I've dealt with a few dozen murders since I started working for the Foundation, but this was the first time I’d ever had the pleasure of actually interviewing the person killed.
My name is Agent Darrow. I got yanked out of the LAPD when my wife Maggie was found murdered in our bed. I was the likely suspect, and even though I’d never do it, I was tried, convicted, and sentenced with a handy bit of evidence. And then, a man came and talked to me. Called himself Dodridge. Offered me the chance to beat the rap and keep doing what I was doing. It beat the chair, got a new face, got a new job. It was weird, though, watchin’ that guy with my old face fry. Course, he’d actually killed someone, so I didn’t mind so much.
The murder victim was one Jack Bright, well known Foundation scientist and all around fuckin’ asshole. Within two minutes of meeting him, I could understand exactly why someone had killed him. Guy was an expert at rubbing you the wrong way. I think he got off on it.
"I was minding my own fucking business." He was yelling, and he had a little bit of spit at the corner of his mouth. He wiped it off, swearing. "Fucking body. They gave me one that drools. Dumbasses probably thought it was funny."
Bright was one of those that I'd heard of through the grapevine. Effectively immortal. His soul stuck in a ruby amulet and transferred from person to person by touch. No one knew what happened to the soul that was already in the body when the amulet touched it. Some questions are better off not answered though. There was a file on it laying on my desk. I’d leafed through it, but I preferred to get down to brass tacks normally.
"Can you think of anyone who might want to kill you?" I asked.
"Clef," he said immediately, followed by a long moment of contemplation. "And a few guys that I've been messing around with. Maybe my aide. Maybe someone higher up, though if a death gets ordered, they probably wouldn't assign your ass to it."
That wasn't correct. There were three or four times that I'd been assigned to someone whose death had been ordered. Usually, around the end of my investigation, a memo got passed down telling me what to put in my official report. Those were the easy ones. Open and shut.
"Clef? You mean Alto Clef?" I asked.
"What other fucking Clef is there?" he asked. He stopped for a second, gauging my face, then stopped himself from adding something. Above my clearance probably.
"And why would Doctor Clef want to kill you?" I asked.
"He's had it out for me for years. Asshole doesn't like that I'm higher ranked. And he definitely doesn't like that I'm stuck in this fucking necklace. Gives him the heebie-jeebies or some shit."
I could relate with him at the moment. "So Clef is it?"
Bright leaned back, sucking in a line of spit that had drifted down his chin. "Maybe Kondraki," he added. “Or Strelnikov.”
I added two more names to the list. "And why would they want to kill you?"
"Oh, just some shit I did. Nothing I can tell you."
"You sure about that?"
He nodded, and there was no smirk, so I took him at his word.
"Anything else you wanna add?"
"Fuck off. I'm busy."
I honestly had no interest in talking to Clef. Guy was as big an asshole as Bright and twice the attitude. I moved him down my list and headed to the cafeteria, deciding to get a bite to eat. Thursdays were tuna casserole, presumably because they had a skip that churned out massive pails of tuna casserole.
When I got there, I ducked the worst of the crowd and wormed my way toward the ‘empty side.’ All the weirdos were over there, but I liked the weirdos, and most people thought I was a weirdo too. There was the fat kids, the nerdy kids, and the spooky kids. High school all over again.
I picked a spooky kid and plopped down next to him. Burns. Site 19 coroner. Guy had a penchant for dead bodies, and I was pretty sure he found them more entertaining and interesting than living ones. As far as coroners go, he was a legend in the Foundation. Probably would have been an amazing forensic officer somewhere else in the world. Here? He hid in the morgue all day and never talked to people. I think it mighta been too hard on him, making friends with people who had an 80% mortality rate at their job.
Or maybe he was just an asshole. Fuck if I know.
I knew he’d be the one they had on Bright’s case, and I decided to improve the tuna by talking about dead people.
He gave a terse nod, then motioned to the seat across from him. Maybe it was coincidence that it was the one furthest from him as well.
“Whatcha want, Darrow? They pass off the Bright case to you?”
Business. I liked that about Burns.
“Yeah,” I said. “He gave me a list of big names who thought he was a dick. There’s tons of small names out there to. You deal with the body?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Knew it was Bright before they told me.”
“Oh yeah?” I said. “How’s that?”
“Gut full of beefaroni and blueberry poptarts.” He said it flat, and I wasn't sure if it was a joke for a second. Even if it was, Burns wouldn't laugh at it. He only laughed at the fucked up shit, like this one corpse that literally had its head up its ass. He carried the picture around in his wallet. Asked people if they wanted to see his kid.
“You got the ceeohdee already?” I asked.
“Bullet to the back of the head,” he said. “Someone shot him.” He shrugged. He wasn't interested much in basic causes of death. When your job is figuring out what exactly killed someone in a place like the Foundation, you lose interest in the mundane things like gunshots and stabbings.
“Anything weird about it?” I asked.
“Nope. Not a damn thing. Could have let one of the new kids deal with it, if it wasn't for the fucker’s rank. Like I don’t have better shit to do.”
I took a bite of the tuna casserole. It wasn't bad. The rest of the meal went by in silence.
I knew there was a reason I liked Burns.
I finished lunch and took a step back out into the long, round hallway, heading down it toward the office ring.
I should note that it wasn't actually a ring. They called it a ring, but the bobs and weaves and twists it took—mostly out of spite, I felt—made it more like an office triskaidecagon. That felt better to say, anyhow. And it fit the assholes who claimed the whole damn thing.
I shouldn't dismiss all of them. Some of the doctors and researchers were alright. Glass was a ponce, but fun at parties. Vang wasn't bad when he wasn't talking politics. Hell, I’d actually liked Freddy Heiden. Before he blew his brains out.
And then there were assholes like Clef.
Try to image a giant asshole that went around shitting on everyone and everything in the room. Like, a literal, giant asshole, between two, giant asscheeks, spewing a river of shit. That was what it was like when Clef walked in and got started.
Sorry. Got carried away. Suffice to say that I thought he was a dick.
I knocked on his door, and you could tell he wasn't the kind of person who was accustomed to having his door knocked on. There was a little bit of swearing, some angry stomps, and then it opened up, stirring up a stink of old shoes and mint.
The man standing there looked like someone had slapped Rip Torn in the face a few times with a tennis racket. Middle aged, graying everywhere, with bags under his eyes and a scruffy, two-week old beard. He was wearing a pair of old jeans, an ugly burgundy shirt, and a lab coat that had been washed a few too many times (with the burgundy shirt, it looked like).
“Fuck are you?” he asked.
I introduced myself, flashed my badge, then stepped inside when he finally moved out of the way and let me. He hobbled around the desk and sat down, shoving sandwich wrappers and soda cans to the side just enough to make a bare spot, then put his feet up on it.
“I’m here to ask you about Jack Bright’s recent murder.”
He laughed, hard and loud. Laughed until he wheezed. When he was done, he leaned back in his chair again and grinned with yellow teeth.
“What’d he do this time? Autoerotic asphyxiation?”
“Bullet,” I said. “Shot in the back on the head in a locked room.”
Clef smirked. “Locked room mysteries are boring,” he said. “It’s always something retarded.”
“You have experience with killing someone in a locked room?” I asked.
He started laughing again. “Oh, yeah, but when I kill someone in a locked room, it’s normally via explosive decompression.”
I laughed, mostly to be polite and because it’s really sad when you've got that one poor fucker who’s laughing alone, then wrote ‘loon’ down on my notepad to make it look like I’d gotten something of use. If someone thinks you've managed an insight, they start watching themselves a little more closely. I looked back up at Clef to see if he was acting any different. Instead, he’d started picking up soda cans and checking to see if one of them had anything left in the bottom.
“You got any beef with Bright?” I asked.
“He’s a dumb fuck,” Clef said. “He’s a dumb fuck who doesn't get out nearly enough. He’s been cooped up on site for so long that he’s lost his god damned perspective on the real world. Two thousand die? Sure, so long as we keep an infestation of flying lava spores secret.”
“That really happened?” I asked.
Clef looked at his fingernails. “Nah. Hyperbole.”
I knew he was lying, but I also knew that it was above my paygrade. It might have been even more than two thousand people. It might have been more than lava spores, whatever those were. Didn't matter. First rule of working with these people: there are some things you don’t want to know, and you’re better off never asking for stories, clarification, or explanations. Because you might get them.
I nodded and scribbled down more on my pad. ‘Dislike.’ ‘Angry of specific event -> event unknown.’ The usual stuff.
“You ever wanna kill him?”
Clef smirked. “What would it matter if I did? It’s not like it really takes.”
I nodded. “That’s what makes this such a damn weird mystery,” I said.
Clef nodded. “Almost like they’re just keeping you busy, huh?” he said.
I cursed internally, but I kept my face neutral. He’d gotten into my head, and I didn't like that. In a place like this, the last thing you need is a fucker like Clef in your head.
“Nah,” I said. “Just means the importance is above my pay grade.”
I stood up, and Clef stayed sitting, so I didn't bother with a handshake. “Thanks for your time,” I said.
“Sure,” said Clef. “Not like I was getting work done anyway. I've got the fucking Class-D duty this month. Got to figure out who gets how many and for what. And lucky me, Jackie boy got himself shot in the head and fucked it all up. Of course, he was in charge of it last month, so it’s already fucked up.”
I nodded. “Death ain't really a convenience too often,” I observed.
Clef laughed. “You really are green, aren't you?”
If Clef was a giant asshole, Kondraki was a giant turd. It’s not that Clef shit out Kondraki, but rather, they left the same kinds of stains. I didn't wanna talk to him next, but Strelnikov wasn't taking my calls, and he was a real nutcracker if you wanted into his office uninvited.
I finally caught up with Kondraki—after checking both labs he’s assigned to, his office, three meeting halls, and the lunchroom—on the damn squash court.
Number One: didn’t know the Foundation had a damn squash court. Number Two: what the fuck is squash? Number Three: what self respecting man would wear clothes like that?
Hell, I dunno. At first, I thought he might not have self respect, you know? One of those sheepish little guys that spend all day calculating the ratio of elephant piss in the sub-Saharan. That impression lasted about five seconds after contact with him.
“So you’re the guy looking for who killed Bright?” he asked. “What are you gonna do? Pin a medal on him?”
I shook my head, pulling out my notepad, then started writing. ‘Loon.’
“I’m just checking out all leads. You know anyone who might have a reason to kill Bright?” I asked.
“No one other than everyone,” he said, his lips twisting into an obnoxious little ‘I need the shit kicked out of me’ smile.
“That’s a long list of people. Maybe you can narrow it down.”
He ran his tongue along the front of his teeth, then looked around a little bit. “Clef, probably,” he said. “They don’t care for each other.”
“I’ve already spoken with Dr. Clef,” I said. “Anyone else?”
He shrugged slightly. “It depends entirely on the bowl of cheerios he decided to piss in this month,” Kondraki said.
“Oh? He piss off a lot of people?” I asked.
“Bright’s been around for right at a hundred years now, doing the same damn job every day. No breaks. No vacation.” Kondraki looked like he was going to spit, but thought better of it. “He gets—“ He raised his fingers into the air to make little quotation motions. “—‘bored.’”
Kondraki nodded a little. “Yeah. He once filled my office with little paper bags. Most of them had sand. Some of them had dog shit.”
“Where’d he find the dog?” I asked. Always good to keep them off balance.
Kondraki, to his credit, never missed a beat. “We have a few SCPs that are canines. And I imagine he could requisition one.”
I scribbled on my notepad again, just to see if it would piss him off. When I looked back up, he looked annoyed, so I counted it a win.
“So, he do anything to tick you off other than filling your office with doggie bags?”
Kondraki sighed, which I thought was a bit over dramatic, and rolled his eyes. “I didn’t kill him, if that’s what you’re trying to find out.”
“And you can prove that?”
“I can prove that I wasn’t in the room with him and that I wasn’t in that wing. That said, I could kill someone in a locked room from across the base without too many problems, too.”
“Funny. You’re the second person to brag about that today.”
“If you’re good at something, you want people to know,” he said, looking at his watch. “If you don’t mind, I’ve got a game to finish. Anything else?”
I shrugged. “If there is, I’ll get in touch,” I said. “Thanks for ya time.”
Kondraki nodded, but I sure as hell didn’t get a ‘you’re welcome.’ Some people just don’t know how to be polite.
I was heading back toward the center of the site proper when I got that tingle I always get when someone is following me. I've never tried to explain it—and after working with these psychos, I decided I was better off not really knowing—but I had come to trust that little instinct.
I started walking through the quieter parts of the site. Safe-Class containment lockers, sealed cells. Places that weren't highly trafficked.
I got a good glance over my shoulder as I passed a corner, sneaking a glance through the crack between a wall and an old vending machine full of stale pound cakes and zebra cookies. The guy was wearing a grey uniform. Site janitor.
It threw me for a second, since I was expecting someone in security. Then it threw me for another second, because he took out a gun and started shooting at me.
The vending machine slowed the bullets down about as much as you'd expect it to, and I managed to hurl myself around the corner and against the wall. Hell, Maggie, maybe we'll get to see each other again faster than I expected.
I pulled out my own piece, firing over my shoulder twice as I made it down the hall, twisting around a corner and glancing over my shoulder.
I didn't see the guy, which bothered me, since I expect people who are trying to kill me to be more serious about it. A quick glance up told me why. Security camera.
Whoever it was had a little bit of sense it looked like. Maybe not enough for their own good, though. I know for sure I didn't, since I was already working back down the hall, trying to keep quiet.
I heard one more shot, but I didn't hear it hit the wall, machine, or me. Particular thankful for that last one. I stepped out from cover quietly, gun raised, and looked around.
Only thing there was an empty hallway and a nice, dead body. Grey jumpsuit. Site janitor.
I went ahead slow, taking my time and checking places I could take a bullet from, until I got a little closer. I grabbed my radio and called it into site security—attempted murder, janitorial staff, corridor, and my serial number. And I made a special request, while I was at it.
I was holding my notepad, sketching the scene out with stickmen for my memory, when he started yelling at me. "Why for the hell you drag me out HERE?"
The big Russian was an angry guy. Damn angry. I was fairly convinced that I was only allowed to interview angry people today, and this guy was no exception.
Dmitri Arkadeyevich Strelnikov. The Strelnikov. I made it a point to smile. He made it a point to curse loudly.
"The fuck is Head of Department doing here with failed murder?! You are detective! You solve own failed murder!"
I nodded. "I intend to, as soon as I clear up a few things."
"Clear up you head!"
I nodded again, getting lost in that accent. It was like walking through a foggy swamp chasing a light in the distance. Probably kill me if I took to long.
"I just need to know what your thoughts on Jack Bright are," I said.
"Jack Bright needs to learn how to keep his business to his nose," Strelnikov spat. "What are you? Lackey for Jack? You needs better employment!"
"I ain't no lackey," I said. "I'm just looking into who killed him."
"Hell if I cares who kills him. Why you think you got job looking into it instead of us? You think security has damns to give about who kills man who doesn't die? HAH!"
It was the first time I'd ever actually heard someone say 'Hah' instead of laughing. It was both unsettling and—I blame the accent—amazing to hear.
"You mean you passed on the case? Tossed it to internal affairs?"
"Why should I care who kill him!?" he yelled. By this time, two of his men were carrying the corpse away on a stretcher.
"You mind sending me a cee-oh-dee when you get it?" I asked.
"Be fucking yourself."
As he walked off, I couldn't help but admire a man who gave so little shit. I didn't really need a cause of death anyhow. It was obvious from the spatter on the wall. He'd shot himself in the head.
By the time I got back to my office, I was both tired and annoyed. I’d wanted to get a drink, and I hadn’t had the time, and now, it’d be impossible to get into the on site bar without fighting a crowd. I leaned forward and picked up the stack of site security memos from my inbox, flicking through them and looking over them all. Two SCP breaches—business as usual. Security officer AWOL—probably shit himself and ran. Meeting of all site heads—not my problem, thankfully. Nothing of real interest.
I tossed it all back down and thought about my suspects, instantly reaching the conclusion that they were shit leads. Too much annoyance and not enough anger. You didn’t put a bullet in someone you were annoyed with, even if they did come back to life. You put a bullet in someone you hated. Because you were angry. Mad.
I was looking down at the memos in my hand, flicking through them again, when it hit me. And it hit me hard.
You killed because you were mad.
I flicked back to my case file, pulling out the declassified documents that I’d been given for the case and poring over them. By the time I was done, I was sure I had my answer.
I walked into the lab, humming to myself a little, and looked over at the man hunched over his table. I raised hand and pointed at the back of his head with my finger.
Bright jumped and turned around, glaring at me for a moment, then straightening out his clothes. “Fuck do you want, Darrow?” he asked.
I grinned a little. “Just checking to see how easy it is to sneak up on you,” I said.
Bright got good and pissed looking, which is how I wanted him, and started yelling. I didn't pay too much attention to what he was saying. Just watched him for a while, spittle flying from his lips, amulet bouncing around on his chest. It took me about five minutes to make sure, but by the time I left, I had it.
I thanked him, watched him sputter for a minute, and headed over to security to get a pass. One last angry person to talk to.
The rain was pouring down when I walked into the graveyard. It was the kind of graveyard that no one ever visits because they don’t know anyone who’s buried there. You've never think anything of it, because it was nicely maintained and mowed and kept. Foundation graveyard. Inconspicuous, even in death. You’d never notice how few people actually went there or how high the fence was or how none of the graves ever got flowers.
Only now, there was one grave that did. And there was another visitor besides me. I walked up to the tombstone and nodded my respects before coughing once.
I didn’t recognize the man that turned and looked at me, but I did recognize his uniform. Foundation security. The kid that went AWOL.
Bright nodded to me. “Hey, Darrow,” he said. It was weird to talk to him when he wasn’t yelling at me. “Nice work. You’re here a lot earlier than I expected.”
“Thanks,” I said. “It wasn’t easy to figure out. Not until I went and talked to that other you in the lab.”
Bright nodded, then turned back to the grave. “What gave it away?” he asked.
“It was a lotta shit,” I said. “Didn’t dawn on my until I saw him screaming and yelling and flailing his arms everywhere. The amulet wasn’t staying in contact with him. If it doesn’t, he’d be having little blackouts.”
Bright nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s one of the hazards of being attached to it. They used to glue it to my head, you know.”
“Yeah,” I said. It had been in the file.
“Your other self sent me to the two people who would be the biggest pains in the ass to find and talk to,” I said. “Basically, two big distractions.”
“You didn’t get to Strelnikov?” he asked.
“Nah,” I said. “I saw him. But that was fun. And Clef helped me out, too. Said that you’d had the D-Class rotation duty before he did.”
Bright nodded. “It wasn’t hard to make a simple replica of the amulet. Hell, it looks like costume jewelry as it is. I just got a D-Class alone, put on the fake one, and put the real one on him. Kept assigning that D-Class to myself so no one would notice.”
I nodded. “And then put him at the top of the list for the ‘new’ Bright once the thirty day acclimation period ended,” I added.
He smiled. “After that, it was just a matter of time. Called Officer…” He looked down at the front of his fatigues and read the name “…Carlson. He stopped by my office to take my Class-D back, and we slipped the amulet on him. Had another face stop by and put the bullet in the back of my head. That’s my preferred method of death these days, at least.”
“Another face?” I said. “How many of you are there?”
“Plenty,” he said. “You read the file. ‘Thoroughly dedicated.’ They think I’m just absorbed in my work.” He nodded slightly. "Just so you know, you'll never catch that one. He put a bullet in his head, after all. After keeping you occupied for a little longer."
I nodded. The janitor. Made sense. “And now, you’re planning on leaving the Foundation,” I said. “After all… it’s the anniversary of your death,” I said, gesturing to the headstone. “You must be pretty dissatisfied with the progress on getting you unstuck.”
Bright looked down at it again, narrowing his eyes into little slits. “I’m not leaving,” he said. “I just wanted to stop by for my anniversary. O5’s told me I couldn’t. I decided I was going to. Not like it took that much work. And I was bored.”
I remembered what Kondraki said. “Yeah, but there’s no way you’ll be able to get back on base. You’re in a security guard that they’re looking for. Shoot on sight. They find the amulet on you and the entire thing gets blown.”
Bright nodded, turning to look at me and pulling a syringe out of his pocket. I reached for my gun, but his body was in good shape, all things considered. The needle stuck me, and I felt a deep burning as whatever was in there started to pour into my veins. I staggered backward, head already swimming as my vision began to go narrow.
I saw Bright reaching into his shirt and pulling out that little amulet, walking toward me. “You figured out everything Darrow. Almost everything,” he said, kneeling next to me as I fell. “I knew you’d figure it out. Come to confront me. Be discreet, like you were doing me a favor.”
My stomach heaved for a moment. I thought about Maggie for a second. Laying in the bed. Bloody. The judge in the trial. The man with my old face burning in the chair, cooking alive.
“I didn't kill her,” I said. The words slurred together in my mouth, and then in my head as I tried to reach my hands up to push him away.
Bright nodded at me. “We never thought you did. If you had, you’d have been a Class-D instead of a well placed officer, poised for promotion.”
The last thing I thought was—‘Well, now I get to see what happens to people’s heads when they stick the amulet on them, right?’
And then I found out.