Paul McAuley

Something Coming Through Chapter 4

4.  The Shadow of the Shuttle

Mangala, July 24th

The murder scene was near the gate of the shuttle terminal’s freight yard, at the end of a track that ran past a construction site and petered out in a slope of grey heath. The shuttle’s tapering skyscraper reared into the dark blue sky like God’s own exclamation mark, its vast shadow falling across the yards and the low white terminal buildings, the construction site and the four-lane highway that ran out towards the city. Beyond the shadow’s edge, the playa burned like hot iron in the sunlight.

A cold wind blew across the heath. Clots of vegetation shivering in the dull half-light, ropes of red dust curling down the unpaved track. Vic Gayle had attended wrongful  deaths in every kind of location, from luxury ‘executive’ apartments to Junktown  hovels. As far as he was concerned, this one was about as bleak as they came.

The security guard who had found the body was sitting with her Alsatian in a golf buggy, parked behind the cruiser of the uniform who’d responded to her call. He leaned against his vehicle, smoking a cigarette, watching the two investigators work. A veteran who knew to keep away from the body. You can only kill someone once, but you can murder a crime scene a hundred times in a hundred different ways.

It was on its back, the body: a white male, late thirties or early forties, dressed in a thin black jacket over a grey sweater, black trousers, work boots. So freshly dead that a trace of astonishment could still be recognised in his face.  Eyes half-open, not yet glazed or sunken. Blood had run from his ears and puddled under his head.

A scooter lay a little way off, a dent in the bodywork under its saddle. Skip Williams pointed out the rental sticker in the lower left-hand corner of the windshield and said it should be easy to trace.

‘My guess is our guy isn’t a local.’

‘Anyone can hire a scooter,’ Vic said.

They were wearing plastic bootees over their shoes, blue nitrile gloves.

Skip said, ‘For sure. But his clothes and boots look brand new. Could be he’s fresh off the shuttle.’

‘Let’s not jump to conclusions,’ Vic said, and winced when Skip walked directly to the body. It was Vic’s habit to circle it first, spiralling inward, checking everything around it, but hey, the kid had answered the phone. The case was his, he had to learn by trial and error how to do things the right way.

Skip Williams had been assigned to violent crimes a week ago. Vic, who’d been working alone since his long-time partner had retired, had been saddled with him. ‘Try not to break him,’ Sergeant Mikkel Madsen had said.

Investigators in the violent-crimes unit usually worked in two-person teams. The person who picked up the phone when a call came in became the principal on the case. Anyone with too many open cases got a Hail Mary pass, but it wasn’t a good idea to accumulate unsolved cases because you’d have to explain yourself to Mikkel Madsen and Captain Colombier. You were answerable to the captain, she was answerable to the chief on the sixth floor, and he was answerable to the city’s mayor and the UN commissioner. Who were currently unhappy with the homicide rate – 637 last year in a city of less than a million people – and the percentage of unsolved cases.

Skip Williams was young, a big blond handsome guy in his late twenties whose shoulders strained the seams of his suit jacket. Unusually, on a world where most of the population was from Europe, he was Australian. Winners in the UN emigration lottery were free to choose their destination, but most preferred the world where people like them lived, served by a shuttle that took off from their own country or close to it.  The shuttle to Mangala took off from France; most of the settlers were from the European  Union. On First Foot it was Americans, Canadians and, because of an odd geopolitical agreement, Taiwanese and a good number of people from Hong Kong.  On Hydrot, mostly West Africans. On Yanos, mostly Russians. And so on. But Skip had been working in London when he’d won his ticket, and instead of returning home and taking the Timor shuttle to Syurga, he’d chosen instead to go up and out via the nearest shuttle, to Mangala.

Like all new arrivals who either couldn’t afford to buy their way out or lacked a professional qualification that would exempt them, he’d spent his first three months on Mangala in the civic labour programme, earning his right to become a citizen. He’d  done his stint on a farm in Idunn’s Valley before moving to Petra and joining the city  police. He’d been quickly promoted from foot patrolman to investigator, working for just a year in street crime before moving to the Mayor’s security detail, which had given him the boost to violent crimes.  There was a rumour that one of the colonels had taken a  shine to him, was grooming him for the prosecutor’s office.

He was cheerful and easygoing, and seemed smart enough, but Vic believed that he was inexperienced and had been promoted too far, too fast. Most murder police were seasoned and cynical. They needed to be, because they had to deal with the worst thing one human being could do to another. Skip was too quick to jump to conclusions, to take things and people at face value. But he had answered the phone.  It was his case.  He had to decide where to take it, and Vic had to throttle back his impulse to take charge or give unwanted advice.

Now Skip switched on his torch and ran its light over the body, staring at it as if trying to force it to yield its secrets by sheer willpower. The secret was that it was dead, and  didn’t care. It was up to Skip to care. It was up to him to speak for his dead.

At last, he clicked off the torch and said that there was no sign of gunshot or stab wounds.

Vic said, ‘That you can see. I had a case a few years ago, a guy lying dead in the street, not a mark on him. I couldn’t find anything, the crime-scene techs couldn’t find anything. It was like he had dropped dead from a heart attack. Then they rolled him, and a bullet fell out of his ear.’

‘If this bloke was shot, he managed to put up a struggle first,’ Skip said, gesturing at the trampled vegetation around the body. It was a dense tangle of thick wires, knee-high, springy as pubic hair. What they called wiregrass, although it really wasn’t much like grass.

The cuffs of Vic’s trousers already bristled with friable fragments. The area around the body had been crushed and flattened. Broken stems gave off a sharp, not unpleasant smell, a little like mentholated mouthwash.

‘You can check any pockets you can reach,’ Vic said.  ‘But don’t roll him. Leave that for the techs.’

‘I know,’ Skip said mildly. He squatted beside the body and felt inside the thin jacket,

then reached into the front pockets of the trousers with scissored fingers.

‘Watch for needles,’ Vic said.

‘A guy dressed like this won’t be a skin-popper,’ Skip said, another assumption he shouldn’t have made, and pulled out a wallet, holding it up between ring- and forefinger.  He showed Vic the items it contained. A credit card issued by the Petra City Bank in the name of John Redway. A fat fold of plastic notes, UN scrip, in a money clip. Several business cards: John Redway, consultant, Cybermat Technologies Inc, an address and telephone number in London. And a key card from the Hotel California.

‘So I was kind of right,’ Skip said, as he dropped the wallet into an evidence bag. ‘Our Mr Redway is a newbie, all right, but a corporate newbie. A legitimate businessman who fell into bad company. This is just the kind of place for a clandestine meeting. Or a shakedown. No cameras. There was an argument, our guy got himself shot, and the bad guys bailed when they saw the security guard coming.’

Vic didn’t say anything.

Skip said, ‘So what’s wrong with that picture?  What did I miss?’

‘I don’t think you have enough to make a picture,’ Vic said.

‘We should definitely check where he was staying.’

‘We can do that once the techs arrive.’

‘I called them again,’ Skip said. ‘They’re still caught up in that bar killing, checking everyone who was in it for blood spatter and whatever. Might be another hour.’

‘Our friend isn’t going anywhere.’

Vic cast around, found tyre tracks in the vegetation cutting away towards a string of Boxbuilder ruins at the top of the slope. He stared off in that direction, then walked back to the road, where Skip was interviewing the security guard.

She had been walking the perimeter fence when she’d heard what sounded like fireworks, her dog had started to bark, and she’d glimpsed a van bucking away across the heath.  She thought it was white; she didn’t know its make.

Skip went through this twice, with gentle patience. When he was finished, Vic asked the guard how many scooters she’d seen.

The woman gave him a suspicious look, as if he’d asked her a trick question. ‘Just the one.  Over there by the poor man.’

Skip and Vic walked a little way off down the road. Skip said, ‘What was that thing about how many scooters?’

Vic showed him the tracks. ‘There are two sets. These must be the van’s. And these are a scooter’s. I’d say one was chasing the other.’

‘You think our man had a pal?’

‘I think we should follow the tracks, see if the people in the van caught up with the guy on the scooter.’

Skip drove slowly over the bumpy ground, wiregrass scraping the underside of the car,

while Vic leaned out of the open window and called out directions. The tracks cut past the Boxbuilder ruins, curving back towards the highway to the city, disappeared when the vegetation petered out into a broad stretch of stony sand. They got out of the car and cast around, but if there had been any tracks in the sand the wind had erased them.  Several warehouses stood a little way off, strung along the highway. Sunlight burning off the flat land beyond. The shuttle looming over everything.

Back in England, in Birmingham, they’d have had a full squad of police and specialists at the scene, access to a network of traffic cams that watched every centimetre of the road system, and drones imaging everything in HD and infra-red and ultraviolet, sniffingfor DNA and trace chemicals, following the spoor of the scooter and van like bloodhounds.

Here on Mangala, they had to make do with a couple of investigators using their eyes and instincts, the promise of a cursory examination by overstretched techs, and more questions than answers.  Such as: did the guy on the second scooter get away, or was he lying dead somewhere out there?

Vic said, ‘We might be able to call in some uniforms tomorrow, have them search the area.’

‘I hope he escaped,’ Skip said. ‘And I hope he has the good sense to come in and tell us what he saw.’

‘He was most likely involved in a criminal enterprise. Good sense doesn’t come into it.’

Vic turned from the cut of the wind, stared up at the shuttle’s enormous exclamation mark.

He said, ‘This guy gets a ticket to ride an alien spaceship to another world.  He’s here two days and gets himself whacked. If I were him, I’d ask for a refund.’

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