CHAPTER 2 - THE MERMAID


Joe exited the hotel’s front entrance onto a dimly lit and almost deserted roadway that had clearly fallen into disrepair quite badly in the last few years. He walked along the sidewalk for a while, taking in the dilapidated stores and living quarters as he went. Even though it was almost noon by now, there were only one or two other people about. No pods on the roadway at all. Nobody made eye contact.

Once he reached what passed for the main boulevard in the place, things got a bit more lively. After waiting for a bit, he spotted an empty taxi pod, flagged it down and got in. Before the onboard computer could launch into its spiel, advertising popular locations people would normally visit at this time of day, Joe pulled his badge from his coat pocket, pushed the override button on it and slid it into the card reader next to his seat. This stopped the computer dead in its tracks. He popped the keyboard out of its slot and entered his confirmation code to commandeer the taxi, telling it to take him to the local police precinct.

On the way to the station house, he looked out of the window at the streets of Humboldt, trying not to think about how the lurching of the beaten-up taxi pod started to make him sick again. The pod was rolling along a wide thoroughfare running along the outside wall of the station. The roadway was wet with condensation dripping off the badly isolated piping that covered the part of the wall high above street level.

Even though there were about thirty metres of armour, isolation material, maintenance shafts and conduits between the roadway and the ocean, the station was constructed so shoddily – or in such bad repair – that a sizeable amount of water was collecting on the street and had to be funnelled away by grating built into the roadway. It looked like it was raining. Not that anybody had seen real rain in over a hundred years. But, Joe thought, as he was looking at the myriad little rainbows that the amber street lighting reflected off the grimy surfaces all around him, this is what rain must have looked like. This is was it looked like in those old-school movies about the surface.

In this part of town, the outside wall didn’t feature many viewports showing the trench and the ocean outside. Most of it was sheer metal. Almost every square centimetre was covered in graffiti, layer upon layer upon layer of gang signs, nicknames and inane drivel. Who knew how the first vandals had managed to coat the paint-proof surface with their messages, but subsequent artists had just painted atop what was already there. If there originally had been any décor at all, it was long gone. Every now and then, Joe could see an emergency shelter, secure behind huge metal doors. These were also painted with graffiti. There weren’t any airlocks in this part of the station, apparently. So far, he hadn’t seen any, at least.

The roadway opposite the outside wall was lined with a mixture of shitty living quarters and dilapidated little shops. Come to think of it, all he’d seen of Humboldt since he’d stepped off the transport at the docks had been shitty and dilapidated. Humboldt Station wasn’t generally considered a nice place to be. People were born here, grew up here and then left as soon as possible – often never to come back. Aside from the shipping-related industry at the port, a small dry-dock, some gambling and whoring establishments and an agricultural processing centre, there wasn’t much here to live off of. Since the local mining sector had collapsed in the early ‘80s, much of Humboldt had gone to shit. It was the kind of depressing place people from other places generally had in mind when they thought of the Devil’s Hole.

Your kind of place, Joe.

The view never changed much on his way to the local precinct. The streets got a bit busier and some of the little shops actually seemed to have customers in them, but it didn’t really get any less depressing. When the pod pulled up across from the station house, Joe’s gaze fell upon a small drinking establishment with some old men sitting on benches in front of it. These were the first people he had seen since leaving his hotel who weren’t hurrying from one place to another with their head bowed down. They didn’t look very happy either, though. He made a mental note: Right next to the precinct, this was probably the watering hole for the local cops.

The pod’s computer jolted him from his thoughts when it began to beep at him in an extremely annoying tone. When he didn’t react to it immediately, the computer started talking to him again. “Sir, you have reached your destination. Please leave the taxi, sir.” Joe pulled out the keyboard again and slammed down the mute button. “Fuck off”, he croaked and then immediately suffered a dry coughing fit. “Damn it”, he said as he realised that he hadn’t talked all morning. His voice was obviously still shot from last night.

He pulled his badge from the card reader slot and pushed the exit button next to the door. As he stepped out of the taxi and crossed the roadway, he looked around at the police pods parked in front of the station house. He also noticed for the first time how bad the place smelled. A mixture of tepid seawater, sewage, burnt rubber and heavy machine oil. On the opposite side of the road, he had to stop for a minute to get a grip on his nausea and throbbing head. After he had regained his composure, he made to enter the large armour-reinforced doors of Precinct 40. As he went in, he noted that these were also graffiti-covered, like the rest of the neighbourhood. Never a good sign. They couldn’t even keep their own precinct clean. Or didn’t bother too.

From the files he’d seen on his way over, the local cops weren’t the brightest guys on the force but at least they appeared relatively hard working and not too terribly incompetent. They’ve had a rough time recently, but that was at least partly down to the tough situation the whole station found itself in – with other words, it was mostly due to elements outside of their control.

As he entered the foyer of Precinct 40, Humboldt Central, Joe welcomed the familiar sounds and smells of a police station house. The clicking of keys behind desks and the thump of boot heels on polished plascrete floors was joined by the acerbic smell of disinfectant and old vaporiser smoke.

He ignored the automatic shotguns mounted under the ceiling, went right past the queue of citizens lining up on whatever business had brought them to the police station today and flashed his badge at the receptionist. She looked down at him from behind a huge plascrete counter.

“Faulkner, homicide, 57th”, he rasped.

“57th? Ah… you’re the guy from Aristide, right?“, she asked, raising an eyebrow. “We expected you yesterday, Detective.”

Joe coughed again, scratched the stubble on his skin in a drawn-out gesture and looked directly into her eyes. “Well, yeah. I was …delayed. Where’s the homicide desk?”

She looked at his unshaven, ashen face, sunken eyes and red nose, shook her head in mild irritation and pointed towards a short corridor on her right side, leading away from her huge, reinforced desk. “Third door on the right. Shall I …?” But Joe had already walked past in the direction of the door she had pointed out. He could practically see her shaking her head and pulling a face behind his back.

Already making friends, are you, brother?

When he reached the double see-through doors, they automatically opened to let him in, recognising the signal emanating from the near-field transmitter in his badge. The room looked exactly like every other homicide squad room in any one of the over one hundred stations that made up the Devil’s Hole municipality. His home precinct in Aristide had a room just like this. Somewhat bigger, but with the same general layout.

The lieutenant’s office was in the back, sequestered behind bullet- and sound-proof see-though plastic that could be turned an opaque grey for privacy. Clustered throughout the room were about half a dozen desks, flanked by computer stations and scanning equipment. On the left wall was a small kitchenette with an industrial-sized coffee maker. Along the right wall were the lockers where the detectives kept their private things and evidence pertaining to the cases they were currently working. On this wall was also the gun rack, firearms maintenance equipment and ammunition storage.

Most of the desks were deserted, but three pairs of eyes swivelled in Joe’s direction as he entered. The door to the lieutenant’s office was open and he could see her outline through the scratched plastic, looking down at the screen built into her desk. Probably doing paperwork. Lieutenants were always doing paperwork. It was one of the reasons Joe had never even once in his long career considered to work towards a promotion past his current rank of Detective. He hated paperwork. He had enough paperwork as it was.

Two of the three people in the main room looked up briefly, studying him with their gazes and then quickly went back to what they were doing. Based on the way he carried himself as he entered the office, they must have immediately known he was one of them. And they undoubtedly knew that the lieutenant was expecting a colleague from Aristide to come in to assist on the floater case. And even though he was a day late, it would be the logical conclusion to peg him for that guy.

The third investigator in the room, a man in his early forties, kept watching him over the rim of a monitor he’d been looking at when Joe had entered the room. As Joe strode towards the lieutenant’s office in the back, the guy slightly swivelled his head, his gaze following the newcomer in. Joe held the man’s gaze from the corner of his eye until he was almost at the door to the lieutenant’s office and had to look ahead to avoid running head on into the door frame. Joe was pretty sure the guy had him down as an arrogant, hotshot out-of-towner, come in to trample all over their local cases.

He’d be one to watch out for. He almost certainly would end up butting heads with Joe, causing all kinds of trouble. He’d seen the type before. Impossible to work with unless you spent months of time earning their trust, convincing them that you hadn’t swooped in to replace them or take all the laurels. But that simply wasn’t going to happen here. Joe didn’t have time to go through weeks of smelling each others arses to sort out the alpha male bullshit. Still, he’d have to remember to treat this guy with the right amount of aggressiveness from the start and not to show any kind of weakness, otherwise the guy could turn his stay here into a nightmare.

Joe stopped in front of the open door to the lieutenant’s office and closed his eyes to give his spinning head and churning stomach a chance to calm down a bit. He tried to centre himself as much as possible under the current circumstances. He was aware that the lieutenant was probably watching him, but he didn’t care. Her wondering right now what kind of lunatic Precinct 57 had sent them was infinitely preferable to Joe introducing himself by barfing all over her desk.

You’re a wise man, Joe. Very good!

Well, he certainly was experienced when it came to the effects of alcohol poisoning, that was true. When he finally thought that he had established a sufficient amount of self control to tackle this crucial first talk with his new immediate superior, he opened his eyes and stepped into the tiny office.

He had been right, the lieutenant had obviously been studying him all of this time. As soon as he had stepped over the threshold to her office, she pushed a button on her desk that caused the door behind him to close with a subdued little snap. Simultaneously, the transparent plastic darkened – little triangles forming on the surface and dividing and subdividing again and again, until a very, very fine pattern covered all of the see-through parts of the wall. And suddenly, you couldn’t see through the plastic anymore. Privacy mode. This probably also turned all the computer-controlled microphones and cameras in the little room off.

The lieutenant didn’t get up, but she shifted her weight in her seat and pointed at a chair on the other side of her desk. “Faulkner, welcome. Sit down.”

He hesitated for a moment, the lieutenant watching him intently. A thought came to him then to refuse and keep standing. But something told him that wouldn’t be a smart move, so he took a deep breath, gave up on this little imaginary rebellion and sat down instead.

The lieutenant shifted her pose again and leaned over the desk towards him, extending her hand. “I’m Lieutenant Winters. I run this little homicide department here in the 40th.” She didn’t smile but her expression was warm and friendly. Joe decided in this very moment that he liked her.

She’s one of the good ones. She knows what’s up, doesn’t overestimate her shitty little posting but is proud of running the place nonetheless. And she protects her people at all costs. Against dumb orders from the brass same as against idiots coming in from out of town to boss the locals around. Whatever you do, brother, don’t run afoul of her on this.

Joe shook the lieutenant’s hand. She had a good grip, firm but she wasn’t overdoing it. Another thing he liked about her. “Boss”, he nodded and leaned back in his chair. “Just call me Joe, everyone does.” He looked at Winters across the desk. “So… what’s the plan with this floater case?”

She held his gaze and just looked at him for a second or two. Then she said: “How are you, Detective? Sorry… Joe… We had expected you yesterday. Trouble with the transport schedule again? The union is making travelling to and from the station a bit of a pain recently.” Looking right into her eyes, Joe was sure she suspected there had been no scheduling problems with his transport. She was providing him with an out here, an official story he could go with to cover up his late-night drinking spree. Either that or she was baiting a trap for him. Based on his initial impression – and he was generally pretty good with those – he was pretty sure it was the former, not the latter, though. Interesting, he thought. Either she really likes me – Light knows why that would be, based on my current appearance – or she has ulterior motives. Definitely something to keep in mind.

He decided against going for the offered excuse. “I generally like to get the lay of the land before I talk to my local colleagues”, he said. “Besides, I understand they found the body outside the habitat, two days ago? And your guys called it in to Aristide Control by midday? Which kinda makes me think there aren’t any hot leads in the case right now.” He studied her face for a reaction, but couldn’t discern anything immediate aside from the obvious: She wasn’t buying him getting the lay of the land and wasn’t trying to hide it either.

More like lay of the bottle, eh? Don’t play Leviathans with that one, brother. You’ll lose all your scrip.

“Hmm…” She toyed with one of the stacks of data sheets that were scattered all over her desk. “You are certainly right about the leads. It looks like someone killed a prostitute and dumped the body outside the station. That’s all we have right now.” She looked at him again. “Yeah, it’s not much.” He realised she was prompting him. The lieutenant, it seemed, wanted him to take the initiative on this.

This thing was going completely against any experience Joe had had with out-of-town jobs like this in the past. He had expected hostility from her, in line with that guy outside her office. Or at best reluctant cooperation. He certainly hadn’t expected her to hand him control of the situation, and the case, like she seemed to be doing. The surprise stopped him cold in his tracks. His brain was still hurting from last night, he wasn’t up to being wrong-footed like this. He needed time to think, damn it.

Say something, man. She’s waiting. Look at her. She keeps watching you, gauging your responses. She’s testing you. Better not fail this one…

“Uhmm… Why did you decide to call this in to Aristide?“, he said weakly. His voice was scratchy and on the verge of deserting him, he felt.

The lieutenant planted both elbows firmly on her desk and leaned forward again. “Look, I’ll be straight with you here, Joe.” She held her breath for a few seconds and then exhaled, loudly. “Our statistics are shit. We’ve had a lot of messy crap to deal with lately. Drunken husbands killing their wives, killing their children. Wives killing co-workers because they slept with their husbands. Suicides. Dock workers bashing each other’s heads in. Even industrial workplace accidents that could be murders… A lot of this stuff is hard to pin down and we’re backlogged. We’re not solving as many cases as we should be.”

She was quiet again for a bit, playing with the data sheets. He gave her the time. Let her tell it. Let her control the pacing of the conversation. Jump in when she gave him cues that she wanted him to.

A long sigh. “My people are in over their heads with this domestic shit as it is. That floater… I’ve done this long enough to recognise that isn’t domestic. The last time we had something like this, a prostitute on the float, it turned out to be a serial thing.” She hadn’t looked at him while she said this. Different from before, when she pretty much hadn’t broken direct eye contact since he had walked into her office. She looked into his eyes again. “I don’t need this shit, not now. I don’t need my people to fuck that one up. The company is breathing down my neck. They’ll have my badge if I don’t improve our clearance rates.”

Another pause. She looked down and then into his eyes again. He took this to mean it was his time to talk again. “If you’re right… If you’re right and it is a serial thing…“

He was going to suggest that he might not be the best person on the force to tackle something like this right now. In his current state. But he must have misunderstood her cues, because she clearly hadn’t finished her thought. Or she didn’t like him suggesting her gut feeling was wrong. Either way, she interrupted: “It doesn’t even matter. Even if it’s not a serial killing, I don’t need this shit right now. And my people don’t either. Not with the numbers being what they are. Frankly, we could use some help.” She stopped again, but he waited for her to finish this time. “So we called it up the line, figured the 57th was better equipped.” She was still looking straight into his eyes. For the first time, he noticed their colour. Grey, flecked with tiny blue specks. Like ice water. These were cold eyes, merciless.

She means you, brother. You are better equipped. To solve this thing. Or to take the hit if you fuck it up. That’s not her problem anymore. She’s smart.

Yeah. Smart. Smart and cold and calculating. Joe wondered if he had been wrong before. Maybe Winters was playing him. She wanted him to take the initiative in this, give the functioning alcoholic from Precinct 57 a warm and fuzzy feeling. Make him think going out there to take a fall on the serial case was his idea.

Joe kept his face unmoved. But inside, he cursed his luck. If she was right and this was a serial murder… These cases were notorious for the fact that they took years to crack. And they were cracked by big task forces, specially convened for the occasion. Single investigators didn’t crack serial cases. That only happened in the entertainment feeds. In reality, they failed. And if, by chance, a task force came along later and solved the case based on their preliminary work – after the perp had murdered again and again – the original investigators would never get any credit.

On the contrary, the public would keep asking how come the killer had evaded the first investigation. Because the public knew everything they knew about murder investigations from the entertainment feeds. He’d watched from afar a number of times in his career as this had happened to other detectives. And he’d always been happy that it hadn’t happened to him, that the serial killers had stayed away from his little corner of the world. Well fuck. If Winters was right… If she was right, he was fucked.

If she’s right, you’ll have to solve it. On your own. You’ll be famous, Joe. A superstar cop!

Yeah, right. Let’s hope she isn’t, though. Let’s hope this was just some punk trying to dispose of the body in an idiotic way.

“Maybe it was just some punk trying to dispose of the body in an idiotic way?”

“That is of course possible”, Winters said. But her face showed clearly that, in fact, she did not think this possibility was very likely. “But you know the stats as well as I do in that regard, I’m guessing”, she added. “In fact, I’d be willing to bet good scrip that you looked through the local numbers when you were on your way over. I had them included in the report we sent your guys.”

He had indeed looked at the local numbers. “Yeah, I get where you are coming from. It’s not something that’s usually a hallmark of the domestic stuff you get around here.” He scratched the stubble on his chin and thought about the implications. “So I’m thinking we’re treating this as a possible serial offence at this point?” She nodded.

They both were silent for the moment. Joe let his head sink forward until his chin rested on his breastbone. He pulled his hat further down over his eyes and rested both hands behind his neck. The gesture helped him steady himself in the face of his massive hangover. And the fact that he only now started to realise the shit he was in. Fuck, he thought. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

I don’t need this shit right now, either. If I’m being honest with myself, I’m barely holding it together as it is. I don’t need a complicated fucking serial case I have basically zero chance of solving on my own on top of everything else. Fucking hell.

This is your chance, brother! You can do it. I can see the feed headlines right now: “Star Cop Josephus Faulkner Solves Serial Case Single-Handedly”. It’s gonna be epic!

It’s gonna be a fucking disaster.

All you need to do is lubricate the old grey cells. Speaking of, it’s been ages since you had a drink. I wonder if they’ll notice if you nip out to the bar next door for a quick one…

It’s gonna be the shitshow of the century. And it’s all gonna be on my head.

Right, Joe, be calm. Be calm. There’s a way to do this. Only one way. We’re gonna have to pretend this isn’t the worst case scenario. It’s not a mad serial killer on the loose. It just looks like it right now. Be calm, be cool. Collect the evidence; one step at a time. We’ll figure it out. An out will present itself. It always does. You know this. You’ve been in these situations before.

If push comes to shove, we’ll pin it on somebody and move on. With a bit of luck, it’ll be years until the guy slips up again and everyone cottons on to the idea that there in fact was a serial killer and you missed him. With a bit of luck, you’ll have your retirement package locked down by then.

Joe. Your retirement is, at best, thirty years away._

Fuck it. I’ll quit. I’ll quit and go into private sector security, if it comes to it.

You’ve been saying that for years, brother. You know you won’t do it. You love this job too much. The thrill of the chase…

Thrill of the chase, my fucking ass. There’s never…

“Detective? Are you okay?”

He suddenly noticed Winters’ voice. He quickly raised his head to look at her, the sudden movement threatening to overwhelm him with dizziness.

“Ehhrg”, he said. She was looking at him, her forehead creased by worry, her cold eyes wide. Suddenly, they didn’t seem cold to him at all. He shook off the feeling. “I’m good… I’m good. I was just thinking how to best approach this case. The next steps.” She continued to look at him with that worried expression on her face for a split second longer and then, just like that, had her business face back on.

“I would think the next step is the morgue. Here…”, she pushed several buttons on her desk console and then handed him a data pad. “You don’t seem to have brought your case files with you this morning. I’ve loaded all the relevant data into this pad. It also includes a floor plan of our station house…” As he accepted the pad, she pointed to a file marked in golden yellow at the top of the home folder display. “Including directions to the morgue”, she added.

The morgue was in the lowest level of the complex, they always were. In this case two levels down from the main entrance and the homicide department. “Thanks”, he said weakly. Before he could think what to say next, she went on: “I’ve also taken the liberty of clearing a desk for you in the main office.” She pointed towards the room outside of her enclosed space. “Many of the team are out on assignment at this time of the day”, her gaze was back to that piercing, slightly disapproving stare, “but I think it would be a good idea for you to meet Martinez, De Graaf and Johnson once we’re done here.”

She was telling him the audience was over. And she had clearly noticed that he went right to her office instead of talking to her team first. He wasn’t sure if she took that as poor etiquette on his part or liked it because it underlined her position of authority.

“Right”, he said and got up. Slowly. The dizziness was just beginning to disappear again. No need to again risk waking up the roaring beast that seemed to have taken up residence deep in his skull.

“Joe…”, she said just as he was turning towards the door. He turned back. Slowly, deliberately. She waited until he was looking into her eyes again, before she continued. “I want you to report back to me tomorrow morning. In fact, I would appreciate it if we could do this every morning until we have this thing solved.”

He nodded. But inside, his mind was in turmoil. It seemed she expected this investigation to be a drawn-out, complicated one. And it seemed she expected him to go the distance. He’d have to contact Precinct 57. Advise them that this one didn’t look routine; that he might be tied up here longer than expected. But first, the morgue. And a look at the crime scene. Maybe she was blowing this out of proportion, after all. Maybe Winters was just paranoid because her captain had her by the balls over the stats.

He tried his damnedest to keep his cool and not to have these thoughts show on his face. “Right, boss. I’ll keep you in the loop.” She nodded and her attention went to her paperwork again. “Thanks, Joe.” Dismissed.

As Joe left the little office-within-the-office, the doors closed behind him. The lieutenant wanted him to have some privacy as he introduced himself to the gang. Her way of showing them that he had her support, at least initially. Three pairs of eyes met his, as he looked up.

Showtime, baby.

“Uhm, hi guys. I’m Joe Faulkner, from Precinct 57. Please don’t call me Faulkner, everyone just calls me Joe.”

There were three detectives in the room. Two men and a woman. A man in an immaculate suit and shiny boots was at a desk next to the woman. He had is seat swivelled around and was watching Joe intently. He had neatly trimmed greying hair and captivating hazel eyes, bracketed by laugh lines in the corners. Joe guessed he was in his mid- to late thirties. The woman was probably ten years younger and had very short black hair, trimmed at a military three millimetres, wide lips and dark eyes in an angular face. She was facing him behind her desk consoles, wearing casual and rather nondescript clothes.

The second man was sitting some distance away from them. He had shoulder-length blonde hair, intense deep blue eyes and a face marked by scars and age lines. This was the troublemaker who had watched Joe all the way from the door to the lieutenant’s office on his way in. He was staring at Joe again right now. When he registered that he had Joe’s full attention, he lazily leaned back in his seat and said: “And here I was, thinkin’ they just called you Gunfire back home…” He let the challenge hang in the thick air of the room.

Oh, brother… Stand back, we have a badass over here! Look, Joey-Boy, you know how this works. He just pulled out his dick. You’ll have to show him yours is bigger. Otherwise, this asshole will fuck with you every chance he gets. We’re on an important case here. A serial case. We can’t afford distractions like this fucker.

The woman pulled a pissed off face and looked at the grey-haired man next to her. The grey-haired man rolled his eyes in disgust. An obvious sign they considered the blonde man a loose cannon. They did not agree with the opening gambit of Blondie over there.

“It’s not a serial case”, Joe grumbled.

“What was that?”, Blondie raised an eyebrow. “What? Nothing. Who the fuck are you, Blondie?” He’d said it maybe a tiny bit too forcefully. The woman’s dark eyes widened in surprise, the grey haired man’s mouth started to form a smirk. And Blondie’s eyes narrowed in rage.

“I’m Detective Johnson, asshole. Detective, as in I actually do my job. As in solving cases assigned to me without beating my superiors to a pulp. And as in turning up on time and sober in the morning. Which, judging from what I hear, is a hell of a lot more than anyone can say about you, Detective Gunfire.”

Before Joe’s brain had even started to process the new input, the woman shot up from her seat and made two or three steps towards Blondie. She then turned around to position herself between him and Joe, arms outstretched, palms facing outwards towards the two men. “Whoa, whoa, whoa… gentlemen… lay off the fucking testosterone here for a minute.” She then looked at suit guy for support, but he seemed to be content with sitting back, smirking and enjoying the show.

Joe was squinting at Blondie. He knew exactly what was going on. Model cop over there had just marked his territory – or whatever you called it. Had been a while since he’d learned about those mythical surface animals in school. The thing he couldn’t figure out, though, was how he’d gotten the lowdown on the nickname from Joe’s home station. After that introduction, he had been determined to not let it stand, to retaliate somehow. But the woman’s reaction had thrown him off balance. He had fully anticipated her to lean back and enjoy the show, just like her colleague was doing right now. Not to jump up like this.

Joe looked at the female detective. “And you are?”, he asked, mild irritation making his already scratchy voice even more unstable. Could they tell, he wondered.

“Tricia Martinez.” She looked at him, arms still outstretched. “The fancy dresser is Jack De Graaf. You’ve already met Detective Frank Johnson”, she turned to give Blondie a level stare while she drew out the pronunciation of his rank in a mocking imitation of his earlier tone. “He’s a bit of an asshole.”

“Yeah, I gathered that”, Joe replied.

“Fuck off, Gunfire. We don’t need your help over here. Go home. Get drunk.” He was still reclining in his seat in mock relaxation as he said this, but Joe could see the muscles in his neck. They were all taut and bunched up. And veins stood out on the side of his head, below the long hair. The guy was extremely on edge, his cool obviously a well rehearsed act.

The guy was baiting him. Joe decided to bait the guy a bit in return.

“Well, I’ve got news for you, buddy. It seems you guys do need my help. At least that’s what your official report said.” He looked at the pad Winters had given him. “Hang on, I’ve got it in here somewhere, I think. I can read it to you, if you want…“

Johnson didn’t react to that at all. He just kept staring at Joe with those intense blue eyes of his. Martinez dropped her arms to her side. “For fuck’s sake.” She looked at Johnson and then at Joe. She sighted and then looked at De Graaf again. But it was clear he wasn’t getting involved. “Guys… can’t we try and be reasonable here?”

She looked around again and, when nobody reacted, went on. “I get it, Johnson. You don’t want outside people involved on our turf when it isn’t strictly necessary. Nobody ever wants that to happen. And… I’m just guessing here… but I’m kinda thinking Joe doesn’t particularly want to be here either. They probably have enough crap to deal with in Aristide as it is.”

“Actually,” Joe said, “I don’t mind the change of scenery.” She raised an eyebrow at that. “But I get where you are coming from. Nobody wants the outsider involved.” He thought it over for a second. “But come on, guys, what I don’t get is why you even want to be involved with this particular case. Wait. Do you actually want to be involved?” He looked at all of them in turn. Johnson, reclining back in his chair and being content, for now, to just watch with a bored look on his face. The look was almost certainly fake. But he’d said his piece, staked his claim. De Graaf, who was just watching the whole exchange with a bemused expression on his face – this one genuine, Joe thought. Martinez, still stood in the middle of the room, like a street cop, trying to defuse a volatile situation down in the prospects. Neither of these people gave much away right now.

“You guys do realise this looks like a fucking serial thing right now, don’t you?” He looked at Blondie as he said it, trying to spot him giving anything away with his facial expression. He seemed to be the most likely candidate for something like that.

At that moment, De Graaf spoke for the first time: “You really think so?” He seemed genuinely curious. “Well, it does look like it. Granted, I haven’t been to the morgue or the scene yet, but your lieutenant seemed to think so as well. I take it that’s why she escalated the case to us.” Martinez, sensing an easing up of tensions in the room, left her station between Joe and Johnson and walked back to her desk. She didn’t sit down yet, however. “Well, that and our generally miserable numbers, right?”, she said. “The lieutenant mentioned something about the stats, yeah, but in my experience they always go on about the stats”, said Joe, trying to establish some common ground. He was pretty sure Johnson was a lost cause, but these two seemed reasonable enough. “She does, yeah”, agreed Martinez. Johnson snorted at that but didn’t say anything.

“Well, Detectives, now that we know each other…” Joe scratched his stubble and began again: “Well, all I’m trying to say is just leave me to it. I won’t get into your hair. All I need is a desk, a place to stow some things and some coffee once in a while. I’ll do this thing my way and before you know it, I’ll be gone again. And if it’s a serial thing, I’ll take the fall for it later. There really is no need for this to get messy. I’m no hotshot cop sweeping in from out of town to take the glory away from you and this case probably isn’t a good career move anyway.”

“You’re definitely no hotshot, you’re right there”, Johnson agreed. “You’re a drunk and a failure.” Joe ignored him this time and looked at Martinez and De Graaf instead. “I think…”, De Graaf stood up to shake Joe’s hand. “That sounds like an arrangement.” Martinez also shook his hand. “Nice to meet you, Joe. Call me Trish.”

After getting some coffee, the three of them moved a spare desk for Joe over next to De Graaf’s workspace and sat down together. They completely ignored Johnson, who at first had sighed and shaken his head in disapproval and then pretended to go through some paperwork. He eventually got up, grabbed his jacket from a rack near the door and left the room.

De Graaf explained that they didn’t have a spare storage compartment at the moment but he would “hustle something up” for Joe later in the afternoon. “You’ll probably be fairly busy all day today”, Martinez said. “We all know how it gets on the first day of a new investigation. But I do think it’s a good idea to meet the other members of the team. Even if you mostly want to keep your distance. There might come a point when you do need some help. Besides, you’ll be sharing the office with them. At least for a few days.” She suggested they’d all meet the next morning for coffee. “The lieutenant will do her customary morning briefing. You obviously won’t have to attend that, but just after that would be a good time. Everyone is in then.” Joe agreed to be there.

Morning briefing? They take shit seriously here, man. Probably instituted that when their numbers went to shit. Gotta keep the troops in line.

“Right,” Joe stood. “I need to get going. The morgue is reachable via the elevators in the main lobby, right?” The other two detectives moved their chairs back to their desks, covered with their own workload. “Yeah. But we have our own elevators, mostly for detective staff. Go out the door and head right, the elevators are a bit further down the hallway on the left. It’s much quicker that way”, Martinez offered. “Thanks, guys. See you later.” And with that, Joe put on his coat and his hat, stuffed his pad in a coat pocket and left the office.

Actually, that went way better than expected. I think that Martinez chick likes you, brother.

If he was honest with himself, that whole thing had gone way too easy. People like Johnson were to be expected, but Martinez and De Graaf had accepted him very quickly and that made him nervous. Too quickly, really. He had expected more pushback. He had expected more than one member of the team to speak out against him being there. Maybe that would happen when he met the rest of the detectives. Or maybe something was afoot. Well, no use to worry his pretty little head about it now. He’d see in time. And then deal with it.

Joe entered the morgue a few minutes later, after a quick stop at the rest room to wash his face and pop some more painkillers. He was still feeling pretty shitty. When he entered the big room with its wall-high refrigeration units and many steel tables, he realised that there was only one other person in there. The morgue smelled like every other morgue he’d ever been in – and he had considerable experience in this regard. The morgue smelled of disinfectant and death.

Joe went over to where the lone worker was busy over a body at one of the steel tables. The man turned around as Joe approached, took off his protective gloves and carefully pulled down the mask he was wearing over his mouth.

He was a small man and almost completely bald. But had a cheerful face with a little white beard. He was smiling from ear to ear, as he looked at Joe. In his many years on the job, Joe had spent a lot of time in morgues – it was an integral part of the profession. And as such, he naturally had gotten to know many of the medical examiners who worked there. Even after so many years, it continued to amaze him how happy most of these people were. It had to have something to do with the job. In Joe’s experience, undertakers and medical examiners where some of the happiest and outgoing people you’d meet. You would think it would be the complete opposite, though. Maybe, because of their daily exposure to dead people, they were simply very happy to be alive. It seemed that the small bald man with the small beard and cheerful face was no exception.

“Hey, you’re new here”, the forensic examiner said. “But you don’t look like a rookie… wait… wait…” He took a step back and looked his visitor over from head to toe. “You’re from out of town, aren’t you?” Joe nodded and extended his hand. “Call me Joe. I’m a detective temporarily working homicide here, on loan from the 57th. I believe you have a body I should look at. The floater?”

The forensic examiner’s face lit up and he loudly exclaimed: “Ohhhhhh”, obviously in awe. “The mermaid”, he continued, after he had caught himself a little. “You have to excuse me, Detective. My job is normally pretty dull. We don’t get many interesting cases around here. Especially things like this…“

The mermaid. Joe had heard the term before. It was an old-school term back from when there were regular gang struggles all over the Devil’s Hole. Back before his company had taken over the law enforcement contract and instituted a big clean up that took several years to complete. These gangs used to have the habit of going after the loved ones of their rivals. For a while there it had been pretty common to grab someone’s wife or daughter and chuck her out the next airlock. Mermaids, they called them. Something about long hair floating in the currents, illuminated by a station’s external flood lights. A very gruesome and very public punishment.

That’s hardcore, man. Proper hardcore.

The man’s usage of the term suddenly made Joe consider that this might be an organised crime thing. Maybe his floater, the mermaid, was a victim of a gang or crime syndicate looking to revive the good old days?

That’s definitely something to keep in mind, Joe.

“Can I see the body?” Joe asked the forensic worker, who had been as deep in thought as he had been. “Oh, yes. Sure! Sorry. I drifted off into thought there. My name’s Dan, by the way. Dan Courier.” Joe nodded again. “Nice to meet you, Dan. You lead the way.”

Courier dropped his protective gloves into the cleaning receptacle and walked towards the huge array of refrigeration units dominating one wall of the room. “Let me think…”, he mumbled. “The mermaid. Yes. The mermaid is in locker two-four-five, I think.” He headed to the left side of the long wall, checked the monitor on the outside of one of the refrigeration units’ doors and nodded. He had obviously remembered the right unit.

Dan was not in the best of shapes, but he seemed very observant and also thoughtful in a nerdy kind of way. And he smiled constantly. Joe found himself immediately liking the guy a lot.

“Here we go.” The forensic examiner pushed a button and a panel slid up and away. A steel gurney slowly extended from the open space, a thin body on it. When the gurney had fully extended, Joe surveyed the damage. The naked body before him did not look like a mermaid. It did not look like a mermaid at all.

From the general appearance of the body, it had floated outside the habitat for quite a while before the technician had called it in and a recovery crew was dispatched. Small aquatic organisms had gotten to work on virtually all of the visible external tissue. Probably the same tiny crabs that got harvested around the station and turned into raw protein for the food supply. The eyes were gone. The only major feature still discernible was the victim’s long hair, reaching well past the shoulders. From the general dimensions of the body it was also clear, that this was a female victim, even though her breasts were long gone. Although, if this would have been a guy, his penis would have been long gone too, Joe mused.

The body didn’t smell particularly bad, the industrial strength ventilation and disinfectant systems in the morgue took care of that. But it looked horrible. Almost all of the skin was gone and the underlying flesh was sickly white and bloated. The fact that the medical examiner had cut it open to analyse the inner organs didn’t make it much worse. It was clear that the corpse had been in such a bad shape even before, that not much could have made it worse, to be honest.

The upper body and face were severely deformed. It looked like the woman had been crushed in some kind of industrial accident involving heavy machinery. Joe had seen this effect before: instant compression. It had most likely happened when the body was blown out of an airlock of the station or of a boat. At 250 metres depth, much of the body would have been instantly compressed by the pressure differential of the surrounding water and the gas filled cavities in the body. Not a nice way to go. At all. If she had been alive at that point.

Joe just stood there, looking at the body, for several minutes. He was trying to discern any features that his mind could use to reconstruct how the victim might have looked in life. He was also searching for any visible cause of death. Dan said nothing, standing a few paces behind him, respectfully giving him space to work. Another thing Joe immediately liked about him. He hated forensics guys who – and he knew many of those – incessantly talked and didn’t give anyone time to think about things as long as they were around.

After a few minutes of scrutiny, Joe gave up on trying to visually ascertain the cause of death. “How did she die?”, he simply asked when he had completed his visual inspection of the gruesome corpse. “Aha!” The forensics expert had obviously been waiting for his queue. “Well, as you probably know, bodies left outside of the habitat for more than ten hours degrade pretty quickly.” He squinted at the corpse and licked his lips unconsciously. He’d moved to stand beside the detective. “This is due to organisms in the water getting to work immediately to deconstruct any organic matter they find. Thing is…” He looked at Joe as he said this. “They enter the body through any available cavities and start eating it on the inside too. Our victim was in the water approximately twenty-eight hours before being fished out. The inner organs show some pretty severe deterioration.”

The forensic examiner stopped to think for a short while. Joe said nothing and waited for him to continue. Giving him space to work, returning the earlier favour. “Some of this is the fault of some kind of organisational mix-up. I believe it took them almost nine hours from the time the body was reported to fishing her out.”

Joe’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Why is that?”, he asked. “Took a while to get the salvage team together, from what I understand”, Dan answered. “Some inter-departmental policy bullshit, I think. They cut some jobs, juggled positions around, some people didn’t feel this was their responsibility anymore…” He sighed. “You know how it goes…“

Sadly, he knew exactly what Dan was talking about.

“Right. No use in losing any sleep over what could have been. If I learnt anything in all my time on the job so far, it’s that this kind of thinking completely fucks you over in the long run. And there’s no reason to indulge in it. No reason whatsoever. We already have enough crap fucking us over in this job.” The forensic expert nodded in response. “I’ll drink to that, Joe.”

“So”, Joe returned to the topic at hand, “given that the body is completely fucked up – inside and out – what’s your best guess as to what killed her?”

“They made her step out an airlock. She was alive when it happened. They made her walk the plank”, the forensic examiner said.

Fuck. What a way to go, brother.

“Fuck.” Joe had to look down at his shoes for a moment. He had the sudden urge to throw up and had to swallow a mouth full of bile to prevent this extremely embarrassing rookie mistake from happening to him right there. He hadn’t had thrown up at the sight of a body since his second year on the force. He wasn’t going to let it happen here and now.

When he had restored his inner equilibrium to a point where he felt he was keeping it together, he looked up again. “Man. What a way to go.”

“Yeah, it ain’t pretty. That’s for sure. Haven’t seen something like this for years. It was common during the gang wars, of course, but that was well before my time. I only know of that stuff from reading old case files.”

Joe looked straight ahead, ignoring the body on the gurney for the moment. “I’ve been thinking it looks like an organised crime thing. That or a serial perp going after prostitutes.” Dan nodded. “That was my first guess too, when I heard what they were bringing in. But then I saw her. It was the clothes, see.” He walked over to a table a few metres away from the cold storage units and the extended gurney. The table had a collection of operating tools and instruments on it, as well as a computer console. “Look here”, the forensics expert beckoned Joe over to the console. He pulled over a screen and angled it so that Joe could see it. “This is what she looked like when they brought her in. See?”

Joe looked at the images on the screen and he did indeed see. The dead woman was dressed in what was instantly recognisable as very expensive evening garb. Some kind of sexy, yet very classy cocktail dress from the looks of it. Joe wasn’t a fashion expert by a long shot, but even he recognised this was a very stylish dress, possibly custom made. Definitely not some cheap, mass-produced thing. That much was evident, even after the ravages of hundreds or possibly thousands of tiny undersea predators trying to get to the tasty meat below the dress.

“Fancy. That looks expensive”, he said. “Yep. Sure does. And it is. There was an intact label on her underwear I could scan. I ran it on the company’s net. Dolores Dante. The panties and bra alone were worth about a quarter of what I make in a month. The Light only knows how much that dress cost…” He let it hang in the air between them.

Joe whistled through his teeth. “So what you are saying, if I get this correctly, is, that if she was a prostitute, she was very high class?” Dan shook his head and replied: “Yeah. No. I’m not sure she was a prostitute. Looks like somebody who was on her way to or from a high society event to me.”

“Hmm.” Joe considered that. “Time of death?”

The forensics expert inhaled sharply. “That one’s hard. I would guess some time between twenty-oh-oh and midnight, plus-minus two hours. That’s three days ago, by the way.”

“Alright”, the detective said. Now came the most important question. The big one.

This one could save us days of work, brother. Let’s hope the little nerd guy is worth his salary. Fingers crossed. Here goes nothing…

“What about a DNA sample? Have you been able to identify her? Is she in the system?” After the question was out, Joe held his breath and waited.

“Oh yeah”, Dan said.

Jackpot! Ka-ching! We got a winner, brother! All hail the nerd and his nerdy science ways!

The forensics expert smiled as he looked at Joe. He knew this would make things a lot easier for the detective. If the victim had been some undocumented hooker or drug addict from the fringes of society, the case could have, for all intends and purposes, died right there, on that steel gurney.

Dan pulled up another file on the terminal and proceeded to read from it. “Her name is Joanna Delgado. Born and raised right here in Humboldt. She was twenty-six. No occupation on file. Kinda makes me think she was someone’s rich daughter”, he looked back at Joe. The forensic expert was obviously unsure what to make of this.

“Hmmm. Doesn’t rule out my high-class escort theory either.”

Dan nodded at that. “True. But those kinds of prostitutes usually don’t fall prey to serial killers, or do they? They’re normally too well protected. And you’d think with an organised crime hit, these days, we would have never found the body, right?” The guy was smart. Joe felt they were developing a nice rapport and working quite well together. “Yeah, well”, he replied, “I give you that one…“

“So”, Joe said after looking at the body for another minute or two, thinking about what they knew so far. “Anything else you found in your analysis that’s noteworthy?”

The forensics expert shook his head. “That’s about it. Cause of death, the clothing and a DNA sample.” He pushed a button on his computer console. “Here. I’ve sent you my preliminary report, the visual records and the data I pulled for the DNA.” As he said this, he pointed to the pad Joe was carrying, indicating that he had just transferred the data to the device. It must have showed up on his system as a case file pad cleared by Winters when Joe had entered the room. “You can pull whatever Humboldt Control has on her, using that. Have they given you workstation access yet?”

Joe shook his head and answered: “Nah. But I’ll get around to sorting that out at some point, thanks.” He understood that Dan couldn’t pull the surveillance footage and tracking data himself. You had to be an investigator on an open homicide case or something with a similarly high priority to do things like that.

“Alright. I think we’re done for now. Thanks, Dan. And please let me know if something changes with your final report”, Joe said. What he didn’t say was: Thanks for being the only professional in this joint, man. He had a feeling the forensics guy was always professional and also took it for granted in others.

Dan extended his hand and said: “Yes, of course. I don’t think anything new will come up, but if it does, you’ll be the first to know. I’ll contact you right away.” Joe shook his hand and then headed for the door.

Behind him, he could hear the forensics expert closing down the cold storage unit with the press of a button on his console. By the time he stepped out of the room, the short man was already back to working on the body he had been examining when Joe had walked into the morgue.

CHAPTER 1 « CHAPTER 2 » CHAPTER 3