The Wind-Up Murder

It’s just past sunset when Anusha and I are called down to the Scuttles. We make our landing approach slowly, red and blue lights spinning. A few people look up; some make rude gestures. Most ignore us. The sleepas want their next fix; the workers just want to get home.

The car doors open and we’re greeted by a rising tide of odor: fuel, frying food, sweat, and the sweet breath of crank. It’s almost relaxing, especially compared to when Krimson was still on the streets and a bitter scent foretold violence.

Colin waves us past the blinking “caution” barrier. “Victim is male, 24,” he says. “The perp, the victim’s brother, emptied a clip into him, then started screaming for help.”

Anusha frowns. “He didn’t run?”

“He was still there screaming when we arrived. Only reason he stopped is because he blew his voice out.”

The apartment doors open and two cops emerge, hauling a struggling figure between them. The perpetrator is around thirty, with the pallor of someone on a computer too much. The distinct aroma of crank accompanies him. As they pass, he reaches toward me with bloody hands. “Wind it up,” he gasps, staring vacantly. “Wind it up.”

Anusha wrinkles her nose. “Pia, you take me to all the nicest places.”

“You get drug-fueled murders in Pearltower, too.” I lead the way inside. “Usually not because of crank, though.”

Inside, I feel like I’ve stepped back in time. The walls are covered in antiques: clocks, fading photographs, travel posters. The gentle tick of the multitude of clocks is soothing, like listening to rain.

Wind it up, I think. But there are dozens of clocks here, and as far as I can tell, they’re all working. I squeeze past one of the evidence techs as they scan blood splashes in the perpetrator’s office. The walls are half high-tech, half museum, with computer towers and monitors crowding two walls and the others loaded with clocks. I study them, but none of these need winding, either. If the room wasn’t full of people talking and scanning, the soothing ticking would envelop the space.

“Why does a sleepa tech geek have a bunch of old junk?” Anusha asks, tapping the glass on one of the clocks.

“Why did a sleepa tech geek shoot his brother repeatedly, then call for help?”

The victim’s body lies surrounded by shards of glass and shattered wood; he’d staggered back into some clocks, destroying them.

“Here.” Anusha kneels and waves a hand over a tagged twist-ignition pipe. At her gesture, a display blooms from the tag, confirming the presence of crank and the perpetrator’s DNA. “What kind of crank causes rage?”

“No kind.” I circle the room. The ticking clocks are spotless; he must dust them every time he winds them. I scan them, but there’s no trace of hidden tech. The biggest clock hangs over the desk. It has three hefty weights that would need winding daily – and mounted behind the weights is a camera.

“Hey!” I wave the techs over. “Got a hidden camera. Probably recorded the murder.”

I make way for the techs as they crowd around, scanners flashing. Almost immediately they turn back, looking disappointed.

“It’s not real,” one of them says. “Lots of Scuttles residents put up fakes to deter thieves.”

“What now?” Anusha asks.

I study the room. My gaze lands on the tagged pipe. It’s self-igniting, but requires a twisting motion – like winding a clock.

I pluck the pipe from the floor and twist.

“Pia! What are you doing?”

I smell the crank start burning inside the pipe, but I catch the scent of something else – something bitter.

“Do you smell that?”

She kneels beside me and breathes. “No way. Krimson?”

“Masks,” I order, but even one breath has had an effect: Anusha’s proximity is suddenly infuriating, and the racket from these goddamn clocks –

A mask seals over my face. Techs pin my arms to my sides; one of them has put the mask on me. We’re in the hallway. Anusha is nearby, similarly restrained, bleeding from her hairline.

“You’re bleeding,” I say.

“Yeah. You hit me with a keyboard.”

“Sorry.”

Seeing we’ve recovered, the techs release us. A squad of masked cleaners rushes past to secure the drugs.

Anusha presses gauze to her forehead. “So who hated that guy enough to dose him with Krimson?”

I think about the man’s bloody hands: there were really two victims here tonight. “We’d better get to work.”

Photo by Drew Graham on Unsplash
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Last Night in Nuevos Angeles

The beach that night was noisy and drowning in the billboards’ neon glare. Makoto and his friends arrived first; Willow arrived alone.

“Where’s Padma?” I asked, catching the burger box she tossed my way.

“Stuck at work. She texted from the print shop – a big job came in and she has to stay late.”

“What kind of job?”

Willow shrugged. “She doesn’t tell me that stuff. She just said she’d get here when she could.”

We set up the tiny grill on a patch of undesirable, rocky beach, the only area where we could get more than ten feet from the nearest cluster of teenage boys taking shots of their older brothers’ moonshine. Out here, the glare from the billboards wasn’t so irritating; if you turned your back on them and looked out to sea, you could see the vibrant flashing lights illuminating the waves and the sunken glassy spires of Old LA.

“Carmen? You want a burger?” Willow held out a napkin-wrapped burger. “Makoto forgot the buns.”

“Thanks. Hey, have you heard from Padma?”

“Nope.”

“She must be really busy.” Padma was vocal about her inconveniences: the group chat we all hung out in was flooded by funny and often wildly inappropriate images whenever Padma was stuck on a crowded train, kept late by work, or irritated by the latest political news.

“I’ll send her a pic of that sunset,” Willow decided, raising her phone. “Maybe that’ll inspire her to hustle.”

The sunset was pretty spectacular – gold and fuschia clouds gleaming under the cool white and blue flashes of the billboards – but Padma’s absence was nagging at me. Something felt wrong.

Under the pretext of taking my own photo, I checked the other group chat, the secure one Padma and I were in.

The feed wouldn’t open.

I tried to stay calm. Reception got spotty out here, especially on crowded nights like this. There were plenty of harmless reasons for the chat go down.

“Oh, Olivia’s here!” Willow jogged away, leaving me gripping my phone and the rapidly cooling burger I could not stomach. I set it down on the shell of a rusted-out car.

The feed finally refreshed. A single message from Padma appeared, almost two hours old.

It was a single skull icon.

With shaking fingers, I powered down my phone and pried it apart. The casing would go unnoticed among all the other litter on this beach; the card I’d have to destroy and dispose of somewhere safer. I scooped up a couple large rocks and threw them out into the darkening waves, one at a time, so it wouldn’t look suspicious when I hurled my phone, too, so far that it almost struck one of the old skyscrapers. The nearby boys kept hollering, oblivious.

The single skull was a relief, but that relief was a well of hot shame. Two skulls would have meant our whole group was compromised; three would have meant that most of us had probably already been taken or killed, and whoever was left to see those skulls should run.

One skull meant one agent down: Padma. She’d had enough time to erase her tracks and protect the rest of us, then signed off with that single skull.

The waves around me were washed in red as a new message appeared on the billboards.

“Carmen!” Willow was pale, her hand shaking as she pointed up at the huge screens. Padma’s defiant face smirked down at us from the glowing red arrest notice.

“Terrorist? Anti-capitalist? Padma?” Willow stared, horrified, at the announcement. “I know she had her opinions, but…”

Everyone hated the skyrocketing costs and labor abuses that markets and governments permitted worldwide, but Padma did something about it: she’d run materials for activist groups after-hours at the print shop. And if “terrorism” included protesting the collapse of a state-run apartment tower by shattering a Nuevos Angeles billboard with shoddy rebar from the wreckage, Padma and I were both terrorists. She remained full of love and hope; I was amazed at her mountainous courage.

And she’d given herself up so the rest of the agents could be safe.

Willow was crying; everyone else looked stunned. They’d never know the risks Padma had taken to defend them.

It was never about keeping our network safe, I realized – it was about protecting everyone else, even the ones who’d never know it.

I picked up another rock. “She wasn’t alone.”

I took three steps closer to the billboard, brought my arm back, and let fly.

Goodnight, VerreTek

I am blinking amid the restricted servers and I don’t remember why I’m here.

I remember details – keystrokes – but I can’t remember anything beyond VerreTek’s last firewall. I’m holding a drive, though. I realize, with a jolt of pride and terror, that I was successful. The encryption did its job erasing any memory of what I read, but I got through. I have the data.

“Miss Palmer? Are you in here?”

Booted feet, a harsh voice. They know full well I’m here. There are no security warnings on my screen, so nothing I did during my hack attracted attention, but somehow, I’m suspicious.

I check the time and swear silently. I’ve been in here for 20 minutes – way longer than permitted. The encryption must have messed with my perception of time.

“Miss Palmer?”

“Yes?” I call as innocently as possible. I hide the drive in the pocket I sewed into my bra – lined with a few square inches of inordinately expensive scan-deterring fabric – and dart three rows away, where I pretend to be working on a terminal. I sabotaged it yesterday to give myself an excuse to be here.

Two security guards appear at the end of the row. “Miss Palmer, you don’t have clearance to be here unaccompanied for more than ten minutes.”

“I’m so sorry!” I gesture to the terminal, its black screen helpfully flashing a scattered assortment of green cursors. “This should’ve been a really easy fix and I totally lost track of time –”

“Would you come with us, please?”

Again, they aren’t asking.

[]

They walk me back and forth through two scanners, wave around me with three types of detector wands, and pat me down. Nothing picks up the tiny drive.

They could order a strip search, but I’m a nineteen-year-old girl with a spotless record and prodigy-level encryption skills. VerreTek isn’t really concerned about me. They just have to put in the time to make it look like they bothered.

I just have to outlast them. So, for the next few hours, I lie – sort of.

Hour one. “What were you doing in the restricted servers?”

“Fixing a broken terminal.”

“Some secure files were accessed from another terminal in the same room.”

“I never saw any secure files.” It’s not entirely true – I saw them, I just don’t remember them. But it’s enough to fool the lie detector, and that’s all that matters.

[]

Hour two. “What were you doing in the restricted servers?”

“Fixing a broken terminal.”

[]

Hour three. “Your work record indicates you should have had no problem fixing the broken terminal.”

“That thing hadn’t gotten a software update in three years. It wasn’t compatible with the new ports.”

The lie detector trembles, but the guards are tired. Just a little longer and I’ll be done with this place, and all the evil it protects, for good.

[]

Hour four. “Sorry for the inconvenience, Miss Palmer. You’re free to go.”

I’m not sure how an innocent should react. I go for indignant. “What about the secure files?”

“What about them?”

“Did they trace the hack?”

“I think that’s a little above your pay grade.”

“That’s my job – if something’s failed, I need to –”

“If something failed, you’ll just have another long day tomorrow.” He gestures at the door. “If we have more questions, we’ll find you.”

[]

I don’t even think about the drive until I’m safely back home. With the biomonitors on the bus and the constant sweep of surveillance trucks and sentry bots, just elevating my heart rate an unusual amount could get me in trouble.

I don’t even know yet if it would be worth it.

In my room, I listen for the slow grind of the surveillance sweeper. It passes, right on schedule, and I activate my camera. I hook up the drive and start to read.

It’s like recalling an old dream, or hearing a story someone swears involved you, but you can’t remember. All of VerreTek’s secrets – bribery, blackmail, weapons deals, black-bag disappearances – they’re all locked under the memory-inhibiting encryption I help improve.

Helped improve.

I read their secrets aloud for the camera, my insurance. By the time the next sweeper passes, I’m powered down again, only now I remember everything I’ve read.

I send a secure message to my contact: Have VT data. Please advise.

The response is quick: 1800 bus to LA. 

I lie awake after that. What I’ve read is hard to forget – only now I wish I could. At least tomorrow I’ll be doing something about it.

Top Ten Tuesday: Spring 2014 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish. Each week we will post a new Top Ten list that one of our bloggers here at The Broke and the Bookish will answer. Everyone is welcome to join.

These are things I hope to read this spring. Let’s aim for five books because – well, see my previous TTT posts or my Goodreads TBR list for an indication of how awesome I am at following through on these.

1. “Blue Like Jazz” by Donald Miller.  I am so late to this party. I think I got this from someone who was handing out copies on campus, which means I’ve had it on my shelf for at least five years.

2. “Jesus Feminist” by Sarah Bessey. When I was first tipped off to the Faith & Culture Writers Conference, I was not exactly thrilled about going – until I saw that book title associated with Bessey, one of the speakers.  There are enough people who consider themselves Christ-followers and feminists that there’s a book for them? A book that people have read? And the author is invited to speak at a conference? Yusss.

3. Wonder Woman books.  I have a list of graphic novels to check out so I can finally experience Wonder Woman beyond the Justice League cartoon.

4. “The Elegant Universe” by Brian Greene. At least until my head explodes.

5. “Neuromancer” by William Gibson. I read “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson recently. It was my first foray into cyberpunk, and now the part of my brain that’s a rabid but deprived science-fiction fan is rocking back and forth whispering “more, preciousss.

Yes, that seems doable. Let’s just ignore that I’ve been meaning to read “Blue Like Jazz” for about half a decade, shall we?