Freelancing for the Atlanta PD isn’t exactly a secure career; my job’s been on the line almost as much as my life. But it’s a paycheck, and it keeps me from falling back into the drug habit. Plus, things are looking up with my sometimes-partner, Cherabino, even if she is still simmering over the telepathic Link I created by accident.
When my ex, Kara, shows up begging for my help, I find myself heading to the last place I ever expected to set foot in again—Guild headquarters—to investigate the death of her uncle. Joining that group was a bad idea the first time. Going back when I’m unwanted is downright dangerous.
Luckily, the Guild needs me more than they’re willing to admit. Kara’s uncle was acting strange before he died—crazy strange. In fact, his madness seems to be slowly spreading through the Guild. And when an army of powerful telepaths loses their marbles, suddenly it’s a game of life or death.…
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Lying in a society of telepaths was possible, but just barely. The key was not to think about the lie at all—something akin to spinning a plate on top of your head while standing on one foot and reciting multiplication tables—or to lie to yourself first, and often. The frightening thing was how often someone got away with it. The even more frightening thing was that lying well—and being caught at it—seemed to give a certain cache to the telepath involved, and more often than not came with job offers.
In the world of the normals this was also true, though lying wasn’t as hard if you didn’t have to do it mind-to-mind. Politicians seemed to get reelected more readily after a good lie, bureaucrats seemed to thrive on them, and in my job, contractor interrogator for the DeKalb County Police Department, a good lie to a suspect would get you anything you wanted. I was learning to lie well to the suspects. The trouble was, nearly everyone I met these days was suspect in one way or another.
Homicide detective Isabella Cherabino stuck her head in the door. “We have a murder, Adam.”
“Oh, goody,” I replied.
She looked at me.
“You realize I’m in the middle of an interview,” I said. I helped her out on murder cases, but I was technically employed as an interviewer. The interview rooms were supposed to come first.
“You have ten minutes,” she said, and closed the door behind her as she left.
I turned back to the suspect, a thirty-something housewife accused of auto theft. “You know, I’m a Level Eight Guild–trained telepath,” I said conversationally.
Exactly nine minutes later, she had just finished explaining how she subverted the cars’ antigravity engine lock systems, and how none of the crew she used appreciated her. I made all the right noises, and she finished the confession with times and dates. Finally she looked up with bloodshot eyes and asked me quietly, “Do you think I need a lawyer?”
“I certainly don’t know what to think,” I said, the standard answer. I went to find a police officer to go sit with her. The empty spot in the room behind me, the spot that would have been Officer Bellury’s if he were still alive, seemed to echo. Not only did I need another person to do paperwork if I wasn’t going to be here, but it would be nice to have a witness who could testify in court. I was a convicted ex-felon (drug charges only, and more than three years clean out of rehab), and while a video of a confession would hold in court regardless of the interrogator, I certainly couldn’t testify. Credibility and all that. Besides, any day that I spent with Cherabino was a good day. I even liked helping with the murders.
One of the secretaries found me on the way out and handed me a message slip.
Kara, it read. Call Kara Chenoa immediately. Emergency.
“Immediately” was underlined three times.
Kara had been my fiancée once upon a time, well, until she’d reported me to the Guild for the drug habit that had gotten me kicked out more than ten years ago. These days we were on decent terms—well, when I didn’t think too hard about the past. She had moved up in the Guild since we’d been together, to the position of attaché to the city, and she helped me with the occasional case I needed Guild information from. In exchange I tried not to resent her new job and new husband. Kara wasn’t given to hysterics. If she said emergency, it was.
“Are you coming or not?” Cherabino asked, literally tapping her foot in impatience.
“Yeah,” I said distantly. “I’m going to need a phone.”
“I need to get to the crime scene before Bransen docks me for overtime for the forensics techs. There will be a pay phone close by. After you do your reading mumbo jumbo.”
My attention turned back to her. “It’s highly delicate, trained analysis of what the victim left behind in Mindspace, not mumbo jumbo.”
“Don’t be touchy.”
I made a frustrated sound and trotted after her. She was in one of her moods, clearly.
Cherabino hustled down the main floor of the DeKalb County Police Department, the secretaries busy in the large pool to the left, the suspects screaming in a long line in front of Booking to the right, citizens waiting in front of Reception to the front, near the doors she was headed to. The ordered chaos was home. This job, even with all the stress and the budget cuts, was part of what kept me sane and on the wagon. It helped that they refused to give me pay directly, so I had nothing to buy my drug with.
“Where’s Michael?” I asked. Michael was a wiry Korean guy with a calm personality and a close-cut haircut, a new detective she’d promoted up out of uniforms when he’d helped with a case. He’d proven invaluable, even if he and I had tension sometimes. He was just so . . . nice. I didn’t know what to do with nice.
Cherabino held the door for me. “He’s getting the car.” In that moment, I got a whiff of impatience along the mental Link between us. I’d established a bridge between our minds by accident during an earlier case, and she still wasn’t quite comfortable with it. In fact, she wanted it gone as quickly as possible, and told me so. Often.
“What?” she asked, as I stood there too long.
Michael landed the car up to the front of the station with a small squeal of an abused anti-grav system. Cherabino’s method of driving must be wearing off on him; he used to be a great deal safer.
Moving quickly to get out of the cold November wind, we piled in the car, Cherabino in the front, me exiled to the back with the fast food wrappers.
Cherabino shielded mentally, using the technique I’d shown her to block me out of her mind, long rows of bricks going up between us. But she left one little brick unset, so I could still feel the edge of her presence like a dim beam of light landing on the floor of my mind.
I held on to that light like a lifeline. It hadn’t been so long ago that I had felt nothing but her mind over the Link; I’d injured my mind in a life-and-death confrontation with a suspect, and it had taken a couple of months to heal fully. That is, if it was, in fact, fully healed.
I put my seat belt on. Michael flipped the sirens on and accelerated. He obeyed most traffic laws most of the time, and had lights and sirens on when he did not. I’d only feared for my life once total when he was driving, and that hadn’t been strictly his fault.
To distract myself—a pillar of strategy in the Twelve Steps—I asked Michael, “What do we know about the victim?” He was still connected to his old network as a beat cop; plus he had a knack for research and detail that wouldn’t quit. If there was something to be known at this stage, he would know it.
Also, I added, “Thanks for driving.”
“Just a second.” Michael cut through smaller city streets, found a skylane entrance—an actual official entrance—and squeezed around a car stopped to let him by. He settled into the upper, mostly empty, skylane with plenty of room to spare for the floating anti-grav markers, and only then started to talk.
“Victim is Noah Wright, a sixty-seven-year-old white male, unemployed, found at home. First officer on the scene indicates extreme violence.”
“Blunt force trauma? Gun?” Cherabino asked. “What is ‘extreme violence’ exactly?”
I sighed. I hated the messy scenes.
“Officer at the scene indicates a small fire ax found on-site and no further details. I’m betting the violence was with the ax or she wouldn’t have mentioned it. The ME is running late, so we’ll likely have to make the initial call.”
Cherabino huffed. “Why call for a senior detective?”
“The lieutenant didn’t tell me,” Michael said. “It could be the violence level.”
They talked about that for a minute, and Cherabino asked another question about the scene.
“We’re here,” Cherabino said.
“Oh,” I said, and started paying attention to the surroundings. Crime scene, after all. And I was still on the clock, still being paid for this, for better or for worse. I needed to do my job, especially since the budget crisis meant if I didn’t, I’d be on the street. I might be anyway, if a miracle didn’t arrive.
We were in a small driveway in a small lot on a row of identical small boxy brick houses. They had different-colored doors, and a few flags hung from doorposts, touting different political stances. Block parties must be interesting in this neighborhood.
The house had patchy grass, and a different-colored roof and door than the rest. Otherwise it was the same boxy brick house with one window up front that everyone else had. This one didn’t have bars on the windows.
We pulled in, a police cruiser parked crooked on the driveway in front of us, its undercarriage flashing with the occasional burst of orange light, the whine you could hear in the air saying its anti-grav hadn’t been properly shut down. The officer would be lucky to get it working again with a good mechanic and a hefty bill; if not, he’d be grounded and his wages garnished until the department could afford to fix it.
Next to the cruiser was a huge metal structure, burnished bronze and discolored steel, what might have been a weather vane designed by an antiestablishment artist on a strong drug. It flashed in time with the cruiser’s light. Maybe an electrical field at play or some kind of quantum property that entangled to the cruiser’s engine and caused the mechanical trouble. Either way I stayed well clear.
“You okay?” Cherabino asked.
“Yeah,” I said and got out of the car next to her.
Even though the wind was bitterly cold, the concrete pathway was warm, some kind of deicing setup I could feel even through the shoes. There were small metallic flowers holding lights along the walkway, and the overhanging roof was made out of some kind of supermaterial with an odd snakeskinlike grain. There was more money and thought put into this boxy brick house than was obvious. The door was patterned with overlapping metalwork, like a mosaic out of similar colors of metal, something you could only see when you got up close.
I noticed two camouflaged spy holes set into the door, and when I looked up, two small overhanging boxes. They could have been cameras, I supposed, but they had grates at the bottom. Delivery system for some kind of gas, perhaps, or fine-grade projectiles? Cherabino saw where I was looking and swallowed.
“Gotta love post–Tech Wars architecture,” I said.
“Well, at least we know he knew his killer.” Cherabino shrugged. “Either that or the killer broke in the back.” She turned the handle and we went in, Michael trotting past the apparent kill zone in the doorway all too fast.
Inside was plush carpet and old furnishings, the wallpaper a graphic print popular twenty years ago, dated and old to my eyes. Faux aged-wood panels took up the entire covering of the hallway to the right, a kitchen ran off to the left, and ahead and in front between an outdated couch, a chair, and several small side tables. An ax lay to one side, the kind you’d cut firewood with, the handle stained with brown, something dried and leathery stuck to its edge. A puddle of fresh-smelling vomit sat a few feet outside the blood spray, near the couch.
I walked closer in. Sprays of blood and gore had splashed up on the furniture, a few hitting the walls—one on an abstract painting like an emphasis note. The body—I looked for a moment, then looked away.
We were here before Forensics. The blood was dry, but I didn’t smell decomposition; he’d been dead a day or two at the most. I held my shields tightly; with this level of violence, it wouldn’t be a fun scene to read mentally either.
The back door looked intact to me, but I was sure it would be checked and rechecked. I noticed a phone in an alcove in the kitchen. A phone I could use to call Kara later, if I managed to dodge Cherabino long enough.
Cherabino sighed and pulled out disposable booties. “Michael, why don’t you start a sign-in sheet for the scene? And you,” Adam, her mind echoed, “you see if you can find the officer who left the car out front and yet is not with the body.”
“Oh. Yeah.” I lowered my shield enough to skim the top layer of Mindspace—trying to ignore the death hole sitting in the middle of the room—looking for minds. I found one feeling very sick in the rightward direction. I followed the mind like a beacon and found myself outside a bathroom with an open door. A female cop in uniform knelt in front of the toilet.
She heard me and pointed a gun in my direction.
“Police telepath, DeKalb County.” I raised my arms. “Authorized consultant. There’s two detectives in the main area. I can produce ID.”
“Please,” she said, and lowered the gun back to the floor. She controlled the urge to heave again; she’d just flushed the toilet and didn’t want to be seen doing this to start with.
I fished out my department ID—which I should already have clipped to my shirt—and handed it to her. “Who are you?”
“Briggs,” she said, and swallowed again. She gave the ID a cursory look and handed it back.
I gave her space. She was upset; I could feel that along with the nausea.
“Did the scene get messed up?”
“So far as I know, we’re the first ones here and it looked good,” I said. Waited a moment.
“Could you leave now?”
“Where is the officer?” Cherabino asked.
I explained, then added, “From the feel of it, she’ll be throwing up or trying not to for awhile.”
Cherabino frowned. “I’ll take care of her later.” She was pissed, caught between her hard-line rule that officers didn’t leave the scene and the knowledge that the officer had called it in properly and had avoided throwing up at the scene itself; the puddle was well clear. She’d had her own messy scenes, when she was a rookie. She’d give the woman space but chew her out later. “Let’s handle the scene.”
I nodded, like I had any understanding of how this all worked without the forensics crew here.
Michael was doing something with a box of swabs, stand-up numbers, and plastic baggies around the perimeter. Getting ready for the photographer?
Cherabino held out a set of disposable booties, and I put them on.
“How closely do I have to look?” I asked.
She looked at me.
“This is not happy-fun time. This is time to figure out what happened.”
She sighed. “If the victim’s mind left anything at all for us behind, you go over that with a fine-tooth comb. Twice. That’s what you’re here for. Do you have to study the exact damage? Yep. Nobody likes this stuff. We do it anyway so that the killer doesn’t do it to the next guy.”
I looked down. “Would be easiest to go ahead and read the scene before anyone else arrives.”
“You want me to be your anchor again? We need to do it quickly. I’m going to have to administer the scene.” As she looked over at the scene, her voice was flat. Too flat. Through the Link, I could feel a careful control, a not-think, a walling off of any possible reaction.
I stole shamelessly from that not-think, that dispassion, putting it on like a coat as I trudged over to the couch, looking into the space that had gotten most of the blood. It soaked the carpet in a long puddle; the human body held more blood than you thought it ought to, and that blood was everywhere.
The body was pretty damaged, an ax strike having shattered the collarbone, shredded part of the arm, impacted the clothes-covered back and buttocks in strikes covered with blood, and cut far too deeply into the skin in a way that made my stomach curl. He was facedown, and the major damage was to the back of the head—most of it was simply gone, some spread out over the room along with the blood, and some doubtlessly on the blade of that ax. One ear was completely missing, dried blood and flesh in its place.
I looked away, breathed deeply, and told myself I wouldn’t vomit either. Even with Cherabino’s borrowed dispassion, it was horrible. Really, really horrible. “Ready?” Cherabino prompted. Her voice was still too flat.
“Yeah,” I said. If I waited to think about it, I wouldn’t do it. And I had to do my job and get out of here. Now.
She held out the mental hand, the anchor that would help me find my way back to the real world. With all the times she told me to keep my hands and mind to myself, for a case, for safety, she’d do anything it took.
I established brutal mental control, and then took that mental hand, carefully, so carefully.
Reality faded as I moved deeper and deeper, the connection with Cherabino falling behind me like a long yellow scuba line, yellow where no yellow should be. Mindspace was a colorless space, a space in which vision was useless, like the inside of a totally dark cave. The landscape was more felt than seen, echoing back vibrations like I was a bat and the world my cave. Other creatures made waves in the space, and some left wakes behind.
Mindspace remembered. It held on to strong emotion and the leavings of human minds for days, sometimes weeks in a hot spot. Occasionally a spot forgot too soon. But here, in what was apparently a deep and wide container of human energy, I felt Mindspace along the edges of the room layered with the habitual feelings of the house’s occupant.
He was a thinker, a planner, a wheels-within-wheels plotter with mathematics and problems and three-dimensional crafting. The space was littered with the spillovers of his thinking, like complex glyphs worn into a wall over time. Other, smaller, lighter presences left scents here and there, other people came and went, but the majority of his time, his life, was wheels-within-wheels.
In the center of the room was the collapsed “hole” of death, where the mind Fell In . . . to wherever minds went when they died. The hole left a distinct shape in Mindspace, a distinct residue and taste. Still very clear, but not fresh.
And around it—anger and violence and dark satisfaction layered with pain like red knives slicing through the very fabric of Mindspace. Layer upon layer of resentment and frustration and anger, leading to this final assertion of control.
And the victim—surprise and panic and anger and pain, so much pain. Hit after hit of damage, then nothing.
I’d have to dive deeper into the emotion eventually, but for now I tried to gauge how old the traces in Mindspace were. Always tough, but here, with the strength of these, it was tougher. I wasn’t a newbie, though, and here, finally, I was in my element.
Time of death between twenty-two and twenty-six hours. I shaped the words carefully and sent them up the long yellow line behind me to Cherabino. Assuming Mindspace here has the standard fading pattern.
Insight on the killer? Her voice came back, faint and far away, like a missive sent around the world. Grudge or random?
Give me a second. I breathed.
I swam forward with my mind until I was right above the death place, until I could feel the time around it clearly, until I could interact as best I could with the memory. Careful, careful, I told myself. Don’t want to change the space so much I can’t read it.
But of course, thank Heisenburg and his Uncertainty, you couldn’t read something without changing it somehow. You couldn’t see without interacting, hear without being changed. Two particles—and two minds—necessarily interacted no matter what you did. Even with memories. Even with emotion-ghosts, no matter how strong they were; by reading them, you changed them. You had to.
Grudge or random? Cherabino’s mental voice echoed down to me again. I hadn’t replied.
I moved, and found myself drowning, drowning in anger and violence and pain. It turned me over and over like an ocean riptide, overwhelming and deadly, until I could tell what end was up.
I tumbled over and over, coughing up anger, coughing up pain, until finally—I found the connection to Cherabino. Two hands on it and I pulled against the tide, pulled up and out on the long yellow rope, emotions grabbing at me, hanging on like thick taffy.
I pulled with all my might, pulled again, and again, and finally popped free. Panic beat at me as I looked at the maelstrom below. That would have gotten me without her. It would have eaten me alive. Level Eight telepath or no, I would have been lost.
My heart beat hard with panic and pain, and I reached for training to calm myself by force and will. Guild training was the only thing that had saved me; the forcible drills through hell and back the only thing that kept my mind together. Strong emotions. Too strong.
When I could compose myself, I sent a line of thought right back up at Cherabino, who was sending a vague sense of concern.
Bad one, I said. I don’t think—I don’t think it was planned. Got a strong picture of the ax by the fireplace; when he saw it, he snapped.
I collected my thoughts, pushing for dispassion again. The victim . . . calm. He’s an ordered guy. But he was nervous. The killer . . . the killer was here to assert control and to prevent something. The violence was just the escalation. Calculating? He wanted the man dead, Cherabino. He wanted him well dead.
Not a bad start for a profile, Cherabino told me. Get on back here; Forensics is arriving and I need you out of the way.
I swam up, slowly, from the depths of all that pain, into the shallower areas of Mindspace, following the yellow cord up to Cherabino’s mind. When I reached it, I surfaced: into reality, into the presence of other minds and blinding sunlight. The cops and the techs were staring with hostility. I shielded, slowly, against that gaze.
“Have you swept the house for the missing pieces?” Jamal, one of the Forensics techs, asked Michael, while looking directly at me.
“Not yet,” Cherabino said, letting go of the mental hand that had grounded me. “We’ve been processing the scene here.”
“You think the back of the head is sitting on a bed somewhere?” Michael asked, looking very green.
“Stranger things have happened,” Jamal said.
“Keep a lookout for that arm section,” Cherabino said. “And the head.”
“What arm section?” Michael asked.
“Can I go?” I asked.
If you must, she sent through the Link. For someone who claimed to hate the Link between us, she was getting awfully comfortable with speaking mind-to-mind. When I tried it, half the time she told me to keep my hands and mind to myself.
She added out loud, “There’s a section missing from the right biceps. Maybe four inches? Could be under the body. Obviously there was a bit of a struggle. I just want it found.”
Michael looked thoughtful. “Trophy maybe?”
“The arm?” Cherabino blinked. “Odd place to take a trophy, don’t you think? More likely it just got thrown under the sofa or something. Just keep a lookout, Jamal, okay?”
He shrugged. “You got it.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Mindspace Investigations series
“A wonderful genre blend of old-style detective stories and supernatural, with a flawed hero and a fascinating take on a world that outlaws technology.”—All Things Urban Fantasy
“A grim and gritty police detective series, with a bit of science fiction mixed into an almost pulp-noir setting…a great series for both mystery lovers and those that enjoy a bit of sci-fi.”—News and Sentinel (Parkersburg, WV)
“[Adam] is very well developed and written. Fans of Jim Butcher will enjoy this series.”—USA Today
“Alex Hughes spins stories like wizards spin spells…a stellar debut!”—James R. Tuck, author of the Deacon Chalk series
“A fun blend of Chinatown and Blade Runner.”—James Knapp, author of State of Decay
“[A] tightly written futuristic detective story set in an alternate Atlanta.…This crisp debut marks Hughes as a writer to watch.”—Publishers Weekly
“[A] fast-paced sci-fi yarn.…Reminds me very much (and very fondly) of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.”—SF Signal
“Fans will want more by Alex Hughes.”—SFRevu