Fiction

Urchin

31 October 2020

The boy lay on the street, dead. It wasn’t as gruesome as I expected. It had been raining, so most of the blood had washed away, down the sewer, to the recyclers. He’d been gutted, but lying facedown most of the details were hidden.

“Another courier,” Harkam said. “Damn clinks don’t even let ‘em live these days.”

He was right. Up until a couple years ago the syndicates would snatch a kid, threaten them, and make them do a run over the border only to mindwipe them on the other side. But wipes are never perfect, particularly rushed ones. So now they just kill them. Capital murder has less penalties than smuggled tech anyway.

“Anything?” I asked, meaning prints, retina records, or something to identify the boy.

“Blank as usual,” Harkam snorted. “By the looks of him, he was probably urchin.” Urchin were the unwashed masses of city homeless. “Nothing to do but bag ‘em, Miller.”

The harshness of it all struck me. Harkam was right. These murders were so common we couldn’t keep up. Without even a clue of personal data, there was nothing we could do. Most urchin were completely off the grid. Public cameras surely tracked them, but since they couldn’t be marketed to the cloudstreams just ignore them. Any history of their movements is wiped within a week. By law, to protect their privacy. Funny how the privacy laws meant to keep people safe leave urchin so hopelessly unprotected.

After the cleanup crew arrived, I decided to go to a diner a couple blocks away for lunch. Iraqi place, good for a sandwich. Besides, they didn’t complain if a customer lingered in a booth and checked the net, particularly if said customer was a cop. The owner thought being kind to the cops was a way to get better protection. It wasn’t true. The civil AI monitored our behavior, warning us if our actions showed any bias.

“Ho! Mr. Miller, sir,” the owner said as I walked in. “Extra lamb, just for you!”

“Just the usual, Farim,” I said, and went to settle in my usual stall. It was in the back, near the bathrooms. I unrolled my flex and browsed the news. The usual idiocy. A budding epidemic in Poland, floods in New Zealand. Farim soon came with a sandwich and a tea. “All set, Mr. Miller,” he said.

“Thanks.”

“A new Nigerian family has moved in upstairs,” Farim said, wiping a ring of glass sweat from the table. “Their boy could use a job.”

Said by anyone else, I’d have taken the words as veiled racism. Black hoodlum needs dealing with. But Farim didn’t have a racist bone in his body. As far as he was concerned, neighbors were family regardless of color or creed.

“As I see,” he once said, “If they do well, I do well. Is that not so?” It was another reason I liked to come here. Farim might be naïve as hell, but his kind deserved to succeed.

“I’ll tell you what I hear,” I said. Long odds on that. With unemployment hovering at 22% there wouldn’t be much for an immigrant teenager. That didn’t mean I wouldn’t try, for Farim.

The sandwich was good. Real good. Crusty wheat bread, and spicy lamb with some kind of avocado spread. As I washed it down with a bit of tea, I decided to check my socials.

Most of it was the usual from family and friends. New posts from the few influencers I angeled. But there was also a direct message. The system had flagged it for review. That meant it wasn’t from anyone I knew, but it also contained enough personal information that the system didn’t classify it as spam. I clicked it open in a virtual box.

The message contained a single image, and I gasped at the sight of it. It was a photo of the murdered urchin, face down in the ditch. But it wasn’t a police photo. The body was dry and still bloody. It was a photo taken before it was reported to the police. Hours before. I felt a cold chill as I looked at it.

The image had been manipulated. Around the edges, it had been pixilated with a semi-regular pattern. On a hunch, I checked the file size. At nearly 9Mb, it was much larger than it needed to be. Images can hold lots of metadata, so I dropped the image into an expander app. The file contained other photos. Locations, tracking paths, other identifiers for the boy’s last whereabouts.

And there was a full face photo of the boy. At the top, there was a name: Ahmad Kohl. At the bottom were two words.

It simply said “Avenge Me”