by Ren Warom
Chapter 1Black eyes cold as the icy ground, Stark surveys the Wharf Guard tanks squatted like grey toads in front of Wharf End’s imposing tenements. Behind their stolid presence, yellow tape crackles, and grim-faced Wharf Guards hold formation, bulky in winter uniform. Most residents may have left this part of the Wharf, but the gang folk haven’t. This is Broken Saints territory. Attack is not only possible, but fully anticipated, and the Guards are a line of tension, fit to snap. Stark can’t fault their unease. There’s something about this case; a subtle but unpleasant pall of ill fortune, bleeding back through the horrors faced by the victims, the awful isolation of their deaths. And here it is, too, this fucking case, leading him back to where he was born: to where he died. To where Teya’s face rises with such crystal clarity, he could reach out and wipe the tears from her eyes.
He believes in coincidence, in the arbitrary nature of life. He’s seen all too often how horror arises from the insipid, the mundane. But in this case, right from the beginning, he’s been struck by a powerful sense of pattern, of convergence. Past and present colliding. Now here’s this body, in this place of all places, and every instinct he possesses screams that this is a message. Twofold. One for him, from someone he never thought to hear from again, and one for someone else. Someone he desperately needs on this case: Bone Adams, the premier Mort in all the Spires, whose attention to detail and vast array of connections in the Zone are sorely needed here. He’s put two formal requests for Bone through his office at City Central to the Notary Board, the Spires governing body, and they’ve rejected him outright each time, citing cost and logistical difficulty, which is so much bullshit, he could mulch a state farm with it. Bending to lean through the back door of his car, Stark grabs his coat.
“Don’t bother waiting,” he says to his driver Tal. “This one’s an all nighter.” Slamming the door, he cracks his knuckles and strides to the nearest private. “Is De Lyon here?”
“No, sir. He called in. Said to tell you to get the Buzz Boys to bag it up and send it to him; there’s no way he’s stepping foot on Saints territory, not for another Doe.”
Stark twitches, his muscles bunching beneath cheap polyfibre, and barely restrains himself from unleashing a tirade on the blameless private. It’s not his fault that De Lyon is as inordinately determined as the Notary Board to see nothing in these nameless bodies. To leave them as they’re being found: abandoned to die.
“Buzz Boys in then?”
“No, sir. Like I said, that’s been left down to you.”
Stark nods, biting back a grin. “There’s my first good news.” De Lyon, the Mort assigned to the case, a man about as useless and self-important as it gets, has gone and handed Stark the excuse he needs to act. He gestures the private aside, impatient. “I’m calling in another Mort to look at this. Send him corpse-side as soon as he arrives.”
“Sir.” The private snaps a salute.
“I’m not army, boy,” Stark mutters. “Not anymore.”
He moves on, thickset and gruff, his body like his temper; short, built on a grand scale. Unfazed by the smell, he pulls aside pieces of tape as if they’re cobwebs, and steps inside the shattered entrance. This place is a miserable hole, airless, corridors thin as choked arteries and black with the greasy soot of living. Stark resists the impulse to fend his way through. He doesn’t like the uncontrollable sense of urgency, the copper tang of remembered fear these conditions spark, memories of a personal history he’s worked hard to disown.
By the entrance to the scene the stench of vomit fills the air. A lone private stands, surreptitiously wiping his mouth, flushed with shame. It’s obvious this is his first assignment as a uniformed creeper; he has that demeanour suggesting unrestrained cockiness reduced to cinders. Stark claps a hefty paw on the boy’s shoulder. The boy rocks and gags. Stark winks, too long at this job to care. What’s dead is dead. Not much to do about it. Only the job. Only ever the job. The boy will learn.
“Body?” Stark demands, voice dry and heavy as stone.
The boy straightens smartly and raps out, “Secure, sir.”
Stark pushes past the tape placed around the doorway. Stops just over the threshold, steadying an urge to walk back out triggered by the unexpected lurch of his innards. A woman. It had to be a woman. Pulling his chin left, then right, displacing tension, he wrestles back self-possession by sheer force of will, and gives his attention to the room. To the body at its centre, warped by ropes to near enough the shape of a reversed question mark. As ever, the sight fills him with dull, helpless anger. Fierce determination.
Given the outlandish state of these bodies, not merely the ropes but the bizarre lack of any modifications, Stark’s first instinct had been to suspect Bone Adams’s involvement, mainly based on the fact of his voluntary freedom from mods, beyond unusual in the Spires. After the first bodies were found, Stark spent hours hunting down everything there was to know about Bone Adams, and, finding a mess of a man who goes between his mortuary and the Zone with nothing more than drinking in between, went swiftly from suspecting him to suspecting that the bodies are meant for him: to see, to solve. Meaning Stark needs him here. Now.
Screw the Notary; this time, he’s bypassing fucking procedure and going straight to the source. He snatches out his cell and dials with clumsy, impatient stabs.
“Bellox, it’s Stark. I need Adams.” Stark’s tone is brusque, demanding, allowing GyreTech’s Mort Director, who’s taken over the late Leif Adams’ duties until a new MD is voted in, to know he’s not in the mood to be fobbed off.
“I’m very much afraid the Notary would have significant issues with that request, Stark. The cost …”
“Bellox,” Stark interrupts firmly, “I’ve had costs and logistics rammed down my throat by the Notary vultures twice already. Not interested. It’s BS, and we both know it. Just give me the Mort I want. I’ll take the heat, if there’s any to take. De Lyon’s on my last nerve and I’m getting all kinds of twitchy about his incompetence. May have to put in a complaint to GyreTech’s Chair. May have to mention your name.”
Bellox chokes on that, as Stark knew he would. The GyreTech Chair has a reputation for coming down hard on incompetence. This is his ace card, one likely to get him yelled at by all and sunder, considering his inability to conform to protocol and the trouble it causes, but this is why he does it. Protocol, procedure, achieves nothing but frustration, not only stifling proper investigation but often stagnating it completely. This is how murderers walk free. How crime goes unpunished. How the worst of the world perpetuates all but unchallenged.
He hears Bellox’s teeth grinding in the silence, until he bites out with painful reluctance, “That won’t be necessary. When do you need him?”
Stark smiles. Grim satisfaction. “I needed him last fucking week, but today will do. ASAP. Site’s at Wharf End. He can’t miss it, the Guard have a shit-load of tanks bugging up the air.”
Job done, he ends the call, jams the cell into his pocket, and turns back to the room. Takes it all in, slow. The first look. The first smells. These impressions are the ones he’ll keep at the forefront in the investigation to come. The ones that will tell him the most, if they tell him anything at all.