Then I slip the Specs back on, determined to finish what I started.
I’m staring at another dead face. This one is too familiar. This one I grew up with. This one I was ‘friends’ with. This one told jokes and wore outrageously patterned button-down shirts – the kinds with ugly, disjointed purple flowers or randomly placed old world tanks. I taste sour stomach acid at the back of my tongue. I hide the roil of my stomach with a well-placed cough.
Lio’s face is different. It’s swollen and enlarged, like he’s going to explode. There are bruises and discoloured patches of skin scattered all over his face in a palette of purples and yellows and blues. And like Vui, on his left cheek, there is a red scar. And unlike Vui, this is a V and not an E.
The photo is of his face only, but from his neck, and downwards – I imagine – are grafts of burnt skin, fleshed open, yellowed out by toxic acid wherever the seawater made contact with his skin. There is a line on his throat, where his oesophagus would be, that is pulled apart at the seams revealing pink and black spotted innards.
The last image is one I’m all too familiar with, and one that is the least offensive to my disgruntled stomach. It is the wall of the building where I found the ‘V’ – the blood red letter is slowly fading now, with scratches and sluices where rainwater must have run through.
I remove my Specs and set them down beside me with no intention of wearing them again until tomorrow. “What is it? What does it mean?” I speak slowly, and cross my arms over my chest protectively, willing the haunting blue light to dissipate from beneath my eyelids.
“It’s the Latin alphabet – an old world remnant.” O’Neil explains. He sounds more relaxed now – as though he is lying down.
“Do we know what language it is?” I ask, lying back down too. Stress knots the muscles in my shoulders.
“No clue. Hundreds of languages used the Latin script in the old world. And even those that didn’t, like Chinese, had pronunciation systems based on it. It’s impossible to know which one,” he lets out a sigh. “And even if we had a way to filter the words – which we don’t – ‘EV’ isn’t exactly an uncommon combination. There’s probably millions of words combined that have that kind of sequence.”
This is…impossible. “We have a killer who’s a part meteorologist, part old world linguist? That’s…”
“Not easy to profile. As rare as those qualifications are, they don’t exactly require genius…or a record. Not to mention, as you said, he could have just looked up the weather reports and an online translator.” O’Neil looks tired. “That’s not even the best part. He has a supply of Lysphil too – which isn’t easy to get your hands on. Back alley drugs are almost out circulation entirely.”
This sparks my interest. “Nonsiu mentioned that the solution he used was ‘badly reacted’ – reacted with what?”
O’Neil’s lips tilt grimly. “Blood. The cuts in their cheeks were post-mortem. They’re not deep, but they’d leak enough to colour the concentrate.”
I purse my lips and stare at the ceiling. “It’s rare,” I agree. “Hypothetically, how much would the killer need that he could waste so much painting walls? As gruesome as it is, why not just use the victim’s actual blood?”
"Honestly? I don't know. I suppose it has to do with the longevity; blood would fade pretty quickly, dry and chip away. Why he chose a drug as pricey as Lysphil to even it out, well, the jury's still out on that one." Silence spans for a second or two. I hear the hesitation before O'Neil speaks again: "I want to put forward a motion to have Sinead Vui Reread. With two high-profile kills, it’ll put an end to this fast and quell the crowds.”
I snort. “You must not watch TV often then. The last thing N.C. wants is a Rereader consuming their late Foreman’s brain.” Not to mention...the vote.
O’Neil shrugs. “A dead brain for the potential lives of living people? People are important legs to our community? I’m not inclined to side with a brain that’s going to be tossed into the ocean anyway.”
“Well, isn’t this cushy-cushy? I must have lost my invite to the tête-à-tête.” Led’s voice interrupts the line.
Where the hell did he come from? I rest a calming hand over my chest and inhale sharply.
Maybe it was never sent, I want to say, after my heart has slowed, but that’s the thing about want, you know. Just because you want doesn’t mean you need. I hold my silence close.
“Late night calls…that’s cute. You guys should make it official.”
O’Neil’s voice is stiffer when he speaks: “Did you find anything?”
“I spoke to Vui’s original assigned case Investigator – poor sod was only too glad to pawn it over to us. Said there hasn’t been a new development since her murder a year ago.” Some ruffled movements break through the frequency. The beep of a door’s latch unlocking. Led must be arriving at home.
O’Neil shifts audibly. Anything…else?” he sounds strangled. I refrain from commenting. I am all too aware of Led’s presence on the line. A light stab of betrayal echoes in my lower half when it dawns on me that O’Neil must have left the line open to him if he wanted to join.
There are reasons for that, I want to tell myself. But it doesn’t compute because work wasn’t the only thing we discussed and O’Neil does not feel the hostility that vibrates off Led, even with distance between us and only a phone call connecting us. I suppose ‘pleasantness’ and ‘people skills’ aren’t requirements for being an official, but maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if they were.
“Everything’s sent to your desk, captain.” A door closes on his side. “You can have a look in the morning.”
I hesitate. “I should go. I need to check on Szah anyway.”
I sit up in preparation to end the call and dial Szah. My body feels numb.
“Really?” Led asks, sounding bemused. “Should you really? I mean, after what happened to Preston?”
“Whitson.” There is a warning in O’Neil’s voice; Led is oblivious to it.
“I read the report,” Led continues. My fingertips start to tingle. I press them into my palms. “You have some interesting tendencies, Aylah…very violent.”
I breathe. Slowly. Try not to see red. “It was nice meeting you today, Led."
I imagine Led spontaneously combusting. Into confetti. Or maybe being disemboweled by a flying razor bladed frisbee. Or eviscerated by a laser. Or maybe just me strangling him. It doesn’t matter, I am happy with all the outcomes. After picturing Led grotesquely deformed by a fork, it is easy to smile – genuinely, and let it seep into my goodbyes.
I think I hate Led.
"We'll pick you up tomorrow," O'Neil says. "We're going to where Sinead Vui's body was found. Maybe we'll find something the others didn't."
"A year later?" echoes Led. "That's unlikely."
They continue to bicker; I don’t offer any more input as I hang up. Something about Led rubs me the wrong way. He is so radicalistic, he is so determined and indoctrinated and and and. I pull my legs up and rest my forehead against the caps of my knees.
I tap my nightstand, and the window to the right of my bed, slides up the blackout filter. Buildings stretch up to the sky, and the nighttime clouds are distorted by slight streaks of firm, green fluff.
Below me, the world is racing. Most of the olive clouds have floated away to terrorize some other city. Brightside is by no means close to the hub of the city, but the streets below me are flooded. There must be something or the other going on. I don’t keep updated; I struggle to use my Specs for everyday functions – the fancy ones are a new league beyond my realm of capabilities. Another Rereading. A new weight pushes my shoulders down.
The duvet over my knees is not soft against my forehead, and somewhere at the base of my skull, a hammer strikes. Once. Twice. Thrice. Again and again and again. The pain spreads to my temples.
I think of Lio. I cannot fathom his death. I am convinced he will stroll in at any minute and laugh in his voice that is always too high and declare this all a joke. The rapid thump of my heart will cease. Breath will not be measured by depth. The pain reverberating in my mind will recede. And we will all laugh and pretend it wasn’t the worst moment of our lives.
But that will not happen. Lio is dead and dead like a Foreman. I clench my hands into fists and they fall undone of their own accord; clammy with sweat, unable to hold shape. I push away from my bed and stroll over the window. It’s cool, and the soundproof glass doesn’t allow the chatter to drift in, even if it could travel up a good twenty floors. With my ear-receiver still firmly in place, I pull the glass tab off my nightstand and type in the characters to Szah’s name, pressing call. I need an upgrade. Maybe even an Optics Display. But if I struggle to navigate even last gen tech, how will I manage the current day ones? The dial tone is rhythmic and pacifying.
My heart jumps,
I scramble for the volume setting on my tab. “Hello?” Szah says again, her voice cloudy with sleep.
“Hey,” I say and only then does it register. Only when the pounding of my heart does not seize and my TempMod clothes send a red warning signal to the glass tab in my hands to tell me I’m hyperventilating. This is not Szah’s voice. This is a man’s voice.
“Aylah,” Preston says. And I hang up.
Not again. Not tonight.