Even after the apocalypse, crimes must be solved.
Strike A Match
They called them Artificial Intelligences. Sentient viruses were closer to the truth. They spread throughout the world until every networked circuit was infected. Then they went to war. Millions died in the nuclear holocaust that brought an abrupt end to the AI’s brief reign of terror. Billions more succumbed to radiation, starvation, and disease. But millions survived, and they rebuilt.
Twenty years later, a ceremony is being held to mark the first transatlantic broadcast since The Blackout. The Prime Minister of Britain and two of the Presidents of the United States will speak to an audience of nearly ten million people. Not all are celebrating. Crime is on the rise, and power is once again a prize worth murdering for.
Ruth Deering, a new graduate from the police academy, doesn’t care about ancient history or current affairs. She only joined the force to escape the smog-infested city. Those hopes are dashed when she is assigned to the Serious Crimes Unit, commanded by the disgraced Sergeant Mitchell. Her first case seems like a simple murder, but the investigation uncovers a counterfeiting ring and a conspiracy that threatens to destroy their fragile democracy.
Serious Crimes is a transatlantic thriller set in a world of rationing and ruins, democracy and despotism, steam trains and smart phones. This is not the story of how the apocalypse is survived, but of what happens next. (77,000 words)
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16th September 2039
“Roll on winter,” Detective Sergeant Henry Mitchell grumbled as he ran a finger around his sweat-drenched collar. He hated being back in uniform, and not just because the woollen coat was completely impractical in the unseasonably blazing heat. When he’d left the police, his uniform had been whatever blue clothes he could find. All that had mattered was the badge. He’d come back to find it wasn’t only the clothing that had changed. Everything had become rigid, from the rules to the ranks.
“Just like the old world. Progress, ha!” he muttered. He’d returned to Twynham intending to stay in the force long enough to see if the legendary beast they called a pension was real or a myth. Now he was almost certain he would resign in three months.
“Three months, assuming she passes.” But of course she would pass. As her new commanding officer, Mitchell could be certain of that. She wasn’t the reason he’d returned. Not entirely. It was duty that had drawn him back to southern England. And it was duty that had caused him to say the right thing at the wrong time, and so get demoted to sergeant.
He shrugged his shoulders and plucked at cloth, trying to dislodge the pool of sweat slowly turning into a reservoir beneath the straps of his bulletproof vest. That wasn’t part of the uniform but, after what he’d been through in the last twenty years, he knew that particular discomfort was better than the alternative.
A mocking giggle came from behind him. He turned around and saw two children pointing and laughing at the muttering, squirming policeman. He threw them a glare. It had no effect, so he turned it into a pointed stare at the small cart the children had been pulling through the street. They followed his gaze until all three were staring at the small cargo of coal half filling the cart. Suddenly, the older child’s eyes opened wide in understanding. With one hand the boy grabbed the cart, with the other he grabbed the girl’s arm. They took off, the cart rattling behind them. A lump of coal bounced out to land in the street. The girl darted back and half bent to pick it up. She looked at Mitchell, changed her mind, and ran.
For the first time that week, Mitchell found a smile sneaking across his lips. Technically, coal that fell from a steam engine’s tender still belonged to the Railway Company so collecting it from the side of the tracks was theft. Technically. No one from his generation cared. They remembered the freezing winters after The Blackout too well to begrudge the meagre warmth a few lumps of coal would bring. And, the current heat notwithstanding, if the newspaper was to be believed, this winter was going to be one of the coldest in a decade.
The smile stayed on Mitchell’s lips as he remembered his own, so very different, childhood in Montana. It truly was a lifetime ago. Then he looked up and saw the nearly complete radio antenna towering above the rooftops to the south. The smile vanished. There were some technophobes who claimed it was the harbinger of a second, final apocalypse. Most people saw it as a promise that things were returning to ‘normal’, whatever that was. That morning, the newspaper’s front page had led with an artist’s sketch of the antenna underneath the single word ‘Progress!’ Mitchell bit down on another scoffing retort. As he got closer to where they were building the outdoor stage, the roads were getting busier. Being thought an eccentric, muttering policeman by children was one thing. Amongst the adults tending their vegetable patches, heading out to the pub, or home for dinner, it was something else entirely.
The metropolis of Twynham was nothing like the cities that Mitchell remembered from his American youth. It was a sprawling suburb of towns and villages, hamlets and homes, factories and farms, created out of the buildings and land that hadn’t been destroyed during The Blackout. Excluding the cratered remains of Bournemouth, it stretched from the New Forest in the east to Poole in the west, and for a dozen miles in land.
Close to a quarter of a million people now lived along the southern English coast. A million more worked the farms in Devon, Dorset, and Hampshire, and in the great orchards of Kent. Middle England was a wasteland. Its only inhabitants were loners and solitary kings who ruled over insects and birds from tower blocks they called their castles. Beyond that devastated expanse were the mobile mining cities of Wales and the factory towns of northern Scotland. They said farmers had to sleep with one eye open to watch for bandits raiding from the wasteland. Each year there were fewer raids, and fewer bandits to commit them. Each summer, more train tracks were laid, and more land was returned to the plough. It was piracy that was getting worse, particularly off the coast of Kent. But that was a matter for the Navy, not the police, and certainly not for Henry Mitchell.
He was close enough to the stage to make out the stick-like figures moving up and down the scaffolding. They were taking full advantage of the last hour of daylight in their scramble to get the antenna finished before the broadcast. Was it really progress? If you were to believe the newspaper it was one of humanity’s greatest achievements. Mitchell rarely believed anything he read in that rag. Not even the weather report. He gave a surreptitious shrug, trying to dislodge the sweat-drenched shirt from where it had stuck to his shoulders. The jacket was part of the uniform, and he couldn’t take that off, not yet. Three months, and then he’d take it off for good.
To the north, the smog bank over the power station slowly crept towards the coast. That was progress. He’d helped build the coal-fired plant on the site of the old airport. Everyone had helped during those chaotic years when anarchy and lawlessness were as ever-present a threat as starvation. All because of The Blackout, a brief seventy-two hours when the world had changed.
Everyone knew the story. Mankind had created the artificial intelligences. That’s what they called them now, but they’d acted more like viruses, spreading throughout the connected world. When almost every machine and circuit was under the control of one AI or another, they’d gone to war. Cars, trucks, planes, power stations, dams, refineries, even phones and homes, they’d all become weapons in the AIs attempts to destroy one another. In the end, they’d succeeded. The blasts from nuclear warheads wiped out every power station on the planet. The electromagnetic pulse destroyed every infected circuit. That was the story everyone knew. Mitchell knew it was almost completely wrong.
Humanity had been a bystander, the very definition of collateral damage in that brief war. When the survivors had crept out of their underground holes, the world they’d known was gone. Some, like Mitchell, had known to go south. Others followed, not knowing what they might find except that it had to be better than the devastation that surrounded them. Dehydrated, starving, desperate, they’d reached the sea and discovered hundreds of ships had run aground; bulk carriers packed with grain, cargo ships filled with canned food, and cruise ships carrying mostly American tourists. Some called it a miracle. Others dismissed it as luck. A few said it was an ill omen. Again, Mitchell knew they were wrong.
He’d been there when the laws were written, and he’d been there during the dark days when they’d barely kept anarchy and chaos at bay. He’d stood with his back literally to the wall as they’d faced off pirates, bandits, marauders, and worse. His hand went to the decades old scar on his arm, but brushed against the three stripes sewn on the too-thick woollen coat. Self-consciously, his hand fell back to his side. And this was how he was rewarded, demoted to sergeant and assigned to a unit with no duties and fewer responsibilities.
A stray gust carried the sound of sawing and hammering from the coast. It was an ever-present noise, as ubiquitous as that of a train’s whistle or a bicycle’s bell. It wasn’t possible to walk down more than three streets in a row without coming across a neglected house being torn down, or a new workshop being put up. This was different. His feet moving of their own volition, Mitchell set off once more, towards the sound of progress.
As he got closer he saw that there were two distinct groups; the engineers constructing the antenna on the roof of a cliff-top apartment building, and the carpenters building a stage on the grassy common next to it.
“We’ll be testing it tomorrow, I hope,” an engineer said, coming over to speak to Mitchell.
The woman’s face was familiar, but it took a moment for the sergeant to place her. “Joyce Hynes. How are you?” Mitchell asked. Four years before, the woman’s fifteen-year-old son had disappeared. Mitchell had assumed the lad had been murdered until he was found using an obviously fake ration book at a boarding house near Caerphilly. The boy had been lured away by the prospect of the high wages offered in a nearby coalmine.
“Busy,” Hynes said.
“And your son?”
“Still in mining, though he’s moved to Scotland. He’s at a deep pit now, working as a loader. He’s got the record for the most coal mined in a day,” the engineer said with more than a touch of pride in her voice.
“Good for him. You say you’re testing the antenna tomorrow?” Mitchell asked. “I thought the ceremony was being advertised as the first transatlantic radio broadcast for two decades.”
“Oh, it’s hardly that,” Hynes said. “We had to make sure the relay stations were operational. It wouldn’t do for the broadcast to cut out halfway through the Prime Minister’s speech. Valentia Island has been receiving signals from Heart’s Content in Newfoundland for over a year now. And we’ve spent the last month making sure that the floating relay stations are all in place. It would have been so much easier if we could have broadcast the ceremony at night, but they wanted people to listen. It’s infuriating,” she added, “but I do often find people get in the way of technology.”
“Careful,” Mitchell said. “If a technophobe were to hear you say that, they’d accuse you of wanting to bring back the AIs.”
“Oh, there aren’t any of those people working on this project,” Hynes said. “No, and we’re almost ready. Pinebreak Ferry in Maine and Southbourne here in Twynham are the last two pieces to the puzzle. It helps that the survey ships were in contact by radio over the last decade, but the signing ceremony will be the first official broadcast. It’s the one that counts, the one that will be recorded as the symbol that we’ve recovered.”
“Recovered?” Mitchell scoffed. “It’s taken us twenty years to get back to the stage of what, an eight-minute broadcast?”
“Thirty-two minutes and forty seconds. That’s counting the introduction, the musical interlude, and the speeches from two of their Presidents that they’re broadcasting from their side of the Atlantic. But,” she added, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “those have been recorded in case there’s a problem with the weather. Still, this is something that could be heard by two million people in Britain, and nearly fifteen million in North America.”
“That might be the total population alive,” Mitchell said, “but you can’t expect every babe in arms to listen.”
“Well, no, and I suppose there are places outside of the broadcast’s range,” she grudgingly admitted. She lowered her voice. “And even if they work night and day they’ll almost certainly have to use the recordings to broadcast the address in Juneau. But that, at least, is not my problem. Yes,” she added, speaking more normally again, “I do think most people will try to tune in.”
“Assuming they can get a radio to work,” Mitchell retorted, but he was arguing for the sake of it. There was a roaring clandestine trade among engineers from the Electric Company to which Mitchell and the rest of the police had been told to turn a blind eye. They were making a fortune selling adaptors so old-world radios could be plugged straight into the light socket that was the only working electrical fixture most houses had. The landlord of the pub in which Mitchell rented a room had gone one stage further. He’d hired a scavenger to find a set of working speakers and rigged up the pub as a ‘listening room’. An entire evening of entertainment was planned and the tickets had already sold out. His landlord had even given Mitchell a free ticket along with two new candles. The unexpected gift had come with the warning that there would be no electric lighting in his room that night so as the pub didn’t exceed its carefully metered allowance of electricity.
“However many tune in,” Mitchell said, “they won’t be listening to hear what the Prime Minister or one of the Presidents has to say. They’ll listen because it’s a new form of entertainment in a life that’s work, sleep, and little else.”
“Oh, I think you’re wrong there as well,” Hynes said. “They’ll want to know what Britain’s getting out of this trade deal. We’ve been shipping them canned food for the last decade, so it’s about time we got something out of the… I mean,” she stammered, as if she’d only just registered Mitchell’s accent. Changing tack, she said, “You know what I heard? It’s petrol. I’ve got a two-pound bet on it.”
“Whatever Britain’s getting, it won’t be gasoline,” Mitchell said. “If they’ve enough resources to re-open the wells and build a new refinery, how are they going to bring it over here?”
“In barrels, I suppose,” Hynes said.
“But if they can make barrels for oil, they’d be able to make cans for food, so what would be the point of us shipping it across the Atlantic? Besides the only cars we’ve got are rusting by the roadside or have long since been scrapped.”
“Yes… well,” the engineer muttered, clearly having had enough of the detective’s cynicism, “we’ll find out at the end of the week, won’t we? Excuse me. I’ve got to go and… check the placements.”
The woman stalked off towards an apprentice who got a tongue-lashing for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mitchell watched the carpenters and engineers at their work for a few minutes more, but found his gaze drifting towards the sea, and the rusting hulks beached along the coast.
He was one of the few people who knew how the ships really had come aground on the shore, and one of even fewer who cared. But they were the real reason Britain had recovered faster than anywhere else. The food had kept them alive as they’d dug the mass graves, learned to plough by hand, laid the railway lines, subdued the criminals who dreamed of becoming tyrants, mined the coal, and turned pleasure yachts into fishing boats. It had sustained them until they brought their first harvest in, and it was a good harvest, more than they could eat. They’d built the power plant, and then the factory to recycle rusting steel into cans. Then came the canneries and food processing plants. It wasn’t easy. Death was their constant companion during those early years, but the stockpile had grown. Finally, fishing boats could be spared to discover what had become of the rest of the planet. Communication was slowly re-established with coastal communities around the world, and the sailors went, bearing gifts. As sail was replaced by steam – tinged with hopes of diesel – the shipments had grown until they’d become a highly divisive issue. It wasn’t simply the inconvenience of rationing, but some people were questioning whether the mines, power plants, factories, and farms, only existed so that food could be sent overseas.
The broadcast announcing a trade deal between Britain and the three governments that called themselves the successors to the old United States wasn’t a sign of recovery. It was symbolic. A political message to the isolationists who would keep the food in Britain, and to the technophobes who thought radio was the first step leading back to AIs and the final destruction of the planet. And as much as the broadcast was for Britain, it was a message to the separatists in America. The world might have stalled with The Blackout, but it hadn’t changed. The American election was going ahead, and reunification would happen, no matter how much a small faction may wish otherwise.
Mitchell turned towards the cracked asphalt road that led down the cliffs to the beach. As he walked his old, familiar beat, the sound of sawing grew distant, and he began to relax. He always came to this spot when he could spare the time. The rusting ships kept the beach relatively isolated, and few people had made their homes in the apartment blocks and seafront hotels nearby. That had changed with the construction of the antenna. Not only had they extended the railway line from Christchurch, but they were planning on electrifying the entire district. Of course, being Britain, that had led to letters to the newspaper complaining that local rents were going up.
No, the broadcast wasn’t progress. A newspaper with complaints in a letters page and sports results printed on the back, almost lost amidst advertisements, that was worth celebrating. The results were for soccer, and the adverts were mostly for the powdered tea substitute the chemical works produced, but it was a promise of what was to come. However, it was the broadcast that would be the first chapter in the new history books, and that summed it all up. There would be history books again, and time for people to study them, but there wouldn’t be a single one that recorded the name of Henry Mitchell.
His hand went again to his arm, this time deliberately brushing against the sergeant’s stripes. The demotion was his own fault. Policing had changed in the time he’d spent wandering the wasteland. They even had an academy now though the students spent more time studying maths and geography than forensics and law. Being given the new unit, however, seemed like an insult. Even the name was a joke. Serious Crimes. There were no serious crimes. Of course, all crimes were serious to the victims, but if a wagonload of cattle went missing, you looked for the butcher selling off-the-ration meat. If a wife was found murdered, you looked for the husband who’d not turned up for his shift at work. Serious, but not so complicated that they needed a new unit to deal with them. There were few thefts, and certainly no large ones, because in their twisted Utopia they all had so little.
Maybe the commissioner was right. Mitchell had come to England on what was meant to be a working holiday, but had fallen into a harsh life of brutal justice. Both of those worlds were gone. Since The Blackout, he’d come to love and hate Britain in equal measure, but it wasn’t home. His home was twenty years ago, a foreign country he could only visit in wistful dreams.
That left the question of where he would go in three months’ time. Not back to America. There was nothing there for him anymore. No, but there was Isaac. It was six months since they’d last spoken, but Mitchell knew the man would offer him a home. His hand went to his pocket and the note in it. Isaac had come to the city and wanted to speak. It wouldn’t hurt to go and listen to what the man wanted to say. There was the girl, of course. He would have to stay a sergeant in the police for the next three months, but after that he could… he could… could…
There was something wrong about the man standing by the row of old beach huts. He had a white streak in brown hair that didn’t quite cover the missing half of his ear. That was nothing unusual. Most people had some reminder of those savage early years. No, it was his entire attitude that was wrong. The man was trying too hard to look nonchalant.
“Evening,” Mitchell said, as he walked past. The man grumbled something in reply. Mitchell raised a hand to his cap, stealing a brief glance beyond the half-eared man. There were two other men standing in the gap between a pair of huts. Mitchell kept walking and didn’t look back until he knew he was out of sight. He ducked behind the wall of a wooden cafe that had been shuttered long before The Blackout and climbed up the steep grassy slope behind. He pulled off his cap, dropped to his knees, and then to his belly, crawling until he was close enough to see the three men.
Yes, something was wrong with them. It was the clothes. The sentry and one of the other two men were dressed in the same mix of patched, overly washed jeans, faded T-shirts, and cracked boots that most people wore. But over the top they had jackets that were far too warm for the weather. The third man, however, was wearing a well fitting, cream-coloured suit. Either he’d paid a scavenger to search the ruins for clothes his exact size, or he’d paid a tailor to make him something new out of old-world linen. Whichever it was, it meant the man had money, and that meant he had an office, a home, and plenty of other places he could conduct this meeting. So why do it here? Of course, there could be an innocent explanation, but for each that Mitchell could think of, there were a dozen far more sinister ones.
He looked around, gauging whether he could get close enough to hear what was being said without being seen. No. That left him with only one course of action. Whatever he might do in three months’ time, wherever he might go, here and now he was a copper. He crawled back down the hill and towards the path. He didn’t run, he didn’t saunter. He did pause to adjust the bulletproof vest and check his pistol was loose in his holster. Then he walked off the path and onto the beach.
The huts were level with where a cruise liner had come aground. A storm in the first winter had torn its stern anchors free, twisting the ship until it was parallel with the shore. The spring tides had pushed it onto its side. The sand was now littered with debris spilled from the ship and stained red from where it had been left to rust. Mitchell picked an erratic path through the detritus, waiting until he was thirty yards from the hut before raising a hand in greeting to the sentry. The man nodded back. Mitchell changed direction, walking casually towards the man. The sentry turned away from Mitchell just as the other two men came into view. He could see their mouths move in urgent conversation, but couldn’t hear the words over the sound of the crashing surf. They stopped talking to watch his approach. For the briefest of moments, Mitchell thought his suspicions were unfounded, and then the sentry bolted, sprinting off down the path.
The other raggedly dressed man pulled out a gun. Mitchell dived forward as a bullet whistled through the air above his head. He landed hard, his elbows jarring on a section of hull plate buried beneath an inch of sand. Ignoring the pain, he dragged himself towards a stack of cabin doors that someone had piled up on the beach. There was another shot and the sound of a bullet pinging off metal.
A feral grin spread across Mitchell’s face. After the paperwork, politics, and uncertainty of the last few months, this was a situation with which he was familiar.
“Police!” he yelled, adding under his breath. “Like you didn’t realise that.” He reached for his gun. Not the standard issue revolver at his belt, but the old-world 9mm he kept strapped to his ankle. Glass shattered a dozen yards in front of him.
“Three,” he whispered, counting the shots as he darted a quick glance around the edge of the thick doors. The man in the suit was crawling along the path, away from the gunfire. Mitchell couldn’t tell if he’d been injured or was just too terrified to stand. Mitchell ducked back into cover just as a bullet ricocheted off the metal doors behind which he was hiding.
“Four,” he said as he raised his pistol and fired off an unaimed shot of his own. The man replied. A bullet thudded into the sand a foot to his left, another into a hunk of driftwood two feet to the right.
“Six,” Mitchell said, and stood up. His hunch was based on a momentary glimpse of the man’s weapon but he was certain it was a revolver. He was right. The man stood between the huts, fumbling cartridges into the chamber.
“Drop it!” Mitchell barked. The man didn’t, opting instead to dive behind the relative cover of the hut’s wall.
Mitchell took a sweeping step to the left, and another, trying to get a clear view. “You run, I’ll fire,” Mitchell called. The man had the grass slope to one side, the path to the other. “Throw out the gun and come out with your hands above your head. Do it!”
He took another step. His heartbeat echoed in his ears. It always did at this moment. Knowing one of his bullets would easily pass straight through the wooden wall of the hut, he shifted his aim. Slowly, he tightened his grip. He was about to squeeze the trigger when there was a shout from behind the hut.
“All right,” the man yelled. “I’m coming out.”
“The gun first,” Mitchell shouted back.
There was another pause, one that was almost too long, before a revolver clattered onto the path. Mitchell untensed, but only fractionally.
“Now you,” Mitchell called. “Slowly!”
An arm appeared, and then a shoulder, a head, and… the other arm was held low, behind the man’s back.
“Don’t—” Mitchell began, but it was too late. The man spun around, the arm came up. In his hand was a second pistol, but before he could bring it to bear, Mitchell fired. The bullet struck. The man flew backwards. Mitchell ran across the sand, but he knew the man was dead long before he reached him.
He kicked the gun out of the lifeless hand and suppressed that familiar wave of nausea he always felt after he brought more death into the world. He looked around for the man’s two companions. The one with half an ear was long gone, but the suited man was still trying to crawl along the path, barely sixty yards away.
Mitchell jogged towards him. The man heard, pulled himself to his feet, and started to run. Mitchell started to sprint. He pounded down the sand-swept path. Twenty yards. Ten. Five. Three. Mitchell dived, knocking the man down.
“Stop,” Mitchell growled. “And stop moving. It’s your own damn fault.” He dug a knee into the man’s back. “Stop,” he said again. The man did.
Mitchell grabbed the handcuffs from the pouch at his belt, and cuffed one hand, and then the next.
“Where’s the other guy going?” Mitchell asked. “Where?”
His prisoner said nothing. Mitchell looked around, but there was no sign of the half-eared man.
“What’s your name?” Mitchell asked.
“I don’t have to tell you,” the man said.
“Strictly speaking, that’s true,” Mitchell said. “But it doesn’t mean I’m not going to find out. I’ve got you for attempted murder.”
“You can’t arrest me, I’ve got diplomatic immunity.”
“Yeah, right,” Mitchell began, and was about to add a mocking laugh, but there was something about the accent and clothes that gave him pause. “Are you serious?”
“My papers are in my inside pocket.”
Mitchell pulled the man to his knees and searched his pockets until he found something he hadn’t seen in decades: a passport. The front wasn’t stamped with the name of the country but with the words ‘Office of the American Embassy’. Mitchell flipped it open and stared at the photograph. The picture was of such poor quality it could have belonged to almost any male between the ages of twenty and fifty.
“It says your name is Lucas Fairmont and that you’re the principal secretary to the ambassador himself.”
“Which means you’ve got to let me go,” Fairmont said.
“Where are you from?” Mitchell asked. “Iowa?”
“I’m not saying anything more,” Fairmont replied.
“Fair enough,” Mitchell said. He began a far more thorough search of the man.
“Hey! You can’t do that!” Fairmont protested.
“And yet I am,” Mitchell said. There were no weapons, only a thick envelope hidden in a deep pocket concealed in the coat’s lining. “What’s this?” he asked, waving the packet in front of the man’s eyes.
“Diplomatic correspondence. Which means you can’t open it,” Fairmont said.
“Does it? Let’s see.” Mitchell tore at the seal, pulling the envelope open.
“No! You can’t read them! It’s against the law!” Fairmont protested.
This time Mitchell said nothing as he examined the contents. There were seven sheets of paper. On the left-hand side of each page was a list of names and addresses, with an esoteric collection of details next to each; an elementary school, the colour of the mailbox, the name of an aunt, a name of a business, the address of a lawyer… He turned to the next sheet and found it was much the same.
“What does this list mean?” Mitchell asked.
“I’m not saying another word,” Fairmont replied.
“Yes, you said that before,” Mitchell said. “But why did you bring them out here? Were you selling them? Is that it? Have we devolved to espionage already?” He waited to see if Fairmont would say anything. He didn’t.
“Don’t say I didn’t give you a chance,” Mitchell said. He hauled the man to his feet and pushed him back along the path, towards the dead body.
“Stay here,” he said, pushing the man down to his knees, five yards from the corpse. “I’d suggest you tell me what was going on and in return I’d get a few years shaved off your sentence. But I don’t think you’ll take a deal, will you? No, I thought not.”
Mitchell backed away from the man until he could see both Fairmont and the corpse. He picked up the gun the man had thrown out. It was a revolver, of the same make as the one holstered at Mitchell’s belt. Hopefully it was stolen. The armoury in Scotland manufactured rifles for hunters, shotguns for farmers, and revolvers for the police. Only the Navy used old-world firearms; assault rifles with barrels modified to take the new ammunition made at the powder works in Loch Creigh. Everything from Uzis to AK47s had come to Britain with the waves of immigrants who’d passed through the Channel Tunnel. Fortunately, after surviving the horrors of mainland Europe, few people had any ammunition left. Creating a standardised cartridge of a calibre too large to fit in the most common of old-world weapons, and whose sale was restricted and taxed, was a crude form of gun control. One that clearly hadn’t worked. He pocketed the revolver and picked up the other gun. It was an old-world snub-nosed pistol with four cartridges in the magazine. He weighed it in his hands, thoughtfully.
“Do you think he planned to shoot you with this?” he asked Fairmont. The man said nothing.
The sergeant turned back to the corpse. His bullet had entered through the man’s cheek, flying diagonally through the man’s head, blowing out an eye before taking off the top of his skull. He didn’t recognise what was left of the face, but that didn’t mean much.
“You want to tell me who he is?” he called out to Fairmont. The man glared back.
The dead man had little in his pockets. There were four loose rounds for the revolver, two one-pound notes and four penny-stamps, a clasp knife with a five-inch blade, and a coin. Mitchell examined it closely.
All currency was printed. Denominations from fifty pence to twenty pounds were issued as notes, smaller currency was printed as stamps. Even the rarest of metals could be scavenged from the ruins of the dead cities, but electricity was scarce. Forging a printed, paper note was far more difficult than building a stamp to press out a metal coin. This coin, however, had never been used as currency. One side was stamped with what looked almost like a large backwards ‘L’. Around the face was an inscription, THE TRUTH LIES IN THE PAST, with each word separated by five stars. It felt like silver, but that was so common as to be worthless. It was certainly an odd thing to carry after the man had clearly gone to the trouble of emptying his pockets. There was no ration book, no handkerchief, no scraps of paper, and no keys. The man’s clothing was worn, but well repaired. The boots were old and clean but not polished. Boot polish wasn’t cheap, but it was certainly cheaper than black market government-issue ammunition. The coin was the real clue. Someone had gone to the trouble of creating it, and that meant there was a meaning to it. If he found the meaning, he’d find the answers to the other questions. Of course, first he would have to secure the scene, call the coroner, report the shooting to the commissioner, and begin the tedious mound of paperwork that would then ensue. He looked at Fairmont. Or perhaps not.
“Get up,” he said, hauling the man to his feet.
“You have to release me,” Fairmont said. “I’ve got diplomatic immunity.”
“That’s not how it works. How old are you?” He opened the man’s passport. “Thirty-six. If that’s close to the truth then you’re too young to remember. What your piece of paper means is that I have to take you to the embassy. I’m sure they have a cultural attaché who’d be interested in speaking to you.”
“Cultural attaché?” Fairmont asked, clearly confused.
“You see? That’s what I mean. You’re too young.” He dragged Fairmont along the path. There was probably someone from the embassy at the antenna. If not, he could send someone to fetch one. Hopefully what he’d stumbled across counted as a diplomatic incident and that would make it the business of the SIS - the Secret Intelligence Service. It certainly wouldn’t be a matter for Serious Crimes, and that meant Mitchell could ignore the paperwork and get busy solving the case.