“From birth we get taught the simplest of things. Fire is hot. Water is wet. And you can never leave the City. Why?” Haris el-Mofty splayed out his hands to open the question to the only other person at the table. He was laid back in his chair; short black hair, tailored suit with a double-breasted jacket, lightly tanned skin, lean build; comfortable and comfortable with himself. A man of the city.
“The simplest things are usually the most important,” replied Lilo Juhasz. She was leaning on the edge of the table, a glass of wine in one hand, a detached expression on her face sitting in the other. Her frizzy red hair jarred with the sharper details of her clothes; a pinstripe checked shirt, unbuttoned waistcoat and loose tie hung off her gaunt frame; smart, but not quite living up to the occasion. They were at a dinner in the restaurant of the Maharajah Hotel; the lights were dimmed for the evening and the palatial room was awash with the murmur of hundreds of smartly dressed guests giving their salutations.
“Not that,” Haris batted off the response, “You can never leave the City. Why?”
She furrowed her eyebrows, “Because of the Dome. Nothing comes in, nothing goes out. It’s too dangerous outside.”
“How do you know? Have you been outside?”
“Of course I haven’t,” came her pragmatic response, “Everyone knows.”
“How does everyone know? Who were the first people to tell you?”
“Right,” he leaned forward, smiling, “and who told them?”
She shook her head, “Where are you going with this? Just tell me.”
Satisfied, Haris grinned broadly, “We don’t have any concrete evidence that the outside is dangerous at all. But on the word of our distant ancestors we still choose to keep hiding under this impermeable Dome. Just in case. It’s like Pascal’s wager!” He looked over to see Lilo staring at the ceiling. “Am I boring you?”
She glanced back, “No.”
After a short pause, he laughed warmly and leaned back in his chair again, all immediately forgiven, “So much of what we know relies on our trust of others. Without trust this whole edifice would come tumbling down.” He spoke with all the modesty of a street preacher.
“Not distressing the guests, are we?”
They both turned to see a middle aged woman walk up to the table. She wore a smart but practical blue dress with a bun of dark blonde hair and makeup perfectly placed to cover the toll of decades of politicking. Most strikingly, her arms were dotted with leopard spots, and she had a tail to match.
“Marie Durand!” Haris stood up and shook her hand, “Spots as well. I never realised!”
A flash of confusion went across her face but quickly faded back to her cheerful, bubbly expression, “All to appeal to the pro-mod voters! Haris el-Mufty? I don’t remember you buying a ticket.”
Haris placed his hand on his chest, “My reputation precedes me! I was actually gifted a ticket by someone else. So was Lilo here.”
Marie walked around the table and shook Lilo’s hand, “Marie Durand. Nice to meet you.” Lilo nodded silently.
Haris settled back down in his chair, “So, how’s the campaign going?”
“Brilliantly. With any luck we’ll be able to hold onto this ward come the next election.”
“Very good. I won’t hold you, I’m sure you have plenty of donors to thank.”
“Actually, the speeches come at the end. This is my table.”
“The host’s table, eh? I feel very privileged,” said Haris playfully, “Here, let me…” He looked around and flagged over a waitress.
“Room for one more?” The three of them turned to see a man in a plain old suit standing by the table. He hadn’t been there before. His frown – giving a look of determination more than sadness – revealed the lines and wrinkles of a man in his fifties. He had a sort of ‘old fashioned’ look about him. The man gazed straight at them one by one, waiting for a response.
“Oh, you sneaked up on us!” chimed Marie, breaking the disconcerting silence, “Of course there’s room; I suppose this is your table.”
The waitress came over and placed another chair at the table, on which the man sat. Marie looked around and pulled up a chair for herself.
“What may we call you, then?” asked Haris, now with an edge of caution.
“I am Inspector Boynton, and I’m afraid I’m here on business.”
“Oh, but you must eat with us,” Marie interjected, “I insist!”
By then the waitress had returned, “Would anyone like the vegetarian option tonight?” Everyone around the table made indicative noises and gestures and the waitress tallied up, “So, that’s two regular and one vegetarian.”
“Three regular and a vegetarian,” Marie corrected.
“Of course. Would anyone like any more drinks before the starter?”
“No thanks,” said Lilo.
“The champagne is lovely, but white wine would be even better,” chimed Haris.
“The same for me,” agreed Marie.
“I’m on duty, thank you,” said the Inspector flatly.
When the waitress left, Haris raised an eyebrow at the Inspector, “You seem very prudent, Mister Boynton. You should relax, let your hair down a little! No offence.”
The Inspector stared at him, “I’m afraid this is no time to relax. I have urgent matters to attend to.”
“That sounds very serious, I hope it isn’t anything to do with us,” said Marie.
“I’m afraid it is. I realise it’s in bad taste to talk of such things at an event such as this, but the matter can be delayed no further.” Upon hearing no reply from the others, he gazed at them one by one, “Earlier this evening, a woman by the name of Sara Rossi was found dead on the outskirts of the Central Waste Processing District.”