As it turned out, Tython hadn’t asked for Officer Curtweather by name. They’d asked for “the same officers who were originally handling the case”.
“There’s an important distinction there?” Zai asked. “It’s still hard to tell when you humans are being indirect just to be coy, and when it’s because you actually lack the information to be clear about what you want.”
“In this case it’s meaningful,” Ai said. “Dispatch has a general policy against giving out the names of officers working on open criminal cases. In theory it’s for our protection but in practice it’s because they want a piece of any bribery that’s going to happen.”
“So Tython couldn’t know the same cops were on the two cases which means it’s just a coincidence that we were involved in two different investigations that relate to Tython today?” Zai asked.
“Officially we were requested to preserve the chain of witnesses,” Ai said. “In theory we’re more likely to notice if anything has been done to the body since we first observed the crime scene and we can present the most compelling case for the findings that are uncovered since we can provide the greatest degree of direct testimony.”
“And what’s the reason they actually want you on this?” Zai asked.
“Probably because it means fewer bribes will be required as hush money about whatever we find,” Ai said, “or they’re planning to kill us and with this approach they only need to pay for two kills, not four.”
“Should I be on the lookout for incoming assassins?” Zai asked.
“Pretty much always, but in this case I’m guessing we won’t have to start ducking bullets until the forensic folks determine cause of death and all the other fun stuff they put together,” Ai said.
“I love how the forensic reports always come up when we get within a half mile of the crime scene,” Curtweather said, indicating the new update that was pinging for attention on their data feed. “It’s almost like they don’t want us to know that they’re using automated drones for all their real work and never log a day in the field if they don’t have to.”
“Didn’t you shoot at least one of them?” Ai asked.
“It was only one, and he was a serial killer using his position to disguise his crimes,” Curtweather said.
“How much did you pay to make that story true?” Ai asked.
Curtweather didn’t dignify that with a response. The actual sum was low enough though that Ai suspected there was some measure of truth to Curtweather’s story.
The body hadn’t been moved since the last time Ai saw it. The simple tarp they’d hung over it was gone though. It was absent from the forensics report which meant the locals hadn’t waited long to scavenge it. No one had bothered the body because no one needed the kind of trouble that came from leaving identifiable evidence on a murder victim. One stray hair was all that was required for a conviction in some cases and lawyers that could argue successfully against physical evidence were more expensive than anyone who lived in the vicinity could afford.
“The official report lists cause of death as asphyxiation,” Curtweather said. “How did they ever get that out of this mess?”
“Cranial scan,” Ai said.
“Not much of a head left though is there?” Curweather asked.
“I’m trying not to think about that,” Ai said.
“For someone trying to avoid a gruesome spectacle, you sure are sending a lot of imagery out for processing,” Zai said.
“Sure, I want Tython to see they’re getting their money’s worth,” Ai said. “Also, if there’s some secret we’re supposed to be discovering I want to make sure we’re not the only ones who have access to it.”
“Isn’t that why most case files are secured while they’re open though? So that the guilty parties can’t hide evidence that hasn’t yet been discovered?” Zai asked.
“That’s one benefit,” Ai said. “The other is that it’s easier to bluff when your opponent isn’t sure what information you possess.”
“Then why give away what you’ve discovered?” Zai asked.
“For a rookie officer this would be self preservation,” Ai said. “Tython is too big a entity to try to extort. They can get away with erasing people who are inconvenient to them, even rookie beat cops. Erasing a whole precinct though? That’s a lot of red on the balance sheet to incur for a secret that you were sloppy enough to dump in an alley.”
“So it’s self-preservation for a rookie cop, what is it for you?” Zai asked.
“Tiny little traps,” Ai said. “We know Tython is involved in the standard array of illicit activities. The question is whether they’re far enough below board that it’s worth acquiring them.”
“How do pictures and additional forensics requests do that?” Zai asked.
“Tython is going to be watching what goes on here, but I need to know who in Tython is calling the shots. It’ll either be a middle manager looking to cover up a colossal blunder, which is honestly what I’m expecting, or it’ll be someone completely unimportant.”
“So the best you’re hoping to catch is an incompetent middle manager?” Zai asked.
“Nope, I’m looking for a ghost,” Ai said. “The ‘completely unimportant someone’? That’ll be a lie. It’ll be the mask someone with an ounce of sense uses to carry out the real work that Tython needs to have done for it. If someone like that is looking into this then we’ll know that it’s a thread that’s worth following further.”
“And if it’s a mask that looks like a bumbling manager?” Zai asked.
“Then we check back in on him in a couple of months,” Ai said. “If he still exists then we see if we can break his life a bit and see what comes pouring out. Nobody makes only one blunder and each one will cast shadows that other plans might be hiding in.”
“This is interesting,” Curtweather said. “According to the our forensic guy, the body was ejected by a sanitation truck.”
Ai looked around the street and noticed the lack of sorted trash bags on the curb.
“They have automated pick up here?” she asked.
“Yeah, that’s odd isn’t it?” Curtweather said.
“How did an automated truck get a body in it?” Ai asked.
“Someone put it there,” Curtweather said, smirking like it was the observation of a genius.
“Can we get the logs from the truck?” Ai asked.
“Looks like we can not,” Curtweather said. “The thing’s running only basic collection processes. Monitors and recording gear failed three years ago but aren’t on the required accessory list for licensing so it’s been working without them ever since.”
“Odds that the killer didn’t know that?” Ai asked.
“Slim to none,” Curtweather said. “Given that he didn’t leave anything for the ID sniffers to identify him with though I think it’s a given we’re dealing a smart guy.”
“Everybody makes mistakes though right?” Ai said.
“Yeah,” Curtweather said. “Doesn’t mean it’s worth the effort of finding them, but it’s a nice theory to run with.”
Which was how most investigations went in Ai’s experience. Look for the easiest collection of facts that could be fit into a narrative, find or make some corroborating physical evidence and/or produce an eyewitness who’s been properly bought out and the case can sail through the court system. Just make sure not to indict anyone with either wealth or influence and there won’t be any meaningful push back.
On the one hand that made working within the system trivially easy so long as you acknowledged the unjust realities and took advantage of them. On the other hand that system had cost Ai both a father and a brother already, so merely destroying it wasn’t going to be enough. Destroying things was too easy.
Gamma City thought it could take whatever it wanted from her, but Gamma City wasn’t the all powerful megalopolis it was imagined to be. In the end Gamma City was nothing more than people. People who made mistakes like the pile of dead guy at Ai’s feet.
“Easiest thing is going to be to look into who this guy was,” Ai said. “Tython’s going to expect at least that much in the official report right?”
“That they will, and since you thought of it, you get to compile all the docs need to make them happy!” Curtweather said.
“I thought it was your sterling reputation they were looking for?” Ai said.
“I’m not saying you’ll sign your name to it,” Curtweather said. “You do the work, I get the credit, and we’re both happy, get it?”
“You know I’m going to a really half-assed job on this then don’t you?” Ai said.
“Oh I’ll be leaving your name on the copy that I hand in to the Captain,” Curtweather said, smiling at his own cleverness.
“I hate you, but I’m not going to lie, I’m going to steal that one myself someday,” Ai said. Encouraging her mentor to make himself look less competent in the eyes of their employer seemed a like a good career move in Ai’s view. That Curtweather hadn’t considered that spoke to how little he thought of himself as her mentor.
“Good, then steal this one too; all those requests you sent out mean the forensics team needs to do another pass, which means we have to set up an official cordone,” Curtweather said. He tossed her a roll of police tape. “Start stringing it up. I’ll be…taking notes.”
Taking notes with his eyes closed in the cruiser wasn’t precisely the same as napping but Ai couldn’t think of any method to distinguish between the two, including monitoring brainwave activity.
A few minutes without Curtweather’s company was an opportunity she wasn’t going to pass up though.
She had two sides of a large square around the body marked off with yellow police tape when Zai pinged a targeting reticle onto her vision.
“I don’t think that’s an assassin but she’s been watching us for a few minutes now and this doesn’t seem like the kind of neighborhood where people do that to cops,” Zai said.
Ai let the optics on her uniform shift her vision to focus on the target Zai had found. The woman was familiar. The last time Ai had seen her though, there’d been the small matter of a missing leg preventing Ai from focusing on her fully.
“Has she been watching me or Curtweather?” Ai asked.
“She keeps glancing back to you, but her attention is primarily focused on the corpse.” Zai said.
Ai felt like she should take offense at that, but being more common than a gruesomely mutilated body seemed like the kind of world she wanted to live in, so she let it pass.
By contrast though, Ai had a hard time keeping her attention off the woman who was spying on her. The tattoos the woman wore were precise and intricate to the point of being a sort of artistic circuit board that covered the parts of her body her rough leathers left visible. Initially, Ai had mistaken the metal bits protruding from the woman’s skin for elaborate piercings. With further observations they seemed more intrinsic than that.
Malfunctioning bits of biotech?
It was a possibility but an unlikely one. They didn’t appear to be random. There was a meaningful asymmetry to their layout and pattern.
“I think I want to talk to that one,” Ai said, her pulse quickening as their gazes met. “She’s not here by accident.”
“The last time we saw her there was an NME nearby,” Zai said. “Should we maybe call for backup? I mean, Curtweather’s expendable isn’t he?”
“I think I’d rather have a more private conversation in this case,” Ai said. “If she knows something about the NMEs and our pile of corpse here then our little chat will cover some things that the GCPD is better off not knowing.”
“I see only one problem with that,” Zai said. “She’s getting away.”
Ai looked up and found the window the woman had been spying on her from empty.
With a quick glance at the cruiser to confirm that Curtweather was napping, Ai was in motion. She’d missed one chance to question the woman already, she wasn’t going to miss another.a