Friday, January 13, 2012

False Report, Broken Sight


False Report
By Veronica Heley

While Bea Abbot worries that she's lost control of her domestic agency, she's asked to find some domestic help for an eccentric little musician falsely accused of murder. She doesn't realize how dangerous this might be until Jeremy – fleeing from attempts on his life – lands on her doorstep.



As a business woman and owner of a thriving domestic agency, Bea Abbot knew that there was no such thing as a free meal. And, if she'd realised this particular invitation was going to involve her in a murder, she'd have said, `Certainly not!'

`Nance, where are you?' A man's voice, hoarse. `Josie's dead!'

`What! You shouldn't have let her out of your sight.'

`I couldn't lock her up, could I? I told her punters never carry through their threats, but she said if I didn't give her the cash for a ticket home, she'd get it from someone else. She ran out, on the phone to the music man—'

`Him? He wouldn't help her, would he?'

`I ran after her, down the alley. She was begging him to meet her. A crowd of drunken yobs came storming through, and I lost her. I looked everywhere, tried the little man's flat, rang his doorbell, no reply. Came back through the alley, saw her lying in the bushes. She's dead, all right.'

            `If he killed her, use a public phone, tell the police you overheard a young girl pleading with a man on her mobile, and later saw her body in the bushes. Give the police his name.'

    
The Abbot agency had a reputation for providing reliable domestic staff, but – although she couldn't put her finger on it – Bea felt something was amiss. She was not the sort of person who blamed other people for her mistakes. Somewhere along the line she'd made a bad decision . . . but exactly what had it been?

She needed advice. So when she received an invitation to tea from an old friend, she jumped at the chance. She took the afternoon off work, brushed her ash-blonde hair so that her fringe lay slantwise across her forehead, and renewed her make-up, paying attention to what her husband called her `eagle's eyes'.

CJ was a mandarin used by the police as an expert in matters too complicated, he said, for the ordinary man or woman to understand, but no one talked of such things while having tea at the Ritz, that prestigious, if slightly stolid hotel. Did they? The clients were dressed in their garden party best, the d├ęcor was over the top with gilding and stands of orchids, the waiters wore tail coats, and a pianist entertained at a grand piano.

Bea relaxed. What a treat! Just fancy: there was a whole menu devoted to different types of tea. There were six different kinds of sandwiches; three different pastries; two of cake. Would madam like a refill of tea, or perhaps another sandwich or two? Is there anything else madam fancies?

`That was just wonderful, CJ. I'd been letting things get on top of me at the agency —'

`Ah. Hmm.' He steepled his long fingers, and gave her a sideways glance.

She felt the first intimation of disquiet. He'd helped her agency to clear up a couple of nasty criminal cases in the past, so she owed it to him at least to listen to what he had to say.

`I was visited this morning by the police, asking if I could provide an alibi for a man called Jeremy Waite, who's accused of having killed an underage girl. I confirmed he'd been with me all evening, upon which they said I'd been set up to provide Jeremy with an alibi, while he arranged for someone else to kill the girl.'

The head waiter tendered the bill, and CJ paid it with a card. `Have you seen the latest exhibition at the Royal Academy? A stroll around the pictures is just what we need after that tea, don't you think?' It wasn't a question.

She was almost as tall as CJ when he held the door open for her. A grey man, well-brushed, well tailored.

`I went to a concert by a string quartet at the parish church last night. I thought I recognised a man sitting nearby, but couldn't place him.'

CJ steered Bea across the road, as if she were incapable of judging for herself when the traffic lights had turned red.

`Afterwards, he went up to speak to the cellist. She cut him dead, saying in a loud voice that he'd got a nerve approaching her, when he'd seduced an under-age girl, been thrown out by his wife and sacked from his teaching job.

`I remembered where I'd seen him before; at a fund-raising event. He taught music at a school in Kensington, but had begun to write for films and television programmes under another name.'

CJ turned Bea into the quiet of the Royal Academy courtyard, and ushered her to a pair of isolated chairs.

`Shall we sit awhile?' Again, it was not a request. `I was intrigued. So, as we left the church, I introduced myself and asked if he'd like to join me for supper.'

`In spite of what he'd done?'

`I thought it unlikely he'd seduced anyone. We adjourned to my place for coffee after supper, where he received a phone call from a girl – I could hear her high, clear voice – on his mobile. He refused to meet her, and shut her off.

`He explained that a young girl he'd befriended had been causing him no end of trouble. She'd lost him his teaching job but he had plenty of other work on and he wasn't going to let it get him down. He's renting a small flat near you, but he's not domesticated. I said you'd find him someone to come in several times a week to look after him.'

Bea gave him an old-fashioned look. `You doubt that he's really squeaky clean, and want me to spy on him?'

CJ got to his feet as an attractive little man approached them. `Judge for yourself. Jeremy, this is my good friend Bea Abbot, who runs a domestic agency and may be able to help you out.'

Veronica Heley

Available from fine bookstores everywhere.
Do not reproduce without permission.


* * *


Broken Sight: A Rescue Ops Adventure
by Steve Rzasa


The dark days are over.

The secret religious police, Kesek, no longer holds sway over the Realm of Five. Freedom of belief is returned. Now Lieutenant Commander Brian Gaudette of Rescue Operations doesn't have to hide his own beliefs. He can read his Bible in peace.

Too bad he doesn't even want to look at it.

He has a new, state-of-the-art starship ready for its maiden cruise— but the first officer is an ex-pirate, and the crew fight over suddenly legal religious differences. The Crown Marshals want their people aboard to hunt down Kesek's remnants. His wife has taken his daughter away for fear of his beliefs. And Brian has to wonder whether his God—who never seems to be around—will ever give him a straight answer.

When his ship responds to a distress call on a remote planet, Brian will find his faith and duty challenged in ways for which he is unprepared.

Because Kesek is not gone. They are biding their time. And they have found a weapon that can threaten the balance of power in the galaxy . . .


EXCERPT
Katarina ran.

She stumbled through the shadowy corridor. Her feet padded on the deck tiles—white flesh on silver metal. Pale orange lights flickered every few seconds, illuminating the immaculate, polished deck and the glistening pine panels inlaid on the white bulkheads. Framed images of mountains, forests, coastlines, and entire worlds were interspersed among the hatches and access panels.

It wasn't much farther.

Muffled gunshots barked somewhere. A deck or two above her? Katarina couldn't tell. She paused mid-step. Shouting—more than one voice. Two? Or three? Or more? Thudding boots. The sounds were moving away from her. She released a breath she hadn't realized she was holding and continued on.

A narrower corridor crossed the main one at an intersection ahead. Katarina eased up to the bulkhead. The corridor ahead of her was dark, except for more orange pinpoints of light. She saw no one to her right—it led back toward cargo storage. Katarina peered around the corner to her left. Nothing.

She wished her heart would stop hammering so.

Her stared back at her from the shining surface of a landscape painting. Her cheeks were pink and taut. Katarina's fear diminished as her anger grew. How dare they? Boarding her own ship! If she could, she would fight them all off herself. Make them pay. Her father had been a fusilier. She remembered his legion's motto—more like a toast, actually.

Na smierc. To death.

Katarina looked down at herself. She doubted any fusilier had gone into battle wearing a loose, flowing satin robe of crimson and black. No weapons on hand, either. She reached into one of her pockets.
The journal was there. Its ruddy cover was supple and not yet worn from use. It was safe. She exhaled.

Footsteps. Behind her.

Katarina pressed flat to the bulkhead. Her hands ran over a surface that was colder, smoother than the rest of the bulkhead—a cabin hatch? The control panel must be nearby. There it was. She pressed the switch. The hatch hissed open.

The boot steps were getting closer. But she couldn't see anyone. Whoever it was stayed out of sight around a distant, shadowy bend in the corridor.

Katarina slipped inside the hatch. She was in a crew cabin. Two bunk beds were attached to one wall. A small desk with its accompanying chair sat in the corner. A bathroom cubicle took up much of the rest of the space.

She went to close the hatch and hesitated. This running had to stop.

Na smierc.

She hauled herself onto the top bunk and pressed herself into the darkest recess against the bulkhead. Her legs tightened behind her. She was ready to spring. Hardly dignified.

It would have to do.

The boot steps grew closer—and slowed. Orange flickers failed to penetrate the open hatchway into the dark cabin. Then the shadow appeared.

Katarina held her breath until it hurt.

A silhouetted figure loomed in the hatch. Male. Stocky, wide, and muscled. She could tell that much. And he had a gun.

He stepped through the hatch with practiced ease. His weapon swept the interior in slow arcs. This man was well-trained. Disciplined. No pirate.

That only infuriated Katarina more.

She waited until he had turned slightly away. He reached to his belt for an oblong object.

Beacon.

Katarina kicked off from the wall. She saw his face for an instant before her arms jammed against his shoulders. It was a blur of features she could not recall. They went to the deck in a heap.

The gun clattered into a corner. Somewhere. She couldn't see it.

They wrestled for advantage. A boot struck Katarina's shin, but she refused to cry out. Tears stung her eyes. She jabbed an elbow. It dug into something soft and unresisting. Her assailant choked, a terrible sound.

His throat.

Katarina's hands scrambled for capture. She caught hold, felt the jagged Adam's apple and coarse whiskers. His breath carried a hint of ning. Fine coffee.

She gave a mental cry for strength from her ancestors and squeezed hard. Then she twisted her hands sharply.

The man's hands stopped grappling with her. He went for her wrists. She could feel the desperation in his grasp. She ignored it. Made herself cold. For all she knew this man had shot and killed her crew.

She twisted harder.

A sickening crack shattered the silence. The body slumped.

It was over.

Katarina's chest heaved. She gasped and choked. Then she vomited on the decking. Chills shook her. She wiped the sour liquid from her mouth with the back of her hand.

He was dead.

She scrambled to her feet. Where was the gun? She felt for it on the deck but couldn't—all she felt was cold metal. Katarina didn't dare waste more time. She had heard more voices before. Go, now!

Silence outside the hatch. Katarina peered out. No one. She stepped out and sealed it. She slid along toward the intersection.

"Mama!" The whisper flitted to her through the air.

They were all right. Thank the stars.

Katarina slipped into the short corridor.  She saw an open hatch at the end. A small, scared face peeked out.

"Mama! Hurry!"

Katarina stumbled silently through the hatch and over the arm's length threshold. Her eyes were drawn to a boxy console of flickering lights and buttons hanging from a strut above the seat opposite the hatch. There were five seats altogether, pressed in one circular bench around the edge of the room. Each was perched over a small cabinet with recessed latch. The seats were home to webs of straps and restraints that reminded her of the leash she used for her pet Rozsade gyrpanther. She wondered if she'd ever see Lotny again.

Thank her great-grandmother's spirit, both her children were crouched in the middle of the rough decking, unhurt. They wore identical tight fitting survival jumpsuits of brown and midnight blue. Her daughter seized her about the legs. "Mama!"

Katarina bent and wrapped her in a crushing hug. When she pulled back, her daughter's eyes were bright with tears. She was pretty, with blue eyes that were lovely even when she was frightened. Katarina brushed a strand of curly blond hair from the girl's face. "It is all right, Elzbieta. I'm here. My little Ela, be brave."


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