“Do you understand?” Hank said again, as they got close. “Act careful. Don’t say more than you have to. And if the Mayor’s there…” He broke off.
Lucille nodded, but her mind was still on the metal spike, cold and sharp in her uniform pocket.
Could it have been put out deliberately to stop them? It wasn’t possible, surely, not after curfew with only Patrollers and the Hygiene Controllers allowed in the streets. It was just a spike, broken off and fallen onto the asphalt. And she wasn’t going to tell Hank, not now he was talking conspiracy theories about being given left-over war weapons.
The doorman was waiting in front of the apartment building, a thin man in a brown and gold uniform, with one outstretched arm waving them towards an alleyway. Lucille ignored him, parked the van right out in front of the building’s gleaming doors, not waiting for anything Hank might say.
“You need to park that round the back with the others. I left the service entrance open,” the doorman said as she came up to him. There was that familiar moment as his eyes slid upwards to her face in surprise, like somehow because she was a girl that meant she had to be short, like somehow her height made her a freak. “What’s kept you? Curfew’s nearly over.”
He was right. She’d have to drive fast to get the van back before curfew ended. Good. She liked driving fast.
“So we’d better get on with it,” she said, already pulling open the heavy door, its broad bronze handle still faintly warm from the day’s heat.
Inside, the lobby glowed a warm, pearlescent pink from thousands of tiny tiles that covered the walls and swept up over the curves of the ceiling. The floor was a polished bronze colour that matched the door fittings, and was probably no more practical. So this was how the Mayor’s girlfriend lived.
Lucille walked fixedly over to the elevators. She didn’t like them, didn’t like that moment when the doors shut on her to put her in a little metal box.
“A body going to fit in one of those?” she said, eyeing up the fancy brass-work of the grills.
“The end one’s bigger, for freight,” the doorman said, reaching up to press the elevator button. His uniform was the same rich dark brown as the bronze, and his white glove seemed to move as if disembodied. “Miss Bethesda’s on the eighteenth floor. Number 4, eighteenth floor.” He coughed a little. “Aren’t you bringing a coffin?”
“What for? Changed bodies don’t fit well in coffins,” Lucille said.
“You know how distorting the excess bone growth can be.” Hank said. “It’s city policy for them all to go out on the stretcher.”
“But for Miss Bethesda…,” the doorman began, and broke off, staring blankly at the ornate grills as they slid back.
“Everyone’s the same once they’re dead, whoever they slept with,” she said, and stepped through the doors.
“We’ll put a blanket over her,” Hank said. “We’ll do it all as decently as we can.”
Hank followed her, and the doors slid shut behind them with a little creaking noise, as if maybe they wouldn’t open again. Lucille took a long slow breath like Hank had taught her, leant against the pink marble walls of the elevator. It was cool, even through her glossy uniform jacket.
“Why are you being so polite?” she said. “You know the rules. We don’t make exceptions for them, just because some woman strips off for a politician.”
“There’s nothing wrong with politeness, and a blanket’s not an exception,” he said. “Don’t go at this like a bull at a gate.”
The lift creaked and whirred again as the doors opened at the eighteenth floor. Their footsteps made no noise on the carpet. The door at the end of the corridor, marked Number 4, was ajar.
The apartment’s hallway was the same warm, glowing pink the lobby had been, like stepping inside a vast seashell. Doors on all sides of them.
“Medical Patrol,” Hank called, and paused. No answer. He went through the rest of it all the same. “By the order of the city, and the authority vested in us under hygiene regulations to serve and save the people, Patrollers Lucille Harker and Hank Worth, entering this dwelling for the removal of a contaminated body.”
No answer. Only a slight whispering hum from a fan overhead.
Lucille pulled one of the doors open at random. A closet, with a row of glossy coats that she guessed were silk. She gave a quick glance to the floor, and then let the door swing shut.
Hank was already opening one of the other doors, peering round it. “Another hallway,” he said.
“You try that way, I’ll go this,” Lucille said, and pushed the final door open herself.
The sour smell of death was in this room, mixed with the strong perfume of roses. It was a living room, a fancy one, with sofas and chairs and lamps and things, and the same pink walls. More double doors opened off them, and long velvet curtains hid the windows. The pink was starting to get to Lucille. It wasn’t an honest bright factory pink, but human shades, that made you think of skin and pale eyelids. The carpet underfoot was too soft, as if it was dragging her feet down. It all screamed money. And where was everybody?
“Hello,” she called again. “Medical Patrol.”
Still no answer.
She chose a door at random, pushed it open.
The dead woman lay draped across the bed, her head hanging face down so her golden hair swept the floor. It had a bedraggled air to it, as though she’d sweated a lot before she died.
Lucille stepped closer, took hold of the thin shoulders. Her hands felt skin and bone, as she dragged the woman up, flipping the body onto the bed. The dead eyes stared up at her.
Beneath the tangled blonde curls, a bullet wound was crusted with blood.
Lucille backed away, half-stumbling over a chair. Her ears ringing, the blood suddenly pulsing against her temples. She was a kid of fifteen again, and the nausea swelled in her throat. She didn’t think she’d remembered the smell so well.
The smell of cordite, blood and brains, out in the far barn.
“Okay, girl,” she said aloud, “It’s okay.” Her voice came out hoarse. She took a long breath, and then another one. After a while, she looked at the body again.
Suicide. It would be suicide, from a rich woman who wanted to take the easy way out. Who couldn’t cope with the fever, and the bones pushing through her skin, and the inevitable death the virus brought. Who thought it would be easier to be dead, than to go on living. And maybe she was right.
“Have you got her?” Hank said, pushing the door open. “I found the maid. She’s pretty shaken up, but she told me Miss Bethesda’s in here.” He stopped abruptly.
She knew how she looked, because she’d overheard some of the neighbours whispering, after her Pa had put the bullet through his brain, when they’d come to take her away from the empty farm. That Lucille Harker, not a tear, not a quiver. Just stood there, silent. Cold-hearted little monster.
That was how she felt. Cold as ice, frozen right through to the heart.
“What’s up?” Hank was saying. “You been taken sick? It’s not…?”
She put her hand out towards the body, and Hank took a quick stride over to the bed.
“People do that sometimes,” he said, looking at the hole in the dead woman’s temple, with the dry blood ringing it. “Sometimes they think it’ll be easier. Maybe it is.”
Another deep breath. The nausea was receding.
Hank turned back to her. “Come on. Something’s wrong.”
She was behaving like an idiot, she knew it. She’d picked up hundreds of bodies, over the last couple of years, and here she was, shocked like a kid, because a woman had taken a shortcut to her death.
“I guess…,” Lucille said. The words seemed too big for her mouth. She swallowed, tried again. “They didn’t let me see my Pa, not really, after he… Guess he looked a bit like this.” She looked at the woman’s blank eyes, and tried to see a clue in them, how it felt to pull the trigger.
Another guy from the station would have laughed, she knew it, because how could a back-country farmer look like a wealthy lady, all silk and smooth legs? Hank just nodded, and she thought he was going to come out with something from his philosophy classes. But all he said was ‘Yeah’.
“He couldn’t take it, when Ma and Charlie and Johnny died. And the dogs, and the stock. We shot the stock, too, you know. To stop the virus spreading, but nothing made any difference. The whole farm was empty.” She pulled herself up short.
“Take a deep breath,” Hank said. “And another. It’s okay. You go sit in the van. I’ll manage.”
“You can’t manage. It takes two to carry a stretcher. And we’re late already.”
He looked at her, and raised his hand as though to put his arm around her shoulders, but the sprawled body was in between them. “Come through to the kitchen with me a while, kiddo. We’ll get the details from the maid. It’s nice, the kitchen. My Angie would like it.”
She followed him back through the living room and the lobby, and then into a sleek kitchen, black and white tiles in a chequerboard on the floor, and a wireless on the worktop. The maid was huddled in the corner, in a high-backed wooden chair that looked out of place among the rest. She was young, hardly older than Lucille herself, and her arms were tightly wrapped around her body, as though to hold her bones together.
“Well, Miss Mahoney,” Hank said, as he settled himself quietly at the table. “We’ve been in to check on your late mistress, and we’ll be taking her away shortly. We’ve just got a couple of forms to fill in first.”
“Then the Controllers’ll come for me, won’t they?” the maid said. She was still staring down, and her voice was muffled. “They’ll take me away.”
Hank looked over at Lucille, tipped his head slightly, and Lucille folded herself out of the way into a kitchen chair. Her knees scraped awkwardly against the underside of the table.
He pulled out the clipboard, and put two flimsy sheets of yellow paper down onto the table. “The Hygiene Controllers will stop by, and you’ll spend a couple of weeks in quarantine, at the Isolation Hospital,” he said, like it was no big deal.
“Can you tell me where Miss Bethesda was when she was taken sick?”
The maid looked at him, her eyes blank.
“Last night,” he prompted. “Was she at home?”
That blank-eyed stare again. “I… I don’t recall.”
“Sure you do. Take it easy.” He glanced round the kitchen. “Did you cook her dinner?”
“Dinner was early,” the maid said, suddenly. “She was going to a carnival or something, before the nightclub.”
“That’s right,” Hank said. “And then…”
“She felt bad…,” The maid had a funny look in her eyes, as though she was searching for something in her mind.
“That’s right. Her legs were bad again and she came home. Her, and Miss Mason came too, and… and then there was…”
She paused again, as if lost. “Someone was shouting. I don’t remember. I was asleep.”
Lucille could hear Hank talking, but the picture of the corpse kept replaying in her mind. The bullet hole was small, filled with darkness, above those dark and frightened eyes.
“But you called us out to pick up the body?” Hank said.
“She asked me to call the doctor, and I brought her medicine through from the fridge, the pink one, and she gave herself an injection, and then I ran a bath. But when she got out, she was feverish, and I knew it was the virus.”
The girl paused, and Hank just nodded, kept listening. “She couldn’t believe it. She kept saying she couldn’t have it, and she called the doctor up again. But it ddn’t do any good. I knew the symptoms, and so did she, for all she kept protesting.”
“And was that when she got the gun out?” Hank said.
“She thought she’d cut it short, didn’t she?” Hank said. “With the gun.”
“I don’t understand,” the maid said. “There wasn’t anything like that.”
Hank’s voice was still gentle. “It can’t really be hidden, you know. The bullet wound’s too obvious. You just tell us what happened.”
“Nothing. Nothing like that.”
In Lucille’s mind, all she could see were the dead woman’s eyes and her clammy skin and the neat bullet hole. The smell of blood, sharp and tinny, like the smell when she’d walked in on her father’s body.
“Stop lying,” Lucille shouted. She got up, grabbed the maid by one huddled arm. “Don’t pretend it didn’t happen. We’ve seen it.” She pulled her to her feet, and the girl staggered forward.
Hank had got up too, his hand outstretched. “Careful now,” he said, but Lucille was already pulling the girl through the hall, through the lounge, towards the open bedroom door. She pushed her through it, so that they could both see the dead woman, sprawled and helpless. She waited, silent, for the girl to confess.
But the maid was looking white faced and bewildered. “That isn’t Miss Bethesda,” she said, her voice rising.
“Where’s Miss Bethesda? Why’s Miss Mason dead?”
“Not Miss Bethesda…?” Hank echoed, but Lucille had already stepped up to the body. She should have seen it all along. Pulling the dead woman across the bed, she began to lay the limbs out straight. The woman had been wearing an evening gown, glittering silver, with an elaborate beaded fringe for a skirt, and beaded fringing around the shoulders. The tiny beads slithered against the cooling skin, as Lucille pulled the arms into position.
The bones were perfectly normal. She ran her hands down the legs. None of the protrusions of abnormal bone growth that the virus caused. She flipped the body onto its side, checked the length of the spine and the shoulders.
Smooth, untouched by disease. And on the floor, no gun.
Not suicide. Murder.