by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Inhuman Acts: A Collection of Noir, September 2015
Captain Pierre Jacques twitched his naked ears and swished his bare, pink tail as he stepped into the lumo-bay, a large, empty room with hexagonal, blue grid-lines on the walls. Even though he was a hairless Sphynx cat, Captain Jacques always held an air of dignity. No other cat or dog wore a Tri-Galactic Navy uniform with greater aplomb, but today Captain Jacques wasn’t wearing his uniform. He was dressed in a pin-striped suit and a floor-length, tan trench coat, split down the back.
“Are you sure the lumo-bay is ready?” Captain Jacques asked. “I know it’s had some bugs.” He flattened his ears and looked up at the blue hexagons on the ceiling. Blue hexagons were all around him.
Jordan LeGuin, chief engineer and orange tabby, adjusted the settings on his techno-focal goggles and narrowed his eyes at the text that streamed over their lenses. “It should be okay… If it’s not, I’ll be right outside, tracking the readings and ready to shut the program down.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it, Jordan,” Dr. Waverly Keller, a tall red-furred Irish Setter barked. She stood more than a head taller than either cat, and she was wearing a sheer black dress, a gray overcoat, and a floppy hat over her floppy ears. “The captain is just looking for an excuse to avoid taking a break.”
If Captain Jacques had fur, it would have ruffled. Instead, his wrinkled skin twitched.
“You need a break,” Dr. Keller insisted. “This will be fun.”
Captain Jacques straightened his tie, touched the gold comm-pin on his lapel, and cleared his throat. “This isn’t a break, Doctor. It’s a testing exercise.” His pink-skinned muzzle drew itself into a smile. “Hopefully, a very enjoyable one. Let’s get started, shall we, LeGuin?”
“Yes, sir!” the orange tabby said. “You can start your program via voice command whenever you’re ready.” LeGuin stepped toward the automatic doors out of the lumo-bay, and they slid open for him. “I’ll be right outside.” He walked out to the control room, orange-striped tail swinging cheerfully behind him.
The doors to the lumo-bay slid shut, enclosing Captain Jacques and Dr. Keller in the blue grid-light again.
“Do the honors?” Captain Jacques said. His gray-green eyes smiled at her, and Dr. Keller was relived to see that he truly did look happy.
“Computer,” Dr. Keller said. “Please, begin playing Murder in the Morning, configured for two players — the captain and myself.”
Instantly, the blue grid lines brightened — blue to white. They flashed, blindingly. When Captain Jacques’ eyes adjusted, the lumo-bay looked like it was filled with a thick, white fog. As the fog cleared, it left Captain Jacques and Dr. Keller standing in a narrow hallway with a green tile floor and wood-paneled walls. In front of them was a door with a frosted-glass insert. Stenciled on the glass were the words: “Jacques & Keller, Private Investigators.”
Captain Jacques reached out a paw to the glass, extended a single claw, and tapped it. “Heh, it feels real.”
“Jordan said it would.” Dr. Keller sniffed at the air with her wet, black nose. “Do you smell that?”
“Smoke and whiskey,” Captain Jacques marveled.
“It’s hard to believe that all of this is only an illusion caused by photon beams and gravity waves.”
Before the captain and doctor could explore any further, a cat-sized dog with fluffy white fur overflowing his gray suit ran down the hallway and collapsed at their feet. “Oh, please, you have to help me!” the Maltese dog whimpered, looking from Jacques to Keller with pleading brown eyes.
Doctor Keller knelt down and offered the smaller dog an arm to help him up.
“This is delightful!” Captain Jacques said. “Very exciting!”
A whine escaped from the Maltese dog’s muzzle. There was blood crusting the white fur of his left ear, and he leaned heavily on Doctor Keller’s arm. She gave her captain a serious look. “This may be a game,” she said. “But, if we’re going to play, we should take it seriously. This gentleman — imaginary or not — clearly believes he’s in trouble. And in pain.”
“Of course,” Captain Jacques said. He straightened the collars of his pin-striped suit and tan trench coat. Then he turned his attention to the Maltese: “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to make light of your situation. Let’s go into our office and see what we can do for you.”
Behind the glass-paned door, Jacques and Keller found a dark, cramped room — the only source of light was a half-burned out ceiling lamp, and there was barely space for the two wooden desks, not to mention the chairs. All four walls were covered in bookshelves crammed full of dusty leather-bound tomes.
Doctor Keller helped the Maltese into a simple wooden chair in front of the desk that had her name on it and began examining the wound on his ear. Captain Jacques went to one of the bookshelves and pulled out a red-and-gold bound tome.
“I take it,” Captain Jacques said, absently, “that you have a crime you want investigated.” He flipped through the ancient book, marveling at the delicate paper pages — so much less efficient than a computer tablet. “But you’ve committed a crime of your own, and so you came to us instead of the police.”
“I’ve done nothing wrong!” the Maltese barked. He pushed Doctor Keller’s paws away from his injured ear and spoke to her instead of the captain: “You must be a hell of a pair of investigators if you can make a living by insulting your potential customers.”
Captain Jacques replaced the red-and-gold bound book on the shelf and pulled out one with a navy blue binding. He smiled at what he saw inside it.
“The cut on your ear needs medical attention,” Doctor Keller said. “It could get infected. Who did this to you?”
A shadow fell across the frosted glass pane in the office door — a shadow shaped like a very large, very fat cat. A deep yet feminine, feline voice from behind the door said, “I think, detectives, that you’ll find I’m your answer. And I intend to do a whole lot more.” The shadow backed away from the door, and the voice muttered, “Break it in, boys.”
Captain Jacques put the book quickly down on his desk and stepped nimbly over to the door to open it. “That won’t be necessary,” he said to the fat cat and her two grim-faced, dock-eared, mutt goons outside. “Why don’t you all come in?”
The fat cat looked surprised. Then a wide grin spread across her calico muzzle, and her green eyes twinkled. She wore a deep maroon dress that fell flatteringly over her ample girth, and she moved with feline grace in spite of her size. She took the seat in front of Captain Jacques’ desk, and her goons took up stations on either side of the glass-paned door. If the office had been cramped before, it was positively crowded now.
“This mop of a dog,” the fat cat said, gesturing with a limp paw at the quivering Maltese, “has taken something that belongs to me.”
“It belongs to the Republic of Malta!” the Maltese barked with fervor, despite his obvious fear.
“And, what would they do with it?” the fat cat sneered. “Put it in a museum?”
“That’s where it belongs…” the Maltese muttered.
Doctor Keller stood up from where she’d been kneeling beside the Maltese and said, with all the strident passion of a pacifistic doctor in the Tri-Galactic Navy, “No matter what our client may have taken, it’s no excuse for violence!”
Everyone in the room — the Maltese, the fat cat, the two goons, and even Captain Jacques — gave Doctor Keller a strange look.
“Have you forgotten where we are, Waverly?” Captain Jacques asked.
Doctor Keller looked down at her smart black dress and ran her red-furred paws over the sheer fabric. She wasn’t a doctor right now — she was a private detective in the far, barbaric past. “Right,” she said. “We need names. We need information. What is it that you’re fighting over?”
The Maltese dog said, “Henry Heffler. I work for the National Museum of Malta.”
The fat cat shifted in her chair, settling in, getting comfortable. The fabric of her maroon dress shimmered. “You can call me…” She paused for just a moment. “Gilda.” She gestured behind her at the dog goons. “They’re Punch and Stomp. Don’t cross me, and you won’t cross them.”
Punch fisted a paw and punched it into his other paw. Stomp stomped. Neither of their tails wagged.
Captain Jacques leaned against the edge of his desk and purred ingratiatingly. “We’re pleased to meet you both, I’m sure. But we’re not conflict resolution counselors. We’re private detectives. Now give us a case, or get out.” His pink-skinned tail swished.
Doctor Keller could see that the captain was having fun.
“I’ll give you a case,” Gilda purred back at the captain. “Find the shiny gryphon statue that this petty thief stole from me.”
“I have a better case for you!” Henry barked. His eyes pleaded with Doctor Keller. “Protect me from this maniacal cat queen!”
“Why does she want to hurt you?” Doctor Keller woofed to Henry. Then she turned to Gilda with a glare.
The calico chuckled darkly. “He looks innocent and harmless, doesn’t he?” Her green eyes narrowed. “But he killed two of my guards, brutally, when he stole the gryphon.” She turned her eyes back to Captain Jacques. “Help me find the statue. Then leave this murderer to me. I’ll see if he likes the taste of his own knife.”
“You stabbed two people?” Doctor Keller asked.
Henry whimpered. “I took the statue. I didn’t do anything else. There were no guards when I broke in.”
Gilda stood, knocking the chair down behind her. It crashed into Punch, but he didn’t even flinch. Gilda hissed, “They were lying on the floor in pools of their own blood!”
Punch and Stomp shifted their weight, readying themselves to protect their employer or fight on her command.
“It was dark. I was in a hurry,” Henry stammered, cowering away from the dagger-filled feline gaze. “Maybe I missed them. I didn’t kill them.”
“You swear that you didn’t hurt anyone?” Doctor Keller asked Henry. Her voice sounded earnest and naive.
The small dog brushed the white curls of his fur away from his eyes and nodded. He looked innocent, but looks could be deceiving.
Doctor Keller’s red-furred muzzle broke into a gentle smile. “We’ll protect you.” She turned her gaze to her captain. “Won’t we?” She didn’t say it like a question. She was the only officer on Captain Jacques’ ship with the power to give him indirect orders, at least, when it came to the health of his crew. She was used to that role, and she continued to play it even in a lumo-bay game.
Captain Jacques’ expression was mysterious — nearly playful and completely unlike any look he would have given Doctor Keller if they’d been wearing their Tri-Galactic Navy uniforms. Doctor Keller didn’t know what it meant.
Without a word, Captain Jacques picked up the navy blue-bound book from his desk, opened it, and withdrew a revolver from a hidden cutout in the pages. He pointed it at Gilda and said, “My partner says we’re taking the other case. Get out.”
The fat calico showed no reaction. Her ears didn’t flatten; her tail didn’t twitch; her whiskers didn’t quiver. She merely stared into Captain Jacques’ eyes — green cat eyes locked on grey ones — until she’d seen what she was looking for.
“Fine, protect the lying mop. I’ll find the statue myself.” She smoothed her maroon dress and walked to the door. When she stood between her canine goons, she turned back and said, “I would have paid better. Mops don’t pay well when they’re dead.”
After Gilda and her goons were gone, Captain Jacques began pulling more books out of the shelves, opening them, and discarding them when he found nothing inside. “There has to be another gun hidden in here,” he said, flattening his ears at yet another normal book.
Doctor Keller stepped behind her desk, opened the top drawer and pulled out another revolver. The data on file with the ship’s computer had perfectly predicted where each of its players would hide a weapon and had programmed the lumo-bay accordingly. “It looks like I keep mine here.” She put it in the pocket of her overcoat.
“Looks like?” Henry whimpered. “What kind of private detective doesn’t know for sure where she keeps her own gun?”
“The kind that you hired,” Captain Jacques snapped. “Now, if you want us to really help you, take us to where you hid that statue.”
“What?” Henry asked, looking at Captain Jacques like he was just another cat like Gilda. “Why?”
“Clues,” Captain Jacques said, pocketing his revolver. “If we’re going to get Gilda off your tail, we need to find out who actually killed her guards.”
The Maltese looked like he was wondering whether any cats could be trusted. But Keller, another dog, seemed to trust this one. “Okay, I’ll take you.”
“Great,” Captain Jacques said. He gestured for Doctor Keller to follow him and said, “My partner and I will check the hall to make sure Gilda and her… compatriots are gone. Wait in here.”
Once the captain and doctor were in the hallway, Captain Jacques closed the door behind him, looked up at the doctor, and gave her a huge grin. “This is fun! We should check in with LeGuin though. We mustn’t forget this is a testing exercise.” He tapped his paw against the gold comm-pin on his lapel and said, “Lieutenant LeGuin? Come in?”
The voice of the orange tabby rang out from the comm-pin: “Aye, Captain. I’m here.”
“How do the readings on the computer look?” Captain Jacques asked. “Everything normal?”
“Everything is perfect,” LeGuin said. “The lumo-bay is performing exactly to specifications. In fact, I think we have all the data we need. Want to call the test off and come back out?”
The captain hesitated.
Doctor Keller grinned down at him. “You’re having fun. As your doctor, I think it’s in your — and the ship’s — best interest if the captain is well rested and relaxed.”
Although he would never admit it, that was what Captain Jacques wanted to hear. He said into his comm-pin, “Doctor Keller and I will play out this program.”
LeGuin responded, “It should be safe for me to leave the lumo-bay running. If you have any problems, simply shut down the program or call for the exit.”
“Very well,” Captain Jacques said. “You’re relieved to attend to your other duties.”
“Aye, Captain,” LeGuin said. Then he added, “Have fun!”
Captain Jacques rolled his eyes. “Everyone’s so worried about me.” Before Doctor Keller could give him a speech about his responsibility to take care of himself for the sake of the ship, he opened the glass-paned door again and said to the Maltese waiting nervously inside, “All clear. Now, let’s go see this statue.”
The small white dog in his gray suit led the faux-private detectives — a bare-skinned cat in a trench coat and a big red dog in a black dress — through the wet, dark streets of the city. Streetlights shone on the dank pavement. Echoes of footsteps and private conversations filled the humid air. It wasn’t raining, but the clouds were heavy with water. It would rain soon.
Henry brought them to the front steps of the public library. The broad wooden doors were shut and surely locked at this time of night. “I hid the gryphon statue in the geography section, behind several books about Malta, my country. If you want to see it now, you’ll need to break in.”
Captain Jacques looked up at the top of the building, five or six stories high. Then he looked to the sides. There was a wrought iron fire escape. There were lots of windows.
“Where is the geography section?” Captain Jacques asked. “Which floor?”
“Third,” Henry said.
Doctor Keller stepped between Henry and Captain Jacques, both of them so much smaller than her, and spoke for only the captain to hear: “Is this really necessary? There must be better ways of protecting our client.”
Captain Jacques saw the concern in Doctor Keller’s brown eyes and gave her a smile designed to reassure. “Of course, you’re right. But, don’t we want to do more than protect him? Don’t we want to solve the case of Gilda’s murdered guards?”
Doctor Keller looked uncertain but said, “I suppose he will be safer in the long run that way.”
“Tell you what,” Captain Jacques said. “Let’s split up — you take Henry somewhere safe, and I’ll take care of… examining the statue.” Doctor Keller looked like she might object, and Captain Jacques narrowly avoided making his plan an order out of habit. That wouldn’t play well here, in a lumo-bay game. Instead, he said, “We’ll get twice as much done.”
“That’s true,” Doctor Keller said. “Okay. How about a hotel?”
Captain Jacques shook his head and lowered his voice, “Doesn’t that sound boring? We passed a bar several blocks back — The Wagging Tail. Wouldn’t you rather hang out there?”
Doctor Keller’s eyes shone. She couldn’t resist the idea of exploring more of this fictional, historical town. “You’ll meet us there?”
“As soon as I can.”
Before Henry would let Doctor Keller lead him away, he grabbed the sleeve of Captain Jacques’ trench coat with his white-furred paw. “What will you do with the gryphon statue after you examine it?”
“I’ll hide it somewhere else in the library,” Captain Jacques said. “It’s a very sensible hiding place.”
Henry nodded slowly. “It’s a very old and valuable artifact. Many have murdered and died for it in the last hundred years.” His paw tightened on the captain’s sleeve. “I must bring it back to the National Museum of Malta. That’s the only safe place for it to be.”
“I understand,” the captain said, shouldering his sleeve out of the Maltese’ paw.
“I hope you do.” Henry’s brown eyes were earnest and not wholly innocent. Finally, he let Doctor Keller lead him away.
The captain was glad when they were gone.
He climbed onto the fire escape and ascended to the third floor. He felt free. No one was with him, waiting for his decision, his command, his choices that would affect everything. He could do anything, and it was only a game — but it felt real.
Captain Jacques broke open the third floor window with the butt of his revolver, smashed enough glass out of his way to climb through, and illegally entered the third floor of the library. It felt amazing to break the rules instead of make them. For once, he could defy expectations, behave recklessly, and there would be no cost.
Captain Jacques made his way quickly through the dark maze of library shelves until he found the books about Malta. He pulled out all five dusty tomes with “Malta” in the title, revealing a gleam of gold and silver on the shelf hidden behind them.
Captain Jacques lifted the heavy statuette — it was the size of one of Doctor Keller’s shoes, and it felt warm in his paws. Hewn from tawny marble, it had the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion. Its wings were tipped with silver, and its tail tipped with gold. It had a fiercely sharp metal beak. In its stone face, one eye gleamed red, the other green.
A deeply feminine and feline voice behind the captain rumbled: “A ruby and an emerald for its eyes. Pretty, isn’t it?”
“Why didn’t Henry hop the first flight to Malta as soon as he took this from you?” the captain breathed, unable to take his eyes off of the priceless artifact. It may have been nothing more than a lumo-bay projection, but it was beautiful.
“He’d have never made it out of town before I caught him. He did manage to hide it from me — until you led me here.”
“I assume you have a buyer?” Captain Jacques said, turning to look Gilda in the eye. “I’ll split the proceeds with you — fifty/fifty.”
“Oh, honey,” Gilda purred. “You’re a fool. I am the buyer.” She stepped forward down the row of book shelves, and in the dimness of the library the fabric of her maroon dress glistened like it was wet with blood. “I told you — it’s pretty. I like pretty things. Now hand it over.” She reached out a calico paw for the statue. Her other paw held a gun.
Captain Jacques’ own gun was in his pocket, and his paws were busy holding the statue. There was nothing to do but hand it over.
Gilda’s muzzle split into a grin as she took hold of the gryphon. “See, if you’d taken my case,” Gilda said, “everything would have turned out the same.” She purred evilly. “Except I’d be paying you now, rather than doing this–” She stepped away from Captain Jacques, glanced behind her, and said, “Knock him out, Punch.”
A grim-faced, dock-eared canine stepped out of the shadows between the rows of book shelves. He stepped past Gilda, lifted a gun of his own, and brought it down, butt-first against the captain’s head.
* * *
When Captain Jacques awoke, there was light in the library. Dull gray morning light radiated in through the windows. His head ached, and the texture of the library’s threadbare carpet had etched itself into the naked pink skin of his face.
He dug his claws into the carpet and dragged himself upright. Had all those hours really passed? Shouldn’t the lumo-bay safety controls have protected him? Nothing in the lumo-bay should have been able to hurt him. Somewhere in his foggy, aching brain, he made a mental note to have Lieutenant LeGuin run more tests.
Captain Jacques was about to call for the computer to reveal the lumo-bay exit when his eyes landed upon a silver and gold gleam. The gryphon statue sat on the floor in front of him. It was still here.
“What the hell…” Captain Jacques muttered. He picked up the gryphon statue. “Why didn’t Gilda take you?” The stone was warm in his paws again. He gripped the gryphon against his chest, and it moved with his breathing. He walked to the end of the row of geography books. Then he saw her.
Gilda lay face down, dead on the floor. Her maroon gown was wet with blood. Her hench-dog, Punch, lay dead beside her.
“Did you turn on each other?” Captain Jacques asked the bodies. His voice sounded intrusive, inappropriate in the empty library.
He stepped closer to Gilda. With a shoe, he nudged her body until it rolled over. There was a gaping stab wound on her chest and claw marks raked her dress. Punch’s body had wounds to match. Their fight must have been brutal.
Captain Jacques had seen death before. He’d ordered officers — friends — into situations they wouldn’t return from. Even though their bodies hadn’t lain blood-covered and cold on the ground before him, they were gone. He’d known them, and they were no more.
This looked, smelled, and felt real. But Gilda had been a simulation. He could order the computer to bring her back if he wanted. The captain laughed, unable to process how he felt looking on the face but not the truth of death.
Captain Jacques turned the gryphon statue in his paws until he was looking into its mismatched gemstone eyes. “You’ve caused a lot of trouble,” he said. “I can hardly believe there was a time when people murdered each other over something I could scan and copy in one of my ship’s synthesizers.”
The gryphon’s eyes twinkled red and green in the dull morning light, and the marble seemed to grow warmer in Captain Jacques’ paws.
“I guess, you’re mine now,” he whispered to the statue. His muzzle curled in a bitter smile, and he joked, “Shall we flee to the Bahamas, and call this game won?”
Captain Jacques shifted the statue into one paw and reached with his empty paw to touch his comm-pin. He meant to call the doctor and tell her it was time to go. Instead, the weight of the gryphon shifted surprisingly, and the captain lost his hold.
The marble statue fell.
Its wings split open, spreading wide, when it hit the floor. Captain Jacques thought it was broken; then the marble gryphon turned, stared at him with glittering eyes, and opened its beak in a piercing shriek.
Captain Jacques’ ears flattened against the sound, and he jumped backward, tripped over his own paws, and fell hard against a bookshelf. The gryphon raised its wide-spread wings, flapped them, and rose into the air. Its shriek formed recognizable words: “Not yours!” it cried. Its beak gleamed like a knife.
“Computer, pause program!” Captain Jacques shouted over the sound of the gryphon’s flapping wings and piercing cry. The library books, shelves, and murderous gryphon flickered. The hexagonal blue lines of the lumo-bay shone eerily through them for a moment, breaking the library’s illusion of reality. Then it was gone, and everything around Captain Jacques seemed dangerously real again.
The stone gryphon dove for the captain; he rolled, and its beak only grazed his shoulder. The pain burned — he needed to get those safeties online.
“Computer, EXIT!” Captain Jacques shouted, dodging around the end of a bookshelf.
No exit appeared.
This may have been a game, but he was trapped in it.
Captain Jacques ran back through the library, heading for the broken window where he’d entered. He touched his comm-pin, and yelled as he ran, “LeGuin! The lumo-bay’s malfunctioning!”
* * *
Several blocks away, at The Wagging Tail, Doctor Keller had talked the night away with an engaging Scottish Terrier bartender. She could have — and had — listened to his stories for hours. Other patrons had left the bar, until it was just her, Henry, and the bartender. Eventually, Henry had given up and fallen asleep, slumped over the bar.
The bartender continued to regale Doctor Keller with stories of his lady friend — a Siamese cat with an addiction to gin, both kinds — until his black-bearded face froze in the middle of a word.
Startled, Doctor Keller looked around and realized that the windows glowed with early morning light. She hadn’t noticed the passing time at all. “Goodness,” she said to the frozen lumo-projection in front of her. “It would be easy to spend all my free time in here.”
She touched a red-furred paw to her gold comm-pin and said, “Captain, did you pause the program?”
The captain’s voice answered, huffing strangely, “I tried. But it didn’t work.”
Doctor Keller eyed the frozen face of the Scottish Terrier in front of her. “It looks like it worked to me.” She reached a paw out and touched the Scottish Terrier. He felt solid, but blue lines of hexagons flickered through his body at her touch.
LeGuin’s voice came over her comm-pin: “Captain, Doctor: I’m down at the lumo-bay control panel now. The program’s locked in a buggy subroutine — no safeties, no exits, can’t shut it down. It’ll take me at least an hour to fix it.”
The captain’s voice rang out over the comm-pin, “Do it faster!” followed by gunshots. “Damn it, I need those safeties on!”
If the safeties were off, anything could happen, and the doctor had none of her medical supplies. “Where are you, Pierre?” she called to her captain over the comm-pin.
“I’m still in the library,” the captain said. Doctor Keller could hear a strange whumping and unearthly shrieks behind his voice. “There’s a broken window on the third floor of the fire escape.”
“I’ll be right there!”
Doctor Keller decided to bring their client, in case he could be any help. She shoved the slumped shoulder of Henry. Blue hexagons flickered through his white curls. He wasn’t just sleeping; he was frozen like the bartender. She couldn’t move a frozen lumo-projection.
“Computer, unpause Henry Heffler.” Doctor Keller was relieved to see the Maltese start snoring, his face still smashed against the bar. She didn’t have time to wake him gently, but he was nearly small enough for her to carry him. She grabbed him around the middle and dragged him off of his barstool.
Disturbingly, the bartender unfroze long enough to say, “–ether or not y–,” before freezing again. Doctor Keller shuddered and tried not to panic at the idea she was trapped here. This era was a charming place to visit, but it was nowhere she wanted to be stuck with the safeties off.
Doctor Keller led the groggily awakening Henry along the streets back to the library. When she tried to lead him up the fire escape, the Maltese dog objected, “I thought your partner was going to come meet us at the bar when he got the statue.”
“He was,” Doctor Keller said. “But he’s gotten into a bit of trouble.” She remembered the sound of gunshots behind the captain’s voice and shivered. “We’re going to help him.”
Henry stepped away from the fire escape, eyes wide and worried. “I hired you to help me. Shouldn’t you be finding a safe place for me to hide out? Not dragging me into the trouble?”
The Maltese had a point, but Doctor Keller wasn’t interested in playing detective anymore. She just wanted to keep herself and the captain safe until Lieutenant LeGuin fixed the lumo-bay safeties. If this lumo-projection could be convinced to help her — well, she felt guilty about it — but she was perfectly prepared to use him as cannon-fodder.
“I mean…” Doctor Keller faltered, feeling pressured to think quickly. “He’s having trouble with… an inscription… on the statue?”
Henry visibly relaxed, but he was still suspicious. “There are no inscriptions–”
“Hey!” called a gruff voice from above. “Paws up!”
Doctor Keller jumped behind the small Maltese before looking up to see the muzzle of Gilda’s dog goon Stomp and the muzzle of his revolver pointed down at her.
“Computer, pause Stomp!” Doctor Keller yelled.
“What the hell?” Stomp said. “You’re that dippy detective and the thief Gilda’s after.” He chuckled. “She’s gonna love this. Get your tails up here!”
As they climbed the fire escape, paws held high, Henry muttered, “You’re a terrible detective,” and Doctor Keller’s mind raced. If Stomp was here, then the captain must be fighting Gilda and Punch inside. Doctor Keller needed a way to turn the tables on this dog goon before she made the captain’s situation worse by giving the bad guys hostages. She pulled her gun out of her overcoat pocket and stuck it squarely in Henry’s back.
Henry whimpered. Doctor Keller felt horrible treating him this way, but she shoved the gun harder into his back and barked, “Shut up, mop!” They ascended the last few steps to the grated iron platform at the third floor. “You can put that gun away,” Doctor Keller said to Stomp. “I’ve got the little mop thief covered.”
“I don’t think so,” Stomp growled, but he sounded surprised.
“I’m working for Gilda; don’t you get it? My partner and I only pretended to take this mop’s case to get him to squeal.”
Stomp looked really skeptical, but he’d been planning to take the two of them to Gilda anyway. He gestured with his revolver toward the broken window. “We’ll see what Gilda says. You lead the way.”
Doctor Keller didn’t like turning her back on Stomp and his revolver, but she didn’t see that she had much choice. She might have a gun, but she had no experience with the antique weapon. This lumo-projection was probably programmed to be a bad shot, but she didn’t care to bet on it.
“No problem,” she woofed, trying to sound casual in spite of the gun pointed at her. It may have been nothing more than a lumo-projection, but it could surely kill her. Even modern medicine couldn’t save her if she were dead more than twenty minutes, and Lieutenant Leguin thought it would take longer than that to fix the lumo-bay.
Doctor Keller grabbed Henry’s arm with her free paw, perhaps more roughly than she needed to — both as a show for Stomp and a way to release her frustration. She guided him through the broken window and into the murky light of the library.
A few steps into the library, she heard thumps and strange blood-curdling squawks like she’d heard behind the captain’s voice on the comm-pin earlier. Cautiously, she followed the sound.
Books were strewn all over the floor. Shelves tilted at awkward angles, their books fallen in piles beneath them. Between two toppled shelves, Doctor Keller saw the bulky mass of a dead body on the ground. No, two. She tried to steer Henry away from the bodies, but it was too late: Stomp had seen them.
“Gilda?” Stomp called. Then his voice turned to pure anguish as he cried, “Punch!”
Doctor Keller looked back at Stomp, hoping he’d forgotten himself in his emotion and dropped the aim of his revolver. No such luck. It was still trained steadily on her, though Stomp looked like he wanted to throw the revolver down and run to Punch’s side.
The anguish turned to ferocious anger, and he turned his snarling face to Doctor Keller. “You and your partner will pay for this.” He raised the revolver to point right at her face, and Doctor Keller flinched, ready to duck behind Henry even though he’d make a woefully inadequate shield with his small size.
Instead of firing, though, Stomp said, “No, I’m going to make your partner watch you die.” His muzzle twisted into a cruel smile.
“Maybe I can help them,” Doctor Keller said, voice faltering. “I’m a doctor.” She looked doubtfully at the fallen bodies. Blood stained the carpet around them. Books lay with their pages disarrayed over them. Clearly, Punch and Gilda had been dead for hours. Still, they were lumo-bay projections, and there was a chance the lumo-bay would obey her. She let go of Henry, knelt down next to the bodies, and whispered: “Computer, restore Punch and Gilda.” Nothing happened. So she tried, “Computer, reset Punch and Gilda to their original parameters.” Again nothing.
As she whispered over the bodies, though, the screeching cacophony from deeper in the library grew louder. It was coming their way.
“Look out!” Captain Jacques’ voice called from beyond the screeching noise.
Doctor Keller looked up to see the broad pearly wings of the marble gryphon flapping, wingtips shining silver, as it dove toward Stomp. He fired his revolver, but the bullets barely scratched the smooth marble. From behind, books thudded into the gryphon’s wings. Captain Jacques must have been throwing them.
Doctor Keller grabbed Henry by the arm again and rushed him, ducking low, away from the spectacle of the gryphon descending on Stomp. They heard his canine screams, but she didn’t stop to look. She ran straight to Captain Jacques.
“Oh, Pierre,” she said. “This isn’t fun any more.” Stomp’s screams were horrible.
“I know,” Captain Jacques said.
“Should we make a dash for the window?” Doctor Keller asked.
“The statue won’t let me leave,” Captain Jacques said. “It blocks me every time I try.” He led them further away from Stomp and the murderous gryphon statue. “But I found a place to hide.” He brought them to an information desk with book shelves toppled over it. “Under here.” He crawled under the toppled bookshelves and into the alcove beneath the desk.
Doctor Keller followed, pulling along the completely stunned Henry. The three of them barely fit under the desk. Doctor Keller was completely hunched over, and their bodies pressed against each other. But Captain Jacques managed to pull one of the toppled book cases close enough to seal the space off.
“The gryphon statue can’t get in here,” he said. “The book case is too heavy.”
Doctor Keller couldn’t see him in the dark under the desk except for his shining feline eyes, but he was close enough to feel his breath. All three of them kept brushing each others whiskers. “This is terribly uncomfortable.” She hoped her captain’s plan wasn’t to wait under this desk until LeGuin finished repairing the lumo-bay.
“It is kind of crowded,” the captain agreed. “It wasn’t so bad when it was just me. I guess we could kick the Maltese out.”
Doctor Keller was horrified. Henry might be only a lumo-bay projection, but he looked and acted like a real live person. Besides, she’d already listened to the painfully realistic death cries of Stomp. She didn’t need a repeat performance.
“That seems unnecessarily cruel,” Doctor Keller said.
“Does it?” the captain asked, his voice full of innuendo. He winked a glowing eye.
The captain was up to something. Besides… Doctor Keller’s shoulders were awfully cramped, and she would be able to stretch out better if she were only sharing the cramped space with Captain Jacques. She tapped her comm-pin and said, “LeGuin, how much longer will it take you to get us out of here?” She didn’t like the hesitation that followed her question. She liked the answer even less.
“It’s a trickier problem than I expected. It could be another couple of hours.”
Doctor Keller frowned. But she trusted her captain. “Okay, let’s kick him out.”
“What?!” Henry cried. He struggled against them, but Doctor Keller was substantially larger than him. Besides, it was two against one. Despite the small dog’s struggles, Captain Jacques and Doctor Keller forced him out of their hiding place, replaced the bookshelf, and held it in place against his attempts to get back in.
The screeching, flapping sounds of the gryphon approached.
Doctor Keller braced herself to hear the Maltese dog’s screams. Long seconds passed. To lighten the tone, Doctor Keller said, “So the statue’s the murderer?”
“Yep,” Captain Jacques agreed.
The flapping stopped. Then the screeches voiced a single word, “Master.” All went quiet.
Doctor Keller shifted uncomfortably in their dark alcove under the desk, but Captain Jacques said, “I thought so. Heffler is the only one who handled the statue without invoking its murderous wrath.” He began shoving the toppled book case out of his way. “I’m taking a look.”
The captain’s pink-eared head poked out from under the desk, and he saw Henry, holding the gryphon statue returned to its original form in one paw and a revolver in the other.
“The statue’s not attacking you,” Captain Jacques observed. “Why?”
Henry raised the revolver and pointed it at the captain. “I think the better question is: why did the statue attack you?”
Captain Jacques flattened his ears and ducked back down behind the shield of the desk before admitting, “I was trying to steal it.”
“What are you doing?” Doctor Keller whispered urgently. “We have to survive a few more hours in here!”
Captain Jacques called out, “You should call the police and arrest us.” To Doctor Keller he whispered, “We’ll be safe with the police. And a jail cell would be much more comfortable for two hours than hiding under here.”
After a pause, Henry said, “Come out here with your paws up.”
Doctor Keller was glad to stretch her body out again. She was less glad to find herself facing the barrel of a revolver again.
“I’m not calling the police,” Henry said. “They’ll confiscate the statue, and it’s a priceless artifact that must be returned to the National Museum of Malta.”
“That statue is a terror,” Captain Jacques spat. “It’s murdered three people today. How many countless others in the past?”
Henry looked discomfited. “It does have a dark history…” he mumbled to himself. “All the criminals who killed each other for it. All the deaths and double-crosses…” Henry looked at the statue, appraising it carefully. But his eyes softened, and his appraising look turned to one of love. “It has been in my family for generations.” Defensively, he added, “And there were never any murders in the museum. It was safe in the museum. That’s where it belongs, and I must take it back there.”
“Let us help you!” Doctor Keller offered eagerly, but Henry rebuffed her with a withering glare. She had spent all his trust already.
“No,” Henry said. “I can’t turn you over to the police. And I can’t have you following me.”
Captain Jacques considered rushing the small dog. Even with a gun in his paw, the small Maltese didn’t look that scary. Surely, the captain and the doctor working together could overtake him.
But Captain Jacques had battled the gryphon statue before. It was deadly, and he dared not anger it again. He was not at all sure that he and the doctor would survive a second battle with it. So, he counted himself lucky when Henry said, “Put your guns on the floor and kick them over to me. If I see even a shadow of either of you following me, I’ll shoot first and ask questions never.”
“Understood,” the captain said, scooting his gun across the floor.
Doctor Keller dropped her gun and kicked it over as well. She had never been the bad guy before. It was horrible. “I am so sorry,” she whimpered. “So very sorry.” She wished that she had treated the Maltese better. Even if he was only a lumo-bay projection, it had been beneath her to treat him as less than the person he seemed to be. Her stomach churned at the memory of her own misbehavior.
Henry picked up their guns from the ground and backed away into the pale dawn light of the library. He didn’t accept her apology.
* * *
Three hours later, the orange-striped form of Lieutenant LeGuin stepped through an archway that appeared in one of the library bookshelves. The clear, bright light of the ship’s corridor streamed through the archway behind him.
“Captain? Doctor?” the orange cat asked. His tail twitched in concern. Then he saw the Sphynx cat in his trench coat and the Irish Setter in her black dress sitting awkwardly on the floor, reading the antique books.
“I fixed the lumo-bay,” LeGuin said. “Sorry it took so long.”
“Thank goodness,” Captain Jacques said, rising from the floor. “I was afraid we’d still be here when the library opened, and they’d make us pick up all these books.”
LeGuin looked around and saw the wreckage from earlier. “It looks like you went through a lot in here.”
“Yes,” Doctor Keller agreed. She didn’t think Henry’s withering glare would ever really leave her.
Captain Jacques’ whiskers turned down in a frown. “Indeed.” Then with a savage pleasure, he said, “Computer, end program.”
The library disappeared in a flash of mist, and the blue hexagonal grid-lines of the lumo-bay returned. Once they were back in the normal ship’s corridors, Doctor Keller felt very strange in her period piece costume. It would be good to get back into her Tri-Galactic Navy uniform. She liked uniforms. She liked following orders. And she wasn’t so sure she liked playing lumo-bay games.
“Should I schedule another test of the lumo-bay?” LeGuin asked.
“Perhaps a different officer should accompany you next time, Captain,” Doctor Keller said.
Captain Jacques’ pink ears flattened. He could understand why Doctor Keller didn’t want to test the lumo-bay again. It would be an important training and recreation device when it was properly calibrated, but he’d already had his skull cracked in there and spent far too much time staring down the muzzles of guns. He was sorely tempted to assign the job to an ensign, but he knew that would be wrong.
“You could try a different program,” LeGuin offered.
Captain Jacques paused and then asked, “Are there any romantic comedies?” Those would have fewer guns. And if he restored the character of Gilda, he imagined she would make a fascinating romantic lead.