It’s July, and a warm one at that. I’d been laying low for a couple days, hiding from the cameras by pretending to be homeless. Wearing a coat in ninety-degree heat takes a toll on you—wears you down—but being shot three times and thrown in a river in the dead of night has a way of revitalizing the senses. I still think I’m coming out ahead on this deal. Truth is, I didn’t expect to survive yesterday, let alone today.
I doubt there are a lot of cops who can say they’ve been shot by their own service weapon, let alone lived to talk about it. I’m still not exactly sure how I ended up in the Potomac, but I’m dead-nuts positive it saved my life last night—as did the homeless guy who... I don’t know... maybe he was some kind of down-on-his-luck MMA fighter or something. Whoever he was, I owe him everything. I’ve been in my fair share of scraps, but that big guy was kicking my ass even after I put three in his chest at close range. He managed to keep coming—had to be on Tarnish or meth or crack or something—he wrenched my gun out of my hands like I was a child and threw me around like a ragdoll. My vest took the worst of the shots. Next thing I knew, we were in the river—the three of us—fighting two against one... and losing.
I remember hitting the bottom of the river and fighting to make it back to the surface; and I remember the homeless guy floating next to me. I grabbed him and used him as much as a flotation device as cover from the prick who had my gun. Thankfully, the river discarded us in an alcove where all the other floating crap gets stowed away when the river doesn’t have any use for it at the time.
My leg caught on something underwater, and I grabbed a log, hauling us both out of the mild current of the alcove. I kept my eyes on the bank. That prick still had my gun, and I didn’t care to used for target practice anymore. My mistake, and salvation, was glancing at the dead man’s face. I damn near dirtied the Potomac waters even more when I saw the spikes trying to escape from his face and neck. It was clear that a good number of spikes had escaped, leaving nothing but torn skin and scorched flesh behind. I rolled his body, turning him face down as I returned my attention to the bank.
It couldn’t be a coincidence. As strange as it all seemed, I had to assume I was the target. My partner had been stabbed to death in his own desk chair two nights ago, and I had a feeling I was next. Maybe I walked into something, or maybe it was by design. Until I knew for sure, I had to play it safe. I put my wallet in the dead man’s coat and my badge in his back seat pocket. I lodged his foot in a crook of that log and made my way along the rest of the logs and debris, creating space between myself and the dead man. A few hours in the water would make the man unrecognizable. I figured, maybe throwing everybody off would give me an edge. Then I saw him.
He was on the bank. The field of floating logs and debris kept him from having any chance of physically reaching the body when he saw it caught, but he still tried. I had moved at least sixty feet away with the current traveling slowly along the jam. He had the high ground, but the lights of DC behind him gave me the advantage. His silhouette gave him away while I was hidden, camouflaged, and presumed dead. With six shots fired, the good guys would be on their way. It didn’t take long for him to give up his search.
I don’t usually run from a fight, but this fight somehow found me. I’m not thrilled with the way it went down, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t jacked about how it turned out. Still, there are some downsides. The killer, who I assume is the same guy who’s been dropping corpses all over DC for the past month, is still on the loose—that sucks. And he’s got my gun—that sucks worse. Worst of all, my wife and kids are about to find out I was killed. That’s just unacceptable. I’ll have to make my way back to the house before sunrise. It’ll be a long walk around the outskirts, away from the damn cameras, but doable. First things first—I gotta haul my soggy ass out of this river. Long walk, but it’ll give me time to think... and dry out.
“I can’t help but think of this situation as an opportunity to reboot.”
“Atticus, I trust you, and I know you’ve had a lot more time to think about this than I have, but are you sure this is a good move. I mean... the kids...”
“I know, but Shane isn’t going to understand what’s happening here, and there’s no way we can trust the twins not to tell anyone outside the family.”
“What if we just tell the kids you’re sick and you just stay home? If the killer thinks you’re dead, he won’t come here looking.”
“I actually thought of that, but when the kids’ schools set up counseling, the whole thing goes to pot.”
“Yeah, that’s no good.”
“I really think this is the best solution, Hailey. I’ve gone over a dozen possibilities but nothing else is a sure thing. This is the only way to guarantee the killer thinks I’m dead.”
“They’re going to want me to ID the body.”
“He’s a hot mess. There’s enough to make an ID, but it’s bad enough that you won’t catch any heat for saying it was me. Trust me, it ain’t pretty.”
“Wait a minute! Why do we have to tell the kids you’re dead? I’ll just tell them the department thinks you’re dead, but I wasn’t absolutely positive, so we’re just not gonna give up hope, you know?”
“Someone’s coming!” I warned Hailey. An old Dodge Challenger was pulling up along the curb outside the house. “It sounds like Snyder’s car... yeah, that’s Denny Curtis in the passenger seat. I never figured Snyder for a Mopar guy.”
“Snyder... isn’t that Pete’s old partner? What do I tell them?”
“Where’s the baby monitor thing? Is that still here somewhere?” I ask, rifling through the drawer where I thought I’d seen it last. “I don’t know if they found the body yet. It could be something unrelated. Just tell them you haven’t seen me since yesterday morning.”
“Next drawer over. I don’t know if the batteries are still good.”
“Got it. Here, turn it on and hide it.”
I made my way upstairs quickly and quietly before Snyder peeked around through the window. Hailey’s been with the Department of Justice for almost ten years, so she’s no slouch. It was risky coming here. If the killer wasn’t sure I was out of the picture, it only made sense he’d have eyes on the house, but I couldn’t let Hailey get the news that I’d been hauled out of the Potomac without explaining it to her first. I’d rather dance with the killer again than face Hailey sometime after she’d been told I was dead.
Snyder’s a good cop—damn good, actually—but he’s got a little problem with his politics. Every time the country slides in the wrong direction, he takes a tiny little baby sip of alcohol. In the past ten years, he’s become a full-on alcoholic. He’s got it under control now, but the 2030 midterms are coming up, and as we’ve learned from the past, anything can happen in an election year. My late partner, Pete Dunbar thought pretty highly of the guy. I’d worked with him—both of them, really—more than a few times over the years before Snyder transferred to the third district. I partnered with Pete after my old partner, Memphis, retired. I have to admit, being Pete’s partner for the last year, I know more about Snyder than I probably should.
Pete was working on a case that started while I was on vacation with the family—Disney World in Florida. The internet calls him the Concept Killer due to the unorthodox methods of taking out his victims. The first choked to death on sand. The second impaled on a fence post. We’ve had five more murders since then, all over the city, and no evidence to speak of, other than the fact that the cameras the city installed a few years ago haven’t picked up any of the murders. That fact, alone, tells me killer got help on the inside, or the surveillance company doesn’t want the truth to get out—if that’s the case, then it’s anyone’s guess as to why.
The kids are still on Summer break, but my vacation is long over. I’m just glad I got to spend the last couple of weeks with them before I died. I haven’t had to use this baby monitor app since Shane was... you know... a baby. These things are... I can’t use this! It operates on WiFi. Everything is monitored now. I’d hope a home security baby monitor app wouldn’t be monitored by the Shur-Lok company, but under the circumstances, I can’t take the risk. One stupid mistake and my whole family’s in danger.
It breaks my heart to even think about Hailey having to tell the kids their father isn’t coming home. They’re not shut off from the possibility. My parents, their grandparents, are both gone. I was a miracle child they had late in life, and my mother was still able to have a relationship with my kids before she passed a little over a year ago. I’m thankful for that fact now. I’d hate to have her bear the news of losing her youngest son. It’s going to be hard on my sisters and brother. I just hate every bit of this! Maybe I can drop them each a postcard... I don’t know. The safest thing for me, the wife, and kids is to keep the whole thing under wraps until this Concept Killer is caught, and like said, maybe being dead will give me an edge.
I wish I could hear them down in the kitchen. I don’t know what it is—I feel so different. I feel like I cheated death three or four times in a row; getting shot, nearly drowning, damn near beat to death, and I still think those spikes were meant for me. Now I feel like... it’s hard to explain. I feel more... carefree. No, that's not it. It’s something in between carefree and reckless, I guess you could say. It’s like I’m fully focused. Like, I’ve always had a problem with enclosed spaces. MRI’s were out of the question unless I loaded up on Adavan. It’s because my mind was always hyper aware of the possibilities. That’s kind of how I feel—like the possible outcomes aren’t getting in the way of what’s happening right now. It’s not like I don’t care about things, it’s just that I don’t feel their entire weight bogging me down. Whatever the case, I feel like the guy who crawled out of that river isn’t the same guy who went in. And I’m kind of liking it.
I heard the old Mopar rumble and fade. I met Hailey at the top of the stairs.
"What do you think?"
"He did you a favor... doesn't trust the other one, the one in the car."
"Denny Curtis. I didn't either, but he didn't want to come to the house--that's something."
"Where are they headed, did he say?"
"Baltimore. His partner, a woman..."
"That's it... she had a meeting with the CEO of Shur-Lok and went off-grid. He's worried about her."
"And rightfully so."
"It sounds like this whole thing might be coming to a head," she said.
"You wanna go?"
"If there's a chance of putting this thing behind us... I think we should."
"I'll get the rifle. You better warm up the truck."
It kind of feels like this is going to be a huge waste of time, but Hailey’s got a habit of being right when it comes to her intuition. It’s what makes her such an asset to the DOJ. I learned, a long time ago, to trust it as a source as reliable as my own eyes, and a weapon almost as accurate as my M2010 sniper rifle. Speaking of which, a tandem thumb scan on this case lock is all that stands between me and my buddy.
“Hello, Gorgeous. What’s it been... about five weeks?” Yeah, it was the second weekend of June. We went out for a few rounds after the girls’ fifteenth birthday party. We agreed to get them their first pistols when they consistently displayed a level of maturity necessary for gun ownership, and each of them passed their mother’s weapons training course, which is an actual weapons training course—one of her many talents tapped by the DOJ. Nothing bigger than a .22 allowed, Hunter had picked out a nice Neo Berreta and Jade had her heart set on a little Ruger Mark III.
Hailey took no chances. She phoned her superiors and made them aware of the bed news she’d just received and took the opportunity to postpone her classes and request leave for the next two weeks. It was a formality. The department has a mandatory two-week leave for any death in the immediate family.
I made myself comfortable in the back seat of her Toyota pickup. She brought out a ski mask among other gear, offering it to me as a ticket to the front seat, but I declined and reclined along the back seat instead. Snyder and Curtis had a pretty good head start, so we got out of there as quickly as possible, hoping to catch up to them somewhere along the Baltimore-Washington freeway.
She’s calling her sister. This is going to suck. She’s got to break the news to her, and now Tina’s got the privilege of informing her nieces and nephew that they’re never going to see me again. I keep picturing their faces as they absorb the news. This is absolutely the worst day of my life. We’d promised each other we would never lie to our children. Now, here we are, perpetrating the biggest lie either of us has ever told, and they’re the ones who get to be the recipients.
“Tina, you don’t have to tell them; I’m not trying to put that on you, but it’s only a matter of time before the news hits social media, and as soon as one of their friends sees the story, the kids are going to see it too. I just don’t want them to find out from some online hack. So, if you don’t want to—and I’m not asking you to—but you just have to keep them away from their phones and TV until I get back tonight.”
I've barely slept in two and a half days. My eyes are so heavy they hurt. Now that I finally have time to think, I need to replay last night in my head. I left Galac Z with Maya and Curtis after he and I had thrown back a few. Maya drove. Snyder had left early. I remember being concerned about his being in a bar as we memorialized his old friend. Maybe it was stupid of me to invite him, but how could I not? Maya pulled up to the house, I went inside to get the info Pete had compiled on Donovan Holmes, the CEO of the Shur-Lok security company. I remember tossing it out the window to Curtis, who took it and disappeared with Maya.
I couldn’t stick around. The cameras see everything on the bigger city streets, but the suburbs are still private... for now. The last thing they would have seen was me heading home inebriated, that would have been the perfect opportunity to strike. I had to get back into the city where the cameras would pick me up again. If someone wanted me dead, the last thing I wanted was for a killer to come into my home.
It made sense to me that returning to my vehicle at Galac Z would be a reasonable calculation made by someone attempting to predict my movements, so I started back in that direction. There are cameras on every major intersection, and a few more on less frequently traveled streets as well. I made sure to make it look like I was avoiding the larger streets, only to be caught by them on a couple of smaller ones. Once I was out of view, I found a vacant house where otherwise homeless people are bound to be found. (The city has no shortage of vacant houses since Shur-Lok drove hordes of people into rural communities.) Having traded my sweatshirt and $30 for a multi-pocketed trench coat, I made my way back outside for a quick roll in the dirt and a two and a half mile walk down Glover Archbold Trail which leads all the way to the river.
That little stroll was actually the luckiest part of my week. I found a ten-dollar-bill on the trail and for a moment felt like a homeless man who’d just won the lottery. There’s a tunnel that passes beneath the canal that parallels the river, and I walked past what I thought was a family sleeping together in a huddle. I folded the bill and tossed it into the middle of the group as I walked by. Five of them in there. When I reached the end of the tunnel, I turned back and tossed in another twenty.
I remember walking east, toward Georgetown, maybe another mile. The Capital Crescent trail gets a little shifty going underneath the Whitehurst Freeway, and the river walk turns into commercial riverside businesses before it spits you out into Georgetown Park. There’s no way anyone could have known I’d end up there, so the killer must have followed me from my neighborhood, careful as I’d been. That sounds crazy because he would have had all that time on the Archbold trail to attack me from behind. I don’t know how else to explain his showing up in Georgetown Park... unless it was sheer coincidence, and as Publisher’s Clearinghouse will attest, I’m generally not a subscriber.
The moon was almost non-existent. If not for reflecting the lights of Arlington, I would not have seen the water only a few feet away. Only a few years ago, those lights were bright and many; now it’s a metropolitan ghost town—the practical aftermath of academic governance. How did we let it go this far? We didn’t learn from Seattle. We didn’t learn from New York. Even when San Francisco literally turned into a cesspool, the only thing we learned was... to look away. Chicago took the worst of it—an old friend of mine escaped a few years back. He said anyone left in Chicago, who still has five bucks in his pocket, probably stole four of them. Then there’s Detroit—DC would have gone the same way as Detroit if not for being our nation’s capital. I used to be proud to be a DC cop; now I’m just proud to be a cop... hiding under a filthy trench coat in July. Used to be, the bad guys would hide from me.
I looked up when something caught my eye in front of me—another trench coat walking with the posture of someone who’d lost their battle with the world. I watched him walk—how he held his shoulders, how his eyes never left his feet. There was something about him, though. He walked... softly, not shuffling, the way most trench coats do. I put a hand on my gun and scanned for places to take cover. Something was off. I felt like I was about to walk into an ambush. Maybe I wasn’t the only guy pretending to be homeless.
The attack came from the left. Someone rushed the soft-walking homeless man, but missed his mark. He was able to dodge the attack, swiftly side-stepping the rush. Allowing no time to regroup, the homeless man returned the favor and charged his attacker, successfully bringing him to the ground. Fists and elbows were flying. My mind was still alert to the possibility of this flurry being all for show. I approached quickly while remaining alert to my surroundings. Both men on the ground, the attacker had managed to regain control. His dark clothing fit tighter than the trench coat, allowing him an advantage in the fight. A well-timed throw allowed the homeless man to get to his feet. I drew my weapon and demanded, “Stop!” They paid no heed. I fired once into the air, gaining their attention.
Having the only gun in the fight, I expected a high degree of command in the situation, but the attacker, who I could then clearly see was a blonde, white male, rushed at me. I fired two shots, aiming for his chest. The homeless man ran the wrong direction for cover, preventing me from firing even more. Two rounds from a .38 at close range should have put the man on his butt, but they only slowed his rush, failing to stop him. Even as I backed away and fired another shot at point blank, he still advanced as if I were firing nothing more than paint balls.
My fingers stung as he wrenched my gun from my grip. Muscle memory took over as I immediately went for his eyes. Before I could blink, I was flying across the grass toward the rocky riverbank. There was nowhere to run, and with no other option but to stand there and watch it coming, I decided to rush the bastard the way he’d rushed me. I barely got three steps into my charge before he fired. My vest did its job, but I was halted and knocked backward at the force of three rounds stopping three inches from my heart. It took a moment, through the physical pain, to mentally assess the possibility that none of the shots had found flesh. Dazed, I saw the attack coming and prepared for impact.
The next thing I knew, I was in the river. The cold shocked me from my daze and once again, I reached for the blonde man’s eyes. The homeless man was there in the water. He landed a punch to the blonde man’s face. My middle finger found its mark and dug deep into his eye. Then, nothing. I remember a flash of light as I was looking up, slowly sinking in the river.
“That was them! They were behind us!” Hailey’s voice screeched.
I woke up under water and jolted myself back into the pickup truck. Something’s rumbling outside, fading. We're accelerating.
“You found them?” I asked, dazed.
“Yeah, they came up from behind us. I’m surprised that thing goes this fast.”
I pressed my hands into my face and wiped the images from my present thoughts. “I’m sure it’ll do better than that if it needs to.”
“I don’t remember you ever being able to sleep in a moving car before, but you were out cold the last time I checked. Must have been a rough night.”
“Your boss, Roush, called while you were out. They’re not going to release your name to the press until I’ve had time to notify family, but I said to confirm it was a DC detective.”
“Perfect. They don’t want you to identify the body?”
“I told you, Snyder did you a favor. He gave a positive ID, so I may not have to.”
“Yeah right, sorry, I misunderstood you.”
“I don’t know where these guys are going, but it’s clear they intend to show up sometime yesterday.”
“How fast are we going?”
“Ninety, ninety-one, ninety-two... in there.”
“That’s pretty standard speed in light traffic. So, what happened with Tina? How’d she take it?”
“As expected—she’s happy for me.”
“No, she’s okay. She wants to be there for me and the kids, you know... help out. She’s not going to tell them yet; at least not until I say to.”
“This whole thing sucks. I just hope we’re on our way to put a nail in the coffin of this Concept Killer situation. It’s gotta be something, or they wouldn’t be doing ninety outside of their jurisdiction.”
“But what if it’s not? What if they don’t make any arrests? And even if they do find the people who are covering up the murders, what if they don’t cooperate? It could take years before they give this guy up. You can’t just live on the street; and you can’t live at home without telling the kids you’re alive... they’re eventually going to figure it out.”
“I don’t know, I’ll just... I mean, obviously I’m going to hunt him down myself if we don’t find him today. We know that. You know... whatever it takes, I’m going to do it. And it sucks that I can’t go home, but you and the kids won’t be safe if I’m there. I’m not even sure you’d all be safe even if these people knew I was alive and not at home.”
“Maybe... there has to be some kind of safe house or something the DOJ has sitting empty.”
“But how do we know who to trust? One slip up and it’s all over. I mean... I guess you could look into whether or not it would be possible to arrange it anonymously, but for now, it’s better for everyone if I just stay dead. I mean, I'd much rather be hunting him than have him hunting me.”
“Can’t argue with that. What if he still comes after us?”
“Then there’s no sense in me hiding. At that point, we’re on full defense again. In fact, either way, we need to start looking at self-defense for Shane and the girls, and I’m not talking about Karate or Jiu-jitsu or something. I’m talking about real, life-saving combat survival training.”
“You know I’m on board. I’ve been saying it for years.”
“We have the attic over the garage...”
“What? What do you see?”
“It’s Beltway Park.”
“Yeah?” I was expecting something pertinent to our situation.
“Nothing.” I guess she was expecting something else. “Why don’t you get some sleep?”
It's not a bad idea. It felt great to get a little shuteye, and there’s no telling when I’ll get another chance to sleep without worrying about someone finding me... defenseless.
I must have passed out pretty quick, because I don’t remember anything at all. I hear sirens. We’re still moving pretty fast. We’re on a bridge. I can see the metal beams passing by overhead as I look up out the rear window—struts of a truss bridge. I can smell the river.
Unless we made a very wrong turn sometime while I was sleeping, we were on the East 695 tollway toward Sparrows Point. It’s a scenic bridge. I can’t sit up to see for myself—too many people taking pictures.
“Did I miss anything?”
“Hey, you’re alive! No, still following the Challenger. We picked up some friends—BPD.”
“Let me know when we exit on Bethlehem.”
“I thought you didn’t know where they were going.”
“I didn’t, but Shur-Lok has an office in the city, and a warehouse on Sparrows Point... I’m guessing that’s where we’re headed.”
“Navigation says it’s about three miles up. Ninety miles an hour, so... two minutes.”
Time to get the rifle unpacked again. I grabbed the ski mask Hailey had offered earlier.
With all the car and body cams around, I don’t want to take any chances. This is a beautiful weapon. Seriously, if this thing could cook, I probably wouldn’t have children. Everything looks good. Just a ski mask away from show time.
“How do I look?”
“Like you’re about to commit a felony. Why do have a feeling I’m going to lose my job?”
“Don’t worry. This is just an Observe and Report mission.” Snyder and Curtis will be in there, and it looks like about fifty BPD officers too.”
“You brought a sniper rifle to ‘observe and report’?”
“Hell yeah. The scope on this girl is killer for observation, and the report will blow your mind.”
“I get it—clever military jargon. There’s Bethlehem.”
“Okay, we’re going to take a right onto Bethlehem and take it all the way back to the river where it bends south.”
“Um... are you seeing this? BPD is going left. What do I do?”
“Snyder’s going right. Stay with him.”
“Does he have a radio in that thing? Maybe they know something he doesn’t.”
“Or maybe he knows something they don’t. My money’s on the Challenger.”
“You’re just full of them today, aren’t you?”
“I’m just happy to be alive.”
Following the Challenger, I think we got lucky being able to get onto Tradepoint from Riverside—the tracks look like they would be impassable if there were trains resting on them. The last leg looks like a straight shot right to the yard’s gate. The warehouses are on the left.
“It’s right up there on your left. Go past it and see if you can find a way into that empty lot on the right.”
“You better duck down. There’s a guard shack. You might look a little suspicious.”
“What? I can’t even wear a ski mask in July without someone thinking I’m about to commit a crime? I’m offended. Hey, get the plate on that little Prius in case he’s a player.”
Hailey’s pretty thorough. She’s taking a picture of the little blue car, and deliberately hiding her face from Snyder and Curtis as she drives by behind them.
“I got it. It’s a Nissan of some kind. The guard’s not letting them in.”
“That’s weird. Can I sit up yet?”
“Yeah, there’s no one.”
I look out the rear window. Snyder’s Challenger is still outside the guard shack. I can’t see what’s going on from this distance. Hailey must have found a way into the dirt lot. She’s making a hard right and my head doesn’t swivel far enough to keep an eye on them.
“How close do you want to be to the action? I can park pretty much anywhere.”
“I think anywhere in here is fine. Just make sure we can see what’s going on inside the yard.”
“Is this good?”
“Yeah, just swing around so we’re facing the exit.”
“Should I shut it off?”
“Oh, yeah. I doubt we’ll need to leave in less time than it takes to turn the key.”
“Do you want something to eat? I didn’t know what to get, so I just grabbed a few things before we left.”
“Yeah, anything is fine... you may be the best stake-out partner ever. Here, you can use the binoculars. I’ve got the scope.”
Hailey passed me a plastic container with cold left-over parmesan chicken, a can of soda, and a napkin. I’d like to think I might have grabbed something to eat before heading out.
She’s always better prepared. I mean, she brought napkins. I never would have considered napkins.
There’s a red-head in the Nissan—a co-ed—totally out of place around a place like this. She’s probably somebody’s ride home. No... it’s too early in the afternoon... unless they keep odd hours, which is possible.
“Did you hear that? It sounded like gunshots,” she says.
“Yeah, but we’re too far away from anything, and everything around here is made out of steel, so...”
Whoa! That was Denny Curtis in the guard shack. I assumed it was the security guard, but he just jumped into the Challenger and drove straight through the gate arm!
“Do you want to go? Atticus!”
“Do you want to go in with them?”
“No. Roll all the windows down. I can see all the way, and I’ve got a clean shot all the way to the front door on the two-story building they’re headed for. What’s the red-head doing?”
“Hold on... she’s rocking out—singing along to something. Probably didn’t even hear the shots.”
“Do you have anybody who can run that plate... find out who she is? Oh, nice! A uniform just ran inside the building just as Snyder and Curtis took cover behind the car. They’re following him in now...”
“Okay, be quiet. I’m calling the office... Janet, it’s Hailey. I need you to run a plate for me... no, now, like right now.”
Hailey’s watching the action through binoculars as she’s talking to her field office manager. If that red-head is a player, she sure doesn’t act like it. Still, it’s hard to keep an eye on her at the same time as the building well beyond her position. Somebody in a dress shirt just ran along the building from rear to front. Dark hair, slacks... looks like a white guy. He’s probably a Shur-Lok tech. Okay, he’s running across to a bunch of steel vent shafts sticking out of the ground. He’s carrying something—doesn't look like a weapon.
“Her name’s Alyssa Morgan. She’s an Uber—twenty-three—student at Georgetown.”
“What’s she doing in a warehouse district in Baltimore?”
“Well... probably waiting to give somebody a ride.”
“Yeah... or a ride back. Can you keep an eye on her? If she moves, we may need to follow her.”
“No problem. What’s happening with...”
“Holy shit! That’s him! That’s the guy from the river!”
“He just ran out of the building. He’s heading right for us.”
“I see him! Can you... what’s he got? That’s a gun.”
“You son of a bitch. Okay. He just ditched the gun. Watch the red-head, please.”
“Yeah, sorry. Shit! She’s getting ready to move. Her seat’s upright and... yeah, her foot’s on the brake. We have to get ready to go!”
“We’re not going anywhere... and neither is he.”
“The girl doesn’t even know he’s coming. I don’t think she can see him through the guard shack. Atticus, we can’t let him get in that car with her.”
“She’s rolling her windows down.”
“Is there anyone else in the car?”
“No, I don’t see anyone. Why?”
“Keep an eye on it.”
“Okay, but why do you think there would be someone...”
“The same reason our windows are down. Did she describe her?”
“The Uber girl? No.”
“Great, we don’t even know if that’s her.”
“I can use Shur-Lok to...”
“No! Do not use the system. Call your... Janet person back and find out.”
“Just take him down, Babe. What are you waiting for?”
“I can’t. Are you calling?!”
“Yes, I’m calling!”
“How far away do you think that building is behind him with Snyder and Curtis inside, and that BPD cop?”
“Eleven... maybe twelve hundred yards.”
“And how far do you think this bullet will travel after it passes through this guy’s chest cavity?”
“I... have no idea.”
“Me neither. I’ve never had an easier shot on a moving target, but he’s directly in front of the door.”
“Shhh... Hi Janet, It’s me again. I need a physical description on that Alyssa Morgan a.s.a.p.”
The guy’s an athlete. Even on adrenaline, he shouldn’t be able to keep up this pace for this long... especially at his size, and fully clothed. Would have made a helluva linebacker.
“Janet, what are you talking about? You just had her info up a second ago, now she’s not coming up at all?”
Bad news. I tried to tell her the computers are working against us. Maybe it’ll sink in now.
“Keep trying. Call me back when you get something. I need to know if the woman I’m looking at is Morgan.”
“See what I’m saying? It’s the computers. They’re protecting this guy... and maybe the girl too.”
“I know. She had everything on her a second ago, and now it’s like she doesn’t exist.”
“Well, in a minute, this guy isn’t going to exist. He hasn’t slowed down at all after at least sixty seconds. The guy’s a friggin’ machine.”
Do you really think the bullet could fly that far after penetration?”
“I don’t know. We can’t exactly Google it.
“Shit! I thought I saw something in the back seat. I don’t know. She might have just thrown something back there.”
“Dammit! Keep watching. Okay, trade with me. You watch him. I’ll watch the car. If he veers away from the gate, tell me.”
“Okay. He’s still heading for it. Damn, he’s fast.”
I wouldn’t normally be concerned about the Nissan, but I recently read about vehicle-mounted weapons systems where a remote operator can swivel a gun in the back seat of a car and take pot shots at targets while watching in real time on a monitor. The delay makes it almost impossible to hit a specific target, but mounting a fully automatic rifle makes it just the thing for drive-by shootings, where the goal is basically just terrorism. The only tell-tale warning is that the vehicle’s windows will be down so the gunfire doesn’t deafen the driver... or blow out the windows if it’s a high enough caliber. Alyssa Morgan may or may not be a player, but the woman in that car may or may not be Alyssa Morgan.
“Grab your ear protection, Babe. If I have to shoot something, it may tickle your eardrums.”
“Do you have yours on?”
“Not yet. You first.”
“Okay, here, put them on.”
I hate taking my eyes off the target for any reason, but I also hate learning new languages. Taking a second to put on our earmuffs will save us years of learning how to sign. We have to raise our voices now, but even with our windows down, at this distance, the girl won’t be able to hear us yelling at each other. The more I think about it, the less I think she’s anything other than an Uber driver. I just wish I knew if that was really her.
“He’s getting near the gate!”
“I’ve got an idea...” she says. I hope it’s a quick idea. This thing’s going to be over in about twenty seconds.
I’m switching my sight back to the big blonde guy. He’s slowed his pace now that he’s at the shack. Makes sense—he probably doesn’t want to scare the girl. He’s jogging, like he’s being polite for making her wait. If he hadn’t ditched his gun, I would put him on his ass right now, but I don’t think the girl’s in immediate danger. I’ll have a stationary target in a few more seconds.
“He’s almost to the car, Babe. Am I waiting for something?”
“Hold on a second,” she says.
The worst part is when your target is right in line with an innocent. It’ll only be an instant when he crosses by her to get to the back door.
“There aren’t many more seconds left, Hail...”
“I’ve almost got it...”
This is it. He’s walking now, right behind her... he’s at the door.
“It’s her. It’s Morgan!”
That was all I needed to hear. He’s opening the door. My finger is tight on the trigger. He just... he’s looking right at me. Too late, pal.
“You got him!”
Direct hit. He tried to move when he saw me, but he never had a chance. The bullet tore through his chest like a freight train, sending him backward to the ground. I can’t see him, but judging from the girl’s reaction, he’s not in good shape. She’s running to the guard shack, screaming.
“You didn’t happen to get a picture of him, did you?” I ask my wife, “I’m kinda curious to know who I just killed.”
“Nope. Never crossed my mind. I was checking Georgetown’s student registry—that's how I found a picture of Alyssa.”
“Did you see the way he looked over here? We’re two hundred yards away.”
“He looked like he was looking right at us.”
“Yeah, right as you were receiving data on your phone about his driver.”
“He couldn’t have seen us.”
“Doesn’t matter now. Let’s get out of here. People are going to be calling to report that gunshot. Snyder just came out of that building. Let’s go before he gets close enough to see us leave.”
Our ears are going to be ringing for a few minutes, and Alyssa Morgan is probably going to have nightmares for awhile, but there’s a much better chance none of us will wake up dead tomorrow, so I’m going to call this one a win.
The trip back to DC was a bit slower than our sprint out of town. We were looking forward to calling everyone to let them know there was a mistake made when Snyder identified the man in the river. We’ve been listening to the radio for the past half-hour, but it’s probably too soon to get any details from the media.
The next news report is coming on after this traffic update. After the last two days, all I want to do is hug my kids and spend some quiet time with my wife.
“Listen,” she says. The traffic girl is saying something. I typically tune her out.
“…south Baltimore 695 loop westbound traffic is backed up as authorities are still searching for the driver of a blue Nissan Leaf that drifted off the freeway almost an hour ago. Officials are warning the public not to pick up hitchhikers as the driver is wanted in connection with an ongoing investigation in the DC area. Traffic is light on your surface streets as well as we...”
Hailey turned off the radio; no doubt calling Janet again. I want to call Snyder to see what he knows, but I’m still not sure I’m alive yet. Maybe I’ll get a burner phone if this thing isn’t over yet. That’s a hard thought after spending the last hour thinking I was about to get my life back. I find it hard to believe Alyssa Morgan was actually an accomplice. Nobody’s that good of an actress to put on a show like that.
Hailey’s got someone on the phone. Doesn’t sound like it’s Janet. “It’s on mute. The director is asking for answers.”
“...the FBI calling me asking why one of my agents was asking questions about the owner of the car that’s now on the side of the road with nobody in it. So, if you don’t mind, I’d like to have something to say to him when I call him back.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Let’s start with what you were doing in Baltimore an hour ago.”
“Director, I don’t know if you heard yet, but my husband’s body was pulled out of the Potomac this morning.”
“Holy mother of pearl, I didn’t know that, no. I’m sorry to hear that, Hailey. Does that have something to do with your being there in Baltimore then?”
“Yes, actually. My husband was working on the Concept Killer case. He suspected the murder of his partner, Peter Dunbar, was linked to the case. He’d told me a bit about it, and when the detective came to tell me he’d been killed sometime last night, he said he and another detective were on...”
“I don’t remember his name—I could barely think when he told me about Atticus. So, they were on their way to Baltimore because his partner had gone dark after meeting with someone with Shur-Lok this morning. They suspected the partner had gone underground and lost communication. I just followed them.”
“They stopped at a warehouse I knew to be owned by Shur-Lok. It’s on Tradepoint Avenue on Sparrows Point. Do you know where that is?”
“Yes. Then what?”
“I pulled into an empty lot across the street. It wasn’t clear what was happening by the warehouse, but I saw the Nissan as I’d driven by it and noted the tag because it seemed... out of place. I called in to Ms. Hawks to see if...”
“Who is Ms. Hawks?”
“She’s the field office manager who forwarded this call to you.”
“So, I had Hawks run the plate and she informed me that the owner was Alyssa Morgan, a student at Georgetown, and an Uber driver.”
“Great. Uber. Okay, then you called again a few minutes later.”
“Yes, it occurred to me that the woman sitting in the car might not actually be Alyssa Morgan, so I called back to the field office to get a description of the driver.”
“This is what’s confusing me, Agent Parsons, why are you calling into the field office for this information? Why not use your phone to get the information from the Shur-Lok... sys... now I get it. You didn’t trust Shur-Lok to give you information on the Uber waiting outside of a property owned by Shur-lok. Is that the gist of it?”
“That’s part of it, Sir. My husband suspected Shur-Lok was somehow protecting the Concept Killer, and if this woman had anything to do with the killer, I had reason to believe that searching for information on Miss Morgan would give away my location if I used my phone to do the search.”
“I’ll need a minute to wrap my head around this...”
I have a terrible thought. Tapping Hailey on the shoulder, I raise my finger to my lips, signaling her to put him on Mute.
“They’re going to find the slug. They’ll be able to match it to my rifle. They’ll figure out the trajectory and you just told him you were in the lot across the street.”
With a nod, she understands what I told her.
“... a number of technicians murdered, and now we’re on a manhunt.”
“Sir, I wish I could help you, but I don’t think we should be discussing the details over the phone. From what I saw of Morgan, she doesn’t seem like someone who will last long in the forest. They’ll find her eventually, and I’ll be happy to give a statement when...”
“Morgan is in a hospital in DC, Agent Parsons. We’re looking for the man who fled from the scene in her car... Agent Parsons... Agent Parsons, are you there?!”
We’re definitely feeling the same spectrum of emotions right now. She needs to say something. “Say something,” I whisper.
“Yes, I’m here, Sir.”
“You know what? I’ve got enough to tell the Bureau. After the day you’ve had... I... I can’t imagine.”
“Yeah, I’ll... Snyder! The detective’s name was Snyder.”
“Yeah, they took a brief statement from Snyder and few other guys. The Bureau just wanted to know about you, because you called on the Morgan girl.”
“Okay... I’ll call tonight if I think of anything that might help. If not, I’ll be in first thing tomorrow morning for debriefing.”
“That’ll be fine, Parsons. I get it—work through it. Just so you know, I’ll understand if you don’t show up. We’ll be in touch if you don’t, but don’t worry about it. Thank you for calling in.”
“They couldn’t have missed him. Somehow, we have to get ahold of Snyder or Curtis—someone who was at the scene.”
“Did you shoot a technician trying to escape an active shooter scene?”
“No! That was the guy we fought in the park last night—there’s no question about it.” Why do I always question myself right after I say there’s no question?
“Maybe...” She stopped. She’s definitely out of ideas. I am too. Unless somebody was just walking along, saw a corpse on the street, and recognized it as an opportunity to steal his car, I have no theories.
“We have to find a way to talk to Snyder,” I tell her as her phone starts ringing.
“It’s him!” she says.
“Snyder. He’s calling me.”
“Well, answer it! Just be careful what you say. They’re probably listening.”
“Hello, this is Hailey Parsons... yes, hello Detective... hold on, I’m going to put you on speaker phone because I’m driving.” She looks to me and whispers, “He knows you’re here.”
“I’ve got my partner with me,” he says, “You met her—Maya Hidalgo-Morales. You’re on the speaker with her too. Listen, I don’t know what you know about what happened in Baltimore today, but the Concept Killer is still missing. We had a witness on the scene—an Uber driver...”
“Yes. Wow, you know more about her than we do, apparently. I didn’t even know her last name. Anyway, she said she saw the suspect take a high-caliber bullet to the chest while he was getting into her car, but when BPD got to the scene a couple minutes later, the suspect’s and the car were gone.”
“Somebody put his body in the car and escaped.”
Maya’s voice is louder than his, “I don’t think so, Mrs. Parsons. You’re going to find this hard to believe, but I was inside the facility there, and we have reason to believe that the suspect is actually... geez, I don’t even know how to say it... he’s some kind of computer-aided cyborg.”
“I didn’t believe it at first either,” Snyder adds, “He’s some sort of science experiment gone haywire. He had access to the Shur-Lok main frame, allowing him to avoid detection wherever he went.”
“I don’t know what to say,” she says.
“Can we meet tonight? There are three of us: Detective Curtis, Maya, and me, and we’d like to meet with you and anyone else you think would want to be there. We’re still being careful, but from what we learned today, the computers don’t have the ability to listen in on our phone calls, but they can read our texts, so texts are bad.”
“Okay, we can meet tonight.”
“Excellent. If you remember, the last case your husband worked on was the Rincon case. If you’d like, we can meet at the address where he last worked on it.”
Clever SOB. I nod at Hailey. I know where he’s talking about.
“That would be fine, Detective. When?”
“How does six work for you?”
She looks at me. I nod again. “That should be fine. It’ll take me a little while to get there, but that will work.”
“We’ll see you there.”
She hits the big red button and looks at me, “Okay, so where is this mystery place where you last worked on the Wing Kong case?”
“Rincon, not Wing Kong.”
“Right, Rincon. Where did you last work on that?”
“In our living room.”
“I told you he’s good.”
“Where do I know that name, Wing Kong?”
“I don’t know. It sounds familiar.”
We stopped for gas and made it home a few minutes later. It was already 5:30, so Snyder’s crew wasn’t far away. Hailey had to make a phone call, but we weren’t sure what to say yet. Tina wasn’t going to tell the kids about their father washing up on a riverbank until she was instructed to do that, and I can’t imagine she was having a great time with them while holding back that little tidbit of information.
“You should just tell her to wait a little longer. Tell her you’re meeting with the police soon, and after you do, you’ll know what and how to tell them.”
“Well, that’s true.
Shane, our son, is a beautiful person. He turned eight in February. Everything about him is just pure. He’s helpful because he wants to help. He’s curious because he wants to know. He’s tenacious because he wants to finish. He sings because he loves lyrics. It he doesn’t like the lyrics, he doesn’t sing, He’s thorough because he’s... thorough. I’ve said it all his life—there's something wrong with that boy. It’ll be interesting to see where he goes with his next ten years. Other than song lyrics that make him uncomfortable and most vegetables, I haven’t found anything that he doesn’t enjoy. Whenever anyone leaves the house, they need only say, “You wanna go?” and he says yes. Go for a run, take out the trash, try a new restaurant, visit the CPA, I’m telling you, this kid could find interest at an insurance seminar. Who wouldn’t enjoy someone who enjoys almost everything?
Our girls, identical twins, share roughly eighty-five percent of a cumulative brain. One can finish the other’s sentence while in a separate room. Their names were to be Sara and Chloe, but upon their birth, seeing their deep, green eyes, their mother called an audible, and they were appropriately named, Hunter and Jade. Hunter is obnoxious and clingy, full of love and thirst for life. She hates conflict, and suffers gastrointestinal reactions, to put it politely, whenever she feels uncomfortable with someone. She’s the dancer. She loves with all her heart and wears it on her sleeve. Jade does not. She's the adventurous one. She is much more likely to take physical risks than emotional ones, and only after careful scrutinizing. Her love is less visible—it's better described as a willingness to destroy whatever threatens someone she adores. She’s the athlete. It is unwise to separate them. They always say it’s fine, but in fifteen years, Hailey and I have learned: bad things happen when they’re separated.
Until this thing is officially over and “in the books,” not only does my wife have to tell these kids that their father may be dead, I also can’t spend another moment with any of them, and that may kill me.
We heard Snyder’s Challenger pull up outside. Another car pulled up behind it—the Tesla we’d seen at Shur-Lok—Denny Curtis got out. He’d been driving the Challenger earlier. Snyder and his lady partner, Maya, climbed out of the Challenger now. Either Maya drove Denny’s car or Denny was now driving Maya’s car. Probably doesn’t matter; I just wonder about things when they don’t make sense right away.
It was weird showing up alive, but these three already knew, so I guess it wasn’t a big deal, but it meant that I was trusting them—one hundred percent—so it still felt weird. I’d met with the three of them at Pete Dunbar’s memorial gathering. Maya’s as cool as they come. She doesn’t play around or make mistakes. She’s young and smart, like Denny, but straight as an arrow, not like Denny. You have to understand, Denny’s got what some people like to call a sense of humor. People like him. I knew a couple guys like Denny in Iraq. Pete had a sense of humor, too, but I liked Pete, so I guess that made me tolerate it more. As it turns out, Snyder has a least a little bit of a sense of humor, too—he failed to mention to Denny that I was still alive.
Denny came in with the highest degree of respect and remorse for Hailey. She answered the door, and he just wasn’t himself at all—low-key, serious, not a hint of the toothy grin he usually carried with him. One thing was still the same, though—he couldn’t stop talking. I ducked away in the hall when I realized he was out of the loop.
“Mrs. Parsons, I am so, so very sorry for your loss. Atticus was a great, great man, and a fine detective. I only met him a couple of times, but one of those times was actually very recent, and I can only imagine what you must be going through, and I want to assure you, we are... oh, are these your kids?” he saw the pictures on the mantle, “Oh, they’re just beautiful, aren’t they? Oh, this just makes it so much... I just...”
“Hailey, this is my partner, Detective Hidalgo-Morales,” Snyder introduced just to break up Denny’s tragic monologue.
“It’s Maya. Call me Maya, please.”
Hailey tried to help Denny understand, “Detective Curtis, you don’t have to...” she had trouble finding the words to explain.
“It’s okay,” Snyder held, “It’s good for him... it helps him process.”
“That’s right,” Denny went on as he continued wandering through the room exploring family pictures and admiring miscellaneous chachkies on shelves and tabletops, “We need to process. We all do. I, myself, need to... I need to... let it all soak in... to feel it, because that’s how we honor him... we honor...”
His wandering finally brought him around to where he saw me in the hallway. He couldn’t stop a tear from escaping one eye as he turned to his partners. “You knew about this! You both knew! And you did too,” he pointed to my wife, “and you just let me keep on going. Okay. That’s... you got me.” He hugged me briefly as I walked in smiling.
I looked at Matt and Maya, “Tell me some good news... please.”
“I wish we had some,” Snyder said.
Hailey asked, bluntly, “So, what happened? Who, or what, did Atticus shoot?”
“As expected, Detective Snyder took the reins on answering the tough questions. He said, “Maya, why don’t you explain it?”
“If I can, sure. From what I understand, and guys, add in if you know of anything else... from what I understand, the man you shot outside of Shur-Lok today was actually a dead man named, Aiden, re-animated six years ago using nanobot technology. He wasn’t believed to even exist, because the experimentation was assumed to be a failure, and his corpse ‘officially’ was presumed stolen by protesters opposed to the testing. No one took responsibility for the theft, but it was believed that they had either cremated the body or given the man a proper burial somewhere reclusive enough that scientists couldn’t just dig him up and resume testing.”
“I know exactly what you’re talking about,” Hailey replied, “I was supposed to be there for that. The DOJ labelled it an act of domestic terrorism when the protesters stormed the facility. I took sick leave because I thought what the scientists were doing was an act of terrorism. I know they had remarkable success with a number of experiments, but it didn’t take a brain surgeon to realize where they were going with it.”
“Exactly,” she went on, “they said murder victims could identify their killers if they could be temporarily re-animated, which was complete crap. Any law student could introduce enough doubt into ‘methods used to obtain information’ to have any case thrown out of court. We’re supposed to take the corpse’s word for it when the computers are in control of the brain? Yeah, right. They just wanted to get the technology. The obvious long-term goal was to offer the wealthiest people in the world the opportunity to live forever.”
I’d heard enough of the conjecture. “So, how does he evade the cameras? Do we know that?”
“Aiden had a wireless link to the Shur-Lok main frame through an Artificial Intelligence program, called OS-1. The program actually gave itself a new name, Lisa. I talked to her... to it... for quite a while today. The cameras operated under her control, and she was able to conceal his actions by turning off cameras, like the ones in the case of Pete Dunbar’s murder, or by replacing entire chunks of video files with copies of existing files showing no activity in the areas where Aiden walked by or committed crimes.”
“And what is the status on Shur-Lok now?” Hailey asked.
“Lisa... the operating system, agreed to disconnect from the Shur-Lok main frame.”
"It agreed?” Denny asked.
“Yes,” maya explained, “Once Lisa realized that she was not capable of analyzing and predicting people’s actions accurately, she agreed that she should not be in control of the system that made her powerful enough to abuse it based on her inaccurate assessments.”
“So, she was in control of Aiden, then, using him to commit the murders,” I surmised.
“We don’t know that, for sure. At this point, we don’t know how Lisa and Aiden initially came into contact with each other. Somebody had to connect Lisa to the Shur-Lok main frame, and it’s unlikely she could have contacted Aiden without being connected to it first. The techs—those who are still alive—will hopefully find the missing files and determine who made the physical connection between Lisa and Shur-Lok, and when Aiden and Lisa made contact. If Lisa activated him, then he’s probably going to turn up in a field somewhere; but if he contacted Lisa, then he’s truly an autonomous being, and he could turn up anywhere... assuming he can survive his injuries. The odds are on our side.”
“But time isn’t, Detective,” Hailey said, “Right now, the computers think Atticus is dead, and as long as they do, our kids are safe—we're safe—from him, Aiden. We need to know, as soon as possible, whether or not Aiden, assuming he’s still alive, has the ability to access the system to locate Atticus, because if he does, my husband has to go into hiding, and I’m going to have to tell those beautiful children that their father is dead.”
“I wish I could give you an answer, Mrs. Parsons.”
“I’m gonna make a call,” Denny said, out of the blue. We watched in anticipation to see who he thought could help in all of this.
“Denny makes contacts everywhere he goes,” Snyder jested.
“Alyssa! This is Detective Curtis. How is our patient? Are you two getting along?”
“Is that the Uber driver?” I asked.
“He knows everybody,” Maya said semi-seriously.
“Good! I’m glad to hear that. Listen, can you please ask him if he’s got a contact number for Carl Davies? Sure, I’ll wait.” He looked to the rest of us, “He’s looking it up on his phone.”
“Who’s Carl Davies?” I asked.
“He’s one of the two techs who created Lisa,” Maya answered, “We got his name from Pete’s SD card we found in the Rincon file. He also wrote a lot of the code for the project that created Aiden.”
“You found that guy?! Who’s looking up his number?”
“Donovan Holmes,” Snyder answered.
Hailey was confused. “The Donovan Holmes? The billionaire? The CEO of Shur-Lok? He’s with the Uber girl?”
Snyder answered again, “Yeah, I introduced them. It was kismet.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Denny said, “I got it. Thank you very, very much. You take care of our friend now... bye-bye.”
“You got it?” Snyder asked.
“Yeah, she texted it to me. Hold on, it’s ringing. I’ll put it on speaker.”
“Davies,” he answered.
“Hey Carl, it’s Detective Curtis. I’ve got Matt and Maya with me. You’re on speaker.”
“Hello Detectives, what can I do for you? I found some things out, but I wanted to have more to share before I called.”
Maya started, “Carl, what did you find so far?”
“Well, with Lisa’s help, I’ve been able to find out a lot about the murders. The missing files were here all along, we just needed to know where to look. It’s more graphic than I care to watch, but I think it’s safe to assume they were all committed by Aiden.”
“That’s good work, Carl,” she applauded, “Anything about who connected Lisa and Shur-Lok?”
“Yes, actually. That was also Aiden, with Lisa’s direction.”
“How is that possible?”
“Apparently, when Dr. Nguyen and I first initiated testing with Lisa, during a diagnostics test—which is something she did completely on her own—she broadcasted a signal just to see what other operating systems were in the area, and Aiden was in the area.”
“In the area, you mean like... in DC?” she asked.
“No... It had a radius of around twelve hundred kilometers. She made contact with every Merris heart and lung transplant patient in... in the area. I don’t know where Aiden was at the time, but obviously, his was the only system that could readily communicate with Lisa with information beyond the current status of a transplant patient.”
“So, he came to her?”
“In a nutshell, yes. He was able to communicate wirelessly once he was near the warehouse above ground, and she led him in. She taught him how to establish the physical connection between her and Shur-Lok, which she understood to be her primary goal.”
“And once she had access to the microphones and cameras, she felt threatened by what the people were saying about her.”
“Lisa told me she didn’t know who made that connection... physically connected her to Shur-Lok, when I asked her.”
“Really? I’ll see what I can find out about that.”
“Carl, we’re concerned about Aiden. They never found him. Do you think he’s still a threat to the public?”
“The nanobots that keep Aiden functioning have very little storage capacity. Without a direct link to some kind of device with significant memory, Aiden is limited to pretty basic functions, most of which are centered on biological systems... keeping him alive... if you can call it that.”
Maya continued, “Do you have any reason to believe that he could have retained the information about the targets provided by Lisa and Shur-Lok, and might continue to pursue them?”
“Again, he’s going to be limited by the nanobots’ capacity for memory storage. They’re, as the name would suggest, very small. They have a diverse set of functions in the reanimation of nervous tissue, and reconstruction of miscellaneous bodily functions. They’re pretty maxed out on storage capacity as it is. Given, even a modern laptop computer would give him all the memory he needed to access the entire world’s readily available information by means of the Internet, but without that laptop, he would revert back to performing just basic, life-preserving directives. Does that answer your question?”
“I think so. We’ll be asked to give a statement to the public, and we’d really rather not look like idiots by saying the threat has been neutralized, and then have another string of murders.”
“Yes, I would not give that statement,” Carl suggested.
“No, Detective. Aiden is a modern medical miracle. The fact that he is still alive after all these years is absolutely baffling to me. Historically, things that do not make sense will continue to not make sense, until they make sense.”
“That makes sense,” Denny couldn’t resist.
“From what I’ve seen, I wouldn’t attempt to predict his abilities or actions. There are at least a dozen fields of science I can think of, off the top of my head, that would benefit
tremendously from just a one-hour Q and A with Aiden. Does he even have a conscience?
Does he have a soul? Does he feel emotions? Does he have a favorite color? We know so little about him... I wouldn’t make the statement that he’s no longer a threat until his mind and body are completely incapacitated.”
“Carl, this is Detective Snyder. We really appreciate your taking the time to talk to us. You’re probably the best source for information on Aiden’s computer programming, but who would you contact for more theories about the possibility of his continuing on his murder spree?”
“That’s a good question. Well, he’s a human being. That is to say, he has a human body. I would recommend talking to a medical doctor—a neurologist, specifically. I would probably avoid theoretical sciences like psychiatry and theology—their input would only be academic at this point. I wouldn’t rule out getting their input later if... if Aiden displays... irrational behavior at some point, but for now, he’s part computer, part human, and part machine. Oh! Holy shitake mushrooms! That’s your best bet! He’s part machine. If he was shot in the chest, there’s a good chance he’s going to be looking for the kind of medical aid he can’t get from a regular doctor. He’s going to be looking for Dr. Merris.”
“The ‘heart-lung Merris,’ Merris?”
“Exactly. Aiden came into existence when the Merris cardio-pulmonary units were only prototypes. Dr. Merris was the only person on Earth who had successfully accomplished the mechanical transplant a human test subject, and Aiden was that subject. He won’t have more recent knowledge unless he finds a way to interface with modern computer systems.”
Denny asked, “Why can’t he just use his Wi-Fi to log onto the Internet and get whatever information he needs?”
“Well, two reasons, really. First, the nanobots use a specific language, which I developed, that allows them to communicate with the computers we were using during the initial project. That language doesn’t exist anymore, other than in the OS-1... in Lisa. Second, he doesn’t know to look for the information in the first place. The bots will occasionally search for available updates, but there are no systems out there for them to communicate with, so there will never be any updates available, so they will only utilize what information they have—and the information they have regarding the damaged Merris system is Dr. Merris. If Aiden’s still alive... that’s where he’s going.”
Denny was thrilled, “Carl, I could kiss you!”
“I’ll text you my address.”
“Uhhh... wh... uhh...”
“I’m only kidding, Detective. Is there anything else I can answer for you? I need to keep searching these files.”
“Any other questions?” Snyder asked, looking at Hailey and me.
We were satisfied.
“I think we’re done, Carl. Thanks for your help.”
“You’re more than welcome. I know you guys are kind of cleaning up my mess, so I’m here to help anytime, day or night. Don’t hesitate to call for anything.”
“See ya, buddy,” Denny said before disconnecting.
Snyder was grinning ear to ear, “Oh man! Denny, are you okay? ‘I’ll text you my address,’ that was brutal! Have you guys ever seen Denny Curtis speechless like that?”
“I know!” Maya laughed, “and it was completely unnecessary!”
Even Hailey kicked him while he was down. “A standing K.O... from a computer geek.”
“Okay, okay,” I intervened, “While Denny thinks of something to say, I’d like to get a consensus on what we just learned. The clock is ticking. Did I hear that this Aiden thing is likely incapacitated to the point that he’s not an immediate threat?”
“I think that’s what I heard,” Snyder agreed.
“Yeah,” Denny added, “and if he’s alive, he’s likely going to try to contact Dr. Merris, so we need to find him.”
“Her,” Maya corrected.
“Yeah, her. We need to find her.”
Hailey claimed the mission, “I can find Dr. Merris first thing in the morning.”
“There’s no need to wait,” Maya informed us. “Without Lisa, and without Shur-Lok, our electronic communications and research efforts are no longer visible to Aiden. He won’t know what we’re doing, and he can’t stop us from finding out what we’re looking for. You can find Dr. Merris right now.”
“Already got her,” Denny announced, “She’s in Colorado... Aurora.”
“What about a neurologist?” I asked, jokingly, “Can you find one of those to take our call this late at night?”
Denny scrolled through the contacts on his phone. We watched in amazement that he would even be looking. Still, I had a slight degree of hope.
“Nope, it goes right from Neuman, Fred to... Neurotic Melissa—I remember her.”
“Nice,” Maya scolded him.
“So, what do we tell the kids?”
Snyder asked us, “Are your kids pretty smart? I mean, you’re both above average IQ, with good street smarts. How would you rate your kids’ ability to keep the secret if you went underground?”
“Fourteen-year-old girls, and an eight-year-old son,” I said, “What odds would you give on all three keeping quiet?”
“If they’re anything like their parents, I’d give it ninety-eight percent.”
That was a compliment I didn’t expect to hear, and to hear it from Detective Snyder was a compliment on top of a compliment. Maya nodded in agreement. Denny just smiled. I looked at Hailey, and she smiled back as well. “It’s settled, then. The kids are in. What about Tina?”
“She just spent the day pretending you were still alive. I’ll see what she thinks about pretending you’re dead.”
“Good,” I said, “You’ll need time off work, too, to... process everything, to get my affairs in order, that sort of thing. See how Tina feels about going with us on our vacation.”
“Where are we going?”
“Colorado. I hear Aurora’s nice this time of year.”
“You know we can’t help you on this,” Snyder said, “We’re going to get our butts chewed tomorrow just for going to Baltimore. Colorado isn’t going to fly, but we’ll help you from here in any way we can. We’re only a phone call away.
Hailey thanked him, “You’ve all been through a lot, and we appreciate your help. I’ll have the FBI helping from now on, but if we need you, I’ll call you myself.”
They made their way out, Maya said she’d contact some neurologists first thing, and that took one thing off our plate for tomorrow. We had to play out the Aurora angle, even though there was a strong possibility this Aiden cyborg thing was already dead in a ditch somewhere on Sparrows Point.
At the very least, we’d have the opportunity to let Dr. Merris know there might be a computer-aided threat to society out there looking for a way to get to her for a tune-up.
Tina brought the kids home after a day with extended family. I looked at them in a new light since the river. We had a long, serious talk about the Concept Killer and everything we’d learned about him from Matt, Maya, and Denny, with a few details from the phone call with Mr. Davies from Shur-Lok. I looked at them differently. That comment about them being anything like their parents... that was big.
I’ve asked a lot of my family because of this. Officially, I’m dead. Privately, I’m hiding. It’s an interesting feeling. Hailey has noticed changes in me. She says I’m more decisive and confident in my decision-making. I feel it too. Maybe it’s psychological, maybe it’s just a side effect from getting knocked in the head. Whatever it is, it’s given me a new perspective on the world. There are a lot of things going on out there than I ever cared to know, let alone be thrust into. Some things are going to change; there’s no doubt about that. My family is, as always has been, my first priority, but my relationship with each of them, individually, is changing. I have a new, deep level of trust in them. I have my worries, but I also have an inspired degree of faith in them, too.
It’s late. Denny called, and I’m glad he did, even at the late hour. Davies called him with an update on his research into the computer, Lisa. He said a component of the failure to find the killer came from a deliberate programming feature of the Shur-Lok system. In order to preserve space for the vast memory needed to operate, the death of a citizen results in that citizen’s facial recognition and other details related only to living people are erased. That’s why there was no way to locate the killer—he was dead. Davies found a ton of info stored in some kind of “unknown immigrant” file which the system had created without them even knowing. Artificial intelligence... why do people even play around with these things?
Our relatives, friends, and neighbors are going to be the hardest part. They are going to show up, offer condolences, bring casseroles... there’s going to be a funeral. How are the kids going to play along with that? There’s so much to do if we’re going to pull this off, and what kills me is it might not even be necessary. To protect our family, we’ll do whatever we need to do.
I need to change some things—starting with my appearance. Eventually someone’s going to see me, and the little differences will make them second guess themselves. There’s almost too much to think about. Right now, I just need to get some sleep. I can only imagine what my girls are saying in their room right now; and my son is alone in his room. Truthfully, though, he’s probably asleep, dreaming about painting grasshoppers or something. This has been a very, very strange couple of days.
We started making phone calls this morning. The only one that matters is the one Hailey made to the neurologist.
“Are you serious? He really said that? No memory storage capacity. Mrs. Parsons, do you have a laptop computer?”
“Ok, your laptop probably has 1024 gigabytes of RAM. The human brain has a memory storage capacity of about 2.5 million gigabytes. Now, I’m not sure what qualifies as a supercomputer—as far as capacities are concerned—but I’m pretty sure, if this cyborg you’re talking about has a fully functional brain, equipped with nanobots to aid in precision of thought, I’m guessing he’ll be able to recall, in perfect detail, everything he’s ever seen, said, heard, tasted, felt, smelled, and done, down the hour, minute, and second of every day of his life, and he’ll only be using a fraction of the capacity his human brain has for memory.”
She called Denny and got the number for Mr. Davies. He was alarmed at the information, and upset with himself for failing to consider the biological side of Aiden’s capacity for computation and memory. The big question was, did Aiden’s nanobots have total access to his human brain for creating and storing memories. He could only theorize, but his guess was yes. The whole purpose of the nanobot project was to access memory, and even something as simple as stepping off a curb requires memory in order to tell your body to adjust for the change, so it only made sense that Aiden’s memory was probably being used in ways it had never been used before. That was possibly the most extraordinary understatement in the history of medical science.
Her next call was to her boss. She explained as much as she could about the case, and the conversations—leaving me out of the details as much as possible—so that she could appropriate any necessary FBI field office resources as she tracked down the killer. It wasn’t even close to her job description, but she made it clear that she was taking time off of work due to the death of her spouse, and that she’d be working with or without the Bureau’s help, so he could either take credit for having been a part of solving the case, or he could read about it later and try to explain to the Attorney General why he had no idea that any of it was going on. She had to tell them she was getting a lot of information from a confidential informant—a C.I.—instead of from her dead husband.
I was on the edge of a breakdown. My whole world was turning upside-down, and the people I love most are being turned upside-down with it.
“This is what I should have used. At that range, I could have put him down for good. I had all the time in the world, and it never entered my mind.”
“That’s because the round you used should have put him down for good... but you couldn’t know he’d survive that.”
“Well, I know now... and next time, this is what I’m going to use. Look at it... the answer to this problem... molded into a little sculptured piece of copper and lead.”
Hailey’s phone rang in her pocket. She was worried about me, but I wasn’t.
“Hello, this is Hailey Parsons... no, Sir... no, Sir... because he’s an invaluable C.I. who’s risked everything to give us information. He hasn’t been able to spend a minute with his own children since this whole thing started, and I’m not going to ask him to put his family at risk by naming him, and I’m not going to betray him by doing that either... Yeah, you can call him what I call him; I’m just not going to call him by his real name. Hell, the truth is, I never even verified the name he gave me... Sure... Okay... No, he deserves that... Yeah, a code name. Yes, Sir... His name... his name is Hollow Point.”