The Lion & The Unicorn

By Tom Ward

A policeman sets out to investigate a murder in a near-future where bad taste is illegal.

Authors Note

We were never ones to get things wrong, police officers. I should know, I was one for the best part of my life. And, while no official account was ever recorded, I know for a fact that it has been two years and fifty four days since what happened started to happen, at the cold, tail end of my fifteenth year on the force. For almost all of those years I truly believed we were making a difference. The following events changed all of that in almost every way. A lot of people died. I killed some of them.

Forgive me if my writing is shaky. I’m writing this on the train as it rattles north through tiny provincial towns, shuttered windows and empty cafes staring back at me from the stations. I thought it best to set this down before I arrive. I want to get my thoughts in order. Although, I don’t seem to be thinking as clearly as I once did. Every day now, I can feel my mind beginning to break open, like an egg shell.

As we race through empty fields, trees standing bare at their edges, one final thought comes to mind; as a child I remember going to see the giraffes, the lions, the hyenas, at the zoo in Regent’s Park. I remember eating candy floss and riding on the carousel. Later, when I’d long since grown out of these visits, when the Revolution was at its height and the nights were filled with smoke and broken glass, the animals disappeared. Set free by persons unknown, they escaped their cages, into the wild. Into urban myth. Ask anyone with a long enough memory, and they’ll tell you about the jaguar that still roams Epping Forest, its black coat part of every shadow. But my story doesn’t start there. It starts 15 years later, in 2054, when the animals, freed from their cages, had long since grown wild.

H., Somewhere north of London. 8th of January, 2057


 

Chapter One The Unicorn

It used to be that we called murders ‘Bag Jobs’, after the black morticians’ bags the recently deceased were taken away in once we’d taken our pictures and our hair samples and set out our small flags denoting anything of interest around the body. Like a shell casing. Or a bone fragment. For the most part, a Bag Job is easy to spot from the off, arriving, as they often are, drenched in the aftermath of violence. And it was clear from the beginning that, lying face down in a trashed flat with her hair matted and syrupy, a hole in the back of her head large enough to fit my fist in, Cynthia Jennings was a Bag Job.

“Vigilante hit,” a kid in uniform said as he pointed to where the body lay sprawled on its front by the window, one arm reaching, as though crawling towards an escape, even in death.

“Any money. Case closed,” the kid said, feeling rather smug with himself.

“Don’t count on it yet,” I told him, making a sign with my thumb that he should go and re-join his partner on the landing outside.

“The kid might be on to something.” Mercer said, peering down at the body while the crime scene geeks moved around in their white space suits, snapping this and collecting that. Somewhere in her fifties, D.S.U. Judith Mercer – my superior – looked like like she could do with a healthy spell at The Farm. To put it politely, she looked absolutely flattened.

The crime scene geeks pushed past. The flat was small; a standard high-rise unit with a kitchen off the lounge and a bedroom and bathroom off a corridor that led out onto the landing. The entire living space had taken a thrashing. Chairs had been overturned. Ornaments knocked off shelves. Scuff marks on the floor. The simplest bit of police-work would tell us more, but, on first inspection, it didn’t look like the place had been turned over, only that the struggle that killed the girl had been an energetic one.

“Our girl’s a star,” Mercer said, pointing to the television.

The girl had one of the old, eighty-inch 6K TV units mounted on the wall. It was still switched on. On the screen was a video of one of the pre-Revolution talent shows playing on a loop. Judging by the glitches on the image, it had been much watched in the fifteen years since such material was outlawed. Thankfully, the sound was muted.

The girl singing on stage – 5’8”, shoulder-length brunette hair, late teens – bore an uncanny resemblance to the girl in the framed photographs beside the television, and it didn’t take a genius to work out that, once we turned the deceased over onto her back, we might be looking at the same star, only a little bit older, and no longer shining as brightly.

“These, too,” Mercer said, handing me a glossy sheet of A5 paper. “A whole stack of them in the other room.”

I took the photograph and saw the same girl, now around 18, staring back from her professional headshot. Her hair curled around her ears and her lips pouted like ripe tomatoes. The cheekbones were high and would have been startling were it not for the eyes – each one a different colour – that seemed to follow you about the room like the Mona Lisa. Across the picture she’d written her name in a swirling, flowing hand. She wasn't alive in the photo, either. Something in the corner of the eyes, the edge of her smile, seemed about to give way at any moment. It was a look I was seeing more and more those days.

“Cynthia Jennings,” I read out loud. I put the photograph down on the coffee table. An ashtray held two cigarette butts with the same pink lipstick on them. One burned down to the butt, one half-smoked but stubbed out, as though she had got up to get a drink, or answer the door, in the middle of it. The best part of a bottle of Vinosynth had been polished off, too. The cork was still twisted onto a corkscrew beside a glass with the same lipstick on the rim. A half-empty bag of health chips had been scattered over the table, along with a few cheap silver rings, and a pack of false eyelashes. It was a mess, but it looked of her own making, rather than collateral damage from the ransacking that had occurred.

“Cat piss,” Mercer said, tapping the bottle with her pen. “She should have gone for a ’48.” She looked at the body, tapping her pen against her teeth now. “Look like a V.H. to you?” she asked, pointing to the girl’s photograph.

“She’s reliving her glory days, trying to get a singing career off the ground again, someone finds out, decides to do their civic duty, shows up pretending to be a fan, she lets them in, a struggle ensues, bad move, she ends up dead, killer flees the scene?” I said.

“Could be,” Mercer shrugged. “Either that or she killed herself and tried to make it look like a frame job. Or, you know, a bit of police work might reveal a third option…”

“Just might,” I said, crouching by the body.

There’s always a smell, like burned bits of bolognese that have stuck to the pan, around gunshot victims, and this girl was burning, all right. Judging by the spray against the far wall, she’d twisted around after she’d been shot, on her way to the ground. Death would have been instantaneous, and any notion that the hand stretched towards the window was searching for help, or a weapon even, was simply romantic. The death was clear-cut. What concerned us was what came before death. And judging by the pink, grazed flesh of her knuckles and the bruising on the part of her cheek that was visible – not to mention the shards of glass, broken sticks of cheap furniture and holes in the thin plaster walls – what preceded death was not pretty.

“Excuse me,” a crime geek said, crouching beside me as he sprayed a fine misted powder over the body.

It was a new form of cadaver varnish they were using, designed to keep everything fresh until they got the body to the morgue where the fun could start, without any evidence deteriorating en route. It smelled like pine needles and childhood sick days.

I stood up and got out of the way, letting myself into the bathroom. It was small, and neither clean nor dirty, with magazines piled beside the toilet, a scented candle, and a two-in-one shower and bath with a polka dot shower curtain pulled neatly back. A collection of different coloured shampoo and soap bottles stood in a corner beneath the shower head, and a damp bath mat lay on the floor. The mirror on the front of the medicine cabinet had been polished clean and standing in front of it I saw a framed photograph on the wall behind me. I only had to turn and lean slightly to bring my face up close to it. It was a framed snapshot of the girl on stage. Expensively done, but old and sun-damaged.

The cabinet itself would be where anything of interest was to be found. Pulling the edge of my coat over my fingers, I popped it open, expecting a crime scene geek to run in at any moment, chastising me and brandishing a spare pair of blue plastic gloves. When none came, I took out my pen and started rummaging around, moving the bottles about so I could read the labels. All the usual suspects were there: wellness pills, multivitamins, anti-pollutants, omega 3s, magnesium, zinc, B-vitamins for hair, calcium caps, melatonin pills, omega 1250s, an unopened box of hair dye, charcoal tablets, three loose condoms, an open box of sanitary towels, a packet of teeth whitening acids, a tube of Beroccas, and not much else. I closed the cupboard and headed through to the bedroom.

This too was small, with a single bed pushed up against the wall, under the window. The curtain was pulled back, revealing the lights of the opposite tower block. There was a cheap, tasseled green rug on the floor, a flimsy-looking desk with a lamp, a small, ceramic Alsatian, and some books on it (the usuals here, too: Dostoyevsky, Bulgakov, Vonnegut, Shakespeare – none of which looked like they’d been opened recently). The cupboard was open and hung with dresses, a few jackets and the odd pair of trousers. A mismatching set of underwear was on the floor, pushed under the bed beside what looked like a pile of stockings, a sweater, and an old plate. The posters on the wall fit the bill as well. There was an Ivan Alifan of a bald woman’s face dripping in white paint, and beside it, one of Hockney’s swimming pools. Next to that was an A1 print of Bowie’s last album cover. You could purchase all of these from the shop at the Tate Modern, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to find any of them in any bedroom in the country.

I didn’t buy it.

I listened to the geeks moving about in the corridor, then crossed to the Bowie poster. It was pristine and unwrinkled, except for one frayed corner. I took hold of the corner and pulled. The whole poster came down, folding in on itself with a noise like tearing paper.

“What’s going on?” one of the geeks said, sticking his head around the door.

I shrugged. “It just came down.”

The geek muttered something and stormed out. I let Bowie lie on the floor. In the space where he had been was a smaller poster, depicting one of the old boy bands. Four members, leaning forward on stools as they sang into microphones, their gelled hair sticking up like radio antenna. I whistled. Low Culture was Bad Taste and Bad Taste was illegal. The crime boys would photograph this, it’d be bagged, and when the case was stamped ‘closed’, it would go off to the kilns north of Islington to be incinerated. It was evidence of a crime, but whether it was grounds for murder was a question for a judge.

I walked back through to the lounge. Mercer was chewing on her pen. She was clearly itching to wrap things up so she could get outside for a vape.

“Contraband,” I said, indicating the bedroom.

“A flat like this, I’m sure we’ll find more than our share. In the meantime, uniform are out canvassing the tower block. These walls are thin. Someone heard what went on here.”

Outside the window the streetlights hummed against the night. I scratched my cheek, trying to stifle the yawn that was coming.

“You and Bagby go and check her video disk against the banned list, see what you can dig up.”

I nodded. The body was still lying there. It hadn’t moved.

“Just where is Bagby?” Mercer asked, enquiring after my wayward partner.

I moved towards the door. “He comes and goes.”

Just then the smart-arse uniform kid came back in, a look of excitement on his face.

“Have you cracked it?” I asked.

“Ma’am, there’s been an incident,” he said, ignoring me.

“Another one?” Mercer sighed.

“We’re getting reports of gunfire at the Diamond Club, in Soho. A police officer was involved, Detective Chief Inspector Bagby.”

I can’t remember if I grabbed the kid by the collar, but I do remember Mercer shouting at me for something.

“Bagby, is he all right?”

The kid dropped his act. “The report said he’s fine, Sir. Just a bit shook up and erm…” his eyes darted to Mercer, “very inebriated.”

“Go get him,” Mercer said. “For god’s sake, we can do without Bagby causing us more trouble, especially tonight.”

There was not much I could say, so I headed towards the door. Something made me pick up the dead girl’s photograph and fold it into my pocket. There was no need to take a final glance at the body; that image would be coming with me, in one form or another.

Mercer called after me as I stepped outside. I’d almost gotten away with it, but nothing escaped her. Even after fifteen years. 

“Don’t think I’ve forgotten,” she shouted. “Happy Birthday. Now go rein in your partner.”

Outside London was all bright lights and drizzle. I’d almost forgotten myself.

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