From the author: A tale of Henghis Hapthorn, a prequel to the trilogy of novels.
by Matthew Hughes
The who's-there at the front door of my lodgings announced that one Feroz Pandamm was seeking admittance.
"Feroz Pandamm, the essences magnate?" I asked my assistant.
It instantly consulted with the who's-there and said, "The same," while deploying its display screen.
I regarded the image of Pandamm's pugnacious countenance hanging in the air before me: a wide-brimmed slouch hat dipped over one cold eye; an upturned high collar hid his heavy jowls. I looked at the time and saw that he had waited until the streets were evening-dark, well after my customary receiving hours, to make his call.
"It would seem," I said, "that he does not wish to be seen consulting Olkney's foremost freelance discriminator."
"Yet there he stands," said the integrator. "Need coupled with embarrassment often combine to yield a substantial fee."
"Or it could be that his need to take revenge upon me has swelled until he cannot resist scratching the itch." I weighed the chances then said, "Admit him, but be on your guard."
The who's-there opened the portal while the integrator disabled the holds and discouragements that protected me from certain operatives among Olkney's halfworld. There were more than a few career criminals who resented the roles I had played in overturning their illicit plots and mischiefs. But the enmity directed my way did not emanate only from the halfworld--in the best parts of our ancient city there also stood manses and houses-in-town whose owners rarely uttered my name without a prefacing profanity.
One such manse was the great pile built of blocks of volcanic glass on a cul de sac at the upper end of Tsant Prospect. There Feroz Pandamm sat and concocted stratagems to enrich himself further. Two years earlier, I had frustrated his campaign to gain an unfair advantage over the House of Esk, a rival in the viciously competitive trade in rare essences; Pandamm had gulled one of Tarq Esk's enumerative cadre into an invidious situation, then threatened to expose the fellow's peccadilloes unless Pandamm was fed proprietary information on his employer's plans and weaknesses.
But Tarq Esk had "smelled a turd behind the tapestry," as he put it when he engaged me to identify the informer. I did so in short order, after which Esk turned the situation against Pandamm, using the suborned clerk to feed his competitor allegedly secret information about the quality of the jupelle harvest on the planet Whilom. The false details had induced Pandamm to prebuy most of the jupelle crop, only to find, when the blossoms were delivered, that they were infested by a fungus that was rapidly turning them into a foul-smelling sludge.
Tarq Esk regaled the members of the Essenters Guild with the entire story, making Feroz Pandamm the butt of many a joke. Esk had also revealed my part in the scheme's undoing. Thus it was nothing less than truth when I told my unexpected visitor, "I am surprised to find you crossing my threshold."
"No more than I am to be here," he said as he heaved his substantial bulk the last few steps up to my work room. He doffed the hat and turned down the collar and I saw that the artful coiffure that was one of his most recognizable features, and of which he was unnaturally proud, was not in evidence. Where it had been was now a broad expanse of bare scalp mottled an angry purple, right down to the roll of fat on the back of his neck.
"Something has happened to your hair," I said.
"How discerning of you to notice," he replied, and I deduced that whatever had motivated him to seek me out had not warmed his opinion of me.
"If you have come to me for help," I said, "you would do well to consider your tone."
I saw his eyes flash. My forthright remark had not been to his taste, yet I saw him make the effort to swallow it. I have learned that with some specimens of Olkney's commercial elite a short, sharp shock on first encounter can clear the field of misconceptions. Now I asked him plainly what I could do for him.
"Find out who has done this,"--he indicated his empurpled pate--"to me."
"And?" I said.
His downturned lips showed an even grimmer frown. "And tell me."
"You plan revenge, of course."
"My dignity has suffered enough affronts of late," he said. After a portentous pause, he added: "As you should know."
I sighed. "I cannot be party to a crime." I forestalled with a brusque gesture the objection he was about to make. "Do not tell me it is none of my concern. If you take direct action against the offender, and I am the hound that has pointed you at him, I am morally and legally implicated in your unlawful conduct. The least consequence that I might expect to suffer would be revocation of my license."
I might have added, but did not, that Captain-Investigator Brustram Warhanny of the Archonate Bureau of Scrutiny would not be satisfied with such a light punishment, could he ever catch me on the wrong side of the thin and often smudged line that separated the licit from the felonious. Three times in the recent past I had resolved cases--important cases--that had baffled the Bureau, with the result that many scroots had removed themselves from the legion of my admirers.
None of that, however, was Pandamm's concern. "Tell me," I said, "what happened."
The incident had occurred the previous evening, though when he told me of it his anger was as fresh as if it had happened only moments before. He had dined at his club, the Monopolists, and had decided to walk off the effects of seven courses, two bottles of wine and several post-prandial snifters with a clique of cronies in the revivifying room. He had dismissed his air-car at the club door and set off across the banded pavements of Tirramee Plaza toward the thoroughfare that would lead to Tsant Prospect and the winding climb to his door.
His route was not a perilous one. Although there were districts of Olkney through which it was inadvisable for muzzy-headed tycoons to stroll, Pandamm had more sense than to visit them, and scant reason to do so. He strode across the glittering bands of Tirramee's pavement, the murmur of its multi-tiered fountains comforting his ears. It was well past the hour at which indentors and their spouses liked to promenade in their finery and he encountered no one to whom it was expected he would speak. He had just passed by the spiraled obelisk of filigreed marble that commemorated the reign of the Archon Imreet IV, when he was struck.
"It came from above," he said, "and behind. Like a splash of cold, dense liquid, heavy enough that my knees bent and I almost pitched forward. I reached up, with both hands, and felt a viscous mass clinging to my head and shoulders. I sank my fingers into it and tore it from me, flung it to the pavement without looking at it."
"What did you look at?" I said.
"The air above, of course. I wanted to see who had done this to me."
"And what did you see?"
"No air-cars, omnibuses, freight vehicles?"
"Whose house was nearby?"
"No one you know? Socially?"
The answer was a grunt. I understood. Wealth and rank in Olkney might occasionally travel together but more often they diverged to follow separate courses. Members of the aristocracy would be prime customers for Pandamm's essences, the rarest of which only his vendory could provide, but any transactions would be conducted through servants.
"Integrator," I said, "display a schematic of Tirramee Plaza." A map appeared. I said to Pandamm, "Indicate your course."
His blunt index finger traced a path from the front door of the Monopolists across the square, moving from south to north and diverting as it went around the interlocked circles of the fountain on the west side.
"You did not go straight across, through the wide space between the fountains," I said.
"A troupe of buskers occupied the middle ground," he said. "They were packing up their stilts and instruments. I did not care to be importuned."
"And where were you struck?"
"Here!" A thick-nailed fingertip poked through the display. "Just this side of Imreet's Column!"
"That," I said, "would put you right outside the house-in-town of Lord Chavarie, would it not?"
"Are you saying that Dizmah Chavarie is the culprit?" I saw that the lines of Pandamm's face easily shaped themselves into a mask of ridicule.
"I am not saying that."
"Then what are you saying?"
"At this point," I said, "I am asking. The saying will come in due course, if"--and here I raised an emphatic finger--"I decide to take the case." He began to offer some further observation that I was sure would not be helpful, so I spoke over him. "When you saw nothing above, did you then look down to see what had struck you?"
"And, again, I saw nothing."
"The viscous mass had disappeared?"
"As if it had never been."
"Hmm," I said.
"What is your conclusion?"
I had no conclusion to offer. The facts were, so far, too scant, though some unformed idea was tickling the back of my mind. I told him it would be premature to say, particularly as I had not yet accepted the discrimination.
"But you will," he said.
Would I? I was not sure. I had never cared for Feroz Pandamm, even when he was a remote figure on the far horizon of my affairs. Seeing how he had casually ruined the life of a hapless Esk functionary did nothing to warm my regard for him, and now at close quarters I was finding him even less endearing. I offered him a cool look beneath raised eyebrows; it was an unspoken contradiction of his view.
He was not accustomed to being gainsaid. His color darkened and his square chin tucked itself down into its own folds. "Name your fee," he said.
"It is not a matter of fees," I said, "but of time. Integrator, how is my schedule for the next few days?" The phrase, whenever uttered in front of a third party, was a code between my assistant and me. The device replied that I was heavily engaged on three discriminations of a serious nature, all involving members of Olkney's elite. "Well," I said, "there it is."
"Not acceptable," he said. His eyes had both widened and somehow contrived to bulge forward in their sockets. I saw him struggle to control an impulse, which was clearly toward physical action. Whether he constrained himself out of civility or the logical expectation that, here in my lodgings, my person would not be undefended, I could not say. But he subsided and growled, "What will it take to free up your time?"
My own impulse was to tell him that nothing would move me. I did not like him, and one of the attractions of a freelance discriminator's calling was the ability to choose whom I would serve. But I checked my first inclination; the circumstances of the assault on Pandamm, if it had indeed been an assault and not some sort of freakish accident, were intrinsically interesting--at least I could not immediately discern what had struck him to leave him bald and discolored.
Few enough of my cases offered me an intellectual challenge: I was all too often commissioned to retrieve purloined goods of the wealthy, to bring back spoiled scions of the aristocracy led astray by appetites they had never learned to restrain, to locate errant spouses who had wearied of what had once fulfilled them to perfection, to set right petty wrongs--or, worse, to assist in some even pettier revenge.
Pandamm's motives were not complex. He had been wronged, deprived of a personal attribute that he much valued; that was an affront to his concept of a well ordered cosmos, which could have no other reason to exist than to accommodate his will. But the circumstances were unusual enough, and I had not been fully engaged by a discrimination for far too long. It was just coming up to ten years since I had built my assistant and taken up the life of a freelance discriminator. I had enjoyed it at first, when the challenges were fresh and novel, but of late I found myself grown jaded and often quite bored.
"I will take the case," I said.
I saw that the universe was once again functioning more in accordance with Feroz Pandamm's expectations: his chins unfolded and something almost like a smile briefly gasped for life on his lips. "Have your integrator contact mine for the fiduciary arrangements."
"No," I said. Another impulse had bubbled up in me and this time I acceded to it.
"What do you mean, 'No?'" The chins had bunkered themselves again.
"I will not charge a fee," I said. "Instead, you will owe me a service, to be performed when I call for it."
His brows contracted. "What kind of service?"
I did not know. The impulse had been strong but not informative. Again, I fell back upon my usual response when I had nothing useful to offer: "It is premature to say. But you may take my price or take your leave."
As it happened, he took both, in that order.
In the morning I decanted my integrator into its traveling armature, which resembled a plump stole made of flexible though tough material, and placed it over my shoulders. Tirramee was both a fair walk and a stiff climb from my lodgings in Shiplien Way, the six-sided plaza being set into the foothills that gradually sloped up to become the base of the Devenish Range, which culminated in the stark heights along which sprawled the Palace of the Archonate. I went up to the roof of my lodgings and had my assistant attract the attention of the next omnibus.
The vehicle was not crowded and I was not forced to share a seat as it carried me to its northern terminus, a tower of modest height whose observation platform overlooked, though at a distance, the scene of the incident. I had my integrator apply its percepts and examined the image it delivered privately to my retinas.
"There is a Bureau of Scrutiny volante on the roof of the manse to the left of the plaza," I said. My assistant confirmed my comment and tightened its focus onto a window below the parapet above the building's top floor. Agents in black and green uniforms could be seen inspecting a bedchamber. Just then the officer in command of the scroot detachment turned and looked out of the window. I regarded the pendulous ears and elongated nose, the drooped eyelids and protruding lower lip and wondered, not for the first time, if gravity might somehow have a stronger effect on the countenance of Brustram Warhanny than on the rest of us.
The thought had scarcely passed away before I saw the Captain-Investigator's ever-moist eyes rise then briefly cast about before locking onto my own distant gaze.
"His integrator has alerted him to our surveillance," said my assistant.
"It would be a poor integrator if it did not," I replied, but voiced the remark in a whisper and behind a concealing hand. I knew that Bureau of Scrutiny percepts were almost as good as those that I had designed and installed in my assistant, and there was no advantage to be gained by irritating Warhanny's assistant. Warhanny himself was already annoyed, as I could see from the thunderheads building in his brow.
"He demands to speak with you," said my integrator.
A moment later, the captain-investigator's lugubrious bass rumbled in my ear, "Henghis Hapthorn, what do you do here?"
"From your perspective," I said, "I am actually 'over there.'
The integrator was still supplying me with a close view of Warhanny's hangdog face. I saw his eyes darken and the grim set of his mouth would have rivaled Pandamm's deepest frown. "This is a Bureau crime scene," he said. "Why have you brought your percepts to bear on it?"
I could have dissembled, could have professed no more than an idle interest, but my well honed intuition was telling me that the presence of scroots on the top floor of the manse in front of which my client had been mysteriously struck down was unlikely to be a coincidence. I said, "I am engaged in a discrimination."
Warhanny's canine eyes were expressive for a Bureau agent's; now they widened in outrage. "Has the margrave-major's heirs called in an outsider even before the Bureau has surveyed the locus? Why, I'll--"
"My client is not connected in any way with Lord Chavarie," I said.
"Then for whom are you acting?"
"I am not at liberty to say."
Warhanny's eyes were getting to show their full emotive range this morning, I thought, as I saw them narrow to slits. "When it is the Bureau asking," he said, "liberty is what we say it is. And you will find that it can become tightly, oh, so tightly, circumscribed. So much so that you may have difficulty drawing a breath."
"True," I said, "if the asking relates to a crime on the Bureau's docket. The incident I am investigating has been reported to none but me."
"If I report it to you, here and now, that could make it a Bureau matter. You might claim jurisdiction and prevent me from serving my client."
"All crimes are within the Bureau's jurisdiction."
"But this might not be a crime. It may have been an accident."
Besides, even if it was a criminal assault, I would still have jurisdictional leeway if the matter did not involve blood or breakage, theft of substantial property or credible threats to commit such acts. I told Warhanny that the case did not fall within those bounds, then added, "The offense, if it turns out to have been an offense, is one of public embarrassment, and the mystery involves both the means and the instigator."
The captain-investigator blinked. My integrator widened the image's focus so that I could see the mocking hand gesture that accompanied Warhanny's next remark. "And you count your days as productive?"
I resisted an urge to reply in kind, which I could have done by reminding the scroot of occasions when I had led the Bureau out of darkness and into the light. Instead, I said, "I intend to come down to Tirramee Plaza and poke about. I will take care not to get in your way."
"Do so," he said. The integrator told me that he had broken the connection. A moment later, my view of Warhanny and the scene on the roof went black, then I was seeing the square with my unassisted eyes. Lord Chavarie's roof and upper floor were concealed beneath a dome of darkness. My assistant said, unnecessarily, "They have raised a screen. Shall I pierce it?"
"By no means," I said. "They are on their guard and would notice." Besides, Warhanny could then act against me for poking my percepts into an active bureau investigation. "We will go down to the street then climb to the plaza. Prepare me some background on Lord Chavarie and canvass the integrators in the area for anything that they may have observed yesterday evening."
Moments later, as I stepped into the descender and was borne down to street level, the integrator said, "I have reports."
Proper procedure would have been to ask for the integrators' observations first, but something about the way Warhanny had leapt straight from surprise to umbrage prompted me to call for the aristocrat's background. An image of Dizmah Chavarie appeared in a corner of my field of vision. He had the lean and vulpine countenance characteristic of Olkney's hugely inbred upper social strata--his eyes were set so close together as to test the definition of human, and his expression was that of a man continually encountering unpleasant odors.
My assistant's voice spoke in my ear. Lord Chavarie had been a margrave-major, placing him the upper quadrant of the second tier of Olkney's aristocracy, which meant he could reliably trace his ancestry back through not just millennia but through aeons. His family was established before the crags and tors of the Devenish Range had arisen.
His estate was beyond Ektop, but he rarely visited there, preferring the comforts of his house-in-town. He had belonged to three clubs, none of which he frequented regularly, and spent most of his disposable time--aristocrats often had demanding schedules full of obligations imposed by immemorial custom--at the Terfel Connaissarium, engaged in research.
"What kind of research?" I said.
"He has invoked a privacy seal," said my assistant.
"Hmm," I said. Ordinarily, tickling its way past a research integrator's blocks and barriers would have posed no problem for my assistant, even if the device to be fooled was housed in the Archonate's premier connaissarium. But if Lord Chavarie's research related in any way to the Bureau's presence on his roof, Warhanny might even now be watching for us to come winking-and-tricking our way in.
"Indeed," my assistant agreed, "and the Bureau's integrators, when already on alert, are not easily fadiddled."
"So we will not take the risk. See what can be learned from a roundabout approach."
Four seconds later, my assistant said, "Done."
I was now on the slideway that would carry me up through the terraced streets that led to Tirramee Plaza. The architecture I was passing was of a bombastic style, dating from a period when the ancient city's most affluent enjoyed flaunting their social prominence. It had been the fashion then for grand, solid houses, their outer walls unwindowed at street level--instead they were cut with niches in which were set moving statues of their owners striking heroic poses modeled on famous works of representational art. The architects had not reckoned, however, with the inventiveness of Olkney's common citizenry, who came in the night and decorated the statues with inappropriate clothing and other objects that created usually a comical, and often an obscene, effect. The owners complained to the Bureau of Scrutiny, but somehow the perpetrators were never apprehended. Eventually, the statues were removed and the niches stood empty.
"Lord Chavarie's biographical history is unremarkable," my assistant informed me. "As a child, he was educated at home then attended the Archon's Institute. He achieved no academic distinction nor did he dabble, as aristocrats may do, in the professions. Ten years ago, he contracted a marriage to Lord Bulmare's third daughter, Alifrayne, but their union has been without issue. For a time, he collected incised eggs, then abandoned that pastime to try breeding and rearing firefowl, but failed to damp down his flock adequately one night--"
"I remember now," I said, "the blaze spread from the outbuilding to the main house. His estate is still uninhabitable, I believe."
"Indeed. He relocated to Tirramee Plaza, though without Lady Alifrayne. She now travels The Spray. Communication between them is said to be brief, infrequent and rigorously formal."
"So, without success in profession, marriage or avocation, to what does Chavarie devote his time and such energies as an overbred Olkney aristocrat might summon?"
"Did," said the integrator.
It was my turn to say, "Indeed? His death is confirmed?"
"The Bureau has just released a statement. 'Death from indeterminate causes.' And 'all persons having knowledge of the circumstances are required to communicate such to the nearest barracks of the Bureau of Scrutiny.'"
"Hmm," I said. "But back to the question: what was the deceased's latest preoccupation?"
"Again," said my assistant, "the Bureau has invoked a screen."
"They might as well have put an illuminated sign on the man's roof," I said.
"Ah, of course," said the integrator, then we spoke the next two words together: "The Immersion."
The integrators of the houses and establishments lining the six sides of Tirramee Plaza had little to report. Feroz Pandamm had indeed descended the steps of the Monopolists Club at the time he had said. Unsteady in his gait, he had lurched around the fountain on the west side of the open space, his progress observed by the who's-theres of the several premises he had passed.
He was seen to fall to his knees at one point, immediately raising his hands to his head then making strenuous motions of his arms. He rose, glared at the sky above, felt his pate, then looked about as if searching for a hat. But he had not worn a hat--indeed, he never did, being grossly vain about his abundance of thick hair, which he wore shaped into extravagant swoops and peaks. He was seen to palpate his scalp as if in horror then, holding his hands to his head, rush off in the direction of his home at Tsant Prospect.
"Has the Bureau queried these devices?" I asked.
"They have," said my assistant, "but their inquiries focused on traffic to and from Lord Chavarie's domicile."
Feroz Pandamm's behavior would have seemed to scroot eyes nothing more than the stumblings of an overly lubricated imbiber weaving his way home. "Have we images?" I said.
We did. Two of the who's-theres were tasked by their owners to record all traffic in front of their premises. I saw the events Pandamm had described from both devices' perspectives. His statements to me were borne out. As was something he had not said. I had my integrator contact him.
"A question," I said, when his own integrator summoned him to speak with me. "After you were struck down, you sped away from the scene as fast as you could."
"I ran," he said.
"You ran in a very coordinated manner for a man who until moments before had been unable to walk a straight path, did you not?"
"I had not thought about it," he said, after a pause in which I assumed he was making up for the previous night's failure to do so. "But, yes, the attack seems to have sobered me."
"Hmm," I said.
"What does it mean?"
"Still premature. I will be in touch when I have something to tell you." I broke the connection.
By now we had reached Tirramee Plaza and I went to the scene of the incident. I glanced up as I approached Chavarie's house, four stories high and faced in polished green vitrine streaked with wiry veins of black chalcedax. The tall windows of the lower two floors were opaqued and the who's-there at the top of the long flight of stairs leading to the public doors was showing the red flash to discourage visitors. The roof remained under the Bureau's dome of darkness.
I walked about between the house and the west-side fountain with its interlocking circular curtains of spray. The pavement was of the self-cleaning sort, its perpetual eddies of mild energies carrying off dust and light debris before they could settle, to deposit the detritus in grilled slits set in foundation walls around the plaza, including the stone bases of the fountains. Accordingly, no trace of last night's events was to be found on the ever-swept and diamantine-studded surface.
But the nearest grill, in the base of a foundation, was of inert metal. I knelt and examined it, then had my assistant augment my perceptions. Finally, I took a miniature specimen kit from my coat pocket and collected a sample of the substance that speckled the base of the grill.
"Open an aperture," I told my assistant, and when it did so I placed the specimen bottle within. "Analyze that," I said.
A few moments later it gave me the chemical composition of the material I had collected, adding the comment: "Unusual."
"Certainly not what one would expect to find in Tirramee Plaza." I said. I had an inkling of where the stuff had come from, and that inkling gave me a potential explanation not only for what had happened to my client, but probably for what had befallen Lord Chavarie. The quickest way to make sure would have been to consult the records in the Terfel Connaissarium. But that I could not do, under the present circumstances, because, if my intuitive leap was right, I would find myself examining the same files in which Dizmah Chavarie had conducted his researches. And that would instantly draw the unwelcome attention of the Bureau.
"We are being observed from above," my assistant told me, privately.
"As expected," I said. I looked up at the tall helix of minutely carved marble that was a reminder of the Archon Imreet IV's long-ago reign. I would have liked to examine the monument through my assistant's percepts, but to do so I would first have to adjust their settings. And, again, that might result in scroot boots clumping over ground across which I preferred to step lightly.
I considered the facts as I knew them, as well as the avenues down which those facts appeared to lead, then I applied insight--by that I mean that I turned the question over to the intuitive part of my well calibrated brain--and waited. This time, it was not a long wait. I received an immediate answer.
I turned and walked briskly back the way we had come, telling my integrator, "Summon an air-car to meet us at the end of the slideway."
"Done," it said. "It wishes to know our destination. Back to the lodgings?"
The vehicle was already touching down beside us, its canopy sliding open. "No," I said, "contact the procurer Obinder Min in the usual manner and tell him I wish to consult with him."
Had Obinder Min been standing in bright sunlight in the middle of an open square without so much as a lamppost to hide behind, any fair-minded observer would still have said, "That man is lurking." Min's relationship to the phenomenal world proceeded along oblique lines; a direct and open approach was alien to his nature. Furtiveness was so much his idiom that I would not have been surprised to learn that he even sidled up to his breakfast.
My assistant could not contact him directly. Instead, there was a public integrator at the corner of Magher Street and The Blossoms that had been subverted to Min's purposes. It unknowingly relayed any incoming message to a private phone in a tavern in the Tan-Tan district, then promptly erased all record of the transaction.
The tavern's owner sent a boy across the alley to an upstairs room in a tenement, where an unsavory old woman memorized the message. When the boy was gone she tapped a spoon three times upon an exposed water pipe. Obinder Min then came down and the woman whispered in his ear. Had she tapped any other number than three, he would not have descended, but would have climbed to the roof and leapt across to parapet of the adjoining building then down into another alley, where he kept a battered, single-seat skimmer hidden under what appeared to be a pile of moldering rubbish.
It seemed to me to be an unnecessarily elaborate process and ultimately not effective; I had penetrated Min's layers of security the first time I had cause to contact him--I found it useful to know what I was dealing with when I descended into the city's half-world. But it was plainly of importance to him so I had never told him that I could have readily parked my hired air-car outside his grimy window and tapped on it to gain his attention.
Not too long after my integrator sent out its signal, Min contacted me, though by voice only, through another public integrator that was also unaware of the work it was performing for him. "Hapthorn?" he said, "you wish to meet with me?" It was a straightforward question, yet somehow when it came from the procurer's vocal apparatus it acquired an unspoken insinuation, as if the words were now smeared with some noxious substance.
"My integrator must have told you so," I said.
"I deal with principals, not subordinates."
Indeed, it was for that very reason that I wished to consult him. "Place and time?" I said.
"Is it urgent?"
"Not as such," I said, "but I would like to move on the matter while it remains fresh in my mind."
"I will see if I can free myself of entanglements," he said. His voice oozed out the last word as if inviting me to imagine him wrapped in lubricious coils. I resisted the invitation and proposed that we meet without delay.
"Bolly's Snug," he said. "Give me an hour to make the arrangements."
"I'll be there," I said. I told the air-car to take me back to my lodgings and to wait there while I equipped myself with a number of items. It was never wise to visit the tavern where the halfworld did much of its business without taking precautions against being rendered incapable, if not irrevocably dead.
We met in one of the private chambers at the rear of Bolly's Snug. Besides seclusion and a guarantee against eavesdroppers, the tavern's back rooms also offered unconventional exits should anyone, official or otherwise, attempt to interrupt a conference. Obinder Min was already on site when I arrived. Before I was led to the space he had hired for the hour, one of the proprietor's functionaries examined me for weapons. I turned over the needle-thrower I carried in an outer pocket but the rest of my paraphernalia was judged to be only of a defensive character and remained with me. The man who searched me knew his business, but though he passed a fairly sophisticated detector over my integrator, which still hung around my neck like a fat collar, his device did not detect mine's full capabilities. Any discriminator needed to put a lot of thought and work into the design and construction of an assistant, and I prided myself on not being just any discriminator.
Min rose from his place at the table when I entered, gesturing me to take the seat opposite his. The air in the small room was thick with a floral scent that came from the pomade that the procurer used to sweep back his thin, dark hair in two gleaming wings. He had a habit of running a hand from temple to nape when he was nervous, as if the touch of his own tonsure somehow reassured him; he did it now as he waited for me to broach the subject of our conversation.
I folded my hands on the table top and looked directly into his mud-brown eyes. "The Immersion," I said.
I am adept in reading micro-expressions. In this instance I was aided by my assistant which had focused its percepts on Min's face so it could record and replay key flashes of revealed emotion, displaying them to me as still images at the edges of my field of vision. Thus, when I spoke the two words, I was able to discern that his reactions were, in sequence, shock, alarm, guilt, and the recognition of opportunity--all passing in about the time it took him to blink twice and present me with a contrived look of bland ignorance.
"I don't know any--" he began.
I spoke over him. "Let us dispense with the preliminary dancing. You provide certain... let us say, 'requirements,' for some members of the Immersion. I know, for example, that you have assisted Lords"--my assistant put up a list of names where I could see them and I read a few aloud--"to find particular types of persons and objects with which they wished to gratify themselves."
I did not need my assistant to decipher Min's expression now. His face registered shock at the first aristocratic name I spoke and he actually flinched at two of the others. "What I want to know is, what did you get for Lord Chavarie last night?"
I had employed a calculated stratagem. I knew that the first names I had spoken were adherents of the distasteful philosophy--it would not have been too great a stretch to call it a cult without a deity--that was the Immersion. My insight had told me that it was highly likely that Obinder Min, as one of Olkney's most infamous procurers, was one of their suppliers. The likelihood became a certainty when I mentioned the name of the secret society and studied his reaction.
Still, I had not known for sure, before I spoke his name, that Chavarie was an Immersionist, nor that Min had procured for him. But I knew now. I knew also that Min would not want to discuss his relations with an aristocrat.
"I cannot tell you anything," he said, rising on shaky legs.
My assistant acted as we had prearranged. Min suddenly found that he could no longer control his lower limbs. He opened his mouth to call for help. That, too, was expected and my assistant emitted a pulse that paralyzed the man's vocal chords. I used the silence to remind Min that, unless he had thought to pay for it in advance, any emergency assistance he now sought from Bolly would have to be negotiated at a time when Min's need was greatest. Bolly was a notoriously hard-skinned haggler, especially when he had the other bargainer at a decided disadvantage. I suggested that Min wait to see what I intended before he committed himself. I then gave him back his voice.
He saw the wisdom of my suggestion. "But," he said, "I have learned not to incur Lord Chavarie's displeasure." His glance went to the fingers of his right hand. I had noticed that they were misshapen.
"I can relieve you on that score," I said. "The margrave-major is no longer with us." I saw the procurer visibly relax, until I added, "But the upper floors of his house-in-town are currently decorated in black and green."
Min took a sharp breath. "The scroots? What happen--"
This time, he interrupted himself and I did not need my assistant's percepts to tell me that the man had followed a chain of thought that answered his own question, and that he would be extremely reluctant to share that answer with me. His soft mouth set itself in as firm a line as it could manage, and though I knew he was frightened of me, I could see that he was far more frightened of something else.
I tried a gambit. "If you told me everything, I could keep your name out of it."
"No," he said, and I saw the truth of it in his eyes, "no, you couldn't."
"Then tell me one thing," I said, "and we are done. Where did you get the... "requirement' that you supplied to Lord Chavarie?"
I saw him wrestle with his fear and was surprised that he was able finally to subdue it. "The spaceport," he said. "A ship called the Fanferray. I bought it off the supercargo."
My assistant informed me privately that Min had told me the truth. "Very well," I said, "and now, for cover, we will make it appear that our meeting was to arrange for you to get something for me."
Suddenly, Obinder Min was all business. "What are your preferences?" he said. "Or do you wish to enlarge your tastes beyond previous experience?"
"Nothing that will make me an occasion for gossip."
"Discretion is my--" he began.
"A dreamworm will do. I am frequently bored."
"Is that all?" he said. "They are not prohibited. Why not something more--"
"A dreamworm," I said. "For my researches."
He shrugged. I bade my assistant return control of his legs to him and left by an unmarked exit.
She was a stubby tramp freighter, her hull red and her fins and sponsons umber, and the finish not been recently renewed so she bore the pits and scratches that testified to her being a less than well loved vessel. I found her standing on a pad on the eastern edge of the spaceport, out on its wind-swept island in Mornedy Sound.
The west side of the port was reserved for the great and gaudy spaceships that hauled freight and carried passengers under the names of the grand interstellar lines, the north for private yachts and charters, the south for administration, maintenance and in-transit facilities. The east side was a forlorn place, made more so by the grid of narrow streets separated from the rows of pads by a tattered wire fence, where spacers with time on their hands and funds in their pockets could expect to find rough-and-ready accommodations and personal services, supplied without a garnish of intrusive questions.
"Is your supercargo aboard?" I asked the ship's integrator.
It informed me that he was to be found in one of the establishments on Rear Street. It could summon him if I wished.
"No," I said. "We would only have to retrace his steps so that I could buy him a drink. Will you provide my assistant with an image of him? Oh, and his name."
The ship did not question why I should wish to entertain one of its officers I had never met and could not even name. It had probably learned not to ask questions. My assistant told me that it now had the man's likeness and that his name was Wormer Krell. I ducked through a gap in the wire and walked down a nameless alley that crossed Front and Middle streets to end at Rear.
I turned left and walked the stained and pitted pavement while the device around my neck employed its percepts to examine the interiors of the establishments we passed. Krell was discovered in a dark corner of a narrow room that consisted mostly of a long counter fronted by stools and a few booths at the back. The place smelled of yeasty liquids, fried grease and old sweat.
Krell wore frayed coveralls and the expression of a man who expected little of life, and even less of it good. When I sat down across from him his eyes went immediately to the integrator around my neck. "Police?" he said.
One knob-knuckled hand was wrapped around a glass of colorless liquor. He lifted it now from the ring-scarred surface that separated us and brought it casually to his thin lips, but I saw his other hand drop out of sight to the bench beside him.
"I prefer this to be a friendly encounter," I said, "and perhaps even a profitable one for you. Besides, you will find that the weapon has been rendered inactive."
His hidden hand reappeared from beneath the table holding a mid-sized shocker. A red light flashing on its upper surface confirmed the truth of my statement. He set the weapon back down on the bench seat beside him and took another sip from the glass, swirled the stuff in his mouth then nodded as he swallowed. "What?" he said.
An image of Obinder Min appeared between us then faded as soon as he had seen it. "You sold something to this man."
"Something that is not often seen on Old Earth." I did not add the reason for its rarity: that their import was strictly prohibited.
He made no reply but his eyes said he was waiting for the part of our conversation that interested him.
"My question is: having procured one, can you procure another?"
The slightest motion of his head.
"But here is my concern," I said. Another image appeared, a list of worlds the Fanferray had called at on its most recent voyage. "None of these is home to the item in question."
The list disappeared. He looked again at my assistant and I could see that he was worried. "Yes," I said, "I am a very capable discriminator. Interrogating your ship's integrator without its knowledge was well within my integrator's range. Finding out everything I need to know about you would not be a challenge."
This time, he drank what was left in his glass without making a show of it. "You are concerned about provenance?" he said.
"I am. The creature we're talking about cannot be too long away from its native habitat, or it becomes..." I gestured with both hands, rippling my fingers upward like a flock of birds taking sudden flight.
"It was stable," he said. "It traveled in a sealed container."
"Even before you acquired it?"
He said yes, but his eyes said he did not really know. And now I knew what had happened to Dizmah Chavarie and Feroz Pandamm.
I owed Krell nothing, but I saw no reason to add to his troubles. "Get yourself gone from here," I said. "It was not stable. It had degraded. And your end customer was an aristocrat."
It took him a moment to understand that I had been lying when I said I was interested in acquiring what he had supplied to Obinder Min to give to Lord Chavarie. Then his face went gray. He aged a decade in a moment. "Was?" he said.
"And is no more," I said. "That means inquiries will be made. Not by the Bureau of Scrutiny; they will be told nothing. Private inquiries. I will not be surprised if, before evening, I am approached to make them."
Now I saw confusion mix with the fear in his face. "You are not making them now?"
"Not in that regard," I said. "Fortunately for you, I have been retained by a bystander who was... inconvenienced by a side-effect. He would send men to kill you out of hand, but I have already told him I will not be party to such an act."
"What should I do?"
"Change your face, your name, your occupation,"--I glanced at the glass in his hand--"your habits. Go to live in some out-of-the-way place where you'll be able to see who's coming before they can see you. And make sure you always have a back door."
He stood up, the deactivated shocker in his hand, his eyes already looking left, right, in a way that would become a habit, if he lived long enough.
"How long do I have?"
"The rest of today, at least some of tomorrow. Don't tell anyone goodbye. Leave your dunnage on the Fanferray. Go, and go quickly."
He swore. There was nothing more to say. I turned to watch him leave. Already his shoulders had taken on the hunch of the hunted. I said to my assistant, "We will aid him. Lay an obvious false trail, then a second, less obvious."
A few moments later, as I left the drinking house, my integrator said, "The Fanferray believes he has signed on with the freighter Buswold that departed an hour ago. The port's security section's records, which will take some penetrating, show him catching a ride on a utility transport vehicle up to an orbiter. The orbiter's percepts will show him taking passage on a small liner heading down The Spray, under the name of Gestuphal Kennec."
"Good," I said. "Make sure that there is also no record of our having been here today."
"I routinely dissimulate our movements, unless otherwise instructed," it said.
I walked on, toward the north end of the port. "When we get to the charter terminal," I said, "find us an air-car."
It left me to my thoughts, but as we neared the lights of the northside facility, it said, "Why save Krell? He didn't care what happened to whoever took the animal off his hands. He is at least culpable of negligence."
Many people do not encourage curiosity in an integrator; it can lead to an unending series of questions, some of them unanswerable. A discriminator, however, requires a subtle assistant. "Because," I said, "I have never been able to appreciate vengeance as an art form, and sometimes I grow tired of being an auxiliary to those who do."
"Feroz Pandamm wishes to speak with you," my assistant said as the air-car gently descended to my lodgings' upper entrance.
"He will have to wait," I said. "Inform him of what awaits us." Now it was my roof's turn to be decorated in black and green. A Bureau volante hovered there, while a ground car idled before the street entrance on Shiplien Way. As I alighted from the air-car, Brustram Warhanny stepped from the volante. His down-drawn face, born to express an unhappy perspective on life, was again not even trying to overcome that handicap.
"The vehicle in which you arrived believes that it took you on board south of Finnhaber Boulevard, yet my car tracked it coming east across Mornedy Sound. From the spaceport."
I could think of nothing to say that would improve the situation. I smiled a very small smile and inclined my head in a way that conceded a point. That, however, was far too little to sate the captain-investigator's appetite; he asked me if he should impound the hired air-car and subject it to a peel.
"No," I said. "You should let it depart while you come with me to Tirramee Plaza."
His long head drew back. "To what end?" he said.
"To resolve the matter of Dizmah Chavarie."
Now the lofty forehead compressed itself into a facsimile of desert dunes seen from on high. "You told me that your discrimination had nothing to do with his death."
"I told you that my client had no connection. I have only just discovered, however, that what happened to my client was an after-effect of Lord Chavarie's demise."
"And I suppose you were just about to report as much to the Bureau?"
"Such was my intent. But I would have asked you to meet me at his house-in-town."
I could see that Warhanny was torn between doing something to me that he had long desired to do, or solving a high-value case. It did not take long for duty to win out over personal preference, a quality that had to be admired in the better sort of scroot. "Get in," he said.
He told the aircraft where to take us. As we flew, I took my assistant from around my neck, opened the hatch that exposed its controls and made an adjustment.
"What are you doing?" Warhanny said.
"Recalibrating its percepts to take account of phase shift."
Instead of answering, I put a question of my own. "When you scanned the margrave-major's corpse, did you detect traces of this compound?" I had my assistant display the complex molecule I had collected from the site where Pandamm had been struck down.
Warhanny looked from the image in the air to me. "Yes," he said. "Are you saying you found it in the square below?"
"And you analyzed it?"
We waited to see which of us would speak next. "So did the Bureau," he said after a long moment. "The analysis was not useful. The substance is not known."
"That is because," I said, "it has degraded through contact with other substances with which it was highly reactive. You would have to work backwards through some unlikely chemistry--unlikely because the substance is of off-world origin."
"Where off-world," Warhanny wanted to know, "and what other substances?"
I answered the second question. "Our atmosphere, plus the natural oils of Lord Chavarie's skin, and probably whatever unguents he may have applied. Were there concentrations of the stuff on his palms?"
"And was any of his hair... missing?"
"He wore his hair in a band from ear to ear, cut short and dyed, with the rest depilated," the scroot said. "I believe that is the current mode among his set."
"I did not mean the hair on his head," I chided him, though gently.
That was not an issue, Warhanny said. Like many of his kind, the aristocrat had no body hair, the gene having been edited out of his line long, long ago.
"Ah," I said, "I had not known that." Indeed, I was gratified to find that there was something I did not know. Of course, the upper tiers of Olkney's society liked to keep some things to themselves. Their body servants were notoriously difficult to suborn--partly because the punishments for betraying a confidence ranged from the drastic to the horrific, but mainly because the relationships between the two classes were of such a great age as to have become essentially symbiotic. Neither could have lived long without the other.
"But, to return to the matter at hand," I said, "besides his palms, the greatest concentration of the mysterious compound would have been on and around his genitalia."
"How did you know that?" Warhanny said.
We were angling down toward Tirramee Plaza. The volante intended to land on the margrave's roof. "No," I said, "the ground." And there we disembarked, the captain-investigator's last question still unanswered.
With my assistant around my neck I led the scroot to the spot where Pandamm had been struck down. I bade the integrator apply its recalibrated percepts to the pavement and display the results so that both Warhanny and I could see them. Immediately, the diamantine-sparkled pavement grew dim and misty and the nearby spiral of filigreed marble that commemorated the Archonate of Imreet IV became as a pillar of smoke. I directed the device to focus on the monument. Clinging to the carved stone, a short distance above the ground, we saw a dark shape about the length of my forearm, though twice as thick in the middle and tapering to blunt points at both ends.
"What is it?" Warhanny said.
"A gromm. Or at least it was. After such a fall it would not have been able to survive the impact with my client."
"And what is, or was, a gromm?" Warhanny said.
"It is a life form from an uninhabited world a little ways up The Spray from Cheng," I said, naming one of the grand foundational domains settled during the first waves of the great effloration that carried humanity out into the immensity. "The world is called... well, it doesn't matter what its name is. Its atmosphere is insalubrious, it offers nothing worth the danger of landing there. But, occasionally, if someone is willing to pay, a few individuals who combine a taste for adventure with an unusual capacity for greed touch down there and come back with a few gromms. They don't travel well, however, and will quickly degrade once they are taken from their proper habitat.
"You will get the full story when you go through his integrator’s records. I think you’ll find he has been researching odd creatures through the Connaissarium."
At that, Warhanny bridled. "His account is under Bureau seal. If you have been poking into--"
"I have not," I told him. "Again, I have worked backwards from the presence of the gromm and Chavarie's membership in the Immersion."
That information caused the scroot to make a sharp intake of breath. "You profess not to know about the hair, yet you casually walk the Immersion out from the wings?"
"It was not I who brought it on stage," I said. "It was our deceased margrave-major."
The Immersion was a recent innovation, if one defines "recent" by the standards of Old Earth's ancient aristocracy: it had begun a few centuries ago, as a fellowship whose membership was restricted to the upper two tiers of those whose ancestry was usually their only notable distinction. An Immersionist's goal was to encompass the fullest possible range of erotic experience, believing that doing so would enable him--or her, though the membership was mostly male--to pass through into a new level of awareness: the state of Prismatic Abundance.
Immersionists believed that the copulative impulse was the essential human drive, that it unleashed fundamental energies which, when directed by certain recondite exercises involving breath control and posture, would physically alter the cerebrum. It was a matter of attuning the conscious and unconscious aspects of the psyche, creating a resonance that resulted in a "pure tone" which, once sounded within the confines of the mind, would propel the adept's being to a higher plane. There it would reside in perpetual ecstasy, untouched by space or time or entropy.
There were some, however, who found the discipline of diaphragmatic exercises and nostril control wearisome. They believed that Prismatic Abundance could be achieved by exercising the erotic reflex while under the influence of the right psychoactive substance.
One of those substances was the thick mucous that protected the gromm's tissues from the hostile atmosphere of its normal habitat. When fresh, the slime had remarkable properties; but when allowed to degrade, the stuff could be lethal.
Warhanny had the Bureau integrators consult those of the Connaissarium. The latter confirmed that Lord Chavarie had been conducting research into rare off-world species. The gromm had been only one of several creatures blessed, or perhaps cursed, with the attributes in which the margrave-major had taken an interest.
"Ambitious," I commented, when the Bureau's device passed Chavarie's list of mind-altering organisms to my assistant for display. "Eventually, his experiments were bound to prove fatal."
Together we reconstructed the manner of his death. The Immersionist had been alone in a bedchamber on the top floor. He had disrobed and removed the gromm from its container, having first opened the window to dispel the strong odor and corrosive fumes of the creature's home world's atmosphere. Holding the gromm in both hands, the aristocrat had attempted some degree, perhaps even the ultimate, of molestation.
The attempt had been unsuccessful. Exposed to Old Earth's atmosphere, the animal's already degraded mucous coating had rapidly altered its chemical composition. Its potent psychoactive substances, absorbed by Chavarie through his palms and through the skin of other, more tender regions, had triggered in him a catastrophic neuronic cascade. I could imagine the naked margrave-major leaping and thrashing contortedly about his bedchamber, his eyes bulging as he fell helplessly prey to random contractions and flexions of his own skeletal muscles, his lungs expanding and contracting like hyperactive bellows, with fluids emitting from every orifice. One of his spasmodic exertions must have flung the poor gromm out through the window, where gravity and momentum combined to deliver it onto the coiffured head of Feroz Pandamm.
My client had seized it and flung it from himself in an instant. Thus its mucous had not had time to penetrate to his scalp, which was well protected by his flamboyant head of hair. He had also immediately wiped his hands in disgust on his coat, avoiding serious contamination through his palms. The only psychoactive effect had been to sober him. Gromm mucous, taken in a tiny dose, was prized by many spacers for just that purpose.
The slug-like creature, now bruised and dying, invoked its last defense, an energy-consuming phase shift designed to disguise it from predators. It crawled to the Imreet IV monument, ascended as far as it could in an attempt to find refuge. There it expired, and there we found its remains.
I put on a pair of impermeable gloves and reached up to seize the corpse. I had to pull sharply to detach it from the filigreed marble; on examination, I saw that on the gromm's underside a network of small hooks stuck out from the now congealing slime. I found it hard to imagine how Chavarie could have summoned up an erotic impulse in the contemplation of such a creature, but then the eccentricities of Old Earth's aristocracy are frequently beyond the understanding of we who spend our lives on the less exalted tiers of the social ziggurat.
Warhanny produced an evidence container and we sealed up the gromm. "Again," he said, "the Bureau must express its gratitude for your invaluable assistance." To my ear, the sentiment behind his utterance did not appear to be gratitude, and judging from the gritting of his teeth as he pronounced the last two words, "intolerable interference" would have been a fair translation.
Still, I have learned that it does no good to abrade raw flesh when it comes clad in black and green. "I regret," I said, "that I diverted your attention from the core of the case, preventing you from achieving an early resolution."
The captain-investigator looked at me sharply, as if he thought I might be mocking him. But I maintained as sincere an expression of contrition as I could contrive and after studying me for a moment, he grunted what might have been an acknowledgement.
Feroz Pandamm came again to my workroom when I told him that I could identify the source of his baldness. He did not wish me to convey the information via the connectivity; my undoing of his scheme against the House of Esk had taught him that the measures he took to protect his privacy were not impenetrable. When he removed his hat, I saw that a fine stubble had sprouted on his scalp.
He heard the tale of the gromm and Lord Chavarie's demise without interruption, then nodded and said, "It's as well he's dead; I would have had a hard time prosecuting one of "them"--he used the intonation that, in Olkney, imbued the otherwise common pronoun with a particular meaning.
"The Bureau of Scrutiny has informed the margrave-major's heirs of the injury you innocently sustained, though your name was not mentioned. It was suggested that the matter could be disposed of if the family's senior steward would view favorably a request to change its supplier of essences."
A gleam of avarice sparked in Pandamm's eyes. "That's a Pormeireon Brothers account," he said. "Theirs since the world emerged from the primordial egg." An uncharacteristic grin disfigured his dour face for several seconds, then the shutters drew down again.
"You are satisfied with my handling of the discrimination?" I said.
"I am. If ever you wish to take up an appreciation of essences, I will offer you a discount of--"
"Such is not one of my ambitions," I said. "But you will remember that you now owe me a favor, whenever I call for it."
His brows showed a vertical furrow. "What kind of favor will it be?"
"It is premature to say. I gave in to an impulse."
"Very well," he said. "Feroz Pandamm stands by his word. Call when you will." And, dispensing with formalities, he took his leave.
The day after Lord Chavarie's estate was adjudicated by the Archonate's Court of Assigns and Severances, my assistant informed me that the primary heir's major-domo was seeking a connection.
"How may I assist you?" I said when the man's bland face appeared in the air before me, wearing that look of supercility cultivated by servants of the proud and prominent.
"My lord requires your services to locate a person."
"To what end?"
"Do you require that knowledge?"
The servant sighed the sigh of one who finds he must tolerate the inanities of lesser breeds. "To requite an injury done to my lord's family."
His only answer was a glare meant to return me to my rightful place.
"Is the person's identity known?" I said.
"His name is Wormer Krell." The major-domo affected an expression of superior knowledge as he added, "He also goes by the alias Gestuphal Kennec."
"Do you have a last known location?"
"He departed Old Earth as auxiliary crew on the liner Omphire, bound for Cronk."
"Cronk is a hub world," I said, "this could require considerable travel."
The matter was languidly dismissed. "My lord will place his lesser yacht at your disposal."
"I thought Lady Alifrayne kept that vessel in constant use."
"Lady Alifrayne has retired to her father Lord Bulmare's estate."
"Hmm," I said. "I may also have to set aside a great deal of time."
We fell to discussing my fee. I proposed a generous retainer, with substantial refreshers. I did not ask for a bonus for locating Krell. Somewhere along the way I was bound to come across a corpse that would satisfy the Chavaries' atavistic craving for vengeance. To them, we all looked much alike.
And traveling The Spray in luxury would relieve the tedium that, increasingly, had begun to blight my hours. I began to prepare an itinerary of worlds I had long wanted to visit.
While I was packing, the dreamworm arrived. For a moment I entertained the mischievous whim of sending it as a gift to Brustram Warhanny. Instead, I contacted Obinder Min and we met on the Belmain seawall, the gray waters of the Sound crashing with mindless violence against the gray, unmindful stone. I told the procurer that I had no need of the thing and that he could have it back. I had decided to repel boredom with the aid of Lord Chavarie's lesser yacht.
He shrugged and took back the item, saying that he could always find a buyer for a ripe dreamworm.
"You are in no peril from the family over the matter of the gromm?" I asked him.
He tucked away the pale yellow chrysalis in an impermeably lined pocket. "Not as long as I am useful to the Immersion."
I had assumed as much.
"Is there anything you require?" he asked me.
I discounted the unsavory implication inherent in the way he voiced the question. "I suppose there must be," I said, "if I can just discover what it is."
This story originally appeared in Postscripts 26/27 Unfit for Eden.