Neon street light shudders like a dying halo above the silhouette of an old-fashioned detective. Even the city knows what’s about to happen to him next. It was only a matter of time. The “old-fashioned detective” was his most desperate disguise yet.
The low brim of a fedora and the high collar of a trench coat frame the detective’s desperate forest green eyes as he scans the lurking abyss for an escape, but sees none. Now every thought and memory, conceiving everything the detective ever remembered himself to be, is about to extinguish. He’s trapped. Not outside this shadowy alleyway. The detective is trapped in his own flesh.
Above him rise the unlit towers of the old downtown. They look like steel gravestones in a cemetery ready to burst. This is where he’ll be buried, too, with all the other forgotten memories of this city. If only he could rip free of the muscle and bone. If only he could become someone else. Hell, he’s already done it so many times he can’t remember if he’s even lamenting the right person.
More tears. The disguise is all but gone now. The conscious vapor just behind his eyes is naked and it's terrified. The detective hid so well for so long, but Death has finally found him. It won’t take its own eyes off him ever again. Any of its eyes. And there are so many more than just two of them.
Dozens of pairs of those eyes, disembodied within the veil of darkness in the alley, stare back at him. Luminescent and pale blue. Silent and still. Malevolent in their blinkless voyeurism. The longer he gazes into this vile constellation, the smaller the detective’s heart shrinks in his chest. The end is mere feet away now. He can see the whites of its eyes. He can even hear its name, growled like the spiteful answer to a riddle from the depths of his own flickering consciousness.
“What did you just say?”
He didn’t say anything, but the breathless question hangs in the chill night air as the long shadow of the woman who asked it bends over the detective’s shoulder. The detective doesn’t turn to face her. He’s not going to answer her question either. Like a cursed spell of unknown black magic, he doesn’t have the courage to breathe the name out loud. Not even to the woman who can save his life.
“What exactly did you remember tonight?” she demands, cutting to the chase.
“There’s no time!”
If he pointed her in the right direction, so to speak, she could find that answer inside his head and relive it using whatever technological witchcraft she’s weaving at the moment. But that would be the only way for her to truly understand what happened to the detective tonight. Like dream logic that only makes sense to the dreamer in those ephemeral moments of conjured subconsciousness, she would have to submit herself utterly to his abstract recollection. That would take time. And right now that same dream logic is screaming a very explicit warning in his head.
“I’ll die if you don’t do this now!”
At first there is no response. Then comes a question.
“How long has it been?”
She believes him.
"An hour! Maybe more!"
“It’s already into your long-term memory. There is a devil hiding inside you, my love. But I’m no exorcist. I'm just fire.”
“Then burn it!” the detective growls.
“If I do this, you won’t remember tonight,” she says.
“I don’t care!”
“You might not remember anything.”
The detective stops as if punched mid-sentence. In a sense he has been because he does care. Not about himself. He just needs to remember Cat. That’s the only person he cares about anymore.
His eyes shimmer like green mirrors ready to shatter. Vision blurred by those tears, he peers into that liquid glass and looks for Cat. It doesn’t take long for him to find her. As if summoned from his conscience directly into the black curtain of the night surrounding him, the detective is forced to bear witness to his guiltiest memory. A door cracks open within the inky black itself, revealing the starkly backlit shape of Cat, young and helpless, standing alone on that cruel night when they first met. He’d wipe the regret from his eye, but this might be the last time he’ll ever see her face.
All the while, those pale blue eyes keep watching, a pitiless audience to the most grueling mistake of his life. And they never blink once. All they do is stare. All they’ve ever done is stare. The detective knows that now because earlier tonight, he dared to stare back. One simple mistake. One brief glance into the forbidden and he remembered the only thing he’s not allowed to. The last deja vu. Of all the things to finally kill him. A memory. Because tonight, when the detective looked at those unblinking, pale blue eyes he realized exactly who he was seeing. Instantly, he remembered a name.
“Don’t say it,” the woman sternly warns, suddenly afraid to hear it out loud.
But the detective wasn’t saying anything out loud.
A heavy gasp steals her breath away, ending the question before it can be asked. The cable twists in her head and the detective’s skull feels like it’s twisting with it. The tears eject from her eyes, now sapphire blue, instantly erasing Cat and the audience of voyeurs from the surrounding darkness. She’s no longer standing on cracked concrete beneath a waning street light. Instead, she’s sitting on a metal folding chair at the center of a powerful, but narrow floodlight. The detective isn’t even a man anymore, either. Her face is suddenly narrower, her cheekbones suddenly taller, her lips suddenly fuller. The detective’s fedora is gone, taking with it her most potent disguise, leaving her wet and matted hair to fall against the shoulders of her now rain-slicked trench coat. With twitching figures she reaches past the metal contacts held in place on both of her temples by tight elastic bands and feels the sprouting and thick multi-colored cables coiling to the floor from her head. She squints through the harsh glare to try and make out the details of the room, but all she can make out are two small, red disks hovering above.
A sharp fiber stabs through the contact into the right side of the detective’s head. It feels like boiling water is coursing through her nervous system. Her entire body is convulsing. She cries out in anguish, squeezing her eyes shut to ride out the pain. In the darkness behind her eyelids is Cat again. This time she’s smiling.
Fingers rapidly pound across a keyboard.
“It's time for us to say goodbye, my love. That was one hell of an entrance you made tonight. It makes me wonder, of course. How do you even know who I am?”
“You w-won’t…believe me…," the detective stammers out.
“That doesn’t mean it's not true. Not in this city.”
The detective struggles for air. The agony is breathtaking. She’ll do almost anything to end the misery. Even answer this strange woman’s question.
She forces her eyes open. Her vision is spinning, but there are those hovering red disks again.
"I dreamed of you. A nightmare," she explains.
A prompt from an unseen monitor flashes, dramatically blooming the circular lenses of red-tinted glasses as well as the face of the woman behind them. She stands surprisingly tall in the shadows, towering above the seated detective. Her glasses perch at the end of a thin, pointed nose, framed by long, blonde curls. And below it all, a mischievous smirk. In between those softly curled lips hangs the slack of several of the fibers terminating in the detective’s head. The tall woman pushes her glasses to the bridge of her nose, revealing the remaining cables dangling off each finger like marionette strings. The detective’s stomach turns at the sight. The metal chair squeals as she reflexively tries to escape. How could she possibly trust this woman? But it’s too late to ask questions. One way or the other, she won’t long remember any answers anyway.
“Then I can’t wait for our next meeting,” the woman declares.
“W-what? I'll remember?”
The tall woman rattles off one last string of commands on her keyboard. The overhead light fails completely, leaving the room pitch black save for the subtle glow of the tinted glasses, hovering once more like red orbs as they retreat into the darkness.
A motor surges. Electricity crackles and ozone burns as white hot fire devours the detective. In the brief flashes of current arcing up both coils into her head and through the silent tears pouring down her face, she finally sees it. Where the tall woman once stood now hovers a different corporeal shape, this one a shadow curling dramatically overhead, less like a man and more like a stain in the shape of a man. Death. There’s no mistaking it. It’s been sent to find her. This is the monster the detective has been fleeing from all night. No, every night. Its black fingers reach out from black limbs. They’re nearly close enough to touch her. The detective closes her eyes and braces for the end.
Cat is gone now. Only two pale blue eyes stare back from the darkness of the detective’s own mind.