Monday, December 10, 2018

Query 2.11: Miserable Chivalry

Logan stood outside the Delph Police Department and took a deep, calming breath. This building had been his second home for as long as he could remember. Logan had watched the structure grow and morph into what it was today. Much like his own adolescence, the precinct had growing pains, the retrofit of the drone-dome and subsequent hollowing of the substructure to make room for the basement garage had transformed the property into something of an irregular edifice. Logan had watched it’s development longer than most as his mother had been an officer stationed here.

Renna Maxwell had done everything in her power to make sure Logan didn’t pick up her torch. She’d always emphasized the violence and broken homes, the stress and heartache of being the one expected to shovel the shit. Bless her, but it hadn’t done much good. Logan was an only child and the department was the family he never had. When his father died, well loved for keeping mom’s precinct full to bursting in baked goods, it felt like every officer in the city had showed up to pay their respect. Logan had been young then, barely thirteen, but seeing the support for his mother, the words said at the wake that warmed her heart and eased her grief, Logan had decided then and there what path he would take. There had been a lot of firsts that day. It was the first day he realized his father was truly gone. It had been the day Logan had decided where he wanted his life to go. It had been his first taste of whiskey, being included with everyone else toasting his father’s memory. It had burned so terribly. Logan had sputtered and coughed until he thought his lungs would fall out and the man that had stood patting him on the back was the same man he now had to face, Carl James McArthur.

Logan steeled himself and took slow, reluctant steps into an uncertain future. He was basically waved through security check, the lads on duty giving him shit for the paid time off while they were left picking up the slack. Logan smiled, giving a few lackluster rejoinders before making an excuse to push on, promising a proper discussion at some later, unspecified time.

Despite what he’d said to the boys at the front, Logan deliberately took the long way round. He passed the interview rooms, his memories of the more rambunctious interrogations surfacing, unbidden into his thoughts. Logan considered turning into the locker room just to see who was hanging about, but thought better of it, choosing instead to take a detour and pass by the property rooms and evidence locker. He didn’t see anyone manning the plexiglass window as he passed, but Logan couldn’t help wonder if someone hidden back around one of those cabinets wasn’t destroying evidence right now. He decided it was best not to linger, moving to the elevator and up into the office space. As expected with the suspensions, there were fewer people around the place, but every single one of them were moving with a purpose that kept Logan’s interactions to a quick wave, or a hasty word before they were on about their business, which Logan was thankful for.

Logan moved down the central thoroughfare, his focus drawn to the opposite wall and through the open doorway where Carl sat behind his desk, flanked as he always was by stacks of paperwork. The Chief looked his usual shade of pissed and Logan hesitated outside the doorway, wanting for the first time in his life to be oblivious, to have what he knew about the mole, and how he knew it, pulled from his mind so he could exist in blissful ignorance. No such malady befell him, so Logan ripped the band-aid off, rapping his knuckles against the metal door frame to get Carl’s attention.

“Maxwell?” Carl asked, looking up with a questioning frown. “What the hell are you doing here? You’re not due for your reinstatement interview for at least another week.”

“I know, Chief.” Logan said, stepping into the office. “Can we speak privately, sir?” Logan asked, nodding to the door. Carl’s frown deepened, but he gave a nod of consent and Logan quickly closed the door so the two were alone.

Carl leaned back in his chair and gave Logan the once over. Whatever he saw he kept to himself, simply giving another nod for Logan to continue.

“First, sir.” Logan began, reaching into his breast pocket he pulled out a black security key about the size of his thumb. Though it was a relatively tiny thing, Logan could feel the weight of it as he placed it on the table in front of Carl. “You’ll find that will allow you to connect to a complete copy of the DPD database as of yesterday. You should be able to restore what was lost from it.”

Carl sat mute. He just gazed fixedly at the small black rectangle Logan had placed in front of him. It felt like an eternity before Carl broke the silence with a single, pained word.

“Explain.”

Logan hadn’t realized he’d been holding his breath waiting for Carl to say something. He let it out in a great rush of air, like a bellows being forcibly pushed. Carl waited, his stoic face giving nothing away, except, perhaps, for his eyes. To Logan, who’d known Carl so long, his eyes looked impossibly sad.

“Sir, it started over a month ago when I was assigned to tail Richard Pythagoras Black…”

Logan told it all, every suspicion, every hunch, every time he’d looked the other way. His involvement in what amounted to criminal conspiracy. How instead of going to his fellow officers, to Carl, he’d teamed up with Py, not only before the Alleyman’s capture, but after. Logan spoke about his growing distrust for the department, how the last few weeks had seen him and Py cobble together evidence of more deaths, more missing persons, and worse, what was almost certainly a mole.

“You’ll find one file in the database that’s for your eyes only, sir. It contains reconstituted case files. Everything we could find that’s been lost, or deliberately altered. The password to access the files… is Marigold.” Carl had sat and listened, rarely even blinking at Logan’s recount, but at the name Marigold, Carl’s eyes closed and he brought his hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose. Marigold had been Logan’s mother’s maiden name. She hadn’t lived to see Logan take the badge, dying of cancer a few years after his father. Logan had always been conflicted about that. She’d never wanted him in uniform, but he knew she’d have been proud to see him in it. It felt somehow appropriate that what would restore so many of the wrongs done in the DPD was the name of a true and honorable officer. If this was Logan saying goodbye to the job, it was only proper his mother be part of that farewell.

“Is that everything, Logan?” Logan caught the knot in his throat and forced it down. Carl hadn’t used Logan’s first name since he was a boy, since before Logan had worn the uniform. It was an indication of what was to come, but Logan would not turn away from the consequences. He would face the repercussions of not finding a way to do things legitimately. Face not being smart enough to work within the bounds of the law. Face not being brave enough to try.

“Yes sir, that is all.”

Carl stood slowly from his chair. He moved around his desk, maneuvering his bulk expertly to avoid disturbing his papers. Logan was expecting the worst. It was well within Carl’s power to arrest Logan on the spot. Carl moved and stood in front of Logan, his face a perfect mask of disappointment.

Carl extended his hand forward. Logan stood dumbfounded for a few seconds before reflexively reaching out to grasp Carl’s hand in kind.

“I’m sorry to see you go, Vergeron’s getting a good man.” Carl’s face remained frowning and detached, but Logan saw a small crinkle by the man’s eyes at Logan’s open mouthed disbelief. “I can’t say I’m surprised given the recent stress. I’m sure they offered you a bundle as well.” Carl released Logan’s hand, patting him on the shoulder and looking him dead in the eye. “Make sure to turn in your gun, badge, and ID before you exit the building.”

“Sir... I’m not sure I understand.”

“When I look at those files,” Carl said, indicating the security key with his thumb pointing over his shoulder, “am I going to find a missing tattoo?”

“...what tattoo?” Logan’s mind was moving at a geriatric pace, understanding colliding with him only as Carl began explaining.

“Davidson and Avery came to me with an interesting story the other day. Seems they can’t find any mention of a certain tattoo in their reports. They swear they wrote it down, but now it seems to have vanished.” Logan was speechless. He was surprised to discover Carl was so well informed, but now that he thought about it, he shouldn’t have expected anything less. “What, you thought I wouldn’t find out? You probably don't know since you’ve been on suspension, but we have an internal investigation around the Alleyman case. Nobody knows how that fucker died, but we’re going to find out.” Carl said, pointing his finger at Logan. “Plus, don’t you think it’s strange that the weapon was never recovered? Don’t you think it’s more likely that someone found it and forgot to turn it in. I find it strange, Maxwell. I know most of this was under FBI jurisdiction, but I’m not going to let the feds shit all over my department. We’ve been scrambling to piece things together for weeks now and the stuff you just brought me is the best information I’ve seen so far. If this is a criminal conspiracy we need to know. Scary to think how deep it might go. You tried to warn me once before, but I wasn’t ready to hear it, well, I’m ready now.”

“Chief, I don’t follow.” By all rights, useful or not, Logan should be in cuffs about now.

“What I’m saying, Logan, is welcome to undercover. Solve this case, then bring it back to us. Gather what you can from Vergeron. Use their leverage to squeeze the FBI. Do what I can’t.”

Logan didn’t know what to think. He new in this moment he should feel thankful… but he didn’t. Logan didn’t feel lucky. He didn’t feel at ease or relieved. If anything, Logan felt somehow cheated. But there was no arguing the point. Even if Logan could form the words right now, he knew Carl wouldn’t budge. So, he did what he’d been trained to do.

Logan placed his arms at his sides and stood tall. He kept his eyes forward, bringing his right hand up rapidly, palm down, thumb extended and joined, to give his Chief a reverent salute. He didn’t know if he’d get a chance to give another one. Carl responded in kind, mimicking the gesture. The two men stood there frozen for a time, two sculptures, as dissimilar as could be imagined, until the smaller of the two sharply brought his arm out and down, breaking the spell.

“If half what you told me is true, Vergeron might be at the center of this conspiracy.” Carl said, reaching around back to his desk to grab the security key and shoving it into his pocket. “We’re lucky to be getting a man on the inside.”

“Honestly, Chief… I don’t know if I want to work for Vergeron.”

Carl’s eyebrows, like two overgrown caterpillars, rose to meet his thinning hairline.

“Really? I just assumed, after all this,” Carl patted his pocket with the security key in it, “you’d be jumping at the chance, this could be one of the biggest busts in precinct history.”

Logan sighed.“ I admit it would be amazing to be a part of, but I don’t know that I’m cut out for this cloak and dagger shit.”

Carl gave a snort. “What have been doing? On the streets, interviewing subjects, running down leads. Doesn’t sound much different from what you’re doing here. Actually, that said…”

Carl trailed off. Logan could tell he was conflicted. Logan could almost see the scales tipping one way and then the other in Carl’s head as he weighed some invisible choice.

“What is it, Chief?”

Carl gave a nod, committing to some mysterious decision.

“Follow me, Maxwell.” Carl said, moving passed Logan and back into the main office. “I think it’s time you met Abigail.”

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Query 2.10: Cinematic

Vergeron’s headquarters was an obelisk. Imposing. Enticing. It had a gravity beyond the simple material. It was a vortex of decision and choice, vibrating like a harmonious sustained chord in Xavier’s ears.

Xavier’s power had been in a state of flux, unreliable and fickle. Sometimes he could barely reach into the thoughts of those sitting across from him, and then there were fleeting moments like this, when all of Delphi pulsed just behind his eyes. It made it hard to focus, but Xavier was a practiced user of his blessing, maybe more practiced than any other, so he marshaled the buzzing, indecisive mass in front of him and shut it away, compartmentalized it, dulling the roar to that of a murmur before waving the two men behind him to follow and moving through the spacious entryway and up, up, up through Vergeron’s monolith.

As garden after garden blurred passed, Xavier felt a pain of envy. You’d have to be made of stone not to be moved by the grandeur of this place. Xavier knew that in a different life, on some path not traveled, a site like Vergeron would be his kingdom. Xavier wasn’t a resentful man. He was born into the cult and grew up with the understanding that the gifts of the Chosen, and the tithe of blood paid for them, was a clandestine pact, the silence and secrecy of the faithful as much a sacrifice as any altar spilled blood. Xavier had made moves to legitimize his enterprises and, despite his critics, had forged a path of validation outside the shadowed providence of dogma. Still, as the maglev slowed and the doors opened to the executive floor, Xavier wondered if he would ever sit atop an empire this large.

Xavier and his entourage crossed the bridge into the waiting gallery and were greeted by a young assistant who directed them to the large oak doors of Cain Westbrook’s office.

Xavier brought himself back around to the task at hand. His primary goal was a simple one, plant the seed of Lilith’s false formula and see if the bait was taken. Secondly, elucidate the events surrounding Cartwright’s capture, death, and the extent to which Vergeron was involved. Xavier had pulled on his last favor to legitimize him being here. To get the files and paperwork aligned so fast had taken a measure of fineness Xavier took pride in; so, Xavier stepped into Westbrook’s office as one Neil Carlyle, Investigation Coordinator and Liaison to the Department of Justice.

Cain Westbrook stood from his chair at Xavier’s entrance, wreathed in Delphi’s afternoon light. Xavier understood a few things about the aesthetics of power, about the placement and framing of furniture and body to facilitate control without having to speak a word. It was why he’d gladly accepted his own accompaniment of ‘fellow’ agents. It was apparent that Westbrook understood these things too and though Xavier was well aware of the manipulation, it made them only slightly less effective.

Xavier reached out with his gift, wanting a measure of the man. Every consciousness was different, had its own feel and texture. Some were soft and indecisive, pliable and begging for a guiding hand. Many where akin to that of wood, firm but full of knots and fissures that could be opened and exploited with careful words and precise timings. It was disconcerting then that when Xavier touched Cain Westbrook’s psyche it was like running his hand over polished marble.

“Hello, Mr. Westbrook.” Xavier spoke, crossing the distance and extending his hand with a smile as he entered the room. “I’m Neil Carlyle, but please call me Neil.”

Cain grabbed Xavier’s outstretched hand, giving it a powerful shake. “Alright Neil, call me Cain.”

Cain walked around to the side of his office where a few chairs and a small table had been set up for informal gatherings such as this. Motioning for Xavier to follow, the government consultant and his two black suits settled themselves into the plush leather for a luxury conversation.

“So,” Cain said, taking his own seat, “my secretary was a little vague on the purpose of this meeting. She said it was in regard to the joint Vergeron-FBI taskforce that we employed during the Alleyman case, but that was about as much as she could tell me.” Cain’s face pinched in good-natured annoyance, but the implication of ‘are you wasting my time’ was crystal clear.

“My apologies Mr. Westbrook… I mean Cain. The contents of my brief are classified. I know your key staff usually has some level of clearance, but I was a little uncomfortable discussing things over the phone.”

“Glados has near top secret clearance,” Cain said with a flick of his wrist, like he was shooing a fly, “it’s part of the reason I’ve retained her. Feel free to be more specific in the future.”

Cain’s voice was almost as smooth as the leather of the magnificent seat that was elevating his posterior, but Xavier could sense the profound irritation of a busy man who had been forced to set aside an indeterminate period of his day based on a nebulous request from some bureaucratic nobody.

“Yes, well, let’s get to it then. I’m here because we’ve been filtering through the information we collected during the ‘Night of Madness’.” Xavier paused for dramatic effect with mention of the ‘Night of Madness’. “I’m sorry, that was a bit informal. Would you prefer I refer to it by it’s official name, Operation Alleyman?”

It didn’t matter what Cain said. Xavier couldn't possibly care less. He was just testing the waters. If he was going to bend Cain, Xavier would need to catch him in a moment of indecision. There was no guarantee it would be necessary, but it could happen anytime and Xavier had learned to set the groundwork early, force his opponents to confront arbitrary questions to open up opportunities where he could strike.

“Night of Madness is fine. We’ve been calling it NoM internally, just for convenience.”

Cain wavered not a micron. No wobble. No flex. Xavier wasn’t expecting much given the simplicity of the probe, but the absolute lack of hesitation wasn’t something Xavier usually saw, and it didn’t bode well for the remainder of the exchange.

“Good then, NoM. Anyway, I’m sure you know that after an operation of this size a lot of information comes rolling into the bureau: evidence collected in the field, calls from citizens who want to report suspicious activity, most of it’s garbage, but we do our best to parse it just to be certain. Turns out we got lucky and came up with a lead. A strong one.”

“Really.” Cain replied, his mood softening at the revelation. “What exactly do you have, Neil? What did you come up with?”

“This is very preliminary.” Xavier said, seeming to shrink a little at Cain’s intimidating enthusiasm. “We debated if it was too early to bring you in, but Vergeron was so instrumental in the op we wondered if you’d be interested in further cooperation?”

“You’ve already got my attention.” Cain reiterated. “Let’s get to the good part.”

Xavier held out his hand and the man to his right handed him a tablet. Xavier scanned through information he was well acquainted with, letting the silence build before continuing.

“According to our latest information, the Alleyman was brewing his toxin right here in the city. This helps explain why nothing was ever tagged coming in through perimeter screening. It doesn’t explain why his weapon wasn’t ever recovered, which is a shame. However, it carries with it the exciting possibility that his equipment and research may still be here in Delphi.”

At the comment Cain’s face noticeably softened, probably to downplay the value of the information, but Xavier could sense his growing hunger. Cain wanted that formula, he wanted it bad. Xavier had come with the right bait, now to fish a little.

“Well, I’d certainly be open to additional joint collaboration.” Cain spoke with noteworthy composure. “How best can we assist?”

“Wonderful,” Xavier replied, lifting his tablet in front of his eyes and poking at the glowing screen. “Unfortunately there are a few particulars to sort out. The last NoM op came together rather hastily, so a lot of things slipped by the first taskforce that I feel need to be reviewed. First and foremost, the background checks for some of the Vergeron employees appear to be incomplete. Would it be alright if we went through a few of them?”

“Be my guest.” No fear. No delay. Westbrook was a god damned statue.

“Great. First let’s talk about Officer Maxwell. I realize he’s not strictly speaking a Vergeron employee, but our men have seen him repeatedly assisting Vergeron in the past few weeks. Do you mind if we keep your men under surveillance?” Xavier asked rhetorically.

“No.” Cain replied. “I suppose it’s in our best interest if it builds confidence for future endeavors.”

Unshakable! Xavier new the man couldn’t have known about the surveillance, but there was no surprise, no twitch in his mental composure. Had he anticipated this?

“Were you aware that Officer Maxwell is on suspension and not technically allowed to participate in official inquiries?”

“Not specifically, but I understand he’s in good company. How many officers were suspended that night? At least a dozen, I think.” There was no uncertainty in Westbrook. He knew the exact number and was just playing coy.

“So it doesn’t bother you that his current activity might be inappropriate considering the detective's employment status?

“Officer Maxwell is a big boy. I’m sure he can take care of himself. In any case, Vergeron wouldn’t be liable for any of his activities.”

Xavier didn’t know if Cain had practiced this in a mirror, but the answers came so freely it was like he didn’t even have to think. It was simply a reflex. Xavier was beginning to wonder if Cain even realized he was speaking, or if he was just as amazed by the elegant words that rolled so easily off his tongue.

“Here, I’m afraid, is a more complicated case, A Mister Richard Black.”

“I wondered when we were getting to that one.” Cain said with a wry smile.

“You don’t seem particularly surprised?”

“No, that one always tends to attract attention.” Westbrook said it in such a way that Xavier wasn’t sure if he meant the curious circumstance of Mr. Black’s engagement at Vergeron, or the man himself.

“Are you aware that Mr. Black is on parole for a charge of domestic terrorism?”

Cain didn’t blink.

“Yes, I recruited him myself. If it was a problem I wish you would have said something sooner. He’s already been fully debriefed. He probably knows more about the Alleyman than anyone.” Cain said, staring into Xavier’s eyes.

“Would you be willing to remove him from the ongoing investigation?”

Westbrook gave a shrug. “Sure, but I think it’s a mistake. I doubt we’d have captured the Alleyman without him.”

“You really think he was that instrumental?” There was not a ripple in Westbrook’s mind. Xavier could guess the response.

“He’s personally vested. If you review the DPD files you’ll see that he was a victim. Or did you overlook that part?”

Aggressive. Argumentative...perhaps protective?

“Not to dive too far off topic, but the Alleyman was somehow killed while in police custody. You wouldn’t suppose your Vergeron crew had anything to do with that?”

“You tell me. You did say they were under investigation.”

“Alright,” Xavier spoke, jabbing again on his tablet. “I would like to come back to Mr. Black, but first there’s one more glaring omission that I’d like to touch on before we leave. There’s one background check that was never relayed. To be frank, I almost missed it myself. I don’t have any information on you’re operative Alice. Could you give me a quick overview of her background and position at Vergeron?”

Westbrook stalled. It was hardly a crack, more of a wrinkle. Xavier hadn’t expected him to even flinch at the mention of Alice. He’d only asked because Lilith’s observations at the diner made it feel like the type of inquiry that needed to be made for completeness, but now that he’d finally found an inclusion in Westbrook's impenetrable defense, his curiosity was peaked. Xavier gave a push…

Yes, you would love to tell me all about her!

Cain stood with a ponderous expression on his face, adjusting his glasses. Xavier wondered for a moment if he'd mistimed his attack.

“Okay.” Cain spoke with obvious reservation. “Follow me.”

Xavier didn't say a word. The situation was still fragile. If anything was said that made Westbrook reconsider his decision it might be a nonstarter. Xavier simply motioned the other men to stand and they quietly took leave of Cain's office.

Westbrook lead them back to the maglev and they quickly descended to a central floor in the Vergeron complex. The flora of this level was that of a conifer grove: cedar, fir, juniper, and pine all mingled with each other here, their sharp fragrance lively and invigorating.

“Alice isn’t a person, Neil.” Cain spoke over his shoulder, finally breaking his silence as they walked a path through the trees. “It’s a system. Py… Mr. Black has been using her to help analyze some of the Alleyman data. Black's normal job is to analyze product placement in cinema. Actually, you might have seen his contributions to Spider Cyclone 8. His work on the Alleyman case is something we’ve indulged because of his personal investment, and of course his unique background.”

The group passed through the perimeter of the grove and into a maze of office space. Chasing a few people out of a conference room, Cain sat in a black swivel chair and slid a keyboard under his hands.

“Alice, are you there?” Cain spoke, waiting for a reply. When none came, Cain gave a short frustrated sigh and began typing on the keyboard. “It looks like the client isn’t running, just a second.”

A few keystrokes, and a crude loading screen later, whatever ‘Alice’ was appeared to be online.

“Alice?”

“Yes Cain, how can I be of assistance?”

“What does the box office look like today?”

“The recent influx of foreign cinema has increased repeated attendance of select moviegoers, but has reduced attendance overall, resulting in a 5% decrease in revenue from this same period last year.”

“Great, thank you Alice. How are revenue projections for the remake of Dr. Strangelove?” Cain
leaned over to Xavier and whispered, “we’re making a remastered version with some cool new rendering technology to artificially enhance the scenery for ultra high def, and injecting a few ads while we’re at it. You wouldn't believe how hard it was to get the rights^”

“Please repeat.” Alice spoke.

Dr. Strangelove.” Cain reiterated.

“Yes, acknowledged.”

“How is it doing, what are revenue projections?”

“Please repeat.”

“God,” Cain moaned, reaching again for the keyboard. “Sometimes the voice recognition isn’t great. In this day and age it’s completely ridiculous.”

After typing his query into the keyboard, Alice finally presented an answer to Cain’s question.

“Rendering of the new project is approximately 60% complete. The film will contain roughly 4,000 new art assets and about 150 embedded ads. Near-subliminal, and deeply-subliminal ads fall within the 1% run-time metric allowed by government regulations, the remainder are visible or highly visible. Marketing projections estimate a 40% return based on prepaid marketing assets and residual compensation. Gauging the critical reaction of similar movies and cross referencing release dates, cultural relevance of the piece, online chatter, and a combination of 47 other indexes, I estimate a return of only 15%. If profits rise above 20%, I would strongly consider a rapid release of the more seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey.”

“Interesting.” Xavier replied. “Is it right?”

“We’ll see. It’s not always right, but the estimates are on par with my best analysts and getting better all the time.”

“And you used this to apprehend the Alleyman?” Xavier couldn’t believe it. Cartwright was captured by a machine that calculated box office revenue.

“Mr. Black has discovered the system can break down crime statistics with about the same accuracy as marketing analysis. Not always perfect, but intriguing. Given the large financial upside of apprehending the Alleyman we took a chance, and you’ve seen the results. Here” Cain said, passing the keyboard to Xavier. “Ask her anything.”

Xavier took control of the keyboard and time stopped. A wave of enlightenment, of revelation pulsed through him. His vision expanded beyond the room, the city, the planet. Xavier was floating weightless above the Earth. He looked down on a world that was his, frozen in space, hearing the call as billions of voices played in his head, and encompassing him was a blue, gossamer energy.

As fast as the vision had come, it ended, and Xavier sat staring at the blinking cursor of the computer screen.

Xavier entered his query.

“Who are you?”

Monday, December 3, 2018

Author's Note

Hello all. With the Christmas looming updates will be sporadic in the month of December. We thank you for your patience and wish you all a happy holidays.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Query 2.09: Crisis of Faith

Lilith stepped out of the cab the instant the automatic lock disengaged. She marched up the short walk to her apartment building as quickly as her tall heels and tight dress would allow, peeling the shoes from her feet and carrying them in her hand as soon as she crossed the threshold into the building.

The intimate Uptown apartment was warm with its wooden furniture and soft yellow light. The decor had a sleek modern styling that was pragmatic and lean, yet arranged with a care that made the cozy space feel like home.

Lilith dropped her purse and shoes by the door and pulled the pins from her hair, letting it fall around her shoulders. Sighing with frustration she made her way to the kitchen, stopping along the way to pick up her long black cat. She held the cat under the shoulders, letting his body dangle limply as she stared deep into his big green eyes.

“Oh Nyx, another loser. What’s a girl gotta do? I have to keep reminding myself that if I knocked off every asshole I went out with I’d have the DPD swinging through my windows.”

Lilith set the cat down on the couch where he stretched for a minute and then curled up in a tiny ball. Pouring herself a glass of wine she moved from the kitchen into the back office. For a moment she just stood by the window admiring the beauty of the city with its endless parade of lights and sounds. She understood why Xavier held the city so close to his heart, although she was beginning to worry if the lust for such worldly places had started to poison his judgment.

Turning from the window, she sat at her computer, the large monitor displaying a map of Delphi, divided into districts, and again into neighborhoods. Touching the screen, Lilith pulled up lists - lists of people, schedules, skills, some were knights that worked under her, some potential fodder, each of them manicured, cultivated with extreme care.

After a moment of review, Lilith closed her current files and opened a different one, listing everything she knew about Py and Logan’s activities over the past few weeks.

“What are you up too^” She mumbled to herself meticulously, marking her map with the latest places the pair had visited.

Bringing Xavier his “Mr. Black” had insured an angle into Vergeron, and helped to alleviate some of the tension between the two of them. It also meant Lilith might finally have way to determine if Py and Logan were investigating on Vergeron’s behalf. She’d had her man at the DPD send her a copy of the criminal database before crashing it. Lilith new everyone Py and Logan had visited were considered persons of interest in police investigations, so maintaining that evidence felt important. Most of the records were pretty chewed up, not much to go on, the concerning part being that many of the records had been damaged deliberately. Her plant had also told her the logs, which recorded access to the database, didn’t show any unusual behavior within the department. In other words, there was no proof Logan had stuck his nose anywhere it didn’t belong.

Lilith was guessing, just from observation, that the dynamic duo were stalking an answer to the ‘how’ of Cartwright’s power, and to that end she’d decided it was best to give them an answer to that particular question. Lilith had constructed what she thought was a serviceable red herring. Several years ago there was extensive research on what was essentially a really nasty weaponized version of LSD. By planting some partial copies of a formula along with some lab equipment she could create the illusion that Cartwright had been cooking up a cocktail of hallucinogenic toxins here in Delphi. By including a few exotic ingredients in the formula, Lilith created a scenario that could have investigators chasing their tails for months. By building a few labs in different parts of the city and leaking the location of each lab through a different informant she should be able to gain some insight into where Py and Logan were getting their intelligence. With any luck this would kill two birds with one stone, locate the source of Py and Logan’s information, and give them an excuse to terminate their investigation.

“Hey computer, call Nigel.”

“Yes, Lilith.” Her computerized digital assistant replied before initiating a video call.

“Hey Lilith,” Nigel spoke, absently adjusting his glasses on his nose. “Gee, you’ve got a pretty mouth.”

“What…” Lilith stared blankly at the screen before suddenly remembering the dark red pigment still adorning her lips. “Oh, hell.” She exclaimed, reaching for a tissue and wiping the makeup clean.

“That looks pretty fresh. Let me guess, another loser.”

“Shut up Nigel. How is everything looking for tonight.”

“Everything's shaping up. We’ve got three men on staggered shifts, each in a different part of town. Every agent will have a covert team watching the area for suspicious activity. If anything weird happens we’ll be ready for it.”

“Good. I’m setting up new rotations for next week. People will be going out in three man teams starting tomorrow.”

Nigel frowned. “That’s going to be hell on the men. Who’s putting in the extra time?”

“Everybody, all hands on deck. You guys up north have had it pretty easy while we’ve been dealing with the situation down in Old Town.”

“Damn it Lilith, my guys are lovers, not fighters. You can’t send them into that hellhole.”

“We’re all fighters now. Make sure your team is ready.”

Nigel sighed loudly. “It’s going to be hard to hunt in packs of three. Draws a lot more attention.”

“Yeah, I’m working on that. Look, I’m off to rendezvous with first squad. If things go well I’ll be up in your neighborhood later. If anything happens I want to know about it immediately.”

Nigel gave her a firm nod. “You got it.”

“Happy hunting, Nigel.”

“Happy hunting.”

The video call ended and Lilith made her way into the bedroom, retrieving black military style clothing from the closet. Dressing in silence her mind wandered through the mysterious web of intrigue that seemed to be deepening by the day.

Moving to the door, Lilith pulled a long red coat over her bullet proof vest and made it quickly out of the apartment. It was going to be a long night.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Making her way into the quiet suburban park, Lilith sat on a secluded bench and fired up her e-cig, leaning back with billowing smoke, feeling like a woman in a black and white detective movie.

“What’s the status?” Lilith spoke into the discreet mic that was hidden in her ear.

“Jed should be in view now.” The reply was immediate and Lilith watched intently as Jed made his way down the illuminated path that ran through the little grass hills. Within a few minutes he managed to stop a pair of young ladies out walking a large yellow dog, speaking with them congenially in the circle of an overhead light.

“Looks like Jed’s got ’em eatin’ out of his hand,” came Kevin’s voice over the mic.

Lilith knew there were five other people on the scene, who they were, and precisely where they should be, although she refrained from making a visual confirmation, as to not inadvertently give away their positions.

“No, they're just being polite.” Lilith spoke with a little smile. “They’ll be moving along any minute. Sound off.”

“Alex, here.”

“Kevin, reporting as ordered.”

“Angie, on point.”

“Rebecca, standing by.”

Then, silence…

“Where’s Anderson?” Lilith asked with some frustration. “ Anderson, you there… Somebody figure out where the hell Anderson is.”

“On it.” It was Alex, the unit commander, who responded.

As predicted the young women moved on and Jed, having missed his chance, started sweeping about for a fresh victim.

“Any read on Anderson?” Lilith asked, growing increasingly impatient.

“Umm, no. I can’t find him anywhere.”

“What do you mean you can’t find him anywhere?”

“I've been checking in with everyone I can think of. Nobody’s heard from him since last roll call.”

“God damn it!” Lilith exclaimed into her mic. “Abort mission. Fuck, abort the goddamn mission. Find Anderson, go right now!”

“Damn it!” Lilith screamed into the night, jumping to her feet, throwing her cigarette on the ground and smashing it. In frustration she pulled off her trench coat and bullet proof vest, tossing them aside. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath before pulling a phone from her pocket and calling Nigel.

“Nigel, Anderson’s come up missing. Take squads two and three and sync up with squad one.”

“On it, boss.” Lilith terminated the call.

“Damn it… How do they always know?”

Lilith sat back on the bench, hanging her head and contemplating her next move. As she gazed into the damp grass, a shadow slowly crawled across the ground toward her until Lilith could feel the presence of a figure looming over her.

“What is it Jed?” Lilith asked, glancing up impatiently at the nervous looking man. Jed was young, early twenties at the latest, with close cropped blonde hair and a soft, well groomed attractiveness that made him a perfect lure for nights like tonight.

“Lilith…” He stammered. “Priestess... I know it’s not a good time, but can I make a confession?”

“Sure Jed.” Lilith replied, her face softening, motioning toward the seat next to her. He’d said one of the few things that would warrant such a change in Lilith. She took her position as Priestess seriously, and was more than happy to listen. It had been a long time since she’d sat a confession and it would feel good to hear somebody else's problems for a change.

Jed moved to sit next to her before continuing. “Priestess, what’s going on? I mean, it all seemed so easy before. Like god was always standing just over my shoulder. Now my friends are dying, people are losing their gifts, the Apostle is questioning everything we do. It seems bad. I’m just saying… I guess I don’t know what I’m saying.”

Lilith reached over and gave Jed a comforting pat on the shoulder. “I understand. I’ve lost a lot of people over the years and it never gets easy. Sometimes it’s hard to see how it all fits into god’s plan.”

Especially right now.

Jed glanced up expectantly. “Is this god’s plan? For all of us to suffer like this?”

Lilith gave a little chuckle. “We’re spoiled, you know that? Some people are asked to keep their faith based on nothing more than a vague promise of happiness in the afterlife. We see miracles everyday. Real miracles. We can’t forget that sometimes even we need to have a little faith in the mysteries of god.”

“So I shouldn't question?”

“It’s to court ruin^” Lilith muttered to herself.

“What was that?” Jed said expectantly.

“Oh, nothing. I was just thinking about something someone told me once. How bout this? I’ll give you a five minute reprieve. No judgment, get it all out of your system.”

“All right,” Jed said, seeming emboldened by Lilith’s offer. “Sometimes the smell of blood makes me puke, and that shit’s everywhere. What the fuck is that about?”

“Yeah, blood’s pretty gross.” Jed smiled appreciatively. He seemed to loosen up with Lilith’s empathy, rolling his shoulders and visibly relaxing.

“Some of us made a deal with the deacons to call us when the Apostle leaves the church so we can do our offerings when he’s not around.”

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that one.” Lilith couldn’t really blame them. While their faith wasn’t without disconcerting rituals, the Apostle was a floating nightmare.

“Ok, this is my last one. Lilith, I've got to know,” Jed had turned his gaze to his own hands, which appeared clenched together rather tight, “how do you deal with some of the psychopaths you’ve got working for you? Some of the knights are crazy as fuck.”

Lilith was a little surprised by the frankness of the question, though since it was something she herself had asked Xavier, she couldn’t blame Jed for thinking of it during his own crisis of faith. It burned her to the vary core that the response she formed was not only something she believed, but nearly the exact thing Xavier had told her a few weeks ago.

“It’s not easy, Jed, but some of those lunatics are uniquely qualified for what they do. I myself have had to do some pretty unsettling things to hold the knights together, and I can’t always do it alone. We’re soldiers after all, although I think some of us have started to forget.”

Jed unclenched his hands and gave a nod, seeming to accept Lilith’s words far easier than she had accepted Xavier’s.

Jed gave a little snort. “You know that Snyder likes to bite the heads off of pigeons.”

Lilith reflexively grimaced. “Don’t remind me.”

“And I heard Trevor once beat a man to death with his own leg.” Jed seemed better, more playfully bantering now than confessing.

“You’re lucky if that’s the worst thing you’ve ever heard about Trevor.” Lilith replied, letting herself enjoy the release of tension along with Jed.

“But the worst was that guy Cartwright. That freak gave me nightmares.”

Lilith felt her body tense and did her best to keep her response casual. It was no secret among her knights that she’d absolutely despised Cartwright, and Jed almost certainly thought he was commiserating by voicing his own disdain for the man.

“Yeah, Cartwright. Fuck that guy.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t overthink it.” Jed said, taking in a deep breath of cool night air.

Lilith adopted what she hoped was a reassuring smile and gave Jed a gentle punch on his arm. “Exactly right young man. Now, you’re five minutes are up. Time to get going.”

“Alright, no more questions.” Jed said, rubbing his arm in mock pain.

“Good, go help the others look for Anderson.”

“Thanks Lilith.” Jed got up from the bench and walked with renewed purpose into the night.

“No more questions, Jed.” Lilith spoke to herself after Jed was out of earshot, hoping she’d steered him toward salvation. “After all, to question god is to court ruin. Harsh words. Hmm, Cartwright, that fucker’s been dead for weeks and it’s like he’s still out to get me. Fuck that guy. Cartwright… Oh no^”