THE TEAR CATCHERS

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Chapter 10: Shadows and Light

Greymore once said I reminded him of Sheriff Will Kane in High Noon, but sitting here in the police station, being questioned for trespassing in a secure hospital ward, it feels more like I’m the Frank Miller of this story. The doctor warned me not to get too close. I should have listened.

My stomach is empty, my throat dry. Conrad’s influence can’t protect me here, not from a tangle like this. Detective Fallkirk has been staring at me from across the table for nearly ten minutes now, a gleaming badge strung around his neck. I guess I should be the one to start, but truth speak, I have no incentive.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he finally says. It’s doubtful. “You’re thinking, I’m five times as smart as this policeman. There’s nothing he could say to get me to reveal privileged information about my own family. I’ll just sit here, while he listens to himself talk.”

I chew on the draw strings of my sweatshirt. “Since you’re having such a stimulating conversation with my visual cortex, why don’t I just go home and let the two of you sort through this misunderstanding without me?”

“A misunderstanding, is that what you call this?” Fallkirk brings up a hospital file over the table projector, rotating the holograph with a flick of his wrist until a patient’s image is staring back at me. The patient is much more handsome than the way I saw him an hour ago, but still I recognize him. I can’t chase the sound of his screaming from my head. Thanks to me, he’s only got one arm now. “Atherton sent you to collect a blood sample to make sure Tearcatcher DNA isn’t responsible for this outbreak. He probably even said it could help us find a cure. Sound about right?”

Not many first drafts speak like Fallkirk. This sort of tactic must have taken decades to perfect. He’s probably sat in that chair a thousand times, reading the same body language, anticipating the same responses. I fold my hands over the table and rest my chin on them.

“Here’s what he didn’t tell you,” Fallkirk goes on to say. “Atherton already knows Tearcatcher DNA is at fault.”

“And how does he know that?”

“Let’s say I was Atherton, and I wanted to stop my family DNA – the very lifeblood on which the Tearcatcher fortune was built – from being sold on the black market, devaluing the genes your people have cultivated for generations. Wouldn’t it make good business sense to take precautions?”

“What kind of precautions?”

“I’m talking about a new anti-theft gene that activates upon contact with first draft blood, poisoning anyone who buys unauthorized Tearcatcher DNA.”

“Atherton would never! He’s a harsh man, I know, but he’s principled.”

“He’s a ruthless little sociopath. A mind like his, its infinite capacity for abstract thinking and no moral compass, believe me, there’s nothing he wouldn’t do to advance your family’s position.”

“No, there’s nothing like that in our lab, I would know.”

“How would you know? The other day, you told me you brush hair and grease down your sister’s stomach all day.”

“That was last week. Things change.”

“Things change? And now, poof, you suddenly hold advanced degrees in biochemistry, genetics, and molecular biology.”

Fallkirk’s brainstem runs deep, and he does his homework. “If you already knew who I was, why counter speak?”

“You seem like a nice girl. I’m just trying to calculate your stake in this.” Someone raps on the wall beside us. Fallkirk twists in his chair and summons them with a wave. “Look at that, little brother’s here already.”

The door opens, and a fresh-faced patrolman in a pressed blue uniform marches in, followed by Atherton, and Westfall, a G-12, one of my own generation. He’s a general in an army of Tearcatcher family attorneys.

“My client’s bloodwork came back negative for any sign of infection,” Westfall says, spinning the image floating above the table projector, replacing the patient file with a copy of my lab work. “It’s accurate to say she poses no threat, correct?”

Fallkirk props his feet up on the table, breaking up the image into tiny blocks, and leans back in his chair. “We tested it four times, she’s clean.”

“Then you’re charging her with a crime?” Westfall inquires.

“I won’t trouble your sister with some petty charge,” Fallkirk says, leveling his coldest stare at Atherton. “Not when the Tearcatcher I really want is standing right in front of me. I just wanted to get you down here, in my world, unseemly as it may be to you.”

“You’re right, detective, I do find it unseemly,” Atherton replies. “But here I am, so how can I assist you?”

“That’s the problem with you coders. You tread on the backs of angels, sleep in velvet castles. Never known a day of real suffering in your whole life, not the way we do. You wouldn’t lift a finger to help one of us, not unless there was a credit to be made. Tell me, have you ever held an eight-month-old baby as the life slips out of her, while the technology that could save her is locked in the genetic vault of a nine-year-old billionaire who enjoys playing God? Have you ever had to place your wife in a psychiatric hospital because she cried every day for six months straight?”

“Come on, we’re leaving,” Westfall announces, motioning me out of the chair. “All of us.”

“I just thought you might want to see this.” Fallkirk flicks a switch on the table. The pigment on the wall beside him dissolves into transparent glass, revealing a second interview room. Fallkirk steps to the glass, inviting us to join him with an outstretched hand. “Consider it a courtesy.”

On the other side of the glass, a female technician sticks electrodes to the forehead of a man strapped to a chair, attaching the other end of the wires to a device streaming his brainwave activity in jagged lines.

“This is Alexander Pharaoh, picked him up yesterday,” Fallkirk explains, crooking his finger at the man in the chair. “I tell him he’s looking at a ten-year minimum ruling for dealing genes, and he offers to trade me information about the murder of his ex-partner.”

The man strapped in the chair shakes his head, brushing careless black hair from his eyes, and gazes over his shoulder. I recognize his face right away. My hand trembles. Blood splashes out of my heart, sending way too much traffic through my arteries.

Suddenly, the cadence of Fallkirk’s voice warps, becoming a discordant attack on my eardrums. His pitch is entirely wrong. All of his vowels fall hideously, nauseatingly flat. “The victim, he was your average low life hustler. Half a dozen arrests for robbery, assault, and DNA trafficking. Not a crime worthy of your attention, nor mine really, but you see, here in our world, everyone matters. Even the criminals. And maybe it’s just my linear first draft brain, but when I find a dead scavenger in an alley behind a synth club, something inside me has to know why he ended up that way.”

“No, just stop…. Stop talking,” I mutter, not intending to say the words out loud. My chest tightens. I can feel the neural circuits blowing up my thalamus with warning signals, gearing me for danger, but not yet articulating a motor response.

Fallkirk raises his eyebrows at me. “Excuse me?”

“Look, this is all fascinating, detective,” Westfall says, adjusting his necktie in the glass reflection. “But what does some dead scavenger mean to us?”

“Right now, nothing.” Fallkirk raps twice over the glass, cueing the tech on the other side to switch on the machine. “But it will in a moment, once you see his memory scan.”

I thought it was all behind me, but some secrets are too big to keep, some sins too great to ignore. All the months that passed since Atherton found me in that apartment lulled me into thinking there would be no price for my stolen season with Greymore.

“Don’t worry,” Fallkirk says, staring with curiosity at the sweat beading on my brow. “He can’t see us.”

It doesn’t matter. In another minute, Zander’s limbic system will be broadcasting my confession in high definition, and all I can think to say is, “I have to go to the bathroom.”

“I’m sure it can wait five minutes,” Atherton says, pivoting to Fallkirk. “Whatever this is, let’s make it quick. My time is more valuable than you’re capable of understanding.”

Zander’s memory projects over the glass wall in front of us like a movie. I close my eyes. I don’t need to see the playback, I have my own copy. Zander, the guy from the club with the smile. The one who told me I was funny, then held me down while his partner stabbed me with a needle, before Greymore came to my rescue. Phoenix didn’t have to cut the man, but he did, now we’ll all bleed for it.

“I know him, he’s a negotiator for the Rivegan family,” I hear Atherton say.

“That’s right, his name’s Greymore,” Fallkirk adds. “And that’s his little brother, Phoenix, a family enforcer with a nasty disposition.”

“I don’t get it,” Westfall says. “Who’s the third one?”

If only I had gone up those stairs for the palace synth, instead of the gutter. If only I had exited a different train stop. If only I hadn’t taken Darien’s dress. I could trace the mistake back much farther, like I do in such moments, but there’s no time for it now. A decision has to be made. The door is ten feet away. The last time I ran, I ended up in a worse place than where I started. And there’s really nowhere left to go. No kinder world awaits me, just different echoes of this one, for whatever time Atherton chooses to give me. I wonder if he’ll make Conrad do it. Or maybe it’ll be someone I have no attachment to. Probably, it would be better that way.

“Why don’t you ask Atherton who the third individual is?” Fallkirk replies. Wait, what’s going on here? Why are there no accusations being flung? I open my eyes and stare at the replay. Zander’s memory plays out just as I recall, only my image has been censored in some way, blurred into a pixelated shadow. I relax, the bottle neck in my blood vessels letting up.

“How should I know what’s wrong with your machine?” Atherton asks.

“That’s just it, there’s nothing wrong with the machine, I’ve had three different techs look at it. So, I figure there must be some kind of genetic recognition program embedded in the scanner that safeguards identities matching a certain DNA profile. I’m talking about high profile individuals the manufacturers of this device don’t think us first drafts should be monitoring. And you wanna know who makes this particular machine?” Fallkirk watches Atherton closely, but his face betrays nothing.

“No, but I assume you’ll tell me anyway.”

“Farragut Industries, which, when you scratch beneath the surface, turns out to be a subsidiary of a holding company registered under your family’s name. Whoever’s under that veil, I’d say it’s a Tearcatcher.”

“That’s absurd,” Westfall balks. “Did you even bother to get a description of this shadow man from the scavenger?”

“It’s not a man, it’s a woman,” Fallkirk says. “But that’s all he remembers. Apparently, Mr. Pharaoh was snythed out on a half dozen different loops that night. Whoever she is, the blood drawn from her veins is what’s making everyone sick. But you must have known that already, or you wouldn’t have sent your sister here to break into a class one clean room no one’s supposed to even know about it.”

“My family owns thousands of companies. I don’t even know most of their names, you certainly wouldn’t expect me to keep a hand in the business matters of each one,” Atherton says, nodding to Westfall, who pulls open the door. “You make a great many assumptions, Detective, time will judge who’s right.”

“That’s it?” Fallkirk’s fevered eyes follows us as we leave. “You have nothing else to say?”

“I’m sorry if this interview didn’t unfold as you imagined, Detective, but thank you for the courtesy, and the conjecture.”

“I thought you would at least offer me a bribe.”

“Bribes are for the guilty. You have no leverage.”

“Not yet, but no one is above the law, not even coders. Next time I see you, Atherton, you’ll be the one in that chair, begging for clemency. There will be none left, I promise you.”

Atherton and Westfall say nothing as we march out of the building, onto the street. The cold air feels good against my skin. Everything outside is black. No lights from the skyline or street lamps, or even from the air traffic.

For some unknown reason, I’ve been spared from Atherton’s wrath a second time. I wonder if Fallkirk is right. Is it Atherton’s own paranoia that saved me, or is someone out there protecting me? And when this secret finally destroys me, will it be from someone like Fallkirk pulling at the loose threads? Or will it devour me from the inside?

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