Welcome to the CORE:
Commonwealth Objective for Reform and Efficiency
Detective Reese Parker is a survivor. Having left behind a violent past in Welfare Colony 6, she is now a sketch artist and detective with the New York Enforcer Division. Her entire focus is maintaining peace and order among the CORE’s remaining two million residents, to make certain their society never faces another economic and nuclear Breakdown.
She must also keep her secret. Because she never wants to be sent back to Colony 6.
With constant Teev surveillance and rigid control in the CORE’s most heavily populated state, Reese’s job mostly consists of tracing small-time juke pushers or sending rebellious students to reconditioning. She doesn’t have to face demented fringers that encroach upon the Core like her counterparts in Dallastar or patrol the northern borders where radiation-crazed animals attack unwary travelers. She’s content with being the most accurate sketch artist in the CORE.
But when one of her sketches puts her up against a human monster bigger than anything else that might threaten the CORE, it’s a fight she might not survive.
Note about this unedited excerpt
This unedited excerpt from my upcoming novella is part of my Colony Six futuristic dystopian sci-fi series. After finishing the first two books, I decided I really wanted to write about the catalyst that took Reese, one of my important characters, back to Dallastar near where she grew up and where the series really begins. This is the case that almost got her killed and eventually leads to a reunion with her childhood crew from Colony 6, otherwise known as the Coop (after the chickens they raised there for extra food).
You can read this story either before or after the first two books—it doesn’t have spoilers. If you are new to my series, keep in mind that this short piece won’t contain the intricacies of the much longer novels, but I hope it’ll give you a taste of my post-apocalyptic world. I’ve included terms at the end of the book to help catch you up, so maybe take a peek at those. Enjoy!
Location: Welfare Colony 6, Dallastar
Year: 2258, 60 years after Breakdown
The boys came running, laughing as they sped through the hallway. Ten-year-old Reese Parker couldn’t see them yet from her spot near the back door of their school wing where she sat with her jean-covered legs stretched out in the sunlight that filtered through the glass, but she could hear their pounding footsteps as they came to meet her for lunch.
Here in this isolated place, they would never attract the attention of a more powerful crew, because doing so was only asking for trouble, even if most of the older kids were in a different wing and had other lunch periods. In a year or two, they might be strong enough to hold their own anywhere. Especially with Dani around. For now, they were holding their own in level ten.
Reese heard one of the boys trip—probably Jaxon, though it was Eagle who was practically blind. Eagle Eyes Jenson could remember each turn and navigated the hallways and classrooms at their school better than any of their crew. She set aside her precious sketchbook and looked up expectantly.
More laughter and an urgent shout. “Get up! Before he finds us!” Eagle’s voice, not Jaxon’s.
Sure enough, Eagle who turned the corner first, slid in beside her. His thin, freckled face held a wide smile, and his brown eyes under the heavy glasses were huge, magnified impossibly by the thick lenses. His brown hair was damp from exertion and hung limply in his eyes.
“What happened?” Reese asked, tossing him one of the readymeals she’d already snagged from the dispenser using his code. There were rumors about implanted codes which would force each child to collect their own meal, but adults talked about a lot of things that never happened. Reese figured by the time they got around to implanting ID’s, she and her crew would be leveled out of school and away from the nightmare of living at the Coop.
Eagle caught the thin box with his scrawny arms and ripped off the plastic-coated carton top, grinning at the small bag of pretzels nestled in one of the small compartments. Reese was glad to see him so happy with his favorite snack. She had planned to give him hers if he didn’t get any because though the meals ran in cycles, you never really had a choice about what popped out.
He poked his finger in the thick sauce that covered chunks of what passed as meat but was really protein cubes of some sort. No one really knew. “Nice. Still hot.”
Reese sighed impatiently. “You still haven’t told me what happened. Why are you late?” The boys were always late after their physical education class, which was why she picked up their meals for them, but today they were even later than normal.
“Oh, you should have been there,” Eagle said. “It was so fu—”
Whatever else Eagle tried to say was lost as Jaxon Crowley plowed around the corner and collapsed beside Reese. Parts of his dark hair was wet with perspiration like Eagle’s, and his blue eyes were dancing with the same amusement, but his face had an added gray tinge to it. A red mark stood out on his neck, as if he’d been burned.
“Did that pus licker do it again?” Reese demanded, studying Jaxon’s neck. He was her best friend, and she couldn’t help the anger boiling up inside.
“Yeah.” He swiped the back of his hand across his eyes, making his thick eyelashes stick together with moisture. “But this time we deserved it.”
“Yep.” Eagle nodded vigorously. “He caught us cutting out the soles of his shoes.”
As Eagle spoke, a flash of an image came to Reese’s mind. She saw the substitute teacher’s florid face and shaved head, his heavy body rigid and his fists clenched at his side. Wrinkles gathered under his eyes, and an ever deeper one ran down the bridge of his nose. A circle of dark, gray-fleck hair around his mouth, a mouth pursed as it screamed something that started with “You.” His finger jabbed out accusingly. His big ears were quickly turning red, along with his nose and the top of his head. That was a man ready to blow, and blow big.
Instinctively, Reese reached for her drawing pad, her fingers itching to get the image on paper. Instead, she brushed up against the two remaining readymeals. Taking a breath, she passed one to Jaxon, looking carefully to make sure he wasn’t shaking. Stunners hurt bad, and though it was supposed to be illegal for anyone but enforcers to have them, there were more than a few at the school for secret use on recalcitrant students. But Jaxon’s hand was steady, so whatever blast the teacher had managed to give him, it hadn’t been powerful.
“He’s going to kill you tomorrow.” She hadn’t seen the teacher except in her mind, but his angry face scared her. Tomorrow maybe the stunner wouldn’t be on the lowest setting.
“Nope.” Jaxon shook his head as he unhooked the plastic fork embedded in the side of the meal and dug in. “He was only here two days, and maybe wherever he goes next, he’ll think twice about using a stunner to make boys run faster.”
“Right!” Eagle licked off a bit of sauce that had fallen on his hand. “As if any of us are going to ever use what we learn in a physical education class.”
“Well, running is important,” Reese reminded him.
Jaxon reached over to tug on one of her dark locks. “Yeah, but he can’t teach us what we already know. We’ve been running from older crews since before we left nursery school.”
“I guess.” Reese scooped up her own readymeal. She wanted her drawing pad instead—her fingers tingled to draw the image in her mind. But she didn’t like being compelled like this, as if something outside her had control, forcing her to record the images that popped randomly into her mind. Images that were always one-hundred percent accurate. Jaxon knew about it, of course. She told him everything. He’d been born in the small house next to hers, six by seven meters like all the other houses in their district, and they’d been inseparable in nursery school, even before they’d formed the crew with Eagle and the others. A crew that kept them safe. But though he knew her secrets, she tried not to remind him of the weakness. Of the way she had to draw. Jaxon was the only halfway normal kid in their small crew of misfits, and he would be accepted into any other, but he’d chosen them. Because of her.
Pushing away the urge to draw, she leaned back against the wood door behind her that opened to stairs leading down into the bowels of the school. Eagle had once hacked into the handprint lock, of course, and that was how they’d learned what the door hid—water pipes, electrical wiring, and furnaces. Furnaces that school officials rarely thought they needed in Welfare Colony 6, even though Reese remembered too many days when the inside of the school was colder than outside, and everyone wore extra sweaters and all the pants they owned and some of their parents’ as well, if they were lucky enough to have them—either parents and pants.
She moved her legs to catch more of the sunlight, refusing to think about that now. This was April and winter was too far away to worry about.
“So where are the girls?” Jaxon asked.
Reese shook her head. “Don’t know.” It worried her too that they were late, though it could have been the long lines at the readymeal dispensers. She hadn’t seen them there as she normally did. She’d thought they’d already gone through, but they hadn’t been waiting here for her.
“They’ll be here soon,” Eagle assured them.
Sure enough, they were still eating their meals when Dani Balak and the twins, Lyssa and Lyra Sloan showed up. More freaks. The twins because they were twins and Dani because of her short spiky white hair and her very black skin. They carried readymeals but were running, Dani a good head taller than the petite twins.
“It’s the Jammers!” Lyssa huffed.
Reese set aside her meal and jumped to her feet, her heart hammering inside her chest. The two Jammer brothers, Witt, an older boy, and Keag, who was their age, lived near them and were the meanest boys they knew. Their crew was mostly made up of the biggest kids in level twelve, some as big as Reese’s father and as angry as him after he’d downed a skin of sauce. Witt was their leader, and the boys followed him around like dogs, swaggering and tormenting anyone who happened in their way.
“Saca!” Jaxon swore, fear making his voice tight. “What happened?”
“It’s just Keag and some of their crew,” Danni said, pushing her readymeal at Lyra and turning to face the bend where Reese could hear someone coming down the hallway. “Witt ain’t with ’em. I can take care of it.” She raised her fists in a ready position, an expression of gleeful anticipation on her square, rugged face. Her black skin glistened under the harsh hallway light. She looked fierce and more than a little unbalanced.
No doubt Dani could take Keag and a couple others at the same time, but Reese needed to be ready. She slipped her left hand into the pocket of her jeans and grasp the metal fork she’d stolen from the hospital last year when someone at the school had discovered her taking an important test with her non-dominant arm and realized her left was broken. Since the break thirteen months ago, she’d worked on using both hands, just in case. Both for school work and for fighting. Nothing was going to prevent her from leveling out of school and getting released from Colony 6. She wouldn’t die working in the factories like her mother. She wanted to be out in the real world with the rest of the citizens in the CORE, instead of locked in with the poor trash that depended on charity to survive.
Next to Reese, Jaxon was also taking something from his pocket. She knew what it was without looking—a spoon he’d shaped to go over his knuckles. He hit almost as well as Dani. Even the twins and Eagle knew how to throw a punch. Well, with Eagle it was only if he managed to see where to land the punch, but he had a pretty good right hook, and his skinny arm was long and tough.
“But then they’ll know who we are!” Lyssa protested, her long ebony hair tied in braids on either side of her face. “If we hurt one of ’em. Witt will come after us.”
“Then we fight!” Dani motioned for Lyssa to give her space.
“Why are they after you?” Reese switched her fork to her right hand, wiped her left on her pant leg and then switched the fork again to the left.
Lyra’s slightly slanted dark eyes looked huge in her delicate face, a mirror image of her sister’s. “They wanted my pretzels.”
“You should have let them take the bag!” Lyssa growled at her.
“But . . .” Lyra’s eyes went to Eagle, who was standing near the wooden door leading down into the basement. “I was saving them in case Eagle didn’t get any.”
Reese felt a little tug in her chest, but it didn’t surprise her that Lyra would refuse a dominant crew something meant for Eagle. Their crew was as close as family. Or closer in her case.
“I just started running,” Lyra explained. “I thought I’d lost them for a while, but they followed me here. They aren’t very fast, so I caught up with Dani and Lyssa and told them to run.”
“You did right to refuse them,” Dani said through gritted teeth. “We can’t let them take anything that’s ours. That will make them target us more. We can fight them.”
“Or we could disappear,” Eagle said.
Glancing over her shoulder, Reese saw that Eagle had the combination pad to the door dismantled and the door to the basement was opened. Eagle shrugged as he clicked the panel over the wires. “It’s easy once you do it the first time. I remembered how.”
Of course he did. Just as he knew how many steps were in each hallway and classroom. It was his version of using both hands. His mind, or maybe his memory, was his ticket to leveling out of school, despite the poor vision that might ordinarily cause him to fail.
“Yes, let’s go!” Lyssa urged, focusing her attention primarily on Dani. “If we fight, they’ll remember us. But if we hide, maybe they won’t. We weren’t with Lyra when it happened. They might not know she’s a twin. And if they see you now, they’ll never forget you. You’re the only one with that color skin and hair. They won’t rest until they kill us all.”
“We can take them,” Dani insisted.
“Yeah, but Witt and the others too?” Eagle asked. “And for how long? What if they catch some of us alone?”
The six kids stared at each other for a moment, all the while listening to the approaching footsteps that had slowed as the opposing crew obviously checked classrooms and other hallways. Not for the first time, Reese wondered if their choices would be different if they weren’t all freaks.
“Eagle and Lyssa are right,” Reese said so everyone knew where she stood. She wasn’t afraid to fight when she had to, but fighting when there was a safer option, especially for the twins and Eagle, was pure stupidity.
Jaxon met Dani’s eyes. He was officially their leader and normally influenced their final decisions, but Dani was a wild card. If she wanted to fight, they’d fight. Not one of them would leave her.
Dani heaved a sigh. “Fine. But only because the twins have too many classes without me. I swear on the head of my grandmother, one of these days, I’m going to teach those pus-licking, warthog-faced, punk buckets all a lesson.”
Reese shuddered at the threat. She didn’t envy the Jammers. In the past two years, Dani had gone from a regular girl to a fighting machine. She moved faster than seemed possible, and her punches had already laid out more than a few older kids. In a year or two, no other crew would be able to mess with them, not even those in the eighteenth level.
Dani stood guard while they gathered up their readymeals and darted inside. A dim glow shone in the stairwell far below, and Reese was glad for the light. The door locked behind them with an automated click. Eagle sat on the first stair and the others followed. Only Dani remained standing by the closed door, ready for anything.
They didn’t have long to wait. Loud, taunting voices filled the hallway, and someone banged on the door to the basement when they realized it was locked.
“That just goes to the basement,” came a voice. “No one can get down there but the janitor.”
“They must have gone outside,” said someone else. “Come on. We’ll get them out there.” Shuffled steps moved away.
“They’ll be opening the door right . . . about . . . now,” Eagle whispered. Sure enough, they heard a loud thwack! as someone roughly pushed open the outside door.
“They’ll have to be in class soon,” Lyssa said. “They can’t lurk around in our hallways much longer.” Lyra nodded in agreement.
“We’ve got time to finish eating,” Jaxon lifted the carton top covering his meal.
Now that they were no longer in immediate danger, Reese’s hands itched to draw again. She had to draw the face of the substitute teacher. Her stomach ached with the need.
“You going to eat those?” Eagle pointed at her pretzels.
“No. Go ahead.” She tossed them at him. Lyra tossed hers at him too, followed by Lyssa and Jaxon.
Dani aimed her bag at Eagle’s head, laughing and shaking her head, the white strands of her hair poking out crazily. “You deserve them,” she said, hitting him on the forehead.
Ten minutes later they were heading to math class, the one class they all had together. By then Reese was sweating and shaking. She had to draw the image of the teacher she’d seen in her mind, but it wasn’t as though she could mask what she was doing. They used Teevs embedded in their desks, and all schoolwork was submitted electronically. The only exception was art class. But in math class, the teacher would notice her scribbling, maybe even take away her precious pad and drawing pencils, the only things of value she owned, a gift from her father’s aunt on the outside. She’d filled the other pads already, and this one still had so many fresh white pages.
Jaxon nudged up against her as they entered the room. “Whatever you need to draw, do it,” he whispered. “Sit behind me. I’ll get Old Geyser talking. He won’t even notice you sketching.”
Reese nodded, unable to speak. If she didn’t get it out, she’d be shaking the rest of the day, and that wasn’t good. She couldn’t afford to fail.
She slid in behind Jaxon and pulled her book out of her ragged sack. In minutes, the sketch of the substitute teacher appeared under her hand, as if of its own volition. She was aware of each line, each curve, each bit of shading, as if it were a part of her—and yet somehow coming from outside. She didn’t need her eraser once. She wished she could use some of the colored pencils she’d permanently “borrowed” from her art class, but those were at home, tucked under her CORE-issued mattress. She shaded the redness of the man’s face with her pencil instead.
Relief filled her as the urge to sketch drained away. Not her best drawing ever, but close. Someone tapped her on the shoulder, and she turned to see a scrawny boy she didn’t know well sitting next to her, his head craned to see her drawing. “You got his face exactly right,” he whispered. “So glad that pus bag was only here for two days.”
Nodding in agreement, she gave the boy a smile and shut her notebook, tucking it under her. At the front of the classroom, the math teacher paced back and forth, waving his hands animatedly in the air to emphasize his story about the usefulness of math in every profession. Jaxon glanced back at her and winked. He wouldn’t ask about the picture later, and she wouldn’t remind him. This was why he was her best friend.
He would always be. Nothing could separate them. Not even leaving the Coop.
Except in the end, it didn’t work out that way. Not even a little.
Location: Amarillo City, Estlantic
Year: 2278, 80 years after Breakdown
Detective Reese Parker began recording the sketch, her hand moving quickly over her drawing pad. She ignored the prisoner, Arlie Cruz, seated across the table with his cuffed arms folded to his bony chest in a way that clearly said he wasn’t going to tell her anything.
But he already had. More than he could ever guess.
A man’s image formed under her fingers. The blunt curve of his jowly face, the lumpy nose, the swollen, pouty lips. The hair that was short in front and touched the material of his collarless suit in the back. His ears were large for even his decidedly large proportions. He wasn’t a handsome man by any stretch of the imagination, though he might have been in his younger years, but he exuded power and confidence. The smoothness around his brown eyes testified of Newskin therapy, and he’d probably had it more than once. Yet weight and age had caught up to him in the end, showing in the puffy, saggy cheeks and the uneven nose. His chest was also heavy compared with the comparatively slender legs, in that way that men sometimes got as they aged and ate in too many restaurants instead of sticking to the filling and nutritionally balanced readymeals.
What she didn’t know yet was how the man in her drawing related to the man seated in front of her and the juke they’d found in the destroyed building.
“What are you doing?” demanded the prisoner, craning his thin neck to see her drawing, but Reese kept the pad angled so he couldn’t see it.
She was also careful to keep it out of direct line of the room’s camera. Anyone watching her interrogation would assume she was simply preparing her canvas with a blank character similar to those in Teev-generated identification programs. Because that was what she’d told them in the past. After all, she couldn’t possibly sketch a suspect that hadn’t yet been verbally described. Her coworkers already thought her strange to work with paper and pencil, which was far more costly than using a Teev and its elaborate software, but the ninety-nine percent identification rate from her drawings had given her leeway with Captain Homer. He complained about the cost of paper, though, and these days she bought as much herself as she ordered from the division. Too many of the sketches she received from those around her had nothing to do with enforcer business. She grown accustomed to carrying a personal notepad along with her official one.
She let her prisoner stew for a moment, her pencil shading in the man’s suit. It was black with silver threads woven throughout, but she couldn’t tell from the drawing if it was a name brand outfit or one of the cheap knockoffs. Probably it was real. He had a thick gold chain around his wrist and a heavy gold ring.
“I’m waiting for you to tell me what you were doing in that building, Mr. Cruz,” she said finally. “I know you’re selling juke.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Cruz retorted, one corner of his narrow lips lifting in a mocking sneer. With his small eyes, pinched mouth, and pointed nose, he was completely unlike the man in her drawing. More like a ferret she’d seen on a pre-Breakdown animal show.
“Why don’t I believe that?” Reese said mildly.
“Look, I was just poking around and that building seemed interesting,” he continued. “That’s all. It ain’t a crime to investigate an empty zone, is it? Does that kid even claim to know me? If he does, where’s his proof?”
“We found the juke,” Reese reminded him, looking up at Cruz but not stopping her sketch.
“Are my prints on it? My DNA?” Cruz snorted, his mean little eyes triumphant. “You don’t have anything on me. I’m an honest, hard-working man with a wife and kid.”
The problem was, he was right. Not the honest part, but the part that she didn’t have anything solid on him. For weeks, she and her partner had been following a student from the Teeve certificate institute, a twenty-year-old kid known for selling smeg laced with juke. On its own the mildly addictive smeg, a drug that simulated a sexual rush, wasn’t illegal, but mixed with the harder juke, it had a devastating effect on CORE youth. Today the student had led them to a dilapidated building in an empty zone, and Reese had been sure they’d finally followed the tiny fish to a medium-sized fish and somehow, by CORE, she was going to find the daddy fish.
The problem was, there was no direct Teev feed in most of the empty zones, and Reese and her partner had to go in blind. The result was that while juke was present at the house, they had nothing substantial to connect it to Cruz. Even the student denied knowing him, saying he wasn’t his usual contact, and nothing on the drugs themselves showed any link to Cruz. Reese’s captain had already sent the boy to reconditioning. It was his first offense, so a little education might turn him around. If not, his next stop would be banishment to a colony or permanent medical enhancement. Usually the colony threat was enough to turn around anyone who wasn’t addicted to juke.
“So when are you going to let me go?” Cruz demanded. “You can’t hold me.”
He was right about that too, but Reese wasn’t willing to admit defeat. At least not yet. When she’d asked Cruz where he’d gotten the drugs, his mind had clearly sent her the flash of the man in her drawing. A flash she called a sketch. Without knowing it, Cruz had identified whoever was over him, but since their conversation was being recorded by the cameras in the room, she had to get him to verbalize a description before she could act on the drawing.
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s go through it again. What were you doing there?” It wasn’t the first time for the question, but she wanted to see if he gave the same answer. “It’s in the middle of the day. On a Tuesday. Shouldn’t you be at work?”
Cruz worked for Kordell Corp, or KC as it was often referred to. The company was the largest non-CORE-owned business in Estlantic, and they created and packaged readymeals. Their largest single client was the CORE itself, and the company supplied most of the charity units donated to the welfare colonies. With three hundred thousand of the CORE’s two million citizens confined to the colonies because of their inability to support themselves, that was significant. The colony contract alone meant Kordell Corp received a lion’s share of the fifty percent taxes levied on both the population and businesses alike. But while the KC was impressive, Cruz was just a low-level manager, and Reese was nowhere close to determining if he was acting on her own or if the company was also involved. The more she thought about it, the more readymeal packaging seemed a perfect front for a drug operation.
“I told you.” Cruz’s tone was aggrieved. “My girl, she’s into pre-Breakdown history, and her birthday’s next week. I went to the empty zone to see if I could find something. I thought I’d better do it before they make them off limits altogether. Rumors say that’s next.”
The way he said it was angry and indignant, and Reese recognized the not-so-subtle hint that his loyalty to the CORE might not be complete. If the Elite made the empty zones off limits, it might reduce the amount of pre-Breakdown tech turned in, but it would make her job easier, not to mention protect the people from any of the radiation-crazed monsters from the more distant desolation zones.
“Why go so far northwest?” she asked. “That’s getting close to the North Desolation Zone. You know those can be dangerous.”
“Right, but everything closer’s been picked clean,” he growled. “Everyone knows if you want to discover something valuable, you have to do a little footwork.”
“Why that particular building?”
He shrugged. “It looked more intact than the others. And big. I thought it might have a basement. Office buildings sometimes have interesting equipment.”
“You know all technology must be turned into our office.”
“Yeah, yeah. I didn’t mean that. I meant furniture or a picture.” He leaned forward suddenly. “Or maybe some of those pencils and notebooks like you got there.”
It was much the same story he’d given her before, with only nonconsequential variations. Nothing she could lever to make him rat on whoever pulled his chain. She knew he was guilty, and that he knew far more than he was saying, but unless she requested truth drugs he might not tell her anything. And those cases were always transferred the Headquarters Enforcer Division, or HED, to be overseen by the Controller himself.
“Okay,” she said, leaning back and taking the drawing pad with her, still careful to protect it until Cruz gave her the pertinent information. “Maybe you aren’t involved, but you’ve got eyes. If you’re not responsible for the drugs, someone else was in that building. Did you see anyone?”
“Just that kid.”
“Right. But what about before you reached the building? Surveillance at the edge of that particular empty zone didn’t show anyone else entering where you did.” This was a lie, but how would he know that. There had been exactly six other people entering, and her partner was currently tracking them all, but at first glance none of them seemed likely. “You were there searching, obviously, for your daughter’s birthday gift. You might have seen someone else. The drugs had to get there somehow, so if you saw even a glimpse of someone else, that might go a long way to corroborating your story. And helping me identify him would protect children like your daughter.” Would he jump at the bait?
“Well there was someone,” he said.
She nodded. “Good. Okay, that’s a start.” Now she had to make him describe the person in her sketch. And that meant leading questions, not waiting for him to come up with his own lie.
“So did he have long hair or short in the front? I hope short, so you can tell me the color of his eyes.”
“Yeah, short. Above the eyes.” Cruz relaxed in his chair, letting his hands drop to his lap.
“So longer in the back, if the front was short? Brown hair and eyes, like ninety percent of the population?”
“Right,” he said. A slight smirk hovered around his mouth for a second. He thought he was being smart, and Reese didn’t mind letting him think he was playing her. She was more than ever convinced he hadn’t seen anyone besides the student in the empty zone, not even the man in her drawing. But the man in the drawing was somehow connected to Cruz and the drugs.
She shaded a little more on the drawing, as if concentrating. In reality, she was filling in the background, a darkened room with only hazy features. Nothing really identifiable. “Was his nose really smooth, or was it the kind that might be more lumpy from being broken? A guy like that has probably been in a lot of fights.”
“Oh, lumpy,” he said quickly. “I’ll bet he’s even been detained by enforcers before. He’s probably in the database.”
Everyone’s in the database, Reese wanted to sneer at him, but somehow manage to refrain. “Older man then, with some experience under his belt?”
“Yeah, yeah. Real strong.”
And so she led him along the trail she needed him to go. Each feature he identified could have been the base for tens of thousands of other people in the CORE, but they also fit the man in her drawing. Only another sketch artist would catch what she was doing or wonder how she came up with details in her final sketch, but she was the only artists in this division. Most enforcer artists worked for the Central Identification Unit and were called temporarily to different divisions as needed. The CIU was always trying to recruit her, but she’d wanted more than just drawing. So for the past ten years she’d clawed her way up the enforcer ladder to detective status, and she wasn’t about to give that up. Maybe someday the skills she was learning would help her solve the murders from her past.
Cruz was talking again, asking when he could be released, but she held up a finger. “Just a minute. I’m almost finished. And I’ll need to show you the sketch before you leave.” But she needed one more thing first—a background of sorts that might lead to an identifiable location. She carefully phrased her next question, hoping his mind would automatically focus on the real man behind the drugs. “Where did you see him? This man responsible for the drugs. What did the building he was near or in look like?”
Cruz cleared his throat, as if stalling for time. Too late for him. A sketch of the same man as before flashed to Reese’s mind. This time he was inside a factory of some kind. Behind him and to the side, two lines of workers, dressed in white from head-to-toe, stood at tables scattered with obvious juke paraphernalia.
“Uh, just out in the rubble,” Cruz said, coming to life as if aware that his reaction was too telling. “You know tangled metal, chunks of concrete. I didn’t really see him long.” He shook his head. “I’m sure whatever I’ve told you won’t solve anything. I’m really sorry.”
Reese didn’t have time then to put the second sketch into her book, but it would remain crystal clear in her mind until she did. In fact, it would gnaw away at her until she recorded it, but she could wait without shaking, as long as there weren’t too many images piled up in her mind.
“Thanks,” she told Cruz. “You’ve been a big help. Let’s get this into the Teev and run a search.”
“Don’t I get to see it?”
“Of course.” She smiled and extended her pad.
Cruz leaned forward and gave an audible gasp. Color leaked from his face, leaving him pasty. “No!” he grated. “That’s not him. I don’t know that man! I didn’t see him!” The words came with a strange panting breath.
“But you said you did.”
“No!” His reply was strangled, and with it came another sketch to Reese’s mind. A flash of a dead man lying on a floor, a bullet hole through his temple. The image sent a shudder through her body.
One thing was clear: whoever the man in the sketch was, selling juke was the least of his crimes.