Water of Death (Quintilian Dalrymple Series #3)by Paul Johnston
Independent Edinburgh, 2025. Global warming has turned the summer into the Big Heat. With water strictly rationed, citizens are mindlessly devoted to two things: the year-round tourist festival and the weekly lottery (Grand Prize: a five-minute shower per week for a month). Then a body is discovered face-down in the Water of Leith – the only clue to the death,… See more details below
Independent Edinburgh, 2025. Global warming has turned the summer into the Big Heat. With water strictly rationed, citizens are mindlessly devoted to two things: the year-round tourist festival and the weekly lottery (Grand Prize: a five-minute shower per week for a month). Then a body is discovered face-down in the Water of Leith – the only clue to the death, a bottle of lethal contraband whisky. As the body count rises, subversive investigator Quintilian Dalrymple faces a ruthless conspiracy to destabilise the city.
Read an Excerpt
I was lying in the Meadows with a book and a heat-induced headache, making the most of the shade provided by one of the few trees with any leaves left on it. It was five in the afternoon but the sun still had plenty of fire in its belly. The rays glinted off a big hoarding in the middle of the park. It was advertising the lottery. Some poor sod who'd won it was dressed up like John Knox, a bottle of malt whisky poking out of his false beard. "Play Edlott, the Ultimate Lottery, and Anything Goes", the legend said. If you ask me, what goes, what's already gone, is the last of the Council's credibility. There's an elaborate system of prizes ranging from half-decent clothes, to bottles of better-than-average whisky like the one Johnnie the Fox had secreted, to labour exemptions and pensions for life but only for a few lucky sods. Edinburgh citizens were so starved of material possessions in the first twenty years of the Council that they now reckon Edlott is the knees of a very large Queen Bee. They even willingly accept the value of a ticket being docked from their wage vouchers every week. I think the whole thing sucks but I'm biased. I've never won so much as a tube of extra-strength sun-protection cream.
All round me Edinburgh citizens were lying motionless, their cheeks resting against parched soil that hadn't produced much grass since the Big Heat arrived. I was one of the lucky ones. At least I was wearing a pair of Supply Directorate shades that hadn't fallen to pieces. Yet.
I rolled over and peered at Arthur's Seat through the haze. People say the hilllooks like a lion at rest. These days it's certainly the right shade of sandy brown, though the desiccated vegetation on its flanks gives the impression of an erstwhile king of the beasts who's been mauled by a pride of rabid republicans. As it happens, that isn't a bad description of the Enlightenment Party that led Edinburgh into independence in 2004. But things have changed a hell of a lot since then. For a start, like the nerve gas used by demented dictators in the Balkans twenty-plus years ago, you can smell Edinburgh people conning long before you can see or hear them. Water's almost as precious as the revenue from tourists here.
I glanced round at my fellow citizens. If Arthur's Seat is a lion, we must be the pack of ragged hyenas that hangs around it. Everyone was in standard-issue maroon shorts (standard-issue meaning too wide, too long and not anything like cool enough) and off-white T-shirts. Those whose sunglasses have self-destructed wear faded sunhats with a Heart of Midlothian badge on the front. Up until the time of the "iron boyscouts" the hardline lunatics who ran the Council of City Guardians between 2020 and 2022 only the rank of auxiliaries was entitled to wear the heart insignia, which has nothing to do with the pre-Enlightenment football team. The present Council's doing its best to make citizens feel they have the same rights as the uniformed class who carry out the guardians' orders. Except the auxiliaries don't have to wear clowns' outfits.
The hard ground was making my arms stiff. I stretched and made the mistake of breathing in through my nose. It wasn't just that the herd of humanity needed more than the single shower lasting exactly sixty seconds which it gets each week. (One of the lottery prizes is a five-minute shower every week for a month.) The still air over the expanse of flat parkland was infused with the reek from the public shithouses that have been set up at the end of every residential street. Since the onset of the Big Heat, citizens have had no running water in their flats. People get by one way or another and the black marketeers do good business in bottles, jars, chamberpots anything that will hold liquid. But the City Guard has to patrol the queues outside the communal bogs first thing in the morning. It doesn't take long for dozens of desperate citizens to lose their grip and turn on each other.
It was too hot to read. I lay back and let an old blues number run through my mind. No surprises what it was "Dry Spell Blues". Before I could work out if Son House or Spider Carter was singing, the vocal was blown away by a sudden mechanical roar.
"Turn that rustbucket off, ya shite!" A red-haired kid of about seventeen jumped to his feet and started waving his arms at the driver of a tractor towing a battered water trailer. They come daily to refill the drinking-water tanks at every street corner. It stopped about fifty yards away from us.
"Aye, give us a break or I'll give you one," shouted another young guy who obviously fancied himself as a hard man. The pair of them had done everything they could to make their clothes distinctive. They had their T-shirt sleeves folded double and their shorts stained with bleach, pieces of thick rope holding them up. Sweat City chic.
The driver had switched off his engine. Now that he could hear what was being broadcast to him, he didn't look happy. He was pretty musclebound for someone on the diet we get, and the set of his unshaven face suggested he didn't think much of the Council's recent easy-going policies and their effect on the young.
"You wee bastards," he yelled, waddling towards the kids as quickly as his heavy thighs allowed. "Your heads are going down the pan."
There was a collective intake of breath as the citizens around me sat up and paid attention, grateful for anything that took their minds off the stifling heat. I watched as a woman sitting with a small child near the loudmouthed guys started gathering up her towels and waterbottles nervously.
Our heroes took one look at the big man coming their way, glanced at each other and turned to run. Then the tough guy spotted the woman's handbag. She'd left it lying open on the ground as she leaned over her child.
"Tae fuck wi' the lot o' ye," the kid shouted in the local dialect that the Council outlawed years ago. He bent down to scoop up the bag and sprinted after his pal towards the streets on the far side of the park. "Southside Strollers rule!" he yelled over his shoulder.
The woman shrieked. Her kid joined in. The citizens nearest to them crowded round to help but nobody else moved a muscle. Even the tractor driver had turned to marble. It wouldn't have been the first time they'd seen a bag snatched by the city's new generation of arseholes. It wasn't the first time I'd seen it either. Maybe because I'd once been in the Public Order Directorate, maybe because I was theoretically still a member of the Enlightenment, maybe just because I fancied a run whatever, I got to my feet and gave what in the City Guard we used to call "chase".
After fifty yards they were still going away from me, dust rising from their feet and hanging in the air to coat my tongue and eyes. But after a hundred yards, when my lungs were clogging and my legs had decided enough was enough, the little sods had slowed to not much more than a stride: evidence of loading up on illicit ale and black-market grass, I reckoned. Then I cut my speed even more. People who get into those commodities at an early age usually learn how to look after themselves.
They turned to face me and started to laugh in between gasping for breath.
"Hey, look, Tommy, it's the Good fucking Samaritan," the redhead said. Obviously he'd learned something in school, though the Education Directorate would have preferred something more in line with the Council's atheist principles to have stuck.
Tommy was rifling through the woman's bag, tossing away paper hankies and the Supply Directorate's version of cosmetics and stuffing food and clothing vouchers into his pocket. When he'd finished, he looked up at me and smiled threateningly. The teeth he revealed were uneven and discoloured.
"Get away, ya wanker," he hissed, raising his left fist. It had the letters D-E-A-D tattooed amateurishly on the lower finger joints. I was betting the right one had the word "YOU'RE" on it, spelled wrong. "Come on, Col. We're gone."
He'd got that right. I took my mobile phone from the back pocket of my shorts and called the guard command centre in the castle. As soon as I started to speak, the two of them turned back towards me, their eyes empty and their fists drawn right back.
Like I said bad idea.
"Are you all right, Quint?"
"What does it look like, Davie?" I took a break from flexing my right wrist and stood up to face the heavily built guard commander who'd just arrived in a Land-Rover and a dust storm.
"Bloody hell, what did you do to those guys?"
I walked over to the bagsnatchers. The carrot-head was leaning forward on both hands, carrying out a detailed examination of what had been his lunch. Tommy the hard man was still on his arse. Unfortunately he'd turned out to have a jaw that really was hard. I had a handkerchief wrapped round my seeping knuckles.
"Where did you learn to fight like that, ya bastard?" he demanded, trying to get to his feet. Then he ran his eye over Davie's uniform. "I might have fuckin' known. You're an Alsatian like him." The city's lowlife refer to the guard as dogs when they're feeling brave.
Davie grabbed the kid's arm and pulled him upright. "What was that, sonny?"
Tommy decided bravery was surplus to requirements. "Nothing," he muttered.
"Nothing what?" Davie shouted into his ear.
"Nothing, Hume 253." Tommy pronounced Davie's barracks number with exaggerated respect, his eyes to the ground.
"That's better, wee man. And for your information, this citizen is not a member of the City Guard."
"He fuckin' puts himself about like one," Tommy said under his breath.
Davie grinned at me. "And there was me thinking you'd forgotten your auxiliary training, Quint."
"Quint?" the boy said with a groan. "Aw, no. You're no' that investigator guy, are you? The one wi' the stupid name?"
Davie found all this highly amusing. "Quintilian Dalrymple?" he asked.
"Aye, the one who's in the paper every time you bitches cannae do your job."
Too much adulation isn't good for you. "So what are you going to do with this pair of scumbags, Hume Z53?" I asked.
Colin the carrot finally managed to get to his feet.
"Cramond Island, I reckon," Davie replied. "The old prison'll be a great place to give them a hiding."
The carrot hit the dust again.
"You cannae do that," Tommy whined. "We've got rights. The Council's set up special centres for kids like us."
He was right. In their desperation to be seen as having citizens' best interests at heart, the latest guardians, or at least a majority of them, haven't only given citizens more personal freedom apart from anything involving the use of water and a lottery, but they've organised a social welfare system that treats anyone who steps out of line as an honoured guest. To no one in the guard's surprise, petty crime has risen even faster than the temperature.
"Who are the Southside Strollers?" I asked.
"What's it to you?" Tommy said, giving me the eye.
Davie grabbed his arm and stuck his face up close to the boy's. "Answer the man, sonny."
"Awright, awright." Tommy had gone floppy again. "It's our gang. We all come from the south side of the city."
"And you spend your time strolling around nicking whatever you can?" I said.
Tommy shrugged nonchalantly, his eyes lowered.
A couple of auxiliaries from the Welfare Directorate looking desperately eager to please turned up to collect the boys. Colin the carrot was busy holding on to his gut but Tommy flashed a triumphant look at us.
"Just a minute, you," I said, moving over to him. I stuck my hand into his pocket and relieved him of the vouchers he'd taken, leaving a streak of blood from my knuckles on his shorts as a souvenir. "Oh, aye, what's this then?"
The pair of them suddenly started examining the ground.
"What do you think, Davie?" I said, opening the scrap of crumpled paper and sniffing the small quantity of dried and shredded leaves.
Davie shook his head. "If it was up to me ..."
"But it isn't," the female auxiliary from the Welfare Directorate's Youth Development Department said, stepping forward and looking at the twist of grass. "Underage citizens are our responsibility, not the City Guard's. We'll see they're rehabilitated."
Davie looked at her disbelievingly. Like most of his colleagues, he had serious difficulty in accepting the Council's recent caring policies. Not that he had any choice.
Tommy smirked then bared his teeth at me again. "You're dead, pal."
"Oh, aye, Tommy?" I said. "And what does that make you?"
I handed the grass to Davie. We watched the miscreants get into the Youth Development Department van then I turned back to get my gear.
"The future of the city," Davie said morosely as he caught up with me. "Giving these headbangers special treatment is only going to make them harder to control later. Anyone caught with black-market drugs should be nailed to the floor like in the old days."
"Hand that stuff over for analysis, will you?" We both knew that wouldn't make any difference. The guard's no longer permitted to give underage citizens the third degree so they probably wouldn't find out where the grass came from. I shrugged. "Stupid bastards. I told them to keep their distance but they had to have a go."
Davie laughed. "They weren't the only ones. You sorted them out pretty effectively, Quint."
"I'll probably end up on a charge. Unwarranted force."
"I don't think so. I'll be writing the report, remember."
The citizens under the trees were pretending they'd gone back to sleep. Davie's presence was making them shy. Even in the recently approved informal shirtsleeve order, the grey City Guard uniform isn't the most popular apparel in Edinburgh. The woman came to reclaim her vouchers, flashing me a brief smile of thanks. She probably thought I was an undercover guard operative.
"I'll give you a lift home," Davie said as we headed for his vehicle. "What were you doing here anyway?"
"Trying unsuccessfully to find somewhere cool in this sweat pit to read my book."
"What have you got?" Davie took the volume from under my arm and laughed. "Black and Blue? Just like the state of your knuckles tomorrow morning."
"Very funny, guardsman."
"Isn't it that book on the proscribed list?" he asked dubiously.
"The Council lifted the ban on pre-Enlightenment Scottish crime fiction at the end of last year. Don't you remember?"
"I just put a stop to crime," he said pointedly. "I don't read stories about it."
"That'll be right. You said something about taking me to my place?"
Davie wrenched open the passenger door of one of the guard's few surviving Land-Rovers. "At your service, sir," he said with fake deference. "Number 13 Gilmore Place it is, sir."
But as things turned out, we didn't make it.
Tollcross is as busy a junction as you get in Edinburgh. A guard vehicle on watch, a couple of Supply Directorate delivery vans, the ubiquitous Water Department tractor and a flurry of citizens on bicycles constitute traffic congestion these days. There was even a Japanese tourist in one of the hire cars provided by an American multinational that the Council did a deal with. He was scratching his head. The lack of other private cars in the streets was obviously worrying him.
"Why were you frying yourself in the Meadows, Quint?" Davie asked. "There are bits of grass around the castle that actually get watered. It's quieter there too."
I looked at the burly figure next to me. He was still wearing the beard that used to be required of male auxiliaries even though the current Council's made it optional. God knows what the temperature was beneath the matted growth.
"Quiet if you don't mind being stared at by sentries," I replied. "Since they moved the auxiliary training camp away from the Meadows, it's become a much more relaxing place."
"Arsehole." Davie was shaking his head. "Anyone would think you hadn't spent ten years as one of us." He laughed. "Till they saw how handy you are with your fists."
My mobile rang before I could tell him how proud I was to have been demoted from the rank of auxiliary.
"Is that you, Dalrymple?"
I let out a groan. I might have known the public order guardian would get his claws into me late on a Friday afternoon. Not that his rank take weekends off.
"Lewis Hamilton," I said. "What a surprise."
"Where are you, man?" he demanded. "And don't address me by name." Lewis was one of the old school, a guardian for twenty years. He didn't go along with the new Council's decision allowing citizens to use guardians' names instead of their official titles.
"I'm at Tollcross with Hume 253."
"Distracting my watch commander from his duties again?" Davie had been promoted a few months ago, though that didn't stop him helping me out whenever something interesting came up.
"And the reason for your call is ...?" I asked.
"The reason for my call is that the people who run the lottery need your services."
I pointed to Davie to pull in to the kerbside. "Don't tell me. They've lost one of their winners again."
"I know, I know, he'll probably turn up drunk in a gutter after a couple of days ..."
"With his prizes missing and his new clothes covered in other people's vomit. Jesus, Lewis, can't you find someone else to look for the moron? Like, for instance, a guardsman who started his first tour of duty this morning?"
Hamilton gave what passes for a laugh in his book. "No, Dalrymple. As you know very well, this is a high-priority job. One for the city's freelance chief investigator. After tourists my fellow guardians' favourite human beings are lottery-winners." I knew he had other ideas about that himself. As far as he was concerned, Edlott was yet another disaster perpetrated by the reforming guardians who made up the majority of the current Council. Hamilton particularly despised the culture guardian whose directorate runs the lottery for what he called his "lack of Platonic principles", whatever that means. I don't think he was too keen on his colleague's eye for a quick buck either. The underlying idea of Edlott was to reduce every citizen's voucher entitlement for the price of a few relatively cheap prizes. Still, the public order guardian's aversion to the lottery was nothing compared with the contempt he reserved for the Council members who forced through the measure permitting the supply of marijuana and other soft drugs to tourists. As I saw in the park, foreign visitors weren't the only grass consumers in the city.
"Any chance of you telling Edlott I'm tied up on some major investigation, Lewis? I mean, it's Friday night and the bars are"
There was a monotonous buzzing in my ear.
"Bollocks!" I shouted into the mouthpiece.
Davie looked at me quizzically. "Bit early to hit a sex show, isn't it?"
I got the missing man's name and address from a new generation auxiliary in the Culture Directorate who oozed bonhomie like a private pension salesman in pre-Enlightenment times.
"Guess what, Davie? We're off to Mornigside."
"What?" Davie turned on me with his brow furrowed. "You're off to Morningside, you mean."
"Your boss just told me this is a high-priority job. The least you can do is ferry me out."
Davie looked at his watch and gave me a reluctant nod. "Okay, but I'm on duty tonight and I want to eat before that."
"You pamper that belly of yours, Davie."
He gave me a friendly scowl.
We came down to what was called Holy Corner before the Enlightenment. The four churches were turned into auxiliary accommodation blocks soon afterwards. They form part of Napier Barracks, the guard base controlling the city s central southern zone. The checkpoint barrier was quickly raised for us.
"Where to then?" Davie asked.
I looked at the note I'd scribbled. "Millar Crescent. Number 14."
He headed down the main road, the Land-Rover's bodywork juddering as he accelerated. Ahead of us, a thick layer of haze and dust obscured the Pentland Hills and the ravaged areas between us and them. What were once pretty respectable suburbs became the home of streetfighting man in the time leading up to independence. They had only been used again in the last couple of years and the part beyond the heavily fortified city line a few hundred yards further south was still an urban wasteland. It was haunted by black marketeers and the dissidents who've been trying and failing to overturn the Council since it came to power. On this side of the line, the Housing Directorate has settled a lot of the city's problem families into flats that used to be occupied by Edinburgh's blue-rinse and pearl-necklace brigade. The Southside Strollers were the tip of a very large iceberg.
"Ten minutes, Quint," Davie said as lie manoeuvred round the water tank and the citizens' bicycle shed at the end of Millar Crescent. "That's all I'm giving you." Then his jaw dropped.
I followed the direction of his gaze. A young woman was on her way into the street entrance of number 14. She was wearing a citizen-issue T-shirt and work trousers that were unusually well pressed despite the spatters of paint on them. She also had a mauve chiffon scarf round her neck which had never seen the inside of a Supply Directorate store. She had light brown hair bound up in a tight plait and a self-contained look on her face. Oh, and she was built like the Venus de Milo with a full complement of limbs.
Davie already had his door open. "Well," he said, "make it half an hour."
We climbed the unlit, airless stairs to the third floor. The name Kennedy had been carved very skilfully in three-inch-high letters on the surface of a blue door on the right side of the landing. The incisions in the wood looked recent.
"This is the place," I said, raising my hand to knock.
"Where did she go?" Davie asked, looking up and down the stairwell.
"Will you get a grip?" I thumped on the door. "Exert some auxiliary self-control."
"Ah, but we're supposed to come over like human beings these days," he said with a grin.
"Exactly. Like human beings, guardsman. Not like dogs after a ..."
Then the door opened very quickly. The woman we'd seen stood looking at us with her eyes wide open and a faint smile on her lips.
"Dogs after a ...?" she asked in a deep voice, her dark brown eyes darting between us. A lot of citizens would have made the most of that canine reference in the presence of a guardsman, but there didn't seem to be any irony in her tone.
There was a silence that Davie and I found a lot more awkward than she did.
"Em ... I'm looking for Citizen Kennedy," I said, pulling out my notebook and trying to make out my scribble in the dim light. "Citizen Fordyce Kennedy."
"My father," she said simply.
"And you are ...?"
She looked at me blankly for a couple of seconds then smiled, this time with a hint of mockery. "I'm his daughter." She hesitated then shrugged. "Agnes is my name."
"Right," I said. "So is he in?"
"Of course he isn't in," she said, her voice hardening. "That's why we called you." She leaned forward on the balls of her feet and examined my clothes. I breathed in a chemical smell from her. "You are from the guard, aren't you?" Then she turned her eyes on to Davie's uniform. "I can see the big man is."
Something about the way she spoke the last words made Davie, who's never been reticent with women, look away uncomfortably.
"I'm Dalrymple, special investigator," I said. "Call me Quint." I registered the reserve in her eyes. "If you want."
She didn't reply, just looked at me intensely like an artist eyeing up a new model. I resisted the urge to check if my clothes had suddenly become transparent.
"Who's that?" The voice that came from the depths of the flat was faint and uncertain, the accent stronger than the young woman's. "Who's that out there?"
"Is that your mother?" I asked.
"My mother," Agnes Kennedy agreed, nodding slowly. "Her name's Hilda. She's a bit upset. And ... and her mind wanders." She looked at me and succeeded in imparting a curious hybrid of appeal and threat. "Be sure you don't upset her." She held her eyes on me for a few moments then turned abruptly and led us down the dimly lit corridor.
"It's the men from the guard, Mother," she said to the thin figure that was leaning against the wall. Then she took her arm and pushed open the door at the far end of the passage. I heard her continue talking in a smooth, low voice, as if she were the parent having to comfort a frightened child. "They're going to find Dad for us ..."
Before I got to the door, I heard the sound of curtains being drawn rapidly. I came into the room and blinked in the subdued light, trying to make out the bent woman who stood moving her head from side to side like a lost sheep. She relaxed a bit when Agnes came back from the windows and took her arm.
"You don't like strong sunlight, do you, Mother?" the young woman said. "It's all right. Agnes has fixed it for you."
My eyes accustomed themselves to the crepuscular gloom. The women sat down on the sofa, the senior of them looking at her daughter with a confused expression that only gradually faded from her features. Like many Edinburgh citizens, she'd been adversely affected by twenty years of what the Medical Directorate regards as a satisfactory diet. At least there's been a massive reduction in the heart disease resulting from the garbage we used to eat before the Enlightenment. These days people are more likely to die of respiratory failure or skin cancer brought about by the climate change. But this woman looked like she'd been gnawed by mental as well as physical demons.
"How long's your husband been missing, citizen?" Davie asked with customary City Guard forthrightness.
Agnes glared at him angrily then glanced back at her mother, who showed no sign of having heard the question. "Since yesterday morning," Agnes answered.
"Under thirty-six hours?" Davie was unimpressed. "That's not long."
Hilda Kennedy suddenly came to life. She stood up with surprising speed and moved in front of Davie. She stooped and the top of the ragged scarf covering her long grey hair reached not much more than halfway up his chest. "It's maybe not long to you, laddie, but my man's never late for his tea." Then she stepped back, the surge of energy already gone.
I nudged Davie with my elbow. Although the guard usually don't check out missing persons for at least three days, lottery-winners are special cases.
"When did he leave the house, Hilda?" I asked.
She inspected me before answering, trying to work out whether to treat me as an auxiliary or an ordinary citizen. My use of her first name seemed to get me off the hook. "First thing in the morning," she said.
Agnes was standing next to her mother now. She took her arm again and tried to make her sit down, but the older woman wasn't having it.
"He went to work?" I continued.
Hilda looked at me like I was a backward child. "What work? He won the top prize in the lottery, son."
"It was six weeks ago," Agnes put in. "He was exempted from work for life. Apart from two afternoons and two evenings a week publicity for Edlott."
So the Culture Directorate had chosen Fordyce Kennedy to advertise the lottery like the citizen dressed up as John Knox on the poster I'd seen earlier.
"Which character did he get assigned?" I asked.
"That writer fella," Hilda said. "The one who did Treasure Island."
"Robert Louis Stevenson."
"Aye." She shook her head. "He looked like a right idiot with his false moustache and bloodstained hankie."
I looked round the room in the light that was coming in at the sides of the curtains. The furniture was dark-stained wood, the sideboard, dresser and table beautifully carved. They were about as far from the standard citizen-issue sticks as you can get.
"Did your husband make all this?" I asked.
Hilda nodded, smiling unevenly. "Aye, he's a cabinet-maker. Used to make stuff for the tourist hotels till he won the lottery. He did all this in his spare time."
I went over to the dresser and looked at the photographs arrayed on it. There were individual shots of a washed-out man in his fifties, of Agnes and of a sullen young man with hair at what used to be the regulation citizen length of under an inch. There was also a family group. Hilda must have moved when the flash went off, blurring the shot and giving her the look of a corpse that had just jerked up on the sofa. Her daughter had the same faint smile that she'd greeted us with when she opened the door, while the son was frowning. Fordyce Kennedy just looked exhausted. Like many citizens, the family had taken advantage of the Council's loosening of the ruling that banned photos. The original guardians regarded them as socially divisive they reckoned one of the main reasons for the disorder leading to the break-up of the United Kingdom had been the cult of the individual. Apparently we can be trusted with a few snapshots now.
"How old's your son?" I asked.
"Allie? He's ..." Hilda broke off. She gave an almost imperceptible shake of her head but didn't say anything else.
"Twenty-six," Agnes said, completing the sentence. "A year older than me."
"At work, is he?" Davie asked.
"Him? At work?" Agnes laughed humourlessly. "He spends most of his time with his lunatic friends. Too keen on drinking and messing about."
He wasn't the only young man like that in the city.
"How about you?" I asked Agnes. "What do you do?"
She looked at me coolly like she was wondering whether I was entitled to ask that question. "I'm an interior decorator," she said. That explained the paint on her clothing and the smell of a chemical like turpentine. "I spend most of my free time looking after Mother." She glanced at the woman beside her, who didn't seem to be following the conversation. "She began to lose it last year," Agnes added in a low voice.
"And your father?"
Her eyes flashed at me aggressively. "What about my father?"
I smiled nervously. "Did he have any lunatic friends like your brother?"
"My father doesn't go out much," Agnes said, her eyes fierce. "He's a missing person. He hasn't committed any crime."
"All right," I said quietly. "I wasn't implying anything."
I pulled out my notebook and sat down. You usually run the risk of getting a broken spring up your arse from a Supply Directorate sofa but the lottery-winner must have fixed his.
Hilda Kennedy suddenly twitched her head and looked at me. Maybe she had been following the talk after all. "Fordyce was never the pally sort. He liked to stay in and work wi' the wood." She let out a sudden sob and dropped her chin to her flat chest.
"My father loved his work," Agnes said, stroking her mother's arm.
"So how's he been spending his days since he won the lottery?" I asked.
Hilda looked up again, her eyes taking time to focus on me. "I wish I knew, son. Like I say, he's always back for his tea. But during the day he just disappears. I've asked him what he does but he wouldn't answer. Said something about walking the streets once." She stared at me. "He wasn't happy. They shouldn't have taken his work away." She sobbed again and bent her head.
Agnes looked at Davie and me angrily, her face flushed. "Isn't that enough?" she demanded in a low voice.
"They shouldn't have taken his work away," her mother repeated dolefully.
"Don't worry," I said with as much encouragement as I could muster. "He'll turn up."
"Will he?" Hilda said, suddenly turning her eyes on me, her dry lips quivering. "Are you sure, son?"
I avoided her gaze as I made for the door.
"Pretty strange pair," Davie said as we drove back towards the city centre. The sun was blinding where it shone through the gaps between buildings.
"You didn't have to come in with me," I said. "That'll teach you to chase female citizens."
"What do you mean chase?" he said, laughing. "You saw the way she was looking at me."
"Correct me if I'm wrong, guardsman, but don't the City Regulations forbid fraternisation between auxiliaries and citizens under thirty?" Until a few months ago auxiliaries weren't allowed to fraternise with citizens of any age. Another one of the Council's attempts to break down the barriers.
"Aye, I suppose you're right." Davie shot me a suspicious glance. "What are you up to, Quint? Oh, I get it. You reckon that you can have a go at the delectable Agnes on the grounds that you're a demoted rather than a serving auxiliary."
I held my breath as we passed through the cloud of exhaust fumes a guard vehicle had belched out. "Me? Certainly not. I'm already spoken for."
Davie laughed, this time raucously. "Like hell you are."
I let him go on thinking that.
Five minutes later he dropped me at my flat in Gilmore Place. I pulled the street door open impatiently, wondering if any traces of the perfume I'd got used to over the last couple of weeks would be lingering in the hot air.
They were. I raced up the stairs, opened my door and got an eyeful of the woman I'd been hoping would be there.
That didn't do anything to cool me down at all.
The Cassandra Complex
By BRIAN STABLEFORD
Edited by David G. Hartwell
A Tom Doherty Associates Book
Copyright © 2001 Brian Stableford. All rights reserved.
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