Excerpt | Fade to Black – Francis Knight

On February 20th, Orbit will be publishing Fade to Black by Francis Knight. This debut novel has my attention piqued, so when the wonderful people at Orbit asked me if I’d be willing to post an excerpt, I gladly jumped at the opportunity.

This excerpt is of the third chapter. To read the first two chapters, please visit the following links:

Chapter One
Chapter Two 

Author’s webpage

About the Book

From the depths of a valley rises the city of Mahala.

It’s a city built upwards, not across—where streets are built upon streets, buildings upon buildings. A city that the Ministry rules from the sunlit summit, and where the forsaken lurk in the darkness of Under.

Rojan Dizon doesn’t mind staying in the shadows, because he’s got things to hide. Things like being a pain-mage, with the forbidden power to draw magic from pain. But he can’t hide for ever.

Because when Rojan stumbles upon the secrets lurking in the depths of the Pit, the fate of Mahala will depend on him using his magic. And unlucky for Rojan—this is going to hurt.

Chapter Three

The Sacred Goddess Hospital was one of the plusher ones, up above Trade, and it took me most of the rest of the afternoon to negotiate my way up the ramp. Mahala’s Spine they call it, the link between each layer from the depths of Boundary to the pinnacle of Top of the World. By the time I reached the right level, the sun was setting behind a rack of rainclouds. I stopped the wheezing carriage and watched for a while. It wasn’t often I got up high enough to see the sun directly, normally relying on second- or third-hand light bounced from mirrors or seeping dimly through light-wells.

From here, I could see right out over one side of Trade, the huge, hulking factories that seemed to permanently shake the feet as they pounded out Mahala’s lifeblood – the technology we invented and made so well. Behind them sat warehouses, black and squat and menacing. No buildings above the factories or warehouses – they’d have been shaken to pieces – so I could see, far off and grey, the tops of the mountains that surrounded the city, that gave us our strength, and our weakness, the reason we built up rather than out. The reason we had to trade for food, because we had so little land left to farm.

Mahala was built to make you look up, and then up again. The other side of Trade, the merchant houses, shops, arcades, markets, showrooms and laboratories were all covered by more buildings, so that all I could make out in the lowering light were facings, flashing red Glow lights shouting out wares, and black chasms between. Walkways clung to them like spider’s webs, as if they were spiders trying to spin a city. Above lay Heights, on graceful spires and spindles, then Clouds, giant platforms that I would never see except from underneath, full of gardens and rarer wonders, or so I’d heard.

Above everything, on a spire so thin it seemed it must break, with only the gossamer strand of the Spine reaching its dais, sat Top of the World. Heart of the Ministry, home of the Archdeacon, far off and impossible to reach. All the better to look down on us, mere mortals, unworthy of divine notice, or sun, at least once you got down past Trade. I supposed you couldn’t see us from up there; Under-Trade, or the area they called the Buzz, was where rich men might come if they were feeling adventurous, but not too grubby. Down further into the murky depths where the sun was a rumour, buildings squashed together as though for comfort, was the area once called Hope City, now known as No-Hope Shitty, and, at the bottom, Boundary. The city used to go further, before the synth.

Ah yes. Synth. Hailed as the great invention to save mankind from pain-mages and from the city’s reliance on the power they had, the way they could run all the machines in Trade, make us the city that everyone looked to. Only magic had its side effects: odd splurges that got out of control, weird fogs that choked and fumed; the pain-mages either falling into the black or going mad and blowing up portions of the city, or each other, on a fairly regular basis as the workload increased and the number of mages didn’t, or not very fast. So when the Ministry discovered synth, they knew they could topple the King – a mage himself, with a habit of defending every mage’s action even when they were blowing each other and the non-magical populace up. With a new power source behind them, the Ministry had banned us, for “the good of the city”, introduced synth to run the machines, and all had been well. The Glorious Revolution had saved the city and of course, as the instigators, the Ministry had become the new government. Fair, even-handed – or they were to start with. Never stays like that, does it? But most importantly, they were not magical. The air cleared, no one blew anyone else up except the odd alchemist. All the same, it had taken them years to realise synth was killing people.

No one knew of the toxic properties of synth to start with, and it was only when a new and virulent form of disease had swept over the plains north of Mahala, and then raced through the lower layers of the city, before it ate its way through most of the rest of the continent, that they’d realised something was amiss. The synthtox. It seeped into every part of you, from the rain, the water you drank, the food you ate. In itself it wasn’t harmful, but it did something to the body, made it retain all the toxins that should have been flushed out, until the system could take no more and the tox took over. It was a long, painful death, as I could attest. Watching my mother die of it over a period of ten years was the single most gruesome experience of my life.

We couldn’t go back to pain magic: all the mages had either left, been sent to the ‘Pit or been driven into hiding by the Ministry. The King they’d beheaded – the surest way to kill a pain-mage, because it’s so quick – and shoved his body off the edge of his own palace in Top of the World and left him for the rats. Without him and his absolute authority to protect them, and with the sight of his headless body plunging a hundred levels or more imprinted in their minds, the mages had scattered.

Even if the Ministry hadn’t got rid of all the mages, synth had been more powerful. Mahala had grown so much on the extra trade in the only way it could – up – that even if we’d had all the mages back they wouldn’t have been able to power a tenth of the new machines. So the powers-that-be had panicked, and pulled together. Synth had been banned and the alchemists and priests had come up with a new fuel, Glow, one shrouded in mystery, not as powerful as synth but at least clean. Of course that’s what they’d said about synth, but people would have believed anything at that point and maybe it was even true. No one has ever been known to die from Glow, but it’s early days yet.

The lower places were the worst-infected by the synth, where the tainted water pooled. They’d cleared them out, sealed them off in Namrat’s Armpit, cleaned the remaining water supplies Upside. Over the course of the next few years the synth levels had dropped dramatically, though those who had it in their bodies already couldn’t get rid of it, and so they still died. Fewer each year, until now, almost fifteen years later, it was becoming a rarity except far down in Boundary.

If it was as bad as this, why didn’t I leave? Why didn’t we all? I could see those mountains, grey, mythical shapes. I knew they existed. Probably. I knew there had to be an Outside. I had yet to meet anyone who’d been there. For all any of us knew, it could be worse. According to the news-sheets it didn’t even exist, not really, a story the Ministry stuck to despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Even if I’d been tempted, two very real things kept me here. One, getting Outside would take more money than I could blag in a lifetime. Oh, things went out, machines, inventions, all the little things that kept us in crappy vegetarian mush. People didn’t, though. Maybe the occasional Special, the élite Ministry guards who escorted the merchandise out. But anyone else? If you weren’t Ministry, forget it.

The general feeling Under-Trade was either that, given the lack of people who’d actually seen it, it was mythical, or you’d die trying to get out. Neither appealed. Besides, reason number two: Dendal. I owed the old bastard – quite a lot, and not money. Lastri would look after him if I went but… but I’ve abandoned a lot of people in my life. I just can’t quite see myself abandoning Dendal. Not least because, if he wanted, I’d be a smear of blood on his carpet, the knowledge of which sharpens the mind wonderfully. Only idiots tried to get Outside, that was the crux of it, and they died, or got sent to the ‘Pit. I kept telling myself that, and never failed to stop to look at the pale ghosts of mountains when I got the chance.

But I didn’t stop to stare at the mythical Outside and the not-so-mythical but highly pungent Inside for long, because the view always left a bad taste in my mouth.

The Sacred Goddess Hospital was a great grey building, squashed between the outer boundary of Trade that supported its base and the more graceful area of Heights above.

I left the carriage and negotiated the clanking iron walkway that led out over the gap. I’ve said I prefer the lower-rent districts because it saves me money. It also saves my head. With one hand firmly on the handrail, I stepped out, eyes fixed ahead. Just keep the hospital in view. Don’t look down. You’d think I’d be used to it after a lifetime in this city, but I’ve seen too many fallers who’ve missed the nets and bounced their way down twenty or thirty levels. Or rather, I’ve seen what was left of them once they reached Boundary.

The walkway swung alarmingly with all the people crossing, barging and pushing to get home before the sun went, but I managed to get across without screaming like a little girl. The hospital was new, scavenged from the guts of the old building that had stood here and refaced with a newer type of steel that shone faintly in the lights of the Glow globes hung around it. I made my way towards the larger glow of open doors. The Sacred Goddess Hospital never shut.

Inside was more traditional: lots of wooden panelling, floors that squeaked under my shoes and the scent of every hospital everywhere – disinfectant, boiled cabbage and death waiting to happen.

It didn’t take long to find out that Perak was in one of the private rooms on the top floor, which made me raise my eyebrows, though not as much as the phalanx of hatchet-faced guards outside the door. They stood out like blood on a bandage with their bright red uniforms, red linen over pale body armour. Each of them had a gun at his hip, a new innovation. Mahala alchemists had used black powder for various things in our less salubrious past; the ability to use that powder to launch a piece of metal into someone’s body was relatively recent. Luckily, that meant it was also too expensive for most people, especially the sort of small-time low-lives I dealt with on a daily basis. It should also be out of the reach of guards – the Ministry had yet to equip them with guns due to the cost – and the fact that it wasn’t was unnerving.

I recognised one of them, Dench. He often gave me surreptitious tip-offs on bounties coming up in return for a small cut. He nodded almost imperceptibly to the other guards, murmured he knew who I was, and let me in.

It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dim interior. The room was small but well appointed, much more so than the open wards below. Instead of bare whitewashed walls, lush hangings in muted green and gold softened the square room. The Glow globes, while dimmed, were top-notch quality; and proper fruit, not reconstituted crap, sat on the side table in enough variety to shame all but the best grocers. Perak must have done well for himself, or had powerful friends.

He was asleep, the dark hair that we’d both inherited from our father mussed and clumped with blood. He’d always taken after our mother more than I had. His skin was lighter, a creamy brown like Ma’s, his cheekbones somewhat broader than my own too-gaunt ones, the nose shorter. But that we were brothers showed in the rounding of our chins, the downward tilt to our eyes, the shape of our mouths.

A sheet covered him below the waist and blood spotted a large bandage that was wrapped tightly around one shoulder and over his chest. A doctor with a sharp, dark face leaned over him, his fingers registering Perak’s pulse.

The doctor scowled at me. “No visitors, not yet.”

I shrugged. Putting this off would be a relief, but Perak didn’t have that luxury. “I’m his brother.”

The doctor laid Perak’s arm down and regarded me critically, maybe assessing the likeness. He seemed convinced. “Hmm. Well, when he wakes up again you’ve got two minutes. We managed to get one bullet out. The other’s still in his chest somewhere.” He shook his head so his hair flopped over his forehead. Suddenly he lost his arrogance and looked young and tired and pissed off. “This is only the third bullet case I’ve ever seen. The others were minor, but the potential for damage – the wounds are nothing like knife or sword wounds and we’re still learning. That bullet might be fine, or it might kill him, and I haven’t a clue which it will be. Whoever invented guns, I just hope Namrat takes the guy’s soul and balls when he dies.”

The doctor made for the door, trailing weariness in the slump of his shoulders. He turned at the doorway with an afterthought. “I haven’t told him everything about his wife. He just knows she’s dead. Perak said you find people for a living and you’re going to find his daughter. If you think anything about the mother’s death would help, come and find me after. Ask for Doctor Whelar.”

The room was deathly quiet when he left, with only the bubble of Perak’s breath to break the silence. I went over his words earlier, the way he’d sounded as though tears were choking every word. I’d never known Perak cry before. I’d rarely seen him any other way than in his own head, grinning at what went on there and occasionally trying it out in the real world, generally with disastrous consequences.

Of course the consequences had always been left for me to deal with, like that time he’d mixed together all the powders, liquids, bits of soap, paint and scraps of wood he could find with a thimbleful of black powder he’d found somewhere, and lit the resulting mess. Right near the guard’s station. It was a clear area, he said, like that was an obvious place for an experiment. Well, yes, it was clear because no one went close if they could avoid it, so as not to get arrested for being alive. Which at least meant no one got hurt when it all exploded, but the station had a large hole in its side and the guards were seriously pissed off. Who did they chase? Oh yeah, me. Almost caught me too. I suppose it was inevitable that Perak would end up in Alchemy Research.

Still, he’d never meant any harm, which was part of the reason it rankled so much. Now real life had finally caught up with him.

I was just beginning to doze myself when Perak woke up. He struggled to sit and I helped him get settled on some pillows and tried not to see the way his eyes tracked me. When I sat back, he couldn’t hold it in any more. Tears choked him until I thought he’d open up his wound with the wrenching sobs. Or maybe I just worried about that to take my mind off the misery that seeped into me. I was reminded just how much I loved him, even if he had almost got me thrown in jail at least four times, more than one of which would have meant a one-way trip to the ‘Pit. I remembered what I’d made myself forget when I’d cut myself off from him: his generous heart, a complete faith that everything would work out; one I could never share. That faith was stretched to its limit now.

“She’s only six,” he kept saying. He couldn’t seem to say anything else without it coming back to that. “Only six.”

I didn’t know what I could say to him that would help. In the end there was only one thing I could do, the reason he had called me. “What happened? And since when have you been married?”

He managed to pull his sobs back into him, and gave me a ghost of his old smile. “Not long after I saw you last, when you—” He didn’t need to finish that sentence.

The last time I’d seen him had been just after our mother’s funeral, when it had seemed that I was going to be the only one responsible for him. As I’d been for so long growing up, since our father disappeared not long after Ma got sick, before we knew for sure what it was, that it would kill her. I was ten and all I really remembered of my father was his dark hair, his bitterness and his voice. I remembered the timbre of that voice, the way the rhythm of it seeped into your head and conjured pictures there. It stayed with me long after his face had become a blur, or I’d learned to hate him for leaving us. Leaving me. I’d been responsible for both Perak and Ma since then and when she died I’d wanted to be free of it, of responsibility, of people depending on me.

After the funeral, Perak and I had had words, you might say, although the words were all mine. I’d pretty much told him the only reason I’d put up with him that long was for Ma’s sake. I hadn’t meant it; her death had still been too raw then, and all the bitterness and despair of her long, slow decline had come spilling out in a black torrent of abuse. So I’d just spewed it all over him, watching the acid in my voice dissolve his smile till all I could see was a desperate, shocked hurt. I’d stopped looking at him so I couldn’t see that hurt, but I couldn’t stop the bile. I turned to face the wall and my words fell out of my mouth without thought. When I turned back he’d gone and I hadn’t seen him since. If I was truthful, it was shame that had kept me from getting back in touch.

“So what happened?” I asked.

He shrugged as well as he could, his mouth dragging down into a grimace of pain. “We went out, for lunch. Left Amarie with a sitter, young girl from Under.”

“Under where? Where are you living?”

“Clouds,” he said, and I was frankly astonished. How had my daydreaming little brother managed to get a place in the rarefied air of Clouds? It seemed he almost read my mind. “I made a very lucrative discovery. They gave me a job in Alchemy Research.”

Now I was speechless, and he smiled again at the look on my face. Alchemy Research was the single largest, and richest, arm of the Ministry, ever since the disaster with synth when the ‘Pit had been sealed off, years ago. Given the way our mother had died, and the long-hidden alchemical poisoning that had caused it, it was a subject close to both our hearts.

“You were right, what you said about me,” he said. “Took me a while to see it, but you were right. So I got my act together. Got myself a good job, a lovely wife, and Amarie. She was the pinnacle of everything I had.” He blinked back fresh tears. “We’d used this sitter before, nice young girl, Amarie liked her. We came home early – Elsa wasn’t feeling so well – and when we got in…”

“And when you got in, what?” I had to prompt him; he was lost in his thoughts again.

He blinked back to reality. “We must have disturbed something, someone. The sitter was dead on the living-room floor. Elsa screamed and ran for Amarie’s room. I was frozen, just looking down at the body. There – there was blood everywhere. I couldn’t believe it. Then there were shots from the bedroom. That’s irony, isn’t it? I worked out how to get black powder to launch bullets, I invented the concept of the gun and then – I ran in but Elsa was already dead. Amarie was there with two men, but she looked glazed, like they’d drugged her maybe. She tried to say something, but it was all slurred and—” He broke off again, and this time he couldn’t stop the tears.

“And that’s when they shot you and took her,” I said, when it was clear talking was too difficult for him. He nodded.

This wasn’t like any case I’d had before; I found runaways and bounty-hunted small-time thieves and embezzlers on the run, not kidnappers or anything that might turn too violent. I value my own arse too much and the responsibility of a life depending on me gives me the jitters. But the look on his face, and shame for the way I’d treated him, forced me to say what I did.

“I’ll find her for you, if the guards don’t first. You concentrate on getting well; when you are, I’ll have her here.” He looked so pathetically grateful that I had to turn away for a moment. “You have a picture?”

He nodded towards the locker by the side of his bed and I took out the slim wallet, noticing it was real leather, a rarity these days that made this wallet worth about as much as everything I owned. First thing I saw in there was a card giving his rank at Alchemy Research.

“You’re a cardinal?” Cardinals were one step down from the Archdeacon, who ran everything like the spider at the centre of the web. The Mouth of the Goddess, who spoke her words to us for her. Supposedly. That was how he kept control, anyway. He spoke for the Goddess and everyone else jumped to obey, first the cardinals, who passed on orders to the bishops and down through the ranks. Everyone jumped, excepting maybe the Specials, but they swore to the Goddess herself, not the Archdeacon, so they had some leeway there. I couldn’t remember the last time they’d used it – they were usually pretty forward about doing the Archdeacon’s bidding.

Perak’s smile was small, lonely and rather shame-faced. “An honorific one only, because I’m head of research. I’ve never even been to Top of the World, and I only met the Archdeacon once, when I got the promotion. Too busy with my work.”

“What’s he like?” Not a pertinent question perhaps, but the Archdeacon ran my life whether I wanted him to or not.

“What? Oh. Ordinary. Just… just like anyone else really. Nothing memorable about him. He shook my hand, gave me a funny look like he recognised me but couldn’t remember where from, said well done and then he was gone. I couldn’t pick him out in a crowd.”

Same old daydreaming Perak – he met the man in charge of the city, the man who loomed large in every aspect of Mahala, and couldn’t remember him bar he was ordinary. I went back to the wallet.

Behind the Alchemy Research card was a tatty and much-thumbed picture painted in oils, nicely done. I could imagine Perak showing it at every opportunity, to anyone who asked and anyone who didn’t.

The thin scrap of paper showed a vibrantly pretty girl of about five, fair hair blowing under a pretend tiara and eyes shining as she waved and said, “Daddy, Daddy, look, I’m a princess!” A ten-second loop, a hideously expensive piece of tech and just the sort of thing a proud father would carry. A niece I had never met because of my own stubbornness. There was a picture of his wife there too, and I could see that Amarie took after her, the delicate prettiness, the intelligent eyes, the bright blonde hair.

“What did the men look like?”

He shrugged, and I had to stop myself asking why he couldn’t pay attention to what was under his nose – it was obvious he’d thought of no one but his daughter.

“One tall and thin, scarred face – a cut across one eye,” he managed eventually. “The other was younger, but they looked similar, brothers maybe. They were dressed oddly – I don’t know, but not like I’ve seen anyone else dress. Lots of leather. I don’t remember anything else.”

Leather, which only the rich could afford, and even then only in small pieces. There weren’t enough animals left to warrant killing them for their skin, though some got out when the few fattened ones were slaughtered for their equally expensive meat. Sometimes we got some leather in Trade, but its very rarity made it dearer than gold. Most of the farm animals had died of the tox and now it was more efficient to grow crops, which were more resistant to synth.

“You really think you can find her?” Perak asked, and for the first time he let a desperate, pleading hope into his voice.

“I’m sure I can,” I lied. What else could I say?

At least there would be no angry girlfriends, or rather exgirlfriends, waiting to launch another paint broadside.

It wasn’t a whole lot of comfort, if I’m honest.

Perak’s eyes were drooping and red-rimmed. I left him with a solemn promise to find Amarie and he promised he would sleep. I wasn’t so sure either promise would be kept any time soon.

I slid out of the door and blinked at the brighter lights of the corridor. The guards either side of the doorway made me feel both that Perak was safer, and more in danger. Ministry paid the guards’ wages. Perak, my daydreaming little brother, had invented the gun – that incident at the guards’ station with the black powder now seemed prophetic – and now he’d been shot, his wife was dead and his daughter kidnapped. I caught Dench’s eye and we didn’t need to exchange words. I had to talk to him soon though, and from the worried pinch of the skin round his eyes he wanted to talk to me. He palmed me a piece of paper as I made my way past, and I took pains to hide it from the other guard.

The nurses’ workstation was a blur of activity along the corridor and I read the note as I walked. Beggar’s Roost, midnight. Dench’s favourite pub, where the women were cheap and the beer cheaper, but only just. Well, it would be rude not to go, right? Besides, it wasn’t like I’d had anything planned for that night, not now.

The nurses were efficient and scrubbed to shiny-cheeked perfection, their acolytes’ robes brilliant white and stiff with starch. One of them – the name “Lilla” was embroidered on her robe – led me along corridors, down stairs, past wards that wafted the stench of synth at me so I hurried to get away, up another set of stairs and round till I was lost. I didn’t mind too much: the nurse was pretty in a clean and clinical way and I flirted my best. Even got a promise of dinner at a later date. Nurses: clean on the outside but, in my plentiful experience, absolutely filthy in bed.

Finally, with a dimpled smile and a giggle that hinted at much naughtiness, she showed me through a door. The room I entered was, simply put, staggering. I’d expected a cramped office overflowing with charts and bits of doctorly paraphernalia with cut-away diagrams of ears and hearts and livers. Maybe a skeleton grinning at people. What I got was a full-blown laboratory.

Glassware covered every surface of one half of the room, sadly not bubbling in a mad-scientist kind of way. I kind of hoped something green and seething would emit a whiff of gas that would give me visions, but no such luck. A half-dissected pig lay across a table, but that wasn’t much of a consolation. Mainly due to the smell of shit, which made me think it might have still been alive when the good doctor started. Wait, wait. I backed up a bit.

A pig. A real live, er, dead pig. How much money did this hospital have? Pork was even more expensive than beef – pigs had suffered more than cows from the synth. And the skin: pigskin was worth more than gold – shit, more than diamonds, pound for pound. Altogether the pig was worth more than everything I owned or was ever likely to. Plus, I’d heard they tasted nice. I’d smelled bacon once, and I still dreamed of it sometimes. It smelled crispy and crunchy and a hundred, maybe a thousand times better than any of the processed slop that was all anyone from Under-Trade could usually afford to eat. And Whelar was cutting it up.

“Mr Dizon.” Whelar appeared as if out of nowhere, though in reality it seemed his desk lurked behind a display of pickled organs and animals with more than the usual number of limbs. A three-headed cat stared at me gloopily through the thick preserving fluid and I tried not to stare back. “Is there anything I can help you with?”

It took a moment to regain my composure. That pig was unnerving me. So was the cat. “I, er, oh yes. Elsa Dizon. You said if I had any questions?”

He looked me up and down. I seemed to meet his approval, because he indicated a chair next to his desk. He sat in the desk chair and swung it to and fro, his hands elaborately loose in his lap, but his lips were pinched tight. Trying to look unconcerned and failing.

“So, what do you want to know?”

“I’m not sure. What can you tell me?”

One of his fingers twitched to life and tapped out a staccato rhythm on his thigh. “Not much. She died very quickly. Two shots, as with your brother. One was directly into the heart, the other shattered her jaw. Not pretty.”

I shut my eyes briefly against the image of the delicate face in Perak’s picture shattered by a lump of metal. Not pretty indeed. “What about the bullets?”

The finger stopped its tapping for half a heartbeat before it continued. “What about them?”

“I’d like to see them, if you have them.”

Whelar’s lips pinched just a fraction more, then he relaxed and gave a curt nod. “A moment, please.”

He left and I took the opportunity to nose around. I kept away from the pig though; I didn’t like the way it grinned at me, or the smell. There wasn’t much else of interest, only instruments that I couldn’t name and which seemed designed for torture, messy stacks of paperwork and a framed letter from the Archdeacon thanking Whelar for his sterling work in medical research.

It didn’t take long for Whelar to return; I guessed he’d only gone to order a subordinate to fetch the bullets.

“They won’t be long,” he said. “Is there anything else?”

I cast a sidelong glance at the pig. A neat little hole marred the skin by its neck. “The pig – seems a rather expensive thing to just chop up in a lab.”

To my surprise he didn’t become evasive or defensive, but instead grinned like a kid on his nameday. “Ah, yes, but it’s important, you see. More important than money. Did you know that pig’s flesh is more like ours than almost any other animal? One reason they succumbed as badly as us to the synth. So, very important in my research.”

“And what are you researching here?”

Yes, there it was: now he closed in. His shoulders hunched slightly, as if to ward off a blow. “I – I’d rather not say. Superstition, you know. Us doctors like to keep it all close to our chest until we know we’re right. It’s all theory at the moment, though there might be a breakthrough soon.”

“So that isn’t a bullet hole there?”

He looked about to protest when a knock at the door interrupted him and Nurse Lilla hurried in with a covered dish. She dimpled prettily in my direction while handing the dish to Whelar and left with a wink and an implied promise.

I dragged my eyes back to Whelar and gave him my best smarmy smile. He pursed his lips in tacit disapproval but said nothing and shoved the dish my way. I took off the linen cover and peered at the two bullets rattling around in the bottom. I’d no idea what I was looking for: I’d never seen a bullet before – heck, I’d never seen a gun before today – but the request had made the good doctor fidget so I took them out and looked them over. One of them was so squashed I could hardly tell what it was, but the second still had a recognisable uniform shape and I peered closer. It was flattened on one side, but the other had a maker’s mark. One I knew from long acquaintance.

“Thank you, Dr Whelar, you’ve been most illuminating.” I only said it to make him squirm. OK, and to stop him seeing that I’d just palmed one of the bullets.

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