|The Transformation Story Archive||The Blind Pig|
Death Is Real
For Captain Webster
The Pig was quite crowded that night. Standing in the doorway shaking the rain off, I took a moment to scan the crowd. Jack was in, of course, ragging away at the ivories like even today didn't matter, much less tomorrow. An otter-morph sat up straight at the bar, long musteline body supporting a head that always seemed to me to bear an expression of boyish innocence. Wanderer and his pack appeared to be swapping tall tales in the rear, but I saw no sign of my counselor anywhere amid the noise and bustle. Then it hit me, and confidently I strode back the quietest corner. It was there that any self-respecting rabbit would be found...
And so it turned out to be. Phil was quietly getting sozzled with a group of close friends in the farthest booth back. The normally quiet lagomorph had enjoyed a few, I could tell, because he was issuing forth with far more forcefulness than he usually employed. "And I ask you again, Posti. What IS real, anyway? Answer me that, and the secret of SCABS will fall into your hands like an overripe apple!"
The distinguished scientist snorted rudely. "Come on, Phil. Don't feed me that sophomoric nonsense. What is real can be measured, can be tested, can be repeated."
"You scientists STILL don't get it!" the white rabbit replied. "Tell me, Doctor. Is love real? If so, how do you measure it? How do you test for it, and get it to repeat for your blessed experiments?"
"Posti" looked puzzled. Phil sighed and continued. "Look, I'm not the holder of a fancy degree or anything. But I like to keep up on science and stuff, and I AM fairly well read by any definition. I understand why you hold the view you do, and why it is that you are only comfortable with things that can be experimentally proven. Physics is not a matter of opinion, nor is chemistry. But tell me, Doctor Stein, how is it that a chunk of once-dead matter can feel love?"
Jon Sleeper tossed in his two cents worth. "There simply has to be more to the world than the laws of physics tell us. There simply has to be."
"Right!" Phil said, his voice slurred a bit by the Strafford sloshing around in his paw cup. "But exactly what? This is where our understanding totally breaks down, where we can neither use the scientific method nor ignore it. We cannot imagine how to frame a real double-blind test to our questions, nor can we fail to apply said method to any religious system that happens along. And so far the scientific method, sooner or later, has shot down every one."
There was silence for a moment, then Phil continued. "You can really hurt your head thinking about this stuff, you know. For example, the universe contains uncounted human minds, which are so far the most complex structures known anywhere. Now, though it is fabulously intricate, the mind has definite limitations. One is that by definition it cannot grasp in full anything as complex or more complex than itself, or so I figure it. And it is through our minds that we perceive reality, that we interpret the greater universe around us. Since the tool of our minds is by definition limited, is it not possible that we can never understand ourselves, or our place in the universe? That we cannot ever know what our purpose is, or what it's all about? No kettle can hold itself. I think it is more than possible that we literally cannot know--to me, it is almost a certainty."
"Now, all this DOES tie in with SCABS, thusly. For the first time, Mankind has contacted both an alien life form and something that defies our conception of physics. Is it not possible that the Flu virus belongs to a wholly different reality, one that is even further beyond our limited grasp? Or that it was created by an alien God, so to speak? If this is indeed the case, it is not just our physics that is being challenged here but our concept of reality. I submit that each and every one of us present has been touched not just by an alien virus, but by..." Phil looked up for the first time, and saw me. "Oh!" he said.
"Hi, Bronski! Let me get you a cushion."
"Hello," I replied, sorry to have broken the flow of the pale lapine's thoughts. Despite myself, I had been fascinated. Every time I thought I knew Phil, he opened yet another door and showed me something new. "It's OK, I'll stand."
But no one would hear of it, and presently space was made, a big beanbag laid out, and a beer set on the tabletop for me to sip with the rest. Judging by Phil's glazed expression, he was well into the lead tonight. Presently, Jon asked him to continue. "Continue what?" the rabbit asked innocently. And further he would elucidate not.
Stein sighed, and saying he was getting a headache, headed for the door with a sad look on his habitually equine features. Phil watched him go, then turned his attention back to me. "Still think this is the best therapy deal in town?"
I waggled my head back and forth, my equivalent of a smile. "I owe ya big time, Phil."
He rocked his ears. "No problem. You weren't going feral. Just got stressed out. God knows you've sufficient reason."
He was right, of course. The Department had required me to seek counseling about my SCABS-related issues after I was found kicking the living Hell out of a coffee machine that robbed me of my last change. It had been brilliantly deduced that my change of form was the root of the anger driving my aggressive behavior. Luckily, I got referred to Phil, who after a couple sessions in his cramped little office prescribed twice a week at the Pig. At first I resented the suggestion that I needed the company of other SCABs to help me adjust, but the rabbit had been proven right. Not for the first time, I later discovered, nor for the last.
"Yeah." I said shortly. Being an ostrich wasn't easy, not for a city homicide detective like me who had always until then enjoyed the toughest of reputations.
"Drink your prescription. It helps," Phil said gesturing at my beer. I took a beakful, then rocked my head back in satisfaction. At least it still tasted good. So little did.
"Trust the bunny! "I replied, reminding my friend of what he had repeated over and over while I came up with a thousand objections to visiting the Pig. "Trust the cute white bunny". It was only later that I really understood the underlying message he was trying to communicate. An ostrich is a ridiculous species for a homicide detective to be, but a white rabbit is a pretty silly body for the tough-minded Union guy Phil had once been too. He understood my situation not from book learning, but from real-world experience. And his methods reflected the difference.
Phil rocked his ears at me yet again, and lifted "Hare Restorer" in his forepaws to take a deep swallow of his own medicine. And the conversation became relaxed and general while Phil sat back more like his usual self to just watch and listen.
Brian was talking about today's biggest headline. "They found another body today, didn't they?" He looked at me expectantly.
"Yeah," I replied shortly. "Not my case." For some twisted reason the Department only sent me on SCAB-related cases since that one fowl day. As if it gave me some kind of special insight.
"Ah," Brian replied. Then he continued. "They are starting to talk serial killer, you know."
I remained silent, refused to be baited. Cops hate it when the media starts talking that way. Usually, they are wrong. And when they are right, it is worse still.
The raccoon man continued innocently, not realizing the shop talk bothered me. "It was a hooker. This time the body was wrapped in a plastic sheet and dumped out Highway 15. Not a speck of physical evidence, the papers say."
Not quite true, but close enough. I decided to quash the talk. "Yeah, you know how the papers are, though. Got to get more readers all the time, so they sensationalize. In the real world, serial killers or even just multiple murderers are amazingly rare. Heck, even I have only met a couple. And I'm in the business. None of you have any cause to worry about falling victim to a predator like that. Statistically, it's virtually impossible."
There was a thick silence. I looked around me, wondering what had happened, then realized everyone in earshot was staring at me. What had I done, I wondered, blinking rapidly.
Then Phil spoke, in a high strained voice that was barely in control. "Excuse me, Ken. I've... gotta go." He was stiff and trembling, and clearly on the edge of losing control.
Quickly I got up and backed away, and Phil bolted past me for the Men's room with Jon in rapid pursuit. When the door had closed behind the big buck, I looked around me in bafflement. "What?" I asked the crowd. "What'd I do?"
"You mean you didn't know?" Derksen asked me, his insectile eyes giving away nothing.
Coe sighed. "Look, we respect people's privacy here, but it's important for all of us to know what might set our twitchy friend off. And this is not exactly a secret anyway. Ken, Phil was the last attempted victim of Butch the Blade."
"Oh my God. I didn't...."
The place began to return to normal. I was forgiven by the regulars, apparently, though it would be harder for me to forgive myself. Phil was a good friend, and I wouldn't have hurt him deliberately for the world. Both Brian and Bryan reached out understandingly and stroked my anxiety-ruffled plumage, and eventually I sat back down to my beer. Whenever my lapine counselor emerged, I resolved to deeply and sincerely beg his pardon.
"Did Phil get hurt?" I asked the little group. Derksen explained he had been the attending physician, and that my rabbit friend had made a remarkably quick physical recovery from serious injuries but suffered deep mental scars that might never entirely heal. Phil had been forced to spend weeks back at the Hadesson in a halfway-house setting before he was released again. This made me whistle -- I knew that lapines had a hard time being mainstreamed anyway. My fuzzy friend had been remarkably lucky to get a second chance.
"By the way," I asked before the conversation became general again, "how did he get away?"
"From the Blade?" a new vodor voice asked from the next table.
"Yeah," I replied, turning around to face a full morph coyote. "Is he that fast? Did he get a jump on old Butch?"
There was more silence. Apparently I had said something stupid again.
The coyote continued again, presently. "You know a cop shot the Blade, right?"
"Yeah. A policewoman I know."
"Really? Then ask her what condition Butch was in when she finished him off."
"What do you mean?"
Derksen broke in. "I was Butch's doctor too. He was DOA. Yeah, the cop killed him, and it was what I think you guys call a 'righteous' shooting. But..." The cockroach broke off , as if he thought he wouldn't be believed.
"But?" I encouraged him.
"But the other wounds would have been fatal within minutes anyway. Detective Bronski, our cute bunny rabbit friend killed Butch the Blade. Butch just hadn't realized he was dead yet when the officer took him down."
He was right. I didn't believe him--until I looked at the solemn faces all around. Then I knew it to be true. Like I said, just when I think I get to know Phil another door opens...
My pager went off then, and I lowered my head to read the device strapped to my ankle on the opposite side of my shield. Having no hands, I wear the impedimenta of my profession on something closely resembling a leg-band such as is used to track wild fowl. It was the office. A quick trip to the phone booth confirmed my worst fears. Conducting a murder investigation is a stimulating challenge, academically. It is a great way to make a living. Except for the fact that you have to deal with sordid death, face the bitter ugliness of unwashed corpses and look into murderers' even more unbecoming minds. Like most cops, I both love and hate The Job. And my least favorite part is investigating fresh murder scenes. Because argue about semantics all you want, a person in my profession knows without a doubt that death is one thing that is definitely real.
I ran to the crime scene -- it was only a couple miles away, so the trip wasn't any big strain. Usually they send a unit to pick me up and take me wherever, as no one produces a vehicle package yet that allows me to drive. I'm looking forward to the day one comes out, though, as the jokes are getting old. The uniforms complain sometimes that they have better things to do than watching the birdie...
At least the rain had let up, though I hit enough puddles to get thoroughly wet again anyway. The crime scene was a decaying single residence between two old tenements in the worst part of town, and as usual, a crowd had gathered. With some difficulty I pressed my way to the door, where a uniform recognized me and stepped aside. "Howdy, Detective Bronski!" he said, smiling easily. Everyone on the force had chauffeured me at one time or another, of course, but I couldn't possibly remember all their names in return. After all, they had only one ostrich to keep track of.
Still, I waggled my head as if I knew him from Adam, and returned the greeting in the spirit intended. "Evenin'. What have we got?"
His face sobered instantly, and turned a bit pale. "Take a whiff. Or isn't your sniffer so good any more?"
It was still good enough. I inhaled deeply, and picked up a faint... something that seemed positively unnatural. But moist and sick-making all the same. Quizzically I cocked my head at the officer.
"It's a bad one, sir. I found it. And tossed my cookies." He said it without a trace of shame.
"Jeez." The message wasn't in the fact that he'd barfed -- it happens a lot more often than we professionals like to admit. But the way he came right out and said it without a trace of shame or fear of being teased told me that something really extraordinary awaited within. "I hate this shit."
"This was a sick son of a bitch" the uniform agreed, and he stood aside as I strode through the portal into what lay beyond.
The smell was much more intense inside. It burned the sinuses and turned the stomach all at once, a unique odor that seemed like it should be familiar, but was not. The flashes from the police cameras led me towards the back, where I stepped into the bedroom and a vision of Hell.
The victim, an elderly black female, was tied to a chair. All around her, a mess of coagulated blood and semi-liquid tissue covered the floor, in some places up to the depth of an inch or so. Her mouth was a bloody hole, with long strands of ... something running from her teeth down to the clotted mess that had once been the front of a flowered robe. Clearly, the gory goop around her had erupted from within. And the smell was overpowering here. It was acid and blood and something sicker still.
But it was her eyes that held me, the eyes that said it all. They were open. She'd been conscious to the very end. And the fear and agony of such a terrible death was etched unmistakably there, written very clearly on what had probably been somebody's Grandma's face. It was too much, even for me. I swallowed back the bile a couple times, then added my deposit to the many such already lined up against the far wall. Nobody said a word, not on this case. When I felt better, I got to work.
Forensics was there already, of course, taking temperatures and samples and such. I knew the girl assigned. "Annette, what in God's name am I looking at?"
"Leave God out of this one." The young girl's voice was thick with revulsion as she turned on me, pain in her eyes. "He wasn't here. Can't you tell?"
I sighed. It was getting to her. "Sorry, honey. But I need to know. What happened?"
She looked away, realized it wasn't my fault either. "Sorry, Ken. Really. Just give me a minute, OK? I want to run a field test before I say anything more,"
I nodded, trying as always not to exaggerate the gesture with my long neck, and examined the crime scene more closely, more professionally. It was an old trick, to distance yourself and be professional in places like this. Let's see, victim approximately age 70, a black female. Five feet four inches tall, wearing her favorite flowered bathrobe and looking as if she's been staring into the deepest pits of Hell...
The bile was rising again when Annette saved me from a second trip to the communal barfing wall. "It's alkaline" she said, looking at a strip of litmus paper. "Alkaline as all getout."
My attention had wavered. "What's alkaline?"
"All this," she explained, waving at the gore. "The blood, the intestines, the deceased. All of it is incredibly alkaline."
Annette shook her pretty head in disgust. She couldn't be more than twenty-five. Far too young for this kind of shit. "Drano. Liquid Plumber. Somesuch."
"That's right. Look at the way the victim's bonds have cut into her skin, almost to the bone. She was in agony, Ken. Someone forced her to drink drain cleaner. It dissolved her guts, which is the mess you see all around the room. The victim hemorrhaged and writhed and twisted, explosively vomiting over and over and over. Until she died long minutes, maybe even an hour later. This is unofficial, of course. It'll have to be confirmed by the Coroner's office. But you can take it to the bank."
"Like I said, He wasn't here tonight." And with that, she left. I was still going over the crime scene, trying to find something bearing the remotest resemblance to a clue when my boss arrived. She waved me aside and we stepped out back into the clean air of a warm summer night to talk. It was like being in a different world.
"What have you got, Ken?"
"Not a lot. No prints, no fibers, no evidence of forced entry, no witnesses. Nada. Just a rough estimate on time of death."
"Shit." Lorena looked more depressed than usual.
"Every day we're finding a body. Each and every day. Killed in a new and horrifying way. We get a . message E-mailed in untraceably that tells us where to find the stiff. Approximate time of death is always 8:15. This is the fourth."
I agreed with her. "Shit."
She nodded and reinforced her point again. "Shit." Then she continued.
"Really, Ken? You've got nothing? Nothing at all?"
"Not a damned thing. Place is clean as a whistle. Murder weapon appears to be a bottle of Drano."
She winced. "Yech."
"I remember reading about Drano killings once. Seems that for a time it was the "in" thing for New York pimps to kill their hookers that way if they tried to betray him."
"Yeah. Just one of those bits of happy information you pick up." Lorena sighed again, and looked at the glow of the city on the still low-hanging clouds. "Ken, it is becoming clear this really is a serial case."
"I called you in on this for a reason. We've had you doing SCAB works for some time, you know."
My walls went up. "I've noticed."
Lorena sighed. "This wasn't because of your, ah, condition you know. Really."
I cocked my head skeptically at her.
"Ken, SCAB cases are HARDER than the rest. Who else has to deal with a killer who can change shape? Who can change appearance to frame someone else? Who can even change their DNA, for heaven's sake? I've put you there because you're the best I've got."
"Then why do my esteemed professional co-workers refer to me as the Pet Detective?"
My boss frowned, hard. "I've heard that one too," she admitted. "I rather hoped you had not."
I just stood silently. An ostrich. Who had once been human. And was still a cop.
Presently, my boss began again. "Ken, there are those in this world who consider SCABs second-class citizens. There's even more folks who would swear that they treat SCABs as equals but simply cannot get beyond appearances. I try not to be like that. When a SCAB is murdered, as happens all too often, I send the best. Have you ever lacked support from the office, Ken?"
"No. Can't say I have."
"Other detectives complain all the time about budget limitations and a shortage of uniforms. You don't have to. This isn't an accident. And who was in charge of SCAB-related murders before you?"
"Who was not affected by his bout with the Flu. And who is now an Inspector. Does that tell you anything?"
Shit. Maybe she was actually telling me the truth. What a concept! "Ken, we have a serial killer on our hands. There is not the slightest evidence we have SCAB involvement, but I want you to handle the investigation. Will you?"
I thought about the spectacle that still sat mostly intact, just thirty feet away or so. An old lady, killed with unimaginable brutality. While her grandkids smiled down from their gap-toothed pictures on the bedroom walls. And three other dead humans, about which I had heard only rumors. Dark rumors. There would be FBI folks trying to nose in, the media hounding me constantly, and my naked head on the goddamned front page day after day. I hated that idea most of all.. Absently, I clicked my beak a few times. No, it wasn't the front page that bothered me most. It was the guilt that would inevitably come with a timetable like this killer was on. Every day that the case remained unsolved, by all appearances, someone was going to die. Nastily. And there was no way it was going to come together the first day. Or the second. Or, more than likely, the third. When it was all over, how many corpses would have piled up? And how many of them would be my fault, for not solving things earlier, for missing what would be in retrospect an "obvious" clue? For the rest of my life I would be asking myself hard questions, I knew, no matter what the outcome.
Well, that's why a cop's pay is so good. Right? Yeah, right. Then I said the only words a cop can in that kind of situation. "We'll get the bastard."
There was little left to be learned at the crime scene, and both Lorena and I had lots to do. She ran me back down to the Precinct, so that on the way we could coordinate as there didn't appear to be a minute to lose. I requested, and got, a driver on standby full-time, first call on all crime labs, a personal assistant to help me with my physical limitation problems, and an empty office down the hall where I could crash as needed. Unless this thing went on for a lot longer than any of would be comfortable with I didn't intend to go home at all until it was over. Fortunately, my condition made this easy, as the Aves-thing exempted me from uniform regs and my feathers needed little to no care. And I could tuck my head under a wing, pull up a leg and nap almost anytime and anywhere. It was a talent I expected to put to good use in the coming days.
But not that night...
I had heard the expression "center of a whirlwind" used before, but never truly appreciated it until then. Everywhere I went it seemed that people were jumping up and down and trying to grab "just a moment" of my time. A press conference had to be set up for the next morning, to admit to the public that we had a problem and reassure them that we were doing our best. A whole organization had to be set up even before I got a chance to study the files on the first three cases, putting various people in charge of the search for physical evidence, coordinating the lab efforts, canvassing for witnesses, and answering the phone calls that would surely come flooding in after the media spread things around.
I delegated my old partner Teresa Finch to contact all the appropriate jurisdictions with an interest in the case, folks like the FBI and the County and State law enforcement types. And put a bright young college boy named Danny Holmes in charge of searching the crime databases for any connected open files. All this was before I really even knew what was going on! Sure it was procedure, all pretty standard stuff really. But you would think a cop's first priority would be to investigate crimes, not deal with bureaucracy!
It was near dawn before I was able to get a few minutes to myself to study the folders that had been sitting on my desk for hours. Even then, I only got away from the crowd by pointing them all at Teresa, who looked so thrilled to death as a result that I was sure payback was going to be a bitch. But damnit, I HAD to do my job sometime...
Carefully, I squatted on my beanbag and grasped the top folder in my beak. Then I pulled it aside, and opened it. Why do they always put the big color 8x10's in the front? It was another horror-show killing. The victim, a young Oriental male in his twenties, had done a split. All the way up to his ribcage. Well, that's what you get when you tie someone to a hydraulic log splitter, I suppose...
I looked the paperwork over. Victim's name, Tommy Huang. Software engineer, made good money. Family man, no police record. No enemies. No known motive. No robbery -- wallet and cash still in pocket. Body found in pine woods after tip-off by e-mail. Last seen leaving work -- no signs of distress. No physical clues, except an old log splitter that could have come from anywhere. Time of death estimated at 8:15. Geez. The ram on a log splitter moves very slowly, but very inevitably. The victim probably lived for several minutes even after the fatal stroke was complete according to the coroner's report.
The second folder was no better. And they put the damned pic in front again. Here, there was very little blood, but once again the victim had died horribly. With eyes open, face purple and still pleading for mercy that would never come. A little girl had been pressed to death. One cinder block at a time. Here, the equipment had been home-made, but still there were no substantial clues. Cinder blocks and plywood and screws are not exactly traceable, though the labs were still playing with things like wood-grain patterns and sand-grain studies. But it was remarkable that not one print, not one trace of the killer had been discovered to date on this nefarious apparatus. It consisted of a box with a lid that slid up and down on rudimentary guides. The victim had been laid on her back, and the lid put on top of her. Then, weight had been added until she was just barely able to breathe. Asphyxiation soon followed, as the chest muscles rapidly reached exhaustion. The body was found after an e-mail tipoff in an unlocked garden shed owned by an elderly couple who were on vacation in Tucson, and had been for weeks.
It was pointed out that the box had been child-sized, and that the lid had been cut so that the killer could see the victim's face. And, that there had been several half-blocks and quarter-blocks on hand so as to get the weight just right...
I shuddered, trying to picture someone actually going to all that trouble with such a horrid goal in mind. And then cutting the lid so he could watch.
Maureen Davis, the girl had been. The rest of the boxes on the form were for the most part left blank. It's hard to have a rap sheet or make deadly enemies when you are nine.
The third folder was pretty bad too. At least I was ready for the picture up front. This one had been dumped out on Highway 15 wrapped in plastic, as I had heard at the Pig a lifetime ago. She was a hooker, judging by the way she was dressed, and had been killed by having her head crushed in a bench vise, or something similar. The exact murder weapon had yet to be determined, and the body still not ID'ed. The only thing notable about the victim that had been dug up so far was that she had once been a he. Surgical sex-change, not one courtesy of the Flu. Voluntary. And our killer had most likely never even known it, so it probably wasn't a factor.
Again, the tipoff had been by e-mail, and time of death roughly 8:15. The fourth folder taught me nothing new. Except that the victim's name was Theodocia Potts, that she was 68 and had retired three days previously, and that one of her kids had shown up early in the morning to drop off twin girls for a day at Grandma's.
So far canvasses of the neighborhoods had turned up nothing. One of my first steps had been to push even harder for potential witnesses. I put an old veteran friend named Webster in charge of things, and gave him a lot of personnel. The man was like a bulldog -- he would chase down EVERYONE before it was over, from the paperboys to the neighborhood busybodies. And, he would as a matter of routine check out all police activities in the murder areas for even the most slightly unusual events, all the way down to parking tickets. Webster was a good man - he had taught me much of what I knew. A medical condition had once forced him to retire, but SCABS had treated him well by actually restoring his health. He returned to The Job more dedicated than ever. The near-total lack of clues to date made me fear that he would be spinning his wheels, but you just never knew.
I made a mental note to have him try to trace down any connections between the victims, as well. There was no one better suited to the task than my old friend.
In reading each folder, I had set aside the printouts of the e-mail tipoff and left them unread. I wanted to read all four together. It is my theory that the written word gives insight into the mind that wrote it. But not this time. In fact, if it weren't for the unusual method of notifying us and the 8:15 times of death, I'd have had great doubts as to whether they were written by the same person.
For the Huang murder, the text simply read "Body. Williamsburg place. Piney Woods Subdivision. In Back."
The little girl's notification was entirely different. "I killt her! And I luved it! She screemed, you now! And beged. 167 Blakemore Trail. Little luv shack in back" A notation underneath pointed out that the correct spelling of the street name is "Blakemoor".
For the hooker, our killer waxed eloquent. "Gentlemen -- You will find the corpse of a lady of the evening approximately 150 feet into the woods off Straker Road at the "City Maintenance Begins" sign. Proceed North by North-NorthWest, or wait for a couple days and follow your noses. She fully intended to accommodate me, but was suddenly incapacitated by a crushing headache. I offered her some aspirin, but it just didn't seem to help."
Then, tonight's little communiqu‚:
"There once was a lady in town
Who sat in a chair in her gown.
I gave her a drink,
It went down in a blink,
And in her own juices she drowned.
2247 West Street."
The message headers were of no use, even to our computer crime people. Hackers, they told me, have been able to send untraceable e-mails for decades. By several different methods. Including some that could be found in any of a thousand spots on the 'net, and used by virtually anyone...
But there was one thing notable about the headers. They listed the times the messages had come in. Which were 9:13 PM, 7:04 AM, 9:17 AM, and 12:42 AM respectively. If there was a pattern anywhere, I couldn't see it. And serial killers are supposed to follow patterns. Says so right in the book...
I sighed, and fired up my desktop computer to prepare a memo. This case needed to be looked into an organized way. I wanted the murder sites mapped out to try and find a geographic pattern, body orientations checked against cardinal compass directions and everything. Then, a thorough study of the time 8:15 PM needed to be worked up. Was it significant in any religions--especially was it significant in any Satanic ones? Then, I wanted a complete review of every hardware store in the city. Was there perhaps only one that sold plywood, cement blocks, drano, bench vises, and used log splitters? Or had the splitter maybe been reported stolen somewhere?
Energetically I continued to work on the list, my thoughts racing far ahead of my limited typing ability (Yes, I DO use the hunt-and-peck method.) until the sky pinkened, and a knock at the door interrupted my typing. It was Teresa. "FBI on the phone for you."
"OK" I replied. "I'll take it in here." Teresa was being nice, even if she was mad at me for dumping too many tasks on her. I hate fumbling with phones and keyboards and such -- it reminds me too strongly of what I am now and what I once was. Several co-workers honored my standing request to help with incoming calls whenever possible. The speaker on my desk crackled to life. "Detective Bronski" I answered simply.
"Detective Ken Bronski?"
"This is Agent Linda Williams, sir. How are you this morning?"
"Tired! I guess you've heard what we're dealing with here."
"Yes, sir. I have been fully briefed, and am looking forward... Sir, you have a very odd voice."
I waggled my head, realized my caller couldn't see and probably wouldn't understand if she did. "I suffer from SCABS, Agent Williams. I consider myself to be lucky to be able to speak at all. The odd clicks and slurred sounds I sometimes make are caused by my beak."
"Right," I explained, feeling anew the perpetual rage that burned deep inside me. "I have a beak. Externally, I am a full-morph ostrich in fact."
"Ostrich." Her voice was flat. And dull.
"Yes. As you may be aware, this city has a very high proportion of SCAB-afflicted citizens. I am a native, and had been a cop for many years when this happened to me. Luckily for me, the Department has learned to be flexible about these things, and to accommodate where possible."
"I assure you, Agent Williams, that I do not bite. And that I am fully housebroken too." This time I let the sarcasm show through.
"Yes, of course. Detective Bronski, the reason I called is to let you know that there are no forensic psychologists free to help you. We, or I mean they, rather, are all tied up and unavailable at this time. I am very sorry."
"What?" I demanded. "There are people DYING here, for God's sake! One a day! Have you got any other killers working at that level of intensity?"
You could have cut the tension with a knife, but the FBI lady was not backing down. "My supervisor's name is Joe MacDonald. Check with him. I assure you he will find my paperwork in order, and that I, or we rather, are fully engaged in other equally vital work. For the time being at least you'll have to do your best with local resources. At least until another agent is available for reassignment."
This was incredible. She would let people die rather than work with me! "Suppose I gave up the case, let a Norm work with you. Could you come then?"
She thought about it a moment, then answered coldly. "Detective, are you implying that I am refusing to work with a SCAB? That would be grounds for disciplinary action, you know. And my paperwork will reflect that my decision is based on fully defensible factors. Good day, sir!"
And with that, she hung up.
Well, so much for the FBI nosing in on the case. For a few short moments I felt very much alone, and very much inhuman. Then the rage came, and with it the certainty once again that I was where it counted still a man. "Finch!" I yelled, emotion clearly revealed in the single syllable. "FINCH!"
"Yes, Ken?" she asked me from the door, concern clearly showing on her features. The anger was threatening to boil over in me now as I strode back and forth twitching my wings and feeling the need to run and kick, to unleash the adrenaline flowing within me in a natural way. But I swallowed it down, and forced myself to stand still.
"The FBI will not be sending any help, Teresa. They told me everyone was busy, once they knew an ostrich was involved."
Finch's face went hard. She understood, thank God.
"I don't have time to fight this right now. Agent Williams as much as told me her supervisor would cover her. Which means a couple phone calls won't get us anywhere. But I want this bitch barbequed. Think you can handle the extra workload?"
Few people knew that Teresa Finch had once been Thomas Finch. She considered that the change had done her good, but never, ever forgot that she was a SCAB too. "Oh," she said with an evil little smile, "I think I may be able to make a few minutes here and there."
Ex-males are the most merciless humans of all. I waggled my head in acknowledgment and thanks, all the while shuddering at the bounce in Finch's steps as she left. The last time I'd seen her walk like that, someone got the Chair.
The first press conference came later in the morning. Torquemada might know of better tortures for a bird-type like me than trying to call on pushy reporters with a vaguely pointing wingtip or than having flashes fired repeatedly in my eyes, but if so I never want to experience them.
It was my goal to put a good image on the investigation, to make the public confident in us and reassure them that they and their families were safe. But details had quite naturally begun to leak, and the reporters had asked again and again why it had taken four murders to establish that this was a serial killer. I could have ducked this by claiming it hadn't been my call, or by pointing out that it takes an actual series of murders to in order to define a serial killer. But instead I said that special factors had made it a difficult decision.
This led to a clamor of voices demanding to know the circumstances, voices that hadn't wanted to hear my answer that some things needed to remain secret.
It had gotten worse when I was asked if someone would die at 8:15 that evening. If the killer chose to strike a that time, I explained, and there was not a break in the case between now and then it was very likely. This caused a wave of indignation that I had a great deal of difficulty being heard over. A rodent morph of some kind near the back of the room screeched his way over the crowd. "You mean we are to be hunted like prey animals and there is NOTHING you can do about it?"
"Look," I said as calmly as possible. "All we have is a time. There is no way to predict the place of the next murder, if there IS even a next murder. The police will have every man available on the streets this afternoon and evening, and we hope that the good people of this City will lend us their eyes and ears and even their keen noses to help out. But we cannot be EVERYWHERE, any more than you can be. Every effort is being made to catch this killer, every lead being chased down by the finest men available. But it will not happen right away. Not unless we are very, very lucky."
It's a real trick to sober a roomful of reporters, but this did it. The next question was more quiet. "Is the Department getting help on this?"
"Of course. The State Police are lending us manpower, as are several surrounding municipalities."
"What about the FBI?"
Ouch! When in doubt, sidestep. "I have spoken personally to them, and I can assure you that they are aware of our situation. One of my closest associates is acting as a liaison with them. A Detective Finch."
Strangely, that seemed to satisfy them. I wondered just how much politicians got away with using similar tactics while the questions became more routine and eventually petered out into repetitions. At which time I ended the conference, and got back to work. All day long I raced against the clock, holding meetings, coordinating strategies, talking to the Mayor, entertaining new theories, watching my ugly mug on the hourly news briefs. But the clock won. And its prize was yet another body.
That evening was one of the spookiest in the City's history. As 8:15 approached, the streets filled with civilians, reporters, cops, and onlookers. Neighbors checked in with each other to make sure they were all right, even if they hadn't spoken in years. And things became strangely silent as the appointed hour came... ...and passed, as it had on so many other summer evenings. Somewhere nearby, everyone knew, an innocent human life had most likely ended, kicking and screaming against who knew what evil inventiveness. But who, and where? Someone they knew personally perhaps, someplace they'd often been? Eventually things returned nearly to normal, but with an undercurrent of darkness and fear that was almost palpable in the warm twilight. And I went to sleep.
How could I sleep at a time like that? Try staying up 36 hours working against a deadly level of stress sometime, then you won't ask such silly questions. All that could be done for the day had been done. There was nothing to do but await an e-mail. And I had to rest sometime, after all. Didn't I? As soon as my head found it's special place under my wing, I passed out. I don't even recall drawing my leg up, it was so quick.
Our killer was considerate this time, and allowed me six blessed hours of rest. His message arrived at 5:30 AM. "Detective Bronski-- You may have a career ahead of you in TV. The Department should be proud. Never forget however that I am more famous than you. You will find your body at 532 East Street. I left some marshmallows."
And that was it.
We raced to the nearby scene, and I was first at the large abandoned warehouse by virtue of having once again eschewed wheels for the fleet feet given me by the Martian Flu. It did me little good though, as the front door was both most stoutly locked and immune to my hardest kicks. Impotently I circled the place trying to find another way in and caught a clear whiff of burned flesh. No one answered my calls, nor did I expecte them to be answered. The smell was soon overpowering.
It is terrible to admit, but I was trembling with eagerness while the door was dealt with by the first uniforms to arrive. This is one of the contradictions that makes life so hard for us cops. One the one hand, we are as repelled as the rest of the human race by torture and death. Yet at the same time, it is what we live for. I NEEDED to look the crime scene over, was champing at the bit in fact to do my job. And so it was in that spirit that I burst in on the most horrible thing I have ever seen.
It was worse that the Drano killing, worse even that the little girl that I had only experienced in pictures. A walrus-SCAB had been burned to death. Slowly. The crime scene was so horrid it was incredibly fascinating. Walruses are marine creatures, and rarely suffer from burns like terrestrial mammals. But this one had. Our killer had tied the victim into an iron chair, and then taken a blowtorch to him. While huge blisters could be found almost everywhere on the corpse, lingering attention had been paid to the face, hands, feet, and crotch. It looked like all but the face had actually been set on fire, then extinguished before the blubber-fed flames could spread. The face, on the other hand, had been charred to the bone and beyond. My guess was that the brains had been left to burn for some time, but had extinguished themselves eventually.
From the chair the eyeless sockets stared, and the nearly-untouched lower jaw still hung open in a silent scream of agony. The victim's posture showed that he had recoiled as far as possible from the searing heat, but it had availed him nothing. Even his tusks had burned away, leaving only charred stumps where proud ivory had once resided. Almost certainly the face-burning had been the death-blow and all that had come before merely an eternity of pointless pain.
Good Lord. What could lead anyone to do this to a living thing? Part of me was more repulsed than I can express, at a very deep level. Yet, I had the absurd urge to whistle as I took mental notes. It's no wonder cops go nuts.
Forensics arrived presently, and pictures and such were taken. Vaguely I heard barfing in the background as I carefully committed the scene to memory. Most of the officers were reacting that way, once they noticed the promised marshmallows sitting prominently on the floor near the corpse. Especially the half-eaten one...
The lab jumped right on the single obvious clue of course, taking swabs for DNA and trying to make out tooth marks in the stretched-out goo. But I was reasonably sure nothing would come of it. There wasn't any genuine evidence in the place. He'd even taken the blowtorch with him. Why should our guy get stupid on something so obvious?
Then for the first time I began to get a glimmering of what we were up against. And I didn't like it at all. It was the very lack of clues that really gave it away. Our killer knew right where to look, knew exactly how it was we would go about the business of trying to catch him. Only a skilled homicide detective of long experience could pull this string of crimes off so cleanly.
So I would assume he was exactly that. And once I did, a couple things clicked into place right away. "The Department should be proud" our guy had written just last night, and it seemed so normal to me I hadn't thought about it. But referring to the "The Department" is cop-speak. And the venues where the bodies were found had been so flawlessly chosen, the deaths so mutually inconsistent...
What had I just thought a few moments ago? That it is no wonder cops go crazy? Sometimes my subconscious is 'way out ahead of my conscious mind. "Pete!" I called cheerfully to the cop who had been assigned as my helper. "Pete! Come on, we gotta go! Duty and all that!"
But he was still puking his guts out. And the others gathered around the hideous corpse, breathing the oily stench of slow death were staring incredulously at my lighthearted posture and happy tone...
When it rains it pours. I called a meeting right away of my key people to bounce my hypothesis off of them. Most agreed right away, others were skeptical but could find no flaw in my reasoning. Absolutely nothing of significance was turning up, and this in itself HAD to be more than a coincidence. I was proud to have contributed this myself; it made me feel like the team leader I was supposed to be. And it helped the Department's confidence immensely to finally have the beginnings of working hypothesis. The meeting broke up amid smiles for the first time since the nightmare began. Even I was feeling pretty good when I stepped out of the "war room". Until I encountered Danny Holmes bustling in to join the meeting after it had already ended.
"Detective Holmes." My voice was like a whipsaw.
"Sorry, sir! My pager battery went dead, and."
"Son, this is a murder investigation, not a damn college class picnic. You are supposed to be in touch at all times. Period." I had been under pressure, and I'm afraid it showed a bit.
The kid flinched like he'd been hit. "Yes, sir. I know, sir..."
"Every day, Son. Every day someone's dying. Smell anything on my feathers? Take a good whiff, now."
"Sniff, son." He did, and visibly paled. Danny knew the odor. "That's our latest victim, talking to you from the grave. Explain to him about your pager."
The young man gulped visibly, at a loss for words. Dan was just out of school, I knew, with good grades and a commendable drive for police work. He didn't know it, but I had spoken up for him when he was hired and had high hopes for his future. But you don't miss meetings on this kind of case, no matter the hour. Not when you have a role to play, however insignificant.
So I relented. "Go on back to work. Play with your computers, and let me know if anything turns up. Just don't let it happen again." And I turned to walk away.
Until he stopped me. "Sir...."
I turned impatiently on my "heel". "Yes, Danny?" If he thought I was going to apologize or something...
He gulped again, and I wondered if I'd ever looked so young. "Sir, I've found a complete series of identical killings. They were buried pretty deep. Most recent one is over thirty years ago."
There is nothing in the world that looks so ridiculous as an ostrich standing in a hallway with his beak hanging open. Nonetheless, that is exactly what I did for what felt like forever. Helpfully Holmes filled the silence. "They're in the same chronological order" he said with boyish eagerness, "and all geographically in a tight area. New York City, in fact." With that he smiled, extended a bunch of files hopefully, and generally looked like a puppy that needs petting.
So I did. "Good work, son! Let's take a look at these. Right now." And with that I headed back into our War Room, and got to work.
The research had been done beautifully. Each killing was indeed a close analog, and the order was correct. Even the body orientations were right. Looking at the printouts of old photos gave me a serious case of d‚j… vu all over again. It was clear that there must be a link.
But what? Half the killers had been caught and found guilty, some very convincingly. Others had remained unsolved technically, but been ascribed to organized crime or a killer convicted of other slayings and not charged with this particular one because he was never leaving prison alive anyway. What could these murders have in common with what we were seeing today? Then it hit me.
"Dan-Man," I said, using (and making official, in a sense) a nickname I'd heard applied to my compatriot. Nicknames were never official until you earned them from an old-timer. "I want you to do something for me. Run these back through, and get a full list of the officers that investigated each murder. Not just the detective in charge, but a complete list. Then cross-reference them. I'll buy you a coffee if there isn't just one name attached to all of them."
His eyes got wide as he took in the implications. Having missed the meeting, he hadn't heard my homicide detective hypothesis. "Wow," he said quietly.
"But, sir, there's just one thing." He looked up at me, all seriousness.
"What's that, son?"
"The coffee machine is still busted from the last time you tried to use it. And I like soda pop better anyway." He never even cracked a smile, damn him.
"OK, soda pop then. Now get to work, damnit!" I demanded in mock anger, flapping my wings wildly.
He laughed as he left. Looked like the kid might make a cop after all. The newspaper I found on my desk didn't improve my mood any. I was all over the front page, along with photos of the crime scenes, some still taped off.. Even back when I was entirely human I'd hated having my picture taken, and since I'd taken on an uncanny resemblance to Big Bird it had gotten worse. But the front page was far from the most painful. Someone, probably Finch, had tagged a page in the editorial section for me to read. Grumbling, I carefully spread the paper out, sneezing repeatedly from the paper fibers in my nostrils. Why couldn't they use a better grade of newsprint in a town with so many handless folks? I knew Phil had the same problem.
And there it was, in all its majesty. The cartoon that would haunt me the rest of my life, that would be brought up endlessly by friends and enemies alike, that I might as well just frame and hang above my desk. Or even around my skinny neck. From a noose. For half the page was taken up by a drawing of an ostrich with its head below ground. The caption read "How many murders does it take to get the Police Department's head out of the sand?" It would have been funny as hell had it not been for the tombstones in the foreground. Four of them. With a fifth hinted at in a ghostly fashion -- the presses had rolled too early to cover the latest murder, but I was sure it would be penciled in the next day. The Press LOVES to keep score on us cops...
Strangely though, they took it easy on me at the Press conference later that morning. All the questions were focusing on why the FBI had not sent an agent to help me out. "Inside Sources", it seemed, were saying that this was because I was a SCAB. Did I have reason to think the FBI was anti-SCAB? Of course not, I answered. There was no proof at all of such an allegation that I was aware of. In fact, I mentioned in passing, Agent Linda Williams had gone to great pains to ensure that I understood that her paperwork was more of a factor than my SCABS in her decision not to come. At this the reporters scented blood, even the prey types. Were they to understand that in the view of the FBI paperwork was more important than catching a killer? Well, I said, perhaps I had misunderstood, but that was the impression I had been left with...
The rest of the conference passed in a sort of warm glow. Good old Finch! When it was over, Dan-Man was waiting for me in the office. He had my results, and I did not owe him a soda pop. But I still had a problem. A Detective Henry Schwartzkopf had indeed been the sole party involved in the investigation of all the look-alike murders we had turned up, but he had died in the very early days of the initial Flu outbreak. Danny had a copy of his death certificate, in fact, with an important detail illuminated in highlighter pen.
Time of death was 8:15 PM. This was just plain getting weirder and weirder. Talk about your Dead End leads...
"Hell!" I said. Then after a little pause, "Damnation!" Then inspiration hit. "Hey, Dan-Man?"
"Run me another search, will you? Let's create a list of all of this Schwartzkopf's cases, from beginning to end. Maybe we can figure out how our guy is picking the crimes to be emulated."
Without a word, the kid laid another folder on my desk. Smart-ass...
"I don't suppose..."
He flipped it open for me. Schwartzkopf had worked the usual mix of cases, mostly routine knifings, clubbings and shootings easily solved with the occasional real standout thrown in. Dan had highlighted seven such standouts for me, and I had to say I agreed with his judgment.
Five of them had been repeated, in chronological order. The sixth was bad enough, but the seventh I gasped at. "He couldn't!" I said, tracing that last awful crime with my wingtip.
Dan-Man just shrugged.
"Maybe it would be safest if we catch him on number six, then," he suggested. "This afternoon."
Good plan. If we could pull it off!
Spectacular Murder Number Six was a doozy in its own right. In Schwartzkopf's day it had been a mob revenge killing. In fact, it had been revenge for the blowtorch killing, our Number Five. Both had been solved by Schwartzkopf, and the killers duly executed. This time, there appeared to be no revenge motive. Just sick sadism. In the original Number Six, the victim had been tied into a chair on the edge of a balcony. Two legs of the chair had apparently been hanging over the void, according to the later testimony, while the victim was allowed to hold a wire rope to support himself. Problem was, the wire was covered with loose ends and burrs, and would flay unprotected hands to ribbons. The victim was given no protection. As the skin was torn from his hands, the resulting slippery blood made it necessary to grip harder and harder, until...
Well, until. The original victim actually tore three of his own fingers off in the razored snags before taking the fall. A pretty bad way to go, I thought. But for the first time we had a realistic hope of preventing a murder through foreknowledge. Dan-Man's good police work could give us the edge we needed.
I became the center of a whirlwind again, making snap decisions and barking orders. Our killer needed a high place for this one, and would likely choose a very high place to do the dirty deed for the terror factor. I put men with binoculars on every rooftop in the City, and augmented them with flying volunteers from the Avian SCAB Society. (I had not joined them in the past due to my flightless status and a touch of jealousy, but was grateful for their help when the chips were down.)
Every helicopter in the metropolitan area was quietly commandeered and manned as well, each containing at least one armed cop for quick response. We wouldn't have much time, possibly, to save the victim after the initial sighting and every second counted. By 7:30, all the tall buildings in town were under surveillance and we were holding our breaths.
At 8:00, we were still holding it. Something was badly wrong. Then there came an inarticulate squawk on the radio. It got my full attention. "That was urgent!" I said to the room in general.
"SQUAAAAAWK!!!" said the radio again, with even more emotion.
"Someone's airborne in fullmorph!" I thought aloud. "They can't report verbally..."
"Use the GPS!" cried Finch to the volunteer from the Avian society at our headquarters. The Avian society provided Global Positioning System relays to their Search and Rescue fliers. Nodding frantically, the emu-morph hit a couple keys, and a winged symbol lit up on the map above her.
Right above the river bluffs. One of the biggest clear drops in town. And we had missed it in our haste. Only a thoughtful birdie-type, probably violating orders, had stood between us and someone dying. I didn't have to say a word. Finch was on the master frequency instantly, while Pete and I made tracks for the door. It was agony to wait for the uniform to catch up at the unit, but this one was just too far to run. I bounced in place as he opened my door, slammed it behind me, and ran to his side for the code three run to the outskirts of town. We followed most of it by radio.
The first copter to the scene was the tiny traffic bird from Channel Six, able to carry only a single uniform. She called in that there was an apparent victim dangling over the river, with a suspect standing over her. A minute or less passed, then my comrade in blue radioed again that the perp had simply disappeared. She sounded as stunned as I felt, and frightened to boot. No one likes to go in alone into a dangerous situation, and even more is this true when the perp seems to just vanish. But there was clearly no choice here, and Officer Sandbourne did the Department proud. Without regard to her own safety in a clearly dangerous situation, as the citation later stated, Officer Sandbourne proceeded immediately to the intended victim and without waiting for backup leaned outward over a sheer drop with her back to a known danger. Her actions undoubtedly saved the life of the intended victim.
I ought to know those words well. As her acting commander at the time of the incident, I wrote them.
By the time I got to the scene there where whirlybirds all over and some were having to fly out to make room for new arrivals. Dan-Man, to whom I had given the job of airborne coordinator as a reward over many objections, had efficiently coordinated a textbook search, and for once I could find no flaw in the textbook. The victim had provided a description of an ordinary-looking 5' 10" fat white male, age 35 or so, brown and brown. But results were just not forthcoming within a reasonable time, despite more helicopter lifts than the 82nd Airborne could pull off in a single evening. All we had done was seriously annoy four fat but clearly innocent white men with brown hair and eyes by the time darkness was approaching.
I pace when nervous, and the heat was forcing me to use my wings to fan air over my non-sweating body. It's quite a sight, usually, but it was nothing to what Danny was doing when I looked his way just as the Sun began to dip over the horizon.
He was staring at a rock not far from where the chair had hung, with a puzzled frown on his face. I've seen that look before, on far worse detectives than my young friend was shaping up to be. "What?" I asked.
"Hmm." he said, still puzzling. "There's something wrong here."
I looked more closely, lowering my head close to the ground and examining the perfectly ordinary rock first with one eye, then the other. "Like what, son?"
"Well," he said, "I was a Geology major before I took up law enforcement. This rock just doesn't fit."
"It looks fine to me. Like part of this, uh..."
"But it doesn't fit. The details are wrong."
"Details?" I examined the rock again closely, but still didn't understand.
"Look at these wavy lines. They are called ripple marks. See how further up the outcropping they are all slanted to one side?"
"Well, ripple marks are important and geologists study them. You can use these waves to tell which way the wind was blowing or the current flowing when the marks were formed. This is universal, and always consistent. On the rest of the rocks here, the waves are all tilted in one direction. But on this stone they are symmetrical."
"Hmm. And this is important how?"
"This rock looks like it fits here, but it doesn't. Look, there's more. How good are your eyes?"
"Better than yours."
"Then look closely at the sand grains in the ripples. On the "normal" rocks all around, the grains are biggest at the bottoms of the ripples, and smallest at the top. But on this one, all the sand grains are the same size. And if you'll look even closer, you'll find that the grains are all the same color and size everywhere in the rock. That happens sometimes in nature, sure. But not in these other 'country' rocks all around us."
"This rock isn't real. It's a realistic fake, but a fake nonetheless."
I understood then, understood more quickly than young Danny could possibly be expected to. After all, I had a rather unique circle of friends. But still I was too late. Before I could warn anyone, the rock flowed, stood up, and cracked the kid over the head with a fist that was still brutal stone. Then the inanimorph met my eyes and spoke.
"Smart-Ass kid!" he declared in a distinct Brooklyn accent. And with that said, our serial killer headed for the woods at a surprising speed. I chased him, of course. Cops instinctively do that to bad guys -- it's kinda in the job description. Especially when they have just seriously hurt, maybe even killed a brother cop doing his duty. Even when it is a very bad idea, we tend to chase running bad guys.
In this case it was indeed a very bad idea. I shouted to draw attention to Dan, who was bleeding copiously from the forehead and looking otherwise much like a sleeping child. And then I made tracks.
By God, I closed the distance too! The perp looked repeatedly over his shoulder, and accelerated again and again by lengthening his legs in the act of running. It was strange to look at, the partial darkness hiding the flowing but not the increase in height. My legs were not alterable, but when determined I could hold 40 MPH for a pretty fair distance, and running to stay in shape was my only really practical pastime, besides hanging around the Pig. The inanimorph probably only needed a few seconds out of my sight to disappear again, this time armed with a geology lecture to help him blend in better. But he couldn't get enough lead to disappear, nor could he change enough on the run by all appearances to get clean away. Clearly, he had not counted on my turn of speed.
People often forget that ostriches are quite abundant in the wild. This is because we have hidden talents.
We were going steadily downhill, and as we descended the pine forest began to give way to broadleaf underbrush. I strained to close further as visibility dropped, and dropped my head in order to save myself from a broken neck in the event of a close encounter of the limb kind. The inanimorph must have been a city boy, however, as he continued on in his long-limbed form. Until the inevitable happened, and he was swept of his feet.
It was just as well, as my heart was about to burst. I stood over the moaning suspect and gasped out the formal sentences as best my heaving chest could manage. "You... Areunder... Arrest. You... Havetheright...
But I got no further, for suddenly the reclining figure shimmered and changed once again. This time, he was a lion. A big lion. Rolling to his feet, the huge maned cat roared in defiance. Somehow, I didn't think he intended to come peacefully.
Now, I have not mentioned this before, but if you think about it it's pretty obvious that I cannot use a gun. This was the subject of much discussion when I first sought my job back after the featherduster treatment, but eventually it was ruled that I was able to fight and flee well enough to continue on as a detective. Had I been a street cop, the ruling would have gone the other way. And maybe it should have in my case. But until that moment I had never even missed my sidearm. When it came time to miss it, though, I missed it very badly. In the wild, lions kill a lot of ostriches. And I was in no shape to run further, while my opponent seemed to have purged his fatigue poisons as part of the shift.
But then, we bird-types kill a few lions from time to time too, and I was far more adapted to my form than my opponent was to his. He had been a lion for seconds, I had been an ostrich for years. Carefully, I let the instincts come forward. My wings extended unconsciously for balance, and the world shrank to a view of only the lion as he slunk forward to spring. Everything else in the universe was shut out except the threatening predator. If I tried to run I was dead, so I kept the distance open by taking small mincing steps that did not shift my center of balance too greatly.
Any ostrich farmer in the world would have taken one look at my posture and the cock of my head, and kept a respectful distance until I was in a better mood, but this lion did not know anything about the fowl blow in store for him. When he leapt, my kick was a thing of beauty and grace. The impact was solid, foot to skull, and landed with a resounding "thunk!" Instantly I rebalanced for another display of agility and strength from my unlikely body, and the second dose proved needful. This blow left my opponent unconscious, and me unscratched. Leaning over him and listening to rapidly approaching friendly voices I began again, this time enunciating clearly and emphatically. "You are under arrest. You have the right...."
But the shapeshifter wasn't done. Not by a long shot. He recovered from my two fell blows almost immediately, and shifted to a semi-human shape. "Hey!" he said, "Aintcha got no respect for the laws of nature?"
"Look who's talking!" I replied, setting up for another kick if needed. "Lie on your stomach and spread your arms and legs. Now."
"Screw you!" was the reply, and I kicked out once again without hesitation. Aiming for the throat -- this was no game. The kick hit home, but my opponent didn't fold. Instead, agony flowed up my leg as my foot impacted unyielding stone. The uncanny shock traveled the length of my body -- every muscle in my physique went into powering a leg-blow, and thus every muscle seemed to have been injured as a result of my poor judgement in kicking an inanimorph without having studied the matter thoroughly. I dropped instantly, and curled into a little ball of pain.
Eventually, after an eternity, I opened my eyes. The killer, the man who had poured Drano down an innocent throat and slowly suffocated a little girl, looked down almost gently at me with eyes that sat redly in sandstone sockets. "It's not broken. I checked. And you ain't my scheduled kill. I think I'll take the rest of the night off. See ya, copper!" And with that, he rippled and flowed once again. When it was over, he was my twin all the way down to the badge and pager on the banded leg. I shouted, and heard responses. But no one stopped the doppelganger as he trotted off into the gloomy woods.
The next thing I remember is the hospital. The beeps of electronic equipment came through first, followed by a general awareness of pain. I moved my head, and regretted it instantly as sparks of white agony unfolded in my neck. EVERYTHING hurt, I realized, and with that clue the whole affair came back to me. Opening my eyes, I saw at first nothing but darkness. Then they adapted, and I realized I was staring out a window. It was still night. And I was in a hospital suite. Carefully I shifted position again, and realized that I could not use my right leg. Further exploration revealed that it was in a brace, or "soft cast". Great. Just great. But there was good news as well. Shifting about eased my initial pain considerably -- it had been as much the result of sleeping in an odd position as from my ill-advised third kick. Presently I raised my head, and looked this way and that until finding the "call" button. Which I pecked at until it lit up.
Dr. Derksen answered the call, flanked by Finch and my boss. Both women were welcome sights, but Derksen was the luckiest break of all. I had made him my doctor-of-choice only a few weeks back, and it was good fortune that the paperwork had already gone through. His SCAB expertise would be most welcome.
Before anyone would talk about the case or Dan-Man's condition they insisted on talking about me. I assured Bryan that could feel my leg just fine, and listened while he told me I was to stay off it as much as possible for three weeks due to massive contusions and strained ligaments. I had been very fortunate not to break one of my two primary limbs, my physician explained sternly, and needed to take it easy. Since there was no way I could use crutches, sitting or lying down was my only option. Lorena and Teresa reemphasized my insectile doctor's point with most unladylike threats, up to and including being taken off the case if I failed to follow Derksen's orders.
Then it was my turn. First I asked how Danny was doing, only to discover he was in a deep coma and that his chances were not good. I was quiet for a moment at the disturbing news, but since there was nothing I could do about the situation except mouth platitudes that, however heartfelt, would do no good I went ahead and distracted myself by making my own verbal report. Shifting about to face Lorena, I described what had happened, up to and including my last ill-advised blow. She frowned deeply as I went through the suspect's getaway using my identity, but withheld comment until I was completely finished. "This explains much" she said finally.
Damn straight it did! "Yep. It covers why there were no fingerprints, no fibers, no anything. This guy actually left us more than he had to! He could have BECOME the log-splitter, for example, then made his getaway. I suspect he only left the clues required to make the bodies look like the ones in Schwartzkopf's old files."
I paused for a moment. "That's what gets me, you know. How is this guy connected to Schwartzkopf?"
There was silence, then Derksen's voder clicked to life once again. "I may perhaps be able to help with that one."
"Good!" I replied, twisting my neck back to face him without overly disturbing my sore body. "I was kinda hoping you might have some insights."
"Hmm." Derksen was truly gifted with that voder. I had never heard that sound done so convincingly on one. "You say this suspect took on both animate and inanimate forms. Right?"
"Then you must understand that there is almost no parallel to this being. Inanimorphs are very, very rare, but not unknown. For one also to be able to change to living forms is virtually unheard of.."
Derksen sighed with his voder this time, again very convincingly. "There are some theoretical issues here. And I need to consult with Posti in any case. Will you excuse me for a few minutes? In the meantime, Ken, your blood sugar tested out very low. This is in my opinion the main reason you passed out today -- the shock alone shouldn't have done it. I want you to eat the meal I send up while you are waiting. All of it -- you've been off your feed for days, and a bird cannot afford to miss so many meals. Forgive me, but I would rather be elsewhere while you catch up."
"Sure!" I said, a bit taken aback. Not much an ostrich does ought to be able to bother a living cockroach, or so I had figured. But when Derksen had left and the food arrived, I understood. The main course was crickets, with a dead lizard and some dates for taste. A handful of well-chosen crop stones provided a functional garnish. The ladies excused themselves as well while I happily crunched away at my favorite delicacy and swallowed stones.
Did Derksen know that looking at him invariably made me hungry? At any rate, dinner/breakfast, whatever it is you eat at 4AM was superb. And made me feel a lot better. I had just scarfed my lizard-dessert when Posti and Derksen returned with the ladies. I think Dr. Stein caught a flash of the tail as the little scaly thing went down, but he was too polite to speak up. "Doctor," I greeted him formally, nodding. "How are you tonight?"
"Well enough. How's the leg?" Dr. Stein had clearly been at home and sound asleep when he had been called in. I didn't envy a doctor's life. My hours were bad enough.
"I'll live. Doc, we're on a tight schedule here. If you'll excuse me, I'll get right down to business. I guess you know we have an inanimorph as lead suspect in the recent killings?"
"Yes. Your comrades here have filled me in."
"What can you tell me about what we're up against here?"
My friend's long horse-face looked pained. "Both a lot more than you want to know, and a lot less. Actually, I think it would be far better for you to take a tour of our SCABS research wing than for me to try to explain. Some things you've just got to see for yourself. I know you don't have minutes to spare, but truly you need to give me a couple hours of your time here."
I trusted Posti implicitly. If he said it was worth my time, it most likely was. Dr. Derksen waved in a nurse with a special wheelchair for me, and we were off.
It was clear right away that this was not going to be a nice experience. We went deep into the bowels of the mammoth hospital, and began our tour in the morgue. Or what certainly looked like the morgue.
About a dozen stiffs were lying on racks along each side of a central aisle, each with a sheet over them. Derksen and Stein exchanged looks, and Derksen gave the day's first lecture. "Ken, Lorena, Teresa, you are all cops. Tell me what is wrong here, would you?"
My boss spoke first. "It's warm in here. Morgues are chilled. And it doesn't stink."
I sniffed the air delicately. She was right. "Care to examine a body?" asked the giant cockroach. "You've nothing to fear. There's nothing really ugly in this room. Physically, at least."
I took the bait. Using the little joystick, I wheeled my chair alongside the nearest bed and reached up to take the sheet in my beak. But I didn't even get that far before seeing something wrong. "There's dust all over this sheet."
"Is there?" Stein asked from the back of the room. "I'll have to get on housekeeping about that. These are patients, and entitled to be treated as such."
I thought about it a minute. Corpse. Warm room. No stink. Dust. "My God!" I exclaimed. Are you trying to tell me these people are not dead?"
"No," Derksen replied, his voice a bit flat and strained. "They're deader than doornails. All of them. But the bodies will not decompose."
This was getting really weird, really fast. I cocked my head inquiringly.
Stein took up the lecture. "Of course just because they are dead doesn't mean that they aren't alive."
Lorena shook her head in confusion. "Doctor, we don't have time here for guessing games."
Stein held up a hoof-hand. "I know that, Ma'am. Really I do. But until you see this, it's hard to get a grasp on what an inanimorph really is."
It was my turn to get impatient. "Posti, help me out here. I just don't get this."
"OK," he said. "Look at it this way. From what I've been told, you encountered an inanimorph today that appeared to all intents and purposes to be a rock. Is that correct?"
"Right. Was it breathing?"
"Of course not."
"Then was it dead?"
I thought about it, and then something horrible began ringing alarm bells in the back of my brain. "You mean an inanimorph..."
"Is clinically dead. Yep."
"Oh my God!" Teresa contributed.
With great sincerity,.Derksen took back over. "What you see here are SCABS victims that are inanimorphs. Or at least we think they are. The only way to know they are not corpses is that they do not rot. Their heartbeats and respirations are zero, and their brainwaves flat as pancakes. Much like a 'living' inanimorph. Unless he troubles himself to breathe in order to keep up appearances."
The cockroach shifted position uncomfortably, turned to the ladies. "You know," he said, it's interesting that a mutual friend of Ken and Bob and I was talking about the philosophy of SCABS just the other night. He was speculating on where SCABS really comes from, what it's role is in the universe vis-…-vis the human condition. I wonder what he would make of this place?"
This was horrid. I looked about the room, and shivered. "So, are these people aware?"
"Who knows?" Stein broke in. "They're corpses, most ways. I've read that one moved once, in a hospital in Kansas City. But it could have been a practical joke set up by an intern. In truth, we don't understand what the precise differences are between these patients and active inanimorphs like your killer."
Good Lord. I edged my wheelchair to the foot of one of the beds, lifted the chart. The last date on it was 23 years previous. Replacing, it, I shivered. This could go on literally forever...
"So," Lorena interjected into the sudden silence. "You are saying that an inanimorph is neither alive nor dead, but something else entirely."
"Precisely. And as a result, they experience reality in far different ways than you and I."
That got my attention. I was trying to get inside an inanimorph's head, and needed all the insight I could. "Could you elaborate on that please?"
Stein and Derksen looked at each other again, and this time the horse-man fielded the question. "Neither of us are psychologists, but it wouldn't do you any good to get one because NO ONE comprehends the psychology of an inanimorph. For example, if I understand right, your rock today overheard a conversation, right?"
"Right," I replied.
"Exactly how did it do that?"
I thought about it, got puzzled.
Stein correctly interpreted the new tilt of my head. "You DO understand, I see. No ears. No thoughts. No brain to think with. Yet it understood. He understood, and acted upon his understanding."
Dr. Derksen took back over. "It's the most frustrating thing in the world for a researcher. Many inanimorphs are wonderful people, who want desperately to explain what they experience and how they perceive things. But they simply cannot! It's a lot like having a fishmorph try to tell you what it's like to have a lateral line, or a bat-morph explain seeing by sonar. But even then there is common ground, there are other senses we share the experience of for comparison. But an inanimorph has gone far beyond all of this. Have him morph into a table, and he can still listen to conversations. Have him turn into a rock, and when he returns he will comment on how nice the sunset was. But ask him to explain how he experienced these things, how he knew about them, and words simply break down. There literally is no way to explain what a normal person cannot imagine."
There was a pause, which I filled. "Our suspect told me my leg was unbroken, that he had checked. How did he do that?"
"Who knows?" replied Stein. "They try to explain, and invariably fail. But a couple of the most gifted surgeons in the world are inanimorphs. And they don't use x-rays or ultrasound or MRI's. They just... perceive."
Teresa had the next question. "Doctors, let me get something clear. When a SCAB changes form, the change almost always causes psychological problems. For example, when a male becomes a female..." her voice caught a bit, but bravely she continued on. "When a male becomes a female, there are certain, ah, adjustments to be made. The world looks at you differently, and pretty soon as a result you look differently at the world. And your worldview is a basic part of who and what you are. Change the worldview, and you change the person. With me so far?"
We all nodded.
"OK, then. A change in species, if heavily morphed, is usually even harder to deal with than a sex change, right?"
This was well known. We all nodded again, and I took a moment for the thousandth time to be grateful for the fact that ostriches really are a lot like people, most ways.
"Then, what happens when your worldview gets so changed that you cannot even explain it anymore to normal beings? To have senses so different that you cannot even describe them? To not even really be alive anymore?"
We were all silent for a bit, wrapped in our private musings. We have all seen inanimorphs perform on TV, of course, and watched a few of the endless sitcoms based on the presence of an inanimorph. But my sense of wonder and laughter seemed so shallow now. I thought I had seen and understood. In fact though, this phenomenon of inanimorphism cut to the very heart of my lapine friend's deep question of a couple nights ago.
What is real?
If a person becomes so changed by SCABS that their view of things literally cannot be communicated, do they then by definition live in a different reality? And if so, does their morality change? Does the concept of morality have any absolute meaning, if the reality it is part of is just a subjective thing?
This would get me nowhere, I realized suddenly. My reality included a sadistic murderer whom it was my duty to catch, and all the philosophizing in the world would not move me an inch closer. Literally, I shook my head to clear it of the endlessly dancing chains of questions without answers, and focussed on the business at hand.
"Another thing I need to ask is this. Our guy turned into both living and unliving forms. I gather this is unusual?"
Stein fielded this one. "Exceedingly. I'd love to study this case."
"Can you give us any insights?"
"Well.... Without real research, anything I say has to be taken with a grain of salt. But applying Occam's Razor is often useful."
I waited while the big equine thought things through for a moment, then he continued. "Detective, do you know that the lion-form you fought was really alive?"
"It roared and leapt, all right!"
"But was it alive? Could it have been an animated corpse?"
I pondered a moment. "I suppose. I managed to stun it with a couple kicks. Hard to do that to a corpse."
Stein rocked his head consideringly from side to side. "Hmm. There is that. We just don't have enough data, I suppose. But my guess is that if you had looked closely you would have found your lion was not breathing. It is easier to accept that than to go running off into new territory with an inanimorph that is also a polymorph. After all I've seen in these four walls, though, I could not rule out the possibility."
"Yeah," I agreed. "Is there anything else you can think of we need to know, any other questions you think we ought to have asked but didn't?"
Derksen spoke up without hesitation. "You missed the biggest one of all."
"Which is...." prompted Lorena.
"How dangerous is an inanimorph?" the cockroach replied promptly.
"OK, I'll bite. How dangerous is an inanimorph?" Teresa asked. It is very hard for an insectmorph to express emotions physically, far more so than it is for me even. But somehow, so help me, Bryan managed to convey absolute conviction in his posture. "The most dangerous things that have ever walked the Earth. Probably the most dangerous beings that will ever exist in the entire universe."
There was silence in the room for a moment, until I broke it. "That, Doctor, is a VERY sweeping statement."
"It was meant to be," Bryan replied sincerely. "You really haven't thought this through, have you?"
"I don't understand what you're getting at, if that's what you mean."
Posti took over. "Bryan is absolutely right, you know. There are essentially no limits to what an inanimorph can do. They can vary their body's rest mass, energy, composition, and velocity. While most inanimorphs have definite limitations, a few do not seem to have any at all."
"In other words," I said slowly, trying to get a handle on what the medical types were trying to communicate, "Instead of turning into a lion, the perp could have turned into a speeding bullet aimed at my heart."
Posti snorted. "That's the LEAST of what he could have done. You are many orders of magnitude from a true appreciation of what you are up against here. Let me try another approach. Do any of you recall the terror-nuking of Tehran?"
It was a rhetorical question, of course. The detonation of a 25 megaton fusion device in a major city is not an easy thing for the human race to forget.
"This is classified, people. I never said a word here. But you know it was never established where the bomb came from. This is because no bombs were missing from the inventories of any nation capable of building such a beast."
"Now it just so happens that the US Embassy there, along with several other Western embassies, received a warning three days before the event. It gave a detailed description of where the exact location of the bomb was to be, along with a long rambling denunciation of the Islamic government there and it's failings in living up to Allah's wishes as expressed personally to the author. This note was forwarded to Iranian officials, all very hush-hush, and I am told that the entire area where the bomb was hidden was absolutely swarming with soldiers right up to the instant of detonation."
"The US government takes an interest in ANY event of nuclear terrorism, of course, and I have no idea how much effort was put out by Washington in trying to find out exactly what happened. But I do know that the author of the warning note was found to be an inanimorph, and that tests were done that proved he could have made himself into the bomb just before exploding."
"A person can become an H-bomb?" Teresa demanded. "That's ridiculous!"
"How so?" asked the horse-man. "Is it any less a miracle when a relatively common shapeshift happens? Is an H-bomb any more complex than a living, breathing body?"
"But where does the energy come from?" asked Lorena.
"From the same place all the mass comes from when a person morphs into a blue whale or a brontosaurus. And the same place it flows back to when someone morphs into a mosquito. Mass and energy are essentially different versions of the same thing. We all know that. And the energy of the mass change in turning a man into a fly is measured in gigatons, not megatons."
Posti sighed, then went on. "One of the things that could never be settled was if the terrorist could have possibly survived the explosion. I mean, an inanimorph is dead anyway, right? How can he die again? We have no conception of what is and is not possible here. So this nutcase could still be out there, waiting for Allah to tell him to blow up another city. And there is little we can do about it if he does."
We all thought about that for a minute, then Bryan took over. "It gets worse, you know. Our terrorist seems to have had little imagination. What happens when a particularly powerful inanimorph interested in physics goes nuts? There is no theoretical reason we can find why an inanimorph could not, for example, become any amount of antimatter he cares to. Or a star. Or even a black hole. Want to tell them, Posti?"
The horse looked sad. "We think the black-hole thing may have happened once already. A physicist became an inanimorph right here in town. He told me that he had been bending his mind around what it would be like to be inside a singularity since childhood, and that he just had to know what was to be found on the other side of one. Then, right in front of me, he vanished. I called in a team from the university, and they found carpet fibers stretched by apparent tidal effects right where he was standing, all around a tiny little hole in the floor. There was another hole in the floor below, then another and another and another..."
The horse shook his head in a very equine way. "No one seems willing to say what happened to him for certain. Some think that he is likely still swinging back and forth through the gravitic center of the Earth-Moon system, picking up a few atoms of mass and slowing just a bit on each pass. Others speculate that he evaporated almost immediately in a burst of radiation. Black holes are a pretty poorly understood phenomenon to begin with, and when you consider that this one was both sentient and directly involved with physics-defying SCABS, well, the scientists pretty much have thrown up their hands and given up on this one. Personally, I think the answer has a lot to with just what exactly IS on the other side of a black hole. But only one person knows that..."
We all stood silently for a moment; then Posti dropped his real bomb. "Thankfully, he was considerate enough of the rest of us to become a mere quantum black hole, rather than, say, a galaxy-eater..."
Derksen had been all too right. We hadn't thought it through. Looking back, it appalled me that I had tried to subdue such a creature with a kick, tried to arrest him and bring him to justice. But eventually I had to find a way to bring him in. I was a cop, after all. It was my job.
We talked for a while longer, establishing that no jail cell had ever been built to hold any but the weakest inanimorphs, that none had ever been taken anywhere against their will as far as the doctors knew, and that they thought I didn't stand a Chinaman's chance of closing this case successfully. I thanked them, and asked one last question on the way out.
"Tell me, Doctors. Has an inanimorph ever 'died'? I don't mean physically -- we've already covered that. But has any ever ceased to be?"
"Well, no one's ever seen our hydrogen bomb or the black hole again. Does that qualify? I mean, how would you know for sure that they are gone, never to return?"
I nodded my thanks. Perhaps you could never be absolutely sure. I'd seen a lot of death, though, and it seemed pretty final to me.
But then, I wasn't an inanimorph.
We stopped in to see Dan, who looked rather pathetic plugged into every medical device known to Mankind. Then we headed back to the office. The ride was very quiet.
"You know," I said, painfully getting out of the car as Finch held the door, "Things aren't as bad as they sound. We HAVE saved one victim's life, you know."
"True," admitted Lorena.
"And, we have a detectable pattern in the crimes now. We can predict this guy, even if we cannot understand him."
"Sure, within limits," Teresa contributed as she got my new wheelchair out of the trunk and set it up for me. I stood delicately on one foot waiting. "But the only reason we were successful was because our perp had to show himself in a particular kind of location at a predictable time in order to fulfill his pattern. And even then, we almost blew it by not watching the right place. For the next crime, we have no such advantages. And it's the last in the series. Who knows what he plans after successfully carrying it out?"
"Or maybe he will repeat number six, having been unsuccessful this time," Lorena added. She looked very bedraggled and depressed as we started across the police garage. Defeated.
"Uhm," I grunted around the joystick. It is annoying not to be able to manipulate things and speak at the same time. But far from the worst I put up with. Thus it was that we were going "up" in the elevator before I could reply. "I agree that he may repeat number six, and we ought to reserve all the choppers again just in case. However, in my opinion we should study number seven. We've all heard of the incident, of course. But none of us has really had the time to look into it."
Neither quarreled with my plans. They were too depressed. And so eventually we gathered in my office and got out the fattest folder of all, that of the great New York City Plague Incident. It all went down just weeks before the infamous NASA probe bearing the gift of the Flu came home. A Macao-based Freedom Fighter group tried to blackmail the UN into adopting an anti-Chinese human rights resolution with what they claimed was a highly concentrated aerosol bottle of Hong Kong Avian Flu virus, the deadly strain of bird disease that had mutated into a form capable of killing humans in 1997. The extortionist's claims proved true. The deadly stuff got loose during the final firefight and caused a local epidemic. Hundreds died in the then-most deadly terrorist attack in history. Schwartzkopf headed the branch of the investigation that located the bastards, setting up the raid and earning himself a nice commendation in the process. It was the pinnacle of his career. And, present at the scene, he had been infected. It was while still hospitalized for this illness that he contracted the Flu that killed him.
If indeed it had killed him. A truly disturbing thought crossed my mind.
Inanimorphism was a rare phenomenon. And the early days of the Flu were highly chaotic, to put things mildly. How many inanimorphs might have been declared dead and buried alive before the doctors realized that just because there were no vital signs didn't mean there was no hope?
Some hurried checks confirmed my worst fears. Schwartzkopf died before word got out. If I was right, and I wished I could bet Danny another soda pop that I was, it was no wonder this guy had gone nutzo. I almost felt sorry for him. Seeing that roomful of corpses had shaken me enough. How much worse to BE one, and then wake up in a coffin...
We were still poring over the old records when the daily e-mail arrived at 6:22 AM. It was somewhat different than all the rest. "Detective Bronski- My congratulations on your saving the woman. It took damn good police work. Hope you get the recognition you deserve. In fact, I find it regrettable that things will turn out as they inevitably must. The pattern is warped, but not irretrievably broken. Death can play no favorites."
We read it again and again. Like most of the notes, it was both informative and maddening. You could guess at meanings, but never know them. After about an hour of fruitless discussion, I declared a short coffee break and took a look at the morning paper. It appeared Dan-Man and I were heroes. There was no mention of the head-in-the-sand cartoon of the day before. Newspapers never acknowledge their own track records or errors in judgment -- they just point out the mistakes of others. But best of all was the article in the lower-right hand corner of the front page asking again where the FBI was. This time, an outraged Senator and two congresscritters were asking pointed questions about why "Good cops like Ken Bronski" were being forced to work without sufficient help from Washington. An FBI supervisor by the name of Joe MacDonald was quoted defending his "overworked" staff, but sounded whiney in what I was sure were remarks carefully chosen out of context by the paper to achieve that effect. It seemed some careers were
about to be seriously damaged. The very idea broke my heart. Coupled with the fact that I planned to shamelessly use my wheelchair to get out of today's encounter with the press, I felt better than I had in days, despite lingering aches and pains.
There's something about victory that is contagious. Win a little battle, and pretty soon the major victories start piling up. Personally, I think it's because you can only perform well when you feel confident. In any case, I am quite certain that it was our petty triumph over Joe MacDonald and Linda Williams of the FBI that gave me the heart to take a fresh look at things. And, in the process, we finally broke the case. Lorena and Teresa were both looking bedraggled and woebegone when we got back together, listlessly looking at their copies of the last e-mail. They had serious bags under their eyes, and for the first time I realized they had probably been up all night. But they were cops too, and ought to be used to that sort of thing. It was time for a pep talk.
"Alright, guys!" I said cheerfully. "Let's nail this guy."
They looked at me like I was insane.
"What?" I asked in a wounded manner. "Haven't you ever caught a murderer before?"
Teresa shook her head tiredly. "This is impossible, Ken. I know what you're trying to do, but face reality. This guy is going to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants."
Lorena, who should have been in my corner, didn't contradict her. Damn, this was bad!
"Look, this guy isn't Superman, you know. He has definite limitations."
"Like?" asked Teresa flatly.
"Well... He's not super intelligent, for one thing."
"Great! He can do anything he wants, Ken. He doesn't NEED super-intelligence."
I ignored her. "Secondly, he's a cop just like us. We can use that."
"How, exactly?" chimed in Lorena.
"Third, he is warped mentally, tied into a pattern of behavior. We have successfully predicted him once."
"But it didn't result in his capture," objected Lorena again.
"Fourth, he can be killed. Or at least we THINK he can be killed. If so, that means we can make him afraid."
"Oh frabjous day!" Teresa looked at Lorena and gestured expansively with her arms. "We THINK he can be killed. Not arrested, but killed. Maybe."
I rocked my head vigorously side to side, then realized that this was the first time I had laughed in days. Like I said, a little taste of victory can go a long way. "Look ladies, we DO have certain edges. We can try to use them ,or sit here and wait for a can of Hong Kong Avian to be sprayed downtown somewhere. Personally, I intend to bag this creep."
Lorena looked at intently. I blinked rapidly, which I knew from experience looked funny as hell. And presently, she began laughing. Then
Teresa joined in, and when we were done the ladies hugged me and we got back to work with lighter hearts.
"This e-mail is the best clue we've got," Lorena said for the hundredth time, an hour later. "But I still don't get anything definite from it."
"We never will." I pointed out. "Solving crimes doesn't work that way."
"Mmm," Lorena agreed.
Then Teresa pointed something out. "You know, this note CAN be read as a threat. Personally directed at you, Ken."
"How so?" I asked.
"He apologizes for not being able to play favorites, after indicating that he respects you. That's personal."
Hmm. After pecking at the idea a minute or two I nodded. "Makes sense."
Then Lorena contributed. "Schwartzkopf DID play a prominent role in the Plague case, you know. He was considered something of a hero. Just like you."
I looked elsewhere. Being called a hero for not catching a criminal was kinda embarrassing. In fact, being called a hero was kinda embarrassing, period.
Silence ruled at our little table for a moment, then Teresa spoke. "You know, one of the big problems with the Avian flu is that wild birds often act as vectors. In fact, in the New York incident pigeons spread the disease far more effectively than humans. They had to undertake a massive campaign to try and kill every pigeon in the city to get things under control."
"So?" I asked.
"Heh!" Lorena laughed, as her eyes grew wide in understanding. "Looked in the mirror lately, Ken?"
I gave my puzzled headcock for a moment, then it finally struck me. Of course! It all fit neatly, once you let your intuition take a couple steps for you. I was the next target. Me. Personally...
It was not a comforting thought.
On the other hand, if we were correct there WERE certain opportunities. I conned Lorena into being a good supervisor and covering for me at the daily press conference, while Teresa and I got very busy on the phone.
Presently, we had the semblance of a plan. If our killer would just cooperate...
By 7 o'clock that night all was ready and every last sign of the work crews gone. I sat in my wheelchair looking helpless, shuffling papers and pretending to be fixated on the negative reports coming in from airborne helicopters all across the city. Anyone who worked with me daily would know that the radio speaker I was using was brand new and that I would NEVER put up with being cooped up in a tiny room at such a tense moment, but our killer would not. And another thing an inanimorph cannot do is read minds...
Still, I missed pacing.
It was a couple minutes past 8 before anything happened, and I would have been sweating had my leggy physique allowed it. Only by exerting the most iron control could I sit still and pretend to read the file on victim 2. "Pssst!" I heard. "Down here, Bronski!"
Birds have good poker faces. It was not hard to cock my head in surprise and look at the doorway.
"No, ya boidbrain! Down here!" And there, sitting on my nameplate, sat a miniature version of the man seen by victim 6 at the cliffs. Only he was perhaps an inch tall. I didn't have to pretend much to look scared, and quickly reached for my phone.
"Stop!" the little man cried, using the "authority voice" we all learn in the academy. Despite myself, I froze. It's a deep reflex.
"Bronski," the little guy went on, "You know what I am by now. Right?"
Carefully, I nodded.
"Good. Then you know I am telling you the sincere truth when I say you will live longer if you just pull that ugly head back away from your phone, and cooperate."
Reluctantly, I complied.
"Well done, Detective. I figgered you for smart. It's a lucky thing for me, to have you playing who I once was."
"What do you mean?" I asked slowly.
"You," he said gently, "are number seven."
I cracked my bill open in feigned shock. "Me? Why me, Schwartzkopf.?"
"Don't call me that!" he snapped. "I was he once, but no longer. I merely wear the shell of his soul, carry his memories. And my nickname was Schwartzie!"
This was weird. He was like a blend of a stereotypical Brooklyn dick and some kind of lunatic. But the mix seemed all wrong. Stein and Derksen had told me that these people sometimes became literally incomprehensible. Seeing it, however, was far more intense than hearing about it. You could almost feel yourself trying to get an emotional grasp, then there would be another odd twist as our mismatched realities simply failed to meet. Between his altered universe-view and just plain craziness, you never felt like you were understanding what was really being said. Part of me wanted to be able to touch his darkness, to somehow sense the evil that simply had to reside in him. But real communication simply wasn't happening. And probably never could. "Don't get excited, Schwartzie..."
"Don't call me that either, ya walking dustmop! I am beyond names now. I am dead, and risen. But washed in evil."
"Awash in evil, some might put it."
Surprisingly, he agreed. "Yeah, that's probably more like it. Woiked a lot of moiders, ya know."
"You've got the look about you. Just like I did."
I was getting even more confused, which had seemed impossible. I was physically an ostrich, for Pete's sake! "What do you mean, the 'look'?"
"The look of Death."
I just shook my head, and the little man shifted a bit on my nameplate to make himself more comfortable. "You can't see it, I know. No one can but me. I can look inside anyone and know their heart, since I died and rose. And yours has seen too much ugliness, too much Death."
This was true of most cops. It was one of the most painful parts of The Job, watching the young idealistic kids turn into cynical hard cases identical to us. I just sat and waited.
"What you see after you die is so different! There aren't any corners any more, no blind spots, no pretty covers to hide ugly things. And what I saw in my own heart made me know that I had become hard and evil long before I moved on to the current plane. The hatred around me all the time got sucked in and became a part of me. A thousand lifetimes could never undo it. I became that which I swore I never would. Someone as hard and tough and rotten inside as the ones I chased."
I wanted to tell him he wasn't dead, and wasn't evil. But it would have been a lie. Wouldn't it?
"So now I spread the infection, pass it along to other cops like it was spoon fed to me. Make them know what I know about the final truth of things. Did you look into the old woman's eyes, Bronski?"
"And what was there?"
"Fear, mostly. Pain. Suffering."
"It ate into your heart, too. I can see it. When you die you'll be just like me, you know."
"When I die, Schwartzie, I'll die dead. Listen to me! You are insane and you have to know it. Turn yourself in, and you'll get treatment. Help. There are others like you, you know. The Flu did this to you, the Martian Flu. Not a normal death."
He ignored me, didn't even object to my use of his "former" name. "You already hate the young ones, don't you? Just like I did, with their hopeful faces and pure hearts and powerful happy dreams. When you're like me, they'll be the most fun to kill of all. By the way, how's your smart-ass friend?"
"Dying, most likely."
"Serves him right. But he won't come back, not like you and I. Only evil hearts are powerful enough to walk after death."
Just about then, I looked at my desk clock. It was 8:15. Schwartzkopf followed my gaze, and grinned. "Figured it out yet?"
"Good man. You're my future partner, you know. We're so alike. Surely the Master will allow me that much for doing so well. Ready?"
"Don't do this!" I begged. "Please, don't kill me! Not that way!"
"The Avian Flu is pretty nasty, I hear. Let me tell you exactly what is going to happen. I am going to turn into a virus, and infect you. Almost immediately you will begin producing clouds of infection that will spread throughout the City. And the birds will spread Death far and wide."
"What's to keep me from just taking medication, or having myself isolated?"
He smiled. "There is no cure for the Hong Kong Avian Flu. I ought to know. And if you are isolated I will always be there, making holes in the hospital walls and carrying your little deadly offspring far and wide. Even if you won't do your part willingly, I will see it is done for you. You WILL play your role in making the picture whole. No matter what, you will do your part. See you here in Hell!"
And with that the little man sort of launched himself at my face, flying at tremendous speed and shrinking rapidly at the same time. It did odd things to my sense of perspective, but I didn't let that slow me down. According to plan I sniffed hard, twice, and drank from the tumbler left thoughtfully on the table. It was important that I absorb Schwartzie as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, a crew from the CDC disguised as police officers was sealing off my office door. We needed to ensure things happened faster than the perp could react to them. You see, another thing inanimorphs cannot do is respond to new, unexpected situations faster than a human can. We profoundly hoped it was a failing that would prove lethal in this case. Inanimorphs are NOT gods, however intimidating their power may seem at times. Schwartzie had just made what we most fervently hoped was a major error.
You see, a virus is neither living nor dead, really. It is much like an inanimorph in some regards. But it is certainly alive enough to be killed. And while it was true that there is no cure for the Avian flu, there have been large stores of antibodies kept frozen since the New York outbreak.
I had been injected with enough for fifty birds my size...
The water finished, I slumped back in my wheelchair as most of the Department gathered worriedly outside my now carefully sealed glass office walls and waited for my enhanced blood to do its stuff. While we couldn't be sure, there was at least a reasonable chance in the opinions of most experts that we wouldn't be seeing any more daily horror show killings.
Except for Schwartzie's. Antibodies are pretty terrifying killers in their own right, and very, very quick acting on the scale of human thought. Right up there in the major leagues of lethality with black holes and thermonuclear explosions, we hoped. If all went well, Henry Schwartzkopf's estimated time of death was around 8:15 PM that night. Or so his new certificate would read. I had pull with the coroner, after all.
I spent the next four days isolated in my tightly sealed office, eating stockpiled food and taking drugs and cursing the lack of sanitary facilities. When it became apparent that I had not been infected I was allowed out. If Schwartzie was still alive he got out with me, I am sure, despite the repeated scrubbings and enemas and scrapings and such that cost me half my plumage and all my dignity.
But no one has seen him since. Perhaps being digested by the hungry little buggers in my bloodstream proved too much for him. Thinking about his victims, I certainly hoped so. But we can never be sure. Maybe Death is a relative thing, after all.
It was five weeks later that I met Phil in the lobby of the hospital. Jack had driven him over for a cage call that he anticipated would tie him up for days. I explained that I was there to see Danny, and the white rabbit asked if he could come up too. I agreed. Phil is good company sometimes.
Dan-Man was still in intensive care, of course, though he looked a lot better. His parents and a girlfriend were there too, and Phil went into counselor mode with them, just sitting and listening to their fears and absorbing them into his creamy fur in a way I could never manage. Meanwhile, I strode over to the bed. My young friend lay still and far too pale on the mattress, his face absolutely motionless save for the slight twitching of his nostrils as he breathed steadily in and out. The respirator had come off days ago, and they told me that was a hopeful sign. But there was no evidence of hope in that slack face, at least that I could discern.
Presently, I spoke to my companion. "You know, Phil, Schwartzie was right about me in too many ways." I had told him all over a beer. Or six.
"It's not just you," he replied, "Or even just cops. It's all of us. The older generation, that is."
"What do you mean?"
The lapine sighed. "We all become jaded, lose our hopes and dreams to house payments and bad marriages and dead-end jobs. And it's not until all the hope and joy are gone in exchange for what this lousy world calls 'wisdom' that you realize what you've lost. We start envying the kids then, become jealous of their bright futures and unsullied dreams. There's not much space between envy and hate."
I thought a bit, then replied. "It's worse for cops, you know. Schwartzkopf believed the ugliness of his job infected him and poisoned his heart. And it probably did, in a way. Just like it is slowly poisoning mine."
It was Phil's turn to think before speaking. "I could tell you some stories of my own, Ken. War stories of crooked Union elections and lies and character assassination. Of petty corruption and petty souls and petty revenge and incredible stress that eats away at you day after day. I'll grant you, it's worse for a cop. But all of us have poisoned hearts. It's the price of growing older in an imperfect world."
Carefully, with a wingtip I stroked Danny's hair. "Just look at him. Face unlined, bright eyes under those closed lids, all his hair still growing. Eager puppyish grin, when he's happy. Which is most of the time. Were we ever like that?"
"I wonder sometimes," Phil replied. "And I wonder if they'll become like us. But I know they will."
I continued stroking Dan's cheek slowly. "You know, I was kinda adopting the kid. Taking him under my wing. No pun intended!" I added hastily.
Phil just rolled his eyes.
"I never had a family. One marriage went bad because of The Job, then a second. And pretty soon it was just too late -- the years had gone by before I realized it. And now I am not in a state to father anything human."
"Much the same could be said for my life," my counselor replied after a pause. "In my case, it's the clients that I look to as my future."
"Hmm," I said. There didn't seem to be much else.
Then it happened. Dan sneezed, shifted position, and opened his eyes. The lights seemed to blind him some, but my silhouette is pretty unique.
"Detective Bronski!" he croaked as my friend and I stood frozen.
Phil hangs around hospitals a lot. He knew exactly what to do. "I'll get the family, Ken. Press the call button, will you?" The little device was out of his reach, so I pecked at it as he raced down the corridor to the waiting room on all fours.
"What..." asked Danny again, trying to raise his head and looking confused.
I understood what a cop would need to hear most. "We got him, Dan-Man! You and me and about a thousand other cops. We nailed the bastard and it's over."
He seemed to understand that and, closing his eyes, he laid back with a ghost of his habitual grin. And part of the cold and darkness around my heart melted away at the sight, much like I imagine Phil's heart melts when he succeeds with a client. Evil and pain and decay can permeate a human heart, can be soaked up from a sick environment like vomit into a towel, but it is all too easy for someone in my business to forget that joy and love and growth can be absorbed as well.
Dan's family burst in then, all smiles and tears of joy. They held his hands for a few minutes until the medical folks shooed everyone out. He didn't speak again, but it was clear he recognized them all.
I had to get back to the office -- there was a new case waiting for me and, hero or no, I could only get away with so many long lunches. The city pays me to catch bad guys, after all. But I sent the uniform with the cruiser back alone without me, and jogged the three miles to stretch my still-stiff leg. It was warm and sunny out, the birds were singing, and people on the street smiled and waved as I passed. Yeah, sure, death is real. As real as it gets. But never forget that so is life.
Death Is Real copyright 2001 by Phil Geusz.
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