The Electric Messiah

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Chapter 7

“Normally, yes,” said Barlowe in reply to the inspector's question. “I have a room on the first floor, not far from my office. It's convenient to sleep close to where I work. I rarely have reason to leave the building, the mail service is perfectly adequate for those occasions when I have to communicate with people elsewhere in the country, but there are times when only a face to face meeting will do. I had to talk to a builder in Mornafar about some repairs that needed doing to the building.”

“Very fortunate,” said Inspector Jugg drily. They were sitting across a table in the guard house's interrogation room, or the interview room as they were supposed to call it. There was literally nothing else in the room. Just four bare brick walls and a gas lamp hanging from the ceiling which had left a circle of soot on the plaster over many years. The door was solid oak with a thick bolt that could be slid across on the outside. It was a room designed to intimidate, to break the suspect and make him confess, and Jugg was pleased to see that the pink powder that covered the suspect's face was beginning to bead with sweat. A nervous man found it much harder to lie without giving himself away. Not that he had any real reason to suspect this man, but still...

Barlowe stared at him. “Are you accusing me of something? Perhaps you think I set the fire deliberately!”

“No, of course not. I was simply commenting on your good fortune. What was the name of the builder you visited? We have to check, you understand. It's just procedure.”

“I told all this to the other inspector.”

“Well, now you can tell me.”

“Arthur Cromley, of Cromley Construction and Renovations. He'll be able to confirm that I spoke to him on the evening of the sixteenth. I stayed in a hotel that night, returned the next day to find what had happened. Look, if I'd started the fire I wouldn’t have stayed, would I? I’d have disappeared, started a new life somewhere else. Everyone would think I'd died in the fire!”

“Relax, Mister Barlowe. No-one's accusing you of anything. We have to investigate this fire, you understand, and I just need to get these details straight.” He looked at the man sitting across from him. Tall but gaunt with an uncommonly broad, flat nose and whose small ears were completely hidden within the tangled mat of his sandy blonde hair. He was guilty of something, his years of professional experience told him that, but it probably wasn't arson. The man was an accountant. He'd probably been cooking the books, squirrelling a little money away for himself. Not a lot. The inspector judged him far too clever to attract notice by embezzling too much, but if he occasionally ordered four gallons of sulphuric acid from the supplier and wrote five in the accounts book, he could probably do it his whole career without getting caught, especially now that all the paperwork had been destroyed in the fire.

He closed the folder on his desk. “In fact, I think that's everything I need to know.” He stood, and Barlowe stood as well. “Thank you for your cooperation.”

“No problem.” The beading on his forehead was getting quite bad now. Most men would have wiped the sweat away with a handkerchief, but that would have wiped the powder away as well. He really didn't want anyone to see what was underneath! If Jugg had had cause to arrest him he could have had him stripped and washed, just to satisfy his curiosity, but the rights of innocent men had to be observed. He reflected, not for the first time, that his job would have been a lot easier if he lived in Carrow. Or most other countries, for that matter.

“Do you think it was arson?” asked the accountant. “Was it deliberate? Did someone kill all those people on purpose?”

“There's no reason to think so. From what I've heard, the place was an accident waiting to happen. Electrical equipment throwing sparks all over the place, all those inflammable chemicals. The wonder is that it didn’t go up years ago.”

“I only did the accounts, I rarely had reason to go down to the laboratories. If I'd known just how dangerous things were down there I’d have allocated money for extra safety measures. Maybe I was to blame. Maybe if I'd... Look, I'm not a safety expert. I'm just an accountant! Harry was supposed to be responsible for safety! If he thought the place was safe...”

“As I said, Mister Barlowe, no-one thinks you're to blame for this.” He held out his hand and, after a moment’s hesitation, Barlowe took it. “Thanks once again.”

Barlowe nodded and turned to go. “Do you mind if I ask you something?” asked Jugg, staring down at his hand. Some of the other man's skin powder had rubbed off on it. He wiped it clean on his trouser leg. Barlowe turned back to look at him. “Why do you cover your skin with powder? I get that you have stripes or spots or something. People call you Tiger Man, I suppose you know that. Everyone has nicknames. They call me Seal, because of the noise I make when I cough. They don't know I know that. It's just that, if I was raised from a tiger, I'd be proud of it! I'd wear my stripes openly, show them to the whole world!”

“I'm an accountant, inspector. If I wore my tiger stripes openly, people would think I was a great warrior or something, or pretending to be. I'd never have any peace. I can't stand violence. I abhore it! Do you have any idea how people laugh when they learn that a tiger chose to become an accountant? Everyone knows I have stripes, but at least I can keep them hidden, for the sake of a quiet life.”

“Yes, of course. So, what will you do now? Are there any openings for an accountant around here?”

“I still work for the Ministry of Science, and they have about a dozen places like RedHill, investigating other branches of science. They have special financial needs that mean it would take time for a regular accountant to be trained up. I expect they'll transfer me to one of them. I hear Greenwood at Bywater, that's the Metallurgical Institute. I hear he'll be going back into the ground soon. They might send me there.”

“Well, good luck wherever you end up.” Barlowe nodded again and left the room.

After a few moments the door opened again and Jorn Tellern entered along with Sergeant Barnaby, the inspector's assistant, who'd been listening to the interview from the next room. “What do you think?” asked the inspector. “Was it arson?”

“Arson, and murder,” confirmed the fire chief, “But I don't think he did it.” He nodded his head after the departing accountant. “My money's on Timmons, the caretaker.”

“Why?”

“The furnace was rigged, to make it give off fumes to overcome everyone in the building. It was full of wood, much more than you'd need to keep the building warm at this time of year. The boiler has to be kept hot all year round, but in the summer you normally just keep a small fire in there, to keep the metal hot, keep it from shrinking and cracking. That boiler was full, though. Like it was the middle of the worst winter ever!”

“Why would the arsonist want it that hot?”

“He wanted poisonous fumes. The wood in the furnace had turned to charcoal. It does that when there’s not enough oxygen for it to burn properly, and in the process it gives off toxic fumes. The chimney had been blocked by a fall of soot. I suppose that might have happened naturally, but the timing seems suspiciously coincidental. For a large soot fall to happen the day there’s a fire.”

“Perhaps the fire caused the soot fall. The shockwave as the roof fell somewhere, shaking the whole building.”

“No. The soot fell before the fire started. It was partially burned in a pattern that tells me this. You'll just have to take my word as an expert for that, I'm afraid.”

The inspector nodded. “Regulations say there has to be an emergency air vent, in case the main chimney’s blocked.”

Jorn nodded. “There was. We found ash in it. The remains of vegetable matter consumed by the fire.”

“Leaves from last autumn perhaps? Blown in by the wind?”

“Possibly, but we found what might have been the remains of twigs as well, as if someone had deliberately blocked the pipe with stuff that he hoped would be completely consumed in the fire, leaving no evidence. I suppose it's possible that the pipe became blocked by autumn leaves, as you suggest, but making sure it was clear would have been one of the caretaker's duties. Either he was lazy and incompetent, or someone blocked it deliberately. I think it was deliberate.”

“Why?”

“All the windows were closed, and all the internal doors were open, as if someone wanted the fumes to fill the building but not be able to escape. They didn’t just want to destroy the building, they wanted to kill everyone in it. They wanted them unconscious so they wouldn’t try to escape.”

Inspector Jugg nodded again. “Was the furnace the source of the fire?”

“No. We think it was set in the main laboratory. It's very difficult to tell for certain, but one thing we can be sure of is that it definitely didn’t start in the basement.”

“I'm guessing the caretakers body wasn't found in the ruins.”

“Not in the basement. He had a little mess room down there, where he had his lunch, did his paperwork and so forth. No human remains were found down there. In the rest of the building, the fire was hot enough to completely consume a human body, leaving no remains whatsoever, except for... No, nothing.”

“Except for what, please, mister Tellern.”

The fire chief looked embarrassed. “Well, we did find some human remains on the ground floor. Some bones, not completely destroyed by the fire. I sent them off to Poonwell, the forensics laboratory. Samantha Tucker sent back a report saying they were Hetin bones.”

“Hetin? How...?”

“She thinks they were three thousand year old bones that one of the scientists had been studying, for some reason. Anyway they're the only human remains left in the whole building.”

“Is there any reason the caretaker might have been roaming the building that time of night? Maybe he was doing some late night work, was overcome by the fumes along with everyone else and his body was burned up along with the scientists.”

“I don't know what his routine was. If he was working at night, for some reason, he'd have to have done it quietly to avoid waking everyone up.”

“And if he was in the basement, you'd have found his remains.”

“Yes. Fires tend to go up, not down. The basement was almost untouched, and we found no human remains there.”

“Okay, thank you, mister Tellern. You've been very helpful. Please let me have a full copy of your report as soon as you’ve finished it.”

“I will. The King has also asked for a copy. He's taken an interest in this matter, for some reason.”

“Yes. He's asked for my findings as well. I've sent back a request asking why this is important to him. If there are important matters of state involved, that could shed light on the motive, suggest some suspects. Anyway, that needn't concern you. Thank you again, mister Tellern.” The fire chief nodded and left.

“So, Timmons. The caretaker,” said Barnaby when the two men were alone in the interrogation room.

“He'll be our prime suspect, yes. What did you find out about him?”

The sergeant produced a small notebook and flipped through it until he came to the right page. “Albert Timmons, raised from a dog. The son of Frank and Hetty Simmons. Had a house on Whitenettle Street, but hardly ever went there. Spent almost all his time in the RedHill building. No surviving family, his neighbours say he was quiet and ordinary, never got up to much. Enjoyed the occasional evening down the pub with the tannery men where they talked about kickball and horse racing. No debts, no convictions. That's it, really. That's all anyone knows about him.”

Jugg nodded. “A nobody, then, but possibly with dreams and ambitions and burning with the knowledge that he would never be able to achieve them. Bitter, resentful. But then someone contacts him, offers him money to set the fire. He certainly had no motive to do something like that of his own accord. He sees the chance to actually achieve those dreams, live the high life. How can he refuse? I doubt we'll ever catch up to him, though. He'll be in Kelvon by now, under a new identity. No, I think we need to focus our attention on the motives of the people who hired him. Why did they want the building destroyed, the scientists killed?”

Barnaby turned the pages of his notebook, scratching at his bushy sideburns as he struggled to read his own handwriting. “The cleaning staff say the scientists were celebrating the day before. Some kind of breakthrough. Maybe it was Carrow, not wanting us to have a scientific breakthrough that we might use against them.”

“An international connection! That would explain the King's interest. What were they working on?”

“Those Above know. Something to do with electricity, I assume. One of the cooks said they were playing a tune, the national anthem. Perhaps they were inventing a new musical instrument that runs on electricity.”

“Doesn't sound like something you'd kill a whole bunch of people over.” The inspector thought for a moment. “Scientists correspond with each other. They love to brag about their new inventions to people who know enough to appreciate them. Perhaps if we get in touch with another scientist working on electricity, ask if he knows anything about it... Knowing what they were working on might tell us who'd have a motive to stop it.”

“I'm guessing some kind of new weapon,” said Barnaby, closing his notebook and putting it back in his pocket. “It’ll be Carrow, you mark my words. Or, no, listen! Maybe some other scientist was working on the exact same thing. He found out Hester had made a breakthrough and got jealous! Wanted the credit for himself, so he killed her before she could publish! We should find out who her biggest rival was!”

Jugg thought that was unlikely, but who knew? People had killed each other for stranger reasons. “So, two reasons to bring her in and have a talk with her,” he said. “It's probably a her, scientists usually are. Find her, Barnaby, and bring her in.” The sergeant nodded eagerly and trotted off to obey.

An idea came to the inspector and he also hurried out of the room. A long shot, but you never knew. He ran along the corridor, past a pair of startled junior guardsmen, past the evidence room, the guard common room, the changing room and through the reception room where the desk sergeant stared after him in astonishment. Then he pulled open the guard house's main entrance and ran out into the street. He stared at the people strolling past, looking for Jorn Tellern, and found him about to climb into a cab. “Mister Tellern!” The fire chief looked around in surprise. “Mister Tellern! Could I have another quick word, please?”

The fire chief said something to the cab driver, who slapped the reins and drove off down the street. “What can I do for you, inspector?” he asked.

“The fire. I assume it wasn't hot enough to totally destroy the equipment in the laboratory.”

“Nowhere near. A wood fire burns at around six hundred degrees. Copper melts at over a thousand degrees, and steel has a higher melting point still. The metal was warped and blackened, the rubber and fabric insulation had burned from the wires, but everything would still have been perfectly recognisable to an expert.”

“And you catalogued the positions of every item of equipment?”

“Yes. Any bit of wiring might have been the cause of the fire.”

“I assume there was one work bench in particular on which they did their most important work.”

The fire chief smiled. “I can see where you're going with this, and I think I can save you some time. The main work bench was empty.”

“Empty? You're sure of that?”

“Pretty sure. I remember because we remarked at the time how unusual that was. They must have just finished their previous project and were making space for their next one.”

“We have information that they were celebrating some kind of breakthrough.”

“Well, there you are then.”

“No, you don't get it. By all accounts they were really celebrating. Singing and dancing, probably setting off fireworks. It was a major breakthrough. They wouldn’t have just dismantled it and packed it all away. They'd have kept it there, maybe for weeks. Gloating over it, turning it on again and again to see it work. If the workbench was empty...”

“The arsonist did it!” cried Jorn in realisation. “He killed all those men because of the breakthrough! He wanted it deleted, wiped out as if it had never existed, so he dismantled the equipment and scattered it about the laboratory before starting the fire!”

“Yes, that now seems the unavoidable conclusion. My assistant thinks the caretaker was in the pay of Carrow agents, and it’s becoming harder and harder to escape from that conclusion. Did you find anything in the ruins that suggests a Carrow connection?”

“Like what? There was some Carrow coinage, but it might have been there for years. None of it was stamped with Nilon's face.” He sighed. “I'll look through all my notes again, see if anything stands out.”

“I'd appreciate it, thanks. I'll leave you to get your cab now.”

“Please don't hesitate to contact me again if I can be of any more help.” He nodded to the inspector, then waved for another cab.

☆☆☆

Barlowe watched with relief from his position behind the large, red letter box as the inspector went back into the guard house and the fire chief climbed into a horse drawn cab. When he'd been brought in by the two burly guardsmen he'd feared the worst, that he’d left some damning clue and they knew it was him. Even when they’d told him they didn't suspect him, he'd feared some kind of trap, but the conversation he'd just overheard had settled his mind considerably He was still far from safe, he knew, but he could at least relax a little, so long as he acted normally.

*Report* said the voice in his head. He looked up and saw the Radiant almost directly above him, its thinner tentacles swept off to one side by the wind. A woman on a rooftop was waving her hands wildly, trying to attract its attention, but the creature ignored her. It wasn't here looking for a human to adopt. Seeing her brought back memories of his own adoption, though. He'd been one of six friends who'd spent months standing on tall buildings, trying to catch their eyes. He still had no idea why the Radiant had chosen him, rather than any of the others, and he remembered the looks on their faces as it carried him off. Triumph that one of them had succeeded, then chagrin when the others had been passed over. He wondered whether any of the others had been successful later, and if not, how long they’d kept trying before finally giving up.

*They don't suspect me,* He thought back. *They think it was Carrow agents.*

*That is fortunate. Perhaps we should have left something in the ruins to incriminate them. Our first attempt to start a war between Carrow and Helberion has failed. We must lay the groundwork for something else.*

*Leaving a clue would have been a mistake, I think. It would have been too convenient, too suspicious. It would have had the opposite effect to the one intended, making them doubt a connection with Carrow. Best to leave things as they are, I think. The fact that Carrow stands to gain from the fire is enough.*

*I will trust in your greater understanding of human psychology. You must now bend your efforts to being placed in the new electricity laboratory, when it is created. We will need to know if anyone else is close to perfecting alternating current.*

*If I sabotage them again, they'll know it was me. They'll hunt me down...*

*Once your usefulness as an agent is over, you will be taken back to one of our cities to complete your raising to Radiant. You need not fear human authorities.*

That was good to know. Soon, he would be a higher being with a sharper intellect, able to contemplate matters far beyond human comprehension, all petty human concerns left far behind. This in between state he'd been left in for all these years was harrowing. Every day ran the risk of discovery if he allowed his skin powder to rub thin enough for the radiance of his skin to show through. The thought prompted him to pull the tin from his pocket, open it and dab at the skin under the collar of his shirt with the small brush.

*As RedHill's bookkeeper, one of my responsibilities was to see that the building's safety measures were adequately funded. If they decide that the fire was partly due to my negligence, they may choose someone else for the new electricity laboratory.*

*If they do, we will carry off their preferred candidate, make it appear as though we are adopting him. If he is not suitable for adoption, we will simply curse him back to his animal form.*

*What If he doesn’t want to be adopted?*

*We will take him anyway. We adopt an unwilling human from time to time, so that it does not look suspicious when we do this. We doubt that a bookkeeper will be carrying a weapon that can hurt one of us, or be guarded by armed friends and relatives. Only in the case of serious, armed resistance would we abandon the attempt. I must go now. If I loiter in this area, it will attract notice and people may speculate upon my interest in you.* The creature rose, and as it did so one of its thicker, stronger tentacles reached out to the woman standing on the rooftop. She gave a whoop of joy as it wrapped around her waist, and then she was carried up into the air, to the wild applause of the people in the street below. Barlowe added his own applause, while wondering whether she would indeed be adopted, or whether the Radiant had only taken her to provide an explanation for being in the city and would abandon her in some remote spot later, after having cursed her back to her animal form. Then he put the trivial matter out of his mind and waved for a cab.

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