FOOL noun \ˈfül\
1: a person of poor judgment
2: a person formerly kept in great households to provide casual entertainment, typically dressed in cap, bells, and bauble
3: a dessert of pureed fruit mixed with whipped cream or custard, served cold
It was Maria’s own mountain berry fool which would be destined to set things off this time. And how.
The most luxurious concoction of wild airberries, conanberries, and cheenas imaginable, all creamed together through some recipe she had adapted for the local flora. Because Maria was, like us, a settler. Much as I liked the idea of employing natives we had learnt the risks the hard way.
And now there it was, spread out over the white marble tiles of the entrance hall, which imitated the Kassilian style the first settlers from Earth found, like some amorphous scarlet creature from the deep. Thin spattered trails of red berry dessert led away from the point of impact, emphasizing the impetus with which it had hit the floor. Even the elegant white marble columns some feet away were flecked with dots of the stuff. The bowl that had slipped from my hands was only now coming to rest, clanging as it rolled, halfway to the heavy oak front door. The door through which my Emeline would be coming in no more than three hours, probably less.
With Maria eager to leave for the day I’d offered to help by carrying the fool down to the summerhouse by the lake where there was another coolzone in which it could set. In fact there was a whole kitchen there but, being the better equipped, Maria preferred to use the kitchen in the main house. And now look at it. A fool carried by a fool.
I had seen Emeline’s temper simmer several times but erupt only once before. I had spilled something petty, some red wine I think, on a white deerskin rug. She stared at it for a moment before exploding like a Fourth of July firecracker. I could see her anger furiously build, in the same way that you wait for the pain to strike when you stub a toe. I tried to calm her, to counsel the use of salt to remove the stain but she was a woman possessed. It was days before the eruption calmed to mere smoke and smolder.
Her anger was the one fault I could find in her. The only fault I knew I would ever find, no matter how long I spent looking. After all, just like my old Grandma said, if somebody were perfect then that would make them God. Whereas Emeline was merely a goddess. I was happy to settle for that.
The first time I met her I didn’t recognize her as a goddess. To me she was a potential suspect. And I was plain Deputy Whitty.
“You told the other officers that you last saw your husband on Saturday morning. Is that correct, Mrs Blaylock?”
“When he left to go walking. He enjoys walking. In the foothills to the north towards Sekota Mountain. He left in his airjeep.”
“I know. We found it.”
“Yes, I know.”
Hands on knees as she sat there, she was calm, very calm. Prescription drug calm it seemed to me, although she was adamant that she had not taken anything, nor had her doctor given her anything. We checked her online account as well: no suspicious purchases.
“Could you explain the statement of Mirs-Rez?”
“No. I have no idea why she said those things.”
Flat, toneless, but not quite monotone. She had thought about the questions, worked through the answers. It didn’t mean that she was lying, of course. In fact, I didn’t think she was. I know people. That’s how I do my job, by knowing people.
“She have a grudge against you? Not pay her enough? Settler-native issues?”
“I think we have been fair employers,” she said, flicking a thread shed by my blue trousers from the seat on which I sat. That seemed to be a far higher priority than her missing husband. She was looking forward to straightening the cushions after we left, I could tell.
“When my husband comes back that will prove that she is lying.”
“Yes,” I said. “That it will.”
I straightened a cushion for her as I stood up and her eyes met mine. It was an automatic action on my part, but also, somehow quite deliberate. I wanted her to know that I understood we were not just an intrusion, but were messing the place up just by being there. So what if I was a deputy in some hick town, stranded between spaceport, desert and mountain? Ten years ago, before leaving Earth, I was in with a shot of being Mister New Mexico. I wasn’t that different to her.
There was something in her look that I couldn’t figure out. Nor could I shake it out of my mind. But I knew she hadn’t killed her husband. I was as sure as I’d ever been of anything.
Back in my trailer I pulled open the mirrored doors of the cabinet in my bathroom. Staring out at me, in between the razor sat in a chipped enamel mug and the toothpaste tube with its caked cap, was the fresh clean brown plastic bottle with its computer printed label: Empathine, 500mg.
I cracked open the childproof cap and shook one pill into my palm. A single pill remained in the bottle, knocking around the bottom. Only one left, all the louder for its loneliness, but this Curtis Blaylock III situation was bugging me. I do my job by knowing people. End of. Was there something insurmountable about this situation, or was the Empathine losing its efficacy? Whatever it was, I needed a recharge.
I shook out the last pill as well and took a double dose, making a mental note to call Finch when I was done.
I dropped the blinds on the windows of my bedroom and reached under the bed to pull out the Feist McCubbin. It looked like a loose skullcap made up of hexagonal plates, a bobble in the middle of every one, each of which was joined to its neighbors at the corners by flexible data and power connectors. Slate grey and slightly shiny, it could have been some kind of prototype protective headwear or covert military equipment.
I plugged the Feist McCubbin in, arranged the cables so they wouldn’t snag, lay on the bed and switched it on. It made no noise, just delivered a sensation of warmth. Can you feel it? can you feel it now? Finch had asked when I first wore it. I had concentrated hard before I felt it the first time, but there it was. And now that same feeling was flooding over me again, quicker than ever, like floating away on a warm lagoon, the sun dazzling patterns through my eyelids.
Twenty minutes later I stared out of the window. Mrs Klugman went past being walked by her three android poodles. She’d been denied the right to take her pets off Earth with her and, not liking the native fauna, had android poodles made instead. Hard times resulted in her living in a trailer, but she kept the robot dogs. Go figure.
I followed her with my eyes. Normally after an Empathine and a burst of the Feist McCubbin I could tell what she was thinking. With two of the little blue pills inside me it was as if I could look through her eyes.
I picked up the communicator to Finch. As usual there were the pleasantries to go through with him, fixed steps like line-dancing at a wedding, before we got down to business. He made sure I learnt that he was between planets at the moment, but would be ‘passing through’ in the next few days. It was all about managing expectations.
“Mister Finch, I know who I am and I know what I am and I know what I’m not…” The cocktail of psychotrope and neural accelerator was making me gabble.
“Of course you do, son. That’s the power of the Empathine. It’s how you know people. It’s how you know yourself.”
“No, what I mean, Mister Finch, is that I know knowing people isn’t what I’m good at naturally. But I need to be for my job. I’ve got muscle, and I can use that, but modern law enforcement isn’t about muscle.”
Finch made his hawing noise, his way of hurrying me along.
“Thing is, I’m out of Empathine, but I was wondering if there was anything stronger?”
A good deal of background had already been gathered on Blaylock, the one advantage of dealing with somebody with a semblance of public profile. Some distant predecessor had started off on Earth with a paper mill just about the time that the human race had got it into their heads that a daily newspaper was a necessity, not a luxury. As generation begat generation they interested themselves in everything from bauxite to beef from Anchorage to Tierra del Fuego. Stocks were shared and dividends divided and eventually Curtis Blaylock III inherited a small but fair share of an enormous fortune.
Then he came here for the solitude and the sunsets, building Romney, a hacienda-style house with Kassilian flourishes, named after the mansion back home, massive and sprawling at the edge of the hinterland away from the flightpath of the space freighters. Emeline Valeska, variously described as entertainer, entrepreneur, or economic migrant, completed the picture when she agreed to become Mrs Blaylock.
And now, three years after their marriage, Curtis Blaylock III simply ups and disappears. His airjeep is found at his favorite hiking spot, minus Mr Blaylock, minus hiking gear. It’s big country out there. Things happen, even without human – or Kassilian – intervention.
What starts as a simple missing persons gets complicated when an assistant prosecutor starts to see shapes in the shadows that simply aren’t there.
The assistant prosecutor’s name was Kalber. We called him Small. “Screwy,” he barked. “It’s screwy.”
“He won’t be the first person to get lost or hurt and die out there. There are ravines, drops, all sort of places to have an accident. Hell, he could have just broken an ankle on a rock and be waiting for rescue.” I’d been walking the hinterland in the vicinity of Curtis Blaylock III’s airjeep with a pack of twenty volunteers for two days without success. “And he won’t be the last.”
“I don’t like it. Find something.”
Kalber was wrong. I know people. I make it my business to know people. That’s how police business is conducted around here. You know when people are lying and when they’re telling the truth and when they’re grasping at straws. Mrs Blaylock was telling the truth. And Kalber was grasping at straws.
I told him so.
His eyes narrowed on me. “You know what you sound like? You sound like one of those people who use those enhancerides. Make me more attractive, make me more intelligent, make me more special. Twenty years ago back on Earth everybody was happy with who they were. Now everybody wants to be someone else.”
“Hooey,” the Sheriff spat. “Nobody’s ever been happy with who they are. Couldn’t ever do anything about it before is all. That’s why all the kids are hooked on those Feist McCubbin devices. For every one we seize another ten get sold. Most are fake and the ones that aren’t are just plain dangerous. The fortunate ones are just taking placebos, the unfortunate…”
“Some planets are beginning to legalize them,” I said. “That would be the progressive thing to do.”
“Like I said,” Kalber said, “you’re sounding like an addict.”
At first we’re assured that the only witness to any of Curtis Blaylock’s actions that day is Mrs Blaylock herself. None of the staff, a cook and a housemaid, both natives, are at the house. There are no witnesses to his aircar speeding from Romney to the foothills. But then her native maid came forward.
I have to admit that Mirs-Rez’s testimony shook me. A scared mouse of a creature she had waited three days before volunteering a statement. On her day off she had, allegedly, returned to collect a pair of gloves – it was odd how natives had begun to adopt old settler customs and habits – that she had left in the kitchen. I stood at the back of the room whilst Kalber asked her questions about what she had glimpsed, about Mrs Blaylock killing her husband in the hallway of Romney.
“Mirs-Rez, exactly what did Mrs Blaylock hit Mr Blaylock with?”
“A Venus. A statue of Venus. I know what it is. I dust it three times a week.”
“Let me get this straight. Mrs Blaylock hit Mr Blaylock with a statue of a planet?” Yep, that was why we called him Small Kalber.
Mirs-Rez swore on the Bible and on her children’s lives, figuratively at least, that Mrs Blaylock had left a bloodstain on those big white tiles. She said the blood oozed as Curtis Blaylock III slumped in her arms. So we went back to the house and sprayed the entrance hall, the place where Mr Blaylock was supposed to have been bludgeoned by a goddess, with luminol. In use for nearly two hundred years it still did the job, up to a point and within the limited budget of the sheriff’s office. We sprayed the huge white marble tiles, the white pillars, the white walls. If there were the remains of a big pool of blood it would have showed up as a big blue glow in the dark, we would have seen it.
We weren’t surprised. Blood soaks into the grain of the stone. You can wash and scrub and rinse and bleach all you like. But some semblance will always remain. Mirs-Rez was lying. Maybe she was carried away with the baroque image that she had painted in her mind of Mr Blaylock swooning in his wife’s arms or maybe it was some fevered way of the servant taking it out on the master. But what I do know is that I know people and I know when they’re lying and Mirs-Rez was lying.
I tried to keep the Sheriff focused on finding the not-yet-dead Mr Blaylock out in the hinterland and, whilst I was at it, I also did some traditional detective work that was guaranteed to finish Kalber’s day. I tossed a thin manila folder on to the desk in front of him and the Sheriff.
“What is this?” Kalber asked.
“Only what the defense will take twenty-four hours to find out. She’s an illegal. The Blaylocks thought she had the necessary anti-virals and infection mitigations but all she had were faked papers. They never counter checked; it was their responsibility. They just took her in on trust.”
Kalber waved a hand over the charge sheets. “This is all petty stuff. And it’s the Blaylocks who are liable.” But I could hear defeat in his voice.
“Okay,” the Sheriff intervened, trying to reduce the temperature by a degree or two. “We’re all trying to find a body. You,” and at that he stabbed a pudgy finger at me, “think he’s alive. And you,” at Kalber, “think he’s dead. Either way, he’s out there. Whatever state he’s in, let’s concentrate on finding Curtis Blaylock III.”
As I left Kalber called after me, “You know what I found out? All of Blaylock’s wealth was in his name. His wife had none of it. Not a cent. Unless she inherited.”
“Let’s just find the man,” I heard the Sheriff wearily say.
But we never did. We’d had twenty, thirty men, dogs, infrared, the works. We also had Kalber rolling his eyes at the sight of Mrs Blaylock watching the proceedings with what I admit was an eerie calm. Once a finger went to her mouth, nail gently pulled at with her teeth. A show of concern. It sort of reassured me.
I explained to Mrs Blaylock that I’d make sure that no charges would be leveled at her over the employment of Mirs-Rez. At first she couldn’t hide her anger that the risk of infection had been all on her and her husband’s side. But then I pointed out the responsibilities placed on human settlers to prevent the mass infection of colonizers and she calmed down. It wasn’t much of a promise; despite Kalber’s belief that she had killed her husband even he wouldn’t have pursued a grieving widow over this side issue.
A couple of months later she probably read too much into Kalber effectively removing me from the force. She thought that I’d made her some kind of personal cause célèbre. We’d had enough run-ins and differences of opinion, Kalber and me, and the Sheriff was getting bored of standing in the middle.
The next time I saw Mrs Blaylock was, of all places, in the spaceport Macy’s. It was part of a mall set out to remind you of Earth, an aim in which it succeeded depressingly well. She was having an argument with the retail representative – at least, that’s what it said on Kerri-Ann’s name badge – about bedding.
I stepped across. “I know this lady, can I help?”
Kerri-Ann looked blankly at me.
Mrs Blaylock filled in the gap. “He’s an officer of the law.”
I just smiled. It’s often enough when you put it on top of being the former almost Mister New Mexico.
“This lady said she was returning these. But they look as though they’ve just been taken off the shelves.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t have a receipt.”
“I can vouch for this lady. I’m a law enforcement officer.” A lie, but only a little one.
I could see in Kerri-Ann’s face that she was crumbling. Her eyes were trying to avoid the sight of the line of people who had built up behind Mrs Blaylock.
“Do you have the card you paid with?”
“I paid cash,” Mrs Blaylock replied flatly.
A hand hovered above the till. Who still used cash in 2172?
“I know this woman. She wouldn’t lie.”
Signatures were quickly scribbled and Mrs Blaylock walked away with a couple of thousand dollars.
“Thank you,” she said. “That was getting difficult.”
“How about buying me a coffee?” I said without quite knowing why.
Which is how we came to spend the afternoon in Hackensackers, apparently known for their ‘Galaxy Famous Hamburgers’, although I have to be truthful and say that my old Grandma’s back in New Mexico were better.
We talked about how we both came to be off-world, what we liked most and least about it, and our plans for the future. Except she mainly let me do the last of those, even though I didn’t have much to talk about.
“But you were Mister New Mexico,” she said at one point.
“I came second. Which is nowhere.”
I flexed a bicep at her. Her features, which could be sharp, angular, and unflattering, softened when I did that.
“I think I could do something with you,” she said.
Lying there next to her that evening, with her soft body nestled in the crook of my arm, I couldn’t work out whether what I was doing was inappropriate. We were both adults, but then I was a former officer of the law, and until the sun bleached remains of Curtis Blaylock III made themselves known…
But somehow I found myself making excuses to myself to see Mrs Blaylock. And she wasn’t making excuses not to see me.
Three months later I moved in with her. It did sting my pride a bit, but she had Romney and I had a trailer. The only secret I kept from her was the Feist McCubbin that I kept wrapped up underneath my shirts and the bottles of Quathilode, Finch’s recommendation, that sat with them. If I were to make this relationship work then I knew that I had to be attuned to my Emeline’s wants and needs.
And then we found we were in love. A love only ruffled by her incredible, volcanic temper. A temper the like of which I had yet to see.
I stood and stared at the vermillion slick that sat there before me. I was, to be honest, paralyzed with fear. This was like the spilt wine magnified manifold times. My mind raced, finding no potential solution to grasp at. I could imagine her striding in through the door, stopping, surveying, taking in the horror of it. The horror. The horror…
And then it came to me. It was a desperate solution but, if it worked, Emeline would never need know.
First, to scrape up the remains of the fool and carefully wipe it all off, including all the spattered spits and spots, taking care not to wipe fool across on to an otherwise unsullied tile.
I ransacked the kitchen for cloths and buckets and mops, making almost as much mess there in my haste to draw water and find chemicals. But, within a matter of minutes, I had accomplished this easier part of the plan; the fool itself was gone and the only sign that anything had been other than sweetness and light was a single large pinky-grey stain, the tendrils of its impact spread over half a dozen tiles.
The second and final part of the plan – of course, if I had been thinking entirely straight I would have realized that there was an additional element: concocting a story to explain the lack of Maria’s mountain berry fool! – was altogether more difficult. For this I needed something thin yet strong…
Like a good knife.
I careered back to the kitchen and found half a dozen of the most sturdy-looking knives that I could find. Thin as razors, too. Kassilian steel.
But, even so, the first knife was simply too thick for the task, no matter how much I tried to force it into the crack between the tiles. The second, after a some effort, slid down between the marble slabs but, as soon as I tried to apply any leverage at all, snapped with a ching!, spinning, echoing across the floor.
The third, like the first, was simply too fat, but the fourth and fifth knives slipped into place. I had decided to get as many knives between the marble slabs as possible before trying to lever the first incriminating one out. And, with a push, the sixth knife slotted into place too.
I now had three knives, lined up in perfect Indian file, stuck into the floor. Gingerly I pulled them all back in unison. I could feel the metal knives straining, flexing, beginning to bend. But the marble slab was stuck fast.
I sat back, glowering, and stared at the statue of Venus staring into the middle distance. It had just been vain hope that made me think that, perhaps, the marble tiles were not actually physically cemented to the floor underneath. That craftsmanship, when it came to the construction of such floors, should dictate that marble tiles should be laid so that they sat just so. That they could be spun over and re-laid, showing a perfectly clean face to the world.
I gave it one more shot. I pushed forward on the knives, in case I could edge the tile forward an iota, break whatever seal held it down. And then I pulled back applying more and more pressure even as I felt the metal heave and gasp.
Kinck! Another knife was sent spinning away, bouncing off a marble pillar into the shadows. I fell back slapping the floor, conceding defeat, resigning myself to the typhoon of Emeline’s fury.
And then I saw it. The marble tile had given a fraction of an inch, an edge now visible above the otherwise mirror flat surface. I went back to the two remaining knives using them to lever the tile further out. There was another creak, a groan. But this time it was of marble scraping against marble. And with that the tile sprang out.
With due reverence I lifted it out of the floor, revealing a compacted layer of thin grey sand underneath. Smoothing out the marks which the removal of the tile had made I checked my watch. I had just less than two hours to get the remaining stained tiles out, flipped over, and then put back into place again, pearly white. It was possible. Just.
The marble tile was large, but thin, moveable with some effort. Probably eminently breakable too. Gingerly I flipped the tile over to confirm that it was, indeed, as smooth on its underside as it was on its face…
…and froze at the sight of the old black bloodstain that covered it as I heard Emeline’s aircar approach.
by Robert Bagnall