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CHAPTER ONE :
The first thing I noticed when I opened my apartment door was the woman standing there. She was young, late teens or early twenties, her clothing a conservative dark gray, her hair strikingly blonde. She was slender, nearly gaunt in fact, and her face, while pretty enough, was drawn and taut. The glitter of a silver necklace peeked out from her open collar, with a matching twinkle from a ring on her right- hand ring finger.
All that I noticed peripherally, though. My main attention was on the gun she was pointing at me.
"Easy," I cautioned, my eyes flicking once around the room in case I'd somehow arrived at the wrong apartment door and my key had somehow managed to open it anyway. But it was my furniture, all right: old and mismatched, with a thin layer of dust marking the fact that I hadn't spent a lot of time here in the past year. "Let's not do anything we'll both regret."
"Come in," she ordered. Her voice was cold, a really good match for her face.
Briefly, I considered trying to outrun her reflexes by ducking back outside into the hallway and making a dash for the stairs. But the self-rolling carrybags that had followed me from the elevator were still behind me, and I probably couldn't get out without tripping over them. Besides, even if I could outrun her reflexes, I couldn't outrun a 5mm thudwumper round from her gun.
Possibly my gun, actually. It was hard to tell one gun from another when all you could see was the view down the barrel, but that could very well be the Glock I kept holstered under the tea table she was standing beside.
She was still waiting. I took a couple of steps forward, bringing myselfand my obedient luggage fully inside the room. Just to prove I knew the routine, I reached behind me and pushed the door closed. "Now what?" I asked.
"First tell me who you are," she said.
"I'm Frank Compton," I said. "I live here."
Prove it so that she would put away the gun? Or prove it to confirm that I was the guy she'd come here to shoot? I glanced around the room again, looking for some clue as to what was going on.
It was only then that I noticed that the layer of dust that should have been covering everything was not, in fact, actually there. I took a third, longer, look, this time spotting the fact that the stack of magazines and unanswered mail on the tea table had been subtly shifted since my last brief time at home.
Which suggested that the woman facing me hadn't simply nipped in five minutes ahead of me, hoping I'd show up and play skeet for her. She had, in fact, moved in.
"What, you've been here this long and haven't looked through my photo albums?" I asked, focusing on the woman again.
Her lips compressed briefly. "No, I have," she conceded. "Mr. Compton, I need your help."
I shook my head. "I never discuss business when there's a gun pointed at me."
Slowly, she lowered the weapon. It was my Glock, all right.
"My name's Lorelei Beach," she said. "My sister's in trouble."
"Sorry to hear that," I said. "What does that have to do with me?"
"She's trapped on New Tigris," she said. "I need your help to get her out."
"How do you get trapped on New Tigris?" I asked, walking over to the couch and sitting down. My carrybags followed, rolling to a halt by the corner of the tea table.
"I mean she can't get out," she said with a flash of impatience. "There are some bad people trying to find her, and they're watching the spaceport."
And New Tigris had only one spaceport, or at least only one place where torchships were legal to land. "She owe them money?" I asked.
"Of course not," Lorelei said, a bit stiffly.
"Then why do they want her?"
"They want to hurt her."
"So call the cops," I said. "How about putting that gun down before someone gets hurt?"
"The police can't help us," she said, some desperation creeping into her voice. The gun stayed where it was, hanging loosely at her side. "You're the only one who can."
"I'm flattered," I said. "I also don't believe it."
"It's the truth," she insisted. "Why else would I have waited for you this way?"
"Free rent?" I suggested.
Her cheeks reddened a little. "It was the only place I felt safe."
"Especially since most New York hotels don't stock guns for their guests?"
She lifted the Glock as if she'd only just remembered she was holding it. "They're after me, too," she said in a low voice.
"I'm sorry to hear that," I said. "Feel free to call the cops on your way out."
"If they catch me out there, they'll kill me," she said.
"Oh, come on, Ms. Beach," I growled. "Really. You think I haven't heard that one before? It's the last card everyone tries when they want to con someone into doing something."
"I'm not trying to con you into anything," she insisted.
"Could have fooled me," I said. "There's an emergency women's shelter right down the block. Feel free to go there and tell them your troubles. Maybe they'll put you up for the night. Maybe they'll even talk to the cops for you."
"The shelter can't help me," she said. "Neither can the police."
"You won't know until you try, will you?"
She took a deep breath. "She should still be in the Zumurrud District of Imani City," she said. "She'll wait for you to contact her. Her name's-"
"Ms. Beach, I already told you I'm not interested," I interrupted, standing up again. "Furthermore, it's been a long day and I'm very tired."
"Her name's Rebekah," she went on, the words coming out in a rush like a countdown sprinter trying to beat the clock. "She's ten years old, blonde-"
"Ms. Beach, do I need to call the cops?"
Her throat tightened. "No," she said, finally moving toward the door. "Would you at least think about it?"
"Sorry, but I'm otherwise employed at the moment," I said. "You wouldn't believe how complicated my life is these days."
Her lips twitched. "Actually, I would," she said. "Good night, Mr. Compton. If you change your mind-"
"Good night, Ms. Beach," I said. "Just leave the gun on the side table by the door."
She hesitated. Then, turning her back on me, she set the Glock carefully onto the table. She turned back, her eyes searching my face, made as if to say something else, then nodded silently and left.
For a long time I just sat there, too tired even to get up and double- lock the door. I'd been run through the wringer over the past few weeks, getting chased across half the Twelve Empires by the remnants of the Modhri group mind that wanted to take over the galaxy and everyone in it.
This most recent skirmish, over an obscure set of Nemuti sculptures, had ended more or less all right, though I was starting to realize that victories against the Modhri were seldom really clear- cut. Still, one could only do what one could do.
Especially given the somewhat pathetic state of our side of this undeclared war. About all that stood between the Modhri and his dream of galactic conquest were the seven- legged Spiders who controlled the Quadrail system linking the galaxy's inhabited worlds. Assisting the Spiders from the shadows were the remnants of the Chahwyn, a secretive race who had genetically engineered the Spiders into existence in the first place over a thousand years ago. The rest of the opposition consisted of a few stray individuals like me who had wandered or blundered onto the battlefield.
And neither the Spiders nor the Chahwyn could fight.
My half- glazed eyes drifted to the Glock on the table, and I felt a belated twinge of conscience. I actually could have let her take the weapon-I also had a backup Heckler- Koch 5mm hidden beneath my bed. And if the young lady was really in danger . . .
Impatiently, I shook the guilt away. If she was in danger, she needed to call the cops. That was what they were there for.
Collecting together my last waning bits of energy, I got up and double- locked the door. I turned to the table and reached for the Glock.
And paused. Sitting on the table alongside the gun, nestled between its frame and trigger guard, was the ring she'd been wearing.
I picked it up and took a closer look. It was a silver band, with no stones or other additions. The design was simple, but had a certain elegance to it. It was also clearly handmade.
And the fact that she'd left it behind probably meant she intended to return.
Dropping the ring in my pocket, I returned the Glock to its hidden holster beneath the tea table. Then, leaving my carrybags where they were, I staggered off to bed. Ten hours of sleep, and I might finally feel Human again.
I didn't get ten hours of sleep. I got exactly four hours before the sound of my door chime dragged me awake again.
I pried my eyes open and focused on the bedside clock. Three- fifteen in the morning. Even teenage clubbers had called it a night by now.
The chime came again. Fumbling for my robe, I worked into it with one hand while reaching under my bed for the Heckler- Koch with the other. There were very few people who paid social visits at three in the morning, and most of the ones who would be interested in my door weren't the type I wanted to meet unarmed.
The Heckler- Koch's holster was empty. Apparently, I hadn't sent Lorelei into the wilds of New York unarmed after all.
The door chimed again. Padding my way silently to the front room, I retrieved the Glock from beneath the tea table and stepped to the side of the door. "Who is it?" I called.
"Frank Compton?" a voice called back.
"Who is it?" I repeated.
"Police, sir," he called back. "Would you open up, please?"
I keyed the viewer. There were two men in uniform out there, all right, one of them pressing an authentic- looking NYPD ID against the plate. Dropping the Glock into my robe pocket, I keyed open the door. "I'm Officer Bagler, sir," the cop said, holding up a reader as he compared my face to the picture on my official government record. "Would you get dressed, please? We need you to come with us."
"What's the problem?" I asked, not moving.
"There's been a disturbance, sir," he said in that official give- nothing- away voice I'd often used myself during my years with Western Alliance Intelligence. "Detective Kylowski needs to see you."
"Then Detective Kylowski can come here," I said.
"Please don't make me insist, sir," Bagler said. His eyes flicked to my sagging pocket. "Just leave the weapon here, of course."
"Can you at least give me a hint?" I asked.
He sighed silently. "A handgun registered to you has been involved in a murder, sir," he said. "Now, will you please get dressed?"
They took me to West Seventy- fifth Street and the familiar blazing lights and yellow tape of a crime scene. A dozen more cops were already on the scene, the uniformed ones guarding the perimeter and directing traffic, the plainclothes contingent milling around in the cold November air, collecting evidence or scanning for clues.
In the center of the stage were the guests of honor: one male, one female. Their torsos were covered by preservation cloths, but I had no trouble recognizing the dark gray clothing the woman was wearing.
Lorelei had said she was in danger. I'd been too tired to care.
A middle- aged man with receding hair and a serious seven- o'clock shadow stepped in front of me. "Compton?" he asked.
I pulled my eyes away from Lorelei's body. "Yes," I said.
"Detective Kylowski," he identified himself, holding out an ID badge. "Sorry to drag you down here at this time of night."
Sure he was. "What happened?"
"I was hoping you could tell me," he said. "Neither vic has any ID, and we haven't been able to track them down."
"The woman came to my apartment to night," I told him, deciding to skip over the fact that she'd already been there when I'd arrived. "She said she was in trouble and asked for help."
"And you said . . . ?"
"I told her to call the cops or try the women's shelter and sent her on her way."
"After giving her one of your guns?"
"I didn't give her anything," I said. "Obviously, she helped herself."
"Without you noticing?"
"I was very tired," I said. "I still am."
"Uh- huh," he said, looking closely at me. "And you're sure this is the same woman?"
"I recognize her clothing," I told him. "I doubt there are two women dressed that way who've had access to my apartment lately."
"Don't you think you should at least take a look at her face?" he persisted, gesturing me toward the bodies. "It'll only take a minute."
"If you insist," I said, frowning as I walked over with him. Usually homicide cops weren't so eager to foist the details of their gory little world on people.
"This might shock you a little," he warned as he crouched down, his fingers getting a grip on the edge of the preservation cloth, his eyes locked unblinkingly on my face.
"Thanks for the warning," I growled. Did he think the sight of a couple of dead bodies was going to shock an ex-Westali agent? "Go ahead."
He flipped over the cloth.
And I nearly lost my dinner.
Lorelei's face above and in front of her ear was blood- spattered but mostly intact. Her head and neck below the ear, in contrast, were effectively gone, shattered into a mess of blood and shattered bone and pulp.
I twisted my face away from the sight, keeping my stomach under control by sheer force of will. I was still standing there, staring at a storm- sewer grating, when Kylowski took my arm and steered me away. "You all right?" he asked.
"How do you think I am?" I managed between clenched teeth. Turning my face away from him, I smiled hard, an old trick I'd learned for suppressing the gag reflex.
"I understand," he said. "Come on-have a seat over here."
I let him sit me down on the curb. "I don't suppose you have any idea why anyone would want to do something like that," he went on, sitting down beside me.
I shook my head. My stomach was starting to recover, but my brain was still reeling with the shock of the mutilation. "Looks like a ritual murder."
"Yeah, that was my first thought, too," Kylowski said. "Trouble is, we don't have any of the other usual trappings. No robes, no weird jewelry or tattoos, no strangled chickens. Not to mention that they were killed and mutilated here on the street and not in some abandoned ware house or tenement."
"Maybe it's a new-" I broke off as a key word abruptly penetrated the haze of nausea. "They were mutilated?"
"That's right," he confirmed. He was back to scrutinizing my face. "Both of them were done the same way."
I hauled myself to my feet, my stomach suddenly forgotten. One mutilation was a sick perversion. Two mutilations was a potentially intriguing pattern. "Let me see," I said.
We retraced our steps to the bodies. Kylowski crouched down beside the man and twitched aside the cloth.
His head behind the ear was a copy of the mess that was now Lorelei's, with the lower part of the skull torn to shreds. But there was one vital difference between his upper face and Lorelei's: right in the middle of his forehead was another thudwumper hole. "Which of them was shot with my gun?" I asked Kylowski.
"Funny you should ask," Kylowski said. "Both of them."
I frowned at him. "Both of them?"
"Near as we can tell," he confirmed. "Kind of a puzzle, isn't it?"
I stepped back over to Lorelei's body and lifted the cloth, searching her torso. This time I spotted what I'd missed on the first go- around: two small wet spots where blood had oozed rather than flowed.
The marks of snoozer rounds. "So much for your big puzzle," I said, pointing to them. "This guy and at least one friend got the drop on Lorelei and got in the first shot. Once she was out, they took her gun and did all this."
"The vic's friend did this to him?" Kylowski asked, gesturing to the dead man. "That's one hell of a friend."
"Yes," I murmured, staring at the man's mutilated head as it suddenly made sense. The plane of destruction torn by the thudwumper rounds had sliced right across the lower part of his brain.
Right where the collection of polyps that formed a Modhran colony would have been located.
The men who had assaulted and killed Lorelei were walkers.
I looked at the man's closed eyes, a shiver running through me. One of the creepiest aspects of the Modhri group mind was the way it could infiltrate other living beings, Humans and Halkas and Bellidos, setting up small, sentient colonies within their bodies that could telepathically link with other nearby colonies to form a larger and smarter mind segment.
The puppetmaster scenario was bad enough. What made it worse was the fact that the walkers themselves were completely unaware that they'd been drafted into the Modhri's little war of conquest. Most of the time a polyp colony lay quietly, controlling its host with subtle mental suggestions that the host would usually obey, coming up with the most bizarrely convoluted rationalizations afterward for his or her behavior. Under more extreme conditions, though, the colony could push the host's own mind and consciousness aside and take direct control of the body.
The Modhri hadn't infiltrated the Terran Confederation nearly as extensively as he had most of the other governments and cultures around us, but I knew he had a few walkers down here keeping an eye on things. It was a good bet that Lorelei had somehow wandered into his sights and been eliminated.
But why? The Modhri didn't kill just for the sick fun of it. Had Lorelei known something the Modhri didn't want getting out? Had she been another Spider agent like me, someone the Spiders had neglected to tell me about?
Or was it something to do with her sister? The sister on New Tigris, the girl Lorelei had said bad people were trying to find?
"Well?" Kylowski prompted.
"Well what?" I countered, stalling for time while I tried to think. To me, what had happened here was now obvious. Lorelei had shot and killed the first walker, but had been nailed with snoozers before she could take out his companion. The Modhri, rightly guessing that her gunshot wouldn't go unnoticed or uninvestigated, had had the second walker obliterate the dead man's polyp colony, lest an autopsy discover it. He'd then created the same damage to Lorelei's head to make it look like ritual murder or a psycho killer.
But knowing the truth was one thing. Talking about it was something else. The galaxy at large was unaware of the Modhri's existence, let alone his plans and ambitions and techniques, and for the moment those of us in the know wanted to keep it that way. "Okay, so maybe friend was too strong a word," I added. "Either way, there was a third person on the scene."
"Obviously," Kylowski said. "That still leaves us with the question of why he took the time to do all this. Especially since multiple thudwumper shots draw a lot more attention than just one or two."
"I can't answer that," I said, which was perfectly true if slightly misleading. "Yeah," he said. "You always load your guns with thudwumpers?"
"I load them with snoozers, like my permit specifies," I said. "It doesn't take a criminal mastermind to change clips."
"Assuming he or she can find a supply of thudwumpers for that new clip."
"Finding thudwumper rounds doesn't take a criminal mastermind, either," I said. "I presume some other gun fired the snoozers into Ms. Beach?"
"Small- caliber Colt," Kylowski confirmed. "So her name was Lorelei Beach?"
"That's the name she gave me, anyway," I said. "By the way, did any of your people remove anything from either body?"
"No," Kylowski said. "Why, is something missing?"
"She had a silver necklace when she was at my apartment," I said. "It's not there now."
He made a note on his reader. "Why was she at your apartment?"
I shrugged, running a quick edit on the brief conversation Lorelei and I had had. The fact that her attackers had been walkers changed everything. "Like I said, she told me she was in danger and wanted my help," I said. "That's all."
"And instead of helping you sent her out." He nodded back toward her body. "Into this."
"If I'd known this would happen, I wouldn't have done that," I said stiffly.
"Obviously," he said. "Any idea what she might have been doing this far from your place?"
I shook my head. "None."
"Heading for Central Park, maybe?" he persisted. "Or to see some friend who lived uptown?"
"I said I don't know."
He pursed his lips. "Okay. What did you do after she left?"
"I double-locked the door and went to bed."
"Any way to prove that?"
I grimaced. Here was where it was going to hit the fan. "Not unless we had a cat burglar working the neighborhood who looked in my window."
"Yeah," Kylowski rumbled. "See, here's my problem. Four problems, actually. First, by your own admission you met with one of the vics a few hours before her death. Second, you have no alibi for the time of the murder."
"You must be joking," I said. "Cops and vampires aside, precious few people have alibis for this hour of the morning."
"True enough." Kylowski raised his eyebrows. "Problem number three is that the murder weapon hasn't been recovered."
I frowned. "I thought you said it was my gun."
"Oh, it was," he assured me. "We were able to do a micro-groove analysis on a couple of the slugs. Most people don't even know we can do that."
"I know it," I said. "So what would be my reason for taking the gun away?"
"Because you also know that the chances of recovering a slug in good enough shape for a positive groove ID are pretty small," he said. "The point is that in my experience there's only one reason why a murderer risks getting caught with the murder weapon on him. Namely, if he knows it can be traced to him."
"I already told you Ms. Beach stole it."
"Did you report the theft?"
"I didn't know it was gone until your buddies came knocking on my door an hour ago."
"Uh- huh," he said. "And that brings us to problem number four. The witness who called it in also reported a man of your general height and build running from the scene."
I sighed. "Is there any point mentioning how many people in Manhattan match my general height and build?"
"Not really," Kylowski said. Half turning, he gestured to a pair of nearby uniforms. "Frank Compton, you're under arrest. For murder."
Excerpted from Odd Girl Out by Timothy Zahn Copyright © 2005 by Timothy Zahn Published in November 2008 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.