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Illusion of Perfection


Alexandra A. Cheshire


Howling Wolf Books



Copyright 2017 Alexandra A. Cheshire

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


All characters, events and places in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual people or places past or present is strictly coincidental.


Table of Contents

Prologue

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Epilogue

About the Author

Other Works by Alexandra A. Cheshire


For Mrs. F. Down


Prologue


“What do you think?” The realtor parks at the curb in front of a neat white house with deep green trim. The front yard is equally neat, with bright flowerbeds and a low, white fence.

Keith and Beth glance at each other, then at their two children. Their daughter, Bethany, is gazing around wide eyed. Their son, Kevin, is absorbed in his handheld video game and doesn't appear to notice anything.

“It's very nice,” Beth can't quite suppress her enthusiasm, “But what's the inside like?”

“Just as nice,” The realtor assures her, “Come look.”

All five get out of the vehicle and pass through the front gate. The realtor unlocks the door and ushers the family inside.

The main floor consists of a living room, den, dining room, and kitchen. All the rooms are empty, clean, and brightly painted. One set of stairs leads up to a second floor with two good size bedrooms, a large bathroom, and a master suite including a bathroom and gigantic closet. A second set of stairs leads down to a finished basement divided into a rec room, workshop, laundry room, and storage.

The back door off the kitchen leads onto a neat, sturdy sundeck. Beyond it, there are several nice shade trees and a garden plot. The lawn itself is short, thick, and free of weeds. The fence is higher than in the front, but not so high Keith can't see the next door neighbour working in his garden.

The neighbour, a late middle aged man, seems to realize he is being watched, because he looks up.

“Hello, sir.”

“Hello.” Keith goes over to the fence.

“Thinking of buying?” The neighbour eases himself to his feet.

“Thinking of it.” Keith tries to sound noncommital.

“You won't find a safer neighbourhood anywhere,” The neighbour smiles proudly, “Best place in the world to raise kids.”

Keith nods.

“Not many places come up vacant in these parts,” The neighbour continues, “No one wants to leave. This's as close to paradise as you'll get in this lifetime.”

“Keith!” Beth's voice comes from inside the house.

“Go on,” The neighbour smiles knowingly, “We'll be seeing more of each other.”

Keith nods politely and goes inside to find Beth leaning against a kitchen counter.

“Oh, honey, this's even better than I imagined,” She doesn't even try to contain her excitment, “I never thought a place like this could exist. It's perfect.”

“And safe,” The realtor adds from the doorway, “I could quote you the statistics, but you wouldn't believe them.”

“Nothing bad ever happens?” Scepticism dampens Beth's enthusiasm.

“I wouldn't quite go that far,” The realtor shakes his head, “Still, even vandalism is rare here. Break ins almost unheard of.”

“What about assault or homicide?” Keith demands.

“I've never heard of either here. And you'll find the neighbours haven't either.”

Beth glows visibly at the news.

“Dad!” Bethany comes racing into the room, “There're kids outside! Playing outside!”

Keith and Beth glance at each other. The realtor smiles knowingly.


One


Two Seasons Later

The blaring of the alarm clock cuts into Keith's consciousness. Groggily, he extends a hand to silence it. The house becomes quiet. Too quiet. A half forgotten smell dredges up a kaleidoscope of nightmarish memories which jerk Keith wide awake. He rolls over to check on Beth, only to find her pale and still. Tentatively, he pulls the blankets from her chin.

Beth's throat has been slashed so deep her head is half severed from her body. Terror and panic grip Keith. Springing from the bed, he races into Kevin's room and rips back the blankets.

Kevin's throat has also been slashed, just like Beth. In the next bedroom, Keith soon discovers Bethany has been killed the same way.

Keith snatches up the telephone from his daughter's desk and punches in the universal emergency number. An eternity of dead air is followed by a calm, cool, electronic voice.

“The number you have dialed in invalid...”

Keith stares at the telephone in stunned horror for a few too loud heartbeats. Then he hits zero. Another eternity of silence is followed by another calm, collected voice.

“Operator. How may I be of assistance?”

“I need emergency!” Panic makes Keith's voice high and harsh.

“Please stay on the line while I redirect your call.”

Another silence is followed by half a ring and a lazy male voice, “Yeah?”

“Is this emergency?”

“Yeah... mostly,” The voice sounds a little more alert, “Where are you?”

The conversation doesn't inspire confidence in Keith, but there doesn't seem to be any alternative.

“Two eleven Larch Street.”

The next words over the line are muffled, although not so much Keith can't understand them.

“It's the ex-cop on Larch,” Then the voice is clear again, “Someone's on their way.” After that, the line goes dead. Keith stares at the telephone in stunned disbelief.

You won't find a safer neighbourhood...

The words ring hollowly in Keith's head as he returns the telephone to the desk.

...Assault or homicide...? ...Never heard of...

Keith slumps to his knees, his eyes going to his daughter's dead face.

There're kids outside! Playing outside!

...As close to paradise... No one wants to leave... Best place... to raise kids.

A knock on the front door recalls Keith to the present. Numbly, he gets to his feet and goes down to see who it is. Through the glass in the front door, he can see a young man and a young woman. Both are dressed in jeans, shirts, and leather jackets. Neither is displaying any kind of identification. Keith opens the door a crack.

“Yes?”

“You reported an emergency, right?” The young man sounds businesslike, “What's happened?”

Keith stares in disbelief, “Who are you?”

“Do you have an emergency or not?”

“Well... yes... but...”

Keith is half aware of the door jerking out of his hand before everything goes black.


Too bright light pierces Keith's eyelids, then a shadow comes between him and the light. Opening his eyes, Keith finds himself in a sterile white room with a man in a lab coat leaning over him. At first, Keith is disoriented and confused, but soon nightmarish memory returns, leaving him even more disoriented and confused.

“Wh... whe... where...?” His voice doesn't want to work properly.

“Good,” The man in the labcoat smiles, “You're conscious. I'm Doctor Javier Gorse. Keith Marryw, isn't it?”

“Y... yes... but where...?”

“Your head may be sore for a few days,” Doctor Gorse ignores the question, “Although I wish Natika would show a little more restraint.”

“Huh?” Keith is only getting more confused, “Who?”

“All in good time,” Doctor Gorse helps Keith to sit up, “You've suffered a very traumatic experience and you're in shock.”

“But how? Everyone's always saying how it's such a safe neighbourhood...”

“Ninety-nine percent of the time they're right,” Doctor Gorse sighs grimly, “But, to tell you the truth, even the other one percent isn't usually this bad. Nothing like this has happened in over a century.”

“Is that why there isn't proper emergency service?”

A wry smile replaces the grim expression, “Welcome to Gangland.”

“What?!” Keith can't believe he heard correctly.

“I said welcome to Gangland. What exactly that means you will, undoubtedly, learn before too long,” Doctor Gorse takes a deep breath, “In the meantime, I have orders to make sure you get dressed and eat a little. Even if you wanted to sleep, it could be a very long time before you get a chance.”

The thought of sleep makes Keith go cold all over.

“Anyway,” Doctor Gorse recalls Keith's attention, “The clothes are your own and at least try to drink something. It will be a long day.” The doctor leaves the room and the door closes with a distinct click.

Keith eases himself to his feet. One side of his head is tender and his left arm is sore. Closer examination reveals a tiny bruise on his shoulder. There is also a cotton ball taped to the inside of his elbow.

Then he looks around the tiny room. Aside from the bed he had been lying on, there are a table and two chairs. Propped on one of the chairs is Keith's hiking pack. In it are two changes of clothes and basic toiletries.

Once Keith is dressed in old jeans and a faded flannel shirt, he turns his attention to the covered tray on the table. The sight of food turns his stomach, but he manages a few sips of what appears to be a protein shake.

Finally, there is a light tap on the door, then it opens and a stocky young man sticks his head inside.

“Keith Marryw? Grab your shit an' come with me. Don't matter what she decides to do with you, you ain't comin' back here.”

“She?” Keith frowns, “Who are you people?”

“Ain't my place to answer questions, sir. But you need to come with me.”

Keith slings his hiking pack over one shoulder and grabs the shake from the table. Then he follows the stocky young man from the room.

The corridor is just as white and sterile as the room had been and there is no sign of other people. At the end, they enter an elevator, which takes them up three floors. The next corridor isn't as bright, but just as empty. At the far end, they turn a corner and continue to a door halfway down. The stocky young man ushers Keith inside, then leaves. Again, the door closes with a distinct click.

This room looks almost exactly like a police interrogation room. Resigned to another wait, Keith sets his pack against the table leg and claims a chair. However, almost as soon as he does, the door opens.

The young man and woman enter, closing the door behind them. The young woman leans against the door, her arms crossed over her chest. The young man takes the seat across the table from Keith and sets a thick file between them.

“I'm Tobias Creegan and my partner's Natika,” Old, hard, hazel eyes study Keith critically, “Now you're Keith Marryw?”

Keith nods.

“Married to Beth Marryw, father of Kevin Marryw, age fifteen, and Bethany Marryw, age eleven. Moved to Gangland half a year ago. No problems reported... until now.” Tobias makes no move to touch the file on the table.

“Well... yes... but...”

“We also know you're retired Fairfield PD an' your wife writes romance novels under the name Debra Valance,” Tobias's expression is hard to read, “Why even become a cop?”

“It was a job.” Keith attempts an indifferent shrug.

“Bullshit.”

“I thought I could make a difference,” Keith admits, “I learned otherwise fast and got myself transfered to security.”

“Security for?”

“Honour guard duty... partly... and overseeing any autopsies the force didn't completely trust the ME with.”

Tobias nods to himself and glances at Natika.

“What's this about?” Keith glances from one to the other and back, “You think I'd kill my own family?”

“Hardly. Not under the effects of Hypno-serum.”

“So why...?”

“Obviously somone killed your family... and left you alive. Kinda hard to say why without knowin' who,” Tobias points out, “So humour us an' let's start at the top. Where'd you grow up?”

“Old Fairfield.” Keith swallows a sip of his shake.

“Shithole,” Tobias nods to himself, “But trouble there ain't got the patience to wait this long.”

“In my family, we learned early to keep our heads down and ourselves to ourselves,” Keith scowls, “There wasn't any trouble to follow me.”

“Then cop academy an' the force,” Tobias moves on, “How long before you transfered to security?”

“Not even half a year. No trouble to follow me from there either.”

“So honour guard an' autopsies, huh?” Tobias frowns thoughtfully, “How did you meet your wife?”

“Through family. Hers's just like mine, although from Coalton.”

“Head down, shit to yourself,” Tobias nods, “How long's she been writing?”

“Since her teens... far longer than I've known her.”

“Always under the same name?”

Keith nods.

Tobias glances at Natika before asking another question, “Both kids're yours?”

“Yes. Kevin was born two years into our marriage and Bethany four years later.”

“Either of them ever gotten into a lot of trouble?”

“No... well, ever since Kevin turned fourteen...” Keith grimaces, “It hasn't really been trouble exactly... Beth and I thought it was just teenage boy...”

“Ga huort.” Natika doesn't move and her expression doesn't change.

Tobias seems to understand her because his frown deepens, “Maybe, maybe not. Ever heard of Albert Terrick?”

“Two years ago. I stood security at his autopsy.”

Natika and Tobias exchange glances.

“So he really is dead,” Tobias looks surprised, “Anything weird with the autopsy?”

“Not that I remember.”

Tobias and Natika exchange glances again.

“Men bar.” Natika orders.

“Everything?” Tobias queries.

She nods.

Now Tobias opens the file, “We've gota whole lotta problems here an' triple murder's only the beginnin'. First of all, the Hypno-serum kept you out about thirty-nine hours...”

Keith gapes, “That's a day and a half!”

Tobias nods, “Buys them time an' makes our job harder. But accordin' to Doctor Gorse, that's all they did to you.”

“What about...?” Keith's voice fails him.

“Our ME's been workin' as fast as she can. She isn't finished, but we do know tox's back clean. Cause of death's prob'ly the obvious. Which brings us to the second problem,” Tobias picks up the top paper, “We gene mapped all four of you. The report goes like this:

“Vic one... female, thirty-eight years, good health. Vic two... female, eleven years, good health... first degree relation to vic one... also first degree relation to donor of sample A.”

Keith sips his shake just for something to do.

“Vic three,” Tobias continues, “Male, fifteen years, good health... genetically unrelated to the above. An' that's where we have a problem.”

Keith is too shocked to speak. The shake cup drops from his suddenly lifeless hand onto the table.

Tobias returns the paper to the file, “Two problems really. Kevin Marryw's missin', maybe as long as a year an' a half. An' then there's the unidentified kid, who gets to be first on the table 'cause we want his results fast.”

Natika shakes her head, “Tobias, neqoba i men dewa.”

Tobias winces, “Sorry.”

Silence falls over the room while Keith struggles to wrap his mind around what he has just learned. Finally, he gives up.

“What else is there?”

“The idea this could happen at all,” Tobias turns grim, “In the century an' a half since the Compact an' the establishment of Gangland, the worst crime's been manslaughter.”

Keith frowns abruptly, “What exactly is Gangland?”

“From the shore of the Carpellian Sea to the east side of Lake Donia, starting on the south bank of the Glacier River all the way down to the Trellose Wall... it's all gang controlled territory... all protected by the Trellose Compact.”

“So you're gang members?”

Tobias chuckles dryly, “Natika leads the Trell Luit. I'm her second. An' we're ultimately responsible for everythin' that happens in our territory.”

“What is the Trellose Compact?”

“Our protection from outside authority. It also holds us responsible for our territories an' dictates how we fight our wars. All leaders and seconds sign an' to break it... well, no one wants to be found guilty of that.”

Keith picks up his shake and sips it while he processes the information, “So what'll happen to me now?”

“You're gonna be our guest for a while... like it or not,” Tobias closes the file, “Truth is though... it'd really help to have you work with us on this.”

There is a knock on the door and Tobias gets up to join Natika in answering it. Keith can't see whoever is in the hall and he can't hear the conversation clearly. However, it's obvious Natika and Tobias don't like it. Tobias curses under his breath and Natika scowls dangerously.

Natika turns to Tobias, “Men vebm tair.” Then she leaves the room.

Tobias returns to his seat, slumping into it. After a moment, he straightens up and looks at Keith, “Some days the shit never ends. Now are you gonna need some time to decide?”

Keith shakes his head, “I want answers. Who else is going to help me get them? Not any official authority I know of.”

“Hey, we want answers too. Next question: You want your orientation now or can we get started?”

Keith frowns, “How much can we do from here?”

“Easier to get answers when you know what questions to ask,” Tobias opens the file again, “Startin' with why kill your family.”

Keith's frown deepens as he considers, “I can't think of anything off the top of my head.”

“I can think of three things: You have an enemy you don't know about, whatever's goin' on with your son or,” Tobias scowls, “Someone wants it to look like the Trell Luit violated the Compact.”

Keith nods slowly and sips his shake.

“Hope you don't mind if we start with you. Specifically the autopsies you stood guard for.”

Keith finishes his shake while he thinks back, “Like I said, those were the ones the force didn't trust the ME with. But the way Security worked, we never had permanent partners and we were never told more than where to go and who to guard.”

“An' you weren't encouraged to ask questions,” Tobias guesses, “How often did you run into trouble?”

“Rarely. Even then, orders were to call for support and let them handle it.”

“So you were always kept completely in the dark?” Tobias slowly shakes his head.

Keith shrugs it off, “Security gets the second highest pay of anyone on the force, the best benefits, and the earlier the retirement, the better the package.”

Tobias nods to himself, “An' no real reason for anyone to come after you. I'm only seein' one problem here: Albert Terrick.”

Keith frowns, “Everything went according to procedure.”

“That's where there's a problem. Either it wasn't really him or someone pulled a real impressive cover up 'cause the man himself wasn't normal.”

Keith's frown deepens, “Obviously you know something I don't.”

“I know a whole lot I bet no one authority ever has. Albert Terrick was one of a dozen or so names Natika's father's used over the years. An' Natika may look human... she isn't. She's pure Baliq.”

“I always thought they were just a legend.”

Tobias shakes his head, “They're real enough... or were. We think Natika might be the last pure blood. We know her mother's dead an' she hasn't heard anything at all of her father in two years, so it could well've been him you saw on the table.”

Keith's frown turns thoughtful, “Would a Baliq authopsy be so much different from a human?”

Tobias nods, “Baliq're built to withstand temperatures no human ever could. They claim to be the natives here an' that, if you go far enough back, humans came from somewhere else.”

Keith shrugs it off, “I was never good with history. But how would they make an abnormal autopsy look normal to someone who'd watched dozens?”

“Now that's a question for our ME,” Tobias replies, “Were you expected to confirm identity?”

“Yes, based off an authenticated picture,” Keith nods, “Not to say it proves anything in this case.”

“Prob'ly not,” Tobias grimaces, “But if you look close, Baliq're just a little different from humans. I know it's been two years...”

“As I recall, it was an adequate picture, not a good one,” Keith thinks back, “Barely enough for confirmation.”

Tobias nods to himself, “Natika'll have someone look into it anyway. So... Kevin...”

Keith takes a deep breath, “I don't remember ever not knowing where Kevin was... or at least where he was supposed to be... for more than maybe half an hour. Either he was lying to us or someone spent a long time planning the switch... I just don't know why.”

“How 'bout we go way back,” Tobias suggests, “Startin' with where he was born.”

“My grandparents owned a clinic near our place,” Keith begins, “Both Kevin and Bethany where born there. And there was always family around. I'm not sure anyone outside saw them until they were six or eight seasons old.”

“Effectively rulin' out switched at birth,” Tobias nods to himself, “Makin' the next logical time the early teens. Where was Kevin tellin' you he was spendin' his time?”

“School, the homes of three good friends whose parents we knew, and an arcade owned and operated by a close family friend.”

Tobias frowns, “How easy was it to confirm where he actually was?”

“Generally one telephone call and he knew it.”

“An' there was never a time when he said he was goin' out an' never arrived?”

“Not that I know of.”

Tobias frowns thoughtfully, “You never noticed anythin' which couldn't be passed off as normal teenage boy?”

Keith shakes his head, “It was all gradual change. Beth and I were worried, but I don't remember anyone else even commenting... beyond a couple of his friends' parents were noticing the same kinds of things.”

“Okay...” Tobias considers the problem for a moment, “So your home, his school, an arcade, an' his friends' homes... Were these places all close together?”

“All within six blocks of our home.”

“Had he ever been outside the area?”

“Only on trips to see Beth's family.”

Tobias raises an eyebrow, “Long trip from Fairfield to Coalton. How often did you go?”

“Once a year... usually growing season.”

“Ever had trouble on one of those trips?”

“Nothing unusual,” Keith shakes his head, “Never with Kevin specifically.”

Tobias grimaces, “This shit keeps gettin' weirder. Guess we'll have to see what the ME says about the kid we've got.”

Keith changes the subject, “What's happened so far? Or at least since I was knocked out?”

Tobias sighs, “Natika isn't real patient an' not much on long explanations... don't expect an apology from her either.”

Keith nods.

“Anyway, once we'd look around, we called in our ME an' a crew to process the place. Everythin' got documented... both written an' video... then we moved it all here. Had to make it look like a move out an' the neighbours were told you were havin' to move in with family to help out with some trouble. We didn't specify who or where.”

“Okay.” Keith nods again.

“Our ME's been workin' 'round the clock to get results for us an' we'll check in with her in an hour or so... see what she says 'bout the boy,” Tobias gets to his feet, “In the meantime, I'll show you around an' explain a few things... Oh yeah, is there any family you need to tell? Maybe ask 'bout Kevin?”

“I should... I guess...” Keith hesitates.

“In time,” Tobias goes over to open the door, “Bring your stuff an' come with me.”

Keith leaves the shake cup on the table as he stands and shoulders his hiking pack. Then he follows Tobias into the corridor. They walk back to the elevator, which they take down, nearly to the bottom.

“Unless you're with me or Natika, you're restricted to this level,” Tobias tells Keith, “This's living quarters, dining hall, and rec areas. You'll have private rooms though.”

Keith nods as he follows Tobias past clearly marked dining and recreation facilities. The next few corridors are lined with numbered doors.

“We have everythin' from singles pads to three bedroom suites,” Tobias explains as they walk, “You're in a pad for now, but if, for example, you get your son back while you're with us, you'd be moved into somethin' larger. It basically comes down to space requirements.”

“Even for leaders?” Keith queries.

Tobias nods, “My girlfriend an' I have one bedroom. Natika an' her son have two.”

Keith nods to himself, “How big is the Trell Luit?”

“Fifty or sixty full members plus prob'ly another sixty or seventy prospects an' semi-retired. We're actually one of the smaller gangs. But it takes a lot of bodies to do everythin' the compact requires us to.”

“You're the ones who run everything in the area?”

“Most of it,” Tobias confirms, “Not necessarily the professional services, but definitely the shops an' yard service.”

“How often do you get out of here?”

“Natika an' I don't dare stay in the command level all the time. We need to be able to keep things in perspective an' some of our guys'd forget who's in charge if they don't see us regularly.” Tobias stops at a door, “This's your quarters. You have three quarters of an hour to settle in. I'll be back then.”

“Do the doors lock?” Keith asks.

“It's a print lock. Once you open the door, no one else can 'til it gets reset. The only override is Doctor Gorse.”

“Thank you.” Keith presses his palm to the plate in the door, which slides open. Tobias leaves as Keith enters and closes the door behind himself.

The suite consists of two rooms: A combination bedroom and living room and a full bathroom. Both rooms are plainly furnished and contain some basic necessities.

Keith dumps his hiking pack onto the bed and puts the few items away. Then he takes a long, hot shower.

Once he is dressed again, he finds he still has some time before Tobias returns. Although he has no desire for sleep, Keith stretches out across the bed.


At the knock on the door, Keith hauls himself off the bed and goes to see who it is. In the corridor, he finds a young woman who bears a resemblance to Natika.

“Keith? I'm Tawnya, Natika's sister,” When Keith looks surprised, she amends, “Half-sister anyway. Tobias an' Natika're both busy, so I got asked to show you a couple more things an' then take you to see the ME. Tobias's hopin' to meet you there.”

“Okay.” Keith follows Tawnya through the corridors to the dining hall. Inside, they go over to the serving counter. Tawnya helps herself to a hot drink. Keith still doesn't feel hungry, but fills a cup with water. Then they go over to sit at a small table off to one side.

“Tobias said he didn't quite complete your orientation,” Tawnya sips her drink, “But do you have questions 'bout anythin' so far?”

“What do I tell people who ask who I am?”

“You're Natika's guest, but you'll find most won't ask. They won't bother you either.”

Keith nods slowly, “Meals?”

“Standard times: Mornin', midday, an' night. They're usually served over two hours just to give everyone a chance to eat.”

“And laundry?”

“Everyone does their own. There's a laundry room near your pad. If there isn't soap, contact supply. I'll show you how once we leave here.”

“Okay. Do you know if there's a way I can get more of my stuff?”

“You'll have to ask Tobias.”

Keith nods to himself. Silence falls between them while she finishes her drink. He makes the occasional attempt to sip his water, but when she gets up to return her mug, he dumps what's left. Then he follows her from the dining hall.

"Most of the rec areas are down this way," Tawnya points down a corridor, "Be pretty busy right now. Anyway, this way." She leads Keith to the elevator and they go up two levels.

Keith frowns at the control panel, "Where are we even?"

Tawnya chuckles, "Underground... fairly deep. Been easier to dig down than house people any other way."

Keith continues to frown, "So you don't even see the surface?"

"Oh, most of us do pretty regularly," Tawnya watches the floor display, "Still, the 'daytime' lighting down here is low level artificial sunlight. Keeps away the worst of the mental and physical issues from being underground for long stretches."

Keith half nods.

The elevator stops and Tawnya leads him down a too bright corridor to a plain door. Opening it, she ushers him into a plain waiting area. As they enter, Tobias appears from a door in the far wall.

"Think you're ready for this?" He studies Keith as Tawnya vanishes back into the corridor.

Keith just shrugs.

"This way." Tobias leads him through the door and into an observation area. There are a handful of hard plastic chairs against one wall, facing a wall made entirely of glass. On the other side of the glass is the autopsy area. Of the four tables, three are occupied by sheet covered bodies. A late middle aged woman in a lab coat is seated at a small desk in the farthest corner. She looks up when Tobias and Keith move to the glass.

"How much longer?" Tobias appears to be addressing her.

"I'm about done," Her expression is grim, her voice carrying clearly, "Just a moment."

While he waits, Keith glances around and up, easily spotting the tiny speakers in the corners.

She finishes with whatever she is working on before getting up and moving to the side wall not taken up by rows of small, cold metal doors. Her fingers touch the wall and a screen comes up. An identical screen comes up on the end wall of the observation room.

"Beth and Bethany's results were exactly what we suspected." Flying fingers bring up and scroll through line after line of text. Keith's eyes only pick out a handful of words, none of them quite registering in his brain. Then the text slows as she speaks again, "This boy," She slowly shakes her head, "Base genetics were human... I can't begin to tell who... but he's been experimented on... surgically altered. I attempted to reconstruct what he would have looked like without all the procedures." She brings up the image of a face bearing only a slight resemblance to Kevin. Keith swallows hard as he studies it.

"He at all familiar?" Tobias is watching Keith's reaction.

"I... I'm not sure," Keith frowns, trying to think back, "There's something..."

"Well," The woman in the autopsy room goes back to the text, "I'm not sure it's safe to alert any authorities... not without knowing who did this and why. If there's any chance Kevin is still alive, we could accidentally put him in danger."

Slowly, Keith nods.

"Anything else of note?" Tobias queries.

"I have everything I need on Beth and Bethany. I'll release them once burial arrangements are made."

Again, Keith nods slowly.

"The boy?" Tobias frowns.

She shakes her head, "I'm not finished yet. I'm hoping maybe something in the details of what was done will provide a clue as to who did it."

Tobias nods, "Keep us informed."

"I will."

Keith blinks, tearing his eyes from the screen. He feels dazed as he follows Tobias from the room. Out in the corridor, Tobias pauses, spending a moment studying Keith.

"You okay to continue? Or do you need a break?"

Keith manages a deep breath, "How much more is there?"

"Physical evidence from the house," Tobias looks grim, "Such as it is. We're still working on all this stuff."

Keith nods and sighs, "Something about the kid..."

Tobias shrugs, "Maybe you should start getting hold of family... letting people know. See what anyone else knows about Kevin."

"I need Beth's address book."

Tobias nods, "Anything else you need?"

"A few more clothes and personal items."

"Let's go see what we do for you." Tobias leads the way along the corridor. They turn a corner and continue halfway down another corridor. Tobias opens a door and ushers Keith into a vast room akin to a warehouse. Throughout the huge space, there are stacks of plastic packing containers. In between are places where canvas has been laid out and items left on it or tables are set up to hold smaller items and examination tools and equipment. Natika and several others are present, working on various tasks.

When Keith and Tobias enter, Natika comes over.

"He needs some stuff. An address book an' clothes an' personal stuff."

She nods, "Imait du." Then she returns to what she had been doing.

"We tried to keep things together by room," Tobias explains to Keith, "So we're lookin' for master an'...?"

"Kitchen... Beth kept it in the desk there." Keith swallows hard as he gets a closer look at the fragments of his life laid out in such an impersonal way.

Tobias nods and leads the way through to a table piled high with kitchen and other items. A young woman dressed in a lab coat over jeans and a t-shirt with thin white gloves on her hands is sorting the items into piles.

"What d'you need?" She glances up at Tobias.

"An address book."

She frowns momentarily, then dives into a container beside her. A moment later, she comes up with a small book bound in lurid floral print.

Keith nods, "That's the one."

She glances over and through it before handing it over, "Anythin' else?"

"Not from the kitchen." His eyes study the oversized flower splashed across the front of the address book.

Tobias leads him across to another part of the room where bedroom furniture is interspersed with tables of smaller items. Two portable racks have been set up for the contents of the bedroom closet. Keith swallows hard. Natika is here, working with another young woman. Tobias surveys the area.

"How much of this is actual evidence?"

Natika ignores him, her attention on her task. The other young woman straightens up and turns to him.

"Anythin' inside the dresser or closet seems to have been left alone," She grimaces, "Everythin' else... we're gettin' all kinds of prints an' some grey powder. 'Til we run anythin'..."

Tobias nods, "Dresser contents?"

She points out two large containers, "Don't mix stuff up."

Keith nods. Going over to them, he easily identifies which are his belongings. A quick sift through the various clothes and other items gets him most of what he had been hoping for. There are a few things missing, but he isn't sure where in the house he had left them.

"Missin' stuff?" Tobias queries.

"A couple things," Keith shifts the pile in his arms, "Not sure where I'd've left them."

"Well, more will be released as we process things," Tobias starts back to the door, "Ultimately you'll have to deal with anythin' not blood stained or otherwise damaged."

Keith nods, following Tobias into the corridor.

"We'll go up to your room," Tobias heads for the elevator, "Let you put most of that away. Then we'll find you a phone."

They reach the elevator and go inside. At the floor they want, they get off and Tobias leads the way to Keith's room. Keith opens the door. Tobias waits in the corridor while Keith dumps the clothes and personal items on the bed. The only thing he keeps with him is the address book. When he rejoins Tobias in the corridor, they head back to the elevator and up to the very top.

This time they come out in a large, open room with windows in three walls. Through them, Keith can see the street and the local mall across the way.

"This is the public front for everythin' the Trell Luit does," Tobias gestures to the rows of chairs and desks which make up what is evidently a reception area, "You might've heard it referred to as municiple services."

Keith nods, "Never had a reason to come down here."

"Some do, some don't," Tobias guides him to a closed door in a back corner, "Not too many know what's really here. Anyway, calls from here are free an' the line should be completely secure, so whoever you need to talk to an' however long you need to talk. Once you're done, notify the front desk an' someone'll come up for you."

"Thanks." Keith enters a small room containing a chair, desk, telephone, and very little else. It looks something like an abandoned office space. The door closes as he drops into the chair, which creaks alarmingly. He sets the address book on the desk, but spends long minutes staring at the cover.

Finally, he blinks back to reality and flips the book open to the entry for his parents. For a moment, the letters and numbers swim before his eyes. He blinks and rubs them until his vision clears. Picking up the receiver, he dials the number and listens to ring after ring. About the time he is about to give up, a gruff, sleepy male voice answers.

"Hello?"

"Dad? It's Keith."

"Keith?" Concern enters the voice, "Something wrong, boy?"

Keith swallows hard, unable to think of how to begin.

"Are you okay? Are Beth and the little ones?"

"Beth and... Bethany..." Keith's voice cracks, "They're... gone... dead."

"What?" Disbelief wars with concern, "Kevin?"

"I don't know. They said Kevin wasn't Kevin... someone somehow replaced him with some other boy," Keith attempts a ragged breath, "I saw some of the ME's report. Someone put serious effort into passing this boy off as Kevin. But we don't know who or why or anything else."

"Whoa! Slow down, boy. What do you mean dead? What happened?"

"I..." Keith is finding it hard to breathe, "I was drugged... that's what the doctor said. And I woke up to find Beth and the kids dead. I called emergency... what passes for emergency here. It's strange and complicated and... Anyway, the investigation included gene mapping on all of us and it came back as someone had somehow replaced Kevin with some other boy."

"When? How?"

"Probably before we moved here. I can't begin to think of how. But you remember Kevin born, don't you, Dad?"

"I do." There's a wary note to the voice.

"They... the people investigating... they think there's a chance Kevin could still be alive somewhere. And..." Keith hesitates, "The ME did a composite of what this boy should look like... seems familiar, but I can't place the face."

"Friend of Kevin's?"

"I... I don't think so."

"Neighbourhood kid maybe? Son of someone you knew? Maybe worked with?"

"Maybe," Keith sighs, "Whatever it is, I just can't seem to place it."

"You saw a doctor?"

"I... passed out... after I called emergency," Keith shades the truth, "So yes, I saw a doctor. He ran tests, established I'd been drugged, but also diagnosed shock."

A long silence on the other end is followed by, "So what now?"

"I need to call Beth's parents. Arrange funerals, I guess. I had to be out of the house... I'll have to call you again once I know more."

"Well, you take care of yourself, boy. Make sure you call."

"I will, Dad."

The line goes dead and Keith hangs up the receiver. He slumps over the desk, his head in his hands, for a time before flipping through the address book for the number for Beth's parents. This time, as he attempts to dial, Keith finds his hands shaking so badly it takes him half a dozen tries to enter the proper number. This time it only rings once before a strong male voice answers.

"Hello?"

"Douglas? It's Keith. Are your parents there?"

"Mom came down with some respiratory infection," Keith's brother-in-law responds, "Dad's with her at the clinic. What's up? Where's Beth?"

"Beth... and Bethany... died."

There's a stunned quality to the silence which falls over the line. When Douglas speaks again, he sounds incredulous, "I just spoke to Beth. She said everything was perfect."

"I just... I woke up and found Beth and the kids dead. There's an investigation in progress."

"What about Kevin? You just said Beth and Bethany."

"I did," Keith sighs, "Gene mapping said the boy wasn't Kevin. They don't know what happened or when. ME's report suggests someone went to a lot of trouble to make him look like Kevin."

"Why?" Douglas sounds confused, "Why even bother?"

"I don't know... no one seems to know. It's part of the investigation."

"Are you okay? You don't sound quite like yourself."

"Doctor said shock."

"Oh." There is a long silence before Douglas asks, "Have funeral arrangements been started?"

"Not yet. I'll call again. They... the people investigating... wanted me out of the house. You won't be able to reach me."

"Well, call again as soon as you know anything. I'll be here until Mom's home from the clinic."

"I will."

"You take care of yourself. I'll be waiting to hear from you."

Keith hangs up the receiver and slumps over the desk for a time. On a whim, he thumbs through the rest of the address book. A name catches his eye and he picks up the receiver. Once the number is dialled, it rings until an answering service picks up. Keith listens impatiently through the long winded spiel. At the tone, he speaks.

"This is Keith Marryw. I'm calling to inform you of the passing of my wife, Beth. I'll call back with more details in a day or two." He drops the receiver into place and closes up the address book. He spends a minute or two slumped back in the chair before hauling himself to his feet. Taking the address book, he goes out to the reception desk.

The professionally dressed woman seated there glances up at him, "May I help you?"

"Tobias said to get you to have someone come up for me."

She eyes him warily, but picks up the receiver of the telephone beside her elbow and punches a key. She listens for a moment before speaking, "Pick up at reception." She listens for a moment longer before dropping the receiver into place. Then she looks up at Keith, "Take a seat, please."

He sits in the nearest empty chair to the elevator. Slumping back, his hands toy absently with the address book until Tobias comes up beside him.

"You look fried," Tobias keep his voice soft, watching Keith haul himself to his feet, "It's meal time... don't know if you want anythin'."

Keith shrugs as he follows Tobias to the elevator. From this level, it requires a key to summon. Once it arrives and they are on their way down, Tobias draws a deep breath.

"Natika thinks she's figured out who." Tobias looks grim.

Keith frowns, "The boy or..."

"Sorry," Tobias grimaces, "Who killed your family. They identified the grey powder as a type of crater drug."

Keith frowns, "Those are pretty common."

"Natika runs zero tolerance here. Most of the gang leaders do, which makes it easy to narrow down. There's only one gang close by who use. Trespassing is a Compact violation. Premeditated murder... an' this has to be... that's worth exile to Glacier Waste," Tobias elaborates for Keith's benefit, "North of the Glacier River is an expanse of pretty much nothing bordered on the north by a wall of ice at least equal to the Trellose Wall. The Compact doesn't allow for a death penalty, but exile to the Waste is usually close enough. Far as I know, no one's ever come back."

"So...?"

"Procedure gets complicated," Tobias sighs, "It's still going to take some time to make a complete case of any of it."

Keith nods.

"Did anyone know anything about Kevin?"

Keith shakes his head, "I spoke to my father and Beth's brother. Left a very brief message for Beth's agent... told all of them it'd take a few days to get back to them on anything."

Tobias frowns warily, "Agent?"

"Literary agent," Keith clarifies, "The person who acts as go between for her and her publisher."

Tobias continues to look wary, "Are they going to want press release stuff an' that?"

"Shouldn't," Keith shakes his head, "I'll have to talk to her agent... probably in person. Most likely they'll just have another author take the pen name."

Tobias raises an eyebrow, "They wouldn't announce her death?"

"Romance authors never die," Keith's expression twists wryly, "Their names just get passed to the next in line."

Tobias makes a face.

Keith shrugs, "Beth was the third or fourth Debra Valance. The 'real' one... the one they trot out for public appearances is a hologram."

Tobias winces.

"The public laps it all up," Keith follows Tobias out of the elevator and through the corridors to his room, "No one's going to come poking into all this on Beth's behalf."

"Good to know." Tobias remains in the corridor while Keith enters the room long enough to leave the address book. Then he rejoins Tobias for the walk to the dining hall.

Now the large room is busy and there is a line at the serving counter. Tobias and Keith join the end. Neither speaks as they pass through the line and get trays of food. Then Tobias leads Keith over to where Natika and Tawnya are sitting with a small boy. The men sit, but no one says much while they eat except for Natika's quiet remonstrations aimed at the child.

Once he's finished eating, Keith returns his tray and finds his way back to his room. Inside, he spends a few minutes putting away the belongings he had left on the bed earlier. Then he drops into the only chair and his eyes gradually lose focus as his brain rehashes the events of the day, trying to make something resembling sense of everything.


At a tap on the door, Keith blinks back to reality. The tap comes again as he attempts to reorient himself. Hauling himself up from the chair, he goes to open the door. Tobias is in the corridor.

"Doctor Gorse wants to see you first thing tomorrow."

Keith nods.

"Is there anythin' you need right now?"

A thought pops into Keith's head, "In everything from the house, was there a box of image tablets?"

Tobias frowns, "I'd have to ask. You want them or you think there's something in them?"

"I'd like them."

"Like I said, I'll ask. Anythin' else?"

"The family pictures... Beth always kept them in storage. But in some of the oldest pictures there might be someone... I half remember what it is about that boy," Keith grimaces, "Far as I know, she labeled everything with times and dates and names."

Tobias nods, "I'll pass that on. Did Tawnya show you how to reach us or supply if you need or remember anything?"

Keith shakes his head, "She mentioned it briefly, but never showed me."

"There's a small panel just inside the door. Hitting the button gets you a directory. Either say the name you want or 'depot' for supplies an' someone'll get back to you."

Keith nods, "Thank you."

"Try an' get some rest for now, if you can. Mornin' tends to come early 'round here."

Keith nods again. He retreats inside his room while Tobias walks away. There's a subtle change to the lights inside as he moves to the bed. After a moment, he recalls what Tawnya had said about the lighting. There must be an automatic switch between daytime lighting and night.

Keith stretches out, attempting to relax, but again, his brain moves to its attempt to make sense of everything. Eventually, he drifts off only to jerk awake. After the second time this happens, he gets up.

There is nothing in his room to distract him, so he ventures into the now dimly lit corridors. He is able to find his way back to the dining hall. It's open, somewhat to his surprise, and there is a single attendant behind the serving counter.

"Can't sleep?" The attendant moves down towards Keith, "Nightcap?"

"Please." Keith nods.

What looks to be a fairly stiff drink is mixed in a mug, which is handed to him. Keith takes it to a corner table. As he absently sips the potent drink, his eyes lose focus, his mind again drifting.

Then he goes to take another sip only to find the mug empty. He blinks back to reality. A glance around reveals a young couple seated and talking on the far side and the attendant dozing behind the serving counter. Getting up, Keith returns the mug and heads for his room. Inside, he lays down again, this time finding it a little easier to fall asleep and stay that way.


Two


Keith is breathing hard and soaked in cold sweat when he wakes to a pitch dark room. He blinks, confused and fearful, uncertain where he is or how he got there. A knock comes on a door somewhere close by, which only serves to heighten his confusion. Keith blinks, attempting to get his breathing under control. The knock comes again. As Keith attempts to sit up, lights begin to flicker on, one at a time, around the upper edge of the room. Gradually, he becomes able to see a bachelor pad style apartment. With his vision, his memory returns and Keith sprawls back, once again unable to wrap his brain around what had happened.

The knock at the door comes again, louder and more urgent this time. Keith groans, rolls out of bed, and goes to see who it is. When the door opens, he can see Tobias in the corridor.

"You okay?" Tobias frowns.

Keith shrugs, "Not waking up very well."

Tobias nods to himself, "You have half an hour 'til Doctor Gorse wants to see you. Breakfast is being served if you're hungry."

"Thank you." Keith allows the door to close before going into the bathroom.

A long hot shower eats up most of his half hour, but he feels marginally better for it. He can't find the energy to consider shaving and the thought of food doesn't appeal, but he gets dresssed in clean jeans and t-shirt. He pauses to survey his reflection in the mirror, running a hand over his close cropped hair.

He's tying off his hiking boots when there's a tap on the door. Keith quickly finishes his task before going to open it. Again, it's Tobias.

"Ready to go?"

Keith nods, stepping into the corridor and allowing his door to close behind him. He accompanies Tobias through the corridors to the elevator and up one level. They follow the next corridor halfway down before Tobias ushers Keith through a door and into a tiny reception area filled with hard plastic chairs. There's a waist high wall behind which Keith can see a woman dressed in bland scrubs. She glances up when he enters. Tobias remains out in the corridor.

"Keith Marryw?"

He nods.

"This way, please." She leads him to a small examination room, where she leaves him to wait for the doctor. Keith slumps into the chair beside the examination table. However, before he gets too lost in his head, there's a tap on the door. A moment later it opens and Doctor Gorse enters.

He closes the door before spending a moment studying Keith. Then he turns to a screen above the counter on the other side and pulls up some information.

"Were you able to sleep?"

"A bit." Keith shrugs.

"Did you eat anything yesterday?"

"Not much."

Doctor Gorse nods to himself, "May I see your left arm, please."

Keith holds out his arm so the doctor can examine the bruise on his shoulder. Finally, Doctor Gorse steps back, nodding to himself.

"No sign of infection. How's your head?"

Keith shrugs, "It was sore, but I haven't noticed much."

"No headaches or dizziness?"

"No."

"Nausea?"

"Not really."

Doctor Gorse adds a few notes to the information, "I'd say you're doing about as well as can be expected. Try to take it easy."

Keith just nods.

"I'd like to see you again in a few days... say half a week from now. The receptionist will let you know day and time."

Keith nods again as Doctor Gorse shuts down the screen and leaves the room. A moment later Keith hauls himself to his feet and follows. In the reception area, he goes over to the receptionist's station. She holds out a small card.

"Four days from now, same time as today."

"Thank you." Keith accepts the card and tucks it into his pocket.

Out in the corridor, he finds Tobias and Natika speaking quietly. He pauses just outside the doctor's office door until they glance over. Natika walks away while Tobias turns to Keith.

"Good to go?"

"According to Doctor Gorse anyway." Keith shrugs.

Tobias's expression twists wryly, "Did you get a chance to eat?" He starts towards the elevator.

"Wasn't hungry."

"Well," Tobias sighs, "We have progress of a sort."

Keith raises an eyebrow, "Meaning?"

"Prints from the items in your home have started comin' back with names. No weapon, but the ME thinks she knows what kind of blade was used. The specific crater drug's been ID'd as well."

"Okay." Keith follows Tobias onto the elevator.

"We looked for the image tablets and pictures," Tobias grimaces, "The tablets had to be processed for prints an' cleaned of dust. They don't seem to be damaged, but we need you to go through an' see if any are missing."

Keith nods.

"The pictures turned up a 'significant match' to the composite, along with a name, but it only raises more questions."

Keith frowns, "Who?"

"A Russell Strigg."

Keith's frown deepens, "He was a close friend. He's also been dead a long time."

"We know," Tobias grimaces, "You may've guessed, but we can access a certain amount of public record from here. Problem is, there seems to be a gap in the public record."

"How so?" Keith accompanies Tobias into a corridor.

"There're some records of his wife's prenatal care, then it all skips to their deaths. No record of a birth of any description."

Keith's frown turns wary, "Their son was stillborn about two weeks after we had Kevin. It was their last chance at having a child at all... which's more or less what killed her. He drown himself in a bottle after her funeral."

Tobias nods to himself, "My best guess is their son wasn't actually stillborn... or, if he was, he was revived somehow. But why make your friend's son look like yours?"

Keith shrugs, "None of it makes any sense."

"There's a certain amount of that," Tobias sighs, "We can only work with what we have." He opens a door and ushers Keith into the warehouse room where the items from the house are still being processed. "Over here." He leads the way to a table piled high with image tablets.

"This could take me a bit." Keith warns.

"Just let someone here know when you're done." Tobias leaves.

Keith draws a deep breath, his eyes studying the piles of tablets. Then he releases the breath and picks an end to start on.

Each tablet has enough memory to contain half a dozen images. Keith finds himself going through all the images in each tablet, which slows down his progress significantly. However, he is too absorbed to notice the people who come and go around him. Only when he sets down the last tablet does he notice Natika and Tobias standing nearby.

"Any missing?" Tobias asks quietly.

"At least two," Keith shakes his head in a futile attempt to clear it, "One has images of the Lake Donia shore on the Coalton side."

"An' the other?"

"Some views from the top of the hill in Trell Park."

Natika and Tobias exchange a glance before he queries, "You sketched all these?"

"It's a hobby." Keith shrugs lightly.

"Do you ever include people in the landscapes?"

Keith shakes his head, "Safer not to."

Tobias frowns, "I can understand why the Trell Park images. The hill over looks their territory. But why the Lake Donia ones?"

"Xai Carpellian pul huqpoxat?" Natika suggests.

"I guess," Tobias looks sceptical, "I hadn't noticed the two look much alike."

"Lake Donia and the Carpellian Sea?" Keith guesses, "Actually, they do look a lot alike from the east shore. Could they have thought I was sketching their territory?"

"Makes as much sense as anything," Tobias shrugs, "It'd help our case if we could find the missing image tablets."

Natika shrugs, "Aquodm miwa va."

"I hope so." Tobias looks grim. Taking a deep breath, he turns back to Keith, "The ME'd like to see you."

"Okay." Keith accompanies Tobias from the room.

At the ME's office, they again enter the observation room. Now only one body can be seen in the autopsy room. The woman lights up both screens, bringing up the composite beside a picture of Russel Strigg when he was only slightly older.

"What did Tobias tell you?" As before, her voice can be heard clearly.

"About the match," Keith studies the pictures, "But also how the questions just keep coming."

Her chuckle is dry, "Indeed. Especially given the results of a full autopsy. Horrible as this sounds, this incident may have prevented one later."

"How so?" Keith frowns.

"This is disturbing," She warns as she replaces the images with a section of text, "And makes as little sense as anything about this case."

Keith forces himself to read the information carefully, word by word, line by line. Even then he has trouble wrapping his brain around what he has just learned.

"So...?"

"I sent the microchips over to Tech. I haven't heard back."

"He's workin' on it." Tobias informs her.

"I wish there was a way to learn what he knew," She sighs, "Did he keep any kind of journal?"

"We could never pry him out of his video games..." Keith pauses as a thought occurs to him, "He had a handheld which connected to the web to download games and patches and whatever else. Was it in his things?"

Tobias frowns, "You think he could've used it for more than games?"

"It is a possibility," The ME nods to herself, "Depending on his skill level, it may even have been connected to the microchips."

"Then we need to find it." Tobias leads Keith out of the ME's office and back to the warehouse.

Inside, they go straight to the section containing the contents of Kevin's bedroom. A young man wearing gloves on his hands and a lab coat over his jeans and shirt is scanning prints from various items laid out on the table. He looks up at Tobias.

"Need something?"

"A handheld video game system. Is it here?"


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