by Gordon Johnson

Copyright© 2014 by Gordon Johnson

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

Tags: Ma/Fa   Heterosexual   Science Fiction   Mystery  

"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."

"Charles, stick with it. Have you found any source of the poison within the store?"

"Yes. That's what makes it worse. They sell pesticides, insecticides and other items than contain cyanide. One of these containers could be missing – lost or stolen; misappropriated by staff, broken or dropped by accident, or just miscounted. The owners haven't done an inventory as such: they depend on their computer database to keep track of stock. So all they know is how many the computer says they have. They haven't compared that to the stock on the shelves; it is not worth the bother, in such a complicated store situation. If they did a proper inventory, and found they were a few items short, what good does that do them? The cost in staff time of doing the inventory is probably more than the value of the missing items."

"Dammit, Charles. So the poison is readily available; it is not clear who might have made use of the poison, and no way to prove that anyone in particular did it? That is not very satisfactory."

"I know. I know, boss. I am also investigating the staff for any links to the victim, but as he only recently arrived from Earth, there cannot be links here. They would have to be back on Earth. I have made a list of all the people involved, and asked the police forces on Earth to check on their databases for any occasion where the victim was in contact with any of them. That could take months, and there is no certainty that any link got into the official records. If it was just a social contact, there may be nothing to show. If they spoke on their phones, all you would have is a phone contact. The laws in almost all the major countries prevent access to what was actually said, unless they were a particular suspect in a crime or terror activity. That is unlikely with the people we are talking about. Ours bare merely witnesses, at present."

Diane was determined to push him forward. "What about HIS movements on Earth, compared to the movements of each of the witnesses? The records of airlines and other transport, if the fare was paid by credit card, should show up, shouldn't they? The phone companies should have records of where everyone's phone was located all the time. Get these compared, to see if they coincided in location at any time."

Charles brightened a trifle. "I did consider that, but it would not prove anything other than they were in the same location at that time. They may not even have spoken, if they both happened to be in the same shop once."

"I see. You are right, of course. But surely, some circumstantial evidence will progress the case a little. It will give you some leads to work on, some narrowing down of the evidence trail."

"Actually, what I want from the witness statements is evidence about who exactly made up his sandwiches, and who gave them to him. I should be getting those delivered to me today. THEN I will have a couple of people I can quiz more closely, perhaps get some more facts out of."

"That sounds good, Charles. Let me know how you get on with that. I have to get home now. My son will be home from school shortly, and he is still a real mummy's boy. Bob gets quite jealous, sometimes!"

"Why would he? He has other children to fuss over, doesn't he?"

"Yes, we are quite a large family already, and more on the way, I admit. I am expecting again, for one: my third. No, he regards Robert junior as a chip off the old block, so he expects Robert to be in awe of him, as the Governor. But Robert doesn't care about things like that. Apart from being protective towards his younger siblings, he just wants to play, and I indulge him a lot. I was not so young when he was born; my first child. I tell you, Charles, your first child is always your favourite! Oh. Oh, dear: I didn't mean to comment on your still being single, Charles."

"It is all right, boss. One of these days, I'll find someone whom I can love enough to spend my life with her. I am just a bit fussy, that's all. Bob was very lucky, finding three of you!"

"It wasn't quite that way, Charles. It was a bit more complicated; but we are happy with the result. Ruth and Mary are fine friends to have, and we share Bob quite happily."

"And all you and I get to share is my problem cases. Sorry about that, boss."

"Nah, it's fine, Charles. This puzzler is quite something, though. Remember your promise..."

"Will do. See you, boss." And he was gone.

The next day he didn't call, but the day after, he did. He wanted to report on progress.

"I spent all of yesterday going over the statements. They were a bit ragged in places, but I was able to sort out the really important facts. Most of the staff of the store never saw the victim, except for his presence in the store. They were too busy with their work with other customers to pay attention to him. He did select a haversack, and came to pay for it; but that was a quick transaction, with another customer waiting to be served. Of those who did notice him, the lady in the kitchen – Penny Ogston - only got glimpses of him; not enough to properly identify him as more than an unusual figure. She said she wanted to see him better, but her work prevented that. The girl who was waitressing, though - Betty Farjeon: she saw him, and talked to him. She thought he seemed vaguely familiar, but she was not sure why. Probably looked like somebody she knew; there are not that many albinos, so one albino seems much like another. However, of all the staff, she was the only one who had the time and opportunity to spike his sandwiches – on the assumption that it was a targeted kill. If it were just a random attack, the lady in the kitchen would be the front-runner. Based on that evidence, I have ordered checks made more specifically on these two back on Earth. I took up that suggestion of phone-location matching, and asked for that to be done. I don't know how long that will take. I also asked for the usual checks on the police databases."

"You haven't spoken to either of the women personally?" Diane wanted to know. "That can often give an inkling of what kind of person she is. In fact, I suspect that a woman's intuition can be useful in that. Let's both speak with the two women, Charles. The train makes it not too long a journey. I'll get Ruth to keep a close eye on Robert until I get home. She is on mother duty for the younger ones today, anyway."

"Sounds a good idea, boss. I'll arrange for the tickets, and I'll phone you with the time to be at the station."

Diane made the necessary arrangements for her children to be looked after in her absence, so she and Charles arrived at the settlement around lunchtime. Diane suggested that they have lunch at the store, to give official approval of the store as a safe place to eat, and as Charles had asked for the same staff to be on duty as on the fateful day, they were served by the same waitress as on the fateful day.

Diane tried to act normally, and Charles was attempting the same thing; but she could see he was surreptitiously glancing at the waitress. When she had a chance, she spoke to him about it. "Charles?"

"Yes, boss?"

"Why do you keep looking at our waitress?"

"Oh, was I? She is a suspect, after all. I need to make my assessment of her."

"It was more than that, Charles. I am not blind: you were eyeing her as a woman, not as a suspect."

He looked surprised. "Was I? Really?"

"Yes, Charles, you were. As a woman, I can tell. It is time you concentrated on the task at hand."

"Sorry, boss. Wrist slapped. Back to business."

They looked around the store as they ate. The eatery area was one corner of the store, marked out by the pillars that held up the ceiling. There was a central pay desk, and the other sectors of the store were devoted to clothing; ironmongery and tinned goods; grocery and pharmacy, and a small corner for books and a few magazines. Most of the stock was imported from earth, but there were items labelled "Home-made" with prices less than the Earth produce. The incidental humour of the label struck Diane.

The eatery had four tables, but only one other table had occupants: a couple of ladies who looked to be more interested in gossiping than eating and drinking. The waitress did not hang around the tables. She stood near the doorway to the kitchen, chatting to Penny while keeping an eye on the tables. When anyone seemed to want attention, she would gravitate to the table and offer her services.

Charles watched her for a while. She looked to be in her early twenties; a slim brunette with hair that seemed to have a life of its own; unruly but still attractively styled. Her eyes were constantly moving: watching the store and its customers. Charles noted her pleasant face, her blue eyes, her neatly trimmed eyebrows, and small mouth with lips embellished with a small touch of reddish lipstick. He could not identify the shade. Her waitress uniform did not disguise a good figure. Charles reckoned that she had fairly large breasts tucked away behind her catering apron. He was still trying to estimate her height – around 5 foot three – when he heard a discreet cough. He turned to Diane: "Yes, boss?"

"You are doing it again, Charles."

"Sorry, boss. I have to get to know the possible suspects in the case, you know."

"I agree, but you were measuring her up as more than a suspect, there."

"Well, she IS good-looking, you must admit, boss."

"My own estimation is that she is a sharp cookie. She is in this job until she can find herself a man she can rely on. She is not displaying herself, but that suggests to me that she has yet to latch on to a particular man she wants to impress, or she already has a man, and doesn't want to flaunt herself. She is doing quite well as it is, with you as the victim! The minute she realises we are not a couple, you will be surprised at the change, I suspect."

"Well, she will have to wait. I want to speak to the woman in the kitchen; the other one who had an opportunity to spike that sandwich." Charles was trying to avert discussion of the waitress. He succeeded quite well. Diane raised a hand to get the waitress's attention. The girl hurried over: "Yes, madam?"

"Can I have the bill, please, Betty? And my assistant and I would like a word with Penny Ogston back there. We are investigating the death of a man the other day."

Betty stiffened, astonished at Diane's knowledge of the two names. Restoring her equanimity, she fished out her pad, and completed the bill for the meal; handing it to Diane. "Here you are, madam. I shall see if Penny is free." She walked quickly to the kitchen, where they saw her speaking to Penny; the two heads together as she warned Penny what was coming.

Betty was back in another minute, and shepherded Charles and Diane to the kitchen. Diane noticed that Betty was eyeing Charles as they went. Charles was marked by his demeanour as not married to Diane, and Betty had scoped out the lack of a ring on Charles' left hand, but she said nothing, just gestured ahead: "Penny is waiting for you. I'll be outside."

The pair introduced themselves, and Penny nodded. "I knew someone would be coming to speak more with me, after the policeman took my statement. What do you want to know, sir?" She clearly assumed the man was in charge.

Charles soon rectified that. "Penny, Mrs Kempe is my boss. She is head of Security for all of Rehome: the top dog in our field."

"Oh. I am so sorry: I do apologise, madam. I didn't realise!"

Diane put her at ease. "Relax, Penny. I don't usually get involved in cases, but this one is a bit of a puzzle, so we are throwing everything at it, including me. Charles here will ask most of the questions, though."

Charles got down to business. "Penny, I want to go over everything you saw and did when the dead man was in the store. When did you first notice him?"

"Sir, it was when I looked out of the kitchen door towards the tables. He was just starting to sit down. His appearance was unusual – that's what caught my eye. I am told he was an albino."

"Quite right, Penny. What else?"

"Betty came in with his order, and commented on his appearance. "Not often you see an albino, Penny," she said. She then gave me his order, and I got busy with that. We pride ourselves on our quick service here, sir."

"Fine, Penny. Anything else?"

"Apart from his snack meal, he asked for sandwiches to take away. I made them up, and put them in a cardboard carton on the counter here, for when he finished his snack meal. I wrote on it the price of the sandwiches he wanted, for paying Betty. I was busy with other orders after that, Betty was in and out, so I am a bit unclear about things, until Betty collected the carton and took the sandwiches to him. He paid her, I understand, and then he left."

"So, the sandwiches were sitting around unattended for a while. How long, exactly?"

"I can't say with certainty sir. Between five and ten minutes, I think. He didn't seem to be in a hurry to finish his meal."

"Nothing more, Penny?" She responded with a shake of the head. "No, sir."

Charles thanked her and looked questioningly at Diane. She shook her head.

"Thank you then, Penny. I understand you are able to switch jobs, so can you take over from Betty, and ask her to come in here, please?"

A minute or so later, the swap was accomplished and Betty was sitting on the chair looking concerned. Diane did the formal introductions, making clear her position vis-à-vis Charles, then invited Charles to commence.

"When did you first see the victim, Betty?"

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