Carter was dead before he even cleared the doorway. Mayes and I were already in, but he had nowhere to go when the shooting started. His vitals winked out as I hit the deck. I landed behind a ratty old armchair, pulling myself up into a crouch. There was a nasty, wet thump behind me as his body collapsed on the doorstep.
There was a tiny sting as Clarity auto-injected, and then a chunk of my mind went numb.
I closed my eyes for a moment and tried to gather myself. Control had claimed that the house was empty. A few feet away, I could hear Mayes swearing bitterly. The room stank of blood, death, and cooked meat.
I opened my eyes, and looked across at Mayes. He was tucked in behind the end of a sofa. He nodded his head in towards the shooter, and made a ‘cover me’ gesture. I nodded, and he turned to start crawling along behind the sofa. I swung round to the far edge of the chair, eased my gun over the arm, and fired a couple of shots. A burst of fire immediately ripped into the chair. The burnt covers added a nasty chemical stench to the already-foul air. No pain, though. I sighed with relief, and popped a couple more shots off towards the doorway ahead.
“That’s impo…” Mayes was cut off in a loud crackle of fire. His readout went blank a moment later.
And then there was one. Shit. I listened frantically, but there was nothing to hear. No movement, no shots, nothing. I quickly rolled onto my back, facing the chair, gun ready. When Hallet came for me, he was going to get a nasty shock.
A moment passed, and then another. I tried to imagine how long I’d take creeping across a room towards a waiting enemy. Fifteen seconds? Twenty? I thought about it a bit more, and decided that I wouldn’t do anything of the sort. I’d try to circle round for a flanking approach, or even better, try to flush him out.
Somewhere deep in the house, I clearly heard a window breaking.
Ah. There was always retreat too.
I levered myself back into a crouch. Nothing. I gave it a few seconds, then peeked round momentarily. No response, no shadowy figures in the dim doorway. I took a moment, and then stood up, ready to dive either way. Still nothing.
Gun ready, I came round from behind the chair, and crossed the room as quietly as possible. The door led to a plain bit of corridor. Cheap wooden board floor, undecorated walls, some water stains. A staircase led up to the next level, opposite a door through into what would be the dining room. At the far end, another door opened into the kitchen. A foul breeze wafted in from that direction.
I worked round the staircase, and then ducked into the dining room. No occupants. It was as ratty as the living room. I double checked it, and then swung back into the corridor. A faint yellow glow was coming from the kitchen. Keeping low and close to the wall, I advanced. The smell was getting worse.
A moment later, I saw why. There was a fat guy on his back on the kitchen table. He was nailed to it by a large knife through his throat. By the bloating, he’d been there for a week or more. What the hell? I steeled myself, and spun round into the room, trying to cover all the best firing positions. The kitchen was clear. I relaxed fractionally. The window was smashed out, the back door hastily barricaded. It looked like our guy was making a run for it. Except that the corpse was clearly Arthur Hallet. It didn’t make sense.
The yellow glow was intensifying. I looked over at the fridge. The side had been pulled open, and the light was spilling out of that. The fuel cell… Great. Just great.
I didn’t know whether I had seconds or minutes, but I couldn’t just abandon Hallet’s corpse. Either he’d decayed impossibly in half an hour flat, or he’d been copied somehow, which was just as impossible. I gave the corpse a prod, but it was far too soft and sticky to risk picking up. I sighed, and started yanking the table towards the hallway door, trying not to think about the fridge.
A little less than a minute later, I had the table up to the door. There was no way it was going to fit through, of course. Maybe if I could slide the corpse onto a sheet or something, I could pull it down the hallway.
The living-room curtains.
I dashed back to the front room. Trying to ignore my dead team, I grabbed a big armful of curtain, and heaved. The rail was as crappy as everything else in the house, and it came down immediately. I put my foot through it, bundled the curtain off, and ran back into the hallway.
A giant hammered me in the chest, and everything went white.
“Taylor?” Someone slapped me in the face, a little too enthusiastically. “Taylor!”
“Fuck off,” I mumbled. Good god, what was that hideous stink?
I opened my eyes, and found myself staring up an unlovely nose. I jerked back reflexively, thumping my head into something hard. My body felt heavy and wet, as if I was underwater.
“Wakey wakey, Taylor.” Todd Robbins was from my office. He had a voice like burnt coffee, but he was OK really. Most of the time. He swivelled his middle finger up at me. “How many fingers?”
“Ha ha.” I tried to move my arm, but it was sluggish, unwilling to respond. I looked down nervously. Hallet was smeared all over me, but particularly across my stomach and arms. His head was lying in my lap, minus the lower jaw. Perfect.
I pulled an arm out of the mess, and shook the gore off. Robbins dodged out of the way, cursing.
“We need to get this bagged,” I said.
“I was planning on having you hosed down,” said Robbins. “I suppose I can find someone to scrape you clean, though. What the hell happened?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. Someone opened up on us as we came through the door. I was lucky. Carter and Mayes… Well. Whoever the shooter was, he made a run for it. How long has it been?”
“About twenty minutes since Carter offlined.”
“I guess he’s not coming back right away, then. Someone will need to head out back, see if there’s a trail.”
“They’re already on it.”
“Ok.” I closed my eyes and lay back against the wall. “Will you get me cleaned off now, please?”
Two hours and three thorough hair-washes later, I was in the office. Someone had boxed up Carter’s stuff already, which was a relief. You never get used to losing team-members. With Mayes gone, Carrie Ransom was sole lead, and naturally she wanted to go over every detail three times. It was past ten when I finally got home.
I woke up late the next morning, and showered a couple more times, shuddering. No-one said anything when I finally rolled in. I was the only one in our office, anyway. Masters was out somewhere, and the rest of the team… The rest of the team was dead. I tried to drown the thought in work.
Forensic tests confirmed that Hallet had been dead for twelve days. Speech and retina analysis from surveillance confirmed that he’d been fine the previous morning. The guys on the ground had followed the shooter’s trail for a few hundred metres – until it just vanished into thin air somehow. The footprints matched Hallet’s weight and foot size.
For the last twelve days, there had to have been two copies of Arthur Hallet, one live and one dead. How the hell did you copy a middle-aged man though? Replication was barely even theoretical. Clones had to grow up like anyone else. Identical twins? There was no hint of a sibling in his history. It was just possible that Hallet had spent his life engaged in a very subtle, careful deception, but why? And why would one murder the other and then leave his body out on the table like that?
We’d been watching him for a few days now, on and off. Surveillance had put him across the city shortly before we’d gone into the house. So… maybe the shooter wasn’t the Hallet copy, but an associate. Except the footprints leading away from the house were Hallet’s, or those of someone very similar… Two similarly stocky guys with the same brand of size 9s?
I set a search running with Overlook, digging for any records of Hallet out in public in the last two weeks, and put a call through to Steve Clark in surveillance.
He answered immediately. “Clark. What’s up, Taylor?”
“Hi Steve. You’ve been tracking Arthur Hallet.”
“Yeah, for three days.”
“How did we get interested in him?”
“He wandered out of the black market operation on Beak Street. We recorded his ID and forgot about him. A couple of hours later though, Overlook flagged a suspiciously shabby guy heading into the Regency. We’re keeping an eye on Salia Moses there, so we dug a bit deeper. It was Hallet again.”
That was odd. “What does Moses have to do with the black market?”
“Nothing, as far as we know.”
“Hallet was playing courier for her?”
“Maybe. He wasn’t carrying anything visible, but that doesn’t mean much.”
“After that, we told the Beast to keep an eye out for him. He’s been popping up around town like a jack-in-the-box for the last forty-eight hours. He doesn’t seem to be making any effort to stay hidden.”
“Where is he now?”
“Not sure. He was scanned out north at 5pm last night, in Yuba, entering the university’s outpost there. We didn’t see him leave. Next time he appears, we’ll keep eyes tracking him moment by moment.”
“OK Steve, thanks. Let me know if you spot him.”
I closed the connection. The raid had taken place a little after five thirty. Hallet’s place was south-east, in Oakdale. It would take you more than an hour to do the journey by road. Sure, you could do it in five minutes in a flitter – if you didn’t mind stirring up a colossal military response as you thundered over the city. It had to be a third man. Damn.
I checked my Overlook search. It was still rolling along happily, churning out lots of hits. A nasty sinking feeling crept over me. I opened the log, and stared. For the first three days of my search, he’d stayed local. Then eleven days ago, Hallet had been registered flitting in to San Francisco – and Boston. And Tampa, Milwaukee, Portland, Columbus, Las Vegas, Austin, Denver, and Detroit. All before midday. He hadn’t been seen again in any of those places. As far as Overlook was concerned, he’d never even left the flitter terminals.
I needed to find out if anyone else was tracking him. Hopefully one of the larger agencies had noticed his movements. They might have some useful answers, if so.
Overlook wasn’t showing any case flags, but that only meant no-one was watching him openly. I logged into the Washington system and pulled up Hallet’s file there. No flags there either. Damn. It really was just us, then. I flagged him myself, and tied it back to my Overlook search with a safely bland note about ‘anomalous movements’.
I had a quick skim through the Washington data. There wasn’t anything there I hadn’t already been briefed on. He was nobody, just a low-rent guy who dabbled in the odd bit of trouble. Overlook wasn’t set up to flag up apparent bilocation, for obvious reasons, so no alarms had been raised when he started duplicating. I ran a second manual search, for simultaneous appearances in different locations over the last year. It took a couple of very dull hours to run. The first confirmed instance was seventeen days earlier. I tagged that up too, under the same flag.
This went beyond just requiring casual observation. I send Steve a hasty request for an official high-priority alert on any further detection of Hallet’s face. Then I wrapped up all the stuff I’d tagged with a quick note, and passed it up to Carrie to escalate. This diaspora was way above our pay-grades. Meanwhile, Hallet’s background didn’t show many points of attack. No family, no friends he was in regular contact with, no known links to shady figures. There were a dozen or so bars and restaurants he was semi-regular in, but none stood out as potentially interesting. That just left his office – and his church.
Sometimes the oddest people proved to be religious, but he really didn’t seem the type. I forwarded the church’s details to research, and asked for a thorough background check. That just left the office in Manteca, an easy ten minute drive from his house. I got the go-ahead to go have a look from Carrie, put in a call to the local Manteca security centre to have some backup meet me after lunch, and grabbed my jacket.