The State of Things

First off, I want to thank everyone who still follows HSSJ and drops by. It’s been a hectic and strange couple months on top of a year-plus of the same, and I’m grateful for people’s support and encouragement.

Next, I apologize for recent lack of content on my part. Not my intention but Real Life business has picked up on top of everything else I was juggling. Out of my control, but I genuinely enjoy writing and the writing community.

So, to give an update:

Things must be tough at the Williams homestead..

The legal snafu over the word ‘hardwired’ is getting settled. I think. Unfortunately, not reasonably. I know there was no IP infringement or market confusion. My attorney knows. Anyone moderately familiar with the cyberpunk genre and the war game hobby knows. But that’s not how this is getting played, so there are changes coming. I’ll release details as lawyers finalize and specifics resolve. Timeline is vague though, because… lawyers.

For those unfamiliar with the situation, early this past March I was contacted by lawyers claiming my self-published table top war game HARDWIRED – offered free online in 2018, commercially released in 2019 – infringed on a trademark and caused market confusion with a 1989 RPG supplement co-written by their client, Walter Jon Williams. It was the usual C&D, along with threats, demands, and several ridiculous claims. (he practically invented cyberpunk, the new PC game is based on his 1986 novel… ) Also, they contacted Amazon and initiated a take down of two of my Hardwired game supplements: The Tsim Sha Tsui Expansion, and the latest, Hostile Takeover. But not the first, core book, Hardwired Cyberpunk Espionage and Mayhem. Make sense? No. Then again, this experience has been a little surreal.

More lawyers, some legal back and forth, a genuine effort to be reasonable all came to naught. At the end of the day, it would cost too much for me to go to court to prove the obvious. (my miniature war game has no reference or relation to Mr. William’s work, the out-of-print 1989 supplement, or the now outdated version of the RPG it was written for.) So, I’m getting shaken down for cash on a technicality.

Welcome to the Big Time.

The Miniature Post-Apocalypse continues, however

Pressing past that steaming pile, my latest miniature war game, KONTRABAND, is coming into it’s final stretch. The illustrator has promised me the images by the end of the month. (today, right?) Once I have them in hand, it’s another couple weeks for proofreading and layout, then I’m kicking it out the door. This will be a Solo/Cooperative supplement for Zona Alfa, the war game I hammered out for Osprey Publishing.

On the Spec Fiction Front

Several fiction projects that were abruptly shoved to back burners are coming around, slowly. My goal is to finish the TechNoir short , Soul Cache, next. (You can read the first ten chapters here.)

Next, I plan to move back to the Shattered Worlds series. Part One, Broken Moon, is available at Amazon. Part Two, Scorned Lands, will follow with a Kindle release before the end of the year. To put spurs to the project, I had some cover art made for a combined, part 1 and 2 printed version.

If you’re interested in the story of a half-breed outcast journeying through a weird and fractured world after a war between gods, then this post-apocalyptic fantasy might be the thing for you. Think ‘Lord of the Rings’ meets ‘The Road’, you’ll be in the right neighborhood. Again, the journey starts here.

That’s it for now. Thanks for reading. Thanks for your patience. Appreciate all of you.

Art Hard and Take Care.

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.

WIP: Soul Cache 11

A Cyberpunk Crime Thriller in progress.

***

11. FELONIOUS NECROMANCY

This one was two blocks west of Soy Park. Much too close to Loi for my taste. A day manager at a low-rent hotel had checked on a smell complaint and called it in. I dodged the Tech Department and left the station. A patrol car had me downtown ten minutes later. 

The Silky Wave Guest House wasn’t even an actual building. More of a giant concrete cubby shelf filled with old shipping containers stacked twelve across, front and back, forty stories high. Each level had a common toilet unit in the middle and each floor was accessed by steel scaffolding epoxied to the cement framework. The grating was so old, the stairs snowed brown rust flakes if you walked too fast. It catered to transients, day-laborers, and hookers, the kind of place you pass a thousand times without really seeing. If you lived there, you either just arrived in New Kowloon – or you were definitely on your way down and out.

Jen Cheung and her partner, Wan, were waiting backside, seventh floor. Cheung looked sharp-eyed, almost eager. Wan still looked twelve. The corner unit door was shut, sealed with a single line of red LNKPD tape.

Cheung scowled when she saw me. “Whoa. You look like a bag of hammered shit.”

“Love you too. Tell me there are security cameras,” I said.

“This fine establishment? Of course.” She pointed to a battered Hikvision module drooping off the wall over the stair well. A thirty year old model with a cracked lens.

I frowned, she laughed. “Oh, it’s not wired up either. That would cost money. But the manager assured me Ever Sunny Properties is deeply concerned for their tenants’ safety. Which is why those were installed as a deterrent.”

“A deterrent?”

 “Very effective. Obviously.” She nodded seriously. “Oh, and he also demanded to know how soon we’d get the place cleaned up.”

The wind shifted. The burnt peanut stench of bio-diesel off the roads was replaced by a spicier, slightly cleaner one from Soy Park. There were security masts among the food stalls. Maybe there’d be something on them. A long shot but we were overdue for some good luck. I snapped on gloves. “You call Forensics?”

Cheung gave me a thin smile. “Just now. Figured you’d want first peek at it.”

Wan was at the railing, gazing down and doing a good job not puking. Murder scenes are a shitty thing to get acclimated to.

I leaned toward Jen. “You ID the victim?”

She nodded. “Tiffany Sui.” A pause. I raised an eyebrow. “Viral marketer for WeChat,” she finished. “And yes, she’s been rearranged.”

“Shit.” I moved past here toward the door. “How long ‘til the CSI van?”

“Fifteen minutes. Maybe twenty with traffic.”

I broke the tape, cracked the door for a moment to let some fresher air in. The hinges screeched and the sound was a needle in my eye. I winced. “Keep ‘em out until I’m done?”

Jen Cheung peered at me again, concerned. “You sure you okay to go in there?”

I shrugged. “I have a choice?”

She spit, punched me on the shoulder. “Alright then. I’ll knock when they show up. Go work your detective magic, Zek.”

I yanked the door wide and entered, feeling every inch the fraud.  Detective magic? No tricks up my sleeve, Sergeant. Just a pocket full of career-ending black market gear, and good odds on a mental breakdown.

Inside was what I expected and less: a long metal box with peeling paint, bad lumen strips, and a half a dozen pieces of grimy plastic furniture. The heaviest thing was the smell. I shut the door behind me and cranked the handle. The noise sounded hollow in the low, narrow space.   

Tiffany Sui was very dead, dismembered and arranged on the floor at the rear of the room by a stained foam mattress. Her limbs had been set at right angles in opposite upper and lower corners to imply a frame. Her torso and head were in the middle of the ‘box’, offset to each other, one high, the other low. Her head face up. Eyes and mouth daubed in blood on her breasts and belly for the second face.

The WeChat icon. Screaming obvious to anyone with a matching pair of brain cells. My gut told me the killer was flaunting their anti-corp grudge. Shoving it in our face with a conspicuous display.    

I knelt for a closer look and caught the acrid tang of cleanser on top of the blood and meat odor. Ms. Sui had been wiped down like the others. I flicked my eyes to ultraviolet and scanned for bio-traces, just in case. First thing I noticed was that aside from the body painting, there was far less blood than there should have been, which meant unless the killer was also a vampire, the room wasn’t the murder scene. That thought threw me until I spied bruises on her forearms, a cut on one hand.

Defensive wounds.

That was a first.

My skin goose-fleshed. There could be skin under her nails. Blood. Even a single hair would give us some double helix bread crumbs that could lead straight to the killer’s doorstep. That would be good – and I was overdue a break.

My head was still rattled from Lau and I have to admit part of me seized on that train of thought like a junkie, while another part, the rational, career-minded adult, joined in and insisted I step back and to wait for Forensics. This could be the killer’s first mistake. A legitimate clue, it said. Leave that pouch in your pocket.

I could go back to the station and make nice with Captain Lee. Get my Turd Copter and run this case down above board all the way. Squeeze another five years out of my job. Polish my reputation and my retirement benefits. No need to dive into Ms. Sui’s Chip, ‘ware her soul and rummage through the last intimate, spastic minutes of her life like some panty sniffing, grave robber.

A short walk to Loi’s shop, I could return the Soul Fisher and my felonious necromancy would be over and forgotten.

But what if –

What if there was no trace under her nails? Or worse, a muddy partial that could be any of a thousand suspects and the bodies kept coming while we interviewed a dozen a day and they alibied out one by one until we narrowed it down to a top ten list?

Tiffany Sui’s hands declared she did not go gentle into this bad death. What would she want? Would she say, ‘No pressure. I can wait.’ ?

Loi had told me a Chip’s buffer data degraded after death, decayed with the body. That smell in the air, that was my case. Those were clues cloying up this ratty, cut-price tomb, dissipating every second I knelt here hoping for a lucky break.

The question wasn’t what would she say to me; it was what could she say to me?

 I stood and set up the Soul Fisher. Deep down, I think I’d intended to use it the instant I showed up at the Silky Wave Guest House anyway. Hard work makes lucky breaks.  

I turned on the extender, watched it cycle: secure connection, PIP for T. Sui, the buffer file… I took a deep breath and linked.

Soul Cache First Ten

First ten chapters/fifty pages of current WIP now available as a PDF.

A Cyberpunk Crime Thriller, Soul Cache is a sliver of technoir set in fictional, future New Kowloon. A desperate homicide detective resorts to dangerous and illegal software to stop a serial killer. Can he catch the murderer before he loses his mind?

More on the way. Thanks and Enjoy.

WIP: Soul Cache 10

More New Kowloon Technoir in progress.

10. AGGRIEVED PARTIES

No shock I was late to the station the next morning.

I hadn’t slept. Or if I had, it was six hours of nightmares punctuated by unconscious exhaustion. I crawled out of bed sometime before the Big Lights blinked on feeling like I’d been dragged by a truck down a hundred kilometers of bad road. A cold shower, cold tea, and cold noodles got me on my feet. Two Zhan Ma dermal patches kept me there.

I headed to the work. Back in another autocab, I tried to get Lau out of my head by trawling the highlights from the night shift briefing. There was the usual quota of domestics, drug dealers, and drive-bys. Four Local Alerts topped the list.

First was a warning issued for the Hot Chow vendors on Sham Shui Po Street. Seems they’d been shut down by the Health Committee for using tainted loom beef. The vendors denied it but eleven hundred cases of food poisoning said otherwise.

Next, Shìchǎng scum bag luminary Hodoh Nghia, the puppet pimp, had been shot at – again – just after 0300. Someone serious this time, heavy caliber tungsten steel rounds had pierced his armored rickshaw. One had drilled a neat hole through his leg. He was currently lawyered up in a hospital screaming litigation against the LNKPD, claiming we deliberately reduced the police presence around his brothel, thereby endangering him – which was partially true, by the way, because Nghia was a manipulative bottom-feeder who profited from poor people’s desperation and other people’s base appetites. The other half of the reason was the Council wasn’t keen on the possibility of permanent records of visitors to his establishment.

Some gangster once commented the street found its own uses for things. Item three was a prime example: apparently a group of squatters in an empty warehouse in To Kwa Wan were using the power plant from a de-commissioned armored vehicle as a generator. Steady lights, WiFi, heat, simple perimeter security, the place had better amenities than a chunk the standard habitation blocks in the district. Word was another group of homeless had called it in and the investigating officer had the impression the rivals were more jealous that the warehouse bunch were charging for hot showers than concerned they had access to military surplus.

I wondered what Fat Quan knew about this. Another reason to pay the gutter king an official visit.

Last was a warning about potential civil disturbance in the So Uk area hab-stacks, specifically the units owned by Sino-Robotics. One of SR’s local factories had changed over to full automation and was coming online today. This meant increased profits of course, but also a metric shit ton of workers suddenly laid off, the majority of whom had undergone job-specific cyber-modifications.

The modifications had been mandated by Sino-Robotics to meet increased productivity quotas, but workers had been given the option to keep their positions so long as they underwent adaptive replacement surgery for the augments. The upfront costs were underwritten by SR of course, with low interest repayment deducted from the worker’s weekly salaries. 

That was three years ago. Today, hundreds of massively indebted workers were about to be furloughed by the company that had required the cyber-augments in the first place. To do the jobs they’d just lost. 

Hell, I’d riot too.

I’d nearly made it to my desk before Captain Lee pinged me. “Where are you with the murder case?”

Murder cases – plural. At least he was paying attention now. Gotta take what you can get.

I scrambled for an explanation but this wasn’t a discussion. “My inbox is flooded with formal information requests from reporters,” he continued. “And did you see the news drones loitering outside the station? I counted eight. Eight, detective.”

He counted eight drones…  

Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.  

I could hear him seething. Jen Cheung’s photos in mind, I took a chance he wanted a reply and chose my words carefully. “Sir, new evidence suggests the killer or killers have specific anti-corporate sentiments. I’m looking into aggrieved parties with criminal histor – – ”

I guessed wrong.

He cut me off. “It’s obvious the killer is anti-corporate, Detective. WayGo is one of the top transport companies in the hemisphere. You must have more for me than that. What did the lab report say?”

“Inconclusive, sir. The crime scene was sanitized, the body wiped down the same as the previous seven.”

Captain Lee hissed like a broken steam pipe. “Detective, a District One citizen has been brutally murdered. I need you to focus, not rummage through old cases. WayGo’s COO called me last night and both the Mayor and the Council scheduled a press conference for this 1600 this afternoon. People are looking for answers. Important people. The Shìchǎng District Police Department will not let them down. We need to make an arrest.”

Press conference that afternoon, the good Captain wanted something – anything – that would help him save face in front of all those Important People. I knew that, and part of me knew I should give him a something, even if it was wrong.

Stroke and stall, that little part of me said. Lie now, buy time, fix it after.

Maybe it was Lau’s ragged scream echoing in my head or maybe I’d just stepped in enough bullshit over the years. My job was to catch killers, not save his reputation.

I cleared my throat. “Sir, what we need is evidence. Absent any witnesses or definitive lab data, all I can do is task the station A.I. with sifting security and traffic video logs. Even then, Shichang is a dark district with terrible coverage outside the shopping areas and the killer has been extremely careful both in selecting victims and crime scene locations.”

“Those sound like excuses,” Lee snapped. “I know you’re getting near retirement, Detective ,but you need to resurrect the young Zeki Pemburu -the man who caught the Stonecutters Island Killer – because right now, you don’t seem to be doing much detecting.”

“Sir, listen – – “

“No, you listen to me, Pemburu.  It was because of your service record that I went out of my way to assign you one of the new drones. But there’s a new round of efficiency and budget protocols at the end of the year, and given your age and lack of supplementary augmentations, your redundancy factor in the metric is, frankly, quite high.”

“Captain, my physicals are above standard, my Chip ware is current, and my closure rate is seventy-two percent.”

“I’m talking about dedication,” Captain Lee snapped. “Commitment to the job and the department. You have the minimum augmentation required for police work these days. Now perhaps your old school methodology worked back when you entered the force but today’s officers graduate the academy with an arsenal of cybernetic modifications above and beyond the baseline requirements for policing this century’s urban landscape. You don’t even have a cyber-limb, for god’s sake. I’m doing everything I can to enable you to retain your position, but if this incident isn’t resolved quickly, I’ll be hard pressed to justify not earmarking you for early retirement come the end of the fiscal year.”

I was absorbing that unsubtle threat when two messages popped up in my peripheral: first was high priority from Tech Department demanding I schedule a sync-session with my Turd Copter ASAP. The second was from Jen Cheung: there was another body.

Near Soy Park.  

“Captain, I need to go. I have lead.”

“I want a full report before – – ”

It was my turn to cut him off.  Old school methodology … Fuck him.

I checked my coat pocket for the Faraday pouch and headed for the door.  

I had a victim to interview.  

Cyberpunk Detective Ch. 9

A technoir crime story in progress

***

9. PUZZLE PIECES

I don’t remember leaving the morgue.

Sonia said later I walked back into the autopsy room and stared at the corpse of the brain-popped ganger for a full minute. Utterly still, not a word. She didn’t know who looked worse, me or the dead guy. She asked what was wrong but I left without as much as a glance. 

I must have turned my Chip back on at some point because the next thing I remember was the back seat of an autocab.  It was stopped at a red light and the bloody glare smeared on the lexan window stung my eyes.  My joints ached, my nerves were on fire. It felt like my brain had been split by a hatchet.

The taxi started moving. My phone rang: Jen Cheung. “Am I bothering you?”

Images battered at my mind like moths at a screen. A woman’s face, a loop of club music, laughter. “Yes.”

“Bullshit. I know you’re not asleep. Locater says you just left the Morgue. What were you doing there?”

Lau screamed. My hands kept wiping at phantom blood, sticky and hot. I clenched my fists to stop. “Looking at Lau’s body one more time hoping something would happen.”

“Did it?”

I truck horn blared. I flinched, felt my head lift off my neck. Revulsion and relief heaved through my body. “No.”

“Well, I got something for you.”

I tried to focus, bit the inside of my mouth for real pain and tasted blood. Bad idea. “What do you got?”

Jen Cheung was excited. “So I’ve been going over the crime scene photos, yeah? The Butcher. Dismembering and arranging the body parts is a display, I know. Part of a sick ritual. But the first six were patterns. Symmetrical puzzle pieces, but just patterns, right?”

The Voice shouted, furious and insistent, muffled like the other end of someone else’s phone argument. Lau was sobbing. Warmth spread at my crotch. I didn’t look to see if it was real. “You getting to a point? It’s late and I’m dying here.”

“Point is the last two were different,” Cheung said with certainty.

I shook my head to clear it, sat up. “Different how? What do you mean?”

“I mean not symmetrical. Obviously. At first I thought the killer was going abstract. Psychopath art. But something bugged me; the torso sideways just so, an arm bent there, the head under the leg here. It felt specific, you know?”

Damn. I’d missed it, juggling too many other things. I blinked and logged into the NKPD Net to access the Forensics files. The constant updates were annoying and intrusive, and I’d put off that month’s, so my connection lagged. “So what are you thinking? Specifically.”

“That the Butcher isn’t just showing off their kill. It’s something else.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and concentrated on Jen’s voice. Other noises fell silent. The pain subsided. My Chip finally chimed a secure connection, but Cheung was already explaining.

“So this afternoon I found a drone shot from victim number eight taken from the garage ceiling. Straight down over the body. That’s when I saw it.”   

The taxi rolled to a soft stop in front of my apartment. “Saw what?”  

“The WayGo Transport logo. The company Henry Lau worked for. Get this: the Butcher used his body to make the corporate logo.”

My skin goose-fleshed. “Holy shi… Are you sure?”

The cab door lifted. I blinked payment, climbed out and headed for the front of my building.

I heard her smile. “Bet your ass. Sending images now.”

My optic flickered as two photo files arrived: a CSI image and a GIF off the WayGo letterhead.  I opened them. The pictures dropped to fifty percent opacity and merged, one over the other, Hanzi lines with severed limbs.

 “Alamak,” I breathed. The shapes matched.

I stumbled though the lobby, stopped. “Wait…You said the last two bothered you. What about number seven?”

“That was tougher,” Cheung said. “But it turns out that victim was a per diem at a Sino-Biopharm lab in D-Five.  And SB is part of the CP Group.” She paused. “Check this out.”

The blandly named CP Group was a founding member of the Asian-Pacific conglomerates club, with direct influence in seven countries in this hemisphere alone, and a corporate security force to rival all but the top twelve standing militaries. A quick check on the Wiki entry for ‘omnipresent global financial entity and soulless multinational’, CP Group would be Item One. 

Two more images in my display. I watched CP Group’s logo blink open and melt into another CSI shot: Theresa Tse laid out on a green floor, arranged just so. 

The blood drained from my face.

“I think our killer is anti-globalist somehow. A Seattle 2049 manifestant,” Jen Cheung concluded. “I mean, if these aren’t anti-corporate statements, I don’t know what is.” 

I was alone in the elevator. The images hovered in my peripherals. My body was one giant dull ache. My brain had crashed. Cheung’s voice cut through the fog. “Hai, Zeki. You still there?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m buffering.”  Jialat. I was drained. It was past time for sleep.

Jen waited a moment, then, “So the killer hates corporations and knew them, right? That what this means?”

The elevator doors slid open. I shook my head. It was frighteningly empty right then. “Knew of them, stalked them maybe. Easy to find personal info online.” 

I stopped at my apartment door. “You went over the other victims’ files. They weren’t corp?”

Cheung snorted. “This is new New Kowloon, who isn’t corp to some degree or another?”

I nodded absently. “Hey, I’m home. I’m spent. First thing tomorrow I’ll go over the other vic’s profiles to see if they have any connections. To WayGo, each other… Any common thread.”

“I can do it.” Cheung said.

“You must really want to make detective.”

“I’m going to make detective, Detective. Do you think Tse and Lau were targeted because they were corp? ”

“Looks that way but I can’t be certain. I’ll dig. A per diem pharm-tech is probably clean but maybe Lau was dirty: IP theft, espionage, embezzlement, a mole for a rival, something.”

“Maybe WayGo was in some kind of trouble,” Cheung suggested. Tired as I was, I could hear her wheels turning. “Financial, a takeover… something that.”

 Cheung definitely will make detective.

“Get some sleep,” she said. “I’ll let you know what I find in the morning.”

I signed off, opened my door. The hall light went on as I shuffled in and kicked off my shoes. I’d made it to my bedroom when another NKPD message appeared: the IRA software patch was complete. My aerial drone was ready and I was scheduled for synchronization tomorrow, first shift.  

“Flying Shit Cakes,” I mumbled.

I went to undress and found the front of my khakis were damp. Dark.  

I’d pissed myself in the cab. Me, not Lau.  

Merry Christmas 2020

It’s tough to put a good spin on this past year. Worse to pontificate on how we ‘should’ have responded in the midst of trial and tragedy because I’m aware I need to be better no matter the year. This only brought stuff – good and bad – bubbling to the surface longer than usual for me to take a good hard look.

Still I take refuge in the the Gospel, in the confidence that God is real. That He loves me and meets me where I’m at – even when it falls far short.

I don’t mean that as a cop-out for poor character or an excuse to slack. It’s an acknowledgment not just of my flawed humanity, but of what – or Who – I should be reaching for.

Merry Christmas to you all. I pray your 2021 is filled with better times, with courage and grace, peace and provision. Most of all, with a deep and abiding knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth, the risen savior.

Let the stable still astonish:
Straw-dirt floor, dull eyes,
Dusty flanks of donkeys, oxen;
Crumbling, crooked walls;
No bed to carry that pain,
And then, the child, rag-wrapped laid to cry
In a trough.
Who would have chosen this?
Who would have said:
“Yes, Let the God of Heaven and Earth be born in this place.”

Who but the same God
Who stands in the darker, fouler rooms of our hearts
And says,
“Yes, let the God of Heaven and Earth be born in this place.”

-Leslie Leyland Fields

Side Note

My current supplementary read during morning devotions, this is another excellent opinion/analysis of the creeping totalitarianism in liberal modern society: the “soft tyranny of the Woke Left.”

I don’t disagree with Mr. Dreher’s observations so far but feel the need to point out the potential for brittle, insular, and authoritarian thinking/societies exists on the Religious Right as well. In fact, religious people piloted that concept.

The way to combat a lie is not with an equal and opposite error. Christianity is fundamentally a spiritual position, not a political one and believers are called to represent a different way of life, a different society, a different King and different Kingdom. We are pilgrims here with a much deeper, higher allegiance. Supposed to be, anyway.

By all means, please read this book but I’m starting to think the ongoing hostility and vitriol from a huge chunk of believers betrays not only a lack of discernment but of faith. If half the energy currently being poured onto angry internet rants were channeled into genuine prayer and intercession, I wager the mood and the situation would change dramatically.

Then again, it’s always easier to fight about your principles than actually live them.

But aren’t we called to do the hard thing? To carry a cross when it’s required? What if this is such a season? End of the day – and I mean Judgment Day here – will it really mean all that much? Won’t we be weighed by God’s Love? Not just how we received it but gave it?

I’ll end with a C.S Lewis quote because, you know, quoting St. Clive makes you look smart.

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

Amazon Link

Thanks for reading. More Cyberpunk TechNoir on the way.

Have an excellent day.

Cyberpunk Detective Ch. 8

murder in new kowloon. technoir short story in progress.

8. MORGUE LIFE

I walked in the morgue just after ten that night and found Sonia still working.

Sonia Lam had been the district’s head medical examiner forever, a fixture seemingly as permanent as the building she worked in. Two ice blue cyber eyes, neon-green dreadlocks, and a creased brown face like dried ginseng root, she’d been ancient when I’d joined the force thirty years prior. And she hadn’t aged a day since.

Rumor had it she streamed Swedish death metal via her Chip when she worked and had smart ink tattoo on one wrist that read ‘Morgue Life’ in gothic script. In her orange jump suit and slick black gown and gloves, she looked every inch the cyberpunk crone, leaning over a gleaming stainless steel table.

She was peering into the exposed cranium of heavily borged male. She didn’t look up when I came in. “Not open. Come back in the morning.”

“Good evening to you too, Ms. Lam.” I lifted a take-out bag, shook it slightly. “Brought you a milk tea and rickshaw noodles. Real beef.”

She paused. “Pemburu…” She set a metal probe on the table with a ‘click’ and looked up at me. Then at the bag. “What do you want?”

“Can’t I say hello to an old friend?”

“Ha.” She wrinkled her nose. “You definitely want something.”

I held out the bag. She straightened and took it, unfolding it the top carefully. She leaned in and smelled the flavors wafting up. Her eyes closed and a faint smile crossed her lips. “Real beef you say?”

I nodded. “Doggie Noodle. Block 18. Soy Park’s best.”

She gave it back. “That’ll get you twenty minutes. Hold this while I wash up.”

Sonia left the exam table, went to a sink and stripped off her gloves. She hummed the refrain from an ancient television show as she washed her hands.  She did that every time. “Old habit,” she said whenever asked about it.

It had been a stray comment of hers after an autopsy that had led me the Stonecutter’s Island three years earlier. She, more than anyone else, had been the one who helped me track down that killer. In the back of my mind I was hoping for a repeat with this one, but even she grudgingly admitted this latest string of deaths were unusually sterile. 

I made conversation to fill up the time.  I pointed to the body. “What’s this one?”

“Brain pop.”  Her lips pursed in mild disapproval. “This dumb melon over-clocked his nervous system but forgot to boost his arteries. Got into a fight, tried to amp his reaction time and blew an ACA. Dropped like a sack of laundry.”  She addressed at the corpse. “Won’t do that again, will you?

I tutted and shook my head. She grabbed the bag from me and started in on the noodles. “So…?”

Straight to business. “So I need to see Henry Lau’s body.”

She slurped a mouthful of noodles. “Why? I’ve been over it. Twice. “

“And?”

“And it’s the same as the others. Clean. Blood showed food, alcohol, a little snapcoke, and… wait for it, chloral hydrate. No surprise there.”

She paused, picked a beef strip out of the container and examined it carefully before popping it in her mouth.  She chewed, savoring the flavor. “It is real. Nice. Oh and there were heavy traces of biocides in the armpits and groin, indicative of a disinfectant.”

“Someone’s wiping down the bodies? “

She sipped her tea, nodded.

“Can you determine the type of disinfectant?”

“Nope. Could be any of a dozen over the counter brands. Tens of thousands of liters of the stuff are sold every month. Good luck chasing that down.”

This was going nowhere. Time to visit Mr. Lau.  “What room is he in?”

“Seven. Drawer Four C. I’ll turn on the light.”

I thanked her, started toward the hall.

“Hey, Pemburu.”

I turned.

“I’ve got plenty of work as it is. Catch this one already, will you? After all, aren’t you –“

“The guy who stopped the Stonecutters Island Killer?  Yes. Everyone’s reminding me and it’s starting to piss me off. I remember; I was there. This isn’t Stonecutters Island though.”

She raised her hand. “Someone’s feeling the pressure, eh? Sorry.“ A pause. “This is different,” she admitted, chopsticks diving back into the noodles. “A new kind of shit sandwich altogether.” 

 She went back to the sink and put her tea and noodles on the counter. “Back to it then. Room Seven, drawer 4C,” she called over her shoulder. “I’ll let you know if I anything comes up.”

“Thanks, Sonia.”

“Good luck, Detective Pemburu.” 

***

Henry Lau lay on a sliding tray in a morgue drawer. Someone had arranged him how he was supposed to be, more or less; a pale puzzle person rimed with freezer burn. All the pieces were present, just cold. And very disconnected.

I blinked up my Chip menu, turned off all my location and monitoring apps, then locked the door behind me. Pulling out the faraday pouch, I slotted the flash stick in the WiFi extender, turned it on, and set it on the tray next to Lau’s head. The LED screen lit up. Another light winked on in my mind, like a warning light on a dashboard telling me to stop.

I ignored it.

A minute later a secure local network labeled Sanzu-no-kawa appeared in my visuals. Japanese for ‘The River of Three Crossings’; the mythical boundary between the living and the dead.

Great. Hang a lantern on it, why don’t you?

The hair stood on the back of my neck all the same. I had the nasty sense I was standing at the bank of that river or at least the top of the dark basement stairs in some horror movie. Part of me was shouting I could go insane, go to prison, go to hell.

My feeble prayer came to mind, the candlelit crucifix at the church altar, Henry Lau’s head on the garage floor. It occurred to me the faces had the same expression.

I bit down on my reluctance and logged in.  A single connection popped up, a long alphanumeric: Henry Lau’s PIP ID.

A chill swept up my spine.

Part of me had expected it not to work. Wanted the Chip to be drained, the file to not be there. To be empty or corrupted beyond retrieval. But no.

Deep breath.

I entered the decrypt pass code and searched until I found [local_buffer_ overflow:hidden/hl9aj*7729938vdf]

The soul cache.

There it was. Active. Not empty. 

I opened it

and fell in a pool of viscous shadow.

It coated in my body like writhing eels, slithered into my eyes and ears, my nose and mouth – choked – soaked through my skin into my veins, my marrow until the throb of music and brittle hilarity, the gin vapor on the tongue, the synthetic coke burn at the back of Henry’s throat was mine, and our teeth tingled with adrenalized lust and cheap cologne. 

Cool night air and there’s a sting at our neck. A lurch like a train switching tracks and I/Henry am suddenly shiver sick with booze. The floor becomes hard and every joint aches. Cold iron terror clamps around my limbs, my brain. I am paralyzed and blind. Migrained at the bright light that pulses through our closed eyelids, fills our cells with the rich stink of molten copper syrup spreading sticky under our body.

I feel the squelch and tug tear of meat, twitch as nerves jangle electric. The voice murmurs over us. The voice sawing at our bones. We want to get up, to run, to vomit, to shout, to breath. But we can’t. Can’t move.

Can’t move away from the pain, pain, pain and the thick, angry voice. That yelling that smells of blood and shit, and sweet earth grit on our lips.

At last we spit scream ragged, a raw sound stopped by the taste of rubber gloves and the slicing line of ice on our neck that flares white hot in our brain until we are separated.

Separate heartbeats. Heartbeat, heartbeat, hear–

Here above our body, we are blind and floating. Rising like sparks from a fire into the sky beyond sky where an ancient immensity waits, a black door in a wall of night. It is closing but we pass through before it slams shut —

It slams and I am thrown back, a taut wire snapped, exhaled like a breath held too long from drowning.

I bob to the surface in a thin light and cold ceramic tile against my check. Above me gleams the underside of a stainless steel morgue tray. The tiny LED screen is winking [connection lost. connection lost. connection lost] and the taste of someone else’s death in my mouth is grief and sugar and burnt wood. 

WIP: Cyberpunk Detective 7

technoir, cyberpunk murder, a work in progress

***

7. HEARTS AND MINDS

Captain Lee intercepted me the moment I walked into the station the next morning. 

His bright yellow icon blinked in my peripheral vision, pecking at my attention. The text read [my office. now]

Didn’t take a detective to know what that was about.

Captain Jian Lee had risen to command the Shìchǎng District NKPD station through a breathtaking combination of connections, flattery, and blame-shifting. Nicknamed ‘Teflon Lee’ because shit just didn’t stick to him, he excelled at two things: department politics and reducing complicated real-life situations into facile, irrelevant components. He was a prime example of who you know, not what you know, and my immediate superior.

I knocked on his door and entered in time to find him berating a pair of our department tech-support desk jockeys. Apparently there was some hitch in a portion of the A.I. protocol coding for the new drones. I doubted the Captain knew anything about the topic beyond the sales-speak in the manufacturer’s infomercial, but rank hath its privileges. I also noticed he still had all his fingers and a large breakfast on his desk. Guess the clinic doctor paid his fees.

I made a note to swing by the clinic that night to get a feel for the place. At least see if my C.I., Hunu, had been right about its wares.

There’d been a huge influx of technicians in and around the station the past two months. The entire Lower City was in the throes of yet another Strategic Policing Initiative, this one designed to reduce violent crime by deploying even more surveillance technology and glossing it with a coat of old-fashioned community policing. According to the plan, every district constable would work their sector paired with a small, semi-autonomous drone that would be fully synced with both the LNK and NKPD database, record every encounter, and provide reconnaissance and non-lethal support.

The Howa-Colt Industries prospectus claimed this combination would create a police force that merged ‘robotic, security-oriented assistance with instant data-access and organic interpersonal bonding to establish a genuine, informed connection with the civilian populace.’ Which had to be one of the more obscure and sterile descriptions of the police officer’s call to protect and serve I’d heard in thirty plus years on the force.

But because Shìchǎng was dark, it was poor, and because it was poor, its officials were far more open to the financial incentives offered by Howa-Colt Industries. That was why our station was one of five testing grounds for the new IRAs, or Integrated Robotic Assistants. Small aerial drones, the prototypes were bulbous, brown with yellow markings, with twin rotors on either side.

After the initial demonstration, it had taken all of three minutes for them to be dubbed, ‘Flying Shit Cakes’ and ‘Turd-Copters’. Real hearts and minds stuff. 

The HCI Rep and Captain Lee both assured us the new technology would not only keep us safer, but would help us understand and embrace solutions to the root causes of crime. I wondered how our serial killer would react to a hug.

The tirade ended and the techs left with barely disguised exasperation on their faces, one of the more common reactions from visitors to Captain Lee’s domain. I put on a soft smile as they slid past me.  

The office door shut and Captain Lee immediately brought up a news feed on his desk monitor. He swiped it angrily and a grainy loop of aerial drone feed played on the wall display. Flashing lights. The alley outside the garage. Forensics van. A stretcher with a lumpy body bag.  They’d kept the animal sounds.

“They’re calling him the Butcher,” the captain snapped.

I held my tongue about preconceptions and sexist remarks.

He glared at me. “Why haven’t you apprehended this maniac?”

“I’ve got the lab analyzing the scene from last night, sir. Top priority.”

I saw red creeping up his collar onto his face. “A District One resident was murdered. Five members of the City Council call me this morning. Five. And the Mayor.” He waved up images from the repair bay and pointed. “Do you have any idea how bad this makes us look? What will we do if a rumor starts that Shìchǎng is no longer safe, eh? What then? People will flock to the markets in Ma Tau Chung, that’s what.”

Jen Cheung’s comment about this murder being a real crime popped into my head. Henry Lau was the eighth victim. I guessed the other seven don’t count because they lived here and hadn’t been shoppers.  

Captain Lee pointed at a photo of Henry Lau’s head. “This is not acceptable.”

I was sure Mr. Lau’s family would agree.

Lee waved the images off in disgust and turned to me. “Some lunatic has killed and dismembered a visitor to our district – and this makes it look like we’re sitting on our hands. Where are you with the investigation?”

“I’m pursuing new avenues of inquiry that I’m confident will yield evidence.” Which was technically true.

Lee nodded, not listening. I could see scenarios playing out behind his eyes: angry conference calls from the Council, press conferences going bad, career plans derailed. He entered a series of commands at his desk station then looked straight at me.

“You’re still on the force because you’re supposed to be good at your job. Exemplary, in fact. You single-handedly apprehended the Stonecutter’s Island killer, correct?”

“Yes sir.”

Technically I shot him five times before he fell off a cliff into the ocean. But we did retrieve his body, so that counts as ‘apprehended’.

Captain Lee furrowed his brow, straightened and went into speech mode, so much so I wondered if he was recording this in case he needed proof of his oversight and determination later. “And that is why I have the utmost confidence in your abilities, Detective Pemburu. I made you lead in this case because you’re the best man we have. ‘Serving New Kowloon with Honour, Duty and Loyalty’ isn’t just our motto, it’s our heartbeat. I know you understand that. Which is why I need you to redouble your efforts and stop this killer before they strike again.”

He stretched out his hand to shake mine. “The citizens of this entire district are counting on you, Detective. For their sake, work hard and work fast.”

I gripped his hand and maybe squeezed a bit harder than I should. The Captain kept his composure.  “Of course, sir.”

 I let go. He motioned toward the door and sat, turning toward his unfinished breakfast.

I had nearly escaped when he spoke again. “All the resources of the department at your disposal, Detective. Which is why I’m assigning you one of the new IRA drones.”

I turned around. “Sir, there’s no need to–”

He brushed my concern away. “No need to worry. I’ve personally looked into the programming issues and have been assured the wrinkles will be ironed out before the end of the day. I’m sure it will be an invaluable tool to you. And an invaluable opportunity for the department. What better way to demonstrate the initiative’s viability than with a successful arrest of a violent killer by our newest technology and our most senior detective. Don’t you agree, Zeki?” 

I didn’t. “Of course, Captain,” I said.

“Excellent. I’ll notify Tech right now. Shut the door on your way out, please.”

They say unintended irony is the best kind, but I was in deep enough shit that the thought of a Turd-Copter following me everywhere struck me as cosmic poke in the eye. Neural chips were bad enough. At least they could be turned off by the user. An IRA drone would be a short leash. With a choke collar. Having command authorization and demanding results, Captain Lee would be looking over my shoulder – literally – every second. Micromanagement cubed.

Given my new ‘avenue of inquiry’ into the killer’s identity, I couldn’t have that. At all.

I had forty-eight, maybe seventy-two hours before I’d have to report to the Tech Department. With a shred of luck, the AI issues wouldn’t be sorted yet, or all the drones would be assigned to other officers. After that, I’d have to go back to Loi for a work around.

I was already breaking a dozen laws with the Neural Chip Decryption ware; what was a little thing like sabotaging a multi-million eYuan contract between the NKPD and the largest robotics manufacturer in the hemisphere going to add? 

In for a penny…

I left the station without stopping by my desk. No way was I risking having to get my drone today – not with my upcoming visit to the morgue that night.