THE THICK DOOR OF the restaurant’s freezer was pulled back by one of the restaurant staff, wafting clouds of frosted air into the kitchen. Busboys and waiters banged in and out of the swinging doors, uninterested. The novelty of the body being deposited here for lack of a proper morgue had waned over the previous weeks. The dishwashers, all white like Drinkwine, continued their work, more curious about him and his suit than the circumstance of murder that had worn off its sheen of newness. They watched passively as Drinkwine pulled on latex gloves before pushing aside the drapes of plastic strips that served to keep the chilled air from escaping, and entered the cold climes of the walk-in freezer. Kurian hesitantly followed.
Weaving between hanging carcasses of raw red meat, Drinkwine followed the worker who led him toward the back of the freezer. They arrived at where the body of Michael Byrne had been stored. Wrapped in an opaque sheet of plastic, covered with a layer of frost, it was almost indistinguishable from the surrounding bags of produce. After an exchange of glances between the three, Kurian dismissed the kitchen worker with a tacit nod of the head.
Drinkwine regarded Kurian with a disapproving look as to the use of the restaurant freezer for keeping the body.
“We had little choice but to bring it here,” Kurian said in defense. “There’s nowhere else where we could preserve it.”
“Certainly you will need some facility in the future to handle these types of situations,” Drinkwine said as he made study of the frozen features of the body.
“Mr. Drinkwine…” Kurian began.
“…Detective,” Drinkwine said without looking up.
“Detective,” Kurian corrected, “when people arrive to Mars they sign agreements and a lengthy contract. If they are to die, their bodies are immediately cremated. Therefore, we have no reason to build facilities to handle such things. This is a most unique circumstance.”
Kneeling to the frozen bundle of plastic, Drinkwine used a rag to swat away rat droppings.
“What is that?” Kurian asked curiously.
“Rat turds,” Drinkwine answered.
“Oh, I’m afraid you’re mistaken Detective,” Kurian came back, humored, “we have no rats on Mars.”
The comment went in Drinkwine’s ear and out the other as he forcibly cracked back the frozen folds of plastic, revealing the outstretched arm, frozen in rigor mortis, the fingers pointing skyward. Kurian absently took a step back at sight of the alabaster skin, drawing his collar closed against the cold and sobering aspect of being in such close proximity to death.
Drinkwine discerned his uneasiness without looking. “If this disturbs you, you can wait outside.”
Kurian didn’t answer, leaning slightly to see around Drinkwine.
Continuing to unwrap the decomposed corpse, Drinkwine drew his bifocals from his jacket, making a rudimentary overview of the frozen cadaver as he wiped the fogged lens. “Who has access to this freezer?”
“Just the kitchen staff,” Kurian slowly ushered out, his breath clouding.
“Who brought the body here?” The question went unanswered. Drinkwine turned to see Kurian cringing at sight of the gaping hole that once was a face, the skull partially filled with grains of fine red sand.
The Ambassador was pulled from his stare. He looked queasy. His response came slowly. “Several maintenance workers.”
Drinkwine studied Kurian. The Ambassador’s repulsion to the body seemed to exonerate him in Drinkwine’s mind; one less suspect. “I’ll need to speak with them.”
“The workers? What for? They merely…,” but Kurian’s words stopped there as Drinkwine bent to peer into the gaping hole of skull.
“No next of kin?” Drinkwine asked under his breath.
“No,” Kurian responded, staring in fascination at the strands of hair hanging down over the missing forehead, wafting slightly on the unseen currents of the freezer.
With an unexpectedly gentle touch, Drinkwine traced his fingers over the brittle gray skin of the victim’s forearms. First one, then the other. Pushing the frozen plastic aside with a crack, a cascade of ice fell and shattered against the floor. Drinkwine then repeated the tenderness of touch on the neck of the corpse.
“I’d like to speak to his supervisor,” Drinkwine, continuing his strangely gentle probing, “as well as his fellow workers.”
“Must you?” the Ambassador fired back. “They won’t have anything to say.”
Drinkwine turned and looked at Kurian sharply, “Ambassador, I’ll be needing to talk to a lot of people.” The words spilled out into the freezer as firm declaration. “When did his employer first notice he was absent?”
Kurian sighed, “They aren’t sure. About seven or eight weeks ago.”
“What about his time cards or work records?” Drinkwine asked.
“There are a great many workers on Mars, Detective, it’s difficult to track all of their whereabouts,” Kurian offered up defensively.
Drinkwine returned to his contemplative study of the faceless corpse. “His employment papers, his background check, surely there’s someone who might have some information.”
“Detective,” Kurian began with an air of tired wisdom, “as with most of the low-level workers, anything in his file is likely to be a lie; his family, his faith. We know his name was a lie. It’s what they do.”
Drinkwine held for a moment on Kurian’s words. ‘“They?’”
“Yes, the Americans,” the Ambassador shot back unapologetically. He saw Drinkwine register disapproval. “It’s the reality, Detective,” the Ambassador retorted. “The mines, the platforms, all are in need of unskilled labor. The Americans are eager for the opportunity. They’re the only ones who will work for the wages offered. As a result, the hiring firms tend not to scrutinize the background checks.”
“How many of the Roches firearms are on Mars?” Drinkwine asked.
“Six,” Kurian came back. “Only five accounted for presently.”
“When did the murder weapon go missing?”
“Heavens knows,” Kurian said with indignation. “We are a colony of scientists, of investors, of builders. There is little concern, or time, for the tracking of handguns.”
“I’ll need to see the names of all of those who had access to the weapons,” Drinkwine said curtly.
“It will serve little purpose,” Kurian responded absently. “The only people with clearances that would put them in the proximity of the weapons are all official personnel. I’m certain the weapon was got through thievery.”
Drinkwine slowly looked back over his shoulder, repeating, “I’ll need the names of all those who had access to the weapons.”
“Come now, Detective,” Kurian, unfamiliar with being spoken to in this manner, responded defiantly, “we’re not barbarians.” Teetering back and forth nervously, he stared at Drinkwine a long moment before asking, “And what do you hope to uncover with all of this?”
Drinkwine turned to him, surprised at the question. “A man has been murdered. Someone committed that murder. I intend to find out who it was and why they did it, then arrest them so that the judicial system can try them.”
Kurian pouted, wrapping his arms around himself in an animated gesture, like a child who is not getting his way. He shot back. “Surely this was just some petty squabble between workers.”
Drinkwine cocked his head slightly, “Why would you think that?”
“Who else?” the Ambassador came back, somewhat perturbed.
“Who knows? This could be linked to some malfeasance or corruption at the corporate level,” Drinkwine spoke, studying the body.
“Oh,” the little Ambassador said, waving his hand dismissively, adding with absolute conviction, “I am certain this is between workers.”
“Really,” Drinkwine said, “You’re ‘certain?’”
“Who else? Why? To what end?” Kurian shot back.
“Money, property, narcotics, sex,” the detective rattled off, “you name it.” He looked at the frozen corpse. “Maybe a squabble among workers, as you say, or, perhaps an elaborately orchestrated homicide to silence someone. But rest assured, Mr. Byrne was murdered for a reason.”
The freezer seemed to be getting colder. Kurian, as if hesitant to break Drinkwine from his contemplation of the dead body—pitifully faceless and frozen in the plastic—offered up softly, “Are you just about done here?”
The words elicited a nod. Drinkwine respectfully folded the frozen sheet of plastic over the corpse before stiffly rising, pulling off his glasses along with the latex gloves. He became slightly lightheaded, reaching out to a shelf for support.
“It’s the atmosphere,” Kurian offered, “it takes some getting used to. Equivalent to being at 3,500 meters elevation on Earth. You’d best be advised to refrain from moving too quickly or over-exerting yourself.”
The brewing tension and uncertainty between the two men was interrupted by the appearance of a rat that crept up to the open freezer door. They both watched as it raised itself up on one of its front paws to quizzically sniff the air before darting back into the kitchen.