In my language, we call it 'the world without law'. In the human language, it's simply 'the end'. For the dead girl at my feet, Omega was both of them.
It was some time in the first half of the night cycle that we found the body. On most worlds, there'd be fewer people in the streets, but Omega lived in a perpetual orange twilight. There was no sunlight, and no real darkness; while there was a nominal day/night cycle, most people on the station kept to their own personal definitions. The streets had been as full as ever as Sidonis and I pushed our way through and it was only going to get worse as the nightclub crowd emerged blinking from their dens across the city, but the sight of the naked body lying in an alley grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go.
She was human. Her body lay on its back in a thin, shimmering pool of blood, her head facing away from me. Bulging garbage bags were piled high against both walls of the alley, but she'd landed right between them. Sandy brown hair was matted with blood where her head had split open as she hit the ground, but that wasn't what had killed her: there were thick, angry red marks all around her neck, strangely vivid against pale skin. They almost looked painted on, like some low-quality make-up for a cheap horror flick, but that's life for you. It never looks as real as the movies.
"She was strangled," I said.
"Yeah," Sidonis said. "So what?"
"What do you mean, 'so what'? This was murder."
"Yeah," he said again. "So what? There must be thirty, forty murders across the station every day. More, maybe. You can't change that. That's the way it is."
"She can't be older than twenty," I murmured. "She's the same age as you, more or less, and she's dead."
Sidonis shrugged. "Bunch of savages in this town. But everyone dies sooner or later."
I turned back to him, angry. "And so that means I shouldn't care?"
"What are you going to do, hold a funeral for her? The vorcha will clean up soon enough. Better for everyone that way."
I looked down at the body again. "Not for her."
"She's dead. Nothing you can do for her now."
"I could find the son of a bitch who killed her."
Sidonis snorted. "On Omega? You're not C-Sec any more, Garrus."
"I'm not walking away from this," I said.
"Yeah? What makes her so special?"
I looked down at her again. She hadn't even been moved. Nobody else had cared enough.
"Nothing," I said. "That's the point."
He threw up his hands in exasperation. "Fine. I don't care what you do, just don't drag me into it. I'm going home."
I didn't bother trying to stop him. He was a good kid at heart, but he'd spent all his life on Invictus and Omega, with brief layovers in some of the darkest pits the Terminus Systems had to offer. I'd seen the best and the worst of the galaxy, but he'd only seen the worst. That kind of cynicism stains the spirit like blood on linen, and it doesn't wash out easily. Besides, he wasn't the detective sort. Not enough patience, not enough maturity. Given a few years, I was sure he'd come around, but for now I was on my own.
I looked up. The distant 'ceiling' of Omega loomed over my head like a million-ton storm cloud, disappearing away into blackness, but what I was concerned with was the pair of buildings standing over the alley. One was featureless on the side facing me bar a couple of small windows on the lower levels; the upper reaches were nothing but grey. It stood over the alley and the body like a tombstone. It was probably a factory or warehouse or something; Omega wasn't built with any kind of plan in mind, so you'd find residential and industrial units juxtaposed across the station.
That was why the other building was an apartment block, though it didn't look much more habitable than the other. It wasn't a good part of town. On Omega, that says a lot. Empty concrete balconies looked down on me like galleries at a hanging court, but there was no clue as to where the body had come from. It could have been any of them, and there had to be fifty at the least.
That was somewhere to start, at least. I glanced down at the body again, wondering if there was anything else I could learn from it. C-Sec instincts were tapping me on the shoulder, but they were useless here. DNA was useless: we didn't have the kit to get samples that were anything more than rough guesswork, and with no central database to compare against, odds were that any leads it offered would be worse than unhelpful. Fingerprinting was impossible by this point. All I had was a rough time of death; by the look of the body, maybe three or four hours ago. The trail was still warm.
I squatted down over her, looking for something, anything. It would have looked bad to anyone watching, but on Omega, nobody cared. I checked her left hand, then her right. They were empty, but the right had traces of red blood under its fingernails. She'd scratched someone. Her killer, maybe? Impossible to say, but it was another point in favour of her murderer being human. The finger marks on the throat were the most damning; few other races would produce that effect.
In the end I left her lying there, as naked the day she died as the day she was born. I'd deal with the body later. It was just a shell now. I took some shots with my visor: her face, her throat, her hand. C-Sec would have wanted forensics to take solid evidence. I didn't have to worry about evidence any more; no helping hands, but no limits either. It was just me.
The apartment building had a front desk, but it was empty when I went in. Odds were that it hadn't been manned for years, if ever. Dust, dirt and decay hung to every surface, but it was the kind of building that felt like it had never been new. Omega always felt like that: we'd inherited it from the Protheans, and then from several cycles of abandonment and reclamation. A second-hand city for second-hand people.
From the wound on her head, I guessed she might have fallen from four or five floors up. When I got to the fourth, I started knocking on doors. I didn't expect much, and I didn't get it. Funny how pessimists always seem to be right.
At the first door, there was no answer to my knock. At the second, a heavy-set batarian came out and yelled at me in some dialect my translator couldn't work out. At the third, no answer. At the fourth, a muffled 'fuck off'. At the fifth, an ageing human woman looked out from behind a heavy chain – the place didn't even have automatic doors – and told me she knew nothing. At the sixth, no answer.
Lucky number seven, the human phrase goes.
The human behind that door looked at the picture on my omnitool and gave me a name. Ciara. He told me she lived in 403, the third door on this floor. He looked worried when I asked him about it, but when I asked if he knew her well, he shook his head. When I told him she was dead, his face crumpled like wet paper. Pressing him for details didn't get me much: she apparently worked nights by the unofficial Omega cycle, but more than that he couldn't say. Human aesthetics is hardly an area of expertise for me, but by his reaction, she really must have been beautiful.
I left him and went to her apartment. The door was locked. That told me something already: whoever had killed her had locked her door behind them as they left. That meant it wasn't spur-of-the-moment or committed by a stranger; someone Ciara knew – or, rather, had known - had killed her. They'd have the keys to her apartment too, if they hadn't ditched them. That left a question: why throw the body over the balcony? Disposal was the likely answer; the vorcha would carry it away soon enough, whereas a body left in a room would draw questions, even on Omega. I wasn't the only vigilante, and with criminals scared half to death by what the extranet called the Archangel's Justice, maybe our killer had just tried to save himself some trouble.
A hard kick to the door smashed the flimsy lock out of its frame, letting me in. The apartment was familiar; I'd lived in similar surroundings for months before the Deus debacle had changed my status quo. Filthy carpet, bare walls, unmade bed. Clothes in a pile on the floor. A single terminal in the corner, with a simple wooden chair. A dresser with a few electronic photo frames. That was about it.
She'd been murdered in this room, but there was nothing to show it. Her clothes weren't ripped or torn, implying it wasn't a sexual crime – or if it was, it had at least started consensually.
I went over to the terminal. It was locked with the standard encryption, which meant I couldn't get into it. Instead, I made a call.
"What do you want?" Sensat said muzzily into my ear.
"I need a computer hacked."
"Link me in via your omnitool."
I did so.
"I'm running a worm. Now let me sleep."
The call ended. I'd known he wouldn't be happy, but I also knew that Butler – the only other person I had who could break the encryption – would be asleep in bed with his wife, and Sensat lived alone. Pissing him off was easy enough to do anyway, so I figured one more time didn't matter all that much.
I left the worm to run while I checked out the dresser. The drawers held nothing but clothes, although the kind of clothes were telling. Furs, leathers, lingerie and silk dominated, almost all of it cheap fakes. Not decisive, but telling. It seemed pretty obvious what Ciara had been.
On top of the dresser, there was a mirror and a dozen kinds of human cosmetic, little use to me. What was more interesting was the sparse selection of photos: Ciara at her high school graduation, proud parents standing with her. Ciara and her friends. What looked like a sister. All of them were smiling at me out of the past, the photos' vivid colours and happy faces seeming like someone's idea of a joke compared to the dump around me. They didn't seem real, like those unnaturally happy families you always see in commercials. Everybody smiles, cut to black, that's a wrap. I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen genuine happiness in the flesh. These days, it seemed like another TV construct, and nothing I'd seen in the last hour made me feel any different.
A quiet beep made me look round. Sensat's worm had cracked the terminal, leaving all of Ciara's secrets laid open to me. I almost didn't want to look, knowing what I'd find, but secrets were a detective's tools of the trade, the ammunition for his gun. When your job is to find out what people want to hide, then you see a lot of things you'll wish you hadn't. Most of them, you forget. Some of them stay with you forever.
Her email account was the first thing I went for. It was almost empty. Reminders from social networks she'd abandoned years ago peppered the short list, but what drew my eye was one labelled 'New info', sent three weeks ago by somebody called Hadley Leach. It had her full name in the address field: Ciara Dilley. She wasn't alone. It had been sent to six people: Jen Turner, Krissy Deacon, Anna Hernandez, Ciara Dilley, Olivia Christopher, Mina Wilton... all of them were human names, and all of them female. It seemed like my suspicions had been right.
I looked down the page until I saw Ciara's entry.
IN: 0800 (SC). OUT: 1600 (SC). DAY OFF: Wed, Sun. ROOM: 4.
That meant she'd been working the day she'd died. At the bottom of the list, there was a section confirming exactly what that work was.
For newcomers, ground rules:
Clients are in control at all times.
We're not a dungeon. They can do anything to you that doesn't cause permanent or semi-permanent damage, but past that is a no-go. Day cycle is less active, but it brings out the freaks. Remember, if your ability to earn is damaged, you will be replaced. Call for security if necessary.
Make-up should cover all flaws.
You don't have a choice about who fucks you. They do. Exemption for occasional alien clients, but they get you 30% extra. 50% for krogan.
If you're not at your best or late in the morning because of drinking/drugs/etc, expect your pay to be docked. You are professionals.
There was more, but I'd seen more than enough already. What got me was how clinical it all was, right down to the percentages and the working hours, as detached as office clock-in times. Cold, dispassionate, superior. I didn't like Hadley Leach, and I hadn't even met him. Just reading this was enough to tell me what he was like. Controlling and domineering, concerned with the bottom line and not the people who made it for him. He probably didn't even see them as people.
Strangling is an interesting way to kill someone. It's not quick. It's not easy. It implies total domination of the victim, and from my experience, a lot of stranglers get some kind of perverse kick out of watching someone die. Leach sounded like he fitted that profile all too well. He'd be the first person to talk to.
His address was . High Fidelity. I guess that was someone's idea of a joke. I didn't laugh.
I looked the site up on the browser. It was all purples and reds when it came up, full of images of human women staring at the camera. Their faces were painted with thin veneers of lust and submission over foundations of self-loathing and disdain, but for my money the kind of guy who uses a place like the High Fidelity brothel isn't going to look past the surface. That's why he's there; he's after the superficial. He doesn't see them as people either.
Anyone who'd visited the place could be a suspect, going by those criteria. I'd have to narrow it down.
I noted the address of the joint on Omega down – Valois District, about 70% human - and went back to her email. On a hunch, I checked the spam section. Nestled among the usual crap about volus with frozen bank accounts and exciting new treatments for undersized organs were personal emails. Unread. They came from a Mera Dilley, a Lawrence Dilley, a Sasha Dilley. Some were from what looked like friends. Ciara had cut them off, marked their addresses as spam and ignored them.
I didn't look at them past the subjects: 'Come back, Ciara', 'We still love you'. Just looking at that hurt enough. They wouldn't have helped me, and even the dead deserve privacy. Whatever she was running from, it wasn't my business.
There was nothing implying any kind of vendetta among what was left, not even in the empty trash folder. I closed the email and looked at the rest of her files. They were few in number, mundane to the last. Her computer was as empty as her apartment. It didn't seem like her life had held anything more.
I'd told Sidonis nothing made her special, but I was beginning to see how true it was. I'd seen the same story over and over. The honey trap, I've heard it called. It had worked too well on Ciara. It hadn't just caught her; it had killed her.
I yawned, and glanced at the time. Too late. I'd been tired even before I found the body, and it was getting hard to think straight. Hadley Leach was apparently the day manager at High Fidelity. Day manager. It sounded like a job in a fast food chain, not a cathouse. I wasn't relishing the idea of being in the same room with him, but I'd see him tomorrow regardless. He and I had business to discuss.
Before I left for home, I took the sheet off her bed, bundled it up and took it with me. When I reached her body in the alley, I laid it over her. She'd be gone by the morning, and I didn't have the ability to save her from the indignity of what people on Omega called a vorcha funeral. Dumping her body elsewhere would still leave it in their hands sooner or later. The sheet was the least I could do.
Nobody looked at me twice, or even once, when I came out of that alley. Nobody cared that I'd been covering up a corpse. Nobody cared about another pointless death. Bleak grey apathy hung in the air like a plague.
Every city in the galaxy has a dark side, a time and a place when the good people seem to melt away, but you couldn't say that Omega had a dark side. It'd need a light side first. All its denizens were walking around in the dark, not even seeing each other. They kept to themselves, and if they saw a body, they simply thought they were lucky for dodging the bullet. I couldn't blame them, but I wanted to. I wanted to grab someone and scream at them, demand to know why they hadn't helped, why they had just walked on by. The answer would be the same for all of them. 'Not my problem'. And if it's nobody's problem, then maybe they can kid themselves into thinking it's not a problem at all.
I headed home with a head full of questions and a cauldron of slow-burning anger boiling away in the pit of my stomach. She was dead. Murdered. Omega had chewed her up and spat out the bones, but I was going to make somebody pay. If it was Hadley Leach, all the better, but I couldn't give this up after I'd seen Ciara's life. Sad thing was that for her, death was almost an improvement.
When I got home, I called my sister back on Palaven, looking for family comfort. She wasn't at home.
I lay awake for hours, the rage still hissing and bubbling away inside me, indigestion of the soul keeping me up. All I could do was think, and the only thought was of Ciara's dead, pallid face, staring up at Omega. I got to sleep eventually, but the face haunted my dreams. I could see blue lips moving, mouthing something, but I couldn't tell what. I tried to speak, but I couldn't. All I could do was watch as her face faded away into blackness, lifeless eyes still staring into lifeless skies.
In the morning, I went to visit High Fidelity. From the rule list, I knew the way they'd think of me: I'd look like a human fetishist. Odd looks were a small price to pay for justice.
The outside of the club was garish. HIGH FIDELITY, silver letters blared over the doors, while iridescent advertisements played looped clips of their girls beckoning and smiling seductively. It wasn't what you'd have called subtle, especially for lunchtime.
The lobby was would-be plush. Instead, it was tacky and cheap. Couches and curtains, columns and shag carpets, all of them synthetic bargain-basement crap. It was devoid of people other than a make-up-caked receptionist. As I expected, I got a look of disgust, barely covering its nakedness under the translucent veil of a simpering smile.
"Hello, sir-" she began.
I cut her off. "I need to speak with Hadley Leach."
She looked taken aback at that. "I... is he expecting you?"
"I hope not."
I knew her type. High Fidelity used only human workers in contrast to the usual asari-heavy brothel fare, which meant there'd be a classically human streak of xenophobia in the place, like a bad smell in the air. She was alone in the room with a six-foot-six alien, and my tattoos and visor served to intimidate her further. She wasn't going to be any trouble.
"I'll call him," she said uncertainly, and reached for her terminal. I reached down over the counter and stopped her before she got there. She looked up at me with eyes like saucers, flickering with fear like a faulty fluorescent light.
"Just tell me where to go," I said. "Did you know Ciara Dilley?"
She looked up at me stupidly. "What?"
"Ciara Dilley. She worked here."
"Oh. Yes, Ciara."
"She was murdered last night."
The lights lit up full blast behind her eyes, an electric shock that sent her jerking up from her stupor. "She's dead?"
"Yes. I need to talk to Leach about it. Which door?"
She pointed at a small manual door set into the wall. "I... second left is his office, but-"
"Thank you," I said, and turned away. Even before I got to the door, I could hear her starting to sob.
Through the door was what might have been a maintenance area in a more upscale building. Here, it was what passed for management. The first door on my left looked like a closet, but the second had a small name-plate on it. Hadley Leach, Day Manager, it read. To my right, another door mirrored it: Nick Leach, Night Manager. Brothers, I assumed. Prostitution, a family business. Sometimes, you had to laugh.
Before I went in, I made a quick call, then started my omnitool's recording function up. C-Sec's habits died hard, and I intended to keep it that way.
I opened the door to find Leach at his computer. He was overweight, but his suit was two sizes too small, and those extra kilos were starting to light up the warning signs on its structural integrity. He looked up when I came in, a flash of annoyance dissolving into outright hostility. "Who the fuck are you?"
"Pilus Gellikos," I said. An old alias. Memories of risky, unsanctioned stings and undercover work on the Citadel came floating back to me. The results had been there, but the stripes weren't big Machiavelli fans. They were men like my father, and they put a lot of stock in the method: do it right or don't do it at all. Fair enough. We just disagreed on what 'right' was. "Ciara Dilley was murdered yesterday."
"What?" Leach stared at me in absolute, genuine shock. "Murdered?"
"I found her lying naked in an alley, thrown off her balcony," I said mechanically. Depersonalising it made it easier, I knew that. The hard part was getting that detachment in the first place. "She worked here, correct?"
Leach ran a hand through thinning brown hair, still looking like he was in shock. I was beginning to have serious doubts about my suspicion of him. "Yeah, yeah. She's... was... my best girl. She's dead?"
"I read her email," I said, ignoring the question. It had only been said for something to say while he processed what I'd told him. "There wasn't much personal correspondence, but I'm looking for someone who had a grudge against her. Recurring clients, maybe? Ex-boyfriends? Anyone who might have wanted her dead."
"What do you care?" Leach said, gathering himself together. He'd been sweating for several hours, by the look of the patches on his suit. There was air conditioning in the room, keeping it cooler than I'd like, but his face was still sweat-slick. "Who's paying you? Her family?"
"You might say I'm working for the public good," I said.
He laughed at that. I didn't join in. "The public good of Omega? Good fucking luck there. You expect me to believe you're doing this out of the goodness of your blue heart?"
"Something like that," I said coldly. I leaned over his desk, my knuckles firmly in place on its faux-wood surface. "Leads, Mr. Leach. What can you tell me?"
He ran a hand through his hair again. "She didn't have a boyfriend. We discourage it here. They bring in disease, fatigue... gets in the way of the bottom line."
"You're sure?" I said. I kept a lid on my utter contempt for him as a sapient being, but it was like trying to block a river with a cork. Some of it leaked through despite my best efforts, and his eyes narrowed.
"You tell me, wise guy," he growled. "You're the freak who went through her place."
I refused to rise to it. "Repeat clients, then. There must be something."
"Ever considered that it might be random?"
"She had consensual sex with her killer," I said. Whether she actually had wasn't clear, but it helped my point. "Then he killed her, slowly. Nothing was stolen or disturbed. The front door of her apartment was locked, and her keys were gone. That says 'personal' to me. What does it say to you, Hadley?"
"OK, so it's personal," Leach conceded. "Fine. But I can't give you the records. We have strict client confidentiality."
And yet he acknowledged that the records existed.
"Of course," I said. I'd known he would say that, and threatening him hadn't appealed to me as being effective. I'd be bluffing, at least without evidence. Instead, I'd opted for a more direct solution. As we spoke, Sensat was working through my omnitool to remotely unlock Leach's computer and download its content. Knowing him, I'd only need a few minutes. "Records won't be necessary. Do you remember anyone asking for her multiple times? A physical description would help."
Leach squirmed. "I can't."
"This guy murdered one of your girls," I said, hating the phrase 'your girls' as I said it. "He walks free, what stops him from killing another? And another? And-"
"I get it," Leach said testily. "She was my most popular girl. A lot of people used her. A lot of them came back for seconds and more. Nobody stood out to me. I barely see them."
He seemed genuine enough on that. I'd have the data for myself, assuming Sensat came through. He had too much pride not to. I wasn't going to let Leach get off that easily, though.
"You're being very uncooperative, Mr. Leach," I said. "It's almost as if you don't want the killer to be found."
"And just what the fuck does that mean?" Leach said, suddenly furious. He stood up abruptly, although he was more than six inches shorter than me when we came face to face. "You think I killed her?"
"Fuck you," Leach practically spat. "Who the fuck do you think you are, coming into my fucking office and accusing me of murder? You think I would choke the goose that lays the golden eggs? Fucking look at this!"
He opened up his terminal and typed furiously for a few seconds, then reversed the display. He looked up at me with an expression of savage triumph. I returned his gaze evenly, then looked down. It was a spreadsheet, a list of names with numbers next to them. The names were the girls I'd seen earlier. The numbers were credit sums, in the thousands. The axis read 'June'.
Her nearest competitor had taken a total of 1475 creds over the month. Ciara Dilley had edged over 2000. What she had done best wasn't very nice, but she was the best at what she did.
"I've got no fucking idea how I'm going to replace that," Leach said, his angry fire dying down until all that remained was a black cloud of despair. I could almost see it hanging over his head. "None at all. The other girls will get scared when they find out, and they'll be worse in bed for it. Do you have any idea what this will do to my bottom line?"
"I don't," I said. My contempt was hissing and steaming in the open now, but I didn't think he'd killed her. If he'd have profited out of it, he'd have done it in a heartbeat, but it was costing him dear. A shame, really. The prospect of putting a bullet in his skull had been so appealing. "Is there anybody who would have wanted to hurt you financially by killing her?"
It was a very long shot; death was cheap on Omega. It would have been simpler to just shoot her than to strangle her, but if you don't open all the angles, pretty soon your world's going to be nothing but corners.
Leach seemed to agree. "There's better ways to get at me. I mean, they'd need access to the books to know she was my best- Nick." The last word was little more than a snarl.
I cocked my head. "Your brother?"
"That piece of shit was jealous of Ciara," Leach said. His eyes had gone oddly dark, the blue seeming to drain away. I felt like a man sinking into the ocean, looking up at the light as it faded to black. "The night side makes more, sure, but she out-earned any of his girls. He didn't like that. He always had to be the best."
Hatred has an interesting sound to it. His every word was steeped in it, and every one sounded like another body hitting the floor. If Hadley Leach was ever going to kill someone, I had a feeling he'd be keeping it in the family.
"He works here too?" I said, although I already knew.
"You want to talk to him, come back tonight," Leach said. "And if that piece of shit killed her, then pay him back in kind."
"Whatever happened to brotherly love?" I said, and turned on my heel before he could answer. I had everything I could get from him, and I didn't like being in the same room as him. Blood stains, but sleaze poisons.
In the lobby, the receptionist was still crying. A couple of girls were with her, both in tears as well. I recognised them from the ads out front, though they looked almost nothing like them. This was them without the masks, and the faces they'd covered were gaunt and pale. I was behind the scenes, but I wanted to get out of the theatre.
They looked up at me as I left. I wondered whether I should say something, but in the end it was easier to go in silence. Better nothing than the wrong thing.
I emerged onto a crowded street, but the last day had given me a cynic's eyes worse than ever before. I didn't see people, I saw bodies. It took me a moment to realise that Leach did exactly the same thing. A moment was too long. It served as a reminder: hold onto idealism. An idealist is a man lost at sea, striking out for land he can't possibly reach because he still holds out hope. A cynic sinks like a stone.
I went back to our base to go through the files Sensat had lifted. Erash and Weaver were joking about something when I came in. They tried to wave me over. I brushed them off, and they knew better than to try again. I was in a black mood, and I was casting shadows everywhere I went.
"Mostly spreadsheets," Sensat said, as I came into the basement room he and Butler had set up as our comms hub. "Financial matters stretching back five years."
"A stickler for records," I murmured. I moved up and stood behind him, looking over his shoulder. "What else?"
"Four terabytes of extranet porn," the batarian said, without even a trace of judgement in his voice. "Neatly categorised."
"The download was barely more than four TB," I said. "You're telling me almost everything we lifted was porn?"
"Well, give it to Weaver. He can probably get some use out of it."
"Agreed," Sensat said. I could never quite tell if he was joking. "Look at this: client records."
The image on his screen was a collage of furtive human faces, coming in through the front doors of High Fidelity. I'd been through them myself, and sure enough, I found my own face at the very end of the file. I stood out. There were only a few other non-humans in there: a handful of turians and batarians, two or three krogan – at one point, a hanar. No accounting for taste. Some of the pictures had captions: names, often just first names, but maybe a third had a surname too.
"They use standard gleaning software, from what I can see," Sensat said. "Amateurish, but a lot of people are amateurs. Anyone without basic protection on their electronics gets phished. There's probably a live element as well."
I nodded. "Pillow talk."
"And they say romance is dead. Do we have records of their choices?"
"Yes," Sensat said again, and called it up. "Here's Ciara's."
A dizzying array of thumbnail pictures popped up on his screen. There had to be hundreds of them. I tried hard not to think of what it implied. I failed.
"She was... prolific," Sensat said. His voice was carefully neutral, but whether that was for my benefit or Ciara's I couldn't say.
"I can see," I croaked, then cleared my throat. "Sort it. Only those who requested her more than five times."
Now the numbers were manageable. It had gone down to sixteen profiles, all humans. By this point, almost all of them had full names under their pictures.
"Hell," I muttered. "More than ten?"
Sixteen became four.
He was ageing, and badly. Greying hair and slouching posture, a face that looked like an eroded cliff. His suit was a style you didn't see much among humans: open jacket, tie, shirt. All rumpled and stained. I couldn't think of anyone further apart from the girl he'd liked so much.
The name underneath read Harry Sarle.
"That's your man," Sensat said. "Look at this."
He pressed a key. The parameters went from 14 to 16 to 18, and then all the way to to 23 before the last picture disappeared.
"Twenty-three times," I breathed. "In how long?"
"About a year."
"Did he ever use any others?"
The word of the day was 'obsession'. Leach's had been twofold: his money and his brother. Sarle seemed to have just one, like some twisted form of monogamy. Obsession is a powerful thing, like a black hole at the back of the brain. You can run, but there's no escaping its pull. I knew it all too well. There was something about this case that grabbed me like a dying man's chokehold, pulled me in until the event horizon closed around me and left me with nowhere to go but onwards. I'd see the end of this. If I didn't, Ciara's face would never leave my dreams.
I went to see Sarle immediately. The data they had on him was limited. I had a name and a home district. Valois again. Past that, it was going to have to be detective work.
Valois District had come into that name ten years back. Ever since, it had been a major human enclave on Omega, total population coming in at around twenty thousand. That left a lot of legwork for me, which was why I'd brought Sensat along. He'd been none too happy about being dragged away from whatever project he was working on at the moment, but he was very rarely happy about anything.
We spent a couple of hours walking the streets. Our eyes weren't enough, and going door to door wouldn't work on such a scale. We needed more eyes, and we found them in the form of cameras. Dozens of buildings throughout the district's winding, narrow streets had them, and Sensat pulled a week's worth of data from those poorly designed enough to not be closed-circuit as we passed them with a few commands on his omnitool. On the Citadel, we had a crew dedicated to camera work. All you had to do was ask. Omega forced a more hands-on approach.
Eventually, we had a few petabytes of data to work with. We might even have wrapped things up then and there if Ciara's street had had even one camera on it, but I'd been out of that kind of luck years ago. We grabbed lunch at one of the niche dextro-levo eateries while Sensat's programs compiled and searched based on the picture of Sarle we'd got from Leach's computer. An hour later, they were finished.
What we had was a map of the Valois streets, filled in with tiny red dots. Those were where the cameras had found a match for Sarle with a higher probability than 80%. Either Sarle liked to walk the streets a lot, or we were going to run into a lot of doppelgangers. The dots appeared mostly on one side of the map, with several on top of each other on the camera nearest to High Fidelity. He'd been there a couple of times in the last week alone. It didn't condemn him, but it didn't help him either.
They reached their greatest density around a few blocks in the upper left side, bordering on Nimo District. Sarle lived somewhere around there, but it was impossible to narrow it down further from here. I sent Sensat back to base and struck out on my own.
The next few hours was spent showing Sarle's picture to anybody who'd look at it. I tried grocery stores, clinics, fast food joints, bars. I got lucky on the last. A bartender knew the face and the name, and gave me a street. It took fifteen passers-by before I got a building, then eight apartments before I had Sarle's place.
It was almost upscale by Omega standards. You could tell because there was actually a receptionist behind the desk. True, it was a preprogrammed mech, but they'd made the effort. Sarle's place turned out to be on the eighth floor, room 812.
I pressed a button and the door chimed. Sarle answered it.
In person, his face was even craggier. It seemed to have some great weight to it, pulling it down into jowls. He'd have been tall if he'd stood straight, but there was a pronounced stoop to him that brought him down until I stood near a foot over him. Weary, wary eyes glinted balefully at me beneath heavy eyebrows.
"Who the hell are you?" he said. By the sound of his voice, his lungs were full of gravel.
"Pilus Gellikos. I'd like to ask you some questions."
"Then you can piss off," Sarle growled, and reached for the button to close the door. I reached for his wrist to stop him. I was faster. "Let go, damn you!"
"I'll rephrase that," I said. "I'm going to ask you some questions, and you're going to answer them."
"Like hell I am," Sarle said, and then coughed violently. It sounded like someone had started a bar brawl in his throat. He tried to pull free, but I held him firm. "Who the hell do you think you are?"
"The man investigating the murder of Ciara Dilley," I said.
Colour drained from Sarle's face as if I'd pulled his plug. "Murder? But she's... I saw her just..."
He trailed off. His wrist went limp in my hand, and I released it. Sarle looked at his feet, and his whole body seemed to slump forward even further.
"Mr. Sarle," I said, "you paid for her services twenty-three times, including twice last week alone. The evidence indicates that it may well have been a sexual crime, and one committed by someone she knew."
Sarle made no reply.
I tried again. "I need you to account for your movements yesterday afternoon. You-"
Sarle collapsed to his knees and let out an animal howl of pure grief. It chilled me to my bones. I'd heard the sound before, on battlefields and in interview rooms alike, and there was no faking it. Sarle wasn't the murderer. Either that, or the ACF Best Actor award this year was a lock.
I'm not a counsellor. When bullets are flying and blood is pumping, I'm at my best. When I'm faced with an old man crying his eyes out on the floor, I'm worse than useless.
In the end, I half-helped him, half-dragged him inside and left him in an armchair with a face the same colour as the contents of the heaped ashtray beside him. He wasn't in any state to talk to me, so I looked around.
It was a big apartment. Too big for one man. There were two chairs in front of the holoscreen, two chairs at the plate-piled table. Through an open door, I could see a double bed.
On a mantelpiece, there were photos. They told me everything. It's amazing what one decades-old snapshot can tell you if you look closely enough. The past, crystallised and preserved in a nice frame. It always looks better than the present.
There was one of Sarle almost as he was now; maybe a little younger, hair a little darker, lines a little shallower. With him was a woman of maybe fifty years, clearly his wife. They had their arms wrapped around each other. All smiles, just like the pictures in Ciara's apartment. I wondered how it felt for them to see their past selves so happy. To me, the smiles looked genuine. To them, maybe they edged on mocking.
The next picture was them again, this time on some beach vista. It reminded me of Virmire, only with fewer dead friends and more bathing suits. They looked ten years younger. The next one was only of the woman, at about the same age. Smiles beamed at me from every angle.
The next was them as twenty-somethings, standing on a bridge in front of that famous clock tower on Earth. Sarle looked a different man, standing straight and tall with smooth face and full hair. His wife... I was beginning to understand.
The last photo was their wedding day. Family and friends all around. It had to be before Relay 314, by the looks of their ages. Sarle looked like the happiest man in the galaxy, and his wife looked much the same. Sandy brown hair was fluttering in the breeze beneath a veil, framing a familiar face.
She looked exactly like Ciara Dilley. Her spitting image, as the saying goes. The resemblance was almost uncanny. Sarle had evidently thought so. I could see exactly why he'd hired Ciara so often.
The last item wasn't a photo. It was a small urn.
"I was here," Sarle said, making me jump.
I turned to him. His cheeks were still wet, but he looked steadier than he had been. "What?"
"I was here," he repeated. "You asked. I was here all day. I didn't... I would never..."
An oppressive fog of a silence rolled in.
"I know," I said eventually. "I'm sorry. You understand why I suspected you."
Sarle levelled two watchful hazel eyes at me. "Who are you working for?"
"Nobody," I said.
Sarle let out another hacksaw cough. "On Omega? Like hell you are."
I shrugged. "It's the truth. Believe it or not, I don't care."
"Then find the gutless son of a whore who murdered her and kill him. Slowly, and painfully." Sarle was practically spitting venom. "And if you don't, I will."
"I'll do what I can, Mr. Sarle," I said. That was the truth, at least. "I'm sorry. About..." I waved a hand at the photos, the urn, trying to encompass everything I couldn't say. He nodded in understanding, but the lines in his face seemed to have been struck by another ice age's worth of erosion since I'd knocked on his door.
"What was her name?" I said. I had to know.
"Lucy," Sarle said. "Her name was Lucy."
I left without another word, then closed the door behind me.
"Sensat," I said quietly, flicking on the comm channel. "Did we get the camera for 133 Savoy Street?"
"Find when Sarle last went out."
"Give me a minute. Here," Sensat said, sounding unusually non-irritable. Perhaps the case had piqued his interest too. "He last came out... the day before the murder."
"Thanks," I said, and ended the call. I had to be sure, and sure I was. Sarle was innocent. Would it have been better if I hadn't ever taken the case up? He would have gone in one day and been told Ciara wasn't there, that they didn't know where she was, and it would have hurt him. But when I'd outright told him she'd been murdered, I'd damn near killed him. For Harry Sarle, his wife had died twice. Just another casualty on a growing list.
On the elevator down, I ran through my options in my head. There were three others who'd hired Ciara more than ten times, but I only had a full name for one and an address for none. Those were the leads I'd pursue when I had nothing else, but for now there was another Leach to talk to. I had hours to kill until the night shift began work at High Fidelity.
I was frustrated. The best way to deal with that, I've found, is to kill somebody who has it coming. I went home and picked up a rifle and a combat suit, then spent the afternoon on rooftops. I killed four people. A turian who'd fired first when the man he'd been mugging had gone for his gun, a couple of vorcha chasing a batarian woman down an alley, a human backing onto the street with a hostage in the middle of an armed robbery. Omega was a better place without them. It made me feel better as well, knowing that because of me the streets were a little safer, the ranks of the criminals a little thinner.
I went back to High Fidelity in civilian clothes. Heavy armour was more or less the Omega equivalent of formal attire in that whenever the station's movers and shakers got together, you'd better be wearing it, but I didn't want to look overly threatening. It opens some doors, but some will slam shut in your face. My only armament was a custom pistol under my shirt. It lacked a thermal clip to allow for easier concealment, which meant I had six shots before it overheated. More than enough.
There was a different receptionist. I ignored her even as she told me I couldn't go through the door to the offices, but what I couldn't ignore was the heavy-set batarian with a shotgun and a chip on his shoulder so large it was in danger of crushing him. The shotgun was even bigger. Three dark eyes glared at me. One was no longer there.
"Name," he grunted.
"Pilus Gellikos. I need to talk to Nick Leach about the murder of Ciara Dilley."
He glared at me some more, then reluctantly spoke into his collar. "Boss, there's a turian – Pilus Gellikos - out here wants to speak to you. About the dead girl on the day shift."
He waited a few seconds for the response, then looked back at me. "He says you can go to hell."
"Then assure him that the feeling is mutual," I said, and left. I couldn't remember the last time somebody had been happy to see me. I'd need something a little more persuasive to get Leach's attention.
Another night passed. More dreams, similar to the last, only now Harry Sarle was there, fire pouring from his mouth as blood dripped from Ciara's split skull.
My alarm brought me out of bed an hour before the night shift ended, and I went over to High Fidelity for the third time. This time, I found a disused fire escape on an adjacent building and hauled myself up until I stood on the roof. It was a good vantage point. I could see the ubiquitous orange glimmer of Omega's lights in every direction. It was like watching the sun set everywhere at once, but Omega would never see either day or night. It would just be twilight, from here to eternity.
The girls all left by the back door. You'd have had to be a blind man to not see the fear. They disappeared in clusters, never alone. Ciara's death had served as a visceral reminder for them of Omega's heart of darkness.
Nick Leach came out about ten minutes later, shrugging on an open jacket. He was every inch a different man to his brother; taller, slimmer, moving like a dancer. Thin strands of dark hair lay heavy on his face in Omega's stagnant air.
His bodyguard followed, shotgun still in hand. A gun like that could blow through a man's shields, armour and body all in one if he got a clear shot. That seemed like something to avoid.
They headed off through the alleys around the back of the building. That was good. I'd scouted the area and isolated the most likely route for a man with a bodyguard that size, and he was taking it.
Omega never falls silent. In some far-flung warehouse districts and abandoned refineries, you might find quiet, but on the streets there was always a cacophony of noise, of shouted conversations and grumbling vehicles and distant gunfire. It helped me mask my approach. I jumped from building to building, hurdling two-metre gaps with ease. The alleys beneath were so narrow they might have been carved out with razor blades. It was the perfect city for a hunter.
The buildings I was following were descending as we neared the next major street, bringing me down a metre or so at a time. Leach and the batarian were alone in their alley. If there'd just been one of them, then there'd have been a dozen shadows in pursuit. People stayed out of the back streets without heavy firepower.
I had to stop them before they melted away into the crowds. I ran ahead, leapt to the next building, then crouched low behind a rooftop air regulation unit. The drop from here to the street was about five metres. It would hurt, but I could do it.
Leach and his bodyguard walked past, and I dropped.
My pistol was already in my hand, and when I hit the ground, it was pressed up hard against the batarian's skull. He froze.
A drop like that without even rolling might have broken a couple of bones if not for the armour. Instead, it just hurt like hell.
Leach whirled around at the heavy clang my boots made when they hit the deck, shock written on his face like a bad novel. I smiled at him. He didn't return the favour.
"Drop the gun, big man," I said. "Throw it in the trash."
"I like this gun," the batarian rasped.
"More than your life?"
He shrugged. "Fair point." The shotgun disappeared into the depths of the requisite pile of garbage bags.
"Come back in an hour and it'll still be there," I said. "Now get out of here."
He left without even looking back at me, sauntering off into the crowded street.
"Why do I even bother?" Nick said, as I turned my attention to him. The surprise had gone, replaced with a derisive smile. He knew that I wasn't there to kill him. "Mr. Gellikos, I presume? You've cost me a good bodyguard."
"We could have done this the easy way," I said. "Tough luck."
Nick spread his arms wide. "So, then. You have my attention, but first let me ask who you're working for."
Nick chuckled to himself a little. "How noble of you. And you suspect me as the murderer of poor Clara, do you?"
"Ciara," I said stonily. "Her name was Ciara."
Nick's smile shimmered like oil on water. "Ah, of course. I wonder why you'd suspect me? Let me guess. Somebody fingered me as a likely suspect. Was it my dear brother Hadley?"
Nick sighed. "I hate being right. Did he tell you why?"
"Let me run my theory by you," I said. "He runs the day shift, you run the night shift. You two hate each other's guts. Your shift brings in the real money. His is pretty much a sideshow. But he's got one special asset. Ciara."
"And he thinks I killed her," Nick said sadly. "Out of what, jealousy?"
"Look at me, Mr. Gellikos." His voice was calm, but there was steel under there, cold and hard. He was friendly enough, but I saw through it. Beneath the facade, his mind was a stiletto blade. "Do I look like I would be jealous of my brother? Our father left us High Fidelity, and he gave me the night shift because he knew I was better. I make more money than him. I'm smarter, prettier, fitter. I'm betterthan him. The idea that I'd kill this girl just because she was good at her job is fucking ridiculous. He's jealous of me, Mr. Gellikos. That's the truth of it. Besides, I'm mourning her loss too."
"Yeah," I said. "I can see the tears."
"Well," Nick conceded, "as a person, I cared nothing for her. She was nobody special... but she was a fantastic fuck."
Nick might have been charming, but underneath he was as self-centred as his brother. Good indications of a sociopath. "You were one of her clients?"
"Oh, I don't know about client." His smile grew mordant. "Call it a perk of the job. Oh, don't give me that look. Like you wouldn't."
"I wouldn't," I said coldly. "Where did these liaisons happen?"
"Liaisons," Nick said mockingly. The gun in my hand might as well have been a water pistol for all he cared. "Listen to you! Would it kill you to loosen up? You seem to like Ciara well enough. Swing by Hi-Fi and I'll set you up with a nice girl. I've got one who'd spend all night riding turians if enough came by."
He was baiting me. That much was obvious. He didn't think I'd kill him. Unfortunately, he was right.
"Where?" I repeated.
"Her hovel," Nick said. "Nasty place, but I wasn't there for the scenery. My dear brother was porking her on the side too, but I made sure he never found out. I only ever hired that bodyguard because I thought he might off me for my share of Hi-Fi. I shudder to think what he might do if he knew I was sampling his merchandise on the side."
I was liking this Leach even less than his brother. Hadley had been a poster-boy for that banal, everyday malevolence you see in offices across the galaxy, but Nick strutted like the girls he sold and wore evil like a designer label. I wanted to call him Ciara's murderer, but my gut told me no.
And he'd just given me important new information. Hadley hadn't told me he'd had his fingers in his own pie.
"Can you provide an alibi?" I said. For him, I didn't bother holding back on contempt. I could almost see it pouring out of me like breath on a cold planet.
Nick shrugged. "When did it happen?"
"Probably during the switchover between shifts," I said. "1600 to 2000, the day before yesterday."
"I woke up, left my place, went to work," Nick said, with another shrug. The shrugs were infuriating. They were calculated, designed to show me that he didn't care. "I might show up on cameras and so on, but there's nobody to vouch for me. There's no evidence against me either. I know that, because I didn't kill her."
"An upstanding citizen as yourself would never do a thing like that," I said. "Right?"
A third shrug, but the eyes were mocking. "I'd kill her without a second thought if I felt like it, but as it happens, I'm an innocent man."
I ground my back teeth together. I could imagine them sparking. "Give me a reason not to put a bullet in your head."
"Because you're a good man," Nick said. "if you weren't, you'd kill me where I stood, because I'm an asshole. But you won't, because I've committed no crime." A mordant smile spread across his face like a plague. "Don't think I can't see you for what you are, Gellikos. A wannabe Archangel. You're in the wrong place for an angel, friend. Better be gone before your white wings turn red."
And I'd thought I had a monopoly on metaphor. I shook my head, then walked away. "You're not my friend, Nick," I told him over my shoulder. "I don't think you're anybody's friend."
Nick didn't reply. He just turned, and walked away into the twilight.
I waited until he was around the corner before I punched the wall. My gauntlet clanged against it like a piston, striking sparks. They burned to nothing in the air, but the fire inside me was out of control. Hadley Leach was a despicable little rat, but his brother was worse. He'd known exactly how to get to me, and there'd been no mercy. Worse still, he was innocent. Another sick joke. Omega never ran out of them.
There have been few people I've ever wanted to kill that badly. Justice was a cruel master. If I'd killed him, I could never justify it. He was a monster, but I wasn't a monster hunter. In the end, I was a cop. No badge, no orders, no law to uphold... but if there's no crime, then there's nothing for me. Nothing I can do. The only thing that held me back was my sense of justice, but that's a short leash. Longer than it had been at C-Sec, but still short. Nick Leach stood just outside my reach, and his smile hurt more than any bullet.
It took an hour walking the streets for the fire to die down to embers. I was still angry, but it was manageable. The heat was still there, though. It could all roar back to life at a moment's notice if someone added fuel to the fire. I felt like I was living in a powder keg and giving off sparks. No case had ever got to me as badly as this one. It was worse than when they'd let Saleon go free, worse than when I'd been called off Saren's case. Then, I had somebody to blame: the rules, the bureaucracy, the men upstairs who'd left their common sense in the basement. Now, the only thing in my way was me. A cruel irony.
I couldn't think straight for a while, but eventually I found myself in a small quarian-owned eatery that served food all day. I hadn't eaten since that lunch with Sensat the day before, and I forced down breakfast into an angrily churning stomach. The food helped a little.
I was out of suspects. Sarle was innocent. Nick Leach was innocent, though calling him that was an insult to the term. I didn't doubt either of those. That left me Ciara's other clients and Hadley Leach. To find the clients would take days, and I would never be able to prove anything. That left me Hadley Leach again. I'd left High Fidelity near-certain that he wouldn't have killed the thing he loved, which was money. His brother had made me doubt that. Both brothers screwing the same girl, but the way Nick had told it, he'd been alone in knowing that. If Hadley had found out... I had opportunity. He'd been in her apartment often enough. I had means. His hands were pudgy, but strong. Him knowing his star player was double-timing him would be motive.
It was better than nothing.
I had a couple of hours until High Fidelity opened again for the day shift. I spent them listening to my own conversation with Hadley Leach over and over again, watching it from my visor's point of view. I reread every expression on his doughy face, looking for something, anything. If I went with the narrative that he was the murderer, his reactions still made sense. The shock wouldn't be that Ciara was dead, but that somebody was following it up. His inability to name a likely suspect might have been genuine or might have been an attempt not to look like he was too eager to blame someone else. His hatred for his brother... that was definitely real.
Or that could all be coincidence.
I watched it again, and again. Every crime movie I ever saw told me there was one fatal flaw in every perp's reactions or their phrasing, but reality doesn't work according to narrative conventions. There's no neat trail of clues to follow to the inevitable conclusion, no moment when it all makes sense, no sudden insights that open up a whole new avenue.
Except this time, there was.
Something had been nagging at me over and over as I watched the conversation, an itch that wouldn't go away. He'd used some odd metaphor at one point. I played back his words again.
"You think I would choke the goose that lays the golden eggs?" Leach said furiously. I played it again, and again. I looked the phrase up on the extranet. Interesting story. A man has a fowl that lays golden eggs, but in his impatience, he cuts it open to get them all at once and, surprise surprise, finds nothing, and his priceless bird is dead. It all sounded oddly appropriate, but that was irrelevant. As I read it, a cold finger ran down my spine. Was it that simple?
I looked up another version, and another. The story was the same every time, accompanied by ancient engravings of a man distraught over his lost income, the entrails of his dead bird spilling out on the ground.
In every version, the goose was cut open. I played Leach's words again.
"You think I would choke the goose that lays the golden eggs?"
"-choke the goose that lays the golden eggs?"
Again, until I was just playing one word over and over.
I went back through the recording, but I already knew what I'd find. A chasm opened up in my stomach. The answer had been there on my omni-tool all along, and I hadn't seen it. Too intent on looking everywhere, and too distracted to look right in front of me.
My own words played back.
"I found her lying naked in an alley, thrown off a balcony. … Then he killed her, slowly."
And that was all the detail I'd given him about how Ciara had died. I'd told nobody her precise cause of death... and yet Hadley Leach had denied choking the goose that laid his golden eggs. That implied he knew she'd been strangled. The only person who knew that aside from me was her murderer.
I sat back in my chair, incredulous. It had been so simple, but I was too ready to assume it was complicated. We live in a complicated galaxy, but sometimes the answer really is simple.
I went back to High Fidelity, calling Sensat to duty one last time as dead smiles and lifeless eyes stared down from billboards. A couple of uplinks and I was past the high-security locks. I dragged one of the waiting chairs across the deserted reception, making an ear-splitting grinding noise that echoed away through the darkness, depositing it in front of the main door. I sat there, and waited.
Two hours later, the doors slid open and the orange light of Omega poured in. I felt like a gunfighter at dawn as I rose, hand on my pistol, only this wouldn't be a duel. This would be an execution.
It's a cliché, but time stood still. The sound of the door opening echoed back and forth for a second. It sounded like a tomb opening.
Hadley Leach stood there, but when he saw me he froze like he'd spent the night outside on Noveria. This time, it wasn't just shock crawling across his face. It was dread.
I'll give him credit. He reacted faster than I could ever have anticipated, putting two and two together and realising that I knew he was the killer. He knew why I was there, and he knew he wouldn't see the morning out alive. He bolted, and any doubts I'd had evaporated.
I cursed and sprinted after him. He'd mashed a hand into the door panel as he'd gone, closing it in front of me and costing me precious seconds as it slid open again. He'd gone right, towards the alley at the end of the block. I was just in time to see him disappear into it.
I skidded around the corner in hot pursuit and followed him. He went for the fire escape, just like I had a few hours back, and stormed up it before I could get a clear shot at him. It was a bad move, one born of desperation. He had the advantage in some ways; he was fast for a fat man, and my heavy armour was slowing me down – but he was merely running for his life. I was running for his death, and nobody lives forever.
We hammered up the old metal stairs, but even over the clanging I could hear Leach sobbing for breath. He had to know he couldn't escape.
Then it was up and onto the roof, bathed in light from dying strip fixtures a hundred metres above us, and we ran on under heavenly light. It had only been Nick's little joke, but I felt like there were wings at my back, driving me on like an armoured bird of prey. Leach threw a glance over his shoulder, and his face was an ice mask of fear. Maybe he could see the wings, but what I knew he could see was death. It was faster than him.
He hurdled the first gap awkwardly, barely making the jump. A few seconds later, I made it easily, and then Hadley Leach ran out of luck.
The rooftop was long enough for me to line up a shot as he ran. I fired three times. Two missed. One struck him in the thigh, and he squealed like the pig he was.
He kept running, headed for the next gap, but he was never going to make it. He tried to take off from his wounded leg and half-fell, half-hurtled forwards... and down. Arms wheeled like windmills, and he managed to get both hands over the side of the next building. I was impressed. He'd won himself a few more seconds, but the sand in his hourglass was measurable in grains.
I lightly jumped the two metres, and came around to stand over him.
"You shot me!" he said, half in incredulity and half in agony. "You fucking shot me?"
"Why'd you do it, Hadley?" I said. "Why did you kill her? You told me yourself that you only cared about money."
Leach's mask was melting in his sweat, and pain had joined the fear. His hands were looking slick.
"Why?" I said again. "Give me an answer."
"She called his name!" Leach gasped, barely able to get it out. "I was fucking her, and, and-"
"And she said 'Nick'," I finished. "And you lost it, didn't you? It wasn't fair."
"He had everything!" Leach wailed. His hands had slipped a little. "He had the night shift, he had the money, the looks, the brains, but it was never fucking enough!"
"And so you strangled an innocent girl to death," I said. I could hear my tone. It sounded like a gun cocking. "And then you threw her over the balcony and locked the door behind you. Why did you do that, Hadley? Shame? Or were you trying to cover your tracks?"
"Why do you care? What the fuck makes her special?" Leach spat.
"Nothing," I said, and levelled my pistol at his head. Viscous yellow fear boiled over and staged a military takeover of Leach's face. His hands slipped another centimetre. "Nothing at all."
"Wait," Leach said. Desperation radiated from him like heat from a star. "W-wait! Pull me up, we can talk, we can- I have money! I can pay!"
"Yeah," I said. "You will."
That final gunshot was the period to a long, twisted sentence. Leach's head snapped back, his face permanently engraved with terror, and then the hands loosened in death. He vanished over the edge and hit the ground with a wet thud. I looked over and saw him lying on his back, blood spreading around him already. The bullet hole in his forehead was perfectly round.
I turned away. That would be the end of it, then. Nick Leach would inherit his brother's share, and he'd rule High Fidelity like a king. I couldn't do anything about it. I wouldn't murder him.
But I couldn't walk away again. Not now. The murderer was dead, but if I did nothing, things would be worse than ever for the girls at High Fidelity.
The answer, when it came, was simple again. Tell the truth. The truth is a dangerous thing in the hands of the wrong man, or the right man. Show a man a lie, and he'll nod and smile and compliment you on how honest you are. Show a man the truth and he'll recoil like it's scalding hot, because the truth hurts. As Hadley Leach could attest, sometimes, the truth kills.
I abandoned Hadley Leach's body in that alley. He deserved nothing better, but in the end, what did it matter where you lay once you were dead?
I went back to High Fidelity, and as the day-shift girls filtered in, I gave them each a message. Hadley Leach is dead. Return here for the night shift. There's going to be a meeting. Pass it on.
I returned again later that day. Every girl working at High Fidelity had arrived, milling aimlessly around in reception. I intended to help their aim, but I said nothing until Nick Leach arrived. I ran a brief visor scan over him. He was unarmed.
"Mr. Gellikos!" he said, greeting me with another nuclear smile. "I hear my brother has been brought to justice. I can't thank you enough."
"No," I said. "You can't."
I stepped up onto a chair. Silence fell across the room in front of me. I was a pulpit away from being a preacher.
"I'm going to tell the truth," I said. Nearly fifty eyes stared up at me, uncomprehending, but Nick Leach's smile was still showing in the midst of the group. It was the last bit of persuasion I needed. Putting an end to that smile would be more than enough. "Here are some facts. A few hours ago, I executed Hadley Leach, because he killed Ciara Dilley."
Murmurs and gasps rippled across the room. I waited for them to stop.
"Another fact: Nick Leach now has sole ownership of High Fidelity."
Leach's smile grew ever wider. I looked him in the eyes, and smiled back. He looked taken aback there. Perhaps he'd seen what I was planning.
"Another: there are twenty-two of you. Nick Leach is alone."
The smile froze.
"Another: Nick Leach is not only outnumbered, but unarmed."
"Gellikos, wait-" Nick said, but I ignored him. I could hear his tone all too well. It was the brittle glass edge of panic.
"One final fact," I said. "Once I leave this room, I'm never coming back. As to what I want you to do with these facts... I want you to stand up and make your own choices. Whatever they are, you'll have to live with them."
I stepped down from the chair into a forest of mutters. I could see which way the wind was blowing: inwards, and at the centre of the room stood Nick Leach, with that smile gone for good. It had been a crowd, but now it was becoming a circle. He'd always been at the centre of everything, but only now was he starting to see what a prison that put him in.
"Gellikos," he said quickly, as I turned for the door, "wait, stop. I have money, I can pay you-"
"Then you're more like your brother than either of you ever thought," I said, and opened the door. Light spilled in again, but this time I could almost pretend it was golden. I looked back, and the circle had shrunk. At its heart, Leach looked like he could hear the hounds baying.
"Gellikos-" he began.
"Call me Garrus," I said, and left. The doors slid shut behind me, and now they sounded like a tomb closing again.
I never found out what happened after I left. I didn't want to. I'd given them a choice. That was enough for me.
In the end, I went back to Ciara's place one last time. I don't know what I was looking for, if anything. Her body was long gone, leaving nothing but a bloody sheet coiled in the alley. I spent a little while standing there and thinking, then walked on up to her apartment again.
It was just as desolate as it had been before. A wasteland of a home for a wasted life. Smiles beamed from the dresser again. The happiness grated. What right did people in the past have to be happy? Nobody in the present was.
I switched on her terminal again and called up her email. No new messages.
I got as far as copying her family's addresses from the spam folder into a new email. Then I sat there, looking at a blinking cursor and an empty message.
In the end, I kept the addresses, promising myself that I'd write to them later to let them know that Ciara had been murdered, once I'd worked out what to say. Empty promises. I knew all too well that the words would never come.
I left her empty apartment with the door swinging open. Someone else would live there soon enough, and her personal effects would be thrown out. It would be as if she'd never existed. Sure, I'd remember her, and her family would. Harry Sarle would. Maybe the other girls would, for a time. Nick Leach would, if he was still alive. She'd be remembered as a lot of things - a runaway, a prostitute, a murder victim - but nobody would remember her as a friend.
I stepped out onto the street and started walking. It was a long way home, but at least I'd get there.