New Debts – Chapter 4

Click here to read chapter 3.

Rupert’s office, and the rail crossing where he died, were only about ten blocks north of my office. I grabbed my jacket and a fleece watch cap and headed out the door. I could have taken a train or caught a cab, but the walk sounded good on a gorgeous, sunny morning like this one. I’d never been a detective when I was with LCPD, but I’d talked with more than a few of them. The good ones always went to the scene of the crime. They said there was no substitute for being there. Neither pictures nor video could really recreate being at the actual place where it had happened, whatever “it” was. At least, that’s what the guys who knew what they were doing said. I had no idea what I expected to find, two weeks after the fact, that a police search team hadn’t already found.

The walk was pleasant, passing through cool shade and warm spring sunshine as I made my way north. The particular train crossing where Rupert died was a level crossing. The maglev rail and the street were on the same level. There are warning lights on poles at both sides of the street and on either side of the crossing, so there are four poles total for each intersection.

The lights gave off a piercing red pulse that could be seen clearly at noon on a sunny day.  Sirens also emitted from speakers built into the pole, the sound fluctuating up and down the megahertz spectrum that is detectable to human ears. People living near these crossings just get used to the sound. The speakers were also calibrated to project the sound in a cone around the pole. Imagine slowly covering and uncovering your ears while a buzz saw cuts through sheet metal—that’s kind of what the sirens sound like.

This crossing looked just like the crossings all across the city. The poles had been plastered with flyers for years. The occasional inattentive driver had nicked the poles as they went through the crossing. One of the poles even managed to collect a visible dent a good four meters up, maybe from clumsy city worker in a cherry-picker bucket.

There was a little bit of vehicle traffic at this intersection, but mostly people passed through on foot. I had plenty of time between cars to walk all around the crossing. As I passed over the maglev rail embedded in the road, again and again I thought about Rupert walking right where I was walking. He was probably just thinking about getting home and into bed. The trains travel at around 35 meters per second even through the crossings. He would have died instantly.

Kara’s words came back to me about Rupert walking this same route home for twenty years. He would have known how fast the trains come through and how stupid it would be to try to beat one across the tracks once the warning started going off. On the other hand, familiarity breeds contempt. Maybe he’d done it before and was just a bit slow this time. You only get to be wrong about that kind of thing once. I watched a train come through and recorded video of it.  The lights and siren were gut wrenchingly strident, and the roar of the train as it came through only added to the noise. The air pushed out of the way by the train tugged at my clothes. I recorded some pictures of the intersection from different angles and then headed for Rupert’s office.

It was close to noon by this time, the Traveler’s shadow almost a perfect circle over the city. The day felt warm now and I took off my cap as I walked uphill toward the building where Rupert had his office. It was a nice location on the ground floor of an old red brick building. The office had oversized windows that looked out onto the street. “Dillon Law Office” was written on one of the windows in large gold print. After manually entering the code into the door terminal, I went in.

I walked deeper into the darkened office past the front waiting area. Rupert ran a very small operation; except for a Frame who came in and cleaned once a week, he was the only person who worked in the office. The door that normally separated Rupert’s conference room and personal office from the waiting area was standing open. I knew the police and Rupert’s family had been through here, so that made sense. I liked the office. It smelled of paper and had a comfortable feel, like a library. The waiting area and the conference room were clean and tidy.  Rupert’s personal office was another story. He had been a lifelong bachelor, which meant that he liked things a certain way and didn’t much care what other people thought about it. Books, boxes, stacks of paper, three different terminals and a remarkable collection of filthy mugs filled the office to capacity. There was literally a path from the office door to the desk and a small radius of clear space around the desk chair where he did his work. There were two other chairs in the office, for visitors, but visitors would have had a hard time sitting on top of the stacks of dusty printouts currently occupying the seats. I sighed. If I was really going to be thorough about this, I would need to go through all the stuff here, which would take a while and probably result in nothing at all.

I started with the papers and left the terminals for last. It took hours and I mostly didn’t understand what I was looking at. Rupert had done a lot of work with property. That meant he had to research the history of various pieces of land all over the city. In order for a piece of property to legally pass from one person to another, the person selling the property had to prove that their ownership of the property was a good and legal ownership. The history of the Last City is two hundred years long and punctuated by mass influxes of refugees, battles, disasters and political infighting. People come to the Last City from all over the world, find a place to live and start building a life for themselves and their families. Often in the early days of the city, some groups of people would decide that they wanted what some other group had, be it land or treasure or influence, and so they would go take it from that other group by force. That’s a thumbnail sketch of what people refer to as the Faction Wars. More confusion is created when you remember that various hostile aliens have tried to invade the city on at least two occasions.  A good bit of destruction and death resulted from those attempted incursions into the city.  People bounced back each time and started rebuilding.

As an example, I found records of one piece of land that Rupert had researched where the history was fairly clear: two hundred years ago a refugee and his family came to the city escorted by Guardian Hunters. He built a house and started a small farm. The house and land passed to his two children who split the land and built another house. Decades later, the Battle of Six Fronts happened and the entire extended family was killed except for one daughter, and one of the houses was burned. The New Monarchy, in its infancy then, paid the surviving daughter for the land on which the burned house had stood and built a larger building and a small warehouse.  During the Faction Wars, New Monarchy’s building and warehouse were seized by force by another faction called the Legacy. After the Guardians brought order (several years later when they decided that the Faction Wars had gotten out of hand), a legal dispute ensued between New Monarchy and Legacy. The building and warehouse passed back to New Monarchy. New Monarchy promptly sold all the land and the buildings to a private company. That company was acquired by a larger corporation just last year, and Rupert had been hired to research the land title the corporation was acquiring so they could be confident in their legal claim to the land and the buildings.

That’s a nice simple history compared to a lot of property in the City. In many cases, I’m sure that legal and non-legal fights over rights to land were much more hotly disputed. Records get burned, memories become fuzzy, or history is intentionally misremembered or mis-recorded to shore up a claim by one party or another. I began to realize that in addition to being a lawyer, Rupert Dillon had also been a sort of amateur historian and a private investigator. He would have had to travel all over the city and talk to all kinds of people about the history of this place just to do his job. There were three different books in his office that recounted the history of the Last City, each written by a different author. I learned some city history in school, of course, but if you’d asked me, I would never have guessed that someone wrote a whole book about that history, let alone several people and several books.

I rubbed my eyes and looked around. I was hungry and had been for some time.  Checking the time, I realized that the entire afternoon had gone and the day was creeping into evening. I hadn’t even gotten into the terminals yet, but I was starting to get a sense of Rupert’s work. I briefly considered making myself some coffee at the coffeemaker I’d seen in the conference room, but the idea felt wrong. For some reason I didn’t want to take Rupert’s coffee, even though it would undoubtedly just be thrown away. I’d passed a deli on the way here. I could get some coffee and a sandwich there.

I tried experimentally to get into the terminals spread around the room. He had a larger, more sophisticated system on his desk with two screens. There were also a couple of tablet terminals in the office. All of them were password locked and none of the door codes I had worked to unlock the terminals. I shook my head and exited the building into the cooling evening air. The sun was still just above the western horizon and sent reflected light off the bottom of the Traveler into the city, creating a sort of false noon.

On my way to the deli, I called Kara and asked for Rupert’s birth date. The deli had both coffee and sandwiches. Armed with my dinner and the information from Kara, I headed back to the office. Sure enough, Rupert used his birthdate as the password for all of his terminals. Not very good security, but great news for me. The two screen terminal on his desk was set up for drafting documents and reviewing maps. After pulling up recently accessed files, more of Rupert’s work process became clear to me. A big part of his work was writing accurate legal descriptions of pieces of property, such and such property line proceeds west from such and such landmark, stuff like that. It looked like he would put up a map with markers on one screen and then type the description into a document on the second screen. The tablet terminals were loaded with various reading material, both fiction and non-fiction, as well as personal correspondence and publications by other lawyers about the law. Exciting stuff.

I spent another two hours on the terminals getting increasingly bored. I scanned through the correspondence, feeling a bit guilty for the intrusion on his privacy. I wouldn’t have been doing the job right, though, if I hadn’t looked to check for the potential of some disgruntled client sending threats. There was nothing like that.

When I finally closed up all the terminals and had flipped through every sheet of paper in the office, I felt like I had a good understanding of what Rupert had been doing the last few months. He had backup server storage as well as cabinets full of old files, but I didn’t see any reason to go through all of that. If there was some reason for someone want to hurt Rupert, it was going to be from something relatively recent. At the time of his death, Rupert had been preparing wills for four different people. He was also doing seven different title searches for people either buying or selling personal residences. Lastly, he was checking the history of several pieces of property owned by a small manufacturing company that makes servo-motors for Frames. That company, Sallis Mfg., Inc., was selling off a good bit of property to Executor Hideo’s massive industrial complex two kilometers north of Rupert’s office.

I was mostly thinking about locking up and going home when I noticed an interesting pattern in some of the deeds. The Sallis company had consolidated several pieces of property to build their servo-motor plant. Most of that property could be traced back to its earliest single owner, someone who was referred to only as “Father Domingo” in the centuries-old handwritten deeds that Rupert had found and scanned into his desk terminal. Connecting those dots made something else click. I’d seen that name, Domingo, somewhere in paper documents I’d gone through earlier in the day. It only took another twenty minutes to find the note that I’d been remembering. It was handwritten on a physical copy of one of those old deeds that referenced Father Domingo as being the recipient of some donated land. On the copy of that deed, Rupert had written: “Domingo Guttierez t.w.c.”

I felt a brief surge of excitement at this discovery before remembering that it meant nothing to me, and had absolutely no discernible connection to Rupert’s apparently accidental death two weeks ago. I’d spent a day sitting in this office and I’d discovered nothing. I should probably have felt vindicated; I expected to find nothing, after all. But I didn’t feel vindicated. I felt annoyed at myself for wasting time on what was probably a fool’s errand on the likely vain hope that my ex-wife might take me back. I blew out a deep breath in aggravation. It was time to go home. I would check out Rupert’s apartment tomorrow and then make my report to Kara that afternoon or the next day.

I stepped out onto the sidewalk and made sure that the office door was securely locked.  It was full dark now and moving from cool to cold. We were probably due for one more snow before Spring really took hold. I pulled out my pocket terminal to call a cab and then suddenly changed my mind. I would walk to Rupert’s apartment right now and get this whole thing over with tonight. I could spend tomorrow morning figuring how to break the news to Kara that her uncle really had died in an unfortunate, unexpected, but totally non-sinister manner.

My neck prickled a little bit when it occurred to me that I was probably walking the same path that Rupert had walked the night he died. I’d had the same thought earlier that day, but it was different at night, when I was literally retracing his exact steps. Maybe in the same state of mind he had been in, pre-occupied with what would happen the next day, rather than paying attention to where I was. I got to the crossing and waited longer than I really needed to for a train to pass. Some strange part of my brain tossed up the thought that if I got hit by a train while I was investigating how someone else got hit by a train that I would be completing some grotesque universal circle of irony.

Instead of giving into universal irony, I just walked across the maglev rail without dying.  My unease slipped away the closer I got to Rupert’s apartment. I felt like an observer again instead of a participant. The home door lock code I’d gotten from Kara worked fine and I started looking around. I’d done plenty of home searches during my time as a police officer. I promised myself that I was just going to look around quickly and get out. Instead, maybe out of habit, I found myself following the search protocols they’d taught us at the academy. I turned over cushions and felt them for telltale bulges that could indicate something was hidden within. I looked under furniture and felt for seams where something could have been stuck. I not only looked in drawers but I also pulled them out and looked behind them and underneath them.

The apartment was a nice two bedroom with a decent sized kitchen, a living room and a couple of bathrooms. Rupert had used the second bedroom as a home office or study. I found a lot of exactly what you would expect in an older single man’s apartment. His interest in history and the law was reinforced and my feeling of impatience came back. I began wondering why the hell I was looking so hard. Then I pulled open the top left drawer of the desk in his study.  There was another tablet terminal in there.  I picked it up and when I saw what was underneath a curse exploded out of my mouth.

In the drawer was a simple piece of polished wood, maybe oak by the look of it. It was  square shaped, about ten centimeters on each side and probably three centimeters thick. There was a simple image cut into the wood: a circle with fraying at the bottom and seven lines radiating out a regular intervals. My stomach knotted and I kept blinking my eyes. I really couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I didn’t touch it.

I’d met Rupert a few times before his death. He came to the wedding when Kara and I got married. I suddenly remembered that he’d given us a cast iron skillet. I thought that I’d actually become even more familiar with him today by going through his office and home, walking the same paths that he’d walked. Seeing this woodcut panel, and knowing the vile associations that went along with it, made me question whether I knew anything at all about his life or death. I had to wonder if Rupert had been dangerous or mentally unbalanced or both. Rupert Dillon was a Traveler Worshiper.

Chet Kirkham
Been playing since Y1. Currently expanding the Universe with fiction.