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.”

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