The Hat of the Inspector
mystical short story
Translated from Russian by Vasily Repin Vasily.Repin@usu.ru
Proofread by Katherine Elliott
A tiresome drizzling rain was coming down from the sky, causing him to regret leaving his umbrella at home. Inspector Torrance bent over the body and frowned -- this picture was too familiar to him. The killed man lay prone, his shirt's collar practically torn off; his head was turned so that one could only see his nape with two crowns that looked so touching among dark, slightly curly hair. 'They say, two crowns on the head are a sign of a lot of luck. Hum, lucky beggar...' thought the inspector. The victim's pale, soiled neck had four small, accurate holes -- actually four small wounds that could be distinctly seen, covered with coagulated blood and surrounded with a blue-crimson hematoma. Number thirteen. "Okay, take him away, guys, it's now your turn." The inspector wearily waved his hand, then sighed and shook his head. "Where is Martin?"
From behind the wet bushes, a man appeared, wearing a long black raincoat and a hat pulled deeply over his eyebrows. The hat was covered with tiny rain drops glistening like silver. Inspector Torrance winced. He had much disliked Martin Lanz since their first meeting three months ago, and nothing had changed up to now. They were actually too different - Torrance, a clumsy police officer who had been searching for pilferers and murderers all his life, and ostentatiously gloomy Martin Lanz, an agent of the elite group V-16. But for a strict order of his superior, Inspector Torrance would have told Agent Lanz to go to hell. Not by any means. Torrance had to put up with his constant following him, and he also had to call him Martin, as if the fellow were his close friend. But what for? Lanz was of no help, constantly got under Torrance's feet, meddled in his investigations. And then, this room, to cap it all... What rotten luck that it was just he, Ted Torrance, who was chosen to investigate these strange murders. "A nasty weather," the inspector sadly said, just to say something.
Martin answered with a nod. Both of them followed with their eyes the corpse in a plastic bag that was now being loaded in a van.
"I hope you are content?" asked Inspector Torrance.
"Content with this weather?" Agent Lanz looked surprised.
"No, I mean, with our new object." The inspector caught himself on wincing too often, and shrugged his shoulders. He also shrugged his shoulders too often. Damnation! He had never imagined having nerves, but it was now obvious he did have. What the devil!
"Yes, I'm content with the object," Lanz answered imperturbably. Then, his look vacant, he approached the wall of the house and passed his hand over the polished granite of its basement. The wall being damp with mist, there remained wet strips on the red-and-brown stone. With disgust, Lanz shook the droplets of water from his fingers. "I am content," he repeated with a smile.
The smile on the agent's thin lips looked absolutely artificial, as if drawn by an unskillful hand. And yet, this smile was quite sincere -- he was pleased to have to investigate the case of this new dead man. Fie!
Keeping silence, Inspector Torrance moved to his car along the path. His hat was old, and its felt had stopped being waterproof a long time ago, so the slightly old-fashioned headgear was pretty wet now; droplets of water were falling from its flap, which was somewaht annoying. Black shaggy clouds were running across the sky, the branches of the trees were swaying sadly side to side. End of September, bad weather, serial murders, a sickening individual from V-16... And no bright spot ahead. Now they would go to the office -- they called that place just so, in a perfectly neutral way. The only thing the inspector could hope for would be a small bar on the way, where he could quickly knock back a glass of rotten whisky so as not to catch cold.
Sympathetic, Sergeant Sam Otkins followed the chief with his eyes: since Agent Lanz was there, the inspector seemed to be depressed and unusually nervous. Old boy Torrance aka Lazy Grizzly -- nervous? Definitely, this world was going downhill, wasn't it?
Inspector Ted Torrance whiled away the dank evening in the office at his new desk, reading the collected data on the killed person. Thus, he was William Bierce, twenty-five years old, single, a son of quite well-off parents; he graduated from a prestigious university and was now working... worked before he was killed in a major firm manufacturing automated equipment... never any trouble with the police... lived alone in the center of the city. His bride, Sara Mireille, was also from a decent family. Their wedding was to take place after Christmas. Why the hell did the young William enter this night the country garden? Not an ordinary garden, but that in the rich estate of the Fenrirs? So, it was just the wife of Mr. Fenrir who called the police after finding the corpse on a path among fading rosebushes. Since it hadn't rained in the morning -- it rained later on -- the police could see the traces of two persons on the ground. Two men, one of which... Well, only Agent Lanz knew who was this second man.
No sooner had the inspector remembered Lanz than the latter as if materialized behind his back. Torrance startled, as he disliked being approached like that, quietly and from behind, even if the person was
an acquaintance of him. It was an instinct with him.
But what was actually surprising about Martin Lanz was that he could well be qualified as a handsome man. He was tall, well-proportioned, with fine and regular features -- a dark-complexioned macho with piercing blue eyes. True, the expression of his eyes made you feel rather uncomfortable, as it was absolutely indifferent. His face remained, so to say, fixed and without any emotions, except for obligatory smile. A real nightmare... This fellow shouldn't smile at all, as sure as fate.
A blast of wind threw rainwater jets against the window -- a really nasty weather...
"I say, Inspector, if you wish, you will be given a lift home," Lanz said. "I'll have to pass a boring night seated in front of the monitor, but you don't need at all to do so."
Lanz's voice expressed no sympathy at all. This semblance of cooperation and working partnership was not worth a brass farthing. Ted Torrance was only supposed to cover and facilitate some obscure activity aimed to resolve some obscure problems. He now worked in the office of an unknown organization, walked through a labyrinth of corridors some of which had doors with CCTV and scanners on them, so that no outsider could enter. There were constant meetings behind closed doors. Torrance pretended not to notice all that, didn't ask any questions -- he knew perfectly well he'd get no answer. And yet, it was disagreeable to him to feel himself a pawn.
The inspector shrugged his shoulders and rose from the comfortable swivel chair. He would go home, why not. Already for a long time, it had been clear to him that neither Lanz nor his colleagues wished any serious investigation. They needed something different -- the victims of the elusive maniac, whose bodies were brought into the office to be placed into a room provided with dozens of telephoto lenses and sensors stuck on the walls and the ceiling; all of these corpses had small black wounds and hematomas on the neck...
Torrance sometimes entered Lanz' room, looked at the huge monitor that always showed one and the same scene: two rows of plastic tables with motionless bodies covered with translucent fabric. How many bodies? There should be twelve, as the very first one was cremated before Lanz came. But the day before yesterday, another one was taken to the city mortuary. Consequently, there were eleven of them: five women and six men, including William... What was his surname? Bierce? Yes, Bierce. The twenty-five years old lucky beggar with two crowns on the head who didn't live till his wedding.
Suddenly the inspector felt an irresistible desire to smoke. That was strictly forbidden in the office, as the very sophisticated electronics were incompatible with tobacco smoke. Damnation! Quick, he had to be outside, to breathe fresh air, even if it was raining now; he would take a drag at his cigarette whose warm smoke would make him forget the slightly sour, synthetic smell of the office. During the three passed months, he had not got used to it. Moreover, he still felt ill at ease among all these electronics and the young men in grey suits who were so polite but extremely reticent.
Torrance had never thought that he could miss so much his smoked-up private room with its shabby furniture, constant noise, and ceaseless phone calls. But orders were orders, so he, an old campaigner,
who was anachronism itself, who wasn't even able to use a PC, who was so clumsy and awkward -- yes, he now had to languish in these unusual conditions. Moreover, in spite of everything, he tried to find the one who killed people constantly using the same method.
Inspector Torrance frowned, shrugged his shoulders, and shuffled away to the exit. Thoughtful, Lanz followed him with his eyes.
I had an awful pain in the neck -- just awful. I tried to touch my neck, but my hand got stuck in something weightless. I felt scared, as I could not remember how and where I had fallen asleep. Such things had happened to me in my childhood when, tired of games, I fell asleep into strange dreams, and then, after a time, I opened my eyes in horror, unable to realize where I was and what was going on. And only a couple of minutes later it became clear to me that I had dozed off on the grass near the river to have an eerie sleeping vision that a monster pursued me.
That was just a dream and nothing else. My neck hurt probably because I lay in an awkward position. I opened my eyes to see a white, shapeless world filled with milky light and having no limits. My first thought was that the evening fog had risen from the river, and I was lost in it. My second thought was... There was not any. Feeling frightened again, I closed my eyes tight. No panic! My name was William Bierce. I was twenty-five years old. It was the twenty-second of September. Or, maybe, it was already the twenty-third? No matter. I could remember who I was, and that was now the most important. My God, why did my neck hurt so badly? Definitely, I had to recover my temper.
My eyes still closed, I cautiously passed my hand along my body and found out that I was absolutely naked. That was the limit! Forgetting my fears, I sat on the bed with a brusque movement; something slid along my skin like a weightless peel. My eyelids opened by themselves. Bosh! It was simply a thin bed sheet. And there was no fog around -- I was in an ordinary room with a white ceiling, bluish walls, round lamps. A typical hospital. Oh, damn! Did I have an accident? But then, how could I move so freely? Only my neck... Every slight touch made the pain more intense, but it was, nevertheless, bearable. But where had gone the blessed medicos?
I got up, my legs slightly shivering; I made a few uncertain steps to see several beds. Beds? These were more like... Oh, damn! Dash it! That looked like a mortuary! Was I dead? Had I been taken to the morgue? But then, why wasn't it cold here? I wasn't frozen at all...
As if in a dreadful dream, I slowly extended my hand to pull off the bed sheet from the nearest body.
Under light nylon a girl lay -- a dead naked girl with marble white face whose light strands of hair were spread around, as if she was sleeping. One of the strands was stuck to her right eyelid, getting entangled with her eyelashes, and I wanted to move it aside. I would have done so if the denuded girl didn't look so defenseless with her small wrinkled nipples and dark bush curling on her pubis. Not daring to touch her, I stood there, petrified, and overflowed with pity and sympathy.
Then, collecting my wits, I covered her from top to toe, as if willing to hide her from other people's eyes. I hadn't even had time to examine her face attentively.
'What a beast you are,' my conscience grumbled, 'you have had time to examine all the rest!'
I agreed -- I had got used to agree with my conscience.
I had to get out from this place, as I didn't want the least bit to remain in this necropolis any longer. Trying not to look around, I moved toward a white plastic door and -- lo and behold! - the door swung open in front of me. A guy stood on the threshold, smiling. I didn't like at all the way he was smiling. It was awfully unpleasant to stand naked face to face with this grinning fellow. Here I remembered that I had seen him earlier.
The inspector lit a second cigarette and leaned back on the soft seat cushions. It seemed to him that the driver didn't appreciate his smoking very much, but he didn't say a word. Well schooled.
Through the glass, Torrance could see the dim spots of lamps shooting past and the shining windows of houses looking like cells of an enormous crossword puzzle. Nothing more could be seen in darkness. Night and rain. And tomorrow it would be raining again -- Torrance was absolutely sure of that because of the dull pain in his left knee which he had got smashed in his youth as he jumped from a high wall trying to nab Leslie-the-Viper who was running away. Where could he be now, the Viper? Disappeared without leaving a trace? Or settled down after getting a grumbling little wife and a brood of small vipers? Torrance wished the latter were true.
Ted Torrance, the old bachelor, saw the familiar turn onto the narrow side street where he lived in a small house with an attic. With a habitual gesture, he patted his hand on the seat beside him, groping for his old good hat. The hat was not there -- for the first time in many years, he had left it in his office. To be more precise, not in his office, but in that goddamned office that smelled so disgusting and where he felt so uneasy. For some reason, this thought almost made him panic. He had a feeling as if he had committed a sacrilege, betrayed an old friend who had been serving him truly for many years.
Torrance fidgeted, breathed heavily, saying to himself that forgetting a hat was just a trifle that shouldn't be taken seriously. Actually, it was high time for him to buy a new soft hat with silky pile adorned with a moire ribbon. As for the old hat... "Stop!" he muttered to the driver. "Let's go back. I've forgotten some important documents in the office."
The driver was really well schooled. He only sighed imperceptibly and switched on the turn signal. He didn't enjoy very much driving this grumbling policeman who often smoked strong cigarettes, filling the interior of the car with smelly smoke. But carrying the inspector there and back was a part of his duty.
His hat was exactly where he had hung it -- on a hook in the wardrobe. Torrance stroked the withered crown of the hat, as if apologizing for his forgetfulness; then he felt confused by his own sentimentality, clapped his hat on his head and left the office. He decided to inform Lanz about his coming back. For sure, Agent Lanz couldn't care less about it, and yet, Torrance wanted to speak to him, fearing that the driver could be called down for being absent so long.
Because of the soft and elastic floor covering, the inspector's steps couldn't be heard as he walked through the hallway filled with cold, bluish light. At last, he reached Lanz's room door and flung it open. Putting his hands into his pockets, he frowned -- the room was empty. Mechanically, he glanced at the monitor and stood stock still. Then he quickly walked up to the table, peered at it and discovered the sound button. He was not so stupid, after all...
"Even so, I don't understand..." The voice of the guy, whose corpse Torrance had examined earlier today on the garden path damp with rain, sounded dubious and perplexed. Once again, the inspector didn't see his face -- only his nape with two crowns in the video camera lens -- and this nape... there was hardly any possibility to confuse it with any other. So, this naked person sitting on one of the plastic tables could be only William What's-his-name... Bierce! Yes, Bierce. Torrance quickly counted the corpses on the other tables: ten. The eleventh was now sitting there, obviously scared. Thus, Lanz now had what he had wanted. It was now clear why they stored the bodies without losing sight of them for an instant. However, it remained unexplained where they had got them and, the main question: what for?
"You'll understand later, brother," Agent Lanz was speaking almost tenderly. Standing near William, he gazed at him as if the latter was a mouse in a mousetrap. "Now you should simply believe me. If you wish to make sure that I'm not telling lies, you have a lot of possibilities for this. But I'd like to avoid any risk, as you are one of the few. The others have not yet come to us."
"Come where? Or where from? Come through what?" It was visible that William Bierce tried to speak calmly, but his voice trembled.
"I say, cheer up, guy," Lanz advised him patiently. "You are already with us, but the others... I hope everything will be all right with them too -- I suppose, the speed of reaction is different in each case. As for you, I didn't expect you to be so prompt, honour bright. Chattering to the inspector, I nearly missed the moment when you came to.
'Chattering!' Torrance thought, indignant. 'A few words intended to make me go away as soon as possible -- he calls it chatter!'
"That means I am not a human?" William Bierce's naked shoulders stooped, as if he suddenly felt cold.
"No, you are not," Lantz shook his head. "Not in the sense you are thinking. And yet, you are a living, rational being. Exactly like me!" the agent suddenly barked, so that both Bierce and the inspector jumped up. "We differ from the natives in only one tiny gene. And now this damned gene can ruin our tribe. Therefore we have to hastily initiate everyone we can, after which we'll hopefully be able to escape in good time. This planet really is becoming a dangerous place." Lantz fell silent and rubbed his temples.
William lifted his head. The inspector could not see his face, but even his nape seemed to express sincere bewilderment.
"Well, that's okay," Agent Lanz muttered, "we had a couple of thousands of years of quiet -- well, almost quiet life, and that's already something. We had time to relax, assimilate, and eat to our heart's content. And now, my friend, it is time for us to hit the road! We cannot take risks any longer. After the introduction of the gene passport system, we don't have the slightest chance of pursuing this idle mode of life. Sooner or later somebody will unmask us, and then it might be too late."
William was silent. The inspector felt annoyed; although having only a vague idea of genetics, he would like to ask Agent Lanz to be clearer. But Bierce seemed now to be in a stupor, focusing on the thought that he wasn't a human being any more.
Torrance pulled out Lanz's work chair and sat down.
"So, I cannot marry Sarah?" William finally forced himself to speak. As it was to be expected, his mind was now focusing on his new nature.
"It would be better if you didnt". Lanz sighed. "First, officially you are dead, and, so, it's unlikely you could get married. Second, we will escape from Earth in May at the latest, and you surely understand that we cannot take Sarah with us."
"Because she doesn't belong to our tribe. She has her own home, but we don't -- we don't even remember if we ever had one. We actually don't care about it, as we became a race of space tourists -- after finding a suitable planet, we remain there until we are bored with it or, as is the case now, until a threat appears. Then we take those who aren't so old, and make off. To make such a trip, we repair an old ship or we build a new one. By the way, our headquarters have already picked quite a nice planet inhabited by peaceful hominoids only a couple of parsecs from Earth." Lanz sounded patient and monotonous.
Surrendering to temptation, the inspector took out a cigarette and lit it. At this moment, he couldn't care less about his smoking so much and all that.
"Peaceful hominoids?" William echoed. "I see..."
"You see nothing at all," Lanz interrupted. "You think we're looking for food? Trashy films, trashy
books... Those fools took our usual initiation for an inclination to suck blood! As for our people, so many of them lost their lives after being buried by those idiots. And they wondered afterwards at finding skeletons in positions showing the dead must have turned in their coffins! But what could our people do when they woke up there, buried under two meters of soil? Even for us, it's impossible to survive long without air."
"That is awful," William Bierce stooped more, as if the sky had fallen on his head with two crowns, "but Dracula... "
"Count Dracula was fool, lazy, and self-confident! Instead of repairing sensors so as to know exactly who could be initiated, he acted at random. Very conceited, His Grace simply did what he wanted. To bite or not to bite -- his behavior was often unpredictable, you know, and he never thought about the consequences of his actions. Worse, he abused his power to transform himself into a bat, doing so almost every night -- he liked to do some flying, you see. A willful fellow, in short... "
"But what's the use of biting?" William's hand reached his neck to feel his wounds that still hurt. "Is it really necessary?"
"Yes indeed, sorry. The enzyme that changes the metabolism is contained in the saliva, and it must be injected into the blood in the necessary amount. Which means it must be injected into an artery -- Heaven knows how much I hate it... And then we still have to wait, sometimes rather long, and sometimes in vain. Perhaps that is the worst of all."
Lanz's harangue was cut short by a low trill. He took his cell phone out of his pocket, listened silently for half a minute, and hung up. Then he raised his eyes to the surveillance camera lens and grinned: "Inspector, don't you know that people should not overhear things that are supposed to be private?"
The inspector's hand didn't tremble, and the ash didn't fall from his cigarette. Obviously, the driver had judged it good to inform his boss about Torrance's hanging around in the office."
"It's not polite to spy," the inspector muttered, though Lanz could not hear him, "but it's even less polite to scrutinize gene passports of police officers, isn't it?"
They entered the office about five minutes later, the imperturbable Lanz and the nice guy dressed in a strange bathrobe.
'They could have prepared some decent clothes, stupid men,' Torrance thought.
"Billy, meet Inspector Torrance," the V-16 group agent said with a smile that seemed to be glued on his face. "Inspector, this is -- well, you know."
"Bierce, William Bierce." Bierce's smile was much more pleasant than Lanzs, though it was wan and forced.
As for Lanz, he looked disapprovingly at the coffee-cup with two cigarette stubs in it. Well, Torrance couldn't care less.
"Look here, Inspector, I have to take Billy to the ship. Since you're here, would you cover for me for a couple of hours?" The agent was courtesy itself.
"Till morning, if necessary," Torrance grumbled as he defiantly took out another cigarette.
Lanz sighed, then, after a pause, said, "I don't think it would take so long -- it's not very far from here, the Yellow Canyon..."
"I don't want to know anything about that," the inspector interrupted him, his tone still slightly annoyed. "Just go, okay?"
"Well," Lanz grinned, "we'll talk about it when I get back." With these words, he left the room.
William Bierce hesitated for a moment and said, motioning to the monitor: "There is a girl lying there -- she has fair hair. Would you look after her?"
'But what about your dear Sarah? Out of sight, out of mind?' thought the inspector. However, he said nothing, only nodded.
"Oh, and one more thing..." William paused. "You know, this Martin... His bite is very painful -- and yet bearable!" Rubbing his neck, he hurried after Lanz.
It was still drizzling outside, but at times, a timid moon peeked out from behind the tattered clouds. Two black, winged silhouettes passed across the Orb of Night and disappeared.
At last the inspector took off his hat and carefully put it on a faintly humming box. There was just one question that was occupying his mind at the moment: 'Do all vampires abhor tobacco smoke or was it pure chance that he met those who understood the importance of a healthy life style?'
? Copyright Dariya Bulatnikova firstname.lastname@example.org