Talk:VIII: Night of the Long Knife

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VIII: Night of the Long Knife

I had a hard time sleeping that night. I was exhausted, and not only from exertion and gunshot wounds. Clarissa’s wonderful machines were healing me at a rate that taxed my reserves and made me ravenous about every forty-five minutes. But sleepy I was not. Lying around in bed all day wired up like Donovan’s brain is not exactly conducive to a solid night’s hibernation.

I’m not the warm-milk type, and booze has never helped me sleep. This anarchist’s Disneyland apparently hadn’t any prescription laws. Ed’s medicine cabinets contained everything from aspirin to morphine. Ironically, the dozen plastic bottles Clarissa had left contained mostly vitamin E, bone meal, and ascorbic acid tabs the size of my badge. For inducing sleep, she preferred using a cross between voodoo and electronics she called electronarcosis. But it wasn’t working very well for me.

Lying restlessly in the dark, I tried arguing Ed’s terminal out of something to read. Then I heard it: a humming, soft but unmistakable. I might have slept through it. I turned. In the dim backlight of distant street lamps, I could make out a shadow against the windowpane.

My Smith & Wesson lay on the bureau, but I’d insisted on keeping the derringer under my pillow, and that made me mad. It was likely to ruin my hand, and all I needed now was another set of Basset coils. Nevertheless, I reached slowly behind my head, found the tiny, inadequate handle, and cocked the contraption under the pillow. One shot. I’d better make it a good close one.

The window, hinged at the top, opened outward. A shadow silently threw its leg over the sill. One step across the floor, two, three. Starlight glinted on naked steel.

He was on me! A huge knife swung in a glittering arc and I twisted the gun to bear as his blade tangled in the wiring around me, skittered along the cast on my arm, and was deflected. The derringer went off in a blinding explosion, missing his face by a handspan. I dropped the gun from stinging fingers, grabbing at his wrist. He jerked it back—I let him, pushing the razor-sharp edge toward his face. It caught under his jaw, pivoting where it bit, slicing flesh and corded muscle, spraying us both with blood. He fought the blade as it trembled a quarter-inch from his carotid, both of us weakening fast in the deadlock. I heard bones breaking in his wrist.

Suddenly he let go, ripped himself from my failing grasp, and dived head-first out the window as—Slap! Slap! The glazing dissolved in a million crystalline shards.

The lights came on. Ed slumped against the door frame, a spidery wisp of smoke drifting from the muzzle of his .375. I sagged back into the sweat-soaked bed; Clarissa’s careful circuitry a dangling ruin. The bloody knife lay on the blanket, millimeters from my shaking, gun-bruised hand. Ed’s glance traveled from my blood-streaked face to the foot-long blade. “Don’t you know better than to try shaving in the dark?”

“The gore belongs to the other guy.” I mopped my face with the sheet. There was dampness lower down, too—trust my bladder in a crisis. “Think you hit him?”

“I doubt it.” He examined the empty window frame, leaning outward for a moment. “He left his ladder behind. Wait a minute … something here just below the sill.” He held up a plastic box the size of a cigarette pack, hanging from a skein of wires. “A defeater. Damps the vibrations caused by forced entry. Complicated, and very expensive. Only the second one I’ve seen since—”

“If that thing makes a humming sound, he should demand his money back. That’s what gave him away.”

“Excess energy has to be given off somewhere—heat or sonics. Maybe it just wasn’t his day.”

I snorted, surveying the shambles. “You didn’t see him lying on the ground out there?”

“No. Missed him by a mile. He probably picked up a fanny full of splinters, though.” He nodded toward the shattered window.

I grinned. There was an odd, oily gleam around the edges of the frame. Maybe just an odd effect of the light. “How’d he survive the fall?” I looked again. The amoeboid glistening was still there.

“Simple, with ten-foot juniper bushes packed around the base of the house. Think you’ll be all right if I look around a bit?”

I hesitated. “Before you go out … it’s the sheets—I’ve kind of embarrassed myself, it seems.”

He didn’t laugh. “My fault, really. I considered putting on extra security, but decided the autodefenses would be enough. Now I’ve let you get attacked again, in my own home.”

“It all worked out okay, didn’t it?”

He shook his lowered head. “You don’t understand,” he said softly, “You’re my guest, ill and gravely wounded—and not, as it appears, adequately—”

“You didn’t invite me to bleed all over your driveway! You saved my life then, and showed up just in time tonight. The sheets will wash, but all this bullshit won’t!”

He breathed deeply. “Nevertheless, I’ll hear nothing more about charity. I’ve shown how much my charity is worth!” He started for the door, but the knife caught his eye and he paused, then reached for it.

“Fingerprints!” I hollered, “Don’t screw up the evidence!” I flipped a corner of the blanket over and picked it up by the blade. The damned thing was almost a short sword, fully eighteen inches from pommel to point, razor-sharp to the hilt and halfway along the back. It must have weighed two pounds.

“Fingerprints?” Ed protested. “What kind of evidence is that?”

I sat, trying to take it in. “Look—our worlds may have differences, but this ain’t one of ’em! No two fingerprints are—”

“I’ve heard that theory, but what good does it do? We still have to catch the culprit, and if he’s already caught, what’s the point?”

“Jesus Christ! Don’t you people keep any kind of records, licenses, anything that uses fingerprints for identification?”

“People wouldn’t stand for such a thing. I wouldn’t.”

Anarchy has its drawbacks, especially for cops. “Suppose we lift these prints—then we could prove we’d caught the right guy!”

Ed considered. “Provided individual fingerprints really are unique. Can you prove that?”

It was my turn to consider. I’d always taken it for granted: millions of prints on file with the FBI, no two sets alike. But if the feds ever ran across a set of ringers, they’d never tell. They might even rub out the poor slob with the duplicate digits! It’s a sad world. “I never heard of anyone disproving it. Get me some talcum powder and Scotch tape.”

“What’s Scotch tape?”

“Grr! Some sort of transparent sticky ribbon, like for wrapping packages. I hate to start giving lessons, but it looks like you could use this one.”

“There’s probably a thing or two we could teach you, as well,” he said good-naturedly.

“I’m learning every minute. Don’t forget the clean sheets.” He left me wondering how we’d get all the wires back into place. Clarissa was going to be one upset cookie. I glanced at the window. Something definitely odd going on there. Seemed like more glass, now, than Ed’s autopistol had left.

Ed came back, a bundle under one arm and a satisfied look on his face. “I checked around a bit. The bushes under this window are pretty flat. Couldn’t have been a comfortable landing. There’s a faint trail of broken glass halfway to the street—quite invisible, I had to use instruments. No blood, though.”

I laughed. “Don’t feel too bad. I missed him at six inches!” I pointed to the derringer lying on the floor, realizing for the first time that my fingers weren’t broken.

Ed picked up the little gun, looked it over with disbelief, and put it on the bookcase. “Window’s coming along fine,” he said, running a finger over the edges. “I’ve called Professional Protectives. They’re sending a team over. Where do you want this stuff?”

I took the talcum powder. “Hope I haven’t lost my touch since I saw this in Crimestopper’s Textbook. This should stick where his hands left an oily residue. Then we’ll pick the powder up with some tape, and—”

Ed held up a hand. “Sounds kind of messy. Wouldn’t it be simpler to let the Telecom do it?” He picked up the clipboard and pulled loose a little knob that trailed a fine, retracting cable. He passed the knob over the surface of the knife handle. “Now we’ve got a permanent record. Want to see?”

I nodded dumbly. The wall lit up, showing the six-inch handle expanded to six feet, its entire surface visible on the screen.

“Now we’ll try a little contrast enhancement.” The image began to unravel a millimeter at a time, replaced, line by line, in sharper detail. Dust particles, minute scratches began to disappear. Most of the prints were smeared, except for a beauty at the back, near the guard. “More ultraviolet,” Ed said to himself, and the smears began to fade. Along each pristine ridge, individual pore-prints could now be discerned.

“Okay, genius, I’m impressed. What about the overlapping ones?”

More adjustments. The prints moved and separated like an animated movie title, arraying themselves like an FBI reference card. This seemed to satisfy Ed. “Now let’s do the alarm defeater.” He picked it up by its wires and let the Telecom look it over. Images were duly refined and placed below those from the knife, each paired with its identical mate, proving, unnecessarily, that our intruder had handled both objects.

However, at the bottom of the screen was a third row. “Where somebody else handled the defeater. Probably me.” He scanned his fingers and let the camera snap back. The bottom row shifted and danced, identified Ed’s thumb and forefinger marks, leaving four strange prints. Ed looked highly pleased. “You know what, Win? I’ll bet whoever owns these prints hired our knife-wielding friend.”

“Or sold him the defeater, Sherlock. Don’t get ahead of yourself.”

“No comment.” Ed grinned. “You want your bed changed?” He reached for the bedclothes he’d brought with the useless powder and tape.

“Yes—and don’t remind me there’s another use for that talcum! What about all this gadgetry?”

“I think we can hook you back up again. Clarissa left instructions in the ’com. I’d hate to wake her at this hour. Slide into this chair while I straighten things out.”

“Ed, is there anything that Telecom of yours won’t do? Must be a hell of an expensive rig.”

“It came with the house, like the plumbing and the auto-valet. But it won’t change this bed, worse luck.” He opened a wall panel and chucked the damp bedding inside. I sat in the chair, wiping the toad-sticker with a pillowcase. The blood was dry and flaked off easily.

“At least,” Ed said, tucking in the last corner, “you’ve won yourself a handsome Rezin.” He levered me back into bed and began attaching wires.

“Resin? What are you talking about?”

“The blade. It’s a Rezin.”

“Looks like steel, but if it’s some fancy Confederate epoxy—”

“Are we speaking the same language?” Ed looked exasperated. “R-E-Z-I-N. Named after the inventor, Rezin Bowie of Tennessee.” He sorted cables, looping them back over their supports.

“Any relation to Jim Bowie?” I asked, examining the wicked “false” edge along the back of the knife.

He thought for a moment. “His brother, I believe—one of the Alamo victors, and later President of the Republic of Texas?”

I laughed. “The way I heard it, Bowie’s side lost at the Alamo. Although the delay cost Santa Anna the war.”

“It cost Santa Anna his life. And any big knife sharpened half way up the back is called a Rezin. Quite a promoter, that Bowie fellow.”

“So I’ve got myself a genuine Rezin. Spoils of war, and all that?”

“You think its former owner will come back and claim it? Besides, it’s the custom.”

I looked at the heavy brass guards projecting from the handle. “Guess I’ll have somebody cut these off, though.”

“For plague’s sake, why?”

“Considering all I know about knife fighting, it’ll make it easier to remove when somebody takes it away and shoves it up my ass.”

TOMORROW WE’D TACKLE our mysteries one by one. With two attacks catching me flat-footed (pardon the expression) in twenty-four hours, how I got here would have to wait until we found out who was putting the hit on me, and why. Maybe it was just a case of mistaken machine gun, and they were really after Ed. Somehow I doubted that. On the other hand, if it was me they were after, they might know how I’d gotten here, and by implication, how to get back. On the third hand (third hand?) I had a lot to learn about detecting in the North American Confederacy.

“Okay,” I said, enmeshed again in therapeutic wiring. “Fingerprints are out.” Ed was having coffee and pie. I was sucking vitamin-sludge through a flex-straw, and not liking it. “What about the Frontenac? Anyone in the neighborhood—Lucy maybe—remember the license plates?”

“What’s a license plate?” He finished up his pie as I watched jealously.

“Well, scratch that line of investigation. It’s a large metal tag you screw to your bumper—skirt—which the state issues for a sizable fee. Funny thing—if you’re caught without one, you just might end up manufacturing them!”

“How’s that?” Ed lit up an enormous stogie, leaned back, and inhaled.

“They’re made by convicts on big stamping machines. How about giving a pal one of those hawsers you’re smoking?”

Ed looked puzzled. “Slaves make license plates, and if you don’t … purchase? … one, you become a slave yourself? A convenient circularity for someone.” He looked at his cigar. “And Clarissa said no smoking until your nitriloside reserves are built up.”

I tried to explain how convict employment—along with conscription and jury duty—isn’t considered slavery, but he just snorted. How could I explain that licenses are necessary to public safely, especially when his culture apparently found no use for such a concept? “Look here, Ed, how many people get killed on your roads every year?”

He puffed his cigar again, and I began to look at homicide from an entirely new angle. “No idea at all.” He reached for the Telecom pad. “Last year, around five or six hundred if you discount probable suicides.”

“What? Out of what population—and how many of them drive?”

More button-pushing. “Half a billion in North America, and maybe three vehicles for every person on the continent.”

“Shuddup and give me a goddamned cigar!”

“Your funeral, Lieutenant.”

I lit up ecstatically. Needles and dials began doing funny things, but I ignored them. Anyway, the final problem—how to get back to the good old U.S.A. if it still existed—was unresolvable at the moment. Which brought me back to the same old issue: how come history was different? Not an urgent matter, perhaps, but something I could pursue lying in bed, using the same Telecom my host brandished so unfairly.

And perhaps there was a bit of urgency to the matter, at least for the sake of an old policeman’s mental health. Ed hadn’t stopped with the fingerprints on the knife handle, on the alarm defeater, nor with those on the tips of his own fingers. After the security team had arrived, he’d insisted on showing my poor bruised hand to his marvelous machine. After all, we still had four extra prints to account for.

So maybe it was important to figure out where our histories diverged, maybe the most important thing of all.

Ed and I have the same fingerprints.