If you've been around a while, you know the deal. Once a year, I participate in National Novel Writing Month, taking a novel from idea to finished first draft within the month. Doing it my way, there's a twist: I post my first draft publicly here, a chapter at a time. It's a rough draft, full of flaws, but it's a fun way of inviting the world to ride shotgun with me.
This year, I almost didn't do it. But after having finished a NaNo novel for several years, it just felt like tradition. I would have been sad to skip it.
So let me introduce you to the Last Girls, publishing November second until, well, whenever it finishes. A chapter a day, remember.
When a camping trip with friends turns to a bloodbath, Kelly must face her worst fears- as well as those of the other Last Girls.
Thanks for coming on this trip with me! I hope you have as much fun with the Last Girls as I'm gonna!
I held her a long time. I never wanted to ask her anything else, other than what I could do to make things easier for her. But I stayed as she cried because I knew that there could be more she knew, and I needed to know it. Because John's killer was still out there.
When she finally let me go, minutes after she finished sobbing, I braced myself. She wanted his killer found probably more than me. “Was there anything there, anything out of the ordinary, that you could tell me? Anything that might help me find who did this?”
“I would have told you already if there was,” she said. “But if I remember anything, I'll tell you.”
“When did you leave?” I asked.
“11:15, something like that.”
“Okay. I'll let you know if I find anything.”
I believed Tara more than ever before. Not a single process had been out of order. But my interview with her did point to more sophisticated mods than I would have ever believed existed. Which meant I needed to talk to an expert, one who was likely to be about as hostile as possible with me over the idea.
I knew she was at least checking up on me, if not watching avidly. So there was a pretty good chance that she knew where I was headed, and perhaps just as troubling, that she would know what I wanted to ask.
I drove to the same spot I left my car the other night. This time there were no guards, and I walked right into her tent.
“Is this a warm reception?” I asked. “Or just you not wanting witnesses.”
“That depends on whether or not you can play nice,” Jenel said.
“I want to know about some mods- black market ones. I'm pretty sure Jim lied to me, but if I want a shot at figuring out what about, I need to know how he got around my sensors.”
“Why would I tell you?” she asked, almost academically. “Provided those mods exist, telling you is like telling the cops, and rendering them useless.”
“Those mods are the same debate as piracy versus anti-piracy measures, or antigens and antibodies. Your tools will evolve, so will theirs, and if history and nature are a guide, yours will thrive in the wild, while theirs will stake out little pockets they can hope to protect. I'm looking for a killer. Even here, do you really want to protect the 'right' to kill?”
She smiled, and at first I thought it was because I'd made a cogent argument, before I figured out how naïve I was being. She'd figured out a way to screw me- or at least screw with me. “One condition: you let me shut down your cameras.”
“You can do that?” I asked.
“I always could. But I want your permission. Otherwise it would be a violation, me forcing vulnerability onto you- something I wouldn't do without a good goddamned reason.”
“The audience will hate me for it.”
“The audience are an asshole. And they'll hate you for not solving the case more. And ultimately, they're irrelevant, a shock collar around your neck there to keep you inside your little invisible fence; but a week from now? A year. They won't remember your brother, let alone your investigation into his death. But you will. If you fuck it up, it will haunt you for the rest of your days. So fuck 'em.”
I shut my eyes. The little part of me, that lived for approval, that couldn't stand getting anything short of an A going all the way back to elementary school, fought against the idea. I'd only just started winning them back, and this was a little like giving all of them the finger. But she was right. About just about all of it. “Do it,” I said.
My interface flickered through static. The chat entered into conniptions; I made the window so small I couldn't tell they were still sending messages. For the first time in a couple of days, I wasn't on display, wasn't subject to public review. I smiled.
“I wouldn't get too excited,” she said. “First things first, put that gun on the fucking ground.”
Whoops. I shrugged, and pulled it out extra slowly, and set it down at my feet. As a show of faith, I took several steps away from it. “Nothing to do with you,” I said.
“Oh, I know. I conferenced myself into the call with Chase. If it had been intended for me, you wouldn't have come within a hundred yards of here.”
I believed her. “Better?” I asked.
“It's a start,” she said. “So what do you want to know?”
“I want to know what kind of mod could defeat police interrogation software.”
“No, you want to know how to stop it from beating the interrogation software. Still a complicated question, but it pares it back enough to tackle the problem- without me necessarily violating my principals.”
“Okay. So how do I stop it? Chase told me to ask for root access.”
“Root access is a good start, but even that won't really move the needle on its own.” I frowned. “For one, 90% of all of the processing for an interface isn't done locally- it's happening remotely, at the servers- dead zone servers in the case of pirate apps. But even the 10% that is done locally is happening about ten times faster than a human being could monitor the streams- meaning just watching for a program that you know is malicious. You might get lucky, but it's needle in a haystack luck.”
“What, then?” I asked.
“Give me a second,” she said. “I was just having a little trouble finding the damned thing. I don't use it often.” I got a private message with an attachment.
“What's in it?” I asked, hesitating.
“Little program of my own coding. I've used it to root out viruses before. Not in my own system, mind you. I've got a honeypot computer; before I run any programs on my interface, I run them on that. But plenty of folks catch a virus- usually by moving too fast or being distracted, which means it comes from porn, usually. People worry about getting caught with it, so they rush through the warning and ads and inevitably run something they wouldn't if they weren't in a rush to get off clandestinely.”
“How does it work?”
“It runs processes against legit versions of the processes. Any deviation gets flagged and 'clamped,' meaning it stops the process from running. And it goes through all of the active processes, closing off ones that even seem illegitimate, until all you're left with is bare bones processes.”
“Is this the freedom you were talking about?” I asked.
“Freedom doesn't mean we sit around hugging a bunch of communal puppies. Sometimes it's the freedom to try and screw over another human being. And it's also the freedom- and responsibility- to be paranoid enough to protect yourself.
“And this is only a start, because a lot of the higher-level pirate programs mimic for all intents and purposes legit processes. Because you wouldn't want the cops to be able to just do this to passersby. Did you know they've been working on tools to basically force a reboot of an interface- giving them root access in the process? They don't have it, yet, because they would always get too much feedback. A couple of people got electrocuted by their implants when they tried it out. But it's an eventuality. So we've programmed around it. But it should clean up some of the static.”
“And it's not going to screw up my interface?” I asked.
“Or piggyback on your signal back into the police systems. Come on. If I wanted beef with the cops, I could get in there without much effort.”
“How?” I asked.
“Well, for one, they're using outdated encryption. Two, that's when they're using it. There are about a dozen working officers who still aren't using their encryption all the time- including when they transmit their credentials. And that's the low-hanging fruit, not taxing my brain or getting creative about it.”
“So you've thought about it?” I asked.
“I'd be a fool not to. They're my ideological enemies, and the only reason ours isn't a hot war is because they haven't fired the first shot- yet. They will. Because, and this is a dirty little secret, but the dead zones are expanding. They're losing. We screw with their data enough that they might not know it yet- or maybe they're just playing along to put off a confrontation because they're not sure they can win.”
She recognized my uncertainty. “But I'm not going to screw you over just to make my life a little easier. That's black hat work. And I stand firmly in the gray. Even out here, where I'm a firm adherent to a trust but verify ethos, there's only ever so much verification you can have. But if you take that too far, you start assuming your doctor's on the take when he suggests vaccinations, or that science is corrupt when it comes to trying to keep the air breathable. You can't verify everything; eventually, it all comes down to trust- deciding who you will, and won't let have real estate in your life.”
I sighed, and downloaded the program. “I mean, I am going to ghost your ID and empty your bank account,” she said, then laughed. “Kidding.”
“Not much there to drain,” I said. “And you wouldn't be the first to ghost my ID.”
“Your brother?” she shook her head. “What a scumbag. I'm all for making it hard for the government to crack down on drug smuggling, or hurting protectionism, but you can buy IDs- that's the whole point of having a black market, where things can be valuated and people inconvenienced can be compensated. But that makes sense. I thought your name looked familiar. I think he was Conrad when I first met him.”
“So what next?” I asked.
“There isn't one,” she said. “There aren't a lot of spy-catcher tools I can give you in your current state. Most of the rest would require hardware modifications.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You people really have no idea what they put in your skulls, do you?” She sighed. “Part of your interface is a BIOS- it's a default operating system. It prevents viruses from loading on an interface- but it also prevents using an unapproved OS, or pirate programs. The first generation or so of interfaces used a rewritable BIOS, like most computers at the time. But they quickly figured out people like me would take advantage, flash the BIOS, and get up to all manner of mischief. So now they us a one-time-write storage medium. Depending on the manufacturer there are a few different ones they've tried; one of the Japanese manufacturers field-tested an optical disc- a miniature blu-ray inside your brain. Only those are read by lasers, and lasers are hot, so... yeah, that didn't go well. But to run pirate programs they have to yank that out of you, and replace it with a more malleable BIOS.”
“And we don't want to do that?”
“It's invasive surgery- so there are risks that come along with it. And once you start modding, you can't stop. Because there's an arms race- you have to stay two steps ahead of the cops, or they'll find illegal workings in your noggin and arrest you for them. That's a long-term commitment- a change to your entire lifestyle. And I'm happy to evangelize- happier yet to convert the uninitiated- but it's also a decision I wouldn't let anyone make lightly- or under the gun, like you are. But probably most importantly, none of our doctors would do it.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because right now you're chock full of proprietary police code. And if the cops know we opened up someone like you on a whim, that we'd take as much of it while you were out as we could. And they couldn't abide that. They'd have to crack down on us, raid the bejeezus out of us to try and figure how much data we had. Not that they could ever get that genie back in a bottle- but they'd need to know how much of its power was out in the world.”
“So it's existential threat for you,” I said.
“Something like that. But hopefully all you'll need is the spider. We won't know until you find him. But... there's a good chance he's going to know all of this, in advance. I shut down the public feed for those spore cameras. But they're feisty little bastards. They'll latch onto any signal they can and try to transmit- anything to push data back to the mothership. I've blocked them from phoning home, but they're still transmitting. On a data use map you'd be a bright blue snowflake of video streams trying desperately to cram info onto any takers. You wouldn't be hard to find- if he wants to find you.”
“Is that why you asked to shut down my cameras?”
“Yes, and no. Yes, because maybe it could help. But no, because I don't think it will. Jim's tech is decent. I can grab hold of somebody like ShartGurgler's interface like it's nothing, and make her dance. His stuff, is unpredictable. It's got countermeasures, and it's jury-rigged to have different components from different manufacturers work together. One of the benefits of living off the grid is it makes it harder for somebody else to screw with you. But, it means if someone comes at you, they're less vulnerable, too.”
“So Jim probably knows I'm coming?”
“Anything you can do to help me out?”
“I can tell him to behave- that he knows this is an aggression-free zone. He starts shit here, and I will goddamned end it. But I don't know how much that might hold him back. Not far, I'd guess.”
“You could always loan me a pair of your shotgun goons.”
“That's not the way we work around here,” she said. “But good luck.”
That could have both gone better, and worse. On the one hand, nobody shot me. On the other, it was apparently possible I was going to end up needing to shoot myself, and I was carrying a quasi-legal gun for the eventuality. I got the gun tucked away in my jacket before the bathroom override ended- and I wasn't being euphemistic.
I knew I was going to have to visit Tara again, and go harder at her. She was the mother of my brother's son. I didn't want to suspect her, but I didn't have much choice. I tried to put out of my head that the last bits of my brother were mixed with parts of her- that she was shepherding his legacy.
I parked outside her apartment, then walked up to her door. My interface called her inside. “We need to talk,” I said. The lock clicked open. She was hand-washing a pot in the sink, and I walked into the kitchen to stand next to her. She smelled flowery, like a cheap perfume, or maybe midgrade shampoo.
“You should find a place to stop,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. She finished rinsing the pot, and set it to the side to dry. “Want to have a seat?” she asked, and led me into the front room. We both sat on opposite ends of the couch.
“Why'd you shoot my brother?” I asked.
“What the,” she glanced self-consciously back towards her child, making sure he was out of earshot, “fuck are you talking about?”
“As a suspect in his murder, I'm informing you that I need root access to your interface. I'll need you to reboot, and when it asks for permission to share access, for you to accept.”
“And if I don't- if I think that's a gross invasion?”
“It only makes you look guiltier.”
“Guiltier?” she asked. “So I already look guilty?” Her face contorted in a combination of rage and pain. I hated myself already, and that only made my own guilt worse.
“I need you to reboot your interface,” I said again.
“Fuck you,” she said, but from the way she looked down and to the side I could tell she was accessing her menus. A second later my request went through, and she authorized it.
“You want to tell me why you needed that?”
“Because you were with John. And before that, you were a sex worker. You have mods, I'll say quasi-legal ones, that are interfering with my investigation. Root access means I can see your processes- and terminate them. So if I think a process is blocking one of my tools, I can shut it down.”
“You could have asked,” she said, her voice trembling. She was upset. I tried to tell myself to use that- push her harder, still.
“Would you have complied?”
“I might,” she said.
“You're lying. You would have had the same exact reaction, only you would have dug in your heels instead of just getting hurt.”
“You manipulated me?” she asked.
“No,” I replied. “Because I wasn't trying to elicit that response.”
“So you were being a dick, just not on purpose.”
“No,” I said, and pulled up her biometrics, as well as her brainscan. “And you don't get to play the sweet, innocent aggrieved girl, because you've been lying to me. So tell me the truth. When did you see John last?”
She thought about lying again. But I think this time she knew I was monitoring, and would know. “The night he died,” she said.
“About eleven o'clock.”
“How?” I asked.
“You already know about the mod that screws with GPS. Well, there's a sister mod, one that only sex workers know about. We guard it close, because so long as it's just being used for sex work, the cops don't have a reason to engineer around it. So about the only way you can get access to it is from another sex worker. When it's active, it cuts you out of any images or video, replaces the pixels where you're standing with 'empty' pixels from moments before your arrived. Makes it like a sex worker was never there. So you wouldn't have seen me come or go on the cameras.”
“And how did you get to his place?”
“I took a cab.”
“How'd you pay?”
She shut her eyes. “Autodeduction from my account.” She felt self-conscious for it. Even I knew that there were cash alternatives that the cabs would take that still allowed for some degree of anonymity. But on the other hand, it was good. Because somebody planning a murder doesn't pay for a cab with their account.
“Why'd you go to see him?”
“I still don't know,” she said. “Except that he was upset. In this kind of haze, of fury, and confusion. I'd never seen him like that. But he was this weird combination of upset and calm. Like he kept talking about the future, while holding Max. I think maybe that's why he asked me over. I thought maybe he wanted to get back together, or at least screw. But he wanted to see Max. It usually calmed him down. And I know this sounds weird to somebody without kids, but, having a son, it changes the way you look at tomorrow. It's brighter, more hopeful; maybe some of that is just because you want a better world for your kids, so you try to will it into existence.”
“Did that hurt you?” I asked.
“Of course. I've always known John was bad for me. He's the human equivalent of smoking. But smoking makes you feel safe, like whatever else is happening in the great wide world beyond your control, that this little piece of now, that's tied into your ultimate destiny, is right at your fingertips. You can touch it, you can taste it, and even if it's killing you, you love it for how it makes you feel in that moment. And I always wanted him- no, I needed him to feel about me the same way, even though I knew he didn't, and that he probably never could.”
“Did it make you mad?” I asked.
“You're asking stupid, redundant questions now,” she said.
“Just answer it.”
“Yes.” Her vitals were straight.
“And what did you do with that anger?”
“I stowed it away, and told myself I'd use it the next time he stopped by for a quickie, to say, 'No.'” She swallowed. “I probably wouldn't have, because telling him no would have been telling me no, and the difference is he would have just fucked someone else, where I would have been lonely and pent-up until the next time. Not that I ever got to chance to passive-aggressively channel that anger.” No deception.
“You didn't use it to hurt him?”
“No,” she said, and it was almost a laugh. “He was Max's father, and I still, I still, today have trouble with the idea that he isn't going to be there to help me raise him. I keep catching myself thinking that it's been a while since he stopped in, and Max would love to see him, and maybe I should think about shaving my legs for him. And he's not ever going to stop in again. He's gone. Jesus. How am I going to raise Max alone?”
“I'm sorry,” I said, and scooted closer in to her.
“Of course you are,” she said bitterly. But pissed as she was at me, and righteously so, she needed someone. So she latched onto my shoulder, and cried.
I slept fitfully, which seemed appropriate. Even with some good painkillers, I was pretty sure Charles Dean couldn't be sleeping any better.
I sighed when I realized I couldn't even pretend to doze any longer. I pinged my bank account. I was broker than usual, and I was usually pretty damned broke. I needed to work, but to do that, I had to finish this case, first. I looked at my investigative notes. I had a long list of suspects, but also nobody who had really shown me much of anything concrete to go on.
There were two more, written in red at the bottom. The two suppliers fighting over John's business. After Jim warned me off, I had been reluctant to talk to them. But it looked like my investigation was otherwise stalled. So I sent Jim a message, to set up a meet. I figured John's new supplier was the safer option; if the old had gotten wind of the deal, I could see them lashing out.
I didn't get an immediate response, so I cooked myself breakfast.
While I was eating, I received a message back. “Latin suppliers reluctant to talk to cops- even advocates. Chinese dealer accepted.” He appended an address, and a time. I had less than twenty minutes to dress and make it across town.
I was glad I showered the night before, though the reason for the shower renewed my shame. But I didn't have time to dwell on it, I jammed on a fresh-ish set of clothes and hurled myself into my car. I GPSed the location, and the time estimate made my stomach drop down onto the street. No matter how recklessly I drove, I was going to be late. Something told me keeping a high level drug trafficker waiting, especially waiting to talk to an advocate, was just asking for trouble.
The traffic was light this morning. I tried not to obsess; I was going to be late, I told myself, no need to road rage.
Finally, I arrived at a nondescript warehouse. The locks had been cut; so we were breaking and entering into our meeting space. It probably made more sense than providing the police with one of their own haunts.
The lights were off inside. My interface automatically adjusted for the difference, and I could see green outlines of boxes, then what I thought was a woman. She was reaching for a manual light switch. I shut my eyes a moment too late, and the fluorescents seared my eyes. I made a show of rubbing them, though without any pressure, so as not to scratch myself again, to let them readjust at an even pace.
When I could finally open them the woman was much closer, close enough to have a conversation, probably close enough to stab me, if she wanted. The proximity unnerved me, but I tried not to let it show on my face. She wasn't letting anything show on hers; it was blurred, like Jenel's.
I reminded myself she was a prime suspect, and pulled up the lie detection app, and her brain scan. Or at least, I tried. Instead, what I got was an image of a cartoon pirate, flipping me the finger while hatefully masturbating at me; it was funny and disturbing at the same time.
“I was hoping to ask a few questions about my brother. I don't suppose any of this means you're going to cooperate.”
“I'm here. My further cooperation depends on you.” She didn't have any detectable accent. I didn't think that could be a mod, since I was pretty sure vocal masks weren't that sophisticated. At least not yet.
“Okay,” I said. “Did you know my brother was considering another supplier?”
“Any dealer worth his beans always is, but that's capitalism. You don't think...” She chuckled. “Qui bono,” she said. “I don't benefit, knocking off customers who are trying out the Walmart of suppliers.” I snickered. “I agree. Chinese goods are often cheap shit, manufactured to fall apart the first time an insect farts on it. But the product I move is quality, sourced from all over Asia to provide the best, consistent highs. You want crap, buy Canadian, buy Latin. You want to make sure you get what you pay for every time, you buy from me. I'm not in this to sell crap; I'm building a brand. I want to be the Mercedes of intoxicants.
“But also: bullshit. John wasn't testing out the Latins. He'd done that already, months ago. Like I wouldn't notice him cutting his usual order by exactly a third- then increasing it the next month by a third to make up for the utter terribleness of the Latin product. He'd eaten shit once before, he wasn't about to do it again- not this soon, and not with them still trying to turn their supply chain into a bizarre auction.”
“I didn't say he was testing out the Latins,” I said.
“Aren't many in this business, not dealing in the kinds of bulk your brother moved. Canadians are an option, at least for anything they can manage to grow up on their tundra. But there's also a premium; they have to pay a Canadian wage, so their product is usually spendy. And they don't cook; they'll refine, but you know, no meth or anything else. The Russians pull from a lot of the same suppliers that I do, or at least the same regions. But they're Russians, so nobody likes the Russians.”
“Why's that?” I asked.
“Afghanistan, mostly,” she said. “Russia's half-Asian, but they look down on us. Like also being part of Europe makes them better, somehow. The catastrofuck in Afghanistan was simply emblematic. Every dealing they've had with Asia has this feeling of, 'get under our boots already.' And you start negotiations like that, you're bound to pay a shitheel tax. Which they pass onto the customers. And not only that, when you step on toes, and there's a supply hiccup, guess whose order goes unfilled.”
“So it basically had to be the Latins.”
“Yup. Which is why it doesn't sound like John. You know who that idea sounds like? His idiot partner. See, I'd figured out they tried out the Latins on my lonesome. But next time we met, to talk numbers, the idiot tagged along. John knew well enough to keep his mouth shut. Jim? Told me he could supply with the Latins for two-thirds what they paid me.
“I said you don't go to the BMW dealership, and tell them you could buy a crap GM for less, so they should really drop the price by ten gs. And they knew the competitor was selling crap, because they'd tried it out. I told them they were lucky I wasn't raising the prices on them- a disloyalty tax- because even at double the price of what the Latins are selling, stepped-on as theirs is, mine would be a bargain.”
“The Latins refused to meet with me. So why did you come here at all?”
“The Latins have spotty tech. Again, they're doing this bargain-basement style, which means half the time their blur mods don't work right. Just last week, a few of them got caught in a DEA sting, because they aren't bright.”
“But you are,” I said.
“I got a woman about a quarter of a mile away with one of the world's largest rifles, technically classified anti-materiel- for shooting trucks and tanks- because it's ridiculously overpowered to use against a soft target like a man- even a man in armor. If this had been a set-up, she would have shot a bowling-ball sized hole in your chest. Then I would have gotten away.”
“So you had an escape plan,” I said. “But that only answers half of the question.”
“Hmm. I had a brother, back in China. He was killed, by a corrupt official. I never really found out why. But I did find out who. And I brought my brother justice. So your... quest, is something I can relate to. And I hope you catch the son of a bitch. I don't know if I could say your brother was a good man, but among thieves, he was about as honorable as you could hope for.”
“Can you think of anybody else who would want John dead?”
“Not the Latins,” she said. “They'd try to kill him with kindness. Send him chocolates laced with cocaine, hookers to snort their shit off of. Putting one mid-level dealer in the ground, nobody benefits.”
“But if nobody benefits...”
“Then somebody lost,” she said. “Somebody got worked up enough that they killed him in a moment's passion.” I didn't have to glance at the chat to know that 'the girlfriend' reverberated through it. “And when it was done, it hurt them nearly as much.”
“Thanks,” I said, “for your help.”
“Your brother was a good customer. Didn't make me a fuckton of money, but I also never had to worry he was going to stab me over a shipment, either. Sometimes it's the little things.”
I showed myself out. I needed to go to Tara's. I wasn't looking forward to it. But I also didn't want to linger. With a rifle like she described, I imagined her friend really wanted to test it out. I didn't want to give her any excuse.
I got in my car and started to drive. I made it a couple of miles before I got a private message from Chase. “Take a leak.” With it came a GPS marker, leading to a coffee shop.
I stopped in at it, and used their restroom. I remembered to pause the feeds when I entered, and as soon as I had I got a call from Chase.
“Yarr,” he said. “Saw you took a meeting with a cartoon pirate. These underworld-adjacent crimes are the worst. Everybody involved has illegal mods- everybody. Means you can't trust the brain scans, or any of the other biometrics. There are ways around it. You can get root access to somebody's systems, to make sure they aren't booting up anything that could interfere with the tests. Or there's the more... thorough solution- that you get illegal mods to counter theirs.
“There is, however, a logistical hurdle- and not just the normal legal one. There's no way in hell anyone who usually puts in the illegal stuff will touch you while you're an advocate. There's a solution- though a desperate one- and I'm not saying you're there yet, I just, I don't want to blindside you with it if the time ever comes.
“You can shoot yourself- through the implants. You do that, in or around one of the dead zones, and they'll fix you up, fill you full of illegal tech, and just drain the funds as available from your bank account to pay for it. Unless they really don't like you.”
“You want me to shoot myself?” I asked. I heard something drop in one of the stalls, and became both embarrassed and paranoid.
“I don't want you to,” he said. “But I wanted you to know that it could theoretically come to that. At some point. And because of that, I left you something in the stall.”
“What kinds of things might make them reluctant to put Humpty Dumpty back together?”
“Typically we're talking things like like child molesters, or dedicated rapists. Usually scum the likes of which they don't want to be able to hide away amongst them.”
“What if I'm investigating one of them?” I asked.
“That might do it, too.”
I checked the empty stall, but didn't find anything. I heard flushing in the other, and waited until it was vacated, and the occupant had left the room. There was a gun taped beneath the toilet. “Is this legal?” I asked.
“Quasi-legal. Taken off a felon during an arrest; he lost it because he had it illegally. It wasn't registered, and therefore didn't have a legal owner. But because it hadn't been used in the commission of any other crimes, it kind of made sense to keep it, for this sort of an occasion. There are still plenty of reasons why a cop might need an unregistered firearm.” That thinking reminded me of why the cops were all but disbanded in the first place. “Know how to use it?” he asked.
“I'm familiar with the mechanics.”
“Well, familiarize yourself with the kinetics. Because there's a better than not chance you'll need it by the end of this investigation.”
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The ambulance arrived before the cops did, and took him away.
When they did finally come, it was Martens, with IA. “You're an advocate, so you beat that man half-to-death in the course of your investigation,” he said. “Hence IA.”
“Hence you?” I asked, and couldn't keep the suspicion from my tone.
“I was familiar with your case,” he said, and shrugged. “Now, you told dispatch that the suspect was in your car, trying to jimmy the receiver, right?”
“You pulled him out, brandishing a bat. When he resisted, IE, wouldn't stay on the damn ground, you hammed him with the bat. I would say batted, because it's more technically accurate, but when I hear batted I think a kitten swiping gently at a piece of string. And judging from the photos snapped by the medics before they carted your guy away, there was nothing gentle about the beating you gave him. It's not every day a man literally spits teeth. But as soon as he stopped resisting, you dropped the bat, and called in the cavalry. And a review of the video will confirm all of this?” I nodded.
“Well I think you pulled me out of bed for nothing.” I frowned at him. “Vehicle with this proximity to your domicile is legally a part of your home. So this homeless piece of trash invaded your home. Which gives you every right to beat the ever-loving shit out of him.” He paused an instant. “Sorry, there, audience, I meant 'poop.'”
“But who was he?” I asked.
“Scum,” Martens said. “If you really want to know, you've got access to the same databases I do. But if you want a word of advice. You really don't want to know. As somebody who's been in those shoes, reading about how Dickensian the guy's life was is only going to make it harder to finish your case. Justice is about seeing that people get what's coming to them; it's only human to sometimes feel lousy about how that plays out. But it's your psyche; damage it at your leisure.”
Martens not acting adversarial put me on edge. Maybe that was because I wasn't going after him. Maybe he thought my beating a man half to death gave him some leverage. Or maybe beating a man half to death made him feel like we had more in common than he thought. Whatever it was, I wanted him to go back to antagonizing me, because this détente was worse.
As soon as he was gone I went back inside and queried the database. I was sure he was right, on some level, that knowing the sob stories of criminals wasn't really going to help. But I nearly murdered a man at the demand of a braying public; I needed to know what kind of man I almost killed.
The sext show as back in full swing, only enough of an audience had appeared for it to justify video chatting. They were role-playing, me and the burglar, only in the show it was now a lady burglar, and it wasn't a bat I hit her with. Under nearly any other circumstances I would have been at least flattered, if not outright aroused.
But I was distracted reading up on Charles Dean. He was, for all intents, scum. He got failed out of a series of schools for multiple attempts to sell drugs to kids. The administrators at the time showed mercy, reported it administratively, rather than calling the cops. At least some of the time. He spent a few years total in juvie for a handful of different offenses. And his adulthood ran much the same way. He had been in and out of court-mandated rehab programs for years.
I was almost starting to feel justified, even self-righteous. This far from the pound of bloodlust, and now that I had a sex show being performed in my honor, my rating increased again. Maybe I deserved to watch a pornographic tribute. I caught a line of dialog from the chat, “SexyPredator: I wanted to get caught in your back seat, so that you'd punish me by getting into mine.” To emphasize, the actress stroked her rump enticingly.
My momentary self-congratulation died when I hit the dependents section of Dean's file. He had a wife, and a kid, and I couldn't not see Tara and Max in them. She worked when she could, but both her and the kid had ill health, and thanks to this being a right-to-work state, her employers didn't put up with any absences whatsoever. I was surprised I even had some information on the family's financials. Roughly 70% of their income came from Charles, and he was going to prison- once he got out of the hospital- which I was sure they'd bill him for.
A shiver shot through me. All of this, over a receiver? A receiver I hadn't even wanted to buy. Jesus.
I closed the video chat window, and started to strip off my clothes. I ignored the innuendos coming from the chat, and muted it, then remembered to engage the autocensor. I needed a shower. Maybe forty.
I checked my messages. Chase's friend had moved my car a couple of miles north and east. I called a pay car; it was obnoxious, having to spend the money for it, when I had a car of my own. But it reminded me of using my own car in the same capacity, while I was working through my tutoring degree.
The tape was there, on the driver's side. I worried about the other side; what if IA had been smart enough to get into the other side to tamper with my car. I pulled up the camera from where I parked initially, as well as the camera from when the car arrived here, and hit play on both in fast motion. A few people paid too much attention to the car as they walked by; one even tested the handle to see if it had been left unlocked. But no one got into the car. I knew it was possible for the footage itself to be doctored, but the time and resources for that were prohibitive enough I didn't even want to consider it.
The car started fine. I got in and drove away without incident. I watched my rearview, and even pulled up cameras as I passed to see if anyone was following me- not that that made much sense, since my home address was essentially public information.
I got enough into the routine of driving home that I didn't even consider the possibility that someone could have broken into my home to wait for me until I was shutting the door behind myself. But one glance around my apartment told me no one else had been here since the morning.
I felt like crap. I wanted to take a twelve hour shower. But I knew I needed sleep, first, and to rinse myself with whatever time I had left. I collapsed into bed, stripping out of only the least comfortable layers before sliding underneath the covers.
But lying in bed I couldn't sleep.
With the monitoring authorities also in bed, my chat had been taken over by a couple putting on a live sext show for tips. On any other night I probably would have laid back and watched, but I was still covered in camera spores, and wasn't eager to put on a show of my own.
I turned on the TV screen on my wall, and my interface dimmed to compensate. I lazily kept one eye on the chat; if it sounded hot I could archive it for when I had more privacy.
I scrolled through the available channels. I hated cable; my subscription got me access to the channels, but 90% of programming, essentially anything you couldn't get at some point in the year on one of the public stations, had an additional fee. Not that the fiber or satellite options were any better, in that regard.
I hit the wrong button scrolling through, and a local news program began to load. I saw the micropayment autodeducted from my account in the top right corner of my interface. Apparently I was watching this. I sighed, heavily.
The local news was carefully crafted with a combination of stories that were so dull they began to lull you to sleep, but were peppered with stories so horrifying you would never want to sleep again. I turned down the volume.
I noticed I had a message, from Tara. It was video of Max, along with a handful of stills. He was rampaging through a block city, snarling and whooping.
I heard a noise outside, and jumped up out of bed. I pulled up the camera outside, and could see there was someone in my car.
The audience saw it, too- apparently they got a feed for any camera I pulled up. The sext show ended abruptly, as the audience demanded I take action. “I'll call the police,” I said aloud. I opened a call, and got the number input in when I saw my approval drop several points. I disconnected. And widened the chat window.
They audience was demanding that I take care of it myself. Apparently, they'd been watching too much investigating; now they wanted action. The sentiment could probably be summed up by this one statement: “Randals10InPen15: You can wait for the police to show up late, if they ever do, or you can use those special powers granted you by the CDA and deal with it yourself.”
Unlike with Liana, this wasn't new rage. This jerk, or at least jerks like him, had been costing me money for years- costing me sleep, costing me sanity. It was hard to feel safe with a steady stream of assholes breaking into the car parked a few feet outside your home. And the money hadn't been trivial, either. I'd probably spent a couple of months' wages on replacing crap stolen from my car. I wanted to hurt him.
The year before, I had a meth-head I was tutoring. His parole was very specific. He had to stay clean, had to get his GED, then had to get a job. There were timetables associated with it. He was freaking out about the test. The pressure got to him enough that he went back to using, and completely missed the test. So he got really high, and somehow blamed me for not calming him down, and tried to bust my door in. He was high, not superhuman, but having someone that out of his mind smashing on your door all night will open your eyes. He arrived before midnight. I called them after a few minutes, when I realized there was no reasoning with him, and he was liable to hurt some innocent passerby. At 5 in the morning I called again, and mentioned he was violating his very strict parole, and would be going back to jail. They showed ten minutes later. I never looked at law enforcement the same.
Besides shaking my faith in the police, it convinced me to get something for home defense. I was dating someone depressive tendencies at the time, and she asked that I not buy a gun; she felt like it would threaten her safety, as well. I couldn't blame her. So I picked up a tee ball bat at a garage sale. It still had a little green price sticker on it. I kept it by the door, though I hadn't had reason to use it before now.
I grabbed it, and was reminded of how light it was. I could swing it one-handed with ease. Though I knew from playing baseball back in high school PE that swinging it was the easy part. It was when the bat connected that you needed all that power to follow through.
I opened the door. The window blowing in my face was bracing, and I shivered. I approached the car from the passenger side. The locks were already disengaged. The thief was hunched over the central panel. He had an improvised tool that he was using to try to get at my receiver. The rest of the car had been essentially passed over.
His foot dangled out of the car, jostling as he worked at the receiver. I grabbed him by the bare ankle and yanked him clear. He knocked his head, first on the central panel, then on the lip of the doorframe. It made him groggy by the time his head hit the concrete.
I kept dragging him, clear of the car, so I could swing with impunity. He tried to get up, put his hands on the concrete and started a push-up, then put his knee beneath himself. I raised the bat over my head, and brought it down. The resulting clang was satisfying; the crunch of bone that accompanied it turned my stomach.
He tried to get up a second time. I raised the bat in almost a golf swing, but as I brought the weapon around, he raised his hand up to deflect it, and the result smashed the skin on his hand open, and likely shattered bones.
He rolled onto his side, and grabbed at my car door handle to pull himself up. I swung again, and the blow glanced off his shoulder, and hit him in the face. The impact knocked him off his balance, and he landed face-first onto the concrete. Blood and white flecks hit my foot. The white flecks were shards of broken teeth.
My approval rating swelled to over 52%. A chant of “Finish Him” reverberated through the chat. At my hesitation, my numbers started dropping again.
There was a bloodied hand-print smeared down my car door. I looked at the bat in my hand, bloodied as well. The damage to the thief was extensive, but he wasn't dead. I realized the lack of weight behind the swings was the only thing that saved him.
“Enough,” I bellowed, and dropped the bat. “I'm calling the cops.”
Crimson Heron was set up in a thoroughly modern building, by which I mean every ridiculous accoutrement they could piss money away on, they did. The glass walls inside the lobby were all covered in film screens- the same tech as my lenses, but several stories high- covered with lush custom programming with production values to rival a feature film. The top of the screen was taken up by a black bar that showed the stock value of Crimson Heron, as well as its affiliates and Sontem's other subsidiary's. If profligacy were a religion, I was standing in the middle of its Vatican.
I walked up to the reception desk. “My brother was here the other day,” I said to the receptionist, sharing John's ID. “I'm going to need to talk to whoever he met with.”
“I'm sorry, sir, but that's not how we work here.”
“It will be today,” I said. “My brother's dead, and I'm looking into his death- deputized to that end.”
“One moment,” she said. She placed a call through her interface, and the red telephone symbol appeared over her face. “I have an advocate here, demanding to speak to one of our executives. His brother was murdered.” She was speaking with legal, or whoever else in their hierarchy was supposed to shield their top people from the outside world. She let out a sigh, then turned back towards me. The phone icon disappeared from her face. “All right,” she said. “I'll find out who your brother met with, and call them down. It will take a few minutes, if you'd like to take a seat.”
She gestured to some leather couches facing the film walls, and I sat down. The moment I did I got another message. “Investigator Tip: Check your chat. Right fucking now.”
As soon as I did, a new user made her first statement. “SanJeneldeClaws: Just found out something interesting. FartGobbler/ShartGurgler/TurdGargler is in the same building as you right now. I'm sending you GPS coordinates.”
A loading bar appeared at the bottom of my screen, but unlike normal, there wasn't any option to cancel the installation. When it was done, I had a new GPS marker, both on my location map, and physically floating at the position where FG was. He was a couple of floors above mine.
Damnit, Jenel. The chat erupted, demanding blood. Some wanted Jenel's, but the rest wanted the troll's. I wanted both. I called up my input, and typed out a private message. “Why do that publicly? You've signed my death warrant.” I sent it.
Her reply was almost instantaneous. “I know. It'll be fun to watch.”
I started another. “If he sees me coming, he'll just have security throw me out.”
“Not at all. I hid that message from his interface. He saw a spambot hocking a penis enlarging cream.”
A man with curly hair exited the elevators. He was sweating like he'd just finished a six minute mile, but his suit was heavy enough you could only see it in his face.
“Conrad?” he asked, as if he didn't know it was me. “Parker.”
“You want to talk here?” I asked.
He pondered it. “No. There's an executive conference room on my floor. More private. More comfortable. And you don't have to go blind from the light show,” he nodded at the film on the wall. “Follow me.”
We got into the elevator. I glanced at the pad, and a red message flashed across my interface, “No access.” A small percentage of the population couldn't use lens tech, mostly because of allergies to nano or the specific alloys used in the designs. Pads in elevators weren't legally required, but companies that wanted to appear progressive installed them, anyway.
He selected the tenth floor. “How did know my brother?” I asked.
“Not here,” he said, and pointed to his eye, then to the upper corner of the elevator. The cameras inside the elevator were too small to see with the human eye, but I was old enough to get the gesture- from when they weren't.
The elevator toned as we reached his floor. He tried not to make eye contact as we walked through the office, not with anybody. He locked eyes with the receptionist, an Asian man in his early twenties, clean shaven, before they both looked abruptly away. Once we were inside the conference room he locked the door. “Recording off,” he said, and sighed.
“More discreet?” I asked.
“What would it take to make this go away?” he asked. Jesus, this guy was an idiot. Apparently, legal hadn't briefed him, in the slightest. They were leaving him dangling in the wind.
“Me finding my brother's killer,” I said. “Until then, I'm on this case.”
Another message appeared over my interface. “Investigator Tip: An advocacy may be terminated in the event that a case can be made that a crime was random, and that the perpetrator had no ties to the victim, and none of the evidence links definitively to any individual. This is a conclusion of exclusion; all other paths must be rigorously investigated, and all other explanations disproven.”
“You should take a seat,” he said, and pointed at a chair across the thin part of the conference table. I did, and he sat down opposite me.
“Why was my brother here yesterday?” I asked.
“Why do you think?”
“Evasiveness only makes me want to dig deeper into you. Don't make yourself a suspect if you're only a witness.”
He closed his eyes. I think he understood on some level I wasn't his enemy, or even trying to antagonize him. “You know what he did, right? Professionally? Well, he was here, doing that.”
“In your office?”
“We were celebrating,” he said, a little indignantly. They really did live differently up here.
“When did you meet John?” I asked.
“I didn't even know his name was John. But I met him back in school- I got my MBA at the local satellite school. I was always the worst combination of anxious and ambitious. I'd get worked up over a test and just flatten the moment I sat down to take it. Stuff I knew, just,” he blew out a breath of air. “And it got to a point where I couldn't relax. Because I was getting so bad that I was convinced I was going to get kicked out of school. Then that got so bad that I could barely sleep, like maybe an hour a night. So my roommate at the time introduces me to your brother. At least around me, he always used an alias- always the name of the star of the most recent best picture. So one year he was Leo, the next Harvey. You know, always different. And he'd act offended if you didn't know his new name. It was a, almost a game,” he smiled.
“I'm sorry,” he said. “They told me you were here because he's dead. He was an acquaintance who made me smile, but you, you're family. I lost my great aunt last year. I can't imagine having to put off grieving to go charging into an investigation like this.”
“I appreciate your condolences.” I felt like I was lying saying that; I wasn't mourning because the parts of my brother worth mourning I'd lost years ago.
“But for the first time I could really, truly fricking relax. And then when I needed to focus I could take a hit of the right stuff, and there was no test or anxiety I couldn't blow through. And then when I needed to party...” he swallowed. “Partying's the only part I still do. I don't really get anxious anymore. But sometimes, when you've closed a big deal, and a little rum in the Coke at the pizza party just isn't enough to get that cute receptionist to come back to your office... that might be the only kind of shyness I've got left.”
“How did your interaction with my brother go?” I asked.
“Like these things go, man,” he said, and frowned. “You really are nothing like him.”
I'd been hearing that my entire life- but usually the person meant it in a, “You're not a low-life scumbag” way. “Walk me through it,” I said.
“Okay. He kept a burner phone, like, an old-school cell. He changes it up every year, or if somebody he knows gets busted- whichever happens first. When he does, he get in touch with all of his clients to give them the new number. So I called him. We've been dealing with each other long enough to know the routine. So long as there hasn't been too big of a price hike the difference don't mean shit to me; all we really need to square things is how much I need, and of what.”
“And what was it this time?”
“Cocaine. It's pretty much always cocaine, anymore. I don't need to take the edge off, or the extra focus. I just need to have fun, and, you know, once you've had a coke-fueled office orgy, it's kind of hard to go back to just egg nog.”
“And when he came by to deliver? How was he?”
“Everything seemed fine.”
“He wasn't tense?” I asked.
“Not that I noticed. I think that could be a professional courtesy; people buying drugs are already on edge, so giving them more reason to be paranoid is likely to freak people out worse.”
“But he wasn't distracted, wasn't concerned, agitated, anything?” Because I sure as hell would be, if I was being squeezed from either side by different drug cartels.
“He did have an appointment,” he said. “I don't know why, but I'd been feeling nostalgic, started waxing on about the olden days, when he'd used to bring stuff right to my dorm. He cut me off, because he had places to be.”
“Is there anything else you can tell me?” I asked.
“Nothing that springs to mind.”
I shared my contact information. “You might want to do the same,” I said. “In case I have a follow-up. It would be easier- and I imagine less disruptive, if I could just give you a call.” An instant later a message arrived with his information.
“I really am sorry about your brother. He was a decent guy, all things considered.”
“What things are you considering?” I asked.
“Well, for starters that his job description was essentially, 'Not a decent guy'. But he was always nice to me. And not just in the paying customer way; a lot of people kiss my ass, but not as many as you'd think are actually kind. I mean, I'll take that over the alternative, but it was nice, is what I'm saying, a positive kind of change of pace. And I'll miss him. Do you, um,” he frowned, and licked his lips, “sorry about this, but I don't really know the protocol, but do you know how to get in touch with his partner?”
“John's partner?” I asked.
“Yeah. I knew he had one; mentioned him a couple of times.”
“In what context?”
“Literally just that he had one. I think once in a strength in numbers, wolves running in a pack sort of way. But that's it, the sum totality of it.”
“I'll probably see him around,” I said noncommittally. But I realized as soon as I'd said it that there was no such thing as being noncommittal when it came to introducing someone to their new drug dealer. My rating dropped. “I think I know the way out,” I said.
I took a step toward the door, then spun back around. “Can you think of any reason to hurt John?”
“Kill somebody to cover up drugs? That's like wetting the bed, and killing your parents so they don't find out. It's insane.”
“Yeah,” I said. I walked out of the conference room. The receptionist looked sheepish at me. I tried to give him a reassuring smile as I walked back, because I had no intention to get him into trouble.
As soon as the elevator doors closed around me, I called Martens with IA. He picked up on the second tone.
“Martens?” I asked. “Did my brother have an appointment with you?”
He was silent for a moment. “I don't know how that's pertinent to your investigation.”
“Well, my interview at CHT indicates he had an appointment to get to once he left here. You helpfully erased parts of his back-up, and those parts would have included the appointment in question. So it would be useful to know if that was the appointment, or if I need to keep looking.”
“He might have called in, to see if anyone in IA was available to talk to him. But that's as much as I can say.”
“Fine,” I said, and disconnected. I didn't feel like wishing him a good bye.
He called them. That seemed like important information. Did it mean he was going to inform to them. Did it mean he already was? I buried the thought, because I'd had it a hundred times. As a family member of someone as lost as John, you scoured his behavior, picked apart his word choices, looking for any possible indication he was going straight. Which inevitably led to anguish and recrimination, because even the times when John truly attempted cleaning up his life, it was a tough road to travel. He'd been out of the job market long enough that employers asked questions, and even if he hadn't, whatever skills he once had were degraded to a point where he was basically a freshly minted high schooler- only without the recent practice with math. So I refused to do that again, to get my hopes up only to have them dashed, one final time.
I was in a noticeably sour mood when Jenel's GPS locater appeared below me as the elevator descended. I wanted to stop on FG's floor, and kick the hell out of the little troll. There was no excuse for screwing with somebody's life like that, and knowing they were close enough to hit with a thrown stone made my blood boil all the hotter. But I didn't have access to the elevator panel; it was automatically taking me to the ground floor.
The elevator stopped at the third floor. Then the doors opened. A message from Jenel popped on my interface. “You're welcome,” she said. I hesitated. Was I going to get tackled by security ten steps in? Worse, was I going to get in far enough to beat the hell out of a stranger? Being enraged was one thing, but confronting someone with that anger was stupid. For an instant I hoped that I could pause long enough for the elevator to close back up, and continue on its way. Perhaps someone had simply called it then changed their mind.
I noticed the chat rallying. They had forgotten Jenel's initial transgression, and were now baying for a troll's blood. And by not giving it to them I could watch as my rating counted down like a timer. Goddamnit.
I stopped off the elevator, and it closed behind me. I glanced at the receptionist for this floor. He was uninterested. He was dressed much better than me; I realized I stood out for that fact.
So I needed to hurry, because it really was only a matter of time before someone called security. The red arrow got bigger as I walked through the cubicles. Cubes were mostly a relic of a bygone era, because they were deliriously expensive. Working from home saw a slight decline in productivity, but unless your company was ridiculously profitable, you didn't furnish this kind of building then fill it with employees.
Which meant the cycle was usually that a growing company would build up like this, then slowly sell off its assets as it went, cutting employees and shrinking, year over year, until it faded away. CHT was on that upward trend, now, but no company could sustain that kind of growth indefinitely, and stockholders have always been vampires; they demand blood, and they'll drink as readily from a company's slit throat as from its spoils.
I was deep enough in my musing that I didn't realize that I was staring at FG, or rather, at three people where the arrow was located. The tallest was a man with dirty blonde hair, handsome in the romance book cover sense of the word. I assumed from his look, and from the way he carried himself, the way he laughed and looked at his workmate for confirmation, that he was one of the last fratboys. Frats survived brick and mortar schools by about a decade, before a series of incidents led to schools nationwide disavowing them.
The workmate was a little more nuanced. He was a follower, the kind of man who had the kind of personality that saw him clinging to someone more socially mobile. Either one of these three-piece douches would have made sense as FG, and they both had punchable goddamned faces.
As I approached I turned my attention to the last member of their group- or really not of their group. She was a short, portly woman with frazzled hair and frumpy clothes. She was carrying a stack of folders piled precariously high, and it was clear from her body language that she was put out. She just wanted by, but the other two blocked her way.
As I approached I heard conversation that sounded like an alien language. They were encrypting their speech, so that only she heard what they were saying. Just as I realized I was thankful I couldn't understand- I got more than enough from their expressions and tone- Jenel helpfully hacked their encryption, and I heard, “as I know your fucking aching for it, that I can see your knees quivering, and can smell your quim moistening, I just couldn't live with myself if I fucked a pig like you. So it hurts me, really, not to be able to give you the pity lay that might fucking save your life. Because I'd have to kill myself. And gun to your head, I think we'd all be better off with you out of your misery.” My fists clenched. I was going to break the douche's jaw, then stomp his balls to a paste to feed to his little scrotal parasite, and then feed the whole parasite into his ass so the world could know by looking at them they there were two symbiotic parts of a douchey whole.
Only I noticed that the arrow wasn't stopping on him. It was on the woman, whose name clearly showed as Liana Thompson. The dirty blonde turned towards his friend, and exaggerated a swing of his arm, knocking it into Liana's folders. I watched it in slow motion, as they tumbled, while she was powerless to try and hold on. And they cascaded, each one pulling the next in succession until she was left holding a stack not a tenth as high.
I was back to wanting to punch the douche. I used their broken encryption to send my own speech their way, just so they knew I heard everything they'd said. “Move along, fratboy,” I started, and he was startled. It took him a moment to put together that I'd heard them, and that I was intervening. A glance at me would have brought up my credentials, but he was balling up his fists all the same. “I'm a deputized citizen advocate, and I don't think I'd even have to stretch to call what you just did assault. I've had a lousy day, and I could really use an excuse to break your justice obstructing face over the edge of this cube wall.” I patted the barrier for emphasis.
He glared, but it lasted all of a fraction of a second before they walked off. Liana was already kneeling, and putting her folders back into a stack she could carry. I dropped to my knee to help, and we did our work in silence.
When we had stacked them back in her arms, we both stood.
She recognized me. She had to. I wanted her to say something. But I realized there wasn't anything she could say, anything she could do. There was no apology big enough for it, no expression of shame that would make me feel better. I'd become a football team she rallied behind or, maybe in her case, a rival team she despised with every fiber of her being. We'd both been dehumanized to a point where I didn't think there was a thing to do, other than be shaken to our cores at how easy it really was to make a person into a thing. She nodded to me, and scurried back and away.
I wanted it all to make sense. That she was bullied at work seemed more karmic than explanatory. The whole damn thing was about as unsatisfactory as it could have been. Worse, I had the violent equivalent to blue balls; blue fists? My blood was pumping, and I needed some kind of conflict.
I kept my irritation bottled up until I was back in the elevator. Then I called Jenel.
“You said it was a he,” I said through clenched teeth.
“Should that matter? Also, you said it was a he, and I played along.”
“It matters, and you know it, and you understand why.”
“Enlighten me. I'm bigger, and in better shape. And for all that I'd liked to have taken a swing at TurdGargler- that woman wasn't it. Maybe some sliver of her was.”
“So for her humanity, you couldn't strike her down- when it was her online lack of humanity that led you to confront her in the first place.”
“I'm not sure what you're getting at.”
“I don't know that I'm getting at anything,” she said. “I find the entire exercise intriguing, but sometimes learning about people is the only motive I have.”
“And what did you learn?”
“That you aren't a bad guy. No matter how hard you get pushed.”
“What if it's going to take a bad guy to survive this investigation?”
She paused. “Well I'll hope it doesn't come down to that.”
TurdGargler posted a link in the chat room as I walked out of IA. “TurdGargler: I'm horrified by this game I found posted under the name DukeGagger. What does everyone else think?” I opened it up. It was a rudimentary game where you could shoot a picture of John by tapping on the photo. Everywhere you clicked, a realistic gunshot would appear. There was an 'alternate firing mode' where you could shoot semen at him from a CG penis. The game encouraged you to use both, to more accurately portray John's death.
Petunia warned TG, but he claimed he was just joining the conversation, hadn't created the game, and wanted other people to denounce it as loudly as he had. I lost several more points, after that, as he ginned up another protest over censorship. I sighed heavily. I wanted to hit someone. But they were random assholes on the internet, and I learned pretty early in life that punching wifi antennae didn't do the trick.
Chase was waiting outside the police department for me, inside his car. “If it isn't my favorite puddle of Santorum,” he said. “Sorry audience; I know you hate the commercial breaks, but your eyeballs mean more money into the DCA program. You're helping stop crime by being pissed off. Plus, it's fun pissing you off. Police override.”
“You know you cost me points every time you do that, right?”
“So?” he asked. “It's not a popularity contest. It's a check and a balance on the extra police powers you've got as an advocate. And the freaks who watch that shit like it's a reality show- are about the unstablest collection of what I'd generously call humanity imaginable. I hate the audience. But I didn't come here to talk about my loathing. How did things go with IA?”
“Strangely,” I said.
“They're pricks. In this particular case, it's starting to look like they're crooked pricks. Martens, by the way, isn't the liaison with the DCA.” I frowned. “The entire office is bugged. We did that years ago, to catch anybody stupid enough to try and corroborate a lie while they're in the police station. He works IA, that much is true. But his interest in your brother... it doesn't exactly feel kosher. The main reason I'm here is to make sure you get away from the station.”
“Why would that be a problem?”
“Because IA are little better than gangsters. They're the only cops left who have any autonomy at all. And there's nobody watching the people who ostensibly watch the watchers- so without oversight, they've become as if not more corrupt than we were at the height of the bad old days. Nobody's giving them a tank, so I guess that's a positive difference, but they control the tactical response team. They're not quite as militarized as SWAT, but I guarantee if John Q. Public got a lens-full of it in action, they'd dismantle IA that afternoon. They won't, though. IA have it set up so everybody around them loses connection to the grid except them. That's the real reason they won't do a raid into the dead zones, by the way. They can't control the pirate networks, so they can't stop news from getting out.”
“What about my car?” I asked.
“I'll have a buddy of mine move it for you.” I creased my brow. “He'll be fine. IA isn't going to put a bomb in your car.” He thought about it. “Not this fast, anyway. That's why we're moving it.”
“Do you really think they might?”
“I think whatever's going on, they're willing to do quite a lot to keep it shut the hell up. And I wouldn't make bets with your safety where they'd draw that line. So keep your head down, keep investigating, and watch your ass.”
“You don't think that solves the murder? He knew something they didn't want getting out, and killed him for it.”
“That's a theory, kid. Fits most of the facts. But it's about as useful in court as a wet fart unless you can back it up. If I had to put money to it, though... they probably didn't kill your brother. It's just not their style. They'd have framed him for a crime, or blackmailed him into cooperating. Murder's a last resort, mostly because it means there's a concerned family member wandering around asking uncomfortable questions. The IA connection is interesting, but I doubt it's relevant beyond that. And the only way to prove either hypothesis is to keep on going with the investigation. They give you his interface?”
I'd forgotten. “Yeah,” I said, and opened it up. At that precise moment, the chat came back on. My rating dipped a few more points. I opened his schedule. He had a long series of stops to make, the ones we tracked on his GPS. Before those, there was the stop at IA. There were several blocks of data corrupted, a few sentences of description lost. “They cleaned off any information about themselves.”
“Duh,” Chase said. “That's why they took it in the first place. But what else is there? You've still got an investigation to complete- which means you need leads.” I sighed huffily. I liked the IA angle, and chasing anything else felt like willfully ignoring the elephant holding the smoking gun. “And it's possible that they left you clues inadvertently- that the things that are now missing will paint a picture, too.”
He was trying to prod me along the right path, and if nothing else he was right. Whining about it wasn't going to get the wiped memory back. “Next he's got a stop at 'CHT.'” I started up a search, cross-referencing his GPS comings and goings with the initials.
“Crimson Heron Technologies,” Chase said, as if I should have recognized it. “Sontem subsidiary. A lot of lens tech comes from them.” I turned towards him, at least as well as my seatbelt would allow. “They had an active shooter on their 'campus' a few years ago. I got tasked with doing the background, in case they needed to prep the negotiator. Instead, tactical shot him through a window,” he said nonchalantly.
“You don't seem broken up about an execution,” I said.
“You wouldn't either, if you remembered the case. Jerkass believed his wife was sleeping with his boss. So he went on a killing spree in the office. But he didn't start with the boss; didn't even check to see if he was in. Killed his secretary, and a whole lot of innocent bystanders. But neither of the people he was pissed off at- who, incidentally, weren't banging. She was fucking his neighbor, the boss was fucking his secretary- both of them were cheating on their spouses, but neither with whom he thought. So an angry, impotent prick opening fire in his office place? I don't mind summary execution. Had he been a dad or a mom having a nervous breakdown because they lost custody of their kids, who took some folks hostage but didn't ultimately hurt anybody? Then I'd maybe have some leeway. But when you start killing people just for being in proximity, I tend to get old testament pretty quick.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I'm feeling mighty wrathful right about now.”
“Good. Fury's a part of being a detective. But you've got to channel it. Use it to smash through the usual socials barriers, like being too polite to accuse someone of murder, or to intimidate them into talking about something that would usually embarrass them too much to mention.”
The car stopped. “Pep talks over. You're here. I'll send you a message as to where you can find your car. He'll leave a single piece of tape with his initials on it. If the tape's gone, or looks like it's been moved or cut, don't get into the car.”
“Seems awfully cloak and dagger,” I said.
“Kid, IA are the cloak and dagger brigade. If they are involved, no amount of paranoia is too much.”
I made it into the lobby before a man with slicked back hair found me. “Conrad, right?” he asked. I nodded, and he put out his hand. “I'm Detective Martens. I'm, I guess you could call me a liaison with the DCA. But I work with IA. My colleague, Detective Chase, was kind enough let me know you were going to be dropping by.”
Chase saw the both of us talking from his desk, flipped us the finger, and smiled.
“He's a retarded child,” Martens said. “I'd like to take you into one of the old interrogation rooms. There aren't a lot of quiet, discreet places to talk. But that's one of them.”
He took a few steps, then glanced behind to make sure I was following him. “You think you want a coffee, some water?”
“I think I'm all right,” I said.
“Okay.” The door opened up in front of him, and I followed him inside.
He took the side with his back to a mirror. There was only one other chair, on the opposite side. I sat down.
“How's your investigation going?” he asked.
“Two viable suspects, so far,” I said.
“I thought you IDed a man at the scene,” he said.
“Jim was there. He doesn't deny it. All I've got is Jim at the scene, but not necessarily when it mattered. And him being there doesn't mean somebody else didn't come, too. But it's looking like I might have to look into John's underworld contacts. His friend, slash partner, says they were caught in the middle of a turf war.”
“What's your read?” he asked.
“I kind of have trouble with motive for the girlfriend. She seemed to be carrying a flame, and be hopeful it would still work out. I know John well enough not to be so optimistic, but I believed her, for what that's worth.”
“The other” Martens asked.
“His partner? He's a criminal by his own admission, so just about everything with him is suspect. He was with him the night he died. He claims he left him alive after an argument.”
“Did you think about bringing him in?”
“I was interrogating him in a dead zone.”
“Ah. What do you think about that?”
“Well, smugglers spend a lot of their time in dead zones.”
“You don't think he maybe went to ground in the dead zone?”
“I don't think that proves much of anything. If my partner turned up dead, I'd go to ground, too; doesn't mean he killed him.”
“Why all the interest in my brother? He was a low-level drug smuggler, maybe a bit of dealing on the side.”
“Your brother was part of an open Internal Affairs investigation.”
“Investigation into what, exactly?”
“We've suspected for some time that someone from within the police department is behind drug smuggling within the city. We've even tracked some of the drugs from the evidence lock-up back out onto the streets.”
“And what does that have to do with John?”
“He was working,” he stopped himself, “I can't really comment who he was working for.” Even saying that much made him uncomfortable. “Police override.” All of the DCA components in my interface disappeared; he gave it a moment to make sure all of the cameras disconnected, as well, then leaned forward, and said in a conspiratorial voice. “Here's the thing. There are parts of your brother's investigation that we can't discuss with a member of the public- not even an advocate like yourself. The information is sensitive; it could hamper the investigation, possibly put the rest of our undercovers in danger.” The rest? That raised my hackles further. He wasn't so much as hinting at the idea, as slapping me in the mouth with it. He wanted me to think John was an undercover cop without saying it- which all but guaranteed that he wasn't.
I got a private message from Chase, with a link to some video. It showed me and Martens entering the interrogation room. It panned, and a pair of detectives entered into the room labeled 'Observation' beside it. I glanced behind Martens, at the mirrored wall, which I realized was one-way, how old-fashioned. Why the hell were there cops there, watching me?
My DCA apps came back online. The chat was full of complaining. They hated the commercial pauses. I noticed my approval rating drop several points, for the inconvenience. But the moment I was back, I noticed a new message in the chat. “ShartGurgler: Too busy jerking off over your dead brother to investigate? Just put these in your spank bank and get back to work.” Then she posted a series of pictures. Dozens of them. She had photoshopped John's face into photos of hardcore gay torture porn- hardcore enough that it looked one step removed from a snuff film.
“Petunia2039-mod: smote ShartGurgler with a swing of the mighty ban hammer.”
ShartGurgler's messages, and mercifully the photos, disappeared.
Immediately an uproar began in the chat over censorship, largely blaming me. Petunia tried to defend me, since I had no say in who she banned and why, but it didn't seem to matter. The controversy was stoked in particular by TurdGargler. I messaged Petunia, and asked what the protocol was with banning. “Once a citizen is banned from the room, their IP is logged and they are supposed to stay away. But the accounts are anonymous to allow for a free exchange of ideas, without fear of reprisal. Since TurdGargler has a different IP, if he says he's not ShartGurgler, I have to believe it.” I lost several more points.
I got another message from Chase. “John's interface?” was all it said. I hadn't thought of that. If he was shot in the chest, and there wasn't any further damage to his skull, he should have had his stored information intact. But the ME didn't mention it, and I hadn't thought to ask.
“Do you know what happened to my brother's interface?”
Martens narrowed his eyes. “We requested it for analysis.”
“Did the ME get a chance to examine it first?”
“Because of the... sensitivity of the information, we wanted to evaluate it ourselves, first. ME pulled the equipment first thing, and handed it to our officer.”
“She didn't mention it.”
He seemed annoyed by the implication. “It's standard procedure,” he soothed.
“Now that you've evaluated it, am I going to have access to it for my investigation?”
“Give me a second.” He typed out a message into a virtual input. “Okay,” he said. “Looks like we've got about another twenty minutes or so before our techs will be finished.”
“All the information intact?” I asked, because I knew the answer.
“We've had some corruption problems. Your brother was running a lot of illegal mods- anyone working in the underground has to. But they aren't all tested as well as they should.”
“What about memory tower back-ups?” I asked.
“We're not sure he had back-ups. The place they were supposed to be was blank- wrecked by his mods. But that seemed intentional- like a man dying of tumors burning his porn so his wife and kids don't have to deal with it later. Computer forensics is looking into it, but he might have had a back-up on one of the dead servers.”
He got a message. Probably the two watching, telling him to shut up, because this seemed like a legitimate slip.
“If there is a back-up on the dead servers, could you even get to it?”
He sighed. “They don't like cops, and mostly don't cooperate with us. Sometimes, if we've got something they want, we can trade- if the information's important enough. And, sometimes, it's worth our while to raid a dead zone- but only in the most extreme circumstances.”
“And these circumstances?”
He smiled. “Unless we find out your brother was Hitler bin Laden, I don't think we need to see what was on his mind that badly.”
“Not even to solve his murder.”
“I get that his death matters to you, and the rest of his friends and family. But a raid? People will die- cops and pirates. To solve one murder? Maybe if it were a political assassination. But solving the murder of one dealer? I'm not paying for that with innocent blood.”
I checked the clock. Less than fives minutes until John's data was clear. “I think that answers all my questions,” I said. “How about getting that coffee now?”
“Sure,” Martens said. He kicked out of his chair, and opened the door out for me. He led the way to the break room. I noted that Chase wasn't at his desk any longer.
Martens showed me where the recyclable cups were, and mumbled something about a busy day. I set myself up with my cup where I could watch the door to the Observation room while I sipped it. I got a message telling me that John's interface back-up was available. I loaded it, so I could look at it whenever I needed it- and because I didn't trust that it would stay available.
After a few minutes sipping my coffee and waiting, the two detectives inside Observation filtered out. I caught eyes with one of them, and nodded.
My interface showed their names and credentials. Internal Affairs Detectives Burnes and Moone. Moone pretended not to notice me, and walked back towards the elevator. Burnes continued to look in my direction, and a little smile grew over his lips.
I tried to ignore the hellstorm roiling in the chat as I walked. But with every step, the poison seemed to burn hotter, its venom becoming ever more pure. I knew engaging wasn't a good strategy for me, personally, that I was as likely to bring more buzzards. Half a dozen comments flew by that got my fingers into the home position, before I cooled myself off. So when this message flashed across the chat, I already had my input ready, “PuntGunter: You should have shut up that communist cunt with a slap. Closed fist or pref. Dick.”
I started to tap out a reply, but realized halfway through that it was immolating myself in the hope that it would scare the monster away. Then a follow-up message arrived. “ShartGurgler: Definitely the D; women only get that political when they haven't been dicked hard enough.” That made the decision for me.
“ME: All right, that's enough. You want to have a debate over the woman's politics, you want to criticize some aspect of her job or the questions I asked, fine. But the sexist shit ends, now, or I'll personally punt you and your Gunter out, personally.”
I felt pretty pleased with myself, until my rating halved in a matter of seconds. I wondered what spending several months in prison for pissing off jerks on the internet would be like.
But then the women in the chat seemed to rally around a chatter named LeslieBien, and my approval rebounded, and even gained a handful of points. I was still only in the middle forties, but after seeing myself in the low twenties, I'd take it.
I didn't have time to celebrate. I got a message that my GPS/camera query was done rendering. I didn't remember making a request, but right on the tail of that I got a private message from Chase.
“Kid, took the liberty of ordering a deep track of your brother's comings and goings. He was using a ghosted GPS, and from a quick db search it seems like he was probably rotating out identities every week or so, but the information's enlightening. Happy hunting. P.S. Kick IA in the balls for me. Tell them it's from me, and tell them I know what happened to Henderson, so they can't touch me- unless it's to blow off some of that anger. I like a good rage job.”
I wondered if Chase was continuing in his obnoxious persona, or if there was more truth in the character he put in front of the audience than he was aware of. But it didn't matter. It gave me a direction.
But IA? That sounded familiar, from watching cop shows with my mom. I'd never spent much time paying attention to the shows. I considered doing a search to figure it out, but something told me it was going to be evident if I just looked at the render.
I pulled up a map, and the GPS data traced a line from one yellow dot to the next, starting when John arrived home a few hours before he was killed. The yellow signified time spent in any one location, the more time, the bigger the dot. A clock in the corner of the map counted backwards from ToD, the time of death.
Every third dot, a camera still popped up beside the dot, showing him walking away from a coffee shop, or leaving a public restroom or a store. After a few minutes, it became obvious that he was circling around a specific part of town. In the center was the largest of all of the yellow dots.
He spent all afternoon near the dot, making dozens of stops in seemingly random places, but working his way away from the central dot. But it only seemed random, to evade the usual automated surveillance algorithms. He was making drops, possibly pick-ups; I once made the mistake of offering to give him a ride. It was his third 'errand' that I figured out what he was doing, and told him to go to hell.
Three more stops with stills, and we arrived at the large yellow circle. My interface printed the address and full name of the police department headquarters.
The last still showed John, entering the second floor of the police department's building. The floor was identified as IA- Internal Affairs- the cops who investigate other cops. Who watches the watchmen? These assholes. When LECCRA passed, one of the congressmen said that he wanted law enforcement he could drown in a tub. IA were the ones holding them under the water.
I tried to play the video, but got only static. The video had been lost since the screen capture was taken. Something told me it wasn't an accident.
With most investigative work being done by advocates, internal affairs made up fully half of the department, and held everyone else under a microscope. Including us advocates.
I was going to have to go into the lion's den, and hope they weren't hungry.
I called the ME the moment I left Tara's. I'd been putting it off for too long, as it was. I expected to get voice mail, telling me it was too late, but to leave a message and she'd get back to me in the morning.
Instead she picked up on the second ring. “Medical Examiner's office, this is Nevaeh.” I recognized the name as the examiner who worked the murder scene.
“I didn't expect you to be in,” I said sleepily.
“I work nights. There's four of us in this office, working different shifts to keep the place staffed at all times. Except Sunday nights. Then we rotate who's on call. Though this is my Friday. If you'd waited until tomorrow, you would have got Isaac, instead.”
“I was hoping to see my brother's body.”
“Autopsy's done. I can walk you through the particulars, though there aren't really any curveballs. But yeah, a positive ID on the body's always welcome. I'm here until six.”
“Yeah,” I said. Even when she said it was her last night to work this week, I had hoped I'd get enough time for some sleep. I'd been running all day long. But no such luck. “I'll come right away.”
I drove to the ME's office using GPS. She met me at the eastern entrance, facing the parking lot. “Building's all sealed up,” she said, as she held the door open for me. “We're the only staff that reliably works this late, so we get the run of the building to ourselves.”
“How does what you do work, exactly?”
“All four of us have specific skillsets. My formal training focuses on blood spatter and other ballistic physics. If it flies through the air, I've spent time modeling it and trying to figure out the physics that get it to land where it does. Makes it fortunate that I was the primary on this investigation, because it fits snugly into my wheelhouse. Each of us has specialties, but we all have generalized forensic and crime scene investigatory training.”
“Like a physician with a general practitioner's license, but who also has a specialization.”
“Exactly. Thanks to lens tech, we can record the 3-dimensional space of a crime scene exactly as it is, then model how each piece of evidence came to be where it lies. The tech has gotten advanced enough that it's more accurate than old-school forensics, with measurements down into the nanometers. It takes a lot of the math and guesswork out of the investigatory process. The computer does a lot of the work, but at the same time, you have to have a tech who knows what they're doing there to tell it, no, I don't think the victim's head snapped off its body, smashed into the wall, and then reattached without any signs of damage; it can make complex simulations of physics, but it frequently has trouble with which situation seems more reasonable and less insane. It's like guiding a hyper-intelligent child through a story problem involving adult relationships, essentially.”
We rounded a corner and suddenly we were in the morgue. The room was lit by low lights, and in them I could see a body, laying on a metal table in the center of the room. I stopped there. I could only see his feet. I tried to make myself remember every time John kicked me, the handful of times he put his foot in my face and told me to smell it. I couldn't make the ID with just a foot from across the room, but I really didn't want to take another step inside.
Nevaeh turned back towards me. “It's this way,” she said. I was thankful for the lack of light, because it hid my paralysis and indecision.
I walked towards her, trying to ignore the corpse I was also moving closer to, focused on her, imagined we were elsewhere, outside, on a picnic, the sun on her skin. But the light was coming from a laboratory lamp, as well as light reflected off a dead body's pallor.
“Is this your brother?” she asked. Shit.
“Yes,” I said.
“I haven't closed him back up. I can walk you through the body.”
“Only if it's relevant to the investigation,” I said, praying it wasn't.
“It's relevant,” she said.
I fought the urge to touch incision in his chest. It felt like so long as I didn't touch him, I couldn't know it was real; it could be a joke, or a fever dream. “Who did this?” I asked, barely able to construct even that simple sentence.
“I performed the autopsy,” she said. “Katherine, who works the day shift, looked over the work; she's our anatomy specialist.”
“Did the autopsy teach you anything?” I asked, because it seemed like the right thing to ask.
“He was a heavy smoker. Not just marijuana, either; his lungs were caked in tar from cigarettes, too. He'd probably taken a dozen years off his life- if someone hadn't gone and lopped the rest of it off. He was skirting dangerously close to cancer territory. Diet was pretty lousy- but about what you'd expect, from a smuggler living the bachelor life. Nothing else sticks out to me, though. I can send you my full report, but the more important intel comes from the scene itself.”
The lights dimmed, and suddenly my interface was covered in color. A red line shone through my brother's chest. “The bullet clearly entered the back, just to the right of the spine.” An image of a skeleton appeared on my interface, an x-ray, with a blue circle hand-drawn around a very small puncture visible in the back to draw attention to it. “It smacked the edge of his shoulder blade, fracturing it.” The x-ray moved its focus to the right, and the fractures in the bone glowed blue and pulsed. “Then the bullet nicked the heart, enough he started to bleed out as his blood pressure fell.” The x-ray moved to the side, so I could see the body again. A flower of flesh sprouted on my brother's naked chest, and the red line grew out of the hole.
“The bullet continued outward, at an angle. Angle of descent, along with the spatter that the assailant blocked from hitting the wall behind him, indicate he was taller than your brother, approximately six feet tall, though the height that the perpetrator was holding the gun has a little more influence on that estimate than I like.”
“Bruising on the palms indicates he tried to stop his fall. Which means he didn't have his hands on his head, and wasn't kneeling; these are pretty commonly seen in executions. He also wasn't shot in the head, again, not typical of an execution. What this means, in combination with a lack of struggle, is that he likely knew his killer. Let them in, talked with them, and trusted them enough to turn his back on them when he did it. Then they shot him.”
I shared information on both Tara and Jim from my interface, mostly bioscans with height and width. “Could either of these have been the killer?” I asked.
She pulled up a virtual keyboard, and typed on the air. “Shit,” she said. “Both are possible,” she said. “She's a little short, but you put her in a boot with even an extra half an inch on the sole, and she'd fit. And if he holds the gun a certain way;” she shared mock-ups of the crime with either person in place of the blue man.
“I gave you two suspects, and you're telling me both of them are viable?”
“Based on the forensic evidence we've got, yeah. But forensics are only ever part of the equation. You need the human element.”
“The human element?”
“Motive. Opportunity is a matter of checking for witnesses.”
“Not GPS?” I asked.
“Are you kidding me? Do you know how many kids have illegal GPS mods, just to keep their parents out of their hair. The logs in particular aren't worth a crap, because there are apps that will edit GPS logs directly.”
“I thought those were proprietary.”
“They are,” she said. “The conspiratorial among us, by which I mostly mean cops and online paranoids, think the GPS firms get kickbacks from the people selling the mod apps. Personally, I think they probably don't give a crap- at least until that info gets used in a high-profile rape or murder, they can get away with it. The cost of fixing the problems are probably fixed; it's hiring a team dedicated to closing holes in their software. The longer they can put off hiring that team, the longer that number isn't impacting their bottom line.”
“That's capitalism,” she shrugged. “Not that I'm proposing a collective or something. But I think it makes sense to evaluate our society with open eyes- not clinging to the myth of what America and its dreams are supposed to be about. Because it's not. And it hasn't been for a long time.”
I didn't even have to glance at the chat window to know it was blowing up.
“And that leaves means?” I asked, hoping we could back the conversation back from the ledge.
“Right. Which can be a complicated metric. But in this case it's having access to a gun, 9 mm. This is America, that narrows it down to anybody with half a day's wages to spend. And registrations are a joke- always were.”
“Motive it is, then,” I said. From talking to Jim and Tara, I knew a couple of groups who had that in spades. “Let me know if you find anything else out.”
It was odd, being back on the regular grid. Louder, and busier, but there was also safety and anonymity back in the crowd.
I recognized the apartments as I pulled up to them. It was the same make and model of pre-fab apartment complexes as mine, though hers looked to be in slightly better shape.
I checked the time on my interface. It was late, but not so late that I could put off telling her what had happened and still pretend I was being conscientious. I stepped up to the door and my interface dialed inside.
The name Tara popped up, with no picture.
“I think you know my brother,” I said.
The door slid open, though the call stayed up. “John mentioned you,” she said, in a voice that was at once light and youthful, but pinched and worldly. “I always wondered if we'd meet.” I saw her crossing the room, smiling. Jim's fawning description felt flat and lifeless compared to her. Her smile faded, however, when her eyes lingered on me. “You've been deputized?” she asked. “Oh God,” her legs trembled, and I steadied her.
“John?” she whimpered, as I helped her to a chair. “I guess at least this time he's got an excuse for ignoring my calls.”
“I'm sorry,” I said.
She had already composed herself again when she leaned back in the chair. “I guess I always knew it ended like this, but I guess, I always assumed it would be later. That he'd have time to see our son grow up.”
A child with fairer hair than Tara or John toddled into the room. He was adorable, with the slight catch that he looked like John as a child, and John had been a juvenile terrorist at that age. The child let out a primal scream, then ran around his mother's chair giggling and making noises like a cartoon airplane while waving his arms.
“His name's Max,” she told me. “Max, do you want to meet your uncle?” He didn't acknowledge her, other than to do another fly-by, this time sputtering his lips. I didn't know if that was added speed, or signified engine troubles. “Sorry,” she said. “He's still running out his energy.”
“It's all right,” I said. “He's a kid. It's what they do.”
She yawned. “Sometimes I do wish he'd do a little less of it, though.”
I wanted to offer to help, take the kid off her hands, if only for an afternoon. But I didn't want to put off the questions I knew I needed to ask her. There had been a message hovering at the bottom of my screen since the moment I walked into her apartment.
“Investigator Tip: In cases where the victim knows their assailant, it is statistically likely to be a spouse, significant other or former lover.”
“Are you... were you and John together?” I asked.
“I think the answer to that changed day to day, minute by minute. Were we exclusive? Did I expect that he'd come home and play house at the end of every day? No. Were we fucking? Did he always tell me he loved me after? Yes. Did I hate him, for not being able to either properly leave me or stay? Absolutely.”
“Did you hate him enough to hurt him, or have someone else hurt him?”
“I hurt him all the time. And he hurt me. We always hurt the ones we love. We love them enough to know how to, and sometimes we abuse that knowledge, out of fear, out of frustration. If you're asking, though, if I killed him, or had him killed, no. John was like smoking. Everybody, me included, knew he was bad for me. But I just couldn't kick the habit. And maybe that's for the better. Because it got me off my back.” I frowned.
“I stopped hooking. I'm a mother, a single mother. I was a teenage prostitute because I was desperate, and didn't have a lot of other things I could do. John supported me long enough to get myself stable.”
“Was he your only support?”
She smiled. “I learned pretty early you didn't rely on John for anything. Some months, he paid my rent, bought groceries, and promised I'd never want for anything. Then he'd disappear for two months without a word- and without any money. I work. Phone sex and net cams.” My eyes widened a little. “I like sex work. I like knowing I make other people feel good. But I got away from the damaging, dangerous aspects of sex work. If you're coming into it from a position of power, you can set yourself up so you're safe, and about as protected as a woman can get. But I wasn't that; I was vulnerable. And I think everybody saw it. And some took advantage. That doesn't happen anymore. Guy gets jerky, and he loses his feed, simple as that.”
“When was the last time you heard from him?” I asked.
“About a week ago,” she said. “He was stressed, worry about something with his work. He came over I'm pretty sure to knock out some of his frustration,” her cheeks reddened a little, because she realized I wasn't a client, I was family. “But when he came over we just talked, and I held him.”
“Did he say what he was stressed about, exactly?”
“Only that he was getting friction from the people he usually worked with, and attention from someone who wanted to take their place. But it's not that simple. Most of the thuggery and violence in the trade circles around the distributors. That's where the real cash is. People at John's level, they're the pizza delivery guys at the bottom of the food chain. Its the chain operators who have all the power, and he was caught between two of their whirlpools. That's essentially all he told me- at least all the detail I remember.
“I hate to ask, but where were you last night?”
“Same place I am every night. Here.”
“Can anyone corroborate that?”
“I was in a room until about ten. Chat logs would confirm that. But if you're asking for a witness, I don't think any of the guys who were in that chat with me would fess up, even if you could get their real names from my boss.”
“How about 11:25?” I asked.
“Nope. I get off at ten, because I want to keep Max on a regular schedule. At 11:25, the only person who could vouch for my whereabouts was him. Well, him and my GPS.”
I pinged her GPS log, but came up empty. A message appeared on my interface. “Investigator Tip: Many sex workers purchase GPS apps or upgrades that make it more difficult for johns or pimps to stalk them. Many of these are legal, but some exist in a gray, quasi-legal area.”
“Do you own a gun?”
“Couldn't you have checked the registration?” she asked. “Of course, that only answers half the question. Because you still wouldn't know if I had an unregistered gun. But no. I had a tweaker try to break in; he followed John here, and surmised that maybe he had a stash here, and tried to get in after he left. I asked John to buy me a shotgun. He always put it off.” She sighed. “He wanted to be able to take me out shooting, first, so I could get used to using it, before I was relying on it. I guess that's never going to happen.”
“I'm sorry for your loss,” I said.
“Me too,” she said, but she paused. “If it is him,” she said, almost certain it couldn't be. But she recognized her own denial, and fought. “Is it? Have you been, to see the body?”
“I haven't,” I said. “I was kind of hoping it wouldn't come to that.” I sighed. “But I guess it's that time.”
Jenel's guard grabbed my shoulder and I nearly wet myself. She smiled, or at least, I thought she was smiling, through the pixelation. She nodded, and he dragged me away. He took my down a set of stairs leading into an apartment building. I walked with him down a long hall. I wondered, idly, if I was going to be shot in the back, but I knew the audience could still see me, so I was trying to keep my head.
I noticed a flurry of action from the chat window, and one name stood out among the crowd. “ShartGurgler: Turn around and break that shotty off in his crap tube.”
I ignored the 'advice.' I didn't seriously think I was about to die, but if I did, I definitely wanted to die with a little dignity.
The hall dead-ended at a door. When it didn't open in front of me, I knew I was about to be shot. I thought about trying to delete any links I had to porn or dirty jokes, so my mom wouldn't find them going through my effects, but none of it was well-organized enough to actually be dealt with in the time it would take for a man whose face I couldn't even see to raise a shotgun.
I shut my eyes, and tried to imagine a pleasant afterlife, but it ended up more of a waiting room populated with people I liked enough to remember but couldn't think of anything to actually say to. Then I heard the door in front of me unlock. I glanced behind me, and the shotgun guard was gone.
I walked inside the mostly-dark room. There was a single lamp on a small table between two chairs. My lenses automatically adjusted to the low light in the room. With the adjustment, I could see a thick, marginally overweight man with a hairline that had only started to recede, somewhat hidden by the fact that he kept all the hair on his head buzzed short.
I sat across from him.
“Do you know why I'm here?”
“I heard what happened. You're Conrad, right? He told me about you. He was kind of proud.”
“That's me,” I said.
A message obscured him for a moment. “Investigator Tip: It is important to build rapport during an interrogation. A subject will more freely converse with an advocate when they think they will be listened to, and not immediately suspected.”
“What should I call you?”
“Jim is fine,” he said.
“What'd you hear about John?”
“I heard he's dead.”
“Investigator Tip: When confronting a subject, several indicators can express deception. These include, but are not limited to sweating, increased heart rate, spending too much time thinking about a response that should not require analysis, or expressing an emotion inappropriate to the situation. However, it is important to rule out other potential interpretations for apprehension, however, to prevent accusing an innocent person.”
New tools popped up in the bottom right of my interface, beside the chat. The first was a heart-rate monitor, the second showed a human brain, and highlighted points of activity. It was taking readings directly from his interface and giving them to me.
“Where'd you hear that?” I watched both his heart-rate and his brainscan.
“That's a strange name. Middle Eastern?”
All-caps drew my attention to the chat. “ShartGurgler: RACIST!”
“She's got a name, all right?” Jim said. “But I don't sicc advocates on people I care about. She's somebody who cared about him a hell of a lot more than you.” He seemed to notice a discrepancy. “Just because I said he was proud of you, doesn't mean he fooled himself into thinking you cared about him.”
“I care,” I said. “It's why I'm here.”
“Bullshit. You're here because your feet are to the fire. Don't con a con.”
At the suggestion that he was a con, my interface pulled up his arrest record through the DCA. He'd been pulled in for a half a dozen violations, but never convicted, rarely even charged.
The information showed to the audience, too, and the reaction was predictable. “ShartGurgler: He's lying.”
“What'd you hear from this mutual acquaintance?” I asked.
“She said he was dead. She heard it through somebody she knew in civic circles. That's as far as she got into it.”
“Investigator Tip: Liars avoid first-person pronouns to distance themselves from responsibility.”
I ran the last three seconds of his scans over; he was steady as a rock- no deception telltales.
“And when did you see him last?”
He pondered. I go the distinct impression he was deciding whether or not to lie to me.
“Last night. We had a few beers, and got in a fight. By a few, of course, I mean all of the, probably in the county.”
“You take a swing at him?” I asked.
“No. Nothing like that. An argument. Yelling, passionate, but not violent. It got heated enough I needed air. I've had a DUI stop or two, so the cops installed a BAC-monitor in with my hardware. I so much as turn on the heat in a car with more than a half a beer in me and I get popped like a Catholic girl's cherry on prom night. So I went for a walk. Figured I'd crash at a friend's place, or on a bench. But I was still pissed with John, so I kept walking, and walking, until I realized I was sober. Then I came back and grabbed the car.”
“I didn't see you walk away on the camera,” I said.
“Hopped the back fence. In my line of work, you get used to dodging cameras, making sure it'll be harder for the cops to piece together where you been or what you been up to. Even drunk, you'll be lucky to catch an identifiable image of me on every fifth camera.”
“And what is your work, exactly?”
“I procure certain substances,” he said, with half a grin.
“LeslieBien: Poison pusher.”
“ShartGurgler: Squeeze his balls and stare him in the eye. MAKE him talk.”
“And how'd you start working with John?” I asked. He didn't want to say anything; he just clammed up and hoped I'd move on. Tutoring, I'd learned the value of silence. Even the most uncooperative student will start to feel uncomfortable, and do something- anything- to fill that space.
“We started working together,” he said, “when we found out mooks were half as likely to screw with somebody who had a partner- it was a safety in numbers thing. But we were friends going way back. We used to get stoned in high school, if you can believe that.” I checked the brainscan and heart rate; I did believe it.
“Tell me about the fight,” I said.
“New distributor, trying to supplant the old. We don't usually step in on that kind of dispute- we're little fish, cleaning the crap out of the bigger predators' teeth. It always kept us small-time enough not to be worth the violence- before last night, anyway.”
“You think your fight had something to do with his death?”
“The subject, yeah. Most of what we move is middle-grade stuff coming out of China. It's stepped-on, sure, but at a level that's saleable. And we've got a long-standing relationship with the distributor. Not what you'd call a friendship, but a couple of times he was able to expedite, or sell us some extra product on the sly, when we needed it for a bulk customer.”
“New distributor is coming up from South America. I get the impression it's a lowest-bidder kind of co-op, where if this week the Guatemalans are providing cheap shit that's what they sell, and if the next week the low-ball comes from Columbia, that's what they send on up. Means the quality is a roller coaster, and it's basically always been stepped-on harder than the Chinese stuff. Even getting it for cheaper, it cuts into our margins.”
Another message. “Investigator Tip: Liars use fewer exclusionary words like 'but' 'nor' or 'except'.”
“Walk me through the argument.”
“We've met with the Chinese, met with the Latinos. Mumbled along when it came time for making deals, though in my opinion what we told the Chinese was a lot closer to an assurance. But I find out John's had more conversations with the Latins under my nose. He thinks he can get them to implement some QA in their pipeline, make sure that they aren't slinging premium one week and dogfarts the next. It sounds great; it also sounds like the kind of thing I'd promise to a seller to get his business, regardless of whether or not I could deliver. And distributors are like pretty girls- they don't like knowing you know more than the one. They get butthurt over it, maybe because they're fighting tooth and nail for service area- most of the bodies that fall in this trade fall because of distributors warring for territory. But if the Latins didn't work out, the Chinese were likely to punish us with a surcharge- and it's already not like we clear the margins we used to, anyway.”
His eyes welled up. “But if I'm being honest, it wasn't really about the business. We've taken bigger risks together. It was that he went out on his own on this, that he didn't tell me what he was up to, just did it, behind my back. It hurt. It made me feel like he was... it's weird, you know, when you work with somebody a long time, how much of the vocabulary you use with them is the same as you would in a romantic relationship. But I kind of felt like he was pulling away from me. I lashed out.”
“Investigator Tip: Liars use more negative emotional words, and often feel anxious and guilty.”
“Did you hurt him?”
His eyes tightened into little coals, and they burst into flame at the suggestion. “No,” he said, glaring. His vitals were still solid as a rock. I pulled up my own, for a reference point. My heart rate looked like the Rockies by comparison. I pulled up an input and entered a query, to see if there were any substances that could make a person that kind of mellow. My typing during the interview made him extra nervous.
“How did you feel about him?” I asked.
“We were brothers, man.” I raised an eyebrow. “Look, you grew up with him. But that's two inmates housed in the same asylum. We chose to spend the time together we did. It's different. The family you're born with you love because they're what you got; the family you make for yourself are the ones you love because you want to.”
“So you loved him?” I asked. I thought it was a clever question; play off his homophobia to put him off his game.
“Yeah,” he said without blinking.
“And you left him alive?” I asked.
“Do you have any notes, or recordings of any of the business meetings you had?”
“Even being smart, using quasi-legal codewords, only a fool would keep recordings of this kind of business. And I'm no dummy.”
“Fair enough,” I said.
“You tell his girl?” he asked.
“His girl, man. Sort of, anyway. She had a client who wanted a bump as part of a party. She was drop dead fucking the most gorgeous woman I'd ever seen, but not in a- like a normal woman way, not in a airbrushed, photoshopped glamour photo way. Like as beautiful as a woman gets without manipulation. And they hit it off. And he asked her if she wanted to get something to eat later. They did. So they started a thing. And she got knocked up. Which made John happy, up until he found out she was running a black hat mod that made her ID show 18, when they met. She was of age, by then, but it caused enough static that they 'broke up.'” He put fingerquotes to it. “I say it like that because they'd screw whenever they were lonesome, or sad, or horny, or high, or any time he came over to see his kid.”
“So she had the baby?”
“Yeah,” he said, and shared a photo with me. “Guess that makes you an uncle.”
“I guess so. You got a name and an address for her?”
He eyed me suspiciously. He wasn't a snitch, and he didn't like cooperating. But this wasn't an official, investigative thing; she was family- her kid was my blood. And she deserved to hear the truth out of me. He sent me her name and address, though without a picture attached to it.
I hadn't been watching the chat or my rating intently. My numbers were low again, after bouncing somewhere in the middle thirties. A glance at the chat essentially told the story, as two factions warred over my next course.
“ShartGurgler: Don't trust him. He's a con. He's obviously playing you, obviously.”
Another person in the chat jumped to my, or maybe Jim's, defense. “Randals10InPen15: Obvious except for any of the metrics. BP, EEG, if he's been deceptive, the signs weren't there. And he's not a con. He's never been convicted.”
“ShartGurgler: And a man with that many arrests who's at best a professional smuggler was probably innocent all of those times. And regardless, he's a con man.”
“Anything else you can tell me, that might help me catch John's killer?”
“I don't know about that,” he said. “But if you're even thinking about talking to the distributors, be careful. They don't take kindly to advocates, and they take less kindly when they're covered in camera spores. Even if they've got mods that'll blur their faces, it's not a game they'll be happy to play with you.”
“If I do decide to talk, can you make contact for me?”
“I can set it up,” he said. “But I'm not putting my reputation on it. I'd tell them up front what you want, and what you're going to ask. And given that, if they show, I wouldn't like your odds of walking away.”
“Then I guess we'll hope it doesn't come to that,” I said “The address you sent me the picture from, will I get a reply if I respond to that?” He nodded.
The DCA program finished running, and in yellow displayed the text, “Minimal deception.” Immediately a message popped up beneath that read, “Investigator Tip: Minimal deception means that any emotional leaks, increased blood pressure or creative processing during the course of the interview occurred within the range of normal human interaction. Humans are necessarily complicated, compartmentalized beings. This compartmentalization can lead to false-positives on the lower end of the deception spectrum. These readings are consistent with the normal amount of deception you would expect in dealing with someone with reasons for being evasive about an aspect of their life, like a career criminal, but fall outside the range you would expect for active deceit.”
I stood up. “Take care of yourself, Jim.”