“... the cats?”
The little diner was mostly abandoned in the dead hours following breakfast and preceding lunch. Logan’s voice carried a deep skepticism, and frankly, disappointment. Py was a curiosity, one of those people that never missed a chance to put a reasonable story out of its misery. Logan thought Py must be a permanent resident of the ‘left field’. His story rivaled that of the most paranoid stoner, or the rambling homeless man who talked at invisible somethings no one else could see. Even the greatest conspiracy theorists were rarely so colorful. The end of the world would, apparently, be heralded by cats. Feral cats, milling about in very much the same way they always did.
“I warned you.” Py replied, evidently aware of how absurd his theory sounded. He showed obvious doubt in his ability to sell the idea, causing Logan to wonder if Py believed it himself.
“So, I’ve been following you around for the better part of a week and the whole time you were just… counting cats?”
“Yes. Actually, most of the data comes from drone footage. The bulk of my work has been to help Alice adjust her image processing algorithms to better identify cats in surveillance video.”
“...alright,” Logan said with a sideways glance at the subtle reference to what was undoubtedly more illegal access of information. “You’d better back up a step.”
A waitress interrupted the exchange with two slices of blueberry pie, one plain for Py, and one à la mode for Logan. The Pie Bird Diner was a testament to its namesake, a gem of gastronomy Logan held very close to his heart. The owner-operator, Marcelles Bird, had the distinction of pasteurizing his own milk. Marcelles was a purist. He vat pasteurized his product, 145 degrees for 30 minutes and not a second longer. Marcelles would use this fine product to make some of the best ice cream money could buy. In fact, ask the right questions, provide the right answers, and spend years developing a bond of mutual food obsession, and Marcelles would grace your pie with ice cream made from his own raw milk. Logan was a man so graced, and after the week he’d had, and the yarn his table companion was spinning, Logan felt like he deserved the indulgence.
Py ignored his plate completely, pushing the pastry aside and forging ahead. “Alright, from the top. The night you arrested me I had a terrifying hallucination.”
“I remember you complaining that you felt sick. You asked for a full medical examination, right?”
Py nodded his head. “I used to work as an epidemiologist for the World Health Organization. I was worried the hallucination might be the result of a disease or toxin, so I convinced Vergeron to give me a little time to conduct a preliminary investigation.”
“Ok, I’m with you so far. Though, I don’t understand why you’d conduct this type of investigation in secret?”
“Unfortunately I was presented with a set of circumstances that conflicted with my Vergeron NDA. That being said, I went back to the alley to see if there was anything left behind that might provide a clue as to what had happened to me. Nothing I remembered from the previous night was there, except the cats. It wasn’t really much to go on, so I asked a few questions and unexpectedly stumbled upon something that seemed a little strange.”
“Stranger than counting cats in every alley in Delphi?” Logan asked, trying to enjoy his meal with the weirdness of the conversation.
“Hmm, Anyway,” Py pulled out a tablet from his bag and spun it to face Logan, “when I overlay a map of cat locations with a map of DPD crime statistics there’s a very subtle movement in cat populations, drawing them toward areas where certain crimes are taking place, specifically murders and missing persons cases.”
“That’s… that’s a really big stretch.” Logan said, examining a map with crime pins and various color gradients to represent cat population density. Logan was fascinated to see an area of bright white centered on the alley where he and Py had been assaulted the previous day.
“I agree, but it was interesting. Plus I had some time to kill while I was waiting for lab results, so I decided to look closer.” Py said, turning the map back to himself.
“Ok, suspending my disbelief for the amount of time it takes me to finish this pie, have you ever seen anything like this before?”
“Not exactly, however there are precedents for similar behaviors in nature. Funguses that cause infected insects to move like zombies to places where the fungus is likely to thrive. Lots of carnivorous plants lure prey by creating a specific scent. Some people believe that bees can determine when a flower is full of nectar by sensing it’s electrical field.”
“So your theory is that somehow cats can detect this toxin and are attracted to its location?”
“Do you know why the cats find it so interesting?” Logan asked around a mouthful of pie. He had to admit, these theories had a kind of appeal to them. They were insane, to be sure, but it was like watching the underdog team fight that uphill battle. Even if you were on the opposing side, some small part of you respected having the heart to fight against the odds.
“That part I’m still working through. It’s likely the toxin acts like catnip and generates intoxication, or a sense of euphoria. I can’t really know until I get a sample of the stuff, which has been harder than expected.”
Logan finished his confection and dabbed his mouth with the napkin. He considered ordering another, but too many questions were swimming in his head for him to enjoy it.
“Listen Py, I hate to shit all over your theory, but a toxin didn’t lay me out cold in Old Town yesterday. There was a third man in that room, even if I can’t prove it. Yet. Another question. Why did you go back to the first scene? It looked like you were collecting all of the same evidence we logged as part of our first investigation.”
“I know, but I couldn’t get access to the original evidence for some reason. Does the DPD have a special interest in the case? Why is the evidence locked down so tightly?”
One of Logan’s eyebrows cocked upward on his face.
You really don’t know…
“The DPD doesn’t have the evidence. It disappeared right after you did. We were all under the assumption that Vergeron had it.”
“Really? I’ll look into it. Actually now that you mention it, the alley was unusually clean. I didn’t find any meaningful trace. You don’t know if the city hired anyone to clean it up?”
“In Old Town? Not likely.”
Py nodded in disappointment. “I thought it was strange. Does someone else know about this toxin? If so, who? And why bother destroying evidence after the DPD has already logged everything from the scene? Although, if the original evidence is missing, that might make more sense.”
The Chief had nearly lost his shit when Logan had proposed the idea of conspiracy, but the loss of so much evidence was making the theory increasing likely. These kinds of problems would have been frustrating working any case, but Logan was realizing that, where he’d expected to find answers in Py, he was only finding more questions.
“Py, I’m sure you already know, but there’s no evidence from last night either. All of my electronics were busted and nothing synced to the server because we were out of range. This all seems a little too deliberate. I hate to cry wolf, but this is starting to feel like a cover up.”
“Well, we can get one of these questions answered.”
Logan watched Py reach into his inside coat pocket and pull out that silver pen he’d seen him talk into so many times before.
“Alice, does Vergeron have any of the original evidence relevant to this case?”
“I’m afraid I can’t answer that, Py.”
Logan’s mouth dropped open a little before he marshalled his expression. So the thing was a communication device. But why a pen? Of all the options available to talk to someone, why a pen?
“Is Vergeon testing any new pharmaceuticals that might be available to patients in Old Town?”
The answer from the device was immediate. “Nothing based on the data I have retrieved.”
When Py had mentioned Alice before, Logan thought it was someone at Vergeron helping with the case, but the voice modulation was odd. Pleasant. But a little off kilter.
“Who, or what, is that?”
“Oh, Alice. She’s an experimental data engine being developed at Vergeron.”
Ahh, a voice controlled assistant. So that’s what that fuckin’ thing is.
“So it aggregates data and presents results?”
“Basically. She’s not exactly brilliant, but she has an amazing ability to find things. All sorts of things.”
Like DPD drone footage…
“I've noticed. Speaking of which, why are you telling me all this? I can’t imagine Vergeron cleared you to be here?”
“The truth is, I’m stumped. I have limited resources and people are not particularly excited to collaborate. Since you’re here, I’m assuming you have some interest. Maybe you have some insight.”
Alice interrupted the conversation. “There is a statistically significant correlation between felony arrests and officer Maxwell's daily urinalysis.”
“Thank you for that, Alice.” Py replied, shaking his head.
If Logan was so inclined, Py would be in jail, facing charges ranging from illegal access of restricted information to assault, if Logan had been willing to ignore the inconsistencies of his own experience the last few days. Py was risking a lot by being here. He had freely admitted to a number of illegal activities and had done it without a second thought. Logan was skirting the line here by meeting with Py off the books, but it wasn’t too late for him to turn back. One more step and he’d be committed, like it or not they’d be in it together.
“Actually, there is one piece of hard evidence left…”
Drawers lined the walls in three neat rows, each a perfect reflective square of polished metal with small pull handles attached like over-sized filing cabinets. The coroner had laid out the subject on the raised slab in front of the viewing room window before Py and Logan’s arrival. A white sheet was draped over the corpse to respect the precepts of modesty, even in death.
Logan gave the window a tap and the coroner pulled the sheet down and rested it at the bodies navel, exposing the head and torso.
“There’s the guy,” Logan said, not taking his eyes from the corpse. “Do you see anything here that might give us a lead?”
Py studied the body, trying to remember every detail from that first day in the alleyway. How the face had been sunken, the blood absent, the overall shape and mass of the thing he’d nealed over so intently.
Py shook his head. “You’re not going to like this, but I don’t think that’s the guy. I mean this one seems so...” Py struggled to think of a more appropriate word and, finding nothing, just said what had first popped into his head, “plump. I mean, not by conventional standards, but considering what I remember this corpse is downright chunky. Is it possible the coroner pulled out the wrong body?”
Logan pressed the two-way receiver on the wall before speaking.
“Hey Chuck, can you make sure that’s the right guy.” Py saw the coroner move to the body’s feet and reference a small tag attached to the toe of the corpse.
Chuck moved over to the wall and pressed the two-way. “It’s been a busy week, but that’s your guy. You want to come double check the documentation?”
Logan sighed, scratching his chin. “You’re fucking kidding me^ I’ll pass, thanks Chuck.” Logan took his finger off the two-way and turned toward Py.
“If the body’s been switched we’re alone in this. We can’t trust anyone on the force. Honestly, it cuts my resources off almost completely. How sure are you about this?”
Py hadn’t stopped his inspection of the body. It was the right age. Had the right hair color. The overall size seemed correct, but there were subtle differences. The skin tone was wrong. Py remembered something paler and, while the corpse was thin, the cheeks sunken, the clavicle and ribs of the subject prominent, it wasn’t enough to ease the memory of the dried husk he’d seen before.
Py met Logan’s eyes with his own. “I don’t know. I don’t know when my perception of events began to skew. It could be the body in there is the one I saw. That I was hallucinating the details I recall.” Py looked back at the corpse. “But that’s not the body I remember.”
They stood in silence for a few seconds before Logan gave a nod, tapping the glass again and waving at the coroner with a half-hearted thanks, before turning and walking down the hallway. Py followed behind, letting Logan guide him from the building and back to the parking garage.
“So… where does this leave us?” Logan asked as they situated themselves in his car. “We’ve got nothing but anecdotal evidence and trying to corroborate even the most basic part of this is presenting more questions than answers.”
“Are you starting to understand the cats?” Py asked, hoping the recent evidence would lend some credence to his case. “It’s the only place I haven't come up completely empty handed.”
“I don’t want to hear about cats. We’ve got bigger problems than fucking cats!” Py could hear the frustration building in Logan’s voice, but he needed the man to understand him on this if they were going to work together.
“Listen, I can state as a point of fact that following the cats resulted in symptoms similar to my first encounter.” Logan began rubbing his temples with one large hand as Py continued. “It’s supported by the fact that you manifested similar symptoms when in my vicinity.”
Logan let his hand drop and leveled Py with an exhausted expression. “Py, you seem hell bent on ignoring the fact that the both of us were beat to shit.”
“Which can be easily explained as injuries obtained in the throws of violent hallucination.” Logan was shaking his head before Py had even finished his sentence.
“None of this can be easily explained! I’ve been in a few scrapes in my time and I’m telling you right now,” Logan was looking down at his hands and flexing them as he spoke, “I didn’t do this to myself. And no offence, you didn’t do this to me either.” Py wanted to protest, but he had to admit that even in some type of hyper-violent fugue state he couldn’t see himself getting the best of the mountain of muscle that was Logan Maxwell.
“Logan, I won’t discount your theory outright. Maybe there was another person. Maybe we got rolled by some bum before the cavalry showed up. But there’s no trace of that other person. All the evidence points to us being alone in that room.”
“What type of bum rolls a cop and doesn’t take his wallet!? Let me ask you a question Py… you been in many fights?”
“...no.” Py could guess where this was going and he didn’t like it one bit.
“Well I have! This,” Logan held up his hands and gave Py a good view of the scabs along the knuckles. Logan moved his hands around his jaw, framing the discolored area under his chin, “this is my ‘point of fact’! Someone did this to me. Did this to us! Think about your own wounds, Py. Someone hurt you. Someone wanted to hurt you. Me, I was in a nasty brawl, sure, but your injuries had intent behind them. Violence. I saw your medical chart. You know what I thought when I saw it? It’s the damage you see in the worst types of domestic abuse cases. Someone attacked you with passion. With fuckin’ purpose! That scares the hell out of me. Add to it the vanishing evidence, that we don’t know if the corpse we’ve got is the corpse you saw, and it reeks of conspiracy. It tells me there’s a god damn intelligent agent at the helm of this thing. Right now we’re looking for a who, Py, not a what.
Py could hear the Doctor’s words echoing in his mind.
Py, this is the work of a who, not a what.
Those had been Ben Whitechapel’s exact words. Hearing Logan nearly parrot them was unsettling. Py felt something turn over in the pit of his stomach. It was a familiar, almost nauseous sensation that twisted his mind and his gut with the bitter tang of self disappointment. Though he didn’t have proof yet, Py was starting to suspect that he might be wrong.
“Logan, you’re not the first man to tell me that. In fact, I think our current predicament calls for a few introductions.”
Brian sat hunched over the top of his shiny black Vergeron laptop with the sad sagging posture of exhaustion. His eyes had the throbbing bloodshot expression of pure frustration. Positioned at the center table of Dr. Whitechaple’s lab, he toiled away as the robotic Alice terminal scanned his progress with a sort of programmed, sudo curiosity. The Doctor leaned casually against the other side of the table looking at the large smartboard which displayed a mangled array of photographs that vaguely resembled an alley in Old Town.
“So there's no way to utilize something simple like a Hough transform?” The Doctor asked, obviously trying to help Brain with some dilema.
“The problem isn’t the transform, the system just can’t index enough sift features.” Brian spoke, suddenly typing busily with a sense of fresh inspiration. “I just received a data packet from Simon. If we can align some of the original images with the images he’s collecting now we may be able to salvage something.”
“Some of these look superimposed to me.” The Doctor replied, rubbing his chin. “Maybe try breaking images apart by pulling out sets of parallel lines? If masonry lines converge in acute angles they likely don’t belong together.”
“It’s an interesting idea, but beyond the capabilities of this system. Is there anyone here who could whip something up?”
“Try asking Alice.” Py interjected, entering the room with Logan in tow. “We’ve been discussing vision problems all week.”
“I guess it couldn't hurt.” Brian groaned. “How long would it take?”
“Probably less time than you’d think.” Py spoke, looking suspiciously at the door leading to the server room, trying to imagine how many computers could fit in the space. “She seems to have access to a lot of compute cycles.”
“Ahh, the guest of honor.” The Doctor interrupted, looking past Py and on to Logan. “Hopefully you’ve been a good influence on my misguided little number cruncher.”
“Logan Maxwell, Dr. Benjamin Whitechapel, head of the Alice research team. The gentleman behind the computer is Brian Gliss, lab manager of sub-basement eight.” Brian gave a little wave without looking up from the laptop.
“So what exactly are we looking at?” Logan asked, moving closer to the smartboard.
Brian pressed a few keys on his laptop and a 3D image lept from the board, rotating slowly to reveal the model from all angles. The basic coloring resembled the contents of a typical alleyway: red brick, green dumpsters, but arranged in a mangled heap of disjointed passageways shooting off in every direction.
Brian lifted his eyes from his laptop to the smartboard. “This is the Omni Sense data that Py captured last week at the first Alleyman crime scene. I thought I’d take one last crack at it, but it’s completely mangled. I can’t make heads or tails of it. I didn’t get anything useful from the physical samples either. Pythagoras seems to be acting normal, although several of the people in the lab felt a little strange when he first came in. I guess it could be a clue. Of course it could also be a natural reaction to spinning cat parts in a centrifuge.” Brian had turned his eyes on Py with an accusatory look.
“Pythagoras?” Py asked, suspecting the worst.
A small smile crossed Brian’s face. “The cat. The lab wants to keep him. I’m considering it, but if I find any cat hair in my microscope, I’m coming straight for you.”
“So basically we’re back at nothing.” Py said, a little deflated. He was starting to agree with Logan. Every path of inquiry seemed blocked by an unseen adversary. A smart one.
“We have some new data from the latest scene.” The Doctor chimed excitedly. “Alice, pull up the new simulation.” The Doctor moved to stand in front of the smartboard just in front of Logan. “Whoever tried to purge the electronic data from the attack didn’t seem to realize that Alice was logging data as well. The Alice-Bridge contains a few directional microphones and a basic IMU. Using this data we can make some generalized assumptions about the scene utilizing something akin to echolocation.”
The 3D image of the distorted alley faded away, replaced by a faint blue wireframe cube containing a rendered image of the pen that housed the encrypted Alice-Bridge.
“We took a few measurements of the room where you found Py to help validate our results. This is the basic outline of the room and here,” the Doctor said, pointing at the pen, “is where we think Alice was positioned just before the attack.”
Py saw two faint blue spheres appear, maybe about 12 inches apart, both pulsing at separate, fixed intervals. “This is our estimation of Py’s location based on his breathing and heart rate. These signals are fairly strong due to the pen’s proximity.”
Two more glowing spheres, presumably representing the heart and breath of a second person, pulsed a deep red in one corner of the 3D cube.
“We believe this is the third man.” The Doctor expounded, indicting the red spheres. Py watched the orbs glide forward, faint red ticks appearing like ripples on the floor of the 3D mesh as the red orbs converged on the blue. Slowly, the blue globes began to lift smoothly into the air, the lights pulsing faster and faster. Py remembered the horror. Remembered the melted face of the thing that held him with effortless strength. The orbs remained in proximity for a moment, the blue suspended over the red, when a sudden blast of yellow light from one wall of the cube exploded across the simulation and the blue orbs fell to the ground.
“Here, we assume Logan breaks in the door.” The Doctor explained as two yellow orbs began to pulse faintly at the periphery of the simulation. “The third man seems to move towards him, probably close enough to touch. Alice, end simulation. ”The cube vanished, the Doctor turning to face the room.
“After that things start moving into the hallway and the reconstruction gets muddy. It looks like our friend briefly made his way back into the room, possibly to check Py’s phone. After that he’s gone.
“I don’t believe it^” Py gasped. “How is this possible?”
“There’s a chance this mysterious third man carries some form of toxin that he uses to debilitate his victims.” The Doctor grinned. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to concede that point. However, the critical revelation here is that an intelligent agent has been directing these crimes from the very beginning.”
Py’s head was spinning. He was trying to make sense of it, but the question of motive continued to elude him. “To what end?”
The Doctor gave a little shrug. “Not a clue. I haven't made any obvious connection, although my research dictates that criminals of this type almost always exhibit a predictable pattern.”
“The ones we know about.” Logan spoke with a heavy intonation. “The ones who get caught.”
The Doctor turned to Logan, the smile still plastered on his face. “I’m assuming this is new territory for you, officer Maxwell?” A phantom criminal, completely invisible to the DPD. Solve this and you’ll be adding a chapter to every manual in the catalogue.”
“This is new to everyone, Whitechapel. At least I know I’m not insane.” Py could see that Logan was still pensive, trying to sort out exactly how all of this connected together. The Doctor in his triumph of ‘right’ was not helping the mood.
“I've examined a number of case files, I’ve even spoken to a few suspects.” Py added, his mind returning to the room. “This latest experience is an outlier. As interesting as it is we need to consider the possibility that it’s unrelated.”
“Or maybe the bastard finally made a mistake^” Logan breathed, almost as an afterthought.
“Intentional or not I’ve been following him for days now. I suppose it does make sense that this may have forced him out of his usual pattern. But why let us live?”
“I have a guess.” Logan said, seeming to come into a second wind. “People think you’re crazy, Py. A nutty story like this could kill a police investigation. If our culprit doesn't know about the independent Vergeron analysis, better to let you discredit yourself instead of killing you and getting a lot of people asking questions.”
Py could see the rational in that. Insanity had a way of infecting everything it touched. “Well, I can open some fresh queries and see what turns up. Frankly, this is a little out of my wheelhouse.”
“So, what’s next?” Brian asked, still pounding away at the Omni Sense data, having remained silent through much of the discussion. “And please, don’t say cats.”
“Well, the cats…” Py began.
“No Py,“ Brian interrupted, “please. Just no.”
“Hold on now,” Logan said, turning to fixate on the smartboard. “We don’t have a body.” Logan spoke. “No scan data, no trace, no blood. The only evidence of the third man is based on ad hoc echolocation from a fancy pen… Fuck, I can’t believe I’m about say this. Py, tell me again about the cats?”