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Death Is Real
by Phil Geusz
© Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved

For Captain Webster

The Pig was quite crowded that night. Standing in the doorway shaking the rain off, I took a moment to scan the crowd. Jack De Mule was in, ragging away at the ivories. An otter-morph I didn't know sat up straight and tall at the bar, long musteline body supporting the boyish, innocecent-looking head that all otters seemed to possess. Wanderer and his pack appeared to be swapping tall tales in the rear, but I saw no sign of my counselor anywhere amid the noise and bustle. Then it struck me that I'd answered my own question. Where there was noise and bustle, no self-respecting lapine would be found. So, confidently I strode back the quietest corner.

Sure enough, Phil was back there getting peacefully sozzled with a group of close friends. The normally quiet lagomorph had enjoyed a few, I could tell, because he was issuing forth with far more forcefulness than he usually employed. "And I ask you again, Posti," he was saying as I ambled up. "What is real, anyway? Answer that one, and the secret of SCABS will fall into your hands like an overripe apple!"

The distinguished scientist snorted rudely. "Come on, Phil. Don't feed me that sophomoric nonsense. What is real can be measured, can be tested, can be repeated."

"You scientists still don't get it!" the white rabbit replied. "Tell me, Doctor. Is love real? If so, how do you measure it? How do you test for it, and get it to repeat for your blessed experiments?"

"Posti" looked puzzled. Phil sighed and continued. "Look, I'm not the holder of a fancy degree or anything. But I like to keep up on science and stuff, and I am fairly well read by any definition. I understand why you hold the view you do, and why it is that you are only comfortable with things that can be experimentally proven. Physics is not a matter of opinion, I grant you. Nor is chemistry. But tell me, Doctor Stein, exactly how is it that a chunk of once-dead matter can feel love?"

Jon Sleeper tossed in his two cents worth. "There simply has to be more to the world than the laws of physics tell us. There simply has to be."

"Right!" Phil agreed, his voice slurred a bit. The remains of a Jack Strafford were sloshing around the bottom of his paw cup; my guess was that it wasn't the first. "But what exactly is the 'more' that we're talking about here? Now we're into metaphysics, the place where our understanding totally breaks down, where we can neither properly make use of the scientific method nor afford to completely ignore it. We cannot imagine how to frame a real double-blind test to our questions, nor can we fail to apply said method. Everything sort of turns gray when you look at it just right, and we end up not really knowing what is real and what isn't."

There was silence for a moment, then Phil continued. "You can really hurt your head thinking about this stuff, you know. For example, the universe contains uncounted human minds, which are so far the most complex structures known anywhere. Now, though it is indeed a fabulously intricate thing, the mind has definite limitations. One is that by definition it cannot grasp in full anything either equally as complex as or more complex than itself, or so I figure it. And yet by the very nature of things it is through our very-human minds that we must perceive reality, that we must try and interpret the greater universe around us. Since the tool of our mind is by definition more limited than the universe, is it not possible that we can never understand ourselves, or our place in the greater scheme of things?"

He took another sip of his Strafford before nodding at Posti and continuing. "Now, all this does tie in with SCABS, and thusly. For the first time, Mankind has contacted an alien life form. And guess what? Almost the very first thing it did was to defy our conception of physics. Is it not therefore possible that the Flu virus belongs to a wholly different reality, one that lies even further beyond our limited grasp than the one we live in? A reality that was created by an alien sort of God, so to speak? If this is indeed the case, it is not just our physics that is being challenged here, but our very concept of reality. I submit that each and every one of us present has been touched not just by an alien virus, but by..." Phil looked up for the first time, and saw me. "Oh!" he said, widening his ears in a rabbit's version of a smile. "Hi, Bronski! Let me get you a cushion to sit on."

"Hello, Phil. Hi, everyone!" I replied, sorry to have broken the flow of the pale lapine's thoughts. Despite myself, I had been fascinated. Every time I thought I knew Phil, he opened yet another door and showed me yet another face. "It's okay. I'll stand."

But no one would hear of it, and presently space was made at the table, a large beanbag was laid out, and a bowl of beer placed on the tabletop so that I could drink with the rest. Presently, Jon asked Phil continue on with what he'd been saying..

"Continue what?" the rabbit asked innocently, downing more vodka and orange juice. And further he would elucidate not.

Stein stood and sighed. Claiming a headache, he headed for the door with a sad look on his habitually equine features. Phil watched him go, then turned his attention back to me. "Still think this is the best therapy deal in town, Ken?"

I waggled my head back and forth, my equivalent of a smile. "I owe ya big time, Phil."

He rocked his ears. "No problem. You weren't going feral. Just getting a little stressed out. God knows you've sufficient reason."

He was right, of course. The Department had required me to seek counseling about my SCABS-related issues after I was found kicking the living hell out of a coffee machine that had robbed me of my last quarter. The police-shrink had brilliantly deduced that my change of form was the root of the anger driving my aggressive behavior. Luckily, instead of being sent to go see a Norm with a fancy degree our shrink was wise enough to refer me to Phil. After a couple of sessions in his cramped little office, he'd prescribed twice a week at the Pig.

At first I resented the suggestion. I hadn't wanted to believe that that I needed the company of other SCABs to help me adjust. But the rabbit had been proven right. The Pig had been just what I needed. "Yeah." I answered shortly. Living as an ostrich wasn't easy, not for a city homicide detective like me who had always until then had enjoyed the toughest of reputations.

"Drink your prescription. It helps," Phil reassured me, gesturing at my beer. I took a beakful, then rocked my head back in satisfaction. At least beer still tasted good. So little else did.

"Trust the bunny!" I replied, reminding my friend of what he had repeated over and over while I came up with a thousand objections to visiting the Pig. "Trust the cute white bunny". It was only later that I really came to understand the underlying message that he'd been trying to communicate. An ostrich is a pretty ridiculous species for a homicide detective to become, but a white rabbit is also a pretty silly body for the tough-minded Union guy Phil had once been to have to wear, too. He understood my situation not from book learning, but from real-world experience. And his methods reflected the difference.

Phil rocked his ears at me yet again, and lifted "Hare Restorer" in his forepaws to take a deep swallow of his own medicine. Meanwhile the conversation became relaxed and general, as Phil sat back and acted more like is usual self, watching and listening.

Brian was talking about today's biggest headline. "They found another body today, didn't they?" He looked at me expectantly.

"Yeah," I replied shortly. "Not my case." For some twisted reason the Department had only sent me on SCAB-related cases since that one fowl day. As if my situation gave me some kind of special insight.

"Ah," Brian replied. "They're starting to talk serial killer, you know."

I remained silent, refusing to be baited. Cops hate it when the media starts talking that way. Usually, they're just trying to sensationalize things and sell papers. That was bad enough. But it was even worse when they were right.

The raccoon man continued innocently on, not realizing that the shop talk was bothering me. "It was a hooker. This time the body was wrapped in a plastic sheet and dumped out on Highway Fifteen. There isn't a speck of physical evidence, the papers say."

This wasn't quite true, but close enough. The talk was really getting to me, so I decided to quash it. "Yeah, well. You know how the papers are. They've got to find more paying readers all the time, so they sensationalize everything. In the real world serial killers, or even just multiple murderers for that matter, are amazingly rare creatures. Heck, I've only met a couple of them myself. And I'm in the business. None of you have any real cause to worry about falling victim to a predator like that. Statistically, it's virtually impossible."

There was a thick silence. I looked around me, wondering what had happened, then realized that everyone in earshot was staring at me. What did I do wrong? I wondered, blinking rapidly.

Then Phil spoke, in a high strained voice. "Excuse me, Ken. I've... gotta go." He was stiff and trembling, and clearly on the edge of losing control. Quickly I got up and backed away from the table, leaving Phil room to edge by. He bolted past me for the men's room, with Jon in rapid pursuit. When the door had swung closed behind the big buck, I looked around me in bafflement. "What?" I asked the crowd. "What'd I do wrong?"

"You mean you didn't know?" Dr. Derksen asked me, his insectile eyes giving away nothing.

"Know what?"

Coe sighed, and everyone relaxed a little. "Look, Ken. We respect people's privacy here; heaven knows many of us have more need than most for it. But it's also important for all of us to know what might set our twitchy friend off. And this is not exactly a secret anyway; a while back, it was all over the papers." He sighed and looked down at the table. "Ken, our friend Phil was the last attempted victim of Butch the Blade."

My beak dropped open. "Oh my God.. I didn't...."

The place began to return to normal. I was forgiven by the regulars, apparently, though it would be harder for me to forgive myself. Phil was a good friend, and I wouldn't have hurt him deliberately for the world.

Both Brian and Bryan reached out understandingly and stroked my anxiety-ruffled plumage, and eventually I sat back down to my beer. Whenever my lapine counselor emerged, I resolved to deeply and sincerely beg his pardon. "Did he get hurt?" I asked the little group. Dr. Derksen explained to me he had been the attending physician, and that my rabbit friend had made a remarkably quick physical recovery from serious injuries. However, he'd also suffered deep mental scars that might never entirely heal. He'd been forced to spend weeks afterwards back at the Hadesson in a halfway-house setting before he was released again. This made me whistle -- I knew that lapines had a hard time being mainstreamed in any event. My fuzzy friend had been remarkably lucky to get a second chance.

"By the way," I asked before the conversation became general again. "How did Phil manage to escape?"

"From the Blade?" a new vodor voice asked from the next table.

"Yeah," I replied, turning around to face a full morph coyote. "Is he that fast? Did he get a jump on old Butch?"

There was more silence. Apparently I had said something stupid again. The coyote cocked his head first to one side, then the other. "You know that a cop shot the Blade, right?"

I nodded. "Yeah. A policewoman. I know her personally, in fact. We were at the Academy together, and still stay in touch."

"Really?" The coyote's eyebrows rose. "Then next time you run into her, ask her what kind of condition Butch was in when she finished him off."

It was my turn to cock my head inquiringly. "What do you mean, finished him off?"

Dr. Derksen broke in. "I was Butch's doctor too, Ken. He was DOA. Sure, the cop's shots were what actually killed him, and it was what I think you guys call a 'righteous' shooting. But..." The cockroach broke off ,as if he thought he wouldn't be believed.

"But?" I encouraged him.

He frowned and looked down at the table. "But the other wounds would have been fatal within minutes anyway. They were massive, Detective. Huge. And quite lethal. In other words, our cute bunny rabbit friend killed Butch the Blade every bit as much as your policewoman friend did. Maybe even more so. Butch just hadn't realized that he was dead yet when the officer finally put him down."

The doctor was was right. I didn't believe him, until I looked around at the solemn nodding faces. Then, as unbelievable as it was, I knew it to be true.

Like I said, just when I think I get to know Phil, another door opens and he shows me a new face...

My pager went off then, and I lowered my head to read the device. It was strapped to my ankle, right on the opposite side of my shield. Having no hands, I wear the impedimenta of my profession on a leg band, quite similar to the kind used to track wildfowl. It was the office calling me, and a quick trip to the phone booth both confirmed my worst fears and filled me with a sense of excitement that is very difficult to describe to outsiders.

Conducting a murder investigation is a stimulating challenge, in the academic sense at least. But there are drawbacks to catching killers as well, drawbacks such as facing the bitter ugliness of unwashed corpses and peering into murderers' even more unbecoming minds. Like most cops, I both love and hate The Job. And investigating fresh murder scenes is both my most and least favorite part.

Because argue about semantics if you wish all night long, a person in my profession knows beyond doubt that death is the one thing in this universe that is definitely, absolutely and without question real.

I ran to the crime scene; it was only a couple miles away, so the trip wasn't any big deal. Usually they send a unit to pick me up and chauffer me wherever I need to go, as no vendor yet produces a vehicle package that will allow me to drive. I'm looking forward to the day one comes out, though, as the jokes are getting old. The uniforms assigned to assist me complain sometimes that they have better things to do with their lives than watching the birdie...

At least the rain had let up, though I hit enough puddles along the way to thoroughly soak myself. The crime scene was a decaying single residence between two old tenements in the worst part of town, and as usual a crowd had gathered. With some difficulty I pressed my way to the door, where a uniform recognized me and stepped aside. "Howdy, Detective Bronski!" he greeted me, smiling easily. Everyone on the force had chauffeured me at one time or another, it seemed, but I couldn't possibly remember all their names in return. After all, they had only one ostrich to keep track of.

Still, I waggled my head as if I knew him from Adam, and returned the greeting in the spirit intended. "Evenin'. What have we got?"

His face sobered instantly, and turned a bit pale. "Take a whiff. Or isn't your sniffer so good any more?"

It was still good enough. I inhaled deeply, and picked up a faint... something that seemed positively unnatural. But moist and sick-making all the same. Quizzically I cocked my head at the officer.

"It's a bad one, sir. I found it. And tossed my cookies." He said it without a trace of shame.

"Jeez." The message wasn't in the fact that he'd barfed -- this happens a lot more often than we professionals like to admit. But the way he came right out and admitted it without fear of being teased told me that something really extraordinary awaited within. "I hate this shit."

"This was one sick son of a bitch" the uniform agreed. Then he stood aside as I strode through the portal into what lay beyond.

The smell was much more intense inside. It burned the sinuses and turned the stomach all at once, a unique odor that felt like it should be familiar but was not. The flashes from the police cameras led me towards the back, where I stepped into the master bedroom and a vision of hell.

The victim, an elderly black female, was tied to a chair. All around her a mess of coagulated blood and semi-liquid tissue covered the floor, in some places up to the depth of an inch or so. Her mouth was a bloody hole, with long strands of ... something running from her teeth down to the clotted mess that had once been the front of a flowered robe. Clearly, the gory goop around her had erupted from within. The burning smell was overpowering here. It was acid and blood and something sicker still.

But amidst all of the gore, it was the victim's eyes that held me. They were wide open and staring. She'd been conscious to the very end. And the terror and agony of such an awful death was etched unmistakably into her features, written very clearly in every line on what had probably been somebody's Grandma's face.

It was too much, even for me. I swallowed back the bile a couple times, then added my deposit to the many such already lined up against the far wall. Nobody said a word, not on this case. Then, when I felt a little better, I was able to go to work.

Forensics was on the scene already, taking temperatures and samples and such. I knew the girl in charge. "Annette," I asked. "What in God's name am I looking at?"

"Leave God out of this one, Ken." The young girl's voice was thick with revulsion as she turned on me, her big green eyes filled with pain. "He wasn't anywhere near this place tonight. Can't you see that?"

I sighed. It was getting to her. It got to all of us sometimes, but there was business to be conducted. "Sorry, honey. But I need to know. What happened here?"

She looked away, regaining her composure and wiping away a tear. "Sorry, Ken. Really. Just give me one more minute, okay? I've got an idea, but I need to run a field test before I say anything more."

I nodded, trying as always not to exaggerate the gesture with my long neck, and examined the crime scene one detail at a time. It was an old detective's trick, useful for distancing one's self from the moment and thereby remaining calm and professional in places like this one. Let's see, I thought to myself. We have a victim approximately age 70, a black female. Approximately five feet four inches tall, wearing her favorite flowered bathrobe and looking as if she'd died staring into the face of Satan himself...

The bile was rising again when Annette bustled up and saved me from a second trip to the communal barfing wall. "It's alkaline" she declared, displaying at a strip of litmus paper. "Alkaline as all getout."

My attention had wavered. "What's alkaline?"

"All this," she explained, waving at the gore. "The blood, the intestines, the deceased. All of it is incredibly alkaline."

"Which means?"

Annette shook her pretty head in disgust. She couldn't have been more than twenty-five. Far too young for this kind of shit. "Drano. Liquid Plumber. Something like that."

My beak dropped open. "You mean..."

She nodded, her mouth a thin, hard line. "That's right. Look at the way the victim's bonds have cut into her skin, almost to the bone, even. She was in terrible agony, Ken. Someone forced her to drink drain cleaner. It dissolved her guts, which is the mess you see all around the room. The victim hemorrhaged and writhed and twisted, explosively vomiting over and over and over again. Until she finally died long minutes, maybe even an hour later. This is unofficial, of course. It'll have to be confirmed by the Coroner's office. But you can take it to the bank."

My beak was still hanging open. Finally, I closed it, then spoke. "Jesus."

Annette winced, then shook her head. "Like I said, Ken. He couldn't have possibly been here tonight." And with that, she left.

I was still examining the crime scene a few minutes later, trying to find something bearing the remotest resemblance to a clue, when my boss arrived. Lorena waved me outside. It had stopped raining, and when we stepped out into the fresh clean air of a warm summer night to talk it was like crossing over into another world.

"What have you got, Ken?" she demanded as soon as we were well clear of the house.

"Not a lot," I answered. "No prints, no fibers, no evidence of forced entry, no witnesses. Nada. Just a rough estimate on time of death."

She closed her eyes expectantly. "Which is?"

"8:15 PM."

"Shit." It was is if someone had let the air out of my boss. Suddenly, Lorena appeared to be very old.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

She frowned. "Every day we're finding a body, Ken. Each and every single day. And each one killed in a new and horrifying way. We get a message E-mailed to us in a way that no one seems able to trace that tells us where to find the stiff. Approximate time of death is always 8:15. This is the fourth."

I agreed with her. "Shit."

She nodded. "Shit." Then she sighed. "You've got nothing, Ken? Nothing at all?"

I shook my head. "Not a damned thing. Place is clean as a whistle. Our murder weapon appears to be a bottle of Drano."

My boss winced. "Yech. I remember reading about Drano killings once. It seems that for a time it was the "in" thing for New York pimps to kill their hookers that way if they tried to betray him, or sell him out."

I raised my head in interest. "Really?"

"Yeah. She nodded. "Just one of those little tidbits of happy information that you pick up in our line of work." Lorena sighed again, and raised her eyes to the glow of the city on the still low-hanging clouds. "Ken, it is becoming clear this really is a serial case."

I nodded. "Yep."

She pressed her lips together. "I called you in on this for a reason. We've had you working SCAB cases for some time, you know."

My eyes narrowed. "I've kind of noticed."

Lorena sighed. "This wasn't because of your, ah, condition, you know. Really."

I cocked my head skeptically at her.

She shook her head and looked down at the rough wooden floor of the old woman's back porch. "Ken, SCAB cases are harder than the rest. Who else has to deal with a killer who can change shape? Who else can change appearance to frame someone else? Who else can even change their DNA, for heaven's sake? I've put you on these cases because you're the best I've got. Ostrich or no."

My lead lowered, as if for a fight. "Then why do my esteemed professional co-workers refer to me as the Pet Detective?"

My boss frowned, hard. "I've heard that one too," she admitted. "I rather hoped that you had not."

I just stood silently. An ostrich. Who had once been human. And was still very much a cop.

Presently, my boss spoke again. "Ken, there are those in this world who consider SCABs victims to be second-class citizens. There's even more individuals who would swear that they treat Scabs as equals but, try as they might, simply cannot get beyond appearances. I try not to be like that. When a SCAB is murdered, as happens all too often in this town, I send the best. Have you ever lacked support from my office, Ken?"

"No," I replied after a long moment. "I can't say that I have."

Lorena smiled. "Other detectives complain all the time about budget limitations and a shortage of uniformed help. You don't have to complain. This is no accident. And who was in charge of SCAB-related murders before you, Ken?"

"Matthews," I answered reluctantly.

"Who was not affected by his bout with the Flu," Lorena pointed out. "And who is now an Inspector. Does that tell you anything?"

I raised my head back up a little and blinked, twice. I hated to admit it, but maybe she was right?

She looked up at the softly-glowing rainclouds again and sighed. "Ken, we have a serial killer on our hands. There is not the slightest evidence that we have any scab involvement, but I want you to handle the investigation anyway. Because you're the best I have. Will you?"

I thought about the foul, twisted tableau that still sat mostly intact, just thirty feet away. An old lady, killed with unimaginable brutality. While her grandkids smiled down on her from their gap-toothed pictures on the bedroom walls. And there were three other victims already, about whom I'd heard only rumors.

Dark rumors.

This was no ordinary case. There would be FBI folks trying to nose their way in, the media would be hounding me constantly, and if I accepted the assignment my ridiculous, naked head would be appearing on the front page day after day. I hated that idea most of all. Absently I clicked my beak a few times, thinking things over. No, I decided. It wasn't the front page that bothered me most. It was the guilt that would inevitably come with a timetable like the one that this killer was on. Every day that the case remained unsolved, by all appearances, someone was going to die. Nastily. And there was no way that things were going to come together the very first day. Not unless we were unreasonably fortunate. Or the second. Or, more than likely, the third. When it was all over, how many corpses would have piled up? And how many of them would be my fault, for not solving things earlier, for missing what would be in retrospect an "obvious" clue? For the rest of my life I would be asking myself hard questions, I knew, no matter what the outcome.

Well, I reminded myself, that's why detectives get paid so damned much .

Then, finally, I uttered the only words a true cop can, when faced with an unsolved crime. "All right, Lorena," I muttered. "I'll put together a team, And we'll nail the bastard."

There was little left to be learned at the crime scene, and both Lorena and I had much to do. She ran me back down to the office, so that on the way we could hammer out the details. I requested, and got, a driver on standby full-time, first call on all crime labs, a personal assistant to help me with my physical limitation problems, and the full-time use of an empty office down the hall where I could nap as required. Unless this thing went on for a lot longer than any of us would be comfortable with, I didn't intend to go home at all until our killer was in custody. Fortunately, my condition made this more convenient, as the Aves-thing exempted me from uniform regs and my feathers needed little to no care. Plus, I could tuck my head under a wing, pull up a leg and nap almost anytime and anywhere. It was a talent I expected to put to good use in the coming days.

But not that night...

I had heard the expression "center of a whirlwind" used before, but never truly appreciated it until experiencing the phenomenon. Everywhere I went it seemed that people were jumping up and down and trying to grab "just a moment" of my time. A press conference had to be set up for the next morning, where we would admit to the public that we had a problem and reassure them that we were doing our best. An entire investigational organization had to be set up and manned before I even got a chance to study the files on the first three cases. I spent hours putting various officers in charge of the search for physical evidence, coordinating the lab efforts, canvassing for witnesses, and answering the phone calls that would surely come flooding in once the media spread the news. I delegated my old partner Teresa Finch to contact all the appropriate jurisdictions with an interest in the case, folks like the FBI and the County and State law enforcement types. And I put a bright young college boy named Danny Holmes in charge of searching the crime databases for any similar open cases in other jurisdictions.

All of this before I really even knew what was going on! Sure, it was normal procedure to set up such a team in order to deal with a serial killer, pretty standard stuff really. But you would think that a cop's first priority would be to investigate crimes, not to spend all night dealing with bureaucracy!

It was nearly dawn before I was able to find get a few minutes to study the folders that had been sitting on my desk for hours. Even then, I only managed to get away from the crowd by pointing them all at Teresa, who simply looked thrilled to death as a result. It wasn't fair, I knew. But damnit! I had to do my job sometime! Carefully, I squatted down on my beanbag and grasped the top folder in my beak. Then I pulled it aside, opened it...

...and flinched away, despite my many years of experience. Why? I asked myself. Why do they always have to put the big color 8x10's in the front of the file?

It was another horrorshow killing. The victim, a young Oriental male in his twenties, had done a split. All the way up to his ribcage. Well, I thought to myself. That's what you get when you tie someone to a hydraulic log splitter.

I looked the paperwork over. It was all standard stuff. Victim's name, Tommy Huang. Software engineer, made good money. Family man, no police record. No enemies. No known motive. No robbery -- wallet and cash still in pocket. Body found in pine woods after tip-off by e-mail. Last seen leaving work -- no signs of distress. No physical clues, except a beat-up old log splitter that could have come from anywhere. Time of death estimated at 8:15.

I looked at the pictures again, and shuddered. The ram on a log splitter moves very slowly, but very inevitably. And, even worse, the victim probably lived for several minutes even after the fatal stroke was complete according to the coroner's report.

The second folder was no better. And they put the damned pic right in front again! This time there was very little gore, though the victim had died horribly enough. With her eyes open, face purple and probably still pleading for mercy that would never, ever come.

A little girl had been pressed to death. One cinder block at a time.

Here, the equipment had been home-made, but still there were no substantial clues. Cinder blocks and plywood and screws weren't exactly easily traceable commodities, though the labs were still playing with things like wood-grain patterns and sand-grain studies. It was truly remarkable, however, that not one single print, not one tiny physical trace of the killer had been discovered to date on this nefarious apparatus. It consisted of a box with a lid that slid up and down on rudimentary guides. The victim had been laid on her back, and the lid placed on top of her. Then, weights had been added one at a time until she was just barely able to breathe. Asphyxiation soon followed, as the chest muscles reached exhaustion. The body had been found after the usual e-mail tipoff, this time in an unlocked garden shed owned by an elderly couple who were on vacation in Tucson, and had been for weeks.

The file pointed out that the box had been child-sized, indicating that a juvenile victim had been intended from the beginning, and that the lid had been cut in such a way that the killer could watch the victim's face as she died. Moreover, the killer had prepared several half-blocks and quarter-blocks so as to get the weight just right...

Maureen Davis, the girl's name had been. The rest of the boxes on the forms were for the most part left blank. It's pretty hard to have a rap sheet or make a lot of deadly enemies when you're only nine.

The third folder was pretty bad too. At least I was ready for the picture this time. Victim number three had indeed been dumped out on Highway Fifteen wrapped in plastic, as I had heard at the Pig a lifetime ago. She was a hooker, judging by the way she was dressed, and had been killed by having her head crushed in a bench vise, or something very similar. The exact murder weapon had yet to be determined, and the body was still not ID'ed. The only thing notable about the victim that had been dug up so far was that she had once been a he. It was a surgical sex-change, not one courtesy of the Flu. Voluntary, in other words. Most likely our killer had never even known this, so it probably wasn't a factor. Again, the tipoff had been by e-mail, and time of death was roughly 8:15.

The fourth folder taught me nothing new, except that the victim's name was Theodocia Potts, that she was sixty-eight, and had retired from a major department store three days previously. One of her kids had shown up early in the morning to drop off her own twin girls for a day at Grandma's and asked what in the world all the cops were doing there. It was a hell of a way to find out that your Mom was dead.

So far canvasses of the neighborhoods had turned up nothing. One of my first steps had been to push even harder for potential witnesses than we'd done so far. I put an old veteran friend named Webster in charge of things, and gave him a lot of personnel to work with. The man was like a bulldog -- he would chase down everyone who might have seen anything before he was done, from the paperboys to the neighborhood busybodies. And, he would as a matter of routine check out all police activities in the murder areas for even the most slightly unusual events, all the way down to parking tickets. Webster was a good man - he had taught me much of what I knew. A medical condition had once forced him to retire, but SCABS had treated him well by actually restoring his health. He returned to The Job more dedicated than ever. The near-total lack of clues to date made me fear that he would merely be spinning his wheels, but you just never knew. I made a mental note to have him try to trace down any connections between the victims, as well. There was no one better suited to the task than my old friend.

While studying each folder, I had set aside the printouts of the e-mail tipoff and left them unread. I wanted to read all four together at once, fresh. I firmly believed that written words often offered deep insight into the mind that wrote them. But not this time. In fact, if it weren't for the killer's unusual method of notifying us and the consistent 8:15 times of death, I'd never have believed that they were written by the same person.

For the Huang murder, the text simply read "Body. Hecht residence. Piney Woods Subdivision. In Back."

The little girl's notification was entirely different. "I killt her! And I luved it! She screemed, you now! And beged. 167 Blakemore Trail. Little luv shack in back" A notation underneath pointed out that the correct spelling of the street name was "Blakemoor".

For the hooker, our killer waxed eloquent. "Gentlemen -- You will find the corpse of a lady of the evening approximately one hundred and fifty feet into the woods off Straker Road at the 'City Maintenance Begins' sign. Proceed north by northwest, or else simply wait for a couple days and follow your nose. She fully intended to accommodate me, but was suddenly incapacitated by a crushing headache. I offered her some aspirin, but it just didn't seem to help."

Then, there was tonight's little communiqué:

"There once was a lady in town
Who sat in a chair in her gown
I gave her a drink
It went down in a blink
And in her own juices she drowned
2247 West Street.

The message headers were of no use, even to our computer crime people. Serious hackers, they explained to me, had been able to send untraceable e-mails for decades. By several different methods, in fact. Including some for which how-to guides had been posted on a thousand web pages.

But there was one thing trustworthy about the headers. They listed the times the messages had come in. Which were 9:13 PM, 7:04 AM, 9:17 AM, and 12:42 AM respectively. If there was a pattern anywhere in these times, I couldn't see it. And serial killers were invariably supposed to follow patterns. It said so right in the book...

I sighed, and fired up my desktop computer to prepare a memo. This case needed to be looked into an organized way, I decided. I wanted the murder sites mapped out to try and find a geographic pattern, body orientations checked against cardinal compass directions and the works. Then, a thorough study of the time 8:15 PM needed to be worked up. Was it significant in any religions? Especially was it significant in any Satanic or demonic ones? I also wanted a complete review of every hardware store in the city. Was there perhaps only one that sold plywood, cement blocks, drano, bench vises, and used log splitters? Or had the splitter maybe been reported stolen somewhere? Energetically I continued to work on the to-do list, my thoughts racing far ahead of my limited typing ability. (Yes, I do use the hunt-and-peck method, thank you very much!.) Until eventually the sky pinkened, and a knock at the door interrupted my typing. It was Teresa. "FBI on the phone for you."

"Okay" I replied. "Thank you. I'll take it in here." Teresa was being nice to me, even if she had a right to be angry over the fact that because I genuinely needed an experienced pro as an office assistant, I'd made my once-partner almost into a glorified secretary instead of a cop. I hated fumbling with phones and keyboards and such -- it reminded me too strongly of what I had become, and who I once had been . She was one of several co-workers who honored my standing request to help me out with incoming calls whenever possible.

Suddenly, the speaker on my desk crackled to life. "Detective Bronski" I answered simply.

"Detective Ken Bronski?" a woman's voice asked.

I nodded. "That's me!"

You could almost hear a sunny smile in the woman's voice. "This is Agent Linda Williams, sir. How are you this morning?"

"Tired!" I answered. "I guess you've heard about what we're dealing with here."

Agent Williams's voice seemed almost to sparkle. "Yes, sir. I have been fully briefed, and am looking forward... Suddenly there was a brief silence. "Sir, you have a very odd voice."

I waggled my head, then realized that my caller couldn't see the gesture and probably wouldn't understand it if she did. "I suffer from SCABS, Agent Williams. I consider myself lucky to be able to speak at all. The odd clicks and slurred sounds I sometimes make are caused by my beak."

Suddenly, all of the sunshine was gone. "Your, ah... beak?"

"Right," I explained, feeling anew the perpetual rage that burned deep inside me. "I have a beak. Externally, I am a full-morph ostrich."

"An ostrich." She didn't sound happy at all.

"Yes," I explained. "An ostrich. As you may be aware, this city has a very high population of SCABS-afflicted citizens. I am a native, and had been a detective for many years when this happened to me. Luckily for me, our Department has learned to be flexible about these things, and to make accommodations wherever possible."

"I... see." Though from the tone it was obvious that the FBI woman didn't understand at all.

I tried to frown, forgetting for an instant that my face didn't do that anymore. "I assure you, Agent Williams, that I do not bite. And that I am fully housebroken, as well." This time I allowed a little bite to show through in my words.

"Yes. Of course." There was a very long pause. "Detective Bronski, the reason I called is to let you know that there are no forensic psychologists available at this time to help you with your case. We, or I mean they, rather, are all tied up. I am very sorry."

"What?" I demanded. "There are people dying here, for God's sake! One a day! Have you got any other killers working at that level of intensity?"

You could have cut the tension with a knife, but the FBI lady was not backing down. "My supervisor's name is Joe MacDonald. Check with him. I assure you that he will find my paperwork to be in order, and that I, or we rather, are fully engaged in other equally vital work. For the time being at least, you'll have to do your best with local resources, Detective. At least until another agent is available for reassignment."

I bounced from foot to foot in a sort of grotesque avian anger-shuffle. This was incredible! She would actually let people die rather than work with me! "Suppose I gave up the case," I countered. "Suppose I let a Norm work with you. You'd never even have to see me. Could you come then?"

Agent Williams thought about it a moment When he finally spoke, her voice was as cold as ice. "Detective, are you somehow implying that I am refusing to work with a scab solely due to his or her condition? That would be grounds for disciplinary action, you know. And my paperwork will reflect that my decision is based on fully defensible factors. Fully defensible. Good day, sir."

And with that, she hung up!

For a few short moments I stared down into my now-dead phone, feeling very much alone and inhuman. Then my anger-switch turned itself on again, and with it came the certainty once again that at least down deep where it really counted, I was still a man. "Finch!" I screamed, my rage clearly evident in the single syllable. "Finch!"

"Yes, Ken?" she asked from the door, her brow wrinkled in concern.

My anger was threatening to boil over as I strode back and forth twitching my wings and feeling the need to run and kick, to unleash the adrenaline flowing within me in a natural, ostrich-like manner. But I swallowed the urges down, and forced myself to stand still. "The FBI won't be sending us any help, Teresa. They explained that everyone was busy, once they found out that an ostrich was involved."

Finch's face went hard. She understood.

"I don't have time to fight this right now," I continued. "Agent Williams as much as told me her supervisor would cover her. Which means that a couple of phone calls won't be enough to get us anywhere. But I want this bitch barbequed, Teresa. Barbecued! Think you can handle the extra workload?"

Few people knew that my former partner's name had once been Thomas Finch. Nowadays, she felt that the change might even have done her good. But still, she never, ever forgot that she was a scab too. "Oh," she answered with an evil little smile, "I think I may just be able to make a few minutes here and there to work on it. In my spare time, like."

Ex-males are the most merciless humans of all. I waggled my head in acknowledgment and thanks, all the while shuddering at the bounce in Finch's steps as she left.

The last time I'd seen her walk like that, someone had ended up going to the Chair.

My first-ever press conference came later in the morning. Torquemada might know of better tortures for a bird-type like me than trying to call on pushy reporters with a vaguely pointing wingtip or having flashes fired repeatedly into my eyes, but if so I never want to experience them. It was my goal to put a positive image on the investigation, to make the public feel confident in us and reassure them that they and their families were safe. But details had quite naturally begun to leak, and the reporters had asked again and again why it had taken four murders to establish that a serial killer was at work. I could have ducked the question by observing that it hadn't been my call, or even by pointing out that it takes an actual series of murders to in order to define a serial killer. But instead I said that special factors had made it a difficult decision. This merely led to a clamor of voices demanding to know the circumstances, voices that hadn't wanted to hear me state that some things needed to remain secret.

It grew even worse when someone asked me if another victim would die at 8:15 that evening. If the killer chose to strike at that time, I explained, and there was not a break in the case between now and that time, then it was very likely that another victim would indeed die. This caused a tidal wave of angry indignation that I had a great deal of difficulty being heard over. A rodent morph reporter of some kind standing near the back of the room screeched his way over the crowd. "You mean that we are to be hunted like prey animals? And there is nothing that anyone can do about it?"

"Look," I explained as calmly as possible. "All we have is a time. There is no way to predict the location of the next murder, if there even is a next murder. The police will have every man available on the streets this afternoon and evening, and we hope that the good people of this City will lend us their eyes and ears and even their keen noses to help us out. But we simply cannot be everywhere any more than anyone else can be. Every possible effort is being made to catch this killer, every single lead is being chased down by the finest men available. But the killings will not end instantly. Not unless we are very, very lucky."

It's a real trick to sober up a roomful of badly-behaved reporters, but this did the trick. The next question was asked in a much more subdued manner. "Is the Department getting help on this?" a man near the front asked.

I nodded. "Of course. The state police are lending us manpower, as are several surrounding municipalities. We're very grateful to them all."

"What about the FBI?" he followed-up. "Don't they have specialists on staff?"

I wished that I could smile. "I have spoken personally to them," I responded. "And I can assure you that they are fully aware of our situation and will send someone just as soon as their schedules make it possible for them to come. One of my closest associates is acting as a liaison with them. A Detective Finch."

Strangely, that seemed to satisfy them. I wondered silently just how much politicians got away with through using similar tactics. The questions became more routine and eventually petered out into repetitions. When it became clear that nothing new was going to be asked, I ended the conference, and got back to work.

All the rest of the day I raced against the clock just as hard as I could, holding meetings, coordinating strategies, talking to the Mayor, entertaining new theories, watching my ugly mug on the hourly news briefs and silently praying for a break in the case.

But the clock won. And its prize was yet another body.

That evening was one of the spookiest in the city's history. As 8:15 approached, the streets filled with civilians, reporters, cops, and nervous onlookers. Neighbors who hadn't spoken to each other in years checked in with each other. Everything went strangely silent as the appointed hour came...

..and then passed right on by, as it had on so many other balmy summer evenings. Somewhere nearby, everyone knew, an innocent human life had most likely been ended, the victim kicking and screaming against who knew what evil inventiveness. But who, specifically? And where? Someone they knew personally perhaps, someplace they'd often been? There was, quite simply, no way to know. Eventually things returned nearly to normal, and our citizens returned to their routine lives. But now there was an undercurrent of darkness and fear that was almost palpable in the warm twilight. Most people stayed at home and called loved ones on the phone; billing records showed near-record line usage.

But what did I do? Take a nap, naturally.

How could I rest at a time like that, you ask? Try staying up for a day and a half sometime, working against a deadly level of stress and with someone new demanding your attention every three seconds, and then you won't ask such silly questions. All that could be done for the day had been done. There was nothing left for me but to await an e-mail. And I had to rest sometime, after all. In the event, the second my head found its special place under my wing, I passed out. I don't even recall drawing my leg up, it was so quick.

Our killer was considerate this time, and allowed me six blessed hours of rest. His message arrived at 5:30 AM. "Detective Bronski," it read. "You may have a career in TV ahead of you. The Department should be proud. Never forget, however, that I am far more famous than you will ever be. You will find your body at 532 East Street. I left some marshmallows."

And that was it.

We raced to the nearby scene, and I arrived first at the large abandoned warehouse by virtue of having once again eschewed wheels for the legs given me by the Martian Flu. It did me little good to be first at the scen, though, as the front door was both firmly locked and stout enough to be immune to my hardest kicks. Impotently I circled the building before the others arrived, trying to find another way in. In back I caught a clear whiff of burned flesh. No one answered me when I called out, nor did I really expect any answers. The smell was overpowering.

It is terrible to admit, but I was trembling with eagerness by the time that we forced the door. It was part of what made being a cop so hard to live with. On the one hand, a cop is as repelled as the rest of the human race by heinous acts of torture and death. Yet at the same time, such cases are the career challenges of a lifetime, the kind of thing we'd taken The Job for in the first place. I legitimately needed to study the crime scene, was champing at the bit in fact to do my job. And so it was in this spirit of excitement that I burst in on the most horrible thing I have ever seen.

It was worse that the Drano killing, worse even that the little girl that I had only experienced in pictures. A walrus-scab had been burned to death.


The crime scene was so horrid that it was fascinating. Walruses are marine creatures, and in the normal course of events rarely suffer from burns as terrestrial mammals so often do. But this one had. Our killer had chained the victim into a metal chair, and then taken a blowtorch to him. While huge blisters had been raised almost everywhere on the corpse, lingering attention had been paid to the face, hands, feet, and crotch. It looked like parts of the victim had actually been set on fire, then extinguished before the blubber-fed flames could spread. The face, on the other hand, had been charred to the bone and beyond. My guess was that the brains had been left to burn for some time, but had eventually extinguished themselves. From the chair the eyeless sockets stared, and the nearly-untouched lower jaw still hung open in a silent scream of agony. The victim's posture showed that he had recoiled as far as possible from the searing heat, but it had availed him nothing. Even his tusks had been burned away, leaving only charred stumps where proud ivory had once resided. Almost certainly the face-burning had been the death-blow and all that had come before merely an eternity of pointless pain.

What on earth or anywhere beyond, I wondered as I leaned over the corpse and stared, could lead anyone to do this to a living thing? Part of me was more repulsed than I can express, at a very deep level. Yet, at the same time I had to continually swallow down an urge to whistle as I took mental notes.

It's no wonder, I thought to myself as I worked, that so many cops go nuts.

Forensics arrived presently, and pictures and such were taken. Vaguely I heard barfing in the background as I carefully committed the scene to memory. Most of the officers were reacting that way, once they noticed the promised marshmallows sitting prominently on the floor near the corpse. Especially the half-eaten one...

The lab jumped right on the single obvious clue of course, taking swabs for DNA and trying to make out tooth marks in the stretched-out goo. But I was reasonably sure nothing would come of it. There wasn't any genuine evidence anywhere to be found. Our perpetrator had even taken his blowtorch home with him. So why should our guy get stupid on something so obvious?

Then, for the first time, I began to get a glimmering of what we were up against. And I didn't like it at all. It was the very lack of clues that gave the game away. Our killer apparently knew right where to look, understood exactly how it was that we would go about the business of trying to catch him. Only a skilled homicide detective of long experience could pull this string of crimes off so cleanly, I decided. So I would assume he was exactly that. And the instant I did, a couple of little details clicked right into place. "The Department should be proud" our guy had written just last night, and the phrasing seemed so normal to me that I hadn't thought twice about it. But referring to the "The Department" is cop-lingo; no one on the outside talked-or wrote-that way. And the venues where the bodies were found had been so flawlessly chosen, the deaths so mutually inconsistent...

What had I just thought to myself a few moments ago? That it is no wonder that cops go crazy? I did a happy little foot-shuffle. "Pete!" I called cheerfully to the cop who had been assigned as my helper for the day. "Pete! Come on, we gotta go! Duty and all that!" But he was still puking his guts out. And the others gathered around the hideous corpse, breathing the oily stench of slow death were staring incredulously at me...

Once we got back to the office, I called a meeting of my key people right away to bounce my hypothesis off of them. Most agreed with my theory, while others were skeptical but could find no flaw in my reasoning. Absolutely nothing of significance was turning up on the physical front, and this in itself had to be more than a coincidence. I was proud to have contributed this idea; it made me feel like the investigative team leader I was supposed to be. And it helped the task force's confidence immensely to finally have the beginnings of a working hypothesis. The meeting broke up amid smiles for the first time since the nightmare began. Even I was feeling pretty good when I stepped out of the "war room".

Until I encountered Danny Holmes bustling in to join the meeting after it had already ended.

"Detective Holmes!" My voice was like a whipsaw. "Where have you been?"

He was maybe half my age; my words struck him like a physical blow. "Sorry, sir! My pager battery went dead, and..."

I lowered my head aggressively. "Son, this is a murder investigation, not a college class picnic. You are supposed to be in touch and available at all times. Period." I had been under a lot of pressure, and it showed.

The kid looked down at his feet. "Yes, sir. I know, sir..."

"Every single day, son," I continued remorselessly. "Every single day someone's dying. Smell anything on my feathers, Detective? Take a good whiff, now."


"Sniff this, son." I ordered, extending a wing. He did, and visibly paled. Danny apparently knew the odor already; he must not have been a total rookie. "That's our latest victim, talking to you from the grave. Explain to him about your pager."

The young man gulped, clearly at a loss for words. Dan was just out of school, I knew, with good grades and a commendable drive for police work. He didn't know it, but I had spoken up for him when he was first hired and had smoothed his way into Homicide, just as someone had once done for me. But one simply did not miss meetings on serial killer task forces, no matter the hour at which they are held. Not even when you were still a smooth-cheeked rookie not likely to have anything of importance to contribute. Finally, I decided that the lesson had been driven home hard enough, and relented. "So go on back to work, Dan," I instructed. "Play with your computers, and let me know if anything turns up. Just don't let it happen again." And I turned to walk away.

Until he stopped me. "Sir...."

I spun impatiently on my not-heel. "Yes, Danny?" If he thought for a minute that I was going to apologize...

He gulped again, and I wondered if I'd ever looked so young. "Sir, I've found a complete series of identical killings in the 'dead-case' files. They were buried pretty deep. The most recent one took place over thirty years ago."

There is nothing in the world that looks so ridiculous as an ostrich standing in the center of a hallway with his beak hanging open, too astounded to move. Finally, Holmes spoke again. "They took place in the same chronological order, and all of them are geographically clustered in a tight area. New York City, sir." He smiled hopefully, holding out his stack of files for me to examine, and in general looking like a puppy that badly needed petting.

So I verbally scratched him behind the ear. "Good work, son!" I exclaimed, bobbling my head from side to side in pleasure. "Let's take a look at these. Right now."

Dan's research had been done beautifully. Each killing was a very close analog to our unsolved cases, and the chronological order was indeed correct. Even the body orientations were right. Looking at the printouts of the old crime-scene photos gave me a serious case of deja vu all over again. It was clear that there must be a link.

But what exactly was it? These crimes had been committed by several different individuals. Half of them had been caught and found guilty, some very convincingly. Other cases remained technically unsolved, but had been ascribed to perps convicted of other slayings and not charged with this particular one because they were never leaving prison alive anyway. What could these murders have in common with what we were seeing today?

Then it hit me. "Dan-man," I began, using (and thereby making official) a nickname I'd heard applied to my youthful compatriot. Nicknames, however, were never real until you earned them from an old-timer like me. "I want you to do something for me. Run these back through your database, and get a full list of the officers that investigated each of these murders. Not just the detective in charge, mind you, but as full and complete a list as you can manage. Then cross-reference them. I'll buy you a cup of coffee if there isn't exactly one name in common all the way across the board."

My young friend's eyes widened as he took in the implications. Having missed the meeting, he hadn't heard about my homicide detective hypothesis yet. But he was a quick study, it seemed. "Wow," he said quietly.

"Yeah," I agreed. "Wow."

"But, sir, there's just one problem here." He looked up at me, all earnest seriousness.

I cocked my head. "What's that, son?"

"The coffee machine is still busted from the last time you tried to use it. The cover's cracked wide open! And besides. I like soda pop better anyway." He never even cracked a smile, damn him.

So I replied in kind. Which was cheating, kind of, since I didn't even have lips anymore. "Okay, then. Soda pop it is." I reared my head back and flapped my wings wildly. "Now get to work, damnit!"

Dan-Man was laughing as he left. It looked like the kid might make a cop after all.

It was just as well that I was in such a good mood before finding the newspaper that Finch had left on my desk. Heaven only knows what might have happened if I hadn't been feeling so chipper. I was all over the front page, along with photos of the crime scenes, some still taped off. Even back when I was entirely human I'd hated having my picture taken, and since I'd taken on an uncanny resemblance to Big Bird my aversion had grown a hundred times worse. But the front page was far from the most painful. Finch had tagged a page in the editorial section for me to read. Grumbling, I carefully spread the paper out flat, sneezing repeatedly from the paper fibers in my nostrils. Why couldn't they use a better grade of newsprint in a town with so many handless folks? I wondered to myself. Phil has the same problem, and probably so do many others...

And there it was, in all its majesty. The cartoon that would haunt me the rest of my life, that would be remembered so perfectly by my friends and enemies alike, that I might as well just frame the thing and hang above my desk.

Or, better perhaps, around my skinny neck. From a noose.

For half the page was taken up by a drawing of an ostrich with its head sunk far below ground. The caption read "How many murders does it take to get the Police Department's head out of the sand?" The thing would have been funny had it not been for the tombstones in the foreground. Four of them. With a fifth hinted at in a ghostly fashion -- the presses had rolled too early to cover the latest murder, but I was sure that it would be penciled in the next day. The Press just loved keeping score on us cops...

Strangely though, they took it relatively easy on me at the Press conference later that morning. All the questions focused on why the FBI had not sent an agent to help us out. "Inside sources close to the case," it seemed, were claiming that this was because I was a scab. Did I have reason to believe that the FBI was anti-scab? Of course not, I answered. There was no proof at all of such an allegation that I was aware of. In fact, I mentioned in passing, Agent Linda Williams had gone to great pains to ensure my understanding that her paperwork backlog was far more of a factor than my being a scab in her decision not to come.

At this the reporters scented blood, even the prey types. Were they to understand that in the view of the FBI, paperwork was more important than catching a killer? Well, I explained, perhaps I had misunderstood Agent Williams. But that was certainly the impression I had been left with...

The rest of the conference passed in a sort of warm glow. Good old Finch!

When it was over, Dan-man was waiting for me in the office. He had my research results, and I did not owe him a soda pop. I still had a problem, however. A Detective Henry Schwartzkopf had indeed been the only party involved in the investigation of all the lookalike murders we had turned up. He had died, however, in the very early days of the initial Flu outbreak. Death was one hell of an alibi, especially when you had a corpse and tombstone and everything to go along with it. In fact, Dan had also obtained a copy of his death certificate, just to make everything complete. With an important detail illuminated in highlighter pen.

Schwartzkopf's time of death was 8:15 PM.

The case just getting weirder and weirder; every time we thought we had something, it evaporated into nothing. "Hell!" I complained. Then after a little pause, I elaborated. "Damnation!" For a time Dan and I stood in my office together, staring uselessly at the floor.

And inspiration hit again. "Run me another search, will you?" I asked. "Let's create a list of all of this Schwartzkopf's cases, from beginning to end. Maybe we can figure out how our guy is picking the crimes to be emulated."

Without a word, the kid laid another folder on my desk. He'd already done it, the young smart-ass.

I clicked my beak a couple of times in approval. The more I worked with Dan, the more I was coming to like him. "I don't suppose that you've also..."

He flipped the file open for me and let me study it. Like most homicide detectives, Schwartzkopf's career had been made up mostly of routine, easily-solved cases; the usual knifings, clubbings and shootings. However, there had been some real doozies in the mix as well; Dan had highlighted seven such standouts for me, and I had to say I agreed with his judgement.

Five of them were our horrorshow murders, in chronological order. The sixth was pretty horrible as well, but the seventh....

"He couldn't!" I declared. "He just... I mean..."

Dan-Man shrugged. "Perhaps it would be safest if we nail the bastard before he gets to number six, then," he suggested. "This very afternoon, in fact."

I nodded slowly. Good plan! If we could pull it off...

Horrorshow murder number six was a doozy in its own right. Back in Schwartzkopf's day it had been a mob revenge killing. In fact, it had been committed as a direct reprisal for the blowtorch killing, our number five; this link was probably how Schwartzkopf had come to be involved in both cases. Both had been solved, and the killers duly executed. In the original number six, the victim had been bound into a chair on the edge of a balcony. The two rear legs of the chair were left hanging over the void, according to later testimony, while the victim was allowed to hold onto a wire rope in order to prevent himself from falling. The twist was, however, that the wire rope was an old worn-out one, covered with rusty loose ends and burrs. Such a rope would flay unprotected hands to ribbons. The victim, naturally, was offered no such protection. As the skin was torn from his hands the resulting slippery blood made it necessary to for him to grip the rope harder and harder, until nature took its inevitable course. The original victim actually severed three of his own fingers in the razory snags before taking the fall. It was a pretty bad way to go, by any reckoning. But for the first time since this whole thing had begun, we had a realistic hope of preventing a murder through foreknowledge. Dan-man's good police work could give us the edge we needed.

I became the center of a whirlwind again, making snap decisions and barking orders. Our killer needed a high place for this one, and would likely choose a very high place in order to maximize the terror factor. I put men with binoculars on every rooftop in the City, and then augmented them with flying volunteers from the local Avian SCAB Society. (I had not become a member in the past due to my flightless status and a touch of jealousy, but was grateful for their help when the chips were down.) Every helicopter in the metropolitan area was quietly commandeered and put into the sky as well, each containing at least one armed cop for quick response. We very likely wouldn't have much time to save the victim after the initial sighting and every second counted. By 7:30, all the tall buildings in town were under heavy surveillance and my entire team was holding its breath.

At 8:00, we were still holding it. Clearly, something was badly wrong. Then there came an inarticulate squawk on the radio. It got my full attention. "That was urgent!" I declared to the room in general. "Whatever it meant."

"SQUAAAAAWK!!!" said the radio again, with even more feeling.

"Someone's airborne in fullmorph!" I thought aloud. "They can't report verbally..."

"Use the GPS!" cried Finch. There was a volunteer from the Avian society working in our nerve center. The emu-morph nodded frantically, then hit a couple keys A winged symbol lit up on the map....

...right above the river bluffs!. One of the biggest clear drops in town! And not one of us had thought of them! Only a thoughtful birdie-type, probably violating orders, had stood between us and someone being murdered right under noses!

I didn't have to say a word. Finch was on the master frequency issuing orders in an instant, while my helper Pete and I made tracks for the door. He was a much slower runner than I was, and it was sheer agony to have to stand and wait for the uniform to catch up with me at the unit. But the bluffs were much too far away for me to run. I bounced up and down on my toes impatiently as he finally rounded the last corner and came dashing up. Then we were tearing across town like madmen, code three all the way.

We followed most of it by radio. The first copter to the scene was Channel Six's tiny traffic bird, able to carry only a single uniform. She reported that there was indeed an apparent victim in a chair dangling over the river, with a suspect standing over her. A minute or so passed as the copter closed in, then my comrade in blue radioed that the perp had seemingly vanished into thin air. She sounded as stunned as I felt, and terribly frightened on top of everything else. I didn't blame her; no cop likes to go alone into a dangerous situation, and it's only worse when your perp's location is unknown. But there was clearly no choice in this situation, and the woman on the spot did the Department proud despite her well-grounded fears. Without regard to her own personal safety in a clearly dangerous situation, as the citation later stated, Officer Sandbourne proceeded immediately to the aid of the intended victim. Without waiting for backup, she then proceeded to lean outward over a sheer drop, her back turned to a known danger. These heroic actions undoubtedly saved the life of the intended victim.

I ought to know those words well. As her acting commander at the time of the incident, I wrote them.

By the time I got to the scene there where whirlybirds landing airborne cops all over the top of the bluffs. . Dan-man, whom I had given the job of airborne coordinator to as a reward for his good work, had efficiently initiated a textbook search. And, for once I could find no flaw in the textbook. The victim had provided us with a description; an ordinary-looking five-foot-ten overweight white male, aged fifty or so, brown and brown, wearing a gray suit. Yet, despite more helicopter lifts than even the 82nd Airborne Division could pull off in a single evening, all we managed to achieve during the crucial first hour was to seriously annoy four overweight but clearly uninvolved white men with brown hair and eyes. I pace when nervous, and the summer heat was forcing me to use my wings to fan air over my non-sweating body. This was ridiculous enough behavior on the part of a supposedly professional homicide detective, but it was nothing at all compared to what young Dan was doing.

He was staring at a rock outcropping not far from where the chair had hung, with a puzzled frown on his face.

I quit flapping my wings and walked over to see what he was onto. I'd seen that look before, on the faces of far worse detectives than my young friend was shaping up to be. "What've you got?" I demanded.

"Hmm." he answered, not raising his head. "There's something wrong here."

I examined the outcropping carefully, lowering my head close to the ground and studying the perfectly ordinary rock first with one eye, then the other. "Like what, son?" I encouraged him.

"Well," he slowly began. "I was a geology major before I took up law enforcement. And this rock just doesn't fit here."

I studied it with my left eye again. "It looks fine to me. Like part of this, uh..."

"Outcropping," he offered.

"Yeah, right," I agreed. "Outcropping."

He shook his head. "But in fact, it doesn't fit here. The details are all wrong."

"Details?" I tried my right eye this time, but still couldn't see what he was talking about.

Dan pointed at some fossils. "These are trilobites," he explained. "They're as common as dirt some places, but not around here. They died out millions of years ago; the date is well-established. We took a field trip up these bluffs once, and the rocks just aren't old enough to have trilobites in them." He frowned. "Either something is very wrong, or else I'm about to be very famous." He frowned again.

I studied Dan's face. Clearly, he considered this detail to be of considerable importance. "Hmm. And how does this help us with our killer?"

"I don't know, honestly. But this rock isn't real. It's an excellent fake, yes. But a fake nonetheless."

I understood everything then, understood far more quickly than young Danny could possibly be expected to. After all, I had a rather unique circle of friends. But still I was too late. Before I could warn anyone, the rock seemed to flow, then stood up on two legs and cracked my assistant over the head with a fist that still consisted of cold, brutal stone. Then the inanimorph met my eyes and spoke.

"Smart-ass kid!" he declared in a distinct Brooklyn accent. "Who needs 'em?" And with that said, our serial killer turned and dashed for the woods, making surprising speed.

I chased after him, naturally. Cops instinctively do that to bad guys -- it's sort of in the job description. Especially when the bad guy in question has just seriously injured and maybe even killed a brother cop in the act of doing his duty. Even when it is a very bad idea, cops tend to chase running bad guys. I shouted to draw attention to Dan, who was bleeding copiously from the forehead. And then I concentrated on nothing but making tracks.

And by God, I closed the distance too! The perp looked over his shoulder, then accelerated by lengthening his legs while still actually in the act of running. It was a very strange thing to see. My own legs were not alterable, but when determined I could hold forty miles an hour for a pretty fair distance, and running to stay in shape was my only really practical pastime. The inanimorph probably only needed a few seconds out of my sight in order to disappear again, this time armed with a geology lecture to help him blend into the local bedrock more effectively. But I wouldn't let him gain enough of a lead to disappear, nor apparently could he change enough on the run to get clean away. Clearly, he had not counted on my turn of speed. People often forget that ostriches are quite abundant in their natural environment. This is because we have hidden talents.

We were sprinting steadily downhill, and as we descended the relatively open pine forest began to give way to broadleaf underbrush. I strained to close the distance even further as visibility lessened, and dropped my head down low in order to save myself from a broken neck in the event of a close encounter of the limb kind. The inanimorph must have been a city boy, however, as he continued on in his long-limbed form. It didn't take long for nature to take its course. It was an oak limb that got him, poleaxing the inanimorph almost as thoroughly as he'd done Dan-man. He landed hard, and didn't move.

It was just as well that the chase was over, as my heart was about to burst. I staggered up to the moaning suspect and gasped out the formal sentences as best my heaving chest could manage. "You... Areunder... Arrest. You... Havetheright... To... remainsilent..." But I got no further, for suddenly the prostrate figure shimmered and changed once again. This time, he became a lion.

A very, very large lion.

Rolling to his feet, the huge maned cat rumbled menacingly, slashing at the air with a clawed forepaw. Somehow, I gathered the impression from this that the perp intended to resist lawful arrest. And suddenly I realized that I was alone, deep in the woods, with something dangerous that I did not entirely understand.

Once you think about it, it becomes fairly obvious that a police-issue firearm is pretty much useless to a full-morph ostrich. So I didn't bother carrying one. When I first sought my job back after the featherduster treatment, this had been the subject of much discussion. But eventually, after I'd given a few demonstrations, it was ruled that I was able to fight and flee well enough on my own without a gun to continue on as a detective. Had I been an ordinary street cop, the ruling would certainly have gone the other way; uniforms had to deal with much more of the rough-and-tumble kind of thing than a homicide investigator did. In all the cases I'd worked since, I'd never once missed my gun. But when it came time to miss it, though, I missed it very badly indeed. In the wild, lions kill a lot of ostriches. And I was in no shape to run a step further, while my opponent seemed to have purged his fatigue poisons as part of his form-shift.

On the other hand, I didn't abandon all hope. In the wild, the fighting is not at all as one-sided as the nature documentaries would lead one to believe. And I was far more accustomed to my form than my opponent was to his. He had been a lion for mere seconds, while I had been an ostrich for years. Carefully, I allowed some of my baser instincts to come forward. My silly-looking stub-wings extended themselves for balance, and as the adrenaline kicked in my vision tunneled until all I could see of the world the world was the lion, inching forward to spring. Everything except the presence of the filthy, threatening predator was shut out of my mind. By now it was far too late for me to try and run; I was utterly committed to fighting back. As if at a great distance, I could feel my feet taking small mincing steps as I jockeyed for position, small steps that did not shift too greatly my center of balance. Any experienced ostrich farmer in the world would have taken one look at my lowered head and half-spread wings and kept a respectful distance until I was in a better mood. But this lion was not even a real lion; he had no experience with real prey, and no conception of the fowl blow in store for him.

When he finally leapt, my defensive kick was a thing of beauty and of grace. Every inch of my ungainly body was involved, every last tiny muscle made its proper contribution to the velocity of my right foot. The impact was solid, foot to chin,, and landed so hard that that the lion's spring went nowhere. Instantly I pirouetted like a dancer and set up again, ready to offer yet another display of ridiculous elegance should a second dose prove needful.

But it did not. The blow had left my opponent unconscious, and me unscratched. Towering over his prostrate form and listening to rapidly approaching friendly voices, I began once again to inform the perp of his rights. This time, no longer so winded, I was able to speak clearly and emphatically. "You are under arrest. You have the right...."

But the shapeshifter wasn't done, not by a long shot. He recovered almost immediately, and shifted to a semi-human, semi-leonine shape. "Hey!" he complained, "Aintcha got no respect for the laws of nature?"

"Look who's talking!" I countered, setting up again for another kick. "Lie on your stomach and spread your arms and legs," I commanded. "Now!"

"Screw you!" the lion-man replied. I kicked out once again without hesitation, aiming for the throat this time -- this was no game we were playing. My blow struck home...

...and suddenly agony flowed up my leg as my foot impacted unyielding stone. The unexpected shock wave rippled up and down the entire length of my body - since every muscle in my physique went into powering a kick, every muscle in turn was affected when things did not go as expected. Quite possibly the agony was precisely what I deserved for kicking an inanimorph without having studied the matter thoroughly. I dropped instantly, and curled up into a helpless little ball of pain.

Eventually, after what felt like an eternity, I opened my eyes. The killer, the man who had poured Drano down an old lady's innocent throat and who had watched with pleasure as he slowly suffocated a child to death, looked down almost gently at me. "You didn't break any bones. I checked. And you ain't my scheduled kill for today, either." He stood and smiled. "So, I think I'll just take the rest of the night off. See ya, copper!" Then he rippled and flowed once again, until he was my twin all the way down to the badge and pager on the banded leg. I shouted, and heard responses. Then he waved a wingtip, waggled his head, and everything went black.

I woke up in a norm-style bed. The beeps of electronic equipment came through first, followed by a general awareness of pain. I moved my head, then regretted it instantly as sparks of white agony unfolded in my neck. Everything hurt, I realized, and with that clue it all came back to me. Opening my eyes, I saw at first nothing but darkness. Then they adapted, and I realized I was staring out a window. It was night. And I was lying in a hospital suite.

Carefully I tried to shift position, but got nowhere. My right leg was totally immobilized in some sort of restraint. But there was good news as well. Shifting about in bed had gone a long way towards easing the cramps I was experiencing all over my anatomy. Apparently, my discomfort had been as much the result of sleeping in an odd position as from that last poorly thought out kick. I luxuriated in the soft sheets for perhaps another five minutes, gathering up my energy, and then raised my head to find the "call" button. It was an oversized beak-friendly model; I pecked at it a couple times until it finally lit up.

Dr. Derksen answered the call, flanked by Finch and my boss. Both women were welcome sights, but Derksen's being there was the luckiest break of all. I had named him in my personnel file as my doctor-of-choice only a few weeks back, after getting to know him at the Pig, and it was very fortunate that the paperwork had already gone through. He was one of the most knowledgeable experts in the world on SCABS, and I needed most desperately to pick his brain.

But before either he or anyone else would talk about the case or Dan-man's condition they insisted on talking about me. I assured Bryan that I could feel my leg just fine, and listened patiently while he explained to me that due to massive contusions and strains it was essential that I put no weight on it for at least three weeks. I had been very fortunate indeed not to fracture one of my two primary limbs, my physician explained sternly, and I definitely, absolutely needed to take it easy. Since there was no way that anyone with my anatomy could use anything resembling crutches, sitting or lying down were my only option. Lorena and Teresa reemphasized my insectile doctor's point with most unladylike threats, up to and including being taken off the case if I failed to follow Derksen's orders.

Then it was finally my turn to speak. First I asked about how Dan-man was doing, only to discover he was in a deep coma, hovering somewhere in the middle ground between life and death. This was much worse than anything I'd expected; the blow hadn't looked that serious. But there really wasn't anything I could do for Dan; he was getting the best care available, and I still had a killer to catch. So, after a moment's respectful silence, I got right back to business. First I made my verbal report to Lorena, describing everything that had happened right up until I'd lost consciousness. She frowned deeply as I described how the suspect had assumed my identity, but didn't say anything until I was completely finished. "This explains much," she finally commented.

"You're damn straight it does!" I replied. "Now we know why there were no fingerprints, no fibers, no anything. This guy actually left us more clues than he really had to! He could have become the log-splitter, for example. I suspect that he wanted the crime scene pics to look like the old Schwartzkopf ones, so he had to leave a certain amount of stuff behind to act as stage props. Otherwise, we'd have had nothing at all to work with." I paused for a moment, then shook my head. "That's what really gets me, you know. The one question I can't seem to find an answer to. How is this guy connected to Schwartzkopf? What's this whole thing really all about, anyway?"

There was a long silence, then Derksen's voder clicked to life once again. "I may perhaps be able to help with that one, Detective."

"Any ideas at all would be better than nothing,!" I replied, twisting around to face him. Sometimes it was convenient, having such a long, snakelike neck. I didn't have to disturb my sore body at all. "In fact, I was kind of hoping that you might have some insights to offer."

"Hmm," he said, looking down at the floor for a moment to gather his thoughts. Derksen was truly gifted with his voder; I had never heard that sound played so convincingly on one before. "You say that you witnessed this person take on both animate and inanimate forms?"

I nodded. "Yes. Without question."

He frowned. "Then you must understand that you have witnessed something which has never to my knowledge been reported before. Inanimorphs are very, very unusual creatures, but not unknown. For one also to be able to change to living forms is, however, virtually unheard of."

"Virtually?" I demanded. "What do you mean, 'virtually?"

Derksen sighed with his voder this time, again producing a very convincing simulation of the human-created sound. "There are some theoretical issues here. And I need to consult with Posti in any case. Will you excuse me for a few minutes? In the meantime, Ken, your blood sugar tested out very low. This is in my opinion the primary reason you passed out today; the blow alone should not have done it. You've been skipping meals, not that I blame you under the circumstances. Still, you need to eat something. Why not do so now, while I find Dr. Stein? A bird cannot afford to miss so many feedings, you see." He looked down at the floor. "And besides. If you don't mind, I'd rather be elsewhere while you do your catching-up."

"Of course," I answered, a bit taken aback. "Anything you'd like." At first I didn't understand why Bryan hadn't wanted to watch me eat; not much that an ostrich does when eating ought to bother a living cockroach, or so just about anyone would think. But when the food arrived, I finally understood. City Hospital was used to dealing with SCABS cases, and had a full SCABS kitchen and staff running twenty-four hours a day. My main course was a bowl of crickets, with a freshly-killed lizard and some dates mixed in for taste. The kitchen had also thoughtfully provided a small handful of well-chosen crop stones, arranged on the side as a sort of functional garnish. My fellow officers excused themselves as well while I happily crunched away at my favorite delicacy and swallowed a few well-chosen stones. It's just as well that I've never been particularly squeamish, I thought to myself as I downed my scaly dessert. I wonder; does Bryan somehow realize that looking at him always makes me hungry?

I was still wiping my beak on the napkin that had been clamped to my tray when Posti and Derksen returned with my two fellow officers. "Doctor," I greeted Bob formally, nodding my head up and down in a friendly way. "How are you tonight? I'm so sorry to disturb you at four in the morning."

"I'm doing well enough", he replied with a smile. "And don't worry about the time of day. I'm a doctor, after all." His smile faded. "How's the leg?" Dr. Stein had clearly been at home and soundly asleep when he had been called in. But still, he was fully alert and seemed eager to help out any way he could.

I didn't envy a doctor's life. My own hours were bad enough. "I'll live," I answered briefly. "Doc, we're on a tight schedule here. So if you'll excuse me, I'll get right down to business. I guess you know we have an inanimorph as the lead suspect in the recent killings?"

He nodded somberly. "Yes. Your comrades here have filled me in."

"Dr. Derksen informed me that there seem to be a lot of anomalies around this guy's behavior. What can you tell me about what we're up against here?"

Suddenly, my friend's long horse-face looked pained. "Both a lot more than you want to know, Detective, and at the same time a lot less." He frowned. "Actually, if you don't mind, I think it would be far better for you to take a tour of our SCABS research wing than for me to try to explain. It would probably be quicker, as well. There are some things in this universe that a person simply has to see for themselves. I fully realize that you don't have many minutes to spare. However, I also sincerely believe that you'll find this to be time well spent."

I trusted Posti implicitly. If he said that something was worth my time, then it almost certainly would be. Dr. Derksen waved in a nurse with a special wheelchair for me, I mounted up, and then we were off.

It became clear quite quickly that our tour was not going to be a pleasant experience. We traveled deep into the bowels of the mammoth hospital, beginning our tour in the morgue. Or at least what certainly looked like the morgue. About a dozen bodies were lying on slabs along each side of a central aisle, each with a sheet over them. Derksen and Stein exchanged looks, then Derksen gave the day's first lecture. "Ken, Lorena, Teresa, you are all three homicide cops, and have, I am certain, been around many dead bodies in your professional lives. Tell me what is wrong here.?"

My boss spoke first. "It's warm," she observed. "Morgues have to be chilled. And it doesn't stink."

I sniffed the air delicately. She was right.

"Care to examine a body more closely?" the giant cockroach asked. "You've nothing to fear. There's nothing really ugly in this room. Or not physically ugly, at least."

I took the bait. Using the little joystick, I powered my wheelchair up alongside the nearest bed and reached up to take the sheet in my beak. But I didn't even get that far before finding something else wrong. "There's dust all over him, " I observed.

"Is there?" Stein asked from the back of the room. He was frowning. "I'll have to get on housekeeping about that. These are patients, and are therefore fully entitled to be treated as such. Like human beings, not things."

I thought about it a minute. Corpses. Warm room. No stink. Dust. It all began to add up, and not in a way that I at all liked. "My god!" I finally exclaimed, recoiling away from the not-corpse I'd been leaning over. "Are you trying to tell me that these people are not dead?"

"No," Derksen countered, an odd sort of glitter in his eye. "Not at all! They're deader than doornails, each and every one of them. But, you see, the bodies will not decompose."

Things were growing very weird, very fast. I cocked my head inquiringly.

Stein took up the lecture next, his face longer than ever. "Of course just because they are indeed dead doesn't mean that they can't be very much alive as well."

Lorena shook her head in confusion. "Doctor, we don't have time here for guessing games."

Stein held up a hoof-hand. "I know that, Ma'am. I'm fully aware of it, in fact. But until you actually see and understand what's in this room, it's going to very difficult for you to get a grasp on what an inanimorph really is."

It was my turn to grow impatient. "Posti, help me out here. Please? I just don't get any of this."

"Okay," he acknowledged. "Look at it this way. From what I've been told, you encountered an inanimorph today that for a time appeared for all intents and purposes to be a rock. Was a rock, in fact. Is this correct?"

I nodded.

"Right. Was the rock breathing?"

"Of course not," I answered. "It was a rock!"

"Then you're saying that it was dead at the time?"

I thought about it, and then something horrible began ringing alarm bells in the back of my brain. "You mean an inanimorph..."

Posti smiled, nodding gently. "...is clinically dead. Yep. By definition."

"Oh my god!" Teresa contributed, with great sincerity.

There was a brief silence, which Bryan eventually broke with his voder-voice. "What you see here are SCABS victims that are inanimorphs. Or at least we believe that they are inanimorphs. The only way to differentiate them from more ordinary corpses is that they do not rot. Their heartbeats and respirations are zero, they have no reflexes, and their brainwaves are flat as pancakes." He smiled slightly. "A 'living' inanimorph shares these same traits. Unless he troubles himself to breathe or excite his brain in order to keep up appearances." He looked over at the lady officers, his smile growing wider. "You know," he continued, "it's interesting that a mutual friend of Ken and Bob and I was talking about the philosophy of SCABS just the other night at a bar we often frequent. He was speculating on where SCABS really comes from, and what its true role is in the universe is vis-a-vis the human condition. I wonder what he would make of this place?"

This was... horrid. I looked about the room, and shivered. "So, are these people aware?"

"Who knows?" Stein answered. "They're corpses, most ways. During the daytime we turn on a television set for them, just in case. I've read that one moved once, in a hospital in Kansas City. But it was most likely just a practical joke set up by an intern; no one caught it on camera. In truth, we don't have a clue as to what the precise differences are between these patients and 'active' inanimorphs like your killer. So, we just don't know." He folded his arms and leaned back, frowning again.

Good Lord! I edged my wheelchair to the foot of one of the beds, and examined he patient's chart. The last entry on it dated from twenty-three years previous. I shivered. If they didn't even decay, then they could remain as they were...


"So," Lorena interjected into the sudden silence. "You are saying that an inanimorph is neither alive nor dead, but is a different class of being entirely."

Stein nodded, his arms still crossed. "Precisely. And as a result, they experience reality in far different ways than you and I."

That got my attention; it would be my job to try and get inside an inanimorph's head, so I needed all the insight that I could get. "Could you elaborate on that please? I think it might be very helpful."

Stein and Derksen looked at each other again, and this time it was the horse-man who fielded the question. "Neither of us are psychologists, mind you. But it wouldn't do you any good to get one because nobody comprehends the psychology of an inanimorph. For example, if I understand correctly, the rock that you met today overheard a conversation. Am I correct?"

"Yes," I replied.

"So," Bob asked, his eyes narrowing. "Exactly how did it actually hear you? Physiologically, I mean."

I thought about it, and suddenly grew quite puzzled.

Stein correctly interpreted the new tilt of my head. "So you do understand, I see. No ears. No nerves. No thoughts either, given that he had no brain to think with. Yet your rock clearly not only overheard your conversation, it understood it. And then acted upon this understanding."

Dr. Derksen spoke up again. "It's the most frustrating thing in the world for a researcher. Many inanimorphs are wonderful, helpful people who want desperately to help us understand what they experience and how they perceive their universe. But they simply cannot! It's a lot like having a fishmorph try to tell you what it's like to have a lateral line, or a bat-morph explain to you how things look when seen by sonar. In the cases of our bat and our fish, at least, we have other senses in common, shared experiences that can be used for comparison. But with an inanimorph, we go far beyond all commonality. Have him morph into a table, and he can still listen to conversations. Have him turn into a rock outcropping, and when he returns to human form he will comment on how pretty the sunset was. But ask him to explain how he experienced these things, and words simply break down. There literally is no way for them to explain that which a normal person cannot imagine."

There was a long pause, which I eventually filled. "Our suspect told me that I didn't have any broken bones, that he had checked and made sure. How did he do that?"

"Who knows?" replied Stein. "They try to explain and invariably fail, just like Bryan said. But a couple of the most gifted surgeons in the world are inanimorphs. They don't use x-rays or ultrasound or MRI's. They just.... perceive."

My beak opened, then closed again silently. Wow!

Teresa asked the next question. "Doctors, let me get something clear. When a scab changes form due to the Flu, the physiological alterations almost invariably cause psychological trauma. For example, when a male becomes a female..." her voice caught very slightly, though not quite enough for anyone who didn't know to notice. "When a male becomes a female, there are certain, ah, mental adjustments to be made. The world looks at such a scab differently, and pretty soon as a result the victim looks differently at the world. An individual's worldview is a basic part of who and what they are. Alter the worldview in a fundamental way, and you alter the individual equally fundamentally as well. With me so far?"

We all nodded.

She smiled shyly. "Okay, then. A change in species, if heavily morphed, is usually even harder to deal with than a sex change, right? Because it changes the victim's worldview even more fundamentally."

This was well known stuff. We all nodded again, and I took a moment for the thousandth time to be grateful for the fact that ostriches really are a lot like people, psychologically speaking. It had made my adjustment so much easier.

"Then" Teresa continued, "what happens when a victim's worldview is so altered that they cannot even explain themselves any longer to normal humans? When their senses become so different that they cannot even describe them?" She frowned. "When they can't even be sure that they're alive anymore?"

We all stood silent for a time, thinking about what Finch had just said. Everyone knew that inanimorphs existed, of course; everyone had seen them perform on television, and had watched one or two of the numerous sitcoms based on the unexpected presence of an inanimorph in a delicate situation. But it all seemed so shallow, now that I was face to face with a richer and more complex reality than I'd ever even imagined might be possible. I'd thought that I had seen and understood inanimorphs. In fact though, this phenomenon of inanimorphism cut to the very heart of my lapine friend's deep question of a couple nights ago.

What was real, anyway?

If a person was so altered by SCABS that their view of the universe literally cannot be communicated to normal humans, do they then by definition live in a different reality? If their thoughts become unthinkable to others, are they then insane? Could even the word "insanity" have any objective meaning, in a world with inanimorphs in it? For that matter, what happened to the concepts of good and evil, when processed by a mind no longer sharing much of anything in common with the human experience? And, most of all, how could the concept of morality have any absolute meaning, if the reality it is part of is merely a subjective thing, given to redefinition be a mere virus?

This kind of thinking would get me nowhere, I realized suddenly. My reality included a sadistic murderer whom it was my duty to catch, and all the philosophizing in the world would not move me an inch closer to my goal. I shook my head to clear it of the endlessly dancing chains of questions without answers, cracking it several times at the end of the whip that was my long, naked neck. It felt like I was coming up for air after much too deep a dive. "All right, doctors," I declared in my best detective-like tones, desperately seeking normalcy. "There's another thing I need to ask about. Our guy turned into both living and non-living forms. I gather that this is unusual?"

Stein blinked. "Exceedingly unusual. I'd love to study this case."

I nodded. "Can you offer us any insights?"

"Well.... Without any real data, anything I say has to be taken with a grain of salt. But applying Occam's Razor is often useful." I waited while the big equine narrowed his eyes and thought. "Detective," he finally asked. "Are you quite certain that the lion-form you fought was actually alive?"

I blinked. "He certainly seemed lively enough to me!"

Posti smiled gently. "Lively, yes. But was he alive? Could it, for example, have been an animated corpse?"

I thought about it for a minute. "I suppose that he might have been. But I did manage to stun him with a kick to the head. It's kind of hard to do that to a corpse."

Stein rocked his head consideringly from side to side. "Hmm. There is that, isn't there? We just don't have enough data, I suppose. But my guess is that if you had looked closely enough you would have discovered that your lion was not breathing. It is easier to accept that than to go running off into new territory by postulating an inanimorph that is also a polymorph. After all I've seen SCABS do, though, I could not rule out the possibility."

"Yeah," I agreed. "Let's hope it's not something totally new. Things are bad enough as they are." I paused and cocked my head again. "Is there anything else you can think of that we need to know, any other questions that you think we ought to have asked but didn't?"

Derksen spoke up without hesitation. "You missed the biggest one of all."

"Which is...." prompted Lorena.

"Exactly how dangerous can an inanimorph be?" the cockroach replied promptly.

Teresa nodded. "Okay, Dr. Dersken. I'll bite. Exactly how dangerous can an in inanimorph be?" Teresa asked.

It is very hard for an insectmorph to express emotions physically, far more so than it is for me even. But somehow, so help me, Bryan managed to convey absolute conviction with every syllable. "They can be the most dangerous things that have ever walked the Earth," he declared. "Probably the most dangerous beings that will ever exist in the entire universe. There is in fact almost no limit at all to how dangerous they can be."

"That," I responded eventually, after a long, shocked silence, "is a very sweeping statement, Doctor."

"It was meant to be," Bryan replied sincerely. "You really haven't thought this all the way through yet, have you?"

I shook my head emphatically. "I don't at all understand what you're getting at, if that's what you mean."

Posti took over. "Bryan is absolutely right. There are essentially no limits to what a sufficiently powerful inanimorph can do. They can vary their body's rest mass, energy, composition, and velocity. While most inanimorphs have definite limitations, a very few do not seem to have any at all."

"In other words," I answered slowly, doing my best to get a handle on what the medical types were trying to communicate, "Instead of turning into a lion, the perp could just as easily have turned into a speeding bullet aimed at my heart."

Posti snorted. "That's the least of what he could have done. You are still many, many orders of magnitude from a true appreciation of what you are up against here. Let me try another approach. Do any of you recall the terror-nuking of Tehran?"

It was a rhetorical question, of course. The detonation of a twenty-five megaton fusion device in a major city was not something one forgot.

"This is classified, people. I never said a word here. But you are probably aware that it was never established where the bomb came from. This is because no bombs were missing from the inventories of any nation capable of building such a beast. Now it just so happens that the US embassy there, along with several other embassies, received a warning three days before the event. It contained a detailed description of where the detonation would take place, along with a long and rambling denunciation of the Islamic government there and its failings in living up to Allah's wishes as expressed personally by Allah to the author. This note was forwarded to Iranian officials, all very hush-hush, and a little bird tells me that the entire area where the bomb was hidden was absolutely swarming with soldiers and bomb squads right up until the instant of detonation."

Stein shook his head sadly. "The US government takes an interest in any incident of nuclear terrorism, of course, though I have no idea as to how much effort Washington put into trying to find out exactly what happened. But I do know for a fact that the author of the warning note was found to be an inanimorph, and that tests were done afterwards using other similar inanimorphs that indicated he most likely was fully capable of morphing himself into the bomb just before exploding."

"A person can become an H-bomb?" Teresa demanded. "That's ridiculous!"

"How so, exactly?" the horse-man countered. "Is it any less a miracle when a relatively common shapeshift takes place? Is an H-bomb any more complex than a living, breathing body? Or, for that matter, when an inanimorph turns into, say, a copy machine, does that raise any eyebrows? Yet, a copier is a very intricate, sophisticated device indeed."

"But where does all the energy come from?" asked Lorena.

"From the same place all the mass comes from when a person morphs into a blue whale or a brontosaurus, " I suppose" Stein explained. "And the same place it flows back to when the brontosaurus morphs back into a mosquito. Mass and energy are essentially different versions of the same thing. We all know that. And the energy of the mass change in turning a man into a fly is measured in gigatons, not mere megatons."

Posti sighed. "One of the things that could never be determined for certain was whether or not the terrorist might possibly have survived the explosion. I mean, an inanimorph is dead anyway, right? So how can he die again? We have no conception of what is and is not possible here. So this nutcase could still be out there for all we know, waiting for Allah to tell him to blow up another city. And there is little or nothing anyone can do about it if he does."

We all thought about that for a minute, then Bryan took over. "It gets worse, you know. Our terrorist seems to have had little imagination. But what happens when a particularly powerful inanimorph interested in physics goes nuts? There is no theoretical reason we can find why an inanimorph could not, for example, become any amount of antimatter he desires to. Or a star. Or even a black hole. Want to tell them, Posti?"

The horse looked sad. "We think the black-hole thing may have actually happened once already. A physicist became an inanimorph right here in town. He told me that he had been bending his mind around what it would be like to be inside a singularity ever since he was a kid, and that he just had to know what was to be found on the other side of one. Then, right in front of me, he vanished. I called in a team from the university, and they found carpet fibers stretched by apparent tidal effects right where he was standing, all centered around a tiny little hole in the floor. There was another hole in the floor directly below this one, then another and another and another..." The horse shook his head in a very equine way. "No one seems willing to say what happened to him for certain. Some think that he is likely still swinging back and forth through the gravitational center of the Earth-Moon system, picking up a few atoms of mass and slowing just a little bit on each pass. Others speculate that he evaporated almost immediately in a burst of radiation. Black holes are a poorly understood phenomenon to begin with, and when you consider that this one was both sentient and directly involved with physics-defying SCABS, well, the scientists pretty much have thrown up their hands and given up on this one. Personally, I think the answer has a lot to with just what exactly is on the other side of a black hole. But only one person knows that..."

We all stood with our mouths hanging open for a moment, then Posti dropped his real bomb. "Thankfully, he was considerate enough of the rest of us to become a mere quantum black hole, rather than, say, a galaxy-eater..."

My beak opened wider. Derksen had been all too right. We cops hadn't thought it all the way through. Looking back, it appalled me that I had tried to subdue such a creature with a mere kick to the head. What on earth had I been thinking? But eventually, I knew, I had to find a way to bring him in regardless. I was a cop, after all. It was my job.

We talked for awhile longer, establishing that no jail cell had ever been built that could hold any but the weakest of inanimorphs, that none had ever been taken anywhere against their will so far as the doctors knew, and that neither of them really seemed to think that I stood a Chinaman's chance of closing this case successfully. I thanked them, and asked one last question on the way out.

"Tell me, Doctors. Has an inanimorph ever 'died'? I don't mean physically -- we've already covered that. But has any ever ceased to be?"

Stein frowned. "Well, no one's ever seen our hydrogen bomb or the black hole man again. Does that qualify as 'dead'? I mean, how can one ever really be sure?"

I nodded my thanks. Perhaps you never really could be absolutely sure. I'd seen a lot of death, though, and what I'd seen of it seemed pretty final to me.

But then again, I wasn't an inanimorph.

We stopped in to see Dan, who looked rather pathetic lying there plugged into every medical device known to mankind. Then we headed back to the office. The ride was a very quiet one. Too quiet, really. What we'd heard and seen had rather overwhelmed us. How could we possibly bring such a powerful being to justice? We were hovering on the edge of defeatism, I realized as I painfully clambered out of the car, Finch holding the door for me. "You know, things aren't quite as bad as they sound," I pointed out optimistically. "We have saved one victim's life, you know."

"True," admitted Lorena.

"We've got real leads, too. Plus we've figured out the pattern in the crimes. We're 'way ahead of where we were two or three days back. We can predict this guy, even if we can't fully understand him."

"Sure," Teresa answered as she unloaded my new wheelchair from the trunk and set it up for me. I stood delicately waiting on one foot as she did the unfolding. "We predicted him once; I'll give you that. But the only reason we were successful was because our perp had to show himself in a particular kind of location at a predictable time in order to fulfill his pattern. And even then, we almost blew it by not watching the right place. For the next crime, we have no such advantages. And it's the last in the series. Who knows what he plans after that?"

"Or it could be that he'll simply repeat number six, having been unsuccessful last time," Lorena added. She looked very bedraggled and depressed as we started across the police garage. Defeated, even.

I sat down and powered up my new ride, pointing it at the elevator. "Uhm," I grunted around the joystick. It was annoying not to be able to manipulate things and speak at the same time, all the more so when I couldn't even move around without using my mouth. It was clear that my time off of my feet was going to be even more annoying and limiting than I'd foreseen. We were all gathered together in the elevator, with the door closed and the cab rising, before I could speak again. "I agree that he may repeat number six, and I think that we ought to reserve all the choppers again just in case. However, in my opinion we should put our real effort into studying number seven. We've all heard of the incident, of course. But none of us has really had the time to look into it."

Neither of my companions offered any comment. They were too tired and depressed. It was a bad, bad sign. Still, we eventually we gathered in my office and got out the fattest folder of all.

That of the great New York City Bioweapon Incident.

The original crime went down just weeks before the infamous NASA probe bearing the gift of the Flu came home. A Macao-based "freedom fighter" group had been trying to blackmail the UN into adopting an anti-Chinese human rights resolution using what they claimed was a highly concentrated aerosol bottle of Hong Kong Avian Flu virus, the deadly strain of bird disease that had mutated into a form capable of killing humans in 1997, as leverage. Unfortunately, the terrorists hadn't been lying about the contents of their improvised weapon. The deadly stuff got loose during the final firefight and caused a local epidemic. Hundreds died in the then-most-deadly terrorist attack in history. Schwartzkopf had headed up the task force that finally located the perps, setting up the raid and earning himself a nice commendation in the process. It was the pinnacle of his career, a case that was still cited in criminal justice textbooks all over the world as a shining exemplar of its kind. Present personally at the scene, Schwatrzkopf had been infected with the Avian virus when the bottle was hit by a stray round and exploded. Ironically, he'd still been in the hospital recovering from this illness when the Martian Flu killed him.

If it actually did kill him, I thought to myself. They knew so little about the Martian Flu back in those days...

My heart began to beat faster as I began adding things up. Inanimorphism was a very rare phenomenon indeed. And the early days of the Flu were highly chaotic, to put things mildly. How many inanimorphs might have been declared legally dead, I wondered, and then buried alive before the doctors realized that the fact that there were no vital signs didn't mean there was no hope?

I assigned another youngster to Dan's old research job, and before two hours had passed his results confirmed my worst fears. Schwartzkopf had died well before the word about inanimorphism got out. If I was right-- and how I wished that I could bet Dan-man another soda pop that I was!-- it was no wonder this guy had slipped his gears. I almost felt sorry for him. Seeing that roomful of undead corpses had shaken me deeply. How much worse would it be to become one, and then listen to the earth raining down on your coffin?

We were still poring over the old records when the daily e-mail from our killer arrived at 6:22 AM. It was somewhat different than all the rest.

"Detective Bronski-

My congratulations to you on saving the young woman. It took damn good police work to accomplish what you and your team did. I sincerely hope that you receive the recognition that you deserve. In fact, I find it regrettable that things will turn out as they inevitably must. The pattern of destiny is warped out of true, but not irretrievably broken. Death can and will play no favorites."

We read it again and again. Like most of the notes, it was both informative and maddening. You could guess at meanings, but never attribute any real degree of certainty to the results. After about an hour of fruitless discussion, I declared a short coffee break and took a look at the morning paper.

It appeared that I was a hero today, along with Dan-man and the officer who'd personally saved the dangling victim. There was no mention of the head-in-the-sand cartoon of the day before. I shook my head in wonder; there seemed to be nothing for newspaper reporters except extremes and superlatives. But the best news of all was the article in the lower-righthand corner of the front page asking again where the FBI was. This time, an outraged Senator and two congressmen were asking pointed questions about why "Good cops like Ken Bronski" were being forced to work without sufficient help from Washington. An FBI supervisor by the name of Joe MacDonald was quoted defending his "overworked" staff, but he sounded whiney and pathetic in what I was quite certain were remarks carefully chosen out of context by the paper to achieve that very effect. It seemed that some FBI careers were about to be seriously damaged. The very idea absolutely broke my heart. Coupled with the fact that I planned to shamelessly exploit my own wheelchair-bound status in order to dodge today's news briefing, today's paper had made me feel better than I had in days.

In fact, I felt almost like a winner as I wheeled my way out of my office and into the big conference room for the morning team briefing. There's always been something contagious about victory, in my experience. Win a small battle, and by virtue of having done so you gain the confidence necessary to win bigger ones. Pretty soon the major victories start piling up, and you and your team become invincible. In any case, there is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that it was our petty triumph over Joe MacDonald and Linda Williams of the FBI that gave me the heart to take a fresh look at things.

And, in the process, we finally broke the case wide open.

Lorena and Teresa were both looking bedraggled and woebegone when the meeting began, listlessly examining their copies of the last e-mail. They had serious bags under their eyes, and for the first time I realized they had probably been up all night while I'd laid comfortably passed-out in my hospital bed. But they were cops too, and at least in theory used to sleepless nights. It was time for a pep talk.

"Alright, guys!" I began cheerfully. "Let's nail this guy."

My team looked at me as if I were insane.

"What's this?" I countered, my voice taking on a hurt tone. "Haven't you ever caught a murderer before?"

Teresa shook her head tiredly. "This case is impossible, Ken. I know what you're trying to do, but face reality. This guy is going to do whatever he wants to, whenever he wants to do it. He's goddamn Superman."

Lorena, who should have been in my corner, didn't contradict her subordinate. Instead, she just shook her head wearily. Damn, but this was bad! "Look," I tried again. "This guy is not Superman. He has definite limitations, like any other mortal."

"Care to name a few?" Teresa demanded flatly.

I looked down at the floor for inspiration, then bobbled my head perkily. "Well... He's not super intelligent, for one thing."

Teresa barked a single syllable of laughter. "Ha! Ken, he can do anything he wants to. Literally anything. He doesn't need super-intelligence."

I ignored her, and turned to Lorena. "Secondly, he's a cop just like us. We can use that."

"How, exactly?" my supervisor countered. "How, Ken?"

I simply ignored the rampant negativism and continued right on past it. "Third, he is warped mentally, tied into an obsessive pattern of behavior. We have successfully predicted him once."

"But it didn't result in his capture," objected Lorena again.

Again, I ignored her. "Fourth, he can die. Or at least we think that he can die. If a being can die, then it can be made afraid."

"Oh frabjous day!" Teresa looked at Lorena and gestured expansively with her arms. "We think that he can be killed. Not arrested, mind you. But killed. Maybe."

I rocked my head vigorously side to side, then realized that I was laughing for the first time in days. Victory was such a powerful drug! I looked up and down the lines of exhausted officers. "Look ladies and gentlemen, we do have certain edges. We can either try to use them to our best advantage, or else just sit here and wait for a can of Hong Kong Avian to be explode downtown somewhere." I raised my head regally, dominantly. "You folks can do as you like. Personally, I intend to bag this creep."

Lorena looked at intently. While maintaining my regal pose, I rapidly blinked my long-lashed eyes, which I knew from experience looked funny as hell. Presently, she began laughing,. Then Teresa joined in, and soon so did everyone else. Then, when we were finally done laughing both of the ladies hugged me and went back to doing what we had to do.

"This e-mail is the best clue we've got," Lorena said for the hundredth time, an hour later. "But no matter how many times I read it, I still don't get anything definite from it."

"We never will." I pointed out. "Solving crimes just doesn't work that way. Nothing outside of physical evidence is ever definite. Everything else is painted of shades of gray."

"Mmm," Lorena agreed.

Then Teresa pointed something out. "You know, this note can be read as a threat. Personally directed at you, Ken."

I blinked, this time not funnily at all. "How so?" I asked.

"He apologizes for not being able to play favorites, after indicating that he respects you. That's personal."

Hmm. After pecking at the idea a minute or two I nodded in agreement. "That makes sense."

Then Lorena contributed. "Schwartzkopf did play a prominent role in the Plague case, you know. He was considered something of a hero. Just like you."

I looked elsewhere. Being called a hero for not catching a criminal was kinda embarrassing. In fact, being called a hero was kinda embarrassing, period.

Silence ruled at our little table for a moment, then Teresa spoke up. "You know, one of the big problems with the Avian flu is that wild birds often act as vectors. In fact, in the New York incident pigeons spread the disease far more effectively than humans. They had to undertake a massive campaign to try and kill every pigeon in the city to get things under control."

"So?" I asked.

"Heh!" Lorena laughed, as her eyes grew wide in understanding. "Looked in the mirror lately, Ken?"

I gave my puzzled headcock for a moment, then it finally struck me. Of course! It all fit neatly, once you let your intuition take a couple steps for you. I was the next target. Me. Personally. It was not a comforting thought.

But, on the other hand, if we were correct then there were certain opportunities...

I conned Loreen into being a good supervisor and covering for me at the daily press conference, while Teresa and I got very busy on the phone. Presently, we not only had developed the semblance of a plan, but also had taken the first steps towards seeing it through.

Now, if our killer would just cooperate!

By seven that night all was ready and every last sign of the work crews was gone. I sat in a tiny glass-walled office behind a small desk, looking as helpless as could be in my wheelchair, shuffling papers and pretending to be fixated on the continual negative reports coming in from the helicopters that were once again airborne all across the city. Anyone who knew me at all would realize that I preferred to work in a cubicle, not an office, and that above all I would never willingly put up with being cooped up alone at such a tense moment. But our killer would know none of these things. And another thing an inanimorph cannot do, no matter how powerful, is read minds.

Still, I missed pacing.

It was a couple minutes past eight before anything happened, and I would have been sweating bullets had my feathery physique allowed it. Only by exerting the most iron self-discipline was I able to sit still and pretend to study the file on victim two. "Pssst!" I finally heard. "Down here, Bronski!"

Birds have good poker faces. It was not too terribly difficult to hard to cock my head in surprise and look up at the doorway. "What?" I demanded. "Who's there?"

"No, no, no, ya boidbrain!" the voice complained. "Down here! On your desk!" And sure enough. perched neatly on my nameplate, sat a miniature version of the man seen by victim six at the cliffs. He was perhaps two inches tall. I didn't have to pretend at all in order to appear frightened; in an instant I my head was darting for the phone.

"Stop!" the little man cried, using the "authority voice" all cops learn first thing at the academy. Despite myself, I froze. "Bronski," the little guy went on, "You're a good cop. You know all about what I am by now, don't you. What kind of thing I've become?"

Carefully, I nodded. "You're an inanimorph. A very powerful one indeed."

Schwartzkopf smiled sadly. "Good. Then you also know that I am merely telling you the sincere truth when I promise that you will live longer if you pull that ugly head of yours back away from your telephone, and do as you're told."

Slowly and reluctantly, I followed my instructions. "All right." I said. "There's no need for anyone to get excited here."

The detective smiled again. "Well done, Detective. I figgered you for smart. It's a lucky break for me, to have someone like you playing the role of who I once was."

"What do you mean, playing a role?" I asked slowly.

"You," he explained gently, "are number seven. My own undoing, and my Fall."

I cracked my bill open in feigned shock. "Me? Why me, Schwartzkopf.? What in the world are you talking about?"

He leapt from his seat on my nameplate and came charging angrily across my desktop, nearly tripping over a ballpoint. "Don't you ever call me that!" he demanded. "I was he once, but am no longer. I merely wear the shell of his soul, carry his memories and his face. Besides, my nickname was Schwartzie!"

This was truly weird. Schwartzkopf was a blend of half stereotypical Brooklyn dick and half raving lunatic. But the mix seemed all wrong, even for a total nutcase. Stein and Derksen had told me that these people, living in an incomprehensible world, sometimes became completely incomprehensible themselves. Hearing about it was one thing. Seeing it, however, was something else entirely. I could feel myself seeking and almost finding an emotional connection with my antagonist, only to have it melt away into nothing as our mismatched realities simply failed to meet up. One could imagine having a more meaningful conversation with a jellyfish, say, or a mosquito. Between his altered universe-view and just plain craziness, true communication was simply out of the question. Part of me very badly wanted o touch his darkness, to somehow sense and know the evil that simply had to reside deep in his soul. That, at least, might somehow reassure me that Schwartzkopf was indeed still a fellow human being inside. But we might as well have been born in separate universes. We used the same words, granted. But they meant such very different things to each of us that there was little point in even trying to talk anymore. It was time to do what had to be done. "Don't get excited, Schwartzie--"

"Don't call me that either, ya walking dustmop!" he interrupted me. "I am beyond names now. I am dead, and risen and washed in the evil of the life I once lived."

I tilted my head to one side. "You're awash in evil, all right. Awash and sunk well over your head."

Surprisingly, he smiled and agreed with me. "Yeah, that's probably more like it. I woiked a lot of moiders, ya know."

I nodded. "Me too. It's a hard, ugly business."

He nodded back, still smiling. "You've got the look about you, too. Just like I did."

I was growing more confused by the moment, which was something that even a few seconds before I'd have bet was impossible. "I'm an ostrich, for Pete's sake! My face doesn't do expressions anymore! So what do you mean, the 'look'?"

His smile widened. "The Look of Death. It comes from staring down at one too many stiffs, and looking into the hearts of one too many killers."

I just shook my head, and the little man sat back down on my nameplate and crossed his legs. He had all the time in the world, so far as he was concerned. "You can't see the Look of Death, I know. No one can except me. I can look inside anyone and know their heart, since I've died and been reborn." He leaned forward a little. "And yours has seen too much ugliness, Detective. Too much Death. Just like mine."

This was true of most cops, I knew. One of the most painful parts of The Job was watching the young idealistic kids turn into bitter, cynical hardcases identical to us older cops. But there didn't seem to be anything to say, so I just sat and bided my time.

"What you see after you die is so different!" Schwartzkopf continued eventually. "There aren't any dark corners any more, no blind spots, no more pretty facades for the true ugliness of things to hide behind. Instead, I now look at nothing but Death all of the time, its true face ever before me. I know now that

I became hard and evil inside long before I moved on to the current plane. We all become our professions, in time, Detective. We absorb our environments. You and I, we have chosen to live our lives in the darkest place of all. Is it any wonder that our hearts become black and twisted? A thousand lifetimes of cleansing could never purge the darkness from my heart. I am become that which I once hated. I am as evil as the ones I once pursued. This is true justice."

Part of me wanted to tell my brother cop that he was neither dead nor twisted. But it would have been a lie. He was both, and had been for a very long time indeed, it seemed. Far longer than he'd been an inanimorph.

"So now I spread the infection," he continued. "I will pass the darkness along to other cops, as it was once spoon fed to me. I will ensure that they learn what I know about the final truth of things." He smiled again, eyes narrow. "Tell me, Detective Bronski. Did you look into the old woman's eyes?"

I nodded. "Yes."

The smile widened. "And what did you find there?"

I shuddered, not wanting to remember. "Terror. Agony. And... Final realization. It was not pretty."

"Her eyes ate a little bit of your soul away, didn't they?" he asked. "But eventually, they won't anymore. Pain and suffering will lose their power over you. In time, when your soul is eaten up entirely, terror and death won't matter to you any more in the slightest. You will transcend these things, as I have, and become something more." He leaned forward again, speaking earnestly. "I can see into your heart. When you die the rest of the way, you'll be just like me inside. I have seen, and I know."

I shook my head in disgust, even though I knew deep down that, in a twisted way, he was absolutely, one-hundred-percent correct about who and what I might someday become if I allowed myself to harden forever. But I denied the truth anyway. "When I die, Schwartzie, I'll die dead. Dead!" Suddenly I realized that I was getting all worked up, and letting the perp take control of the situation. I shook my head, one single whipcrack to clear it, and then continued in a calmer fashion. "Listen to me! You are clearly insane, and you simply must know it. Turn yourself in, and I swear to you on my honor as a brother cop that you'll receive proper psychological treatment. There are others in the world like you; we understand a lot more about inanimorphis than we did back when you were declared dead. It was the Martian Flu that did this to you, not something mystical or supernatural. There's still hope for you; I promise it! If you'll just cooperate!"

He ignored me, not even objecting to my use of his "former" name. "You already hate the young ones, don't you Bronski? With their hopeful faces and pure, clean hearts and shining, happy dreams? When you're like me, Detective, you'll find that the young are most pleasant kills of all." He grinned. "By the way, how's your young smart-ass friend doing? The one I hit in the head?"

I pressed my beak-lips together, hard. "Dying, most likely."

"Good!" Scwartzkopf declared. "Serves him right! But he won't come back, not like you and I. Only the deadest of hearts are powerful enough to walk after death."

Just about then, I looked down at my desk clock. It was precisely 8:15. Schwartzkopf followed my gaze, and grinned, rubbing his hands together theatrically. "Have you put all the pieces together yet?"

I nodded, once. "Yes. I think I understand everything now."

"Good man! You're my future partner, you know. We're so very much alike. Surely the Incurved Darkness will allow me that much." He paused and met my eyes. "Are you ready to die, Bronski? Truly ready?"

"Don't do this!" I begged. "Please, don't kill me! Not that way!"

"The Avian Flu is a pretty nasty way to go," he agreed. "I oughta know. Fevers, chills, endless barfing..." He shuddered, then stood up, all business. "Let me tell you exactly what is going to happen, Detective. I am going to turn myself into a particularly virulent strain of the virus, and infect you. Within hours you will begin producing clouds of infection that will spread throughout the City. And then your fellow birds will spread Death far and wide."

"What's to keep me from just taking medication?" I countered. "Or just having myself isolated?"

He smiled. "There is no known cure for the Hong Kong Avian Flu. And I fully expect them to isolate you, probably almost immediately. Or they'll try to isolate you, rather. But I will always be there, making holes in the hospital walls and helping your deadly little deadly enter who knows how many bodies? Even if you won't carry out your part in the Plan willingly, I will see it is done for you. The picture shall be whole! You have no choice whatsoever." He mock-saluted me. "See you soon! Here, in Hell!"

Then the little man sort of launched himself at my face, flying at tremendous speed and shrinking rapidly at the same time until he disappeared entirely. The sight did odd things to my sense of perspective, but I didn't let the special effects display slow me down at all. I followed the plan perfectly, sniffing hard, twice, and then drinking beakful after beakful of medicated fluid from the tumbler on my desk, as a team from the CDC who had been disguised as police officers sealed my office door shut. The rest of the office had been virus-proofed long since. It was vitally important, I'd been told by experts, that I absorb Schwartzie as quickly and as completely as possible into my system. It was also equally vital that we keep making things happen more quickly than Schwartzie could respond to them. Another limitation that inanimorphs suffer from, besides the inability to read minds, is that they cannot respond to new, unexpected situations any faster than any other human being can. We profoundly hoped this was a failing that would prove lethal in this case. Inanimorphs are not gods, however intimidating their power may seem at times. Schwartzie had just made what we most fervently hoped was a major error.

A virus, as it happens, is something that is neither living nor dead. Rather, much like an inanimorph, it exists in a state that lies somewhere in-between. A virus is, however, certainly alive enough to be killed. And while it was in fact true that there is no cure for the Avian flu, large stores of antibodies have been kept frozen and readily available for emergency use ever since the New York outbreak.

I had been injected with enough of these antibodies to protect fifty birds of my size...

The water finished, I slumped back in my wheelchair and sighed as most of the Department gathered worriedly outside my now-quarantined office and waited for my enhanced blood to do its stuff. While we would never be quite sure, there seemed to be, in the opinions of most experts, an excellent chance that we wouldn't be seeing any more daily horrorshow killings. Except for Schwartzie's own, of course Antibodies could be terrifyingly effective killers in their own right. And, they act very, very quickly indeed compared to a human's ability to think and react. In fact, in terms of sheer lethality, antibodies rate right up there with black holes and thermonuclear explosions. Henry Schwartzkopf is therefore believed to have died within seconds of being ingested; to my knowledge, no one mourned his passing.

His time of death was recorded as 8:15 PM.

I spent the next four days isolated in my tightly sealed office, eating stockpiled food, taking exotic drugs, and cursing the lack of proper sanitary facilities. When it became apparent that I had not been infected I was allowed out. If Schwartzie or any of his baby virii were still alive they probably got out with me, despite the repeated scrubbings and enemas and scrapings and such that cost me half my plumage and all my dignity. But there was no epidemic, and there have been no sightings of the Detective. I personally believe that the hungry little buggers in my bloodstream proved too much for him. Thinking about his victims, I certainly hoped so. But one can never be entirely certain, with an inanimorph.

Maybe Death isn't so absolute after all.

It was five weeks later that I met Phil in the lobby of the hospital. Jack had driven him over for a cage call that he anticipated would tie him up for days. I explained that I was there to see Danny, and the white rabbit asked if he could come up too. I agreed. Phil is good company sometimes.

Dan-man was still in intensive care, though there was a lot more color in his face now. His parents and a girlfriend were out in the waiting area talking, and Phil went into counselor mode with them, simply sitting and listening and absorbing their fears into his creamy fur in a way I could never manage. Meanwhile, I walked into the room's open door and stood next to Danny's bed. My young friend lay still on his mattress, his face absolutely motionless save for the slight twitching of his nostrils as he slowly inhaled and exhaled. The respirator had come off days ago, and the docs told me that this was a hopeful sign. But there was no evidence of hope in Danny's slack face, or at least that I could discern.

Presently, Phil walked up beside me. Without turning my head, I spoke to him. "You know, Phil, Schwartzie was right about me in too many ways." I had told him all about our final confrontation over a beer. Or six.

"It's not just you," he replied, "Or even just cops. It's all of us. The older generation, that is."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

The lapine sighed. "We all become jaded, Ken. We sacrifice our hopes and dreams to house payments and bad marriages and dead-end jobs. And it's not until all of our hope and joy are totally lost in exchange for what this lousy world calls 'wisdom' that you realize the true value of what's been taken from you. We start envying the kids then, become jealous of their bright futures and unsullied dreams. There's not all that much difference between envy and hate, you know."

I thought a bit, then replied. "It's worse for us cops, I think. Schwartzkopf believed that it was the ugliness of his job that infected him and poisoned his heart. And it probably did, in a way. Just like it is slowly poisoning mine."

It was Phil's turn to think before speaking. "I could tell you some stories of my own, Ken. War stories of crooked Union elections and lies and character assassination. Of petty corruption and petty souls and petty revenge, and of incredible stress that eats away at you day after day. I'll grant you, it's probably worse for a cop. But all of us oldsters have poisoned hearts. It's the price of living in an imperfect world." He sighed again. "The longer you live, the worse it gets."

Carefully, I reached out with a wingtip and stroked Danny's hair. "Just look at him, Phil. Face unlined, bright eyes under those closed lids, all his hair still growing just fine. Eager puppyish grin, when he's happy. Which was most of the time. Were we ever like that?"

"I wonder sometimes," Phil replied. "And I wonder if they'll become hard-bitten and cynical, like us. Then I quit wondering, because I know that they will."

I continued stroking Dan's cheek slowly. "You know, I was kinda adopting the kid. Taking him under my wing, so to speak. No pun intended!" I added hastily.

Phil simply nodded.

"I never had a family," I continued. "One marriage went bad because of The Job, then a second. And pretty soon it was just too late -- the years flew by before I realized it. And now I'm not in a state to father anything human anymore."

"Much the same could be said about my own life," my counselor replied after a long pause. "In my case, it's the clients that I look to as my future."

"Hmm," I answered. There didn't seem to be much else to say.

Then, it happened. Dan's cheek twitched under my feathery touch. Then he moaned, shifted position slightly, and blinked his eyes uncertainly. The lights seemed to blind him a little, but my silhouette is pretty unique.

"Detective Bronski!" he croaked as my friend and I stood frozen. "What..."

Phil spends a lot of time in hospitals. He knew exactly what to do. "I'll get the family, Ken. Press the call button, will you? I can't reach it." I pecked at the pesky thing repeatedly as he raced down the corridor towards the waiting room-this one was not a SCABS-friendly model. But eventually it lit up, and I turned back to my young friend.

"What..." asked Danny again, trying to raise his head and looking confused.

I understood what a true cop would need to hear first thing. "We got him, Dan-man! You and me and about a thousand other cops. We nailed the bastard and it's all over."

He seemed to understand me. Closing his eyes, he laid his head back and grinned his habitual grin. And as he did so, part of the cold and dark wasteland layered around my soul melted away and vanished forever. Evil and pain and decay can indeed permeate a human heart, can be soaked up from a sick environment like vomit into a towel. Schwartzkopf had been right about that much. But what he's long forgotten was that joy and love and growth can be absorbed equally as well.

Dan's family burst in then, all smiles and tears of joy. They held his hands for a few minutes until the medical folks shooed everyone out. He didn't speak again, but it was clear he recognized and loved them all.

I had to get back to the office -- there was a new case waiting for me and, hero or no, I could only get away with so many long lunches. The city pays me to catch bad guys, after all, not to visit hospitals. But this one time I sent the uniform with the cruiser back alone without me, and jogged the three miles back to the stationhouse in order to exercise my still-stiff right leg a little. It was warm and sunny out, the birds were singing, and people on the street smiled and waved happily as I passed.

Yeah, Ken, I thought to myself as I limped along. Death is real enough. Death is as real as real gets, in fact. But, the most important things in the world for you to remember is that life is real, too.

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