Elam and Bender find Mrs. Torrance
approximately 2520 words
"Murder on Cabot's Landing"
Elam broke the connection with Sigurd, closed his eyes, and leaned back. What was an officer of the Margrave's personal guard doing here? And why in chaos was he in charge of this investigation? Elam understood the need for a criminal investigation, but he'd figured the first officer or maybe the chief steward would be in charge--someone with no knowledge of criminal procedure, and thus someone he could control. But a Kolonel in the Royal Guard? He'd likely be just as ignorant of criminal procedure, but he'd be used to barging in and giving orders.
In retrospect, maybe Elam shouldn't have spent the entire passage locked in his cabin on the Zuiderkruis. If he'd at least met this Sigurd person earlier, he'd have a better handle on how to maneuver him.
Bender cleared his throat and interrupted Elam's chain of thought. "That was interesting. He seems most efficient."
Elam bit his lip and examined the auditor. At least his buttons would be easy to push. "Yes, he does. Now that the prior Resident is dead, shouldn't we proceed with the transfer? Make my Residency official? Won't we need an audit trail to verify no break in occupation of the planet?"
Bender gave a little start and slopped his martini on the glass tabletop. "I hadn't thought of that. You're right of course." He fumbled with his phone. After a few seconds, dense holotext popped in front of the screen. "Here's the transfer document. If you'll just press your thumb on the screen, that will finalize the process and you'll be the official Resident." He held his phone out to Elam.
"Shouldn't I read it first?" Elam hid his amusement. He'd memorized the document before accepting the assignment back on Elsinore.
"Oh, yes, of course. Your thumbprint acknowledges you've read it and agree to the terms. I didn't mean to suggest you shouldn't."
"Don't worry about it, my friend. I'm already familiar with it." He pressed his thumb on screen, which promptly displayed "ACCEPTED" in no-frills, business-like text. "It's done."
Bender took his phone back and swiped at the screen. "I just registered it. It's now officially logged. Good thinking to get this done. Oh, I ordered a phone for you, too. Cornwall should have one ready in a couple of minutes, and one of the servos will bring it."
Elam smiled. "Thank you. Now, if you'd be so good as to ask Cornwall to ready the flitter for our trip to, uh, what's the name of the village again?" That should divert Bender and make him feel useful. Maybe he'd miss the reference to a joint trip.
"Lansbury. Uh, what do you mean our trip? I have no intention of going there. I'm going to catch the shuttle and go back to the ship."
At that moment, the windows rattled as the shuttle passed overhead. Elam smiled. "I think you just missed the departure." This confirmed his opinion that the Kolonel was both decisive and efficient, if not necessarily well-informed in police procedure.
"What?" Bender rose at stared at the sky, where the shuttle was already almost invisible as it ascended back into orbit. "They could have at least warned me." He returned to his seat and gulped down the remains of his martini. "It doesn't matter. I'm going to stay right here and drown myself in martinis. My job on this planet is finished."
"That's probably not quite true. You heard that the good Kolonel assigned me to find Mrs. Torrance. In fact, you heard his exact words. He delegated his authority to me." That wasn't quite what he'd said, but Elam was certain Bender hadn't been paying close attention.
"So, what does that have to do with me?"
"At least two things." Elam ticked them on his fingers. "First, as Auditor, it's your official job to make sure we all carry out our duties in the prescribed manner, right? You audit adherence to standards and orders as well as finances."
"Well, yes, but--"
"So, it's your job to make sure we carry out a proper investigation." Elam ticked another finger. "Secondly, I need a witness for the trip to Lansbury. This is part of an official investigation. I gather evidence, you witness that nothing improper happened. It's like separation of duties in financial transactions. One person authorizes payments, and a second person makes the actual payment."
Bender frowned. "Well, yes, that makes sense. But this should be done by one of ship's officers. I don't have any civil responsibilities."
Elam smiled, ready to close the deal. "Well, I am now the official civil authority on the planet. The document you just registered with the ship establishes that. If there were any doubt, the Kolonel delegated his authority to me. So, I hereby deputize you to be my witness and to audit the trip to Lansbury."
Bender's mouth hung open and his eyes bugged out. "You can't be serious."
"Murder is always serious, sir."
A servo rolled up, and Cornwall's hologram materialized. "Your phone, sir. Kolonel von Dorestad called and asked that I prep the flitter for a trip to Lansbury. It's charged and ready for your departure, sir."
"Good. Thank you, Cornwall." Dammit, why was he thanking it? It was just a machine. Old habits die hard. "What's the range of the flitter?" He knew what the specs said, but it was worth confirming them.
"It's good for 580 minutes of powered flight sir."
Elam squelched his irritation at dealing with machines. "And how long is the flight to and from Lansbury?"
"The round trip to Lansbury and back shouldn't exceed 475 minutes under current weather conditions."
Elam muttered, "You could have said that in the first place."
"I apologize if my response was inadequate, sir, but you only asked about the range of the flitter. Would you like me to replay your question?"
"No. Forget it. No! Dammit. Don't forget it. I meant, 'belay that.'" Damned idiot IT. "What's the weather like in, uh, Lansbury?"
"Intermittent drizzle and sixteen degrees, sir."
"Instrument flight rules, then."
Bender's face showed increasing alarm during this exchange. "I thought communications to Lansbury were out."
Cornwall said, "That is not correct, sir. Wireless communications to the Lansbury weather station are working."
Bender frowned. "I could have sworn you said they were out when Mrs. Torrance didn't answer her phone. What do the security cameras show?"
Cornwall's hologram shrugged, "Sir, I only reported she didn't answer her phone. I can replay our conversation if you like so you can show me where my answer led you astray."
Bender's face turned red and he sputtered, "Answer my question about the security cameras."
The Cornwall hologram actually simpered, prompting a wry grin to twist Elam's lips. "The only active security camera in Lancaster is in the monorail terminus, sir. I could show you arriving there before dawn this morning."
Bender must be looking for any excuse to not travel to Lancaster. The next words out of his mouth confirmed that for Elam. "Well, how about this? How the hell can we fly there? You said, 'instrument flight rules.' I heard you."
Elam rolled his eyes. "He means I can't rely on line-of-sight, which I wasn't planning on doing anyway. The geopositioning satellites are all functional. That's what we'll use for navigation and approach. Am I right, Cornwall?"
"Good. We need a tram to take us to the flitter. I assume it's hangered at the spaceport?"
"Yessir. Transportation is waiting for you outside the lobby."
"Move it to another entrance, please. The lobby is a crime scene. Stay out of there."
"Very good, sir. The tram is repositioning now. This servo will lead you to where it will be waiting."
"Thank you." Dammit, he did it again. Still, the AI was capable of learning when its answers met his needs, so thanking it wasn't entirely stupid. It seemed to do better in anticipating personal service needs than in answering questions. That probably said something about how the Torrances used it.
He stood. "Come on, Malcolm. The sooner we get this done, the better."
Elam slowed the flitter and circled over what was left of the village. On the south, the carbon-fiber monorail ran into a low-slung, concrete structure, built in the same no-nonsense, austere style of the lodge. The engineers had built a ruler-straight concrete channel for the local river, terminating in the narrow bay a couple of clicks from the monorail station. A network of rectangular streets clustered on one side of the channel. Near to the monorail station, modest, one-story, squarish buildings lined the streets, most likely residences for the villagers. Foundations appeared to be all that remained of most of the buildings outside of the vicinity of the station. The ever-present wheat choked the cobbled streets and walkways.
Bender gripped his shoulder harness with white fingers. "Can we please land, already?"
Elam thought about a sky-dive landing, but took pity on the accountant. "Sure. Sorry. Hang on."
Winds buffeted the light craft, and it swayed as Elam approached the paved lot adjacent to the monorail station. On closer inspection, the concrete was cracked, and the wheat grew even here. A few patches of discouraged purples and yellows relieved the otherwise drab scene. "It looks like the villagers planted flowers."
Bender opened his eyes and then quickly closed them. "Petunias. They like it here, but the wheat chokes them out."
The craft swerved and bounced as Elam landed. "We're down."
"Thank heavens for that. This isn't anything like flying in the shuttle. It's more like, I don't know. Being on Satan's own yo-yo, jerking all over the place."
"Light craft are different, I'll grant you that. But we're down now." Elam undid his seatbelt. As he opened his door, the wind gusted and sheets of rain drenched him. Great. Now his shirt and pants clung to him in a cold, wet mess. "We should have brought rain slickers."
"We should have done lots of things. Like not come here." Bender eyed the rain. "Can we just sit here a while? Maybe it'll let up."
"That's not in the forecast. The sooner we start, the sooner we can get back and dry off." Elam stepped out, unbuttoned his shirt, and pulled it over his head. "Come on. It's not bad."
Bender gave him a hangdog expression, as if he were on his way to the gallows. He used a three-ring-binder for an umbrella and stepped into the rain. "What's next?"
"We start looking." Elam trudged toward the village, Bender in his wake.
Now that they were on the ground, even this part of the village looked like a ruin. Besides the over-grown streets, most of the windows were broken out. Many doors were missing or ajar, and it looked like the wheat had even invaded the interiors.
Elam stopped to check out the first building. Four rooms, with over-turned furniture, drifts of dirt and trash in the corners. He could believe this place had been abandoned for five centuries.
But there was also no sign of Mrs. Torrance.
Bender was waiting for him in the street, looking miserable. "Find anything?"
"No. How many buildings do you think there are?"
"There are over three hundred structures still standing, and at least twice that many are rubble."
Elam did the arithmetic. "We don't have time or resources to just randomly search every building. What was she doing here, anyway?"
"How should I know? It makes no sense for her to be here. By all reports, they were eager to leave. She should have been back at the lodge."
"Yes, I get that. But what was she doing here, on Cabot's Cove? Did she have a contract with the Syndicate?"
"No. But I seem to recall she had a grant of some kind from a university. I don't recall which one. I think she was a historian."
"Maybe she was here studying the old Grand Alliance installations?"
His eyes lit, or at least looked slightly less miserable. "Yes, I'm sure that's it. The last time I dined with them, maybe two years ago, she was excited about what she'd found."
Elam waited, but Bender didn't elaborate. He kept his voice even. "What, exactly, did she find?"
"For Sheba's sake, I don't remember! Some kind of secret Alliance project, or something. I remember she said something about encrypted records that caught my attention. Codes are important to account security, you know."
Elam chewed his lip. The AI should have been able to decrypt most cyphers, even quantum ones. Unless, of course, they'd been ordered not to. "What's here, in this settlement?"
"How should I know? It had nothing to do with the mining operation, so the Syndicate just ignored it. It has no commercial value."
Elam shivered in the chilly rain. "Let's at least go into the next building." He was missing something. Something big. This was a privately owned planet, always had been, even in the old days. Yet, the Grand Alliance had placed both a Navy base and a Marine base on the planet. Why do that out here in the middle of nowhere? The mines were the only thing of value within a couple dozen parsecs, but the Alliance wouldn't invest in defending commercial interests. Even the fastest ghost drives would take weeks to traverse the distance to the next settled planet. The marine base was supposed to be in ruins, while the navy base was, apparently, still serviceable. Like the mines, when the AI powered back up, the naval base came back online.
But the village was a ruin. Why was that, when the mines, the lodge, the naval base, and even the commercial port survived intact?
The roof in the next building leaked, and puddles covered the floor. The odor, though, was what struck him with brute force. Dead body smell is unmistakable, and revolting.
Bender scrunched his features and held his hand over his nose. "What is that horrible stink?"
A grim smile bent Elam's lips. "I think we've found Mrs. Torrance. Follow me."
"You mean follow that stench? Count me out. In fact, I think I'm going to vomit."
Elam tried and failed to feel sorry for him. "If you're going to hurl, do it outside. I have a feeling this is a crime scene, too. As to the smell, give it about another minute and your olfactory nerves will turn numb. After that, you won't notice it."
"I can't take a minute of this."
"You can take a minute of almost anything that doesn't kill you, and this certainly won't kill you. If you're going to hurl, do it now."
Bender looked green, but he gulped and firmed his lips. "I'll be okay. I'll do my best. Go ahead, and I'll follow."
The next room held a bloated, greenish-blue human corpse. Elam gagged on the smell, but pressed ahead.
He ignored the sounds of Bender retching in one corner.
He walked around the body, examining it. Female, as nearly as he could tell. It had to be Mrs. Torrance. He located the standard ID hanging on a chain about her neck. It was her, all right. The medic would be able of confirm with DNA, but Elam had no doubt.
He lifted one of her bloated arms. When he released it, it plopped back to the ground. No rigor. That meant she'd been dead at least eighteen, maybe twenty-four hours. Counting backwards, that meant she'd died at least ten or eleven hours before her husband.
She was no longer the chief suspect in her husband’s murder. She couldn’t have killed him since she was already dead. It must have been the other way around. Mr. Torrance must have killed his wife, since they were the only two people on the planet.
But then, who killed Jack Torrance?
He was there, so he knew that neither he nor Bender had killed Mr. Torrance. Ordinarily, this kind of puzzle would fascinate Elam, but he had bigger worries now. Sigurd won’t know that Elam and Bender didn’t do it. He’ll find their mutually exonerating testimony suspect. He’ll be certain to think Elam and Bender were the only viable suspects in Jack Torrance’s murder.
This just made it even more likely that a Kolonel of the Royal Guard would start poking holes in Elam’s carefully contrived background.
That just wouldn't do. No, it wouldn't do at all. He stared at Bender and tried to think it through.