Murder in New Eden
by Charles C. Cole
Welcome to New Eden, an isolated city floating in space, whose founders believed the start of the 20th century was as good as it would ever get. Gun-free police supervise from atop their penny-farthings, carrying only batons. Aggression has been chemically suppressed for years. But then violence erupts. In response, the chief of police weighs the prospect of thawing secret soldiers. In the middle of it all, two bright young women push for equality and recognition.
Chapter 2: A Cure for Space Sickness
New Eden police headquarters resembles an urban stationhouse from a bygone century, red brick and wider than it is tall. The neighborhood firehouse is just next-door. Two men are outside hand-washing a bright red hook-and-ladder truck as a 1920s police wagon pulls up to the curb.
In his office in a charcoal uniform, Police Chief Leo Schiavelli, still mostly trim into his sixties, stands behind his desk, staring out the large, tinted window at the city below, one shoulder brushing the community’s flag, a solemn reminder of his continuing responsibilities. He pulls absently at a gray handlebar moustache that would be quite common in America’s Wild West. On the wall behind him: photos of the three chiefs who preceded him. There is history in this room.
Lois Means, his secretary, opens the door part-way, just far enough to step in. She is small and old enough to have several grandchildren sharing her lap during the holidays, but work has always come first for her. It’s evident that she’s been crying a good deal, with at least three damp tissues, a pencil and her reading glasses bunched together in her ‘free” hand. She is trying to remain calm and professional, but she is mere moments from resuming feeling the city’s losses. “It’s awful! I don’t understand it at all. Can I get you anything, Chief?”
“Not right now, Lois. Don’t worry about me. If you need to take some time, I’ll manage.”
“No more than the next person.”
“Do we have a full list of the names involved?”
“Not yet, but I could call Lucy.”
“It can wait. I’m not in a hurry. It’ll just make it more real.”
“One more thing: the mayor and Director Pelkey are here to see you. Should I let them in?” She wants to give him a chance to decline, but she knows it’s a rhetorical question.
Without turning around. “Do I have a choice? Go ahead, Lois. Thanks for trying to protect me.”
Mayor Wilton Brandt and Communications Director Tobias Pelkey enter. Brandt is small in frame, nearing sixty with short salt-and-pepper hair, while Pelkey is mid-thirties with shiny dark hair you can smell from across the room. They are as much a team as Lois and the chief are. They dress as if in mourning: simple white shirts with black slacks and black dress jackets, even black armbands in tribute to those who died. They enter wordlessly, Pelkey an intentional two steps behind, and sit on the edge of their seats on the visitors’ side of a massive desk. After a shared glance and head-nod, an understood go-ahead signal, they dive through the awkward silence.
“No one expects miracles, Leo,” the mayor begins.
“Horsefeathers! That’s exactly what you want.”
“Wait a minute. How could you possibly prepare for something so horrendous? An utter nightmare like this?”
“Your team did the best they could.”
Pelkey, a professional smiler of the first order, adds, “The ‘up’ side: except for the brief violence and the limited number of deaths, it was — you have to admit — another perfect day in New Eden. That’s what we should focus on. For nearly a hundred years, people have lived a life completely free from snow and wind and rain and mud. Today it rained, briefly. It was a statistical anomaly, but bound to happen eventually.”
The mayor continues. “I’m sorry it happened on your watch, Leo. Really, I am. A helluva thing. I don’t know about you, but I’ll never listen to Strauss quite the same way again.”
“Safety, it should be pointed out,” Pelkey interjects, “has not been under warranty for over fifty years, technically. It’s an isolated incident. I say we put out a strong statement condemning the actions, while dismissing today as an unforeseen aberration, and move on.”
The mayor inclines his head in agreement. “Moving on’s probably the best approach, for now. Toby and I will come up with a fine-tuned press release with just the right amount of compassion, and a smidgeon of outrage.”
“Maybe,” continues Pelkey, “we offer a free night at a health spa for the relatives of the victims. Don’t market it as compensation so much as consolation, helping them find their government-backed inner happiness once more. What do you think?”
The chief rubs a phantom ache at the base of his neck, without turning around. “And if it happens again, Willie? What then?”
“Why define the donut by the hole? Am I right?” asks Pelkey.
“Toby has a point. Why keep yourself up nights worrying about future tragedies that will most likely never see the light of day?”
“We all know this is not the first incident,” says the chief, “just the first public one. And I, for one, am starting to suspect a pattern. If an old hound dog like me can sniff out the clues, you can bet that some of your more-attentive constituents will, as well.”
The mayor is stunned and confused. “What do you mean, Leo? Did something else happen? I don’t recall a service bulletin. Did I miss a briefing?” He laughs nervously at his own joke. “I certainly would have been first in the loop, it goes without saying.” Brandt stares at Pelkey with all of the authority of his position.
Pelkey instinctively shrinks back, mortally embarrassed. “For God’s sake, Toby, I’m in charge of this facility!”
“It was a one-off event at the time. Dr. Valdez dismissed it as a case of... space sickness.”
“Space sickness?! I thought that was just a myth, something the kids use to get out of school.”
“Or it could have been something else. Say, a rare but genetically plausible condition. One of our older residents, a recent widower with over seventy-one years aboard ship, inexplicably throws himself over a tenth-floor balcony. What else could cause that? Obsession with gravity?”
“Go on,” prods Brandt.
“The maintenance crew, poor fellows, found him just before dawn and called me immediately. And, I have to say, an hour later, nobody, not even one of Leo’s finest, would have been able to detect any indication of the tragedy. You’re welcome, by the way.”
“I’m telling you both,” says the chief, “it’s just a matter of time before the next outburst. We need to be ready.”
“Back up. What did the autopsy reveal?” asks the mayor.
“We’re still busy attending to the living — then we’ll attend to the dead.”
“I don’t mean Bernie. The first victim. What’s his name?”
“Edgar Dumont,” says Pelkey.
“Doesn’t sound familiar. How did Dr. Valdez confirm Edgar Dumont had space sickness?”
Schiavelli turns and looks accusingly to Pelkey for the answer.
Pelkey assiduously avoids eye contact with the chief. “The body was promptly discharged out an airlock. A missed opportunity in retrospect. Valdez was off playing miniature golf with his nephews or something. It didn’t seem worth dragging him into the office for needless paperwork. There was no family. No survivors. No reason for a big, sad ceremony, so we did what we always do: we picked up and moved on, for everyone’s sake. You’re welcome.”
“You and your lackeys very likely destroyed crucial evidence,” says Schiavelli. “You know that?”
Pelkey is grateful for the mayor’s support and also for the physical barrier represented by the breadth of the desk. “It was a judgment call. If I had to do it over again, things might have gone another way. There was no reason to predict there’d be ‘more of the same’ to follow.”
Calming down, Brandt, city hall’s chief diplomat, maneuvers between the two, protecting his own. “Two violent acts in well over eighty years. It happens, right?”
“Not here,” says Schiavelli.
“Yes, but who could raise a commotion over that? After all, we’re living in paradise, more or less.”
Schiavelli turns back around. “So were Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. I’ve got two normal, calm individuals, without any history of violence, apparently self-destructing within days of each other. There’s a connection. We just haven’t found it yet.”
Pelkey winces. “They both lived in New Eden Towers apartments, but surely you don’t think—”
Brandt cuts him off. “Half the borough lives in New Eden Towers! I live in New Eden Towers. Let’s not jump to any conclusions, no pun intended.” The mayor has a thought. He snickers cynically. “They were both men, right? Maybe that’s your connection. If there’s a connection, and I’m not saying there is, where they lived is not it.”
“I’m saying, for the record, without an experienced tactical response team, we could all be in for a bumpy orbit.”
Pelkey defends the status quo. “I resent that, Chief. I can handle this, Willie. When you say the right things in the right way, in my vast experience here at the station, most sensible people will be more than willing to ‘brush it off’ and get on with the mundane details of their private lives.”
“We’re in new territory, Toby, like it or not,” says Schiavelli. “There’s no playbook for what’s transpired here today.”
Brandt sighs. “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! This isn’t happening! I’m not a genius, but isn’t all this scientifically impossible? NASA, back at the start of the interplanetary space race, demanded there be a chemical pacifier in the station’s water treatment plant. Am I wrong?”
“You’re not wrong, Willie. That’s precisely the point. That’s why I’m concerned.”
“You think the system’s broken?” asks Brandt.
“God, I certainly hope not.”
The mayor shakes his head solemnly. “No, now you’re the proverbial little Dutch boy who cried wolf, Leo. You forget, I’ve been down there. I’ve seen it in action. I’ve taken the cook’s tour too many times to count. Thank you, Toby. ‘Hey, mister mayor, another group of school kids wants the field trip of the century. Why don’t you take them into the bowels of New Eden, literally, and show them where their drinking water comes from?’ Take it from me, there are just too many safeguards to count, not to mention computerized monitoring. Nothing happens down there without a team of engineers knowing about it.”
“He’s got you, Leo,” says Pelkey. “If there’s a criminal element pulling the strings, it’s not from there. There must be something else going on.”
“I don’t disagree. Personally, I think some malcontents are tinkering with chemicals of their own, and we’re the guinea pigs, every one of us on the station.”
“You’re serious,” says Brandt. “You really believe it. But why? Sooner or later the damned experiment’s bound to backfire: I mean, we’re all in this together.”
“Toby, no offense, can the mayor and I have a word in private?”
Pelkey sits in a small conspicuous chair in the corner of the room, one typically used by Lois as she types up minutes to meetings. “Sure. Meanwhile, I’ll draft our response to today’s events.”
“I think he means alone,” Brandt explains. “As in unattended. I’ll catch up with you in a minute.”
“A mite unconventional if you ask me, seeing as I’m the mayor’s communications director, but I get the hint.” He grabs his notes and exits, leaving the door wide open.
Brandt, with the voice of authority, adds, “Close the door, Toby. There’s a good boy.”
Pelkey does as he’s told and closes the door, but he’s clearly not happy about it.
“What’s this about, Leo? If it’s anything about Director Pelkey, it’s not news to me. He is who he is. I take the good with the bad.”
Schiavelli locks the door before revealing any more. “How do you feel about hidden passageways, Your Honor?” He reaches for a concealed button. A previously unseen door pops out from the wall, just a couple of inches, enough to reach his fingers around it.
“You have my full attention.”
“Follow me and watch your step.”
Copyright © 2018 by Charles C. Cole