EXCERPT FROM THE MAKER OF WIDOWMAKERS’ ARM
COPYRIGHT © CAMERON COOPER 2022
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
The Maker of Widowmakers’ Arm
The arm was the leastof my problems. At least it felt that way, even though it was the last to present itself that morning.
My first problem wasn’t solvable; I’d woken to find the other side of the bed empty.
I have a reputation in Georgina’s Town, built up mostly from myth and rumor, which is how most reputations are acquired in the fringes. There are way too many fringe people who would flatly refuse to believe I wake up alone the majority of mornings. But for the last eighty-seven days, there had been a warm body beside me when I woke.
I’d got used to hearing her breath. The shift of the bed as she turned over. The scent of her skin, which was unclassifiable, but wholly feminine and surprisingly delicate. I’d become accustomed to far more than the highly agreeable sex. Which makes me the idiot. I’m only three months short of my bicentennial. I should know better.
It was another standard day in Georgina’s Town, so I prepared to head to the office, which was how I started most of my days, here. As I moved around the apartment, washing, dressing, and making myself eat, I noticed even more small holes and absences.
The nearly empty closet, with my minimal wardrobe pushed to one end of the shelves, the rest of the closet an accusing note. The space on the side table beside the sofa, where her board used to sit. The gleaming, bare surface of the little dining table in the corner of the main room, which had been covered in her clutter for weeks.
I should have noticed the missing details last night, but I had come in very late and moved silently through the dark apartment so I didn’t disturb her. It bothered me that I hadn’t noticed the empty bed when I got into it.
I couldn’t figure out if I was pleased with the way she had left, or not. In my experience, these moments were usually punctuated by confrontations that involved screaming, bitterness, often tears. Occasionally, thrown objects. Most of them valuable. Diya, though, had quietly packed and left. Which was exactly like her. No note…but I didn’t need one.
My mood was not good when I stepped into the front room of my office suite.
Ninety-Nine sat behind the reception desk. Another surprise. For weeks, now, finding him there when I arrived had been a mildly pleasant discovery.
He looked up as I entered, and smiled. “No calls yet.” He pushed my first mug of coffee across the desk.
I didn’t reach for it, as I usually did. Instead, I studied his fine chin, pale eyes and cowlick. “This is your seven hundred and thirtieth day on the job.”
Ninety-nine blinked. “It is?” He processed that. “Two years…!” He seemed as astonished about it as me. Then his eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “That’s a record, right?”
I shook my head. “Sorry kid.” And he was a kid. He was a nodoc—a human—and only a third of the way through his short life. “Twenty-Three lasted for two years and eight months.” She had lingered because she was skimming my fees and kickbacks, but I wouldn’t tell Ninety-Nine that. I didn’t want him getting ideas. Then, because he had stuck around, I said, “Use the office slush fund and buy yourself something.”
Ninety-Nine grinned, which gave his normally pallid face a simple glow. “You could regret that.”
“Surprise me,” I told him. And meant it. “You’re the first nodoc to take the job. You’ve done well, given your….”
“Limitations,” Ninety-Nine finished, with a short nod. He’d thoroughly learned my opinion about humans. “After my first day on the job, I didn’t think I’d last, either.”
His first day on the job had been more exciting than usual. That had been the day Guisy Oakmint had been murdered by his “wife”—the doxy he’d adopted.
“Nothing’s really come close to that day, since,” Ninety-Nine added. “Knowing why serials are out here in the fringes, why humans don’t come here…it changes things.” He tapped his temple. “Changes everything.”
Ninety-Nine had been there when I’d dealt with Oakmint’s murdering doxy, and heard the conversation that came before it. “That’s not something to be shared,” I said shortly. “Don’t make me regret letting you hear it.”
When Ninety-Nine had first sat behind the desk, he would have quailed at my tone. Today, though, he simply tilted his head and looked at me. “Yes, but how did you hear about The Bluff?”
It was moments like this that made me think Ninety-Nine still had untapped potential, something that was lacking in most nodocs.
The desk lit up. A call.
Ninety-Nine connected. “Sherriff’s Office.”
Doc Lowry’s lined, unshaved face formed over the desk. “Hi kid,” he breathed in his gravelly, always-tired voice. “Jovan in yet?”
Ninety-Nine didn’t look at me while he paused for a fraction of a second.
“He’s in. Want to talk to him, Doc?”
Doc shook his head. “Tell him I got an arm he should check out. Top of the Pillar.” He disconnected.
I picked up the coffee mug and took three big mouthfuls, then put it regretfully back on the desk. Ninety-Nine had learned how to make coffee the way I like it.
“You’re heading straight out,” Ninety-Nine said. It wasn’t a question, because he already knew a lot of my business came through Doc. As Georgina’s Town’s only trained and qualified biotechnician, Doc Lowry was in a position to hear about trouble brewing.
I considered the kid. He had shown gumption, and he was still here. “Pack your terminal, put the desk on auto. You’re coming with me.”
Ninety-Nine looked both pleased and wary. “Is this going to be like Guisy Oakmint?”
“Who knows?” I headed for the door. “You gotta learn to roll with what comes at you, kid. This is the fringes.”
The Pillar was the tallestbuilding in Georgina’s Town. About twenty years ago, another building boom had hit, this one going up, instead of down. General contractors with more money than sense scrambled to outbuild each other, their towers reaching higher and higher.
The Pillar had been the last built, and the winner of the unofficial race, because its roof sat only thirty meters beneath the center of the dome itself. No one could build any higher than that, because there was no land next to the Pillar, and farther out from the center, the dome was lower.
My office was close to the center of town for strategic reasons. The location meant I didn’t have to cross town to reach any trouble. Ninety-Nine and I stepped out of my building, a twelve-floor, tasteful, near century-old faux red-brick construction, into bright white light. Abbatangelo’s sun was a blue-white, and brighter than most.
We crossed the plaza, which wasn’t busy. Only people trying to reach an upper level from a different upper level crossed between buildings at ground level. The lower levels were a warren of tunnels and complexes, which made horizontal movement easier.
The Pillar was on the other side of the plaza. We stepped into the building and then into one of the elevators which served the forty-two upper levels and the twenty-three lower levels. Two other people were in the car. I judged they were harmless, and entered my code into the car controls to give me access to the roof, which was denied to other citizens. The doors shut and we were whisked upward.
The other two people got off on different floors, leaving me with Ninety-Nine, who watched the control panel roll through the floor numbers with a nervous expression, clutching his terminal against his chest.
We stepped out into the bright sunlight once more. Ninety-Nine came to a halt, looking up at the glass-like dome. “I can almost touch it….” Awe rang in his voice.
“You can’t. Not from here. And you wouldn’t want to. It would freeze your fingers.” I kept moving, intending to take a circuit around the edge of the roof to find Doc.
Doc stepped out from around the side of the elevator housing and beckoned.
We moved around to the other side of the roof. This side got sunlight all day. Doc headed for a man who stood by the elevator housing, staring out through the dome at the sterile, rock-strewn landscape outside. The man’s face was grey.
“Building management,” I murmured for Ninety-Nine’s sake.
Doc stopped with one shoulder almost against the wall, and beckoned again.
We went up to him.
The arm laid on the dusty floor of the roof, right up against the elevator housing, so the elbow was tucked into the crease between roof and wall. The fingers were slightly curled, the way they did when you relaxed. It hadn’t been covered up in any way.
The shoulder end of the arm had been hacked at with something sharp, leaving jagged edges in the skin and meat beneath.
Ninety-Nine turned away, swallowing.
I bent closer to inspect the business end. They’d cut through the soft tissues right at the shoulder joint. The end of the humerus wasn’t a nicely curved ball anymore. It had been wrenched out of shape, the titanium pitted and bent.
“Like snapping a chicken wing off,” Doc guessed.
Ninety-Nine gave a soft moan.
“Looks like, yeah.” I straightened. “Serial number?” I could have determined the number for myself by tasting the blood, but that was a skill I kept to myself, mostly, and Doc would have already checked the serial number for himself with his hand-processor while waiting for me to arrive.
Doc Lowry held his terminal out to me. I took it and scanned the screen. I’ve had a lot of practice skimming serial registrations, and knew where to look for a fast summary.
“Sejad Pascale,” I read off. “Technician model. Made after the Purging—”
“Isn’t everyone born…built after the Purging, out here?” Ninety-Nine said.
I stared at him, more because he’d had the balls to interrupt, than for the quality of his question.
“There’s some still around from before the Purging, kid,” Doc told him. “Very few, but the biotechs keep ‘em going and going.”
“The Purging was five hundred years ago!”
“Nearly six hundred, actually,” I said. I lifted the terminal. “Built in a serial-owned facility on Thasauria b in 3372 PCE. First assignment to a high tech manufacturing plant on Thasauria. No other entries.” I looked up. “Revealing as usual. Ninety-Nine, look up the town registry. See if there’s a Sejad Pascale.”
“Figure he’s using the same name after all this time?” Doc Lowry asked.
I nearly pointed out that I was still using the name assigned to me, but stopped myself. Fact was, I had a few spares up my sleeve for times when the baggage that came with Ptolemy Jovan Lane was inconvenient.
Doc shifted his boot, to point the toe at the severed arm. “Sun is drying it out. It’s been here a day, at least.” He met my gaze.
“The scrubbers.” I pulled out my own, smaller terminal from my coat pocket and searched for the name I needed, then requested a connection.
Ninety-Nine was frowning at Doc and me.
“Spit it out,” I told him.
“Why aren’t you checking with the First Aid Stations? He lost an arm.”
Lowry just chuckled.
“No blood pooled around the arm,” I told the kid. “Pascale was dead when they took the arm off.”
“But why?” Ninety-Nine sounded utterly bewildered. And outraged.
“Jovan!” Esperanta said from my terminal. “You son of a bitch! You didn’t come to my dinner party.”
I raised the terminal and smiled at her. “Esperanta, my darling. That was a year ago, and I was stranded on a ship out of Godehaden, fighting off slavers.”
Esperanta rolled her eyes. “Your stories grow more ridiculous every time, Jovan.”
I smiled modestly. Then I said, “Business, for a moment.”
“Business,” she agreed, straightening up.
“Check the rhodium levels coming through the scrubbers for the last….” I calculated. “Three days.”
I was aware of Ninety-Nine’s puzzled stare. He wasn’t following. But that was to be expected. Most folk in GT were ignorant about the small miracles that let them breathe fresh air and drink clean water.
Esperanta’s expression sobered. “Rhodium….” Her gaze shifted off screen. She was consulting another screen. Running queries. Then she shook her head. “No alerts, going back over a year. Nothing pinged the sensors, Jovan.” She looked troubled. “Someone knows what they’re doing.”
“Uh-huh,” I agreed heavily.
Esperanta scowled at me. “Next time, you come to my dinner party. No wild stories!”
“Tell Baasch hello,” I replied and disconnected. I put the board away and looked at Lowry. “Town-wide call,” I said.
Lowry nodded. “Just the other arm, you figure? Or legs, too?”
“Tell everyone to be on the lookout for both.”
Ninety-Nine raised his hand. “Excuse me?”
I turned to him, reaching for patience. I’d told him to come, after all. “Someone killed Pascale. Then they cut off at least both arms, maybe a leg, too. Then they shoved the body into a recycler and hid the limbs around the city.”
Ninety-Nine frowned. “I gathered that much,” he said with stiff dignity. “I don’t get why.”
“Because of the rhodium,” Lowry said.
“I heard that, too,” Ninety-Nine said, with as much false patience as I was showing.
“The amount of rhodium that goes into a serial’s chassis is within a precise and short range,” I told him. “Shove a whole body into a recycler, here, and the scrubbers will send up an alert that a body’s worth of rhodium has passed through.”
Ninety-Nine swallowed again. He’d got it. “Cut off an arm or two, and the alarms don’t go off…”
I nodded. “But meantime, the killer has to stash the limbs somewhere they won’t be found, until it’s safe to push them through a recycler, too. The alerts are set to monitor across six days.”
I beckoned to the building manager.
He sidled up to us, keeping his gaze averted from the arm, which Doc was bent over once more. I’d let Doc take the arm back to his lab. The killer wouldn’t be back for it. There had been too many of us tramping about the roof. He’d have been scared away.
I said to the manager, “How hard is it to get access to the roof?”
“It’s a secure level.”
I rolled my eyes. “You come up here a lot?”
“Sometimes you bring friends, ladies you want to impress, to show them the view?”
The manager shifted, his cheeks staining red.
“That’s yes, then,” I said. “Anyone pay you for access? Maybe to impress their friends?”
He straightened with a snap. “No! Never!”
“Of course! This is the Pillar! Everyone wants to see the view from the very top, not just the observation level. They say they want to touch the dome itself.”
I glanced at Ninety-Nine, who pursed his lips quickly, suppressing a smile.
“Someone saw your access code when you punched it in,” I told the manager. “They probably told someone else, who told someone else. Time to change your codes.” It wouldn’t help city morale if someone took a swan dive off the top.
The manager swallowed. “I will.”
I turned to Ninety-Nine. “What’s the resident register show?”
Ninety-Nine nodded. “There’s a Sejad Pascale registered.”
“Only until the death notice is posted,” I said bleakly. “What’s the address? Let’s see who’s home.”