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An Inside Joke

By Sam Graham All Rights Reserved ©

Thriller / Scifi


Richard Brandt works homicide in a city where the rich outnumber everyone else, and he's not happy about that fact. He's underpaid, overworked, and his wife prefers the company of other men. Another board member for Onuris has died, but something isn't right from the start. The police were kept out of the loop on the other deaths, so why involve them now? The not-so-routine death spirals into something much larger and now, Brandt must mingle with those he despises, travelling from the very top and the very underbelly of the city to expose the prime movers. But Brandt's just one small man in a big city, insignificant by any standard. What could he possibly do?

Chapter 1: A Shadow In The Alley

The phone buzzed, face down on the coffee table. Without getting up, or opening his eyes, Brandt reached over and answered it.

“Richard, sorry to disturb. Look, I need you back at the station. Murder.”

Brandt yawned. “Alright. Be there in twenty. Put the kettle on.” He hung up, dropped the phone on the carpet and sighed. He’d been awake for twenty hours already. Sixteen of which were spent sifting through two yet-unidentified piles of human viscera in an Upper-City penthouse, and two more in the hospital having forceps extract Mag-Flak shards from his shoulder. He’d only gotten home half an hour ago. Only got his head down ten minutes ago too. He was just drifting off.

For God sake.

He threw the duvet off him and got up off the couch. As he picked his clothes and Alex’s gun up off the floor, he lifted his right arm inside his shirt and winced as a sharp pain shot though his shoulder.

Jesus, they said the anaesthetic would last until the morning at least... Liars.

There was a dark spot on his shirt where the blood had seeped through. He checked the dressing that was taped to his shoulder. It was soaked red, but would hold until he got back. The nurse had given him some spares, but he’d left them in his desk at the station. He brushed his finger over the gauze. It was damp and it left a spot of watery blood on his finger. Then he pressed on it until it hurt. He left it alone after that.

On his way out he stopped at the bedroom door. It was locked.

Would she even care that I’m going out?

Yeah right. She didn’t even care about what happened earlier.

Brandt opened his mouth to tell her through the door, but stopped when he heard Kayleigh and the guy she’d brought home in there. He was much younger than Brandt. All the men she brought home were much younger than him, but he didn’t keep a track of the men his wife slept with. He preferred not to think about it. There more than he knew, and he knew there would be.

On the other side of the door Kayleigh cried out in a way she hadn’t done for Brandt in god knows how long. The bed creaked back and forth in a vigorous rhythm. She was doing it because she knew he was awake. She’d heard him walking around and she knew he’d hear. She wanted him to hear what he was missing. What he used to have. What someone else was giving her. To know and understand. He tried to think of when they’d last had sex and what it was like. Nothing came. When they’d last kissed? Nothing. When she’d last enjoyed his company?

Brandt didn’t say anything. He leaned against the wall and sighed, trying to ignore the familiar cold nausea that turned over in his stomach.

It’s OK.

It’ll be OK. Eventually.

He left the flat and locked the door behind him.

The chug of the engine echoed through the Lower-City’s narrow streets. Through the sparse, but bitter wind as Brandt’s car groaned into third. Traffic down on the ground was almost non-existent and the smog was mild, creeping like thin fog. He looked up at the night sky, but all he could see was more city.

Something’s not right. Pubs are shut already. Clubs aren’t opening. No hookers around either- there’s a surprise. Up above will be congested though. Always is. Night or day.

Jesus Christ, Kayleigh. I’ve told you about lording it in front of me. And the way that prick looked at me when I got home... He’s out when I get back and we’re are having it out. That’s it. I’ve had enough.

He coughed as his breath came too short. There was a tightness across his diaphragm, like something pushing against his bottom ribs. He took some slow breaths, but it didn’t ease off. He knew it wouldn’t. It never did. Brandt checked his pockets and took out a small plastic case. It was empty.

Damn. It must’ve been the last one on my way home. Gonna be late if I have to get some more. I’ll need something. It’s already getting bad and I could be out a while. Woods will have to wait. Dunno what’s so important that he can’t handle it on his own anyway. It’s only a murder.

I suppose I should thank him for getting me out the house at least.

He ignored the ramp that would take him up to the station. He flicked the radio on, hoping it would distract him. A crackled voice came through saying there was a building on fire a few miles away. A warehouse at the West riverside. The voice called for an officer to attend. Brandt flicked the radio off.

Screw that. I’m not walking into no turf war.

The alleyway was coloured a harsh, fluorescent green from the neon-lit nightclub across the street. The club was closed, but the lights were left on regardless. Brandt parked up a way round the corner, got out and locked the car.

The night felt thick in the air. October wind came in short, strong bursts, and rain dripped down from the Upper-City and pooled at the potholes in the road underneath the layer of smog. The smog itself was a dense, light brown mass that covered the pavements and roads, a gift passed down from the Upper-City traffic. It was low down tonight, just below knee-height, but he could still smell it, mixed in with the grime from the clogged drains and the dust and general rot of the Lower-City. He could taste it too. His footsteps were the only sound. He didn’t trust the silence. He scanned the buildings at either side of him, focusing on the dark nooks in the corners and the window frames above, looking to see if the eyes he felt watching him were real or just imaginary.

The streets were unusually dead. He didn’t trust it at all.

Brandt crooked his head around the alleyway and saw the man standing at the bottom of the alley. He was half-shrouded in the dark, as he always was. The detective walked over to him and held up his arms to show he wasn’t carrying.

“C’mon copper, what you take me for?” The shadow said. “I know you’ve got one under your arm.”

“So have you.”

The shadow laughed. “Aye you know it. Business is tricky lately, what ya gonna do?”

“Tricky? How come?” Brandt lowered his arms and leaned against the brick wall.

“Oh, some young scathy lot tryin to poach me customers. Saying they got the best shit in town. N-dine, pills, dope, you name it, but don’t they all? But I hear they been cutting it with chemicals and whatnot. That be the case, they’re gonna get people killed. Then where’s the trade gonna come from eh? Amateurs.”

“They giving you a hard time?” Brandt raised an eyebrow.

“Nothin’ I can’t handle, blood.” Shadow chuckled. It was deep and guttural, with a smoker’s wheeze. He patted the left lapel of his jacket. “Boom.” Two thin chains ran from his breast pocket, trailing underneath his arm and disappearing around his back. His face was obscured by a wide-brimmed hat that, like his suit, was dyed green by the neon light, but through the shadows Brandt could see the outline of a dark goatee.

Brandt spat in the corner. “What you selling at tonight, Shadow?”

“Fifty for ten. That’s friend-prices at that.”

“It’s gone up.” Brandt frowned. Shadow shrugged his shoulders.

“Inflation innit? Gets round to everybody some time, mister Policeman. You and your lot should know all ’bout that.”

“Don’t get me started.” Brandt crooked his mouth into a wry smile and pulled two twenties, a fiver and a handful of pound coins from his trouser pocket, and held them out so that Shadow could see them. Shadow took a see-through plastic case a little bigger that a pack of cigs out from inside his jacket, and they exchanged items.

On too many occasions Brandt had wanted to grab Shadow’s wrist and haul him into the light. Not once had he seen his whole face, he was always hidden behind that hat and that green light. But Brandt knew all too well that their alliance teetered on the notion that they both knew too much about each other. Shadow had pointed it out their first trade, a sort of friendly threat. Brandt knew where to find Shadow, and Shadow could out Brandt in a New-York minute. That lack of trust had kept Brandt coming back for almost a year now.

“Come again soon, Mister Policeman.” Shadow waved as he stepped back deeper into the alley, where the green light didn’t reach.

Not too soon, I hope.

Who am I kidding, I’ll be back in what, three days more than likely?

Out the top of the alley, Brandt looked around again, at the windows and all the crannies. They were all boarded up, condemned, or closed-curtained. He nodded, reassuring himself that nobody had witnessed the trade.

He went back round the corner and got in his car. He opened the box and removed one of the ten glass tubes that were filled with murky blue liquid. Brandt cocked his head to the left and placed the tube to his skin behind his ear, pushed the small syringe in, and let the Noladine drain in.

Seconds slowed down, levelled out as Brandt felt the fluid spread its wings through his system. His eyes dilated and his muscles let go of themselves. The neon green from across the street warped, became larger, brighter, louder, burning up the dark streets, around him- through him like electric pain before it rained down on the tarmac, flooding it and pushing him along with the wave, forcing the galvanic tension in his muscles further to the edge, tightening then relaxing, then tightening again, coaxing a little more out of him every time. His senses were electrified and alive- too alive, too receptive, everything was so loud it burned, hearing the neon green light warp around him like an oncoming train, his heart quickened as the tension in his muscles built up, straining further as the green light roared louder, deafening, on the very edge the high, almost too much to bear, just one more inch was all he needed, just one more-

Then the world shot back into its frame. The high disappeared and he went from sixty to zero in a heartbeat. His muscles sagged, pained for that extra few seconds he knew by now he was never going to get. He drooped his head as the come-down left him cold, shivering and feeling so very hollow.

The N-Dine still in his system would numb the pain in his shoulder and the tightness in his chest for now, but in a few hours the tightness would be back. Then the sweating would start, then the nausea, then the disorientation. Before any of that though, almost instantly, came feeling that he just wasn’t alright- wasn’t himself without it.

He closed his eyes and as tears pooled in the corners.

I need to tell someone about this.

Every time you go through this. Go ahead. Tell them everything. Tell them how you ended up on it in the first place too. Tell them all about Kayleigh. Tell them why it’s your own fault.

I could try a support group. Something online.

I don’t think “Hi, I’m Richard and I’m a drug-addicted copper” would go down too well.

There are always worse things.

But thinking that didn’t make him feel any better.

“Get out the car, old man.” Someone said as they pressed the cold barrel of a gun against his head. Brandt did as he was told.

“Hands up.”

“Alright. Keep calm. They’re up, see?” Brandt turned around. Two white tattooed fangs snarled at him. Black and blue tribals covered his cheeks and forehead and yellow rings around his eyes. No older than thirteen. The machine pistol looked heavy in his small, child’s hand and was pointed straight at Brandt’s face. His finger inside the trigger guard.

“Its yours. There you go. Take it.” Brandt said.

“Yeah right. Now fuck off.” The carjacker said.

Brandt stepped back while the kid climbed into the car and dumped his gun on the passenger seat.

“Look at this piece of crap, man. It ain’t even got fifth gear.”

You’re the one looking to steal it, kid.

He went to start the car and hit the steering wheel. “What?”

“I suppose you’ll be wanting the keys as well?” Brandt said, holding them up. Before the kid could reach for his machine pistol he swung Alex’s gun into the carjacker’s nose. Brandt opened the door and dragged him out. He threw him to the tarmac, then picked him up, shoved him against the car and punched him in the ribs. Brandt pinned the kid to the car by his throat. He kicked the side of the kid’s knee, then pressed Alex’s gun to his head. The hammer clicked.

“We’ll try this again.” Brandt said.

A transit van pulled up alongside them. The window rolled down and the driver aimed a pistol at Brandt. He told him to let the carjacker go.

Brandt recognised the driver’s voice.

“You after my car, Lukey?”

“Officer Bryan?”

Brandt looked over his shoulder. “Brandt.”

“Officer Brandt.”

“Detective, actually.”

“Detective Brandt.”

Brandt looked the van over, paying particular attention to the black panther ripping out an eagle’s heart on the side. The colours had run and bled into each other and the fangs were two big blotchy grey lines, but even so, Brandt knew The Cazadores tag when he saw it.

So you’re one of them now are you? Can’t say I’m surprised.

Brandt had last seen Luke a couple of months ago, peddling Noladine to factory workers. He’d confiscated the drugs and let him off with a warning. All the force knew it was his billionaire, serial playboy dad who supplied him with the trust-fund for it. He also supplied the lawyer who got him off time and time again too. Luke’s monthly catch-and-release had become a game. He was on first name terms with most of West Precinct. Even dealt to some of them. His new friends weren’t going to rat out access to cheap gear either.

It’s probably what got him in The Cazadores in the first place. He’s too silver-spoon to be gang material.

“He one of yours?” Brandt said. The Colt Python’s long barrel was still pressed against the kid’s head.

“I said let him go.” Luke said. Like most people under twenty-five, Luke sounded American.

“I ain’t trying to start nothing. The kid jumped me. Went for my car.”

“Kenny, man, what you do that for? We got shit to do, man. C’mon.” Luke said. The tattooed kid said nothing. He couldn’t. Brandt was still choking him.

“Yeah, Kenny. What did you want this piece of crap for anyway? It ain’t even got fifth gear.” Brandt said. The fear on the kid’s face showed through all the tattoos.

“What’s it you’re doing tonight, Kenny?” Brandt said. He squeezed his throat tighter.

The kid was silent. His yellow-ringed eyes were going dark. Brandt looked back at Luke and asked him.

“Nothing. Just, uh, headin’ to a buddy’s house. Gonna chill, watch some movies, a few beers, y’know? That kinda stuff.” Luke smiled, showing off his blackened gums.

Yeah right, course you are.

West riverside’s their turf. I wonder what’s going on. I should get him out and search him.

Woods sounded pretty urgent though, and I’m already gonna be late. Besides, how many people are in the back of that van, and just what do they have on them that’s making Luke so jittery? Something’s going on. He was sweating before he saw me. And that fire on the radio... Warehouses are their homeground.

Brandt licked the roof of his mouth, deciding what to do.

“Alright. Get the hell out of here.” Brandt let his hand off Kenny’s throat. The kid dropped to the ground coughing. “And just you remember: that’s my piece of shit. Fuck off.”

Kenny hobbled over to the van’s passenger seat. Luke nodded at Brandt who nodded back, then drove off.

Brandt got in his car and closed the window. He wiped Kenny’s blood off the steering wheel with his sleeve. The kid’s machine pistol was still on the other seat. Brandt had a look at it. It was cheap and nasty, an ONO-4: blowback operated, seventy Mag-Flak round capacity. Prone to jamming and a tendency to ignite the rounds while they were still in the magazine, because of its inability to discharge the excess heat that the Mag-Flak rounds created in the barrel. The kid had broken the forward grip off and widened the barrel with pliers to give it more spray. The safety catch had been filed off too, so it couldn’t be switched on. Brandt turned it over and smirked at the Onuris manufacturing pyramid logo stamped on the grip.

Nice custom job, kid. More likely to blow your own face off before anyone else’s.

I’ll drop this piece of junk off at the impound.

He shoved the keys in the ignition, sighed as he thought once more about Kayleigh,and started the car. As he drove past the alley he looked down and saw Shadow waving at him, half-shrouded in the dark, as he always was.

The carjacking didn’t get filed or reported. Nothing official was made of it. There was no point. The police kept to the Upper-City. The Lower-City governed itself.

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