Dirk Lazerus series M is for Monster

M is for Monster

 

Part One

When you wake up with blood in your eye, you know it’s already been a bad day. I didn’t much care for it for another reason too- I had the sneaking suspicion it was my own.

I sat up fast and shook the dust loose inside my head, immediately regretting it as pain erupted from the base of my neck and wrapped its hands around my skull, squeezing hard. My mouth tasted like I’d rinsed it out with metal and garbage, swishing it around good, until it was embedded into my taste-buds. And, to top it off, my eyes burned like a son-of-a-gun.

I shrugged off the pain and discomfort, reminding myself that whining about it wouldn’t do a lick of good, but I really did feel like hell. So I sat there, in the dark, trying to motivate my sorry ass to get up and move before someone came back to finish the job.

I waited, wondering for a moment if I was blind or if I’d just forgotten to pay the electric bill. I’d been blind before, as a result of my, condition, but that time there had been this white halo around my eyes when I tried to focus. This time there was nothing. I did my best to convince myself that was a good thing.

I got up slow and queasy, feeling around for a switch, but I stumbled as my feet hit something heavy on the floor. I still hadn’t found a light switch but my mind drew me a pretty picture with two arms, two legs, and empty eyes staring into the darkness. It was a body. It’s always a body. The only question was, whose body was it? And why did my leg feel like it was on fire? I tottered to my right, and hit a wall as my leg buckled.

I leaned there not moving for a second while my mind swept away the sleep and pushed back the pain. Slowly it started coming back, memories fighting their way through the flashes of white hot pain still pulsing through my head.

It was a familiar tale, that ran like a black and white movie, flickering in stop motion pictures through my mind.

The problem was, the story, what I could remember of it, was too damn short, it finished before it got to the part with the answers. Still, my recollection of last night was all I had to go on, and it started like this;

A man walks into a bar….

“Hey Moll.” I nodded to the bartender as I walked in. The Sera Sera  was without a doubt the best place in town, for me anyway, because all I cared about was having a quiet place to drink cheap liquor without the pretense of the bartender caring whether I was a drunk. I guess it didn’t hurt that she was good to look at either, and that she didn’t play it up with makeup or fancy clothes. No… she sizzled just the way she was. Her hair fell in rich, brown waves, framing a face with dark eyes, perfectly smooth dark skin, and full lips. She had drowned just as many men with her looks as she did with her liquor and her temper.

“Hey Dirk.” She answered with a friendly smile and slid me a shot. It was the best kind of greeting you could get from a girl, one who knows what you want and gives it to you without even having to ask.

I downed the whiskey in a sweet second of empty bliss and then sank onto a stool, as Moll made her second great move of the day, handing me a lit cigarette with a knowing grin. I took it and had a long drag, making the most of the dull tobacco flavor, while I turned my back on her to survey the room.

It’s a hard habit to break, suspicion, even in a joint like this which was more a home to me than my single bedroom paradise. You get to that point in life, we all do eventually, where you just don’t trust anybody. I got to that point a long time ago and the paranoia has just grown on me ever since, like a wandering mold. Tonight though, I didn’t see any unfamiliar faces and the few I recognized were resting face down on a table, where I wished I could be.

I turned back to my short glass of amber heaven, miraculously refilled, and gave Moll a nod of appreciation.

“You’re a doll, Moll, I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

She gave me a forced smile but I knew she was playing around. I’d know her too long to get under her skin any more. “Well that’s what I live for Dirk, keeping you under the illusion of being drunk.”

“Yeah, you do it well baby, you do it well.”

She looked distracted somehow, busying herself with things that didn’t need to be done, wiping the clean bar top for the second time,  stacking napkins on top of napkins till they were leaning in a precarious tower.

I snapped my fingers in front of her. “Hey, Moll. You still in there?”

She drifted back to me, though not all the way. “Yeah. Where else would I be?”

“I guess the question is, where else would you rather be?”

She stopped in the middle of cleaning a spotless beer spout and looked up . “Anywhere but here I guess, tonight anyway. You know how it is, sometimes you just need to get away.”

I nodded, nursing my whiskey, staring at the cloudy amber liquid, remembering how pure it used to be, back when we could still get quality liquor and pure tobacco. “Yeah, I hear you.”

A silence settled, for little while, but all that did was make my mind wander into territory best left alone, all sorts of thoughts you shouldn’t have for the grown up daughter of a dead friend. Damn Dirk, this is Moll, keep it focused.

I corralled my thoughts, and tried to figure out how to get her to open up. After all, if she didn’t spill it to me, who else would she burden?

“Why’d you come back here anyway Moll? I mean, all that school you took, all those worlds you got to see out there. Why did you come back?”

“No choice. Papa needed me here, you know how he was. He always needed me here.”

“So why you still here?”

She didn’t say anything, just looked away across the bar at no one in particular.

“Not that I don’t love you being here Moll, really, it’s just… I mean what use is there here, for the skills you got?”

I downed my glass.

She turned to me again, her eyes misty but no tears on her face. A slight smile threatened as she refilled me again. “Maybe I could program a computerized drink-pourer so I didn’t have to deal with all you deadbeats.”

“Yeah,” I smiled, “that would be a hell of a day for you, but I’m pretty sure I’d be a miserable loner, sitting here talking to a damned machine.”

“More miserable?” She added.

“Come on, that hurts. Here was me thinking you keep me around cos I brighten up the place.”

She smiled again, but this one was shallow, and as she leaned in closer I realized why.

“Look Dirk, you know I love having you around but…” She paused to look about for a second, wary in her own place, “you might want to take it easy tonight honey, and make that your last.” Her words stung like a lash to my back, and I paused, the shot glass lingering close enough to my lips that my tongue could just about absorb the liquor.

“I never in a millions years thought I’d ever hear those words come out of your mouth. What in the world’s gotten into you?”

She filled another glass with a shot of whiskey first and held it like she was about to drink, but it never quite made it to her mouth. She seemed like she was wrestling with something inside. When she spoke she didn’t meet my eyes, instead watching the room behind me. “Can’t say for sure Dirk, not here anyway. But take it from a bartender who doesn’t want to lose her best source of income, you need to keep your wits about you tonight, or… well, just take it from a friend, tonight is not the kind of night you want to spend in a joint like this, not you, of all people.”

My hand shook a little from the weight of the glass, I eyed it and her, then I lightened the load. It slid down my throat, thick and slightly gritty, but hell, I could barely taste it any more any way.

“Come on, what is this? You getting sentimental on me now?”

“No. Look, just… go home early tonight, get some sleep and I’ll see you tomorrow. Please.”

She looked me right in the eye. The flirty woman with the dark sultry gaze was gone, replaced by a concerned mother, a protective sister and a strict school mistress, all rolled into one.

“Just like a…” I was about to say dame, but the look Moll’s face hardened and knocked the will to finish that sentence right out of me and all the way across the floor. I took another long drag of my cigarette while I tried to figure another angle, to find an answer somewhere in those wide pretty eyes. As usual these days, I got nothing.

“Yeah, well, I’m touched you worry about me, but my liver and I have an understanding, I’m supposed to keep him comatose. He’ll be sore at me if I renege on the deal.”

Moll shook her head and passed me the bottle. “Take it.” She said simply, and nodded toward the door.

I sat stupefied for a moment, while a thousand questions washed through my brain like dirty sea water. Every one of them stunk. “Moll… come on, just t…?”

“Sorry Dirk, I got no answers for you tonight, maybe in the morning, if you’re lucky.”

“If something’s going on that’s got you spooked, I can take care of it for you.”

Her eyes flicked back to the clock behind the bar, and there was a quiver in her lip. She tried to get it under control before facing me again, but I caught it all the same. “Please Dirk, do this for me, just this once.” Her voice quavered, but it still sounded like chocolate, thick and sweet. I hated to see her upset, almost as much as I hated to be left in the dark.  

Damn. I really hate to see a dame cry.

“Ok Moll, ok. I know you need to get rid of this cheap, gritty crap anyway.”

She gave a thin smile. “Come on Dirk, you know how it is, I can’t get the good stuff like we used to when Papa was here, no one can.”

I gave her a nod. “I’ll take the bottle and dispose of it right. You just… don’t worry about me anymore, alright, and… if you need anything…”

The tension in her body eased as I stood up from my stool, and a little glimmer of relief sparkled in those misty eyes. “Sure I will, I’ll call you right up.”

I sucked in the last of the cigarette and dropped the remains on the floor. Yeah, this was my kind of place, no rules and no worries, or at least, that’s how it played out most nights.

I turned and left, holding half a bottle of whiskey in one hand, and a heap full worry in my head. Something was wrong, real wrong; and for Moll to be all shook up like that, it must’ve been something bad.

A shiver ran down my spine as I left the bar and hit the street. It could’ve been the cold, but I doubted it, I don’t feel the cold like most people, I hadn’t for a long time. Not since my… accident. The shiver was one of those things you feel when something’s coming at you, like a bad storm. I looked around outside, waiting for a hood to jump me or some boss’s buttonman to start raining down lead. I waited. My back to the wall of the bar.

Nothing.

But the chill was still there. So I did what I always do when I can’t shake a feeling, I had a drink and I got to thinking.

There was definitely something wrong. I’d known Moll Mathers for going on fifteen years, back when her Pa, Charlie ran the place and she was just a whelp of a girl. She’d been good to me in a way that few people had, over the years. After Charlie passed and people started to treat me like yesterdays news, Moll came back to Parsis to run the place. She always had time for me. She’d put up with me in some foul moods too. So why did she throw me out? I know she did it gentle, and even gave me a parting gift, but, she still threw me out, in her way.

I walked across the street, bathed in a sickly green light, courtesy of the flickering artificial illumination they favor down here. I ducked into the doorway of some run-down exchange shop, one of those that trades body parts for cash- and though they didn’t specify human or mechanical, I knew the slick red stains leading to the side alley did not come from machine oil. Damn body-snatchers- I had half a mind to… well, I had half a mind anyway, so I let it go. No one on the force would care anyhow, not in this part of town. I sank back into the doorway with a sigh.

As I leaned there with my face hidden in shadow, I watched the world go by. The streets in this sector of Parsis were home to some of the nicest scum in the city. I mean that with as little sincerity as I can muster, and I can get away with it too, because I’m one of them. The bigwigs who live up-top call this part of town “The Tunnels” because the streets are so narrow and the ceilings so low- and the stench of the sewers runs through here like clockwork every 7 hours. The people attracted to this sector, whether as a result of the conditions, or to blame for them, scurried around like rats looking for scraps. They were furtive in a way that made a ninja look like a circus clown; emerging from a darkened doorway, visible for a moment and then slithering back into darkness without ever looking up or showing their face. You couldn’t never trust a guy who won’t show his face. That’s a fact.

It wasn’t always this way, mind. Once we had industry and dignity. Before the crooks took over, drugs flooded the streets and the decent folk were driven out or corrupted by the filth they peddled. Yeah, they were the good old days, before the main source of income in Parsis changed from energy to dust; the kind of dust you inhale for 50 a pop to send you out of this world without ever leaving your own home.

So much for the great dream, the building of a grand city to serve as a haven for tradition and the old ways. Yeah, Parsis was one hell of a town. Four hundred and fifty billion tonnes of metal rising three thousand feet from the ground. A city wedged between a split in the mountains, with views for miles around, and a permanent source of geothermal power. A place where we could be apart from the stink of filth that spread from other worlds and other folks. So much for Parsis.

Now we’re just a dying metropolis, encased in a metal tomb, rife with drugs and sex, populated by inbreds who can no longer procreate, and a growing trend of recycling bodies, brought back from death to fill the jobs that no one wants.

Who am I kidding. This was always the way is was going to go. This is always the way it goes with us, it’s the story of the whole lousy race.

I shook the morbid thoughts away with another stiff drink and shivered again. Damn. Why was I so cold?

Across the street the bar was staring to fill up . Apparently whatever party they were having tonight only excluded one guest. I kicked the wall and wiped the cold sweat from my forehead. I had to keep it cool, at least until I could figure out what was going on.

I pulled out my pocket watch and checked on the time. The damn thing was stuck again, wind-up piece of crap was worth more these days as scrap gold. Still, it was the only valuable thing I ever owned that didn’t end up in a pawn shop. I guess some part of me would have felt guilty if the one thing left of great, great grandpa Lazerus from off this rock, ended up in the grubby hands of a junk dealer. Then again, if work didn’t pick up, I still needed to drink, and tomorrow was another day.

Anyway, I figured I’d waited for a least a good two hours. I’d watched dozens of folks pass in and out through the doors of the Sera, and almost every one of them could’ve earned first prize in any thug of the week competition. There was something disturbing about the consistency of the scum going in. The few regulars I’d seen inside earlier had drifted out one by one over the course of the evening, scared off no doubt by the quality of the crowd. I started to get uneasy. With this many quality goons in one place, it would only be a matter of time.

Finally I saw him, and a piece slid into place. A giant piece, named Devlin Kerns. I licked my lips and stepped back, deeper into the shadows. He was a big ugly son-of-a-gun, with a face that could make a rotten maggot look good. And he oozed along with a lazy, sluggish, arrogance.  My spine tingled in memory, and my jaw clenched so tight my teeth threatened to buckle.

He was flanked by two guys, who, next to anyone else, would have looked intimidating. Devlin Kerns. Except everyone else called him Maxxy, and I still to this day have no idea why. It made sense he was here, if all the other pieces of crap associated with drugs peddling and murder in sector 22 were here. How dare he show his face here, after what he’d done. Moll? Did she know? I should step out right now and tear him to pieces, him and both his goons, and half the thugs in that bar. Or die trying.

But there were too many questions still unanswered, and dying again wouldn’t help shed any light.

Why were they here? Why Moll’s place? If Maxxy was here then something bad was going down. Me and Maxxy had a history. As his gashed left eye, and the hole they patched up in the back of my head could attest to. Yeah, we had a history alright, and at some point I aimed to close it permanently.

“Damn it Moll, what the hell have you gotten yourself into?”

I fumbled around in my pockets for one of my own cigarettes, or at least the crap they call cigarettes these days. Mine aren’t quite the same quality as the ones Moll gets. I don’t think there’s a natural thing in them. At least when I started smoking they grew the stuff in the ground, not in a lab. Damn things tasted like gaseous lead. Still, at least they came with a fifty-fifty chance of slow death. That was something, right?

I was feeling around for my lighter, and bouncing around a crazy idea in my head, that that would’ve ended up with me heading back inside to go for a second round with Maxxy and his boys, when a car drifted along the street. The headlights were bright and the slow turning toplight was spinning, though without the accompaniment of a siren’s wail.

I slipped the bottle into my coat, kept the unlit cigarette in my mouth, and stepped out of the doorway. I had to stall them, find out what they wanted before they went calling in backup. Whatever Moll was into, I needed to be the one to sort it out.

The car sidled up and stopped, sinking a little to hover just an inch or so off the floor. It was all black; it probably once had some white on it as well, but anything resembling that color had long since been covered by the dirt and grime of the industrial sectors. The window shimmered and faded away, revealing a worn out old man, in his fifties or so. His pale face was complete with a lopsided grin and a lip full of hair.

“Why you still drinking that stuff Lazerus?”

“Captain Carney.” I nodded.

“I mean really, you’re killing you’re liver for what? A memory of what it used to taste like?”

“I like the way it riles you up trying to figure it out Mike. That’s what makes me all warm and tingly inside.” I pulled the bottle out and took another long swig, imagining the burn as it coated my throat. I licked my lips, savoring what would’ve been, the aftertaste, rich and warm, so much so that it was almost real.

“Yeah, well, I’m glad something makes you happy, but if you’re all done with the show, I got something to tell.” His grin faded and his whole face seemed to droop, from the eyes down. The back door clicked and slid open, inviting me inside.

“Look Carney, I’d love to talk but I’m working on a new impression of a guy who doesn’t give a damn.”

“Yeah, and here’s me thinking you were keeping an eye out to make sure no one runs away with your lousy bar. I mean that would be terrible, if anything happened, where would you sleep?”

Damn it, I didn’t need the Cops all over this, until I had figured out where Moll fit in. I had to push him away.

I slammed my hand into the side of his car. My face was set hard as I leaned in, close enough he could smell the booze on my lips. “You’re a piece of work, you come down here just to take a dump in my world did you? What’s wrong, I thought they had clean bathrooms and porcelain thrones up there on Seven? Did you need a reminder? You miss the stench and the cries of the homeless being beaten to death on the streets? Is that it? I didn’t ever take you for the sentimental type Captain. Why don’t you just wander on back up-top, if they’ll take you, and fall asleep dreaming of the world down here. It’ll be a hell of a lot safer for you.” I slammed my hand on his car again and waved him on dismissively. The jerk just sat there, eyeing me coldly.

“I need your help.”

“What?”

“Get in. I need your help.”

“Get lost in a storm drain.”

His door slid open and he stepped out. He was taller than me by a foot, and weighed more too. I stepped back, my pulse quickened and my heart raced. Then I saw his blood.

It had soaked through his jacket just under his left arm, despite the hasty bandaging and mesh that had been applied. He stood awkwardly, his left arm hovering protectively over the wound, but unable to relax for risk of putting pressure on it.

I stared at him, trying to figure out his angle.

“Did anyone tell you, you’ve been shot?” I asked.

“No, you’re the first. Now come on, get in the car, I like to bleed in one place whenever I can, makes the blood easier to find later.”

I stared at him for a moment, letting the sounds of the crowded bar and the stench on the street drift away. I tried to remember what we’d been to each other once, back in the day, when he was just a fresh faced rookie and I was a guy who meant something. He’d looked up to me then, metaphorically, if not physically. I was his mentor, and eventually his friend. I’d pulled him out of some scrapes, and he’d stood side by side with me on more than one occasion, when the bullets started flying and the insults too.

I sighed. That was before he let me down.

I looked up at him, his weak smile bearing down on me like the goofy kid he was thirty something years ago. I looked back over to the bar. Hell, it wasn’t going anywhere, and by the sounds of it they were having too good a time for me to hang around and listen without inviting myself back in.

I got in the car. “Don’t think this means we’re buddies.”

“If it makes you feel any better I’ll let you slap me around a bit and spit in my face when we’re done, to take the sting out of you being a nice guy for an hour or two.”

I didn’t dignify that with a comment, but I did give some thought to holding him to it.

I sank back into the comfortable seats of the police cruiser. Comfortable. That meant this wasn’t one of the beat up pieces of crap the force had down here in the Under-sectors. This baby was new. Looked like crap on the outside, but still smelled like it was fresh of the factory floor on the inside. “Did you have to dirty this baby up just to come down here?”

He laughed. “Yeah. I thought it might look outta place with a flashy new cruiser, especially around the Wash.”

I nodded, watching the Sera Sera disappear as we took off down the street and headed east toward the Wash.  Great, we were heading for the “classy” part of Sector 22. Yeah, even the scummy parts of the city have their bad areas, where the scum and the cops avoid equally, due to the tendency of it’s few inhabitants to react with extreme violence. Huh… now the bleeding Police Captain made sense. If he’d been hanging out here it would’ve almost been an insult if no one took a shot at him.

I tried to settle, to sit patiently with as much indifference as i could muster. I think i ended up in something more like irritated apathy

I chewed on the end of my cigarette and tried to shake my mind away from Moll, but it kept getting dragged back to her forced smile and haunted eyes. I couldn’t help her if she didn’t want me around, could I? Unless her warning me away was a way of telling me she needed my help. Damn. you never could tell with women.

I zoned back to reality and looked out the window. The streets were getting darker, the cruiser passing under fewer and fewer strips of green light, the last of the rundown stores and late night drinking dens were behind us. Just us and a dozen square blocks of abandoned factories… oh and the constant threat of violence. I patted my jacket and felt the calming presence of my Bulldog .45. Maybe tonight would work out to be more interesting than I thought. Huh, I might even get to kill a guy.

“Almost there Captain.” The voice was light and polite, if a little nasal. I noticed the driver for the first time, a stocky man with a mashed in face and a shock of red hair that never seemed to behave, even when it was cut short.

“Who dragged your sorry ass back down here Morley? Did the Captain need a porter to carry around his ego, or do you just like to stay close on account of the fact that he keeps candy in his pocket? ”

“Good to see you too Lazerus.” He said in a quiet voice, managing to fill it with honesty and dignity despite my rebuke.

“Yeah… sure.”

I shook off his decency and tried to ignore the nagging fact that he probably didn’t deserve the verbal kicking’s I always gave him. He didn’t say anything more, so I leaned forward to look at Carney, see if I could get a read on what the hell this was all about. “So, you surviving? I mean for being shot and all.”

“Yeah, fine, you know how it… well, yeah anyway I’m fine. Hey look, thanks for riding along. This whole thing is a mess and the Directors are chewing my hide, their appetite for it seems even more voracious than usual.” Carney said, only he wasn’t looking back at me, in fact, he was definitely looking away, which meant he was full of it.

“Well… I’d hate for them to change their nature, even for you.”

“Yeah,” He let out a little laugh, but it was about as full of joy as the bottles of malt all over the floor of my place, “So… I got four bodies down by the wash, out by the old Brigton Smelt factory. Thing is, they ain’t got a scratch on them.”

“Huh… yeah… that is odd. What do you think, drugs?”

“Well, sure, if this were any regular bunch of guys, but they’re all… Rez’s.”

“Okay, now we come to the point. You get a bunch of dead Nobodies, no clues, and you think of me, thanks a bunch.”

“Yeah sure I do, hell I’m sorry but I really need your brain on this……. crap, I…”

I let him stew in an uncomfortable silence while I mulled things over. I could see why he’d asked me to help. It made sense in every way. But that still didn’t mean I wasn’t pissed to be associated with those brainless deadbeats. I was a deadbeat. A Rez. A Nobody. I died in the line of duty and they brought me back; to this half-life of misery, my empty head hooked up to the mainframe. I hated people like me when I was alive the first time. I hated them even more now.

The car slowed down and hung a left down a narrow side alley. The green lights above us were now much farther away, the ceiling raised by fifty feet or more , with factory buildings looming over us like towers guarding an ancient land, or a warehouse full of cheap liquor, depending on how romantic your imagination was.

We stopped by a wide open yard- a dozen square miles of concrete, once filled with machinery, noise, smoke and the scurrying of a thousand feet.

I leaned into the window, pressing my face against it to study the old brick walls, rising up, pocked marked and black from the fumes of industry, dotted with slit like windows of shattered glass, each a perfect vantage point over the open yard. Damn, this was practically a shooting gallery.

“This where it happened?” I said, breaking the silence.

“Yeah, over there, the edge of the yard by the water, the bodies are all…” Carney answered but I cut him short.

“I meant where you got shot.”

He shifted uncomfortably. “Get out and I’ll point to where the shooter was.” The doors slid silently aside.

“Yeah, I wish you would, because right now you’ve gone awfully far out of your way to avoid the point, haven’t you… Captain.” I got out, still watching the window’s warily, and sidled over to the wall of the alley.

Captain Carney followed, leaning against the wall behind me. “Look, I told you what happened, and I told you why I needed you, so just drop it. Why don’t you save your…”

I turned on him, both hands gripping the lapels of his long coat, squeezing it tight and leaning him into the wall. I was standing on my tiptoes to get in his face, but I did it anyway, just for effect. “Don’t you forget who you’re talking to. I trained you. I molded you and taught you every trick in the book, plus a dozen more.  And still, you drag me out here under the pretense that you need my “expertise” on the quartet of dead Rezurrects. Well I give as much of a damn about them as you do about me. For all I care they were practicing singing for a barbers shop and their hearts imploded right after they hit the high note.”

I felt strong hands pull me away from him, and for a moment I was off balance, tumbling back with my arms flailing. I hit the car and steadied myself, glaring at Morley, who stood placid and calm, straightening the Captain’s collar like an obedient puppy… if puppies could straighten collars or if… hell you get the point.

I slammed my fist down on the top of the Squad car. “I know damn well why you wanted me on this. You don’t have the man power down here to sweep the area for the shooter, and you’re damn sure not going to risk your own neck, but the Directors are all over your ass to figure out why Rez’s are suddenly getting knocked off, and how. So then it hits you. Let’s drag Lazerus in on this, send him into the yard, across two hundred feet of open concrete. If he gets shot, it’s no big loss, just another one to add to the pile.”

The two of them just stood there like mute monkey’s, with Morley mimicking Carney’s vacant expression.

“I’ll leave you and your monkey to do whatever a man does with his primate when’s he’s left alone in a dark alley.”

I started to walk way in disgust.

“Lazerus.”

I ignored him, pulling my collar up around my neck to fend of an imagined breeze as I strode down the narrow alley, my feet clacking across the metal floor.

There’s one thing you can rely on with Cops in Parsis; they all act like it’s their God-given right to send guys like me in to do their dirty work, and I was sick of it. Sure I was on retainer for the PPD. I was over-the-hill and I had nothing left to live for. I was killing myself slowly, again, pickling my liver with liquor to spite my absent brain. But still. All those things I did by choice. If I wanted to ruin this second chance that was my decision. I didn’t like the fact that the cops and the politicians got to decide when and where I risked my neck. I was done dancing for them. I just didn’t have the stones for it any more.

I felt the hair on the back of my neck start to rise- the cold chill again. The kind you get when you know damn well the footsteps following you down a silent street don’t belong to a fellow drunk. Or the shiver that runs up your spine when it dawns on you; the pieces of the murder investigation you’ve been following for months all come crashing down and you realize that the father did it, and he’s been in the room with you the whole time, talking about how he’s sad his little girl is missing, crying fake tears while his wife clings to him like a drowning man to a rock. These kind of thoughts hit you when you’re scared. They don’t make a lick of sense, but they bounce around inside you all the same, till they flood out through your ears and make the whole world feel likes its upside down. Damn it. Why the hell was I scared?

“Lazerus.” Carney called again. I slowed down just enough, half hoping he’d give me a reason to stop, the rest of me wishing he’d go to hell.

“There was a reason I pulled you in on this, but…”

I turned on the spot. I was about twenty paces from him, and glaring.

“I knew you wouldn’t like it.” He finished, and reached into his pocket. I tensed. The hairs on my neck were still on end. He pulled something out, and held it towards me. It was clenched in his fist.

I shook my head slowly. “Come on Mike, I got no time for magic tricks.”

“Just look at this. Take a look, and then if you still want to walk away, I’ll leave you be.”

I spat out a curse and then set off towards him, taking my time about it.  Morley was shifting uneasily on the balls of his feet, watching the yard and the dark windows of the towering factory buildings. Carney waited for me. Nothing on his face to give away how much he hated me for the insults, the roughing up and the general lack of respect I gave him whenever I got the chance. I stopped just a few feet away and gave him a nod.  He opened his fist, slow and dramatic, adding emphasis with two thick hairy eyebrows, raised as if to say… ta-daa. I looked down at his hand. Geez, his hands were like a monkey’s. One of those big silver one’s they used to have before they lost the last of them in some interstellar Ark crash. Anyway, in the center of his palm lay a hefty gold lighter, beaten to hell and blackened around the lid. There was an engraving on the side, fancy lettering almost too faded to see.

D.L>

Oh damn. Stay cool, keep calm, at least till you figure out who’s trying to take you from behind this time.

“You know, I used to have one just like that, only it lived in my pocket, right next my little bottle of scotch and a wad of twenties.” I snatched it out of his hand before he could stop me. “You don’t happen to have that wad of twenties to pull out of your hat as well do you?”

He didn’t rise to it.

“I found that next to one of the bodies; right before someone started filling me full of holes.” Carney spoke in slow even tones, giving away nothing. Damn him. No suspicion or sarcasm. Not a thing.

I bit the soggy end off the cigarette that was hanging out of my mouth, and lit it. At least the lighter still worked.

He still wasn’t giving anything away, so I decided to play subtle and ask him direct. “So, you think I killed those fellas?”

I noted a barely perceptible twitch in Morley’s shoulder, as though he was readying himself.

Carney was still blank faced. Hands in his pockets. “Well, I know that’s what someone wants me to think, so, I figured…”

The words hung in the air till I could touch them. I inhaled thick toxic fumes and felt the lead line my lungs so thick that my chest would block x-rays. “So you figured, bring me out here, gauge my reaction and see if I’d finally took the leap to full on crazy, or was still paddling in the shallow end… and maybe see if I could get a better look at the bodies, seeing as how “they” wouldn’t want to pick off their own patsy. Huh, makes a lotta sense. Seems to me like someone taught you right.”

“Look Dirk, I know this heap smells bad, I woke up covered in it this morning; and you’re damn right the Directors are all over me. First thing it’s Sector 22 Rez’s, going missing, not showing for work at John T. Whoever’s Crap Factory, then they start showing up missing all the way up through 8. Yesterday the P.A. to the Associate Chief goes psycho and kills three people. We lost control of the assistant to the Associate Chief. The whole reason they use Rez’s for those posts is they can monitor everything that goes on in their heads, but we got nothing from him, no warning. Now I got four bodies without a scratch on them, and the only thing all this has is common is that they’re all Rezurrects- only we can’t find anything in their mainframe memories- it’s scrambled, in some cases all but wiped clean. I’m sorry I pulled you in on this, but I got a handful of crap right now, and no one to hand me a towel. I need something Dirk. Anything you can give me.”

I took another long drag and mulled it over. Carney stayed quiet, letting my mind connect the dots like the big boy I hoped I was. “You want a cigarette while your standing there eyeing me like a cheap broad?” I said.

“No, I already got my recommended daily allowance of lead and the Doc says I should stick to a balanced diet if I want to live long enough to dance on your grave a second time.”

Damn. I should’ve held something back when I taught him to be a smart ass. I just nodded, sucked in some fumes, then stepped past Carney and his pet and started across the open yard to take a look at a whole bunch of dead guy’s.

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All your math are wrong. Please start again.

The room sat in silence, everyone caught in a collective stare aimed at the wall-sized screen in front of them. Fifteen sets of eyes were crammed inside the whitewashed room of computer screens, with so many knobs, dials and flashing lights that I wondered how the rest of the world could function.

I stood alone at the back of the room, as close to the corner as I could manage. Two armed soldiers guarded the door but the rest were in crumpled suits or clones in white shirts and black ties. I counted all the lights in the room while paying little attention to the screen that had everyone else mesmerized. I had just reached a count of 397 when the voice on screen captured my attention.

“They said… as best we can tell from our translation… all your maths are wrong. [Please] try again. I’m not sure about the please, but, it was implied.”

I snapped my eyes to the screen and watched a giant-sized, sweaty man, in a tired suit missing two buttons, reading from a tablet, in all his Hd 4K glory. At that size and definition I could pick out every pore on his face, and if we added a grid to the image I could’ve directed him to any of the seventeen blackheads gracing his nose and chin.

“How confident are we in the translation here?” One man called out from our side. He was exactly six feet tall, plus a quarter inch and had eyebrows enough to compensate for lack of any hair on his scalp. I think when I arrived he introduced himself as Bill, maybe. His hands had smelled of lavender but his jacket was one size too small.

“Well… um, obviously this is the first transmission we have ever received from…” Our giant-sized friend on screen started to respond.

“It’s okay Ted, you can say aliens.” Bill said.

“Yes sir of course. So with this being our first contact we cannot be sure. But we’ve been poring over this for three hours now, and this is the consensus here. They provided pretty precise instruction on how to decipher their language. They even referenced our alphabet and the instructions we sent out on a long range probe approximately twenty years ago.”

“So what does this mean?” Bill asked.

The room erupted into mutterings for a moment, until Bill cleared his throat.

“It means… Um if the translation is correct, which I am confident it is, and if the… er… aliens who sent it are telling the truth, then everything we have, all our physics and mathematics would be, potentially… well, wrong. We would have to start from scratch. Our entire understanding of the universe is tied to our calculations.”

“Wait a second.” A young man stood up from a desk near the front of the room. He was sharp-faced with eager eyes and a coffee stain next to his shirt pocket. It wasn’t huge, only covered about 7 of the 236 visible dots on his shirt. “But our math works. Everything adds up. We’ve been sending men to the moon since 1972 based on our math.”

“Huhumm 69” Bill replied.

“Right, since 1969.” The young man said., nodding his head with a little too much enthusiasm.”

“Charlie has a point. Our math is at the core of our space program, not to mention scientific theory spanning back hundreds of years. Hasn’t it proven itself?”

“I understand the hesitancy sir. We are still working to decipher the last part of the message. But if it is in line with the rest then we must seriously consider that our math may be in error. This message came from a race far in advance of our own. It arrived on multiple computers, including several that were not hardwired to any sort of internet or satellite connection. Whatever method of communication they have is light years ahead of ours. And if what they say is true then we have an obligation to share this with the world. Right now there may be some fifth grader being brainwashed with a math lie by his teacher.”

“If it is true, and the method of communication is truly as advanced as you say, then the rest of the world might already know.” Bill Said. He turned to the guards at the door, and added,” Sergeant, go find Greg Faust. Tell him I need his ears out immediately. I need to know if this information has leaked out yet.”

One of the guards nodded and excused himself, typing in a six digit code on the key pad by the door. It was Six… four…seven…three…seven…two, by the sound and tone of the beeps. He stepped out and swung the heavy door shut behind him. It clunked as it closed and I could hear the rolling tumblers as I auto-locked

“I still don’t believe it.” Charlie approached Bill, his head shaking. “I can’t. It doesn’t make sense. We would have seen the holes before now, wouldn’t we?”

“Ted, send us the data you have, everything so far. It comes to this room only, highest clearance.” Bill said.

Ted nodded and tinkered with his tablet for a second. There was a ding from one of the workstations near me and I moved closer to stare over the shoulder of a young red-haired women. I remembered her from earlier at the coffee machine. She had a nice smile and exactly 421 freckles. There were 22 further dings in rapid succession, before the room lapsed into a busy silence as every eye in the room devoured the data. I stood there chewing on my pen and glancing back and forth between the scrolling data and concentric circles of coffee stains on miss freckles desk.

We devoured the data. The only sound for eighty seven minutes and thirteen seconds was the clicking of the occasional button and the scrolling of mouse pads. We saw symbol after symbol of alien writing and a complex set of pictographs and phonetics with instructions on deciphering the symbols and sounds into our alphabet. We saw pages of digitized data and sound files on what we had sent out in a series of probes over the last twenty years. No one made a sound, or offered a thought.

A knock on the door jolted us from our study. The remaining soldier on guard opened the door, and after a brief exchange he opened up to let in the other guard and a wiry little man wearing a burnt orange shirt that matched his skin.

“Sir,” The wiry little man said, rushing up to Bill. “We just got in reports from Washington. The word is out. Stock markets are crashing in New York and London. Asia is in chaos and the President is currently in negotiation with China to avert war in the pacific. They are saying that everything we know is wrong and our entire way of life is a lie. They are saying that aliens are coming to correct our mistake.”

Bill stared at him for moment, processing what he’d been told. He rubbed his eyes and squeezed the bridge of his nose. “This can’t be happening.” He muttered.

“How does everyone know? How did it get out so fast?” Charlie asked, turning from the screaming data on his computer.

“The message hit every server in the world. Not everyone could make sense of it, but enough that we couldn’t contain it.” Said the wiry orange man who had been summoned, Greg I assumed.

Bill took a deep breath, scrunched up his face and patted his cheeks. “Greg, we need to get word to the president. He needs to know this data has not been verified. Someone get the news networks up on screen. And I want eyes on every inch of airspace between us and any country that has so much as a bottle rocket.” Several people rushed off in a scurry off activity. Bill paused for a second, then turned to Charlie.”

“Do you still have contacts at Fox?”

“Errr, yes, I think so. Well, my ex… but I think I can get a hold of her. I have a buddy at CNN too, if he didn’t get himself fired.”

“Good. I need you to start leaking intel. I want Fox and any other news outlet you can get it out to, believing this is a hoax. Let them know we are closing in on identifying the source.” Bill said.. “Err, hey… who was that hacker we almost caught, hacking into the Nasa servers last lear?”

“Kobel.” Someone yelled out. Everyone had turned away from the data now. They were focused on Bill. I kept looking, allowing the data to run over me like a river, bathing in the numbers and symbols until I could close my eyes and still see it.

“Right, Kobel, yes. Leak that name. Let your contacts know the Russian is our top suspect.”

“Sir.” Greg stood by a desk close by, clutching a hardwired phone with a receiver that looked like a cell phone from the 1980’s. “I got through to the Whitehouse. We have a problem.”

For a moment I got swept away in the current of data. The shouts and cries rising up around the room melted away. I shut out the noise and pushed miss red hair aside. Her chair wheeled away with a high pitched squeak before stopping 1.4 meters away. I think she tried to say something, but her words melted away as knelt at her workstation. I scanned quickly through the data we had transmitted in our long range probes, particularly the math. I scrolled through dozens of screens trying to find something that might make sense.

I felt a nudge and noticed the red-haired girl had scooted back to her desk. She made no attempt to push me away from her computer, but reached instead for the hardwired phone at her desk. She picked up the receiver, over-sized just like the rest and embedded no doubt with scrambling technology of some kind. After fumbling at the number pad she waited for a second. “Hello..” Said a voice from the other end.

“Jim… you need to get out, grab Kimmy and get out of the city, now. I can’t give you any more…” She stopped suddenly. “Jim… Jim are you there?”

I looked up from my data… as everyone else had abandoned it, I felt now it was my data, my duty to figure out what was missing. The room was in chaos. Some were on phones, calling home, checking on family. One by one they stopped talking and either stared at the receiver or hung it up. Others stared at a second large screen on the other side of the room. It carried news feeds from the major networks and then dozens of local and global radar screens. Every person not on the phone was staring up at them.

News feeds flicked back and forth between local news; anarchist groups invading local news stations, militia’s mobilizing and marching on state capitol buildings; rhetoric from North Korea threatening to wipe the U.S. off the map and build a new empire on the ashes; riots across Europe and planes inexplicably dropping out of the sky, as if the realization that our math was wrong had come as a surprise to reality as well.

Bill turned back to the big screen. “Ted, we need the last of that message. If it holds anything of value that could help, we need it. Our way of life is on the brink here. If those missiles release, then the President will have no choice to retaliate. We could be looking a global nuclear war.”

“We are just getting something in now sir.’ Ted turned back to face the screen. His face was red and splotchy, covered in hives from the stress. He finished typing something out on his pad, and then read through it carefully before responding. “The last part is in a weird format and we haven’t quite completed the sentence. It looks like is says… hint, you forgot to.”

Something clicked in my brain. I dove back into the data stream, and stopped looking at the alien stuff, going back instead to the information on what we had been sending out. Within minutes I found it. There, in the first line of math from beacon 3, it was staring back at me like… a beacon. I glanced through the rest of the math from that probe, just to confirm my guess.

“Sir, Mr. Bill.” I stood and waived at him, holding up my arm to let him know I knew the answer.

He turned and scanned the room, his eyes finally latching on to my saving motion. “Who is that?” He asked.

“Err that’s Jonathan. He’s a… consultant. Sort of a math whiz.”  The orange man said. “And a sort of… savant?” He muttered in his gravelly voice, but it was still loud enough for me to hear.

“Why is he waving his hand at me?” Bill asked.

“Well, Sir, I would assume he’s trying to get your attention.”

“Right. But this isn’t third grade. And I don’t have any bathroom passes.”

“No sir, Mr. Bill. It’s okay, I peed on the way here, so I wouldn’t need to when I got here.” I told him, smiling that polite smile I saw people use in public.

He smiled as well, only his was thin, like his lips were fighting each other to see which could press the other until it went white.

“Carry the one, Mr. Bill.” I explained.

“Excuse me?”

“I figured it out. The message says; hint, you forgot to carry the one. The math we sent out on probe 3 was wrong, sir, Mr. Bill. The file was corrupted somehow. The math data we sent, just on that one probe was wrong, all of it.”

The room froze. All eyes were now on me. I sank down into my chair. No one spoke a word, or even breathed. Then it erupted into chaos once more. “Get this out, now, to everyone!” Bill screamed.

I stood up from the desk and smiled at the red-haired girl. I made my excuses and headed out to get a sandwich.

The Statue: Part Two

At first I didn’t fully comprehend what they were. In the distance it could’ve been debris from a fallen building or tree, or perhaps something dragged from the wreckage of a building by wild dogs and left on the street. But, as I rubbed my tires eyes and focused, I knew there was more to it than that. The way the shapes lay, it was too human to be anything else, but too far away to be sure.
I sat back in the corner by the heavy wooden gate and took a breath. The steady beat of my heart began to increase as I realized what I had to do. I would have to send out my “seeing”.

I settled into my training with a series of slow steady breaths. I first cleared my mind, seeing only darkness in the eye of my mind. The darkness became thicker and thicker until it almost drowned out the memory of sight. It threatened to waiver, becoming shaky and unstable. Light and memory tried to creep back and reclaim my mind. I tensed instinctively to fight it, but forced calm, calling instead on the slow chant I had memorized months ago. It was a rythmic melody of Latin words I didn’t understand, but the effect was soothing. I sank deeper into the darkness. Then, at that moment, relaxed and embraced by the void, I sent out my sight.

With both eyes still closed tight, I pushed out my seeing. At first it was still dark, but the further I pushed the thinner the darkness became. I released my sight and with an almost palpable pop, I could now see, outside of myself. I can barely describe it to one who has never “seen” but I would describe it as a memory that is happening right now. You see it with your mind and have to focus to hold on. As my sight drifted out, it past beyond the gate, squeezing through the cracks of solid oak. It passed into the courtyard, and felt its way toward the statue. I had never asked the others if their sight moved as mine, but it felt as if it staggered like an old man, feeling it’s way through the air. I could sense the textures somehow, the rough pitted stone and the soft patches of deep green moss. I could sense something else as well, beneath the stone, lurking, waiting patiently as if holding in a breath. 

I had sent my sight out before, to study the unnamed hero, but still had no evidence to confirm my suspicions. Until today. I pushed ahead, feeling the resistance of the air thicken the further away it moved. My sight wound around the statue, crawling over its shoulder to perch and survey the courtyard beyond.

I glanced around the courtyard. Although no one could see my “sight”, as far as I knew, my prey instinct was to check surroundings for danger. On the North side the square was open to the river. The remnant of a once great bridge peeked out from beneath the steady flow. Across the river our enemy would be waiting, growing their number and hunting down any of our kind they came across. In time they would cross the river in force, and end this months long war.

To the East the old parliament building, its once grand columns a crumbling heap, the building so unstable now that no one dared enter. To the South stood the old courthouse, less elaborate but no less grand. It stood looming over the square with its leaning clock tower like a single eye watching in judgment. Although who it might be judging I had no clue, as most of us are lost now, and our enemy across the river seemingly beyond judgement or law. To the west, our home of late. Our prison that was once a bank. The treasury, long since looted by friend and foe alike. Now locked and boarded up, holding the last of us and our dwindling supply of food. The building stood tall, though the top few floors had collapsed. The heavy gate barred and all windows covered, it had room enough for many times our number and vaults hidden throughout. It had been our savior on several occasions, when the enemy swept through, seeking to scour us from the face of the earth. We survived, for now.

I saw nothing suspicious but the two heaps on the ground below. From up here they seemed so harmless. I swept down with my sight, ready to study and see my enemy helpless before me. The clothes were foreign, made of whatever metal or stone they had mastered. We had no such skill. They molded it to their bodies so seemlessly we could find no weakness. That was one of the reasons they won. Their faces were covered too, helmets and face plates so smooth there were no joints. I could see no damage to the armor, nothing from bullets or blades. But, the way they lay was awkward, angled and contorted beyond the normal range of a man. Whatever broke them had been strong. I glanced up at the statue. He continued to mock me by not looking back. I needed more proof.

I wished I could look closer, remove their face mask and see what looked back at me. We had never seen their faces. If I could bring one into our compound and show how he or it had been killed, it might help my theory. But the only way to do that would be to actually go out there.

But how? The building was locked down. No one went out during the day. Few went out at night any more, and only then with approval from the Hearthmaster.

I pulled back my seeing with a snap. It jolted me like a shock of cold water, and took several seconds to reorient myself. As I waited for my vision to clear I leant back against the stone and ran through my options. There were gaps, here and there on the second floor. Not much but enough that I might slip through, small as I was. But the Daywatchers would see me and if I was spotted, they may be forced to take me down to preserve the secrecy of our compound. The enemy had done sweeps before, but we always managed to hide in the heavy steel bunkers deep within the building. We hadn’t lost a soul in the last three weeks, and I didn’t think anyone would hesitate to sacrifice me for the common good. I could perhaps make a gap beneath the gate, in the corner where it was more mud than stone. But if I was caught, or worse yet, if the gap was found by wild dogs or by the enemy, I could put everyone at risk.

The question then became, why would I risk my life and the thirty lives of those here, the last ragged troupe of survivors from Le Orleon? Was there a reason, beyond stubborn curiosity? Was there a purpose beyond my own?

As my thoughts wandered, my hands seemed to decide all by themselves. I began to pull absently at the dirt under the gate. My nails dug into the mud, soft from the days of rain. Perhaps, I thought, I could push back the mud to cover my tracks and find another way to return. Or perhaps, I was tired of life inside this prison, and I should take my chances out there.

“Arie?”

The whisper travelled through the air with alarming volume, carrying my name like an accusation. I hunched up and pressed back into the shadows, turning away to hide my hands and arms caked in mud.

“I know you are there. I can hear you.” Another whisper found me. I looked around and saw a subtle twitch in the air as the sound waves shivered. I tried to identify the voice but a whisper seems to carry no accent somehow, unless you are attuned to hear it.

All I knew for certain was, someone knew where I was, and that meant whoever sent out the whisper may know what I was about to do. If I wanted to leave unobstructed, they would be no better time than now.