The man didn’t seem to eat!
Periodically he’d take something from his bag that resembled a metallic silver thermos. From this thermos the man would take a drag of some distilled, vitamin infused sludge, which possessed the magical power to keep him away from solid food, lunch breaks, and pit stops for countless hours on end. He would then put it back in the bag around his shoulder and proceed to bring his pen up to his mouth and speak into it like a microphone.
It was almost impossible these days to buy a thermos that didn’t do a hundred extra things: monitor heart rate, estimate caloric intake, log steps, take blood pressure, tell you how much of a unique, flabby little snowflake you were, and of course, keep liquid at a specified temperature. If the only thing that container did was hold liquid, it would be a novelty. More than likely the man relied on the nagging canister and its faithful timed reminders to keep him alive.
After watching Mr. Black for the last seven days Logan was positive of only one thing, the guy was completely insane!
Since Logan had started tailing Black the monotonous fuck had worked the same routine. He’d leave his condo at five in the goddamn morning. He’d catch the bullet train at Church St. and trade at the 56th exchange junction. He’d cab to whatever goddamn spot he’d left at sundown the previous day, take a drink from his stupid thermos and talk into his stupid fucking pen!
What the hell are you doing!
Black stood facing an alleyway. From Logan’s perspective it was like any of over a hundred alleyways Black had stood in front of over the past week. He would stand for a minute or so, moving his mouth in a conversation Logan couldn’t hear. Occasionally, Black might prod some bit of garbage, or move the odd box, finally scribbling a note or two in a little book before moving on. The bastard would then repeat this process. The sun would eventually find its way behind some piece of cityscape and Black would find his way back to his condo.
When Carl had first given him the assignment, Logan wasn’t particularly thrilled. The work of playing shadow was usually dull, mind numbing work, and while the jury was still out, Logan knew in his gut that Black probably wasn’t his murderer. But, unexpectedly, Black proved to be something of a curiosity. Already three incidents were reported in alleyways Black had visited that day or the day prior. Whatever was happening, deaths in Old Town were on the rise, and Black seemed to have his finger on the pulse of something. Whether he knew it or not was currently unclear.
The events of the first day started a pattern of strange behaviour that continued to be strange as the days passed. These events began with the return of Black to the scene of the original crime, a behavior on the top five list of things guilty individuals did. Logan had watched as a very expensive Vergeron drone flew in and summarily destroyed itself. He watched as Black began combing the alleyway by hand, gathering particulate from every reachable surface, followed by a thorough scan with an Omni Scanner, a much better one, in fact, than the DPD had used the night before. Eventually, the drone was hauled away by a Vergeron branded truck, but Black remained and continued his investigation. Logan saw the man bring out that pen for the first time and seem to have a conversation with himself, pushing aside garbage and dumpsters, retrieving something Logan couldn’t identify and placing it in a dirty grocery bag. Then, in a feat of dexterity Logan thought was beyond the man, Black took off his coat and wrangled a cat before jumping into a car and heading to Vergeron.
Then of course there was Vergeron itself. Logan’s partner, John Dalton, had let slip that all the evidence for Black’s case had left police custody at the same time that Black had. Even more suspicious was the data corruption the DPD had experienced the night of Black’s arrest. No arrest record, crime scene notes, photos, videos, or logs of any kind showed that Richard Pythagoras Black was ever in police custody at all. Logan was certain the chief had known about the loss of evidence before sending Logan out to tail Black and when Dalton had given Logan the heads up on the missing evidence, he’d assumed Vergeron, and therefore Black, had the evidence in hand. But Black was out re-collecting that same evidence...why?! It all added up to too much coincidence. Too much weirdness. More than that though, Logan’s gut told him that Black would lead him to something. What that something was, Logan wasn’t sure.
Logan saw Black make another note in his little book, craning his neck to see something in the alley outside Logan’s view. Black raised his pen to his mouth before proceeding down the street.
What the FUCK are you DOING!
The last week had revealed to Py a hard fact - all the crudeness of the city, all the jagged, rotten, aborted geometry had found a home in the back streets and alleyways of Delphi. The cleavage of Old Town festered. It was a strange kind of time machine where the dregs and leavings of days past found refuge in the dim and the dark.
Py had been deliberate in his movements. He’d mapped out his path and queried Alice dayly to make sure he was staying out of the high risk areas during times of peak, unsavory activity. Even then he’d found himself witness to at least three incidents he’d felt the need to report.
Py had witnessed the ruins of dwindling civilizations. His time analyzing and understanding the so-called aftershock viruses that plagued humanity in the years following the decline of Rapture had shown many a great metropolis ghostly and sparse. Often small towns and cities were wiped out in their entirety, but Old Town Delphi wasn’t abandoned, it was fossilized. There was no luster here. Everything was faded and gray. Only the occasional broken bits of glass managed to reflect light, the sparkling jewels every alleyway seemed to be collecting. The decay of Old Town was unsettling to Py. It wasn’t the wreckage of a sudden and unknowable ailment. This was the decay of social imbalance, the illness of one man against another, set on a stage that ranked amongst the world's wealthiest and most advanced.
But, at the moment, it wasn’t the problem Py was solving.
Not thirty feet away was a cat pinned under the edge of a dumpster. The head had been caved in on the left side, the skull peeled away and left hanging. Maggots made the fur of the face and neck pulse, writhing with their insatiable hunger. The eyes were missing, nowhere in sight. The holes of the face reduced to doorways for the discerning insect. At first Py thought he was looking at a cat pinned under a dumpster, but now he wondered if he wasn’t looking at half a cat? Nothing died gracefully in Old Town. Cats seemed especially prone to being smashed or pinned under impossibly heavy objects, their deaths marked by the hallmark of a sudden, violent end. Was it a pattern or just business as usual for this part of Delphi?
“Alice, add another mark to the running tally: 122 and 17.” Py was already well on his way to the next alley, taking long purposeful strides, meditating on the possible significance of the mangled feline.
“Also, reassess and refine radius based on additional parameter: If cat is dead, weigh data from locations where cat is dead by an additional ten percent.” Though Py knew there was no reason to pause when talking to Alice, her processing far exceeded what he could dictate, it felt somehow rude not giving her a chance to catch up.
“What’s the new radius with the weighted percentages?”
“13.32 blocks”, Alice chimed immediately.
Finally! Under a mile.
“Is that with the latest numbers from the DPD?”
“Yes, I am also compiling information on accidents, accounts, actuarials, aggravated assaults, air traffic, allergies…”
“Thanks Alice, I got it.” Py couldn’t believe the amount of data Alice could crunch. She had taken to cross correlating every table in her catalogue, relevant or not. Py wasn’t sure if she could tell the difference.
“Did you know that the number of crimes reported in an alley is directly related to the number of syllables in the name of the cross street?”
Py raised his hand to gently pinch the bridge of his nose in frustration. Alice’s interjection had caught him mid thought.
“Thank you Alice, I’ll ask for information when I require it.”
Before Py could move forward, a cat slinked out from the alleyway.
It was a calico. A mangy creature of black, orange, and white with matted and missing fur from innumerable skirmishes.
As the calico’s eyes locked with Py’s, a moment of softness washed through him, a kind of comfortable weakness, similar to when one wakes on a day they have not a single obligation.
Py smiled at the cat, his mind drifting to some long forgotten place where a lilting melody played. Py was swaying gently in time with this lullaby when he suddenly noticed the cat had something in its mouth; a long, thin bit of flesh dangled from the calico’s teeth and it didn’t take long for Py to realize that what he was looking at was a human finger.
In the days since Py had begun his investigation he’d witnessed a fair amount of questionable activity, but this was the first time he’d seen something on par with that fateful night. This was the thing he’d been searching for. His holy grail.
Py reached for his phone to call the police, but in a moment of sedated hesitation, he stopped. The calico bounded playfully into the alley and Py charged ahead without thought, disappearing deep into the belly of the city.
The most disappointing thing about solar wrappers was they seemed scientifically engineered to produce food that was unsatisfying in every way. Everything Logan consumed from the little silver pouch, be it burger, chicken, or chow mein was both dry and not much above lukewarm. He was 99% sure there was a built in safety mechanism to prevent the very old, the very young, and the very stupid from burning themselves. Still...he just wanted a hot meal.
Logan’s father had said, whenever possible, you should eat in your own home, at your table, else what was the point of having either. Logan had taken this to heart, and while eating every meal at home was impossible given the job, the reconstructed pork protein and faux vegetables made him long for his kitchen, where he constructed things like oil poached greens and pan seared steak with peppered cream sauce.
Almost everyone these days had some kind of smart phone, a few people had even taken the leap to subdermal, but nobody talked to a pen. Logan had rolled this over in his mind, trying to think of an alternate explanation, but he kept arriving at the same conclusion: either Black was practicing to be a game show host, or that pen was a communication device.
Logan was halfway through his second mini egg roll when he noticed the change in Black’s behavior. Something was holding Black’s attention outside one of the alleyways. Black was crouched, examining something Logan couldn’t see, then, without warning, as Logan brought the egg roll up for a bite, Black flung himself headlong into the alleyway.
Logan sat for a moment stunned with the egg roll halfway to his mouth before letting it fall back into the solar wrapper and grabbing his coat. Logan jumped out of his car and shut the door softly behind him. He’d seen Black do some strange things over the past few days, but to suddenly take off running was bizarre, even for Black.
Logan did his best to look casual as he slipped into his coat and moved to a better vantage point.
Py’s face was set with a wide smile as he rounded the corner in pursuit of the calico. The alleyway was dim, the light of the day seemingly held at bay by some unseen partition. Py could just see the cat’s tail retreating into the shadows. So he followed in kind.
Py pursued in single minded desperation. He wanted to find the cat. He needed to find the cat. The feline appeared again, resting on its haunches, the finger dangling from its teeth as some gruesome offering. Py was overjoyed. Elated! Somehow he knew that all of this, all of the queries, the unanswered questions, the very genesis of his obsession was wrapped up in that stray, little digit. All he had to do was reach out and grab it.
The cat began to back away and Py realized, just behind the creature, was a man, twitching facedown on the concrete, a small pool of blood gathering under his hand where a finger had somehow been separated from its host.
“Sir! Are you alright?” The cat bounded off at the exclamation, but Py was too focused on the man to care. He moved forward and checked his pulse. The man was alive, but just barely. Py rolled him over, using the flashlight on his phone to check the man’s eyes for pupillary response.
“Please...stop shining that in my face, lad.”
“Sir, what’s your name, do you know where you are?” Py put the back of his hand against the man's head, trying to gauge his temperature.
“I’m Alan. Alan Smith.” The man gently pushed Py’s hand away. “Who are you? What are you doing?”
“Can you feel your arms and legs? Did you smell anything strange before you collapsed? What was the last thing you ate?”
“I...I can’t feel anything!” Alan was fixating on his hand with the missing finger, the blood running along the side of his wrist and down his arm. “What’s happening!?”
“Sir, that’s what I’m trying to determine. Now, did you smell anything? The last thing you ate? It might be relevant to determine if you’re sick or poisoned.
“...you...you think I’m sick?”
“That’s my suspicion, yes.”
“Mr. Smith, please…”
“You’ve been chasing me all over Old Town because you think people are dropping dead from smelly trash or belly aches!? People are so ignorant. So ready to believe what they think they understand.” The man stood in one quick, smooth motion. He flexed his hands and Py saw that his missing finger was back, the digits elongating into sharp points. He grabbed Py’s arm in an iron grip, lifting him in the air with impossible strength, staring deep into Py’s eyes as he dangled helplessly from the long, distended, vice-like hand. Everything was cold, frozen. The light began to fade. The air was dark and hungry. The ambient noise waned into piercing silence. All Py could see was the man’s face, the visage stretched and twisted, melting from his guise like dripping wax. What was left clung loosely to a bleached skull, fetid stink boiling out from beneath it. The ground fell away as the arm, thin and growing, thrust Py higher and higher into air.
“Still, I’ll know everything you know. Let’s see just how ignorant you really are.”