Final Lap

Traces

Malcolm Rose

Kingfisher

Chapter One
<p
Everything was wrong. It was the wrong time of year, and the sports stadium
was not finished. The crowd was not really a crowd at all. A few trainers,
athletes, reporters, and fans were bunched together in the only stand that
had been completed so far. Seen from the airship overhead, they were a
small oasis in a concrete desert, and the builders crawling busily over the
rest of the arena looked like worker ants.
<p
Only one competitor had reentered the stadium and embarked on the final
lap. Approaching the end of the marathon, his gasps left a trail of steam
behind him in the cold air. The weather was all wrong as well.
The giant telescreen at the far end of the stadium was blank. Once the
electronics were fully installed, it would show pictures taken by the airship
and outside cameras, trackside close-ups, and a list of the exact position of
every runner in the marathon. For now, the leader's triumph was
unannounced, but the large timer was showing 2:08:13.7.
<p
Jed Lester shook his head in disbelief. Without taking his eyes off the lead
runner in the sky-blue uniform, he said to Owen Goode, "He's excellent, but
the organizers are going to have to check the clock or the route. It's a
practice run, out of season, and he's so young, yet he's coming in extremely
close to the national record. They've probably messed up the distance."
Owen nodded. "Likely, it's short of the full forty kilometers."
The construction workers on the opposite stand stopped what they were
doing and watched the lone runner completing a circuit of the track.
The event was a strange spectacle, designed to test Hounslow's preparations
for hosting the International Youth Games in the spring. The volunteer runners
were trying out the planned marathon route. The organizers were also
checking the electronic timing system, the orientation of the airship, and a
tagging device that monitored the position and order of every competitor
throughout the long-distance event. After the finish line, they would also test
the newly completed laboratory for detecting and measuring performance-
enhancing drugs.
<p
Jed had been a middle-distance runner. Twenty years ago, he was the best
at more than 1,500 meters. Now, he'd teamed up with 15-year-old Owen
Goode to develop a sports club in Greenwich. They were converting the old
domed warehouse, built in a loop of the Thames river, into an indoor track
and training facility. Already it was becoming a popular hangout for rebellious
London kids who had run away from their schools. Jed was hoping to spot a
new generation of athletes among them. He'd entered one boy and two girls
into the trial marathon. Right now, he expected them to be 12 to 18 minutes
away from the stadium.
<p
Perplexed by the leader's performance, Jed stroked his trademark bald head
with a cold hand and glanced down at the list that he'd been given. "Ford
Drayton. On this showing, he'll be selected for the Games if the distance and
time are right. But something must be wrong."
<p
From across the track, there was a loud clunk and a metallic squeal.
Thunderous hammering, pounding, shouting, and drilling had become
commonplace during the construction of the stadium, so no one paid any
attention. The noises were followed by a fearsome mechanical groan. Two
builders, standing way up high on scaffolding, were resting their elbows on
the steel railing and looking down at the closing stages of the race. From
their lofty position, they could probably also see the other runners laboring
along the outside walkway toward the stadium. Almost certainly, they would
be able to see the full extent of Ford Drayton's lead over the following pack.
Watching Ford's tireless finish, Owen commented, "Maybe he's had a little
help from drugs."
<p
"I don't think so. It's not like it's a power event." Jed stared at Ford's wiry
body as he came past the spectators' stand. "It's not his technique that's
wrong, for sure," Jed said in admiration. "Look at his posture, how he holds
his head. His arms pump beautifully, and his coordination's almost perfect,
even after that distance. But if you're right and he has taken something, he'll
be disgraced in an hour or two. That's LAPPED for you." Thinking of the
Laboratory Analytical Procedure for Performance-Enhancing Drugs, Jed
grunted. "In my day, lapped was something that happened to you on the
track if you weren't very good. Back then, I had to race—and beat —the
cheats. As simple as that."
Before Ford Drayton reached the finish line, there was an alarming creak from
one section of the scaffolding. The sound was followed by a dreadful twang
as the bolts holding up the platform on the left-hand side gave out. The
planks of wood tilted and then tumbled down toward the track. The two
builders who had been standing on them were tipped sideways as the planks
slid out from under their feet. In a panic, they both grabbed the railing that
they'd been leaning against. But the railing also came loose from the rest of
the contraption, and the men were thrown into empty air.
<p
Every face in the stand looked up—away from Ford's victory. Steel poles,
three planks of wood, a girder, and two men plummeted to the ground. Yet
their plunge seemed to last a lifetime. Their arms wheeled and legs flailed in
slow motion.
<p
A protracted human scream tore through the atmosphere. It was followed by
the thud of wood hitting the trackside area and the clatter of a girder and
steel railings. One of the metal shafts stabbed into the ground like an
oversize javelin. But the worst was the silence that followed the dull thumps
of the builders hitting the ground.
<p
Focusing on his performance and maintaining his style in spite of exhaustion,
Ford Drayton kept an eye on the stadium clock and paid no attention to the
commotion behind him. He ran to the finish line in stunned silence. Only one
spectator—his own trainer—applauded his remarkable achievement.
<p
Forensic Investigator Luke Harding was listening carefully as the face on his
telescreen described his next assignment. She was telling him about two
construction workers who had lost their lives in the main sports stadium in
Hounslow in the London area. Luke was puzzled, though. He asked, "Do you
know for sure that it's suspicious? A scaffolding collapse sounds like an
accident to me. Or bad work."
<p
The representative of The Authorities seemed annoyed that Luke was
questioning her word. She was probably aware that FI Harding had a growing
reputation for dissent. But despite his youth, he also had a growing
reputation for solving difficult cases. "It might sound like an accident to you,
taken in isolation. But this isn't the first mishap at the Hounslow
development. It began two years ago with an air traffic accident. I believe you
know about it."
<p
"Oh, yes," Luke replied. "I came across it in my last case. A Hounslow-to-
Glasgow flight. Its fuel line wasn't right. Someone in maintenance attached
the wrong nut. The pipe loosened during the flight, and fuel poured out."
<p
"That's right. And one of the indoor sports venues went up in flames a few
months ago. It had to be rebuilt. The first manager is missing, and there have
been other incidents as well. I'll download details into your Mobile Aid to Law
and Crime. We accept that accidents happen—but not this many. There
comes a point when bad luck begins to look deliberate. We've reached that
point. So, you'll investigate possible sabotage at the site."
<p
"Have there been any deaths, aside from the passengers in the plane and
these two builders?" he asked.
<p
"Aren't they enough?" she responded. "We want you to catch the person or
persons responsible before anyone else dies, and we want to know what
happened to Libby Byrne. She was the site manager until she vanished. Her
disappearance may or may not have anything to do with her work." The voice
of The Authorities paused before adding, "There's a lot at stake here,
Investigator Harding. Hounslow's a high-profile regeneration project. The
biggest in the south of England by far. Despite the . . . difficulties, we're on
the final lap, as far as construction's concerned. We don't want the
International Youth Games jeopardized at this late stage. If this fails, it'll be
our last attempt to renovate an area of London."

<p"That would be a pity." Luke was wondering if she was threatening to ax
Owen Goode's alternative school in Greenwich as well.
<p
"Make sure it doesn't happen, then."
<p
"I'll do my best," Luke said toward her fading face.
<p
When the principal of the Sheffield Music Collective appeared at Jade
Vernon's door, Jade pulled her headphones down from her ears and let them
rest on her shoulders, making a strange oversize necklace. She clicked the
Save button to keep the samples that she'd added to a new mix of one of her
pieces and swiveled toward him.
<p
"Sorry to interrupt," he said, "but I have some news that you'll want to hear."
<p
"Oh?"
<p
"Good news," he stressed, beaming like a child. "It's from The Authorities,
and I think you'll be pleased. Very pleased."
<p
At once, Jade's thoughts turned to pairing. She was 16—four years from The
Time—and she was hoping that The Authorities might have had a change of
heart. Perhaps they would couple her with Luke Harding when The Time
came. But would the Head of the Collective get involved in the business of the
Sheffield Pairing Committee? Would he even know about her pairing situation
and her wishes?
<p
"Oh?" she repeated, wondering how long he was going to keep her in
suspense.
<p
"It's an honor for you and the whole Collective," he said. "The Authorities have
commissioned you to compose the music for the opening ceremony of the
International Youth Games and the official anthem." He clearly had more to
say, but he hesitated in order to let the offer of the glitzy task sink in and to
watch her reaction.
<p
Her frown turned into a wide grin. "Really? The anthem? That's . . . brilliant.
Amazing." In her excitement, she jumped to her feet and the headphone
cable almost throttled her. "Fantastic. Why me, though?"
<p
The principal replied, "Don't be so modest, Jade. It's obvious. You were
selected because you're good. The best person for the job. Given the
occasion, it's also appropriate for a youth—someone less than twenty—to
provide the music."
<p
Jade shook both of her fists in the air. "Yes! Fame at last."
<p
"True. Previous writers of sports anthems have gone on to great things. I wish
you well with it—as does everyone in the Collective."
<p
"I can hardly believe it, but . . . I'll need a site visit," Jade said. "To get a feel
for the place, to see what would work. Is that all right?"
<p
"I assumed that you'd ask, so I've already checked. The main stadium is
almost complete, so you can visit by arrangement almost any time. The
other venues are at various stages of construction. Someone will take you
wherever you want to go, as long as it's safe and doesn't interfere with the
building."
<p
"It's down near London, isn't it?" She tried not to pull a face.
<p
The principal laughed. "Don't let that put you off. Think of yourself as part of
the Hounslow regeneration scheme. It's a golden opportunity."
<p
Despite the need to go to the South, she tingled all over. "I can't wait to get
going," she said.