We’re silent on the elevator ride back to the Homicide Division.
Xio stops the lift on the ground floor to escort Dr Young out. Rain pitter patters onto the large, imposing windows and behind a looming grey cloud, a blinding flash of white lightning strikes. Xio jumps up, startled.
“It was…it was nice to meet you,” Dr Young says before stepping off the lift, rebreather in hand. His is smaller than mine, with colourful glowing lines zigzagging in geometric patterns across the grey surface. Smaller and more advanced, probably.
I hate my technological inadequacy. I can’t even programme my Specs to stop randomly identifying every data block – and usually, this is when the green jealousy tingles through me. The loneliness and the incompetence of almost two decades standing uselessly at the back of the class, knowing only how to turn the various devices on and off. I wait for it, but nothing comes. I’m numb and in shock – Lio? Dead?
I nod to the doctor. I think he knows the small smile is forced because when he straps his rebreather on and walks out onto the ground floor, he doesn’t look back.
“What happened?” I ask Xio when she steps back into the lift and programmes it for HD. “To Lio, I mean.”
She heaves a sigh and looks at me. Her black hair is a mess around her heart shaped face, her cheeks still flush, her breathing still shallow. “I don’t know,” she says. “O’Neil was on site with Led in less than five, but it was too late.”
I straighten. Numbers flash on the edge of my Specs as it counts the floors. “You mean he could have been saved?”
Xio opens her mouth to respond, then hesitates. “No.” She looks down then back at me, and there is surrender evident in her eyes and slumped posture. “Then the acid rain started.”
We don’t speak for the next few seconds where the doors part and the minimalist décor of the HD floor come into view. Acid rain. It burns through skin in seconds. It’s a quick way to die. It’s also a painful way to die. Some say the most painful of them all.
Being a relatively new phenomenon, the Republic still scrambles to catch up with the rain. Panelling the concrete with anti-acid material, trying to build a stable market out of shielded, affordable trams – for most people, when the rains comes, you stay indoors. The only people with the equipment to venture out in a shower, are either too rich to ever need to go out or law enforcement. Ita Ru assures us public transportation will be shielded and ready by winter, but I’m not holding my breath, If everything Ita Ru said, came to be, I’d be out of the job.
Nonsiu’s office is the only enclosed space in the large, field-like layout of the division. Through the office doors, on the extreme left, eight feet in the air, is a glass rectangle that overlooks HD. There’s also this annoying blue data block my Specs insists on automatically scanning every time it comes into view:
Inspector Oead Nonsiu. Head of Homicide. Precinct = Loscester. Born 2737, 4LC.
The stairs to Nonsiu’s office are narrow and made out of glass. Rumour has it the previous Inspector had it designed that way to deter people from climbing up. Rumour also had it because he was secretly blackmailing several female employees for ‘under the table’ services.
The glass of the office is tinted – looking almost solid to the peeping Tom sitting bored at his desk. Nonsiu must have enabled the function when the briefing began. Usually, he has a full view of the happenings beneath him.
“Aylah,” Nonsiu stands up when the door slides open, breathing a sigh of relief. “Good, you’re here.”
Szah, Midhurst, Led and O’Neil are here too. Szah is sitting on a sofa against the wall, she looks almost catatonic, her legs pressed against each other, her head bowed, quivering.
Midhurst stands stony-faced beside her; he stands straighter and his loss of self-awareness from earlier is no longer present. Nonsiu is sitting behind his desk. He is a man in his late thirties that looks as though he will never pass his prime, with coarse black hair, an unmarred face and an athletic build.
The door slides shut behind me. I stand straighter, but the shock still tingles somewhere beneath my fingertips. “You’ve heard?” Nonsiu comes around his desk and leans on the front.
I nod, my throat feeling tight. O’Neil is leaning against the wall, arms crossed. The black overcoat he wears over his uniform, hangs loosely over his ankles and there is a frown on his face. Led sits on one of the chairs opposite O’Neil with an ‘I told you so’ look etched on his features.
Nonsiu looks to O’Neil, who rakes a hand through his stiff brown hair. “We got the call an hour ago,” he says, not looking up. “Led and I went down there, and imagine our surprise when we found Precinct: Colden attempting to operate in Loscester territory. Luckily, they picked up the body before the rain started. Now it’s just a matter of convincing them to give it up.”
Nonsiu thins his lips and nods. “That’s not going to be easy. It’ll be a power struggle – it happened in Loscester but to a Colden official.”
“It’s our jurisdiction,” chimes Led. “It happened in Loscester, it belongs to our Precinct.”
Nonsiu doesn’t look like he appreciates the interruption. The edges of his eyes tighten. “And? It’s still a member of their Precinct. Do you think where really matters?”
“They won’t fight for him,” says Led and confidence oozes from every syllable. “It’ll make them look bad. With Foreman Ita Ru running around hosting press conferences to support the Anti-REM movement, no one will want to claim a dead Rereader.”
They took his body, I want to say, if that is not claiming the case, I’m not sure what is. But Led does not stop here, content to bury himself deeper, he continues:
“In fact, we should be trying to pawn the case onto them. It’s bad press, and with the rain, we don’t need a further drop in morale.” Somewhere in his tirade, his gaze slides toward me. I stifle the anger threatening to rise in my throat. I can only imagine Szah’s expression behind me – imagine enough to know I don’t want to look back and find out.
Almost comically, Nonsiu is going purple. His cheeks are turning from a bright pink to a saturated violet, like he is struggling to breathe. O’Neil keeps his head down, stone-faced. “Sit down, Led,” O’Neil says and there is nothing in his tone that leaves room to debate. Led shrinks back like a wounded child and looks away.
Nonsiu turns to O’Neil. “How are we going to approach this? Did you notice anything suspicious when you got there?”
O’Neil doesn’t falter. “Everything was suspicious. The area, the timing, the motive. Tirete doesn’t live here, there’s no record of him knowing anyone in the area, nothing.”
Led rolls his eyes. “Motive? Really? I think that’s the easiest part of this case.”
Nonsiu closes his eyes for a long second and exhales. “Regale us, then, won’t you?”
Led is only to glad. He stands up, and he looks slightly taller than he did before. “Ita Ru starts Anti-REM protocol rallies. Loscester houses his greatest supporters. A Rereader is unexpectedly murdered in Loscester. Am I the only one seeing the connection?”
I hesitate. “How likely is this?”
O’Neil’s gaze meets mine and there are subtle purple curves hiding in the folds beneath his brown eyes. “Likely. Very likely.”
“Or!” exclaims Led, taking a step toward me. Excitement colours his face, bounce in his step. He is like a child finally being heard out. “He was not killed by a radicalist.”
Nonsiu looks ready to thump him over the head. He sighs. “Who was he killed by then?”
“A sympathiser,” Led theorises, conspiracy alight in his eye. “What if he was murdered to showcase how chaotic the Anti-REM movement is? It’d give the Foremen an excuse to collectively shut Ita Ru down and turn people back over to the Rereaders side.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I find myself saying before I can stop myself.
“Is it?” asks Led. “Honestly, I wouldn’t flinch if you told me you were in on it.”
That does it. Szah releases a feral war cry and lunges at him. I blink and suddenly he is on the floor and Szah has him in a chokehold; it is not Nonsiu who is purple anymore. It takes a second more before we all react. O’Neil breaks from shock first, darting swiftly to wrap his arms around Szah’s waist and hoist her off Led.
Szah fights against O’Neil’s hold, nails scratching the air. Led clambers to his feet and takes a few precursory steps back. There is a dark red welt stretching from his eyebrow down his cheek. “What the fuck?” he yells.
“Szah!” Nonsiu shouts, legs spread, and arm outstretched protectively. “Stop!”
She does not stop. She claws blindly at O’Neil, but his arms are shielded by the fabric of his overcoat and then his uniform under. And then, with as much warning as before, she stops fighting, sinks to the ground and begins to sob. It is not a graceful sob – it not elegant or effortless like many of the things Szah does – it is ugly and snotty and she hiccups for breath, her face red and wet. She curls into a foetal position and rocks herself.
“She’s crazy,” blurts Led. “She attacked me.”
I’m stuck staring at Szah; we all are. She is curled in ball, at O’Neil’s feet and we are silent and shellshocked. This is not the Szah I know. I have not seen her in months, a lot can change – but somehow, this feels like too much. Then I remember Preston, jarring and real, and there is a force in me and that screams it is his fault.
Nonsiu is unrelenting. “Get out.”
Midhurst, O’Neil and I are silent as Led takes to the door. Nonsiu’s rounds his desk and types something out. Led gives Szah a parting glance brimming with distaste. Crazy, he mouths – and then he is gone.
A blurry blip gradually enlarges in the deep tint of the windows. Xio and Led cross paths as he exits. Her hair is neat now, her clothes straightened, and any hint of the disarray and turmoil has been meticulously wiped clean. She doesn’t react to Led, only nodding to Nonsiu when she enters and ushers Szah out, holding her close and whispering comforts. I wonder if she even knows what happened. Then I wonder if she needs to.
The door slides shut behind Xio. I inch closer to O’Neil. Nonsiu rests his hands on his desk, looks down, inhales, then: “What was that?”
Midhurst clears his throat. “A breakdown.”
“You don’t say,” Nonsiu sits down in his chair. “O’Neil – you need to get that boy under control.”
O’Neil twitches, rubbing his thumb against his index finger. “I don’t think anyone can.”
“I don’t care if you can – beat the privilege out of him if you need to.” Nonsiu massages his temples, elbows on his desk.
“The breakdowns,” starts Midhurst. “They – they might be important.”