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KND Freebies: Gripping sci-fi thriller THE LEAD CLOAK by Erik Hanberg is featured in today’s Free Kindle Nation Shorts excerpt

“Staggeringly smart…Hanberg’s expertly honed storytelling is sleek and fast … [an] entertaining tale.” — Kirkus Reviews

What if nothing were private — not even your most closely guarded thoughts and memories?

In Book I of Eric Hanberg’s brilliant new sci-fi trilogy set in 2081, the latest technology has made privacy as we know it obsolete…

The Lead Cloak

by Erik Hanberg

4.8 stars – 5 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

Byron Shaw can track and find anyone on Earth. Except the people who tried to kill him.

By 2081, privacy no longer exists. The Lattice enables anyone to relive any moment of their life. People can experience past and present events — or see into the mind of anyone, living or dead. Most people love it. Some want to destroy it.

Colonel Byron Shaw has just saved the Lattice from the most dangerous attack in its history. Now he must find those responsible. But there’s a question nobody’s asking: does the Lattice deserve to be saved? The answer may cost him his life.

5-star praise for The Lead Cloak:

Gripping, suspenseful, and thoroughly enjoyable

“…thoroughly developed and completely believable, drawing upon the utterly current theme of privacy. But, you don’t have to like sci-fi to get gripped by the suspenseful plot, which left me stunned by its unexpected twists.”

Believable tech and scary social implications

“…one of those rare finds that combines a high tech thriller with some serious soul searching…Hanberg …explores our thorniest current techno-social issues in an extreme environment while ratcheting the stakes and tension ever higher…”

an excerpt from

The Lead Cloak
(The Lattice Trilogy, Book I)

by Erik Hanberg

 

Copyright © 2013 by Erik Hanberg and published here with his permission

The Year 2081

Chapter 1

Byron Shaw was in a jump. For ten glorious minutes, the men’s room was transformed into a small forested hill at the edge of some Pennsylvania farmland.

The body of Colonel Shaw was in a bathroom stall, but his mind was two centuries in the past, visiting another Colonel—Joshua Chamberlain—who was protecting Little Round Top from the Confederate army that was attempting to flank his position.

“We’ve only got enough ammunition for a single volley,” Shaw/Chamberlain said to his closest troops. “We’ll use bayonets and attack down the hill, the left flank starting their charge first and the rest following, like … like a swinging door. Pass the word down the line and tell them to wait for my order.”

Chamberlain waited for the order to reach the men under his command, his face projecting calm.

Despite the years between them, Shaw could feel how intentional the expression was, how much Chamberlain was masking his fear. He felt the doubting questions begin to bubble up in Chamberlain’s mind. Was this lunacy? How would his family and friends back in Maine remember him if this failed? Was this the last desperate act of a desperate man?

There was no time for such thoughts, though, and Chamberlain pushed his doubts aside. He couldn’t count on any more time from the rebels at the bottom of the hill.

“Fix bayonets!” Shaw/Chamberlain cried.

As the Union line began mounting their bayonets on their rifles, Shaw felt a pinch in his right ring finger. In fact, the small metal ring had gone quite cold, causing the metal to constrict and squeeze against his skin. It would squeeze more tightly if he didn’t jump back from Gettysburg within the next five seconds.

With a sigh, Shaw touched the ring against the implant in his right temple, and immediately Chamberlain and the Union army were gone, replaced by the drab blue metal door of a bathroom stall.

He shouldn’t have tried the jump when he was on duty. He never got to stay longer than a few minutes before his ring pinched with an urgent request. When off duty in his quarters he could jump for a few solid hours, choosing a soldier at random and following him and his thoughts around. Most people would consider that kind of jumping to be boring, but Shaw preferred it … if for no other reason than it allowed him to continue to tell himself he wasn’t an addict.

Shaw washed up quickly and found a young man waiting for him just outside the bathroom door. He was a new face … Yang? First Lieutenant Tim Yang, Shaw remembered. Yang was shifting from foot to foot. His nervousness wasn’t a surprise—it was his first day at the Installation and he’d just interrupted his superior officer in the john.

“I’m sorry, sir, they said I should come and—” Yang started, but Shaw wouldn’t let him finish.

“No apologies. Work here a few more days, and you can be guaranteed someone will have gotten you off the can eight times. Can I borrow your cuff for just a second?”

Yang held it up, confused, and Shaw played with it for a few seconds. “What’s the message?”

“An intruder on the desert sensors. One hundred ten kilometers away.”

“One ten? Shit.” Shaw dropped Yang’s arm and together they hurried down the corridor.

“You see how I wedged the coat sleeve under your cufflink, by the way? Now you’ll always see your cuff. It won’t get lost up the sleeve.”

Yang looked down at his wrist as they walked. “Thank you, sir.”

“Don’t mention it. It’s the easiest way to look sharp in these shit uniforms,” Shaw said, rapping his hand against his standard-issue soft-shelled helmet. “Try it on the other sleeve after we take care of this raider.”

“Yes, sir.”

Shaw looked Yang over as they walked. The young man looked like he was trying to find a corner to hide in. “Awfully young to be here, aren’t you?”

“Just a few months away from twenty-four, sir.”

“Shouldn’t you still be in the Academy?”

“My parents believed childhood was for studying, not playing. It meant I went a lot faster than everyone else.”

“No doubt. I wasn’t out of the Academy until I was twenty-six. So. What do we know about the raider?”

“Major Iverson said it was a hovercraft. Flying just a few feet over the desert surface. It’s doing three hundred K per hour,” Yang added, his voice strained. Shaw recognized the note of panic. He’d hoped to put Yang at ease. Shaw remembered his own nerves during his first raid, back before they dulled into routine. All they did now was interrupt his jumps back to the Civil War.

“Any chance it’s just a lost tourist?”

“No, sir. It’s on a direct collision course from West South West.”

“Out of Death Valley. That explains why we didn’t catch the signal until now.”

“Sir?”

“Visuals are tricky out there, with the heat. Cloaked planes or drones can get through easily. So instead we have sensors across the desert. But even those can be fooled. If you move slowly enough, if there’s enough sand in the air, or the heat you kick out isn’t much different from the radiant heat … you can get pretty far through before we catch you. How strong is the radiation signature?”

“No radiation, sir.”

“Really?” Shaw’s eyebrows arched and he quickened his pace. No radiation signature meant the pilot wasn’t carrying a dirty bomb. But it was so rare these days that he felt himself growing uneasy. “Conventionals, then. Unusual.”

“What’s unusual, sir?”

“The raiders gave up on conventional weapons years ago. In theory, they’d work well enough, but only if the pilot thinks he can get within just a few kilometers. And no one even tries that anymore. Hmm.” Shaw began thinking out loud, partly for Yang’s benefit. “All right, so we have a raider about a hundred clicks out heading straight for us. At three hundred kilometers per hour we’ve got fifteen minutes before he’s within range to fire a conventional missile.” Shaw grunted. “Well, he’s already closer than a lot of raiders have gotten recently. Who knows, Yang? Not too much farther and you’ll remember your first day as the closest anyone’s gotten to the Lattice in ten years.”

Shaw smiled widely at Yang, his face fully reflecting his excitement. He could feel adrenaline pumping through him at the prospect of an actual fight. Normally the computer would have given his team so much warning that—if he hadn’t been in the bathroom—he would have already dispatched the raider into a cloud of smoke and sand. But today … things might actually get interesting. If there were more days like this, he thought, maybe he wouldn’t have to keep jumping back to the Battle of Gettysburg. As much as he enjoyed the historical battles, they didn’t get his blood pumping—he already knew the outcome. No matter how many times he jumped, no matter the different perspectives he found, the battle of Little Round Top stayed frustratingly the same.

Although the outcome of the fight today was pretty well preordained, too. The lone pilot had nothing but some conventional weapons, probably decades out of date—or worse, made at home. He had no chance. Already, lasers on the ground and in orbit above them were waiting for Shaw’s order to blow the hovercraft out of the sky. If through some shocking feat it could survive those, Shaw still had a small array of tactical nukes under his command. As long as they were detonated more than ten kilometers away from the Installation, they wouldn’t damage the Lattice.

Shaw put his hand on the metallic door at the end of the hall, waiting for his fingerprints, body heat, and DNA to be recognized. Not foolproof, of course, but what was anymore?

It would almost be worth it to let a raider get close, just to put a little thrill into the game, Shaw thought, before immediately pushing the thought away. It’s that kind of thinking that can cost you your job, he told himself.

His hand cleared him for admittance, and Shaw entered the command center. As the door opened, he told Yang, “My first priority is downing this hovercraft, but stay close to me. I know we’re a little different than what you were used to in Geneva, so I’ll do my best to answer any questions.”

The familiar glow of screens lit up the room. Shaw went to the center of the room to the large table and glanced through each illuminated screen. He focused on the map first, confirming everything Yang had relayed to him. The craft was now within 100 kilometers and had less than fifteen minutes before it was within range to deploy its weapons.

Shaw looked for more data about this unusual raider. What game was he playing at, trying to run against the most sophisticated weapons system in the world with—with what exactly?

“Who jumped to the hovercraft?”

“Me, sir,” Johan Iverson answered from behind his station.

“What’s it carrying?”

“Antiques, sir. Six Interceptor missiles, at least fifty years old. No other weapons. The whole thing looks like it was cobbled together in someone’s garage. It’s lucky it’s even two meters off the ground.”

“A drone?”

“No, sir. A single pilot.”

Shaw continued to look over the displays.

“Are lasers targeted?”

“Yes, sir. We’re having trouble bringing the ground-based lasers online for some reason, but both Thunderbolt satellites locked on as soon as the AI found the hovercraft. They’re waiting on your command.”

Shaw nodded. He looked over at Yang, who was standing behind him—just a little too close, like a loyal terrier. Shaw struggled to come up with words to explain to him why a knot was slowly forming in his gut. He looked back at the table and muttered, “Something’s wrong.”

“Sir?” Yang asked, stepping even closer.

“No one flies conventionals at us anymore.”

“Why is that significant, sir?”

“Such low tech … against all this?” His hand swept over the table and the room, encompassing the satellites and lasers in the process. “It’ll be like shooting fish in a barrel. And yet … it doesn’t feel right. He’s got his heat modulated to the outside air temperature within a hundredth of a degree. It enabled him to get as far as it did without the computer finally recognizing the heat difference. He goes through all that trouble, but he doesn’t even bother buying a dirty bomb? You see what I’m getting at?”

Yang shook his head. “It seems straightforward to me, sir. By the book.”

“And how does the book say we should proceed when we have a single pilot raider this close to the Installation?”

“Make contact with the pilot and warn him off.”

That had never worked once, of course, but Shaw nodded. “Right you are. What frequency is our pilot on?” Shaw called to Iverson. Protocol dictated that whoever jumped to the raider looked for weapons and looked inside the cockpit, taking note of all communication devices.

“Old fashioned wireless. Channel four.”

“Grab the wireless over there, would you, Yang?”

Yang scampered to the wall where it hung and returned with the transmitter and receiver.

Shaw took it up in his hand, noticing the curly black cord that stretched from the console to the microphone. Sometimes he couldn’t get over that people once used things like this. He pressed the button on the side. “Unidentified hovercraft, unidentified hovercraft, you have crossed into restricted airspace. Please drop your speed and turn around. We will escort you out of the restricted area. Do you copy? Over.”

There was silence, and after a few seconds of it Shaw repeated his message.

Silence again.

“Eighty clicks out,” Iverson called.

Shaw picked up the wireless again. “Listen to me. You know what weapons we have here … what we have pointed at you. It’s never too late to turn back … It doesn’t have to end this way.”

Shaw waited. That hadn’t been by the book, and Yang was giving him a funny look. It had been worth a shot. Anything to shake off this feeling.

Shaw opened his mouth to speak, but the wireless crackled. “The future is uncertain. If humanity has one saving grace, it’s that the Lattice can’t see into the future. I strike this blow because our pasts and our private thoughts should be our own and no one else’s.”

This was the first time anyone had spoken back and Shaw and Iverson exchanged a surprised look. Should he attempt to ward the pilot off again? He looked back to the map screen and saw how fast the hovercraft was approaching. Could he reason with the pilot? He thought for a few precious seconds before he gently set the wireless down.

“Fire Thunderbolts at the intruder,” Shaw said.

“Firing Thunderbolts,” Iverson repeated.

Shaw touched his ring to the red symbol of the hovercraft on the table and then brought it to his temple. Within a second he was moving at tremendous speed over the bright desert, perfectly tracking the hovercraft. Iverson hadn’t exaggerated its state of disrepair. It was a bucket of bolts. Metal plates seemed to hang off it haphazardly—some plates were scorched black, as if they’d just survived an accident in the shop; others looked like they’d been patched on from a bright red sports car.

The blast should be coming within seconds. He waited … waited … waited.

Just when Shaw started to wonder if something had malfunctioned with the Thunderbolt satellites, the blast came, shrieking toward him. Even though the blast couldn’t touch him during a jump, Shaw flinched.

He waited for the burst of flame to clear … and he was shocked to see the hovercraft had survived, hurtling through the air at a breakneck speed. It looked like a brand new vehicle. The metal plates had fallen away during the laser blast to reveal a sleek black probe that must have formed a secret inner skeleton to the ship.

Was it moving faster too? Shaw felt like he was flying at least twice as fast over the ground.

His mind was still inside the jump watching the hovercraft, but his body—still back at the table—shouted, “Fire Thunderbolts again!”

Shaw waited for the next round of lasers. He heard the lasers cut through the air more than he saw them. The craft dropped closer to the desert floor under the direct hit, but to Shaw’s amazement, it stayed aloft, and continued its deadly trajectory.

Shaw touched his ring to his temple and his mind was back at his table. The first thing he noticed was the bleating siren—an automatic system when a raider was within fifty kilometers of impact. He couldn’t think of the last time he’d heard it.

“They were counting on the lasers!” Shaw exclaimed. The readout was showing that the hovercraft was indeed moving much faster. Estimated impact was now less than six minutes.

“That rusty hovercraft was just a shell,” Iverson cursed. “The energy from the laser was somehow transferred into propulsion.”

Shaw looked to Iverson, but his ring had just tapped his temple. Shaw turned to another officer. “Bailey! Are the ground-based lasers locked?”

“No, sir,” she answered. “They’re still offline. We don’t know why.”

Shaw didn’t waste time with screaming the What? he wanted to shout in reply. “Get Braybrook. I need nukes online.”

He pressed his hand on the table and said, “L T C T T W 3 V 1 1 G.” DNA, heat, fingerprints, and now his voice print on a long string of memorized numbers and letters. Even this could be fooled if someone went to the trouble, but it would have been unlikely.

“Authorization confirmed by General Braybrook,” Bailey answered. “Nukes are tracking the target. Command now fully on your screen.” A portion of the map on the screen changed to a sequence of six red buttons. All he had to do was drag one of them … and literally drop it on its target.

Iverson had jumped back. “The control panel looks ancient, but underneath it, it’s all modern. More than modern. I didn’t recognize all of it. The whole thing was a goddamn con job! And I fucking fell for it,” Iverson spat. “Working on ground lasers, sir.”

Shaw looked back at the table. Thirty-five kilometers. Less than three minutes.

“Forget it. I’m not sure they would have been effective anyway. We’re taking the ship out with a nuke and we’ll figure out what the hell happened later.”

“Sir?” said a voice beside him.

Shaw ignored Yang. “Bailey, sound the radiation siren. We need to give a warning to everyone in the tower that nukes are about to be deployed.”

“Yes, sir.”

Throughout the Installation a new siren began to scream.

Shaw watched the clock. He wanted to give the people in the tower at least thirty seconds notice. The hovercraft would just be seeing the top of the tower over the landscape.

“Sir?” Yang asked again.

“What is it, Lieutenant?”

“Thank you for showing me about the cuffs.” Yang sounded almost regretful.

“What?” Shaw asked, looking up. Yang was at his side, too close. In his peripheral vision, Shaw saw Yang’s arm coming toward his hip, something black in his hand.

Shaw was too shocked to have consciously reacted, but he felt his body twist away, and his hand groped for Yang’s wrist. Instead of his wrist, he caught Yang’s thumb. Grasping for something, he felt the tips of two fingers touch a black pad in Yang’s hand.

There wasn’t any doubt what it was now. A nanoshock. A wet black mass of millions of nano robots, programmed to soak through the skin on contact and attack nerve cells. Their effect—

Intense pain, somehow mixed with an intense numbness. It radiated through Shaw’s body from his fingers. He recognized the sensation from a brief jump during training. Somehow the pain was worse when it was happening to his own body. Shaw tried to cry out, but none of his nerves were fully working and he only managed a grunt. His legs crumpled beneath him and he fell to the floor.

The inky blackness was spreading, visibly crawling down his two fingers.

Above him, Yang was watching him writhe, almost as shocked as Shaw. Like he’d never seen the effects before.

Yang shook himself out of it, and moved his attention to the table.

The nukes, Shaw realized through the pain. He was going for the nukes.

Shaw struggled to move his arm. He had seconds left before the nanoshock left him totally immobile. His fingers were inches away from Yang’s leg. With all of his mental energy focused on the effort, Shaw lunged, his two infected fingers clasping around Yang’s ankle. Yang looked down at him, surprise on his face. Only a second or two before—there! Yang’s face wrenched and his body trembled. He was clinging to the table for support.

Shaw tried to let go, but he found his body didn’t respond at all. Any longer to grab Yang and his body would have been in the final stages of the shock, unable to move. But had it been enough? Yang was doubled over. Had he fired the nukes?

Shaw’s vision started to go, and through the growing darkness, he thought he saw Iverson throwing Yang away from the table. There was another figure too—someone at Shaw’s side, pulling up his shirt. Shaw thought he saw a needle slide into his forearm.

Instantly, the cry of pain he’d been saving up was unleashed. A terrible scream that made everything feel worse. But at least he could move. Shaw curled himself into a ball, willing the pain to lessen.

A hand was on his shoulder. “Sir? Sir? Are you all right?” Iverson. Shaw felt better, knowing that if he could recognize a voice the shock must not have reached his brain.

“The hovercraft,” Shaw coughed. “Not me. The …”

“I got it. Twelve kilometers away. Sir, we need to—”

Shaw moved his jaw again, recovering his muscles. “Help me up.”

“You need to take care of yourself, sir.”

“Help me up!”

Iverson and the other figure—a medic, it turned out—lifted him up. Shaw leaned on the table, his eyes trying to focus on the map. It kept shifting in and out of focus. Shaw took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

He counted to five and opened them. Things were clearer. His mind calmer. He looked at the map again.

The hovercraft’s trail was traced across the desert, ending in a red dot that was marked with a radiation symbol. Shaw looked down at the nuke count. Empty.

“You used all six nukes?”

“No, sir. Yang tried to deploy them against the Installation itself, but the AI asked for a second confirmation code. He started sending the nukes off into the hills, away from the hovercraft. He got five off. You stopped him from deploying the last one. If he’d gotten it off, the Installation would have been defenseless against the hovercraft … we’d all be dead.”

“You only had one shot at it?”

“Well, the computer did most of the work,” Iverson said, letting a grin spread over his face.

Shaw attempted a smile back. It was interrupted by a deep cough, and his face soured. “Let’s not celebrate too much. No raider’s ever gotten so close to the Lattice. There’s going to be hell to pay.”

Chapter 2

Shaw paced Marc Braybrook’s office, waiting for the general to return and wondering if his career would survive the meeting.

When he got tired of pacing, he inspected the tips of his two infected fingers. They looked like blackened steel where they had made contact with the surface of Yang’s handheld weapon.

The nanoshock was a simple enough tool. Like a makeup compact, it could sit safely in a pocket until it was opened. And then … Shaw shuddered. There were low-pain and non-fatal strains of the bots for self-defense that legally could be printed at home. Shaw knew this one was not from a home printer. Yang had intended to kill.

Braybrook entered and sat down behind his mahogany desk, his eyes glancing at Shaw’s fingers. “You’re lucky you just grazed the fucking thing.”

“Yes, sir,” Shaw said, dropping his hand to his side. “Although the disinfecting bots the doc gave me didn’t work.”

Braybrook’s eyebrow went up. “There’s no antidote?”

“It stopped the pain, and stopped it from spreading. But the black’s obviously still there. They need time to reconfigure the antidote, I guess. Doc said the shock was ‘encrypted’ somehow.”

Braybrook grunted. “State of the art hovercraft, why not a state of the art nanoshock too?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Sit down, Shaw,” Braybrook said.

Shaw tried to focus on the General, his wide build, his graying moustache and gray eyes—though didn’t the right one look a little brighter?

“If you think I’m going to debrief you without a scribe …” the General said, and Shaw nodded, not surprised. Somewhere, probably in the next room, Braybrook’s assistant had jumped into Shaw’s mind and was feeding his thoughts verbatim onto Braybrook’s contact lens. It had been a while since anyone had spoken to Shaw with a scribe. But after today …

“Exactly,” the General confirmed.

“Would you like a verbal report, sir?”

“For old-time’s sake,” Braybrook said, with a trace of a smile.

“At oh-nine-fifty-six this morning Lieutenant Yang alerted me to an inbound raider,” Shaw began, and took Braybrook through the course of events that morning. It was a formality, of course. Braybrook and the Army’s team of investigators would have jumped back to see everything they needed to. Making Shaw retell it, though, allowed them to assess Shaw’s emotional response to each event, and to see what information he privileged, what he thought was important.

“In short,” Shaw concluded, “it was an expert attack, coordinated perfectly and capitalizing on all our weaknesses. They knew a jumper wouldn’t check far enough to detect that the hovercraft’s initial appearance was just a shell. They somehow took our ground-based lasers offline. And for the first time, they were able to turn one of our own without anyone knowing. Hence your scribe, I’m guessing. It was only thanks to Iverson’s quick actions that we were able to stop the hovercraft before it was in range.”

“First, to echo what Iverson said to you earlier, it was your quick actions to turn the shock back on your assailant that saved the day. And second, it turns out that the raiders didn’t turn one of our own. That wasn’t Yang this morning.”

Shaw sat up with a start. The scribe wouldn’t have a problem registering his true surprise. “Who was it, then?”

“A young man by the name of Yukihiro Ono. A Japanese national.”

Shaw was stunned. He thought about how often he’d recited numbers and pressed his hand against doors, thinking it was more theater than security. That the raiders had actually succeeded was … “I’m speechless, sir.”

“Getting a double into our command center wasn’t even the raiders’ most impressive feat,” Braybrook continued. “It’s their patience. We traced the hovercraft’s path to a hangar on the edge of the desert. It’s been complete for four months, waiting. They needed someone on the inside for their plan to work, and Yang’s transfer from Geneva gave them the opening they needed. Ono went through some intensive cosmetic surgery and makeup work to get him to look the part, but it was enough for him to be ready to report to duty this morning as Yang.”

“What happened to the real Yang?”

“Last night Yang went to sleep … and didn’t wake up. Drugged, not fatally, thank God. We’re still not sure how they delivered the drug, but they doped him so strongly that when the medical team got to his apartment an hour ago, they were barely able to bring him out of it,” Braybrook said.

Shaw frowned. “They were running a real risk that we’d check out Yang.”

“Of course we checked out Yang. We checked every thought he’s ever had since he was two, practically. We even jumped last night—after he’d been drugged no less. Sometimes people get antsy the night before they start here so we check in before they start.”

“How could we have missed it then?”

“Because Yang wasn’t conscious of being drugged. Standard protocol is that the night before someone starts, we check their thoughts. As far as the jumper was concerned, Tim Yang was in bed, sleeping soundly, and excited about starting today. We had no idea he hadn’t woken up.”

“When was the next scheduled jump into Yang?”

“We stopped that practice four months ago—there were too many ways to game the system if we had regularly scheduled checks. Instead the AI randomly gives jumpers their assignments. Even the jumpers don’t know who they’re looking in on until a minute or two before their jump. Even so, the system’s designed so that everyone working here or at the Geneva Lattice—me included, in case you were wondering—is checked at least three times a week.”

“When was the last jump into me?”

“Besides right now? Saturday.”

Three days ago. “And did you find anything?”

“Of course not. What concerns me was something from today.” The General quoted Shaw’s thoughts back to him, reading from his contact lens, “It would almost be worth it to let a raider get close, just to put a little thrill into the game.”

“And you know I immediately pushed the idea away,” Shaw said, his voice tight.

“You did,” Braybrook acknowledged. “But your next thought was, ‘It’s that kind of thinking that can cost you your job.’ That’s not exactly refreshing. We’d rather your next thought would have been, ‘But putting my desire for thrill-seeking ahead of the Lattice is a fucking bad idea.’”

“I can’t take it back, sir.”

“No. You can’t.”

Shaw nodded, thinking. After a few short seconds, the conclusion he came to was: You don’t trust me anymore.

General Braybrook sat forward. “That’s not true, Byron.” Usually anyone using a scribe played into the illusion of having a normal conversation, but Braybrook didn’t seem to care about convention today. “You feel that you owe your life to the Lattice, we know that. We don’t doubt your loyalties—your actions today to save it were proof enough. But the head of security for the Lattice can’t be wishing his job had more excitement. Wishing it is more like … like a risky bayonet charge that pulls victory from the jaws of defeat.”

“That’s not fair, sir.”

“This is not Little Round Top. We can’t afford to have another raid like this.”

“We won’t.”

“I know. But I can’t have you in this position while you’re feeling this way. We came so close today. In the grand scheme of things twelve kilometers may as well have been twelve meters. We were a hair’s-breadth away from losing the Lattice.”

“Geneva could have taken over.”

“We have a fail-safe so we never have to use it!” Braybrook sat back and stared at Shaw. “There’s something else. Dvorak, L.R.I., and the other three companies that produce Lattice readers have agreed to pool their resources and pay for a massive new ring of lead shielding around the Lattice tower. The President’s given the green light for them to start work immediately.”

“That’s very generous of them, but I should be on site for that. I want to stay here, sir,” Shaw said. He wasn’t sure how much more clearly he could say it—or think it.

“I know. But for now we can’t allow it. Besides—”

“So you say you trust me, but you don’t want me running the show for awhile. Is this a paid leave of absence?” It was dangerous to interrupt a general, but Braybrook looked understanding.

“On the contrary. If it’s excitement you want, I’d like to give it you.”

Shaw opened his mouth and closed it again. He waited.

“I want you to track down these raiders. Find them and arrest them.”

“With all due respect, sir, now that the attack has happened, tracking them down is as easy as a few hours of jumping. I hardly think that qualifies as exciting or even interesting.”

Braybrook shook his head. “You’re wrong. We’ve already started our research, and what we’ve found is worrisome to say the least. Ono had no direct knowledge of the hovercraft’s design. So far as the preliminary jumpers can tell, he never talked to anyone. If he’d failed in his mission, if we’d caught him before the attack, he wouldn’t have been able to tell us anything relevant about the hovercraft, except the estimated time of the attack. Same with the pilot. But someone coordinated this attack.

“These raiders are the most sophisticated we’ve seen. We’ve been combing over everything we can of Ono and the pilot—you’ll have access to all the investigation’s jump logs of course—but we’ve got no hard leads to whoever planned this attack. These raiders know what they’re doing, and they’re still out there.”

Shaw was silent. If the masterminds behind the morning’s raid were still alive, then they were almost certainly listening to this conversation now.

Braybrook nodded, confirming Shaw’s thought. No more secrets, not even their thoughts.

Except one. How could these raiders orchestrate a complex military operation and stay hidden from all the jumps that would follow? He started to wonder what it would take. De-centralization, trust of shared-purpose, trust of strangers. It couldn’t be possible, could it?

Shaw’s mind was full of speculation when he saw Braybrook grinning at him. “It looks to me like this is going to be right up your alley.”

Shaw stood, and nodded. “I’ll find them for you, sir. Thank you for the opportunity.”

“Go home, Shaw. Spend a night with your wife. You don’t need to be here for this. Just … be watchful.”

“Sir?”

“We don’t quite know what these raiders are capable of. I worry that you will make too tempting a target, especially if you make progress.”

“Then it’ll be that much easier for you to track them,” Shaw said, and there wasn’t any bravado behind his words.

“Nevertheless, I’m assigning you Yang—the real Tim Yang. He’ll accompany you, and protect you.”

“I’ve never actually worked with Yang, sir. Wouldn’t Iverson or someone else I know be more suitable?”

Braybrook shook his head. “He’s learned our security measures in preparation for starting here, and he knows Geneva’s security, too. Besides, the world just watched someone with Yang’s face nearly destroy the Lattice. I imagine seeing his face will provoke some … interesting reactions during your interviews. Understood?” He didn’t wait for confirmation, and dismissed Shaw with a small nod. “Get to it, Colonel.”

Chapter 3

The military shuttle from the Lattice Installation to San Francisco was less than an hour. From there Shaw would charter a slingshot back to his home in St. Louis, another two hours. Normally he only made the trip for long three-day weekends to see Ellie, but he hoped to do as much jumping from home as he could before this new job took him away again.

As the shuttle turned, Shaw looked from the brown desert to the sprawl of the Lattice Installation. At its center was the one hundred meter tower, gleaming in the bright sunlight. The warmth of the sun couldn’t penetrate to the inner core, the home of the Lattice itself. Kept near absolute zero, the lattice of rhodium atoms was well-insulated from the desert heat. Those thin fibers of rhodium atoms, arranged in a lattice-like structure … that’s what today had been about, that’s what he’d nearly died trying to protect.

Shaw looked through his small window on the shuttle until the Lattice Installation was out of sight before he settled back in his chair.

The Lattice … he didn’t have to be at the Installation to feel its presence.

Anyone connected to it could have universal knowledge of the present and past. The entire scope of human history, planetary history, astronomical history, was captured in the Lattice.

As easily as Shaw escaped into 1863 and the Battle of Gettysburg, so too could he soar over the rings of Saturn, as he’d done once on a tour of the solar system he’d taken with Ellie. So too could he witness Pompeii’s eruption. Travel into the Great Red Spot on Jupiter. Listen to Socrates speak in the Forum. Travel to the interior of the sun. Watch Columbus make landfall in the New World.

So too could he jump into the mind of another, as he’d done many times for work and recreation. After all, what was the mind but a series of electrical impulses, just as easily mapped as any other series of atoms?

He’d jumped into the mind of Einstein, to experience the rush of thoughts at the exact instant his mind was illuminated with the special theory of relativity. He’d jumped into the minds of women giving birth. Babies being birthed. People at the instant they died. Schizophrenics. Sociopaths. Artists. Politicians. Prophets. Cats! Dolphins!

He’d jumped into the mind of Jesus Christ, as almost all recreational jumpers had done at some point or another, just to see what was there. And, just as the jumpers before him had discovered, he found a mess of indecipherable thoughts. The mind of a madman? Or just what you would expect from a man who was both God and man? Even looking into the mind of Jesus gave equal evidence to the devout and the skeptics alike.

Humanity had the power to see and know everything, if only they bothered to look.

What an enormous gift! What an enormous burden.

Maybe humanity wasn’t ready to cope with such abundance of intimate knowledge. But no one had asked humanity. In the twenty-eight years since Wulfgang Huxley had invented the Lattice, its continued ability to know more and more about people’s daily lives became … assumed. Commonplace.

The first incarnation of the Lattice was as a simple remote viewer, a camera that didn’t need a lens. A camera that could see anywhere in the solar system. Then scientists realized they could configure the Lattice to peer into the past as well. By the time those same scientists translated the Lattice’s data into decipherable thoughts, it was so entrenched in the world’s economy and society that there was no turning back. It was part of people’s lives, and the march of progress couldn’t be turned back. People just … adjusted.

Adjusted to knowing that every second of their lives could be mapped by anyone with a passing interest. Adjusted to knowing that every stray thought they’d had—every horrible, vile, evil thought—could be known.

The government required search warrants before they spied on anyone’s thoughts. But everyone understood that was a polite fiction. Most people didn’t care. They were more concerned about a nosy neighbor, a boss checking on an employee’s productivity, a wife seeing if her husband was faithful.

And not only whether a husband was faithful, but whether he had looked with lust at a coworker.

At a best friend.

At a daughter.

Shaw hoped that he and Ellie had found a healthy way to handle the Lattice in their marriage. Some couples pledged in their wedding vows that they would never look inside the other’s head. Others hunted for the worst in the other, and used what they found as humiliating weapons. Ellie and Shaw tried to balance an open connection without it feeling like suspicious snooping. It was a gift to become closer to each other. They checked in on each other during the day, or let the other guide them through childhood memories.

Like many others, they used the Lattice in the bedroom, too—once, after sex, they’d jumped into each other’s heads to see what it was like to have sex with themselves. (Looking up at himself, covered with hair and sweat, Shaw couldn’t understand why any woman found him attractive; Ellie didn’t understand how Shaw could be so intensely interested in having sex beforehand, only to let his mind wander once it had started.)

When they did stumble on things they didn’t like—and Shaw was very surprised how often Ellie’s eye was caught by a handsome man; he’d always thought men did that more than women, but she put him to shame—the other would discover the worry and they’d talk it through. If it was a bigger deal than that, then there was always their monthly chat with Doctor Egan, their marriage counselor, who monitored them both and broached the difficult topics for them when they didn’t want to do it on their own.

Not everyone wanted, or could afford, a marriage counselor. Not everyone examined the Lattice as a couple and made a conscious decision how to use it.

And so people fought. Was it a stray thought? Was it an impulse you were going to act on? These were the new arguments between people. And those arguments ended far too often with lives being destroyed. Those who’d been humiliated or fired or divorced after their innermost thoughts were exposed didn’t need to look very far for a target for their rage: the Lattice itself. The very thing that had created the opportunity to eavesdrop.

A few called for the dismantling of the Lattice, but no one wanted to hear it. The argument was over: the Lattice was here to stay. The only time the general public paid attention to the Lattice itself was when a company brought a new reader to market. Tablets, wraps, screens, implants, jump boxes, and—most recently—the ring. Otherwise no one cared about the complaints of a few who claimed their lives were shattered.

And so the raiders were born, angry and full of vengeance.

In the twenty eight years since the Lattice was constructed, the military base at Area 51—now simply called the Lattice Installation—had been subjected to thousands of assaults. After two years of sustained attacks on the Lattice, it became clear that they were not going to abate. Every day some new person suffered a humiliation and was converted to the cause. Because of the attacks, it was decided that a second Lattice should be built—this time at CERN, in Geneva, Switzerland, to act as a backup.

The Geneva Lattice was underground in the old CERN tunnels. Underground, and encased in lead, it was much more difficult to reach and destroy, although attempts were still made from time to time. Mostly it was the Nevada Lattice Installation that was regularly assaulted, despite its protection by sensors, space-based weapons, tactical nukes, and—of course—the Lattice itself, which was used to find that which the rest could not.

Until today, those defenses had been more than enough, and most raiders were shot down hundreds of kilometers before they reached the Lattice.

After a failed raid, the life of an attempted raider was mapped with excruciating detail, and any of his or her accomplices were found and jailed within hours.

But, as Shaw well knew, not until the raider was identified could the investigation begin. You couldn’t stop an attack beforehand. During the attack the Lattice could be used for defense, and afterwards it could reveal the entire life story of the raider and all his collaborators. But only afterwards.

There could be hundreds of people planning attacks on any given day—there probably were. But to find them, you still had to know where to look. There was no search option for thoughts that Shaw could query. No way to tell it: “Show me everyone who’s planning to attack the Lattice.”

Once a raider was identified, there was no hiding.

For crime other than attacks on the Lattice itself, the knowledge that there was a one hundred percent chance you would get caught was usually deterrent enough, as Shaw knew better than most.

When Shaw was six, he and his family were attacked while on vacation in West Rome. Their computer-driven car was taking them on a guided tour through the narrow streets near the high Vatican walls when eight Neo-Catholic terrorists descended on the car and cut power to its guidance system.

A man jumped on top of the car and slammed the butt of his laser into the glass dome over the car, shattering it into a million pieces over Byron and his family. He felt his mother’s grip on his arm, but it wasn’t enough to resist the pull of the man’s leathered glove on his other arm.

Byron and his younger brother Sagan were yanked out of the top and pulled away from their parents. Shaw’s memory of the rest descended into flashes. The thick black boots of the terrorist who had grabbed him. The wailing of his three-year-old brother screaming for his mother. And—for reasons he didn’t understand—a lingering smell of bread from a nearby cafe.

That was all he saw before he and Sagan were pulled into a steep stone staircase and deep into catacombs and sewers under the ancient city.

He spent the next four days there, doing his best to comfort his younger brother with games and stories, trying to quash his own fear. The man who had so easily grabbed Byron and stashed him under his arm introduced himself only as Dioli. He promised that Byron and Sagan would not be hurt, that as Catholics they would not take an innocent life. They needed the brothers to send a message to their father, and to the United States in general, that they should stay out of internal Catholic affairs.

Dioli told Byron the truth about Davis Shaw. Byron’s father was not merely in Italy for a vacation, as he’d told his family. And his job at the U.S. State Department was not as a low-level bureaucrat as he’d let on. He was in West Rome to offer military and financial support to the Italians after the disunification of the country the year before, and to pledge that the U.S. would ensure that the Papal States would have their membership to the United Nations revoked unless they renounced all claims of ownership to the southern half of the Italian boot and withdrew to the walls of the original Vatican City.

Unbeknownst to Shaw and his captors, a storm was rumbling on the other side of the world. A Japanese company called Kanjitech unveiled their discovery that the U.S. had been spying on the world with something codenamed the Lattice. This bombshell was followed by another revelation: Kanjitech had reverse-manufactured a device that could tap into the Lattice.

The secret exposed, the military tried to shut down Kanjitech’s ability to use the Lattice, but found it was impossible without affecting their own ability to use it. The Lattice was either on or it was off. So long as the U.S. wanted access to the Lattice’s incredible wealth of data, it would have to remain open to anyone who bought one of Kanjitech’s readers.

The President, his entire cabinet, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff met hastily and considered their options. Their final decision: leave it open. In a flurry of activity, the U.S. gave the Lattice specs to any American company that wanted to manufacture Lattice readers to compete against Kanjitech. In addition, they looked for something to show that the Lattice could do more than just spy on foreign nations. They found their story: two kidnapped boys.

Byron and Sagan were found and safely removed from their captors in the dead of the night, the Lattice guiding the soldiers step-by-step through the maze of tunnels and catacombs and directly to the sleeping boys. Their reunion with their parents was at the top of every news feed, and it was hailed as the first test case of what the Lattice could do to stop crime and improve the world.

As a boy of six, Shaw swore up and down that Dioli had pledged not to harm them and that he had believed his captor. Dioli had told the truth where his father had lied—he truly had been in West Rome to work with the Italians—and Shaw felt a certain sympathy with the man. Who was his father to dictate things to Dioli and his friends? They hadn’t done anything to him.

Dioli and the seven other terrorists were locked up for life, and Shaw’s testimony in defense of his captor was assumed to be Stockholm Syndrome. For the next three years he was excused from school early every Tuesday so he could go to therapy to treat his “misplaced” feelings toward Dioli.

Years later, when the Lattice was able to read thoughts, and Shaw was old enough to use a rented jump box without parental approval, Shaw jumped back to the four days of his capture and listened to Dioli’s thoughts.

Whatever compassion he’d felt toward the man was destroyed. Dioli was fully prepared to kill Byron to prove his resolve and to increase bargaining for the three-year-old Sagan. Just a few minutes in his mind, and Shaw was stunned by the calculations and the ruthlessness of the man he had previously defended.

One thing was brutally clear. One more day in captivity, and Dioli would have killed him. Shaw had the Lattice to thank for his life.

He never doubted that fact, and it was why he’d applied to work at Lattice security. It was why he had breezed through the background checks and been promoted so quickly. No one who jumped into him could question his resolve.

As the shuttle touched down in San Francisco, Shaw thought about that feeling of certainty he’d held when he’d signed up for Lattice security. It was still inside him somewhere, he felt … but hollowed, its nourishment from his childhood abduction and rescue depleted by the years. There was an uncomfortable feeling associated with it, a sense that he was holding onto a childhood blanket that he no longer needed for comfort. He was an adult now, and his questions about the Lattice were starting to outweigh his childhood story. In the back of his mind, he knew that he was truly starting to reassess everything.

Just what did he think of the Lattice?

… Continued…

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by Erik Hanberg
4.8 stars – 5 reviews
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KND Kindle Free Book Alert for Friday, December 23: 140 BRAND NEW FREEBIES in the last 24 hours added to Our 1,700 FREE TITLES Sorted by Category, Date Added, Bestselling or Review Rating! plus … Erik Hanberg’s THE MARINARA MURDERS (Today’s Sponsor – $2.99, or Borrow It Free from the Kindle Lending Library)

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...[T]he pace moves along at a nice clip as one mystery piles on after another and Arthur is juggling his overzealous investigator mother, a hot suspect, a mysterious assailant, and the police.
The Marinara Murders
by Erik Hanberg
5.0 stars - 2 reviews
Supports Us with Commissions Earned
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Here's the set-up:
A grown man living in his mother's basement, disgraced detective Arthur Beautyman knows his life has fallen off a cliff.But that doesn't mean he has to be happy about his mother's solution to his woes: volunteering him to solve a case for her favorite bridge partner. Oh, and to make matters worse, she wants to be his partner on the case as well ...
One Reviewer Notes:
This was a very enjoyable read and I found very hard to put down when I started. There is more twists and turns through the book with intrigue and suspense to keep the reader very involved. The characters were well rounded and very easy to connect with. I enjoyed Mama. She proves to be pretty good at detective work after all. What started out as an innocent ploy by her son turns her into a crime solving mama. This was one of those books where you did not know the killer or what was going to happen on the next page. Reading this book has made me want to go get the first book now in the series to read.
Reviewer Lynn
About the Author
Erik Hanberg has been a writer all his life, producing novels, screenplays, plays, even a stray poem or two. The Marinara Murders is the second in the Arthur Beautyman Mysteries series. He lives in Tacoma Washington with his wife Mary, where in addition to writing novels, he is a Park Commissioner. Erik Hanberg has been a writer all his life, producing novels, screenplays, plays, even a stray poem or two. The Marinara Murders is the second in the Arthur Beautyman Mysteries series. He lives in Tacoma Washington with his wife Mary, where in addition to writing novels, he is a Park Commissioner.
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After stealing a Teristaque prototype, the entire galaxy is out to get Kal and her crew. Grannork’s brother, Tretkik, makes his presence known as a player on the galactic stage, by sending an armada of warships to settle the bad blood between them. Kal won’t let the family discord take down the...
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One woman on the run. Four dangerously sexy bodyguards. And a war brewing that will change the shifter world forever… I’m living on borrowed time, fighting for survival against a deadly new virus that has no cure and a cult doing its best to brainwash me. But when a mysterious note shows up on...
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Enemies to Lovers Hot Hunks Steamy Romance Collection Book 2 of 7When Landon was in love with Dylan, Dylan was in love with his surgical residency, in too deep to give her what she needed; a little attention, hope for a future.So she walked away from it and into the arms of rock star Kenny. Then a...
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Her visions foretold a threat. Can a mysterious encounter melt a stone-cold heart?Bestowed with prophetic powers, the gorgon Euryale tries to channel her visions to protect her sisters from the dangers lurking within their unforgiving world.After witnessing a terrible vision bringing harm to the...
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She'll need the courage of Daniel to survive this lion's den.Reverend Margot Quade never expected to be dropped in the midst of a murder. She just wanted to get reacquainted with her hometown of Port Marie, Vermont, maybe find her place in the world again after serving her tour of duty. But when a...
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In many cases an angler's life proceeds in a series of stages. To begin with he goes in for the simplest way of catching fish because at that stage his sole outlook is to deceive as many fish as possible at each outing, irrespective of the size or lack of cunning of such fish.Later the angler may...
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KND Kindle Free Book Alert for Friday, December 23: 140 BRAND NEW FREEBIES in the last 24 hours added to Our 1,700 FREE TITLES Sorted by Category, Date Added, Bestselling or Review Rating! plus … Erik Hanberg’s THE MARINARA MURDERS (Today’s Sponsor – $2.99, or Borrow It Free from the Kindle Lending Library)

A Free Excerpt From Erik Hanberg’s The Saints Go Dying, Our Thriller of the Week Sponsor!

The Saints Go Dying, by Erik Hanberg:

by Erik Hanberg
4.5 stars – 12 Reviews

 

Here’s the set-up:

Arthur Beautyman, a computer hacker turned detective, is hunting a serial killer targeting modern day saints. Against him is an unscrupulous reality TV show and a member of his own department, who doesn’t know the hacker she’s tailing is in the office next door. It’s a deadly cat-and-mouse game set against the lights of Hollywood.

The author hopes you will enjoy this generous, free excerpt:


Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Only on TV do people get to look good at three in the morning, Arthur Beautyman thought. He dragged himself out of his car and into the Santa Monica police station, feeling like his soul was on strike, his body left to fend for itself.

One look at the bags under the eyes of the desk sergeant inside the door and Beautyman wondered if anyone ever really got used to being up at this hour. He flashed the sergeant his detective’s badge. “I’m here to see the suspect you’re holding in the Babylon murders.”

The sergeant looked at the badge and the ID photo next to it, and back to Beautyman’s face. He lingered on Beautyman’s features for a moment and checked again. Have I really changed that much? Beautyman took the opportunity to look at his own photo. It was more than the weight loss. The light pockmarks scars from his teenage acne looked deeper now against his tightened cheeks. The photo also showed no sign of the gray strands that had invaded his dark brown hair.

His green eyes were the same; other than that Beautyman was starting to feel like he was walking in another man’s skin. He closed the leather over his badge and looked back up at the desk sergeant. “You were here when they brought the suspect in?” Beautyman asked.

The sergeant nodded, reaching for the phone.

“Why was he picked up?”

“A tipster called the Watchdog hotline. We followed up and apprehended the suspect in a parking lot off the Pacific Coast Highway. He matched the description, so we put him in an interrogation room and gave him a bottle of water, just as you asked.”

The sergeant dialed the phone and left Beautyman brooding. If he’d known this had been a tip from Watchdog, he might have stayed in bed. Beautyman hated the weekly show.

Watchdog had taken the basic premise of documentary justice shows like Unsolved Mysteries and American Justice but with a new twist. Its central premise was that cops were crooked, incompetent, and possibly as bad as the criminals themselves. The show existed to expose the police’s bumbling efforts to solve crimes, when they weren’t actively covering them up, and bring the weight of public opinion down on them. It masqueraded as a public watchdog-hence its title-seeking to reform all L.A.-area law enforcement through the “light of public scrutiny.”

Had the show’s recklessness stopped there, Beautyman might have been able to tolerate it. But they started advertising their tip line as “the number to call when you just can’t trust the police.” Since the show became a hit, Beautyman knew he was not the only detective in L.A. who had run into witnesses who remained tight-lipped during questioning and declared that they would only talk to Watchdog.

The sergeant hung up the phone and said, “They’re in the back.”

Beautyman nodded. He felt the early hour creeping back over him as he waited for the buzzer that signaled he could get into the back offices of the station. He had already given up hoping that the man in custody would be a possible suspect, let alone the killer himself. In the last month alone the Sheriff’s Department and the municipal police departments had collectively fielded hundreds of tips about the Babylon murders. They never led to the man he was looking for.

A detective and a uniformed officer were waiting for him when he came through the glass door. The young officer asked, “Any chance this might be the guy?”

Beautyman looked past the young man, staring off into space. On a good day and wearing boots, Beautyman was all of 5’6″. The officer next to him had at least eight inches on Beautyman, which gave him the option of either craning his neck to see him or-Beautyman’s preferred option in these situations-looking pensive and thoughtful. He put on his best grave and serious face. “Routine police work is always bound to turn something up eventually. Does he match the description?”

“He looks like the guy on TV,” the officer said, shrugging a bit.

“Well, that’s a good start then,” Beautyman said, meeting his eye solidly this time. Calls to Watchdog had increased substantially once the show started staging reenactments of the Babylon murders. In Beautyman’s opinion, it just got them more suspects who looked like the actor on the show, not the killer. But he held his tongue in front of the young officer.

“Can I get a bottle of water for myself before I go in?” The officer ran to get one and Beautyman turned to Sam Reynolds, a Santa Monica detective Beautyman had met a few times before. “Is there a file?”

There was. Beautyman glanced through it. It contained the transcript of the call to Watchdog and the report of the officer who apprehended the suspect in the parking lot. “Is this guy even likely to be our Babylon killer, Sam?” Beautyman asked, not looking up from the file.

“About as likely as my chances were of getting laid by Farrah Fawcett in high school.”

“Swell.”

“I think you’ll have to chalk this up as another bad reason to get out of bed at 3 am.”

“I didn’t need another.” Beautyman put the file down on the desk. “By the way, your man at the desk … has he had his training yet?”

Reynolds shook his head. “The Chief didn’t want to spend the money for something as stupid as media training, but I’ll bet tonight’s going to change his mind.”

Most of the L.A. area police and sheriff departments were mandating media training classes. In a surprisingly insightful move, the lowest ranking officers were enrolled first as they were the most likely candidates for Watchdog to target for gotcha-style interviews.

The young officer returned with a plastic bottle of water that felt like it had been stored on top of a radiator.

“Was that your arrest report, Officer?” Beautyman asked, unscrewing the bottle despite its warmth.

“Yes, sir.”

“And he didn’t try to run at all? No sign of attempting to flee.”

“No sir. He was about the easiest collar I’ve ever had. Just said you’d get a laugh out of it when you got here.”

Beautyman looked up from the report sharply. “He knew me? Did he say my name?”

“He called you Beautyman, except he pronounced it Beauty Man, like you were a superhero or something.”

Beautyman put the water back on the desk. “That should have been in the fucking report, Officer. Fuck! Sam, open that door for me.”

Reynolds went across the room with Beautyman on his heels and typed in a code on a keypad next to the Interrogation Room door. Beautyman threw the door open and saw the suspect kicked back in his chair, legs up on the desk, arms behind his head, grinning like a devil at Beautyman.

“Evening, Arthur. Or is it morning already?”

Beautyman turned and whistled to the young officer behind him. “You! Officer! You see this man?”

“Yes, sir,” the young man said. He dwarfed Beautyman, but you wouldn’t know it now; Beautyman’s wrath had him cowering.

“If you’re going to watch a shit program like Watchdog, then make sure that you watch it more closely,” Beautyman spat. “This guy looks like the guy in the reenactments because he is the guy. You arrested the fucking actor.”

 

Chapter 2

On his way out of the station, Beautyman extended his hand to the young officer he had cursed at earlier. “I had no right to swear at you earlier this evening. I apologize for my language and my tone. You certainly didn’t deserve it.”

The officer nodded and mumbled dumbly. He was obviously embarrassed by such frank talk combined with physical contact-even a handshake can feel bizarrely intimate if timed well. Which, of course, was part of the reason Beautyman had extended his hand and patted his elbow. It was true that he felt bad for reprimanding the officer in front of the suspect he had just arrested, but that wasn’t why he said what he did. Experience had taught Beautyman that a little embarrassment caused by an honest apology would be helpful to him if he never needed anything from the young man.

It certainly wouldn’t work for most people in law enforcement, whose personalities seemed fundamentally different from Beautyman’s, but his demeanor was in many ways successful precisely because it was so different from his colleagues’.

“Are you going to buy me breakfast for my troubles, Arthur?” Gregory Raphael asked as he got into the passenger seat of Beautyman’s car. Raphael, even after an arrest and a couple hours waiting at the police station, still managed to look like a movie star. As far as Beautyman knew, Raphael was still a long way from the red carpet appearances, but he was incredibly handsome, a radiant golden boy, which meant he was probably going to be parading on the red carpet eventually.

“I’m just ferrying you back to your car, Mr. Raphael. I don’t want it getting round to Watchdog that we arrested one of their employees.”

“Was I actually arrested? That’s kind of exciting.”

“Sorry. Temporarily detained.” Beautyman pulled his car around and faced the street. “Which way to your car?”

“Venice, parked in front of my house. I was walking home along the beach when they nabbed me in that parking lot.”

Beautyman turned right and started heading south along the dark coast. “If I may be so bold, why didn’t you just tell the officer who you were?”

“It’s silly, but I wanted the experience … for my work. To see what it would feel like to be tossed in the slammer. I thought there might be some material there.”

“And was there?”

“Not really. It wasn’t all that scary because I knew I’d be seeing your face soon and that it would get cleared up.”

Beautyman didn’t say anything. He was wondering how much more sleep he would have gotten if he hadn’t been called out because an actor wanted the cheap thrill of a prison visit. Probably not much, unfortunately.

“Besides, the cop wasn’t going to listen to me. This whole city is wound tight because of the murders. You know that when that kid got word of the tip, he saw the same headlines all of you do. Hero Cop Saves City. Or Hero Cop Guns Down Babylon Killer. He had an itchy trigger finger in the parking lot. He was scared and there was no reason for me to test him.”

That assessment of the state of affairs, Beautyman thought, was pretty accurate. The city was on edge and the cops wanted to be heroes, if only to shove it in the faces of Watchdog.

They drove in silence until Beautyman reached Venice when Raphael started giving directions. They pulled up in front of his home just as the sky was discovering dawn. “Here you go, Mr. Raphael.” His passenger got out of the car. Behind him, Beautyman saw a slim woman emerge from the front door of the small two-story house. She was crossing her arms and looking like she’d had as little sleep as Beautyman. He couldn’t help noticing her figure and her light blonde hair. The Golden Boy had a Golden Wife. Figured. Los Angeles was a terrible place to be average.

Raphael shrugged his shoulders at his wife, as if he were going to explain everything to her soon, before bending down and looked through the open car door. The Pacific was warming to dawn and the morning light was just starting to shine on Raphael. It looked like he was backlit, Beautyman thought. Like wherever he went he was always in his own damn movie.

“You have permission to call me Greg, you know,” Raphael said, flashing his perfect teeth at Beautyman.

“Unless you join the force, you’ll always be Mr. Raphael to me. Just how I think of people, I guess,” Beautyman answered.

“I understand that. But I figured since we were colleagues now you might be willing to relax a bit.”

“Colleagues?” Beautyman echoed, even though he knew what Raphael meant. He was just pissed the actor knew already.

“Well we’re all going after the same guy, right? And now we’re on the same team. Sandy told me you were coming on board tomorrow to start filming.”

Sandy Ewson, the scumbag producer of Watchdog. Beautyman wasn’t sure his avowed humility should extend as far as a man like Sandy Ewson. Beautyman was pretty sure he was a better man than Sandy Ewson would ever be.

“I guess it’s an interview tomorrow morning. And then at some point they’ll call me in for a day of shooting the reenactments.”

“I’m looking forward to working with you. We’ll make a great onscreen duo! I’m Anthony Hopkins and you’re Jodie Foster!” Raphael laughed.

Beautyman didn’t know what to say to that. He put the car into drive and indicated the woman at the door. “Please pass my apologies along to your wife.”

“I will. And study up as best as you can before your interview, Detective Beautyman. They’re going to try to nail your ass to the back wall for the Babylon investigation. Good luck.”

 

Chapter 3

Beautyman took Raphael’s advice to heart. He left Venice and went straight to the station. By the time Watt stopped by his office, he’d been hunched over the files for two hours.

“Anything last night?” Watt asked, leaning his long body through the doorway while leaving his feet firmly on the other side of it. Not willing to commit if the news was bad, Beautyman guessed.

“They arrested the actor. The guy who plays the Babylon killer on Watchdog.”

“Christ, that’s an embarrassment.”

“Bad luck,” Beautyman said. “You know how it will play. Like a late night comedy sketch. Hollywood cops can’t catch killers, but we can find the actors who play them … It’ll makes a good joke for Leno.” Beautyman tapped his pen on the edge of the desk and tried to gauge Watt’s response. The young cop had served Beautyman for three years and in that time, Beautyman had only seen him lose his cool once.

Watt just nodded. “What’s next then?”

Beautyman wondered if he heard a note of despair in Watt’s voice. The two of them were permanently on edge; a new victim could be found any day, and with no new leads they were left in the uncomfortable position of just waiting for the next death.

“I’ll need your help for this damned interview tomorrow.”

Watt nodded again. “And for the case?”

“I’m not sure.” Beautyman checked his watch. “Want to join me for the daily briefing?”

Beautyman met daily with a representative from the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. They were called “profilers” in the movies. On film, they would look at a crime scene and tell you, “He’s in love with his mother,” or “He wishes he could be a woman” or some other character profile based on some telling detail at the crime scene. On film, these were the guys who would swoop in and claim jurisdiction and take over an investigation from local law enforcement.

But in Beautyman’s experience all they did was sit across a table and pass reports to him. They passed him reams of spiral-bound paper that he stacked in his office. He tried to read as many as he could, but with only so much time in the day, Beautyman usually only got through the first few pages. Reports with titles like Probability of Physical Defect and Known Relations of Victim 5 and Comprehensive List of Internet Based Printing Companies could only be so engaging.

Beautyman often wished the FBI would swoop in and take the case off his hands. Like today, he thought, heading down the hall to the meeting. Unfortunately the Bureau wanted nothing to do with the Babylon case and were much more interested in covering their collective asses by generating reams and reams of reports. Any report Beautyman asked for, he got. But they were in a “supporting role,” and had been since they first showed up to help.

 

“Good morning, Agent Chow,” he said, shaking the hand of his FBI contact. Beautyman sat down at the round conference table and waited for time to stand still, as it inevitably did whenever he started a conversation with Chow. The man was so cautious about committing to anything that he pieced his sentences together as slowly as if he were hunting and pecking for them on a keyboard.

“The Bureau has some … more information for you today. Most pressing … is the … ”

“Excuse me for interrupting, Agent Chow,” started Beautyman. “I mean no offense by it. But I have some pressing concerns I need to address. After last week’s Watchdog exposé, the Sheriff has decided that since we can’t beat them, we should join them. They’ll be interviewing me for the show tomorrow and later we’ll be shooting those awful reenactments. Sandy Ewson over there wants me to play myself. He says it will add ‘verisimilitude,’ but I think he just wants to screw with me. Sheriff wants me to agree to pretty much anything at this point.

“So I’m supposed to start playing ball with them and hope that gets them off our backs a bit. But I have it from a reliable source that I’m going to be ambushed. Not that I needed a tip, I suppose, to figure that out. I would have to be pretty stupid to go in there and not expect to be blindsided. What I’m mostly worried about is what they’re going to nail me on, and I’ve got a hunch they know something they haven’t told us yet. Something they won’t spring on me until the interview.”

“And you want to know … if we can … get it out of them,” finished Chow.

“If possible, yes. But I’ve got-” he checked his watch, “23 hours until I’m on set, and I want to know what they’re sitting on. Did they get a tip? Did a witness come forward? Did we, God forbid, miss something that one of their detectives stumbled across?”

“We’ll see what we can … pull out of them,” Chow said finally. “I can’t promise much … but a records request from the Bureau might … get us an idea of what they’re holding back.”

“Thank you. Preparing for this interview is my top priority. Watt will assist me in a thorough review of every pertinent fact in this case. I don’t want to stumble over a single thing. Please let me know if you learn anything. Regarding your reports, let’s tackle those as soon as I get this behind me.”

 

Beautyman left the meeting, momentarily elated that he’d cut a traditionally tedious meeting down to just a few minutes. The path back to his office took him by the white-collar crime unit, and Beautyman heard his name shouted as he passed a doorway.

He stopped. Jackie Fleet was smiling at him from behind a stack of papers. He’d noticed her before. How could he not-she was 38, only two years younger than he was, and she was still single. That was enough to get his attention, but she was also pretty cute-as cute as a cop was allowed to be-and she was full of energy. Her blonde hair was almost always tied back in a short ponytail that bobbed when she spoke with excitement, which was often. She might come off as a Valley Girl, but she had shown a brilliance in her investigations that had put some downtown bigwigs behind bars.

“Sorry to bug you, Arthur, I know it’s one of those days for you.” The end of her ponytail bobbed into view and then behind her head again.

“It’s always one of those days. What’s up?”

“I hear you’re a baseball fan, is that right?”

“The biggest.”

She laughed. “I didn’t know there was a competition.”

“You want to talk about the Dodgers?”

“Um … the Pirates, actually.” She checked a piece of paper.

“Really? How come?” Beautyman sat down.

“Does the nickname ‘The Flying Dutchman’ mean anything to you?”

Beautyman felt his neck muscles tense. His morning stretches would be in vain. “Well, there’s the ship obviously. But since you want to talk about the Pirates, I’m guessing you want to talk about Honus Wagner.”

“I’ve been on the track of this hacker who goes by Dutchman. It seemed like such a weird handle, I started researching it. I thought it was a reference to the ghost ship, but I’m starting to wonder if it’s this Wagner guy. What’s up with him? What’s the big deal about some player from a hundred years ago?”

“We still remember Chopin and Monet as great artists long after they died. Wagner’s like that. A great artist, and baseball was his canvas. Maybe one of the best all-around players to ever step onto the diamond, and certainly one of the best shortstops.” Beautyman stopped himself before he went too far.

“Huh. Still seems weird to idolize someone like that.”

“Maybe it’s not that. I mean that’s why I am an admirer, but for some it might be his baseball card, the most expensive card in the world. Someone bought one recently for almost $3 million.”

“For a baseball card! That’s insane.”

“I’m just saying that the baseball card has a certain allure to it. Someone could be obsessed with the card but not care about the player. What kind of case are you looking into?”

Fleet sat back in her chair. “It’s the damnedest thing. A security breach at Maritime Bank of L.A. Something, and we think that something was this Dutchman hacker, triggered their servers to automatically reboot. I don’t know enough to say how he did it, but when he did it, he was the new server admin. He had access to everything. The whole bank was open wide to him. And do you know what he did? Didn’t touch a penny. He just went through the ATM cameras security footage.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah. Each machine has a camera on it, and it appears he was just scouring the logged footage from three cameras in Hollywood. Tried to patch up the damage but someone at Maritime noticed. Once they figured out what happened they asked us to look into it. I’ve spent the last month working with them to confirm there was no actual theft of dollars. Now we’re just trying to figure out what the point of the whole thing was.”

“How’d you find out it was this Dutchman if he tried to repair the damage?”

“I had help there. We don’t have a cyber crime division, but the tech guy at Maritime Bank figured it out. He-” Just then the phone rang, and Fleet cut herself off. “Excuse me for a moment, Arthur.”

Beautyman waited for her to get off the phone. By the time she was off, he had decided he couldn’t keep asking her about her investigation without looking too eager.

“So it sounds like you could use a baseball primer,” he said, smiling.

“You think it would help?”

“I’ve got season tickets to the Dodgers, and they’re playing tonight. Babylon’s been taking over my life. This might be just the excuse I need to get to the ballpark.”

Fleet cocked her head to the side and appraised him, as if for the first time. If she agreed, it wasn’t going to be because of his looks, Beautyman thought.

“What time does the game start?”

“7:05. My day’s going to be devoted to getting ready for this interview tomorrow, so if you’re up for just leaving from the station, that would be best for me.”

 

Beautyman tried to put Fleet and her search for the Dutchman out of his mind. This was a complication he didn’t need. The game was going to seriously eat into his valuable time, but Beautyman didn’t feel like he had a choice. Fleet probably thought he wanted to get into her pants, but really he just wanted to learn more about her investigation.

He sipped his coffee and stared at the map of L.A. in front of him. Red pins represented the locations the Babylon bodies had been found. Blue pins represented the victim’s homes. That meant 14 pins for just the victims. The map was starting to get so crowded with pins, Beautyman was ready to stop using it altogether.

Watt walked in and slumped into a chair.

“What’s Watchdog’s first question, Watt? Do they start with the first victim? The killer? Our arrest of their lead actor?”

“They start at the beginning. Victim number one.”

“Ok, Rachel Madison is as good a place as any to start. Let’s go through it again.”

 

Rachel Madison was found a full 14 months ago. She was discovered on a Malibu beach, spread like a snow angel into the wet sand. Found nude, it didn’t take much to realize her entire body had been shaved. Worse yet, her bone white skin and the small puncture wounds in her wrists led to wild headlines about a Malibu Vampire stalking the beaches.

The coroner reported her blood had indeed been drained, but it hadn’t been sucked. She had been knocked out and then the blood had been drained from her through a crude IV inserted into each wrist.

And that’s what had killed her. She’d bled to death. She’d been drugged and while she was under, her killer had bled her dry. She wouldn’t even have wakened up.

With no grisly murder for the press to write about, the Malibu Vampire story faded away. A few were able to keep the vampirism stories going by speculating about what the killer had done with all the blood he’d taken from her. But without tell-tale fang marks on her neck, there wasn’t much to that angle anymore.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff Department never found a lead or identified a suspect, either, which meant that the remaining stories were about the bumbling police and no longer focused on the 23-year-old victim.

A graduate of Scripps College and a social worker who counseled victims of domestic violence, it was hard to imagine why such a senseless crime happened to such a caring person. She left her small apartment each weekend so that she could go to church with her parents at their family parish. Her boyfriend, who by all accounts was just as morally upstanding as she was, told the Channel 7 nightly news that she was waiting to get married before having sex. Her virginity was-tastelessly, Beautyman thought-confirmed by the coroner. So why kill Rachel Madison? And why take her blood and her hair?

Two months after Rachel Madison was found on the beach, the Los Angeles police found Miguel de la Iglesia naked, shaved, and drained of blood in a small L.A. apartment. This time, the body was accompanied by a small card, left on the end table by the couch, his final resting place. In small black lettering, centered on the thick white card stock was written:

 

I am drunk with the blood of saints

and I drink the blood of these martyrs of Jesus

 

It was the size of a calling card. The pure white card stock and the dark black Helvetica typeface that carried this awful message chilled Beautyman to the core.

 

No one doubted that they were looking for a serial killer. But like so many serial killers, this one wasn’t respecting jurisdiction. Rachel Madison was found in Malibu, the L.A. County Sheriff’s turf; Miguel de la Iglesia in Los Angeles proper, covered by the LAPD.

Within hours of finding the body, the FBI was making calls across the region and let it be known that any sign of bureaucratic squabbling was going to be met with severe consequences. The many departments were going to work as one on this case, with the full weight of the FBI behind the new coalition.

But they needed a leader. And as the first victim fell under the jurisdiction of the L.A. County Sheriff, they were anointed as primary investigators. With every law enforcement agency between San Diego and Reno pledging fealty, the Sheriff knew that he would be sharing any successes but none of the failures. If there were any single reason Barry Upright had been elected Sheriff three terms running-besides his laughably electable name-it was because he had scrupulously avoided these kinds of situations.

With no good options, Upright assigned Beautyman to take charge of the manhunt and gave him a deadline. “If this piece-of-shit vampire bloodsucker isn’t caught in two weeks, I’m going to tie you to a stake at the next full moon so he can come out and take your blood.”

“I believe you’re thinking of werewolves, sir,” Beautyman said.

“I don’t care if he’s the creature from the Black Lagoon. You’ve got two weeks.”

But that was twelve months and five victims ago.

Sometimes Beautyman caught himself hoping the Babylon killer would strike out of state. It was the most likely scenario to get the FBI to take over the investigation and give him a chance to rest. But the killer had stayed strictly local. All seven victims had been found in the L.A. area. Until he started draining the blood of victims in Las Vegas or Phoenix-or until Upright needed to shake things up to keep voters pacified-Beautyman was going to be stuck with the case.

 

After the body of Miguel de la Iglesia was discovered, it was as if the entire L.A. press corps had found a crusade worthy of their vast resources. Once his name was released, the papers ran endless feature stories about de la Iglesia’s good works, and there were many. A married but infertile man, he and his wife had adopted three daughters from China. During the five years of adoption proceedings, de la Iglesia found he had a knack for Mandarin Chinese. He went to night school to learn it so he could teach it to his daughters and bring them up tri-lingual, English, Chinese, and his native Spanish. Learning Chinese made his law degree that much more lucrative, but rather than join the corporate ranks of a multinational-and many had been calling him-de la Iglesia left his private practice and joined up with Amnesty International’s legal department.

And now he was dead. He looked at the small calling card again, secured in its plastic evidence bag.

The first report he’d requested from the FBI was an analysis of the inscription and its likely meaning.

It should not have surprised him that the card referenced a verse from the Bible, specifically the Book of Revelation. Revelation 17:6 described a vision of the Whore of Babylon, an allegorical figure of supreme evil and the Antichrist. The verse reads, “And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration.”

But did that mean anything? All crazy people seemed found a passage in the Bible to justify their twisted belief system, Beautyman figured. And turning to the Book of Revelation was an easy place to start.

The FBI apparently agreed with him. The symbolism of the Whore of Babylon had meant different things to different groups throughout the centuries. She represented pagan Rome, Christian Rome, Jerusalem, the Catholic Church, the Catholic Church after Vatican II, the secular world, American hegemony, capitalism … that list went on and on. And she could mean something entirely different to their killer.

What everyone seemed to agree on, though, was that the Whore of Babylon was evil. And this was where the FBI report turned ugly. The Behavioral Analysis Unit had encountered plenty of people over the years who cited the Bible to explain their crimes. But those people generally saw themselves as cleansing the world and trying to make it pure. This killer identified himself with the Whore of Babylon. He could apparently recognize the supreme evil of the allegory and embraced it fully. He wanted to be the Whore of Babylon. He was most likely drinking the blood of his victims, in a horrible mimicry of the Whore of Babylon.

And there you have it, thought Beautyman. The man was killing martyrs of Jesus and drinking their blood. But he hadn’t targeted people who were Christian, or even religious. Rachel Madison was part of a deeply religious family, but the wife of Miguel de la Iglesia reported that he hadn’t been to church on any days other than Christmas and Easter. The man was a saint killer, but apparently there was no religious litmus test. He measured his saints by good works, it seemed. And if by that qualification Madison and de la Iglesia weren’t modern day saints, then no one was.

 

Two months after Miguel de la Iglesia died, a third victim was found. The same card was found by her naked, shaved, bloodless body. This time the victim was found in an alley in Long Beach, farther from the first two than they had expected. Beautyman was sick to his stomach. Chandra Pal was a kindergarten teacher who was first violin in the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra. The daughter of two immigrants from India, Pal also gave thousands every year to non-profit micro-lending organizations that helped women in India and Africa start their own businesses.

It was after her that the name for the Babylon killer became popularized. Two victims made a line, and three was most definitely a trend. Jay Leno didn’t touch it, of course, but Bill Maher looked at his HBO audience and said, “So there’s a serial killer going around L.A. killing saints-incredible people it would be an honor to meet. He’s killed three so far … which I figure means he’s probably just about finished.”

 

Two months later, Chandra Pal begat Mary Weber, who had been a nurse in a free clinic for more than 30 years in Anaheim. Mary Weber begat Tim Cathersole, back from two stints in the Peace Corp and staying with his family in Pomona. Tim Cathersole begat Jasmine Davis, a beloved youth group leader who pulled kids off the streets of the worst neighborhoods of L.A. And Jasmine Davis begat Julia Lopez, a high school student who fed the homeless on weekends in Hollywood.

It was hard not to notice that victims were getting less-saint like. Certainly they all sounded like good people, but saints? Beautyman privately wondered if Maher was right; perhaps the killer had run out of people in that category. That didn’t stop the media from holding the victims up on a pedestal, though. They became saints. And that was the scariest part. If any act of kindness or selflessness made you a saint, and being a saint made you a target, how would people react?

While L.A. panicked, for Beautyman it was starting to become almost routine. Victims’ lives would be investigated and overturned. Their last week would be nailed down to the minute, if possible. The hundreds of people who might have been in contact with them were interviewed and sometimes brought in for further questioning.

And the FBI would tell Beautyman that the killer would be getting more confident and begin to kill more quickly. But so far it hadn’t happened. It wasn’t like they were timed to the day. Once there were seven weeks between victims. Once there were nine. But they were not getting more frequent, the killer continued to wait roughly two months between his crimes.

And Julia Lopez had been found in her car in Hollywood just seven weeks ago.

 

Beautyman tried to focus on what leads they had. He wished there were more. He remembered something about Edison, who after each failed attempt at a light bulb would chalk it up as a success: he now knew yet another way not to build a light bulb. Beautyman didn’t think he could keep such a positive outlook indefinitely, but he did feel like his investigation had been successful at ruling out the leads that took them nowhere.

So where did that leave them?

Practically speaking, the Babylon killer did not appear to have any bizarre fetishes that would make him easier to track. If he had had a penchant for killing his victims with Ming Dynasty vases, finding him would be much easier: just guard all known Ming Dynasty vases until he showed up. But he used no weapon, short of the needle and catheter to draw the blood.

Almost assuredly the victims did not just lie there and let him go about the business of slowly killing them, though. And as they didn’t have marks on their bodies-wait, was that why they were shaved? To prove they hadn’t been touched? Beautyman made a note to look into the idea after his Watchdog interview. The toxicology reports showed they’d been drugged with Propofol, a quick acting anesthetic delivered intravenously.

Not that even that was easy to figure out, Beautyman remembered. The same puncture mark used to deliver the drug was reused for draining the blood. That had thrown them for a few days.

The drug was not readily accessible to the public and Beautyman poured considerable time and resources into understanding and tracking its distribution and availability. It was used for adults and children over three, as well as being a preferred anesthetic for pets. But in a metropolitan region of 12 million people, not more than 100,000 people would have easy access to the drug. Doctors, nurses, and veterinarians in all of Southern California were asked to report any vials or pre-loaded syringes of Propofol gone missing.

The next major lead Beautyman had was the man seen with Chandra Pal just hours before her death. After each murder, dozens of uniformed officers spent days conducting extensive canvassing. Every lead they turned up was eventually explained, every “strange man” or “tall fella” was identified later by a friend or a relative-“That’s right, she told me she was going to meet her boyfriend after work!” Hundreds of hours went into each of these leads. And all were eventually explained. All except the man who visited Chandra Pal’s classroom.

Two witnesses saw him with her. As Beautyman’s luck would have it, one of those witnesses was a kindergarten student of “Ms. Pal,” and the other was his older sister-older, in this case, meaning third grade.

After the students had been dismissed on Ms. Pal’s final day of teaching, one boy discovered he had left his backpack at the school. His mother turned the car around and sent him back into the classroom to get it, accompanied by his older sister. They both saw a stranger with Chandra Pal.

 

Less than 48 hours after her body was found, Beautyman sat down with the youngest child first. He chose as his interrogation room Pal’s kindergarten classroom, the child’s mother and father sitting together to the side.

“I’m Arthur. What’s your name?”

“Gavin.”

“Gavin, your parents are right here, ok? They’re going to listen to what we talk about. And what’s important, is that you think of me like you think of them. If I ask you a question that you don’t know the answer to, the right thing to do is to tell me you don’t know and not to make something up. So if I ask you what 25 plus 48 minus 3 is, what are you going to tell me?”

Gavin eyed Beautyman like he was still trying to figure out what his angle was. “I don’t know?” It was definitely a question.

“That’s right. But if you do know the answer, you’ll tell me that too, right?”

Gavin nodded.

“Three days ago you left your backpack in the room and your mom turned around and let you out of the car, is that right so far?”

Gavin nodded again.

“But she made your older sister walk you in?”

Gavin’s face seemed to wrinkle a bit at the mention of his sister, or perhaps at the mention that he had to be escorted, but he still nodded.

“Tell me, which door did you come in from?” Beautyman indicated the exterior door and the door that opened in to the school’s hallways.

Gavin pointed toward the door into the hallway. It was a wooden door with a narrow window at the top above Gavin’s head. “That one.”

“Did you open the door when you came back in or was it already open?”

This was the first question that seemed to puzzle Gavin and he thought about it severely. Finally he pronounced, “Melissa opened it.”

“Your sister opened the door? You’re sure?”

He nodded. “She was in front of me.”

“So Melissa opened the door, and did you see Ms. Pal?”

“Yes.”

“Where was she in the room?”

Gavin pointed to her desk.

“And she was in her chair there? Or was she standing?”

“Sitting, but … but on the desk.”

Beautyman’s surprise must have shown through, because Gavin nodded his head vigorously. “Really! She was sitting on the desk.”

Beautyman smiled and nodded. “Good. You’re doing great, Gavin.” Privately he was assessing the likelihood of a kindergarten teacher sitting on a desk with a stranger. It didn’t seem high. “Now, was she alone in the room?”

“No, there was a man too!” Gavin seemed to be warming to the game as he was becoming more animated. Which meant he might be more inclined to stretch a truth, possibly even unknowingly, to keep the fun going. Beautyman paused and looked at Gavin’s parents, whose faces were showing him a curious mixture of sympathy and disgust.

“Was the man a professional football player?” He asked.

Gavin’s face crinkled as he tried to figure that one out. “No,” he finally said, a little confused.

“So he didn’t have on a football uniform?”

“No … ”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Gavin said, although he actually sounded less sure of that answer than any before it. Apparently the game wasn’t as fun for him when Beautyman wasn’t asking easy questions.

Beautyman took pity, but he had stopped a potentially dangerous precedent from forming. “Show me where the man was.”

Gavin got up from the small desk and indicated a counter running along under the windows. “He was leaning against here.”

“Against the counter?”

Gavin nodded.

“Did he see you?”

“He smiled at me and said hi to Melissa.”

“What did Ms. Pal seem like? Was she angry with the man? Or happy to see him? Or scared?”

Gavin shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“That’s a good answer. Did Ms. Pal touch him like a hug or a kiss?”

Gavin shook his head.

“Did you hear Ms. Pal laugh when you were in the classroom?”

Gavin thought about it. “Yes. When I told her I left my bag she laughed and said I did that every week.”

“Did she introduce you?”

“She said he might have a son coming to kindergarten and I would have to show him around.”

“Did she call him a name like Mr. Smith or Mr. Pal?”

Gavin shook his head again. Beautyman finished up with as good of an approximation as he could get of what the man looked like: white and with hair somewhere between blond and brown.

Gavin’s sister Melissa fleshed out the description a bit more when he met with her.

“He wasn’t that big, but he looked really strong, like he worked out a lot. He had a red tie on, and it looked like he had come right from work. He smiled at me and I thought he was really-,” she shot a glance at her parents and then looked back at Beautyman meekly, “really hot. He looked like a Ken doll or Brad Pitt or something. It seemed like Ms. Pal liked having him around.”

At the time, Beautyman felt like things were moving along. Unlike the disjointed efforts after the first two victims, he had led the investigation with an efficiency and comprehensiveness that had produced the first witnesses in the case. To find them, officers had interviewed more than 400 people-her family, friends, co-workers, parents, and students; residents and business owners in her neighborhood; and residents and business owners near the alley she was found in.

After the interview, Melissa helped create a sketch for the police of a man that, by the time it was completed, did look something like a cross between Brad Pitt and a Ken doll. That sketch was taken to every person they had interviewed in the deaths of Rachel Madison, Miguel de la Iglesia, and Chandra Pal. No one had seen any of the victims with a man who looked like that. After that, Beautyman released the sketch to the press and to Watchdog. At which point some of the most handsome men in Los Angeles suddenly found that life wasn’t so great when tipsters would call in their rakishly good looks. Beautyman heard that a lot of them were starting to grow beards. Would the killer too, he wondered?

Meanwhile, Beautyman had a team that was going over the life history of Rachel Madison with a fine tooth comb. By the time Chandra Pal was killed, four months had passed since the Malibu Vampire victim was found dead on the beach. As the first victim, the collective wisdom of the FBI, Beautyman, and the L.A. County Sheriff was that the killer must have had some personal tie to her. As a rule, serial killers didn’t start with complete strangers. There must be something to tie the Babylon killer to her.

All in all, Beautyman felt like the investigation had been as successful as it could be, given the circumstances, and he expected he would be able to turn up a strong suspect soon.

Granted, each new clue was akin to grasping at straws at this early stage. These were slim leads he was looking at, but Beautyman knew from experience that this kind of investigation was a game of progressively narrowing suspects. He thought of L.A. County like a giant Venn diagram, circles layered over circles. As each known fact was confirmed, the number of people in the population that could be the perpetrator dropped substantially. So 100,000 people in the area had access to Propofol. Of them, half were male. Of them, no more than 40,000 would have the physical strength required to move the limp, drugged body of an adult male like Miguel de la Iglesia. Of them, no more than 20,000 would even come close to being described as “incredibly handsome.” Of them, no more than 5,000 could be within two degrees of separation from Rachel Madison. Keep winnowing, and eventually you’d have just a handful of people that might fit the bill.

That was a slightly comforting thought after Chandra Pal’s body was found. But after her, the remaining four victims had nothing very conclusive to add to the list of leads.

Mary Weber’s death in Anaheim gave few hints that might be of help, although nearly every patient she had seen in the free clinic had been identified and located. Tim Cathersole, the Peace Corp volunteer who had spent most of his time in Guam and the South Pacific only to return home to be murdered, proved that the Babylon killer was willing to kill both men and women-previous FBI behavioral reports had suggested that Miguel de la Iglesia might have been an outlier and that the rest of the victims would be women.

By the time Jasmine Davis was killed, Beautyman wasn’t sure that they really were getting any new facts. The most he could say he had learned was that the killer was still using Propofol. Given the dosage needed to knock out a victim, Beautyman was starting to count on him needing to restock his supplies and hoped that a lead might come from a doctor or a vet reporting a missing supply. None did, which indicated that either the killer had stashed away a substantial supply of the drug before starting or that he still had easy access to it and was a doctor or vet himself.

Things were starting to reach a boiling point in the general public. Politically it was going to be hard for Beautyman to keep his job if he didn’t act soon. Before the Sheriff-or the press-started calling for his head, Beautyman publicly asked for an independent and out of state auditor to review the investigation from top to bottom and identify any major weaknesses or flaws. If there were any places where they had screwed up by accidentally destroying a piece of evidence or some other stupid mistake, Beautyman would step down from the investigation. Some newspaper opinion pages thought it was a gracious way for Beautyman to leave without getting fired. But three weeks later, the auditor’s report was clear. No bureaucratic bickering, no stones left unturned, no reports that were languishing on the sidelines. It didn’t come right out and say, “The killer’s just that good,” but that was the truth of it.

The auditor’s report probably helped Beautyman keep his job a little while longer. The public anger was pervasive when, two weeks after the audit went public, the body of teenager Julia Lopez was discovered on the grounds of her high school. Had it not been for being publicly cleared of any oafishness or incompetence just before, Beautyman likely would have been made a scapegoat. Dead teenage saints did not sit well.

Maybe he deserved to be sacked, he thought, when he saw the naked and shaved body of Julia Lopez. The audit request had been a tactic. He knew what kind of an investigation he had run, but he had played his hand the only way he knew how-as the humble flatfoot aching to make sure he was doing the right thing. It had played well in the press-everywhere but on Watchdog-mostly because it had flummoxed everyone. But it had bought him some time, and he intended to use it.

Beautyman was at Julia Lopez’s high school within 25 minutes of the call. She was just like the other six victims, except for bright red rashes between her wrist and shoulder. It was a minor side effect that was apparently not uncommon with large doses of Propofol. Had she been in a hospital it would have been easily treated, but it was now here to stay. Against the drained, bleached look the rest of her skin had, the inflamed capillaries of her arms looked grotesquely clownish.

Maybe it was the ugly rash that did it, or maybe it was just looking at the body of a young girl so eager to change the world that she would volunteer at soup kitchens, but Beautyman broke down. He left the scene crying, and was caught by a photographer from the L.A. Times wiping his eyes, the bright yellow police tape and name of the high school in the background. It ran on the front page the next morning and the accompanying article painted him as a soft-spoken but hard-nosed detective physically pained by the death.

He was unprepared for the sympathy he received from the press and public that week. Again, the public anger had mellowed enough that the Sheriff didn’t need to pull him to appease the masses, and Beautyman kept working.

 

And now, he thought, seven weeks after Julia Lopez, I’m no closer. Watchdog has something they’re going to try to nail me with tomorrow, and if it’s bad enough, someone else will be leading this investigation.

Was that so terrible? The case had taken more than 12 months of his life. Maybe it was time to let it go. If he truly had missed something major, something that could have saved Julia’s life, then maybe someone else should be in charge.

But that didn’t mean he was ready to stop working entirely. Being taken off the case was one thing. Blinding incompetence, however, would mean an early retirement. And making sure he wasn’t going to be caught with his pants down meant finding out what Watchdog was sitting on.

Beautyman checked his watch-6:20 already? Could that be right?-and called Chow’s cell phone as he began to pack up.

Chow detailed the many avenues he had followed up during the day to check into Watchdog and try to access their information. They were definitely stonewalling. “I’m sorry, Detective … they have something … I just don’t know what.”

“Thank you, Agent. We’ve done our homework, it can’t be anything too bad, right?”

Beautyman hung up and started moving quickly. He hated to do it from his office, but he didn’t have much choice. Using his cell phone as an Internet tether, Beautyman opened his personal laptop and composed a quickly worded email to Sandy Ewson. It was going to send him sky-high, he thought.

Hi Sandy,

Just wanted to send some suggested questions for tomorrow’s interview. I thought you’d find #4 to be especially informative to the public.

Thanks for cooperating with us on this!

Sincerely,

Arthur

He attached a Microsoft Word document with some questions, waited for it to load, and pressed send. Please don’t open this on your phone, Beautyman prayed. He shut down his machine and went to find Fleet.

He had too much to do to go to a baseball game, but he had resigned himself to sacrificing yet another night of sleep. The investigation was going to be taken well outside the realm of the law tonight. There was no way he would allow Watchdog to ambush him.

 

 


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by Erik Hanberg
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Arthur Beautyman, a computer hacker turned detective, is hunting a serial killer targeting modern day saints. Against him is an unscrupulous reality TV show and a member of his own department, who doesn’t know the hacker she’s tailing is in the office next door. It’s a deadly cat-and-mouse game set against the lights of Hollywood.

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A gritty short story introducing the gripping thriller series featuring rogue British Intelligence Agent Kenzie Marsh, from Amazon #1 bestselling author Roy Robson.MURDERKenzie Marsh has a safe and stable existence. But the shocking death of her son shatters her world. CHAOS Amid the chaos, Kenzie...
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Five years ago, he stole my memories and my magic. Now he’s back to kill me.No past meant no baggage. I had no idea where I’d come from, and no dreams for where I might go, but life was simple, uncomplicated. Then the old lady found me and told me about my past. And my magic.Sounds crazy,...
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Carnivorous garden gnomes or mutant sewer monsters. Nothing is too weird for intrepid paranormal reporter Aurora North. Especially as she usually finds the logical, and deeply unparanormal, explanation for it all.When her editor asks her to check out an alleged vampire attack, Aurora is absolutely...
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