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.
Story Based On:
Calling Atomah a ’boutique’ was sort of a misnomer – what it was, in fact, was a rapid-recovery medical center focusing on exotic forms of cosmetic surgery. The boutique aspect of it came from the fact that you could get more than just your standard work done here; you could also get the really bizarre, artistic shit that was so in fashion these days. One could come out looking like a beauty queen, or like an overinflated, plastic exaggeration of the same – you know, just for kicks. ‘Normal’ beauty was so commonplace now that it had lost its meaning for the fashionable set; people like James Black-Eyes would be considered chic until he tore your throat out. Frankly, Gray hated places like Atomah, and he did not look forward to setting foot inside it as he parked the Vectra across the street next to a pair of patrol cars.
Atomah took up the first four floors of a Neo-Deco Revival structure couched between mall blocks. The McKellan Office Tower was a monstrosity of fluted steel and chrome ribbons on a flat concrete facade, stretching up eighty stories like a big middle finger from the past besides its elegant modern fellows. Gray could almost hear Atlas shrugging from the lobby. There were no windows in the first ten floors, just the name of the boutique spelled out in tall, stark sans-serif capitals over the building’s doors. What an edifice of blank consumerism it was! If Gray wasn’t going to deal with another murder he might have appreciated the architecture, but today he saw things differently. Today, it was merely the scrubbed face of an abattoir.
It being a weekend, the building had been nearly empty; a group of Pacifiers were talking with a small knot of people in business wear off to the side. A holographic cordon had been set up around the front of the building, and a pair of Pacifiers hung by the door, far less armored up than their cousins down in the verge. They wore just light vests over their uniforms, with submachine guns slung politely across their backs. Up here in the middle of the New City, it really wasn’t necessary to walk around tank-style; this was civilization. Or it normally was, anyway.
Gray got out of the Vectra and got the field investigation kit out of the back of the car, squinting at the area as he closed the trunk and approached the cordon. He looked for media presence that dispatch mentioned, but he couldn’t see anything obvious; no reporters standing around with camera crew, no big purple NewsNetNow van waiting to discharge a media team. Was it possible that they could have already taken off without talking to him? God, he hoped so. Media relations was never his forte; that was Carter’s strength.
The two Pacifiers at the door saw him coming and waved him over. As he came closer, he saw that one of them was the usual squarish guy, but the other was a fairly solid woman. The helmets obscured basically everything at a distance, but up close he saw a pale, pointed chin and a smiling mouth beneath the smoky visor.
“Hey, Detective,” said the woman in a bright and friendly voice; warm and welcoming, it was definitely a nice change from the usual clipped Pacifier asshole. He’d forgotten that they usually saved the ones with personality to work with the uptown crowd. “Kate Murdock, Pacification. This is Tony Bradstreet.”
“Hey there,” chimed her partner, who gave him a little salute off the brow of his helm.
Gray nodded to the two of them. “Officers,” he said, “Thanks. I guess you knew I was coming?”
“Checked the caseboard,” said Bradstreet. “Saw your face. Pretty hard to miss – you clean up much nicer than the usual badge.”
“I’ll say,” Murdock said with a chuckle. “Anyway. We were the first ones on the scene, here. Thorne and Jiang over there are taking statements from people upstairs but nobody was in a position to see anything.”
“The scene’s secure?”
“Absolutely.” Murdock jerked a thumb behind her. “We’ve got hard seals on the door to the boutique, and we’ve got buzzer drones watching the lobby.”
Gray was pleased about that. “Glad to see you folks are on it,” he said. You got a much better class of operation up here, that’s for sure. “I heard there was media around. Where’d they go?”
“There was a NewsNetNow van around,” said Murdock, “But we ran ‘em off. Politely, of course – I imagine you’ll get word from them later.”
“I didn’t know that you could do that,” said Gray, his brows arched. “They’re usually pretty damned tenacious.”
The two Pacifiers looked at one another, somewhat guilty. “Well,” said Bradstreet, “We kind of told ‘em that you’d call them after the scene. You know, so that they wouldn’t get in the way of things. Exclusive.”
“Preservation of the scene and of company reputation,” Murdock said, stiffening a bit in preparation for what the angry protest she obviously expected to come. “I’m sorry if I overstepped.”
Gray looked between the two of them, considering. “I’m not angry,” he finally said. “I’m pleased. You did good work there, putting the company’s interests over the media; some others might have tried to get some of the spotlight for themselves.” It was true, he felt relieved that he didn’t have to deal with the media at a crime scene – it was inventive thinking. “You must be a very persuasive girl, Officer Murdock. I approve.”
She grinned at him, lighting up twice as brightly as before. “Hey, thanks, Detective.”
Gray nodded. “All right, well, now that we’ve covered that – what can you tell me about the situation?”
“Vic is one Diego Cuaron,” said Bradstreet, obviously pleased that neither of them were going to get raked over the coals. “Age thirty-six, lives locally. He’s the administrator here.”
“All right.” Gray looked past them at the tower doors, big gilded things, and wrinkled his nose. “Who discovered the body?”
“Janitorial robot came in on its usual rounds and reported the corpse,” said Murdock. “They’ve got really advanced units here, actually. They examine blockages to progress and move ‘em around based on their previously recorded positions.”
“It didn’t move the body though.” Gray looked at Murdock in mild horror. “Right?”
“Oh!” Murdock laughed. “No, sorry, Detective, didn’t mean to give you a heart attack. It’s a nasty scene in there, sure, but there isn’t any blood for it to track through or anything. The body is where it was found. So is the robot, actually; security shut it down the moment it made the report.”
“All right.” The lack of a living witness annoyed Gray, but perhaps it might turn out to be neater in the end. “Good work, the both of you. Officer Bradstreet, keep things in order here. Officer Murdock?”
“Kate’s fine.” She grinned at him, teeth white and pretty under the visor.
“Kate, then. Let’s go have a look.”
She went with him as he walked into the building’s lobby. Green marble strewn with gilded Deco accents dominated the room, which was quite small in comparison to the size of the building itself; there was no reception desk, as elevator doors leading to the floors beyond the clinic were on either side. In the far rear were the frosted glass doors leading to the boutique. The doors hissed open as they approached it, revealing stark white walls in the long tradition of the high-concept gallery; like Donner’s industrial space, this floor of Atomah was open and spacious, and black granite pedestals dotted the floor that depicted art of a very different kind. Holographic projections, luminous before-and-after depictions of the boutique’s past works, hovered silently over the surface of each stone pylon, light projecting the top of each to form the floating images. The works on display started as mundane creations, the most accessible – but as one looked from left to right, it was plain that beyond the core of everyday beauty there were wings of the exotic that invited examination. At one side, a woman’s face had gone from plain Asiatic to a bizarrely feline mask; at the other, ornate patterns of light projected from fiber-optic lines as thin as human hairs surged like thin rivers beneath a man’s hairless head. Still others recalled features of other exotic creatures, from devils to serpents – performance artists, celebrities, fetishists and criminals. Places like Atomah catered to all kinds.
“Real chamber of horrors,” Murdock said with a whistle. “I never understood why people wanted to fuck themselves up like this.”
Gray chuckled. “Fashion has slaves everywhere,” he replied.
“Maybe, but I don’t see you doctoring yourself up to look like a devil.”
“Perhaps so, Officer Kate,” he said with a chuckle. “But maybe I just don’t need doctoring.” He reached into his pocket and pulled on a pair of evidence gloves, grinning back at her.
Murdock clucked her tongue and pulled her helmet off; the rest of her was pretty too, angular lines giving her an almost regal look. ‘Handsome’, he supposed, was a better way to say it. Long auburn hair was pulled back into a severe bun, which furthered the fierceness of her look. Gray felt tempted to salute. Then she grinned at him again, and her handsomeness gave way to a very warm, approachable sort of beauty. “Well, you keep your old devil self on the case, I guess, lest you tempt me right into a supply closet before the coroner gets here.”
His desire to salute vanished, but his desire to grin didn’t. “Oh, I’d hate to be accused of encouraging fraternization, Officer, but I’ll take it as a point in my favor that you fear so.” And he left it like that, her chuckling to herself as she followed him – which he got the distinct feeling was a position that she enjoyed – to the back of the showroom where a black door led to the elevator. They were quiet as they went to the fourth floor, where the surgical suites were located. Like the room below this one was also stark and white, though in the way that hospitals were – the floors were made of no-slip tile, and the floor made up of wide corridors; they wound their way along past several operating and storage rooms, finally ending up at a recovery room where a wide band of holographic crime scene tape glowed serenely across the open doorway.
“It’s in here,” said Murdock, reaching over to the projector units that were adhered to either side of the band and turning them off. “After you, Detective.”
Gray nodded, and stepping past Murdock entered the recovery room.
The room was dark, being lit only by a pair of bar lights hanging overhead which threw wide spots upon the floor. By the door stood the silent black cylinder of the cleaning robot, no bigger than a trash can and its single red eye pulsating slowly in its forward surface like a dying heart. It had hunkered down on its wheels, making it look like some vaguely menacing piece of medical equipment that someone had forgotten to push all the way against the wall along with the rest of the beds and machines that lined the room.
Positioned in the center of the overlapping pools of greasy yellow light, like the culmination of some horrible Venn diagram, was the body of the victim – seated in the same pose as before, arms leaning forward, as if greeting the afterworld sun. Cuaron’s dusky skin was pale in death; he had been laid open as the others had been: his surgical coat and shirt neatly slit open, each scorched slightly along the edges of the opening, and a cavity of half-cooked meat and severed ribs remaining where the spine had been. The victim’s face was handsome, as was expected, and his black hair was neatly slicked back close against his scalp. His head lolled to the side, his dark eyes wide open and staring in different directions, going their different ways with the tremors that undoubtedly came with the removal of that vital trunk. Cut open alive, then, like Askew. No obvious wounds, either, but he crouched down over the body and screwed up his face as he looked into the doleful furrow that had been so expertly plowed.
“That’s probably the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” Kate said, heaving a sigh. “I mean it’s like he didn’t even put up a fight, you know?”
“You’d be right, Kate,” Gray said as he gently probed the walls of the furrow with his index finger. “But then again, nobody else has either.” The muscle had been cooked through, at least on the surface, just like everything else. He’d need to get the medical examiner’s report on the situation but he was pretty sure that the same weapon had been involved. Who the hell brought a cattle saw up to a place like this? No, that had to be something else. It didn’t fit anymore.
Carefully he eased his hands into the man’s pockets, coming up with a wallet, a pass card belonging to the building, and a key cylinder for a car. The key was for a Glory from the look the golden chevron logo on its endcap. An ID badge hung off the front of Cuaron’s coat, and Gray gently unclipped it so as not to disturb the body. Meanwhile Murdock watched in silence, looking as if the sight of him working both horrified and fascinated her. Uptown cops didn’t see a lot of murders, either, on account of civilized folks were too busy making money, spending money, and screwing each other in various ways that didn’t involve death. “Look around out there see if you can find anything of interest,” he told her, if only to give her something to do; he didn’t want her to have to stand around and stare at him, of all things.
“Right,” she said, and produced a palmlight from her pocket and cupped the flat plastic square in her hand. A beam of pale light shot across the floor of the storage unit as she turned and stepped out into the corridor.
Meanwhile, Gray rifled through Cuaron’s wallet. ID, multiple cashcards, pictures of a beautiful sun-haired woman and two small children. Damn it. He wasn’t expecting a family this time. There was a membership card to an Asahi Gym on Roy, and a miniature version of his medical license. A few bills of paper cash, small denominations only. No hot-loaded bills like Anderson, and certainly nothing immediately visible that would make him seem a madcase like Askew.
The ID was Cuaron’s, of course; he was a blandly handsome man, which made Gray think that he’d had some work done on himself as he recognized some of the features from the gallery examples downstairs. Nothing obvious on the wafer of plastic, so it was bagged as was the access card from the victim’s pocket. Then there was the key. A Glory was a fairly rare car in Seattle; high-performance sedans, Glory was a new manufacturer creating next-generation vehicles that finally provided complete liberation from burnable fuels. Well, shit. Gray knew that Askew didn’t drive a car from his file, and Anderson relied on taxis and corporate transport rather than take advantage of his corporate vehicle option. Was this part of a pattern? Possibly; he wondered where Cuaron had been of late. Gray would have to get Evidence to tap the computer in his car.
“Detective?” Murdock called to him from the doorway. Gray looked up, saw her frowning faintly. “Can you come look at something for a second?”
“Sure,” he said, and he got to his feet. “Everything all right?”
“I’m not sure…” She wiggled her palmlight at him; it was pointing downward, making the the light flick back and forth between them. “I think I’ve found something odd. Come with me.” She slid back around the doorway.
Gray dropped the key into an evidence bag and put it in with the rest in the field kit by the body. He brushed at the front of his jacket and followed her. “What is it?” he asked; she was sweeping the floor with the beam of her lamp, as if searching for something – and sure enough, something gleamed on the floor up ahead.
“Look at that,” she said, nodding toward the source of the glimmering; up against the wall something lay there, next to the hatch of a ventilation duct. It appeared to be a label of some kind.
With a grunt of interest Gray crouched down by what lay on the floor, a curl of laminated white plastic upon which bold letters had been printed. He recognized them; more to the point he recognized the message which they made up. He had seen it before, or least a fragmented part of it, on the ruined label of a canister of Dermaknit In the curious bathroom of Martin Askew.
BIOMEDICAL SUPPLY CLASS THREE
DERMAL REGENERATION AGENT
RETURN TO RENTON GENERAL HOSPITAL
“What is it, Detective,” asked Murdock, looking at his face rather than the label; he must have looked monstrous. He certainly felt it.
“It means, Officer Kate,” he said, “That my last victim was here, or at least we’re meant to think that he was.”
She was quiet a moment. “I don’t know what to say to that,” she finally replied.
“That’s all right,” he replied as he crab-stepped past the label and squinted at the vent cover. A soft hiss could be heard in the vicinity of the dull gray hatch, like air being squeezed out through a small opening; Gray waved his hand over the cover, felt cool air gently breezing in. Passive circulation, low pressure. Then he ran his fingertips back around where the hatch met the wall, felt cold air coming out in earnest. “Say, does this building use maintenance drones, do you know? I mean in the ventilation ducts?”
“I don’t think it does,” she said. “Why do you ask?”
“I think this hatch has been opened recently,” he replied. “Maybe this is where our murderer came from.”
Murdock wrinkled her nose. “What, through the ventilation shafts? Seems a little…dramatic, don’t you think?”
“There’s nothing about this case that isn’t dramatic,” Gray said, standing up now. “And I barely have suspects yet. Not live ones, anyway. Come on, let’s get Evidence down here and see what they can come up with.”
He spent the majority of the afternoon in the Vectra, waiting for Cinders to pick up the victim’s body and her evidence team to sweep the scene. It was extremely handy, really, for the coroner to work for the company; Carter used to talk about how King County used to have its coroner separate from the police force, without integrated records and the like. Sounded like an immense pain in the ass to Gray. With Civil Protection running things, he could sit in the car and do paperwork while they did the work, watching the reports come in realtime.
The first came from Kate Murdock, who logged in the statements taken from those few people who had been in the office that weekend. They had been about what he had expected – nothing informative, everyone saying the same thing. Gosh officer, I was working in my office all day, I didn’t see anything unusual coming in to the building. Meanwhile there’s a guy getting flayed downstairs. These people.
There was also nothing new where the victim was concerned. Megan Cinders had of course confirmed what he already knew – Cuaron had been killed the same way as Askew had been, with the blade itself, and he had been unzipped only after putting himself in his pose. She had told him that Askew had done the same as well. The depth of the wound was different this time, but Cuaron was of a slighter build than Askew and as deep a cut wasn’t needed. He had also been dead only about seven hours; rigor hadn’t set in for long before the body had been discovered.
Cuaron himself was a picture of uptown life: healthy, attractive, well-moneyed. And, as Gray discovered after looking into Cuaron’s background, newly single. He had no immediate family, his parents having died, no brothers or sisters, and as an immigrant no extended family had been listed either. His wife and children had been killed a year ago in a traffic accident coming home from her mother’s house in Oregon. More and more, he fit with the pattern: male, attractive, wealthy, and single with no traces behind him. Fit the pattern as well, now, as a secondary check of his background revealed that the sister that had been listed as alive was actually strangled in her bunk by another inmate while serving time on a shoplifting rap in the Denver city lockup. Oh, this was all very suspicious, it most certainly was! But aside from this pattern, what united them? More to the point, who the hell could get a man to put himself into that sort of a posture before knifing him like that? It wasn’t as if they were doing yoga back there, after all.
Gray had the phone dial up the tech that was in charge of the evidence collection team after Cinders had left with the body and requested that she go through its records. The company had generated warrants for the team to go over the entire boutique, inside and out, so this wasn’t a problem. He thought about the holograms in the gallery, how startling in quality they had been, and he asked Evidence to look for any mention of Alexis Donner or his gallery in the records as they went through them. They were also to sending drones through the ventilation system of the entire building, and that would take a bit. He wasn’t required to stick around while people did their work, and he was definitely looking forward to stopping by Angie’s place, but he felt like he was finally making some forward progress here; cutting out early to chase women wouldn’t look good, especially when the woman in question was so recently a person of interest in a homicide investigation. Man, it was a shame, though. He thought about how she sounded on the phone, and he wanted nothing more but to go over to her place and talk to her.
That’s all they’d do, right? Talk?
The phone console chimed. Gray touched the console to answer it. “Gray here.”
“Detective? Marian Saunders here. I’m heading up the evidence team.”
“Right, I remember you.” Saunders had handled cases he was involved in before. “What have you got for me?”
“Found something in the records, sir. You wanted to know if those holograms came from the Donner Gallery, right?”
“That’s right. I take it that you’ve found a correlation?”
Saunders paused a moment; he heard keys clacking softly in the background. “That’s right, Detective. Those holograms all came from the gallery, definitely. Artist was…”
“Martin Askew?” Gray leaned back in his seat, lacing his hands over his chest in thought.
“That’s affirmative.” More clattering on the keys. “Specifically the gallery was the facilitator. The actual arrangement was made between Askew and the victim only. Looks like the work was done just before the boutique started up last year.”
“What was the price involved?”
“….I don’t have any record of a price, actually,” she said. “Wait, here we are. Wow. How much did you say that this guy’s work went for?”
Gray grunted softly. “A good bit, why?”
“Because I have twenty-seven holographic sculptures here for a grand total of thirty thousand dollars.”
He sat up in his seat. “What? Are you sure you’re not reading it incorrectly?”
“Absolutely sure,” Saunders said. “Thirty grand only. Man, I’m not anywhere near art-conscious and that sounds wrong to me.”
“Because it is,” he replied. “Very wrong. I don’t have the figures in front of me but I can guarantee you that pieces of that quality could fetch that much each. See if you can find anything else, all right?”
“Will do. That’s not all I’m calling about, though. It’s about the vent, and the security cameras.”
“All right.” Gray’s back was a rod of iron, keeping him sitting straight up. “What did you find?”
“A bunch of Dermaknit,” she replied. “Some ten canisters of it.”
Unexpected, but fitting. Gray reached over into the field kit, which he had left sitting in the passenger’s seat, and extracted the tagged envelope with the label he’d recovered from the scene. “All of it past date, right? All from Renton General?”
“Exactly.” Saunders sounded a bit mystified. “What is the administrator of a plastic surgery boutique doing with expired biomedicals from an abandoned hospital? More to the point, a hospital that closed thirty years ago? Dermaknit wasn’t invented until ‘sixty-seven!”
Gray furrowed his brows. “I don’t know,” he said, and he hated to say it. “It’s got to have something to do with the murders. I want you to look into their procurement records, see if you can come up with something.” Askew, Donner and Cuaron – all three of them connected, and only two of them dead. “What about the cameras?”
“Cuaron had visitors the night before,” said Saunders. “The cameras show him going up to the door of the clinic, right? Then he takes out a remote and presses a button – and then the feed cuts out. And before you ask, it cuts out on all cameras in and around the ground floor. He’s not supposed to have access to the external cameras at least.”
“And when did this happen?” Gray was already buttoning up the field kit and securing it in the passenger-side footwell.
“About three hours before the estimated time of death.”
“Fantastic.” Gray reached for the wheel. “Thanks, Saunders. I’ll talk to you soon.” He killed the line and dialed up Murdock.
“I’m here,” she said, the picture of flirty cheer.
“I want you and Bradstreet up at the Donner Gallery,” he said, and rattled off the address. “Drop what you’re doing and back me up. I’m bringing somebody in, and if I’m not mistaken they’re not going to come quietly.”
“Sure thing,” she said, her voice snapping to. “What’s the charge?”
“No charges yet,” he said as the Vectra cleared the curb and began thundering away northward. “I’m getting a search warrant.”
Murdock sounded unsure. “I don’t understand.”
“I need you there for the warrant at least,” he said. “But I guarantee you, I know what I’m going to find.”
“All right, Detective,” she said, “We’ll see you there.”
Gray killed the call and told the car to dial Central. He’d need that warrant quickly, and he’d better be right – but he wasn’t worried. Not a bit. The weight of arrogance and ambition had worked in the favor of plenty of other detectives, and today it would work in his.
He’d get that new badge yet.