March 27th 2014
“No, no, no, no …” Yadav repeated, over and over, while scouring the vest for a med kit.
Blood dribbled from the corner of the shooter’s mouth, and gurgles surged from deep in his chest when he tried to talk. With a jerky pivot, he turned his head toward Yadav, pleading with his eyes.
“Hang on,” she begged. And though her fingers tore at the pockets, she knew there was nothing she could do.
The chase wasn’t supposed to go this way. Bile rose in her throat, and she had to consciously fight to keep it down. She tried being rational with herself — he’d tried to kill her. She couldn’t feel bad about defending herself.
But he was so young. From far away, with his black hood up, she’d been unable to gauge his age.
He couldn’t have been more than eighteen or nineteen.
She pulled out the sanitary wipes, but what good were they? Second-skin for burns was useless. But here, this — a stim. A hit might take the edge off dying. That is, if he could inhale anything.
She lit it anyway.
There was no interviewing him now. All she could do was wait for the light to go out.
She kept her thumb against his wrist, monitoring his pulse. The rhythm slowed with each beat. After the last thump, she waited a full minute before closing his eyes.
Then she unzipped his black jacket. She needed to give him a once-over before leaving. I’m not heading back to the hill before I know why you tried to kill me. He wore no shirt beneath, and his chest and arms bore an army of tattoos. Everything from a Banu profile, to two Cutlasses dogfighting, to a free-form poem adorned his skin. It all looked home-made. Some might have been self-applied.
Pushing up both sleeves, she examined his forearms. On the inside of his left wrist, in a similar placement to her press tattoo, was an abstract symbol that caught her eye. She’d seen the symbol somewhere before. Recently. It was the same as some of the graffiti — the ones she’d seen covering up other markings.
Was he a gang member?
Biting her lip, she re-opened his eyes, pulling back on the lids. Maybe he was just a crazed junky with no particular motivation to kill Yadav. A random shooter. Perhaps he just didn’t like her face.
But his eyes looked clear, as did his veins. He was, however, wearing an unusual contact.
Gently, so as to make sure it didn’t tear or pinch, she extracted it from his eye. A holographic image seemed to be imbedded in the lens.
Hygiene made her hesitate, but curiosity won out. She pulled down her lower lid and slid the contact over her right eye. Dry and scratchy, it forced her to blink repeatedly before the imbedded image came into focus. Her fingers itched to rub her socket, but she knew it would only make the irritation worse.
It was a map — but not a static map. A small, red dot blinked at the left of her vision, beckoning her. No matter which way she turned her head, the dot remained fixated on the same place in the distance.
Forgetting the body, she rose and stumbled in the direction of the blinking light. It led her only a few buildings away, to an abandoned three-story apartment complex with a giant hole through its center. She could see from the ground floor all the way up to the sky. This place had a funny smell — instead of the crusty scent of sun-baked earth, it had a chemical twinge. Something industrial had been through here recently, clean and new. Freshly acid washed, perhaps.
Embedded in one interior wall was a large, armored door. Thick, with heavy bolts. It reminded her of an old hotel vault.
“You look out of place,” she said, surprised to find such a thing. But, sure enough, the blinking red light settled in its dead center.
Had the shooter been leading her here all along? Was he supposed to stuff her body in there? Weird way to dispose of a kill, in her opinion. But what else could be inside? Why would he need a map to get here? What was it for?
Too many questions. She hated having so many questions in play. Sometimes she thought that was why she ferreted out answers — to silence all the uncertainties banging around in her head.
On the door, just below a barred handle, sat a scanner that looked to be Chimera Communications in origin. Clearly it controlled the locking mechanism. But what was the key? What kind of input was it looking for?
As a test, she placed her palm on the scanner’s glass face. Nothing happened. It looked too big for an eye scanner, but she leaned forward anyway, hoping the contact was both map and key. No go.
She glanced around for clues. Someone had to have been here before, used it before. Maybe they’d left something behind.
More rubble. More graffiti. Nothing out of the ordinary, except the damn door.
With a huff, Yadav sat down on a lopsided slab of what used to be a wall. Red and brown splotches stained her hands — a mixture of dirt and blood. The manic frenzy of adrenaline that had coursed through her during the chase was gone. Drained, physically and mentally spent, she didn’t move for several minutes. She simply stared at the door, hoping something would jump out at her.
Her mind wandered to Haddix. Maybe, when she got back to headquarters, she could track down his next of kin and … and what? The thought was foreign, strange. She’d never thought to seek out a dead colleague’s family before. But then again, she’d never had to shoulder the blame for a death.
Guilt was an unusual emotion for Yadav, unused for many years. It felt crusty, like sun-damaged leather. She lived without attachments, beholden to no person but herself and no entity save New United. Things were simple that way. People were the only true cause of tragedy. They dredged up all the rotten things in the world and left complicated, sickening emotions — hurt, anger, guilt, sorrow — in their wake.
People were complicated, but news stories were simple. She was a traditional kind of reporter. Just the facts. No spin, no tilt. Just who, what, where, when. Whys complicated things, got messy, and were always up for interpretation. She didn’t like interpretations — they skewed reality.
But this job didn’t feel straightforward. Haddix was dead, and that changed everything. His children would ask why, and she would have to give a reason, interpret the situation for them. Dry facts wouldn’t be enough.
She rubbed her hands against the edge of the slab, buffing off the spots. Sighing, she tilted her head to the side, attempting to get a new perspective on the gargantuan door. It presented a physical road block, but also seemed to represent a mental block. If she could break through, what would she find on the other side?
Her gaze was drawn once more to the blob of graffiti next to the door. It was another layered set, with a red emblem on top — the one that matched the shooter’s wrist tattoo.
She groaned as she put two-and-two together.
The tattoo was the key.
Dragging her feet, she reluctantly left the building and wound her way back to the body. It was still there, untouched, staked through by the iron rods.
How was she supposed to get his wrist from point A to point B?
Option one involved sliding his body up and off of the rods. The rebar was short — rising perhaps ten centimeters above her head. Doable, maybe, if she could find the strength. Option two was the simpler route, but it turned her stomach. If all she needed was his tattoo, why not just cut it off? Surely there was a knife in the vest.
Nope, option two was not happening. She’d already caused his death, she wasn’t going to desecrate his corpse, too.
Yadav positioned herself under his ribcage, and pushed up with her shoulder blades and back. Thick, sticky blood coiled down the iron poles like dark molasses. With her first attempt, he only rose half a meter. It took her four more tries to get him fully over her head, and a fifth to push him off and over.
He hit the dirt with a sickening thud.
She paused for a moment. Pursing her lips, she turned away from his prone form. Uh. The morbidity of the situation barreled down on her full-force. Her lungs stuttered with each breath, and she gagged twice before regaining her composure.
The distance from where he’d fallen to the building with the vault door had seemed short before. Maybe a few hundred meters. But now, hauling a limp body through uneven alleys, it felt like light years.
Finally she arrived back at the door. As the body drew near, the scanner came to life. It could sense the key.
Out of breath, her muscles aching, Yadav pulled one more burst of energy from deep in her gut. She hoisted the body up by one arm, and positioned the tattoo over the scanner. The door did the rest.
Mechanisms inside the walls groaned and squeaked. The bolts slid back with well-lubricated ease. Slowly, the door automatically swung outwards, forcing Yadav to pull the shooter’s body out of the way.
She wasn’t sure what she’d expected to find inside. More corpses? Guns? A secret stash of diamonds and rubies?
Whatever she’d imagined, it hadn’t been anywhere near the truth. On the other side of the door lay a spiral staircase. It snaked down, down, down into the darkness below the city.