Iron Belly stepped out of the darkness, sword dripping with blood.
“Are you alright, colonel?” the major asked.
Ba grimaced. “The day started with a flogging and ended with assassins. I’m looking forward to tomorrow.” He yanked off the mask from one of the dead men. “Recognise him?”
Iron Belly crouched beside the corpse. “Yes. He’s a paper soldier. General Gao does the old accounting trick, claiming he has more men than he does to receive additional funds and pocketing the pay of ‘paper soldiers’. He keeps a handful of real scoundrels on the books, like this man. They get a full salary, but only do dirty work for the general once or twice a year.”
I went there to kill myself, not to solve the mystery.
I kind of hoped it was true, that there really were ghosts in the old railroad warehouse. Maybe they would grab my soul and keep it there, and I could hang around and see if anyone missed me. Then again, leaving was the point. Nothing good would ever happen in this shit town.
The stories had been going around for weeks, bigger every time because people here did nothing but talk. Odd flashing lights. Noises – rattling, a dog barking, a baby crying. They said the ghosts of the old railroad’s dead had come back to ride the warehouse down into hell.
I said this town was hell, and it was just trying to get away like the rest of us. Besides, the reservoir was its destination; the river had eroded lower and lower into the canyon over the decades, leaving the warehouse perched on the edge of its seat, waiting for something to happen. One of these days, the warehouse would escape. Tonight it was my turn.
General Gao stared for a moment at Ba, eyes wide with shock. Then he threw his table across the hall, crockery and wine bottles smashing to smithereens.
“You dare approach your commanding officer when your armour is dripping with blood? This arrogant contravention of military regulations might have been tolerated in Tiangjin, under your lax leadership, but here in Ganyang we do things properly!” General Gao shouted. “Report tomorrow morning. You’ll be flogged in the square.”
Ba clenched his fist to stop himself drawing his sword. “General, please enlighten me. Which military regulation does my bloody armour contravene?”
Colonel Ho got to his feet. “Questioning the orders of a superior officer is clear insubordination. Unacceptable conduct!”
Victor sat on the edge of the bed, surrounded by underwear and socks and ladies’ things that he wasn’t quite sure what they were or where they were meant to go exactly. He frowned and blinked once, slowly. He tore his gaze away from the chest of drawers and wondered if he should call his wife…
…Elsa lost socks. Not purposely – it was just something that happened, something that happened to everybody, so she didn’t mind or take any particular notice. Except when she had to buy new socks, or worse, when socks she’d just bought went missing. There was nothing worse than being mildly inconvenienced. Elsa lost other things too, on occasion, but Victor always remarked upon the missing socks. There were supposed to be two socks after all, a pair, so one sock on its own was not right.
“Connor, put that down, poppet, there’s a good boy,” Elsa said, looking away from her washing basket for long enough to stop her grandson swallowing one of her Wade Whimsies. It was the owl one too, her favourite. She would hate for him to swallow that one.
She cleaned toddler drool from the porcelain owl and set it back on her Welsh dresser before lifting Connor from his chair and placing him on the kitchen floor. He gurgled happily, said, “Na na na,” and then proceeded to pull dirty laundry from the basket.
“Well… very impressive,” General Gao said. “Major Cho, you know where White Wood Fortress is?”
Iron Belly cleared his throat. “Yes, sir.”
“The bandits have been allowed to dwell there too long. Colonel Ba, take Major Cho and fifty men and destroy them,” Gao commanded.
Ba’s eyes gleamed at the thought of laying waste to criminal scum. He bowed his head. “Yes, sir. The worms and crows shall feast upon them.” He glanced at Iron Belly, but his face was full of troubles.
“Off you go,” Gao said. “Don’t come back until they’re dead.”
Ba and Iron Belly marched from the hall, leaving Gao alone with Ho.
“Are you sure this is going to work, sir?” Colonel Ho asked.
The safety pod’s almost completely circular bench is hard and there is no room to stand up with the table in its otherwise empty centre. Detective Torvinne Bergholm has to find a distraction from the discomfort.
She ups a holographic screen from the seam in her spacesuit’s forearm and stops short of activating her favourite games. That would be rude if her murder suspect and interviewee, Oona Campbell, were to open the door unannounced. So she reads her case notes: the suspicious death of Mike Benson, found near this mine’s face with his helmet’s faceplate smashed in, which had led to total air loss in his spacesuit. Locals, here on Miranda, had put the cause of death down to ghosts: clearly ridiculous. Hence the constabulary sent her all the way from Earth to investigate. Good job she likes weirdo puzzles.
She rereads Oona’s profile. Instead of, as expected, working alongside him, Oona said she had to get away from the mine’s face and was sitting in this pod to calm down at the time he died. Why would a practical, level-headed person be deterred from earning drilling premiums? Especially as this mine is a safe one. There was that word in the report again, ‘iceborne’. What the hell did that mean?
Ba left the Hall of Righteous Bloodshed and marched to the quartermaster. Everyone had seen him ride in with Governor Rong so, despite not yet having his seal of authority, the quartermaster readily provided him with a fresh uniform, armour and weapons.
Ba thanked him and piled the equipment and clothing into a huge heap.
“Aren’t you going to get changed out of those rags, sir?” the quartermaster asked as he carried the bundle to the door.
“General Gao’s having me clean the stables. I’m not changing into silk to get it covered in horse muck.”
He retrieved his horse from outside the hall, filled its saddlebags, and rode the short distance to his new home. It was small and sparsely furnished but had all the necessities of life. Ba had never spent much time at his house in Tiangjin either, and having his own place outside the barracks, away from General Gao, seemed like a fine gift. He left behind his horse and new gear, and loped back to the military district, pausing to requisition some spades from the quartermaster.
The muttering and murmuring of a thousand angelic voices filled the stark white space. Seleniel smiled at the newbie and patted the chair beside her. “Come, sit down.” She picked up her headset and switched on her computer. “Our shift starts in a minute. It’s 5 a.m. on the US East Coast. That’s our region. What was your name again?”
“Amiel.” The newbie sat, adjusting her bright new halo self-consciously.
“Welcome to comms central,” Seleniel said warmly. “So, did they explain the job?”
“We… warn people of things?” Amiel answered hesitantly. “The mortals, we pass them messages?”
“That’s right. We catch them when they’re in that in-between state, not quite asleep, not quite awake. That’s why they call us the Dawn Chorus. It’s remarkably effective. The mortals never listen when they’re conscious, and they always seem to forget their dreams. But at the awakening… It’s perfect.”
Ba Renzhong screamed a war cry as he charged like a rhino into the midst of the bandits. A spear jabbed at him, but he ducked beneath it and tackled the brigand to the ground. His elbow knocked the criminal witless, and Ba grabbed the spear for himself. Seeing that he knew what he was doing, the other bandits surrounded him in a circle, swords and spears ready.
“There’s a dozen of us, and one of you,” one crowed. “We’ll slice you into mince!”
Ba rolled his neck around his shoulders. “I’m Ba Renzhong, known amongst men of honour as the Purple Demon. Any who flees will be spared. Those who stay will die.”
The outlaws looked at one another, eyes wide in fear. But none fled, for they had numbers on their side. Let this be a lesson to you, reader. A dozen sheep are no match for a single lion. Numbers mean nothing against skill.
Ba thrust his spear left and right, every stroke spraying red. The bandits’ blades came his way, but he dodged low and parried high. For all their attacks, the miscreants didn’t even manage to cut his robe. In a few moments, only three of them were left. One threw down his sword and ran, but Ba hurled his spear and impaled the criminal, pinning him to a tree.
“Please, gentlemen, make yourself comfortable.”
I polarised the windows against the glare of a SoCal summer as they took their seats. My two visitors were the proverbial ‘odd couple’: Air Force General Branning looked uncomfortable just being out of uniform while his aide, Major Cain, would probably have remained cool, calm and collected while wearing a tutu and whistling ‘Dixie’.
Branning shifted in his chair, glowering, while Cain remained bland and unreadable. He crossed his legs. “Very well, Mister Conway, you have our attention.”
I inclined my head. “The fact that you came to me in the first place, a civilian private investigator, meant you didn’t want an internal enquiry that would have to log its findings. Now, the general here is a shoe-in as head of the Joint Chiefs but you want to be sure, absolutely sure, that nothing is going to come crawling out of the woodwork once his enemies start digging. Nothing that will tarnish his impeccable military record. I get that, the Air Force takes care of its own.”
Cain smiled with zero sincerity. “So we understand each other. Now, did you uncover anything worthy of our attention?”
I sat back and steepled my fingers. “A Nazi flying saucer powered by the souls of death-camp inmates crashed at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1946. It was a German prototype salvaged at the end of World War Two, being tested by the United States Army Air Force.”