Inferno (Isaac Asimov's Caliban #2)

Chapter 16



THEY POPPED THE LOCK and pulled open the door to the warehouse. The moment they did, the smell told them they had found who-or at least what-they had been looking for. Deputy Jantu Ferrar knew it, and a glance at Ranger Shah's face confirmed it. Cops still knew what a rotting body smelled like, even on the oversanitized world of Inferno.

Now they knew how Bissal had managed to stay hidden for so long. It was easy to keep out of sight when you were dead. The Ranger, the deputy, and the robot stepped into the cool, cloying darkness. Shah pulled out a handlight and shone it around the interior of the building. "Rustbackers, all right," she said. Jantu nodded. She recognized the gear. A dozen restrictors stacked up neatly in a corner. Hyperwave communications gear. A robot work rack. Yes indeed. A major rustbacking center. And they had just walked right into it. Jantu pulled out her blaster and held it at the ready. Shah glanced in Jantu's direction, and then pulled out her own weapon. Jantu moved forward, to the corner of a rack full of hardware. She signaled for Shah to cover her, and Jantu went around the corner.

And there he was. Sitting at a table, a simple meal set out before him, his eyes dull, staring blindly down, his mouth a bit open, with the bite he had been eating still in it, his head slumped forward a bit. Almost exactly the same position they had found the Governor in. And every bit as dead. Jantu did not realize she had raised her weapon and aimed it at the corpse until she lowered it.

"That him? That him?" Shah asked, her voice a trifle high and excited.

"Yeah," Jantu said. Strange how a corpse never quite looked the same as the living man. There was something slack and swollen about him. As well there should have been, after two or three days dead aboveground.

"How did he die?" Shah asked, corning closer.

"Look at his plate," Jantu said. There was a solid mass of flies on the remains of his food. A solid mass of dead, unmoving flies. Poison. The same that had killed Bissal. One that hit him before he had a chance to swallow.

"Burning hells," Shah said. "They set him up. Sent him to do their dirty work, and set up this safe house to kill him. "

Jantu found herself staring at the corpse, her eyes struggling to find some movement in its impossible stillness. She made the mistake of breathing in through her nose, and the stench of the place was like a punch in the gut. She felt queasy and nervous. "Come on," she said. "We found him," she said. "Let's get back out to the aircar and call it in."

Shah nodded, her face ashen, and a wild sort of look in her eyes. Maybe this was the first corpse she had ever seen. "Yeah; yeah," she said. "Let's go."

They both holstered their weapons and made their way back out to the street, Gerald 1324 hanging back to watch their retreat, just in case someone was waiting until now to jump them.

The two humans were nearly to the aircar when it happened, Jantu glancing over her shoulder back at the building.

The blast caught Gerald 1324 square in the doorway. The wall over the door collapsed on top of him, burying him in debris. Jantu got up off the ground without being aware of being knocked down in the first place. Her blast-deafened ears were ringing and the towering wall of flame that had been the warehouse burning in silence. And Shah. She turned to see what had happened to Shah.

Shah was down, motionless, on the ground. And suddenly the difference between Ranger and deputy didn't mean a damn thing. Nothing much of anything mattered once a five-kilo lump of stresscrete caught you square between the eyes.

Alvar Kresh watched as the fire brigade brought the blaze under control. "Playing with us, Donald. Playing with us. They let us find him dead, let us see he'd never tell us anything-and then rigged the damn place to blow up when our people left, before we could learn anything else."

"Yes, sir," Donald agreed. "I doubt we will find much of anything after such an intense blaze."

Kresh did not say anything more, but watched as a warehouse full of evidence went up in smoke. What sort of mind would think that sort of thing up?

"Afternoon, Governor, " said a woman's voice. Kresh did not respond at once. "Governor?"

"Hmmm? Oh!" He turned to see Cinta Melloy at his side. It would be a while before he got used to people using his new title. "Hello, Cinta."

"You've got one hell of a mess on your hands, Governor Kresh."

And this is just the part that shows, Kresh thought. "Look, Cinta, forget the Governor part just now. Cop to cop. I'm here as the Sheriff. " The Sheriff watching his case collapse, he thought. Where the hell am I going to turn now?

"I thought I'd come, even if I wasn't invited, seeing how it is my jurisdiction," Cinta Melloy said, staring at the smoldering wreckage. "You should have asked for my help, Governor-ah, Sheriff You could have used it. Now it's gotten out of hand. It's too late."

"I couldn't trust you, Cinta," Kresh replied. Suddenly he was too tired to play the games of pretend anymore. Keeping track of the truth was hard enough. Somehow, it was easier to talk about, once those first words were out in the open. "How could I trust you, when the SSS kept showing up where it didn't belong?"

Kresh looked to her, waiting for her to strike back, waiting for the outburst of temper. But it did not come.

"Yes, we did keep doing that," she said, staring straight at the fire, clearly unwilling to look him in the eye as she made what amounted to a confession. "Some of it was legitimate, just good cops pushing a little harder than they should have. Some of it-some of it was the dirt that gets on your hands in this business, no matter how hard you try. We deal with criminals, Kresh. You know that. Touch them and sometimes the grime rubs off. "

"I know that, Cinta. I know. But this was more than a little dirt on the hands."

At last Cinta looked at Kresh, squinting as a bit of smoke blew into her face. "You're right," she said. "More than just a little dirt. Some of it was dirty cops. My dirty cops. I am all but certain those were real, off-duty, on-the-take SSS agents that got Blare and Deam out of the reception. I don't have them yet-but I will. Blare and Deam too. It'd make the SSS look bad-very bad-if it comes out the wrong way. I wanted-I want-to track them down myself."

"And Huthwitz?" Kresh asked, pressing just a bit. A good interrogator always knows when to press a bit more, when the subject is cooperative. " A dead cop on the take and you knew his name when his own commander didn't."

"Yeah, I was afraid you'd notice that," Cinta said. "We'd been watching him. The SSS was the original source of the tip that got to that Ranger out at the East Crack. I didn't want to say anything more in front of Devray or you-not when my people were so close to rolling up the whole operation. I couldn't trust you, either."

"And did you roll up the whole operation?"

"No," Cinta said, her voice hard and flat as the word. "They all went to ground when Huthwitz died. We lost them."

"Did Bissal kill Huthwitz?"

"Almost certainly. " She nodded at the smoldering ruin of the warehouse. "We may never know after this mess. They knew each other, I can tell you that much for sure. Brothers in rustbacking, except they didn't get on so good."

"That much we knew. Did you know the shooter was Bissal before we did?" Kresh asked.

"We had a file on him," Cinta admitted. "Everybody did. It was just that ours was crosslinked into Huthwitz's rustbacking operation. Bissal's name popped up as one of twenty or so possibilities. That's all. I wouldn't even say we considered him a full-fledged suspect before your team found him, identified him."

"Oh, we found him, all right," Kresh said. "But now we've gone and lost him again. " Kresh turned and started back toward his aircar.

"By the way," Cinta said at him as he walked away, "I did check it out, every way I could, and you were right about Grieg and house guests. "

Kresh frowned and walked back toward Cinta. "How do you mean?" he asked.

"Turns out he was a typical Spacer after all. I checked all the old news reports and talked to friends, that sort of thing. No one can remember him ever having a house guest. Ever."

Alvar Kresh stared, unseeing, out the window as Donald flew him back to the Residence. He was thinking. Thinking hard. Strange bedfellows, police work and politics. It would be a real challenge to satisfy the demands of both, but he was starting to realize that the two were so intertwined that he had no choice. Clues, false leads, ideas, theories, snatches of conversation, and random bits of information seemed to be swirling around in his head. Grieg with a blaster hole in his chest. Grieg's simulated image assuring Kresh he was all right. Telmhock's muddled attempt to tell Kresh he was the Governor. Kresh nearly tripping over a dead SPR to get to Grieg's office. The ghostly image of Bissal captured by the integrator as he headed toward the lower-level storage room.

Half of it was no doubt vital information, while the other half was unimportant. But which half was which? He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate. No, don't concentrate. Relax. Relax. Let it come on its own terms. Don't expect the answer to come on schedule. It will arrive on its own terms, invited or not. There was, he told himself, no sense trying to force the solution to arrive-

And that was the exact moment the light came on. Yes. That had to be it. He needed proof, he needed to pull it all together-but yes. He knew. He knew.

Donald 111, convinced that his master had fallen asleep, tried to land the aircar as gently as he could. But, not for the first time, Alvar Kresh surprised his personal robot. He was out of the car before Donald was out of his seat, looking quite awake-in fact quite energetic and determined. Donald made a mental note to remember that there were times when humans actually did get some thinking done with their eyes shut, even if most thinking was no more than an excuse for a nap.

"I want Caliban and Prospero in my office," Kresh said, walking toward the entrance, his eyes straight ahead. " And I want them there now."

"Yes, sir," Donald said, hurrying to catch up with him. "I will bring them up directly. " Once I have you safely inside the secured interior of the Residence, Donald thought. There was still danger everywhere.

"Good," Kresh said as he walked through the main entrance. "I have one thing to do first. Something that might take a bit of time. Wait for me in the Governor's office."

"Yes, sir," Donald said, more than a bit surprised. He knew all of Alvar Kresh's moods, and he knew this one especially well. It was Alvar Kresh on the hunt, Alvar Kresh closing in for the kill. But how? And who? Donald hurried down to the improvised cell where Caliban and Prospero were being held. He had been ahead of Kresh in solving a case now and then, and well behind him on many occasions. But he had never been this far back. Did Kresh have the perpetrator in his sights, even before Donald had so much as a guess at the list of suspects?

Donald gestured for the guard robot to unlock the cell door, and stepped inside even before the door was fully open. Prospero and Caliban were both sitting on the floor of the cell. "Get up," Donald said, not even trying to keep the excitement and satisfaction out of his voice. "The Governor wants you upstairs. " The two of them got to their feet, a bit uncertainly. Donald was glad to see their discomfiture. It gave him real pleasure to order these two around. Did this summons mean that Kresh had decided the two pseudo-robots were indeed the guilty parties? That would be pleasure and triumph unbounded.

Kresh was not in the room when Donald and his two prisoners arrived, a minute or two later. Donald gestured for the two of them to stand in the center of the floor, while he retired to a wall niche. Waiting was not generally much of a hardship to a robot. Robots spent a great deal of their existence waiting for humans to arrive, or for humans to leave, or for humans to make up their minds about an order. Nonetheless, Donald found the wait for Kresh to be almost unbearable. Something was going on. He knew it. He knew it.

The three robots waited in silence for sixteen minutes and twenty-three seconds, according to Donald's internal chronometer. And then the doors slid open, and Kresh strode into the room. He was carrying an opaque evidence storage box. He set the box down on the desk, and then turned to Caliban and Prospero. He spoke right to the point, without any sort of preamble. "I want to know," said Kresh, "exactly what transpired between you and Tierlaw Verick. Exactly. I want your precise words, his and yours."

"Do you mean on the night of Governor Grieg's death?" Caliban asked.

"When else have you met with him?" Kresh demanded.

"Never," Caliban said. "Never at any time before or since. "

"Then tell me what happened the one time you did meet," Kresh said.

"Well, it was a rather brief exchange," Caliban said, clearly still rather mystified. "We were waiting by the door-"

"Just the two of you?" Kresh asked. "No one else?"

"No one else around at all," Caliban said. "If you are hoping for some sort of witness besides Prospero to corroborate my statement, I'm afraid there was no one. Prospero and I were waiting by the door when Tierlaw came out. He seemed rather upset about something, and also rather surprised to see us there. He said, 'I thought I was the end of the line tonight,' and laughed. "

"Laughed rather nervously, I thought," Prospero said. Caliban nodded. "Yes, he was nervous. He spoke rather loudly, and seemed rather agitated. I spoke to him and said, 'My friend and I were a last-minute addition. '

"He replied by saying, 'Well, you'll learn about all sorts of changes in there. Everything is decided. No one will be in control, and you lot are going to kingdom come. We've all had it. Grieg just told me. It's allover now. '"

"And then what?" Kresh asked.

"Then nothing," Prospero said. "He turned away and stomped down the hall. Caliban and I were somewhat taken aback by what he said, but we had no chance to discuss it. The door to Grieg's office opened, and we went inside for our meeting. That was all that transpired between us. "

"I see," Kresh said. "Very well. That is all. The two of you may go."

"Shall we return to our cell?" Prospero asked.

"Do precisely as you please," Kresh snapped. "Isn't that what your damned Fourth Law says to do? Just leave me, and remain inside the Residence. I will want you back later. I strongly advise that you do not attempt to leave."

"Of course not," Caliban said. "Neither of us wishes to commit suicide."

"Really?" Kresh asked. "You have an odd way of showing it. Now get out."

Donald watched the two pseudo-robots leave, greatly confused. Their account of their exchange with Tierlaw Verick was at variance with Verick's account, but given Verick's hostility to robots, it was only to be expected that he would be rude to them.

More seriously, Governor Kresh seemed to be taking the pseudo-robots' accounts at face value-though both Prospero and Caliban were capable of lying. For a moment, Donald debated bringing that point to Kresh's attention. But there was something in the fierce concentration of the man's expression that made Donald believe that would be a serious mistake. No. Governor Alvar Kresh was a man who knew exactly what he was doing.

And one thing he was doing was paying no attention whatsoever to Donald. Humans often forgot there were robots about, seeing everything that happened. Donald always appreciated such moments, as they gave him an unparalleled chance to observe human behavior. He watched, motionless, from his wall niche as Kresh pulled a piece of paper out of Grieg's archaic desk set, fumbled for a moment with one of Grieg's strange old pens, and then set to writing. He seemed to be making up a list of some sort.

He finished writing, set down the pen, and considered the paper for a moment. Then he turned to the comm panel next to the desk and punched in a number manually. The screen lit up, and Donald could see Justen Devray on the screen. "Get in here," Kresh said, and cut the connection before Devray had a chance to speak.

Kresh picked up the piece of paper and got up from behind the desk. He began pacing the room, going back and forth, back and forth, at a rather deliberate pace, his full attention on the paper. He went back to the desk and picked up the pen again. He scratched something out, and wrote something else Ill.

The door annunciator chimed, and Kresh pushed a button on his desk.

The door opened, and Justen Devray came in.

"Well, Justen," Kresh said. "It would appear I have a job for my Rangers. " He handed Devray the paper. "Contact Cinta Melloy and coordinate with the 888. Pull these people in, Justen. All of them. Now. And I want you and Melloy here as well. With you it's an order-but you can extend my invitation to Cinta. I have a feeling she'll accept."

Devray looked at the list and shook his head. "Maybe Melloy will want to come," he said. "But some of these people aren't going to like it," he said.

"Just get them," Kresh said. "I want them all here, in this office, and I want them here in two hours."

Devray nodded, and then, after a moment, remembered to salute. "Yes, sir," he said. And with that he turned and left, Kresh using the door button to let him out.

Kresh watched Devray leave, waited a minute, and then followed after, using the ID scanner plate by the door to make it open. Kresh stopped and examined something in the door frame on his way out. Whatever he found seemed to please him, and he went on his way. The room sensed that there were no humans about, and faded the lights down.

Leaving Donald alone in the dark. In more ways than one. He wanted to follow, to stay with his master-but no. Alone. Let him work it out alone. The Governor could always summon Donald if he needed him.

"I have to go, Gubber," Tonya said.

"You could protest it!" Gubber said. "Claim diplomatic immunity. Refuse to go. It was bad enough the way Caliban just vanished and ended up in jail. I barely knew him, and it scared me half to death. If it happened to you, I couldn't bear it. Don't go. Don't let them get you. Stay."

"That could only make things worse," Tonya said, her tone far less calm than her words. "I know this hasn't been easy for you. But I promise you it will be over after tonight. I don't know why Kresh wants me, but he does. I don't know if I'm a suspect, or a witness, or if he just wants to chat about terraforming. He wants me, and I have to go."

"But why?"

Tonya took a step or two toward the door, then turned and looked back. Logically, she knew it was going to be all right. Nothing was going to happen. But she had no such confidence on the emotional level. Fear was loose in the world. "I have to go," she said, "because we live on this world, you and I. We live here, and Alvar Kresh might be the only man who can save it. If I fight this, with all the legal ways I might, that can't be good for him.

"And as of today's announcement, what is bad for Alvar Kresh is good for Simcor Beddle."

Kresh tried to relax. He took a quick shower, changed into fresh clothes, had a quick bite to eat-and tried to settle himself down. He found the Residence library and selected a booktape to read, more or less at random. He sat there, with the words scrolling past his eyes, not taking in more than one word in ten of the story.

Calmly. Slowly. He started the tape over a half-dozen times before he gave up. He could not concentrate on anything else but the case. Because now, all of a sudden, he had a case.

He had more than that. He had the answer. He was as certain of that as he had been of anything in his life. But for all of that, it would still be easy-very, very easy-for him to make a mistake. Kresh set the tape aside, and thought it through again, and again.

Justen Devray came in the library almost precisely two hours after Kresh had sent him off.

"They're all here," he said. "Waiting for you. "

"Good," said Kresh. "Good. Then's let go see them."

Justen led Kresh up the stairs to the Governor's office-to his office-and ushered him inside. Kresh took a deep breath and faced a roomful of people who had to be thinking they were all suspects in Grieg's murder. In the Governor's murder, he told himself. And you're the Governor now. Kresh glanced to the wall niches, and was relieved to see Donald there. Nice to know there was someone here who was utterly, unquestionably, on Kresh's side.

Kresh looked around the room at all of them. Leving, Devray, Welton, Melloy, Beddle, Verick, Phrost, Caliban, Prospero. The humans among them looked edgy, upset, nervous. Even the two robots looked a bit ill at ease. As well they might. "Fredda, you're here because I assumed you'd want to see the end of it. You're in the clear. As for the rest of you," he said, "I have a problem. A very simple problem, but one with no simple solution. And my simple problem is this: It has come to my attention that you're all guilty."

It took a full ten seconds of stunned silence before they started shouting their denials.


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