A non-Masks story to cleanse the palate before starting the next tale.
MURDER AT THE SHAPESHIFTER'S BALL
John Florinson expected his entrance to cause a stir, and he was right; heads started turning as soon as he appeared. As he cleared the security devices at the foyer entrance to the penthouse suite of David Hanely, this year's host, he was mobbed. The response was quite gratifying. John had waited over a year and a half for this, and undergone three months of inconvenience, discomfort and occasional angst just for tonight. He was convinced that he would win the prize for "Best Technical Achievement" with his centaur.
"Wow!" said Charlotte Brandenberg. She made him wait while she looked him all around, finally standing back and just staring, with a goofy smile on her face. This was all the more appropriate since the form she had chosen was Olive Oyl. "You've done an incredible job."
John had taken the classic Greek myth, beard and all, and made it real, using his own body as the medium. He currently stood about three meters tall and massed nearly a metric ton. The human torso was modeled after an actual Greek statue, found buried just eight years earlier. The equine portion had been inspired by Medieval warhorses. As a final touch, all of the hair, both on the human head and on the equine body, was shiny black. In spite of all the changes, though, the face was still recognizable as John's.
"One of the biggest problems was learning to walk again," John told Charlotte. "The algorithms I programmed into the neural structure didn't work nearly as well as I thought they would."
People waved and pointed as John walked slowly through the suite, those who were looking at him calling to those who had not seen him yet. As he stepped out onto the patio and into plain view of the main body of guests, there was a collective intake of breath, followed by scattered applause. From this crowd, that meant a great deal.
"Legend comes to life under the stars," called out someone John didn't recognize. He seemed more than a little drunk. "The night is full of magic!"
John carefully made his way over to the snack table, using his height advantage to get a good look at the competition. Most shifters didn't have the dedication and motivation to endure the problems involved with a major change, and could generally be dismissed from the contest for "Best Technical." Only a handful of people had, like John, performed radical changes to their structure. Most of the somaforms present were the usual assortment of people with minor alterations; duplicates of celebrities and fictional characters, a lone caveman, and several wolfmen and people in various other anthropomorphic guises. Some of these would be eligible for "Best Artistic," "Best Recreation" or one of the other prizes, which were much coveted in their own right, but John wasn't interested in those. He was, after all, in the business, and winning the technical award would certainly not hurt his career.
John spotted a familiar figure at the snack table, and moved toward him.
"Congratulations," said Tom Sarant, handing John a drink. "You had talked about this for years, but I didn't think you could bring it off. Uh, you can drink, can't you?"
Tom belonged to the group, making up about a third of those at the party, whose members preferred changes more subtle than overt somaforming. He specialized in bioluminescent displays, and generally glowed in various colors. This time, however, John noticed that Tom had done something different. The biologist's skin was aswirl with patterns of multiple colors, which changed slowly with time and more rapidly with Tom's movements. It was an interesting and challenging effect, and one which was probably lost on the majority of the attendees.
"Yes, I can drink," John replied, with a wry grin. "Believe me, growing this form wasn't easy. Even after I had worked out all the details for the change, I still had to get access to the proper equipment to make the assemblers and monitor my progress. Fortunately, my boss at Preservation Research agreed to let me use their gear, if I would sign a contract stating that the company had first refusal on any commercial applications."
"That sounds like a good deal," said Tom.
He looked like he was going to say more, but they were interrupted by a commotion at the entrance. The crowd parted to make way for a leathery-winged, humanoid form, which looked like a giant bat. It was Marla Clost. She had finally delivered on her long-promised flying human.
"There goes 'Best Technical,'" sighed John.
Marla had extended the bones of her arms and fingers, to support wings of skin that ran between her arms and legs. Her hands were located about halfway out, with the bones of the last three fingers on each side extended and strengthened to carry the outer sections of the wings. That left her with just a thumb and forefinger, on hands located an awkward distance from her mouth, to use for manipulation. For flight stability, there was a flap of skin stretching from her buttocks, down between her legs, and to the middle of her calves. She had been wearing a cloak, which she had thrown off at her entrance, and now stood naked before them. Not that she had much to conceal. She had no breasts, or even nipples, and only a smooth stretch of skin between her legs. John wondered if she were routing her urine through her rectum, like a bird.
Marla had always been a small woman, and now she was even smaller. She stood at under a meter and a half, and looked painfully gaunt. She smiled triumphantly at the crowd, producing a death's-head grin enhanced by her total lack of hair.
John was ignored as people either rushed to examine and congratulate Marla, or simply began talking excitedly about her achievement. John, himself, didn't feel any resentment. He had known that his victory wasn't guaranteed, and that Marla was one of the prime contenders. In fact, his basic emotion right now was grudging admiration tinged with envy.
"One for the archives?"
John turned to see Wilson Hacker, with his camera ready. John drew himself up and put on a fierce expression, and Wilson snapped the shot.
"I'm taking advantage of Marla's entrance, since you're so big that I have trouble getting all of you in a crowd."
"It's crowded, all right," John remarked, looking around. "It gets worse every year."
"Yeah, I'm afraid we'll have to start charging for membership instead of asking for donations," Wilson sighed. "Maybe have a pre-judging on the forms competition. It takes too long, now."
Wilson finished getting his pictures of John, then wandered off in search of more victims. Marla was still the center of attention, and there didn't seem to be much else going on, so John took consolation in appeasing his considerable appetite. He had made his new form as efficient as possible to reduce the inconvenience caused by fueling it, but he still ate a lot. John gathered a heaping plate of vegetables and began mingling, to get a better look at the other attendees. Eventually, he and Marla came together in the press of the crowd. She seemed almost embarrassed when she saw him.
"I just wanted to congratulate you on your accomplishment," she told him, raising her voice to be heard above the party noises. "A shame we both had to make our breakthroughs at the same
"How long did that take?"
"Four weeks," Marla replied, with more than a trace of smugness. "I discovered a couple of interesting shortcuts, at least one of which has commercial possibilities. I'll send you the documentation... after I've got the patents."
"What do you think of the rest of the competition?" John munched a celery stalk, then continued when it seemed that Marla wouldn't speak. "I don't see anyone in our class for 'Best Technical' but there are several possibilities for some of the other categories."
"Adlai will win 'Best Artistic,'" said Marla. "He always does, and with good reason. One of the three Elvises will get 'Best Re-Creation;' its tradition."
They talked a while longer, then someone came out to announce that Adlai was ready to make his appearance. John and Marla headed toward the suite, to watch the unveiling, but neither of could move particularly fast in the crowd. In John's case, it was because he was afraid of stepping on someone. Marla's form was simply awkward. They wound up together at the rear of the crowd. This was no problem for John, with his height, but Marla was the shortest adult there. After a quick discussion, John hoisted Marla onto his equine back, where she stood, holding his shoulders for balance. John was astonished at how light she was.
The crowd hushed as the lights dimmed, leaving only a set of floods pointed at the sliding doors to David's living room, and a row of temporary walkway lights flanking the path to the stage. There was a recorded blare of trumpets, and the door opened. Adlai walked slowly, grandly onto the patio.
"He" had changed gender and was now "she." This in itself was nothing new or even unusual in this group. The rest of the form, however, was. She was beautiful, as much a creature from mythology as John. She was tall and lithe, with pale green skin and dark green hair, slightly pointed ears and cheekbones so high and fine that she looked other - better - than human. She wore only a translucent gown, which accented her attractiveness rather that concealing it. John suddenly found himself glad he had designed his current form to be sexually non-functional; an erection in public could be embarrassing for a centaur.
Even the women on the patio were entranced, as Adlai continued her graceful walk across the patio. She was an artist by trade, and had worked in nearly every medium available in the middle of the twenty-first century, including her own body. No one who saw her now could doubt that she was her own best canvas.
Finally, she reached the stage. She flowed smoothly up the steps, accepted the microphone from the chief judge as if it were her royal scepter, and spoke to the crowd.
"Ladies and gentlemen," she announced, in a voice that sounded the way honey tastes, "shapeshifters of all persuasions, let the Ball begin!"
* * *
"Has anyone seen Adlai?" asked Lyle Thompkins. "John, you're the tallest one here. Can you see her in the crowd anywhere?"
John broke off his conversation with a four-armed Martian who stood nearly as tall as the centaur, looked around, then shook his head. It was getting late and he was feeling sleepy and not all that alert.
"What's the problem?"
"Well, the votes have been counted and the judges are ready to award the prizes, but no one can find Adlai." Lyle frowned. "Its not like him - I mean her - to miss the awards, even if she isn't in the running, and especially if she is."
"Has anyone looked in the apartment?" John asked.
"Not yet," Lyle replied. "We thought she might be - uh - busy. You know."
"Well, she should be finished by now," said John, grinning. "I'll look in the kitchen. I told Betty I'd bring some more snacks out anyway, since I ate so many of them."
"Good. I'll try the living room." Lyle turned and headed toward the sliding doors.
John entered the kitchen and took a quick look around for Adlai there and in the adjoining rooms. She was not in sight, so John began filling a tray with various snacks, nibbling as he worked. He was nearly finished when he heard the yell. John hurried awkwardly through the house toward the noise, and was perhaps the fifth one to arrive at the master bedroom in answer to it. He stared with Lyle and a couple of others at the scene in the bedroom: David, standing and gaping in shock, and Adlai, lying on the floor, with her beautiful, delicate skull battered to fragments.
* * *
Detective Bledsoe had commandeered the dining room for interviewing the party guests. There were a lot of them, which meant that this murder had more suspects than most. Bledsoe finished entering the data on number forty-one, and looked up at his assistant, Officer Kzir.
"Okay, who's next?" Bledsoe asked.
"Dr. John Florinson. He's a biochemist who works at Preservation Research, in their Knoxville, Tennessee office." Kzir continued with the pertinent information, which Bledsoe dutifully noted on his spreadsheet.
It was an unusual scene for a murder. David Hanely was a respected man in Chicago, coming from a wealthy family with deep roots in the community. He was a businessman and entrepreneur, and no one doubted his financial acumen. Unfortunately, he had some strange hobbies. One of those had now led to a murder being committed in his penthouse, and Hanely was a suspect.
The Detective finished his entry, then had Records confirm the information and send a picture of the individual in question. Bledsoe just hoped the guy actually looked like this. After what he had already seen tonight, that was by no means certain.
"Okay, send him in."
John watched the caveman leave the dining room, and knew his turn was next. In spite of the situation, John couldn't help but look at the man in consternation. The caveman, for his part, gave John a glare and continued silently on. John shook his head; the man's outfit and attitude just didn't fit in with the usual Shifter crowd, and something else seemed off, as well. Still, there were a lot of newcomers at the Balls lately, and many of them were short-term faddists rather than dedicated Shifters. A lot of these newcomers were rude, loud and ignorant of tradition. Was tonight's violence a result of all the strangers who had joined recently?
John had heard complaints about these people at recent Balls, but had dismissed such talk as nostalgia. Now he wondered if he was wrong, and had the sinking feeling that some sort of exclusion process was about to begin.
John was brought back to the present as he heard his name called. He stepped forward, tail swishing nervously.
The door to the patio opened, and Detective Bledsoe started, then stared, as John Florinson entered.
"So far tonight, I've interviewed eight celebrity look-alikes, two wolf-men, three cat women, a cave man and a guy with glowing skin," Bledsoe grumbled, after he recovered. "Don't you people have anything better to do?"
John's ears turned red, but when he replied his voice was steady.
"Excuse me, Detective, but do you have any hobbies?"
"Well, yeah," he responded, confused by the unexpected question. "I collect and restore antique clocks."
"Wouldn't your time be better spent if you gave that up, and concentrated on catching criminals?"
To John's surprise – and relief - the man chuckled.
"Point taken, Mr. Florinson." He offered John his hand, reaching up to close the gap in height. "I'm Detective Wendell Bledsoe, Homicide. I hope you can sit down; I'm getting a crick in my neck."
Bledsoe resumed his seat behind the table he had taken over as a makeshift desk, and John settled himself in front of it, tucking his four legs almost primly under his bulk. This put his head only slightly higher than the policeman's.
"Now, then, just a few routine questions," the Detective began. He asked John where he had been at certain times, if he had seen anything unusual or suspicious, and so forth, continuing for several minutes. "I understand that you were one of those who found the body."
"That's right," the biochemist replied, nodding. "I heard David yell and went to see what was wrong."
"That would be David Hanely," Kzir supplied.
"That's right." John gestured down at his bulk, and smiled wryly. "I'm not very maneuverable like this, I'm afraid. I got there after several of the others, and was at the back of the group, but I'm tall enough that I could see Adlai."
"Please describe what you saw."
John swallowed, looking a bit grey, but continued.
"She was lying on the floor, her skull crushed. David was standing over her, horrified."
John's eyes were distant, as he saw in his mind that bizarre scene. Adlai, with her elfin features a shattered mess, the stain slowly spreading on the carpet, and David, looking like a stereotypical Satan, frozen in shock.
"You told the officer that you knew Mr. Darlin was dead. Your actual words were 'crushed beyond repair.' How did you know that?"
"I've done a lot of work with neural repair assemblers," John explained. "I know terminal brain damage when I see it."
He looked down at his hands, shaking his head.
"What a waste. Adlai was a great sculptor. He was also one of the few people with genuine artistic talent to take up Shifting. Now, he's gone."
"Why did he change himself?" Bledsoe asked, curious. "Why not design the change and have someone else take it?"
"That's the attraction of being a Shifter," John explained. "You get to be whatever you want. Adlai was his own best canvas."
"Do you think Hanely did it?" said Bledsoe, getting the inquiry back on track.
"No," said John, firmly. "Aside from the fact that I don't believe David could commit murder, he was in plain view for over an hour before we noticed that Adlai was missing. When we found her, the blood was already drying. There wasn't time for that, between when we started looking and when David yelled."
Bledsoe had already eliminated Hanely as a first-rank suspect for that and other reasons, and decided not to go into all the ways the man could have arranged the murder, then pretended to "discover" it later. Instead, he asked a few more questions, then told John he could rejoin the group on the patio.
"Who do you think might have done it?" said the Detective. "Also, what their motivation was?"
"We've occasionally had threats," said John, frowning as he thought. "From people who claim what we do is 'unnatural.' Nothing has ever come of it."
"We'll check into that, but you're probably right."
"Do you know why Adlai was killed?" John asked, as he rose to leave.
"Robbery, probably," Bledsoe replied. "The robutler did a quick inventory, and there are several valuable items missing. So unless those were taken to throw off suspicion, it's gotta be robbery. There may also have been rape involved. The initial report says there was fresh semen in the victim's vagina."
If the Detective was being bluntly clinical in an attempt to shock John into revealing something, it was wasted. Indeed, John was worried about shocking Bledsoe.
"It probably wasn't rape," John told him, wondering how the officer would take the next bit of information. "A lot of shifters like to take advantage of a temporary gender change. In fact, I would say that was why Adlai left the party."
To John's relief, this didn't even seem to phase the man.
"We'll take DNA prints from everyone, anyway, and match them against what we got from the victim." The Detective suddenly looked thoughtful. "Or will that work with your crew?"
"It should," John told him. "Shifters are required by law to keep their DNA type unchanged, except for legitimate therapeutic alterations."
"That's a relief," said Bledsoe. "Assuming, that is, the murderer didn't break that law, too."
"How long are you going to keep us here?" asked John. "I mean, there's no hurry, we usually party until late anyway, but I would like to know."
"Mr. Hanely's security system locked the place up tight when he hit the alarm, so the odds are that our killer is still in the penthouse," said the Detective. "As of now, I intend to keep this suite sealed until we have caught the culprit."
The idea that the murderer could still be among them caught John by surprise, and just as obviously worried him. What if the killer became desperate and tried to hurt someone else? Several of the forms being worn here tonight were rather fragile. He quickly said goodbye and left, tail switching.
"Okay, who's next?"
"Dr. Marla Clost. She's a biological researcher at the University of Kentucky."
"Send her in."
Marla walked in and gave the detective a nervous grin.
"Three more years 'till retirement," muttered Bledsoe, staring. "Just three more years."
* * *
John walked back out to the deck, feeling uneasy at the thought that not only had one of their group committed murder, but that the killer was still close by. Was this a result of all the newcomers who had joined in the past couple of years?
The conversation around the pool was hushed. If nothing else, this was the quietest Shapeshifter's Ball which had ever been held. John found himself eyeing the other members. He knew most of them by sight, even with their altered forms. Over half of those attending had, like John, been attending the Balls for more than six years, which was as long as they had been held. He found it difficult to believe that any of them could perform a deliberate act of violence. That left those he didn't know. He tried to be discrete with his observations, but was not very successful. It didn't matter; most of the people there were going though the same routine. John gave a wry smile when he caught a wolfman eying him with suspicion.
* * *
Bledsoe was through with his interviews and was waiting for the report from forensics, when one of the officers keeping watch on the crowd came running in to tell him that there was a fight.
When he reached the patio, Bledsoe could see that the matter was already under control. The two apparent combatants were being held apart - and up on their toes - by Florinson, who had a tight, smug grin on his face along with a tight grip on their collars. One of the culprits looked like Abraham Lincoln, the other like Gandhi; a strange pair to be caught in a fist fight. Hanely fluttered nearby, trying to control the situation.
"What's going on?" demanded Bledsoe.
"Just a case of nervous tempers," David hastily explained, as he stepped forward to meet the detective. "We're all on edge."
Bledsoe was having a hard time keeping a straight face. Hanely's satanic appearance was completely at odds with his mannerisms.
John set the two men down. After giving each other sullen looks, they separated, moving into the crowd.
"You'd make a Hell of a bouncer," commented Bledsoe.
"Look, Detective, can't we get this over with?" someone in the crowd asked.
"I'm working as quickly as I can," Bledsoe announced, raising his voice so that the immediate crowd could hear him. "I know this isn't easy on you, but it has to be done right. The more you cooperate, the sooner you will be out of here."
Bledsoe looked around for a moment, to see if there were any more questions, then went back inside. The others in the cluster dispersed, merging back into the party.
"Any progress being made?"
John jumped, then turned to see Tom standing beside him.
"Not much," John told him. "How many more does he have to interview?"
"Just Wilson and Charlotte," said Tom. He heaved a big sigh, but said nothing more.
"How can you be so calm?" John asked his friend. "David's right; this group is stretched to the breaking point."
"I'm working on solving the murder," Tom replied. "We know about when it occurred. I'm excluding everyone who has at least two independent witnesses who can definitely place them elsewhere at that time. So far I've been able to clear about a third of the party."
He grinned up at John.
"You'll be happy to know that you were one of the first eliminated. You're just to big to escape notice."
"That's impressive," replied John, remembering that Tom was famous for his ability to create mental arrays of data.
Impressive it was, but watching him do it was boring. Eventually, John wandered over to an empty portion of the deck, near the balustrade, to look at the stars. The clean, cool air blew past him in a strong updraft as John gazed toward the zenith. He remembered his father remarking, more than once, about how it used to be impossible to see the stars from inside a city because of all the light pollution. John had trouble understanding why anyone would aim a light upwards.
John turned with a start, and almost stepped on Marla. She jumped back, then laughed.
"Sorry about that," John muttered. "I need to pay more attention."
"I shouldn't be so timid," Marla replied. "Considering the materials I had to use in this form, I'm probably the only one here you don't have to worry about hurting."
"Graphite fiber reinforcement?" asked John. "Or one of the new polymers?"
They talked shop for a few minutes, the routine keeping their thoughts away from the circumstances. Finally, though, they both fell silent, staring out at the night sky.
"You know," said Marla, suddenly, "it may not be robbery."
"You mean it may have been something personal?" John found it hard to believe that any shifter would kill Adlai from jealousy or because of some snub.
"Not that," Marla corrected. "I mean something in his business dealings. He made a lot of enemies on that Hy-Flight stock mess two months ago."
"I haven't the slightest idea what you are talking about."
Marla gave John a puzzled look.
"It was in all the papers," she explained. "There was an official enquiry into what he knew and when. He was cleared, but there was a lot of bad blood about it."
"Two months ago, I was deep into the final preparation for this form," John told her.
"Well, let's just say that some people consider revenge for blowing a deal that costs them a lot of money as a sufficient motive for murder."
If Marla was right, that meant the murderer was most likely a hired professional. That made John feel a little better; such a person wasn't likely to panic and try to take hostages, or blindly strike out at anyone in the way. However, it also meant that the killer was less likely to be caught. John heaved another huge sigh, his equine chest moving noticeably.
"Such a shame," said Marla, echoing John's sigh. "Not only that Adlai is dead, but that such beauty has been defiled. She was perfect; slim, elfin and ethereal."
John turned and gave her a puzzled look. He had known Marla for nearly five years, and had never heard her talk like this before. Normally, she was impish; bright and brassy. Not to mention heterosexual...
"You sound almost jealous."
"I guess I am." Marla shrugged. "I am not and never will be artistic, but I can appreciate what looks good."
John nodded in understanding. With her narrow features, pointed ears and coloration done all in shades of green, Adlai's "Fairy Queen" had been the hit of the party. John turned to look at the people clustered around the pool and stage. Most of them seemed afraid to leave the lit area, and John couldn't really blame them.
As he gazed at the forms present, John saw the caveman again, and wondered why anyone would pick such a ridiculous form. Shifters occasionally took on a truly ugly guise as a joke, but that was rare, and this fellow wasn't unpleasant enough to be funny. Yet there he was, although his club was missing. John froze. His club was missing!
"What's wrong?" asked Marla.
"I need to find Tom," John told her. "I think I know who the killer is."
* * *
Tom heard John out and nodded thoughtfully.
"I had just about come to the same conclusion. He's one of the five I haven't been able to alibi. Not only can no one say where he was for some time before or after the murder, no one here knows him."
"Well, its obvious, now that you think about it," said Marla. "The guy just doesn't fit. I think we need to see the Detective."
Bledsoe was polite but skeptical.
"Aside from the fact that he was carrying an appropriate weapon which is now missing, what makes you think that this man is the killer?"
John had explained his idea quickly, almost in a panic. He felt that every minute which went by with that man free increased the danger. He tried to think of some way to quickly convince Bledsoe that he was right. Then, suddenly, it came to him.
"If you could look like anything you wanted," John said slowly, with emphasis, "would you look that mundanely ugly?"
Bledsoe straightened, a thoughtful expression on his face.
"You could be right. You know better than I who wouldn't fit in with this group, and its more likely that an outsider would cause trouble than one of your own." He looked John in the eye.
"Now, how do we get this guy separated from the crowd without alerting him?"
"Can't you just dart him?"
"Won't work," said Bledsoe, shaking his head. "Too many people in the way, and even the best knockout juice available would still give him time to hurt someone. Besides, we only have a hunch that he is the perp. I want to question him, not provide grounds for an assault charge."
"I've got it," said John. "Have Lyle announce that the awards for the shifting contest are going to be given. Everyone will bunch around the stage. This guy has been hanging on the edge of the group all evening; your crew can move in and escort him away without anyone else getting near."
"I wish I could think of a better plan," said Bledsoe, after several minutes of musing, "but I can't. All right, we'll do it."
* * *
The crowd was already buzzing as the Detective called Lyle aside and talked quietly to him. Lyle then jumped up onto the stage and activated the PA.
"May I have your attention, please! To give us something to do while the police work, the Detective in charge is allowing us to continue with the awards ceremony. So everybody gather around, and let's end the suspense!"
There was some grumbling about disrespect for the dead, countered by remarks that it was what Adlai would have wanted. The shifters began to walk slowly toward the stage, the buzz of conversation and the confusion of their movement providing excellent distraction and cover for Bledsoe's people.
John never learned what it was that alerted the caveman. It could have been that the police began their move too soon, or that he saw someone watching him. It could have been simple paranoia. Whatever the trigger, the caveman suddenly turned and sprinted towards the far side of the deck, toward the fire escape. Since there were police units stationed around the building, he most likely would have still been caught, but John supposed that the man wasn't thinking rationally just then.
Not all of the shifters were at the stage, and several were in the path of the caveman. Marla Clost, awkward in her radically altered form, was one of these.
The caveman spotted her. He swerved and scooped her light body into his arms, something glinting white in his right hand. He turned to face the police, holding the white thing at Marla's short throat. She looked more surprised than frightened.
"Ceramic knife," said Detective Bledsoe, analytically. "Detectors wouldn't pick it up. Looks like he was expecting trouble."
"All of you, stay back!" the caveman shouted. "I want a tiltrotor here in five minutes, or bat girl learns to smile with her throat."
"Take it easy," said Bledsoe, calmly. "No reason for anyone else to get hurt. It's not like there was still a death penalty."
"You think I'm going to let them play with my mind, like they did my brother?" the man yelled. "When they were through with him, he couldn't even squash a bug! Now get that chopper here!"
Bledsoe stalled by asking the man whether he wanted a helicopter or a tiltrotor, then by asking for other details of his demands. While the caveman's eyes were on the detective, two of the police officers tried to sneak towards him. Unfortunately, the man saw them. He lifted Marla's thin form off the ground, both to use as a shield and to give him a better angle with the blade.
"You think I won't do it?" he screamed. "I've already killed one freak tonight; she'll be next if you don't stay away."
Marla grabbed his right arm with both of hers, then pushed hard while kicking backwards with her feet. She was much stronger than she looked; startled, and stunned a bit by the unexpected blow, the caveman dropped her. Marla jumped up and ran, towards the fire escape, the caveman chasing her. He was much faster; despite her head start, Marla would not make it before he caught her.
John, seeing this, grabbed a folding chair and lobbed it at the man. He missed, but the chair came close enough to make his target dodge and stumble. Instead of trying for the safety gate, Marla ran to the railing beside it. There was a collective gasp as she vaulted over the wall and dropped. Then they heard a muffled sound, like a sail catching a breeze, or a parachute opening. Marla came soaring back into sight, wings spread, lifted by the breeze blowing up the side of the building.
John tore his eyes away from the glorious vision of unassisted human flight, to see the caveman knock down the only police officer between himself and the fire escape gate.
Several other people, not all of them police, also saw this, and most of them made a run for the criminal. John was the fastest by far.
It didn't take much courage. After all, the man's only weapon was a knife, and John massed over eight hundred kilos. His motivation wasn't heroism, or even anger. It was outrage, pure and simple. This savage had killed a friend, and had threatened to kill another.
John charged. The caveman was almost at the slide as John approached. Any sane person would have dodged, or tried to surrender. The murderer whirled, knife ready. John grabbed for him and missed. The caveman slashed at John's abdomen, but also missed. John reared, trying to crash down on the man with his forelegs. He missed again, and felt a flash of agonizing cold as the blade, more by accident than design, plunged deep into his side, under the torso ribs. The pain overwhelmed John for a moment; then the neural limiters he had designed into his form tripped, and all he felt was the alien sensation of something cold and hard sticking into his body. Fighting a wave of nausea, John slapped the man's hand away, leaving the knife for later. He grabbed the murderer around the neck with both hands, and lifted him to eye level.
"Surprise. All my vital organs are in the horse part."
By the time the police got there the man was turning blue, and John showed no sign of letting go.
"Florinson!" Bledsoe yelled. "John! You're killing him!"
The Detective's words penetrated more deeply than the knife had. John dropped the man, then backed numbly away.
* * *
"Our caveman's name is Keith Barren," said Bledsoe, as he and John shared coffee beside the pool. The sun was just coming over the horizon, and both men looked wasted. "He's a known petty criminal. The alias he gave during questioning was good enough to pass a casual check, but we were able to ID him from his retina prints and DNA, once he was under arrest."
"So we were right. He wasn't a Shifter," said John, tiredly. "Just an ugly man in makeup and a costume."
Detective Bledsoe nodded. The police doctor on the scene had treated John's wound, with direction from John and words of advice from a number of kibitzers, and had given him a pain killer. A very inadequate dose, considering John's size, but it helped some. Most of the guests had left. The awards ceremony had been canceled; the list of winners would be mailed out later, along with the prize certificates. As it turned out, John and Marla had been declared co-winners for the Technical prize; the first tie in the history of the Ball. John had stayed to see the end of the situation, and because the police needed his statement.
"He saw an article on the ball in the news, and decided that this would be an easy job," the Detective explained. "Mr. Darlin surprised him, and was killed to eliminate a witness."
John shuddered. He could understand his own act of violence, committed in the heat of the moment, but how anyone could deliberately kill someone else just because it was convenient was beyond him.
"We found the stuff he stole," Bledsoe continued. "He dumped it down the laundry chute. Did the same with his club, later."
"Then why didn't he slide down after it and escape?" asked John.
"He probably didn't think of it," Bledsoe remarked, with a sour expression. "He comes from a family that has routinely refused counseling and genetic correction. So far, there hasn't been enough cause to get a court order forcing them to submit. I think that will change after this."
John had often questioned the need to so violate someone's rights, but now he wasn't certain it was wrong, at least in cases like this.
"How long, I wonder, until we have flushed all of these people from our society?"
"If we're lucky, never," was Bledsoe's surprising answer. "Properly channeled, that sort of aggression can be of great benefit."
He grinned tiredly, leaning back in his chair.
"Besides, I'd be out of a job!"
This work is Copyright 1995 to Rodford Edmiston Smith.
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