Chapter V

The Assistant Medical Examiner looked as crappy as Harper felt. Maybe he got his ass hauled out of bed at some unearthly hour as well, Harper thought sourly.

            More likely the kid had spent the night sleeping on one of the slabs – he was probably only a couple of years out of college. No one with any seniority would work the early shift on a Saturday morning in this bleach-tainted icebox.

            The AME had ginger hair long enough to curl slightly and a patchy attempt at a beard. He pulled out a tray on which lay a shrouded body, his breath streaming on the chill late April air. “She was pulled from the East River down by Pier 18.” 

            Harper nodded. He knew the broad details, but there was always the chance that his earlier briefing from the 19 1/2 Pitt St. Murder Squad had omitted or distorted some vital point. The AME continued, “DNA traces match the records for a woman named Aurora Debonis, DOB October 23rd, 2023. Registered profession companion–”

            “A hooker?” Bennett was instantly silent at Harper’s warning frown.

            The AME took a few seconds to visibly pull together the torn skeins of his thoughts; “The height of 1.89 meters, and weight of 64 kilos matches the identity, though it’s hard to be sure since the face is smashed to a pulp, and the perp damaged her eyes enough to preclude a retinal match. The cuts have the pattern of something hard, and I’ve sent some traces of carat gold off to the crime lab.” He added, “We’re sure it’s her. But we need formal ID though it’s proving hard to find surviving family. Parents killed in a car crash when she was seventeen. No siblings.”

            “We’ll keep looking,” Bennett said.

            “Cause of death?” Harper said, keen to keep the briefing on track.

            “We can exclude death by drowning,” the AME said. “No fine white froth or foam in the airways or exuding from the mouth. The absence of water in the stomach suggests death prior to submersion.”

            “So she was dead before she hit the water?” Bennett said. A rumpled, weary-looking man, he was at the opposite end of his career from his partner, and it showed. The younger cop – Harper hadn’t caught his name – looked almost gleefully enthusiastic.

            “That’s what I said.”

            Bennett soothed, “Just being sure, Doc. Like to hazard a guess to the cause of death?”

             The AME frowned. “Broken hyloid indicates that she was strangled. Lack of traces beneath her nails, she didn’t put up a fight. If I can separate out the marks from beating against moored boats and the pier I may – just may – be able to confirm whether she was conscious when she died. But I doubt it. I think that she was strangled then dumped in the river.”

            Bennett shook his head. “All this for a hooker.” Bennett didn’t just mean the gathering for the prelim findings, but Harper’s presence as well.

            The AME snapped, “Ms Debonis had a Batchelor’s Degree in Psychology, and a Masters in Asiatic studies–”

            “A what?” Bennett barked.

            “Asiatic Studies,” the AME repeated. “It’s a mix of massage, philosophy, acupuncture, eastern religions and several martial arts.”

            “You mean she was studying Pan-Islamist and Pan-Asian shit?” Harper could almost see Bennett’s pointy little nose quivering at the thought of a political motive.

            Yeah, wouldn’t you just love to palm it over onto the FBI, bud? Harper thought. “How long has she been in the water?” Harper said. The younger cop frowned at the interruption, but Bennett looked unperturbed. Nothing perturbed Bennett, Harper guessed.

            The AME said, “We think she went in sometime about five this morning, but water makes it hard to tell. Death was up to an hour earlier.”

            Harper motioned Bennett away with his head, and the old cop followed him, the younger one in tow. “I’ll take this one on now,” Harper said.

            “But–” the young one said.

            Bennett stopped him with a gesture. “No use complaining. The AME confirmed her ID within two hours of her being found. We traced her movements last night via a cab her doorman called for her, to Manny’s Sports Bar. The bar-help weren’t very happy being routed out at first light, but tough. When he said that someone matching her description in the bar was with a cop, it becomes an IA affair.” Bennett looked even more tired than usual. “I’ve known Pete Shah longer than you been breathing, and he’s a good man. Do what you have to do. He may be innocent.”

            “Let me get this right…” Harper stopped. “Her eyepiece – where is it?”

            “We can’t find one,” younger cop said. “When we checked on the files, she reported it missing yesterday. Shah filed the report, a replacement was on order.”

            Harper frowned. “Is that usual? A plain clothes filing a missing piece report?” Any little fact could be crucial, one way or the other. He hoped that Shah was innocent, but experience told him otherwise.

            “Unusual,” Bennett allowed. “But not unheard of.”

            “OK.” Harper let out a long sigh. “You’ve brought him in already?”

            Bennett nodded. “Soon as the barman confirmed they left together. We’re questioning the cabbies who were on-shift early this morning, but you know how it is – there are thousands who might’ve been there, and interviewing them will take time. Shah was due on shift about now, but we thought it better not to wait. Same time we called you in, we sent in a SWAT team who rousted him out ten minutes ago.”

            “That was nice for him,” Harper said dryly.

Walking from the Medical Center to One Police Plaza would take too long, Harper decided, so he rode the subway. Normally he would have pedaled himself a discount aboard one of the cycles in the carriages, but he told himself that today’s token gesture in off-setting consumption was secondary to the job. He didn’t want to arrive sweating, to grill a senior cop. Even if that seniority were age rather than rank.

            He frowned. What kind of cop is the lowest rank of plain-clothes at what, retirement age? He called up Shah’s records on his eyepiece, and whistled silently. Yesterday he was told his retirements been deferred? So what was this, rage?

            He counseled himself against making too many assumptions. As the last known person to see her alive, of course Shah was prime suspect, but he wasn’t automatically guilty. The girl might have met someone else on her way home, and ended up in the river at their hands. But Harper replayed Bennett’s interview with the barman, uploaded via Bennett’s eyepiece, and the barman had stressed how friendly they’d seemed when they left the bar. “The old guy – Shah – he staggered once, when he stood up. You know, like old guys do sometimes when they get to their feet. She put her arm around him, and they left that way.”

            As Harper climbed the steps up from the station, Bennett called. “We just found an eyepiece down by the river near the ferry terminal – right where we predicted the body went in.” Modeling the river currents wasn’t always a completely exact science, but it seemed to have paid off on this occasion.

            “Is it Shah’s?”

            “Serial number on the frame matches. But it’s been trodden on pretty bad. It’ll take the CSU a couple of hours to reconstruct it. They’ve already taken it over to 1PP.”

            “What about the spousal interviews?”

            Bennett had told Harper as he left the morgue that detectives were interviewing Shah’s wife and co-husband. “They share her, apparently,” Bennett had said. “She ain’t much to look at, but she must have something to get them both to go halves.”

            “Still ongoing,” Bennett said. “Anything else you need from us?”

            Harper thought for a few seconds. He didn’t mind using Bennett to do the legwork, but it was now clearly an IA case – until Shah could be charged or excluded. “No. Not until those interviews are filed. But thanks. I appreciate it.”

            “No problem.” Bennett cut the line.

            Harper could guess what Bennett was saying to his partner when he ended the call, but he tried to put it out of his mind. He considered himself a decent, hardworking cop. He didn’t see why his manner should be held against him, nor his reluctance to mix with people who might be colleagues one day and suspects the next. The first and only time Harper complained about the regular cop’s slurs, his supervisor had only shrugged and said, “You should grow a thicker skin, or get out and mix with them.” But that wasn’t Harper’s style. He’d heard the nicknames: The Monk and The Robot were the only two he could tell his wife about.

            It was a short walk to Police Plaza and the late April sunshine crept between the buildings, lifting Harper’s spirits as he strolled. 

            One of the few pleasant side-effects of the Dieback – when the downward curve of the effects of antibiotics on viruses crossed with the upward curve of international travel –was that New York wasn’t as crowded as in his youth. But even on a Saturday morning the streets were thronged with people on their way to a late start, out shopping in Chinatown, or just breakfasting. New York, thought Harper with a surge of local pride. Still nowhere like it – even if the world is going to hell in a shopping trolley, he mentally added as he skidded on something squidgy beneath his shoe.

            He sniffed at the waft of stir-fry hanging on the breeze – soy, garlic, ginger and coriander, and debated whether to stop and snatch breakfast, but decided against it. If he didn’t eat, he wouldn’t have to exercise, thus saving calories.

            As he was fighting his hunger, he heard a drone, and the weekly UN patrol flew overhead on its way out of the city down to Washington, the copters’ blades clattering, almost ultrasonic in the morning air. The pretzel man nearest him muttered, “Freakin’ you-enn! They should stuff off back to Beijing and Mumbai, and take their meters and kilograms with ’em! We don’t need ’em here!” He spat on the sidewalk, and Harper, his appetite suddenly gone, turned and walked on.

            Too soon he was climbing the steps to the ugly monolith that housed as many of the NYPD’s centralized departments as they could cram into it before protests stopped further expansion a generation before.

            Harper submitted to the retinal scans, fingerprints, DNA traces, and random memory download identifications – sometimes he could reach the ninth floor with no memory of going through them – and headed for his office. As he left the elevator, the downloaded interviews arrived, and he watched them while walking to his office – using his free eye to keep him from stumbling into anything.

            The interviews yielded nothing. Neither Leslyn Calea-Shah-McCoy nor Doug McCoy had seen or heard anything. They’d been asleep when the third member of their household brought home his latest friend.

            Harper didn’t believe a word of their wide-eyed innocence.

            Powell was waiting for him there, Harper’s slouching bear-like supervisor perched on the edge of his desk, foot swinging idly. “Morning,” Powell said, apparently blasé about IA lodging one of NYPD’s finest in an interview room along the corridor. 

            Harper wasn’t fooled for a moment. “I’m dropping everything else. I figure complaints from Joe Public can wait while a capital crime’s investigated.”

            Powell nodded assent and while he tried to look as unconcerned as ever, Harper noted the slight lifting of the other man’s shoulders. “You need anything, you tell me,” Powell said. “I’ll have Wong handle the media briefing. We’ll keep it vague for as long as we can, but someone’s already talked to the Times.”  

            “OK.” Harper wondered whether to wait for the eyepiece to be reconstructed.

            Powell seemed to realize his thoughts were elsewhere. “I’ll leave you to get on,” he said amiably, as if it were just a social visit or they’d run into one another by accident.

            Both men’s eyepieces chimed simultaneously. “Priority incoming call” Harper read, and frowned in puzzlement.

            “Damn,” Powell said. “It’s the commissioner.”

            A grey, sour-looking woman appeared split screen with two men. Both looked Indian or Pakistani. The older one – Abhijit Kotian, he read, Born– he cut it off with a curt, muttered, “Name only” – looked like a stereotypical Bollywood Prince. Harper wondered how much his good looks were down to nature, how much to sculpting.

            Kotian’s son, Sunny, would have been even better looking if it weren’t for the sneering frown, so severe that it really was off-putting. Harper wondered at the tensions that produced so affable a father and so petulant a son.   

            He realized that the commissioner was talking. “Clearly this is an internal investigation, Mr Kotian, but we appreciate that if our initial identification is correct, then you’ve lost a good friend, which is why we’ve taken the unusual step of reaching out to Captain Powell, and copying his operative, so that they know of your concern. Captain Powell will brief you each day at midday, starting tomorrow, without breaching any confidentiality.”

            “I appreciate that, commissioner,” Kotian continued to look bland, but there was a hardness visible now that Harper suspected he seldom revealed. “You’ll appreciate our concern. The man Shah has been particularly zealous about investigating us–”

            “Obsessive, more like,” Sunny said.

            “Sun-il,” Kotian said and the boy shut up instantly. Though he looked furious, Harper glimpsed a flash of fear and wondered just how amiable Kotian was in private. “As I said at the start, I just want you to satisfy me that if it is the same officer under suspicion, as gossip suggests, and if it is Aurora, that it’s merely an unfortunate coincidence, and not part of a vendetta.”

            “We’ll make sure that we answer all your concerns, Mr Kotian,” the commissioner said.

            When the call ended Harper said, “How much does that guy pay into City Hall for that kind of ass-kissing from the commissioner?”

            “Tut,” Powell said. He added, “Ignore it. I’ll speak to the commissioner and make sure you’re not dragged into this again. Keeping goons like Kotian happy is my job. Yours is to find the truth.”

            Easier said than done, Harper thought, but said nothing.

            When he’d gone Harper checked himself in the mirror, finger-combing a rogue red hair that had strayed a millimeter out of line, and repeating the process on his tight-trimmed beard. He straightened his tie and closed his eyes, visualizing the coming interview, breathing deeply. OK. Let’s get to it. He’d already read Shah’s personnel file on the way over via his eyepiece, knew his history: almost fifty years on the force, he’d volunteered straight after university, barely weeks before 9/11, and the shockwaves rippling out from the event that had changed everyone’s world .

            Harper walked down the corridor, thinking of Shah’s rise through the ranks. Steady, rather than meteoric, until he’d found a niche. No one it seemed was quite as good as Shah at reading memories. How does that feel? Harper wondered. To be so good at one particular job? Does he feel he’s indispensable? Does he feel he’s been sidelined by his own talent? Because he has. Too good to promote for the sake of seniority, not quite good enough to get it on merit, watching younger guys come and pass him by. Like me; he’ll probably resent me. So be it.

            Harper realized that he was already building a case against Shah, looking for motivations. Stop it; remember, innocent until proven guilty.

            He opened the door to the interview room and noted with disappointment that another man sat beside Shah. Even if Harper hadn’t already known Alonso, everything about the man shouted legal representation – the ceiling lights gleamed off black slip-on shoes, the creases in his suit would damn-near slice a man’s thumb open, and his haircut bragged “expensive”.

            “Officer Harper.” Alonso inclined his chin a fraction in response to Harper’s “Good morning” and recitation of the date and time and those present. “I must protest this heavy-handed assault on my client’s home–”

            “Save it for the court,” Harper growled. “It’s a capital crime, we already have an instance of evidence tampering, and we’re taking no risks.”

            “What evidence?” Alonso said.

            “Missing an eyepiece?” Harper asked Shah.

            “You tell me. I had no time to look for anything before my door flew off its hinges.”

            “What happened to your hand?” Harper said, pointing to swollen knuckles and bruises. He liked to think that he could read people, and Shah’s puzzled frown looked genuine as the cop studied his battered right hand. “Want us to treat it?”

            Shah glanced at Alonso and shook his head. “My client exercises his right not to reply,” Alonso said. “And we’ll get it treated at the nearest ER.”

            “Your client isn’t going anywhere,” Harper said. “We have the body of a dead woman pulled from the East River this morning, identified as Aurora Debonis, companion, last seen being companionable with Officer Shah as they left Manny’s Sports Bar just after midnight.”

            Alonso laughed. “And that’s it? You have no motive, no witnesses beyond them getting a cab home last night, nothing to link them.”

            Harper nodded at Shah’s right hand again. “I’d bet you a week’s wages that we’d find cross-contamination on those knuckles.”

            Shah shrugged. Alonso shook his head. “Circumstantial. Show us one piece of proof.”

            Harper’s eyepiece beeped. He’d switched it off, but left an alarm on to alert him of urgent calls. He held up a finger to Alonso to say “wait”, and took the call. “Yeah?”

            “I’ve rebuilt as much as I can of his eyepiece,” CSI Moriarty said without preamble. Like many of her peers, Moriarty’s social skills were almost non-existent. “It’s been doctored to prevent full access to its memory–”

            “Hold on. Doctored beyond simply being trodden on, or whatever?”

            “Exactly! It’s an erasure program almost five years old. Bit of a botch job.”

            “Enough,” Harper said. “What’s on it? Anything relevant?”

            “See for yourself.” Moriarty’s image in Harper’s eyepiece was replaced by near-total darkness. Harper heard the sound of heavy breathing, whispers and giggles. At least he took it off when he went to bed, Harper thought. Even if he did leave it running. It could have been worse; often people filmed their dates in too-candid detail. Home-porn was still the biggest presence on the interweb.

            The eyepiece blanked and static scrambled the scene. Then Harper heard a man yell, and the bedside light came on to illuminate Shah and a blonde woman whom Harper guessed was Aurora. The picture kept jumping.

            Shah seemed to teleport across the room, watched by a horrified Aurora. Shah wasn’t teleporting; the jumps were where parts of the rebuilt eyepiece testimony were missing.

            Shah swung an uppercut into Aurora’s nose; blood spattered the room, a few drops part-occluding the eyepiece’s tiny camera lens. The picture went, but Harper heard the soft, wet thuds of Shah’s fists on Aurora’s face, her cries of “No, please! Stop it!” and Shah’s wordless grunts and soft sobs. The picture returned as Aurora tried to turn away, but unable to dodge the swing of Shah’s roundhouse uppercut, Harper heard the crunch of bone on bone. Her head snapped back and she slumped off the edge of the bed.

            “Get out!” Shah roared as he drew back his foot to kick Aurora as she lay prone and sobbed. “Get out you filthy–” and the picture cut out again.

            Harper felt sick. He sent the footage to Bennett and added a voice-tag: “Re-interview Calea and McCoy, see if they want to change their testimony. There’s no way that they could have slept through the noise of that beating. Remind them that they could be charged with obstruction of justice.”

            Alonso tutted. “Resorting to threats already, Officer?”

            “Let’s see how funny you think this is.” Harper replayed the footage on a wall-screen, and Shah and Aurora’s amplified gasps in the darkness echoed across the interview room. He watched Shah. The older cop’s face turned ashen and he refused to meet Harper’s gaze. But as the footage jumped, Shah’s shame gave way to puzzlement, then to relief. Shah was hiding something, but damned if Harper could work out what.

            “That all you got?” Shah said. “Sure, I roughed it up some, but – she was alive when she left.” Alonso held up a hand, but Shah said to his counsel, “Nah, it’s OK. Look, she wanted to do some kinky stuff – rimming she called it – then French kiss afterwards. No way was I going to kiss a tongue that’s been up my ass. So I threw her out.”

            Harper didn’t believe for a nanosecond that that was all there was to it. The violence of Shah’s reaction had been far, far too extreme for an old guy confronted with kinky sex. What the hell did he expect anyway, sleeping with a whore? Judging by the closed look on Shah’s face, he must have spoken aloud or allowed his feelings to show.

            “Anyway.” Harper tried to recover the momentum. “We’ll talk to your wife and husband again. I’m interested to hear what they got to say about what we seen there.”

            “They’ll have nothing to say,” Shah said. “They’ll have heard nothing. We got the whole damn top floor of the apartment – we could have had a freaking party on our side of it, and they’d have heard nothing. You can bully ‘em all you want, but short of making something up to get rid of you, that’s all they’d have heard. And if you do bully ‘em into a fake confession it’ll come out.”

            Harper produced a small box about twenty centimeters by fifteen, by two and a half high. “I assume that you know what this is?” 

            “Oh come on,” Shah replied. “What is this? You basing your interview technique on old flat-screen dramas? Of course I know what it is. I spend most of my life investigating the consequences of using a ripper.” He pitched his voice into a parody, “It’s a Deep Cranial Memory Copying Probe, Officer.”

            “Be as sarcastic as you want,” Harper said. “It was found near where we calculate the body went in. It has your prints on it. How do you account for it, Officer?”

            Shah shrugged. “I’d like my representative to answer all further questions.”

Chapter VI

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