If there’s one thing you learn quickly in this job, it’s that the worst phone calls always come at night.
I guess there’s something primal about it. The sun goes down, and the scared animal comes out inside us, makes us do stupid things out of fear. Well, the scared animal comes out of some of us. For others, it’s the inner hunter that comes out in the night.
Either that, or it’s just easier to get away with something after dark. But a cop can have a poetic streak, right?
Even to my own ears my voice sounded like shit. I didn’t even remember picking up the phone. One moment, I was having a dream that I couldn’t remember and the next it was in my hand and pressed to my ear. “Chandler.”
“Rowe here. Sorry to wake you. You should probably see this one.”
He could probably hear the confused half-asleep grunt that I made, and clarified. “It’s three blocks north of your apartment. Ground floor. Biggest park in the city that goes that deep. Ringing any bells yet?”
Well, shit. That one woke me up a bit. I clamped the phone between my shoulder and ear so I could rub at my face, then hauled myself to a sitting position. “How critical are we on time?”
I could almost hear the shrug. “Who gives a shit if you shut down the streets all day down here? But you should probably get down here before the sun comes up. Don’t want to make the locals cranky.”
“Good. I’ll shower and get coffee first then. I’ll be down soon.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
I ended the call and tossed my phone back down beside my bed, the impact on the rubber casing almost making it bounce clean off. Sometimes, I hate being the go-to investigator for ground level ‘incidents’. Most good cops go down there maybe once a week. It’s been months since I had a day where I didn’t head down there. I try not to reflect too much on what that says about my reputation.
But sitting and ruminating on my lot in life wouldn’t help me get ready, so I hauled myself out of bed. My arm was laying on the floor where I’d dropped it last night. A glance at the clock corrected me – earlier this night. All I could think was that it had better be a good one.
I picked up my arm with my good hand, lined it up with the socket and pushed it in, twisting it to lock it in place. I wish I could tell you that I lost it in some huge heroic shoot-out, but nothing so dramatic. Just a run of the mill car crash, and now I have the prosthetic from the elbow down. At least the higher-ups paid to get my sidearm installed in it. I held my hand out to silhouette it against the bright numbers on the clock and wiggled my fingers to make sure they were working properly. The wonders of modern technology, or rather, ‘about a decade behind the curve’ technology. You can’t afford the brand new stuff with my pay.
I had to get moving. A shower with the heat cranked up as high as my skin could take without falling off, and a cup of extra-strong coffee were enough to get me mostly conscious. I woke up, and the pain woke up too. A couple of pills put it back to sleep. I found my uniform being used as a nest by my cat, and relocated the lazy little thing to my bed before getting dressed. I could have gone plain-clothes, but at an active scene it was easier to go uniform. That went double for an incident on the ground floor. Down there wearing the uniform could make you a target – but the body armour made you harder to take down. I decided to leave the helmet. Once I was dressed, I went to my safe and recovered my ammunition. One magazine loaded into my arm, four in my belt. Rifle too, with three magazines. It’s regulation to carry it at all times on the bottom. I loaded and checked it on autopilot – I’m so used to going downstairs that I barely even had to think about it.
The scene was so close to my apartment it was quicker to just walk. Even so late at night the streets were choked with vehicles of all sizes. My radio confirmed my choice – the Cortex called in a truck roll-over on the nearest ramp downstairs not even a minute after I’d left. Probably DUI. This far downstairs you couldn’t see much of the sky, but that didn’t stop people from going out drinking in the night-time. A while ago, the streets would have been empty at this time of night. Once the last batch of problems were dealt with the curfew had been lifted. It didn’t pay to keep everyone inside – what you wasted collaring drunks, you made up for in heading off nastier things. The closer you get to the ground floor, the touchier people get.
The layered arrangement had been a natural fix as the buildings got larger and the streets got crowded. What do you do when the entire city’s a gridlock, and you don’t need to worry about seismic activity? Just build new roads suspended above the old ones. Just patches at first, but eventually it was almost the entire city. Sure, you don’t get natural light on ground level, but it was a small price for doubling the transport capacity – or at least, that was the reasoning at the time. Wasn’t exactly a popular decision, but the protesters came around eventually. We just had to bust a few heads to make them see reason. Not that I did it myself – too young – but Dad used to come home and scrub the blood from his boots with a toothbrush.
Gradually, people just started accepting the way things were. Didn’t take too long before the entire city was a layer-cake. Of course, you can’t just keep people from ever seeing the sun. That’s why they left the occasional piece of parkland – clear from the ground all the way up. If you were stuck on the bottom, they were the only places to see natural light. Armstrong Square was the largest patch of sky in the ground floor, an entire block open to the elements. Keeping people out for too long would start a riot.
Most pedestrians cleared the way, and I couldn’t say that I blamed them. I probably looked mad as hell. Not that I was, exactly – it was just hard to look anything less than angry, when all I wanted was rest. The first escalator down was broken into nothing more than glorified stairs. Same with the next three. Mercifully, for two levels in a row the escalator worked. Then it was back to the trudging.
Usually when we need to get somewhere on the ground floor, cops will go across on a higher level before going down. Means that you spend the minimum amount of time down there. Me, I prefer to go down, then across. It’s my haunt, after all. Doesn’t make sense to act afraid of it. You can always tell when you’re getting near bottom, even if you haven’t been keeping count. The lower you go, the more claustrophobic it is. More space taken up by support pillars for the weight above, for one. The space between levels is lower as well. The first time I went down all the way, I ended up feeling like a giant. There’s more life down there too. More scavengers – rats, bats, flocks of tiny birds, packs of wandering dogs. Nobody gives a shit about the lowest levels, at least not enough for pest control. The only pest that get taken care of are the ones with assault rifles.
That being said, ground level isn’t as bad as most people think. It’s dark, damp, and dingy – but a uniformed cop isn’t going to get shot just for walking down the street either. Not any more at least. Walking down the street with your guard down is a different matter. I kept my rifle on my shoulder but my sleeves rolled back, letting my arm hang out in plain view. Never hurt to remind them I didn’t have to worry about a holster if it came to a shoot-out. It’s always easy to find yourself ambushed on the ground floor. By the time your boots hit solid ground, the roads are all one lane. Narrow, dark, plenty of spaces between the supports to lie in wait.
I knew I was getting close when the dim and flickering overhead lights were drowned out by the strobes on the cruisers picketing the crime scene. Past them, I could see an evidence drone flitting back and forth photographing the scene from above, hovering just high enough to avoid disturbing anything with the micro-jets keeping it aloft. I could smell the scene by the time I could see the lights. Blood, ruptured guts, bile. I knew it had to have been a nasty one to put out such a stink. When I spotted Rowe silhouetted ahead by the crime scene lights and took a spot beside him, I realised how much of an understatement that was.
There wasn’t a body, so much as there was a nice new shade of pink painting a large chunk of Armstrong Square. Whoever the victim had been, he’d been completely pasted. I couldn’t help the response that slipped out.
Rowe had put his helmet on in the time since he called me. He hardly needed his helmet vocaliser to sound intimidating – with it, he sounded positively demonic. He gave a wry chuckle at my reaction. “That was my reaction too, more or less. I’m guessing you’ve never seen something like this before, ma’am?”
I shook my head. “No. Closest thing I’ve seen was some kid trying to make pipe-bombs in his bedroom. Turned out to not be a very good mad bomber. Even that wasn’t as messy as this.”
“I didn’t think you served. This is way more than just a pipe-bomb,” he replied. He turned his back on the Square to keep an eye down the road, his hand on his sidearm. “That’s what happens when you get hit by a railgun. Saw it when I got some fire support from a Special Forces sniper team. We’ll need you to clear Ballistics to try and find the slug, but I’m almost certain.”
I didn’t question his conclusion. Rowe was a beat cop, but he was a tough old bastard that came out of some of the worst fighting the Marines had ever seen with a chestful of medals and a face full of scars. If Rowe said it was a railgun, then it was a railgun.
Which meant bad news.
“Dammit. How the hell could the usual trash down here get their hands on that sort of tech? I’ve heard what those things can do, but I’ve never even seen one before.”
Rowe shook his head. “They didn’t,” he replied, jabbing a gloved finger upwards. “Took us a while to get a drone in to take pictures without contaminating the scene – some starlet up in the penthouse OD’d on heroin and the Commander’s making us investigate – but as soon as we could it was obvious. Impact hole is almost vertical. Can’t say more than that at the moment. I figured you wouldn’t mind me borrowing a little authority to call in the investigators.”
“Of course I don’t mind. Don’t tell that to the Captain though. I see why you called me in on this one. ”
Rowe looked grim as he shook his head. “I called you in for that, but it turns out that this is worse than I thought. Here,” he replied holding out a sealed evidence bag with a tiny fragment of metal in it. “Drone picked it out of the mess about five minutes ago.”
I looked at the tiny scrap of metal closely. There wasn’t much to go on, just a tiny piece of twisted metal, slightly charred from the impact of the hyper-velocity projectile. Squinting, I could barely make out a serial number. “Augment?”
“Affirmative. Already tracked the serial down, we’re just waiting on DNA results to confirm the identity. It’s what’s left of Mendoza’s replacement mandible.”
Mendoza was the kingpin downstairs. There were bigger movers upstairs, of course, but they were the polite and civil type of criminal. The kingpins upstairs dealt more in extortion and fraud than outright violence. Mendoza was a different type of animal. Once you went down far enough, every road in the city lead back to him. Every nasty little dealing had his hand behind it. Not long ago, Mendoza’s men were bold enough that I couldn’t walk on the bottom alone. Nobody in uniform could – we had to roll in with heavy support whenever we decided to shake things up. Attrition had worn down his thugs enough to make them slink back into the shadows.
It sure as hell wasn’t the first time someone had tried to kill him – that replacement jaw came from a rival’s hitman. The reprisals kept me busy for a full year, and then nobody was stupid enough to try it again. Even we didn’t go after him; it had been deemed that Mendoza staying alive was the best option to keep the ground floor peaceful. Until now. Someone had decided to kill the crime lord in charge of the city’s entire underworld using a military weapon normally reserved for special operations.
“You know what’s going to happen as soon as the word gets out, right?”
I tried to keep the dread out of my voice as I replied. “Yeah. Business is going to start booming.”