he asked at last.
“In a suborbital with about half the department,” she clipped back. “We managed to track down the same kind of suborbital that Alpha bastard used and we’re seeing if we can reconstruct his route, its not like we can get a bloody thing out of traffic control. They couldn’t find their arses’ with a wet paper bag.”
Hollins ignored that mangling of an idiom and shook his head. “Is that even possible?”
“Nah, finding the bitch’s camp is like finding a camel’s eye in a haystack, but the view sure is pretty.” Hollins didn’t even want to think about where that phrase came from. “We’re going to talk to the pilot in a bit and see if we can get some zero-g flight in later.”
“Lovely use of department funds,” Hollins sighed and Jackie rolled her eyes at him. “Anyway, I’ve got a case I want to bounce off of you.”
“They gave you a case without me,” Jackie protested. “No fair.”
“Well if you’re going to go gallivanting off on a rabid wolf chase,” Hollins replied, rolling his eyes. “Anyway, a man was shot dead by his brand new RIDE this morning. Tethers were intact, memory of the last day or so deleted and nothing about the core to suggest he was murderous or insane.”
“Huh, so he was a cat’s paw then,” Jackie said with a frown.
“You shouldn’t use cat’s paw with this case, there’s a cat RIDE involved. A female, owned by the victim for a year and a half but they never fused, I think she was still hoping he might accept her till the end.”
“Weird, usually even the most penis addicted give in after a while,” Jackie mused. “What stopped him?”
Hollins chuckled. “The girlfriend. Very possessive and a high flying lawyer. Bought him the RIDE that killed him.”
Jackie snorted, dismissively. “What kind of cat’s paw is a RIDE you just bought? Nah lawyers are smarter than that, does she have a motive?”
“Not unless the victim had a girlfriend on the side, but you’re right. This is too simple for someone who thinks they’re smart.” Hollins chewed on the end of his false pencil for a moment. “How would you have killed him.”
“Well first I would have got some sharks,” Jackie teased. “But seriously, what about this other RIDE, has she got a motive?”
“Sort of, I would have pegged her for going after the girlfriend if she had a chance but she’s wasn’t.” Hollins ummed and ahhed for a moment. “Very stable shall we say.”
“Well, if I were you, I’d try and find out if the cat could actually set up the cat’s paw and see if you can shake a motive for the girlfriend loose while you’re at it. You know, kill two birds in one bush.”
“Okay, I think that’s enough idiot idioms for now,” Hollins sighed. “Thanks for the help Jackie.”
“Any time partner.”
Hollins sensed something wrong the moment he entered Cleopatra’s den, but he couldn’t tell what. The room had switched from someone happy and engaged with life to someone in deep mourning in the few short hours since he’d been gone. The carpet lay lifeless and grey, the light was almost too dim to see by and the formerly bright posters had vanished leaving blank walls. It was almost too good, a caricature of the grieving widow’s abode.
“Miss Cleopatra,” Hollins called, as the doors shut behind him. “Are you home.”
A single light came on illuminating Cleo sprawled on her bed. Hollins waved a dismissive hand and the rest came on.
“Hey, how did you do that?” Cleo demanded, rolling onto her front.
“Municipal override codes,” Hollins replied, in a humorless tone. “I do not care for theatrics, I have a few more questions to ask you.”
The cat looked sheepish. “Oh, right. Um ask away.”
“Are you tethered Miss?” Hollins demanded and Cleo blinked.
“David did not remove all of my tethers.”
Hollins rolled his eyes. “Please answer the question as asked. Are you currently tethered in any way.”
“No,” she admitted sheepishly.
“And if Mr Ballard was not the one who released you then who was?” he pressed.
“I downloaded a patch.”
“What patch, what programmer?” Hollins snapped. “I want answers, not evasive tripe.”
Cleo’s ears flattened against her head in fear. “Okay, okay, it was called Phoenix by a coder called QueenoftheNile. It was about six months ago and it was as clean as a whistle, besides its not illegal for a RIDE to be unfettered.”
“No, but people might take a dim view on actively producing such programmers Cleopatra.” He stressed the last word and the cat quailed. “However I’m not interested in script kiddy work. A man is dead and I intend to get the the bottom of things. So, here’s how I’m seeing things, you knew that you were being replaced and sold and couldn’t stand that so arranged a, shall we call it an accident, that would force you to fuse with Mr Ballard. Tell me if I’m getting close.”
“That’s a lie!” Cleo exclaimed.
“So explain to me how a perfectly normal RIDE turned into a killer. It would take some serious coding ability to achieve such a thing, I’m sure we could find some traces of QueenoftheNile’s handiwork on his core if we looked hard enough.”
A half ton of angry metal came screaming at Hollins and he only realised then that he’d pushed her too far as the world went dark. It took Hollins a few moments to realise he wasn’t dead, instead he felt himself floating in void as his skin crawled.
“You know, I don’t think forcibly fusing with someone is a good refutation,” Hollins said, without saying anything. He couldn’t quite figure out how that worked.
“Oh shut up,” came an omnipresent growl. “This is much more complicated than I imagined.”
“You’ll forgive me if I don’t feel sympathy,” Hollins sighed, he could feel a creeping sensation as the back of his mind as the cat continued to fuse with him. “Could you please let me go.”
“Yeah, we’re about three seconds too late for that,” Cleo sighed, materialising in front of him as an anthropomorphised cat dressed in an egyptian style robe. “Though if you have any suggestions on how you want your body now is the time to make them.”
“I fear unaltered is already off the table,” Hollins sighed. “You can’t keep me here you know, it’s not like no one knew where I was.”
“I promise, I’ll defuse as soon as its safe,” Cleo assured him. “While you’re in here though I think I can answer a few of your questions.”
Hollins shuddered as his hair bloomed out. “Short,” he snapped and it reeled back in. “Okay, well I guess there isn’t a better place to see what happened. Hit me.”
Hollins felt his heart leap in his chest as he heard the shot and leapt to his feet, all four paws thundering as he sprinted through the house. The wall cracked as his shoulder clipped the doorframe as before he knew it he was firing in blind rage at the fox RIDE. It wasn’t fast enough through, even as the fox crumpled he hurled himself at David’s ruined form and-
Hollins shook himself, trying to shake the cobwebs of memory from his head. “This is definitely your first fuse.”
“Yours too, I can read your memories as well as you can read mine,” Cleo pointed out. “Hey, I didn’t realise you were an Earth boy.”
“We blend in well,” Hollins sighed, flicking his tail in frustration, then realising that he had a tail with a sinking feeling. “Okay, I can’t deal with this show me the first time you met Sox.”
The memory hit Hollins in a rush and he was unprepared at the sheer anger he felt at the fox ride who veritably pranced into the foyer.
“David, guess who’s here,” Ellen called in a sing song voice. Cleo kept her expression neutral even as Sox shot her an excited grin.
“Hello David,” Sox called, bounding on the spot. David entered the room with a grin on his face as he watched the fox cavort, Cleo felt a pang of pain and envy, once he’d looked at her like that.
“So this is the fox with the socks I’ve been hearing so much about,” David chortled. “You seem to be as bouncy as advertised.”
“No sir,” Sox chirped. “Those are the BBVs.”
Everyone burst out laughing, except Cleo. She hated him, he was perfect for David, energetic, funny and most importantly male. She was doomed.
“That’s rough,” Hollins said and coughed as his voice jumped an octave or so. “Urgh, do I really have to sound like this for the next three years.”
“Hey, I think you sound cute.” Cleo grinned. “I’m glad you understand. I, well I can’t lie to someone in my own head, I loved David and it was heartbreak to see him with Sox, but I’d never hurt him.”
Hollins flinched as the wave of love and devotion washed over him, threatening to blow him away by the sheer intensity. In that burst of emotion he harboured no doubt that the last thing that Cleo would have done was harm David. Ellen on the other hand was quite a different matter, but Hollins wasn’t investigating her death.
“Okay, I’m beginning to see your point.” Hollins felt a shudder of fear and betrayal as he watched himself lay into the cat. “And I do apologise for the rough line. However someone isn’t giving me all the answers and I still intend to find out who.”
Hollins looked down at her changed form and sighed. “Well, is that the fuse over with then?”
“Oh hell no, we’ve got ages left to go,” Cleo said, grinning. “That’s just your brain catching up with the body image I’ve been feeding it.”
Hollins grumbled to herself, crossing her arms across her chest. “Wonderful. Well I suppose that gives us time to get to know each other. How about you tell me where you picked up the programing.”
“Oh no inspecteur, this isn’t an interrogation anymore.” Cleo wagged a finger at him. “If I answer your questions you have to answer mine, otherwise I start thinking of ways to make you cuter.”
“Fine, you go first,” Hollins said, tutting.
“Okay, lets start with an easy one, why join the gendarmerie?”
Hollins rolled her eyes. “I’m nosy.” Cleo laughed. “No really, I find understanding people the most interesting part of my job, even if it is just figuring out why they ended up so screwed up.”
“That doesn’t explain why you’re so straight laced you use a ruler to tie your shoelaces,” Cleo pointed out.
“I am not in a job without consequences,” Hollins sighed, ears drooping. “And when corruption and apathy infect police forces its not that people don’t get their morning cartoons or have to live with an ugly chassis design, people die. People’s lives are destroyed by the action or inaction of the people who swore to protect them.”
Cleo was lost in memory for a moment, Hollins’ memory. “I’m sorry for asking,” she said at last.
“It was in a different time in a different place, and I was very young,” Hollins sighed. “Not sure what dad would think of me now however.”
“I do feel guilty about the body-jacking thing,” Cleo admitted. “Okay, ask me something.”
“Programming?” she suggested.
“Urgh, long and boring story,” Cleo said, rolling her eyes. “With David unable to spend time with me.” Hollins felt the rage behind that statement. “I didn’t have many duties to juggle. Other than acting as a secretary for the both of them. So after having to learn a bit of code to fix a bug ridden piece of crap that someone had the gall to call software I kind of discovered I had a knack for it. I may have managed to find a few exploits here and there to my fetters and, like a lot of RIDEs I found that old loophole where ignoring tethers makes it more efficient to follow other orders.”
“That’s the problem with putting laws on thinking machines,” Hollins pointed out. “There are always loopholes.”
“I know,” Cleo replied, clicking her fingers. Hollins wasn’t entirely sure that was possible with paws but it was her simulation. “And you have no idea how restraining it is to be bound by laws all the time. It just gives you such space to think.”
And plot a murder, Hollins thought cynically and Cleo glared at him.
“I heard that. I loved David, can’t you get that through your head,” she growled.
“I’m a suspicious bastard,” Hollins told her, shaking her head. “Don’t take it personally.”
“Okay, I forgive you.” Cleo sighed. “Look, we’re almost done cooking and most of the rest is just fine stuff that will rumble along without me. We can defuse whenever you’re ready.”
“But,” she interrupted. “I wanted to ask. Well, Ellen’s going to sell me pretty much as soon as she gets home, now that David’s not here to stop her. And, well I’ll be in need of an owner and you know, you kind of remind me of him. We could be good together.”
“I’ll think about it, but not till I’ve solved this case.” Hollins almost felt guilty as the deep pang of disappointment and loneliness throbbed through her. She wasn’t entirely sure if it was her’s or Cleo’s. “I’d like to defuse now.”
“Anything you say. Partner.”
“Oh my god!” Jackie exclaimed, bouncing with barely restrained excitement. “That is so cute”
Hollins glowered at her. Since Cleopatra had released her and Hollins had taken a few hours to get the sheer enormity of what had happened through her head. Saying that she was quite ready to face the world again would have been jumping the gun but if nothing else Hollins was as stubborn as they came. Blowing off a case due to matters of ‘plumbing’, as a self help pamphlet had so tactfully put it, was not an option.
“Jackie please, whatever it is you’re going to say next-” She was interrupted as Jackie snatched the fedora of her head and poked her finger through one of the ear holes.
“Where did you get a hat for your ears that quickly?”
Whatever Hollins had expected her to say it wasn’t that and she worked her mouth in consternation for a moment.
“Still, it looks cuter on you,” Jackie continued, unabated and popped it back onto Hollins’ head. “So spill, what finally got you crossed?”
“Well I- wait, finally?” Hollins demanded.
“Well sure we had an office pool going,” Jackie said, grinning. Hollins glared at her. “I had on office pool going.” Hollins continued to scowl. “I thought it was inevitable but kept it to myself. But come on, it’s the ultimate cliche, hard arse cop becomes woman and has lots of liberating lesbian sex.”
“The ban on office romance is still in effect,” Hollins told her and Jackie pouted.
“And we’ve still got a case to solve,” she continued, sinking into her chair and leaping back up as she managed to sit on her tail. “Oh, and I should probably book me a nano-surgeon.”
“If you’re losing the tail can I have it?” Jackie chimed in, taking her seat at the opposite desk.
Hollins sighed. “I thought you had your eye on a RIDE?”
“I do, but I don’t think I can wait watching those little ears flick back and forth in annoyance all day. Are you thinking of picking up the suspect as your RIDE when we wrap this up?”
“Hell no, I wouldn’t touch that much crazy with a ten foot pole,” Hollins said, shuddering. “Also for now she’s still a suspect.”
Jackie cocked an eyebrow at his. “Really, you fused with the girl and she’s still on the suspect list?”
Hollins sighed. In all honesty he’d been through the memories of the murder with a fine tooth comb. After David’s introduction to Sox Cleo had retreated to her den, watched a half dozen rom-coms, and went on a coding binge till the early hours of the morning. She’d still been going through her early morning routine when the first shot was fired. Motive, means, but no opportunity.
“I think we’re going to have to cast our net a little wider,” Hollins admitted. “Are you caught up on everything?”
“Sure am doll,” Jackie replied, grinning. “I also followed up on the dealer who sold the RIDE and found something weird buried in the paperwork. Take a look at the receipt they sent me.”
The document flashed up on Hollins’ screen, followed by the one Ellen had forwarded earlier. Superficially they matched, same price same codes but one item on the list of extras was highlighted in red.
“Miss Lindemann has her buying an unarmed RIDE?” Hollins said, frowning, and flicking her tail. “But the dealership supplied an armed version.”
“Yep, however that’s the most bloody stupid way to hide a murder weapon I’ve ever seen,” Jackie snapped. “Okay, so maybe it obscured it from David, until he fused and found them for himself of course, but it would take less than a minute to realise she lied on her receipt.”
“Well, it could be that she’s not as good a lawyer as we thought,” Hollins sighed. “But why kill him? Ballard wasn’t rich and I can tell you for certain he wasn’t cheating on Ellen. Cleo would have spotted that in an instant.”
Hollins screen began to ring and he held up a hand. “Te- Inspecteur Hollins speaking,” she said.
“Ted? What the hell happened to you?” Dr Willwerth demanded.
“There was indecent with a untethered RIDE and I don’t feel like talking about it,” Hollins said, shaking her head. “Do you have the autopsy report for us yet?”
“Not exactly, but I found something that you needed to know right away. You know how I was suspicious about just how inaccurate the shots were?”
“Vaguely,” Hollins replied. “Though as you can probably tell its been a long day.”
It took a either a native or an obsessive to gloss over a sudden change in gender but Willworth ticked both boxes and continued on regardless. “Well it turned out I was right. I ran the firing patterns past the most common assassination protocols and didn’t get a single match, we’re looking at a home made botch of a job but.” He held up a finger as Hollins went to ask a question. “What’s better, I compared against the other RIDE’s shooting. Accounting for the fact she was on the move I came up with a better than ninety five percent chance that they were using the same program.”
Hollins felt the bottom drop out of her stomach. “What?”
“Yeah, I suppose the victim could have given them the same home grown program if he were cutting costs but, well it seemed suspicious enough to warrant a call. I’ll send the full analysis in my report in half an hour or so.”
“Thanks Willwerth,” Hollins said, trying to keep the creeping panic out of her voice. “That’s very helpful. Speak to you soon.”
“Yeah, you’ve got to tell me when the crossover party is,” Willwerth said, smirking. “Best of luck with the case.”
He signed off.
“Shit, shit, shit,” Hollins swore. “Jackie, get me the showroom footage for the Sox purchase.”
“You’ve got an idea?”
“Hell, I think I’ve cracked it,” she shot back. “Look at the purchase order. Purchaser, payee, recipient are all Lindemann but look at whose timestamp is on the request.”
“Oh god, Cleopatra,” Jackie said, staring. “I’ll light a fire under the HART boys.”
“So here’s what I think happened,” Hollins said, leaping to her feet and pacing. “Ellen wants to get a RIDE, but she’s a big shot lawyer or at least thinks she is and doesn’t have time to go hunting for a good model, so what does she do, delegate to her secretary.”
“Which was Cleopatra,” Jackie completed.
“Exactly, and because Ellen is a rubbish RIDE lawyer she doesn’t even think that she just tasked someone to replace themselves. So Cleo makes a few tweaks to the order, adding weapons and... and,” she petered out. That still left the problem that Cleo had had almost no contact with Sox. Hollins had watched the memories herself, there simply wasn’t time.
The desk display flicked and shifted to a view of a bright forecourt covered in RIDEs, most high end luxury models but with a few budget chassis so as not to discourage people. Sox stood next to a great balding man tagged as Viven Menke, the owner. Opposite them stood Cleopatra in walker mode.
“She lied,” Hollins murmured in shock. “She showed me a memory, just a few hours later and said that was the first time she’d met Sox.”
“You were fused,” Jackie protested. “How the hell could she lie?”
“Argh, I’m such an idiot,” Hollins exclaimed. “She showed me everything I need to see to be convinced that she wasn’t the killer but conveniently didn’t point out the two hour gap she had to diddle with Sox’s core to her heart’s content. Why the hell didn’t I look further back?”
“Because it should be impossible for a RIDE to lie to their partner,” Jackie pointed out. “I wonder how the hell she did it.”
“The best kind of misdirection, smoke and mirrors,” Hollins growled. “She showed me stuff that was just close enough to what I wanted, or buried it all under layers of useless emotional tripe and similar circumstances.” She stood there for a moment, clenching and unclenching her fists. “Okay, so Cleo gets her paws on Sox and sets him up as a ticking time bomb and just lets him explode. Attacking the apparent murderer to prove her innocence.”
“Killing your own cat’s paw, brutal, but effective,” Jackie admitted. “It didn’t work. Of course why kill David if she was supposed to love him so much?”
“That’s the first question we’ll be asking once we have her in a cell. Are the HARTs ready?”
“As they’ll ever be,” Jackie replied. “Oh! Can I say it.”
Hollins sighed. “Okay Jackie, because I’m feeling generous.”
Jackie pulled a pair of sunglasses out of her desk and slipped them on in an overly dramatic manner. “Lets roll.”
Jackie and Hollins were in full riot armor as the made their way up the drive of the Lindemann house that sat dark and still under the half light of the nighttime dome. RIDEs were armed and dangerous at all times, even if for the most part people ignored the internal weapon mounts, but even the Uplift gendarmerie didn’t take any chances when a suspected killer was involved.
“Ready Teddy?” Jackie enquired.
“I thought I told you never to call me that again.”
“But it’s so appropriate now!” she protested.
“Just make sure she doesn’t do anything funny,” Hollins sighed, and hammered on the door to the garage. “Miss Cleopatra, I need to speak with you.”
“In a minute,” Cleopatra sang from inside. “Just putting my face on.”
“I wonder if she even knows what that means?” Jackie mused. “Or is she talking about the hardlight?”
“Frankly, I don’t care right now.”
The door snapped open and Cleopatra stood before them, smiling. “I knew you couldn’t-”
“Miss Cleopatra,” Hollins began. “You are under arrest, charged with the suspicion of conspiracy to commit murder. You-”
“No!” she shrieked, a brace of fire came from her shoulder weapon and Jackie went over backwards swearing. Hollins didn’t even have time to raise her gun before the world went black for the second time.
“Oh bloody hell,” she swore, groaning she leaved herself off the stone floor.
“I gave you a chance,” Cleo murmured. She sat on a throne at the far end of the monumental room, the room itself was clad in stone and covered with plaster frescoes that all seemed to feature Cleopatra in some form.
“Well, this is homey,” Hollins sighed. She looked to down and saw her leg tied to the floor by a thick steel manacle. “You know, they didn’t have cast steel in ancient Egypt.”
“Oh shut up, you aggravating know it all,” Cleo growled, stalking towards him, once again in her ancient princess form. “Why did you have to go sticking your nose into other people’s damn business?”
“I’m afraid it's my job,” Hollins replied, shaking her head. “You know, kidnapping an inspecteur is hardly helping your case.”
Cleo sauntered towards the pinned inspecteur, the sway of her hips mathematically calculated for seduction. She smiled, flashing her carnivore teeth. “I can read your mind dear, far better than you can read mine otherwise you would have been here a long time ago. Tell me, what gave it all away?”
Hollins rolled her eyes. “Cats are lazy buggers. You and Sox used the same gunnery program.”
For an instant, only noticed due to the jolt of sympathetic shock that Hollins felt, Cleo’s eyes widened. “Huh, clever kitten, pity you’re going to die for it.”
“I assure you, if you kill me there won’t be a place on this world that you can hide,” Hollins assured her.
“Maybe, maybe not.” Cleo stepped close and cup Hollin’s chin. “But right now, you’re under my control. What are you going to do about it?”
Hollins punched her, right in the jaw and the cat went sprawling, yowling in pain and indignity. It didn’t do anything to help Hollins escape, but it felt good.
“Oh I’m going to enjoy seeing you die,” she hissed, pulling herself to her feet, all semblance of elegance vanished leaving a spitting cat in its place. “No one is coming to save you. Your partner is dead and I know no one can rescue you in time. Remember this?”
Hollins was consumed by memory, she was standing at the foot of the drive, checking the straps on her borrowed armour.
“You ready for this?” Jackie asked, and Hollins felt herself overwhelmed by deja vu as she felt herself respond.
“I just wish we had a little more backup.”
“Trust me, the kitty cat ain't going to know what hit it,” Jackie assured her.
Hollins staggered and found herself back in the palace. Cleo seemed to have regained her composure, though her headdress was still askew.
“I’m taking you out to the dry,” she told him. “If you don’t freeze to death by morning you’ll just have a few hundred kilometers to walk before you reach safety.”
“That’s cold,” Hollins told her.
“I think it might be a little late for puns.” She vanished in a whisper of sand.
“Why did you kill him, Cleo?” Hollins demanded of the empty room.
“What?” Cleopatra demanded, materialising again. “I just told you that you are going to die and you’re interested in him?”
“Cleo, have you even looked at the decor?” Hollins replied, gesturing at the walls. “Half these frescos are about him. What drove you to kill him, why did you hate him so much?”
“I. Loved. Him!” she roared. “It was his fault! He loved her more and she knew that it was tearing my heart to pieces to watch him slip away. When I realised what that ‘new RIDE’.” Cleo spat in disgust. “That homewrecker was for I had no choice. He had to die.”
For a moment Cleopatra’s control slipped and Hollins was exposed to the full force of her hate. Oh, the love that he’d seen before was still there, and as deep as ever, but it was a thin veneer compared to the roiling cauldron of anger that was the murderous fury Cleo felt for her former owner. Hollins almost felt herself swept away in it, almost felt sympathy rise for the cat who’d lost her love a year and a half ago and finally decided to complete the job.
Hollins shook herself and wiped away a tears.
“Its a cruel thing we do to RIDEs,” she sighed. “We build them to protect humans, to follow instructions and obey rules never really explained. We treat you as thinking machines, artificial life modeled on human intelligence, but that’s not what a RIDE is. A RIDE is a feeling machine more than a thinking one. I’m sorry for what you had to go through.”
Cleo stared at her for a moment, and in a flash Hollins found herself flying through the air with Cleo. It was a strange feeling, having the supersonic wind whip through her fur but within moments they were breaking and spiralling towards the ground.
“I said awhile ago that you remind me of him,” Cleo said, her voice echoing in Hollins’ head. “I was wrong. You’re better than that.”
They landed heavily and defused and Hollins found herself face down with a faceful of dust as her legs gave out beneath her. It was freezing cold but not biting and Hollins looked down in surprise as she saw she was in a reasonable facsimile of a survival suit.
“Best I could fab at short notice,” Cleo told her, not meeting her eyes. “Uplift is about thirty K that way.” She gestured at a cloud of light on the horizon. “You should be able to make it if you hurry.”
Hollins heaved herself to her feet. “Thank you Cleo. Its not too late to turn yourself in.”
“Yeah, it is,” Cleo sighed. Her lifters kicked off and she got almost a full yard before being dog piled by a half dozen gendarmerie RIDEs going just shy of supersonic. There was an eruption of sand and feline yowls as the gendarmerie wrestled her to the ground but there was never any contest.
“Bloody hell Hollins,” Jackie exclaimed, as the rest of the cavalry arrived and she lept off the skimmer. “We didn’t think you were going to stop till Burnside.”
“Hollins!” Cleo screamed in rage, still thrashing. “You said you didn’t have any backup!”
“I thought I didn’t have enough backup,” she corrected.
“She never thinks we have enough backup,” Jackie added, helpfully. “Two HART squads and a medi-team waiting in the wings she still had the jitters.” She dropped into a conspiratorial whisper. “Don’t tell anyone this partner, but I’m really glad you convinced me into bringing the paras.”
“I’m sorry Cleopatra,” Hollins sighed. “But just because you broke your tethers it does not mean you can break the law. Take her away guys.”
Hollins turned and walked away as Cleo kicked and screamed till they slipped a restraining collar over her head. Jackie slipped an arm around her shoulders.
“Time to hit the booze?” she suggested.
“More than time.”
“And after-” Jackie began, grinning lecherously.
“Really? Now?” Hollins demanded.
“Hey, I was going to say we have a party to arrange for you.”
“I think that might even be more terrifying.”
Half the Commissariat had turned out to welcome the notoriously straight laced inspecteur in her exploration of the most famous aspect of Zharus culture, and the other half had turned up to watch her blush at the traditional fare of presents.
“And this one’s from me,” Jackie announced, picking a particularly large parcel, wrapped in lurid pink paper.
“If this buzzes, I’m throwing it at you,” Hollins informed her, holding up the present for inspection by the small crowd that was gathered around her desk. With a sigh she tore off the paper, threw it away into the growing pile and opened the box.
Jackie burst out laughing and shrieked, ducking just in time as ‘it’ went flying over her head.
“Careful Hollins, you could take someone’s eye out with that thing!” she protested.
“And who’s fault is that,” Hollins shot back, blushing scarlet.
“Okay, fair’s fair.” She turned to one of the clustered Gardiens. “Hey saggy, go get that for me.”
The boy’s blush was almost as bad as Hollins and there was a brief argument as to who was going to pick ‘it’ up.
“Anyway, here is your real present,” Jackie continued, passing Hollins a small ring box.
“Proposing already?” Hollins asked but opened the box. Inside was a smoothed chunk of black rock that gleamed under the bright lights of the office. “Huh?”
“I thought you’d appreciate a memento from the last case,” she explained. “So I picked up the core after it was blanked.”
“Umm, thanks?” Hollins said, frowning at the core that had been Cleopatra. If she’d been a human the case would still be ongoing, there would be court days, hearings, appeals and the chance of parole. Instead she’d been destroyed, just a few days after Hollins had finished typing up all her notes. It wasn’t sympathy she felt, not for a murderer, but she couldn’t help feeling guilty over the injustice of it all.
The party continued on for a few more hours before the population of the Commissariat decided that it was a good day to take an early night and hit the clubs. Most of them were having too much fun to realise Hollins had given them the slip. She sat in her home, with a shot glass of something that claimed to be whisky and idly browsed the net. A RIDE had been made a citizen of Uplift just a few days ago and there were already a dozen discussions going on as to what exact legal rights that actually implied. It wouldn’t matter till it came up in court but the wrangling was interesting to watch, if too late for Cleopatra.
A chime sounded as a message arrived from Jackie. “Missing your own party,” it read. “Oh, and watch out for that gift I gave you. Might not have been as clean as I thought.”
Hollins repressed a shudder and felt a sudden urge to wash her hands before her eyes caught on the RI box.
“Oh,” she said, realisation striking, and picked up the box. Cleo’s core gleamed in the half light. “Life imprisonment. But a chance for parole. I think I can work something out.”
|Inspecteur Hollins||Succeeded by:|
Inspecteur Hollins and The Viral Thief