by Gordon Johnson

Tags: Ma/Fa, Heterosexual, Science Fiction, Mystery,

Desc: Science Fiction Story: A murder mystery set on a colony planet.

"I just don't know."

The words conveyed everything, and nothing. Charles was one of Diane's deputies, and had a qualification in forensic studies, as well as his police qualification, both from Earth. For him to be unsure was very unusual.

Charles Addison had been appointed as head of the detection branch of Rehome's security services. At first, he had little to keep him occupied, and seemed bored with the job. He recognised that an initial period of his induction to the post was simply learning about the local circumstances of Metropolis, in the main: that was where the crime was most likely to occur. It had the size, the complexity, and the mobile, expanding, population that pointed towards a suitable environment for criminal tendencies to express themselves.

Mrs Diane Kempe, his boss, was confused by his uncertainty. "Charles, I hired you to know what is happening. I didn't hire you to say you don't know. I didn't hire you to be less than efficient. We don't have too many laws on this planet, so we don't need you to find out what laws have been broken either. Find out what is wrong, and we shall work out how to deal with it. The Governor can be quite draconian at times in implementing justice, but for justice to be applied, it requires facts available in support, Charles. We need to know what the facts are, before we can act!"

"But ma'am, I know what the facts are, but they just don't gel. They don't make sense as a whole. That's the cause of my uncertainty."

"Very well, Charles. Take it back to the beginning, and lay it out for me. Perhaps I can see something that you don't."

"O.K. This new arrival, name of Thomas Dearden, claims to be a geologist, and wants to go exploring the planet, to see what he can discover. He is an albino, by the way; looked a bit odd, but otherwise fine. He was somewhat taciturn, but that was not a reason to reject him as a new resident. The admin staff passed him as acceptable; he had no criminal record on Earth, and no "off the record" problems with the security services on Earth: certainly nothing that appears on the official databases."

"So he was fine as a new settler, just wanted to travel as a prospector, then?"

"Yes. He had enough US dollars to be able to swap them for our own currency, and buy his supplies here. He had brought his own equipment: hammers, testing kits, that sort of thing. He did make a point of examining our most recent survey maps of this part of the planet when he got here. He spent a couple of days poring over the printouts, and spent more time examining the datasets that we have built up. By then he had decided where he wanted to go."

"How do we know that he had decided where he wanted to go?"

"He was talking to someone over lunch one day, and said he was now sure of his target site, and would be off shortly. We have spoken to this witness. The waitresses remembered them talking, and pointed the witness out to us, so that is a settled fact."

"Right. I see that. Please go on. Do you want a coffee? I can get you one almost immediately. I was just about to order one for myself."

"I wouldn't mind a coffee, if I may."

Diane picked up her phone, and pressed a button. "Hello. Can I have two coffees as soon as possible, to Diane Kempe's office? Thanks."

"Please go on, Charles."

"He bought a train ticket to Metropolis, and when he arrived he bought another ticket to the junction where our latest track runs to one of the new settlements. The traffic to there is not heavy, and he is a noticeable sight, so he was observed arriving there and heading off into the open countryside. That is as far as he was traceable, until he came back to what we call civilisation."

"So we don't know exactly where he went? No clues at all?"

"Nothing apart from the general direction he took. He seemed to be heading for the nearest hills. As a geologist, he would certainly be looking for rocks to examine, so there is nothing odd there."

"And when do have the next sighting of him?"

"When he returned to the settlement he left from. He walked in, looking healthy enough, and weighed down with mineral samples. He went to the local shop – there is just the one: it does everything – food, drink, medications, general store. You know the sort of place.

He sat down and had a snack, then bought a new haversack with plenty of pockets for all his samples. He seems to have collected more than he expected, which was why he needed the extra carrying capacity. He was quite pleased with himself, it seems; at least that was the impression the people in the shop got. Oh, and he bought more supplies to replace what he had used in his trip, and he bought a sandwich to eat on the train."

"So, he was still looking forward to the future. Interesting. Then what did he do next?"

"He seems to have just got on the next train back to Metropolis. That is the last sighting of him until his body was discovered on the train."

"Well, so far I haven't heard anything that is in any way puzzling." Mrs Kempe pointedly queried.

"O.K. I agree about that. The man apparently died suddenly, alone in an otherwise empty carriage. Naturally, this meant an autopsy to discover the cause of death, so the body was taken to the Metropolis hospital, and examined. They concluded that he died from cyanide poisoning."

"Cyanide! That old standby of mystery writers! Surely not?" She smiled in her disbelief.

Charles was not amused, and his voice deepened as he insisted: "The pathologist was quite definite. The victim must have died within a few minutes of receiving the fatal dose, he told me."

"Right. So who gave him the fatal dose, Charles? It seems simple enough."

"The carriage was empty so, unless someone came in, administered the poison, and exited swiftly, the dose must have been self-administered."

"So, he committed suicide. End of story."

"Not quite. The pathologist said the cyanide was in his sandwich. He ate a poisoned sandwich, so that opens up other avenues."

"Go on. What avenues, then?"

"Well, how did the poison get in the sandwich? Was it aimed at him, or did someone spike a sandwich at random, to get at the storeowners? Did it get into the sandwich by accident, by some of the filling getting contaminated by a pesticide containing cyanide, for instance? The options keep getting wider."

Mrs Kempe leaned back in her chair, pondering. "Yes, I am beginning to see the difficulty you are in. How many security people do you need to track down all these possibilities?"

"More than I have at present. Asking all the right questions is not a job for your average security man. It is a specialist task. I have three men I can rely on for this level of investigation. At the moment, all I have been able to do is clamp down on the store, and prevent anyone leaving without being fully identified and a statement taken, and after that, being searched to ensure that nothing unusual is removed, such as a cyanide bottle."

"What about the refuse bins at the shop, Charles?"

"They have been impounded and sealed for the present, and new bins put in as replacements. The store sells such bins, so that was easily done. The sealed refuse has been sent to Metropolis to be examined for forensic evidence."

"Staff at the shop? What do we have there?"

"The owners were both present in the building, and the rest are part-timers, working shifts so that the store remains open from dawn to dusk. There are seven part-time staff, of whom only two work on the catering section. One makes the food, while the other acts as waitress, but they swap round from time to time; and of course they make the sandwiches on the premises. The kitchen is where the sandwiches are put together, and all the ingredients are kept there, too. The meat ingredients are brought in fresh each day, as are the salad greens. Other items, such as pickles, are in jars in the kitchen cupboard, so anyone can have access to those ingredients at any time. The other staff drift in and out of the kitchen during the day, to chat, and to get a bite to eat for themselves. That means that ALL of the staff may have had an opportunity to poison a sandwich."

"Dear, oh dear. It is like when a stone is tossed into a pool. The ripples are getting wider and wider."

"Yes, and one of my men, in the course of taking statements, discovered that some of their friends pop in to the kitchen to say hello from time to time. Not all of them can remember who popped in on the day in question!"

"Now things are getting ridiculous. They don't remember the previous day?"

Charles sighed. "It will be true enough, boss. I have seen the same effect back on Earth. When you do the same thing almost every day, one day seems just like any other, and they get confused as to what happened on each individual day. Even with shift working: the work is the same each day, so they get the days mixed up in their minds. We can work on it: get a list of all the friends they remember popping in during the last few days, then go ask each of these friends which day they visited the store. We should be able to sort it out eventually. But it all takes times, and it could be that none of them is important to the case." He sighed in despair.

Diane wanted to be upbeat. "But all the sightings of him are pinned down tight, aren't they?" She looked at him intently, willing a positive answer. She was not disappointed.

"Well, yes. There is that. We know his movements, and everything indicates that he was not feeling suicidal, so the solution must be either accident or deliberate poisoning. It is just narrowing down the possibles to a manageable size."

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Story tagged with:
Ma/Fa / Heterosexual / Science Fiction / Mystery /