It's not fair, but it's true, that some deaths are more important than others. We ignore thousands of deaths in this city every day. But if the empress of One Of Our More Famous Universities is found face-down in a sparkle hall, that's news. Everybody's problem and everybody's business.
You might not be from around here. Slidewalks have a short corridor you have to pass through when you enter them. Locals call them "sparkle halls" because they sparkle. I don't know why. Maybe it's a side effect of the field. Maybe MRL was being whimsical when they designed them. While you walk through the sparkle hall, you hold up your pass card so the systems can scan it. If you don't, or it's not valid, about halfway down the hall you find you can't move forward any more. It's like the air gets thick, and it offers more resistance the harder you press. You can go backward just fine, so you're not trapped in there; every so often someone realizes they forgot to put more money on their card and they have to retreat shamefacedly to the fare machines.
Tiffany Dyson hadn't been able to produce a card. The consensus was that at the time, Tiffany Dyson had been doing well to be able to walk upright. She had multiple stab wounds and probably would have died on the slidewalk if she'd managed to make it in. She was in an entrance in a business district that got very little late-night traffic, and she'd died about three in the morning. Her death was observed on camera and MRL's safety response was there almost instantly, but it didn't matter, and all the footage showed was her staggering alone into the entrance. That entrance was nowhere near the university, which also meant it was nowhere near her home, or any part of her usual orbit. No one had offered any guesses on what she was doing there. Nor had anyone offered a remotely plausible motive—though there was no shortage of theories.
It was everybody's business, but at least it wasn't my problem. I hadn't been given a docket for it, and I was perfectly fine with that. I had closed twenty everyday cases—winos dead of gut rot in alleys, lovers shot in domestic disputes, grandmas found alone in cold houses with stopped hearts—during the same three days that half my co-workers had been flailing around playing Celebrity Whodunit. My personal bet was the Dyson thing was never going to be solved, unless someone unexpectedly grew a conscience and came forward.
It wasn't all that unusual for me to be asked to confer with the deputy superintendent for Homicide. I was one of a small group of at-large detectives, so my position was more strongly associated with the Homicide unit as a whole than a particular district. I had a captain, but the deputy super was no stranger. I didn't get suspicious until I saw they were both in the room, along with a woman I didn't know. The deputy super nodded at me and gestured to me to sit down. My captain remained standing and didn't look happy.
"Green," the deputy super said to me, "I'm detaching you temporarily on special assignment. This is Penumbra Collier. She's going to advise you on how to proceed."
That was apparently all he had. The captain said nothing.
"Is this a homicide investigation?" I asked.
"Ms. Collier will give you the details." Now that I considered it, the deputy super didn't look very pleased either.
I looked at both of them. They didn't want to make eye contact. Collier did, and smiled slightly. "Perhaps I can do a little better," she said. "There's an issue that needs to be investigated and your name was specifically mentioned as the right person for the job."
Specifically mentioned by someone fairly high up the food chain, apparently. Then the correct gear clicked into the correct position in my brain and I got it. "I see. Well, come with me, you can brief me as we go. Assuming we're dismissed."
On the way back to my desk I told her, "Not that I don't appreciate Liam Parker's regard for me, but this isn't going to win me any points around here."
"You shoot well in the dark," she said.
"There are very few people who can come to the police and just make something like that happen," I replied. "Besides, you're a meta. No one else but a meta would be named Penumbra."
"You can call me Penny. Do I call you Ms. Green? Would you prefer Detective?"
I don't know why I explain this, because even if you've been living on Ganymede for the last decade it's probably because MRL has decided to set up a colony there, but Liam Parker, who can do anything she wants and often does, is the boss of MRL, which provides us with metahumans and slidewalks and hoverbuses and bodymods and all the other things that make this city such an interesting and colorful place to live. By this point you might even have some of it in your own city. Don't worry, it's painless.
Two years ago I worked on a case with one of MRL's artificial intelligences. During that case I'd had occasion to meet Parker in person. I had assumed she'd forgotten.
Penny looked more or less normal. Beautiful, of course. Metas tend to be better-looking than the rest of us because they correct minor flaws and such when they convert, and they have the best genes MRL can give them. She was blonde, short straight hair in an unremarkable style, brown eyes, and was of average height et cetera. Nothing to report. Next time I was going to ask them to send me one who wasn't white.
"Whichever you like. What are we investigating?"
"A labor dispute," she said.
I stopped walking. "And here I thought Parker wanted me for something important."
"You don't think mistreatment of workers is important?" Damn it, she was amused.
"Of course it is, but I'm a homicide detective. I investigate murders. Why don't you go find a labor-relations specialist?" I figured such a thing probably existed; they have specialists for everything else.
"The main reason we wanted you," she said, "is that it seemed likely you would trust me. Because I'm going to have to ask you do to that. I'm aware this is strange. I can't say more than that, except that I don't believe your time is being wasted."
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. "All right. Tell me about this labor problem." Since it's clearly useless to try to get you to tell me what we're actually doing.
Boston Cryomatter was one of the hot tech firms that had started up in an effort to try to catch a little of whatever magic was keeping MRL thirty years ahead of everyone else's research. Most of those startups would fail horribly, since metas were the magic and they wouldn't work for anyone else. Boston Cryomatter, however, might actually have something. Or at least that was what my scientific contacts with lots of advanced degrees (I have exactly one such contact, and she'd explained it to me painfully over dinner one night) informed me. Something about genetically altered cells that did interesting things when the tissues were held at very low temperatures. I'm a police officer.
The boss of Boston Cryo was Tadeusz Schirow, and he was apparently an asshole. At least that's what his cleaning and maintenance crew told me. They weren't happy with the working conditions, and every time they complained to him about it, he responded with behavior that had gone from dismissive to threatening over the course of the last six months. But none of it was anything that justified intervention—yet. He hadn't laid a finger on any of them, nor hired anyone to do so, and none of the workers we interviewed claimed he had.
"Reassure me that my time isn't being wasted," I said to Penny after the ninth interview.
"Be patient," she said.
"Are you expecting something in particular?"
She didn't reply.
We did ten two-hour interviews in two days, which is two very long days of nothing if you do the math, and by lunch break on the third day, I'd had it. "I'm done. I don't know what you're really chasing but you can find someone else to chase it." I'd had to do all the talking; she insisted on it. I was tired of asking the same questions and getting the same information without even having anything interesting to get to the bottom of.
"Humor me. Just one more, all right?"
"One more just like all the rest of these?"
The next interview was a man pushing sixty named Charley Diaz. He worked nights and he was mostly concerned about after-hours conditions. Apparently there was a point when the building was supposed to have no activity so they could clean and go home, but Schirow's people were so dedicated—or something—that they were always around at odd times, which, Diaz was careful to note, was fine with him, but then Schirow needed to pay for true round-the-clock service.
"Ms. Jerome, the other night. Two-thirty. I almost finish that floor and she's in her lab with somebody. What's so important they have to do at that hour, eh? I go do another floor, I think I go back to check later. You miss a lab they yell at you. You don't do a lab exactly right, they yell at you. I come back later, she's gone, and she's left one of the red bags. So, okay, I can't leave that, they'd kill me. So I have to go deal with a red bag at three-thirty in the morning!"
"What's a red bag?"
"Oh, you know. Red. Has that sign on it. You have to be careful with those so they don't get opened. Take them straight to be burned. Carry them yourself. Can't go on a trash cart."
"What, like a biohazard or something?" He nodded. "Do you handle these red bags a lot?"
"Sure. We got special training, big deal, it's what I told you. Don't let them get torn, carry them yourself, straight to be burned. Don't get more money, of course."
I made it through the other two interviews after Diaz without killing Penny. But it was a near thing.
"Give me a better reason," I said.
"I'm not sure what you mean," she replied.
"You know exactly what I mean. Even a homicide detective can see you don't have a case here, and you know you never did, so this isn't really what I'm here for. And we're done with interviews now, right? So whatever it is you're actually trying to do, I'm not getting it. You said to trust you. Okay, I trust you, but I'm going to need a hint."
"Do you drink?"
The last two people I'd worked with from MRL also had that habit of conversing in a way that made you constantly wonder if you missed a step somewhere. Good to know they were consistent like that. "I've been known to."
"Let's go have a drink. And maybe some food."
She got bourbon on the rocks and I didn't see any reason why I shouldn't as well. She watched me for a few moments as we sipped.
"Why do you stay alone?" she asked. "You've had opportunities. Some of them, I think, you regret not having taken. I don't think you're scared to let someone in. It's more like you're protecting something. But I can't figure out what you think that is."
"I don't know," I said, "whether I should be annoyed at myself for being obvious or whether I should worry about whether you have mind-reading abilities."
"I do have mind-reading abilities," she said. "But I assure you that, first, I haven't gone very deep at all, and second, if I did, I wouldn't tell anyone what I'd seen there. We have strong rules. It's an assault to breach someone else's mind without their consent."
"Sounds like they've made a lot of progress in metahuman enhancements since the last time I was there," I said.
"This is why we wanted you. Because you would say something like that, instead of shouting or becoming angry or trying to hurt me."
"I don't know that I'm flattered."
"We're trying to help. But ... look, there are things I can't tell you. I probably shouldn't have told you I was a telepath."
"You don't want to prejudice the witness?"
"Something like that."
"All right, but I'm now at a point where I can't proceed. Your labor-relations story is bullshit, and we both know it, and now you think there's something I should have spotted that I haven't. I really do need a hint."
"I'm not sure I can give you one. Perhaps if you were to reexamine today's statements?"
I sighed. "If forced." I finished my drink and stood up.
"You don't want dinner?"
"I'm not feeling very sociable. Give me a day, then check with me again. Go back to MRL and tell Parker I'm kind of slow."
It was ridiculous, I told myself for the seventeenth time. It wasn't just that I was being asked to somehow work backwards from point B to some unknown point A. It was that I didn't have the slightest idea what point A was supposed to be.
There was something somewhere in someone's statement. That much I could safely assume. I would be willing, if I were playing the odds, to go further than that and say it was something in Diaz', because Penny struck me as the kind of person who chose her words precisely, and she hadn't said, "Just get through the rest of the day" or "just three more." She'd said "just one more." Diaz was the one she'd wanted me to hear.
All right. So what did we get from Diaz? A custodial team was being asked to do specialized laboratory cleanup, including proper disposal of biowaste, and while I agreed with Diaz that should carry higher pay, if they really did get proper training then there was no case there. Schirow was a jerk. Well, yes. I'd gotten that even before the first interview. Was he doing anything I could go after? Perhaps, but if so it wasn't obvious from Diaz' report. Schirow's people were in the labs at all hours. Given, but again, nothing to see there. What about this Jerome woman?
Damn it, why didn't I take up anybody on any opportunities?
I didn't need the distraction right now and I told the question to take a number and wait, but the rest of my brain wanted a discussion hour. Look, brain, it's a bad idea. Homicide detectives don't get to have relationships. We're all problematic. It's definitional. Proof: We talk to the insides of our own heads too much.
Shortly after lunch the next day, my captain called me in.
"If this is about the special assignment—" I began.
She shook her head. "And I'm not supposed to ask you about that, so don't tell me. Pendleton wanted to know why you pulled Janine Jerome."
"She was mentioned in a statement we collected and I was ... considering whether to interview her for supplemental. Needed her contact info. Why?" I asked carefully. If Pendleton saw that someone else had requested the info, then there was a watch on Jerome.
"All right. Never mind, then. Dismissed."
Nobody was telling anyone else a damned thing, then? Was that the rule now? I found Pendleton getting a cup of coffee.
"What's the deal with Janine Jerome?" I said.
"You're not on this case," he replied. He wasn't nasty about it, though. Pendleton was one of the more human detectives. You could have a conversation with him occasionally. If it had been Schwartz I wouldn't even have tried.
"I don't even know what case I'm not on," I said. "I looked her up so I could interview her and the captain called me in for it. What's up? I'm not stepping on your feet."
"Oh, well. It's a dead end anyway, like the rest of it. Jerome is one of the people that Tiffany Dyson had contact with during the three days before her death. All of them a complete waste of time. Friends, family, employees she'd never had so much as an argument with."
"Still no motive? Jerome was a friend of hers, then?"
"Years. They went to college together. Saw each other all the time. Had lunch together two days before Dyson died. Look, if you're planning to interview Jerome for some other reason—"
"Not a word, I promise."
I called Penny and she agreed to meet for dinner.
"I've decided I'm going to get one straight answer from you," I said. "So I'm going to ask you a question and you're going to tell me the absolute truth. I know you can do it."
She sighed. "It would almost have been easier if it had been a question about the case. Then you would have only ruined the case."
"I'm not going to hate you."
"I wasn't worried about me. All right. You avoid relationships because you believe no one capable of operating on your level will ever actually be interested in you. You don't want to think yourself judgmental, but if you're being honest, you're pretty sure not many people can keep up with you. I'm not making any judgments myself, you understand; I'm reporting what's in your head. For the record, I think you're probably right. You should come be a metahuman. We're more your speed."
"I've been told that."
"I would tell you why you ignore the advice, but you're already over quota. The Oracle is silent."
Our meals arrived. We distracted ourselves with that for a few minutes.
"The second-to-last relationship I had," I said, "was with a white woman who turned out, after a few months, to have actually been shopping for a Racially Aware trophy. I said fuck that and left. The last relationship I had was great, except she wanted me to stop being a detective because she was worried I'd get killed. I didn't blame her for leaving, but I also didn't quit being a detective. Also, it's difficult being a lesbian in my job. A lot of the men are the worst kind of beat-your-wife-every-night assholes. I'm past the point where I'd tolerate being in a serious relationship that I had to keep a secret."
She continued eating and had almost decided not to say anything. Then she changed her mind. She put down her fork.
"What we're learning," she said, "is that people fear telepaths mostly because they assume that the inner details of their lives are as interesting to everyone else as they are to them. They assume we want to snoop on their hates and their loves and their sex lives, because to them, that's what the world revolves around, and they can't imagine that those things could be almost completely uninteresting to someone else. Especially when you're in a position to see into so many people's heads. The situations and the fears and the concerns all quickly start to look alike. Even among us."
"Sorry for boring you," I said.
"I'm interested in you, don't get me wrong. I'm interested in your well-being. I'd like you to be happier. But you don't need me to tell you what's going on in your head. You're not that kind of person. You're perfectly aware of your drives, and if you do nothing about them, it's not because of ignorance."
"Maybe we should talk about the case instead," I said.
"Maybe we should."
"So Janine Jerome brought someone back to her lab, which is ten minutes' walk from the slidewalk entrance where Dyson was found. That neighborhood is fairly new development and doesn't have slidewalk entrances all over the place yet; that's the only one anywhere close. By the time Diaz came back to check on the office, Jerome and the other person were gone but someone had left him a biohazard bag to dispose of. That's an hour between his visits. Plenty of time for them to go down to the street, for Jerome to stab Dyson, for Dyson to make a run for it, for Jerome to see she wasn't going to live long enough to be trouble, get back into the office, put the knife and any bloody clothing into a bio bag which she knows no one is allowed to open, and get the hell out. Even if no one picks up the bag until the next day, big deal. Also, it was routine for most of them to keep changes of clothes in the lab. Spills and such."
"You've been busy," she said. She was smiling at me like I had done a math problem correctly.
"How do we prove it?"
Her smile vanished. She resumed eating her dinner.
"Oh, come on!"
"I can't," she said. She seemed genuinely upset. "I really can't. Ideally, I wouldn't even be here at all, we wouldn't have any conversations, you'd be on the trail without my ever saying anything that anyone could point to—"
"Because you can't use me in court," she said. "Or anything that you couldn't have gotten from anywhere else but me. Nothing that came from telepathy. It has to be a plausible trail of evidence that you could have reasonably been expected to follow there on your own. It will be bad enough coming up with a reason why I was tagging along on the case with you."
"All right. I don't understand, but all right. But that leaves me up a tree. I don't know how to connect the dots."
"Give it time," she said. "I'm sure you'll get it."
I was able to get an appointment with Liam Parker for the next afternoon, which confirmed my suspicions about how actively she was following my progress.
She swept into the conference room, tall and blithe and looking completely unchanged from the last time I'd seen her two years ago.
"Sergeant Detective Green," she said.
"It's Lieutenant Detective now," I replied, "which is even worse. I am formally requesting an interval of surveillance footage from your slidewalk entrance and the slidewalk areas immediately adjacent designated as ... oh, hell, it's on the papers, here. You know which entrance I mean."
"We already gave that to the police," she said, poker-faced as ever.
"That was for around three o'clock, time of death. I want the stuff between, say, one-thirty and two-thirty. Somewhere in there should be Dyson and Jerome arriving. They didn't come in a car. Jerome left in a taxi, which she had to call because by then your people were all over the slidewalk entrance and she couldn't get through even if she'd brazened it out, but they didn't dare come in one. Someone might find the taxi driver and ask him questions."
"Well done," she said.
"Yeah, I do okay being dragged around on a leash," I replied. "I don't mind telling you that this is the damnedest charade I've ever been in. Find a solution, then invent a math problem that gets that answer. Next time find a different marionette."
She pursed her lips. She hadn't sat down, but now she did. She took her time considering what to say before she spoke.
"As of today, there are one hundred metahumans with psi abilities of some sort. Please don't share that. We're learning that it breaks down into various specializations. Most have at least a little bit of telepathy. Some are very strong at it. Some seem to be strongest at kinetics. Some are what we're calling "constructors"—they can manifest auditory and visual illusions, sometimes quite realistically. We have one young woman who is a kinetic, but at the molecular level, and a few other oddities.
"By this time next year, if we keep pace, the number of metahumans with psi abilities will be several thousand. At some point in the not-very-distant future, having psi abilities, including almost always at least some moderate amount of telepathy, will be the norm for metahumans. And we won't be able to keep it a secret.
"How do you suppose the rest of the world will react to that?"
"I agree. So we have to smooth the road wherever we can. That mostly means trying not to have the rest of the world be terrified that we'll spill their secrets. If telepathic evidence is admissible, then that fight is lost. People will be too scared that we'll tattle on the petty things to allow us to be any help fixing the big things. We won't be able to offer even the sort of assistance we offered you, because we'll be in hiding and possibly fighting for our lives. I don't want there to be a war, Detective. But I do intend to keep making more metahumans, and that means more psis. The benefits are too much to pass up."
"So we keep doing this? You spot that something bad has happened, you know who did it and why, and you have to help us pretend to get there the long way?"
"I'm afraid so," she said. "Even if we end up with a metahuman police force I suspect the game will still be necessary. Until—"
I waited. She considered it, then shook her head and stood up again. "I'll have those materials to your office within the hour. They're still not going to be absolute proof, you know. With any luck, though, they'll be enough to get Jerome to confess."
I stood up as well. "This seems like it might have been personal for you."
"It was," she said. "I'd known Tiffany since before this company existed. I was supposed to have dinner with her the night after she died."
"I'm sorry," I said.
"So am I," she replied, and left.
You'll be wondering about motive.
It's a funny thing: you think personal vendetta is the easiest motive to spot, but in the right circumstances, it can be the hardest. I mean, if someone gets killed because they trashed someone else's drug cartel or because they were in the way of collecting on the insurance policy, those things tend to leave enough of a trail that you can pick up on them. The same goes for the close hatreds—wife kills husband after vicious argument and things like that—and fortunately most of the vendetta crimes are in the family, where it's easy to spot. But you could have someone come along with an old hurt, maybe a very old hurt, and you'd never know to look for it.
Tiffany Sharpe had married Paul Dyson while they were still in college. Before they got together, Paul Dyson had been in a pretty serious relationship for two years with Janine Jerome, who also happened to be a good friend of Tiffany Sharpe. Janine apparently had never let anyone see the part of her that hated Tiffany for stealing Paul, the part that continued to bear a grudge even though the two of them remained good friends, even after Paul's early death (to natural causes, I should add).
I can't say what suddenly pushed Jerome into murder. None of us can say that. Maybe she brought Dyson to the lab to talk it out and the talk didn't go well. People are very strange.
I've been thinking a lot lately about the sentence Parker didn't finish. Surely you can fill it in. She certainly knew I could.
What she meant to say is "Until most of the world is metahumans."
I have a lot of days now where I wonder if that would be so bad.
Copyright © 2017 by Douglas Todd. All rights reserved.
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