The Least Convenient Suspect By D. Brendan McCarthy

Chapter One

‘You have arrived.’
Ryan Hunter drank the last of his Associated Teas and Coffees’ tea. The lukewarm, oily liquid coated his tongue. Four thirty in the morning and his car was parking him in a warehouse complex to see a dead man.
He wiped a drop of tea from his chin. This had better be important. He’d woken Josie on the way out. He tapped his fingers and his Piece opened the car’s menu. He went through a couple of options and finally selected one.
A white rectangle appeared above the dashboard. After a moment it displayed a live feed from Josie’s room. She was sitting up in bed, with her television on. Either side of her bed were two medical monitors, tubes connecting them to Josie’s frail body. He hated leaving her. Josie needed round the clock care and now, for some reason, someone had called him out in the middle of the night, and woken her up. He repeated his earlier thought: This had better be important.
‘Shut down,’ he said.
The display went dark. A bolt of stylised blue lightning with wheels flared once above the dashboard: ‘ElectriCar! British made for your Comfort and Security!’
He chucked the red and white AT&Cs cup into the back of his car where it joined a steadily increasing collection of other cups and cake wrappers and then he stepped out into the early morning air.
He was in yesterday’s clothes; his shirt and suit trousers, already creased, were sticky with a day’s sweat and in with the humid night air his shirt sucked to his skin. His beer belly poked out like a football.
Ryan yawned and put his weight on his walking stick, a dreary painted blue number with an unremarkable brass duck head on top. Six hours of meetings yesterday, then home to cook for and bathe Josie, before another four hours finalising Crime Density Statistics meant he finally fell into bed at one. Three short and virtually sleepless hours later, his Piece summoned him here. He was the Deputy Head of Administration and Human Resources. This wasn’t supposed to happen to him anymore.
Twenty warehouses, each the size of a football pitch, lined in two rows of ten, were the other side of a laser grid fence. Each warehouse was emblazoned with the British Graphene logo, a BG wrapped in a stalk of BioWheat. These warehouses contained the building blocks of the modern world, the life blood of Britain and Europe. Ryan wondered just what he’d been called out to see. His background was in Homicide but surely no one would kill a BG employee?
Mores the point, he thought, how could a murderer get in or out unnoticed here? Ryan made his way through lines of other precision parked ElectriCars to the laser grid fence. This was the sixth and final line in the complex’s defence system. It had taken Ryan twenty-five infuriating minutes and two full car inspections to get this far. If he really was here to see a murder, it more than likely happened inside the complex and the killer was still here. Ryan hoped so – then he could just go home, check in on Josie and get back to bed.
The posts of the laser grid were the fence’s only visible part, though the remains of several warrens’ worth of rabbits scattered up and down the length of the fence served as a gruesome testament to the level of protection afforded to the complex. Beyond the fence, dozens of guards patrolled the complex, each accompanied by either a very large dog, or a very large gun.
‘Hello?’ Ryan called out. ‘I need to get inside.’
One of the guards broke away from his comrades and came to the fence, a muscular Rottweiler strained at the end of a grey leash.
‘You the consultant?’ he asked. ‘Is that your ID?’ He pointed a gloved hand to a patch of space above Ryan’s left shoulder. The same space above the guard’s was occupied by a spinning statuette of the guard along with his name and British Graphene employee number.
‘Yes,’ said Ryan. He read the guard’s ID: Bob Carrington, BGg1S3342.
‘What do they need you here for?’ said Bob, asking the same question all the other guards at the previous five checks had asked.
Ryan gave the same reply: ‘Not a clue.’
Actually, the more Ryan thought about it, the more this seemed like one big mistake. There was nothing he knew that couldn’t be found in Amherst Station’s records. Someone just can’t be bothered to look.
Bob the guard touched his forefinger and thumb together. Warning lights on two fence posts changed from red to blue.
‘It’s the third warehouse down,’ said Bob, and once Ryan was through and the lights on the fence posts were red again, he rejoined the other guards.
This wasn’t the first murder in a warehouse Ryan had been to. Back in his thirties he was a junior Investigator and he and his Lead, Lucas Stephenson, were called out to a warehouse in Chatham, by the docks. The killer had used the victim’s body as an art box, painted riddles on the walls in their blood and used their organs to create reliefs of other famous murders. Ryan had to steady himself with his walking stick when he thought about it. Weekly Deputy Head meetings might be a lot more boring but at least they’re free of intestinal collages and come with cakes and tea.
The third warehouse down was ringed in blue police tape. Out the front, a group of uniformed officers stood around their cups of tea like the homeless around a barrel. Above each of their left shoulders was their rank and serial number.
‘Hello, sir,’ said Sergeant 7383. ‘What are you doing here?’
Ryan started to answer –
‘British Graphene!’ something yelled, sending Ryan starting into the air. ‘Building your future, today!’
‘Holy hell,’ shouted Ryan, his heart racing. All the tiredness was flushed from his body on a tide of adrenaline. ‘Who still uses invasive advertising?’
Dancing along the warehouse’s huge four storey main doors was a sheaf of wheat with cartoon eyes, a mouth, arms and legs. Ryan scowled and tapped his fingers, turning the advertising settings on his Piece to minimal. The sheaf of wheat tipped its hat and then returned to the centre of the doors and remained still.
The sniggering officers were all quickly silenced by Ryan’s expression.
‘There’s no way through these doors,’ said Sergeant 7383. He pointed down the alley between the second and third warehouse. ‘There’s an office down there with an access door.’
Ryan left the officers to mock him with whispered jokes and exaggerated impressions. Well, he thought, it won’t be so funny when they find themselves walking the Robertson Estate for the next three months.
His walking stick clacked on the tarmac which echoed off the hulking warehouses either side of him. He hoped Josie was asleep again. The drugs in her system threw her from insomnia to narcolepsy at the drop of a hat. Some days she slept for twenty hours, others, only one. Another major side-effect of her treatment was fatigue. Some days she was so weak she could barely lift her arms. He checked the time – an analogue clock appeared in his vision. Twenty to five. He could be done by five and home soon after. Josie should be all right till then, he hoped.
The office attached to the warehouse was more a shed with aspirations. Three graphene walls, welded to the side of the warehouse, like a tumour on a giant woodlouse.
Inside, two long tables filled the centre of the room and two vending machines stood against the wall. The cartons of drink and packets of scones and cakes in the machines were alive with activity. Each product’s mascot silently trying to draw the most attention.
A Forensic in a plastic romper suit the same shade of blue as the police tape sat behind one of the tables, empty test-tubes and evidence bags laid out in neat rows beside her. Ryan put his walking stick into a caddy and waved at the Forensic. Her delicate green eyes looked out between the hood of the romper and a face mask. Only one person he knew had eyes like hers.
‘DH Hunter?’ said she said.
‘Kimberly,’ said Ryan.
‘It’s Forensic Knight on duty, sir,’ she said. Nonetheless, she hugged him as he came in. ‘How is Josie? I’m sorry I haven’t been able to visit much recently.’
‘Don’t worry,’ said Ryan. ‘She hasn’t been up for guests really. He ran his hand through his ever thinning hair, covering his fingers in sweat. ‘I woke her up on the way here so I need to get this over with quickly. Have you seen the body?’
‘I’ve not seen it,’ said Kimberly. ‘The Investigators were here when I arrived.’
‘Do you know who’s on Lead for this case?’
‘Nope,’ she said. ‘Sorry.’
Ryan looked at the empty evidence bags and unused identification kits. ‘How long have you been here?’ he asked.
Kimberly checked the time. ‘I’ve been here for about half an hour, the Investigators were here maybe ten minutes before that?’
Ryan walked past the cake vending machine, causing chaos to unfold within as the homely women and the professional baker from the packaging all flocked to entice him with their wares.
‘How come they’ve been here for so long and not found anything?’ he asked. ‘Who breaks into a BG warehouse without leaving a trace?’
‘Oh,’ said Kimberly with a little laugh. ‘Everything gets identified by these Pieces now.’ She held up a Forensic Piece: a headset with three tubes on it. ‘These two here scan the environment while this middle one processes and relays back the data.’
‘It’s not been that long since I was at a crime scene, you know,’ said Ryan. He pointed to a yellow loop around his left ear. ‘I do have a Piece of my own.’
‘OK, granddad!’ joked Kimberly.
A circular door, roughly two metres in diameter, took up most of the office’s fourth wall.
‘Through there, is it?’ said Ryan.
‘Yes sir,’ she said, ‘but I can’t let you go in there like that. It’s two hundred and fifty degrees in there. You’ll freeze to death in just your shirt and trousers.’ She gave him a look. ‘That’s minus twenty in old money.’
‘Yes,’ said Ryan. ‘Thank you.’ He knew Kimberly wasn’t trying to be patronising. It was sweet that she cared enough to think of him. Ever since her mother and father were killed in the Christmas Day Massacre, Josie and Ryan had kept an eye on her and now she was returning the favour.
She went to a corner of the room and dragged a red Forensic trolley to the table. The trolley was made of rows of drawers, most of which would be full of more test tubes, dyes, chemicals and Forensic Pieces. She opened one of the larger drawers near the bottom of the trolley and took out two boxes, both the same size as the Mrs Butterworth’s scone packets in the vending machine.
Ryan pulled a tab on top of the first box, which expanded into a full sized, red thermal suit.
His fingers stuck in the suit’s sleeve as he struggled to put it on. He pulled on the hood with extreme caution to avoid tearing out his few remaining hairs. The thermal suit, just as with everything else in this office and the city outside it, was built from the molecular level up to be perfect its job and within a few seconds, Ryan’s sweat ran down his forehead and it trickled over his belly. Another reason for him to get this over and done with.
The second box contained a similar suit, only blue. With the thermal suit on, this Forensics clean suit was twice as difficult to put on. By the time Ryan was ready to go inside, he was soaked in is own sweat.
‘Do you want me to turn the thermal up to “hottest”? It really is very cold in there,’ she said.
Ryan wiped a torrent of sweat off his nose. ‘No,’ he said, feeling like a roast ham.
‘Sure?’ she asked. ‘The others all have theirs set to high.’
‘No,’ he insisted. He wanted to retain some dignity in the eyes of youth. ‘I’ll be fine.’
‘OK,’ said Kimberly. ‘There is one more thing.’ Her eyes were full of apology. ‘You’ll need to leave your Piece here.’
‘I can’t leave it out here,’ he said. ‘What if Josie needs me? How’s she supposed to contact me if my Piece is with you?’
‘I’m sorry, sir, it’s BG,’ she said. ‘They’ve allowed us into the warehouse unsupervised but we have to stick to their guidelines on equipment and data transfer, no personal Pieces allowed. It’s national security.’
‘Arseholes,’ said Ryan. ‘Who do they think they are?’
British Graphene was one of the three largest employers in Europe and its single biggest source of revenue. The board of British Graphene and the government of Europe were virtually indistinguishable.
Ryan squished his thumb and forefinger together. His Piece bleeped twice and then switched off. He reached into his hood, winced as three precious hairs were ripped from his head, and he slipped a thin yellow loop of graphene from behind his ear.
‘Here,’ he said, and he begrudgingly gave his Piece to Kimberly. The back of his ear where the Piece rested was now chilly despite the heat. ‘Bugger,’ said Ryan. ‘I should have transferred my calls to you.’
‘Do you want to do it now?’ she asked.
He shook his head. ‘I’ll get in and see the body then I can get home and see her. Besides, the heat in this suit is getting unbearable.’
Without his Piece on, the world had become a daunting place. The cartons of drink in the drinks machine, which, only two minutes ago were covered in dancing birds and frolicking fruits, were now still. Forever fixed in a single moment. Their dead eyes looked out as if from some grotesque taxidermy display. In the cake machine, the homely women and professional bakers’ stares reminded him of the androids in the Moat Science Museum: creepy, eerie and lifeless.
‘I’ll stick your Piece in a LockBlock,’ said Kimberly, getting a transparent cube from another drawer on the trolley. Her rank and serial number was no longer visible above her right shoulder. Ryan hadn’t realised how used he was to seeing it there; it was as if she had forgotten to introduce herself. But it wasn’t Kimberly’s fault. Her Piece was still projecting her ID information. The problem was Ryan had no Piece to decipher it.
Kimberly put Ryan’s Piece in the LockBlock. He ran his thumb over the lid and the box read his thumb print through the two suits, locking it tight. She left the box on the table and walked to the vault door. A pin-prick of green light came on by her left ear and her Piece connected to the warehouse’s computer system. She tapped her fingers. The door unlocked with several heavy clunks and the door swung open. A blast of icy, dry air whooshed into the office.
He went in. A wisp of pressurising air from behind him was the only sign that the door shut.
It took a moment for Ryan to adjust to the sudden and massive drop in temperature. Somehow, during the struggle to put it on, he had broken the thermal jacket’s fingers and toes. As the sweat on his face was freezing to his skin, his fingers and toes were going numb. He clapped his hands and stamped his feet and looked around the warehouse.
Six Forensics, all dressed in blue Forensic rompers, traipsed slowly up and down the enormous warehouse. They all wore Forensic Pieces, the two scanning tubes by their ears, the other in the middle of their head. Blue discs of light projected from either side of their heads scanned methodically over the floors, the British Graphene’s BioWheat crates, and the massive cubic structure supporting those crates.
Seventeen by seventeen by seventeen, the cubic structure was a grid of holes, only three of which were currently filled. One crate was at the top of the structure, one in the middle at the back and one on the ground in the far left corner. Each crate was sealed with titanium enriched graphene bands, not to mention the Government’s treason warning on the front. British Graphene was building the future and woe betides anyone who tried to help.
He remembered another warehouse case. A triple murder with the victims all packed into a shipping crate no bigger than a coffee table. He and Lucas spent six hours at that scene trying to identify bodies. He really didn’t have six hours to waste here. He yawned again. He needed some more tea. He needed to get home.
In the middle of the warehouse, in the centre of the grid, he spotted what he was after: a cream-white plastic tent.
Inside the tent, another person in a blue Forensic suit and Forensic Piece on was kneeling down beside a body. He looked up when Ryan came in.
‘Hi,’ said Ryan. ‘You the one who called me?’
‘DH Hunter?’ the man asked. When he stood up, his hood rubbed against the top of the tent and made scratching noises when he moved. Ryan didn’t recognise the pale blue eyes, not deep at all but intriguing.
‘Thank you for coming,’ he said. ‘I’m Investigator Newborn.’ He pointed a finger at his left shoulder where the Forensic Piece would display his ID.
‘No Piece on,’ said Ryan, explaining why he couldn’t see Newborn’s ID. He tugged open the hood to show his left ear, freezing air pricked his scalp. ‘So, why did you need me out here at half-four in the morning?’
‘I tried to open some files,’ said Newborn, ‘but my requests for information were denied.’
That was it, thought Ryan. That was the mistake that brought him here.
‘Denied?’ asked Ryan. ‘You’re not the Lead on this case are you? Your Lead should be able to open all my old case files.’ Ryan stuck his head out of the plastic tent and looked at the Forensics. None of them were paying the slightest attention to him. He put his head back in. ‘So, where is your Lead?’
Newborn’s eyes dropped to the floor. ‘I… I don’t have one, sir,’ he said.
‘Come on,’ said Ryan. ‘Every case requires a Lead and a junior, and forgive me, but you don’t look like you have the experience to be a Lead just yet. How long has it been since you graduated from the Academy?’
‘Six weeks, sir,’ said Newborn.
‘Six weeks and Hodges has you out here in a BG warehouse on your own? Why is no one working with you?’ asked Ryan.
‘There was no one available, sir,’ said Newborn, raising his head.
‘No one available? How could there be no one –’ Ryan stopped when he saw the look on Newborn’s face. He recognised that look, he had seen it before on a much younger man. There were people available, plenty probably, but none who wanted to take Newborn. For some reason he was an outcast, a pariah in the Department.
Ryan sighed. ‘Well that’s unacceptable,’ he said. ‘Tomorrow I’ll speak to Hodges and we’ll sort something.’ He almost wished he hadn’t seen the similarities between Newborn and… Without a Lead there was no one here to ask Newborn the right questions, hone the Academy’s training. Ryan couldn’t leave him alone. ‘And for now, I’ll stay here till the cleaning crews arrive.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ said Newborn. ‘It’s not necessary. I have this under control.’
‘No you don’t,’ said Ryan. ‘An Investigator who calls out a Deputy Head to help him solve a murder does not have things under control. So, what was the case that you couldn’t open?’
‘It’s probably best if I show you,’ said Newborn, ‘if you don’t have a Piece.’
Ryan turned his attention to the body. Definitely male, he was on his front so his age was hard to determine; dressed in an tailored but dull suit; pin stripe, blue, slightly flared trousers; black hair was neatly slicked back, as shiny as his patent leather wingtip shoes. And he had been posed. His right arm was extended above his head and his left leg raised at the knee, it gave the impression he was trying to climb the floor.
A slab of fear slid into his stomach like a bucket of cold batter.
‘What did you find?’ he asked. He offered a silent prayer for an unexpected answer.
But Newborn moved precisely as Ryan thought he would. Newborn bent down near the dead man’s shoulders and hooked his finger under the man’s shirt collar. The suit and shirt crunched and cracked, frozen stiff from their time in this warehouse.
Four or five centimetres below the man’s neatly trimmed hairline was a wide, flat knife wound and just below that was a tattoo. Six dots arranged like the top of a die. Six dots?
Three thoughts ran through Ryan’s mind. He hoped he was wrong about the first and right about one of the others because if he wasn’t, he was in a lot of trouble.
‘So, can you help?’
‘Yes,’ said Ryan. Unfortunately he could be all the help Newborn would need and a lot more besides.
‘When I scanned this wound and tattoo,’ said Newborn, slicing through Ryan’s thoughts, ‘my requests for further information were denied, however, your name came up. Under Standard Operating Procedure forty three, crime scenes and additional vital information, it was necessary for me to call you here.’
‘There is a reason you can’t get the records,’ said Ryan. He bent down by the head of the body and felt under the man’s neck. The exit wound sliced neatly through the Adam’s apple. He tried to judge its size but his fingers were now so numb he could barely tell the difference between the man’s skin and his shirt. He’d had enough of this warehouse. Kimberly was right: he needed the thermal suit set to “Hottest”.
‘I was hoping you could unlock them for me, sir,’ said Newborn. ‘I should be able to take it from there.’
The sensible thing was to promise Newborn he’d unlock the files as soon as he arrived at Amherst. The sensible thing was to trust that he did the right thing a decade and half ago. That everyone did the right thing. But sensible and safe weren’t the same now.
‘I told you,’ said Ryan. ‘I’m staying till the cleaning crew arrive. Now come on, I’m starting to freeze in here. Let’s get out to the warm and we’ll talk.’
‘What about the body, sir?’ asked Newborn.
‘It’ll still be here when you come back,’ called Ryan, already half-way across the warehouse, as if the intervening fifteen years wasn’t enough distance between him and that body.

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