“The Bloody Dentist” by Jacob Holo
The teenage gangster hadn’t died well.
Not that Acting Deputy Detective Isaac Cho believed there were many good ways to depart this mortal coil. Religion and philosophy weren’t topics he often discussed, and even if he’d found himself so inclined, he would have undoubtedly frustrated those around him with his insistence on hard facts—which was the currency he dealt with in the Consolidated System Police—rather than the mercurial vagaries of less concrete disciplines.
But he knew a bad way to die when he saw one.
The male corpse lay on its back, forearms twisted with multiple fractures, face and throat crushed and bloodied to a pulp, mouth agape with broken and missing teeth. Blood spackled the gangster’s jacket, which featured the blue silhouette of a snarling canine against a white backdrop, indicating the wearer belonged to the Frost Jackal gang.
The body had been found in a narrow corridor carved out of the ice shelf beneath Promise City on Titan, the largest and most populous of Saturn’s moons. Sparse lighting glittered against ice walls sealed behind transparent sheets of vacuum insulation while a chill breeze blew in from the incomplete zones of the city expansion further down.
Isaac knelt next to the corpse and rested a forearm on his knee. He let out a slow exhale, and the air turned into a faint cloud of white mist before dispersing. His cheeks and ears were red and his fingertips cold, though his torso remained warm thanks to his uniform’s internal heating.
“What a godawful mess,” groaned Senior Detective Omar Raviv, standing behind Isaac with arms hugging his chest and hands stuck under his armpits.
“Yeah,” Isaac agreed. “Substantial blunt trauma along the forearms, upper chest, and face. Looks to me like he tried to block the incoming blows before the assailant overwhelmed him.”
“And then proceeded to smash his face in,” Raviv finished with a shake of his head.
“Right.” Isaac reached out, allowing his wetware to interface with the virtual corpse. The real one had already been removed by the Saturn State Police, but the record of the crime scene allowed him to view the area as if frozen at the moment of discovery as well as call up any forensic results uploaded to their case log.
He tilted the brutalized, almost inhuman face toward him and then widened what remained of the mouth with a pair of fingers. The simulation responded, animating the corpse in the detectives’ shared virtual vision.
“Something catch your eye?” Raviv asked.
“Maybe.” Isaac passed his gaze across the ground. SSP drones had scoured the crime scene for evidence around the corpse, but virtual echoes remained in the simulation. Small icons hovered over nearby blood splatters and genetic traces, but that shouldn’t have been the only fallout from an assault this brutal. “Cephalie?”
His LENS drone hovered down to his side. The Lawful Enforcement and Neutralization System resembled a metallic lidless eye slightly larger than his head. The avatar of a tiny woman appeared atop the drone, clad in a long fur coat. She was barely as tall as his hand.
“You rang?” the artificial intelligence asked, pushing up her opaque, circular glasses with a gloved hand. Her full name was Encephalon, and she’d been Isaac’s integrated companion for the last four years, since he’d received his wetware implants at the age of twenty-five.
“Can you count the victim’s teeth? I’m curious if any are missing.”
“Give me a moment. Some of them are in a lot of pieces.” A virtual chalkboard materialized next to her, and a map of the victim’s jawline began to fill in, tooth by tooth.
Isaac stood up and brushed off his knee.
“Missing teeth?” Raviv asked, his own LENS floating beside him.
“We’ll see. Given how little is left of his face and jaw, I expected to see teeth on the ground.”
Raviv bowed his head in thought, then nodded.
Isaac had been mentoring under the senior detective for roughly two years now. Their working relationship had started with Isaac very much the learner, busy observing how Raviv conducted himself on their cases in an effort to absorb the senior detective’s tried-and-true habits, but that dynamic had shifted to the point where nowadays Raviv let—indeed encouraged—Isaac to take the lead, only taking charge when he felt it absolutely necessary.
“Looks like you were right,” Cephalie announced. “He’s missing five teeth. Or four and three quarters, depending on how picky you want to get about counting the pieces. Three incisors and most of two canines.”
The virtual woman gave Isaac a quick wave.
“Thoughts?” Raviv prompted.
“Not sure,” Isaac admitted. “If they weren’t at the crime scene when SSP arrived, then it makes sense someone took them. If so, then the most likely person is the attacker. Trophies from the kill maybe?”
“Hmm. Could be. Could be.” Raviv shrugged, his hands still stuck under his armpits. “I’ve come across stranger habits. I remember this one case where the killer collected his victims’ bodily fluids, mostly blood and saliva. He kept them in vials, all lined up in chronological order on his desk. Weird, disturbed fellow.”
“Did the local infostructure catch anything?” Isaac asked Cephalie.
“Nope,” she replied bluntly with a frown. “Down this far, the coverage is spotty at best, and the gangs have flooded what’s here with viruses. Take my word for it. It’s a freaking mess!”
“I figured as much.” Isaac blew out a quick sigh. “But no harm in asking.”
“I do have some good news, though. SSP just posted a preliminary report to our case log.”
“Let’s see it.”
Identical abstract documents appeared in front of the two detectives, and Isaac tabbed through his copy.
“Victim’s name is Lorenz Napello,” he read. “Known member of the Frost Jackals, which isn’t a surprise.”
Raviv nodded at this. Six Frost Jackals had gone missing in the past few weeks, and SSP hadn’t found a single lead, which was why they’d escalated the case to the detectives of SysPol. Napello wasn’t a missing person—obviously—but Isaac suspected his death was related to the missing gang members.
“Time of death estimated at six-fifty this morning,” he continued. “No wearable devices found on him. If there were any, the killer likely took them. No implants on him either, since he’s under twenty-five.”
“Which means we didn’t get lucky with a digital trail,” Raviv grumbled. “Typical.”
“If our jobs were easy, anyone could do them.”
“Ain’t that the truth!”
“Moving on, looks like Napello’s been busy. Multiple counts of vandalism, plus one charge of sexual assault that was later dropped. By his girlfriend, no less. Her name’s Pamela Mathey, and she’s a Frost Jackal as well. Body was discovered by Bartholomew Kozlowski, an independent hardware retailer who’s been doing a lot of business in the Ice Grotto recently. Seems to me we should talk to both of them.”
“Agreed,” Raviv said. “You want the retailer or the girlfriend?”
“I’ll take Kozlowski.”
“Works for me. I’ll track down the girlfriend. Meet up back at the precinct when we’re done?”
“Sounds like a plan to me.” Isaac closed the crime scene’s abstraction, and the virtual body vanished.
“All right.” Raviv took out his hands and blew into them. “Now let’s get out of here before something important of mine freezes.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Isaac was silently pleased by Raviv’s suggestion to split up. At the start of his mentorship two years ago, the senior detective had kept a watchful eye over him, but that attitude had softened considerably in recent months. He wasn’t sure why. He didn’t think his habits had changed that much, but perhaps matters appeared different from the outside.
He headed down the corridor until he and the LENS reached an area with better infostructure coverage.
Cephalie contacted Kozlowski on Isaac’s behalf and arranged for an interview at a park three levels below him. Isaac followed virtual arrows through the ice-sheathed corridors and down three flights of stairs until the space opened to an oval parkland. The few clusters of people kept to themselves and—judging by their attire—most were members of one gang or another, a fact emphasized by the gang graffiti animating across the walls. A smattering of pine trees rose from uneven grassy turf toward a high ceiling that glowed with artificial light.
The Ice Grotto had been intended as an expansion to Promise City that didn’t require the construction of any new domes. More space on the cheap, as it were. Construction had cut downward from the city’s largest dome, but progress had stalled about a year ago when voters finally authorized funding for a brand-new dome, leaving the Ice Grotto as an unappealing half-measure that quickly fell out of favor.
Technically, the area wasn’t cleared for habitation, but that hadn’t stopped all manner of troublemakers from moving in. Gangs, addicts, job dodgers, and other lawbreakers had taken up residence in what they now called “the Fridge,” owing to the incomplete insulation in many parts of the Grotto.
Isaac spotted Kozlowski in the shade of a particularly tall pine tree. The man wore a heavy coat and pair of wraparound earmuffs that framed a weathered, bearded face. His dark brown hair was shot with strands of gray, and a large drone hovered at his side.
The drone—amusingly enough—resembled an old-fashioned double-wide refrigerator with gleaming metallic skin over its boxy, vertical frame. The drone looked heavy, but even someone with Isaac’s mediocre physique could drag it around in Titan’s gravity. Isaac had been born on Janus-Epimetheus, a megastructure floating through Saturn’s atmosphere, and his body was acclimated to the gas giant’s “surface” gravity of one point oh six gees. He found Titan’s point one four awkwardly anemic by comparison.
Kozlowski waved a hand when he spotted Isaac approaching, perhaps keying off his uniform or the LENS floating behind his shoulder.
“Mr. Kozlowski,” Isaac greeted, stepping up to the man. “Thank you for agreeing to speak with me. I’m Detective Cho of SysPol’s Themis Division.”
“Yes, your IC called ahead,” Kozlowski replied, not rudely but not welcoming either. “I’m not sure why you’re bothering me, though. I already gave my statement to SSP.”
“I’m aware of that. However, I have some follow up questions of my own.”
“Then ask away. This won’t take long, will it?”
“Have somewhere you need to be?” Isaac asked.
“Not especially. Just want to get back to business. You’re scaring away my customers.”
Isaac glanced around at the clusters of gang members in the park. Most were conspicuously avoiding eye contact with him, though he didn’t doubt for a second he was the center of attention.
“You do business with the gangs?”
“What sort of business?”
“I’m a certified reseller of Trades’n’Crafts patterns.” Kozlowski thumped the side of his drone. “Customers order from a curated selection of tool patterns, and I use my mobile printer to produce them on the spot.”
Isaac took in the drone, noting the delivery port in the front. The entire back appeared capable of hinging open, which would make replacing the material cartridges easy.
“What sort of tools?” Isaac asked.
“Here. Take a look.”
An abstract menu appeared in Isaac’s virtual vision, showcasing an array of vibro-knives, vibro-saws, drills, and hammers of various sizes. Most of them came with small infosystems capable of limited self-diagnostics as well as uploading performance feedback.
“Tools?” Isaac fixed the man with a stern gaze. “You mean weapons.”
“What is a weapon, but a tool used for destruction rather than creation?”
“That sounds like a very practiced response.”
Kozlowski crossed his arms. “Is there an actual problem you wish to highlight, Detective?”
“The problem, Mr. Kozlowski, is you’re in the business of arming gangsters.”
“What they do with my products is their own business. My legal responsibility ends at the point of sale.”
“A fair enough legal point.” Isaac left his opinion of Kozlowski’s morals unspoken. The man’s activities in the Grotto might be all kinds of shady, but until he broke the law, there wasn’t much Isaac could do about it.
“Yes,” Kozlowski agreed. “It is.”
“Moving on, I’d like to turn our attention to the body you discovered.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Did you know the victim?”
“I met him once, though only briefly. Lorenz, I think his name was. He was a customer of mine. Or, at least, a potential customer. Came to browse my wares the day before . . . you know.”
“Did he purchase anything?”
“No. Just window shopping, as it were.”
“Did he say why he was in the market for a weapon?”
“He was worried about the Numbers. They’ve been encroaching on Frost Jackal turf. Relations have been strained between the two gangs, and that friction has grown worse with the missing Jackals.”
“Do the Jackals blame the Numbers for the disappearances?”
“Some do, I’m sure.”
“What do you make of those suspicions?”
“Well . . .” Kozlowski shrugged. “I hate to bad mouth any of my customers, but maybe there’s some truth to their fears.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Just a feeling. Nothing more than that, you understand. Everyone down here’s worried about the disappearances. There’s tension in the air. Everywhere, that is, except around the Numbers. In fact, I’d go so far as to say their deacon is pleased with the Jackals’ recent misfortune.”
“Are you suggesting the Numbers are behind the disappearances?”
“You said it, not me.”
The Numbers are the biggest, meanest gang down here, Isaac thought. Would they really resort to kidnapping and murder when they can just bully the other gangs into submission?
“How did you come across the body?”
“I was on my way down to the Grotto parks this morning. I’ve been staying at a hotel up in Promise City, you see. Anyway, I came across that poor kid face down. Even in the dim light, something about his limbs didn’t . . .” He frowned and took a slow breath. “Didn’t look right, you know? I called out to him. He didn’t respond, so I bent down and shook him. Then I turned him over.”
And in the process, Isaac thought, contaminated the crime scene umpteen different ways.
“That’s when I saw . . . saw his face. About the same time, a group of Frost Jackals started down the corridor. I called out to them for help and convinced one of them to run to an area with better reception. I assume his call got through because the police arrived soon after that.”
“Did the Frost Jackals give you any trouble?”
“What do you mean?”
“You were found with the victim, and you likely had blood on your hands from touching the corpse.”
Kozlowski glanced down at his hands. “You’re right about the blood. I turned over my gloves to the state troopers. But no. I’m a known face down here. The gangs don’t give me any trouble. Do you think I can get my gloves back?”
“You’ll have to ask the state troopers about them. Do you have a sensory record of when you found the body?”
“No, unfortunately. I keep my wetware set to maximum privacy. It only records my senses when I manually switch it on.”
Which doesn’t surprise me, Isaac thought, given the kind of business you’re in.
He and Kozlowski spent the next half hour going through the rest of SSP’s preliminary report. Isaac failed to turn up anything else of note.
* * * * * * * * * *
“I hope you had better luck than me,” Raviv groused, joining Isaac in front of Promise City’s 29th Precinct building. The precinct was a dark, nondescript cube with an abstract “29” rotating above it, nestled against the central tower that ran from the base of Promise City all the way up to the spaceport atop the habitat dome.
“How bad was she?” Isaac asked.
“Let me put it this way.” Raviv held up four fingers. “Napello’s girlfriend managed to contradict herself four times in the span of the first few minutes alone. I don’t know if we can trust a single word out of her mouth. And her attitude! Good grief!”
“Interesting,” Isaac pondered out loud. “Her combativeness could mean a lot of things, though. She’s a teenage gangster being grilled by SysPol, after all.”
“She’s lucky a grilling was all I gave her!” Raviv huffed. “It got so bad, I was tempted to charge the girl right then and there with lying to the police.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Because holding that threat over her proved more useful than stuffing her in a cell.” The senior detective flashed a sly grin. “It took the better part of an hour, but I was able to wear her down. Even pried a few useful tidbits from her that I think are more reliable than the rest. Seems Napello had been antagonizing the wrong Numbers. Not your average rank-and-file losers, but their deacon and his retinue.”
Isaac’s eyebrows shot up.
“Yeah, I had the same reaction,” Raviv remarked. “I hate dealing with Numbers, but one thing I’ll give them is they’re easy to figure out, and Rule Number One is don’t fuck with their deacons unless you’ve paid up your life insurance. It seems Napello received a few predictable death threats, which prompted him to go shopping for a weapon.”
“I heard pieces of the same story from Kozlowski. The guy’s been selling makeshift arms to the gangs down here.”
“Oh, that’s all we fucking need!”
“Napello approached him yesterday but didn’t purchase anything. Also, Kozlowski made it sound like the situation between the Numbers and the Frost Jackals could blow up any day now.”
“Yeah, I got the same impression from the girlfriend.” Raviv shook his head and glanced over at the precinct. “Things are going to become ugly if this little cold war between the gangs turns hot.”
“All the more reason for us to keep at it.”
“Thoughts on our next steps?”
“I hate to say it, but we might have to break Rule One and have a . . . chat with the Numbers’ deacon.”
“I knew you’d say that.” Raviv shook his head, then bobbed it toward the precinct. “Come on. Let’s give the lieutenant the bad news.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Lieutenant Alfons Garnier sat behind his desk with a pained—if sympathetic—expression. It was no exaggeration to say he was the reason Isaac and Raviv were down on the moon. He’d headed the original investigation into the disappearances, and when his own efforts stalled, he’d filed a support request to SysPol. After the two detectives arrived on site, he’d acted as an effective liaison between them and the local state troopers. He wanted the case solved as much as they did, if not more so.
Which, Isaac reflected, explains the expression.
“I’m sorry, detectives,” Garnier began, fingers knitted tightly on the desk. “But I can’t help you with this one.”
“Why not?” Raviv demanded, his cantankerous side showing itself almost as a reflex.
“Unless I’m mistaken,” Isaac cut in before Garnier could respond, “everyone in the Grotto is, at a minimum, guilty of trespassing. Charge Deacon Morrisette with that and haul him in. We’ll take it from there.”
“I’d love to. Truly, I would. But the situation is more complex than it might seem from Kronos,” Garnier said, referring to the SysPol station that covered the Saturn State. “I’d love nothing more than to sweep the Grotto clean. The place has become a festering sore underneath this city, and the sooner we restore order there, the better.
“On top of that, I’d leap at the opportunity to lean into Morrisette. The Numbers were the first group of troublemakers to move in after the construction crews pulled out. They—and Morrisette especially—are the biggest obstacle to turning the Grotto around.”
“Then why can’t you bring the deacon in?” Isaac asked.
“Because my hands are tied.” Garnier spread his upturned palms. “The city council has passed measures restricting our ability to enforce minor infractions in the Grotto.”
“Why the hell would they do that?” Raviv grumped.
“The official reason is they don’t want us troopers spread too thin.” Garnier leaned in and lowered his voice. “Unofficially, it’s because the council has ties with the Sect of the Divine Randomizer.”
Isaac and Raviv exchanged knowing looks. The Numbers were a violent offshoot of the Sect. Both groups believed that divine intervention took place through randomness. All randomness wasn’t, according to their creed. Officially, the two weren’t related, but that didn’t stop the Sect from looking the other way whenever the Numbers caused mischief.
“If you ask me,” Garnier continued, “Morrisette is in bed with the city council. He’s trying to set up his own private kingdom down in the Grotto, and they’re willing to let him build it, for whatever asinine or corrupt reasons they have. Which leads us back to where we began.”
“With you unable to help us,” Raviv sighed.
“Just so, I’m afraid.”
“Lieutenant,” Isaac started, “I think I speak for both of us when I say we understand and sympathize with the predicament you find yourself in.” He shot a quick glance at Raviv, who gave him a subtle nod to continue. “You’ve made the limits you’re under clear, and so we won’t press the point. We’ll find another way to move forward with our investigation.”
“Thank you,” Garnier replied, visibly relieved. “And, again, I am sorry.”
* * * * * * * * * *
“You sure you want to do this?” Raviv asked, standing outside the Numbers’ main hangout in the Grotto. A pair of tall ice columns separated the pedestrian street from a widening colonnade that led deeper into the vacuum-insulated cavern. A pair of gangsters watched them from the entrance, both clad in white business suits with random numbers floating across the smart fabric and armed with vibro-blades sheathed at their hips.
“What’s the worst that could happen?” Isaac replied with a brave smile.
“You really want me to spell it out for you?”
The smile vanished.
Isaac didn’t want to admit it, but this course of action unnerved him as well. He’d much prefer to speak with Morrisette at the precinct, with the gang leader at a distinct disadvantage. But since that wasn’t possible without escalating SysPol’s role in the case—an escalation they lacked the hard evidence to justify and which would go against the wishes of the local government—then the next logical step was for them to go directly to the Numbers.
He knew they were ceding the advantage to Morrisette, but multiple people had cast accusation toward the deacon, and it was their duty to hear his side of the story before jumping to conclusions.
Isaac’s gaze tracked down to one of the guards’ weapons. Data passed between the LENS and his wetware, highlighting the knife in his virtual vision. He mentally toggled an icon next to the weapon, and an information window expanded. The guard carried a Trades’n’Crafts “Cut-All Elite” Pattern AA vibro-knife, one of the many products Kozlowski offered.
His uniform provided some protection against bladed or blunt attacks if the locals turned . . . unruly, though he’d prefer not to test its effectiveness today. Additionally, the LENS served as his primary form of defense, equipped with a fast-acting shell of programmable-steel that could be utilized in a wide range of situations. But as capable as the standard LENS was, he doubted even both of their drones would be enough to subdue the entire hangout.
“Here goes,” he breathed to Raviv, then walked up to the two gangsters and transmitted his badge. “We’re here to see Morrisette.”
One of the gangsters held out a palm and scrutinized the abstract ID while the second opened a comm window blurred behind a privacy filter.
“Yes?” asked the man on the other end of the call.
“Those SysPol detectives are here to see you, sir.”
“Then let them in.”
“The badge checks out,” reported the first guard.
“This way.” The second guard sneered at them and gestured inside.
They followed him down the colonnade until it opened to the tiered interior of a cavern, its insulated walls a mixture of rock and ice. A square space at the bottom led upward along staircases in three orthogonal directions, flattening at regular intervals. The empty space the room formed resembled an inverted step pyramid, with the three paths finally disappearing into branching passages at the top.
Isaac swept his gaze over their surroundings, noting the gangsters lounging around, watching them from above. His LENS provided a quick tally of thirty-seven, most of them armed.
One man stood out from the crowd, seated casually on the steps directly ahead of them. He wore an expensive white suit with a golden “77” on the side of his collar. His black hair was slicked back, revealing a prominent widow’s peak.
“Detectives Cho and Raviv.” Morrisette dipped his head toward them ever so slightly. “What a pleasure it is to have not one but two members of the illustrious System Police in our presence. Please, join me.” He gestured to the vacant steps beside him. “Why not take a load off? I’m sure you two have had a busy day, and even Titan’s gravity can wear on you after a while.”
“We’ll stand,” Isaac replied, “if it’s all the same to you.”
“As you wish.” Morrisette leaned back and draped an arm across the step behind him. “Now, what can I do for you two fine gentlemen?”
“We’re here to talk about the death of Lorenz Napello.”
“And who might this Napello person be?”
“A Frost Jackal found this morning. Someone bludgeoned him to death.”
“Oh my,” Morrisette wore an expression of faux shock. “How terrible.”
“We’re investigating his death and would appreciate your cooperation.”
“Mmm.” The deacon nodded. “Now, you must forgive my ignorance in this matter. I see why SysPol might be interested, but I must be missing why you two are here, speaking to me.”
“Napello received death threats from the Numbers before he was killed.”
“Ah.” Morrisette gave them a resigned shrug. “And now the reason for your curiosity becomes clear. Granted, our . . . relationship with the Frost Jackals is a bit strained at the moment. Perhaps these threats were nothing more than ill-timed bluster.”
“We have reason to believe the threats came directly from your retinue.”
“I see.” The deacon twisted around and gazed up the steps. “Well, which one of you was it? Come on now.” He clapped twice. “Let’s have it. The detectives don’t have all day.”
A broad-shouldered teenager hurried down the steps. Isaac found his eyes drawn to the large hammer hanging from a loop at his waist next to a sheathed vibro-knife. The LENS identified both as Trades’n’Crafts products.
“I did, Deacon.”
“State your name for the detectives, please.”
“Now, now,” Morrisette chided. “You know how the police frown upon our sect names. Give them your legal one.”
“Sorry, Deacon. It’s Dario Vogl.”
“And Dario, why did you see fit to pass on such a threat without my knowledge?”
“Because that mouthy punk mocked your good name.”
Vogl’s face twisted with apprehension.
“How did he mock me?” Morrisette pressed. “Come now. There’s no harm in repeating it. The kid is dead, after all. What’s he going to do to me now?”
“Sir, he . . . implied you had improper relations.”
“With your mother.”
“Oh, how scandalous,” Morrisette commented with a bored tone.
“Also, with your pet dog.”
Morrisette rolled his eyes. “And this was enough for you to say something that stupid?”
“No,” he corrected. “You didn’t. And that’s the problem.”
“Dario Vogl,” Isaac began sharply. “Where were you this morning between the hours of six and eight?”
“Umm . . .”
“Better think hard,” Morrisette warned the gangster. “This is the important part.”
“Around here, I guess. Probably eating breakfast.”
“Do we have any witnesses?” Morrisette prompted. “Anyone see him at breakfast?”
A few hands went up.
“There, you see, Detectives?” The deacon leaned back with a smirk. “It couldn’t be him. He was here, with us, eating breakfast. Case closed, I’m afraid. Better luck elsewhere.”
Isaac considered the alibi flimsy at best, but he also knew he lacked the leverage to press the point. He needed something firmer than one gangster mouthing off at another. He considered his options, trying to figure out the best way to push the case forward.
“The Bloody Dentist claims another one,” someone laughed from high up the steps, her voice barely audible.
“Who said that?” Raviv snapped, searching the room’s upper reaches. He pointed at a teenage girl. “You! Get down here!”
“I’m sure it was just an innocent—” Morrisette began.
“You either cooperate, or I swear to God, I will bring the full wrath of SysPol down on all your heads! Now which one is it going to be, ‘Deacon?’”
One of Morrisette’s eyes twitched, and his jaw tightened. He raised a hand and beckoned the gangster down with a pair of fingers. The girl came down, her face decorated with black lipstick and way too much eye shadow.
“What did you just say?” Raviv demanded.
“He claimed another?” she asked more than answered.
“Who? Who claimed another?”
“The . . . the Bloody Dentist.”
* * * * * * * * * *
“How the hell do the Numbers know our killer collects teeth?” Raviv growled. “We only found out this morning, and yet the whole gang is swirling with the rumors!”
The senior detective paced from one end of the conference room to the other, then turned around and marched the other way. He and Isaac had returned to the 29th Precinct after their meeting with Morrisette.
“Could be one of them came across a different body and didn’t report it,” Isaac wondered aloud, seated at one end of the conference table. Their two LENS drones loitered outside the room. “Maybe that started the rumor?”
“Or one of them is the killer!”
“There’s that possibility, too.” Isaac lowered his head in thought. “That said, there are a few things about this case that have been bothering me.”
“You mean besides who this ‘Bloody Dentist’ is?”
“Yeah. Besides that.”
“Well, go on.” Raviv stopped pacing and plopped into the chair next to Isaac. “Don’t keep me in suspense.”
“My first issue is with the initial six disappearances. If we’re dealing with the same person who killed Napello, then where are the bodies? You and I have seen enough of the Grotto to know there aren’t many places to hide that aren’t controlled by one gang or another.”
“Which implies one of the gangs knows where the bodies are.”
“Yeah. And the Numbers are on the top of that list, if for no other reason than all the victims have been Frost Jackals, and the two gangs have been butting heads recently. But . . . I don’t know. That take doesn’t sit right with me. Did Morrisette strike you as someone who’d order hits like this?”
“Not really,” Raviv admitted with a huff. “His gang already has the upper hand, especially if the lieutenant’s right about city hall’s tacit approval of the Numbers squatting down there.”
“The same thoughts crossed my mind.”
“It could still be one of the Numbers behind this. Or a team of them.”
“Possibly.” Isaac rested his cheek on a fist and stared at the wall. “But at the same time, Morrisette seemed to keep his gangsters on a tight leash.”
“Not tight enough. That Vogl character stepped out of line.”
“With words,” Isaac countered. “But would he kill someone without his deacon’s approval?”
“That’s a tougher question. Did you spot how Vogl was carrying a hammer?”
“I did, though I’m hesitant to jump to any conclusions. Yet,” he added meaningfully.
“So, body disposal is your first problem. What are the others?”
“Problem Two: how’s the killer getting the drop on his victims? The first victim wouldn’t have been watching his back, but what about two through seven? The Frost Jackals are all on edge, both from the disappearances and because of the Numbers. They’ll be traveling in groups most of the time, and when alone they’ll be alert and on edge.
“Think back to Napello’s body. We didn’t see any signs that he ran or struggled. The killer struck first. Napello went down, vainly trying to block with his arms, and was then pummeled to death. Why didn’t we see an attempt at fight or flight? Especially if the killer was some stranger or one of the Numbers. How did the killer manage to close on someone who was on the lookout for danger?”
“You’re suggesting the victims knew the attacker?”
“I think it’s a strong possibility.”
“Maybe a fellow Jackal then?” Raviv suggested.
“Maybe,” Isaac echoed.
“Just one more. How’s the killer picking the time and location to strike? From what we know, Napello was attacked while alone, and it seems likely the same happened to victims one through six. How’s the killer pulling this off?”
“I don’t know. Normally, I’d say someone must be hacking the local infostructure to scout out the victims.”
“Right,” Isaac replied. “But the Grotto’s infostructure is chock full of holes and viruses. It’s borderline useless as a surveillance method. So, how’s the killer doing it?”
“That’s a good question.” Raviv leaned back in his chair. “So, where does this leave us?”
“You tell me. All I’ve got are questions.”
Raviv flashed a quick smile. “I’m not testing you, if that’s what you’re thinking. I don’t have a clue either.”
“Oh, for the days when I thought you were infallible,” Isaac mused, returning the smile.
Raviv snorted out a laugh. “Come on. I’m being serious.”
“Let’s see,” Isaac sighed. “I suppose we can head back down to the Grotto. If there’s a firm connection between all seven victims, then their fellow Jackals should know. How about we poke around their haunts and see what turns up? Maybe we’ll get lucky?”
“That’s the spirit!” Raviv said, rising from his seat.
The two detectives headed back down to the Ice Grotto after grabbing a quick lunch.
They returned to Promise City late into the evening with nothing to show for their efforts.
* * * * * * * * * *
“This is not how I wanted to start my morning,” Raviv grumbled, steaming cup of black coffee in hand as he stared down at the eighth victim.
“I think Mr. Vogl has it worse than us,” Isaac commented.
Dario Vogl lay in a pool of his own blood, his face smashed in, his one remaining eye wide with terror, his lower jaw broken and askew. A disk-shaped SSP drone hovered near the body, its arms collecting and recording trace evidence. A group of the victim’s fellow Numbers watched from beyond the virtual police cordons, while a pair of stern-faced state troopers watched them.
Isaac’s LENS ascended to his side, and Cephalie’s avatar appeared atop the drone.
“More missing teeth on this one. Call it five and two thirds. Mostly incisors and canines again.”
“Thanks, Cephalie,” Isaac replied, not taking his eyes off the corpse.
“At least the killer’s consistent.” Raviv grimaced before taking another sip.
“Anything else of note?” Isaac asked.
“Nothing so far,” Cephalie replied. “But their drone’s still picking evidence off the floor.”
Isaac took slow steps around the corpse, staying clear of the SSP drone’s activities. He studied the body, hoping it would reveal the unspoken secrets of this terrible crime.
He continued his slow circuit around the corpse and then stopped.
The sheath attached to Vogl’s belt caught his eye. It was empty. One of the gangster’s weapons was missing.
Isaac checked the surrounding floor. No knife. He called up the drone’s evidence log and scrolled through the list, finding only blood specks and the like. Nothing even close to the size of a vibro-blade.
What does this mean? Does it mean anything? It’s just a knife, after all. He could have dropped it somewhere or left it behind at the hangout.
Yeah, sure he did, Isaac thought sarcastically. He left it by his bedside with a gang war ready to blow up and a killer stalking the Grotto. He left it there right next to his sense of self preservation.
No, it makes too much sense for him to bring the knife with him.
But then . . . where is it?
Isaac checked the floor again and once more came up empty.
“Looking for something?” Raviv asked.
“Maybe. Not sure it’s important, though.”
A missing knife.
Why would the killer take Vogl’s knife but not the hammer? The killer doesn’t use bladed weapons.
Not as a weapon, then? Perhaps as a trophy?
But then how does that fit in with the missing teeth? How many trophies does one killer need?
Okay, let’s take a step back. Isaac drew in a long, slow breath as he thought. Let’s assume the knife wasn’t taken as a weapon or a trophy. What’s left? What possible value could it have to the killer?
He bowed his head in thought, but nothing came to him.
Perhaps I’m looking at this from the wrong direction. Maybe the better question is: What value does the knife have to us? Could it contain evidence the killer doesn’t want us to find? But then, why take the knife but not the hammer? More importantly, what could the knife tell us that we don’t already know? Why would the killer not simply ignore it?
Did Napello have a weapon on him, too? Did the killer take that one as well?
But no, Kozlowski said Napello didn’t purchase anything.
Am I making too much out of this?
Isaac held up his palm and summoned the case log in his virtual vision. He tabbed over to the LENS records from the previous day and checked the specifications on the weapons Vogl carried back in the Numbers hangout.
The hammer came up first. It was a very standard, very unremarkable Trades’n’Crafts “Pounder” Pattern D general purpose hammer. Just a regular, dumb tool. Literally, in this case, since it lacked a built-in infosystem.
The knife was relatively flashier, with a higher-grade pattern and a compact infosystem for self-diagnostics and user feedback.
So, the knife has an infosystem and the hammer doesn’t . . .
Then that means . . .
The pieces finally came together in Isaac’s mind, and he snapped his fingers.
Raviv glanced his way. “Found something?”
“You could say that.” He gave the senior detective a savage grin. “I know who the killer is.”
* * * * * * * * * *
The “Bloody Dentist” didn’t think of himself as such. It was a stupid name created by stupid criminals, but the fear it engendered would prove useful. The scar formed by his hunts would linger long after he’d moved on, continuing the Good Work he’d begun in this desolate, depraved cesspit under the city.
The act of cleansing never ended, but he was a tireless warrior, and the refinement of his techniques would soon bear fruit. He’d begun his Work simply enough in a far-flung corner of the solar system. He’d sought out the stench of crime in places the authorities ignored, taking upon himself the hard tasks necessary for a healthy and just society.
Evil deserved no mercy, and he gave it none.
But he was only one man, and there was only so much Good he could perform.
That’s when he’d hit upon the idea. Why not let this criminal scum help him out? Why not coax Evil to kill Evil?
It was so close now that his hands trembled with giddy anticipation. Another subtle nudge here, another corpse discovered there, and the gangs would be at each other’s throats. Open warfare would soon follow, spilling out across the Fridge, drenching its ice in Evil’s blood.
He didn’t care who won, just so long as the conflict produced a body count. In that way, both factions would lose. Good would triumph over Evil. It was almost funny when he thought about it, how these stupid degenerates would soon aid him so unwittingly.
But that would come later.
For now, he stood in one of the Fridge’s many unfinished parks, engaging in one of the few tasks he could perform openly. A cluster of Numbers spotted him and began making their way toward his drone. He rubbed his hands in anticipation and flashed a warm smile their way.
Suddenly, the Numbers stopped, their gazes drawn toward the park’s nearest entrance. A flash of motion caught his eye, and a metallic blur slammed into him.
His world spun, turning sideways, but something cushioned his fall at the last moment, lowering him almost gently down on the grass. He tried to get up but found his limbs bound by the prog-steel pseudopods of a SysPol LENS.
A pair of SysPol detectives walked over, and a second LENS floated behind them. He recognized the younger of the two as Detective Cho.
But why? Why bind him? What were they doing? Didn’t they know?! They were all on the same side!
“Good morning, Kozlowski,” Cho greeted him. “Let’s talk about the recent killings, shall we?”
“But . . .” His mind raced. Why were these detectives being so stupid?! He couldn’t let them find out! “What’s going on here? What’s this about?”
“I suspect you already know the answer.” Cho motioned the second drone forward. “Cephalie, search him.”
Oh no! his thoughts screamed. He hadn’t stashed his mementos away yet! He’d be exposed!
“Now hold on!” Kozlowski squirmed against his restraints. “You can’t do this! I know my rights! You can’t search me without a warrant!”
“Unless we have good reason to believe you’ve committed a crime, which we do. And that means we have limited authority to perform a warrantless search.” Cho gave him a little shake of the head. “It’s funny how many people miss that last part.”
The second LENS approached him, opened the front of his coat, and began searching through his pockets. One of the rummaging pseudopods stopped, then dug deeper into his breast pocket before retracting with several bloody teeth stuck in the prog-steel. The LENS retrieved a small evidence tube from its interior and let the teeth clatter inside.
Icy fear traced down his spine as the LENS continued its search, finally pulling a knife and a hammer out of his coat, the latter caked with blood.
“Bartholomew Kozlowski,” Cho announced. “You’re under arrest for the murder of Dario Vogl.”
Anger boiled up inside him. He’d had enough of this farce.
“But I’m not done yet!” he pleaded. “Don’t you see? There’s so much more I must do! What do you fools think you’re doing, stopping me?!”
“Get this piece of trash out of here!” snapped the senior detective.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Mind filling me in?” Raviv prompted, once the still-ranting Kozlowski was out of sight.
“About what?” Isaac asked.
“How you put the pieces together. I feel like I’m still a few steps behind you.”
“Oh, that.” Isaac gave his partner a slim smile. “Remember the three problems we discussed?”
“Body disposal, catching the victims alone, and approaching them without raising suspicions.”
“That’s right. Coming up with a theory for the second one was where the pieces started to fall into place for me. As both of us noted, Kozlowski couldn’t use the local infostructure, assuming he even has the skills to hack it in the first place. So, he needed an alternative approach.”
“These.” Isaac gestured to his LENS, and Cephalie placed the knife in his hand, the weapon sealed in an evidence bag.
“The tools he was selling?”
“I noticed Vogl’s knife was missing but the hammer was still on him. At first, I couldn’t come up with a reason why the killer would take one but not the other. Then it dawned on me that the knife came with a modest infosystem while the hammer didn’t. From there, it wasn’t much of a leap to assume it could be used as a makeshift tracking device.”
“Wait a second.” Raviv crossed his arms. “You’re saying the guy was tracking his victims with his own products?”
“That’s the theory.” Isaac turned the knife over in his hands. “I suspect we’ll find the ‘user feedback’ software has been tweaked to provide data back to Kozlowski, giving him eyes on potential targets. I also suspect he lied about not selling anything to Napello, that in actuality he took that weapon from the crime scene, same as he did with Vogl.”
“Because he didn’t want us to find the modified software.”
“Huh. You know, the killer being Kozlowski also covers how he could approach his victims without raising suspicions. He was a known face to both gangs. Hell, he was helping them protect themselves! Why wouldn’t they trust him?”
“And,” Isaac noted, “on top of that, he happened to be the one who ‘discovered’ Napello. But in actually, it was the Frost Jackals who caught him in the act, and so he fabricated that part of his story.”
“And the last problem?”
“Disposal of the bodies?”
“Well, let’s see.” Isaac glanced over at Kozlowski’s drone, which still reminded him of an old-fashioned double-door refrigerator hovering just above the ground.
“Wait a second.” Raviv’s brow furrowed. “You don’t mean . . .”
“You might want to stand back,” Isaac warned. “Just in case. Cephalie, would you do the honors?”
“Sure thing.” The LENS floated over to the printer drone and stabbed a pseudopod into the seam along the back hatch. It cut through the lock, and the hatch swung open.
Dozens of severed body parts—arms, legs, heads, and chopped up pieces of torsos—spilled out onto the ground, now released from a cramped space normally reserved for extra printer cartridges. The two detectives stared at the human carnage for long, uncomfortable seconds.
“It’s a strange thing about this job,” Isaac said at last after the lengthy silence.
He looked over at his partner with a sad smile. “Sometimes I hate being right.”
Copyright © 2022 by Jacob Holo
Jacob Holo is the coauthor of the national bestseller The Gordian Protocol, an epic space/time adventure, with New York Times bestselling author David Weber. Weber and Holo continued Gordian Division series (in which “The Bloody Dentist” is set) with The Valkyrie Protocol, and the newly released time travel murder mystery The Janus File.
Holo is a former-Ohioan, former-Michigander who now lives in South Carolina with his wife/boss H.P. and his cat/boss Nova.