Chapter I




Less than ten hours before the dead woman’s body was pulled from the icy clutches of the East River, Detective Pete Shah sat watching hockey. Each time the New York Rangers surged forward in search of the goal that would take them into the Stanley Cup final, Shah stood up, his feet on the cross-struts of his stool’s legs, making him six inches taller. “Come on,” he growled, deep in his throat, ignoring his drink. “Come oooooon!” As the attack fizzled out, Shah slammed his palm down onto the antique stainless-steel bar in time with several hundred other fans. “Dammit!”

            The bar reeked of unwashed bodies and stale sweat. Its walls were lined with flock wallpaper and faux-mahogany smart surfacing that ate gum or any other material that didn’t move for more than sixty seconds. “That guy oughtta watch out,” the drinker queuing behind Shah’s stool nodded at a man resting his palm on the wallpaper. “People lean on it too long, it absorbs them.”

            “Urban myth,” Shah muttered. No one ever knew anyone it had happened to. In any event, the wallpaper was almost hidden by rows and columns of sports pictures, from antique black and white prints from the early twen-cen of men in ludicrously cut hockey uniforms, through color to the latest 3D of Kuntsler smacking a Red Sox pitcher almost out of the stadium. Most of the bar’s largely blue-collar clientele had, like Shah, come straight from the office, shop or worksite.

            Leaning on the bar, Shah sipped at a carbonated water and, sighing, shredded a toasted bagel while trying to ignore the grumbling of his stomach. It was dry, of course, and had no more flavor than the cardboard packaging that it had been served in that bore Matty’s logo. He’d spent most of his daily pittance, so to buy the coffee and meatballs whose aroma drifted by would eat into tomorrow’s pay. Unlike most of the kids who were raising a rumpus around him, he had neither the time nor the energy to supplement his calories by taking second and third jobs, so had to get by on the twenty-two hundred a day he earned. That the kids burned off all the calories they earned wouldn’t occur to them, but it turned up one corner of his lips.

            To take his mind off his hunger and the cardboardy bagel, he wiggled his butt to stop the stool’s central ridge from giving him hemorrhoids and dreamed of punching out the windbag on the next stool.

            Shah had wanted to watch without constant interruptions from social networkers and work calls, so he’d switched his eyepiece off. The guy next to him also stared at the screen, but kept talking – so his piece was switched on. He’d kept up a steady stream of snide comments about “East Coast putzers” all evening, until Shah wanted to slap his fat face and smash his – no doubt – fifty kilocalorie eyepiece. It looked like half a pair of antique spectacles from his left ear to the bridge of his nose, with a bud spiraling into his eardrum.

            The game resumed, and in the last seconds of normal time, the Rangers’ attack foundered, and the Islanders countered. Shah saw the Rangers’ defense-men look up at the clock as they entered damage time, the limbo between normal and overtime, and a hundred-twenty 3D screens and several hundred eyepieces showed the momentary lapse, and Jari Kaarinen jamming the puck into the net.

            Kaarinen’s arms went up in sync with the other players’, and as Shah closed his eyes in despair, the klaxon sounded, counterpointing groans from the other Rangers fans. Mixed with the groans were cheers from the few Islanders in the corner, who were watching the game in the enemy territory of Manhattan.

            Karl behind the bar shook his head sadly so that the beads in his hair danced. “Bad enough to lose,” he sympathized. “But to lose to the second best team in New York?” Shah had heard that Karl lived in Queens, and was sure that the barman made equally scathing comments about the Rangers to the Islanders fans.

            “Third,” Shah corrected him. “Rangers, Rangers Reserves, then the Islanders.” It was a feeble joke that couldn’t conceal his disappointment. The Rangers were out for another year.

            “Shee-it,” someone snarled behind him. “If they hadna chalked off Page’s goal, it wouldna gone to overtime anyways. We was robbed by the bastards that decided referees could add a little,” he lapsed into a soprano whine, “damage time.”

            Damage time, allowing the referees to add a few last seconds in their own judgment for any missed stop-clocks by the timekeepers, had proven a hugely controversial amendment, which had the NHL accountants rubbing their fat little hands with glee. Controversy was good for the box office, and Allah knew the NHL needed good box office.

            “Don’t matter anyway.” The windbag half-turned on his stool. His little exec carry-case leaned up against its base. “The Senators’ll kick the Islanders’ asses in the final.”

            Tension made the sudden silence almost crackle.

            Shah surreptitiously clicked his eyepiece online. You have five new messages, his eyepiece said via the insert into his ear. They would only be ads. “Delete all,” Shah whispered and flipped out his badge.

            NYPD hadn’t used badges for a generation – Shah had bought his online from a Chinese vendor. He’d bid the calorie equivalent of seven hundred new yuan, almost a year’s salary, but it bore the name of an Officer P Shah from the 1970s, so Shah thought it worth it, even though it was so heavy it sometimes felt as if he was carrying a brick in his pocket.

            The other men’s eyepieces would have identified Shah – his eyepiece was sending out the identifier of an off-duty cop, but the movement of flipping open the shield stopped the drunken local from lowering his forehead into the windbag’s face and he glowered at Shah.

            Shah stared at the windbag: Jean Drake. Shah’s eyepiece ran Drake’s data. Canadian, Shah read. No priors, a typical ten kilocalorie a day exec who thinks that ’cause he pays Supertax, the sun shines out his ass.

            Shah knew the other man. Owais Klass was a tattooed construction worker who, unlike Drake, had plenty of priors, most involving alcohol and violence. His tool-belt carried laser bradawl and sonic hammer, and more traditional tools like a monkey-wrench and screwdriver. Shah didn’t want to think what any one of those could do to Windbag’s skull. Nor the paperwork accruing from it.

            Klass was smeared with dry sweat and dust, and his eyes were glazed with too much drink while his nose-ring swayed in time with his body. “Why don’t you…” he slurred, “rack off back to where you belong, scumbag?”

            Drake blanched. He would be no match for Klass, so Shah interrupted, “Hey, Owais, easy.” 

            At one-eighty-three Shah was nowhere near as big as Klass, but his badge might make him a mite taller in the construction worker’s mind. Or it might make him a better target. Only one way to find out.

            “Come on, bud,” Shah said. “Bad enough to lose to them,” he jerked his thumb at the cavorting Islanders fans in the corner, “without a night in the cells for assault. Mr Otta-wah here will buy you a drink as an apology for mouthing off.”

            Otta-wah opened his mouth to protest and Shah, who had nudged his way between them, thrust his face into the other man’s rippling jowls. “Don’t even think about it,” Shah growled. “I’ve just had my retirement age raised today. A month away from getting my clock, and now I got another five years to do. Third time the bastards have screwed me. So right now I don’t give a shit if Owais rips your frigging arm off and beats you to death with it. Get me?” Otta-wah nodded. “Good.” Shah chuckled mirthlessly and pointed at Otta-wah’s maroon sleeve. “At least the blood wouldn’t show on your suit.” He added, “Now, just buy him the drink and frack off. Yeah?”

            “In this weather?” Otta-wah pointed at the window. The threatened tropical storm had passed Baltimore, and was headed their way. The rain that had been a drizzle thirty minutes earlier was bouncing ten centimeters off the pavement, and taxi-pods threaded their way between lake-sized puddles. The inevitable steam surged out from beneath a manhole cover, although it was nothing like the plumes Shah remembered from childhood.

            “Cab or hearse, Ottawah. Your choice. You got five minutes. Mouth shut ‘cept for ordering. Got it?”

            Otta-wah nodded again. “What’ll it be?” He croaked.

            “JD and coke. Large,” Owais said. Shah stifled a snigger. The calorie count on that would be high enough to tip Otta-wah into a purchase surcharge. Then again, the guy was fat enough that he probably ate five thousand calories a day, on top of what he bought his friends and family, so he could obviously afford it.

            At Otta-wah’s questioning eyebrow, Shah said, “Pepsi. Thanks.”

            “Least I can do.” Otta-wah looked away, avoiding eye contact.

            “You don’t wanna proper drink, bud – ah, officer?” Owais said.

            Shah shook his head. “Pepsi’s fine. It’s sweet enough to rot your teeth, so I couldn’t never normally afford it.” He didn’t mention that he was a Muslim, even halfway to being a lapsed one. In theory all Americans were brothers, but some New Yorkers had long memories and drunks like Owais were volatile.

            Owais took his glass and melted away like the ice would in the tumbler of Pepsi that Karl dumped onto the bar. “Thanks.” Shah lifted his glass to Otta-wah. “Now. The nearest subway’s a block away. Yeah?”

             Otta-wah took his card back from Karl, picked up his carry-case, and left with his chin as high as he could manage. Shah plonked himself back down on ‘his’ stool, drained his glass of water, and munched on some bagel. He stared at his Pepsi, watching the bubbles rise, and sipped it, holding the sweet liquid on his tongue.

            “That was neat.” Karl took the empty water glass. “I thought it was all going to face-off back then.” Shah grunted. Karl added, “Bad day?”

            Shah nodded a fraction but said nothing. He glimpsed a flash of maroon slide back onto the stool that Otta-wah had just vacated. He stared at his glass. If the jerk really couldn’t take the hint, Shah wasn’t going to protect him. Even if it meant a ton of paperwork.

            Karl had retreated to the washer, empty glasses in hand. “Same again?” he called.

            But instead of Otta-wah, a woman answered, “Water. Still. And whatever Officer Shah’s drinking.”

            Shah looked up, half-smiled. “Hi.” On the stool next to him, the maroon chador unfolded and a pair of very long legs stepped out of it; Shah had been fooled by the color into not looking. Assumptions that if you caught a rookie making at work, you’d rip ‘em a new windpipe.

            The chador’s wearer stood up and smiled down at Shah. While she shook her blonde curls loose, a ripple of silence spread outwards as the men around them noted her presence. “Get you a drink, Officer? A proper one?” She folded the chador in half, allowing the fabric’s electrostatic coating to shiver off the last droplets, then folded it again and again as delicately and precisely as a master of origami with a paper sculpture, until it was smaller than a handkerchief.

            Its color faded when she put it into a transparent holder. A mood suit, Shah realized. Normally they took their cues from their wearer’s emotions; if she could control it – and he couldn’t believe that its maroon tint, identical to Otta-wah’s, was coincidence – then she must be very good at channeling her emotions.

            Shah shook his head. “No thanks, Aurora.”

            “Come on,” she urged. “I’ve still got the remains of that cee-note burning a hole in my pocket.” She leaned close and whispered, “I told that doorman standing behind us like a graven idol that I was your guest. Don’t make me look even more a fool than I looked earlier on today.”

            “A graven idol, huh?” Shah raised an eyebrow. “I’d never have pegged Stevie as idle, graven or not.”

            “You wouldn’t?” Aurora grinned. “I think he looks very graven, especially when he folds those big arms like that.”

            Shah swiveled, beckoned the doorman. “Put her entrance fee on my tab, Stevie.”

            “Sure.” Stevie bowed to Aurora, who tilted her head almost imperceptibly in return, then returned to the door.

            Shah ran his eyes over the almost non-existent dress. “You got pockets in that?”

            She was half a head taller than him even without the seven centimeter stilettos she teetered on, and the body-belt that barely covered her from breast to crotch only accentuated her skinniness. Aurora locked eyes with his, then looked down. He followed her gaze to where she ostentatiously took several bills from her cleavage. “Harcourt says I’ll get my new ID card in the mail tomorrow morning. So I thought I’d celebrate by getting rid of this.” She looked around. “I thought it’d be busier. Isn’t there a game tonight?”

            “Was. We lost in damage time.”

            Her lips formed an “oh.” “Why don’t they go straight to extra time? Why damage time as well?”

            Shah shrugged. “Someone said it comes from brown-outs knocking the official clocks off-kilter, so they added a little on. Or that some official toured Europe, got the idea from some other sports. Thought a little unpredictability would spice things up.”

            Karl approached and seeing the notes Aurora proffered, his face darkened. “This isn’t a laundry,” Karl grated. “ID-supported cards only.”

            For the first time since they had met, Aurora’s composure deserted her. Her mouth opened and worked, but no words came out. She shook her head in bewilderment.” My card was stolen,” she implored. “I’m not trying to launder anything.”

            “Better drink somewhere else, then,” Karl closed his mouth so firmly his lips almost disappeared between sentences. “We aren’t running that kinda place. Card or nothing.”

            Shah proffered his card. “Allow me. Get the lady what she wants, Karl.”

            “Water,” Aurora said. 

            Shah knew she’d been planning something more expensive than the cheapest drink on the house. “Make it carbonated, at least,” he pleaded. Karl’s eyebrows lifted, but he went to fetch it. Shah stage-whispered, “He’s OK, generally, but if he takes against someone, he really takes against ‘em. Comprendez-vous?”

            “Oh, yes.” Aurora’s voice was barely a gasp. “Je comprend very, very much. The French for his kind of guy is jackass, I think.” She shut her eyes, bit her bottom lip. She looked down at the water pooling around her shoes, where the electrostatic coating had shivered it off. Finally she said, “Sorry. Your pay can’t run to subsidizing clueless companions.”

            “Hey, it’s OK. Don’t worry about it.”

            “No. I hate owing people anything. I thought I’d pay you back the loan. Instead you end up bailing me out for the second time.” She shook her head. “Bastard of a day.”

            “Tell me about it.” Shah waggled his now empty glass at Karl.

Chapter II

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