Authors: Tracy St. John
Wynhod gave him a considering look, one that in the old days would have meant his next comments were going to lead up to something he wanted. Gelan cocked an eyebrow at him and waited.
The Nobek’s question sounded innocent enough. “Do you still hunt?”
Gelan nodded. “I went to Sarkoz last year and caught the third biggest ongribirt on record. They found someone’s leg in the thing’s gut and the rest of him in its nest. It turned out it had grabbed a villager the night before.”
Wynhod gave him a snide grin. “Only the third largest?”
Gelan made a face at him. “It was an off day.”
“I wouldn’t mind a hunt. You’ll have to tell me where the good places are.”
It was on the tip of the Dramok’s tongue to offer to take him hunting. Instead, he switched topics. “No doubt you still mountain climb. Is that why you came here? I think the peaks of this territory compares pretty well with our old one.”
“You didn’t think I transferred here just to be near you, did you?”
The challenge had been made, Wynhod knowing full well Gelan would meet it head on. Gelan decided not to surprise him. “Did you?” He sighed and met his former lover’s eyes. “Wynhod, we haven’t spoken since I left seven years ago. Why would I think you came here for me?”
The Nobek considered him for a few seconds before answering. “Neither of us is a sentimentalist. Trying to maintain a relationship over long distances wasn’t going to happen.”
“Which is why we agreed we wouldn’t try.”
Wynhod shrugged. “I have missed you though. Like I said, no other Dramok compared.”
Gelan nodded. He had missed Wynhod too. Even with a nice selection of unclanned Nobeks to choose from, he hadn’t ever thought of clanning any of them for a single moment.
Wynhod gave him a roguish look. “That being said, I can’t flatter you by saying you were the reason I pushed to get here. I’ve been following the Delir case for the last year. I wanted a piece of that action and put in for the transfer several months ago.”
Gelan snorted. “My ego shot down in flames. Well, at least Delir has done one good thing, bringing you here.”
Wynhod sobered. “Seeing you again is a nice side effect. I am sorry it took your partner’s death to get me here.”
Just like that, Gelan’s good mood evaporated. He stared at the dregs of milk left in his cup. “Amik was an excellent enforcer. He took down three of the bastards before they got him.”
Gelan didn’t go into detail. Knowing Wynhod, his new partner had already read all the reports about the attack that had killed Amik. Gelan had been pinned down by the explosive percussion blaster shots while the Nobek had been caught out in the open. Even with half a dozen gang members firing on him, Amik had never flinched. At least he hadn’t until an extremely unlucky blast blew through his head where an armored formsuit didn’t protect.
Thinking of that day made Gelan mad all over again. He wanted to find the leaders of the gang that had caused so many problems throughout the territory. Find and kill them.
Wynhod’s quiet voice brought Gelan to his senses. The investigator felt his chest and throat vibrating with barely suppressed fury. The angry sound was soft but definitely there. He felt his face flush with warmth and stopped.
“If you knew what we’re up against with Delir—” Gelan started, but the growl came back. He took a deep breath and met Wynhod’s gaze. “We can’t pin down the leaders. The gang members kill themselves before they can be questioned, and the witnesses are too intimidated to talk.”
“So I’ve been told.” Wynhod popped a final bite of his breakfast in his mouth and spoke around his chewing. “Too bad we can’t truth-drug victims without their consent.”
Gelan sighed. “I doubt they know anything of worth anyway. The gang leadership keeps itself off the streets and out of sight. Meanwhile, Delir keeps showing up and innocent people keep dying.”
“Better medicine for a better Empire.”
Gelan snorted. “I’m sure that Benor Pharmaceuticals would not appreciate their slogan being used in connection with Delir. Especially coming from someone in our precinct.”
“Why’s that?” Wynhod sounded bored.
“The owner, Dramok Benor himself, donated a dozen new shuttles to us last year. He does military-grade weapons manufacture too. Everyone who wasn’t on duty was required to report to the event, which was a big, fancy to-do. The man does a lot of good for the community, but he’s always ready to receive his accolades.”
“A bit of an egotist, huh?”
“That’s putting it lightly. Head Investigator Utta says the man wants a parade for every blaster and shuttle he puts in our hands. I heard the food and booze was good at that last self-congratulatory shindig, but the speeches went on forever.”
Wynhod smirked. “Let me guess – you decided to put in for overtime that day.”
Gelan returned the grin. “Damned straight. Given the choice between dressing up and hobnobbing with politicos and business leaders, or ramming your skull into the impenetrable wall that is Delir, which would you have chosen?”
“I guess I’d take the same terrible route so many are these days and drowned myself in Delir.”
Drowned, indeed. Delir was a raging tidal wave that threatened to sweep all the territory under.
Gelan shook his head. “That shit has stolen enough lives. There has got to be a way to get it out of commission. I put every second I can into finding a way to make this stop.”
The hallucinogenic drug Delir had become Gelan’s personal nightmare. Even before Amik’s death, it had been driving law enforcement crazy in the Southwest Mountain Territory. It wasn’t the taking of Delir that made users a problem. It was what happened after they’d become addicted and couldn’t get their next fix.
Delir had been derived from a fungus that grew in most of the forests of Kalquor, one renowned for its many medicinal applications. But what someone in the local gang had done was chemically enhance its properties, distilling it in such a way that it made users feel on top of the world. At first glance, Delir seemed to be a wonder drug. People who had tried it were able to think the clearest they ever had. Their mental states were that of extreme peace and tranquility. Amazing insights into mechanics and engineering had been linked to the effects of Delir usage.
However, the evil twin of Delir showed up once addiction had taken hold. Withdrawal symptoms included hallucinations, conversations with imaginary people, and murderous psychotic episodes. One man had slaughtered his entire clan and their parent clans when he could no longer recognize himself in the mirror. He’d been convinced those around him had somehow removed his consciousness and placed it into a body they could control. That particular Nobek now resided in a mental facility, with no prognosis of ever returning to his right mind.
Delir use had exploded in Gelan’s territory, with no end to the epidemic in sight. Murders had doubled in two years, and this year was on track to triple the average rate. Try as they might, the precincts of the Southwest Mountain Territory had made almost no headway in stopping the drug’s rampage. It now crept into the surrounding territories as well, slowly gaining a foothold that Gelan had no doubt would spread like wildfire.
Wynhod smiled, the expression almost gentle and sitting badly on his fierce face. “You kept up on the investigation while you were on leave.”
Gelan nodded. “I have a direct link from headquarters to my computer at home. The head investigator actually gave me a reprimand two days ago for spending too much time going over the interviews after Amik’s death.”
“You are the lead investigator for the Delir case. What did he expect?”
“He wanted me to get some distance and clear my head. I tried to for all of two hours. Then I gave up.”
Wynhod chuckled. “Same Gelan, unable to let a problem go until you’ve worried it to death. So you’re ready to jump right in?”
Gelan nodded, his expression set. “Absolutely. I want to re-interview all the witnesses to Amik’s death, for all the good it will do. Maybe someone will let something slip or we’ll find a brave soul who will remember a small detail and tell us about it.”
Wynhod stretched and stood while Gelan punched in his account number to pay for their meal. “Fun, fun, fun. You always were a million laughs,” the Nobek told him.
Gelan smiled but his heart wasn’t in the expression. He was ready to get back to work and firmly pushed personal issues to the back of his head. Delir and the gang manufacturing and distributing it were out there, needing to be caught. Later was soon enough to wonder what the future held for him and the Nobek he could never forget.
Gelan drew a deep breath, fighting for the patience he needed. The shopkeeper he was in the process of interviewing was scared, which made the man defensive. He’d require careful handling if Gelan was to get any information out of the Imdiko.
In a tone of gentle patience, Gelan asked, “So even though the attack happened right in front of your shop, you can’t describe any of it? Not even me or the men who died?”
The shopkeeper, an elderly Imdiko who refused to look Gelan or Wynhod in the eyes, shook his head adamantly. His graying hair swung tiredly about his frightened, lined face. He jerked a thumb back at his shop, which sold locally grown produce.
“I ran to the back and hid as soon as I heard the first blast. I saw nothing.”
Gelan pressed, keeping his voice low, hoping the hunched fellow would understand he’d keep all information confidential. “What about after the fighting ended? Surely you came out to see what was going on?”
The shopkeeper flicked his gaze over the curious passersby and shook his head again. “I’m the last of my clan. I have two elders I care for, both infirm. I saw nothing.”
Gelan knew the Imdiko was subtly telling him he had no Nobek to protect him and his elders. He would not share anything for fear of repercussions from the Delir gang. Gelan’s assurance of protection had no effect on him, as it had no effect on anyone these days. The gang had become too dangerous and law enforcement too ineffective against it to find those willing to dare to speak up.
Until Gelan and his fellow officers started putting the murderous Delir dealers and manufacturers away, no one was going to talk. Pushing the issue would only result in the old man walking away from him, closing him out completely. He gave up.
With a sigh and little hope, Gelan told the shopkeeper, “Fine. You have my com connection if you happen to remember anything. Thanks so much for your help.”
He couldn’t help the sarcasm that crept into his voice at the last statement. The old man scurried into his store and pointedly ignored Gelan and Wynhod, turning his back to them.
Wynhod looked as disgusted as Gelan felt. “Another case of amnesia.”
Gelan rubbed his hand over his braided scalp. “Yeah. Now you see what we’ve been up against. Why we’ve made absolutely no headway on Delir.”
He looked around, noting how everyone who walked past on the concourse avoided his gaze. This area had become well known for being a hotspot to buy Delir. No one here wanted to be seen talking to law enforcement. Those who spoke to police had a bad habit of disappearing or dying.
This level of shops was close to the base of the mountain interior they were housed in, only four levels up. It had been the lower levels hardest hit by the Delir epidemic, the levels where the unclanned and underemployed tended to shop and live. Not that Delir was confined to those who, for whatever reason, chose not to pursue careers that would lift them beyond the basic earnings Kalquor’s lucrative mining operations offered every citizen of the Empire. Delir addiction had hit all walks of life in the territory; from the wealthy business owners to the hopeful young just leaving their career instruction to embark on adult life. The drug was cheap, it was easy to get once you were introduced to the dealers, and it made users feel good. Only afterward, when every moment and fund became dedicated to maintaining that happy fix, did they end up in the bowels of Kalquorian society.
There had been those who’d been caught in the trap of drug addiction before. However, Delir had taken substance abuse from a few disaffected and mentally ill to record numbers of people who’d never been tempted to use before. The Southwest Mountain Territory, once famed for its healthy lifestyle and enjoyable diversions, was becoming the horror of Kalquor. No one had ever seen anything like it in the Empire.
Like the other mountain habitats, the core of Sko Mountain had been hollowed out by long-ago mining. The empty space had been dedicated to living quarters, manufacturing, and shopping. On this level, Gelan could see all too well the effects Delir had wrought. The main concourse of the level was well-lit, but there were large spans of empty areas surrounding him. At least half of the shops that had once proliferated here had been closed. They were dark, like the gaping spaces left by missing teeth. The two stores on either side of the produce shop had also shut down since the fight. Gelan had read the reports that confirmed the shop owners had not only closed their businesses but had moved completely out of the territory. No civilians fucked with the gang that sold Delir. Not if they wanted themselves and their clans to remain alive.