by Brian Wright

This happened around when teenagers first began to have phone systems implanted in their heads to save the strain on their arms. Many years ago.

I was a young man in those days, too, and could communicate hands-free and on the run with the best of them. One difference, however, was that my hardwiring hadn’t been provided by Alpha Centauri Telecom. It was a gift of nature.

It was also different in another way.

I could talk with the newly dead.

OK, I was a freak, scary even to myself on occasion. The first time was the worst, speaking in a whisper to my grandma in her coffin. But I made the best of it, got myself a job that utilised my gift. I want you to understand, though, that I wasn’t any sort of circus act. I was a professional man, a respected member of a police psychoforensics team. I travelled the world, always one of the first to view the corpse on its slab.

I spent so much time in morgues I was starting to get frostbite of the tongue. The conversation must have sounded more than a trifle one-sided to anyone listening in because their answers always came back in my head.

I got to to talking with some of the stiffs almost like we’d recently met in a bar. Many of them needed a degree of prodding to get them to open up (no joke intended). The interesting thing is that they didn’t seem so different from when they were alive. Nasty people were still nasty, cursing me and their fate. Forgetful and apprehensive people were still forgetful and apprehensive. No-one suddenly had the ability to communicate in six languages … or to play the sax, for that matter.

After a little light conversation to work out their frame of mind - angry or confused or just pissed off - I generally launched into the big one. ‘Who did it?’ Sometimes they knew, sometimes they didn’t. If they knew, they were only to eager to spill the beans. I was instrumental in catching a lot of killers.

The case I’m thinking of was my first and last venture into the cosmos. I was taken on the short hop to where a rusty old freighter was berthed in Space Station AK-12 just off Jupiter. A routine inspection of the vessel had come across the dead body of one of the crew. Only the body. That concerned me somewhat, since I’d never been involved in a murder where the noggin hadn’t been found. They said they wanted me to try anyhow.

I was accompanied from Earth by someone who claimed to be a cop. I had my doubts - for one thing, he was too well-dressed. I couldn’t help wondering about him. A couple of detectives from the station’s own constabulary took us on board the ship. They weren’t very bright, too stupid even to nail down a job on one of the planetary forces, but I could tell they were similarly perplexed by my companion.

The murdered crewman was also something I hadn’t come across before, an inhabitant of the planet Hwy, with a skin that was scaly and an unusually translucent shade of green. The sight of him prickled my memory for no good reason. Otherwise he had all the usual stuff, hands and legs and the ragged edges of a neck. But no head. I was able to deduce, however, that the lost appendage looked part-human, part-lizard; no great detection involved, since several other crewmen came from the same species.

I was becoming more and more confused. My services weren’t normally called upon when anyone remotely extraterrestrial was stretched out under a sheet. A pecking order exists in the universe - with pure carbon-based life forms at the top and everyone else simply required to keep pure carbon-based life forms at the top - but there also existed a practical reason for not calling me out. My powers just didn’t seem to work so well when I had to talk to anyone with eight legs or a large ball of fluff on their shoulders. Perhaps something to do with conversing through a specially-adapted translating box.

Anyway, their word wasn’t always to be relied on, even the ones who had a pint or two of the red stuff running through their veins due to mum or dad marrying out. After I pointed the cops at the wrong name a couple of times, they restricted me to the homicide of full-blown human beings. That was OK with me.

So there I was, nervous about doing my first job off-Earth and troubled that the victim had reptilian skin and no head. Then there was this strange sort of cop, Mathews, peering over my shoulder. On top of everything, the captain turned out to be a butch female who made it clear that she didn’t welcome intruders on board her ship. I could see her debating whether to shoot us like mad dogs when Mathews explained that we wanted to chat with the missing cranium.

Talking of canines, the captain went around with a Duuw wolf, a goofy-looking creature from the back of beyond somewhere, with a sagging jaw and vast belly. It seemed to be permanently hungry, even going for my translating box. The captain kept tossing it huge pieces of raw meat.

Even with the doubtful assistance of the captain’s mutt, a search of the vessel failed to turn up the head. I tried talking to the rest of his body, but only got back a faint sort of ocean sound, a reminder of a boyhood fad of mine. Then I held the seashell against my ear. Now I’d probably have it embedded in my skull.

Mathew’s behaviour added to my doubts about his exact status. Like the local cops, he spent a lot of time talking his way around the ship. But while they managed to antagonise everyone with their typical over-cooked tough guy approach - eager to root out a maniac with a blunt knife - it was almost like Mathews was trying to make friends with the crew. That evidently made the sailors as uneasy as it was making me suspicious. The captain seemed about ready to explode.

One reason for her hostility was that Mathews appeared to be more interested in the running of the ship than anything else. I overheard him discussing onboard protocol with one of the Hwylians; perhaps it was something to do with the guy’s rudimentary command of English, but the cop soon had him in knots. It was then, seeing the look of satisfaction on his face, that I got to thinking Mathews wasn’t really interested in the dead crewman at all.

The freighter was sealed tight, treated as a murder scene, with no-one allowed on or off except for the crime investigation team. After a couple of days of this everyone was sweaty and on edge, while the captain’s face had turned a permanent brick-red. It felt as if the nervous tension was about to mutate into something nasty. Mathews looked even more pleased with himself..

The Duuw wolf was the first to snap. Literally.

Perhaps the creature had picked up on its owner’s barely suppressed anger. When a detective caught it gnawing on one of the inforobots they used to transmit data around the place, the thing went for his throat. The captain had to drag her pet off by main force. She spent the rest of the day in her cabin, the occasional lurid oath reverbrating around the ship. The crew tiptoed everywhere; and I could read fear even on the expressionless part-lizard faces.

Mathews, on the other hand, was positively glowing with contentment.

I was with the majority, just wanting the whole thing to be over. Another search of of the ship proved fruitless. As we stood around afterwards in an atmosphere of sour frustration, I said out loud, ‘Where the fuck are you?’ The gurgling noise immediately responded, making me jump, and this time I thought I could detect an intelligible pattern in the watery rush. But where the fuck was he? Not far away, I felt sure.

It was all down to me; no-one else was going to crack the case, not the bone-headed local cops or an indifferent Mathews. But at last a light had switched on in my head. When I went to speak to Mathews about my theory, I found the man studying a transmission from Earth on the chewed-up but still functioning inforobot. It was a picture of a lady’s handbag, the sort that ultra-stylish women carried around with them in those days. Very expensive. Very in-demand. An unusual shade of translucent green.

I could see Mathews take in my puzzlement. He was obviously dying to show off his inside knowledge. ‘I’m an operative with the Cosmic Intervention Authority,’ he proclaimed without any preamble. Then he flashed up an image of one of the the half-reptiles on-screen. ‘We’ve been investigating the smuggling of people, or in this case, Hwylians, across galactic borders.’

‘What for?’ I joked, feebly. ‘To turn them into handbags?’

‘You got it,’ he responded, very deadpan, before laughing at the look on my face.

It transpired that several members of the crew, thinking they’d embarked on a new life, were about to be converted into fashion accessories. A certain amount of the skin could be legally traded, Mathews explained, but only when it was got from Hwylians who had died of natural causes. There was never enough of the stuff and it was often old and difficult to work with. Hence the smuggling - the supply of fresh and pliant material.

Mathews was merely waiting for reinforcements to arrive before making his arrest. The Duuw wolf saved him the bother. As he finished speaking there was a bellow from the captain’s cabin; and we rushed in to confront the gruesome sight of the woman holding what was left of her right arm, with blood spouting everywhere. Her pet was meantime gobbling up his extra ration of meat. Mathews zapped the creature on the spot.

The captain died from shock not long after. By that time I was back home, resolving never to set a foot in space again. I went on to help the cops catch a lot more murderers - until my powers began to wane with middle-age - but always stuck to my word.

They found the missing head in the Duuw wolf’s gut when they cut it open. Along with the remains of an airconditioning unit and the back fin off a utility bug.

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