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?
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.”
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.
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 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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
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?”
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.
Murder scenes are lots of things: their circumstances sometimes obvious, other times mysterious or downright bizarre. Usually bloody. Always tragic.
See enough of them they become routine in a sad kind of way. Terrible to admit but there it is. It’s the job.
They’d always struck me as intrusive too; as if the act itself wasn’t violation enough to then have a horde of technicians descend upon your body. Complete strangers in Tyvek one pieces, masks, and gloves mincing around your floodlit corpse, photographing it from every angle, sampling, poking, prodding, scraping away at the minutia of your final moments. A state of ultimate vulnerability clinically analyzed for every last awful secret.
All murder scenes are terrible in their own way. The howling made this one worse.
The victim had been found in a motorcycle repair shop, a single grungy bay tucked behind a D-Grade cloning bank for exotic pets. The scent of blood thick in the air, dozens of copies of copies of copies of puppies and parrots and miniature jungle cats were barking, whining, screeching, yowling as the soundtrack to some poor bastard’s end credits.
I knew the officer at the holo-tape. Jen Cheung. Sergeant. Good head on her shoulders. Two cyber-arms. Helluva right hook.
“What? You’re not inside?” I asked as I approached. “Your delicate female sensitivities acting up?”
She deadpanned. “That sounded like a sexist remark, Detective. I see a Sensitivity refresher course in your future.”
“Long overdue,” I agreed, and stopped beside her. “How bad is it?”
She spit, nodded. “Very.”
“Is it the same as the other seven?”
She squinted at me. “Sure looks like it, Zek. But what do I know? That’s your job isn’t it?”
I waved a hand at the surrounding buildings. “Anyone see anything?” Unlikely, but I had to ask.
Sergeant Cheung shook her head. “We got called for the noise. Wan found the body.” She jerked a thumb at a young constable seated in the back of a NKPD HiAce van. He looked lost, pale. I’d have sworn he was no more than twelve.
Shit, I sound like an old cop.
I was an old cop and he was deep in conversation with a Forensics bot so I let him be.
“Garage owner been contacted?”
Cheung nodded. “Already at the station.”
“ID on the victim?”
Cheung blinked as she connected. “Henry Lau. Systems Manager for WayGo, the self-driving transport company. Address is 1397 Hab C3. Hung Hom. District One.”
I let out a low whistle. “District One.”
She nodded, spit again. “Yup. Now it’s a real crime; a rich person’s been killed.”
Funny/not funny. And true. Lau had been an Edger. Not Upper City, but as close as we got down here. Maybe added pressure would make Captain Lee devote more resources now. Other than ramp up his indignation and yell louder each time another body was found, like they were being dumped in his district for the sole purpose of making him look bad.
Captain Lees were part of the job too.
Time to see the body. “You taking the test soon?” I asked as I passed through the tape.
“Why, you finally looking for a new partner?” she snorted.
I avoided that question. That memory. “LNK needs good detectives.”
“You can say that again, the bang up job you’re doing with this mess.” She grinned to take the edge off it. “And to answer your question: yes, next month.”
I smiled back at her. “Good luck, then. Let me know after and we’ll drink to celebrate.”
I went toward the open bay door.
“Hey,” she called after.
“Catch this guy already, will you? You’re the famous ‘Stonecutters Island Detective.’ You have a reputation to uphold.”
I gave her a look of mock indignation. “Guy? Now who’s being sexist? Never make detective like that, Sergeant. Clinging to preconceptions and stereotypes.”
“Just get whoever this is.”
I felt the weight of the faraday pouch in my jacket pocket. “Working on it.”
Turning back to the garage, I made a mental note to mention Cheung’s name to a couple friends higher up the chain of command. I had no doubt she’d crush the exam, and Lower New Kowloon really was in desperate need of good police. Compared to Captain Lee, Sergeant Cheung was Joan of Arc.
The tiny repair bay was bright with dozens of LED strips that brought every dingy corner into stark relief. The regular oil and rust smells were overpowered by the reek of blood and offal, while the Forensics team had their formaldehyde undertone of sanitizer and sterile gear. An old friend, Ed Cho, was kneeling by the body, pecking away with a bio-scanner.
“Tell me you have something,” I said. A desperate hope.
He looked up at me, shrugged once and went back to scanning.
I surveyed the body: naked, male. Mid-thirties. Looked ethnic Chinese. Mr. Lau had been chopped into pieces, his blood congealing under jointed body parts that had been carefully arranged in a bizarre pattern – a different pattern each time.
Seven patterns, now eight.
“Time of death?”
Cho had a soft, raspy voice. How I’d expect a chain smoking toddler to sound. “Twelve hours. A hair less, maybe.”
“He drugged same as others?”
“Too early to tell. Hundred eYuan says the blood shows traces of chloral hydrate though.”
I wasn’t going to take that bet. I nodded at the forensics kit on the floor by his boots. “You must have found a sliver of evidence this time. Give me something. Anything.”
“Blood samples say our victim had been drinking. Judging by the food particles on his lips and cheeks, he ate recently too. Anything more, you need to wait for the lab report. ”
“Other than him?”
Cho shook his head. “Older fingerprints, samples of biodiesel, poly lubes, cleansers. More food scraps, smears of chili paste and peanut oil from those takeout containers.” He jerked his head at an overflowing trash barrel next to an ancient 3D metal powder printer. Soy Park stalls did serious business with the mechanics here.
Ed Cho then aimed his scanner at one of the white-suited techs on the perimeter of the scene. “I can tell you the door was forced recently. Julie found fresh hits on the jamb and threshold. Best guess is someone broke in, saw the body and bolted.”
“How old? Any chance whoever that was saw the murder?”
“Very recent, a couple hours ago. So definitely post-mortem.”
I remembered Fat Quan’s comment and considered chatting him up again. Show up as ‘Detective Pemburu’ for sure. Bring Sergeant Cheung and maybe borrow the Special Duties Unit from Captain Lee for something more resembling real police work.
“Still, they might have seen something.” I blinked and linked to the NKPD Net. “The door sample have an ID match?”
Another shake of the head. “Unregistered. Homeless or a recent ‘fugee scrounging for something to pawn.”
I nodded at Cho’s DNA sniffer. “Anyone else?”
“I’ve been over the whole place. Database matches the garage owner, two mechanics, and some unknowns who are probably clients. Except for the door knocker and Mr. Lau here, it’s all forty-eight hours old or more.” He shrugged. “Lab might have more later, but…”
“So we’ve got nothing really. Again.”
Exactly what I didn’t want to hear. Exactly why I’d visited Loi. Exactly why I was carrying disgrace, summary dismissal, and a prison term in my jacket pocket.
Henry Lau’s head lay at the bottom of his severed left leg like the period to an exclamation point. His right hand was cupped behind his left ear as if listening. His hair was slick and sticky, his face blood speckled, the eyes rolled back. A half-opened mouth revealed perfect teeth shining bright blue-white in the harsh light.
A weird little part of me imagined an augur in mid-vision ecstasy uttering mysteries. The rest of me saw the twisted handiwork of a serial killer.
Not half an hour past, I’d been willing to peer inside that head for clues. Listen to those revelations. Now, looking at what had become of Mr. Lau, I touched the lump of the faraday pouch through my jacket.
I didn’t know if I wanted to whip it out and use it right then, or if I was warding off evil spirits.
The nave had seemed so much larger when I was young, the vaulted ceiling and high stained glass windows made for giants, not humans. Not me. I was always a trespasser. An ant in God’s room.
Walking down the aisle in the muffled quiet under that high, deep darkness, I felt that old familiar discomfort. I suppressed an urge to genuflect; another muscle memory triggered by flickering candles and the smell of old upholstery, wood wax, and incense. It was an older one, faded. Easier to ignore.
I slid into a pew and sat instead. I had seven minutes to get to Loi’s shop.
It had been more than three decades since I’d been here, and my only visits to other churches had been funerals or the ultra-rare traditional wedding – deaths outpacing matrimony more and more lately.
I wasn’t so much lapsed as self-exiled, and part of me would be fine if it was another thirty years before I came back.
Another part was scared shitless for my mortal soul.
Those weren’t the exact words. My grasp on the notion of ‘soul’ was slippery at best these days. The fear was more a pull at the back of my mind, like a diver low on oxygen tugging on a line to be pulled up out of the deep. Wordless, but pretty damn insistent.
What do you say to God in three minutes after three decades of ignoring Him?
Hey, I know I walked away and told everyone you’re not up there, but I need to stop a psychopath. So how ‘bout a little help here, eh? In Christ’s name I pray. Amen.
I folded my hands and tried to form better words as a host of unwelcome memories barged in.
My mother had cried when I told her I’d left the Church. Asked why. Said I would damn myself in unbelief.
I’d just graduated top of my class from the police academy. Successful, cocksure, so certain I knew more about the world than an old lady who refused to get a Chip and still fumbled with her smart phone. I confronted her on the Church’s stand on clones. Demanded she explain what a soul meant in an age of neural fiber cybernetics and artificial intelligence.
Technology was threaded through society like a kudzu vine. It invaded and reshaped everything. Police were constantly asking what constituted ‘crime’ now – let alone ‘sin’ or ‘damnation’ – in an era of programmable robot companions and stimsense virtual reality. From replicant celebrity androids to murder-fantasy VR apps, a person could screw or slaughter anyone as many times as they wanted. Feel every thrust, every warm splash, all in the privacy of their own home, their own mind. No real world consequences.
God obviously didn’t care, I said; He didn’t stop real murders, let alone fake ones.
I told her religion was an appendix; a vestigial organ from when humans tried to swallow the indigestible. We were defined by science now. Nourished by a universe of data and technology. Life fed itself from the slime of that trinity. Nothing more, nothing less.
“There’s no meaning beyond the meat, ibu. The meat spoils, the spark dies. That’s it. I’m not wasting any more time on bad, outdated answers to wrong questions.”
I remembered her silence. A long one, tears on her cheeks, staring out the kitchen window. Finally she dried her eyes and turned to me. “There’s more than one way to measure the universe, Zeki. Some day you’ll see there are mysteries beyond all your data.”
After a few years on the force, the notion of a ‘spark of the ineffable’ in each of us only became absurd. The shit people did to each other in the real world made religion seem like just one more hoax for the desperate, the delusional, and the downright stupid.
It had taken thirty years but there I was kneeling in front of Mary and Her Son, teetering on the edge of that mystery cliff between faith and science. Right then felt a hell of a lot like an I-told-you-so moment.
I looked up at the altar. “Sorry.”
I closed my eyes. Bowed my head.
“God, this is tough. Here I am and if you’re there, then you already know what’s going on. Know what I’m about to do.” I swallowed. “So… so help me. Help these people. Please. Amen.”
Weak as shit – but it was all I had.
I thought about crossing myself when I was done, but decided that would stretch it too far. It wasn’t much of a prayer but I’d meant it as much as I could; token piety wasn’t going to bump my request to the top of God’s To Do list.
I stood, brushed my knees as a call came in. Loi.
“Where are you? You’ve got two minutes. I should see you in the Soy Park by now.”
“On my way.”
“What the hell, Zek?”
“I ran into Quan. Had to stop and kiss the ring.”
“Kiss his ass, you mean. What’d that old bastard want?”
The night sweats were coming down hard and every square meter of church yard under the awning was packed with people. Late-comers jostled at the edges, huddled under scraps of poly-sheeting, all shoving to get out of the downpour. The church looked besieged by an army of trash pickers.
Every day, the steam and smog from the Lower City rises and collects on the thousands of kilometers pipes and struts on the underside of the Terrace. After sunset, when the cool ocean winds come, all that moisture condenses and falls; twenty minutes of oily, rusty chemical rain. Every night. The Upper City pissing on our heads.
Long-term homeless get ‘Beggar’s Spots’, a permanent burn mottle on their skin. Some go blind after too many years on the street. Those who can’t afford replacement eyes stay blind. That’s why cover was currency in the under-city.
I got closer, heard angry voices. An argument in front of me turned into a shoving match. One of them pulled a knife, the other a length of pipe. My Chip widebanded NKPD I.D. and the conflict dissolved like wet rice paper. The crowd parted and here at a church, I thought of the Red Sea.
“No more or I call the district watch to clear the area,” I said as I jogged past.
Everyone looked away, even the junkies and low-life thugs who picked on the homeless. A threat like that, everyone would at least wait until I was out of sight. Which was fine because I didn’t want to call Loi again.
Two-hundred and fifty years old, the Rosary Church dedicated to Our Lady of Pompeii was the last Catholic place of worship in New Kowloon. Perhaps the entire Greater Hong Kong Metro area. I didn’t pay attention anymore, plus the faithful were few and far between in this part of the world. But the tiny cathedral was on UNESCO’s historic register, so the vaulted awning over the property kept the worst of the underside’s effluent from damaging the building. Nestled at the foot of the dark urban sprawl towering all around, old Rosary looked like a Gothic lawn ornament in a half-shell.
I was on the stairs when I heard my name. “Detective Pemburu.” A man’s voice.
My hand shifted toward the pistol under my coat. I kept moving.
“Over here,” the voice insisted.
An obese man with milky eyes sat beneath a spindly hibiscus tree. He grinned in my direction. Fat Quan, gutter king of Shìchǎng.
I stopped and slowly showed both my hands. “Mr. Quan. What a surprise.”
“Doubly so. Doubly so,” he said. “Do you have a moment?”
I didn’t but I walked over anyway. Quan was not a man to ignore.
He waved a pudgy hand and several homeless around me relaxed. “How is your mother, Detective? In good spirits?”
I nodded. “Still walks in the park, morning and evening. And you? You look healthy as ever.”
He chuckled sagely. “Losing weight, they tell me. Wasting away to nothing. Must be all the recent stress. It has everyone on edge though, don’t you think?”
“Lower city life – lower city problems,” I replied. “Still, less of a fall than Upstairs.”
He gave a tired joke a hearty laugh that ended abruptly as it began. “Never found that much of a consolation.”
Silence settled between us. He fixed his cataract gaze over my right shoulder. The milky eyes were an affectation; if you believed the street talk, half his cranium was packed with net ware and sensory gear. Fat bastard knew exactly where I was. Probably my credit score and my heart rate too.
Quan finally spoke again, softer this time. “So Detective Pemburu, are you here seeking spiritual solace for your own problems? I thought you were long departed from the fold.”
I shrugged. “I was in the neighborhood when the sweats started. Forgot my umbrella. Plus I heard the sisters in the kitchen were serving fish balls tonight.”
Quan rolled with my deflection. “And how is your cousin?” he countered. “She still in the Gray Market?”
He tutted, double chin bobbing. “Never understood why she stayed in the Lower City. Smart, that girl.” His round face turned up toward the awning over the church, the underside of the Terrace. “She could have worked her way up and out.”
“She could have,” I agreed. I still remembered the family feud that erupted when she rejected her fifth corporate employment offer. It was the last she ever got. “Loi believes tech should be in the hands of those that need it most. Down here.”
“A noble sentiment.” Quan pressed his hands together and shook his head. “I used to think so too. For many years. Now, I’m not so sure.”
“Oh?” I checked the time. Loi wasn’t kidding about me not being late. Fat Quan had better get to a point soon. I still had something I wanted to do.
“Technology does violence to the soul,” he continued. “Someone said that long ago. I’m starting to believe it. What was meant to liberate, to make life easier, has instead separated us. Alienated us from ourselves. From one another.” He pointed up. “Take our fine city as an obvious example.”
Under the scrawny tree, one hand raised, a frown on his big round face, Quan looked the very picture of a fat, sad Buddha.
“You don’t sound like a man who’s lost his faith.”
He smiled. “Don’t I? Well, you would know.”
That did it. “Forgive me, Mr. Quan, but I must excuse myself.”
Another time check: thirteen minutes. I’d need to hurry.
I turned toward the church.
I turned back. “It’s Detective Pemburu.”
He bowed his head. “Apologies. If I can be of any help to the NKPD…”
“I appreciate your offer but there’s no reason to—“
Shìchǎng is the largest market district in the center of Lower New Kowloon and Shao-Bei is its main drag, which means even this time of night, the street runs like the Mekong in monsoon season.
I stepped out of the alley into a torrent of people and traffic, all surging through a neon-bright canyon cliffed in steel and smartglass. Celebrities smiled down at the masses, endorsing hot ware that could sync and sex up anyone to be just like them. Holograms swam in a smog of bio-diesel and steam, spiced with curry and hot peanut oil, all buoyed on a hurricane of sound.
The Bank of Shanghai’s Neu-Deutsch Techno jingle announced a branch opening in district three. Ten-story tall Thai androgynes in Gosha Streetwear catwalked to West African Griot Folk Rap. A vendor stall next to me was blaring specials on cloned carp and sex dolls, while across the street, a bar’s window screen simulcast a cage fight in first-person view.
Bus stops flashed political ads and air quality notices. End-of-the-week sales floated past my face, everything from loom-grown beef to 3D bio-printed replacement organs. Shao-Bei Street was a valley of lurid consumer hallucinations.
Not only were the shops and stalls doing brisk business, the street species were in full bloom. Market center or no, a dark district is a poor district so the bottom-feeders had swarmed to nibble at the edges. I spotted beggars and buskers by the dozen, the thick shapes of grafted bodyguards herding intoxed corporate suits past burnt out wire-heads pleading for per diem memory courier gigs.
On the corners, missionaries from every faith competed with hookers of every flavor, all hoping to evangelize the wallets of the unwary one way or another. I spied a dozen grifters shadowing their marks.
Politicians who try to sound smart claim each district has a distinct eco-system, a unique civic biome subject to an arcane blend of location, economy, and residents only they can divine. I don’t know about that, but the sprawl certainly has a food chain. Step onto the street, you’re fair game.
It looked like everyone in the lower city decided to do their shopping here, tonight. Crowds like this, the only way to get where I needed to be was to find the right current and be carried along.
I felt the wind again just as the P.A. chimed the night sweat warning. It was misting already. A thousand holo-ads fuzzed as the oily drops started to fall. I cut across the avenue under a sea of blooming, clear umbrellas, all seething with reflections – a riptide of electrified jellyfish – and joined a swarm of Japanese tourists.
They were headed my way, south, toward the electronics and ware boutiques in the Gray Market. I got a couple of sidelong glances but my virtual NKPD tags insured they didn’t linger. No one wants the trouble that comes with police.
I made it six blocks under borrowed cover with uncomfortable but polite Japanese salary men before I finally ducked down a side road. They bowed and waved goodbye. Relieved.
I tried to be, but my second thoughts bred geometrically with every step. I was going to see an illegal software dealer and even she thought my idea was bad.
Two blocks off Shao-Bei, my low-light implants kicked in. This was the “other”Shìchǎng, the Naya Dalit slums where the Scrape, Scrap, and Shit gangs lived. Stuck here, two blocks from stuff they couldn’t afford, were the immigrants and refugees who worked underside repair, recycling, and sewage. Or any other filthy, dangerous, non-contract job they could find. No pretty lights and corporate jingles adorning these neighborhoods. Just teetering stacks of foam-crete apartments, salvaged fiberboard shacks, and cheap LEDs.
The new untouchables are shackled by technology, not ethnicity. Or rather lack of technology. Some can’t even afford a neural chip. The rest simply can’t pay the monthly subscription fees. A domestic or dock worker with a basic Musk package can live in an edge district where they get a few hours of sunlight one way or another. Here in the middle of the Lower City, they’re in the dark and disconnected.
“Casualties of the neural interface revolution,” one journalist once called them. Poor bastards stuck on the wrong side of the technology gap. It’s the latest version of an old story: without money they can’t get tech. Without tech, they can’t get money. No info-net, no social credit, no bank history, no identity – nothing to help them claw their way up and out of here.
Sunlight doesn’t reach this deep under the Terrace and with the girded underside of the Upper City squatting over their heads, Shìchǎng might as well be the fucking Mariana Trench.
No wonder these people riot every few years.
Or snap and start murdering their neighbors.
Lights from the Gray Market played on the buildings ahead of me but I turned onto Chatham Road South. I needed to make a stop.
I ‘faced and called Loi Cao. She picked up instantly. Tense. “Zek. You coming or what?” she asked.
“I’m three blocks away but I have to make a quick detour. Thirty minutes.”
A soft curse. I could hear her scowl. “Not a fan this ware.”
“Twenty minutes, then.”
“Okay, Zek. Not a second later.”
“I’ll be there.”
“I’m serious. Not one second later,” she said, and hung up.
I tripped over my own feet coming to the gate; my body stopped to let the surveillance mast read my chip the same instant my mind remembered I didn’t need to do that anymore. Everything was faster these days. Smoothed into the NKPD Net. I’d probably been scanned and approved a hundred meters back. The pause was an old habit – the muscle memory from other summer nights a decade gone.
This stretch of wall had gone up in ’46 at the height of the water riots. It was a hot summer, a bad summer. Protestors had taken over the entire Shìchǎng district. The mayor’s council was worried the demonstrations would spread through the rest of the lower city, so the wall was constructed: a hundred-plus kilometers of interlocking ferro-crete slabs, five meters tall, topped with cameras and sonic turrets and loops of writhing live wire. Every secondary street was closed off and the main avenues sprouted checkpoints and steel gates overnight. The district went from street markets to triple max prison overnight. On top of that, half a dozen concealed access points were installed so undercover teams could outflank the barricades and conduct what officials called ‘containment operations’ to secure public safety and prevent civilian casualties.
Not that the protestors had killed anyone. Sure, there were the usual torched cars and smashed shop windows, but mostly it was regular line up of popular demagogues, opportunist celebrities, day-swarms of idealistic cause groupies all hitching a ride to the moral high-ground on the backs of thousands of sick, thirsty, low-tier workers and their families who couldn’t afford another rate hike for clean water.
This particular access opened into an alley at the south end of Shao-Bei Street. My squad had used it every night for three months to slip in and do things I’d rather forget. Back then, the neighborhood was all cheap noodles, puppet brothels, and pachinko parlors. Now it’s shops and micro-apartments, tea houses and boutique knock-offs. LNK’s version of gentrification.
I pulled the hinged slab shut behind me, felt a shudder as the bolts thunked back in place. The turrets and wire were long since removed but the alley looked the same. Less trash maybe. I wiped slime and grime off my fingers, shook off a clutch of ghosts, and was back in Shìchǎng.
The night was young so the passage was empty, which was good because I was running late and this put me five blocks closer to where I needed to be. Plus it let me bypass a serious bar fight, an in-progress robbery, and a full blown raid. The bar fight was just another drunken brawl, police drones were already on scene at the ramen stand, and the raid… the raid was an omnishambles presided over by Captain Lee himself.
None of them were my concern – there were no bodies – but the system would log me going through the perimeter, so I would need an explanation.
The bouncers would get the fight under control before it turned serious. It was highly unlikely someone would get killed in the ramen stand hold up. Fēng Niú, the local Red Pole, took a dim view of anyone messing with the revenue stream in his territory. Everyone in Sector Nine knew it and any junkie stupid enough to slot a shop owner would be dead before I ever chased them down. All I’d get was a courtesy email telling me where to find the body. So no real pressure there either.
The raid was a thing to avoid for a lot of reasons, most of all because it was nothing but dick swagger. Our fearless leader had requisitioned two tac-teams in a Norinco 6-wheeler to pay a visit to a new, gray market cyber-ware clinic. Lee’s official reason was the place might be a front for HK separatists. In reality, our district captain was killing two birds with one sledgehammer, intimidating a new business with a welcome wagon while reminding everyone on the street he was still a big kid in the neighborhood.
Hunu, one of my CIs, said the clinic was mostly legit, specializing in geisha-mods and copycat Faberge cyber limbs. That it was backed by the Macau Triad, no less. Then again, she insisted one of her regular johns was an alien from the Andromeda galaxy, so on the off chance she wasn’t full of shit and ‘Phoria, Captain Lee might lose serious face – and maybe a finger depending on who he pissed off. If not, he’d be a few thousand e-Yuan richer when the doctor paid the ‘licensing’ fee to operate in this part of Lower New Kowloon.
Maybe I’m thick, but it seemed to me twelve heavily armed ninja trolls backed by a Pacification droid was a bit over the top for a chop shop micro-surgeon and a pair of cloned nurses fresh out of Chiba City. A polite ‘meet and greet’ at the station would have sufficed. But what do I know? I’m just a homicide detective with just enough sense not to stick my hand in the middle of that mess. Either way, smart money said the clinic would reopen this time tomorrow.
The captain would grill me at roll call in the morning, but I had reasons – seven, bloody, dismembered ones – that would save me the worst of his scorn. Even he realized he needed to get ahead of this mess before the stink reached higher up the chain of command. Or worse, the newsfeeds got wind of it. Between the noxious election rhetoric, the latest SARS outbreak, and rumors of another hike in electric rates, tensions in the poorer districts of Lower New Kowloon were high enough. No need to add ‘serial killer panic’ to the mix.
I needed to get ahead of it too. Not to preserve my reputation – too late for that – but because it was my job and so far I had seven bodies, not a single, solid lead, and only a really bad idea on how to get one.
There was a chill on my neck. The wind off the South China Sea had finally reached under the Terrace. I cursed for forgetting my umbrella, turned up my collar and started down the alley.
I received an advance copy of ZONA ALFA from Osprey Publishing yesterday. I understood in my head it was happening but taking the actual copy out of the envelope was pretty epic. An Osprey Wargames ‘Blue Book’, ZA is done in their standard format 64 pages with original art and color photographs. Sam Lamont did an outstanding job capturing that STALKER, decayed Soviet post-apoc feel, and Lead Adventure was gracious enough to supply some great shots of their eminently suitable miniatures. Chris C and the team at Osprey wrangled with my scribbles and lists, transmogrifying them into a presentable set of war game rules. Alchemy with words.
My fiction projects have been on the back burner for the last year or so as I’ve been involved in a series of large commissions and restoration projects in my full time work, as well as bringing Hardwired, and the Tsim Sha Tsui Expansion to market, plus getting Zona Alfa ready for release.
Writing for the war game industry has been a different sort of challenge, both oddly familiar and strangely difficult, making sure I translate what I’m assured of in my head into concise, understandable language. (Communication. Always useful) Not unlike writing a story but a bit more technical.
Speaking of fiction though, the first quarter of the new year is traditionally slow, so I plan on using Jan and Feb 2020 to bring the first portion of the Shattered Worlds storyline to completion. God willing, part 1, Beneath the Broken Moon, will be ready for release early next year. More on that as the story develops.
Work calls so that’s it for now. Art hard and have an excellent day.