Palko Rell studied the scene as his partner guided their patrol car toward the tall brick warehouse. The parking lot was lit by a single streetlight. An old man in a security guard’s uniform stood in its glare looking toward the car. Even from this distance Palko could see that the man was nervous, shifting his weight every few seconds and gripping his flashlight tightly in both hands.
“Let’s go see what’s up,” Palko said to his partner with a grin. He and D’Jira Ker stepped out of the car and walked toward the security guard.
“You called for Line Control?” D’Jira asked. The old man nodded at her vigorously.
“Yep,” he said. “I think we’ve got a break-in.”
“What did you see?”
“I was doing my rounds when I heard a noise at the back loading door,” the man said, speaking quickly and still nodding his head. “I figured it was kids. We get ’em round here some nights, making trouble, breaking stuff, you know. Usually I just shout at ’em and they run. But when I got round the back and stuck my head round the corner, I could see they was adults, and they was cutting at the locks.”
“How many of them?” D’Jira asked.
“I seen two, but there could’ve been more hiding back there. I didn’t hang around. I just slipped back and called you guys.” The old man shook his head. “They don’t pay me enough to go trying to catch anyone dangerous.”
He peered closely at Palko and D’Jira, then looked over at their car as though expecting to see someone else step out. “Er, no offence miss, but, um…”
“Yes?” said D’Jira.
“You sure you two are, uh, old enough fer this?”
D’Jira stiffened. “Yes, sir,” she said, a brittle edge in her voice. “Officer Rell and I are both fully qualified Line Control officers, and we’re more than capable of handling a little situation like this.”
Which wasn’t exactly true, Palko thought. At 15 he was still a cadet and had only been on patrol for six months. D’Jira was fully qualified and had been since she turned 18, nearly a year earlier. But this wasn’t the first time people had assumed she was younger than she was. Palko had seen more than one shady character try to push D’Jira around, only to regret it. She was fast, strong and confident, and Palko was delighted to be partnered with her for the first part of his training.
“Perhaps you’d like to resume your rounds and wait for some older officers to show up?” D’Jira said coldly.
“”No, no, no,” the guard said quickly. “I’m sure you can handle…”
“Did you see a vehicle?” Palko interrupted, trying to get the man back on track. The security guard shook his head.
“Nope, but I’ve been doing my rounds inside, so they could’a drove in. There’s a big parking lot back there where they bring in the trucks. Plenty of room to have a car back there.”
Palko looked at D’Jira. “Want me to call for back-up?” he asked, then realized she was already turning back toward the car to make the call. That was one of the things Palko liked about working with D’Jira Ker. They had only been partners for six months, but already they were starting to think alike. It made Line Control work much easier when you had the right partner.
As she walked back from the car, Palko could see that D’Jira wasn’t pleased about something. “Our backup is on its way,” she said. “It’s Grosfern.”
“Grosfern? What’s he doing outside the office?”
“Apparently he likes to go on patrol every now and then. Says it keeps him ‘in the game,’ whatever that means. He’s only two blocks away, so he’ll be here any moment.”
Palko quickly checked that his hat was on straight, and all his tunic buttons were done up. Deputy Commander Grosfern was a stickler for wearing the uniform properly. Around the station it was rumoured that he had once suspended an officer for three days for losing his hat. It didn’t matter that the hat had come off when the man jumped in the river to rescue a drowning girl; as far as Grosfern was concerned, he should have rescued the girl then jumped back in to rescue his hat.
A moment later another patrol car pulled in beside theirs, and DC Grosfern stepped out and walked toward them. Grosfern wasn’t a particularly tall man, but he stood so straight as he walked that he seemed to add several inches to his height. He wore an immaculate uniform that looked freshly ironed, and Palko had to struggle not to smooth any imaginary wrinkles in his own tunic.
The only thing about Grosfern’s appearance that wasn’t Line Control standard was a thin moustache, but even that was kept so neatly trimmed, it looked as though each whisker had been measured.
“Officer Ker, Cadet Rell,” Grosfern said, his voice clipped and business-like. “What do we have?”
“Break-in in progress, sir,” D’Jira said. “The security guard here saw at least two men working the locks at the loading gate around back. There may be more.”
Grosfern nodded. “Vehicles?”
“Probably sir. Apparently there’s a large parking lot behind the warehouse.”
“Any other roads in, or is this driveway the only way?”
D’Jira paused. “Uh, I was just about to ask that when you arrived sir.” Grosfern frowned slightly.
“There’s a driveway up each side of the building,” piped up the security guard, who had been watching the exchange. “The back parking lot there’s surrounded by a big fence, so they’s gotta go out one side of the building or t’other.”
“Good,” said Grosfern. “Ker, you take the right side, Rell, you come with me up the left. We’ll meet at the doors around back. Radios on channel two, earbuds in – I don’t want anyone to hear us coming. Let’s go.”
As he followed Grosfern into the dark alley, Palko had to admit the man knew what he was doing. Grosfern moved quickly and silently through the shadows, his polished uniform boots making no sound on the loose gravel. Beside him Palko felt clumsy and noisy, the stones seeming to shriek with every footstep. Guess the old guy still has a few tricks in him, Palko thought.
When they reached the back corner of the building, Grosfern stopped and turned his face toward the mike pinned to his shoulder. “”You in position Ker?” he whispered.
“Yes sir.” D’Jira’s voice hissed in Palko’s earbud. “I can see the loading doors. One of them is open, and there’s a truck backed up to it. No sign of any people, though. They must be inside.”
“We’ll advance toward the doors, then,” Grosfern whispered back, and slipped around the corner.
Palko’s heart hammered in his chest as he followed the older officer through the darkened parking lot, but he had to fight to keep a grin off his face. This was the part of Line Control work he liked the best: catching bad guys in the act. It reminded him of games he had played as a kid, only this time it was for real. This was the reason he had left his old school behind and joined the cadet program, so he could train for moments just like this.
Slowly they crept closer to the warehouse doors. Through his earbud, Palko could hear D’Jira breathing as she approached them on the other side of the truck. This was the most difficult part of the approach. If the thieves saw them now, they might have enough time to jump in the truck and take off. Thirty metres to go. Twenty. Fifteen.
Suddenly Palko felt an odd sensation trickling down his spine, like someone was running cold, wet fingers along his back. Flashes of intense colour filled his eyes, blinding him. He tried to lift his hand to rub them, but found he was frozen in place. A rushing sound filled his ears, like trains rumbling past at incredible speed. In the distance he could hear a voice.
It seemed to last only a second or two, and then all the sensations vanished abruptly. That was weird, Palko thought, shaking his head in order to focus.
He then noticed several things all at once. He could taste dust in his mouth. He couldn’t see the truck. He could see D’Jira. And Grosfern was staring at him, looking like he was ready to kill him.
Palko tried to process all this information at once, but found it was too much. “Wha . . . wha . . . what?” he stammered.
Grosfern spoke in a voice that matched his expression; one of cold fury. “Rell, you absolute idiot! Is there any reason I shouldn’t fire you from the service on the spot?”
“What happened?” Palko finally managed.
Grosfern’s cold fury erupted. “What happened?” he shrieked. Palko winced as the yell was amplified through his earbud, and yanked the piece from his ear. “You blew it, that’s what happened! What in the name of black ink did you think you were doing?”
Palko swallowed and blinked. He glanced at D’Jira to see if she could shed any light on the mystery, but she looked almost as angry as Grosfern. “I’m sorry sir, but I don’t know what I did.”
“You warned them!” said D’Jira. “You shouted to them!”
As she saw the confusion on Palko’s face, D’Jira’s expression softened slightly. “We were fifteen metres away, and suddenly I heard you yell. At first I thought you were in trouble. You shouted, ‘Hello. My name is Rico.’ As soon as you did that, three guys ran out the door, jumped in the truck and took off. We were still too far away to stop them.” She looked at Palko quizzically. “You don’t remember that?”
“No,” said Palko. “All I know is that I was following DC Grosfern, and suddenly I had some sort of seizure or something. I heard noises, saw colours, and felt an odd sensation in my spine. Next thing I knew, the truck was gone.”
Grosfern raised his eyebrows, his face still black with fury. “Odd sensation?” he growled. “What sort of odd sensation?”
“Like someone was tickling my back, sir,” Palko said. “Not on my skin, but right inside my spine.”
“With cold, wet fingers?” Grosfern said slowly.
Palko nodded. “Yes sir, exactly like that.” How did Grosfern know that, he wondered.
Grosfern let out a sharp breath. “Kaldoss,” he swore, and switched his radio to a secure channel. “Get a message to Commander Lurens,” he said into the mouthpiece. “Tell her we’ve got a level four breach. I need her to meet me at the Goren Block.”
He turned to Palko and D’Jira. “You two come with me. In my car. We’ve got much bigger problems than a warehouse robbery.”
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