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.

WIP 4: Cyberpunk Detective Story

an ongoing thing

4. VESTIGIAL

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.

Not great.

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. 

Fuck.

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?”

“I’ll tell you when I get there.”

She ground her teeth. “Zek…”

“I’m leaving now. Five more minutes. Promise.”

A sigh. “OK.”

Now Available: Tsim Sha Tsui Expansion

The TSIM SHA TSUI EXPANSION. A supplement for the co-op/solo table top war game HARDWIRED. New weapons, new gear, new missions, new threats.

Available in PDF format at WARGAMEVAULT.COM or for Kindle at AMAZON .

Hardcopy version is on the way.

Here are some pictures from our games.

If you’re looking for ready-made figs to run a few test missions, you could always pick up this excellent set of cyberpunk flats from ArcKnight.

HARDWIRED and the TSIM SHA TSUI EXPANSION – It’s definitely time to put on your mirrorshades and get to work.

Thanks. Have a good day.

Next up: Clar1ty Wars 3

‘Strange Treasure: Another Tale from the Exclusion Zone’ is done, now it’s time to circle back to the Clar1ty Wars.

It seems Cyberpunk is making a comeback, what with CD Projekt Red’s upcoming game causing a huge nerd buzz in the PC and console gaming worlds. On the table top, the venerable RPGs, Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020 are getting new editions. And then there’s my fast play, miniature wargame rules HARDWIRED and Osprey’s upcoming mega game, Reality’s Edge

Gameplay video: https://youtu.be/RfmB1eoyzwY

Coincidentally, it wasn’t until very recently I started to receive a lot of feedback and questions about the books. Juggling a full-time business and all-time Real Life means fiction writing gets dropped from the To Do List . Obligations, everyday emergencies, and plain old end-of-the-day exhaustion pile up so fast – which is why I’m only now getting back to the next installment. My apologies and gratitude to those who wondered if it fell off the edge of the map – I’ll do my utmost to make it worth the wait.

I’ve resurrected the old notes, files, and assorted scraps of inspiration, and begun hammering the next set of stories. Things are getting ugly in Kepler22, and Seeb, Detectives Lynch, and Junior-Inspector Sarin are about to get stuck in the crossfire.

In case you’re interested, here are links to books one and two:

One Bad Apple and Under Strange Stars

That’s all for now. Thanks for all your support and have an excellent day.