The sun had barely cleared the horizon, and here I was, lurking in the street a block away from a suspect’s apartment building.
A tallish man in old-fashioned jeans and a leather duster left the building. I used my tablet to check his face against the suspect’s most recent Personal Net profile photo. Yes, that definitely was Daniel Murnov, suspected of murdering Heather Delaine. Her husband, the famous actor George Delaine, was raising all kinds of hell on the PN, demanding that the murderer be apprehended right now. The net community was eating it all up, of course. The chief had made this a top-priority case.
I fell into step behind Murnov, taking care to stay far enough back that he wouldn’t spot me. He walked steadily, obviously with a goal in mind. I looked down at my tablet to check the PN navigation system. He was heading toward the park where the victim had been found.
I fell back. If he spotted me now, there was no way I could convince him I’d headed in the same direction by coincidence. But he never once looked back.
We crossed the city limit, walked past a dumpsite, and entered the park.
I sighed. The things my job required me to do! Investigators almost never had to leave their computers these days. People lived their whole lives on the net, unknowingly leaving all kinds of evidence behind. Not in this case, though. Both the suspect and the victim had spent inordinate amounts of time off-line prior to the murder. My boss wanted to know what Murnov did during those off-times. And whom did she assign when it came to doing old-fashioned legwork? One Mike Rannon, of course. Well, at least the weather was fair.
The perp headed for a lake at the center of the park, where he sat on a bench close to the shoreline. He drew a package from his coat-pocket and threw a handful of its contents into the water. The air filled with a cacophony of squawks, and a flock of ducks swam up to him.
Murnov proceeded to empty his bag of feed—slowly. I studied my surroundings. In the distance, a lone jogger passed, heart rate monitor on her wrist. Good-looking woman, that. My eyes followed her with appreciation until she passed out of sight.
I called up the PN Who is Here function—yes, there the jogger was: Rachel Johnson, age twenty-two. Her PN photos looked quite as interesting as the real thing. She was in top shape, too—the pulse rate her wrist monitor posted on the PN in thirty-second intervals was at a steady 120 beats per minute.
I turned my attention back to the perp on the bench. He sat there for a long time, watching the ducks, or maybe just staring into space. Finally, he stuffed the empty feed bag into his pocket and got up from the bench. I stepped deeper into the shadow of the handy bush I had picked as my cover.
He passed by me, oblivious to my presence. I followed him back to his apartment building and waited, watching his PN account, until he logged on. He called up his employer’s site, where he would be tied up answering customer requests for the next eight hours.
What an uneventful morning of surveillance. I’d have to try again tomorrow.
My boss leaned against the frame of my office door, frowning at me. Delaine had given another soul-wrenching interview on the PN last night.
“I know you need results, and fast, Judith,” I said. “But I’m afraid I don’t have anything yet. I’ve followed the perp five times in the last eight days. Every morning when the weather’s fair, he goes to that spot in the park and feeds the ducks. On the three days it rained, he stayed in his apartment, but he logged off the PN for over two hours on all three occasions. I have no idea what he did during that time, though I’m sure he didn’t leave the building.”
“What a weird way to behave,” she said. “What the heck would he do for hours at a time without the PN?”
Good question. “Maybe he’s one of those backward people who still think privacy is something to be treasured?”
Judith looked unconvinced. “Privacy,” she scoffed. “We’re not in the dark ages any more, when people really believed in that absurd idea. No. Privacy is nothing but a smoke-screen for anti-social freaks to hide behind, and everybody knows it. Nobody logs off the PN unless he has something to hide.”
She was right, of course. When the Great Three—Zuckerberg, Dorsey, and Page—integrated their various social platforms into the all-encompassing Personal Network seventy years ago, net users had made a huge outcry about their personal information being visible to all and sundry. People had soon learned that the advantages of the PN far outweighed that petty concern, though.
“Do you want me to try to get a warrant and search Murnov’s apartment, then?” I asked. “Though I’m not sure we’ve got enough on him to convince a judge. And I doubt that a search will turn up much, anyway.”
“You’re probably right. Let’s try a different track, first. Why don’t you befriend him, and see if you can pick up any clues from things he might let fall in small-talk.”
I did not like the direction this was taking. “You want me to get to know the man and make him betray himself in some way?” I shook my head. “Just how do you propose I do that? He’ll hardly come out and tell me he’s a murderer.”
“Well, we have to nail that bastard, and fast—the newsies are hounding us. I’m sure you’ll think of something. You’re ingenious that way.” She gave me her best I-know-you-can-do-it smile.
“Oh, great,” I said. “I get to play undercover agent.”
But I nodded.
Early morning two days later had me walking toward the lake, a newly-purchased bag of duck-feed in my pocket. I’d taken care to be present when Judith had to sign off on that bill. The look on her face as she did so had almost been worth all this.
As I neared the lake, the perp already sat in his usual spot, ducks milling around his feet. One enterprising fellow perched on the bench beside him, delicately accepting treats from his open palm. The duck saw me and lumbered into the air, complaining noisily.
The suspect looked up, startled. Then his eyes went past me, took in Ms. Johnson, who jogged by behind me on her usual course. His eyes widened in appreciation. I had timed my approach well.
“Great scenery out here,” I said, looking back over my shoulder. The jogger was almost out of sight, alas.
He grinned at me. “You can say that again.”
“Do you mind if I sit? I’ve got some time to burn. Do you think she’ll come back this way?”
“I don’t think so, but come sit anyway. If you don’t mind the duck shit, that is.”
He called out to the ducks, and a few of the braver ones came back. Soon we were surrounded by quacking birds, demanding their feed.
“This is just like those old vids about farming, isn’t it?” I had done my homework. He had watched just such a vid a few days ago.
“Yes, like The Farm-Wife, when she goes out to feed the chickens in the morning. Have you seen that one?”
And we were off on a discussion of his favorite movies. From there, we moved to music, and found out that we loved many of the same songs. Or rather, he found out. I had already known, having watched his every move on the PN for the last week.
For an anti-social freak, the guy was surprisingly interesting to talk to.
Two weeks later, I sat on the bench next to Daniel for the fifth time. I still hadn’t gotten around to asking the questions Judith wanted answered, and she was getting impatient. If I didn’t bring results soon, she would arrest the poor guy on suspicion and try to press a confession the old-fashioned way.
The better I got to know this man, the louder the voice of intuition grew, telling me he could not be the perp who had brutally beaten and then strangled Mrs. Delaine.
“I’ve noticed you log off the PN even when the weather’s too bad to come here,” I said. I had friended him on the PN a few days ago, so now I had a legitimate reason to know about his online habits.
“Yes, I do,” he said, shoulders hunched defensively. “Sometimes, I just need time to myself.”
So he was one of those privacy freaks. “What do you do during those off-times?”
“You read? Down-loaded e-books?”
“Yes, sometimes. But mostly I read real books.”
I raised my brows. “You mean dead-tree books?”
“Yes, printed books. My grandfather had a rather extensive library that he bequeathed to me.”
“Wow.” That sounded impressive. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a printed book outside a museum, and you’ve got a whole library of them?”
“Yes, two walls in my living room are covered with bookshelves.”
I stared at him. “That must be quite a sight.”
He grinned. “It is, actually. Come have a beer with me some time, and see for yourself.”
“Sounds great,” I said, truthfully. Damn, I liked this man, privacy freak or not. Curse Judith and her clever schemes.
I looked up to see Judith and the chief stand in my office door. Judith looked flushed and uncharacteristically subdued. The chief looked like he always did—his brow drawn into a permanent frown, the corners of his mouth turned downward in a put-upon expression. His penetrating eyes bore into my forehead.
“Mike, we need to talk about your case,” Judith began, then bit her lip when the chief spoke right over her.
“Mister Rannon. Can you please explain to me why it’s taking you weeks to solve what should have been an open-and-close murder investigation?”
He paused, scowling at me. I opened my mouth to answer him, and he chose that moment to charge onward, raising his voice to drown me out. “You’re making the department look like a bunch of bumbling idiots, Rannon. Stop fooling around and arrest that murderous bastard, or I’ll take you off the case faster than you can say perp. I guarantee you won’t like the results if I’m forced to do that.”
“But what if he’s not . . .” I began, but the chief had already turned on his heels and left. Judith gave a helpless shrug and followed him.
I sat and stared at my computer screen. When the blood roaring in my ears finally quieted down, I finished the report I’d been working on.
“So did you hear about the murder that happened in the park a few weeks ago?” I asked Daniel.
We were on our second beers, having finished the first while browsing through his impressive collection of paper books.
Daniel gave me a piercing stare. “You’re a cop, aren’t you,” he said.
Way to go, Mike. Subtlety had never been my strong point.
“What makes you think that?” I asked, playing for time.
“Well, your PN account doesn’t state your profession, which is unusual, to say the least. And you showed up just a few days after Heather’s death when usually, that jogger and I have the park to ourselves.” His eyes narrowed. “I had hoped I was wrong, that you were a friend, but I guess that was naive of me, wasn’t it? Asking me about the murder might have been natural two weeks ago, when the PN hype was still fresh, but why bring it up now, if you aren’t a cop?”
Right. Nothing for it but to plunge ahead. My heart felt unaccountably heavy.
“So you did know the murdered woman?”
He nodded. “I first met her in the park a few weeks before . . .” He swallowed. “She’d been crying, but she wouldn’t tell me why. We fed the ducks together, and I walked her home. She met me for my walk whenever she could make the time, from then on.”
I didn’t like it, but I had to ask. “Did you have an affair with her?”
“No! Of course not.” He hesitated. “I think I might have come to love her, given time. If only she hadn’t been married . . . But she was married, and we didn’t have time.” He wiped at his eyes. I wanted to look away, give him room to grieve, but I didn’t.
“What happened that morning? The morning she died?”
“I don’t know.” His voice was rough. “She never showed. She didn’t always join me, so I thought nothing of it. Until your colleagues showed up and accused me of murdering her, I had no idea what had happened. I didn’t kill her!”
“I believe you,” I said.
This man was not a murderer, I was sure of it. He was just a guy who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, giving a woman in need a shoulder to cry on. And here I was, pretending friendship in order to trap him.
Except that, by now, I genuinely liked the guy. Not that he could appreciate that fact at the moment. The temperature in the room seemed to have fallen by several degrees.
“I guess I’d better be going,” I said after a lengthy silence. “Sorry to mislead you the way I did.”
What an inadequate apology, but I couldn’t think of anything better to say. He looked down at his glass and shrugged.
“I’ll see myself out, then.”
He nodded, not looking up.
The walk home was long and bleak.
“Judith, I can’t just arrest him. He’s innocent.”
Judith scowled. A muscle jumped under her left eye, had ever since I’d walked into her office a few minutes ago.
“Can you prove that?” She lifted a hand. “And don’t tell me you’ve got a gut feeling. I know your instincts are usually good, but in this case you’re plain wrong. You’re letting your friendship with the perp blind you.”
I took a deep breath. And another. “No, I can’t prove that he’s innocent. But neither is there enough evidence to justify an arrest. What happened to innocent until proven guilty?”
“Delaine and the chief happened,” she muttered, staring at her desk’s empty surface.
I didn’t think I’d been supposed to hear that.
When she lifted her head, her expression was implacable. “You need to wrap this case up, Mike. Today. If you don’t, I’ll have to take you off the case before the chief does.”
I stared at her, not wanting to believe my ears. “Judith . . .”
She waved her hand in a chopping motion. “Tell me you’ll arrest Murnov, and I’ll do my best to convince the chief to give you another chance. He’s pretty worked up about this case, and he’s already hinted he’ll have you transferred to Crime Prevention if you don’t wrap it up quickly.”
Crime Prevention. What a euphemistic term for an infernally mind-numbing job.
My face must have shown some of the horror I felt, and Judith added, “I’m sorry, Mike, but if he decides to transfer you, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
The jumping muscle had picked up speed, and I felt my own eye twitch to match hers. Her expression was almost pleading as she stared at me.
I’d had to do a stint in CP a few years ago, when a case went south and I had to disappear from the public eye for a few weeks. I’d hated every minute I’d had to sit in that dark, too-chill room, sorting through gigabytes of trivial details the data mining tools had collected. The interesting data points, those that might indicate terrorist activities or drug dealings, were flagged automatically and re-routed to someone higher-up. The chance that one of the poor moles down in Crime Prevention would ever stumble upon something important was virtually nonexistent. I did not want to end up down there again.
But could I arrest an innocent man just because the Chief had hinted he might transfer me? He’d need more than just my refusal to rush the case to do that to me.
I met Judith’s gaze. “I can’t arrest Murnov on the scanty evidence we have.”
Her expression turned to stone. “As you wish. I’m taking the case over myself. You take care of the backlog that’s been accumulating in your inbox. Do not contact Murnov, or interfere in the Delaine case in any way.” She scowled in my general direction, not meeting my eyes. “Do you hear me?”
“I hear you,” I muttered, and stomped out of her office.
Back at my own desk, I stared at my inspector’s diploma on the wall. I loved my job, loved protecting my city from the nastier elements of the criminal population. If I had to spend the rest of my working life staring at useless bits of data, I’d dry up and die inside.
Was I deluding myself about Daniel’s innocence? I liked the guy, but who was to say that a killer wouldn’t be likeable? Maybe I should just forget about the case. If I didn’t provoke the Chief any further, he would let me keep the job I loved.
But what if Murnov was innocent? In several weeks of surveillance, I hadn’t caught him in a single lie. Didn’t I owe it to him to at least try to prove his innocence?
My head hurt.
I stared at the diploma for a long time, heart racing. Then I swallowed, hard—and called up Mrs. Delaine’s PN history on my computer.
Over the rest of that day and most of the next, I dutifully answered my backlog of PN messages. But the better part of my time I spent learning more than I ever wanted to know about one Heather Delaine, age forty-four, married, two grown children.
She had liked her coffee black, loved cupcakes, and hated black beans. She got up at seven each morning without fail. She made new PN friends easily, keeping up a steady contact for a few weeks or sometimes months, only to drop them from one day to the next and never exchange another message with them.
Interesting. I went back further into her past. There was one peculiar day, a few months after her wedding, when she unfriended almost all her school mates, including several women she had known since preschool.
This was as far as I’d get without calling attention to myself. If I wanted to find out more, I’d have to activate my PN police account, which would log all account activities for the records. Random probes were made regularly, to make sure nobody abused the account, or used it to create false evidence. I might get away with using it for a case I wasn’t authorized for any more—but then again, I might not.
I called up the podcasts, trying to distract myself. The first headline that jumped at me was, Delaine Case Solved—Brutal Killer Apprehended. Daniel had been arrested.
I caught myself staring at my inspector’s diploma again, and deliberately averted my eyes. After a long moment, I activated my PN police access and called up Mrs. Delaine’s PN history again.
Three hours later, I closed down my police access and got up from my chair to pace my tiny office. Once, twice, three times around, then I paused in front of my diploma.
Daniel was almost certainly innocent.
If I stopped now, without telling anybody what I’d learned, I could probably worm my way back into the chief’s good graces, even if he did find out that I hadn’t followed orders. I’d keep a low profile for a while, and my job in homicide would be safe.
I squeezed the base of my nose until it hurt.
Daniel was almost certainly innocent.
If I cowardly kept my mouth shut, he might end up on death row.
I sat down and called Judith on an exclusive PN chat.
“Mike? What do you want?”
She sounded distracted. I had to talk fast if I wanted her to hear me out.
“Did you know that Mr. Delaine was almost insanely possessive?” I said. “He monitored his wife’s every action on the PN, even wrote a bot to alert him if her chat sessions went on longer than a few minutes. If such a thing was possible between married people, I’d call it stalking. Plus, every time his bot alert went off, the victim dropped the friend in question a few days later.”
“Mike, I told you to keep away from the Delaine case.” Her face had a pinched look, but her voice sounded more resigned than angry. “You should have listened to me.”
Her eyes flicked to the side, and a second person stepped into the range of her webcam.
“Rannon,” the chief thundered. “You were told to mind your own business. And didn’t I just know you’d disobey that order? I should’ve followed my instinct and transferred you right away.” He stopped and glared silently for a moment. His face was red, with ragged white spots standing out. “But I can remedy that, can’t I?” he continued. “You’re reassigned, effective immediately. You’ve got one hour to pack up your stuff and move down to Crime Prevention. If you’re still here in an hour, you’ll be escorted out by force.” He glared at me. His voice sank to a whisper that made me cringe. “If I catch you interfering with the Delaine case one more time, I’ll have you charged with obstruction of justice and put behind bars.”
He cut the PN chat, and I sank bonelessly back in my chair.
He’d actually transferred me to Crime Prevention. For all my earlier worrying, I hadn’t really believed he would. And threatening to charge me with obstruction of justice? What burr did the chief have under his saddle?
I must have sat there, unmoving, for several minutes, until my computer pinged at me. A PN chat request from Judith. For a moment, I debated refusing it—but I’d have to talk to her eventually. I might as well get it over with.
She looked worried, concerned—and almost as shocked as I felt. “I’m sorry, Mike. He just told me he’s running for office this term. The Delaine case seems to be his publicity project. If I’d known that earlier, I’d have warned you.”
Would I have acted differently if I’d known? Did I even want to know the answer to that question? I shrugged, mute.
“I can pack up your stuff for you,” she offered. “You see that you get out from under his eyes as fast as you can. If you lie low for a while, he’ll calm down, I’m sure of it.” She offered a hesitant smile. “I’ll do my best to talk him into letting you come back. But you must avoid enraging him further, or I won’t be able to do anything for you.”
She cut the thread with an apologetic shrug. I stared at the screen for a moment longer—then I grabbed a few things and walked down into the CP lab with heavy steps.
Once settled in a dark and chilly cubicle in the lab, I found myself pacing again—two steps in one direction, two steps back. I’d gotten myself transferred—and to what end? Daniel was still behind bars, and my job was gone—for nothing.
Maybe Judith really could talk the chief into taking me back once things settled. Somehow, though, I didn’t believe that.
I rubbed my aching stomach and stared at the screen of the cubicle’s computer. Had they blocked my access privileges yet? Slowly, distant and uncaring as if in a trance, I sat and activated the computer. My homicide department account still worked, and so did my PN police access.
Judith had promised to try and get me my old job back.
The chance that she’d succeed weren’t good, but they weren’t nonexistent, either.
Daniel would in all likelihood be convicted of murder. I knew he was innocent.
But I simply couldn’t spend the rest of my life sorting through mountains of data trash. The thought was unbearable. I started to turn away from the screen.
Daniel was innocent. I was sure of it.
Swallowing hard, I turned back and activated my PN police account. They’d probably block it soon, so I didn’t have much time. I called up the PN chats that constituted Mr. Delaine’s alibi.
This time, I was more cautious when I called Judith. “Are you alone?”
She gave me a hard stare, then stood and moved out of the webcam’s range. I heard the sound of her office door closing.
“Yes, I’m alone,” she said when she came back into view. “What’s up?”
I swallowed, cleared my throat. “I’ve found a glitch in Delaine’s alibi.”
Her face froze. For a moment, I was afraid she’d cut the connection without hearing me out. But she was a better cop than that.
When she finally spoke, her voice was resigned. “Tell me.”
“There’s an inconsistency in the PN trace of one of the people Delaine claimed to have chatted with during the timeframe of the murder, one Mr. Serlin,” I said. “The guy’s PN history shows an exclusive chat he had with a psych counselor an hour before his talk with Delaine. Turns out the counselor had another exclusive chat that overlapped his session with Serlin by several minutes.”
Judith frowned, but said nothing. Taking that as encouragement, I continued.
“It looks like Delaine—or maybe some hacker he hired—tampered with the PN time stamps of those video chats he claimed as his alibi.”
“Mike, we have several testimonies from his video chat partners, stating that those chats really did happen in that time window.”
“I read their statements again,” I said. “None of them could swear to the exact time their chats took place. They all just assumed that since the PN said it had been on Tuesday at nine o’clock that must have been the truth.”
“So you think Delaine had those video chats at some other time, and later tampered with their timestamps on the PN to make it seem he was at home at the time the murder took place?”
“Yes. And he doctored his chat partners’ traces, as well. He covered his tracks almost perfectly, but for the fact that Serlin had that counseling session at the time of the murder. That session was so long, it couldn’t be moved to some other time without creating an overlap with the counselor’s other patients.”
She stared at me, her eyes unseeing. I rubbed my aching neck.
After a long wait, she sighed. “When we checked out his alibi, we analyzed Delaine’s PN trace and those of his chat partners, but not the next level down.”
“But what do you expect me to do about this?” she continued, her scowl returning in full force. “The chief has the bit between his teeth. He’s got his perp behind bars, the press is celebrating him, and Mr. Delaine has publicly announced that he’ll support his run for office.” She met my gaze, eyes bleak. “Nothing I can say will stop him now, not when he’s got everything arranged just as he wants it.”
I rubbed my neck again and unclenched my jaw with an effort. “Tell him that if he doesn’t agree to take the new evidence into account, I’ll take my information to the podcasts.”
“Mike! If I tell him that, he’ll never let you have your old job back. You can’t enrage him any further than you already have.”
And I did know, only too well. If I let myself dwell on it any longer, I’d tell her to forget everything I told her. So I squared my shoulders and met her eyes.
“You’ll find the evidence I’ve assembled in your PN account, both the raw data and my analysis, plus a recording I’ve made that explains what really happened in a way the woman in the street will understand.” I took an unsteady breath. “I’ll wait for two days to give you a chance to examine my evidence. But if I don’t see the department taking action by the day after tomorrow I will take this evidence to the podcasts.”
She grimaced and cut the connection without another word.
The next day went by in a slow agony of waiting. The podcasts celebrated Delaine for his noble strength in bearing up under his wife’s death, celebrated the chief for apprehending the Brutal Delaine Killer and putting him behind bars.
Had I made the right decision? Would people even believe me now, if I went public with my evidence? I had second, third, and even fourth thoughts, but it was too late. There was no going back—the Chief would never let me have my old job back, whatever I did now.
So I waited, and watched the podcasts, and waited some more.
When the PN chime announced a private message, I jumped and spilled half a cup of coffee on my lap. Luckily, the coffee had grown tepid. I made a cursory attempt at wiping my trousers off and dried may hands before accepting the call. It was Judith, looking grave.
“The departments’ experts have examined your evidence,” she said without preamble. “They agree with your analysis and your conclusions. I can’t tell you more right now, but watch the podcasts tonight.” She nodded at me and signed off.
I stared at the screen for a moment longer, then switched back to the ‘casts—which showed a sudden dearth of coverage of the Delaine case. Obviously, something had happened—but what?
When the news finally came, it came with a bang. Multiple podcasts switched to a special program simultaneously—a program featuring one Judith Hudley, Chief of Criminal Investigation as announced by the subtitle. It showed Judith in her police uniform, walking up to a stage. I stared. Judith in uniform? That happened about once every decade. And—Chief of Criminal Investigations?
Judith reached the stage and faced the cams. “I am Judith Hudley, provisional Chief of Criminal Investigation. As of this afternoon, I have taken over from former Chief Samson, who has been suspended for abusing his power in order to suppress vital evidence in the Delaine murder case. Mr. Samson is currently under arrest and awaits trial. The case has been re-opened on the basis of this new evidence, and the suspect Daniel Murnov was cleared of suspicion. He was released an hour ago.”
She went on to detail my findings, and stated that George Delaine had been arrested at the airport, trying to board a plane to Russia. Then the cast I’d made of my own findings was played.
I watched until the recording ended, then found another stream that was just starting the program and watched it again.
Two days later, I went for a morning walk in the park.
Daniel was in his usual spot, surrounded by ducks. He turned around when he heard my footsteps. His face was guarded, but he returned my greeting cordially enough.
“I’m sorry you were arrested,” I told him. “I did my best to prevent it, but . . .”
He waved an impatient hand. “I know. I watched the ‘casts. There’s no need to apologize. On the contrary, I hear you risked your job to get me out of jail. So . . . thank you!”
I shrugged, not knowing what to say to that.
Daniel studied me. “So what about you? Are you going to stay with the police after all this?”
I grimaced, recalling the conversation I’d had with Judith last night. “Yes, actually. Though my days as a street investigator are over.”
He raised his eyebrows at me.
I shrugged. “Judith has been confirmed as the chief. And she’s made me her successor as captain of Police Precinct 12.”
How had she managed to talk me into that? I should have declined the honor. But—done was done.
“Hmm.” Daniel studied me for a while longer. Then he shrugged, nodded. “Come sit, don’t make me crane my neck.”
I smiled. “Move over, then. You’re taking up the whole bench.”
He grinned and made room for me.