From the author: First chapter excerpt from Titan's Day (2020, DAW Books). Paperback re-release in April, 2021!
Six weeks since the world had changed, and it was still the same old shit.
The news cycle was a nonstop parade of talking heads and pundits dissecting the discovery of manna beneath the ice plains. But for all the arguing in barbershops and noodle stands over how best to exploit our newfound resource, the city itself was unchanged. Titanshade still crouched in the arms of the Mount, its buildings of stone and glass coated in filth while the usual array of predators and drunks stumbled down cobblestone streets; every morning winds howled in from the ice plains as millions of residents woke up to find their life was a little worse off than the day before. And me? I was kneeling over another corpse.
The body on the ground had been a beautiful woman, once. Before the city claimed and corrupted her; before a killer added the final blow to her temple. She was Mollenkampi, with an unusually delicate red and black coloring to the thick plates that lined her scalp in place of hair. She also had a fierce set of bony jaws erupting from her face, flanked by a pair of spindly mandibles, though those traits were shared by all members of her species. Including my partner.
Ajax stood to my right, on the far side of the victim. His mandibles flexed and released as he studied the scene. To our backs a pair of patrol cops flanked the mouth of the alley, the dark crimson of their uniforms a match for the crime scene tape separating us from curious passersby. Not that there were any. The early morning foot traffic continued on with barely a hitch, residents too wrapped up in their own affairs to care about one more statistic in an alley.
I stood, pulling my overcoat tight to guard against the chill air. We were far enough from the Mount that the thermal vents didn’t fully protect us from the frozen tundra surrounding the city. Still, I wouldn’t have traded it. It was our first day back on the streets after six weeks of desk duty. Thirty full days of paper cuts and office politics. It was good to be back, even if the streets were as grim and unrelenting as ever. Someone had died, and I had a chance to help bring them justice. I did my best not to wonder why it took someone’s death to feel good about myself.
“Detective Carter?” My name was underscored by the pop and sizzle of a flashbulb.
I shoved aside my doubts and turned my attention to the pair of crime scene techs circling the alley. Both human, both looking tired and unhappy to be there. One held a clipboard, making notes on carbon-paper forms, the first of many that would document the life of the investigation. Her partner swapped out a new flashbulb and hefted his camera to eye height.
“We’re moving to the body,” said the notetaker. “You can touch the surrounding items.” She was doing her job well, even if she stole glances at Jax and me when she thought we wouldn’t notice. We’d become accustomed to that mixture of interest and suspicion in the six weeks we’d been off the streets. I hoped the stares would fade when some new distraction claimed the city’s attention.
That attention was why this case, this victim, had been selected for us. Training wheels for a pair of detectives with instructions to stay out of the limelight. In Titanshade, a dead candy in an alley was low profile: not flashy enough to garner press attention, and common enough that if we didn’t clear the case, it wouldn’t be considered an issue. It had fallen to us to find justice for this girl who was so disposable.
Sprawled on one side, the victim’s arms and legs were askew, and the right side of her face was exposed, the wound in her temple on gruesome display. Her natural golden complexion was fading, growing paler by the hour. Her T-shirt had been pulled up, revealing more red and black coloration tracing her hip bones, before disappearing behind low-cut denim shorts. Her bra had been disturbed, but not the shorts. The medical examiner would confirm it, but I doubted she’d been sexually assaulted.
“Looks like a candy,” I said. “Got herself killed and had her emergency cash plucked from her cleavage.” The women and men who worked the streets often had a roll of bills discretely tucked away, payment for pimps and something to hand out in case of a mugging or shakedown.
Ajax grunted a low note of assent, the deep nasal tones of his biting mouth harmonizing with the higher pitched tinkling of the speaking mouth in his throat, directly above the crisp knot of his tie. “Looks like,” he said. “But looks lie, don’t they?”
I smiled. He was right, of course. Fashion sense doesn’t always indicate a vocation. Hells, I’m a cop and I wear a suit.
My partner stooped to press the sensitive skin of his wrist against the victim’s exposed belly, below her crumpled T-shirt. Enough of the design was visible to make out that it read Disco Sucks. I liked her immediately.
“Body’s cold,” said Jax.
“Not ready to touch, Detective,” the tech warned him away. Jax pulled his hand back, rocking the body slightly, which provoked an annoyed grunt from the photographer.
Jax pointed a thumb at the movement of the limbs. Mollenkampi went stiff slower than humans. That, combined with a chill skin, meant—
“Probably happened early in the night,” Jax said, implying she wouldn’t have had much cash. Maybe not enough to kill for. Definitely not enough to die over.
“It’s the big city, kid,” I said. “Candies work the streets at all hours.” Ajax was still a relative newcomer to Titanshade, and on occasion he made the mistake of thinking there was any real civilization here. The city had grown on the back of the oil industry, and a large part of it still catered to the vices of rig workers blowing off steam after a months-long work detail.
Near the victim’s feet lay a purple backpack, the kind a kid might use to lug around school books. The sides were cluttered with buttons and ironed-on patches, a mix of political slogans and dirty jokes. It looked like the kind of thing my step-daughter would carry. Truth was, Talena had a lot in common with the young woman sprawled on the ground. Age, attitude, even availability—Talena spent many days and most of her nights on the streets, leaving her vulnerable to the monsters who stalked the shadows. One more thought to push out of my mind as I refocused on the scene in front of me.
The pack was open, its contents dumped on the ground beside it. The pile was topped by a paperback novel and a black-bound journal. The bottom of the bag held a thick thermal bodysuit. A popular item with those staying on the very fringes of town, where the rent was cheap, the thermal vents sparse, and questions nonexistent.
“Looks old.” Jax held up a corner of the suit. “But clean.”
I nudged the other end with the toe of my shoe. It had several visible patches.
“Secondhand,” I said.
Jax had already moved on to the journal, flipping through its pages before holding it up like a teacher reading to a roomful of kids at story time. There was a color sketch on one page, a caricature of Mayor Walcott, focusing on his lengthy nose and prominent front teeth, while still conveying a sense of authority. It had been done in some kind of chalk or pastels, and the excess had smudged into the blank page opposite, creating a blurry, reversed image.
A slip of paper fell from the journal, and Jax plucked it from the air before it joined the trash littering the alley. He read out the details. A single ticket stub for the bus line that ran between Titanshade and more civilized locales to the south.
“She’s only been here a couple weeks,” he said. “If it’s hers.”
“Another newcomer.” It was the notetaker, a bit of disdain creeping into her voice.
Countless arrivals had flocked to Titanshade in the last six weeks, hoping to make their fortune on a new boomtown and straining the resources of the city. Rents had skyrocketed, leaving some longtime residents homeless, and even staples like food and drink had gotten more expensive. But none of that changed the fact that I was still a cop, the dead still demanded justice, and the city didn’t give a damn about any of it.
Eyes on the victim, I drew my notepad out of my pocket.
“She was stabbed in—” I fumbled the pad. I tried to grab it in the remaining two fingers and thumb of my left hand, but it slipped away. Ajax took one smooth step and snatched the pad as easily as he’d caught the bus ticket. He pressed it back into my hand without comment.
I was grateful for the silence. Over the last month I’d mostly adapted to my missing digits, but still struggled from time to time, as if my brain wanted to believe the pinky and ring fingers were still there, that they’d never been severed in the snap of a Mollenkampi’s powerful jaws, that I hadn’t been present to witness dozens of innocents lose their lives as part of a madman’s scheme to find new resources in Titanshade’s oil wells. His wild plan had succeeded, but not in the way he’d anticipated. He’d missed oil, but struck a source of manna, the raw material of magic. Now the city sat on what might be the greatest source of energy and wealth the world had ever known. The question was whether the rest of the world would decide to strip it away from us.
All of that had led to our time on desk duty. Our names were tied to the rediscovery of manna, and the brass wanted us hidden from the press and the public before we could cause more headaches. But now we were back, and we had a chance to get it right. We were there to help bring justice to this woman in an alley. We owed it to her, and we owed it to ourselves.
Standing by the body, I took a deep breath and struggled to refocus. To my right, Jax had begun an orderly, outward spiral from the body. Textbook as always. For my part, I concentrated on my breathing. But instead of seeking calm I imagined myself panicked, a killer with blood on my hands and adrenaline in my veins.
“She was stabbed in the right side of her throat,” I said, and mimed holding a pencil-sized weapon in my left hand, then in my right, using a backhand strike. “Either way, the most natural place to discard the weapon was . . .”
I turned and walked two paces to the rust-eaten dumpster, heavily tagged with spray-painted phrases elaborate in their obscenity. The freshest was a stylized fist, stenciled wrist lines straddling the words “Titan First.” I ignored the empty slogans and scanned the ground debris. The alley was on the small side, no more than four paces across. Narrow enough that the dumpster would have to be rolled to the curb for collection, the kind of unpleasant task that was often neglected by a building’s tenants and managers. Which explained the buildup of trash in the alley, and the resultant stink. The glare from the streetlights was faint, but I had enough visibility to make out a set of skid marks where the dumpster had been recently pushed to the street. More surprising were marks leading away in the opposite direction, as if someone had also rolled it farther into the alley. That was strange, but not as interesting as the gleaming steel implement nestled among the fast food wrappers and soiled rags. It had a triangular blade the size of my thumbnail on one end, and a similarly sized blunt paddle on the other. Both blade and handle were covered with a congealed red liquid.
“Possible weapon,” I called.
Ajax joined me, shining the beam of a flashlight on the unfamiliar item. The techs followed behind, tagging and bagging the item for posterity.
“Not likely to get prints off the surface,” said the notetaker. “Not with a textured grip like that.”
The notetaker was right, but I was already refocused on the victim.
“She came back here,” I said. “Maybe for break, maybe for business.” I pointed behind the dumpster. “Might have disturbed someone sleeping off a high, or maybe things went bad with the customer.” I turned, leather soles scraping across the filthy cobblestones. “She didn’t get out alive.” It occurred to me that I’d regained a sense of calm as I stepped through the killing. I shut off that train of thought as soon as it surfaced. I wasn’t there to analyze myself. I had a job to do.
The beam from Jax’s light moved along the brick walls of the buildings flanking the alley. “I think I know what she was doing.”
The walls held tags similar to those covering the dumpster, but there was also something extraordinary. A mural twice my height stretched deep along the alley wall, going as far back as the skid marks led, near the raised stairs of the fire escape. The mural featured skillful caricatures of politicians and celebrities, with a special emphasis on the local Ward’s political bigwigs, a pair of twins. All the figures were larger than life, drawn in muted pastels with vibrant highlights, done in what appeared to be chalk rather than spray paint. It was a match for the work Jax had displayed in the sketch book.
Jax looked from the mural to the broken body abandoned amid the alley debris. “She wasn’t a candy.”
“Candies can draw,” I said. “Just like anyone else. Anyway, if she was in the life, chances are her prints will be in the system, ours or someone else’s. We get a name and we’ll be able to track her pimp.”
Another pop, and the alley was bathed in harsh, fleeting light. The photographer, a beefy guy with watery eyes and a mustard stain on his lapel, waved us over. “We’re good to move the body.”
“Can I get an ID check?” asked the one taking notes. Her lips were in a permanent pucker, as if she’d gone through life biting down on something sour.
Jax and I squatted and did the honors. We patted the victim’s pockets and the collar of her boots, anywhere a wallet or ID might be tucked away; we came up empty. The tech grunted.
“Jane Doe it is,” she said, and the scritch of pen on paper entered it into record.
We rolled our Jane Doe onto her back and revealed the other side of her head, the side that should have been untouched by the attack. Instead, we were faced with a violent mutilation.
There was the pencil-width hole in the side of her neck, and evidence of blunt force to her temple. But even more disturbing was what wasn’t there. Where her left mandible should have been was only an empty void at the bend of her jaw. The back teeth were missing as well, along with a chunk of the jaw itself. What remained was a jagged hole, exposing the inside of her biting mouth and the spongy cross-section of her jawbone. I rocked back on my heels, stunned by the violence but also by the strength it had required. Whatever had been done, it had been brutal, happening fast and with great force.
“Side roads,” Jax swore, and shined his flashlight onto the wound. I reached past him and shut Jane’s eyes.
People describe death by saying that the spark has left someone’s eyes. What they really mean is that the dozens of small muscles around the eye stop moving. We communicate with glances and furrowed brows. Even in sleep our eyes twitch and dart side to side. When those countless tiny movements are absent the eyes lose their spark, becoming as lifeless as the face of a discarded doll.
As we shifted her body, wet slips of paper came into view. Sticky with blood, an assortment of cash fanned away from the small of her exposed back, dropping to the ground in soggy clumps. An assortment of eights and twenties, the kind of cash a junkie or casual mugger would never leave behind. The techs documented and collected the cash, revealing something else on the ground beneath the blood-soaked bills. Something that sparkled.
Wedged between the cobblestones, half covered by the pale gray muck that collects near dumpsters, were broken shards of a glass vial. I waved over the tech and indicated that we’d need a photo. After the pop and fizz of the flashbulb, Jax scooped the shards into an evidence bag, sealing and initialing it. There was the faintest glimmer of liquid on the fragments.
We returned the body to her original position, and I reached for the evidence bag. But Jax extended his arm, keeping the bag out of my grasp as he inspected it.
“There’s no chance this is real,” he said.
He was almost certainly right. That iridescent shimmer was distinctive, but most people had never actually laid eyes on manna, let alone had the means to carry a vial of it.
The mystical liquid that fueled the first industrial revolution had long been thought depleted. The few manna stockpiles that remained were the provenance of the ultra-rich and government-funded sorcerers. At least it had been, until six weeks earlier, when a reserve was discovered outside of Titanshade. Rumor and speculation still swirled around the manna strike, with different theories about how much it might contain, and whether or not there might be more reserves under the ice plains. I did my best to avoid thinking about it: it had also cost me two fingers and the life of a friend.
“Gotta be fake,” I said. Since the manna strike the streets were teeming with knock-offs, hucksters trying to take advantage of the poor and desperate who hoped to grab a small piece of magic for themselves. The real stuff was on lockdown, and access limited to highly vetted workers. The military had seized control of the site, a move that the Assembly of Free States assured the good people of Titanshade was only a temporary step.
The notetaker called out, “Fingernails have some material under them. You want to double-check before we wrap her hands?” The tech popped open a pair of paper bags to be slipped over Jane’s hands and secured with rubber bands.
“Hold on,” I said. There was a glimmer of glass on the cobblestones. I borrowed a pair of tweezers from the techs and stooped to snag another glass shard. “Might as well be thorough.” Jax held an evidence bag open as I navigated the fingernail-sized chunk of glass toward it. I fumbled the tweezers at the last moment, and the shard fell free. My left hand shot forward and the shard plopped into my palm. I expected to feel a slight prick at the most, but instead there was an uncomfortable, intense cold combined with a tingle that buzzed across my hand, as if I’d pressed my palm against a sheet of ice covering a fast-flowing river.
I snatched my hand away, letting the shard drop to the ground. Jax rolled his eyes, but picked it up without complaint. He probably thought I’d bungled the catch the way I’d fumbled my notepad earlier. I blinked, averting my eyes as Jax handed the bag to the notetaker.
I’d never encountered anything like that, not even when I stood in the spray of the manna strike. Manna on flesh simply felt like a pinch followed by numbness. But this also wasn’t phantom pain. A cloud settled in the back of my head. If it was imagined, that meant another trip in front of the department shrinks, and maybe more time behind a desk. Best to shove it inside, back with the guilt for feeling at home as I stood beside a corpse in an alley. The best I could do was to promise myself that I’d be thorough in finding the killer.
The tech noted on the tag that I’d touched the shard directly and put the bag with the others. If it was narcotics, that would at least tell us something. Something besides the fact that a woman was dead.
I looked at the alley opening and the city that lay beyond. Buildings and sidewalks crowded with occupants either waking up or stumbling home. Families and friends, young lovers trying to make time, hustlers trying to make a quick buck. All of them trying to scrape and scheme enough to make it to another day. Walking among them were more killers than a sane mind could comprehend. It was our job to reduce that number by one.