Read an Excerpt
It started out like a simple case of murder. That was bad enough in itself, because it was the first murder during the five years Rod Caquer had been Lieutenant of Police in Sector Three of Callisto. Sector Three was proud of that record, or had been until the record became a dead duck. But before the thing was over, nobody would have been happier than Rod Caquer if it had stayed a simple case of murder--without cosmic repercussions.
Events began to happen when Rod Caquer's buzzer made him look up at the visiscreen. There he saw the image of Barr Maxon, Regent of Sector Three.
"Morning, Regent," Caquer said pleasantly. "Nice speech you made last night on the--"
Maxon cut him short. "Thanks, Caquer," he said. "You know Willem Deem?"
"The book-and-reel shop proprietor? Yes, slightly."
"He's dead," announced Maxon. "It seems to be murder. You better go there."
His image clicked off the screen before Caquer could ask any questions. But the questions could wait anyway. He was already on his feet and buckling on his short-sword.
Murder on Callisto? It did not seem possible, but if it had really happened he should get there quickly. Very quickly, if he was to have time for a look at the body before they took it to the incinerator.
On Callisto, bodies are never held for more than an hour after death because of the hylra spores which, in minute quantity, are always present in the thinnish atmosphere. They are harmless, of course, to live tissue, but they tremendously accelerate the rate of putrefaction in dead animal matter of any sort.
Dr.Skidder, the Medico-in-Chief, was coming out the front door of the book-and-reel shop when Lieutenant Caquer arrived there, breathless. The medico jerked a thumb back over his shoulder.
"Better hurry if you want a look," he said to Caquer. "They're taking it out the back way. But I've examined--"
Caquer ran on past him and caught the white-uniformed utility men at the back door of the shop.
"Hi, boys, let me take a look," Caquer cried as he peeled back the sheet that covered the thing on the stretcher.
It made him feel a bit sickish, but there was not any doubt of the identity of the corpse or the cause of death. He had hoped against hope that it would turn out to have been an accidental death after all. But the skull had been cleaved down to the eyebrows--a blow struck by a strong man with a heavy sword.
"Better let us hurry, Lieutenant. It's almost an hour since they found him."
Caquer's nose confirmed it, and he put the sheet back quickly and let the utility men go on to their gleaming white truck parked just outside the door.
He walked back into the shop thoughtfully and looked around. Everything seemed in order. The long shelves of cellu-wrapped merchandise were neat and orderly. The row of booths along the other side, some equipped with an enlarger for book customers and the others with projectors for those who were interested in the microfilms, were all empty and undisturbed.
A little crowd of curious persons was gathered outside the door; but Brager, one of the policemen, was keeping them out of the shop.
"Hey. Brager," said Caquer, and the patrolman came in and closed the door behind him.
"Know anything about this? Who found him, and when, and so on?"
"I did, almost an hour ago. I was walking by on my beat when I heard the shot."
Caquer looked at him blankly.
"The shot?" he repeated.
"Yeah. I ran in, and there he was dead and nobody around. I knew nobody had come out the front way, so I ran to the rear and there wasn't anybody in sight from the rear door. So I came back and put in the call."
"To whom? Why didn't you call me direct, Brager?"
"Sorry, Lieutenant, but I was excited and I pushed the wrong button and got the Regent. I told him somebody had shot Deem and he said stay on guard and he'd call the medico and the utility boys and you."
In that order? Caquer wondered. Apparently, because Caquer had been the last one to get there.
But he brushed that aside for the more important question--the matter of Brager having heard a shot. That did not make sense, unless ... no, that was absurd, too. If Willem Deem had been shot, the medico would not have split his skull as part of the autopsy.
"What do you mean by a shot, Brager?" Caquer asked. "An old-fashioned explosive weapon?"
"Yeah," said Brager. "Didn't you see the body? A hole right over the heart. A bullet-hole, I guess. I never saw one before. I didn't know there was a gun on Callisto. They were outlawed even before the blasters were."
Caquer nodded slowly.
"You--you didn't see evidence of any other--uh--wound?" he persisted.
"Earth, no. Why would there be any other wound? A hole through a man's heart's enough to kill him, isn't it?"
"Where did Dr. Skidder go when he left here?" Caquer inquired. "Did he say?"
"Yeah, he said you would be wanting his report, so he'd go back to his office and wait till you came around or called him. What do you want me to do, Lieutenant?"
Caquer thought a moment.
"Go next door and use the visiphone there, Brager--I'll be busy on this one," Caquer at last told the policeman. "Get three more men, and the four of you canvass this block and question everyone."
"You mean whether they saw anybody run out the back way, and if they heard the shot, and that sort of thing?" asked Brager.
"Yes. Also anything they may know about Deem, or who might have had a reason to--to shoot him."
Brager saluted, and left.
Caquer got Dr. Skidder on the visiphone.
"Hello, Doctor," he said. "Let's have it."
"Nothing but what met the eye, Rod. Blaster, of course. Close range."
Lieutenant Rod Caquer steadied himself. "Say that again, Medico."
"What's the matter," jibed Skidder. "Never see a blaster death before? Guess you wouldn't have at that, Rod, you're too young. But fifty years ago, when I was a student, we got them once in a while."
"Just how did it kill him?"
Dr. Skidder looked surprised. "Oh, you didn't catch up with the clearance men, then. I thought you'd seen it. Left shoulder, burned all the skin and flesh off and charred the bone. Actual death was from shock--the blast didn't hit a vital area. Not that the burn wouldn't have been fatal anyway, in all probability. But the shock made it instantaneous."
Dreams are like this, Caquer told himself. In dreams things happen without meaning anything he thought. But I'm not dreaming, this is real.
"Any other wounds, or marks on the body?" he asked, slowly.
"None. I'd suggest, Rod, you concentrate on a search for that blaster. Search all of Sector Three, if you have to. You know what a blaster looks like, don't you?"
"I've seen pictures," said Caquer. "Do they make a noise, Medico? I've never seen one fired."
Dr. Skidder shook his head. "There's a flash and a hissing sound, but no report."
"It couldn't be mistaken for a gunshot?"
The doctor stared at him.
"You mean an explosive gun? Of course not. Just a faint s-s-s-s. One couldn't hear it more than ten feet away."
Lieutenant Caquer clicked off the visiphone, sat down, and closed his eyes to concentrate. Somehow, he had to make sense out of three conflicting sets of observations. His own, the patrolman's, and the medico's.
Brager had been the first one to see the body, and he said there was a hole over the heart. And that there were no other wounds. He had heard the report of the shot.
Caquer thought, Suppose Brager is lying. It still doesn't make sense. Because according to Dr. Skidder, there was no bullet-hole, but a blaster-wound. Skidder had seen the body after Brager had.
Someone could, theoretically at least, have used a blaster in the interim, on a man already dead. But...
But that did not explain the head wound, nor the fact that the medico had not seen the bullet hole.
Someone could, theoretically at least, have struck the skull with a sword between the time Skidder had made the autopsy and the time he, Rod Caquer, had seen the body. But...
But that didn't explain why he hadn't seen the charred shoulder when he'd lifted the sheet from the body on the stretcher. He might have missed seeing a bullet-hole; but he would not, and he could not, have missed seeing a shoulder in the condition Dr. Skidder described it.
Around and around it went, until at last it dawned on him that there was only one explanation possible. The Medico-in-Chief was lying, for whatever mad reason.
Brager's story could be true, in total. That meant, of course, that he, Rod Caquer, had overlooked the bullet hole Brager had seen; but that was possible.
But Skidder's story could not be true. Skidder himself, at the time of the autopsy, could have inflicted the wound in the head. And he could have lied about the shoulder-wound. Why--unless the man was mad--he would have done either of those things, Caquer could not imagine. But it was the only way he could reconcile all the factors.
But by now the body had been disposed of. It would be his word against Dr. Skidder's.
But wait!--the utility men, two of them, would have seen the corpse when they put it on the stretcher.
Quickly Caquer stood up in front of the visiphone and obtained a connection with utility headquarters.
"The two clearance men who took a body from Shop 9364 less than an hour ago--have they reported back yet?" he asked.
"Just a minute, Lieutenant ... Yes, one of them was through for the day and went on home. The other one is here."
"Put him on."
Rod Caquer recognized the man who stepped into the screen. It was the one of the two utility men who had asked him to hurry.
"Yes, Lieutenant?" said the man.
"You helped put the body on the stretcher?"
"What would you say was the cause of death?"
The man in white looked out of the screen incredulously.
"Are you kidding me, Lieutenant?" he grinned. "Even a moron could see what was wrong with that stiff."
"Nevertheless, there are conflicting statements. I want your opinion."
"Opinion? When a man has his head cut off, what two opinions can there be, Lieutenant?"
Caquer forced himself to speak calmly. "Will the man who went with you confirm that?"
"Of course. Earth's Oceans! We had to put it on the stretcher in two pieces. Both of us for the body, and then Walter picked up the head and put it on next to the trunk. The killing was done with a disintegrator beam, wasn't it?"
"You talked it over with the other man?" said Caquer. "There was no difference of opinion between you about the--uh--details?"
"Matter of fact there was. That was why I asked you if it was a disintegrator. After we'd cremated it, he tried to tell me the cut was a ragged one like somebody'd taken several blows with an axe or something. But it was clean."
"Did you notice evidence of a blow struck at the top of the skull?"
"No. Say, lieutenant, you aren't looking so well. Is anything the matter with you?"