Bewildering Stories

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part 3

by Wallace W. Cass, Jr.

“Vessel” began in issue 106.
Part 2 appeared in issue 107.

It didn’t take him long to hail a taxi and get over to the Industrial District. Everything in the I.D. was either painted grey or covered in fine grey soot from the industrial fabricators, despite the operation of vast environment control systems. The colorfully creative buildings of the Commercial District gave up ground in favor of squat Quonset huts, broad warehouses, and the large blocky fabricators that vomited materials and goods for the city’s use. Why couldn’t she hide out in the Hydroponics Section?

He paid the cabbie and got out a block from the Flat Trap Cafe. Located on the border between the blue signage of the Commercial District and the yellow of the Industrial, the cafe was an oddity. A converted Nissen hut, the building’s sloping sides were painted in red and white, giving it the appearance of a squashed barber pole. Gaily painted umbrellas festooned the tables outside to entice passersby to embrace the illusion of shelter from rain that would never fall. He didn’t see anyone in front of the place as he walked up the sidewalk. It stood to reason that if his ex-partner was on the run that she wouldn’t make herself too visible. His hand inched to his gun belt as the little hairs on the back of his neck began to rise. He was being watched, but he couldn’t tell from where.

“You got a light, Mister?” An old man dressed in a tan trench coat and a wide brimmed hat asked him, tapping battered silver lighter in a leathered hand. “Mine’s out of fuel.”

“Sorry, I don’t smoke.” Parker said, looking around to catch Dawes’ approach. “The Day Shift should be coming on soon. You could ask them.”

“You waiting for someone?”

Parker turned and looked down at him. “If you must know, yes. I was supposed to meet someone here this morning.”

The old man looked up at him with twinkling blue eyes. “I’m sure your friend is nearby. They probably didn’t want you to be disturbed.”

Parker fished around in his pockets and pulled out a small book of matches. “Here, take them and go, please. I don’t have the time for small talk.”

The old man took the matches. “Really, John, you’re getting grumpier as the years go by. Perhaps a vacation is in order?”

Parker’s eyes widened as the weathered face of his companion dissolved to reveal the round smooth face of Madelyne Dawes. “How the...?”

Dawes pulled her hat down lower. “I’ll explain all of this later. For now, just get me out of here.”

Parker hailed a passing taxi. The vehicle slowed and pulled up to the curb. When it stopped, he opened the door. His nostrils twitched as he smelled something familiar, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Something sweet, but nothing he normally smelled here on Earth. “Dawes, get in before something goes wrong. I have a bad feeling.” He pushed her into the cab and was about to step in when he felt something knock him backward. A small hole appeared in the fabric of his jacket as he heard Dawes shout and the vehicle speed off into the distance. His vision blurred as he fumbled his phone out of a pocket. “Send an ambulance to the Flat Trap Cafe. Officer down.” The phone slipped out of his hand as he lost consciousness.

He awoke to see a pretty blond nurse hovering over him. He was lying in the outpatient medical ward, his shoulder swathed in a quick healing cuff. “How bad did I get hit?”

“You’ll be fine, Inspector Parker,” She replied, smiling, “Your body armor absorbed most of the impact. Your ribs may be tender for a few days, but you should make a complete recovery. We’ve notified your office and your captain wants you to call him back as soon as you are able. It’s strange that we couldn’t find a bullet.”

Parker nodded and pulled himself out of bed. “Because I wasn’t shot with a bullet.” He grabbed his jacket and fingered the hole in the front. “Someone was waiting for me where I was with a directed energy sniper rifle.” He frowned. “I knew better than to walk into such an obvious setup.” He picked up his phone and dialed Captain Grant. “Captain? It’s Parker. Yes, she contacted me and wanted to turn herself in. I don’t have a choice now, I’m in. She set me up and I mean to get her for it. I’ll be down at the office shortly.” He closed his phone and tucked it away. “Thank you, Nurse.”

Grant met him at the office with a scowl. The Captain’s usual black suit looked slept in and there was grayer in the older man’s brown hair. “Damn it, John, I can’t afford to have my officers going off half-cocked on hunches that could get them killed. It’s bad enough that I have the Sristi Ambassador breathing down my neck over losing Dawes. What the hell were you thinking?”

“She called me, Captain.” Parker replied. “She said someone was out to get her and she wanted to turn herself in to me in exchange for her safety. It seemed simple enough.”

“For terrorists, it never is.” Grant said. His scowl faded. “John, you don’t have to do this after all. Considering your history with Dawes, maybe it would be better if I put someone else on the case.”

Parker shook his head. “My history with Dawes makes me perfect for tracking her down. When she had me shot, she made it personal. I won’t rest until she’s back in custody.”

Grant gestured to a nearby conference room. “Let’s finish this in private. There’s lots you need to know.”

Parker followed him into the conference room and took a seat at the long table. “Okay, Captain, what’s up?”

Grant loosened his tie after closing the wooden conference room door. “John, here’s the score. Madelyne Dawes was charged and convicted in absentia this morning on two counts of terrorism against Sristi nationals. Since we’ve managed to lose her, the Sristi are sending one of their people to assist in Dawes’ apprehension. Your job is to bring her in using every legal means at your disposal. I don’t want a replay of what happened on Star Station Beta last year.”

“Damn it, Captain, I don’t need another partner to slow me down.”

“Tough, you’re getting one and will like it.” Grant said. “John, the Sristi are watching this case very closely and if we don’t extend every courtesy to their representative, it’s going to look bad for us.”

Parker squirmed in his seat. “Reverse the circumstances and we’d be up a hyperspace conduit without a transtator. For three years, I had to fight the Sristi Assemblage for every scrap of information I needed and now I’m supposed to take them in hand?”

“I do not require your hand-holding.” The conference room door opened and in walked the tallest Sristi that Parker had ever seen. The alien topped six foot three easily and draped his thin body with a one-piece uniform the color of blood. If his skin color was less yellow in color and he had some hair, the Sristi could pass as a human in need of a good meal. He bowed to Grant and Parker. “Gentlemen, I am Security Officer Qezbek. I have been assigned to assist you in the capture of the escaped terrorist, Dawes.”

“Have a seat, Officer.” Grant said, gesturing to an empty seat across from Parker. “I was just briefing Inspector Parker on the particulars of the case.”

Qezbek glided over to his seat and sat without a word. He eyed the white sand in the table’s ashtray before pushing it away. “I apologize for my tardiness. Please continue, Captain.”

“Very well.” Grant cleared his throat before pressing a button on the table’s control panel. A large holographic sphere appeared over the table with a 3D map of New Jacksonville inside it. He pressed another button, overlaying a string of white light dots on it. “We tracked Dawes’ locator implant to the middle of Nullsville before we lost it. There’s every reason to believe that she either contacted someone there to turn it off or she’s headed for the old surface entrance.”

“If she’s going there, then she might have the access codes to break the seal.” Parker said. “If she gets outside, then she could elude us for a very long time.”

Grant nodded. “That’s why we need to bring her in as soon as possible. John, you and Officer Qezbek will track her down and bring her back as soon as possible.” He handed Parker and Qezbek data pads. “These just came in from Sristi this morning.”

Parker read his data pad. “You’ve got to be kidding me, Captain.” He set the device on the table and gave it a small push. “Dawes was many things, but I have a hard time believing that she’s been leading a terrorist cell. It makes no sense.”

Qezbek looked up from his data pad. “With all due respect, Captain, I don’t believe that Inspector Parker would be an appropriate choice on this case. His relationship with Madelyne Dawes is well documented and could present a potential conflict of interest.”

Parker stood. “Hold on one damn minute! If you think you can just waltz in here and...”

Qezbek focused his gaze on Parker with dispassionate irisless red eyes. “I do not dance, Mr. Parker, I merely state the facts as I observe them. Your record to date is exemplary, but when it comes to your former partner, you lack an adequate degree of emotional detachment.”

“All right, that enough from both of you.” Grant said. “Find a way to work together.”

Parker swallowed his anger and nodded. “Agreed. I suppose that our first priority should be to try and pick up Dawes’ trail from where we lost her locator signal.”

“We should also put together a list of Dawes’ known associates and question them.” Qezbek suggested. “We are starting, how you say, behind the eight poles?”

Parker fought back a smirk. “That’s behind the eight ball.”

Grant stood. “Halloway’s your contact on this case, Gentlemen. If the information is out there, she’ll be the one to dig it up for you. Now, get going.”

Qezbek stopped Parker after Grant had left. “Inspector Parker, do not presume to judge me harshly. I did not ask to come to Earth, I was ordered as you are. I suggest that we do as Captain Grant instructed and try to work together. Do you agree?”

Parker raised his right hand, and then stopped. “I almost forgot that you guys don’t shake hands.” He said. “My apologies.”

Qezbek’s thin lips quivered slightly. “That’s okay, Parker, you’re only human.”

Parker did a double-take. “That was practically a joke. There’s more to you Sristi than meets the eye. Our first stop is to see Halloway. If I know her, she’s probably already ferreted out some leads. Come on.”

To the untrained eye, Michelle Halloway’s cubicle appeared a disorganized mess. However, as Parker and Qezbek watched her wade through the pile of data disks, knickknacks, and other assorted items, they became aware that she knew where everything in her domain was located. She rustled around under her desk for several minutes before emerging with a small crystal. “I figured out how Dawes managed to turn off her locator.” She looked up at Qezbek. “Oh, hello.” She turned to Parker. “New partner?”

“Temporarily.” Parker said. “What have you got for me... er... us?”

Halloway grinned and inserted the crystal into a receptacle next to her monitor. A window opened up on her monitor. “This is Sristium 134.” She explained. “Pretty harmless to organics, but it can play hell with the synthetic radium we use in the locators. My guess is that one of the Glitches, probably Morrissey, though I couldn’t prove it to save my life, gave her a spritz of Sristium.”

“Where would Morrissey get his hands on Sristium?” Parker asked. “That stuff’s not exactly an over-the-counter item.”

Halloway looked up at him. “But not exactly illegal. Heck, my sister’s kid played with some of the stuff in his High School science class. There’s only one known source of Sristium.” She looked at Qezbek. “The Sristi use it as a catalyst in their mining equipment.” She began typing on her keyboard. “I’ll run a check on recent thefts among the coastal mining sites.”

“Where is this Morrissey located?” Qezbek asked. “He would be a logical first choice to question.”

Parker nodded. “I agree. If we’re at all lucky, we might find Dawes still there. With her locator turned off, she might slow down long enough for us to catch her. Hell, we don’t have anything else to go on but luck anyway.”

Qezbek nodded and checked his sidearm, a small silver tube with three bumps on the rear end. “I am ready when you are, Parker.”

Parker stared at the Sristi’s weapon, and then looked over his own ugly black plasma pistol. “Halloway, stay on the link to us. If you pick up anything, we want to be the first to know.” He looked around her desk. “You have your qualifications sheet handy?”

She nodded. “Yes, but I thought you wanted to wait?”

“Give it to me before I change my mind.” When he had the little booklet in his hand, Parker opened a page and signed his name. “Consider this a down payment on a future favor, Michelle. I’ll help you through the rest of it later.”

Halloway smiled. “Morrissey used to have a place down at Section Beta-12 in Nullsville. Thanks, John; I’ll keep a channel open.” She put on a set of virtual reality goggles. “See you in Cyberspace.”

“It figures.” Parker said. “Beta-12 is on the far side of Nullsville.” He paused. “The municipal police don’t even like to go there if they can help it.” He turned to ask Halloway a question, but the twinkling lights on her goggles stopped him. He shrugged and turned back to Qezbek. “Let’s go.”

Parker stepped out of the cab and his nostrils were assailed by that same smell he picked up when he last met Dawes at the Flat Trap Cafe. Why is that smell so familiar? He thought to himself as Qezbek came around behind the taxi and met him on the sidewalk. “Do you smell that?”

Qezbek tilted his head upward. “My nose is detecting a number of aromas. You will have to be more specific.”

“I would if I could.” Parker shook his head. “I’ve smelled that before, but I can’t remember where.” He looked up at a street marker. “Section Beta-12.” He slipped on a small headset with a microphone and eyepiece. “Halloway, you online?”

“I’m here, John.” Halloway said. “I see Beta-12 still is as pretty as ever. The last location we have for Morrissey is one block west of your position. Proceed with caution, John.”

“We’re on our way.” Parker nodded to their left. “This way, Qezbek.”

To be continued...

Copyright © 2004 by Wallace W. Cass, Jr.

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