Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Query 2.17: Gathering Storm


Lilith rested motionless on the inflatable mattress of her cold, wide hospital bed, half sitting, half lying down, staring mesmerized through the window of the small private space. From here all she could see was the flat gray side of the building next door, with it’s neat rows of regularly spaced panes of shuttered glass, the static view only occasionally broken up by the flapping of a pigeon, or odd puff of steam emanating mysteriously from something further down below her. It was a terrible view, far from the million twinkling lights she had grown accustomed to, but on this particular morning it was more than enough to hold her attention.

Coming to the hospital was Xavier's idea, he’d insisted, dragging her practically kicking and screaming all the way from the cathedral after her confession to Xavier and the Apostle. All Lilith really wanted was to go somewhere comfortable, somewhere familiar, to smash her face into a pillow and not come up for air until the nauseous sinking in her stomach had dispersed. But as was often the case Xavier was right. Her broken ribs had badly damaged her insides and she was battling a mild concussion. She wasn’t sure how long she would be here. Xavier had pulled a string somewhere to get a private room, even had someone sneak in some real food to break the monotony of hospital cuisine. By all accounts it would seem that he was trying to make her comfortable, but Lilith knew better. The hospital was a prison. A place Xavier could watch her and keep her out from under foot until he decided what to do with her. A convenient limbo between the judgment of the cult and the temptation to do something rash, at least that's what she suspected. Lilith didn’t have anything better, so for the moment at least she was resigned to stay and indulge in Xavier’s machinations until she heard something from the outside.

“Hey Lilith,” a gentle voice floated across the room following a soft knocking. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine.” Lilith sighed as Nigel approached, shuffling nervously across the floor. She knew this meeting would happen soon, but as her friend and long time subordinate pulled up his uncomfortable metal chair with its flattened, faux leather cushion and wobbly uneven legs, she found herself tired and unprepared for the conversation that was about to take place.

“Jesus,” he exclaimed as the dark bruises covering the better side of her face came into view, painful souvenirs of the previous night's disaster. “Cartwright did that?”

“Yeah,” Lilith moaned, inclining her bed out of respect for the exchange. “He really let me have it. Honestly though, as bad as it looks, I can’t shake the feeling that he let me go.”

“I still don’t understand what happened.” Nigel spoke in sad confusion. “Why did he turn against us? How is he even here? I was ready this morning to go out and track the bastard down like a dog, but Xavier ordered us to stand down.”

Nigel hunched over placing his elbows on his knees, Fidgeting with his glasses for a minute, looking away from her toward the floor. Something was obviously bothering him.

“They had it all planned from the start.” Lilith responded. “The Apostle said that Cartwright had been recruited, a sort of avenging angel to weed out weakness in the organization. To root out flaws at the highest levels. It sounds like they were expecting to catch Xavier asleep at the wheel. Instead they caught me.” Lilith shook her head, trying her best to hide the choke in her voice. “We never stood a chance.”

Nigel looked up now, his eyes dancing around Lilith’s countenance, his face flush with rage.

“So the Apostle knew the whole time. Cartwright ripped us limb from limb and that damn monster knew it the whole time. Sat and watched it happen without so much as a word.”

“Looks that way.”

“Did Xavier know?”

“...I’m not sure^”

Lilith trailed off and the two sat in silence for a moment, meditating on the horror of these revelations, pondering the changes in Delphi since the Prophet had arrived. The escalation from an inconvenient escort mission to the seemingly heartless execution of faithful soldiers. How long could it continue? Was this life now? Or would it eventually fade, blowing from Delphi as suddenly as it had arrived.

“So you’re the new man in charge.” Lilith spoke, pretending to sound happy for her friend’s success as she strained for any thought to break the silence.

“For now.” Nigel responded awkwardly. It didn’t seem like he was any more excited to be here than Lilith was. “Actually, that’s why I came. I’m sure you already guessed that. I need all of your files, your schedules and manifests. You may have to walk me through some of it. Xavier doesn’t want any break in the day-to-day operations.”

“Do you have access to a remote terminal?” Lilith forced out the words, trying to conceal her sadness as a lifetime of sacrifice and ambition crumbled in her hands. “That’s the easiest way.”

“Not at the moment. The power grid is acting weird. There’s been more blackouts and a lot of people still don’t have service. We have a guy working to bring all the secure servers back online, but we don’t have a lot of control over public utilities.”

“We can get most of it from the computer in my office. Do me a favor and see if you can get me out of here. I want to go home.”

“I’ll go check with the doctor. Listen,” Nigel again flubbed with his glasses, his gaze drifting to the sanitized linoleum beneath his feet. “I never asked for... I mean I didn’t… I mean not like this...”

“I know, Nigel.” Lilith replied trying to reassure her friend, wondering if this was the source of his current anxiety.

“I want you to know that we’re still behind you... I mean, the men are still…”

Lilith cut Nigel off immediately, not giving him even the tiniest sliver to finish the thought.

“I don’t know what you were about to say, but let me make something clear. I won’t tolerate a schism in the faith, especially not on my behalf.”

Nigel’s mouth opened and shut a few times like a fish, looking as though he were about to begin a reply and then, at the last moment, thought better of each one. “Well,” he finally squeezed out. “Just know that you’re not alone.”

Again the room was silent as the thought was digested.

Nigel’s statement was a profound one. Lilith had always placed the diligence of her men in line with their adherence to the gospel. Had their loyalty been for her since the beginning? In either scenario the dissemination of her guilt, the dismantling of her team as a direct result of of her unfaithfulness seemed to have rippled past her men in silence. Lilith’s heart burned with shame at her betrayal. The thought of her soldier’s continued support magnified the pain until it twisted in her chest like a smoldering core. If the fault had laid with Xavier, how would she have reacted? If put to the test where would her loyalty lie? If forced in this moment to follow Xavier or the Apostle how would she react?

“I know you can’t be tasked while you’re on probation.” Nigel began awkwardly. “I don’t know how long your probation will last. I had a thought, although probation could technically be indefinite. Who even knows whose command you’ll be placed under in the end, or how you’ll be utilized.”

“Spit it out, Nigel.”

Nigel calmed his nervous rambling and got to the point. “Our man at Vergeron isn’t getting anywhere. With everything that's been going on with Cartwright it’s sort of falling through the cracks. I know it’s not exactly protocol for me to ask. We’d have to keep it quiet.”

“You’re talking about Mr. Black and Officer Maxwell?”

“Yeah, it’s been on my mind a lot. I think it’s a thread we need to tie off. Maybe we could get you into Vergeron as well?”

“Let me think about it. Maybe this needs a more direct approach.”

“I hesitate to bring it up, but it could be a big feather for both of us. Maybe buy us some clemency.”

“It doesn’t really work that way.”

“I know it shouldn’t, but Xavier…”

Lilith interrupted. “Okay, I’ll think about it.”

“Right,” Nigel said, standing from the chair and placing it back in the corner of the room. “Let me go find the doctor.”

Nigel closed the door behind him with a gentleness that spoke to his reverence and Lilith was left alone with the tempest of her thoughts.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

“Seems like that went pretty well.” Nigel's man said, pushing himself straight from his casual lean against the wall. Nigel had brought the soldier as backup in case anything went sour, but had left him outside, afraid it would cause unnecessary tension in the conversation.”

“I hope so.” Nigel replied nervously, glancing back to the door. “Trust me, you don’t want to be on the wrong end of the Wilting Lily.”

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Logan wanted so much to enjoy the slice of pie in front of him. The meringue top was soft, marshmallowy, and swooped up in decorative peaks, the tips of which had been lightly torched to caramelize the sugars to a golden brown. The lemon curd at its center was bright, sharp, and well set, a perfect contrast to its sweet top. And the crust, the crust at its base was buttery, flaky, and thin, seeming to hold the little wedge together by magic rather than any known physical law. Logan wanted very much to enjoy this slice of pie…

Logan set his fork down on his plate and pushed the little triangle of joy aside. He glanced up from one pie to another. Py had his eyes fixed on his plate, pushing his food around aimlessly like a zombie. As they had zipped about town taking care of their various and sundry, Py had taken time to contact a few people, arrange a few details. Now as they sat at the diner he just looked tired. It had been a long day and for the moment Py seemed resigned to participate in something akin to rest, gathering strength for the coming storm.

Logan’s day had started with him firmly caught between his own conscience and the repercussions of doing what he thought was right. Walking in to face Carl about the mole and confess his own involvement in criminal conspiracy, Logan had expected his career to be over at the very least, but by the Chief’s good grace he’d found himself not only free of the suffocating guilt that had been slowing crushing him, but still a part of the DPD, still an officer, if now in an undercover capacity. Logan couldn’t have imagined a better outcome and had felt more at ease than he had in months… and then came Abigail.

After Logan’s meeting with Carl his day appeared to be coming up aces. It had been a simple ask and a smart move by the Chief to have Logan bring Py in for the consult. Py was an expert by all accounts, trusted in so far as having stuck his neck out for the DPD in the past, and Py’s connection to Vergeron and Logan’s known involvement and attachment to the man facilitated and supported Logan’s transition into the corporation proper. From Chief MacArthur’s perspective Logan understood it was a slam dunk. Logan’s own elation at feeling licit once more had let him construct a fantasy around the situation, that Abigail was somehow connected to what he and Py were already investigating, that they were going to blow the whole thing wide open and catch the mole in the process.

As the day went on Logan watched each piece of that fantasy come crashing to the ground and a new edifice of angst and doubt rise in its place, and at the center of that mounting dread was Py. Py, who Logan realized with ever increasing concern was a person he knew little about. Py, who seemingly disregarded rules and procedure when it suited his purpose and made Logan feel complicit, often times by dint of proximity alone. Py, who Logan had failed to communicate with to the literal endangerment of their lives mere hours ago. Py, who Logan counted a friend. All of that anxiety was wrapped around a nagging question, one that had been buzzing inside Logan’s head for weeks now: can you trust him?

For Logan it wasn’t a question of whether Py was a good person, that had been answered time and again, Py was undeniably virtuous, but was he a good partner? Were Py’s methods the kind Logan could adapt to and live with, especially in moments of crisis? Logan had no idea how long the two of them would even be in the private investigation racket. From Logan’s basic understanding, Py was working well outside the bounds of his job description. Logan had even been told by the Vergeron recruiters who were constantly shoving business cards down his throat that Logan’s own employment, should he be interested, would likely revolve around security, so working with Py in the future was indeterminate. Worse, Logan felt responsible for his own hesitation, for keeping his distance and deliberately avoiding the hard questions with Py for fear that he would lose whatever impartiality he maintained as an officer. It was something Logan remained cautious about with all his relationships, but that tendency was serving him not at all and with a new dilemma knocking at their door he needed to know were he and Py stood, and fast.

Logan decided it was best to ease into his questions and so started with the most recent.

“Hey Py, You never did tell me what tipped you off back there at the church.”

Py broke from his trance his eyes going wide with Logan’s question. “Jeeze, you know with all the chaos I’d forgotten.” Py set his fork aside and reached into his pocket, pulling out a small paper napkin and unwrapping it. Inside was a jagged stretched piece of plastic wrap, pulled tight around a succulent piece of meat, which was just barely clinging to a small protrusion of bone.

Logan reached out and picked up the small parcel, rolling it over in his hand.

“Okay… what is it?” Logan asked. “I mean under different circumstances I’d say it looks delicious, especially for potluck fair, but how did this tip you off?”

Py pointed to the little piece of tissue in Logan’s hand.

“That’s a human finger, I’d bet anything on it.”

Logan reflexively dropped the flesh on the table and looked at Py incredulously.

“You found a fuckin’ finger and didn’t get us out of there!” Logan had unintentionally raised his voice and glanced over apologetically to Marv, who was behind the counter cleaning the glassware before fixing his eyes back on Py.

“I thought I did!” Py responded defensively. “I mean, I said I had exactly what I needed.”

Logan brought his hands up and just set his head into his palms, closing his eyes and taking a deep, calming breath. Logan was realizing that his own idea of Py’s character had distracted him. If any other person, possibly even a complete stranger, had said the same thing in the situation they’d been in Logan would have picked up on it, his own curiosity be damned. Instead Logan’s expectation that Py just fundamentally said things that were hard for him to interpret had blinded Logan to Py’s very literal verbal queue on when to make an exit.

Logan pulled his head out of his hands and looked back up to Py who’s own head was now cocked to the side like a curious bird.

“I admit,” Logan said a bit sullen, “that’s my bad. But then… what the hell was all that stuff about pork and medical school?”

“Logan, you don’t dissect pigs in medical school,” Py said with clear irritation, “you dissect cadavers. I dissected people, not pigs.”

“...then why mention pigs at all?” Logan could feel his agitation growing again and reined it in. He wasn’t angry with Py, anyways. Logan was really just angry with himself and this was too important for him to be flying off the handle.

“Pigs are the closest human corollaries.” Py said matter-of-factly. “I was hoping you’d pick up on that and know what was in the stew. I thought if I used an actual cooking ingredient the pastor wouldn’t get suspicious. I thought I was being clever.”

Logan new he must look properly dumbfounded, but he couldn’t help it.

“Py… that’s very specific knowledge. I wouldn’t have understood you in a million years.”

“Well what the hell was I supposed to say Logan? Great finger food. The stew was finger licking good. Tasted great, someone really killed themselves to get it all together. Maybe thrown in one of these.” Py’s face contorted into the most cartoonish open mouthed wink Logan had ever seen and Logan couldn’t help but chuckle.

“Funny, but why not just ask for an aside, like you did with that Q.C.B. official earlier today.”

Py looked awkwardly about the diner before meeting Logan’s gaze.

“The truth is… I kind of panicked. When the priest started leading us away my brain just scrambled, you know. I was trying to figure out what I could say without making a scene. I mean, I thought we might be surrounded…” Py trailed off and Logan realized that his expectations on Py’s behavior were too high. Despite the work they were doing, Py wasn’t a detective by training. Logan recognized the weird synergy that existed between Py and himself. The gaps in Logan’s own abilities and skills Py had in abundance, and vise versa, but there were certain things as a police officer that Logan had come to take for granted in a partner, one of which was an ability to communicate the danger of a given situation. Py hadn’t had that training and Logan had done nothing to help foster that.

Logan let out a heavy sigh. “It’s not your fault. Honestly, we should come up with a signal or code phrase, something that lets us communicate without drawing attention or making anyone else the wiser. We’ve been working in the field together long enough that it should have been top of my to-do list.”

“Lesson learned, I guess.” Py said with an uncomfortable smile. His eyes began to wander again, but Logan continued before Py had a chance to drift off.

“Py, there are some other things I’ve been meaning to ask you and everything today has really made that a priority for me.” Logan felt somehow nervous about being this direct. Outside the odd interrogation room, Logan preferred to get at information in a more relaxed fashion, but he felt like he had some momentum here and if he let that slide he might not find another chance to ask these questions. Py just blinked, looking at Logan with a curious and patient expression.

Logan didn’t really know how to ask this in a socially appropriate way. Under normal circumstances he’d never have to, Logan would just look it up, but Py’s records were sealed, so a direct ask was the only option.

“Py, what exactly did you go to prison for?” Logan watched a grimace cross Py’s face.

“Ahh...well I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s just more embarrassing than anything else.” Py sighed heavily and appeared to steel himself for whatever he was about the say.

“Do you remember about eight months ago that big containment scare at Delphi International with the plane coming from the Dakar airport in West Africa?”

“Yeees,” Logan said slowly, wondering where Py was going. “The WHO shutdown of terminal B. No survivors on-board. It was a big deal. A lot of blame and fame flying around for catching it or not catching it soon enough.” Py was fidgeting, clearly uncomfortable.

“Do you remember earlier that day the terrorist attack at the airport…”

Logan struggled to remember. It was a strange set of circumstances, a terrorist attack and a possible outbreak in the same place at the same time with no obvious way to link the two. The media had speculated wildly about the possible connection, making it impossible to discern between fact and fiction.

“I think so,” Logan said a few seconds later. “I remember the giant blue puff ball as...they…” Logan’s eyes went wide as the memory hit like a ton of bricks. His hair had been longer, and he’d had something of a patchy beard at the time, but Logan was sure now that he was looking at the same man.

“No...you’re not telling me that was you?” Logan was properly stunned as Py nodded his head. That explained something about the sealed file. If Py was arrested as a domestic terrorist his case would be considered classified. A thousand more questions rolled through Logan’s head, but before he could ask any of them, Py continued.

“I was on vacation from WHO at the time. A rather extended one. Point being I had a lot of time on my hands. Long story short, I discovered the flight had been infected.” Py slumped in his seat and Logan could tell that talking about this was depressing for him. “I contacted everyone I knew and some that I didn’t. WHO wasn’t going to be fast enough and everyone else thought it was some kind of prank. I knew I had to stop that plane from deboarding and give WHO time to digest the data I’d sent them. So I threw on every coat I had, wrapped some wire around a pen and made my way to the airport.” Py looked at Logan with a kind of superficial smile. “The rest, as they say, is history.”

In the time Logan had known Py there was one thing he knew about the man that was singularly astonishing, when the chips were down Py found a way to do the greatest good. Even if it was hard. Even if he might destroy himself in the process. It was an unapologetic martyrdom that Logan, despite his better judgement, found impossibly noble. It was nice to know that Py had seemingly always been that way.

“Okay,” Logan asked, feeling strangely more relaxed, “so how did you come to be at Vergeron, then?”

Py gave a shrug and Logan could tell he seemed eased by Logan’s own repose. “Cain recruited me. I’m on a work release program. Vergeron’s pet analyst, and to answer your next question,” Py said with a wry smile, “no, I’m not strictly speaking part of marketing. Well, I guess technically I’m part of marketing, but really I’m something of a…” Py was waving his hand around in small circles, like he could capture the words he wanted from the air. “Deep dive specialist...truth is my job description isn’t exactly fixed.”

Logan let that sink in a gave a nod. It explained a lot. Why Py was able to operate the way he did. Why oversight on his actions was minimal. By Logan’s understanding he effectively answered to Vergeron’s CEO. Oddly enough, Logan’s other questions were somewhat stalled by the fact that he didn’t think Py had answers. In many ways, Py was in the dark as much as Logan was. That was somehow comforting.

“Well, I guess we just ride this train and see where it goes.” Logan said, pulling his pie back in front of him. “I mean, I’m not exactly content with the ambiguity, but we do good work together.” Logan pushed his fork through the pie and let the piece fall over and be cradled by the tines. “We should develop a code though, in case we’re ever in a situation like the church again.” Logan brought the little sliver of delight towards his mouth…

The world howled with a blaring cacophony. The phones screamed alerts, the light of their screens red and ominous. The cars lined up along the curb outside flashed and called in varied synthetic voices a singular warning. Logan dropped his fork in surprise and watched it fall into the slice of pie that, on some subconscious level, Logan realized he would never eat.

“I thought you said we had at least twelve hours?” Logan called out, grabbing his own phone and muting the speaker. This was a quarantine alarm and, unless Logan missed his guess, it was for the whole city.

Py’s gaze was fixed on the sky outside and Logan followed that gaze and saw hundreds of drones circling over the different districts of the city. “I thought we did.”

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