The latest designer drug, Blue Magic, might explain the needle mark on the arm of a young woman found dead in her Kansas City apartment. But when Star reporter Rich Azadian digs deeper, the clues point to a far more explosive story: MaryLee Stock was a protégée of evangelical megapastor and power broker Cobalt Becker, who is poised to deliver his followers and the presidency to a firebrand right-wing senator in the next election. When Azadian sets out to prove that MaryLee’s death was no accident and she may have been carrying Becker’s baby, the stakes become life itself.
In 2023 Americabankrupt, violently divided by culture wars, and beholden to archrival Chinathe rules of the game are complicated. When the deaths of other young women appear to be connected to MaryLee’s, the US Department of National Competitiveness moves in to quash the investigation. Azadian’s only option is to go rogue, assemble a team of brilliant misfits like himself, and begin the fight of his life to find out who is killing these women and why, and whether any others like them may still be alive.
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From the moment we're born we begin learning, creating ourselves in a process that lasts a lifetime, a process that is our life. It's an uplifting thought. But, depressingly, from the same moment the clock starts ticking down on our finite lives. We've already begun to die.
And when you're dead, you're just dead.
I've always hoped that were it my corpse lying on the floor people would hover around drawing lessons from my life, pondering the infinite.
But in this finite world bodies start to stink after a while and MaryLee Stock sadly is not going to be an exception.
Her body rests on its side facing away from me, her long, straight black hair splayed across the ivory carpet. From my vantage point inside her apartment's front door, she looks like she's fallen asleep after coming home drunk from a party. Peaceful.
I lift my wrist toward my mouth and start whispering into my u.D. "Caucasian female, mid-twenties, no signs of struggle, Monet water lilies on wall." I'm not sure what inspires me to focus on the water lilies. Perhaps her cheaply framed poster reminds me of the old Robert Hayden poem where he gets lost in the painting at the Museum of Modern Art, forgetting for a moment about the Vietnam War. O light beheld as through refracting tears, Here is the aura of that world each of us has lost, Here is the shadow of its joy.
I wonder if MaryLee had a brief moment of clarity before she died, whether she'd seen light and joy through the refracted tears of life, or if she'd just stopped like a toaster with a pulled plug.
"Hey, Rich," Maurice Henderson says in a no-nonsense tone, "I need you out of here."
"Sure, Inspector," I grumble, grateful he's let me in at all. He and I know he's only doing me this favor because I helped him out when he needed it three months ago.
The story had been horrific. A downtown hipster was pushing Blue Magic, a designer psychedelic hallucinogen that wreaked havoc on young people's brains. Kids taking it would become wildly manic for forty-eight hours before their inevitable crash. The ones who couldn't get enough of a fix from the pill started injecting it pulverized straight into their bloodstreams. Then the bodies started showing up in the morgue with furrowed eyes, purple-tinged skin, and puncture marks dotting their inner arms.
"What a waste," I say.
"Yup," he says curtly, not looking in my direction.
Henderson led the team that tracked down and arrested the supplier, but the drugs were still on the street. When he requested my help, I went above and beyond what he'd asked for my own reasons. My detailed three-part series in the Star describing the origins and gruesome dangers of Blue Magic became a key part of KCPD's outreach to schools and colleges around town.
"Anything you can share?" I ask.
"Any indication of the cause of death?"
"You're seeing what I'm seeing," he snaps with a why-are-you-asking-me-this look on his face. "Goodbye, Rich."
I know that between her u.D, the crime scene, and pathology someone will probably come up with more information. But that will take time and I need to post something an hour from now, "something juicy," as my assignment editor, Martina Hernandez, barked as I'd run out of the newsroom. With the hint of even more layoffs wafting in the air, it didn't take my PhD to construe her words as an implicit threat.
I look around the apartment one last time.
The small one-bedroom is clearly a starter place on someone's journey up the bedroom scale of life. Each space is small enough to be useful but not large enough to be wasteful. The kitchen is spotless, with only different size jars containing flour, sugar, and small packages of peanut M&Ms, a bottle of vitamins, and a small bamboo plant betraying signs of life. The books on the shelf organized by color and size, her plates stacked orderly in the IKEA armoire, the small, golden-clasped cherry box resting on a knitted mat on her shelf, her symmetrically organized framed print of Monet's water lilies, a haloed baby Jesus in the arms of Mary, and of the Country Club Plaza mall lit up by its famous Christmas lights all seem like tiny gestures striving to bring order to the chaos of human existence. So much for that.
"Will you guys put out a statement?" I ask.
Henderson's face contorts with irritation. "Goodbye, Rich."
I know I should be more grateful and just accept the favor Maurice has done me. Of course, I can't. "Maurice," I say solemnly.
His look makes clear I'm pushing my limit.
"Do you mind if I walk across the room?"
"This is a crime scene, Rich, not a damn sidewalk."
I haven't known Maurice for long, just since Martina started putting me on the crime beat four months ago, but I've had a strong sense from the moment I met him that Maurice's sometimes hostile demeanor covers a profound decency.
"I want to see her face," I say. The words carry a deeper meaning. I want to register her as a human being.
Maurice stares at me coldly, but I sense, or convince myself I sense, only on the surface.
I try to see myself as he sees me. Five foot eleven, medium-length black hair parted on the side, rail thin with a long, pensive face, a nose built to hold the glasses I don't yet need, an untucked button-down shirt over faded blue jeans, the beginnings of afternoon scruff, and an ever present dreamy look I can't seem to shake.
Maurice's perfectly starched white shirt, navy suit, and blue tie, lean, muscular body, and military cropped Afro, on the other hand, all project an authority I clearly lack.
"Walk around the perimeter of the room, don't touch a damn thing."
I nod slightly in Maurice's direction.
He glares back.
I skirt the small wooden table and two chairs and almost bump into the far end of her sofa jutting out from the wall.
And then it strikes me.
I'm not sure what I'd thought MaryLee Stock's face would look like. Her pale skin seems almost translucent against the beige carpet, her thin frame and delicate fingers suggest a fragility, an innocence, that life somehow has clearly betrayed. I freeze.
It's not that she looks like Astrid. She doesn't. Astrid's face was fuller, her hair more wild, her body more substantial. But the physical manifestation of purity permeating each of their faces strikes me on an inexplicable, almost metaphysical level as being the same.
MaryLee's right arm extends on the carpet as if reaching for something she will now never find. The lines of her palm tell a story that will now never be realized. My eyes travel down her thin arm. A tiny red dot catches my eye. "Did you see that?" I say, pointing.
"What do you think you're doing here, Rich?"
I feel like an idiot for having thought Maurice was just doing me a favor. "And you think ..."
"I have to consider the possibility. Twenty-three kids dead in this town over the last six months with needle marks in their arms, this could be twenty-four."
"But you've seen those bodies. You know what they look like when it's Blue Magic."
"We don't know enough to know," Maurice says.
"Fair point," I say. I've become one of the more informed people in Kansas City on Blue Magic, but there's a lot about it, like most everything else in life, I don't fully understand. "No reason for us to speculate — the lab tests will tell us whether it is or it isn't."
"They will, but that'll take time."
I hardly hear Maurice as I stare at MaryLee's arm, emotionally returning to what I'd felt so vividly at Astrid's wake seventeen years ago — desperate, alone, helpless, inadequate, guilty. A deep nausea rises up inside of me. I have no idea how much time has passed when Maurice's command pierces my fog.
"Now I need you to leave."
I hesitantly retrace my steps toward the door, passing just close enough to the kitchenette to see the top of the white plastic trash bag folded in her IKEA garbage bin. I peek in, looking for a syringe. It's empty.
I glance at the body one last time, then stumble out the small apartment building past the hubbub of television reporters and police while trying to shake off what I know is an irrational connection in my clouded head between the dead girl in apartment 33 and my precious little Astrid. Every big picture is made of countless tiny dots, and the needle mark on MaryLee's arm, like a similar dot I'd seen obscured by makeup on Astrid's arm almost two decades ago, like the puncture holes I'd seen on the kids who'd done themselves in with Blue Magic, won't let me go.
MaryLee Stock didn't look to me like a Blue Magic victim, but if that's what the dot on her arm represents then there's got to be a syringe somewhere. As I turn right on to Oak Street, my usual Clark Kent inevitably gives way to my inner superhero — Garbageman.
For as long as I can remember, I've been garbage obsessed. Maybe it's because one of my earliest memories is my father bringing home bits and pieces from other people's garbage we'd glue and weld into stationary robots that stood guard over our play room. "Look what my little garbageman dragged in," he'd said the first time I brought home a discarded toaster oven, the cracked base of a blender, four short pieces of pipe, and a dead Sony Discman for the head. I'd beamed, sensing that Garbageman must be a new superhero to add to the pantheon. After then, we'd gone on garbage requisition missions together and our ever larger robots had spilled into the garage.
Or maybe I'm garbage obsessed because growing up in a shrinking Armenian family who never threw anything away I've become afraid that people can just vanish. Maybe garbage has become some kind of obscene record of our otherwise ephemeral existence. I don't know.
I do know that if there's a syringe there's at least a decent chance I can find it in MaryLee's garbage. I turn right on Brookside Boulevard and follow the walking trail around the corner of Cleaver Boulevard through the Winstead's parking lot, then limbo under the gate back into the Whitehall apartment complex.
Locating the central garbage chute is easy. Climbing in and inhaling the putrid air, I wonder yet again why I always find myself thrashing around in the messy under-regions of human existence, even if my curiosity about people's detritus has served me reasonably well in my seven years at the Star.
Analysis. It's 4 p.m. and MaryLee's been dead for at least four hours since the police first got called. Her bag, if it's here, can't be toward the front. I count six white garbage bags in the middle of the pile and untie them in succession.
I've always believed that any person's garbage at any time of the day reveals a snapshot of the person's life. As Garbageman, my job is to find it. The first bag has five beer bottles — out. The next, McDonalds — out. The third, an empty bag of sliced turkey — maybe. The next smells of curry — out. The fifth, a tube of toothpaste methodically squeezed from the bottom up — could be. The sixth, the Kansas City Star embedded video magazine with pizza stains — out.
I don't see a syringe, but I take my two most promising options and climb back through the chute, slide under the gate, saunter through the Winstead's parking lot, and stash the bags behind the dumpster. I scurry around the block to my Hyundai then drive to the lot, throw the garbage bags in my trunk, and drive away trying to look innocuous.
A twinge of conscience strikes me as I go. Maurice has done me a favor, and now I may be whisking away evidence. But if I find a syringe, I'll just let him know. My job is to find the story and hauling away trash is not a crime.
Unless, of course, I actually do have MaryLee Stock's garbage in my trunk.CHAPTER 2
Decay, perhaps, is our inevitable fate.
Heading down Main toward the Kansas City Star building, I pass forty crumbling years of failed urban renewal, the empty, new streetcars rolling by yet another reminder of good intentions gone awry.
Some call the Star building a Georgian revival masterpiece. I'm sure it once was. The only appropriate word to describe it today is "dump." Although things are just starting to turn around in this country, the building feels like a metaphor for what America has done to itself over the last forty years — failed to invest in our future and let decay set in just when a rising China was challenging us and our way of life like never before.
Decay greets me as I pull in to the cracked parking lot, as I walk past the peeling Formica guard station at the entrance, the uninterested, slovenly guards mumbling into the universal. Devices — u.Ds — wrapped around their forearms. I wonder if anyone in America actually works or if the whole country is messaging each other or quite literally playing with themselves on their u.Ds. No wonder China's been cleaning our clocks. The sense of pervasive decay greets me most acutely when the elevator opens to the sprawling, chaotic newsroom floor.
Whoever invented the cubicle was probably intending to give everyone a little corner of the world for themselves. Now that the interior of each cubicle is covered from top to bottom with digital screens, each person has designed a little universe all of their own — a mountain scene here, coral reef there, a Parisian café around the corner — but none of this comes even close to providing anyone the slightest sanctuary on the crowded floor. Colleagues' aggressively wafting conversations spread collective doom like sprawling ivy across this labyrinth of communal isolation.
The doom is not hard to understand in our struggling industry. No matter how many jobs were shed, bureaus closed, costs reduced, it was mathematically impossible for the old-form newspapers and magazines to compete in the new environment. Every dental plan, every sheet of paper, every union contract was a dead weight around our necks. The legacy media business has been in a freefall for twenty years that even the great Jeff Bezos couldn't slow. If not for Uncle Sam, we'd have splattered years ago.
The isolation is more personal, so I always keep my head down and try to glide unnoticed through the maze. Somehow I've never felt anything that good was heading my way here.
Cringing inwardly, I maintain my forward momentum.
"Don't be such a killjoy," Martina says. "Rich-ie," she sings as if calling a preschooler in from recess or a dog back to the house.
I straighten my torso and turn slowly to face her. A part of me wants to tell her to stop calling me Jorge, but I know this will only make things worse.
Just north of fifty with frizzy salt and pepper hair, having internalized the Star's hierarchy and fought her way to the top, living every day as if she's crawling through the jungle with a knife between her teeth, Martina may have once been a looker but now just looks ... tough. Every wrinkle on her face seems a battle line, a notch demarcating a vanquished foe.
Why on earth had I ever told her I'd been inspired by Jorge Luis Borges' mind-altering book, Ficciones, which explores the deep interconnectivity between fact and fiction, the boundary where the "real world" ends and surreality begins, where we dream fantastic dreams that slowly overtake our previous realities? Perhaps in my early days at the Star I'd been trying to show off my literary fluency. Perhaps I never really wanted to belong here. I don't know. I do know that calling me Jorge is her way of poking me for my worldview perched somewhere between fantasy and reality. I approach her, fighting the sour lemon look on my face.
"I liked the teledildonics piece," she says dryly, referencing the article I wrote and embedded multimedia platform we created last week about the new Get Luckey 2300 full body Enhanced Virtual Reality suit and the intersection between telecommunications, long-distance relationships, and remote-controlled sexual devices. "Very stimulating."
"I'm sure you can do better than that," I say, wondering if I'm sometimes selling my soul by following Martina's threatening orders to file ever more "juicy" stories. For every one Blue Magic story there are ten teledildonics, and I get the sense from Martina that my Blue Magic success has already been all but forgotten.
"Let me think about it," she says, putting two fingers to her right temple in faux contemplation. "It's coming."
I smirk painfully, shake my head, and turn to walk away, sensing that Martina is just marking territory like an alpha dog. I'm not in the mood to get pissed on.
"Richie," she says in a softer tone, "I'm teasing you."
Despite her perpetual antagonism, I have to admit, grudgingly, that I like Martina Hernandez in spite of myself. She may not be well educated, but she is dogged and has worked her way up from answering phones in circulation to being a senior editor, no small feat even in a dying industry like this.
"What did you find out?"
"Not much. Dead body of young girl. Needle mark on her arm, so it could be Blue Magic, but she doesn't look like any of the others I've seen."
Martina's ears perk up. "When can you confirm?"
"The autopsy should take a few days, but I'm trying to figure things out earlier than that."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Genesis Code"
Copyright © 2014 Jamie Metzl.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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