Authors: CHRISTOPHER M. COLAVITO
Yelling At Clouds
Computers were strange beasts to Detective Knox, plastic boxes filled with magic, a portal into a world he didn't want to understand. Walking into a room filled with them, and the artificial hum of life they give off, made him uneasy. The light was different in rooms filled with technology, fuzzy, as though your eyes were out of focus. He understood that technology brought with it great advances, leaps that were able to make his job easier, but his relationship with it was still strained. He did not want his job to be easier. The difficulty of sifting through clues, to be able to string them together in the perfect fashion, that was the beauty of the job.
Detective Knox had not remained in the force as long as he had, as the very foundation of the world cracked and shattered under his feet, for any other reason. He lived for the puzzles, and the elegance of solving them. There were now countless tools created by geniuses to help him achieve that goal, but just as many were being used to obfuscate the truth and change the rules of the game. Technology, he reckoned, existed merely to give people something new to complain about, though the task at hand never changed. A new coat of paint was slapped upon the same old problem, and people were convinced they were looking at a whole new work of art.
Detective Lane's youth gave him a different insight, and his ignorance of the old ways made him prone to thinking Knox was merely upset that the world was not the way he remembered it. Lane was quick to embrace anything that could help him in his quest to be a detective, not because he wished to take the easy way out, but because he was determined to help people, to answer the call and give people answers in their darkest moments. In doing that he would often require help, and he was not too proud to ask for it.
“Let me guess, Lane, you're going to try to explain all of the technological gobbledygook the nerd squad is going to run through. Let me save you the trouble. Please don't.”
“You really need to learn at least a little bit of this stuff. You're going to sound like you don't know anything if you get put on the stand at a trial. If you want to put killers away, you have to have an air of authority about you.”
Detective Knox laughed at his partner, not a snort of derision over the idea that his younger cohort had any idea what authority meant, but a gentle acknowledgment that despite how much time they were forced to spend together investigating crimes, Lane had yet to understand how Knox's mind worked.
“Did it ever occur to you that what you described is precisely what I'm going for?”
“Why on earth would you ever want to sound ignorant?”
“Because, partner, the ignorant aren't asked to be expert witnesses. There's going to come a time when your puppy dog enthusiasm wears off, when the job grinds away the shine of your smile, and when that happens, you're going to be as tired and bitter as I am. The last thing you're going to want to do is sit in a courtroom and listen to people trying to tell you the sky isn't blue.”
Lane looked at his partner, trying to assess how genuine these feelings were. He knew that Knox was not a fan of the non-investigative duties the job entailed, but he had never heard it phrased so bluntly. He was disappointed to hear that Knox appeared to have stopped reaching for personal growth, resigned to being the old coot sitting in a rocking chair, yelling at clouds, telling stories about how much better everything used to be.
“You say that, but we both know that you like to put on an act. You're afraid of letting anyone think that you still care, to make sure they leave you alone. I get it. I know what you're up to, but I'm going to let it be.”
“You'd better, if you want to see what tomorrow looks like.”
As the door opened, and the stale, recycled air hit his nose, Detective Knox wondered what it must be like to spend an entire life in such rooms, surrounded by machines designed to mimic and impersonate life. To spend day after day engaged with a facsimile, communicating entirely through the pounding of keys and flickering written words, could not be a life with much value in it. Being human, he thought, required embracing what life had to offer. Even for a solitary man like Knox, humanity could not be found in an endless string of ones and zeros.
The technicians never broke their focus as the detectives entered. Their eyes were fixed in a trance upon their screens, their fingers falling like a steady rain upon the keys. Knox listened to the tapping, a rhythmic white noise that only further convinced him no consciousness could survive in such a place. Impatient, he spun a monitor around, breaking the connection between eye and screen. The technician's fingers stopped, but his eyes did not move, as though he were processing what had just happened. Seconds later, he looked up, and the blank expression on his face was as lifeless as his reflection on the screen.
“Nice to see you back in the land of the living. I hear you have some information for me?”
The technician didn't know what to make of Detective Knox, nor what to make of face to face communication. An expression of discomfort was evident on his face, a fact that Knox took great pride in admiring.
“I assume you're Detective Knox?”
“My reputation does seem to precede me.”
“Yes, we managed to decrypt the flash drive you gave us. There was a . . .”
“Let me stop you there. I don't need to know the details of what hoops you had to jump through to get the files open. I won't understand any of it, and you probably don't want to talk to me any longer than you have to, so how about you just tell me where the files are, and I'll leave you to ogle your little screen again.”
The technician reached into a pile of neatly organized trinkets, arranged in a pattern that Knox knew meant something, but was not important enough to waste his time thinking about. Though he was a fan of puzzles, cracking the enigmas of which most people consisted was something best left for his retirement. He did not care to know much about people until he had no choice but to depend on them and had nothing better to waste his time on.
He selected one of many identical pieces of plastic, fondling it quickly before stretching his hand out as one would throw meat to a hungry animal. Fear may have been the culprit, or he could have been awkward because of the atrophied sense of coordination caused by a life sitting in front of a computer. Knox took the drive from his hand, being careful not to touch him. Not knowing how deep the neuroses ran, Knox didn't want to set off more alarms than he needed to.
“That flash drive has the decrypted files on it. You can view them as they were, or you can look at them according to the sorting we did. Everything on the original drive is on that one, so if there isn't anything helpful in the files, please don't blame me.”
“Don't worry, kid. I don't want to come back here anymore than you want me to.”
“You said it.”
* * *
The detectives returned to their desks, and the clamor of the precinct was music to Knox's ears. He missed the noise whenever it disappeared. Being left alone with your thoughts is only helpful when you have things in your mind that are worth exploring. Otherwise, hearing nothing but your own inner voice is a form of torture.
Detective Lane inserted the drive, watching the list grow as the files loaded. On first inspection, the names seemed innocuous enough; financial files that Mr. Hobbes would not have wanted the prying eyes of his family to see, medical records that dated back for decades, records of correspondence that may very well have cataloged his entire life. Knox thought it depressing that a man's whole existence, the sum total of who he was, could be shrunk down and fit upon a small piece of plastic that could easily be drowned in a cup of coffee. This was the future, as far as he was concerned, and it was not the utopia he had been promised.
The detectives split the files, reading through the mundane details as quickly as they could. If they dared take their time, Detective Knox was afraid some of the details would become embedded in his mind, and he did not wish to create lasting memories of a person he never even had the misfortune of knowing. Over the course of his career, Knox had developed the skill of reading without learning, skimming through the reams of information and identifying what was important enough to keep, while throwing aside the junk data. It was a skill that carried over into his personal life, a fact that those few people Knox let in would make him aware of. Being a good detective, he thought, was not compatible with being a good person.
The clock dizzied, the hands turning round as the hours passed. Frustration grew on their faces as their search deepened, both because they had found nothing, and because they had not farmed the work out to less experienced officers who had little else better to spend their time on. Knox never let anyone else do the work, because only he knew what they were looking for, or so he thought. The reasons for this behavior was a topic he tried not to broach with himself.
“Knox, look at this.”
Lane summoned him over to his desk, waving his hand in the air in the feigned belief that such an admonishment would make a difference. Knox's bones creaked as he moved, the hinges needing oil if he was not to rust away.
“What did you find?”
“It's a letter, written by Hobbes, but not addressed to anyone.”
“What's so interesting about that.”
“Nothing. It's what the letter says.”
“Hobbes is writing to tell someone about getting kidnapped. He says he got picked up off the street, driven in circles in the back of a van, and then was knocked out with drugs. Then he says he woke up back at home, in bed, when his alarm clock went off. That's weird, right?”
“Yes it is. That sounds like a clue to me, the first one we've had.”
“Yeah, but how are we going to put it to use?”
“We're going to dissect every word of that letter, and we'll figure something out. He wouldn't have written such a thing if he wasn't trying to get some important information to someone. The answer is in there, it has to be.”
“You want me to go old school and print you out a copy?”
“You're starting to learn, kid. Oh, and good work, by the way.”
“Did you just say . . .”
“Leave it be, kid.”
Detective Knox's eyes lost focus as the words on the page slowly metamorphosed into a Rorschach test, the lines and curves losing their form and function, devolving into a scattered mess of sharp-edged ink. Hours had passed by in a blur, the light becoming flimsy and blue as day turned to night, and artificial suns powered his quest. This was not a way to achieve success, he knew, but giving up, even for a moment, seemed to be the coward's way out. Detective Lane had rested enough for the both of them, Knox felt.
His eyes ran over the words repeatedly, stretching their meaning to find something that would tell him what he needed to know. The message was clear, but it wasn't pointed enough to show him the way forward. In that way, the letter taunted him, tantalized him with the prospect of finding the answers he so desperately sought. All that needed to be done was crack the code, find the truth hidden in the enigma. That task seemed more daunting with each passing minute, as the hands on the clock tried to outrun one another.
Detective Lane returned with fresh eyes, enough energy replenished to convince an onlooker he was still alive. Leaning back in his chair, he held the paper above his head, watching the light from above filter through the cheap parchment. It was as though heaven itself was shining through, or so he would say, as a thought occurred to him.
“What if we have this all wrong?”
“I'm sure we do. What's your point?”
“I mean, what if instead of this letter telling us exactly what happened, it's telling us where to look for the real answers?”
“How is that going to help us? There isn't a location in there.”
“I know, but hear me out. If a guy gets kidnapped, what would make him hide whatever he knew about it? He didn't report it to us, and he didn't tell his kids about it.”
“We didn't ask them. They might know.”
“Let's assume they don't, since I'd like to think at least one of them would have mentioned such a thing.”
“That's a dangerous assumption to make. People aren't as good as you think, but go on.”
“So if he didn't tell anyone about it, why write the letter at all, and leave it on an encrypted flash drive that no one could get into? It doesn't make any sense.”
“Murder doesn't always make sense. Sometimes, you find that it's all just random.”
“You're a pessimist.”
“Yes I am, and for good reason. There's no reason to be positive.”
“Whatever. All I'm saying is that, in light of knowing about the kidnapping, we might want to take another look at the whole case. The best place to hide something is in plain sight. How much do you want to bet we've already seen exactly what we're looking for without knowing it?”
“I'm not a betting man, remember.”
“Do you have to be so literal about everything?”
“No, but watching you get worked up amuses me.”
Detective Lane sprang from his seat, embracing the fumes of youth that had not yet been burned off. Long fingers wrapped around thick stacks of folders, clutching the papers with a tight grip. A low grunt escaped his lips as he picked up the files, feeling the weight of the case as he positioned the pile high above his desk, then releasing them with dramatic flair. They tipped off axis, sliding off one another as they landed, but without the thunderous noise he had hoped for.
Knox looked at Lane, tired consternation on his face, as though he had seen the sad ending coming all along. He reached out, thumbed open the first file, hesitating to touch it, like a predator approaching its kill. Lane gathered himself, found his voice, and continued.
“Somewhere in these files, among all this evidence, is the answer we're looking for.”
“And you expect me to sit here and read these hundreds or thousands of pages all over again, just because you have a hunch?”
“Do you have a better idea? What I know is that this kidnapping is the best lead we've got, but we don't have any clues to work with. So yes, if this has even a slight chance of pointing us in the right direction, I think we have to do it.”
“Fine, but first you have to go get us some coffee. Real coffee, not that slop that gets served around here. If I'm going to focus, I can't have half my brain wondering if that aftertaste is copper or arsenic.”
Detective Lane gathered his coat under his arm, throwing a quick glance at his partner, who was oblivious to his existence in that moment. He wondered if such focus, such indifference to the presence of another living soul, was the cost of being a great detective. This might be the purpose of his life, but he was not sure he was willing to pay the price for the honor. What he had learned from Detective Knox, above all else, was that life outside the confines of the precinct only served to dilute the work. Lane was not pure in that way, nor did he think he ever could be. His future depended on Knox being wrong.
Detective Knox was lost in the words on the page, reading them in the new light Lane had provided. Meaning and intent often differ, because language is not perfect, and even when trying to bare the depths of the human soul, there are no words that can perfectly encapsulate a complex thought. We do the best we can to form our ideas into digestible pieces, but every mind works differently, and there is no way of knowing if our experiences of joy and pain, or color and sound, are the same as another’s. Language requires assumptions, and those get us in trouble, because they are a weakness of the mind.
These thoughts cascaded over Knox's consciousness, leaving him pondering the complexities of the universe. He was not foolish enough to think he could answer the deepest questions of philosophy, but only when he felt insignificant, like a speck of dust floating towards a light bulb that would vaporize it without an eye catching the act, did he truly understand himself. Being powerless was the ultimate strength, and his tangents of thought clarified his thinking.
Detective Knox was far away from reality as Lane returned, the pungent aroma of bitter coffee seeping through his cocoon and returning him to the moment. As his eyes focused, he could see Lane at his own desk, sipping the steaming liquid. Knox picked up his cup, slowly letting the first drops fall from the rim onto his tongue, savoring each one. He did this because he knew it was a rare treat, and he would soon have to drain the cup as though pumping his tank full of fuel, because time was never set aside for making sure they were taking care of themselves. Compared to the gravity of their work, their own health, mental and physical, was secondary.
“Knox, you were off in your own little world there again. Am I really such bad company?”
“You're ok . . . for another person.”
“We can't all be as charismatic and entertaining as you.”
“I'd settle for as quiet.”
“Now that we've gotten that out of our system, did your trip into the Twilight Zone while I was gone net us any results?”
“It just might have. I was thinking, when Hobbes describes being driven in circles, you would assume he's talking about the kidnappers being evasive, making sure he doesn't know where they're going, right?”
“Sounds right to me.”
“But what if that's not the case. This crazy city was built over the course of so many years that nothing about it makes any sense. There isn't a neat array of streets. There are sections around the old parts that loop in all sorts of insane ways, because that was all the land the government could take at the time.”
“You're thinking that he mistook a winding road for evasive action.”
“Exactly. There's one road that fits the bill almost exactly. A guy like Hobbes probably wouldn't have ever been on it before, since it leads straight into the heart of crud-town. It had to be unfamiliar to him.”
“If that's the case, we know what area he was headed into.”
“And we can narrow it down even further. I spent enough time working that part of town to know that none of the crews down there would be into this sort of thing. All we have to do is find the places that aren't under any of their control, and we'll be in business.”
“That's some awfully good detecting, partner.”
“Yeah. It's amazing how much can be done when you're not around to bug me.”
* * *
The city darkened as Detectives Knox and Lane drove deeper into its underbelly. As the city grew richer and more sophisticated, the old parts were tossed aside, left to rot in the shadows of the new towers erected as monuments to modernity's ego. These charred remnants of what the city used to be were breeding grounds for discontent and evil, with demons filling the vacuum left by the mass exodus. Few dared go further into the dark heart of the city than necessary, a segregation that served all sides well.
Detective Knox had spent much of his life on those streets, chasing down the specters that haunted the nights of the good people of the city. He had caught more than his share, but the supply was endless, and his desire for the job no longer burned. As long as he could take on the hydra of evil one head at a time, as long as he could solve the cases put before him, he was content with himself. Mental strength was required, but his will had not slipped, and he was unbowed by the depravity he had to witness.
“Have you spent much time in this part of town, Lane?”
“No, I can't say I have. Or that I want to.”
“It's a good education. This is where you learn if you have the stomach to admit who we really are.”
“You make it sound so charming.”
“It's a fact of life. Not everything we do is like in a mystery novel. Real life is ugly, messy, the sort of thing you wish you could forget. It infects your eyes, then it burrows into your heart. Eventually, you rot from the inside. That's the best-case scenario.”
“Do I even want to know what's worse?”
“Good. So what do we know about this place?”
“According to my friend who still works this beat, there are only a handful of places that aren't under any control. Those are our likely sites, so we'll start with the one closest to the main road and branch out from there.”
“Something tells me whoever did this wouldn't want to go any further off the beaten path than they had to.”
“Precisely. You're catching on.”
The pair sat in silence the rest of the way, as the landscape grew filthier with each rotation of the tires. They were in a part of the city where car doors locked reflexively, where anyone walking down the street was viewed as a threat, where peace was a foreign concept. Detective Lane was not oblivious to the suffering that existed in his own city, but there had always remained enough of a separation to allow him to ignore what life was like in a world where death stalks you at every turn. Coming face to face with reality, however, he realized how naïve he had been.
The brakes bit in, bringing the car to a stop in a place it would rather drive straight through. Bouncing on loose springs, Detective Lane's head bobbed back and forth, as though nodding in endless reaffirmation. Knox was in no such state, with one foot already out the door, the stale air pouring in and overtaking the heat. Lane followed, gingerly, wary of letting his focus slip for even a second. Knox looked back at him, the glare in his eyes unmistakable.
“Stop being a wuss. Nothing's going to happen to us. No one around here would dare do anything to put this place back on our radar. It's like when you have a bee flying around your head. If you leave it alone, it'll leave you alone.”
“I always get stung.”
“That's because you're a schmuck. Just keep your mouth shut and follow me.”
Hinges hung by threads, the door held in place by the grip of dirt. Detective Knox pulled gently, and the door wobbled and almost fell on him. He pushed it aside, exposing the entrance to what could optimistically be called a building. The structure was failing, the cracks counted like the rings on a tree, telling the story of how long it had been since anyone considered it worth inhabiting.
Detective Lane swung his flashlight through the darkness, illuminating the way before he dared step inside. Knox had left him behind, venturing in, chuckling at the thought of his partner frozen in fear. Knox switched on his own light, looking into the folded corners of blackness. Nothing about the room looked out of place, if such a thing could be said about a crumbling remnant. Broken glass and bits of machinery filled the corners, dust and grime painting them all the same flaccid shade of invisible.
Detective Knox had seen enough, and spun around on his heel to leave, a habit he’d adopted as a youth, one that wore out his shoes in a way that made him appear an inch shorter than he really was. As he spun to a stop, his eyes were blinded by Lane's light, barely a foot from his face. Knox shielded himself, blinking hard to clear the ghosted image. Seeing ghosts there was likely enough but he did not need to add to the confusion.
“What are you shining that damn light in my eyes for?”
“Sorry, I thought you saw what I did.”
“What did you see?”
Knox turned around again, still blinded by Lane's light. The edges were hazy, and Knox could not see anything. Frustration tinged his voice as he spoke, a level of angst that Lane could see something he could not.