What shadows lurks in the corners of the mind?

San la Muerte knows.

The graffito had been put up across the street by some amphetamine-drenched exile from the city. I didn't care what it meant, but I knew that my landlord—who owned the building across the way—would raise my rent because I didn't stop it. He seemed to think that it was my job to police this little section of the barrens.

I suppose there was some reasoning behind that. I own a gun, and it's not like most people can get a decent signal out here, baba, nor like the Contrapol officers ever come out this far. We were lucky the gangsters still had the decency to dump their corpses in the storm sewers.

I opened my window, and breathed in. I got maybe a quarter-lung of air, the rest was a mess of burning hydrocarbons, human filth and industrial nanoparticles. I flicked my cigarette butt into the gutter, and hocked up a mass of phlegm and clotted blood to spit after it.

The door of the lobby opened. I figured it was for the shrink I shared a receptionist with. He'd been exiled out to our little polluted arcadia after a mess involving some woman surgeried until she was mostly polymer that he'd turned into a sex slave. I didn't know much. He'd had his brainjack repossessed to pay for legal fees, and for the first six months after he moved in he had this gauze-stuffed hole in his temple that dripped pus on the carpet. The jackass even wanted me to split the cleaning bill, something about cigarette ash ground into the carpet.

I grinned and showed him my gun, this snub-nosed insectile death-phallic symbol made out of black metal. He shut it, paid his bills.

I got myself another cup of coffee, and booted up my computer. Needed to see if Veterans' Affairs had sent my check for the month.

No luck, but my bid on the Jammer I'd ordered off eBay came through. No more dealing with zipheads who wanted to play mindgames. Takes a while to charge up, but when it does, it's great. Hit the big red button, and all the shiny bits in their brain go haywire. Instant epilepsy. Great laugh, baba, you've never seen anything like it.

I hit the "Send" button on the interface, and stood by the pneumatic tubes.

My door opened, and this orchid-like woman walks in.

Hourglass figure, blond pageboy cut hair, intelligent green eyes that flashed with an internal light from a corneal HUD. Brainjack dangling from her temple like an ear ring that had missed the lobe. Her left hand was all gleaming stainless steel and white neoprene, with synthetic flesh on the palms and fingertips.

She was silent for a moment, then looked surprised.

"Oh! You don't have a wireless..." she said.

"No," I said, and turned back to the tube. The port cycled shut.

"Is this a bad time?" she asked.

"Nah. Just waiting for the mail. Have a seat."

She took a moment to process that, and sat down.

"I'm sorry, I'm not used to dealing with a...uh..."

"A meathead?" I asked, using the slur that was preferred by the enhanciles that lived in the city.

She blushed and looked down.

"I didn't mean...I mean, it isn't like me to discriminate against the unaugmented."

"You just don't normally have to deal with us, right?"

"Exactly."

"You're from the city. Middle-class. Not yet one of the post-humans, probably never will be. You're a transhuman. Ziphead."

"Excuse me?"

The pneumatic tube dinged, and I pulled out my package, tucking it under my arm, and going back to sit at my desk.

"Can I offer you anything?" I ask, "Drink? Cigarette? Coffee?"

She blinked, inhaled, and spoke.

"Cigarette, please."

I offered her my open pack, and she pulled one out, and put it to her lips. I slid my lighter out of a pocket in my sleeve, and lit it for her.

"You're here to hire me, right?" I asked.

"Yes. I read your dossier in the Seattle Contrapol Archives. Carson Manning. Eighty-two years old. Taken the Ellis-McNeal Life Extension treatments twice, but no cognitive or physical enhancements. Physical age mid-thirties. You're ex-Colorado National Guard. An expatriate. Six years treatment for PTSD after the Water Riots."

"I know this already. Why are you saying it?"

"Because it's exactly the reason I need to hire you. Despite your lack of enhancements, you have an IQ in the upper 150s, army training, and experience in investigation."

"Once again, I know this. I lived it. Are you going to tell me why you're here, or am I going to have to show you the door, Miz Ziphead."

"Galatea Knight," she said.

"Are you going to tell me why you're here, or am I going to have to show you the door, Miz Knight?"

"My husband was killed in an infiltration on the Prometheus Prostheses Corporation. Despite my insurance claim, the corporate investigators are refusing to look into it. They say they have no record of my husband."

"That could prove to be a roadblock in the investigations. Yes."

She gave me a reproachful look.

"This isn't really a joking matter, Mister Manning."

"Sorry. Doctors say my emotional responses aren't what they should be."

"Is that what your colleague across the hall said?"

"I wouldn't go to him if my insurance did cover it. Which it doesn't. Now, about the fee..."

"Fifty thousand, Canadian, upon completion."

* * *

Preparations were easy. Got dressed, charged up my new toy and put it in my left wrist pocket and my phone in my right wrist pocket. Grabbed my keys and got going.

I drove into the city to check the Contrapol records on Lawrence Knight. If he was a resident, and gainfully employed, he probably had at least a basic package from the Seattle Contract Police. They'd have his residence and a simple history.

When I hit the city limits, I pulled off the road and into one of the numerous security bays. I got out of my car for a scan. The guards looked me over, noting my flap-eared hunting cap, smart goggles, and the long coat. I stamped out a cigarette butt beneath one boot-heel, and they noted my gun and the Jammer.

"You got the papers for this?" one riot-gear equipped Contrapol officer asked me, holding my gun by the butt between his thumb and index finger, as if it were some piece of filth.

"No. I just drove into a security bay with an unlicensed weapon. Check your records, ziphead."

He sneered at me, but I could see the bloom of light in his corneal HUD.

"Okay, this all checks out. You've got a day visa to the city. Twenty-four hours, meat-heap. After that, we're coming for you and sending your organs to China."

"Always wanted a vacation," I muttered, getting back into the car, and pulling through.

* * *

If you've never seen the City, you aren't missing much. All of them are pretty identical, and your fleshy bits get cancer just from all the information saturating the air. You could get cooked from the cellphone signals, and you better be wearing a lead-lined cup if you ever want kids, baba.

They'd put a dome over it and pumped in air that was supposedly "fresh," the same way that vat-grown meat is fresh. Put together out of raw materials and then said to be as good as the real thing.

Trees lined the streets, and every now and then they'd turn on the fog machine and turn on the sprinklers they had hanging from the dome. PSA screens plastered up at every corner flashed the planned times and durations of the mock rainstorms.

Otherwise, the dome just served as the backdrop for a movie of the sky, back when it did more than just drop acid rain on us like the devil's piss. All blue and full of sun and moon.

I remember when it was like that for real.

The crowds milling on the sides of the road were full of zipheads.

Sorry.

Enhanciles.

Their turf, their terminology. Got to remember that, baba, be polite, pretend not to mind being referred to by meat-based epithets. Let them think they're humans, and not just bacon-wrapped circuitry and stainless steel.

Sometimes, you'd see one without enhancements. Or at least, with enough sense to keep all their enhancements under the skin. I don't consider myself a trans-human, even with the Ellis-McNeal Treatments. Just got my blood and marrow changed out like the oil in an old car, some organs replaced, and a big shot of adolescent hormones. When the acne cleared I was twenty-odd years younger.

Now, here I was, a scarred veteran in a themepark version of the future populated by perpetual adolescents with designer reproductive organs and a hate-on for anyone who still had standard equipment in their brainpan.

The things I do for a little scratch.

I pulled into the subterranean parking garage of the Contrapol Archives Building.

My day visa let me look into the archives, but I still had to be polite. Tall order, really. Contrapol officers tend to fall into two types: The ones that emphasize the "contract" part, thereby being mercenary and vicious, and the ones that emphasize the "police" part, thereby being inflexible and legalistic. The trick was figuring who was which kind.

I flashed the visa to the door, and the RFID in the paper triggered the door, opening it up. A receptionist was waiting there, and she looked up at me. She was thin and dressed in the navy blue contrapol uniform.

"Name and business?" the woman asked.

"Carson Manning," I said, "I'm an investigator, here to look at your files on Lawrence Knight."

She blinked, refreshing her HUD, and glanced at the visa I held up, stretched taut so that she could scan it easily.

"Thank you, Mister Manning. You have been allotted Visitor Reading Room Seventeen. First floor. South Wing."

I nodded my thanks, and took the elevator to the first floor. I felt cheated by the lack of buttons. A blue electronic eye was set in the middle of each wall and the ceiling, scanning every angle of me. The floor took my weight, no doubt comparing it to my previous visits.

There was a feeling of acceleration. There was a feeling of deceleration.

Ding.

I was dumped out into a hallway lined with doors on either side. The Visitor Reading Rooms. Unlike police forces in the past, the contrapol accepted—and to an extent, encouraged—the presence of private investigators. So long as we only did our work outside the City proper. Inside the city, we'd get our organs sent to China, or something.

That was their threat, at least. I happen to have read that the Chinese outlawed organ trafficking back with the end of the Mao period.

Tangents. Sorry, baba, my mind wanders.

The reading rooms were places where other investigators could come in and read the records for people, provided our paperwork was in order and we had a client with no warrants out for their arrest.

I walked into the room, sat down, and let the machine scan my identity. Three minutes later, I'd read the file, copied it into the lenses of my goggles, and discovered nothing of use.

The file had been scrubbed.

Someone was really good at this.

The file didn't have a photo, and didn't have much else. As of the last update, he'd been forced to move to Hollisdale, down south of the city. Too much debt. The Contrapol came and repossessed all the metal bits he'd stuck inside of himself. His contract, at least, had meant they were obligated to patch him up after the surgery, but the Burgher (Blue Class) contract only included a local anesthetic in its repossession clause.

Sucks to be him.

I read through it until I found his address at the time of the last file update.

Something was bugging me, though...something that wasn't really ready to step forward and be acknowledged.

* * *

The hotel bar was dark and quiet. I prefer not to discuss through electronic means. Miz Knight understood, thankfully.

"Miz Knight."

"Hello, Carson, what can I do for you?"

"I've got questions. Read your husband's profile."

"Oh, what did you need to know?"

"He wasn't listed as married. Listed as living in a slum. No current employer."

"Are you sure that it was him?"

"Matched the SSN you gave me."

"Well, then, obviously, the record's been scrubbed. I told you how we're dealing with a ghost, right? Whoever did this edited the security tapes in real time, edited the perceptions of the guards, wiped the records, and had most of the body disposed of by the cleaning drones without anyone noticing."

"Which is why you need me. Got it. I've got an address here. Going to go look at it. Shouldn't take but an hour or two."

"I hope you know what you're doing, Mr. Manning."

"I don't tell you how to have a dead husband. Don't tell me how to investigate."

* * *

Back when first constructed, Hollisdale and other, similar housing developments were built to enable white flight, giving scared middle class Caucasians a place to run to while minorities moved in. When the gas crisis made that untenable, they came back and gentrified the cities. The suburbs became satellite slums and ghettos around the cities. Then everything went to hell. When the dust cleared, the meatheads were in the suburbs, and the zipheads were in the cities.

I watched all this happen. I saw it.

Now, the satellite slums were homes to two types of people. The Unenhanced, like me, not all as handsome or clever as me, but you get the idea. Then, there are the over-enhanced. People who want to drastically rewire their nervous and circulatory systems for a laugh. Who think that two eyes isn't nearly enough. That sort of thing.

This is important information, baba. It's something you need to know about for later. Trust me.

The address I got out of the file was for a shipping container in what had once been a golf course. Now, the grass was dead, and dirt roads were worn down between the metal boxes that had been pitted by months, if not years, of acid rain.

I idled down the narrow streets, between two "neighborhoods."

On my left was a tribe of amazon natives, still shell-shocked from when their forest had been torn down around them, adjusting to the cold and wearing bathrobes and ripped jeans as they stood around a grill. One boy was roasting a long stick with four or five small lizards impaled on it, while an old woman told a story.

To my right was what appeared to be an immigrant red light district. There was a wall of cigarette smoke from which emerged a babble of some Slavic language, Pashto and Vietnamese. I didn't look too closely, figuring I'd just leave them to their heroin and child pornography.

I lit a smoke of my own and parked my car near the unit where Lawrence Knight had been living. A tiny mailbox was spot-welded to the door of the shipping unit.

As soon as I got out of my car, though, I heard a slug hit my back windshield. Small-caliber. It went "whizz-crinkle" instead of "bang-crash."

Wouldn't necessarily kill me, but it would hurt like hell. I dropped down, and belly-crawled around the front of the car, spitting my cigarette into the dirt road.

Didn't really want any damage to the car, either, but it's a choice you've got to make, sometimes.

I saw two figures come out of the dark. One small, one big.

The small one was dressed in black leather, and had these campy mirror shades on. Or rather, they were implanted directly into the sockets. He had an automatic weapon hanging on his back from a strap over his shoulder. In his right hand, he was holding the pistol that had taken out my rear windshield.

The big one was obviously heavily enhanced, and in possession of a similar fashion sense to his smaller friend. Packed so full of vat-grown muscle that a forensic DNA test would register him as a fast food meal. He had, of all things, a samurai sword in his hand, resting the blade on his shoulder. Clearly, some kind of atavistic psychology was responsible for the Conan-the-barbarian physique and the fancy butter knife.

"My optics must be off," the little one said, "I didn't get him. Where'd he go?"

Taking inventory: gun, goggles, jammer, phone. The jammer was a no-go. I didn't see any protruding brain implants, and I didn't want to take a chance that junior's shades were purely cosmetic.

I pulled out my gun took the safety off, and readjusted my hunting cap on my head. You know why I wear the smart-goggles, baba? Got this thing on my gun, it puts a targeting reticle in the goggles. Moves around with the gun. Beautiful.

Especially with light enhancement software.

I belly-crawled under my car, watching them.

"He was just here a minute ago!" the big one said, "see, the seat's still warm."

"Obviously he ran off, didn't see which way."

"He'll be back," the big one said, with confidence, and sat on the hood of my car, causing the shocks to groan.

"I hope you're right. SLM will be upset if we don't get 'im."

I waited for a count of thirty, before taking aim. I couldn't see their heads, but the little one was so wide open, I couldn't resist.

He lit a cigarette. He took a drag. I shot him in the crotch.

He doubled up, and fell, his hands covering his genitals, vomit already coming out of his mouth. I took aim again, and hit him in the head.

Big Boy stood, and turned instinctively. Big mistake. I shot him in the shin, and slid back, out from under the car.

Big Mistake.

I didn't take into account that he probably couldn't feel pain, and obviously had reinforcements on his bones. I rolled out of the way as his sword came down, raised my gun, and shot up into his head.

Hit him at the spot where the throat joins the jaw. Put a big hole in him.

He fell back, spreadeagled.

"Black leather? Samurai swords? Goddamn kids...You two have never done this before. I can tell."

Getting up, I checked my back window.

"That's never going to pass inspection," I muttered, and picked up my still-burning cigarette.

* * *

The shipping container was pretty nice. Even had a chemical toilet and a lightbulb.

Other than that, not much in the way of amenities. It was obviously uninhabited, and had been for a while. The cooler provided in lieu of a fridge was open, and the inside was dry. The bed frame had no mattress.

I did a slow sweep, looking for anything out of the ordinary. Nothing extraneous present. Nothing unusual missing.

Nothing.

I looked over at the mailbox. A tag was hanging off of it.

Change of address form. 1717 Kessler Street, Appartment 912. Back in the city.

"Christ."

* * *

His apartment was spartan, but not nearly so bad as the shipping container. There was a futon in the front room, and a trid player across from it. The bedroom had a closet. Single bed. Dresser.

You know what I'm thinking, baba?

I took photos. Placed a call.

"Public park at Kessler and 98th. Ten minutes."

* * *

She was waiting for me when I got there.

"You're demanding an awful lot of attention, Mr. Manning. It's only been twelve hours since I hired you."

"I need to work quickly, if I'm to get enough mileage out of this twenty-four hour visa."

She didn't look at me.

"I suppose that makes sense," Galatea said, "what do you need?"

"What haven't you been telling me?"

She thought for a long moment.

"My husband and I separated when he declared bankruptcy, I was safe because we'd kept our finances separate. He worked and worked to save up money, and moved back to the city, and we were getting back together. He took a job as a guard at Prometheus Prostheses, and then, four days in, he was killed."

She turned to me, her hair stirring in the wind.

"That's why this is important to me, Mister Manning...Carson. He was coming back, but was snatched away from me."

She stood up, and looked me in the eye.

"Miz Knight," I began, with a placating note in my voice.

She leaned forward and hugged me. I held my hands out to either side.

"What is it?" she asked.

"I think you're confused as to the nature of the client/investigator relationship."

"You're more scrupulous than I imagined, you know that?"

"Or just not interested," I offered.

She stepped back, her eyes downcast.

"I'm going to go look at the scene of the crime," I said, "Maybe there's something that the cleaners missed."

* * *

"State your business."

I held my visa out to the guard, and he looked at it. I'm amazed that any of these people can still read. They must be so out of practice that the thought of it gives them eyestrain.

"What are you trying to communicate?"

We stood in the front hall of the Prometheus Prostheses building. It was at least ten meters from floor to ceiling, and one wall was all diamondoid windows to admit the view of the city's corporate plaza.

"There was a break-in two nights ago. I'm here to investigate something in connection to that."

The guard looked down at the visa, then at me.

"You're an investigator."

"Yes."

"This building is inside the city limits."

"Yes. I'm just trying to placate a client. It's nothing serious."

"We can send you the feeds," the man said.

"Yeah. I know. However, I was hired because I've got the standard equipment. Can I just look at the spot. Tell my client you all have it handled?"

The guard had a grudging look in his eyes, but something was beginning to shift.

"Come on, man. My papers are in order. I'm just a glorified babysitter."

He smirked, and led me through.

We walked inside the building, past doors meshed with wiring, creating a Faraday Cage. Faraday Cage after Faraday Cage. Shielding to prevent all signals from getting inside.

I found nothing but a smudge of blood. I'd gotten an attachment on my phone for a forensic analysis of tissue, but technical difficulties prevented me. My phone was overheating and vibrating constantly. The screen had turned black.

Sighing, I tried to pry off the back plate, pull out the battery and prevent it from getting damaged. By the time I got it open, the damned thing was dead.

A thought struck me, and I went back to the Contrapol building. I got into one of the reading rooms, and reread all the files on the case, including the ones I passed over. About the Prometheus Prostheses Corporation, Lawrence Knight, Galatea Knight, and the incident the other night. I tried to look up information on the two toughs that I shot full of holes earlier. Nothing conclusive.

Everything was beginning to come together, but there were a few small pieces that were missing.

I left the building, and walked toward my car.

There was a footstep behind me, and I turned around, twisting my jaw right into the path of a punch.

* * *

I was zip-tied into a convenient package by my abductor. Ankles. Wrists. Everything.

I couldn't see the driver. My goggles had been jacked and rendered opaque. Locked in. No sense in signaling that I was awake to my captor.

I don't know where we were going, but I figured that, wherever it was, I didn't want to go there. Why the hell didn't I keep a pocket knife with me? You should always have something sharp, baba, just in case you end up in a situation like this.

The drive was long. Combined with the period of unconsciousness, I can't even judge how long.

We stopped. The door opened. A pair of strong arms lifted me out. Dragged me from the car.

Damp and acid in my nose. Croaking of frogs, buzzing of insects in my ears. Damp and dank on my skin. Rot on my tongue. White noise in my eyes.

A knife was pressed to my throat.

"I know you're awake, detective. You can stop playing around."

"Don't know what you're talking about. Some jerk punched me on the jaw. I'm out cold."

I was thrown to the ground, twisting around to land on my left arm.

Eureka.

"Going to slice your throat wide open. I'm going to get paid quite well for your blood."

"Get to it, then," I said, unconcerned. Only one shot at this, no sense getting worked up over it.

The man laughed.

"You think that a cavalier attitude will save you?" he asked. The man knelt by my head. I could tell from the sound of his knee in the mud.

I rolled forward, putting pressure on the contents of my left wrist pocket.

There was a sizzling noise, and my friend dropped, flopping, onto the ground.

Bingo.

I slithered around, groping in the dark until I found the knife. Convenient. I struggled a bit, and finally cut the zip-ties on my wrists before I manually rebooted the goggles and freed my feet.

The man, another one of the endless legion of black-leather-and-mirrorshades group, twitched on the ground. I dispatched him, with his own knife and went back to the car.

Figure the acid rain will handle the remains. Or the bears. One or the other. Either way, no one will bother.

I turned on my car, and headed back toward my office.

* * *

The son of a bitch hadn't filled the tank, and I ended up walking the last three miles. I slept on the rug, and showered in the communal bathroom.

Around noon, I ordered lo mein from the takeout place down the road, and messaged Galatea that I had it figured out.

She arrived just as I was cracking open my fortune cookie.

"Miz Knight. Have a seat."

"You have a quick turnaround, Mister Manning," she said, acting all ice queen all of a sudden.

"'Course I do. Simple, really."

She relaxed in her seat, and gave me a cool look.

"But first, can I have my phone back?"

She closed her eyes.

"Very clever, Mister Manning."

She slid my phone across the table to me, and I pocketed it, tossing her the fake she'd planted on me.

"Your file was too clean," I commented, "all the data was marked up the same way. Most of the time, Contrapol officers make mistakes. Forget a comma. Transpose an I and an E. That sort of thing."

"So?"

"So you're a meat puppet, with a name that practically screams it. Your file's a fake. Your husband's file doesn't mention you. A bunch of incompetent thugs? A lot of unnecessary legwork? It wasn't too obvious, but I've been around the block, and I feel a little insulted."

"So, you found me out. Did you figure out who killed my husband?"

"course I did. I'm no amateur."

"So, who? Have you contacted the contrapol?"

"No need. Your husband isn't dead."

"How do you figure?"

"Only person killed? No eyewitnesses? No bloodtesting, just a bit of aesthetic splatter? Previous residences all factory-fresh? Meat-puppet wife?"

"So, where is he?"

"I'd guess he's the one pulling your strings. Aren't you, Mister Knight?"

"Shut up," Galatea said, her posture changing radically.

"You've wasted my time. Used me as a shill to carry a transmitter inside a corporate building. Insulted my intelligence. Pay up and get lost. Take your San La Muerte graffiti and goons with you."

"I'm not paying you, I was trying to kill you," she said.

I pulled out the jammer and hit the button. She dropped, began to flop around, and I opened my window. Looking down, I spotted the trashcan and did a few rough calculations in my head.

I grabbed the twitching woman, and dragged her to the window before pushing her out. She rolled and landed half-in half-out of the trashcan.

"Damn," I said.

Sitting down, I lit a cigarette. One long drag later, my phone rang.

"Mister Manning," a computer-generated voice on the other end said.

"Speaking. Who is this."

"San la Muerte."

"Oh," I said, and examined the cuticles of my left hand, "do you have my money by any chance?"

"That depends entirely on you."

"Really? Fulfilled my end of the contract. Someone owes me fifty thou. Canadian. You try to pay me in Yen and I'll sell what organic parts you have to a glue factory. I know a guy in Oregon who'll take any bones he gets."

"I don't think you understand. The authorities will be looking for you. You're an accomplice."

I sit back, and light a cigarette.

"Not an issue. Contrapol doesn't like the boonies."

"But you're cut off from the city."

"I don't need Seattle. I can go down to San Fran. Over to Chicago. In to Kansas City or Saint Louie."

"Corporate Espionage is frowned upon in all those places."

"So? It's not that hard to slip through the cracks. Do you have my money or not?"

"Not."

"Well, then. Going to have to teach you that all those shiny bits you stuck in yourself are a privilege. Not a right."

"If you can get to me."

"I'm old. I have a long memory, Mr. Knight."

"We'll see."