There is a very specific feeling, in the first few minutes of waking, that lingers after a dream.
If it was a bad dream, for me anyway, it feels heavy, like a weight sitting on my chest. On the rare occasion that it was a happy dream, then when I wake, I go through a strange type of grieving. Like I lost something important somehow, a part of me missing.
Bad dreams have been the norm for me lately.
I was still half-asleep when my phone rang. The ugly anxious feeling still in my chest.
My Pebble (the latest mobile phone, my company always made sure we had the best gadgets, it came with the job) was buzzing on my nightstand. I watched it go silent for a few seconds then it started ringing again. Shit. Whoever was trying to call me had been calling all morning. That could only mean trouble.
I picked up the pebble-sized device and attached it behind my right ear. A gentle beep told me I was connected, as well as a subtle light blue glow. “Collins.” I answered.
“Jesus, Katie, where have you been? I've called you ten times. Have you seen the news?” An unmistakable rough voice barked from my Pebble. It was my boss, Tom Bogdan, head of the local investigative division. Then of course, who else would it be? Nobody called me much nowadays, especially -- I glanced at the holographic display of the time beside my minimalist closet -- not at five in the morning.
I grimaced. “Good morning, Tom. And no, of course not, no normal human should be awake this early.” I paused, knowing it must have been something important. “What's the matter?”
“There's another body.”
I was instantly awake. I sat up so fast from my bed that my head pounded painfully, reminding me of the half of a vodka bottle I drank last night. Sadly, that was typical for me lately. It was a cheap brand too. A wave of nausea washed over me as I tried to steady the throbbing in my head.
“Shit.” I finally managed to answer, hoping the Pebble didn’t pick up the slight gagging noise I just made. From the tone of Tom’s voice I was willing to bet this body had the same M.O. as the previous murders I had been investigating: there would be no blood, no sign of forced entry, and worst of all, no DNA.
“Yeah, so, I am going to need you to meet the medical examiner at the office, he will be there at seven. And Katie?”
“Can you be careful this time? No antics like your last case. You almost got yourself killed.” Tom's voice had softened slightly. Slightly. It was the rare occasion that he was not actively yelling.
I couldn't promise him what he was asking. “Maybe I'll avoid the same antics...”
“Funny. I'll see you soon.” My Pebble beeped, Tom was gone. He was always to the point, my boss. A man of few wasted words.
I pulled up the news on my holographic display. I didn't have to scroll for long. The top story of the day was about another body found in connection to Leung Industries. The news had a photo of the corporate offices located in the San Francisco Bay area. In the shot was the CEO and owner Teddy Leung, flanked by his army of bodyguards, and his daughter Lara, hidden behind a bearded blond man in black tactical gear.
Leung's company was the largest producer of nanochips used in almost every single piece of electronics in the world. Future Synthetics, the company behind the small Pebble behind my right ear, was a subsidiary. Needless to say, he was a multi-billionaire.
Before the recent serial murders, the biggest news was that Future Synthetics had contracts in the works with the Defense Ministry. Now, hardly anyone was talking about that.
I fought the urge to make myself a drink as I wondered who the victim was. Instead I reached for my coffeemaker. I had to make today count. I was moving too slow. The body count was rising by the day.
The drive to the office was an uneventful one. My electric car was programmed to drive me there through the safer parts of the city, as per company policy. It added a few minutes to my trip, which was just enough time for me to calm down. It was just as well, there was no way my car would go unnoticed in the rather unsavory neighborhoods just a few blocks over. My car wasn't even that nice, it just looked like it wasn’t purchased from a junkyard, which was not a luxury the less fortunate parts of town could afford.
When I arrived, Tom was in his office with a bespectacled man with flaxen hair. That must be the medical examiner. They seemed to be deep in conversation, both stopped talking abruptly when I walked in, as if I had interrupted something.
“Collins!” Tom exclaimed, as if he had not just dragged me out of bed to come here at an ungodly hour. I raised an eyebrow at him. He stopped calling me by my last name years ago.
I waited for an introduction. None came from Tom.
After a few awkward seconds the blond man cleared his throat and held out his hand for me to shake. “Vincent Fletcher. Nice to meet you, Detective, your reputation precedes you.”
“Um, yeah, okay. Call me Katie, please. Nice to meet you too... Vincent.” I was utterly confused. “You’re the medical examiner?”
Now Vincent looked equally confused. No, not confused. A rather amused smirk had formed on his face. I disliked him instantly.
Tom was suddenly vocal again. “Agent Fletcher is from Central Office. He is here to help us with the serial case given the… gravity of the situation.”
I understood now. Vincent was to be my babysitter. And since the order must have come from high above, I had no choice in the matter. That didn’t mean I would make it easy though. I gave my boss a glare that in any other situation would have gotten me fired. “I don’t work well with partners, Tom, you know that.”
Tom rolled his eyes. It looked hilariously adolescent on his scruffy face. “That, I know. But there’s been a new development.”
“Right, the latest victim.”
Vincent still had that smirk, one corner of his mouth raised almost comically in a half smile. He suddenly seemed to realize it and tried to rearrange his face to a more serious expression. He held my eye. “The body has been identified.” He paused for effect. “The victim was Lara Leung.”
It took my brain way too long to acknowledge the name. When it clicked my breath felt stuck in my chest. Lara Leung. The daughter of Teddy Leung.
“That’s… not good.” I muttered. No, this was not good at all. Lara was a controversial figure. She did not agree with her father’s way of doing business. Hippy daughter, billionaire father, poor little rich girl who just wanted to change the world. It was a tale as old as time.
And now she was dead.
It may have something to do with that message I received from her two days ago. The voicemail she left on my second phone. The burner.
Shit, shit, shit.
I tried to keep my expression neutral. Vincent seemed to be studying me very closely. I cleared my throat. “Well, if Central Office is involved, I take it you’re going to take lead?”
Vincent suddenly gave me a warm smile. He reminded me of one of those guys who could sweet talk their way through everything. Behind his spectacles I could see clear blue eyes and classic Nordic good looks. My dislike for him deepened.
“Katie, I’m here to follow your lead. Central just wants to make sure you have all the resources you need.” Vincent put his hand lightly on my shoulder. I found it slightly patronizing. “But first, why don’t we get some coffee and you tell me what you have so far?”
I held my tongue. It was the last thing I wanted to do. But it would be good to find out what this guy knows. Besides, my head was still pounding, and I could use more coffee. I gave Tom a meaningful look before turning back to Vincent with a tight-lipped smile. “Ok then, let’s go.”
I played Lara’s message in my head while I waited for Vincent to get us coffee. I needed to get my shit together. My nerves were shot. My leg shook underneath the table, and I just noticed a slight tremor in my hands.
Hey…. It’s me again. I umm, have that book you’ve been wanting to borrow. So… the usual time and place? Let me know. Ok. And umm, I’m looking forward to book club next week. I even got my dad to read the book and he liked it. Ok, I gotta go. See you soon. Bye.
It sounded like a benign enough message. It was supposed to. Still, I was going to get rid of that burner phone as soon as I get home. Everything was traceable and recordable nowadays. Especially with the Pebble. Good thing burners still existed in certain places. There were always enough people wanting to opt out of the convenience at the price of surveillance that Pebble provided. I could always say that I just wanted my privacy, if my burner was found.
Who was I kidding? There was no scenario where having a coded message on a burner phone from a dead girl looked good. No, it would look very bad. Today better go as planned.
I rubbed my temples.
I’m looking forward to book club next week…
That meant Lara was in trouble. And she was running out of time. I thought I had at least a week. God damn it. She must have been caught.
“Rough night?” Vincent interrupted my thoughts as he sat down. In his left hand he was offering me a steaming mug of black coffee.
“Thanks.” I said almost sincerely. The aroma of the caffeine was enough to give me a bit of a second wind. I indulged in a long sip before looking up at Vincent. I took a moment to study him. Something about him, other than his generic looking symmetrical face, was familiar. There was the faintest linear scar on the left side of his chin. I was certain I had seen him before.
“I am familiar with the details of the previous cases. Before I tell you what I know about the latest one, I want to hear what you think.” Vincent started pleasantly enough. He raised his mug at me as if gesturing to me to start talking. “I am curious. Like I said before, your reputation precedes you. Surely, you must have a theory by now? After... how many victims have there been? Eight?”
I took another sip. I had a sudden feeling that I could not trust this guy. “Well, as you know, there hasn't been a single scrap of usable DNA in any of the crime scenes, no cameras that could identify any potential perpetrators, no sign of forced entry. All eight cases were victims found in their homes, their heart suddenly stopped beating somewhere between when they went to bed and when they were found in the morning. Their Pebbles did not record any suspicious activity during those hours.”
Vincent stayed silent, listening to me intently. Nothing I was saying was classified information, but I continued. I needed to give Vincent enough so that he told me what he knew about what happened to Lara.
“At first the deaths were deemed coincidental.” I paused. “Have you heard of SUNDS? Sudden unexplained nocturnal death syndrome.”
“I can't say I have.” Vincent answered, still giving me his full attention.
“It's a phenomenon where an otherwise healthy person, with no known medical problems, suddenly dies in their sleep. The first case of SUNDS was identified over 100 years ago, in South East Asia, where it has been the root of some interesting folklore. Some victims of SUNDS were observed to suffer from night terrors.” I noticed Vincent frowning, probably wondering what this had to do with the murder case. “The first medical examiner thought that this was the case, especially with the first few victims being young, male, and of East Asian descent, where the syndrome is more prevalent.”
Vincent interjected. “I'm assuming you have reason to believe that the victims did not all just suffer from SUNDS.”
I sighed. This was going to take longer than I thought. The throbbing in my head has not lessened in intensity. “The current theory of why SUNDS happens is some kind of arrhythmia - a disorder in how the electricity travels through the heart. Somehow it is triggered in the night when the victim sleeps, after a heavy meal, or after the body's response to a night terror, causing the heart to stop.”
I took another long sip of coffee.
Vincent waited for me to continue.
“It was a good theory. Until all the victims ended up being somehow connected to Leung Industries and its subsidiaries. All eight victims so far have either been part of the board, a majority stock holder, a senior engineer, or a competitor.” I held Vincent's gaze. “Do you know that quote from Ian Fleming? Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is--”
“Enemy action.” Vincent finished for me. His expression has changed. He was more serious now, colder.
“Whoever had access to these people, who would have reason to have them dead, that's your perp.” I finished.
Vincent suddenly laughed. “That's it? You still don't have a how, who, or why.”
“Oh, I have a few of those things.” I said, against my better judgment. I could not stand to be laughed at. I reminded myself to be careful.
“I bet you do.” Vincent was no longer the smiling charming man of a while ago. He took off his glasses and set them on the table. Without them he looked less the blond choir boy and more ruthless Viking warrior. All he was missing was a beard.
My heart suddenly started racing. A beard…
“Well, let me tell you what I know.” Vincent set his coffee down. I noticed his hands were smooth, steady, like a surgeon. His expression remained blank, as if he were discussing the weather. “I know that Lara has been talking to you, and giving you all kinds of sensitive information.”
I sucked in a breath. Good thing my hands were under the table hiding my slight tremor.
“She had it, you know, some kind of proof. She was going to give it to you.”
I have that book you've been wanting to borrow…
“It was a shame, really. She was a nice girl, I really liked her. But she was naive. She didn't understand how the world worked.” Vincent has now taken a small silver tablet and put it on the table. It came to life with a soft beep, and a light blue glow. On the screen was a live rhythm of an electrocardiogram: a heart rhythm. I had a bad feeling of who they belonged to.
“How do you like your Pebble, Katie? I know they provide you with the latest model at the Investigative Division. Did you know that you can detect your heart rhythm with it?” Vincent's smile returned. But it was no longer merely annoying, it was terrifying. It was the smile of a killer. “In fact, you can disrupt the rhythm quite easily.”
Vincent leaned closer to me. “Tell me, Katie. Have you been having bad dreams lately?”
I tried to steady my breaths. There was a sudden heaviness in my chest. Surely Vincent wouldn't try anything here? We were in a public place, a coffee shop just two blocks from the precinct for Christ's sake.
“Oh, Katie, you don't really think I'm that stupid do you? I could have pressed this button anytime I wanted. I may have already activated it. Once you're in an excitable rhythm, all it takes is a heavy meal before you go to bed, or a bad dream, or a restless night after a couple of glasses of whiskey.” He suddenly chuckled. “Sorry, you're not a whiskey kind of girl, are you? You like your cheap vodka.
“Why?” I asked through gritted teeth.
“I can give you a billion reasons why.” Vincent answered flatly.
I needed to stall for time. I watched the steady heart rate on the tablet. “I can't believe Lara’s father would have approved of this.”
Vincent laughed again. The sound grated my ears. “Oh, I don't work for Teddy. Teddy was going to be voted out by the board at the end of the quarter. He was becoming too soft, too easily... influenced. And now, with the loss of his daughter, why, he's going to have to step down. You know, to take care of himself. We take mental health very seriously at Future Synthetics.”
I even got my dad to read the book and he liked it.
“The board was behind this.” I said.
“Now...” Vincent rolled his eyes. “I didn't say that, did I? You're trying to get me to say something I don't mean, Katie. How amateur.”
“Teddy was threatening to stop the supply of nanochips to your company.” I leaned forward, I could hear my heart pounding in my ears, my headache worsening. “You couldn't have that. Not when a contract with the Defense Ministry was in the works. But Teddy didn't agree with the military applications you were working into the Pebble.”
Vincent frowned at me. “You seem to be forgetting you shouldn't get too excitable Katie.”
It was my turn to smile. It hurt my head to do so. I pointed to the Pebble behind my right ear emitting a light blue glow. “This is a jailbroken Pebble, Vincent. You seem to have forgotten Lara was not only Teddy's daughter, she was also a brilliant engineer.” I pointed at the ECG rhythm displayed on the tablet monitor on the table. “Three guesses whose rhythm that is. All I know is, it's not mine.”
“You're bluffing.” Vincent's eyes narrowed. He seemed to watch the heartbeat on the rhythm as if he could recognize the heart behind the tracings from the way it beat.
“You better hope you haven't pressed that button yet, Vincent... or whatever your name is. Try not to eat too big of a meal before going to bed tonight. You know what they say, it can give you nightmares.” I stood up, leaving my empty coffee mug on the table. Vincent's expression remained blank.“Oh, and thanks for the coffee.”
My heart was still beating wildly as I walked out of the coffee shop. At first I wasn't sure Lara was able to do it, cloning my Pebble and switching the code with the person she thought was behind the murders. But as I watched the ECG tracing on Vincent's tablet, I became certain that the beats were way too slow and steady to be mine.
“Holy shit, Katie.” Tom's voice suddenly came on in the jailbroken Pebble in my ear. He had been listening the entire time. “You did it. I can't believe they had someone in the Central Office doing their dirty work for them. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, given the state of things...” I could hear the disappointment in his voice. “Anyway, congrats on another successful case, Katie.”
I swallowed. I wasn't normally not this soft, but I felt a sudden urge to cry. Maybe it was my recent brush with death, maybe it was the loss of the friend I almost had in Lara. “I don't deserve it, Tom. It was all Lara. She lost her life over this, Teddy Leung lost his only daughter, and Leung Industries lost their best engineer.”
Tom was silent for a moment. “I know, but there was no other way. We were running short on time. And we didn't have any high ranking allies. Not anyone we could trust.” He sighed. “There is going to be a shit show after this, you know that, right? The fallout from something like this, it’s not going to be pretty.”
“I'm ready, sir.”
“Good. And Katie?”
“We're switching to a different comms device after this.”
I chuckled, despite feeling like weeping. “I sure hope so, sir.”