Meat And Salt And Sparks

By Rich Larson

A futuristic murder mystery about detective partners—a human and an enhanced chimpanzee—who are investigating why a woman murdered an apparently random stranger on the subway.

“Doesn’t look like a killer, does she,” Huxley remarks.

Cu shrugs a hairy shoulder. To her, all humans look like killers. What her partner means is that the woman in the interrogation room does not look physically imposing. She is small and skinny and wearing a pale pink dress with a mood-display floral pattern; currently the buds are all sealed up tight, reflecting her arms wrapped around her knees and her chin tucked to her chest.

The interrogation room has made a similar read of her mood, responding by projecting a soothing beach front with flour-white sand and blue-green waves. The woman doesn’t seem to be aware of her holographic surroundings. Her eyes, small and dark in puddles of running makeup, stare off into space. Every few seconds her left hand reaches up to her ear, where a wireless graft winks inactive red. Apart from that, she’s motionless.

Cu holds her tablet steady and jabs the playback icon enlarged for her chimpanzee fingers. She crinkles her eyes to watch as the woman from the interrogation room, Elody Polle, bounces through the subway station with her dress in full bloom. With a bland smile on her face, she walks up behind a balding man, pulls the gun from her bag, pulls the trigger, remembers the safety is on, takes it off and pulls the trigger again.

“So calm,” Huxley says, tearing open a bag from the vending unit. “She was like that the whole time, apparently, up until they stuck her in interrogation. Then she lost her shit a bit.” He grins and shovels baked seaweed into his mouth. Huxley is almost always grinning.

Cu flicks to the footage from interrogation: Elody Polle sobbing, pounding her fists against the locked door. She looks over at her partner and taps her ear, signs Faraday shield?

“Yeah,” Huxley says, letting the bag fall to his lap to sign back. “No receiving or transmitting from interrogation. As soon as she lost contact with that little graft, she panicked. The police ECM should have shut it down as soon as she was in custody. Guess it slipped past somehow.”

Acting under instructions, Cu suggests.

Huxley see-saws his open hands. “Could be. She’s got no obvious connection to the victim. We’ll need to have a look at the thing.”

Cu scrolls through the perpetrator’s file. Twenty years’ worth of information strained from social media feeds and the odd government application has been condensed to a brief. Elody Polle, born in Toronto, raised in Seattle, rode a scholarship to Princeton to study ethnomusicology before dropping out in ’42, estranged from most friends and family for over a year despite having moved back to a one-room flat in North Seattle. No priors. No history of violence. No record of antisocial behavior.

Cu checks the live feed from the interrogation room. Heart-rate down, she signs, tucking the tablet under her armpit. Time to talk.

Huxley looks down into the chip bag. “These are terrible.” He shoves one last handful into his mouth, crumbs snagging in his wiry red beard, then seals the bag and puts it neatly in his jacket pocket. He licks the salt off his palms on the way to the interrogation room.

The precinct is near empty, but there are still curious faces peering from the cubicles as they pass. Cu doesn’t come to the precinct often. Huxley had to beg her to put in an appearance. She prefers working from her apartment, where everything is the right size and shape and there are no curious faces.

The outside of the interrogation room looks far less pleasant than the interior: it’s a concrete cube with a thick steel door that seals shut once they pass through it.

Cu squats down a respectable distance away from the perpetrator, haunches sinking through the holographic sand onto padded floor. Huxley pulls up a seat right beside her.

“Good evening, Ms. Polle,” he says. “My name’s Al. You doing okay in here?”

Elody Polle sucks in a trembling breath, and says nothing.

“This is my partner, Cu,” Huxley continues. Elody’s eyes travel over to her, but don’t register even a hint of surprise. “We need to get a better idea of what happened earlier, and why. Can you help us with that?”

Elody says nothing.

Cu takes a closer look at the earpiece. The graft is puffy and slightly inflamed. A DIY job, maybe. Ask her about the piece, she signs. We would hate to remove it.

“Cu’s curious about that wireless,” Huxley says. “So am I. In the subway footage, the way you’re bobbing your head, it almost looks like someone was talking you through the whole thing. Want to tell us about that?”

A flicker crosses Elody’s face. Progress.

“Because if you don’t, we’ll have to remove the earpiece and have a look for ourselves,” Huxley says. “As much as we’d hate to ruin that lovely graft job.”

Elody claps her hand protectively over her ear. “Don’t you fucking dare!” She tries to shout the words, but her voice is hoarse, flaked away to almost a whisper. As if she hasn’t spoken aloud in months.

Cu pulls up the speech synth on her tablet and taps out eight laborious letters, one question mark.

“Echogirl?” the electronic voice blurts.

Elody’s eyes winch wide. As she looks over at Cu, her cheek gives a nervous twitch.

Huxley’s furry red brows knit together. He signs, what the fuck is that.

Echogirl, echoboy, Cu signs. Use an earpiece, eyecam. Rent themselves out to someone who says where to go, what to do, what to say.

Thought that was. Huxley’s hands falter. “A kink, sort of thing,” he says aloud, and Elody’s face flushes angry red.

“It’s a lifestyle,” she says. “She told me you wouldn’t understand. Nobody does.”

“Is she going to come get you out of this mess?” Huxley demands.

“Of course she is.” Elody purses her lips, turns away.

Huxley turns to Cu. Take the earpiece? he signs. Or what?

Cu scratches under her ribs, watching a tremor move through Elody’s hunched shoulders. Offer turn off the Faraday, she signs.

Huxley nods, then turns back to address Elody. “I bet she won’t,” he says. “I bet you a twenty, and half a bag of chips. Well.” He pats his coat pocket and the bag rustles. “A third. Yeah, in fact, I bet the last thing she’s ever going to say to you was pull the trigger. Should we turn off the shielding and see?”

Elody turns back, eyes shiny with tears. “Yes,” she whispers. “Please, I need to hear her voice, I need…” Her tone is eager, but Cu can see uncertainty in the tightening of her eyelids, the bulge of her lower lip.

Huxley makes a show of rapping on the door, telling them to turn off the Faraday. There’s a sudden subtraction from the white noise as the generator cuts out, then Huxley’s phone starts vibrating his pocket with updates.

Cu keeps her attention on Elody, who has her face upturned now as if waiting to feel sunshine: eyes shut, eyelashes trembling, breath sucked in.

“Baby? Are you there?” she whispers. “Are you there? Are you there?”

Her bland smile is back in place. Seconds tick by. Then doubt moves in a slow ripple across her features. Her smile trembles, smooths out, trembles again. Finally, her face crumples and a huge sob shudders through her body.

Cu taps five letters into the speech synth. “Sorry,” her tablet bleats. Then she turns to Huxley and signs get the piece. He nods, thumbs the order into his phone. When they exit the interrogation room, two officers are already waiting to come in: one carrying a black kit, the other snapping on surgical gloves.

Cu hears Elody start to wail just before the door clanks shut behind them.

“That…echogirl thing.” Huxley’s hands piece the new sign together. You’ve thought about it, eh?

I’ve done it, she signs back. Good to walk in the city without crowds. Just never asked them to shoot someone.

As soon as she’s back in the apartment, Cu dials up the heat and humidity and takes off her clothes. Some days she doesn’t mind wearing the carefully tailored black suit. Today she hates it. She leaves it pooled on the floor and takes a flying leap at her climbing wall; the shifting handholds don’t shift fast enough and she’s up to the rafters in an instant.

Cu was specific with the contractors about leaving the rafters exposed. She’s added to them since, welding in more polymer cables and struts of wood, a criss-crossed webbing that spans the vaulted ceiling like a canopy. The design consultant, an excitable architect from Estonia, suggested artificial trees sprouting hydroponic moss. But Cu has no use for green things. She grew up in dull gray and antiseptic white.

Clambering into her hammock, Cu looks out the wide one-way window, watching the sun sink into Puget Sound. She enjoys looking at water so long as it’s far away. The view is expensive, but Cu can afford it. She was awarded damages after the personhood trial, enough for a lifetime of this particular view, enough so she can stay in here forever without needing to earn a penny more. She would go insane, though.

So she works the cases. She was always drawn to crime as a dissection of human nature, the breakdown of motive and consequence. A window into the subtle differences between her mind and all the minds around her. When she first applied for police training with the SPD, it was viewed as a joke. Her acceptance, a publicity grab.

But in the years since, they’ve realized she sees things most humans miss. Cu pulls on her custom-fitted smartgloves, one for each hand and a third for her left foot, and leans back in the hammock. The ceiling screen above her hums to life. New details flit onto the case file, and there’s a message waiting from Huxley.

Thanks for coming down in person, the bossman’s been up my ass about it. Wanted fresh footage for the promo kit. Hoping they shop out my beer belly.

Cu swipes it aside and reaches for the tech report on the perp’s earpiece. The text flows across the ceiling in slow waves, a motion programmed to help her eyes track it easier. There was no salvageable audio data. Not from Elody and not from whoever was speaking to her. But there is usage data to confirm that Elody was receiving a call from a masked address at the time of the murder.

By the look of it, Elody had been in that same call for just under six months. Cu moves backward through the log, perplexed. There are small gaps, a few hours here and there, but Elody had been in near 24/7 communication with her client for half a year preceding the murder.

Cu tries to imagine it: a voice whispering in her ear when she woke up, telling her what to do, where to go, what to say, and whispering still as she fell asleep. All of it culminating in Elody Polle walking up behind a man in a subway and executing him in broad daylight.

She flips the case file over to see the victim’s profile again. The balding man was named Nelson J. Huang. A biolab businessman, San Antonio–based, in the city for a conference. It’s possible that someone with a personal vendetta knew he would be in Seattle and began laying the groundwork for his murder at the hands of Elody Polle six months in advance.

It’s more likely that he was selected at random from the crowd, so someone half the world away could experience homicide vicariously before abandoning her mentally-unstable echogirl.

A call from Huxley jangles across the screen. She pops it open. Her partner is walking down a neon-lit street, sooty brick wall behind his head. “Hey, Cu,” he says. “Busy?”

Sometimes he asks it to needle her; this time it’s because he’s distracted. Cu shakes her head.

“The techies are still trying to track that address, but I doubt they’ll have much luck,” he says, stopping at a light. “Whoever it is, they did a good job wiping up afterwards. No audio data.” He looks around and starts walking again, bristly red beard bobbing up and down. “But before this client, she had another one for around two months. Figured I would swing past and see him on my way home. Well. Sort of see him.”

Where? Cu signs.

“A party,” Huxley says, his grin notching a little wider. “So, if you’re not busy, you should come. Said you’ve done this before, right?”

Cu watches as he digs an earbud out of his pocket and taps it active, worms it into place. Then the slip-in eyecam: he rolls his eye around afterward and blinks away a few tears. The perspective jumps from his phone camera to his eyecam and all of a sudden she’s seeing what he sees. A bright red door in a grimy brick facade, no holos or even a physical sign above it. Through the earbud, she hears the dim pulse of music, synthesized drums.

I hate parties, Cu signs.

“Good thing it’s also work,” Huxley says.

Cu settles back in her hammock and watches his pale hand push open the door.

The interior is dim-lit, noisy, full of bodies. People are dancing—Cu can enjoy rhythm, but the hard pulse of the drums unnerves some deep part of her, sounding too angry, too much like a warning. People are drinking—Cu tried it once, but the warm dizziness reminded her of the sedatives they used to give her. When she related as much to Huxley, he told her she wasn’t even legal yet, technically, and that she would like it when she was older.

It’s a typical party, apart from the fact that every single person in the room is wearing an earpiece.

“Echo, echo, echo,” Huxley mutters. “The client’s name is Daudi. Judging by rental history, he’s probably a blonde.” He takes out his phone and Cu watches his thumb move, sending her a file. It pops up in the corner of her screen, unfurling a list of Daudi’s rental preferences. She searches the crowd for possible matches as Huxley moves into the room. There’s a woman passing out small plastic tubes; Huxley takes one. Cu inspects it as he juggles it in his palm.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2018/06/06/meat-and-salt-and-sparks-rich-larson/

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