As only a few could afford cars, there were few streets in Old Town, only emergency corridors. Most people made do with either the sidewalks or the tram. If they were crazy enough to take the tram. Or crazier to walk. Mac took the underground tram to Easton, not having any patience for street preening and the ritual eyefuck of those who made him as a cop. He had never lost that cop walk, that puffed-up, straight-backed waddle of owning all he surveyed. Times like this, he wished he could still flash his badge to clear the car. Instead, nestled near the rear of the car, he hunched over on a bench. Despite being surrounded by people, he was alone. He dreaded moments like this. The stillness. When he had time to think. And feel. Grief threatened to devour him, to suck the marrow from his bones. His hands trembled with helplessness and he stuffed them into his pockets as if that would magically quell his racing mind and the torrent of memories. His mouth watered at the thought of a drink. The rusting steel wall across from him held a bit of wisdom scrawled into the surface with a knife: “Escape is the way to salvation!”
The rattling and clacking of the tram compounded the buzzing headache growing within Mac’s brain. It had been hours since his last dose of Stim, the effects lasting shorter and shorter durations these days. Stim was the law enforcement drug originally developed and used during The Trying TimesTM, as the Stream called the post-eruption widespread riots. Mac had been on the force then, on the front lines. They’d had to stay alert longer, be faster, be stronger because they were so outnumbered. It was their thin blue line vs. the tsunami of panic. Panic the officers themselves shared. Every member of LG Security Force wanted to run and be with their families while uncertainty sprang up all around them. Instead they had to be there to stem the rioting and hold the line of civilization before people’s baser instincts consumed them. And the officers resented every person who caused them to have to be here rather than with their own.
At ten p.m. sharp, Mac emerged from the Fourth and Transom tram entranceway. Light rarely penetrated down to the street level of the Easton section of Old Town. With the strange lanterns above them, the luminescence was reduced to a sapphire haze. The hustle and flow of urban ruin danced about the mixed landscape of trash-littered streets. The giant stone eruptions had disrupted the routine of the lives of Easton citizens, but people did what they had done since the days they first walked upright to take a piss: adapted and thrived, living among the alien structures as if they were their new homes.
The streets hadn’t changed much. Kids in adult bodies still hung out on the corners, discussing the neighborhood in code thick enough to keep outsiders locked out of the know. The fashions changed, with the thug du jour favoring collared shirts unbuttoned at the cuffs and from the chest down. Thick, corded belts with the number of their building assignment as a buckle, worn with pride. Military fatigues shorn midcalf on the left leg, signifying a set in the prisons their families were tied to. If one member jailed, the rest of the family jailed with that relative in spirit, essentially sitting shiva during their sentence.
“The Carmillon is based here. You should see these freaks,” Mac started in with Ade before he had a chance to offer up any greetings. The cybernetic man was forced to match Mac’s pace as he stormed toward the houses. “Like a single-homed village. In the winter they all huddle around a wood-burning stove. They have to chip away ice from inside the toilets to use them. Summertime, shit, it’s a flophouse free-for-all. They’re organized, if that’s not too strong a word, by a crew they call ‘the crown.’ The crown has five points, members, one of whom being a Chike Walters. Any relation?”
“No,” Ade said with cold finality. “We all have to be related?”
“Put the race card back in your wallet. I was merely noting the coincidence.”
“How do they afford this place?”
“It’s not exactly the Ritz-Carlton, Detective. Besides, they have this policy of not paying rent. They just walk in and take over. Their philosophy is simple: act like you own the place and most folks will think you do. Most street bums don’t run up against professional dropout artists on a regular basis.”
A clean-shaven black man — draped in a vest darned with dental floss over a T-shirt and black shorts — approached them from across the street to head them off. Leather bands wrapped around his neck and wrists, accentuating the lean, lanky build of his runner’s body. Though short and skinny, he couldn’t disguise his muscles, as his gait gave it away: muscle heads, even thin ones, had that chest-out walk they couldn’t shake. Much like cops. Ade’s hi-res imager fixed on the man’s face.
“Chike Walters,” Ade said.
“Good evening, officers,” Chike said with a silky politeness before either could flash him their identification. “Here in an official capacity?”
“We have a few questions we’d like to ask you to help out with an investigation.” Ade stalked about, circling Chike while studying the adjacent property.
“Do you live here?”
“As much as I live anywhere.”
“I mean, is this your legal place of residence?” Ade pressed.
“You uptowners. So quick to look down your nose at us when it’s you that should be ashamed of how you’re living. Our country has so much. We throw away enough for nations to live on. Anything you want, I can get it for you. I can find anything I need out here.”
“And what you can’t find, you take,” Mac said.
“What? Now you’re standing up for the rights of garbage? I guess everyone will sleep better tonight.”
“In someone else’s bed,” Mac continued.
“Private property is just another way to oppress people,” Chike said.
“Not if it’s my shit you’re sleeping in.”
“Folks would rather board up buildings if they can’t make a profit from them. It makes no sense.”
“It’s. Not. Your. Shit.” Mac emphasized each word for effect.
“Housing is a right, Detective. Food is a right. Anything less is buying into the propaganda of the system.”
“What you’re telling me is that you don’t work?” Mac said.
“Once you have clothes, food, and housing, you don’t really need credits,” Chike said.
“So you’re bums.”
“It’s always hard for some to give up privilege, that sense that you were born to own all you survey. Wouldn’t you rather spend the time you do working being with your family?”
“Sometimes family’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” Ade sniffed.
Chike turned to Ade with an icy glance. “Most people spend a good chunk of their lives at a job they hate, taking orders from people they can’t stand to buy stuff they don’t need. That’s no kind of life.”
“Who are they?” Ade nodded to the figures skulking around the side of the house.
“Our foraging party returning. Come on, we can talk inside.”
Mac lingered a few steps behind them. The glow from a lit Dumpster cast a yellow pall on three men huddled together around a curbside campfire. Thick pustules grew in clumps along their chin and ears: victims of the Bud, a gene-specific virus released during The Trying TimesTM as terrorists took advantage of the chaos to stir the pot. The virus attacked certain members of the populace by genome. It wasn’t contagious, but no one had known that at the time. It produced the pustules by simply replicating in certain tissues until they grew and ruptured. A virus that shamed more than anything else, as affected individuals were ostracized by friends and family, left abandoned by those who claimed to love them. Terminated from the employment cycles and unable to get work, they took to the streets. Sections of many cities were set aside as colonies for them. Mac lived in one that kept visitors to a minimum. The Carmillon had the same idea.
Parts littered the lawn: car parts, bike parts, computer parts. The words “Escape while you can” were spray-painted on one of the crumbling brick walls of the turn-of-the-century mansion. The home was an umbrella of constant repair. Missing clay tiles left gaping wounds in the roof. Shingles peeled from the exterior, like a lizard sloughing its skin. Some of the rooms had six fireplaces, some rooms had two. The dining room was large enough to be called “The Cafeteria.” The library was full of borrowed and found books — actual, paper, bound books — along with dusty old couches. Computers lined the far wall. Though reserved mostly for full citizens on the employment cycle, if they needed to, they tapped into the Stream by use of their homemade “cantenna,” a primitive work-around that created an untraceable network hot spot. The massive house had half a dozen bedrooms, not counting what were originally built as servant’s quarters. Strains of opera lilted from a radio. A radio. Mac had never seen a working one in real life. Signals still automatically broadcast on a loop from some centuries-old station. They had reappeared the day the towers erupted. No one knew how or why, but that didn’t stop some people from enjoying the music.
A caramel-colored woman entered the room. She doffed a bowler cap, letting her white hair drape down to her shoulders. Carrying a walking stick in one hand, she plopped a backpack on the table with the other. A cross on a necklace dangled from around her neck, and a fine filigree of wrinkles framed her small mouth.
“Elia Baum, detectives. Detectives, Elia Baum. She’s what you might call my second-in-command.”
“Elia Baum.” Ade fixed his high-res screen on her. “Three counts breaking and entering. Arrested six times on minor drug charges. Final disposition of those cases pending completion of her drug rehabilitation program.”
“How’s the program treating you, Ms. Baum?” Mac asked with a smirk.
“More hypocrisy. What’s the difference between you and her?” Chike asked. “I can smell the stink of Redi-Smoke on your breath. And you have the look of a broken-down addict trying to muddle through. Protect and serve your high and leave those dealing with their pain and their recovery alone.”
Mac bristled, ready to lunge toward the man, but Ade placed his large, meaty hand in the center of his chest and stopped him cold.
Chike, not even bothering to give Mac a second glance, turned to Elia. “What’ve we got?”
“Check this out.” She gestured to the people behind her.
Her compatriots dumped several grocery bags worth of found treasures on the table. Sealed stir-fry vegetable packs. Bags of salad — crystals still on some of the leaves from having been frozen — probably from the bottom of a refrigerator kept too cold, then thrown out as ruined. Tomatoes. Four ready-made deli trays, vacuum sealed. Mushrooms. Oranges. Another of her companions arrived with lamps, brooms, random tools, and an ancient iPod. She lifted up the flap of her backpack to reveal bottles of lotion, detergent, and toothpaste.
“Nice work, Elia.” Chike turned back to the detectives. “So what’s this all about, gentlemen?”
Ade stepped forward. “We’re investigating the disappearance of one Kiersten Wybrow.”
“Ah, Kiersten Wybrow. So a pretty white woman — and she was pretty, right officer?” Chike locked eyes with Mac. “—she gets her hair mussed, so you hunt down the pack of niggers who had to be out to rape her.”
“She did more than get her hair mussed, you walking cum stain…” Mac evaded Ade’s arm and charged toward Chike.
Elia stepped in between the two men and swept the back of Mac’s feet with her staff. He landed flush on his back, and by the time he realized his position, the butt of her staff pressed against his throat. The rest of the Carmillon gathered around, a wall of steel-eyed gazes whose body language hinted that they were well trained and not afraid to get in a fight. The detectives were clearly outnumbered.
“Call off your dog, Chike,” Ade said in a tone that didn’t invite discussion.
Chike locked eyes with him and then smirked. “Elia…”
She withdrew her staff then offered her hand to Mac.
“You’re lucky I…we, don’t have you hauled in right now.” Mac brushed her hand aside and dusted himself off, knowing full well that Ade would have to call in backup to make that play. And this whole situation at second scan seemed more like a family beef than a game of posturing and disrespect.
“On what charges?” Chike asked.
“Assault on an officer,” Ade said, covering for Mac, who clearly was no longer police. “Suspicion of murder.”
“The Carmillon would never kill anyone. Ever.”
“The Carmillon, eh? Wasn’t Harley Wilson one of yours?”
“Why do you have to step on the man’s name by insisting on calling him by his government name?”
“Figured you wouldn’t care,” Mac interjected. “If you found his body, you’d probably only use it for compost anyway. They’re still scraping parts of him off the sidewalk downtown. If you hurry…”
“We knew him as Baraka. And, yes, he was one of ours. And, despite his dealings with the Easton MS crew, I cannot imagine him killing anyone.” Chike stepped toward him, a spark of anger in his eyes. “Perhaps you should look into your undercover princess.”
“You knew she was undercover?” Ade asked with the nonchalance of asking for the time.
Chike swallowed just hard enough to be noticed and wore the expression of a child caught in a lie. Mac had cracked the man’s smooth veneer, finally getting to him. Angry people got sloppy.
“There are few secrets among the Carmillon.”
“Then what’s the muscle for?” Mac pointed to Elia and her crew, though didn’t meet her eyes. “If we toss them, we likely to find weapons? Or other…accoutrements?”
“We have to protect ourselves. Not everyone is tolerant of our way of life.”
“There are two bodies that took a header from a tower tonight — whose families won’t be able to even be able to bury them properly — who beg to differ. Her prints were everywhere. Wilson’s were nowhere.” Ade stepped closer to Chike. “How do you think that happened?”
“Your questions betray your prejudice. Apparently, every time something goes wrong in your precious, civilized world, those without have to be the cause of it.”
“Your little foragers were all together?”
“Ours is a lifestyle of freedom. People can come and go as they please without fear of being checked up on.”
“Do you know why Harley Wilson and Kiersten Wybrow would be at the top of the stone tower?” Ade asked.
“Baraka,” Chike corrected, “was a good man. Maybe someday you’ll have a chance to ask him when your time comes. He understood that we were in a war and that not all of our enemies reveal themselves. Some hide behind government and corporations and have the wealth and connections to think of themselves as untouchable. Everyone can be touched.”
Mac rolled his eyes and tapped Ade’s arm. “Come on, I’ve heard enough.”