It was a dry wind, and it swept across the desert
And curled into the circle of birth and the dead sand.
Sometimes, being the first on the scene sucked ass. Ben wondered if it happened this way for everyone or if it was just the curse of being John Cooper’s partner that they ended up in the right area at the right time to stumble across two bounty hunters in body armor, one of them bleeding from the ears and nose and mouth, the other looking like a Lego house after a toddler threw a temper tantrum, pieces scattered everywhere.
Ben turned away for a moment, taking deep drags of dry desert air through his nose, determined not to throw up now, not like he did the first day on the job. He’d been riding the streets too long to lose his lunch, especially when he was almost through his probationary period and John was standing there beside him, hands on his hips, the grimace on his face the only clue that the scene in front of them bothered him at all.
Ben scoured his mouth roughly with the back of his wrist, distracting himself from that delicate tremor of nausea in the back of his throat.
“Matches the M.O.,” he managed to say, and John nodded curtly.
“Yep.” John’s eyes were hidden behind the dark sunglasses, but Ben could almost see the narrow-eyed squint that had more to do with the julienned second bounty hunter than with the glare of the sun. Or maybe it was just that they were bounty hunters at all; John was creeped out by the androids, but he hated their keepers.
Ben could hear sirens in the distance, and he hoped it was just the LAPD—he called for back-up as soon as they saw the bodies—and not the Metropolis enforcers, known on the streets as the Wolfmasters. John wasn’t the only one not fond of the androids; as much as Ben tried to be open-minded about it, there was just something creepy about them. Sometimes he felt a little too much like he lived in the Blade Runner universe, staring at skin and eyes and human expressions and wondering what kind of computer lived underneath them.
“What do you think is going on?” Ben asked quietly, and even though John didn’t look at him, Ben could feel his attention, his focus. Silence spun out underneath the wail of approaching sirens, and Ben tried not to breathe through his nose.
The black-and-whites were just turning the corner of the winding road when John finally answered, “Fuck if I know.”
Six weeks before, singing sensation Cindi Mayweather had been outed as an android when the bounty hunters swept into Las Vegas, raided the casino where she was performing, and fined the owners for employing an android without a license. Except Cindi had gotten away, and the Wolfmasters’ “fine” looked a lot like getting roughed up by Don Corleone.
A week after that, the first dead bounty hunter had turned up just this side of the California-Nevada state line. Over the next two weeks, three more were found scattered through Bakersfield, San Pedro, and now this. Cindi and her boyfriend, Anthony Greendown, were still missing and were considered fugitives and prime suspects.
“The jigsaw puzzle is new, though,” John noted, looking over his shoulder at where a thumb and a couple of silicone structural pieces rested in the middle of the road that they’d cordoned off.
“Kind of surprising, with the body armor.” Ben grimaced again and tilted his head. It helped that the Wolfmasters were droids too, that their brains were computer chips, their skeletons made of metal and silicone, but there was still a leaking blood-like substance, a dark fluid spreading out from their bodies, and it still stank to high heaven.
And they still looked very, very human.
“Nobody really knows what the androids are capable of,” John shrugged, peering over his shoulder at the officers getting out of their cars. Ben recognized Detective Lydia Adams with her new partner whose name he hadn’t quite retained, Chickie with her new partner, a very pretty young woman who had already stood toe-to-toe with John Cooper without blinking, and a really hot guy he didn’t recognize who might’ve been a plainclothes detective from the suit he was wearing.
Lydia was already frowning and rubbing the side of her neck when she stepped up to the scene. “Do we still think this is related to Cindi Mayweather’s disappearance?” She looked more at a loss than Ben had ever seen her, and it didn’t help that he knew how she felt.
“It’s very likely.” That was the new guy, and Ben could tell that nobody else on the scene recognized him either, which seemed more than a little odd.
“I’m sorry,” Lydia began. “But who are you, and why are you out here?”
“Jules Cassidy, FBI.” The man reached into the inside of his jacket and pulled out a small wallet that he flipped open to show his badge. He held it out so that Lydia could inspect it, and then angled it toward John when Cooper leaned in to see for himself.
“Should’ve known the Feds would get involved,” John grumbled, but he didn’t seem genuinely upset.
“Are you from the Los Angeles branch?” Lydia asked, ignoring John’s grousing. Cassidy gave Cooper an amused glance, with maybe a little something else, a little added awareness that Ben recognized easily from any number of moments in his university’s gay-straight alliance.
Well, this should be interesting. Ben could see John had caught the glance by the way surprise softened the corners of his scowl and set his shoulders back a little.
“No.” Cassidy answered Lydia’s question as he tucked his badge away in his pocket. The sunlight glinted off the ring he wore on his left hand, and Ben doubted his instincts for half a second before he scowled. Closeted married types were trouble, and Ben hoped John had the good sense to stay away from him.
“I’m from the Boston branch,” Cassidy continued. “My husband’s an actor, and he’s shooting a pilot out here”—okay, not closeted, but still married—“so I tagged along, and they threw me at the case. Apparently no one in their field office will touch this with a ten-foot pole.” He glanced down at the bodies on the ground and tilted his head as if he was seeing them for the first time. “No wonder.”
“Ah.” Lydia had clearly taken over the scene, and that was fine by Ben, who felt like he was in over his head. He glanced over at Cooper to check his reaction and was surprised to see him scowling. Was it that FBI guy was gay? Or was it that he was married?
Lydia and the FBI agent were discussing the particulars of the case, and Chickie wandered over with her partner. Anantha Patel, Ben thought her name was.
“This is pretty wild, huh?” Chickie was only glancing at the pieces out of the corner of her eye, but Anantha was studying the intact Wolfmaster like it was the Rosetta Stone. “Makes you wonder what the androids can do.”
“It might be Greendown,” Ben pointed out. John gave him a brief, sharp look, but Ben just shrugged. “Humans can do some crazy things.”
John seemed to concede the point--he didn’t argue, at least--and Anantha looked up from her perusal of the bodies.
“I’d be willing to bet the android killed this one”--she pointed to the one bleeding from its facial orifices-- “and the human killed that one.” She waved to indicate the scattered pieces of the other hunter.
“That’s an interesting theory.” Cassidy looked at Anantha with interest. “What makes you think that, Officer...?”
“Patel,” she said, standing up to shake his hand, tiny but formidable. “Anantha Patel.”
Cassidy looked startled for a minute before he laughed. “I’ve got a good friend named Patel. Caught me off-guard for a second.”
Anantha grinned. “It’s a pretty common name.” She glanced back down at the body beside her feet and looked back up at Cassidy, all business now. “And it’s really nothing more than a science fiction habit that gives me that idea, Agent Cassidy.”
“Just Jules is fine,” Cassidy said, distracted. “And honestly--we’re looking at several, uh, disassembled android bounty hunters, possibly murdered by a rogue entertainment-class android and her human lover. I think we’re safely in the realm of science fiction.”
Officer Patel looked like she might be going to argue, but then she just shrugged. “Fair enough. This guy”--she indicated the non-piecemeal bounty hunter-- “looks like this thing you see in a lot of sci-fi, where extremely high-pitched sounds are used to rupture blood vessels in the brain and skull area. As you say, Cindi Mayweather is an entertainment-class android, said to have one of the most powerful voices ever heard, but from what I’ve seen of the E-class droids, I don’t think she has the brute strength to do that.” Another nod at the scattered pieces.
“Not a bad assessment, Officer Patel.” That was Lydia, but Cassidy was nodding right beside her.
“It’s worth looking into,” he agreed. “I don’t know what good it will do to know which of them is doing what, but you never know what information you might need in the future.” He looked around at all of them and gave what Ben could only classify as an extremely charming smile. “I hate to ask you, knowing how busy you all are, but I’m hoping I can get your cooperation in the investigation. I’ll be talking to the Chief of Police later about it--or, well, someone from the Bureau will--but while we’re here...”
“Of course, we’ll cooperate in any way we can,” Lydia said, which gave them plenty of wiggle room until the Chief of Police told them exactly how they had to cooperate. Ben didn’t know for sure, but he suspected all of them, maybe even Cassidy, were rooting for Mayweather and Greendown. Nobody was a fan of the Wolfmasters, least of all the LAPD.
The radio on John’s shoulder crackled, drawing Ben’s attention back to him, and John spoke into it before stalking past Ben on the way to their car.
“C’mon, boot. We got a break-in to go to.” In typical John-fashion, he didn’t bother excusing himself from the rest of the officers, but Ben gave them his best apologetic smile--he’d gotten plenty of practice since becoming Cooper’s partner--and a goodbye wave as he trotted off behind John.
“Good luck with Papa Bear,” Chickie called out behind him, and Ben flipped her off over his shoulder.
“Hurry up, boot,” John shouted. “Don’t think I won’t make you run beside the car!”
Ben made sure he was in the passenger seat with the door closed and his seat belt fastened before he said, “Like you don’t do that anyway.”
John’s smirk, still half-hidden by his sunglasses, was a new kind of cold as he said, “I just like to watch pretty boys run. It’s a hobby.”
Ben arched an eyebrow. John didn’t usually bring up his sexuality, especially not on the job and especially not in relation to Ben. He didn’t know what to say, so he took the safe way out; he just snorted a laugh and shook his head.
They still had a long day ahead of them.