Part II, Chapter 1

from Gamma

Around the partition Jalil hears Detective Starns slam the phone into its cradle. The sound is the first indication that beneath the offhand, meandering, toneless discourse he uses on the job the detective is capable of the heroic mood shifts that were said to have marked his early days with Hollywood Division and made his reputation. He stands to get his suit jacket. "678, your old turf. Let's move."

Brad Starns is a twenty-year CAPS dick—a Crimes Against Persons detective. He is the oldest member of the team, which means that he has been passed over for a D3 promotion several times. His desk commands one corner of the room and has a return, but other than that he's just one of the detectives: about a dozen D1's and D2's crammed into a large noisy room, while Lomax, the CAPS D3, chats leisurely on the phone behind a window.

Jalil has worked with Starns only a couple of weeks. He follows the tall man through the dingy light of the government building, impressed with his urgency. He breaks into a run to keep up then slows down so as not to look hurried, clutching the handle of his new leather satchel—a gift from his wife for his promotion. Inside is a fresh stack of ViewSheets, which will be more convenient to use than the standard-issue pocket ViewPad if they end up questioning someone at home.

In the mornings he still stares at the nameplate on his desk in disbelief: "Detective Medan." One leg of the desk has been replaced with two phonebooks and a folded piece of cardboard, but this is his desk. He works in an office now.

"Prison break," Starns says in the car, an unmarked Ford sedan. "A celebrity, Dr. Shannon Jones. You might remember he did mutation experiments on other people's babies a few years back."

They drive past storefronts Jalil recalls from his days on Outreach patrols: the sites of burglaries, squatters, fights. The plain street has the marks of a battleground in his mind. Over the radio, Dispatch is calling the plays of a city-wide brawl that continues without him. His mind automatically begins building a map of the area hotspots, the habit of a patrol officer.

Starns brakes hard at a red light. "Just great." He kneads the steering wheel. "The guy was in for life. Why they let him out on a work crew, I'll never know."

Starns' tone of voice is enough to convey that he takes the screw-up personally.

Jalil hazards a question. "Doesn't the sheriff's department usually handle escapes?"

Starns drums his thick fingers on the steering wheel, eyes ticking over the points of city light that have appeared under the darkening sky. "Sorry to keep you late," he says absently.

The sunset has a private significance for Jalil. On the Islamic calendar this month is Ramadhan, the month of daytime fasting. By nightfall he has hunger pains and a terrible thirst, compounded by heavy fatigue. If he was going home to Tahia, he'd be breaking the fast with pisang kolak—banana and cassava stewed in coconut milk and palm sugar. Instead, he'll have to buy a Snickers and a Country Time lemonade when he gets back to the station.

All the better, he says to himself. Ramadhan is a time to earn your blessings.

Whether by accident or God's choosing, he has a long history of proving himself to the police during the month of Ramadhan. He trained during Ramadhan at the police academy, against the advice of his then-girlfriend and parents, because he couldn't bear to live one extra day in his parents' big house, or delay his engagement any longer, or listen to his father expound again on how he was turning himself into "one of the herd" by staring at a Carl's, Jr. griddle all day instead of solving equations at a university.

The administrator of his Psychological Interview (Step 8 of the LAPD selection process) tried to talk him out of it, too, though he knew nothing about the Islamic calendar. "Police Officer can be a physical job. Top five percent of your high-school class won't mean much to a trey-six with a prior record. Are you sure you could be comfortable exercising command, given your small size?"

At five foot eight, Jalil was accustomed to being doubted. He smiled and delivered a smooth reply that left no doubt about his confidence.

His high-school basketball coach had given him the same speech, minus the trey-sixes, and two years later had eaten his words by making him a starter on varsity. "Midget" to the fans, Jalil stole a pass at the division championship his senior year just in time to make the winning basket. The Pond in Anaheim exploded. His team carried him off the court. By the time he was sitting across the wood-veneer desk from the LAPD psychologist, he had forgotten all the elbows in the ribs, the jammed fingers, mediocre games, and the two years on junior varsity. All he remembered were those ninety seconds of weightlessness and triumph.

The more sense people had tried to talk into his head, the more devoutly he had trained and studied the sport. The constant discouragement became the secret of his success. He must have shot a million solitary baskets in his driveway: enough baskets, if each one had been a keypress, to write three books. Or program one of his father's company's domestic robots.

The same negative energy has propelled him through a near-brilliant career with the police. The combination of fasting and physical conditioning at the academy was something he savored, earning top marks not just on written exams but on every test they threw at him. He stood out immediately thanks to his intelligence and education. (His parents had held "media" and basketball hostage every day until his homework was completed to their satisfaction.) What most trainees learned by rote he internalized and was able to apply strategically.

It was the same on patrol. There weren't any trey-sixes in Division 6, but he defused more than his share of explosive situations, one time saving the life of a little boy who had been taken hostage by a man caught robbing an antique store, a feat he pulled off with his patrol helmet's built-in megaphone, expecting only to buy time until a specialist arrived.

Patrolling was dangerous work that paid well compared to other "unskilled" jobs. With a little financial help from his parents, he got the life he wanted: his own little house and a wife who believed in him, both he and his wife draft-dodgers where the university system was concerned and loving the freedom, the real freedom of growing up and having a life instead of prolonging childhood onward toward the grave like the rest of America. He now has two extended families discouraging him and quoting his GPA and SAT scores, instilling in him a fearless determination that has gotten him through his patrol years to a place now where he can show everyone just how right he was to take his own path.

He can easily give the LAPD tonight's plate of cassava. They've given him the dignity of providing a life for himself and his family—and a stability not possible for those who chase after the latest technological revolution. 165K and climbing, enough to make having children practical. He'll gladly endure everything necessary to shine as a detective-trainee and justify the faith the 'force has put in him.

He takes care not to let the discomfort caused by his hunger show, while Starns drives to the scene with a face dead like a shirt hung in a closet. Jalil tells himself that long hours are part of what he can expect from the new job.

Starns double-parks beside two squad cars and gets out. Jalil follows. The patrol officers, friends of his, are questioning a ragged-looking man in Sureno garb. The man waves his arms as he talks, scarecrow orange in the street light—an old fellow, too old to be much of a gangbanger.

Starns greets the patrol officers. "That's him?" He sizes up the man, ignoring most of what the uniformed officer has to say. "Hi, I'm Detective Starns. Digame. Start from the top."

"Yeah, I seen it. I know who it was." The witness jigs his arms as he talks, addressing everyone within earshot, chin up and eyes roving from place to place. "It whun't no ricket boy, huh? Whun't no slob. Then'ju Omally's be in your car flashlightin' bums an' goin' home early. See. You're out here talkin' to me because you're scareda my man Jones. You—"

"Just tell me which way and was he workin' with someone."

"I'll tell you what I know—you have to let me talk. See. Listen to Justo. Listen to the Pied Cipher. Listen to Cipher P. Jones whun't scareda no po-lice. He came off that bus cool as Kirk, with that look in his eyes, puro, like I KNOW WHAT THE FUCK I'M DOIN' AN' AIN'T NO ONE—"

"Which way? Up the street?" Starns is already scanning faces at a crowded bus stop.

"Yeah I seen exactly where mi pana gone, but so what? Makes no difference."

"The detective asked you question—a question." Jalil curses silently. He still drops an article from a sentence now and then, usually during tense moments, the moments that count the most. Starns is taking a much more aggressive tack than he would have, but today his job is to follow his training officer's lead.


A woman has stepped into the street to go around them, a tall Hispanic girl in a short skirt—a prostitute, maybe.

"'Ey, jefe, míra a la putica . . . furor uterino. Vale. Sabes.


Starns' interest hasn't strayed from the man calling himself the Pied Cipher. "I want to hear what you know about Jones. Where EXACTLY did you see him and where'd he go?"

"Huh? Yeah, I seen him go stand right over there cool as Kirk, and he got on the bus like nada, like I don' even think he paid. That brother is ON A MISSION, and I can't wait to see who it is or what it is or where it goes down. See. Wha'chu do if some whiteys come bust up your house an' lab an' all tha' shit, an' then take what you invented an' make it legal an' make fuckin' bank, see, FUCKIN' BANK—I seen it on TV down at the store, whole factory of headless people, HEADLESS FUCKIN' PEOPLE, man, all floatin' in tha' green shit, an' don' tell me whass sick, 'cause thass fuckin' sick, an' thass why they sent Jones up north trip so's they can steal his goods an' go farmin' people worse than he ever DREAMED, see, to take their guts an' make all the money instead of some dumb black baby they made jus' to do their dirty work, see . . ."

"Which bus?"

"Fuckin' WHATEVER bus. I tol'ju he got one right THERE. It don' matter 'cause he'll jus' slip back off an' then on somewhere else, see. You ain't catchin' my man Jones. He's smarter than Einstein. He's smarter than all you po-po in one basket. He's a top-secret weapon, an' the government don' fuck around with their top-secret shit. . . ."

The task of transcribing the Pied Cipher's statement into the Crime Database falls to Jalil. He does this with the bunged-up LAPD ViewPad, since he has to work standing up. The Jones scandal happened when he was thirteen. All he remembers are photographs of aborted fetuses in a dumpster—then interviews with outraged parents followed by a swift conviction. The scientist's transformation into a role model for ex-gangbangers is surprising but doesn't seem relevant to the case. Jalil inputs the address of the bus stop and files the record.

Meanwhile, Officer Weiss does her best to distract him. "So they stuck you with Starns. He get you in any fights yet?" She speaks through the open faceplate of a standard-issue helmet, Theater of Operations gear that used to give him sore hair.

"Not yet. I think he's mellowed."

"Doesn't seem mellow to me."

"Usually he is. So far, at least."

Officer Bose has been talking with the watch sergeant over his helmet's radio. He cuts the connection by pressing a stud built into the helmet's shell, then he rejoins his partner. "You don't know?" he says to Jalil.

"Know what?"

"Starns is the one who broke the case against Jones, back in '26, '27, something like that. Sort of a career highlight. That's why he's out here swingin' with both arms."

"I thought it was the head scientist, Dr. White."

"Who do you think got to Dr. White?"

Jalil considers. "Before my time," he says. "This is common knowledge? Maybe that's why he didn't mention it."

"Don't expect Starns to tell you anything. He's a one-man show."

Jalil watches Detective Starns stretch his arms in front of the waiting door of a bus to corral any potential witnesses. When Jalil was one of the regular officers getting pushed out of a crime scene, he had the impression that Starns was bossy and ostentatious, but now that he might be expected to take charge of a crime scene himself, he can't help but admire the D2's confidence. "He is different around the office," Jalil says. "He is quite mellow, most of the time."

"Well, it's out here you have to be worried," Bose concludes.

Weiss adds, "Seriously. The whole point of being detective is you don't have to fight dudes. That's what grunts like us are for."

"Come on," Bose says. "647. Beggars outside the Ralph's again."

The officers return to their car, anonymous inside their polished black helmets. Grunts—yes. Jalil stays on the scene with Starns, a chilly wind in his hair. His head feels naked and brittle as an eggshell. Thankfully, his new partner shows no sign of starting a fight. Finishing with the pedestrians, Starns comes back to the curb in time to see the patrol cars pulling away.

"Call the MTA," he tells Jalil. "We're gonna track down every driver that came through here this afternoon. They'll remember Jones. He isn't exactly nondescript."

"Yes, sir." Jalil makes the calls on a city mobile phone and manages to set up a couple of interviews, then he calls his wife, who is understanding. "You're a detective now," she reminds him. "Don't apologize." She lets him go with an admonishment to eat something.

In the car on the way to the bus station, Starns gets a call from Lomax. Jalil only hears one side of the conversation.

"I'm already there. . . . On it. . . . Damn right I feel a personal stake. . . . I'm a professional, Dan. . . . I'd break every bowling trophy on your window sill. . . . I'd file a protest. . . . I know Jones like my own crooked uncle. I'm the expert on the subject. . . . Close is what you want. You want the fucker in jail by midnight. . . . Thank you. . . . I'm a pro, Dan. Don't worry about it."

Starns says nothing after the call. The sun is level with the horizon. Angled red light moves across his face, sharpening the lines that show his age, the clenched muscles. Jalil knows better than to ask how late they'll be out or to expect a monologue on the original Jones investigation. Starns would say check the database, so that's what Jalil does, spreading a ViewSheet in his lap on the flat backside of the satchel, content to be part of a big case and wanting to remain as unobtrusive as possible.

Next chapter . . .