Giles Gratton, sick as a dog from nineteen years spent sleeping in the off hours between bloody murder rooms and the aldermen’s bullshit, doesn’t knock.
“Get your coat,” he says.
“Yeah, all that.”
I get my coat and hold the door for him.
“Hi, Cal,” Gratton says.
We go down the stairs together. No need to waste a perfectly good bit of bad news with conversation.
We’re in the wrong part of town for something in my line. Not that it’s nasty, it’s just not perfect. The people I deal with are up there, not down here. Gratton drops me at the building but doesn’t come in.
“I’ve already seen it.”
“You got any idea?”
He shakes his head. “Just that it’s your thing.”
“No, but if you get in there and you think I’m wrong, you can keep the money and go back to bed.”
I walk through the lobby and take the stairs up to the third floor. Every single step is shiny clean and smells of off-brand Limonene.
Inside the apartment, the dead nerd lies on the floor. There’s a hole in his head, small and smudged with grey ash and a light burn. A close-range shooting: an execution or a suicide. There’s some blood, blowback from the moment of impact, but the round must still be inside him. Small calibre, low power. Just enough to do the job.
Down by his feet, Musgrave the city doctor is fussing with a tablet: the police network is achingly slow. Other than that there’s not a lot going on. Murder rooms are like train stations at midnight, not much left to do before the last departure.
The nerd looks about forty-five with no habits. He’s got dark hair cut nerd style, he’s wearing a nerd shirt, button-down, with little hooks for a clip-tie stitched under the collar. Nerd slacks too high at the waist and too short at the ankle, and nerd shoes from an artisan place in the market, with orthotic inserts. The thick soles complete the anti-chic vibe. This was how he lived, wardrobe like an old guy and no mind to be anything else.
There’s a lounge chair in front of the big window. I figure he sat there and looked out, so I go and do that too. I can feel the ghost of him in the cushions, pressed down and permanently shaped by his weight. Forensics have come and gone ages ago, but still the other three twitch slightly as I sit because they’re not allowed to, not allowed so deep they can’t imagine that anyone would.
“You want to get a snack while you’re at it?” Detective Felton, standing by the door, doesn’t love my way of being in the world. We got nothing to discuss, so I don’t.
Outside, the city spreads east and west along the lake. The Chersenesos district juts out into the deep water from midtown, a dog’s muzzle lapping from a massive bowl. Behind the skyscrapers the mountains rise up from the farthest shore. Othrys is topographically an alpine lake: the line from the peak to the trench is smooth, and the water is as deep as the mountains are high. Anything you throw in falls for a clear four thousand metres to a cold darkness that keeps its secrets well and never lets them go. Anything, or anyone.
“Oh bloody fucking fuck,” Musgrave growls at her tablet. It’s not true what they say: good workmen do indeed blame their tools, at least when they have to use what the department can afford. Felton and his uniform buddy can’t even be bothered to laugh. Just two of them: there’s a serious incident in the Heights. There always is when you need one. Gratton giving me space—or maybe rope.
I go back to the desk and run my hand along the flat surface. It’s clean and cold. There’s a university terminal, a block of cartridge paper by the printer. The drawers have bamboo dividers to keep everything in its proper place: one cubby for staples, one for rubber bands, one for pens. There is nothing, but nothing, out of place in this room, in this entire apartment, except for the nerd who owns it, dead between the display case and the fish tank.
Koi carp, two, one orange, and one orange and white.
I shuffle all the way back on the dead man’s office chair until my feet come off the floor and then I push off with my right hand so that I’m spinning slowly around. The chair is a science chair, translucent and nasty. They take a seed from your ear cartilage and grow it and then you sit in it because something something immune response something biota. Supposedly it’s good for you, but who knows? High-ticket item. Round and round I go in the dead nerd’s chair, which I guess is technically part of the corpse.
“Hey, Musgrave, you gonna autopsy this chair?”
“Because you know—”
“Yes I do. Technically it’s still alive so it would be a vivisection, but let me say again: no, I do not at this time propose to vivisect the chair, because I have an annual budget and it’s fucking ridiculous.”
“Just figure it’s made of his body. If he was maybe poisoned—”
“He was shot in the head,” Musgrave says, like she doesn’t really want to talk about it any more.
There are no family pictures around the terminal, or on the mantel, or in the display case. There are none in the living room with its view of the harbour, thirty-six storeys down. There are none in the bathrooms. There is a box in the lumber room full of bric-a-brac, and no doubt he intended, one day, to go through it and set some of those things out. Or perhaps he just didn’t give a damn. Sometimes you keep things because you don’t have time to throw them away.
Alastair Rodney Tebbit, went by Roddy. This address plus a teaching room on campus. Not married, at least for the present. Manicure his only obvious vanity, and a bullet somewhere in his skull: one shot between the ear and the temple, right through the stem and bounced off the concave bone on the far side. The gun is the one he bought yesterday morning, smaller than my palm. The credit card slip is still on the side table where he dropped his keys. Swiss made, with no digital parts. It comes with a spring holster: you twitch your wrist in a particular way and the gun pops into your hand. Another high-ticket item, and fine, he had the cash and not a lot to spend it on, but most of the stuff here is ordinary. Only the chair, the shoes, and the gun are expensive. Roddy Tebbit did not impulse buy, and he did not bother with needless things. He spent money on stuff that mattered, and the gun mattered.
Still spinning in the chair. Look up, look down, look around. There is no part of the crime scene that is not interesting. Cobwebs on the ceiling, but they’re new. I can see the spider working. No dirt anywhere else except the tiny blush of ejecta on the carpet where he died, and the diffuse grime that settles wherever humans live, the little tracks of a thousand daily journeys from kitchen to lounge chair to bathroom to bedroom that Roddy Tebbit will not be making ever again.
I roll the chair back and open the drawers. There are two on top of each other, one shallow and one deep. The first one is full of things to write with. Pencils, hard. Pencils, soft. One box of a half dozen in solid graphite. Then pens. Pens, blue. Pens, black. Pens, red. Trifecta. Sharpies, indigo, and only indigo. Personal quirk. The notes on the cartridge paper are in indigo. Nice colour.
Paperclips, one size only. Staples, for stapler, adjoining cubby.
Next drawer. Tape, various colours and sizes. Solder kit. Protective goggles, protective gloves. Lightweight gear for making new charging cables. Solder, different metals. Cable offcuts, cable clips. Latex glue, in date. One empty cubby, no indication of what it held. Maybe it was open: a place for the unexpected. I close the drawer.
And there, on the floor at the spot where the rug folds by the foot of the desk: a tiny piece of shaped metal, yellow and warm. Two loops like a roller coaster track, not more than a couple of millimetres across, a hole through the middle. The butterfly piece from an earring.
“Got a bag?”
She doesn’t say “of course.” Musgrave’s self-image is anchored deep in the flesh of forensic pathology, and she doesn’t need to remind anyone how good she is. You don’t work with her even once and not notice. She comes over, curious. There shouldn’t be anything. Scene of crime should have seen this, but they missed it, probably because they were eyeballing the corpse. Even here, that’s not something you see every day. “Where?” she asks.
I point and she takes a picture almost reflexively. Then I go into my pocket, where I keep a folding corkscrew someone gave me a long time ago. It’s a little silver item with a slide-out pin that you’re supposed to use to pierce the wax seals you get on some bottles. Great for picnics, and for evidence. I reach down and lift up the butterfly, let it rest on the tip of the pin. Musgrave makes a noise like “hht” then leans over and drops it into an evidence bag, passes it off to the uniform.
“His ears aren’t pierced.”
You wouldn’t expect them to be, or any other part of him, but she’ll check, anyway.
I straighten up and look around.
Roddy was a quiet, boring guy who lived for his work. He fed his fish regularly, he shopped local, and he rode a bicycle to campus. He did not, at least in so far as anyone knows at this early stage, run off with other people’s wives, gamble in dens of vice or haul drugs over the border in the secret compartment of a Maserati. He had no debts, no known enemies and no obvious worries. Yesterday morning he bought a gun and yesterday night that gun was fired into his head. An accident, a suicide or a murder. And none of these things would be my problem, except for the other bit.
Roddy Tebbit, if he was standing straight without a .22 derringer shell spiralled through what I have to assume was top grade brain matter, would have been seven feet, eight and some inches tall. Two hundred and thirty-six centimetres.
And according to his driving license, he was ninety-one years old.
Roddy Tebbit was a Titan.
Gratton was right. This is my thing.
You maybe could get a seventy-year-old former Olympic basketball player who looks like forty-five. I mean theoretically. In reality your serious sports people pick up injuries, and the longer they stay in, the worse those tend to be. They get cardio problems, craquelure fractures, crumbling joints, hamstring, anterior cruciate ligament, rotator cuff. They might end up with a foot problem, wear orthotic shoes.
What you do not get is a man in his tenth decade looking like his fifth. That is not within the bounds of the normal human healthspan. The only way you get from there to here is T7 therapy, so even if Roddy is in the wrong part of town, in the wrong kind of apartment and wearing the wrong clothes—even if he’s so very much not gossip magazines and sturgeon sushi and private planes—he is what he is. Going by age and size it’s just one dose, but in policing terms it doesn’t make much difference. This is an entire rain of shit for the department. Titan cases by definition involve frightened rich people calling the politicians they socialise with, who call the police chief, who then wants to know everything before the cops themselves do until it’s like two guys running in clown shoes, except that when they fall over one of them gets to fire the other.
Meanwhile the Titans think the cops don’t really give a shit if they die, which is somewhat true. They think every tabloid hack in the world wants a photograph of a naked Titan with a knife between her ribs, which is entirely true.
I don’t hate Titans, cops or journalists. I also don’t love Titans, cops or journalists.
I do what I do and I try to do it right.
I poke around some more, open the box of bric-a-brac and find ... stuff. Old train tickets; a branded baseball cap from a diner somewhere in flyover country; work gloves and a tool belt, but no tools. Receipts from everywhere, a pair of hiking boots and a bag of moss. I give the moss to Musgrave, who says thank you, she has always wanted some. I tell her I thought maybe it was important.
But I didn’t, really. Roddy didn’t think any of this was important enough to do anything with, and for that matter nor did his killer, assuming there was one, who had plenty of time if they wanted his box of things he couldn’t bring himself to throw away.
Figure maybe that was all it was: stuff in a holding pattern between being useless and being refuse. Old people get like that, and Titans are old even if they look young. They also get fragmentary amnesia sometimes, if the dosing process was particularly traumatic, if there was a lot of pain. The brain puts itself back together, but not always completely, and it’s not unknown for Titans to have little files of the details they can’t quite remember, or a desk drawer filled with things that ought to matter, but they don’t know why. The cost of immortality is losing part of who you were, and perhaps that’s not a bad bargain anyway.
Copyright © 2023 by Nick Harkaway. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.