Pleased to announce Soul Cache has joined the ranks of my audio book offerings.
The seventh of my spec-fiction shorts available for your listening pleasure, the story of an aging homicide detective’s hunt for an elusive serial killer in a sci fi mega city is deftly narrated by Justin Hyler. Coming in just over two hours (normal speed) it’s the perfect way to make your daily commute more interesting or liven up a stretch of drudge work.
Available at Audible/Amazon, you can pick it up here at Audible or from the full list here at Amazon.
If you’re partial to the heft and smell of a paperback, Soul Cache is also available as part of the short story collection, Fits and Orisons.
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.
murder in new kowloon. technoir short story in progress.
8. MORGUE LIFE
I walked in the morgue just after ten that night and found Sonia still working.
Sonia Lam had been the district’s head medical examiner forever, a fixture seemingly as permanent as the building she worked in. Two ice blue cyber eyes, neon-green dreadlocks, and a creased brown face like dried ginseng root, she’d been ancient when I’d joined the force thirty years prior. And she hadn’t aged a day since.
Rumor had it she streamed Swedish death metal via her Chip when she worked and had smart ink tattoo on one wrist that read ‘Morgue Life’ in gothic script. In her orange jump suit and slick black gown and gloves, she looked every inch the cyberpunk crone, leaning over a gleaming stainless steel table.
She was peering into the exposed cranium of heavily borged male. She didn’t look up when I came in. “Not open. Come back in the morning.”
“Good evening to you too, Ms. Lam.” I lifted a take-out bag, shook it slightly. “Brought you a milk tea and rickshaw noodles. Real beef.”
She paused. “Pemburu…” She set a metal probe on the table with a ‘click’ and looked up at me. Then at the bag. “What do you want?”
“Can’t I say hello to an old friend?”
“Ha.” She wrinkled her nose. “You definitely want something.”
I held out the bag. She straightened and took it, unfolding it the top carefully. She leaned in and smelled the flavors wafting up. Her eyes closed and a faint smile crossed her lips. “Real beef you say?”
I nodded. “Doggie Noodle. Block 18. Soy Park’s best.”
She gave it back. “That’ll get you twenty minutes. Hold this while I wash up.”
Sonia left the exam table, went to a sink and stripped off her gloves. She hummed the refrain from an ancient television show as she washed her hands. She did that every time. “Old habit,” she said whenever asked about it.
It had been a stray comment of hers after an autopsy that had led me the Stonecutter’s Island three years earlier. She, more than anyone else, had been the one who helped me track down that killer. In the back of my mind I was hoping for a repeat with this one, but even she grudgingly admitted this latest string of deaths were unusually sterile.
I made conversation to fill up the time. I pointed to the body. “What’s this one?”
“Brain pop.” Her lips pursed in mild disapproval. “This dumb melon over-clocked his nervous system but forgot to boost his arteries. Got into a fight, tried to amp his reaction time and blew an ACA. Dropped like a sack of laundry.” She addressed at the corpse. “Won’t do that again, will you?
I tutted and shook my head. She grabbed the bag from me and started in on the noodles. “So…?”
Straight to business. “So I need to see Henry Lau’s body.”
She slurped a mouthful of noodles. “Why? I’ve been over it. Twice. “
“And it’s the same as the others. Clean. Blood showed food, alcohol, a little snapcoke, and… wait for it, chloral hydrate. No surprise there.”
She paused, picked a beef strip out of the container and examined it carefully before popping it in her mouth. She chewed, savoring the flavor. “It is real. Nice. Oh and there were heavy traces of biocides in the armpits and groin, indicative of a disinfectant.”
“Someone’s wiping down the bodies? “
She sipped her tea, nodded.
“Can you determine the type of disinfectant?”
“Nope. Could be any of a dozen over the counter brands. Tens of thousands of liters of the stuff are sold every month. Good luck chasing that down.”
This was going nowhere. Time to visit Mr. Lau. “What room is he in?”
“Seven. Drawer Four C. I’ll turn on the light.”
I thanked her, started toward the hall.
“I’ve got plenty of work as it is. Catch this one already, will you? After all, aren’t you –“
“The guy who stopped the Stonecutters Island Killer? Yes. Everyone’s reminding me and it’s starting to piss me off. I remember; I was there. This isn’t Stonecutters Island though.”
She raised her hand. “Someone’s feeling the pressure, eh? Sorry.“ A pause. “This is different,” she admitted, chopsticks diving back into the noodles. “A new kind of shit sandwich altogether.”
She went back to the sink and put her tea and noodles on the counter. “Back to it then. Room Seven, drawer 4C,” she called over her shoulder. “I’ll let you know if I anything comes up.”
“Good luck, Detective Pemburu.”
Henry Lau lay on a sliding tray in a morgue drawer. Someone had arranged him how he was supposed to be, more or less; a pale puzzle person rimed with freezer burn. All the pieces were present, just cold. And very disconnected.
I blinked up my Chip menu, turned off all my location and monitoring apps, then locked the door behind me. Pulling out the faraday pouch, I slotted the flash stick in the WiFi extender, turned it on, and set it on the tray next to Lau’s head. The LED screen lit up. Another light winked on in my mind, like a warning light on a dashboard telling me to stop.
I ignored it.
A minute later a secure local network labeled Sanzu-no-kawa appeared in my visuals. Japanese for ‘The River of Three Crossings’; the mythical boundary between the living and the dead.
Great. Hang a lantern on it, why don’t you?
The hair stood on the back of my neck all the same. I had the nasty sense I was standing at the bank of that river or at least the top of the dark basement stairs in some horror movie. Part of me was shouting I could go insane, go to prison, go to hell.
My feeble prayer came to mind, the candlelit crucifix at the church altar, Henry Lau’s head on the garage floor. It occurred to me the faces had the same expression.
I bit down on my reluctance and logged in. A single connection popped up, a long alphanumeric: Henry Lau’s PIP ID.
A chill swept up my spine.
Part of me had expected it not to work. Wanted the Chip to be drained, the file to not be there. To be empty or corrupted beyond retrieval. But no.
I entered the decrypt pass code and searched until I found [local_buffer_ overflow:hidden/hl9aj*7729938vdf]
The soul cache.
There it was. Active. Not empty.
I opened it
and fell in a pool of viscous shadow.
It coated in my body like writhing eels, slithered into my eyes and ears, my nose and mouth – choked – soaked through my skin into my veins, my marrow until the throb of music and brittle hilarity, the gin vapor on the tongue, the synthetic coke burn at the back of Henry’s throat was mine, and our teeth tingled with adrenalized lust and cheap cologne.
Cool night air and there’s a sting at our neck. A lurch like a train switching tracks and I/Henry am suddenly shiver sick with booze. The floor becomes hard and every joint aches. Cold iron terror clamps around my limbs, my brain. I am paralyzed and blind. Migrained at the bright light that pulses through our closed eyelids, fills our cells with the rich stink of molten copper syrup spreading sticky under our body.
I feel the squelch and tug tear of meat, twitch as nerves jangle electric. The voice murmurs over us. The voice sawing at our bones. We want to get up, to run, to vomit, to shout, to breath. But we can’t. Can’t move.
Can’t move away from the pain, pain, pain and the thick, angry voice. That yelling that smells of blood and shit, and sweet earth grit on our lips.
At last we spit scream ragged, a raw sound stopped by the taste of rubber gloves and the slicing line of ice on our neck that flares white hot in our brain until we are separated.
Separate heartbeats. Heartbeat, heartbeat, hear–
Here above our body, we are blind and floating. Rising like sparks from a fire into the sky beyond sky where an ancient immensity waits, a black door in a wall of night. It is closing but we pass through before it slams shut —
It slams and I am thrown back, a taut wire snapped, exhaled like a breath held too long from drowning.
I bob to the surface in a thin light and cold ceramic tile against my check. Above me gleams the underside of a stainless steel morgue tray. The tiny LED screen is winking [connection lost. connection lost. connection lost] and the taste of someone else’s death in my mouth is grief and sugar and burnt wood.
Captain Lee intercepted me the moment I walked into the station the next morning.
His bright yellow icon blinked in my peripheral vision, pecking at my attention. The text read [my office. now]
Didn’t take a detective to know what that was about.
Captain Jian Lee had risen to command the Shìchǎng District NKPD station through a breathtaking combination of connections, flattery, and blame-shifting. Nicknamed ‘Teflon Lee’ because shit just didn’t stick to him, he excelled at two things: department politics and reducing complicated real-life situations into facile, irrelevant components. He was a prime example of who you know, not what you know, and my immediate superior.
I knocked on his door and entered in time to find him berating a pair of our department tech-support desk jockeys. Apparently there was some hitch in a portion of the A.I. protocol coding for the new drones. I doubted the Captain knew anything about the topic beyond the sales-speak in the manufacturer’s infomercial, but rank hath its privileges. I also noticed he still had all his fingers and a large breakfast on his desk. Guess the clinic doctor paid his fees.
I made a note to swing by the clinic that night to get a feel for the place. At least see if my C.I., Hunu, had been right about its wares.
There’d been a huge influx of technicians in and around the station the past two months. The entire Lower City was in the throes of yet another Strategic Policing Initiative, this one designed to reduce violent crime by deploying even more surveillance technology and glossing it with a coat of old-fashioned community policing. According to the plan, every district constable would work their sector paired with a small, semi-autonomous drone that would be fully synced with both the LNK and NKPD database, record every encounter, and provide reconnaissance and non-lethal support.
The Howa-Colt Industries prospectus claimed this combination would create a police force that merged ‘robotic, security-oriented assistance with instant data-access and organic interpersonal bonding to establish a genuine, informed connection with the civilian populace.’ Which had to be one of the more obscure and sterile descriptions of the police officer’s call to protect and serve I’d heard in thirty plus years on the force.
But because Shìchǎng was dark, it was poor, and because it was poor, its officials were far more open to the financial incentives offered by Howa-Colt Industries. That was why our station was one of five testing grounds for the new IRAs, or Integrated Robotic Assistants. Small aerial drones, the prototypes were bulbous, brown with yellow markings, with twin rotors on either side.
After the initial demonstration, it had taken all of three minutes for them to be dubbed, ‘Flying Shit Cakes’ and ‘Turd-Copters’. Real hearts and minds stuff.
The HCI Rep and Captain Lee both assured us the new technology would not only keep us safer, but would help us understand and embrace solutions to the root causes of crime. I wondered how our serial killer would react to a hug.
The tirade ended and the techs left with barely disguised exasperation on their faces, one of the more common reactions from visitors to Captain Lee’s domain. I put on a soft smile as they slid past me.
The office door shut and Captain Lee immediately brought up a news feed on his desk monitor. He swiped it angrily and a grainy loop of aerial drone feed played on the wall display. Flashing lights. The alley outside the garage. Forensics van. A stretcher with a lumpy body bag. They’d kept the animal sounds.
“They’re calling him the Butcher,” the captain snapped.
I held my tongue about preconceptions and sexist remarks.
He glared at me. “Why haven’t you apprehended this maniac?”
“I’ve got the lab analyzing the scene from last night, sir. Top priority.”
I saw red creeping up his collar onto his face. “A District One resident was murdered. Five members of the City Council call me this morning. Five. And the Mayor.” He waved up images from the repair bay and pointed. “Do you have any idea how bad this makes us look? What will we do if a rumor starts that Shìchǎng is no longer safe, eh? What then? People will flock to the markets in Ma Tau Chung, that’s what.”
Jen Cheung’s comment about this murder being a real crime popped into my head. Henry Lau was the eighth victim. I guessed the other seven don’t count because they lived here and hadn’t been shoppers.
Captain Lee pointed at a photo of Henry Lau’s head. “This is not acceptable.”
I was sure Mr. Lau’s family would agree.
Lee waved the images off in disgust and turned to me. “Some lunatic has killed and dismembered a visitor to our district – and this makes it look like we’re sitting on our hands. Where are you with the investigation?”
“I’m pursuing new avenues of inquiry that I’m confident will yield evidence.” Which was technically true.
Lee nodded, not listening. I could see scenarios playing out behind his eyes: angry conference calls from the Council, press conferences going bad, career plans derailed. He entered a series of commands at his desk station then looked straight at me.
“You’re still on the force because you’re supposed to be good at your job. Exemplary, in fact. You single-handedly apprehended the Stonecutter’s Island killer, correct?”
Technically I shot him five times before he fell off a cliff into the ocean. But we did retrieve his body, so that counts as ‘apprehended’.
Captain Lee furrowed his brow, straightened and went into speech mode, so much so I wondered if he was recording this in case he needed proof of his oversight and determination later. “And that is why I have the utmost confidence in your abilities, Detective Pemburu. I made you lead in this case because you’re the best man we have. ‘Serving New Kowloon with Honour, Duty and Loyalty’ isn’t just our motto, it’s our heartbeat. I know you understand that. Which is why I need you to redouble your efforts and stop this killer before they strike again.”
He stretched out his hand to shake mine. “The citizens of this entire district are counting on you, Detective. For their sake, work hard and work fast.”
I gripped his hand and maybe squeezed a bit harder than I should. The Captain kept his composure. “Of course, sir.”
I let go. He motioned toward the door and sat, turning toward his unfinished breakfast.
I had nearly escaped when he spoke again. “All the resources of the department at your disposal, Detective. Which is why I’m assigning you one of the new IRA drones.”
I turned around. “Sir, there’s no need to–”
He brushed my concern away. “No need to worry. I’ve personally looked into the programming issues and have been assured the wrinkles will be ironed out before the end of the day. I’m sure it will be an invaluable tool to you. And an invaluable opportunity for the department. What better way to demonstrate the initiative’s viability than with a successful arrest of a violent killer by our newest technology and our most senior detective. Don’t you agree, Zeki?”
I didn’t. “Of course, Captain,” I said.
“Excellent. I’ll notify Tech right now. Shut the door on your way out, please.”
They say unintended irony is the best kind, but I was in deep enough shit that the thought of a Turd-Copter following me everywhere struck me as cosmic poke in the eye. Neural chips were bad enough. At least they could be turned off by the user. An IRA drone would be a short leash. With a choke collar. Having command authorization and demanding results, Captain Lee would be looking over my shoulder – literally – every second. Micromanagement cubed.
Given my new ‘avenue of inquiry’ into the killer’s identity, I couldn’t have that. At all.
I had forty-eight, maybe seventy-two hours before I’d have to report to the Tech Department. With a shred of luck, the AI issues wouldn’t be sorted yet, or all the drones would be assigned to other officers. After that, I’d have to go back to Loi for a work around.
I was already breaking a dozen laws with the Neural Chip Decryption ware; what was a little thing like sabotaging a multi-million eYuan contract between the NKPD and the largest robotics manufacturer in the hemisphere going to add?
In for a penny…
I left the station without stopping by my desk. No way was I risking having to get my drone today – not with my upcoming visit to the morgue that night.
Murder scenes are lots of things: their circumstances sometimes obvious, other times mysterious or downright bizarre. Usually bloody. Always tragic.
See enough of them they become routine in a sad kind of way. Terrible to admit but there it is. It’s the job.
They’d always struck me as intrusive too; as if the act itself wasn’t violation enough to then have a horde of technicians descend upon your body. Complete strangers in Tyvek one pieces, masks, and gloves mincing around your floodlit corpse, photographing it from every angle, sampling, poking, prodding, scraping away at the minutia of your final moments. A state of ultimate vulnerability clinically analyzed for every last awful secret.
All murder scenes are terrible in their own way. The howling made this one worse.
The victim had been found in a motorcycle repair shop, a single grungy bay tucked behind a D-Grade cloning bank for exotic pets. The scent of blood thick in the air, dozens of copies of copies of copies of puppies and parrots and miniature jungle cats were barking, whining, screeching, yowling as the soundtrack to some poor bastard’s end credits.
I knew the officer at the holo-tape. Jen Cheung. Sergeant. Good head on her shoulders. Two cyber-arms. Helluva right hook.
“What? You’re not inside?” I asked as I approached. “Your delicate female sensitivities acting up?”
She deadpanned. “That sounded like a sexist remark, Detective. I see a Sensitivity refresher course in your future.”
“Long overdue,” I agreed, and stopped beside her. “How bad is it?”
She spit, nodded. “Very.”
“Is it the same as the other seven?”
She squinted at me. “Sure looks like it, Zek. But what do I know? That’s your job isn’t it?”
I waved a hand at the surrounding buildings. “Anyone see anything?” Unlikely, but I had to ask.
Sergeant Cheung shook her head. “We got called for the noise. Wan found the body.” She jerked a thumb at a young constable seated in the back of a NKPD HiAce van. He looked lost, pale. I’d have sworn he was no more than twelve.
Shit, I sound like an old cop.
I was an old cop and he was deep in conversation with a Forensics bot so I let him be.
“Garage owner been contacted?”
Cheung nodded. “Already at the station.”
“ID on the victim?”
Cheung blinked as she connected. “Henry Lau. Systems Manager for WayGo, the self-driving transport company. Address is 1397 Hab C3. Hung Hom. District One.”
I let out a low whistle. “District One.”
She nodded, spit again. “Yup. Now it’s a real crime; a rich person’s been killed.”
Funny/not funny. And true. Lau had been an Edger. Not Upper City, but as close as we got down here. Maybe added pressure would make Captain Lee devote more resources now. Other than ramp up his indignation and yell louder each time another body was found, like they were being dumped in his district for the sole purpose of making him look bad.
Captain Lees were part of the job too.
Time to see the body. “You taking the test soon?” I asked as I passed through the tape.
“Why, you finally looking for a new partner?” she snorted.
I avoided that question. That memory. “LNK needs good detectives.”
“You can say that again, the bang up job you’re doing with this mess.” She grinned to take the edge off it. “And to answer your question: yes, next month.”
I smiled back at her. “Good luck, then. Let me know after and we’ll drink to celebrate.”
I went toward the open bay door.
“Hey,” she called after.
“Catch this guy already, will you? You’re the famous ‘Stonecutters Island Detective.’ You have a reputation to uphold.”
I gave her a look of mock indignation. “Guy? Now who’s being sexist? Never make detective like that, Sergeant. Clinging to preconceptions and stereotypes.”
“Just get whoever this is.”
I felt the weight of the faraday pouch in my jacket pocket. “Working on it.”
Turning back to the garage, I made a mental note to mention Cheung’s name to a couple friends higher up the chain of command. I had no doubt she’d crush the exam, and Lower New Kowloon really was in desperate need of good police. Compared to Captain Lee, Sergeant Cheung was Joan of Arc.
The tiny repair bay was bright with dozens of LED strips that brought every dingy corner into stark relief. The regular oil and rust smells were overpowered by the reek of blood and offal, while the Forensics team had their formaldehyde undertone of sanitizer and sterile gear. An old friend, Ed Cho, was kneeling by the body, pecking away with a bio-scanner.
“Tell me you have something,” I said. A desperate hope.
He looked up at me, shrugged once and went back to scanning.
I surveyed the body: naked, male. Mid-thirties. Looked ethnic Chinese. Mr. Lau had been chopped into pieces, his blood congealing under jointed body parts that had been carefully arranged in a bizarre pattern – a different pattern each time.
Seven patterns, now eight.
“Time of death?”
Cho had a soft, raspy voice. How I’d expect a chain smoking toddler to sound. “Twelve hours. A hair less, maybe.”
“He drugged same as others?”
“Too early to tell. Hundred eYuan says the blood shows traces of chloral hydrate though.”
I wasn’t going to take that bet. I nodded at the forensics kit on the floor by his boots. “You must have found a sliver of evidence this time. Give me something. Anything.”
“Blood samples say our victim had been drinking. Judging by the food particles on his lips and cheeks, he ate recently too. Anything more, you need to wait for the lab report. ”
“Other than him?”
Cho shook his head. “Older fingerprints, samples of biodiesel, poly lubes, cleansers. More food scraps, smears of chili paste and peanut oil from those takeout containers.” He jerked his head at an overflowing trash barrel next to an ancient 3D metal powder printer. Soy Park stalls did serious business with the mechanics here.
Ed Cho then aimed his scanner at one of the white-suited techs on the perimeter of the scene. “I can tell you the door was forced recently. Julie found fresh hits on the jamb and threshold. Best guess is someone broke in, saw the body and bolted.”
“How old? Any chance whoever that was saw the murder?”
“Very recent, a couple hours ago. So definitely post-mortem.”
I remembered Fat Quan’s comment and considered chatting him up again. Show up as ‘Detective Pemburu’ for sure. Bring Sergeant Cheung and maybe borrow the Special Duties Unit from Captain Lee for something more resembling real police work.
“Still, they might have seen something.” I blinked and linked to the NKPD Net. “The door sample have an ID match?”
Another shake of the head. “Unregistered. Homeless or a recent ‘fugee scrounging for something to pawn.”
I nodded at Cho’s DNA sniffer. “Anyone else?”
“I’ve been over the whole place. Database matches the garage owner, two mechanics, and some unknowns who are probably clients. Except for the door knocker and Mr. Lau here, it’s all forty-eight hours old or more.” He shrugged. “Lab might have more later, but…”
“So we’ve got nothing really. Again.”
Exactly what I didn’t want to hear. Exactly why I’d visited Loi. Exactly why I was carrying disgrace, summary dismissal, and a prison term in my jacket pocket.
Henry Lau’s head lay at the bottom of his severed left leg like the period to an exclamation point. His right hand was cupped behind his left ear as if listening. His hair was slick and sticky, his face blood speckled, the eyes rolled back. A half-opened mouth revealed perfect teeth shining bright blue-white in the harsh light.
A weird little part of me imagined an augur in mid-vision ecstasy uttering mysteries. The rest of me saw the twisted handiwork of a serial killer.
Not half an hour past, I’d been willing to peer inside that head for clues. Listen to those revelations. Now, looking at what had become of Mr. Lau, I touched the lump of the faraday pouch through my jacket.
I didn’t know if I wanted to whip it out and use it right then, or if I was warding off evil spirits.
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?”
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.
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.”
“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?”
“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.”
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.
The nave had seemed so much larger when I was young, the vaulted ceiling and high stained glass windows made for giants, not humans. Not me. I was always a trespasser. An ant in God’s room.
Walking down the aisle in the muffled quiet under that high, deep darkness, I felt that old familiar discomfort. I suppressed an urge to genuflect; another muscle memory triggered by flickering candles and the smell of old upholstery, wood wax, and incense. It was an older one, faded. Easier to ignore.
I slid into a pew and sat instead. I had seven minutes to get to Loi’s shop.
It had been more than three decades since I’d been here, and my only visits to other churches had been funerals or the ultra-rare traditional wedding – deaths outpacing matrimony more and more lately.
I wasn’t so much lapsed as self-exiled, and part of me would be fine if it was another thirty years before I came back.
Another part was scared shitless for my mortal soul.
Those weren’t the exact words. My grasp on the notion of ‘soul’ was slippery at best these days. The fear was more a pull at the back of my mind, like a diver low on oxygen tugging on a line to be pulled up out of the deep. Wordless, but pretty damn insistent.
What do you say to God in three minutes after three decades of ignoring Him?
Hey, I know I walked away and told everyone you’re not up there, but I need to stop a psychopath. So how ‘bout a little help here, eh? In Christ’s name I pray. Amen.
I folded my hands and tried to form better words as a host of unwelcome memories barged in.
My mother had cried when I told her I’d left the Church. Asked why. Said I would damn myself in unbelief.
I’d just graduated top of my class from the police academy. Successful, cocksure, so certain I knew more about the world than an old lady who refused to get a Chip and still fumbled with her smart phone. I confronted her on the Church’s stand on clones. Demanded she explain what a soul meant in an age of neural fiber cybernetics and artificial intelligence.
Technology was threaded through society like a kudzu vine. It invaded and reshaped everything. Police were constantly asking what constituted ‘crime’ now – let alone ‘sin’ or ‘damnation’ – in an era of programmable robot companions and stimsense virtual reality. From replicant celebrity androids to murder-fantasy VR apps, a person could screw or slaughter anyone as many times as they wanted. Feel every thrust, every warm splash, all in the privacy of their own home, their own mind. No real world consequences.
God obviously didn’t care, I said; He didn’t stop real murders, let alone fake ones.
I told her religion was an appendix; a vestigial organ from when humans tried to swallow the indigestible. We were defined by science now. Nourished by a universe of data and technology. Life fed itself from the slime of that trinity. Nothing more, nothing less.
“There’s no meaning beyond the meat, ibu. The meat spoils, the spark dies. That’s it. I’m not wasting any more time on bad, outdated answers to wrong questions.”
I remembered her silence. A long one, tears on her cheeks, staring out the kitchen window. Finally she dried her eyes and turned to me. “There’s more than one way to measure the universe, Zeki. Some day you’ll see there are mysteries beyond all your data.”
After a few years on the force, the notion of a ‘spark of the ineffable’ in each of us only became absurd. The shit people did to each other in the real world made religion seem like just one more hoax for the desperate, the delusional, and the downright stupid.
It had taken thirty years but there I was kneeling in front of Mary and Her Son, teetering on the edge of that mystery cliff between faith and science. Right then felt a hell of a lot like an I-told-you-so moment.
I looked up at the altar. “Sorry.”
I closed my eyes. Bowed my head.
“God, this is tough. Here I am and if you’re there, then you already know what’s going on. Know what I’m about to do.” I swallowed. “So… so help me. Help these people. Please. Amen.”
Weak as shit – but it was all I had.
I thought about crossing myself when I was done, but decided that would stretch it too far. It wasn’t much of a prayer but I’d meant it as much as I could; token piety wasn’t going to bump my request to the top of God’s To Do list.
I stood, brushed my knees as a call came in. Loi.
“Where are you? You’ve got two minutes. I should see you in the Soy Park by now.”
“On my way.”
“What the hell, Zek?”
“I ran into Quan. Had to stop and kiss the ring.”
“Kiss his ass, you mean. What’d that old bastard want?”
The night sweats were coming down hard and every square meter of church yard under the awning was packed with people. Late-comers jostled at the edges, huddled under scraps of poly-sheeting, all shoving to get out of the downpour. The church looked besieged by an army of trash pickers.
Every day, the steam and smog from the Lower City rises and collects on the thousands of kilometers pipes and struts on the underside of the Terrace. After sunset, when the cool ocean winds come, all that moisture condenses and falls; twenty minutes of oily, rusty chemical rain. Every night. The Upper City pissing on our heads.
Long-term homeless get ‘Beggar’s Spots’, a permanent burn mottle on their skin. Some go blind after too many years on the street. Those who can’t afford replacement eyes stay blind. That’s why cover was currency in the under-city.
I got closer, heard angry voices. An argument in front of me turned into a shoving match. One of them pulled a knife, the other a length of pipe. My Chip widebanded NKPD I.D. and the conflict dissolved like wet rice paper. The crowd parted and here at a church, I thought of the Red Sea.
“No more or I call the district watch to clear the area,” I said as I jogged past.
Everyone looked away, even the junkies and low-life thugs who picked on the homeless. A threat like that, everyone would at least wait until I was out of sight. Which was fine because I didn’t want to call Loi again.
Two-hundred and fifty years old, the Rosary Church dedicated to Our Lady of Pompeii was the last Catholic place of worship in New Kowloon. Perhaps the entire Greater Hong Kong Metro area. I didn’t pay attention anymore, plus the faithful were few and far between in this part of the world. But the tiny cathedral was on UNESCO’s historic register, so the vaulted awning over the property kept the worst of the underside’s effluent from damaging the building. Nestled at the foot of the dark urban sprawl towering all around, old Rosary looked like a Gothic lawn ornament in a half-shell.
I was on the stairs when I heard my name. “Detective Pemburu.” A man’s voice.
My hand shifted toward the pistol under my coat. I kept moving.
“Over here,” the voice insisted.
An obese man with milky eyes sat beneath a spindly hibiscus tree. He grinned in my direction. Fat Quan, gutter king of Shìchǎng.
I stopped and slowly showed both my hands. “Mr. Quan. What a surprise.”
“Doubly so. Doubly so,” he said. “Do you have a moment?”
I didn’t but I walked over anyway. Quan was not a man to ignore.
He waved a pudgy hand and several homeless around me relaxed. “How is your mother, Detective? In good spirits?”
I nodded. “Still walks in the park, morning and evening. And you? You look healthy as ever.”
He chuckled sagely. “Losing weight, they tell me. Wasting away to nothing. Must be all the recent stress. It has everyone on edge though, don’t you think?”
“Lower city life – lower city problems,” I replied. “Still, less of a fall than Upstairs.”
He gave a tired joke a hearty laugh that ended abruptly as it began. “Never found that much of a consolation.”
Silence settled between us. He fixed his cataract gaze over my right shoulder. The milky eyes were an affectation; if you believed the street talk, half his cranium was packed with net ware and sensory gear. Fat bastard knew exactly where I was. Probably my credit score and my heart rate too.
Quan finally spoke again, softer this time. “So Detective Pemburu, are you here seeking spiritual solace for your own problems? I thought you were long departed from the fold.”
I shrugged. “I was in the neighborhood when the sweats started. Forgot my umbrella. Plus I heard the sisters in the kitchen were serving fish balls tonight.”
Quan rolled with my deflection. “And how is your cousin?” he countered. “She still in the Gray Market?”
He tutted, double chin bobbing. “Never understood why she stayed in the Lower City. Smart, that girl.” His round face turned up toward the awning over the church, the underside of the Terrace. “She could have worked her way up and out.”
“She could have,” I agreed. I still remembered the family feud that erupted when she rejected her fifth corporate employment offer. It was the last she ever got. “Loi believes tech should be in the hands of those that need it most. Down here.”
“A noble sentiment.” Quan pressed his hands together and shook his head. “I used to think so too. For many years. Now, I’m not so sure.”
“Oh?” I checked the time. Loi wasn’t kidding about me not being late. Fat Quan had better get to a point soon. I still had something I wanted to do.
“Technology does violence to the soul,” he continued. “Someone said that long ago. I’m starting to believe it. What was meant to liberate, to make life easier, has instead separated us. Alienated us from ourselves. From one another.” He pointed up. “Take our fine city as an obvious example.”
Under the scrawny tree, one hand raised, a frown on his big round face, Quan looked the very picture of a fat, sad Buddha.
“You don’t sound like a man who’s lost his faith.”
He smiled. “Don’t I? Well, you would know.”
That did it. “Forgive me, Mr. Quan, but I must excuse myself.”
Another time check: thirteen minutes. I’d need to hurry.
I turned toward the church.
I turned back. “It’s Detective Pemburu.”
He bowed his head. “Apologies. If I can be of any help to the NKPD…”
“I appreciate your offer but there’s no reason to—“