Chapter VI


Shah leaned his forehead against the door while he fumbled for his keys. When he found them he twisted the key in the lock with one hand and punched the code into the keypad with the other. The perennial stink of overcooked cabbage drifting up from the mad Pole’s apartment three floors down gave way to the heavenly smell of a slow-cooking casserole permeating the apartment greeted him and his stomach growled. “Anyone home?”


            “Thanks be.” Shah closed the door behind him. He wasn’t sure he could face Leslyn’s concern just yet, nor the Chocolate Fireguard’s sarcasm, or – worse – his pontificating.

            Hanging his jacket in the hallway, Shah wandered to the bedroom, stared at the desolation that was his bedroom after the entry and searches of the SWAT and CSU teams. He experimented with opening and closing the splintered door that hung by one hinge. Fetching a screwdriver from the utility room, he removed the door and leaned it against the wall. He looked around but couldn’t see anything else that looked remotely fixable, so grabbed the antique phone. “Alonso? It’s Shah. They owe me for a broken bedroom door. Can we make anything of the force with which they entered? I’m not a master criminal or a terrorist, am I? I’m a seventy year-old who’s got to sleep in a ruined room.” Shah paused, listening to Alonso. “Thanks, appreciate it.”

            After a minute or so, Shah sighed and taking clean sheets from the bedding box in the communal laundry room made the bed in their spare room. He spent the next half an hour slowly straightening pictures and ornaments and when he had run out of things to tidy, ventured onto the roof garden that formed a terrace all the way around the penthouse.

            For want of anything better to do, he filled a watering can from rooftop rainwater barrels and topped up the water levels on the various fruits and vegetables – tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, baby carrots, apples, pears and strawberries cascaded from the Gro-bags that filled every available square centimeter.

            Every few minutes he stopped, and pressed the fingers and thumbs of his left hand to the bridge of his nose. Fists swinging, the thud of his knuckles against bone and flesh.  Shah shook the flashback away as a dog shakes water off its coat. He stared across the canyons of Manhattan, at the splashes of green speckling the other roofs and every window ledge visible, and sighed. Far below the LPG and electric cars that tussled with pedestrians and pedicabs for dominance weaved patterns in the traffic.

            When another flashback – this time of hands reaching for him in the darkness and lips searching for his flesh – stopped him in his tracks, he went inside to the bathroom, diverting to pick up a shirt from the laundry room. He stripped to the waist and rinsed his face, staring at the stranger who looked back at him: Levantine skin, bags under bruised eyes, the beginnings of an old man’s paunch and man-breasts, for all that he was careful what he ate and exercised as much as his aching joints would permit.

            You can only fight entropy for so long, old man.  

            Voices from the mezzanine roused him. He threw the old shirt in the trash and re-dressing with the clean one, went to the front door.

            On the monitor Leslyn fumbled for her keys, “Can’t find them. Damn. Do you have yours?”

            “Somewhere.” Doug went through his pockets.

            They froze as Shah opened the door. “Yeah, I’m real.” He attempted a smile.

            “Nice to see you.” Leslyn kissed his cheek as she passed him on the way in, followed by her other husband in his usual cheap clothes, all at least thirty years out of date. Shah resisted the urge to say nice platform trainers; he needed every ally he could get at the moment.

            “Yeah,” Doug echoed with little conviction. “They let you go, then?”

            “Suspended, but not charged.” Shah allowed the front door to swing shut. “Whether that changes… well, we’ll see.” He sighed. “That depends, I guess on whether Harper is as fair as he likes to make out. He likes to talk ‘bout how he won’t fit a cop up who’s innocent. But we’ll see, like I said.”

            “You’ve watered the plants!” Leslyn cried from the doorway to the garden. Wet patches showed where the can had dripped, or Shah had missed his target.

            “It’s that much of a surprise?” Shah tried not to bristle.

            “Just that you haven’t changed into your gardening clothes,” Leslyn said quickly, and Shah wondered whether he caught a flash of fear cross her face. Just how much is this going to damage us, Les? There was no point in asking her now, not with McCoy present, and no look of welcome on the other man’s face. “What I’ve been wearing today smells like I’d slept in it for a week.” 

            “So you gonna be here all the time?” McCoy said.

            “Hey Doug, don’t sound so enthused,” Shah joked.

            It fell flat, judging by the frown it met. “We got a deal, Shah.” Doug’s wheeze worsened as always when he was stressed – which was most of the time. “You have the place during your time, we have it at ours. Remember?”

            “No problem,” Shah said. “I’ll go sit in the park with a news-sheet.”

            “For over six hours a day?” Leslyn said. “Don’t be so silly, you damn fool!” She gave him the smile Shah always though of as her terminal one, reserved for the cancer patients and other inoperable cases. “It’ll be a chance to spend some time together.”

            “Yep.” Shah grinned to show he was joking. “I think that’s what worrying Doug.”

            Leslyn winked and took his hand and gave it a momentary squeeze. “We’ve worked different shifts for so long now,” she said, “That our entire lives seem to run on different zones sometimes. It’ll be nice.” Shah wasn’t sure who she was trying to convince the most. Turning to McCoy she said, “This is no time to squabble. Come on, Doug, show some sympathy.” Shah squashed a smile as she marched into the kitchen, impressed by Leslyn’s show of spirit. If he let it show, he risked being accused of gloating.

            Shah stood aside, allowing Doug to follow her into the kitchen, the other man stooping to clear the door lintel. Shah sighed, wondering whether he could survive dinner with his pedantic, abrasive alligator of a co-husband without giving into the urge to throttle him. “Count to ten,” he muttered, but kept going until he’d reached a hundred, before following.

            When he entered the kitchen, Leslyn was ladling out the casserole. She looked up. “I made extra, so you’re welcome to join us. Mr Patel the butcher had a sale on goat.” She chuckled. “I suspect he’s had to give up whatever site he’s had to graze them on, and decided to slaughter some of them rather than move them all on.” Disputes over land gone back to the wild where animals could graze were common, though no longer Shah’s concern now he was ten years out of uniform. Leslyn said, “I was going to plate up a meal for you for later, anyway.” She always cooked for three.

            Shah had heard McCoy complain that she was more like Shah’s housekeeper than his wife; that was Leslyn, showing her love in practical, unfussy ways.

            “Are you sure?” Shah looked at Doug. “I can take it to my room, give you guys some privacy.”

            Doug looked down at his feet, stroking his unkempt beard. “Just for tonight,” he said, looking up at last. “Let’s eat together… maybe out on the patio.”

            At that moment Shah thought that Doug McCoy almost attained a grubby sort of nobility. “Thanks.” Shah felt a lump rising to his throat. It had felt all day as if he was fighting the world, and the sudden relief that he wasn’t alone almost undid him. “I really appreciate it.”

            “Don’t get all sentimental,” McCoy growled. “I’m not your brother just ‘cause I feel sorry for you for one evening.”

            “That’s more like the Doug McCoy I know,” Shah said. “I was beginning to wonder what you’d done with him.”

            “No fighting!” Leslyn called. “Come and eat – oh, grab the bread will you, Doug?  Pete, bring the pot – there’s spare if you want it. I packed it out with vegetables.”

            Shah’s mouth was already watering at the aroma of casserole. He’d been allowed ham and pastrami sandwiches – deducted from his allowance of course – at lunchtime, but as usual he was ravenous. “Been out for a stroll?” Shah said. Leslyn worked six days on, two days off, her shifts at the hospital half-overlapping with Shah’s at the precinct.

            “Went for a meeting with the lawyers,” Doug answered for them both. “See whether we can break through this damned smokescreen that BAT’s thrown up to wriggle out of paying the settlement.”

            Shah resisted the urge to remind his co-husband that no one had put a gun to his head and made him smoke, but now wasn’t the time to re-open that old quarrel. Instead he said, “Nice day for it.”

            “They’ve invited Doug and me to a faculty reunion,” Leslyn said. “Next Tuesday. To celebrate his sixtieth birthday. I’ll put something in the oven before we go out. That is, if I need to…” She waved a hand in the air to complete the sentence, or hide her embarrassment, Shah wasn’t sure which.

            “You wearing a tux?” Shah said. He shouldn’t provoke McCoy, but something about his insistence on wearing turn-of-the-century shell suits and gangsta outfits was so irritating. “Or whatever retired Professors of English Literature wear?”

            “Bourgeois nonsense,” McCoy snorted.

            But before he could start on one of his rants, Leslyn put down her spoon and laid a hand on each man’s arm. “Please, can’t we have one meal together without you two behaving like overgrown children?”

            “Of course, dear,” McCoy said, and not for the first time Shah was touched by how gently the man spoke to Leslyn. It was about his only redeeming feature. For a moment he wondered what McCoy might consider his to be, then dismissed the thought.

            “Anyway,” Shah said. “He started it!”

            “Did not!” McCoy drew himself up like an indignant skeleton, and then saw Shah’s shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter. He exhaled. “I suppose that you thought that that was funny,” he said with as much dignity as he could muster.

            “Perveza called,” Leslyn said.

            “How did she sound?” Shah said.

            “Not good.” Leslyn paused. “I think she’s been thrown off her rehab course.” Leslyn was slightly more tolerant of their wayward daughter than Shah, but even she had long since reached the limit of her patience. “And after Rex worked so hard to get her on it.”

            Shah grunted. He suspected that their son had been more concerned with the effect on his budding career if it ever came out that he had a junkie sister than simple altruism, but he said nothing.

            For once the subject of Leslyn’s fascination with Post-humans and what they were supposed to be doing in Montana wasn’t the only elephant in the room. Tonight, Shah thought, there are two of them. Which will we bump into first?

            After several minutes of silent eating, it was McCoy who answered Shah’s internal question by saying, “So what happened?”

            “They interrogated me, but they haven’t enough evidence to bring a charge,” Shah said, deliberately misunderstanding the question.

            “But what are you supposed to have done?” Leslyn said.

            Shah took a few moments to answer while he chewed on some carrot and potato. Everyone with gardens used them to supplement their calorie allowance as much as they could, and the vegetables were homegrown, which meant that the quality was much more variable than the mass-produced homogenized crops that he’d grown up with. He had a horrible feeling that the mouthful he was chewing on included some sort of animal protein. “I, uh, brought someone home last night.”

            “We heard.” McCoy fell silent at Leslyn’s warning nudge.

            “Something happened to her after she left here last night,” Shah said, not knowing how else to put it. A blunt “she’s dead” seemed an even worse alternative.

            “So she did leave under her own steam, then?” McCoy said. “Only the cops that came here were suggesting otherwise. Some of–”

            “Doug,” Leslyn said. She was silent for a while as she ate. “After she’d gone – and it sounded more like you threw her out – I saw you in the hallway. If I didn’t know better, I’d have said you were drunk. You were staggering, and I had to prop you up.”

            “You walked me back to my room?”

            “You don’t remember?”

            Shah shook his head. “All I’ve got are vague fragments.”

He tried to put the flashes of tangled bodies in the darkness out of his head. “It’s– holy crap.” He realized that the effects were those of the after-effects of a drug dose. It had to have been while they were in the bar, unless it was their proximity in the cab. Shah remembered the sudden horniness that had set in while they sat side by side.

            Why was obvious, had been since he’d waited in the interview room for Bailey to interrogate him. Someone was setting him up. His next monthly anti-tox injection was only a few days away, so the resistance was at its lowest. Did they get the dosage wrong? Or was I supposed to remember some of last night? Was I supposed to still be able to function after a fashion, so I could be in the frame for murder?

            And who wanted him framed?

Chapter VII

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