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“The street name for it is Paradise. One hit takes you on a brief vacation from reality. Prolonged use guarantees a one‑way trip to the morgue.”

On screen, the camera displayed a grimy three‑story brownstone set against a hazy gray sky. Garbage and people lined the sidewalk, with a handful of portly, weary policemen vying in vain to keep the crowds back. The front door of the building banged against the wall as two paramedics struggled to pull a rusty gurney through the entrance. Atop it was a long black bag, securely sealed.

The voice resumed its monologue. “Her name was Linda McDonald. She was twenty‑three years old. Until three months ago, she was an employee at Sharpe Legal Services, engaged to be married in four months. Now she is the latest casualty in an epidemic that has claimed the lives of both Fringe and city dwellers. She leaves behind a grieving mother and father, a heartbroken fiancé, two cats and a score of unanswered questions.

“This is Edison Carter, live and direct on Network 23, asking the questions that others are afraid to ask. And what I want to know is: where does this new, highly addictive synthetic drug come from? And why are the authorities unwilling or unable to stem the tide of Paradise‑related deaths?”

The tense excitement that rippled through the dark, cluttered control room of Network 23 could power a thousand television sets. Murray ran a hand over his balding head, then leaned over the shoulder of his top controller. “Edison’s hot tonight.”

“He’s taking this personally,” the slim, dark‑eyed beauty named Theora Jones replied, her fingers tapping a calm, steady rhythm on her keyboard. Her large, doe‑like eyes never left her main monitor as she worked. “He’s lost three good sources from these overdoses in the past two weeks.”

“Good. He’s best when he’s pissed off.” Murray cut off any further reflection of Carter’s abilities as his star reporter continued with his report.

The camera was following the paramedic parade to the ambulance. “The ranking investigative official in the ‘Paradise’ case is Michael Hatcher, who was recently cleared of charges in the Beck bribery scandal. The Edison Carter Show now takes you live for an exclusive interview.” He cut his audio and whispered, softly, “Where is he, Control?”

“Approximately twenty feet northeast,” Theora answered immediately. “I don’t anticipate any problems—the police have their hands full keeping the crowd back. But use caution, Edison.”

“Yeah,” Murray chimed in. “Remember what Hatcher threatened to do to you the next time you stuck a camera in his face?”

“Yes, mother.” Carter marched forward in the suggested direction, splashing hurriedly through oily puddles of rainwater. His guts were churning with the adrenaline high he got at times like this: the thrill of the hunt, of pursuing the big story‑and getting there first. There was nothing quite like it, nothing at all.

But when he spotted the balding, portly detective inside the ambulance, Carter discovered to his shock that the man wasn’t alone. A petite brunette with a determined chin arched high in the air was standing there, with a Network 66 minicam firmly set on her shoulder.

“...But why haven’t you made any progress in the investigation, Detective Hatcher?” she was demanding. “The toxicology reports have enabled you to gather some leads, I should think. And incidentally, why haven’t those reports been released to the press? What’s in them that requires covering up?”

“Miss Smith,” Hatcher was saying with a flat smile, holding his hands up for peace, “I assure you, we’re doing all we can to find the people responsible for this...”

“Fifteen people in this city, and thirty more from the Fringes, are dead as a result of Paradise overdoses, Mr. Hatcher,” the young woman reminded him sharply. “The police seem unable to catch the distributors, the manufacturers, or even the suppliers. All they seem competent to do, in my view, is clean up the aftermath and hide the evidence. I can’t help but wonder what your efforts would be if were it a fellow officer, or perhaps one of your two daughters, that was being taken to the morgue just now.” Before the enraged detective could reply, the reporter turned away and stared into her camera. “This is Sarah Jane Smith for Network 66, bringing you the news anytime, anywhere, as it comes.”

Carter stood frozen, stunned beyond belief. He was the best in the business! Everyone knew that, from the chairman of Network 23 on down. When it came to getting the facts behind a story, no one did it better and faster than Edison Carter. Yet this ‘Sarah Jane Smith’ had beaten him to the interview with Hatcher, asking the hard questions and putting the detective in such a foul mood that there was no way in hell he’d talk to anyone from the press now—especially Carter. No one was that great a masochist.

“Edison?” Theora called from his subcutaneous earplug. ‘Edison, are you all right? What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” he managed to get out, his eyes studying Sarah Jane Smith’s every move as she bounded over to a waiting Net­work 66 helicopter. “Control, call Martinez and tell him to pick me up. I’m coming in.”

* * * * *

Carter’s entrance to the control room was a symphony of sound and violence; smashing the main door open with a quick punch, he stormed toward Murray with murder in his eye. “Oh Murray,” he called in a sarcastic, sing‑song voice, “is there something you’ve been meaning to TELL ME????”

“Glad to see he took it so well,” the producer muttered to Theora.

 “He’s all yours,” the controller smiled placidly.

 “Thanks loads.” Murray stood up and sighed, holding up his hands to fend off Carter’s aggressive stance. “I take it you just met Sarah Jane Smith, the new kid on the block.”

“You knew about her?” Carter asked sharply. “And you didn’t tell me about her? Dammit, Murray, if I’d known...”

“She probably would have still beaten you to it.” The older man shook his head. “Smith’s been on Network 66 about two weeks now, and she’s getting quite a reputation. Almost as big as yours.”

“BBBBBUT JUST AL‑ALMOST.” The bizarre creation that called himself Max Headroom popped onto Theora’s screen with a blaze of flash and color. “AND RE­MEMBER ... SHE DOESN’T HAVE ME ... ME!”

“Thanks, Max,” Carter said tiredly. “I’ll remember to count my blessings.” He turned back to Murray. “So just who the hell is this Sarah Jane Smith? Where did she come from?”

“No one knows.” Murray took a sip of coffee from his chipped mug. “Like I said, she just came on the scene and started making waves.”

Carter’s eyes narrowed. “Personal history? Resume?”

 “Network 66 is keeping everything about her under tight wraps.”

 The reporter’s face gleamed with curiosity as he slowly turned in his chair toward Theora. “Still able to access the inaccessible?”

“I could try,” she smiled. “With Bryce’s help, we could run a systematic check on databases where she’d be listed.”

 “Get to work on it,” Carter nodded. “Meanwhile, I’m going to check a few leads out on this Paradise thing.”

 “YES!” Max screamed from the terminal. “EDISON CARTER ON NETWORK 23. HE MMMMAY NOT BE AS CUTE ... CUTE AS THE CCCCOMPETITION, BUT HE GETS THE LEADS OUT! OUT!” With another flash of light, the computer entity vanished from the screen. Theora smiled and returned her attention to the job at hand.

 “Why the interest in Smith?” Murray asked with a knowing smile. “I confess she is kinda cute, but I never thought of her as your type, Edison?”

“She isn’t, Mur.” Carter stood up and stretched. “But she’s the competition. And like they say, ‘know thy enemies.’”

* * * * *

As night fell, the bonfires of the Fringes rose into life. Carter carefully made his way through the ever‑shifting maze of people, and refuse, wondering how anyone could ever survive such a dreary, hopeless existence as this. It was a place where nothing was safe or beyond a price; even the dead could be sold to the local Bodybanks. It was a relief to escape such morbid thoughts when the battered yellow van that was home to Big Time Television came into sight.

“So, what’s new, Reg?” Edison scratched behind Fang’s ears, getting a sloppy kiss from the mangy watchdog as a reward. Blank Reg grinned as he leaned his lanky bony frame against the doorway of the bus and shook his hand.

“Two more deaths discovered yesterday. Paradise victims—blue tint in the extremities tags ‘em every time. Fringers, in case you’re wondering‑not do anyone in the city cares overmuch. No one cares about Fringers getting Paradised.”

“I care.” Carter sat down on the bus steps and accepted a bottle of beer from Reg. “Who’s dealing the stuff? Surely someone around here knows.”

“As far as I can tell, it’s someone from the city. Fringers would kill anyone from here who dealt the stuff. They aren’t too crazy about the users, either‑bloody addicts go wild when withdrawal hits.” Reg took a long drink from his own bottle and stared thoughtfully into the night. “No. Whoever it is behind all this, they’re good, Edison, they’re very good. And the users are so desperate for a steady supply of the stuff, they’ll keep quiet ... or kill anyone who starts asking nosy questions.” Reg shook his head sadly and sighed. “It’s poison, pure and simple. And it’s going to be the death of us all, one way or the other.”

“Hmmm.” Edison studied the glass in his hand intently. “By the way—know anyone from the Fringes who got back into the city?”

A low chuckle rumbled from Reg’s throat “Dream on, Edison.”

“I’m serious, Reg. It’s not impossible. What if someone were able to get a job with Network 66 as a reporter? Calling herself something like, oh, ‘Sarah Jane Smith’?”

“Ahhhh, got you worried, does she?” Reg laughed long and uproariously, enjoying the acute discomfort on Carter’s face. “That gal’s got talent and then some, Edison. But she’s not as good as you. She’s been scouring the Fringes for me, so I hear, but she hasn’t made it here yet. The Blanks don’t trust her.”

‘Thank heaven for small favors,” Carter said sardonically, then looked up at his old friend. “So, what will you do when she does come? And you didn’t answer the question, either.”

“As far as I know, she isn’t a Blank. If she were, the place would be tuning her in every night‑not that they don’t now. And if she comes...” Reg shrugged. “I always was a sucker for a pretty face.”

“What if Dom hears you?” Edison grinned, nodding inside the bus where Reg’s mate was no doubt working.

“Ahh, she’ll send the girl running off—sic Fang on her and have the bloody beast slobber her to death.” He scratched the toothless dog’s head affectionately. “Well, I’d best be getting back to business. We’re in the middle of a Who marathon.”

“You still have tapes of The Who?” Edison asked, rising to his feet.

“Naw, this is different. It’s an old BBC programme about this crazy bloke who goes through time and space in a blue call‑box. Got all thirty‑five seasons. You oughta see it sometime, Edison, it’s classic stuff...”

* * * * *

Carter checked in with Theora (“Nothing yet, though Max has joined in the search‑wants to start a Sarah Jane Smith fan club!”), then wandered aimlessly about the Fringe. All around him, the impoverished, destitute exiles of the city went about their never‑ending quest for survival. A few men and women made lewd offers to him, a few others begged for money or clothing. He ignored them all but kept a wary eye out for thieves of all sizes, sexes, and ages. This was a dangerous place; a single error in judgment could cost you your life.

He was about to turn back and meet Martinez at the rendezvous point when a cry of equal parts pain, surprise, and outrage reached his ears. Whirling around, he spotted two figures struggling in the depths of a shadowy alley. He was already inside the cul‑de‑sac before he could question the wisdom of his action.

The attacker was male, the victim female; she was clutching something of vital importance to her, something that looked vaguely familiar to Edison even as his lifted his minicam and smacked the mugger with it. The man stumbled back jerkily, then to Edison’s surprise lunged forward and grabbed the heavy object. Carter felt a twinge of pain as his opponent tugged at it with surprising strength.

The woman grunted and heaved her own possession through the air in a graceful arc, smacking the thief in the head with a satisfying thump. This time he fell to the ground and stayed there. Edison gasped for breath and nodded at his partner in peril. “Thanks.”

‘Thanks yourself,” a familiar voice said. As she stepped forward, Carter realized that none other than the mysterious Sarah Jane Smith was speaking to him. “Bloody idiot. I though he wanted to rape me, but all he wanted was this.” She held up her slightly dented minicam.

“Question of priorities,” he replied. “They bring a high price on the black market, and if I’m right, he needed every cent he could scrape together.” Bending over, Carter rolled the unconscious mugger over and held up a limp hand; the extremities had a bluish tint to them. “Paradise addict.” He rose to his feet and smiled. “I’m Edison Carter, Miss Smith. A pleasure to finally meet you.”

Her face briefly flickered towards surprise, then quickly composed itself again. “Pleased, Mr. Carter.” She shook his proffered hand politely. “And what brings you to the Fringes tonight?”

“I might ask you the same thing.”

 “But I asked you first.”

 “Probably the same thing that brought you here. Paradise.”

She tilted her head slightly, appraising him carefully. Carter had to admit she was rather attractive; her neatly cut dark hair nicely framed her bright greenish‑brown eyes and cute pug nose. “Oh? Are you investigating or using?”

“Very funny.” He slung his minicam over his shoulder. “What’s a nice girl like you doing working for a scumbag like Grossberg?

“Mr. Grossberg has been very kind to me,” she replied curtly. “If you’ll excuse me, Mr. Carter, I really must be going.”

“Walk you back to the border,” he offered.

“I’m not going that way,” she said with a smile, moving in a direction that would take her deeper into the Fringes.

“Mind if I tag along, then?” Carter asked, maneuvering alongside her. “It’s a bit dangerous for a lady to be out here alone.”

“WHAT? Of all the...” She turned to face him, eyes flashing with bright anger. “And I thought Harry was ... have you ever faced a Dalek or Sontaran before, Mr. Carter?”

“What? A what?”

“Never mind.” She quickly regained marginal control of herself and resumed her walk. “I suppose that despite my wishes, you’ll accompany me anyway.” Carter nodded and tried to hide a smirk. “In that case, I accept.” Her pace increased; Carter shook his head and hurried to join her.

For a time they said nothing, merely moved slowly through the trash‑strewn paths and studied the tattered people as they shuffled aimlessly from nowhere to nowhere. “Awful,” Sarah breathed quietly. “So terrible, that they have to live like this.”

“You’re right,” Carter nodded.

She glanced over at him. “So why haven’t you done anything about it, Mr. Carter?”

“Huh?” His eyes widened as he tamed to face her. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“Have you done any stories on the putrid conditions of the Fringes? Have you tried to make things better for these people?”

“Give me a break,” he replied with a snort of derision. “It would take more than one man to change all this.”

“I see.” She nodded to herself and looked around. “Or perhaps such a story just isn’t dangerous or hot enough for you. It wouldn’t get you the ratings and adulation, would it?

“I’ve done plenty for these people!” Edison exploded. “I’ve exposed dozens of abuses, risked my neck time and again for them...”

“And gotten yourself handsomely rewarded for it, too!” Sarah declared angrily. “When you examined the man who attacked me, the fact that he was a Paradise addict didn’t bother you in the least, except that it was someone who got in your way? Didn’t you feel any pity for someone who was so strung out that they had to resort to snatch‑and‑grab tactics to survive? Doesn’t your conscience bother you in the least, Edison Carter? Or is the story more important than the lives behind it?”

“I ... I...” Carter floundered helplessly, unable to frame a reply to this stinging rebuke.

“I suggest you think about it, Mr. Carter.” She snapped around so that her back was to him. “Now, if you don’t mind, I have to continue trying to find Big Time TV and hope that one Blank Reg will find it in his heart to answer several questions that I have. Good night, Mr. Carter.”

For a time, Carter said nothing, merely stared at her back as she strode deeper into the night. Then, he called out, “Hey! Smith!”

“Yes?” She didn’t bother to turn around, but did pause in her tracks.

Carter hesitated briefly, then smiled. “Ask around for a guy named Rik. Tell him I said it’s okay to take to you Big Time. Tell him ... Fang sent you.”

“Fang.” She turned around, a curious smile on her face. “And what, pray tell, drives you to do me a favor that I may not even need, Mr. Carter?”

“Dunno.” Carter shrugged and grinned. “Maybe I’m just a sucker for a pretty face.”

* * * * *

“NOTHING?”

“Not a thing,” Theora assured Edison. “We’ve checked everywhere‑Bryce and Max even broke into Security Systems. Sarah Jane Smith has existed for the grand total of one month.”

“And those records are definitely artificial,” Bryce added. “Network 66 didn’t even try to make them look authentic.”

“All right, she’s got a past life that she wanted to get away from, so Grossberg created this new identity for her,” Edison retorted. “But you can’t escape your past completely—in this day and age somebody’s always got something on you! There has to be something!

“I accessed Grossberg’s personal files,” Bryce said casually. All heads in the room (including Max’s who had just appeared on Theora’s secondary screen) turned his way. The teenage computer wizard leaned back and smiled, clearly savoring his moment of glory. “Apparently she turned up on the set of Suburban Terrorists, wandering around disoriented. Security nailed her, Grossberg had a private conference with her, and suddenly she’s a full‑fledged entity on the air.”

“AND OH! OH! OH! IS SHE BBBBEAUTIFUL!” Max gushed. “SSSSSSARAH JANE SMITH, WILL ... WILL YOU BE MINE?”

“Max seems quite taken with her,” Theora said with a smile.

 “What about you?” Murray asked Edison.

 “I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all.” Carter paced angrily about the room. “There’s something about her...”

 “The fact that she’s beautiful...” Theora offered.

 “...TALENTED...” Max interjected.

 “...And stealing your thunder. To say nothing of your ratings,” Murray finished.

 Edison froze. “My‑my ratings?” he asked softly, face pale with horror.

 The older man nodded. “You’re down two percent this week. She’s up five.”

 “But the Paradise story...”

“You’re both working on that one,” Murray reminded him.

“That reminds me,” Theora tactfully jumped in. “I managed to get a copy of the police toxicology report on Linda McDonald.” Her fingers attacked the battered keyboard. “The interesting feature of Paradise’s chemical composition is that several critical ingredients are manufactured by only one company—Dumoneli Chemical Industries. And,” she added with a knowing smile, “I’ve also discovered that four Dumoneli warehouses were broken into over the past few weeks. Several dozen drums were taken each time, though the reports aren’t specific.” She looked up at Carter with thoughtful eyes. “In each case, the police weren’t notified until at least fifteen to thirty minutes after the break‑in.”

 “Alarm delay system,” Bryce said with a shrug. “Child’s play.”

“To some of us, perhaps,” Murray scowled, then rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Dumoneli must have paid off someone in the police department to keep this quiet. If this got out, the repercussions for the pharmaceutical economy could be pretty severe.”

“I can arrange a tap on their security systems,” Theora continued. “The robberies are approximately two weeks apart, which would place the next one within the next four days. When it occurs, we’ll know—and you can catch them in the act.”

‘With a full police backup,” Murray added hurriedly. When Edison turned and glared at him, the producer shrugged his shoulders. “I know you don’t see eye to eye with ‘em, Edison, but I can’t afford to have you hurt or killed.”

“Why Murray,” Carter drawled, “I didn’t know you cared.”

“AHHHHHI” Max shouted, sporting slouch hat, trench coat, and dark glasses. “UNDERCOVER RE‑RE‑REPORTER! CCCCCCLOAK AND DAGGGGER!” The glasses slid down his nose, and he leaned forward conspiratorially. “QUESTION ... QUESTION?”

“What is it, Max?” Carter said.

“WHAT’S SHE LIKE?”

“Who, Max?” Though he already knew the answer. Terrible thing, when you couldn’t count on your own computer counterpart for loyalty...

“SSSSSARAH JANE SSSMITHI SMITH! THE ROVING REPORTER‑ER FOR NETWORK SIX‑SIXTY‑SIX! WHAT WAS SHE WEARING? WHAT’S HER FAVORITE PERFUME? IS SHE SEE‑SEEING ANYONE? IN‑ININQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW! KNOW! KNOW!”

“Read the trades, Max. They’ve got all that in there, I’m sure.”

“BUT YOU SPOKE TO HER! HER VOICE ... IS IT AS SWWWWEETT AS IT IS ON THE AIR?”

Edison turned away from Max and shook his head. “Call Martinez and tell him to meet me on the roof. I’m heading over to Dumoneli and see what I can turn up.”

“Will do.” Theora graced him with a warm smile before turning to her terminals. “Be careful.”

As Carter waked away, he could hear Max singing, “SARAH ... SARAH ... NO TIME ... TIME IS A GOOD TIME FOR GOOD‑BYE...”

* * * * *

Richard Dumoneli, latest in a long line of Dumonelis to run the family business, was a man who enjoyed his privacy. He possessed one of the most intricate, impenetrable security systems in the world. No one got to Dumoneli without an appointment‑made six months in advance.

Edison Carter knew all this. So he didn’t even attempt to gain access—authorized or otherwise—to Richard Dumoneli. The story wasn’t there, anyway. Instead, he had the finest controller in the business carefully guide him through the Dumoneli Chemicals headquarter until he reached a site where he would be guaranteed an exclusive interview with Paul Melaccio, the company’s Director of Security.

On Theora’s cue, Edison emerged from a bathroom stall in the executive men’s room and activated his camera as he headed over to the urinal where his quarry stood. “Paul Melaccio, I’m Edison Carter of Network 23, and you’re on the air. I have a few questions...”

Melaccio was a large, burly man whose wardrobe appeared for too inadequate to properly cover his body. His eyes darkened like an approaching squall, and his face turned bloody crimson for a moment; then, just as abruptly, his features relaxed and he bellowed with laughter. “God damn, Carter, can’t you give a man some privacy, or at least wait until he’s finished before springing on him?”

“Wanted to be sure your hand weren’t free,” Carter grinned.

“All right, all right. Let me finish here—and get that damned camera pointed in another direction so I can—and we’ll go into my office for your interview.” The big man was still chuckling ruefully as he and the reporter strolled into the Security Department’s reception area where a petite brunette with a camcorder sat waiting with waning patience. At the sight of Melaccio, she leaped to her feet and burned forward—then stopped dead as she recognized Carter.

“You bastard!” she exclaimed angrily. “How did you ... never mind.” She hefted the camcorder into position. “Mr. Melaccio, my viewers would like to know...”

“Sorry, honey,” Melaccio waved her off, conveniently placing one beefy hand over her camera lens. “Only one interview today, and that’s for Edison Carter.” Before she quite knew what was happening, two neatly dressed goons were on either side of her and politely hauling the raging reporter towards the elevator. Melaccio gestured for Carter to enter his office and closed the door behind them.

“Quite a pistol, that one,” the security chief snickered. “Too bad she doesn’t have your connections, controller ... and sheer nerve.”

“Thanks.” Carter took a deep breath and reactivated his camera. “Mr. Melaccio, we have documentation of several break‑ins at Dumoneli Chemicals warehouses over the past few months. Many items were duly reported as missing, but there are significant discrepancies between your weekly inventory report that indicate much more was taken than your company cares to reveal.”

“Not necessarily, Mr. Carter,” Melaccio replied, leaning back casually. “If you’d studied those reports more carefully, you’d see that those discrepancies are covered under ‘damaged goods’...”

“But your disposal figures don’t account for those ‘damaged goods,”’ Carter continued smoothly. “What I find interesting is that, when matched to the police toxicology reports for several Paradise deaths, most of those missing chemicals are key ingredients for the making of the drug. I’d like your comments on that.”

Melaccio’s face fell momentarily, then shifted to a resigned expression. “All right, Carter, I’ll admit that we did cover that up. But you surely understand why we were reluctant to make those disclosures. The repercussions would be terribly severe in the industry...”

“While I admit that the cover-up does concern me, it pales in comparison to a second discovery,” Carter interrupted curtly. “Why has your security system been so lax? Why are your alarm systems not reporting the break‑ins until fifteen to thirty minutes after the fact? Where are your security personnel?”

Melaccio leaned forward. “We would prefer to keep this a Dumoneli matter, Mr. Carter. I would rather find these felons myself and solve the dilemma, rather than involve the authorities. We have upgraded our security systems to prevent any jamming processes, and we have tripled security teams at all our warehouse sites.”

“But shouldn’t the police be more involved in this? Why reject additional help? Why...”

“Mr. Carter, I’m a busy man, as you can understand, and I’m afraid that this interview is at an end.” Carter felt himself being lifted to his feet by the same two goons who’d moved Sarah earlier. “Thank you for your concern,” Melaccio continued smoothly as the reporter was hauled out, “and rest assured I will do everything in my power to stop this terrible situation as soon as possible.”

The security guards were polite enough to permit Carter to walk out under his own power, but they remained on either side of him until he’d completely left the building. Glancing up into the gray skies, he spotted Martinez circling for a place to land and started to head in that direction.

Sarah Jane Smith abruptly blocked his path. For a long time she simply stood there and stared at him, as if appraising him for the first time. Then she smiled slightly. “They were right. You’re very good. My compliments.”

“So there’s hope for me after all?”

 She nodded. “Perhaps.”

 Before he could stop himself Carter suddenly asked, “Want to have dinner with me?”

 Her eyes narrowed slightly, but she was definitely intrigued by the notion. “Strictly professional,” he added hastily. “Compare notes, maybe? See if one of us can help the other with getting a handle on this thing?”

 A slow smile drifted across her lips. “All right, Mr. Carter. You’re on.”

 * * * * *

The diner was cramped and had seen far better days; where the wallpaper hadn’t yet fallen off it was peeling away, and the booth seat was patched together with duct tape. But the food and service were nothing short of perfection. “My compliments, Mr. Carter,” Smith acknowledged over her dinner. “I’ll have to start following you and find out where the best places to eat are.”

 “I came across it six months back. I was doing a story around here and got hungry.” He sipped at his coffee and stated thoughtfully at her as she tore into her potato.

 In mid‑attack, she glanced up and cocked her head, then smiled. “Ah. This isn’t really about the story, is it?”

 “Not really,” Carter admitted.

 “Trying to seduce me, then?” she teased. “From what I un­derstand, you’ve already got a significant someone.”

 Carter winced and hoped that Theora and Murray weren’t lis­tening in via override. He’d turned his camera off (as had Smith) by mutual agreement, but Theora tended to be overprotective and would surreptitiously switch him back on. “It’s not that at all,” he said sheepishly. ‘To be honest...I’m curious about you.”

 “So I’ve gathered,” she commented easily, scooping up a chunk of roast beef with her fork. “Your people are good, but not nearly as good as they believe themselves to be.”

“Touché.” Edison toyed with his food, his eyes never leaving her. “Seriously. Why is there’s nothing on you? Where did you come from? How?”

She smiled sanguinely and bit into a roll. “What Edison Carter wants to know, hmmm?” Her face grew somber, slightly distant. “I’ve been a reporter for a long time, Mr. Carter. And one day, I found the story of my life—one that I’ve never written. And from that day on, my life was forever altered.”

She glanced over at him, as if expecting a pointed retort, but upon getting nothing but his undivided attention, she nodded and continued. “I met a strange man…a doctor of sorts. I traveled with him for a time, saw a lot of things. Places you could only dream of. Dangers you’d only find in your nightmares. But it was exciting and even fun in a way.”

She fell silent, her features soft and brooding. Carter leaned forward and said, “Well?”

“What? Oh. Anyway,” she waved a hand casually, “there came a day when he had to go somewhere by himself. So he dropped me off here and went on. And that,” she smiled as she raised her coffee cup to her lips, “is that.”

“He just left you here?” Carter was incredulous.  “Here? All by yourself?”

 “I have to admit he blew it in a big way,” she said with an enigmatic grin. “This certainly isn’t South Croydon by any stretch of the imagination.”

 “Where?”

 “Never mind. Another time and place, you might say.” She grabbed her camcorder and rose to her feet. “Thank you for dinner, Mr. Carter. I trust this little conversation has given you enough hints about my past to keep you and your staff sufficiently occupied for the next six months. Good‑bye.” And before he could react she was out the door and trotting towards a waiting Network 66 helicopter. Carter sat there and watched it ascend seconds later, his cup of coffee in his hands and completely forgotten about.

* * * * *

The city lay below them, dark and foreboding with only a feeble glimmer of light here and there to offer some contrast to the gloom. From high above its confines Martinez flew in slow, lazy circles, waiting for a call that had not come in three days.

On the outskirts Carter could see the Fringes, almost ablaze in comparison to the city. The hundreds of bonfires that provided heat and light to the battered denizens of that area gave the illusion that the entire section was ablaze. The aura flickered against the tall, solid buildings of the city; it was a strange, almost threatening and ominous symbol.

Carter sighed and sipped at his coffee. Lack of sleep was making him far too philosophical for his own good.

There had been five more deaths since his visit to Dumoneli Chemicals. Carter had made the obligatory visits to the sites of the bodies, but had not bothered to go on the air with any of them. The impact of the story had already been made with the McDonald story, Murray felt; to continually show similar situations would dilute the story’s impact. Since none of the deaths offered anything new, Carter had agreed.

But Sarah Jane Smith had been there each time, going on the air and giving extensive details on who had died and under what circumstances. And she was relentless in badgering the authorities, hammering again and again at their reluctant answers. To watch her in action was to watch dedication—or even obsession.

For the first time he wondered whose approach to the story was better.

Abruptly the helicopter radio hissed into loud life. “There’s a robbery in progress at the warehouse on Schwartz and Sobel,” Theora informed Carter and Martinez. The pilot nodded and aimed the helicopter north, touching down five minutes later. Carter tumbled out the door and scrambled into a nearby alley. “Control, how about a quick summary?”

“According to the security cameras, there are six intruders. Three are loading canisters onto a truck. The others are standing guard. Oddly enough, I don’t mark any Dumoneli security personnel.” There was a brief pause while Theora called up the warehouse schematics. “There’s a door about five feet away from you.” Carter hurried over and held the camera close to the computer lock pad; back at 23, Theora subjected the picture to a battery of infrared and other tests to determine the combination. “Be careful‑the pad is still hot. Someone’s used this entrance recently. Try 3‑5‑2‑0‑9.”

He stabbed a finger at the keypad; an instant later, the door hissed open. “Going in, Control,” Carter murmured. “What’s the police ETA?”

“They haven’t been notified as yet. I’m placing a request in now ... that’s odd.” Theora’s voice was puzzled. “Edison, I’m picking up interference ... I’m losing you! Edison!”

But the intrepid reporter hadn’t heard a thing from the moment he’d entered the warehouse. With careful stealth he crept towards the source of all the banging, granting, and occasional swearing he could just make out. The moon offered sufficient illumination for him to see the trespassers in action, hurriedly loading drum after drum of chemicals into a battered van. So intent was he on recording the robbery that he didn’t see the other observer until he was practically upon her.

Sarah Jane Smith whirled around and lifted a single finger to her lips. Carter nodded and took a position close by. Satisfied, she returned her attention to her own camcorder. Carter found a position nearby and set his own unit up.

As they continued recording, Carter wondered who Smith’ s controller was. Was it a man or a woman? Were they sitting back in a shadow‑drenched room like Theora was at 23, studying the infrared schematics of the warehouse and looking for any, possible dangers? Was tie notifying the police even now? Was he advising Smith on ways to edge him out of the story and scoop him again?

Incidentally, why hadn’t Theora been keeping him up to date? “Control?” he whispered into his camera mike. “Theora?”

* * * *

“I’m being jammed!” Theora cried. To her right, Bryce was frantically trying to find a way to override the interference that prevented them from contacting Carter. Murray stood behind her, face tight with anxiety as he watched helplessly.

‘Let Bryce work on the jamming,” he quietly ordered. Theora whirled around, her eyes wide with shock and anger. “Work on what we can do,” he continued. “Contact the police and let them know about the robbery.”

She nodded briskly and returned to her work, once again the professional. But Murray noticed the slight tremor in her fingers as they jabbed at the worn keys of her board.

“Whatever is causing this, it’s quite sophisticated,” Bryce commented from his workstation. “If I were up in my lab I could probably counter it easily. The inadequate facilities here are hindering my efforts.”

“Get Edison back and I’ll personally sign the materials requisition,” Murray growled. “Till then, keep working.”

* * * * *

“Damn it, Theora, where are you?” Carter sighed in disgust and set his camera down; he was really going to have to stop using the thing as a projectile weapon. This was the third breakdown in three weeks. He glanced over at Smith and noticed with interest that she was having similar problems with her camera. An expert lip‑reader, he was fascinated by some of the phrases coming out of her mouth.

Then it occurred to him that if they were both having trouble with their cameras, an outside force might be involved. A second later, he realized that someone was behind him.

There was a sudden explosion of light and pain from the back of his head, then everything melted into blackness.

* * * * *

“Are you all right?”

Carter shook his head and instantly regretted the move; he wanted desperately to cradle his throbbing skull in his hands, but the ropes that held him securely bound to the chair he sat in made such an action impossible. Smith was sitting beside him, similarly imprisoned. Her face was tight with concern and anxiety.

“I didn’t realize they were there until it was too late,” he apologized. “I’d lost touch with my controller and was trying to contact him, and I didn’t hear the lookouts until it was too late.”

“No problem,” he grunted. “They hit me in my least vulnerable area.” He blinked rapidly to clear his vision, then squinted at his surroundings. “Where are we?”

“Warehouse,” she said. “I’ve no idea where. They took our cameras, you know.”

“Damn. I hate filling out theft forms and requisition requests.”

“Don’t let that worry you.” Both reporters turned to find Paul Melaccio slouched leisurely against a barrel. “You aren’t going to live long enough to fill them out.” He lit a cigarette and waved it about. “Welcome to Paradise Central, Mr. Carter, Miss Smith. Your last stop on the way to the real thing.”

“That certainly bodes ill,” Carter commented dryly. He gave a tentative go at freeing his hands, but his captors knew their stuff—the knots were quite secure.

Melaccio nodded. “It certainly doesn’t.” He took a draw from his cigarette and exhaled, the smoke drifting huffy into the air. “So—aren’t you going to ask me what’s going on? Demand the full story up front?”

“That would be nice,” Smith admitted sardonically.

 “That would also be stupid,” Melaccio pointed out reasonably.

 “It’s also unnecessary,” Carter added. “Dumoneli’s behind the entire Paradise scam. They steal from themselves to get the raw materials, use abandoned facilities to manufacture the drug, and with their considerable resources are able to find distributors, who no doubt get paid heavily for their trouble.”

“Mr. Carter, you have a very suspicious mind,” clucked Melaccio.

Sarah stiffened in her chair. “The unreported break‑ins. The lack of security at the warehouses, even though there were so many robberies over the past few months. The suppressed police reports.”

“And Dumoneli is able to raise its prices because of the diminished supply,” Carter finished. “A very profitable arrangement all around.”

“A pretty tale,” Melaccio said, nodding. “A pity that it’s all circumstantial, and that you’ll never have a chance to air it.” He casually reached into a coat pocket; both reporters stiffened momentarily, then relaxed somewhat as he retrieved a test tube filled with a blue liquid. “You’re both very big on getting the inside story,” he commented as he walked towards them. “You know what this is?” Melaccio held the vial up so that the dim lighting shone through the blue chemical. “This ... is Paradise. Pure, uncut Paradise. One drop of this can send you to your knees in ecstasy. Five drops will kill you.”

Sarah’s eyes narrowed; Carter forced himself to remain outwardly calm. “Yeah, you enjoy giving people a close‑up perspective of the news,” Melaccio continued, now standing before them and popping the stopper off the glass vial. “Well, you’re about to find out just how good this stuff really is. Don’t worry‑I won’t give you a fatal dose. Wouldn’t dream of it. My ... employers are intrigued by the possibilities of having a star reporter or two addicted to their product. Paradise, as you no doubt know, is very, very habit‑forming. After the high wears off, you’ll do anything to get more. Sell your belongings, your friends, your body, your very soul for just one more dose. And we’ll provide it ... for some future considerations.” He leaned forward and smiled, the vial tilted forward. “Hang on tight, friends.”

Carter lurched forward and slammed into Melaccio, chair and all. They tumbled to the floor in a heap. In the confusion, the vial flew into the air, spilling its contents in a gentle blue rain. The security agent grabbed Carter and shoved him backwards, then glanced up just as the first drops of Paradise splattered against his skin.

Carter smashed against a support girder and felt his chair splinter into chunks of wood. Using the sudden slack in his bonds, he quickly freed himself and stumbled to his feet to aid Sarah. As he worked on her bonds, Melaccio slowly rose to his feet. His skin was stained a rich blue hue; his eyes were wide and vacant Spellbound in fascinated horror, Carter and Smith watched Melaccio’s body twitch spasmodically as he stumbled around in a wild confusion.

He lurched to and fro, crashing into several empty barrels before collapsing to the floor. Drool dribbled from his open mouth, as he gibbered insanely. Abruptly his eyes widened and a small cry of orgasmic wonder escaped him, then his body thrashed once, twice, three times and fell limp.

They stared at the inert body for a moment, then turned towards one another. “You all right?” Carter asked quietly.

“I will be,” she said, rubbing her wrists as the ropes fell away. “Just as soon as I get my camera back.” Further conversation was impeded as a sudden hail of bullets whined their way. Carter shoved Sarah to the floor and fell on top of her.

“Mr. Carter,” she said through gritted teeth, “we hardly know each other well enough for such familiarity, don’t you think?”

“Sorry.” He rolled off, and they slowly crawled on their stomachs until they reached a large stack of empty barrels. “Damn, what I wouldn’t give for a miracle about now,” Carter murmured.

Sarah grabbed his arm. “How about two?” She pointed at a stack of barrels about thirty‑five yards away—atop of which sat their camcorders. “Suggestions?”

Their captors were shooting indiscriminately around the room, which meant they weren’t quite sure where their prey was hidden‑but someone had to be watching those cameras. A shower of gunfire would greet the first move toward them. Carter grimaced, trying desperately to think of a way out of this dilemma ... then smiled. “I’ve got it.”

Sarah watched as he quickly tipped a nearby barrel over and pried the lid off. “All right,” he grunted, “I’ll get inside this, and when I say go, you push me towards the cameras.”

She gazed at him with utter consternation. “Surely you’re joking.”

 “You got any better ideas?”

 “As a matter of fact, yes. You’ll never fit. Get out of the way.” Before Carter could stop her she was snuggled inside the empty barrel. “You may fire when ready, Mr. Carter.”

“Good luck.” He took a deep breath and heaved with all his might, sending the black barrel careening ahead. Gunfire sprayed wildly along its path, but the bullets ricocheted off the metallic casing. And at long last the barrel crashed into the makeshift shelving, sending the cameras tumbling to the floor. Sarah grabbed the closest one and activated it. “CONTROL!” she screamed. “HELP!”

An unfamiliar voice replied in puzzlement, “You’re not Edison.”

“NO, I’M NOT! BUT HE’S WITH ME!” Bullets whizzed overhead, pinging the casements like steel snowflakes. “GET US SOME HELP‑NOW!”

“SSSSSSARAH?” came a third, new voice, sounding vaguely like an electronic version of Carter. “OH B‑B‑B‑BLISS! RAPTURE! IT’S NETWORK 666’S ROVING REPORTER! CAN I HAVE YOUR AUTOGRAPH? GRAPH! GRAPH!”

“Max, shut up a moment,” came the woman’s voice again. “Miss Smith, I presume? I’ve got you targeted. Hang tight--two squads of police are close by.”

“OH SARAH!” rang that odd voice once more. “SARAH SAY YOU’LL BE MINE FOREVER‑R‑R‑R! TELL ME THAT YOU’RE AVAILABLE!” She cocked her head and glanced down momentarily at the minicam as if it contained an alien life form--which perhaps it did. But that could wait; there was a job to be done right now.

Carter watched from nearby as Sarah shoved the cameras into the barrel, then climbed in and with a grunt and twisting motion sent the barrel back the way it had come. Another chorus of gunfire punctuated her action. But this time the barrel went off‑target and crashed a good twelve feet away from Carter’s hiding place. And Sarah was too dizzy and nauseated to do anything about it.

“May I ask just what on Earth you are doing?” the unfamiliar controller’s voice demanded. “The picture...”

Sarah opened her mouth to reply but decided to throw up instead.

 

At that moment the wail of police sirens could be heard outside. An instant later, the gunfire stopped abruptly, followed by a great deal of crashing, another interval of quiet, then another symphony of chaos as the cops broke in. Carter glanced around, wondering why their captors had stopped shooting, then hurried over to the barrel and helped Sarah out. “Nice bit of heroism,” he grinned.

“Part of the job,” she nodded tiredly, reaching into the barrel and grabbing her camera. “Why did the gunfire stop so soon?”

“Don’t know,” Carter answered, turning as a cop leaped directly in front of them, gun raised. “Take it easy, officer. Edison Carter and Sarah Jane Smith. We’re reporters.”

The policeman stared first at Carter, then at Sarah, and relaxed his stance. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss Smith,” he said with gawkish admiration. “I watch you all the time.”

“Why, thank you, officer,” she smiled warmly.

“What happened to the gunmen?” Carter asked, a bit more snappishly than he’d intended.

 “Looks like they suicided,” the cop shrugged. “Overdosed on Paradise, from all appearances.”

Why am I not surprised?” Sarah sighed. “There go all the potential witnesses, right out the window.” She handed Smith his camera. “Well, duty calls,” she remarked. “Care to call this story a draw, Mr. Carter?”

“It would be a pleasure, Miss Smith.”

 

* * * * *

 

“...Repeated inquiries at Dumoneli Chemicals have been politely but firmly declined, authorities there preferring to stand by the official story that Paul Melaccio was acting alone.” Carter frowned slightly and focused the camera upon the armada of gurneys hauling the dead gunmen away. “The truth may never be known whether this was truly a corporate scheme to obtain power and wealth from both sides of the law, or simply one man’s plot, or something in between.

“What will be done with the huge number of Paradise addicts in our midst? Research suggests the time span between doses decreases significantly, and police are gearing up for an increase in violent crimes in both the city and the Fringes. What can be done? Little is known about the long‑term effects of Paradise on the human body; do we simply use the confiscated Paradise to keep the addicts happy until they or the supply dies out, or do we attempt to treat these unfortunates? Is there any effective treatment available? It is, unfortunately, a question that cannot be answered at this time.

“This is Edison Carter, live and direct for Network 23.” The red light on his camcorder flickered out; Carter sighed and lowered the camera from his shoulder, suddenly exhausted beyond belief.

He saw Sarah Jane Smith standing not far away, mouthing much the same words and questions that he’d just used. Her eyes shone with determination and compassion as she spoke, hinting at the steel that lay beneath those soft, pretty features. “...This is Sarah Jane Smith for Network 66, bringing you the story, anytime, anywhere. Good night.” An odd salutation, Carter wondered as he trudged over towards her. He idly wondered if it held some secret meaning for her, then dismissed the thought. Exhaustion tended to make him paranoid as well as philosophical.

Carter held out his hand and smiled. “Congratulations, Miss Smith. We did pretty good, didn’t we?”

“Quite, if I say so myself,” Sarah agreed with a grin. She grabbed her camcorder and slung it over her shoulder. “Pity it can’t be permanent. We make an excellent team.”

“Why don’t you come over to 23?” he asked suddenly.

She stood there for a moment, then laughed. “Why don’t you come over to 66?”

Now it was Carter’s turn to laugh. “Maybe it’s just not meant to be, huh?”

“Probably not. Admit it, though,” she smiled impishly. “You enjoy things more this way. Makes it more interesting.”

“Yeah, probably.” He grabbed his camcorder and draped a friendly arm over her shoulder. “Buy you dinner?”

“All right,” she nodded. “So long as you don’t get nosy about my sordid past. And,” she added with an odd expression, “I’d very much like to know about this admirer I seem to have over at 23.”

“Ahh. That might take awhile.” He nodded towards the setting sun. “You know, Miss Smith, this could be the start of a beautiful competition.”

“You might be right, Mr. Carter. You might be right.”