Death Is Real
by Phil Geusz
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 was in, of course,
ragging away at the ivories like even today didn't matter, much less
tomorrow. An otter-morph sat up straight at the bar, long musteline body
supporting the head that always seemed to me to bear an expression of
boyish innocence. 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 hit me, and confidently I strode back the
quietest corner. It was there that any self-respecting rabbit would be
And so it turned out to be. Phil was quietly getting sozzled with a
group of close friends in the farthest booth back. 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. What IS real, anyway? Answer me that, 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, nor is chemistry. But tell me, Doctor Stein,
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 said, his voice slurred a bit by the Strafford sloshing
around in his paw cup. "But exactly what? This is where our
understanding totally breaks down, where we can neither use the
scientific method nor ignore it. We cannot imagine how to frame a real
double-blind test to our questions, nor can we fail to apply said method
to any religious system that happens along. And so far the scientific
method, sooner or later, has shot down every one."
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 fabulously
intricate, the mind has definite limitations. One is that by definition
it cannot grasp in full anything as complex or more complex than itself,
or so I figure it. And it is through our minds that we perceive reality,
that we interpret the greater universe around us. Since the tool of our
minds is by definition limited, is it not possible that we can never
understand ourselves, or our place in the universe? That we cannot ever
know what our purpose is, or what its all about? No kettle can hold
itself. I think it is more than possible that we literally cannot know-
to me, it is almost a certainty."
"Now, all this DOES tie in with SCABS, thusly. For the first time,
Mankind has contacted both an alien life form and something that defies
our conception of physics. Is it not possible that the Flu virus belongs
to a wholly different reality, one that is even further beyond our
limited grasp? Or that it was created by an alien God, so to speak? If
this is indeed the case, it is not just our physics that is being
challenged here but our 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.
"Hi, Bronski! Let me get you a cushion."
"Hello," 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 something new. "It's
OK, I'll stand."
But no one would hear of it, and presently space was made, a big
beanbag laid out, and a beer set on the tabletop for me to sip with the
rest. Judging by Phil's glazed expression, he was well into the lead
tonight. Presently, Jon asked him to continue.
"Continue what?" the rabbit asked innocently. And further he would
Stein sighed, and saying he was getting a headache 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?"
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 got
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 robbed me of my last change.
It had been brilliantly deduced that my change of form was the root of
the anger driving my aggressive behavior. Luckily, I got referred to
Phil, who after a couple sessions in his cramped little office
prescribed twice a week at the Pig. At first I resented the suggestion
that I needed the company of other SCABs to help me adjust, but the
rabbit had been proven right. Not for the first time, I later
discovered, nor for the last.
"Yeah." I said shortly. Being an ostrich wasn't easy, not for a city
homicide detective like me who had always until then enjoyed the
toughest of reputations.
"Drink your prescription. It helps," Phil said gesturing at my beer. I
took a beakful, then rocked my head back in satisfaction. At least it
still tasted good. So little 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 understood the underlying message he was trying to communicate.
An ostrich is a ridiculous species fora homicide detective to be, but a
white rabbit is a pretty silly body for the tough-minded Union guy Phil
had once been too. He understood my situation not from book learning,
but from real-world experience. And his methods reflected the
Phil rocked his ears at me yet again, and lifted "Hare Restorer" in his
forepaws to take a deep swallow of his own medicine. And the
conversation became relaxed and general while Phil sat back more like
his usual self to just watch and listen.
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 only sent me on SCAB-related cases since that one fowl day.
As if it gave me some kind of special insight.
"Ah," Brian replied. Then he continued. "They are starting to talk
serial killer, you know."
I remained silent, refused to be baited. Cops hate it when the media
starts talking that way. Usually, they are wrong. And when they are
right, it is worse still.
The raccoon man continued innocently, not realizing the shop talk
bothered me. "It was a hooker. This time the body was wrapped in a
plastic sheet and dumped out Highway 15. Not a speck of physical
evidence, the papers say."
Not quite true, but close enough. I decided to quash the talk. "Yeah,
you know how the papers are, though. Got to get more readers all the
time, so they sensationalize. In the real world, serial killers or even
just multiple murderers are amazingly rare. Heck, even I have only met a
couple. And I'm in the business. None of you have any cause to worry
about falling victim to a predator like that. Statistically, it's
There was a thick silence. I looked around me, wondering what had
happened, the realized everyone in earshot was staring at me. What had I
done, I wondered, blinking rapidly.
Then Phil spoke, in a high strained voice that was barely in control.
"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, and Phil bolted past me for the Men's
room with Jon in rapid pursuit. When the door had closed behind the big
buck, I looked around me in bafflement. "What?" I asked the crowd.
"What'd I do?"
"You mean you didn't know?" Derksen asked me, his insectile eyes giving
Coe sighed. "Look, we respect people's privacy here, but it's important
for all of us to know what might set our twitchy friend off. And this is
not exactly a secret anyway. Ken, Phil was the last attempted victim of
Butch the Blade."
"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 Phil get hurt?" I asked the little group. Derksen explained he had
been the attending physician, and that my rabbit friend had made a
remarkably quick physical recovery from serious injuries but suffered
deep mental scars that might never entirely heal. Phil had been forced
to spend weeks 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 anyway. 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 he get away?"
"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 continued again, presently. "You know a cop shot the Blade,
"Yeah. A policewoman I know."
"Really? Then ask her what condition Butch was in when she finished him
"What do you mean?"
Derksen broke in. "I was Butch's doctor too. He was DOA. Yeah, the cop
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
"But?" I encouraged him.
"But the other wounds would have been fatal within minutes anyway.
Detective Bronski, our cute bunny rabbit friend killed Butch the Blade.
Butch just hadn't realized he was dead yet when the officer took him
He was right. I didn't believe him. Until I looked at the solemn faces
all around. Then I knew it to be true.
Like I said, just when I think I get to know Phil another door opens...
My pager went off then, and I lowered my head to read the device
strapped to my ankle on the opposite side of my shield. Having no hands,
I wear the impedimenta of my profession on something closely resembling
a leg-band such as is used to track wild fowl. It was the office. A
quick trip to the phone booth confirmed my worst fears. Conducting a
murder investigation is a stimulating challenge, academically. It is a
great way to make a living. Except for the fact that you have to deal
with sordid death, face the bitter ugliness of unwashed corpses and look
into murderers' even more unbecoming minds. Like most cops, I both love
and hate The Job. And my least favorite part is investigating fresh
murder scenes. Because argue about semantics all you want, a person in
my profession knows without a doubt that death is one thing that is
I ran to the crime scene -- it was only a couple miles away, so the trip
wasn't any big strain. Usually they send a unit to pick me up and take
me wherever, as no one produces a vehicle package yet that allows me to
drive. I'm looking forward to the day one comes out, though, as the
jokes are getting old. The uniforms complain sometimes that they have
better things to do than watching the birdie...
At least the rain had let up, though I hit enough puddles to get
thoroughly wet again anyway. 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 said, smiling easily. Everyone on the force had chauffeured
me at one time or another, of course, but I couldn't possibly remember
all their names in return. After all, they had only one ostrich to keep
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 -- it happens a
lot more often than we professionals like to admit. But the way he came
right out and said it without a trace of shame or fear of being teased
told me that something really extraordinary awaited within. "I hate this
"This was a sick son of a bitch" the uniform agreed, and 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 seemed like it should
be familiar, but was not. The flashes from the police cameras led me
towards the back, where I stepped into the 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 gorey goop around her had erupted from within. And
the smell was overpowering here. It was acid and blood and something
But it was her eyes that held me, the eyes that said it all. They were
open. She'd been conscious to the very end. And the fear and agony of
such a terrible death was etched unmistakably there, written very
clearly 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. When I felt better, I got to
Forensics was there already, of course, taking temperatures and samples
and such. I knew the girl assigned. "Annette, what in God's name am I
"Leave God out of this one." The young girl's voice was thick with
revulsion as she turned on me, pain in her eyes. "He wasn't here. Can't
I sighed. It was getting to her. "Sorry, honey. But I need to know.
She looked away, realized it wasn't my fault either. "Sorry, Ken.
Really. Just give me a minute, OK? I want 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 more closely, more professionally. It
was an old trick, to distance yourself and be professional in places
like this. Let's see, victim approximately age 70, a black female. Five
feet four inches tall, wearing her favorite flowered bathrobe and
looking as if she's been staring into the deepest pits of Hell...
The bile was rising again when Annette saved me from a second trip to
the communal barfing wall. "It's alkaline" she said, looking 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."
Annette shook her pretty head in disgust. She couldn't be more than
twenty-five. Far too young for this kind of shit. "Drano. Liquid
"That's right. Look at the way the victim's bonds have cut into her
skin, almost to the bone. She was in 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. Until she 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
"Like I said, He wasn't here tonight." And with that, she left.
I was still going over the crime scene, trying to find something
bearing the remotest resemblance to a clue when my boss arrived. She
waved me aside and we stepped out back into the clean air of a warm
Summer night to talk. It was like being in a different world.
"What have you got, Ken?"
"Not a lot. No prints, no fibers, no evidence of forced entry, no
witnesses. Nada. Just a rough estimate on time of death."
"Shit." Lorena looked more depressed than usual.
"Every day we're finding a body. Each and every day. Killed in a new
and horrifying way. We get a message E-mailed in untraceably 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 and reinforced her point again. "Shit." Then she continued.
"Really, Ken? You've got nothing? Nothing at all?"
"Not a damned thing. Place is clean as a whistle. Murder weapon appears
to be a bottle of Drano."
She winced. "Yech."
"I remember reading about Drano killings once. 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."
"Yeah. Just one of those bits of happy information you pick up." Lorena
sighed again, and looked at the glow of the city on the still
low-hanging clouds. "Ken, it is becoming clear this really is a serial
"I called you in on this for a reason. We've had you doing SCAB works
for some time, you know."
My walls went up. "I've noticed."
Lorena sighed. "This wasn't because of your, ah, condition you know.
I cocked my head skeptically at her.
"Ken, SCAB cases are HARDER than the rest. Who else has to deal with a
killer who can change shape? Who can change appearance to frame someone
else? Who can even change their DNA, for heaven's sake? I've put you
there because you're the best I've got."
"Then why do my esteemed professional co-workers refer to me as the Pet
My boss frowned, hard. "I've heard that one too," she admitted. "I
rather hoped you had not."
I just stood silently. An ostrich. Who had once been human. And was
still a cop.
Presently, my boss began again. "Ken, there are those in this world who
consider SCABs second-class citizens. There's even more folks who would
swear that they treat SCABs as equals but simply cannot get beyond
appearances. I try not to be like that. When a SCAB is murdered, as
happens all too often, I send the best. Have you ever lacked support
from the office, Ken?"
"No. Can't say I have."
"Other detectives complain all the time about budget limitations and a
shortage of uniforms. You don't have to. This isn't an accident. And who
was in charge of SCAB-related murders before you?"
"Who was not affected by his bout with the Flu. And who is now an
Inspector. Does that tell you anything?"
Shit. Maybe she was actually telling me the truth. What a concept!
"Ken, we have a serial killer on our hands. There is not the slightest
evidence we have SCAB involvement, but I want you to handle the
investigation. Will you?"
I thought about the spectacle that still sat mostly intact, just thirty
feet away or so. An old lady, killed with unimaginable brutality. While
her grandkids smiled down from their gap-toothed pictures on the bedroom
walls. And three other dead humans, about which I had heard only rumors.
Dark rumors. There would be FBI folks trying to nose in, the media
hounding me constantly, and my naked head on the Goddamned front page
day after day. I hated that idea most of all.. Absently I clicked my
beak a few times.
No, it wasn't the front page that bothered me most. It was the guilt
that would inevitably come with a timetable like 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 it was going to come
together the first day. 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
Well, that's why a cop's pay is so good. Right? Yeah, right.
Then I said the only words a cop can in that kind of situation. "We'll
get the bastard."
There was little left to be learned at the crime scene, and both Lorena
and I had lots to do. She ran me back down to the Precinct, so that on
the way we could coordinate as there didn't appear to be a minute to
lose. 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 an empty office down the hall where I could
crash as needed. Unless this thing went on for a lot longer than any of
would be comfortable with I didn't intend to go home at all until it was
over. Fortunately, my condition made this easy, as the Aves-thing
exempted me from uniform regs and my feathers needed little to no care.
And 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 then. 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, to admit
to the public that we had a problem and reassure them that we were doing
our best. A whole organization had to be set up even before I got a
chance to study the files on the first three cases, putting various
people 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 after the media spread things around.
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 put a bright young college
boy named Danny Holmes in charge of searching the crime databases for
any connected open files.
All this before I really even knew what was going on! Sure it was
procedure, all pretty standard stuff really. But you would think a cop's
first priority would be to investigate crimes, not deal with
It was near dawn before I was able to get a few minutes to myself to
study the folders that had been sitting on my desk for hours. Even then,
I only got away from the crowd by pointing them all at Teresa, who
looked so thrilled to death as a result that I was sure payback was
going to be a bitch. But damnit, I HAD to do my job sometime...
Carefully, I squatted on my beanbag and grasped the top folder in my
beak. Then I pulled it aside, and opened it.
Why do they always put the big color 8x10's in the front?
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,
that's what you get when you tie someone to a hydraulic log splitter, I
I looked the paperwork over. 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 an old log splitter that could have
come from anywhere. Time of death estimated at 8:15.
Geez. The ram on a log splitter moves very slowly, but very inevitably.
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 in front
again. Here, there was very little blood, but once again the victim had
died horribly. With eyes open, face purple and still pleading for mercy
that would never 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 are not exactly
traceable, though the labs were still playing with things like
wood-grain patterns and sand-grain studies. But it was remarkable that
not one print, not one 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 put on top of her. Then, weight had been added until she was
just barely able to breathe. Asphyxiation soon followed, as the chest
muscles rapidly reached exhaustion. The body was found after an e-mail
tipoff in an unlocked garden shed owned by an elderly couple who were on
vacation in Tucson, and had been for weeks.
It was pointed out that the box had been child-sized, and that the lid
had been cut so that the killer could see the victim's face. And, that
there had been several half-blocks and quarter-blocks on hand so as to
get the weight just right...
I shuddered, trying to picture someone actually going to all that
trouble with such a horrid goal in mind. And then cutting the lid so he
Maureen Davis, the girl had been. The rest of the boxes on the form
were for the most part left blank. It's hard to have a rap sheet or make
deadly enemies when you are nine.
The third folder was pretty bad too. At least I was ready for the
picture up front.
This one had been dumped out on Highway 15 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 similar. The exact murder weapon had yet to be
determined, and the body 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.
Surgical sex-change, not one courtesy of the Flu. Voluntary. And our
killer had most likely never even known it, so it probably wasn't a
Again, the tipoff had been by e-mail, and time of death roughly 8:15.
The fourth folder taught me nothing new. Except that the victim's name
was Theodocia Potts, that she was 68 and had retired three days
previously, and that one of her kids had shown up early in the morning
to drop off twin girls for a day at Grandma's.
So far canvasses of the neighborhoods had turned up nothing. One of my
first steps had been to push even harder for potential witnesses. I put
an old veteran friend named Webster in charge of things, and gave him a
lot of personnel. The man was like a bulldog -- he would chase down
EVERYONE before it was over, 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 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.
In reading each folder, I had set aside the printouts of the e-mail
tipoff and left them unread. I wanted to read all four together. It is
my theory that the written word gives insight into the mind that wrote
it. But not this time. In fact, if it weren't for the unusual method of
notifying us and the 8:15 times of death, I'd have had great doubts as
to whether they were written by the same person.
For the Huang murder, the text simply read "Body. Williamsburg place.
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 is "Blakemoor".
For the hooker, our killer waxed eloquent. "Gentlemen -- You will find
the corpse of a lady of the evening approximately 150 feet into the
woods off Straker Road at the "City Maintenance Begins" sign. Proceed
North by North-NorthWest, or wait for a couple days and follow your
noses. 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, tonight's little communique. "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.
Hackers, they told me, have been able to send untraceable e-mails for
decades. By several different methods. Including some that could be
found in any of a thousand spots on the 'net, and used by virtually
But there was one thing notable 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 , I couldn't
see it. And serial killers are supposed to follow patterns. Says 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 wanted the murder sites
mapped out to try and find a geographic pattern, body orientations
checked against cardinal compass directions and everything. 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 ones? Then, I 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 list, my thoughts racing far
ahead of my limited typing ability. (Yes, I DO use the hunt-and-peck
method.) Until the sky pinkened, and a knock at the door interrupted my
typing. It was Teresa. "FBI on the phone for you."
"OK" I replied. "I'll take it in here." Teresa was being nice, even if
she was mad at me for dumping too many tasks on her. I hate fumbling
with phones and keyboards and such -- it reminds me too strongly of what I
am now and what I once was. Several co-workers honored my standing
request to help with incoming calls whenever possible. The speaker on
my desk crackled to life. "Detective Bronski" I answered simply.
"Detective Ken Bronski?"
"This is Agent Linda Williams, sir. How are you this morning?"
"Tired! I guess you've heard what we're dealing with here."
"Yes, sir. I have been fully briefed, and am looking forward... Sir,
you have a very odd voice."
I waggled my head, realized my caller couldn't see and probably
wouldn't understand if she did. "I suffer from SCABS, Agent Williams. I
consider myself to be lucky to be able to speak at all. The odd clicks
and slurred sounds I sometimes make are caused by my 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 in
"Ostrich." Her voice was flat. And dull.
"Yes. As you may be aware, this city has a very high proportion of
SCAB-afflicted citizens. I am a native, and had been a cop for many
years when this happened to me. Luckily for me, the Department has
learned to be flexible about these things, and to accommodate where
"I assure you, Agent Williams, that I do not bite. And that I am fully
housebroken too." This time I let the sarcasm show through.
"Yes, of course. Detective Bronski, the reason I called is to let you
know that there are no forensic psychologists free to help you. We, or
I mean they, rather, are all tied up and unavailable at this time. I am
"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 he will find my paperwork 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. At least until
another agent is available for reassignment."
This was incredible. She would let people die rather than work with me!
"Suppose I gave up the case, let a Norm work with you. Could you come
She thought about it a moment, then answered coldly. "Detective, are
you implying that I am refusing to work with a SCAB? That would be
grounds for disciplinary action, you know. And my paperwork will reflect
that my decision is based on fully defensible factors. Good day, sir!"
And with that, she hung up.
Well, so much for the FBI nosing in on the case. For a few short
moments I felt very much alone, and very much inhuman. Then the rage
came, and with it the certainty once again that I was where it counted
still a man. "Finch!" I yelled, emotion clearly revealed in the single
"Yes, Ken?" she asked me from the door, concern clearly showing on her
features. The anger was threatening to boil over in me now 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 way. But I
swallowed it down, and forced myself to stand still.
"The FBI will not be sending any help, Teresa. They told me everyone
was busy, once they knew an ostrich was involved."
Finch's face went hard. She understood, thank God.
"I don't have time to fight this right now. Agent Williams as much as
told me her supervisor would cover her. Which means a couple phone calls
won't get us anywhere. But I want this bitch barbequed. Think you can
handle the extra workload?"
Few people knew that Teresa Finch had once been Thomas Finch. She
considered that the change had done her good, but never, ever forgot
that she was a SCAB too. "Oh," she said with an evil little smile, "I
think I may be able to make a few minutes here and there."
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 got the Chair.
The first 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 than having flashes
fired repeatedly in my eyes, but if so I never want to experience them.
It was my goal to put a good image on the investigation, to make the
public 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 this was a serial killer. I could have ducked this by
claiming it hadn't been my call, or 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 led to a clamor of voices demanding to know the circumstances,
voices that hadn't wanted to hear my answer that some things needed to
It had gotten worse when I was asked if someone would die at 8:15 that
evening. If the killer chose to strike a that time, I explained, and
there was not a break in the case between now and then it was very
likely. This caused a wave of indignation that I had a great deal of
difficulty being heard over. A rodent morph of some kind near the back
of the room screeched his way over the crowd. "You mean we are to be
hunted like prey animals and there is NOTHING you can do about it?"
"Look," I said as calmly as possible. "All we have is a time. There is
no way to predict the place of the next murder, if there IS even 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 out.
But we cannot be EVERYWHERE, any more than you can be. Every effort is
being made to catch this killer, every lead being chased down by the
finest men available. But it will not happen right away. Not unless we
are very, very lucky."
It's a real trick to sober a roomful of reporters, but this did it. The
next question was more quiet. "Is the Department getting help on this?"
"Of course. The State Police are lending us manpower, as are several
"What about the FBI?"
Ouch! When in doubt, sidestep. "I have spoken personally to them, and I
can assure you that they are aware of our situation. One of my closest
associates is acting as a liaison with them. A Detective Finch."
Strangely, that seemed to satisfy them. I wondered just how much
politicians got away with using similar tactics while the questions
became more routine and eventually petered out into repetitions. At
which time I ended the conference, and got back to work.
All day long I raced against the clock, holding meetings, coordinating
strategies, talking to the Mayor, entertaining new theories, watching my
ugly mug on the hourly news briefs. But the clock won. And it's 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
onlookers. Neighbors checked in with each other to make sure they were
all right, even if they hadn't spoken in years. And things became
strangely silent as the appointed hour came...
..and passed, as it had on so many other Summer evenings. Somewhere
nearby, everyone knew, an innocent human life had most likely ended,
kicking and screaming against who knew what evil inventiveness. But who,
and where? Someone they knew personally perhaps, someplace they'd often
been? Eventually things returned nearly to normal, but with an
undercurrent of darkness and fear that was almost palpable in the warm
twilight. And I went to sleep.
How could I sleep at a time like that? Try staying up 36 hours working
against a deadly level of stress sometime, then you won't ask such silly
questions. All that could be done for the day had been done. There was
nothing to do but await an e-mail. And I had to rest sometime, after
all. Didn't I? As soon as my head found it's special place under my
wing, I passed out. I don't even recall drawing my leg up, it was so
Our killer was considerate this time, and allowed me six blessed hours
of rest. His message arrived at 5:30 AM.
You may have a career ahead of you in TV. The Department should be
proud. Never forget however that I am more famous than you.
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 was first at the large abandoned
warehouse by virtue of having once again eschewed wheels for the fleet
feet given me by the Martian Flu. It did me little good though, as the
front door was both most stoutly locked and immune to my hardest kicks.
Impotently I circled the place trying to find another way in and caught
a clear whiff of burned flesh. No one answered my calls, nor did I
expected them to be answered. The smell was soon overpowering.
It is terrible to admit, but I was trembling with eagerness while the
door was dealt with by the first uniforms to arrive. This is one of the
contradictions that makes life so hard for us cops. One the one hand, we
are as repelled as the rest of the human race by torture and death. Yet
at the same time, it is what we live for. I NEEDED to look the crime
scene over, was champing at the bit in fact to do my job. And so it was
in that spirit that I burst in on the most horrible thing I have ever
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. Slowly.
The crime scene was so horrid it was incredibly fascinating. Walruses
are marine creatures, and rarely suffer from burns like terrestrial
mammals. But this one had. Our killer had tied the victim into an iron
chair, and then taken a blowtorch to him. While huge blisters could be
found almost everywhere on the corpse, lingering attention had been paid
to the face, hands, feet, and crotch. It looked like all but the face
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 extinguished themselves eventually.
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 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.
Good Lord. What 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, I
had the absurd urge to whistle as I took mental notes. It's no wonder
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 in the place. He'd even taken the blowtorch with
him. 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
really gave it away. Our killer knew right where to look, knew exactly
how it was 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.
So I would assume he was exactly that. And once I did, a couple things
clicked into place right away. "The Department should be proud" our guy
had written just last night, and it seemed so normal to me I hadn't
thought about it. But referring to the "The Department" is cop-speak.
And the venues where the bodies were found had been so flawlessly
chosen, the deaths so mutually inconsistent...
What had I just thought a few moments ago? That it is no wonder cops go
crazy? Sometimes my subconscious is 'way out ahead of my conscious mind.
"Pete!" I called cheerfully to the cop who had been assigned as my
helper. "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 my lighthearted posture and happy tone...
When it rains it pours. I called a meeting right away of my key people
to bounce my hypothesis off of them. Most agreed right away, others were
skeptical but could find no flaw in my reasoning. Absolutely nothing of
significance was turning up, and this in itself HAD to be more than a
coincidence. I was proud to have contributed this myself, it made me
feel like the team leader I was supposed to be. And it helped the
Department's confidence immensely to finally have the beginnings of
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.
"Sorry, sir! My pager battery went dead, and..."
"Son, this is a murder investigation, not a damn college class picnic.
You are supposed to be in touch at all times. Period." I had been under
pressure, and I'm afraid it showed a bit.
The kid flinched like he's been hit. "Yes, sir. I know, sir..."
"Every day, Son. Every day someone's dying. Smell anything on my
feathers? Take a good whiff, now."
"Sniff, son." He did, and visibly paled. Danny knew the odor.
"That's our latest victim, talking to you from the grave. Explain to
him about your pager."
The young man gulped visibly, 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 hired and had
high hopes for his future. But you don't miss meetings on this kind of
case, no matter the hour. Not when you have a role to play, however
So I relented. "Go on back to work. 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 turned impatiently on my "heel". "Yes, Danny?" If he thought I was
going to apologize or something...
He gulped again, and I wondered if I'd ever looked so young. "Sir, I've
found a complete series of identical killings. They were buried pretty
deep. Most recent one is over thirty years ago."
There is nothing in the world that looks so ridiculous as an ostrich
standing in a hallway with his beak hanging open. Nonetheless, that is
exactly what I did for what felt like forever. Helpfully Holmes filled
the silence. "They're in the same chronological order" he said with
boyish eagerness, "and all geographically in a tight area. New York
City, in fact." With that he smiled, extended a bunch of files
hopefully, and generally looked like a puppy that needs petting.
So I did. "Good work, son! Let's take a look at these. Right now." And
with that I headed back into our War Room, and got to work.
The research had been done beautifully. Each killing was indeed a close
analog, and the order was correct. Even the body orientations were
right. Looking at the printouts of old photos gave me a serious case of
deja vu all over again. It was clear that there must be a link.
But what? Half the killers had been caught and found guilty, some very
convincingly. Others had remained unsolved technically, but been
ascribed to organized crime or a killer convicted of other slayings and
not charged with this particular one because he was 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 said, using (and making official, in a sense) a nickname
I'd heard applied to my compatriot. Nicknames were never official until
you earned them from an old-timer. "I want you to do something for me.
Run these back through, and get a full list of the officers that
investigated each murder. Not just the detective in charge, but a
complete list. Then cross-reference them. I'll buy you a coffee if there
isn't just one name attached to all of them."
His eyes got wide as he took in the implications. Having missed the
meeting, he hadn't heard my homicide detective hypothesis. "Wow," he
"But, sir, there's just one thing." He looked up at me, all
"What's that, son?"
"The coffee machine is still busted from the last time you tried to use
it. And I like soda pop better anyway." He never even cracked a smile,
"OK, soda pop then. Now get to work, damnit!" I demanded in mock anger,
flapping my wings wildly.
He laughed as he left. Looked like the kid might make a cop after all.
The newspaper I found on my desk didn't improve my mood any. 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
it had gotten worse. But the front page was far from the most painful.
Someone, probably Finch, had tagged a page in the editorial section for
me to read. Grumbling, I carefully spread the paper out, 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 knew
Phil had the same problem.
And there it was, in all it's majesty. The cartoon that would haunt me
the rest of my life, that would be brought up endlessly by friends and
enemies alike, that I might as well just frame and hang above my desk.
Or even around my skinny neck. From a noose.
For half the page was taken up by a drawing of an ostrich with it's
head below ground. The caption read "How many murders does it take to
get the Police Department's head out of the sand?" It would have been
funny as Hell 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 it would be
penciled in the next day. The Press LOVES to keep score on us cops...
Strangely though, they took it easy on me at the Press conference later
that morning. All the questions were focussing on why the FBI had not
sent an agent to help me out. "Inside Sources", it seemed, were saying
that this was because I was a SCAB. Did I have reason to think 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 that I understood
that her paperwork was more of a factor than my SCABS 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 said, perhaps I had
misunderstood but that was the impression I had been left with...
The rest of the conference passed in a sort of warm glow. Good old
When it was over, Dan-Man was waiting for me in the office. He had my
results, and I did not owe him a soda pop. But I still had a problem. A
Detective Henry Schwartzkopf had indeed been the sole party involved in
the investigation of all the lookalike murders we had turned up. But he
had died in the very early days of the initial Flu outbreak. Danny had a
copy of his death certificate, in fact. With an important detail
illuminated in highlighter pen.
Time of death was 8:15 PM. This was just plain getting weirder and
weirder. Talk about your Dead End leads...
"Hell!" I said. Then after a little pause, "Damnation!" Then
inspiration hit. "Hey, Dan-Man?"
"Run me another search, will you? 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. Smart-ass...
"I don't suppose..."
He flipped it open for me. Schwartzkopf had worked the usual mix of
cases, mostly routine knifings, clubbings and shootings easily solved
with the occasional real standout thrown in. Dan had highlighted seven
such standouts for me, and I had to say I agreed with his judgement.
Five of them had been repeated, in chronological order. The sixth was
bad enough, but the seventh I gasped at.
"He couldn't!" I said, tracing that last awful crime with my wingtip.
And Dan-Man just shrugged.
"Maybe it would be safest if we catch him on number six, then," he
suggested. "This afternoon."
Good plan. If we could pull it off!
Spectacular Murder Number Six was a doozy in it's own right. In
Schwartzkopf's day it had been a mob revenge killing. In fact, it had
been revenge for the blowtorch killing, our Number Five. Both had been
solved by Schwartzkopf, and the killers duly executed. This time, there
appeared to be no revenge motive. Just sick sadism.
In the original Number Six, the victim had been tied into a chair on
the edge of a balcony. Two legs of the chair had apparently been hanging
over the void, according to the later testimony, while the victim was
allowed to hold a wire rope to support himself. Problem was, the wire
was covered with loose ends and burrs, and would flay unprotected hands
The victim was given no protection. As the skin was torn from his hands
the resulting slippery blood made it necessary to grip harder and
Well, until. The original victim actually tore three of his own fingers
off in the razory snags before taking the fall. A pretty bad way to go,
I thought. But for the first time 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 to do the dirty deed for the terror
factor. I put men with binoculars on every rooftop in the City, and
augmented them with flying volunteers from the Avian SCAB Society. (I
had not joined them 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
manned as well, each containing at least one armed cop for quick
response. We wouldn't have much time, possibly, to save the victim after
the initial sighting and every second counted. By 7:30, all the tall
buildings in town were under surveillance and we were holding our
At 8:00, we were still holding it. Something was badly wrong.
Then there came an inarticulate squawk on the radio. It got my full
attention. "That was urgent!" I said to the room in general.
"SQUAAAAAWK!!!" said the radio again, with even more emotion.
"Someone's airborne in fullmorph!" I thought aloud. "They can't report
"Use the GPS!" cried Finch to the volunteer from the Avian society at
our headquarters. The Avian society provided Global Positioning System
relays to their Search and Rescue fliers. Nodding frantically the
emu-morph hit a couple keys, and a winged symbol lit up on the map above
Right above the river bluffs. One of the biggest clear drops in town.
And we had missed it in our haste. Only a thoughtful birdie-type,
probably violating orders, had stood between us and someone dying.
I didn't have to say a word. Finch was on the master frequency
instantly, while Pete and I made tracks for the door. It was agony to
wait for the uniform to catch up at the unit, but this one was just too
far to run. I bounced in place as he opened my door, slammed it behind
me, and ran to his side for the code three run to the outskirts of town.
We followed most of it by radio. The first copter to the scene was the
tiny traffic bird from Channel Six, able to carry only a single uniform.
She called in that there was an apparent victim dangling over the river,
with a suspect standing over her. A minute or less passed, then my
comrade in blue radioed again that the perp had simply disappeared. She
sounded as stunned as I felt, and frightened to boot. No one likes to go
in alone into a dangerous situation, and even more is this true when the
perp seems to just vanish. But there was clearly no choice here, and
Officer Sandbourne did the Department proud. Without regard to her own
safety in a clearly dangerous situation, as the citation later stated,
Officer Sandbourne proceeded immediately to the intended victim and
without waiting for backup leaned outward over a sheer drop with her
back to a known danger. Her actions undoubtedly saved the life of the
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 all over and
some were having to fly out to make room for new arrivals. Dan-Man, whom
I had given the job of airborne coordinator to as a reward over many
objections, had efficiently coordinated a textbook search, and for once
I could find no flaw in the textbook. The victim had provided a
description of an ordinary-looking 5' 10" fat white male, age 35 or so,
brown and brown. But results were just not forthcoming within a
reasonable time, despite more helicopter lifts than the 82nd Airborne
could pull off in a single evening. All we had done was seriously annoy
four fat but clearly innocent white men with brown hair and eyes by the
time darkness was approaching
I pace when nervous, and the heat was forcing me to use my wings to fan
air over my non-sweating body. It's quite a sight, usually, but it was
nothing to what Danny was doing when I looked his way just as the Sun
began to dip over the horizon.
He was staring at a rock not far from where the chair had hung, with a
puzzled frown on his face.
I've seen that look before, on far worse detectives than my young
friend was shaping up to be. "What?" I asked.
"Hmm." he said, still puzzling. "There's something wrong here."
I looked more closely, lowering my head close to the ground and
examining the perfectly ordinary rock first with one eye, then the
other. "Like what, son?"
"Well," he said, "I was a Geology major before I took up law
enforcement. This rock just doesn't fit."
"It looks fine to me. Like part of this, uh..."
"But it doesn't fit. The details are wrong."
"Details?" I examined the rock again closely, but still didn't
"Look at these wavy lines. They are called ripple marks. See how
further up the outcropping they are all slanted to one side?"
"Well, ripple marks are important and geologists study them. You can
use these waves to tell which way the wind was blowing or the current
flowing when the marks were formed. This is universal, and always
consistent. On the rest of the rocks here, the waves are all tilted in
one direction. But on this stone they are symmetrical."
"Hmm. And this is important how?"
"This rock looks like it fits here, but it doesn't. Look, there's more.
How good are your eyes?"
"Better than yours."
"Then look closely at the sand grains in the ripples. On the "normal"
rocks all around, the grains are biggest at the bottoms of the ripples,
and smallest at the top. But on this one, all the sand grains are the
same size. And if you'll look even closer, you'll find that the grains
are all the same color and size everywhere in the rock. That happens
sometimes in nature, sure. But not in these other 'country' rocks all
"This rock isn't real. It's a realistic fake, but a fake nonetheless."
I understood then, understood 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
flowed, stood up, and cracked the kid over the head with a fist that was
still brutal stone. Then the inanimorph met my eyes and spoke.
"Smart-Ass kid!" he declared in a distinct Brooklyn accent. And with
that said, our serial killer headed for the woods at a surprising speed.
I chased him, of course. Cops instinctively do that to bad guys -- it's
kinda in the job description. Especially when they have just seriously
hurt, maybe even killed a brother cop doing his duty. Even when it is a
very bad idea, we tend to chase running bad guys.
In this case it was indeed a very bad idea. I shouted to draw attention
to Dan, who was bleeding copiously from the forehead and looking
otherwise much like a sleeping child. And then I made tracks.
By God, I closed the distance too! The perp looked repeatedly over his
shoulder, and accelerated again and again by lengthening his legs in the
act of running. It was strange to look at, the partial darkness hiding
the flowing but not the increase in height. My legs were not alterable,
but when determined I could hold 40 MPH for a pretty fair distance, and
running to stay in shape was my only really practical pastime, besides
hanging around the Pig. The inanimorph probably only needed a few
seconds out of my sight to disappear again, this time armed with a
geology lecture to help him blend in better. But he couldn't get enough
lead to disappear, nor could he change enough on the run by all
appearances to get clean away. Clearly, he had not counted on my turn of
People often forget that ostriches are quite abundant in the wild. This
is because we have hidden talents.
We were going steadily downhill, and as we descended the pine forest
began to give way to broadleaf underbrush. I strained to close further
as visibility dropped, and dropped my head 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. Until the inevitable happened, and he was swept of his
It was just as well, as my heart was about to burst. I stood over the
moaning suspect and gasped out the formal sentences as best my heaving
chest could manage. "You... Areunder... Arrest. You... Havetheright...
But I got no further, for suddenly the reclining figure shimmered and
changed once again. This time, he was a lion. A big lion. Rolling to his
feet, the huge maned cat roared in defiance. Somehow, I didn't think he
intended to come peacefully.
Now, I have not mentioned this before, but if you think about it it's
pretty obvious that I cannot use a gun. This was the subject of much
discussion when I first sought my job back after the featherduster
treatment, but eventually it was ruled that I was able to fight and flee
well enough to continue on as a detective. Had I been a street cop, the
ruling would have gone the other way. And maybe it should have in my
case. But until that moment I had never even missed my sidearm.
When it came time to miss it, though, I missed it very badly. In the
wild, lions kill a lot of ostriches. And I was in no shape to run
further, while my opponent seemed to have purged his fatigue poisons as
part of the shift.
But then, we bird-types kill a few lions from time to time too. And I
was far more adapted to my form than my opponent was to his. He had been
a lion for seconds, I had been an ostrich for years. Carefully, I let
the instincts come forward. My wings extended unconsciously for balance,
and the world shrank to a view of only the lion as he slunk forward to
spring. Everything else in the universe was shut out except the
threatening predator. If I tried to run I was dead, so I kept the
distance open by taking small mincing steps that did not shift too
greatly my center of balance.
Any ostrich farmer in the world would have taken one look at my posture
and the cock of my head, and kept a respectful distance until I was in a
better mood. But this lion did not know anything about the fowl blow in
store for him.
When he leapt, my kick was a thing of beauty and grace. The impact was
solid, foot to skull, and landed with a resounding "thunk!" Instantly I
rebalanced for another display of agility and strength from my unlikely
body, and the second dose proved needful. This blow left my opponent
unconscious, and me unscratched. Leaning over him and listening to
rapidly approaching friendly voices I began again, this time enunciating
clearly and emphatically. "You are under arrest. You have the right...."
But the shapeshifter wasn't done. Not by a long shot. He recovered from
my two fell blows almost immediately, and shifted to a semi-human shape.
"Hey!" he said, "Aintcha got no respect for the laws of nature?"
"Look who's talking!" I replied, setting up for another kick if needed.
"Lie on your stomach and spread your arms and legs. Now."
"Screw you!" was the reply, and I kicked out once again without
hesitation. Aiming for the throat -- this was no game.
And the kick hit home, but my opponent didn't fold. Instead, agony
flowed up my leg as my foot impacted unyielding stone. The uncanny shock
traveled the length of my body -- every muscle in my physique went into
powering a leg-blow, and thus every muscle seemed to have been injured
as a result of my poor judgement in kicking an inanimorph without having
studied the matter thoroughly. I dropped instantly, and curled into a
little ball of pain.
Eventually, after an eternity, I opened my eyes. The killer, the man
who had poured Drano down an innocent throat and slowly suffocated a
little girl, looked down almost gently at me with eyes that sat redly in
sandstone sockets. "It's not broken. I checked. And you ain't my
scheduled kill. I think I'll take the rest of the night off. See ya,
copper!" And with that, he rippled and flowed once again. When it was
over, he was my twin all the way down to the badge and pager on the
banded leg. I shouted, and heard responses. But no one stopped the
doppelganger as he trotted off into the gloomy woods.
The next thing I remember is the hospital. The beeps of electronic
equipment came through first, followed by a general awareness of pain. I
moved my head, and regretted it instantly as sparks of white agony
unfolded in my neck. EVERYTHING hurt, I realized, and with that clue the
whole affair 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 still night. And I was in a hospital suite.
Carefully I shifted position again, and realized that I could not use
my right leg. Further exploration revealed that it was in a brace, or
"soft cast". Great. Just great. But there was good news as well.
Shifting about eased my initial pain considerably -- it had been as much
the result of sleeping in an odd position as from my ill-advised third
kick. Presently I raised my head, and looked this way and that until
finding the "call" button. Which I pecked at until it lit up.
Dr. Derksen answered the call, flanked by Finch and my boss. Both women
were welcome sights, but Derksen was the luckiest break of all. I had
made him my doctor-of-choice only a few weeks back, and it was good
fortune that the paperwork had already gone through. His SCAB expertise
would be most welcome.
But before anyone would talk about the case or Dan-Man's condition they
insisted on talking about me. I assured Bryan that could feel my leg
just fine, and listened while he told me I was to stay off it as much as
possible for three weeks due to massive contusions and strained
ligaments. I had been very fortunate not to break one of my two primary
limbs, my physician explained sternly, and needed to take it easy. Since
there was no way I could use crutches, sitting or lying down was 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 my turn. First I asked how Danny was doing, only to
discover he was in a deep coma and that his chances were not good. I was
quiet for a moment at the disturbing news, but since there was nothing I
could do about the situation except mouth platitudes that, however
heartfelt, would do no good I went ahead and distracted myself by making
my own verbal report. Shifting about to face Lorena, I described what
had happened, up to and including my last ill-advised blow. She frowned
deeply as I went through the suspect's getaway using my identity, but
withheld comment until I was completely finished. "This explains much"
she said finally.
Damn straight it did! "Yep. It covers why there were no fingerprints,
no fibers, no anything. This guy actually left us more than he had to!
He could have BECOME the log-splitter, for example, then made his
getaway. I suspect he only left the clues required to make the bodies
look like the ones in Schwartzkopf's old files."
I paused for a moment. "That's what gets me, you know. How is this guy
connected to Schwartzkopf?"
There was silence, then Derksen's voder clicked to life once again. "I
may perhaps be able to help with that one."
"Good!" I replied, twisting my neck back to face him without overly
disturbing my sore body. "I was kinda hoping you might have some
"Hmm." Derksen was truly gifted with that voder. I had never heard that
sound done so convincingly on one. "You say this suspect took on both
animate and inanimate forms. Right?"
"Then you must understand that there is almost no parallel to this
being. Inanimorphs are very, very rare, but not unknown. For one also to
be able to change to living forms is virtually unheard of.."
Derksen sighed with his voder this time, again very convincingly.
"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 main reason you passed out today -- the shock alone shouldn't
have done it. I want you to eat the meal I send up while you are
waiting. All of it -- you've been off your feed for days, and a bird
cannot afford to miss so many meals. Forgive me, but I would rather be
elsewhere while you catch up."
"Sure!" I said, a bit taken aback. Not much an ostrich does ought to be
able to bother a living cockroach, or so I had figured. But when Derksen
had left and the food arrived, I understood. The main course was
crickets, with a dead lizard and some dates for taste. A handful of
well-chosen crop stones provided a functional garnish. The ladies
excused themselves as well while I happily crunched away at my favorite
delicacy and swallowed stones.
Did Derksen know that looking at him invariably made me hungry?
At any rate, dinner/breakfast, whatever it is you eat at 4AM was
superb. And made me feel a lot better. I had just scarfed my
lizard-dessert when Posti and Derksen returned with the ladies. I think
Dr. Stein caught a flash of the tail as the little scaly thing went
down, but he was too polite to speak up. "Doctor," I greeted him
formally, nodding. "How are you tonight?"
"Well enough. How's the leg?" Dr. Stein had clearly been at home and
sound asleep when he had been called in. I didn't envy a doctor's life.
My hours were bad enough.
"I'll live. Doc, we're on a tight schedule here. If you'll excuse me,
I'll get right down to business. I guess you know we have an inanimorph
as lead suspect in the recent killings?"
"Yes. Your comrades here have filled me in."
"What can you tell me about what we're up against here?"
My friend's long horse-face looked pained. "Both a lot more than you
want to know, and a lot less. Actually, 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. Some things you've just got to see for yourself. I know you
don't have minutes to spare, but truly you need to give me a couple
hours of your time here."
I trusted Posti implicitly. If he said it was worth my time, it most
likely was. Dr. Derksen waved in a nurse with a special wheelchair for
me, and we were off.
It was clear right away that this was not going to be a nice
experience. We went deep into the bowels of the mammoth hospital, and
began our tour in the morgue. Or what certainly looked like the morgue.
About a dozen stiffs were lying on racks along each side of a central
aisle, each with a sheet over them. Derksen and Stein exchanged looks,
and Derksen gave the day's first lecture.
"Ken, Lorena, Teresa, you are all cops. Tell me what is wrong here,
My boss spoke first. "It's warm in here. Morgues are chilled. And it
I sniffed the air delicately. She was right.
"Care to examine a body?" asked the giant cockroach. "You've nothing to
fear. There's nothing really ugly in this room. Physically, at least."
I took the bait. Using the little joystick, I wheeled my chair
alongside the nearest bed and reached up to take the sheet in my beak.
But I didn't even get that far before seeing something wrong. "There's
dust all over this sheet."
"Is there?" Stein asked from the back of the room. "I'll have to get on
housekeeping about that. These are patients, and entitled to be treated
I thought about it a minute. Corpse. Warm room. No stink. Dust. "My
God!" I exclaimed. Are you trying to tell me these people are not
"No," Derksen replied, his voice a bit flat and strained. "They're
deader than doornails. All of them. But the bodies will not decompose."
This was getting really weird, really fast. I cocked my head
Stein took up the lecture. "Of course just because they are dead
doesn't mean that they aren't alive."
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. Really I do. But until
you see this, it's hard to get a grasp on what an inanimorph really is."
It was my turn to get impatient. "Posti, help me out here. I just don't
"OK," he said. "Look at it this way. From what I've been told, you
encountered an inanimorph today that appeared to all intents and
purposes to be a rock. Is that correct?"
"Right. Was it breathing?"
"Of course not."
"Then was it dead?"
I thought about it, and then something horrible began ringing alarm
bells in the back of my brain. "You mean an inanimorph..."
"Is clinically dead. Yep."
"Oh my God!" Teresa contributed, with great sincerity.
Derksen took back over. "What you see here are SCABS victims that are
inanimorphs. Or at least we think they are. The only way to know they
are not corpses is that they do not rot. Their heartbeats and
respirations are zero, and their brainwaves flat as pancakes. Much like
a 'living' inanimorph. Unless he troubles himself to breathe in order to
keep up appearances."
The cockroach shifted position uncomfortably, turned to the ladies.
"You know," he said, it's interesting that a mutual friend of Ken and
Bob and I was talking about the philosophy of SCABS just the other
night. He was speculating on where SCABS really comes from, what it's
role is in the universe 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
"Who knows?" Stein broke in. "They're corpses, most ways. I've read
that one moved once, in a hospital in Kansas City. But it could have
been a practical joke set up by an intern. In truth, we don't understand
what the precise differences are between these patients and active
inanimorphs like your killer."
Good Lord. I edged my wheelchair to the foot of one of the beds,
lifted the chart. The last date on it was 23 years previous. Replacing,
it, I shivered. This could go on literally forever...
"So," Lorena interjected into the sudden silence. "You are saying that
an inanimorph is neither alive nor dead, but something else entirely."
"Precisely. And as a result, they experience reality in far different
ways than you and I."
That got my attention. I was trying to get inside an inanimorph's head,
and needed all the insight I could. "Could you elaborate on that
Stein and Derksen looked at each other again, and this time the
horse-man fielded the question. "Neither of us are psychologists, but it
wouldn't do you any good to get one because NO ONE comprehends the
psychology of an inanimorph. For example, if I understand right your
rock today overheard a conversation, right?"
"Right," I replied.
"Exactly how did it do that?"
I thought about it, got puzzled.
Stein correctly interpreted the new tilt of my head. "You DO
understand, I see. No ears. No thoughts. No brain to think with. Yet it
understood. He understood, and acted upon his understanding."
Dr. Derksen took back over. "It's the most frustrating thing in the
world for a researcher. Many inanimorphs are wonderful people, who want
desperately to explain what they experience and how they perceive
things. 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 seeing by sonar. But even then there is common ground, there are
other senses we share the experience of for comparison. But an
inanimorph has gone far beyond all of this. Have him morph into a table,
and he can still listen to conversations. Have him turn into a rock, and
when he returns he will comment on how nice the sunset was. But ask him
to explain how he experienced these things, how he knew about them, and
words simply break down. There literally is no way to explain what a
normal person cannot imagine."
There was a pause, which I filled. "Our suspect told me my leg was
unbroken, that he had checked. How did he do that?"
"Who knows?" replied Stein. "They try to explain, and invariably fail.
But a couple of the most gifted surgeons in the world are inanimorphs.
And they don't use x-rays or ultrasound or MRI's. They just....
Teresa had the next question. "Doctors, let me get something clear.
When a SCAB changes form, the change almost always causes psychological
problems. For example, when a male becomes a female..." her voice caught
a bit, but bravely she continued on. "When a male becomes a female,
there are certain, ah, adjustments to be made. The world looks at you
differently, and pretty soon as a result you look differently at the
world. And your worldview is a basic part of who and what you are.
Change the worldview, and you change the person. With me so far?"
We all nodded.
"OK, then. A change in species, if heavily morphed, is usually even
harder to deal with than a sex change, right?"
This was well known. 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, most ways.
"Then, what happens when your worldview gets so changed that you cannot
even explain it anymore to normal beings? To have senses so different
that you cannot even describe them? To not even really be alive
We were all silent for a bit, wrapped in our private musings. W have
all seen inanimorphs perform on TV, of course, and watched a few of the
endless sitcoms based on the presence of an inanimorph. But my sense of
wonder and laughter seemed so shallow now. I thought I had seen and
understood. 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 is real?
If a person becomes so changed by SCABS that their view of things
literally cannot be communicated, do they then by definition live in a
different reality? And if so, does their morality change? Does the
concept of morality have any absolute meaning, if the reality it is part
of is just a subjective thing?
This 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. Literally,
I shook my head to clear it of the endlessly dancing chains of questions
without answers, and focussed on the business at hand.
"Another thing I need to ask is this. Our guy turned into both living
and unliving forms. I gather this is unusual?"
Stein fielded this one. "Exceedingly. I'd love to study this case."
"Can you give us any insights?"
"Well.... Without real research, 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 thought things through for a moment, then
he continued. "Detective, do you know that the lion-form you fought was
"It roared and leapt, all right!"
"But was it alive? Could it have been an animated corpse?"
I pondered a moment. "I suppose. I managed to stun it with a couple
kicks. Hard to do that to a corpse."
Stein rocked his head consideringly from side to side. "Hmm. There is
that. We just don't have enough data, I suppose. But my guess is that
if you had looked closely you would have found your lion was not
breathing. It is easier to accept that than to go running off into new
territory with an inanimorph that is also a polymorph. After all I've
seen in these four walls, though, I could not rule out the possibility."
"Yeah," I agreed. "Is there anything else you can think of we need to
know, any other questions you think we ought to have asked but didn't?"
Derksen spoke up without hesitation. "You missed the biggest one of
"Which is...." prompted Lorena.
"How dangerous is an inanimorph?" the cockroach replied promptly.
"OK, I'll bite. How dangerous is an inanimorph?" 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 in his posture. "The most dangerous things
that have ever walked the Earth. Probably the most dangerous beings that
will ever exist in the entire universe."
There was silence in the room for a moment, until I broke it. "That,
Doctor, is a VERY sweeping statement."
"It was meant to be," Bryan replied sincerely. "You really haven't
thought this through, have you?"
"I don't understand what you're getting at, if that's what you mean."
Posti took over. "Bryan is absolutely right, you know. There are
essentially no limits to what an inanimorph can do. They can vary their
body's rest mass, energy, composition, and velocity. While most
inanimorphs have definite limitations, a few do not seem to have any at
"In other words," I said slowly, trying to get a handle on what the
medical types were trying to communicate, "Instead of turning into a
lion, the perp could have turned into a speeding bullet aimed at my
Posti snorted. "That's the LEAST of what he could have done. You are
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 25 megaton
fusion device in a major city is not an easy thing for the human race to
"This is classified, people. I never said a word here. But you know 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
"Now it just so happens that the US Embassy there, along with several
other Western embassies, received a warning three days before the event.
It gave a detailed description of where the exact location of the bomb
was to be, along with a long rambling denunciation of the Islamic
government there and it's failings in living up to Allah's wishes as
expressed personally to the author. This note was forwarded to Iranian
officials, all very hush-hush, and I am told that the entire area where
the bomb was hidden was absolutely swarming with soldiers right up to
the instant of detonation."
"The US government takes an interest in ANY event of nuclear terrorism,
of course, and I have no idea how much effort was put out by Washington
in trying to find out exactly what happened. But I do know that the
author of the warning note was found to be an inanimorph, and that tests
were done that proved he could have made himself into the bomb just
"A person can become an H-bomb?" Teresa demanded. "That's ridiculous!"
"How so?" asked the horse-man. "Is it any less a miracle when a
relatively common shapeshift happens? Is an H-bomb any more complex than
a living, breathing body?"
"But where does 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. And the same place it flows back to when
someone morphs 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,
Posti sighed, then went on. "One of the things that could never be
settled was if the terrorist could have possibly survived the explosion.
I mean, an inanimorph is dead anyway, right? 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, waiting for Allah to tell him to blow up
another city. And there is little we 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.
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
cares 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 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 since childhood, 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 around a tiny little hole in the floor. There was another
hole in the floor below, 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 gravitic center of the
Earth-Moon system, picking up a few atoms of mass and slowing just a bit
on each pass. Others speculate that he evaporated almost immediately in
a burst of radiation. Black holes are a pretty 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 silently 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..."
Derksen had been all too right. We hadn't thought it through. Looking
back, it appalled me that I had tried to subdue such a creature with a
kick, tried to arrest him and bring him to justice.
But eventually I had to find a way to bring him in. I was a cop, after
all. It was my job.
We talked for awhile longer, establishing that no jail cell had ever
been built to hold any but the weakest inanimorphs, that none had ever
been taken anywhere against their will as far as the doctors knew, and
that they thought I didn't stand a Chinaman's chance of closing this
case successfully. I thanked them, and asked one last question on the
"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?"
"Well, no one's ever seen our hydrogen bomb or the black hole again.
Does that qualify? I mean, how would you know for sure that they are
gone, never to return?"
I nodded my thanks. Perhaps you could never be absolutely sure. I'd
seen a lot of death, though, and it seemed pretty final to me.
But then, I wasn't an inanimorph.
We stopped in to see Dan, who looked rather pathetic plugged into every
medical device known to Mankind. Then we headed back to the office. The
ride was very quiet.
"You know," I said, painfully getting out of the car as Finch held the
door, "Things aren't as bad as they sound. We HAVE saved one victim's
life, you know."
"True," admitted Lorena.
"And, we have a detectable pattern in the crimes now. We can predict
this guy, even if we cannot understand him."
"Sure, within limits," Teresa contributed as she got my new wheelchair
out of the trunk and set it up for me. I stood delicately on one foot
waiting. "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 successfully carrying it out?"
"Or maybe he will repeat number six, having been unsuccessful this
time," Lorena added. She looked very bedraggled and depressed as we
started across the police garage. Defeated.
"Uhm," I grunted around the joystick. It is annoying not to be able to
manipulate things and speak at the same time. But far from the worst I
put up with. Thus it was that we were going "up" in the elevator before
I could reply. "I agree that he may repeat number six, and we ought to
reserve all the choppers again just in case. However, in my opinion we
should study 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 quarreled with my plans. They were too depressed. And so
eventually we gathered in my office and got out the fattest folder of
all, that of the great New York City Plague Incident.
It all went down just weeks before the infamous NASA probe bearing the
gift of the Flu came home. A Macao-based Freedom Fighter group tried to
blackmail the UN into adopting an anti-Chinese human rights resolution
with 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. The extortionist's claims
proved true. 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 headed the branch of the investigation
that located the bastards, setting up the raid and earning himself a
nice commendation in the process. It was the pinnacle of his career.
And, present at the scene, he had been infected. It was while still
hospitalized for this illness that he contracted the Flu that killed
If indeed it had killed him. A truly disturbing thought crossed my
Inanimorphism was a rare phenomenon. And the early days of the Flu were
highly chaotic, to put things mildly. How many inanimorphs might have
been declared dead and buried alive before the doctors realized that
just because there were no vital signs didn't mean there was no hope?
Some hurried checks confirmed my worst fears. Schwartzkopf died before
word got out. If I was right, and I wished I could bet Danny another
soda pop that I was, it was no wonder this guy had gone nutzo. I almost
felt sorry for him. Seeing that roomful of corpses had shaken me enough.
How much worse to BE one, and then wake up in a coffin...
We were still poring over the old records when the daily e-mail arrived
at 6:22 AM. It was somewhat different than all the rest.
My congratulations on your saving the woman. It took damn good police
work. Hope you get the recognition you deserve. In fact, I find it
regrettable that things will turn out as they inevitably must. The
pattern is warped, but not irretrievably broken. Death can play no
We read it again and again. Like most of the notes, it was both
informative and maddening. You could guess at meanings, but never know
them. After about an hour of fruitless discussion, I declared a short
coffee break and took a look at the morning paper.
It appeared Dan-Man and I were heroes. There was no mention of the
head-in-the-sand cartoon of the day before. Newspapers never acknowledge
their own track records or errors in judgement -- they just point out the
mistakes of others. But best of all was the article in the lower-right
hand corner of the front page asking again where the FBI was. This time,
an outraged Senator and two congresscritters 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
sounded whiney in what I was sure were remarks carefully chosen out of
context by the paper to achieve that effect. It seemed some careers were
about to be seriously damaged. The very idea broke my heart. Coupled
with the fact that I planned to shamelessly use my wheelchair to get out
of today's encounter with the press, I felt better than I had in days,
despite lingering aches and pains.
There's something about victory that is contagious. Win a little
battle, and pretty soon the major victories start piling up. Personally,
I think it's because you can only perform well when you feel confident.
In any case, I am quite certain 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.
Lorena and Teresa were both looking bedraggled and woebegone when we
got back together, listlessly looking at 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. But they were cops too,
and ought to be used to that sort of thing. It was time for a pep talk.
"Alright, guys!" I said cheerfully. "Let's nail this guy."
They looked at me like I was insane.
"What?" I asked in a wounded manner. "Haven't you ever caught a
Teresa shook her head tiredly. "This is impossible, Ken. I know what
you're trying to do, but face reality. This guy is going to do whatever
he wants, whenever he wants."
Lorena, who should have been in my corner, didn't contradict her. Damn,
this was bad!
"Look, this guy isn't Superman, you know. He has definite limitations."
"Like?" asked Teresa flatly.
"Well... He's not super intelligent, for one thing."
"Great! He can do anything he wants, Ken. He doesn't NEED
I ignored her. "Secondly, he's a cop just like us. We can use that."
"How, exactly?" chimed in Lorena.
"Third, he is warped mentally, tied into a pattern of behavior. We have
successfully predicted him once."
"But it didn't result in his capture," objected Lorena again.
"Fourth, he can be killed. Or at least we THINK he can be killed. If
so, that means we can make him afraid."
"Oh frabjous day!" Teresa looked at Lorena and gestured expansively
with her arms. "We THINK he can be killed. Not arrested, but killed.
I rocked my head vigorously side to side, then realized that this was
the first time I had laughed in days. Like I said, a little taste of
victory can go a long way. "Look ladies, we DO have certain edges. We
can try to use them ,or sit here and wait for a can of Hong Kong Avian
to be sprayed downtown somewhere. Personally, I intend to bag this
Lorena looked at intently. I blinked rapidly, which I knew from
experience looked funny as Hell. And presently, she began laughing. Then
Teresa joined in, and when we were done the ladies hugged me and we got
back to work with lighter hearts.
"This e-mail is the best clue we've got," Lorena said for the hundredth
time, an hour later. "But I still don't get anything definite from it."
"We never will." I pointed out. "Solving crimes doesn't work that way."
"Mmm," Lorena agreed.
Then Teresa pointed something out. "You know, this note CAN be read as
a threat. Personally directed at you, Ken."
"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. "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
I looked elsewhere. Being called a hero for not catching a criminal was
kinda embarrassing. In fact, being called a hero was kinda embarrassing,
Silence ruled at our little table for a moment, then Teresa spoke. "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
"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.
On the other hand, if we were correct 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 had the semblance of a plan. If our killer would just
By 7 o'clock that night all was ready and every last sign of the work
crews gone. I sat in my wheelchair looking helpless, shuffling papers
and pretending to be fixated on the negative reports coming in from
airborne helicopters all across the city. Anyone who worked with me
daily would know that the radio speaker I was using was brand new and
that I would NEVER put up with being cooped up in a tiny room at such a
tense moment, but our killer would not. And another thing an inanimorph
cannot do is read minds...
Still, I missed pacing.
It was a couple minutes past 8 before anything happened, and I would
have been sweating had my leggy physique allowed it. Only by exerting
the most iron control could I sit still and pretend to read the file on
victim 2. "Pssst!" I heard. "Down here, Bronski!"
Birds have good poker faces. It was not hard to cock my head in
surprise and look at the doorway.
"No, ya boidbrain! Down here!" And there, sitting on my nameplate, sat
a miniature version of the man seen by victim 6 at the cliffs. Only he
was perhaps an inch tall. I didn't have to pretend much to look scared,
and quickly reached for my phone.
"Stop!" the little man cried, using the "authority voice" we all learn
in the academy. Despite myself, I froze. It's a deep reflex.
"Bronski," the little guy went on, "You know what I am by now. Right?"
Carefully, I nodded.
"Good. Then you know I am telling you the sincere truth when I say you
will live longer if you just pull that ugly head back away from your
phone, and cooperate."
Reluctantly, I complied.
"Well done, Detective. I figgered you for smart. It's a lucky thing for
me, to have you playing who I once was."
"What do you mean?" I asked slowly.
"You," he said gently, "are number seven."
I cracked my bill open in feigned shock. "Me? Why me, Schwartzkopf.?"
"Don't call me that!" he snapped. "I was he once, but no longer. I
merely wear the shell of his soul, carry his memories. And my nickname
This was weird. He was like a blend of a stereotypical Brooklyn dick
and some kind of lunatic. But the mix seemed all wrong. Stein and
Derksen had told me that these people sometimes became literally
incomprehensible. Seeing it, however, was far more intense than hearing
about it. You could almost feel yourself trying to get an emotional
grasp, then there would be another odd twist as our mismatched realities
simply failed to meet. Between his altered universe-view and just plain
craziness, you never felt like you were understanding what was really
being said. Part of me wanted to be able to touch his darkness, to
somehow sense the evil that simply had to reside in him. But real
communication simply wasn't happening. And probably never could. "Don't
get excited, Schwartzie..."
"Don't call me that either, ya walking dustmop! I am beyond names now.
I am dead, and risen. But washed in evil."
"Awash in evil, some might put it."
Surprisingly, he agreed. "Yeah, that's probably more like it. Woiked a
lot of moiders, ya know."
"You've got the look about you. Just like I did."
I was getting even more confused, which had seemed impossible. I was
physically an ostrich, for Pete's sake! "What do you mean, the 'look'?"
"The look of Death."
I just shook my head, and the little man shifted a bit on my nameplate
to make himself more comfortable. "You can't see it, I know. No one can
but me. I can look inside anyone and know their heart, since I died and
rose. And yours has seen too much ugliness, too much Death."
This was true of most cops. It was one of the most painful parts of The
Job, watching the young idealistic kids turn into cynical hardcases
identical to us. I just sat and waited.
"What you see after you die is so different! There aren't any corners
any more, no blind spots, no pretty covers to hide ugly things. And what
I saw in my own heart made me know that I had become hard and evil long
before I moved on to the current plane. The hatred around me all the
time got sucked in and became a part of me. A thousand lifetimes could
never undo it. I became that which I swore I never would. Someone as
hard and tough and rotten inside as the ones I chased."
I wanted to tell him he wasn't dead, and wasn't evil. But it would have
been a lie. Wouldn't it?
"So now I spread the infection, pass it along to other cops like it was
spoon fed to me. Make them know what I know about the final truth of
things. Did you look into the old woman's eyes, Bronski?"
"And what was there?"
"Fear, mostly. Pain. Suffering."
"It ate into your heart, too. I can see it. When you die you'll be just
like me, you know."
"When I die, Schwartzie, I'll die dead. Listen to me! You are insane,
and you have to know it. Turn yourself in, and you'll get treatment.
Help. There are others like you, you know. The Flu did this to you, the
Martian Flu. Not a normal death."
He ignored me, didn't even object to my use of his "former" name. "You
already hate the young ones, don't you? Just like I did, with their
hopeful faces and pure hearts and powerful happy dreams. When you're
like me, they'll be the most fun to kill of all. By the way, how's your
"Dying, most likely."
"Serves him right. But he won't come back, not like you and I. Only
evil hearts are powerful enough to walk after death."
Just about then, I looked at my desk clock. It was 8:15. Schwartzkopf
followed my gaze, and grinned. "Figured it out yet?"
"Good man. You're my future partner, you know. We're so alike. Surely
the Master will allow me that much for doing so well. Ready?"
"Don't do this!" I begged. "Please, don't kill me! Not that way!"
"The Avian Flu is pretty nasty, I hear. Let me tell you exactly what is
going to happen. I am going to turn into a virus, and infect you. Almost
immediately you will begin producing clouds of infection that will
spread throughout the City. And the birds will spread Death far and
"What's to keep me from just taking medication, or having myself
He smiled. "There is no cure for the Hong Kong Avian Flu. I ought to
know. And if you are isolated I will always be there, making holes in
the hospital walls and carrying your little deadly offspring far and
wide. Even if you won't do your part willingly, I will see it is done
for you. You WILL play your role in making the picture whole. No matter
what, you will do your part. See you here in Hell!"
And with that the little man sort of launched himself at my face,
flying at tremendous speed and shrinking rapidly at the same time. It
did odd things to my sense of perspective, but I didn't let that slow me
down. According to plan I sniffed hard, twice, and drank from the
tumbler left thoughtfully on the table. It was important that I absorb
Schwartzie as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, a crew from the CDC
disguised as police officers was sealing off my office door. We needed
to ensure things happened faster than the perp could react to them.
You see, another thing inanimorphs cannot do is respond to new,
unexpected situations faster than a human can. We profoundly hoped it
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.
You see, a virus is neither living nor dead, really. It is much like an
inanimorph in some regards. But it is certainly alive enough to be
killed. And while it was true that there is no cure for the Avian flu,
there have been large stores of antibodies kept frozen since the New
I had been injected with enough for fifty birds my size...
The water finished, I slumped back in my wheelchair as most of the
Department gathered worriedly outside my now carefully sealed glass
office walls and waited for my enhanced blood to do its stuff. While we
couldn't be sure, there was at least a reasonable chance in the opinions
of most experts that we wouldn't be seeing any more daily horrorshow
Except for Schwartzie's. Antibodies are pretty terrifying killers in
their own right, and very, very quick acting on the scale of human
thought. Right up there in the major leagues of lethality with black
holes and thermonuclear explosions, we hoped. If all went well, Henry
Schwartzkopf's estimated time of death was around 8:15 PM that night. Or
so his new certificate would read. I had pull with the coroner, after
I spent the next four days isolated in my tightly sealed office, eating
stockpiled food and taking drugs and cursing the lack of sanitary
facilities. When it became apparent that I had not been infected I was
allowed out. If Schwartzie was still alive he got out with me, I am
sure, despite the repeated scrubbings and enemas and scrapings and such
that cost me half my plumage and all my dignity.
But no one has seen him since. Perhaps being digested by the hungry
little buggers in my bloodstream proved too much for him. Thinking about
his victims, I certainly hoped so. But we can never be sure. Maybe Death
is a relative thing, 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
Dan-Man was still in intensive care, of course, though he looked a lot
better. His parents and a girlfriend were there too, and Phil went into
counselor mode with them, just sitting and listening to their fears and
absorbing them into his creamy fur in a way I could never manage.
Meanwhile, I strode over to the bed.
My young friend lay still and far too pale on the mattress, his face
absolutely motionless save for the slight twitching of his nostrils as
he breathed steadily in and out. The respirator had come off days ago,
and they told me that was a hopeful sign. But there was no evidence of
hope in that slack face, at least that I could discern.
Presently, I spoke to my companion. "You know, Phil, Schwartzie was
right about me in too many ways." I had told him all over a beer. Or
"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?"
The lapine sighed. "We all become jaded, lose our hopes and dreams to
house payments and bad marriages and dead-end jobs. And it's not until
all the hope and joy are gone in exchange for what this lousy world
calls 'wisdom' that you realize what you've lost. We start envying the
kids then, become jealous of their bright futures and unsullied dreams.
There's not much space between envy and hate."
I thought a bit, then replied. "It's worse for cops, you know.
Schwartzkopf believed the ugliness of his job infected him and poisoned
his heart. And it probably did, in a way. Just like it is slowly
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 incredible stress that eats away at you day after day.
I'll grant you, it's worse for a cop. But all of us have poisoned
hearts. It's the price of growing older in an imperfect world."
Carefully, with a wingtip I stroked Danny's hair. "Just look at him.
Face unlined, bright eyes under those closed lids, all his hair still
growing. Eager puppyish grin, when he's happy. Which is most of the
time. Were we ever like that?"
"I wonder sometimes," Phil replied. "And I wonder if they'll become
like us. But I know they will."
I continued stroking Dan's cheek slowly. "You know, I was kinda
adopting the kid. Taking him under my wing. No pun intended!" I added
Phil just rolled his eyes.
"I never had a family. One marriage went bad because of The Job, then a
second. And pretty soon it was just too late -- the years had gone by
before I realized it. And now I am not in a state to father anything
"Much the same could be said for my life," my counselor replied after a
pause. "In my case, it's the clients that I look to as my future."
"Hmm," I said. There didn't seem to be much else.
Then it happened. Dan sneezed, shifted position, and opened his eyes.
The lights seemed to blind him some, but my silhouette is pretty unique.
"Detective Bronski!" he croaked as my friend and I stood frozen.
Phil hangs around hospitals a lot. He knew exactly what to do. "I'll
get the family, Ken. Press the call button, will you?" The little device
was out of his reach, so I pecked at it as he raced down the corridor to
the waiting room on all fours.
"What..." asked Danny again, trying to raise his head and looking
I understood what a cop would need to hear most. "We got him, Dan-Man!
You and me and about a thousand other cops. We nailed the bastard and
He seemed to understand that and, closing his eyes, he laid back with a
ghost of his habitual grin. And part of the cold and darkness around my
heart melted away at the sight, much like I imagine Phil's heart melts
when he succeeds with a client. Evil and pain and decay can permeate a
human heart, can be soaked up from a sick environment like vomit into a
towel. But it is all too easy for someone in my business to forget that
joy and love and growth can be absorbed 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 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. But I sent the uniform with
the cruiser back alone without me, and jogged the three miles to stretch
my still-stiff leg. It was warm and sunny out, the birds were singing,
and people on the street smiled and waved as I passed.
Yeah, sure, death is real. As real as it gets. But never forget that so