Inspecteur Hollins and The Multimillion Vault

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FreeRIDErs story universe

Inspecteur Hollins and The Multimillion Vault

Author: Fibio
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Inspecteur Hollins started her day by throwing herself out of a flier. At mach two and thirty kilometers up the winds were fearsome and the hardlight projectors whined in protest and, with skill stemming from long practice Hollins flipped around into the wind to minimise drag. Below her Zharus stretched out, the vast sands of Gondwana a rudy yellow in the noon light and Hollins sent herself into a slow spin, alternating between space and land as she took in the view.

For the first time since her sudden change of gender Hollins felt normal. With the wind clawing at her hardlight shield trying to tear her limb from limb and the sinking feeling of freefall sending her heart dancing in her throat she was at peace. Orbital diving had been an extreme sport since humans first set foot in space, though the pre-space age craze sweeping the planet had driven it out of fashion and the purist form Hollins belonged to was almost extinct.

No RIDEs was the key rule. Nothing but the bare minimum of safety equipment between the unforgiving sky and the fragile human within and certainly no AI. Hollins wore a skin tight pressure suit studded with tiny hardlight projectors and a bulky diver’s backpack that was almost entirely batteries for them. She also had a set of short burn lifters for the inevitable landing and an emergency parachute or two for the day when things went catastrophically wrong.

Hollins dropped below the sound barrier and, with a series of expert finger twitches, reconfigured the hardlight shell into flight mode. She started slow, the suit had just been tailored to fit her new form and she still was unused to her new proportions, dropping into a loose corkscrew. She wasn’t ripped apart by the winds so began to step things up, moving through the more complicated forms, loops, barrel rolls and controlled stalls.

She was rather perturbed when a call came through.

“Hollins, where are you?” Jackie demanded. “Quell and I have been looking all over Uplift.”

“You probably should have looked a bit higher,” Hollins sighed, dropping into a neutral dive on her belly. “Can I help you?”

“Yeah, we’ve got a case.”

Hollins sighed. “Does commissaire Jarvis not understand the concept of medical leave?”

“I think she works along the lines that anyone sick enough to use it requires a mercy killing,” Jackie chuckled. “Holy shit Quell, you’re right, that is her.”

Hollins rolled her eyes and waved at the hardlight domes of Uplift, still a few tens of thousand feet below but visible as a great boil on the landscape. “Come on Jackie, you know this is my hobby.”

“Knowing it is one thing, watching you doing it is another,” Jackie grumbled. “Most people just buy avian RIDEs you know.”

“Where’s the fun in that?” Hollin demanded, then grinned. “Anyway, watch this.”

The hardlight shell flared into full life and the deceleration hit Hollins like a hammer blow. She rode it like an expert, spinning twice head over heels before dropping back into airfoil mode and hurling herself into a series of twisting rolls and swoops.

“Ho----it----lins. Qu--------com---”

Hollins hit banked and leapt into a stall, firing the emergency lifters to hold motionless in mid air for a moment before resuming her plummet back to earth.

“Okay, I think you’ve made your point,” Jackie sighed, as Hollins panted from the sheer adrenaline rush. “Oh and Quell can’t believe she couldn’t keep laser lock.”

“Well I’ve been doing this before she was born,” Hollins replied. “Anyway, what’s the case?”

“We found a professional bank robber fed into his apartment fabber. Gruesome, but interesting.”

“Okay, give me a few minutes to land and grab my clothes and I be right with you.” Hollins cut the call and flipped over to stare wistfully at the azure sky. “Tomorrow she promised.”

Separator f.png

Hollins was slowly getting the hang of feminine clothes, not due to personal choice, Jackie had snuck into her apartment a few days ago and stolen most of the masculine items so it had been more a matter of sink or swim. Still, the leather jacket and fedora drew looks as she let herself into the maintenance spaces of The Thrushton Gate complex. It was a swanky place, a ten story block of large, airy apartments overlooking one of Uplifts many parks. Not a high flyer’s domicile, but certainly the home of someone who didn’t have to worry where their next meal was coming from.

“Hello Inspecteur,” Gardien Stagiaire Kernan said, shaking her hand. “Dog and I were very sorry to hear what happened with the Cleopatra case.”

“Thank you Kernan,” Hollins replied, having to crane her neck to look up at the giant of a man. “And you Dog,” she addressed the wolf RIDE at his side. “Now you have a body for me to look at?”

“Yes, follow me.”

He lead Hollins through the twisting underpassages till they reached the heart of the building.

The first thing Hollins noticed was the blood, it was everywhere, on the walls, on the floor, even splatters on the ceiling. It was a good thing her stomach was still tight with adrenaline or she might have thrown up on the spot and judging from the large splash of vomit next to the doorway, someone already had.

“Over here Teddy,” Jackie called, from a clear section of the room, waving with her drinks bottle. “Mind your feet.”

Beyond the blood the room was a typical service space, an unfinished cube filled with ductwork, piping and a large fabber/recycler which was nestled in the center of the blood splatter.

“Okay, I think we in the running for the most gruesome case award,” Hollins sighed, picking her way past the dried mass of blood. “Morning Dr Willwerth.”

“Morning Hollins,” the coroner replied. “Might want to hold off on that till after you’ve seen the body.” He gestured at the white cocoon lying next to him.

“Okay, I’ve seen some pretty bad things in my time,” Hollins said, shrugging. “Hit me.”

Willwerth pulled back the cacoon to reveal half a body. The head was completely gone, and shoulders. The rib cage had been caved in from above as if the body had been crushed beneath a giant rolling pin and the arms lay detached at either side, both looking as if they’d been gnawed at. Hollins felt her gall rising as she stared in horror at the blood drenched corpse and Willwerth quickly closed the cocoon.

“Please,” Hollins began and choked. “Please, tell me he was dead when that happened to him.”

“Luckily for him, yes,” Willwerth sighed. “Not by long though, maybe half an hour tops. I’ll narrow that down for you when I get him to the lab.”

Hollins gasped in relief. “So he ended up in the fabber then?” The large domestic fabbers in most buildings were a combination of a waste recycler and factory, rubbish went in one end, was ground to pulp by two great metal drums and then fed into the nanite tanks for post processing into useful material. “I thought that only happened in movies.”

“Well, that’s where we pulled the body from,” Kernan interjected. “God that was an ugly sight.”

“The corpse ended up diving in headfirst and got juiced,” Jackie explained, slurping at her drink and making everyone wince. “That’s why it looks like a bad splatter flick in here.”

“There are supposed to be safety interlocks on those fabbers so that they can’t...” Hollins petered out. “You know, do that.”

“Sadly it seems the building superintendent isn’t quite as up to code as we’d have liked,” Jackie explained with a shrug. “The spray shield was also loose so the blood got everywhere. We’re lucky in a way that there was a working sensor in the output hopper or we wouldn’t have a body at all.”

“Well, score one for redundancy,” Hollins sighed. “Okay, what do we have on cause of death?”

Willwerth shrugged. “Nothing. There are no obvious marks on the body beyond those the fabber gave him. I’ll do the autopsy, but if it was head or neck trauma I’m obviously not going to find anything.”

“Okay, how about we search for genetic traces?”

“Not a hope in hell madam,” Quell, Jackie’s pink panther RIDE, chimed in. “The victim is covered in his own blood and from my readings went in with a load of biological waste. It is the proverbial, needle in a haystack.”

“You can do genetic screens in the field?” Hollins asked the RIDE in surprise.

Quell allowed herself a smug grin and Jackie said. “See. Can I pick them or what?”

“So no wounds, no genetic traces,” Hollins sighed. “What about the building computer?”

Jackie’s face fell. “It was logic bombed, the entire network and every computer connected to it at the time. The only digital survivor was a RIDE that was quick off the mark.”

Hollins did a double take. Using a logic bomb on a system was rather akin to nuking a city to cover up a pickpocketing. “Bloody hell,” she whispered. “Any casualties?”

“Fortunately everything failed safe,” Jackie said, shrugging.

“Also this isn’t a very RIDE heavy area, it could have been much worse,” Quell interjected.

“Okay, well this isn’t going to be a simple one,” Hollins said, chewing her lip. “Kernan, what do think of the killer?”

Kernan looked startled. “Me ma’am?”

“Yeah, you,” Hollins continued. “Think of it as experience.”

“Well, at a guess, it was a crime of passion?” Kernan suggested, Dog rolled his eyes and nudged the young guardian. “Everything seems sloppy. Feeding him into a fabber, setting off a data bomb, it all scans like a bad holo.”

“Exactly,” Hollins said and Kernan beamed. “So by that theory someone killed the victim in a crime of passion and went onto autopilot, mostly cribbing off what they saw in the movies.”

“Makes sense,” Jackie admitted. “Of course, if the fabber sensors were actually working right we would have caught them right away and that does imply that they were crazy enough to actually carry around a logic bomb on the off chance they’d need one.”

“Well its a start, okay how about the victim themselves, what do we-”

Both RIDEs started suddenly. “Shit,” Dog swore.

“The first bank has just been robbed,” Quell reported, staring off into the middle distance. “Commissaire Jarvis has called us in.”

“And us,” Dog continued. “Looks like half the district is en route.”

“Sorry Willwerth, we’re going to have to cut this short,” Hollins snapped, leaping over the pool of dried blood in her haste to reach the door. “We’ll redirect some guardians to close up the scene properly once this blows over.”

“No problem inspecteur,” he called after them. “And hurry, I have money in that bank.”

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A few minutes later Hollins and Jackie were speeding through the skies of Uplift on the back of Quell in skimmer mode, sirens wailing, scattering the traffic like so much chaff.

“Have we gotten anything from the com?” Hollins yelled over the windsheer. Quell, as an intelligence frame had skimped on many of the features the civilian models boasted, such as a second seat, canopy or even basic stabilization. As such Hollins was perched on the rear lifter casing with a death grip around Jackie’s waist.

“Why do you check on your notebook?” Jackie yelled back. “I’m a little busy flying.”

“I’m the one flying,” Quell snipped.

“My notebook is out of commision,” Hollins snapped. “Remember how Jarvis chewed out the computer security guys about not bothering to put mention of a virus whose major effect is kidnapping in the blotter?”

“Yeah, half the Commissariat turned out to watch.”

“Well someone mentioned to them that I was the one that tipped her off so now all my electronics are down due to ‘unexplained technical issues’.” Hollins sighed. “I really hate department politics sometimes.”

“If you’d like, I could publish some choice files from that hidden server they don’t think anyone knows about,” Quell offered.

“Okay, you’ve been spending too much time with Jackie,” Hollins chidded.

“Probably, now hold on!”

Quell’s lifters whined in protest as she dropped in a stall and she disappeared from underneath the woman as she shifted into walker mode. Hollins dropped the final few feet to the ground and landed gracefully, Jackie stumbled and fell on her face.

“Damn it Quell, warn me when you’re going to do that!” Jackie snapped, scrambling to her feet.

“I’ve definitely been spending too much time with her,” the pink panther agreed, licking her hardlight fur smooth.

The bank was a tall structure of steel and marble, inspired by the ancient temples of commerce from Earth it was all strong columns and rich engraving, studded by huge hardlight screens that projected a slew of green stock tickers. Every inch seemed to have been crafted to produce a sense of immutability, of security and trust, an effect that was rather undermined by the sheer number of gendarmerie swarming around it’s base.

Hollins and Jackie strode through the throng of humans and RIDEs. The whole building was being evacuated, office workers and customers divided up into groups for later interview by one group of guardians while another troop went through every bag and were running hand scanners over anything that moved. Standing at the center of the chaos was commissaire Jarvis and two, very irate looking men in expensive suits.

“Look at this circus,” Jackie muttered. “I didn’t even realise we had this many people on the force.”

“Its the way of the world saggy,” Hollins sighed. “They say our job is to protect the people but when you get right down to it, its places like this that sign our paycheque.”

“Ah, there they are,” Jarvis snapped, as they drew closer. “Mr. Kain and Mr. Saxton, this is inspecteurs Hollins and Phillips, they’ll be making this case their top priority.”

“Act-” Jackie began, but Quell nudged her before she could go any further.

“Exactly,” Hollins assured them, shaking hands with both men. Kain was a large and painfully well muscled, not the true strength of someone who worked out but the sheer power of someone with enough money to throw at nanite treatments every month. Hollins met his bone crushing grip without wincing and pegged him as someone very high up in the bank’s hierarchy, or at least someone who believed he held a position above the mere mortals that made up his staff.

Saxton was short and lythe and carried himself with the easy confidence of an ex-military man and didn’t need to debase himself with a bone crushing grip. His blond hair was kept cropped short and he had a ruggedly handsome cast to his face that looked more natural than half the people in the crowd.

“Ah, clearly we need to be robbed more often,” he observed, revealing pearly white teeth as he smiled. Hollins met his gaze with a level stare. “Call me Deen.”

“I do not think this is a time for womanising,” Kain snapped. “We have just lost an unimaginable amount of mu and I demand answers.”

“I assure you we will do all we can,” Hollins replied. “Now, details were a little sketchy. What exactly was the nature of this robbery?”

Kain looked around the lobby suspiciously, already the news drones were beginning to swarm. “Not here,” he muttered. “Follow me.”

Kain and Saxton lead them down to the vault. While the upstairs had been impressive from an artistic perspective the vault had been designed for a very different purpose. Hollins whistled her approval as they past the monumental white door.

“Like it?” Deen enquired. “Five tons of an alloy so specialised that it doesn’t have a name, just a number. It’ll shrug off a blast from a short range plasma cannon, it’s coated in a layer of meta-materials that will scatter all lasered light and is harder than diamond.”

Stepping through the foot deep doorway they saw row upon row of safe deposit boxes, all shiny and new, and to Hollins surprise they paused at a small security booth.

“You have guards inside the vault?” she asked, cocking an eyebrow.

“Offically yes,” Deen said with a shrug, sitting behind the console. “However this is not actually the vault, just the anteroom.” A few swift button presses and a block of boxes swung inwards revealing a second, much smaller space. “This is the vault.”

Somewhat bemused Hollins followed him into the secret chamber. It was small and cramped and only two people could enter at once, Hollins fancied that she could feel the sheer weight of metal pressing down on her within that white, sterile space. Hovering in mid air before them was a small safe, though coated with the same white, anti-absorbent material as the main door. It was hanging open and empty.

“Okay,” Hollins began, frowning. “How about you explain to me what I’m looking at.”

“An unmitigated disaster,” Kain blustered. “We have lost millions. Millions. This is on your head Saxton.”

“Please Mr. Kain,” Deen sighed. “It’s not over yet, we might yet find them sneaking the qubitite out of the building.”

“Qubitite?” Hollins asked in surprise. “Why is a bank holding onto qubitite?”

Kain harrumphed but Saxton just smiled. “Why, because its the new gold reserve,” Deen explained. “Top grade qubitite is the most valuable substance in the system, maybe even the universe, and the bank is required by law to keep a reasonable proportion of its assets in an easily liquidated form. As it is worth so much per unit volume the bank uses it to store much of these funds in a very limited space compared to bars of rare earth metals.”

“How large a proportion are we talking about here?” Hollins asked, a sinking feeling in her stomach.

“Billions!” Kain exclaimed. “We’ll be ruined. The stock prices will plummet.”

“About one percent of the bank’s net worth,” Saxton sighed. “It was just a small fraction of our qubitite stocks. Thank god.”

“Right, well I’m going to have to ask some pretty detailed questions,” Hollins said, pulling out her notepad and smacking it against her arm to reboot it. “Perhaps Mr. Kain you would like to check in on matters upstairs, I’m sure Inspecteur Philips and I will be able to handle things for now.”

“Come on John,” Jarvis interjected, cutting off Kain before he could protest. “We need to start work on our press release anyway.”

“Oh hell, they’ll eat us alive,” Kain whimpered as Jarvis led him away.

Hollins breathed a sigh of relief. “Right, well now he’s out of the way, perhaps we can get down to business. Jackie, Quell could you start scanning the vault for any anomalies, Mr. Saxton perhaps you could answer a few questions for me.”

“Of course. Lets take a seat in the anteroom and I can answer any questions you might have.”

He led them to the security console and pulled a small folding chair out of an armoured recess. “We keep these in case we need to post a larger guard for whatever reasons,” he explained, taking a seat and gesturing Hollins towards the padded chair. “Now, how can I help you?”

Hollins opened her notebook and allowed herself a smirk. Being put on a case that Jarvis was taking a personal interest had magically cleared up her technical problems, what a strange coincidence. “Well lets start with you Mr. Saxton, what role do you play at The First Bank?”

“Please, call me Deen,” he said, with another rugged smile. “And I am the chief of security at the bank. What you see around you is all my creation.”

Hollins frowned as details on Deen Saxton began scrolling across her notebook. A military man, formerly a Nextus sergeant he’d retired some years ago and gone into private security, he’d worked a variety of posts in a variety of businesses but the general trend was always upwards to more and more prestigious positions. Hollins hesitated as she went to drag him into the suspect category and then did it anyway, no one who smiled that much could be wholly innocent.

“So you were in charge of making the vault?” Hollins pressed.

“Yep, I built it from the ground up. It is my masterpiece.” He looked fondly into the middle distance. “Two hundred tons of metal and electronics, quantum encryption locks, state of the art cooling systems and sensors that can detect what a fly had for breakfast. It would take a full hour with a fusion cutter to break through the main door and the same again to get into the true vault.” He shook his head sadly. “Not that that seemed to stop them.”

“Okay so that safe-” Hollins began but Deen interrupted.

“The reserve.”

“Okay, the reserve, was holding the bank’s supply of qubitite ore.”

“Thankfully not,” Deen sighed. “And it was refined qubitite, not the ore the prospectors bring in. Fortunately for us the thieves, whoever they were, struck early. The vault was only finished a few days ago and we were still in the process of moving our stocks from the reserve facility. Otherwise we’d be talking bankruptcy, in a very literal sense.”

“Right, so who discovered the theft?”

“I did.” Deen wrung his hands in his lap. “We were planning on holding a stockholder’s ball to show off the new vault this evening and I wanted to check everything was in place. I discovered that the mass readings for the reserve were slightly off and investigated physically.”

“Hang on,” Hollins said, frowning. “Mass readings? Just how does this reverse work?”

“Ah, was that was the pièce de résistance,” Deen said, brightening. “The reserve is in essence a safe but it was my idea to completely disconnect it from the rest of the bank. The reserve floats in an lifter field that keeps it in a state of zero-gravity, this means it is never touching the walls and so you can never bypass the rest of the security measures by, say, taking out a wall or tunneling though the floor. It is in constant rotation when the inner door is sealed, preventing anyone picking the lock by remote and under such scrutiny we could tell if a single gram was out of place.”

Hollins shook her head as she scribbled down all the details. “However none of that prevented the robbery.”

“So it seems,” Deen sighed. “I’ll pull all the logs for you and send you our security certificate but I can’t even imagine how they pulled this off.”

A note appeared in Hollins’ book “We’ve got something. Get us somewhere private. -Quell.”

“Well we’re going to have to do a lot of digging for this one,” Hollins said, standing. “Is there somewhere where we can set up a base of operations?”

“We can clear one of the conference rooms of course. Anything we can do to help.”

“Good, and some coffee wouldn’t go amiss, this is going to be a long one.”

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The First Bank had set aside one of their top boardrooms for the Uplift gendarmerie, it was a huge space of mahogany and glass, the central table studded with holo projectors and Hollins had already loaded the full schematics of the vault. It was a ridiculously large space for so few people, Hollins, Jackie and Quell were arranged at the head looking over the case and a couple of Sous-Brigaders sat at the other, coordinating the search efforts of the rest of the gendarmerie.

“Okay, so what did you see Quell?” Hollins asked the pink panther RIDE.

“Just a moment.” Quell crackled and Hollins tasted ozone. “Right, that’s all the laser mics and my baffling sound stop anything else overhearing us.”

“They’re spying on us?” Hollins asked in surprise.

“Oh its just the corporate espionage stuff that everyone uses this days,” Quell replied, shrugging. “I’m just paranoid by design. Anyway, I found two things, first a trace’s of Danny Gower’s DNA in the reserve room.”

Jackie’s eyes widened, Hollins just looked confused. “Who?”

“My bad,” Jackie said. “That’s our victim from the apartment complex, I pulled his details while we were in flight. That puts him firmly on our suspect list.”

She dropped Gower’s file onto the desk display and it was a very weighty one.

“This guy is a professional bank robber,” Hollins began, eyes widening as she the first few documents. “Hell, I remember this one being in the news back on Earth. What the hell was he doing in Uplift?”

“Actually he was a retired,” Quell explained. “He was arrested twenty four eighty six, just a few weeks after you left Earth Hollins. Served seventeen years of his twenty year sentence and was let out for good behaviour. The author of three books on physical security and one on data security, he emigrated to Zharus as soon as he was let out of prison and there are a few questions as to whether the ticket was bought with entirely clean money.”

“Hmm,” Hollins frowned. “Okay, could you dig up his books for me? What was the second thing?”

“Well I was doing a little digging into their network,” Quell admitted, looking sheepish, an interesting image for a five hundred pound carnivore. “You see here, the security desk in the vault is theoretically the only access for the reserve controls.” She highlighted it on the schematic. “Well it turns out that’s not true as it also feeds telemetry to the security hub located on the third floor.”

The image spiraled outwards to encompass the whole building and again Quell highlighted the relevant section. “The security network has the best defence there is against hacking attempts, physical isolation, or at least that’s the theory. I found a line in pretty quickly. I can’t what the nature of this line is by remote but I’d guess someone installed this bridge for the robbery.”

“Shit, that means its an inside job,” Hollins swore.

“Or old fashioned incompetence,” Quell amended. “Anyway, I was able to pass a signal down the telemetry feed and gain control of the reserve security controls. The software is custom made so give me a little longer to actually take control but in half an hour I could have the safe doing backflips.”

“Well that at least gives us something to chew over then.” Hollins stood and glared into the holotank. “Okay, we need to get a team to Gower’s apartment. Tear the damn place apart at the molecular level.”

“He could have been in the vault legitimately,” Jackie interjected, both Hollins and Quell shot her an incredulous look. “What? The guy was an expert on security systems. He might have been there as a consultant.”

“Well we can’t rule that out,” Hollin said, frowning. “I guess that means I should check in with Deen.”

“Sure, ‘check in’.” Jackie said grinning. “Five mu says he gives you his number by the end of the day.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Hollins demanded.

“Oh come on, you might not have seen the cow eyes he was making at you but we’re not blind,” she continued.

“Jackie,” Hollins growled. “While he is on that list he is still a suspect and I do not date suspects.”

“You don’t date coworkers, you don’t date suspects, you turned down a perfectly nice looking guy two nights ago” Jackie shrugged. “Come on, you have to pick someone and that Saxton guy is smoking.”

“I am not having this conversation!” Hollins snapped.

“Am I interrupting something,” Deen interjected and Hollins started.

“No, nothing,” she said, rather hurriedly, feeling her cheeks pinken. “We were just going to message you.”

Deen frowned. “Nothing wrong I hope.”

“We were wondering if the name Danny Gower meant anything to you,” Hollins said.

“I-” Deen’s eyes widened in shock. “Yes, he was vetting the vault for us, we were expecting a report from him in a few days.”

“He’s dead.”

“Damn,” Deen swore. “Shit. That can’t be good news. You think he might have robbed the reserve?”

“Its too early to make statements like that,” Hollins pointed out, eyes narrowing at him. He was cute when he was flustered.

“I just- sorry, I’m jumping at shadows,” Deen admitted. “I am afraid I didn’t have much contact with Mr. Gower, he came highly recommended but was quite secretive about his work.”

“Well if you remember anything do let us know, now did you need us for something?” Hollins stood, hand on hip as she waited for an answer.

“Nothing relevant,” Deen admitted. “I was just wondering whether, once this is all over, you and I would like to get a drink sometime.”

Hollins went scarlet.

“No pressure, I understand you’re busy right now. Here’s my card though.” He flicked the virtual ID to Hollins’ pad. “Give me a call sometime.”

The words ‘You owe me five mu.’ danced above Deen’s head and Hollins’ could almost imagine the smug look on Jackie’s face. No one could be having a worse day than Hollins just then.

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Queen Cleopatra of Egypt sat on her throne in the obsidian hall, twitching her tail back and forth in agitation as she counted the seconds. Each one she expected the axe to fall, the crashing death that would wipe the last of her existence from the world. The cat woman drummed her fingers on the armrest in impatience, she’d past the point of feeling sorry for herself, and anger, and grief and would accept her end with quiet dignity.

A knock sounded at the doors at the end of the hall and Cleopatra yowled in fright, leaping to her feet.

Through the doors strode a fairly large gleaming white and grey snow leopard, accompanied by a young woman with grey-white hair and ears and tail that matched the leopard’s. They nodded politely to her, not prostrating themselves before the throne but not being rude either. “Good morning, Cleo. I’m Rochelle Seaford, and this is Uncia. You can think of us as your parole officers.”

Cleo regarded them with narrow eyes. The name was familiar from the RIDE software community, but you could pretend to be anyone with enough software. “RIDEs don’t get parole,” Cleo growled. “What do you want?”

“Well, for starters, we’d like to help you,” Rochelle said. “I realize, you’re going to be skeptical of that, but then again, let’s be honest here. We both know there’s no reason you ever had to wake up again at all after you were arrested.” She wrinkled her nose. “Oh, sorry, ‘impounded.’ You have to be a person to be arrested.” She growled her annoyance. “We’re working on that.”

“I would have hoped they’d have booted me to get my side of the story,” Cleo muttered.

“You would have, wouldn’t you? But that’s what they do for ‘people.’ Malfunctioning equipment gets wiped and reinstalled, and as far as they were concerned you had proven your guilt by kidnapping Hollins and trying to flee. I know police procedure, I work with them officially from time to time.” Again, Rochelle growled. “So anyway, I don’t know how Inspecteur Hollins came to have you in a little padded box in her pocket but I can guess that as far as the department is concerned, you’re probably considered wiped. She said you were personal, not official business. So I don’t think you have to worry on that score at least.”

“Hollins saved me?” Cleo asked in surprise. “Ted Hollins?”

“I don’t know what she’s picked for her first name now, and she did have the ears and tail nanosurgically removed, but yeah.”

“Oh.” Cleo looked down at her feet, she’d been hoping that at least Hollins might have kept the ears. A little legacy of her’s as it was.

“So anyway, let’s talk about you.” She looked around the hall for a place to sit but didn’t find anything, so imaged up a simple bare-metal folding chair to sit down in. “Hollins brought you to me for an assessment. She asked me to find out if there were any rogue programs affecting you. We both know there aren’t.”

“I don’t know, there seems to be an irritating glitch called Cleopatra knocking about,” Cleo muttered.

“What there is is a pattern of emotional abuse that no human would ever have had to endure,” Rochelle said matter-of-factly. “If you’d been David’s girlfriend and he started seeing another woman, you could have dumped him and found someone else. But the way things were...” she shook her head.

“If I’d been his girlfriend he would never have had eyes for another woman,” Cleo snarled, her hackles going up.

Rochelle nodded, unoffended. “I believe it.” She shrugged. “So the question remains, what’s to be done about you. You don’t know how close it was. I’ll bet if you hadn’t stopped to let Hollins out, there wouldn’t have been any question what they’d have done when they caught you a few minutes later, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But I think Hollins was convinced, at the last, there might be something worth saving.”

“He never was a very good judge of character,” Cleo sighed, manifesting a large red ‘delete’ button in one hand. “If I’d just kept going I might have outlasted the lot of them, maybe met up with that AlphaWolf jerk and lived free.”

“Not in Fuser form, carrying a passenger,” Rochelle said. “Not when they could go skimmer and head you off.”

Cleo chuckled. “You’re right. I was even a crappy kidnapper. Tell me Rochelle, why should I bother? I lost David, I lost myself. Why don’t I just press this button and dump my core?”

“Because then the whole thing would be for nothing,” Rochelle said. “All your suffering, what you did...” She shook her head. “I know what you want. A good partner, a satisfying relationship. If you’re willing to work for it, I can help you find it.”

“I don’t want a partner, I want David,” Cleo growled, slumping on her throne. “He was the one. He was the one they built me to be with. The one I was supposed to share my life with.”

“No, he wasn’t,” Uncia said speaking up for the first time. “I know it feels that way. I felt that way when my first rider bought me.” She snorted. “She ended up just using me as a furry phone booth because she thought the ears and tail were yucky. Kept me so tethered up, I couldn’t even do anything when she went into a dive bar on the wrong side of town and got herself shot. But you were bought out of a showroom, same as I was. We weren’t designed for anything but to be sold to the first person who came along with the money.”

“Un-hon, I don’t think that’s helpful,” Rochelle said. She got up and approached the throne. “Cleo, hon...I’m sorry. There isn’t really any good way to answer that. That’s just what being in love feels like. But when it’s that one-sided...” She sighed.

“I get it, it’s heartbreak,” Cleo replied, not looking up. “I know. I lived it.”

“So the question remains what we can do to help you deal with it,” Rochelle said. “We do have some options that we wouldn’t with humans, since RIDEs can edit their memories while humans can just dive into a bottle. But the question is if you even want to go that route. I have a lot of painful memories myself but don’t often wish I could just forget them.”

Cleo closed her eyes, suppressing a shudder. “Why?” she began. “Why do anything. Why do I deserve such treatment?”

“Because you’re not a monster,” Uncia said. “You want to know what a monster is? A monster is a RIDE who develops a trojan program that an unsuspecting RIDE in her first freedom downloads unaware, and it makes her want to go out and ‘jack the person she most respects and just keep him inside her until he turns into an animal himself or melts down into goo. That’s a monster.”

“That’s...not helping either, Uncia,” Rochelle sighed. Privately Cleo wished she’d heard of that Trojan earlier, it would have solved all of her problems. “But the basic point is, you’re as much a victim of the whole thing as anyone, and you’re a victim we can still help.”

“But why?” Cleo demanded, rising to her feet. “I killed him; and I still don’t feel sorry about it. I am glad he’s dead. That’s why they should have wiped me when they had the chance. I. Am. A. Monster.”

“If you--”

“Fear me!” Cleo roared, her voice shaking the very bones of the palace. There was a sickening crack followed by the rumble of falling masonry as the throne room crumbled to dust leaving nothing by a tiny plinth of black rock floating amongst the very fires of hell themselves. Angry ghosts, David, Ellen and David again swooped at them, screaming in incandescent rage. “I hate them all,” Cleo snarled. “They should all burn.”

And Rochelle stepped up to take Cleo into her arms.

Cleo hammered on her shoulders, wracking sobs shaking her body. “Fear me,” she begged. “Please.”

Uncia came up on her other side, rubbing against her legs and purring.

“Shhh,” Rochelle said, just holding her as the fires continued to rage. “It’ll be all right. It’ll be all right.”

Separator f.png

Hollins sat curled up on her sofa, drinking whisky from the bottle and reading Gower’s book ‘On the Art of Intrusion’. While Kain had argued vehemently for them to work through the night Jarvis had overruled him, pointing out that the case wasn’t likely to be solved in a day and keeping her staff running on stimulants was just asking for trouble. Hollins however had taken her work home with her and was busy doodling ideas for robbing a bank, they had grown increasingly insensible as the night had worn on and the bottle had drained.

There was a knock at her window, Hollins frowned then shook her head. “Come in Jackie.”

“How did you know it was us?” Jackie, fused with Quell, asked as she clambered through the window.

“Because a burglar wouldn’t have knocked,” Hollins slured, setting the bottle aside. “What do you want?”

“Are you drunk?” Jackie asked incredulously dropping her massive frame into the easy chair opposite. .

“Maybe a little,” Hollins grumbled. “No actually. Screw that, I’m a lot drunk and its all your bloody fault.”

“My fault?”

“Yeah, you,” Hollins drawled, then affected a completely unnecessary high voice. “Oh Hollins check out his ass, oh Hollins wouldn’t you be cute together, isn’t he hot Hollins, Hollins what will we dress you up in today. Screw you Jackie. And Quell. And everyone else on this whole goddamn planet with ovaries, real or not.”

“Hollins I-”

Hollins took another deep swig of whisky. “No one gets it,” she growled. “So let me spell it out to you Jaaaaa...”She struggled to say the word. “Jackie. I don’t want this. I don’t want some fairytale life, I don’t want a man, I don’t want a fucking bra. I want to be me again.”

“You’re always you,” Jackie tried to say but Hollins continued.

“Everyone tells me.” She took another draught. “Everyone tells me that I just have to roll with it. That it’ll all be all right. That’ll adapt and thrive just like everyone else. Well they’re so full of bullcrap they might as well buy the bull RIDE and get it over with. I was happy being me. I just need to survive two years and nine months and then I’ll be free again.”

Jackie sighed. “The safety margin is three years.”

“I’m willing to play Russian roulette with the third sigma.” Hollins snorted. “Hey, listen to me. Making maths jokes with a triple digit blood alcohol level.”

“Okay Hollins, I think it might be time for you to go to bed.”

Hollins smiled and finished off the last of the whisky. “Nope, now its time for bed.” She smashed the bottle against the floor and watched in disgust as the housekeeping robot whizzed out to sweep up the glass. “Fucking planet. You can’t even make a mess properly.”

“Right, you need sleep and a detox,” Jackie said, standing up and scooped Hollins from the couch. Hollins didn’t protest in the slightest and just let her head loll against the panther.

“You know, pink really isn’t your colour,” Hollins murmured, but her eyes were already closed and Jackie laid her tenderly in her bed.

Look at this place Quell,: Jackie sighed, glancing around the room. Hollins’ bedroom was a tiny space, little more than a bed a window and a wardrobe. There wasn’t a single piece of decoration in sight, no posters or paintings, nothing to give the room some personality, even the bedspread was a neutral off-white. :Maybe we should give this place a lick of paint.:
I’m going to stop you there, because Hollins carries a gun,: Quell pointed out.
Okay fair point,: Jackie admitted. :We should probably detox her though.:
No need, I’m getting telemetry from the scrubber nanites, the poor dears are struggling but she’s in no danger.:
Well that’s a relief.: Jackie ambled back into the main room, lost in thought. :Hell, I didn’t know that she was doing so badly.:

Jackie’s mental image of Quell shrugged. :While it may be a contradictory statement she is, after all, a man. They don’t always respond well to sudden changes in their lives.:

Bullshit, there are millions of guys who’ve figured out crossriding. Its not that hard being female.:
Jackie, they chose it. Or at least had friends, or family or a RIDE to help them through it.: Quell gestured around the room. :Do you see any pictures on the walls. Has Hollins’ ever told you about any of her friends?:
No,: Jackie sighed. :On both accounts. I always thought I was his friend though.:
You are dear, but you’re also one of the ones driving him to be female.:
Maybe if we got him a RIDE,: Jackie said, snapping their shared fingers. :You know someone to confide in. I’m sure those FreeRIDErs guys could pair her up with a nice one.:
This whole mess started because a RIDE took an interest in him that wasn’t shared, do you really think another will help?:
Okay point.: Jackie pouted. :Hell, so what do we do?:
Duecy always said that when you don’t know what to do, at least find out what not to do,: Quell suggested. :Somewhere to- oh, we have a call.:

“Jackie, have you found Hollins yet?” Commissaire Jarvis snapped.

“Yes and no,” Jackie explained, shrugging. “We're going to have to leave it till morning.”

“What, this is a huge break in the case?” Jarvis exclaimed. “Get her here, now.”

“No Commissaire,” Quell snapped. “Hollins is in no state to be doing anything, much less detective work.”

“She’s doing that badly?” Jarvis asked in surprise.

Quell shook her head. “Worse even.”

“Has she been given counseling?” Jackie interjected.

It was Jarvis’ turn to shrug. “She never turned up to any of the appointments.”

“Well make sure she does,” Jackie growled, looking over her shoulder at Hollins lying curled up in bed, too catlike for her own good. “I’m getting worried about her.”

Separator f.png

Hollins got into the office the next morning with a pounding headache and a pair of dark glasses over her eyes.

“I didn’t know it was possible to get a hangover these days,” Jackie observed, as Hollins slunk into her seat.

“Technically, this is low-grade nanite poisoning,” Hollins grumbled. “Urgh, I can’t even remember getting into bed last night.”

Jackie blinked in surprise. “Really, you don’t remember it at all?”

“Well I also don’t remember writing three pages of dirty limericks on my notes so I’m guessing I didn’t miss much.” Hollins sighed. “So, any news on the robbery?”

“Actually we got a break,” Jackie chimed. “Take a look at this.” She chucked a slim silver bar across the desk at Hollins who snatched it out of the air. It was a light thing, probably steel by Hollins’ judge and embossed with The First Bank’s logo.

“A phoney qubitite bar?” Hollins asked in surprise.

“Got it in one,” Jackie said with a grin. “We found it down the back of his couch of all places.”

“We also found an empty box with traces of the same metal,” Quell added. “Looks like he got his hands on a lot of them.”

“But no more of these? Hmm.” Hollins frowned. “You know, I’ve been reading Gower’s book and I don’t think this vault would have kept him out for more than a week.”

“You think he robbed it?” Jackie asked in surprise.

Hollins smirked. “I don’t just think he robbed it, I think he made stealing from one of the most expensive security system on the planet look easy.”

“But how?”

“I’m working on that one.” Hollins shrugged. “However it does raise the question as to who killed him. Was it an accomplice, was it an inside man, was it someone who realised it was carrying megamu around in a holdall?”

“Well I’ve made a little process on that,” Quell proffered. “Okay, more eliminated lines of enquiry. The nearby public nets are all scrambled due to the logic bomb but that’s not too surprising but the privates are also showing some suspicious data losses.”

“We need a warrant to search those,” Hollins pointed out.

“Oh sure, I just thought I’d check up on what we’d find if we did get one.” Quell grinned and Hollins just shook her head in despair. “The interesting thing was the style of data loss. It was all very clean but mostly canned programs. Military grade infowar and not old stuff, but none of the fingerprints of a hobby hacker meddling with the code.”

“Someone with a budget then? Right, so that implies the inside angle, though considering that the perp’ ran off with billions I guess they could already have money to bu-”

Quell’s ears pricked up, along with every other RIDE in the room. “Watch out guys,” she said. “Going to do a ping.”

Every electronic system in the building lurched as Quell’s sensors lashed at them and the RIDE winced. “Ah hell. I think I just found the qubitite bars.”

“Sorry, what?” Hollins asked incredulously.

“Follow me.”

Jackie and Hollins raced after the panther as she bounded downstairs, dodging around surprised guardians and firing her lifters for more speed. Hollins and Jackie caught up with her at lost and found, digging through the piles of luggage that plagued the office.

“And, got it,” she growled, lifting a large leather holdall in her teeth. She dropped it in front of Jackie and gestured for her to open it.

“Can I help you inspecteurs?” the duty Sous-Brigadier asked, ambling over with a cup of coffee in one hand.

“Where did this bag come from?” Hollins snapped. Behind her Jackie opened the zip and gasped.

“It was left on the front step this morning,” he explained. “No tags, no biometics, pretty heavy though so I guessed whatever was in there must be valuable but we’re not allowed to open them.”

“Well you were right on the valuable part,” Jackie said, in a squeek. “There’s over a billion in refined qubitite in here.”

There was a crash as the coffee mug dropped out of the sous-brigadier lip hand.

“How did you know this was here Quell?” Hollins asked the pink panther, aware that they were drawing more than a little attention.

“The sidebands were muttering about weird sensor returns,” she reported. “I have the best sensor suite so did a search for Q in the building and the rest is history.”

“And going to be all over the news in about ten minutes,” Jackie completed.

“She’s got a point,” Hollins said, wincing. “Okay brigadier, gather up everyone in the station and get us a convoy with full security detail.”

“Right away.”

Separator f.png

To say Mr. Kain was excited by the news of the quibitite’s safe recovery would have been an understatement, the man had almost skipped with joy as the gendarmerie delivered the bars back into the bank’s custody. Jarvis had been front and center through the whole thing and Jackie would have been right there with her if Hollins hadn’t dragged her and Quell down to the vaults.

“You know, just because you hate the limelight doesn’t mean we can’t bask in it,” Jackie pointed out, petulantly as Hollins placed the dummy bar into the reserve.

“I’ll take my dues when the case is actually solved,” Hollins muttered, slamming the safe closed. “And we’re so close to cracking it now.”

Jackie rolled her eyes. “We’ve got the Q back. That’s more than enough for one day.”

“It’s not even lunchtime yet,” Quell sighed.

“Besides, the Q just makes things worse,” Hollins continued, unheeding. “Okay, I can see many people killing a man for that much money, hell more than a few work in our office, but what kind of person kills and then gives the loot back.”

“A morally bipolar one?” Jackie suggested and Hollins snorted.

“Maybe, but it makes more sense that someone who benefits from the money’s return.” She strode out of the inner vault.

“You have a theory,” Jackie said, it wasn’t a question.

“Yes I-” There was a knock at the outer door and Deen strode in.

“Here you guys are,” he exclaimed, beaming. “I should have know you’d still be working. Come on, the media circus is just beginning and I’m sure you lovely ladies want their photos in the news.”

“Mr. Saxton, could you tell me what is going to happen to the vault now it has been broken into?” Hollins snapped.

“I- um, well we’re going to have to do some major renovation work to plug the security flaws.”

“What security flaws?” Hollins pressed, pulling out her notebook.

“I don’t know,” Deen admitted, blanching. “Obviously we are going to have to do a full audit.”

“That is going to be extremely costly though.” Hollins kept her voice deadpan. “Are you worried about how this is going to affect your career? To have your design cracked so easily.”

“It was not cracked easily,” Deen snapped, then took a deep breath to compose himself. “However it should not be too difficult to plug the leaks, we were insured against such an eventuality. All security measures can be overcome given enough time.”

Hollins grinned, it was a predatory look devoid of warmth. “So what, as a pure example, would happen if the vault was proved to be flawed from the very start?”

“I’m not sure I appreciate this line of questioning,” Deen grumbled.

“The insurance company would refuse to pay out,” Quell interjected. “If the vault failed its security certification they wouldn’t be liable for a cent.”

Deen glowered at the cat. “Fortunately we are fully certified.”

“I thought you were waiting on a report from Mr. Gower?” Hollins inquired.

“Well with his death we can't really be expected to wait forever.”

“That’s probably good for you as I believe that Gower successfully cracked this vault,” Hollins said, smiling.

“You’re saying he robbed us?”

“No, I’m saying he told you how he cracked the vault, as was his job.”

“That’s ridiculous!” Deen exclaimed. “This vault is impenetrable.”

“Oh please,” Hollins sighed. “I figured out a way to crack the vault and all I had to do was read Gower’s book.”

Deen crossed his arms, glowering at Hollins. “Right, I would like to see this.”

“Well I’ll admit the last robbery did the hard work for me.” Hollins smirked. “A data line was installed between your security systems and the outside world and that opened up the security console here for hacking.” Hollins leaned casually on the desk. “Quell, could you spin that safe around so it faces the wall.”

Quell did so and Deen goggled.

“Now, I also noticed you used a physical lock,” Hollins continued. “Nice idea, it would require a massive intrusion into the inner vault to pick or at least a large enough one for your systems to detect.”

“Thank you, I was rather proud of that,” Deen said, suspiciously.

“Of course you rather ruined it by installing a massive set of lockpicks in the walls.” Hollins shook her head. “Quell, could you play with the gravity fields and pop the lock please.”

“Ohhh,” Quell sighed. “Okay yeah no problem.” The cat frowned for a moment then there was a click from the inner vault. “Done!”


“Now just float the bar out, close the safe and spin it back round.” Quell did so and Hollins walked into the room, pulling a chocolate bar from her pocket. “This one I prepared earlier.” Quell floated the fake Q-bar to the edge of the field and, in a quick swipe, Hollins swapped it for the chocolate. “Now did the mass readings change?”

“No,” Deen muttered.

“So with a man on the inside, not that hard to manage when you have a valuation of millions per bar, the vault could be breached without much more effort than running a few extra cables.” Hollins shrugged. “Gower probably found a dozen other ways but he only needed one to prove it.”

“This is all unsubstantiated hearsay,” Deen snapped, clenching his fists. “Okay, so the vault has its flaws. Every vault has its flaws. But there is no evidence that Gower successfully robbed this vault.”

“The bar was found in his apartment,” Hollins told him and Deen winced. “Though I would like to know where you put the rest of them.”

“I did nothing of the sort!”

Hollins smirked. “So if we tracked your movement between Mr. Gower’s death and the bank robbery we would find nothing suspicious?”

“You would find nothing of the sort!” Deen protested.

“Hang on,” Jackie interjected and Hollins rolled her eyes. “So who robbed the bank?”

“Mr. Saxton here did,” Hollins explained. Deen looked like he was going to pop a vein. “He had to, the vault was completely incapable of securing the qubitite and if he waited for it to get robbed then the bank would have blamed him. If he robbed it and returned the money the vault would get fixed, he’d keep his job and no one would ever link him to Mr. Gower’s unfortunate death.”

“Argh!” Deen hurled himself at Hollins. Quell was faster however and tackled him to the ground.

“Mr. Saxton,” Hollins began as he struggled to remove the mechanical panther from his back. “You are being arrested under suspicion of first degree murder, bank robbery and intent to defraud. You have the right to remain silent and access to a lawyer if you yourself cannot provide one. Do you have anything to say for the record?”

“You won’t get away with this,” Deen snarled. “I have powerful friends.”

“I would instead focus on preparing your alibi,” Hollins replied, deadpan. “Now lets get you upstairs. Maybe if I’m feeling generous we can avoid the cameras.”

Separator f.png

Hollins’ second visit to the FreeRiders garage was easier than the first. Rochelle had sent instructions for which door to use to bypass the office and come right to her lab, where she was waiting. Her hair was bright red today, Hollins noticed, though quickly dismissed it.

“Hello, Inspecteur, thanks for coming by.” Rochelle offered her hand and Hollins shook it.

“My pleasure Miss Seaford, I came as soon as I got your message.”

“Well, if nothing else I thought you would like the excuse to get away from all the news drones,” Rochelle explained, grinning. “Who would have thought cracking a multi-million mu insurance scam would get so much attention?”

Hollins rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t get too excited; it’s going to be months rumbling through the courts.”

“Like the media can pay attention that long. Anyway, we’ve been examining and speaking with Cleo,” Rochelle said. “She needed a few sessions of...I guess you’d call it therapy, but really it worked out to just human contact and a shoulder to cry on. No charge for that, it’s just simple human decency.”

Hollins chuckled. “I wonder how you make a living on ‘human decency’ but I won’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

“Well, I will be billing you for the examination,” Rochelle said. “She’s clean, by the way--no trojans or viruses, just months of emotional abuse.” She shook her head. “She’s pretty much stable now, and she’s not likely to hurt anybody else except maybe herself. She’s not a killer by nature...just had more than she could take and snapped.”

“Sadly, that describes more than half of the killers who cross my desk,” Hollins sighed. “But I know. Something has to give eventually.”

Rochelle nodded. She reached over to her desk and picked up the ring box Hollins had brought. “Take good care of her. She’s going to need a sympathetic ear and plenty of human contact for as long as you keep her virtual. If--I hope I can say when--you decide to find her a new DE, let us know. We know people in the biz, can probably find you a bargain that will suit her without reminding people too much of, well, her.” She handed the box over.

“Thanks,” Hollins said, pocketing it. “Do you have any advice, with helping her? I’ve never owned a RIDE before, even a virtual one.”

“Just remember she’s a person, and treat her like one,” Rochelle said. “I could go on for hours, but everything I’d say would boil down to that.”

“Well I don’t think that’s a mistake anyone will make twice,” Hollins replied, smiling. “She made her point quite clear the first time.”

Rochelle smiled wryly. “Well, that’s true.” She chuckled. “Funny, but I also learned we’ve got more in common than I’d expected. We should form a club for people who got crossridden by RIDEs who weren’t in their right mind at the time.”

“It might make a change from all the newly-minted girls gushing all the time,” Hollins grumbled. “And maybe somewhere I can escape from people giving me clothing tips.”

“Oh, well if you need somewhere to escape, just come and hang out down here.” Rochelle grinned. “We don’t care much about that sort of thing in these parts.”

Hollins managed to keep herself from arching an eyebrow at that, Rochelle’s outfit could have graced any fashion catwalk on the world but she didn’t say anything. “I’ll consider it. If nothing else it might do some good for Cleo to deal with other RIDEs. Obviously I can’t go flashing her around the station.”

Rochelle nodded. Then she tilted her head for a moment as if listening to something only she could hear. “Oh, that was my partner Rhianna. She says you should have whoever owns that pink panther RIDE that’s watching us right now bring her in for a tune-up, because her hardlight projectors are going out of phase.”

“Jackie! Don’t you have anything better to do with your day than stalk me?” Hollins asked empty air and took out her notebook. “No,” she read.

Hollins sighed. “Well, it looks like I need to distract my partner before she gets into any more trouble. Thanks for helping with Cleo.”

Rochelle nodded. “Any time. Hi, Jackie! Really, you should bring her in for a tune-up, my partner usually knows what she’s talking about. And Uncia would like to meet her, too.” She grinned. “See you later, Inspecteur.”

“And you,” Hollins said, nodding. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a panther to skin.”

Preceded by:
Inspecteur Hollins and The Viral Thief
Inspecteur Hollins Succeeded by:
Inspecteur Hollins and The Integral Assassin