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Chapter 18

THE INTERMINABLE SAND UNFURLED beneath the rover in a maddening crawl. Drinkwine bit down hard, his mind swirling with a host of ‘what ifs?’ He checked his service weapon for the second time. Less than a quarter of battery life. A bad habit, he often forgot to put it on a night charge. A quarter charge. It made him think of the range of the rover. The dial indicated slightly less than a full charge, and dipping fast given the load he was demanding from the battery to speed him to Jafar Barr. But first, one last stop; the burned out research shed.

After more than two hours of monotonous clanking of treads over the long stretch of rock-strewn hard pack, a dark spot corrupted the landscape of red. As the rover crept closer, Drinkwine saw the remains of what had been an outpost of science; the burnt skeletal structure of a research shed. The fire had, quite literally, burned it to the ground. There were several columns of deeply charcoaled wood that jutted from the sand in varying heights, looking like a muted pipe organ rising out of the ground. There were but a few sparse remnants of wall. The sheets of corrugated steel that had comprised the roof had been ripped off by the harassing winds and tossed randomly into the desert. Toasted black and bent by heat, they were strewn about the area, half sunk in the sand. Mars had already begun the slow burial of the remains. It’s what Mars did in its irreverent play; bury all signs of man.

Drinkwine brought the rover to a stop. He carefully surveyed the area before emerging into the heat. As far as the eye could see in any direction—nothing. The only movement was a vague impetus of threat from a soft wind that frolicked nearby. It broke from its boredom to curiously spy on him, lazily attempting to incite the surrounding sand without success. On the opposing horizon, incongruous with the expanse of pale blue, brewed a mass of dark gray cloud. It felt inconsequential. But Drinkwine had learned to not disregard any of this planet’s flirtations with the elements. He studied the brooding patch as it lumbered across the sky, upsetting the otherwise clear day and then, without a sound, was illumed from deep within by a soundless bolt of lightning.

He made for the burnt, melted mess that was slowly being reclaimed by the desert. Stepping up onto the charred flooring, Drinkwine took stock. The fire had been intense. The area held that ugly smell the rapturous burn of fire, unchecked, leaves in its wake. The heat that had done this damage, deforming the shed and its contents, had long since cooled, leaving behind strange steel sculptures, bent and worthless, augmented by ugly globs of melted plastic that looked like hideous, cancerous growths.

In the report, Barr had stated that the blaze was the result of a hot plate catching the curtains on fire. Making tea, he reported. Probably some of his Jasmine, Drinkwine mused. Barr had written that it was all he could do to get out of the dwelling before the entire structure had been engulfed in flames and burnt to the ground before a single attempt at extinguishing it could be made. Proof to this point, whether a lie or not, was the fire extinguisher still clamped to its wall mount. How convenient, Jafar couldn’t stop the flame from engulfing the structure.

Careful not to land a foot on the protruding nails that had been left behind when the wood around them had been burned away, Drinkwine carefully made his way over and under the fallen, blackened and charred beams and ceiling joists that had once amounted to a shed. They had been reduced to waffled patterns of charcoal that had collapsed in on themselves.

Standing at the center of the structure, Drinkwine made a careful scan, reconstructing what the interior of the building must have looked like before the inferno engulfed it. He contrived where a long workbench had been, the work lamps melted into the morass, the plastic material of the swivel chair burned away, leaving just the charred skeletal framework. The small appliances of the kitchen; the refrigerator, the stove, the dishwasher, had all been fried to a crisp. A latticework of springs was all that was left of the couch in what had been a small living area.

The one personal imprint of Jafar Barr among the shed were the charred remains of what had once been a turntable and a grotesque clump of melted goo that had been some of his cherished vinyl records. The records, once etched with beautiful music in their tiny grooves, were now worthless and soundless and ugly. Barr had obviously brought a small selection of his precious discs from his extensive collection at the dormitory to help wile away the long hours of isolation. He had said in his interview that the vinyl replicated the music with a quality of audio unmatched by modern digital components. He had excitedly explained the care required in the handling of the rare vinyl records; the spinning of the turntable; and the scratch of the needle that magically drew the music out of the grooves of the old recordings performed by musicians who had all since died. Drinkwine recalled that Barr had been unusually fascinated by the notion that all the musicians that had played on the old vinyl discs were long dead.

Drinkwine stopped and automatically reversed his slow, methodical turn of observation when his mind discerned something that disrupted the logic of the shed. A charred metal cabinet, melted and bent to half its original size, was set by the back entrance in such a way that it impeded the natural swing of the door. The placement of the cabinet didn’t make sense. This little thing entranced him, so Drinkwine entertained his curiosity. Upon closer scrutiny it became obvious that the cabinet had been moved prior to the blaze consuming the building. Why?

Placing his hands on either side of the charred cabinet, Drinkwine took firm hold and began rocking it away from what little remained of the wall behind. The ash and soot quickly discolored his hands as he shimmied the flimsy cabinet away from the stubby, burnt timbers of frame.

Once clear of the deformed cabinet, Drinkwine studied the charred remains of the structure. Retrieving his bifocals and pulling them on after wiping a layer of red mist from their lens, he patiently scrutinized what little was left of the wall. Barely visible in the layers of charcoaled wood, Drinkwine discovered a tiny hole, a near perfect circle of indentation. Snapping open a small titanium pocketknife from his jacket, Drinkwine crouched down and carefully pushed the sharp tip of the blade into the diminutive cavity.

After some prying, he withdrew a tiny, discolored shot pellet. Rubbing it between his fingers removed its covering of ash. Head tilted back to better focus on it in the sunlight—rapidly declining against the gathering storm—Drinkwine recognized it as one of the 9.1mm tungsten shot pellets from the shells exclusive to the Roches riot weapon. It was a damning remnant of the overspray from the wide spread of the Roches’ notoriously lethal cylinder choke. Drinkwine understood he held in his hand the immaculately condemning evidence that tied Jafar Barr to the murder of Michael Byrne. Purely out of curiosity and routine—and perhaps to buy some time to think about his next, critical step—Drinkwine searched out more of the incriminating holes, using the knife to pry the singed pellets from where they had been deeply imbedded. The pattern of tiny holes formed a halo in the wall around where Byrne’s head had gotten in the way of the violent burst. In short order Drinkwine held a dozen of the tungsten pellets in his closed fist, tinkling with the sound of marbles.

Rising stiffly, Drinkwine circled the kill spot, reassembling the gruesome scene from the facts now coming together with startling clarity. The corona of pellet strikes made a disturbing shrine above where the vinyl discs had been reduced to globs by the heat of the fire. Judging by the entrance wound, Drinkwine figured that Michael Byrne had been crouched on the floor before the antique turntable. So, he had been listening to some of Barr’s precious records. Barr had evidently drawn Byrne into a degree of comfort, distracting him with the exceptional fidelity of one of the vinyl records, rotating at 33½ rpm, the needle drawing beautiful music up out of its shallow grooves. Then, with Byrne enthralled in the turning disc and sweet music, Barr had leveled the Roches riot gun at the back of his skull.

Why had he done it? The two men were obviously not in a fracas. In fact, it appears the mood was one of congeniality, simply enjoying some music. What the fuck had poor old Michael Byrne done to warrant Jafar Barr blasting a gaping hole in his head? How strange, to be unaware that you have roused the thought of homicide, your homicide, in the mind of a coldblooded killer. How odd. And what was Michael Byrne listening to when it happened?

Drinkwine noticed the darkening skies that had congregated to watch him, threatening to mature into one of Mars’ rare thunderstorms. The clouds seemed to be gathering in celebration of his discovery.

Based on the angle of the entrance wound and the halo of pellet holes in the wall, Drinkwine easily estimated the trajectory, taking up position behind where Byrne had evidently been settled on the floor, unaware his life was about to be ended. Then, drawing on a path of execution, Drinkwine extended his arm, holding an imaginary Roches riot gun in his hand. As the storm clouds swept in, Drinkwine envisioned the fully intact research center—a ghosted image of Byrne squatted relaxed on the floor before the stereo, innocently handling an album sleeve—Barr standing behind, about to take away everything the victim possessed. As he eased back on the trigger the gathering storm announced its fury with a powerful series of celebratory lightning strikes, the immediate thunder clasp augmenting the explosion out the muzzle of the Roches as Byrne’s brains splattered the wall. The disturbing vision dissolved with the first droplet of rain against Drinkwine’s cheek, jarring him back to the burnt skeletal environs of the shed.

Drinkwine surmised that Jafar Barr had attempted to clean up the murder scene, placing the cabinet to hide the pellet holes. He had most likely been shocked by the unexpected mess, the copious volume of blood and brain unleashed with the violent discharge of the weapon and—realizing there was no way to adequately rid the shed of incriminating evidence—had determined that an erasing blaze was his best option. The sky rejoiced with a flash of lightning followed a moment later by a crack of thunder—celestial applause to his breaking of the case. The droplets of rain were few, but large and heavy, splattering against the remnant metal roof pieces like a discordant orchestra.

Making for the rover, Drinkwine’s mind was awash with thoughts to chart his next move. There was no question now. It all lined up. Barr had killed a man. He’d blown his head almost clean away, then decided to torch the shed to get rid of the evidence. However, he was intelligent enough to know that forensics would find clues, however thin, if he’d tried to get rid of the body in the fire. So, he’d removed the corpse of Michael Byrne from the hut before burning it to the ground. He’d then taken the deceased out to where science and industry would eventually raise a cover of water and shackled the faceless body to an old root, with hopes the lake would never give up its dead. Very clever.

But then the winds went and ruined his plan. They’d contrived to uncover the caper. Barr had no doubt been nervous upon learning of the arrival of Drinkwine. When the questions started in and Drinkwine began his steady progress to an answer, Barr had made good on the lucky incident of the fainting spell and forged the interview papers to absolve himself. It had almost worked. What if he’d not seen that Loss & Damage report? Drinkwine thought. But, that was how tentative these things were. This was how fragile justice was, too often suffering the luck of randomness and chance, relying on the stumbling onto evidence. Well, thank the stars it had been uncovered. No reason to question the precariousness of it all. He had his man. That’s all that mattered. Drinkwine decided not to spend too much time questioning it. Regardless, circumstance had prevailed. He knew who the killer was. He knew where it had happened. There remained the motive. Why? That would have to wait. For all intents and purposes, Drinkwine’s job was almost done. There was enough evidence to get a conviction. But there was now the task of getting him into custody.

Drinkwine plugged the coordinates for the remote research outpost into the GPS where, presently, Barr was carrying on with his duties, totally unaware. Or was he? What now drummed Drinkwine’s head was if Barr had the Roches with him. He didn’t want to consider that a Roches riot gun, in the hands of a wanted murderer, might well be waiting for him at the end of that desert that lay between himself and Barr. Would there be a confrontation? Men do strange things when they are up against a wall, when their freedom is in jeopardy. Drinkwine shook the speculation from his head as he pushed toward the distance, toward where Jafar Barr was ensconced in research. The barren red plains of Mars stretched out before him, leading him ominously to his rendezvous with a killer. Innocence until proven... to hell with it. Barr killed Byrne. He killed him.

The mad rush to make sense of the puzzle brought all the questions flooding back like a festering wound. Why had Barr done it? There was no money to be had. There was no suggestion of any labor disputes or safety issues—aside from what was taken here as normal. Perhaps a failed homosexual encounter? A rejection? Was it jealousy? Was Barr gay? Perhaps Byrne wasn’t, or vice versa? Was he fearful of the harsh laws of Islam regarding an accusation of homosexuality? Was that enough to take Byrne’s life? Why had Barr lured the victim to the shed, stuck a Roches riot gun at the back of his skull and pulled the trigger, ending the man’s life and spilling the very essence of his character on the wall? Every memory, every dream, every laugh the man had ever experienced had dripped down the plaster walls of that shed and were sent to high heaven on the heat waves of an intense and all consuming blaze. All of these things crossed Drinkwine’s mind in rapid succession. Why had he done it?

Drinkwine couldn’t quite fathom how Jafar Barr would react when confronted with a charge of murder. Best not to imagine the multitude of scenarios that might unfold, as they would all most likely prove to be wrong. Best to just go, and be ready for anything.

It was at that moment, Drinkwine realized with sobering implications, that in his haste to get after the perpetrator of the crime he had forgotten to bring his hat and, worse, water. He hadn’t used his head. Damnit. His crime, he thought to himself. Yes, it was his crime. Drinkwine repeatedly scolded himself for his foolishness. That foolishness might well plant him out here in the desert where the sand, in gleeful collusion with the wind, would bury him in an anonymous grave. How could he have been so stupid as to not grab a hat and water? Too obsessed with his work. Tunnel vision. That’s what she had accused him of. Perhaps it was true. Painfully true. Just a liter bottle of water—something—anything. Drinkwine had to shake himself from the thought. He was drifting now. He felt the sands laughing at him. The heat was already scheming to undo him.

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