John E. Stith's DEATH TOLLS Excerpt

Death Tolls Copyright © 1987 by John E. Stith. All rights reserved.

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Chapter 1


I took a deep breath, willing myself to relax. It did no good. I slammed my open palm down on the solid desk top. That didn't help either.

The message on my desk screen remained, and I couldn't suppress my feelings.

Restless, I rose and strode to the window. Outside, the wind forced iron-red dust across the plains beyond the edge of the city, almost obscuring the base of Olympus. I tried to forget about the message. But I had to know more. I had to know why.

"Intercom," I said, still staring, unseeing, at the view.

"Active," the desk responded.

"Achmed?" I said.

"Yes, sir," came the voice of my receptionist.

"Is that fellow still in the lobby?"

"Yes, he is."

"Send him in, will you?"

There was just the barest hesitation before Achmed said, "Will do." If he was puzzled about why I should ask to see someone I'd earlier refused to admit, he handled it with his usual discretion.

I snapped off the intercom and looked back out the window as I waited. It was dark enough outside that I could see the interior of my office clearly reflected. I could almost read the reversed headline of the two-day-old news sheet next to the picture on my desk. I knew what it said without needing a better view: Air Crash Death Toll Rises to Seven.

A knock sounded on my door. The man who entered was a little shorter than I, with black hair cut quite short and a trimmed mustache. His roughened skin suggested frequent exposure to wind and dust. Draped over his arm was a black coat. Gently he closed the door.

"I know you," I said, surprised. "Freeman, isn't it?"

"Detective Sergeant Angelo Freeman. You've got a good memory, Mr. Kettering."

Without comment, I gestured toward a guest chair.

The serious expression on the man's face probably matched mine. He sat in the chair, hardly looking at me, and withdrew a card he first pressed with his thumb, and then placed on my desk. "Just in case you have any doubts. I'm sure you know the techniques available to imposters."

I took my seat and reached for the card. His thumbprint had made the identification emblem glow orange and blue, and it slowly faded as I watched. It had to be genuine. The picture matched him, and I knew how difficult they were to forge. I shoved it back. "Care to tell me why a policeman would send a message like that?" I asked, feeling remarkably civil.

"I wanted to make sure I saw you," he replied. "I tried to see you after the funeral this morning. When I failed there, I thought I could reach you at home. I didn't expect to see you back at work."

"Sorry," I said dryly. "I haven't done anything productive since I got here, but it's somehow better than home."

"I'm sorry about your brother, Mr. Kettering."

Suddenly irritated, I could stay seated no longer. I stood up quickly and paced to the window. "That's enough. You probably didn't even know him. And you sent me this bizarre message, 'Do you want your brother's death to be for nothing?' Besides not signing it, you wouldn't even tell my receptionist who you are. I want an explanation, and I want it before we go any farther."

Detective Freeman looked up at me briefly, as though measuring me, and then looked back at the desk. I didn't take his bad eye contact as a sign of guilt. He'd had the problem when we met years ago, when I was in another line of work.

"You're right," he said. "I didn't know your brother. And I owe you an explanation. But it's going to take me a few minutes to tell you all I need to. I'll go away quietly after that, and I apologize for putting you through this on the same day as your brother's funeral. Obviously I feel it's quite important. Will you hear me out?"

The detective's clear reflection in my window gestured toward my desk chair. I looked back at him and got the feeling he was trying to make the best of a bad situation. I relented, feeling trapped, and took my seat. "Go ahead."

Freeman tugged gently on the corner of his mustache. "I wasn't able to talk to your brother before he died. I had hoped he would recover and I could ask him some questions about the accident."

"I had rather hoped he'd recover, too," I said bitterly. But Sam hadn't recovered. He had died less than a day after the crash. It was still all I could do to accept it as actually having happened. I'd worried about him ever since we were children. He'd always been the reckless one, a couple years my junior. When I had gotten the call saying he'd been in an accident, almost my first thought was that it must have been the result of some chance he had taken. I remembered feeling guilty when I found out it was in no way his fault.

Freeman's dark eyes met mine for another instant before his gaze wandered again. "I don't mean to be insensitive. It's just that I'm not sure the crash was accidental." He held up a hand to keep me from interrupting. "I have to give you some background before it will make much sense."

"Bloody hell," I said, still angry, but surprised, too. "You're telling me someone arranged that crash and you want me to be quiet?"

"Please, Mr. Kettering. Just hear me out."

I moved uncomfortably in my chair, but kept silent with an effort.

"All right," Freeman said. "Tell me, then. Did you see the news coverage of the crash?"

I nodded, for the moment unable to speak. I hadn't wanted to watch, but there was no way I could turn off the television. Someone could have threatened me with my life, and I probably still would have left it on, staring, transfixed. The cameras caught the plane as it hit the runway, wing first. Crimson fire boiled out of the rear of the plane, and only the spinning of the craft after the fuselage hit the ground kept the entire plane from being consumed. I shuddered.

"Whose coverage did you see?"

"What?" I asked.

"I asked whose coverage you saw. It's important."

I looked at him blankly for a moment. "MNBS."

Freeman leaned back and brushed some imaginary dust off my desk top. "I knew you'd say that."

"Then why in bloody hell are you--" My anger at it all exploded, and it took a moment to regain control.

"MNBS was there first," he said, not seeming to notice my outburst. He stared at my desk for a moment before he said, "You understand hunches, Mr. Kettering?"

The transition slowed me for an instant. "I suppose so."

"I get these hunches, you see? Oh, I'm not saying they're always right. But sometimes they are. We don't have all that many air crashes, you know."


"And I found out the reporter who covered the crash for MNBS took a ride on that same plane the day before the crash."

I shifted uneasily in my chair, aware of a cool draft in the room. "That's not quite enough to convict someone, though. Or even to suggest guilt."

"Oh, I agree. I agree. But a coincidence like that is--well, it's worth following up. And I did. He had a legitimate need to fly from Melas to here. So I checked some more. He was at the Melas airport in time to take a scheduled nonstop commercial flight that left an hour earlier and got in almost two hours earlier. And, yes. It still had seats available."

"That's still not much evidence," I said.

"I realize that. I've got little enough to go on that bringing him in for questioning wouldn't do anything more than warn him. But my hunch generator is making me lose sleep. I think there's a tie-in." He must have felt strongly about the last point, because he looked me right in the eye. "I don't know why, but I suspect that man had something to do with the accident."

"Okay," I said slowly. "It's a possibility. But why me? Why are you here?"

"I need you. I still remember the information you obtained on Gunderson, you know."

"That was years ago. I'm not in journalism anymore."

"So I see. The receptionist told me you own this engineering firm. Why did you quit such a promising career?"

"'Promising' is a matter of opinion, and I still fail to see the relevance."

"It takes me a while sometimes to tie all the pieces together, but I'm getting close. You worked for a television news department, and, from your results, seemed to be quite competent." He tugged at his mustache.

I was starting to get an even worse feeling about all of this, but I kept silent.

"I think someone with your talents and background is the only kind of person who can help us. Sean Franco works for a television station. You used to work for a television station. And it was your brother who died." Detective Freeman overcame his eye-contact problem for five seconds and looked steadily at me.

"You can't be serious," I said at last, realizing exactly what he wanted. "Me hire on at MNBS to investigate?"

"Precisely, Mr. Kettering."

Disbelieving, I stared at him for a long moment before I rose and went back to the window. The twinge in my knee started acting up again. "No," I said softly, but forcefully.

The room was so quiet that he must have heard, but he went on anyway. "You shouldn't worry about being recognized. We have a few experts in temporary and permanent disguise. And it has been several years. When you were a journalist, it was here in Biblis, so people in Helium aren't likely to know you. We don't have anyone with the experience you've got." He paused. "We need you, Mr. Kettering."

"You need me. You need me to investigate someone who may not be actually guilty of anything. You need me to leave my business for who knows how long, and pretend to be someone I'm not. Don't you think they'll be a little curious about my credentials as an investigative reporter?"

Freeman looked at his wristcomp. "I don't think they'll spend a lot of time looking at your credentials. The only job opening right now is for a driver."

I looked closely at the detective's reflection in the window and tried to recall if I'd ever seen him smile. He sat there calmly and looked at my nearly barren desk.

Beyond the window, the wind had picked up, and a maroon dust cloud reached high enough to touch the clouds that usually obscured the upper half of Olympus, so the volcano was totally invisible. Things I hadn't thought about in a long time seemed somehow clearer than before. I could remember the passion I'd felt for the news business. And, quite surprisingly, I could see Sam sitting in a comfortable chair, a warm drink in his hands, that carefree smile on his lips, and saying, "You worry too much, Dan. I'm fine. Really."

The image startled me. Ever since I had gotten back to the office, I had tried to remember the good times. All I had been able to summon was the television news pictures of the exploding plane, and Sam lying limply in the hospital bed. I also realized that I was actually beginning to consider seriously Freeman's request.

"How can you guarantee I'd be hired?" I asked after another long moment of thinking about Sam's death and things left unfinished.

"I can't. But I think I can push the odds up to a comfortable level. You see, I have a fair amount of latitude." Freeman didn't press, but he must have sensed the change I was feeling.

I hesitated, thinking about the reasons I had left the television business. Sam had understood, even if Dad hadn't. And I could still hear Sam saying any decision is better than no decision. "Do I go in cold?" I asked.

"No. Maybe being a cop is a lot like being a reporter. I brought some materials with me." Freeman reached into his jacket pocket, withdrew a packet, and laid it on my desk.

"You were pretty sure of yourself."

"Think of it as being thorough."

I unfolded the wrapper. Inside were two pictures and a recording wafer.

"The wafer includes a dossier on MNBS," Freeman said as I arranged the pictures on the desk. "And ones on some of the key employees."

The pictures were of a man and a woman. The woman's face was striking. The picture had been taken outdoors in sunlight, and she squinted slightly in the glare. The carmine dust in the background seemed to bleed into her image and make her cheeks rosy. Simply cut blonde hair framed her face and fell to her neck. I shifted my gaze enough to see another angle in the hologram, and saw that her cheekbones were high and attractive. I remembered her from the coverage of the plane crash.

"That's Janet Vincent," Freeman said. Moving the second picture toward me, he added, "And this is Sean Franco. He's Janet's boss. They usually work together on assignments."

The other picture showed another half-familiar face: the male reporter at the scene. The man was reasonably good looking, with black hair and a thin face. His mouth was compressed into a horizontal slit.

"I'm fairly sure we can get you to work directly with them," Freeman added.

I noted without comment that Freeman acted as though my doing this had never been in question. "How soon?"

"They start interviewing tomorrow for a new driver. One quit rather suddenly. A new name and job history for you are all ready to add to the employment service." It was obvious from his tone that he had something to do with the driver deciding to leave, but he didn't smile.

"Tomorrow?" I asked, suddenly giddy. Things were moving way too fast.

"It's probably best if you don't have a lot of time to reconsider or worry about it. If we don't get someone in soon, we may lose the chance. And if Sean Franco really is responsible, more people may die before they might otherwise."

I looked back down at the pictures. Sean Franco looked a little tense, but did he look like a killer, an assassin? Janet Vincent's picture recaptured my attention. "What time tomorrow?" I asked.

"Fixing you up with a disguise and some different clothes might take an hour. Come down to our building at nine. Room one-eleven."

"Aren't you worried about my being seen there? You took pains not to let anyone know why you came here."

"Someone with a recently dead brother going into the judicial building is less noteworthy than a cop calling on him. It would have been easier if you hadn't shut off all calls on your wristcomp."

Absently, I spoke a soft command to let calls come through again.

"I'll have you entered in the files as a deputy, but that information won't be accessible to the general staff," Freeman said. "Do you want to pick a new name now, so we can have things ready?"

I hesitated. Somehow, this was the first act to force me to say, "Yes, I am going to do this." It was all going so fast. "Bill Letterer," I said finally. My full name was Daniel William Kettering. And some of my relatives had called me Bill. I tried to tell myself this was just like being an investigative reporter all over again.

"You know you don't actually have to do this," Freeman said, as though now that I was committed, he wanted it obvious that I'd had a choice.

"I hear you," I said. It was more like hearing a sound while being halfway into a dream state. I recognized the words, but things didn't make complete sense. I shook my head. The feeling remained. "Anything more?" I asked finally.

He shook his head and rose to leave.

"I'm going, too," I said. "I can read this packet at home."

On the way down the hall, I stopped in my second-in-command's office. I told her about some vacation plans, my to-do list, and left her in charge. I had to close the door behind me to cut off her flow of objections. At the front lobby, I told Achmed some of the same things, and walked out the door with Freeman. The wind whipped my coat away from my body, and I felt the chill before I got it buttoned securely. Dust stung my face and eyes.

"Are you worried about leaving your business with someone else?" Freeman asked.

"She can handle it. I pick my people pretty carefully." I started toward my car. I was halfway to it when he caught up to me and said, "Mr. Kettering."

I glanced quickly around and saw no one else in the parking lot. "That's Letterer."

"Excuse me, but I may have to give you a hand with your car."

I said nothing as he walked ahead of me. When he reached my car, a five-year-old Far Star, he reached under a wheel well and withdrew a small black box. "You should be all right now," he said, looking almost apologetic.

"Was that your fall-back position? To help me with my car when I left work?"

"Something like that. You gave me a hard time."

I didn't reply, so Freeman left without another word. For the moment, nothing seemed real. In my car, I sat for several long minutes, aware of only the wind buffeting the car and a curious mixture of excitement and strong post-decision depression.


At home, I put Freeman's packet on the table and went to let Hungry and Lazy out of the bathroom and give them some fresh food. The two cats couldn't have the run of the house unless I was home. Martian gravity was almost as bad as Luna's. The dwarfs could get anywhere that wasn't locked, no matter how high.

While the cats ate, I fed the recording wafer into the computer and looked at the index. There were sections on MNBS, Sean Franco, Janet Vincent, and several others on the staff. A quick examination indicated the dossiers were made with an attempt to be fair and unbiased. There were no obvious subjective impressions, just details with the feel of verifiable facts.

The writing style in the dossiers was fairly dry, so I decided to timeshare. I set the television controls to MNBS and lowered the news trigger to four to be assured of seeing something.

News levels ran from one to ten, where one was dog bites man, three was man bites dog, and on up to ten, which was likely to be so bad that viewers wouldn't be alive to see the newscast.

I continued reading the material Freeman had given me. For over an hour the television was inactive, but then a bulletin lit the screen. Hungry and Lazy stopped their playing and watched the image. They blocked part of the view, so I moved. Naturally once I moved they resumed their play. I no longer saw the announcer's face head on, but he was obviously Sean Franco. Near the top of the image a short cylinder showed the digit five to every viewing angle.

"A boating accident on Elysium Lake has killed two people," Franco said. "Details after this."

Behind him in the distance stretched the lake. "Lake" still seemed an odd word choice for a circular body of water over a hundred kilometers across. Four large ice asteroids directed to an impact at the same point had vaporized the lake bed for what was the largest body of water on Mars. Other terraforming efforts had raised the atmospheric pressure and humidity to the point at which the condensers around the shore would keep Elysium Lake from simply disappearing due to evaporation.

Sean Franco's image disappeared, and a beautiful, scantily clad young woman materialized in his place. "Show me a man who knows what he likes," she said, gently biting her lower lip as she paused and leaned toward center screen, "and I'll show you a man who likes what I like." From there, the commercial started to push upscale consumer buttons, hitting appeals to hedonism, glamor, and prestige, one after another. The woman never did state any tangible reason for buying depilatory cream. It was all as subtle as a public execution of a minor.

As the commercial started to fade to black, I was jolted forward by an impact in the back of my neck. A cat. "Not now," I said, tossing Hungry to the floor.

When I looked back, Sean Franco was in view once again. "A man and his daughter died this afternoon in a sudden storm on Elysium Lake. And now, over to Janet Vincent."

Janet Vincent's blonde hair blew almost forty-five degrees up from vertical as the wind seemed to try to push her out of camera range. The air tugged at her voice, but she came through clearly and evenly. "Jack Argonne and his daughter Heather were both drowned in a freak accident, less than a hundred meters offshore in Elysium Lake early this evening."

She went on to describe the unfortunate happening, observing that, had the two been planning to go farther out, they would have used life jackets, and would probably still be alive. In the distance was one of the large condensers lining the shore.

As she talked about Argonne and his daughter dying, I could think only of Sam.

The scene moved to a segment showing Sean Franco and several other reporters talking to the bereaved wife and mother whose face was ash rose, obviously taking it badly. Sean shoved his microphone past one of the other reporters and asked, "What was your reaction when you found out about the accident?"

It was at that moment that I started disliking Sean Franco. The woman didn't look as if she were too fond of him either.

There wasn't much more to the story. One more commercial, which somehow managed to appeal to both fear and ego, broke through before Sean Franco said, "And now back to our regular programming."

There were about five seconds of a typical inane situation comedy before the image went dark. I took a deep breath and realized that I still got angry watching even a little television. I could all too easily imagine Sean Franco on the air saying, "Luna to collide with Earth. Video at twenty-three hundred."


My eyes felt gritty as I drove to the judicial building the next morning. I had finished the dossier, found a friend to keep Lazy and Hungry, and spent another night filled with hours of trying to force myself to sleep.

The judicial building had been built mushroom-style, over fifty years ago, before the atmosphere had reached a breathable pressure, and before the air temperature had risen to a cold but tolerable level. The arched roof was mostly windows, and the core of the building sank into the ground. As I went in, the pressure doors were standing wide open. The seals had darkened to a dirty chestnut and showed numerous cracks.

The offices surrounded a circular courtyard. I found room 111 with no trouble. The glowing sign over the door read "Probate Court." I entered.

"Mr. Kettering," said a young man with slightly off-putting solicitude. "Come with me, please."

He led me past several offices while inquiring about my health and the trip down. Finally, he reached a door he unlocked with his thumb. "Take a right," he said. "Keep going until you get to the door marked one-thirty, and just go right in. They'll be expecting you."

The door closed behind me, and I walked along a cool, narrow corridor with doors set on the right side at perhaps ten-meter intervals. Ahead, the corridor curved out of sight to the right. The access hall must have completely circled the office area. Fine dust made a free-form mosaic on the floor. No matter how hard people tried, the dust always found its way inside.

Running footsteps sounded in the distance behind me. My breathing quickened. A moment later, a runner came into view and I relaxed. Just a jogger. The legend on his chest said "Perspiration Shirt." He loped by me, surely unaware of the tension he had caused, and I resumed my walk. The ceiling was no higher than normal in the hallway. Each time the jogger left the ground, it looked as if he would hit his head, but he didn't.

At the door marked 130, I pressed my thumb against the plate and entered. Inside was an unsettling hospital odor of disinfectants and a woman who escorted me to see a short male doctor whose name I wasn't told.

"Detective Freeman tells me your face needs to change," he said. "Let me show you what I intend to do." He invited me to sit and then handed me a screen displaying an accurate replica of my head. The doctor absently scratched his nose.

He spoke to his desk computer, and the image began to change. My thin, light-blond hair, which was maybe five to ten centimeters long in parts, looked normal at first, but then seemed to pull into my head. The image gave me the impression that someone had taken a time-lapse series while my hair grew out, and then played the recording in reverse. The result was quite short hair, perhaps ten times longer than stubble.

I turned the screen far enough to see a side view. I didn't like it at all, but said nothing.

"Next we have to deal with your bone structure. Your face is so thin that your cheekbones are distinctive. We'll do two things. First, I'll inject your cheeks, here and here." He gestured. "That will make the skin puffier. Then, a simple attachment to two back teeth will force the skin slightly farther out. That will alter your voice a little, too. If it's not enough, we can worry about that next."

The image on the screen now looked a little overweight. Very unappealing. "This is all reversible, I assume," I said.

"In less than a week after you decide you want it off," the doctor said gently, as though he had suddenly remembered that he was talking with a patient rather than a med student. "We're not doing anything permanent here."

"I appreciate that," I said, looking at the image and thinking that he shouldn't have shown it to me before the treatment, when I still had a choice. "Still, it couldn't hurt to wait until we know if it's really going to be necessary." I didn't want to look like that for a week if it weren't absolutely vital.

"Oh, there's no need to wait. Your interview is scheduled for just after lunch."


I took a commercial flight to Helium, using a different assumed name. The person next to me seemed uninterested in talking, so I spent a lot of time thinking. I thought about Sam dying, and MNBS.

I also thought about how I didn't like the way I looked. The doctor's modified image had been surprisingly accurate. After the changes were made--fortunately, they were fairly painless--someone in another office had found me a set of new clothes. I should say different clothes. My new shirt was more colorful than I typically wore, and my trousers were of worn but heavy, durable material.

The doctor was right about people looking at me less. It was hard to tell if it was the clothes or the new face, but the baggage-check counter people had hurried my transaction almost without looking up. And my silent seatmate might be loquacious in other company.

The plane began to lose altitude, and Helium came into view. It was the largest city on Mars, four to five hundred thousand people, and the city stretched far out from the central district. Wind stirred up carmine dust which swept between dusty houses. As we flew lower, the city seemed to flow over the ground, like a blood-tinted tide coming in.


In the parking lot, I destroyed the phony identification that brought me here, and put the new one in the front of my wallet. My real ID was back home, but I still wore my own wristcomp. It would now answer messages sent to my new name. Anything sent to Dan Kettering would get saved in a queue until I looked through it. I had been assured that my fingerprints, retinal prints, hair characteristics, and new voice patterns were now linked to the name of Bill Letterer.


MNBS occupied a larger building than the station where I had worked years ago, but I found the personnel office with little trouble. It had a sign by the door saying HUMAN RESOURCES.

A crisp, efficient secretary, who didn't look at me very much, showed me to a waiting room about three minutes before my appointment. I let the twinge in my leg make me limp slightly. Reflexively, I ran a hand over the back of my head, still feeling awkward that my hair was so short.

Soon, a man-and-woman team from personnel brought me in for a few questions. They didn't ask me anything that was already in my new file, but merely asked for elaborations. I was back in the waiting room before I even got a feel for whether I was doing good or bad.

About ten minutes later, the secretary came back and escorted me to an office on the second floor. The person seated behind the desk turned to the door, and I found myself face to face with Janet Vincent.

End of Excerpt