by Karl Bunker
The body was desiccated. So dried out and shriveled it looked almost like an empty skin. It was partially sunken into the sand, adding to the illusion of flatness, as if even the bones had evaporated.
“She was found one day ago,” the squirrel said. “Thirty one hours.”
I hadn’t been sure that it was the body of a woman. Now I knew.
“The condition of her remains indicates she has been dead six local days.”
I looked at the squirrel. He was fidgeting with his fore-gloves, passing them from one paw-like hand to the other. He was chest-high to me–tall for a squirrel–and I wondered if he was one I’d dealt with before. But of course there’s no telling; squirrels look too much alike and they never use names, at least when they’re talking to humans.
“Only six days?” I asked.
“This desert is very hot and dry. Her body was modified to protect her from the environment, of course, but no one can live without water.” He tucked the fore-gloves into his belt.
“No, no one can live without water,” I said. I took off one of my own gloves, holding my bare hand up to the wind. It was almost painfully hot, and sharp with grit. Something about the sting on my skin made me think the air must be thick with salt and alkaline dust.
“There was no vehicle in the vicinity,” he said, “but she could not have come to this place on foot.”
“So she was left here,” I said. “Can you determine if she was already dead, or if she died of exposure?”
“The investigation is yours,” he said. This was the usual squirrel brush-off; their way of telling me I’d gotten all the help from them and their technology I was going to get.
He started fidgeting again, clicking his claws together. “This is a tragic death. Her name was Mary Dumas. She was one of your finest singers. It is a great loss.” His ears pivoted toward me the way a squirrel’s do when they ask a question. “Do you agree it is a tragic death?”
I almost laughed. It was such a typical squirrel question. “Yes,” I said. “I agree it is a tragic death.”
I squatted beside the body. She was wearing shorts, a loose blouse and sandals. The body modifications he had mentioned let her do without the head-to-toe environment suit that was protecting me from the heat, the dust, and probably from blistering ultraviolet. I ran my hands over the ruin of a body, and it didn’t take long to find something interesting. Her fifth, sixth and seventh left ribs were broken, caving in part of her chest. I lifted her blouse. The broken end of one rib had pierced the thin, leathery skin, but there was no dried blood on her skin or blouse. A human foot might have done that, after she was dead.
I examined the body some more, but didn’t find anything else. No other injuries I could see, her clothes had no pockets, no handbag was near her body, she wore no jewelry. I stood up.
“I will take you to the town where she lived,” the squirrel said. We climbed into the little flier that had brought us down from orbit.
We skimmed over the ground at low altitude. The sky was a crystalline cloudless blue and the landscape was nothing but endless yellow dunes. After a few minutes a patch of green appeared on the horizon. As we got closer it resolved into a large oasis, dozens of kilometers across, I guessed, and filled with trees that formed a patchwork canopy. Under this was the green of more vegetation, and dotted here and there were the low domed buildings of a squirrel town. As I watched, two little orbital fliers like the one that carried me came in and disappeared among the greenery and buildings. And to one side, near the rest of the town but not a part of it, was the human quarter: twenty or forty houses, square and rectangular with flat roofs.
My companion landed the flier about a hundred meters from the human quarter. We got out and walked, he putting on his fore-gloves and following behind me on all fours. As I got closer I saw something I hadn’t noticed before: a slender four-sided tower rising to twice the height of the other human buildings. Good. A church would be a good place to start.
The man’s face was like old leather; an unpleasant reminder of the corpse I’d just left in the desert. He stood at door to the church, watching us approach. He wore black pants and a black clerical shirt with a tabbed collar. His eyes were closed to slits and I think he was smiling, but it could have been a grimace. “Greetings,” he said when I got close. He opened the door and stood aside for us to enter. Past the inner door of the airlock I took off my gloves, unzipped the faceplate to my hood, opened my jacket, turned off the suit’s systems. The air smelled of nothing, like the processed environment-system air on every squirrel planet I’d been on. “Charles Soderman,” he said, shaking my hand.
“Harry Keaveny,” I said. Like his face, his hand was wrinkled and dry. It looked painfully sunburned too. “You don’t have any modifications, do you?”
“No,” his eyes widened for a moment, and I could see they were bright blue. “I prefer to make do with the body God gave me.” He smiled again. “I have an environment suit, of course,” he gestured at my suit with two fingers, “but I find it rather a bother.”
He glanced at my squirrel companion, then looked at me. “What can I do for you?” he asked. Would you like to worship?” Again he pointed with two fingers, this time at the pews behind him.
“I’d like to ask if you knew Mary Dumas,” I said. “She’s dead, and she came from this town.”
I couldn’t begin to guess Soderman’s age. Under that weather-blasted skin he could be 35 or 65. But as I stood there I watched him get older. His face didn’t move, but his body shrank, sagging down on his bones. I waited while he was silent for a long time. Then: “Yes, I knew her.”
We sat on one of the pews. “She was a member of our choral group here,” he said. “A beautiful voice, a wonderful talent.” He lifted his head to look at me. “What happened? Who are you? –I mean, excuse me, but what is your involvement here? Was there an accident?” His eyes flicked over to the squirrel again, but he knew any answers would be coming from me.
“I used to be a police detective,” I said. “The squirrels have me investigate crimes for them. Human crimes, that is. Murder, mostly.”
“I see,” he said slowly. “Are you sure this was murder?”
“She was taken out into the desert, probably on a stolen squirrel flier. She was left there to die, and after she was dead her killer came back to make sure she was dead and kicked her body hard enough to break three ribs.”
He didn’t react much to that. People who have been through the Crash aren’t shocked by violence too easily.
He invited me back to his rectory. He gave me water, some biscuits, coffee. “It’s very good coffee,” he said, unnecessarily. Everything the squirrels give us is very good; an atom-for-atom copy of the real thing.
“Dumas sang with your church choir?” I asked.
“Yes, but it’s just a small choral group. Five singers only, with no instrumental accompaniment. We have some talented performers here, but Mary was far and away the star of our group. A soprano, though she could sing alto as well, but we already had Susan and Flora…” His voice trailed off, then started up again. “She came here some time ago–perhaps a year or more. She came to a service and heard the choral group, then asked to audition. We discovered she had this wonderful talent, truly wonderful…” He faded out again.
“Who do you think killed her?” I said.
He glared at me for a moment–just a moment. “I don’t know of anyone who held ill feelings toward her. If she had any intimate relationships in her time here, she didn’t inform me of them.” He looked away from me focusing on nothing. “She wasn’t the type to make friends easily,” he said.
“About how many humans are in this settlement?” I asked.
“My guess is roughly one hundred. We don’t have any real government here, so there’s no census, no records of arrivals, departures, births, deaths.”
“Of course,” I said. The whole statement was bizarre. No human settlement had any form of government, nor are any babies born, and death is almost unknown, since squirrel-supplied body modifications prevent disease and aging. I wondered if Soderman was always in a state of denial about these facts, or if he was just foggy from shock over Dumas’ death.
“I expect you’ll be having a memorial service for Dumas,” I said. “Can you give me a list of the people you think might attend?”
One of the names on Reverend Soderman’s list was Allison Bolt. She ran a little bar, so that sounded like a nice place to go next. The paths between the houses were covered with something that looked like crushed seashells. Did this planet have oceans as well as desert? Or did it have oceans at one time? I hadn’t seen any birds or insects or animal life; was it all extinct, or did it never exist? A lot of questions I’d never know the answers to, like every other squirrel world I’d been on.
A carved sign reading “Nix Place” hung over the door to a two-story building with a big picture window. I walked through the airlock and my squirrel companion waited behind. He’d follow me in after a minute or two, so as to be less conspicuous. There were eight people in the place, including the woman behind the bar. Some of them gave me a pretty thorough looking over when I walked in, others just a quick glance. The woman behind the bar was in the “thorough” group, but hers was an up-and-down look that said she liked what she was looking at. I returned the compliment. She had a curly mop of blonde hair, was a little on the short side but too generously filled out to be called petite. The blouse she had on was really more of a vest. A couple of buttons were holding it closed; a difficult job that most likely no one had ever thanked them for. I had a feeling she was wearing shorts, but the counter of the bar was in the way and I couldn’t see.
When I got to the bar she was waiting for me. “Hello,” she said with a smile.
I remembered why I was there, and I stood staring at her. She waited, and when it got to be a long wait she tipped her head to one side, the way a puzzled dog does. She was still smiling.
“Allison Bolt?” I asked.
Her head straightened up and she took a tiny step backwards. “Yes?” She had thin lips, a short, concave nose and round eyes. It was the kind of face people call ‘guileless’; a face that was probably always giving away more than she intended it to. Right now it looked surprised, tense, suspicious.
Fuck it, I thought, and said, “Do you serve food here?”
“We’ve got a food-synth with a decent selection and a chef who cooks whatever she feels like. How’d you know my name?”
“Reverend Soderman,” I said. “The squirrels just dropped me off. I stopped at the church for a bit, we talked about some stuff and he mentioned this place. I thought I’d come over for a drink, but now that I’m here I’m hungry.” I gave her the least cop-like smile I could manage. “My name’s Harry,” I added. “Harry Keaveny.”
That seemed to satisfy her. “The chef has been experimenting with risottos lately,” she said.
I sat on a stool and had some damn fine risotto with a good synthesized Cotes du Rhone.
“What brings you to this overheated ball of dust?” Allison asked. “What’s your ticket?”
“Agh, nothing interesting,” I said with a little smile that I didn’t feel. “What about you? Besides running this place, I mean.”
She nodded in the direction of a grand piano that filled one corner of the room. “At night I play and sing old torch songs. That’s when the squirrels show up. They love it.”
“They sure do like music, don’t they?” On the wall behind the piano was a full-length portrait of Allison, wearing a white gown that showed a lot of cleavage but no leg. She was holding an old fashioned microphone in one hand. “Who’s the artist?” I asked.
“An artist,” she shrugged. “Jim Gonzales.” She looked past my shoulder at a table against the far wall. “That’s him there.”
I used the mirror behind the bar to look without turning around. There were a man and a woman at the table. The man was big and muscular, and he liked being that way. He took up more space than he had to; he sat far back in his chair, the palm of his left hand on his thigh so his elbow stuck out. His right arm was out straight and resting on the table in front of him, his hand near a drink. He looked to be in his early twenties, but of course that doesn’t mean anything with squirrel modifications.
Jim Gonzales was one of the names on Reverend Soderman’s list. He’d said that Mary Dumas had been one of Gonzales’ favorite models, “so naturally they spent a lot of time together.” Naturally. As I was looking, the woman with Gonzales said something to him and left. I picked up my wine glass and went to his table.
When I asked him if I could sit, Gonzales extended the fingers of his right hand so they pointed at the empty chair across from him. No other part of his body moved. His nose was straight and thin and he had too much shiny black hair. I sat down.
“My name is Harry Keaveny,” I said. I snuck a glance at the bar; Allison had moved off and was out of earshot. “I used to be a police detective. The squirrels have asked me to investigate a crime. Mary Dumas has been murdered.”
Still he barely moved. His eyes focused sharply on me, and slowly a questioning expression came to his face. I thought he was going to ask me to repeat myself, but he didn’t speak. He picked up his drink and emptied the glass. Then he stood up, walked to the airlock door and left.
As I was leaving to follow Gonzales, Reverend Soderman came in. He said a quick hello to me as I was zipping up the faceplate to my suit, then he headed toward the bar where Allison was watching him approach. So he would tell her that Mary Dumas was murdered, and that I was a cop. Fine, I thought. Fuck it, I thought.
It was still blazing daylight out. My body was telling me it should be getting dark, but the bloated yellow sun of this planet had other ideas. By the time I caught up with Gonzales I was puffing into my suit. “Hi,” he said when he saw me. “If you’re looking for a suspect, I’m a good one. I fucked her a few times, got stuck on her, and she dumped me. She was a mean bitch.”
We walked for a while. He pushed his hands into his shorts pockets and stared at the ground. Soon he stopped at a doorway and turned to look at me. He was squinting, but I don’t think the light bothered his modified eyes.
“Do you have any of your paintings of her?” I asked. “I’d like to see them.”
“Yeah,” he said. “In here.”
The squirrels pick and choose. When they first came to Earth, the Crash was in full flower. Most of Africa was a lifeless desert; China and Russia were dead from nuclear war, disease and famine. The Middle East was nuked into oblivion, Europe was starving, South America was drowning in Bleeding Fever. In the States we were dying a little more slowly, but we were dying. Fever in the south, flooding on the coasts, fallout from where Chicago and Washington used to be, and everywhere famine and riots and mini civil wars.
And then the squirrels appeared. Nothing formal or officious; no radio contact, no message broadcast to the peoples of the world, no take-me-to-your-leader. Just their little fliers buzzing around, landing here and there, then taking off again. When they landed, it was always in a place where things were quiet. The kind of quiet that comes when there’s nothing left to do but wait to die. The villages of skeletal adults and swollen-bellied children. The radioactive ruins. The refugee camps that were no refuge from anything, least of all death. The battlefields littered with forgotten wounded. The cities that had burned and burned until there was nothing left to burn.
The squirrel aliens came to places like these in their little ships. They would land, talk to one person, always only one person, and take off a few minutes later, usually with that person as passenger. The story went that they said only one thing to that person: “Would you like to leave this place?” or something to that effect. Few refused, few asked questions. They would get into the little craft with the squirrel and leave. Gone.
We didn’t realize it at first, but the squirrels pick and choose. They didn’t offer a ride to just anyone. You had to be a person who did something they found interesting. Musicians, artists, craftsmen, a few other things might get you a ticket. Politicians didn’t interest them. Accountants, scientists, garbage collectors, schoolteachers: no dice. Clergy and various other religious folk, in. Doctors, out. Police detectives were in, apparently. At least one of them.
The squirrels pick and choose. The artists they took away were good artists; the musicians were good musicians. Not the most famous, maybe not the very best in the world, but damn good. Gonzales was a good artist. In his sketch paintings especially he had a confidence with his brush and a way of snapping in detail with a palette knife that spoke of many years of experience. I wondered how old he really was behind that Adonis body.
He had several paintings of Allison on one wall, all nudes. “Over here,” he said.
There was a stack of canvasses leaning against a wall. He took a blank canvass off the front of the stack, revealing a larger than life head-and-shoulders portrait.
The familiarity of the face was a shock. The wide jaw, the strong cheekbones, the long nose; this was the face I’d seen as a desiccated thing in the desert.
I found myself staring at the eyes. In the desert they had been hollow sockets filled with sand. Here they were ferociously alive; hard eyes that had no gentleness in them. Gonzales had painted her with impressionistic daubs of exaggerated color, an effect that was expressive but unflattering. She looked beautiful, powerful, hypnotic, cold, unforgiving, self-centered, cruel.
“What happens if you figure out who killed her?” Gonzales asked. He wasn’t looking at the portrait.
“Then the squirrels know,” I said. I looked behind me and sure enough my squirrel shadow was there, standing quietly against a wall.
“And what do the squirrels do?”
“I don’t know.” I flipped through the stack of paintings. In the earlier ones Dumas looked prettier, happier, gentler, nicer.
Gonzales pushed the leaning stack of paintings away from my hand, slapping them back against the wall. “What the fuck do you mean, you don’t know?”
“I do my investigation,” I said. “What I learn I tell to our fluffy-tailed friends. Then they send me to some other planet, some other human ghetto on the edge of some other squirrel settlement, to do another investigation of another crime.” I turned and looked at the paintings of Allison. In one of them she was standing contrapposto with one hand behind her head, her fingers combing her short blonde hair. She had a little smile and was looking down and to the side. A shaft of sunlight ran diagonally across her belly and lit up her pubic hair.
“You must have asked… what they do.” Gonzales said. The squirrel had turned its back on us and was examining a painting, standing too close to see it properly.
“The squirrels aren’t big on answering questions,” I said. “You know that.”
When I left Gonzales’ studio the squirrel didn’t follow me, but walked off in another direction. I didn’t give that much thought. He, or another squirrel, would turn up behind me soon enough. Gonzales had told me where Dumas’ house was, and I went there. It was a little place, just one room with a bed in one corner and a kitchen area separated by a counter peninsula. There were gauzy curtains on the windows, some potted plants, several paintings–most by Gonzales–on the walls, a few little sculptures and ceramic pieces. There were stacks of hand written sheet music, but nothing for playing recorded music, of course. The squirrels don’t provide us with such things.
After looking around a bit, I stood staring down at the unmade bed. It was finally getting dark and it had been a long time since I’d slept. Too long, I decided. I stripped to my undershorts and lay down, pulling the dead woman’s sheets over me. There was a faint floral scent on the pillows. I fell asleep.
Los Angeles was burning; I saw it from the air, the smoke thick and all around me. The U.S. Bank tower was a blackened finger against a sickly yellow sky. Then I wasn’t in the air any more. I was slumped in the skeleton of a doorway with a hole in my chest. I knew a squirrel would be coming and I waited, listening to myself breathe. Finally it was there, standing in front of me; the first squirrel I’d ever seen in person. “Yes,” I said, not waiting for it to ask. It asked anyway; its mouth moved, and then a voice came from a little pendant that hung around its neck. “Would you like to leave this place?” it asked. “Yes,” I said again. “Yes, damnit.”
Then the squirrel wasn’t a squirrel any more. It was the woman who had shot me; starving, crazy-eyed, she was pointing her .38 at me. She started to scream, but choked it off half way through. Then she shot me in the face.
I sat up in Dumas’ bed yelling and clutching at my face. My nose was smashed in and blood spilled into my hand–real blood, not dream blood. Someone had come in and clubbed me in the face with something as I slept. I tried to roll off the bed, but I’d barely moved when that same something caught me in the back of the head.
When I opened my eyes again I was face down on the floor beside the bed and I didn’t know how I got there. Aside from the unhappy noises I was making, the place was quiet. Whoever had been there had left. I climbed back onto the bed and lay with my hand over my ruined nose and waited. It took about an hour for the pain to stop.
When I woke up again it was daylight. Beside the bed I found a bronze sculpture lying on the floor. It was roughly cylindrical, about eighteen inches long and heavy. It was sort of a cross between Brancusi’s Bird In Space and an abstracted cat. I liked it, apart from the fact it had been used to smash my face in. I went to the bathroom and looked at my face in the mirror. Once I got the dried blood washed off, I was good as new; my squirrel-mods at work. Thanks squirrels; thanks a lot.
Mary Dumas’ neat little home had been messed up; everything was thrown everywhere. When a place has been trashed by someone doing a sloppy search, the best way to search it again is to clean it up. I folded Dumas’ clothes and put them back in her bureau, made neat stacks out of sheaves of sheet music, hung pictures back on the walls, put cooking utensils away on shelves. I didn’t find anything interesting until I got to a shelf with books on it; only a few of them had been thrown to the floor. So this was where my night visitor had stopped searching. “Ain’t it funny,” I said to the empty room. “Whenever you’re trying to find something, it’s always in the last place you look.” Three old photographs, creased and faded, were on the floor among the books. One showed Mary standing in a wooded area with a lake behind her. The other two were of people I didn’t know.
I wanted coffee and something to eat, so I went to Nix Place. It was empty except for Allison. She was sitting at one of the tables, slouched low in a chair with an open book in her lap and her feet propped up on the table. “Good morning, officer Keaveny,” she said. Her blouse today was a frilly white thing with long sleeves and buttoned up to her neck. Below that she had on black shorts and no shoes. A man’s pork-pie hat was perched on her head.
“Call me officer Harry,” I said. “All my friends do.” Her legs were long for her height, muscular and perfect. Of course, perfection is easy on the squirrel worlds. Whatever technology the squirrels inject into their human guests sees to that. Cell by cell, molecule by molecule, the body is returned to an optimum state. The creases of age disappear, excess fat dissolves, old scars are erased. And when a squirrel-modified human is dropped onto a new planet, invisible alterations happen that allow us to tolerate the climate. Adjusting to a world as unpleasant as this one takes a few days; that’s why I was still shuffling around in my head-to-toe outfit.
Allison saw me looking at her legs and she looked down at them herself. “I was sorry to hear about Mary,” she said. “She was nice. Quiet, but a good person. Terrific singer.”
“How did you know her?”
“I run this place,” she said. “That means I know everyone in this town.”
She paused a moment. “On the planet I was on before this one, there was a guy I knew, a potter. He was kind of messed up; always talking about home and his dog and his mom and his girlfriend… all of them were dead, of course. One day he smashed all his pots and said he wasn’t going to make any more. After a couple of weeks he was gone. The squirrels said they took him back to Earth.”
I sat down across the table from her. “Maybe he asked to be taken back,” I said.
“Nobody’s that crazy. If he wanted to die, there are easier ways.” She was still looking at her own legs. “Is that what the squirrels will do to whoever killed Mary, if you find out who it was?”
“People ask me that a lot,” I said. “I don’t know what they do,”
She made a little grunt of surprise. “Maybe they don’t do anything. Maybe they just have you investigate because they like watching you do your Sherlock Holmes thing.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“Don’t you care?” Now she looked at me,
“I care about what I do. I investigate; I try to find out the truth. That’s my job. It’s what I do.”
“That’s your ticket,” she said. “That’s what the squirrels like to watch you doing. Like they watch me play nightclub chanteuse and poor, deluded Charles play missionary preacher and Jim play painter. You play detective.”
I didn’t say anything. After a while she said, “You’ve been hanging around with the squirrels too long. Your answer to everything is–” she closed her mouth and pinched her lips in, imitating the mouth of a squirrel.
I laughed, but she didn’t laugh back. She made a shrugging expression with her eyebrows and the side of her mouth. Then she closed her book, dropped her feet to the floor and stood up. She came around the table so she was standing close to me. “Want breakfast?”
I stood up myself, closing the distance between our bodies to just about nothing. She smelled of sweet spices. “That’s a honey of a hat,” I said. I reaching up and adjusting the pork pie on her head so it was at an angle. Her head wobbled a bit when I seated the hat in place. “Do you want breakfast,” she repeated slowly, like she thought I didn’t speak English too well. Standing close like this she had to look up to meet my eyes. I liked having her stand close to me and I liked having her look up at me. A second or two crawled by and she kept looking at me with those round, naked eyes, waiting for me.
I opened my mouth to say something, but closed it again. Then I held the palm of my hand up to her cheek, not touching her, just holding my hand very close to her skin. I was frowning; kind of an I-don’t-know-why-the-hell-I’m-doing-this expression. I didn’t know why the hell I was doing that. She looked at me and didn’t move. After a little while I felt stupid and dropped my hand. “Could I have breakfast?” I asked.
I had breakfast. She didn’t sit with me; other customers started showing up and that kept her busy.
I spent most of the day tracking down the rest of the people on Soderman’s list and talking to them. The four remaining members of the church choral group were on the list, and they were meeting at the church to rehearse music for the Dumas memorial service. I hung around, listened, pestered people with questions. Eventually I left them alone and went with Soderman into the rectory. We could hear the singers rehearsing through the connecting door. Every now and then as we talked he would stop and listen to them. Sometimes he smiled, other times he didn’t.
“They’re all wonderful people,” he said, “but none of them are professionals at this sort of music. This is just a secondary interest for them. Not like Mary. She was completely devoted to her music.”
“She was a professional back on Earth?”
“Oh yes, she was rather famous as an opera singer, in fact. You hadn’t heard of her?”
“I didn’t keep up with the opera scene too much,” I said.
“She was so knowledgeable,” he went on. “She carried many pieces in memory and transcribed them for us. She was a fine teacher too, and such a voice! Many people came to church regularly just to hear her; not just our alien hosts…”
He broke off, listening to the singers as they started a new piece. “Ah, the piece from Bach’s Actus Tragicus,” he said. “I’m afraid this may be a little beyond Susan’s range. If only Miss Bolt was still singing with us…”
“Allison Bolt?” I asked. “She used to sing here?”
“Yes, of course. That’s how she and Mary became close. Allison was a classically trained singer as well. But after Mary arrived she decided she’d rather do those popular music songs in her little establishment.”
We were sitting at Soderman’s kitchen table. I slumped back against the hard chair and swore. Soderman looked at me questioningly.
“Small communities,” I said. “There’s never much trick to solving crimes in a small community. There’s always someone who knows who did it and will be willing to tell you. It’s just a matter of finding that person and asking him.”
Soderman’s eyes widened, revealing their surprising blue.
“You knew,” I said. “And you told me.” I stood up.
“No!” he said. He reached out to me, but didn’t stand. Suddenly he was an old, old man. His hand, the whole arm he was reaching toward me was shaking. “No… I didn’t… You’re wrong.”
I put my hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay,” I said without looking at him. “Don’t worry.” I left.
Allison lived in some rooms over Nix Place. The stairs were in the back, so I could go up without her seeing me. When I found what I was looking for I stood staring at it for a bit, then I turned to the squirrel standing near me. “You have to leave now,” I said. I was hoping he’d argue so I could get angry and yell and throw some furniture around, but he didn’t. He left, and I sat in one of Allison’s chairs to wait. I heard piano music and singing drifting up from below. It was Allison doing her nightly performance, and her voice was beautiful, of course. The squirrels pick and choose.
Later she came upstairs and saw me waiting for her. She looked surprised and started to say something, but I interrupted her and launched into my spiel.
“When I got here, the first thing I did was to ask Reverend Soderman for a list of people who would mourn Mary Dumas’ death. Coincidence, really. A minister, priest, rabbi, whatever, usually knows something about what goes on in a human quarter, but Soderman knew a lot about Mary because she sang at his church. He knew who liked her and who hated her. But he’s a nice guy. Too nice to straight-out finger a suspect for me. But he’s a moral man too, and he didn’t care much for Mary being murdered. So he told me who to suspect in his own way. He put people on that list who didn’t quite belong there, like Gonzales and you.”
“I liked Mary fine,” she said, her voice flat.
“She was one of our finest singers. That’s what the squirrel who brought me here said. ‘She was one of your finest singers.’ Not ‘your’ as in belonging to this community, but ‘your’ as in belonging to the human race.”
I stood up and paced as I went on. “You didn’t tell me you knew her from the church, and you didn’t tell me that you knew her, or knew of her, from back on Earth. And when she showed up here you left the choral group. You’re a classically trained singer, and you walked away from an opportunity to perform with one of the best talents in the human race.”
“So?” Allison said. “That doesn’t…” She let her voice trail off.
“The person who killed Dumas had history with her, and that history is why she was killed. It wasn’t about anything that happened here. Not many humans out here have any possessions from home. But a few have held onto photographs. Dumas had some. And last night her murderer decided to look through her stuff for photographs. It must have been a shock for you, seeing someone in her bed. Did you think it was Mary, brought back to life by the squirrels?”
She didn’t answer. I reached into my pocket, but didn’t take my hand out yet. “You only took the one you wanted, but that was a mistake. Those photos had been carried around together for a long time, and they all have creases in the same place.” I took the photo out of my pocket; the one I’d found in her bureau drawer. “Who was he?” I held the picture out to her. It showed a young man with unruly hair standing in front of an ornate building.
Her hand was closed around my wrist before I was even aware she had moved. “Give me that,” she said, her voice scratching in her throat. “Give me that!” Every muscle in her body seemed focused on the hand she had on my arm. I relaxed my hand and let her have the photo.
She took it and fell away from me, dropping to her knees and crouching over the photo. “My baby,” she whimpered. A tear fell from her face to the picture and she carefully wiped it off with her thumb. “My baby. That filthy bitch killed my baby. My baby, my little boy…”
The story came out of her slowly, with long pauses and disjointed bits of free association. The man in the picture was Allison’s son, of course. He had followed his mother into a career in classical music, became a violinist, met Mary Dumas, and they became a couple. Then the Crash started, things got messy, and they were trapped in Prague for a while. Eventually space on an evacuation plane was arranged for Dumas. Only Dumas. Eric, Allison’s son, was left behind. “Prague,” Allison said. “She left him in Prague!” I didn’t tell her that I couldn’t remember what happened to Prague. Something bad, I guess. Something where everybody died, I guess.
I didn’t ask how she got Mary to go into the desert with her. It didn’t seem important, and as her story wound down her eyes were heavy with exhaustion. Confession does that to some people. I brought her a drink of water, then walked her to her bed. She wouldn’t lie down, but sat with her back against the headboard, holding the sheets up around her neck.
“You going to turn me in to the squirrels?” she asked. She was still holding the picture of her dead son.
She made that shrugging expression with her face again. “Yeah,” she said. “Because that’s what you do. That’s your ti–” She stopped and looked straight into my eyes. “That’s what you do.”
The squirrel was waiting for me downstairs. It didn’t take long to fill him in; I told him about the evidence, such as it was, and I told him that Allison had confessed.
“What was the cause of Allison Bolt’s hatred toward Mary Dumas?” he asked.
I hadn’t told him that part, about Allison’s son, about Prague. “Something old, from back on Earth. It has nothing to do with you.”
That didn’t go down too well. “We wish to hear the results of your investigation,” he said. And a while after that: “It is important to us.”
I was sitting at one the tables, and the squirrel was standing, so his head was a little higher than mine. I just looked at him.
“Conducting investigations such as this one is the reason we have you with us,” he said.
I smiled so my teeth showed. “A threat,” I said. “I didn’t know you guys had that sort of thing in you.”
I’m not sure, but it looked to me like he slouched a little then. “Would you like to know what will happen to Allison Bolt? The people you interview often express curiosity about that.”
A cold feeling prickled down my back and I worked hard to keep it out of my voice. “No, I would not like to know that.”
We stared at each other for a while. At least I stared at him; it’s hard to tell where a squirrel’s eyes are looking. Finally he pulled his fore-gloves out of his belt and put them on. “There has been an incident at another place,” he said. “A man, an artist who carves stone, is missing. A great deal of blood was found in his home.” He held his little arm up in the direction of the door, inviting me to leave with him. It was a human gesture I’d never seen a squirrel use before. I smiled at him. “You’ve been hanging around humans too long,” I said. I left, walking beside him, so he could take me to this other place, with its disappeared sculptor.
Currently a software engineer in his day job, Karl Bunker has been a jeweler, musical instrument maker, sculptor, mechanical technician, and a few other even-less-interesting things. He lives in Boston, MA with a dog. More information about Karl can be found at www.karlbunker.com.
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