Blood dripped slowly onto the floor. Sy watched, mesmerised, as another crimson droplet formed, swelled and detached, becoming elongated in its path through the air. It hit the growing pool with a little splash spraying myriad smaller droplets around it. His fascination grew with each new drop.
A rough tongue scraped down his cheek. He started awake, sitting bolt upright in his dream-tangled sheets. Wulf sat on his haunches, waiting. The door to his room opened and Ellis came in, handing him a mug of tea.
I heard Sy tossing and turning. It sounded like he was having the nightmare again, after all this time. I brewed some sleep tea and took it in to him.
“You had the dream again.”
I kept it simple – no accusations, no impassioned pleas for information, just acceptance of what it was. He nodded. Sipped at the soothing drink. Nodded again. Speech still came hard to him, even after ten long years.
“Relax. Drink your tea. I’m here if you want me.”
He put the empty mug on the side table and leaned back against his pillows. I guessed he was considering whether he wanted to revisit this dream. Would it tell us any more than last time? At least he was only reliving his mother’s death every few months now, rather than waking screaming in his head every single night.
“It was different this time,” he said huskily. “I saw the blood falling, but I didn’t feel the terror. I was able to just watch. I think…”
He hesitated, picking his words carefully, as always.
“I think I am ready for you and your sisters to discover what is locked in my memory.”
“Fair enough. Sleep now and I’ll arrange it for the morning. These things are best done in the daylight hours.”
I was off duty at the end of an eighteen hour shift. I grabbed a chilled bottle from the fridge, twisted the top off and raised it to my lips, taking a long gulp. The golden liquid slid down my throat, making a start on chasing away the worries of the day. A chicken curry sat on the table in front of me. I’d earned this. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t live on takeaways all the time but after the week I’d had, I needed this reward.
Then my phone buzzed. I looked longingly at the gently steaming curry, perfection in its foil container, sighed, and put down my beer. I glanced at the caller id – headquarters.
“Riveiro. What do you need?”
The dispatcher sounded mildly desperate; I guess the Friday evening shift wasn’t working out too well for her. She played me a recording of an earlier call.
“I sent the regulars, but the DI called back in, asking for your squad, and specifically for you. I told him you were off, but he said to call you anyway. Sorry to disturb you.”
So I spent a couple of minutes reassuring her that she’d done the right thing. It’s always good to keep the dispatchers sweet, otherwise they make your life hell. By the time I put the phone down, the beer was warm and the curry wasn’t. I put both away for later.
I shrugged into my jacket, picked up my gun from the table and stuffed it into its holster. After pulling my trainers on, I left my place at a jog. The address I’d been given wasn’t that far away, so I figured I’d be better off on foot rather than fighting the Friday traffic. Everyone wants to get out of the city at the weekend.
Once I warmed up, I picked up my pace. Maybe the dispatcher’s desperation had rubbed off on me. Certainly the call she’d played me had me intrigued. Or maybe I just wanted to get this over with and get back to my interrupted dinner. Whatever it was, I got to the address quickly enough.
Ducking under the yellow and black tape, I checked with the duty man.
“Go on in, they’re waiting for you.” He looked at me pityingly. “Hope you haven’t eaten yet.”
“Nasty one is it?” Don’t know why I asked. If they call me, it’s always nasty.
The dead woman was facing away from me. Propped in a chair, left arm dangling laxly over a pool of blood, with only a few flies taking an interest. A bloodied letter knife lay on the floor, just out of reach of her right hand. A casual glance would guess this was a suicide. Certainly the hysterical punter who called it in thought so. But the regulars know better than to call us out for suicides, so I stepped into the room and began to move carefully round the edge.
A grating voice behind me gave me pause. Detective Inspector Shaw, far from my favourite person. His sneering attitude was common to many in the force. A bare handful of my esteemed colleagues cut us any slack at all. They’d be the ones who’d had the misfortune to actually see some of the things we deal with.
“What kept you? I expected you half an hour ago.”
I ignored him in favour of completing my circuit of the room and getting a proper look at the victim for the first time.
But Shaw just couldn’t stay quiet.
“Tell me, Riveiro. Why is the victim wearing your face? And why has someone tried to carve it off her?”
He raised an eyebrow. I looked again at the dead woman, taking in her features properly for the first time. Yes in a certain light, she could be taken for me. She was probably one of my clone sisters, but if she was here legitimately, I’d have been told. Unless of course, she was one of the breeders. We try to give them as much space and privacy as we can and they want. We don’t often get permission to breed but one or two in each cluster are married off and expected to bring new genes into the pool by the old fashioned method. I didn’t know where her child was, but judging by the toys scattered around, she had one.
I kept my face impassive as I studied the scene. It would not help anyone if the norms realised that clones could and did breed. There was enough resistance to us already.
“You gonna tell me?” he asked. “Are you a clone?”
A speculative look crossed his face. I could see the wheels turning. This could be his chance to get the weird squad disbanded. Before I had the chance to reply, we were interrupted by my sergeant bursting into the room.
“I came as fast as I could,” she gasped, out of breath from a long hard cycle across town.
I appreciated it. Loyalty like hers was hard to fault. But of course Shaw took the opportunity to bait us.
“Just how do your squad pass their fitness tests, Riveiro? Seems like most of you weirdos could do with some basic fitness training.”
“I’d like to see you get across town as fast as that, with all that extra weight you’re carrying. Besides, we have other qualities, that you’d find hard to match,” I said quietly. “Now bugger off before I call your Super and tell him you’re harassing us again.”
Grumbling, he ambled off down the hall. I looked at Marlene. Without needing to speak we started to assess and gather what information we could from the crime scene. A few minutes passed in silence as we covered the room methodically. As usual, Marlene was the first to break the silence.
“Obviously not a suicide. The injuries to the face and the rope marks on the wrists would rule that out. Then the shape of the cut is completely wrong, and besides, it would take a will of steel to cut yourself so deeply and yet so neatly. Maybe there will be useful prints on the knife, but I doubt it.”
I nodded. Much the same conclusion I’d come to. But she had more to say.
“I don’t see why this is one of ours though. It’s too tame. Apart from the dead woman being your clone that is.”
I quirked an eyebrow at Marlene.
“What, you think a bigoted idiot like Shaw would notice and I wouldn’t? ‘Sides, I’ve known for some time that the weird squad wasn’t the only thing eating up your free time, Ellis.”
She wasn’t fishing for answers. Most of us in weird squad have something to hide and it’s an unspoken rule that people only share if they want to. Or if it’s something that will affect the investigation. I guess I owed her an explanation, but now was the wrong time.
A muffled thump interrupted us. We froze in place. It sounded like it was right there in the room, but there was no one else apart from us and the dead woman. I slipped over and shut the door, leaning my back firmly against it and played my hunch.
“It’s safe to come out now. We don’t hurt children,” I said quietly. “Besides, I’m one of your Mama’s sisters.”
A tear-stained boy emerged from the wall accompanied by a large grey cat and a dog bigger than the child himself. Marlene didn’t bat an eyelid as she knelt to gather the little lad to her bosom, holding him tightly and stroking his hair gently. The dog and cat sat patiently waiting. I walked briskly around the edge of the room again and shut the opening to the boy’s hiding place. Some secrets should stay hidden, especially from a knob like Shaw.
“This your Mama?” I asked him.
He nodded and ducked his head back into Marlene’s chest. Okay then. Not gonna talk. I was OK with that. I don’t suppose I’d have been too chatty at his age if I’d seen my mother murdered in front of me, and I didn’t doubt he had. There was a spyhole in the panel, which I could see now that I knew about the hiding place, and it had been put at a height convenient for the lad. She’d been expecting this then, and had prepared for it, making sure her child survived and knew who to avoid.
This child belonged to my cluster. I didn’t know the father, but I’d make it my business to get to know him. And if he’d done this, I’d damn well nail him.
Marlene sneaked the boy and his animals out the back. I didn’t ask her where she was going to hide them, only trusted her to keep them out the way until I got rid of Shaw and his team.
I closed the door on the dead woman and followed the sound of raised voices to a lounge. A dishevelled man in a rumpled shirt and jeans was hunched on the sofa sobbing his heart out while Shaw shouted at him. I glanced down at the man’s feet. Yes, he was the source of the bloody footprint. It was all over the bottom of one of his shoes and some of the blood had soaked up into the bottom edge of the jeans. No wonder Shaw had him marked as a suspect.
Now call me an idealist if you like, but these two had loved each other enough to have a child. I just couldn’t see this grief-stricken wreck trying to carve his wife’s face off while she was still alive. Kill her in anger maybe, if he’d discovered that he’d been living with a clone unknowing, but the rest of it? No way. So I stepped in. Give the man a break and we might get more out of him.
“Detective Inspector Shaw, a word please,” I said.
He came out of the room bristling, knowing I was going to ream him for overstepping his authority. After all, he had brought us into the case. Once we got here, he should have just handed over and taken his team off.
“What exactly are you hoping to achieve by bellowing at that poor man? He’s just found his wife tortured and killed.”
“Cases like this, the spouse is the prime suspect,” he blustered.
“Yeah, but he called it in.”
“They often do that when they can’t stomach what they’ve done. They have a need to be punished.”
“Perhaps. But you know the protocol. You think it’s a weird squad problem, you call us in. Then you get the hell out of our way.”
I looked him squarely in the eyes.
“Close the door behind you on the way out.”
Shaw knew he’d gone too far and was glad to get away without being reported.
I went back to the husband.
“What’s your name?”
“I’ve been through this already,” he said wearily, his face in his hands. “I’m Padraig. That’s my wife in there. I came home from a conference and found her like that, so I called the police.”
I waited, giving him the space to continue.
“I thought she’d taken her own life, but she wouldn’t have left Sy alone. I searched the house and he isn’t here. My wife is dead and my son is missing. Must you harangue me as well?”
“Well that rather depends,” I said calmly. “Did you kill her?”
He paled, horrified at the thought, I guess.
“Of course I didn’t. Why would I kill Sara? I love her.”
Then he lifted his head from his hands and looked at me for the first time.
“Am I going insane? You could be her. You sound exactly like her.”
He started sobbing again, muffled sounds escaping every now and then. I handed him a box of tissues and a glass of water.
“Calm down, take a few deep breaths, then tell me.”
“Sara was nervous whenever I went away on business. She kept saying that one day I’d come home and find them dead, her and Symon. She was right wasn’t she?”
He sipped his water, trying to stem the tears that still trickled down his face.
“I bought this place for her because it was supposed to be secure. Living with someone who is ruled by the patterns he perceives in things makes her life more difficult. I thought maybe if she felt more secure, everything else would be that much easier to bear.”
“She was right to be concerned. She was a clone. Norms don’t like it when clones breed. But Sara was asked to breed your children because our cluster obviously wants your genes.”
“I don’t believe you. She loves me.”
“I’m sure she did love you. Her training would ensure she loved whoever the cluster chose for her. But when the cluster says breed, you breed, even if it costs your life.”
He choked off another sob, putting his hands over his ears as if to stop any more words coming in. He’d obviously reached his limits.
I debated whether to let him know we had his son and decided against it at this time. Sy would be safer in the cluster house.
Sy woke feeling energised. Maybe Ellis could recover something this time. He wanted to know who’d killed his mother. Living with women who looked, moved and sounded like her made him all the more determined. All of his aunts were very kind to him, but they weren’t his mother.
I came into the kitchen as he was brewing some tea for himself.
“Good, you’re up. Still want to chase down those memories?”
“Wanna tell me what triggered the dream this time?” I asked.
“I thought I heard a voice I recognised when I was out in town yesterday. One of the killers; I hid as soon as I heard it.”
“One of her killers? This is the first time you’ve said there was more than one.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t know till I heard the voice. Didn’t hear what she was saying, but I knew she was there, when, when…” he broke off.
“Sounds like the sooner we do this the better. Do you want your father here when we put you under?”
“No. He doesn’t want me and I don’t need him when I have all of you.”
Spoken like a true sulky teenager. Padraig’s rejection of his son, when we chose to reveal we had him, still stung. I couldn’t say I blamed Sy. Bad enough to have your mother murdered in front of your eyes, without being disowned by your father, before her blood was hardly dry.
“Sy, I’m gonna take you back ten years. You’re gonna shrink in size and tell me what you hear and what you see. Are you ready?”
He shrugged. “Let’s just do this.”
I drew him into the trance state.
“Tell me what happened on the day your mother died.”
“Mama pushes me into the hidey hole with Paws and Wulf.
“The Bad Men are coming. Promise you won’t make a sound, my lovely. Be brave and wait until it’s safe again. You’ll know when it’s safe to come out.”
She kisses me and shuts the door. It isn’t dark yet. When I look through the spyhole I can see Mama writing at her desk. Paws sits on my lap, so I hug her tightly. Maybe I hug her too tightly because she squirms in my arms and bats me on the nose with her velvet paws. She’s funny! I let out a breath and relax.
I’ve been asleep and I wake up still in the hidey hole. Mama hasn’t left me in here for so long before. I remember not to squeak though. Mainly that’s because Paws wraps her tail across my face to remind me when she feels me wake up. Wulf guards us both. He noses me, pushing me back towards the spyhole.
The room is darker now. The fire in the hearth makes flickering shadows and there’s a bright pool of light from the desk lamp. I hear talking. That’s Mama. She doesn’t sound happy like she usually does. The other voice is gruff and gravelly. Is it Grandpa? No, Grandpa has a smile in his voice.
“Where is the whelp, Sara? Give him to us and you can go free.”
“He’s not here.”
Mama never lies. Lies are bad. So something is very wrong. But I promised to wait, so I’d better. Otherwise Mama will be sad.
A third voice joins in. I’ve heard this voice before. It’s the woman who used to clean the house. Her voice is whiny and thin like her. I don’t like her. She takes things when she thinks no one is looking. Sometimes she kicks Paws or Wulf.
“Now Sara, we know that’s not true. We’ve been watching. So, where is he?”
I hear footsteps across the floor then an arm comes into view. I hear a slap. Mama bites off a curse. They hit Mama and she doesn’t even cry. She is being brave, so I’ll be brave.
“Tell us, Sara.”
Mama is stubborn. She’ll ignore him, like she does with Dada when he annoys her.
“You’re wasting time. Let’s just torch the place. Burning is a good way to dispose of vermin.”
That’s Cleaning Woman again. Always in a hurry.
Gruff Voice speaks again.
“No. I can feel him watching. He’s somewhere nearby. I’d rather use his gifts than waste them. Let’s see if we can entice him out.”
I get even quieter. Mama didn’t tell me that other people could feel us watching. I thought it was just something she and I did.
I see their arms pull Mama away from her desk and out of sight. A hand takes hold of the letter knife that Mama told me never to touch.
“This is wicked sharp,” Mama said and showed me.
She pulled the blade across my fingertip. I watched red beads well up and drip off my finger. Then I yelled because it hurt. She kissed my finger then put it into my mouth. It smelled and tasted of metal.
“That’s blood. It makes your body work. Sharp things are dangerous because they cut and let your blood out.”
Now the Bad Men have the wicked sharp knife.
Gruff Voice speaks louder.
“Come out now Boy and I’ll let your mother go.”
I don’t move, don’t even breathe. I know Gruff Voice is listening for me. Then I hear the scraping of chair legs along the floor. Cleaning Woman is cruel, I know that.
“Your face is an affront to decent people,” she says. “I’m going to cut it off you.”
Mama screams again and again. I can’t bear to watch.
When I peep again, Mama is tied to her chair in the middle of the room. The skin of her face is cut and torn. Blood is coming out of her face and out of her arm and dripping onto the floor.
I watch Mama’s eyes. She looks fierce now, reminding me of my promise. The air is thick with the blood metal smell. I watch the drips of blood grow into a puddle under Mama’s chair. She still looks fierce, as she fades away.
The room grows still. I know they’re still there even though they’re quiet. I can hear them breathing. They’re waiting for me to make a mistake but I promised Mama.
“Maybe he’s not here after all. Maybe she did take him away.” Cleaning Woman says. “We’d better clean up and go.”
Hands come into view again, untying Mama. She doesn’t move. The hands put the letter knife into her hand but it rolls out of her fingers and drops onto the floor. I hear a car pull up outside, crunching across the gravel.
“Too late to do more. Let’s get out the back way,” says Gruff Voice.
I stay where I am. I hear footsteps leaving the room. Two sets of feet.
Someone comes hurrying down the hall and opens the door. Mama is in her chair with her back to the door.
“All right love?”
It’s Dada. I recognise his voice. I’m not sure if it’s safe to come out. Dada is acting as if everything is fine, but it isn’t. When Mama doesn’t answer, Dada comes further into the room and sees the blood.
“No,” he gasps and now he doesn’t sound like Dada any more. “No, no, no! Sara, please.”
He cries for a long time. I can see his shoulders shaking and he’s making these weird sobbing noises but I can’t see his face. Dada doesn’t even come round to look at Mama’s face. He goes out of the room and I hear him calling the police on his cell phone.
It still doesn’t feel safe to come out.
The police come quickly. They come right into the room and I see them. They don’t speak. One policeman looks at Mama’s face and rushes out of the room. He doesn’t come back. The other one spends some time taking photographs and tiptoeing around the edge of the room looking at Mama. Sometimes I can see him and sometimes I can’t.
After a while he leaves too and I settle down to wait again. A policewoman comes. She sounds like Mama. She talks to the first policeman. He is another one with a gruff voice. Perhaps all men have gruff voices. I haven’t met so many.
I brought Sy back to himself by snapping my fingers. He had tears dripping down his face.
“No wonder you didn’t talk to us for so long,” I said. “That was a powerful promise you made to Sara. I’m surprised you even came out when we arrived.”
“You moved like Mama and you sounded like her too. You felt safe to me.”
Marlene took notes while we questioned Sy under hypnosis. It had never worked before, but maybe he needed to be old enough to understand what was actually going on that night. Now he understood that this was a hate crime. There had been far too many like it in recent years, always when the clones bred. Often the children were killed too, or missing. Sy was the only living child we had ever retrieved from a clone murder.
When Sy mentioned the cleaning woman, Marlene was on her laptop in an instant, checking with the statement given by Padraig. She pulled up the old photograph.
“Is this your cleaning woman?”
Sy looked at the face for a long time.
“It could be. I really don’t know. I see people differently now than I did when I was five. I’d have to see her move and hear her speak. See if she fits the pattern. It’s all about the patterns see?”
I didn’t see, but Sy was a law unto himself, just like his twitchy father. If Sy said there were patterns to be seen in the way people moved and spoke, and that their appearance wasn’t so important, I was happy to believe him. That ability was probably what the cluster wanted from his father’s genes.
“So what about the other one? Gruff Voice? Could you identify him if you heard him speak again?”
“Oh yeah, he’d be easy.”
“But you didn’t see him. How can you know?”
“No but I heard him and felt him…” Sy shrugged again. “I can’t explain. I just would know.”
I sent Sy back to the covered market where he’d heard the voice, using him as bait. Of course I wired him up first, just in case things got out of hand. I didn’t want to lose him.
As far as the killers were concerned, he was a loose end to be dealt with. I hoped that letting him out of hiding might entice them to reveal themselves. He slouched along the tables, loitering and pretending to examine the items for sale. Really he was listening and letting his eyes skim across the crowded hall.
I knew the moment he spotted her. We clones all have our gifts and my empathy is very strong. I waited for him to confirm it really was her and not some innocent bystander. He watched her for a while, then nodded. But before we could grab her, she saw him. Bold as brass, she walked over to him.
“I know you don’t I? I feel I’ve seen you before, but where?”
“You should always trust your feelings,” Sy said.
“I do know you but I don’t trust you. Don’t run away. Let me just call a friend over and he’ll help me to remember.”
She grabbed hold of Sy’s wrist and nodded at the tall figure of a man skulking under the gallery pillars at the back of the market hall.
“Bring him closer. I’ve no worries.”
The man hastened across the room and I got a good look at his face for the first time. I couldn’t believe it.
While I was in speculative meltdown, Sy was busy making the man speak to confirm his identification.
“Your colleague thinks she knows me from somewhere. Can you help her?”
“You!” spat the man. “How are you even still alive?”
I’d heard enough. The rest of my squad encircled the trio as Marlene and I moved in to take the killers down. Marlene read them their rights, then added,
“But you know all this, don’t you, former DI Shaw?”