The Sum of Zero: Part 1
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The Number twitched his fingers, anticipation threatened to swamp him. So close, so very close to his prey. He could close his eyes and already feel the rhythm of her pulse under his fingertips; a steady progression, from ordered beats, through the acceleration of fear to the final purity of zero. Transition, action and progression were the words which dominated the Number's life and actions.
The Number hurried up the steps from the subway, carefully brushing aside a lone panhandler without actually touching him. New York shone around him, brilliant and fetid simultaneously. A drop of sweat slid down his face, his own weakness offended him. Flesh was weak, humanity was weak, mutants were weak. Only fire was pure, and only zero had value. The Number stroked the brushed steel surface of his watch before moving on. Purpose and commitment would find him a place in the Great Pattern, nothing else.
A soft chime announced his entrance into the small café. The Number reluctantly accepted a menu from the girl in the front, distastefully noting the unsymmetrical white streak in the front of her hair. People just refused to understand; that was his opinion. No balance or order existed save what he brought to them. Why didn't they welcome him then?
He checked his watch again, silence like a balloon in the café around him. The timepiece reassured him. He refused to fall out of sequence, to disrupt his work on the Pattern. The girl brought him his tea, which he ignored. His fingers matched the sequence of his pulse on the plastic table top. His change sat next to the cup, and his eyes narrowed at the fact that it was irregular. He added a quarter from his pocket to the pile, bringing it back into alignment.
Precision was the most important thing. The Number touched the slim cylinder inside his pocket, reassuring himself with it's weight. Precision, attention to detail; these things would deliver him from his penance. The image of a door floated across his mind, the casing warped and the paint grey and peeling. He shuddered, struggled to fight down the rising panic, the cries in his ears. Equations rose unbidden in his head, numbers like a litany, blocking out the images long past. Figures danced in pure abstraction around him, and the Number took a deep breath as the panic and fear left him.
Finally composed, he looked from the tabletop and back around the café. A vase of flowers sat off center in an alcove, the careless spray of daisies a sickening jumble to him. He took it in coldly as his gaze drifted across to finally rest on the sum for today.
The top of her head was just barely visible over the window leading into the kitchen. A soft bob of loose black curls, constantly in motion while she worked. The Number checked his watch again: 5pm. It was almost time. She always took an average of eight minutes to finish up and leave the café. The Number stood and left, pausing only to straighten an askew picture frame he passed on his way out.
He crossed the street to a newspaper stand and picked up a copy of the New York Times. The Number checked his watch again, four more minutes now. He transferred the cylinder into the paper tucked under his arm. At six minutes, he began to walk casually down the street, pausing to look at store window displays. Using the reflections, the Number caught sight of the girl leaving the café. With unhurried strides, he strolled down the block across from her and crossed at the traffic lights. She was waiting at the corner, rooting through her purse for something, as he fell in behind her. After a few minutes, the Number drew a sheet of paper from his pocket and appeared to consult it.
"Miss?" His dry, clipped tones immediately caught her attention.
"Could you prehaps direct me to Mortan's Tailors, on 68th street?"
"Oh, it's just about two more blocks down the street." She said, smiling at him. "A big grey building, with brass railings leading to the door. I adore brass."
"Really? Well, I didn't quite expect to meet someone who knew the store intimately. Must be my lucky day." He smiled back at her. She dimpled and started walking again, the Number falling into step beside her.
"Well, I live a few doors down, and it's such a pretty building."
"I have yet to visit it. I'm just picking up some items for a friend was having altered there. Heart attack, you know." The woman gave him a sympathetic look."I'm trying to help him while he's recovering."
"He's lucky to have a friend like you."
"Indeed." The Number nodded as they walked. He began to hum softly, opening strains of ‘Fingal's Cave'. She wouldn't understand, but that didn't matter. They never did. It was the ritual he gave them. They'd earned it. He paused for a moment at the mouth of an alley, and, as he'd planned, she paused with him, eyes questioning. He checked his watch and then looked to the sky.
Close by, a building went up in a fireball. Gouts of fire and debris rose into the air, an expanding globe of destruction hurtling skyward. The woman looked away and cried out as the blast of superheated air hit them. The Number moved, grabbing her and throwing them down into the alley. She thought he was trying to haul her to safety and allowed herself to be buffeted into the alley.
The Number watched her as they went down, the cylinder coming easily into his hand. Her head was turned away, the first three vertebrae of her spine jutting up, bone sheathed in velvet skin. One swift movement, a sound softer than a mother's kiss, and it was over. She lay in his arms, for all the world like she slept. But she wasn't sleeping.
That part of the ritual was complete, the hot dry mouth in the anticipation of pleasure and perfection awaiting him. His hands glided over her face, marking every inch of it, stealing it into his memory. Long fingers trembling, he reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a small block of steel, like a printers lettercase. He drew off one of her shoes and fumbled for his lighter. Carefully heating the end of the block under the square Ronson, he applied it to the sole of her foot, wincing at the thin stream of smoke which came from the burn. Carefully dosing the heated block into a nearby puddle, he replaced her shoe and left. One more complete, one more closer to the balance.
And sometimes, X did mark the spot.
Jonathon Caulder had been told once that he resembled John Cusack. Because of that, he'd begun wearing his dark hair short and cultivated a perpetual look of near bewilderment.
Strangely enough, it actually helped. Few suspects ever really took him seriously. And not taking one of the top detectives of New York City Police Homicide seriously was a very foolish thing indeed. Caulder snubbed out his cigarette butt with the toes of his sandal and followed the beat cop into the alley. Already Forensics was on the scene, marking and labeling everything. John gave it a quick once over before kneeling beside the body. It was a Latino girl, young and pretty. She'd been found lying in the alley dead a few hours after the explosion that had leveled the Mutant Research Centre on 2nd Ave An explosion that nearly set the Cancer Centre ablaze at the same time. The FoH had already claimed responsibility, and Caulder was hoping they'd find a few of them soon. His aunt had been at the Cancer Centre at the time.
"Who is she?"
"Her name is Lina Drake. She worked at the Way Green Café down the street." Piper appeared at his elbow like magic, the little man passing over a notebook filled with his own tiny writing. "The Doc can't pin down a reason of death. No violence on the body."
"So how can we be sure it's a homicide?"
"Lina is a mutant. One of the Gamma class or whatever. Guess she can duplicate scents or something. It's all in her medical files."
"Mutants have heart attacks too, Piper."
"Yeah, but the Doc doubts it. He's willing to bet you lunch that when he cracks her open there's no scarring on her heart." Piper said. Caulder nodded. The Doc never bet unless he knew he'd win.
"So, again, why a homicide?"
"This." Piper pointed to the body. John squatted down to peer at her exposed left foot. There, in the middle of the light brown flesh was an 'X', burned neatly into her sole. John lit up another cigarette and stepped back from the alley.
"Fuck. Same as...?"
"Identical. Can't be absolutely positive until we get the lab results, but I think it's identical to the one found on Xavier Mitchell and that Martins girl." Piper handed him a file of photos, all to go with his notes on the crime scene. Caulder nodded and put them under his arm.
"Alright, let's get started." Caulder began to circle the body as Piper followed the morgue team with the body. "Call me when Doc is going to start cutting!"
"You got it, Boss!" Piper called back. All through the ride to the station, he sat looking at the queer brand on her foot. As they stopped, Piper hopped out and left for his office as they unloaded her. The halls seemed oppressive in the time between shifts, the only time the NYPD halls ever seemed to not be stuffed with criminals, police and everything in-between. Piper unlocked his office door and sat down heavily into his chair. He debated with himself for a long time before opening up his desk drawer and drawing out a slip of paper given to him months ago. It took him three ties before he finally dialed the number.
"Hello. Am I speaking to- oh? Detective William Piper, NYPD. Yes. No, it was given to me by the black woman. Is she there? Well, I don't know if I should- alright. There's been another of the ‘X' murders, right at the same time as the Mutant Centre bombing. No, no suspects yet. Well, I can't keep calling you. I shouldn't be doing this in the first place. It's illegal. Well, I'm glad to understand my situation but I- *sigh* Fine. If I hear anything important. Thank you." Piper hung up the phone and wiped his forehead. His shirt was stuck to his shoulder blades, despite the air conditioning in the offices. He knew the sweating had nothing to do with the heat for once.
Cyclops hung up the phone, his face grim. Sitting in his office chair, he began to sift through the information given to him by the detective. Another one dead, another one who might match the disturbing pattern he was watching emerge. The rest of the X-Men could not be brought into this yet. If the killer knew what Cyclops feared he did, than they'd be easily spotted. Finally, Scott picked the phone back up and dialed. Four long rings went by before it was answered.
"Hello. Emma Frost please."
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