Year Fifty-Six after Landfall
The protest, more whisper than scream, perked up the young boy’s ears, and he sat perfectly still, hairs raised on end while he waited for the plea to sound again. Had he imagined it? As the seconds ticked by, their silent march comforted him a little, and he relaxed and continued to play with the small toy horse Grandpa had given him. Moments later, however, the silence vanished again when he heard a muffled movement from where the plea had come. He raced downstairs and through the hallway, opened the door at its end, and saw her.
Her face, framed by the door, was centered amid a thousand camera flashes exploding all about her. He covered his face and shut his eyes tightly until the lights faded, and when he looked out again, he saw snow-covered trees surrounding him, their bottom halves encased in a thick fog, and the toy horse, now life-sized, grazed upon the grass nearby. But what most alarmed him was the sound of sobbing. Mom! He would not hesitate, not this time, and he mounted the horse and rode down the hill and followed the sound through the dense branches until he broke through the forest’s edge. There he laid eyes on a grand lake, frozen solid, with a solitary figure standing upon it near the shore.
The figure turned to him solemnly. Her white robes flapped in the hard, cold wind that blew her hair and obscured her face. “No,” she said.
Alyn spurred on the horse and charged out onto the frozen water.
He pulled the horse up and checked the ice below: a single hairline fracture marred its glass-like structure. Just as his fear subsided, a greater terror overtook him when he surveyed the lake again. Mom had disappeared. He scanned his surroundings and saw her farther up toward the center of the lake.
“Mom!” he said with a desperate shout as he urged the toy horse forward, faster this time. He had just about closed the distance when he heard the frightful noise again.
The hairline fracture had widened tenfold and lanced out from the shore past him, but the ice appeared safe for the moment, so he scanned the lake again to find her. She stood near its center, back turned and hunched over slightly, with a hand covering her face as she appeared to weep uncontrollably. The fissure creaked and popped as innumerable crystalline cracks spidered outward from its core. He had little time left, but he steeled himself against any other course. This time, he would save her.
He hastened the horse into a gallop, and in that instant, she took him in with woeful eyes and cast them aside moments later.
The ice splintered in a million fragments and opened up a great hole beneath her. She toppled into freezing water that gushed up and enveloped her and took her down into the lake’s depths.
Alyn’s head jerked back against the headrest as he woke abruptly from the dream. How he had dozed off was anyone’s guess. The driver had prattled rapid-fire over the last two hours, and the springs beneath the thin upholstery prodded him mercilessly with each bump in the road. Thankfully he was almost home. The vehicle rattled and shook as it started across the bridge that spanned the river, the loud noise answering Alyn’s prayers as the man paused to focus on something in the distance.
“Grant’s a smart cookie—one of the best damn governors we’ve ever had—but she made a mistake with all this,” the driver said as he extended a finger from atop the car’s steering wheel toward the side of the bridge.
Alyn followed it and spied the factories in the distance—squat gray cubes clustered around the ocean shoreline, lifeless and weathered. The driver explained that they had been brought from Earth and reassembled there, churning out the needs of the fledgling colony while it struggled to gain its legs. It was why so much of Primis resembled Earth: the houses and buildings, vehicles, and consumer goods were made of parts and materials furnished from the same assembly lines and molds. But times had changed. The colony was now on firmer footing, confident and advancing, and as a result, these factories puffed the smoke of industry no longer, having been replaced by modern ones.
“My dad worked in that one thirty years. Retired full pension. But those days are over—ever since she gave those contracts to those damn corporations and they rebuilt them far into the Frontier where you can pay people peanuts. Even then, just a fraction of the jobs are left since the four horsemen moved in—Automation, Robotics, Big Data, and AI. Bottom line is more important than a person’s right to provide for their family.”
“Yeah, true,” Alyn said. He had no time for politics and it was better not to encourage the chatterbox. That was the thing about ride-share programs—you never knew who would pick you up. Admittedly, Yehven wasn’t that bad, just lonely. He had been recently divorced and lived alone, far from his adult children, who both had moved into the Frontier.
“Tell you, though, I do like her. Tough gal, that one … only person in government who gives a damn about the little guy and the only one willing to push back against the Foundationalists. She’ll rain hell on them after the cinema bombing a few days back. I know the polls are running close, but mark my words, she’ll win the election.”
“Speaking of governors, you said your name was—uh—Alyn Frederick? Any relationship to the Alyn Frederick, you know—the late governor?”
“No. None at all.” Alyn Frederick Jr. lied again, for he could predict the next words that would come from Yehven’s mouth:
Your grandfather was a good man.
One of our great Founders.
The colony would never have progressed so far without him.
You must be so proud.
Alyn was proud of Grandpa. He just wasn’t in the mood to talk, not after today’s events, and even less so now because the wobbly car was making him sick. By now, he could taste bile in his throat, which meant it was time to leave before things got nasty.
“No, eh?” Yehven looked askance at him. “Some coincidence, huh? I read he passed away a few years back. Too bad. Was a good man.”
Alyn rolled his eyes. “Over here is good,” he said, pointing ahead to the vehicle charging station just past the end of the bridge. He could take the river path home and it’d be good to catch some fresh air.
Yehven yanked the wheel to the left, eased the car into the empty lot, and brought the vehicle to a halt. “You sure? I can take you the whole way.”
“Yeah. It’s just a short walk from here.”
“Well, it’s been great getting to know you. You’re quite the conversationalist.” Yehven extended his hand.
Alyn shook it, dumbfounded by the remark. He had actually said very little in comparison to the driver.
“Enjoy your trip home. I wish you well.” The man’s eyes drifted off for a moment before they came around to him again. “That reminds me. About that girl at school. The one you told me about back there? I forgot to share the secret. Would you like to hear it?”
“Don’t be afraid.”
“Of asking her out. It’s that simple. It’s all here.” Yehven pointed to his temple. “It’s in your head. Don’t think too much, you know? You’ll know when it’s right. Trust me.”
Alyn nodded and delivered his best impression of a sincere smile. Don’t think too much? Was he kidding? That was the worst advice he had ever received about women!
“Thanks for the ride.” He stepped out onto the asphalt, closed the door, and waved as the car sped away from him.
He walked the short distance back to the foot of the bridge and stopped where the trail began its serpentine path alongside the river. He gazed out across the water, deep into the Frontier, and looked for the little prairie town where he had come from, but it was indistinguishable in the twilight. The new space port’s towering beacon provided the only clue to its existence. Its little red light stood alone, stoic and courageous, as it blinked starkly against the coming night. Alyn looked up into the sky above it. The twin moons and thousands of twinkling stars shone brightly as the last sliver of the sun dipped below the horizon. As if on cue, a choir of bullfrogs crooned to the hand of some unseen conductor, their jubilant chorus echoing into the silence and rejoicing that night had conquered day. Alyn exhaled a slow, deep breath, awestruck by nature’s beauty, and humbled by its scale and timelessness. How was it that the universe was so orderly when he, something much less grand, roiled with chaos?
The moons, discontented with their lot, glared down and cast their judgment, as if to say, We’ve danced for eons, pirouetting in perfect, unerring unison. You, sir, share none of this burden, carry none of this weight. What’s your excuse? It was a good question.
But Alyn had an answer, as any good supplicant would, and it was the very reason why he now stared up at them. For mere hours ago he had stood not just in front of two discerning witnesses, but an audience of two hundred. Their admission paid with hard-earned wages, they settled in comfortable seats justified in their firm belief that they should be entertained, each face stamped with a smug smile that declared, I honored my part of the bargain, now you—make me laugh.
It was to be Alyn’s moment, the moment he would rise above his fear. He would delight the discriminating spectators and, buoyed by their approval, screw up the courage to finally ask out Dorothy Dinh. He had fallen hard for her the first time he’d set his eyes on her glossy black hair, brown eyes, and warm, thin-lipped smile, and on that Friday night stage, they would cross eyes and deliver the lines they had practiced and polished in the weeks prior. The audience would lean in, teetering on the edge of their seats, and hang on every word and gesture. And their scene would culminate in laughter and tears, ovations and roses, and finally when the curtain dropped and the night fell, she would look at him, and he at her, and she would take his hand.
But it hadn’t happened that way, not even close. Yes, he’d made them laugh, but not in the way he had envisioned, for somewhere deep inside, the fault lines of panic had opened up and an abyss of fear had swallowed his nerve. He’d frozen. Simply stared out at the audience, mouth agape and eyes wide, stricken by stage fright. In utter humiliation, he had fled the stage at the audience’s mocking laughter, hitched a ride in Yehven’s car, and now stood before the moons, asking, Is this excuse enough?
The moons did not answer.
He shook his head as he shifted focus back to the present moment and checked his wristwatch. Moonlight danced along its shiny titanium case and frolicked through the large domed crystal as he drew his sleeve back to take it in. He loved looking at Grandpa’s old Centauri I Holographic Time. Its crisp lines and Earth vintage had a timeless beauty that never ceased to captivate Alyn. Of the thirteen built to commemorate the Great Voyage fifty-six years ago, seven or fewer remained in working condition. The words Transcend Our Limitations were engraved along the top curve of the polished silver case back and The Great Voyage ran along its bottom. Centered between these the number 13 was engraved in thick bold numerals. For all its grandeur, the fact that it had been there when Grandpa had left a dying Earth and partaken of the great events of their age—the Great Voyage, Landfall, the Dark Days, and the Settlement—spoke to a greater pedigree. The watch had borne witness to those trying times, and it, like Grandpa, had survived them all.
Alyn rotated the watch’s crown a half turn counterclockwise. Iridescent red numbers sprang to life and floated just above the black dial. They read 5:00 p.m. He wondered about Dad. Had he eaten? More so, what state he was in? His father’s mental health had seemed to worsen ever since Alyn left for school three years ago, and it was anyone’s guess what he’d walk into now.
Alyn turned his back to the moons and gently popped in the earbuds that he had produced from his knapsack. Just two taps on his sleeve’s FabricTouch interface and he could push it all away for a time. With the first tap, he chose his favorite genre—1990s heavy metal. With the second, the song “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. Its up-tempo beat and harrowing power chords set him off with a hop as he bounded down the trail with the recurrent head nod common to fans of the genre. He entered the park about ten minutes later and passed the seesaws, swings, and jungle gyms sitting idle in the dusk. He made for the far exit, noticing the smooth sand underfoot before he looked up and immediately dug his heels into it. He lowered his earbuds slowly as his eyes locked onto the figure standing just ahead of him.
“Frederick? That you? What? You stupid? What are you doing back in town?”
“Damon? Hey …”
The young man emerged from the gate and closed the distance between them quickly. He was several inches taller and much broader than Alyn and walked with a confident swagger. “I thought all the college sissies hated this town,” he said. “Why aren’t you and your sissy friends in the library, studying Marxism or writing poetry?” Damon stopped a few inches in front of him and blocked his path to the gate.
“Well, you know. Came to see Dad.”
“Dad? Your dad?” Damon sneered. “You mean the drunken stooge who the paramedics found ranting face down in your front yard the other day? Shit. I was the one who found him. Thought he was dead but when I got close, all I could hear was him talking about beaming at the speed of light, and how it makes you sick and crazy. That’s what he kept saying. I heard it! What an embarrassment. And you? A chip off the old block. Seems greatness skipped two generations.”
“It’s just that—he has his problems. You know?”
“What about you? You got a problem?”
Damon reared back with a cocked fist and struck him in the face. Alyn hit the ground hard, his knapsack taking most of the brunt, but the sharp edges of the textbooks inside pierced into his back, knocking the wind out of him for a moment.
Damon hovered over him and scowled. “I haven’t forgotten the prank you pulled on me in senior year. I never got the chance to personally show you how I felt about it, you know, with the teachers around and all. But I got a memory like an elephant, I never forget. Now you get up so I can prove it to you.”
Alyn tasted the blood that oozed from his nose and trembled in anticipation of the next series of blows.
A new voice came from the darkness. “Hey, dickhead. You wanna tussle? Let’s tussle. You and me!”
Alyn craned his neck around to see who had just spoken. It was Donel. Donel? What was he doing here?
“Saved in the nick of time again, Frederick, you chickenshit,” Damon said. “You always seem to have others fight your battles for you. Donel, my beef isn’t with you, so you fellas have a good night.” With that, Damon turned on his heels and left the park through the back gate.
Donel stood over Alyn and lowered a hand to help him up. “What an asshole,” he said before stooping to pick up the earphones that had fallen off in the tussle. He cleaned them on his shirt quickly and popped them on for a few moments before returning them to Alyn. “Still listening to this archaic stuff? Music has literally advanced light-years since Earth. No wonder you’re single.”
Alyn ignored him. He’d heard it all before. “Hey, Donel. What are you doing here?”
“That any way to thank the guy who scared away the boogey man?”
“Sorry. Thank you. I thought Damon would’ve outgrown that by now. I mean, it was a simple little prank.”
“It’s not every day a guy gets two dozen spiders in his pants, Alyn. S’pose it’s something he’s bound to never forget. Like an elephant.”
“I suppose. So, tell me. How’d you find me?”
“What? Oh, c’mon. It’s Year Fifty-Six after Landfall. Everyone has the Friendzee app on their phones by now. Mine alerts me only when my best of friends are in the vicinity. Lucky for you, you made the cut. See here.” Donel stuck his phone in Alyn’s face.
Blinded by the bright screen, Alyn drew his head back. “What’s that?”
Donel lowered the phone. “The app settings. The green checkmark against your name says you opted in.”
“But I didn’t, Donel.”
“Yes, you did.” He paused as if considering something. “Ah … but you wouldn’t remember, would you? The last time you were home? At Troon’s party?” Alyn gave him a blank stare. “You were shit-faced.”
Alyn gave a half-hearted smirk before several droplets of blood dripped down at his feet. He sniffed and held his nose in a futile attempt to staunch the flow.
Donel looked down. “I’ll say one thing, he clocked you good.” He reached behind him and produced a white handkerchief from his back pocket. “Here.”
Alyn took it, tilted his head back and placed it on his nose. “Thanks.”
“What brings you home?”
“Came to see Dad.”
“You mean your acting debut had nothing to do with it?”
Alyn stared at his friend in shock.
“C’mon, Alyn. It hit my social media feed. Your deeds travel much faster than you do, especially the foolish ones. So, what happened?”
Dorothy’s smiling face came to mind, and he couldn’t help but watch it again as it turned from joy to absolute horror. That was the last look he remembered. “I froze. Right in front of an audience of two hundred and now I’m the laughingstock of the school.”
“As I said before, no wonder you’re still single.”
“Hmm … some friend.”
Donel flashed a genuine smile. “Buddy. Come out tonight. Han is hosting a party. It’ll be good and we’ll drown your sorrows in copious amounts of alcohol. We can prime at my house before. Dad’s liquor cabinet is well stocked as Mom’s been on his case after the holidays. He’s out of town and she goes to bed at like, 9:30, so come just before then. She’d like to see you and all.”
“That should work. I’ll check in with Dad and swing by after.” Alyn had no intention of doing so. The thought of all those people judging him was just too much.
Donel’s face softened but he moved quickly to hide it. “Good. Listen, I gotta run. Need to pick up some milk before dinner.”
“Okay. See you later then.”
“Catch ya on the flip side, Frederick.” Donel’s white teeth gleamed in the moonlight as he gave his trademark farewell and then trotted out the front of the park.
Alyn exited the park at the opposite end, fuming. He wasn’t sure what he was angrier about, that Damon was such a prick or that his father was such an embarrassment. His dad hadn’t always been like that. Times were good when he was younger. Dad was just like all the other dads then, easy going, nice but firm when the situation warranted, industrious and funny on occasion too. What had changed over the past several years? What demons had crept in and pushed him to the brink of madness?
The gate squeaked as he pushed it open and clanged as it swung back and shut tight within its latch.
“Hazel!” The scrappy, yellow cockapoo rushed over to greet him, tongue panting through a wide, toothy grin. Her small body swayed back and forth in unison with her bushy tail. “Hey, girl!”
The dog leaped and knocked Alyn back on his tailbone, and he laughed as ten kilograms of kinetic joy smothered and licked him. He had missed his pet these past few months at school, and apparently, Hazel had missed him too. Alyn held the handkerchief tight to his nose and fended off the blissful attack with the other hand. Eventually he managed to get up and start for the house. Hazel nipped at his heels as he approached the porch stairs, where he paused to scoop up the dog’s orange ball. With a flick of his wrist, he sent the ball flying across the yard, careening off the fencepost and rolling under a small opening in the woodpile. The canine darted across the yard to fetch it out. Alyn smiled as Hazel labored to get to it, and, not wanting to wait, he climbed the steps and opened the door.
As he entered, he noticed something strange about the alarm console that adorned the wall beside the entranceway. Its little battery compartment was open and two shiny batteries sat on the kitchen counter below it, next to their plastic cover. Strange. It wasn’t like Dad to have anything out of order. He peered around the cupboards and into the kitchen, and what he saw shook him to his core.
His father lay in a pool of blood upon the tiled floor. Spatter radiated out in all directions from his motionless body, the crimson droplets filling the open spaces and walls as if flicked from a bushy, saturated paintbrush. A stranger squatted near him and rested a blood-soaked knife on the floor—calmly, as if it was no big deal. Strangest yet was that the man now rolled back his father’s sleeve and inspected his arm right up to his elbow. He paused and gave a dissatisfied huff before he did the same for the other arm. He appeared to find nothing there either. In frustration, he grabbed Alyn’s father by the collar and shook him violently. “Where is it?” the man shouted.
His scream tightened Alyn’s throat and sent a cold shiver through him. What was this? His eyes saw clearly but his mind simply could not grasp what was playing out in front of him. He felt faint but quickly roused himself, retreated around the edge of the cupboards and, leaning against them, placed a hand on the counter to steady himself. Somewhere, on the fringe of his perception, he heard the sound of a battery as it rolled down the countertop. Had he nudged it? Silence followed briefly as it sailed off the edge and plunged to the tiled floor, ringing out like a thunderclap.
Startled, the stranger got up and peered around the cupboards. Alyn stared back, frozen in place.
The whoosh of rushing wind and smack of pelting rain startled Sergeant Peters. From his vantage point in the kitchen, he could see through the hallway that a man had just entered the front door. After a brief struggle against the torrent, the man slammed the door shut, shielding himself from the elements and dampening the noise so it was quiet again. He wiped his feet on the entry mat and hung his trench coat and tan trilby on the rack in the front foyer. Both dripped wet and seemed to sag under the weight of the water. Peters knew the guy. Detective Elroy Marcus. Though they weren’t exactly friends, they had interacted on several investigations over the years. Marcus fumbled in the breast pocket of his weathered blazer, produced a red handkerchief, and used it to clean the fog from his eyeglasses. Stooped and sullen, he worked his long bony fingers over the lenses, slowly and deliberately, without a glance around or word uttered. He had a weariness about him now, as if he had lost his spark, and it was no surprise to Peters after what had happened to him.
“Nice Roosevelts,” said Peters, trying to break the ice with something light and complimentary. “I’m in the market to replace my horn-rims. Was thinking ’bout a pair.”
Marcus placed his glasses on, tucked the handkerchief back into its pocket, and donned a thin pair of latex gloves that he’d mysteriously produced from another unseen pocket. He entered the kitchen. Peters wasn’t sure if Marcus had heard him or ignored him; either way, the detective’s eyes had not left the dead man lying in a pool of blood.
“What’ve we got?” Marcus said, turning to Peters. But he stopped short at the sight of the navy-blue blazer hanging on the chair near the kitchen’s island. He continued to stare at it for several moments before he met Peters’s gaze.
“Oh. Heh.” Peters reached over and snatched the blazer. “It’s hot in here.” He folded it over his arm and cleared his throat. “Ahem. Male. Forty-five years of age. Owner of this house. Name’s Joseph Frederick.”
Marcus squatted near the body and regarded it carefully.
“Scene is yours, Detective. However, if you don’t mind, how long do you need to wrap this up? I’s at the end of my shift when the call came and I turn back to day shift tomorrow. It’s a drag you know.”
“Not long, Sergeant.” Marcus’s attention remained focused on the body. He nodded slightly twice and repeated, “Not long.”
The victim lay straight on his back as if down for a nap. A bloody handprint was near his head, its crimson fingers spread out at an angle from the body and pointed toward his feet. It was accompanied by a single pawprint, also stained in red, near the side door.
Marcus lay down beside the man, at a distance so as to not disturb the pool and spatter, and closed his eyes for a good thirty seconds or so, after which they sprang open. He angled himself into a sitting position and pushed himself up from the floor with his left hand. He wobbled a little before standing, then turned and regarded the print with deep intention. Several moments later, he put his hands on his hips and cast his eyes around the room before making his way through it, stopping at various objects in situ. A brown suede wallet and a sleek unblemished smartphone lay on the island countertop in the center of the kitchen. Marcus flipped the wallet open, lifted the cards out one by one, and thumbed through the cash. He gazed down at the mobile phone but did not pick it up, and for good reason—they were a magnet for fingerprints. The lab guys freaked when they were smudged, and they’d do a more thorough sweep of the phone’s contents if they were in a good mood, but he tapped the bottom corner of the screen anyway.
“Strange,” he muttered to himself. The phone’s screen lit up and displayed a digital page from the Observer’s classifieds section with an ad titled, “Car for Sale.” Frederick’s car’s make and model were listed there, along with the asking price and his address.
Next, Marcus squatted beside a desk lamp on the floor that was broken into two pieces. He brought his eyes down to floor level and examined the threaded seam that connected its halves together, concluding this undertaking with a furrowed brow. He lingered by a dog bowl full of untouched kibble and also at a blood-stained white handkerchief on the floor.
“No murder weapon?” Marcus said under his breath.
Peters grew nervous at the question. As an experienced officer, he knew the three lessons of crime scene investigation. One, defer to the investigating detective; two, speak only when spoken to; and three, if you must speak, stick to the facts, stupid. Detectives were a funny bunch, he thought, and Marcus topped the list. Who knew how he’d react if Peters broke the code? He remained silent and watched the detective over the next thirty minutes as he perused at his own pace, seemingly oblivious to any other presence.
Nothing escaped his attention. The window over the clean, empty sink that was open a crack. The immaculate countertop, with its row of neatly arranged cream-colored tin cans that read Tea, Coffee, and Sugar. The various contents of the drawers and cupboards. Marcus scrutinized all, pausing here and there to get their measure before moving to the area near the back door where two double-A batteries were situated on the floor. Marcus stared at them, apparently lost in thought, for much longer than Peters thought was necessary before the detective looked up at the wall-mounted alarm console, its front cover was swung open to expose the feature keys. The plastic panel that covered the emergency battery compartment had been removed, and the two open slots revealed where the batteries had likely come from. Marcus moved close to the unit and read the text printed on the tiny yellow service tag stuck to it. He then unlocked his phone and dialed a number, alternating his focus between the tag and the phone until he was done. He spoke with someone for a minute or two before he hung up.
“Strange,” he said. “Alarm company said there was no service call scheduled at this address for today. It was to be tomorrow.”
Peters nodded but stayed silent.
Marcus directed his gaze to the thermostat anchored on the wall beside the alarm console. It was set at eighteen degrees Celsius.
The wind wailed again as Marcus exited through the back door and into the rain. Peters stood in the doorframe while the detective cast a wide net over the backyard. The intermittent clangor of metal on metal drew him to the rear gate, where he studied it closely for a while before something else caught his attention. It was a neighbor, who waltzed through the laneway and struck up a conversation with him. He followed her into her backyard next door.
Peters moved back into the kitchen and waited. Several minutes later, Marcus stepped in through the rear door and entered the kitchen with that expressionless face. What did he make of the scene? Marcus must certainly have a theory. It was said that he was the best, known throughout the precinct as a phenomenon—the guys called him the Sage.
The Sage crouched in front of the body again, gazing ahead to a point far into the distance, again lost in thought. He drew in a slow, deep breath, closing his eyes before exhaling. Peters grew more anxious by the second.
“Strange thing that neighbor said. Thought she saw someone out of the corner of her eye running through her backyard as she took out the trash. Frederick’s dog was barking something fierce so she couldn’t be sure with all the noise, so she went down the side of her house to investigate—but found no one. Strange since the space is hemmed in by a fifteen-foot fence and blocked by a large shed at its end. Saw it with my own eyes. There’s no way out unless you’re an Olympic-caliber athlete. She said it was about five hours ago.” Marcus paused and glanced about the room casually. “Anyway, whaddaya think?”
Peters fumbled his words as he said, “As you can see … lotsa defense wounds … hands, wrists … arms and all, but the big one is right there.” He pointed at the victim’s chest. “The perp stuck ’im. See. There, under the sternum. Right in the heart. Hell of a blow, man. Probably killed him before he hit the floor.” No sooner had the words left his mouth than he knew he’d broken the first damn rule. Shit.
However, Marcus didn’t seem to care, just stared absently at him for a moment before he took in the body again. “Not exactly,” he said. “Looks like Mr. Frederick survived at least a few minutes before he succumbed to his wounds.”
“How ya know?” Shit. Peters admonished himself for breaking the second rule. But Marcus seemed to entertain the dialogue for now. It was odd, but so was Marcus.
“His position on the floor, mostly. He’s not all jangled up. No contorted angles of the arms and legs that happen when a lifeless body hits the ground.” Marcus produced a classic ballpoint pen from inside his blazer and clicked it on. “There,” he said pointing to the left of the body. “The bloody handprint couldn’t have got there from its current position. Arms don’t bend that way. Poor soul must’ve propped himself up on his palm after he was stabbed.”
“Huh.” Peters nodded in appreciation.
“Another thing is strange. Why not take the money, the cards? Those phones are worth a king’s ransom these days. And where’s the dog?”
Peters decided to remain quiet for now. It was safer.
But Marcus persisted in engaging him. “So, how long d’you think he’s been lying here?”
Here he goes again, thought Peters. Why’s he putting me on the spot? He tapped a fingernail on the countertop’s hard quartz in an attempt to release some of his nervous energy. It didn’t work, and his mind raced even faster. Maybe he could cut his losses? Tell Marcus, “I dunno, Detective,” and it might end there? Perhaps flattery would get the detective off his back. Maybe “I’m really not qualified, Detective” or “It’s above my paygrade” would extricate him from the situation? Probably not, but it was better to play it safe.
“Fucked if I know, Detective,” he said with an air of indifference.
Marcus looked him in the eye for the first time that day. “Nah, Sergeant. Gimme your best guess. It’s a freebie,” he said, pulling a hand toward himself as if to say, “C’mon, I dare you.” He settled in, perfectly still, and waited for an answer.
The man was an odd one indeed, but Peters’s buttons were being pushed now and he’d be damned if he would flatter him—rules or no rules. Ah, fuck it! However, Peters’s contrived bravado failed to deliver the goods as he said, “Uh … hard for me to say, Marcus. I mean, I ain’t no detective, but I seen more’n my share of these right? So, judgin’ by the blood, I’d say maybe three and a half hours max.”
“Hmm …” Marcus closed his eyes again. He drew a hand to his chin and scratched it absently. “Good guess, Sergeant. The room’s ambient temperature and viscosity of the pooled blood indicate two things. That the body hasn’t been moved and that it was here three, maybe three and a half hours.” Marcus’s eyes shot open. He rose to his full height the instant afterward and gazed down at the body.
Peters nodded slowly in acknowledgment and gave a silent prayer of thanks. He’d gotten off easy.
“However,” Marcus went on, “we’re both wrong. It’s been lying here about five hours and eight minutes.”
With a mix of fear and admiration, Peters trained his eyes on the Sage who, true to form, had demonstrated his investigative prowess. How had he done it?
Marcus walked to the front door and stopped to gather his coat and trilby. As if in answer to Peters’s question, he pointed to an area just behind the officer, who in turn spun around to take a look. A small digital alarm clock sat unobtrusively on the counter, hidden behind a can of processed meat and a bright-colored margarine container. It was slightly off-kilter, and its power cord was stretched to its limit, held in place only by its two copper prongs, both bent and protruding slightly outward from the wall receptacle. Despite its dejected state, its red digital numbers blinked through the cracked Plexiglas. It read 5:08.
Peters, in his excitable state, almost blurted out his thoughts. So the clock was knocked during the struggle and reset itself to 12:00 at the time of the murder! Once reset, the clock had counted the time from the murder to now. Amazing! But this time, he breathed them out silently instead. Marcus turned to go. Peters followed and paused at the open door, mouth agape, and watched him the entire way to his car.
Marcus eased the car into the fast lane. He knew the route back to the precinct from the Frederick house, so he could focus his mind entirely on the case. He stopped the car at a red traffic light and pushed the little green button on the steering wheel to initiate audio. “Station. Connect me to Albert,” he said, speaking into his dashboard’s computer interface while at the same time reaching for the cigarette box that had fallen to the floor. “Detective Marcus, E., Registered Detective. Acorn 1-0-8-7.0.” His fingers hit pay dirt just as the voice answered.
“Intelligence Protocol Session initiated to Registered Detective Elroy Marcus. Numbered Acorn 1-0-8-7.0. Pursuant to section 6.1.47 of the Police Authority Act, this session will be logged and recorded for security and compliance purposes.”
Marcus cringed at the tinny, computer-generated voice of Albert. The creation of the late Zylas Finch, the famed innovator who had developed the Rift Gate that brought them here from Earth. Albert was a government-funded project, a quantum leap in artificial intelligence from all that Marcus had heard, that had been a mainstay on the police force now for about eighteen months. That was exactly eighteen months too many.
The traffic light turned green. Marcus accelerated slowly while he flicked the lighter mechanism with one hand, lit the cigarette that hung from his mouth, and took a soothing drag before he cleared the intersection. His nerves relaxed immediately on the exhale.
“Detective Marcus. How may I be of assistance?”
You could go away, thought Marcus, that’d help, but there was no other choice—humans no longer worked the intelligence desk since Albert’s arrival. The state-of-the-art computer system was all he had to work with.
“Albert. Invoke a Deep Level Analysis on subject Joseph Frederick of 31 Oak Park Avenue. Include a twenty-six-hour PBA.”
“Detective, I am not aware of that acronym.”
“Of course you’re not. Means predictive behavior analysis.”
“Thank you, Detective. I have updated my slang dictionary. Now gathering sources.”
For the next minute and forty-six seconds while Albert retired in thought, Marcus did too. His mind drifted back to the crime scene, scrutinizing every detail from every angle as if seeing it all for the first time. It was important that he miss nothing. As intelligent and artful as prosecutors may be, they needed Marcus to tie motive, intent, and the act itself into a cohesive story, and ensure it was backed by solid evidence. They, with their advanced degrees and haughty vocabularies, jousted in the sanitized, oak-paneled courtrooms, while he, the unsung journeyman, trod into the muck and filth of the mad world in search of truth. Often, the truth was reluctant to step forth, like roaches in the shadows that scurried under appliances when the light flicked on. And so he examined the various objects, states, conditions, or people that bore witness to the crime, for these gave insight if one would listen, and listen he did until the sum of their testimonies brought the truth to light.
Marcus’s unique methodologies had led to the development of his Crime Condition Model, a multidimensional way of looking at crimes. Photos and video left out information and, if exclusively relied on, produced two-dimensional thinking. Instead, the CCM cast a wider aperture—things like temperature, weather, landscaping, architecture, even building materials, through to the layout, furniture, and all other manner of items were incorporated. These silent observers were brought together to divine the human motivations, behavior, and actions that led to the crime’s perpetration. By creating a multidimensional mental map and committing it to memory, he could replay it at whim, forward to back, back to forward, side to side, and more. It allowed him to break any convention that could blind him from seeing patterns and inconsistencies, and it was best to do this immediately after leaving the scene before the images, sounds, and smells started to fade. Marcus ran through the CCM in reverse, and then again once more, starting halfway in and randomly moving about the crime scene wherever his mind drew him. It was during this time that his intuition nudged him a little. Something wasn’t adding up.
Albert chimed in. “Fifty-seven sources have been obtained relating to Joseph Frederick of 31 Oak Park Avenue. Of these, twelve are protected sources and thus will require a search warrant. The remaining are unprotected sources or public records and will not. Advise if protected sources are in scope.” Marcus didn’t have a warrant in hand, and with the assailant on the run, he was up against the clock and losing time.
“Protected sources are not in scope, but submit the warrant application now.”
“Yes, Detective. Search has now been initiated. Results will be transferred in an estimated time of two hours and twenty-six minutes.”
Marcus broke the link, shook his head, and grimaced as he recalled the day that Albert had been unveiled to the world. The papers had rejoiced, as though it were the second coming of Jesus. Headlines like “Ushering in the New Age of Crime Prevention,” “Crime’s New Boss,” and “Harnessing the Power of Data for Good” contained some of the platitudes used to sell him. Albert the miracle worker, champion of rationality, and protector of children, was touted as the epitome of virtue and all that was necessary to keep evil at bay.
However, Marcus knew exactly what he really was. More Frankenstein than God, Albert had been concocted of piece parts of vendors’ software, hastily slapped together at great cost and with great urgency, the result of which was entirely predictable without the aid of a computerized brain—an ineffective, complex machine that despite being touted as never having taken a day off was prone to so many unplanned outages that the most devout atheist would resort to prayer. An army of well-payed data scientists, Albert’s high priests, were devoted to the deity’s service and care; they maintained, updated, and patched him, and their numbers swelled with each major code release. How could the government afford this upkeep? Up until now, the only casualties on Albert’s march on consciousness were the dozen researchers who had lost their jobs just before his launch. They were now redundant.
Redundant. Where had that word come from? How had it become attributable to human beings? These were people, working people, Marcus’s kind of people, but to anyone on the outside, they were just faceless entities shuffled aside in the name of progress. Their names, contributions, and legacies reduced to a seven-figure entry in the savings column of the well-promoted but nonetheless fabricated business case that was used to evangelize him. None of this mattered. Albert, the destroyer of careers and devourer of balanced budgets, hid behind a grinning mask, the product of marketing hocus-pocus conjured by advertising wizards incanting from the grimoire of opinion polls. And it worked.
Children were the easiest targets. Schools brought them by the busloads to venerate the wonder of science and human ingenuity. And then there was Albert’s annual birthday party! Attendees were among the movers and shakers of society; their limousines arrived, one after the other, to offload their haute couture−clad occupants onto the red carpet. Servers mingled among the crowds with trays of Albert cupcakes, “I love Albert” buttons, and his own flavor of Albert lollipops. A multi-piece orchestral band played Albert’s very own theme song while the mayor and governor (not ones to let any ounce of goodwill go to waste) reveled in the hoopla and used every iota of their time, charisma, and Albert’s brand recognition to promote their government. Trust us to bring you justice, peace, and happiness—just come forth into the pews and kneel. It was absurd. For all his cognitive computing power, Albert didn’t realize that he was a useful idiot, a puppet made to dance from strings tied to politicians’ fingers. But no one else realized it either, for that matter. Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.
“Detective?” It was the dispatcher calling in. It sounded like Rachel, the old broad who was about to retire. Her monotone voice and I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude gave a clear indication that she was ready. Giving him no time to respond, she said, “Marcus? Are you there?”
“Yeah. Marcus here.” At least she’d used his surname. It was proper. She must be in a good mood, as he couldn’t remember a time when she had done that before.
“Detective, you’re needed at the intersection of Armstrong and Glenn.”
Marcus knew the intersection well. It was New Times Square, a major commercial hub of shops, restaurants, and tourist traps loosely modeled after the old one. It would be packed with people this time of day, so a robbery or assault was the likely reason.
“What is it?”
“Public vandalism, Detective.”
“What the f—?” The surprise got the better of him but he managed to stop short of swearing. She was a lady, after all.
“Excuse me, Detective?”
“Yes, Detective. You need to make your way there. At once.”
“Get one of the other detectives. I got a murderer running loose.”
“It’s coming from the top, Detective. Get your ass over there.” Rachel clearly had no problem with swearing at a man.
Coming from the top? Marcus was puzzled, but nothing would be gained by arguing it out with her. “Confirmed and en route,” he said. “Marcus out.”
She had already hung up.
A quick flash of the police lights and a short burst of the siren cleared the way as he made a U-turn onto the highway that would take him to the scene.