London, in the aftermath of the Infowar. Surveillance cameras stand on every street corner, their tireless gaze linked to an artificial intelligence system. Censors patrol the borders of the Internet. A young woman is murdered before the gaze of eager voyeurs.A policeman sidelined to a backwater department seizes on the chance to contribute to this high-profile murder case, but soon finds himself caught up in a web of intrigue. Why was Sophie Booth's murder broadcast over the Internet? What is the link between her murder and London's new surveillance system? Who is the self-styled ""Avenger,"" and why does he communicate only by e-mail?Whole Wide World is a gripping conspiracy thriller set in a world where information is the universal currency and some people will do anything to be able to control it. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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December 01, 2003
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Excerpt from Whole Wide World by Paul McAuley
I was running laps in the local park when my mobile rang. I managed to drop my headphones around my neck and hook the headset over my ear without breaking stride. I was hoping it would be Julie, but it was Detective Inspector Pete Reid, T12's duty officer. He said, "I need you to make a pick-up."
"I'm not on call," I told him, and rang off.
I could just about stand up to Pete Reid, a dedicated alcoholic at the end of an undistinguished career. At least, I could do it over the mobile, which rang again almost at once, with the insistent warbling of a small and very hungry bird. I let it ring and put on my headphones (the extended reissue of Elvis Costello's Armed Forces) and kept running.
Sunday, early June. The sky hazy with heat as if bandaged in gauze, the sun burning through it like the business end of a welder's torch. According to the watch Julie had given me the previous Christmas, it was eighty-eight degrees. It felt hotter. People in various states of undress sprawled on browning grass like a horde of refugees from one of the European microwars. I was aware of the brief snags and thorns of their drowsy inattention as I ran past.
I'm not a natural runner. I run as self-consciously as an actor in some low-grade drama. I run to stay in touch with my body; at a certain age, specially after you've been badly hurt, you become horribly aware of its tendency to sag and sprawl and seize up, of its obdurate otherness. I run because there's virtue to be wrung from moderate exertion. In the good old days of cohabitation, I'd come back boiled red and trembling, and after some heroic hawking in the sink my announcement to Julie that I'd managed six kilometres (a judicious doubling of the actual distance) would earn me a cold beer or a glass of nicely chilled Colombian Chardonnay.
I ran past a man rubbing sunscreen into the trembling flanks of his boxer dog. I ran past a family eating from styrene clamshells. Sweat soaked my T-shirt, gathered at the waistband of my shorts. My left leg hardly hurt at all. I ran past a kid resting his head between the speakers of a sound box broadcasting heavy pulses of raga metal to the indifferent world. I ran past a temporary security checkpoint on the other side of the park railings, where coils of smartwire and high kerbs of hollow, water-filled plastic blocks choked the road down to a single lane. Three peace wardens in red tunics, black trousers, and mirrorshades--pit bulls in Star Trek leisure gear, their paws resting on belts laden with shock sticks, plasticuffs, extensible batons, and canisters of riot glue and pepper spray--scanned the sparse traffic for bandits who just might be heading into the City Economic Zone to liberate building materials.
The mobile was still ringing. I pressed the yes button.
Pete Reid said, "Where are you?" PoliceNet's quantum encryption made him sound as if he was shouting through a metal pipe crammed with angry bees.
"Shoreditch Park. Doing laps."
I ran past a couple of men drinking beer and watching a portable TV shaded by a cardboard box, like a shrine. The TV said, "Bandwidth totally secure and safe for all the family."
Pete Reid said in my ear, "I see you."
"I'm in the system, Minimum. White T-shirt, red shorts."
"Lucky guess." I shouldn't have resented Pete Reid's use of my nickname, but sue me, I did.
"Watch the birdie," Pete Reid said.
Tall steel poles were planted at intervals along the park's perimeter, coated in gluey grey antivandal paint and topped with the metal shoe boxes of CCTV cameras and their underslung spotlights, the cameras linked via RedLine chips to ADESS, the Autonomous Distributed Expert Surveillance System, which watched all London with omniscient patience.
One night in March, I'd seen these same cameras track a fox. The hapless animal had become increasingly frantic as it dashed to and fro, trying to outrun spotlights that fingered the darkness with unforgiving precision, until at last it could run no more and stood still, scrawny flanks heaving, eyes blankly reflecting the glare of overlapping circles of light that briefly twirled around it before snapping off. That's when I'd become aware of something new and nonhuman at play in the world; an intelligence vast and cold and unsympathetic testing the limits of its ability.
Now, one camera and then another and another turned to follow me as I ran past. Watching the detective. I gave them the finger.
"A 92 per cent recognition factor," Pete Reid said. "Even without the caring gesture."
"For someone who wears elasticated boots because he can't tie a proper knot, you're a very technical boy all of a sudden."
"We have search filters and microwave links. We have polygonal forcing routines. We have eight crucial physiognomy points, too, whatever the fuck they are. There's some kind of slogan on your T-shirt but I can't quite read it. No doubt something sarcastic. You're a sarcastic little fucker, Minimum, but I'll let it slide because I need you to do something."
"Who's running the rig? Someone has to be helping an old-fashioned one-finger typist like you."
"I'm with Ross Whitaker," Pete Reid confessed, "hacked into the system through his phone. We're in a squad car in Walthamstow, waiting for the word to go in and seriously hassle this pinko journalist."
"Was sitting in the office waiting for the phone to ring too boring for you?"
"I have a weakness for journalists. And I didn't know I was going to get two fucking call-outs on a Sunday."
"I hope T12 isn't paying for your time on ADESS."
"Don't you worry. Ross has a mate in the Bunker."
"Because Rachel Sweeney will carpet you when she finds out."
"It's off the books, Minimum. Stop trying to give me a hard time, you aren't built for it. Now listen, you got your warrant card?"
"This is a favour you're about to ask me, isn't it?"
"Do a lap around the corner," Pete Reid said, and gave me an address. "It's a pick-up, that's all. See the exhibits officer, grab the gear, in and out, bing bang boom, no problem. I'll send a uniform with a car and an evidence kit."
"Make that a pretty massive favour," I said.
"In and out, what's the problem? Get the job done, and I'll have Ross here suck your dick by remote control."
That's how it began. I didn't know that it was about a suspicious death. I didn't know it was about the dead girl in the silver chair. The information was only partial.
The poor young trees the council had put in along the road two years ago, those which hadn't been snapped off by kids or poisoned by dog piss, were hanging their heads like ballerinas about to faint. Cars smacked over speed bumps like boats on a choppy sea, trailing music in their wakes. People sat on the balconies of council flats like spectators at the Apocalypse. A very fat black woman enthroned on a red velour armchair held a little electric fan under her chin. The noise of televisions and stereos pounded out of open windows. I ran past a church, a discount off-licence with the no-nonsense offer of CHEAP BOOZE painted across its steel-shuttered windows and a burly guard just inside its door, burnt-out live/work flats carved from an old cinema that had started life as a music hall, a row of almshouses. There had been hamlets in marshy fields here, once upon a time. A priory. Country lanes in the drowsy shade of elms and oaks. Then a clutch of theatres, houses creeping north, paved streets, factories and warehouses thrown up on either side of the new canal. Fifteen years ago, artists and pop stars had made the area fashionable. Developers had moved in, turning sweatshop garment factories into loft-style flats for City workers flush with easy money. The InfoWar had wiped them out; now there was talk that the artists might be moving back.
I ran over shattered paving stones, heat-softened tarmac. I ran past an old woman wrapped in a heavy woollen coat despite the heat, a scarf tied tightly over a wig the approximate shape and texture of a Brillo pad. She was pulling a wheeled shopping basket as slowly and steadily as if ascending the north face of Everest. I ran past a couple of gangbangers on the corner, as nervously alert as gazelles, eyes bloodshot from too much crumble. Advance troops of the yardie gangs that were once again trying to push across the river onto Turkish turf. They were serviced by kids on scooters and mountain bikes, kept their stashes hidden, did their deals in burnt-out buildings, hidden from ADESS's sleepless scrutiny. At night, their whistled alerts and signals permeated the neighbourhood like the cries of curlews in some mournful marsh; every few weeks, one was found dead on some patch of waste ground, stabbed in the heart or shot in the head.
I ran easily and sweetly, my T-shirt sticking and unsticking to my sweaty back, my feet cased in Nike Victory 9s that, sprung with argon pockets and flexing sheaths of smart elastomers, could probably have run better by themselves.
I had no trouble finding the address Pete Reid had given me. It was halfway down a narrow street jammed up with police vehicles--three patrol cars, a Ford Transit van, a couple of unmarked Scorpios, a sleek silver Saab. Two men in black trousers and buttoned-up white shirts leaned against a black van, quietly smoking. The van's motor ticked over; the metal box of a refrigeration unit outlet clung to its roof.
I didn't have to be a detective to know that this was not a routine shout.
A woman Police Constable was squatting down to talk to an old woman in widow's weeds who sat in the back seat of a squad car. A young constable in a short-sleeved shirt was stretching blue-and-white tape from a drainpipe to the lamppost in front of a three-storey house which was squeezed between a wreck of a building with an abandoned office-supply shop at street level and boarded windows above, and the blackened shell of a late 1990s flat conversion I'd seen burning on the first night of the InfoWar. The house had two narrow doors on either side of a plate-glass window protected by security bars; clearly it had been subdivided beyond its means. The orange sticker of a security firm glowed in one corner of the window, and a sign in retrostyle computer type, Mobo Technology, hung above a row of dead ferns in plastic pots. The metal box of a CCTV camera was perched on a bracket above the right-hand door.
A squad car pulled up behind me. I showed the driver my warrant card.
"I was told just to drop this," he said, meaning the evidence kit on the backseat of his car. He had put on his cap when he had climbed out of the car; now he took it off and blotted sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.
"You'll have to wait," I said. "There'll be something to take back to T12."
A hard-faced WPC came out of the left-hand door and had a word with the two men by the van: the coroner's appointed undertakers. They dropped their cigarettes and ground them under their polished black brogues, opened the back door of the black van and pulled out a stretcher with an unfolding wheeled frame and went inside. I leaned against the squad car, sweat drying in my hair, my skin giving up volumes of heat to the hot air. I badly needed a cigarette, but as part of my new discipline I had left my tabs in the flat, and the driver didn't smoke.
"What's this all about?" he said.
"We don't need to know."
"A suspicious death, it looks like."
He was very young, eager to impress.
"We're cogs in the machine," I told him. "We don't need to know anything. Kick back and enjoy the sunshine."
At last, the undertakers manoeuvred the loaded stretcher out of the left-hand door. The young constable lifted the crime-scene tape for them with a ceremonial flourish. I grabbed the kit, showed my warrant card to the constable, went inside. Someone in plain clothes was talking with a uniform on the stairs at the end of the narrow corridor. He broke off his conversation to challenge me. A tall man at least ten years younger than me, unforgiving blue eyes behind steel-rimmed glasses, thinning blond hair brushed straight back. He was sweating through the pink shirt under his charcoal suit (there was a small silver cross centred on the fashionably wide lapel), and he wore disposable plastic overshoes.
"You're late," he said, after I told him who I was. He had taken a good look at the slogan on my T-shirt, and it clearly made him unhappy.
"And you're in charge?"
"DI David Varnom. I'm the crime-scene coordinator, McArdle's in charge. What did you do, run here?"
"I know Tony McArdle. Are you going to show me what needs to be done, or is he?"
I didn't like Varnom. I didn't like his bully-boy attitude, the curl of his lip, his automatic assumption of superiority. I didn't like the way he stood two steps above me.
He said, "I suppose you might have worked a suspicious death before."
"I have an idea of what goes on. What happened?"
"A girl died." Something must have showed in my face. Varnom allowed himself a smile and said, "You were waiting for the body to be taken away."
I didn't deny it.
"I can have the stuff brought down," he said, "if you can't face what's up there."
"I have to document it in place."
"All right, but I'm not having you go up like that," he said, and told the uniform to find me a set of coveralls.
I said, "Are the techs still working the scene?"
"It's a question of decorum."
As I pulled on white coveralls, and fitted overshoes over my Nikes, Varnom said, "If you're going to throw up, do it outside. No smoking-whoever did this sprayed solvent around to mess up DNA typing. And watch where you put your feet. Tony will go ballistic if you knock something over or contaminate the DNA profiling. It was a very nasty death, and Tony wants the evidence processed as quickly as possible."
"I'm sure Tony can tell me that himself," I said.
"Just do your job and don't give me any grief," Varnom said, and turned his back on me and went up the stairs.
I wonder now if any of this would have happened if Varnom hadn't pissed me off quite so badly.
Above the ground-floor offices, the property had been split up into what estate agents used to call studio flats. It was late Victorian and no doubt had been cared for by the petit-bourgeois family who had first lived in it--I'd noticed the bit of stained glass over the lintel of the front door and the iron bootscraper on the step when I came in, and there was intricate plaster moulding along the slope of the stairwell's ceiling--but the place had fallen on bad times since, and had clearly missed out on Hoxton's microboomlet. Landlord's miser switches of the kind that gave you thirty seconds of forty-watt light, not quite enough to get you from one landing to the next; cheap builder's carpet on the stairs; woodchip paper on the stairwell walls, that had been badly painted with one coat of obliterating emulsion some time in the last century and were marked now with sweeps of silver-black fingerprint powder at waist height, where a suspect might brush his fingers on the way up or down.
A pair of narrow doors stood side by side on the first-floor landing, where a couple of plainclothes were consulting a palmtop and a photographer was packing
equipment into an aluminium case. The right-hand door stood open and a rack of floodlights had been set up inside, illuminating the room like a stage set.
"Mind where you tread," Varnom told me. "There's a broken mug just inside the door. We want it to stay there."
Anticipation was worse than actuality.
The high-ceilinged room looked smaller than it was because of all the people crowded into it. Two crime-scene technicians in white coveralls identical to mine, hoods pulled tightly around their heads, were working the kitchen area at the far end, brushing aluminium powder and spraying for fingerprints with the autistic concentration of trainspotters; a third was bagging papers spilled across a trestle table under a sash window with black blinds. The police surgeon was talking to a middle-aged man in suit trousers and shirtsleeves: Detective Chief Inspector Tony McArdle.
It was very hot in the room, and the air was full with the smell of blood, a heavy black stink that went right to the base of my brain. I had to stamp down on the sudden urge to turn around and walk right out of there.
The floor was uncarpeted, its wide oak planks spattered with flecks and spots of paint. The smooth plaster walls, once light blue, had been spray painted with dense patterns of multicoloured squiggles. There was a mattress covered with a white rug and a heap of cushions. There was a cheap aluminium tubing rack crammed with dresses and jeans and shirts, and two plain cardboard boxes with reinforced corners and rope handles. Big church candles stood either side of a Victorian cast-iron grate piled high with dusty fake fruit. A stacking stereo, no TV. Fairylights were strung across the ceiling and tiny webcams clung to two corners, like eyeballs stuck on inverted pyramids.
The candles and the fairylights and the painted walls might have made the room look eerie and festive, but in the harsh glare of the floodlights it looked as flat and unreal as a child's picture of a witch's cave, a backdrop for the thing in the centre of the room.
A chair. An ordinary stacking chair with a moulded plastic seat set on four splayed metal legs, the kind of chair found in row upon row in municipal halls, in leisure centres, in hospital waiting rooms. It had been painted silver, and the blood looked black against the silver paint. Two long pools of blood in the saddle of the seat, and jellied blood in a kind of pile beneath.
Varnom said, "The computers are over there," and Tony McArdle noticed me for the first time.
"Not an ideal way to spend a Sunday," he said. He'd grown up in Bow: a hard man from a hard part of town, with a reputation as a fair, intelligent and highly motivated boss. Bull-necked, a five o'clock shadow like a tattoo, dark eyes that gave nothing away, black hair greased down, an old-fashioned short-back-and-sides. His shirtsleeves were rolled up high on his meaty arms; a Glock 17 was slung in a shoulder holster under his left arm. He wore white overshoes and white vinyl gloves, the gloves tight on his big hands, islands of sweat trapped between vinyl and skin, and he had flipped his tie over his shoulder--to keep it out of the blood. After the victim had been photographed and pronounced, before she had been taken down, he had leaned in and taken a close look at her. His gaze passed over me. If he saw my T-shirt's slogan beneath the semitranslucent plastic-treated paper of my coveralls he gave no sign. He stripped off the gloves and balled them up and said, "I suppose you've come for the computers. Is that where you're at now, John? ITU?"
"T12," I said. "It changed its name six months ago."
"T12 then. A bit quiet after H and E, isn't it?" We knew each other from a siege I'd worked when I had been with the Hostage and Extortion Unit; an armed robbery suspect strung out on crack cocaine and Valium had kept us at bay all day and most of the night by holding a replica pistol to his girlfriend's head. "I go where I'm told," I said. "It's good to see you back on active duty. We need more men like you." "I'm no hero, sir."
"You wouldn't happen to know anything about computers, I suppose."
"I've picked up a little knowledge." 'this one's a bit of a puzzle," McArdle said. "Someone sent a fax to the Yard this morning. It said that a girl by the name of Sophie Booth had been killed. No address was given, and it took a while to check up on all the Sophie Booths in the country. It wasn't signed, and it came from somewhere in Cuba."
"Probably routed through an anonymous remailer," I said. "They're very keen on anonymous remailers in Cuba."
"The computers, sir," Varnom said.
McArdle noticed him for a moment. He said, "This man was hurt in the line of duty, David."
"I know," Varnom said, giving me a hard look.
"Then don't treat him like a flunky," McArdle told him, and said to me, "What's this about remailers?"
"Every email message comes with a header that shows where it originated. If you send a message through an anonymous remailer, the header is stripped off and a new one is put on, with only a random number as identifier. And some remailers will forward faxes."
"So it can't be traced," McArdle said.
"Not exactly," I said. "Remailers keep the details of every message they forward. If the one that sent you the fax was sited in this country, you could get an Information Disclosure Order."
"But it's in Cuba. And we're at war with Cuba."
"Not exactly war, sir, but I take your point."
"It's still a long way from anything useful, except to confirm my idea that whoever did this is playing games with us. You saw the cameras. I have a nasty suspicion about them," he said, and went over to the silver-painted chair and stood behind it. He looked up at the webcams, looked at the chair, looked at me.
I said, "I noticed it too."
"And they're linked to the computers, so their output could have been sent anywhere over the Web."
Andy Higgins had set up a camera to monitor the coffee machine outside our offices, so that his gang of tech-heads could check on the level in the pot and save themselves the walk downstairs if it was empty.
McArdle said, "It was a nasty death. One of the worst. A young girl, twenty-one, and the bastard took his time with her and he knew what he was doing. I think he's done this kind of thing before. He washed her down afterwards, spritzed the area with solvent, left her to be found. Very neat, very tidy. People who want to get rid of DNA traces usually torch the scene, but not our boy. And then there are the cameras, and the computers."
"You think he did it for an audience, sir."
"It wouldn't be a first, would it? Yes, I think it was for an audience, or for a souvenir. In any case, he smashed the computers and took their hard drives. I'd like to know what your people can tell me about them, as soon as possible."
Varnom said, trying to find a way into the conversation, "There are the wraps of blow, sir. She might have been dealing, and made someone unhappy enough to have her killed."
"Two wraps, probably stepped on so hard they wouldn't give a buzz to a goldfish. Forget about the blow," McArdle told Varnom, and said to me, "I want your technicians to find out everything they can.