|This story is set in the Tales From the Blind Pig universe, in which an extraterrestrial disease called Martian
Flu has unusual effects on a significant number of its victims
-- Stein's Chronic Accelerated Biomorphic Syndrome, SCABS for
short. And there may be other, odder, things in the Universe...
Go here for more information on the setting.
by Phil Geusz
©1998, 2001 Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved
It never would have happened if February had not proven to be a slow month at the office. Even killers tend to stay home when the weather is bad, and Mother Nature was sending us wave after wave of Canadian high-pressure systems, resulting in sustained Arctic temperatures.
I was just getting around to wishing I still had thumbs to twiddle when The Pig barged in without knocking, which was about par for the course with Piggy. He was an incredibly ugly man, with absolutely no regard for the social graces. His tie was always crooked, his shirt untucked, and his glasses taped together. It would not have surprised me if his gun and badge showed signs of corrosion. The Pig had always been less than neat, but this past year he had become almost impossible to live with. Even as I watched, a gob of purple goo from the jelly donut he always seemed to be carrying around dripped onto his already-stained white shirt. Carefully, I looked away. It was only after he had been forced to shoot a ten-year-old boy two years back that The Pig had gotten really bad. His retirement was only seven months off, so the Department made allowances. He was kept on permanent office duty under the cover story that he was being used as a specialist in interrogating witnesses. No one believed this except the Pig himself, but he was the only one who really mattered. I genuinely hoped that he would not figure things out before then. Once upon a time, before tragedy in the line of duty had ruined him, The Pig had been a genuinely nice guy, ugly mug and all.
His opening remark was typical. "How're they hangin', Bronski?"
I watched Dan-Man wince as he realized exactly how tactless such a remark is when directed towards a full-morph avian SCAB like me. However, I could see that The Pig was merely living up to his title, and accepted the greeting in the spirit it had been offered. "Pretty good, Maurice, pretty good. You?"
"Can't complain. Things are mighty slow lately."
"Ain't they though? Cop can't complain about that."
"It won't last. Never does."
"Too true." There was an awkward pause as The Pig polished off his donut, chewing with his mouth open. Then he continued. "I got something interesting for you maybe, though."
"Yeah, interesting. You've heard of the Edelweiss killer?"
"Of course. Who hasn't?" The Edelweiss killings were nationally famous, and still unsolved after more then four decades.
"Got a call this morning from a witness. Says he's been holding back, wants to come clean, if I understood him right."
This was interesting! "You want me to help with the interview?" I asked hopefully.
"Naw. You see -- this guy is a SCAB now. That's why he's hard to make out."
I nodded. "What kind of SCAB?"
"A lapine. He's in what they call a 'lapine colony', he says. I recall you having a rabbit counselor in here once that you said was a friend..."
"Yes, of course. Phil."
"Right. Anyway, I told Lorena about this, and she said I was needed here today because we expect a break in a big undercover investigation. So I figured you..."
"Right. Thanks, Maurice."
"Welcome." Then a weak smile erupted on the near-grotesque features of the grizzled and damaged veteran, and I recalled his better days. "Break this one, Ken. If anyone can, it's you."
I wanted to smile and pat him on the shoulder, but could do neither, so instead I looked him in the eye as sincerely as I could manage. "Pleasure to work with you again."
Maurice swelled with pride and, as he left, I realized there might still be hope for him after all. He was straightening his tie as he went through the door.
Phil was taking his noontime nap when I called, but awoke quickly when he realized I needed a favor. The bunny was eager to help us out until he found out where we were going, but in the end he agreed to come with us. I was very glad of this; reading the body language of those morphed into other species can be incredibly very difficult unless one shares their world-view and Phil was gaining a wide reputation for his insight in working with fellow lapines. He was not available until evening, however, so Dan and I decided to review the old Edelweiss file until then.
It was a fat one. Twenty-eight people had been killed in the old Edelweiss Hotel, all within a span of a couple hours. It had happened in broad daylight and the other 329 guests and employees had seen exactly "Nada." No wonder the killing spree was one of the best known of all unsolved crimes!
Dan and I studied for hours, with me looking over his shoulder as he flipped pages. It is good luck that both of us read at almost exactly the same speed. This is one of many things that make our teamwork so effective. It is not easy for even the most open-minded to work with a full-morph SCAB, and sometimes I forget to be grateful to my partner for his helpfulness -- and his friendship.
The folder made fascinating reading. At about 2:30 PM (by the best estimates) a killer had begun moving from room to room through the hotel, leaving bodies in his wake. Each had been killed by either strangulation or stabbing, and each had died quietly enough to escape attracting attention. No locks had been broken. The killer either had a passkey, or had been let in willingly by the victims -- and no one, no one, had seen a thing.
The killings continued even after the police arrived on the scene, it was believed. The first cops got there at 4:02 PM and identified two of the victims as people they themselves had seen walking down the halls just moments before. By the time five bodies were found, panic began to set in. Rumors spread among the still-living guests, who were being herded into the lobby for their own protection. A fear-induced riot broke out when someone found a freshly-stabbed corpse in the lobby ladies' room, and the mass of terrified people broke through the improvised police cordon and out into the streets. It was widely believed that the killer had made his escape in the confusion -- or her escape, rather. The leading theory was that the murderer was either female or dressed as a woman. Otherwise, how could the killer have gotten in and out of the ladies' room unnoticed?
The autopsies made fascinating reading. Much of the information there had been kept confidential despite the many books written on the subject over the years. It was common practice, after all, to hold back certain details that only the killer would know in the hope that he might trip himself up under interrogation. In this case, however, I suspected that many of the details selected for withholding were chosen in order to avoid having to explain them publicly. For example, no two victims had been killed with the same weapon. It was incredible! Ligature marks were never the same twice, and blade widths and cutting patterns never repeated themselves. One victim even had two sets of ligature marks on his throat. Each time, the ropes were different.
Things really got weird with the stabbing victims. While some had apparently been killed relatively quickly, most had a dozen or more wounds on their bodies and the lacerations seemed to be utterly without pattern; a single victim might have multiple wounds from all sorts of different angles; front, sides, rear, one even in the sole of his foot. Weirdest of all, there were no bloody footprints or drips indicating the direction that the perp had traveled, which was flat-out impossible, of course. Many of the wounds should have jetted blood all over the assailant, yet somehow he or she had stayed clean. Had the crimes not taken place in the days before SCABS, all of this could be easily explained by postulating a polymorphic or inanimorph killer, but the Edelweiss murders were committed long before the Flu made police work so much more difficult.
Just to make things even more interesting, each victim had an unexplained coal black smudge on their temples, some on the right and some on the left. In each case, the mark corresponded to the victim's handedness. How had the killer known? Had he asked? And no one had ever figured out what the marks were. They faded within a day of death. Jeez! This was creepy!
The file was such fascinating reading that the hours absolutely flew by. As a result, we were a few minutes late picking up Phil at the Shelter. But he did not mind, the Sleepers and their fawns had come by to visit, and an unbelievably high-speed game of tag had developed. My friend was still breathing hard and shaking off snow as Dan merged our unmarked unit into the Expressway traffic. "How's the counseling business?" he asked politely.
Phil took a moment to answer. "Well enough, I suppose. But it's so hard to see a single client go off-track..."
I made sympathetic sounds, and then conversation languished for a bit until Phil spoke again.
"Have you ever been to a lapine colony, Ken?"
"No," I replied.
"Me either," added Dan.
"Hmm. Are you aware that I will have to be leashed at all times?"
Phil? Leashed? The very idea was -- barbaric. "What?" I spluttered. "Why?"
"I am a high-degree lagomorph. For still unknown reasons, we lapines have considerably more trouble with instincts and such than most SCABs. You've seen it in me."
"But nothing. I am registered with the government as having feral tendencies, which is true enough. In theory, I am supposed to be leashed at all times when in public, but there are so many SCABs in the city that no one pays attention to minor infractions, especially from rabbits. We never hurt anyone, after all. Come on, Ken, you have to know about this. You're a cop."
Sure enough, once prompted I did vaguely recall hearing something in a lecture once. "But, Phil! I would never have asked..."
"I know you wouldn't, but in a lapine colony the rules will be enforced tightly. Dan, you'll have to buckle me up."
"OK, if that's what you want," my partner responded.
"No, it's not what I want. But this is not the time or place to make a stand."
I nodded. "Anything else we need to know?"
The rabbit sighed very quietly. "Just one thing."
"I was committed to this colony myself for over a year, right after I changed. The guards and such all know me. So do many of the inmates."
"So? No one will hurt you with us along."
"The guards won't. But the inmates have nothing to lose."
Dan spoke up. "Rabbits don't fight. They are gentle creatures."
Phil just shook his head. "Right, Dan. Sure. Just don't let me out of your sight, OK?"
We made the rest of the trip in silence.
There were no signs on the little two-lane road to indicate the presence of the lapine colony; if we had not gotten directions when making our appointment, we would never have known the place was there. Even Phil was not exactly sure where the turnoff was; his memories were understandably a bit clouded, but the rutted gravel driveway was right where we had been told to expect it and the guard shack at the front gate gave us our final clue. There was a big plain black and white sign on it.
"U.S. Government Property -- Lapine Colony #47. No Trespassing. DANGER! Feral SCAB victims within!"
The guard was no friendlier than the welcome banner. "Hmm," he said gruffly, shining his flashlight on Phil in the back. "No direct deliveries allowed. I'm sorry, but you'll have to go through a doctor and get your rabbit properly registered."
Phil inhaled to speak, but I cut him off by raising the badge strapped to my leg up to the window where it could be seen. "Police business. The rabbit is here as a civilian consultant. He's with us."
The guard examined my shield minutely, and then did the same for Dan. "Have an appointment?" he asked.
"Yes. Check your log. I'm Detective Ken Bronski."
Grumbling, the guard reluctantly did as he was told, then returned after an unduly long time. "It's not visitor's hours," he complained.
I was getting tired of this already and Phil had lived here? "This is not a visit. It's official police business," I snapped. "Who's your supervisor? Maybe he can let us in."
The guard stared me full in the face. "This is Federal turf, Mister Bird!" he replied coldly. "I suggest you don't forget it." Then, ostentatiously, he returned to his little heated cubicle, and got out a sandwich. Presently, after taking his time eating it, he made several phone calls. Then, leisurely he strolled back to Dan's window.
"Turns out you do have an appointment," he said with a sneer. "But you are very late. Don't you know that the rabbit-boys need to maintain a tightly-structured schedule in order to be happy?" Then he stared coldly at Phil, who was cowering in back. "Have your noontime nap today, boy?"
My neck is very long these days. Sometimes this works to my advantage. I leaned way over, and read the guard's ID. "Stendahl, Peter J." I read aloud. "Do you live in this county?"
"Just checking. What kind of car do you drive?"
"What business is that of yours?"
"Run it, Dan." My partner got on the radio and, while he contacted the DMV folks, I explained. "This may be Federal land, but you drive through my turf every single day, Mister Guard. Gotten any speeding tickets lately?"
He took my meaning right away. "Why, you..."
"Blue Camaro," Dan interrupted. "Probably the one parked right over there." He pointed.
I made a great show of examining the vehicle closely. "Oh, the one with the broken headlight?"
Pete the guard whipped around to look. My, but he was slow! "I don't have no broken headlight!" he sputtered indignantly.
"You aren't home yet," I pointed out gently. Damn this guy had gotten under my skin! I had not had to be like this in years and I hated cops who leaned on people, but still, one good turn deserved another. "Now, do you think you can let us in, or am I going to have reschedule for another day? You only have so many headlights, you know."
Pete sputtered and grumbled a bit, but rolled aside the heavy gate and let us enter. As we passed he knocked on my window. Dan rolled it down a careful couple of inches for me. "The bunny goes on a leash!" he spat. I nodded, and we passed on into the darkness ahead of us.
The compound reminded me of nothing so much as a military base. A drab row of communal barracks faced the road from each side, with nothing to distinguish them from one another save the signs posted out front. "Hutch Complex 7," I made out as we passed one. The buildings were connected in the back by fourteen-foot cyclone fences topped with razor wire. I had been in prisons that were more colorful and lively. Dan noted aloud that the razor wire was angled to keep the residents in, not predators out.
We had been told that we were to meet Father Duncan Spiegel, our witness, in the "Recreational Center." It was the last building on the left. When we parked in the tiny lot, I turned back to check on Phil.
He was trembling violently.
"Want to leave?" I asked gently. "I had no idea that it would be like this here. If I had known, I would never have asked you to come. This is a pretty bad place, isn't it?"
He nodded, still unable to speak.
"If you want to go back to town, I'll buy you a couple drinks and never bring this up again."
Phil gazed up at me wide-eyed, looking for once like the vulnerable rabbit he was. "I... I..."
That was it. "Head on back, Dan," I directed.
"No!" Phil cried out. Dan hit the brakes, and waited for guidance.
"I've gotta do this," Phil went on, sounding a bit more sure of himself. "I've got to, now. Or else I never will. And how can I ever help these people if I'm too afraid to even set foot in a colony?"
I sighed. Phil was a good guy, but the fact was that he could get a little crazy sometimes. Everyone at the Pig knew the signs, and he was displaying many of them right then. Even his little tail was erect in an "alarm" signal. "Are you sure about this?" I asked him. "This is just about the last place you want to flip out."
"I won't flip out," he reassured me, though it was clear that he was far from certain about this. "Besides, I haven't seen Father Spiegel in ages. He never gets any visitors, and I think he'll be... afraid unless I'm with you. You need me."
"You know him?" I asked, surprised. "Why didn't you say so?"
"You never asked," he replied simply. "Now, harness me up, won't you Dan?"
The "Recreational Center" proved to be small and poorly lit. It was also cold. Virtually every corner showed signs of repeated gnawing, and the floors were heavily scratched by the endless passage of toe-claws. Phil looked very much an animal as he strained a bit at his leash and sniffed about intensely. "Oh, my!" he said as a scent triggered a memory, and "Wilson! Poor Wilson!" It was clear that he was both stimulated by the presence of so many other lapines, and at the same time deeply frightened by his surroundings. The combination made it difficult for him to get out a coherent sentence. I was beginning to really worry about him.
A guard met us at the door. He led us down a short hallway with "visiting rooms" on both sides where a family could talk with a lapiform relative through a chicken-wire screen. We were ushered into one, but Phil objected immediately. "No!" he complained, pulling stubbornly on his leash. "TV room!"
"But that's off-limits to visitors," the guard explained patiently. Apparently, not all the employees had studied under Heinrich Himmler. "You know that."
"Eight o'clock!" Phil cried out. "Eight o'clock!"
"Well..." the guard hesitated. "Yes, we do still turn off the TV at eight. And this is official business..."
"TV Room!" Phil insisted.
"All right" the guard capitulated. "But you'll have to be very careful. Father Spiegel is a known biter."
"He not bite us." Phil exclaimed. "He just bite mean rabbits. And mean guards."
"True enough," the guard admitted. "Vets too."
"Father no like shots," Phil agreed, rocking his ears.
It was not quite eight o'clock yet, so we waited in the guard's lounge and watched the lapine SCABS on the security monitor. The sight will haunt my nightmares forever. The rabbity types were mostly piled into a squirming mass off in one corner, snuggling in a mad mixture of human and lapine features. Hands and feet and paws, skin and fur of all colors and sizes were merged together in an-ever moving mass. A few individuals hopped or walked about the room, sniffing and exploring. One woman, completely human in exterior appearance save for her teeth, was gnawing mindlessly on a piece of the floor she had apparently torn up. She was naked, save for a collar. Another very large and heavily morphed rabbit was sitting in the corner, clearly alert and on guard. At his feet sat a large assortment of chew toys. Other SCAB rabbits were paired off doing what rabbits are most famous for, with the guards cheering on the more athletic couplings. No one seemed to be paying any attention at all to the taped Disney movie. I wondered how many times it had been played for them.
Presently Phil nudged up against me. He seemed a bit more himself, now. "Hard not to have instincts with all these smells," he explained. "Hard to think around old mob."
I nodded understandingly. "We can still leave." Frankly, I was rather fond of the idea myself.
He shook his head. "No, Ken. I have to learn to fight this." His voice cracked with determination.
Just then, the clock struck eight. A guard hit a switch, and the TV went dark and silent. Startled, the lapiforms hopped about in worried confusion with ears erect. Then the guards put on their bite- and scratch-proof gear, and waded into the mass of SCABS-afflicted humanity. "Bedtime!" they called out. "Bedtime!" A few obedient bunnies sat down in front of them waiting to be leashed, but others hopped about obliviously. Still others, more human than most, wailed out their complaints.
"More TV!" they cried. "More TV!"
The guards were skilled though, and without too much excessive brutality, they finally got their charges leashed and ready to be taken back to their hutches. The one who had accompanied us separated out an older heavily morphed black rabbit with a white collar from the rest of the mob, and whispered into his ear. Then, suddenly, the SCAB victims were gone, returned to their dreary hutches for a cold night's sleep before facing another drab, dull, pointless day.
"My God," I said to Phil. "This is horrid!"
"It's like this all the time," he replied soberly. "I lived here for over a year."
"Why doesn't someone do something about it?" Dan asked.
Phil looked at the floor. "Face it. Most of these poor people need to be institutionalized. I'm borderline myself. The problem is that the government has a monopoly on all the Colonies, and runs them on the tightest budget possible in order to keep the taxpayers happy. The guards are paid poorly; so only those who cannot get work elsewhere apply. Low-class pay attracts low-class people; it's a wonder that there are as many good guards as there are. Frankly, most of them have criminal records.
"And the facilities! Look around you at how cheap and shoddy the construction is. This is because the government is strangling in its own needless paperwork. You can be sure that there is documentation on the ethnic background of every single worker to prove that strict racial quotas were met, but did anyone bother to see if the walls were tooth-proof. I'm sure there is a thousand-page environmental impact statement on file somewhere, but did anyone think to ask if the heating system was adequate?"
Phil paused a moment, then went on. "This is what always happens when the government takes something over. Priorities are distorted, and special interests undermine common sense. It's happened over and over throughout history, yet the people seem to think the answer is for the government to take on more and more responsibility. And over time, 'public servant' becomes the semantic equivalent of 'public master'."
There was a moment of silence, then Dan-Man asked a question. "Who else could have taken on such a task, if not the government?"
"In the beginning, no one," Phil admitted. "SCABS was an emergency, and in emergencies there is a need for quick, decisive action. The problem is that government agencies are self-perpetuating. There is nothing so permanent as a 'temporary' agency."
"Ain't that the truth," I muttered.
"Much of the problem comes down to funding," Phil explained. "In order for the colonies to pay for themselves, they must be able to compel those who have financial resources to pay for the care of the poor. In effect, this means that competing private colonies cannot be allowed to exist, since anyone able to afford something nicer would never tolerate conditions such as you see here. Therefore, the better-off must be coerced into coming here when they would never willingly choose to do so and using coercion means developing a police state to enforce the government's demands. A police state that eventually threatens the freedoms of everyone.
"The end result is that it must be made illegal for anyone with lapiform SCABS to receive long-term care in a private institution, and the always cash-strapped officials must zealously hunt down lapines like me that have a bit of money and try to get them committed in order to make ends meet. What was set up to be a public service becomes a public tyranny. Happens every time."
At least Phil seemed to be thinking clearly once again, whether you agreed with him or not; which was a major relief. Probably it was because Dan's question had stimulated him to think logically and therefore humanly. Just then, the door opened and our friendly guard motioned for us to follow him. We went down another short hall, and made a left turn with Phil leading the way. Then a door was unlocked and, with a flourish, we were ushered in. The sound of the lock clicking into place behind us must have sounded very final to Phil, but he ignored it and went hopping joyfully across the room to greet his old friend, once Dan dropped his leash.
"Hi, Father Spiegel!" he cried.
The aged black rabbit looked him up and down quizzically, then sniffed at the counselor. Phil sniffed back and, for a few moments, they greeted each other in lapine fashion. I was beginning to doubt that the priest could speak when finally he broke the silence. "Phil! PhilPhilPhilPhil! Good to smell Phil!"
"Father!" Phil replied in turn. More sniffing and snuggling followed, and went on and on until I finally cleared my throat.
"Father Spiegel, this is my friend Detective Ken Bronski, and his partner Dan Shepherd. They are here to talk to you."
The black rabbit looked up at us timidly, clearly afraid. Dan nodded encouragingly, and I spoke aloud. "I understand you need to speak to us, Father."
"Talk about?" he asked.
Great, I thought. We had put Phil through all of this for nothing. "About the killings, Father. The Edelweiss killings."
"Oh!" he said, his eyes going wide and his stance becoming rigid. "I was there! Father, forgive me for I have sinned!"
"You saw something, and didn't report it?" Dan prompted.
"I have sinned!" Spiegel wailed. "Sinned!" He was beginning to tremble violently.
"It's OK," I reassured him. Heaven knew he had suffered enough punishment just from becoming a lapiform SCAB. If his God had any sense of justice, the sin was long since expiated. "It happens all the time. Just, please, tell us what you can."
"Tell you! Tell you! Tell you I will! Before I die!" However, he said no more, and just snuggled with Phil for a bit longer. We waited patiently, until Phil broke the silence.
"You won't be able to rest until you tell them," he whispered so quietly I almost could not hear him. "You're old, Father. Get it off your chest, before it's too late. You've helped so many others, now help yourself."
The black rabbit sighed, and nodded. "Room 209," he said quietly. "The secret lies in room 209."
Dan began writing furiously. "What about Room 209?" I asked. "Did you see someone come out of there?" Furiously I racked my brain, but try as I might I could not recall a victim in 209.
"Room 209. The killer was there."
"When was he there?" Dan asked intently.
"All the time. It was there all the time," Father Spiegel said dreamily.
"He killed people from there?" asked Dan, puzzled.
"No. But it was there all the time. Should have known."
"Known what?" Phil prompted.
"Known. Just known. My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"
"God hasn't forsaken you," Dan-Man interjected with surprising tenderness. "God loves you still."
"But it's my fault!" he wailed. "Myfaultmyfaultmyfault!"
"The killings?" I asked. "The killings are your fault?"
The black rabbit blinked. "Yes. My fault. Of course."
Then he began wailing again, and even Phil could not console him. Presently the guard came back, and gently took Father Spiegel back to his hutch for the night. I would guess he cried until dawn.
Our ride back into town was silent and thoughtful, save for one short conversation. "If you want anything more from the Father," Phil said quietly as the gates faded into the night, "you'd better hurry."
"Hurry. Why?" I asked.
"He's quite old. I'm no doctor, but his heart sounds funny. I don't think he has very long."
After that, each of us chose to keep our thoughts to ourselves as we journeyed through the frigid darkness.
Next morning we rolled up Dan's sleeves and got to work.
The files on the Edelweiss case were, as I mentioned, quite extensive. The detectives who worked the case were in some cases the very same people who had taught me the trade, and the fact that the crime remained unsolved was not due to their lack of thoroughness. It should have been child's play to find out who stayed in Room 209 on that fateful date -- but it was not. Room 209 might as well not have existed.
This could not be! We had full records for every other room in the Hotel, which had been turning away customers due to lack vacancies all day. Rooms 405, 607, and 1419 were shut down for repair -- otherwise every single room was accounted for. Except 209. For the first time, I began to think this might not be a wild goose chase after all.
You could feel excitement building around the office as Dan and I searched through the old records. Everyone knew what we were doing, of course, and was pulling for us. Lorena stopped by and asked if I thought this might be for real, and when I told her it there was a possible break in the case she got a schoolgirl twinkle in her eye and promised me all the time and help I needed. Everyone wanted to solve this one! Even The Pig was grinning as he munched on his donuts.
Dan and I ran down every possible angle we could think of on the old records. Eventually, we were able to establish through the day's total billings that indeed every room, including 209, had in fact been occupied save for the three under repair. Curiouser and curiouser...
This was beginning to look an awful lot like an inside job to me. Someone had clearly hacked the hotel records, and a hotel employee would have a passkey, yet every employee carrying one had been investigated until the cows came home, and nothing incriminating found. Most were so clean they squeaked.
For that matter, the employees without passkeys had turned up clean, too.
Early in the day, Dan-Man established that Father Spiegel, registered under the name "Duncan Spiegel," had been staying in Room 208 on the day in question, directly across the hall from 209. At my suggestion, we listed the names of the folks staying in the other rooms in that area, too.
205 -- Chester Brankowicz
206 -- Hank Richardson.
207 -- James Watson
210 -- Wilbur Morgan
211 -- Michael Potts
212 -- Jerome Flowers
213 -- Jeanine MacGregor, a victim.
214 -- Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Perlmutter, who were out attending a play during the killings.
Hmm... The deaths had occurred too closely together in time and space to allow a clear reconstruction as to what order they had been committed in, yet there was no doubt that MacGregor had been among the first. Which fit. Hmm again...
Finally, I noticed something. "Dan, don't you think it odd that so many single men, all of them registered as being alone, are roomed so closely together?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well... I've been to a few hotels. Mostly you get families and couples at places like The Edelweiss. They use it as a home base for their vacation."
"Maybe there was a convention in town."
However, Dan's research turned up nothing, so we looked closer at out little group clustered around Room 209 and right away we discovered that all of their reservations had been made within a week of each other, months ahead of time. This was beyond coincidence. Could they have been associated somehow with the killer. Had there perhaps been multiple murderers after all. Was this maybe some sort of cult killing?
Somehow, I could not see Father Spiegel involved in such a thing. And yet...
We ran background checks on all the people staying on the second floor. The Perlmutters were long dead, having been in their 70's at the time of the crime. Jeanine MacGregor was dead, too of course, and some of the others had fallen out of sight. Yet startling similarities emerged among the single men who had been clustered around Room 209 on that fateful day. All were in their early thirties, and all were well-educated engineers of one kind or another (excepting Spiegel, who I was surprised to discover had not yet entered the priesthood; back then he was Dr. Spiegel, a working marine biologist). Even more interesting to me was the blank period each of them had in their files covering several years not long before the killings. It was as if they had disappeared into some kind of black hole for a period, then re-emerged, all at the same time.
Carefully, Dan and I examined what we had on these guys. One of them, Jerome Flowers, had an advanced degree from MIT as a computer scientist. Chester Brankowicz graduated from the US Naval Academy with an emphasis in his degree on nuclear propulsion systems. Spiegel, as mentioned, had a doctorate in marine biology from Vanderbilt. The rest were engineers of various flavors, all with credentials from prestigious institutions. I knew for sure that we were onto something, but what could it possibly be?
Dan called back out to the lapine colony to try to get another appointment with Father Spiegel, but we were informed that he was very ill. It was possibly terminal, and his family had been called to his cageside. This left Dan and I the task of trying to get in touch with one of the other "techies," as we were beginning to call them. Two were dead and one was senile, but we were able get in touch with Hank Richardson without too much fuss. Modern computers make it simple to find people, but it is no easier today than it ever was to get them to talk. Detectives learn to use an indirect approach. I handled the call myself.
"Hello?" the elderly voice said.
"Dr. Richardson. This is Ken Bronski. I'm a police officer."
"Father Duncan Spiegel referred me to you. He's quite sick."
"Duncan. I'm sorry to hear that. What's wrong?"
"The vet says it may be his heart. It's serious."
"Too bad. He was always the earnest type, and a really nice guy, but I haven't heard from him in years. Why would he want to contact me?"
"It's about the Edelweiss killings, Dr. Richardson..."
Then, I was listening to a dial tone, my beak gaping open and my heart beating rapidly. Yes, we were definitely onto something! After 40 years, the case had finally broken, but it had broken into a thousand pieces, none of which seemed to make any sense at all.
Things did not get any better as the afternoon progressed. We called more of the "techies" only to be hung up on over and over again, except of course for now-Admiral Brankowicz, who was in the Oval Office and not to be disturbed according to his secretary. It was the first time anyone had ever used that particular dodge to get out of talking to me!
I was quite surprised when I answered the phone an hour later, and was politely asked to hold for Admiral Brankowicz. He got on the line almost immediately. "Detective Ken Bronski?" he asked in a soprano voice.
"Yes, this is him," I replied, letting the alieness in my own speech show a bit more than normal. It is something we SCABs do for one another to make each other more comfortable sometimes. For it was clear that the person I was talking was no longer an adult human male.
"Detective, I understand you've been calling some friends of mine about the Edelweiss killings."
My, but word got around fast! "I am after all a homicide detective," I pointed out by way of explanation.
"And a damned good one, by all accounts. Which makes this all the harder for us both."
That did not make any sense to me at all. "I'm afraid I don't understand."
"Detective, you were once in the Air Force, were you not?"
It seemed that I was not the only one busily checking old records today. "Yes, but I don't see..."
"You were part of a security detachment that transported nuclear weapons. A very responsible posting."
I decided to play along and see where this was going. "Yes. That's how I came to get my basic police training before joining the force here."
"And as part of your job, you were granted a 'Q' clearance."
"Naturally. Anyone carrying a gun around nukes gets checked out pretty well."
There was a pause, as if a decision was being made. Then it came. "Are you still willing to be bound by your oath, Detective?"
"You are getting yourself very deep into trouble, Detective. Trouble that you did not make for yourself. Contrary to popular belief, Admirals do have hearts and I want to try to dig you back out and let you get on with your life. After all, your only fault is that you are very, very good at your job. But you have to trust me, and you have to help me."
What in the hell. "Look, Admiral..."
"Look yourself. Is your boss outside your door yet?"
I turned around and peered through the glass wall. Sure enough, Lorena was outside, looking uncharacteristically frightened. Alongside her stood a confident looking stranger wearing mirrored sunglasses with CIA written all over her. Jesus!
"Yes, she's there. With a friend."
"Good. Now, Detective Bronski, are you still willing to be bound by your oath of secrecy?"
I knew than that I had just been made an offer I could not refuse. "Yes, Admiral."
"Right answer. Do you need any special accommodations to travel by car and plane. I have no desire to see a fellow SCAB be made uncomfortable, and I am not too familiar with ostriches."
"A size two standard pillow on the plane would be appreciated, but in the car I don't need anything special for a short trip. Thanks for asking. But where am I going?"
"Detective, you don't 'Need To Know', but you'll be back safe and sound late tonight. My word of honor."
The word of an Academy graduate was good enough for me. I felt better. "Yes, Admiral. Will I be meeting you?"
"I wouldn't miss it." He chuckled merrily. "Look for the ten-year old black guy in a sailor suit."
The CIA rep gave me a couple minutes alone with Lorena and Dan before we had to leave, and I reassured them as best I could by explaining that I was probably the only one in the Department that they would talk to due to my old clearance. Then it was off to the airport with Smiley, as I privately nicknamed the deadpan Agency woman. The ride was unusually long and silent. When we got aboard the little Navy VIP transport aircraft that was carrying me to wherever I was going, things got no better. Sure enough, my pillow was bolted in place of a normal seat, and the service was impeccable, but there was not the least hint of our destination anywhere to be found. The steward even closed off the windows in order to keep me from looking at the stars and all the time my mind was churning, churning, churning and getting nowhere. What in the world could all this be about, anyway. What kind of crazy secret had I gotten close to? Could the Navy be harboring a mass-murderer. If so, why. What could be so secret about a killer?
I never was told where we landed, but there were dozens of Marines all over the place and it was considerably warmer outside, though still chilly. A waiting car drove Agent Smiley and I a short way to a fenced-off office complex with many guards outside. ID's were checked and double-checked there with great diligence, and Smiley signed me in. Then we parked, and I was ushered inside. Brankowicz occupied the first office on the left. His secretary had gone home, and he was waiting personally for me in the small outer office.
"Detective Bronski, I presume?" he greeted me, standing and extending his hand.
Which always made for an awkward moment, since there was no way I could return the gesture. "Admiral," I acknowledged. Then I flapped my wings slightly to demonstrate my quandary. "Ah..."
""But of course," the little boy figure replied, withdrawing his hand in embarrassment. "I should have..."
"Happens all the time. I imagine you have your troubles too."
He grinned mischievously. "Especially on Halloween!"
I waved my head side-to-side at that, and then had to explain this was my shorthand for laughter. We talked a bit about our funniest and most embarrassing experiences, as we SCABs sometimes do, and I found myself liking the Admiral. He was not drowning in self-pity, or living in denial. Like me, he was just an ordinary person trying to get by in a world no longer geared toward his needs. His "sailor suit" was a miniature Admiral's uniform, of course, with even his decorations reproduced in miniature so as not to make them seem ridiculous and huge on his slender chest. Still, he looked more like a kid playing dress-up than a real Admiral. I was willing to bet he had even more difficulties being taken seriously than I did.
"Would you like some real Navy coffee?" he asked me, and I had to explain that I could no longer stomach anything with caffeine. The Admiral got me some plain water at my request, and then settled down with a cup of the most awful-smelling Java I have ever encountered. Air Force coffee had been bad enough, but Navy coffee was downright legendary. After each of us had taken a few sips, we got down to business.
"How is Father Spiegel?"
"Not well. In fact, it seems he took a turn for the worse as soon as he opened his mouth about the Edelweiss killings. Heck of a coincidence, that."
Brankowicz looked genuinely shocked. "Detective, Duncan is an old friend and shipmate, as well as having several times served as my confessor. Yes, I am with the Agency these days, but wet work on a friend? You have the wrong man."
"You understand why I find the coincidence suspicious, of course."
"Yes, I suppose I do, now that I think about it and frankly, in some ways the coincidence is, in fact -- fortuitous. But I will deeply mourn Father Duncan when he passes, and I pray that he will live many more years. The coincidence is exactly that -- a coincidence."
I had no solid reason to call him a liar -- yet. Judging by the Madonna on his wall with the dried-out Palm Sunday frond tucked neatly behind it, he was a genuinely devout Catholic. "I hope he lives too, of course. But if not, I'll move heaven and earth to see that he is autopsied by one of our best county coroners."
The Admiral shrugged. "Not a problem by me, if his family goes along with it. I have nothing to hide." Looking into his eyes, I believed him, but it was my job to go on.
"You've been hiding the truth about a mass-murderer for years, it looks like from where I sit. Was it you that deleted the records on Room 209?"
"Not me personally, but one of my predecessors in this office, yes -- with the help of Detective Montgomery Snyder, of your Department among others."
Monty. Monty had helped cover it up. He had been one of the great ones, one of my youthful idols. "That is not exactly going to be easy to explain."
"I know, which is why I am not even going to try. Instead, I am going to let you know the facts. When I am done, I am confident you will reach the same judgement as so many others. Including every President to come to office since we discovered the Anomaly."
Every President. As in, of the USA? Sweet Jesus, talk about conspiracy theories.
"Your military service came after the Cold War was over, of course, but you are aware that the rivalry between the United States and Soviet Russia was most intense. Sometimes far more so than public ever knew."
"There was tremendous competition in almost every sphere. One of the most hard-fought battles of the Cold War was waged beneath the waves, Detective. Tremendous amounts of money were invested in making sure that the West could keep control there, despite the best efforts of the Warsaw Pact nations.
"One of the areas where both sides labored hardest to improve their skills was in the arena of precision underwater navigation. It is impossible to launch ballistic missiles accurately unless you know exactly your own position. Every possible method of submarine navigation was investigated zealously, and the results of these studies are still almost all highly classified. They remain among our nation's most precious secrets even today, Detective."
"I can see how they would be."
"First millions and then billions were spent. All sorts of clandestine research was done, about which you have no 'Need To Know', except that quite unexpectedly we detected an unexplainable anomaly deep in an ocean trench.
"At first we thought the anomaly was the result of previous Soviet research along the, ah, same lines we were pursuing, but all our other intelligence came back negative. It became clear that we had a genuine mystery on our hands."
I nodded, fascinated.
"I suppose you've heard of the Challenger."
"The bathyscaph?" Certainly he did not mean the space shuttle that was its namesake.
"Yes. At the time Challenger was built, back in the Sixties, it was claimed that the craft's sole purpose was research and setting a new depth record at the spot now known as Challenger Deep, but since then it has become public knowledge that this was all a cover story. Challenger was actually built to recover a lost Soviet 'boomer', or missile sub, which we accomplished, in total secrecy. It was the intelligence coup of the century. Anyway, the more we studied the anomaly, the more fascinated the Navy became with it. Over time, our scientists came to believe it was artificial."
"Yes. So a new Challenger was built, this one far more capable than anything built before or since. You see, the anomaly was not only at a tremendous depth, but buried under a hundred meters of muck."
"'Ah', you say. Can you imagine the engineering effort and ingenuity it took to try to recover the source of the Anomaly. The cost in dollars and sweat and even human lives. It was incredible, and all the while one of the 'blackest' of all the 'black' projects our government has ever undertaken."
I nodded again. This was fascinating! "I suppose the results of your recovery effort are locked up in a hanger in Area 51?"
The Admiral grinned. "No, that's where you flyboys keep your alien. We squid-types are much better at keeping secrets than that. Anyway, the Challenger II had a crew of fifteen. I was chief engineer, and the others had various jobs connected with the recovery equipment. Duncan was along to study the deep-sea environment and the creatures we were digging up, since we happened to be down there anyway. If the existence of the second Challenger ever leaked, his records would be used as cover to demonstrate that we were looking for nothing more than new kinds of sea life -- and the Navy does do a lot of pure oceanographic research, after all. It was the US Navy that first attempted the mapping of the world's ocean currents."
"Really. Anyway, things went kinda crazy, and only the little group that used to meet from time to time at the Edelweiss got out alive. You would have figured all of this out eventually, once you interviewed the others face to face. It was inevitable. That's why you are here."
The Admiral sighed. "Each of us suffered various degrees of the 'bends' in the last ascent. Father Spiegel and I are SCABs -- the signs no longer show -- but the others are all Norms, and their skin is badly blotched from ruptured blood vessels, including their faces. A couple are crippled."
"Ah. And once I found out you wear a submariner's dolphins on your chest..."
"Precisely. See, you would have figured it out -- and begun asking questions among people who would know enough to begin asking other questions. And so forth."
"But what did you find down there. What is so secret, anyway. The Cold War is over!"
Suddenly, the Admiral managed to look very old. "Damned if I know, son, but I'm gonna let you take a look for yourself. Hell, maybe you can tell us!"
This was all too much, too quick. I began to suffer from an attack of skepticism. "Are you trying to tell me that the Edelweiss killer is an ET?"
He threw up his hands, palms out defensively. "Not at all!"
"Then... What do you mean by that?" He had taken me totally by surprise.
"Exactly what I said. I do not claim that your killer is an alien. Not at all."
"What are you claiming then, exactly. Why am I here?"
"I am quite certain that the Anomaly killed 28 people at the Edelweiss Hotel over 40 years ago. I was there, and I was also there when the Anomaly ran amuck on the Challenger II and nearly killed us all. The Anomaly is your Edelweiss Killer, all right. And it's as safely locked up as is humanly possible, right where it is."
"But... what is the Anomaly?"
The Admiral looked impatient. "That's what I've been trying to explain. We simply do not know, even now. Let's head over and have a look, OK. We can talk on the way; it's a bit of a drive."
Whatever base I was on, it was large. We drove for over twenty minutes, as the Admiral explained how little was known about the Anomaly. "There's no evidence that it's alive, Detective, but there's no evidence that it's dead, either. Nor can we conclusively determine if it's natural or artificial. Before SCABS we were a lot surer about many things in science, but..."
"Yeah," I interjected skeptically.
The Admiral did not like being contradicted. "Seriously! SCABS has changed our whole picture of how the universe works. What we once thought were fundamental laws of nature have suddenly become optional. Just look at you and me! Your brain isn't big enough to support your intelligence and I am aging in reverse even as we sit here and politely converse, in glaring defiance of what we once considered to be the most solid and basic of 'scientific' principles. The doctors predict, what with the new advances that seem to be coming along, that they can keep me alive right up until the sperm and egg that formed me separate. In fact, my religion requires that I accept exactly that treatment when the time comes, if the technology is available. What will happen to me then? No one knows. And you want me to believe that SCABS has to be the only irrational thing in the universe. Give me a break, Detective. And open your mind to some new possibilities."
"Surely there are theories..."
"Of course! Just as many theories as there are scientists who have looked at this thing. Some think it's an extreme form of SCABS that can travel through time, that the Anomaly was once human. Others go in for the ET hypothesis because there were some stones found associated with it that might or might not be artifacts. It was these stones, in fact, that directly led to the Edelweiss killings."
That was something that interested me. "Really?"
"Really. There were over 2000 of the rocks at the center of the Anomaly, black ultra-mafic stuff full of iron and magnesium. They appeared perfectly normal and, after a long period of observation, one was given to each Challenger II survivor in recognition of their courage and dedication. After all, we can hardly give out medals to civilians, and the Astronauts got moon rocks. When we piled them together on the table in Room 209 at the Edelweiss that day, the killings began."
"Who was staying in Room 209, anyway?" I asked.
"No one, frankly. It was just a party room where we could meet in private."
"Because it was registered in the name of 'A. Challenger II'. We all chipped in to pay for it. Frankly, when you go through something like the terrible disaster we did, you need to get together and talk about it from time to time afterwards. We held our reunions at the Edelweiss. The Navy knew and let us meet as long as we were discreet. In this case, we were neither discreet nor careful enough."
It made sense, I supposed. "What is the Anomaly like?"
"You'll have to see it to understand, Detective. Trust me on that. The whole reason you are coming along is so that you can see for yourself and help me to bury this story back into half-forgotten obscurity, where it belongs. When you have seen the Anomaly, you will understand. We'll talk more then."
There was silence for a time. Then, out of the blue, Admiral Brankowicz asked me a strange question. "By the way, Detective. Are you a religious man?"
"I'm an agnostic," I answered truthfully. "Why?"
He whistled a low note. "I was afraid of that. Listen, Detective, you're going to have to be especially careful."
"Remember how I said there are a lot of theories on the Anomaly?"
"Well... The thing is definitely psychoactive."
"My personal theory, one that's becoming more accepted every day, is that the Anomaly is a demon -- as in from Hell. Not all its victims die, Detective. Some just lose their souls."
I leaned over and peered intently at the Admiral, but he was as serious as a heart attack. "I'll be plenty careful with my soul, you can bet on that."
'This is no joke, Detective. If you feel it tearing at your identity, look away immediately. There are shutters on the portholes. Someone will slam yours shut if you become unresponsive. There are several good men and women who have become catatonics due to not listening to sound advice, Bronski. If you can't handle the religious angle, at least accept that this is something unknown and dangerous that tries to seep into the parts of our brains where religion seems to live. Those without faith seem particularly vulnerable."
"I can accept that -- and I will be careful. Promise."
"Good, Bronski. I kind of like you. I'd hate to have to watch your eyes go empty, like I've seen before." It was the casual way he said it that really made the message sink in.
I was shuddering inwardly as we passed through the last checkpoint and parked, at least I thought it was the last checkpoint. Marines were deployed all around us in a pattern that I recognized from my nuclear weapon guarding days. But this was only the beginning; a veritable wall of security awaited us within a huge domed concrete building that I suspected had once been built to contain nuclear reactions, or perhaps biological weapons. It was just inside the front door of this structure that things really got weird. I was photographed, of course, as well as x-rayed and physically searched. Even my feathers were combed, an operation that was acutely uncomfortable despite the care and skill displayed by my tormentor. My badge was removed and carefully inspected before being returned to me, but I was told I would have to surrender my pager while inside. I merely shrugged my wings; I had left my jurisdiction behind hours ago.
Once we finally were allowed past the checkpoint, I noticed that most of the sentries faced inward. And that they were armed with... I squinted my eyes, but still could not quite make it out. The weapons they held were a lot like carbines, but the barrels were, to say the least, odd. Where the muzzles should have been, I could only make out a certain, for lack of a better word, twisting of space. There was a sphere, there at the muzzle, that was both present and absent, both there and somewhere else. Looking at it gave me a headache, but somehow the sight also fascinated me, attracting my gaze in the same way a newly missing tooth entices the tongue. The Admiral had to physically push me forward.
"Remember," he muttered in my ear, "You gave your oath."
"Yes," I replied, and moved along.
There were not as many scientists as I would have expected, perhaps because the riddle had already remained unsolved for so long, but there were a few about, clustered around computer screens and arguing over equations on chalkboards. I guess scientists get frustrated and move to greener fields like anyone else. Most looked very, very tired, but the Admiral gave me little time for rubbernecking, which is rather a shame considering how well my neck is suited to such an activity these days. In no time at all, we were in the center of the complex, facing a thick concrete wall with closed portholes in it. Guards with the funny carbines stood almost shoulder-to-shoulder in a circle behind us, facing inward.
"We have never been able to photograph the Anomaly, Detective. No one understands quite why, and no two people describe it exactly the same way. We think it may only actually show itself as an image in the brain, not as an objectively 'real' reflection of light. But we cannot be sure."
"All right," I responded.
"Now, look away from the porthole when I open it. Calm your mind as much as possible, and when you are ready turn around and look. We'll stay as long as you wish; there is no need to hurry."
I complied, looking away as the clamps holding the porthole clanked a bit. Opening the window was apparently not a simple matter; I distinctly heard switches being thrown as well as mechanisms creaking and groaning. Calmly, I studied the guards and it was then I that noticed something else rather strange. All of them were wearing some sort of religious icon, whether it was a rosary tucked under their uniform and only showing at the neck, or the skullcaps that a couple of apparently Jewish sentries wore. The man opposite my porthole shouldered his weapon, and I watched his lips moving beneath his determined eyes.
"Hail Mary, full of grace," he was murmuring. "The Lord is with Thee..."
My beak dropped open. What did it take to spook a Marine belonging to an elite guard unit, anyway?
"OK, Bronski," the Admiral said. "Turn around."
I am afraid that my mind was far from calm as I confronted the Anomaly, and I paid the price for that. It was a bubbling screaming blackness, searing in its intensity. Then something happened in my brain-- there was almost a physical sensation of movement there, and then the Anomaly was upon me. It screamed in rage and defiance and "appeared".
First the blackness swirled, opening seams of there/not there space in between its coils exactly similar to that which hovered at the muzzles of the sentry's strange carbines. Then it launched itself directly at me in an unstoppable torrent of wickedness. I drew back in shock, but not soon enough. Before I could duck, the Anomaly was upon me... and then it splattered and fell away, broken by whatever mysterious forces kept it chained in place. A reassuring hand was laid on my back, a small hand, and the Admiral's voice came, as if from far away. "It always tries to break out first thing, but it never succeeds. We think it may be unable to learn."
Frustrated, the Anomaly screamed hatred at my mind. Then it went through a whole series of spiteful emotions quicker than I could register them, ending with contempt. Slowly it pooled in the bottom of its cage, becoming calmer and calmer -- and then it "displayed".
The images came from my own mind, I would guess. First, the darkness began bubbling, spitting out bits of there/not there that rose out sight toward the top of the containment vessel. Slowly, it incorporated bits of unreality into its substance, and yellow pus mixed with dark streaks of blood emerged form the boiling mass. Gradually the black turned greener and greener until it was a perfect match for the color of rotting flesh, and I was looking at gangrene, gas gangrene of the most hideous sort, where the victim is still alive but his limbs dead and rotting and the living and the dead are intertwined and the rot is in the blood and...
Then it was into my mind, in the place where religion belonged, the place I had been warned about but had not really understood. "God?" the Anomaly asked me, "God?"
"There is no God," my heart answered.
"No God!" the Anomaly chortled. "No God! No God! No God!" And it danced in glee, reabsorbing the gangrenous secretions through something that was clearly not a mouth, and yet, and yet, and yet...
Pus exploded from the creature now, in great decaying gouts. On the walls, it spread itself in glowing letters only I could see, in a language private to me. "Jehovah God" said one reeking bit of script, and "Yahweh" another. The words came too quickly then to follow, dead decayed liquid flesh spelling out the greatest hopes and dreams of Mankind. "Allah," "Kali" and "Jesus." "Odin," "Venus" and "Baal." Gradually I realized that the names were regressing in time, going back to the Beginning, and that all the names were aswirl in a horrid fetid rotten vortex of liquid filth. Gradually the swirls were becoming more complex, the script harder and harder to read as all the thousands of names of God were intermeshed and intermingled and tangled up in living death until, until, until...
Then the Admiral slammed shut the porthole and saved my soul. I fainted dead away on the spot.
Admiral Brankowicz was right there when I came around. Since I still was out in the hall of the Containment Building, I would guess he did not have to wait for me too long, but my head hurt and this wasn't helped any by having one of the funny little carbines with the ball of... whatever at the muzzle shoved in my face when I came around. The sight made me want to vomit, and I did so.
"He's clean," I distantly heard a voice say as I retched, "The lucky bastard." Then the gun was taken away, and I was helped by my feet by well-meaning but inexperienced bystanders. Not just everyone knows how to effectively aid an ostrich in standing up, I have discovered.
"Let's get him some fresh air." A path was cleared for me and, except for the shortest possible stop at the main security desk, no time was lost in getting me outside.
It was not just the coolness that made the air outdoors seem... cleaner.
Brankowicz let me regain my composure for a bit before he spoke. "Spiegel became a priest," he observed.
"Yes. And I would guess your men have the highest Divine Services attendance rate in the entire Corps," I replied.
My companion chuckled. "True enough."
"Tell me, do you have any agnostics or atheists here?"
"Of course. The ones that can convince themselves that they have been subjected to a mental attack, which just happens to take a religious form, can maintain their philosophical positions, but we do tend to thin their ranks quite a bit. It's rather difficult to be that cold and rational about something like the Anomaly."
"I can see why." In fact, I was still not at all sure how I was going to deal with this whole thing myself yet. The incredible vision of all the symbols for God vanishing into unspeakable filth... I shuddered.
"You all right?" There was genuine concern in the boy's voice.
"Yeah. Listen, why does the Anomaly kill?"
"We don't know. Just like we don't know why death is always brought about by either strangling or stabbing. Or why it hates. Or even if it is anything but pure hate. I can tell you that once it's out, it often takes on a more material form. Much like an inanimorph, but a limited one."
"Hmm. Did it -- teleport to those rocks?"
"Who knows. We are not even certain as to whether the Anomaly is made of matter or not. It wasn't until I got word that people were dying at the Edelweiss and the manner in which they were being killed that I even called the base here -- and sure enough, the Anomaly was missing."
"How did you..?"
"You have no 'Need To Know', Detective. Any more than I plan on explaining those guns to you."
"But the building was closed off. And no one saw..."
The Admiral just cocked his head to one side, and looked at me patiently
"Yes, well... I agree that no purpose would be served in pursuing this investigation any further." If I had just encountered a fake, it was such a thorough one that I could never hope to penetrate beyond it. "But I feel the world should know of this --"
"No! You gave your oath!" The Admiral's eyes were suddenly hard and deadly cold, almost as cold as the blackness I had just seen.
"Yes, I did and I will keep it, I swear. I am merely expressing an opinion."
He relaxed. "All right then. Go ahead."
"The world should know of this because it is unique. It could prove to be the key to a thousand questions, the answer to endless philosophical arguments. It's not right that you should lock this knowledge up, evil as the Anomaly may seem."
Brankowicz stared at me for an endless time, his eyes once again hard and considering. Then, he reached yet another decision about me. "Bronski, I have a question for you?"
"Has it ever occurred to you that maybe we already know the answers to the questions that you spoke of, and that perhaps these answers are what we are trying to protect the world from. Exactly what medium do you suppose the Anomaly is an anomaly in, anyway?"
We talked some more after that, detailing together how we would cover the whole thing up, but somehow I cannot seem to remember that conversation nearly as clearly as what came before. I got permission from the Admiral to let Dan-Man and Lorena know that I was performing a cover-up, so that they could help me. It took enormous trust on their part, but a couple Government letters from mysterious couriers convinced them I had not lost my mind. They trusted me blindly, in the end. It was quite touching.
Dan-Man did a much better job hacking the records than had his predecessor; he has a true gift for such things. Lorena helped me "lose" certain hardcopy records down a shredder. Though the killer is known to a few, the Edelweiss case is certain now to remain officially unsolved for all time. I have faith in Dan-Man. He's that good. And, sadly, Father Spiegel passed away in his sleep. He autopsied out clean. Just a tired old heart, was all.
Still, late at night, other more profound questions often trouble me. How many other great mysteries have been solved, but the answers withheld and limited to only a few? What exactly did Admiral Brankowicz know about God and Life and Death that he was not telling? And what did the answers mean to me, and to everyone else? Who had weeded out the clues that the rest of us so desperately searched for? Did they have somehow more right to the Truth than me? Than the rest of us? Or should I simply trust people like Admiral Brankowicz blindly, just as Dan and Lorena had trusted me? Was I better off not knowing? Was society better off? What gave people like the Admiral the right to decide for me? And yet, what if he was right?
Had I not helped to bury a little piece of Truth myself?
In the end it all works out the same, I suppose. You cannot trust the opinions of others for the answers you really need. Only your own heart, mind and soul can lead you to what is right and true for you. It does not matter what anyone says, no matter what his or her credentials or badges of authority. They are mere mortals too, bound up in the same darkness, ignorance and mysteries as the rest of us. Even those who live daily in the face of the Anomaly seemingly have no new answers despite their access to forbidden knowledge, only a sense of acute discomfort at being forced to confront directly the eternal questions. They are as broken up among the various contradictory faiths as the rest of us. From here, it looks like all of their learned studies have availed them not, but who am I to judge?
I may not ever find the Ultimate Truth all on my own, but at least I have found a few formulas to live by that I personally trust; formulas that work for me, if nobody else -- formulas I can tolerate on a day-to-day basis. This is the secret to getting by, to living life, to being as cheerful as a mere mortal can be in an imperfect world riddled with hateful things like the Anomaly. In the end, accepting life's built-in limitations as to what you can know and being stubbornly happy anyway is the only way to genuinely triumph over darkness.
Even if I must forever live my life cursed with the 'Need To Know'.