Chapter 15: Murder in Mercy

 
 
 

Chapter 15: Murder in Mercy

 
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There is a persistent and erroneous belief that the decline of civilization began with the departure of Moses. A student of history will laugh at such an assertion. The fall began centuries before, its effects first made manifest in the French Revolution, which paved the way for nineteenth-century European nationalism and ultimately the world wars. The foundations of our world had all but eroded. We had severed ties to those two ancients cities on whose shoulders we had once stood and in so doing had seen glimpses of light.

The age of reason and virtue were over.

In its place was left only passion, tribalism, and the worship of naked science. The West crucified itself, hollowing its soul until it was but an impotent shade, brittle and broken. The Muslim world gave into its darker passions, the rot that had long threatened it, giving rise to bloody caliphate after bloody caliphate. And the East sacrificed millions on the altar of the state, the final death knell for collectivism.

Even Moses was not able to stop the Red Holocaust, but he did keep civilization from fragmenting further and held it in stasis during his time. But the infections did not heal. Moses could not restore what had already been lost.

The war that came after Moses was the culmination of centuries of fermentation; there was no framework left in place to hold it  back.

The colonies accepted their fate in silence. Find me a man that has hope for the future of civilization; he is not to be found. Without reason and virtue, there can be no return to the light, and while there are those who endeavor to restore both to their proper place, the weight of the centuries but adds to the inertia.

Man has forsaken reason.

He has forsaken virtue. 

The two ancient cities that shaped civilization are lost in the ashes of Earth, and without them, there can be no return.

Fryderyk Lesniak
Author of  Civilization’s Twilight
Died 88 AM

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Matthew instinctively braced himself as his bike shot through the environmental shield that protected the town of Mercy Canyon. There was a brief jolt and he was through. He hit the brakes and slowed to a crawl, pocketing his breathing mask and stretching his stiff and half-frozen fingers. Sheer canyon walls of red rock rose around him, maybe a hundred feet high. The sun had already dipped below the rim. Sunset came early to Mercy Canyon. 

Around the next bend, the gorge widened and the mining town came into view. At around five thousand people and about twenty minutes outside of Arizona’s shields, Mercy Canyon was only loosely tied to the American colony. When things got rough, they were on their own.

He passed the entrance to the Jefferson Aluminium Mine, the town’s only reason to exist. Work for the day was ending and he entered into a steady stream of vehicle and foot traffic heading north to the town’s small commercial district. Matthew parked his bike on a side street and hiked the rest of the way into town on foot. Mercy Canyon had that quiet backwater sort of appeal. Aging but well-kept buildings, quaint storefronts, and modest residences were about all you could find.

The place didn’t seem like the sort where you’d get a string of murders, but that was apparently where they were at.

The streetlights came on as the gloaming settled over the canyon. Matthew kept his eyes about him and settled into his business walk, the gait that said he was armed and not afraid to defend himself. Never hurt to be careful in an unknown environment, especially when there was foul play going on in the shadows. He passed a storefront where a seven-foot woman in a trench coat loitered against the wall. Sharon ignored him as he passed and he returned the favor. She’d slipped into town a few hours earlier from the other direction. They’d meet up later once Matthew had a little chat with the mayor.

He crossed the street and pushed open the door to a saloon. It was packed and rowdy, as most kindred places were when the day’s work was done. Matthew had expected the place to be full of dirty miners fresh from the pits, but it seemed this saloon wasn’t frequented by the working class. The shirts were bright, and the cowboy hats were tall and spotless.

A digital player piano hammered away in one corner, mostly hits from a couple generations ago. The thing was probably at least that old and no one ever bothered updating the memory of those things. A handful of patrons danced in front of it, already tipsy enough to feel no shame in their ridiculous flailing.

Matthew slid into a booth and tipped his hat to the man across from him. “Mayor Davis, I assume?”

The man looked up from the plate of spaghetti he’d been occupied with and nodded. He was old, with a thin gray beard and skin weathered by the dry Martian air. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Cole. Care for dinner? Margaret is one of the best cooks in town.”

Matthew eyed the mound of pasta and felt his stomach grumble. “It’s rude to turn down a meal that another man buys. Don’t think I can say no.”

Mayor Davis smiled wryly and twisted his fork into the pile of noodles. “Margaret!” he called. “Another plate for my guest. On the city tab.”

The plate was delivered on the fly and Matthew stared at it for a moment. Sharon was probably going to have a ration bar tonight. They’d each stuffed their bikes full of them before leaving the Sparrow this morning to cut on travel costs while they were away. 

“Are you too busy pondering the meaning of life to eat?” Davis asked.

I’m wondering if it’s lying if I neglect to mention to my partner that I had a hot meal. She’s going to be jealous.”

Davis shrugged and kept eating. “Send her in when we leave. Put it on the city tab. Have her order a new bathrobe for all I care. As long as people stop dying, I’m fine with it.”

“This been going on for long?” Matthew asked. He dug into his meal with enthusiasm, since Sharon was going to get a plate as well.

“Months. Every few weeks a body turns up. Always a union man.”

That was a weird thread to connect a string of murders. “Is the union unpopular? Someone have it out for them?”

“Unions actually. We’ve got two in town. You’d think with only one mine I’d have only one group of complainers that think they can monopolize my attention. Oh no. Not in Mercy Canyon. We’ve got two competing unions that fight over the miners. Bosses on both sides think they own me too.”

“Do they?”

Davis looked up at Matthew and narrowed his eyes. Finally, he laughed. “Probably more than I think they do, but less than they want. How’s that for honesty?”

“Sufficient. So what’s the theory? Rivals offing each other?”

“Sure. The bosses are all in a rage about it. They could barely stand each other as it was. Now the few deputies I have are breaking up fights twice a week.”

“But you think something else is going on.”

Davis nodded. “It’s all too nice and neat. Never any witnesses. Always in the dead of night. Union boys always run in packs. If it’s them, they’re all in on it. No way to hide it.”

Matthew had missed something crucial. He’d run into more than a few trade unions across the solar system, but this seemed less like organized labor and more like street gangs. “Tell me about these unions.”

“Old as the town itself,” Davis said, setting his fork aside. “The mine was founded back in the early days of colonization. Wasn’t even a town then. Just the mine. The miners all lived in a pair of barracks, and, apparently, there was quite a rivalry between them. Southside Samaritans and Northern Knights they called themselves. Originally they were mostly techs watching after the robotics. Fast forward a century and a half, and the robots are all gone and a pair of unions still carry on the belligerent traditions, leaving a world of headaches for the town. On a good day, I’m just scrubbing graffiti off a wall or two where some new recruit has gotten a little over eager. On a bad day, someone gets sent to the hospital.”

“And on the worst day, to the morgue?”

“Maybe. Like I said, I’ve got a theory there’s an outside agitator.”

Matthew frowned at that. “No evidence?”

“Not really. Consider it a hunch from someone that knows their town well.” Davis shook his head. “I was born here. The Knights and Samaritans have always been a bunch of troublemakers, but no one had ever killed anyone that I know of.”

“First time for everything, I suppose. What do you need from us?”

Davis went back to his plate in earnest. “You and your partner solve my problems. Don’t care how. Don’t care if you have to rough up half the town. Just don’t implicate me. There’s a possibility that I might have misappropriated funds to hire you guys. If the bodies stop, it’ll be worth it. ”

Matthew stirred his spaghetti absently. An open-ended contract. A job better suited to a detective. Instead, they had a gunslinging gaucho and an armored tank of a woman. But this man was desperate if he was breaking laws to get the job done.

He smiled politely, with a confidence he certainly didn’t feel. “We’re on it. My partner and I haven’t failed a contract yet.” Which, was strictly true, though the Hawthorne incident had gone off course and the thing on Venus had gone totally out the airlock. But Mayor Davis didn’t need to know that. 

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Abigail waited rather impatiently for Cole. How long did it take for him to get instructions for a job? She had long ago given up on leaning and was now pacing, feeling the awkward tug of the trench coat restricting her movements. Hopefully, she wasn’t going to have to wear this thing the whole time they were here. Because if this was going to be one of those skullduggery things where they had to slink around in dark alleys she was going to be pretty…

“Bored already?” Matthew stood at the alley’s entrance, arms crossed.

She muttered a few choice words under her breath and joined him. It was dark now and cold stars shone down from above. “So what’s the deal? Why weren’t we supposed to bring the Sparrow? Subterfuge isn’t my strong suit, you know.”

“Turns out the mayor’s using cash not exactly earmarked for hiring freelancers. Figured if we rolled into town in a ship people would start asking questions.”

“Great,” she said. “More unethical government types. Give it to me. What are we dealing with?”

He recounted his conversation with the mayor. Abigail shook her head. “Kind of weird that there are two unions for one mine.”

“Yeah, I’ve got a few questions about the way they operate. I’m all for letting workers band together, but people are getting killed. That’s tribalism at its worst.”

She started pacing the alley again. “What about the mayor’s theory that it’s not the unions? Why would someone be agitating things?”

“That’s our job to figure out.”

“I’m not going to skulk around. I’m the Shield Maiden of Mars, back on my home turf, and I’m here bounty hunting on my own accord.” She crossed her arms. “I’ll go sit on the union boys. Maybe someone will squeak.”

“Guess I get to be the quiet one. I’ll check in at some of the other businesses. Get a feel for the local atmosphere. Speaking of, you should go grab yourself a plate at the saloon. On the Mayor’s tab. Margaret makes a good spaghetti.”

She stopped her pacing short. “So that’s what took you so long.”

“You wouldn’t have turned down a fresh-cooked meal.”

“No,” she admitted.

“The mayor also suggested snagging a room at the saloon. They’ve got a few guest rooms and the mayor says they’re trustworthy enough. I’ve already got mine.”

“Do we need to worry about staying at the same place?”

“Nah. I don’t think anyone will question it too much if we happen to meet over an evening meal. Couple of professionals in the same career can be seen together without drawing attention.”

“I suppose not.” It was an extremely open-ended contract. Town of several thousand people. Find the needle in the haystack that’s stabbing other people. Fun times. She mock-saluted. “By your leave captain, I’m gonna go grab a bite.”

She could barely see him nod in the dark. “Meet you tomorrow evening in the saloon. We can compare notes.”

“If I haven’t already bagged the killer,” she joked.

“Be my guest,” he said, stepping aside as she left the alley. “It would save us a lot of grief.”

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First thing in the morning, Abigail tossed the trenchcoat aside. She was here on business. There was a killer and she was going to catch them. Much as it pained her, she was up and out of the saloon’s guest room before dawn. Odds were good that the miners were early risers.

A quick question pointed her in the direction of the Southern Samaritans, a small residence turned office facility that was, appropriately, on the southern end of Mercy Canyon. She scoped it out from a block away, watching for nearly two hours as a steady stream of people came and went from the building. Miners, mostly men, with a few scattered women, would show up and leave again less than half an hour later, having accomplished whatever business they had at the union office. One was carried in on a stretcher by his comrades, his left leg in a newly set cast. Must have been fresh from the med-center to fill out paperwork. Fun.

She had two goals in mind. First was to see if she could spot anything unusual. She doubted this would end up accomplishing much. It wasn’t like she was going to catch the killer lurking in the bushes outside, but it never hurt to be observant. Sometimes criminals were dumb if you gave them some breathing room. The second objective was to find someone to interrogate. She’d already decided the younger, the better. While an older union member was more likely to know something of value, and would indeed have a better chance of being in on the funny business if that’s what was going on, they were also a lot more likely to be guarded with what they said to a stranger. She’d have more than enough time to talk to that sort later.

Right now she was after a rookie, a bright-eyed kid who’s mouth would move faster than his brain.

And there he was, leaving the office with a hapless look on his face. She waited patiently as he disappeared into the building and pounced on him when he emerged sometime later.

“I’d like a word with you.”

He nearly jumped out of his skin when he turned and saw her in her exo-suit, doing her best to look intimidating. The poor kid didn’t know what to do.

“Of… of course. Is there something I can help you with?” His voice shook just enough to betray his fear.

She chose to ignore it. “Abigail Sharon. Freelancer. You may have heard of the Shield Maiden of Mars.”

“Is… Is that you?”

She stared at him for a moment to let him simmer in just how stupid a question that was. She was hoping for an easy brain to pick, but this kid was making it feel like cheating. 

“I’m in town because of the murders. I plan on putting a stop to them and thought you might know a thing or two.”

The kid set his jaw, perhaps determined to stop making a fool of himself. “Every now and then a body turns up. Sometimes it’s a Knight sometimes a Samaritan. And, well, things have gotten a little tense lately. All my friends are on edge. It’s a little spooky when you’re waiting around to see who’s next.”

“You guys believe it’s the Knights then, killing your people?”

Without a doubt!” he said. “Look, I’m going to be late for my shift. Can we walk toward the mine at least?”

Abigail fell into step beside him and gestured for him to continue.

“The Knights have no character, like none at all, and would do anything to get ahead and post better numbers than us. Bonuses go to the union that scores higher on job numbers, and the competition is pretty fierce. There’s no doubt they’re just trying to even the odds and catch up.”

She nodded as he talked. That probably explains why there were two unions. Benefited the mine to have them compete. Productivity goes up and you only have to give bonuses to the winner. Clever. Scummy, but clever. “So what about when one of the Knights ends up dead?” she asked.

“Parsons had a theory that they kill one of their own every so often to blame us. Make it look like we’re just as bad as they are.” He shook his head adamantly and started walking faster. “That’s absurd. A Samaritan would never kill anyone.”

“Hmm,” Abigail said as if deep in thought. “You sure that there’s no one who might take things a little too far? Every group has a bad apple on occasion.”

His pace slowed down, and he seemed to consider it. Had the thought seriously never crossed his mind? The kid really was naive to the world. “Look, I don’t know everyone. I’ve only been on board for a couple months, and I guess it's a little over the top to promise that no Samaritan would ever do something like that, but I just feel in my bones that the Knights are behind this.”

“I see,” Abigail said. They were getting close to the mine and they were going to have to cut this short. She stepped in front of him and he stopped abruptly to keep from bumping into her. “I intend to bring this killer in. Do you believe that?”

He looked up at her and took a step back. He’d forgotten how intimidated he was of her after he’d started talking. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Are you going to help me?”

His eyes narrowed. “You’re not going to ask me to break any rules are you?”

“I’d never do that. I just want you to listen. Keep your ears open. You hear anything suspicious, you contact me. Deal?”

He thought about that for a moment, then nodded. “Don’t see how that could hurt.”

“Good.” She gave him her comm frequency. “Oh, and what’s your name?”

“Barry. Barry Dawkins.”

“Well then, Barry, I think you have a shift to get to, and I have a murderer to catch. I’m counting on you.”

He nodded and smiled with apparent pride. Some people were just too easy. One minute they were scared of you, the next they were your best friend after you made them feel important.

“Hope to hear from you soon, Barry.” She winked at him and turned back towards the union office, hoping there were a few more dupes she could turn into informants.

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Matthew tapped the side of his glass, watching the accumulated bubbles detach and break for the surface of the pink-red beverage. He sat at the saloon’s almost completely empty bar. Turned out the place was pretty quiet during the work week. The unions had their own preferred watering holes, leaving this one a haven for the average folk to escape their drama.

A patron stepped up to the bar beside him. “Took you long enough,” he said. Sharon was probably rolling her eyes, but he didn’t bother to look her way.

“Just getting work done while you’re lounging.” She pushed aside one of the stools and leaned against the counter. “This still on the mayor’s tab?”

Matthew shook his head. “Figure we should probably go as easy on his budget as we’re going on ours. That said I do owe you a drink.”

She gave him a funny look. “I don’t remember. What for?”

“I offered to buy you one back in Kyoto.” For a moment she stared at him blankly. Did she really not remember?

It must have clicked because her face softened and she chuckled softly. “That’s right. You were blubbering after I laid you out on the concrete.”

“Well, actually it was right before you decked me, but close enough.” He waved at the bartender. “Another cherry soda, please.”

It was promptly delivered. Sharon took a sip of it. “So why the soda? I don’t think I’ve seen you have a real drink since we met.”

He didn’t turn to look at her. “My dad drank his liver to death. Alcohol doesn’t hold much appeal after that.”

“Right,” Sharon said, awkwardly. “Your mom told Yvonne and me about that.” She took another sip. “Thanks by the way. And sorry.”

“For what?”

“For smearing you across the street back in Kyoto.”

He waved her off. “You were just doing your job. Still, we’ve come a long way since then. Nice to have someone watching your back.”

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Matthew spent his second full day in Mercy Canyon much like the first, quietly interviewing various business owners. Unsurprisingly, he hadn’t turned up any key info, but he did have a much better grasp on the general mood of the town. According to the barber, the non-miners had always put up with the unions as a necessary evil, but the recent murders had pushed everyone to the brink. “I don’t know why the bosses don’t get a grip on their people,” he said. “It’s not civilized. Where are we, Ceres?”

If things didn’t change soon, the unions were going to be on everyone’s permanent bad list.

Matthew walked into a hardware store, the sort you could find in any town in the solar system. They probably hadn’t changed much from Earth, and certainly not since Moses. A man in dirty overalls and graying hair was talking to a pair of customers at the desk. Matthew made himself scarce and wandered into the row of power tools to browse all the things that would be immensely useful aboard the Sparrow, but he could never quite justify buying. Of course with Yvonne, heading up the maintenance now, maybe he owed it to her to get a proper set of tools.

He had nearly talked himself into buying a new impact wrench when the older man announced his presence by clearing his throat. “You don’t want that one actually. The Payton is a bit cheaper and will last a good deal longer.”

Matthew set the box down. “Mighty honest of you.” 

“Payton’s are made on Ganymede. I don’t get in shipment’s very often, so I’m not afraid to sell em while I have em, and they set the prices not me. Besides. I think you might be trying to do the town a favor.”

“What makes you say that?” Matthew picked up the box of the superior tool and pretended to read the specs. If the store owner said it was better, Matthew had no reason to doubt him.

“Heard from the wind you’ve been asking around. You a freelancer?”

Right to the point. No reason to hide it. “Yes, sir.” He tucked the box under his arm. So much for saving money. Yvonne would probably let him file this one as a ship expense and reimburse him from the main account. He was glad not to be keeping the books anymore, but there were a few drawbacks to not holding the purse strings.

“Someone hired you to stop the murders.” The man scratched the back of his head. “No, don’t answer that. I get a feeling Davis is bending some rules. I’m going to pretend you’re here out of the goodness of your heart. Let’s get you checked out.”

Matthew followed him back up to the front counter. “So what’s your take on the murders?” he asked, digging into his pocket for money.

“Occam’s Razor suggests I should go with the simplest answer, that the unions are getting violent.” He shrugged and took the handful of coins from Matthew to count. “Sometimes Occam is wrong though. I’ve lived in this town my whole life. Dealt with fights and arguments between the union boys for decades. No one ever died.”

“You think someone is agitating, then?”

“A suspicion, but it’s a poor one. What kind of motive would they have?” He passed a pair of coins in change back to Matthew. “No one seems to be benefiting from the chaos.”

“What about outside of town?”

He shook his head. “Who could possibly have a motive? None of it makes sense I tell you. You’ve got your work cut out for you. That’s for sure.”

That was what Matthew had been hearing for two days. No one thought the unions were straight up slaughtering each other, but no one could come up with another suspect. He shook the man’s hand. “Can I ask you to contact me if you hear anything?”

The man nodded. “Of course. If you put things right, I’ll make sure my daughter names my next grandbaby after you.”

Matthew thought it was a joke, but the store owner’s face had all the seriousness of a statue. “With incentives like that, I’m gonna have to work overtime. I’d hate to disappoint.” He tipped his campero and walked out of the store, new impact wrench tucked under his arm. 

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The next several days went about the same. During the day, Abigail spent most of her time talking to union workers. She had half a dozen now that were willing to call her if they heard anything important. Her only disappointment was that union leadership wasn’t willing to talk to her. Something about her not having jurisdiction. Technically she did, since the mayor had hired them, but his request for discretion killed that option.

In the evenings she met Cole at the saloon. They’d swap info over a cherry soda, a drink which Abigail had to admit was growing on her. Unfortunately, they never had much information to swap. Short of there being a murder while they were there, she had a hard time imagining them making any headway. They usually chatted for an hour or so and then parted ways to retire early. Getting up at dawn was going to end in her death. 

The breakthrough came on their fifth day. Sometimes, all it took was asking the right question to the right person. Abigail cornered one of the office workers from the Northside Knights as she left their headquarters, which was, disappointingly, on the east side of town. After talking to her for a few minutes, she found out that the neatly dressed woman handled evaluation reports with the mine. 

“The Knights that have been killed, what kind of employees were they?” Abigail asked. “Were they good ones? Is it possible someone is trying to hurt you guys’ numbers with the mine and affect bonuses?”

The woman pushed her round-rimmed glasses up the bridge of her nose and shook her head. “Actually, quite the opposite. Each one has been one of our lowest scorers, as far as performance goes. I had met with more than one of them about how to improve their performance on the job. We all want those bonuses.”

Abigail tried not to look too interested. “Odd correlation there. Think it has anything to do with the murders?”

The woman looked uncomfortable and shuffled her feet. “I’ve thought a lot about it, and I can’t figure out how it could be related. There are only a handful of people who have access to the evaluations, and they’re either internal within the union or part of the mine’s business office. I can’t work out a motive.”

“Wouldn’t your averages improve if the weakest members were removed?” Abigail did her best to not make it sound like she was accusing a Knight of doing the deed.

The woman shook her head. “It’s the cumulative score that wins the bonus, not averages. Any lost member of the union hurts us. Some less than others, obviously, but that’s how it goes.”

Abigail thanked her after getting her contact information and stepped into a side alley to call Cole.

“That is something,” he said. “I guess it could be a weird coincidence but…”

“But that doesn’t seem likely,” she agreed. “Does that implicate the mine maybe? Someone on their side with access to evaluations getting rid of sub-par employees.”

He was quiet on the other side of the comm for a moment. “Talk about trimming fat. I don’t know. I’ve had trouble arranging a meeting with the mine’s management. They don’t seem interested in talking to outsiders.”

“Same with the unions,” she said. “I guess, considering what we’ve just learned we should treat the leadership of both as suspects until we know otherwise. Anyone that has access to evaluations.”

“At the moment. that’s the only data point linking the victims together besides union membership. I think we know the answer to this question, but you should check with the Samaritans to see if their victims follow the same pattern.”

“I’m heading that way next,” she said. “You get into that mine office one way or the other.”

“I’ll see what I can do. Be careful, Sharon.”

“Same warning goes to you, gaucho. A bullet to the back isn’t likely to slow me down as much as it would you.”

He was silent for a few heartbeats. “You’ve got a fair point. I’ll see you tonight.”

The comm shut off with a pop and Abigail turned south towards the Samaritan’s office. Something was rotten in Mercy Canyon, and it was better not to upset it too much before they knew what it was.

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Early the next morning Matthew walked up to the mine’s administrative office, perched high on the canyon ledge overlooking the delvings. It overhung the edge, supported by steel struts, and an elevator dropped down the wall of the canyon into the complex. Other than that it was a rather unassuming building, sheet metal with only a few windows. 

He pushed open the front door into the small receiving area. The secretary looked up from her desk and raised an eyebrow. Apparently, she wasn’t expecting visitors. No matter.

“Matthew Cole. I’ve got an appointment to talk to your head of HR.”

She locked eyes with him for a moment and then glanced back at her monitor, tapping a few buttons on her keyboard. “I don’t see any appointments for Ms. Evans today. Are you certain you have the right day?”

Now he had a name. He took off his hat and held it behind his back politely. “Absolutely. Ms. Evans and I set up the appointment some time ago. Must have forgotten to put it in the computer. You know how that goes.”

“Ms. Evans is very thorough. I have my doubts.” The secretary’s fingers raced across the keyboard for another moment. “Nonetheless, I shall check with her.” She stood and disappeared through a door to the side.

Matthew took the opportunity to open a door on the other side of the room and slip through it. He’d gotten a basic description of the building's layout from a man who used to be the janitor. Former employees always made good informants. He walked down the hall to its end and took a hard right. Unfortunately, he didn’t know where the HR office was, he just needed to be deep enough into the office so that by the time he was spotted it looked like…

“Can I help you, sir?”

He turned and put on his best innocent face. The man in front of him was your standard pencil pusher. Dressed neatly, despite a bit of a gut, with a forehead that was trying to claim the top of his head as well. “Yeah, I had a meeting with Ms. Evans,” Matthew said. “But I think I got turned around.”

“I’ll say. You were almost all the way to accounting. Come on. I’ll show you to HR.” The man walked past him and then opened a door into a cross hall. “This way.”

Matthew followed him, grateful he hadn’t bothered to question just how he’d gotten lost and that they weren’t going back past the secretary. That was a situation he wouldn’t have been able to bluff his way out of. He spotted the elevator that led down to the mine and made a mental note of its location. Never know when that sort of thing could be useful. They passed a few other office workers that he politely tipped his hat to before ultimately stopping at a door that read Colleen Evans.

“This is Ms. Evan’s office. You good from here?”

“Appreciate the help.”

The man wandered back towards accounting. Matthew knocked on the door and then opened it without waiting for an answer. The office was spacious, with a wall of windows looking out over the canyon. Judging by her upturned brow, the woman seated behind the desk was not pleased with his sudden appearance. “If you tell me that your name is Matthew Cole, I’m going to call security.”

“It’s… not?” he tried shrugging his shoulders.

She pressed a button on her desk. “Security, get someone over…”

“Give me five minutes. This is in your best interest.”

Evans eyed him carefully. “Have security wait outside my door. I’ve got an uninvited guest I’ll need to have removed after I hear what he has to say.” She crossed her arms. “Talk, Mr. Cole.”

“You’re a hard woman to meet. I’ve been trying to see you for days.”

“Yes. What of it? You have nothing to offer me, nor I you.”

He ignored her. Five minutes wasn’t all that long, and he’d rather not be dismissed by her gorillas before he was done. “Freelancer. In town investigating the union murders. Been asking around all week and have uncovered a pattern in the killings that you may be able to help me with. Turns out all of the men killed had been doing poorly in their evaluations. Evaluations your office conducted.”

“Is there a point to this? I’m well aware of who’s been killed and what quality of employee they were.” 

“We all know the old saying about correlation and causation, but I’ve got a hunch that they’re related this time,” he said. “I was curious what you had to say about that.”

“I’m not sure what you’re insinuating, but it seems quite reasonable to me that poor employees also get themselves into trouble outside of work. It’s tragic, but if we’re speaking of correlations, I often see that those that have trouble performing well in their career also have trouble in other areas of life.”

Matthew shook his head. “It’s more than that. These are the very bottom. Each man was one of the lowest scoring employees at the time of his murder. Now here’s the funny part. Not all that many people have access to those evaluations. Just a few people in the union offices and I’d assume your office. Someone on the inside is involved. I don’t know who it is, and I certainly can't imagine why. But I’m hoping you’d have some idea to help put a stop to this.”

Evans picked up a pair of metal spheres on her desk and rolled them between the fingers of her right hand. “You know for a minute I thought you were going to accuse me of being complicit in the murders.”

“Can’t imagine you have anything to gain,” he said shrugging. “Why kill someone that you can just fire, right?”

“Right. Unfortunately, I have nothing to add. I have given my statements to authorities in the past and you hardly qualify as law enforcement.”

Matthew gave her the most winning smile he could manage. “Sometimes it takes a stranger. If you learn anything can I trust you to let me know?”

“Sure. Will you get out of my office before I have to throw you out?”

“I’m on my way. This town needs to learn some hospitality.” He turned towards the door and paused, one more trick left in his bag. “I know what’s going on here, just so we understand each other.” It was a shot in the dark. Make a crazy accusation and see what happens.

“That’s a pity. Because now you have to be dealt with.”

Wait. That wasn’t what was supposed to…

The door opened, and two armed security guards stepped in, semi-automatic pistols squared on his chest.

Matthew was quick on the draw. Faster than most in the solar system. He might have even been able to move fast enough to surprise one of them, but never both. 

He stepped back and raised his hands wide and high to show he wasn’t a threat. They relieved him of his revolver and comm. He turned back to Evans. “You know I heard a joke once about an HR department being evil, but I don’t think this is quite what it was going for.”

“Cute,” she said. “Find somewhere to stash him. I need to talk to him before we get rid of him and figure out if he’s alone or working with anyone. I’ll be back after the meeting.”

They dragged him from the room rather roughly. Matthew wondered what sort of meeting was so important that interrogating a prisoner came second.

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Abigail’s comm pinged. Hopefully, Matthew was calling with some news. Nope. It was Barry.

“Ms… uhh... Shirly?”

“Sharon,” she said. ”Abigail Sharon.”

“That’s right. So you wanted me to call you in case I heard something, right?”

She stared at the comm. This kid needed to grow a spine. “That’s what I said, yes.”

He hesitated. “I’m not sure if this is really important or…”

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

“I heard from Trevor that the bosses are having a meeting with the Knight’s Bosses and the mine execs.”

“Could just be some kind of group negotiation thing,” she said.

“I don’t think so. From what I know, the mine never negotiates with both unions at the same time.”

“So you think this is about the murders then?”

“Maybe. Look I don’t know. You wanted me to call you if…”

“I did. Thanks, Barry. When is this meeting?”

“At the mine around noon is all Trevor heard.”

“I’ll check it out.”

She cut the comm without another word. This might be nothing, but even if it was, she wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to crash in on all the people she wanted to talk to at once. She’d been here a week and hadn’t gotten in so much as a single word with the upper leadership of either union. They were either a skittish bunch or had something to hide.

And then there was the other bit of information she’d heard this morning. The mine was posting record numbers lately. Where that fit into any of this was beyond her ability to guess, but at this point, she didn’t think there were any coincidences in this town.

She crept down the canyon to the outskirts of the mining facility an hour before noon and hid between two piles of gravel as she watched the traffic moving in and out of the complex. In the distance, high above the canyon floor, she saw the mine’s main administrative office. She hadn’t heard from Cole yet, so maybe he was having some luck up there.

A convoy of enormous haul trucks rolled down the road toward the complex. This looked like as good of an opportunity as any. As the last truck passed her position, she reached out and grabbed hold of the rung ladder leading up to the crew compartment. Not that she would be joining them. She was more than content to hang off the side and slide into the mining complex. It may not have been the stealthiest approach, but at least she wasn’t on foot.

The Jefferson Aluminum Mine was an open strip mine cut like shelves into the wall of the canyon. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but then the wheels of industry never were, not on any of the planets or moons in the solar system, and not on Earth before. Vehicles moved about, and workers went about their business. One or two stopped in their tracks when they spotted Abigail on the side of the haul truck. She waved and did her best to look like she belonged there.

Above her, the administrative building loomed, and she could see the elevator bolted onto the canyon wall. It descended into the top of an enormous structure that reminded her of an aircraft hangar. Whatever the building was, it seemed to be the hub of activity around her, and she had a pretty good hunch that the meeting would be there.

She dropped onto the gravel with a crunch and picked her way carefully through a yard of spare equipment and scrap metal. Now she just had to find a way into the building without panicking whatever went for security in these parts.

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“Amateurs,” Matthew mumbled under his breath.

Security had locked him into a cramped and messy broom closet. Professional criminals would have known better. It had taken him only a few minutes of quiet fumbling in the dark to find a flashlight. After that, it was trivial to find the toolbox. He set it on his knees, cracked it open, and started rummaging through its contents.

Bingo.

He picked up a small device that was somewhat shaped like a screwdriver. Laser cutter. Too small to be battery operated, which was a pity, because he was going to have to find an outlet somewhere in this closet, but still more than capable of getting him out of here. Turned out finding a place to plug the thing in was the hardest part of his escape so far. The outlet ended up being behind an enormous pile of junk, and he was worried he’d made too much noise by the time he got the cutter plugged in.

He pulled the protective eyewear he’d found over his face. Even reflected light from a cutter like this was bad news. The laser’s blue beam would only have the coherence to cut for a few inches, making it not particularly suited as a weapon, though it would burn for a few feet past that. He’d already found his weapon, a broom with an aluminum handle. He cut the handle into two one and a half foot pieces. He tested one of his new clubs, swinging it around the tight enclosure. It would do as long as he caught them by surprise.

Finally, he got started on the door, or rather the plate the door latched into. The blue beam did its work slowly burning through the wall. Matthew made a conscious effort not to cut through the entire wall or completely detach the plate, only weaken it. He set the cutter down and shined his flashlight on the damage. It would do.

He picked his new aluminum clubs up, one in each hand and stepped up to the door. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” he mumbled and kicked the weakened door with the heel of his boot. The plate gave out, and the door crashed open. Matthew didn’t even wait for it to stop moving before he leaped through. One guard was in front of him, a dumb look of surprise on his face. Matthew wiped it off with a clang of aluminum. The other guard was to the side, already drawing his pistol. Matthew swung the other club and hit his hand. The gun discharged into the ground, and Matthew followed up with a second swing to his head.

The guard went down, not unconscious, but with no more fight left in him. He whimpered softly, as he cradled his head. Matthew bent over and retrieved his own revolver and comm from his belt and kicked the man’s pistol away. “You guys are terrible at your job,” he said, and turned to get his bearings.

Then he saw nearly a dozen heads poking out of offices from the direction of accounting.

“You don’t want any part of this. Some of your management's involved in something nasty. Speaking of, anyone want to volunteer and tell me where an important meeting is taking place right now?”

One helpful person said two words. “The mine.”

Matthew tipped his hat. “Thanks. You all might want to take the rest of the day off. Don’t know where this is going but it’s nowhere good.” With that he turned and walked toward the elevator to the mine, ignoring the stares of the office workers.

No sooner had he entered it and pushed the button, than his comm buzzed.

“Cole, hope your meeting went well, I’ve got another lead I’m…”

“Held at gunpoint and locked in a closet,” he said. “The mine’s leadership is definitely involved. There’s some kind of important meeting going on there now, and I’m on my way to crash it.”

She whistled. “I’m after the same meeting. It’s with the union bosses.”

It was his turn to be surprised. “I guess they’re all in on it, whatever it is. I still can’t grok out a motive, but it sure looks like the leads are offing their own folks.”

“I agree. I just interviewed a local. Left him tied up in a corner. The meeting will be on the upper level of the main building. He said I couldn’t miss it.”

“I’ll find it,” Matthew said. He looked out the glass-walled elevator down at the slowly approaching mine. This sure wasn’t a fast ride.

“One more thing, Cole. I stumbled onto the grav plate hub. It’s connected to the mine building.”

That made sense considering the town was based around the mine. Every town or colony had a control room that oversaw the plates buried around town to keep the local gravity set as close to one gee as possible. In a town this small, it was probably only a shed. Someplace big like Flagstaff probably had a manned bunker or several of them. “How’s this help?”

“Had a tech friend of mine write me a program for a job one time. I upload it to the control room and I can turn local plates on or off from my suit.”

That one took him by surprise. “Guess there’s our trump card. Just give me a warning before you cut gravity.”

“Will do. I’ll get my program uploaded and then try and catch up. See you soon.”

Matthew put away his comm just as the elevator passed through the roof of the building. Hopefully, the exit area would be abandoned, or this was going to be awkward. Either way, he drew his revolver. The door opened with the ring of a bell and he cautiously poked his head out. Looked deserted.

The building before him opened into a cavernous area, and a quick glance to the floor far below told him that it was an equipment bay for vehicles and anything else sensitive that didn’t need to be left exposed to the elements. Mars was well known for its massive sandstorms. Not even the strongest environmental shield could keep those out and periodically half the planet was ducking for cover. The Jefferson Aluminum mine probably rolled all its expensive equipment into the bay whenever Mars was feeling a bit testy.

He stepped out onto a catwalk high above the floor of the facility. An intricate series of walkways connected several large platforms and even a few small buildings that hung from the rafters. Only one of these buildings looked large enough to house a meeting between any number of people. Thankfully, there wasn’t a lot of activity this high above the floor, and it was relatively dark. He’d be able to move about unnoticed.

It took him a few minutes of slinking, and a few minutes of waiting behind some cover when a group of workers passed through his area, but he made it over to the largest building without incident. He climbed a ladder on its side to the top. He was now very near the rafters of the main hangar, and it was dark enough that he had to feel his way forward with care. Thankfully, he knew what he was looking for. This sort of industrial building didn’t tend to be climate controlled and usually only had ventilation fans on the ceiling. He spotted a circle of light coming up from the floor and knew he had his target.

He crept over to the vent and peered in. There was a group of people down there at a table, including Ms. Evans, but it was going to be impossible to hear anything with the fan running. He pulled off a side panel and cut a few wires, silencing it for good.

“Who turned that off? It feels like Venus in here.”

“Switch is still flipped on. I’ll get maintenance to look at it later.”

“This won’t take long. Ms. Evans do you have the reports?”

Matthew crept up to the edge of the vent and cautiously peered in. He wasn’t going to get a great look at the room, but hopefully, he could at least get a feel for what was happening down there. And at the very least… He pulled a small recorder from his pocket, set it on the edge of the vent, and turned it on. A little bit of evidence went a long way.

“I have the reports. We’ve got a situation though. One of the freelancers that’ve been around town  this week got a little nosey. Showed up in my office this morning implying he knew something was afoot. I had security detain him. It may be best if we put the whole operation on hold until he and the Shield Maiden are dealt with.”

Maybe they should have been a little more sneaky, he thought grimly.

“I see no problem with waiting on the next hit till issues are dealt with, but while Finlay is here, we may as well give him his assignment.”

There was a name that Matthew knew. Gavin Finlay was one of the most notorious hitmen on all of Mars. His name wasn’t exactly household, but in a career like Matthew’s, you tended to hear it whispered every so often.

There was a moment’s pause. “Very well,” Evans said. “Here are the next two targets. Matthew saw her slide two binders across the table where they were taken by people just outside of view. “If neither of you have any protests, then we’ll take care of the contract with Finlay, and it will be done.”

There was a murmur of indistinct conversation for a few minutes. Matthew’s best guess was that the binders had been passed to union bosses who were putting a stamp of approval for a hit on one of their own members. He still couldn’t imagine why they would be okay with something so barbaric.

“I’ve got no problems,” a voice said. “Barry was seen talking with the Shield Maiden earlier this week too, so it’s for the best that he’s dealt with.”

“The Knights are also okay with your selection.”

“Excellent. If you'll sign the papers, I’ll have payment transferred.”

That explained the union bosses’ involvement. Still didn’t touch the broader motive behind the killings.

A man beside Evans spoke up. “Finlay, does everything appear in order to you?”

“You know I don’t actually need paperwork, right?” a gruff voice answered in a clipped British accent. “Just payment.”

“Nonsense. This is a transaction between professionals.”

“Then everything is fine,” Finlay said.

“Well, I believe that settles things. May the spirit of competition lead to another record year of profit for all of us.”

Matthew frowned. Spirit of competition? Record year of profit? Suddenly the pieces clicked together. By killing a few weak links every so often, the competition between the Knights and the Samaritans had been raised to a fever pitch. While some of that extra steam was blown off after hours in fights and other tussles, most of it probably went into securing bonuses from the mine.

The bosses were killing people to keep the rest motivated to work harder than the other side. It was crazy. Worse, it apparently was working as intended, if the mine was having record output. How they had concocted such a hair-brained scheme was beyond his ability to guess.

“What did I miss?” Sharon whispered.

Matthew nearly jumped. She was crouching in the dark beside him. “Too much to explain. Took you long enough to catch up.”

“I couldn’t find an elevator and had to climb. What do I need to know?”

“Everyone in that room is guilty. Also, I assume you've heard of Finlay?”

“Of course.”

“He’s on board too.”

“Good. There’s a price on his head we can collect. You got a plan?” she asked.

“You tear open the roof and we go in quick. I don’t want anyone escaping. I’ve got a recording, but I’d rather have the rats tied up for delivery. Grav plates under your control?”

She tapped her wrist. “Yup.”

He nodded at the vent. “Get us in there.”

Sharon reached down with both hands and tore the fan and its entire assembly out of the ceiling, tossed it aside, and dropped down into the hole, smashing the table the group had been gathered around. It had taken her all of about three seconds.

Matthew followed, gripping part of a support on the way down to swing himself wide of the table’s wreckage. He hit the ground with revolver drawn and spun to get his bearings. There were a lot more people in the room than he had anticipated. Over a dozen at least. And one was a killer.

There were also a lot of guns in the process of being drawn. The unions had brought armed goons.

So much for taking people in. Anyone that drew a weapon was a threat that had to be dealt with. Matthew chose his targets and began firing, knowing that the next few seconds would determine who lived and who died. He emptied his cylinder, putting seven rounds into four different targets. 

Sharon had plowed into another group, sending them flying around the room like popped corn. He’d have liked to use her bulletproof shield for cover to reload, but she looked a bit occupied at the moment.

Not that he would have had that chance anyway. A man in a blonde cowboy hat tackled him to the ground. He drew a trench knife in a quick motion and plunged it down towards Matthew’s chest. Matthew barely managed to batter it away with the stock of his revolver, earning himself a cut across his knuckles. He rolled away before his assailant could recover.

Finlay cursed in Scottish and advanced on Matthew like a wild animal. Matthew didn’t bother getting up, but brought the killer down to him, by bracing himself against the wall and aiming a boot at his ankle. It rolled, making a popping sound, and he dropped to the ground. Matthew dove for him, grappling for the knife. He won that fight and wrested it from the man’s grip, but took a fist to the face in the process. He fell back stunned and seeing stars.

Then he was hoisted to his feet.

“Get up, Gaucho, he’s on the run.”

Matthew shook his head. The room was in shambles, mostly from Sharon’s rampage. Anyone that wasn’t injured or unconscious was standing with their hands above their heads. He picked up his revolver and reloaded it from a speedloader. “You chasing or am I?”

“Go get him. I’ll keep watch over our hosts. I’ll wait for your word to hit the switch if you need it.”

“Got it.” Matthew ran from the room and out onto the catwalks, trying to get a sight on Finlay. There he was, making for the elevator. If he weren’t limping from the hit to his ankle, Matthew wouldn’t stand a chance of catching him. As it was…

He turned his comm on, pocketed it, and set off at a sprint, head still ringing from the hit he’d taken. The elevator was straight in front of him, though the catwalk took a circuitous route. But Matthew wasn’t going to take the straight route.

He turned his head to keep an eye on Finlay to make sure he hadn’t diverted.

“Sharon. Grav plates. Get ready.” He holstered his gun and put everything he had into the run. “Hit it.”

The grave plates in the area gave out and gravity reverted to Mars’ natural one-third of a gee. Matthew was ready and adjusted his gait accordingly into bounding leaps. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Finlay wasn’t prepared and nearly fell to the ground when he overshot a step.

This was going to be risky. Matthew approached the end of the catwalk seeing the abyssal drop in front of him. He reached the railing and vaulted it, sailing out over empty space. His stomach turned at the height, at the low gravity, and at the thought of what would happen if he’d misjudged the leap.

The far catwalk was approaching rapidly. The elevator right in front of him. He slammed into the catwalk and caught hold of the rail to stop himself. “Hit it again,” he said between gritted teeth, and Sharon reverted gravity to normal. Now he was closer to the elevator than Finlay, and, odds were, he didn’t know the tide had turned against him. They converged right at the elevator. The killer startled, then ducked low and lunged with a smaller knife he’d pulled from his belt.

Matthew put four bullets into him, stopping him and his career as a hitman dead in their tracks.

He looked down at the body and his bleeding knuckles. He shook his head. Grim way to end the day.

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They were in the saloon again. After all the headaches of the day, Abigail was glad to stop and just have a meal. Also, Margaret’s spaghetti was just that good. The thin woman said she grew her own herbs out back and claimed that was all it took.

“Well, I’m indebted to you people for cleaning up our mess,” Mayor Davis said.

Abigail nodded at him. He was right about it being a mess. Leadership from both the unions and the mine had been implicated. It was going to take a long time to sort out all the threads. It turned out the short version was exactly what Cole had guessed.

“Just doing what you paid us to do,” she said politely. “Has the investigation turned up how all this got started yet?”

Davis looked tired. Odds were he hadn’t been sleeping for awhile and that wasn’t about to change. “A couple of the mine execs are already practicing their opera routine. First death was apparently an accident and not a murder at all. The poor man had a heart attack and died in rival territory. Suspicions and tempers got hot. It was that new HR woman, Evans I think her name was, saw the bump in productivity. Now this is unsubstantiated, but apparently she hired Finlay herself for the next kill and then presented her findings to the bosses.”

“Ambitious,” Cole said. “And pure evil.”

“Well it was enough to get her put over the whole department. She’s going to burn though. There’s enough conspiracy and murder charges here that anyone who doesn’t hang will rot in jail till the sun burns out.” He shook his head. “I trust you folks can stick around for a couple more days? I know we already got your testimonies, but I think Flagstaff is sending some men out to help with the investigation. Might need your statements again.”

Cole looked at Abigail. “I don’t see why not,” he said. “We didn’t know how long this job was going to take anyway. Another day or two won’t hurt anything.”

“Good. Good,” the mayor said. “Now I suppose I should see about paying you. Hopefully, no one investigates my office, or I’ll be run out of town too.”

“A pity about that,” Abigail said. “Especially since we solved the murders.”

“You did and I have no regrets. Sometimes you have to live with the choices you make.”

“I’ve been thinking about that,” Cole said. “I’m gonna have a talk with the men from Flagstaff when they get here. I’m willing to bet there was a price on Finlay’s head. If there is, and if we collect, I think we can count that toward what you owe us. If there’s a difference, maybe we can settle on that later.”

Davis was speechless for a minute before taking a long swig of his drink. “That would be too good to be true,” he said, setting his mug down. “I thought I hired a mercenary. Turns out I got a saint.”

“Not quite,” Cole said.

Abigail smiled to herself. There was the do-gooder in Cole coming out again. He didn’t want the mayor to get in trouble for protecting his own people, so rather than collecting double, he was going to settle for less. It’s not something that Abigail would have done when she was solo, but she was getting used to Cole and this sort of thing. It seemed to be happening more often now too.

She gave him a subtle nod and caught his eye. It may have been his ship, and he may have been the one to make calls, but she wanted him to know that she approved. To let him know he wasn’t alone. 

It felt good to be the good guys. 

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Mistress Tatyana Medvedev pulled back the curtains to let in a little of the setting sun's light, something she rarely did. The pale evening sky filtered into her office, offering little illumination. She returned to her desk and prepared for another evening's tireless work, managing her empire.

The comm buzzed and she answered it. She glanced at the caller’s frequency.

“Yes, what do you need? I already gave you everything you needed to know.”

“Just wanted to confirm that we found the ship right where you said it would be. You sure the Shield Maiden and Cole are gone?”

“If my Shield Maiden was there, I would not let filth like yourselves within a hundred kilometers of that ship.”

“Umm. Right. Well just wanted to let you know and…”

“I care not what you do at this stage. You see to your own needs.” the mistress cut him off. “Do not call me again.” She ended the call and stared at her monitor.

Sometimes she did things she didn’t want to do. Tatyana had always tried to stay on the right side of the law, but that wasn’t always easy for a woman in her position. Sometimes the pot had to be stirred. Things broken. People shaken.

And unfortunately, her Abigail needed a good shake-up.

The crew of the Sparrow was a delicate thing. Tatyana had carefully researched each and every crewmate. Matthew Cole had been easy. An accomplished freelancer left a paper trail across the solar system, though his former career had come as a bit of a surprise. The children were of no regard to her, even if she dimly hoped that Grace would not come to a bad end in this. Perhaps she could find a place for the young girl.

It was the doctor, Yvonne Naude that interested Tatyana. She was the fragile link.

A simple call was all it had taken.

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