About Bone Wires
In the wasteland of commercial culture that is future America, police are operated not by government but by private companies. In Seattle, that role is filled by Civil Protection, and Daniel Gray is a detective in Homicide Solutions. What used to be considered an important – even glamorous – department for public police is very different for the corporate species, and Gray finds himself stuck in a dead end job.
That is, until the Spine Thief arrives.
Bone Wires is a dark, brooding cyberpunk noir set in the same dystopian universe as the full-length novel, Shadow of a Dead Star, and is serialized and published right here at Curiosity Quills, every Thursday.
Though he wished the whole way down that one of the errant beams of noontime light that broke the clouds would be an errant laser, Gray found his course unharried as he drove down along the Duwamish Waterway. The New City fell away and the Verge began, and the water was a rainbow-filmed ribbon as it sloshed dubiously on its way toward the Sound. Gray had only been down this part of town once or twice, and it was never as far as the Waterway – this was new territory for him, new and dangerous, though he was somewhat sure that he would be able to make his way along unmolested. As he drove past an intersection, an example of that which made him so sure of this swung into sight – a trio of Pacifiers were busy roughing up a pair of kids in monocyle leathers with kinetic batons, bending them both over the hood of a patrol car. Heavy clubs across the backs of their thighs, they twisted in misery.
Between that brutality and the automatic shotguns fixed on the backs of the Pacifiers, Gray believed two things: that the everyday folks down in this area were going to be respectful or at least very shy of anyone who even looked like they might produce a badge, and that there was a great possibility that those boys down at the park might very well drill him as soon as they saw him coming. Or maybe he’d get lucky and the Pacification boys had worn them down into a state of cooperation.
As he picked his way along the lonely stretch of highway that ran along the turgid water, he wondered if he might find himself very soon dumped in with the rest of the junk.
Eventually he pulled off the highway and made his way down South Kenyon around the bend into the park proper. The water glittered as the feeble light of the sun danced across it, like a pane of black glass into which islands of trash and wrecked barges had been embedded. Really, it was amazing that this sort of thing went on long before the city had its troubles; Gray had always grown up thinking that the city had been at least somewhat better than this before the economic collapse that gave birth to its current zoned existence, but sights of the rusting bones of vessels and equipment that jutted out of the water made him wonder. His attention was pulled away from the rotting industrial corpses as he drew up on Tenth Avenue, which ran parallel to the park.
The park itself wasn’t much, just a strip of land ending in a small stretch of beach. Bracketed by the street and an industrial lot, a waist-high railing of iron painted blue stretched around it like a cordon. As Gray parked the Vectra along the street opposite the park, he saw that his arrival had gotten attention; a pair of young men in street clothes had emerged from the wooded expanse, their faces tattooed heavily in what someone might have imagined to be a native totemic style – the leering faces of Owl and Jaguar were emblazoned on their skin in livid red ink like death masks. It was a cartoonish affectation, but effective in conveying the violence that the Sons were known for. It made Gray’s blood quicken and he was glad for the weight of the Hornisse against his ribs.
The two men stopped on the other side of the street, where they leaned against the park fence. They were casual about it, even when Gray got out of the Vectra – and why not? This was their territory, after all. Gray was the interloper here. Jaguar tilted his head toward Gray as he approached.
“Hey, man,” he said, “What’re you here for? You wanna buy some Shard?” Jaugar sneered a little at Gray, looking him over with green eyes that had been doctored to look as though they had slit pupils.
“He looks like he’s buying for someone else if he is,” said Owl. Owl was a bigger man than Jaguar, and his gaze made Gray feel as if he was getting inspection from a hand sensor and not a man at all. Cold, penetrating. “Look at the way he’s dressed.”
“True enough,” said Jaguar, whose sneer had widened. “That it, man? You buying for some uptown cunt don’t want to get her shoes dirty?”
Gray took a moment to judge the two men. He could probably bullshit past Jaguar, but his friend had too good of an eye – and if he lied to them, he’d probably end up dead either way. Instead he reached for his pocket, slowly enough that the two men wouldn’t be alarmed, and produced his Blue Shield.
“Detective Gray,” he said. “Homicide Solutions. I’m here to see James Black-Eyes.” Gray held the badge in his left hand, so that his right could go for his gun if he needed to. Even now, he felt his body preparing for action if need be.
“Shiiiiit.” Jaguar stared at the badge for a moment, then looked back at Owl. “We kill anybody lately and nobody tell me?”
“Not that I know of,” Owl said, though he gave the badge a squint. “Blue badge. You junior dicks don’t usually get sent down here.”
Gray felt his blood heat up. “Not so junior,” he managed to say without hissing. “Tier Three. I’m not here to try and bust your chief, just talk to him – respectfully, you understand?” Civil as he tried to sound, he’d had loved to pistol-whip Owl for fucking with him concerning his rank. Which was probably why he was still a Tier Three, he reminded himself. “No trouble for you boys at all.”
Owl and Jaguar looked at each other for a long moment; they seemed to reach an understanding with one another, however, because Jaguar looked back at him and nodded. “All right,” he said, “We’ll take you at your word – but I’ll warn you, man, you take a step out of place it’ll be the dumbest chance you ever took in your life.” His hand moved – no, blurred – across his chest, dipping into his jacket and coming out with a four-barreled snub pistol whose wide barrels yawned like angry mouths. The draw had been so fast it was as if it had been plucked out of the air. “You get me?”
Gray’s brows arched at the movement – the kid was boosted, bionics or nerve-enhancement surgery. Now that was unexpected, and suddenly Gray didn’t feel nearly quite so confident that he would get out this alive if something went wrong. “Hey, don’t worry about me, man,” he said, lifting his free hand in a conciliatory gesture. “I just want to talk. Do you want to take me to him, or should I come back later?” With a full Special Tactics unit, he thought. The paramilitary arm of Civil Protection were heavily armed and well-armored, perfect for dealing with borged-up people like Jaguar in the kind of language they understood.
Though Gray did not say the latter, the sentiment seemed to float into Jaguar’s brain anyway. He gave Gray a narrow look, then blurred the gun away. “Sure,” he said, something like appreciation dawning in his altered eyes. “Let’s go talk to him. Just keep your hands at your sides, you get me?” He swung a leg over the low park fence and headed back inside. Gray followed him, with Owl bringing up the rear. Together the three of them headed across the narrow strip of parkland toward the beach.
The park itself had seen the ravages of the water; the grass was yellow and patchy, the ground beneath it an unhealthy gray-brown. Shattered glass glittered among the beer cans strewn across the ground. More of the Sons sat on rusting benches or on lawn chairs, their faces branded by the livid red of totem faces like the rest. Cat, Bear, something that looked like a shark, all of them lurid masks that promised death and ruin. Behind a withered tree, someone was getting head from a girl who, though on her knees and largely hidden by the trunk, seemed to Gray to be very young. Then again, her face was also tattooed, and it was very hard to determine precisely what her age was.
Or at least, that’s what he told himself. Not his problem, not his crime. She was branded with the mark, obviously a part of the gang, and that’s how life was. Eyes ahead – and toward the beach, and toward whatever would get him the hell back out of there unscathed. He wasn’t a coward, he told himself. There was no point in getting drilled over someone who was obviously part of the system.
Up ahead the beach loomed. Perhaps it had been dark before, but now it was nothing more than tar sand. A cluster of Sons stood around at the edge of the water, their hair in various crested, angry styles, all of them carrying various kinds of guns. Some of them wore body armor. One of them, right in the center, sat cross-legged on a large leather chair that once had been overstuffed but had been vented in places by tears and what appeared to be bullet holes.
Upon this corpse of a chair was a tall and powerful man, so tall in fact that his head still made it to the shoulders of his fellows. Unlike the rest of the Sons, whose racial heritage had been diluted by obvious intermarriage, this man was obviously the real deal – his skin was coppery and his handsome face set with the strong nose and high cheekbones of his people. His head had been shaved, covered with red tattoos of not just one but all the totem animals that Gray had seen upon the faces of his followers – each one biting into the other, forming a bizarre mask that tugged at fear circuits of Gray’s primordial brain. His scarred body seemed impossibly lithe, every inch of him cut and muscular, as if he had been built from an idealized template; as if in recognition of that he sat wearing only a pair of black bicycle shorts, but these were as out of character as a fig leaf taped over the crotches of Michelangelo’s nudes.
James Black-Eyes fixed his gaze on Gray as he approached, and Gray saw that the term was not a surname but a chilling descriptor: his eyes had been completely removed, the lids shaved away and the black pits of his empty sockets staring back at the detective with full and obvious recognition. In the far back of each tiny studs glittered, sensor studs of some kind. This man was an apex predator, the culler of others in his species, and it made Gray’s skin crawl as if it wished to detach itself and flee his presence.
“Alexander, Marco.” His voice was a rumbling that made Gray’s innards clench; it took him a moment to realize that Black-Eyes was referring to Jaguar and Owl. “Who is this that you bring before me?”
“Uh, he’s CivPro,” said Jaguar, his tone slightly nervous. Gray saw from the corner of his eye that Jaguar could not look directly at his chieftain. “Homicide. He, uh, says he wants to talk to you.” Then he added, very hastily indeed, “But he doesn’t want to start any shit.”
“No?” Black-Eyes turned his pits fully on Gray, who was busy attempting to keep his expression flat as his every herd instinct screamed for him to flee. “That is a very strange thing to hear, a policeman who comes to my realm and does not wish to cause…trouble.”
“It’s true in any case,” said Gray, in a voice which he was at least a little proud to say did not stumble. “Detective Gray. Homicide, as he said. I’m just here to talk to you.”
“I see,” said Black-Eyes, and he smiled – revealing sharp teeth, canine transplants yellowed in their sockets. The herd animal inside Gray shuddered. “And what do you want to talk about, Detective?”
Gray pursed his lips and collected himself. “Did you know,” he said, “That someone is taking spines in White Center?”
No response. The wind stirred, the water sloshed. Behind them, the soft, rhythmic gasps of the girl from behind the tree as things escalated between herself and her boy. Gray felt as though something was building between them, a tenseness that, if it snapped, might well see the horror-man biting out his throat.
But instead Black-Eyes only smiled again, and that was an awful relief. “Are you coming to make accusations, Detective?”
“Not at all,” said Gray, feeling himself in a little more of a balanced position now. “On the contrary, I’m here to ask if you know who might be trying to defame you. After all, the only people we know who’s done anything like this was the Sons, though that was done with a waterknife. You recall that, I imagine?”
Black-Eyes nodded. “I recall hearing that one of my brothers dispatched a rival in that way, yes. You will excuse me – I am not entirely prepared to meet a man who comes with a badge but instead wishes to help us, and not haul us away.” His smile widened a bit more, showing more teeth. “Or try to, at least.”
Gray pursed his lips a moment, but he nodded. “This case is mine,” he said. “If you know anything, I’m sure it’ll be considered the next time something comes up that can be traced to your…family.” Which may or may not be the case, but it had happened enough with other gangs not to be an overt lie.
“Of course,” said Black-Eyes, who inclined his head faintly. “I understand. And of course, I will be happy to assist Civil Protection in this matter.” The man was the politest monster that Gray had ever seen.
Gray did not want these people involved short of asking a fucking question. Jesus. “I’ll leave my card with you then.” He produced it from the breast pocket of his jacket with the utmost care; one of the fierce-haired young men who stood around him took it from his hand and scowled at it before handing it to his superior.
Black-Eyes merely smiled that horrible smile of his, like a mad, tattooed zombie shark. “But of course,” he said, the very picture of obligation. “And what will you give me in return?”
Gray’s eyes flickered. “I beg your pardon?”
“For our information. What will you give me?” Black-Eyes looked about the ruined park, and his smile radiated with all the warmth of a proud father. “My children will help you if…you do them a favor, perhaps.”
Oh, fuck this. There was no way in hell that Gray was going to do a deal with this guy, not with the situation being what it was. Certainly not with the way he was. “I’ll get back to you on that,” he said, voice bland. “I do have another question, which is related but not in the same way. And when I ask this, I want you to understand that the case involved is closed and there is to be no further investigation into it. The information is just for my use, so that I might tie up loose ends. Am I clear?”
Full lips closed over the jagged teeth as the Duwamish boss looked at Gray with new consideration, as the lion might if a gazelle he hunted suddenly sprouted fangs. “I understand,” he said. “Do go on.”
Gray nodded once. “Well,” he said, “One of the victims was a man named Ronald Anderson. He worked for us, and he was selling information to various organizations on the street. I know for a fact that some of the Sons were his clientele.”
Black-Eyes didn’t betray a single twitch; his face had become as much of a bland mask as Gray’s own. “Is that a fact?”
“It is.” Gray felt his words get traction and he pressed on. “I need to clear something up about him. He was found with a wad of bills in his pocket.”
Now the demonic smile returned. “Everyone deals in cash down here, Detective.”
“The bills were wrapped around sixty grams of RBC-7.” Gray now stared straight into Black-Eyes’s empty sockets, challenging the silver buds that glittered in the depths of their sockets. That’s right, you fucker. Blink. “I just want to know if that was business or not.”
“But I thought that you said his spine was removed, Detective,” said Black-Eyes, whose voice had become stony. “I don’t believe that we do that kind of thing.”
“The bomb isn’t what killed him, that’s true,” said Gray, daring to push further now. “I just need to exclude suspects.”
There was more silence as Black-Eyes stared at him, the studs winking as if in anger – Gray hated that there were no eyes to read to confirm what he could only guess. Finally, however, the scarred creature leaned forward, and he folded his hands beneath his chin. “What makes you think that we would have access to such material? RBC-7 is, as I recall, something of an expensive material.”
“Far less expensive than a nerve job,” Gray said with a jerk of his head toward Jaguar. The poor bastard instantly shrank as his boss’s face turned his way.
“My brothers have been showing off again, I see.” Black-Eyes chuckled, a gravelly thing that did nothing to reduce his menace. “Well, if such a thing happened- and I will never admit to such a thing, you understand – I have heard of such a method discussed in the past. That is, if we were to have had this conversation at all. Which we did not.”
Gray felt his time coming to an end, and he nodded. “Understood,” he said. “And thank you. I appreciate your talking with me.”
Again Black-Eyes inclined his head just a bit, the king of this tiny patch of Hell dismissing his petitioner. “I’m sure that we’ll speak again, Detective,” he said lightly. “Good afternoon.”
And that was it. Audience over. These things ended quickly, and without violence, if they were going to happen at all – and Gray found himself succumbing, however slightly, to the influence of his hindbrain. “Well, then,” he said, inclining his head very slightly. “Good evening.” And then, not looking anywhere but straight ahead, Gray got back to the car as quickly as possible without looking like he was doing it.
Jesus fucking Christ, the kind of people this town spawned! The world could be a scary place for someone who didn’t have a credit rating. Come to that it could be just as scary for those who actually did – but they usually made choices that put them there. With these people, even in the Verge, they were basically living in the wild.
And yet, it was nothing like the Old City. He’d never go in there, not for a hundred Amber Shields, or at the very least not unless he was escorted by a full team of Special Tactics troopers. Out there was nothing but the wasteland; out there people like John Black-Eyes weren’t curiosities but the lords of the realm. The kind of people out there….the homicidal and the mad, the desperate beyond the boundaries of humanity – they’d fuck you, eat you, and skin you, and the order in which it would happen would be entirely random.
Sometimes they’d charge the cordon and the Pacifiers would turn the guns on them, big rotary flechette guns shredding the ferals as they came, their numbers never too many to overwhelm but often enough that you could hear them getting shot to pieces from anywhere in that part of the Verge. Carter had told him once that it was almost like they moved with coordination, like a single organism extending violent limbs to probe the boundaries of civilization. Gray did not sleep well that night, and as he got into the Vectra and let it drive back toward home he wondered if he would this time around.
Two consecutive days, two consecutive crazies. Were they suspects? Well, Donner was creepy as fuck, and Gray sensed that he had the same kind of bizarro bell-jar mentality that might make him a meticulous killer. The sculptures in his gallery didn’t help, that’s for sure. Gray could imagine him having a little private studio where he’d view live models for that work, and shook his head. Maybe. Maybe. But did he have a connection to Anderson?
And then there was Black-Eyes. Christ! Gray had no trouble imagining that horrible man flaying both of them and eating the corpses, and that was what made him problematic – as polite as he was, unless Gray had totally misjudged him the Duwamish boss was a savage killer in action. The kind of clean, bloodless surgery that had taken the spines of Anderson and Askew just didn’t seem right. At the very least he knew that the Sons had been the ones who had planned on killing off Anderson with the cash bomb, or at least he was as sure about that as he was ever going to get. He thought of the speed and precision with which Jaguar – or Alexander, or Marco – had moved. More than enough to do impromptu surgery, even with a cattle saw. But was it one of Black-Eyes’s boys, or some other Sons, that did the deed? Anderson’s case might be closed with prejudice, but now there was at least a place to start from. He’d have to keep probing if he wanted to find a common thread between the dead men.
He sagged in his seat, feeling exhaustion setting in. Dealing with these monsters really took a toll on a man. He checked the clock, saw that it was about two-thirty in the afternoon. He was happy that he’d run into them in the daylight; he couldn’t imagine what kind of nasty it would have been to see Black-Eyes in the dark, or perhaps that might have been a mercy. Gray had the car dial Angie’s number; he figured she was home and up, if only just. The Autumn Heights didn’t open until eight.
It rang three times on the other end until it was picked up, and Angie’s sleepy voice filled the car like a warm bath. “You better be glad it’s you calling,” she said, sounding slightly annoyed. “I was just thinking that it had better be an emergency to get me up at this hour.”
Gray couldn’t help but smile. “And here I thought that you’d be up already,” he said, feeling the stress of the park scene draining away. “I hope it’s not unwelcome, at least.”
She laughed, and Gray shuddered. God, she sounded amazing after all of that. Like warm wax dripped over his shoulders. “Not unwelcome, no,” she said. “But I hope you won’t be mad if I stay in bed and don’t turn on the camera.”
“Well, I can only promise one of those,” he said with a grin. He tried to imagine her in bed. Did she sleep naked? In lace? Silk? He wondered if he could buy her something under the table, have it sent over anonymously. He wanted to know that she was wearing something from him when she was sleeping, when she was dreaming, when she was…
“I’ll chance it,” she was saying now, and he shook the thought loose. “So to what do I owe the honor?”
“Just driving around,” Gray said, laying his hand on the wheel as if he were, in fact, doing so.
“Yeah.” He had a flash of red-painted faces and cleared his throat.
“You all right?”
Gray took a breath. “Yeah,” he said, “Just been down in the Verge, that’s all. Seeing that Jimmy Black-Eyes you mentioned.”
“Oh yeah?” Her tone shifted from lazy into one of bright interest. “Was he Italian?”
“Not exactly,” Gray said. “Duwamish Sons. Your man was dealing with some really nasty creatures down there, honey.”
She blew out a long breath of exasperation. “I told you, Dan, he wasn’t my man. I think he wasn’t really anyone’s but his own, you know?”
She sounded annoyed now, and he winced. “I’m sorry, Angie. It was just a bad scene down there. That guy Black-Eyes, let’s just say you should be glad he’s not coming to your door.”
“Oh, that sounds intriguing.” Girls were so strange sometimes. “Any reason why?”
“He’d eat you alive.” He let his voice dip, let her know he wasn’t being figurative.
She was quiet for a moment. “I see,” she finally said. “Well. I knew you wouldn’t let him get anywhere near me, Dan. I knew you’d keep me safe.”
Gray closed his eyes and sighed. He would, or at least he’d try. The idea of James Black-eyes and his crew of merry murderers smashing down her door conjured a cocktail of rage and fear inside of him. His brain conjured images of her fleeing in screaming terror, them catching up to her, the hissing ceramic wedge of the saw…
“Yeah,” he said, and opened his eyes. The light banished the traitorous images away. “I’ll protect you, honey. Don’t worry about a thing.”
Now it was her turn to be quiet. It was as if she were in the car with him. “I won’t,” she said, her voice…warm, soft. Like he imagined she would be in bed with him. He could almost smell her. “Come by tonight, all right? I want to see you.”
“I will.” You’re damned straight he would. On fire, and straight off the edge off the world. “I better get off here.”
It was that last bit that brought a bright and silvery laugh from her. “Not until tonight, I hope,” she purred, and then he heard her make a wet kissing sound. “I’ll see you later, then.” The line hung up on her end, and he was alone with the sound of the road and the hum of the hydrogen engine.
Life could be really good for a cop. Really good. He grinned like an idiot as the car continued along its course.
He was halfway back to Central, just beyond the inner edge of the Verge, when the car’s console chimed an incoming call. “Answer,” Gray told it, hoping that it might be Angie; instead, he got the faceless drone of the dispatch system.
“Car Number Six Four Six Mary Seven,” it intoned, and Gray found himself clenching at the mention of his car code. He had an idea of what was coming next. “Proceed to 627 Queen Anne Street, Atomah Boutique. Body found on premises, possible Alpha Nine Zero. Proceed immediately to location, officers are on scene. Be advised, media presence has been reported.”
Motherfucker. “Confirmed, dispatch. I’m on my way.” The call terminated, leaving Gray there to fume in silence. Alpha nine zero meant a murder attached to an existing case – the only one he had. Another goddamned spine murder. In the middle of the New City. Right on Queen fucking Anne, and with the press around! Frustration boiled through him, stinging the back of his neck with its heat. He knew that the press would be getting involved at some point, considering how hard he’d been deflecting them – but now he was going to have to show up with a camera in his face. Well, he thought as he directed the car to adjust its course to the new address, at least I’m gonna look damned good on network feed.
They were such small mercies, but at least they carried him on.