The Tower was built like a hundred of the worst urban rat-mazes you can think of all stacked on top of each other, and that doesn’t make things easy when you’re trying to chase down some asshole. Before, I was working easy cases for the LPD interviewing nervous witnesses, reviewing surveillance records, and occasionally interrogating criminals. Now, on my first case as a private investigator, I was pushing through the crowded streets, knocking over cyclists, dodging auto-shaws, and sprinting until my chest burned
All for a cat.
A week before the chase, this little old lady rang the buzzer on my apartment door and told me that someone had catnapped her beloved feline companion. She’d offered a meager hourly wage to find him that I wasn’t thrilled at. It was less than half the rate I asked for. But I needed the money and I thought the publicity would help get my PI business off the ground. Of course, I also thought it would be an easy job. It was just a missing cat.
So after a week’s worth of stakeouts and bribed security guards, I had finally found the guy, some skinny punk that lived in our complex. The second I approached him and asked a question, he bolted out of the diner I’d found him sitting in. So I gave chase. He had a good ten yards on me once I had gotten out the door and I was struggling to catch up. My lungs felt like they were filling with fire before we were even out of sight of the diner. He knocked over a bike rack, trying to trip me up, and hooked left into an alley. I turned early, avoiding the rack and trying to cut him off or beat him to the next intersection. If the LPD had let me keep my gun, I’d have shot him just to save myself all the trouble.
The alley ended at yet another crowded main avenue. Since I was never much of a runner in school I dug in my heels and came to stop. pulled up the collar of my jacket, and tried to blend in with the mass of people as I scanned for my target. Thankfully, I caught sight of his blonde mohawk and neon green shirt a minute later, ducking into another alley. I shoved my way through the hot, tightly-packed bodies, trying to reach the corner before he got too much of a lead.
I rounded the corner and he was gone. Nowhere in sight. But, I could hear the sound of clanging metal bars over the dense sounds of the street, coming from above me. He had started climbing up the rusted fire escape but hadn’t reached the first landing. A quick look around provided me with a nicely heavy bolt, a decent aim delivered said bolt to the side of his shaved head, and a helping hand from gravity deposited him with a heavy thud at my feet. I might have sucked at running, but I could always throw a good fastball.
I jerked him up by his collar and shoved him against the grimy steel wall he had just failed to climb. He looked mostly unharmed from his fall, so long as you ignored the small trail of blood running down his cheek from where the bolt had connected with his temple.
“Alright! Enough of this! What’d you do with the fucking cat?!” I slammed him into the wall to punctuate my question.
Apparently, he wasn’t a fan of my methods because he raised his fist. At the same time, a panel opened in the flesh-colored plastic shell of his forearm and out slid a slender, double-edged blade. Before I could react, he had drawn the blade down the length of my left arm, from just above my elbow down to the back of my hand, leaving behind a searing line of parted skin and muscle. A shout escaped my throat as I reeled back, releasing my grip on his collar.
I had just enough time to gaze down into my own pink meat before blood started welling up in the wound. It began with a dozen tiny pinpricks of red. Within seconds, they swelled and merged with one another and formed into a solid line of crimson. The blood began running down my arm and as I clamped down with my other hand, I looked up. The punk was nowhere to be seen. Lost in the rushing crowds at either end of the alley.
I needed a doctor. Badly. Thankfully, when the LPD fired me I had been forced to find an “independent physician,” which meant that I knew someone who was somewhat close by, if not entirely legal. With my teeth and good hand, I tied a makeshift tourniquet using the ruined sleeves of my shirt and jacket. I was hoping that it would keep enough blood in my body for me to make it to the doctor while still conscious. My left arm hung limply at my side, I was having trouble bending my elbow, and my wrist was entirely unresponsive. I walked back to the busy street and raised my uninjured hand in an attempt to hail an auto-shaw.
It wasn’t long before a pale, bald man with deep-set eyes and glowing blue tattoos emerged from the crowds atop a light motorcycle hauling a two-wheeled cart. Ignoring the appalled expression that appeared on his face, I climbed into the cart and splayed out across both seats.
“Kosminski’s Klinic, West sector, fourteenth street, number two-oh-six,” I told him, as he sat there in shock, eyes wide and mouth agape at the blood, which had spread and was now covering most of my left side.
“And hurry if you could, unless you’d prefer to dump my corpse out of your cart in a few minutes.” With that, he snapped out of it, laid on the horn, wrenched the throttle, and there was the smell of rubber on concrete as we hurtled into the busy avenue.
As the faces and advertisements of the street blurred past us, I could feel a creeping numbness moving up the fingers of my injured hand. I’m not sure how long it took for us to get there, and I may have passed out more than once, but we pulled up to Kosminski’s Klinic with a screech of the tires. I rolled out of the cart, landing shakily on my feet. I swiped my pad to pay for the fare, plus extra to cover the cost of leaving a bloodstain, and stumbled toward the door of the squat, dirty clinic.
I don’t know how much blood I’d lost during the trip, but I got dizzy and lost my balance just as I reached the door. Leaning against the wall for support, I slammed my uninjured fist repeatedly into the buzzer panel. My vision was beginning to darken around the edges. Fading fast.
Finally, the door flew open and there stood Dr. Chen Kosminski, silhouetted against the bright fluorescents of the waiting room. The last thing I saw before passing out was the concerned yet tired expression on his plump, grandfatherly face. As my vision faded to black I heard him say:
“Well, let’s get you inside. I don’t want another shītǐ on my stoop.”
I awoke to the doctor standing over me while I lay on a cold steel table in one of the examination rooms. My left arm was nothing but a numb hunk of meat weighing me down as I struggled to sit up. Kosminski put a surprisingly forceful hand on my chest in response.
“You must be still. Otherwise, your radial nerve will be deformed once chóngjiàn… or, reconstruction has completed. It was severed in three places. You’re lucky you made it here.” He spoke with a calm, emotionless voice, as if my mangled arm wasn’t any more worrisome to him than a broken pencil or spilled glass of water. He had always reminded me more of a mechanic or repairman than a doctor. I liked that about him. He didn’t fuss over injuries. Or ask many questions.
“This has been your second visit this month. You really should be more careful.” He didn’t look up from his work, and his grey beard twitched when he spoke.
“Well, you could say that a cat did it.” I didn’t really want to get into the whole story with him and hoped that he wouldn’t pry. I was still groggy from the blood loss, and whatever he’d given me for the pain was pretty powerful.
He was thankfully silent and I watched him finish up with my arm, filling the laceration with a blue medical gel that stung like rubbing alcohol when it touched the raw muscle. The gel made a moist, gelatinous, gurgling sound as it bubbled out of the applicator gun.
“Okay, you can move now. The gel should keep everything in place as the stem cells and the Nàmǐ jīqì…nanomachines do their magic.” He laid the gun down on the stainless steel side table and held the wound tightly closed for several seconds as the gel seeped out and formed a seal.
“You will probably be a little dizzy for the rest of the day. You lost a lot of blood and I also gave you a little something for the pain. My advice is to head home, get plenty of rest, and then you can admire your new scar once the gel dries.” He picked up all of the medical equipment, packing everything neatly into the drawer of the side table.
“Oh, and try to avoid any strenuous activity with that arm for the next few days, it could tear open again.” He stood up, gave a warm smile, and gestured for me to follow him out of the exam room.
He wasn’t kidding when he said I would probably be dizzy, I had such a head rush that I nearly fell over and had to lean on Kosminski for support. He was shorter than me, with thin arms and the belly of an older man. In spite of that, his slender shoulder felt surprisingly solid, the brittleness of old age not having set in just yet.
He led me back through the short hallway, past the single other exam room, and out into the waiting area with its sign-in kiosk and array of folding chairs. The whole interior of the clinic had that dirty, not-quite-rusted look of old steel. It was also starting to not spin so much.
“How much do I owe you, doc?” I asked, hoping that his answer wouldn’t keep me up at night.
“I will send you the bill, no need to worry about that right now. Just go rest. And here, take this. For the pain.” He handed me a small, black plastic case. Inside were what looked like a silver penlight and five small cylindrical vials filled with a yellow liquid.
”That is a vaporizer and several vials of Subsyst. It is an inhalable āpiàn…opioid, effective almost immediately. Let me know when you need more.” He punctuated his sentence with a sly wink and I couldn’t help but picture a slightly overweight grandfather suggesting that I sneak an extra dessert.
“Are you sure about that? Sending me the bill later, I mean. That bucket of stem cells I needed probably wasn’t free, right?” Judging by the state of his tiny clinic, I wouldn’t bet on him being able to miss very many bills before an Omega debt collector showed up. But, I can’t say that deep down I wasn’t relieved to hear that.
“No no, it is fine, I assure you. I do not think the high prices of the company doctors are really warranted anymore because most of the work is done by computers these days. It has gotten really quite boring to be a doctor.” There was a brief flash of sadness on his face as he lingered on the thought. A second later, it was replaced with the warm smile once again.
“Should I call you a ride? Will you make it home on your own without another little accident?” He patted me on the back a little too hard and walked me to the door.
“No, I can probably walk from here. My place isn’t too far, and I think I’ve got my legs under me again. Mostly. Thanks for not just letting me bleed out on your doorstep.” I felt horribly uncomfortable not repaying him in some way, but he seemed insistent.
“I do not need any thanks for doing my job, but you are still quite welcome.”
I left the clinic, failing to avoid another overly enthusiastic pat on the back, and stumbled out onto the crowded streets. I joined with the flood of humanity and tried my best not to fall on anyone. I wanted to work off the drugs and clear my head, but that turned out not to be so easy. The combination of meds and blood loss had turned the bones of my legs into jelly. I must have been a real horror-show, drunkenly stumbling and covered in dark stains. I caught more than a couple of stares from the other fish in the stream, but ignored them. After several minutes of walking, the glaring light of the neon ads and the rush of exercise began sobering me up. The jelly in my legs dried into rubber and I managed a steady, if slightly wobbly, pace.
I made it back to my cramped one-room apartment after about twenty minutes. I had converted it into a combination office after I was fired, which basically just meant that I had to shove my new desk up against the door at night for there to be enough room to pull out the bed. By the time I made it back home, my arm had started to throb with a dull, stabbing pain as the meds wore off.
I changed out of my bloody, tattered clothes and made some food in the fabricator, a plain ham sandwich. It turned out bitter and soulless, as usual. But the drugs Kosminski had given me worked as a sort of solution to that. After screwing one of the vials onto the battery and taking a deep drag, I found that it wasn’t so much that Subsyst made food taste better, it was more like it made you forget that you needed food in the first place. Instantly, the pain in my arm vanished, replaced with a happy numbness in my whole body. I took another hit. The vial bubbled, the melon-flavored vapor hit my lungs again, and within seconds I was wrapped in a warm, euphoric blanket. A minute later, I was fast asleep.
I awoke with my head on the desk to the thumping of a fist on my door. My neck was stiff and my stomach felt like it full of sour milk. I shouted for them to hold on and shoved the half-eaten sandwich from the night before into the top drawer of the desk. My stomach was doing rolls as I rushed to the bathroom and threw up the other half of that sandwich, barely making it to the toilet. The knocking intensified as I splashed some water on my face, threw on some professional-looking clothes, and stumbled over to the door.
It slid open and there stood a young woman I didn’t recognize. She had olive skin, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, and stood almost level with me at six feet. She wore a short leather jacket over a red blouse and torn jeans, but her most striking feature were her eyes: flat metallic grey, no irises or sclera, and they were segmented, like the aperture of a camera lens.
“Jai Cooper?” She looked annoyed.
“Yeah, but it’s pronounced ‘Jay’” I said with a yawn. “Please come in.” I walked over to the desk, gesturing for her to follow.
“I heard you’re supposed to be a PI? And do you always sleep till noon?” She came in and sat in the chair opposite mine.
“Who said I was sleeping?” I plopped down into my own chair and tipped it back onto two legs so I could stretch out a little bit and maybe fix my stiff neck.
“Whatever. Look, I need your help. I need you to track someone down.” The annoyed look on her face turned to one of genuine concern.
“Okay, so is this like a cheating boyfriend or something?”
“No. Worse than that. Let me start at the beginning. My name is Lysandra O’Leary and I’m a journalist. I write a blog covering crime here on our level of The Tower.” She started anxiously picking at the flesh of her finger with her nails. “Two weeks ago, there were two murders. They were eight days apart, very similar causes of death. I think the same person is behind them both.”
“So, isn’t Sec supposed to investigate that kind of thing? They certainly have more resources than I do.”
“They aren’t taking it seriously just because the girls were…sex workers. Said it’s just the dangers of their line of work.” The anxiety in her hands stopped and they clenched tightly, “They, were my friends. We lived in the same building. ” I could see anger building on her face.
“I wrote an article to help spread awareness about Sec not doing their damn jobs down here, but I want someone to actually go after this guy.”
“I’m so sorry, Lysandra. I know how that feels.” I thought about it for a second. I was technically already on a case, but I was starting to think that granny’s cat was more trouble than it was worth. And this woman looked like she would actually be able to pay me. “I’ll take the case. But, I’ll need fifty credits an hour, my standard rate. And I will need an advance as well. To cover any necessary expenses.”
“How big of an advance?”
“Oh, I’d say somewhere in the realm of three grand would suffice.” I already knew what I was going to spend it on.
She narrowed her eyes, the effect greatly enhanced by the apertures closing and turning her pupils into two tiny dots. “Three grand for an advance? What kind of expenses are you expecting to find?”
“Look, I’m no cop. Not anymore. That means I also don’t have a gun anymore. You see this?” I pulled up my sleeve and revealed my fresh wound. Her apertures went wide in surprise. “In order to keep this from happening to me again, I need to go buy a new gun. Especially if you want me to go after someone who is legitimately dangerous.”
“I — I don’t have that much.” She paused, and then sighed deeply, “I can pay half now and the rest in a week or so. That’s the best I can do.”
I knew that wouldn’t be enough for a decent gun, but I also couldn’t really afford to say no. Rent was coming up soon and the case of the missing pussycat hadn’t paid out in anything other than pain and blood loss. Oh, and some more medical bills coming in the mail.
“Fine,” I said, with a sigh.
She stood up and extended her hand. “Then it’s a deal.”
I stood up, gave a nod, and we shook on it.