Saturday, December 1, 2018

SHOWCASE • “Market Futures,” by M. Ian Bell

—Part One—

Nielson stepped into the doorway beneath the light of ten carefully positioned mag-lamps. The intensity drove spikes of pain into her eyes, but it came too with a sense of relief. A well-lit scene with the astringent taste of iron in the air. She was powerless against the loss of sleep or the headaches that followed, but at the crime scene she could reestablish control.

The body was sprawled on the carpet with a blossom of crimson congealing around the head. Pale skin made paler by contrast. Bathrobe open revealing a specimen bloated by decades of poor dietary choices. Fat, bald, and ugly as hell. Nielson stepped closer to get a better look at the face. Hard to tell what he looked like before his skull was completely caved in.

Two tommies worked on the dead man silently. Light reflecting off their polished chrome craniums.

“So who’s the vic?” she asked.

The automaton regarded Nielson with vacant eyes. Pools of black fitted with reflective glass lenses. She could almost hear the processors whirring behind them.

“Klaus Friedemann,” it said finally, voice grating and monotonous. “Citizen. Born 22 November 2031.”

Nielson stuck a cigarette between her lips and patted herself down for a lighter, taking slow steps around the room and training her eyes on everything in sight. Leather sofa. Overturned coffee table. A paperback novel left open on the floor, as if it had been thrown there, or dropped. She bent to pick it up, noticing the umlauts first.

“You boys dust yet?”

“The dusting is complete.”

She picked up the book and thumbed through it, bewildered.

“Translate,” she said, holding it up to the tommies. Both heads swiveled on noiseless rotors and they sang out in chorus.

Adventures in the Great Forest, by Gunter Horstead.”

She dropped the book and saw the cheap lighter on the side table. Moved toward it immediately. Fired the cigarette tip and pulled deeply.

“Agent Nielson. Protocol forbids smoking at a crime scene,” came the fatherly reprimand.

“Agent Nielson writes her own protocol,” Anders said, stepping in from the hallway. The tommies exchanged a long glance, sharing some wireless tidbit, no doubt. Can you believe these meat-sacs? Or: How will we maintain the atomic integrity of the premises? Or: 1001111011001.

And then they were on their feet, bodies turning with unnerving precision at the hips and shoulders. Nielson let out another plume of smoke and waited, trying to expect the unexpected. But there were no more reprimands forthcoming. No evasive maneuvers.

“Analysis complete,” said the tommy. “Victim died instantly of cranial collapse at 0200 hours. DNA on premises belongs to Mr. Klaus Friedemann. Fibers on victim consistent with victim’s attire. No foreign substances present. Fingerprints on premises belong to Mr. Klaus Friedemann and Agent Ellouise Nielson.”

Anders let out a snort. Nielson shrugged her shoulders.

The tommies moved past them and towards two others stationed in the hallway to hold silent communion with them. Then all four moved away.

“Wait!” Nielson called after them. They stopped and spun. “What’s the murder weapon?”

The tommy angled its head, calling up information and looking too much like a confused dog trying to parse out the most basic of commands. It sent a shiver up Nielson’s spine.

“Metallic, cylindrical. At least eight inches long with a circumference of four inches.”

And then they turned again and disappeared from the hallway.

“Gives me the creeps,” Nielson said.

“Forget it,” Anders responded. “They’re just walking dashboards. It’s a fad.”

Nielson raised an eyebrow. Right. Like bell-bottoms or focus-visors. A fad.

“So what,” Nielson said, looking around the room. “Friedemann opens the door and wham, just like that?”

“No sign of forced entry,” Anders said. “Victim knows the perpetrator. He knocks on the door, vic lets him in, strikes him in the center of the forehead.” He pointed to a spray of blood just above the window dressing. “One spray, one blow. Vic goes down.”

“So what are we thinking? Baseball bat?”

Anders moved to the body and hunkered down, watching his feet to avoid the black pool.

“I don’t know. It seems a little thin for a baseball bat?”

“I don’t like the placement either,” Nielson responded. “Perp would have had to raise the bat over his head like this. Who swings a bat like that? It seems wrong. Plus Friedemann would have seen it coming. Look at his eyes—he’s not even the least bit surprised.”

They stood there and looked down at him.

“All right, so it’s not a baseball bat. But it’s probably someone he knew. Why else open the door at two in the morning?”

“Got me,” Nielson said, moving around the sofa and into the kitchen. But something in here is going to give us the answer.

On the counter sat a mug, half-full. Nielson raised it to her nose, expecting the sharp sting of alcohol and smelling nothing instead. She put the cup down and dropped the butt of her cigarette in. She opened all of the cabinets and the drawers, pushing things around unceremoniously. The fridge was full of condiments and things wrapped in aluminum foil. Nielson let the door fall shut and pushed into the bedroom.

“Got a lot of suspicious literature out here,” Anders called from the living room. “None of it’s in English.”

“German,” Nielson called. “They’re just books.”

The bedroom was a mess. Blankets tangled and comforter on the floor. Crumpled clothes tossed everywhere.

Fat, ugly, and you’re a slob.

Nielson’s eyes caught the glimmer of the analog watchface on the small bookshelf. Beside it were Friedemann’s wallet and keys. So it wasn’t a robbery.

She moved deeper into the room and turned to the South wall.

Above the bookshelf was one of the most horrible paintings Nielson had ever seen in her twenty years on the force, and she’d seen a lot. Some of the higher-ups would have artwork everywhere. Massive murals forty feet long. Sculptures of clay and stone and plastic. One guy on the Upper West had this tangled mass of metal hanging from the ceiling, like a steel factory had vomited onto the roof and they just decided to leave it like that. Ugly as shit.

But this thing had a gruesome quality to it. Varying shades of black and vaguely humanesque forms all huddled together. And the misshapen body of a woman, pale and naked and streaked with red, floating in the air above them.

“Hank, get in here,” Nielson called. “What do you make of this?”

He took up position next to Nielson.

“What, this piece of shit? Modern art, I guess. What about it?”

But Nielson couldn’t say. She just knew she didn’t like it.

“Nothing. You got anything?”

“Jack shit, my friend.”

“Let’s get back then.”

They turned off the mag-lamps and exited as two tommies arrived from the elevator, pushing a stretcher.

Morgue tommies, Nielson thought, giving them the eye. But it could have been the same tech tommies from before, or the guard tommies in the hallway, or any number she’d seen or worked with in the past eight months. How could you tell, really?

Nielson caught forty minutes in the locker room before something imaginary startled her awake. She looked at her watch, pushed herself to a sitting position on the tiny cot. The smell of disinfectant and rust hung rich in the air. She stretched her back and heard too many joints popping.

Anders appeared at the door as Nielson pulled her jacket back on. Cup of coffee in hand and a thin plastic straw between his lips.

“Is this an angel I see before me?”

“We’re out of milk, actually,” Anders said, handing her the cup. Nielson shrugged.

They moved through Dispatch and into the hallway, passing overhead fluorescents and shiny chrome carapaces. A tommy locked eyes with Nielson as they walked, its head swiveling, sending a fresh spike of pain into Nielson’s eyeballs as light bounced off of its lenses. She quaffed the coffee and thought about the bottle of aspirin in her desk drawer. Followed Anders to their desks in the corner of Investigations and watched as he punched in his passcode. The dashboard lit up with Friedemann’s picture, pre-cranium-crushing. He was still just as ugly.

“German expat,” Anders began, “married into the country six years ago. His third wife, and not his last.”

Images of the five ex-Friedemann’s appeared on the dash.

“So he likes his women,” Nielson said.

“Yea. And then he doesn’t. None of the marriages lasts more than two years. And that painting on the wall in the bedroom?”

Anders swiped through a series of photos, lingering only a second on each before relegating them back to the terminal’s memory banks. Each image was as ghastly as the one in Friedemann’s apartment. Dark, haunting. Pools of color and the occasional pale, young woman.

“Don’t tell me,” Nielson said. “He’s the artist.”

In response, Anders punched up a press release on the vic, decked out in his black-tie best and scowling beside a radiant woman in an evening gown. One of his works was mounted on the wall behind them. Tuxedos and high heels held champagne glasses everywhere. They nibbled triangular bits of toast topped with what must be caviar.

“Decadent,” she said.

“This is last year’s show at the MOMA.”

“And the girl?”

“Wife number five.”

“She an ex now?”

“You guessed it. She was the last one in the States before the marriage went belly-up.”

Nielson blew a heavy breath out of pursed lips and reached for the desk drawer. Her fist closed around the bottle of aspirin and she gave it a brief, hopeful shake. She was not disappointed.

“So we skip the wife on this one.”

“Agreed. But we’ve got others,” Anders said, clearing the board. He pushed a heavy sleeve up his arm to reveal a battered Casio. “Workday’s starting, and Friedemann’s got his art studio just across town. Maybe one of his colleagues knows who would want him dead.”

Nielson followed slowly, chewing four pills. Relishing the crunch and the bitter sting.

The studio on West 27th offered very little in the way of evidence. Friedemann’s assistant remained composed, despite the shock they could read on her face. The canvases hung everywhere, all showing the same trademark style. Gruesome scenes of frailty and destruction. As to who might want the artist dead, very little could be determined.

It was half past nine when they sat down at the greasy spoon on the corner of Eighth Ave and West Twenty. They thumbed through the menus and sipped at steaming coffee.

“So you don’t like the assistant,” Anders said.

“I’m not seeing motive, Hank. Art prices rise with Friedemann dead, but he’s worth more if he continues to paint.” She pushed the menu away and waved the waitress back over. “I’m having the salad.”

“I know,” the waitress responded. “No cheese.”

“Thank you, Dawn. My partner’s going to have something horrible that will kill him dead before he finishes his coffee.”

She gave Nielson a look.

“Just give me the usual,” Anders said. She took the menus and disappeared.

“The usual? It’s nine in the morning, Hank.”

“You and I both know it’s not nine in the morning.” He sipped his coffee. “When was the last time you had a full night’s sleep? Before the Gillenson twins, am I right?”

Ellouise Nielson winced only slightly. It was only a week ago that they’d put Harmon Dowel away for stringing the Gillenson boys up in a chestnut tree like they were marionettes. And while it hadn’t been hard to find him—really, he’d wanted to be found—there wasn’t much sleep to be had with those images in your head.

“Which is not to say the gig’s exactly good for your nerves to begin with.”

Nielson snorted agreement or amusement or both. She didn’t bother to mention that she wouldn’t have been sleeping anyway. That she hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep since Markus had left last August, almost fourteen months ago.

“Nerves only get in the way,” she said instead. “Nerves don’t get you twenty years on the force. What they get you is a gut full of ulcers or a bullet in your head.”

“You really are an incurable optimist,” Anders told her.

“Maybe I’m just a realist,” she said. But reality was nothing but nerves. She ate the salad because nothing else would sit well anymore. Coffee wasn’t helping, her doctor told her. Nor might alcohol, he said more cautiously, as if in question. Nielson’s sponsor knew better and didn’t mince words.

“Well, Ms. Realist,” Anders responded, “let’s start talking reality. How do we kill Herr Friedemann?”

“You mean without being in the apartment?”

Anders raised an eyebrow.

“I’m not saying it makes sense. Someone clearly killed the guy. Someone was in that apartment and swung a bat at his head. But the place is clean as a whistle. No DNA, right? No fingerprints? How do you go crushing someone’s skull to pieces without leaving something behind? A loose eyelash, a fleck of dandruff. Spittle, a drop of sweat. Something.

Anders set his mobile dash on the table and pulled up the M.E.’s report.

“Consistent with the initial sweep,” he said. “Nothing but Friedemann.”

“When was the last time we had a clean crime scene like that?”

“Since the tommies started sweeping?” Anders asked.

Nielson nodded.

“Shit, girl. Never.”


Anders closed the medical report and slid his mobile aside.

“So what?” he asked. “We got one smooth little bastard pulled this off?”

“Smooth nothing,” Nielson responded. “What we got is a ninja. A ghost.”

Anders snorted. “I’ll take my chances,” he said. “We’ve caught our share.”

But he wasn’t liking his chances when the second crime scene came up completely spotless. Nielson stood in the doorway with a scowl on her face. Anders stepped gingerly around the room, avoiding stuffed toys and wooden blocks. Aside from the brightly colored posters and tiny plastic chairs, the scene looked identical to Friedemann’s apartment.

Lisa Burrington lay flat on her back with her limbs splayed out radially, the impact right in the center of her forehead. Blood was already beginning to congeal in a rich circle around her head and shoulders. It sank into the carpet, obscuring colorful images of talking trains and smiling rainbows.

“Let me guess,” Anders said. “No foreign DNA.”

One of six tommies stopped in its work and swiveled its head 180 degrees.

“There are forty-eight DNA samples in this room, not including Ms. Lisa Burrington’s or the two agents’. The majority of specimens show a life span of approximately four and a half years. Several DNA specimens contain half of the same chromosomes, indicating that they are related.”

“Naturally,” Nielson said. “We’re talking about a classroom full of toddlers and their parents. Easy.”

“It’s a goddamn tragedy,” Nielson said. She could tell Burrington was beautiful despite the skull trauma. Her eyes were vacant, displaying nothing. After twenty-six years with a shield, Nielson could always see fear or surprise on the faces of the deceased. Usually, it was a blend of the two. The young schoolteacher displayed neither. She’d been thinking about something else, no doubt. Preparing for the early-morning pre-K lesson, wondering what she would have for dinner later. Thinking about her fiancé, maybe.

It was nice to imagine, anyway.

“I’ll give you three guesses on the murder weapon,” Anders said, breaking her from her reverie.

The nearest tommy turned its head and stated: “Metallic, cylindrical. At least eight inches long with a circumference of four inches.”

“Color me surprised,” Nielson said. “So what’s the connection?”

“Friedemann and her? Cross-reference shows nothing. My guess is they didn’t even know each other.”

“Probably true,” Nielson said. “But this ain’t random. It’s too clean. It’s calculated.”

“Ah yes, clean indeed. Ninjas, right?”

Nielson frowned. “I was thinking something cleaner,” she said. She stared at the tommies as they worked on the body. Collecting careful specimens, taking photographs with silent, unseen cameras hidden away in the circuitry of their too-mammalian craniums. Photos of the girl, of the carpet. Of the desks and windows and colorful artwork. And perhaps the door and hallway as they exited, the front steps of the building, the sidewalk strewn with trash and mottled by years of discarded chewing gum. And the police cruiser out front, the squad van which carried the tommies back to the station. In fact, who was to say they weren’t photographing everything, everywhere, always?

» Part Two

M. Ian Bell is a teacher and tutor living in New Jersey. He mentors adolescents during the school year and co-directs a boys' camp in New Hampshire in the summer. His work can also be found in Apex and Shimmer Magazines, and you can follow him on Twitter at @m_ianbell.


Mark Keigley said...

Liking it so far. Very crisp story-telling!

Arisia said...

I agree with you, Mark. The only thing I'm wondering about is why bell bottoms would be remembered after 100 years.

Anonymous said...

Really liking it!

When I came to the end of this first installment, my reaction was, "Hey! I'm not done!"

Of course, I have my own theories about who "dun" it...can't wait for the rest! BTW -- how MANY episodes might pull me along as I read; sort of like ANALOG: Part 4 of 5...Then if I stumble across it and didn't read the the previous three, I'd know to go back rather than blunder into a story and have NO idea what was going on and get frustrated and fire off a nasty note to the editor!