Sanity Line: 01 - Decadence
The first place to start, when looking into matters of weird lore, had historically always been the dusty and wizened vaults of ancient text collections at university and national libraries. This was the conventional wisdom, and more than once, Agency had broken the back of would-be mental plague-bearers by simply keeping tabs on such Collections and their guest lists.
However, the longer Vidcund thought about the problem, the more he came to realize that at least some of the proscribed knowledge in the universe – at least, that which was recorded materially – had yet to be accounted for. This was almost a given – Saffron Knight Archaeologists and Zaxtonian Institution expeditions frequently uncovered new and terrible lore that required the immediate excise of everyone involved and careful filing away of the atrocities uncovered.
This apparent gap – the idea that a book as rare as the Pnakotic Manuscripts could have a surviving copy that was entirely unaccounted for - perplexed the Agent, and for now, at least, it was a matter of some importance to find it. There was no reason to suspect Agency wasn't supervising every extant copy before now, and such supervision should have prevented copying. Like any law, he supposed, there would always be gaps in enforcement.
Thus, his investigation of the late Professor Johnson's effects. In spite of tenure and a rather prodigious salary, Johnson had retained a rather slovenly apartment in the relatively lower-class Dunholdt district, an old-town maze of brickwork, once-butchery living spaces, and other signs of the failed gentrification of the late nineties. The one-bedroom flat was half a floor of an old bank that had changed hands at least a dozen times since its construction a century prior, three stories from the ground and with rooftop access.
That Johnson, with a salary that would have made most educators blush, had retained such a small and cramped apartment, with its perpetual smell of cat urine and food well past the sell-by was an anomaly, and of a sort iconic to the profile of Agency's usual suspects. Obviously, the good professor was putting his income to something else.
The apartment was a secure building, by most common standards of the meaning, but the keypad-controlled intercom at the front was a ready bypass. Most people knew that property holding companies usually gave their superintendents a bypass for the front door lock. Relatively few knew, at least beyond the paranoid, that the companies that manufactured the devices were well-paid to include a hard-wired bypass on all models.
Vidcund simply had to walk right up, tap the code, and enter. From the corner of his eye he considered a security camera, perched in the lobby. The tiny device was a virtual clone of any of a hundred models of both working and decoy surveillance product. There'd be a cable between the device and the wall that was running to a physical computer somewhere on site. Or it would be wireless. Or a dummy.
In this line of work, that was the sort of consideration you would have to make – not because it was likely that he was about to do anything, today, that would be so compromising he would have to remove all traces of his presence; you just simply never knew – unless you wanted to find yourself an amnesiac.
The psych wards were full of men who had probably tried to dance this particular spiral and lost. Forcible retirement from the Division wasn't a tempting prospect.
Vidcund slipped the professor's house key into the deadbolt on the apartment proper's door and slipped inside. The smell of decay was so strong that the agent coughed and immediately spat his mint into a gloved hand, discarding it in the trash when he found it – in this case, an open and fly-infested delivery bag from the nearest of the Chinese take-outs.
Whatever the Professor was doing with the money he had saved on rent, it wasn't housekeeping or fine dining. That left only a few options, and since the remarkably clean tox screen on the actual autopsy had ruled out hard drugs and a medical record of remarkably intact health ruled out loose women, that meant hookers and blow were entirely out of the question.
Which was, in many ways, where Vidcund came in. As he quested through the apartment looking for the first thing to tickle his interest, he scooped up composition books here and there, leafing through the pages. Most bore scribbling to do with the Pnakotic Manuscripts – that much he understood from vague references to fractional base systems, and that iconic fourth-dimensional pentagram so evocative of that particular mouldering palimpsest. These he'd eventually tuck into the messenger bag he was carrying – better absent than not, when the police finally arrived to do their own going-over. It would cut down on follow-up.
What was bothering him more than most of the occult references, the ever-present mess, and the hanging threat of being interrupted by Terrerra's finest was what he wasn't seeing. A strong ammonia smell coupled with cats was so common he'd naturally expected a few felines in the building, and yet, having toured the late professor's livingroom, he was now firmly convinced no cat existed.
Of course, ammoniac decay was common for most things, but unless there was raw food sitting around somewhere, it seemed unlikely that was the simple source. The fridge confirmed his suspicion – nothing in there but the mouldering remains of a dozen half-eaten meals.
This left the third more common explanation for the smell – the bathroom. Vidcund plodded toward it across a minefield of forbidden lore and chop suey, finding his pulse involuntarily quickening with every step. Silently, and without really knowing why, he slipped his right hand under his tailored spidersilk jacket and pulled the modified and modernized QSZ-92 semiauto out from the holster below his left arm, the safety automatically bypassed by a modded RFID system in the grip. Both the weapon and the modifications were Chinese manufacture, but then, what wasn't, these days?
He paused at the doorframe of the room he was presuming to be the bathroom by the glimpse of linoleum beyond it, brought the weapon up into his customary single-handed grip, and with his now-free left hand, pushed the door the rest of the way open. He lead into the room with the pistol, eyes watering as soon as he hit the cloud of invisible ammonia that had built up inside it.
Or at least, that's what he would have assumed, were he not almost used to the psychological impact of the truly horrific. He ducked out of the room as quickly as he had entered it. No need to discharge his firearm, for his brain told him well enough there was nothing to follow him. Still, that didn't stop him from backing back down the hallway with his weapon, now in more orthodox two-handed grip, trained on the door he had just slammed.
Later, in the cool and calm of his air-conditioned and very well-sanitized office, Vidcund would be able to rationalize and explain what he had seen. For now, the shapeless, black mass in the bathtub was all the excuse he needed to slip his Bluetooth headset back onto his ear as he picked through the other rooms, periodically peering over his shoulder or blindly gesturing his still-drawn handgun at the door which happened to be in the most direct line to the bathroom.
"Call Central," he murmured, the Bluetooth amplifying it for his phone's speech processor to pick up. Both civilian inventions – Agency often saw no reason to reinvent the wheel.
Misdirection; a magician's trick so old that even the most naive of non-magicians knew it existed and how to do it. We do it all the time, when we ask about the price of cigarettes while the cashier is ringing through our condoms, when we pick up the phone so that our boss doesn't notice us hurriedly closing browser tabs.
Misdirection could even be used to divert the entire machinery of a city police department, if you waved a big enough handkerchief.
Agency cleaning crews worked in pairs – one group arriving on the scene to relieve the agent who'd called them, and the other racing off to cause whatever distracting non-crisis was the order of the day. Think about that, the next time you hear of a bomb threat with no actual bomb involved in it, or a bank getting robbed by robbers with pepper-guns or rubber bullets. It happens, and it happens more often than you think.
However, such misdirection did not work on the truly dogged. While the headstrong were rare in police departments, at least highly-enough placed to be a problem for the Agency, they did, on occasion, occur. Sometimes, when the stars were right, a new actor could wander onto the stage and steal the show.
Such a man could be found in Niles Clayton. He had a list of accolades as long as his arms (not an inconsiderable distance, being as he was a tall man), and a list of official condemnations to match. With overall meritocratic seniority over all other Detective officers of the National Police Force in the precinct, he was free to ignore calls of a mystery package on the State University campus. If it was going to be a problem, it was something for another department, and he wasn't about to let an all-hands crowd control call stop him from doing what he felt was his actual job.
The hand that wasn't holding the paper cup of cheap black-tar coffee fished a cast-iron Cheater Key from his pocket. They were a common enough tool, in the hands of most police officers and postal workers, and supported by a variety of electro-lock manufacturers. It was a good way to enjoy secure buildings without having to give up basic rights like police protection and mail delivery.
He passed the blonde man in the tiny "lobby" – a small ten foot cube with mail delivery, a waste-paper basket, and access to the stairwells. The guy was dressed too well for the area – (International Standard Business Attire, to use the technical term), not in terms of the level of formality, but tailored suits and Augmented Reality sunglasses didn't come cheap, and this half-gentrified rathole wasn't in that income bracket.
The two men exchanged nods and no more. Being overdressed wasn't a crime. Guy could have had a brother in the projects he was visiting. Could have financed his wardrobe with drug money. Either way, Niles had bigger fish to fry.
He sipped at the cup of asphalt he was carrying to avoid conversation and carried on. Traffic had been hell. The extra cigarillo in transit, the pall of which still hung around him like a poorly-chosen cologne, left a taste in his mouth so bitter that half-burnt coffee was nearly sweet by comparison. It killed him, but he needed it. Needed his vices, to keep from becoming a being of pure labour.
He reached the Professor's door, police condemnation and tampering-seal tape still securely in place on the door. Niles checked it carefully, all around its edges and circumference, to make sure it was secure. It took a good shove on the door to pull the cellophane taught and snap it.
Satisfied he was the first person to be here since the Sheriff's Deputies who had removed the body, he nodded and stepped inside. The smell was overwhelming. Ammonia stood out. More than just urine – that was a smell somewhat more nuanced, somewhat more complex.
Decay didn't bother him. He picked his way across the litter of take-away boxes, milk-gone-kefir, and coffee-stained finals projects. A thorough examination of the house was likely unnecessary. Initial findings at the subject's autopsy attributed his death to a cardiopulmonary embolism. A more thorough survey was being conducted – at Niles' insistence – but the overall consensus at the depot was that Johnson had dropped dead of more or less natural causes.
Worse for the prospect of anything interesting going on here, Johnson's embolism had been pneumatic. An air bubble in the blood. Could happen to absolutely anyone, and while it seemed simple to just introduce a bit of air via injection to stage a murder, in practice, that was a much harder technique to execute fatally than the movies would have you think.
Why, then, was this bathroom, of all rooms in this house, perfectly immaculate? It was impossible to believe that someone could live in such squalor without that impacting the one room of the house it should have hit the hardest.
Isolation tanks, already rising in popularity among the latest wave of hippies and new-age devotees, were a common feature of Agency installations. Nowhere was this truism the truer than at the H. R. Abject Institute for the Criminally Insane. The installation, dug five stories in beneath the institute of the same name, was a major hub of Agency activity, housing a number of Special Research Programs such as Project MOSES II and Project RAINBOW BRIDGE.
Vidcund Därk considered Abject Centre to be the closest thing he had to a permanent home. He went through identities and addresses like most people go through business cards, after all, and kept most of his actual possessions – to the extent that he had any – in an apartment at the installation equipped with just such a device. The large, heavy tank – this model specially reinforced – recycled filtered and treated water silently inside a soundproof, ventilated pod.
It was a favourite hiding-place for Vidcund. He could lounge in the water for hours at a time, allowing the extreme sensory deprivation in the soundless, lightless, conditioned space to stimulate senses otherwise deep and buried inside him.
In such a state, he could perform prodigious mental feats of calculation and inference. He became, as his fellow members of the apparently re-born Project Moses, a living computer, in essence, processing data far faster (and far more adeptly) than thought previously possible.
There was a hiss of air as the pressure between his room and the tank suddenly equalized, and he returned from his trance with the bewilderment of someone sharply awakened, as the lid suddenly slid open.
"Something for you upstairs. Get dressed."
Niles had never seen anything like it. He brooded at the periphery of the crime scene, taking in the vast scope of its grotesqueness.
Ritual murder and suicide, in this part of the world, was nothing new. Everyone remembered the previous event distinctly, and as the next one came three, four, ten years down the road, the old was pushed out of mind. It wasn't commonplace, but police officers were trained in how to handle and cope with the extreme ferocity with which zealots could inflict violence on themselves and others.
Such violence was why Gloria Creena had been locked up in the first place. Seventeen years ago, she had inspired a group of followers to such a height in an attack on a middle school that had left fifteen children and two teachers dead. It was, to date, one of the deadliest acts of domestic terror since the revolutionary war. Creena was the only prisoner ever taken by the anti-terrorist Police Support Group of the Zaxtonian Ground Self-Defence Forces. She claimed to be thirty seven at the time.
The trial that followed was a long and protracted battle. State prosecutors pushed for life in prison without parole – the nation's then-strongest penalty for such crimes. Defence attorneys hired an expensive psychiatrist named Dyson Grey who had diagnosed Creena with a series of increasingly-dire dissociative conditions, until it became questionable whether Creena was even aware of being awake. A conviction was a sure thing, but thanks to Grey, rather than being kept in a prison and rotting for the rest of her life, Creena had enjoyed the comparatively cushy environment here at Abject.
Studying her expression as she lay in a pool of her own blood on the floor of her cell, Niles wondered if she'd aged even a day since being confined here. He remembered a rumour that began to circulate shortly after the trial that her lawyers had not hired Grey – rather, they had been approached by him.
While a proper medical examination would have to confirm or refute his suspicions, Niles was beginning to doubt a suicide – which the whole room pointed to. The victim had lacerations on her hands consistent with self-inflicted wounds – such wounds could happen on purpose, but were common injuries when defending yourself from a knife as well. The chaotic smear patterns on the floor were suggestive of careful planning on the part of the victim – focusing on that title helped him to remember that no case should be thought of as open-and-shut, however reviled the victim was in life – though the bloody glyphs could have been laid in after the fact.
"Inspector, someone new for your team, here."
Niles turned aside from his morbid contemplations, and transferred his coffee to his left hand to shake the hand that was offered. The new guy, introduced by a constable that had walked him to the scene from the entrance, was looking at the body – but his expression would have given Niles' composure a run for its money. "Niles Clayton, you are?"
"Donny Mallard," The blonde man offered a slight smile and finally got around to removing his sunglasses. "I've been brought in as your criminal anthropologist."
"What the hell is a criminal anthropologist?"
Donny gestured to the bloody mess in the cell. "An expert in the sort of thing you're dealing with today."