There's a category of objects that have no message but status. "You can tell I'm well off because I have this." Nicholas Buonaforte's apartment was done entirely in that style. I didn't like it, and I was pretty sure I wouldn't have liked him either, when he was alive.
He'd fallen—or been pushed—and his slide across the kitchen floor ended when his skull hit the corner of the stove. That was cause of death, but not the cause of his other injuries. "Two ribs fractured, one of them complete," said the tech absently. Jaded. "Left ulna complete fracture. Lots of bruises. Minor lacerations."
"From some of this stuff being thrown at him?" The apartment was a wreck—furniture overturned, scattered shards where walls had been hit by dishes that broke, holes where they'd been hit by skillets that didn't.
"Maybe. The rib and arm were more likely when he got tossed through the wall, if he was the one who got tossed." He gestured toward the gaping hole in the living room, open all the way through to the bedroom, trashed drywall on both sides, big enough to expose most of two studs. One of the studs looked a little off straight. "He had to have been hit hard; could have done the rib. If we figure he got thrown into the wall spine first, that stud is exactly where his left arm would have hit it."
I went to take a closer look. I could step through the hole without needing to do more than duck my head. Other residents had reported a domestic disturbance, two people shouting, but the fight hadn't reached the bedroom, apart from the hole. The bed was made, not neatly, and someone had lain on it since then. An object in the wastebasket caught my eye. I picked it up, stared at it until I recognized it, and brought it into the kitchen.
"Does his skin look strange?" I asked the tech. "I mean, under the circumstances."
"Burst blood vessels. Ma'am." I hadn't worked with this tech before; the pause was him deciding how to address me and whether I was intimidating. Some detectives probably never spoke to him. "Might be unrelated."
I handed him the object. "Isn't this one of those needleless syringes?"
"Huh. Yeah. Used and unlabelled." He'd concluded I was harmless.
"Check for marks?"
"These barely leave any. I'll tell them to do a real close look back at the lab."
"Tell them to do toxicology too."
One perk of the Status Apartment is there's a front desk. Don't want the wrong kind of people getting in. The clerk's face suggested he didn't love police officers. That, or he didn't like my color. I didn't care which. "You've been on duty all evening?" I asked. He nodded.
"Two visitors to 605," he said. "One at 8:30 and one at 8:55. First one was here about twenty minutes; just missed the other one. The second one couldn't have been in there five minutes—up and right back down again."
Not enough time for the shouting fight. Maybe the first visitor had been the shouting fight. "Can you describe them?"
"First one had red hair, done up in some kind of fancy knot. Blue eyes. Freckles. Not too tall. Late twenties maybe? Might have just looked young. They usually do."
"What 'they' is that?"
"Oh, well ..."
"This is a police investigation."
"It's not like that. It's just, I can't prove it, but I'd bet you they were both metas."
"Ever met one? They look at you like they're taking you apart. Also, they always act like they own the place."
"So because they weren't intimidated by you, you assume they're metas?"
He shrugged. "Suit yourself. The second one was taller, more solid, short black hair shaved on one side, dark eyes."
"More solid? Do you mean bigger, more muscular, more masculine, what?"
"Masculine, hell. If they're metas, who can tell? The first one looked like a librarian and the second looked like she could kick my ass. How's that?"
"That can't be all you've got," I said. "Do they sign in or anything? Show an ID?"
"Oh, sure, I've got names. First one signed in as Alice Wright. The second one, Anastasia Romanov." He gave me a look to show he got the joke and I gave him one back to show that I got it too and wasn't amused.
"Had you seen them before?"
"Not on my nights, which is most nights, and he doesn't get a lot of visitors. Just his girlfriend." He made a face. "She hasn't been here tonight."
"You don't like her."
"Oh, no! She's great. He was an asshole. She should do better. Go ahead, put me down as a suspect."
"Maybe if no one else volunteers. Give me everything you have on the girlfriend and I'll leave you alone."
I paid a quick visit to learn that Chastity Clark, the girlfriend, either wasn't at home or wasn't answering her door, then called it a night because I didn't think I'd get far with MRL at ten-thirty pm.
I would have ignored the security clerk's theories but for the syringe. Needleless syringes, especially unlabelled ones, came from MRL. So did metahumans. It wasn't the greatest lead in the world, but it was almost all I had. A little research had found no one else with a useful connection to Nicholas Buonaforte. He did something incomprehensible in high finance, had no immediate family, and his boss seemed to barely know him.
I was a little embarrassed giving the second name to the MRL receptionist when it was such an obvious fake, but to my surprise it was that name, not Alice Wright, which led to a "just a moment, please" and some fast typing on the computer I couldn't see below the countertop. Five minutes later, I was gestured to a door on one side of the lobby.
It was a small conference room, not much bigger than the table and four chairs in it. Thirty seconds after I'd decided I might as well sit down, a different door opened and Liam Parker herself entered the room, taller than life. I might have made a surprised grunt, which is bad because I'm supposed to sound like I always know what I'm doing.
"You have a badge, I presume," she said, sitting down across from me. I handed it to her. She barely looked at it before handing it back. "Sorry. There have been impostors. What is your interest in Anastasia Romanov ... is the title 'Sergeant Detective'? That's unwieldy."
"'Detective' is fine. There's really an Anastasia Romanov here? I was coming mostly to look for Alice Wright."
"'Alice Wright' is a standard pseudonym, Detective Green. Old joke about always giving the Wright name. Anastasia Romanov is a real person. Three people, actually. I know you're listening, Anastasia."
A woman appeared—I mean materialized, from nowhere—standing behind Parker's chair. Glossy black hair in a pageboy, black bushy eyebrows, and dark eyes. She looked completely solid. My synapses finally fired. "Oh! You're the AI. But you couldn't have been on the scene. Someone must have used your name."
"Am I to understand that Anastasia is a suspect in a criminal investigation?" Parker said smoothly. Like the clerk had said, she was looking at me like she was taking me apart; in fact, she knew everything about me and wasn't impressed with any of it. All of this was in her eyes. The rest of her face was carefully free of any emotion at all.
"That's premature. We have a deceased person who may or may not have been murdered. Someone who gave that name was likely the last person to see the deceased alive. If it was a murder, then yes, she's a suspect. But obviously if your Anastasia is an AI ..."
"I've noticed that often when people say 'obviously,' it turns out to be something that isn't obvious at all. Yes, AIs spend much of their time in data; that's their job. Their ability to do tens of thousands of simultaneous tasks is the sole reason to go to the expense of building one. But they're also human, and like all humans—or at least the ones with tolerable lives—they like to go out and have lives too. Have fun. Interact with others. So we also build them physical bodies."
You may question that, which probably means you don't live around here. If you were constantly surrounded by slidewalks and liquid computers and all MRL's other wonders, you'd understand why Liam Parker could say "Oh, yes, we felt that death was an intolerable limitation, so we solved it," and you'd nod your head and not doubt it.
"I'm going to need to ask you some questions," I said to Anastasia.
"Not me," she replied. "I haven't been to anyone's apartment, and I was on duty last night."
"You know I don't like any of you working doubles, Nat," Liam said.
"I didn't say it was last night," I said.
"Yes, you did, at the front desk," Anastasia said.
"Anastasia hears all and sees all. Almost. Don't worry," Parker said. "She is extremely strict about confidentiality."
"What kind of hair did she have?" Anastasia asked me.
"You got a description, I'm sure. Long hair or short?"
"Oh. Short. Shaved on one side."
"Tasha," Parker said. "Where is she now, Nat?"
"She swapped with me last shift and Anna next shift. She didn't say where she was going."
"That's convenient," I said.
Nat shrugged. "Anyway, she's not in the complex right now."
"You do suspect her," Parker remarked to me.
"There was a fight in the victim's apartment. Someone was pushed through a wall—completely through, very hard. So hard most people probably couldn't do it. I bet AI bodies are pretty strong? It wouldn't be like you to make them less than excellent at everything."
Parker smiled. Just a little, at the corners of her mouth. "No, it wouldn't, would it? But AIs are metahumans too, and like all metahumans, they dislike killing. We think it's wasteful. We might well throw someone through a wall whom we thought deserved it, but we tend to be very careful about not actually murdering anyone."
"I'll remember. But it also occurs to me that you wouldn't be happy to see one of your AIs on trial for murder. Bad publicity."
"To say the least," she replied, "but I wouldn't stand in the way of the process if she were guilty. Nat, you have nothing else?"
"She kept it to private memory," Nat replied. "But if I had to guess I'd say it was something to do with Amyamy."
This was clearly news to Parker, who raised an entire eyebrow.
"Amyamy?" I said.
"When someone undergoes metahuman adaptation, they often choose a new name. We don't judge," Parker said drily. "Amyamy Salcinetti. A neurochemist. Go on, Nat."
"She was up to something Tasha didn't approve of," Nat said, "but I don't know whether she was going with Amyamy for support or trying to keep Amyamy from doing something."
"Where is Salcinetti now?" I asked. "And by chance is she a redhead with blue eyes and freckles?"
"Also not in the complex," Nat said.
"And yes," Parker added.
With MRL a dead end for the moment, I went to check on Chastity Clark again. She still wasn't there, but as I was walking away, a woman passed me. She was Nat's twin—except for the hair.
"Tasha Romanov," I said.
She turned, surprised. "Yes?" she said.
I showed her my badge. "You went to Nicholas Buonaforte's apartment last night," I said, wondering how badly I'd be outmatched if I had to subdue her.
"Yes." She continued to the door to ring the bell.
"She's not there. Did you kill him?"
"I certainly hope not. I threw him through a wall and left. I didn't check to see if he was still breathing. If he wasn't, then it was self-defense. He attacked me. Look, if you'd like to talk to me about this, that's fine, but I'm trying to find someone and it's important, so you're going to have to wait."
"Who are you trying to find?"
She was as poker-faced as Liam Parker. "Who'd you talk to? Come on, I have another place to check. You can interrogate me on the way."
The other place was a long trip west. We'd already been standing on the fast side of the slidewalk for a few minutes when Tasha said, "Well, go ahead, interrogate."
"I can't tell at all," I said. "So much for the Uncanny Valley."
"You could x-ray me and you'd know."
"Does it feel different from when you're in data or whatever she called it?"
"This isn't what I expected to be asked about," she said.
Nor was it any way to begin an interrogation. "Sorry."
"We can't take all that knowledge out with us. We pick a small set to upload when we go physical. So I'm still me, but I don't have access to things the way I do when I'm in data. I can look information up, but it's not the same as having it right there. And when I go physical I can only do a couple of processes at the same time."
"Some of us are lucky if we can manage one," I said. "If you didn't kill Buonaforte, who did?"
"How should I know?" she replied. "Maybe I did kill him. Are you going to arrest me?"
"I probably should," I said, "just on the basis of general disrespect for the law. You're not quite passable yet; you don't react enough."
"I know the reactions, I just usually don't bother. Move left, our exit's coming up."
There was no one home at the house where she knocked on the door. She knocked several times. "She works nights; she should be home now." Tasha sighed. "Well, that's my last idea. All Amyamy's other friends I know about are metas. She doesn't have any family except her sister."
"Then let's go see the sister."
I finally got a reaction: she was puzzled. "Oh. Why were you looking for Chastity?"
"Because she was Buonaforte's girlfriend?"
"Really? Amyamy didn't tell me that. That's interesting."
"Chastity is Amyamy's sister. Do you think it's worth trying her again?"
"OK," I said, "let me sort all this out. Sorry, I'm not a metahuman, so it takes me a while."
"You don't like metas," she said.
"Perfect, superintelligent, multi-sexed, and smug? Why on earth would I dislike them?"
She snorted. "We're not perfect, that'd be boring. And we're not superintelligent, we just pay more attention."
"Says the AI."
"I'm not. I can just do a lot of things at once when I'm in data. We're not all jacks either. At least I don't think so. Though I've never been in bed with a meta who wasn't."
"You didn't say anything about smug," I said.
She shrugged. "It's a good life."
We went back to the slidewalk, with no destination in mind. I felt like the whole thing was drifting somewhere I hadn't planned, but on the other hand, it was more interesting than the murder investigation. "Are you a jack?" I asked.
"That's very personal," she said, but she wasn't offended. "I am. They didn't want me to feel left out. I heard that particular bit added a hundred thousand to the cost." She smiled. "But I haven't verified that. My turn to ask you a question. Why is that the one thing non-metas are always fixated on?"
"Come on," she said. "MRL is thirty years ahead of the rest of the world in I don't know how many fields—biology, genetics, materials science, you name it. The person who runs the company is a genius. She gives good speeches. She's politically canny. She's great on TV. She plays four instruments. She's almost unbelievable. And what do people want to know about her? What she has under her skirt. Last year she went onto a science program to talk about our work on neuroreceptor chains, and the host wanted to ask her about the physical mechanism of her genitals."
"Last year," I said, "my sister had a daughter. We were discussing names a couple of months before the kid was born. One of the names she was thinking about was Liam. I said Liam wasn't a girl's name and she said, 'These days it is.'"
She studied my face.
"It doesn't bother me personally," I said. "I spent years fighting assholes who hated me because of my skin. I'm not one of them and gender's no different. But you can't just take apart an idea and expect everyone to go gracefully."
"Even if it's a bad idea?"
"Doesn't matter," I said. "People like to have some solid ground ... hang on." My phone was ringing. "Green," I answered, listened for two minutes, then hung up. I looked at her.
"What?" she asked.
"The problem is, I don't know what you know."
"You can always arrest me. I'm not running."
"You could kick my ass, and we both know it. But, yeah, I know you don't care. You didn't even bother giving a fake name. That was toxicology. They found a drug in Buonaforte's system that they can't identify; they can't even speculate what it does. They've never seen anything like it. Traces of the same stuff were in the empty syringe I found. A needleless syringe."
"Does sound like us," she said.
"Liam Parker said Salcinetti was a neurochemist."
"Sure. But Amyamy wouldn't have given Nick drugs. She wouldn't give out experimental drugs to anyone, unless it was an approved test, and definitely not to him. She didn't like him. I don't know how she knew him; I guess through Chastity. But she was pissed off at him and she was going to ... confront him about something. I thought this was a bad idea."
"Was she angry enough to kill him?"
"We don't kill people."
"But you were worried."
"I was worried she'd get hurt. She knows how to fight but ... you know, maybe he had guns. Maybe he was coked up. I just figured, let me come along as backup if nothing else."
"But she didn't, and you followed her, and got there too late."
"Yes, and he was raging angry about something and he started screaming incoherent things at me. I turned around to leave, since Amyamy wasn't there, and he charged at me and I threw him through the wall. Where are we going? That was the exit back there, if we were going to Chastity's."
"I wasn't paying attention," I said. "Is it worth asking at MRL—" Tasha was staring at a point past me, though when I turned to look there was nothing there. Then she refocused.
"Move off, we're turning around," she said. "I know where we're going."
"You got a message from the beyond."
"My phone is internal. I got a message from Amyamy."
"My mother had weird ideas about names and she named us Amity and Chastity. I think she was hoping we'd have those traits. A friend called me Amyamy in college and I decided I liked it. He was a real asshole and I'm not sorry. You probably want to know about the drugs."
Amyamy was one of those people whose conversational flow made complete sense to her and felt like random teleportation to everyone else. I needed a moment to work out who the 'he' was. "What aren't you sorry for?"
"For killing him. Go ahead, take me to jail. I bet I can get off."
"Tell me about what happened," I said, motioning Tasha not to speak.
"My sister is bipolar. Like, real bad bipolar. 'Pretty much ruined her life' bipolar. We've been working on drugs for mental illness. We've gotten where we can pick out really specific chemical conditions and soon we'll be able to make a drug that's customized for one person, so we can say 'Hey, you have a little too much of this and not enough of that'—"
"Amyamy," Tasha said.
"Oh, sorry. But isn't that cool? Anyway, we're usually pretty strict about that but I had a drug which was exactly right for Chastity and she really needed it so I arranged for her to be a test subject, kinda, and I brought her three months' supply of the stuff. And Nick took it!"
"Why did Nick even want it?" Tasha asked.
"It's supposed to be taken when you're in the low phase. It buffers out, so it not only makes you less depressed but also makes the backswing less severe. But if you take it and you're not depressed I guess it makes you really euphoric? Or at least that's what it did for Nick. He said it was better than X and he stole the whole supply and wouldn't tell her where he'd put it. Anyway, Chastity didn't tell me he took it, but I noticed she'd gotten really down again and that's not supposed to be happening, and if it was then my drugs weren't working and obviously I needed to know that!"
"So you went to go make Nick give the drugs back," I said.
"Yes. And you know what he said? He said he might give me the drugs back if I had sex with him."
It's hard to conceal that you don't want to say something when you suddenly go from fifty words per breath to two. "I need to know exactly what happened, Amyamy."
"He deserved it."
"I'm sympathetic. But I can't even start to make a case in your favor unless I have all the information."
"Well ... the thing is, if he hadn't been such a jerk I might have considered it. But he was smirking at me and I was like, 'Okay, dude, I know what will really tick you off.' So I undressed, and I played with myself a little while he watched because I wasn't even remotely in the mood, and then I extended and said 'You ready, asshole?' or something like that."
Tasha laughed. Just once, quickly, but the sound was so unexpected it startled me.
"I think you mean something by 'extended' I'm not getting," I said.
Amyamy gave me a confused look. "Well ..."
"She means she let out her penis," Tasha said. "All that talk about jacks and you don't know how they work? We have an extra set of muscles which allow the clitoris and its supporting structure to be pulled together and extended from the body; the clitoris expands somewhat in the process, forming a glans—"
"OK, I get it."
"There are two kinds of people," Amyamy said. "One kind, you say 'I'm a jack' and they're like, 'Ooh, can I see?' The other kind, you tell them you're a jack and they get really angry."
"Sometimes they even try to kill you," Tasha said.
"I'd have kicked his ass, Tasha. I knew he'd be the second kind. I wanted to piss him off. But then he started to get red. I mean physically red, like something was wrong. Then he froze up and fell on the bed. And his heart wasn't beating. See, what I hadn't realized, he had taken some of the drug, probably just before I got there. When I made him mad, it ... overloaded him, I guess. It wasn't something we prepared for; the people it's supposed to be for are usually so down that losing their temper like that isn't an issue. It's important data, though. We'll have to work on that. Anyway, so, that means I killed him. If I hadn't deliberately made him angry, he wouldn't have gone into cardiac arrest."
Tasha looked at me. I nodded. "Amyamy, he was alive when I got there a few minutes later," she said.
"I'm assuming you didn't try to revive him," I said. "How long were you in the apartment after he collapsed?"
"Five minutes, tops," Amyamy said. "I could see the box of drugs in the bathroom. I grabbed it and put my clothes on and got out. I know, I should have called 911 or something. But what were they going to do? He was dead!"
"Apparently he recovered," I said. "All right. You didn't kill him. But ... hmm. Neither of you threw anything—besides him, I mean, Tasha? And you weren't there long enough for it anyway. There's a person missing." I considered it a bit longer. "I think I know who. Tasha, come with me."
"What about me?" Amyamy asked.
"I'd prefer you didn't," I said. "Don't skip town."
Tasha was smiling as we got on the slidewalk, like she knew a good joke. "What?" I asked.
"You've gone from thinking I was a murderer to trusting me more than Amyamy, in less than four hours."
"You're more ethical than Amyamy."
"That's an interesting word. Where are we going?"
"To find someone who hasn't been honest with me."
"Amyamy is a good person," Tasha said. "She just doesn't always think things through when she's not working."
"You two are in a relationship, I take it?"
"Another interesting word. We don't quite use it the way you do. But yes. One of several."
"Do you enjoy sex?"
She tilted her head as she looked at me, like a dog does when it's bewildered. "Very much. It's the main reason to bother with this body, if I'm honest. Why do you ask?"
"You lied to me," I said to the night clerk. I hadn't actually laid hands on him, but that was only because he was half-asleep and terrified and I felt I already had enough of an advantage. "You said there was no visitor after Tasha, last night. But there was. Was it Chastity?"
"You and she were good friends, weren't you?"
"Not good enough," he said. "She wouldn't listen to me. She knew what a jerk Nick was, but she wouldn't dump him, I don't know why. He made her miserable! Last night she went up to try to get back something of hers he stole, and he just about tried to kill her!"
"Guess Amyamy didn't tell Chastity she was going," I said to Tasha. To the clerk I said, "You realize she may have killed him."
"She didn't! It was an accident! He rushed her and he fell and hit his head and he didn't get up!"
"She told you all this."
"Yeah, of course, right after. When she came back down. Don't look at me like that! She didn't kill him, and you'd have put her in jail!"
"I really should put you in jail. You know that, right?" He gave me an absolutely panicked look. "But you can redeem yourself."
"You're such good friends. Maybe she told you where she is?"
"I didn't kill him," Chastity said.
She was a paler, taller version of Amyamy, though some of the paleness may have just been poor condition. Judging from her eyes, she hadn't slept the previous night.
I was feeling tired too. But in my case it was strictly situational. "Go on," I said.
"Not much to say," she said. "I went to go get something he took from me. He yelled something about sending bitches with dicks to kill him and rushed me. He was messed up. I don't know if he even realized it was me. His skin was all red and he was breathing funny. He kept trying to come at me, but he could barely walk, so he was easy to dodge, and that made him madder. He was throwing stuff and yelling and I was yelling back, and then when I ran into the kitchen, he tried to charge me from the doorway, but he tripped, and he hit the stove and he didn't get up."
"All right," I said. "Thanks. I have your number. Don't do anything stupid." I got up. Tasha was giving me the weirdest look, but she got up too and followed me out.
"That's it?" she asked.
"I'll push for death by misadventure," I said. "No one is actually going to give a shit. I just needed to have it all mapped out."
"You're an unusual person," she said.
"When AIs take over the world, I guess people in my job won't matter. You'll work it all out amongst yourselves and not tell anyone."
"AIs won't take over the world. We're too expensive. There'll never be that many of us. What'll happen is metas will become more like AIs. We're working on that."
"Great," I said.
"You only act like that because you're on the outside," she said. "Come on in. The water's fine." We approached the slidewalk. "Am I free to go? Should I not leave town?" Her smile was not quite mocking.
"Beat it," I said. "Don't kill anybody."
"I'll try not to," she said, and she stepped on the slidewalk and was carried away.
Copyright © 2017 by Douglas Todd. All rights reserved.
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