'Never thought I'd find a skeleton like this in my beef.'
'Well, here's Henry at last.'
A cage car careened through the scene tape and slewed up. Chief Henry Blince thrust open the door, a chairleg cigar in the middle of his puffy face, and lurched out, breathing the night air. 'I can taste this arrest already. Shot in the pump?' He frowned at the firework flashes of a press gaggle.
'Henry,' said the Mayor cheerfully, 'you know Jack.'
'Bang on the border, looky here -- the Mayor, Harpoon Specter and the Chief o' Terminal in a dustcoat!'
'Oh, I don't think Mr Coma claims any jurisdiction,' said the Mayor with a nervous smile.
'You bet your sweet life he won't.' Blince lumbered past the three men and regarded the body, its third eye as open as a gas-blown manhole. 'It's a keeper. Got any leads?'
'Waiting for you, Henry. Even Jack here.'
'Coroner'll wanna know.' Blince gestured at the press. 'Get the rag-and-boners outta here and secure the scene. Didn't they teach you that in cop college, Jack? Got a downer on this guy?'
'I don't need downers, Henry.' Coma struck a match and lit a shock absorber. 'I'm low on life.'
Harpoon Specter was squinting at Blince, amused. 'You don't get it, do you Henry?'
Blince removed the cigar from his face like a fork from a hog. 'Eh? Why the big deal? You made any money?'
'Only thing I've made is up my mind who to represent.'
'Here's Rex Camp and the Doc. Real mare's nest o' activity. Hey, Mangrove -- calamari earrings?'
But no sooner had the Coroner and Doctor Mangrove reached the body than a white truck roared up and began unloading. A guy in a robe hovered out of the smoke. 'You are forbidden to touch the body.'
The Mayor began wringing his hands. 'Henry, this is Mr Wingmaker, head penguin of the church cartel.'
'Well I'm sorry you feel that way, padre.'
'That's not the point.' Wingmaker looked at the body, wide-eyed.
'Order your examiners away from there.'
'On whose authority?'
'I have a cartel gag disguised as a court order.'
'So you went to the perjury room. Like some kid cryin' to teacher.'
'It's true,' muttered Wingmaker, then pushed the medics aside.
'Take a look, Mr Blince. This could be the biggest religious event since Saint McCain.'
Blince looked from Harpoon Specter's smile to the body. The blood pool around the victim's head had formed the classic shape of the Blessed Virgin in prayer. Wingmaker's men were already erecting a prefab chapel around the body.
'Oh, well ain't that dandy,' growled Blince. 'I realise, padre, you don't know one end of an identity parade from another. But John Doe here has a punishin' schedule o' decay to keep irrespective o' your goddamn celestial blockade. Now that's a hell of a blowfly opportunity.'
Doctor Mangrove walked past with her toolbox. 'Order checks out, Chief. Got nothing but the obvious.' Rex Camp followed her, morose.
'Same order against our examiners, Blince,' said Jack Coma. 'We'll subpoena the rags for them press photos.'
'Well, you're thinkin' like a cop at last.'
'Position of the body, this apparition came from our side of the border.'
Coma turned away. 'Apparition.'
Blince and Harpoon Specter were walking back to the cars. 'What's your angle, Harpo. You gettin' pious on us?'
'When it pays.'
'With this blood here I think we got a bona fide miracle on our hands.'
'Ain't on mine.'
'Remember years back them elephants in India drinkin' milk?'
'So what? I can drink milk to beat the band. That a miracle?'
'Them animals were made of stone. Stone, Henry, you hear what I'm sayin'?'
'Aw, hell, it's all in the mind.'
'Well, thank god,' chuckled Specter, 'an unimportant organ.'
Blince reached the cop car and re-lit his cigar. A trooper waited at the wheel. 'Well, I'm goin' for a bagel and a vat o' the heart o' darkness. Wingmaker was generous enough to gimme access to one fact, bless him. See the hoofprints around the hearse ballast?' He ducked into the car. 'Blank as a model.'
'Perp works the kinda place they don't allow tread on your shoes. Harder to run.'
Blince slammed the door and the car growled away.
'Office,' muttered Specter.
It was in fact a year since Johnny Failsafe had put a seashell to his ear and heard mocking laughter. He'd become his own boss by a florid and circuitous route. Somewhere along the line he'd got it into his head that he was more than a pewter figurine in a pewter cubicle. He'd read about poor folk in the old days who'd get a little support by losing their ID and staggering near the German border to pretend they'd defected. And he was fascinated. It seemed everything could change at a border. At the Mexican one, Americans changed into Nazis. So he quit the office and started walking out of Beerlight and across Our Fair State, kicking up dust till he reached the Terminal border. This was a little before the breakup of states and there were no emplacements -- just Johnny Failsafe stepping back and forth across the line, trying to detect the subtle sensation of the laws changing around his body. He thought he perceived the smallest shift in the pressures upon him, but so what? He was still being worked on. He knew that once upon a time Leon Wardial had hacked statute and added laws -- incrementally at first, and then in an exponential swelling which had obliterated the last vestiges of human activity. Weeding the authorised admonitions from the random additions was a mind-bending, year-long task.
One spokesman appeared before the press laughing and hitting himself in the face with a thundery sheet of aluminium. Nowadays authorised statute saturation made the Trojan Law prank redundant. But Failsafe became obsessed with that transition point at the border, where one barrage of restrictions gave way to another. Was there a point between the two -- however minute -- where neither were present? He knelt at the state line squinting into a microscopic earth seam filled with animated freedom. A sample retrieved in a core tube showed a swarming heaven under magnification and Failsafe took to sinking two perspex sheets to extract a thin borderline sandwich. An everyday torch could project the lawless activity onto a wall and Failsafe biffed over to Don Toto at the Delayed Reaction on Valentine.
'Ever seen a tornado, Toto? Incinerator, my abrupt friend. Light shows nuthin'. I think you're ready for the bright stuff. The salient stuff.'
'Saline? Sounds good.'
Failsafe put a sheet in front of a stage light and the wall went all to sherbet, roiling like the face of Jupiter.
'It's boisterous, Johnny.'
'It's automatic, what it is. And for but a few clams will take the edge off this ominous shit you seem to love so much.'
'It is ever-changing.'
'It'll give the clientele a hint of higher matters, Toto.'
'Nevertheless, I'll take it. Name your price, you sick mother.'
Failsafe began a roaring trade in border samples, which formed light shows in clubs from Greada's to the Creosote Palace. He started shipping to clubs coast to coast, including MK-Ultra, a Monarch-themed dive in Pittsburgh where the clientele attended as two or more different people and paid accordingly at the door. The owner Ned Wretched saw how ELF battled off the visuals to create a unique feel. It wasn't like the old police-and-thieves, where the only muddy hint of colour was squeezed from the narrow act of interpretation. Fizz geeks flooded in, and Ned decided to steal Failsafe's manufacturing secrets and make a bundle. He was surprised when, under cover of darkness, Failsafe drove out to the border in an armoured dune buggy and knelt on the pumice ground, slotting a cross-section panel into the earth like an exposure plate. Startled banter and a struggle between the two entrepreneurs ended with Ned Wretched dead of his own gun and Failsafe all festooned with dread. He glanced out his window on Salad Street and saw the dreaming spires of damnation. His prints were on the gun. The gun was under the body. And on TV a tale unfurled of a mystical image blossomed out of Wretched's head. The crime scene was a mecca for gawpers and a penguin offered saintly protection and media cache to the killer.
Weird twilight and Failsafe visited a friend on pale Saints Street.
'Way to screw up, Johnny,' said Atom as Failsafe entered his office. He lit a shock absorber. 'Jeans and a tie? Look like a gypsy at a funeral.'
'Anyway you owe me, Atom.'
'The bigger bones float. Siddown, Johnny. I assume that gun was coin-operated -- real economical.'
'There was a struggle, the gun went off.'
'That'll happen. Know the rarest and cheapest thing in the world? A gun that ain't been fired. Smoke?'
A pair of chunky glasses lay on the desk, trailing wires.
'That some kinda Walkman?'
'It's a Vollmann. Put it on, close your eyes and you think you're changing the world. You gun hunting? You know better than to come to me.'
'I know better than to get you on the case too, Atom. Need to borrow a cloaking system.'
'What's the venue, the demographics.'
'Law, church cartel, press. Guess it's a headcharge.'
'No, from a certain angle you'd see they're all faced the same way. Take a look at this.'
Atom activated a wall panel and retrieved a weird piece of kit. It looked like the black cobra headdress of an Egyptian prince.
'What is it?'
'Diamondback. It's a classic denial-allow hood -- broad-spectrum bigot challenge with a billion-image chip library. Old and clunky but it's all I've got to hand. You'll have to keep it simple.'
'So it projects whatever the onlooker can't afford to acknowledge?'
'Sure. Quiet-life technology's come a long way since the old log cabin, my friend. Good luck.'
Private cloaking systems had kicked off when an inventor found he could go anywhere and be ignored so long as he carried a charity can. Now Failsafe walked invisibly out of the night and through the crowds at the crime scene. It was a media event, all harsh arc lights and generalisation. He followed unseen behind Chief Blince and a trooper as they approached the chapel.
'They servin' a catered lunch at this murder, Benny? Eh? Too bad. I could do with a couple hotdogs.'
'Got any leads, Chief?'
'That bad, eh? Guess we better concentrate on the case, trooper boy. Single Shot to the Head Syndrome. No gun on the scene. All we really know by the stellate tearin' round the blowhole is it was some kinda fancy I.D grip etheric.'
'Coffee table gun.'
'Yeah. This was nuthin' to do with money, theft or clubland, that's for sure.'
'You reckon the killer's the guy's wife?'
'Far as I'm concerned it's a given.'
'A gibbon? Why would anyone marry a gibbon?'
'A given, Benny, I mean it's obvious.'
'Not to me, Chief.'
'And meanwhile Wingmaker's little amnesty's attractin' a whole lotta wannabes.'
'Ain't wallabies jumpy animals?'
'You said it. And they aint foolin' me.' They entered the chapel to find a rogue's gallery crowding the corpse. A massive electric fan battled with the bluebottles. 'Well, a real tea party. Anyone else comin' round to laugh it up?'
'Blince,' nodded Jack Coma, his face expressionless.
'See what I mean, Benny? Amateur hour.'
'Too many cooks for yuh Henry?' Specter smirked. 'Somehow it don't seem possible.'
'Who's your client.'
'Fish in a barrel, Henry. Very least I could trace a family for the pulse loser, get a fractal compy.'
'Sure, the poor lamb. Blood o' the innocent -- Brady material. And with Wingmaker here not allowin' removal, a lotta scope for distress and the like, yuh goddamn shyster.' Blince chuckled, lighting a cigar.
'Mister Blince,' Wingmaker protested, 'this is a blessed site.'
Blince grunted. 'This is a blessed mockery, padre. I seen a million spills -- they all look like somethin'. I remember after the NLP riots, I saw a puddle looked just like Benny here, sat on some kinda dinosaur. I didn't see any goddamn media frenzy that night. So quit stuffin' words o' love in my ears.'
'This here body's slung right along the state line, Mister Blince,' stated Coma. 'I'm claiming equal jurisdiction.'
'Well, Sherlock.' Blince considered his cigar, frowning. 'Just how much trouble are you used to?'
Failsafe approached the body. As he moved in the crossgrains of the law, he was seen as a defiance so massive it could not be acknowledged. An alien, a yeti, an invisible man -- it couldn't be here and it wasn't. Chuffed, Specter dumped his briefcase on the prefab altar and flipped the catch. 'God, I love this. Chessboard's all pawns, Henry. Stir in your black budget taxes and the board gets grey. I'm even inclined to represent the old girl herself here. Wouldn't that be something?'
'Somethin',' Blince muttered. He was frowning at the air in front of him. 'Somethin' strange.'
Failsafe stepped onto the state line, that slim territory free of external manipulation. As he straddled the body, he was a figure of phosphene flux, lightning in a bottle -- for a brief moment the hat polarised and everyone saw what they wanted to see. Attention poured into him. Wingmaker saw the Lord himself bestow a benediction on the corpse. Coma saw a con from his jurisdiction confessing all and more. Specter saw a photogenic psychopath screwing the corpse and saying society made him do it and he wanted legal assistance. Henry Blince saw a combination of all three combined with his mother. 'Ma,' he said, lurching forward and stopping, fish-eyed. 'You brought pancakes?'
'Don't answer that,' snapped Specter.
'The Lord has no use for pancakes, heretic!' screamed Wingmaker.
'They're stolen,' stated Coma.
'And why not,' said Benny, seeing someone refreshingly justified and innocent.
The headset fell from Failsafe's head as he retrieved the Colt Double Edge and he stood straight into visibility.
'Well don't that take the cherry,' muttered Blince, slack-faced, then he grinned. 'It's the perp, with an old-fashioned Zeus cap. Welcome to the party, boy.' He drew an AMT Automag. 'Now step away from the miracle and drop the flaw.'
Failsafe dropped the Colt and jittered forward a little, hands raised.
'Stop where you are, boy,' Coma shouted, pointing a 41-clip Giuliani.
'He's mine, Coma -- couple millimetres over the line.'
'You're meddling with knowledge as ancient as a carp, Mr Blince,' shouted Wingmaker. 'This man is under the church's protection -- take your finely-crafted differences outside.'
'I'd be failing in my public duty if I didn't punch your eye right now, padre.'
'It was an accident,' pleaded Failsafe.
'Real poetic,' Blince chuckled. 'Look close you'll see little parachutes on my tears. You're the only candidate's rolled up in secret, mister. That gives you the guilt.'
'No reasoning with nature's balloon there,' smiled Specter, approaching Failsafe. 'You're an innocent man and you need a friend.' Failsafe reached reflexively to his head -- was he still wearing the headgear? Coma grabbed him suddenly from behind, dragging him back across the line. Then they were all upon him, jerking him this way and that like a sap.
'Allow me to introduce myself!' Specter was yelling as he pushed his card at Failsafe's face like a communal wafer.
'Couldn't take no for an answer could yuh?' bellowed Blince.
'Mercy seat's waitin', boy!'
'When he dies I want the mineral rights!'
'You've a right to be angry, lad!'
'Tough but fair!'
'Unauthorised murder, bless him!'
'Life and change!'
'My client is enigmatically innocent!'
'His pants are expensive!'
'I got the same number o' legs -- think there's a connection?'
And under their scuffing feet the brown Madonna was knocked and tilted -- glancing down they saw the phasing shapes of a monster truck, a flightbag, pond dice, inflatable hammers, a pig in a tyre-swing, an inarticulate outcast, a wily sheriff containing the answers, a map of Denmark, a camel, a weasel, a whale. Bursting in, the press did the rest.
Failsafe improvised an alibi with such breathtaking verisimilitude that the cops asked him aghast if it really was a mere product of his fancy. The press called him The Bullshit Killer. A befuddled Wingmaker spoke of Failsafe as 'our own little ray of sunshine'. Blince gave a statement that 'This is a good world -- I joined the force to make a difference. Anyhoo, I want him in lavender.' Out of respect to the deceased, Specter proposed ten years' silence on the truth of the matter. The President gave a speech recommended for ages 2 to 6. Bewildered into madness by these proceedings, Failsafe was sat among other blanks on floor-bolted chairs, lip-reading cartoons with the sound down. The lines blurred. By the time all the attention had moved on, even he'd forgotten who he was, and the bars of his window had merged with the shifting shapes in the sky.