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Murder In Shusoran

Part V


The Windward's red-haired innkeeper was as perceptive as Dayne had assumed she was that morning. Sera remembered that Godley had eaten dinner with someone else, provided a fairly accurate description of Ballard without prompting, and then capped it all off by exclaiming, "Oh! That was that rude man who pushed his way past me this morning, Sergeant Rathman!"

"That's what he told us. It's good to have confirmation from a more reliable source, though." He tapped his fingers on his belt. "That gives rise to another test for your memory, though. I need to know who was here while they were dining together, say between seven and quarter to eight."

She frowned, pondering the question.

"That's not easy. Myself and the servants, of course. I think most of the guests ate around then, too. The merchant from Rysel, Ogin, definitely didn't; he had an appointment at the castle, but the rest were there. The cook starts serving at seven, you see. A couple of my regulars came by, too. Lina Pelham did; she had her usual game of cards with Mort Castledown. Weston Gale got thrown out of the house by his wife again, so he ate here, but he didn't spend the night so he must have wheedled his way back to her." Dayne almost laughed at the rendition of inn life when Sera dropped the other shoe. "Oh, and Merak Le Disan stopped by for a brandy."

He pounced on it immediately.

"When did he do that?"

"I can't be sure; around seven-thirty, I suppose."

Good enough.

"Thank you very much," Dayne said earnestly. "Could you write up a list of the names? I may need them later."

"Certainly...but, you don't think that Merak would have committed the murder, do you? Laya's Law is sacred to him. He wouldn't hurt a fly."

"Yes, but it wasn't a fly that was killed. From Merak's point of view it was a much more nauseating kind of vermin--an Orakian. Come on, Mieu; it looks like we have another evening call to pay."

* * * * *

Merak's front door had a fancy brass knocker in the shape of a ring hanging from a dragon's mouth. It also had a fancy butler wearing a tunic and breeches that could only have been livery.

"We'd like to see Merak."

"The master is not receiving visitors. I suggest you return in the morning, at a proper hour."

"Let me rephrase that: get out of the way. This is official business."

"My master's time is valuable. You cannot simply accost him to suit your whims."

"Wrong."

Mieu stepped forward.

"Can I do it this time?"

"Be my guest."

With considerably more strength than her slight body suggested, Mieu simply took the butler by the lapels, lifted him off the floor, and set him down two feet to the right. While he was still trying to think up an appropriately indignant response, Dayne and Mieu walked on by.

"Nicely done."

"Thank you. I don't get many opportunities to bully people; you humans always seem to want to do it yourselves."

Dayne wondered if cyborgs were programmed for irony as they climbed a grand, curving staircase to the second floor. They found the master bedroom easily enough, and it turned out that, like Ballard, Merak had gone to bed early. Unlike Ballard, though, Merak wasn't asleep. When he answered the knock, clad in a long, belted robe, Dayne could see past him to make out a woman clutching a sheet to cover herself in the huge, four-poster bed. It was, predictably, Cara, the woman from the rival group of Layan extremists.

"Political negotiations?" Dayne inquired politely.

Merak's eyes flashed with anger.

"This is intolerable, Sergeant Rathman!" he snapped. "You barge into my home, enter my private rooms without my consent, disturb a lady's modesty, and then make insulting remarks! Beyond these merely personal affronts, you have the gall to bring this abomination into my home!" He pointed dramatically at Mieu. "A product of Orakian deviltry, not merely their usual slave-machines but an imitation of a human being made by their hateful sciences. Mark my words, if we continue as we are now those...things...will replace our neighbors, our friends...yes, even our co-workers," he added slyly.

"You know, today was the first time I've ever spoken to a cyborg. I've also talked to a couple of dozen people, and you know what? On average, I'll take the cyborg. Especially compared to the present company. Now, if you're finished asking me to justify myself, we'll move on to another little question, namely, why didn't you mention that you'd stopped off at the Windward Inn for a drink last night on your way to the meeting?"

"What does that have to do with anything?" Merak challenged. "Moreover, you still have not removed this devil's spawn from my home."

"I'll go," Mieu offered. "I'm certain you'll have a more productive conversation without my presence."

"You'll stay." Dayne turned to Merak. "Mieu is an officer of the guard by order of Prince Lyle himself. She has every right to be here and you have no right to send her away. The only way you'll get rid of both of us is to answer our questions fully and completely. Do you understand?"

There was no give in his voice; his tone was as inflexible as laconia. He even managed to bank back most of his anger, aware that firmness would get better results from a man like Merak than rage. They locked eyes for a long moment, then Le Disan sighed.

"All right. At least let's step out into the hall so we don't disturb Cara."

Dayne assented, and Merak closed the bedroom door behind them.

"Now, to answer your question, I did not mention it because you asked me where I was at the time of the murder...though perhaps 'extermination' would be a better word for it. I told you where I was and gave you the hours of the meeting, which according to you began well before the crime. It would have been a waste of my time and yours to expand on my activities for the entire day. What could possibly be significant about having a drink? I stop at the Windward often; Sera serves good food and has an excellent cellar.

"What's significant is that you happened to be there just when Abel Godley was announcing to his fellow Orakian hate-monger, Terence Ballard, that he had something in store for us today, something big that would put we Layans 'in our place.' Is this starting to make sense to you?"

Merak's eyebrows snapped upward.

"Are you accusing me of this murder?"

"Accusing? Not yet. Let's just say that it raises some interesting questions. You knew that Godley was up to no good. You didn't know what he planned, but you did know that you needed to act fast. Last night, somebody did act. Today, Godley is dead, and whether his plan was a real danger or only a twisted mind's dream, it didn't happen."

There was still no fear in the man's eyes, only the cold arrogance of a powerful man affronted by the presence of gnats.

"As you may remember, I have an alibi for most of the night, including the time when you said the murder was committed."

"An alibi backed up only by your fellow Crusaders of Laya. Let's face facts, Merak. You were at the Windward, and then at a meeting with your fellows, who like you had a good reason to act on their knowledge."

"Knowledge I didn't have. I overheard nothing whatsoever at the inn, either interesting or not, that Godley may have said. Moreover, we of the Crusaders of Laya believe in following Laya's Law, her direct commandment to her people. We would not break it, particularly not over scum like Godley. You have no evidence against me, only supposition, inference, and guesswork tainted by personal dislike and, no doubt, the corrupting influence of this Orakian abomination. I, on the other hand, have the testimony of nine virtuous Layans that I have done nothing illegal last night, especially an act as fiendish as murder. Therefore, I request that you leave my home and stop bothering me unless you have something meaningful to accomplish."

It was galling, but he had a point. Dayne had no evidence to tie him to the killing, only deductions that might be based on mist and moonlight instead of facts.

The door was suddenly flung open and Cara stormed out of the bedroom fully dressed, her fists clenched.

"I couldn't wait any longer, Merak. I couldn't bear to let you face this Orakian pawn alone."

"It's quite all right, Cara," the suspect replied. "They've all but finished with me by now, as you can see, and were at last preparing to go."

"We decide when an interview is over, Merak, not you."

"Further questioning would be pointless. I have nothing more to say."

"That's too bad, because I have plenty more to ask." Hammering away at Merak's cool facade would be slow going at best, but it would be the only way to work an admission out of him or his followers. If he had to confront all nine of them, Dayne thought, this could end up being a very long night.

Cara stepped forward at once.

"You stupid, pampered tool of the enemy!" she barked. "It's just like I thought; you're nothing but Prince Lyle's weapon to destroy a decent man fighting for the true Layan way of life! I won't let you do it! I won't let you treat Merak like a common criminal!"

She all but flew at him, fists upraised, and reflexively Dayne's hands dropped to his fighting staffs. There was no need to use them, though; Merak caught the his lover by the shoulder and pulled her back, aware of the potential consequences for herself and the movement if she physically attacked a guard.

Dayne didn't take his hands from the leather-wrapped grips of the two steel weapons at once, though. They rested there for a moment, until he lifted them slowly, looking from one hand to the other.

"It could be..."

He shook off the effects of the brainstorm and stared hard at the two reactionaries.

"We're going now," he told them firmly. "Don't get too complacent. If we need to question you again, be available."

He spun on his heel and stalked off towards the grand staircase, Mieu trailing along behind. Once they were outside the house, though, he turned to the android.

"Mieu, I've got an idea. I want to try it out on you, first, because if I'm right this could explain everything."

"I saw you looking oddly at your hands. Was that what made you think of it?"

"That's what got it started, but the chain of thought has gotten fairly long. That's why I need your opinion, to see if any of the links are suspect."

"You do tend to be somewhat enthusiastic about your ideas," Mieu observed.

When Dayne was finished, though, even Mieu had to admit that he had a good reason to be enthusiastic this time.

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