The call came in at 19:20. I was one knife cut away from enjoying my first sit down supper in two months when my hand computer, or HAC, went crazy. Captain Scott sent the message personally which meant a complicated assignment, one he didn’t feel like trusting to dispatch. It meant long nights and a stiff neck.
I paid for my meal, had it boxed up and headed to my vehicle to call in. A holographic screen superimposed over the windshield as I established contact. Captain Scott’s image flickered to life, his close cropped brown hair flecked with gray. His tired expression made him look worn, another bad sign. He was typically unflappable.
“Sorry to interrupt your evening, Gates. This one’s right up your alley.”
“Ouch.” I settled into the seat and engaged the call recorder. “Give me the particulars.”
“Sending them through now. The victim was Count Anzel Clarion. Do you know him?”
“Only by reputation,” I replied, “He was a cause guy if I recall. Always trying to make a difference. Am I the liaison?”
“It’s all you...for now.”
My professional hackles went up. “What exactly does for now mean?”
“This is high profile, Taylor and other directors will want in. How soon, I can’t say but it’s going to happen. I’d guess you’ve got...five hours before you’ll have to collaborate.”
“Will I still be lead?”
“I can’t guarantee that but I’ll fight the battle to keep you in charge if I have to.”
“Thanks. Looks like the file downloaded. I better get to work.”
“I recommend checking out the scene ASAP. The forensic team should be on site.”
“Who is the ME on this one?”
“Oh, I like Barry well enough. He’s one of the few MEs that don’t give me crap for being a woman.”
“Chivalry’s not entirely dead, huh?”
“Nah, it’s probably in its death throes but for now, we can rely on it to convulse in the right direction occasionally.” I brought up the file and dialed in the address to my AI. “I’ll let you know when I’m done. Gates out.”
Anzel Clarion had been in trouble with the law a couple times, mostly during big marches where he thought his voice could be loudest amongst the protestors. Unfortunately for him, his bravado far outweighed his influence. Those in the know figured his inheritance might alter his fortunes.
In a tragic way, they were right.
“Vita, set a course for the scene. What’s our ETA with traffic and sirens?”
“Fifteen minutes, detective.” The computer’s voice had a soothing female tone with a posh Albion accent. The manufacturer modeled her after our nobility and the voice actress nailed an inflection of bored superiority. “Based on current traffic reports that is.”
“Fine. Get us moving while I study the report.”
My police cruiser was a modified air car near to military spec. It could nearly break atmosphere before the engines shut down and in a pinch, the speeds it could achieve were terrifying. Thankfully, Vita was a fantastic driver and I trusted her with my life. I didn’t think my own reflexes would be sufficient for maneuvering one of those things at full throttle.
Vita was the name of the operating system, a play on the ancient Terran word vitae, meaning life. I suppose they thought they felt ironic giving an artificial intelligence program such a moniker but it actually fit. I could carry on complex conversations with the AI and she made it hard to remember she wasn’t a person.
I strapped in as we took off and brought the file up on the windshield. I wanted a brief history of Anzel, a sense of who he was before I set foot in his flat. Murder was not uncommon but very few nobles were killed in mysterious ways. Duels were the standard cause of death in both male and female aristocrats.
Anzel’s file was thin. It showed minor legal troubles, above average academics and a modest lifestyle from the trust fund of his grandmother. His inheritance put him in the top twenty percent of the wealthiest people in the capital. His mother passed away before he turned ten and his only next of kin lived out in the middle of the frontier.
It would take over a week for a light com to reach them.
If it weren’t for a few friends left over from school, the recently appointed count would have been all alone.
“Detective,” Vita said. “There’s a call coming in from Haily.”
“Damn it...” I thought about ignoring it and calling her back but mother could be dangerously perseverant when she wanted to reach me. Once she made an embarrassing line of inquiry all the way up to Captain Scott who still occasionally teased me about it two years after the fact. “Go ahead and patch her through.”
When the line went live, mother’s image appeared in front of me. We shared the same blue eyes but her hair was darker. I got dad’s lighter brown. The biggest difference between us involved our figures. She put on a few pounds and I worked out religiously, maintaining narrow cheeks and a tone frame.
I started the conversation.
“Hello, Mum...what’s going on?”
“What’s going on she says?” My mother’s indignant tone held some renown throughout my family. If there were enough recordings of it, archaeologists would surely study those inflections for years without understanding just how she did it. A touch of nasal, a little crack on the long vowels and a thickening of her accent pretty much summed it up. I might’ve inherited it but I was unwilling to find out.
“Yeah...you beamed me, remember?”
“Me own daughter hasn’t beamed for weeks and I’m asked what’s going on? I’d like to ask you that question, young lady. What is going on? Where’ve you been?”
“Working,” I replied. “You remember the whole career thing. The one ensuring I have no life, few friends, less sleep and a dash of anxiety?”
“It’s indecent!” Mother said this to someone else in the room, having moved the com unit away from her mouth temporarily. “Your father’s worried.”
“He’s worried or you’re worried? Those are two entirely different things you know.”
“Don’t get cheeky with me, darling. Have you any prospects?”
Mother probed about boyfriends like some people would ask about jobs. When she inquired if I had any prospects, what she was really getting at involved men. Few of them were in my life and she would have liked to change that. She would’ve merrily hooked me up on blind dates until I was married and expecting if I let her.
“When do you think I’d meet one of these prospects?” I asked. “A suspect? A fellow officer? That sounds healthy. What about a snitch? They’re supposed to be good with their-”
“Taylor Nancy Gates!” I almost laughed when she used my full name. Apparently, she wasn’t in the mood sarcasm. “I don’t know where that was going and I’m certain I don’t want to but really, darling you are missing your golden years! You’re wasting them on this...this career.”
She practically had to spit the last word out.
“Why is it so wrong I’d prefer to work than a family right now? And who’s to say I won’t later?” I paused. “You do realize this is one of the most cliché conversations a daughter can have with her mother, right? It’s textbook. I’m quite certain you could find it in some parenting guide as a sad example of what to expect when you’re expecting.”
“Now you’re just being facetious.”
“Yeah, a bit.”
“I just called to say I’m worried about you...we don’t see you much anymore and you’re always off for your job. It’s dangerous and you could get hurt and...”
“Mum...This job’s tough but it’s not that mental. I’m not in the military or something. I live in the heart of downtown New Strata in one of the best flats in the city. Most of my calls take me in or around this area. If ever I was to have a soft job in the police, this would be it.”
“I...would really like to see you in person soon. Maybe we can talk...over tea or something.”
“That would be very nice,” I replied, glancing at Vita’s clock. “Mum, I’m only a few minutes out from a scene. I need to call in. Give my love to dad.”
“Soon, Taylor...Don’t let another week go by.”
“I’ll come see you in a day or two, I promise. Bye now!”
I disconnected the line, closed all the screens occupying the windows and gazed at the night skyline of the capital.
Massive buildings stretched skyward, some of them well over one hundred stories. Glittering lights marred the shining gray walls, office lights where people burned away their evenings much like I did at least four days out of the week. The half moon battled the unnatural glow of the city and the two of them were bright enough together to rival the day.
I called ahead to let the evidentiary team know I was landing on the roof. Anzel rented the rooms just below the penthouse of a third rate noble’s housing development. The name was deceiving because even though it was a far cry from the best, it was still the envy of anyone without money. Just a week of service from the staff alone was worth what other people paid for six months rent.
Anzel’s file suggested he lived in a place like mine before his status changed. I wondered if he thought of it as shell shock or nostalgia. Was he the sort that craved pampering or had he learned to live without it? Clearly he spent enough time at the palace to never forget what it was like to be extremely wealthy. His extracurricular activities suggested money was not his ambition.
He wanted to be remembered for something and based on the wide range of issues he threw his weight behind, he didn’t really care what. He had no intention of dumping all his eggs in one proverbial basket.
Vita set the car down so gently I barely felt the dip of the landing gear’s suspension. The door opened and I stepped out, the heels of my boots clapping the pavement as I stood. A uniformed officer guarded the entryway and he approached swiftly, holding his hand up.
I held out my digital ID and pressed the button to bring up my holographic image and personal information. Detective Inspector was an elevated rank, just below captain. When his eyes caught that, he looked at me with obvious surprise. He must’ve been new to the force. My high profile case load gave me some fame around the station.
“Sorry, Detective, I didn’t realize you’d be in plain clothes.”
“Call came in during supper.” I brushed my fingers against the pistol in my shoulder holster, ensuring it was secure.
I carried one of the most highly advanced weapons in Albion space, certainly the best a civilian could get her hands on. It was a Stonton Mather original with custom grip and a magazine of twenty ten millimeter rounds. It could fire three round bursts and empty the mag in less than half a minute.
“You might wish you hadn’t eaten anything when you see this,” the young man said. “It’s a ghastly scene.”
Murder investigations were never pleasant. Even with an intact body, such as we got in poison cases, the atmosphere could be unnerving. High profile situations leaned away from grizzly since nine times out of ten the perpetrator was someone wealthy. They tended to lack the stomach to brutalize a victim.
Military killings were something else. While working for the CID, I saw a full range of horror. People were shot, stabbed, beaten and thrown out of tall buildings. One victim experienced all those and more. The sort of grotesque crime scenes I’d been privy to throughout my career prepared me for anything.
It helped I hadn’t been able to eat my supper, too.
We boarded the elevator and I observed my escort. He was all spit and polish, freshly out of training and trying to make a good visual impression. Even the handle of his gun gleamed and his hair was cut high and tight, just like the police recruiting posters. I wondered what sort of political job he wanted. The package was too neat to suggest career investigator.
“Also, the press has arrived. We’ve kept them in the elevator lobby.”
“That was quick,” I replied. “What’s your name?”
“Officer Trevor Donovan, ma’am.”
“Donovan? Any relation to Count Xavier Donovan?”
“He’s my uncle, ma’am.”
The pieces fell together. “I’m probably talking to a future director then, hm?”
“I wouldn’t go that far.” The blush on his cheeks suggested otherwise. “I just want to serve the best I can.”
I wanted to say more but the doors opened to a hallway filled with people. The medical examination team consisted of nearly a dozen technicians in various fields. From holographic imaging to forensic pathologists to evidentiary collectors, they were an impressive unit working in a perfect state of controlled chaos.
“Doctor Cole?” I called out, my voice bringing the thrum of conversation to a dull roar. “Has anyone seen Doctor Cole?”
“Gates?” Barry’s distinctive voice rose above the rest as he pushed his way out to greet me. He was a short man, large in stature but not exactly fat. His wispy blond hair graced his perfectly round head with only his bulging lips and button nose breaking up the curve. The wrinkles on his face suggested he smiled easily and frequently. Even under the circumstances of his job, his spirit was subdued but not undone.
“Hey, Barry. Glad to see they assigned this one to you.”
“I heard you just finished up the Jingle case. Shouldn’t you be on downtime?”
“No rest and all that. I was in the middle of supper when I got the call. Captain Scott seemed to think I need to be involved.”
“I was helping my son with his literature homework. This saved me from making a bigger ass out of myself than I already had.” He shook his head. “I hate the classics.”
“That was one of my best subjects.”
“Maybe I should’ve called you then.” He motioned for the door while offering me a pair of rubber gloves. “We’ve gone through with the holoimager and a sensor probe. The others are waiting for you to take your walk through. If anything gets disturbed, we’ve got the place recorded.”
“What about neighbors? Who called this in?”
“Maid service about an hour before we got here. They opened the door and saw what happened. The responding officer took their statements and sent them away. He’s new but we’ve got their addresses and com link lines.” Barry paused to check his notes. “Four neighbors share the floor but all of them were out. Their identities and whereabouts have been checked and I’ve cataloged them in the evidentiary report.”
“Perfect.” I slipped on the gloves and flexed my hands a couple times. “I guess I’d better get started.”
“One last thing.” Barry put a hand on my shoulder and leaned in close. “It’s pretty vile in there. What the killer did...first glance made me think total psychopath on a kill rage. I’m shocked no one else was hurt.”
“Officer Donovan warned me.” I frowned. “Here goes…”
Everyone parted as I approached as if I had some kind of magnetic field repulsing them. The massive crowd found room to let me through so I didn’t even bump into anyone before I reached the door. What I saw inside rated as one of the most horrific scenes I’d seen in my entire career. The others could not possibly have prepared me.
Shelves lay in shambles, the glass coffee table shattered into dangerous shards and chunks of the walls littered the area. Toppled chairs made the scene difficult to traverse and food from the refrigerator decorated the kitchen like confetti. Couch stuffing clung to the blinds and ceiling fan.
The recessed lighting flickered, giving the place an eerie horror vid vibe. The walls and floor glistened with flecks of blood. Anzel was not simply murdered, he was butchered.
I carefully traversed the room, taking in all the details as I went. The evidentiary team would pull in plenty of images so this wasn’t about collecting tangibles. It was about feeling the scene on a subconscious level, being in the presence of the victim and trying to understand what happened. It was easy to reconstruct a scene back at HQ in a lab but nothing compared to witnessing it in the flesh.
The housing complex prided itself on anachronistic touches. They provided real wood doors that opened with handles rather than metal security doors receding into the walls. Likewise, their windows were made from double pain glass instead of transparent steel. Nine times out of ten, residents wouldn’t have noticed these details but in this act of violence, both were called out.
The door clung to the splintered frame by one hinge. Two of the windows were shattered, bits of curtain clinging to the jagged glass. It was too dark to see the street below but peering through an enhancer, I noticed chunks of a dining room chair had landed on a car, denting the hood.
If anything had been stolen, it would’ve been hard to tell. Real books were left open in piles near the shelves. The holo monitor was a pile of cracked plastic. Anzel’s body, what could easily be identified as such, fit right in with the carnage as if somehow his passing ensured the destruction of his possessions.
A high altitude breeze chilled the room. Combined with the scent of death, it reminded me of slaughterhouses described in history book: cold, dark and covered in gore.
The bedroom was completely unscathed. There wasn’t so much as a crease in the bedding and the clothes in the closet were organized by color. Portraits on the wall lined up in perfect symmetry.
I backed out and headed into the hallway. Even five feet from the scene, I could breathe easier. I had no idea the flat’s atmosphere was so oppressive until I left it. The clutter and scent, the all around destruction contributed to the discomfort.
“You okay?” Barry put a hand on my shoulder. “I nearly lost it when I went in there and I’ve been on the job thirty five years.”
“I’m fine.” I wasn’t entirely honest. Some combination of the smell and sight hit me on a primal level. Intellectually, I classified it as another crime scene but emotionally, I felt traumatized. “I think we’re being led to believe whoever did this hated Anzel with every fiber of their being.”
“You think it’s a ruse?”
“I don’t know but I never react to crime scenes with my gut. My first thought was who could have hated him so much? What could he have done to deserve that? The reality is I think someone covered up a motive with this...illusion.”
“Not a bad theory.” Barry absently ran a hand over his head. “You want us to start collecting?”
“Yeah, I think it’s time.” I rubbed my eyes. “I’ll address the press while your guys get going.”
Four reporters milled about, probing the two officers who cordoned off the hall. They weren’t getting anywhere and their frustration simmered. When they noticed me, they lit up like dogs presented with raw meat. I’d been more comfortable in the company of criminals.
“Slow down,” I said as I got closer. “I don’t have a big scoop for you and we’ll do a press conference when we have solid information to share. Right now, I can only tell you someone was murdered in Count Anzel Clarion’s room.”
Then the questions started flying.
“Do you know who it was?”
“Was it Count Clarion?”
“When will you release a coroner’s report?”
“Why’d they call you in so shortly after your last case?”
I lifted my hands to shut them up. “Here are the facts you can have: One, someone was killed. Two, we’re collecting evidence. You’ll all be hanging around the station later and we’ll tell you more then.”
“You have to give us something, Detective Gates.”
“I did give you something,” I replied. “Now move along before I have you thrown out. How’d these people get up here anyway? I thought the elevators were locked down.”
“They rode up with the second responders,” one of the officers replied. “We locked down the rest.”
“Escort them back to the lobby.” I turned to the reporters. “If you want to know what happened, go to the conference like everyone else. Bloody hounds.”
The officers herded them onto the elevator. Assertions would be aired over the extranet in less than an hour. Their guesses and conjectures would whet the public’s appetite but it wouldn’t have any real substance. When we decided to release details, those maniacs who risked arrest to get close to the scene would have a slight edge from their early reporting.
Even if their stories were complete rubbish.
“Detective Gates?” Officer Donovan prompted. “There’s a military man here to see you.”
“Military? Um...what’s his name?”
“Warrant Officer Weaver?” He shrugged his shoulders. “He said he knows you...”
I groaned. “Yeah, he does. Send him in, please.”
“A friend of yours?” Barry called out, grinning.
“We worked together in the CID,” I replied. “He’s good at his job...but the fact he’s here complicates things. Why would the military care about the death of a random nobleman?”
“Because the case I’m working on sounds dangerously similar to yours.” Jason Weaver’s voice was rather distinctive. There was the provincial lilt that sounded like what they called Scottish on Terra mixed with just enough posh Albion to be confusing. Once upon a time, I thought it was sexy. Now, it just annoyed me.
He took advantage of his position in the CID, allowing his hair to grow out to something shaggy and stylish instead of the high and tight other men in the army sported. His chocolate brown eyes melted me in the past with some kind of provincial charm he didn’t really possess. I had no idea just how many women considered him gorgeous back then.
I knew full well now.
“Seems we’ll be collaborating,” Jason said. “Hope you don’t mind.”
As if I have a choice. This wasn’t the five hours Scott promised. Hell, I didn’t even get thirty minutes. This crime was much higher profile than anyone assumed. Maybe I should’ve guessed by the state of the room. Whatever the case, my curiosity was piqued and Jason’s involvement only added intrigue to the puzzle.