The Scarsdale Loop
© by Gary L Morton

16,000 words
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Litter and loose leaves sailed up in a whirling gust, and I headed into the wind, getting grit in my good eye. Vagrants were in the alley. The newer breed of creepy shadows – lonely guys with loops gone sour and nothing to do but wander the empty concrete gutters getting ugly rushes. One grimy window showed in the wall and nothing else, so I figured the spot would do. Running past some trashcans, I ducked behind an abandoned car, pulled out a length of concrete-meshed plastic pipe and waited. He came down the alley a few seconds later -- a big man with short dark hair, tinted glasses and a neat blue suit. I saw him draw a Taurus fragment pistol and look around. He nearly fired at the loopers then he stepped past the wreck and I ambushed him - my pipe arcing, cracking his temple, sending his gun clattering on the pavement as he went down. Wind rose and I watched leaves skitter over his body, feeling suddenly light, like I was empty and what I had just done wasn't real. I felt like a ghost. The feeling passed, lonely air currents moaned up in the sixty-story buildings and I remembered a woman. She wanted me for a case and I needed the money. Holding my hat brim and hiding my face from the startled loopers, I walked away in city shades of darkness.

Stepping out of the ancient alley, I stopped, took my lucky charm out of my pocket and studied it for a moment. The charm was a tiny silver spaceship I’d found while working on a case overseas. Rainbow colors glowed in the tiny bubble representing the bridge, and I liked looking at the colors because they made me feel warm inside. I wasn't sure if the charm worked or not. Good luck had pulled me out of the alley, but it sure wasn't good luck that had the SSU agent after me. More than anything the charm was a symbol of belief in times when people believed in the sick society of their birth and nothing else. Philosophers killed the gods, but they failed to kill our desire to believe in silly little things … and to not believe in the corrupt leaders of this world.

It was one of those wistful sunny days where you know the world is beautiful for everyone else and sad and painful for you. I'd been feeling at bottom for a while so it was a usual feeling for me, but it wasn't a regular emotion for the woman I was visiting. Sheila Channing had it all except one thing -- a daughter who loved her . . . and of course that was the thing she wanted most of all. I waited on the doorstep, looking back at the sun-streaked towers of the Toronto megacity, wondering what I would say to her. Maybe nothing … a nod. Her emptiness went on forever like the jumble of city high-rises. Streets full of strangers, cold windy alleys and a heart of reinforced steel and concrete. This was her town; she was made of it more than flesh.

Hearing the door open behind me, I turned, getting caught off guard by Sheila's beauty like always. Her full lips were down-turned, her violet eyes smeared by sadness. She smiled warmly and I knew she believed I sympathized with her. I didn't. I knew how to handle my eyes and make her see what I wanted her to see. Eyes don't lie, so mine do. It's one of those things I developed so I would have an edge in the detective business.

Sheila was a hand holder so I took her hand and moved up close. “Janice is gone again?” I said, watching as she caressed my fingers.

“You'll bring her back again, won't you?” she said.

“I'll try, but you have to try, too. You have to get along with her. We can't keep doing this over again. Besides, she's more than eighteen now. Easily old enough to live on her own.”

“She's really still a baby and age doesn't matter. As part of the Channing family, she has to live up to her obligations. She must become the woman her father wanted her to be.”

“Yes,” I lied, as I pondered her motives. She'd been crying because she had failed to instill her values or lack of them in her daughter. I wasn't sure how much longer I could go on lying to the kid. If she wanted to go it on her own there was nothing wrong with that.

“You'll go now?” Sheila said, then she kissed me on the cheek and smiled, sure my answer would be yes. I knew she wondered why I never tried to go farther with her like every other guy did. I also knew her thinking didn't run deep enough for her to think it a problem. Stepping back, I smiled with my eyes, restoring her confidence in me while I thought of other women like her – women of the past that had used me and tossed me aside.

“Right away,” I said, “but she knows I'll be looking for her so she won't be easy to find.”

I cashed Sheila's check through the automatic on my cell and then walked ten blocks to the ZZ-Loop Tavern. Walking is a habit I picked up and can't seem to shake. When my wife left me, I started walking and thinking about it and I've been walking since then. In a big city with fast modes of public transit, it was a surprise when walking proved to be some help in solving cases. The reason is that nowadays many city matrix areas aren't readily accessible by transit or car so the person who goes around to some extent on foot gets to know the turf better. Not that there's anyone else who knows the turf anyway. Most detectives do everything by computer and cyberspace contacts and never leave their offices; I cover areas their maps show as slums. They'd find Janice Channing by tracing a cash transaction or buying the newest phone listings and calling the nearest rent-a-goon outfit to have her snatched off the street. I'm the only real gumshoe around. There hasn't been another in the city since the Privacy Years. I'm also the only person who would be able to find Janice because her style is not to make any transactions. She panhandles for cash and remains invisible. Police don’t question street people anymore unless they decide to plant themselves right outside the huge condo-business towers of the gated middle class.

I solve more cases than any security agency team, but I'm known as a crackpot who uses unethical methods. My name, Jack Michaels, is mostly mud now because I tried to rescue a client personally during a hostage situation and got him killed. After the news report on it, I couldn't find anybody who didn't see me as a fried circuit with a bad habit of trying to play hero. I still feel bad about a client dying, but at least I tried to save him. Other detectives would have done nothing and he would have died anyway as inner city criminals don’t leave witnesses alive nowadays.

Picking up a newspaper, the partial paper version, not the electronic, I went into the ZZ-Loop Tavern and sat by the window. The thing about the place that drew me was the atmosphere. It was all green tones and the music Tommy played was about fifty years old. I doubted a genuine antique jukebox would play sound anywhere near as good as Tommy's model, but that didn't matter. The music had its effect; it would put me in another time. I could drift in the green tones of the bar and the blue water of the fake river flowing by out the window and get ideas. Clues really, and hunches that help cases along.

The first thing I always look at is the profile of the person I'm tracking. Janice Channing was a beautiful teenager and a good kid. The problems her mother wanted to clear from her mind were ones that didn't exist. Sadly, our society is one where the adults are the freaks, the radicals and the misfits. Teenagers are one of the good things because they're usually too young to be loop crazy or totally redone by plastic surgery and drugs. Janice was headstrong and had the emotions of a healthy young woman. She hated me and liked me a lot, phoned me just to chat and often I have wished I could meet a thirty-five year old version of her instead of the fry brains I do meet. We'd gotten into an argument the last time she came to my office, and her fiery temper was hard to forget. Janice was getting too close to me and I told her so. Her response was fury. She said I didn't care about her; I was just like all the rest and a few other nasty things. Why I was even taking the case was the real question. It was like working for the cult of society, bringing back the clever kids who had somehow deprogrammed themselves.

Since no one was serving me, I looked over at the bar. The place was nearly empty, only Tommy stood behind the counter and he leaned on an elbow, staring into space. An ancient party song played on the jukebox so I figured he had to be hooking himself to look so calm. It was difficult to get a reading on him. The hooks didn't give themselves away -- they didn't leave marks on the head and there weren't outward signs other than the person would be inactive.

His head must've been clear enough for him to spot me, because he suddenly came to life, got something from the cooler and headed over. Tommy was about fifty-five and looked like a thirty-year-old blond beach boy. His mouth was too straight, his lips too thin, but he’d never had them changed so I guessed he wasn't all that vain.

He put down a beer and pulled up a chair. “Jack, old pal,” he said. “Sorry I didn't spot you. Got financial problems on my mind. Guess you thought I was hooked?”

“That I did.”

“You look it yourself, the way you always come in and stare out that window.”

“No. I'm just thinking. I never had a hook put in. The doctor checked me years ago during my physical. He said I could never go that way because of my migraines and a childhood accident. The side effects would kill me.”

“Too bad,” Tommy said. “I was hoping you'd try my new gimmick. I use that new trick of hooking real music through the loop. It makes that oldies stuff sound like heaven, and it's a lot better than the mind music people usually hear.”

“Yeah, I heard of that. I think it's great that more people are getting back to making music. I was very unhappy when the music industry collapsed.”

“There was still music. People like you, only on the Intel drugs, always bought it.”

“I bought it, but I'm not on the Intel drugs.”

“No drugs. Why not?”

“I tried them, and found that I felt like I could write a novel but was too disconnected from the real world to solve my more serious detective cases. They did have powerful intelligence effects where if it was an easy case I could solve it right away. But they didn’t last; there are also long-term effects to consider.”

“I see. They do have their limitations.”

“I want a drug that'll give me a nose like a hound dog. Problem is if we all do get it we'll all be smelling shit.”

Tommy laughed like a mule. “Some of you ordinary people are the funniest people of all,” he said. “I've met a few who aren't like the stiffs at all.”

“Not many people notice that. There are a few of us still around. It's true that the stiffs run the world, but most of them are fakes and are really on Intel drugs. My unaltered state has done nothing for me in the usual ways. The loopiest guy in town would have a better chance of getting to the top than I do. They hate me. They have an unwritten code of behavior and I break too many rules.”

“Like trying to get involved in some of those dirty cases,” Tommy said, pointing to the headline.

I looked at the paper and almost gasped. SCARSDALE MANIAC BUTCHERS AGAIN was the feature story. I'd been so busy thinking about my little case I hadn't noticed it at all. Quickly scanning the article, I found that he'd left the mutilated corpse on a meat hook in an old waterfront warehouse. As usual, the face had been surgically removed.

“The police have a theory that he's a loop crazy plastic surgeon. All his victims have been naturally gorgeous. No operations at all.”

“He isn't,” I said. “He doesn't fit the profile of someone gone alien.”

“Why not? Can't someone gone alien fit any profile?”

“Not really. It's when a hook doesn't take right and a person uses it too much. At first there's the alien feeling, like your emotions belong to someone else, and it gets worse until a breakup of the personality causes robotism and bizarre behavior. Any violence that comes from it is randomly patterned.”

“Man. No wonder the police hate you. If you told them the maniac is a stiff they must've threatened you.”

“I was held in jail for three days, but not for saying he's a stiff. I told them he is a real alien. They didn't believe me. Thought I was withholding information. Then they said it's just someone hooking on evil.”

Tommy's eyes widened and he looked at me like he was sure I was nuts. He laughed uncomfortably. “There aren't any aliens … at least that's what the scientists say.”

“What I mean is that the Scarsdale Maniac fits no standard profile. A person gone alien wouldn't be nearly as clever. And he can't be a straight person because he uses a level of intelligence that's even beyond that of a genius on Intel drugs. There have been nano chase cameras swarming all over the waterfront area he works and none of them has ever spotted him. There's a white board put up by SSU that allows the net of cops and detectives to cover all of the maniac's working territory. The only thing he could have been was a robot gone berserk, and he isn't so he's an alien who fits no known profile.”

“That's why he's the Scarsdale Maniac,” Tommy said. “Any other killer would be called a serial killer and have no name.”

“Yeah. He's beyond me so I'm just going to leave it and work on a missing persons case.”

Once out of Tommy's joint I headed for City Hall, the Public Access Department. The building was designed to look somewhat like a star ship and I walked in wondering how a society so hooked on science fiction could be so frigid when it came to the idea of an alien. Huge paneled doors opened on the access terminals and I smiled broadly when I saw an empty booth. Running like a man in a panic, I jumped inside . . . and the running paid off because I was just in the easy chair when a tall bearded guy tried to step in. “I have this booth booked for the afternoon,” he said forcefully.

“No way,” I said. “I booked it three months ago. There must be a mistake. You better double check with the clerk.”

He knew I was probably lying, but he couldn't be sure. I pulled the door shut and he scowled and walked away. His anger was justified. Trying to straighten something out with a constipated bureaucrat would take all day.

There was only one hidden password combination and method of transfer and I had it and was in the loop. Keying in, I fast-tracked to the police files on the Scarsdale Maniac, smiling when I discovered them under the title Scarsdale Killings and not a fifteen-digit off-run code. There weren't any photos of him or even any composites and I wasn't interested in police theory concerning him. Surgery was on my mind. The Scarsdale Maniac had surgical skills, so I figured the photos of the butchery might reveal his level of skill.

Gruesome photos of women with their faces surgically removed proved unenlightening and unappetizing. Scanning the bodies, I found an interesting fact that the newspapers hadn't mentioned. Hearts had been removed. The victims were left with an empty cavity. It shocked me more than the faces. You could see that this guy was an animal to the point of excellence. The opened chests convinced me that he had a gaping pit where his human feelings belonged. Maybe he was trying to reclaim them by eating another person's heart. Serial killers take trophies and the faces fit in that category. Only a real monster would want to remember someone by looking at their heart in a jar.

Needing an expert opinion, I phoned my own surgeon, Dr. Samuel Hearst. Sam was good at pulling slug fragments and healing my laser burns so I figured he knew his stuff. He was in his office, looking wistful, his window and milky blue sky behind him. Since I had ordered high-resolution photographs, we exchanged some small talk while waiting for them to print on his office printer. Sam waved the first print to dry the coating then pulled at his beard while he studied it. His sharp gray eyes and needlepoint pupils gave me a good feeling.

Airs of mild shock crossed his brow. “I don't get it,” he said. “It's not possible.”

“Oh-oh,” I said. “I'm going to be stuck with an alien again.”

“What's that?” Sam said.

“I told the police the Scarsdale Maniac must be an alien because he fits no human or robot profile.”

Sam laughed. “You're right, he doesn't. He's too good.”

“Too good?”

“Like a good surgeon, he models his work, meaning he takes the best approach. Heart operations can vary. This person uses an unknown technique that is precise. It's almost like he’s from the future.”

“An alien?” I said.

Sam looked at the last print. “A human being, not an alien. Strange, but I think I get it. He opens the chest with coordinated cuts and it's like his fingertips are the lasers doing the work.”

“Then it's a robot, with some new type of hand.”

“Not a chance. Robots can't do anything without being programmed by surgeons. What he does at the end isn't something a robot could think of.”

“And that is?”

“He just tears out the heart, breaking the arteries. The only people who ever did that were ancient Aztec priests. They used to put people on a slab and offer their torn hearts to the sun god.”

“Okay,” I said. “That's our profile. Our maniac is an Aztec priest from the future.”

Sam shrugged his shoulders and dropped the prints. His large open hands were the last thing to fade. The police files reappeared then the screen went dark and I got a system crash message. Expected down time, one hour, it said.

Public access booths have Plexiglas doors. The idea being that nothing is secret in the access room. Looking around I noted that only my booth had gone out, then I saw the bearded man at the door with a blue form in his hand.

He burst in rudely, waving the form at me. I said nothing, but just picked up my jacket and pointed at the screen. “Damn,” the guy said, then he stormed out the door.

Now I had a profile of the Scarsdale Maniac that wasn't worth spent slugs. Profiles are used to track people, but not when the profile is of an impossible person from the future and the past. Another worrisome profile I had was that of Janice Channing. Janice was a natural beauty and a runaway, and the maniac specialized in killing her type.

Everything downtown is walled in, above ground and underground, and there are police and security personnel everywhere. Runaways go to the Scarsdale waterfront area where they're less likely to be spotted, and of course, the Scarsdale Maniac favored the waterfront for his crimes.

Without a doubt there were now more nano chase cameras buzzing the area than bees. Cops and private eyes were using a common computer chat and white board to share information. I grimaced at the thought of being spotted and talked about, but I had to go down to find Janice before the maniac did. It was ironic that looking for Janice was the best way to continue the maniac case, and it was also ironic that I was the only detective who would know how to continue with the case. Nowadays all detective work is done by facts and profiles, meaning that no one can solve a case that is out of the ordinary. Baiting a killer is an old police tactic that today's computer wizards would never use. I hadn't put out bait of course, Janice just happened to be there.

Exiting the hall, I caught a burst of fresh air that put me in a waterfront mood, and then I noticed something odd. The bearded guy from the access booth was heading across the square toward the old clock tower and the huge glass-faceted Queen Street legal complex. Two body-builder types had emerged from under the potted palms of a G. BANNERS patio restaurant and were tailing him. They wore immaculate blue suits so I pegged them as SSU men. It occurred to me that I had just used his time to check info on the Scarsdale Maniac, and that meant that the SSU was tailing everyone who tried to dig into the case. Public Access be damned. These guys were breaking all the rules on this one, and they weren't going to let anyone finger them for wrongdoing or get evidence ruled inadmissible.

Being followed on foot meant they weren't just watching you. They could use a nano chase camera or raid your computer to do that. I smiled at the idea of the rude bearded man getting strong-armed. He was probably some lawyer who knew nothing about the Scarsdale Maniac case, but would have to say he did and then promise to stay off it. About one kick in the balls would be all it would take for him.

The new subway was free and lightning fast so I decided to use it to get to the waterfront, and I was going down the steps when I saw a man across the street hurrying down some other steps. The steps to a converted Angels church. It was a second before I realized that he could watch the entrance of City Hall's Public Access area from that location. Blue suit, shades, super neo steroid muscles - this slick guy was no minister and no one would be attending services at a downtown television church late on a Tuesday afternoon.

I really do recommend using the law to defend rights from undefined SSU powers, but sometimes I lose my temper. Uttering some nasty words about the SSU I stepped out on the polished floor. City Hall Station was about as big as a coliseum, a huge cavern with endless marble pillars and monstrous flashing billboards. Pushing my way through the crowd, I headed for the far end. One of the new sleek silver trains was coming into the station, but I just kept walking and didn't look back.

Most of the crowd boarded and the rest of the people dispersed toward the exits. As the train whooshed away, I looked around and saw the SSU man marching toward me. I was nearly at the far end and the only other people around were young street teens. A gang of them loitered near a bench. They were looped-out kids you might see anywhere in the city and usually they wouldn't hassle you. Walking past them, I positioned myself at the end and pretended to be waiting.

The SSU man walked past the teens and I could tell by the looks on their faces that they pegged him as a dirty undercover cop. A couple of the girls began to shuffle away, while the others stayed. He ignored them and stopped almost right beside me, then he glanced at me and grinned arrogantly, as if to say - I'm following you, so what are you going to do about it?

Liquid glare from a travel billboard slid on his lenses, so there was no locking of eyes with him. What I did was shuffle back and forth; pretending to be impatient, then when I was close to him I suddenly lunged, hit him with a knee and twisted his right arm behind his back. Spinning him to the side and thrusting forward, I slammed him headfirst into the wall, and while he was stunned, I brushed him for weapons. He had no guns but he did have something hard in his jacket pocket.

I pulled back, crunching his fallen shades with my heel, and I had his weapon in my hands; it was a golden knuckle set. Stun knuckles, the slick creep would've jumped me somewhere and beat me halfway to the moon. Putting them on, I watched him recover. Groaning, he spun around, holding his bleeding nose. His eyes glazed over. “You broke my nose,” he said stupidly, and then he charged.

I dodged aside and he nearly fell headlong, then he turned and came at me again. A fast punch whizzed past my ear, but it didn't connect. My own punch did - a hard right hand to the jaw, and aided by the knuckles it was a knockout punch. Blood jetted from the SSU man's nose as he staggered back and tumbled against the wall, totally punch drunk. There was no fight left in him. He probably didn't even know what hit him.

Moving in I hammered him with a series of body punches, then I blackened his eyes and dislodged a couple teeth. He fell hard on the stone floor and lay there out cold and bleeding.

Realizing I'd gone too far, I turned to the kids on the bench, wondering what to say. And it turned out to be nothing because they all stood up … some clapped and others whistled.

Grinning, and sort of trying to hide the scar on my jaw, I walked quickly away. Slipping off the knuckles, I dumped them in a trashcan at the other end, and then I looked at my lucky charm while I waited for the train.

The up tube came to a dizzying halt, the doors chimed open and I rode a ramp to the outdoors. It was a lot of technology just to dump me in a trashy field of weeds and rubble. One mega-complex had been razed to make way for another. To the north, a crane of incredible size stood at the end of a hulking wall of skyscrapers - buildings so high they blotted out the sky. It all loomed over me like a deadly tidal wave of condensed civilization.

Turning south, I focused on the waterfront area - a shining concatenation of structures under a golden haze of sun. Green fields, beach sand, the Toronto Islands made it a postcard scene. Hover ferries skated like silver beetles, making their rounds of the islands, and I wondered if I should start my search there.

Distant wild greenery floated in the haze like something forgotten that'd reappeared. I began to feel like I was looking for something I'd lost, and it was more than Janice Channing. Annie had loved the islands. I'd been there with her often years ago. Our happiness remained vivid in memory, reminding me that I was alive then and dead now. Part of my heart had faded away without my noticing it, like the maniac had gotten a piece of me or I was someone who'd got wasted on the hook and had lost himself to alien emotions. Alienation takes the ability to love away. That was the painful part, and why Annie left me. She said I was uncaring, cold. It was over because only the little things between lovers make it love. I saw the problem back then, but I couldn't change myself. All the new emotional problems had somehow nested in me. Hell, people suffering from drugs and hooks never had a thing on me. I'd been shunning love and all emotional involvement just like them, because I knew it was too late and I would always be too cold to really love anyone.

Journeying into the past with a head full of my failings wasn't desirable so I skipped out on the islands. I decided to start with the shoreline and a clear head. The area was too large to tackle on foot so I used the car chip built into my key chain. It entitled me to any loose vehicle parked on any Fast Eddy rental lot. There was a lot right under the station so I walked under the tinsel streamers and put my master code into a Ford-T mini sport car. I drove off with the idea of parking here and there and tackling the area in manageable blocks. Clubs and patio restaurants I would check in the later evening. She wouldn't be in the malls. Hotel beachfronts I put second to nature areas. Janice fancied herself a nature lover so there was a better chance of finding her in a field communing with the butterflies than there was of spotting her on a sunset beach with a plastifoam-muscled Romeo.

The police presence was heavy, cruisers at every major intersection. Ostensibly, it was a traffic blitz, but I knew it was part of the manhunt for the Scarsdale Maniac. There were teams of undercover people and I knew a few private detectives who were working with the huge task force.

I cruised right past the blocks without being stopped, and thought that maybe my luck was returning. The Harbour-side Tunnel wasn't blocked, but when I got underground, I spotted some uniformed men moving in the sepia gloom to the right of the highway. Small passages ran off the main tunnel and the sight of one of them conjured visions of police officers waltzing through the slime and shadows in search of some dark phantom.

As I came up out of the tunnel, I spotted five impossibly beautiful women hitchhiking. They were hookers. I pulled over, and I hate to say it, but I looked closely at all five to make sure Janice wasn't one of them. Runaway women have always been food for the trade.

A leggy blond sauntered up and swung a hip against the door. She tilted her head and smiled seductively. “I'm looking for a missing woman,” I said. “She's eighteen. The name is Janice Channing. This one is as pretty as they come. Blond, likes to wear fake leather dresses. She carries a purse with a child face of a robot painted on it and she's no hooker, just a dumb kid?”

“Sure you don't want something else?” she said.

“Not today,” I said, and then I grinned and looked her over like I was considering it. Her muscle tone looked too good and it was the same with the others. These were women who worked out, every day. They spoke cleaner English than any street gal and that meant they were policewomen. It was possible that they'd seen Janice around but wouldn't give the info to a guy they thought was a john. “Listen honey,” I said. “I'm a private detective. If I find Janice, I just want to talk to her. Her mother hired me.” I gave her one of my cards. “Call me if you see her and I'll pay a reward.”

She pushed the card back at me. “She's around, but I can't say where. You'll have to find her on your own.”

The David Walker Memorial Park was the largest nature area in this section of waterfront. Since the pretty police lady said Janice was around, I felt there was good chance she was out for a walk in the woods. Charged with optimism, I turned down the entry road. Maple boughs dappled the sun-soft asphalt with shadows. Inhaling the lake breeze I looked around, seeing some joggers and bird watchers at the perimeter. Some kids were feeding the geese in the parking lot and teenage boys were skate boarding around the peace fountain. I didn't see any women Janice's age so I parked the car and walked down to a dry wooded area that ran next to the marsh. A new boardwalk ran out into the swamp so I strolled out on it and stood there staring at cattails and the sunset haze out on the lake. My thoughts focused on Janice and a mixture of odd thoughts passed in my head. It was strange; I couldn't get a clear picture of my feelings, like there was a lens clouding everything when I thought of her. Out of habit, I took out my lucky charm, and then my thoughts grew dreamy as it mesmerized me . . . .

A stray collie barked furiously at the edge of the swamp. Wind rustled the trees and whistled in the reeds. Something electric sizzled in the slime. Snakes of smoke rose from a patch of dark mist. Whitening, congealing, sparkling with sunlight, the patch drifted in the water. Beads on its surface oozed, glistening like morbid eyes. Alien images, vague shadows and strange faces were mirrored on the surface of the mass, and these images grew hostile, twisted and confusing. Spooked, the dog stopped barking. It whined, turned and bounded away.

White clouds sailed in the gold-blue sky; the surroundings remained idyllic like the creeping mass was a secret intruder. It went out of sight under the boardwalk and when it emerged, it had a hide, a crude head and a malformed mask. The thing was neither animal nor human and it was still in transformation. It oozed sticky blood, shed patches of its hide and face like it was testing new appearances until it could find one that worked well enough to define in the flesh.

The being's mind began to grow, and knowing nothing initially, it scanned and searched, like it was trying to detect what world it was in. All transformation ceased, it was failing. It began to shrivel, then it detected the mind of a human and the process took a new direction. Memories flooded in, as did identity, and the first mental state was one of natural peace . . . a temporary state that was soon replaced by hunger. Hunger that rose like a wind of tall fire, roaring down from distant worlds.

Now the heat was in it. The head melted and rose as a boil that palpitated and exploded in a shower of blood. Veined tissue pulsed out of the crack and a new head formed. Fierce masculine features took shape, blood and slime dripped from its blond hair; the head swiveled grotesquely on the mass and the mouth twisted to a grin.

There was a cracking noise like a tree splitting as the mass ripped open. Then the head began to rise on the tissue oozing out. Blood gleamed in the sun as the tissue molded itself. Skin painted itself over the flesh and a clutching hand reached out and seized the edge of the boardwalk.

Naked, the man swung himself up on the boardwalk, looked quickly around and saw no one. Water boiled up as the birth mass sank, and he watched it momentarily before studying the fine day. He smiled at his prospects. Luck was still on his side, this conservation land would be a great place for hunting.

Another man was near the trees at the end of the boardwalk so he walked down it quickly and ducked off into the woods. Feet padding lightly on the duff, he thought the situation over. The search was on for him and he had no immediate way of making a permanent move. The huge city of Toronto loomed to the north east, but he never emerged there because of the tremendous wave interference. Once he had been powerful enough to deal with anything, but his powers were diminishing now that he was traveling back in time. Superior senses, intelligence and his hunter's cunning kept him alive now. It was better that way. Instead of just slaughtering and satisfying the hunger, he had to use real skill. It made the kills so much sweeter.

Reading the minds of others told him of morals and why they wanted to stop him. Halting he looked at the gold-blue sky and drifting cloud fleece. There had been no parallel on the hot planet of his birth. It was a place of fire, ugliness and death. The whole of their science had been devoted to escaping, and they had all left, leaving their bodies behind. Earth was beautiful, a dream come true even if it was another prison. There were limitations. The first one being that humans were the only creatures intelligent enough to imitate and the second being that he was doomed to always emerge as the same man with the same faults. He was doomed to always be the Scarsdale Maniac, a personality created from the first two humans he'd imitated - two psychopaths locked in a prison on Earth at a time in the near future.

Nearly killed by that human society of the distant future, he had used the last of his transfer energy to travel in time and connect with a man in this place called Toronto. To blend perfectly he needed the man's body and brain, but he couldn't have them. He didn't have the energy to map the body, devour the brain and take the new form so he was stuck morphing up from the microscopic whenever the conditions were right … using the man's body as a rough blueprint to complete the task.

A small black animal walked on a tree trunk. Using mental camouflage he walked up, seized it and listened to it scream as he crushed it. The tiny power that was its life entered him making him that much stronger. He dropped the corpse feeling only disgust. It wasn't enough. The fix he needed was psychological; a woman's heart that would satisfy the maniac in his breast. A torn organ that would send him into that state of artistic ecstasy the second killer needed to operate on a face.

Sumac bushes rustled behind him, and he realized that he hadn't been careful. The squeal of the animal had attracted someone. Turning, he scanned the foliage and captured the outline of a big man coming through. Touching his thoughts, he found him to be an undercover SSU man and part of the task force hunting him. There was time to duck away and run, but his inherited hatred of other men prevented that. Anger rose, his carelessness had put him in a black mood. Lifting his hand, he twisted his fingers and stared, his handsome face warping like the vile taste of his loathing would make him scream.

The scene blurred, he saw a dark form emerging, a reddish glow highlighting the sawed-off scattergun he was carrying. His eyes zoomed in on the gun, seeing the words SPRINGFIELD ARMORY engraved in the plate. The weapon was coming up so he charged, his hand reddening to laser fire as he prepared to strike. The undercover man pulled the trigger, and the maniac felt the shotgun blast catch his chest, lift him and throw him hard into a tree. His head cracked and split, he slid to the ground, and there he waited, angered by his own stupidity.

He saw through the cop's eyes as he stepped up and studied him. The burly SSU cop found him attractive in a fierce way. No doubt about it, he was sure he'd bagged the Scarsdale Maniac and a promotion. He put his hand to the cyanosis blue face and pushed open the corner of the maniac's mouth. Slime dribbled out. Something red had glowed in the maniac's hand, so he looked down for the weapon, seeing a mass of bloody scatter tinsel on the chest and a limp hand.

Nothing, no weapon. Then the hand began to glow and the cop's eyes shot back to the maniac's face. One eye was open and it was alive with a mocking sparkle. Jumping back, the cop raised his gun and he should have fired instantly, but he didn't because a voice in his head told him the maniac couldn't really be alive.

Sensing an easy kill, the maniac flew up, and again he was in error, having forgotten that the unhealed chest wound would slow him. He struck out with his laser-hot fingers and was just cutting into flesh when the scattergun went off.

The two men were thrown apart; the undercover SSU man staggering back and the maniac going into a tree trunk. His gun was going down but the cop was still standing. He saw the maniac, his gory chest, cyanosis blue face and something else - the blood and wet mass of violet on his right hand. The pain was already beginning as he looked down and saw the bleeding gouge the maniac had torn in his midsection. Groaning hideously, he stumbled, then his knees turned to rubber and he collapsed and died.

Julio felt airsick, but who wouldn't after six hours of piloting a nano chase camera. Sure, his mind was as light as air, but down in the flight control chair his stomach and bowels were cramped and churning. Stopping the camera in midair over David Walker Park, he took off his helmet piece and slipped his right hand out of the control glove. His paneled office came back into focus and he immediately hit the button, turning on the wall screen view. Up in the corner a small map displayed the positions of all other chase cameras searching the waterfront. Showers of sparks lit up the hotel areas, and that meant that nearly everyone else expected the maniac to strike in one of the hotels again. Julio was the only investigator sending his camera over David Walker Park.

Sure, the park was a long shot, but Julio felt it was worth it. Hell, with the reward at two million anything was worth it. And he was SSU connected, which meant he'd get an automatic promotion if he spotted the Scarsdale Maniac first. It was worth it but that didn't change the fact that he was getting nowhere. Grimacing, he expelled gas and reached for the seltzer bottle. Damn instant food all the time, it's killing me, he thought.

The seltzer went down and his stomach began to ease. Time for a Loop, Julio thought. I'll cheat a little. No one can expect a guy to stand this pain. He mumbled the code that would start sexual stimulation mode four, then Okayed it. He grew hard, and feeling no pain, he put the headset back on. “Not so bad, not so bad - ahhh,” he muttered as the camera began moving through the sunset haze.

Circling, he looked for people to frisk, spotted two distant figures and swooped with the lens in through the maples. Two beautiful teenagers, exactly what he needed. He could hang around, get his rocks off, and maybe the maniac would show. Spinning the camera back drunkenly, he looked down on them. His eyes went to the blond. Sweet rosy face and ripe breasts. “Ah, sweet little eighteen,” he said, sailing down and forward so it was like his face was in her breasts. Losing self-control, he moved in, trying to bury his head in her chest. As the view faded, he pulled back, got a good shot of the curvature. Then he felt another shot. His pants grew wet. “Shit, man, it's over,” Julio said. “I should have stuck with mode three.” He zoomed away and began searching the clearing around them while he upped the mode to five. But it wasn't working -- if he got any limper, he'd be neutered. Then he saw a naked man coming out of the trees and got a sudden rock-hard erection. An unwanted erection. He felt his organ begin to throb painfully as his eyes studied the grotesque mass of blood on the guy's chest.

Slowly, Julio's shaking hand pulled away until it touched a switch. The headset went blank and he yanked it off and checked the screen. “Damn,” he said as he watched the maniac creep up on the teens, “getting my rocks off on a sicko.”

The camera remained in hover mode and he was losing the view. “I better call in Hoover,” Julio thought, and then he decided against it. Tom Hoover was his superior officer and he wasn't what anyone would call honest. Hoover would grab the reward for himself - unless, Julio waited for the last second, then called him in.

Quickly, Julio ran the gun test program and found it functional. It meant he could kill the maniac with ease. With Tom Hoover's authorization, he could fire a strand from the nano camera that would grow to about the size of a hair before it penetrated the maniac's brain and destroyed it. The key was to get that authorization at the last second so the kill would be his - and poor Hoover, well - who cared about Hoover?

Throwing on the headset, Julio swooped down and almost went up the maniac's butt end. He pulled up. What kind of guy is this? he thought, thinking about the mess on the guy's chest. No time for speculation now, I'll just have to figure it out later.

The teens were still unaware of the maniac's approach. It was like he'd made himself invisible. Then he saw the blond get up. She suddenly screamed and ran while her dark-haired friend looked around like she didn't know what the screaming was about.

That's it, Julio thought. You can barely see the guy unless you're in motion. He has some kind of technology planted in that naked ass of his.

Picking the easy victim the maniac pounced on the dark-haired teen, and Julio's heart nearly came up to his lips as he hit the alarm. Throwing off the helmet, he enlarged the screen view to the size of the wall. “God, I'm going to be too late,” he said as the maniac got a strangle hold on his victim. Then big Tom Hoover burst in the door and stopped dead in tracks, his eyes fixed on the screen.

“I need fast authorization,” Julio said. “I have to go down and kill him now.”

“Authorization,” Hoover said. “I'm afraid not.”

“What? Why?” Julio said, not believing his ears.

“Why?” Hoover said, his lined face twitching, his dark eyes glazing over. “Why … because the color of fascism is white. And you aren't white, Julio. You're a fucking spic.”

Blood was flying from the chest of the wounded teen, the sound of the maniac's huffing was coming over the mike, and all Julio could do was stutter as he watched Tom Hoover pull out an antique snub-nosed .38.

Julio was still stuttering as Hoover pulled the trigger, then blood bubbled from his lips as Hoover stepped up.

Hoover pushed Julio aside and took the headset. The maniac was getting ready to rip out the victim's heart, and he didn't plan to stop him. He'd have to let him get away with it this time so the catch wouldn't be credited to Julio's chase camera.

The sunset was glorious, and the mad look on the Scarsdale Maniac's face was another kind of glory. He held the torn heart aloft, and Tom Hoover watched -- his mind lost in its own brand of grandeur. Hoover thought of all the spics, Muslims and Asians that had flooded into the privileged neighbourhoods of white North America -- how he wished he could tear out their hearts. All the damn best positions had been taken by them. He would never let a bastard like Julio get promoted above him, and he would never take orders from a spic, chink or rag head. This was his SSU, and these foreign idiots didn't know what fascism was about. Maybe they had forgotten about ethnic cleansing -- the fools. The color of Hitler was snow white. The heart colors of fascism and the SSU would always be blood red and snow white. With the maniac fading from the stationary camera, he shifted his arm and put two more slugs into Julio as he muttered, “Die twice you spic bastard.”

Blind fear painted everything white. Janice crashed through thorn bushes, oblivious to the pain . . . seeing nothing but a blur like the mind fuzz on a fritzed motion TV. It was like a creepy nightmare. Her legs were pumping automatically, but no speed could be fast enough, and if it weren’t for a painful throb that suddenly hit her chest, she never would have stopped.

Collapsing against a tree trunk, she felt her legs give way. A moment later, she slid to the ground, her hand on her heart - then she realized that it wasn't her heart that hurt, but her lungs. They were on fire, nearly stripped raw from the gasping breaths of her panicked run.

Red lights appeared and whirled down as her vision returned. She was on her butt, staring up through the trees at sunset colors. Tears streamed down her cheeks from the exhaustion and at the thought of what must've happened to her friend, Denise. She hadn't looked back, but she knew that if the Scarsdale Maniac got you it was murder.

Denise had left home because her parents and the people around her were suburban trash junkies, now she'd been killed by another piece of garbage. Janice hadn't really identified with her. She'd met Denise on the road and she was a friend … a human being. After all the abuse Denise had suffered, it wasn't fair. Janice felt she was the one that really deserved it - the spoiled rich kid who'd run off because her mother was getting too demanding.

Wishful thinking took over. She didn't want to believe Denise was dead. With a phone or any pocket device, she could call an ambulance and the police, but she didn't have a phone. Electronic devices were easy to trace and she was a runaway. Maybe if she crept back she could check on Denise's condition and then run for the parking lot. According to the news reports, the Scarsdale Maniac never took more than one victim and he always escaped. He'd already been covered with blood when he attacked so maybe Denise was a second victim that had been maimed but not killed. And if he was a perfectionist at escape, he was probably already gone. A stark naked killer covered in blood would need time to clean up and dress.

Going deeper into the woods wasn't an option, so she got up and brushed herself off. A nasty scrape marked her knee and a grass stain painted her thigh. Other than that, she was intact. Twilight tinted the treetops as the sunset reddened. Moving around a patch of poison ivy, she backtracked through the maples. Night birds were already singing and creating airs of a pleasant summer evening that made it hard to think of anyone as dead. Her original intentions returned to mind, and they seemed silly considering the day's horrible events. She had left home because of love this time. Now it looked like a poor reason. How much loving would she do as a corpse? And the idea wasn't working. Her lover hadn't come to her, and maybe he never would. She would go on, back to the strange collection of enhanced subhumans she called her family, and eventually wed some freaked-out nano head her mother thought was a winner.

Her mother, the older generations, they were all freaks. Made of plastic, drugs and implanted brain equipment. Like when did any of them have a thought or emotion that wasn't transplanted from somewhere else? Even their brilliance was contamination. “It's all money, Janice dear.” That's the way her mother saw it and the way they all saw it. The new wave of technology, the top new corporations were in the human enhancement field. If you wanted to marry money or status you married a man who was really a walking juice machine, his brain corporate cooked by all the add-ons, his body molded by flesh plastic and super neo steroids. With her mother controlling her future, she felt doomed. At twenty her career would be chosen for her and her husband would be hand-picked from an elite social dump. She could run out now with foolish hopes and dreams or be trapped forever.

Brilliant sunset fire carpeted the surface of the pond ahead. The field was off to the left. Denise was there in the grass somewhere, and maybe the Scarsdale Maniac was there. If so, Denise was probably dead. But it didn't matter; Janice decided to take a chance.

Following the tree line, she went to the edge of the swamp and walked at its edge. She reached a point where she could look across the field to the place of the attack. The sky was bright but the ground was dark. She could see nothing but a patch of shadow. Something flashed in the corner of her eye, catching her attention. A dark figure … that of a man moving on a boardwalk in the swamp. Turning, she froze as she watched the man leap from the railing to the bank. Gasping, she stumbled back, turned and ran. Then she heard him yell her name. The voice was Jack's. Stopping, she swung around, seeing one of the final rays of the sun on his rugged face. Her terror vanished, relief and happiness flooded in, she took off and leapt into his arms.

Now I had tracked her, and I knew she had to be in trouble to look so frightened. She’d leapt into my arms so quickly I found myself looking around for the Scarsdale Maniac as I put her down. I had the feeling he could be steps away.

Janice was hugging me like she was desperate and I was enjoying it slightly, but I sure couldn't afford to get distracted while the maniac might be around so I forced her away. Then I saw the tears in her eyes. “What happened?” I said.

“My friend, Denise. I think she's dead. Over there,” she said, pointing.

She pulled herself against me again and I kissed her wet cheek and told her to wait. The joy I'd felt on finding her now faded. Trepidation and the foul scent of swamp water touched me as I spotted the body crumpled in the shadow of an oak. In the twilight, it looked misshapen. Heaviness hit my stomach as I walked up. I felt ill, like the swamp gas had crept down to my bowels. Dizziness and fear were part of it. That and a certainty that there was something about the victim and myself I should know but didn't.

The red stain in the shadows matched the red hues in the sunset sky, but if the victim's blood looked natural, her body didn't. It was horribly twisted - a leg and an arm broken. Gazing at it, I tried to imagine the emotions of a killer so cruel. Her back faced me - a mass of drying blood, and I knew that if I turned her over her face and heart would be gone.

Dizziness faded and I froze. I wanted to turn her over but something inside wouldn't let me -- it was more than simple revulsion. I looked nervously back to Janice and she began to walk toward me. Not wanting her to see the body, I moved to block her, then the entire area was suddenly flooded by bright light and I instinctively dived to the grass. Bullets whizzed above me and I saw flashes of laser light. Since I didn't want to be shot and they weren't shooting at Janice, I stayed down, waiting for them to reach me.

. . . I knew it was a dream. I was paralyzed, on fire. Golden light flooded in. Waking, I nearly scrambled out of bed, and then I realized it was sunlight and felt relief. From my sixtieth floor hotel room, the depth of the brilliant cityscape nearly swallowed me, and it was good because I love heights. Physically I felt surprisingly good, which was unusual since I'd slept only three hours. Mild back pain reminded me that I'd spent most of the night slumped in a hard chair, answering questions for the SSU and the police. A shiver hit me as I realized I'd nearly been shot to pieces. SSU captain Tom Hoover had assured me it was a mistake. He said that at the time they were certain I was the maniac, otherwise they wouldn't have fired. But I knew they would've fired if there was any chance of it -- the reward was just too high. I'd been angry as hell about it, and the memory agitated me. I paced the room then went to the door and looked out. Two SSU men were guarding the hall so I slammed it and locked up.

Picking up the phone, I called Janice, finding her up and happy to talk to me.

“Can Nancy get me out of here?” she said, referring to her lawyer.

“No,” I said. “She's filing, but she told me the legal end takes days. The only way is for you to convince the SSU to release you into your mother's custody.”

“Do you think it's possible?”

“Not right away. They know the maniac has never struck inside the city so they're keeping you in protective custody here on the waterfront.”

“It's silly. The maniac wouldn't try to get me when he knows they're guarding me.”

“He will if they release you. You're the only person who can identify him.”

“Maybe you can break me out?”

“No way. I have to cooperate with the authorities or I’ll be smoked.”

“Do you think this number is tapped?”

“All numbers are and yours they're actually listening in on. The Scarsdale Maniac might want to call you. But it takes a bit of time for their encryption tools to crack the call.”

“Can you come over here and talk to me?”

“Not if it's about breaking out. But I can I bring your mother. She wants to talk to you.”

“No, I won't see her. Not yet.”

“The SSU won't let me in unless it's a talk with your mother. They believe she has your best interests at heart.”

“There's a reason. I want to talk to you and have you convey my feelings to mother dear. I want her to arrange a funeral for Denise, in my best emotional interests. I want a decent and respectable Christian burial for her remains, meaning one where her organs haven’t been harvested by old men. And not in those all-faith cemeteries. She said she was Christian.”

“They'll allow that. I'll arrange to be there in about an hour. You can do some thinking about your family while you wait. Sheila's calm now -- like she's in a state of shock. The SSU had to restrain her last night.”

“I don't want to think about mother. I'll be thinking about you.”

“Don't waste your time. I'm too old for puppy love. Perhaps you need someone close to a father figure, but right now, your mother has the power to bust all balls. She's tight with the people running the SSU.”

I had the robot cleaner guy deliver a new suit. It was SSU blue. In a hotel full of SSU people, the best psychology was to win their confidence by looking like one of them. I tipped my hat at the guards as I went to the elevator, and since they didn't follow me I figured my strategy was already working. They were probably phoning Tom Hoover to see if I'd been signed on. I never really would sign on of course. I viewed that as a symbol of failure. Can't make it as a private detective -- sign on as an SSU stool pigeon.

No one followed me out of the lobby, and I stepped onto the warm sunny street feeling about as free as was possible, considering the burden I was carrying. After the case settled, I wouldn't be seeing Janice again. Sheila would never allow it. Not once she found out Janice had run off because of love. And the person she was in love with was me.

My own stupidity was frustrating and painful. Janice called me all the time and I had always figured her as a kid who liked me because I was her protector at times. Even in the park, when she'd leapt into my arms, embracing me like a woman madly in love, I hadn't realized it. I thought it was fear. My clever old ex-wife was right … not only do I have no feelings that aren't hidden, I can't truly see what women are feeling when it comes to secret and deep emotions.

Tom Hoover told me. “The kid's in love with you. Crying her tiny heart out 'cause she thinks you're hurt.” Only then did I get it. And I wished Janice was a bit older so I could be legitimately in love with her, too. Feelings or no feelings, I've never believed in wounding people, especially not love stuck women. Rattling my lucky charm in my pocket, I hoped I could tell Janice I cared about her … but didn't feel I was right for her and was hoping she'd find a guy who was a good match for her. Only it would be a big lie when I knew her mother would definitely marry her to some loser she hated.

They had her in one of those new metallic glass buildings … a nearly hidden six-story building right on the water - the Mary Sanders Centre for Battered Women. There were about ten levels underground and she was receiving psychological treatment, like the SSU thought treatment was something you should get before your flesh wounds had healed. On the news the SSU were using it to paint a kind face on the agency. Noting how they provided the service free to victims. Of course, they were really using it to bait the maniac. The lack of security made that obvious.

I went up the stone walk unchallenged, but I was willing to bet there were at least fifty armed cameras planted in the row of fake evergreen trees at the front. The doors opened automatically and I went up to the desk. A lone weasel-faced security guard sat behind Plexiglas. He was really an SSU man of course, and he was there because he was scrawny and looked easy to take -- the type of dumb and ugly weakling that would draw the maniac inside.

“We've been expecting you, Jack,” he said. “She just called down. Keep it brief. And don't get any ideas about taking her anywhere.”

“Call it a funny feeling,” I said, “but it was like I was being watched when I came up the walk.”

“You're a funny guy, but watch every step you make,” he said, and then he sneered as he hit an elevator button.

I rode up to the fifth as he instructed, got out and looked for room 504. The end of the hall was blocked by a huge canister. It was probably a prop. If the maniac were to get off the elevator it would likely swing aside and a boom loaded with an auto-fragment Tommy would swing in and exterminate him. Either that or it would exterminate an army of SSU agents bursting from the other rooms with reward $ signs in their eyes.

The door opened and I found myself with knuckles raised, about to knock on Janice's shoulder.

She grinned. “Better not hit me or you might get blasted by a canon.”

I grinned, too, poked her in the belly with my forefinger and stepped in. As she led me to the couch, I promised myself I would remember to stop treating her like she was my daughter. And she sure didn't look like a daughter. She was all woman now . . . full ruby lips, seductive hazel eyes, flowing blond hair tied with a wide ribbon. Her top was tied tight above the waist so that her breasts, which had grown to an enormous size, were nearly bursting out.

We sat and like her mother, she had that habit of holding my hand. She pulled her knees up and sort of cuddled against me - the hem of her loose skirt climbing up to bare her thighs. I couldn't help looking at her gorgeous legs, and then I looked in her eyes and found her looking at me like a lost puppy.

It stopped me from pulling back. Janice was getting too close but I didn't want to wound her by beginning with physical rejection. Then she suddenly hugged me, started kissing me fiercely and I had to ease her back quickly or else be seduced.

“Hold on. What's this for?” I said.

“For saving me from the killer. I want to reward you.”

“I don't charge quite that much. And I didn't save you. You got away on your own.”

“Don't you like me?” she said, hitting me with innocent eyes.

“Sure I like you. But I'm also working for your mother, and she would never approve.”

“Mom's a mercenary bitch,” Janice said, getting up. She went to the fridge. “You look too tense. I want you to have a drink with me and talk things over.”

“Isn't it a little early for wine?” I said, watching her pull out a bottle.

“Not in my family. We have it for breakfast all the time.”

“Okay, but just one glass for me. I'm supposed to be a detective, not a drunk.”

She sat back down and I drank most of the glass. Not because I wanted booze but because I was thirsty. “Okay, let's talk about Denise,” I said. “What kind of funeral arrangements are we making?”

“Oh, them. I already phoned my mother and she's taking care of it.”

“Yeah, and what about her. What is it you want me to tell her?”

“Nothing. Tell her she's a bitch.”

“She knows she's a bitch, and she's proud of it. But I can't tell her that or she'll find a quick way to punish me.”

Janice suddenly giggled and snuggled up to me. For a moment, I was stunned, wondering why I had said what I did about a paying client.

“Forget her,” she said. “I want to talk about us, and the life we're going to have together.”

“We won't be having any life together. Your family doesn't want it to be that way. At least they won't when they find out about it. What I don't get is why you want me -- I mean I'm more than twice your age and we have nothing in common?”

“So, you're hung up on age. You should think about it. It doesn't matter anymore. Not in our society. You're still very young by our standards. People are mostly separated by gaps and cultural differences other than age. Most guys in my generation are looped out or drugged and brain-wired out. Way more than half of them are gay and lying about it. None of them believe in love of any kind because it died a long time ago. I can't fault them for it and I've nothing against them or their life styles; except that most of them want a wife that is really a piece of furniture and also something to show off, and they want a dowry … they marry for money and guaranteed natural baby machines. I’ve rejected my parents' values … I’m not gay but I can easily understand why most girls today begin as lesbians and remain that way after marriage. I'm different, and I want a genuine caring man who loves me. I want a beast from the old jungle, and you’re the only handsome and refined one around. You should know about that, Jack, because you always like to say that it was privacy that was killed first and love second. You do have a lot in common with me, because like me you didn't get any plastic surgery, you can't get a loop because of migraines, and you don't prefer Intel drugs. You're naturally handsome and not gay or a womanizer, but a lonely man. I know as I checked mom's files on you. When you were my age you must have run away from somewhere because no one can trace your background or --”

“You mean you had my background checked?”

“Of course I did. I have to know everything about my lover.”

“You're not my lover, you little rat.”

“Not yet, but if I don't become your lover there'll never be one. All you do is wander around on strange cases with a hang-up about that bitch of an ex-wife of yours. You don't have any women.”

“You got a lot of nerve, bringing my ex-wife and lack of a sex life into this deal.”

“I have to. It's just like I have to face the fact that my mother is a creepy rich bitch and property of the SSU. There's nothing wrong with you just like there's nothing wrong me. When are you going to face it? Your wife was a betrayer and a tramp, or perhaps she lived in the modern corrupt world while you lived in the past. She abandoned you, and you're still living in the past with a love that never was. It's time for you to get over it and start a relationship with someone new.”

“As much as I hate you, I have to admit it's partly true,” I said. Then I gave her a serious look. “Do you really know everything about me?”

“I know what the detective I hired told me and what I don't know I can find out by simply asking you.”

“You know too much. I won't tell you anymore.”

“Yes you will,” she said, and then she took a tiny vial from her pocket. “Because of this magic formula.”

I grabbed the vial. “What is it?”

“Truth serum. The SSU men gave me some when they questioned me on the killing. While I was being truthful, I stole the vial.”

“You mean you put some in my drink?”


“Probably doesn't work anyway. I don't feel any different.”

“Let's test it,” she said. “My detective reports you have a knife scar on your leg next to your scrotum. Is it true?”

“Yes,” I said without hesitation, then I stared at her, uncontrollable anger rising. I seized her by the shoulders like I was about to strangle her. “You rotten little creep!” I said.

“Do you love me?” she said.

I looked into her wide, beautiful eyes, my anger faded, and at first, I said nothing but remained stone faced. She looked unbelievably sad like she was going to burst into tears, but I still didn't answer. I'd never really thought about it, because I'd never allowed myself to think about it. Then suddenly I knew. Beyond any doubt, I loved her completely and had been in love with her for more than a year. “Yes, I love you,” I said. “And I love you for giving me truth serum to make me realize it. But I don't love you for bringing this to light when we're trapped by the SSU and stalked by a maniac.”

“Who cares about the SSU?” she said. “And who is the Scarsdale Maniac anyway? Not anybody important. He's just another creep.”

“I'm the Scarsdale Maniac,” I said.

“No,” she said, pushing me away.

“Yes, I am,” I said, though I couldn't believe I was saying it.

“I mean no, the serum isn't working,” she said. “Damn.”

“It is working. I'm telling the truth, though it can't be the truth.”

“Now I don't know if you really love me or not. And stop saying you're the maniac. I know what he looks like and he's not you.”

“Yes, he doesn't look like me. But the truth is that I'm always there when he strikes, and I have no memory of what goes on during that time. I wouldn't even know now if it weren't for the serum.”

“What does that mean?” she said.

“It means I have to go,” I said. Reaching in her pocket, I took the vial of serum, and then I headed for the door.

She followed me, seizing me before I could leave. “No, I'm going with you.”

“Didn't you hear what I just confessed to? I shouldn't even be near you. I'm a danger to you. I've got to sort this out on my own. Please, stay here and don't tip anybody off. Do it for us? They may be spying but their only clue is to follow me.”

“Okay,” she said, tears welling in her eyes, then she kissed me and I broke away and shut the door.

No one was in the hall and I paced to the elevator, just wanting to get out of the place. More for Janice than myself. If my presence endangered her, I wanted to put distance between us. The idea that I could be in love with her and also be the maniac wanting to kill her was the biggest shock of my life.

The SSU man nodded to me as I left. It was like he approved of the briefness of the visit. It hit me that they were sure I was an extraordinary loser. They had surveillance on my visit but after giving Janice truth serum they probably wouldn’t even look at it until a later date. Out in the sun my head started spinning. I had to think, and it was going through my head that every case has a clue that cracks it. With the clue there is sometimes a problem and with this one it was whether I could keep my sanity long enough to finish things. Sitting on a bench, I tried to sort it all out. Something terrible had happened to me somewhere along the line, but I wasn't sure exactly where. How could I be the maniac and not be the maniac? It was so ridiculous that it tied my thoughts in a knot. My head started spinning again and I just let things fade. Beautiful music started playing and I had this vision where I saw a fantastic city and myself running to it and glory. Suddenly rising, I shook my head. Hallucinatory effects of the serum were getting in the way, so I decided to do something to try to end it all before my ability to function was lost.

I walked off the grounds and headed south. Hydrogen vapors from the freeway painted a blurry scene and I had that empty feeling again, like I was a ghost. This time I wasn't just a drained vessel -- a feeling of having been robbed was washing over me. And the sad part was that it was real. A secret devil had stolen my soul. Only now was I realizing it. Even with all the identity loss, sadness and confusion of our better society, I still had to be the first guy who could truthfully say he was really someone else other than himself. It was crazy, fighting an enemy so clever, but there was one odd possibility. Stopping in the shadow of an underpass, I took out the vial of truth serum and swallowed it all, and then I flagged down a taxi and headed back to David Walker Park.

It was a day of heavy traffic; perfumed exhaust vapors made rainbow trails over the sunny park. The police had the main entrance blocked off so I had the driver go around to the far side and drop me on the side of the road. The scene was panoramic, rolling green colored by ribbons of fading vapor, the choppy blue waters of the lake farther out, everything drifting in mild distortion from the serum. This was a large park, big enough that I probably wouldn't even encounter the police unless I went right to the murder scene. I did want to get close; I figured a spot in the swamp where I could look across at the scene would be good enough.

Angling down the steep bank, I headed for a clearing and a path running west. Sweet odors were rising from the sun baked field and the woods, but I knew they would soon be replaced by the foul scent of the swamp. I encountered moths, rabbits and squirrels but no humans. Spotting a flock of geese rising, I headed in that direction and found myself at the edge of the swamp. Making my way around to one of the older boardwalks, I worked my way out, hoping there would be a spot where I could get a view of the crime scene.

There was - I reached the end of the creaking decayed boardwalk and from there I could see the new boardwalk and further on to the end of the reeds and the field where the maniac had struck. The murder scene could now be better described as the murder site. Most of the field was enclosed in a fence of thin trip wire. There were no cops inside the fence; they were somewhere on coffee break or maybe doing a search in another area. Special technique robots that looked a lot like large toys were moving around the area, digging, using chemicals and lasers to gather any possible evidence, no matter how minute.

The whole field glistened, and I gathered that it wasn't from natural mist but from preservative the SSU had sprayed to keep certain types of evidence from decaying. If the scene was familiar, it was probably because so many movie mystery stories start with similar robot scenes. It was interesting enough that it caused me to momentarily forget why I was there. When I did remember, I took out my lucky charm and gazed at it, thinking about luck and my life like always.

A hypnotic state developed and after a minute, my vision became a darkening grid falling in on me. Everything went black like a big hand was closing around me, squeezing me hard. Something alien touched me on the inside and while it was happening my emotions didn't feel human -- they felt cold and mechanical. The state ended with sudden terrible pain -- a burning wave rushed through me with such rollercoaster force that I ground my teeth to keep from screaming and gripped the railing to keep from falling.

The pain passed, and I wasn't out, but I didn't feel normal either. I had the old empty feeling, only a more severe case of it. Maybe an android would feel that way; it's hard to describe it because there really is no such thing as total loss of emotion. Even emptiness is an emotion of a sort. Maybe I felt robbed, as I knew something had stripped me clean. The scene was slightly hallucinatory, foliage looked smeared and light trailed from blowing leaves and branches. I still had my lucky charm in my hand so I pocketed it and stepped back. Looking at my hands I thought, “This must be it. I'm the maniac now.” But I wasn't, and some voice of conscience the serum had given me verified it. I was still Jack Michaels and not Jack the alien Ripper. No hunger for female blood filled me. So what was it? What did it mean?

Water boiled up somewhere in the swamp. I looked toward it but the area was blocked by islands of stones and weeds. Climbing up on the railing, I leapt to one island, then to the shore near the crime scene. I still couldn't spot the source of the sound so I moved down the bank and jumped back down on some algae-coated rocks. The water was boiling fiercely now, sounding like schools of hungry piranha fish had gotten into the swamp to feed. I could see a portion of a fleshy mass, but it was mostly obscured by a fallen tree branch. With little else to do, I decided to wait and see what developed.

Glancing up the bank, I noticed a maple tree with a low-hanging limb. A simple swing up the branch and I would have a better view, so I stepped up and climbed. The fleshy mass came into view. The water had stopped boiling but the mass was moving like it was a living thing shaping itself.

Dizziness hit me, that and an eerie feeling that seemed like more than the effects of the serum. I thought that maybe the whole thing was no more than realistic hallucinations. My body did feel unnaturally light like in a dream. Only it wasn't a dream, and the next thing I heard was a voice that said, “Get down out of that tree, and don't make any funny moves or you'll eat lead.”

I looked down, and saw Tom Hoover and Janice. Hoover's fox like face was red and pinched. His eyes as glazed as gunmetal. He held a scattergun and he meant business, and he had already done some business because Janice's hair was a mess -- she'd been roughed up. “Okay, don't shoot,” I said, and then I swung around and dropped to the ground.

Janice had big tears in her eyes. “I'm sorry,” she said.

“For what?” I said, and then I looked at Tom. “I guess you had us bugged, so where's the rest of the SSU gang?”

“I don't need the rest. I'm bringing you and the maniac in alone. So don't play games. Either you tell me where you're hiding him or I'll pull this trigger and you'll be fifty more pieces of slime in this swamp.”

“I'm not hiding him. I'm looking for him, just like you.”

“Don't give me that. My bug evidence shows you're always around when the maniac strikes. And you made a screwed up confession to Janice. I know you scout victims for him and help him escape. You make me sicker than he does. So talk, damn it, or I'll kill you!”

“Okay, something funny is happening there in the swamp. I was watching it.”

The intense look never left Tom's face, and I was caught off guard when he suddenly charged me. Bringing the gun barrel up, he hammered me on the side of the head and shouldered me over, hollering, “Stay out of the way!”

I nearly blacked out. Janice ran to me as I got to my knees, and I ended up watching Tom aiming his gun out over the edge of the bank. Devilish pain caused my head to spin, and Janice got to her knees and supported me. Cradling my head in her breasts, she caressed the back of my neck and for a moment I succumbed, forgetting all about the dangerous situation.

Tom Hoover's voice brought me back. “Freeze!” he said, and when I looked, I could see a figure stepping out of branches and mist in the swamp. A man, or should I say humanoid - his features were reaching completion as he splashed through the slimy green water. Glistening blood on his body melted into his skin as he came closer. Then we saw his eyes, the power and evil intent. “It's him, the Scarsdale Maniac,” Janice said, half in awe, half in fear.

The sight of him stunned me. Now I had all the pieces and they still didn't fit. With my brain only working at half capacity they probably couldn't. Trying to think in spite of the effects of the serum, I considered the facts. A stark naked man was appearing to kill people, but only on the waterfront and near me, at times when I was somehow rendered unconscious or serum stoned. The reason I claimed to be him when on truth serum had to be because he stripped things from my brain and body. The Scarsdale Maniac was an alien of some sort, and he was also partly me. The realization shook me. I felt like a rape victim and worse because he used what he took from me to murder others. I wanted to kill him more than Tom Hoover did.

Standing in the water, the maniac looked up at Tom Hoover. “Don't shoot me,” he said. “I'm turning myself in.” And I recognized the voice. It was my voice. He lifted his hands over his head, and as he did, light flashed from his fingertips … a twisting web of burning beams that shot forward and caught Tom Hoover right in the midsection.

Tom had already been pressing the trigger on his scattergun. As the beams struck him, the barrel ignited and a silver charge of steel ribbon hit the maniac flat in the chest. A normal man would’ve been blown to pieces, but the maniac's body absorbed the hit and rode the charge as it flew back into a fallen log.

Tom's shirt was burned right off his back and his face blackened and whitened with small blisters. The blue of body armor showed. He'd been smart enough to wear a wire proof Kevlar vest under his clothing. As he staggered back he fired another charge in the air, then he got his balance and faced the maniac. The maniac was rising, his chest and belly chopped to crumbling hamburger. A piece of dripping intestine hung out. I could tell by the fierce look in his eyes that he felt no pain.

Then Tom fired more rounds. The first one took the maniac down, and the following five rounds painted his whole body red. He'd loaded the scattergun with alternate charges of steel ribbon and heavy slugs. I could see them flying and hear the power of the recoil. Stepping forward and unloading that kind of ammunition, a man could tear down stone walls, but even though the shots were all direct hits to the body, there was only blood and no exploding body parts.

Tom glanced at us as he reloaded; his scorched face and hair giving him the look of a crazy grim reaper. “Stay out of it and keep down!” he yelled. “I'm going to cook this bastard's ass.”

Janice shivered as I held her, and Tom opened fire again. This time a fiery charge shot from the barrel and sent flames racing over the swamp. Then another blistering charge came from behind Tom, hitting him with a force so deadly he flew up and forward at high speed, turning into a mass of exploding blood, bone and fire before he landed.

His remains splashed into the swamp. It was like he'd never been more than a choppy bucket of red sulfur. Looking back, we saw one of the police robots rolling back to the crime scene. “Don't move,” I said to Janice. “Wait until it gets all the way back.”

She trembled. “What happened?” she said. “Why did it destroy Tom?”

“It must be programmed to get the maniac. While Tom was shooting it homed in on him, thinking him hostile. We should be all right as long as we don't fire any weapons.”

As the robot went back through the fence, we both rose and went over to the bank. The smoke was drifting away and we could see the maniac's body drifting in the water. Blood oozed from the midsection, torn pieces were sucking themselves back together. “I don't know what that guy is but he's healing,” I said. “Another minute and he'll be after us again.”

“What now? Do we run?” Janice said.

“I can't run. He'll just use me again. I have to talk to him. Find out why. Let's move back. I want you to go in with the robots.”

“What if they shoot?”

“They won't, not you. They're really forensic robots and they've been programmed to fire in some circumstances. You're a victim and they know your genetic code, so they won't harm you, but they'll blast the maniac if he tries to get to you.”

“You're coming in with me,” she said, and then she hugged me. I didn't resist. I caressed her, kissed her gently, and then pulled away.

“No,” I said. “It wouldn't work. If the maniac decides to burn me the robots will fire and we'll all be cooked in the crossfire.”

She looked at me with unfathomable sadness in her eyes, like she was sure I was a corpse already. She loved me and it still seemed impossible that I hadn't understood it before. Warmth filled the icehouse and emptiness in my chest and I wished life could have been generous. It would be fair if she could see how much I cared. Janice was really the only thing I had to live for . . . stripped of feelings by the maniac, SSU, truth serum, her mother and my ex-wife I could see what an empty void the world could be for fuck ups like me. People all the time think they are making their own decisions as to whether they live or die when others often do it. Because Janice needed me, I felt alive. I could live. Alone and without her, the alien maniac could easily look at me and find an empty soul to deal with and command. Without love, I had no strength.

Reluctantly, Janice pulled away and pouted as she walked along the edge of the wire fence to the entrance. She stepped in with the robots and they rolled up and scanned her but didn't attack. Turning back to the swamp, I saw movement below the bank and rushed over. The maniac was up now, and he was mostly healed, but he was blinded. He eyes were covered by a web that looked like tissue seal, and it was healing and forming new eyes so fast that I could see the transformation taking place. It hit me that his features were all similar to my own, like he'd taken a pattern of my body and shaped it to something new.

“I know you're somehow connected to me,” I said, looking down at him as he stepped onto the rocky shore.

His eyes were fully formed now, and sky blue. He looked up then he jumped to the bank and faced me. Scars on his face visibly moved, healing as he spoke. “I feel sorry for you, and what I have to tell you,” he said, and he looked like he really was sorry. “I know your mind so well you almost are me. But the truth is you aren't really anybody. You even know it yourself. You can feel it; the emptiness you experience every day, and your lack of real emotion. Are you sure you really want to know the rest?”

“I have to know.”

“I'm not an alien, like you think. I'm a man from the future. A criminal and a killer. For a very long time I had my way, but eventually the authorities closed in. They put me in prison, and they planned on coding my mind before they executed me. They had done it once before but poorly and tried to duplicate it. They took another man's entire mind as he died and coded it neuron by neuron, so that they had what you would call a program mapping his entire mind. You were that second man and that's why you never feel quite whole. Because you aren't. You died a long time ago, or should I say a long time from now, in the future. Yet they never got to me to finish their work and I found out about you.”

“That's not possible. And it doesn't explain how I could be connected to you now.”

“Time travel is possible. But only for the mind. I made my escape perfect by using their equipment to send my mind back to this city. Or rather by sending two minds. First the dead mind that is now you entered a body, took the brain, and then my living mind joined it, remaining buried in the subconscious. I only emerge on certain occasions, the rest of the time I sleep.”

“I don't believe it. If I'm a dead mind from the future, what reason could you have for bringing me back to life in Jack Michael's body? And in a way that I'm certain I'm him?”

“I had to … it was for my test time transfer and another simple reason. I'm a danger to myself. They caught up with me because I couldn't control my urge to kill. I need you to live day to day for me as Jack Michaels. Otherwise, even the puny military of this time will eventually destroy me. Think about it, Jack Michael's. The reason you can't recall most of your early background isn't because of the tragic road accident you remember. It's because the history isn't there. You came from the future with me and took control of a human mind. Your wife wasn't lying when she said you have no feelings. You lost your feelings and her reasons for leaving you were real. Your new emotions aren't complete like a normal man's because you're only a possessed shadow of your former self. Those days when you get the feeling that you're a ghost are the days when you know who you really are. If you were a real man I wouldn't even tell you this ... you could destroy me by killing yourself. But I know you won't kill yourself. You won't because at root you're a coward as is the new mind possessing you. I'm sorry Jack, but I had to be sure of that or I wouldn't have been able to use you.”

A coward. He was calling me a coward and I hated it. Then it all hit me like a storm. The terrible breakup of my marriage and my futile attempts at reconciliation. Walking around feeling empty and lost. Being in love with Janice and never really knowing it. Stuff wouldn't happen to a man with genuine emotions. It happened to me because I'd been dead all along. I was a ghost. Even so, I knew I could still get even with him for doing it to me. I could kill myself, because if I'd been a coward in another life, I'd somehow regained my nerve in this one. Reaching in my top pocket, I took out my Taurus pistol and pointed it at my temple.

“What are you doing?” he said. “You can't kill yourself.”

“I'm afraid I can,” I said.

“Wait. Don't do it,” Janice said, and I turned and saw her watching. She'd walked back from the fence, one of the police robots rolling behind her.

“Go back,” I said. “It's too late now. I know the truth.”

“Is it the truth? Tell me, Jack. Is the story he told you the truth?”

“You know it's the truth,” the maniac said. “Don't answer.”

I remembered the serum, that I couldn't tell a lie. The maniac's story seemed like the truth, but was it? The only way to know was to answer Janice. My lips moved. “No,” I said. “It's all a lie he concocted so I will kill myself.”

“So it's a lie,” he said, nearly snarling. “The truth is something you'll never know.”

But I did know it. Reaching in my pocket, I took out my lucky charm. The toy spaceship I'd found two years earlier in Europe. “This is the truth,” I said. “I get it now. I'm no ghost. The only thing that came through time is a pattern of your mind. This lucky charm I found is really a device that reads genetic patterns and constructs a body for you. You wanted me to kill myself, then you would've just taken this and given it to someone else and it would read their patterns next time you needed a body.”

“So now you know,” he said. “Only it doesn't matter, because you can either hand it over to me now or I'll kill you and take it.”

“Really, I think not. If you use those nasty laser fingers of yours now that robot will open fire and we'll both get fried, along with this little device of yours. You know what? I've got a better idea. Let's let the robot decide what to do with it.”

The maniac lunged, but it was too late. I dodged and tripped him, then I tossed the device, and it landed right in the robot's huge spanner hand. I saw sensor lights detect it then it was gone, sucked somewhere inside the mechanical body.

Rolling up, the maniac forgot about me and faced the robot. He had to have that device and the only way he could get it was by taking the robot apart. That wasn't going to be possible so I grabbed Janice and dragged her with me to the edge of the bank. Jumping down we stumbled along the shore, and got behind a fallen tree … then the explosions began.

The second blast sent up an incredible plume of fire and smoke and we saw the maniac's body firing off a laser charge as it flew over the bank into the swamp. Clanking over to the bank, the robot shot more fire then went in after the maniac. The other robots were following it now, and that meant the swamp would soon be an inferno.

Janice got back up the bank first and pulled me up, and then we ran off under the maples and didn't look back. We ran until we were winded. Stopping beside a huge boulder, we laughed and embraced. Explosions echoed in the woods, and to us they weren't sounds of destruction. My whole past was bursting somewhere in the sky and all of the old problems were vanishing with it. I looked at Janice, at her smile, and knew she was my future.

“Do you love me?” she said.

“Yes,” I said, not needing truth serum this time.

“So what do we do about it?”

“I need a partner. A female private eye to assist me. I guess you know your mother will be furious about it. But after this, how can she stop it? You solved the case. It'll be in the news tomorrow.”

“I'll take the job and be the first detective in my family,” she said.

We laughed. I pulled her close and we looked back through the trees at the smoke. Mild hallucinations hit me and I saw beautiful images in the wisps. It seemed like Janice had always been my lover. Warm feelings rose and the ice in my heart melted; it was like we were watching fireworks on a summer holiday and not the death of a monster.

---- the end -----