The Dead Have Their Needs – by Phil Huston
Caswell set his guitar on the sofa beside him, picked up the vibrating phone.
“You sent a women’s world ginger looker with a sassed-up mouth up the elevator this time, Caswell. I have whining from six directions.”
“She came on her own.”
“She knows your name well enough. Special Investigations lets you pick them now?”
“Yes, but she picked me for this one. And she’s three times as smart as she is good looking. Who’d she piss off?”
“A scrupulous, rule bound and higher ground young ladder climber a few flights down. He wants her disciplined. Something about a donkey?”
Caswell laughed, out loud. “You’ve pulled her file?”
“That’s why I’m calling. She makes too much noise we’re all miserable. How does a pushy Irish lass get a hand signed thank you from HRM?”
“She figured Henry’s headless wives magically piling up in the shadow of the Queen’s front gate, and nothing on CCTV. Why did you call me?”
“We need to talk.”
“You and Shona need to talk. She knocked, not me.”
“You think –”
“I think being a lady copper smarter than the lot of us is a shit job. She needs to know you respect her, not me or the letter. Be a gent. Call, meet her in a village pub somewhere away from the cameras, give her what you have. And you and I never spoke.”
“Then that mouthy ginger looker and I will make whatever is still an embarrassment to the Crown’s alphabet of ministries, after lo these many years, go away. Quietly wrapped in a whack job murderer.”
“What if there’s more to it?”
“Job security, mate.”
Shona sat back the half mile from the rusting hulk of the Juliette Simone with her binoculars on the dashboard of the complete piece of shit pinkish metallic 2001 Vauxhall Corsa they’d given her from undercover’s garage, simply because she didn’t have time to flirt with them, and read over maritime records and tables from October 1918. In French. Looking for some record of the ship in front her that had been flying a French flag, with no registry to be found. She glanced up in time to see Kylie and her unobtrusive belt pack full of swabs and vials and dental picks sideways herself into a fissure in Juliette’s hull.
She pulled her sunglasses down when a tall, thin, youngish man in wrinkled slacks, shirt tail in the breeze and Jesus sandals, who’d lost his razor a good few days ago, exited the BMW that parked twenty yards from her. He carried a rolled-up blanket under one arm and an oversized phone in his other hand. And he was headed straight for the Juliette. Shit. She texted Kylie to kill her torch, get back up into tourist land inside the hulk. She let out the breath she was holding when “OK” came up on her phone.
Wrinkled was navigating the sand and rock in the direction of the hulk when a man and a red setter appeared from behind the shallow cliff to her right. She picked up the binoculars.
Dammit. Kirklin? What the hell was he doing? He was retired from doing things for the government the government didn’t know about, and there he was with a frisbee and an Irish Setter on a collision course with Wrinkled? A frisbee toss that looked errant, but was perfect, sailed close enough to Wrinkled’s head to make him duck. There were smiles, a frisbee hand off, a brief conversation. Wrinkled patted the dog, walked off talking on his phone until a yellow VW parked next to his car. A woman ill dressed for the beach climbed out, took two steps before she leaned on the car and set her high heels on top. Wedding ring. Sensible suit. She took off jogging as well as she could in the suit and sand toward Wrinkled. Kirklin and the dog stayed by the Juliette, played a lazy toss and fetch game of frisbee.
Shona tapped out “False alarm. Back to work” on her phone
“Binkie beach shag. With the other”
Shona and Kiley clapped politely, whistled lightly when Caswell’s band of oldies playing even older oldies mixed with blues called an end to their early set in the Frog and Peacock.
Shona breathed “Thank God” through her smile.
“I liked them. It’s fresh their way and the one looks like an old hospital mop can still sing. Too loud by half, but they’re old and deaf and probably have no idea there’s technology can do it without the volume.”
“He knows. He won’t.”
“You’re a pair, then. Old ways, hard work, results are all.”
Caswell pulled a chair, dropped into it.
“Cas? Kiley. She’s –”
“The singing forensics. Kylie? Seriously?” He hit his beer, set it down. “I know exactly how old your mum is. You, too.”
“She won’t like that, you being a bit of a heathen who might tell shag in a lay-by stories on her.”
“Not her. Her older sister is a different tale told.” He pulled the new manila envelope out from under Shona’s elbows. “Any the wiser, are we?”
“I ran into a cheeky, by the book, aromatic, stiff hair and creases wall in London. Two days later I had a ring from the Tower of Secrets. What do you know about that?”
“I’ll call that a fatherly lie. Kirklin out of the fog with his dog, probably his Walther, on the off-chance of weaker sex copper mischief?”
“That’s another.” She flattened a few folded papers. “As nothing’s are on the table, there’s nothing about our once floating catacomb. French flag, French papers that lead back to nowhere and a supposedly ‘oops, murdered by frightened farmers’ British crew.”
“Supposedly British or supposedly farmers?”
“Expendable crew, order bound soldier assassins told the mutinying enemy was afoot, no documents we can see. What did your friend in the tower have to say?”
“Gas.” She used her fingers for quotation marks. “Possibly”
“He insinuated that it was more than nerve gas. Something they had refined to not make victims twitch and spaz like a backline dancer on Madonna’s Your Nasty Grandmother tour while their skin melted. ‘Madness’ is what he said. Timothy Leary gone full on, ‘if I could put that up in my young brain.’ I told him Leary was after the last big war and he said that LSD was a weak, housebound half-sister to whatever this was, if it ever existed at all, which again he wouldn’t confirm.”
“From what I could pull through the black ink, it appeared to be chemically targeted to create almost instantaneous, short circuited brain failure. Every channel on every satellite, every song on every iPod letting go all at once in your head. Your childhood, your dreams, your fears. Your monsters under the bed and your realities and yesterday and right now all swirling around behind your eyes. The brain we use is a forty-watt bulb in a thousand-watt socket. Crank the voltage –” She popped her thumb out of the top of her water bottle. “Something has to give. When it does, everything shuts down. Drop to your knees death. By brain freeze. If it was fast acting and atomized or broke down quickly, when the bodies were discovered there’d be no trace of a chemical attack. The only curiosity being death masks of unimaginable fear.” She rolled the water bottle in her hand and sang, softly, “If you leave me now, you take away the better part of me…”
“Chicago? Fine, but not the ballad slop.”
“Ballads have their place.” They both shot him a look across the table.
“Right. Journey’s next, then. We have acid’s pumped up twin riding the sand storm of evil. Bottom line, Shona?”
“The test subjects mightn’t have all died. The Tower of Secrets is thinking if any didn’t, they might never.” Their little table became the center of a quiet universe for a few beats.
“Ab fab, Dahlings. I put in a word, Kylie’s DNA scrapings are rising to the top with nary hindrance or question.” He nodded toward the small stage. “The boys want another short go.” He held out his hand. “Kylie?”
She went beet red, held up both of her hands like shields.
“Like that, eh?” He stood, tugged on his belt loops and adjusted the baggy corduroys. “When the next victim of the evil sand storm turns up we’ll have you back for a go with a proper reggae ‘Down On the Sloop John B’.”
“‘Pirate’s Bride’ would be nice.”
“Sting is it now?”
“I told you, ballads have their place.” She looked almost fretful. “I sing to them because…Well…”
“Ballads are solace for the living, Kylie.”
She looked him straight in the eye. “The dead have their needs as well, DCI.”
“Cas. Caswell. Old bastard. We’re a team, not titles.” Caswell reached across the table with both hands, squeezed their outside shoulders.
“I knew she was the one for this bit, Shona. Good work, both. Requests?”
They glanced at each other. Shona offered, “Unplug, call it a night?”
He finished his beer, winked. “Don’t know that one. Put Kylie on it, she’s nothing to do until the sand storm of all that’s ill calls another sailor to the Juliette Simone.”
Kylie rested her elbow on top of her car, looked across it while Shona unlocked her rolling embarrassment. “What if we disagree with him, Shown, or come up with alternatives? His team bit covers that?
“I’ve called him a stupid, buggered old fool more than once.”
“Did he set you straight, stern and proper?”
“Yes. He said, ‘Prove me wrong’.”
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