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08 March 2017 @ 08:54 am
_Black Point Clan_ part 5  
 

"Oh, the first sirens were about six." Her voice dropped. "They must have gone to wake him for breakfast."

"I suppose so." He watched as windows opened and sills were examined. Figures appeared in the backyard, examining the ground, and surveying the rising hill behind the house. And, of course, taking in the spectators. Ajha could hear the exasperation in the cop's voice as he sent someone to shift them away.

To his surprise, it was Xiat who climbed the hill.

"For the sake of the One! This is a crime scene. If the killer used this path, you're walking all over his footprints."

Mushy shrugged. "You're sure it's murder? Which of the other candidates do you think is behind it?"

Her voice chilled. "Go home. Stay there until someone comes to ask you questions. Do not use the path. Walk only on undisturbed ground. If you see a disturbed path that you can't account for, mark it with a dropped handkerchief, and do not touch it, do not follow it."

Ajha nodded. He stepped back off the path. The damp mulch beneath the trees soaked through his shoes and chilled his toes. Behind him, Whipper and Mushy were arguing.

"Perhaps I should escort you." Xiat sounded pissed. Her voice dropped to a cold growl. "Go now."

Ajha felt Mushy divert the mental force behind the command and start to form a return. He snapped out a quick slap on Mushy's shields that brought his cousin around ready to fight. "Xiat is acting in an official capacity, Mushy. Let's go." He eyed Whipper briefly before looking back at Mushy.

Mushy stalked past him, shooting a nasty look at Ajha as he passed.

"Get off the One damned trail." Xiat snarled.

Mushy sidestepped with a dismissive shrug of one shoulder and kept walking. Whipper followed, and Ajha brought up the rear. Ajha kept his eyes open, but there was no sign that anyone had come down the hill besides them. Halfway up, Mushy tackled him. Ajha slipped on the wet needles and made a complete hash of a simple hip throw. They rolled almost down to the path. Ajha shrugged off the flailing punches, closed up his mental shields and let the pair of them pry away at them while he took an opportunity to cuff Mushy's jaw and knock him into a tree. He shrugged off a grab and trudged up the muddy hill. For a moment it looked like Whipper was going to defend the patio from all comers. But he scowled and turned and walked away instead. Ajha combed the needles out of his hair and changed clothes.

"What the One is Mushy's problem?"

"You mean besides being a middle-aged Withione? He won't have enough points to marry for another twenty years, if then. A half drunken quickie with a Multitude, or Halfer once or twice a year is pretty damned frustrating, as you ought to know. Yesterday, he was only getting a quarter the action us higher Withiones got."

Mushy walked in and glared at him. "Damned women act like they're better than us, but they sell themselves like whores to the highest bidder, and still cheat if something better comes along."

"Xiat isn't playing the Game. She's a police officer. You need to keep track of business versus personal situations, cousin."

"Stupid Game." Whipper sighed. "I can't even find a High Player to run dirty errands for."

Mushy sagged suddenly. "Yeah. We're just pathetic."

Ajha walked out, leaving them to deal with their own problems. He wondered how straightforward the murder would be. An arrest before the convention would be nice. Four days till the vote.

***

The police who showed up at his mother's door were business suited and flashing local badges. Ajha let them in. "Still local? I guess I figured this would go either regional or Directorate, quickly."

"Why Directorate?" The Investigator looked him over.

"Because of the number of Directorate and Ministerial level people here, specifically the victim—it was Udzi, wasn't it? The victim being a rival of the Minister of Audits. That level of people tend to tromp all over mere local cops. In any case, how may I assist you?"

"We will be interviewing a number of people. A small room would be useful."

Ajha nodded and led the way to his mother's parlor. Fibber, Jain and his mother looked up as he tapped and walked in. "I beg your pardon, Mother. The Criminal Investigation people need a small room to talk to people in. This is about the only one that doesn't have three beds crammed into it."

His mother glowered at the police. "I suppose you think my former husband would resort to such crudities to deal with a rival?" Her voice was icy as she rose and stepped toward the door. "Or that I would assist him?"

The Investigator nodded. "Those are the sorts of things we need to look into, madam. Perhaps we should speak to you first, so that we needn't interrupt you again."

Fibber and Jain walked out looking more put out than worried. Xiat narrowed her eyes at Ajha, and he backed out reluctantly. Not my job. Not that criminal investigation ever was.

He wandered back to his bedroom. Mushy and Whipper shut up abruptly as he walked in. He picked up his new bracer and cinched it around his right arm, weighted it down with the comm, minicomp, and various electronic IDs and walked back out, returning silence for silence. For this he didn't need his big computer.

He found a comfortable chair in the Great Room, put up his feet and started tapping out a detailed report of his every move. Not that it was going to help him a bit.

"Why the gloomy expression?" Xiat stared down at him, arms crossed.

"I ducked out of the party at Aunt Zowm's. Sat out and admired the sunset, then the stars, then fell asleep. Woke at two when the three cousins came reeling in. Unless Udzi was seen alive after then . . . oh, it hardly matters, Los Tres were drunk, took antihol and crashed. They wouldn't have noticed me coming and going anyway."

Xiat scowled. "Was Mushy always such an ass? Did I really not notice that when I was younger?"

"He's worse. He's realized that he not only has no wife, he has no prospect of getting one for another twenty years. He has few points and no one who cares even a tiny bit about him. It's . . . not a happy period of some men's lives."

"You haven't got an attitude."

"No, but I have a fascinating job that has given me a different perspective on a lot of things. And it's kept me completely away from the Game, thank the One."

"I see. Well come talk to the Investigator."

"Right. I didn't catch his name."

"Efku."

"And then there's these naming conventions. That's probably worse than Ushy. And whoever decided that W was a vowel should be disinterred and hung."

"At least we don't have to actually pronounce it, in common usage. How'd you like to say Eew-mo instead of Emo?'

"Actually it would fit the man better, but Aunt Zowm would hit me." He stepped back into the parlor and nodded politely. "Investigator."

"I need to know where you've been and who you've talked to these last three days." The Investigator paused as Ajha proffered his minicomp. The Investigator scanned it into his, and from the way his eyes moved, read a bit of it as well. "I'll also need to know who you've talked to about Clan matters prior to coming here."

"I have been posted across for years. The Director recalled me for the convention." He pulled his public ID card out of the bracer and proffered it. It carried all the information on his passing through dimensional gates, as well as plane, train and corridor travel. "I gated back on the evening of the seventh, shopped for up-to-date clothes, ate at the Guest house, corridored to San Francisco, hopped the train. While enough gossip was going around at dinner in the guest house for me to hear about everything, I didn't really have a conversation with anyone, nor express an opinion, even though some people asked. I saw none of the powerbrokers until I arrived here at the house and spoke to Director Ajki."

"Who is you mother's brother."

"Yes."

"He is an avid supporter of your father's, your mother is a tepid one. How about you?"

"Well. Tepid, but I suggest you keep in mind that they all three play the Game. Avid and tepid . . . " Ajha shrugged.

"Will you lower your shield and answer two questions?"

"Yes." Ajha took his shields down sufficient for a clear harmonics match and kept them down as the Investigator matched a deep rhythm.

"Did you kill Udzi Withione."

"No."

"Did you conspire to kill Udzi Withione."

"No."

"Thank you, Info Leader."

Xiat followed him out. "Why are you so dense, Ajha Clostuone? I felt that. You could have easily lied to us."

"Yes. But I didn't."

She studied him. "I don't think." She walked down the hallway ramp toward his room, and returned moments later escorting Whipper.

While he was waiting around he opened his comp and registered his vote for Ajki as subclan representative. The voting subclans weren't quite the same as the historical subclans that they all had as part of their names. They were, roughly, family groups of about fifty, computer selected to make them equal in size, and keep the number of representatives under a thousand. Subclan Abadan, just for today's voting purposes, included everyone in the house except Imgo and one of the maids. Along with Uncle Afla and Aunt Tuyq and their household, and a batch of other names he barely recognized. His father and grandfather and Aunt Zowm would be a completely different subclan.

Whipped stomped out a half hour later. "Nosy . . . I don't think I really needed to tell him everything that happened last night. Not in front of Xiat. It's not right for a pretty Withione to be a cop."

"What did you have to do? Name all the Servaones you laid?"

He shifted uncomfortably. "I had to admit that I hadn't a clue what their names were. I mean, it's their version of the Game. Any kid of mine could be a Neartuone, qualify for all the enrichment credits, preferential housing and schools. They didn't want to know anything about me, either." There was a hint of a whine in his voice.

Ajha spotted Xiat escorting Mushy, arm twisted against his back, up the ramp and most likely, into the parlor. He was there a lot longer, and sullen when he returned. "They sure asked a lot of questions about you, Ajha. Got problems, do you?"

"You mean, the murder of one of my father's political rivals? Conveniently located a few hundred meters away? While all possible witnesses to my innocence are off at a party? Yeah, you might call that a problem." He stretched. "Or maybe it's an opportunity to gain some points in the Game. Not, mind you, that I'm playing, but you two might want to do some plotting."

Whipper leaned toward him. "What the One are you talking about?"

"Point one. I know I didn't do it. Point two. I know where you two were, and don't think I won't check. So I'll soon know that you didn't do it. Point three. Father has guards, Grandfather has staff, the media are paying attention. I'll still check, but I'll bet I can prove that they didn't do it. Personally. Point four. We need to determine where the best prospects of all the other people in the family lie. Especially Uncle Ajki, Subminister Imgo and Subminister Arja."

"Are you insane? How do we check out directors, sub-directors and sub-ministers. That's playing a bit outside our league, isn't it?" Whipper was leaning away from him, now.

"Yep. Think of the points, if you brought one of them down."

"One!" Mushy sagged back and stared slack jawed at him.

"And, of course, there's always Arlw Withione and Ozji Withione."

"You are totally insane. What do you expect us to accomplish?"

"How about a drunken orgy with my mother's kitchen staff? Find out if they saw anyone leaving, or simply didn't see them around for awhile?"

They exchanged looks.

Mushy swallowed. "I'm pretty good at drunken orgies."

"I'll give you a little help. Wine of the Gods. Filtered, not the von Neumann version. But it's very liberating. And enabling. And do not blab, for the one's sake, that you are investigating. In fact, if you say I'm in deep trouble and laugh about it, that would be excellent."

***

After a frustrating confrontation with her thankfully distant relatives, Xiat returned to assist, and observe.

The local investigator was solid. He interviewed quickly, put up with a minimum of the younger men's complaints, and had been quite thorough. He was even good at the truth match, a tricky skill. And even Ajki had failed to overawe him, and admitted to a night out with three old friends.

"What do you think? They were all strong minded." She looked over at him.

"The few who opened up were all strong enough to fool me. The Clostuone surprised me, at that. I didn't much like the way the young ones all tossed him to the wolves. They didn't seem to hate him, though. Apart maybe from Ushy."

"There was a bit of an altercation this morning. But Ajha was always a loner in school. He wasn't even really chummy with Ifbo."

"Do they think the Ax was behind it? Maybe they're throwing his unwanted child out to stop the suspicion from rising further."

Xiat nodded. "Or maybe a boy who was never loved is trying to gain his father's approval."

"But independently or is the Father, Uncle or Grandfather, directing him? His Uncle spoke well of him."

"And he's left handed."

"I noticed he was wearing the bracer opposite the usual." The Investigator eyed her. "These are all your relatives as well. How well do you know them?"

Xait sighed. "When Aunt Kaij and the Ax 's son tested as a Clostuone, the family just . . . blew up. My dad was a half brother of Kaij's and Ajki's, and when my mother, a half sister of the Ax took the Abadan side of the rift, she was cut off, but she and Kaij weren't actually friends, so I barely knew that side of my family either. Axti and Ahvi are complete strangers."

"Family feuds are always the worst. Well, is it time to go ask the Ax?"

"I believe it is."

She'd seen the Ax's family home as a backdrop on vid news often. Driven by on the way to and from other places. She hadn't realized how large it was. The impressive frontage was balanced on the ridge top for a breathtaking panoramic view of the coast. The three floors gained a walkout fourth half basement under the back half as the ridge fell away into the river gorge beyond. The half basement was decked out like a winery, complete with oak barrels in a climate controlled room. Other rooms had a press, stainless steel and glass vats.

"Looks like you have everything but the vineyard." The Investigator looked around thoughtfully. Both Ahvi and Axti had been down here when they arrived.

"The vineyard is about thirty miles away. I lease it now, and just take a few bushels of grapes for my hobby." The older man eyed them sharply. "But that's not what you're here about, is it?"

"I'm afraid not. You've heard the news about Udzi Withione."

The Ax nodded, looking irritated. "It's going to turn this conference into a spectacle. Bad enough already. Now, have you established a time of death? We were both in San Francisco at eight, I had a studio interview. Then we drove back. Stopped for a late dinner at Freeport. Best seafood around. Got here after midnight. Caught the news, caught up on mail. Made a few phone calls. It was ten in the morning in Paris. Went to bed. What part do you need details for?"

"The coroner may pin it down more closely, but ten at night to midnight looks critical."

The old man nodded. "That's easy enough. We got into Freeport about ten thirty. The bridge toll will confirm when we left San Francisco. We took our time eating, left at perhaps eleven thirty."

"Thank you. That should be easy to check. Do either of you have any information about this death?"

The Ax shook his head.

Ahvi hesitated. "Ozji has a mean streak. And it's getting worse with age. But that's just gossip. Slander, actually."

"Minister Axti, do you know where your son was during that time period?"

The Ax's eyes narrowed suspiciously, but he answered neutrally. "I had very little to do with raising my son, and have even fewer encounters now that he is grown. I haven't seen or spoken to him since about four in the afternoon, yesterday."

"Thank you, Gentlemen."

They withdrew and didn't speak until they were in the car and driving away.

"Well. If either of them did it, it wasn't with their own hands." Xiat stated the obvious.

"But they were so well covered, one can't help but think they knew when Udzi was going to die."

"And there's the son. Smart as a whip, accomplished. Mentally strong. But still just a Clostuone. What would he do, to gain his father's favor." Xiat pulled out her comp. Four messages from the office. Hopefully at least one with information about Ajha.

"We've got time to check on this party at Lady Zowm's."

"Take a left on Spinnaker."

"There isn't any place in town more than fifteen miles from the scene of the crime." The Investigator sounded aggrieved. "Even so, why must so many suspects be within walking distance? This place is one street down hill from the crime scene, and perhaps half a kilometer away directly, or two kilometers by the road. A half hour's brisk walk."

Aunt Zowm sniffed and pointed them toward the servants' quarters.

The most talkative of the four just shrugged. "It was a change from the three idiots here. Ewmo the Great, Yukky Who Deserves His Name, and Orc Who Insults Imaginary Monsters By Adopting Their Name. Not much of a change, mind you, but good genes."

Xiat sighed. "Did you happen to catch any names? Or should I bring out the pictures?"

That got a snicker. "They weren't enough fun for us to want pictures." The one in the cook's hat was young enough that she'd apparently been partying with the three maids.

The chatty maid jumped in "I got the names. At, Bo, Ask Me, Whipper—I had real hopes for that one, but he was as boring and unimaginitive as the rest—Mushy and Echo."

"Nine guys?" Xiat tried to not sound appalled. "Busy night, eh?"

"Nah. They talk a good story, but they wear out fast." The one with the curly black hair giggled.

"Umm, no one named Ajha?" Xiat flicked up a holo picture.

Heads were shaken, they all looked at each other. "The party was kind of all over the house, the Lord and Lady went out to a party. Not our kind of party." The cook hastened to add. "They only go to the fancy canapés and drinks on trays kind. But we'd have noticed that one if he'd been here."

"Did any of the young men leave, during the party? Did you lose track of any of them?"

Giggles. "Oh yeah, but one of us was usually with the one who was out of sight, you know?"

The cook sniffed. "Which of you went with that pathetic Bo person? I was surprised he was even a Neartuone."

The black haired girl grinned. "Me. I got all six of the new meat. Anyone else manage that, eh?"

"Oh, so you're the one that wore them out." The mousey brown haired girl finally spoke up. "I finally had to settle for Bo, he was the only one still capable of anything by one in the morning."

"We sent them all off at two." The Cook said. "We needed to get some sleep, in order to have breakfast ready for the Lord and Lady."

"You're very formal."

"Oh yes, we all work in Paris, and believe me, it's all about titles and respect and face."

Xiat thanked them for their time and hunted down the Investigator, who was just finishing up the trio of louts. Ewmo, Ukky and Orqu. They'd been tops at just about any team sport, ready and willing to gang up and crush the opposition. Mushy and Whipper had been a milder version, and Ajha and Bo had stuck to the solitary sports. Fencing, now that she thought about it.

The investigator looked at his comp. "The office has set up interviews of Arlw and Ozji tomorrow morning, and afternoon. Shall I pick you up at six, and will you share your reports?"

"Yes. I'll be ready at six, and yes, you'll get copies of my reports."

He looked a little skeptical, he'd probably managed to check her public history sometime today.

But he dropped her off at Aunt Kiaj's home and she sought quiet to write everything up. It was pretty straightforward. Pity. She'd actually rather liked Ajha.