A man stumbled across the dark street, his yellowed, bloodshot eyes open narrow beneath sagging eyelids. His mouth hung open as he shuffled across the road, pulling in short, weak breaths of air.
The headlights rolled up the street, illuminating the man shuffling through the street. The horn blared as the car swerved to avoid him, the man not reacting to the speeding vehicle.
The driver pulled onto the side of the road, stepping out of the vehicle and rushing toward the pedestrian.
She walked around the front of the vehicle to behold a body in the street, collapsed face forward against the curb. She gasped in horror as she ran to his body, grabbing him by the shoulder and turning him over.
She cried out in horror as she looked at his face, his jaundiced eyes glazed over as the blood dripped from his mouth over his lesion-marred jaw.
He was dead.
I shuffled the bacon around the pan, the searing sounds populating the silent kitchen in the cold morning.
I felt a pair of warm hands run up from beneath my arms, sliding over my abs and chest as Iris pushed into my back, gripping at my shoulder and my ribs.
“Good morning, handsome.”
“I didn’t think I could love any smell as much as bacon, but…” I turned to her. “There’s just something about you.”
She giggled. “That’s a bold comparison.” She said.
“It’s true.” I said. “And you don’t taste too bad either.” I smiled, wrapping my arms around her as I slowly kissed her. She held her forehead to mine as we came apart, closing her eyes and heaving a sigh.
“Smooth.” She said.
“I’m not sorry.” I smiled.
She turned toward the skillet. “I’m not asking you to be.” She said. “Not every girl has a man who loves her more than bacon.”
I wrapped my arms around her from behind, grasping her hands in the front pockets of her black sweatshirt and gently kissing her neck. She moaned. “Are the girls up yet?” I asked.
“Carolynn.” She said. “I’m sure they’ll all be down in a minute.” She flipped the bacon in the pan. “Especially once they smell this.”
“You’re probably right.”
I held her for a moment, burying my head into her shoulder, touching her soft skin, taking in the smell of her hair. It had been two weeks since I stopped Lazarus and brought her home from the hospital.
“I’m so glad you’re okay.” I said.
“You’ve said that.” She laughed. “I missed you too, lover boy.” She said. “These past two weeks have been so special. Finally some easy nights. Ever since Hangman came around, everything’s been so crazy. It’s nice to finally have a chance to breathe.”
I sighed. “…I love you.”
“I love you too, sweetheart.”
I touched the side of her neck, turning her head toward mine as I kissed her again.
My cell phone rang from the counter across the room. “Every damn time…” I mumbled as I reluctantly let her go, moving across the room to pick up the phone.
“Who is it?” She asked.
The call had been redirected through my informant line, a caller named Aaron Slate.
“Slate.” I said. I answered the call. “Captain.”
“Murdoch?” He asked.
“Azrael.” I corrected.
“I got something I want you to take a look at.” I said.
“The Mercy Hospital morgue. There’ll be a squad car there.”
I turned toward Iris, who promptly shrugged. “I’ll be right there.” I said, returning the phone to the counter. “Gotta run, pretty lady.”
She exaggerated a frown. “But there’s bacon…”
“That’s more my loss than yours.” I said, placing my hands on her hip and her side. “Save me some, alright gorgeous?” I said.
She lifted her leg as I slid my hand down to her knee, wrapping her arms around my neck.
“I can’t make any promises.” She smiled.
She kissed me goodbye.
“Be careful, hero.”
Captain Slate’s stressed expression was unchanged as I entered the morgue. I kept my gaze steeled in the center of the room as he moved to my side, following my walk into the room and talking frantically. I stopped abruptly, scowling slightly and using my gaze to indicate two officers and a photographer in the room before glancing at the door. He paused for a moment before turning to each of them and telling them to give us the room.
He closed the door behind them. “You got some stones to walk around showing your real face like that.” He said. “What if somebody recognizes you?”
“That’s not how this works, Captain.” I said. “If you put a picture of what I look like every day next to what I look like to you right now, you wouldn’t think we’re the same person.”
He was nonplussed.
“Don’t overthink it too much.” I said. “What’s going on?”
“Guy came in here the other night after a woman found him on the road.” He said.
“Sounded like foul play, but he doesn’t have any kind of accident damage.”
“He’s sick.” He said. “None of my guys have ever seen this before, and this guy isn’t the first.” He sighed. “I’m grasping at straws.”
“Thank you for the vote of confidence, Captain.” I replied. “Let me see him.”
He pulled open the drawer and I examined the patient.
“Long, dark scar tissue on the skin.” I remarked before pulling open his eyelids. “Jaundice, bloodshot eyes.” I said. “Anything on his lungs?”
“Coroner said there was blood in his lungs.” He said. “He tells me they look like they just… Wore through? Some medical crap, I don’t know. I can get you a write-up with the pictures.”
“Get on that.” I said. “Died about twelve hours ago, right?”
“Anything on scene?” I asked.
“Nothing of note.” He said.
I looked the body over once more. “How soon can you get the case information ready?”
“About an hour.”
I closed the drawer. “Full evidence workups and autopsy reports, plus pictures. I’ll pick it up at the precinct in ninety minutes.”
“If you say so.” He said. “You ever seen anything like this?”
“No.” I answered. “That’s what worries me.”
I stood in the garage, staring at the wall of various autopsy images. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was wasting my time. I’d spent the past few weeks exclusively searching for Lazarus’s connections, and I still wasn’t any closer to finding anything out about the people he worked for.
How much can I really figure out about a disease? I thought. If there’s some kind of epidemic, that’s not really my area of expertise. Still, I knew there was more going on than met the eye, I just had to figure out what.
Iris stepped into the room, gazing up at all the pictures pinned to the board.
“That’s quite a show, but Halloween’s not for three more days.” She said. “And most people would just put on a slasher flick.”
She sidled up beside me as I threw my arm over her shoulder. “Very funny.” I said. “Albeit morbid.
“Captain Slate called me in on this one. Said he’s never seen anything like this.”
She took a moment to look over the collage of symptoms. “Yikes. This looks terrible.” She said.
“I looked over the autopsy reports, and it looks like all of them died four to six days apart.”
“That doesn’t bode well.” She said. “Tell me about the symptoms.”
“Jaundice, lesions on the skin, ruptured lungs, internal hemorrhage. It’s not pretty.”
“Yikes.” She cringed. “Any ideas yet?”
“The most significant thing is the lungs. The autopsy reports make it look like there was some severe degradation to the lungs and diaphragm. I’m thinking it starts with diaphragm spasms, restricting breathing. The lungs degrade after that.”
“Which would produce issues with the red blood cells, hence the jaundice.” She said.
“Exactly.” I agreed.
“What about the scar tissue?”
“I’m not sure.” I said. “My working theory is that the disease is affecting white blood cells. The lesions being caused by that is a bit of a stretch, but it would explain the respiratory dissolution.”
“That makes sense.” She said. “Any ideas about where it came from?”
“I don’t have any reason to believe it’s anything unusual.” I said. “But there’s something about it that I just don’t like.”
“I get what you mean.” She said, sidling up under my arm as we looked up at the photos.
“Wait.” She said, walking up to one of the pictures and placing her fingers on her chin. “Did the notes say anything about this?” She asked, pointing to a scar on a man’s lower right abdomen.
I looked closer, thumbing through a folder. “A point-four-inch scar on patient’s abdomen, likely from a shallow, minimal abrasion.” I read. “Do you think it’s significant?”
She flipped through a series of similar pictures from the other victims. “I wouldn’t say it’s a coincidence…” She said “But I don’t… This guy has it too.” She said. “And this woman.”
I looked at the photos. “They’re not quite the same.” I said. “This one angles differently, and this one’s more to the outside of the hip.”
“You don’t think they’re important?”
“I don’t think they’re irrelevant.” I said. “I am curious about why, but I think I’ll need to analyze them in person.”
She flipped through the pictures. “I…” She threw them onto the table. “Look at this.”
She pointed to a pair of the scars. “If you transposed these two on top of each other, the ends would line up perfectly.”
I turned to the computer and layered the scans together. Sure enough, the corners of the scars met each other at a perfect ninety-degree angle. “That can’t be a coincidence.”
“No.” She said. I added to rest of the transparent images to the frame, fading the scars together.
They formed a pattern, a series of lines across sequential six-point grids.
“Oh my god.” I said. “They’re numbers.”
Iris stared in horror. “Someone did this to them.”
“And wanted us to find them.” I said.
“Four, nine, two, zero… That last one looks like an eight.” She said.
“What does it mean?” I said. “It has to be some kind of location.”
“Why would that be?” She asked.
“Whoever did this let their victims die in the streets.” I said. “They wanted us to know they exist.”
She clicked around the edges of the screen as she searched for results. “The street address itself points to a few different places. Couple residential areas, an apartment complex or two, that hardware store where we fought Anagram.”
“Maybe we’re looking at it the wrong way.” I said, tilting the laptop my direction. “I generated a map of all the victims’ homes, workplaces, and the locations of their bodies. If I add the locations with the address number…” The points began to appear onscreen. “Huh.”
Iris examined the monitor. “It looks like there’s a few places that are central, but I don’t think this is enough to go on.”
“Maybe we’re looking at this the wrong way.” I said. “What if there’s more to the scarring pattern than meets the eye?” I turned back to the table where we’d spread out the abdominal scar images.
She followed to glance at the images, placing a hand over her chin. “There’s at least two separate ones on everyone.”
“What if it’s some other kind of code?” I asked. “Each part of the eight is a different scar…” I looked through the records. “Look at the eight.” I said. “All these lines are separate on the victims. What if they were used to number them?”
“Then what are the others for?” She asked.
“Location.” I said. “But… Wait.” I moved to the computer, rotating the layered images to line up the scars that had formed the shape.
The other scars toward the inside of the abdomen began to intersect and fit together, forming a circular symbol with a series of lines passing through it.
“I’ve seen this before.” Iris said. “This is in Bastion.”
“Downtown.” I said, searching for the location online. “Looks like the intersection at Forty-Nine just down from Five Points.” I brought up the location on the map.
“Looks like it.” She said. “Where do we start?”
“Right in the center.” I said. “Let’s get to it.”
I stood on the building above the intersection, looking out over the dark street. The apartment complex beneath me had proven fruitless in my search for the source of the infection.
Come on, Az. I thought. It’s gotta be around here somewhere.
I looked again at the scar compilation I’d made. I’d already explored several of the buildings around the square, with no luck. There has to be something.
I jumped down to the street level, extending my consciousness into the buildings around the square, searching desperately for any signs of life. I reached out.
Humans, nearby. Sleeping apartment tenants. I thought. Rats beneath the streets.
…Why are there so many rats?
I touched the pavement, looking deeper into the ground. Rats. Maybe hundreds of them. Something was down there.
I opened a manhole, sliding down the ladder into the tunnels below as my mind mulled over the implications. This many rats in one place couldn’t mean anything good.
I walked down the first tunnel, approaching a light at a junction a few hundred yards away.
I watched as four rats scurried down the side of the tunnel before me, all turning around the same corner without ever slowing down. They were going somewhere.
I stepped into the open tunnel, the pale yellow light dim over the old brick tunnels. The passage reeked of putrid flesh and sewage.
I followed them down the corridor, more rats seeping slowly from the divergent tunnels and passing into the junction. To the right was the tunnel that led to the reservoir.
I thought back to the night I’d nearly been beaten to death in the same reservoir trying to stop Temple.
I laughed to myself. You walk through a lot of sewage, handsome?
I stepped into the chamber, an enormous rounded brick room with a grate floor. It had only been a few months since I last found myself in this room, almost crushed to death beneath five hundred pounds of stone.
The rats gathered at the edges of the room, speeding down a pipe toward an edge above the water below. I opened a service hatch in the grate, floating gently down to follow them. They rushed along the side of a large pipe, pouring sewage into the next chamber. I flew slowly down the tunnel above the water, coming out into the next chamber.
I couldn’t believe my eyes.
The long, thin chamber had a dry passage running up the middle toward a solid wall at the far end of the massive room. The two longer walls ran diagonally down into the floor, steel pipes falling from the ceiling to the floor. The walls were fitted with various ventilation shafts, doing little to help the stench of the old sewer.
I walked slowly up the path toward the end, examining the room as I went.
It had been retrofitted with a series of cubic blocks, sealed glass walls around large steel frames. The boxes sat on a ledge about a foot of the ground to either side of the channel running up the center of the room, skewed casually with little care. I approached the first one, noting a recording device hanging next to a clipboard. I pressed the play button as I looked into the cell.
A dead woman sat in one corner, the rats clawing at the glass surrounding her lifeless body.
A voice played from the recording device. “Subject four, day one. Patient has exhibited few symptoms, merely the occasional coughing spell. Her bloodwork is encouraging, but time will have to tell.
“Day two. Patient has begun to display hemoptysis, frequent coughing spells eliciting small to medium amounts of blood. General fatigue has set in, and the bloodwork looks ever more promising.”
I walked a few containment units down, passing more bodies. He’d spent time engineering this. He’d put in effort. Resources.
This was a man to be feared.
I examined a few more bodies, listening to the recordings with each one I passed. He talked pridefully to himself as he described them, taking a sick pleasure in every new symptom and death that came up. I could almost hear his sinister smile as I passed each block, listening as he described the dark scar tissue beginning to appear on his victims. The coughing spells, the respiratory dissolution.
The recordings began to loop on themselves, his snide voice echoing through the brick chamber in multitudes, a sick chorus of schadenfreude-ridden self-indulgence.
The lights in the room flickered and began to fade as my eyes were pulled up to the edge where a glass control deck lit up.
An image projected from inside the room, a dark silhouette central in the frame. A hooded figure stepped forward.
He wore a navy blue coat, perhaps a few sizes too big, accented with grey bands around the arms. A black shirt was wrapped tightly around his small torso like bandages, highlighting his skinny, hunched posture. He was wrapped in a series of black bands, fitted with a series of various orange glass containers. A blue hood covered his head, hung above a gas mask covering his mouth and nose, with a blue glass plate over his eyes. He folded his black-wrapped hands together.
His voice was chilling and methodical, skirted with a tiredness of age and a psychotic mirth. “Hello, vigilante of Bastion.” He said. “They tell me you call yourself Az-ra-el.”
“You should remember the name.”
“Oh, I will.” He said. “And it is my sincere hope that the people of this city remember it also, crying out as they heave their last breath. Wondering: Why, Azrael? Why didn’t you save us?
“You see, I’m going to purify this city.”
“No one else dies.” I said.
“We’ll see. I suppose it is your choice.” He said. “My toxin prepares this moment to bring this city the reckoning it deserves.”
“This city doesn’t deserve to die.”
“This city is filled with weaklings. Cowards. Men and women who rely on their brutality and capacity to prey on others to survive. After all, isn’t that the reason you do… Whatever it is that you do?
“I’m going to teach those people that they are not the behemoths of power and control they believe themselves to be. They are powerless in the universe, and they will learn so.”
“This is not the way to change the city.”
“No.” He said. “This the way I will change the world.
“This is the way I will destroy this city.”
He crossed his hands behind his back. “In this control booth, there is a test.
“Should you fail to complete it, the city will fall. Should you succeed, you will die.
The projection went dark for a moment before a digital countdown display appeared.
I grappled up into the room, bursting through the glass. The chamber was large and octagonal, the center of the room containing a large device in a glass case.
Surrounding it were a series of computer panels, connected to large cylindrical canisters of orange liquid. The back of the room contained an apparatus made to hold all four of them.
I grasped frantically for my cell phone and communications headset. No service.
If I moved the canisters to the unit at the back of the room, it was over, but Bastion would live.
I had no choice.
I walked to the first containment unit as I opened a personal recording application on my cell phone.
I removed it slowly, carrying the five-foot canister across the room as I began to speak softly to the phone.
“I’m sorry you had to hear it this way.” I began.
“Gloria. You’ve never been afraid to dream big.” I said. “Don’t ever lose that. Follow your dreams. Shape the world the way you see it. If anyone can, it’s you.”
I placed the first vial into the device at the back of the room.
“Roxanna.” I said, pulling out the second canister. “Roxy. You have the strength and logical mind to produce greatness in the world. Show them the good you’re capable of. That they’re all capable of.”
I locked the second canister in place.
“Carolynn. My sweet girl.
“You’re strong. You stand at the mouth of a road to a destiny unlike any I’ve ever seen. Remember the things I’ve taught you, and always be the strong, lion-hearted woman I know you are.”
The third canister locked into place as an announcement played detailing the destabilization of the room.
I grabbed the fourth canister.
I locked the final canister in place, and a prompt came up on a control screen for a five-digit code.
I entered then numbers from the bodies. Four. Nine. Two. Zero. Eight.
I fought back a single tear as my finger hovered over the confirmation button.
“I love you.”
Copyright © Josiah Delnay 2016.