The wind blew the disused depot's sign back and forth on creaky hinges. It whistled through the broken windows and across the splintered stairs. It was blocked by three railroad cars, hitched to a great black engine that sat silent on rusty tracks. The sleeper and dining cars had their shades up but no one moved within.
Inside the third car, a Pullman Palace, there was a heavy oaken desk in a dark paneled room that had a phone atop it. The phone rang and rang and rang.
No one answered it.
"Where is he?"
Frank hung up one of the few remaining public pay phones in the city and stared at the handle, then at the faded AT&T logo. He rapped the top of the black box the handset was cradled on with his knuckles, then opened the door to the booth and walked out into the clear sunshine of the city. He took a deep breath and walked.
The bodega where he'd met Hansen the day before was open and he went in to get coffee. "'Morning," he said to the cashier, a pimply-faced boy slight of build and uninterested in doing anything but taking Frank's money.
Back on the street, Frank opened his cell phone and frowned. No new messages. He sighed and walked up the street, sipping at his coffee.
The park was alive with people. Mothers and fathers pushing children on swings; catching them at the bottom of slides; throwing frisbees and baseballs back and forth; laughing, shouting and oblivious to the murders of others. Frank watched, one hand in his jacket pocket, the other holding the swift-cooling java in a too-thin paper cup.
A group of eight college-aged people played an impromptu game of soccer, catching Frank's attention. He was admiring a tough pass that just got past the man Frank thought was the best player of the group when his phone rang. Depositing the nearly empty coffee cup in a handy trash can that said, "T'ank you" Frank opened the phone as it rang for a third time.
"Yeah," he said and listened. Coming at a trot out of the park, he hailed a cab. "You're sure?" He opened the back door of the cab and got in. "Fourth and Kingdom," he told the cabbie who punched at the screen mounted on the dash, then pulled out into traffic. "I'm on my way." He closed his phone.
"You okay, buddy?" The cabby was looking at Frank in the rear view mirror.
"Yeah," Frank said. "Police business, is all."
"Ah," the cabby said, getting the hint and stepping a little heavier on the accelerator. Frank watched the city zip by outside the window and he thrummed his fingers on his thigh.
He looked up and out the windshield and noticed the screen next to the cabby. He leaned forward:
FRANCIS FRANCIS FRANCIS FRANCIS FRANCIS
Over and over and over. "What's up with your screen?" he said.
"What?" The cabby glanced over then looked up at Frank in the mirror. "Nothing as far as I can see."
Frank, surprised, met the cabby's eyes in the mirror. "You're kidding, right?"
The driver put his right hand on the screen and turned it full to face Frank. "Look, nothin' but your destination. Fourth and Kingdom, right?"
Frank looked and saw the cabby was right. "Yeah, okay," he said and sat all the way back in his seat. "Sorry. Overwork, I guess."
"Sure. We're almost there anyway."
The rest of the ride was quiet and Frank opened his phone, scrolling through all his contacts then back up. He tipped the cabby well and got out. The sign was nondescript on a nondescript but well-kept brownstone, discreet: Bell County. Seven steps led up to the double doors and maybe some answers.
Inside, the CFL tubes flickered and his shoes clacked on the green floor, echoing past the unattended front desk. He shrugged and walked down the familiar hall toward the medical examiner's office. The heavy doors screeched in protest as they admitted him to the cold room where Hansen and Bethany Simms waited for him at .
"'Bout time you got here," Hansen said. "You okay?"
Frank gave her a short nod and a look of impatience. "What's up?"
"The fibers are the same across all four victims," Bethany said. "Different colors, but the same fiber. Silk."
"But not just any kind of silk," Hansen said. "Smart silk. Steel silk."
Bethany smiled. She rose from her desk and went to a table with a microscope, an ancient desktop computer and lots of papers at the back of the room. She picked up four evidence bags all with a single, nearly invisible string in each. Coming back to the desk, she said, "Yeah, steel silk. Improbably strong and with memory capabilities."
Frank frowned and looked at Hansen, who gave him a look that said Wait for it. He raised his eyebrows and relaxed.
"It's got a stainless steel core," Bethany said and handed the bags to Frank. "I don't have the equipment here to really get down in it, see what else might be in there," she said and waved impatiently at the table at the back. She looked at Hansen then and asked a question with her eyes.
"Go ahead, Simms," Hansen said. "Tell him what you think."
The medical examiner took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I think the stainless steel may have nanites in it," she said.
"What makes you think that?"
"I’ve heard stories here and there,” Simms said and sat down again behind her desk. "There's a rumor out there about silkworms that can spin steel."
Frank made no effort to disguise his look of disbelief. "You can't believe that," he said.
"Well, it's not likely, I'll say that." She pulled open the bottom drawer of her desk, took out two glasses and a bottle of vodka. She poured the liquid into the two glasses and offered them to Frank and Hansen who took them. "It's possible, though." She tipped the bottle to her mouth and took a deep draught.
"How is it possible?"
"Silk is naturally strong, but it's not easy or quick to produce as it kills the critter that spins it," she said replacing the cap on the bottle. Hansen sniffed at her glass and slammed the liquor. "Nice," Bethany said.
"So?" Frank swirled the vodka in his glass.
"So Mongol warriors used to wear silk underneath their armor to minimize wounds from spinning arrows. There's a story that goes back nearly a thousand years about one of Marco Polo's daughters traveling to China in a dream to learn the spell that would turn silk into steel.
"As it goes," Bethany said taking Hansen's glass, "the silkworms were mutated by the spell and the magic was so powerful that with the right charm one could control the individual fibers. The silk underclothes could be magically bunched up as a second layer of armor if the threads were able to move individually."
Frank slugged his drink and handed the glass back to Bethany. He ran his hand over his mouth. "Interesting," he said with only a hint of impatience.
"We think that if someone's added nanites to the stainless core of this silk," Hansen said holding up one of the bags, "they could be controlled remotely. Used to strangle the victims without anyone else being in the room."
"Ah," Frank said. "That's farfetched."
"Not any more so than magic silkworms," Bethany said. "And the tech exists."
"Can you confirm the nanites?" Frank held up one of the bags.
"It'll take a while," Bethany said and held out her hands. “My resources are a bit limited."
Frank looked at Hansen. "Recession," she said. She shrugged.
"Okay," Frank said. "Do what you can and let me know." He handed the evidence bag back to her and smiled. "Who could manufacture the threads?"
"Zhefeng Corp could definitely do it," Bethany said. "A handful of others. EuroSFIT, TexTech. I'll get you a list."
"Thanks," Frank said and turned to leave, then stopped. "Hansen, will you wait here for the list? I'll call you in an hour or so. Something I've got to do."
Hansen peered at him under the flickering fluorescence, and nodded. "Sure," she said and watched him leave.
Outside, Frank sighed, breathed in deeply. "Daylight," he said and let out a long breath. He turned left and walked ten blocks until he found a public phone booth. He lifted the receiver, punched in a series of thirteen numbers and waited. The phone on the other end rang and rang and rang.
After a long time, longer than he'd ever waited before, Frank hung up and stepped out of the booth. He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth.
"He's not there."
Frank whipped around to his right and saw a good-looking lady in a grey suit, her hands held out from her shoulders.
"I'm not here to hurt you, Frank," the woman said not moving. "If you don't mind taking your hand off your gun, I can explain everything." She smiled and he saw that she was not just good-looking, but striking. Her features were sharp, her eyes blue and shining, her figure was perfect. He withdrew his right hand from the strange sensation of a gun in its shoulder rig and showed her his palm.
"Good," she said.
"What did you mean by 'he's not there'?"
"Strangiato is dead, Frank."
Thanks for reading Soul Stripper.
Come back next week Click here for part three and tell your friends, won't you?
©2010 By Jason Arnett.
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Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
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