The Genius Asylum (Sic Transit Terra Book 1)
by Arlene F. Marks
Copyright © 2016 by Arlene F. Marks
The video clip came in from Surveillance shortly after 8:00 a.m. Drew Townsend had just arrived at his desk and was shrugging out of his jacket, already feeling weary at the thought of another day spent spinning his wheels. He could have shortened it by arriving an hour or two late, like the other Eligibles in the precinct, but he’d been a field investigator for too many years to feel comfortable about trimming his shift.
"We’ve got a body!" bawled Captain Romero, leaning out the door of his office. "Our friends in the Zone have apparently been at it again. Adult male, Emerson and Fifth. Lupo and Truman, get over there. And be careful. It may just be a body dump, but that’s Warrior Kings territory." The Kings? Romero had to let him take this one.
"Captain, if this is gang-related, two men may not be enough—"
"You’re right, Townsend. Dinally and Gluckstein, you’ll go as backup."
Dinally looked pained and Gluckstein threw Townsend a helpless shrug as they headed out the ward room door together.
"That wasn’t what I meant," Drew protested.
"I know what you meant, and the answer is no. You’re an Eligible now, which means I’m forbidden to put you in even potentially dangerous situations."
"We both know that a body dump is one of the safest places for an investigator to be," Townsend argued. "And I have a history with the Kings—"
"You used to be a Warrior King. There’s a difference. In any case, you can stop wasting your breath, because I’m not sending you into the Zone."
"But if the vic is a King I may be able to ID him."
"Great. I’ll have Lupo transmit a snap of the body to your desk screen."
Frustration hardened Townsend’s voice. "Dammit, Captain, I’m one of your top field investigators!"
"Yes, and I was very sorry to lose you. But the moment the Relocation Authority took you back into the fold, you leaped to a higher plane of existence. Now you have to mark time, and I have to like it. And if you get so much as a boo-boo on my watch, they will come down on me and mine like a ton of high explosives. So it’s desk duty for you, pal. Desk duty and java runs," Romero said, returning to his office and closing the door.
Drew Townsend was very good at a lot of things, but sitting around waiting for others to make things happen had never been one of them. He’d heard stories about Eligibles marking time measured in months or even years before being posted off-world. For Drew, the last three weeks had felt like an eternity, and he wasn’t sure he could take much more.
So, he let the moment settle, then counted to fifty and punched the intercomm on his desk. "Hey, Cap," he said in his best casual voice, "I could use some java. You?"
After a beat, Romero replied, "No, thanks, Townsend." There was a smile in his voice. It figured. The captain was too smart to fall for a con this transparent, but smart enough to recognize deniability when it was offered to him on a platter, so Townsend forged ahead.
"In fact, since things are so slow at the precinct right now, I think I’ll drink it at the cafe."
"If you put yourself in danger, you risk losing your Eligibility again, you know that."
The warning was pro forma. Drew knew that Romero would love to put him back to work in the field.
Don’t wait up for me, Dad.
* * *
Romero had called ahead. As Drew steered his PV carefully along the cracked and rubble-strewn pavement of Emerson Boulevard, he saw Truman standing on the road a good block away from the scene, waving to him to pull over. Obediently Drew parked and waited for his former partner to stroll to the driver’s side window.
"Captain warned me you might get lost on your way back from the cafe," said Truman with a grin, then laughed out loud as Townsend handed him a steaming cup. "Mm-hmm," he said after savoring a sip. "Black and extra sweet, just like my lady."
"I got one for Lupo, too. I wasn’t sure which one of you would be heading me off."
"Lupo hates cold java, so we’ll make this quick. The vic is light brown, mid-fifties, about five foot ten and medium build. No ID on him, but he’s wearing a business suit and expensive shoes, and diamond ear studs, two per lobe. Whoever this guy is, he’s not a ganger. And he still has his diamonds, so I’m pretty sure the Kings had nothing to do with this."
The mention of ear studs had set off alarms at the back of Townsend’s brain. "Show me his face."
"It’s been mutilated, Drew. We’ve transmitted the snaps to the precinct—"
"You can either show me his face here or back off so the PV door doesn’t hit you when I get out to take a personal look," Townsend told him in the calmly authoritative voice he normally reserved for the suspect interrogation room. "Your choice."
Truman knew better than to argue. Wordlessly, he reached into his pocket and handed over his compupad. "You think you might know this guy?" he inquired softly.
Drew called up the image file and stared at the screen, feeling his jaw muscles work as his stomach slowly twisted itself into a knot. For a long moment he studied the snap, letting each grisly detail burn itself into his memory. Then, forcing himself to breathe normally, he closed the file. "I knew him. He was my friend. His name is Bruni Patel."
Truman had the grace to look uncomfortable while delivering the formula speech. "Drew, I’m really sorry for your loss."
"Yeah. I’ll see you back at the precinct." He thrust the compupad and Lupo’s java cup into Truman’s fumbling hands and drove away before the rage beginning to boil up inside him could find its way to his mouth.
Townsend reached the urbanway in record time and joined the grid, programming his on-board computer to take him back to the 33rd Precinct. And, as Auto Traffic Control merged his vehicle seamlessly into the southbound stream, he came to a decision.
Bruni Patel had been much more than a friend to him. Bruni had bossed the wing of the detention center where Drew had been sent eighteen years earlier for possession of stolen property. Bruni’s steady guidance during the next five years was the sole reason that Drew was able to complete his education while detained and have a decent life waiting for him upon his release. The job with Security had been a challenge Bruni threw at him. A slammer rat in Security was practically unheard of, but that only made Drew more determined to qualify. The day he was hired, Bruni brought a printout of the employment contract to his cell along with a bottle of wine and two juice glasses, and they toasted Drew’s victory over adversity.
Approached years later by the Earth Intelligence Service, Townsend discovered by chance that Bruni had also been recruited. Bruni did a lot of traveling, but they’d managed to stay in touch off and on for nearly eight years. And now Bruni was lying dead in the Zone with empty eye sockets, deep gashes around his ears, and letters carved into his forehead.
Eligible or not, authorized or not, Drew owed it to his friend to do everything possible to solve his murder and bring to justice whoever was responsible.
* * *
The rest of the Eligibles had arrived and were sitting at their desks pretending to be busy when Townsend strode through the door of the ward room and immediately booted up his screen.
"Looking for something?" came Romero’s voice from directly over his left shoulder.
"E-F-T. Those letters were carved into Bruni’s—into the vic’s forehead.
What the hell is that, Captain? Someone killed him because they thought he was an amphibian?"
One of the Eligibles found that amusing. Drew silenced him with a look.
"Earth for Terrans," sighed Romero. "Just what we need right now, another bunch of crazies crawling out of the woodwork. This group began taking out ads on the InfoCommNet a couple of weeks ago, warning that Earth’s population has been infiltrated by alien spies. We’ve had no reason to take action against the EFT because up until now it’s been nothing but talk. However, if they’ve upshifted to committing murder to make their point—" "We need to haul in their leaders for questioning," Drew decided.
"I’m way ahead of you. And you need to step back from this and let us do our jobs. The M.E. is pushing this case to the top of her list. Gluckstein is combing databases to reconstruct the vic’s last 24 hours, and Truman and Lupo are interviewing persons of interest as we speak. They’re all good investigators, Townsend. They’ll get whoever killed your friend, I promise."
Drew pasted a grateful smile on his face and kept it there until Romero had returned to his office and shut the door. The other Eligibles, meanwhile, were studiously avoiding making eye contact, even with one another, for fear of triggering an explosion of rage across the room.
Good, thought Drew as he reached into his desk drawer and palmed the device he’d concealed there. A small black tube ringed with ridges along half its length, it had been given to him by his Earth Intelligence handler. The encrypting comm was keyed to Drew’s DNA. As he wrapped his fingers around it and squeezed gently, he could feel a soft tingling in the skin of his palm. He released his grip, then squeezed again, three times more in quick succession — a standard request for a meeting. There was no emergency, not yet.
The rest of the day went by with tortoise-like slowness and a suspicious lack of hard intel about the Patel murder crossing Drew’s desk. To help take his mind off the case, Romero assigned him to Surveillance Monitoring — Sensitive Areas. These were the high-crime-rate blocks surrounding the Zone. His eyes roving constantly over a bank of twenty flat screens, in a period of four hours Drew witnessed — and forwarded video coverage of — fifteen muggings, more assaults than he could count, and the beginnings of two weapons deals, which were aborted when the parties involved realized they were being watched by remote vidcam. At the end of his shift, fighting an eyestrain headache that he was sure would have brought down a bull moose, Townsend found himself looking down the business end of a zapper as a ganger took careful aim at the surveillance drone that had followed him into an alleyway. Cursing, Drew punched the ‘evade’ button, a half-second too late. The screen went black.
"Bull’s eye," he muttered darkly. Good work, kid. One down and only about seven thousand to go.
* * *
The EIS contact waiting for Townsend when he pulled into his half of the garage behind the octoplex on Lamont Street that evening was not Drew’s handler.
The other man shrugged. "Otherwise occupied, so I’ll have to do. What’s on your mind, Townsend?" he asked, the patronizing tone of his voice suggesting that he already knew the answer.
"Bruni Patel was murdered last night."
"An unfortunate loss for all of us. He was a good agent."
"Save it for his eulogy," Drew snapped. "What’s the EIS going to do about this?"
The man took a second to change expressions. Now he wore a superior, faintly feline smile on his face as he said in that same condescending voice, "Rest assured, Mr. Townsend, we are already doing it. We do not take lightly the murder of one of our operatives. An investigation has already been launched into the activities of the EFT."
"I want to be assigned to that investigation."
"Understandable — he was your friend."
"He was more than that. I owed him my life. And since I couldn’t repay him by saving his, I plan to do the next best thing, which is to see to it that whoever killed him pays full price."
"An admirable goal, I’m sure. However, not a practical one. You have been entrusted with a very important mission, one with a narrow window of opportunity, and you need to devote your time and all your energy to preparing for it. Meanwhile, we will ensure that Mr. Patel receives justice, never fear."
This was the second time that Drew had been figuratively patted on the head and told to stay out of the way. Fighting to keep his voice steady, he pointed out, "My mission doesn’t begin until I board a ship bound for Daisy Hub. Until then, be advised that I’m putting myself on this murder case. And you can tell the higher-ups not to worry about the mission — I’ll be ready when that ‘narrow window of opportunity’ opens up."
"Excellent! I take it that you are fluent once more in Galactic Standard, then. All packed up? Ready to go at a moment’s notice…?"
The threat implied by his words caused Drew’s hands to curl into fists at his sides.
"Just because you have been forced into wait mode for the past three weeks doesn’t mean the rest of us have," the man continued. "You’re on the clock, Mr. Townsend, and we’ve been building you a credible backstory. Clearly, you’ve been too preoccupied lately to monitor your credit account.
Perhaps you should check it out. And we’re done here."
Without another word, the man strode past Drew, out of the garage and down the alley to the street, where a large black PV sat idling, waiting for him.
* * *
Townsend raced up the three flights of stairs to his apartment and went directly to the InfoComm unit on his desk.
There had been a lot of activity in his credit account over the past couple of months, none of it initiated by him.
Flowers purchased and ordered delivered to an address in Fairhaven Enclave six weeks earlier, and again two weeks ago. Dinner for two once a week at different restaurants. Box seat tickets to a low-grav basketball game. Pairs of admissions to the sim-arcade and the thrill park. A whopping big fuel bill. And that afternoon while on his way home from work, he had apparently stopped at a jeweler’s shop and put a down payment on a ring. Drew called up a snap of his ‘purchase’. The stone was modest but unmistakably a diamond.
All the relevant video footage had been expertly doctored. He didn’t recognize the woman shown cuddling up to him in the various venues, but she had to be related to someone with influence. Someone who would do anything to prevent an ex-slammer rat from marrying into his or her family, including pull strings to have Drew’s name put on the Relocation Authority’s FIA list — For Immediate Assignment.
A chill trickled down his spine. He would need time to ferret out Bruni’s killer. With luck, it would be a while before the ‘narrow window of opportunity’ opened. But if Drew had learned one thing in his 36 years of life, it was not to trust anyone’s luck, especially his own.