01 – I SAW NO SCREAM ON PURPLE LIPS


 

A churning mess of fans sat around the corner. Standing by the stage entrance, Norma Keen could feel their muted rumble, a thousand restless spectators squirming in their seats with anticipation. They had come to see the most hyped match of the summer, but what they were getting was San Monico Homicide’s most apathetic case-closers. Her partner, Allan David, projected his usual ignorant confidence while talking to their stagehand escort. Norma, meanwhile, was tasting bile in reaction to the unseen stimuli in the stands. Her general disdain for large groups of people, especially observers of her artless craft, was layering her with an itchy sweat.

Do it by the book: Look at body, talk to witnesses, find evidence, close case. Drink beer. She was here to investigate, and her first question was always how fast could she wrap it up. Norma wanted nothing more than for her presence here to have been a passing formality, so she could flee the mob back to The Barley Bull’s bitter embrace.

“Come on Norm, let’s go see that dead nerd.”

Allan strutted his way out onto the stage with all the grace of a cow, leaving Norma with her sweaty spine and a scorned stagehand. The poor man looked genuinely wounded by the crass comment. There was an opportunity here to play the good cop; make a friend and shame her partner. Allan had upset more people than sugar-free gummy bears, but thanks to the police union he was still her right hand man. As useful as a raincoat on a fish. The desire to apologize as if he was her responsibility passed, but she pointed out that he was a dick anyway, following his woodsy cologne to their dead nerd.

“Hardent was a good kid, you know,” the stagehand said with a cracked voice. “He didn’t deserve this.”

I’ve heard that before. Norma ignored him and carried on round the corner.

The crowd, it turned out, would be impossible to ignore. Hundreds of fidgeting bodies split by a gasping vomitorium. There was no cheering for the star performers as they entered the stage, but the unblinking eyes of cellphone cameras backed up by a fresh murmur put her in the limelight all the same. Her entire body structure tensed up immediately, like chicken being vacuum sealed before being thrown in the sousvide. She suddenly felt very thirsty.

She hadn’t been prepared for the number of people out there. Working homicide in San Monico made her no stranger to the public eye, but the public lens did more than add ten pounds. Whether it turned out to be a proper murder or not, there would be a lot of people asking questions that got in the way of answers. For now, at least, she should decide if they all needed to be here, and that involved focusing on the crime scene.

Fortunately, there was a familiar smell to pull her thoughts back to the matter at hand.

“De-fucking-lightful.” she said, standing by Allan and a mess, not sure which disgusted her more. “That’s a lot of puke.”

The body was covered with one of those blankets that just appear on dead people. Almost every time Norma showed up to a crime scene, the body had been covered by the time she had gotten there. She didn’t know who did it; one of the mysteries she’d never cared to solve.

Then why am I thinking about it? She felt different, like she wasn’t thinking normally. Maybe it was the puke.

The passing thought didn’t matter, and neither did the blanket. It could only cover so much, the rest of him was spewn about the stage. Norma had long been desensitized to murders where the scene had been painted with with blood so thickly that the building smelled like rusty tomatoes. Even though what she was looking at still qualified as a dead kid’s insides, this was a first for her.

TV shows had created a new interest in the scientific side of crime solving. All sorts of kids signing up wanting to be Dexter, but there were no analysts for this kind of spatter. Just her. Knees clicking, she squatted down and pulled the cover back.

His face was and swollen and red, touched lightly on the lips by death’s purple kiss. Puffiness masked any emotion he might have had, but the skin looked young and smooth. He was like a sugar cookie, all detail lost from rising in the oven. It was easy for Norma to visualize his last breaths: quick and shallow; panic slowly giving way to relief. They always surrender, before the fight is over..

For all the vomit heaved about the stage, his face was clean. Looking as the patterns rubbed into the filth around his upper body, she imagined his head in someone’s lap. Someone who cared more about him than they did for their pants. There was a faint oily smear on his forehead, which was otherwise clean. He had been cared for, in his final moments. Norma imagined some despairing comrade, tenderly wiping the face, more oblivious to the audience than she was right now. A girlfriend, maybe, if they were allowed on stage. She hadn’t passed anyone crying in the halls. More likely a teammate or coach.

His right wrist was covered in five colourful rubber bands, two of which were stamped with the letters TAM. His left wrist had a metallic medical bracelet, which she flipped over to read ALLERGIC TO: SHELLFISH, PENICILLIN.

That was one mystery solved; one step closer to the bar.

He was wearing a jersey of black, red, and yellow. It was in a much dirtier state than his face. Norma had passed a group of four kids wearing matching shirts on her way through the building. She would be seeing them again under more interrogative circumstances, but only if there was something about the body to suggest a cause of death beyond what she saw, what she had been told before she even got here: a violent allergic reaction.

The only thing that stood out so far was the vomit. She’d been warned ahead of time that the scene was messy, but no amount of loin-girding could have prepared her for it. The place stank of acidic rot, and it was everywhere. Like the parents’ bedroom at an underage kegger, only these parents had some seriously flashy computers. Of the five sporty desk stations on this half of the stage, the body lay closest to the one in the center, the one which was also covered in bile. Norma didn’t have to ask if that was his spot.

Her rusty knees were painfully muttering their demand to stand up, and Norma looked around for a helping hand. Not Allan, her right hand man, who had found a witness to question. Someone who had his two favourite qualities in a witness. Odds were he’d be talking to her until they fell off, leaving Norma low and soaking in the acidic smell of vomit while he was now running at peak uselessness. She waved over the nearby uniformed officer to give her a hand.

He was young, polite, and eager: attributes that were old friends to Norma. The kind of old friends you respect but haven’t talked to since high school. With a spattering of red spots on his face, he looked pretty fresh out of high school himself. She appreciated the man’s firm grip as he hauled her to her feet, but she didn’t want him and his good qualities sticking around too long.

“Do- ah- If you need any more help, detective, this- um- this happens to be my jam.”

“Your what, son?” Norma had never been able to keep up with modern vocabulary. It had no place in a professional environment. “Are you telling me you came here and upchucked on a dead kid?”

She had been somewhat serious in her sarcasm, hiding soft embarrassment when the officer took it with a hesitant chuckle. “Sorry, ma’m. I mean to say, I’m familiar with this environment. The game, uh, the players. It’s my hobby, kinda. I… I’ve been playing and watching it religiously for three years.”

He was incredibly nervous, but with none of the shifty ambition of many young uniforms, Norma realized. Nor did he have the condescending guidance many of the much older men were quick to give. He was just a young man who was happy to help.

She didn’t want it. “Thank you, officer.” Norma turned away from him and stepped tactically towards the mucky desk. The more uncomfortable she felt, the more this death was on the fast track to being an accident. And right now she felt like a father at a Boy-Band concert.

But for the sake of appearances, especially in front of all those cell-phone cameras, she would give this case its due diligence.
As a crime scene photographer’s camera made a sharp click and flash behind her, Norma considered where to place her feet. A delicate step was necessary to get closer to the victim’s view of his desk. The lumpy stomach contents already on it were mixing on one side with the spilled contents of can. It was a popular brand of energy drink. She considered giving it a sniff, but there wasn’t any room in her nose. The can had been resting against a blue bottle cap, though there was no bottle on the desk.

The banana skin held her eye. It was a common enough snack, but it just didn’t  seem like the sort of thing someone would eat in the middle of a – What do they call these public video gaming events, computer sporting? – In the middle of a match. And she couldn’t imagine it being allowed on stage. In the event that matters would need to be investigated further, she’d follow up on just how these kids played the game, to figure out why a banana might appeal.

Was that a joke? I must be slipping.

For now, the physical proof was as banal as a death by puke could be. Lack of evidence happily in hand, it was time for Norma’s least favourite part of solving crimes: talking to people. Allan was ostensibly on the case chatting up a new victim, presumably after his previous one had made her excuses. His methods rarely led to anywhere of note, for Norma or his victims.

She saw the eager officer looking at her, and figured that humouring him would make things easier on her. She was feeling oddly charitable  for being so far out of her comfort zone.

“What’s your name, son?” She asked, navigating the grimefield towards him.

“Park, ma’m. Officer Park.”

“Alright, Park,” she said, internally rolling her eyes as he stood a little straighter to the sound of his name, “I’m trying to figure out why this kid- what’s the victim’s name?”

“Hardent.”

“Hardent… Is that French or something?”

“Ah, sorry detective. Paul Wilkins is his real name, he just goes by Hardent with this crowd. It’s how everyone knows him. Even his teach-”

“Paul Wilkins, then, appears to have died from anaphylaxis.”

“Oh! I get it, and that doesn’t account for vomiting, right?”

Norma was used to being interrupted, it came with the company she kept. It was refreshing to have it being done in an attempt to solve a case, but it was still rude, and also a bad guess.

“No. No, the vomiting, while unusual to this degree, isn’t out of place for this kind of reaction. What I want from you, Park, is someone who can tell me about his enemies, his allergies, what he’s eaten in the last few hours, stuff like that.”

Norma watched as the officer quickly processed her needs. Calculating, no doubt, his own standing in being useful. In the moment that passed, she remembered the crowd behind her, now with a better view of the body she hadn’t thought to cover up again. She hoped they were enjoying the view. She looked at them over her shoulder.

There were people in weird costumes in the front row. Warriors and girls with cat ears. Norma had worked on a “furry” case once, she really didn’t want to work on another one. It was probably no different that those fanatics at football games who painted their chests and wore funny hats.

“I’ll go find you TAM’s… uh, that’s Hardent- Paul Wilkins’ team manager,” Park told her, with a brief stutter in his voice before turning to go. He’s was so nervous, Norma noted he even walked with a stutter. Cute, but nothing a few years of police work won’t erode from him.

Allan was now talking to the paramedics. She’d noticed the them standing near the far wall earlier, waiting to take away the body of the boy they had failed to save. Their disappointment at not being able to do their primary duty was painfully evident in their body language. The younger the dead, the harder they take it.

It doesn’t work that way in homicide. They’re dead when you show up, and buried when you’re done. Feeling bad about it just makes you drink more.

Norma went over to join Allan. Ever dedicated to his job, they were talking about baseball rather than bodies. She didn’t wait for an opening in the conversation.

“Was he dead when you got here?”

“Yeah,” one of them replied. “Respiratory failure.” Her voice was cool and monotone. “Nothing we could do. A thousand people here, no one called 911 until after the EpiPen didn’t work.”

Norma hadn’t seen an EpiPen around the body, or any sign of it’s use. “Do you have the pen?”

“Nope. They only told us one had been used. We have our own equipment, of course, but he was gone by the time we got here.”

Officer Park was coming back on stage with two more young men. She turned to Allan, “Do us a favour and find that pen, and whoever stabbed him with it, will you?”

“You got it, Norm,” he replied, smugly finding his way back to the woman he’d been chatting up earlier, probably salivating at a fresh excuse for conversation.

“Thanks guys, shouldn’t be long now.” She looked one more time at the corpse, empty of clues, swollen lips refusing to speak to her from the floor. She looked at the vomit, the desk, the audience. “Sorry you didn’t make it in time.”

“Sure you are.”

Park was hanging by the stage entrance,  fawning over a young man dressed in very crisp, and probably expensive, business casual. Around all the cops in uniform and kids in jeans, he looked like a purebred sheepdog, ready to herd. Timidly shadowing them was one of the sheep, a teenager dressed in wrinkled t-shirt and shorts. He had probably changed very recently.

“Detective Keen?” The well dressed man said, extending his hand while keeping his eyes firmly locked on hers. “I’m Lex Shuster, Paul’s team manager.”

Norma shook his hand, but kept her eyes on the kid behind him. The poor guy looked like he just wanted to listen in, but Norma wasn’t one to allow eavesdropping.

“Tariq,” Lex Shuster said to him, having followed Norma’s stare, “you don’t need to be here. Please, go wait with the others.” Norma felt a touch of irritation in his voice, softening into compassion. She nearly asked the boy to stay.

“They’re all pretty f- messed up over all this,” Lex told her.

She waved his common statement away. “Mr. Shuster, I’ll start by saying this isn’t an interrogation; it’s pretty clear to me this is just an unfortunate accident. I’m only hoping you can fill in some of the blanks.”

“Of course,” Lex Shuster spoke with curt aggression, louder than necessary. The weirdos in costume could probably hear him.

“Let’s go backstage, talk somewhere away from the body.” She saw him glance at the dead body for an instant, and he nodded. Emotionless.

“‘‘Kay.”

“Should I come with you?” Park asked, ever hopeful. He had been looking at Lex the way she would at a barman pulling a pint.

“No.” But thanks for asking. Allan was nowhere to be seen.

They didn’t go far. The hallway was good enough. Norma’d only wanted to escape the eyes, ears, and recording devices of the masses.

“So,” said Lex, his voice echoing slightly off the walls. “What do you need to know?”

“Mr. Wilkins had a food allergy?”

“Yeah, a really sensitive one. Shellfish.”

“He eat anything recently?”

“Yeah, we picked up some Chipotle on the way to the studio, and he always has a banana during champion select.”

Norma wasn’t sure what champion select was, but assumed it to be part of the game. She didn’t want to get hung up on the mechanics of something she didn’t care about.

“You came together?”

“Yeah.”

“Did Mr. Wilkins act weirdly today?”

“He’s always weird. Was.”

“Nothing out of the ordinary then?”

“Nope.”

“Does he have any enemies, anyone who would want to kill him?”

“He’s one of the best gamers out there, and a pro. People talk shit to us all the time, but they can’t kill us from behind their computers. They wouldn’t, even if they could, it’s just bitches being bitches.”

“Why do people talk shit?”

“Why do priests fuck kids? Because they’re weak. Some are losers who just want attention, to get a reaction. Sometimes they’re half-decent but titled, having a bad game. Rarely they’re being honest. In my case, they were jealous.”

His case? The man in front of her looked barely older than the kid he had shooed away earlier, even if he presented himself with perfect power-postures.

“Mr. Wilkins got along fine with his teammates?”

“He only started living with us about a month ago, but yeah, nice guy.”

“Well Mr. Shuster, I think that clears things up well enough. I’m sorry for your loss. We should be done here soon.”

“Thanks. He was a good kid, you know. He didn’t deserve this.”

Show me someone who did.

Norma nodded, and went back on stage to find her partner. Park was standing over the body silently. Would he be disappointed if it wasn’t a murder? His interaction with his videogame idols was going to end soon no matter the verdict, and then he’d be back to his regular beat. His role in this adventure just another lucky memory.

Allan hopped onto stage from somewhere in the front row. “Hey Normie, how’s it looking?”

“Looking like happy hour, partner.” Park looked up and smiled at her. “But… something doesn’t feel right.”

“If all you’ve got is a gut feeling, Norm, you’ve got nothing.”

Allan was actually trying to help her for once, and she hated it. He was trying to lessen her workload, give her an excuse to just walk away. No one would doubt that someone with a deadly seafood allergy could trigger it in a building that had probably seen its fair share of sushi. If this game event was anything like real sports, well, athletes were known for being reckless. Maybe Allan was right.

A gut feeling. I swear to God, if this becomes a murder case because of a pun…

“Allan,” Norma considered him from under her lazy eyelids without the usual scorn. She supposed there was a reason he remained her partner this long, and it wasn’t pure apathy. “Fuck it. Let’s take another look.”

She followed the smell trail to the messy desk. Paul Wilkins’ first evacuation. Taking a fresh pencil, she poked gently at the remains. The soft brown mush of banana was mixed with red pepper skin and rice. Maybe I should get a burrito on the way back.

Norma put on a blue glove and picked up the banana peel. It was a fresh green at the ends, with only a few small dark spots. Darker than usual, all the same size. Perfectly circular spots that showed up on the other side of the peel.

“Wow,” Allan stated from over her shoulder. “I guess you weren’t kidding when you said the banana was fishy.”

She had never said that. She wished he had never said that. But Norma actually let out a snort of air that was the closest she’d ever give him to a laugh. “Call in more uniforms,” she said, gesturing to the crowd still sitting impatiently in their seats. “Anyone who thinks they saw something is going to have to get the proper treatment. Park!”

He had been lurking ever since Norma had come back on stage, antsy and desperate to help. It was a nice change from Allan’s persistent ability to be absent.

“So, this is your jam?” She asked him.

“Uh, yeah?”

“Tell me about it.”

“League of Legends? It’s the most popular videogame game in the world.”

“OKay, I don’t know that means, kid.”

“It’s played all over the world. This event here, an LCS match, is a Major League kind of thing for North America. Like the NHL, NBA, NFL…”

“Except there’s a smaller crowd here, and it’s not on TV.”

“Um,” Park looked around, surprised. “Wow, I guess all the cameramen packed up before you got here. This whole thing is filmed live, and you watch it online.”

“Including Paul Wilkins’ death?”

“Yeah. They probably cut the feed early, but it’s… well, it’s out there.”

Norma took a deep breath of regret. If this was going to be a big case, she didn’t want to be on it. There was still the opportunity to call it off, but looking at the young man in uniform in front of her, she knew there was no backing out now.”

“Shit,” she told the floor, thinking out loud. “I hate seeing my cases in the papers.”

“Well, it probably won’t be. It’s not really local news stuff. It’s more, you know, internet famous.”

“Again, kid, I don’t know what that means. Can you give me some numbers?”

“Sure, just a second.” Park took out his phone, and flicked it tenderly for a while. Norma was aware he was looking something up, but she couldn’t shake the feeling of being ignored. He put it away with a sigh.

“Um, I can’t get a connection here, but I would guess maybe three to five million.”

“Son, there’s no way that many Americans are devoted to video game news.”

“No, no, you’re right detective. But… I’m sorry, but you aren’t thinking big enough. The U.S. is only, like, four percent of the global population. Sure, the local interest might not be all that high, but when some of these guys have half-a-million twitter followers, three to five is low-balling.”

Norma had never had a high-profile case. San Monico had a new murder every week; she was the detective to go to when nobody cared. She closed cases quickly, which was why she had been the unlucky detective with nothing to do when the call came in..

And Park had said it wasn’t “local news stuff”, whatever that implied. There was a lot here she didn’t understand, and Norma’d been working murders for a long time now. She had no idea what to expect, because she didn’t know the scene. She looked at Park and realized he was still talking.

“Korea, Brazil, Taiwan… China’s the biggest market of course. So, if you’re worried about the news, does that mean you think this was murder?”

“No, you must have misunderstood me, Park,” she said, raising her voice so the front rows could easily hear her. “There was nothing criminal today. Just an unfortunate accident.”


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