Chapter One: A Death in the Shifting City
The week started badly when the Head of Poetry was found dead.
It was of course always a cause for concern when an elected official died. There would be a mad scramble to elect his successor, and although he might only have been the head of a Fiction District there would still be fierce competition for the post. There would be questions of procedure in the event of needing to reassign the district to another section of the city, and a public funeral would need to be arranged. But more concerning than the death was the manner in which it had happened.
There had been a city realignment scheduled for a month. The Sonnet Sub-District was being moved from its position by the bank of the river to a more central location in Poetry (itself the result of a long and hard fought negotiation by the Head of Epic Poetry that his District obviously deserved a more grandiose location), and while the city blocks were being realigned, it seemed the Head of Poetry had somehow found himself caught in between the shifting gears, and had been crushed to death. His body had been discovered only after the realignment, and it had caused a string of questions. For one, why had the Head of Poetry, who should have known about the realignment and indeed been in his office to oversee it, been down at street level at all? For another, given that he knew where the divisions of the streets were, how had he found himself in a position to fall into the gears? For a third, how had his assistant not known where he was during the entire time of the move?
Questions of course demanded answers, which demanded a detective to investigate the case, which is how Detective Inspector Emerson Victor Rowley found himself in the Sonnet District at five thirty in the morning, crouched over a mangled body. The sun was just beginning to rise on a cold autumn day, and they still needed the assistance of the gaslamps to see properly. A thick layer of smog had settled over the streets, courtesy of the massive engines that powered the realignment. Police crowded the area, keeping the few members of the public away and making sure there was space to examine the scene. Victor crouched over the body, covering his mouth with a handkerchief. Below the neck the body had been chewed upon by the gears, the legs torn almost entirely free, while the torso had been crushed flat. Shattered bones poked through tattered skin and organs protruded out of the chest cavity. He had seen crushing victims before, but this was one of the worst. The gears had come to a stop before destroying the body completely, leaving most of the head and shoulders intact.
"It's definitely Sterling?"
Victor nodded. "Clothing matches what his assistant told us he was wearing, pocketbook is missing but there was a journal in his pocket with his initials on it. And while there might be damage, the face certainly looks like him to me."
Detective Chief Inspector Graham Burleigh huffed out a sigh and turned to the constables. "Alright boys, we're going to need to do this proper. Get a wagon on the wire, get the civilians away." He marched off, grabbing a sergeant to keep issuing orders.
Ignoring the shouting and hustle, Victor stood and walked over to where the body had been dragged from. There was a slight gap in between the city plates, and it was through there that the body had been seen by a diligent milkman on his early morning rounds. It had taken a good hour to get the body out in as good a condition was possible, and now he was laid out for all to see. Victor knelt down again, examining the gap. His first question upon arriving had been how exactly the milkman had seen the body, given it wasn't common for people to look down at the gaps. The milkman explained it was always his custom to check, on account of he had once been rolled by a gang that had sprung up through the gaps. Victor was satisfied enough with the explanation.
The Head of Poetry had been reported missing by his assistant shortly after the realignment began. That put him as reported missing twelve hours prior. However, he had left his office for luncheon five hours earlier than that at twelve thirty. The assistant hadn't known whether he was meeting anyone, and nothing had been scheduled in his diary, but it was unusual, he reported, for Sterling to leave the building for lunch at all. Normally he ate at his desk while poring over some new acquisition. If there was one thing that his years of experience had taught Victor, it was that sudden changes in routine always had a root cause to be investigated.
The journal recovered from the victim's body had seen better days even before it had been carried on a body being wrung through cogs. It was tattered brown pigskin on the outside, worn and cracked and tarnished with spilled ink, and now blood as well. The paper inside was coarse and rough, and the scratchings inside were in a low quality ink. Mostly it was notes on where to assign new poems or poets to, and a couple of pages he flicked past describing the emergence of a new form of poetry, and whether it should be granted its own sub-district. Fairly standard fare for such a man. Scattered in amongst were dates and times, most with names beside them he recognised as being other District or Sub-District Heads. He turned to the last pages with writing on and found the previous day's date, with a time as well.
12-45: Lunch; OA
This underlined three times with such a firm hand it had left impressions in the page behind, even through the thick paper.
Burleigh had returned, red in the face and huffing like an old bulldog. Victor rose to meet him. "What's the verdict then Rowley?"
"I suspect foul play. Sterling wouldn't have come down here for an afternoon stroll, even if he had forgotten the realignment was today."
He didn't take the suggestion well, his eyes narrowing and his lower jaw jutting out in a manner Victor had become well accustomed to. "Keep that to yourself for now. I want something solid before I take this much further, understood?"
"Absolutely sir. I'll get on it right away."
"See that you do." Burleigh glanced down at the body and shook his head. "This could be messy. I don't like messy." He gave Victor a glare from below furrowed eyebrows.
"I want a report by day's end." And without another word he turned on his heel and marched off to shout at the constables some more.
Victor stayed by the body a moment longer, stroking his beard and feeling the edges of a puzzle emerging. He certainly agreed with the Chief. Even though he couldn't yet see the answers to any of his questions, he had the overwhelming feeling that things were about to get very messy indeed.