Copyright © 1996 by Barbara Davies.
This story was first published in Dec 1996 in Issue #2 of the print magazine Lesbian Short Fiction (editor Jinx Beers). LSF has sadly since folded.
I first met Clare when I was ordered to check out a break-in at the local medlab complex. If I'd been off work that day, or my Sergeant had assigned another officer ... Such are the vagaries of Chance.
Sometimes I wonder what life without her would have been like. Not often though; it's not a pleasant thought. Chance can make or break a life, as many have found to their cost. She must have been smiling on me that day, though it certainly didn't look that way at first ...
The door to one of the labs was wide open, the status light on its computer lock flashing red. I hoped whoever had disrupted the lock was unaware it had alerted SecPol HQ - I didn't want to walk into an ambush.
I punched the keys on the wristcom's keypad with my gloved forefinger. First my call-sign, then the codes meaning 'Officer at scene. Proceeding with caution.' Any more transmissions would have to wait until I had assessed the break-in more thoroughly.
Brutus's brown eyes were fixed on me, waiting for instructions. I signed quickly, "Enter room. Locate intruder. Disable. Wait." The German Shepherd yawned acknowledgement, revealing sharp wolf teeth, then padded silently through the gaping door into the darkness. I dropped my visor into position and switched to infrared. The blurred surroundings swam into sharp focus. I unholstered the laser pistol, checked it was fully charged, and followed him, keeping my back to the wall and my pistol ready.
Brutus was waiting calmly for me by a door on the far side of the lab, but I quartered the room anyway, checking behind the hitech equipment and lab furniture, just in case. It wouldn't be the first time a police dog had been given a false trail and missed something important. There was no sign of movement, though, nothing unusual.
I joined Brutus and examined the door - no computer lock this time, just a good old-fashioned mortise. It had been forced, and splinters of wood jutted from the door frame. I signed, "Me first. You next." Once again, I was reminded of dialogue from an old Tarzan film. Genetically enhanced Police dogs were bright, but it was best to keep it simple. He yawned in reply.
I prayed the hinges wouldn't squeak and swung the forced door slowly open. My luck held; they'd been oiled recently. I slipped quietly through, Brutus close on my heels.
A whiff of sawdust, urine and disinfectant crept under the visor and I stifled a cough. The stink reminded me of the pet mouse I had when I was a kid. This must be where they kept the lab animals for the experiments.
The long, narrow, windowless room was lined on both sides with rows of metal cages stacked to head height. I could see mice, rats and guinea pigs inside the smaller cages on the top row. At the far end were the dog pens.
The terrorist was crouching by the dogs - or rather their lifeless bodies - torch in one hand, something else in the other. I must have made a noise, because she suddenly looked round, swung the torch in my direction, and in her haste clumsily dropped a canister of something.
"Police. Freeze," I said, aiming the laser pistol. The woman stopped moving instantly, hand still outstretched to retrieve the dropped canister. She was obviously aware that I could burn her where she stood.
She was wearing the uniform of the AnLibs - a red bandanna round her short cropped black hair, to keep the sweat out of her eyes, and desert combat fatigues and boots. In this heat she'd sensibly forsaken the jacket and wore just a khaki singlet. I couldn't understand it - an AnLib terrorist, yet it looked like she'd killed the dogs.
I gestured with the pistol. "Stand up and turn around." Reluctantly, she obeyed. She was six inches taller than me, lean limbed where I was stocky. "Drop the torch and put your hands out behind you."
I slipped the magcuffs over her bony wrists, and clicked them shut. The indicator light winked green as the electronic circuit was completed. Magnetism held the cuffs closed; she wouldn't get out of those in a hurry. I turned her round to face me again. "You're under arrest."
Brutus came up beside me out of the shadows. The AnLib squinted at the spot from which the panting was coming, and parted her lips in a smile that gleamed white against her boot-polish streaked face. I signed to Brutus, "Guard prisoner", and left him while I holstered my pistol and turned on the lights. Then I tapped in the codes that would signal 'AnLib Suspect detained' back to base, and went to examine the dog pen.
The woman blinked rapidly as the lights flickered on, and watched me through narrowed, blue eyes when I switched off the infrared and pushed up my visor. I don't think she'd known I was female until then. The bulletproof, unisex riot gear we wear isn't exactly flattering to the figure. I envied her her singlet; under all my gear I was sweating like a pig, and if I didn't get to a shower soon I would begin to smell like one too. I'd been on duty for eight hours solid. I thought of those lazy bastards back at HQ.
When the alarm had come in, most of us were just back from riot duty - an anti-government demo resulting in fifty arrests - and men and women officers alike were watching Pro Football over coffee and doughnuts. I drew the short straw, as usual.
"Nicky, you're up," said the Sergeant. Then he smirked. "And you can take your doggie for back-up."
A year ago he would have sent two human officers to the medlab complex - it was known to be a favourite terrorist target. But times had changed and money was tight. SecPol had had to cut their tender to the bone to snatch the local police contract from the other security companies, and I had been lucky to keep my job in the ensuing redundancies.
The other officers exchanged knowing glances at the Sergeant's remark, and tried to hide their smiles behind the plastic coffee cups. I'd been alone for a couple of years now - since my last relationship ended acrimoniously - and just because I didn't put out for the guys like the other women officers, they thought I did it with dogs for Christ's sake.
I wanted to say, "That's Nicola to you, Sergeant ... or better still, Officer Burns." But I remembered my appraisal was due next month and swallowed hard. "OK, Sergeant," was all I said before I went to get Brutus from the kennels.
So here we were - me and my favourite police dog; I hoped we could cope.
I squatted, then took off a glove and reached through the pen bars. The dead dog's skin was still warm, but rapidly cooling, and its face was peaceful - I'd expected its lips to be drawn back or something. A quick death then. What had she used? My boot kicked something that rolled with a metallic clank and liquid slosh. The canister. I picked it up and looked at the label. A lethal anaesthetic spray - painless and fast. But I still couldn't understand why she hadn't set the dogs free. It didn't make sense.
Just then, Brutus gave a loud warning snarl, followed by a yelp. I looked round, dropping the canister and glove, and reaching for my holster, but I was far too slow. The three New Front terrorists - their black uniforms were unmistakable - had the element of surprise. One of them held the struggling AnLib, another was beating the German Shepherd with a now bloody baseball bat, and the third was making straight for me.
Something long and thin swung towards my unprotected face. I tried to flick the visor down, but the bat struck me across the forehead. There was a brilliant flash of light as my optic nerves reacted, then pain flared redly. My balance went and I began to fall. I tried to signal 'Officer down' on the wristcom, but I don't think I succeeded. The last thing I heard was the AnLib's scream followed by an old-fashioned gunshot.
My head throbbed agonizingly at the slightest movement. But worse still, I couldn't see anything and feared I'd gone blind. "Shit," I muttered, feeling sick.
A rustle nearby, followed by a hand firmly squeezing my shoulder, told me somebody else was here with me. Then it felt like a large container of some kind was being held to my chin, and I took the hint and threw up into it, my stomach spasming until I couldn't retch any more. Somebody wiped my face and lips with something wet.
For a moment I felt slightly better, then the pounding in my head intensified and I started to feel dizzy. I must've passed out again.
The next time I surfaced, my head still ached and there was a huge tender area on my forehead which would probably develop into a magnificent rainbow of a bruise, but the nausea had gone. My ribs felt sore from my earlier bout of retching.
I realized thankfully that I wasn't blind after all. I could make out dim shapes. A small, barred window high up in one wall of the room was letting in some light as the dawn came.
A prone shadow next to me shifted slightly, then sat up.
"How are you feeling?" asked a low female voice.
"How do you think?" I croaked, trying to remember what had happened, to think of a way out of this. "Who are you?"
"You arrested me," she said.
The AnLib. "How long have I been out?"
"They took my watch," she said, "but I'd guess about ten hours." She held something to my lips, and I intercepted it, spilling some of its wet contents down my chin. It felt like a plastic cup full of liquid. I could just make out the outline of her shoulders shrugging at my action. "It's only water," she said.
I took a sip. It was tepid and stale, but I needed something to take the foul taste from my mouth and ease my parched throat. I drained it dry.
My body felt unusually cool and light - the terrorists had taken my riot gear and left me in my underwear. The wristcom was missing from my left wrist too - which meant its inbuilt homing signal was gone too; there was no way to let SecPol HQ know my whereabouts. I began to curse softly. At SecPol we pay for our own equipment. Replacing the gear, the laser pistol, and the wristcom, meant I was going to see little of my take-home pay for the next year or more.
A pressing need to urinate made me get shakily to my feet and ask the AnLib where to go. She helped me to a corner and pointed to a dark shape that looked like a bucket. As she supported me, I realized that my magcuffs had been removed from her wrists. I mentally added the cost of a pair of magcuffs to the already astronomical sum SecPol would bill me for if I ever got out of this jam.
"That bucket is all there is," she said. It smelled of vomit.
I dropped my knickers round my ankles and she helped me to squat. My balance was still shaky, and if she hadn't held me tightly, I'd have had the whole thing over twice. Eventually, I finished, and she handed me what felt like some strips of newspaper, and waited while I wiped myself and made myself decent. Then she helped me back to the centre of the room, and what must surely be an old mattress.
As I sat back down, I suddenly remembered Brutus. How could he have slipped my mind? "My dog?" I asked, afraid of what she would say.
"I'm sorry. They shot him." It was now light enough for me to see her expression of sadness.
I shook my head, slowly, unable to believe it. Faithful, loving Brutus, who'd been with me on so many patrols ... gone. Then something broke inside, and I began to cry as I hadn't done since I was a kid. The AnLib put her arms around me and I didn't push her away. Right then I needed someone, anyone. But I still had some pride, and I was glad the officers at HQ couldn't see me crying over 'my doggie'. It would only have confirmed their stupid suspicions.
We sat in silence, her arms still holding me close, until I regained control of myself; no woman had held me like that since I broke up with Kim, and it felt good.
The light grew steadily brighter until I could make out my surroundings. We were sitting in the middle of a room about eight foot square, on a filthy, lumpy, single width mattress. Straw covered the rest of the floor, and in one cobwebby corner was the bucket I had used and some strips of newspaper. Near the only door were some plastic cups and a canteen of water. So much for the amenities.
The AnLib released me and sat back on her heels. I thought after what we had been through it was time we introduced ourselves. "Officer Nicola Burns, SecPol," I said.
"Jane Doe," she replied, smiling wryly. She must know I had access to computer records back at base and didn't want to risk revealing her real name. 'Jane' would have to do.
I remembered what it was I wanted to know. "Why did you kill the dogs? Aren't AnLibs against all that?"
She looked surprised. "They were onco dogs. I thought you knew that. All you cops seem determined to stop us from ending the poor things' suffering." Her voice sounded bitter.
"Onco dogs?" I remembered the sign outside the lab she had broken into. 'Oncology Laboratory'. So what? I got impatient with her then. "Why pick on the oncology lab? At least they're finding a cure for cancer. It's not like they're testing lipstick or something!"
She shook her head as though I were an idiot. "Don't you read the papers or watch TV?" I didn't actually. Once I'd dealt with criminals for my ten hour shift, the gloomy news of riots and ecological disasters was the last thing I needed.
"Those dogs are genetically engineered for cancer research."
I was still puzzled.
"They only live for two or three years, then they develop human tumours." Her voice had gone hard. "From birth, they're programmed to die painfully and horribly."
I thought of Brutus, and how I would have felt if he had developed cancer. "They don't tell me anything," I protested. "I'm just a police officer."
"Only following orders, huh?" She shook her head angrily, turned her back on me, and refused to speak further. I could see she thought ignorance was no excuse.
Jane and I were cooped up together for three days. The awkwardness of being police officer and prisoner quickly disappeared, and I got used to her presence - her face was the first thing I'd see each morning and the last thing at night. The terrorists gave us dry bread and water twice a day, and made us empty the waste bucket each morning into a loo in the next room.
After our previous disagreement, we steered clear of politics and talked of inconsequential things - childhood experiences, pets we had owned, our families. I wasn't sure whether Jane was making up everything she told me.
Once she said quietly, "I expected the cops, but not the New Front."
I thought hard about that for a moment. "My fault probably. We know they sometimes monitor our transmissions. They must've broken the code."
I knew they could always ransom me back to SecPol. But the AnLibs were considered deadly rivals, and I wondered how safe Jane would be once I was gone. I asked her about the New Front, and before answering she screwed up her face and spat - an unusual gesture for a woman and one that didn't suit her alert, intelligent features.
"Murdering bastards. They make a point of using dogs in their campaigns because it gets public attention, and they know it upsets us. And the cops do nothing to stop them. Nothing."
She was right. This time last summer, at the height of a New Front terrorist campaign, dead dogs had been strung up from lampposts all along the High Street, with signs stapled to them saying, 'AnLibs put dogs first. What about humans?' or 'AnLibs suck'. And, under government instructions, we had simply taken away the carcasses in black bin-liners. Apparently anything more wasn't cost effective. For six weeks I had breathed in the stench of putrid dog flesh as we feverishly removed the carcases, only to find them replaced the very next day. Was it any wonder the AnLibs didn't trust us?
Just then, the door opened, and a man in New Front uniform stood there holding my laser pistol. "You," he said, gesturing at me. "Come."
What choice did I have? I looked at Jane, shrugged, and went. The door slammed shut behind me.
They dumped me on the steps of SecPol HQ, in my own magcuffs and with a canvas hood over my head. I was helped into reception, then someone deactivated the cuffs and pulled the hood off. The Sergeant and some of the other male officers were smirking, as I stood there in my underwear and massaged my wrists where the cuffs had pinched.
"Five minutes, then report for debriefing, Burns," said the Sergeant.
A titter broke out at the word 'debriefing', and I turned, too angry to speak, and made for my locker and the spare clothing I kept there. I was soon dressed in old jeans and a shirt. Then I made my way to the Sergeant's office.
The budget was the first topic of discussion. He was furious at my loss of Police equipment - and he put Brutus in that category too. On top of that, there was the ransom. Apparently his boss had been in two minds whether to pay it, but it was felt it would be bad for officer morale if they left one of their own in captivity. Needless to say, that would be coming out of my pay cheque as well.
I told the Sergeant what I knew - about the onco dogs, Jane, Brutus being bludgeoned to death, and the small room with the window. Somehow I had expected he would want to locate the New Front terrorist cell and destroy it. But the Sergeant wasn't interested.
"Let them fight it out among themselves. I've got other fish to fry," was all he said. Then, the debriefing apparently over, he grudgingly directed me to the medics.
The white-coated doctor commented on my bruised forehead, then gave me a thorough examination, asking if I'd been raped or otherwise harmed. I realized I had got off lightly, and wondered, my stomach sinking, whether Jane would be so lucky. The doctor already knew about Brutus, and she booked me an appointment with the Police Psychologist. I protested, but she insisted, so in the end I gave in - it was the first kindness anyone had shown me since I returned. Then she signed me off sick for a week, and I went home.
The temperature continued to soar to a record high, and my building's air conditioning went on the blink. I pulled the blinds closed, and took to sitting in front of my open, empty fridge to keep cool. There was no point sitting outside - it would've cost me a fortune in sun block.
Jane had asked me if I ever watched the TV news. I thought it was about time I did, so I borrowed a little wrist set from my next door neighbour and got a grandstand view of events that week.
New Front terrorists attacked another medlab and released the onco dogs, calculating that they would cause more chaos alive than dead. They were right. The dogs were easily identifiable by their fluorescent green collars, and a businesswoman came home to find one humping her pedigree labrador. She was now suing the government for compensation in case the resulting puppies were genetically damaged.
Down the local market, some enterprising barrow boys took to selling imitation fluorescent green collars for a joke, and soon it was impossible without a DNA test to distinguish the real onco dogs from the fakes. Furious pet lovers and anti-government demonstrators, for once in eccentric alliance, started marching up and down the High Street with placards. SecPol were called in to break up the demonstrations with tear gas and water cannons.
I watched the chaos on the tiny TV screen, and recognized a couple of the men in body armour getting stuck in to defenceless civilians. Was this how Jane had seen me? I hoped not.
By the end of the week I was fit for work again, the bruise on my forehead fading to a pale imitation of its former glory. I went down to stores and requisitioned new riot gear, wristcom and laser pistol. But nothing could replace Brutus.
There was a briefing in the main hall. It had only just started, so I sneaked in and grabbed an empty seat.
"The New Front have a new leader. Word on the street is he's going to step up their terrorist activity." A murmur went round the hall as the other officers digested this piece of news. "We don't know what it'll involve, but there've been a lot of dog thefts recently. We can expect more lamppost campaigns. And, if we're lucky, that's all."
But we weren't lucky. The next day, the New Front used their first dog bomb. They tied dynamite to a mangy spaniel, opened the door of a health food shop, and shoved the dog inside. There were two assistants and four members of the public inside when the device detonated. There wasn't much left of any of them when forensic checked for evidence.
The government put SecPol on full alert.
More dog bombs, and more civilian deaths. Panic began to spread. There was no consistency to The New Front approach, which made it all the worse. Their aim was to embarrass the government, and it didn't matter who or what got hurt in the process. Then came the expected lamppost campaign. Dead dogs - from chihuahuas to great danes, some wearing fluorescent green collars - hung from lampposts in all parts of town. Some were freshly killed, some decomposing. We were inundated with black bin-liners full of canine corpses, and the crematorium was working overtime.
It was on an industrial estate, while I was investigating an anonymous tip-off, that I recognized the rotting carcase of a German Shepherd hanging from the nearby lamppost. It was Brutus.
Irrationally perhaps, his mangled remains convinced me I was near the room where I had been held prisoner. And where I had last seen Jane. I had dreamed about her long-limbed body in its sweat-soaked singlet and fatigues every night since I had been released. I had to rescue her - if she was still alive. It was my fault she had been captured, so it was the least I could do. The feathery feeling in the pit of my stomach when I thought of her made me realize there was more to it than that, but I shut the thoughts away and concentrated on searching the surrounding buildings.
'Officer in need of back-up,' I transmitted on the wristcom, along with my location. 'New Front terrorist activity.' That last wasn't strictly true, but it was the only way I could convince HQ to send me any back-up. And after last time, I wasn't going to risk it. I hoped the New Front weren't monitoring the transmission.
I crept round the outside of an old crumbling brick building, peering in each window, then moving on, laser pistol at the ready. Nothing except crates and boxes, or office equipment so far. Then I came across a small barred window, and looked inside. It took a while for my eyes to adjust from the bright daylight to the gloomy interior. Then I saw it. The straw, and the mattress. The room was empty.
A SecPol van pulled up in the yard behind me, spilling out nine officers and a police dog. I was thankful they had remembered not to use the siren. I beckoned them over, and told them what I'd found. We paired off, covering the exits and entrances. Then I signalled, and we kicked in the doors.
This time we got the drop on the New Front terrorists, and I lased one in the hand as he reached for his own pistol. He yelled and swore, and clutched the blackened hole that had appeared in his palm. I left my partner to cover the two others we'd surprised, and barged on through. We rounded up ten terrorists in all, but there were no hostages. Jane must have been killed. I felt hollow at the thought.
We were out in the yard, loading the prisoners onto the prison truck which had just arrived, accepting congratulations from the Sergeant, when I stopped, struck by a thought. "Where are the dogs?"
"What?" asked the Sergeant, impatient to return to HQ.
"They must keep the dogs somewhere. For the lampposts and the bombs. Where are they?"
"That's right," said one of the other officers, the dog handler. "Hey, Julius." He whistled, and the police dog, a border collie, trotted over expectantly. "Julius will soon sniff them out." He signed, and I automatically decoded the finger movements, "Find dogs." Julius yawned, then trotted into the building we had just vacated. We followed him.
He was in one of the warehouses, pawing at the base of a crate, when we caught up. It took two of us to shift the crate; underneath it was a trapdoor. We opened it, and the stench of urine, faeces, and dogs made us reel back, coughing.
"Ye gods," said the dog handler. "Reckon we've found them."
I shone a torch into the black hole, and saw dozens of pairs of shining brown eyes staring back at me. The dogs started to whine and yelp, and leap towards the light. And in one corner, the torch found other pairs of eyes, some of which were blue - human eyes. There were three AnLibs there - and one of them was Jane.
We took the AnLibs back with us to see the medics, and dropped off the dogs at the police pound. It was lucky the terrorists had fed them recently, or they would have torn the humans confined with them to pieces. The New Front hadn't bothered to feed their hostages. They were little more than skin and bone, like something out of old concentration camp newsreels, and bites and claw marks on their bodies showed how they had struggled, unsuccessfully, to share some of the dogfood. The medics were shocked and immediately put them onto intravenous drips. Another day and we'd have been too late.
I took to sitting by Jane's bed for a few minutes each morning before work, and brought her some fruit to eat and magazines to read. She slept most of the time and seemed unaware of my presence. Pretty soon there were different rumours floating round SecPol HQ about me but I didn't care.
And then one morning, the bed was empty. SecPol had decided not to press charges against the AnLibs, so they'd been transferred to civilian hospitals. They didn't know which one Jane was at. By the time I tracked it down, she had become well enough to discharge herself. I had no address. I didn't even know her real name. She had completely vanished.
My appraisal was terrible - even the successful industrial estate bust couldn't wipe my loss of police equipment off the slate. The Sergeant positively gloated as he told me the bad news. I was sick of him, sick of being victimized, and sick of the ethics, or rather lack of them, that went with the job nowadays. It was the final straw. I stayed for another month, but my heart wasn't in it. Finally I bit the bullet, took out an overdraft to clear my debt to SecPol, and quit.
A clear conscience doesn't feed a hungry belly, unfortunately. Which meant I needed a new job. So I pulled every string I could - seven years of policing meant I had some connections - to land one of the few factory jobs remaining in this post industrial world. It was totally mind-numbing, and the pay was derisory, but at least I could live with myself.
Something was missing from my life though. I knew what it was but was powerless to do anything about it. After my resignation, I'd contacted the AnLibs, leaving them my address to give to 'Jane' should she resurface. But I heard nothing. She was history - why couldn't I accept that and find someone else? My flat seemed unbearably empty, so I stayed out drinking most evenings, only going home when the alcohol had frozen my feelings of loneliness.
Then one night I was at a party given by an ex girlfriend. I'd already had several drinks and was well on my way to becoming the life and soul, when Suzie, the hostess, came over and tapped me on the shoulder. I took no notice - I was in the middle of a dirty joke - so she poked me harder, and I stopped and snapped at her, "For Christ's sake, what?"
"We've had a gatecrasher. She's in the kitchen. Says she knows you."
"So?" I'd just got to the punchline, but the crowd of women round me had already turned away. "Damn it, Suzie. Your timing stinks!"
She grinned. "In the kitchen, Nicky. She wants to see you."
So because I hadn't got anything else to do, I went to see who it was.
She wasn't wearing desert fatigues this time, but denim jeans and a check shirt, and her face wasn't covered with streaks of boot polish.
"Jane!" Alcohol and shock slurred the word.
"It's Clare, actually," she said, flushing slightly. "I couldn't risk telling you my real name before. You were a cop."
She had filled out since I last saw her lying in that hospital bed. There were streaks of grey in her black hair now, and it was longer than I remembered.
"They gave me your address," she said. "Your neighbours told me you were here."
"You disappeared," I accused. "I looked for you -"
"I was pretty messed up after ... you know. Had to get myself sorted out. I couldn't afford the therapy, though." She shrugged. "The AnLibs eventually arranged for me so see one of their counsellors."
I gazed at her, trying not to get my hopes up. Why was she telling me all this? She owed me nothing - in fact I would have understood it better if she blamed me for all that had happened. Yet here she was. But she could disappear again, just as quickly.
"While I was in therapy, I realized there was stuff around that I hadn't recognized. Feelings about you ..." She shook her head, remembering. "You were everything I hated. A cop, for God's sake! For a while I just couldn't deal with it. I needed space and time to think, to see if the feelings went away."
I was aware of my pulse pounding and that feathery feeling back in the pit of my stomach again. "And did they?"
Clare shook her head. "No." She glanced at me, then at the ceiling, as if embarrassed. A sheen of perspiration covered her flushed face.
I couldn't help it - I started to grin like a maniac. And when her glance flicked back to me again, her whole body went still for a moment. Then she relaxed and the grin slowly spread to her face too.
When Suzie came through to the kitchen to see what was keeping me, we were sitting at the table, holding hands, and grinning until our jaws ached. We'd just made out first joint decision: to save up for our very own genetically enhanced German Shepherd puppy. Maybe it would grow up like Brutus, maybe not; that's the risk you take. Other decisions lay ahead for us, some more important than others. Who was going to move in with who? for one. I knew that life with someone as committed as Clare wasn't going to be easy, but I was willing to give it a try. And so, the pressure of her hand on mine told me, was she.
Susie gazed at me, at us, and smiled.
"Ain't love grand?" I asked her. She rolled her eyes and went back to the party.