Life on board the Odin's Crag megaship detention centre is one long shuffle. With my ankles closely shackled I shuffle from cell to washroom and from washroom to mess where I shuffle in line to collect a bowl of mush. Today it's Vermani Gruel, a gritty, bitter-tasting porridge.
this?” I ask the female commander opposite me on the bench where a guard has ordered me to sit. She looks tough with her determined eyes and a scar on her right cheek. Her hair is a kind of sickly green and styled somewhere between mohawk and pompadour. She's lucky her head hasn't been shaved yet. I assume she's newly arrived.
She looks at me scornfully.
"Where I come from all serious astronomers and explorers know Latin. Didn't you study it as a child?"
I have to confess I have only a smattering. In embarrassment my hand goes up to scratch the angry red rash on my neck where the collar of the prison jumpsuit has been irritating me.
?" she says. "Any idea?"
I think of vermin and vermilion and vermicelli, I wish I was eating vermicelli right now,
then I think of vermouth — white wine flavoured with wormwood.
"Worm?" I say hesitantly.
"Yes, worm," she says, "and anus
? Shouldn't be too difficult, especially not for a hard ass like you."
"Rectum," I say, wearying of the game and then disgusted by the image that's conjured for me. "You mean Vermani Gruel is principally worm anus?"
"Right on, Commander Hard Ass! The sex organs and the mouth-parts of the common worm are considered delicacies in some cultures — but the anus, that's different; nobody likes the thought of eating anus and they have such a foul taste anyway."
"How come you know so much about it?" I ask, slipping easily into the private detective's enquiry mode and pushing my bowl of worm anus away from me.
"Huh, I made trader elite by hauling worm parts from agricultural worlds to rich, high-tech systems."
"So, what are you doing here?"
"Crime and punishment; crime and punishment. I picked up a bounty and then my ship was destroyed — all part of the same interdiction incident; I accidentally shot at the authority ships that were coming to investigate. The pirate then melted my shields and took down the hull. That's him, over there," she says, pointing to a wild-eyed, heavily tattooed Archon Delaine lookalike who is shovelling down the gruel with gusto.
I get why she's in a mood so I forgive her the sharpness of tongue. Many people in the detention centre could tell similar stories, I suppose, of accidental infringements.
"I'm Andrew Linton," I say, "falsely accused of murder."
I see fleeting fear and disgust in her face.
"I did say falsely
A new look of thoughtfulness and curiosity replaces the disgust.
"You couldn't give me a thousand credits, could you — to pay off my fine? After all, you won't be needing them where you're going."
"You're pretty sure I'm going to jail, then?"
"Absolutely. That's how the system works."
I reflect that, maybe, she's right. At the moment I don't seem to have any way of avoiding a guilty verdict — given all the evidence ranged against me.
"I wish I could..."
"Adalina," she says, "Adalina Schmid."
"I wish I could, Adalina, but I don't exactly have access to my accounts just now."
"No worries; it was worth a shot."
A prison guard approaches, taser crackling with readiness. He reads the name tag on my jumpsuit — most people here are short term so there's no need and no time to learn our names.
"Linton — visitors," he says curtly.
"Lucky you," Adalina says as I stand to leave. My neighbour sees the opportunity and grabs my bowl of Vermani Gruel before anyone else has the same idea.
It's a complete surprise to see Tay and Detective Larsen sitting together on the other side of the grille in the visitors' room.
Larsen looks moderately happy, a change from her normal serious self, but Tay is effervescent.
"Andeee!" she calls as soon as I appear. The transformation in her appearance and demeanour is striking. She's bright, well dressed, alert and looking as well as at any time I've known her. She's been through a lot — abused by Eldrin Dood and the business with the Strangs, but now she looks renewed.
"I thought you were gone — that you'd left me," I say.
"Gone? No, all I did was go to Colonia 7 a a to collect some dirt."
Tay looks nervously at Larsen who nods her acquiescence.
"It's all thanks to Vinny, really; he hacked into the video stream of the interview room and heard all of the evidence against you."
"Highly irregular," Larsen says, "but in this instance it seems justified. Like I said, I thought there was something rotten about the case and I was right."
"When Vinny heard that you'd been meditating on 7 a a, he suggested I go and get some samples of the regolith. Your Orca is impounded so I had to ask Detective Larsen, here, to get samples from the tyres of your SRV to compare the mineralogy."
"We sent them to Colonia Geosciences," Larsen picks up the story, "and they did geochemical analyses of the samples. It turns out there's a distinctive chemical signature to the rocks on 7 a a and when we found a match to the dust on your tyres it suggested that you were where you said you were."
"But what about all of the other evidence?" I say. "The video, the knife, the message history, the missing flight logs, all of that?"
"Your friend, Vinny Ayr, has explained everything. I offered him a job on the spot. We need skills like his in the Colonia PD."
"You mean he's here, in Colonia?"
"Yes, he was on his way here anyway and it's a good job he was; he's refuted all of the evidence against you."
Tay seems overexcited and I notice for the first time that she's wearing an engagement ring. I nod towards it.
"Vinny?" I say.
"Yes!" Tay gushes. "Isn't it amazing? We wanted to ask you if we could use the wedding barge."
I laugh out loud for the first time in a long time.
"Strangely, I think you'll make a wonderful couple, and if I ever get out of here I'll sign the Beluga over to you — it's yours."
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Larsen cautions. "There's still procedure to go through and the Beluga is still a crime scene. I'll be presenting all of the evidence to a judge tomorrow. If she agrees that you were framed — and what an elaborate job that was — then we'll get your release signed off. Meanwhile, hang tight."
A guard calls that time is up so we prepare to part.
"Can you do something for me, Tay?" I say.
"There's a commander here by the name of Adalina Schmid. I'd like you to pay her fine. She'll be my ride out of here if all goes well."
"Consider it done."
Two days later and I'm back in my apartment. With me are Tay and Vinny, closely entwined, Detective Larsen who still has a crime to solve, and Adalina Schmid who has ferried me home from Odin's Crag.
"So, Vinny, let's go through point by point how you showed the evidence against me was faked."
"Sure thing," Vinny says disentangling himself from Tay to reach for a remote control — and seeing them together I see how happy they will make each other. I've known Vinny since he was thigh-high to a Ceti rabbit and I think it's long overdue that the geek got the girl.
He runs the video, projecting it onto the same wall that Martinsson had used the day this nightmare began. It shows me leaving the bridal suite on the wedding barge brandishing a long knife that's dripping with blood. He pauses the recording.
"See here," he says. "Doesn't this frame look fuzzy to you?"
"Isn't that just the blur caused by rapid movement?" I suggest.
"It's more than that," Vinny says. "It's actually a mismatch between the image of the real killer and a holographic projection of you that's been overlaid onto them. It's like the telepresence systems of the Beluga were hijacked and your 'holo-me' has been assigned to the killer to mask their identity — and to implicate you of course. It's very clever stuff."
"Like a motion capture film?" Tay suggests.
"Exactly," Vinny says, nestling in beside her.
"That must be one ugly guy hiding under your skin, if they thought looking like you was an improvement," Adalina quips. I take a bow in recognition of my striking features.
"You might think that," Vinny says, "but actually I believe it's a woman."
"How so," Larsen asks, "if you can't see who's under the holo-me?"
Vinny nods and replays the video.
"Partly it's the height," he says. "The projection mismatches in places because this person is shorter than you, Andrew, and statistically that tends to suggest female, but more than that it's the gait. See how the hips roll as she walks? And the projection doesn't map very well over the chest. I suspect the killer has larger breasts than you, Andy."
Tay playfully digs Vinny in the ribs.
"Don't you go analysing other women's breasts or the wedding's off."
"We need to start going through the guest list," Larsen says, "looking for suspects. I realise, now, that we have no idea of motive, so I'll get Martinsson to start digging."
"Next is the knife," I say. "How did my Miyaki chef's knife come to be at the scene?"
"That was my fault, I think. While you were away, meditating, I hit a low point."
Vinny wraps his arms around her and squeezes.
"I resorted to Lyrae Weed, as usual. You know I don't like to leave the apartment, so I had a supplier make a delivery — except it turned out not to be the regular person."
Vinny tees up another security video; this one is the interior of my private elevator. The weed dealer wears a hooded jacket and dark glasses, but in overall form it seems to be a female.
a woman, sure enough," Tay talks over the video, "but I remember very little about her. I think she offered me a new somnolent — like the ones they use in escape pods. I felt so low, I wanted to be out of it altogether. I took her sample and don't remember anything after that."
Vinny plays the next video.
"Here's the dealer leaving the apartment a full ten minutes after she arrived — long enough to settle Tay into her bed and steal a knife from the kitchen."
"So, this is the killer taking possession of the murder weapon?" I say.
"Ah, you've been away from sleuthing for too long, Andy. This is the killer, but I don't think she used your knife for the attack. Can you work out why?"
I'm puzzled, and I can see that Vinny wants to kick-start my brain by solving this question myself. I turn away from the others and close my eyes, reviewing what I know about the knife.
"I've got it!" I say after a few minutes of contemplation. "In order to implicate me as the perpetrator, the real killer had to preserve the fingerprints on my kitchen knife. It takes a lot of physical effort to murder two people with a knife; that effort would most certainly have smudged the fingerprints beyond recognition. Therefore, the killer used an identical knife for the murder and merely smeared my knife with their blood, of which there was plenty available — oh, and enough to write L-I-N-T using Foote's finger dipped in his own blood."
"Why identical?" Vinny coaxes me.
"So...so...so...the wounds would look they were inflicted by my
knife, as the police pathologist would conclude."
"Ergo, we are looking for..."
"Ergo!" Adalina says. "A Latin scholar at last!"
"Hands off!" Tay jokes. "He's mine."
"Ergo, we are looking for recent purchases, probably in the Colonia region, of a Miyaki chef's knife," I say triumphantly.
Vinny seems happy with my progress out of dormancy and rolls the next video.
"There aren't that many places you can buy exotic cutlery in Colonia. This is one of them, namely Restaurant Supply Services, on Bolden Enterprise in Tir."
We all watch as the hooded figure approaches the checkout.
"The killer," at least three of us say in unison.
"See what she's buying?" Vinny says, pausing the action and zooming in on the Miyaki packaging. "She pays using an untraceable cryptocurrency account, so we can't find her that way."
He plays the video forward.
"Stop!" I say suddenly. "Go back. I've seen something."
Vinny rewinds slowly until I ask him to freeze the screen.
"There, do you see it? Blonde hair escaping from the hood."
"Okay," Larsen says, "I'll feed that into Martinsson's trawl through the guests."
I review what we've covered so far of the evidence against me.
"I think that just leaves the fake message history which was supposed to provide my motive for killing Jensen Foote — and his new wife who would need to die to conceal the killer's identity."
"In some ways that was the easiest to do. Whoever planned this 'get-Linton' project only had to clone Foote's communicator — and possiblyy yours too, Andy — and then create the message history on a pair of burner communicators. It's Dirty Tricks 101. The killer took Foote's real communicator and left the burner for the police to find."
"Well," Detective Larsen says, standing up to leave. "I have a killer to find and you, Mr Linton, have to think long and hard about who might have gone to the great lengths they did to frame you for murder. Goodnight!"