Talk about going 'mental' - Editor
The Silky Taste of Gunmetal
by Stelios Touchtidis
Blood mixed with grime formed a stained pillow under the dead girl's head, a rivulet threading away to trickle into the gutter. Sepia eyes stared into Allie's with frozen interest, no trace of panic from the eight-story plunge onto the gray asphalt. A short pink nightgown reached midway to her knees.
Harvey squatted next to the body. He brushed auburn hair from the nape of the neck with gloved fingers. "No cortical link." He peered closer. "Complex connect. The clink may have been shaken loose by the impact."
"A jump, judging by how far she landed." Allie pointed at the body, well away from the sidewalk, cordoned off by yellow tape. Several gawkers, including a couple in bathrobes, were trying for a closer glimpse. A little boy tittered; one woman averted her face. "What did the black-and-white say?"
Harvey straightened, his six-two frame towering over Allie. "Driver saw the body in the middle of the road at five-thirty AM, called 911. Police responded in ninety seconds, secured the scene, woke up the manager, called Homicide."
Allie nodded. "Let's talk to him."
Allie's gaze moved to the manager, still bleary-eyed in pajama bottoms and a T-shirt. "You didn't hear a scream?"
"No, ma'am." The man scratched his stubbly chin. "The police siren woke me up."
"What can you tell us about the tenant?" Allie's gaze hopped around the room. A ledge desk ran the length of the window wall, its melamine surface freshly dusted. To one side it served as a headboard, holding a couple of textbooks, a green podphone and an aqua clink. To the other was the room hub, the stool for which had been moved under the open window.
"Viv?" The man's eyes brightened. "Her name was Vivian Stryker. Been here a year. No complaints, pleasant girl, pays on time." He shivered at another gust from the window, and looked away. "I mean paid. Awful thing."
"Had she been depressed? Withdrawn? Frequent visitors? Anything you can think of?"
"No, nothing. I have her parents' number..."
"That's OK." Allie pointed to the podphone. "I'm sure it's there. Among others."
At the fresh outpouring of tears, Allie held out a Kleenex. "The two of you were close?"
Sniffling, Susan lifted the tissue to her eyes, managing to smudge her makeup even worse, and took a bite out of her candy bar. "Close as can be. Since high school, back in Kansas." She shifted on the park bench and wailed. "I'm so finally devastated. Viv was my best friend."
"But you last saw her a week ago?"
"Yes, but we talked on the phone every day." Susan squeezed her Kleenex into a ball. She glanced around for a place to throw it, and then hid it in her fist.
"Did she seem moody? Was she in any trouble? Grades, money, drugs?"
"Not Viv. She was valedictorian. As for drugs, her body was her temple. She was always the bubbliest--"
Allie readied a second tissue. "Any boy trouble? Did she have a boyfriend?"
"Not a boyfriend, but lately she hung a lot with this geek from the menting club, Jimmy. They weren't lovers, but Viv was into menting."
"Menting?" Allie raised an eyebrow.
"A club at the U." Susan finished her chocolate and used Allie's Kleenex to wrap the foil. "They think at each other with their clinks. Menting. From mental, you know."
Allie's brow furrowed. Clinks came in handy when fingers were too busy to push buttons, the ideal remote control--but no more telepathic than a TV clicker. "You mean like when you receive a text and the words appear before your eyes?"
"No, that's a projection. For menting, your clink receives raw data and buzzes the cortex straight. You feel it in your mind."
Learn something every day. "A bi-directional clink? Who makes them?"
"Some E-med students started it. They wrote a software patch to enable two-way. Jimmy's one of them."
"And you hear thoughts?" Allie tried to keep the disbelief out of her voice. "Have you tried it?"
"Me?" Susan waddled herself straighter. "I wasn't into that. No way I'd let some student tinker with my clink. Besides you can't hear thoughts, just images and sensations. But mostly they give each other just final headaches."
"How long had Vivian been into this menting?"
"About a month. She hung with Jimmy because he was the only one who was decent at it. The others, well, it was more like trying to get each other hot." Susan's nostrils twitched.
"Interesting." Allie switched off recording. "Thanks, Susan. Sorry for your loss."
Allie was going to have a stroke. "Suicide? Open-and-shut?" She turned a withering glare upon Harvey, sitting across from her in their shared office. "Bubbly, active, pretty girl joins a weirdo club and then a month later just up and jumps out a window?"
Harvey steepled his fingers, shrinking a bit behind his desk. "She was alone. Toxicology found no drugs. What else can it be?"
"That guy, Jimmy, was on the phone with her for an hour, till ten minutes before she died."
"I spoke to him." Harvey shrugged. "Can't say I have a perfect read, but he didn't appear suspicious--upset, but not too devastated. They were just friends, he's really into menting, and he says Vivian was good at it."
"What about that call? On the phone company recording there's hellos and then nothing but silence."
"He said they mented each other to sleep. Radiated calm at each other..."
"Yeah, bashing one's brains out is really relaxing."
Harvey rocked back in his chair. "So what's your theory?"
"If you give someone a drug to influence them, that's illegal. What do drugs do except muck with your mind? Jimmy cut out the middleman, did it directly. He stubbed her out that window."
Harvey winced. "Allie, the captain doesn't like us to say 'stubbed'. Too many complaints from the Disabil-- Alternate Ability--groups."
"Oh, for shit's sake, Harv! You want 'tele-activated'? A person's not a light switch! Damn amputees started it anyway what with controlling their stub prosthetics--"
Allie took a deep breath. "Anyway, I bet Jimmy did something that made her jump. That makes it manslaughter at best, murder at worst. We need to show menting acts like a drug."
Harvey scratched his nose. "The captain doesn't want us to go on a menting sideline. We can put a heads up on the subject with Vice, but we're Homicide. And we have no case."
"Fine then. Let the guy go free. Let them all go kill themselves. Maybe then we'll find a homicide in the bunch." Allie clenched and unclenched her fists, then grabbed her jacket. "Shit. I need a break."
The wire whirred, carrying the target to the 12-yard position, finishing its trip with a clang.
Barely waiting for the target to steady, Allie fired three groups of three in rapid succession at the black two-inch circles. Yellow paint spread to mark her hits.
Satisfied, Allie started disassembling her Sig. The barrel tip was still warm when she got to oiling it. She ran a grease-tipped finger along the silky surface, feeling the heat ebb. She wiped it with a gun cloth, polishing where a speck of dirt had stuck, leaving the matte silver surface scratch-free. Smooth and perfect. Something you could depend on.
Hovering green letters superimposed in her line of sight. 'Allie, are you done?' Below the text, the little Shi-Tzu that was her private avatar for Harvey pranced and faded.
'I'll be right out.' Allie thought back in Praxis symbols, her fingers busy with the reassembly. She holstered her pistol and strode out of the double doors, taking off her goggles and earmuffs.
Harvey put his phone away as she emerged. "That was quick."
"I was done." Allie switched off the relay between her phone and clink. "Sorry I went a bit ballistic before."
"Tall mountains are used to snow." Harvey grinned. "And your little tantrum inspired me to do some extra research. Guess what."
"What?" Allie felt an answering smile on her face. She wondered what canary Harv had swallowed.
"Jimmy. He transferred from Upstate New York three months ago. They also have a menting club--they must be springing up all over. He was a charter member, and--"
"Don't tell me. Another suicide?"
Harvey nodded, eyes sparkling. "Yep. Another fall, this time a roller coaster. He and the victim knew each other. Nobody made any connection--she obviously jumped, he wasn't in the car, the menting angle wasn't even investigated."
"But how did you get them to release his phone records? I couldn't get a court order."
"I didn't go after Jimmy's records. I looked for a suicide and went after hers." Harvey sobered. "It's still not even circumstantial, more like reading tea leaves--but the smell is getting stronger."
"Strong enough to keep our case open." Allie punched him in the arm. "Great work. With this I may get the captain to approve some undercover work. I'm sure he doesn't want to drop the ball on a potential serial killer."
The room smelled of cloves and coffee with the occasional alcoholic breeze. Green and indigo strobe lights traced wavy patterns on the walls, leaving the rest in semi-darkness. Allie's first impression was that the place resembled a male-loaded singles club. Half a dozen guys sat or sprawled on loveseat groups. The only other girl, a skeletal redhead with ghost tattoos, sat lotus-style across from two men, all three immobile with fingers on temples.
Allie approached the bar at the near end, and opened her mouth, only to be stopped by the bartender's raised palm. He pointed to a sign on the wall-'No Talking'.
Of course, the guy who'd patched her new fuchsia 'psi-link' had said that. Not quite ready to be mented at, Allie unmuted the send side of her clink, and thought as hard as she could, 'Coffee, black.'
Two minutes later, having moved to a dark burgundy couch, Allie contemplated the incomprehensible concoction in front of her, colored liquids swirling like syrupy snakes. She took a sip, grimacing at the sweetness, and turned on her psi-link, exposing her mind to incoming thoughts.
The difference was immediate. Images blended at the edge of recognition, as if everything was seen under a transparent film which for some reason had a pink hue. A white horse bared large teeth and faded. Was that from the chess game? Clothes peeled off a female chest revealing D-cup sized breasts. Allie snapped up her head to see a guy two couches over guiltily look away. The imaginary boobs blurred back into the pink haze.
Soft footsteps approached. A thin, tall guy with a pointed beard gazed at her intently, and she had a feeling of solemnity mixed with an image of entangled bodies. Allie thought 'No', let it fill her mind, added an exclamation mark, and punctuated it with a glare. She felt a bit depressed and indignant as he wandered away. When she silenced her psi-link, both feelings vanished.
Nobody else approached over the next few minutes, as Allie experimented with turning her clink on and off, trying to get used to distinguishing foreign sensations from her own. A guy strode purposefully through the exit, then returned a bit later with a lost look. The hard-menting trio with tattoo girl became a quartet, Allie's rejected suitor joining in. A second guy got to his feet and walked out.
Maybe she should leave, too. No, she hadn't even been here half an hour. But this was really, really boring. Allie was almost at the door before she caught herself. Why was she doing this? Patience was the first thing you learned when going undercover. She deadened her psi-link, and the urge to leave remained, but weak, unreal, like a memory from a dream.
Allie flipped her link back on, and swung her eyes in a slow arc around the room, ending at the bar. A solitary guy perched on the farthest barstool, sitting in shadow. As her eyes found him, he nodded, and she experienced a small gladness, as if she'd been paid a compliment.
A shiver followed it, this all her own. These thoughts had felt so real! For a second Allie hesitated, and then forced her feet in his direction.
As she approached, the strobe light caught the side of his face. Slicked black hair, Golden Fifties cut, leather jacket, jeans. Very retro. He tapped his temple and smiled.
She knew Jimmy from Harv's interview video. He must want her to ment at him--but what? Allie focused a mood of 'impressed' mixed with a bit of annoyance, and let it fill her mind.
He stayed impassive. Was he thinking of leaving? Was he thinking that he wanted to talk elsewhere, was she inferring this, or was he projecting it? Allie focused on open skies above her, outside, thought it as hard as she could. Almost in tandem, they moved towards the exit.
The wooden doors had barely closed behind them when she cut off her psi-link and whirled towards him. "I'm new at this. What just happened?"
"You got it. When you spotted me, I suggested we go out, and so did you." His New York accent was mild.
"And before? When I stopped myself? Did you put ideas into my head?"
He grinned sheepishly. "Sorry. A harmless little game. Most end up wondering why they just left, and come back. You're pretty good..." his voice trailed in a question.
"Angie. That was pretty fancy. Everyone else was easier to tell apart."
"I'm Jimmy. Most guys in the club don't know what they're doing." His upper lip twitched.
"So why hang here then?" Loathing washed over her, and she was glad her psi-link was off. "Looking for a soulmate?"
"Soulmate?" Jimmy snickered. "Guys do say that when they want to get laid. No, I'm not into menting for spiritualism--or sex."
"Power." Dark brown eyes flecked with black locked with hers. "Menting is a new medium, but even more, a new sense. Who masters it..."
"Will be the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind?"
The upper lip twitched again, raising to reveal white teeth. "Will be strong." Magnetic, his eyes didn't waver. "And you, Angie?"
Allie tossed her hair behind her back. "I thought it might be interesting. I like pushing the envelope." She moistened her lips, stared back. "Like what you did before. Messing with people. I'd like to learn to do that."
"I can show you. I've been looking for someone to push me, someone more than the lemmings at the club." His breath came faster. "But you. Back there I sensed something, before you silenced your link. You're like me. You set your own bounds."
I'm nothing like you. Allie teased the bangs on her forehead, composing her thoughts, locking her police persona away. "So, Jimmy, what next? Do we focus on specifics, like with Praxis symbols?"
"No good. You can't send thoughts, only emotions, and even then everything's translated. If a chocolate lover sends 'chocolate', a chocolate hater might think 'creme brulée', or 'carrot cake'. But we can try to control what image or mood comes through. Here, I'll show you. Turn on your link."
Allie switched on, muting send, and suddenly she was soaring, rising into space as the world dropped below and she climbed weightless towards the stars. Breaking away from the vision was hard, like forcing herself awake. "Wow. You must love flying."
His eyes sprang open and he laughed. "I thought of a hawk soaring over a forest, king of its domain. You probably got a different image, but flying came through, and exhilaration. Our minds may speak different languages, but we can learn to translate." He gave a small nod in her direction. "You, now. Think of something you love."
She had to play along. What did she like? Sex, of course, but for sure she wouldn't share that. Her Dad, tending his garden in Orlando. Harvey, loyal and dependable. No, not people, an activity. Allie un-muted her clink, trying to keep her thoughts in order.
Shooting. The focus on the target, the precision of the sighting, the tightening of the trigger, the sudden, violent explosion of power. What else? Working out, the rush of endorphins. Crashing on rainy nights with Elvis. Butterscotch pudding with fudge.
"Slow down." Jimmy took a step back. "I got power, strength, and...something sweet?"
Allie slumped her shoulders. "Sorry. Hard to keep my mind from wandering."
"Takes practice. Let's start easier. Colors. Fill your mind with green..."
Alone inside her car, Allie secured the locks, took off the purple, lip-shaped psi-link, and donned her police clink. 'Call me' floated before her eyes, signed by Harv's prancing avatar.
Allie powered up her Ford and shot down the street while buzzing Harv back.
"Hey, how'd it go? How was menting?" Her partner's voice in her ear brought refreshing reality after the long hours of dreamlike, intrusive mixture of sensations.
"Still trying to get the hang of it. Jumble of thoughts and moods, trick is to recognize which is yours and which not." Allie swerved to avoid a VW pulling out, suppressed a curse. "I met Jimmy. He's like the ace of the menting club."
"Did you get anywhere with him?"
"Not yet, although I'm more convinced than ever the guy's a psycho. We're meeting again Saturday. I think he hopes to mold me into a protégé." Allie's nostrils twitched in disgust.
"Any plans how you might draw him out?"
"He'll probably set himself up. I bet the other girls rejected him at some point, perhaps when he suggested something illegal, and he turned on them. For now, I'll play eager accomplice." The police station came into view. "Hey, I'm practically here. I'll see you at the office in five." Allie stubbed off.
She slid into her parking spot, opened the keyed glove compartment and took out her Sig. She snapped on her holster and made to sheath it, but on an impulse she held it up. It was really gorgeous.
She run a fingertip over the slide, imagining the trace of oil she'd applied earlier. She brought the finger to her mouth and licked the tip. It tasted of butterscotch.
Allie gave her gun a final fond look, then holstered it and opened the door.
Down the corridor of the old student center, identical doors marched in parallel rows, dully reflecting the overhead fluorescents. In Allie's mind a fog hid them, dark, deep, impenetrable.
She thought of light. Five brilliant suns blazed, casting multicolored shadows, the heat making her sweat.
The fog dissolved, but a wall of gray stone took its place. Quick as lightning Allie drew her virtual Sig and fired slug after giant slug, the bullets becoming spinning cylinders of death, hitting with the force of rail guns. The barrier evaporated, leaving only the stark hallway. Deprived of its concealment, Jimmy's presence shone like a beacon behind the third door.
A clapping sensation rose from all around, strobe lights bathing her. The door swung open and he gave a smiling bow. "What did you hit me with, an H-bomb? You're getting good."
Yes, menting could be fun, once you got the hang of it. Allie muted her psi-link. Like a videogame in your own head.
"Let's do fine control next. I'll think a tune, try to hum it..."
But five meetings and many wasted hours later, Jimmy had failed to suggest any illegal pursuits, focusing single-mindedly on training. Time for a new tactic.
"Tunes? Jeez, this is more boring than class."
"What?" His smile faded. "We're honing our skills--"
"Yeah, but where are all the fun tricks you said you'd show me?"
The volume of sensation from his clink dialed way down. "Subliminal manipulation? It's not much use, when so very few have psi-links."
"Or maybe you're holding out?"
"Why would I do that?" His mind was dark and featureless like a sunless sea.
Allie shrugged. "You're right. You simply can't. I'm thinking you're all talk. Maybe making bored teenagers feel even more bored is all you can do."
"Don't be ridiculous." His upper lip twitched. "I'm the best." Traces of frustration and anger seeped through his emotional control. "You have no idea what I can do."
"Well, I'm done waiting to find out." Allie whirled about and headed towards the exit.
Her muscles tautened as his anger flowed through the psi-link. "Stop when I'm talking to you!" Cold surrounded her, and a giant anaconda coiled around her body, drawing her back, its breath fetid.
Allie giggled. "Ooh, scary." She focused contemptuous amusement as she willed her steps steady through the illusion, immediately muting her psi-link to conceal how real it had felt.
Her hands trembled with his anger, but then it died into muffled propitiation. "Angie, I'm sorry. Give me a chance."
She reached the entrance door, opened it. The brisk night air cooled her flushed cheeks. "For what? More talk?"
"No." Footsteps pounded behind her. "There's a special clink. I've been working on it for months. It can send a signal, load a small program that enables a regular clink to psi-link connect."
"Bullshit. Praxis wouldn't allow clink backdoors like that."
"They don't. You trick the auditory nerve into doing this for you. You play a subliminal series of sounds that uses the brain's reflex to unlock their own clink. Offering your mind a Trojan horse."
And catching victims unawares. Or was he making it up? "I don't believe you. Show me."
"I don't have it here, Angie. Tomorrow. Meet me at noon. At Magic Mountain. I'll bring you one. Then we can try everything you want."
A heady image of soaring over an angry sea vanished as he clamped down, but not before she had a feeling of herself atop the lead wave of a tsunami. "With so many people and rides, we can play all kinds of pranks and nobody could guess it was us."
"Tomorrow then. And Jimmy--don't chicken out."
There was relief, but just as he muted transmission she caught the faintest trace of self-satisfaction, as if the joke was on her. "I wouldn't miss it for the world."
Allie slammed the car door shut, and detached her psi-link. Fury pulsing at the memory of Jimmy's concealed glee, she grabbed her Sig from the glove compartment. At its touch, calm descended and her heart slowed. She shut her eyelids tight and took short, rapid breaths, trying to push down a vision of him in her sights.
After a few motionless seconds, Allie blinked. She made to holster the weapon, but instead slid it between her thighs, barrel pointing forward, the coolness of the metal sending a tingle all the way into her loins. She started the car and drove through campus streets.
Ringing snapped her reverie. She hit 'reply' and Harvey's voice poured through the speakers. "Allie, I've been trying you for hours! What happened to your police clink?"
Allie saw it in the coin compartment. "I must not have turned it on." She reached for it and the gun slid to the floor. She cursed as she snapped the clink to her nape, and then frantically groped the floor.
"Are you OK? What's wrong?"
"Nothing. An idiot driver." She found the gun and put it back, the touch bringing calm. "Hey, I got to Jimmy tonight. He couldn't handle rejection. Harv, set up a team for tomorrow. He's taking me to Magic Mountain."
"That's why I was calling. You need to be careful. I think your cover was blown."
"What?" Allie drove, clenching and unclenching her thighs.
"Remember Susan? Vivian's friend? Jimmy phoned her after you first met him. He got her to describe the policewoman who interviewed her. She felt weird about his call, but it took her a while to make up her mind to tell you about it. They patched her to me."
"Really?" Allie drove faster. "My hair was different then. I doubt he made a connection. We'll get him tomorrow. I think he plans to pull the rollercoaster trick again. Get a tap to record everything his clink sends, especially what appears to be static."
"Allie, Professor Darner of Praxis returned my call. He believes menting can be dangerous. As we grow, the brain builds defenses against its own irrational thoughts, sanity antibodies, but is vulnerable to foreign ones. If he plants an irresistible idea of jumping..."
Allie felt the reassuring strength of her Sig against her thigh. "I can handle Jimmy. Knowing what he's doing is half the battle. Besides, I'll handcuff myself to the coaster bar."
"What if he tries earlier? Do you have any thoughts of jumping? Any fondness for high places?"
She laughed. "Harv, impressions don't last long when the psi-link's off. But to rest your mind, no, nothing like that. No flying, no jumping in front of cars, no downing pill bottles."
"What if he's better than you think? Allie?"
She didn't answer. The car parked itself and the interior light came on, her gun glistening in silver hues. She made to holster it, then shoved it under her arm, using her bra strap as a holster. She liked its touch against her breast, strong and reassuring.
"Allie, are you there?"
She forced her mind back. "Yes." She got out of the car.
"You sound a bit heady. Are you sure he didn't--"
"Of course I'm sure." Jesus. "Just get the damn tap order, and we'll nail our perp tomorrow."
Allie stubbed off her phone.
She ran inside, the door unlocking at her approach. As it shut behind her, she slid out the pistol, ran her tongue all the way down the slide top and into the saltiness of the sights. Pleasure rippled through her.
Green letters blinked. 'I'm coming over. Please don't do anything-'
Of course--Harv had her direct clink code. Allie silenced the clink, then detached and flung it across the room. What was she going to do, fly out the ground floor window?
She put the gun barrel into her mouth, sucked it like a lollipop. It tasted like the chocolate coating on a Haagen Daz bar, layers of flavor, with a hint of butterscotch. Her tongue tip played against the perfection of the muzzle, French kissing it.
She brushed the trigger. She must taste it hot...