For our first look at the Dark Days Universe, I've included the short story Obligation to Act. The story features ERC Detective Olivia Baer and takes place between The Monster Within and Death Experiments. As always, be aware that this isn't a formally edited work like the novels:
Police Officer Hank Turner thought he had an obligation to act against injustice, but the consequences of playing judge jury and executioner are far more damning than he realized...
I pressed against the door of Interrogation Room One, willing myself to enter. Interrogation rooms are a necessary part of my trade as an ExoReality Containment detective. Training states that the best procedure is too walk into the interrogation room immediately and without hesitation. To establish dominance and leave no doubt in the suspect's mind that you know everything you need to know and there's no recourse but to speak the truth. That’s how thing go in an ideal interrogation.
Not today, however. Today the perspective was all wrong. The dull, featureless room was the same as it always was, but the contents within changed everything. Cuffed to the table was Mhanke Hieghts police officer Hank Turner. Hank had fifteen years in the department, serving well before the Rift Events had started changing the world. The other veterans had told me stories about how solid he had been when the rifts had come to Mhanke Heights. The world had taken a turn for the weird and dangerous, but Hank had kept walking the same beat, protecting the same people, doing the same good work that entire time. I myself had joked with this man, drank beers with him at The Blue Key, even fought alongside him when the local police needed the backup. Hank Turner was the kind of man I wanted to emulate in the department, a man who – I had thought – understood where the lines were and whose side he was on. That illusion had been shattered a few hours previously, when he had put two bullets in my right shoulder and I'd thrown him to the ground and cuffed him like a common street thug. I couldn't help but mourn the loss of the illusion, even as I prepared to twist the knife.
Hank slowly turned his head to look at me through the window of the interview room and I was forced into action. It is a golden rule of police interrogation that you don't let suspects see you hesitate, so I tried to act like I had already been in the act of opening the door. I strode in, hefting the stack of files under my arm like it was a normal day in the office. Hank and I both knew that the entirety of the act was a lie, but what could we do? The crime had been committed and now we needed to deal with the fallout. I started putting the files down in front of him, making three short stacks of them while trying to figure out how I was going to break the awkward silence that formed a wall between us.
Hank did me the favor of breaking it first. He held up one of his hands as high up as the cuffs would allow and motioned towards my front pocket. I smiled. He knew I kept a pack of cigarettes there for veteran officers like him to bum off me. I don't smoke myself. I lack the human nervous system that nicotine provides so many benefits for, but keeping a pack around was always a good way to get in favor with the beat cops and detectives that had ExoReality Containment officers worked with on a daily basis. I pulled a cigarette out and lit it before handing it over, glad to have something to do with my hands. "I'm sorry about the broken ribs, by the way," I started.
Hank nodded as if it was perfectly understandable and motioned a cuffed hand towards my right shoulder, where the bullet holes were still clearly visible. "I'm sorry about shooting you. It was a stupid thing to do. I'm glad it wasn't someone – you know – that bleeds." Someone Human, I mentally corrected him.
I should probably explain a few things at this point. Hank is right to think I'm not human – hell at best I’m a close facsimile of one. Now that the rifts were popping up all over the place, all kinds of things were falling out and at some point I had popped out of an alien shipping crate in New York city. You might think I was a normal, healthy, average woman if you met me on the street, but it's all fake. My real 'self' doesn't have a corporal body like you humans. Hank's bullets had knocked me on my ass, but my false flesh didn't have any blood vessels to bleed or organs to be damaged. Hell, I hadn't even bothered to get the slugs dug out yet. It's a weird life, but it's the only one I got and it does have certain advantages in my line of work.
My shoulders shrugged as if being shot by a good friend hadn't been a big deal. Instead, I opened the first file on the first stack. "I trust you know why I tackled you, why you are cuffed to the table right now?"
Hank looked away, "You tell me."
So that was how it was going to be. I pulled out the first piece of paper, a pencil sketch I'd obtained of a complicated circular tattoo. I put it in front of him and said flatly, "I know about the tattoo, Hank."
The tattoo was a nice piece artistically speaking, all smooth curving lines that occasionally turned suddenly at right angles, looking like a cross between Celtic knotwork and Mayan temple art. I'd drawn over it with red pen where all the hidden lines would be, all the ones using a slightly different kind of ink that would contain the mana-tech equivalent of several thousand lines of computer code.
He winced at that comment. Even here, he had carefully kept he sleeves rolled down to cover the thing. He tried to play it off, gambling that I was bluffing in how much I actually knew. It was a blind hope I was going be forced to destroy. "It's a spell tattoo," he explained, "Lots of guys get them now in days"
I nodded. I had a couple of the things myself. With the rifts had come magic. Real honest-to-goodness magic, but you couldn't just speak some special words or wave your hands and hope the right spell came out. A human would have to memorize anywhere from a dozen to a few hundred different manipulations of the surrounding mana to make anything useful happen. A spell tattoo was a way of pre-loading those instructions, and at least some of the energy needed, for a complex spell right on a person's body. With a mental act of will or a quick tap of the circuit and a person could do anything from raising a defensive shield or getting quick and dirty night vision as needed. The shield ones were popular with beat cops like Hank. Who in our line of work wouldn't want to be able to deflect bullets if they came at you downrange? I motioned at his right arm, where I'd taking the painstakingly careful steps of wiring a nullifier circuit into the tattoo in question. "People do get them all the time, but that's a special tattoo isn't it Hank? Chauncey is our best spell programmer and he has never seen anything like it until I found your tattooist."
Hank's face fell. He hadn't counted on me finding Carlos, the street tattooist that had done the work on his arm. I don't know where the two of them had gotten the spell. The spell was a nasty piece of illegal work, but Carlos had been willing to ink it out for a few thousand dollars. It had been the final piece of the puzzle in the case I'd been investigating for 3 months now. The tattoo hadn't just been a weapon, it had been a tool of cold blooded assassination and I spelled it out so Hank could understand where he stood. "It's an amazing piece of illicit spellcraft there. Doesn't just kill like a normal fireball or forcebolt. Instead it marks the target with a subspell that sits inside them for anywhere from one to ten hours and then activates on their cardiovascular system. The result is that the target has a heart attack and dies either instantly or from cardiac related complications in minutes. I've seen a lot of dark spells in my time, but that thing is like an evil Picasso of ways to commit murder. How the hell did you even find that pattern?"
Hank looked down at his hands and then over at his arm, his mind tracing over the tattooed lines we both knew were there. His face sagged and I could see that I had just crushed what little hope he had been holding on to. He mumbled, "Google, believe it or not. Just had to know where and how to look."
I didn't know if he was being serious or not, but it didn't really matter. Many forms of spellcraft, even potentially lethal ones, were legal, but that thing was deep into outrighted banned territory. We already had a specialist form the big city coming down to properly re-ink the spell pattern to prevent it from ever working again. The tattoo wasn't the important thing anymore. It was what the bastard had done with it. I could feel the anger building as I held up my hands displaying the victim count, "Thirteen confirmed kills. Thirteen, Hank. You went and blew a massive amount of cash on this thing and killed almost a person a week. You are officially a serial killer."
Hank's head snapped up with a sudden intensity, "Serial killers hurt innocent people. I delivered justice."
I barked a bitter laugh, "Justice. really? Because from where I'm sitting it looks like you didn't arrest these people. You just cursed them and walked away. I wasn't aware you had replaced the court system Hank."
Hank was finally starting to get some color back into his features and I knew I was striking a nerve. "The courts couldn't do shit to those bastards and you know it. We arrested them and they get out. We caught them on something big and thier buddies post bail and move the bastard down to another city with a fake name and no id. The courts couldn't do the job and you know it, Olivia."
I wasn't surprised to hear his justifications. All of the murdered victims had been wearing the colors of the East Coast Bulldogs at the time of their deaths, a gang that Hank had personally struggled with for years before the rifts had ever occurred. "So, your solution was, what? Street Justice?"
He slammed his hands on the table, accidently squashing the cigarette between them, "Don't give me that shit. That neighborhood used to be a good place until those assholes set up there. Now they are recruiting our kids right out of junior high and setting them about with knives and baggies of prescription drugs to sell. They deserved everything they got."
I shook my head, "This isn't how the system works..."
He interrupted me, spitting the words out like venom, "Bullshit to that too. You ERC agents all talk about justice and the system, but half of you have powers or magic or some rift-spawned crap and don't hesitate to throw it around as you see fit. Hell, it breaks every kind of protocol imaginable to have you interviewing me right now, but that didn't stop your boss, did it? Because he knew that even if the nullifier on the tattoo didn't work, you don't got a heart I could stop. You're immune, isn't that right?"
I couldn't help it, he had hit me in a sensitive topic and I responded heatedly. "I don't murder suspects Hank, I arrest them. If you had something on these guys you should have arrested them too."
Hank slammed his hands down on the metal table. "Like your partner arrested Hector Freeman? With that cannon he calls a pistol?"
It was my turn to wince. Hector Freeman had been a small-time smuggler who had turned into something more when he got caught dead center in a rift even. Marcus Ward had managed to stop him only after putting a number of high-caliber rounds into his head at point blank range. It hadn't been ideal, but your options were limited when the suspect was trying to eat you. I returned his glare squarely, "You can't claim imminent threat here, Hank. Most of these guys probably didn't even know you were in the area when you targeted them."
Hank scoffed, "Some big nasty thing eats people and you guys have no problem gunning it down. What about the less imminent threats? Am I supposed to let them slide just because they didn't kill their victims all at once? Is justice just a matter of timing to you?"
I waved his argument away, "We didn't have a choice but to respond to lethal force in the Freeman case. You could have investigated these guys, brought them down via the courts."
Hank interrupted me with a bitter laugh. "We investigated them plenty of times. The system failed Olivia. Don't you have an obligation to act when the law fails? Isn't justice the goal here?"
"Damnit Hank. You were obliged to bring them in!", my voice rose to a high pitch. I couldn't help it. 'Roulette Door' bad guys is every policeman's personal worry. It doesn't matter what agency you belong to, sometimes the little repeat offenders who manage to skirt the worst parts of their sentence get to you sometimes. Hank knew it and was using it to justify the murder of 13 people.
He didn't stop there. "Why is it I'm obliged to not deal with the failings of our justice system, but you are obliged to uphold those failings? These dirtbags didn't give a lick about the law when they broke it, but now are probably cheering when you arrest me and let them loose. Don't you see the wrongness in that?"
"These guys weren't a direct danger to you Hank, they were just going about their lives." I protested. I knew where this argument was headed, but some part of me wanted to head it off. Keep it in the relatively safer waters we were in now.
Hank glared. "Lives of being Bulldogs you mean? You want to see my point? Pull out those files I know you got. Let's see what kind of 'innocent' people I put down. "
It was going to come down to what I had to do next. If Hank was willing to confess to the murders than at least the courts wouldn't be overburdened with a lengthy trial. His entire justification swung around the evil deeds of his victims so I grabbed the third stack of files and opened the first folder as he asked. I felt terrible for the trap I had laid out with these pieces of paper.
I read the first name aloud, "Santos Hernandez."
Hank smiled darkly, "First kill. He founded the bulldogs here just before the fence went up. Multiple counts of possession and selling. Three charges of statutory rape that his victims all withdrew their accusations for after he made bail."
I didn't let my face show any emotion at this point. Hank was correct in his assessment, a minor gang leader that had been shipped out here after avoiding charges in another town. We'd only been able to confirm his identity after DNA testing the corpse since he'd always refused testing while alive.
I didn’t let my facial expression change as I pulled out the next file. "Gabriel Johnson.", I recounted.
Hank leaned back, confident now, and counted off " Second kill. Known drug dealer and enforcer. Suspected in a dozen beatings and responsible for training new recruits in knifework. "
I skipped a few down. Hank had started with his personal wishlist of the gang's leadership and that had been the first 4 murders. All dangerous men with blood on their hands. Instead I pulled out another I had marked specially. I recited the name I knew was on the file, "Mark Tielmann"
Hank scoffed, "Recruiter. Took kids out to play hooky and drink, then had them work off the debt selling narcotics to their fellow 12-year olds. "
I kept my voice even, "That's not normally an executable offense. "
"It should be. Dozens of kids got their lives messed up by his product or by getting arrested peddling it. He promised them tons of stuff he never meant to deliver."
I didn't want to get dragged into specifics. Instead I pulled the file from the bottom of the stack. If there is a God out there, I hoped he would forgive me for what I was about to do. I spoke the name even as I opened the file, "Vincent Pointe."
Hank brows furrowed in concentration. The former police officer hadn't known the kid's name when he'd killed him. I helped him along, "died on August 12th around 4pm."
Hank nodded, "One of the thugs. Older, would have provided muscle and protection to the leaders."
My heart sank. I hadn't chosen this record by mistake, this is where things had gone wrong and Hank hadn't even realized it. "You don't actually know if he committed a crime, do you?"
Hank didn't understand the waters he had tread into. That was the problem with criminals of all stripes, most of them understood that they had done something against the law. They didn't understand why the law was in there in the first place. "He was wearing the colors. Clearly a member, at his age he'd have already been initiated and been working for them."
I couldn't hide the disgust from my face now. I had thought the kids had been targeted for their colors and locations – they all had worn maroon and been present at known gang member's houses when they'd died. I threw the file down in revulsion and covered my face in my hands, "Damnit Hank. I was hoping I was wrong. You don't understand what you have done."
Hank glared daggers at me and his lip curled in anger, "I almost single-handily wiped out the east coast Bulldog presence in Mhanke Heights. A few more weeks and the Ardetha Secret Light Coven-gang would have been gone too. I could have..."
I stood up. I really didn't want to do this, but it was my responsibility. It had been my case and it was my job to tell a good friend just what had happened when he had been playing crusader. I ignored his ramblings and gingerly pulled two folders from the stack. Numbers 7 and 12. I put them on the table, opened them up to the pictures of another pair of smiling boys, and backed away. Hank blinked and stared down, not understanding. "What?"
"John Mackie – age 17, was visiting his cousin from Fresno, California and wearing a Fresno State Bulldogs sweatshirt, which happens to be maroon. No criminal background. Cameron Santos. Wore red by happenstance and was visiting family during his father's memorial held at, you guessed it, his real father's rental home. His mother had never let him meet the elder Santos because she didn't want him involved in his illicit activities. Both boys died from cardiac arrest."
Hank stared at me blankly, not understanding at first. Then he grabbed at the folders in desperation, pouring over every detail. "You're wrong. Nobody with any sense would wear maroon to a known gang member's house. Nobody would..." His voice caught and died as he read the contents and I could see a small part of the man’s soul die before my very eyes. I had been thorough, hoping desperately to be wrong when I'd done the original research. No school suspensions, no juvenile records. There was even a picture of Cameron Santos with his adoptive father – a St. Louis police officer. I saw the moment Hank broke and hated myself for what I had done to the man. Hank dropped the papers and they slid apart, mixing like spilled blood. A hoarse whisper escaped his throat, "If I was wrong about..."
I teared up. It might not have fit the tough woman image, but I could not help it. I had liked Hank and nobody deserved this, but I had found the information and this was the only way a confession was guaranteed. "Hank. According to my research you had about a seventy percent success rate in identifying actual members of the gang. Seventy percent. "
Hank collapsed onto the table; his bewildered mind unable to keep him upright. I slid the confession paperwork over to Hank. He'd write it out, every detail. We both knew he would. There was nothing left but the actual act of writing it all down.
Officer Hank Turner had said he had an obligation to act, but he had never considered why he might not be the best placed to do so. That was the hardest part of being an officer of the law. The job tended to drag you down into only seeing the evil in people, into assuming guilt even if it wasn’t present. Hank's 'obligation' had damned him and he hadn't even known it. I left the room and immediately turned and locked myself into the unused second Interrogation room.
I didn't want anyone to see me as I wept.