TechNoir In Progress – Chapter 12

A Cyberpunk Crime Thriller WIP

***

12. DETECTIVE MAGIC

–dropped into a screaming gale. Memories lash at me, flash in millisecond illumination like rapid fire lightning strikes:

– – Work, work, work station screen glare names and numbers, files and accounts, pouting faces, kissing GIFs, Insta-snaps of kitchen area remodels. Surfing the rip tides of public appetites. Calculating swipe times for cat pix and dick pix, celebrity endorsements for deep discount phishing porn and exclusive meme-bership benefits.

– – Forty-five million users a day, two-hundred fifty million texts each hour, two-hundred and ten thousand videos per minute; a torrent of free range rage, locally-sourced boredom, artisan-crafted envy. The burnt rubber flinch at bad jokes, the wine laughter of a clever one. Hang ups and hook ups. Cancellation, affirmation, endless deliberation. Families and friends, late payments and lover’s quarrels. All vanity’s fair in love and war.

– – Day’s end one last vid-chat with supervisor Wang. Office gossip with Jane Ji. A late dinner with Lukas Yang – a frequent name in my phone log, my social feed, the visitor list at my flat. The swirl of food smells in an open space. Wind chill up my sleeves, on my cheeks. Sake with noodles, the warmth of a hand in mine, a parting kiss. Then – –

– – Older buildings on a narrow street, the gurgle of massive drain pipes descending from the upper city. A belly full of food, head pleasantly fuzzy. The smell rusty fog and acid rain. Savor dusty wet concrete and a wry pride. The sense of home on these streets, in this dark and dirty bottom shelf of a mega-city. An aerial drone buzzes overhead. Traffic’s white noise. Music. Someone singing gleefully off-key.

Then a man’s voice – the Voice . Rough hands grab me from behind, heavy with the smell of grease. I flail and kick. The sting of pepper in my eyes like the sting on my neck and I’m clawing in a watery blur with broken nails, crying as the world tilts and the lightning shrieks – –

— shrieks at the gloved hands around my throat. My body is gasping, flopping on a metal floor like a fish. I crave air to breathe, to scream, to stop the fire in my lungs burning like acid.

– – the acid that spreads through my chest, my body, up my throat, filling my mouth and nose, clouding my eyes in from the edges until they go dark and there is nothing.

– – I weigh nothing as I rise out of my body, a billowing sheet in the wind. A kite. A kite with no string soaring past the clouds and blue to the starry dark that’s huge and black yet not empty but bustling with singing stars and planets humming each a different note until there are millions of notes swelling together in a vast symphony of madness and beauty that makes my heart explode, shattering me into a million tinsel fragments that fall glittering through an open door.

– – A door that stands at the edge of the busy dark where a hand cups me in an ocean and carries me in waves back to the shore of this place. 

– – The city’s surf pounding in my ears, pounding at the metal door behind me where Jen Cheung’s voice told me the paper spacesuit crew was on their way up and I was on my knees in front of a dead woman in an empty metal box weeping, spitting black grit, grains of sweet mortality like volcano candy sand.

***

I stood, wiped my face and managed to get the gear back in the pouch, back in my pocket before the CSI techs barged in. They flowed around me. Filled the room with bright light and voices. I stepped back to watch them surround Tiffany Sui’s body and bit the inside of my check to keep from sobbing. Someone whistled, low and slow. Another patted me on the shoulder. I blinked, nodded at the goggles and masks, the click-clack of cases being unlatched, the swop-swish of white tyvek coveralls.

This wasn’t Ed Cho’s crew so I’d have to tap the report later. I stumbled outside to the walkway where Jen Cheung and her partner still waited.  

“Tiān a! You look worse than before,” she said. “How’s that even possible?”

“Detective magic takes it out of you.” I gripped the rail for support.

Jen stared at me, eyes narrowed.  A heartbeat, then she let it go. “So… you find anything?” 

The lightning was still shivering in my head, shrieking in my ears. I shrugged, tried to look cagey.

Jen Cheung grinned. “Ahhhh…  there we go. You got something, didn’t you? I can feel it.”

I put both hands on the rail and gave her a wan smile.

“Sneaky fucker shouldn’t mess with the Stonecutter Island Detective,” Cheung laughed. “Shit. I’d love to be there when you make the arrest.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” I gestured toward the unit door. “I owe you. Buy you breakfast?”

She shook her head. “Rain check. Gotta go. The So Uk demonstrations are getting rowdy.” She whistled to Wan. “Can’t say I blame them but really… they didn’t see this coming? Ice caps melt and corporates screw working folk. Death and taxes, lǎotiě. Death and taxes.”

I nodded absently, staring into space and licking my teeth for grit that wasn’t there.

 “Damn, Pemburu. Go get some food, will you?” She tapped me on the arm. “And I want to hear what you found later, eh?”

“Sure.”

She and Wan headed toward the stairs. “Rumor has it you got one of those new drones,” she called over her shoulder. “Captain Lee must have big plans for you.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” I croaked.

***

Soy Park was a fog of contrasting food smells. This time of morning, the vendors were switching over from breakfast to lunch, so curries, fish sauce, and sizzling chicken were pushing down the earlier fried dough-and-egg odors. I was in the first ring of stalls, my stomach growling, when a memory hit me: the steamy warmth of beef and soba noodles, vinegary broth and scallions. I could taste it, stinging my tongue, stuck in my teeth.

I froze, my head reeling.  

I ate—no, she ate that. Here. In Soy Park. 

Tiffany Sui’s last meal.

It was like a kick in the gut and I’d have thrown up if there’d been anything in there. Hungry as I was, eating suddenly felt like I’d be desecrating… something. 

Well, shit … noodle bowl is out of the question. Maybe for the rest of my life.

Damn.

A cloud of charcoal smoke swept over me, carrying the earthy, sweet aroma of fried chestnuts. I made a beeline for the stall.

It had been ages since I’d had them, another relic of my childhood.

The vendor had a large cart, older; no solar panels or programmable ovens. Not even motorized wheels. Just a big, battered stainless steel set up under a faded canvas awning.  There were fryers and a grill on one half, a huge wok over an oil drum stove on the other. Something that size was usually a two-person job, but all I found was a lean, wiry man shrouded in smoke.  

He was bent over the wok working a long handled wooden spade in continuous figure-eight motions through the wok’s contents. Dozens of reddish brown chestnuts churned in a mixture of coarse black sand sprinkled with brown sugar.

“Those real? Not bio-printed?”I asked.

“Real. Gotta be,” came a soft reply. “Catch.” A quick flip of the shovel tip and he popped one up at me. “Try it.”

I caught it. The warm, hard shell in my palm, the smell of smoke and burnt sugar released a flood of sensations and images in my head. I tasted nut meat, earthy and strong. I saw my mother’s face, flickering candles on an altar. Memories. Some mine, others I didn’t recognize.

 “You OK?” the vendor asked. “You don’t have an allergy, do you?”

I shook my head. “Yeah, yeah, I’m good. Hungry is all.”

“Then you’ve come to the right place. You want a kilo?”

Shards of memory stuck to me like caramelized sugar on my fingers. “Why?”

He stopped scooping. “Why what?”

“Why do they have to be real?”

The vendor straightened. “Got to have something different to draw people in, right?” He gestured to carts on either side, the food stalls all around him. “Costs a lot but competition is tough. Everybody’s out here scraping to get by, day to day.”

“Right.” I nodded.

He ladled and sieved four quick scoopfuls into a paper bag and stepped out of the smoke. 

I was still pulling myself together but the sudden move made me look up. The haze, the bent posture, working a food stall in this sector, I’d pegged him as older; a retiree grinding a few extra credits on top of his Universal Basic, or a ‘Fugee family man starting over at rock bottom because even a dark district in LNK was better than wherever he’d come from.

But he was young, probably early forties, and ethnic Han to boot. That alone was different. Whatever his story, the streets had pared him down to bare essentials; bone, muscle, stubble. I spied an off-tone skin patch behind one ear – a cover for obsolete data jacks – and a permanent exo-brace around one knee. Seemed the guy had been worn down by bad luck and high mileage rather than age.  

There was a bandage on one cheek too, probably from hot cooking oil or a bad charcoal pellet. He looked up at me with eyes like dark stones in shallow water. “487 eYuan,” he said.

I blinked to pay and realized my Chip was still muted from Tiffany Sui. Another blink and I was back on the city net. My LNKPD credentials flashed and he stepped back.

“No, no,” I said. “I’m not checking permits. I was…”

I stopped. The image of Tiffany’s dismembered body flashed though my mind, pain in my joints. “I was working a scene,” I finished.

The vendor didn’t move. “More police around here lately,” he said tightly. “Usually you guys don’t give a shit about anything off Shao Bei Street.” A pause. “Unless there’s a protest. That gets you out in full force. There’s no lack of security in So Uk this morning, eh?”

I couldn’t disagree but I put on my best Community Policing smile anyway. “Not my department, friend. I’m investigating a murder. Several, actually.”

I paid for the chestnuts, added a tip, and held out my hand for the bag.

He hung back, clutching it. “Right. Thought I’d seen you before.”

I nodded. “Like I said, work.”

He still seemed reluctant so I kept my hand out and stuck with the ‘Firm and Friendly’ approach. “And my cousin has a shop nearby. In the Gray Market. Function Refresh. Heard of it?”

He sneered. “Heard of it? Yeah…. I heard it’s a charity hole.”

A ‘charity hole’ was a pro-bono clinic where corporates advertised their social awareness, dumped their surplus on the poor and desperate, and got a hefty tax write-off for their trouble. Last year, a walk-in infirmary in District Seven had been busted for using locals in clinical trials for an untested anti-viral. Seven-hundred deaths and a three part NewsNet exposé later, consensus was they did about as much harm as good. Loi would be horrified to learn she was labeled as one.

“No, no. It’s not like that. Really. My cousin is all about tech-equality. She’s just trying to help people.”

He handed me the bag. “Yeah. That’s what they all say.”

I took the warm bag without comment and left. I made it ten steps before the Tech Department pinged me: I was late from my Turd Copter synchronization.

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