Monday, February 20, 2006

Hunting-gathering today, + an excerpt - Grave Images, ch. 3

We're still hunter-gatherers. I don't care what anyone says. We attempted to confine ourselves to agriculture, but we are still driven to graze, pick out the ripest plum or freshest loaf. We still wander distances to collect our goods and bring them back to a central point.

I was thinking about that today - how much we transport goods. Our efforts would put some of those ancient trading networks to shame. Most of us travel to feed and clothe ourselves - be it near or far. We consider it a sign of civilization.

I call it hunting and gathering.

There's a theory that humans were actually scavengers, coming out of Africa - following the big predators and eating the refuse. Interesting concept. Is there a human who doesn't admire a bargain, or attempt to get something for nothing? Isn't "free" one of humanity's most uplifting words? Winning Lotto, with its promise of free money, thrills us all.

And we don't trust anything which comes free, or too easily. Symptoms of our scavenger background. Always watching our backs...


Writing isn't going all that well. I'm using too much time promoting my books online. It's a necessary evil, because no one will read you...if he/she doesn't know you exist.


With that, I leave you. Have a fantastic week!

Happy reading!

N. D. Hansen-Hill (all my EBOOKS...except Gilded Folly) (my PRINT books) (my under construction new website) (Gilded Folly)

GRAVE IMAGES (Sir Julius Vogel Award Nominee), chapter 3
Chapter Three

Robart told Andy, "Rennet says they’d murder each other, if they could reach." There was a question in his voice. He couldn’t figure out why Andy had arranged for Marshall and Acklin to be in the same room.

"Hey—I’m just following orders." Andy lowered his head, so Robart couldn’t see the amusement in his eyes.

"Whose orders? The doctor’s?"

"Chandler’s. He decided having Acklin in the room would be better for Marshall’s peace of mind."

"So, you’re following his orders now?"

"Well—I thought about doing it my way—pardon me, our way—but then I remembered Chandler has a way of arranging things—his way. Giving in just seemed like it might be saving everyone a lot of time and frustration." He grinned widely.

"Have you found out any more about him?"


"Ask Marshall. Tell him we’re on his side. See if he’ll fill you in."

Andy looked at him doubtfully. "It might alienate him."

Robart shrugged. "Who cares? Our job is to protect him—and his research. He doesn’t have to like us. His job is to do as we say. For his own good."

As Wakeman was leaving, Robart called him back. Someone like Kris Chandler wouldn’t be that visible unless there was a good reason. His insistence on the shared room seemed out of character. Unless he thinks we’re incapable of protecting Marshall, Robart thought. This is his way of simplifying things.

"There might be something more to this than Marshall’s ‘peace of mind’. Stay alert. Chandler may be worried about another attempt on Marshall’s life."


It was trying to wake him up. Jarron could feel a restless tugging at his blankets; a voice in his ear.

A sense of self-preservation made him force open his eyes, only to find that the room wasn’t dark at all. Besides the dim light at the head of his bed, there was an odd glow to one side, that grew brighter as he watched.

It’s the drugs, Jarron tried to tell himself. He’d welcomed the painkillers ever since the doctor had told him he needed to get more sleep. Only Jarron knew it wasn’t the pain that was keeping him awake—it was the loudness of his thoughts.

He’d told the doctor about the hallucinations, but no one else—other than Kris. Jarron didn’t even know why he’d admitted it to Kris.

A moment of weakness.

He’d regretted it ever since. Ever since he’d seen that flicker of fear in Kris’ eyes.

There were other things, too, but they weren’t as frightening as the weird visions. That time when Wakeman had come into the room. Things like knowing who was standing outside the door, or that there was someone else in the room, even before he opened his eyes.

Like now.

He wanted to close his eyes; to block it out and pretend it wasn’t there. Like he’d done as a kid—hide under the blankets, Jar.

Only he knew it wouldn’t go away. It was too demanding. Insistent. He suddenly realised that hiding would be worse—would give it the opportunity to intrude closer on his space. To prod and poke the blankets. To maybe find a way inside—

Stop it.

Face it.

In the other bed, he heard a gasp. "Jar!" Nick whispered.

But Jarron was busy facing down his demons. "What—what do you want?" he asked, unaware that he’d spoken aloud.

It was the trigger. Like a vortex of swirling golddust, the glow gained substance—gathering it from the far corners of the room.

The outer door was pushed open. Andy Wakeman stood there, stunned, as the creature took form. The light in the hall seemed dim compared to the brightly glowing translucence of the apparition in their midst.

Jarron was only vaguely aware of Wakeman’s presence. He was staring now, at the oddly ethereal beauty of the being at his side.

It was a little girl. As he watched, she began to sway. Then, with a flourish and swirl, she began to dance. Swirls and pirouettes—a phantom ballet, but with a childlike innocence that left Jarron stunned.

No evil intent.

She spun, ending it a little clumsily, as a child does. Her redeeming grace was in the lightness of her step. She ended with a curtsy, and her smile told Jarron she was well aware she was the centre of all eyes.

That’s what it is, Jarron suddenly knew. She just wants somebody to watch.

With a smile that seemed to linger in the room, the dancer faded out. Only a slight chill in the atmosphere marked her passing.

Marked her passing, Jarron thought. Such final words.


Andy had to force himself to walk toward Jarron’s bed, to turn on the light. "You guys all right?" he asked, but it came out with a squeak. He cleared his throat.

Nick fumbled and finally managed to turn on his own light. "I don’t know why I didn’t do that before," he said. His teeth were chattering. "I guess I was hoping she wouldn’t notice me," he said, with an attempt at humour. "How could you talk to it?" He glanced over at Jarron. "You okay?" he asked worriedly.

Jarron was so pale his skin looked yellow. He had beads of sweat on his forehead, and the eyes that met Nick’s were haunted. "She just wanted us to watch," he whispered. He turned away. "So tired."


But Jarron didn’t answer him. His eyes were closed, and for a brief moment, Nick thought he looked dead.

Andy was already on his way for the nurse.


Andy sat down the hall, nursing his second cup of coffee. Despite how much hot he drank tonight, he couldn’t seem to rid himself of the cold that had invaded his bones.

It reminded him of the house he’d lived in as a kid.

That place had cold spots, like the chill he’d felt in Marshall’s room. Something else, too—a feeling of waiting. Only it had never been anything like what he’d seen in Marshall’s room tonight.

People die in hospitals. Of course they’re going to be haunted. That reassured him somewhat, because you could walk away from it. What bothered him more was the way his view of the world—of his own place in it—had been rattled tonight.

Some part of him wanted to go to Robart and demand that someone else take over Marshall’s case. Someone who might be impervious to what Andy had seen. Only then, Andy would have to give a reason.

And that dancing apparition isn’t going to be in any of my reports.

Andy sighed, and took another long gulp of the steaming liquid.


"You have to talk about it," Nick insisted.

"No, I don’t," Jarron replied.

"You trying to pretend it didn’t affect you? Hell, you were the one who passed out." Nick grinned. "I was a little shaky, but you didn’t see me going to pieces."

"Can we just forget about it!" Jarron said angrily. He was yelling now.

Jarron never yelled. Nick looked stunned—and concerned. "Sure we can, Jar," Nick told him. He frowned, some part of him resisting what he was going to say next. "Sorry about bugging you—" he mumbled.

"What?" It was Jarron’s turn to look surprised. Nick never apologised. "Did you actually say you were sorry?"

Nick grinned at him. "Must be your ears," he retorted. "Or a moment of weakness. Do us both a favour and pretend you didn’t hear a thing."


When Kris entered, silently as usual, he was frowning. "Why’d they change your room?" His pride was slightly affronted at having such an obvious "detail" get past him.

"I’ve never been big on dancing," Nick replied. He glanced at Jarron, then burst out laughing. It was interspersed with frequent "ow-w’s" and "o-oh’s".

"Watch yourself, Acklin, or you’re going to rip your stitches." Kris glanced at Jarron. He was pale, and unusually quiet. "How’re are you, Jarron?"

Jarron smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. "Great."


Jarron roused himself—making an effort. "Wakeman was asking about you," he said. "I got the impression he didn’t like the idea—that it was orders."

"What d’you tell him?"

"That you were actually Kris Kringle. This is how you look when it’s the off-season."

"He did, too," Nick confirmed. "You should have seen the look on the guy’s face. At least he’s got a sense of humour."

Jarron’s smile widened. "A damn good writer, too."

"Just stick in the knife and twist it," Nick muttered.

"Don’t worry, Nick. There’s no comparison," Jarron told him.

Nick changed the subject. "He’s got guts. If it’d been me last night, I would’ve quietly closed the door, and waited for our screams to die down."

"What happened?"

"Ghost, goblins, things that go bump in the night." Nick grew serious. "It had to be a ghost. This little girl—"

"Stephanie," Jarron supplied. His eyes were closed, and he was leaning back into the pillows.

There was dead silence in the room.

Finally, Nick asked, "How do you know?"

Jarron opened one eye and smiled. "I don’t. I named her, so we can stop calling her ‘the ghost girl’."

Nick looked relieved. "Anyway, ‘Stephanie’ sort of coalesced from this glob of light, and started dancing around the room."

"Ballet," Jarron told Kris. "Complete with curtsy."

"Wakeman pushed open the door, then just stood there."

"Maybe he was too petrified to move," Kris suggested.

"He was the first one to move afterwards. He came in and put on the lights."

"What did you do?"

"Nearly wet the bed," Nick replied. "Jarron analysed the whole thing, explained to us what she wanted, then promptly passed out."

"What did she want?"

"To be noticed," said Jarron solemnly. "Like any other little kid. She just wanted someone to watch."

"Put that way," Nick told him, "it almost makes me feel bad we switched rooms." He gave a mock shudder. "Almost, but not quite." He was silent for a moment, then recalled what Jarron had said. "What did you mean by ‘no comparison’?" he asked. "For him or for me?"

"Nick," Jarron said. "You know how supportive we are. Kris and I read your stuff. But, it’s not a bad thing to read someone else’s work, just as a kind of quality control."

Kris grinned and turned away. He could guess what was coming.

"Someone like Steinbeck or Hemingway, or Wakeman. Don’t feel bad about this. Consider it an opportunity."

"‘Opportunity’ my ass. If I could reach you, there wouldn’t be enough left to feed your rotten little ferret."


The moon was a damn sight too bright. She would have put it off, if she’d had a choice.

But they’d hired her for tonight. On short notice, too. They’d had everything she’d asked for: schematics, security equipment, as-builts. That was where part of her brilliance came in—the fact she always insisted on as-builts. Not as the plans had stipulated, but how they’d actually gone in. A few hours of scanning and layering as-builts into the computer gave her a much more accurate idea of where all the wiring, plumbing, and sprinkler systems were located. Even the security system had a schematic—for a price. She usually insisted on it.

They’d warned her that the security on the building had been tightened lately. Something to do with an assault on one of their scientists. They didn’t tell her whether they’d had anything to do with it, and she didn’t ask. Her scruples wouldn’t permit her to actively pursue something that had violence behind it. Both she, and her employers, knew it’d be better if her scruples remained dormant.

In the business she was known as the Wraith. She rather liked the term, and it was better than ghost or phantom. It implied an element of ingenuity along with the mystique. Slipping in and out wasn’t enough. She had to have something to show for her visit.

They wanted a copy of the man’s research notes, and any bits and pieces—samples—she could carry. They suspected he’d kept some of his notes at his house, but they were going to work both ends of the puzzle. She’d found it was often the case with these science types: like writers, or computer nerds, they were frequently struck with brilliant ideas at odd moments. Pieces of the puzzle or paradigm that came together and needed to be noted. For the basics, you hit the workshop. For the brilliant idea, you hit the home computer. At work there was often too much pressure, or too many interruptions, for the lateral thinkers to ride their thoughts. Inspiration often occurred in the shower, or during dinner.

She knew, because it had happened to her.

Brilliant, they’d once said. Until the system had dropped the bottom out of her funding, and left her without a job. Brilliant, on the point of developing a novel approach to drought tolerance in temperate plants, which would allow them to grow in desert areas. Food for millions. Then, suddenly, there was nobody to fund her. She found out later that most of her funding had come from certain segments of the ag industry with large investments in the irrigation trade.

So she’d fallen back on her years of training as a dancer. Those ballet and jazz lessons her mother had insisted on, in hopes her career would lead to the stage, instead of merely being upstaged by better-funded actors. The flexibility that needed only a little more structure and discipline to convert it to gymnastics.

Then she began to steal back what the industry had taken from her.

She didn’t mind stealing research, even though she’d once been a researcher. Very little research stood alone. Most of it was built on the painstaking efforts of others, with just that one extra step to make it "original". Research had become like any other commodity: bought and paid for. She was merely taking it an additional step: what she paid for in her effort would be bought at a damned good price.

Tonight she also intended to add to her collection.

She was one spectrophotometer short of finishing her lab. Well, she smiled. Not after tonight.


Kris pulled a chair over near Jarron’s bed and straddled it. Resting his chin on his hands, he sat there pensively. Jarron, recognising the signs, let him think things through.

When Kris finally spoke, it was barely above a whisper. "What are you working on, Jarron? At the lab."

"Endophytes. They’re big right now."

"What are they?"

"Fungi that grow in other plants. Entire life cycles within a host."

"What’s the point?"

"Advantages for both the plant and the fungus. For the host, it’s things like drought resistance and insect resistance." Jarron’s eyes lit up. "Recently, I’ve been playing with viruses—"

"Viruses?" Kris repeated.

Jarron grinned. "Plant viruses, you fool. Anyway, I’m trying to see whether they can be accidentally introduced into plants via introduced endophytes."

"Is that what they’re after?" Kris asked doubtfully.

"I can’t see why they would be. There’re a few species of fungi that can deteriorate wood, and damage people’s lungs, too. I was also running a study on that."

"Sort of like the way some penicillin attack oranges, but can also cause allergic reactions."

"Sort of," Jarron smiled. "I really don’t know what they’re after, Kris. I’m one of dozens of people studying net fungi, too." Jarron looked puzzled. "That’s what’s gotten me from the first—I can’t figure out what they’re after. What’s important enough to kill me for? Most of these ideas are things that have been around for years."

"Could it be your approach?"

Jarron shrugged. "Maybe. I’ve done some interesting stuff recently on lichens, and mutualism. Maybe it’s that."

"Someone must see some way to benefit from it," Kris mused. "Otherwise, they’re taking a hell of a risk for nothing. Have you asked Wakeman why his department’s interested? That might tell us a lot."

Jarron gave a wry smile. "I’ve been putting it off."

"When have I heard that before?" Nick commented from the background.

Jarron admitted, "I guess I’m just not sure I want to know."


"Someone got through security, into Marshall’s lab. Downloaded the information on the hard drive, took some samples. Stole a piece of equipment, too." Andy couldn’t quite keep the frustration out of his voice.

"What piece?"

"Spectro something or other." Andy glanced down at the paper. "It’s used for measuring wavelengths of light, given off by different compounds." He frowned. "Marvellous," he said dryly.

"Talk to Marshall. See if he can shed some light on it." Robart grinned.

"Very funny. I’ll schedule our discussion while Chandler’s there. I have a feeling I’ll understand him a lot better than Marshall."


It wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Andy’d already realised Kris Chandler didn’t adhere to any schedule when it came to his visiting hours. He also guessed that half of Chandler’s visits took place without anyone’s knowledge.

It turned out that wasn’t the hardest part of his "discussion", either. That came when he had to stand there, in front of Chandler, and admit that their security arrangements had failed. That Jarron’s lab had been vandalised—while ISO agents stood around, supposedly on guard.

He’d expected ridicule, but Kris Chandler surprised him. He merely smiled, and Andy realised the other man already knew what had happened. It made him wonder, and he returned Chandler’s look suspiciously. Would a man of Chandler’s ethics—if he’d discovered something worth stealing—hold back merely because a friend was involved? Or would he consider insider information as happy circumstance—the plum that Fate had dropped in his pocket?

"Maybe I should’ve asked you to fill me in," Andy muttered.

Kris grinned. "The Wraith." He smiled pleasantly, like someone savouring an enjoyable memory.

Wakeman looked at him blankly. "Wraith?"

"Not another one," Nick groaned, thinking about the phantom dancer.

"Not that kind of wraith," Kris explained. "A thief. One of the best. She steals a lot of research, and the odd piece of equipment. Supposedly to build up her own lab."

"Do you know her?" Andy asked him.

He knew immediately he’d made a mistake. Kris returned his look in silence.

"Bad move, Andy," Nick commented, grinning. "Loyalty’s NFS."

"NFS?" Wakeman repeated.

Nick’s eyes were serious. "Not For Sale."

Wakeman turned, "Look, Chandler, I didn’t—"

Chandler was gone.

"Oops," Nick said.

Wakeman frowned in frustration. "You’re quiet about all this, Marshall. What do you think about someone stealing your research like that?"

"Name’s Jarron," he replied. "Let ’em." His eyes met Andy’s. "Do you know what they’re after? Specifically, I mean?"

Andy shook his head. "I’m just the deckhand in charge," he replied with a trace of humour. "You don’t know how the system works. If they brief me on it, then they’re giving away the secrets they’re trying to protect. So, I have to operate with blinders on."

Nick hooted. "Chasing spectres in the dark?"

Andy grinned. "Something like that. It’s a matter of puzzling it out." He shook his head at Jarron. "Usually the ‘client’ can give me some clues. You really don’t know what they were after, do you?"

"Why do they call you ‘brilliant’, then, Jar?"

Jar grinned widely. "This is the truth, Nick: I honestly don’t know. Sometimes I feel like it’s all a farce. Though, in this case, if I knew what was stirring everyone up so much, I’d hand over my spoon and let someone else do the stirring for me."

Andy looked thoughtful. "Can you tell Chandler—"

"Kris," Nick interrupted.

"—Kris, that I didn’t mean to overstep the bounds. Sometimes, I have to make up my job as I go along. Tell him I’ll buy him a coffee. No questions. His choice of time and place."

Jarron nodded. "Thanks."

"No problem." Andy grinned and went out the door.


Jarron stared blankly at the pots of paint.

"Dr. Marshall, can you make an attempt to manipulate the material? It’s for your own good. We’re trying to help you regain full movement in your arm and shoulder."

"But, what do I do?" Jarron sounded frustrated.

"Just paint," the physiotherapist tried to explain. "Give yourself over to it." What she didn’t tell him was his doctor’s concern, over the hallucinations. Brain damage.

Angela Tieman had seen it before. It was sometimes a long process, re-training parts of the brain to take over functioning. Most of his motor processes appeared to be unimpaired. It was one of her jobs to see how much therapy he was going to require.

Jarron looked embarrassed. He felt like a kindergarten kid, dabbling with fingerpaints. "Just don’t expect much," he murmured.

She nodded, and went back to her reading. "Do it for yourself, Dr. Marshall," she told him. "Not for me."

Jarron smirked. It was obviously her standard answer. He wondered how many times she’d said it.

But, it worked. It helped him to relax. Jarron stared at the blank paper, and suddenly realised he could give the visions that hid behind his eyes both form and substance.

The dancing girl. Stephanie.

Jarron began to paint.


He’d been quiet for so long that she’d almost forgotten about him. She had an exam to take the next week, in order to upgrade her therapist’s licence. She’d found the swish of the brush a soothing background for her reading.

It was the grumbling of her stomach that told her it was nearing lunchtime. She glanced at her watch. Jesus Christ! She’d kept him at it for nearly two hours—far too long in his condition. What’s the use of an upgrade, if they can my ass? she thought.

"Dr. Marshall," she said, a little breathlessly, "I didn’t mean to keep you—"

The words froze on her lips as she stared at the painting.

It was a little girl: golden, nebulous, with eyes that gazed into her own. He’d captured her figure mid-swirl, and the fabric of her gossamer gown seemed to be in motion. The background was in darkness, yet the dancer possessed an aura that somehow permeated her surroundings, to show hints of light and movement. Somehow, the background was moving, too, just like the dancer herself.

Angela heard a noise from the other side of the room. A man cleared his throat. She turned, with distant eyes, and forced herself to focus on him.

"I’m looking for Jarron Marshall," he said, and she realised Marshall was hidden by the work on the easel.

"He—he’s here." She turned back to look at the painting.

"Jarron," Andy said. "I thought this was a half-hour session."

Jarron shook his head impatiently. "Not yet—" he said.

Andy looked expectantly at the physiotherapist. "Could I see you for a moment?" he said.

He drew her aside. "What’s the matter with you?" he hissed. "Look at him!"

For the first time she did. He was pale and sweaty, and she suddenly realised he’d been on his feet for most of the time since he’d arrived.

"Time’s up," she told Jarron, almost regretfully, Andy thought. What the hell was the matter with her?

Then, he looked at the painting. His eyes widened with shock. "Why do they call you brilliant, Jarron?" He recalled Nick’s question. If Nick had seen this, he never would have asked.

"Not yet," Jarron was pleading. "A few minutes more—"

Driven, Andy thought.

"I need to finish her—" It came out a little desperately.

Andy suddenly understood. After all, he’d seen her, too. Finish it. End it. Exorcise her spirit.

Another thought popped into his head. It was a sign of respect. She was a dancer. She couldn’t dance through eternity—couldn’t make people watch her spin—without her feet.

Andy nodded. "Let me help," he said. He came up on Jarron’s other side—the one that wasn’t wielding the brush, and took the man’s arm over his shoulder, offering him some support. Jarron flashed him a quick grin, then painted on.

It took another twenty minutes. Andy could feel the sweat leaking through Jarron’s shirt. He had almost his full weight now, but he didn’t complain.

At the end, she stood there, just as Andy had remembered her. Sweet, innocent, with eyes that held the glimmer of eternity.

"Dance on," Andy murmured.

Jarron twisted his head to look at him, surprised how well he understood.

"I saw her, too," Andy said simply.

Jarron nodded, and gave him the trace of a smile. Then he pulled away, needing to stand alone, and stare at what he’d done. "Finished," he murmured, and Andy wondered later whether he was referring to the painting, or himself. With a sigh of what sounded like relief, Jarron Marshall collapsed in an untidy heap on the floor.



Andy jumped as Kris slid into the chair opposite him. He knew from the amused grin on Chandler’s face that he’d not only seen his start, but had probably planned it that way.

Nerves, Andy thought. I’ve been caught out too many times recently. The painting hadn’t helped. He couldn’t get it out of his head. "You’re lucky my gun’s in my other suit," Andy told him.

Kris grinned appreciatively. "Jarron said you helped him. What’s it all about?" Kris asked.

"NFS," Andy told him soberly. Then he grinned. "He got stuck with a negligent therapist. I just helped him finish what he was doing."

Kris studied him for a minute. There was obviously something more to it than that. "Jarron looks wiped."

Andy nodded. "He was on his feet for over two hours. He didn’t want to give up, though."

"That’s Jarron all over. Stuck into it, was he?"

"Yep. I had to hold him up so he could finish."

Kris looked at him with surprise. Andy didn’t know if it was more because Jarron had enlisted physical support, or that Andy Wakeman had been the one to supply it. "He must have been pretty desperate to finish what he was doing."

Andy’s eyes were dark and unreadable. "Let’s just say he was working some things out of his system. Look—I promised you no questions. Let’s say it works both ways."


"I want to read you this section I just wrote—" Nick said enthusiastically. "You know how they say ‘write what you know’? I’ve got this great section on alien ghosts."

"Do I get an opinion on the ‘great’?" Jarron asked.

Nick flashed him a grin. "Of course you do. But if it’s negative, keep it to yourself. With your mouth, you could constipate my brain for a year."

"Not likely. You write because your mouth needs auxiliary run-off. Stop up your brain, and your head would explode."

"I’m going home tomorrow. Back to the Alien. She, at least, appreciates my company."

Wakeman walked in the door.

"Hey, Andy—you been feeding the Alien enough?"

"No." He plopped a stack of newspapers down on the end of Nick’s bed.

Nick waited a full half-minute for him to say more, then finally exploded. "What d’you mean, ‘no’?!"

"I’m not feeding her at all."

Nick’s eyebrows went up. He’d been in here ten days now. He sat up and started to push aside the blankets. "She’ll be dead," he moaned, genuinely distressed.

Andy, grinning, shoved him back into bed. "Helga’s feeding your ugly dog," he said.

"Helga?" Nick repeated, surprised. "I’ve been working on her for the past eight months." He turned a little smugly to Jarron. "See, Jar—all it takes is a little heroics here, a little flair there. The women love it."

"Eight months, huh?" Andy grinned. "It only took me eight minutes." Chuckling, he turned around and went back out the door.

"‘A little heroics here—a little flair there’. Never write about women, Nick," Jarron warned him. "Stick to what you know."

Nick threw his pillow across the room.


"Find out where he lives." Robart ordered.

Andy looked a little shocked. "Why?" he asked baldly.

"Just do it. He’s an unknown, and the situation’s rapidly getting out of control. There’s a good chance he’s involved."

"That’s ridiculous. He thinks of Marshall like a brother."

"Ever heard of Cain and Abel? All I’m saying is he had knowledge and opportunity."

Andy knew it’d do no good to argue. He could see where Robart was coming from—it’s what he would have thought himself until a short time ago. "I’ll do what I can," he said.

Or what my conscience will allow.

But later, when Chandler suddenly appeared and ordered up another cappuccino, Andy’s conscience didn’t let him get very far. "I’m supposed to find out where you live," Andy told him bluntly. "You’re a suspect."

"In the theft?"

Andy nodded. "We’d suspect you of the assault, too," he assured him flippantly, "except Halloran’s already got top billing."

"Damn," Kris replied. "I do so like to leave them wondering."

"When you get caught, don’t bother mentioning my name. I never knew you."

"If I get caught, I know a few names that would do me a lot more good than yours," Kris grinned.

"You’re a sneaky bastard, Chandler. I think I’ll use you in my next book."

"As the bad guy, or the hero?"

"Neither. As the sidekick—strictly for comic relief."

When Andy got up to pay the bill, he couldn’t find his wallet. Kris handed it to him with a smile.

"That’s what I mean," Wakeman told him. "A sidekick. Do it again, and I’ll kick you in the side." He added, "By the way—next time, it’s on you."


In the silence that followed Nick’s noisy leave-taking, Jarron started thinking about his last research proposal. He remembered what he’d told Kris: "Endophytes are big right now."

Big to mycologists maybe, or to ag scientists who were looking for advantages that wouldn’t poison stock, but big enough to kill for? Or, assuming Halloran had added the killing part on his own, big enough to steal?

It was more likely they saw some potential in his studies of obscure fungi, that could infect both wood and human lungs. Weapons potential, perhaps? Jarron didn’t think so. Chemical warfare would be far more deadly, and much easier to manage.

Could anything he was doing be worth a human life? Be manipulated into taking a human life? Jarron wouldn’t have thought so. Most of his projects involved means of improving crops, improving drought resistance, giving plants the ability to grow in places they never could before.

The universal endophyte.

Suddenly, Jarron thought he knew what they were after. He’d been doing systematics studies, routinely isolating endophytic fungi from leaf tissues and trying to classify them. He’d sought commonly ingested species of plants from pasture, forest, or bush that exhibited lush growth patterns. Plants that stood out, because everything around them was grazed down, or showed signs of herbivore damage. Plants that, for some reason, weren’t eaten, or which had a better-than-average rate of recovery.

It could be that nothing—from insects to grazing livestock—could ingest a particular plant, thanks to the secondary toxins produced by its endophyte population. Or, it might be that something in the environment had given that plant an advantage, so it could outgrow the grazers in the area. He was hoping to find an endophyte that helped plants recover from routine grazing—one that in some way enhanced survivability.

Then, he’d found a site which had made his imagination go wild. The first time he’d been through, there were a few lush plants, but most of the others had been heavily grazed. He’d taken some samples, but his curiosity had been aroused by the amount of traffic—animal traffic—that seemed to come through that section of bush. Was it a game trail? He’d never seen such a concentration of animal hoof and paw prints in one area. At that rate of browsing, grazing, and trampling, the place should have looked like a desert. He’d decided it merited another look.

He went back three days later. At first, he’d thought he must be in the wrong place. He was surrounded by lush bush. This wasn’t the tropics, and temperate plants didn’t usually grow at this astounding rate. Because it seemed to be a universal attribute, in this section of bush, he collected soil samples as well as leaf samples. He thought he might be on his way to detecting a new type of fertiliser.

He sent off some of the soil to be tested, and did some routine plating and isolation work.

There was one fungus that was present in every sample—except the soil. One fungus that persisted in outgrowing its Petri dish environment so fast that in twenty-four hours it was lifting the lids off the dishes.

He went back again, and collected everything from liverworts to tree leaves. Huge trees, that dwarfed many of the others in the area. Something he hadn’t noticed before, because he’d been so far beneath their canopy. Now he made a point of noticing.

The fungus was present in all his samples—even the lichens. Not as the mycobiont, or fungal partner, but as an accessory. Jarron had never seen lichens that big.

The universal endophyte.

Jarron thought about how endophyte research had grown—a lot of it revolving around finding favourable endophytes to introduce into pasture grasses. Endophytes that could promote growth, and confer some degree of insect resistance, without poisoning cattle or sheep.

Better than genetic research because it didn’t involve altering the genome. Not something that needed to be licensed, or voted on by selection committees. Most of the ornamental grasses now boasted a high percentage of endophytes. It was just a matter of introducing them into a plant, then waiting until they were passed on in the seed.

He hadn’t even really started testing it yet, to see what benefits the endophyte could confer. Hadn’t yet figured out why it conferred them.

But, he’d written a research proposal, for funding—to do just that.

That’s what had tipped them off. Jarron’s mistake was in thinking the thieves were seeking something he was working on now—not something he hoped to do.

His application had tipped them off—had told them about the endophyte, and its potential.

There was somebody out there who wasn’t willing to wait. Someone who wanted it now.




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