by Shaunn Grulkowski
“What do you suppose it means?”
“Well, it’s a skeleton, Sal. Wh—”
“What’d I say?”
“You said ‘Sal’, like Salad. It’s Sol. Like Solomon.”
Sol, definitely not Sal, bent down on one knee, directly into a puddle of new rain, old liquor, and, probably-but-not-assuredly party cum; he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a brand-new holocorder. He fumbled it around in his hands, looking for the passive recording button. He’d meant to read the directions prior to bringing it to an investigation; but in the Sol Steinmetz “Planned vs Executed Heavyweight Title Fight,” Planned was ahead on all three judges scorecards, winning five rounds ten to eight. In a respectable city, like Vegas, they’d have stopped the fight years ago, but this was Baltimore, and all they cared about here was blood.
“Oh, gimme the fucking thing, already.” Lieutenant Louise Lloyd snatched the device from him, set it, and placed it on a dry spot on the pavement. The recorder made a faint hum as rotating green waves spun from the top, capturing the surroundings in real time. Not only was the device new to Sol, but it was new to earth, this generation of recorder making the nearly unobtrusive noise, where its predecessors sounded much more like a small child kicking the wall of an aluminum shed.
“Thanks, Lou,” Sol said, shaking his head. Drops of water flung gently from the brim of his hat. “Man, you know, I remember when you just took pictures with a phone. Now,” he waved vaguely in the direction of the recorder, his hand breaking through one of the beams. “Now, well—”
“Yeah, the future’s a weird place, Grandpa. Are you going to be done soon? I’d like to get back to the real investigation.”
“Oh, don’t mind me. Just go ahead an-”
Lieutenant Lloyd clasped his shoulder with a grip that Sol thought was quite a bit tighter than her slight frame would produce. He wondered if she had some after-market appendages, but it was hard to tell with the long-sleeved tunics and gloves the federal police wore.
“See, Prox, I do mind. I mind a lot. Just poke around, take your ‘corder; and let me shut it off for you, because you don’t want to sift through for hours of footage of the inside of your jacket pocket, and Fuck. Right. Off.”
“Why so testy, Lou? We’re doing the same job.”
A much larger woman in a Fedcop uniform, complete with riot helmet and obscurer slid next to the Lieutenant. She bent down and whispered something in Louise’s ear. Sol couldn’t make it out, but noticed the hisses and clicks that indicated a voice masker in use. She didn’t want to be identified, and Sol had a pretty good idea why. He took two noticeable steps backward. Luckily for him, Louise just shook her head, and the larger woman walked back towards the rest of the battalion, congregating around a few of the parked cruisers.
“We’re not doing the same job. I’m an actual, highly-trained, Federal Police Officer. A lieutenant, soon to be captain, hopefully; so I can get out from under the crushing weight of that stupid fucking alliteration. You,” she jabbed the air between them with an index finger, “you are a tired, old, bottom-feeding Police Proxy.” She wrinkled her nose and scowled. “I don’t know why the City would even waste the money to hire you.”
“Cities are broke, and proxies don’t cost much. And they don’t pay us benefits. You get plugged, and it’s a payout to your beneficiaries, big extravagant funeral, all that bullshit. I catch a hot one? Torched in a municipal building, ashes sent to whomever is listed as next-of-kin, in a blank plastic container, by the same courier that delivers their lunch. I don’t even get the privilege of having my two-oh-five rotting together like this poor asshole.”
“Two oh five?”
“There’s two hundred and six bones in an adult body, Prox.”
“Normally, but he’s missing his head, so”
The lieutenant cut him off. “Wait. Do you think the skull is just one big bone?”
“Yeah, of course” he paused. “Well, besides teeth, I guess. But they’re not really bones.”
“Jee-sus. You’re really a dumb old fuck, aren’t you?” She snorted. “There’s twenty-t–”
“Yeah, says who?”
Sol walked closer to the skeleton. He noticed a couple of Fedcops take a step toward him, but they stopped as soon as they started. He looked back over his shoulder and saw the lieutenant with one hand up, the universal sign for “stay there.” He shrugged, assuming that the signal was meant for them, not him, and knelt down next to the skeleton. He’d seen bodies, too many, before; out in the road, like this, like an old couch, used and discarded. But this, this was different. Purposeful. A message? That was his first thought. A skeleton, not a body. Organs gone. Cleaned of viscera, mostly, anyway. Bits of this and that still clung to the bones, but not enough to suggest the party responsible was in any kind of rush; more like dusting around AV equipment. You can do as good a job as you like, but some always clings. Sol figured the same must go for blood and tendons too. He looked around the immediate area. The Inner Harbor was a busy place, but the cold and the rain kept people inside, and four-thirty a.m. wasn’t quite prime time on the best days. He noticed a few public surveillance cameras. But the city’s financial situation being what it was, the chance that any of them actually worked was a coin-toss at best. Besides, the city government wasn’t generally interested in a thorough (read: expensive) investigation, anyway. A quick arrest and prosecution was always preferred. Anything to keep the Fedcops out, really. And while it wasn’t that the city necessarily preferred that the subject got killed during the apprehension; but hey, shit did happen, and any lightening of the docket was a welcome one.
Sol tried to avoid that. But shit did indeed happen.
He leaned in close, looking for something, anything, that would point in a direction, besides the skeleton’s left pointer finger, which was aimed directly at a chicken-wing joint that everyone knew was an autobrothel. He shrugged his shoulders, about to pack it in, when he noticed that
“This thing’s blinking.”
“The skeleton! It’s fucking blinking,” he shouted. “Well, I mean, the skeleton’s not actually blinking! There’s something…in its ribc-”
“Step away from it” Lloyd shouted back.
“Hang on a s-”
Not wanting to start an argument that had a high probability of ending with any of the twenty-whatever bones in his skull getting perforated, he dutifully got up and lightly jogged the thirty-or-so feet to the Lieutenant’s position.
“Alright. You stay here,” she said. Sol could hear her posture tightening through her terse bark. She double-tapped the side of her jaw. “Morrell, Robeson! Get to that body and see if there’s a light source coming from it.”
Two of the Fedcops sprang into action, taking huge, synchronous strides until they reached the skeleton. Sol saw one of them bend at the waist. He saw them reach a hand toward the skeleton, but before he could open his mouth, Louise screamed.
“Robeson! Don-” was all she managed as a blast of what they would later determine was a newly engineered form of white phosphorus ignited both of the Fedcops, burning through their tactical suits like oily newspaper. Sol saw the Lieutenant violently slapping at her jaw; at first he thought she was trying to cure herself of shock, but realized almost immediately that it was something far more horrible.
She was trying to shut-off her cochlear communications rig, because the sounds of Morrell and Robeson’s screams were broadcast directly into her inner ear as her subordinates melted away. By the time one of the remaining Fedcops got it together enough to through a halon grenade into the fire, it was a million miles past way too late. The phosphorus burned their clothes, gear, skin, and muscle, all clear down to the bone, leaving a two-headed, three skeleton dog pile, with two riot helmets rolling around like a couple of black moons. The smell was too much for a few of the Fedcops to bear, and they evacuated their dinners into the Chesapeake Bay.
Sol put both of his hands over his nose and mouth; it looked like he was praying, but he was just trying to avoid being a part of the puke chorus. Lieutenant Lloyd said and did nothing, unless you count standing with your mouth agape as “doing something.” Just as he confirmed with his guts that they were going to stay where they were, Sol noticed something out of the corner of his eye. At first, he thought it was a big dog. Then it stood, and started moving toward them. Fast. The Fedcops were still in recovery-mode, and facing in the wrong direction. Lloyd noticed a second later, and yelled “stop!” The figure did not stop. It continued to run toward them. But, just to make it more interesting, it also started shooting. Lloyd instinctively reached for her sidearm, forgetting that she’d left it in her cruiser; in a rush to see what Sol was up to. She darted toward her car, but she knew she’d never make it in time. BANG! A bullet screamed its way into her shoulder. She gritted her teeth, and kept running, waiting for the inevitable–
Lloyd dropped to the ground, knowing she was dead, but fairly surprised that the afterlife looked exactly like dawn breaking over downtown Baltimore. And Saint Peter looked an awful lot like Sol Steinmetz holding a smoking, antique .45 caliber pistol.
“You alright, kiddo?” Saint Peter asked.
“I’m fine, I said.”
He shrugged his shoulders, unintentionally mocking her. As the Fedcops rushed over to their fallen commander, Sol walked over to the writhing body of their attacker, leaned in close, nodded his head, then
He put his old-man gun back in its old-man shoulder holster and went back to check on Louise.
“Are you o-”
“What was that about? Did he say anything to you?”
“She wasn’t going to make it. I didn’t want her to suffer, so I-”
Louise darted her hand out to shush him, forgetting about the slug making its home in her trapezius. “I don’t give a shit about that,” she grunted. “Did she say anything?”
“Yeah. She said, ‘this is for the Glasslands.’”
“What the fuck does that have to do with anything?”
“I don’t know. But I have the feeling I’m going to find out.”
“This is going to be way more complicated than I hoped. Ow, fuck!” She yelled, as one of her people attempted to bandage her shoulder.
“They always are.”
Shaunn Grulkowski is the creator of Retcontinuum, several published short stories, and a perpetually annoyed wife.