A shiver enveloped the official executioner's body when he stepped into the
empty Death Cell. He always reacted badly to the dreadful atmosphere as he
entered the cold chamber in Block J of Cambridge Prison. Greg Roper didn't
let the unpleasant prickling put him off, though. To distract himself, he
imagined how he'd been chosen as the executioner. Of all the prison guards,
he had the name that sounded the most like the "Grim Reaper." Really, being
named Greg Roper had nothing to do with his job, but the thought brought an
ironic smile to his lips. When he was preparing the Death Cell, he needed an
excuse to smile.
There were no windows and only two pieces of furniture in the small room: a
bed that could be tilted from almost upright to horizontal and a wooden
cabinet on wheels. First, Greg opened the cabinet and checked that the
chemicals were all present and correct. Sodium pentothal would put the
prisoner to sleep. Pancuronium bromide would paralyze his lungs and
diaphragm, and then potassium chloride would stop his heart. The whole
process of delivering the death sentence was designed to take between 15
and 20 minutes. Greg was proud of his record: 13.5 minutes from strapping
the inmate onto the bed to the ending of his life. After all, he didn't want to
prolong the suffering—even of a murderer.
He checked that there was enough saline solution to wash the tubes that
would deliver the fatal sequence of chemicals. He measured the tubes to
make sure that they were long enough, and then he inspected both
intravenous needles. One would be placed in the criminal's arm, and the
other was a spare in case something went wrong—not that the procedure
had ever gone wrong in Greg's hands.
Satisfied, he turned his attention to the bed and said to the
computer, "Upright position, please." Greg whispered, actually. He always
whispered in the Death Cell. With its belts and fastenings dangling grimly,
the bed tipped slowly until it was almost vertical. It came to a halt without a
hint of shuddering. Everything had to be perfect. Perfectly smooth was how
Greg liked it. That's why he practiced, checked, and double-checked well
before an execution. "Project a life-size hologram of Everton Kohter onto it,
The image didn't look completely like the real thing. It was a mere ghost of a
man—or boy, in this case. In 19 days, Everton would become the smallest,
youngest person that Greg had ever strapped onto the bed. He knelt down
and made sure that the lower ties were correctly adjusted to attach to the
prisoner's ankles. He didn't want to have to fiddle with the buckles while the
poor boy waited to die. The long belts that would encircle his waist and chest
seemed fine. At the top of the bed, the forehead loop needed to be five
millimeters shorter to stop Everton from jerking his head. Greg wanted it tight
so that the prisoner could not possibly hurt himself if he struggled.
Finally, Greg ensured that the arm restraints were functioning properly and
were set for Everton's measurements. Once the intravenous needle was in
place under his skin, it was vital that the prisoner could not free an arm from
the strap and thrash around. If he did, he could dislodge the delivery tube.
Content, Greg said in a hushed voice, "That's all. End program."
The virtual version of Everton Kohter disappeared at once. When the real
thing had been put to sleep and the prison doctor had pronounced
bleakly, "Life extinct," Greg would call in two of his colleagues to take away
the body. And hopefully he would be able to congratulate himself on an
efficient job well done.
It was no use telling The Authorities that he was alone in his hotel room.
Luke knew that Jade would keep very quiet, and he was sure that he could lie
confidently and persuasively, but he was equally certain that his Mobile Aid
to Law and Crime would correct any fib. "Er . . . no. I have Jade Vernon with
me," he said.
"I see." The words coming out of Malc were not delivered in the usual male
monotone. The female voice emerging from him carried an element of opinion,
and it sounded to Luke like disapproval. "Never mind. Your mobile tells us
that you're in Sheffield. This is convenient."
The Authorities had hijacked the mobile robot's synthetic speech circuitry in
order to talk to Luke. "We are assigning you to a case of possible corruption
there. It has come to our attention that a couple in Sheffield may have been
paired inappropriately and unconventionally."
Puzzled, Luke frowned and glanced at the silent Jade.
"At least one member of the local Pairing Committee may have been unduly
Luke could not resist interrupting. "Influenced? What does that mean?"
At once, Malc's neutral male voice returned for a few seconds. "Persuaded,
often by secret or unfair use of position; affected or altered by indirect or
subtle means; swayed to modify the condition, development, or outcome of
"Thanks, Malc," Luke muttered sarcastically. "Everything's a lot clearer now."
The Authorities' voice continued. "I'm downloading all relevant notes to your
Mobile Aid to Law and Crime. It's up to you to find out what form the
influence takes, whether a committee member has succumbed to such
pressure, and, if so, who it is. If it's more than one member, it's your job to
find out how many are involved and to identify them."
"But . . ."
Luke could not admit to his doubts. He hated Pairing Committees. After all,
they stood between him and a lifetime paired with Jade. If there was a way
around the system of making life partners, he would rather celebrate than
investigate it. But he was a forensic investigator. It was his duty to uphold the
law. He could not pick and choose the rules that he'd enforce. "I . . . um . . .
I've only ever taken on murder cases."
"And you've done exceptionally well. This investigation is easier and lower
profile. Think of it as a reward. After all," she added, "a change is as good as
a rest." Her attempt at friendliness and informality came across as sinister.
"Do I have a choice?" Luke asked as he gazed into Jade's disbelieving face.
"No. Being in Sheffield, you're perfect for the job."
Luke swallowed. "There's something else," he said nervously.
"What's that?" the voice of The Authorities asked, clearly irritated that Luke
dared to bring up another matter.
"It's . . . er . . . the case of Everton Kohter. He's scheduled for execution in
two or three weeks. I want to look into it. You know. Just to make sure."
"Is this a serious request, FI Harding?"
"We do not raise doubts in the law without a very good reason."
"The good reason is, you could kill someone who hasn't done anything
wrong. He was supposed to have murdered someone two years back. But
mobiles have improved a lot since then. There's no harm in checking that
he's guilty with some up-to-date methods."
There were a few moments of hesitation. "There is harm. It lies in reducing
confidence in the law. Besides, I now have the Kohter file on my monitor. The
case against him is completely watertight. He was arrested within minutes.
I'd go as far as to say that no one's ever been more clearly guilty of murder."
Luke had been tipped off by a mutual friend named Owen Goode that Kohter
was not the killing type, so he decided not to cave in. "There's no problem
getting a second opinion then. I'll agree, and Kohter will be put to death
knowing that everything's been double-checked."
Malc's speech center fell silent for a minute. Then the female voice sounded
again. "We have granted your request. Reluctantly. I'll download all case
notes to your mobile."
"Thanks," Luke replied. "Can you give him holographic programming, too? I'll
want him to re-create the crime scene so that I can take a virtual walk
through it and get a good look."
"Agreed, but I promise that you won't have to be thorough to verify this
verdict. And you won't need long, but, for obvious reasons, you have nineteen
days—until dawn on Sunday, the twelfth of February. Kohter's execution will
not be delayed."
The link to The Authorities broken, Jade stared at Luke. It wasn't often that
she was lost for words. It wasn't for long either. "Inappropriate pairing?" she
exclaimed. "Was that for real?"
"Sounds like it's my job to find out."
"Huh. There's more going on than that. They know about you and me." She
nodded toward the robot that hovered beside Luke. "Malc tells them. He's
probably telling them what we're saying right now."
"Incorrect. Your current conversation is not relevant to either investigation."
"It might be in a second," Jade retorted. "They know we'd jump at the chance
of inappropriate and unconventional pairing, so why give you the case?"
Not wanting to reveal his fears, Luke shrugged.
It was Malc who put Luke's suspicions into words. "Your loyalty to the law
may be under test."
Luke looked at his mobile. "Do you know that? Have you been told that's
what's going on?"
"No. It is a matter of logical deduction. Another explanation is that you are
available and suitably located."
Luke smiled wryly. He expected that his mobile's obligation to the law, to the
truth, and to himself would also come under test—and into conflict—before
he got to the bottom of any illicit pairing. What concerned him more, though,
was the looming execution of Everton Kohter.