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MURDER UNSCRIPTED, a Rip Patterson story by J.B. Dane

Part One

“Eww,” my twin sister said, hastily turning away from the unsightly mess she’d nearly stepped on. “I don’t remember there being a…a…well, whatever that thing is in your book, Rip.”

“There wasn’t one,” I answered. “But then there wasn’t an A.I. drug dealer, an alien flogging used intergalactic ships, or ghouls in it either, and that didn’t stop the studio from putting them in the screenplay, did it?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course, there were girls in it. Your protagonist is as much a womanizer as all the snappy dressed spies are.”

Really, I was surprised she’d lowered herself to the level of reading one of my books. That didn’t stop her from suggesting I supply her with all expenses paid trips to interesting places on the planet, though she’d lost her sense of humor when I mentioned Greenland. Told me to stop using her third ex’s playbook for ruining her mood. But be seen with a copy of a Mercer Sinclair action-adventure novel by Ripley Patterson – that’s me – in her well-manicured hands? I don’t think so.

Anyway, yes, there were lots of women in the books for Merce to romance, but the thing laying at our feet wasn’t one of them.

“Not girls, Patience. Ghouls. You know, beings not from around these parts on a general basis.” Though several of them had been surfacing recently. Overcrowding or poor job prospects in the ghoul dimension, I suppose. In any case, I pointed to the dead one lying at my sister’s feet. “That is a ghoul.”

You’d think the green toad textured skin would have given it away.

“It’s also our leading man’s stunt double.”

“Eww!” Patience said again only this time she added some pretty hastily taken steps back, putting space between her Jimmy Choo’s and the dead guy.

I did the more sensible thing. Put two fingers to my lips and blew a sharp whistle. The security dude at the end of the building stopped chatting up a couple of long-legged gypsies in tap shoes and skimpy polka dot costumes for a Ziegfeld biopic to glance my way. I pointed to the dead stunt ghoul.

In the event you’re wondering, he didn’t look anything like the guy playing my dashing protagonist. But then, he probably had worn a glamour to make him look like our hero. At least before dying.

The security dude hustled over, took one look and got on his radio. I got on my phone and called the producer. “You’re gonna need another rewrite, pal,” I told him. “Either take stunts off the table for our star or make a call to central casting or wherever you get the stunt people. The last one’s death-defying fall, defied ‘nuthin’. Security is probably calling the morgue wagon as we speak.”

The producer said a few choice words. I’d heard them before. We’d been roommates in college. I’d dated his sister until he found out and decked me. Now he loved that I was a best-selling author. He said he was calling someone far more important than casting or stunt coordination. He was calling the PR department. The film could get good coverage from the death. He said the words “spin” and “cursed” in the same sentence. I ended the call.

To stay out of the way, Patience and I melted into the mass of production folks. As he wasn’t using it any longer, I held the dead stunt guy’s chair for my sister to swivel into. Didn’t tell her whose seat she’d taken. It was centrally located near the craft services table. I cruised it and helped myself to one of our leading man’s favorite ham and swiss sandwiches. They were pumpernickel on one side, unseeded rye on the other, and featured padding of something organic and green. I hoped it was lettuce. There was a rider in his contract that insisted this luncheon delight be at hand every day. My contract lacked such perks, but then I felt the more important element was the number of zeros in what they were paying me for the rights to rewrite my story into perdition.

“What’s going on?” a production assistant asked, looking down the path between sound studios. Security had swarmed to the scene to keep the curious away. Whether they were curious because there was a body or because the body was green was a toss-up.

“Scissorneck’s double cashed in his chips,” I said.

“You mean Sascernak, Rip,” my sister corrected. “Colinel Sascernak. That’s who’s playing Mercer.”

The production assistant didn’t care if I got any actor’s name right. “Chips?” she gasped. “There’s a poker game on the set? Oh, hell! I’m going to get in so much trouble for –”

“I mean, the guy is dead. Fell off a building,” I clarified. Probably shouldn’t have used a cliché, though I thought they were required on a movie set.

The assistant sighed in relief. “Oh, thank goodness!”

Not the usual sort of thing you hear when a body is mentioned, but, hey, this was Hollywood. They had a different mindset. You know, the show must go on. Except with what might equate to a hundred or more script changes.

Our leading actor moseyed up at that point. Spotted my well-appointed sister in his double’s chair and dropped into his next to her. “I don’t believe we’ve met,” he growled in a voice that made it sound like he was asking her for special favors. The smile she gave him in return indicated she was up for whatever adventure he had in mind and would like to add a few twists of her own when it came to special favors.

Amazing what nuance can do, isn’t it?

Sis offered her hand palm down, fingers drooping. The demand being that he kiss it.

Scissorneck did as bid. Yeah, I know that’s not his name, but what he’s calling himself isn’t either.

I wondered briefly whether I should mention his double was dead then decided I’d see if there were kosher dills to go with the sandwich. He’d find out soon enough.

Had just added other delicacies to my plate when the script minion raced up. “Bascomb needs you in his office,” she said. “Terrance wants him to write Wizkowski’s death into the plot and he wants to tap your genius.”

Bascomb was the screenwriter, Terrance the director, which meant Wizkowski was what the dead guy put on his W-9 form.

“I’m willing to bet cash money that that’s not how he phrased it,” I said.

“He didn’t,” she agreed. “You don’t want to know what he did say. But that’s the gist of it.”

“There is nothing in my contract that says I have to help him destroy my story.”

She gritted her teeth. Closed her eyes. Took a few deep breaths, which, since she was wearing a tee-shirt sized for a smaller…er…accessorized woman, was dramatically eye catching.

“Please, Rip. I’ll make it up to you. Promise.”

Knew I’d enjoy that. We’d been…er…exercise partners since the first day of filming.

“For you, I’ll do it,” I said.

She went tiptoes to give me a quick kiss on the cheek and stole my dill to sustain her for whatever the rest of the day presented.

My sister was busy batting her lashes at the hired hunk, so I headed for the trailer that housed the man who was torturing my story.

Was just popping the last of the sandwich in my mouth when the door to his mobile office swung open. “You stopped to eat?”

“I stop frequently to eat,” I said. “As do you.”

His center of gravity had shifted after years bent over a keyboard. It looked like he’d been pulling at his hair rather than run his fingers through it.

“With this job, drinking beats eating hands down,” he said.

“And does nothing to kill the clichés that cling to you,” I observed. “What’s the problem?”

“We’ve got a dead guy. Hadn’t you heard?”

“Didn’t have to. I found him lying in my path.”

“Then you heard what he was?”

Saw what he was,” I corrected. “What’s the problem? We just have our dashing hero relieved that the shooter hit the other guy and not him.”

“The guy was shot?”

“No! He fell off a roof. Or at least that’s what it looked like. He seemed a bit planed off on the underside to me.”

“Hmm,” he…well, hmmed. “He could get shot and fall off the roof. Or a bridge. Or a cliff.”

“Last I checked, there were no cliffs in downtown Phoenix.” That’s where the action was supposedly playing out. “Don’t even consider a bridge. They’re nearly all highway or railroad ones. I think getting shot, falling onto a pavement and then run over by a semi barreling through would be overkill on this kill. In fact, don’t even mention him. He wasn’t in the script to begin with. He was the stunt guy. Here today and now gone today as well. They’ll get that idiot Scissorneck a new double.”

He mused on that. “Won’t work. Terrance wants it worked into the script.”

“Which will mean hiring a separate stunt guy to get killed because the first guy wasn’t being filmed when he took the dive.” And I thought things were convoluted half the time in the literary world.

Well, my niche of it. There are those who wouldn’t call what I write as qualifying for a literary heat.

Bascomb didn’t care about the bottom line. He was ready to throw the budget into a mulcher along with my storyline. If Terrance said “jump”, Bascomb wrote it into the script.

“Thanks, Patterson. If you see Terrance, tell him I’ll have new pages within the hour.”

My job of not contributing at all done, I drifted back to where I’d left Patience flirting with the good looking low IQer – you know, the leading man. Yeah, it might sound like I’m making assumptions, but I’d been listening to the idiot talk and when he didn’t have a script to screw up because he couldn’t remember his lines, I hadn’t noted any flashes of intelligence come anywhere near him.

Wondered if the ghoul had been a more interesting conversationalist. If so, could be the PR department killed him before anyone could make a comparison between the two lookalikes.

Of course, now there was just one. Unfortunately, probably the stupider of the two.

I slipped up next to the head camera man. “You have stuff I could watch where the stunt guy was in the frame?” I asked.

“Sure. Why?” he countered.

“Curiosity,” I said. “Wondered what we had that could be used. They’re trying to work his death into the script. Asked me for some ideas.”

He nodded. Not the first request like mine he’d had, I suppose. “You got a tablet or something? I can upload what we have to it. Don’t leak any of it to a social media account though.”

Apparently, he hadn’t considered how doing so might hobble the bumper crop of book sales I hoped to enjoy when the film tie-in edition was released. If a reader who’d never picked up one of my titles saw the rubbish the studio was filming, they’d never open something I wrote much less buy it.

“Scouts honor,” I vowed, giving him the official salute. He didn’t seem to notice I did it with the wrong hand. I’d never actually been a scout as he’d definite it.

“Give me half an hour. I should have something uploaded to you if you give me your –”

To save time, I gave him my card. It had my email address front and center in type large enough to make reading glasses obsolete. Well, obsolete where I come from.

Which isn’t Earth. Don’t let it get around.

By the time the clips surfaced, I’d found a quiet and nearly out-of-sight spot between two of the actors’ trailers to view them in seclusion. One trailer belonged to Scissorneck, the other to the babe who would manage to live to the final credits. Other cast members weren’t that lucky. Okay, let me rephrase that, they were lucky that they’d only appear to die. There were a lot of those roles in this production. Higher body count than in the book, and that hadn’t been small.

The uploaded file wasn’t helpful in the least. As I gave up scanning it, company arrived: the guy in the role of intergalactic used ship dealer. Which, oddly enough, was exactly what he was. “You heard a ghoul killed himself on our set?” he asked.

“It’s been labeled a suicide?” I croaked in surprise. PR had been really motivated to spin this puppy. “Well, it wasn’t. It was murder.”

“You’re that sure?” he demanded. Odd that he’d think I jested.

“You know I know murder when I see it, as much as you know a sucker when you see one. You unload that CO2 fuel sucker off on Elon Musk’s competition?”

“Naw, the IGPC had an officer on this marble I didn’t know about,” he said. “If I had, I’d have bribed him with witch sugar.”

Actually, I was the covert Intergalactic Protection Corp agent who’d rumbled him, but he’d never know. I’d been posing as a human for nearly twenty years now. Folks from my home planet were practically kissing cousins to Terrans biologically. We just didn’t call ourselves “human”.

The mention of witch sugar got my full attention, naturally.

“You got witch sugar?” I asked. “Heard it was hard to get.”

“Not if you know the right witches,” the ship flogger said.

I tipped my chin in the direction of the milling crew where the A.I. drug dealer in the film mingled. It really was a drug dealer, though I hadn’t thought it was one on this planet. “Does the A.I. know her?”

“Don’t know,” he said. “The ghoul did, though.”

“Our dead guy?”

My fellow intergalactic immigrant nodded once. “That’s the dude. Heard he knew her very well.”

“How well and in what way well?” I pressed.

“The usual way, Patterson.”

Which oddly enough, meant he babysat for her kids, freeing her up for those skyclad nights of dancing under the solstice and equinoxal stars.

“Huh,” I grunted. “Maybe I should talk to him.”

“In your official capacity?”

I pshawed. “I’m retired, remember? Left the force.” Though I hadn’t actually. I’d been shifted to the covert department. The position paid well, mostly because IGPC paid full wages for half the work because half of an agent’s job was to hold down a visible cover job. Fortunately for me, Earth was still shy of being a Level One Civilization, so after half an hour with the virtual writing instructor streaming Terran lit into my synapses, I was ready for the NYT’s bestseller hall of fame.

Eat your heart out Earthling writers. Everyone topping the list is an alien, just like me.

Well, maybe not as dashing.

But back to the murder.

Although the dead ghoul’s face had been pancaked, I hadn’t used it to ID the punk. I scanned his chemical makeup from a splotch of body fluid. Being able to do this without gathering a sample is not only time saving, it’s far less disgusting. Thanks to department retina implants, his ID had flashed across my sight while he was still warm. Which, considering he was a ghoul, hadn’t been for long. I estimated he’d hit the pavement between 30 to 33.5 seconds before Patience and I spotted him. Well, nearly stepped on him.

He’d been arrested elsewhere on suspicion of helping himself to a small vial of Kiztorefic Moxiholapix, which I’m sure you know can blow the socks off every being in the Simertafo dimension.

The Simertafo and the ghouls of Bittenoffalot have been at the Loggerheads mediation tables for five thousand Chritralum as it is, so I wasn’t surprised that destruction was in the annex.

And that is your intergalactic news recap for the day.

As I said before, back to the murder.

Part Two

How, you may be asking yourself, did Rip Patterson know the ghoul was murdered? Well, I was hot-wired for homicide. Not that there were diodes involved, just Civilization III know how. It works the same for you almost Civilization I types. An investigator looks at the facts.

Fact #1 – The ghoul had been in costume, which meant he was wearing a snazzy suit and tie. He was sod in Cole Haan loafers. Even stunt men don’t climb on sound stage roofs in loafers. New ones, at that. The soles had been barely scuffed. It was doubtful he’d dressed for his own funeral. The shoes survived the fall better than he or his suit and tie did.

Fact #2 – He was smarter than the guy he was fronting for, and I base that on having compared the two of them prior to the reduction in mock Mercer Sinclairs on the set.

Fact #3 – The sound stage from which he’d taken the deadly spill was nowhere near where filming was underway on the Sinclair epic, so why was he there, and more importantly, why was he on the roof? I doubt it had been for the view as the smog had swallowed anything worth looking at.

Fact #4 – Considering he was a convicted felon elsewhere in the cosmos, what was he doing on a little backwater rock like Earth? It wasn’t the sort of place his type usually hung out. And, yeah, I’m profiling a bit here, but if the shoe fits – and this shoe qualified as custom made – profiling was just another word for spot on. At a guesstimate, I’d say he was here for a job. But what sort of job?

Which leads us to the tried and true: motive, means, and opportunity.

I needed to find out who he’d been seeing – other than the witch he got sugar from, that is. Still, she needed to be near the top of my list. That meant cornering the A.I. drug dealer and revisiting the alien ship huckster to get her location.

The local cops had arrived to look things over. Terrence was being belligerent at their strongly worded suggestion that the set be closed, and all personnel be wrangled into the nearest soundstage to be interviewed. As Patience was doing the weak female act – and it is an act she could win an Oscar or a Tony for – Scisserneck was held captive. Rather than rejoin the crowd and thus have my own investigation curtailed, I slunk off to the canteen. Oddly enough, the two guys – sorta – at the top of my interrogation list had avoided the fuzz as well and were holed up at a back-corner table.

I went through the line and gathered a generous slice of apple pie and a cola, then took my tray over to where they were camped.

“Criminy, it’s the buzzer,” the A.I. said, heavy on the cockney.

“What lab spat you out?” I demanded taking a seat between the two of them, “That accent will get you spotted faster than a supernova. Besides, I’m retired from all that. I’m a novelist now.”

From the noise it made, either it was ill-programmed for laughter or was about to spit a CPU. “Pull the other one,” it said.

“Have you been sweeping up after Bascomb? He drops clichés like they were petals before the May queen. Either of you have something to flavor this with?” I gestured to the cola.

Both glanced around then surreptitiously withdrew flasks from places I didn’t care to ask about. After giving each a sniff, I took the less disgusting and added enough of it to the soft drink to deaden my taste buds, then took a slug. It was vile enough to suit the occasion.

“So,” I said once speech was again possible, “tell me how to get in touch with the witch with the sugar.”

The A.I. straightened in its chair. “Whatta lookin’ at me for?” Its programming had changed to something Brooklynesque. “Who told ya I knew anythin’ ‘bout that stuff?”

I pointed to the alien spaceship scalper on my left.

“Why youse –” it screeched as it pushed to its feet. It had definitely been watching too many old gangster movies.

I shoved the A.I. back in its chair. “No, why don’t youse tell me her name and where to find her. We got a dead ghoul and she needs to know he won’t be available to sit with her kids come Halloween.”

“Is that all you want to talk to her about?” the A.I. demanded, though it seemed calmer.

“I’m shopping for a new plot. The contract with my publisher demands the next manuscript be on his desk in a couple months –” Twelve months is a couple, right? “—and my muse is on strike. Witch sugar sounds like just the ticket to lure him back in action.”

“All you want to do is talk to her?”

“Just talk,” I promised. Then if she merited it, I’d call in another IGPC grunt to do the official takedown.

“If anything happens to her, Patterson—”

“Yeah, yeah. I know, it’s curtains for me.” Actually, curtains is a bit too Earthling for my taste in decor. You can take a guy off his planet, but you can’t take the planet out of the guy.

Trusting hunk of junk that the A.I. was, seconds later my phone pinged with the name and address. I cut into the pie but asked the alien the next question before tasting it. “You still got that sticky stuff excreting from your limbs?”

“Geez, Patterson! I’m eating here,” the A.I. said. Not that it actually was.

I ignored it. “The ghoul fell, jumped or was pushed off the roof of a soundstage. I’d like to get on that roof to look things over. Thought you might want to join me.”

“Not afraid I’ll give you a shove off it?” the alien asked.

“What would motivate you to do a thing like that? I’ve been assured by many wealthy people that I am a joy to be around.”

“They got funny tastes on this marble,” the alien said. “But, I got nothin’ better to do other than dodge the local cops for questioning.”

“You have something of worth to tell them?”

“I have more of worth not to tell them. Don’t think I’d pass their DNA test if they came up with a reason to do one.”

I’d inhaled a second bite of pie, so I grunted agreement. I wouldn’t pass one either.

“We waiting until night?” he asked.

“Probably. Let me get hold of the witch, then I’ll give you a call. If we can do it while there’s still daylight, things will move along faster.”

Which is when a couple of cops came into the canteen looking for me.

Considering what my real job is, I knew the route the questions would take. I had been one of the first on the scene of the ghoul’s demise. As Patience and I are twins and come from a more advanced civilization, telepathy is a well-honed benefit we share. I knew what she’d told them. I used different words so I wouldn’t sound like a parrot but said the same things she had. While the alien and A.I. were grilled, I finished my pie and adulterated cola. Shook hands all around and modestly granted the uniformed cop an autograph. One must reward any reader star struck enough to request one. I did wonder if he’d asked Scissorneck for his. If he had, my estimation of his intelligence level was going to drop considerably.

But with the witness statement behind me, I was free to carry out my own investigation. Sadly, that was going to include asking Scissorneck a few questions.

He wasn’t on the set or in the requisitioned soundstage, but I heard my sister’s laugh issue from his trailer. I need to talk to the idiot, I told her through the twin link.

He is one, isn’t he? But he’d make a lovely bookend or paperweight, she said. See you shortly.

I was already at the door. Rapped on it casually. My sister opened it and waved me inside. “Col, you remember my brother Rip, don’t you?” Figured she was reminding him who I was and what my name was.

“Sure,” the actor said. “Come on in.” As I already was inside, it was a bit redundant.

He lounged on the only seating in the place, a long bench padded in something birthed in a chemistry lab. Sis curled up next to him. Leaned into him when his arm went around her shoulders. I tipped back against a tall but miniscule cabinet, hands in my trouser pockets.

“Mind if I ask you some questions about your stunt double? His demise has given me a new idea for a book.” Hardly! “Has he been your double on other sets in the past?”

“Dude,” he drawled. “This is my first action-adventure job. There’s no need for a stunt double in romcom. I do my own bedroom stunts.” He smiled broadly, the only one to think he’d made a joke.

“What was he like?” I asked.

Scissorneck’s expression told me he didn’t understand the question.

“What did the two of you talk about between takes?” Hopefully that would clarify things for him.

“Babes,” our star said. “What else would two good looking guys talk about?”

“Babes,” I repeated. “Fans of yours or something more?”

“More than what?”

I sighed. “Stalkers. Could be one mistook him for you.”

“Yeah, maybe. He could sound like me, move like me.”

Which meant the ghoul might not have been the target. While I’d applaud the idea of removing Scissorneck from the role of my hero, tossing him off a building seemed overkill for the outcome.

Unless the studio had a hefty insurance policy on the star in the event he was on the receiving end of a fatal accident.

“How’d you happen to get this role?” I asked.

He sighed. “Not the usual way. I was up against…” He named three far more competent actors. “…so I made a deal. Said I’d work for minimum. Heck, all it takes is this first movie to be a box office hit and my name turns golden. Franchises are where the money is these days.”

“Did your double know about your deal?”

Scissorneck grinned. “Hell, yes. I told him we’d both be set in this biz. Promised I’d insist in my contract that he be my stunt stand-in.”

I pushed off the cabinet. Keep a close eye on him, I told my sister. I think the killer got the wrong target.

She gave me a wink and returned to her role of snuggle bunny. I left to do what I should have done from the start.

I followed the money.

And called an old flame – the producer’s sister.

Part Three

Considering I’d really wanted my old roommate to be the guy behind the ghoul’s murder, even if the victim had been the wrong one, it turned out the producer lacked a motive. At least one involving money. His sister claimed he was financially secure enough to keep three ex-wives happy and still have something to entice another three in the future.

The witch was my next call. I doubted the cops would have heard about her. While humans might enjoy what she whipped up in her caldron…or on her stove top…most of her customers were going to be planet and dimension hoppers like the ghoul and other alien visitors. She told me the dead guy was a token carrying member of AA and never touched the sugar. When she offered me a deal on a couple grams, I said I was interested, then called a fellow IGPC for the official arrest. She was going to have to find another babysitter – a full time one.

Since the easy solutions hadn’t panned out, I was left with the trickier ones. I hate those kinds. While really satisfying when things come together on more imaginative crimes, getting there means I have to actually work. Life on this rock has made me lazy. Not that I’m complaining.

Just because the producer was unlikely to bump his star off – though the wrong guy had gone off the roof – it didn’t mean money as the motive was out of play. Who else might profit from the death of either the ghoul or Scissorneck? An ex or family member who either had a hefty insurance policy on whichever one was the target or would inherit upon their death?

Since Scissorneck was doing the movie for the chance at bigger box office bucks in the future, he either had enough tucked away to live on or was fine with being the kept man of a woman who could afford him. Maybe she didn’t want him as a conversationalist. The way he was moving in on my sister indicated he shopped regularly for a patroness.

I pulled out my phone and did a bit of illegal snooping into his financial situation. As Scissorneck wasn’t his real name – in any form – I called in a favor from a gossip columnist and learned that his mother called him Harold. His father had contributed a surname and hightailed it. Considering it was Smith, I could see why Scissorneck had gone shopping for a new moniker, although he’d gone a bit overboard on the creativity to my mind.

The guy was scraping by, though. In a town like LA, he’d run through the twenty-five grand in his bank account in less than a year. Currently he was getting room and board from a socialite nearly twenty years his senior. Word in the tabloids hinted that he was wearing out his welcome. He had to find a new sugar momma or be in dire straits.

I only had his word about the deal he’d made. Not only with the studio but with the dead ghoul. Called my script wrangling honey. “You know anybody I could talk to about Scissorneck’s contract deal? I’m perking on a new story idea and what goes on behind the scenes prior to the start of filming could fill in a lot of blanks.”

“Sure, Rip, but his deal wasn’t secret. He told his double, who told wardrobe, who…”

Suffice to say, only Scissorneck thought his miniscule paycheck on the film was a backstairs deal.

I was no wiser than I had been.

Money wasn’t involved unless the ghoul was the target. Data from IGPC on him didn’t indicate a need to blackmail anyone or be blackmailed by anyone. As Wizkowski, the name he’d given the studio, his bank account was modest. He hadn’t been involved with any old friends of criminal intent in five Earth years. Fact is, it appeared he’d turned his life around. Had gone straight.

Naw, something was too fishy for that to ring true.

Which meant I needed to look closer at Scissorneck, aka Harold Smith. If he was the intended victim, why would anyone lure him to the roof of a building? Why would he have gone? Well, he wouldn’t, would he? He was so full of himself and thought Wizkowski was there to be used. If someone wanted to meet with him on a roof, he’d send Wizkowski in his snazzy Mercer Sinclair disguise.

I tracked down the alien used ship dealer/bit actor. “You ready to look for evidence on that roof?” I asked.

“The cops have been up there already, Patterson,” he said…or warned.

“Earth cops. They’re a bit restricted on what they can find despite what the CSI shows allude to.”

“Allude to?” he parroted.

“I’m guessing real CSI folks envy the speed with which film cops get test results back,” I said. “Roof?”

“Yeah. Meet you there.” He didn’t sound enthusiastic about our destination.

I headed for the sound stage with the Tip A Ghoul feature.

The sky was darkening overhead. Clouds blanketed what little starlight struggled through the smog. The moon had its dark side engaged, on the cusp of waxing. Got a bit nostalgic for my home planet where there was always moonlight, sometimes from more than a single moon, too.

Thirty minutes went by with the alien a no show. Honestly, I couldn’t blame him. Scramble up on a roof on a dark night? Wasn’t looking forward to doing it myself. But it had to be done. Fortunately, because the police had looked the scene over, the studio had conveniently left a ladder truck handy. It was a much simpler system to use than tripping the lock, bypassing security, and finding my way through the building to the roof access hatch, so I took it.

Before beginning the climb, I sent a mental message to my twin. Heading up on the roof to look over the scene.

Don’t fall off, she ordered.

I started climbing.

Security lights gave sufficient light to see by once I reached the roof. Sound stages are big suckers. Three to four stories easily and this was one of the monsters. The height had guaranteed the ghoul’s features were ironed out upon landing. The roof itself was flat, not slanted. The parapet was a short wall. Easy to take a spill over. But only if someone chose to jump or someone pushed them.

Part of the retinal upgrade I’d gotten as an IGPC agent supplied night vision. Much more hands free than a beam on a helmet or a flashlight. I found scuff marks. The police would have, too. They wouldn’t be fooled by the PR department’s hastily written “nothing to do with us” leaked news of a suicide.

I’d hunkered down to study the marks when I heard the rattle of the ladder as someone scrambled up it. The expected alien had finally made it, I guessed.

Guessed wrong.

And realized what I’d overlooked. Whoever had pushed the ghoul would have been missing from the set when he fell. They would have needed time to return to the massed and milling production crew waiting for the next take. Patience and I had been at ground level and back among the crowd within three minutes of finding the stunt guy. Whoever was on the roof with him would not only need to make it back to ground level, they’d need to ensure that they weren’t seen.

The thing that came over the parapet to face me was a displacement of air, like the waver of heat against pavement.

“Nice disguise,” I said. “I knew something was off, but the form wasn’t it.”

“I’m an actor,” he reminded and morphed back to a visible mass. “I simply do a better job of acting when there isn’t a script involved.”

“A much better job,” I agreed. “Why get rid of the ghoul?”

Scissorneck shrugged. “He was planning to get rid of me. Decided he didn’t want to be my lookalike, he wanted to just be me.”

“And the real Harold Smith? What happened to him?”

“A sad accident,” the alien said. “Rather like you’ll have, Patterson.”

“My cursed curiosity will do for me then?”

He smiled. “We’ve more than sufficient tales to keep the Mercer Sinclair franchise filming for years. You’re superfluous to my needs. If you wouldn’t mind stepping up on the rim, I think we’ve chatted long enough.”

“I quite agree,” I said.

Which is when Patience blasted him from behind with her IGPC issued weapon.

“You cut that close, Sis.”

“Not that close. You’re still breathing, Rip.” She gazed down at the jellied remains of a transfixer from Xenitoxica. It’s 2.7983 thousand ekels from Earth, but there’s a wormhole station nearby to trim the flight time down.

“How’d you figure out he wasn’t an Earthling? Transfixers are tricky wizards,” I reminded. “He was a master morpher.”

“Yes,” Patience agreed, “but you know, Rip, no one could be as stupid as he was pretending to be. Not even an Earthling.”

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