Monday, September 17, 2018

Query 2.02: Redacted

Lilith was in the elevator on her way to Xavier’s office. It had been a long few weeks and she wasn’t looking forward to explaining the tough state of affairs...

She remembered racing to his call the instant footage from the Night of Madness had hit the evening news. At the time, Lilith didn’t know much more than anyone else. She’d been shocked to find Xavier sitting at his desk, already reviewing annotated drone footage fresh from the FBI. He must’ve gotten it almost immediately. No doubt a special favor from a friend in government. His bag of favors wasn’t limitless, but he always seemed to know how best to spend his precious political currency.

“Have you seen this?” Xavier had asked at her entrance with a familiar patience she knew quite well. Things occasionally went bad and it wasn’t his usual play to overreact. Still, she was surprised to see his typical composure given the largely atypical event.

Xavier had placed the footage on a large screen, so both of them could see it clearly.

“Did you have any idea that Cartwright was so far off balance?”

Lilith had expected a question very much like this and had her answer ready.

“I know he’s been at his wits end trying to conceal an endless string of increasingly public crimes. He really took the brunt of things in Old Town. He was frustrated, exhausted. Still, he always had that stupid smile. Maybe that should’ve been my clue. Nobody’s that damn happy.”

Xavier hadn’t looked away from the screen. He’d just gently shook his head at her words.

“I still can’t believe it. He knocked an entire counter terrorism unit to its knees. I’ve never seen anything like it. Something troubles me though.” Xavier pivoted to gaze at Lilith. “They weren't there by chance that night. They clearly came for him. Did he mention anything about being followed?”

“Well,” Lilith spoke, turning her head down and to the side, avoiding Xavier’s gaze.

“Actually, he did. He wanted to be taken out of Old Town. I thought he was just being paranoid. But paranoid or not, we needed someone on the ground. I didn’t have a lot of options.”

Xavier had turned his back to her, seeming entranced by the footage. It was a truncated aggregate of different feeds, each little box the bobbing shake of a body camera or the smooth aerial coverage of a drone in flight. All of them displayed pure mayhem.  

“Things are bad, Lilith. I hope you have a plan.”

“Backup is coming. I’m headed there myself. But that’s just for tonight, I don’t have anything long term. If I didn’t have anyone to replace Cartwright before, I certainly don’t have anyone now.”

“I thought you had a list?”

“A few guys in the minors looking for a break, but damn.”

“Looks like someone’s getting a crash course. I don't know, maybe split up the districts and send in a few of them.”

“Nothing we do will help if our guest keeps pushing on us. I know I mentioned this before, but now I’m asking; is there anything you can do…?”

“I’ll think on it. I worry about the consequences.”

They both had stood silent for a moment before Xavier brought them back to the task at hand.

“It’s troubling they were able to expose Cartwright. What I don’t understand is how they were able to track him so effectively. I haven't viewed all of this footage yet, not by half, but a few things stand out. The FBI, for the most part, seems totally lost. As does most of the DPD, but a small contingent broke off from the whole in the final moments. I think at the direction of Vergeron. I’ve also heard something about ‘the cats’ and their release? Does that ring any bells? We should track this down. It might be a new type of drone or something. We could all be exposed. And,” Xavier said, pulling forward one of the video feeds featuring Cartwright's capture, “here’s a man we need to find.”

Lilith remembered the annotation next to the man had said OFFICER REDACTED, DPD, which was monumentally unhelpful. Watching a police cruiser send Cartwright flying had taken some sting out of the thought. Lilith remembered having to keep herself from smiling.

“I’ve requested unredacted footage, but I don’t know if my connections go that deep… yet. In the meantime there’s another thread here we can pull. What do you know about Vergeron?”

“We have a dossier, same as any of the big players.”

“What does it say?”

At the time Lilith gave the best mental accounting she had, which she’d double checked later to make sure it was right.

“Back in the day Vergeron built a huge fortune running marketing scams. They got smart and diversified before the government really cracked down on the dirty stuff. Now they run a lot of tech, pharmaceuticals, news outlets. They have a lot of subcontractors and subsidiaries they can bail on anytime things get hot. I think they realized quicker than most that a good legal team is the foundation of any modern company.”

Xavier had given a nod.

“Sounds about right, but I’ve never known them to be involved in something like this. Do they ever deal with law enforcement or the military?”

“Not that I know of. If they're doing anything with the military that’s probably run under a different name, just to minimize negative press.”

“Do me a favor,” Xavier had asked, “dig around a little. If the military has a specific interest in Cartwright we need to know why”...

The ding of the elevator brought Lilith back to the present. She stepped purposefully forward and made her way to the back of the penthouse where Xavier kept his office.

Lilith found Xavier at his desk, reviewing once more the footage from the Night of Madness. One particular clip was looping in a corner of the screen, the inflection point, where Cartwright gave his jaunty wave to a drone before all but disappearing. The fallout from that night had been all consuming. Lilith’s every waking moment defined by that seemly impossible chaos.

Xavier gave a wave to one of the chairs opposite himself without looking up and Lilith all too gladly melted into the soft leather without a word. She was a mess in a hundred subtle ways. There was nothing overt, nothing someone who didn’t know her would pick up on. Just a few stray hairs here, a wrinkled pants leg there, the vaguest whisper of shadows under her eyes that told of sleepless nights trying to juggle innumerable repercussions.

“Good afternoon Lily. How you holding up?”

Lilith had sent Xavier regular reports, or as regular as was possible given the circumstances. He’d glanced up briefly when Lilith had first sat down and then went silently back to his work. Lilith wondered if something in her appearance gave Xavier a moment's pause. Maybe he could sense her exhaustion. Maybe he just wanted to see how she would react. Whatever it was, Lilith didn’t want to be pitied and so proceeded with her report without further prompting.

“Sir, I’m sorry to say we’re still under our quota. We’ve done what we can. We’ve tapped our backups. We’re pulling from the hospitals and morgues, but it’s sub optimal. By definition that stock is diseased and stale respectively. We’ve been pulling people in from the outskirts, but that isn’t sustainable. The product isn’t prime and often contaminated. The hunting and transport is overextending our supply chains and keeping the operations covert is taxing our resources.”

“It’s hard for me to imagine that in a city as big a Delphi there would ever be a shortage of anything.”

The rebuke was a soft one, almost understanding, but it cut to the point. Lilith shouldn’t be having these problems in a city this size, especially after years of building connections and fostering influence.

“We’re doing what we can, but something seems to be heading us off at every turn.”

“I take it the new guy isn’t working out?”

“New guys you mean. They're dropping like flies. I had high hopes at first, but the pool’s getting shallow and volunteers are harder to come by. I have a few eager faces in the second string, but I don’t expect them to buy us more than a couple of weeks.”

“Dropping like flies? Arrested you mean? Or just incompetent?”

If only it were just that.

“I send them out and either they come back in bags or don't come back at all.”

“You don’t think it’s the same group that finished off Cartwright.”

I know for sure its not.

“I don’t know. There haven't been any big stings. No one’s seen any feds and the DPD can’t take a step out the door without ending up on the evening news. As for Vergeron, we’ve put a plant in the company, but no information yet.”

“No one's bothered you though. I assume you’ve been out in the field?”

It was true. Lilith had taken on much of the work herself, handling wet work in a way she hadn’t since her apprenticeship. It had been unpleasant then, and it wasn’t pleasant now, but she’d met no direct interference.

“You’re right… Whatever it is seems to be doing it’s best to keep away from me. The men think it’s afraid. I think it’s playing games.”

Xavier had clearly been of two minds during their conversation, shifting between her words and the footage, but at the indication there was another unknown causing problems out there, he gave Lilith his full attention.

“What operates this way?”

“Nothing I’ve ever seen. The standard countermeasures are in place, but they’ve come up with nothing. I also have one of the sages checking for precedent in scripture.”  

Xavier lifted one eyebrow and Lilith reflexively lifted her hands in defense.

“I know, I know, but it’s far from the weirdest thing that’s happened this month.”

“I hear that otherwise things have been quiet in Old Town.”

“Thank the One True God. It’s like our friend just packed up and left. You don’t think…”

“Don’t think what?”

“You don’t think it’s really gone?”

Lilith watched as Xavier stood and faced the window, looking out at the setting sun.

“I don’t know. I wouldn’t assume so. I’d be prepared for the worst.”

“I can barely handle things now. If the worst comes we won’t be ready.”

“We may have to consider a transfer. Maybe we can pull a seasoned agent from another city.”

Lilith felt the stab at those words. Having to call in outside help like that was dangerous, and she felt responsible for that. Taking Cartwright out of the game seemed a good move at the time, eliminating not only a personal burden, a vicious insubordinate psychopath, but also a chance to promote her own trusted men up the chain and solidify her position in the organization. Now everything was unraveling and she couldn’t even confide in the one man best suited to help her.

“Xavier, has it really come to that^ If we ask for a handout they could come down on us hard.”

“It’s true, if word makes it to the top things may not turn out so well. They could restructure Delphi and I might be deposed. I can’t let the group fall completely apart, though. If I do, I could be excommunicated. I could lose the blessing of god and the support of the brethren. I’d be completely on my own and possibly even a liability... Maybe if we contact one of the previous host cities directly we can find a sympathetic ear.”

Lilith pondered this. It was in these moments she wondered about Xavier, about his commitment. He often seemed more interested in his own gain than in the greater mission and the scope of his responsibilities as leader in Delphi. Lilith's position was a rare designation, one of trust and honor. Despite this worry, Lilith had to concede that if Xavier fell she would almost certainly go with him, and while her punishment would assuredly be less severe she was at risk of losing an appointment she had fought tooth and nail to obtain.

“People have been complaining that the God’s Gifts are failing.” Lilith said, her tone one of genuine concern. “People feel weak. They're scared and I can’t say I blame them.”

Xavier turned his gaze on her as the last rays of sunlight fell beyond the horizon.

“How about you Lily? Are you strong?”

Lilith couldn’t help feeling that Xavier’s question was a trap. She was exhausted, weak, internally questioning her own resolve and Xavier’s Gift was one that preyed on indecision and self doubt. The longer she took to respond, the longer he had to prob, so, in this case, swift honesty was the best defense.

“To be true, sir, I have good days and bad. I certainly don’t feel like myself.”

Xavier broke his gaze and sat back at his desk.

“I should speak with the Archdeacon. I’ve been putting him off, but it sounds like it’s time.” Xavier’s expression soured. “I don’t like getting involved with that end of the business. It doesn’t really play to my strengths and the Archdeacon’s a windbag besides.”

Lilith gave him a sympathetic smile.

“It must be bad if the Archdeacon came to you first. He’s usually one to take full advantage of your absence to do as he pleases. He waves his influence around like a shinny toy.”

“I know, and if could stomach the man he’d be here already, but you’re right, if he’s asking to see me things must dire.”

Xavier went back to glancing at the footage, Lilith imagined to distract himself even from the thought of the Archdeacon. She would admit that the Archdeacon had some… eccentricities that made him difficult to deal with. Even so, Xavier’s loathing was a little excessive. At times the feud could be ridiculous, but it was a good show.

“Any luck finding our mystery officer?” Xavier asked, all too willing to change the subject.

“Not yet, but we’re close. The records at the DPD are so shuffled right now that even the cops can’t make heads or tails of them. Most of the data we need is with internal affairs, which is a tough place for us to reach. Having said that, only a few teams from the DPD were part of the sting and we’ve been narrowing the list one by one.”

Xavier gave her a quick nod.

“I've been reviewing the footage and I think I have another lead. There’s a small voice just off stage. By process of elimination it was almost certainly Vergeron. It’s the same voice we heard talking about the cats. I think I’ve managed to put a name to the voice. A private consultant, one ‘Mr. Black’. He shows up at the beginning of the op, but otherwise seemed conspicuously absent. I suspect that Vergeron may have tried to have him redacted. Our ‘Mr. Black’ is almost certainly an alias, but maybe it will mean something to someone.”

Lilith knew her face had twisted into an expression of incredulity.

“Xavier, Vergeron must employ at least a dozen ‘Mr. Blacks’ just in Delphi alone!”

For a moment Xavier’s eyes grew hard and Lilith was reminded of the deadly determination felt by the unfortunate few that ended up on the wrong side of Xavier’s ambition.

“Do what you can. And remember that time is against us.”

Monday, September 10, 2018

Query 2.01: Back to Basics

The lab was a compressed hum of activity. A handful of suits from the business development group had been invited down for a tour. The Board’s directive that Alice expand into other areas of the company had ensured better funding and visibility for the project, which had positive implications for the size and longevity of the endeavor. Unfortunately, the potential interest of others to use the tools the Alice team created ensured better funding and visibility for the project, which was irrevocably chained to the responsibility to dance for one’s meal, and made it difficult to operate with the impunity that ultimately resolved what the media had lovingly called the Night of Madness.

The tour was more an extending of an olive branch, a symbolic gesture that two dissimilar groups could make peace more than anything… there was very little to see. Whiteboards had been erased. Doors locked. The tour was part theater, part sorcery, part educational exercise with brightly colored presentation slides jumping from the big screen like pages from a pop-up-book.

Researchers milled about with thinly veiled frustration, unable to fall into their normal routine, restricted from even the most mundane of their daily rituals. Even the Doctor, who followed faithfully behind the lucky engineer who was directing the tour vibrated with an almost invisible pressure, which threatened to explode at the slightest provocation. Engineers from the facilities group in their navy blue jumpsuits had taken the opportunity to come and scan the periphery, blueprints in hand, searching for the safest place to tunnel ever deeper into Delphi’s hidden underbelly.

Logan had his feet up on the central workbench, tossing a ball into the air and concentrating on making the arch a gentle transition from one hand to the other without it touching the suspended robotic arms of the Alice terminal.

“Jesus, someone should make a statue of you. The plaque would read ‘A Monument to Boredom’.”

Logan tilted his head backward over his chair to see Aster standing behind him with two cups of coffee in her hands. Logan spun around, setting the ball down on the workbench.

“I don’t know. I consider it more well practiced contentment. One of those for me?” Logan’s question was almost pleading. Wherever it was Aster got that coffee, and it certainly wasn’t from the old drip style the group down here had running 24/7, it was a fine brew indeed and she seemed intent on spoiling him. They had formed a bound the last few weeks, connecting on a feeling of mutual outsider-ship, the only two raisins in a bread pudding.

Aster gave a chuckle. Her hand glided in the air tracing a slow figure-eight. Logan played along, letting his head bob and weave like a well charmed snake. Aster’s smile broadened and she stepped forward and handed him the cup.

Logan rocked his chair forward and sat up straight. He blew in a perfunctory manner at the cup’s lid before taking a sip. Aster let him enjoy a moment of the liquid comfort before moving around and taking a seat at the bench next to him. Her face pinched in a look of concern and her head tilted up in a quick nod to the opposite end of the table. She leaned close and pitched her voice low.

“How long has he been like that^”

Logan gave a sigh. He set the cup down and glanced along the implied line of her chin to its target. Py was hunched over a laptop, his eyes moving rapidly across the screen in side-to-side twitches. Occasionally, Py would mumble at the screen in front of him. Whether Py was querying Alice for information, or just working through something out loud, it was hard to tell.

Logan shook his head.

“I’m not sure. They finally got me a pass to come down on my own without him having to come get me, so he’s been at it for at least as long as I’ve been here.” Logan fingered the visitor badge on his chest, the picture on it more a mug shot than anything else. He was glad for the little rectangle of plastic. The last few weeks Logan had felt a hanger-on, a burden more than a participant in sifting through the detritus of the Alleyman case. It wasn’t that he was unaccustomed to scouring evidence in an effort to bring it together into a sensible whole, that was honestly a large part of his job, but he’d been ill equipped to deal with the immense shit-storm that was the supposedly “closed” case. Logan had tried to focus on particular lines of inquiry, to determine if they were worth pursuing or not...and had run into nothing but walls and rabbit holes.

Aster sat back in her chair and nodded to Logan’s badge while taking a sip of her coffee.

“Have you thought about making this a permanent arrangement? I can say from personal experience it’s one of the better career choices I’ve made.”

Logan hesitated for a moment before shaking his head.

“I’m on administrative leave, Aster. It’s just a cool down after the cluster-fuck. Soon as the Chief thinks it’s appropriate, I’ll be back snug behind my desk at the DPD.” She’d been working on him ever since Logan had made it a habit of coming in and helping Py with the data. The DPD had experienced some fallout from the Night of Madness, including a number of suspensions while the actions taken that night were evaluated, ranging from the extent of the delusion, the reckless endangerment of the public, and certain instances of possible insubordination that took place during the incident.

Aster just shrugged, the smile back on her face.

“I can’t say what it will be: the pay, the benefits package, maybe the call to something that will spark your true potential, but if Vergeron decides you’re useful, they’ll court you. I think the fact that you have a visitors badge at all says a lot.”

The tour group had made its way around the room and was being led toward the exit. The facilities engineers, satisfied with their lack of choices had exited some time ago. Aster nodded in the direction of the group and stood from her chair.

“Gotta get back to my post, appearances and all.” She gave Logan a wink and moved to get ahead of the group before the pleasantries were exhausted and they made their exit past the reception desk.

“Alright,” Py groaned, coming up for air the moment the door to the lobby made its final click. His sudden frustrated exclamation making Logan blink, breaking the invisible barrier between the two sides of the table, re-establishing the link between Logan and the work he’d come to resolve. “I can’t isolate the pattern. There’s just too many variables.”

“So you're stumped?” Logan asked, pushing himself from the chair and moving around the table, both to get his blood moving again and get closer to Py, so he wasn’t talking to the man across the distance of the bench.

“No, maybe… I just need more information. It doesn’t help that I can’t figure out how much of this data could be compromised. I’ve placed a small utility on the DPD server to look for corrupted or erased files, but I’m not expecting much given their data protection protocols.”

Those last few words were said with a simple practicality that cut deep. Logan always thought the DPD was decent in the handling of their electronic assets, despite a certain reluctance from the top brass to update their own practices, but the mass erasure and mishandling of evidence in this case made it impossible for Logan to disagree. Still, Py’s words sparked something of an automatic, protective response. How far was too far? Py had bent rules and saved people, Logan included, but laws protected people too. They may not always be perfect, but they weren't arbitrary either.

“Please don’t tell me you put a virus on the DPD server?”

“I’ve started compiling a list of possible victims by finding people who abruptly stopped posting to social media. People who stopped using their phones, stopped paying their utilities. Crossing this against funerals and obituaries I’m starting to get a sense of how many people may have been murdered verses people who simply vanished without a trace. Comparing these against DPD records it’s hard to tell how many of these incidents were investigated, how many were swept under the rug, went cold, or were falsely marked as resolved.”

“So are you finding any patterns at all?”

“I’m beginning to suspect our killer may have been living a double life. Killing for hire some days and fun on others? Maybe he was involved with organized crime? Or possibly what I’m considering as Alleyman victims are really the work of two different killers, although I'm finding it to be increasingly unlikely. In either scenario it still leaves a lot of victims unaccounted for.”

“Send a few of those records over here.” Logan said, grabbing a laptop from the far side of the table and sliding it in front of him. “Let’s see what you’re up against.”

“Some of these killings are impossibly random.” Py continued. “The lack of a pattern seems to be one of the most striking patterns. It’s like the killer was rolling dice. It eliminates any of the standard motives that typically drive an investigation. It leaves us with nothing.”

Logan admired Py in a lot of ways: his attention to detail, his tenacious need to protect others even at the sacrifice of self, his unquestionable intelligence and lateral thinking were invaluable, but it was that unique perspective that Logan thought might color things complicated when often times they were not. Py didn’t empathize with criminality, despite skirting legality as a matter of course, and because of that Py could fail to recognize a criminal even when one was staring him in the face.

“Don’t worry, there’s always something. Crimes have motive. Wives poison husbands when they have affairs. Relatives kidnap children during custody battles. People vanish when they have two healthy kidneys. Drug dealers fight over territory. Vaxers have been known to kill anti-vaxers or drive them out of the city. Sometimes people who exhibit signs of a virus wind up in the sewers.”

Logan took a glance at what Py had sent him and almost immediately pointed at the screen in satisfaction.

“Here’s a good example, these show up on the books as kidnappings because that's how they’re reported by relatives, but any cop could tell you some of these are runaways. Some of these you have marked as possible victims based on social media activity could be victims of identity theft, or maybe they were just bots and never existed in the first place. We can follow up and if not, we throw it back in the mystery pile, otherwise we kill it. This one has domestic violence written all over it. This here is almost certainly gang related given where the crimes took place. Just start knocking anything that makes sense from the list and the mystery files should stand out like sore thumbs.”

Py brought his hands up to his temples and began rubbing them in slow circles.

“So… even the records that weren’t tampered with could still be wrong. This whole time I’ve had Alice spinning in circles.”

“I’m sure you’re numbers aren’t entirely wrong, but even if some of the numbers are right, even most of the time, wouldn’t it be nice to know for sure?”

“It would simplify things.”

Py dropped his hands from his head and looked to Logan with a forlorn expression.

“The pattern seemed so clear at first, I thought everything would just fall into place, and globally the pattern persists, but it cloaks smaller patterns that grow more obtuse with every observation.”

“Do you think Alice could ever crack it?”

Py leaned back in his chair and fixed the dangling set of Alice robotics with a faraway look.

“It’s possible. Sometimes a solution that seems elusive is sitting right in front of your face. We could be one question away from a breakthrough. Maybe it takes an hour, maybe it takes a month. It’s impossible to know for sure.”

“We need to start filling in some of these blanks.” Logan spoke, leaning back in his chair, considering the best way to dissect the problem. ”According to the official reports there are almost no witnesses to any of the Alleyman cases. I wonder how much of that is true?”

Py gave a shrug.

“There’s no definitive conclusion based on what I have here.”

Logan leaned forward, barely able to contain his eagerness.

“Our problem is we don't have a foundation to build on. We have your observations and mine, but the rest could just be noise. I think we should get back to basics. Hit the streets.”

Py looked over to Logan.

“What do you mean?”

“If this were a police investigation we’d meet these people face-to-face, check out the crime scenes, get some legs under it.”

“So where do we start?”

Logan flipped his screen around to face Py. It had a list of names he’d been compiling as they’d discussed their options.

“We start right here.”