by Barry Charman
Zorenzo studied the sex doll on the crime slab. A new low. Two bullets in the head – terminal punctures. She’d bled out digitally, one drop of subhuman fuel at a time. Her lover-owner pleaded innocence. He’d upgraded her only last week, latest soul-tech. She’d had feelings, he’d said. She liked watching cartoons and smelling flowers. She laughed at jokes he didn’t get. She bit him during sex, playfully, he’d said.
Zorenzo didn’t understand the law anymore.
‘Has there been a murder?’ he asked wearily.
The pathologist was more of a metaphysical undergraduate, a skittish woman who stroked the dead doll’s hair. ‘Yes,’ she nodded.
Zorenzo sighed. ‘So this is murder?’
She nodded again. Zorenzo bristled; this wasn’t pathology, this was philosophy.
‘She could feel pain,’ the pathologist added.
Zorenzo looked at his hands, long ago upgraded, designer prints, glow-flesh, pain-rejecting nerves. Pain was a luxury, or an unnecessary blemish, depending which side of the fence you came down on.
If she was human, then what was everybody else?
Was it flesh-hate?
Zorenzo sat at his desk and wondered where to begin. Where was the motive? Was it a cult crime? Hate of the new? A sex-crime? A new wave lust-crime? Should he label a new hate, or blow dust off an old one? Was someone envious of the upgraded model, something outside of their wage bracket?
‘Frame God and blame the Devil,’ he cursed.
The crime scene was a digital brothel, an echo-and-or-homage to dormant pleasures. A dive called Digitalia Genitalia. The sex doll’s ‘hubby’ was a grease-ball punk-wannabe called Chad O’verdose. He’d had his name pierced by deed poll and thought he was a catch. He’d taken his doll out for a threesome with a genetically exaggerated hooker. Some sort of anniversary present. Zorenzo didn’t know where to start. So he started there.
Leipzig was under the snow. Zorenzo paused on the street to consider the shapes of a city concealed. Cars reduced to bumps, street and curb merged under a powdery white sheet. He liked the city, but it had always felt old, even before the new arrivals.
The Digitalia Genitalia was two blocks away. He made it without event. He kept his badge in his pocket, ready if needed. One person was openly reading some Martian Hardcore on the street, but Zorenzo let it pass. That shit was kept underground for a reason, but what the hell, he had a murder to chew on.
The brothel was a borderline nightclub. There was no respectable front, but there was a bar of sorts, music of a kind. The skin was tactful, the staff were cautious. He had to ask around before someone led him to an office at the back of the club. A woman sat behind a desk, rubbing her forehead. She acknowledged Zorenzo with a nod, and he sat.
‘Migraine,’ she muttered.
He nodded, ‘Not surprised.’
She was a weird one, a skin-job. New race, a tattoo freak who’d come into the world one colour and opted to end it another. She had purple contacts, and a novelty shape cut into a pseudo-afro.
‘You are the . . . proprietress?’ he began.
‘Yes, all of our permits are in order. We’re checked regularly.’
Zorenzo let her talk. She was eager to be helpful, rattled by the dysfunctional crime that had happened under her roof. ‘Never seen the O’verdoses before,’ she said. ‘Nice couple.’
‘What did you think of the doll?’
She sat back, leather creased around her. ‘Didn’t know she was a doll at first. Just thought she was some naive piece he’d picked up along the way. Maybe she was open minded, maybe she’d had a lobotomy, not for me to judge.’
‘Get a lot of lobotomies in here?’
She shrugged, ‘Women keep up with their husbands.’
That was ambiguous, but he let it slip. ‘Tell me what happened.’
‘O’verdose and his doll booked a room; went in with a girl called Eve Snakebite. She does this whole nasty Bible thing, I won’t go into it. Five minutes later, Eve and O’verdose come out, bickering over price. Then they go back in and the doll’s dead. They say when they left her the only holes in her were sexual.’
‘They didn’t hear any shots?’
‘I want to see the room.’
She called in Eve herself and had her lead Zorenzo out. Zorenzo asked her a few questions but got nothing good. O’verdose had wanted to watch, Eve wasn’t comfortable making out with a doll. They were outside five minute tops and saw no one. She had no obvious motive to lie, and she said O’verdose doted on his wife. No motive there, either.
Eve led him into a small room with purple drapes and red candles. A black bed was the only furniture. Stripped of sheets and pillows, it looked like a crypt. Ultraviolet light would probably reveal a thousand traces of different faces.
Zorenzo studied the crime scene.
The bullets had stopped in the doll. Looking around, he could see nowhere for a shooter to hide.
He took a moment.
Girl dies in an absurdist trash-on-trash sin bin. No God to claim her, no good man’s tears. Zorenzo knew he was all that stood between her and anonymity. He was the only thing to account for her existence. It was a surprising weight; no more than a small bird’s heart, no more substantial than a lie or a doubt.
Zorenzo gave the room a last cursory look, and then walked out.
The Decadence had driven them out of the cities, but what had it driven them to?
Back out on the streets, Zorenzo braced himself against a cold breeze and took a walk. He studied Leipzig, and remembered New York. The world had changed in ten years, but the people had changed faster. This was becoming clearer with each case that landed on his desk.
The Decadence had taken over most of the cities; the only messages that got out now were numb recitals of daydream rhetoric; jazz whines and bursts of static. Nobody knew what it had been, not really. It had simply occurred, like a passive disease, like a pandemic without a clear means of infection.
Leipzig had never been built for the influx, the population that had fled from Berlin. Zorenzo had lived here seven years. Old New York had been his home before, a throwback dependent on noir nostalgia to keep tourists interested. Across the water from his flat, the statue of liberty had been there with her mohawk and gouged-out eyes. Had the Decadence been dormant, a part of people already?
Everyone had started to leave New York quick, Chicago wasn’t ready for them, but that’s where they went first, Liberty’s blind eyes watching them go.
The Decadence never spread. It stayed in the big cities, like a form of cancer that had a taste for steel and lust. It had gone uncategorised, whatever it was, whether decline of man or balance of apathy.
Man-made or not.
The world moved on.
Zorenzo knew he needed to pick up some whispers, so he took a walk.
The old buildings, many of them empty, seemed to be looking down at him with rooms filled with ghosts. The wall had come down, and left many bricks. That’s what the punks on the street said, smiling optimistically. He looked up at the buildings he passed; reddish black or blackened red. Boarded up windows, an echo of an architect’s intent. It was a city given eerie half-life under the drifting snow and amber streetlights.
Big enough, with enough haunted spaces, to make room for anyone.
He watched out for people as he walked, young faces peering down from tall buildings cracked with time. People endured because they were young, he mused; these ruins were not theirs.
He walked a block to an older part of town. He passed a bomber plane from another century, which was rusted into place behind a six foot fence. Rain washed rats into the gutter, and unseen cannibals giggled thankfully. Zorenzo stopped to chain-smoke five shtick-sticks. It was hard not to admire the city. The last stain of authenticity, that’s what one wag called it. Amen, brother.
Finally, Zorenzo cornered some bored post-op pre-teens. He got some street talk out of them. What they’d seen, what they’d heard. O’verdose was a known face; he always talked about his doll and their love. They liked him. He was weird in a good way. The kids were helpful, gave Zorenzo more than he needed.
O’verdose lived in a one-bed treehouse in what, before-the-snow, could have been a park. Zorenzo had got the exact tree from some local kids. O’verdose lived in a community of grass-eating sun-dodging drug-lickers.
Zorenzo threw a rock; it was the only way to knock.
O’verdose didn’t want to come down at first, he knew cop when he saw it. Zorenzo waited him out, and eventually the widower descended. He was a socket-jockey, both eyes replaced with crystal balls, one eye nervously blinking at a speculative future, while the other was surfing the net for the latest wave of pseudo-porn. He saw through antennae that dropped from his nostrils. He’d woven a designer beard around it, for that natural look.
There was a hint of the Decadence about him. He wore its atypical slouch. That worried Zorenzo. O’verdose looked like a man keen to repeat mistakes he was too bored to learn from.
Again, that gnawing worry, that the Decadence had been man-made. Maybe it manifested from the ether, from clouds of nebulous disdain, or maybe it had been grown in some lab. Who could tell anymore what mistakes were organic or what had simply been crafted?
‘I loved her, man.’ O’verdose hit the ground running with a sob story of a loner’s passion. He was a shade of a man, and she a shade of something else. It was perfect, in its way.
‘Why the threesome?’ Zorenzo asked.
‘I just wanted to try it, before I really settled down, you know?’
There was a recurring note of pleading in O’verdose’s voice, but Zorenzo didn’t let on he heard it. He just stared impassively at the other man. A blank mask that didn’t need to blame or judge.
‘Why would anyone kill her?’
O’verdose’s face relaxed for a moment. ‘I’m not a suspect?’
‘Of course you’re a suspect. Broken a mirror, lately?’
O’verdose self-consciously scratched his nose. ‘I loved her, man.’
‘She had feelings, she cared, man. Wanted a cat.’
‘You remember cats, right?’
Zorenzo hushed him with a weary look. ‘Did she have any friends?’
O’verdose stared at him, his glass eyes waxy and in need of cleaning. ‘She talked to someone online; they were always talking, man.’
‘What did they talk about?’
‘Man, I can’t remember, man.’
Zorenzo cut him off, forcefully. ‘Try.’
His glass eyes were unfocused, dim; then suddenly they danced. ‘Liebe.’
O’verdose rubbed his face, ‘Just a word I caught.’
‘This person have a name?’
Once lit up on a thought, Chad’s eye did not release the glow. ‘Yeah – Liebhaber’.
Finally. A lead.
In his office, Zorenzo sat in shadow. The blinds at the window sliced beams of moonlight into strips that gathered on the opposite wall. He counted them, higher mind on other things.
German. One of the dead languages, consumed in the rush of civilisation. Lost like many things to the Decadence. Plaything now to perverts and poets.
He logged in and studied the doll’s computer history. He got invasive, performed what was to be the second and final autopsy on her life.
He dug deeper and deeper, until it was all bare.
Liebhaber. A name was revealed behind a corset of code – Eliza White.
What woman logged on for ruminations on love with a doll?
He pulled up White’s history. A drop-out with a history of enhancements and personality alterations. A true casualty of love. One of her enhancements made him sit up – chameleon skin grafts.
How does a killer walk in and out without being noticed?
Zorenzo sat back, exhaled and paused to let his thoughts settle. The phone went, and he reached for it without thinking. It was a call from Old New York; the whisper was from his wife. As always he tried to hear, to understand, but the sounds were detuned and detached. Why did she call? Did she miss him? Was she still capable of that?
‘You should have left when you had a chance,’ he said, breaking his usual silence.
The static whispered, it called. Somehow it seemed to yearn.
Was the Decadence some illogical biological weapon? Were they all bit players now in some callous bioshock nightmare?
‘We left you the cities. Isn’t that enough?’
Zorenzo followed the rain. It led him wherever he went.
He kicked moons out of puddles and kept to the shadows. The buildings were grey, government graffiti kept natural colours wrong-footed, repressed.
A girl called Alice had head butted the looking glass, wasn’t that what they were saying now?
Eliza White lived in a third floor apartment. Her tower block reared up, grey as a tombstone. Inside the lobby androgynous punks offered him an ambiguous good time. They showed him their badges and he showed them his. Most of them ran, but one, most likely a girl, stayed. Pigtails made from real pig, Edwardian frock stolen from a waxwork, she smiled in a daze.
She danced to the music in her head, it kept skipping and she fell over.
Zorenzo walked over her and called the lift.
Eliza White opened her door on the third knock. Her hair was unwashed, and her face was drawn. He wondered if it was from the sudden withdrawal of love, or the onset of shame?
‘You know why I’m here.’
She shook her head, but one look at her backed up his instincts. She wore the story. Red rimmed eyes, poorly concealed beneath a rush of mascara. She led him into a dimly lit apartment. The curtains were all drawn, old style romance films projected onto them for all they were worth. This was a mausoleum of sentiment, Zorenzo winced.
‘There are two ways I can tell it,’ he said, ‘you didn’t mean to kill her but you did anyway, or the bullets were last kisses.’
Zorenzo’s eyes wandered the room as she cooked up her alibi. A birdcage was filled with parrot bones. A leopard-skin mat was stuffed with human hair. A taxidermist was propped against a drinks cabinet, grinning as sawdust fell from his mouth.
‘I love things,’ Eliza said, watching him, ‘that’s what I do. The more unloved the better.’
‘Even a doll?’
‘I don’t know any – ’
‘We have prints,’ he said, ‘easy to pick up when we knew what we were looking for. They showed up under specialist lasers. After that we found data records, digital exchanges. We have everything.’
Eliza sat down hard. ‘It was a mercy,’ the confession left her like pent up breath.
‘How did you do it?’
She explained it to him. She had chameleon skin grafts. An upgrade that she’d gotten out of love for Chad O’verdose, who used her like he was making love to himself. ‘He couldn’t see me anymore,’ she said, ruefully. Then the doll came along, Eliza found her online and they bonded. Jealousy turned to pity, so Eliza said; better eternal rest than a life of flesh.
Eliza looked at her computer terminal, tenderly. ‘We reached out, connected. But we met only once, that’s all you need. These days.’ Eliza looked up, her eyes wistful. ‘The abandonment of flesh. That’s the only way to connect now. Every day we live in this city we are complicit to the idea. When we can no longer love, we are decadent.’
‘They were in love.’
She shrugged, denying it.
Unnerved, he took out his cuffs, ‘It’s time to go.’
Eliza looked at her computer. ‘This is how it ends, with ever decreasing acts of humanity. Even an act of love is now a murder. Was it a murder, was she that real?’
She looked up at him, and Zorenzo was momentarily lost for words at the familiarity of her cynicism. ‘She was as real as any of us.’
Eliza nodded. ‘Ah.’
She was silent from then. Zorenzo regarded her, the handcuffs hanging limply from his hand. ‘If she weren’t alive you wouldn’t have wanted to kill her,’ he said. Eliza only smiled, and languidly offered him her wrists.
He took her downstairs and put her in the back of the car. She offered no resistance. He turned her words as he pulled out and drove into the rain.
He drove, passing people who pierced their shadows, people who’d engineered barcodes for the soul. Everything was a commodity, a product. The things that didn’t make sense were things like love, or loyalty. People who had fled the Decadence had found . . . what? Themselves? He felt a perfunctory sadness. The woman in the back knew love in a dead language; he didn’t even know where to begin with that.
He hadn’t been pure flesh for some years. What was he now, he wondered? Fifty-fifty? Fifty-one per cent tech? He didn’t know; he hadn’t kept all the receipts.
But then he didn’t know if dolls could love, or when love was worth killing for.
And he realised it was over fifty-one per cent; because he realised he didn’t care.
He drove into the snow. Leipzig in winter, the past, the future; the Decadence forever in the shadows, and the soul of whatever man would become.
Barry Charman is a writer living in North London. He has been published in various magazines, including Ambit, Popshot, Bare Fiction Magazine, and Firewords Quarterly. He has had poems published online, and has recently had poems published in The Linnet’s Wings, and Leading Edge. He has a blog at http://barrycharman.blogspot.co.uk/
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