Manchester, 24 September 3124
Tom Carter turned up the collar on his jacket and braced himself against the biting cold of the late autumn rain. The sky was dark but the streets were lit up as if it was daytime by the combined efforts of street lights, shop window displays and the massive video screens that hung from the walls of the ancient buildings surrounding Picadilly Gardens.
He turned around and headed into the block of flats above Rixxy’s Bar and Grill, a name that instantly conjured up visions of a seedy dive if ever Tom had seen one. He hated to be prejudiced but when your home was a run down, student-infested cesspit above a spit and sawdust, slabhead bar then trouble was never going to be far away. Hell, a brutal murder was practically natural causes for people like the late John Edward Collins.
Tom trudged up the steps, feeling every one of his forty-six misspent years by the time he reached the top floor, where an open door and a group of black uniformed police officers was waiting to greet him. Eric Ross, his long time friend and partner, stepped out into the hall and smiled grimly.
‘Lovely night for it,’ said Eric.
‘I don’t think any night is good for a murder, Eric.’
‘Well no, not when you put it like that.’
‘What have we got here anyway?’
‘White male, mid twenties, with multiple stab wounds to the back, chest and abdomen. I’ve got uniform searching for the murder weapon but so far, nothing.’
Eric’s heavy footsteps echoed on the fake wood floor as he walked back into the victim’s flat and lead the way to the body. Tom shook the rain off his coat and trudged behind, taking mental snapshots of the scene as he passed them. A dusty photo frame here, a notebook there; anything that might present a clue once he had more information.
The body was slumped over the side rail of an immersion chamber that looked as if it was custom built. The tank was full of a mixture of blood, water and some weird gunk Tom recognised from his time in physical therapy after he had broken his back on a skiing holiday when he was twenty-six. He hated the smell of that stuff. It was too medical for its own good; and it brought back painful memories to boot.
‘So this is Mister Collins,’ said Tom. ‘He’s older than I expected.’
The victim was in his mid thirties, slightly overweight, and showed signs of a recent leg re-attachment; the scars on his right leg were too fresh to have been more than a few weeks old. Explained the need for an immersion chamber, Tom decided, and if he was living in this area it was likely the custom-built unit was for cost reasons rather than an interest in medical engineering.
Tom took more mental snapshots of the body, noting the pained expression on the face, the broken fingernails on the left hand, and the victim’s lack of body hair. Mister Collins had one blue eye and one brown eye, and a small, round scar on his upper left arm.
‘What do you make of this?’ said Tom, pointing to the scar.
‘Burn mark, maybe?’ Eric replied. ‘Actually, no. Could be some medical thing. Maybe something from the immersion chamber?’
‘What, he’s breathing through a tube in his arm, now?’
‘Not necessarily breathing, no. Some sort of fluid line, maybe a bone marrow transfer.’
Tom nodded. ‘Could be. We’ll know more when Medical get their hands on him, I suppose.’
‘If you’re done with the body, there’s something else you need to take a look at.’
The two men walked to the bedroom, where most of the forensics team were congregating. Tom’s eyes widened as he took in the scene. The blood covering the bedsheets. The strange symbols and diagrams scrawled all over the walls. More weird symbols on the floor. Blood and even more symbols on the ceiling.
‘What the hell is this?’ said Tom.
‘The workings of a diseased mind, I’d say,’ Eric muttered. ‘Nothing like a weird freak case to welcome you back from your holidays, is there?’
‘You’ve been back two weeks already.’
‘Maybe it’s time for another holiday, then. The days are merging into one-another already.’
Tom smiled and turned back to the task at hand. The symbols, freakish as they might be, needed closer inspection. He examined each of the larger diagrams in turn, taking a mental snapshot of each one as he went, then took pictures of the symbols that covered the rest of the walls. He was certain that at least some of the symbols were a language of some kind, but if they were they were in a tongue he had never encountered before.
His in-built translation software was throwing up no clues about what any of the text meant, which unnerved Tom. He was used to having a translation slip into the back of his mind whenever he encountered a foreign language. The sudden lack of translation, conspicuous by its absence, defied his expectations and knocked him out of his routine. Detective Inspector Tom Carter was a man who liked his routine.
‘Any idea what this stuff is?’ asked Eric.
Tom shook his head. ’Not a clue.’
‘Forensics say it’s some cult thing. I’m thinking we need to make a visit to the university library, talk to their theology department.’
‘Sounds like a plan. We’ll do that after the walk around.’
Eric nodded. ‘You done here?’
‘Yeah. Let’s go talk to the neighbours.’
The two men stepped out of the victim’s flat and stood in the hallway for a moment, processing what they had seen. Tom stroked the two day stubble on his chin while he thought about the writing on the wall of the victim’s bedroom. There was something about the way it was scrawled; like it was done in a hurry.
Who scrawls gibberish all over their bedroom in a hurry? Why would you need to do something like that – and do it quickly, too? Was speed important?
There were too many unknowns at that point. If he was going to understand any of this, he would have to learn more about Mister Collins.
The two men walked down the stairs toward the exit onto Picadilly Gardens. Tom could see there was still a crowd outside, eager to see what the police were up to despite the cold late autumn rain drenching them. Some people would put up with anything if it meant they got a free bit of gossip, Tom decided.
Eric fastened his trench coat over his perfectly formed robotic abdomen and stepped out of the doorway into the street. He turned back to his partner and nodded.
‘I’ll take the people out here. You want to talk to the people inside?’
‘Won’t the rain do you more harm than good?’ asked Tom.
Eric snorted. ‘I won’t rust, you know.’
‘Whatever you say.’
Tom looked to his left sighed. It was the first of eighteen doors he had to knock on tonight. He rapped his usual knock-knock-knock-knock and waited for an answer.
An elderly woman in a neat blue suit and a tasteful gold necklace opened the door a crack. Tom held up his ID.
‘Detective Inspector Tom Carter, Ma’am. Manchester Police. I’d like to ask you a few questions about the events of earlier tonight. May I come in?’
Of all the people who had been in the slabhead flats that night, four of them were so drunk they were practically unconscious on their feet, two were asleep and the rest were the regular crowd of “deaf, dumb and blind”; although Tom Carter would never actually use that term in front of them, of course. The risk to his career if he was branded an ableist was too great. Nevertheless, that was what everyone on the street called the kind of person who saw nothing, heard nothing and wouldn’t tell you about it even if they did.
So it seemed from the face of it that John Collins was a man who died as he lived: alone. That at least was consistent with the evidence in the flat. The door was locked and bolted with keys still in the lock. The windows were all closed and locked. There were no signs of a struggle.
Tom pulled a packet of liquorice whirls from his coat pocket and popped one in his mouth as he approached the car. It was an old, red pile of junk that was signed out from the department vehicle pool and he hated it. It smelled, it had cheap plastic fittings and if he had his way, he would rather have walked.
He climbed into the passenger seat and offered the packet of sweets to Eric.
‘No, thanks,’ said Eric.
‘What, you don’t eat as well, now?’
‘I can eat, I just choose not to. It’s less messy that way.’
‘No eating and no sex. You’ve making conversion sound wonderful, you know that?’
‘I can have sex, I just-‘
‘-choose not to. I know.’
‘So what did you find out?’
‘Bugger all. It seems the people in these flats don’t talk to each other. Can’t say I blame them, I hardly say two words to my neighbours and I live somewhere people don’t stab you for looking at them funny.’
‘I had a little more luck. The people outside were mainly from the bar under the flats. Apparently our man Collins was in there earlier today, talking to “a guy with a funny accent”. I pulled the security camera footage and came up with two possible men.’
‘We know either of them?’
Eric smiled. ‘Oh yes. One is your old friend Carlos García Arroyo.’
‘Aww come on. He’s supposed to be inside for another twenty years.’
‘Apparently some hero decided to let him out early for good behaviour.’
‘Where is he staying?’
‘His probation worker has him registered to 17 Dudley Street over in Cheetham Hill. Want to start with him?’
‘Damn straight. That little bastard has been nothing but trouble. You can fill me in on our other guy on the way.’