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The Scourge of Trion

Chapter Text

The trouble with staking out a warehouse, Sarah Jane decided, was that it offered far too many hiding places, and far too few good ones. She threaded her way between a grand piano and a too-low wall of canvas bags, smelling coffee in the darkness, vanilla beans, black tea. Those would certainly be Carbry's goods, and Carbry himself might arrive any second. But further back were bales of fabric, stacked in flats almost to the ceiling—a tenant's wares? Carbry had been buying silk and Irish linen, but surely not in such quantities...

Iridescence flashed on the fabric, scrolling here and there, picking out moirés and writhing paisleys. Despex, then. Sarah Jane touched her scarf, dialed to matte black-on-black, and was reassured; her quarry had not been buying up anything as ubiquitous as the programmable fabric . She ducked into the first aisle between the towers of cloth.

And immediately flattened herself against a bale, instinct telling her to hold very, very still. "I'm not armed," she mouthed, slowly, clearly.

From down the aisle came the thwuck of a gun safety being carefully re-engaged. "Good thing I am, then."

"Mickey?" She craned her neck and there he was, taking her arm.

"Don't touch anything," he warned. "This way."

He led her down narrow aisles, walking sideways to avoid the baled cloth; she followed, likewise. "Is this Torchwood business, or are you freelancing?"

"Both. Thought you might show up, though," Mickey whispered, at one crossing. "The gang's all here now."

"What, UNIT too?" They emerged into an open space where a few pallets stood empty.

"I'll have you know, we were here first." And there was Martha Jones, crouching just in view of the service lifts, with two soldiers in UNIT berets. "Sergeant Patel—" the one in the night-vision goggles saluted— "Corporal Hodges; Sarah Jane Smith. Don't touch the fabric."

"Why, what is it?"

"Despex."

"I know that."

Martha turned and looked at her, properly this time, and ripped the scarf from Sarah's neck. "Specimen box." Corporal Hodges produced a hard clear plastic container, and Martha sealed in the scarf.

Sarah's eyes had acclimated to the dark, and she could see now how the others stood, drawing in on themselves like explorers in a sewer, or a carnivorous forest.

"If you don't know about the deaths—" began Martha.

"—or the power spikes—" added Mickey.

"Then what brought you here?"

"Legitimate journalism, believe it or not," said Sarah, "and I've heard about both, actually."

Martha raised an eyebrow. "Journalism?"

"Well, tracking aliens doesn't pay the bills," said Sarah. "Mattias Carbry— retired solicitor, owns this warehouse—turned me down for an interview last year. I wanted to get a look at his art collection. Ever since the seventies, he's been buying up minor artists from well-known schools— obscure Impressionists and such—and none of the pieces has ever turned up at auction. It would be an impressive collection if he'd kept it all. But ever since I contacted him, he's all but disappeared from the art world—publicly, at least. He's kept buying through agents. I looked into it and found out that art wasn't the only thing disappearing into this warehouse."

"Third-hand Bösendorfers," said Martha.

"And wines, chocolate, spices. Decent quality, but not high-priced. And all vanishing from the record; I can't find documentation of Carbry and his associates ever selling anything, except gems and gold. I came here expecting to expose a very well-hidden relabeling scam."

"Turning cheap champagne into Dom Perignon," said Mickey, "that sort of thing? He might be, at that."

"Yes, but that's hardly UNIT's affair, is it? Or Torchwood's." Mickey and Martha shared a look. " I know there's been a rash of killings in the neighborhood," Sarah ventured, "but I shouldn't have thought they were connected, to one another or to Carbry." Sarah could think of at least six murders in the last six months, and several more accidental deaths; but Carbry had owned the warehouse since 1978, and it had never before attracted more than its share of trouble.

"Two people strangled," Mickey said, "two more smothered, one exsanguinated, and that one girl with her neck cut to ribbons."

"Two of those, actually," said Martha. "Both with the cranial nerves dissected. All within a 400-meter radius of the north corner of this building. They were all carrying some kind of wireless electronic device."

"Good luck finding a corpse that isn't, these days— "

"And all of them wearing Despex."

Sarah glanced at her scarf in its specimen box and swallowed. "Good luck finding a corpse that isn't." The scarf was a particularly nice one, preset with forty patterns, largely the more expensive prints and ombres. But half of London seemed to own one like it, or a programmable t-shirt or jersey or dress. "Killer neckties," she mused.

"First the shop dummies, now the clothes," said Sergeant Patel. "I think something up there wants us naked."

Martha said nothing, rather pointedly; the sergeant adjusted his goggles and resumed staring at the lift doors.

Sarah cleared her throat. "What are you expecting to find?"

Martha checked her watch. "There's a regular pattern of energy buildup and discharge from this warehouse; a major spike every eighty-four to ninety days—"

"And a smaller one ten to fourteen days later; I've been monitoring."

"So then we're expecting the same thing," said Martha. "To find out what happens." She flashed a brief and wicked smile. 

.

They waited half an hour before Carbry showed. He entered from the office door, with two followers in coveralls. The three men wound along the rows of spices and teakwood and crated canvases by torchlight, making a brief but thorough inspection, and then called the lift.

It rose with a pneumatic hiss, and opened on a dim interior with a pop of equalizing pressure. Its walls were very thick, and studded with dials.

The piano went in first; the two workers maneuvered it precisely against the doors, and it slid into the lift with only inches of clearance all round. Next came bags of coffee— the aroma of the beans rose as they were thrown and crushed into the corners of the lift cage— and then canvases, stacked neatly atop the piano lid. When the lift was jammed to the gills, Carbry shut the doors with another hiss of air and pressed the call button, but the lift did not rise or descend, only lit up in a sudden actinic flash. The doors opened again on a larger interior, brightly lit and hung with gray padding.

"That was a transmat pod," mouthed Sarah. Martha made a short, negative headshake— not disagreement, but a call for silence.

After a few minutes— about the time it would take to unload the pod, Sarah guessed— Carbry shut the lift doors and called it back, and the workmen loaded it again. Three more trips saw everything off but one large canvas and a Persian carpet; they leaned these against the pod walls and waited, perching on cargo pallets and conversing—almost out of earshot, but not, Sarah was certain, in any language she had ever heard.

The workmen waited. Carbry tapped his fingers impatiently against the lift doors; someone or something was late.

Minutes passed, and then the hum of a car engine— and an expensive one, or Sarah missed her guess— rose outside the street doors, purred into near-silence, and rose again and died away. One door opened on well-oiled hinges and shut with a thud, and one set of footsteps approached, briskly, high heels ringing against the cement floor. Sarah Jane froze as they passed the outlet of the aisle, but the footsteps never slowed, and she felt no gaze; and as the woman came into view, walking through the empty space where Carbry's goods had been, she looked neither left nor right.

She was slender, in narrow trousers and a fitted coat, and wore a gauze scarf over her hair and wide sunglasses, even indoors, even at night. In the dimness Sarah Jane could see nothing else, but the look— Katharine Hepburn from the neck down, Jackie O from the neck up— was both all the paparazzi had ever captured, and the invariant trademark, of Despina Norman, the reclusive sole owner of Despex Ltd.

Beside her, Martha stiffened.

Well, whether it was Norman or an imposter, there was certainly no legitimate business reason for her to meet with the landlord of her warehouse at two in the morning under cover of darkness. With her alien landlord. Who seemed to be running an export business in Terran luxury goods.

The woman's conversation with Carbry was brief and largely inaudible, until something she said angered him. Then Sarah heard "jeopardize my position," and "recognize the value of circumspection" and "overweening ambitions," all in English.

Norman, or whoever the woman was, leaned close to Carbry and peered over the tops of her sunglasses, speaking inaudibly. Sergeant Patel started, and Sarah wondered what he had seen through his goggles, but the woman had turned away, face hidden in her scarf. She stepped into the transmat pod and the doors closed behind her.

.

They waited another tense and silent half hour to let Carbry and his men get well away before emerging from the bales of Despex. Sarah Jane and Mickey followed the UNIT crew to their van. She and Mickey had left their vehicles in the other direction entirely— on the same street, as it happened, and Corporal Hodges threaded a maze of narrow alleys and took them there.

"So," ventured Sarah. "Harmless import-export business?" She didn't quite believe it herself, but she felt strongly that the idea should be on the table.

"Could be," said Mickey. "But if the power surges are nothing to do with the killings—"

Martha shook her head. "We don't know that yet."

"—and we don't know what killed all those people yet, either," Mickey said. "Still need to keep an eye on this place, even if Despina Norman's just a harmless alien."

Martha cocked her head. "She looked pretty human to me; more than Carbry. Sergeant Patel, did you get a good look at her?"

Patel looked up from the goggle rig in his lap. "It's the sodding frame-by-frame," he said. "I got a glimpse, that's all, and I swear there was something familiar about her, but the playback's shot."

"We'll get the video," said Martha, in what Sarah was coming to think of as her soldier voice. And, with less certainty, "I'm sure Carbry must be breaking some civil laws— exporting some of that stuff out of the UK must take permits I really doubt he has— but that's hardly a call to go in guns blazing. And there could be a Despex connection to those deaths, without it being planned."

"Just a consumer protection issue? That's possible," said Sarah Jane.  She frowned. "You know, I've been turning over Despex and strange deaths in my head, and I'm sure I recall reading about an industrial accident recently."

"Could you find it again?" Martha asked. "I think tomorrow, Torchwood here and I will be paying some calls."

"You take Carbry," said Mickey, knocking the ammunition out of his gun. "I'll take Despex."

"You do realize, we will need to check out the design house," said Martha, "and not just the textile mills."

"Yeah." Mickey wiped down the unused weapon with a pristine white handkerchief and holstered it again. "And the more detailed a report I bring back on their fall menswear line, the longer I stay off Ianto's shit list."

"Fair enough," said Martha. "I understand red is his color."