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.
To rise above street duty in Civil Protection, you had to be an economist as much as a cop. You had to know the value of the market, and understand its dynamics as clearly as you did the workings of the criminal mind. It wasn’t enough to do the job – you had to do the job with the company in mind. Civil Protection was a corporation, after all. Profits margins were holy.
Daniel Gray sat in the driver’s seat of his duty car, a massive whale of a ’74 Daimler-Mercedes Vectra, watching the stock ticker that ran underneath his car’s information console. It had been a good quarter for the company; the tricentennial had kicked off a month or so ago, and an inexplicable current of madness had surfaced in its wake. There were anti-corporate protests going on downtown, an uptake in violent crime, in theft – all very much manageable between the street officers and the riot brigades, and lots of billable hours. He imagined that Matic over in Pacification Services must be stuffing his portfolio with reward shares, the old bastard.
Yes, it was a good old time for everyone, except here in Homicide. A hundred years ago the art of finding killlers was the crown jewel for detectives wanting to make their name in any police organization. Here in the age of privatized police, however, Homicide was very often something of a proverbial dead end. After all, the kinds of people who normally got killed off were Blanks, folks who didn’t have police coverage at all, or everyday citizens who were covered under the standard civilian safety contract brokered between the Company and the city government. Even if a victim had a personal contract, it meant you were looking at a loss of profit. For Civil Protection, Homicide was mostly a janitorial department and Gray didn’t like pushing a fucking broom.
The Vectra was parked out front of a Lucky Swan convenience store in the wilds of Service Sector 227, the east half of White Center. It was a little after ten at night, and he was letting the final hours elapse from what had proven a very boring and uncomplicated day. Two shootings, obviously gang-related, had taken place over toward the industrial fields near Alki point. One suicide by cop in Belltown. Very cut and dried, which was good for paperwork, but nothing to make Homicide Solutions stand out. More janitorial service.
Gray tore his eyes from the ticker and fixed them on the store’s facade, plastered with the over-saturated glare of holographic advertisements over plain paper handbills. Lucky Swan’s cartoon mascot stared at him from every angle, its ridiculous beak open and its eyes lolling about. OH GOD I AM SO HAPPY TO BE BUYING TOILET PAPER, it seemed to say, awash in a paroxysm of shit-paper glee. It was absolutely ridiculous. Then again, Civil Protection had much slicker marketing, which was why he was in police services and not agog over the low low prices of a six-pack of Fontainelle Cloud-Soft.
Beyond the lurid cartoon legion, however, a large man in a black overcoat stood chatting with a pretty girl behind the counter. Tall and lean, her hair was dyed red alternating streaks of red, white and blue – patriotism was in fashion this year, the country being three hundred years old and all. The Spirit of ‘76 was extremely marketable. The girl was secondary, of course – the man was who he had his eye on. The vast fellow was Brutus Carter, a veteran of Homicide Solutions who’d served with the Seattle PD before it was dissolved in favor of CivPro. Lots of SPD vets were employees now, though they sometimes found themselves running under the heels of people with much less experience but with company seniority.
Carter had been such a man. A thirty-year veteran of the Department, he had been employed by the company as a Tier II, a junior Detective. He’d jumped the ranks pretty quickly and was already a Tier IV, and had been Gray’s mentor when Gray himself reached Tier II. Now Gray was Tier III, and the two often worked together. As he watched the big man’s broad back heave with laughter, he couldn’t help but feel a pang of envy stick in his chest – Carter had a stock package, company car, and retirement options. He also had an Amber Shield, the holographic stamp set in the middle of his company ID that CivPro cops used as a badge. Unlike Gray’s own Blue Shield, which merely spoke of competence, the Amber spoke of success as well as the recognition that came with it. Carter might have been an older man but that didn’t keep the girl from flirting with him as she keyed his purchases through the store’s system. It didn’t keep her from sliding a piece of paper with what was almost certainly her number on it into Carter’s grocery bag as he produced his cashcard from his wallet, either. It was true; Carter had worked to earn every dollar he made, and he deserved the prestige with which he was showered. It didn’t keep that flame of envy from kindling in Gray’s heart.
Blue Badge, shit. Gray longed for a sexy case to come along, something that the Feds weren’t going to be all over. Then he’d have a chance to make Amber for sure; a nice, media-friendly murder, something that didn’t involve Wonderland bullshit. That was what he wished for when he went to bed every night, what he was dreaming of every time he rose in the morning and stepped into his synthetic leather shoes. Something that he could use to distinguish himself.
Presently Carter disengaged himself from the flag-haired girl and emerged from the convenience store. The Swan Legion stared after him in gaping adoration as he walked to the car, one bag under his arm. Gray briefly pondered leaving Carter out there to get soaked in the starting drizzle, but he leaned over to open the passenger side door and it swung upward to admit him.
Carter packed himself into the passenger side, tucking the bag between his knees. He was, of course, much older than Gray, being in his late fifties where Gray had only just crested thirty. Women found him handsome anyway, with his rough good looks only enriched by the seams of age and his black and curly hair peppered only slightly with silver. By contrast, Gray’s lean paleness gave him a predatory look, and his blond hair was cropped close. Only his eyes, clear and blue like wet turquoise, gave him any up on his mentor. “Nice girl,” said Carter, grinning faintly as he rummaged through his bag.
“Was she?” Gray reached for the ignition, thumbing the button against the steering column and bringing the hydrogen engine online. He forced his tenor voice into a bland tone, feigning neutrality.
“Oh yes,” said Carter with a chuckle, producing the slip of paper which he eyed briefly before tucking it into his coat. “Very nice. You wanted Vee-Plus, right?” He handed Gray a tall can emblazoned with a field of neon blue speed lines. Velocity Plus was a high-performance energy formula; it looked (and tasted) like watered-down cat piss but kept you awake for hours.
Gray took the can without a word and smacked the bottom hard against the steering wheel. Chemicals began mixing in a compartment in the can’s base; he felt the energy drink chill almost instantly in his hand, triggering a pleasant rush of sensation. He pulled the tab and drank deeply.
Carter rummaged around in the bag a bit more, selecting a red can of Coke Century which he similarly smacked into wakefulness, then shoved the bag onto the floor of the car. “Stock price is up,” he noted, filling the silence between them.
“Yeah.” Gray put his can into the cupholder on his side of the console. “But our division’s arrest quota is running short again, so that’s fucking up our percentages. There was a memo about it yesterday.”
“I don’t usually read them,” Carter replied, which irritated Gray to no end. This guy, Gray thought darkly. A Tier IV, and he doesn’t read corporate memorandums but maybe once or twice a month.
“I don’t understand why you don’t,” said Gray, who minimized the ticker feed to a narrow ribbon running along the bottom of the car’s display. The Civil Protection Nexus – the corporation’s all-encompassing dispatch system – now filled the rest of it. Gray liked to keep CPN running as they drove so he could monitor the progress of the other Homicide teams. He was always watching for opportunity.
At this Carter let out a bark of a laugh. “Because I’ve got you for that, Dan,” he replied. “You’re so ready to sniff out a promotion that you’re practically glued to the CPN. You don’t think I know you put on that ticker when you’re parked? Shit. I’m surprised you haven’t tried to sell me out for a better share.”
For a long time Gray didn’t say anything. The rain had begun in a feeble mist and he pulled the car out into the thin Verge border traffic. The modern Seattle Metropolitan Zone was laid out like an irregular archery target; the bullseye was New City, what Gray considered civilization, the downtown core that radiated outward from Eliot Bay to the shore of Lake Washington. Beyond that was The Verge, a decaying urban area that was in many parts an anonymous slum – which Gray found detestable, but it was nothing compared to the outer rim of the metropolitan area. Stretching out toward Tacoma was the Old City, an urban ruin that had made a savage meal of what was once a vast stretch of suburbia; there the madmen and violent indigents of the city zone lived and preyed upon each other and on those living its side of the Verge. If the New City was civilization, the Old City was where the Devil lived. Not even Civil Protection went out there without a Federal whip laid against its back.
Gray drove the black whale of the Vectra through the crumbling streets; on the console, the CPN silently streamed data. “You know,” he finally said as they came to a flickering stoplight, “I think you’ve got the wrong idea about me, Carter.”
“Do I?” Carter eyed him from over the rim of his Coke.
“I think so.” Gray turned slightly in his seat. “You seem to think I don’t care about this job.”
Carter snorted and turned away. “On the contrary,” he said. “I think you care plenty about this job. It’s more that I don’t think you care much about the people involved.”
The light turned green; Gray started forward again. They passed a booth made from industrial scrap, great tanks filled with murky green liquid mounted on the roof like great glass heads. Street food, algal patties and such. The facade had been painted up like the American flag. “I don’t think that’s fair,” Gray said, as an old man in a stained smock emerged to watch them go. “There isn’t much left to care for when we arrive, is there?”
“Yeah, well,” said Carter, “I remember a time when this job used to be about public service. I mean, I still give a damn.”
“Times change,” Gray said, much more flatly than he really had meant to.
Perhaps Carter would have replied if he had the chance, but as Gray took the corner the monitor sprang to life. Its passive scroll vanished and a shrill alarm demanded their attention as the police traffic was replaced by a bank of tall orange capitals. ‘ALARM, CODE 17-C: HOMICIDE, VIOLENT. VICTIM CODE 107. PROCEED IMMDIATELY TO SCENE OF CRIME.’
“Victim code 107,” Gray repeated, arching his brows. “That’s company personnel. Non-duty.” Gray checked the address; it was on the western border of the sector, right where White Center bled over into Burien. “Jesus, it’s right next door.”
“Someone sure got their ticket punched.” The flippancy of Carter’s comment was crushed beneath the gravity which now settled over the man; as he did with every case they worked together, Gray watched as Carter’s face solidified into a grim mask and his shoulders hunched forward like an owl preparing to strike. Whatever their differences in politics or beliefs about the job, Carter was right about one thing: he did care about his cases.
Whatever Gray might say to the contrary, he did as well. Carter would never have ridden with him otherwise. Gray didn’t like his job, but he did care about it. When you got down to it, every time he got an assignment it meant someone’s end – not just a subscriber but a living, breathing person. And sure, plenty of them deserved what they got…but a lot of them didn’t, and as much as people irritated him, this sort of thing went on way the hell too often for his taste. Maybe that’s why he ended up in Homicide instead of Pacification Services, after all. Those guys didn’t give a shit for civilians.
As he confirmed with the Nexus that they were on their way, however, the questions began to appear in Gray’s head. A non-duty fatality of CivPro personnel in the Verge, and a homicide besides? Was somebody slumming and got themselves knifed by a hooker? Killed over gambling? Did they get shot over somebody’s wife? It wasn’t as if murders didn’t happen to CivPro personnel off-duty, but they sure as hell didn’t normally happen in the Land of Poors and Squatters. Gray frowned as he drove on, suppressing such speculation. In twenty minutes they’d find out just how horrible fate had decided to be.
The scene of the crime was an alleyway behind an abandoned Roziara Deli. Crowding the street outside the deli were a pair of patrol cars, white wedges of steel with ribbon lights that stained the nearby buildings red and blue. Street officers clustered around the mouth, black body armor over blue uniform fatigues; unlike the sidearms that Gray and Carter carried, the streeties carried the blunt, brutal shapes of submachine guns close to their plated chests. A cordon had been set up; the narrow yellow band of holographic tape that stretched across the alley mouth glowed as it cycled through baleful warning messages. “They used to have good subs here,” said Carter as they pulled up in front of the moldering delicatessen. “Slabs of capicola as thick as Annie Cruz’s ass. Just incredible.”
“Don’t know that name,” said Gray.
“Porn star,” said Carter, who produced his badge and flashed it at a streeter who was approaching them. “Way before your time. Put on your war face, here comes the Pacifier.”
Carter’s Amber Shield glowed like the very words of God Almighty in the low light. “Carter and Gray,” said Carter, keeping his identification held up so that the streeter could see it. “Homicide Solutions.”
“Lem Martin,” replied the streeter. “Pacification Officer, patrol region 927.”
“This is your beat then,” said Gray, who produced from the inside pocket of his suit coat a slim Sony microcomp and engaged its holographic display. Data from the Nexus sprang to life above the palm-sized slab. “What do you have for us, Martin?”
Martin winced a bit at the lack of ‘Officer’ before his surname – you got a lot of that with Pacification Services, of which street patrol was the biggest group. They didn’t like being talked down to. Gray outranked him, however, and didn’t give a shit besides. “Nasty stuff,” Martin said, jerking his head toward the alley mouth. “Victim’s name is Anderson, Ronald P.. Administration. His panic implant was set off about an hour ago and flatlined soon after; me and my partner were in the area, and when we found him…well. Real horror show back there, is all I can say. I called for backup. Dunno what they used, but…well. You’ll see.”
Carter and Gray looked at each other – streeters saw all sorts of things. If they said it was a nasty scene, they’d probably do well to get smocks and rain boots. “All right, Officer,” Carter said, at which Martin seemed to relax a bit. “Were there any witnesses, security footage, anything like that?”
“Nothing we could find,” said Martin. “This area’s been abandoned for years. Anyone who lives here cleared out as soon as they heard us coming. You know how it is.”
“Yeah,” said Gray. Don’t want to get arrested for just being around. “All right, thanks, Officer. If you and…”
“Conklin and Peavey,” Martin replied. “In the other car. Patel’s with me.”
“…right,” Carter replied with a nod. “If you fellas can keep up the cordon on either side of the alley, we’ll have a look. Call the coroner while you’re at it.”
“On it,” barked Martin, who stepped away from the alley mouth while touching the side of his throat where a subvocal mic, standard issue for street patrol, had been implanted. Carter waited until Martin had backed up a few steps and was well into conversation before he gestured for Gray to follow him. The two men passed through the holographic cordon, the barrier no more solid than the air around it, and took a few steps into the feebly-lit alleyway.
The space behind the deli was dark and thick with shadows, lit only by the dying bulb of a lamp set over the shop’s sealed back door. A figure slumped or lay in the cone of dim light that spilled across the building’s crumbling facade. The air was faintly tinged with the smell of ozone and cooked meat. The two men approached; Gray held his computer in one hand while Carter fished the flat, card-sized shape of a palm lamp from a coat pocket. Cupping the lamp in his hand, Carter threw a beam of bright blue-white light across the alleyway and clearly illuminated the corpse.
Lean and muscular in life, that which had been Ronald Anderson half-crouched, half-sprawled across the alleyway, his handsome face pointing down toward the filthy concrete. The corpse’s posture reminded Gray of an old girlfriend; she was a yoga fanatic and used to do something similar called the Child’s Pose. Anderson’s formerly clean white dress shirt had been cut open, straight down the back from collar to waist, and his belted slacks had also been cut down to the base of the pelvis. His back had been tattooed with a medieval Japanese wave scene.
Anderson’s flesh had been laid open. Arching upward and away in a v-shaped furrow, a deep channel now butterflied the man’s back half from the base of his skull to the top of his pelvis. Where his spine should have been there was only a bloodless, grayish-red channel. The red and ivory of cleanly clipped bone and cooked organs were clearly visible in its absence, his heart a gray and veined lump. It was as if the tattooed sea had somehow come alive, restless and roaring, and attempted to rise away from its host who could never have survived its rebellion.
Without the slightest drop of blood, Ronald Anderson had been boned like a fish.
“Damn,” muttered Carter, stepping forward so he could track with his light the awful wound. “Never seen that before. What do you make of it, Dan?”
For Gray, who had only experienced the more pedestrian horrors of stranglings, stabbings and gunshot wounds in his brief career, there was no clean reply. “That’s the strangest thing I’ve ever seen,” he breathed instead, staring down at the carved gutter. Gray had said ‘strangest’ – however, what he had truly wanted to say was ‘horrible’. Looking down at the murdered man, Gray knew that his ‘sexy’ case had arrived, just as he had wished for it, but the only thing he could wish for now was to be anywhere else.
As if sensing the truth behind Gray’s words, Carter snorted softly. “Lucky you, kid,” he replied in a wry and vaguely weary tone. “Lucky you.”