They told me she had died inside a sensory deprivation tank; the sort the hotwired use, twisting their sense of shape till they corkscrew into the virtual world. They told me, when they got to her, her lungs were full of brine pinked with her own blood. And they told me to erase it all.
They'd already bagged her up by the time I got there. I wanted to see her face, but I didn't say anything; just watched as they lifted her into the ambulance. It was pointless; you can't learn anything from a shroud.
They closed the doors and turned the vehicle around. Behind the drivers' cab there were no windows, no name of any hospital, no red cross; just army drab, and hazard lights front and rear. It looked like one of those unmarked vehicles you see on highways sometimes, bearing toxins from one nameless compound to another. It was slung so low, pebbles and splinters of driftwood pinged and scraped its belly. It disappeared a moment behind the hangar and turned away, up the long route past the power station. You could watch it go for miles if you wanted to, it was so flat here, and the sky was grey like God had forgot it.
Up until three years ago this site was an army listening post. When the army moved out a married couple, Laura and Peter Lewis, bought the site and set up an outbound school: sea scuba and some gliding. But it was winter now, January 10, there were no guests, and we had descended like army ghosts on this place, reclaiming it for our own. Forensics in paper jumpsuits skirted around each other as though rehearsing some intricate, ugly dance. Observers kicked stones and muttered into their cell phones. There were even some soldiers, throat-miked, wrap-shaded: they looked well pissed, given nothing to do.
I looked for someone I knew and found Morley. I'd last met him in summer; with enough red wine inside him he'd passed for chubby. Out of season he wrapped himself up in an ugly sheep-skin car coat; he turned to me looking like something spat out of a tank and said, "Joanne Rynard. Thirty-one years old. Five-foot-seven, brown hair."
"One of ours?"
"Flight lieutenant, retired eight months ago."
"Was she hotwired?"
"There's a jack in her neck big enough, you could plug her into a battleship."
"Where's the battleship?"
"No ship. But there's a hotwire feed in the hangar."
"No, it's legit. A stray. It wasn't in the building specs and it got overlooked when the army stripped it."
"How'd she know about it?"
"God knows. First we knew it was here was this morning."
"She ring any presidents? Fire any missiles?"
Morley looked around, counting the army ghosts, muttering: "Whatever she did, she sure touched a nerve."
"How'd she die?"
"She slashed her wrists diagonally with a scalpel and bound the cuts with bandages."
"She was backing off?"
He shook his head. "Each hour or so she'd undo the dressing, let out more blood."
"Slow way to die."
"What she wanted."
He shook his head.
"She have help?" I asked him.
"The bandages. Retying them can't have been easy."
"You met the Lewises?" he said. "There's nobody else around. If it was anyone it was them."
I remembered, it was Mrs Lewis who had called the police, who in turn had called us. But why had she called the police? Most people find a body they call an ambulance, not a policeman.
The Lewises were somewhere about. I was supposed to introduce myself, but I didn't feel ready. I'd been brought in to reassure this frightened couple, convince them to unsee what they had seen, unhear the things they'd heard, and, if they'd got involved somehow, to tell them it was over; all was fine.
The trouble was, Laura and Peter Lewis weren't frightened.
Each hour she undid the dressing and let out more blood. Had they helped her? If so, why? Until I had those answers, I knew I could not begin to erase what had happened here.
I thought over what I knew. She'd been in the tank. She'd been floating — "She was plugged in to the hotwire feed when you found her?"
"Nobody knows, or if they do nobody wants to say."
Once you're plugged into a hotwire feed you can surf the world: control in real-time the trajectory of a satellite, lower or raise the price of corn on the Nippon Exchange, read teletext in Urdu, or fire an automated gun on the Iran-Iraq border. There's a price tag to this virtual joyride: the surveillance they put you under is hardly less invasive than the surgery. So how had Joanne Rynard slipped our net? Fortunately, that wasn't my problem. My problem was how to erase the evidence.
"And something else." Morley reached into his coat and pulled out a blister-pack. The stiff, clear plastic was heat-sealed around three slender hypodermics, each containing maybe thirty CCs of red liquid. "This was stolen from an army pharmacy three months ago. We found a stash of it beside the tank."
"What is it?"
"What's it do?"
"Cripples your immune system."
I stared at the hypodermics. "Well who would want that?"
Morley shrugged and walked off, ramming the packet quickly back into his coat. I realized he had told me things even he was not supposed to know.