Despite the rain, I still stank of dead sturgeon. It wasn’t a smell which let you forget its presence. I wanted to stick my hands deep in the pockets of my parka, but then the coat would stink for weeks. I’d not washed it since I’d bought it two years ago and I wasn’t about to start now.
I nudged the fur-lined hood over my head with an arm and stepped up onto the pavement, letting the depot car trundle off and park itself a few metres down the road. I didn’t envy the person catching a ride in it tomorrow morning or the person who was supposed to be rolling home in it in the next half hour. After they’d dealt with this shit, of course.
I looked up at the building to see four shriekers nail-gunned around the entrance, their proximity sensors flashing. RapidRez had been to seal the scene. Looked like they had only done the front entrance. A guess, based upon what I could see of the place, but if you could get around the back of this dump, you were a spider monkey.
An industrial storage facility was glued onto the right-hand side of the factory as if it’d been thrown together in the modularist style or dropped from a crane. Depending on your view of modularism, it could mean the same thing. On the left of the unit was a no-man’s land of glass, razor-wire, and pathogen effluent, leaking out of green-black polystyrene barrels into the brownfield real estate opportunity beneath. Some wrong ’un may have made their way through there but I would bet a year’s credit that no responder would have bothered.
These were the Sheds which ran along the lowest point of Keighley Basin, parallel to the canals. At least, I’d been told they were parallel to the canals. It was difficult to tell, as the canals were two storeys below us. The Sheds had once been busy with life. Human life, that is. And, if you call what twitches in the meat vats life, then, yeah they had plenty of that, and all. They had once been the epicentre – the birthplace, some jokers had said – of the vat-growing industries in the dale. Now they just housed a few bespoke bioengineering brands, still riding customers too apathetic to switch to cheaper imports.
The rest of the Sheds were decommissioned units. Much like this heap.
I’d been told this hadn’t been a meat place. I was glad. Even when they were operational, meat vats stank enough to make you vegetarian. A decommissioned meat place could have any biologically-possible strains still flopping about in its dark corners.
‘Just hold her hand, Hasim,’ the DI had told me.
And that was why I was here. I didn’t normally do this kind of shit. I was digital. This was forensics and biohazard. Gilbert McKenn was the analyst who handled all the biohazard cases. He had clearance for the Sheds and authorisation to poke his fingers in every rotten little meat-hole in Airedale. Probably. Probably had done, as well. He was a dirty little shit. I’d seen his vidz collection - a couple were proper specialist.
McKenn worked for a different DI than me. Whole different set of cases. He didn’t do bodies, but this was bodies and biohazard. We’d got category bleed. The system couldn’t handle that. His DI had prioritised McKenn elsewhere, so mine had been desperate, and didn’t want forensics operating alone. He was desperate enough to call upon whoever had been the closest. I was on my way back from a loft full of dead fish, so he called me in to do him a favour. I was making up the numbers, really. You weren’t supposed to send an analyst in alone. And it wasn’t in RapidRez’s contract. Basically, I was here to stand around and watch forensics get on with their job. Make sure they didn’t mess up.
Forensics was Carrie Tarmell. She seemed to be doing OK and already had the owner on the phone. His tiny little head floating in the top right of my peripheral vision. Carrie had a nosebead installed, which was projecting the image of the owner directly onto her right eyeball. Had I stared directly into her eye, I would’ve seen the miniscule reflection of the person talking to her. I wasn’t about to do that, mind, but she hated you getting in her space.
I’ve never wanted any metal in my body, so I wore the standard AJC cap, which shot the dazzle back onto my eye from its rain-soaked brim. I preferred the cap, liked to think it made me look a bit younger, and hid my bald patch.
‘Ten years,’ said the owner. I could see his metadata, floating around his image like balloons tethered in a breeze. It told me he was a Mr Bhagwat based in Chennai.
‘I’ve had it ten years, I told you. All this is on my file. I can zip it across to you if you want?’
Carrie ignored his offer. ‘But you’ve not been here since sixty-four?’
‘That is correct,’ said the owner. He was a wiry-looking man, with a pencil-thin moustache, and a small, retro-goatee. I’d already tried to get access to the files which would have told us all about the factory, its floor plans, security, history and the like, but all I could find was it had once been used for manufacturing textiles. Nothing more specific other than that. Go back a few years and this wasn’t uncommon in the Basin, but nowadays it was odd; everybody else was still trying to grow steak. At least, those who still had credit.
If you had a factory like this and if it had dropped off the public data mountains so completely, it meant you’d once paid serious cash – as in high denomination pre-load – to hide. I was interested, even though I wasn’t supposed to be here tonight.
I cleared my throat. ‘You’ll have seen the vidz though, yeah?’
‘Who is that?’ snapped Mr Bhagwat.
‘Haz Edmundson, sir,’ I said.
‘Who? I can’t see him. Why can’t I see him? Are you listening in to our private conversation? Who are you, sir, please?’
‘Digital analyst, me,’ I mumbled. I realised I hadn’t enabled my camera. I twitched my cheek and the ghost of my LED-lit face joined the virtual conference with a pop.
Mr Bhagwat’s moustache loomed a little larger in my display. He frowned. ‘What is a digital analyst doing on this case?’
Carrie looked at me, her eyebrows suggesting she was as interested in knowing this as Mr Bhagwat. I struggled to find an answer. She frowned and shook her head.
‘Standard procedure, sir,’ said Carrie. ‘DI likes us to work as a team.’
‘You’re not the DI?’ asked the owner, his voice squeaking with incredulity. ‘Who are you, then?’
‘Carrie Tarmell. Forensic analyst.’
‘I see,’ said Mr Bhagwat. He busied himself off screen for a moment. ‘I am calling my facilities manager. I think it's best that this continues with his input. On my behalf, naturally.’
‘We just need you to tell us that we can go inside, Mr Bhagwat,’ said Carrie. ‘We don’t need your FM. You need to give us access. Confirm this place isn’t carrying anything hazardous to the environment and that.’
‘Well,’ said Bhagwat. ‘I’m not certain what might be inside... it’s better that you talk to Vep. I’m afraid that it’s often difficult to locate him, though. I will confirm when he is available to answer your questions. He will help you with your... ha ha... with your analysis.’
The tiny round head smirked, shrunk, and popped out of view. As it disappeared, I wondered whether I should try a retro-goatee. I was that kind of age when you got desperate.
‘Yeah. I’ve got better places to be, too,’ muttered Carrie.
‘Sorry?’ I asked.
We waited in the darkness, rain slowly, inevitably, working its way through the waterproof fibres of our coats.
‘Fuck this,’ said Carrie. ‘I’m not waiting here for him to rustle up his FM. There’s a Dommies around the corner. You want to get a coffee or a chocolate or summat?’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Good idea, yeah.’ My med-handler tended to caution me against taking caffeine so late. But then I tended to ignore it so the situation balanced out. Also, I hated Dommies, however, there was no knowing how long it was going to take for Mr Bhagwat to wake up his facilities manager and get him on a camera. I wasn’t getting any drier or warmer standing here.
We set off down the street towards the centre of town. The middle of Keighley Basin was lively of a night but was fairly safe unless you decided to go via the canals. The weather was making this more tempting than usual. But not tempting enough.
‘You going to charge for this?’ My left eye was twitching, ready to shut down the clock. I was a contractor, like Carrie, like all analysts. All contractors worked the clock. Only DIs were permanent.
‘Of course,’ said Carrie. ‘Not going to a Dommies in the Basin at eight o’clock at night on my own time, am I?’
‘True, yeah,’ I said, and let the timer icon sink back into its semi-transparent rest at the edge of my vision.
As we walked, she stuck her hands deep in her pockets and glanced across at me. ‘Why’re you here, Haz?’ Her tone was dangerously flat.
I’d been waiting for this. ‘You know why. Gilbie McKenn couldn’t make it. He’s working down at Shipley tonight. They got the riots moving through down there.’
‘So DI sent you?’
‘Yeah,’ I muttered. People said you had to go careful around Carrie. Not wind her spring.
‘Right,’ she said. ‘You were closest, were you?’
I shrugged. ‘I guess.’
‘DI didn’t trust me to handle this?’
‘Look, Carrie,’ I said. ‘I’m helping DI out, yeah. He just asked me to be here.’
‘Just asked you to be here?’ she sneered.
I had to think on my feet. I knew DI Ibrahim Al-Yahmeni – technically our client although it always felt like he was our boss – thought the sun frigging-well shone out of Carrie’s arse and I guessed he didn’t want her slashed in the face by some canal rat off his head on pseudo. He could’ve asked for an Enforcement operative to come down and make sure Carrie didn’t get stabbed but they were all busy in the middle of the Basin tonight. More rioting. Plus, they were expensive by the hour. Too expensive for a hand-holding mission. A digital analyst, however, was cheap.
Besides, I was already en route back from the Crosshills Road, so he must have decided it was the easiest thing to do. The DI just needed to divert my car from the Airedale Main Duct and dump me here. He knew I wouldn’t argue, knew his analysts, and knew my problems. Carrie was one of the few people I could talk to these days. Kind of.
The one major pain was that I had to pay the childcare overtime rate at this time of night, and Greg always got pissed off if I dropped it on him last minute. I just hoped Asha and Ali weren’t pissing him around like they usually did on a Tuesday.
‘He told me it might be of interest,’ I lied. ‘Possible digital angle.’
‘Really?’ asked Carrie. It’s a stiff, int ‘it? You don’t do stiffs, do you?’
‘I’ve done a few, there’s a digital angle.’
‘Yeah,’ she muttered. ‘Whatever, Haz.’
We turned the corner at the end of the industrial zone and saw the faux-Brazilian greens and yellows of the Dommies outlet. Automated samba beats were just audible over the thrumming of the rain. Inside was dry and fairly empty. A few bot technicians from the old Washington place were drinking margaritas and swaying to the music. Three women, their hands dyed brown from the meat tanks, were chatting loudly and whooping with laughter at odd moments.
As we entered, they were about to crack a joke at our sodden appearance. However, I deliberately pulled back the hood of my khaki parka to reveal the cricket cap underneath. They shut up when they saw the AJC logo. Even though we were subcontractors, not directly commissioned like the DI, they knew we still had delegation.
We sat and waggled our fingers at the table’s order sensor. I asked for a chocolate instead of a coffee. Even so, the med-handler had popped up on my display, trying to get my attention, but I killed it with an eye twitch.
I felt I should try to re-start the conversation, while we waited. Which was proving difficult. When Dali had been around, she did all that shit for me. I realised, looking around the tired décor and gappy lighting, I hadn’t been in a place like this for nearly two years. Even if I’d been out with the kids, I’d tend to drop them into the managed facilities and make myself absent. I’d found tricks to avoid getting stuck into these kinds of scenarios. Subconscious anxiety or some bollocks like that. I knew all about that crap. My med-handler would tell me all about anxiety until I told it to close itself down. It hadn’t told me that I’d been avoiding company, though. Piece of advert-riddled shit.
Carrie saved me. In a manner of speaking. ‘Why’d you stink of fish so much?’
I sniffed my hands. ‘Just this case I’m working.’
‘Oh, yeah?’ she said. ‘Illegal vats? Fish and that?’
‘Not quite. It’s not the fish, like, that were the business.’
‘Oh? What then?’
‘It were only...’ I paused for effect and glanced sideways, checking the vicinity. ‘It were only fucking caviar.’
She laughed. A great snorting eruption. ‘For honest?
‘That’s right,’ I said, smiling. ‘Bit different, yeah?’
‘Some old ex-farmer had been harvesting it up there on the Crosshills Road. Stuck a couple of plastic swimming pools in the loft of his old place. It proper stank. And he was total amateur about it. No idea what he was doing, so he'd killed the lot. Kiddie pools full of dead sturgeon. Weird, yeah?’
The waitress brought over our drinks, half-heartedly trying to smile and wiggle her arse. She knew she was on camera. Some algorithm somewhere was evaluating her sense of ersatz Latin vibe. She looked a lot like Dali, but older.
After we’d thanked her for the drinks and zapped off some credits, we sat back and sipped. I wrapped my hands around the ceramic beaker. Despite it being summer, the rain had started to chill me.
‘But why’d DI send you up to a vat-growing scene?’ said Carrie, after she’d sipped the cream off the top of her drink. ‘You’d not normally do the meat cases, would you?’
‘Counterfeit case, int ‘it,’ I said. ‘This guy were passing it off as real shit. Been getting some encrypted authentication codes sent through from his buddy in Murmansk.’
‘Ahh,’ said Carrie. ‘I see.’
‘Spent most of the morning tracking down all his memory slivers. Cheeky beggar had been hiding them all over the building. Then I wasted most of the afternoon trying to dig through his server.’
‘Couldn’t get into it,’ I said. ‘All locked down. Going to read the metapattern later on.’
She grinned at me. People always asked me that. They think any wrong ’un is going to be sitting on a pile of filth.
‘Still don’t see why you had to go there, though,’ said Carrie, the grin subsiding. ‘Mind you, I don’t see why you’re out here tonight. What's the story, Haz?’
Thankfully, a message flashed up on our screens before I was forced to squirm any more. The FM had been located. He was going to be online in about five minutes, once he’d finished having his shower.
We necked our drinks and stepped back into the rain. I was thankful for the break. Airedale weather was easier to bear when you’d had chocolate.
‘You got the code for those shriekers?’ I asked, as we approached the large double doors.
She nodded, pointing to her nose. Then she flicked her hand, squeezed her fingers, and cast something in the air across to my head. I saw the zipped-up codes appear in my screen and sink from view. I twitched my cheek and dropped the huge files into my beacon. I didn’t want those shriekers going off by accident. Paully Zappers had forgotten to drop the codes into his lapel bead three months back. He was off work for four days. Still couldn’t hear you on a busy day, the stupid twat.
The red LEDs of the shriekers dimmed as I approached the door, turning from red to orange, then yellow, and finally green. The ancient padlock had already been ground away by the responders, ready for the analysts’ arrival. I waited by the door, impatiently cracking my knuckles, waiting for authorisation to enter. The facilities manager appeared on my display as I was cracking through my second hand.
‘Good morning.’ He was a young man, clearly in a bed. ‘Call me Vep. How can I help you?’
‘Hello, Vep,’ said Carrie. ‘We’re with the Airedale Justice Commission analytical team. We’re outside a facility in the Keighley Basin area.’
He grinned. ‘I have no idea where that is. England, is it? By your accent?’
‘Your boss not tell you?’ I asked.
‘He’s my client,’ said Vep. ‘Not my boss.’
‘Of course he is,’ said Carrie. ‘We’re in Europe, alright? Pennine Region. East Pennine.’
‘Very good,’ said Vep. ‘My parents have been on vacation there. It’s very nice!’
Carrie flicked the Vs towards her nose but remained expressionless. ‘Well, that’s great to know, Vep.’
‘What's in this place, buddy?’ I asked. ‘There’s no meat-vatting in there, yeah?’
‘Mr Bhagwat is in textiles,’ said Vep. ‘He is not a flesh engineer.’
I shrugged, no longer caring what shit-awful backroom stewed biohazard might still be festering inside. I just wanted to get out of the rain.
‘Have you been in yet?’ asked Vep.
‘Nobody’s been in,’ said Carrie. ‘Our first responders have secured the entrance. But they wouldn’t be able to enter. This facility has an intermediate biohazard contamination risk.’
‘You can’t just kick down the doors?’
‘Not with a facility which has an intermediate biohazard contamination risk,’ repeated Carrie.
‘Sure you can!’
‘Yeah,’ said Carrie. ‘Of course we can. RapidRez could already be in clearing up all the blood and shit. But then we’d be liable if owt went wrong, you understand?’
‘You need it to be my problem, you mean?’ said Vep, smiling.
Carrie sighed. ‘We need your clearance to let us through. Are we going to poison half of Keighley Basin by going in there and kicking over a poly-drum?’
‘Let me see,’ the young man said. He ducked out of view of his camera. When he returned, his attention was taken up by something off-screen. I could just see his finger flickering away. ‘Mr Bhagwat has just the one unit in the Keighley Basin. It went offline about three years ago but was retained as an asset.’
‘What was the output?’ I muttered.
Vep laughed. ‘Textiles, like I said!’
‘Is it safe for us to go inside?’
‘Yes, of course, but–’
I kicked open the door and stepped inside.
‘Before you enter,’ said Vep. ‘You should probably tell me. Do you have any phobias?’