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.

Cyberpunk Detective 5b

cyberpunk crime in New Kowloon. WIP

continued from 5a

Good point, I thought. They were stacking up against me fast, those points.

“Which, like I also said, is why this…” she hissed as she nudged the pouch, “is restricted by international law. God Almighty, Zek. We barely process our own thoughts correctly, let alone someone else’s. When a corporate wire head first discovered the neural buffer overflow, researchers thought they could read minds. Eighty percent of the first accessors snapped. The other twenty percent were so fucking scrambled, it took weeks for them to recover a stable identity. We’re talking about deep diving into the weird liminal space between meat and machine. You can lose your shit touching another person’s mind like this. Lose yourself.”

“Touch their soul, you mean?” I asked softly.  

“I mean invade it on their worst day. Hell, their last day.”

The silver pouch sat between us radiating ugly endings like an exposed nuclear core.

I ignored it, pushed through. “Seven victims, Loi. Seven. Each one sliced , chopped, and arranged like a meat bouquet.”

“And the ever-vigilant NKPD has no leads. Nothing?”

“Would I be asking you for that if there was?”

“So no DNA?” she scoffed. “I find that hard to believe.”

“They’ve lifted a metric shitload of ambient, traces but nothing substantial around the bodies. I told you whoever is doing this is extremely careful.”

“What about video?” She countered. “We live in a surveillance state, for God’s sake. Big Brother and Big Sister are watching. Between the state security net and social media, the whole world’s gone Panopticon.”

“The future is here, it’s still not evenly distributed, Loi. You know that. That’s why you’re still down here. Go two blocks off Shao-Bei Street, public security is spotty at best. This is a dark district. Thirty-plus thousand people per square kilometer, ninety percent day laborers, bottom rung service workers, and their families. Hell, a quarter of them aren’t even Chipped. Extending the public security net for a bunch of immigrants and refugees isn’t high on the Council’s budget. So long as the Shao-Bei shoppers are unmolested, the city only cares if there’s a goddamn riot.”

She looked away at that. I caught myself, suddenly grateful for what she didn’t point out.

She cleared her throat. The awkwardness dissolved. I took a deep breath and continued. “Look… the bodies were all found in dead zones. This is someone who knows this district, knows how and where to hide. A predator. I have to stop them or more people are going to get carved into anatomy displays. To do that, I need to step outside the lines.”

I nodded at the pouch. “Show me how this works. Please.”

Loi clenched her teeth. Stared at the pouch. Then at me. “If you die, don’t come crying to me,” she said finally.

She tipped the silvery sack and slid its contents on the counter; a small, gray box with a stubby antenna and an LED display, and a crimson flash stick. Both had ‘Fishing Gear’ written on them in Chinese.

Loi picked up the box. “WiFi extender. Very short range. Turn it on and you have an ultra-secure wireless network within a 3 meter radius.” The flash stick. “Go-to-prison-for-the-rest-of your-life splice-ware. Slot it in the extender’s USB and let it run. You need the target’s PIP, but Personal Internet Protocols are synced to the individual and heavily encrypted for a reason. This will cut through that for a limited time. PIP encryption changes at random intervals as part of the security, so whatever you’re doing, you need to do fast.”

She set the flash stick down with a snap and scowled at me. “And don’t lose your mind or have a hemorrhagic stroke while you’re at it.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“You’re light years away from your best, messing with this.”

I couldn’t disagree.

I put the box and flash stick back in the pouch, put the pouch in my jacket pocket. “What else? There’s always something else.”

Concern flitted across her face like the shadow of a sparrow in flight. She tamped down on it and turned back to the prosthetic hand. “Neural chips run off bio-electricity. The circuitry starts to fragment and degrade once a person dies. I have no idea what you’re going to find or what condition it’ll be in when you do. If you’re lucky, there will be nothing left and you can apply your idiocy to regular police work.”

“Thanks,” I said.

She sucked her teeth, yanked the cloth off the hand and went back to work. “Just bring that back to me when you’re done, understand?”

“I will.”

She waved one hand again without looking my way. The lights brightened and the door unlocked. “You better, Zek.”

I walked outside. It was nearly two a.m. The smell of street food sat heavy on the cool night air. The shift-change crowds were gone and the traffic noise was subdued. If I looked up and squinted, the warning lights winking on the underside of the Terrace could almost pass for stars.

Late as it was, pouch weighing in my jacket pocket, I felt lighter somehow. Something I hadn’t felt in weeks. Like hope.

My stomach rumbled and I made a beeline for the nearest food stall.

I was halfway there when a NKPD alert bloomed in my mind: another body. Dissected. Arranged.

Victim eight had been found.

***

To Be Continued