WIP: Soul Cache 11

A Cyberpunk Crime Thriller in progress.

***

11. FELONIOUS NECROMANCY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A deterrent?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fifteen minutes. Maybe twenty with traffic.”

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

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

I shrugged. “I have a choice?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defensive wounds.

That was a first.

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

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

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

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

But what if –

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

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

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

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

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

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

WIP: Soul Cache 10

More New Kowloon Technoir in progress.

10. AGGRIEVED PARTIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hell, I’d riot too.

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

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

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

He counted eight drones…  

Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.  

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

I guessed wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir, listen – – “

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

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

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

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

Near Soy Park.  

“Captain, I need to go. I have lead.”

“I want a full report before – – ”

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

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

I had a victim to interview.  

Cyberpunk Detective Ch. 9

A technoir crime story in progress

***

9. PUZZLE PIECES

I don’t remember leaving the morgue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did it?”

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

“Well, I got something for you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “Alamak,” I breathed. The shapes matched.

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

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

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

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

The blood drained from my face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can do it.” Cheung said.

“You must really want to make detective.”

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

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

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

 Cheung definitely will make detective.

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

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

“Flying Shit Cakes,” I mumbled.

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

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

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 6

murder in New Kowloon. a work in progress

6. SEVEN PATTERNS, NOW EIGHT

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.”

“Will do.”

I went toward the open bay door.

“Hey,” she called after.

I turned.

“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.”

“Nothing again.”

Nothing.

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.

 

Cyberpunk Detective 5a

a thing in progress

5. OUTSIDE THE LINES (part 1)

Night sweats done, the food stalls in Soy Park were opening back up. I made up for lost time crossing the plaza before the late shift crowds returned and I walked into Loi’s shop with thirty seconds to spare and the scent of steamed shumai and fish ball curry clinging to my jacket.

Loi was at her work bench, tinkering on what looked like a very expensive, very custom cyber hand. It was Ferrari sleek and skeletal, matte black with two opposable thumbs. Each finger housed what looked like half a dozen micro tools, including titanium scalpels and at least one cutting laser; a prosthetic for a brain surgeon or a micro-robotics machinist. Not occupations I associated with anyone in this district.

A cousin from my Chinese uncle’s side, Loi was small and round in a plump Han way, with a bowl of purple-dyed hair over fair skin. I had inherited my Malaysian mother’s darker complexion and racing hound leanness, and kept my hair buzzed and black.

“Looks complicated,” I said. “What is that?”

“You’re late and you smell,” she snapped.

“I’m always late and everything smells in this neighborhood. It’s part of the charm.”

“Charm…” she snorted. “Yesterday, a client said the gear she bought smelled like stinky tofu for a week.”

“At least you don’t have to go far for lunch.” 

She fiddled with one of the thumb joints. “There is that.”

“So… who’s that for?”

She finished tinkering and covered the hand with a non-static cloth. “None of your business.” A sideways glance. “At least not yet, anyway.”

“Hilarious.”

“Don’t worry Zek. It’s not your department.”

“What department would — never mind.” It was a stupid moment to press her on possible illegal activity.    

“Exactly.” Loi made a swift but intricate gesture at the security camera above her counter. The lights dimmed. I heard the front door lock behind me. “I think you’ve finally cracked, asking me for this.”

She reached under the table and pulled out a silver faraday pouch, set it on battered lexan top. 

It lay there between us. “This is serious,” I said.

“I know it’s serious. I live here, Zek. Two of the bodies were found by my apartment. But this…” She gestured at the bag. “Is crazy.” She paused, pursed her lips. “It’s suicidal.”

I couldn’t exactly disagree, but pushed on anyway. “Fat Quan says there’s another victim. An eighth one.”

“Eight?” She swore. “You sure?”

“No.”

“Quan… Fat fucker. Is he sure?”

“Seemed to be.”

“You can’t trust him. Especially after –“

I cut her off. “I don’t. But I might need him.”

“Even worse.”

She waved her hand again, different gesture this time, then looked meaningfully at me. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“I have no idea. But I don’t have one solid piece of evidence. Whoever is killing these people is vicious, specific, and careful. Like ‘sanitary’, careful.”

“You’re not helping. You’re saying the killer is smart, they struck again, and now you want illegal ware that could kill you. Or at least break your mind.”

“So I’ll go to prison after I’m released from the psych ward?”

“Something like that, yes.”

I set my shoulders. “I don’t have a choice.”

“You always have a choice, Zek. It’s consequences that are the problem.”  

She stared at me. I stared back.

She nodded at the bag. “I can send this back. No one will ever know.”

I tried to joke away the tension. “To the shadows where it belongs?” 

She didn’t smile. “To the nightmares, more like. There’s a reason only spooks and extreme corp-security have access to this, you know. You don’t bring back the dead, Zek.”

I forced more levity into my tone. I barely understood what this was and even that was enough to get me back in church after three decades. Make me pray. “You said, technically, I’m not bringing back the dead. I’m accessing memories.”

“Technically, you’re an asshole. They’re not even memories.” 

“But you told me –.”

“I explained it in a way you could understand. The Neural chip connects people to the Net. It’s a modem router, not a processor. Not storage. You can’t play back people’s memories like a video – even when they’re alive. It doesn’t work like that. The Chip is just a connector. It’s a tiny, wafer-thin iPhone.” 

“Leave it to Musk to put a phone in our brains.”

“Screwed us all up then fucked off to Mars. Fucking Musk.”

“Fucking Musk,” I agreed. “No good deed… So if they’re not memories what are they?”

“They are memories – sort of. They’re – – ,” She searched for the word. “Impressions. Sensations. Fragments of thoughts and emotion. Images. All nonlinear and unfiltered. It’s like being stuck in someone else’s dream.”

I thought of the crime scene pictures. The victims. “Or their nightmares, like you said.”

“Which, like I said, is why this…” she hissed as she nudged the pouch, “is restricted by international law.”

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

***

end of 5a. TBC