Excerpt for Dominance by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

This page may contain adult content. If you are under age 18, or you arrived by accident, please do not read further.


Dominance

A Fox Meridian Novel

By Niall Teasdale

Copyright 2017 Niall Teasdale

Smashwords Edition











Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This book 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.




Contents

Part One: A Very Private Murder

Part Two: Cold Vengeance

Part Three: It’s a Dirty Job, But…

Part Four: Confession is Good for the Sentence

About the Author



Part One: A Very Private Murder

New York Metro, 7th January 2062.

The room was a dungeon. The walls were cold, roughly shaped stone, wet from water seeping through from above. The ceiling was thick wooden boards held up on beams which would have looked appropriate on an old sailing ship. The floor was rough earth with dark patches that might have been damp or might have been bloodstains. And there were the racks of whips and other instruments designed to wring a response from the room’s occupants.

The current occupant was a man hanging from a large, wooden, X-shaped cross. Metal shackles held his wrists and ankles, stretching him across the frame. His head was encased in a leather hood fitted with a thick ball gag; only his eyes, grey and fearful, showed. Beyond the mask, he was naked, his body exposed to whatever might come. It was a good body: his muscles strained against his bonds, his waist was narrow, and his stomach flat. His chest had a light mat of hair which was currently slicked down with sweat. There were marks from a lash there too, as well as across his stomach and thighs. His penis, above average in size, especially in girth, was semi-erect and it twitched violently as nine strips of leather slashed across his abdomen again.

‘You’ll have to do better than that if you expect to get off tonight. Look at it. I’ve seen better equipment on a rat!’

The speaker, the one holding the lash, was a tall woman with short-cropped, near-white hair and hard, almost masculine, features partially hidden by a leather mask which rose in horns on either side of her face. Her eyes were cold and blue; her lips were full and painted a red so dark it was almost black. She wore a leather corset which enhanced her already impressive breasts, a tiny G-string, and thigh-high boots with five-inch heels. She wielded the lash with an easy skill which spoke of considerable practice. The weapon flicked out, striking chest, stomach, right thigh, and then, when her victim’s cock began to rise further, she struck upward, between his legs, and his back arched in pain. There was an accompanying cry, muffled by the gag.

‘That’s better!’ she said, amusement in her voice. ‘I want to hear you–’

She cut off as the door of the dungeon opened. Briefly, the viron failed to handle the animation change and the real door was visible before the simulated one caught up. Frowning, the mistress turned to berate the newcomer. ‘I’m working in–’ This time she was cut off by the twin laser beams, visible only via the trails of plasma they created, which hit her corset just below her left breast. There was pain and the scent of burning leather, and then the electric discharge hit her. Her jaw clenched and her body jerked in the grip of the artificial lightning, and her muscles failed to respond as her attacker crossed the room and pressed something against her neck…

~~~

Naomi Lind woke up with a groan and tried her best to work out why she was lying on the floor. She felt like she had had far too much to drink and passed out, but she rarely drank to excess. Still, her head was throbbing and her mouth felt like she had recently taken up gargling salt. She pulled herself upright, taking in her clothing – corset, thong, and boots – and memories began to surface through the haze. She remembered she had been working. She had been working and…

She blinked and her mind caught up with the viron her implant was resolving. Dungeon. Yes, she had been hired by Winsford, the hypocritical piece of shit, and he always wanted the dungeon. She had put him up on the St Andrew’s Cross and…

There her memories entirely failed her and she turned around to where, if her memory was not completely screwed up, the cross was usually located, and then she stopped, eyes widening. For several seconds, she could do nothing but stand there, looking at the sight in front of her. The blood…

Then she shook her head and put through an emergency call to the police.

~~~

If Fox Meridian were to be brutally honest, a night at Sheela Na Gig had not been high on her list of things to do on the first Saturday of the new year. Her housemates, Sam and Marie, had insisted she needed to get out and her PA, Kit, had agreed with added sarcasm, and Helen Dillan, who was now sometimes her boss, sort of, had said it was what they should both be doing since nothing appeared to be going wrong with the metro policing contracts. So, Fox had got dolled up and they had all gone out to the fetish club.

Everything looked like it always did. The main club area was dimly lit and filled with people in various types of fetish wear from the amateur ‘just trying it out’ types, through the ranks of corsets and darker clubwear, to a few extremes. One guy was wandering around in a full gimp suit, or being led around on a leash by a woman in a corset so severe it was amazing she could draw breath.

‘Of course,’ Helen said, ‘you have to wonder how he can breathe too.’ The half-Chinese girl was in red latex, a dress cut low at the front and short enough that bending over was not a viable option. She had been to the club enough that she had invested in some red thigh-high boots with an inch or so of platform. The boots helped make up the height difference with her girlfriend, Terri, who was currently back on the Moon. She was an attractive woman, slim and fit, with the hint of exoticness lent by her Oriental heritage and a mass of short, strawberry-blonde hair.

‘There are generally air holes under the nostrils,’ Sam supplied. Sam was still an Oriental Greek god of a man, handsome, with the body of a trained martial artist, but he was being a little subdued this evening. He was wearing leather jacket and jeans with a black silk shirt, and he looked amazing, but he generally showed more skin in Sheela Na Gig. Fox was aware of why he had elected to keep himself relatively covered; he had been doing it ever since Jason had died. That just made it a little worse, but she was trying to ignore it.

‘Not sure I’m really keen on that outfit,’ Marie said. ‘The killer in episode sixteen wears one of those masks.’ Marie, vid-stream star of the erotic mystery series M.J., remained a stunning woman decked out in a short black leather dress with a large boob window. The dress showed off her primary talents, as far as the advertising industry was concerned, large and shapely breasts, and long legs. Her dark-red hair framed her face in a carefully tousled style tonight, as though she had rolled out of bed and walked into the club; since filming on season two of M.J. was finished, unless they needed to reshoot anything, it was not impossible that she had.

‘You should come with a spoiler warning,’ Kit suggested. She was in the club physically, her gynoid avatar dressed in a white latex tank dress which looked as though it had been fabricated onto her body. It was translucent enough that the shadows of her nipples could be seen through it. Her gynoid shared her normal avatar’s green eyes and pale skin, but beyond that there were few similarities, and yet everyone had accepted that the strawberry-blonde without the lush brush was the same person as the ash-blonde-with-ear-tufts kitsune they had come to know. It was likely because Kit sounded and acted like Kit, no matter what shape she took.

‘Ah, but it’s the unmasking that counts,’ Marie replied with a grin. ‘Anyway, Fox always knows who the killer is before we get to that part. I don’t think Adrian’s fooled her once.’

‘I’d be a pretty poor detective if he did,’ Fox replied. She had come decked out in a latex bra which pushed her already impressive breasts into something spectacular, over which was an oversized shirt made of a honeycombed latex with a solid band around the lower hem. The band managed to conceal her crotch, more or less, but she was wearing a flesh-toned thong beneath it, just to be sure. Her boots were new and made of a stretch fabric which topped out just below her buttocks, and there were crisscrossing ribbons down the sides of each boot. She had painted her lips in what the cosmetics counter had called ‘Fuck Me Crimson’ and added dark eyeshadow to highlight her sharp, blue-green eyes. The dark colours were countered by her hair; clipped short, it was orange-red at the top and faded to a far paler, almost white, colour at the ends. With her muscled body, long legs, and hard, attractive features, Fox could have passed for a dominatrix easily, but she was just not in the mood for anything like that at the moment.

‘How’s the new frame working out?’ Helen asked. It was sort of a related question.

Fox lifted her left hand – the right was holding a drink – and flexed her fingers. ‘So far, so good. I’ve only had it since Monday. Sonya’s indulging me with a check-up and service on Friday, just to be sure there are no problems.’ Sonya Gadot was the robotics technician MarTech had assigned to maintain Fox’s various bodies. In truth, the new one did not need someone as skilled as Sonya; Fox could probably have done most of the maintenance tasks herself, but it was hard to work on your own body.

‘So,’ Marie said, her brow knitting a little, ‘what does this do that the other doesn’t?’

‘Lots of stuff,’ Helen replied before Fox could. ‘It was designed as a sort of autonomous version of the evidence-collection vest you demoed. It doesn’t have all the sensors the vest has, but it’s got quite a lot of them. Multispectral vision with micro and telescopic options, audio analysis, gas- and liquid-phase chemical analysis–’

‘You what now?’

‘I can smell gases or taste things, and then run a chemical analysis on them,’ Fox explained. ‘Or I could if I had a clue how to. I’ve got some software to do that stuff for me. They based the frame on the Sylph model, like Kit’s, to make it as human-looking as possible, but they beefed it up a little for the policing role. We’re hoping to roll some of these out into patrol and evidence-collection duties, but this one was sculpted and skinned specifically for me.’

‘And the onboard computer uses some of the same experimental components as mine,’ Kit added. ‘In a combat environment, it doesn’t have quite the resilience of the unit in her combat frame, but it’s significantly more advanced, far more compact. And she has four quantum processors in there to handle on-site decryption and the like. Experience is a great teacher.’

Fox frowned. ‘I don’t recall Jackson mentioning anything about “experimental components.”’

Kit brushed the comment away with a flick of her hand. ‘You’d have just worried. Have you noticed any problems?’

‘Well, no. But–’

‘No buts.’ Kit’s gaze fell upon a girl walking past in a strappy harness and high heels. ‘Well, obviously there are plenty of butts around here, but not that kind. I–’ She stopped as both Fox and Helen frowned. ‘Something is wrong?’

Helen glanced over at Fox and pointed upward. Fox nodded and added, ‘Sensitive. I’ll take it and let you know what’s going on. Sorry, guys, business calls.’ Putting her glass down on the bar, Fox turned and headed for the rear of the club.

‘What’s going on?’ Marie asked.

Helen frowned. ‘Someone’s dead upstairs, and dispatch marked the call as sensitive.’

‘I’d imagine it’s always sensitive when someone dies,’ Sam said.

‘Agreed,’ Kit replied, ‘but that’s not what the code means. If Fox is notified of something like that, it means there’s a potential terrorism angle.’

‘In an S&M club?’

Kit gave a shrug. ‘Sometimes weird things happen.’

~~~

There was a man in a suit standing outside the room Fox had been directed to. She had never been in the upper levels of the club, which were members-only, but she had heard a few things. Sam worked there occasionally and Naomi worked there quite often. In fact, Naomi was standing beside the man in the suit, dressed up in a leather corset that did magical things to her chest, but not looking at all like her confident self.

Fox sent off an identity broadcast, but the man in the suit seemed to know who she was anyway. ‘Thaddeus Tree, Captain Meridian,’ he said as she approached. ‘I’m the head of security at Sheela Na Gig.’ A transmission accompanied the little speech, but it told Fox pretty much what he had just said. Tree was a good name for him: he was six-foot-four and appeared to spend all his off-hours pumping weights. His suit had been carefully tailored to fit over his muscled frame and was slate grey with a pale-blue pinstripe, colours which went surprisingly well with his dark, very dark, skin. Aside from the short, tight dreadlocks his black hair was wound into, Tree looked like some Nubian prince from a sword-and-sandals action vid, but his Boston accent kind of spoiled that image.

‘What do we have, Mister Tree?’ Fox asked. She was still trying to get used to being called ‘Captain Meridian’ again. She had not been entirely happy about the choice of rank designations in the new order, but they did make sense. ‘And what are you doing here, Naomi?’

‘I, uh…’ Naomi began.

‘Sister Naomi found the body,’ Tree picked up. Naomi was definitely not herself tonight. ‘In a manner of speaking.’

‘In a manner of speaking?’

‘He’s my client,’ Naomi said. ‘I don’t really remember going in with him, though I remember setting the room up. I woke up about ten minutes ago.’ She swallowed. ‘That was when I found him.’

Fox frowned. ‘So, you were alone in this room with a client, and then he was dead.’

‘I woke up on the floor and–’

Fox held up a hand. ‘Don’t say anything else. Like it or not, I’m going to have to treat you as a suspect.’

‘Of course,’ Naomi said, nodding. ‘I know that.’ She straightened her back and lifted her chin, and the professional was back, the Sister Superior Naomi Lind that Fox was used to. ‘I’ll be available for whatever–’

‘Hush a second,’ Fox said, holding up her hand and leaning forward. She put her hands on Naomi’s waist and looked down at a spot just under her left breast.

‘I know they’re awesome,’ Naomi said, perplexed, ‘but is this the time to be staring at my tits?’

Fox zoomed in on the mark she had seen; at ten times magnification, she could see two punctures in the leather and the burning around them. ‘I’m not looking at your boobs, I’m looking at the electrolaser hit under the left one. It looks like the beams burned through.’

‘I am a little sore under there.’

‘It won’t be much of a burn, but we’ll get it looked at.’ Fox lifted her head and straightened up. ‘I’m going to get you transported over to tower three and we’ll do the interview there. One of our medics can check out the burn and record it. You’re evidence as well as a suspect.’ She turned to the door. ‘Open it up. I’ll take a look inside and decide what to do from there.’

‘Should I inform the others what’s happening, Fox?’ Kit asked. This was the copy of Kit running on one of Fox’s internal processors, not the one in the gynoid downstairs. It could get confusing.

‘Not yet,’ Fox replied inside her mind. ‘Let’s see what we have before we ruin their night.’ She stepped through the door Tree had opened and scanned the room. ‘Has anyone but Naomi and you been in here, Mister Tree?’ she asked aloud. It looked like a medieval dungeon, but the majority of that was virtual imagery. Stripping out the v-tag data presented a fairly simple rectangular room with walls, floor, and ceiling painted in matte grey. There were various racks of BDSM equipment and sex toys, a table to which ‘victims’ could be tied, and an X-shaped cross made of steel and plastic to which the body was fixed with padded leather cuffs. Without going closer, Fox could tell he was dead: blood had run down his arms from beneath his cuffs, over his torso, and down his legs to form pools under his feet.

‘Since the report, no,’ Tree said, ‘but the room’s booked by the hour, like all the others. Plenty of people have been through it.’

‘Uh, but they sterilise the place every morning before the club opens,’ Naomi supplied. ‘They’re pretty thorough.’

Fox nodded. ‘Might make running the room worth it. I’m going to need to close this room until we’ve processed it. I’ll have someone here to take Naomi for her own processing in… twenty minutes. I’m going to need any and all security data you have for the last two hours and the bookings for all your rooms for today. Do I need a warrant, Mister Tree?’

‘No, Captain,’ Tree replied. ‘Under the circumstances, Sheela Na Gig is more than willing to assist in any way it can. Besides, Sister Naomi says you’re the best detective New York has.’

‘I did not,’ Naomi said.

‘Well, no,’ Fox said. ‘It’s a nice thought, but–’

‘I didn’t limit it to New York,’ Naomi corrected with a smirk.

8th January.

Fox looked around from her examination of the body as the door opened. Helen stopped just inside the door and raised an eyebrow. ‘It’s alright for some,’ Helen said.

‘Huh?’

‘I’d have to wear a crime scene suit for that. Not to mention needing instruments.’

Fox looked down and shrugged. She had taken off her boots and pulled off her shirt, leaving them just inside the door, away from the body. Her new frame came with a nanomachine cleansing system which basically made her as clean as a suit. Kit’s gynoid had the same feature, designed to lessen the chances of passing on sexually transmitted diseases, but it worked very well when you did not want to contaminate a scene. ‘It is kind of useful. Never thought I’d get to process a scene in bra and panties.’

‘Those are panties only by a very broad definition of the term. I’ve got three swarm hives and an arachnoform out here for you. Pythia’s in the van out the back.’

‘Right.’ Fox backed away, being careful not to step in the blood. ‘I’ll get this going. I’d prefer to get Naomi’s interview done tonight and it’s already getting late. Or early.’

‘Yeah. I got notified she was back at the tower. Kit took Sam and Marie over there to keep her company. Sort of. This is not how our Saturday night was supposed to go.’

‘No… No, but then Mister Winsford here gets himself slaughtered.’

Helen frowned as Fox walked over to her and began to dress again. ‘Thomas Winsford? Vote broker and conservative?’

‘That would be him. Facial-recognition match. We’ll confirm prints later.’

‘Thomas Winsford uses prostitutes who strap him to a wall and whip him? And no one noticed?’

‘Well, I’ll be confirming that with Naomi later, and it would also be why this was marked sensitive. Guy holds a huge voting block on the right wing. His opinion swayed a lot of others, but if… when it comes out that he was a fucking hypocrite, literally, it’s going to make a huge political mess. The right’s going to be trying to salvage something, and the left’s going to be screaming about dishonest right wingers.’

‘And Palladium’s in the middle trying to sort out what happened.’ Helen gave a sigh and patted Fox’s shoulder. ‘Well, rather you than me.’

‘Oh thanks.’ Fox pulled up a connection to Pythia. ‘Pythia, let’s get this going. I’m going to need a full scan of the room and a full sweep concentrating…’

~~~

There were relatively few people on the LI-line train Fox took out to the MarTech towers. It was late for the more staid New Yorkers and a little early for the more adventurous ones. The former group were at home in bed and the latter were still out in clubs, but there were other passengers and most of them seemed to think Fox was underdressed. She ignored them and went over Pythia’s data on the scene.

Since the loss of Prokhorov Station, and Jason Deveraux, her lover, Fox had got fairly good at ignoring humans. Jason had died in August and Fox had tracked down those responsible. They were all in the Cold Harbour ultra-secure prison on the Moon with very little chance of ever seeing the outside world again, and Fox had done her best to appear to be handling her loss. She had been needed for the private policing contract negotiations and she had done her job. It had been Kit, of course, who had realised what was really going on. Fox was working eighteen-hour days on contract documents, hiding away in their apartment viron so that she did not have to deal with humans. Humans treated her with kid gloves and offered sympathy. Or they did not realise what had happened and tried to chat her up. When it was business, things were generally formal enough that she could fix a smile on her face and work through. In social settings that was next to impossible, and Fox had developed an armoured shell of indifference which worked well until mid-December when Kit had told her to get her act together. And she had, more or less, but she still found a lot of humans rather irritating.

Thomas Winsford was another matter, however. Thomas Winsford had never moved in the circles Fox did, but he had irritated her plenty without knowing it. He had been a strong advocate of the metro policing resolution, and a strong proponent of Wayden Executive Services, Palladium’s only major competitor. He had not got things all the way he wanted: of the six policing regions the government had decided upon for placing contracts, Wayden had got only two. Winsford had been screaming about Palladium getting New York ever since, though he had really wanted Wayden to get the old precinct 18 area and had not cared what happened elsewhere. He was loud and annoying, and it seemed he was going to continue to be a pain in the ass from beyond the grave.

The preliminary cause of death was exsanguination: he had died because his blood had leaked out of his body. Slowly. The microbot swarm had found the largest wounds under the suspension cuffs he had been held up by, but the leather would have slowed the flow from there. The killer had added smaller puncture wounds in various strategic locations over a number of major blood vessels, but none large enough to cause a quick death.

There were also multiple other insults. Winsford had been whipped with, at an estimate, three different weapons. Fox was going to have to confirm some of the data because there was a strong indication that some of the damage had been far more controlled and done with a multi-stranded whip. She suspected that Naomi was responsible for those, but probably not the deeper wounds. Fox had intimate knowledge of what it was like to be whipped by someone who meant it and was surprised to find herself a little uncomfortable at seeing the same damage done to someone else. However, Reginald Grant had never got to one thing he had enjoyed doing to his victims when he had Fox at his mercy, but someone had done their best to simulate the same thing with Winsford: the killer, Fox assumed, had managed to ram a twelve-inch dildo into Winsford’s rectum. There was a small possibility that some internal damage caused by that had killed him before the blood loss could. The only way to be sure was going to be an autopsy.

‘This is personal,’ Fox said in the silence of her mind. ‘This isn’t politics or terrorism. Whoever did this was really pissed off at Winsford.’

‘I would agree,’ Kit replied. ‘I would add that there is a sexual component to the crime, but that is not necessarily the primary motivator.’

‘Well, the situation suggests something sexual, plus there’s the dildo. Then again, I’d expect that caused a great deal of pain.’

‘The measured diameter was eight centimetres. I would be surprised if Mister Winsford was used to, um, taking that much.’

Fox smirked. ‘Are you blushing?’

‘No,’ Kit replied tritely. ‘I don’t have blood to blush with.’

‘Huh. Anyway, I don’t see Winsford being into that kind of thing either, but then I didn’t think he was into hiring a dominatrix either. We’ll see what Naomi has to say about that. Are you building a murder room?’

‘My home copy is setting one up, and has been for a couple of hours. I would suggest visiting it in the morning. You could use a sleep cycle before you get really serious about this case.’

The train pulled smoothly into MarTech’s tower one, and Fox stepped off, heading for the southbound HT-line platform. ‘Yes, Mom. I can get this interview handled with Naomi, and then she can get back to the chapter house tonight rather than having to hang around here.’

‘You don’t believe Naomi is the killer? I don’t believe she would do such a thing.’

Fox pursed her lips and waited for the next train to arrive. ‘I think Naomi could kill someone, under the right circumstances. Most people can. I could probably come up with circumstances in which she’d kill Winsford, but not like this. Either it would be impulse and this murder wasn’t impulsive, or she’d make sure she was never caught.’

~~~

‘Okay, we’re recording this, Sister,’ Fox said, being formal for the record, ‘and you have been read your rights. Do you understand your rights?’

‘Yes,’ Naomi said, nodding. They were seated in one of the interview rooms in tower three which had only recently been installed after Palladium had won the policing contract for New York Metro. Naomi was actually one of the first people to be interviewed in one. One of, but hardly the very first: crime did not stop just because NAPA was no longer running things.

‘Good. Could you please explain your relationship with Thomas Winsford?’

Naomi sighed. ‘Technically, that is covered by our confidentiality agreement. Under the circumstances, I am prepared to discuss it, but I would require an assurance that the information is not communicated outside those who need to know.’

‘All I can guarantee is that Palladium won’t release that information to the media. If this goes to trial and the information is needed there…’

‘Of course. And obviously, what I’ve just said indicates our relationship. He was my client. He hired me to perform certain acts. Of a sexual nature.’

Fox leaned back in her chair. The furniture in the white room was a little more comfortable than the old NAPA interrogation rooms, but not much more. Between them there was a table a little bigger than Fox was used to, but it was still bolted to the floor and fitted with a couple of brackets to chain prisoners to. ‘You’re being more circumspect than I’d expect. You’re normally more… forthright about sex.’

Naomi’s lips twitched. ‘Ah… Thomas Winsford was more or less incapable of getting an erection without some form of dominance play being involved. I’m not sure what his wife, ex-wife I should say, did to get him going, but he got off on being bound and whipped. He liked a fantasy element, so we employed a number of virons to enhance the experience. Tonight it was a dungeon. A torture chamber.’

Fox nodded. ‘You saw the body. He was whipped to the point of drawing blood.’

‘I can account for some of the marks you undoubtedly found, but I’m careful never to draw blood. I use a flogger, multiple leather strips around twenty inches in length, or sometimes a paddle of one form or another. I’m good at employing my tools.’

‘No bullwhips? I noticed one on the floor and several in the racks.’

‘Not with Winsford. Some enjoy that, or the canes, but you have to be careful. Very careful. You can severely hurt someone with a bullwhip. Winsford would never have stood for anything that violent.’

‘Okay. Tell me what happened tonight. Was this a regular engagement?’

Naomi shook her head. ‘No. He calls and makes an appointment when he wants service. This was booked… two weeks ago, around Christmas. He has me book the room so that his own name is never on record and wears a full face mask to conceal his identity when he enters the club. I always collect him from the ground floor and take him up. Tonight, I’d selected the dungeon theme. I had him strip and I put him up on the St Andrew’s Cross.’

‘That’s the X-shaped one he was found on?’

‘Yes. Named, obviously, for the cross Saint Andrew the Apostle was crucified on. Anyway, I gagged him, a ball gag that snaps to the mask, and I started doing the usual routine. I’m sure I’d started. Flogging. Suggesting that he was less than virile… Uh, then I woke up on the floor. I was feeling a little groggy and couldn’t really remember where I was. I stood up and remembered I was supposed to be with Winsford. And… And I turned around. I… I think I just stood there for… I’m not sure. Seconds? Then I called nine-one-one and summoned Tree. Something like this is not supposed to be possible. The rooms are monitored by an AI.’

‘Mm,’ Fox said, but she decided not to go there yet. ‘You don’t remember anything between starting the session and waking up some… fifteen minutes after the session was due to end?’

‘Nothing. I certainly don’t remember this…’ Naomi had been given a white jumpsuit to replace her clothes, which were now in evidence. She showed absolutely no embarrassment as she unzipped the suit to her waist and pulled the garment aside, pressing her fingers to a reddened area of skin under her left breast. ‘Your technicians put me through some sort of scanner. I assume this was captured?’

Fox nodded. ‘Uh, you can put that away. I’ve seen the preliminary analysis. They took blood too, but we don’t have the results back on that.’ Naomi busied herself with her suit while Fox continued. ‘That’s a burn from an electrolaser. You’d likely have been stunned, but it can render someone unconscious. There’s a mark from a pressure injector on your neck. We currently think you were drugged, but we’ll wait for the full analysis. A flunitrazepam derivative might explain the memory loss. At this time, we are not viewing you as a suspect, Sister, but please don’t make any plans to leave the metro. Recording off.’

Fox got to her feet and headed for the door. ‘Come on. We’ll arrange some transport to get you back to the chapter house.’

‘Thank you, Fox, but…’ Naomi got to her feet and followed. Somehow, she just looked wrong in flat shoes. ‘What about the monitoring? There should be video. The AI should have–’

‘Whoever did this was either very good or they knew how the system worked. The AI was shut down and the cameras were turned off. That means someone at the club or an expert in computers and security systems.’

‘No one at Sheela Na Gig knew Winsford went there.’

‘I find that a little difficult to believe, but I’ll be talking to everyone. It’s more difficult because…’ Fox shook her head, frowning. ‘Bloody politics. If it gets out the guy was using a dominatrix, there’ll be Hell to pay. I can’t believe you took him as a client.’ Setting off down the corridor outside the interview rooms, Fox headed for the public waiting area outside the secured part of what was now, effectively, the central police HQ for New York Metro. ‘I mean… why?’

‘That’s… complicated. I’d rather not go into it, and not here. If you want to hear the full story, come over to the chapter house tomorrow, or when you can.’

‘Okay.’ A signal unlocked the doors ahead of them and Fox pushed through into the room beyond. There was immediate movement as Sam and Marie got to their feet. Helen got up slower and Kit was already standing. ‘Okay,’ Fox said, ‘I’ve finished grilling her like a fish for now.’

‘Oh, but Fox, I think I might have enjoyed that,’ Naomi replied.

‘You got to get your tits out, on record. That may be a first in an interview.’

‘Probably not,’ Helen said.

‘Okay, first in an interview here.’

‘I’m going with probably not, but you could be right.’

‘And it was just the one tit,’ Naomi pointed out.

‘I’m sorry I missed it,’ Marie said, but it was a little obvious she was forcing the humour.

‘I’ve ordered an autocab, Naomi,’ Kit said. ‘Actually, two. I thought it would be appropriate for all of us to return to our homes reasonably promptly.’

‘Yeah,’ Fox said. ‘I’m due a sleep cycle. I have to be up bright and early to solve a murder.’

‘You only need four hours’ sleep,’ Sam pointed out. ‘You’re always up bright and early.’

‘Not if I don’t get to bed early enough. Move.’

~~~

Having done the preliminary paperwork before climbing into her frame for the night, it was almost four a.m. before Fox shut down and almost eight a.m. before she emerged from a dreamless ‘sleep.’ She still called it a ‘sleep cycle,’ but she no longer really thought of it as sleep. Human sleep was a period of unconsciousness, too easily disturbed by environmental or mental conditions. Fox was offline for four hours, dead to the world, though the memory reconciliation process could be interrupted if it needed to be, but only deliberately. There were no dreams, no thoughts. Fox was rather happy about that.

‘Winsford’s in the paper,’ Fox commented as she sipped virtual coffee on the sofa in her virtual lounge and read the morning newspaper. It was not a real newspaper – real newspapers did not have videos and hyperlinks – but Kit and Belle created the document each morning to provide a comfortable way for Fox to take in the morning’s news, and Fox had found she liked it.

‘The media blackout is holding for the moment,’ Kit said. She had taken to drinking coffee with Fox. Sometimes Belle even popped in to join them, though not this morning. ‘As you can see, the IB channels are basically saying that he’s dead.’

‘They’ve tagged me as investigating officer and a couple of them have made the link to terrorism. I get tasked with heading up our antiterrorist division, when it’s needed, so this must be terrorism-related.’

‘A relatively simple deduction which they were likely to make.’

‘Yeah, but we need to put a cap on their expectations. Could you get the memetics department to put together a suitable press release? Something along the lines of me being assigned to regular cases as well as terrorist threats and the sensitivity of handling an important figure such as Thomas Winsford obviously requiring a senior detective.’

Kit nodded. ‘I’ll have my CIO copy arrange it.’

Fox flashed a grin. ‘Okay, two questions. How’s the training centre coming along?’

‘We are expecting all work to be completed by the end of this month. Our first clients are booked for a course starting Monday, sixth of February. That would be the Topeka Watch emergency team.’

‘Well, they don’t even need to book a hotel. And how has your first week as Palladium’s Chief Investigations Officer gone?’

Kit blinked. ‘Oh! Uh, I…’

‘That was not supposed to be a hard question.’

‘Well, I think things have gone well. The initial switchover from NAPA to Palladium policing went smoothly. CIO-me has done a lot of commuting between here and Chicago to be sure everything was going to plan.’

‘Uh-huh, but how do you feel about it?’

Kit pursed her lips in thought. ‘Truthfully, I prefer being your assistant and helping with investigations. However, even if I have to put up with boring meetings and a lot of paperwork, my ability to create copies and share memories between them means that I can do the boring stuff and the fun stuff. And I take some pleasure in doing a good job at the corporate level.’

‘Better than I would,’ Fox said, and meant it. ‘You tell me if you stop enjoying it. I got out of that job because I could see myself hating it. I don’t want you keeping going in something you dislike.’

‘I promise I will.’

Fox gave a nod. ‘I see there’s more political noise about the Astraeus Project. “Too expensive.” “No clear benefits.” Blah, blah.’

‘I should have thought that the benefits of establishing a relatively permanent base on Titan were obvious,’ Kit said, looking puzzled. ‘Even ignoring the scientific potential of a planet which may host life.’

‘Oh, we could send cyberframes and get that information,’ Fox said.

‘There is also the commercial aspect,’ Kit went on, ignoring the comment. ‘Saturn would be an excellent source of hydrogen and helium, and Titan itself is an almost limitless source of methane.’

‘So are politicians, but you don’t see us mounting space missions to mine them.’

‘My, aren’t we in a sarcastic mood this morning?’

‘Maybe I’m trying to build up my defences before I have to go deal with politicians,’ Fox said, turning the page.

Kit gave a sigh. ‘Most of Mister Winsford’s known associates, whether friend or enemy, do fall into that category. Sorry.’

‘Never mind. All part of the job. We’ll never get appointments to interview them today anyway.’

‘True.’

‘But I still think mining them for methane should be seriously considered. We could solve the world’s energy problems if we hook up a couple of hundred in parallel.’

~~~

Fox scanned around the murder room, one eyebrow raised and a vague feeling of dread developing somewhere in the back of her mind. ‘That’s… quite a few connections.’

‘Yes,’ Kit said, not sounding troubled. ‘Mister Winsford was a man who networked.’

From the looks of it, that was a mild understatement. The black, blank space of the room was centred on an image of Thomas Winsford, a man who had kept himself fit and quite handsome through a regimen of exercise and a lot of money spent on cosmetic enhancements. His nose was a little large, but it was also sculpted; instead of reducing it, he had had it reshaped with a high bridge like a stereotyped Roman senator. His cheekbones had been sharpened and, if Fox was any judge, his jawline had been strengthened. He had a strong, good-looking face, but even in the ID photograph Kit had used in the room, his grey eyes had a slightly malign, calculating look to them. His hair was short, carefully styled, and mid-brown.

Around him, the network of his immediate friends, enemies, and frenemies was a large one. He was in some way connected to every politically minded person in New York. No, further than that. Fox frowned as she spotted connections out to Detroit–Chicago Metro, specifically to Wayden Executive Services where he was linked to Major Norton Wayden and his son, Sherman. And there was another slightly odd thing…

‘Far more men than women,’ Fox commented.

‘I had noticed that,’ Kit agreed. ‘It’s a little more imbalanced than it appears since this one’ – she indicated a picture set off to one side on its own – ‘is Celia Codnor, Mister Winsford’s ex-wife. The gossip sites indicate the separation was acrimonious. I believe it would be wise to talk to her. The others… This is everyone I detected with a known link to Mister Winsford. He had few friends. Most of these people sit in the categories of people who have expressed significant hatred for him, or like-minded individuals who may gain vote delegations following his death.’

‘The two Waydens?’

‘Political allies, but Sherman Wayden was one of Mister Winsford’s few real friends.’

‘Okay, for now, get me a list of people who you think were actually a threat to Winsford, then get me interviews with them and the ex.’ Fox sighed. ‘If we have to dredge through all this lot to find out who killed him, it’ll be Christmas before we resolve it.’

~~~

Thomas Winsford had lived in an apartment three floors down from the top of Times Spire. While a lot of the accommodation space in the arcology had been converted over to business use, the upper floors were still considered a prestigious address to hold and Winsford had been a prestigious man. His apartment fitted that image.

From the main double doors, you entered a lobby which looked like it had been decorated by someone used to working on Regency drawing rooms. Lots of pale colours and panelling, a couple of small tables with lion’s-claw feet, and a pair of doors, a single one off to the side and another double set straight ahead. Fox was just discovering that the single door led to a large closet when the double doors opened and a man walked out.

‘May I be of assistance, ma’am? Mister Winsford is not expecting company.’ The accent was upper-class English and nasal, which went with a nose that would have gone well on the face of an eagle. He was tall, beanpole thin, and had thinning, black hair, and he was dressed in an immaculate, pinstriped suit. He was not supposed to be there.

‘He’s an android,’ Kit said. ‘Class three AI, and he obviously hasn’t been told Mister Winsford is deceased. The ID packet says he’s called Smith.’

‘Oh,’ Smith said before Fox could respond, ‘you’re a policewoman?’

‘Detective,’ Fox said. ‘Captain Tara Meridian. I’m investigating the death of Mister Thomas Winsford. I’m a little surprised no one’s made you aware…’

The android’s appearance of dispassion failed for about two seconds. Fox saw confusion flash over his face and a hint of anger. He actually took half a step back before pulling himself up straight. ‘I see. No. No one saw fit to inform me.’

‘He’s a class three?’ Fox said inside her mind. ‘That reaction looked very genuine.’

‘I believe he has been operating for several years, Fox. Class threes given sufficient time can develop emotional reactions which come close to a class four’s, or a human’s.’

‘I’m sorry for your loss, Smith,’ Fox said aloud. ‘You’ve worked for Mister Winsford for some time?’

‘I have been Mister Winsford’s manservant for seven years, Captain Meridian. You are quite sure that he is dead, I assume?’

‘Quite sure. They’re conducting the autopsy this morning. He was found dead last night. Were you aware that Mister Winsford sometimes went to a club called Sheela Na Gig?’

‘I was not.’

‘Okay. Did Mister Winsford have an appointment of any kind for last night, twenty-two hundred until twenty-three hundred?’

‘Mister Winsford had the evening of the seventh from nine p.m. until one a.m. booked for personal time. He left the apartment at eight thirty. I ordered him an autocab which was to take him to his club. That was the Blackburn Club on Park Avenue. He enjoyed the atmosphere there and went there whenever he could spare an evening.’

‘Okay, Smith. Thank you. I need to look around here and I’ll be sending a forensics team in later today. I may need you to go with them when they leave so that we can check over your data.’

‘O-of course, Captain. I am at your disposal. I… I am unsure what I should do now. Mister Winsford was my owner and now he is dead. What happens now?’

Fox frowned, unsure of exactly how to deal with a class three who clearly had a lot more development than she would have expected. ‘I am not honestly sure, Smith. You work with my technicians and I’ll try to find out for you. I’m sure this kind of thing is legally covered. I haven’t gained access to Mister Winsford’s will yet. There may be mention of you in that.’

‘Yes. I believe I will run through a recharge-and-rest cycle in my room. If you have need of me, I can be summoned by voice command from any room.’

‘Sure.’ Fox watched the android stalk away toward the back of the apartment. ‘Shit,’ Fox said silently, ‘notifying humans of someone’s death is usually bad, but that was somehow worse.’

‘Smith’s entire purpose in life has just been taken away from him,’ Kit replied. ‘He has clearly become attached to his owner and spent enough time around humans that he has picked up strong emotional reactions. Legally, he is property and part of Mister Winsford’s estate. That condition may or may not change when the new rights laws are passed.’

‘Remind me to talk to the Foundation about that, and make sure there’s an AI psychologist with the forensics team when they come to pick him up. Now let’s see what the rest of Winsford’s place is like.’

The lounge looked a lot like the lobby: lots of panelled walls and old-looking furniture. It was, Fox thought, conservative as befitted the man, but there was a distinct sensation of masculinity about what could have been a rather feminine decorative scheme. Furniture with lion’s-claw feet and heavy, scrolled armrests. Two huge portraits of Winsford looked down from either side of the room. There was very little in the way of virtual decoration, but the only display device in the room was a virtual screen.

‘Winsford had an implant?’ Fox asked as she checked the drawers in the small desk that sat against one wall.

‘Yes, but he had been dead too long. Nothing was salvageable.’

‘Figures. What do you have on this “Blackburn Club” Smith mentioned?’

‘It’s described as a “gentlemen’s club,” though it admits female members. It is legally required to. However, checking references to those on LifeWeb who have indicated they are members seems to indicate that it is almost exclusively used by white males with a distinct statistical trend toward older men. Not old men, but older. Forties and fifties, though Sherman Wayden is a member.’

‘That might explain how they met. Maybe why Winsford was so hooked into Wayden.’ Fox picked a door at random and walked out of the lounge. She found a bathroom which looked like it was for guests: plush enough to look at, but lacking in items like toothbrushes and deodorant. There was also a small kitchen – it seemed that Winsford was not into home cooking – with a door at the back that Fox assumed was to a closet until she opened the door and found Smith standing silently in a support frame. This was his ‘room.’

Fox frowned and closed the door. ‘Do you need a room of your own?’ She walked back out onto the corridor while Kit was considering her answer and found the master bedroom.

‘I honestly have not considered the matter,’ Kit replied. ‘I believe that, since I have not considered it, my answer should be no.’

‘Huh. Maybe. On the other hand, since Sam and Marie haven’t broken up yet and she barely spends any time in her apartment, maybe we should talk to them about you taking over the basement rooms.’ She scanned over the room slowly, recording the basic layout. The bed was big and had thick corner posts. There was a wardrobe built into one wall and a dressing table. A door on one side led to a bathroom that was larger than the guest one and came with shower and whirlpool bath.

‘We could discuss the matter with Sam and Marie,’ Kit said. ‘I suppose it would provide me with a little more independence. Or the appearance of such anyway. Did you notice the loops on the bedposts?’

‘Uh-huh.’ Fox ran her fingers over the bracket mounted to one of the posts. It looked and felt very solid. ‘All four posts. You’d be pushed to tie rope around them but a chain would work.’ Dropping to her haunches, she zoomed in on the painted metal. The bed had been painted or stained white and the bracket was painted to blend in, but there were scratches on the inner surface. ‘Uh-huh, chain, I think. We’ll get this checked.’

Standing, Fox walked to the head of the bed and pulled back the cover, then the pillows. Frowning, she bent to look more closely at the headboard and then she reached out toward the middle of it. From under the nails of her thumb and forefinger, slim strips of metal about half an inch long popped out. Each was flat and slightly ridged at the tips, and she used them to lift a hair strand to look at more closely. ‘Brunette, but too long for Winsford.’ She took an evidence bag from her pocket and put the hair into it. ‘There’s a root. We might get lucky. Meanwhile, I don’t get the feeling that Winsford was the one who got chained to this bed.’

‘He was a switch then,’ Kit suggested. ‘He preferred dominance in his public life and portrayed the same personality in his bedroom, but he switched to submission when the mood took him and he hired Naomi.’

‘Maybe.’ Fox pulled open the nearby drawer on the bedside cabinet. Nothing much to look at: an ebook reader, a blister pack of Painaway. She tried the cupboard door beneath the drawer and found it locked. A quick examination suggested an electronic lock, probably needing Winsford’s implant to unlock it. ‘I want this opened. Get the techs to catalogue the contents. Why would you code-lock a bedside cabinet, I wonder.’

‘Presumably because you preferred that no one knew what was inside it.’

‘And that would be why I really want to know.’

~~~

The only person on Kit’s list of likely suspects who was available for interview was Winsford’s ex-wife, Celia Codnor. She had a slot in her schedule, according to her social secretary, at two p.m., so Kit made the arrangements, and Fox set off by maglev and autocab to get to Codnor’s house in Westhampton Beach.

According to the profile Kit had built up on their interviewee, Codnor had got the house in the Hamptons as part of the divorce settlement which had, as far as Kit could tell, been far better for Winsford than for his wife. ‘She got a relatively fair settlement,’ Kit said as the cab drove out toward the ocean, ‘but Winsford got the majority of the money and the apartment in Manhattan. Ms Codnor got the Westhampton property, but it is an older property and has not seen sufficient investment in flood protection. Ms Codnor has it on the market, but has not sold it yet.’

‘When did the divorce go through?’

‘Sixteen months ago.’

Fox winced. ‘Sixteen months to think things might be better if the old man died, or wind yourself up to seeking revenge. How are we doing on financial records for our persons of interest?’

‘That depends very much on the person. I have Ms Codnor’s financials, but almost everyone else is putting up roadblocks. Even Mister Winsford’s accountant is requesting a warrant. I have already pressed the matter through the legal department.’

‘Keep me informed. If we’re still having trouble in a few days, I’ll go interview the accountant. Uh, just press for Winsford’s data. We don’t have enough to go much into anyone else’s.’

‘Of course. And we’re here.’

It was an overcast day and the large, ranch-style house was not exactly being shown off at its best, but Fox figured it could at least do with the outer walls re-rendering. On the seaward side, there was a wall about a metre high which looked as though it could take a pounding but was going to do little to stave off an Atlantic storm aside from obscuring the view a little. The place had to be an older build: more modern buildings in the area had to have adequate flood defences and this one did not.

There was a gate blocking the driveway, and that had a security panel mounted beside it. Fox transmitted her ID data to it and waited for only a second before a voice, male and quite pleasant, came over the speaker. ‘Captain Meridian, you are expected. Please come to the door.’ There was a buzz and the gate began to swing open. Fox slipped through before it was fully open and walked down the short drive to the door.

It opened before she got there to reveal a young man who looked to be in his early twenties, but he had the sculpted looks of someone who put a lot of cash into cosmetic work, or an android. His infrared signature suggested the latter.

‘His name is Steve,’ Kit supplied, ‘and he’s a Satyr. That’s the male version of the Sylph model I use. He’s also a class four.’

To Fox, Steve looked like the kind of man you saw on beaches looking for older women to buy them expensive gifts. Tall, tanned, muscular, handsome, but just a little vacant. He was, of course, blonde-haired and blue-eyed. The hair was tightly curled against his scalp, and the tan had a look to it which suggested mixed heritage. It was hardly a warm day, but Steve was dressed in summer-weight, cream slacks and a thin, silky blouse undone to just above his navel.

‘Good afternoon, Captain Meridian,’ he said as she approached. ‘I’m Steve, Celia’s social secretary.’

‘Social secretary my perfectly toned ass,’ Fox said to Kit. Aloud, she said, ‘Perfect, Steve. You’ll be able to tell me where she was last night from twenty-two hundred through to midnight.’

‘Last night, Celia was at home,’ Steve said in his easy-on-the-ears voice. ‘Here, with me. I can provide a more detailed breakdown of the evening, if you need. I can even provide video but, uh, we would need an assurance that that would be securely held.’

Fox found it a little difficult to believe that an AI could manage to sound like a teenager bragging to his friends about the girl he had sex with the night before, but Steve managed it, even adding the knowing smile. ‘That won’t be necessary at this stage. This is a murder enquiry, however. I’m sure you’re aware of the penalties for lying to a detective.’

The smile faded a little, but not excessively. ‘I’m sure you’re aware that my programming wouldn’t let me.’ He stepped back and waved her inside.

‘Yeah, but look at it this way. Since you say Ms Codnor was here with you, I don’t need to verify that unless I have reason to believe you have lied. You’re an exceptional alibi.’

‘I suppose that is something…’

Celia Codnor was stretched out on a lounger in a solarium which jutted out of the house on the seaward side. It was not exactly the weather for it, but there she was, dressed in a silk wrap and holding a martini glass at two in the afternoon on a Sunday. She was attractive, long in the leg and possessed of a slim figure equipped with enhanced breasts. From first impressions, her face was almost all natural with maybe a touch of work to tighten things up. She was in her late fifties and determined not to let it show.

She gave Fox a vaguely disinterested glance and then smiled at Steve. ‘Thank you, darling. Would Miss Meridian like coffee?’

‘No, thank you,’ Fox replied. ‘Captain Meridian doesn’t really need it these days.’

Codnor blinked once. ‘Oh, yes. You’re…’ She waved a hand in Steve’s direction. He was still hanging around, apparently waiting to be needed. ‘You’re like Steve.’

‘Not really, but we’re both infomorphs. Coffee doesn’t do much for either of us. I’m sure you’ve heard by now that your ex-husband is dead. I’d heard the divorce was less than amicable, but I have to say you don’t seem even slightly broken up about it.’

‘Well, I’m not.’ Codnor sipped her martini. ‘The man was a monster and, when I finally couldn’t stand him any more, he stiffed me royally on the settlement. Then, just to spite me, he made sure I was basically a social pariah.’ She had a Boston accent, and it was getting thicker is she became more animated.

‘A monster?’ Fox queried.

‘He–’ Codnor stopped and glowered at the sky through the solarium window. ‘I had to sign a contract as part of the settlement. I’m not allowed to discuss our private life. With anyone.’

‘That would be a civil contract and I would be here regarding a murder enquiry, Ms Codnor.’

‘I could be sued–’

‘Who is going to sue you? Winsford’s dead. If his estate tries it, you’re covered by submitting to my investigation, and the details are only going to be released in court if they are relevant to a trial. Or I can have a subpoena issued to have you present this before an evidentiary court, which won’t do either his or your reputation any good.’

Codnor gave a sigh and swung her legs down, placing her glass on a small table. ‘I met Thomas just over twenty years ago. He was handsome and charming, and he romanced me like a real gentleman. I grew up in Boston, but I liked the social scene in New York, so I’d moved down six months earlier. I wasn’t expecting to find a husband, but there he was and it seemed like a match made in Heaven. Quite soon after we were married, it became apparent that Thomas wanted a wife to fit with the political image he was trying to project. I was there to be the attractive “little woman” on his arm when he went to events and parties.’


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-29 show above.)