we seek Ariadne’s thread, but there is none.
The Herald unfolded its pages, revealing a publicity box from where blue Myosotis arvensis bloomed, next to the beaming face of an old man. The ad read:
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The Herald gradually regained its weight. It softly perched at the foot of a spotless white couch where a man lay, strapped to it, taking a nap.
The speakers of the moving lounge dinged, and a gentle female computer voice spoke.
“We’re scheduled for landing in fifteen minutes.”
The voice repeated the announcement, but it was lost on the dozing man, who just kept dreaming.
Pushed by its blazing rockets, the flying lounge sped across space, passing by thousands of blinking dots of the orbiting private demesnes scattered around Earth. Its destination wasn’t one of the many billions of stars populating the desolate vastness of the beyond, but a far closer and familiar globe—the Moon.
In its slow magnification, Earth’s satellite revealed, amidst its barren and hollowed surface, the outline of a branched-out installation. It wasn’t a mining facility, but plush residential quarters which included verdant gardens rife with trees, basins, manicured lawns and flowerbeds arranged in curlicues among which paths pleasantly unwound. Everything was sheltered under airtight glass domes—it stood out from the gray dust like an elaborate jewel of ivory inlaid with emerald.
The thriving marvel beckoned from the portholes of the flying lounge, but nobody was there to look at it. The one man inside it had awakened at last, but he was more interested in examining the acetate sheets in his hands than contemplating the beauty at the end of the vertiginous chasm of space.
The man featured inquiring eyes, a straight nose, and a slightly angular jaw that gave him authority. He wore clean shoes and a suit that fitted him like a glove; a sartorial creation way too perfect and functional to be but a masterfully crafted uniform.
The man glanced at the clock on the lounge wall and sighed, wondering how much longer he would’ve had to endure the torture of vacuum-traveling. The answer to the unvoiced question came immediately as, with a jolt, the rockets reversed their thrust, slowing down the lounge in its descent toward the landing platform assigned to it.
The door to the decontaminating chamber opened, and the man in the suit emerged from it. He found himself in an aseptic corridor. Orienting himself, he directed his steps toward a desk behind which a torpid clerk sat. Without saying one word, he presented the latter with his identification. The clerk inspected the documents, and motioned the newcomer further down the corridor.
“Lieutenant Evander Philippe Rainer,” Responsible Dahlie articulated, stepping forth to meet him.
However, the heavy, matronly woman didn’t shake hands with him; she kept them close to the overflowing pearl robe that covered her body. She gave the police lieutenant a narrow once-over, barely concealing her dislike and contempt for all earthly matters.
“We’re always eager to help the Police Department, whenever it needs us,” she lied.
“Is the bride ready?”
Responsible Dahlie tutted condescendingly.
“Yes, our sister is ready. I was wondering, though, if you rather prefer one of our more experienced sisters. You see, this is the first time for Sandra. She has little familiarity with the outside world, and—”
“Sandra will do nicely, thank you.”
Responsible Dahlie groaned heavily.
“Very well. After all, she too has to start somewhere, sooner or later… Before I entrust her in your hands, let me remind you a few things: all sisters in the zenana are special; we don’t introduce them to strangers, not until they are of age—by that time, they can look and fend for themselves. All the same, their first journey to Terra can be overwhelming. I must ask you to never let her in a room with more than three peoples at a time, other than you two. Be considerate about her; her mind is a very sensitive and precious instrument, and as such it must be treated.”
“We’ll be away only a few hours—I promise nothing weird is going to happen to her. I’ll bring her back so quickly you’ll think she’d never left.”
Dahlie pursed her lips like a mother worried for her child. She turned and glanced past the glass separating her from a contiguous waiting room. Rainer peered in the same direction… and was blinded by the sudden flare of the rising sun. He shielded his eyes in marvel at the mighty explosion of celestial glory. Only when the halo receded could he glimpse—the bride.
As if she had been born to the light, her entire body glistened with gold. Her ritual dress was simple—white stripes of cloth dropped from her shoulders, joined at her waist, and again parted, barely concealing her flat belly and her shapely legs, revealing her ankles and her sandaled feet. It was that flimsy, skimpy dress which earned the mind-freaks on the Moon the nickname ofbrides. However, unlike real brides, the ideal party for lunar brides weren’t grooms, but cunning criminals.
“Detective Roy Vagrant died last Sunday morning at 6:00 AM. Someone shot him. Unfortunately, as extensively as we have searched, we couldn’t find any clue about the murderer.”
Both Rainer and the bride were back to the moving lounge, strapped to their couches. The slightest thrum transmitted through the insulating layers of the floor, a sign that the lounge was moving again. The bride had made herself comfortable on her couch, heedless of her veils floating about alluringly in the zero-gravity. She kept her well-chiseled ankles together, revealing the golden string which bound them. It complemented her figure in such an exquisite way one would never think the peculiar ornament was, in fact, a real chain. Rainer shifted his eyes from the superb handicraft of the chain to the ankles of the bride, to her knees, her legs, her waist and her breasts, up up to her neck—to her bright face. Rainer met deep, hazel eyes tinged with copper, which stared back at him intently.
Rainer felt a vague twinge of embarrassment, but he deliberately ignored it. There was no point of being coy with a bride. Even if she was legally forbidden from reading but the criminals and the suspects exposed to her, when a bride was out of the zenana, there was no real way of knowing where her mind would ramble. As far as the limited powers of his intuition suggested him—above-the-average powers, standing to the lieutenant badge he carried, but trivial compared to the bride’s—she already was totally conscious about him; about his hopes, his fears, and his cravings, too. Denying the fact or resisting it would be stupid. He could do better than that; he could pretend nothing of that was happening, and the bride would graciously do the same.
Rainer cleared his throat and went back to rifling through the acetate sheets in his hands. He passed on one which portrayed a burly, square-jawed man in his sixties. The bride reached out and studied it.
“The one camera in Vagrant’s home office recorded continuously from when he entered, at 5:30 AM, to when he died, half an hour later. And then until the next Monday, when his maid found him. Alas, even the camera’s wide angle couldn’t frame the murderer.”
Rainer handed the bride a second acetate sheet. She tapped one of its corners to play a soundless video.
It showed a bargain office furnished with a desk, a bookcase, a clock on a mantelpiece, and blue roses in a vase. A man, clearly Vagrant, sat in his chair, working at some documents. Suddenly, he lifted his head, as if someone else entered the room. Vagrant stood… but he didn’t look surprised at seeing his murderer—did he know him already? Vagrant approached the off-frame visitor… when an intense light flashed, hitting Vagrant square in the chest, causing him to keel over on the floor, where he lay motionless.
The sheet of acetate played the idle image of the deceased for a minute or so, until the bride stroked its corner to fast-forward the video: the sunlight coming in from a window behind the desk faded rapidly into the evening, and then into the night. Dawn chased away the night in a circle, and the sunlight bathed the office once again. It was exactly then when Vagrant’s maid came in. Shocked at seeing her employer on the floor, she knelt, shaking him for a sign that he was alive, understanding from his cold body that he was long dead.
The acetate sheet became opaque again.
“Neither the investigation, nor the team of forensics could provide enough evidence to identify beyond any reasonable doubt the murderer. Still, we have tracked down four possible suspects; I’ll present them to you shortly—I’m sure the killer is one of them. Just tell me who he is, and your job on Earth will be over.”
The bride stared at Rainer, then went back looking at the video without saying a word.
Rainer’s service car pulled to the curb. It wasn’t the tall building of Blue Haven’s police station which rose in front of him and his guest, but a pleasant stretch of grass, trees, paths, basins, and a meandering canal.
“The city park is not the zenana gardens, but I hope you will appreciate it all the same,” Rainer said.
He and the bride stared at the park, which was just then being stormed by workers and students either out for lunch or lesson break. A lot of families would take advantage of the midday pause to reunite, too; so while adults ate, chattered, and relaxed, their children would momentarily run about and play a little.
Rainer leaned onto the car dashboard, and was lost for a moment in the plain beauty of the scene.
“Let’s take a walk,” he told the bride.
“I thought Responsible Dahlie stated that I mustn’t see more than three people at once.”
It was an assessment rather than a remark, for even the bride seemed to be soothed by the sight.
“This isn’t a sightseeing tour of Blue Haven, and I’m not your guide. I want you to test and calibrate your reads on common people before you meet the suspects. Since this is your first journey to Earth, I don’t want you to make mistakes—mixing up strong emotions and facts; taking the not uncommon desire to kill someone for the real thing. Let’s have a walk. As we proceed, read as many people as you can. This will give you a nice idea of how real people’s brain work in this town.”
They got out of the car. Rainer moved around to the rear hood, then opened it to retrieve a folded sweater. He gave it to Sandra.
“People better don’t know who you really are. Also, even if this walk is standard practice, it’s still illegal.”
Sandra unfolded the sweater and put it on… when she registered the faintest smell; a nice smell—that of perfume. A delicate scent of flowers she hadn’t picked up before on Rainer—that cloth didn’t belong to him, but to a woman.
Sandra looked at her bound feet.
“Right you are,” Rainer said.
He removed a tiny key from his pocket, kneeled and undid the chain around the bride’s ankles. He handed it over to her, and she deftly draped it around her wrist in a fashionable bracelet.
“Can we go, now?” he insisted.
Rainer and Sandra walked down the graveled paths, meeting as many pedestrians as they could. Each time, the bride would close her eyes, take a deep breath, and get a glimpse of the different minds.
“How’s it going?”
“I trained for ages to tell memories about emotions from memories about facts. This promenade, however pleasurable, is perfectly pointless.”
Rainer ignored Sandra.
“Look, Frank’s cart. Frank’s are the best sherbets in the world. Let’s don’t miss them!”
Sandra lifted her eyebrows and rolled her eyes, but she didn’t have the heart to resist the lieutenant as he took her hand and pulled her along toward the cart.
Rainer nodded at Frank, an old man with a leathery, tanned face covered in wrinkles. He looked like an old salt in his tub—he was a bit, standing at the helm of his pushcart. He smiled at seeing Rainer, then bowed in surprise at the woman in his company.
“And who would this flower be, Rainer?”
“She’s Sandra. She’s just a coworker.”
“Well, maybe it’s time I get another job, too.”
He winked at the bride, and she smiled back.
“How’s it going?” Frank asked Rainer.
“Same old, old man. Same old.”
“Well, what will you have?”
“Raspberry,” Rainer said, then he turned to Sandra. “What about you?”
The bride didn’t say anything.
“C’mon, it’s your first time on Earth, after all, huh? Let go of yourself—take it easy. It’s on the house.”
Frank waited patiently with his scoop in his hand.
“Oh, well. I’ll have… lemon and—licorice,” she said.
Beaming, Rainer paid, snatched the two ice creams, and gave Sandra hers.
“Have a nice day,” he told Frank.
“You too, guys. You too.”
Rainer and Sandra left, resuming their promenade, enjoying their treats a little at a time.
“I should’ve said peach, huh?” Sandra said.
She stopped, and Rainer glanced at her, oblivious.
“I’m not your Christine, Lieutenant Rainer; I’m not here to remind you of your bemoaned wife. I’m here to deliver a criminal to the justice…”
Once again, the words of the bride sounded more like a plain assessment than a cutting remark.
Rainer nodded his head and exhaled.
“Of course. We better go, then.”
Four one-way mirrors hung along a dark corridor, giving onto four tight rooms, each containing a table and a chair. Rainer and the bride, unseen, moved to the first window. Beyond it, a woman stood, nervously rubbing her hands. Her hair was unkempt, and she had big, black purses under her eyes, a sign that something tormented her. Was it remorse? Pain? Guilt, maybe? Only thebride would tell.
“Vagrant’s maid, Margo Price, fifty-two. She’s been working at his dependencies for about ten years now; she could’ve held some grudge against Vagrant. We have tested her retina for laser-gun radiation damage, but we got a negative—the laser might be shielded, or maybe she wore sunglasses. Well, she’s all yours.”
The bride closed her eyes, and focused on the maid for a moment, expanding her senses. Then she looked up again.
“Who’s next?” she asked.
Rainer frowned, impressed by the unusual speed at which the bride had obtained her first response. He made way to the next mirror.
In the second room a man broodingly sat, curled on himself, spewing curses under his breath, and shooting occasional side glances at the mirror.
“Jeremy Maddens, sixty. He’s a chief accountant at the revenue service agency of Blue Haven. He hired Roy Vagrant to look into his daughter’s alleged suicide. About a month ago, Joan Maddens was found dead in her apartment at Bright Oaks. The medical examiner ascertained that she died from an overdose of Excedril, a highly performing drug that hit the market of late. Jeremy Maddens stirred a controversy with the police, accusing us of doing nothing against the pushers and the suppliers that infest Blue Haven, and of covering up the big shots of the city that sucked his Joan into a deadly spiral of vice. But the police archived the case as suicide, and that was it. That’s why Maddens turned to Vagrant; in the hope that he would find who was responsible for his daughter’s death, and deliver him to justice. Maybe he wasn’t happy with Vagrant’s job, he flipped out, and he killed him. You tell me.”
Rainer stepped aside for the bride to scan Maddens, which she did. This time, however, it took her longer. Rainer realized that Maddens’s murderous instincts must be exceptionally strong—did Sandra find the man they were looking for already?
When the bride looked up, Rainer didn’t ask her what she’d just seen in Maddens’s mind, but moved to the third one-way mirror. In the adjacent room, a well-dressed man sat composed, with his fingers woven together, looking at them. He was either contemplating his reflection in the mirror, or trying to pierce the glass and see through it.
“Maynard Alders, a rich lawyer of sixty. According to a lot of rumors I’ve been able to pick up, he’s a drug-addict. Allegedly, it was him who first introduced Joan to the plush environment of Blue Haven, including its vices. Joan started doing heavier and heavier drugs, until she was never able to recover again anymore. Despite her father’s attempts at pulling her out from that perverse world, he couldn’t save her—she always wanted to go back to her deadly golden cage. When she eventually died from it, Maddens swore to himself he would have exposed all those who had to do with her demise. Alders was one of those. Maybe Vagrant was about to tell the world what depraved vermin Alders was. Maybe he didn’t have the chance. Maybe Alders reached out first and killed Vagrant before he did.”
The bride glanced into the mirror, then closed her eyes, reading all about Alders and his lust. When she opened them again, her face had lost part of its color, and Rainer knew what a horrible job a bride’s must be.
“Sandra? Are you fine? Do you need a break?”
The bride shook her head. “I’m fine.”
Rainer motioned her to the last mirror, inside which an unsavory, arrogant young man slumped. A freshly broken nose and a jester sneer marred his otherwise comely features. He donned an exceptionally beautiful and expensive suit, but it was badly in need of cleaning and pressing. The fool propped his handmade shoes on the table, idly in wait, nibbling at his filthy nails.
[ … ]
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