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.
It took a while to go over the scene, with, as much crap as there was in Askew’s workshop. Gray and Flint went over the body, noting the man’s shaved head, the dirt under his fingernails. There were some scars on his forearms that looked to Gray as if they came from accidents with tools, ancient and long since merged with the fabric of his skin. The skin of his arms and torso was patched with irritation, though it looked more like eczema or some other skin condition to Gray instead of damage. They could find nothing else on the corpse, at least not what was currently exposed. There were no pockets to go through, though his face matched the picture on file.
After looking the victim over Gray had the evidence techs come up, leaving Manson and the rest of his boys to serve as door guards. He talked to the building’s super, one Kim Young-ae. Mrs. Kim had run the place since she and her late husband bought it thirty years ago; only her son and his family, along with a few other people, had lived there. Her son had taken his little clan down to Portland to visit his wife’s relatives, and had been gone for several days. The few others who lived in the building had been working, and thus not around when she went up to confront Askew about his bounced rent check for that month.
She said that she’d taken the elevator up to the sixth floor, knowing that he was there because the lights were on. Askew apparently kept all the lights on in the place whenever he was around, something that gave Mrs. Kim fits where the electrical bill was concerned. She pounded on the door for twenty minutes trying to get his attention. This was strange to her; Askew was often very busy working on his projects, but he didn’t take long at all to put down his work and answer the door. Assuming he had slipped out and she had missed it, she went back downstairs only to return a few hours later and try again. When he didn’t answer after another twenty minutes of pounding, Mrs. Kim let herself in to find the man dead on the floor.
On the subject of the victim himself, Mrs. Kim couldn’t tell Gray much other than he was quiet
, very polite if constantly distracted; and a very good tenant up until now. No boyfriends or girlfriends that she knew of, at least nobody that came to his place, although that didn’t mean that she kept strenuous tabs on his actions. Kim was very clear that she didn’t like to nose in on her tenants for fear that they’d leave. When Askew rented a whole floor in the building, it really helped make ends meet.
But now he was dead. Mrs. Kim was understandably very upset, not only because of the discovery of her best tenant’s body but also because of the livid bruise starting to spread over one cheek. You didn’t go talking to the Civil Protection in the Verge without expecting some kind of a hassle – most Vergies didn’t have a contract save for general public protection – but that shit was beyond the pale. The fact that she was so surprised at his actions seemed both naive and strangely endearing to Gray, something that made him think of his own mother. Some people had that effect on you, he guessed. Gray would be talking to H.R. about that. He dropped the suggestion that Mrs. Kim might speak to the company about what happened; hopefully she’d decide to press charges, and that prick Manson would swing over what he’d done. No doubt the Pacifiers would have some extra hate on for Homicide over that, but Gray remained without a fuck to give in his inventory. His concerns lay with the body, and with the somewhat disturbing cheer he felt at dealing with another spineless corpse. As with Anderson before him, Askew showed clear signs of being field-dressed with the weapon believed to be a cattle knife.
The evidence techs arrived along with the coroner, Megan Cinders, who came to confirm what Gray already knew. The techs were busy, of course. They went over floor with a high-resolution scanner, picking up whatever footprints were fresh . After discounting the bootheels of Manson’s crew and Gray’s own size twelve Perinis. Now they were going through Askew’s things and sweeping the place with a sniffer to see if there were any hidden EM signatures, just like Anderson’s apartment.
Gray stood over the corpse while Cinders squatted down beside it. She’d been the coroner for Civil Protection in Seattle since it had secured its contract. She was a handsome woman but very formidable, her long hair dirty blonde and streaked with veins of silver; she wore it pulled back in a bun that only picked out the sharp lines of her face and made it all the harder. She frowned down at the body as she probed at the long gray trench in the corpse’s back with scanner wand, then put it back into the squat red box of the field diagnostic unit that sat by her feet.
“Well, Detective,” she announced as she got to her feet, “You’ve got another one.”
Gray’s lips quirked. I kind of figured that, he thought to himself, but to her he said, “What do you have for me, Doc?”
Megan’s brows furrowed as she looked his way; her eyes, deep-set and brown, were not filled with the kind of clinical resignation that this sort of job seemed to conjure in people. You see a lot of corpses in her line of work, usually in a horrible state. Gray wondered if that hollowed you out like the Pacifiers or if you just ended up caring all the more. In Megan’s case she certainly seemed to care more for the dead than for herself – Gray had never seen another woman under seventy-five who let the silver show in her hair in his life.
Her eyes were hard stones as she spoke to him. “Well, I’ll have to confirm it in the lab, of course,” she said as she stripped off her sterile gloves, “But it looks the same on the scope. Same pattern of tissue damage, and of course you saw the pose here.”
“Yeah.” Gray rubbed at the bridge of his nose with a thumb. “Cause of death, in your opinion?”
“Interesting,” said Megan. The intensity seemed to level off as her science brain engaged. “The last victim took a blow to the back of the head, very strong. This guy, however, seems to have been out by the time it happened. I took a blood sample here, but the field unit doesn’t read any of the usual agents. He doesn’t show any signs of being drugged, either.”
“What about recreational substances?”
“Nothing obvious, but we’ll see. I’ll have to run some tests back at Central and get you a toxicology workup.”
“No signs of forced entry, either,” said Gray. He looked back down at Askew’s body, brows knitting. Someone had slipped in here and took him out. Or maybe it was someone that he knew…but how? With Anderson it had seemed pretty clear. Was he missing something? “We’re sure that this man is Askew, right?”
“Now that’s a definite,” Megan replied with a nod. “Blood sample confirmed his identity.”
Gray nodded. “And what about his skin?”
Megan wrinkled her nose at that. “The irritation is patchy,” she replied, looking back down at Askew’s body. “I might think it was a skin disease, but it isn’t.”
“It isn’t?” Gray followed her eyes as well. He looked at the patches on the dark skin, slightly shiny but not livid. “It looks like it itched like crazy.”
“Well if it did, I don’t expect it would for much longer. Those are chemical burns, Detective. Mild ones, but they hadn’t been healing for long.”
Gray stared at the dead man for a moment longer before looking back up to Megan. He found her eyes there, staring back at him. “Chemical burns,” he repeated. “But they’re older, right? Whoever killed him didn’t –”
“No,” she replied with a shake of her head. “But that doesn’t mean whoever was reponsible hadn’t done something before now. He’s only been dead about eight hours; rigor’s already set in. I’d say these burns happened a week ago, maybe a few days if he’s been treating it with knitting cream.”
The things people to do each other, Gray thought, but he nodded. “Well, we’ll see what Evidence comes up with. Thanks, Megan.”
Gray stepped back from the corpse so that Megan’s assistants could collect it. Whole lot of white coats in here, he thought, surveying the room. What the hell happened here? Did this guy have gang connections as well? Considering where Askewlived, of course, it was entirely possible that he did – though what gangsters would want from a holographic artist, however skilled, was beyond Gray.
He took out his palmtop computer again and ran a query on the victim’s file. Martin Askew, age thirty-two, originally from Denver. No priors save for a Drunk and Disorderly when he was twenty-six. Parents dead, but a sister still living there. Gray would have to contact her. Meanwhile, there was the question of employment. He put in a query to have Askew’s tax records examined, which would take a few hours, then tucked the computer back in his pocket. He was about to depart for the car to make his report when Flint emerged from somewhere in the back section of the floor.
“Hey, Detective,” called Flint. He had taken off his helmet as Gray had suggested, revealing a black buzz-cut lacquered glossy and stiff with an aerobic plasticizer. Well, that was one way of keeping your hair neat; the stuff locked his hair into place, yet allowed for water and cleaning agents to do its work while suppressing folicular growth. It wasn’t permanent, but it sure as hell kept things static for a long time. Flint’s eyes, gray and bright, were alert as he approached. Apparently he didn’t share his partner’s dislike of Gray either.
Gray turned back toward him, hands tucked into his pockets. “What’s up there, Officer?”
“Got something that you should see.” Flint jerked a thumb over his shoulder.
“Oh?” Gray turned to follow as Flint led him into the back, past workbenches and half-assembled projectors and the ultra-real oddities of Askew’s work, into the only remaining apartment that had not been converted into workspace. The living area was bland and utilitarian, so much so that it seemed to Gray that it was just another extension of the work equipment; passing into the bedroom he saw that the bed was just a mattress on the floor. It seemed almost that sleeping and the other functions of living were necessary evils to the murdered man. That would explain why he’d had the money to buy out an entire floor of a building – even if it were in the Verge – and convert it into workspace, then throw himself into that work. It smacked of fanaticism.
Meanwhile Flint had bypassed the room and gone into the bathroom. “It’s in here,” he called.
For a moment, Gray hesitated; a voice in the back of his head whispered that perhaps he would find a police baton waiting for him inside, in revenge for his sneering at Pacification. It wouldn’t be the first time, after all. And yet he did not think so. “Coming,” he called, and stepped into the bathroom where Flint stood waiting for him.
Askew’s bathroom was as plain as the bedroom had been, though obviously much more used: the sink was spotted and streaked where grease and dirt had been cleaned from busy hands many times over, and the toilet seat was similarly darkened. “What,” said Gray, more to the room at large, “Did this guy work in the nude?” He briefly had an image of Askew the mechanophile, rolling around in ecstasy upon one of his larger pieces and shivered.
On the counter next to the sink there was a large tub of DermaKnit, big enough to have come from a hospital storeroom. Gray bent over to peer at it, seeing the reflection of its backside in the mirrors – sure enough, a grubby, faded marker label had been mostly torn off the back of the tub’s screw-on cap. Gray made out the letters ‘ET RN TO NTON GE RAL PI AL’ and a fragmented street address. Then he saw the expiration date printed on top of the cap and his nostrils flared in surprise. “Jesus, this stuff is four years old. Way past expiration date.” DermaKnit, and dermal growth agents like it, were notorious for petering out quickly after their dates of expiry – that meant that the burns could have been older, or perhaps worse, and the potency of the cream weak enough that it had only barely helped.
Flint smirked. “If you think that’s nazzed,” he said, “Check out the shower.” He reached with a gloved hand and pulled open the door on the big shower booth, whose bronze shower head was encrusted with the livid teal of verdigris. In one corner of the booth there stood a large container of industrial cleanser, a clear plastic keg filled with a sickly blue gel upon which a pump tap had been mounted. They both stared at the cleanser keg for a minute or so, as if it were some grim pagan idol that they had discovered. Something to be wondered at, and feared.
Finally Gray broke the silence. “That’s fucked up,” he said, shaking his head as his brain made the connection between the disused shower head, the cleaner, and the burns on Askew’s body. People made his head hurt.
After giving thanks to Flint for helping out and stepping into the elevator, Gray wondered what kind of crazy man would scrub himself with industrial cleaner instead of bathe, realized he’d answered his own question, and then tried to put the images this line of thought conjured in his mind as the elevator took him down to street level once more. He found Park right outside, still playing door guard, just as tight and jittery as he had been before. Given the looks he was getting from Manson and Cramden, who were lurking by one of the patrol cars parked out front, the sight of Askew’s flayed body wasn’t what was keeping him twisted up.
“Hey, kid,” said Gray, putting on his best older-brother voice as he stepped up next to Park. “You all right?”
Park took a few seconds to answer, not looking back at him. “Yeah, uh, yes, Detective, I’m fine.”
“Uh-huh.” Gray looked past Park to Manson, who was staring a hole into his younger partner. Gray hoped he hadn’t put the kid on the rough end of a curb-stomping over what he’d said to Manson upstairs. “Look,” he murmured to the younger officer, “I’ll see what I can do for you. You don’t need to be riding around with that guy. It’ll be bad for your career.”
Park only nodded, and then very lightly, but Gray sensed the relief that started to spread through him. Well that’s one good deed done, at least, Gray thought, and headed for the Vectra.
Gray walked through the hate-rays Manson shot his way and slid into the driver’s seat, leaning back into the programmable foam. He started up the sedan and pulled it out onto the street, and set the car to drive back to Central. The Vectra’s hydrogen engine hummed softly as the car navigated the trash-strewn streets, and as he took his hands away from the wheel and folded his arms over his chest, he fell into the familiar warm bath of post-scene meditation.
Two deaths, probably serial. No sign of forced entry, no apparent cause of death external to the spine carved out of the victim’s back. No relationships known. It was as if someone just appeared in the man’s house like a mad djinn and cut him up; did someone pick the lock? Was it a client? Who the Hell knew? The lack of obvious evidence, on top of Askew’s own personal strangeness, grated on Gray’s nerves. He didn’t have a lot of time to make this thing happen, and if he left it go unsolved it wouldn’t look good for him at all. Three days to find a culprit. He found himself almost wishing for another death to help extend the budget chain.
He’d have to wait to see who filtered in after work, and who didn’t show back up. He’d already gotten the names of Mrs. Kim’s remaining lodgers and would interview them, but he wasn’t going to go track them down at work. It wasn’t efficient. Instead he’d put Flint in charge of intercepting the incoming residents and get their statements, then have them come down to Central for interviews. When the tax records came back he’d go and talk to whoever Askew was selling his sculptures to, assuming that he wasn’t doing it under the table, and even then someone would come looking for him. Yes, he’d wait and see what shook out overnight. It would be the best use of company money, after all.
As the car turned toward the glowing towers of the New City, Gray found himself dreaming again of the Amber Shield, and of Angie as well. He wanted them both. He’d have to work hard. Work smart. The company demanded it, and so did he.
Everything flowed toward Central.