Winner of the Orwell Society Dystopian Short Fiction Award 2014
The carriage lurched over some ancient points; Deny’s swollen belly moved in protest and she smiled as she felt the warm life inside. She rested a hand on the dome – he was a big baby – and rubbed gently. It was a boy, the clinic had said, just the one. It would not be long, now.
She whispered to him. ‘My big baby boy.’ She felt him move in response and her smile broadened. A mother. Again. ‘What shall we call you?’
The guard garbled an apology and the carriage screens switched to the news channel: an accident at Waterloo – the ageing buildings collapsing; an unfortunate few trapped under the rubble; the Anarchy Front claiming responsibility; terrorism claims dismissed by the police. She looked away, noticed the scars on her wrists and arms being highlighted in the flickering light and hurriedly pulled down the sleeves of her threadbare coat: it would not do to show her failures. It had been a year since her last episode but, still, she did not want to be reminded, nor those around her to draw the wrong conclusion.
It might upset the baby.
The sparse conference room was already occupied when Chief Inspector Moore entered. ‘My apologies for calling this as an emergency then keeping you waiting,’ he said. ‘Temporary transport hiccough at Waterloo.’ At least that was how the co-suicide of a pair of bombers would be described – correction, was being described. The report was all over the news channels. From his perspective it was an unqualified mess: StatProf failing to predict it in time; armed patrols all arriving a little too late. At least the rapid-response PR team had the sense to collapse an ageing part of the station onto the blast area. Their quick reactions buried the evidence under ancient debris, making it easy to dismiss claims of responsibility by the Anarchy Front. MetCo must not be seen to be failing against terrorism, he thought. Let the railways take the blame. His bonus depended on it.
Bryce took his seat at the head of the conference table, swiping his presence onto the display platen embedded into its surface. He looked round.
Sami Lahoud sat with her back to the window, her unruly hair barely restrained by retro grips and bungees. ‘Bryce. Good to see you.’ She gestured towards the platen before her. ‘Your PA let us know.’
Beside her sat D.S. Cott, a MetCo lifer who barely looked up from tapping out a message on his wristpad. Tinny voices came from Cott’s earpiece: the DS was monitoring the Waterloo debacle; his platen was blank. Confidentiality must be maintained, thought Bryce, approvingly.
Across from Cott and Sami sat an older man, long grey hair tied back in a knot, his equally long, grey beard streaked with brown. He was staring at the display before him, alternating expressions of fascination, pain and horror crossing his face as he watched the newsreel. This was Doctor Michael Sanders, the NHC rep who had worked with MetCo for years. It was his well-advertised fear of the decaying, dilapidated buildings around London that gave PR the idea at Waterloo. ‘Morning, Bryce. It’s these old stations,’ he said. ‘That rusted ironwork over the track can’t be maintained. We really ought to rebuild.’
The fourth person remained quiet, hands in her lap. Though her platen ran the newsreel, it was silenced and her expectant gaze never left Bryce’s face. Her first case, thought Bryce. She’ll be cautious. So he smiled at her. ‘I hope you’ve all exchanged ID with Devonia Pew…’
‘Call me Dev.’ She ran her hands through her hair, pushing it back over her shoulders.
‘…right, Ms Pew. Dev. From Statistical Profiling. Just joined the major case squad.’
Welcoming nods from Sanders and Lahoud; a grunt from DS Cott.
The Chief Inspector tapped the platen before him to initiate the formal record. ‘This extraordinary meeting is to discuss a major case that has just only just come to our attention. Multiple murders and assaults for which we have predicted a probable culprit. We need inter-company access, however. Doctor Sanders, for the formal record, could you grant permission?’ A log of his words scrolled up on the display.
Mike Sanders raised his ample eyebrows and rolled his eyes. Actions never recorded. Bryce shrugged in response: the formalities had to be followed. Mike’s voice adopted the tones of a monastic chant. ‘Doctor Michael Sanders, National Health Corporation representative. I confirm that for this investigation, Data Protection restrictions are void on all information associated with the subject, as per Home Office guidance on outsourcing. Full disclosure of all relevant medical records is enabled.’ He looked at Bryce. ‘Sufficient, Chief Inspector?’
‘Yes. Thank you, Doctor.’ Not that formal permission ever stopped DS Cott. Bryce cleared his throat. ‘For the record, Sami Lahoud is from the Public Wellbeing and Full Employment outsourcers, L-wfe PLC.’ He waited until the autotranscriber filled in the details. ‘Can you outline the subject from your perspective, Ms Lahoud?’
‘Certainly, Chief Inspector.’ She tapped her platen and an e-Fit appeared on the central display. The face was of a man in his early 30s, broken-nosed, sunken eyes with flat cheekbones and receding, sandy hair. The details were vague, unfocused. ‘This is Shane, Shaun or Shihon Benson, aged 30. StatProf have Shane as most likely. We have no address, only that his mother, Deny, is registered in Kilburn.’ She swiped her platen and an address flew onto the formal record.
‘Registered? With you?’ The older doctor sat up in his chair and leaned forward, placing his arms and hands onto the table. His platen flashed and beeped a complaint then turned itself off. He leant back, annoyed, prodding at the platen surface to turn it back on. Bryce tried not to glance at Sami, knowing she would be holding back laughter.
‘She’s registered with Mental and Emotional Wellbeing,’ said Sami. ‘Ms Benson been in and out of their care for a few years.’
‘Hmmph. Schiz?’ The doctor’s blunt question caused Sami to wince; it was Bryce’s turn to suppress a smile.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘We believe she is somewhere on the Bi-polar/Borderline Personality spectrum. Plenty of drug use, self-harm, dependency, alcohol, destructive narcissism – you name it.’
‘Poor girl,’ muttered Ms Pew. ‘She must struggle.’ Bryce glanced at her. Sympathy is not something we can afford. Pew surprised him, though, with a question for Ms Lahoud. ‘Is she medicated?’
Sami Lahoud pulled up a detailed record. ‘When she left us she had plenty of meds.’ She raised her hands in a sign of helpless frustration. ‘Now she’s pregnant she’ll avoid it all, of course.’
Sanders leant back into his chair and grunted. ‘Self-medicated. A disaster.’ He steepled his fingers. ‘There is no record of her coming to any of our mental health clinics. And the address we have is five years out of date.’ He frowned. ‘You obtained assurances she would approach the Health Corporation, of course?’
Sami nodded, then caught herself. ‘Yes,’ she said aloud, the transcriber needing a voice. She flashed an apologetic look in Bryce’s direction; he waved it away, almost absently watching Dev Pew call up a statistical UI on her own platen, feed in newly released medical records. Her focus was intense, fingers flashing across her platen, charts and graphs twinkling across her display. Maybe you’re pretty good, after all.
‘Is she tagged?’ DS Cott’s question broke the brief silence.
Sami shook her head. ‘Removed when she was last cleared of depression. She took a job – Commercial Ambience Operative.’
Sanders’ snort reflected the look on everyone’s face. Ambience Operatives received weekly income from the Employment department for making local shops and shopping malls seem a bustling and lively place to be.
Makework, thought Bryce, then cautioned himself: such a view should not be expressed. He corrected himself. It’s a vital job. ‘Do we know where she is now? At her registered address? With a boyfriend?’
Sami shrugged; Sanders waved a hand in the air, a gesture of ignorance; Cott waited patiently, fingers over his wristpad. Dev Pew realised they were looking at her. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. Her fingers whisked UI blocks around the platen. ‘There’s a high probability Ms Benson is living at her old address, perhaps with a lover or boyfriend – most likely the father.’
‘Thank you, Ms Pew,’ said Bryce. ‘Cott, start tracing this Deny Benson. We’ll need to know where she is when the DNA is analysed and the profile is confirmed.’
‘Rolling now, sir.’ Facial recognition software would start ploughing through the input from surveillance cameras, whether in the streets, shopping malls, tube or tower block hallways, police shoulder cams and even from cameras on tagged individuals. ‘Permission to use personal security cam-nets once we’ve narrowed the search?’
‘Of course.’ Bryce looked round the room. ‘Are we finished?’
Sanders wrung his fingers. ‘I’d just like to confirm there is no error. The lad has an astonishing list of crimes.’
Bryce swiped the output onto everyone’s platen again. ‘No mistake. Benson is implicated in three murders, a brother, an uncle and his mother’s boyfriend, five physical assaults and of putting his mother into intensive care. Dev should have the latest figures.’
Dev Pew optimised her statistical model, transferred the summary into the meeting record. ‘I’ve added a little of what we’ve just got from the NHC. The likelihood exceeds 95 per cent on the boyfriend’s murder – 90 plus on the other two – and similar levels on all the assaults.’ She glanced at Sanders. ‘The environmental factors are terrible, Doctor. We’re still dependent on DNA for confirmation and conviction.’
‘Good grief.’ Sanders slumped back in his chair.
There was silence; Bryce seized the opportunity. ‘Thank you, everyone. We’ll reconvene when we’ve located his mother and gained confirmation from the DNA. This meeting is closed.’
Sanders remained in his seat whilst the others signed off and left. He shook his head as he swiped the figures across his platen, again. ‘A violent man, Bryce. Horrible. I didn’t think they could still exist. I thought we’d been able to wean them out.’
‘Not yet, Doc, but don’t worry: we’ll catch him.’ Bryce patted the old man’s shoulder. ‘You are welcome to join DS Cott at the arrest.’
Sanders shivered. ‘No fear. I’ll leave him to enjoy that dubious pleasure on his own.’
‘It’s a boy,’ Deny said. She could feel tears pricking her eyes. ‘Our baby. I thought you’d be pleased.’
‘It’s not my fucking baby!’ he screamed. ‘I don’t want it. We had enough trouble with your other one.’ Shihon Carrigan could not care about how much the memory hurt, her first son torn away at birth, placed into formal care. Shihon paced from wall to wall, chewing his fingernails whilst watching the report of the roof collapse at Waterloo. He glanced up at the personal safety camera and turned his back on it.
‘Why aren’t they reporting the bombings?’
Her gaze slid past him onto the screen and back. ‘Because they’re just rumours.’ She looked baffled. ‘It was just a collapse. Maintenance errors. It stopped the tube.’
He stepped towards her, raised an arm. ‘It’s not the fucking building, you idiot!’
She flinched, glanced at the safety camera and back at his fist. ‘You’ll hurt your baby boy…’ she whimpered.
He lowered his arm, grabbed her wrist and twisted, hurting her beyond sight of the camera. ‘It’s not my sodding baby.’ He dropped her, stormed to the door and wrenched it open. ‘No little runt is ruining my life! I’ve got influence.’ The door slammed shut behind him, shaking the wall.
Deny swallowed her tears, rubbed her wrist. The physical pain helped quell the pain in her memory, but she suddenly felt drained and sat down. ‘He’ll see,’ she said to her belly. ‘You’ll be perfect.’
She looked round her simple flat. There was little that could be done about the magnolia-painted walls, nor the gloss-white skirting. The partitions displayed the obligatory self-help posters behind which were slipped selfies of her and Shihon. The place was drab, the contract prohibiting any other decoration.
A child meant she would qualify for a bigger place. With luck, she might even have enough points for one of the new flats shown on the Housing channel. They were the other side of the river and were spacious, full of light: everyone interviewed said how happy they were. She had taken a day’s leave to find them, to no avail, but reckoned she had just gone to the wrong part of town. They were probably all taken, anyway.
‘We’ll wait, baby,’ she said, stroking the bump once more. A thought made her smile. ‘We’ll have to give you a name.’ Her smile faded: she doubted Shihon would like the baby being named after him.
She needed brightening up, she decided. Deny reached for the remote, turned up the volume and flicked channels. It was time her lottery numbers came up.
Once again, Bryce was delayed. His barely acknowledged the four waiting for him. Why the hell should we leave him alone? Sami caught his eye, raised an eyebrow and pantomimed a deep breath. He gave her a glimmer of a smile and closed his eyes for a second. Only then did he tap his platen to start the formal record. The others had already logged their presence.
‘Thank you for attending, all. We now have DNA, thanks to Doctor Sanders, and DS Cott has located the subject’s mother and her movements. Thanks also to Ms Lahoud we now have a better understanding of the environmental factors.’ He paused, accepting the looks of appreciation from around the table as their contributions were formally logged in the transcript. ‘Ms Pew, can you give us the latest profile?’
She was eager, quick to commandeer the big platen on the conference room wall, swiping its surface with grand gestures. ‘Miss Benson’s boyfriend is violent, an extremist with possible links to the Front. DS Cott’s team is stretched but he has intercepted video of threats towards the mother and have traced calls from four mobiles he owns.’
‘And we’ve found him. One of my guys was beaten up. Badly.’ Cott looked accusingly at Bryce, the unspoken challenge in the air.
Bryce sighed. ‘Highly regrettable. For now we are not concerned with the boyfriend, sergeant.’ And you have no idea how I’ve fought to have him taken out. He cleared his throat. ‘Please continue, Miss Pew. Dev.’
The e-Fit appeared on the screen, again. The face seemed clearer, now, the features better defined. ‘This is Benson. We’ve factored in the awful upbringing – a horrific schooling, unfortunately – and his home.’ Whilst speaking she pulled in more statistical data, more factors that filled out the profile. ‘He’s bright, loads of potential, but his mother can’t cope. That leads to loads of frustration and a pack dominance, a violent alpha. Inevitable confrontation.’
‘The results?’ Bryce already knew the answer.
‘The model gives 99 per cent for the murder of his father, the others over 98.’
‘Thank you Ms Pew. Recommendations? Everyone?’
Sanders broke the silence. ‘Abrupt removal of existential privileges.’
‘Thank you, Doctor. Noted.’ Even we cannot shoot him. ‘Anyone else?’
‘Arrest and long-term rehab. Whilst I regret having to say so, we can’t let him out on the streets until he has been adjusted to societal norms.’ Sami made sure she included Bryce in her gaze as she looked round.
‘Thank you, Ms Lahoud. My thoughts exactly. Sergeant?’
‘Arrest him. Sure. I’ll need someone from Wellbeing.’
‘Me, probably.’ Cott grunted in response, punched in a note.
Bryce placed his hands on the table. ‘Thank you, Ms Lahoud. Sergeant, you have permission to arrest him as soon as possible.’ The transcriber dutifully recorded the decision and silently notified the relevant authorities.
Cott glanced up from his wristpad. ‘I’ve just been told Miss Benson’s been spotted in hospital: premature. I need to catch up with her, asap.’
‘I think we’ve finished, anyway. Good work, everyone. Another batch of crimes prevented.’ The transcript stopped; Sanders and Pew took their leave.
Cott hesitated at the door. ‘Chief Inspector, I must ask again about the boyfriend. He’s not in our remit, but his profile looks nasty. He’s already…’
‘I said, we have to leave him, sergeant. Higher up claims he’s useful.’ The sergeant made to interrupt. ‘No. Leave.’ Cott glared, then left to make his arrest.
DS Cott stopped in front of the ward clerk, waved his badge and flashed his ID. Beside him stood a uniformed officer, a semi-automatic prominent at her hip. Sami Lahoud stood behind, a bag over her shoulder.
The ward clerk looked at them patiently; Cott transferred the arrest warrant onto his platen.
‘We need Deny Benson.’
The clerk checked, then pointed down the corridor. ‘She’s giving birth. A difficult one.’ His voice quivered slightly, perhaps with guilt, perhaps with fear. ‘You’ll have to wait.’
A voice whispered in Cott’s earpiece. ‘Apparently labour has finished,’ he said. The armed officer placed the palm of her hand on her pistol grip.
The ward clerk gave in. ‘Room 5, on the left.’
Cott gave a curt nod, led the team into the ward. It was bright and lively with walls of soft peach and pale yellow onto which were painted childhood heroes in garish colours. Doors were clearly numbered in high-vis colours. The air was heavy with the smell of disinfectant over the sinister, metallic undertone of blood. Cleaners and midwives scattered before the police posse, guilty looks on their faces.
DS Cott stopped in front of number 5 and nodded to the uniformed officer. She drew her gun; he burst in. A midwife turned, spatters of blood on her disposable apron. She had an indignant look on her face, her eyes blazing with righteous anger at the intrusion.
‘You can’t…’ The protest faded at the sight of the uniform, the gun, the badge.
Cott pushed her aside. ‘Get out, please.’
On the only bed lay a dark-haired woman, eyes puffed and blotchy, face white from recent strain. Across her breasts lay a swaddled baby trying desperately to suckle, whimpering at its futile efforts.
She nodded, terrified, clutching the baby tighter. It kicked and wailed in frustration, limbs jerking the blanket. DS Cott pointed to the baby.
‘Shane.’ Deny answered on autopilot.
‘Excellent.’ DS Cott pulled the baby from Deny’s weakened arms, handed him to Sami Lahoud. ‘Shane Benson, I am arresting you on suspicion of murder and assault.’ He ignored Deny’s gasp of horror. ‘We have assessed guilt probability for multiple murders above 98.7% and of assaults over 99.2%. You do not have to say anything but anything you do say will be recorded and used against you in a court of law.’
The baby wailed; Deny sobbed. ‘You can’t…’
Cott waved Sami and the armed officer outside. ‘For what it’s worth, Miss Benson, this is for your own good, too. The Crime Prevention unit is never wrong: the probability of your son committing murder is substantial. A jury would convict.’
His words were pointless: all Deny heard was the wailing of her baby boy, abruptly fading when Cott closed the door behind him. She wept.
The camera watched; numbers changed; a profile was updated. In the toiling computers of the Metropolitan Police Company, another murder was predicted beyond any reasonable doubt.
Crime statistics were getting better all the time.
[Photo: AJ Cann of StatBytes, https://www.flickr.com/photos/ajc1/5712408667/,