The clouds of artificial waste floating in the atmosphere covered more than just the brightly lit city in the middle of the night. The smog drifted northwest, with the wind. Further to the northwest from where Qinyang stood in doubt, a computer-driven vehicle was pulling into an empty garage. The gray door swung open. Swinging his shotgun low playfully, like it was a baseball bat, the King grinned. His men followed him to the industrial building they had parked beside. With a violent pounding on the door, his scrawny arms flailing about made him look crazed.
The King screamed, “Open the damn door, Thatch!”
“Yeah, we know you’re in there!” Another gangster shouted, cupping his hands around his lips.
Flipping his hair back as he headbanged, the King pulled the trigger on his shotgun, blasting through the door’s locking panel.
“We are gonna mess you up good, rat!”
“Before the night is over, you are gonna squeal like those extinct rats too!” the man in black clothes laughed.
The crew sauntered into the warehouse, walking up and down each aisle of shipping containers. A mammoth device in the middle of the room was designed for moving around the oceanic crates. There were tons, all stacked up to the ceilings, hundreds of feet in the air.
“Do you think he plans to hide here until morning and sneak out of town on a truck bound for offshore?”
The gangster with the burnt sienna hoodie around his waist posed the question to the group.
The one with the navy shirt shrugged, “Probably, but he can’t hide from us!”
The man had tilted his head back and yelled the last part, intending for Thatch to hear it, wherever he was.
However, Thatch had not arrived at the building yet. He was running up crowded steps to the underground trains. He was a block away and sprinting into an alley as quickly as his tired feet could carry him. The man keeled over, hands on his knees, choking and coughing violently. Thatch wheezed and rubbed his head as he pushed himself just a bit further. Entering the warehouse from the other side, he panted and collapsed, leaning against a crate.
“Shh-!” the King whispered as they were searching around, “I think I hear something…”
His cheeks twitched, causing his freckles to dance aggressively on his face. The redhead brandished his shotgun and cocked it as he walked. The mechanical click echoed through the room. Thatch covered his mouth, his eyes wide. He knew that sound. He tried to stand, but his legs failed him. Thatch crawled to the door from whence he arrived. He bent back and wrapped his moist, trembling fingers around the handle, attempting to open the door silently. On the other side of the shipping container behind Thatch, the gang split into two pairs. They stalked around the cracked stone floors. Thatch shivered and managed to get the door open. He glanced behind himself. Nothing. The man’s chest heaved as he slid out the door. The gravel cut into his palms as he headed for the dark alley nearby. Thatch narrowed his gaze and crawled into the shadows.
He took a deep breath and sighed relief, but the smog outside choked him. He coughed. The thunder of beasts swarming him shook the ground. He felt their claws dig in. The gangsters dragged Thatch back inside the warehouse. He was not kicking or screaming, though. He just winced and tears dripped off of his bulbous nose. The King kneed Thatch in the gut as they lifted him to his feet. Thatch sobbed softly as the gangsters beat him. Eventually, the beating stopped. He saw them looming over him as blood stained his clothing.
“You know the funny part, Thatch?” the King cackled psychotically.
“You actually would have gotten away from me if it weren’t for that cough of yours,” He flashed a wicked, broken smile, “No worries, pal, ‘cause I have got ‘the cure’ right here.”
The King withdrew a small vial of yellow liquid from his pocket. He uncapped something, and there it was… one glittering needle. Thatch watched the drugged needle inch closer as the King leaned in.
“With you being a snitch and all, I feel no guilt testing my new concoction on you… understand?” the King’s yellow teeth were bared as he seemingly took pleasure in this act.
Thatch’s eyes were wide as he coughed and let out a silent scream. The crew held him down on the cold floor. He felt strong fingers on his face. He jerked and twisted his head, almost trying to break his own neck. The needle moved closer to Thatch’s eye. The King stopped laughing suddenly. Everyone sat still. The silence was deafening.
Then, the King plunged the needle into his victim’s eye, drawing out the first scream of pure agony.
“Aw yeah!” the King jumped up and down wildly, dancing in victory.
One of the other gang members pulled the needle from Thatch’s damaged eye. The King grinned and crossed his arms, wanting to watch the effects of his new drug that had just been injected directly into Thatch’s brain. Thatch squirmed, his tired muscles spasming as everything spun around him. The world melted into oblivion. Yellow and purple lights flashed in his mind as foam dribbled from Thatch’s mouth. Thatch reached up at the ceiling weakly, tasting colors on his tongue as he looked past the smog at the stars. The brilliant lights flashed wildly before suddenly, nothing. Just Black. Thatch found himself drowning in a sea of blackness. He couldn’t breathe. The pressure was too much. Blood slowly dripped out of his ear canals as Thatch seized on the floor. He kept shaking until it stopped. The high faded and he fell back into reality.
“Damn boss, if putting that in your arm feels half as good as that looked, I think you invented the best shit ever,” one of the criminals chortled.
The King nodded, his smile fading. He touched fingers to Thatch’s neck. Suddenly, he scowled.
“Damn it!” he spat.
The crew blinked, “What’s wrong, boss?”
“He died, you idiot!” the King clutched his hair.
“I thought you wanted him dead…” the man in mostly black clothes rubbed his scalp in confusion.
“Well yeah, I wanted him dead!” the man’s frazzled red hair was a mess, “I wanted to cut off his fingers and toes and then blast his stupid traitorous face off!”
“I mean, we could still do that…” one of the gang members suggested.
The King roughly shoved their arm in response, “The whole point is for him to be alive when it happens, dumbass!”
Then, there was complete silence in the warehouse. After a while, the King stalked back to the car, his henchmen quickly following along.
“I need to fix the recipe so it doesn’t kill now,” the King muttered, pulling his hair out of his face.
The group nodded silently in agreement.
“First, let’s kill that damn inquisitor he talked to,” the King looked at each of his compatriots.
Each of the criminals nodded, agreeing.
“Hopefully the pig didn’t tell anybody else what Thatch squealed about.”
The gangster in the navy shirt rubbed the stubble on his chin, “Hey boss, what did Thatch tell them about?”
The King clenched his teeth and whispered, “My suppliers.”
The self-driving car carried them off, down the street in the grim night. The smog overhead greeted Murchadh as he stepped out of the train station building on the west side of town. The puddles of water on the pavement still wandered from crack to cracks, moving at the pace of a snail. Murchadh was followed closely by Irene. He looked around constantly, staying alert.
“How do you know where Thatch is?” Irene asked, her bubbly mechanical voice piercing the haze of the night air.
“I don’t, but I bet he is going to wait out the city lockdown until morning somewhere. If we already know he is heading west, that means he is in one of the twenty or so warehouses in the district,” Murchadh inhaled more smoke before he got to the end of his cigarette.
The two wandered from building to building, trying to peek inside windows. Murchadh was doing the actual searching, while Irene just followed him around, fixating on walls or small machines on the sides of buildings that were intended for internal heating or cooling of the structures. Murchadh stretched as he walked around in what felt like circles of entire city blocks. Suddenly, he heard rapid footsteps approaching from behind.
“You are the biggest asshole in the universe, you know that!?” Qinyang’s self-righteous little voice challenged him.
Murchadh sighed and turned to face her, “I see you finally remembered that every inquisitor badge has a tracking device inside.”
Qinyang blushed furiously and clenched her fists, “No! You are just- Unbelievable!”
Murchadh shrugged and continued his search.
“Are you seriously going to ignore me?!” Qinyang followed, futilely trying to break through by proclaiming her indignation.
“Not ignoring you, just trying to find an escaped criminal,” the inquisitor sighed quietly.
Qinyang grumbled, “How exactly are you going to find one man in this entire city?!”
Irene was staring at something with her green glowing eyes. Qinyang nearly bumped into her.
“Ugh, watch where you are going, stupid robot!” the young inquisitor snapped.
Ignoring Qinyang, Irene called out to Murchadh, “Sir, Sir!”
He blinked and walked over to look at what Irene was pointing towards.
“Sir, most of the door panels on the other buildings do not look like that one,” Irene remarked.
Murchadh laughed, “Yeah, that is because the others were not blown off with a shotgun…”
The three investigators walked cautiously toward the door.
“Stay here, Irene,” Murchadh whispered as he and Qinyang drew their weapons.
The ends of the guns were cold. The steel led the way into the warehouse. Over the next few minutes, the inquisitors swept from one side of the warehouse to the other. It was empty, aside from the inquisitors. Except for Thatch’s corpse, that is. Murchadh took a deep breath and shook his head in unsurprised disappointment. Qinyang’s eyes widened in shock and confusion.
“Did he… kill himself?” she breathed.
Murchadh scoffed slightly at the suggestion, “Where is the shotgun that blew open that door?”
Qinyang looked back at the door they entered from, and noticed the nearby door was also ajar, but not damaged.
“See? They don’t lock the doors; they lock each individual shipping crate,” Murchadh pulled out a cigarette.
“Then, what does this mean?” she asked, lowering her weapon.
“It means that they got to Thatch before us. We will need a proper autopsy of his body to determine the cause of death, but-” Murchadh knelt and felt for a pulse.
“He is pretty damn dead.”
Qinyang nodded and called for an executioner transport vehicle, explaining the situation. Murchadh walked back out of the warehouse, surprised that Irene was not standing where he left her. He looked around, spotting her walking down the street up ahead. Murchadh jogged to catch up with Irene.
“Irene, where are you going?”
She turned and blinked in confusion, “I am not Irene anymore, inquisitor. You found Thatch, correct?”
Irene had overheard the conversation in the warehouse and had surmised that the case was closed. Murchadh looked at the pavement solemnly.
“Yes, but I am still investigating other things.”
The android tilted her head to the side, gazing at him with her bright green eyes, “Sir, you made it clear that I am only Irene for the duration of the investigation. It will be morning soon, I cannot be Irene forever.”
Murchadh rubbed the bridge of his nose and sighed, “What are you even talking about? Where exactly do you intend to go?”
Irene blinked, “I have been away from the customers for a long time already, Sir.”
Murchadh shook his head and grabbed the android girl’s arm, “Forget about that, you don’t have any more customers. You are free.”
“If I am free, why do I have to go where you wish and be named Irene?” she blinked at him, her artificial voice wavering.
Murchadh looked down at her arm that he was holding. He paused before releasing it.
“Where are you going, Irene?” he shook his head slowly, inhaling from his cigarette.
“If I am truly free, I will go to the ocean now,” she declared, pointing to the east, down the road.
Murchadh tapped some ashes from the cigarette onto the ground, stepping close to her, “Doll, the ocean is in the other direction.”
Irene blinked, “Oh, I see. Thank you for your assistance, inquisitor.”
Murchadh stopped her again, placing his palm on her shoulder, “The city is on lockdown, you can’t leave until tomorrow.”
“Then, you lied, didn’t you? I am not free at all,” she looked down at the ground.
“Of course you are,” Murchadh insisted, looking into Irene’s eyes, “I couldn’t leave the city while it is in lockdown, either.”
Irene turned and moved very close to Murchadh, speaking softly, “Then, perhaps… you are just as much of a prisoner as I am?”
Before he was able to reply, he found himself stumbling and dropping his cigarette into a puddle of water as Irene leaned forward, dropping herself carelessly into his arms. She was visibly feeling defeated by the circumstances.
“Irene,” he mumbled, looking around as he tried to make the android hold her weight up.
The girl closed her eyes, the inquisitor’s jacket flopping on her small form as she bent into his kind touch. Murchadh’s head dipped and his neck craned as he stared blankly at the pavement and cradled Irene.