The kid had had his choice of places to go–other countries, other worlds, even other universes, a la the legendary exhortation of e.e. cummings, oddly evocative in its day, spookily prescient now. But the kid's idea of a hell of a good universe next door had been a glitzed-out, gritted-up, blasted and blistered post-Apocalyptic Noo Yawk Sitty. It wasn't a singular sentiment–post-Apocalyptic Noo Yawk Sitty was topping the hitline for the thirteenth week in a row, with post-Apocalyptic Ellay and premillennial Hong Kong holding steady at two and three, occasionally trading places but defending against all comers.
Doré Konstantin didn't understand the attraction. Perhaps the kid could have explained it to her if he had not come out of post-Apocalyptic Noo Yawk Sitty with his throat cut.
Being DOA after a session in the Sitty wasn't singular, either; immediate information available said this was the eighth death in as many months. so far, no authority was claiming that the deaths were related, although no one had specifically denied it, either. Konstantin wasn't sure what any of that meant except that, at the very least, the Sitty would have one more month at the number-one spot.
The video parlour night manager was boinging between appalled and thrilled. "You ever go in the Sitty?" she asked Konstantin, crowding into the doorway next to her. Her name was Guilfoyle Pleshette and she didn't make much of a crowd; she was little more than a bundle of sticks wrapped in a gaudy kimono, voice by cartoonland, hair by van der Graaf. She stood barely higher than Konstantin's shoulder, hair included.
"No, never have," Konstantin told her, watching as DiPietro and Celestine peeled the kid's hotsuit off him for the coroner. It was too much like seeing an animal get skinned, only grislier, and not just because most of the kid's blood was on the hotsuit. Underneath, his naked flesh was imprinted with a dense pattern of lines and shapes, Byzantine in complexity, from the wires and sensors in the 'suit.
They'll start calling that the latest thing in nervous systems, Konstantin thought, mesmerised. They'll give it a jumped-up name, like neo-exo-nervous system, and they'll say it's generated by hotsuit wear, every line and shape having a counterpart on the opposite side of the skin barrier. With its own astrological sign.
The coroner's cam operator leaned in for a shot of the kid's head and shoulders, forcing the stringer from Police Blotter back against the facing wall. Unperturbed, the stringer held her own cam over her head, aimed the lens downward, and kept taping. This week, Police Blotter had managed to reverse the injunction against commercial networks at crime scenes that had been reinstated last week. Konstantin couldn't wait for next week.
As the suit cleared the kid's hips, the smell of human waste fought with the heavy odour of blood and the sour stink of sweat for control of the air in the room, which wasn't much larger than the walk-out closet that Konstantin had shared with her ex. The closet had looked a lot bigger this morning now that her ex's belongings were gone but this room seemed to be shrinking by the moment. The coroner, her cam operator, the stringer, and DiPietro and Celestine had all come prepared with nasal filters. Konstaint's were sitting in the top drawer of her desk.
Putting her hand over her nose and mouth, she stepped back into the hallway where her partner Taliaferro was also suffering, but from the narrow space and low ceiling rather than the air, which was merely over-processed and stale. Pleshette followed, fishing busily in her kimono pockets.
"So bad," she said, looking from Konstantin to Taliaferro. Taliaferro gave no sign that he had heard her. He stood with his back to the wall and his shoulders up around his ears, head thrust forward over the archiver while he made notes, as if he expected the ceiling to come down on him. From Konstantin's angle, the archiver was completely hidden by his hand, so that he seemed to be using the stylus directly on his palm.
Never send a claustrophobe to do an agoraphobe's job, Konstantin thought, feeling surreal. Taliaferro, who pronounced his name "Tolliver" for reasons she couldn't fathom, was such a big guy anyway that she wondered if most places short of an arena didn't feel small and cramped to him.
"Real goddam bad," Pleshette added, as if this somehow clarified her original statement. One bony hand came up out of a hidden pocket with a small spritzer; a too-sweet, minty odour cut through the flat air.
Taliaferro's stylus froze as his eyes swivelled to the manager. "That didn't help," he said darkly.
"Oh, but wait," she said, waving both hands to spread the scent. "Smellin' the primer now but soon, nothing. Deadens the nose, use by the pound here. Trade puts out a lot of body smell in the actioners. 'Suits reek." She gestured at the other doors lining the long narrow hall. "Like that Gang Wars module? Strapped the trade down on chaises, otherwise they'd a killed the 'suits, rollin' around on the floor, bouncin' offa the walls, jumpin' on each other. Real easy to go native in a Gang Wars module."
Go native? Taliaferro mouthed, looking at Konstantin from under his brows. Konstantin shrugged. "I didn't see a chaise in here."
"Folds down outa the wall. Like those old Murphy beds?" Konstantin raised her eyebrows, impressed that the manager was even acquainted with the idea of Murphy beds and then felt ashamed. her ex had always told her that being a snob was her least attractive feature.
"Most people won't use the chaises except for the sexers," Pleshette was saying. "Not if they got a choice. And there was this one blowfish, he hurt himself on the chaise. Got all heated up struggling, cut himself on the straps, broke some ribs. And that–" she leaned toward Konstantin confidentially "–that wasn't even the cute part. Know what the cute part was?"
Konstantin couldn't imagine.
"The cute part was, his pov was in this fight at the exact same time and broke the exact same ribs." Pleshette straightened up and folded her arms, lifting her chin defiantly as if daring Konstantin to disbelieve. "This's always been non-safe, even before it was fatal."
"That happen here?" Taliaferro asked without looking up.
"Nah. Some other place. East Hollywood, North Hollywood. I don't remember now." The manager's kimono sleeve flapped like a wing as she gestured. "We all heard a bout it. Stuff gets around."
Konstantin nodded, biting her lip so she wouldn't smile. "Uh-huh. Is this the same guy who didn't open his parachute in a skydiving scenario and was found dead with every bone in his body shattered?"
"Well, of course not." Pleshette looked at her as if she were crazy. "How could it be? That blowfish died. We all heard about that one, too. Happened in D.C. They got it going on in D.C. with those sudden-death thrillers." She leaned toward Konstantin again, putting one scrawny hand on her arm. "You oughta check D.C. sources for death-trips. Life is so cheap there. It's a whole different world."
Konstantin was trying to decide whether to agree with her or change the subject when the coroner emerged from the cubicle with the cam op right on her heels.
"–shot everything I shot," the cam op was saying unhappily.
"And I said never mind. We can probably subpoena her footage and see if it really is better than yours. Probably isn't. Go." She gave him a little push.
"But I just know she was in some of my shots–"
"We can handle that, too. Go. Now." The coroner shooed him away and turned to Konstantin. She was a small person, about the size of a husky ten-year-old–something to do with her religion, Konstantin remembered. The Church of Small-Is-Beautiful, something like that. The faithful had their growth inhibited in childhood. Konstantin wondered what happened to those who lost the faith, or came to it later in life.
"Well, I can say without fear of contradiction that the kid's throat was cut while he was alive." The coroner looked around. "And in a place like this. Imagine that."
"Should I also imagine how?" Konstantin asked.
"How? Classic ear-to-ear." The coroner smoothed down the wiry copper cloud that was her current hair. It sprang back up immediately. "Most likely with a weapon made for that sort of thing, and not just any old sharp edge that might have been lying around. Probably a boning blade. Boning blades're all the rage out there. Or rather, in there. In the actioners. They all like those boning blades. And definitely not self-inflicted. Even if we couldn't tell by the angle, this kid was an AR softy. He wouldn't have had the strength to saw through his own windpipe like that."
Konstantin made a face. "Great. You know what's going to be on the news inside an hour."
The coroner fanned the air with one small hand. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Gameplayers' stigmata. Everybody's heard about somebody who got stabbed in a module and came out with a knife wound it took sixteen stitches to close and what about the nun who was on TV with the bleeding hands and feet. It's part of the modern myth-making machine. There've been some people who fell off their perch in AR, got all mixed up about what was real and hurt themselves or somebody else. But the stigmata stuff–everybody conveniently forgets how the stigmata of Sister Mary Blood of the Sacred Etceteras got exposed as a hoax by her own order. The good sister did a turn as a stage magician before she got religion. There's a file about how she did it floating around PubNet. Look it up sometime–fascinatin' rhythms. The real thing would be extremo ruptura, very serious head trouble, which the experts are pretty sure nobody's had since St. Theresa."
"Which one?" asked Konstantin.
The coroner chuckled. "That's good. 'Which one?' You know your stuff, doncha." She laughed some more. "I'll have my report in your in box tomorrow." She went up the hall, still laughing.
"Well," said the night manager, sniffing with disdain. "Some people ought better stick with what they know than mock what they don't know squat about." She called the last four words at the coroner's retreating back, but the coroner didn't hear.
"My apologies if she offended your beliefs," Konstantin said briskly. "Is there some other way into the room that nobody knows about–vents, conduits, emergency exit access?"
Pleshette's fuzzy head wagged from side to side. "No. Nothing."
Konstantin was about to ask for the building's blueprints when Taliaferro snapped the archiver closed with a sound like a rifle shot. "Right. Some hgreat place you got here. We'll interview the clientele now. In the parking lot."
"Got no parking lot," Pleshette said, frowning suspiciously.
"Didn't say your parking lot. We've corralled everyone at a car rental place down the block, we can do it there." Taliaferro looked at Konstantin meaningfully. "Spacious. Lots of room to move around in."
Konstantin sighed. "First let's weed out everyone who was in the same scenario and module with the kid and see if anyone remembers him doing or saying anything that would give hints about what was happening to him."
Pleshette gave a sharp bark of laughter. "You know how many people that could be?"
Konstantin nodded glumly. "We'll start just with the locals. The clients here, I mean." She started up the hall after Taliaferro.
"But you can see what the kid was doing when he took it in the neck."
Konstantin stopped and looked back at the manager. "I can?"
"Yeah. Surveillance'll have it."
"Surveillance?" Konstantin repeated, unsure she had heard correctly.
"Well, yeah." The night manager gave her a sideways look. You think we let the blowfish come in here and don't keep an eye on them? Anything could happen. Liability, that's a monster."
Konstantin decided not to ask her why she hadn't mentioned this minor detail a couple of hours before. "Can I screen this surveillance record in your office?"
"Just screen it?" Pleshette looked puzzled.
"Is that some kind of problem?" Konstantin moved toward the open doorway of the room where she could hear DiPietro and Celestine bantering with the stringer.
"No." The night manager shrugged. "you just want to screen it, my office, sure."
Konstantin didn't know what to make of the look on Pleshette's funny little face. Maybe that was all it was, a funny little face on a funny little person who lived in a funny little open-all-night world. A funny little open-all-night artificial world at that. For all Konstantin knew, the night manager hadn't seen true daylight for years. Not her problem, she thought as she stuck her head through the doorway of the cubicle, where Celestine and DiPietro were now busy jockeying for the stringer's attention while the stringer pretended she wasn't pumping them for information and pretended they didn't know she was pretending not to pump them for information. No one had o pretend the dead kid had been forgotten.
"Pardon me for interrupting," Konstantin said a bit archly. DiPietro and Celestine turned to her simultaneously. In their identical white coveralls, they looked like unfinished marionettes.
"Attendants'll be coming for him. Before you do a final search of the room, you might want to, oh–" she gestured at the body. "Cover him up."
"Sure thing," said Celestine, and then suddenly tossed something round and wrapped in plastic at her. "Think fast!"
Konstantin caught it by instinct. The shape registered on her before anything else. the kid's head, she thought, horrified. The cut across his throat had been so deep, he'd been decapitated when they peeled him.
Then she felt the metal through the plastic and realised it was the kid's headmounted monitor. "Oh, good one, Celestine." She tucked the monitor under her left arm. "I'd dropped that, we'd be filling out forms on it for a year."
"You, drop something? Not this lifetime." Celestine grinned. Her muttonchops made her face seem twice as wide as it was. Konstantin wondered if you could sue a cosmetologist for malpractice.
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, but next time, just send a card." Konstantin went up the hall toward the main lobby, Pleshette following in a swish of kimono.
There were only two uniformed officers waiting in the lobby with the other three members of the night staff, who were perched side by side on a broken-down, ersatz-leather sofa by the front window. The rest of the police, along with the clientele, were down the block with Taliaferro, one of the uniforms told Konstantin. Konstantin focused on the officer's nametag, which read Wolski, so she wouldn't stare at the woman's neat ginger-coloured mustache. At least it wasn't as ostentatious as Celestine's muttonchops but she wasn't sure she'd ever get used to facial hair on women. Her ex would have called her a throwback. Perhaps she was.
"That's all right, as long as we know where they are." Konstantin handed her the bagged headmount. "Look after this, the kid was wearing it when he died. I'm going to screen some surveillance footage in the manager's office and I thought I'd question the staff there as well." The people on the couch were gazing up at her expectantly. "Is this the entire night shift?"
"The whole kitten caboodle," Pleshette assured her.
Konstantin looked around. It was a small lobby, no hiding places, and presumably no secret doors. Small, drab, and depressing–after waiting here for even just a few minutes, any AR would probably look great by comparison. She turned back to the people on the couch just as the one in the middle stood up and stuck out his hand. "Miles Mank," he said in a hearty tenor.
Konstantin hesitated. The man's eyes had an unfocused, watery look to them that she associated with people who weren't well. He towered over her by six inches and outweighed her by at least a hundred pounds. But they were soft pounds, packed into a glossy blue one-piece uniform that, combined with the gooey eyes and his straw-coloured hair, gave him a strangely childlike appearance. She shook his hand, which was even softer than it looked. "What's your job here?"
"Supervisor," he informed her. the gooey eyes gazed past her at Guilfoyle Pleshette. "Well, unofficial supervisor. I'm the one who's been here the longest, so I always end up telling everybody else how things work."
"Oh, don't stop there, Miles," Pleshette urged. the kimono sleeves snapped like pennants in a high wind as she stretched out her sticklike arms and refolded them. "Go ahead, tell how if they promoted from within here, you'd be night manager. Then I can explain how they had to go on a talent search for an experienced administrator. It'll all balance out."
"There's experience and there's experience," Mank said huffily. "Nobody ever died while I was acting night manager."
"Very true, very true–everybody survived the riot where you had to refund all the customers. But nobody died so that made it all good-deal-well-done."
Miles Mank strode past Konstantin to loom over Pleshette, who had to reach up to shake her skeletal finger in his face. Konstantin felt that panicky chill all authorities feel when a situation slips the leash. Before she could break in, the mustached officer, Wolski, tugged her sleeve and showed her a taser set on flash. "Shall I?"
Konstantin nodded, stepping back and covering her eyes.
The flash was a split-second heat that she found oddly comforting, though no one else did. Besides Guilfoyle Pleshette and Miles Mank, Wolski (and her ginger mustache) had also failed to warn her fellow officer, the other two employees, or Taliagerro, who had chosen that moment to step back inside. The noise level increased exponentially.
"Everybody shut up!" Konstantin roared, and was shocked when everybody did. She looked around. All the people in the lobby had their hands over their eyes. It looked like a convention of see-no-evil monkeys.
"Thank you," she added awkwardly. "Now, I'm going to screen surveillance footage of the victim's final session in the manager's office, and then interview the rest of the staff." She turned to Taliaferro. "After that, I want to question anyone who was in the same module and scenario." She waited but he didn't take his hands from his eyes. "That means I'll be phoning you down the block, partner, to have select individuals escorted to the office." She waited another few seconds for him to answer. "Understand, Taliaferro?" she added, exasperated.
"Yeah, just let me do some prelims on the customers," he said, speaking to the air where he thought she was. He was off by two feet. "They're gonna be getting restless while you're doing that. We're going to have to give them phone calls and pizza."
Konstantin rolled her eyes. "So give them phone calls and pizza." She turned back to Pleshette. "Now, can you show me to your office?"
"I'm sorry," Miles Mank said genially, "but I'm afraid I don't have an office. I've been making do with the employee lounge."
"Suffer, Mank," Pleshette said, taking a peek between her fingers. "She was talking to me." She started to lower her hand and then changed her mind.
Konstantin sighed. Their vision would return to normal in a few minutes along with their complexions, assuming none of them suffered from light-triggered skin rashes. Perhaps she could have been more sympathetic but she wasn't sure any of them would notice if she were.
She put her hand on Guilfoyle Pleshette's arm. "Your office?"
"I'll show you," said Pleshette, "if I ever see well enough again."
Pleshette's office was smaller than the smelly cubicle where the kid had died, which was probably a good thing. It meant that Konstantin didn't throw anything breakable against the wall when she discovered that the so-called surveillance footage was an AR log. There just wasn't enough distance to make a really satisfying smash and still be safe from shrapnel.
"Invasion of privacy," Pleshette explained when Konstantin called her in.
"What privacy?" asked Konstantin. "Every public area has three-four cams running on it twenty-four hours a day–"
"This is n't a public place." Pleshette's smile was suddenly cannier than Konstantin would have thought possible. "It's a private area that people pay admission to get into. Which means that it can't be put under surveillance because one of the commodities the clientele purchase when they come in here is privacy."
"Oh," Konstantin said, half-afraid that Pleshette was going to go on to cite the case that had established the precedent. She thought for a moment. "That would cover, say, anything admissible in a court of law, right?"
Pleshette nodded her hairdo.
"Fine. So, what about the inadmissible footage?"
"Just show me the inadmissible footage–the illegal surveillance recording–and we'll call it a night." Konstantin waited, but Pleshette only stood there, looking at her with vague puzzlement clouding her funny little features. No canniness in her expression now. "Look, since that surveillance recording's illegal, it doesn't exist, I never saw it, and no one'll know about it. I'll figure out how to build a real case later. Just show me what you've got."
"But there isn't anything," Pleshette said, her cartoon voice turning a bit gravelly with fatigue and stress. She pulled the kimono tighter around her sticklike body. "There really isn't. Bring in a squad and search the place, you won't find anything. People buy privacy and artificial reality and that's what they get."
Konstantin gave a short, incredulous laugh. "You know people could be coming here and doing just about anything in those cubicles, then? Without ever touching the AR rigs?"
"Well, they could," Pleshette admitted. "But the bootlogs on all the equipment say it was in use for as long as each cubicle was occupied by a paying customer. Except for the few minutes it takes to put the stuff on and take it off again. So maybe some people go back there, leave the 'suits and monitors on the floor, but run the programs, and stand around enjoying the quiet. I don't know for sure. but after they leave, the 'suits sure smell like someone's been using them. And they register as having logged into AR as whoever they want to be and done whatever they wanted to do until their money ran out and they left. So, yeah, I guess I don't know for sure what anyone does back there but I just take it for granted, because that's what I'm paid to do."
"Uh-huh," said Konstantin.
"Anything else?" Pleshette asked.
"No, I think that about covers it, thanks," Konstantin said and settled in to watch the video.
She watched every moment, including the instructional lead that told her the only pov available would be detached observer. The editing option was available for close-iups or odd angles, along with a primer to pull down if she were feeling less than Fellini, or even D.W. Griffith.
Helpful, she thought, freezing the footage before the lead faded into the scenario. Excessively helpful, even. Was she supposed to decide how to edit the footage before she watched it?
But of course, she realised. This came under the heading of souvenirs. Footage from your AR romp, or video of your friend's wedding, or prepackaged quick-time scenics from a kiosk on the Lima airport for a last-minute gift before you boarded the flight home–you made it look however you wanted it to look, for whomever would be looking. Maybe you didn't want it to look the same to everyone–a tamer version for one friend, something experimental to hold another's attention, a gratuitous orgy to keep your garden club awake.
Konstantin tapped the menu line at the bottom of the screen. Options? it asked her, fanning them out in the centre of a deep blue background. Pick a card, any card, she thought, memorise it and slip it back into the deck. There'll be a quiz later. If you last long enough. She chose No Frills.
The image on the screen liquified and melted away into black. A moment later she was looking at an androgynous face that suggested the best of India and Japan in combination. The name came up as Shantih Love, which she couldn't decide if she hated or not. The linked profile informed her that both the Shantih Love name and appearance had been reserved and were protected. No age given; under sex it said, Any; all; why do you care?
"Filthy, thankless job, Shantih, but somebody's got to." She tapped for the technical specs of the dead kid's session. Full-coverage hotsuit, of course, which would tell her when the kid had died. She scrolled past his scenario and module choices to see how long he'd been in AR. Duration: four hours, twenty minutes.
Konstantin winced. The kid must have been case-hardened beyond belief–most people, even serious addicts, had to take a break after two hours at least. She called up his vitals so she could note the exact time of death in the archiver. then she just stared at the figures on the screen, tapping the stylus mindlessly on the desk.
Shantih Love–or, rather, the kid presenting himself as Shantih Love–had shuffled off his mortal coil just ten minutes into his projected four-hour-and-twenty-minute romp in post-Apocalyptic Noo Yawk Sitty. The Shantih Love persona, however, had managed to go on for the remaining four hours and ten minutes quite nicely without him...