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I stood on the curb of the wet, filthy street in front of a small shop, its closed wooden shutters painted with graffiti slogans for the technoground movement and other half-hearted grassroots rebellions here in the ghettos of Prosperine. The rain ran through the salt and pepper stubble on my scalp anddown my face. I never bothered with an umbrella. I liked the rain. It was better than the alternative.
A temporary marquee had been set up on the corner of Rue Macarty and Lecomte, to shelter the gutter there. I’d already blocked both ends of the sluice, to prevent anything left there being flushed away by the autumnal showers, down through the iron grates, into the sewers and out to sea. It was a futile gesture, perhaps, but one we had to make nonetheless. In a world without modern technology, one did what one could to preserve a crime scene.
“It’s not like in the Lady Detective novels, is it, Bill?” Doc Ulysses asked me, as he knelt down beside the gutter. He was an old man, visibly old, something that still surprised me even after five years living on New Ceres. Anti-aging treatments — cheap and commonplace back on Earth — were illegal here; not unheard of, just too expensive for ordinary men like Ulysses.
“All primped and proper ladies,” he continued, “stuffed shirts and snuff boxes and fast-acting toxins. An attractive bunch of suspects, all high society of course. A thoughtful accusation, a flustered confession, then tea and biscuits all round.” He made a disgusted noise. “Do people honestly believe murders are actually like that in the real world?”
I shook my head. “They’d like to believe that, Doc. But they know it’s not true.” I looked around, at the crowd gathered curiously in the streets, eager for a glimpse of horror. “It’s just dirty and violent. Like we all are here.”
The doctor laughed at that. “Even you, Bill? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you draw your truncheon.” He gestured at the police issue wooden cudgel hanging from my wide leather belt, the only weapon a policeman was permitted to carry in Prosperine.
“Even me, Doc,” I replied. “Even me.”
The doctor snorted at that. Ulysses was a general practitioner but we brought him in to help us whenever we needed a medical man by our side. He seemed thrilled to receive something unusual to examine for a change; most of his work for us involved much less exotic crimes. This area, Canonge, was at the far eastern edge of Prosperine, largely populated by the lower classes, the forgotten majority. The cases down here were rarely complex. A cuckolded husband strangles his wife and her lover. A mugger smashes his victim’s head into a wall. A woman drowns the baby she can’t afford to feed, crying as it struggles weakly under her fingers. Nothing epic, nothing entertaining. Basic humanity, desperate and struggling. Simple. That suited me fine. I just wanted to do my job. Nothing more.
I looked down at the stones where the pathologist squatted. At the severed hand that nestled there, amongst the rubbish and some reddening fallen leaves, fingers curling upwards and inwards, like a fallen bird. It was a woman’s left hand, small and delicate, thin fingers and long nails. The cut looked clean, almost surgical. There was very little blood.
I’d come to New Ceres to get away from things like this.
It had seemed logical to me, when I’d been choosing my destination. Anywhere you like, they’d told me. You’re free to go anywhere you like, as long as you can afford it. I couldn’t afford much, but I’d had some choices. I’d chosen to come here, to a world frozen in time, a world of truncheons instead of rapid-fire flechette guns, in the vain hope that I could leave the horror behind.
No such luck.
Ulysses poked at the hand thoughtfully with his tweezers. “Not much in the way of rigour mortis,” he observed. “I doubt it’s been here for much more than a few hours.”
“Look at the fingernails,” I told him.
“The fingernails,” I repeated. “Check under them.”
He sighed and bent over further, brass tweezers extended. He inserted one tip of the tweezers gently beneath the fingernail of the index finger of the hand, slid it along its breadth, brought it out. Examined it. “Nothing,” he said.
“Nothing at all. Satisfied?”
“Yes,” I said. “Look around you.”
Ulysses stayed in his kneeling position, though it obviously pained his aged knees, lowered his glasses on his nose and looked over them at the ghoulish people gathered, the rundown buildings, the dirty streets. “What?” he asked at last.
“See a lot of clean fingernails here, Reynard? Especially ones with immaculate manicures?”
He just looked up at me, dumbfounded. Then he smiled. “Damnation,” he said at last, with a mixture of annoyance and admiration in his voice. “William Finnegan, you really would give La Duchesse a run for her money.”
“I’m not a detective,” I reminded the doctor. “Just a cop. And anyway, the so-called Great Detective would never come here. She wouldn’t be caught dead in Canonge, I’m sure.” I looked at the hand again. It seemed almost supplicant. Pleading. “No, Doc, whoever this hand belongs to will have to rely on us for justice. God help her.”
“No, I don’t think He will,” Ulysses said, as he lifted the hand from the gutter by one finger, feeling its weight.
“What do you mean?”
Ulysses frowned. “This hand is in pristine condition.” He turned the hand around, pointed the stump at me. “Look at it,” he told me.
I glanced at it. “I don’t understand.”
“I may not be a trained policeman like you,” the doctor declared, “but I’ve seen enough severed limbs in my life to recognise that there’s something off about this one. The tissue isn’t decaying, not at all. No rigour. Minimal bleeding, as if the capillaries had all puckered shut. And there’s something else.”
The doctor tossed the hand at me. I caught it without thinking, and immediately knew what he was talking about.
“It’s heavy,” I grunted, hefting it in my hands. It felt more like a sculpture than a human hand, carved of some soft stone. “Too heavy.” I looked at it closer, at the curved fingers.
“Smooth,” I muttered.
“Sorry?” the doctor asked.
“The fingertips. They’re smooth. No prints.” Our eyes met. “Synthetic,” I said at last. “This isn’t a human hand. It comes from an android.” My blood ran cold, as if I was holding a live grenade, rather than a dead hand. This was trouble.
I turned to the crowd, looking for the men I knew would be there, the men who were always there whenever things like this happened. I spotted them after a moment or two, standing in the middle of the gathered crowd, on the far corner of Macarty and Lecomte. Two smallish men, both wrapped in their robes of office, the famed golden cloth tarnished to a dull brown in the wan grey light of a rainy day. They were watching us. Just us.
Seeing I’d spotted them, the men broke away from the crowd and came towards us. The severed hand seemed to grow heavier still as they approached. They stopped just before the edge of the marquee.
I took a deep breath. “Gentlemen,” I said to them with a polite nod, hoping my nervousness wasn’t showing. “I assume you’ve come for this?” I held up the hand.
The first robed man nodded. He reached into his robe and pulled out an identification badge. Lumoscenti, as I’d thought.
“Detective,” he said. “My name is Brother Thomas and this is Brother Simon.”
The second man nodded. With their pale faces and bald heads, the pair could have been brothers by blood, rather than just by title.
“I’m not a detective,” I replied. “Senior Constable Finnegan, Serious Crimes.”
“Constable?” the second man repeated, thin eyebrows raised. “Aren’t you a little old for that?”
I shrugged as casually as I could. Cold sweat had broken out over my neck and palms. The Golden Monks always made me uncomfortable. They always seemed to be watching, judging. Which was their job, after all.
Doc Ulysses nodded in greeting to the monks, a relaxed smile on his face. He was born here on New Ceres, had lived his whole long life under the Lumoscenti’s careful gaze. He was accustomed to them, and their judgement. He felt safe. I envied him that.