TechNoir In Progress – Chapter 12

A Cyberpunk Crime Thriller WIP

***

12. DETECTIVE MAGIC

–dropped into a screaming gale. Memories lash at me, flash in millisecond illumination like rapid fire lightning strikes:

– – Work, work, work station screen glare names and numbers, files and accounts, pouting faces, kissing GIFs, Insta-snaps of kitchen area remodels. Surfing the rip tides of public appetites. Calculating swipe times for cat pix and dick pix, celebrity endorsements for deep discount phishing porn and exclusive meme-bership benefits.

– – Forty-five million users a day, two-hundred fifty million texts each hour, two-hundred and ten thousand videos per minute; a torrent of free range rage, locally-sourced boredom, artisan-crafted envy. The burnt rubber flinch at bad jokes, the wine laughter of a clever one. Hang ups and hook ups. Cancellation, affirmation, endless deliberation. Families and friends, late payments and lover’s quarrels. All vanity’s fair in love and war.

– – Day’s end one last vid-chat with supervisor Wang. Office gossip with Jane Ji. A late dinner with Lukas Yang – a frequent name in my phone log, my social feed, the visitor list at my flat. The swirl of food smells in an open space. Wind chill up my sleeves, on my cheeks. Sake with noodles, the warmth of a hand in mine, a parting kiss. Then – –

– – Older buildings on a narrow street, the gurgle of massive drain pipes descending from the upper city. A belly full of food, head pleasantly fuzzy. The smell rusty fog and acid rain. Savor dusty wet concrete and a wry pride. The sense of home on these streets, in this dark and dirty bottom shelf of a mega-city. An aerial drone buzzes overhead. Traffic’s white noise. Music. Someone singing gleefully off-key.

Then a man’s voice – the Voice . Rough hands grab me from behind, heavy with the smell of grease. I flail and kick. The sting of pepper in my eyes like the sting on my neck and I’m clawing in a watery blur with broken nails, crying as the world tilts and the lightning shrieks – –

— shrieks at the gloved hands around my throat. My body is gasping, flopping on a metal floor like a fish. I crave air to breathe, to scream, to stop the fire in my lungs burning like acid.

– – the acid that spreads through my chest, my body, up my throat, filling my mouth and nose, clouding my eyes in from the edges until they go dark and there is nothing.

– – I weigh nothing as I rise out of my body, a billowing sheet in the wind. A kite. A kite with no string soaring past the clouds and blue to the starry dark that’s huge and black yet not empty but bustling with singing stars and planets humming each a different note until there are millions of notes swelling together in a vast symphony of madness and beauty that makes my heart explode, shattering me into a million tinsel fragments that fall glittering through an open door.

– – A door that stands at the edge of the busy dark where a hand cups me in an ocean and carries me in waves back to the shore of this place. 

– – The city’s surf pounding in my ears, pounding at the metal door behind me where Jen Cheung’s voice told me the paper spacesuit crew was on their way up and I was on my knees in front of a dead woman in an empty metal box weeping, spitting black grit, grains of sweet mortality like volcano candy sand.

***

I stood, wiped my face and managed to get the gear back in the pouch, back in my pocket before the CSI techs barged in. They flowed around me. Filled the room with bright light and voices. I stepped back to watch them surround Tiffany Sui’s body and bit the inside of my check to keep from sobbing. Someone whistled, low and slow. Another patted me on the shoulder. I blinked, nodded at the goggles and masks, the click-clack of cases being unlatched, the swop-swish of white tyvek coveralls.

This wasn’t Ed Cho’s crew so I’d have to tap the report later. I stumbled outside to the walkway where Jen Cheung and her partner still waited.  

“Tiān a! You look worse than before,” she said. “How’s that even possible?”

“Detective magic takes it out of you.” I gripped the rail for support.

Jen stared at me, eyes narrowed.  A heartbeat, then she let it go. “So… you find anything?” 

The lightning was still shivering in my head, shrieking in my ears. I shrugged, tried to look cagey.

Jen Cheung grinned. “Ahhhh…  there we go. You got something, didn’t you? I can feel it.”

I put both hands on the rail and gave her a wan smile.

“Sneaky fucker shouldn’t mess with the Stonecutter Island Detective,” Cheung laughed. “Shit. I’d love to be there when you make the arrest.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” I gestured toward the unit door. “I owe you. Buy you breakfast?”

She shook her head. “Rain check. Gotta go. The So Uk demonstrations are getting rowdy.” She whistled to Wan. “Can’t say I blame them but really… they didn’t see this coming? Ice caps melt and corporates screw working folk. Death and taxes, lǎotiě. Death and taxes.”

I nodded absently, staring into space and licking my teeth for grit that wasn’t there.

 “Damn, Pemburu. Go get some food, will you?” She tapped me on the arm. “And I want to hear what you found later, eh?”

“Sure.”

She and Wan headed toward the stairs. “Rumor has it you got one of those new drones,” she called over her shoulder. “Captain Lee must have big plans for you.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” I croaked.

***

Soy Park was a fog of contrasting food smells. This time of morning, the vendors were switching over from breakfast to lunch, so curries, fish sauce, and sizzling chicken were pushing down the earlier fried dough-and-egg odors. I was in the first ring of stalls, my stomach growling, when a memory hit me: the steamy warmth of beef and soba noodles, vinegary broth and scallions. I could taste it, stinging my tongue, stuck in my teeth.

I froze, my head reeling.  

I ate—no, she ate that. Here. In Soy Park. 

Tiffany Sui’s last meal.

It was like a kick in the gut and I’d have thrown up if there’d been anything in there. Hungry as I was, eating suddenly felt like I’d be desecrating… something. 

Well, shit … noodle bowl is out of the question. Maybe for the rest of my life.

Damn.

A cloud of charcoal smoke swept over me, carrying the earthy, sweet aroma of fried chestnuts. I made a beeline for the stall.

It had been ages since I’d had them, another relic of my childhood.

The vendor had a large cart, older; no solar panels or programmable ovens. Not even motorized wheels. Just a big, battered stainless steel set up under a faded canvas awning.  There were fryers and a grill on one half, a huge wok over an oil drum stove on the other. Something that size was usually a two-person job, but all I found was a lean, wiry man shrouded in smoke.  

He was bent over the wok working a long handled wooden spade in continuous figure-eight motions through the wok’s contents. Dozens of reddish brown chestnuts churned in a mixture of coarse black sand sprinkled with brown sugar.

“Those real? Not bio-printed?”I asked.

“Real. Gotta be,” came a soft reply. “Catch.” A quick flip of the shovel tip and he popped one up at me. “Try it.”

I caught it. The warm, hard shell in my palm, the smell of smoke and burnt sugar released a flood of sensations and images in my head. I tasted nut meat, earthy and strong. I saw my mother’s face, flickering candles on an altar. Memories. Some mine, others I didn’t recognize.

 “You OK?” the vendor asked. “You don’t have an allergy, do you?”

I shook my head. “Yeah, yeah, I’m good. Hungry is all.”

“Then you’ve come to the right place. You want a kilo?”

Shards of memory stuck to me like caramelized sugar on my fingers. “Why?”

He stopped scooping. “Why what?”

“Why do they have to be real?”

The vendor straightened. “Got to have something different to draw people in, right?” He gestured to carts on either side, the food stalls all around him. “Costs a lot but competition is tough. Everybody’s out here scraping to get by, day to day.”

“Right.” I nodded.

He ladled and sieved four quick scoopfuls into a paper bag and stepped out of the smoke. 

I was still pulling myself together but the sudden move made me look up. The haze, the bent posture, working a food stall in this sector, I’d pegged him as older; a retiree grinding a few extra credits on top of his Universal Basic, or a ‘Fugee family man starting over at rock bottom because even a dark district in LNK was better than wherever he’d come from.

But he was young, probably early forties, and ethnic Han to boot. That alone was different. Whatever his story, the streets had pared him down to bare essentials; bone, muscle, stubble. I spied an off-tone skin patch behind one ear – a cover for obsolete data jacks – and a permanent exo-brace around one knee. Seemed the guy had been worn down by bad luck and high mileage rather than age.  

There was a bandage on one cheek too, probably from hot cooking oil or a bad charcoal pellet. He looked up at me with eyes like dark stones in shallow water. “487 eYuan,” he said.

I blinked to pay and realized my Chip was still muted from Tiffany Sui. Another blink and I was back on the city net. My LNKPD credentials flashed and he stepped back.

“No, no,” I said. “I’m not checking permits. I was…”

I stopped. The image of Tiffany’s dismembered body flashed though my mind, pain in my joints. “I was working a scene,” I finished.

The vendor didn’t move. “More police around here lately,” he said tightly. “Usually you guys don’t give a shit about anything off Shao Bei Street.” A pause. “Unless there’s a protest. That gets you out in full force. There’s no lack of security in So Uk this morning, eh?”

I couldn’t disagree but I put on my best Community Policing smile anyway. “Not my department, friend. I’m investigating a murder. Several, actually.”

I paid for the chestnuts, added a tip, and held out my hand for the bag.

He hung back, clutching it. “Right. Thought I’d seen you before.”

I nodded. “Like I said, work.”

He still seemed reluctant so I kept my hand out and stuck with the ‘Firm and Friendly’ approach. “And my cousin has a shop nearby. In the Gray Market. Function Refresh. Heard of it?”

He sneered. “Heard of it? Yeah…. I heard it’s a charity hole.”

A ‘charity hole’ was a pro-bono clinic where corporates advertised their social awareness, dumped their surplus on the poor and desperate, and got a hefty tax write-off for their trouble. Last year, a walk-in infirmary in District Seven had been busted for using locals in clinical trials for an untested anti-viral. Seven-hundred deaths and a three part NewsNet exposé later, consensus was they did about as much harm as good. Loi would be horrified to learn she was labeled as one.

“No, no. It’s not like that. Really. My cousin is all about tech-equality. She’s just trying to help people.”

He handed me the bag. “Yeah. That’s what they all say.”

I took the warm bag without comment and left. I made it ten steps before the Tech Department pinged me: I was late from my Turd Copter synchronization.

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.