3 – CONSUME AND ADAPT
Norma hadn’t been too bothered while driving to a different police station in the morning. Traffic hadn’t been terrible, the A/C worked, and Byron Lee & The Dragonairs had found their way onto the radio. The horns in old caribbean ska bands had a way of softening her into the car seat, making her forget her constant contempt for humanity and heat. While not entirely looking forward to being teamed up with someone who wasn’t a lump of apathy, the day was at least starting off upbeat.
She was almost smiling. Norma had been avoiding actions like that most of her life. She’d done the right thing once; it hadn’t had the right consequences.
Thinking back on that moment left a cold slug squirming down the back of her neck, getting colder as she parked and walked into the unfamiliar station. She could walk into any room filled with corpses and their grieving family members without any cares to give, but she hated congregations of misguided do-gooders. It came with being a notorious bitch.
She felt their eyes. Admittedly it was their job to notice the outsider, but their ability to remain impassive while doing it filled her shoes with lead and her legs with ants. The least she could do was notice and ignore them right back.
The Chief had said she had a reputation, something she’d heard before but dismissed as being absurd. The smells of pride and paperwork – good cop smells – were a bitter aftertaste to the the sour scent of guilt and sweat. Norma looked around and felt alienated from her own people. Every look that went her way felt slightly more judgemental than it ought to be. It couldn’t all be in her head; she was still a capable detective. Thanks, Chief. This kid better end up taking a bullet for me.
Norma tapped her badge at the front desk, where a regulation-issue moustache tried its best not to pay attention.
“I’m looking for officer Park.”
“Which one?” He still didn’t look up, keeping his eyes on an outdated CRT screen, moving his mouse back and forth.
Press, drag, depress. Yeah, been there buddy.
The moustache tilted as the man looked at a sheet somewhere on the desk, then at his watch, before returning to it’s natural angle facing the computer monitor. Doubtlessly revelling in the lifestyle he’d dreamed of when he joined the force. The moustache jerked his thumb down the hallway.
“Nancy should be kicking around somewhere back there.”
Norma felt adequately served and protected from him giving a shit, and followed the directions of San Monico’s finest overachieving thumb.
Her man Park was with a colleague not far into the building, their elbows having a threesome with the watercooler. He recognized her immediately and sent his fellow uniform off with an over-under fist bump, something Norma had only seen on Tour of Duty. He smiled at her.
“Detective Keen, what… Good to see you.” He stuck out his hand. She saw it still in the loose fist of his previous farewell, and instinctively clenched her fingers to match. She ended up punching him lightly in his palm as it opened up.
Paper beats rock. Norma wasn’t the type to go red in the face, but Park was. Trying to make it casual, he made it worse by shaking her wrapped fist up and down.
He didn’t say anything, just stared at their joined hands, then at her eyes. Continuing to hold onto her mistake like it was a baseball and he didn’t know whether to throw to first or second. Norma made the decision for him by pulling away, forcing a fumble and snapping him out of it.
“Sorry,” he said, desperately holding onto his smile. “Ah- I’m surprised to see you here. I heard the Hardent… the Wilkins case was closed. What’s up?”
He had no idea what she was doing here. It seemed that Norma’s lethargic pace was still faster than bureaucracy. “Have you spoken with your CO recently?”
“Nope.” Yup. And now she had some explaining to do.
Norma looked at his raised eyebrow, and threw a little more weight onto her casual scowl. He was worried, and why shouldn’t he be? If the man couldn’t shake hands properly, he probably got into trouble all the time.
“Yo, Nancy! Boss wants to see you,” was shouted from the main room, and Norma waved him away with a look that told him she knew exactly what this was about, and was already disappointed but wanted to get it over with. Park left looking like a kid who didn’t have his homework to hand in, while Norma hung back and watched him go.
He was no longer smiling.
The sergeant that Park walked up to was every bit the cliche, with a soft gut and a messy desk. She had a voice like a canary, one that should have died in the mines.
“Nancy, you did some weird shit at that studio job, didn’t you. Talked to some people you shouldn’t have about something you don’t know shit about?” The sergeant was probably the type of person that would sound pissed off cuddling a basket of puppies.
I like her. Norma lifted her frown and headed over from the doorway.
“I’m sorry Sarge, whatever it was I didn’t mean to. I thought I was just being helpful.”
“Well, being helpful is fucking you right out of here. Someone likes the way that you kiss ass, kid. A detective – I just wrote the name down…” The sergeant shifted her mess, most likely hiding her recent notes in older files as Norma came over. “Detective… Detective… Can I help you?”
“The name you forgot is Detective Keen.”
“That’s you helping me. What’s it to you?”
“It’s what my mother named me.”
“Your mother named you Detective?”
“You bet your ass she did.” The sergeant let out a snort for the quid pro quo, which was more than it deserved. A hand was stuck out, open. “But you should know me as Sergeant Boss. Nice to meet you. Nancy, word from on high is you’re a good kid, and word from down low is we’re going to miss you. Clear out your desk and get the fuck out.”
Park hadn’t gotten his smile back yet, but confusion looked better on him than shame.
“I don’t have a desk Sarge.”
“That’s half your job done already. I can see why they want you. Go change while I talk to your friend.”
Park walked away like a scolded puppy with a new toy. Sergeant Boss stood up and walked around her desk to stand next to Norma.
“I don’t have to tell you he’s a good kid, but he’s kind of delicate.” Boss said in a tone that might be construed as “soft”.
“So play him hard, he needs it.”
Norma said nothing.
“Look, I can see the way you look at him. When this is all over, bring him back, and invite us all to the wedding.”
The sergeant let out a laugh that would normally have been preceded by a cry of “Timber!” before slapping Norma on her hind quarters and walking off to joke with the eavesdroppers. Norma recalculated her desire to drink with the woman.
“When Park gets back, tell him to meet me outside,” she told the first uniform on the way out, ignoring his smirk.
Park shouted for her as she was paying for food truck coffee. Now was the time to figure out how smart this kid really was. Even if he turned out to be a complete boob, she’d need his expertise in the videogame field. Hell, as long as he doesn’t hit on anything in makeup, it will be an improvement.
Norma thought back briefly to the time when she had drawn on her face for an official function. She had been both relieved and insulted when Allan hadn’t noticed.
“You drink coffee, Detective?” she asked him as he came up to her.
“No, kinda, yeah, but… Detective?”
“Unofficially and temporarily. Don’t ask me for the details on how it’s going to work, because I didn’t ask and I don’t care. You can call HR downtown in your free time, but right now, you’re working for me.”
“Cool, sounds like fun. So it wasn’t an accident then, when we met?”
“If you think destiny brought us together, son, you might as well put your uniform back on right now.”
“No, no.” He laughed slightly, already loosening up from his sergeant’s winding. “Of course not, I mean, the death. It was murder?”
The boy had a gleam in his eye, and Norma was sorely tempted to rub his ears and call him a good boy. Hopefully she wouldn’t need to stick his nose in a puddle and call him a bad dog. That was a terrible visual.
“Probably not. Why are you so happy about the man being dead, Park?”
She didn’t care.
“You want a coffee or not?”
If there was one habit she shared with everyone she’d worked with in the past, it was drinking coffee and pissing in dead mens’ toilets. Park was going to be different from the rest, and Norma was already feeling weird about it. He was here because he knew stuff that she didn’t, and she didn’t have any illusions that his need to be there went any further than answering questions quickly. He wasn’t passing the personality test. A worrying trend that was pulling her off of cloud nine.
“Hah! Alright, you got me, detective. Be tough on the newbie.” He playfully took a jab at her shoulder, causing her to react with all the playfulness of a pro-flagellation nun who alternates her time between minefield victims and pregnant teenagers. The coffee was knocked out of her hand, burning her foot where it seeped quickly through a thin sock. The smell of cheap roast complimenting her usual perfume of sweat and wool.
“Ah!” Park’s forced enthusiasm was stamped out by pure horror. Before the burning set in, Norma made note of his restrained vocabulary. Then it started to hurt.
“Looks like we got off on the wrong foot,” Park chuckled with all the legitimacy of a Russian election. He grabbed a handful of napkins from the dispenser on the food truck counter. Taking noble initiative instead of handing them to Norma, he got down on one knee before freezing, unwilling to pat her wet spot.
Norma Keen had never really had a man on his knees in front of her before. It was just as horrifying in this context as any she might have imagined.
“What are you waiting for? Un-stall, you boob. Clean what you can, get up, and we’ll go somewhere with sippy cups and you can buy me another coffee. Come on, I’ve had worse stains.”
“Sorry,” Park murmured, getting up and brushing off his pants, then his hands. “Sorry again.”
“Sorry is a start, but coffee that I can drink is what will get you forgiven. And it’s going to have to be better than this piss.” She made eye contact with the food-truck vendor who had been watching in amusement the whole time. “And if you want into my good books, you’ll need to find a curry.”
“If you want curry, then I want you!” He said, then tilted his head. “Ah, as a partner… No, that’s not better… Oh god. Okay, I can make this right. Um, just follow me. Coffee and curry. I know a place. “
Park took Norma out of her element, and she was pleasantly surprised. If getting burnt feet and soggy shoes was the cost of finding someplace decent to eat, then she might start leaving spare socks in the trunk.
She was enjoying the curry-fries at U-Nihon-Jack. Their signature Japanese-style curry sauce didn’t have the hot-spicy levels she was used to, but the rich flavours that could best be described as brown took her not too far from somewhere very nice. There was something unnatural about the fries, but it kept them crisp under the coffee-flavoured coating, and that was enough for her.
She had not gone for the poutine upgrade. She didn’t trust French Canadians, let alone their un-finished squeaky non-cheese.
Would she have found out about this place if Park hadn’t cocked up? She wiggled her moist toes and decided that for now it was worth it, but she was unlikely to tolerate any more fuck-ups. Especially if they happened on the case.
“I don’t rightly know where to start,” she told her new partner. Norma spoke quietly, as the place was nearly empty. One other patron sat in the corner of the room, reading from an ebook while eating what Norma guessed to be the restaurant’s Red Bean Eccles Cakes. There was an hour before the lunch rush would start, and the classic British rock on the radio wasn’t very loud. A blessing under normal circumstances, but possibly problematic as she had no desire to be overheard.
“I have a list of names,” she continued, “all of whom I’m sure you know. All of whom are suspects. Everyone I talked to or looked at at the scene seemed guilty of something, but that’s how it always is. The toxicology report should give me some direction, but I’m hoping you already know who did it.”
Park took a bite from one of his Cornish Gyoza at exactly the moment she wanted him to respond. She didn’t see anything in it that resembled corn, but maybe that’s why it was just corn-ish. He barely chewed and swallowed too fast. It took an eternity to force it down with water and coughing, only to stare at her silently for a while.
“Uh, I’m sorry. What?”
Norma’s sigh lasted a good few seconds. The effort it took was more for his training than any great personal desire to exhale. It was important that Park feel her disappointment if he was going to notice his mistakes and get better. It wasn’t just a desire to get him thinking like a detective. Norma’d had a career’s worth of partners, and half the job had been herding them along, the other half getting shit done without them. Now she had a new one, so fresh he probably still had the fingerprints of the farmer that plucked him. It was up to her to cook him right.
“We should talk to his teammates?” Park offered; provoked, no doubt, by fear.
When the obvious choice is also the right one, it’s hard to get excited. It’s still a relief, at least, to know that he’s not illogical. Though something outside the box would have been nice. Norma ate some of her curry and let him stew in her silence.
“Ahhh, but the problem with that is, I guess, that we’re supposed to maintain an illusion that the investigation is closed, aren’t we?”
Norma kept chewing, but nodded slowly. He was right, and she hadn’t thought of that. The last decade had been a consistent pattern of go, look, talk; she hadn’t needed to do any real kind of sleuthing, sneaking, or other shenanigans. Partly because she wasn’t assigned those cases, and partly because they didn’t exist for metro homicide detectives. Everyday murders aren’t committed by criminal masterminds.
She didn’t know what to do.
“We could do a stake out!” Parks eyes lit up as he made the suggestion, but immediately started to dim as he realized-
“That’s dumb,” Norma told him. “We aren’t waiting for a hand off, we want motives. Unless this murder was a group effort, which I guarantee you it wasn’t, then all we’re going to achieve by watching people is learning what time they sleep and how often they shit. And it’s just you and me, Park. How would two people stake out…” Norma ran the memory through her head, adding up all of Paul Wilkins’ team members and management she knew about. “How would you and I stake out five people with any efficiency?”
“Well, they do all live in the same house.”
“Not their parents’ basements?”
Park hit her with a sigh not unlike the one she had just given him. Its meaning was just as clear.
“Detective. Norma? If you’re going to cling to stereotypes, we’re better off leaving the killer on the streets and ‘going back to traffic school’. These are professionals in a billion dollar industry. Hard working individuals who gave up friends and family before adulthood to move across the country for a sport they love. These aren’t sweaty, pimpled, virgin clichés suckling on mountain dew. They’re online superstars with strong team dynamics. They have to train together and support each other twenty-four seven.”
As Norma raised her eyebrows, and started to feel ashamed for having the audacity to speak out in the same way Allan had only yesterday.
Park tried to lighten his tone. “Some of the fans, however…”
Norma did not like being scolded, and she liked being in the same class as Allan even less.
“Fans like you, Park?”
He was brazen enough to laugh. “Alright, we’re a mixed bunch. But there is some truth to it. You’re partly right, stereotypes do exist for a reason, don’t they? We’re cops, we profile. Sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong. This isn’t that different, even if it’s the web and not the streets. The internet is able to bring the worst out of pretty normal people, and even worse from… from pretty bad people. It’s too easy to dehumanize the ones in the limelight, those random names online. Ignore the invisible consequences.
“You know they say that cream rises to the top? Well, online there’s always someone pissing into the bucket because they want to show their dick and make you puke. I know it’s like that offline too, but it doesn’t take much effort on a computer.”
Park’s mention of puke brought the murder scene flashing back through her nostrils. “If you’re trying to tell me that people suck, young man, you’re barking up the choir tree.”
He took a moment.
“There’s a theme that comes up a lot when talking about the internet, games, TV shows… The separation between what’s real and what isn’t. Usually, it’s really easy. The game isn’t real, the movie isn’t real, FOX News isn’t real. People, even kids, get that. The problem is when the line is fine. When there’s a live personality, like these kids in our case. Paul “Hardent” Wilkins was two people: Hardent, that everyone saw online; and Paul Wilkins, that only he knew. People would assume that everything he shows is the real him, so in the public eye there is no Paul Wilkins, only Hardent. But it’s actually hardest on him; when you’re being a personality twenty-four-seven, to separate what’s real and what isn’t.”
A mother and her two children came into the restaurant. One kid was pretty excited to be there, the other was being dragged very much against his will. Imagine started to play through the speakers. Norma decided to play the teacher.
“Alright, now think about what you’ve just said, but as a detective.”
Park was confused, which left Norma unsure. She’d never had a mentor of her own. She also didn’t have much patience for the Socratic method.
“Do you think a fan might have decided to upgrade their notoriety to murder? Or for other reasons? It wouldn’t be the first time. If twenty years of solving has taught me anything, it’s that nothing is original.”
The children had been seated. Not close, but even with her back to them Norma was aware of the bickering. The mother seemed to be the type to just let it play out. Park was watching them, considering his own lesson.
“Well, you know, kids these days…”
“All days, son. Don’t tell me you never wanted to get your way as a boy.”
Park nodded with reflective shame. “Well, I’m sure plenty of people had told Hardent to kill himself, get cancer, die of AIDS, the usual. But it’s a big step up.”
Norma wondered what kind of community would say things like that to their heroes.
“I wouldn’t rule out a fan killing. But I can’t imagine how someone who wasn’t close to Hardent – or Wilkins – would have been able to… poison? Are we going with poison?”
“Well, it does have a criminal mastermind feel to it, if it’s someone trying to up their trolling to the big leagues.”
They’d both finished their meals. Norma signaled the waiter as the kids behind her grew louder. Apparently one was a stupid-face, the other was a dumb-butt.
“We should still start with his teammates. Let’s go back to my station. Time to make some calls.”
Park paid and they left the restaurant, both children quietly gorging themselves. He held the door for Norma to go out, and a pair of businessmen to go in.
“Well, kid,” Norma said as they walked to the car. “At least this will be a historical case. It’s probably the first time anyone has died playing videogames.”
“Actually, people die playing games all the time.”
Norma narrowed her eyes. “All the time?”
“Yeah. In Asia especially, people have been known to play literally until their heart stops. It’s not the first murder either, there’s been a few crimes of passion over lost games, trash talk gone wrong. I think England had one, China for sure.”
“Does this include the game our victim was playing?”
“Indeed it does. At the professional level, though, I think there’s only been an attempted suicide, that I know of at least. Probably a lot of unreported ones. Which is ridiculous. I don’t understand what kind of scenario could make someone do that. What kind of support staff would push a teenager to his mental breaking point. How do you go from living the dream to wanting to die? Everyone’s got problems, right, but suicide doesn’t solve anything.”
She didn’t understand it either, but she’d known someone who had. If there was a good reason, she knew better than anyone that the dead keep their secrets.
Her phone rang. Norma listened, acknowledged, and hung up.
“Change of destination, kid. I hate to say it, but it seems that suicide has actually solved our problem.”