The Selibant building was large, grey and cumbersome, high above the scaly miniature villages of corrugated tin and tarpaulin. Its edifice was concrete, glass and steel, shining in the evening light as the helicopter descended to the roof.
After several minutes of shutting down engines and flicking switches from green to red, Alular exited. Two men, each incongruously dressed in a dark suit and tie during the most humid month of the year, nodded in greeting and turned to escort him to the drop platform. As they descended, Alular’s mind performed its usual synaesthesia and he saw in the elevator’s mechanical whoosh a stream of grey water.
The interior was spartan. On both sides doors led off the main corridor, some illuminated in a yellowish lamplight while others suffered under the sputtering of halogen overheads. The suit to the left gave him a room number and pointed. Alular headed down the hallway and his companions whooshed behind him back to the source of the stream.
* * *
The desk in room 1105 was as cluttered as the corridor was bare. A stack of taupe-coloured files danced in front of a monitor surrounded by stationery and electronic pads. Spread across the surface of the desk they nearly obscured the silvered nameplate which read Augustus Johnson, Director of Emissions. Alular crumpled into the hard plastic chair. The room was small and stuffy, and Johnson smelled like a week’s worth of work.
“Sam, thanks for coming.”
Alular made affirmative sounds. He knew Augustus was not one for small talk.
“You recognise her?” He pushed a large-format negative through the pads and loose-leaf files then pressed a switch. The desk beneath the negative lit up and an inverted luminance shone through.
“No,” said Alular. The image was a three-quarter close up of a woman. Her hair was cut close to the skin, the edges zigzagging unevenly onto her forehead. Toward the right of the frame the focus became lost, as though she were caught during a sudden movement. “Who is she?”
Augustus leaned over and twisted the negative so that it faced him. “This is Mia Ziman,” he said. “But I think you used to call her the Holy Grail.”
Alular raised an eyebrow and heard the desk lamp buzz out. The whites of Augustus’ eyes blazed in the low light as he waited for Alular to lower his brow.
“So why am I here?” asked Alular, feigning uninterest. “Now that you have a picture of Ziman, surely you can run her through the Ministry’s face recog and have her in a cell by dinnertime?”
“Ziman is already in the building, Sam.”
* * *
The glints and flickers, hard edges of brushed aluminium and plexiglass screens were lit lowly but consistently, and Alular barely noticed the sheen of coppery red reflected in the surfaces. One end of the room dipped into a circular trough several feet wide. A hole in the centre was backed up with watered-down blood commixed with clumps of grey bone and gristle.
Augustus had already stepped over to one of the cold chambers and punched in a number. The tube opened to an analogue creak and behind a transparent window at the head of the tube Alular saw the zigzag hair and the intelligent upturned mouth of Mia Ziman.
For the last two and a half years of his life at the Ministry, Alular’s only concern had been uncovering the identity of the woman in the photograph. Twelve hours spun into fifteen or twenty as he had searched for even the faintest scratch of DNA at crime scenes, any trace of the elusive figurehead of The Cutters in filing cabinets or the Ministry’s records . Within the last hour he had gone from the dynamic anxiety of being shown the negative in Augustus’ office to a despondence at seeing the husk of a woman, feminine features as yet undiminished in death.
“This isn’t just for kicks, though, Sam.” Augustus exerted pressure on the chamber and it slid back into place. “Ziman’s death—it was a car accident on the south bank; a former officer of ours just happened to be on the scene at the time—”
“Circumstance,” interrupted Alular, shaking his head. He saw the ligaments of luck stretching, connecting points A and B only when they saw fit.
“Her death threw up a whole load of legal issues, including the deeds to Silar’s Wharf. Which means—”
“That the Ministry can repossess the land.”
Augustus nodded. “And with your experience,” he said, “the PM wants you to deliver the message.” [continues]