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Forever Magazine Issue 1

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ISSUE 1




© Wyrm Publishing, 2015

wyrmpublishing.com

forever-magazine.com





Table of Contents



Introduction

by Neil Clarke

The Regular

a novella by Ken Liu

A Few Words with Ken Liu

The Fate of Mice

a short story by Susan Palwick

Firebrand

a short story by Peter Watts

About the Artist and Authors





Introduction


Neil Clarke

Welcome to the first issue of Forever Magazine! Why don’t we start off by getting some of inevitable questions out of the way?


What is Forever?

Forever is a new monthly science fiction magazine with a focus on previously-published works that you might have missed. The initial plan is to publish stories from this century, but I won’t tie my hands if a particularly timeless, but older, story makes its way to my desk. Every issue will feature a novella, a short Q&A with the novella’s author, and two short stories. The primary focus here is fiction.


Who is Forever?

I’m the only staff at Forever. I’m editing and publishing the magazine as part of Wyrm Publishing. I have no immediate plans to add anyone else to the staff.


You already edit and publish Clarkesworld Magazine. Why start another?

Forever is a chance to stretch my wings a little. I don’t have many opportunities to publish stories at the novella length and not every story I publish here would have been appropriate for Clarkesworld. As I continue to make a full-time career out of editing and publishing, it benefits me to broaden my experience.


Will Forever be an online magazine?

No. Issues will be available for purchase individually or as part of a digital subscription. Subscriptions and issues will be available from Amazon, Weightless Books, and direct from us. Single issues will also be available from B&N, Kobo, and Apple.

I hope you enjoy what I’m trying to do here. If you do, please consider subscribing. Now, let's get to some stories . . .





The Regular


Ken Liu

“This is Jasmine,” she says.

“It’s Robert.”

The voice on the phone is the same as the one she had spoken to earlier in t; he afternoon.

“Glad you made it, sweetie.” She looks out the window. He’s standing at the corner, in front of the convenience store as she asked. He looks clean and is dressed well, like he’s going on a date. A good sign. He’s also wearing a Red Sox cap pulled low over his brow, a rather amateurish attempt at anonymity. “I’m down the street from you, at 27 Moreland. It’s the gray stone condo building converted from a church.”

He turns to look. “You have a sense of humor.”

They all make that joke, but she laughs anyway. “I’m in unit 24, on the second floor.”

“Is it just you? I’m not going to see some linebacker type demanding that I pay him first?”

“I told you. I’m independent. Just have your donation ready and you’ll have a good time.”

She hangs up and takes a quick look in the mirror to be sure she’s ready. The black stockings and garter belt are new, and the lace bustier accentuates her thin waist and makes her breasts seem larger. She’s done her makeup lightly, but the eye shadow is heavy to emphasize her eyes. Most of her customers like that. Exotic.

The sheets on the king-sized bed are fresh, and there’s a small wicker basket of condoms on the nightstand, next to a clock that says “5:58.” The date is for two hours, and afterwards she’ll have enough time to clean up and shower and then sit in front of the TV to catch her favorite show. She thinks about calling her mom later that night to ask about how to cook porgy.

She opens the door before he can knock, and the look on his face tells her that she’s done well. He slips in; she closes the door, leans against it, and smiles at him.

“You’re even prettier than the picture in your ad,” he says. He gazes into her eyes intently. “Especially the eyes.”

“Thank you.”

As she gets a good look at him in the hallway, she concentrates on her right eye and blinks rapidly twice. She doesn’t think she’ll ever need it, but a girl has to protect herself. If she ever stops doing this, she thinks she’ll just have it taken out and thrown into the bottom of Boston Harbor, like the way she used to, as a little girl, write secrets down on bits of paper, wad them up, and flush them down the toilet.

He’s good looking in a non-memorable way: over six feet, tanned skin, still has all his hair, and the body under that crisp shirt looks fit. The eyes are friendly and kind, and she’s pretty sure he won’t be too rough. She guesses that he’s in his forties, and maybe works downtown in one of the law firms or financial services companies, where his long-sleeved shirt and dark pants make sense with the air conditioning always turned high. He has that entitled arrogance that many mistake for masculine attractiveness. She notices that there’s a paler patch of skin around his ring finger. Even better. A married man is usually safer. A married man who doesn’t want her to know he’s married is the safest of all: he values what he has and doesn’t want to lose it.

She hopes he’ll be a regular.

“I’m glad we’re doing this.” He holds out a plain white envelope.

She takes it and counts the bills inside. Then she puts it on top of the stack of mail on a small table by the entrance without saying anything. She takes him by the hand and leads him towards the bedroom. He pauses to look in the bathroom and then the other bedroom at the end of the hall.

“Looking for your linebacker?” she teases.

“Just making sure. I’m a nice guy.”

He takes out a scanner and holds it up, concentrating on the screen.

“Geez, you are paranoid,” she says. “The only camera in here is the one on my phone. And it’s definitely off.”

He puts the scanner away and smiles. “I know. But I just wanted to have a machine confirm it.”

They enter the bedroom. She watches him take in the bed, the bottles of lubricants and lotions on the dresser, and the long mirrors covering the closet doors next to the bed.

“Nervous?” she asks.

“A little,” he concedes. “I don’t do this often. Or, at all.”

She comes up to him and embraces him, letting him breathe in her perfume, which is floral and light so that it won’t linger on his skin. After a moment, he puts his arms around her, resting his hands against the naked skin on the small of her back.

“I’ve always believed that one should pay for experiences rather than things.”

“A good philosophy,” he whispers into her ear.

“What I give you is the girlfriend experience, old fashioned and sweet. And you’ll remember this and relive it in your head as often as you want.”

“You’ll do whatever I want?”

“Within reason,” she says. Then she lifts her head to look up at him. “You have to wear a condom. Other than that, I won’t say no to most things. But like I told you on the phone, for some you’ll have to pay extra.”

“I’m pretty old-fashioned myself. Do you mind if I take charge?”

He’s made her relaxed enough that she doesn’t jump to the worst conclusion. “If you’re thinking of tying me down, that will cost you. And I won’t do that until I know you better.”

“Nothing like that. Maybe hold you down a little.”

“That’s fine.”

He comes up to her and they kiss. His tongue lingers in her mouth and she moans. He backs up, puts his hands on her waist, turning her away from him. “Would you lie down with your face in the pillows?”

“Of course.” She climbs onto the bed. “Legs up under me or spread out to the corners?”

“Spread out, please.” His voice is commanding. And he hasn’t stripped yet, not even taken off his Red Sox cap. She’s a little disappointed. Some clients enjoy the obedience more than the sex. There’s not much for her to do. She just hopes he won’t be too rough and leave marks.

He climbs onto the bed behind her and knee-walks up between her legs. He leans down and grabs a pillow from next to her head. “Very lovely,” he says. “I’m going to hold you down now.”

She sighs into the bed, the way she knows he’ll like.

He lays the pillow over the back of her head and pushes down firmly to hold her in place. He takes the gun out of the small of his back, and in one swift motion, sticks the barrel, thick and long with the silencer, into the back of the bustier, and squeezes off two quick shots into her heart. She dies instantly.

He removes the pillow, stores the gun away. Then he takes a small steel surgical kit out of his jacket pocket, along with a pair of latex gloves. He works efficiently and quickly, cutting with precision and grace. He relaxes when he’s found what he’s looking for—sometimes he picks the wrong girl—not often, but it has happened. He’s careful to wipe off any sweat on his face with his sleeves as he works, and the hat helps to prevent any hair from falling on her. Soon, the task is done.

He climbs off the bed, takes off the bloody gloves, and leaves them and the surgical kit on the body. He puts on a fresh pair of gloves and moves through the apartment, methodically searching for places where she hid cash: inside the toilet tank, the back of the freezer, the nook above the door of the closet.

He goes into the kitchen and returns with a large plastic trash bag. He picks up the bloody gloves and the surgical kit and throws them into the bag. Picking up her phone, he presses the button for her voicemail. He deletes all the messages, including the one he had left when he first called her number. There’s not much he can do about the call logs at the phone company, but he can take advantage of that by leaving his prepaid phone somewhere for the police to find.

He looks at her again. He’s not sad, not exactly, but he does feel a sense of waste. The girl was pretty and he would have liked to enjoy her first, but that would leave behind too many traces, even with a condom. And he can always pay for another, later. He likes paying for things. Power flows to him when he pays.

Reaching into the inner pocket of his jacket, he retrieves a sheet of paper, which he carefully unfolds and leaves by the girl’s head.

He stuffs the trash bag and the money into a small gym bag he found in one of the closets. He leaves quietly, picking up the envelope of cash next to the entrance on the way out.

Because she’s meticulous, Ruth Law runs through the numbers on the spreadsheet one last time, a summary culled from credit card and bank statements, and compares them against the numbers on the tax return. There’s no doubt. The client’s husband has been hiding money from the IRS, and more importantly, from the client.

Summers in Boston can be brutally hot. But Ruth keeps the air conditioner off in her tiny office above a butcher shop in Chinatown. She’s made a lot of people unhappy over the years, and there’s no reason to make it any easier for them to sneak up on her with the extra noise.

She takes out her cell phone and starts to dial from memory. She never stores any numbers in the phone. She tells people it’s for safety, but sometimes she wonders if it’s a gesture, however small, of asserting her independence from machines.

She stops at the sound of someone coming up the stairs. The footfalls are crisp and dainty, probably a woman, probably one with sensible heels. The scanner in the stairway hasn’t been set off by the presence of a weapon, but that doesn’t mean anything—she can kill without a gun or knife, and so can many others.

Ruth deposits her phone noiselessly on the desk and reaches into her drawer to wrap the fingers of her right hand around the reassuring grip of the Glock 19. Only then does she turn slightly to the side to glance at the monitor showing the feed from the security camera mounted over the door.

She feels very calm. The Regulator is doing its job. There’s no need to release any adrenaline yet.

The visitor, in her fifties, is in a blue short-sleeve cardigan and white pants. She’s looking around the door for the doorbell. Her hair is so black that it must be dyed. She looks Chinese, holding her thin, petite body in a tight, nervous posture.

Ruth relaxes and lets go of the gun to push the button to open the door. She stands up and holds out her hand. “What can I do for you?”

“Are you Ruth Law, the private investigator?” In the woman’s accent Ruth hears traces of Mandarin rather than Cantonese or Fukienese. Probably not well connected in Chinatown then.

“I am.”

The woman looks surprised, as if Ruth isn’t quite who she expected. “Sarah Ding. I thought you were Chinese.”

As they shake hands Ruth looks Sarah level in the eyes: they’re about the same height, five foot four. Sarah looks well maintained, but her fingers feel cold and thin, like a bird’s claw.

“I’m half Chinese,” Ruth says. “My father was Cantonese, second generation; my mother was white. My Cantonese is barely passable, and I never learned Mandarin.”

Sarah sits down in the armchair across from Ruth’s desk. “But you have an office here.”

She shrugs. “I’ve made my enemies. A lot of non-Chinese are uncomfortable moving around in Chinatown. They stick out. So it’s safer for me to have my office here. Besides, you can’t beat the rent.”

Sarah nods wearily. “I need your help with my daughter.” She slides a collapsible file across the desk towards her.

Ruth sits down but doesn’t reach for the file. “Tell me about her.”

“Mona was working as an escort. A month ago she was shot and killed in her apartment. The police think it’s a robbery, maybe gang related, and they have no leads.”

“It’s a dangerous profession,” Ruth says. “Did you know she was doing it?”

“No. Mona had some difficulties after college, and we were never as close as . . . I would have liked. We thought she was doing better the last two years, and she told us she had a job in publishing. It’s difficult to know your child when you can’t be the kind of mother she wants or needs. This country has different rules.”

Ruth nods. A familiar lament from immigrants. “I’m sorry for your loss. But it’s unlikely I’ll be able to do anything. Most of my cases now are about hidden assets, cheating spouses, insurance fraud, background checks, that sort of thing. Back when I was a member of the force, I did work in Homicide. I know the detectives are quite thorough in murder cases.”

“They’re not!” Fury and desperation strain and crack her voice. “They think she’s just a Chinese whore, and she died because she was stupid or got involved with a Chinese gang who wouldn’t bother regular people. My husband is so ashamed that he won’t even mention her name. But she’s my daughter, and she’s worth everything I have, and more.”

Ruth looks at her. She can feel the Regulator suppressing her pity. Pity can lead to bad business decisions.

“I keep on thinking there was some sign I should have seen, some way to tell her that I loved her that I didn’t know. If only I had been a little less busy, a little more willing to pry and dig and to be hurt by her. I can’t stand the way the detectives talk to me, like I’m wasting their time but they don’t want to show it.”

Ruth refrains from explaining that the police detectives are all fitted with Regulators that should make the kind of prejudice she’s implying impossible. The whole point of the Regulator is to make police work under pressure more regular, less dependent on hunches, emotional impulses, appeals to hidden prejudice. If the police are calling it a gang-related act of violence, there are likely good reasons for doing so.

She says nothing because the woman in front of her is in pain, and guilt and love are so mixed up in her that she thinks paying to find her daughter’s killer will make her feel better about being the kind of mother whose daughter would take up prostitution.

Her angry, helpless posture reminds Ruth vaguely of something she tries to put out of her mind.

“Even if I find the killer,” she says, “it won’t make you feel better.”

“I don’t care.” Sarah tries to shrug but the American gesture looks awkward and uncertain on her. “My husband thinks I’ve gone crazy. I know how hopeless this is; you’re not the first investigator I’ve spoken to. But a few suggested you because you’re a woman and Chinese, so maybe you care just enough to see something they can’t.”

She reaches into her purse and retrieves a check, sliding it across the table to put on top of the file. “Here’s eighty thousand dollars. I’ll pay double your daily rate and all expenses. If you use it up, I can get you more.”

Ruth stares at the check. She thinks about the sorry state of her finances. At forty-nine, how many more chances will she have to set aside some money for when she’ll be too old to do this?

She still feels calm and completely rational, and she knows that the Regulator is doing its job. She’s sure that she’s making her decision based on costs and benefits and a realistic evaluation of the case, and not because of the hunched over shoulders of Sarah Ding, looking like fragile twin dams holding back a flood of grief.

“Okay,” she says. “Okay.”

The man’s name isn’t Robert. It’s not Paul or Matt or Barry either. He never uses the name John because jokes like that will only make the girls nervous. A long time ago, before he had been to prison, they had called him the Watcher because he liked to observe and take in a scene, finding the best opportunities and escape routes. He still thinks of himself that way when he’s alone.

In the room he’s rented at the cheap motel along Route 128, he starts his day by taking a shower to wash off the night sweat.

This is the fifth motel he’s stayed in during the last month. Any stay longer than a week tends to catch the attention of the people working at the motels. He watches; he does not get watched. Ideally, he supposes he should get away from Boston altogether, but he hasn’t exhausted the city’s possibilities. It doesn’t feel right to leave before he’s seen all he wants to see.

The Watcher got about sixty thousand dollars in cash from the girl’s apartment, not bad for a day’s work. The girls he picks are intensely aware of the brevity of their careers, and with no bad habits, they pack away money like squirrels preparing for the winter. Since they can’t exactly put it into the bank without raising the suspicion of the IRS, they tuck the money away in stashes in their apartments, ready for him to come along and claim them like found treasure.

The money is a nice bonus, but not the main attraction.

He comes out of the shower, dries himself, and wrapped in a towel, sits down to work at the nut he’s trying to crack. It’s a small, silver half-sphere, like half of a walnut. When he had first gotten it, it had been covered in blood and gore, and he had wiped it again and again with paper towels moistened under the motel sink until it gleamed.

He pries open an access port on the back of the device. Opening his laptop, he plugs one end of a cable into it and the other end into the half-sphere. He starts a program he had paid a good sum of money for and lets it run. It would probably be more efficient for him to leave the program running all the time, but he likes to be there to see the moment the encryption is broken.

While the program runs, he browses the escort ads. Right now he’s searching for pleasure, not business, so instead of looking for girls like Jasmine, he looks for girls he craves. They’re expensive, but not too expensive, the kind that remind him of the girls he had wanted back in high school: loud, fun, curvaceous now but destined to put on too much weight in a few years, a careless beauty that was all the more desirable because it was fleeting.

The Watcher knows that only a poor man like he had been at seventeen would bother courting women, trying desperately to make them like him. A man with money, with power, like he is now, can buy what he wants. There’s purity and cleanliness to his desire that he feels is nobler and less deceitful than the desire of poor men. They only wish they could have what he does.

The program beeps, and he switches back to it.

Success.

Images, videos, sound recordings are being downloaded onto the computer.

The Watcher browses through the pictures and video recordings. The pictures are face shots or shots of money being handed over—he immediately deletes the ones of him.

But the videos are the best. He settles back and watches the screen flicker, admiring Jasmine’s camerawork.

He separates the videos and images by client and puts them into folders. It’s tedious work, but he enjoys it.

The first thing Ruth does with the money is to get some badly needed tune-ups. Going after a killer requires that she be in top condition.

She does not like to carry a gun when she’s on the job. A man in a sport coat with a gun concealed under it can blend into almost any situation, but a woman wearing the kind of clothes that would hide a gun would often stick out like a sore thumb. Keeping a gun in a purse is a terrible idea. It creates a false sense of security, but a purse can be easily snatched away and then she would be disarmed.

She’s fit and strong for her age, but her opponents are almost always taller and heavier and stronger. She’s learned to compensate for these disadvantages by being more alert and by striking earlier.

But it’s still not enough.

She goes to her doctor. Not the one on her HMO card.

Doctor B had earned his degree in another country and then had to leave home forever because he pissed off the wrong people. Instead of doing a second residency and becoming licensed here, which would have made him easily traceable, he had decided to simply keep on practicing medicine on his own. He would do things doctors who cared about their licenses wouldn’t do. He would take patients they wouldn’t touch.

“It’s been a while,” Doctor B says.

“Check over everything,” she tells him. “And replace what needs replacement.”

“Rich uncle die?”

“I’m going on a hunt.”

Doctor B nods and puts her under.

He checks the pneumatic pistons in her legs, the replacement composite tendons in her shoulders and arms, the power cells and artificial muscles in her arms, the reinforced finger bones. He recharges what needs to be recharged. He examines the results of the calcium-deposition treatments (a counter to the fragility of her bones, an unfortunate side effect of her Asian heritage), and makes adjustments to her Regulator so that she can keep it on for longer.

“Like new,” he tells her. And she pays.

Next, Ruth looks through the file Sarah brought.

There are photographs: the prom, high school graduation, vacations with friends, college commencement. She notes the name of the school without surprise or sorrow even though Jess had dreamed of going there as well. The Regulator, as always, keeps her equanimous, receptive to information, only useful information.

The last family photo Sarah selected was taken at Mona’s twenty-fourth birthday earlier in the year. Ruth examines it carefully. In the picture, Mona is seated between Sarah and her husband, her arms around her parents in a gesture of careless joy. There’s no hint of the secret she was keeping from them, and no sign, as far as Ruth can tell, of bruises, drugs, or other indications that life was slipping out of her control.

Sarah had chosen the photos with care. The pictures are designed to fill in Mona’s life, to make people care for her. But she didn’t need to do that. Ruth would have given it the same amount of effort even if she knew nothing about the girl’s life. She’s a professional.

There’s a copy of the police report and the autopsy results. The report mostly confirms what Ruth has already guessed: no sign of drugs in Mona’s systems, no forced entry, no indication there was a struggle. There was pepper spray in the drawer of the nightstand, but it hadn’t been used. Forensics had vacuumed the scene and the hair and skin cells of dozens, maybe hundreds, of men had turned up, guaranteeing that no useful leads will result.

Mona had been killed with two shots through the heart, and then her body had been mutilated, with her eyes removed. She hadn’t been sexually assaulted. The apartment had been ransacked of cash and valuables.

Ruth sits up. The method of killing is odd. If the killer had intended to mutilate her face anyway, there was no reason to not shoot her in the back of the head, a cleaner, surer method of execution.

A note was found at the scene in Chinese, which declared that Mona had been punished for her sins. Ruth can’t read Chinese but she assumes the police translation is accurate. The police had also pulled Mona’s phone records. There were a few numbers whose cell tower data showed their owners had been to Mona’s place that day. The only one without an alibi was a prepaid phone without a registered owner. The police had tracked it down in Chinatown, hidden in a dumpster. They hadn’t been able to get any further.

A rather sloppy kill, Ruth thinks, if the gangs did it.

Sarah had also provided printouts of Mona’s escort ads. Mona had used several aliases: Jasmine, Akiko, Sinn. Most of the pictures are of her in lingerie, a few in cocktail dresses. The shots are framed to emphasize her body: a side view of her breasts half-veiled in lace, a back view of her buttocks, lounging on the bed with her hand over her hip. Shots of her face have black bars over her eyes to provide some measure of anonymity.

Ruth boots up her computer and logs onto the sites to check out the other ads. She had never worked in vice, so she takes a while to familiarize herself with the lingo and acronyms. The Internet had apparently transformed the business, allowing women to get off the streets and become “independent providers” without pimps. The sites are organized to allow customers to pick out exactly what they want. They can sort and filter by price, age, services provided, ethnicity, hair and eye color, time of availability, and customer ratings. The business is competitive, and there’s a brutal efficiency to the sites that Ruth might have found depressing without the Regulator: you can measure, if you apply statistical software to it, how much a girl depreciates with each passing year, how much value men place on each pound, each inch of deviation from the ideal they’re seeking, how much more a blonde really is worth than a brunette, and how much more a girl who can pass as Japanese can charge than one who cannot.

Some of the ad sites charge a membership fee to see pictures of the girls’ faces. Sarah had also printed these “premium” photographs of Mona. For a brief moment Ruth wonders what Sarah must have felt as she paid to unveil the seductive gaze of her daughter, the daughter who had seemed to have a trouble-free, promising future.

In these pictures Mona’s face was made up lightly, her lips curved in a promising or innocent smile. She was extraordinarily pretty, even compared to the other girls in her price range. She dictated in-calls only, perhaps believing them to be safer, with her being more in control.

Compared to most of the other girls, Mona’s ads can be described as “elegant.” They’re free of spelling errors and overtly crude language, hinting at the kind of sexual fantasies that men here harbor about Asian women while also promising an American wholesomeness, the contrast emphasizing the strategically placed bits of exoticism.

The anonymous customer reviews praised her attitude and willingness to “go the extra mile.” Ruth supposes that Mona had earned good tips.

Ruth turns to the crime scene photos and the bloody, eyeless shots of Mona’s face. Intellectually and dispassionately, she absorbs the details in Mona’s room. She contemplates the contrast between them and the eroticism of the ad photos. This was a young woman who had been vain about her education, who had believed that she could construct, through careful words and images, a kind of filter to attract the right kind of clients. It was naïve and wise at the same time, and Ruth can almost feel, despite the Regulator, a kind of poignancy to her confident desperation.

Whatever caused her to go down this path, she had never hurt anyone, and now she was dead.

Ruth meets Luo in a room reached through long underground tunnels and many locked doors. It smells of mold and sweat and spicy foods rotting in trash bags.

Along the way she saw a few other locked rooms behind which she guessed were human cargo, people who indentured themselves to the snakeheads for a chance to be smuggled into this country so they could work for a dream of wealth. She says nothing about them. Her deal with Luo depends on her discretion, and Luo is kinder to his cargo than many others.

He pats her down perfunctorily. She offers to strip to show that she’s not wired. He waves her off.

“Have you seen this woman?” she asks in Cantonese, holding up a picture of Mona.

Luo dangles the cigarette from his lips while he examines the picture closely. The dim light gives the tattoos on his bare shoulders and arms a greenish tint. After a moment, he hands it back. “I don’t think so.”

“She was a prostitute working out of Quincy. Someone killed her a month ago and left this behind.” She brings out the photograph of the note left at the scene. “The police think the Chinese gangs did it.”

Luo looks at the photo. He knits his brow in concentration and then barks out a dry laugh. “Yes, this is indeed a note left behind by a Chinese gang.”

“Do you recognize the gang?”

“Sure.” Luo looks at Ruth, a grin revealing the gaps in his teeth. “This note was left behind by the impetuous Tak-Kao, member of the Forever Peace Gang, after he killed the innocent Mai-Ying, the beautiful maid from the mainland, in a fit of jealousy. You can see the original in the third season of My Hong Kong, Your Hong Kong. You’re lucky that I’m a fan.”

“This is copied from a soap opera?”

“Yes. Either your man likes to make jokes or he doesn’t know Chinese well and got this from some Internet search. It might fool the police, but no, we wouldn’t leave a note like that.” He chuckles at the thought and then spits on the ground.

“Maybe it was just a fake to confuse the police.” She chooses her words carefully. “Or maybe it was done by one gang to sic the police onto the others. The police also found a phone, probably used by the killer, in a Chinatown dumpster. I know there are several Asian massage parlors in Quincy, so maybe this girl was too much competition. Are you sure you don’t know anything about this?”

Luo flips through the other photographs of Mona. Ruth watches him, getting ready to react to any sudden movements. She thinks she can trust Luo, but one can’t always predict the reaction of a man who often has to kill to make his living.

She concentrates on the Regulator, priming it to release adrenaline to quicken her movements if necessary. The pneumatics in her legs are charged, and she braces her back against the damp wall in case she needs to kick out. The sudden release of pressure in the air canisters installed next to her tibia will straighten her legs in a fraction of a second, generating hundreds of pounds of force. If her feet connect with Luo’s chest, she will almost certainly break a few ribs—though Ruth’s back will ache for days afterwards, as well.

“I like you, Ruth,” Luo says, noting her sudden stillness out of the corner of his eyes. “You don’t have to be afraid. I haven’t forgotten how you found that bookie who tried to steal from me. I’ll always tell you the truth or tell you I can’t answer. We have nothing to do with this girl. She’s not really competition. The men who go to massage parlors for sixty dollars an hour and a happy ending are not the kind who’d pay for a girl like this.”

The Watcher drives to Somerville, just over the border from Cambridge, north of Boston. He parks in the back of a grocery store parking lot, where his Toyota Corolla, bought off a lot with cash, doesn’t stick out.

Then he goes into a coffee shop and emerges with an iced coffee. Sipping it, he walks around the sunny streets, gazing from time to time at the little gizmo attached to his keychain. The gizmo tells him when he’s in range of some unsecured home wireless network. Lots of students from Harvard and MIT live here, where the rent is high but not astronomical. Addicted to good wireless access, they often get powerful routers for tiny apartments and leak the network onto the streets without bothering to secure them (after all, they have friends coming over all the time who need to remain connected). And since it’s summer, when the population of students is in flux, there’s even less likelihood that he can be traced from using one of their networks.

It’s probably overkill, but he likes to be safe.

He sits down on a bench by the side of the street, takes out his laptop, and connects to a network called “INFORMATION_WANTS_TO_BE_FREE.” He enjoys disproving the network owner’s theory. Information doesn’t want to be free. It’s valuable and wants to earn. And its existence doesn’t free anyone; possessing it, however, can do the opposite.

The Watcher carefully selects a segment of video and watches it one last time.

Jasmine had done a good job, intentionally or not, with the framing, and the man’s sweaty grimace is featured prominently in the video. His movements—and as a result, Jasmine’s—made the video jerky, and so he’s had to apply software image stabilization. But now it looks quite professional.

The Watcher had tried to identify the man, who looks Chinese, by uploading a picture he got from Jasmine into a search engine. They are always making advancements in facial recognition software, and sometimes he gets hits this way. But it didn’t seem to work this time. That’s not a problem for the Watcher. He has other techniques.

The Watcher signs on to a forum where the expat Chinese congregate to reminisce and argue politics in their homeland. He posts the picture of the man in the video and writes below in English, “Anyone famous?” Then he sips his coffee and refreshes the screen from time to time to catch the new replies.

The Watcher doesn’t read Chinese (or Russian, or Arabic, or Hindi, or any of the other languages where he plies his trade), but linguistic skills are hardly necessary for this task. Most of the expats speak English and can understand his question. He’s just using these people as research tools, a human flesh-powered, crowdsourced search engine. It’s almost funny how people are so willing to give perfect strangers over the Internet information, would even compete with each other to do it, to show how knowledgeable they are. He’s pleased to make use of such petty vanities.

He simply needs a name and a measure of the prominence of the man, and for that, the crude translations offered by computers are sufficient.

From the almost-gibberish translations, he gathers that the man is a prominent official in the Chinese Transport Ministry, and like almost all Chinese officials, he’s despised by his countrymen. The man is a bigger deal than the Watcher’s usual targets, but that might make him a good demonstration.

The Watcher is thankful for Dagger, who had explained Chinese politics to him. One evening, after he had gotten out of jail the last time, the Watcher had hung back and watched a Chinese man rob a few Chinese tourists near San Francisco’s Chinatown.

The tourists had managed to make a call to 911, and the robber had fled the scene on foot down an alley. But the Watcher had seen something in the man’s direct, simple approach that he liked. He drove around the block, stopped by the other end of the alley, and when the man emerged, he swung open the passenger side door and offered him a chance to escape in his car. The man thanked him and told him his name was Dagger.

Dagger was talkative and told the Watcher how angry and envious people in China were of the Party officials, who lived an extravagant life on the money squeezed from the common people, took bribes, and funneled public funds to their relatives. He targeted those tourists who he thought were the officials’ wives and children, and regarded himself as a modern Robin Hood.

Yet, the officials were not completely immune. All it took was a public scandal of some kind, usually involving young women who were not their wives. Talk of democracy didn’t get people excited, but seeing an official rubbing their graft in their faces made them see red. And the Party apparatus would have no choice but to punish the disgraced officials, as the only thing the Party feared was public anger, which always threatened to boil out of control. If a revolution were to come to China, Dagger quipped, it would be triggered by mistresses, not speeches.

A light had gone on in the Watcher’s head then. It was as if he could see the reins of power flowing from those who had secrets to those who knew secrets. He thanked Dagger and dropped him off, wishing him well.

The Watcher imagines what the official’s visit to Boston had been like. He had probably come to learn about the city’s experience with light rail, but it was likely in reality just another State-funded vacation, a chance to shop at the luxury stores on Newbury Street, to enjoy expensive foods without fear of poison or pollution, and to anonymously take delight in quality female companionship without the threat of recording devices in the hands of an interested populace.

He posts the video to the forum, and as an extra flourish, adds a link to the official’s biography on the Transport Ministry’s web site. For a second, he regrets the forgone revenue, but it’s been a while since he’s done a demonstration, and these are necessary to keep the business going.

He packs up his laptop. Now he has to wait.

Ruth doesn’t think there’s much value in viewing Mona’s apartment, but she’s learned over the years to not leave any stone unturned. She gets the key from Sarah Ding and makes her way to the apartment around 6:00 in the evening. Viewing the site at approximately the time of day when the murder occurred can sometimes be helpful.

She passes through the living room. There’s a small TV facing a futon, the kind of furniture that a young woman keeps from her college days when she doesn’t have a reason to upgrade. It’s a living room that was never meant for visitors.

She moves into the room in which the murder happened. The forensics team has cleaned it out. The room—it wasn’t Mona’s real bedroom, which was a tiny cubby down the hall, with just a twin bed and plain walls—is stripped bare, most of the loose items having been collected as evidence. The mattress is naked, as are the nightstands. The carpet has been vacuumed. The place smells like a hotel room: stale air and faint perfume.

Ruth notices the line of mirrors along the side of the bed, hanging over the closet doors. Watching arouses people.

She imagines how lonely Mona must have felt living here, touched and kissed and fucked by a stream of men who kept as much of themselves hidden from her as possible. She imagines her sitting in front of the small TV to relax, and dressing up to meet her parents so that she could lie some more.

Ruth imagines the way the murderer had shot Mona, and then cut her after. Were there more than one of them so that Mona thought a struggle was useless? Did they shoot her right away or did they ask her to tell them where she had hidden her money first? She can feel the Regulator starting up again, keeping her emotions in check. Evil has to be confronted dispassionately.

She decides she’s seen all she needs to see. She leaves the apartment and pulls the door closed. As she heads for the stairs, she sees a man coming up, keys in hand. Their eyes briefly meet, and he turns to the door of the apartment across the hall.

Ruth is sure the police have interviewed the neighbor. But sometimes people will tell things to a nonthreatening woman that they are reluctant to tell the cops.

She walks over and introduces herself, explaining that she’s a friend of Mona’s family, here to tie up some loose ends. The man, whose name is Peter, is wary but shakes her hand.

“I didn’t hear or see anything. We pretty much keep to ourselves in this building.”

“I believe you. But it would be helpful if we can chat a bit anyway. The family didn’t know much about her life here.”

He nods reluctantly and opens the door. He steps in and waves his arms up and around in a complex sequence as though he’s conducting an orchestra. The lights come on.

“That’s pretty fancy,” Ruth says. “You have the whole place wired up like that?”

His voice, cautious and guarded until now, grows animated. Talking about something other than the murder seems to relax him. “Yes. It’s called EchoSense. They add an adaptor to your wireless router and a few antennas around the room, and then it uses the Doppler shifts generated by your body’s movements in the radio waves to detect gestures.”

“You mean it can see you move with just the signals from your Wi-Fi bouncing around the room?”

“Something like that.”

Ruth remembers seeing an infomercial about this. She notes how small the apartment is and how little space separates it from Mona’s. They sit down and chat about what Peter remembers about Mona.

“Pretty girl. Way out of my league, but she was always pleasant.”

“Did she get a lot of visitors?”

“I don’t pry into other people’s business. But yeah, I remember lots of visitors, mostly men. I did think she might have been an escort. But that didn’t bother me. The men always seemed clean, business types. Not dangerous.”

“No one who looked like a gangster, for example?”

“I wouldn’t know what gangsters look like. But no, I don’t think so.”

They chat on inconsequentially for another fifteen minutes, and Ruth decides that she’s wasted enough time.

“Can I buy the router from you?” she asks. “And the EchoSense thing.”

“You can just order your own set online.”

“I hate shopping online. You can never return things. I know this one works; so I want it. I’ll offer you two thousand, cash.”

He considers this.

“I bet you can buy a new one and get another adaptor yourself from EchoSense for less than a quarter of that.”

He nods and retrieves the router, and she pays him. The act feels somehow illicit, not unlike how she imagines Mona’s transactions were.

Ruth posts an ad to a local classifieds site describing in vague terms what she’s looking for. Boston is blessed with many good colleges and lots of young men and women who would relish a technical challenge even more than the money she offers. She looks through the resumes until she finds the one she feels has the right skills: jailbreaking phones, reverse-engineering proprietary protocols, a healthy disrespect for acronyms like DMCA and CFAA.

She meets the young man at her office and explains what she wants. Daniel, dark-skinned, lanky, and shy, slouches in the chair across from hers as he listens without interrupting.

“Can you do it?” she asks.

“Maybe,” he says. “Companies like this one will usually send customer data back to the mothership anonymously to help improve their technology. Sometimes the data is cached locally for a while. It’s possible I’ll find logs on there a month old. If it’s there, I’ll get it for you. But I’ll have to figure out how they’re encoding the data and then make sense of it.”

“Do you think my theory is plausible?”

“I’m impressed you even came up with it. Wireless signals can go through walls, so it’s certainly possible that this adaptor has captured the movements of people in neighboring apartments. It’s a privacy nightmare, and I’m sure the company doesn’t publicize that.”

“How long will it take?”

“As little as a day or as much as a month. I won’t know until I start. It will help if you can draw me a map of the apartments and what’s inside.”

Ruth does as he asked. Then she tells him, “I’ll pay you three hundred dollars a day, with a five thousand dollar bonus if you succeed this week.”

“Deal.” He grins and picks up the router, getting ready to leave.

Because it never hurts to tell people what they’re doing is meaningful, she adds, “You’re helping to catch the killer of a young woman who’s not much older than you.”

Then she goes home because she’s run out of things to try.

The first hour after waking up is always the worst part of the day for Ruth.

As usual, she wakes from a nightmare. She lies still, disoriented, the images from her dream superimposed over the sight of the water stains on the ceiling. Her body is drenched in sweat.

The man holds Jessica in front of him with his left hand while the gun in his right hand is pointed at her head. She’s terrified, but not of him. He ducks so that her body shields his, and he whispers something into her ear.

“Mom! Mom!” she screams. “Don’t shoot. Please don’t shoot!”

Ruth rolls over, nauseated. She sits up at the edge of the bed, hating the smell of the hot room, the dust that she never has time to clean filling the air pierced by bright rays coming in from the east-facing window. She shoves the sheets off of her and stands up quickly, her breath coming too fast. She’s fighting the rising panic without any help, alone, her Regulator off.

The clock on the nightstand says 6:00.

She’s crouching behind the opened driver’s side door of her car. Her hands shake as she struggles to keep the man’s head, bobbing besides her daughter’s, in the sight of her gun. If she turns on her Regulator, she thinks her hands may grow steady and give her a clear shot at him.

What are her chances of hitting him instead of her? Ninety-five percent? Ninety-nine?

“Mom! Mom! No!”

She gets up and stumbles into the kitchen to turn on the coffeemaker. She curses when she finds the can empty and throws it clattering into the sink. The noise shocks her and she cringes.

Then she struggles into the shower, sluggishly, painfully, as though the muscles that she conditions daily through hard exercise were not there. She turns on the hot water but it brings no warmth to her shivering body.

Grief descends on her like a heavy weight. She sits down in the shower, curling her body into itself. Water streams down her face so she does not know if there are tears as her body heaves.

She fights the impulse to turn on the Regulator. It’s not time yet. She has to give her body the necessary rest.

The Regulator, a collection of chips and circuitry embedded at the top of her spine, is tied into the limbic system and the major blood vessels into the brain. Like its namesake from mechanical and electrical engineering, it maintains the levels of dopamine, noradrenaline, serotonin and other chemicals in the brain and in her blood stream. It filters out the chemicals when there’s an excess, and releases them when there’s a deficit.

And it obeys her will.

The implant allows a person control over her basic emotions: fear, disgust, joy, excitement, love. It’s mandatory for law enforcement officers, a way to minimize the effects of emotions on life-or-death decisions, a way to eliminate prejudice and irrationality.

“You have clearance to shoot,” the voice in her headset tells her. It’s the voice of her husband, Scott, the head of her department. His voice is completely calm. His Regulator is on.

She sees the head of the man bobbing up and down as he retreats with Jessica. He’s heading for the van parked by the side of the road.

“He’s got other hostages in there,” her husband continues to speak in her ear. “If you don’t shoot, you put the lives of those three other girls and who knows how many other people in danger. This is our best chance.”

The sound of sirens, her backup, is still faint. Too far away.

After what seems an eternity, she manages to stand up in the shower and turn off the water. She towels herself dry and dresses slowly. She tries to think of something, anything, to take her mind off its current track. But nothing works.

She despises the raw state of her mind. Without the Regulator, she feels weak, confused, angry. Waves of despair wash over her and everything appears in hopeless shades of gray. She wonders why she’s still alive.

It will pass, she thinks. Just a few more minutes.

Back when she had been on the force, she had adhered to the regulation requirement not to leave the Regulator on for more than two hours at a time. There are physiological and psychological risks associated with prolonged use. Some of her fellow officers had also complained about the way the Regulator made them feel robotic, deadened. No excitement from seeing a pretty woman; no thrill at the potential for a car chase; no righteous anger when faced with an act of abuse. Everything had to be deliberate: you decided when to let the adrenaline flow, and just enough to get the job done and not too much to interfere with judgment. But sometimes, they argued, you needed emotions, instinct, intuition.

Her Regulator had been off when she came home that day and recognized the man hiding from the city-wide manhunt.

Have I been working too much? she thinks. I don’t know any of her friends. When did Jess meet him? Why didn’t I ask her more questions when she was coming home late every night? Why did I stop for lunch instead of coming home half an hour earlier? There are a thousand things I could have done and should have done and would have done.

Fear and anger and regret are mixed up in her until she cannot tell which is which.

“Engage your Regulator,” her husband’s voice tells her. “You can make the shot.”

Why do I care about the lives of the other girls? she thinks. All I care about is Jess. Even the smallest chance of hurting her is too much.

Can she trust a machine to save her daughter? Should she rely on a machine to steady her shaking hands, to clear her blurry vision, to make a shot without missing?

“Mom, he’s going to let me go later. He won’t hurt me. He just wants to get away from here. Put the gun down!”

Maybe Scott can make a calculus about lives saved and lives put at risk. She won’t. She will not trust a machine.

“It’s okay, baby,” she croaks out. “It’s all going to be okay.”

She does not turn on the Regulator. She does not shoot.

Later, after she had identified the body of Jess—the bodies of all four of the girls had been badly burnt when the bomb went off—after she had been disciplined and discharged, after Scott and she had split up, after she had found no solace in alcohol and pills, she did finally find the help she needed: she could leave the Regulator on all the time.

The Regulator deadened the pain, stifled grief and numbed the ache of loss. It held down the regret, made it possible to pretend to forget. She craved the calmness it brought, the blameless, serene clarity.

She had been wrong to distrust it. That distrust had cost her Jess. She would not make the same mistake again.

Sometimes she thinks of the Regulator as a dependable lover, a comforting presence to lean on. Sometimes she thinks she’s addicted. She does not probe deeply behind these thoughts.

She would have preferred to never have to turn off the Regulator, to never be in a position to repeat her mistake. But even Doctor B balked at that (“Your brain will turn into mush.”). The illegal modifications he did agree to make allow the Regulator to remain on for a maximum of twenty-three hours at a stretch. Then she must take an hour-long break during which she must remain conscious.

And so there’s always this hour in the morning, right as she wakes, when she’s naked and alone with her memories, unshielded from the rush of red-hot hatred (for the man? for herself?) and white-cold rage, and the black, bottomless abyss that she endures as her punishment.

The alarm beeps. She concentrates like a monk in meditation and feels the hum of the Regulator starting up. Relief spreads out from the center of her mind to the very tips of her fingers, the soothing, numbing serenity of a regulated, disciplined mind. To be regulated is to be a regular person.

She stands up, limber, graceful, powerful, ready to hunt.

The Watcher has identified more of the men in the pictures. He’s now in a new motel room, this one more expensive than usual because he feels like he deserves a treat after all he’s been through. Hunching over all day to edit video is hard work.

He pans the cropping rectangle over the video to give it a sense of dynamism and movement. There’s an artistry to this.

He’s amazed how so few people seem to know about the eye implants. There’s something about eyes, so vulnerable, so essential to the way people see the world and themselves, that makes people feel protective and reluctant to invade them. The laws regarding eye modifications are the most stringent, and after a while, people begin to mistake “not permitted” with “not possible.”

They don’t know what they don’t want to know.

All his life, he’s felt that he’s missed some key piece of information, some secret that everyone else seemed to know. He’s intelligent, diligent, but somehow things have not worked out.

He never knew his father, and when he was eleven, his mother had left him one day at home with twenty dollars and never came back. A string of foster homes had followed, and nobody, nobody could tell him what he was missing, why he was always at the mercy of judges and bureaucrats, why he had so little control over his life, not where he would sleep, not when he would eat, not who would have power over him next.

He made it his subject to study men, to watch and try to understand what made them tick. Much of what he learned had disappointed him. Men were vain, proud, ignorant. They let their desires carry them away, ignored risks that were obvious. They did not think, did not plan. They did not know what they really wanted. They let the TV tell them what they should have and hoped that working at their pathetic jobs would make those wishes come true.

He craved control. He wanted to see them dance to his tune the way he had been made to dance to the tune of everyone else.

So he had honed himself to be pure and purposeful, like a sharp knife in a drawer full of ridiculous, ornate, fussy kitchen gadgets. He knew what he wanted and he worked at getting it with singular purpose.

He adjusts the colors and the dynamic range to compensate for the dim light in the video. He wants there to be no mistake in identifying the man.

He stretches his tired arms and sore neck. For a moment he wonders if he’ll be better off if he pays to have parts of his body enhanced so he can work for longer, without pain and fatigue. But the momentary fancy passes.

Most people don’t like medically unnecessary enhancements and would only accept them if they’re required for a job. No such sentimental considerations for bodily integrity or “naturalness” constrain the Watcher. He does not like enhancements because he views reliance on them as a sign of weakness. He would defeat his enemies by his mind, and with the aid of planning and foresight. He does not need to depend on machines.

He had learned to steal, and then rob, and eventually how to kill for money. But the money was really secondary, just a means to an end. It was control that he desired. The only man he had killed was a lawyer, someone who lied for a living. Lying had brought him money, and that gave him power, made people bow down to him and smile at him and speak in respectful voices. The Watcher had loved that moment when the man begged him for mercy, when he would have done anything the Watcher wanted. The Watcher had taken what he wanted from the man rightfully, by superiority of intellect and strength. Yet, the Watcher had been caught and gone to jail for it. A system that rewarded liars and punished the Watcher could not in any sense be called just.

He presses “Save.” He’s done with this video.

Knowledge of the truth gave him power, and he would make others acknowledge it.

Before Ruth is about to make her next move, Daniel calls, and they meet in her office again.

“I have what you wanted.”

He takes out his laptop and shows her an animation, like a movie.

“They stored videos on the adaptor?”

Daniel laughs. “No. The device can’t really ‘see’ and that would be far too much data. No, the adaptor just stored readings, numbers. I made the animation so it’s easier to understand.”

She’s impressed. The young man knows how to give a good presentation.

“The Wi-Fi echoes aren’t captured with enough resolution to give you much detail. But you can get a rough sense of people’s sizes and heights and their movements. This is what I got from the day and hour you specified.”

They watch as a bigger, vaguely humanoid shape appears at Mona’s apartment door, precisely at 6:00, meeting a smaller, vaguely humanoid shape.

“Seems they had an appointment,” Daniel says.

They watch as the smaller shape leads the bigger shape into the bedroom, and then the two embrace. They watch the smaller shape climb into space—presumably onto the bed. They watch the bigger shape climb up after it. They watch the shooting, and then the smaller shape collapses and disappears. They watch the bigger shape lean over, and the smaller shape flickers into existence as it’s moved from time to time.

So there was only one killer, Ruth thinks. And he was a client.

“How tall is he?”

“There’s a scale to the side.”

Ruth watches the animation over and over. The man is six foot two or six foot three, maybe 180 to 200 pounds. She notices that he has a bit of a limp as he walks.

She’s now convinced that Luo was telling the truth. Not many Chinese men are six foot two, and such a man would stick out too much to be a killer for a gang. Every witness would remember him. Mona’s killer had been a client, maybe even a regular. It wasn’t a random robbery but carefully planned.

The man is still out there, and killers that meticulous rarely kill only once.

“Thank you,” she says. “You might be saving another young woman’s life.”

Ruth dials the number for the police department.

“Captain Brennan, please.”

She gives her name and her call is transferred, and then she hears the gruff, weary voice of her ex-husband. “What can I do for you?”

Once again, she’s glad she has the Regulator. His voice dredges up memories of his raspy morning mumbles, his stentorian laughter, his tender whispers when they were alone, the soundtrack of twenty years of a life spent together, a life that they had both thought would last until one of them died.

“I need a favor.”

He doesn’t answer right away. She wonders if she’s too abrupt—a side effect of leaving the Regulator on all the time. Maybe she should have started with “How’ve you been?”

Finally, he speaks. “What is it?” The voice is restrained, but laced with exhausted, desiccated pain.

“I’d like to use your NCIC access.”

Another pause. “Why?”

“I’m working on the Mona Ding case. I think this is a man who’s killed before and will kill again. He’s got a method. I want to see if there are related cases in other cities.”

“That’s out of the question, Ruth. You know that. Besides, there’s no point. We’ve run all the searches we can, and there’s nothing similar. This was a Chinese gang protecting their business, simple as that. Until we have the resources in the Gang Unit to deal with it, I’m sorry, this will have to go cold for a while.”

Ruth hears the unspoken. The Chinese gangs have always preyed on their own. Until they bother the tourists, let’s just leave them alone. She’d heard similar sentiments often enough back when she was on the force. The Regulator could do nothing about certain kinds of prejudice. It’s perfectly rational. And also perfectly wrong.

“I don’t think so. I have an informant who says that the Chinese gangs have nothing to do with it.”

Scott snorts. “Yes, of course you can trust the word of a Chinese snakehead. But there’s also the note and the phone.”

“The note is most likely a forgery. And do you really think this Chinese gang member would be smart enough to realize that the phone records would give him away and then decide that the best place to hide it was around his place of business?”

“Who knows? Criminals are stupid.”

“The man is far too methodical for that. It’s a red herring.”

“You have no evidence.”

“I have a good reconstruction of the crime and a description of the suspect. He’s too tall to be the kind a Chinese gang would use.”

This gets his attention. “From where?”

“A neighbor had a home motion-sensing system that captured wireless echoes into Mona’s apartment. I paid someone to reconstruct it.”

“Will that stand up in court?”

“I doubt it. It will take expert testimony and you’ll have to get the company to admit that they capture that information. They’ll fight it tooth and nail.”

“Then it’s not much use to me.”

“If you give me a chance to look in the database, maybe I can turn it into something you can use.” She waits a second and presses on, hoping that he’ll be sentimental. “I’ve never asked you for much.”

“This is the first time you’ve ever asked me for something like this.”

“I don’t usually take on cases like this.”

“What is it about this girl?”

Ruth considers the question. There are two ways to answer it. She can try to explain the fee she’s being paid and why she feels she’s adding value. Or she can give what she suspects is the real reason. Sometimes the Regulator makes it hard to tell what’s true. “Sometimes people think the police don’t look as hard when the victim is a sex worker. I know your resources are constrained, but maybe I can help.”

“It’s the mother, isn’t it? You feel bad for her.”

Ruth does not answer. She can feel the Regulator kicking in again. Without it, perhaps she would be enraged.

“She’s not Jess, Ruth. Finding her killer won’t make you feel better.”

“I’m asking for a favor. You can just say no.”

Scott does not sigh, and he does not mumble. He’s simply quiet. Then, a few seconds later: “Come to the office around 8:00. You can use the terminal in my office.”

The Watcher thinks of himself as a good client. He makes sure he gets his money’s worth, but he leaves a generous tip. He likes the clarity of money, the way it makes the flow of power obvious. The girl he just left was certainly appreciative.

He drives faster. He feels he’s been too self-indulgent the last few weeks, working too slowly. He needs to make sure the last round of targets have paid. If not, he needs to carry through. Action. Reaction. It’s all very simple once you understand the rules.

He rubs the bandage around his ring finger, which allows him to maintain the pale patch of skin that girls like to see. The lingering, sickly sweet perfume from the last girl—Melody, Mandy, he’s already forgetting her name—reminds him of Tara, whom he will never forget.

Tara may have been the only girl he’s really loved. She was blonde, petite, and very expensive. But she had liked him for some reason. Perhaps because they were both broken, and the jagged pieces happened to fit.

She had stopped charging him and told him her real name. He was a kind of boyfriend. Because he was curious, she explained her business to him. How certain words and turns of phrase and tones on the phone were warning signs. What she looked for in a desired regular. What signs on a man probably meant he was safe. He enjoyed learning about this. It seemed to require careful watching by the girl, and he respected those who looked and studied and made the information useful.

He had looked into her eyes as he fucked her, and then said, “Is something wrong with your right eye?”

She had stopped moving. “What?”

“I wasn’t sure at first. But yes, it’s like you have something behind your eye.”

She wriggled under him. He was annoyed and thought about holding her down. But he decided not to. She seemed about to tell him something important. He rolled off of her.

“You’re very observant.”

“I try. What is it?”

She told him about the implant.

“You’ve been recording your clients having sex with you?”

“Yes.”

“I want to see the ones you have of us.”

She laughed. “I’ll have to go under the knife for that. Not going to happen until I retire. Having your skull opened up once was enough.”

She explained how the recordings made her feel safe, gave her a sense of power, like having bank accounts whose balances only she knew and kept growing. If she were ever threatened, she would be able to call on the powerful men she knew for aid. And after retirement, if things didn’t work out and she got desperate, perhaps she could use them to get her regulars to help her out a little.

He had liked the way she thought. So devious. So like him.

He had been sorry when he killed her. Removing her head was more difficult and messy than he had imagined. Figuring out what to do with the little silver half-sphere had taken months. He would learn to do better over time.

But Tara had been blind to the implications of what she had done. What she had wasn’t just insurance, wasn’t just a rainy-day fund. She had revealed to him that she had what it took to make his dream come true, and he had to take it from her.

He pulls into the parking lot of the hotel and finds himself seized by an unfamiliar sensation: sorrow. He misses Tara, like missing a mirror you’ve broken.

Ruth is working with the assumption that the man she’s looking for targets independent prostitutes. There’s an efficiency and a method to the way Mona was killed that suggested practice.

She begins by searching the NCIC database for prostitutes who had been killed by a suspect matching the EchoSense description. As she expects, she comes up with nothing that seems remotely similar. The man hadn’t left obvious trails.

The focus on Mona’s eyes may be a clue. Maybe the killer has a fetish for Asian women. Ruth changes her search to concentrate on body mutilations of Asian prostitutes similar to what Mona had suffered. Again, nothing.

Ruth sits back and thinks over the situation. It’s common for serial killers to concentrate on victims of a specific ethnicity. But that may be a red herring here.

She expands her search to include all independent prostitutes who had been killed in the last year or so, and now there are too many hits. Dozens and dozens of killings of prostitutes of every description pop up. Most were sexually assaulted. Some were tortured. Many had their bodies mutilated. Almost all were robbed. Gangs were suspected in several cases. She sifts through them, looking for similarities. Nothing jumps out at her.

She needs more information.

She logs onto the escort sites in the various cities and looks up the ads of the murdered women. Not all of them remain online, as some sites deactivate ads when enough patrons complain about unavailability. She prints out what she can, laying them out side by side to compare.

Then she sees it. It’s in the ads.

A subset of the ads triggers a sense of familiarity in Ruth’s mind. They were all carefully written, free of spelling and grammar mistakes. They were frank but not explicit, seductive without verging on parody. The johns who posted reviews described them as “classy.”

It’s a signal, Ruth realizes. The ads are written to give off the air of being careful, selective, discreet. There is in them, for lack of a better word, a sense of taste.

All of the women in these ads were extraordinarily beautiful, with smooth skin and thick, long flowing hair. All of them were between twenty-two and thirty, not so young as to be careless or supporting themselves through school, and not old enough to lose the ability to pass for younger. All of them were independent, with no pimp or evidence of being on drugs.

Luo’s words come back to her: The men who go to massage parlors for sixty dollars an hour and a happy ending are not the kind who’d pay for a girl like this.

There’s a certain kind of client who would be attracted to the signs given out by these girls, Ruth thinks: men who care very much about the risk of discovery and who believe that they deserve something special, suitable for their distinguished tastes.

She prints out the NCIC entries for the women.

All the women she’s identified were killed in their homes. No sign of struggle—possibly because they were meeting a client. One was strangled, the others shot through the heart in the back, like Mona. In all the cases except one—the woman who was strangled—the police had found record of a suspicious call on the day of the murder from a prepaid phone that was later found somewhere in the city. The killer had taken all the women’s money.

Ruth knows she’s on the right track. Now she needs to examine the case reports in more detail to see if she can find more patterns to identify the killer.

The door to the office opens. It’s Scott.

“Still here?” The scowl on his face shows that he does not have his Regulator on. “It’s after midnight.”

She notes, not for the first time, how the men in the department have often resisted the Regulator unless absolutely necessary, claiming that it dulled their instincts and hunches. But they had also asked her whether she had hers on whenever she dared to disagree with them. They would laugh when they asked.

“I think I’m onto something,” she says, calmly.

“You working with the goddamned Feds now?”

“What are you talking about?”

“You haven’t seen the news?”

“I’ve been here all evening.”

He takes out his tablet, opens a bookmark, and hands it to her. It’s an article in the international section of the Globe, which she rarely reads. “Scandal Unseats Chinese Transport Minister,” says the headline.

She scans the article quickly. A video has surfaced on the Chinese microblogs showing an important official in the Transport Ministry having sex with a prostitute. Moreover, it seems that he had been paying her out of public funds. He’s already been removed from his post due to the public outcry.

Accompanying the article is a grainy photo, a still capture from the video. Before the Regulator kicks in, Ruth feels her heart skip a beat. The image shows a man on top of a woman. Her head is turned to the side, directly facing the camera.

“That’s your girl, isn’t it?”

Ruth nods. She recognizes the bed and the nightstand with the clock and wicker basket from the crime scene photos.

“The Chinese are hopping mad. They think we had the man under surveillance when he was in Boston and released this video deliberately to mess with them. They’re protesting through the backchannels, threatening retaliation. The Feds want us to look into it and see what we can find out about how the video was made. They don’t know that she’s already dead, but I recognized her as soon as I saw her. If you ask me, it’s probably something the Chinese cooked up themselves to try to get rid of the guy in an internal purge. Maybe they even paid the girl to do it and then they killed her. That or our own spies decided to get rid of her after using her as bait, in which case I expect this investigation to be shut down pretty quickly. Either way, I’m not looking forward to this mess. And I advise you to back off as well.”

Ruth feels a moment of resentment before the Regulator whisks it away. If Mona’s death was part of a political plot, then Scott is right, she really is way out of her depth. The police had been wrong to conclude that it was a gang killing. But she’s wrong, too. Mona was an unfortunate pawn in some political game, and the trend she thought she had noticed was illusory, just a set of coincidences.

The rational thing to do is to let the police take over. She’ll have to tell Sarah Ding that there’s nothing she can do for her now.

“We’ll have to sweep the apartment again for recording devices. And you better let me know the name of your informant. We’ll need to question him thoroughly to see which gangs are involved. This could be a national security matter.”

“You know I can’t do that. I have no evidence he has anything to do with this.”

“Ruth, we’re picking this up now. If you want to find the girl’s killer, help me.”

“Feel free to round up all the usual suspects in Chinatown. It’s what you want to do, anyway.”

He stares at her, his face weary and angry, a look she’s very familiar with. Then his face relaxes. He has decided to engage his Regulator, and he no longer wants to argue or talk about what couldn’t be said between them.

Her Regulator kicks in automatically.

“Thank you for letting me use your office,” she says placidly. “You have a good night.”

The scandal had gone off exactly as the Watcher planned. He’s pleased but not yet ready to celebrate. That was only the first step, a demonstration of his power. Next, he has to actually make sure it pays.

He goes through the recordings and pictures he’s extracted from the dead girl and picks out a few more promising targets based on his research. Two are prominent Chinese businessmen connected with top Party bosses; one is the brother of an Indian diplomatic attaché; two more are sons of the House of Saud studying in Boston. It’s remarkable how similar the dynamics between the powerful and the people they ruled over were around the world. He also finds a prominent CEO and a Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, but these he sets aside. It’s not that he’s particularly patriotic, but he instinctively senses that if one of his victims decides to turn him in instead of paying up, he’ll be in much less trouble if the victim isn’t an American. Besides, American public figures also have a harder time moving money around anonymously, as evidenced by his experience with those two Senators in DC, which almost unraveled his whole scheme. Finally, it never hurts to have a judge or someone famous that can be leaned on in case the Watcher is caught.

Patience, and an eye for details.

He sends off his emails. Each references the article about the Chinese Transport Minister (“See, this could be you!”) and then includes two files. One is the full video of the minister and the girl (to show that he was the originator) and the second is a carefully curated video of the recipient coupling with her. Each email contains a demand for payment and directions to make deposits to a numbered Swiss bank account or to transfer anonymous electronic cryptocurrency.

He browses the escort sites again. He’s narrowed down the girls he suspects to just a few. Now he just has to look at them more closely to pick out the right one. He grows excited at the prospect.

He glances up at the people walking past him in the streets. All these foolish men and women moving around as if dreaming. They do not understand that the world is full of secrets, accessible only to those patient enough, observant enough to locate them and dig them out of their warm, bloody hiding places, like retrieving pearls from the soft flesh inside an oyster. And then, armed with those secrets, you could make men half a world away tremble and dance.

He closes his laptop and gets up to leave. He thinks about packing up the mess in his motel room, setting out the surgical kit, the baseball cap, the gun and a few other surprises he’s learned to take with him when he’s hunting.

Time to dig for more treasure.

Ruth wakes up. The old nightmares have been joined by new ones. She stays curled up in bed fighting waves of despair. She wants to lie here forever.

Days of work and she has nothing to show for it.

She’ll have to call Sarah Ding later, after she turns on the Regulator. She can tell her that Mona was probably not killed by a gang, but somehow had been caught up in events bigger than she could handle. How would that make Sarah feel better?

The image from yesterday’s news will not leave her mind, no matter how hard she tries to push it away.

Ruth struggles up and pulls up the article. She can’t explain it, but the image just looks wrong. Not having the Regulator on makes it hard to think.

She finds the crime scene photo of Mona’s bedroom and compares it with the image from the article. She looks back and forth.

Isn’t the basket of condoms on the wrong side of the bed?

The shot is taken from the left side of the bed. So the closet doors, with the mirrors on them, should be on the far side of the shot, behind the couple. But there’s only a blank wall behind them in the shot. Ruth’s heart is beating so fast that she feels faint.

The alarm beeps. Ruth glances up at the red numbers and turns the Regulator on.

The clock.

She looks back at the image. The alarm clock in the shot is tiny and fuzzy, but she can just make the numbers out. They’re backwards.

Ruth walks steadily over to her laptop and begins to search online for the video. She finds it without much trouble and presses play.

Despite the video stabilization and the careful cropping, she can see that Mona’s eyes are always looking directly into the camera.

There’s only one explanation: the camera was aimed at the mirrors, and it was located in Mona’s eye.

The eyes.

She goes through the NCIC entries of the other women she printed out yesterday, and now the pattern that had proven elusive seems obvious.

There was a blonde in Los Angeles whose head had been removed after death and never found; there was a brunette, also in LA, whose skull had been cracked open and her brains mashed; there was a Mexican woman and a black woman in DC whose faces had been subjected to post-mortem trauma in more restrained ways, with the cheekbones crushed and broken. Then finally, there was Mona, whose eyes had been carefully removed.

The killer has been improving his technique.

The Regulator holds her excitement in check. She needs more data.

She looks through all of Mona’s photographs again. Nothing out of place shows up in the earlier pictures, but in the picture from her birthday with her parents, a flash was used, and there’s an odd glint in her left eye.

Most cameras can automatically compensate for red-eye, which is caused by the light from the flash reflecting off the blood-rich choroid in the back of the eye. But the glint in Mona’s picture is not red; it’s bluish.

Calmly, Ruth flips through the photographs of the other girls who have been killed. And in each, she finds the tell-tale glint. This must be how the killer identified his targets.

She picks up the phone and dials the number for her friend. She and Gail had gone to college together, and she’s now working as a researcher for an advanced medical devices company.

“Hello?”

She hears the chatter of other people in the background. “Gail, it’s Ruth. Can you talk?”

“Just a minute.” She hears the background conversation grow muffled and then abruptly shut off. “You never call unless you’re asking about another enhancement. We’re not getting any younger, you know? You have to stop at some point.”

Gail had been the one to suggest the various enhancements Ruth has obtained over the years. She had even found Doctor B for her because she didn’t want Ruth to end up crippled. But she had done it reluctantly, conflicted about the idea of turning Ruth into a cyborg.

“This feels wrong,” she would say. “You don’t need these things done to you. They’re not medically necessary.”

“This can save my life the next time someone is trying to choke me,” Ruth would say.

“It’s not the same thing,” she would say. And the conversations would always end with Gail giving in, but with stern warnings about no further enhancements.

Sometimes you help a friend even when you disapprove of their decisions. It’s complicated.

Ruth answers Gail on the phone, “No. I’m just fine. But I want to know if you know about a new kind of enhancement. I’m sending you some pictures now. Hold on.” She sends over the images of the girls where she can see the strange glint in their eyes. “Take a look. Can you see that flash in their eyes? Do you know anything like this?” She doesn’t tell Gail her suspicion so that Gail’s answer would not be affected.

Gail is silent for a while. “I see what you mean. These are not great pictures. But let me talk to some people and call you back.”

“Don’t send the full pictures around. I’m in the middle of an investigation. Just crop out the eyes if you can.”

Ruth hangs up. The Regulator is working extra hard. Something about what she said—cropping out the girls’ eyes—triggered a bodily response of disgust that the Regulator is suppressing. She’s not sure why. With the Regulator, sometimes it’s hard for her to see the connections between things.

While waiting for Gail to call her back, she looks through the active online ads in Boston once more. The killer has a pattern of killing a few girls in each city before moving on. He must be on the hunt for a second victim here. The best way to catch him is to find her before he does.

She clicks through ad after ad, the parade of flesh a meaningless blur, focusing only on the eyes. Finally, she sees what she’s looking for. The girl uses the name Carrie, and she has dirty-blond hair and green eyes. Her ad is clean, clear, well-written, like a tasteful sign amidst the parade of flashing neon. The timestamp on the ad shows that she last modified it twelve hours ago. She’s likely still alive.

Ruth calls the number listed.

“This is Carrie. Please leave a message.”

As expected, Carrie screens her calls.

“Hello. My name is Ruth Law, and I saw your ad. I’d like to make an appointment with you.” She hesitates, and then adds, “This is not a joke. I really want to see you.” She leaves her number and hangs up.

The phone rings almost immediately. Ruth picks up. But it’s Gail, not Carrie.

“I asked around, and people who ought to know tell me the girls are probably wearing a new kind of retinal implant. It’s not FDA-approved. But of course you can go overseas and get them installed if you pay enough.”

“What do they do?”

“They’re hidden cameras.”

“How do you get the pictures and videos out?”

“You don’t. They have no wireless connections to the outside world. In fact, they’re shielded to emit as little RF emissions as possible so that they’re undetectable to camera scanners, and a wireless connection would just mean another way to hack into them. All the storage is inside the device. To retrieve them you have to have surgery again. Not the kind of thing most people would be interested in unless you’re trying to record people who really don’t want you to be recording them.”

When you’re so desperate for safety that you think this provides insurance, Ruth thinks. Some future leverage.

And there’s no way to get the recordings out except to cut the girl open. “Thanks.”

“I don’t know what you’re involved in, Ruth, but you really are getting too old for this. Are you still leaving the Regulator on all the time? It’s not healthy.”

“Don’t I know it.” She changes the subject to Gail’s children. The Regulator allows her to have this conversation without pain. After a suitable amount of time, she says goodbye and hangs up.

The phone rings again.

“This is Carrie. You called me.”

“Yes.” Ruth makes her voice sound light, carefree.

Carrie’s voice is flirtatious but cautious. “Is this for you and your boyfriend or husband?”

“No, just me.”

She grips the phone, counting the seconds. She tries to will Carrie not to hang up.

“I found your web site. You’re a private detective?”

Ruth already knew that she would. “Yes, I am.”

“I can’t tell you anything about any of my clients. My business depends on discretion.”

“I’m not going to ask you about your clients. I just want to see you.” She thinks hard about how to gain her trust. The Regulator makes this difficult, as she has become unused to the emotive quality of judgments and impressions. She thinks the truth is too abrupt and strange to convince her. So she tries something else. “I’m interested in a new experience. I guess it’s something I’ve always wanted to try and haven’t.”

“Are you working for the cops? I am stating now for the record that you’re paying me only for companionship, and anything that happens beyond that is a decision between consenting adults.”

“Look, the cops wouldn’t use a woman to trap you. It’s too suspicious.”

The silence tells Ruth that Carrie is intrigued. “What time are you thinking of?”

“As soon as you’re free. How about now?”

“It’s not even noon yet. I don’t start work until 6:00.”

Ruth doesn’t want to push too hard and scare her off. “Then I’d like to have you all night.”

She laughs. “Why don’t we start with two hours for a first date?”

“That will be fine.”

“You saw my prices?”

“Yes. Of course.”

“Take a picture of yourself holding your ID and text it to me first so I know you’re for real. If that checks out, you can go to the corner of Victory and Beech in Back Bay at 6:00 and call me again. Put the cash in a plain envelope.”

“I will.”

“See you, my dear.” She hangs up.

Ruth looks into the girl’s eyes. Now that she knows what to look for, she thinks she can see the barest hint of a glint in her left eye.

She hands her the cash and watches her count it. She’s very pretty, and so young. The ways she leans against the wall reminds her of Jess. The Regulator kicks in.

She’s in a lace nightie, black stockings and garters. High-heeled fluffy bedroom slippers that seem more funny than erotic.

Carrie puts the money aside and smiles at her. “Do you want to take the lead or have me do it? I’m fine either way.”

“I’d rather just talk for a bit first.”

Carrie frowns. “I told you I can’t talk about my clients.”

“I know. But I want to show you something.”

Carrie shrugs and leads her to the bedroom. It’s a lot like Mona’s room: king-sized bed, cream-colored sheets, a glass bowl of condoms, a clock discreetly on the nightstand. The mirror is mounted on the ceiling.

They sit down on the bed. Ruth takes out a file, and hands Carrie a stack of photographs.

“All of these girls have been killed in the last year. All of them have the same implants you do.”

Carrie looks up, shocked. Her eyes blink twice, rapidly.

“I know what you have behind your eye. I know you think it makes you safer. Maybe you even think someday the information in there can be a second source of income, when you’re too old to do this. But there’s a man who wants to cut that out of you. He’s been doing the same to the other girls.”

She shows her the pictures of dead Mona, with the bloody, mutilated face.

Carrie drops the pictures. “Get out. I’m calling the police.” She stands up and grabs her phone.

Ruth doesn’t move. “You can. Ask to speak to Captain Scott Brennan. He knows who I am, and he’ll confirm what I’ve told you. I think you’re the next target.”

She hesitates.

Ruth continues, “Or you can just look at these pictures. You know what to look for. They were all just like you.”

Carrie sits down and examines the pictures. “Oh God. Oh God.”

“I know you probably have a set of regulars. At your prices you don’t need and won’t get many new clients. But have you taken on anyone new lately?”

“Just you and one other. He’s coming at 8:00.”

Ruth’s Regulator kicks in.

“Do you know what he looks like?”

“No. But I asked him to call me when he gets to the street corner, just like you, so I can get a look at him first before having him come up.”

Ruth takes out her phone. “I need to call the police.”

“No! You’ll get me arrested. Please!”

Ruth thinks about this. She’s only guessing that this man might be the killer. If she involves the police now and he turns out to be just a customer, Carrie’s life will be ruined.

“Then I’ll need to see him myself, in case he’s the one.”

“Shouldn’t I just call it off?”

Ruth hears the fear in the girl’s voice, and it reminds her of Jess, too, when she used to ask her to stay in her bedroom after watching a scary movie. She can feel the Regulator kicking into action again. She cannot let her emotions get in the way. “That would probably be safer for you, but we’d lose the chance to catch him if he is the one. Please, I need you to go through with it so I can get a close look at him. This may be our best chance of stopping him from hurting others.”

Carrie bites her bottom lip. “All right. Where will you hide?”

Ruth wishes she had thought to bring her gun, but she hadn’t wanted to spook Carrie and she didn’t anticipate having to fight. She’ll need to be close enough to stop the man if he turns out to be the killer, and yet not so close as to make it easy for him to discover her.

“I can’t hide inside here at all. He’ll look around before going into the bedroom with you.” She walks into the living room, which faces the back of the building, away from the street, and lifts the window open. “I can hide out here, hanging from the ledge. If he turns out to be the killer, I have to wait till the last possible minute to come in to cut off his escape. If he’s not the killer, I’ll drop down and leave.”

Carrie is clearly uncomfortable with this plan, but she nods, trying to be brave.

“Act as normal as you can. Don’t make him think something is wrong.”

Carrie’s phone rings. She swallows and clicks the phone on. She walks over to the bedroom window. Ruth follows.

“This is Carrie.”

Ruth looks out the window. The man standing at the corner appears to be the right height, but that’s not enough to be sure. She has to catch him and interrogate him.

“I’m in the four-story building about a hundred feet behind you. Come up to apartment 303. I’m so glad you came, dear. We’ll have a great time, I promise.” She hangs up.

The man starts walking this way. Ruth thinks there’s a limp to his walk, but again, she can’t be sure.

“Is it him?” Carrie asks.

“I don’t know. We have to let him in and see.”

Ruth can feel the Regulator humming. She knows that the idea of using Carrie as bait frightens her, is repugnant even. But it’s the logical thing to do. She’ll never get a chance like this again. She has to trust that she can protect the girl.

“I’m going outside the window. You’re doing great. Just keep him talking and do what he wants. Get him relaxed and focused on you. I’ll come in before he can hurt you. I promise.”

Carrie smiles. “I’m good at acting.”

Ruth goes to the living room window and deftly climbs out. She lets her body down, hanging onto the window ledge with her fingers so that she’s invisible from inside the apartment. “Okay, close the window. Leave just a slit open so I can hear what happens inside.”

“How long can you hang like this?”

“Long enough.”

Carrie closes the window. Ruth is glad for the artificial tendons and tensors in her shoulders and arms and the reinforced fingers, holding her up. The idea had been to make her more effective in close combat, but they’re coming in handy now, too.

She counts off the seconds. The man should be at the building . . . he should now be coming up the stairs . . . he should now be at the door.

She hears the door to the apartment open.

“You’re even prettier than your pictures.” The voice is rich, deep, satisfied.

“Thank you.”

She hears more conversation, the exchange of money. Then the sound of more walking.

They’re heading towards the bedroom. She can hear the man stopping to look into the other rooms. She almost can feel his gaze pass over the top of her head, out the window.

Ruth pulls herself up slowly, quietly, and looks in. She sees the man disappear into the hallway. There’s a distinct limp.

She waits a few more seconds so that the man cannot rush back past her before she can reach the hallway to block it, and then she takes a deep breath and wills the Regulator to pump her blood full of adrenaline. The world seems to grow brighter and time slows down as she flexes her arms and pulls herself onto the window ledge.

She squats down and pulls the window up in one swift motion. She knows that the grinding noise will alert the man, and she has only a few seconds to get to him. She ducks, rolls through the open window onto the floor inside. Then she continues to roll until her feet are under her and activates the pistons in her legs to leap towards the hallway.

She lands and rolls again to not give him a clear target, and jumps again from her crouch into the bedroom.

The man shoots and the bullet strikes her left shoulder. She tackles him as her arms, held in front of her, slam into his midsection. He falls and the gun clatters away.

Now the pain from the bullet hits. She wills the Regulator to pump up the adrenaline and the endorphins to numb the pain. She pants and concentrates on the fight for her life.

He tries to flip her over with his superior mass, to pin her down, but she clamps her hands around his neck and squeezes hard. Men have always underestimated her at the beginning of a fight, and she has to take advantage of it. She knows that her grip feels like iron clamps around him, with all the implanted energy cells in her arms and hands activated and on full power. He winces, grabs her hands to try to pry them off. After a few seconds, realizing the futility of it, he ceases to struggle.

He’s trying to talk but can’t get any air into his lungs. Ruth lets up a little, and he chokes out, “You got me.”

Ruth increases the pressure again, choking off his supply of air. She turns to Carrie, who’s at the foot of the bed, frozen. “Call the police. Now.”

She complies. As she continues to hold the phone against her ear as the 911 dispatcher has instructed her to do, she tells Ruth, “They’re on their way.”

The man goes limp with his eyes closed. Ruth lets go of his neck. She doesn’t want to kill him, so she clamps her hands around his wrists while she sits on his legs, holding him still on the floor.

He revives and starts to moan. “You’re breaking my fucking arms!”

Ruth lets up the pressure a bit to conserve her power. The man’s nose is bleeding from the fall against the floor when she tackled him. He inhales loudly, swallows, and says, “I’m going to drown if you don’t let me sit up.”

Ruth considers this. She lets up the pressure further and pulls him into a sitting position.

She can feel the energy cells in her arms depleting. She won’t have the physical upper hand much longer if she has to keep on restraining him this way.

She calls out to Carrie. “Come over here and tie his hands together.”

Carrie puts down the phone done and comes over gingerly. “What do I use?”

“Don’t you have any rope? You know, for your clients?”

“I don’t do that kind of thing.”

Ruth thinks. “You can use stockings.”

As Carrie ties the man’s hands and feet together in front of him, he coughs. Some of the blood has gone down the wrong pipe. Ruth is unmoved and doesn’t ease up on the pressure, and he winces. “Goddamn it. You’re one psycho robo bitch.”

Ruth ignores him. The stockings are too stretchy and won’t hold him for long. But it should last long enough for her to get the gun and point it at him.

Carrie retreats to the other side of the room. Ruth lets the man go and backs away from him towards the gun on the floor a few yards away, keeping her eyes on him. If he makes any sudden movements, she’ll be back on him in a flash.

He stays limp and unmoving as she steps backwards. She begins to relax. The Regulator is trying to calm her down now, to filter the adrenalin out of her system.

When she’s about half way to the gun, the man suddenly reaches into his jacket with his hands, still tied together. Ruth hesitates for only a second before pushing out with her legs to jump backwards to the gun.

As she lands, the man locates something inside his jacket, and suddenly Ruth feels her legs and arms go limp and she falls to the ground, stunned.

Carrie is screaming. “My eye! Oh God I can’t see out of my left eye!”

Ruth can’t seem to feel her legs at all, and her arms feel like rubber. Worst of all, she’s panicking. It seems she’s never been this scared or in this much pain. She tries to feel the presence of the Regulator and there’s nothing, just emptiness. She can smell the sweet, sickly smell of burnt electronics in the air. The clock on the nightstand is dark.

She’s the one who had underestimated him. Despair floods through her and there’s nothing to hold it back.

Ruth can hear the man stagger up off the floor. She wills herself to turn over, to move, to reach for the gun. She crawls. One foot, another foot. She seems to be moving through molasses because she’s so weak. She can feel every one of her forty-nine years. She feels every sharp stab of pain in her shoulder.

She reaches the gun, grabs it, and sits up against the wall, pointing it back into the center of the room.

The man has gotten out of Carrie’s ineffective knots. He’s now holding Carrie, blind in one eye, shielding his body with hers. He holds a scalpel against her throat. He’s already broken the skin and a thin stream of blood flows down her neck.

He backs towards the bedroom door, dragging Carrie with him. Ruth knows that if he gets to the bedroom door and disappears around the corner, she’ll never be able to catch him. Her legs are simply useless.

Carrie sees Ruth’s gun and screams. “I don’t want to die! Oh God. Oh God.”

“I’ll let her go once I’m safe,” he says, keeping his head hidden behind hers.

Ruth’s hands are shaking as she holds the gun. Through the waves of nausea and the pounding of her pulse in her ears, she struggles to think through what will happen next. The police are on their way and will probably be here in five minutes. Isn’t it likely that he’ll let her go as soon as possible to give himself some extra time to escape?

The man backs up another two steps; Carrie is no longer kicking or struggling, but trying to find purchase on the smooth floor in her stockinged feet, trying to cooperate with him. But she can’t stop crying.

Mom, don’t shoot! Please don’t shoot!

Or is it more likely that once the man has left the room, he will slit Carrie’s throat and cut out her implant? He knows there’s a recording of him inside, and he can’t afford to leave that behind.

Ruth’s hands are shaking too much. She wants to curse at herself. She cannot get a clear shot at the man with Carrie in front of him. She cannot.

Ruth wants to evaluate the chances rationally, to make a decision, but regret and grief and rage, hidden and held down by the Regulator until they could be endured, rise now all the sharper, kept fresh by the effort at forgetting. The universe has shrunken down to the wavering spot at the end of the barrel of the gun: a young woman, a killer, and time slipping irrevocably away.

She has nothing to turn to, to trust, to lean on, but herself, her angry, frightened, trembling self. She is naked and alone, as she has always known she is, as we all are.

The man is almost at the door. Carrie’s cries are now incoherent sobs.

It has always been the regular state of things. There is no clarity, no relief. At the end of all rationality there is simply the need to decide and the faith to live through, to endure.

Ruth’s first shot slams into Carrie’s thigh. The bullet plunges through skin, muscle, and fat, and exits out the back, shattering the man’s knee.

The man screams and drops the scalpel. Carrie falls, a spray of blood blossoming from her wounded leg.

Ruth’s second shot catches the man in the chest. He collapses to the floor.

Mom, mom!

She drops the gun and crawls over to Carrie, cradling her and tending to her wound. She’s crying, but she’ll be fine.

A deep pain floods through her like forgiveness, like hard rain after a long drought. She does not know if she will be granted relief, but she experiences this moment fully, and she’s thankful.

“It’s okay,” she says, stroking Carrie as she lies in her lap. “It’s okay.”


[Author’s Note: the EchoSense technology described in this story is a loose and liberal extrapolation of the principles behind the technology described in Qifan Pu et. al., “Whole-Home Gesture Recognition Using Wireless Signals,” The 19th Annual International Conference on Mobile Computing and Networking (Mobicom’13) (available at http://wisee.cs.washington.edu/wisee_paper.pdf). There is no intent to suggest that the technology described in the paper resembles the fictional one portrayed here.]





Originally published in

Upgraded,

edited by Neil Clarke

Wyrm Publishing (2014)





A Few Words with Ken Liu





What was the inspiration for this story?

I wrote this story for Neil Clarke’s Upgraded anthology, which was themed around the concept of cyborgs.

I wrote this story because I had an interest in detective / noir fiction and I wanted to approach the concept of cyborgs as an aspect of our own evolution—that is, I didn’t want to treat cyborgs as “the Other” but as a natural extension of our own embrace of technology.

In many ways, we are already living as cyborgs. In Neil Clarke’s call for stories, he related his own experience of having a mechanical component implanted as a lifesaving measure, but all of us now use our smartphones and cloud computing as extensions of our minds. We outsource parts of our memory, our attention, and our trust to machines, which mediate and curate our experiences, augment them, remember them for us, and tell us what they mean. This has happened without many of us being consciously aware of the change, and maybe some readers will dispute my characterization of our lives as cyborgs. However, I honestly can’t recall anyone’s number or even remember where I was on a certain day now without consulting my phone. When a machine is such an indispensable part of my brain that it feels like a part of myself, I think we’re cyborgs.

“The Regular” is, in some ways, an attempt to describe this state of our gradual cyborgization as “regular”—it’s the day after tomorrow.


What are some of your favorite short stories?

I have a lot of fondness for classics in the genre. “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes and “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss, for example, remain for me touchstones of the form.

I’m also a big fan of contemporary works that emphasize the “literariness” of the short story as a form and avoid the trap of trying to imitate film. Helena Bell’s “Robot” and Natalia Theodoridou’s “The Eleven Holy Numbers of the Mechanical Soul” are good examples of this type of story.


If you can only live to see one science fictional innovation, what would it be? Why?

This one is easy: I want to see us conquer death. Life is such a precious gift that the only regret is that it has to end.


What are you working on? / Do you have anything coming out in the months ahead?

My debut novel, The Grace of Kings, is coming out from Saga Press in April of 2015.



It’s a “silkpunk” epic fantasy based on a loose re-imagining of the historical legends surrounding the rise of the Han Dynasty in a new fantasy archipelago setting. The book is very different from my pas