This is the third part of a novelette; if you haven’t already, please start at the beginning or read Part Two.
CHAPTER THE FOURTH
“It strikes me, Williamson, there isn’t very much that we can tell this gentleman.”
We walked in silence, nearly undisturbed, until we reached the Department of Intelligence. There, Hildegarde set her hand on the nondescript door, then placed mine against it. The door opened, and we stepped through.
A confusing visual jumble met my eyes. The image was too much like mixing metaphors—a pet peeve of mine—so I closed my eyes, shook my head thoroughly, cleared my mind, and then opened my eyes again. The image coalesced into singularity. I had read of the metaphors of the Department of Intelligence, in which each visitor saw the same data in a different way, but I had never experienced it until now.
It seemed that I stood in a large library, with the ceiling at least thirty feet high. This first level was remarkably clear, so I could see out to the limit of my range of vision, with no exterior walls in sight. Fifteen-foot-high bookcases, packed exactly full of books, were arranged in seemingly random patterns, and spiral staircases dotted the floor. The carpet beneath my feet was richly textured and had a complex pattern. Twenty feet in front of me was a card catalogue, ten feet high; I walked toward it.
“Sir?” Hildegarde’s voice called, behind me. I turned. In my metaphor, it seemed that she was now dressed in the robes of a lady-in-waiting to the King. “If you don’t know what you’re looking for, the index won’t help you. What are you looking for?”
“I’d like to begin by looking at the place where those files disappeared from.”
“Come with me.” She led the way toward the second spiral staircase. We went up it slowly. The second floor was much like the first. I followed her up another staircase, and then to a set of bookshelves. There was an empty space on a middle shelf.
“So anyone could simply take a book off the shelf and leave?” I said.
“What are you talking about, sir? We just went through two of the physical equivalents of hyperlinks, and here we’re standing by the broken links leading to those documents.”
“It must be a difference in metaphors, then, because it seemed to me that we just went up two spiral staircases in a library and are standing by an empty space on a shelf.”
She shaped a silent “Oh!” and then spoke aloud. “Well, in any case, there’s a massive security system here. You couldn’t just take a document without clearance.”
“So, whoever took the missing documents had clearance.”
“Either that, or he or she somehow circumvented the system. Even someone with clearance should have left a record of the taking. No record was left.”
“Will electronic clues translate into physical clues in metaphors?”
“For the most part, as far as I know. The same with metaphysical clues.”
“Well, then.” My ever-present magnifying glass was in an inner pocket of my coat; I took it out and examined the shelf.
“Would it have been possible to simply take a book off the shelf and look at it without leaving any record?” I asked.
“In your metaphor, I believe so.”
“The reason I ask is that there are some scattered fingerprints, very recent, on the shelf, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen these particular sets before.”
“Let me see.” She reached into her gown and took out what looked like a golden loop of rope. She dropped it over her head and halted it by her waist, then reached for my magnifying glass.
“I think I recognize that most recent set,” she said when she had looked her fill, “but I haven’t seen them, or him, since before the Regency ended, and I know that he wasn’t Chosen. We know why, too. He was proven incompetent in the Imperial courts immediately following the end of the Banishment, although the case wasn’t closed because he hadn’t been given a chance to give a defence; since he wasn’t Chosen, he wasn’t brought to the Empire. His case isn’t important enough to give it to the few Imperial courts now established in Earth.”
“Thank you. But these fingerprints prove that he was here.”
“Ah. . . Assuming that no complicated conspiracy is going on to try to pin the crime on him, yes.”
“We’ll have to leave that as a working possibility, but I don’t think it’s likely—Occam’s razor, you know. I need more data that I can’t get here, but let me look around before we leave.” I took my eyes off the bookshelf and looked around the room. The carpet here was well-worn, nearly in need of replacement; the wallpaper was peeling, with damp spots on the wood. I saw signs of recent patching in the ceiling. “That’s all here, I think, and I have some pondering to do,” I said. “Let’s go.”
CHAPTER THE FIFTH
You will rise high in your profession. You have instinct and intuition.
The case took a disturbing turn that evening when Hildegarde walked into my office without even trying to bypass my security measures. Her garb was unlike any I had seen her in before: a common grey dress, splotched, and stained, with fraying hems; a battered, unremarkable cheap hat; long white gloves that had seen better days; tattered black stockings; weathered brown boots (she never wore boots!); and a cloak that seemed to draw attention away from itself. She spoke immediately without waiting to be recognized.
“My lord, I have urgent news. First, the Ministry of Justice has brought two men who were not Chosen to this universe—without telling the Ministry of Intelligence—supposedly as guests at the wedding. One of them is the owner of those fingerprints. The other is someone that I only had contact with for about six months. He was charged with heresy and conspiracy to commit heresy; the case was suspended because he was unable to come and present a defence. I don’t know if he was competent or not. The wedding invitations seem to be a ploy by the Ministry of Justice to bring them to stand trial, so that the Empire can open diplomatic relations with their government without that dark cloud of unresolved crimes.” She paused for a moment. I took the chance to put a word in edgewise.
“That’s first,” I said. “What’s second?”
“Oh. Second, there has been an assassination attempt against Prince Narcissus.”
“There are assassination attempts all the time,” I said.
“Most fail before they begin. This one got through, and the bullet missed only by the sheerest luck. Besides, most such attempts are Anarchist work, and the Anarchist representative who always makes anonymous calls claiming responsibility made a call denying connection with this. At the time, the Prince was in private prayer in the chapel where the wedding will be held.”
“Could it have been a government insider?”
“No. There are annual screenings for the kind of character flaw that causes that sort of thing, and all applicants to the Imperial Service are screened before approval.”
“Have these data been placed in the files of the Ministry of Intelligence yet?”
“Could you dump the data to my files?”
“Gladly.” She took a portable computer terminal from a shelf under my desk, plugged it into a port on the wall, sat down next to it on the floor, and began working.
“When’s the wedding, again?” I asked.
“The day after tomorrow.”
“I have the feeling that this case is going to turn into a protection job.”
“An accurate hunch, as usual, Inspector,” said a new voice. The lady who stood before us wore a robe of deep purple, with grey stripes on the sleeves. She had an elaborate crown on her head, with a large gem of shifting colours and many smaller assorted gems set around it. Her hair was up in an intricate fashion. Her shoes, with silver woven into them, were of excellent workmanship, seeming to be little more than slippers but in a shape that would be comfortable in a stirrup. Hildegarde and I rose to our feet.
“Your Majesty,” we said in ragged unison.
“Be seated,” the High Queen said. “His Majesty the King and I have had premonitions about a double assassination attempt that will be successful if not averted. The Ministry of Justice has failed to prevent the last seven attempts, all of which failed by pure divine providence, and Intelligence was never meant to do this sort of work. You are the realm’s foremost detective, so we wish you to work to prevent this assassination. Think of this as solving the mystery of a murder before it is committed. The Crown will lend you Hildegarde and give you open, unlimited access to the Ministry of Intelligence.”
“I accept the assignment. Thank you, Majesty.”
This continues in Part Four.