Originally published at Weaponizer.
No one could explain to Cleveland Harris why it was always raining. When they put the dome up, about five years ago, the engineers said it would be able to control the weather, not just protect them from the UV rays that were leaking through the remains of the ozone layer.
That was before some strange combination of the moisture in the soil, the water in the bay and the heating and cooling systems that crisscrossed the entire dome produced an unforeseen side effect: constant, drizzling rain. Committees were formed, studies were commissioned and budgets were examined. The result was predictable.
Nothing could be done. Since there were no actual storms, it was deemed an irritant, not a problem and the cost of redoing the heating grid would bankrupt the city and since there were no more federal funds to draw on, well, that was that. The net effect of this, also predictable, was that everyone wore raincoats, everyone wore hats and everyone walked around pissed off and miserable most of the time.
Which made them not only more likely to kill each other, but harder to identify because they all looked alike. A situation that made Harris even more miserable than the rest of them, because he was a detective for the city’s homicide division and it was his job to sort it all out when people did knock each other off.
“At least this one’s indoors,” he muttered, as he climbed from his car and started for the old office building on Saratoga. Squad cars already surrounded the building, their lights flashing red and blue on the dimly lit street. Harris wore his badge on a chain around his neck, but no one would have stopped him anyway, they all knew the detective. Tall and broad, he was an imposing figure and at just over thirty his hair was completely white.
The crime scene itself was even more dismal and dreary than the street outside. At one time the ground floor of the office building had housed an upscale gym, but now it was just a large, gutted space. The electricity had been shut off long ago and the room was lit by several portable lanterns brought in by the crime lab. In the center of the former gym, amidst the trash and clutter left behind by years of homeless derelicts, was a body, dressed in black, laying face down on the floor.
“What have we got, Ben?” Harris asked.
“Two small caliber gun shot wounds to the back of the head,” the crime lab tech answered. “Execution style.”
Harris stared down at the corpse. “M.E. been here yet?”
“So we can’t move the body. Any evidence around?”
Ben Stafford grinned. “Tons. Probably all meaningless. This place hasn’t been cleaned in twenty years and it looks like a favorite stopover spot for vagrants.”
“Which will give us a whole flood of latent prints, all worthless. Terrific.”
“Also, very little blood, so the guy probably wasn’t killed here, just dumped.”
Harris nodded, still looking at the body. Blonde, average build, average height. The M.E. would be more precise when he got him back to the morgue. Dressed in black, head to toe. “He’s not wet.”
The lab tech nodded. “Noticed that, huh? No coat, either. My people are looking for one, but I don’t think they’ll have any luck.”
Harris kneeled down to get a closer look. Something caught his eye and he got down even closer, peering under the victim’s chin. “Take a look at this.”
Ben bent down and shined a pen light under the body. “Huh.”
“What is that?”
“Looks like a priest’s collar.”
“A priest?” Harris asked.
“Yep. I didn’t think there were any priests left in the city.”
“There’s not supposed to be. The Archdiocese pulled them out years ago. Claimed we had turned into a modern day Gomorrah. Turns out it was really about the taxes the city started leveling on the church’s land holdings.”
“So what’s a priest doing here?”
Harris grunted. “Damned if I know.” His scowl deepened as he stared at the body. This was starting to look like a mystery and Harris hated mysteries. He preferred clean cut, easy to close cases that wouldn’t keep him awake at night. Harris was the type of cop that let little details nag at him if they didn’t make sense. Little details that didn’t stop nagging until he had a satisfactory answer for them.
Little details like what a priest was doing in his city.
“Who was first on the scene?”
“Dillon. He’s taping the scene off out front.”
Harris trudged outside, looked around, and spotted Pete Dillon leaning up against the fender of an old Ford. “How ya doing, Pete?”
“Not bad. Where’s your partner?”
“Court. How’d you find the body?” Straight to business, Harris didn’t much like Dillon and he didn’t want to prolong the conversation.
“Anonymous call in. Said there’d be something interesting for us here.”
“Something interesting? Those exact words?”
Dillon grinned. “Close enough. Weird, huh? The call was to 911, so it’ll be on tape downtown, you can take a listen yourself.”
Harris nodded. “What happened when you got here?”
“Pulled in about 2:15. Did a quick check of the outside perimeter, put on some gloves and went inside. Took a few steps, saw the body, stepped back out and called it in.”
“Anybody nearby, any potential witnesses?”
“Not when I arrived. There were already a few milling around when I came back out, though. Probably saw the car, wondered what was up.”
Harris looked up the street, then down the other direction. Nothing but rotted out stores, offices and warehouses. Nothing residential. “All right,” he said, “round up some more uniforms. Work in teams, take flashlights, start poking around in all these closed stores, look for fresh puddles. Question anybody you find, these places are probably full of homeless people. See if anybody heard or saw anything. Anybody’s story sounds odd, haul them downtown, we’ll talk to them there.”
Dillon stopped grinning. “That’ll take all fucking night.”
“Then you better get started.”
Without waiting for an answer, Harris turned away and walked back to his own car. He reached through the open window, grabbed the radio handset and switched it on. “Dispatch, come in.”
“This is detective Harris, badge 784395, working a homicide on Saratoga.”
“What can I do for you, detective?”
“Pete Dillon caught the call on a 911 dispatch. I need to hear the tape of that call.”
Harris leaned against the car while he waited and watched the chaos across the street. Dillon was trying to organize the other officers into teams, but no one seemed to be paying any attention to him. Harris smiled and was about to shout over some encouragement when dispatch finally came back on the line.
“I’ve got your call cued, detective. Should I play it now?”
There was an audible click, then a brief pause followed by “911, state the nature of your emergency.”
A gravelly male voice responded, “I have a message for the police department.”
“Is this an emergency, sir?”
“Not anymore. Just send a unit down to the old health club at the corner of Saratoga and Grand. They’ll find something of interest inside.” There was the sound of a phone hanging up and a moment later the recording clicked off. The voice seemed familiar to Harris.
“Is that what you needed, detective?” asked dispatch.
“Yeah. Now I need you to burn that to a couple of discs. Messenger one to me at the 38th Precinct, send the other one to voice analysis.”
Harris put the handset down and frowned. He hated mysteries.
Neil Merchant hated court.
It wasn’t the testifying. He’d been a cop so long that testifying had become simple. Nice, relaxing, just the facts, no problems. It was the sitting around waiting to testify that pissed him off. Long wooden benches that made his ass hurt. Unpleasant people waiting alongside him for their chance to testify. Most of them were nervous, many of them smelled bad.
He hated people who smelled bad.
So he was already in a foul mood before the judge dismissed the case. Illegal entry, no probable cause, all evidence deemed fruit of the poisoned tree. It made him scowl and the scowl made his youthful face look cracked and old.
By the time he got back to the precinct, his scowl had deepened and he was beginning to analyze the situation. Unlike his partner, Merchant actually liked mysteries and he thought he could see the corner of one sticking out from under the crushed remains of his case.
Harris was already back at his desk, diligently typing up the initial report on the priest’s murder, a task made all the more difficult for Harris because he could only type with two fingers.
“Hey, Cleve,” Merchant said. “What have we got?”
“Dead priest in an abandoned building,” he muttered without looking up. “How’d court go?”
Merchant dropped into his chair. “Lousy. Judge threw out the case.”
That got Harris’ attention. “Threw it out? What for?”
“Said we didn’t have probable cause.”
“What about the scream?”
Two weeks earlier, Harris and Merchant had gone to an apartment building on Bleeker Street to question one Devon Mulrooney about his possible involvement in selling a .45 caliber handgun to a gentleman who had used said gun to kill his boss. Before knocking, they heard a scream from inside the apartment, drew their guns and kicked in the door. Turns out Mulrooney was alone inside, but the vidserver volume was maxed out and they figured the scream must have come from there. Inside, in plain sight, were nearly a hundred guns in various shapes and sizes, so they arrested Mulrooney for illegal possession of firearms.
“The defense said there was no scream on the vidserver. They did their research, Cleve. They went to every damn channel and verified what they were running at that time. Nobody was airing anything that had someone screaming, not even during a commercial.”
Harris stared at him blankly. “We heard a scream. Both of us heard it, plain as day.”
“Yeah, I know. I’ve been thinking about that.”
“We missed something. Someone else in the building in trouble, maybe. Sound came from another apartment.”
“Seems like the most likely explanation.”
“We have to go back, don’t we?”
“Shit.” Harris stood up, clipped on his gun and slipped into his coat. “May as well get it over with, I’m still waiting on an M.E. report and voice analysis.”
“Yeah, come on, I’ll fill you in on the way.”
The apartment building on Bleeker Street was a slum, of course. Old, dilapidated, filthy and it smelled of urine and cigarettes. Harris and Merchant moved carefully up the steps until they reached the third floor landing, where Mulrooney lived. They stood in front of his door and frowned.
“Does it ever bother you that all these places look alike?” Harris asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Never mind. So, where do we start?”
“Not a clue.” Merchant looked up and down the hall. “Could have come from the next floor up, I suppose. Or the one below.”
“What do we do, knock on their doors and say, ‘hey, did you happen to scream really loud on the 14th, about 8:30 at night?”
Merchant shook his head. “No, I guess not. I don’t suppose we could get a warrant to search the whole building.”
“Hey, you guys! You here about the smell?”
They both turned and looked down the hall in the direction of the shout. It was a scruffy looking old man, gray of hair and beard, dressed in a pair of dirty old long johns.
“Excuse me?” Merchant said.
“The smell! The smell! What are you, God damned deaf? Are you here about the smell?”
Before Merchant could say anything, Harris interrupted. “Yeah, we’re here about the smell, but dispatch didn’t give us the apartment number of the complainant. We were just trying to decide how to proceed.”
The old man got more agitated. “Well, I’m the God damned complainer, I guess, and you can start by getting rid of that smell.”
They walked down the hall and joined the old man at his apartment. “Where’s it coming from?” Merchant asked.
“How the hell should I know, you’re the damned experts. Come inside and smell for your damn selves.”
They entered the old man’s apartment and stopped in their tracks. They had both been cops long enough that they instantly recognized the smell of death. “Where’s it coming from?” Merchant asked again, but this time the question was directed at Harris. The old man started to say something, but saw the seriousness of their expressions and opted against it.
“It’s not in here,” Harris answered. “It’s distinct, but not strong enough. Through the ventilation system?” He walked over to the air vents in the wall and sure enough, the smell was stronger. He pulled a Swiss army knife from his pocket and undid the screws on the vent cover.
“Well?” Merchant asked.
Harris stuck his face into the vent and sniffed up and down. “Upstairs, I think. Hard to be sure.”
Out the door they went, leaving the confused old man behind and hurried up the steps to the next landing. Finding the apartment above the old man’s, which happened to be just above and to the right of Mulrooney’s place, they stood outside the door. The odor was stronger up here. With a vague sense of déjà vu, they unholstered their guns and kicked the door in unison. It flew open and the smell was suddenly over whelming.
Holding his breath, Merchant peered inside.
There was blood everywhere.
And in the center of the living room, exactly what they knew would be there.
For the second time that day, Harris was sitting around waiting for the M.E.
After they had called it in, Merchant and Harris had done a quick once over of the apartment. The tenant, a young woman, probably in her mid-twenties, had been stabbed repeatedly. The knife was left lying on the floor near the body and of course the whole place was drenched in blood.
They found no identification in the apartment, nothing to indicate who she might be. Harris asked dispatch to try to reach the landlord, find out whose name was on the lease.
“In the old days,” Merchant said, “the forensic boys would have been all over this place, telling us everything we needed to know about the perp.”
“Yeah, but in the old days we actually had a budget. We’re lucky to get a single real lab guy down here to process the room and then it’s only a once over.”
“Think there’ll be any DNA?”
“That we can use?” Harris muttered. “Maybe, maybe not. If they can get something off the body, maybe under the nails or something, if she fought back, then we might have a shot. Not the room in general, though, probably been too many people in here over the years and it doesn’t look like she was much of a housekeeper.”
The lab guy came and went without saying much, so Harris had no idea if he was going to get anything useful from that. Merchant was off questioning tenants in the rest of the building on the off chance that someone might have seen or heard something. Unfortunately, at the same time the young woman was being murdered, they were busting down Mulrooney’s door and anyone likely to be paying attention to the comings and goings in the building was probably distracted by the action on the third floor.
Hell, the killer could have walked right by them that night and no one would have noticed. Except…
“There’s a convenience store across the street,” Harris muttered. He stuck his head in the room and told the uniform guarding the scene that he’d be right back if anyone asked, then took off down the steps and out the front door.
The clerk at the store looked at him blankly when he flashed his badge. He was a young guy, maybe eighteen, with no hair, a lot of tattoos and some basic body mods, horns and a ridge down the center of his skull.
“I don’t know what you want, Mr. Suit, and I don’t give a shit. I’m over here minding my own bidness, ain’t got nothing to do wit you.”
“Uh-huh.” Harris considered his choices for a moment, weighing tact and discretion against brute force and anger. Maybe a blend of the two. He leaned on the counter and smiled. “Listen, you little shit, I don’t have the patience to play games with you.” His voice was calm and measured but his eyes told a very different story. “A woman over in that building is dead. She died two weeks ago, on the fourteenth, between eight and nine pm. Now, you have a security camera here that points at your front door. See it? It should also see that door across the street because the line of sight is perfect through this glass door. So I want the discs from the fourteenth or I’m going to rip those horns right off your fucking head. Are we clear?”
The young man stammered and stuttered for a minute, but he went to the back and pulled the discs and that was all that mattered. Harris took them from him and went down to his car to grab the netpad from the trunk. Just as he sat down on the curb, Merchant came out looking for him.
“Hey, there you are.”
Harris nodded. “How’d it go inside?’
“About what we expected. Not a damn thing. M.E. finally got here, he’s inside now. What’ve you got?”
“Discs from the security camera across the street. Let’s see if we got lucky.” Harris was often lucky. It was something he had begun to rely on, probably more than he should.
The terminal allowed them to zoom through the glass door and focus on the front door of the apartment building. The problem was, when they were going into the building, people had their backs to the camera. They couldn’t identify anyone but themselves when they entered around 8:30. Shortly after that the traffic increased, becoming almost a mob of people going in and out of the house.
“We’re going to have to get this to the lab and see if they can get printouts of each face coming out of the building. At least the ones that aren’t shrouded by their damn hats. Then we can compare them against the people who should be there and see if we end up with any strangers.”
Merchant was looking at the screen, absorbing everything. “Wait a minute, Cleve, back it up a few frames.”
Harris rolled the image back. “What did you see?”
“The guy on the far right coming down the stairs, is he wearing what I think he’s wearing?”
Harris looked at the image again.
“Shit. How did I miss that? That’s him.”
He brought the image in tighter on the man’s face.
And on the white priest’s collar around his neck.
Two hours later Harris and Merchant were sitting in an empty interrogation chamber, sorting through the reports on both cases. The medical reports had started filtering in on the priest, but the details weren’t very helpful so far. Tox screens had turned up a heavy concentration of barbiturates in his system along with some alcohol. Not enough to kill him, but he wouldn’t be very active, either.
They found nothing in the city print or DNA databanks to match him and they probably couldn’t get approval to do a national search, not a high enough profile case, the chief would never authorize the expense. Besides nobody ever came to the city. It wasn’t exactly a tourist attraction. The autopsy confirmed that cause of death was two gunshots to the back of the head. Recovered bullet fragments showed the gun to be of a .380 caliber.
There was no identification or personal effects on the body. A canvas of the neighborhood turned up exactly what Harris expected to turn up. Nothing. Nobody had seen anything suspicious, nobody had seen a priest or anyone else near the old health club. He had uniforms questioning the neighbors at Bleeker Street armed with photographs of the priest, but that would take time.
Merchant stared at one of the photographs for a minute and asked, “Can we place him in the girl’s apartment?”
Harris shrugged. “Who knows? Deitrich pulled seventy some separate prints from that place and it’s going to take awhile to process them. If we’re lucky, we’ll put the priest inside. Then what?”
Merchant shuffled through some papers. “Landlord said the place was rented out to a Derek Roth. No mention of a wife or girlfriend living there.”
“And no sign of a man living there when we went through the apartment. Only her things in the closets. Only one toothbrush in the bathroom. You think this Derek Roth is the priest?”
“It’s possible. Let me run him through the computer, we got a social security number on the lease.” Merchant switched on the wireless terminal and typed the number into the city databank. A few seconds later he had an answer. “Zip. No one using that number has ever been arrested or employed in the city.”
“Why am I not surprised? Everything about this case makes my head hurt.”
“Want me to make it hurt more?” This came not from Merchant, but from the doorway. They both turned to see Sam Kreiger, the aging tech from the video analysis section. He stood in the doorway, broad as a wall and hairy as a bear, not a trace of gray even though department rumors put him at almost seventy years old.
Harris just frowned, but Merchant took the bait. “What have you got, Sam?”
Kreiger strode into the room and laid a bunch of photos down on the table. They were still images of the priest coming out of the apartment building with the rest of the crowd. “Okay, take a close look at his nose.”
“His nose?” Harris asked.
“Yeah, his nose. Notice anything?”
“Looks like a normal nose to me,” Merchant muttered.
“There’s a shadow along the right hand side of it, which would place the light source to the left. Now look at everyone else’s noses.”
“Shadows are on the other side,” Harris said.
“How it that possible?”
Krieger grinned. “It’s not. These images have been doctored. That man shouldn’t be there. It’s an extraordinary job, I’ll give you that. No pixilization, seamless edging. And this was in full motion video, not just still images. Very impressive.”
Harris and Merchant looked at each other, then back at Krieger.
“That film came from a security camera at a convenience store. Who would mess with a security camera?”
The old man’s grin widened as he headed for the door. “Not my problem boys, you’re the detectives.”
They sat at the table, flipping back and forth through the photos. After a few minutes, Merchant said, “Why didn’t we notice that?”
“Cause it’s a fucking security camera. When’s the last time you had a doctored security cam disc? I’ll tell you when. Fucking never, that’s when.” Harris stood up and started pacing the room. “It doesn’t make any damn sense, Neil. We got a dead priest who shouldn’t even be in the city, we can’t identify him, he shows up in the security footage on a completely unrelated case and now the footage is doctored.”
Merchant watched as his partner paced about the room. Harris’ behavior at times like these always fascinated him. He knew Harris hated mysteries, but he was actually very good at solving them, much better than Merchant himself would ever be. Right before a breakthrough he would start pacing like this, muttering to himself, then he’d pull a plan out of thin air and it almost always led them in the right direction. Merchant considered himself very lucky to be partnered up with Cleveland Harris.
Almost as suddenly as it started, the pacing stopped. Harris crossed to the phone and dialed the number for the morgue. He said something about coming down to see the priest’s body, then scowled as he listed to the reply. “How,” he asked and then listened some more. The expression on his face grew darker and darker and he hurled the phone across he room.
Almost afraid to ask, Merchant stood up and said, “What is it, Cleve?”
“The priest’s body, it’s gone.”
Harris didn’t sleep that night. He spent his time walking the streets, listening to the cold, still rain and thinking.
He never slept when he had a case like this, where things didn’t fit together logically. He’d turn them over and over in his mind and try to make the pieces fit together.
There was obviously something big he wasn’t seeing. The problem was he just didn’t know anything, yet. He didn’t even know who the victims were, so how could he possibly tie them together? Maybe some more information would filter in from the apartment murder. Maybe the girl’s prints would be in the databanks.
By morning, he had run through every piece of evidence he had hundreds of times and was still drawing a blank. He gave up on the idea of sleep and headed back to the precinct. Maybe some of the reports had come in overnight.
The squad room was quiet.
Merchant wasn’t due for another two hours. Neither were the rest of the day shift detectives. The night shift guys were probably out at a crime scene. Only the log officer was at his desk and he seemed almost asleep.
Harris sat down at his desk and reached for the case folder for the priest. He paused. It was labeled now, with a name. Martin Holloway. Had they identified the priest while he was out? Why hadn’t someone called him?
He looked at the outside of the folder and for some reason, it made him nervous. He didn’t want to open it.
He looked at the name written in the black marker, neat and precise. It looked like his own writing. Hands unsteady, he flipped open the cover. Inside were crime scene photos, but not the ones that had been there before. He closed the cover and looked at the address again. It was the right file, the old gym.
The photos showed the same scene, but the body was different. This man was blonde and dressed in light colored clothing. He flipped through the reports. All the same, except there was no mention of the priest’s collar. And his fingerprints had been on file, that’s how a positive ID had been made.
Harris scowled at the reports.
They all had his signature on them. Even the fingerprint search request.
He picked up the phone and dialed the forensics lab. “Is Stafford in yet?” he asked. They put him on hold. He sat there, stomach reeling, unable to comprehend. When the lab tech finally came on the phone, he could hardly speak. “That case we caught yesterday,” he mumbled, “on Saratoga Street?”
“At the old gym, yeah, what about it?”
“Do you remember what he was wearing?”
Stafford paused. “Don’t you have pictures, Cleve?”
“Humor me, tell me what he was wearing.”
“Okay. Khaki pants, pale blue oxford, dark brown shoes. He didn’t have a coat and he wasn’t wet, is that what you’re looking for?”
“You remember anything about a collar?”
“His collar? Normal collar for an Oxford, why?”
“Never mind.” Harris hung up the phone and leaned back in his chair. A joke? It seemed impossible. Could he be losing it, could the whole thing have been in his mind? He didn’t think so, but would he know if he was going crazy?
He sat there, just thinking it through, until Merchant arrived.
“Solve the case yet, Cleve?” he asked.
Harris just stared at him.
After a minute, Merchant said, “something wrong?”
“Just wondering if you’re in on it.”
Harris shook his head. “Nothing, never mind. Do you remember that priest yesterday?”
“Priest?” Merchant shook his head. “No, I don’t remember any priest. We don’t have priests in the city anymore, do we?”
“No, I guess we don’t.” He stood up and started for the exit.
“Hey, Cleve, where ya going?”
“To get my head examined,” Harris muttered and walked out the door.
Harris thought it was a joke at the time.
But after a visit to both crime scenes, he found himself more confused than ever, so he headed for the department’s medical infirmary. It took some doing to convince the doctors to run tests on him without an explanation why, but eventually they agreed.
They did a basic physical exam, took x-rays and ran an EEG test. They all came back fine. As a final check they ran a Brainwave Sensory Impulse test. That wasn’t fine.
Harris was pacing the examination room when Dr. Phillips came back with the results. “Well,” he asked. “What is it?”
The doctor shook his head. “I don’t know. Let me show you something.” He spread out a long piece of paper that showed numerous lines in various colors, crisscrossing in intricate patterns. “These represent the various electrical impulses in your brain. We’re still learning what all of them do. It’s not an exact science, yet, by any means. However, we do know one thing. Do you see this gray line here?
“You shouldn’t. I’ve never seen it on another BSI test. Ever. There should be thirty-two separate and distinct lines. You have thirty-three.”
“What does that mean?”
Dr. Phillips frowned. “I’m not sure how to answer that. Like I said, I’ve never seen anything like it before. I pulled your file and compared it to your old test, that one was normal. So whatever happened to you, happened since your last mandatory physical evaluation. That would lead me to believe that it’s artificial, rather than some sort of natural mutation.”
“Artificial? As in someone fucking with my brain?”
“That would be my first thought, yes, but it brings up another question that I can’t answer. How? I did a careful examination of your skull, there’s no recent wounds of any kind, no injection marks. Your toxicology report shows no foreign chemicals in your bloodstream. It’s a physiological change, so it can’t be accounted for by something like hypnotism. I just don’t know how it could have been done.”
Harris thought about it for a minute. “Could this affect my memory? Or cause hallucinations?”
“There’s no real way to tell. Have you been having problems with either?”
“I can’t help you if you don’t tell me.”
“Shit. You’re right.” Harris resumed his pacing as he went back over the previous day’s events with the doctor, step by step. When he was finished, he sat down on the examination table and waited while the doctor thought it over.
“So, if it was an altered reality, it’s been corrected today. You haven’t seen the priest at all today, just things as they really should be, correct?”
“Yeah, I guess so. I can’t find any reference to the priest in anything, even my own reports.”
“Detective, I hate to say this, but that presents a new problem.”
Harris grimaced. “Why doesn’t that surprise me? Okay, doc, unload. What is it?”
“Well, if your mind was tampered with yesterday, somehow, then it could have added that thirty-third wave to the BSI test. But if the alteration was undone, the wave shouldn’t still be there. So there’s the possibility that what you’re experiencing today is the alteration.”
“But…” He sat silent for a minute then said, “What about everybody else? They don’t remember the priest at all.”
“Two possibilities. Either your perceptions of what they tell you are being altered or their memories of yesterday are altered as well.”
“Then why would I have memories of the priest, when they don’t?”
“You said you didn’t sleep last night, you were too caught up in the case. Maybe you need to be inactive for the change to take effect.”
“So, when I do get to sleep, I could forget everything about the priest?”
“Yes, It’s possible. Probable, even.”
Harris considered it for a moment. “All right, doc, I’m going to try to get my partner to come in for a BSI test. Don’t explain anything to him, just run the test. I need to know if others are really being affected by this.”
“Okay, I can do that.”
“In the meantime, I think you better give me some stim packs. I can’t afford to sleep until I figure this mess out.”
As Harris left the med building and started down the large, ornate steps, he stopped dead in his tracks. Across the street, on a bench in front of the park, sat the priest, reading a newspaper. He made his way down the rest of the steps and across the street without taking his eyes from his quarry.
Two steps away, he stopped and said, “You’re under arrest.”
“For what, detective? With what crime can you possible charge me? Being alive?” His voice had a strange lilt to it, almost European, but not quite.
“Tampering with evidence. Interfering with a murder investigation.”
“Really?” The priest neatly folded the paper and laid it on the bench beside him. “And how do you expect to make that stick, detective? Nobody else even believes I exist.”
“Being taken care of as we speak. An oversight on my part, I never expected you to go that route. But then, that’s what these things are all about, isn’t it? The unpredictability?”
Harris stared at him and frowned. “You ever have one of those days where you feel really dense? Like the answers are all in front of you and you just can’t see them clearly?”
“Happens to the best of us, detective.” There was a slight tinge of sarcasm every time the priest used the word ‘detective’.
“You know what’s going on, don’t you?”
“Do you have any siblings, detective?”
Harris thought about it. “That’s weird. I can’t remember.”
“Of course you can’t.”
“Who are you?”
The priest smiled. “You can call me Gary, how’s that?”
“If you like, yes. In fact, I rather like that.”
“What are you after, Father? What do you want?”
“Inconsistency. Mistakes. I want you to see the flaws in the design. Like the newspaper lying at my side. You can’t quite read it, can you? Even though the banner is right on top, it’s just out of focus.”
Harris shook his head. “The words are English, but I don’t understand a damn thing you say.”
“I think you do, son. Deep down inside, I think I’m starting to get through. The puzzle isn’t making sense anymore, you keep turning it over and over and it doesn’t make any sense at all. You can keep twisting it, trying to fit the facts into your preconceived notions or you can step back and look at the larger picture. Think outside the box, as they used to say in those silly TV adds.”
The scowl of Harris’ face deepened. “There’s a pattern here and I’ll find it. And I’ll nail you with it.”
“Such hostility. Tell me detective, what is your mother’s maiden name? Was she a good cook? Could she make an apple pie? You can’t remember, can you? Do you feel a slight itching sensation on the back of your head? Down at the base of your neck? I can tell you why. I can even make it go away, if you let me.”
Unconsciously, Harris began to scratch at his neck.
“Don’t let him fool you, Cleve.” It was Merchant, suddenly standing there, as if he’d been there all along. His gun was drawn and aimed at the priest.
Father Gary smiled. “Now there’s a development I didn’t expect.”
Harris looked back and forth between them. Merchant looked frightened, but the priest did not. An odd reversal, considering their positions.
“I don’t think he’s armed, Neil,” Harris said.
“He’s already killed two officers, Cleve.”
The priest stopped smiling. “Oh my. It’s not only gained some form of sentience, it’s writing its own scenario. That shouldn’t be possible. Although it does explain a few things. His consciousness was probably fighting with yours, each filling in details of an impossible crime.”
Harris looked even more confused. Ideas were starting to break through, but he could feel his mind pushing them away. He looked at Merchant and frowned. “He hasn’t killed anyone, Neil. He’s the vic, remember?”
“The vic? What’s wrong with you, Cleve? He’s standing right there. He’s not dead.
“No,” said Father Gary. “I’m not, am I?”
Then Harris started to hear voices.
They were faint at first, but then they started to get just a little louder. They seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once and they were directed at the priest.
“I don’t understand why you don’t just pull the plug,” one of the voices muttered. It sounded familiar, but he couldn’t place it.
“Too dangerous,” answered another voice, one that sounded like the 911 dispatch officer. “He has to do it himself.”
“It’s leaking in, isn’t it?” The priest asked.
“What’s leaking in?”
Harris turned from him and started to walk away. Away from the priest and from his partner. I’ll go back to my apartment, he decided. I’ll lie down a bit, think things through. It would all fall into place. It always did.
He walked several blocks down to First Avenue and stopped. Which way was his home? He knew it was off First Avenue, but what direction? Why didn’t he know?
“You don’t know where your apartment is, do you? You’ve never had a reason to know.” It was the priest again, right behind him. “The action of the story never necessitated it.”
“Don’t listen to him, Cleve.” His partner was there, too, behind the priest. “He’s trying to confuse you.”
Harris ignored him and focused on Father Gary. “The story?” He tried to regain his composure so he could think. “You’re not really a priest, are you?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Then why the get up?”
“You’re a lapsed catholic, Cleveland. This is the face you assign to authority that you don’t understand.”
“I assign. Like I gave you that appearance?”
“You’re name isn’t really Gary, is it?”
“No, it’s not.”
Harris sat down on the curb, feeling defeated. Merchant was gone now and the street seemed different, out of focus. “So why do I call you that?” he asked.
“Another clue from your sub-conscious, I believe.”
“From my…” His voice trailed off as he thought about it. “Gary Gygax,” he whispered. “Of course.” The pieces finally started to fall into place. “How long have I been in here?” he asked.
“Wow. Where was the scenario supposed to end?”
“With the Mulrooney case. But you got too caught up in the program and just kept right on playing.”
The world seemed to implode around him, the city shrunk away into his eyes and became a blinding white light that gradually faded into the slightly dimmer light of a science lab. He tried to sit up from the fitted bed he rested in, but his muscles wouldn’t cooperate.
“Don’t try to push it, Cleve, you’ve been there for weeks.” The voice was that of the priest from the scenario, but the face belonged to Professor Daniel Hampton, the inventor of the virtual gaming system that had been his prison.
“My head hurts like hell.”
“That plug is designed for two weeks, maximum. You doubled that time. I was afraid you were never going to come out. What finally got through to you?”
“Father Gary, Gary Gygax, father of the role-playing game. Once that clicked it all came together. I think the game needs a few more safeguards before you put it on the market, Professor.”
Hampton shook his head in agreement. “I know, I know. I’m already working on it. What about texturally? Anything it lacks?”
“Wind. Thunder and wind. If you’re going to have that much rain, you’ve got to have thunder and wind.”