THE CASE OF THE COPYCAT KILLER
The Charger Chronicles #5 (Science Fiction and Mystery)
The first murder victim was splattered like chunky tomato sauce across the cobblestone street and up a brick wall. Subsequent victims suffered the exact same fate, in the exact same spot.
How could that happen? New London is just an ordinary block-square tourist trap in the New Denver of 2170. Owned by the Church of the Brothers of Boundless Space, it offers tours and rides in carriages drawn by robot horses. It’s a replica of the 1880s London area where Jack the Ripper did his dirty deeds.
Captain Jack O. Lantern thinks a bomb exploded the victims, but Forensics says not. He’s helped in the investigation by his sidekick, Lucie, who is often distracted by Kiska, her crazy mother. And by a Biodroid named Super Pilot, who wears a white silk scarf around his silver metal neck, and has a strange sense of humor. And, oddly enough, by Clarissa, son of the BOBS archbishop.
Jack suspects Charger the Hyborg. But Charger, as usual, isn’t talking.
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Crimson drops of blood slid down the brick wall in the shadowed street, turning dark and viscous in the chilly night air of early March. Puddles of lurid red oozed across the cobblestones. The victim had been splattered everywhere, in pieces so small it was impossible to identify what they were. The forensic team, in the usual suits, masks, and booties, moved quickly to and fro beneath glaring lights, which contrasted sharply with the strange, dark shadows over the rest of the dimly lighted thoroughfare.
“Seems like gallons of blood out there.” Lieutenant Lucie Bisbee of the New Denver constabulary, standing next to the crime scene tape, shivered and rubbed a finger over the silver bar on the shoulder epaulette of her navy uniform.
“The human body contains approximately five quarts. That’s not a lot,” Captain Jack Lantern replied. “Maybe more than one victim got wasted.” He assumed Lucie was shivering because of the cold; he’d never seen her squeamish about blood.
“Jack the Ripper on steroids.”
Captain Jack shrugged. Lucie went in for black humor. It grated on him a little now, but only because he was never happy in confined spaces like this narrow street.
A fleeting movement in the shadows on the right caught his eye, and he focused on a tiny wrought iron balcony on a building across the street. A man stood there, one gloved hand on the railing, watching the scene below. Jack squinted. Not surprising the locals would be curious about what happened on the street, but what intrigued him was the man’s attire. Top hat, cane, black tails. The face was pale, reminding him of old, old movies about Dracula.
“Willis,” Jack said to a passing cop, “track the guy up on that balcony. See if he saw anything. And find out what he’s doing in the costume. Could be an actor, but the theaters closed three or four hours ago.”
Dateline: March 21, 2170, New Denver Herald
Early yesterday morning, on Dorset Street of the church-owned enclave of New London, a brutally mangled human body was discovered by a passing cyclist and reported to police, who so far have refused to make any comment on the murder.
Captain Jack Lantern put down the newspaper and picked up his coffee. Of course, they hadn’t made any comments. The body, and whatever clothes and identification it had been wearing, were so badly chewed up that Forensic hadn’t yet found a name to attach to it all. They were working on the problem but he didn’t expect to get any answers from the lab upstairs for another day or two. And he was in no hurry to offer any theories about method or motive. Not until he had all the facts.
Jack put the empty coffee mug on the desk, grabbed his well-worn tan cowboy hat off the filing cabinet and walked out into the main office area.
He stuck his head into his sidekick’s office. “Annie, you coming?”
She erupted out of her chair, a trim woman with short, curly, red hair and fire in her big, blue eyes. “Don’t call me that! It’s Lieutenant Bisbee to you, Pumpkin!”
“Oh, temper, temper,” was Jack’s mild response. “Was that four-a.m. call yesterday too early for your delicate constitution?”
“It wasn’t the hour; it was all the damn blood,” she snapped.
Little Orphan Annie was always so neat, Jack thought, watching her shrug into her jacket. Unlike him, she paid attention to the rules and the dress code. If he cared to look, which he didn’t, he’d probably see that her shoes were even freshly polished. He wore sneakers most of the time, so that he didn’t have to bother with such petty details. He’d had to cut his black hair to regulation length, though. The Chief had said that wearing it in a single braid down his back was pushing his luck.
“Come on,” Jack said. “Let’s have another look at the murder scene. Forensics said they hosed it down and took away the crime tape.”
They exited the downtown high-rise and walked a couple of blocks to the New London district. This replica of an ancient part of London, England had been created by the church nearly a hundred years before, as a reaction to the predominantly scientific and technological specialties of New Denver. The BOBS claimed that such buildings, which they said were without elevators or electricity, represented the ideal way of living.
“Fake horses!” Lucie muttered, as a horse-drawn carriage rattled past them.
“But real robots,” Jack replied. So much for the BOBS hating technology. He suspected the buildings did have elevators, electricity, and every other convenience, though there was no way of telling from the outside. He hadn’t had the opportunity to check the interiors; no crime had been committed in the area during his time on the force. The BOBS policed the area with their own deacons, so the Chief said. But perhaps this killing would open some doors for him.
“This used to be Larimer Square, way back before the war, and before the BOBS got hold of it,” Lucie said. “The city fathers of the day set it up as sort of a museum to preserve the original nineteenth-century buildings.”
She’d obviously been reading history again. That was her favorite subject, so she said, though she claimed to read anything she could get her hands on, when she had the time. Not him. The only time he bothered was when the text offered some kind of problem that would exercise his brain.
Lucie was talking about the Mahoud-Earth War, of course, which ended way back in 2033. Plenty of things had changed in the last hundred and forty years, including amazing experiments on life extension. But, at age forty, he didn’t expect to benefit by it, and he dismissed all the excited speculation on the news services about humans achieving immortality. Give me some facts, he thought. Give me some facts and then I might believe it.
Jack glanced up, already feeling squeezed by the confines of the little street and the tall, narrow, brick buildings which opened directly onto it. Above these three and four-storied buildings loomed the sky-piercing spires of the enormous First Universal Church of the Brothers of Boundless Space. The church and its grounds covered a square city block on the edge of New London. The BOBS had gone all out to achieve historical authenticity; the exterior was built of granite blocks and designed in every detail to look like ancient European cathedrals.
The interior of the church, so he had heard, was sumptuous with gold, silver, jewels, satin, and paintings. He wouldn’t mind having a look at what the BOBS considered appropriate decor, but he’d never been interested enough to make a point of it. Besides, if he stuck his nose inside the huge, carved, double doors of the imposing church, one of the Brothers would probably start bugging him to join. Not a chance! For one thing, he wasn’t a joiner, and for another, the BOBS were apparently dead set against card-playing.
They arrived at the crime site. All the flayed bits of human anatomy were gone, along with the blood which had been splattered everywhere. A few pedestrians were wandering the street. Tourists, from the look of them. One of the few things he knew about the BOBS, aside from the fact that it was almost the only religion still extant, was that they ran guided tours of New London.
Lucie said, “Whoever offed the victim sure wanted him very dead. Or her.”
“Might have been an accident,” Jack said.
Lucie raised her eyebrows.
“What if it was a bomb? Could have been some fanatic intending to blow himself up and take a few other people with him. Maybe he triggered the bomb too early.”
Lucie shook her head. “Nobody reported hearing a bomb going off.”
“Yeah, but how do you explain the condition of the body? It would have taken hours for a man to hack a body into those little pieces, not to mention he’d have been covered in blood himself. This is supposed to be a quiet area at night, but it can’t be that quiet. Somebody would have seen it.”
Jack paced back and forth, scanning the crime area. Forensics rarely missed anything, but it could happen.
And they had missed something this time. There, by the wall, a glimmer of red caught his eye. He bent, picked it up with the tweezers he always carried for that purpose, and gave it a closer look.
Lucie was at his shoulder. “Soaked in blood. Might be a piece of bone. Or maybe kidney, but a lot smaller than bite-size.”
Jack shook his head. “Take a closer look. That’s not blood; it’s nail polish.”
“So it is!” She peered at his find. “Could be either fingernail or toenail. It was ripped off, though, not cut.”
He took a glassine evidence envelope from his pocket and dropped the sliver of nail into it. “I have another idea about the killing. You must have read about the Hyborg, Charger. He could have torn a body into pieces like that. Think of his fangs and those swords he used. Think of the size of the man! Think of the Lycans that went everywhere with him.”
“Jack, Charger was in the Mahoud-Earth War, which was a hundred and forty years ago! He must be long dead. Anyway, didn’t the government get rid of all the Hyborgs and their Lycans?”
“That’s what we were told,” Jack said. “At least, that’s what I read in history books when I was in school. But how do we know it’s true? History books are usually written by conquerors who have clear ideas about what the unwashed populace should be told and what should be kept quiet.”
Lucie shrugged. “We could never prove whether Charger is dead, one way or the other. But blaming a Hyborg sounds pretty far-fetched to me. From everything I’ve read, there just aren’t any around anymore.”
They continued pacing the area. A woman emerged from a small gift shop and stared at them for a moment before walking away. She no doubt knew about the murder and, since he and Lucie were in uniform, it probably looked like they were hoping for an inspiration to suddenly appear, for the answer to come floating down from the sky or up out of the cobblestones. But Jack liked to get a feeling for the crime scene, for how it would have looked and felt to someone there. While they walked, he thought about Charger.
Back in 2030, so the story went, Charger had been just plain Henry, a patriotic but autistic young man with an extraordinary talent for math. He’d joined up to fight the savage aliens attacking Earth, and volunteered for conversion into a Hyborg. Hyborgs were powerful, twice the size of the average man, with scaly armor, and so ugly that their mere appearance terrified most people. They had been programmed to kill aliens, but to help and protect humans. Therefore, aside from the fact that Charger was likely long dead, why would he attack a human?
However, no matter what Lucie thought, Charger and his Lycans would have been capable of destroying a body by shredding it. A bomb would have had the same effect. “Let’s go back to the office,” Jack said. “See if Forensics has any answers yet.”
“I’ll check on the Hyborg question,” Lucie said, “even if the possibility is so remote it might as well be a fantasy.”
“Good idea,” Jack said. After all, when the impossibilities were eliminated, what was left had to be the truth. And Lucie would do a thorough job. She had to; her position was hanging by a thread. Not that there was anything wrong with either her or her work, but the department really didn’t need the position he’d convinced the Chief to create.
They arrived back in the lobby of the high-rise office building and Jack pressed the button for the elevator. But the department would survive and so would Lucie. She was smart enough and desperate enough to make herself indispensable, what with a massive house mortgage hanging over her head and a crazy mother that New Denver’s crowded nursing homes so far hadn’t been able to accommodate.
Jack spent the next few hours reading through the reports of various officers involved in the New London investigation. He managed to refrain from nagging Forensics until early afternoon. His nagging did no good, anyway; Forensics was not yet ready to commit themselves to facts.
Frustrated, he went next door to Lucie’s office. “Any luck on Charger?”
Lucie ran a hand through her auburn curls. “None. But there has to be some information out there, because I was being stonewalled.”
“No kidding! You sure?”
“Listen, Jack, I know about stonewalling. My mother does it all the time. Won’t answer questions, or answers with more questions. Mumbles, changes the subject.”
He had to concede the point.
“Okay, if you don’t have enough clout to get answers, I won’t even bother trying. This is something the Chief needs to do.”
He found Chief Adam Nevin in his office, and made his request.
“Jack, you’re losing it,” Nevin said.
“No, I’m just following up on a possibility. Can you say for sure all the Hyborgs are dead? After all, they were created by some pretty damn sophisticated technology. We don’t know if it included greater longevity than normal for humans, but with what the researchers are coming up with these days, it certainly could have.”
Nevin sighed. “I don’t know squat about the Hyborgs.”
“Well, can you find out? There seems to be a mystery here. Some kind of secret that nobody wants to reveal.”
“Yeah, I’ll find out.” Chief Nevin straightened his middle-aged pudgy body and picked up a communicator. “Not because I think your idea is worth shit, but I’d kind of like to know about the Hyborgs myself. Lucie got me thinking about it.”
“I know it’s a long shot,” Jack said, “but even if it’s only remotely possible, I need to know.”
“Understood.” The Chief looked up at Jack. “When are you going to marry Lucie? The two of you would make a perfect couple. And you wouldn’t have to live by yourself in that big old house.”
It was Jack’s turn to sigh. He didn’t want to marry Lucie. He didn’t want to marry anyone. He walked to the door, then turned back for a last word. “Wouldn’t work. She breathes and I don’t like anybody breathing in my space.”
Adam Nevin snorted, then began pressing buttons on the communicator.
Satisfied, Jack put the battered cowboy hat back on and headed home to his equally battered old ranch house up in the hills west of New Denver. He ditched the uniform, poured himself a neat scotch, and relaxed in an over-stuffed chair in the glassed-in half of his veranda. As soon as the weather warmed up, he’d start using the open half, where he got fresh mountain air along with the view. It was his favorite part of the house. He could sit there and enjoy contemplating the vast landscape of mountains and plains with the wide sky above, and the lights of the city twinkling below. It helped him to focus, to clear his mind of trivia.
He leaned back in the threadbare chair, enjoying the silence. Visitors were rare; he didn’t like having his train of thought interrupted, either.
It was Lucie’s comment about Jack the Ripper that had made him think of Charger as the perp. “The Ripper” was a popular name for the unidentified serial killer generally believed to have been active in the poor areas in and around the Whitechapel district of London in 1888. There’d been other nicknames, too. But it was highly unlikely that such a killer was involved with this case in New London. While it was true that Jack the Ripper had mutilated the bodies of his victims, he’d done so in a very mild way compared to what had happened in Dorset Street.
Charger, who had been acknowledged a hero in the Mahoud-Earth War, was probably too much of a long shot. Pretty damned unlikely that he could be alive after so many years, in spite of science. Particularly military science, which sat on a lot of things they didn’t want to share with the general public. But Jack had been a cop for too long to dismiss wild possibilities without checking. He poured himself another scotch and returned to gaze at the city of lights on the plain below.
It wasn’t only the BOBS church that spanned an entire city block; many other buildings did so as well, and rose hundreds of stories into the air. Mass transit was the way to go if you lived in the city, but Jack still drove his old, green Range Rover when he could. It took a lot of work in these modern days to remain individual and independent. School children met for sports and some projects, but mostly they plugged into a global web that taught them everything they needed to know, including the current propaganda. How could anyone expect these kids to come up with an original thought if they weren’t out experiencing the world?
Hunger drove Jack into the kitchen, where he dialed up his favorite tamales. Too much starch, too much cheese. But what the hell; he’d given up guilt years ago.
Another hour in the sunroom, staring at the stars overhead, netted him no insights, and no fresh ideas, either. He rose. Time to give the brain a rest from the case and give it some exercise at the same time.
Poker was the game he played for fun, and he enjoyed observing and analyzing other players, but you couldn’t beat chess as a way to learn strategy and to shut out the rest of the world.
In a dark corner of the living room stood a small, polished wooden table which held a chess board. On either side of the table was a comfortable, padded chair, and above, a low light which illuminated the table but nothing else. Here, he played chess against himself with the aim of giving his brain cells free rein on a game with endless possibilities.
The current game had been in progress for a couple of weeks. Jack sat on the white side of the board, which had the next move, and analyzed the position of the pieces. He reviewed the various pitfalls that might pop up, exploring moves and ideas, backtracking and generally meandering, digging deeply to figure out how things should proceed. He did not care which side won; it was merely a way of honing his analytical skills.
Two hours and three moves later, Jack retired to his bedroom, his mind relaxed and ready for sleep. In bed, his breathing slowed as the bed warmed and the lights automatically dimmed throughout the house.