Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Smoking Gun

This week's story came from the above picture. I just had to know why it looked like her blouse was on fire. Along the way I found some mutants, an underground video game market, and the real reason subway trains stop so often in the tunnels.

I lit another cigarette just to see the way his eyes narrowed across the table. There was a thin blue haze in the air that was making my own eyes water a little, but it was worth it. He cleared his throat again instead of coughing but it still made him wince. I’d seen the x-ray. With three broken ribs every breath was grinding the jagged ends together. Every little cough, every word he spoke. Of course there had only been three words so far. Something that roughly translated to, ‘fuck off bitch’. I was certain I could do better than that.

I blew a stream of smoke in his direction and tapped the journal on the table with my fingertips. Such a little sound in the thick silence of the room. “Drammon, this is the point at which I stop giving you the benefit of the doubt. Do you recognize this?” I asked, tapping the metal catch on the journal with my index finger. The lab said it was real silver. It had to have been a family piece for him to get it after the war. The sky high price of silver nitrate fuel made even the black-market dealers melt it all down and bring it in.

Drammon didn’t look at the journal. He kept his small rat’s eyes on the wall behind me. He had a wide, open face, smooth cheeks that were boyishly red, dark hair that fell across his forehead and into his eyes. Except for the eyes, he didn’t really look like a conspirator. But then, most of them didn’t. If there was one thing I had learned in twenty years as CQ, it was that the biggest, most innocent eyes could have monsters behind them. Windows to the soul they were not. But there were other ways to get to that.

“Answer me,” I told him sharply, gesturing with my cigarette to twist the irritation a little deeper. His eyes narrowed but he remained silent. “Do it or I’ll bring Agent Riggs back in and you can make a better acquaintance with her new taser.” I didn’t have to tell him what that many volts would feel like, or how his ribs would feel after the convulsions.

He hesitated long enough that I glanced at the mirror to my left, ready to signal Felix who was watching us behind it. I could only see myself, hair still perfectly pinned, suit looking un-rumpled despite the hours I had been in it. Drammon looked worse in comparison, his blue jumpsuit creased like he’d slept in it for a week and his hair standing in strange peaks as though he’d been in a strong wind.

“It’s my grandfather’s journal,” he said grudgingly, his accent heavy when he spoke Standard.

I gave his surprisingly deep voice my full attention. His eyes were on the table in front of him, still not looking at the little leather book. “Since you’ve done most of the writing in it it’s yours now. Don’t you think?”

He cleared his throat again, but didn’t reply.

He wasn’t going to let me talk this out of him. I knew that after the first five minutes. It was my duty to try though. I’d give him a little more time before I called in Riggs and Daniels. “It’s your journal. We found it when we searched your apartment. And this is where ‘benefit of the doubt’ flies out the window.” He shifted in his seat, grimacing slightly in pain. I let the pause play out, eyes sharp on him. When he didn’t move again I continued. “We brought you in here and, well, a lot of people were willing to believe that you had been tricked. They were wearing bulky clothes and tinted their skin. They looked normal enough. They sold you some sob story about losing their pass cards and not being able to afford new ones. They begged you to hide them from the patrols. And maybe they did. Maybe this whole journal is just a story. Just something you made up.” I leaned into the table. “Look at me, Drammon,” I demanded sharply.

He looked up quickly, probably more in surprise than compliance. In seven hours I hadn’t raised my voice.

When I had his full attention I made my expression earnest, my shoulders forward, tone low, friendly. “Maybe it’s a story, and I’m willing to believe it. And if I believe it, well, when we have them in custody you’ll be walking out of this building with nothing but an official warning on your record.”

There was a long tense moment where his eyes darted back and forth between mine with rodent intensity, as if he was trying to gauge my sincerity. He leaned forward slightly, meeting my eyes firmly. His low voice was almost lyrical putting together the flowing Geennan syllables. “You’re like your father. He was an honor-less pile of shit too.”

“I’ll take that as a no,” I said blandly. My expression didn’t change. I just sat back in my seat and flicked the ash off the end of my cigarette onto the floor. It wasn’t the first time a suspect had insulted Daddy. It wouldn’t be the last time either. The name Tregall was a curse word in some circles. As the Chief Questioner before me, he’d made a lot of enemies, especially during the war. Still, I could admit in one little corner of my mind that I was going to enjoy the look on Drammon’s face when I told Riggs to bring in the cart.

I glanced at the mirror again, wondering what Felix would say if I called for them without going through the rest of the first stage. I saw myself again, poised in my gray suit and- I blinked and turned my head slightly. I’d been resting the hand with the dwindling cigarette in it on my thigh. And from the angle I could see in the mirror it looked like the thin trail of smoke was coming out of my blouse.

I looked away from the mirror and make a small choked sound in the back of my throat. Drammon was watching me and I couldn’t stand it. I stood up, dropped the cigarette on the floor and crushed it under my heel. I made a gesture toward the window, fighting to keep my expression as the lock disengaged and I darted out through the door.

Felix was on the other side looking concerned. “What happened? Did he-”

I waved him off, my chest shaking. When the heavy door clicked shut behind us, locking Drammon in, I leaned against the wall and burst out laughing. I had been holding it in long enough that I was doubled over with it, my eyes watering. I laughed even harder when I saw the look of confusion on Felix’s face. “Why,” I swallowed down another fit of giggling, “why didn’t you tell me it looked like my blouse on fire in there?”

His eyebrows pulled together in confusion and then they went up in understanding. “If you’d keep the blasted things out of your lap, it wouldn’t be an issue,” he said, shaking his head but smiling anyway.

I patted his arm, it felt thin under his pristine dress shirt. “Luckily he was probably too busy thinking up insults to notice,” I said, catching my breath and letting him lead me around the side of the room where we could see Drammon through the glass. He was sitting in the same position, hunched slightly over his ribs, looking stubborn. I checked the clock on the wall. It was already past evening curfew. There wasn’t much time if I wanted to get things taken care of tonight. “He’s not going to talk.”

Felix shrugged. His shoulders looked bony and sharp, like they would pierce the thing white material. I wished he had kept his uniform jacket on. It hid the effects of the nitrate-poisoning better.  

“I say we call for Riggs. By the time I’m through telling him what his sentence in Westfield is going to be like we’ll still have nothing useful and those Twigs he’s been hiding will have slipped away,” I told him, watching Drammon, and watching Felix watching Drammon.

Felix frowned when I called them Twigs. He knew they were dangerous, he’d been a Capture Coordinator almost as long as I’d been a Questioner. But he never called them anything but Geenlings, even when they shot him full of that damned poison that was making him look like one of them as it killed him. That was just how Felix was. “And you’ll be explaining it in the report to the Director?” he asked, still frowning.

“I will,” I agreed, relieved that he was thinking it over.  

He finally nodded, reaching for the phone on the wall. “Lord knows I’d like to get them tonight. If they got that virus in through quarantine we’ll have bigger problems that not following procedure to the letter.” A tiny shudder went through him even talking about the virus. The last time there had been an outbreak over three thousand consoles had been affected and an entire city quadrant had been without power for a week, including three major hospitals. And in a situation like that, it was always the Peacekeepers Department that felt all the heat of failure.

“Caroline? Send Agents Riggs and Daniels down,” Felix told his secretary, nodding briefly at something she said before hanging the phone back in the cradle. “You know he was a teacher before all this? Grade school.”

Felix had that tone of genuine confusion that always made me worry about him. I knew he wasn’t hesitating or forgetting why we were here. He’d never hesitated in his duty in the eighteen years I’d known him. There were just these moments where he was genuinely confused, where he couldn’t understand how someone could teach children and harbor dangerous fugitives at the same time. He wasn’t stupid but he wanted to believe. In good faces, in good deeds. And every time someone held out, only confessing when we let Riggs in, only spilling the truth through fear and pain, he was hurt. It hurt him to see people that had all the appearance of goodness unfold into degenerate criminals. Ate him up as surely as the poison was doing, but slowly, and over years. One day he was going to resign and he probably wouldn’t be able to articulate why.

“Are Melly and Andrew coming this weekend?” I asked, changing the subject completely.

Felix turned away from Drammon. His eyes brightened at the mention of his son and daughter. “They are. Are you going to be able to make it? Jill was so upset with me when ‘Auntie Grace’ wasn’t at the last barbeque.” 

I smiled, resisting the urge to roll my eyes. It didn’t matter how many years it had been since he’d had a yard or a grill; he’d always insist that the family parties were barbeques. “I’ll be there,” I assured him. And if I managed things properly I’d even have that game console I’d tracked down for Jill. She had a real interest in older technology and this one was a real beauty even if I did have to go to The Swap to get it.

We both turned when we heard the cart rattling down the hall. Riggs came into view first, shoulders back, chin forward, red hair blazing, ready to get anything out of anyone. Daniels followed, pushing the rattling cart of equipment, sensors, and tools. Her eyes were cool and detached, ready in their own way, but calm under her carefully shaped eyebrows.

Riggs saw us and turned expectantly. Daniels and her cart kept rolling, using her security card to open the door and rattle inside.

“Where would you like us to start?” Riggs asked, hands behind her back, eager eyes shifting between Felix’s and mine.

There was no set rule on what to use first or if everything on the cart had to be used at all. “Try him with low voltage first. Keep it away from the heart for now,” I told her, gesturing toward the door.

She nodded, accepting the order and the dismissal with a touch of disappointment that maybe only I saw. Starting with voltage meant a long slow slog for the two of them and it was already late.

Felix and I turned back to the glass and watched Daniels prep Drammon. “Is Carson in yet?” I asked, noting that when Drammon was stripped to the waist his right side was a solid bruise from hip to mid-chest.

“He checked in half an hour ago. He’s going over the paperwork in the Fallows case,” Felix said absently. He always forced himself to watch this part and it occurred to me that he thought he was going to get used to it one day.

“I’m going to head home then.” I cocked my head to one side to see what voltage Riggs was setting the unit to.

I felt more than saw Felix turning to me with his surprised expression. “You’re not staying?”

I shrugged, absorbing his surprise. I never left a questioning in progress. “Maybe I’m learning to take some time for myself.” And if I made it out in the next half an hour I could make it to the Swap before the patrols did their beta quadrant sweep.

His eyebrows rose so sharply they were in danger of leaving his face.

I rolled my eyes. “I’m getting too old to work straight through ten hours of questioning in one night. All right?” I played up my annoyance and put in a hint of embarrassment. I wasn’t being very subtle, but I was tired and I couldn’t get out tomorrow night. The Director was having another party in preparation for his bid for mayor. There was no getting out of that early.

One of Felix’s eyebrows stayed up and I knew he didn’t believe me for a second. “I’m sure Carson can handle it. You’ll have your phone if we run into any problems?” he asked pointedly, letting me know that I was getting away with whatever I was up to for the time being, but I’d be paying for it later.

“I always have my phone,” I said, sounding slightly affronted even though I was relieved. He would have let me go if he’d known what I was up to but as the Capture Coordinator for the city I didn’t want to put him in the position of having certain knowledge that I’d been to a black-market swap.

He nodded, still looking skeptical. “I’ll see you tomorrow then,” he said picking up the phone.

I put my hand on his arm, not letting myself flinch at the fragile feeling bones. “You make sure you get some sleep too. Welsley can handle a case or two,” I reminded him. The second shift wasn’t as good as we were, but they weren’t stupid. They could crack Drammon without us if they had to.

He nodded and dialed, putting the phone to his ear.

I kept my sigh to myself. Felix wouldn’t let one go anymore than I would most nights. I turned and walked down the hall, away from the questioning rooms. I took the elevator instead of the stairs knowing I’d be winded from smoking and not wanting to wear myself down. “Too much left to do,” I muttered, slipping briefly into my office to get my bag and coat. I double-checked that my night pass was safely in my wallet and my badge was in my coat pocket.

I was waved through security, the officers too busy to chat while they were checking in a group of drunk and disorderlies that had probably been picked up on a curfew violation.

I got out of my suit jacket once I was in my car with the heater up. The drive through the first two checkpoints didn’t take long and I circled the block near the Seventh Ave PK Station looking for a place to stash the car. There was a narrow parking lot behind the building. I parked there with my peacekeeper vehicle pass in the window. There was no better place to hide a peacekeeper’s car than in the middle of a lot of ‘keeper cars. I put up the parking brake and pulled a thick gray sweater over my blouse. I reached under my seat and pulled out a civilian pass and knitted hat. The hat went over my silver hair and the pass went around my neck and under the sweater. It was with a small twinge that I stowed my badge and my own pass under the seat.

I felt a little lighter once I was out of the lot and a few blocks from the station. I made a few aimless turns and hedged my way toward the train station. No one followed me down the dark street and there were only four other people on the platform when I passed the ticket barrier. I waited in the center of the platform, watching the other four without being obvious. Three were well dressed and loud enough that they most likely had night passes tucked into their coats. The man sitting at the far end, quiet and ragged, was probably skirting patrols trying to get home. I shrugged to myself. It happened to everyone at least once. If he got picked up he’d just go to lockup for the night and they’d release him in the morning. He’d probably have a warmer bed at the station than he did wherever home was.

When the train came I found myself in an empty car. Which meant I didn’t have to slowly work toward the door to the next car. I just walked calmly over and slid the doors open. There was no one in that car either and I only passed a couple of drunks sleeping in the next car before I reached the last one. That was empty too. Three stations from where I’d started the train stopped in the tunnel and a voice came over the PA system, “We’ve being given a red light from the station manager ahead. We will be moving as soon as the signal changes. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

Thirty seconds later the doors on the left side of the car slid open. I looked down the car, not seeing anyone, and jumped out into an alcove in the wall of the tunnel. The doors closed behind me and the train started moving. My heart was going a little faster watching the lights trail away. I fumbled with the door, almost falling onto the track before I managed to push it open. I closed it quickly behind me, activating the lights in the short hall. It was brick and dank, just like the tunnels. That always made turning the corner and opening the second door a more complete shock.

The room was huge with vaulted ceilings that had no doubt been part of a station at one time. Spikes of rock hung from the decorative tiling, everything given a yellow tint from the sodium vapor lamps the merchants used. Every bit of floor space was covered in stalls. They sold everything. Everything that wasn’t sold in a store. Old jewelry, electronics, Twig clothes, green tobacco, farm meats and jams that hadn’t been put through government standardizing. If it wasn’t at the Swap, it probably didn’t exist anymore.

I pulled my hat down a little and made my way down the first row. The rows were packed and enough people were brushing and stumbling into each other that I was glad my credits were stuffed in the same pouch as my civilian pass, safe from sticky fingers under my sweater. Not everything was as innocuous as old games and some fresh jam. There were of course booths toward the far corner selling firearms and blades, home fermented alcohol, hotplate cooked meth and dust. Anything and everything. It took some searching, the booths shifted positions as often as The Swap changed locations, but I found the electronics merchants. Grant was sitting behind a table piled high with assorted parts and plugs, looking as surly and greasy as ever.

I stepped in his line of sight, settling my hands on the edge of his table. “I hear you have an Intervision 6000.”

He frowned and narrowed his dark eyes. “You heard wrong. I’ve got maybe a Foxco Version 2. Maybe not even that.”

I shrugged, folding my arms over my chest, aware of his son and several people at the next booth watching us. “You probably don’t have that either. Show me what you do have,” I said in the same derisive tone I’d used on Drammon.

He stood up fast, his thick hands balled into fists. “I’ll show you. I’ve got the best at The Swap,” he grated, turning abruptly and winding the way to the back of his booth where a portable shack had been set up.

I followed behind him, keeping his son in the corner of my eye as the skinny kid took his place behind Grant’s table.

Grant unlocked the heavy padlock and didn’t look at me again until the door was closed behind us. “I got it last night. New shipment came in, just like I said.” Grant’s smile wasn’t any better than his scowl. It actually made his face look even more sinister.

I smiled back diplomatically, unfolding my arms and glancing around at the shack full of unmarked boxes. “Glad to hear it. I wasn’t sure I’d get to you before someone else snapped it up.”

He shook his shaggy head, offering the standard negative. “I would never. We had a deal.” He motioned me to follow him and lead the way through the rows of boxes. “Got it back here with the Foxco Version 6. Now if you want one of those…” he trailed off, standing on his toes, reaching for a box on the top shelf.

“Maybe next time,” I said noncommittally, wondering how he knew what was in each box since there weren’t even serial numbers on them.

“Better machine than this,” he said with a shrug, handing me a white box about the size of a shoebox and flipping the lid open once I had a grip on it.

I looked into the box, counting component cables and admiring the sleek lines of it. Even if the interior wasn’t as good as the Foxco, the Intervision had a certain style to it. And it would fit under my sweater where the other console would get me arrested if I tried to carry it home. “I’ll take it.”

“Seventy credits,” he said, automatically hiking the price up from what we had agreed on a month ago.

I closed the lid, tucking the box under one arm. “Forty-five,” I told him firmly. We had agreed on sixty and I wasn’t paying more than fifty-five.

He ran a hand over the blank boxes on the shelf. “You get a Tranzer System for that money. Sixty-five.”

I shook my head. “And to think, I’m going to get an Intervision for fifty.”

“You think I do this to be generous? I have a family to feed and you’re stealing from them. Don’t you think my son is skinny enough? I need sixty-five,” he said, his voice reedy when he tried for sympathy.

I smiled tightly; I had seen his son eat cartons of food while I’d been making deals with Grant. I pulled out my passbook and took the credits out of the pocket. “I have fifty-five with me now. Either it’s enough or I’ll have to keep looking.”

He pulled the bills out of my hand and held each one up to the light, checking for the purple face behind the numbers. “This’ll do for now. Next time I’m not going to be so generous,” he said, smiling at the point in the transaction where he usually tried his most wounded expression.

“We’ll see what you have next time,” I said, opening the box back up. I took the controllers and tucked them into my belt. The console, in its plastic bag, fit snugly against the small of my back. If I didn’t sit on the train it wouldn’t fall out. I was putting the cables in my pocket when I heard a sound behind me.

I saw a dark shape and then something hit my side with all the force of a speeding car. Then I was blinking and holding my side, looking up at the ceiling and feeling the hard plastic console dig into the small of my back.

“One thousand credits as promised.” I heard a low, faintly accented, voice say as I lay there still trying to make myself move.

I was lifted by my arms, setting off an agony of pain in my side. My vision was edged in red as I dimly saw Grant counting a thick stack of bills. “Take her out the back. Don’t let anyone see you,” he warned, not looking up from his money.

“Not going to be an issue.” The same low voice told him. Then the taser hit me, I couldn’t tell from where because it felt like it was everywhere, and then things went from red to black.

I came awake all at once. The room was bright and smelled like industrial cleaner. The only sounds were the buzz of the fluorescent lights and heavy breathing that I realized was coming from me when each rasp was joined by a searing pain in my chest. When I reached for it, wanting to press the spot, my hands came up short with a rattle of handcuffs. My eyes shot around the rest of the room. There was a metal table and an empty chair. The rest was concrete, gray, run over with water stains and cracks.

The door opened and in the tense silence it was like a crack of thunder. I jumped and made a sharp sound in the back of my throat at the pain.

A tall, thin figure stood in the doorway. He didn’t have to step further in for me to know what he was. My stomach lurched into a tight ball when he did walk in. He dropped his impossibly thin frame into the empty chair. The lights made his greenish, leathery skin gleam. His small hooded eyes wandered over my face and his mouth parted to revealed short slanted teeth. Even knowing he was a Twig didn’t make it less unnerving to see his bone thin hand move, gesturing to a stack of papers he’d set on the table in front of him. The voice was low and sinuous, flowing over the Geennan in a way no human could. It only made sense. Twigs hadn’t been human for a long time. “Grace Tregall, do you know why you’ve been brought here?”

There was a gleam in the solid blue eyes, and I knew I was being toyed with. I sat up as straight as I could and answered in clear precise Standard. “No idea.”

There was a slight pause and the Twig used it to tap the edges of his claws against the metal table making a delicate squeal come from the surface. “Let us try something else. An easier question.” He flipped open a folder with a casual flick of his long hand. “Do you recognize this seal?”

I glanced down briefly and then back up to hold his eyes. It was my seal and the document looked official but I couldn’t chance looking at it long enough to see what it was.

When I didn’t answer he hissed out a sigh, one hand curling to support his chin as he leaned forward. His black coat looked official, ragged but carefully mended and pressed. I didn’t recognize it as belonging to any specific organization. “You must recognize it because it is your own. Unless, maybe, they forge your seal. You the Chief Questioner do not really question, maybe? Maybe you are just a figurehead.”

I felt my stomach tighten into a hard ball. He’d either read a transcript or seen a tape of an interrogation. My own phrases, in secure record at the department, were being flung back at me with an expression that could have been glee on his skeletal face. I wondered if he had a taser and an electro unit hidden away somewhere. Only one way to find out. “Oh it’s my seal. I take special care in my work.”

“So I have seen,” he said; his eyes round for a split second before they narrowed.

He revealed surprise and didn’t seem to realize that he’d also revealed that it was video of me that they had. When I got back to the station Felix and I were going to be hunting down a serious security breach. “So, if we’re following the form, it’s about time you offered me a glass of water and a cigarette.”

An expression I didn’t recognize passed over his narrow features and then he reached into his coat and slid a battered pack of Camels across the table.

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