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10 March 2017 @ 12:10 am
_Black Point Clan_ part 7  
 

"Whopper? Where did that come from?"

"One of the twenty-first century Earths."

"One! I should stick you in an office to renormalize for a year or three." He turned back to watch the World weather forecast.

Ajha sniffed. "I'd just contaminate everyone else with strange ideas and vocabulary."

Restless, he prowled the house, then out to the street. He hiked out to the steep main street and took the tram down to the end of the run, walked across the small prairie to the bluffs and watched the ocean waves for awhile. Pretty and peaceful, but it doesn't help me figure out what the Greater Game is. Father has no real interest in the Patriarchy. Arlw is a rival in power, in competition with him for the leadership of the War Party. Does Father think the Patriarchy would allow Arlw to over shadow him? Or . . . who threw his hat in the ring first? Is Father luring Arlw into a time consuming commitment that will reduce his threat in Paris, in the future? He couldn't help but smile a bit as he realized he couldn't see his father being lured. He turned and walked back to the town streets. And pretended he didn't see the two cops keeping him in sight.

There was a note from the Fiend on his mini-comp. "Questions are being asked about you. Need details?"

He tapped back a brief reply. "No. I'm currently enjoying the experience of being the prime suspect in a murder investigation. Quite entertaining. I'm trying to solve it before the cops."

He was propped up against the wall in a crowded coffee shop when he spotted Xiat and her local Investigator pulling up. Xiat scanned the shop and spotted him watching her. She crooked a finger. He eased through the crush and joined her on the sidewalk.

"We'd like you to come down to the station and answer some questions. Why are you grinning?"

"That was just like in the vids. I feel like I should swagger and leer. By all means. Let's adjourn to the police station."

She opened the back door of a black car and closed it. Not at all chauffeur-like. He'd have to analyze how she managed that. Dominant body language, probably.

The first person to ask him a question was a Newsie who sprinted up as Xiat let him out.

"Ajha Clostuone, how does being arrested mesh with your pacifist standing as regards the Fallen?"

"Oh, they aren't arresting me." Ajha stood solidly and refused to budge at Xiat's expert attempt to unbalance him into motion. "I'm sure they'll figure out who did it quickly enough. Now, If I had killed Lord Udzi—which I didn't—now that would indeed conflict with my personal philosophy of mutual benefit, universal trade, and not being the stupid bully."

"Then what is this about?"

"No doubt they are hoping to settle the matter before the Convention, which will be a big enough fuss without an unsolved murder hanging about."

The Investigator interposed his bulk and chivvied the Newsie away. Ajha moved a split second before Xiat's next attempt to budge him. She staggered a bit and growled under her breath as she followed him through the door.

"Very funny. What was that about?"

Ajha cocked his head at her. "Surely you know?"

"You were trying to look innocent to the public."

"There. See? You didn't even need to ask." He allowed himself to smile faintly. "I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and not assume that you set that up on purpose to make me look guilty, allowing you to close the case and look good, over my dead body."

"I am not interested in looking good." Her voice went icy. "I am interested in finding out who killed Udzi Withione."

"Excellent. In that case, I will help you all I can."

The Investigator led them to a small bare room. A table, two chairs. All moderately worn and battered. "Where were you, the night of the ninth."

"As I told you, I sat out on the patio, and fell asleep."

"That is the stupidest thing I've ever heard."

"Well, I could lie and come up with something better, but really, I think I'm better off just sticking to the truth."

"We can hang you on that."

"Behead. Murder is a beheading offense. I'd simply appeal to the One, and the charges would be dropped. I did not kill Udzi Withione, nor anyone else, that night nor any other recently."

"Recently? Who did you kill, not recently?"

"I was active in the information acquisition phase of the assault on Helios, and since the assault, I've been on their colony planet, involved with the retrieval of our captives. I have yet to bother asking a name when I had to kill one of them. I suppose it's been six months now, since I was reassigned back to my previous post."

They frowned at him.

"How many people did you kill?"

"I lost track in the actual war part, it got a bit hairy. I'd guess a couple dozen. Grenades, you know? Before and after, on a one-by-one basis, eight. As the leader, giving commands to my team? Hundreds. We . . . twice encountered infantry units while departing with rescuees. And killed them in large numbers."

H watched them trying to digest that.

"So, I'm sorry if I seem a bit under-threatened, here, but, well." He shrugged.

Xiat pulled out her comm and poked at it. "Director? I'm sorry to bother you." She put a convincing laugh in her voice, a dimple showing as she smiled. "But is Ajha some sort of war hero, killing Helaos by the dozens or hundreds, or can I beat him up as a fraud?"

She listened for a long moment, sobering. "Thank you." She eyed Ajha in frustration. "Infiltrated behind enemy lines and held a merge center for half an hour until the troops could get there. Saved about a thousand students' lives. Medals and decorations. Then you went back and hunted down several hundred more, with a lot of blood shed. Almost all theirs."

"That isn't going to really help you, in this case." The Investigator said. "A jury would simply take it as proof that you will kill when you feel it is necessary."

"I'd argue that it shows that I consider a threat to an innocent person's life enough reason to kill. Removing one of three rivals in a rather meaningless election that my father is using as a Game point? Not even close."

"Do you think this is just a game to your father?"

"A game that he takes seriously. In my opinion, yes. He has not said nor hinted of such, it is only my opinion."

"Does he want to win enough to kill for it?" The Investigator leaned on the wall, unblinking eyes on Ajha.

"If you want to understand how the Game is played at that level, you should shorten your question. Does he want to win?"

Xiat's eyes narrowed.

The Investigator frowned. "All I ever see is the carousel of marriages and the Servaone women trying to move up. And the wreckage they both leave behind. I figure you're part of that wreckage. Your father dumps you, is ashamed of you, your mother blames you for her lack of marriageability, no women are interested in a Clostuone unless he's filthy rich. So here's your opportunity. Finally you can do something to make your father notice you. Maybe he'll even be proud of you. Find a spot in his Department for you."

Ajha sighed. "I've seen the wreckage, too. You think Clostuones have it bad? Talk to a Servaone sometime. All the women are so busy doing their duty for the One and collecting a tidy stipend to start up a business . . . maybe by the time they have two or three children they'll consider a Servaone husband. And maybe even have one of his children. But, to their shock and surprise, the Servaone men are already happily married to a Multitude or Halfer, raising families and working. I've been across and seen other ways of doing things. Some better, some worse. The better ones seem to involve long term single partner marriages. It all depends on the definition of better. And you're also right about my poor relationship with my father. But I'm not fool enough to think that a man who can watch me being given multiple medals while calculating the worth in Game points, is going to suddenly change into a warm loving Dad, no matter what I do. It just isn't something he's any good at, and I'd hate to try and estimate how much practice it would take to make him good at it. And I'm neither stupid enough, twisted enough or insane enough to think that he would thank me for committing a murder."

Xiat was still staring at the far wall. "I was a bit surprised when he accepted the nomination. He hasn't the time for it. And then Arlw jumped in, with a vengeance. If Arlw wins, he'll be leaking time and energy this direction. Slowly and constantly."

Ajha nodded. "That was my thinking. Anytime he looks to be gaining in the Game in Paris, a small kerfuffle here, and points are lost as he scoots out of town to deal with it. Over and over. I figure father is aiming at a Presidential run in either two or seven years. But that's just my analysis."

"Two years might be a bit soon." Xiat frowned at him. "Of course, the campaigning starts a year ahead of the actual election.

The Investigator swapped his gaze between them. "Are you saying this is all Presidential politics?"

"Not the murder." Ajha leaned back in his chair. "Probably. Probably the murder was committed by someone who really wants to be the Patriarch. Or hated Udzi and figured the race and the hordes of people in town would be a good screen. But there's also the possibility that—because of the coincidence with a time when I lacked an alibi—it could be an attempt to foul my father's reputation. Again, Paris politics, although whether the instigator is thinking of the presidency is unknown."

"So, how much does the Partiarchy mean to Ozdi and Arlw? Only Arlw would care about bringing down the Ax, in Paris. I can't fit Ozdi into that motive." Xiat drummed her fingers on the table.

"Let's be more practical." The Investigator peeled himself off the wall and sat down. Elbows on the table, he steepled his fingers and studied Ajha. "Opportunity and method?"

Ajha looked at Xiat. "Dinner on the ninth. I understand that Arja looked for me in my room, returned to say I wasn't there, and made a quick comm call before entering the dining room."

"I don't know about a call. But he did walk in a bit late, when he ought to have been with the rest of us."

"So he calls the professional assassin that was standing by. 'Do it now, Ajha's fast asleep and everyone thinks he's missing.' And there you go."

"And the assassin?"

"Well. That's the problem. Is it someone in our little circle, or someone unknown to us. I don't have the resources to check on people." Ajha shrugged. "Over to you."

The Investigator looked disgusted. "Why would Arja help kill Udzi? He's married into an alliance with the Ax, right?"

"Right. For direct points, or to be a well placed spy? Bringing down the Ax would be good for lots of points."

"A spy for Arlw?"

Ajha shrugged. "It's all speculation. Criminal investigation isn't my specialty. But I know the difference between speculation and evidence. We seem very short on the later."

"Yes." The Investigator frowned at him. "Thank you for your assistance, Info Leader. Do you need a ride home?"

"No thank you. I'd as soon walk."

"And talk to any Newsies you happen to find?"

"Yes. That too."

As he walked away he heard the Investigator mutter something about ". . . was that the most dangerous man I ever let walk out of . . . "

He barely got his grin under control as he looked for the newsies.

That was quite easy, in fact. They were waiting for him. Or more likely an announcement of his arrest.

"Info Leader, why have you been released?"

"Released? No, no, it wasn't anything so serious. The police are still in the early stages of the investigation, still interviewing people and collecting evidence. Although it would be handy if they could solve the murder quickly, so we could get our minds back to the conference."

"But why did they arrest you in the street?"

"Arrest? Don't be silly. That involves handcuffs and body searches and reading of rights and calling of lawyers and all that. I know you'd like something dramatic, sorry. They wanted to ask me about . . . well. I suppose I'd better not say. Don't want to step on the official investigation."

It was like waving a bone at a dog.

They all wanted to know what the police had, what evidence, what it had to do with him. He trailed newsies all the way up the hill—he walked, best way to lose out of shape newsies ever. He spotted his escorting police hopping the tram, and getting out one and two roads ahead. Unfortunately the Newsies thought of that too. He cut over to the boarding stable, was told all the rental horses were reserved, and in fact, gone at the moment. He looked around at the winter damp ground and the quagmire of what was usually a practice ring, and took himself off. He backtracked through the newsies, caught a tram up the hill and made it into his mother's house without having to slam the door in anyone's face.

***

"The most dangerous man? Possibly, sir. Question is, is he guilty of murder? And I just can't tell. It sounds like, from his experiences, that he won't crack under pressure." Xiat brought up her file on Arlw.

"Unless he's completely lost it, possibly something messed up by the Fallen magic." The Investigator shook his head. "A professional assassin? The sword work was a bit dramatic, but it was certainly a deliberate killing. Left handed, but what fencer hasn't tried fencing with his off hand? The bodysuit and chemicals, professional. One. Bloody. Hell. We're stretched, with this conference. I can't put people on every damned suspect."

"I think, sir, that a scan of public security camms might be useful. I'll try to pin down who has been to see Arlw this week. Or who met Arlw in public venues." She huffed out a breath. "If it was him, it was probably all set up before hand. I'll query about assassins with swords in the hush hush directorates."

"Then you'd better head back for dinner. And watch your back. However much I appreciate having your eyes in the household, I don't want to find out who your boss really is by having to explain your death to him."



Chapter Six

17 Safar 1407yp

Black Point Enclave, West Coast of North America

Ajha had time to clean up for dinner, and was delighted to find that his clothes had been cleaned while he wasn't looking. To his surprise, Whipper and Mushy were back, and looked sober. Xiat hurried into the Greatroom at the last moment, before his mother marshaled her guests for a procession into the dinning room. Ajki escorted her, held her chair and sat to her right.

Imgo and Arja sat their respective wives, and Ifbo looked startled when Poppy appropriated him as an escort. Xiat glowered at him, so Ahja offered an elbow each to Krazy and Cookie. But the young women all wanted to sit together, so Ahja wound up with Imgo on one side, and Krazy on the other.

"So, any Game points in play, or are you really on vacation?"

Imgo half smiled. "Observing. Your mother's laying down the hatchet and allowing Ajki and the Ax to act in concert has been a startling development. Next week, back in Paris, things will get lively as everyone adjusts to the new power center."

"Umm, adjust to the open recognition, don't you think? They've very rarely been opposed on anything but fripperies."

"Fripperies?" Across the table Xiat was watching him carefully.

"Issues that were highly visible, but structurally unimportant." Ajha smiled to see Mushy and Whipper paying attention.

Imgo and Arja were both quiet, thinking back perhaps, and trying to find a major issue the Minister of Audits and the Director of External Relations had clashed on.

Finally Imgo nodded. "The Ax audited him, personally, a month ago. Everyone figured it was animus. One. And now you think it's going public?"

"Oh yeah."

Across the table and to his left, Arja was looking thoughtful. Ajha trusted that his phone was at least being traced, if not tapped.

The maids hustled out with the soup. Down the table, Mushy and Whipper sat up straight. They looked happy, and perhaps as if they were trying to not drool in public.

Maybe I should have given more thought to disbursing that wine.

"So, the Convention opens formally, tomorrow. Who's going to watch?"

Krazy wrinkled her nose. "It's three days long. Well, two and a half, since they won't start till noon tomorrow. I suppose we should all listen to Uncle Axti's speech the day after, then we vote, and the third day is the official tally, declaration of the winner, and the swearing in."

Phoebe giggled. "That will be funny! Either Uncle Ax will have to swear his personal allegiance to Arlw or the other way around. I'll bet whichever one loses will be chewing ground glass."

"Or sound like it." Jain smirked a bit.

Fibber shook her head. "Laugh if you want, if the Ax loses he's going to be furious. Especially about swearing fealty."

Ajha noticed the Ajki was also keeping quiet. The soup plates departed and the salads arrived.

"I never did pickup the other candidates positions on anything. How does Ozdi think the redistribution should work?"

Arja shook his head. "He wants to ignore it. Somehow he managed to not be affected."

Fibber snickered. "Oh, so the rumors that he really doesn't ever drink water are true?"

"Could be. A bit impractical, if you ask me. His son may be the only boy born this winter with those three genes. Frankly, I think he's too old to be able to comprehend the magnitude of the problem." Arja stabbed an innocent tomato and transferred it to his mouth.

"Oh, hardly the only." Xiat shrugged as they looked her way. "The Bioattack concentrated on the larger enclaves and cities. That ninety-five percent number that gets tossed around is only true in a few spots. Central Paris, Alcairo, New York, Azteca . . . Black Point is too small and hard to reach to have been directly affected. And bottling methods removed the ribozymes."

"But . . . " Sue trailed off. "Well, I certainly didn't get tested. Did anyone here? Who dares admit it?"

Up the table, Kiaj snorted. "People travel. They go to Freeport or Sanfran for dinner. The whole world was exposed."

Xiat nodded. "But the percent of people unaffected is closer to thirty percent than five, and I'll bet it's lower for Black Pointers who live in the enclave."

Ajki shrugged. "We're one of the smallest clans. We can least afford to lose Withiones. And with so many of us spread out over the globe, we have a smaller than usual percentage of our clan living in the enclave. Which is why this vote really does matter. We're going to have some rough adjustments ahead, no matter what. Redefinition won't change reality. Nor will sticking our heels in and pretending nothing has changed."

"I heard Udzi was more realistic. First, redefine. Then go kill all the Fallen magicians." Poppy stopped with a forkful of lettuce in midair. "Which is pretty much Arlw and the Ax's stands, come to that."

Heads turned Ajha's direction.

He shrugged. "I suppose this late in the day it's worthless to throw blame around. But kidnapping Nighthawk was a bad idea. Bound to have nasty repercussions no matter what. We'd have been better off apologizing and not retaliating. They've already said they could replace those genes. If we asked. Nicely. And then trying to kill . . ."

"Apologize!" Arja looked at him in disbelief. "Are you insane?"

Ajha shivered. "No. Just experienced, I think. When you've gone down the wrong road, you can backtrack or you can cut across. But just driving blindly straight ahead, refusing to admit you've erred is the one course guaranteed to not get you where you want to go."

The salads were finished quickly in the appalled silence. Large bowls of vegetables, bread, mashed potatoes were delivered, and plates with steaks were whisked from kitchen to table. Ajha savored his first bite. They just didn't get the spices quite right on the Earth books. Of course they also used real meat, from actual animals. Beef was one of the few he preferred from a vat. And the natural fruits and vegetables craze was very welcome.

Kiaj cleared her throat. "Apart from the odd philosophies of his son, which he does not share, thank the One, I think Axti's practical knowledge of finances will be an asset for the Clan."

Nods and murmurs of agreement. Conversations picked up again.

Am I insane? Ajha considered his recent spate of outbursts dispassionately. I've never gone around just saying things like that. I know when to shut up, so maybe I'd better start doing it.

***