Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Der Kommissar’s In Town

Charlotte did not materialize in the middle of the encampment, though to Mickey it seemed like she had. Six feet tall, not counting the afro, long limbs, wide shoulders, the confident stride of someone who knows she’s untouchable, she just somehow passed through the border from Ptown to what the maps called Franklin Plaza, and the protestors called the Paris Commune. Charlotte had weaved through the all-hours drum circle; right past the power station of stationary bicycles, solar cells, and car batteries; and followed the food line to the mess tent and from there found the medical tent.

Charlotte was from the movement. Sent by the Internet. She was a kommissar in a short skirt and long jacket.

“You’re here about the body,” Mickey said.

“Bodies,” Charlotte said.

Mickey ran his tongue through the gap between his teeth. “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?” he said, then giggled.

Charlotte shifted her eyes back and forth, as if considering. “Ten blocks from here the police are mustering. They have two armored personnel carriers, a water cannon, and according to the scanners, are contemplating just pulling a MOVE on you.” Mickey looked confused, so Charlotte pointed up and explained, “MOVE as in Philadelphia, 1985. The cops blew up a city block to eliminate the pan-African movement. Most of the chatter we’ve tapped into is about the usual riot cops, but nothing’s off the table.”

“So, bodies,” Mickey said. “Should we evacuate?”

Charlotte shrugged. “You’re surrounded. Where are you going to go?”

“Come inside.”

The body was on a makeshift gurney—it was a white person with male genitals. He was naked except for a smock of blood from where he had been gutted.

“Do you know anything about this person?” Charlotte asked. “Or who killed this person?”

Mickey was about to say the word he but looked at Charlotte and swallowed it. “This person was named Jason. Jason had been coming around for a while now, but generally left when night fell. He—uh, Jason had a third-shift job somewhere. QA on a website. I don’t know what Jason’s politics or identity was, really.”

Charlotte just looked at Mickey, so Mickey offered, “He was never injured before now, so . . . oh, sorry.”

Most people have a gender identity that matches their genitalia,” Charlotte said. “And look at the wound. Someone was very . . . enthusiastic. Passionate. This wasn’t a mugging or the result of him just losing a fight he’d made the mistake of escalating when his opponent had the upper hand. Intensity. Do you think he was straight?”

“If you’re asking if the killer was a woman, that’s a good guess because—”

“So, yes.”

“We have her tied up. Obviously not information we’d share online. She’s not talking anyway. We cleared out the tent nearest the police cordon and put her in it. Figure if the cops charge and someone gets run down—”

“Or if someone is a police agent . . .” Charlotte said. “It may as well be her who gets trampled, or who gets away.” Mickey had no answer.

Whoever had bound the killer had done an enthusiastic job. Had it been consensual, Charlotte would have admired the shibari. The killer’s arms were bound behind her back at the wrist, elbow, and triceps. The rope wound around her neck, under her breasts, then to her waist. A second rope had been snaked through all ten of her toes, and then twisted around her ankles. There was a gag in the girl’s mouth and probably a half an orange behind the gag, given the smell of her. Charlotte looked at her hair, her ears, and eyebrows, and quickly decided that she was middle-class and performing it, despite her uniform of black jeans and a hoodie and artfully placed face smudge. A slummer of some sort.

“You can go,” Charlotte said to Mickey, who then left without a word and stepped outside the tent. “I can still see you!” Charlotte said to his silhouette, which was a mistake, as several more shadowy forms joined him, circling the tent.

Lmm mmum um uh hhhrm,” the girl said through her gag, so Charlotte ignored the gathering crowd and took off her gag,

“Let’s put on a show,” she said, working her jaw.

“You killed someone,” Charlotte said. “Why?”

“That’s a pig question.”

Charlotte snorted. “You pick up the phrase ‘pig question’ last week when you decided to come down here and check out the scene?”

The girl repeated, “Check out the scene” in a faux baritone, then leaned forward and peered at Charlotte. “Are you a tranny?”

Charlotte smacked her across the face, hard. Shadows stirred all along the sides of the tent.

“How anti-oppressive of you,” the girl said. She ran her tongue over her teeth.

“You killed a man.”

“You’re a judge now too, eh?” the girl said. “How like a man.”

“You’ve had your taunt, I’ve had my slap, move on.”

“Do I look like I could kill a big guy like Jason all by myself?” the girl asked. “Even with a knife.”

Charlotte looked the girl over again. Soft skin, feet tiny enough to be bound, and uninjured save for Charlotte’s own handprint on the side of her face. That meant she surrendered willingly.

“You had accomplices and they abandoned you. They held him and you gutted him.”

The girl’s left eyebrow flickered. That counted to Charlotte as a tell.

Mickey stuck his head in through the tent flap. “There’s a discussion on; some of us want to build some barricades here and meet the police, others want to retreat to the other end of the plaza. The opinion of a kommissar would go a long way.” Both women peered at him. “I mean, we’d have to move this interview.”

The girl spoke. “Don’t retreat, don’t move forward. It’s not going to matter. If you can, go down.” She turned to Charlotte and winked. “Right?”

“Do what you want,” Charlotte snapped at Mickey, who ducked out of the tent. Then she turned to the girl. “Who are you?”

The girl smiled. “Jean Seberg.” When Charlotte didn’t react, Jean added, “Google her if you make it home.”

“I know who Jean Seberg is. An actress. She was in Breathless.”

À bout de soufflé,” Jean said.

“You look nothing like her, except that you’re small and white. So you’re a Francophile . . .” Charlotte said, thinking aloud. “Situationist?”

“Everyone in a situation is a Situationist.”

Charlotte reached into her jacket and withdrew a Taser. “I don’t need to hear any gnomic bullshit from a Crimethinc wannabe. I’m going to taze you, bro, until you either shit yourself or incriminate yourself. I’m not part of your Commune; I answer to the whole movement. I don’t need consensus. I just need answers.”

“Your shoes are wet. It’s not muddy outside. I was right,” Jean said.

Charlotte just tazed her. Jean shrieked and flailed against her bonds, and sobbed, burying her head in her own shoulder. Charlotte waited a long moment while Jean composed herself.

“I was right . . . you came from the sewer. That’s how you got here, past all the cops,” Jean said. “A sewer is a series of tubes, just like the Internet. Of course you came from both . . .”

“Who were your accomplices? And no fake French names or you get the Taser again. Why did you kill that man—with a knife! Like a butcher gutting a fucking pig.”

“Please go outside and tell the people to find the manhole cover you used to escape. One body is enough . . .”

“Uhm . . .” Charlotte said, and tazed Jean again. Jean screamed and went limp.

Charlotte left the tent and walked into a brace of occupiers, Mickey taking point.

“This is insa—I mean out of control,” Mickey said. The air was filling with the sound of helicopter rotors, and the night sky lit up with the flashing lights from sirens. “Look, take her with you, or do something, but this can’t continue. We need to set up fortifications right here.”

“You’ll need to give me a few minutes then. She lost consciousness,” Charlotte said, an edge in her voice.

“We heard everything!” a man standing next to Mickey said. He was older, solidly built, with wild and wiry silver hair and a beard. Probably an old leftist who got swept into the new movement, or a career-homeless intellectual, Charlotte decided. “You’re torturing that girl! What makes you any better than the president?”

Charlotte put a hand in her pocket and wrapped her fingers around her Taser. “Three things: One. I’m not torturing an innocent person; you all caught her in the act and subdued her. You tied her up like a bunch of rapists! Two. You all asked me to come here and solve this problem for you. Three. Fuck you—I can leave. You’re all fucked when the cops come. The murder made the mainstream news thanks to someone’s fucking Twitter account; this was the excuse the mayor needs for a crackdown. All over the country; all over the world—the crackdown is coming. If I can get some answers, maybe we can keep all of public opinion from turning against us.”

“Not in my name,” the older man said. “I’m coming in to monitor the rest of this interrogation.”

“Me too,” Mickey said. “We consensed. If you don’t let us in . . . well, you can’t taze us all.”

Charlotte took in every face in the crowd. Their anger was obvious—she was a smaller opponent than all those police gathering on the outskirts of the Paris Commune. Of course, they’d rather tear her to shreds than mix it up with the police.

She pocketed her Taser and re-entered the tent without a word, the men on her heels.

Mickey did have some smelling salts, and roused Jean Seberg. She had urinated on herself, and the ropes were still tight. “Jesus, kommissar; she could have asphyxiated on these ropes, all alone and unconscious.” He began to untie the knots around her elbows.

“Next time you take a prisoner, don’t tie her up so . . . artfully,” Charlotte said.

Jean looked up at Charlotte, then at Mickey, uncomprehending. Then she saw the older man and made a dry chuckling sound. “Professor . . . I read your book. Explain it . . .”

“You know this woman?”

“No, I don’t. When one publishes a book, strangers buy it, if one is lucky.”

“What’s the book about?”

The professor took a deep breath, as if preparing for a lengthy, prepared speech, but Charlotte interrupted before he could begin: “In two sentences!”

“Psychogeography,” he said. “How to read a city.”

“My friends and I, we were on a dérive,” Jean said. The others looked to the professor.

“It means ‘drifting’,” he explained. “Walking through a city, noting the architecture, letting it lead you into a new experience. Radicalized deconstructive wandering. After all, a city is—”

“Okay, that’s enough,” Charlotte said. Her palm went up in front of the professor’s face. The girl was nearly out of her bonds.

“You want the story? Here. We’re good at it. We were regular flâneurs, walking for hours every night. We knew Franklin Square would be where the next Occupy-style encampment would manifest. It’s a good neighborhood for it; huge bank buildings and Brutalist architecture surrounding it, but a block away, crumbling rowhouses and hipster barber shops and smelly bodegas. Three bus lines and a subway station. One side of the square smells like Starbucks, the other side smells like bum piss. You see . . .” She looked up at the professor again.

“Good, but fairly obvious. Almost all the big protests meet here, and that’s been true for a century. It’s where we can all fit in one place. It’s how town squares work.”

“But . . .” Mickey helped the girl to a sitting position while she tried to speak. “We were right about a lot of things. We went on a dérive every night, for hours and hours. We found blocks that our GPSes said didn’t exist. Streets not on even the county maps. Uhm . . .”

Charlotte pulled a flask from a pocket on her long coat and handed it to Jean, who took a deep swig without asking what it was. To Mickey, Charlotte said, “Red Bull and Dew and some smart drink thing. The brain-boys online would bet their last bitcoin on it. Keeps them going for days.”

“There’s . . . like a psychic atmosphere in the neighborhood. It’s like veins, or ley lines or something,” Jean said.

The professor scratched his beard. “What does any of this have to do with that man?”

“Aren’t you any good at spotting cops? You can tell who belongs here, and who doesn’t. Race, gender, age, whatever. There are types, right?”

“That guy wasn’t a cop,” Charlotte said, emphatic. “Thrillseeker, maybe.”

“How do you know?” Mickey said.

“Police precincts have IT needs, and no real IT professionals, let’s just put it that way,” Charlotte said.

“We’re like hackers too,” Jean said. “We just hacked the city. You know why the city fathers gave Franklin Square its name? To try to teach the Swedes and the Finns to be patriotic when it was an immigrant neighborhood. Then came the internal combustion engine and . . . you know, everything, right?” There was noise outside—more drumming, more chanting, the low grind of diesel engines. Mickey helped Jean to her feet, and she spoke up. “Everything changed. Shut down the farms, build up the factories, and those Swedes got union wages and all bought houses to retire upstate. Then the blacks came, worked at half wages, and the cops sealed this part of town off from the rest of the city.”

“Fairly typical urban evolution,” the professor said in response to Charlotte’s questioning glare.

“Skip ahead to, say, our lifetimes,” Charlotte said.

“Fine. There’s no future for any of us. No more jobs, no more choices. We’ll all be debt-slaves, eating fucking government kibble because someone on the news bought a steak with food stamps once. In the new economy, you’re either a prisoner, or a prison guard. This movement is going to fail. You dumbasses planted yourself in a cul-de-sac; the cops don’t even need to pen you in. You did it to yourselves.”

“I argued that we should have done flying pickets and a teach-in at the university,” the professor said. Charlotte palmed her Taser again, and the professor decided not to continue.

“Listen, lots of marches have started here,” Mickey said. “It’s close to City Hall, close to the TV station . . .”

“Yeah,” Charlotte said. “And now look at us. All those demonstrations and shit got done. Meatspace protests are just a way for the cops to bust heads.”

Jean nodded. “Right! But some heads get busted more often than others.”

“I don’t need any of you here to tell me that, white girl.”

“That’s why we did it. The city told us to. The city is on our side!”

“The city talked to you?” the professor asked.

“Exactly, right, exactly!” Jean was excited now. “We knew it was true, because all three of us heard it. We texted each other when we heard it, without having said anything first, and we had all heard the same thing.”

“Well, what did the city say? ‘Kill whitey!’?” Charlotte said.

“No,” Jean said. “‘Burst the appendix.’”

“Okay,” Charlotte said. “That’s our story. She’s a paranoid schizophrenic. I don’t care if you turn her over to the pigs or just let her go. This isn’t a political question; she’s just mentally ill, and so were her associates. Probably a weird poly triad that has nothing to do with the Paris Commune, or us, or anything. A random murder that would have happened anyway.”

“No, not random. We picked Jason on purpose: cishet, white dude, college educated—he was even in my Urban Geographies class. Here in the commune, he was easy to spot because he was only slightly out of place, like someone actually using a telephone booth. Just another cishet white dude. The city brought him before me, as a sacrifice. After tonight, nobody will ever use Franklin Square to launch a protest movement again.”

“You killed him to provoke the police!” Charlotte said. “Jesus Christ!” She stepped forward and punched Jean in the stomach, doubling her over. Mickey raised his hands to try to grab Charlotte’s wrists, but thought the better of it when she stepped up to him.

“Wait,” said the professor. “This won’t change anything, not in the long term. The police razed a Hooverville here in the 1930s, cleared out a be-in during the Vietnam era, and used so much tear gas during the first Gulf War that they defoliated the trees surrounding the Square. The city isn’t going to change now!”

Jean gurgled, “Yes it is . . .” She held her ribs as she chuckled. “He was wearing a fucking polo shirt. I bet he had a pregnant girlfriend or something. The city said he’d be perfect, and I cut him so fucking good. That shit should be going up on YouTube right about now. I stayed behind on purpose, so I would be on the news in the morning.”

“Fine. Why a man, why not a little white girl?” Charlotte said. “That would get everyone hungry for our blood.”

“Cops are used to dead little white girls,” Jean Seberg says. “They have warehouses full of them, on ice.”

“But they’re not used to . . . guys who look like them being sliced open,” Mickey said.

Charlotte had her phone out. “Video’s online.” She dug an earbud out of her coat pocket and plugged it into the phone’s jack and this is what she heard.

hey jason! it’s me, jean, from school!

oh, hey. hey—what? get off me!

don’t worry, these guys are my friends. one licks my pussy, the other my asshole, all night long.

get ’em off me!

i’ll cut you loose!

The video had two different angles, and was cut almost like a scene from a TV show, with close-ups and cross-cutting for maximum effect. Both of Jean’s confederates had been wearing Google Glass or some other head-mounted mini-cams. Guts decorated the sidewalk like a dropped pizza.

“The city will be so happy. You know what else it said? ‘Any sufficiently advanced map is indistinguishable from the territory.’ And it was right. It was talking about itself, so of course the city was right, right professor?” Jean asked. The professor, his face moth-gray, didn’t answer. He was watching the video over Charlotte’s shoulder, as she played it a second time.

“It’s time for us to go,” Jean said. “We can still make it . . . down through the sewers. Right, kommissar?”

“Why should I be taking you anywhere?”

“Because if you leave me here, I’ll find another way out. And I will kill again. This isn’t the only city in the world that needs my help. I have lots of lances to boil. I have big plans, all the cities do.

“You’re from Philadelphia, originally,” Jean said, looking at Charlotte.

“Lucky guess.”

“Cities talk. They gossip about their children, especially the ones who move across country to remake themselves. They trade us like Pokémon cards.”

“This is all very, uh, enlightening, but we should go. Either to the barricades, or away from the barricades,” the professor said.

“It’s for the best. There will be no more Franklin Square rallies, no more sound trucks and dumb marching in a circle, and then people will have no choice but to really fuck shit up. I’m talking straight up urban guerilla warfare. The investment bankers won’t dare telecommute in front of an open window. When an appendix pops, a lot of pus spills out. This ‘occupation’ is the pus.”

“What about Philadelphia?” Charlotte demanded. She nudged Mickey out of the way, grabbed Jean’s right arm, and wrenched it into a hammerlock. “What about it?”

“Mooove,” Jean said. She thrashed around so much, it was like she really wanted room.

“You,” Charlotte said to Mickey. “There’s a pry bar behind a bush near the drum circle and nearby a loose grating. Go if you want to. You too . . . professor,” she said.

Mickey hesitated, but the professor was already through the tent flap, and so Mickey followed.

“MOVE, eh?” Charlotte said. “The cops really are going to bomb the shit out of us, aren’t they?”

“Ammonium nitrate and methylammonium nitrate—grandma’s own recipe. But worse than MOVE; they don’t want any spokespeople crawling out of the rubble.”

“I try not to talk this way to women anymore, but you are a crazy fucking cunt of a bitch, you know that?”

“It’s a war, you see?” Jean said. “And sometimes you lose a battle to win the war.”

“How do you know?”

“Radical reinterpretation and remixing—take an old phrase and invert it. ‘No enemy survives first contact with a plan,’ and the city has a great plan for this space. Once the fires go out and the place is flattened, it’s going to be a great place to live.”

A great bleating Klaxon filled the air, and outside the tent a generalized panic began as occupiers started running in every direction, right into phalanxes of police with riot-length batons and electrified shields.

“There’s no escape but the sewers,” Jean said. “We should get going.”

“Why? So you can convince other people that the city fucking talks to you.”

“Then just let me go!”

“So you can kill again!”

“You’re just going to hold me here till the bomb drops then, and die with me just to make sure?” Jean said. “A black trans wannabe cop—you’re no martyr!”

“You’re right,” Charlotte said. “I’m not.” She let go of the hold and as Jean turned around she got her Taser out of her pocket and blasted the girl in the face. Then she ran.

Charlotte was tall but not big. She was buffeted by the surging, panicking crowd. The helicopters came in low. Charlotte was good; she was still thumbing the pad on her smartphone, sending off a farewell message to her comrades when the first big drum of water gel explosive dropped. She hit the ground, eyes shut and mouth open, then scrambled to her knees. The sewer grate was too far away to make in three long strides, and shut. The professor must have pulled it over his head when he descended into the tunnel with Mickey.

Then Charlotte saw something new. A new street that hadn’t opened into Franklin Square before. Not in a hundred years, since the trolley tracks had been torn up by city fathers on the payroll of Ford Motor Company. She couldn’t hear anything, not even the screaming, over the ringing of her ears, but she saw someone, arm aflame and smoking, pointing up at a low-flying helicopter.

The new street wavered like a doubt. Charlotte took a breath and ran for it.

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Nick Mamatas

Nick Mamatas

Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including I Am Providence and the forthcoming Hexen Sabbath. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, and many other venues. Nick is also an anthologist; his books include the Bram Stoker Award winner Haunted Legends (co-edited with Ellen Datlow), the Locus Award nominees The Future is Japanese and Hanzai Japan (both co-edited with Masumi Washington), and the forthcoming Mixed Up (co-edited with Molly Tanzer).