The hot afternoon sun raged above an unassuming alley deep in the heart of Old Delphi, the selfsame alley where, only a day ago, Py had been arrested, accused of a murder he himself was at a loss to explain. There was a lot Py didn’t understand about that day. He'd lost time, been swallowed in a biblical swarm of buzzing, and was now stricken with the absurd and embarrassing terror of cats. Also, Py was now 100% sure he hated lawyers. To be fair, that percentage had been in the high nineties, anyways.
Py’d been instructed, in no uncertain terms, to stay away…
“You know who returns to the scene of the crime,” Py’s lawyer had droned,” criminals, Py. Criminals! I cannot stress enough how foolish it would be to exhibit any behavior that might interfere with our ability to defend you in court. Keep your head down and leave the detecting to the detectives.” Miss Chiller’s instructions were clear and, out of professional courtesy, Py had restrained himself, waiting a ‘respectable’ 24 hours before pursuing the matter further.
Everything felt different now. The sinister air that so thoroughly occupied Py’s memory was gone. He stood several feet back from the alleyway, remembering the husk of flesh that was now undoubtedly frozen in some morgue. He could see the immediate perimeter around the chalk outline had been cleared away. The corpse had been so disjointed the sketch it inspired was nothing more than an indistinct blob on the ground, vaguely human in shape, if you were aware a human had been there.
Py moved forward and nealt down over the outline, in much the same position he’d taken the other day. He half expected the same interruptions, the same smells and distractions as before… they didn’t come. Py didn't believe he was hallucinating, but he wasn’t taking a chance. He needed an objective observer, something that wasn’t so biologically fallible. Science would be his crutch. Cameras didn’t hallucinate. Microphones didn’t dream. Accelerometers always knew up from down. Brain had been kind enough to put together the instruments necessary for sample collection and send them his way. Py could already hear the steady hum of an approaching carrier drone.
He stood from his crouched position as the drone set down next to him with a soft thump, releasing a large metal trunk on the ground beside him. Py pulled the trunk around and popped it open, taking stock of its contents. Inside were a number of collection tools: gloves, swabs, scalpels, bags, tape, tweezers, distilled water, measuring devices, ranging from a handheld Omnisense scanner, to an old fashioned cloth tape. It was an impressive array, but nothing so impressive as the drone itself. Brian had said it was a little special in that cryptic, self-satisfied way one speaks when they have a particularly impressive toy. Py saw now why Brian was so proud.
The drone was outfitted with a number of extras bordering on the obscene. The undercarriage and faceplate of the main housing were peppered with more than a dozen cameras apiece: HDR, infrared, ultraviolet, time-of-flight, light-field, every type of camera Py could name and possibly more. Three small cylindrical rods, heavily perforated, were evenly spaced along its bottom, intended for olfactory sampling. It had several arm attachments, each with a modified end designed for a different type of collection procedure: DNA swabbing, soil sampling, metal detection, bagging and bottling. To say it wasn’t your standard issue carrier drone would be putting it mildly.
This thing was a labor of love and Py was glad to have it. He’d studied medicine and the mind. He knew there weren’t a tremendous number of disorders that caused the illusion of lost time. Most cases he’d researched were related to the improper use of drugs. If a toxin was at the heart of these events Py needed to know, to identify the substance and be sure he was rid of it, or to know if it was indeed something more insidious. More permanent. To that end, Py hoped Brain’s customized little bot would be able to find a connection. It even had a name, along with an annoying bit of voice command protocol.
“Simon says,” Py spoke with a little wince,” conduct a full sweep of the area within a 300 meter radius, beginning with the alleyway directly west of your position. Full retrieval protocol is in effect.” Brain had been quite specific that the drone would not follow a command unless the statement began with ‘Simon says’.
The ring of LEDs around Simon’s middle turned from red to green as it began to progress forward into the alleyway.
As Simon floated gently forward into the alley, Py realized he was tired. The last two days had been a panic of fear, excitement, and adrenaline. Sleep had been elusive. Once Simon returned the samples to Vergeron, Py could leave things in Brian’s court for a few hours. Finally, he’d have a reprieve. He’d collapse at his desk and await preliminary results.
Py would take rest as his reward. He would claim victory in sleep, however small. The victory was a false one. Nothing had changed. It was a calculated and self imposed rationalization, designed to keep his strength up. To keep him moving forward. Py rationalized to protect himself from emotions the same way people took aspirin to prevent a headache. He rationalized away fear, obsession, loss, happiness, any number of things in pursuit of his goals. He knew the justifications were mere pretense, counterfeit logic, but their effects were real. A self medicating strategy he’d perfected over many years.
Py hoped he’d find his answers, that he could close the book on this particular distraction. Was it all a bizarre but isolated incident? These things did happen. An explanation couldn’t always be found, but to Py uncertainty wasn’t good enough. His intellect was the foundation of his existence. His colleagues had more than a few times jokingly referred to him as “the brain in a bag”, and while the analogy was an obvious exaggeration, Py would gladly sacrifice virtually any portion of his anatomy before accepting the loss of even a single point of his IQ. His sanity was another cornerstone. A fresh revelation that had never crossed his mind before he’d been forced to pick apart his memory, unable to separate fact from fiction. The inability to discern the real from the fantastic would be life ending. All his years of study, the application of reason and statistics as a means of interfacing with the outside world, the loss of this beacon would shatter his existence. If his perception was polluted with fanciful and imagined observations his hold on reality would crumble and die.
Py let these thoughts dance through his head as he bent down and pulled a pair of gloves from the trunk, removing the swabs and containment bags for his own use.
Py sprang up at the sudden noise, watching in horror as Simon ricocheted off the alley walls like a pinball. Some of its arms had broken off while others were mangled beyond recognition. Many of the cameras that had dotted its body like little jewels had their lenses cracked or shattered completely as Simon continued to impact within the confined space.
“Simon says stop! Simon says STOP!” Py yelled in vain. The drone continued to bash itself inside the alleyway, hitting wall and ground and wall again in no discernible pattern until it did, finally, stop.
Py took his hand and ran it down the length of his face.
Ahh yes, the perfect start to what will undoubtedly be a wonderful day.
Py walked a slow funeral march, moving to stand over the remains of poor Simon. He’d had so much hope wrapped up in the drone only to have it literally dashed to pieces.
While walking back to the trunk, Py pulled his phone from his pocket and called the Vergeron lab.
“Hey Brian, something’s wrong with Simon.”
“I don’t know...maybe the guidance system. You should have somebody come and get him. Actually, if you have any spare hands I could use some help.”
“Sorry, I don’t have anybody authorized for field collection and Simon’s mechanic is swamped, but I’ll send him over asap. Maybe we can get him back online.”
“...okay. Anyways, I’m going to collect some samples manually. Can the mechanic grab the trunk as well? I’d rather not wrestle it myself.”
“Sure, see you soon.”
Py put his phone away with a heavy sigh. At the moment he was a little too depressed with the situation to feel for Brian. Py was sure at some point empathy might catch up to him, but it wouldn’t be before he slept, and it certainly wouldn’t be before he gathered his samples.
Py went back to the trunk and extracted everything he needed. He tore open the package of pre-wrapped latex gloves still clutched in his hand and yanked them on with a bracing snap. He snatched the tweezers, scalpel, swabs, and a number of collection bags.
Implements in hand, Py wadded into the alley.
It was slow, methodical work. Py scraped some dirt here, swabbed a crevasse there, plucked and bagged a variety of trash and detritus along the length and breadth of the alleyway. That done, he grabbed the Omnisense and started walking the alley, fanning the device in front of him in large sweeps. Py broke this rhythm only when the display flashed a warning that he’d missed something, or needed to push the device closer to a particular bit of wall, or behind a dumpster. The instrument had an electronic nose, a few cameras, basically the same setup as Simon, only less extensive.
As Py worked a nagging concern kept creeping into his thoughts. It wasn’t a well structured idea, but if he had to put words to it...this didn’t feel like the same alleyway. At first Py suspected it might be the light. There was certainly more of it. The sun was directly overhead and the clear day let the rays play in even the more stubborn shadows. Or maybe it was the absence of a corpse that made the atmosphere less ominous?
Py looked for a minute at the Omnisense display and circled back to the entrance of the alley. His initial sweep had found everything he’d expected with one very notable exception...human blood. There was none of it. Not a trace of it. The body had been removed in the spirit of public decency, and necessary autopsy, but no police department Py’d ever been involved with would go through the trouble of eliminating every scrap of tissue from a scene. Even if the city had hired a professional cleaner, though unlikely in Old Town, it was doubtful they’d have come this soon, or been this thorough. It was too late to hide the murder. The scene had been photographed. The evidence collected. So why would all trace of blood be gone? The question itself almost stranger than the actual absence of evidence.
Less surprising was the absence of insects. He spotted the odd roach, to be sure, but there probably weren't enough bugs in all of Delphi to create the swarm Py’d seen the previous day. Still, as one of the only events he could recollect, it was a possible fact that needed eliminating. Aside from the skeletal projection, which Py’d decided not to humor, was there anything else…
“Hey, you Py?” Py looked up from his examination of a discarded packet of hot sauce to see a middle aged man in Vergeron scrubs hailing him from the mouth of the alley.
“That’s me. You the mechanic?” Py asked, leaving the packet where it lay and walking toward the man.
“Yep. Here to see if I can’t get Simon up and runnin’ for ya. So, where’s the patient?” Py did his best not to openly grimace. Brian had sent somebody with knowledge of the drone, that much was expected, but Py could detect affection in the man’s voice, which meant the next few minutes were going to be unpleasant.
Py pointed a thumb over his shoulder and led the man into the alley. Py stopped once again over the remains of poor Simon, glancing up to see the mechanics reaction.
The man stood there for a moment in complete silence, looking down at Simon with a pensive expression. Py expected to be chastised for somehow mistreating the drone, but was pleasantly surprised when the mechanic finally spoke.
“Well, this definitely has all the telltale signs. Classic crime of passion. You get tired of saying ‘Simon says’?” There was a lightness in the man’s voice, like a smile made sound that Py found himself unreasonably thankful for.
“I only had to say it once, but, yes.”
“Pinball?” The man asked, nudging Simon with the toe of his boot.
“Is that normal?”
The man gave a shrug. “Buddy, I’ve seen it all. Seen people shoot these things full of holes, beat ‘em to pieces with sticks and wrenches. Once saw a guy try to smash one with his car, but nobody hates Simon this much. This was definitely self inflicted. Brian said you have some other luggage?”
“I put some samples in the case. Could you deliver them to the lab?”
“Sure, let me gather up the dearly departed.”
It took the man about 30 minutes to pick up the important bits. During that time Py tucked away his samples, exchanging a pleasantry or two, making sure everything was properly stowed and secured. After all the gear was loaded in the mechanics truck they said a final goodbye and once again, Py was alone.
Py had to admit he was largely dissatisfied with the day. Having lost Simon he’d labored for hours and had almost nothing to show for it. He paced back and forth in the alley, letting his eyes glide where they may. His gaze touched the brick of the walls and the chalk outline, it wandered over the broken bottles and pockets of moisture gathering in divots and depressions.
Py turned at the sound to see a cat calling to him from the top of a nearby dumpster, peering at him as if it had something to say.
The cats. How could I possibly forget!
He’d seen them skulking about, flitting from one garbage pile to the next, hovering at his periphery. Py planned to examine them in turn. The interruption of the mechanic had temporarily banished them from his mind and now he realized he’d sent his equipment back to Vergeron without having gathered any samples.
Cats were part and parcel of alleys, finding them was not strange; however, of all the things Py’d seen the previous night, cats were the only ones still present in the alley today. As mundane as the evidence might seem, it was really his only workable lead, which begged the question…
Py pulled the silver pen from inside his coat pocket.
“Alice,” Py began, “how many cats should I typically find in an alley such as this?”
“One.” Alice dutifully replied. “Plus or minus ten.”
“Negative ten cats?” Py thought aloud. “That number doesn’t seem quite right, Alice. Submit that last response to the bug tracker.”
“Sorry Py. There doesn’t seem to be much information published on this topic.”
Py put the pen in the breast pocket of his jacket and continued the conversation as he began displacing the larger clusters of trash.
“Alright… Alice, by any chance do you have access to the video logs of the Delphi City Police drones and cameras?”
I doubt it. That would be…
“Really?…Do you have the ability to analyze those videos for signs of animal life? Cats, insects, rats?”
“Let me see…it’s not something I’ve attempted before. I can’t estimate the margin of error.”
“Well, worth a try. How many cats do you observe at crime scenes during murder investigations?”
“Processing...” Py had moved through most of the alley and prodded aside everything light enough to be moved with a prod before Alice spoke again.
“In the city of Delphi, the average number of cats at crime scenes is 0.05, with the typical count being 0 and the median count 13.”
“Thirteen? Interesting. Find all murders where the number of cats is greater than two standard deviations above the mean. How many of them occurred in or near proximity to an alleyway?”
Py had resorted to looking under the dumpsters. The loose gravel and tiny bits of scrap were digging into his knees and hands, but just down the way, unmoving and shadowed was a mound of what looked unmistakably like fur.
“Of all murders committed in or near alleyways, how many show cat population greater than two standard deviations above the mean?”
“Alice, lets focus the next set of questions on that 2%. Looking at the same body of evidence, is there any atypical insect activity, mists, clouds, unusual buzzing sounds, swarms of bats, birds or gasses?”
“Witnesses?” Py’s voice strained as he pushed the dumpster aside. Hidden by the mass was his sample. A little deflated and at least a day old was a small pile of cats.
“Suspects?” Py asked with a sigh, regarding the carcasses with disdain.
“Any convictions?” Py queried, rooting around in the trash for some kind of container, retrieving a crumpled plastic bag from a nearby dumpster.
“Did any of the suspects report hallucinations, lost time, temporary insanity?” Py asked, tipping the crinkled bag to one side, allowing a small amount of rancid liquid to drain from it. The liquid splattered on the ground, exploding with the foul odour of decomposing grabadge. He couldn’t possibly imagine a less appropriate vessel for collecting evidence, but unless he wanted to tuck the furry little corpses under his arm like folded newspapers, it would have to do. The daylight was beginning to dim and if the samples didn’t make it to Brian within a few hours he would have to come back tomorrow, risking even further alteration of the scene.
“Yes, all 5.”
“Likelihood of conviction is high, then?”
“So, how did I get off so easy?” Py had turned the sack inside-out and had it covering his hands. He reached down and grabbed the cats, flipping it right-side-in to inclose them safely in the soggy grocery bag.
“I’m afraid I can’t answer that, Py.”
“Any chance I could talk to the other suspects?”
“I can’t estimate the probability of success, but I can provide basic contact information.”
“Any obvious motives?” Having tied the bag closed, Py was feeling better. A thin clue, but a clue nonetheless. Better than an absence of blood, or an absence of bugs. This was tangible, he could see it, touch it, and unfortunately, smell it.
“Police suspect crimes of passion.”
“So couples then? Or close friends?”
“Yes, according to police.”
“2 plead insanity. All others plead innocent.”
Just then the demanding mew sounded again and Py saw his same little messenger, watching him from a perch of garbage.
Py didn’t know exactly when he made the decision. It was an impulse, intuition, maybe compulsion. Whatever it was, Py sighed, rolling up his sleeves and tiptoed forward into the fields of refuse.