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Genie Out of the Vat: Section Four

       Last updated: Tuesday, January 18, 2005 12:41 EST



    Dick Deadeye, the wall-eyed rat coward, edged his way into the tent where Sergeant Marcowitz was reporting to Captain Witt. "Gamma 425 section lost most of their humans when we pulled back, Sir. Forty-three casualties and seventeen shipped out the field hospital. Lieutenant Lowe was among the dead, Sir. Several minor injuries that will be back, but at the moment there are only four privates and two NCOs still fit for duty."

    The Captain steepled his fingers. "I have asked for reinforcements, but we're stretched. South Western Sector command says the new intake are about to finish boot camp. We'll get some of those. In the meanwhile those troops will just have to be integrated with other companies." He sighed. "And the rats ? What have we got left there?" His voice showed distaste.

    The Sergeant consulted the clip-board. "Two casualties, Sir."

    The Captain hauled himself to his feet. "The human troops get massacred-and those filthy little scavengers lose two out of five hundred! I'm sorry, Sergeant, but I smell a rat..."

    "'Tis only I, Dick Deadeye, Captain," squeaked that hero, peering out from behind a canvas chair. "We don't get to have a bath very often on the front."

    He scratched his scraggly nose with a stubby pawhand. "Except when it doth rain. And then methinks 'tis more like a shower."

    "What the hell are you doing here, rat? Sergeant, get it out of here. Or rather let me get the MPs. We need to make an example of a few of these-"

    "Er. Captain." The sergeant interrupted. "This is one of the rats that Captain Shweto, um, bribed to be informers. Dick Deadeye isn't it?"

    "Shweto's dead," said Captain Witt, his tone indicating that he'd liked his predecessor as much as the sergeant liked this rat.

    Dick Deadeye nodded. "Aye. Shog him for a debt-dodger. He still owed me for the last lot."

    "Owes you? I suppose you've come to collect, and you expect us to believe you," said the Sergeant, dangerously.

    "Poor Dick Deadeye. My name and my looks are against me. A merest trifle. A matter of a hogshead of grog."

    "They're habitual liars," said the Sergeant. "And cowards too."

    Dick Deadeye did his best to look affronted. "In every doughty deed I always took the lead!"

    "You give yourself airs!" said the Sergeant, disdainfully.

    "Nay. 'Tis the food," said Dick Deadeye. "But some more grog will fix that. I've come to give you warning, Captain."

    The Captain leaned forward. "I don't want warnings. I want to know why most of my human troops died in the last assault and only two of the rats did."

    The rat twitched his nose and looked thoughtful. "Methinks the two were a bit slow? Or mayhap too busy tail-twisting to notice? It can happen, or so I'm told." The rat sounded regretful. "Now, I have decided. I don't just want grog this time. I believe 'tis tradition to demand your daughter's hand in marriage, but to be honest, I fear she may have inherited your homely face and bad complexion. And while your nose is a more attractive length than that short little stump that doth do most humans service, you lack a tail entirely, unless 'tis hidden in your trousers. So: you'll give me Ariel. And a gill of liquor per man whose life I've saved. Twice that for your own, even though I daresay 'tis not worth half as much," said the rat, head on one side and rubbing his paws thoughtfully, for all the world like a merchant at a market-stall.

    The Captain and Sergeant gaped at the rat. "Wh-what do you mean..." stuttered the Captain.

    The rat held out his paws. "'Tis clear enough. I know marriage is not something we rats have hitherto espoused to. But I have despaired of ever winning her affection. And from what I can gather this 'marriage' thing is just the ticket for an ugly fellow like me." He looked at the sergeant quizzically. "Woman are then 'bound to serve, love and obey', when married aren't they?" he asked. "It says so in The Taming of the Shrew."

    Sergeant Mary Marcowitz missed. But only because she moved fast enough to harden her slow-shield.

    "I meant, what do you mean about saving our lives?" snapped the captain.

    "Why, what I said, Sirrah," said the rat. "The others said that the maggots disposed so efficiently of you humans in the last assault, that they thought they would let this burrowing clean you out of here too. They're going to leave you to this lot."

    "You mean... there's a mine?"

    "Aye. Ariel said 'twas unsporting not to tell you. But at length 'twas decided you wouldn't listen anyway." The Sergeant and the Captain were already out, yelling for action stations.

    The Sergeant headed for the rat quarters, where she found the rats about to depart.

    "Traitors!" she screamed.



    The outer door opened, and Fitz heard the unmistakable sound of someone snapping to attention. A recognizable chilly voice spoke. "At ease, Sergeant. I believe you have Private Fitzhugh here."

    "Yessir! The prisoner is in cell two, Sir."

    "I'll speak to the man alone, Sergeant. He's to be released. There was a misunderstanding," said the Major.


    The Sergeant led Major Ogata through, clattered the keys and let the Major into the cell. The Sergeant walked off back to his desk. Ogata waited carefully until he'd gone. Fitz decided that two could play the waiting game.

    "I made a mistake," said the officer quietly. As usual, he allowed almost no trace of expression into his face or voice. "I should have recognized the name. You're free to go, and there will be no mention of this on your record." Now he allowed a glimmer of a smile to appear. "You won't be called as a witness in the assault case. Nor will your affidavit be rewritten. Somebody else might recognize the name, and they might not be quite so slow."

    Fitz was not feeling too fast himself. "Uh. Thank you, Sir."

    The Major nodded. "Special gazette item 17 of 11/3/29 still stands. But I wouldn't bet on the legislature not repealing it, and not making that retroactive, if they discovered you. Talbot Cartup is a powerful man. He controls the Police Special Branch handling Colony security, you know."

    Fitz hadn't-but then it wouldn't have made any difference anyway. "He's alive, Sir?"

    Ogata raised his eyebrows. "You're pretty cool, Fitzhugh. I think so. I'm afraid I haven't followed up on his well-being. However, it appears that Private Margolis will live. In fact I have just been to the military hospital where-as the local enforcers can't get to him, and he thinks he's dying, he has confirmed your testimony."

    Now he smiled properly for the first time and stuck out his hand. "I've never met you, and it has been my pleasure not to do so. Good luck, Private Fitzhugh. I think one good deed fairly well cancels the other out."

    Fitz took his hand. "Nobody would believe me, but I didn't do it."

    The Major looked steadily at him. "I was a prosecuting attorney before the war, Private. You're right. No one would believe you. Now get lost. Collect your boots and belt from the desk sergeant and get back to your squad. Good luck."



    Outside, blinking in the sunlight, Fitz wondered if it was going to be as simple as that. It was Sunday, officially a day off after the morning Parade. Mostly it was spent polishing, ironing and preparing for the week ahead. He walked slowly back to his tent.

    "Fitzy!" SmallMac yelled. "Hey guys, he's back."

    Fitz was amazed to find himself being slapped on the back and grinned at.

    Marc Ewen had always found the two older men in his tent and his squad something of a trial. He was standing with his hands on his hips, surveying the scene, taking no part in the congratulations. If there was going to be trouble, Fitz realized, it would be with him. He was the only one in the tent who had persisted in calling Fitz "Oink".

    "Hey, Oink. SmallMac says you gave two instructors a hiding at once," he said. There was a testing quality to his voice. He was used to thinking that he was the toughest man in the squad.

    Fitz shrugged. Best to try and deal with it peacefully. They had barely two more days of Boot before they were posted out. He just had to get through to Tuesday. "I know a trick or two, Marc. We can go over to the gymnasium and I'll show you. Friendly, of course."

    Marc Ewen shook his head, and smiled. He was considerably larger than most of the Vats, and had been a meat-packer before his call-up. He was as strong as one of the bulls whose carcasses he used to heft around.

    "This I'd like to see, Oink. But we'll keep it friendly."

    A few minutes later the squad and a few others were in the gymnasium, and on the mat Fitz showed Marc Ewen-gently-how to use a meatpacker's strength against him.

    Ewen stood up. Nodded. "Okay. I guess SmallMac told it straight. Run me through that again, so-"

    His sudden silence was caused by the entry of a crowd, mostly from B company. They seemed to have padlocks with them. Attached to their belts. And the belts were in their hands, not through their belt-loops. "Well, well. There he is. Golden boy Shareholder," said the leader of the mob, B-Company's official bruiser, a gorilla called Bennett. "We'll take over, Ewen. We'll do a proper job."

    Marc Ewen faced them, hands on hips. He shook his head. "Butt out, Bennett. This is our affair. Got nothing to do with you B-Company goons."

    The man snorted. "He's a fucking Shareholder. We heard it from the guys who were on duty last night. And Sarge Lenoir confirmed it. He was there when that little shit admitted it himself. Move out of the way, Ewen. He's going to have an accident."

    Fitz tensed. There wasn't any way out of the gymnasium, except past the mob. But he was damn well going to take a few of them with him.

    To his surprise the broad Marc Ewen stood his ground "Take yourself and your crew back to your tents, Bennett. He's one of us. If anyone takes it out of him it'll be us. And it's not going to happen."

    "You're full of shit, Ewen. He's a fucking Shareholder. He admitted it!"

    SmallMac nodded. "So what if he is? He's sweated and bled with us. He's done full kit drill with us, and ended up in the guardhouse just for helping Margolis-who was from B-Company, I might remind you beggars. You boys take him on and you'll have to take us on too."

    There was a tense silence. There were a good forty of them to twenty of Fitz's company. And the others had padlock-weighted belts.

    Fitz cleared his throat and pushed his way forward. "Look. I was a shareholder. Once. But now I'm a Private the same as the rest of us, in the same army as the rest of us. I'm part of A company, tent 17. And I'm damned if I'm going let my squad-mates bleed for me. I'll fight you one at a time or all together, first. Any one of you got that kind of guts?"

    The pack had come hunting, expecting the prey to run. This was something entirely different. But Bennett wasn't going to back off. "Sure. This is going to be a pleasure. An education for you, namby-pamby Shareholder."

    "Don't do it, Oink. He's a killer," warned Ewen.

    Fitz just took off his shirt, assessing his opponent as he did. Bennett took off his shirt too, in a deliberate camp mockery of Fitz. The man had more body hair than your average Gorilla, and muscles that would have done that creature proud too. He would probably weigh in at two hundred and forty pounds against Fitz's one-eighty.

    "Watch out for his head," said one of Fitz's squadmates, taking his shirt. "He likes to close and head-butt. And watch out for your eyes with those thumbs"

    Fitz nodded and stepped forward. He'd been in camp with these men for nearly six weeks now. He was no longer naive enough to believe his martial arts skills would simply overwhelm Bennett. The Dojo was quite unlike real fighting.

    But he was unprepared for the suddenness and unpredictability of the assault. He had no intention of getting into a clinch with the man. And then he was. Bennett had managed to grab him and was pulling him in by the shoulders, his forehead coming down to smash Fitz's nose to pulp. Desperately Fitz ducked sideways. Bennett's head cracked against his eyebrow-ridge instead.

    Bennett threw Fitz over his hip.

    It was a foolish move. Had the big man kept Fitz in the clinch, things could have ended nastily and very quickly. As it was, Fitz rolled clear and was back on his feet as Bennett landed, hard, on his knees where he'd expected Fitz to be.

    "Get him while he's down, Fitzy!"

    "Kill him, Oink!"

    Fitz stepped back instead. Blood was trickling from the cut above his eye. "Get up, Bennett," he said, keeping his voice cool. The man could plainly fight and fight dirty. He was fast and had the weight advantage. Taunts would mean nothing to him. Disdain however... might make Bennett mad. And hopefully that wouldn't help his fighting or his judgement.

    Bennett lunged forward. Fitz danced aside, and gave him a sweeping kick that assisted Bennett's forward progress. The man sprawled again. "Up, Bennett. I'm not finished with you."

    "I'm gonna rip your damned Shareholder head off." This time he stood up slowly, expecting Fitz to wait.

    Fitz did not oblige. He found himself, to his alarm, enjoying the fight. He'd had weeks of abuse and this was the first time he'd been able to plan to strike back at anything. There was none of the aseptic sterile and controlled atmosphere of the Dojo fights here. This man would kill him if he could. And the crowd too, were hungry for blood. Still, the Sensei's advice was as clear as a neon sign. Never do quite what the opponent expects. And make him pay for each breath, while you keep your own breathing steady. Bennett's stomach muscles were like iron.

    But no-one's kidney's are that well protected.

    "Up, Bennett."

    This time his opponent was more wary. He expected attack. He was watching for dodges and kicks. He lunged, arms wide to catch the expected leap. Fitz stood right where he was and hit him. Punching for a point on the other side of Bennett's face.

    The man had a jaw like an ox. But he wouldn't be smiling for a while. Not without pain.

    Fitz kept hitting him. Keeping out of the reach of the shorter, heaver man.

    "Break it up," hissed someone from the doorway. "The Captain and Lieutenant Belsen are coming across. Break it up now or we're all for it. Grab both of them."

    Fitz backed off, and Bennett fell to his knees again. "Get him up against the wall-bars." Fitz pointed. "Bennett. I'll fight you any time you like. But not now. Later."

    The big man looked at him through dulled eyes, as three of his friends hauled him upright and over to the wall-bars. "Later."

    "Hold onto the bars. And don't look at them. Your face is a bloody mess."

    "Ten-shun!" yelled someone from the door.

    Fitz stood rigidly facing the wall-bars, blood trickling down his face.

    "As you were. Carry on." The Captain walked slowly around the room. Fitz did some slow pull-ups on the bars. He saw, from the corner of his eye that Bennett was doing push-ups. Well, that was one thing all of them could probably do by now, even if punch-drunk. And it kept his face down.

    It was a long exercise session, until someone at the door said "all clear."

    Bennett stood up. His mouth was bloody. It would be badly swollen by nightfall. His rebroken nose did not make him look any less like a gorilla. "What's a Shareholder doing here anyway?" he asked, awkwardly feeling his nose.

    Fitz watched him, warily. The man didn't look as if he was about to attack again, but he'd been fooled once. "I volunteered."

    The Vats in the gymnasium gawped at him.

    "Why?" said one finally.

    Fitz shrugged. This might save him continuing this fight or having too many others. "I am supposed to have killed a man. He was in a coma last I heard."


    "Talbot Cartup."



    Fitz hadn't been prepared to find himself a hero. He hadn't realized just how notorious Cartup's "Specials" were among the Vats. In fact, as a shareholder, he'd barely known the Special Branch existed.




    The Commandant surveyed them. Walked along the line. Paused in front of the rigid Fitz. "Where did you get that black eye from, Fitzhugh?"

    "Slipped in the shower, Sir."

    The Commandant looked at Bennett. "And I suppose you slipped in the shower too?"

    The hulking man nodded. "Eth Thah," he slurred.

    The Commandant shook his head. "You damned Vats have no self-control. Well, you can try fighting the Magh' for a change, instead of each other. You're being posted out. You'll get a twenty-four hour pass to wrap up your last affairs in the civilian world. Posting lists are up on the central notice board. Dismissed. Fall out."


    NCO training course. Camp Dendro.


    Fenton, Brett, 24031232334000

    Fither, Miguel 24003107455000

    Fitzhugh, Conrad 24950101803371


    It had been inserted by hand. And it was initialed by Major Ogata and the Camp Commandant.

    Fitz gaped. That was the list he hadn't bothered to look at. This man's Army had not posted a single list in alphabetical order, with the posting listed afterward. That would have been far too simple and logical. No, instead there had been a number of lists, depending on the unit. Your name could be on any one of them, so you had to search each one.

    This had been the one he'd least expected. It had certainly not been one he'd put his name down for.

    SmallMac's name wasn't in the Equestrian unit either. It was on the same list as Fitz's.

    Inserted and initialed in the same way. So were the other two who'd been there that night.



    That first pass had an almost surreal feel to it. Walking out of the camp gates... The air was just too crisp, the sunlight too beautiful, the grass too green. And nobody was yelling at them. Strolling down the road in a casual, deliberately out-of-step snaggle of other dazed but happy looking squaddies from tent 17, Fitz wasn't even fazed that he'd have to walk a couple of miles to get to a bus-stop, instead of having the Aston-Martin. It was just great to be out. There was also an "eye-to-the-storm" feel about it. The life expectancy of front-line troops was short, and everyone knew it.

    "I am going to drink myself into a stupor, wake up, stay in bed and get drunk again," announced Ewen with great satisfaction. "I don't see myself getting to spend much of my pay where I'm going."

    "You're abnormal!" said one of lads. "I haven't seen a woman for six weeks. Even the colonel's bulldog bitch was starting to look sexy."

    Ewen laughed. "Women get posted to the front too. And if one eighth of what my cousin Dimitri told me is true, we'll catch up on our shagging. Everyone is scared and everyone is bored. There is nothing much else to do but shag and die. But booze... Enlisted men are allowed two blasted beers a night-if you're not in front-line trenches. Dimitri said they end up buying the stuff from those rats. Reminds me. You guys had better buy whatever chocolate you can get and smuggle it in. The rats will pay through the nose for it."

    "I hear there are a lot of places in town that won't admit men in uniform," said another one of the men, cracking his knuckles suggestively.

    "Keep out of trouble, Isaacs," said SmallMac. "The town's crawling with MPs. I've heard they get a bonus for every Vat they beat up and toss into the cells."

    "Huh. They'll have to catch me first. So what are you going to do, SmallMac? Kiss a horse or two?"

    "That's not a polite thing to say about my wife and daughters," said SmallMac, looking indecently happy.

    It left Conrad Fitzhugh feeling indecently sad instead. SmallMac was one of the few that got regular mail. Somebody out there loved him. Which was both sad and frightening at the same time. Fitz hadn't spoken to his father for two years, since his mother's death. Who else did he have to see? They were either in the army or belonged to the other life that that stranger Conrad Fitzhugh, Shareholder, had led. Or both. SmallMac had someone that he could go back to. And to whom it mattered if he was killed.

    Fitz wondered now, from a dispassionate distance, what Candy would have said if he had killed himself. Or if he was killed in the war. He hadn't thought about her much in the last six weeks. He resolved to go and straighten things out. After all, Cartup was either dead or he wasn't. One way or the other it didn't really matter now. And he'd go around and see his father too.

    He caught a bus into town. Took another to Van Klomp's apartments on Clarges Street, on the off-chance that Bobby's army plans had gone awry. Besides, he hadn't a lot else to do, except look at the girls on the street. It was quite amazing how beautiful they'd become over the last six weeks.

    The door opened. Meilin, Van Klomp's factotum, manager of his small electronic repair business, general fix-it woman and fanatically loyal Vat-servant, looked at Fitz blankly. Fitz had been a regular caller for the last five years.

    "Where is Bobby?" he asked with a grin.

    "I am sorry, Sir," said Meilin stiffly, doing her best Vat-butler imitation. "Mr Van Klomp is not home. He's at military headquarters. He is due back this afternoon, if you would like to call again?"

    "He's not got that parachute regiment formed yet?"

    Meilin sniffed. "He believes that it may be happening today, Sir. That's what Mr Van Klomp believed yesterday, and the day and the week before too, Sir." Meilin spoke with an urbanity that betrayed how Van Klomp must have been making the walls shake for the last while. "If I might have your name, Sir? I will tell him that you called."

    Fitz shook his head. "Don't you know who the hell I am, Meilin? Conrad Fitzhugh."

    The factotum-who did everything from packing parachutes, repairing electronic cameras and writing invoices for Van Klomp-blinked. Her mouth fell open, and she hauled Fitz in to the apartment, neatly kicking the door closed. "Good Lord, Mr Fitz! The boss has been trying to track you down, discreetly. I'd never have recognized you in a month of Sundays. You've changed."

    "I've had a haircut."

    "No." She shook her head firmly. "It's your posture. Well, you're tanned, and your face is thinner. And the uniform and the haircut, I suppose. But you don't look like... well, the youngster you used to be."

    "The spoiled Shareholder brat, you mean." Fitz grinned.

    "Oh, you were never as bad as some of them, Sir."

    "Damned with faint praise," said Fitz, laughing now, flopping down into a chair. "Anyway, do you know what happened to Cartup? And has Bobby got any drink left in this place?"

    Meilin gave him a wink. "I hide it. Otherwise that useless bunch of Shareholder friends of his drink it up. And Talbot Cartup recovered three days after you disappeared."

    "So I'm in the clear after all! Well, well." He stood up again. "Hold the drinks, Meilin. I'm going to pop in on my old girlfriend. Clear the air. Tell her I wish her well. Y'know, there's nothing like six weeks of boot camp to give you a new perspective on life."

    "Do you think that's a good idea?" asked Meilin worriedly. "She did try and have you arrested, Fitz. Why not wait until Van Klomp gets home?"

    Fitz shook his head. "When he gets home I'll be back with a few decent bottles. I'm going to see Candy, see my Old Man. Get things off my chest."

    He went out onto the streets of George Bernard Shaw City, whistling. Took a cab across town. He really must get the Aston-Martin out of hock. The fines on it must be astronomical by now. He walked up the stairs to Candy's rather pretentious penthouse apartment door. He felt in his pocket. He still had the key in his wallet. Then he paused. He must remember to give it back to her. After all, he had no rights to it any more. He knocked politely on the imitation oak-paneled door.

    She opened it, and stared as blankly at him as Meilin had.

    "Afternoon, Candy."

    She gave a little squeak of pure, unrefined terror. "Conrad! Don't. Please. I promise..." she panted, backing away.

    He shook his head at her. "I haven't come to hurt you. I just came to say goodbye, good luck and I hope you're happy. I'm off to NCO training and then probably the front. There's a chance I'll get killed, so I'm clearing things up. I just came to say goodbye. And no hard feelings. Anyone could make a mistake. I suppose it was natural you should think that I'd done it."

    "You-you're not-" she whispered, hands still ready to thrust him off.

    He shook his head, walking calmly into the familiar apartment, a bubble of unholy amusement at her reaction making him grin. "No. I'm not even mad that you accused me. I suppose it was a natural thought."

    "Oh, I know it wasn't you, now. It must have been one of Talbot's enemies, who did it to shame him. It was half dark and I made an awful mistake. Look, Conrad, I... I'm most terribly sorry. I'm just a weak woman. Talbot organized it all... He made me break up with you. I promise. Of course I'm really still in love with you, darling." She stepped up to him and embraced him, plastering herself onto him.

    As she rubbed her breasts and thighs against him, and lifted her beautiful face to be kissed, Fitz had to admit that maybe Van Klomp had called the shots remarkably closely. What a damn fool he must have been. All the same, it was distracting to have her body this close, after six weeks of sweaty male company. He pushed her away, but gently.

    "It's all right, Candy." He rather enjoyed calling her that, now. "You don't have to fake it. Look, it's over. I just came to say... well I've got over it. I wish you happy. I guess you got what you really wanted. I'll be going now."

    She looked consideringly at him. "Must you? Yes, I suppose you'd better. Look, sit down for a minute. There are a few things you gave me that I want to return. They're in my bedroom... unless you want to fetch them with me?" she asked, licking her short upper lip.

    Was that an invitation? Now? After all this? Suddenly, Fitz knew he'd rather bed a viper. "I'll wait."

    He sat down.

    And about two minutes later-someone smashed the door in. Three of them. They were firing as they came barreling in.

    Fitz reacted as any soldier in HAR army would, under the circumstances. He froze to immobility-as the sudden hardening of his slowshield forced him to. He did see one of the men fall, as the other two emptied their pistols. And then-as the army issue slowshield was no longer being fired at...

    Fitz stopped being immobile just as the two paused to reload.

    They never got that chance. Fitz dropped one with a marble-based lamp-which made a better club than a light-and in the semi-darkness dropped the other attacker with a disarming kick to the forearm and a punch that flattened the man against the wall, knocked loose a fair amount of the plaster, and put an original Miró painting onto the man's head. It was the best use the picture had ever been put to, in Fitz's opinion, but Candy had liked it.

    Kicking a pistol ahead of himself, Fitz stepped across to the overhead light-switch and the wall-mounted telephone. Clicking the lights on, Fitz picked up the telephone and tapped in the emergency number.

    "Police? This is Conrad Fitzhugh at 207 Kensington Mansions, Masden Boulevard. There's been an armed break-in by some thugs. I've got a couple of them. You'd better get here quickly-and send an ambulance, too. One of them has been shot by his mates."

    Fitz put the phone down and ran to check on Candy. The bedroom was empty, and the bathroom door was soundly locked. Sensible girl! He knocked on the door. "Candy! Are you all right?"

    There was a terrified whimper from inside.

    She must be frightened witless. Getting involved with ultra-wealthy Shareholders was one thing, but nothing could have prepared her for this. Their politics were dirty. No wonder she'd blamed him. "It's all right. I've dealt with them. The cops are on their way."

    "Thank God!" she said.

    "You're not hurt?"

    "I'm fine."

    "Good. Stay in there until the cops get here, Candy. I'll call you when it's safe."

    He ran back through to find one of the attackers determinedly staggering towards a pistol. Fitz dealt him. Hard. He took some duct tape from the drawer under the telephone and did some trussing and gagging. Then he did some first aid on the gunshot victim.

    He was busy with that when the ambulance and half a dozen uniformed policemen arrived. He stood up, allowing the two paramedics to take over. The police lieutenant looked at the two burly trussed-up men, and prodded one with his toe.

    "Well done, soldier! These Vat bandits are getting more cheeky by the day. Firearms! I'm tempted to shoot the bastards with their own guns and save the courts the trouble. It'll be the organ banks for them, for sure," he said, beaming. "Come on boys. Take 'em away. Better put some cuffs on them, read them their rights and take 'em to the station. Simpson. Nygen. You two had better accompany the medics and keep that one under guard."

    Fitz tapped him on the shoulder. "Candy-my ex-girlfriend-sensibly locked herself in the bathroom when these guys broke in. Can we go through and let her out? She's terrified, poor girl."

    The Police chief beamed expansively. "Sure, Soldier. Though why she worries with a guy like you around, I don't know."

    They went through and the police-lieutenant knocked cheerfully on the bathroom door. "Lieutenant Swiggers here, ma'am. You can come out now, ma'am. We've got the miscreants safe under lock and key."

    Candy emerged with her cell phone still clutched in her hand. "Lieutenant! Thank God you're here." She pointed at Fitz. "Arrest him! He's wanted for attempted murder."

    Just at this point one of the uniformed cops came through. "Uh. Lieutenant. The paramedics just found this in the injured guy's pocket."

    It was a badge. And an ID card. "He's a Special Branch detective."



    Van Klomp shook his head at Fitz, who stood behind the bars of a holding cell in the GBS Central Police Headquarters. The big man sighed. "As my mother used to say: Lelik is nix, maar stupid! Fitzy, you're so dumb it almost isn't funny. As soon as I got home, and Meilin told me where you'd been thick-headed enough to go, I got hold of Mike Capra and headed here. We nearly beat you into the place. You moron! Of course Talbot Cartup had to stick to Candy's story when he came around-or be the laughingstock of the town. Now, Capra will talk to you. I believe they've scheduled throwing the book at you for the morning."

    "But Bobby, those guys-that turned out to be Special Branch plainclothes security police-tried to kill me."

    Van Klomp snorted. "Dead men don't have to go to court, Fitz. Much more convenient, né. The Security lot act as enforcers for some of the top Shareholders. And Cartup is their boss."

    Fitz sighed. "Bobby, can you get a message to my father?" He looked down. "I've been thinking the last while that I need to sort things out with him. I was going to go and see him after I'd seen Candy."

    "You should have done it first, idiot," said Van Klomp roughly. "He would have told you not to be so stupid. He came to see me the day you went into the army. I had him on the 'phone a few minutes back."



    Mike Capra stood up. "Detective-inspector, you've stated that you entered the premises at 207 Kensington Mansions through a smashed-in front door. Was the door broken before you arrived there?"

    The thick-set man nodded. "It was."

    "At this point you state that the accused, who was lying in ambush, opened fire on you without any warning or provocation."

    "That's what I said, yes," said the Detective. "And these are the same questions you asked DI Scott. You've got the sworn statements of two trained officers on these points."

    Mike Capra nodded. "The court has indeed. Thank you. I have no further questions."

    "The prosecution may call its next witness," said the Judge.

    The next witness was a demure looking Candice Foster in a virginal white blouse and neat grey skirt. "It is safe, Judge? He is restrained, isn't he?"

    The Judge nodded benignly. "Quite safe, my dear. You make take the oath."

    Fitz was amazed to learn just how insanely jealous and violent he was. And how he'd locked her in the bathroom-on his second attack while he waited in ambush for her fiancé. She did some most artistic weeping and shuddering too. To the point where the judge cautioned Capra to be gentle in his cross-examination.

    "M'lud! When am I ever anything else?"

    "When it suits you, Capra," said the Judge, dryly.

    "Precisely, M'lud. It does not suit me to be anything else but gentle when I am forced to defend a man accused of so vilely abusing one of our most respected citizens. A person who would dress such a man in lacy yellow polka-dotted women's underclothing, tie him to the bed, beat him and then suffocate him with a plastic bag, deserves little."

    Talbot Cartup cringed. The prosecution had been very circumspect about the exact nature of the assault. The press-gallery scribbled frantically.

    "Now. Ms. Candice Foster, could you clarify one point? On the occasion of the second assault you have stated that the accused broke down your door."

    "Yes. He's a very violent man. Very strong. I tried to fight him off, but..."

    "Thank you, Ms. Foster. There is no need to upset yourself with the sordid details. Now: On the occasion of the first assault-I have examined the police report in detail. I could find no report of forced entry on that occasion. How did the accused get in that time?"

    She shrugged. "Maybe he climbed in the window."

    Mike Capra looked thoughtful. "207 is a penthouse apartment, is it not?"

    "Yes," she nodded proudly. Everyone knew those cost a mint.

    "You say he came into the lounge where you and your fiancé were sitting in discussion, at which point he forced you both through into the bedroom, and you into the bathroom. You must know where he came from? Through which door, Ms Candice?"

    "My bedroom," she said thoughtfully. "I remember now. The window was open."

    "Thank you. I have no further questions at this point."

    "Very well. I think the court will recess for lunch. The defense may present its arguments and I should be able to deal with sentencing today," said the Judge.



    "I thought you said we should be able to wrap this up, Mike," hissed Fitz. "The judge has already decided to sentence me. And you hardly even questioned those damn liars. Even that lying doorman who says he saw me there. Recognized my car."

    "Patience," said the Capra. "When you want to catch monkeys you put lots of tempting things in the calabash. You don't frighten them off before they have their hands in it. We'll do the nasty questions and scaring after lunch. They've been very co-operative. Don't be ungrateful. Go and enjoy your nice prisoner's nubbins like a good boy. You'll be back on army rations soon."



    And so it was.

    "M'lud, first I'd like to ask that a policeman be dispatched with my assistant to bring the accused's wallet from his personal possession here, to be used as evidence."

    "That should have been entered as evidence beforehand, Mr Capra, as you well know."

    "M'lud, the court shares a building with the Central Police Station. This seemed the most obvious way of dealing with any possibility that anyone might tamper with the evidence. I have grounds to believe certain members of the police are in fact in collusion with the true perpetrators of these crimes."

    The Judge raised his eyebrows. "That's a serious accusation, Mr Capra. I hope you can substantiate it."

    "I'll do my best, M'lud. Now, if a policeman could accompany my assistant to recover my client's possessions? I will proceed with other evidence in the meanwhile."

    The Judge nodded. "It is irregular, Mr Capra. But under the circumstances, proceed. Granted."

    "Objection, M'lud!" protested the prosecution.

    The Judge shook his head. "Objection overruled. Continue, Mr Capra."

    "M'lud, if we could proceed to exhibit 1 of the evidence which I have entered. As you can see these are certified copies of the lease of 207 Kensington Mansions and payment records for the rental thereof. Could I ask the clerk of the court to read out in whose name the lease is held, and from whose account the rentals were paid?

    The judge nodded. And the reedy voiced clerk read "Conrad M. Fitzhugh."

    As the court bubbled and a furious Talbot turned on Candy... the policeman and Capra's assistant returned with Fitz's wallet.

    "Please give that item to the clerk of the court," requested Capra. "And sir, if you could be so kind as to examine the inner pouch of the wallet. You should find a key there. Please hold it up."

    He did. "M'lud. That is the key to No. 207 Kensington Mansions. Another copy of this key was in the possession of the agents, Messrs Smythe and Austing. With a letter of authority from the tenant and both Mr. Smythe and Mr. Austing, as well as the block-caretaker, we ascertained that key held by Smythe and Austing fits the lock. I have their copy of the key here. I think we can establish that the two are identical. I should like to enter these as exhibits two and three. If the clerk of the court would like to examine them?"

    The reedy-voiced clerk was enjoying himself very much. And he could indeed confirm the two keys were identical. The judge had to bang his gavel and call for silence after that.

    "Now, M'lud, I don't believe the charge of breaking and entering... into one's own property can be entertained. I think we should also question the credibility of a witness who expects us to believe a large man would climb the outside of a five-story building to enter by the window, or by breaking down the door, when he has the key in his pocket. I would also question how someone who felt they were in extreme danger from my client didn't even bother to change the lock. Far from being guilty of breaking and entering... in fact my client should charge Ms. Foster and Mr. Cartup with trespass."

    In the sudden silence Candice's' voice, protesting to Talbot, was remarkably clear. "I forgot he had a key. He always knocked."


    "Sustained." The judge nodded to the clerk. "See that the charges of breaking and entering are struck from the roll. Proceed, Mr Capra. As usual, you are providing the court with much entertainment." The judge's voice did not indicate that he approved.

    "I do my best, M'lud." said Capra, urbanely. "I have here a statement of account from the municipal pound. As you will see, the vehicle which the night concierge at Kensington Mansions described in such loving detail, was impounded some four hours before the incident is supposed to have occurred. He also said my client entered the building by the front door. This is unusual for a man who is supposed to have entered number 207 through a window." Capra turned to the judge. "I think it is very clear that one or the other or both of these witnesses is lying."

    The Judge raised his eyebrows. "At very best that they were mistaken, Mr Capra. I will grant you that their credibility is somewhat dented, and the lengthy testimony of Mr. Brenner should probably be subjected to a motion to strike."

    Capra nodded. "My feelings exactly, your honor. Now we come to the second alleged attempted murder: that of DI Carr. We have already established that the two officers in question may possibly also, at best, have been... mistaken, as to the door being smashed in before they arrived.


    "On what grounds, Mr Penquick?" The judge asked icily.

    "Er. The defense is putting his own interpretation of events on the testimony of two respected officers!"

    "He's putting my words to their testimony. It is, in my opinion, a very generous interpretation. Continue, Mr Capra."

    "Thank you, your honor. I'd like to call Dr Liepsich of the HAR Institute of Technology as my first witness."

    An untidy, longhaired man proceeded to the stand, took the oath and scratched in his scraggly beard. Capra proceeded onward.

    "Dr Liepsich, you are head of the Physics department at HARIT. I believe you are also chief consultant to the HAR defense force on Korozhet equipment. The soft-cyber and the slowshield particularly."

    The scientist grimaced. "For my sins, yes. Although I would have more luck explaining them to brain-dead first year art students."

    Mike Capra persisted. "But you are the best expert on the function of the slowshields that the military issue to their troops."

    "Yep. Dead simple things, really. From the functional point of view. They harden if anything moving faster than 22.8 mph passes through the exclusion zone."

    "Can a soldier turn his shield off?" asked the defense attorney.

    "Nope," said the scientist. "They're as idiot-proof as possible. They're surgically implanted, draw power from the user's electromagnetic field."

    Capra nodded. "And just what would happen if someone wearing one fired a pistol?"

    Liepsich shrugged again. "Does the word 'colander' mean anything to you?"

    The judge cleared his throat. "Could you stop speaking in riddles, Dr. Liepsich? Mr Capra, what is all this about?"

    The Physics Don looked at the judge as a man might a beetle crawling out of his sandwich. "It means," he said with an air of exaggerated patience, "that if your accused over there had shot the cop-as the other two cops testified he did-the ricochets inside his own slowshield would have killed him. It is a physical impossibility. He didn't shoot anyone. He can't. They lied. Is that clear enough?"

    The prosecuting attorney had leaped to his feet. "Your honor, I object to the witness drawing unsupported conclusions."

    The untidy professor looked at the attorney. "Meatball, when you have the intellect to manage elementary arithmetic without counting on your fingers, you can tell me I draw unsupported conclusions. In the meantime I suggest you go off and learn how to tie your own shoelaces."

    The judge was forced to resort to his gavel to quell the riot. "Dr. Liepsich, desist with abusing our learned friend. I caution you that if you do not moderate your tone I might have to find you in contempt. What I meant was I wanted to know what this slowshield issue has to do with this case?"

    Mike Capra cleared his throat. "M'lud, I don't believe that the prosecution had seen fit to inform you that as of the fifth of last month, my client has been a volunteer, serving with the HAR defense force. He therefore has a surgically implanted slowshield. He therefore cannot have shot anyone on the afternoon of the 17th instant."

    The judge cocked his head. "He's a member of the army?"

    Capra nodded. "Yes, your honor. A Private."

    The judge looked at the documents before him. "And he joined as a volunteer on the 5th?"

    Capra nodded again. "Yes, your honor. It is a matter of public record."

    "Then I have no jurisdiction over this case. By the terms of Special Gazette item 17 of 11/3/29 he cannot be prosecuted for misdemeanors committed prior to this, while he is in the service. A foolish statute, in my opinion, but nonetheless, that is the law. And for any crimes he committed after that date, he should be tried by the Military, not, thank goodness, by me. And anyway, it is my considered opinion that there is no case against this man."

    "In that case, Your Honor, may I raise a motion that these charges be dismissed."

    The judge nodded. He looked at the prosecution. "I do, however, instruct that the police investigate and appropriately charge the two Detective Inspectors who lied under oath. Much as I deplore Dr. Liepsich's abusive manner, I cannot fault his conclusions. It is my opinion that the prosecutorial work done here was more than appallingly sloppy." He struck the desk with his gavel. "Case dismissed."



    Walking out of the court, arm-in-arm with Van Klomp and his father, Fitz couldn't help grinning. "Well. Now all I have to face is a charge for being AWOL. I'll have to get back to camp as soon as possible.

    Van Klomp cleared his throat. "As it happens, a Major from the Attorney General's office contacted me about that. Scariest man I've met for a long time. Fortunately, he seems to approve of you. He said if you have an affidavit from the judge, to the effect that you'd been illegally detained by civil authority, you'd get away with it. Give it to your commanding officer. The army looks with disfavor on civil authorities messing around with their own. Capra's hopefully organizing it right now."



    The Camp Commandant looked at the affidavit. Shrugged. "Not my business anyway. You've been transferred to OCS instead. Someone higher up obviously decided that the Vats would murder a Shareholder, now that, thanks to the newspapers, everyone knows you are one. You're due to report there tomorrow. So, it looks like I should give you another pass. Try and stay out of trouble on this one."

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