Inspecteur Hollins and The Viral Thief

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FreeRIDErs story universe

Inspecteur Hollins and The Viral Thief

Author: Fibio
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Much to her annoyance Inspecteur Hollins was woken by Commissaire Jarvis yelling at her.

“Hollins! What’s this crap about medical leave?”

Hollins sat up, stretched and stared bleary eyed at the screen on the wall which was, unfortunately, filled with Jarvis’ angry face.

“How are you talking to me?” Hollins enquired. “I don’t recall accepting a call.”

“Override codes,” Jarvis growled. “Now get your pretty face down to the station. I’ve got the First Consul breathing down my neck and worse, a hundred wannabe news hounds sniffing around looking for a scoop.”

“Sorry, I have been away,” Hollins pointed out, frowning. “What’s going on?”

“Some smart alec has tied together a load of odd cases and is demanding we throw the entire Commissariat it it,” Jarvis explained with a scowl. “And I hate to say it but he looks like he’s got a point. If we don’t at least do something the newsies are going to settle for a story on gendarmerie incompetence and you know how I feel about press conferences.”

Hollins sighed. Jarvis had a well deserved reputation amongst the journalistic elements of society as someone you did not mess with, not if you valued your hide or your camera. It had been something of a shock to the precinct when she’d replaced old Munroe, a kind hearted if bumbling man, but she was brutally efficient and that more than made up for shortcomings in personality in Hollins’ book.

“Okay, I’ll get on the case,” Hollins said, scratching. “Send whatever you’d got to me and I’ll take a glance on my way over.”

“Thanks Inspecteur,” Jarvis clipped, then grinned. “And really, those pyjamas?”

The connection cut before Hollins could snap a response out. Grumbling to herself she began to make her, faltering, way through her morning routine. The pajamas themselves weren’t bad but there was no question they’d been cut for a male and Hollins’ considered that quite reasonable as she’d been male up until a week ago.

Swapping gender on Zharus was still uncommon but enough RIDEs were floating around to make it a very real possibility and frequent enough to start a minor industry to cater to people with a need for a whole new wardrobe. While Hollins had ordered a starter pack, basic version she was on a civil service salary, most of it was still in the original packaging. The addition of breasts seemed to have done nothing to change Hollins’ minimalist style when it came to clothing and she threw on a simple set of shirt and pants, and the blasted feodora that were in style for no good reason.

A half hour later Hollins entered the large open plan office that housed the Commissariat’s complement of inspecteurs and was greeted by a wolf whistle.

“Jackie, I’m going to kill you if you keep that up,” Hollins growled, stalking past the snigering inspecteurs and dropped into her chair opposite her partner’s desk.

Jackie was a small woman, naturally blond and always finding some reason to laugh. While she more often than not drove Hollins up the wall she’d had to accept that Jackie was one of the better inspecteurs in the precinct.

“Just reassuring you that you’re looking great today,” Jackie assured her, grinning. “Are you wearing makeup?”

“No,” Hollins snapped. Amongst other more obvious modifications the RIDE that had transformed her had gone for a cute look, as she was already going under the nano-knife Hollins had opted to return her sharp features when she got the ears and tail docked.

“You really are no fun,” Jackie sighed, resting her head on her hands. “And I got you a perfectly good jacket when we went out yesterday, why aren’t you wearing that?”

“I’m on the job,” Hollins replied, tugging at the ratty faux leather overcoat she’d worn for over four years. “Besides, it didn’t have the right pockets.”

“Girl, you’ll never find anything that’s just right, thats why you have to keep buying more clothes.” She rolled her eyes as if in despair at Hollins’ lack of femininity. “Anyway, I had to call you in. The Viral Thief has struck again.”

Hollins stared at her for a moment. “Have you been reading detective novels again?”

“Hey don’t blame me, blame the newsies,” Jackie protested. “Remember that corporate espionage case we had to deal with a month ago.”

Hollins frowned. That had been a weird one, an otherwise normal chemist had ransacked his employer’s database in the middle of the night. It had seemed to be an open and shut case and his digital fingerprints were all over it and they had him on film, but he professed innocence and his RIDE was blanked. That and the complete lack of evidence that he’d sold the data meant the case was still rumbling along.

“And that museum theft,” she continued. Another strange case, the local museum had had a number of ‘first prospector’ artifacts lifted from their secure vault by a lone security guard. As Uplift had one of the highest RIDEs per capita on the planet the guards typically wore their RIDEs to work. Same protestations of innocence, same complete lack of evidence to any involvement in the usual trappings that occur after a crime.

“So that means we’ve got a third theft?” Hollins enquired.

“Probably,” Jackie admitted with a shrug. “I hate to say it but I got it from the news, some bright investigative tied all three cases together and demanded that we do something.”

“Well, they say three times is a conspiracy,” Hollins sighed. “And we did say that they were too similar for comfort at the time. What about this new one?”

Jackie shrugged. “Haven’t got it through yet, the gal lived down on south side. I’ve put in a case request.”

“Urgh, south side again.” Hollins made a face.

“Hey, maybe it won’t be the gruesome twosome this time.”

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Hollins’ luck was not that good. Huston and Maurer were firmly rooted in the old school of gendarmerie work where the law didn’t extend much past the domes and calling in a robbery was just as likely to get you shot as get your Q back. Huston was a tall man, once good looking though now gone grey and had a perpetually calculating look which kept people at a distance. Maurer on the other hand was built like a wall, even if the muscles were turning to flab in his old age, and stood menacingly at Huston’s right shoulder.

“Hey hey inspecteur,” Huston leered, as Jackie and Hollins entered the apartment. “Love the new rack.”

“Don’t stare too much or you’ll get a set of your own,” Jackie cut in as Hollins scowled.

“Aww, don’t be a bore Jackie,” Huston drawled. “Besides, losing my expertise would be a tragic loss for my gender.”

Jackie shrugged. “I suppose we need someone to be a horrible warning.” Maurer chuckled but Huston glared. “Anyway, you have the case notes for us?”

“Sent,” Huston snapped. “Don’t know why you’re so interested. Besides the newsie sniffing around its pretty damn obvious what happened. Perp got fed up with the business and stole as much as she can get away with before disappearing off into the night, only difference here was she was stupid enough to get caught.”

Hollins sighed.

“Got a problem sweet cheeks?” Huston enquired, voice dripping with scorn.

“You arrested her in bed?” she asked, cocking an eyebrow at him.

“Got a problem with disturbing a gal’s beauty sleep?” he shot back.

Hollins fought down the urge to snap at him, Huston was almost twenty years her senior and had been solving crimes since she’d been chasing litter in an Earth slum. That didn’t mean she agreed with him, Hollins detested the quick and dirty style where authority was a bigger gun and crimes could be solved in an afternoon. It should have died out years ago but there were always holdouts.

“I wouldn’t have a problem at all if you’d nabbed her at the gates,” she said, trying and failing to keep her tone civil. “Or even in Nextus but I don’t believe for a second anyone is stupid enough to pull off a major crime and then head back to bed.”

“Hey, crims do stupid shit all the time,” Huston shot back. “Thats why we catch the bastards.”

“Guys, before this turns into another pissing match,” Jackie interjected. “Which would be really embarrassing for you Huston when you lose, I think we should break things up. Do you have the perp in custody?”

“She’s cooling her heels in a cell,” Maurer said, before Huston could make any sound beyond a grunt of consternation. “We’ll send her over. Do you want the RIDE too?”

“Sure, we’ll need to trawl the core,” Jackie assured him. “Thanks for the assist guys.”

“Any time for a pretty girl,” Maurer assured her. “And maybe Hollins here on a good day.”

Huston and Maurer made their exit and Hollins kicked the door frame. “Bastards. I wish I could set Cleo on them.”

“Bah, we don’t need their kind,” Jackie assured her, draping an arm round Hollins’ shoulders. “Though I am morbidly curious as to how Maurer would turn out.”

Hollins repressed a shudder. “Anyway, lets get back to the case, could you go over the summary for me?”

“Sure, Vikki Summers, crossed, worked down in Magnani and Magnani’s smelter down in the industrial sector. Was seen on the local security web stealing precious metal bars from the central vault and naturally someone called us the moment they got over their hangovers.” Jackie frowned. “Um, there’s already word drifting around the seedier circles that Vico is looking for information on her.”

Hollins groaned. “Reason the third why I don’t think she did it. If you’re going to steal from people like that then you need to run a hell of alot faster. Urgh, we should probably go talk to him, before some custody guardian ends up with a fat payoff and we end up with another unexplained death.”

“Oh come on, didn’t you hear, he’s a legitimate businessman now?” Jackie admonished, Hollins just looked at her. “Yeah I know, I’m not that green. Regardless, we definitely need to track down whoever is really doing this.”

“Sure, give me a minute to look over the place.”

The apartment was not the most luxurious Hollins had ever seen, it didn’t hold a candle to the almost five hundred years of squalor that her home city had built up but by Uplift standards it was low rent to say the least. While the amount of junk Vikki had managed to cram into three rooms was impressive it meant that looking for clues was almost a lost cause from the beginning. That didn’t stop Hollins from at least looking.

“Now that’s odd,” Hollins murmured, crouching down next to a pile of empty boxes in the bedroom.

“Got something?” Jackie called.

“A pile of boxes, only organised thing in the whole place,” Hollins called back. “Eh, I’m probably grasping at straws. I’ll take a look at the video record.”

“Okay, I’ve managed to dig up a couple of gambling debts for Vikki.” Jackie tapped at her potable screen as Hollins wandered back into the main room. “Might be a motive.”

“I thought we were going with the Viral Thief angle?” Hollins enquired sardonically, Jackie stuck her tongue out at her.

Hollins shook her head and pulled the building’s video feed. It was pretty incriminating, at around three o’clock the perp had fused, gotten out of bed and exited the building, bang on time for if she’d committed the crime. Two hours later she arrived back, lootless, defused and returned to bed.

Hollins frowned, noting the the boxes were still in a haphazard heap in the corner of the room, fast forwarding she blinked and missed the sudden burst of organisation as they seemed to leap into a pile between frames. Sighing, she dug deeper into the records, setting her agent to do a frame by frame comparison on the last week of footage.

“I know that look,” Jackie cut in, as the system began its tireless comparison. “What have you got?”

“Possible data tampering,” Hollins sighed.

Jackie frowned. “The perp covering things up?”

“If anything this just incriminates her.” Hollins shrugged. “So its either a really, really bad cover up or we’re watching someone getting framed.”

“Balls,” Jackie swore. “You realise I’m going to own Stevenson thirty mu now?”

Hollins shrugged. “You shouldn’t bet on cases saggy. You never know where they’re going to take you.”

Twenty minutes later the Commissariat’s central computer spat out the results and Hollins’ heart sank. Chance of tampering was over 99.95%, the entirety of the night’s footage had been copied pasted from the previous day, except for the few select scenes featuring Vikki leaving which were almost certainly edited beyond recognition and there was a moderate chance they’d just been woven out of pure digital cloth.

“Great, okay its official,” Hollins announced. “We have a hacker, and not just some scripting stuff, this is the big leagues.”

It was hard to pull of any major crime, or even minor ones without some knowledge of digital security. Within Uplift the average walk down the road would get you filmed by a dozen different sources with over a hundred different cameras and have your records on just as many databases before you’d gone to bed. However most of those were held under data protection acts and the gendarmerie had to get a court order for all but the basic public information servers which were the first port of call for anyone making a coverup. It didn’t help that the public networks were notoriously behind the curve when it came to security and the sheer amount of data that accumulated meant that no human could go browsing through looking for crimes unless they could narrow it down to a place and time.

That said, most people were sloppy. Blanking out records was the usual method, the smart ones would loop the feed to hide their edit from the casual snoop, digitally adding the suspect doing something dodgy into the scene was something major corporations and government agents did. Not the usual realm of the petty criminals that made their way across Hollins’ desk.

“Shit,” Jackie swore. “You’re telling me there really is a virus?”

“Virus I have no idea about,” Hollins replied, shrugging. “But Vikki isn’t our girl.”

“Damn, you realise we’re going to have to explain this to the Magnanies right?”

“Let's cross that bridge when we come to it.”

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Vikki was a tall woman, powerfully muscled with a pair of tufted ears atop her head and she regarded Hollins with a steely glare as Hollins entered the interview room.

“So Miss Summers,” Hollins began, taking a seat across the desk from her.

“I want a lawyer,” Vikki snapped. “You can’t keep me from my lawyer.”

Hollins scowled at her and Vikki blanched. “Miss Summers, I’m sure Mr Magnani’s lawyer is very keen to talk to you. Whether he will be offering you a bail or a bullet is quite another matter, I understand the brothers are quite annoyed at the loss of tens of thousand of mu in rare earths from their vault.

“I don’t know nothing about that,” Vikki growled. “I’m not answered any questions from the gerries without a lawyer.”

Hollins stood and took a measured stroll around the tiny room as if suffering from barely controlled rage. “Okay, so here’s how this is going to go,” Hollins said, after she’d judged Vikki had sweated enough. “You don’t realise this yet but I’m actually the best god damn friend you have in the world right now. You robbed Magnanies. Let me repeat that, you put your thumb in the eye of one of the biggest pair of sharks still in this pool and there is a ton of video evidence to prove it. Now I don’t care what the hell you think will happen if you get out, but I’ll bet dollars to donuts that it’ll actually wind up with a very shallow, very dry grave. So, you are going to tell me everything. And I mean everything you know.”

Vikki shrank back as Hollins sat down opposite her and within moments was blabbing.

Fifteen minutes later Hollins left the room grinning. It was nice to know that she hadn’t lost the bad cop touch.

“So, did she do it?” Jackie enquired, detaching herself from the wall.

“Not a chance in hell,” Hollins sighed, shaking her head. “Oh there’s probably a dozen shady things that she’s done but this wasn’t one of them, she’s not that stupid.”

Jackie groaned. “We’ve got nothing again?”

“I did get something interesting.” Hollins shrugged. “Turns out that Vikki only recently got her job as a guard for the Magnani site and she may have been a bit vocal about it in the local watering hole.”

“Hmm, guess that just confirms the outside angle,” Jackie said. “Anything else?”

“Nothing concrete.”

“Ah well, she’s southside’s problem now,” Jackie said, shrugging. The pair began to make their way down into the depths of the Commissariat to the RIDE bay. “Though I’m wondering just why we end up pinching so many female mobsters.”

Hollins snorted. “For the same reason you find so many female miners. RIDEs are expensive and cutting the cost in half by buying a female model is a very good deal for a wannabe enforcer. The only difference is they want them because they’re basically power armour but either way both expect to get rich out of it. I hear getting yourself a RIDE can quadruple your cut in some circles.”

Jackie whistled. “Impressive. I hope mine comes through soon.”

“You ordered one?” Hollins asked, cocking an eyebrow.

“Nah, but I know a gal who’s going to be selling hers off soon. Basically I’m just cleaning my jets till she decides to go through with it.”

“Well, she can’t be any worse than the one that picked me,” Hollins admitted with a shudder.

“Just wait.” Jackie grinned. “You’ll see.”

Hollins was prevented from chasing her up on that statement by their entry into Kale Foster’s lair. Their live in RIDE technician Foster was a small man with a shock of orange hair, though the thin rimmed glasses he wore were just for fashion's sake.

“Jackie, Hollins, good to see you,” he called, waving them over to the lynx RIDE sitting in a cradle next to him. “Actually Hollins, we can’t go around calling you Ted any more, have you picked a name yet?”

“I’m going with Teddy,” Jackie muttered and got elbowed in the ribs.

“I’m considering Theodora,” Hollins said, rolling her eyes. “Anyway, what have you got for us?”

“Well, I’m beginning to wish you’d bring me RIDEs with their memories intact,” he sighed. “This one has almost nothing in her banks from the last night, and maybe a dozen other voids where the logs have been offloaded. Looks to me that she consciously began deleting clusters when she realised they’d been arrested, does that count as a crime?”

“Not unless we prove that they actually contained evidence,” Hollins sighed. “And I don’t feel like going up against the caliber of lawyers this girl’s boss can dredge up. So we’ve got nothing concrete, again?”

“Sorry Dora... Theo.” Kale frowned. “No, I don’t think those work. Anyway, there’s not much more I can do here I’m afraid. I could try and compare things against the other two RIDEs we have but I doubt I can get much more from just observation.”

“How about this virus theory?” Jackie interjected, Kale just looked at her. “You haven’t seen the newsies yet. Guy claims that all three were hacked.”

Kale made a face. “Okay, that’s a bit out of my area I’ll be honest. I’m much better at the physical side of things when we get right down to it. Tell you what, I know a good consultant I can set up an appointment and sign the papers for her giving this one a lookover.”

“Sure, that sounds good,” Hollins said. “Thanks Foster.”

“Kale,” he corrected half-heartedly. “And good luck with the name.”

“Don’t worry,” Jackie called over her shoulder as they left. “I’ll convince her to use Teddy eventually.”

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Hollins was waiting for the taxi outside the commissariat when the huge, black skimmer dropped out of the sky and settled in front of her. Rolling her eyes she stepped up to the side as one of the hardlight windows vanished.

“Let me guess, Mr Magnani would like to offer me a ride?” Hollins said. The door opened silently and she slid inside.

“Well, you know what they say about old cliches,” the lithe young man in the opposite seat said, grinning. “However Mr Magnani was my father, call me Vico.”

Hollins looked him up and down, Vico was young, very young at maybe eighteen by the terran reckoning. Clean shaven and wearing a suit that cost more than Hollins paid in rent for a year his eyes were hard, belying the softness of his smile. The two large young women sitting either side of him were both carrying handguns and marked with the tell tale fuser holdovers. Hollins wondered where the RIDEs were but then snapped back to attention.

“Anyway Inspecteur, my condolences on the sudden change, I wish you all the best for a speedy adaptation.”

Hollins kept her face impassive. “I wasn’t aware the Magnani family cared for my well being.”

“I like to keep abreast of the news,” Vico replied with a shrug. “Besides, my father spoke highly of you, I believe he said you were an ‘honest cop’, this was before his unfortunate run in with with the revenue commission.”

Magnani senior was less than three years through his thirty year fraud sentence, Hollins still couldn’t believe he’d walked on the organised crime charge. Huston was renowned for keeping a bullet with the guy’s name on it in his desk.

“In that case, thank you,” Hollins replied, frowning. “And I suppose for the lift too.”

“You’re very welcome inspecteur.” Vico smiled again. “Now, I’m afraid I do have to get down to business, your apartment isn’t very far away after all.”

Hollins didn’t flinch at the mention of where she lived, though it looked like she was going to have to move again. “I take it this is about the theft earlier today?”

Vico sighed, shaking his head. “Yes, poor Vikki. She’s still so very naive about this business we find ourselves in. I would be so upset if anything were to happen to her.” The last three words were a barely disguised threat and Hollins felt a chin run down her spine at the steely look in Vico’s eyes.

“Mr Magnani,” Hollins began, keeping her voice controlled and level. “Rest assured Vikki will be treated with ever respect to the law. In fact, if you are not planning on pressing charges I can start the paperwork for her release available immediately.”

“Ah, but that doesn’t get my money back,” Vico pointed out, holding up an manicured finger. “Now, for the record. I do not believe Vikki would rob me, she’s a sweet girl with a good enough head on her shoulders to know better. However, my security systems all tell me, unequivocally, that the woman who robbed me was Vikki, was wearing Vikki’s RIDE and was using her codes. Now the money doesn’t really matter to me, who cares when it all comes down to it, but I want the bitch who thought she could rob me caught.”

Hollins sighed. “Mr Magnani, if I capture this person I will ensure that they are punished to the full extent of the law and no further, as is my sworn duty.”

“Of course inspecteur,” Vico said with a grin. “I think you’re reading threats where there are none, but anyway, I think we have arrived.”

The lifters spooled down and moments later, the doors popping open and Hollins clambered out, trying to keep the relief from her face.

“Do tell Vikki not to worry,” Vico said. “I am not a man to punish the innocent.”

Hollins shook her head, she wondered just by what standard Vico judged innocence but instead she said. “I’ll pass it along. You’ll be dropping the charges I take it.”

“Of course, best of luck Hollins.”

The skimmer accelerated away and within moments disappeared around the corner. Hollins let out a pent up breath, she was so glad that she didn’t work southside and have to deal with slime like that every day. After she’d safely reached her flat and secured all the deadbolts she called Jackie.

“Hey Hollins, you don’t look so good,” Jackie said, frowning.

“I just finished talking with Vico Magnani,” Hollins explained and Jackie winced in sympathy. “He’s pretty damn sure that Vikki isn’t our girl and all but confirmed the RIDE hacking angle.”

“Shit,” Jackie swore. “Well lets hope Kale can get us that appointment soon.”

“Yeah, and we’re going to have to let Vikki walk, Magnani isn’t going to press charges.”

“Aww come on,” Jackie whined. “We could at least keep her off the streets for a few days.”


Jackie pouted. “You’re too honest for your own good sometimes you know. Anyway, see you tomorrow.”

“Goodnight.” Hollins killed the connection. Jackie still hadn’t heard of the old phrase, the only difference between a dirty cop and an honest cop was that the honest cop stayed bribed. Hollins went to raid the fridge for something alcoholic.

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The next day Hollins and Jackie walked into the office to find Commissaire Jarvis sitting in Hollins chair.

“So ladies, want to tell me how this happened?” she snapped.

“Umm-” Jackie began.

“William Sayers. Twenty three, writes for The Informer.”

Jackie frowned. “The guy who coined the viral thief term?”

“Yes, and he was caught on film deleting almost ninety percent of The Informer’s mainframe,” Jarvis continued, both Hollins and Jackie stared at her in shock. “Now I’ll admit that The Informer are being very pleasant about all this, but there is no way in hell a bunch of professional newsies are going to keep the lid on a story this huge. Now you too had better get me some goddamn results and soon or you’re going to be standing in front of the cameras explaining why you can’t find your arses from your elbows. Got it!”

“Got it,” Jackie and Hollins muttered in unison.

“Good!” Jarvis strode out of the rooms and Jackie sighed.

“Someone’s got to tell that girl you catch more flies with rotting meat.”

“The expression is flies with honey,” Hollins sighed, taking her seat.

Jackie frowned. “Nah, rotting meat is much better for catching flies. So what have we got?”

Hollins browsed through the scant case details. “Perp arrives in the dead of night, let in by building security because hey, he’s allowed to work late, proceeds to the core and copies an obscene amount of data. We nabbed him in bed and now he’s down in cell twelve.”

“Urgh, that’s bang on the usual M.O.,” Jackie groaned. “You can tell why Jarvis was pissed.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Hollins mused. “If its someone external they’ve broken pattern.”


“Well first there is time.” Listing them off on her hands. “The first three were all rigorously spaced to give enough time to let the heat die off before the next and, lets be honest, if this Sayers hadn’t pieced things together then we might have taken months to tie them together. Two in a row is just sloppy. Second there’s profit. The others were all reasonably easy loot to fence, good value but nothing that the papers would be salivating over. There’s no real profit in stealing data from a newsie however, hell its the one place where they actually going to publish everything they have in the vaults. Finally, it's also brazen as all hell. If you actually wanted to hide the last guy who you want to use as a stooge is someone who already has a vested interest in tracking you down.”

“Okay, so that means the hacker is stupider than we thought.”

Hollins shrugged. “Could be, or it could be a double bluff. Instead of a knee jerk reaction it's a calculated ploy to convince us it's a knee jerk reaction. If we were to decide that Sayers was right all along based off the fact someone tried to silence him then we could be lead around by our noses.”

“So our hacker thinks they’re smart,” Jackie concluded, snapping her fingers.

“And there is a third option. It might be completely unrelated and Sayers is just faking the crime in order to sell subscriptions.”

Jackie froze. “Damn. That would make a perverse kind of sense.”

“Yeah, so want to do the good cop bad cop technique?” Hollins enquired.

“You know, everyone on this planet calls it a Tom and Gerry routine,” Jackie pointed out. “But this guy’s a newsie, he’ll think he knows all our tricks. Lets just put his balls in a vice and squeeze till he sings.”

Hollins winced in sympathy, then realised she didn’t have too. “Right, I’ll get him and his RIDE setup. Lets grab a coffee and figure out just what we’re going to ask them.”

Separator f.png

Half an hour later Hollins and Jackie stood in the interview corridor.

“So, you deal with the RIDE I’ll deal with the newsie?” Hollins inquired.

“Oh no, you’re not getting away from it that easily,” Jackie chided. “You can’t stay away from RIDEs forever you know.”

Hollins rolled her eyes. “Jackie, I’m not staying away from RIDEs, I’d just prefer to deal with Sayers.”

“Okay, there’s only one way to settle this.”

“Agreed,” Hollins said with a nod.

“Rock, paper, scissor!”

“Damn it,” Hollins swore. “How do you keep doing that?”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out,” Jackie explained with a grin. “Now, if you hear screaming, prepare me a medal.”

Hollins rolled her eyes but withdrew into interview room two.

“Where’s Will?” the RIDE demanded.

Hollins sat down in the lone chair. The RIDE was an avian type though quite a fanciful one, inspired by a phoenix rather than an actual bird its plumage was a brilliant crimson and it had a long hooked beak.

“So, Felix I believe you said your name was,” Hollins began, keeping her eyes on her notebook. “Do you know why you have been arrested?”

“I most certainly do not,” Felix protested. “William and I were grabbed from our beds in the middle of the night without the slightest provocation!”

“You call nine o’clock in the morning the middle of the night?” Hollins asked, cocking an eyebrow at the RIDE. “Well, no matter. What do you recall of the your actions at around two o’clock this morning?”

“I don’t remember anything! I was dozing all night.”

“So this isn’t you?” Hollins asked, playing a short clip of the robbery, complete with identifying codes.

“Well, it is me,” Felix admitted. “But it must have been the Viral Thief.”

Hollins’ eyes narrowed “I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with this character. Could you describe him for me, beyond the fact he looks exactly like you.”

“Look, read Will and I’s articles,” Felix protested, beginning to sound frantic. “We spotted this guy a week ago, taking over RIDEs and their owners and using them to steal.”


“I don’t know! If I knew that then we’d have gone to the gendarmerie but I swear its the truth. Look, do a read on me. My memories will prove it.”

“Your memories for the last night have been blanked,” Hollins informed him.

The phoenix shook his head in frustration. “I know that. But I’ve got the times and dates for our discussions. You can watch us figure the whole thing out, I wrote up the article myself. It wasn’t us.”

“So you’re saying this ‘Viral Thief’ targeted you, specifically,” Hollins pressed, frowning. “Why?”

“I don’t know. Maybe we got to close. Maybe he wanted to frame us. All I know was that we’d never steal anything.”

“Okay, I think that’s enough for now,” Hollins anounced, standing. “Thank you for your cooperation.”

Without another word she left and sighed as the door clicked closed behind her. She didn’t have long to wait as within a few minutes Jackie stepped out of interview room one.

“Well?” Hollins asked.

Jackie shrugged. “Not our turkey. Too open, not willing enough to try and lead me. I think this really might be the Viral Thief trying something smart.”

“Yeah, I got pretty much the same impression from the RIDE.”

“And you didn’t end up with feathers, so that’s a plus,” Jackie pointed out. “I guess that just leaves us with the RIDE mechanic to chase up.”

“Hopefully they’ll give us something because till then we’re just running around in the dark,” Hollins sighed.

“Oh, speaking of which.” Jackie snapped her fingers as memory struck. “I have to take a long lunch today.”

“What?” Hollins stared at her, incredulously. “We are in the middle of a make or break case.”

“It’ll help,” she protested. “Trust me on this.”

Hollins shrugged. “Fine, but if Jarvis finds out I’m not covering for you.”

“Thanks Teddy.”

“And stop calling me Teddy!”

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Hollins found herself standing in front of the FreeRiders garage feeling stupid. While not everyone was speculating about the reason for its destruction during the Alpha Wolf raid, and the rubble’s subsequent clearing by a team of mysterious RIDEs, but it was a close run thing. Hollins had managed to fill in the address for shipping the Lynx RIDE without noticing the connection. It was not a pretty structure, mostly built out of blocky prefabricated units but then that description covered most of Uplift.

One of the units had a sign on it reading “Office” and Hollins made her way over. The office was as utilitarian as the rest of the building, a few basic chairs and an empty reception desk. Hollins tapped the idle screen and a distant chime sounded somewhere deep inside the building.

A few moments later a red-headed girl in coveralls whose furry, tiger-nosed face went beyond the current animal-nose fashion poked her head in through a door behind the desk. “Oh hey. Can I help you?”

“Ah yes,” Hollins began, getting over her initial surprise. “I’m Inspecteur Hollins, I have an appointment to see a Rochelle Seaford.”

“Oh, sure!” The tiger-girl nodded. She lifted up a hinged section of the counter. “Come on back, I’ll show you to her lair. I mean, lab.” She giggled and Hollins shook her head.

“Lead on.”

Like the rest of the garage, the lab was spartan and utilitarian, with just a couple of posters giving it a more human touch. On the walls and workbenches a considerable amount of equipment was arranged with care, including some pieces whose battered exteriors suggested they had been original to the destroyed version of the garage. Sitting at a workstation, eyes hidden behind interface specs, was empirically the most beautiful woman Hollins had ever seen.

Every standard of beauty in vogue the woman met, and then some; smooth skin, long, straight raven-black hair, a build that was neither too curvy nor too scrawny, and body language that managed to send the equivalent of a come-hither look just sitting still. She wore a white Easy-Fuse jumpsuit that fit her body like a second skin and a pair of white cat ears on her head completed the ensemble. For a moment Hollins pined for her lost masculinity, and it took several moments for her to notice the large snow leopard RIDE curled up in a corner of the room regarding her with curiosity.

The woman looked up and turned, her hair seeming to swirl about her in slow motion from the movement. She lifted the specs. “If this is about that parking ticket, I swear I was only in the store for a moment...” She grinned and offered a hand. “Hi, Inspecteur. Pleased to meet you.”

“And you, Miss Seaford,” Hollins assured her, cogs whirring, as she gave the offered hand a firm grasp. The woman in front of was wearing the equivalent of the Commissariat’s yearly budget in biosculpt, and Hollins pulled out her notebook and began looking up the Seafords. There was no way in hell anyone could get that beautiful through sheer genetics and the RIDE was no bargain basement frame if Hollins was any judge.

“Shelley, please, or Rochelle. You say Miss Seaford and I look around for my Mom.”

“My apologies,” Hollins said with a thin smile. “I was told you could help me with my investigations.”

“Sure, Inspecteur.” Rochelle tilted her head for a moment, and Hollins got the sense she was evaluating her. “By the way...if it’s not too personal, my condolences on the recent, unintentional crossover. I’ve been there.”

Hollins frowned.

“It’s your choice of clothes and your body language, really,” Rochelle explained. “You’re still trying to ‘walk like a man,’ as the old song goes. You only see that resistance to adapt in people who didn’t make the choice willingly, and only in the first few weeks. The ones who choose it are more at peace with it. Oh, and also, your ears are still new-skin pink.”

“Thank you,” Hollins replied, tersely. Whatever Rochelle’s story was it was a complicated one, strong links to the Walton’s though just how that had happened Hollins had no idea. Maybe a mistress, maybe an illegitimate child paid off, either way Hollins decided that it was way above her pay grade. “Now about this RIDE.”

“Oh, sure. I’ve got her in the cradle over here. Haven’t booted her up yet, but ran her registration, did some preliminary research, and I’ve been examining her core.” She flipped the specs back down. “Nextus military LNX(f)-LMA-005D, made around 133. Decommissioned 140, string of owners since then. No patterns I could see there.”

Hollins smiled, it was cute when civilians thought they were detectives. “We were particularly interested in the events of the previous night. Specifically relating to the idea of invasive programs.”

“Right. But it’s useful to know the background.” Rochelle shrugged, somehow the motion just served to make her more attractive. “Just in case there were signs of old damage or tampering. Didn’t see any here though, beyond the usual unfetter jailbreaking you find on just about any RIDE in Uplift these days. In fact, I found no sign of any suspicious files or corruption from recent overrides.”

“That seems to rule out the hacking angle I suppose,” Hollins mused. “How about the data logs for the night. Is there any way to recover them?”

“As for that, there was no data for that time period.” Rochelle shook her head in disbelief. “And I don’t mean that it was deleted, or overwritten with zeroes, or anything like that. Those leave traces we can see. But here there was, literally, no data. Nothing. There wasn’t even any of the usual passive-mode timestamping. This RI core was completely inactive during that time.”

Hollins frowned, scribbling notes in her book. “So you're saying that the RIDE was off during that period?”

“No, I’m saying that the RI was off,” Rochelle corrected her. “People always talk about ‘the RIDE’ as if it’s one single thing, but actually it’s two--the Reticulated Intelligence core and the Drive Extender body. And in this case, the embedded processors in the DE’s parts show that it was in use during that timeframe.”

“Would it be possible to circumvent the RI core?” Hollins mused. “Say, run the RIDE remotely for example?”

Rochelle made a face “Possible, though I wouldn’t want to try it for anything involving fine work.”

“Like fusing?”

“Yeah. You’ve got to have on-board intelligence to Fuse.” Rochelle frowned, flipping the specs up to look directly at Hollins out of violet eyes. “If it weren’t that the core was completely blank during that time, I’d have expected something like the RIDE that got me.”

“Got you?” Hollins enquired.

“Have you heard of the old Edgar Allen Poe story, ‘The Cask of Amontillado’? Sort of a revenge-fic about a guy who got mad at another guy, lured him down into a dungeon, and bricked him up behind a wall.”

Hollins shrugged. “I’m afraid my interests do not tend towards horror but I believe I am with you.”

“Well, one rather twisted RIDE thought it would be cute to make a program that did the same thing with a person’s mind while in Fuse, and name it after that story. Then lace it with a personality-altering trojan to make any RIDE who installs it want to bodyjack someone they love or respect, with a strong bias toward the opposite gender.” Rochelle rolled her eyes. “Back when I was ‘Roger,’ I wrote the jailbreak program that one used to free herself.” She nodded at the leopard in the corner. “And my address just happened to be in the comm directory.”

“I said I was sorry!” the leopard whined.

Hollins discovered that she had stopped writing at some point and hurriedly scribbled down the rest of the story. “Have you,” she began. “You know, mentioned this to the gendarmerie?”

“Mentioned what?”

“The highly dangerous rogue program,” Hollins growled.

“It’s already pretty widely known, in cyber-law-enforcement circles,” Rochelle said, flippantly. “I’m hardly the first to get bitten by it. We’ve made some progress on shutting it down, and hopefully it’ll just be a bad memory in a few months.” Rochelle shrugged. “Anyway, that’s why I was so interested to hear about this case, and why I’m waving my usual fees this time. Anything that smacks of a RIDE or her partner being made to do something against their will is kind of personal for me.”

Hollins made a few more notes to chase up the cyber crime lab and once again wished for the days when people had to at least leave their houses to cause mass theft and property damage. “I’m sorry you had to go through such a thing Miss Seaford. Now, was there anything else you found in regards to the Lynx?”

“Ah...yes. One more thing.” Rochelle flipped the specs down again. “There were traces of some tampering around the RI core housing. Can’t say when, but it was recent--the scratches in the metal were still shiny.”

“Hmm,” Hollins sighed. “Okay, well that is very helpful. When you get the chance could you please make sure the RIDE is returned to the station, I’m sure her owner is missing her.”

Rochelle grinned, and took her specs off. “Sure thing, Inspecteur.”

Hollins snapped the notebook closed and killed the inbuilt recorder. “Now, if I may, I do have a personal job that I hope you could help me with.”

Rochelle’s leopard ears twitched forward. “Really? What is it?”

“During a case we came across a RIDE who was, shall we say, a little unstable.” Hollins reached into her pocket and pulled out the ring box containing Cleo’s RI.

Rochelle nodded. “I’ve done a lot of that kind of work--helping heal damage from abusive or neglectful owners.” She shook her head sadly. “It’s a crime what some people do to RIDEs.”

“In this case, I believe it was a crime both ways,” Hollins sighed. “Some psychological help would be useful too, but I’ve been wondering about running a RIDE long term in a virtual unit.”

“As long as the computer running it is stable, there’s no reason you couldn’t do it indefinitely,” Rochelle explained. “RIs are virtual animals first and foremost. The DE lets them live in the real world, but almost all RIDEs spend at least some time virtual. It’s also how we do therapy on them.”

“Well in that case, I would like to retain you to do some basic analysis, make sure there aren’t any rogue programs gumming up the works. I’d also like my options for getting her tethered.”

Rochelle pursed her lips. “All right. I can look at her for you. I certainly can’t say anything specific until I see exactly what the damage is. She certainly might need some limits to start out, especially if we can’t cure her right away. But it’s my opinion that a perfectly healthy RIDE shouldn’t need any tethering, any more than most people should be chained up at night to make sure they don’t go out and rob a liquor store.”

“I fully agree,” Hollins said. “However, there are people we chain up to prevent them robbing liquor stores. Just...don’t run any risks with this one.”

Rochelle nodded. “I understand.” She reached out to take the box. “I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you, when I work on her, I’m going to see her memories. But like any professional, I keep what I see private. Or at least, private between me and my partner.” She nodded at the snow leopard.

“I wouldn’t expect any more,” Hollins assured her, handing over Cleopatra. “Thank you Miss Seaford, you’ve been a great help.”

“Sure.” Rochelle grinned. “And one bit of personal advice to you, about the...well, you know.” She waved a hand vaguely.

“The knockers,” Hollins said, rolling her eyes.

Rochelle chuckled. “Yeah. Just remember, it’s okay to go at your own speed. Whatever that speed is. You’ll get where you’re going sooner or later. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

“Thank you for the advice,” Hollins told her. “Now I really must get back to the case.”

Rochelle nodded, turning and taking the core to her workbench. “See ya ‘round! I’ll let you know what I’ve found in a day or so.” She turned to the leopard. “Uncia, hon? Time to get to work.” The big cat picked herself up out of the corner and padded over toward her.

“Good day Miss Seaford.”

Hollins sighed as she left the lab. Now if only she actually wanted to go where the path was leading her.

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A few minutes down the road Hollins realised she was being followed. They were quite good, Hollins never got more than a glimpse out of the corner of her eye but that was enough, Hollins pulled out her notebook and pretended to look something up. A moment later she’d pulled the traffic feed and spotted the panther fuser following at a discreet distance, already a search thread was trawling through public records trying to identify her but getting nothing but partial matches. Hollins stepped up the a taxi post and put in a request for a ride back to the Commissariat, a few moments the panther past and turned the nearest block corner. Hollins let the request lapse and set off at a brisk walk in the opposite direction.

She paused on the street corner for a moment, making a show of waiting for the lights and caught the panther out of the corner of her eye the block over. Definitely a tail. Hollins kept her pace measured as she crossed the road, but the moment the RIDE was out of sight behind the buildings she stepped out into the road, causing a skimmer to veer past her, howling expletives. Across the road Hollins darted into an alleyway between two looming warehouses, pulling a large gun from her jacket pocket she paused behind a dumpster, watching the entrance.

Hollins heart pounded in her chest as she waited, tensed, waiting for someone to step from the light into the shadows of the alley. Nothing stirred but Hollins didn’t relax, she kept herself there, on alert, waiting, she was far too practiced to give herself even a moment’s respite.

The music echoed through the alleyway and Hollins cocked her head in bemusement as she tried to place it. That instant’s hesitation was almost enough and it was only the whine of the lifters that alerted her in time to whirl as the panther fuser dropped to the alley floor from the rooftops. Hollins almost fired, but then she realised that the panther was bright pink and playing ‘The Pink Panther’ theme tune.

“Seriously Jackie?” Hollins exclaimed, letting her gun hand drop. “I almost blew your stupid head off!”

The panther rippled as she defused, disgorging Jackie who stumbled, shaking her head and flicking bright pink ears. In fact, her hair and tail were both an eye searing shade in flagrant disregard of good taste.

“How did you know it was me?” Jackie demanded.

“Because I couldn’t think of anyone else on this bloody rock who would tail someone whilst playing the bloody Pink Panther theme,” Hollins ranted. “I take it this is your new RIDE then.”

“Quell,” the panther said, stepping forward. She had a faint french accent that Hollins found deeply ironic. “I am pleased to meet you.”

“Charmed I’m sure,” Hollins snapped. “Jackie, I thought I taught you better than this. Why the hell did you buy a spook RIDE?”

Jackie blinked again. “How?” she began to ask.

“Well, beyond the colour change, the fact I can’t seem to lock her down to any one type of cat is a big clue,” Hollins explained. “You’ve got what, double the hardlights to allow for a level of body morphism?” she asked the RIDE.

“Got it in one madame,” Quell said, nodding. “She is as good as you think,” she told Jackie.

“I’ll take that as a complement,” Hollins sighed. “Where did you get her Jackie? If you say a guy down the pub I’m going to put you back on the beat for a week.”

“Hey, hey,” Jackie protested, holding up her hands. “It was all above board, do you know Ducey, old gumshoe who did a lot of qubit theft investigations?”

“She had quite the reputation,” Hollins admitted. “This is her old RIDE then?”

“Ducey wanted to retire,” Quell interjected. “I wasn’t quite ready for it, I’m very happy to help you in any way I can.”

Hollins rolled her eyes. “So when did you leave the intelligence service then?” she asked the RIDE, cutting straight to the point.

“I actually was never in intelligence,” Quell replied, shrugging.

“That frame is a custom job then?” Hollins asked incredulously. “I don’t buy that for a second.”

“Actually, the previous occupant was removed before my time.” Quell looked sheepish. “My frame had been picked over for bugs and my RI is clean as a whistle. You have nothing to fear from me inspecteur.”

“See Teddy, I did the legwork,” Jackie said, beaming, but Hollins wasn’t listening. “Hollins?”

“Shit!” Hollins swore. Quell and Jackie looked at her in surprise. “No, not you guys, I just realised I could have solved this case yesterday if I’d been smarter.”

“What have you got?” Jackie prompted.

“We’ve been watching people and their RIDEs stealing crap for a fortnight now.” Hollins began to pace in the narrow alleyway. “But we never saw the RIDE, just the DE.”

“Oh, its not a virus.” Jackie snapped her fingers as realisation struck. “Its a physical hack, someone took the RI cores out of the RIDES and replaced them with a new one. Thats why the RIDEs didn’t record any data during the thefts.”

“Exac-” Hollins began but paused, frowned. “How the hell did you know that no data was recorded?”

“Um, I might have been testing out Quell’s directional microphone,” Jackie explained, blushing.

“An interesting building, they have more data security than some banks,” Quell interjected. “Many brave bugs have died trying to infiltrate that place.”

Hollins once again made the decision that whatever was going on in the FreeRIDErs garage was above her pay grade. “Well, apart from that minor espionage charge you’re right. The simplest way to break into any computer is to be standing right next to it. Damn! Its annoying as hell when you realise any RIDE technician could have told me that if I’d just asked them the right questions.”

“This, of course, does not bring you any closer to capturing your perpetration,” Quell pointed out, preening.

“Oh but it does,” Hollins said, grinning. “Because we also know that our thief thinks they are smart, and doesn’t know we’ve figured out how they are doing it.”


“So all I need is a press conference, a HART squad and a honeypot and I’ve got the bastard.”

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The conference itself had been a wishy washy affair. Mostly platitudes from the press office as to how the gendarmerie were chasing up strong leads on the Viral Thief and that the public should keep an eye out for suspicious behaviour. The actual message had been in the subtext, Hollins made sure that Jackie and Quell, in her meekest disguise, had been front and center throughout the whole thing. By Hollins’ judge, the thief wouldn’t be able to resist such an obvious target.

In the dead of night Hollins found herself starting awake in Jackie’s walk in wardrobe, draped in a camo-cloak. Her notebook was buzzing, a priority signal had gone down the wire from the external team that someone had entered the building. Checking the faraday-shroud Hollins readied her gun and relayed the message across to Quell that they were on.

The minutes inched past. “Someone’s coming,” Quell signaled. Moments later Hollins heard the heavy tread of a RIDE entering the apartment.

“Wake Jackie,” Hollins pinged back.

“See, nothing to worry about,” the RIDE muttered from the next room. “Both of them, sleeping like babies.”

Hollins decided that was too good an opening to pass up and leapt to her feet.

“What the?” the fuser exclaimed, as Hollins kicked the wardrobe door open.

“ULG, stay where you are!” Hollins roared, bringing her gun to bear on the rabbit fuser. Quell was already fusing with Jackie, holdout weapons sprouting through her hardlight coat.

The rabbit bounded for the window and Hollins opened fire.

The Storm-37 was the largest handgun that Uplift would grant a concealed carry permit for and was originally meant as a side-arm for RIDE pilots. An upgrade of a gauss accelerator design that had been around for over a hundred years, it used flywheel dampeners and a huge sarium battery pack to fire hypersonic rounds that could blow through light RIDE armour. While only able to fire seven rounds before draining the cell, it carried thirty, with six different types of ammunition and could be reconfigured on the fly for anything from riot control to giving suborbitals a bad day.

Hollins fired a brace of shells, the staccato rattle lasting less than a second, and the RIDE killer volley screamed through the air. Two burster shells hit first, the spray of metal sending the rabbit’s hardlight shell rocking, followed by two solid slugs that overwhelmed the local projectors. The three AP shells smashed through the civilian grade armour and the RIDE screamed as they went clean through the chassis and rider within.

The RIDE managed to light his lifters and smash through the window but Quell and Jackie were right after them. The rabbit wallowed in the air for a moment, struggling to gain altitude before a panther landed on its back and they plummeted three stories into the street below.

Hollins vaulted through the window as the impact shook the building and fired up her lifting harness as she dropped after them. It was all over by the time the microlifters dropped her down to ground level, the rabbit was struggling beneath Quell but a squad of HARTs had surrounded them. Hollins walked over as they slipped a control collar over its neck and at last the struggles ceased.

“As I was saying,” Hollins said, holding her still glowing gun out at arms length. “You are under arrest under the suspicion of four counts of grand theft and the attempted assault of a gendarmerie inspecteur. You do not have to say anything and you have the right to legal aid if you so wish, do you have anything to say at this time?”

The rabbit’s head ratcheted back, revealing the face of a young man with a vicious grimace on his face. “Too slow gerries,” he hissed.

The helmet sealed back up and RIDE began convulsing and Quell exclaimed. “He’s dumping the core!” The panther slammed a paw down on the back of the rabbit’s neck and for a moment the pair stood rock still.

Then Quell broke away. “Shit!” she swore. “Its gone. The crazy bastard just lobotomised his own RIDE.”

“That’s just sick,” Jackie growled.

“Ah hell,” Hollins snapped. “That was half our evidence!”

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“I can not believe he walked,” Hollins snarled, pacing back and forth across her small living room.

“Seven,” Quell muttered, counting off the circuits from her position curled up in a beam of sunlight.

“Well what was the judge supposed to throw at him?” Jackie said, shrugging. “We had zero video evidence, no motive and a few ‘windfalls’ that we couldn’t actually tie to the laundering of any particular assets.” Jackie shook her head in disgust. “The only thing we really had was assaulting me and they were right, it was technically entrapment.”

“Ten,” Quell continued. “Don’t blame yourself anyway, who would have thought he’d have been unstable enough to wipe the RIDE.” She and Jackie shared a shudder, one even Hollins could sympathise with, as crazy as Cleo was.

“That’s sociopathic technically,” Hollins sighed. “Urgh, and what the hell was going through the rabbit’s head when he let his owner install that piece of crap?”

“We’ll never know,” Jackie replied. “Come on Hollins, let it go. Okay so he’s not behind bars, but we solved the case and there’s no way in hell he’ll be trying that kind of stunt again, we’d be on him in a heartbeat.”

“But he’ll do something new,” Hollins protested. “Some other clever get rich quick scheme. I know the type, the ones that think they’re so smart the law doesn’t apply to them.”

“Twenty,” Quell counted, standing. “Can I eat her now.”

“Come on Hollins, go drinking with us. There are all these fuser bars I’ve never been allowed in before and I’m dying to try them out.”

“I don’t want to go drinking Jackie,” Hollins snapped.

“Come with us or I get Quell to ‘jack you,” Jackie snapped.

Hollins glanced at the pink panther who just regarded her with flint hard eyes. “Fine. But this is cruel and unusual punishment.”

“Oh no, cruel and unusual starts after twelve,” Jackie declared, springing to her feet and sweeping Hollins up in a one armed hug. “Come on Teddy, tonight is ladies’ night!”

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“Message for you boss,” Vikki chimed, poking her Lynx head around the door.

“Oh,” Vico enquired. “Who from?”

“No idea, it was anonymised beyond recognition. It was bounced off everything save Wednesday before delivery. Weird message too, just a name and address. A Robert Irving.”

Vico grinned, there was no warmth in that smile. “Oh really? Do you remember that scum sucking son of a bitch that tried to frame you?” he inquired.

Vikki growled. “You’re saying that-”

“I’m saying that he may shortly be spending some of his ill gotten gains on some reconstructive surgery. A tragic accident of course. Round up the girls.”

Preceded by:
Inspecteur Hollins and The Cat's Paw
Inspecteur Hollins Succeeded by:
Inspecteur Hollins and The Multimillion Vault