Cort looked up from his kneeling position near the police barrier. He swept his gaze upward past the 113 floors to the glass domed ceiling and beyond to the stars. His thoughts were tumbling and jostling trying to line up the facts of this bizarre case. He paused for a moment and just looked at the stars. They weren’t bothered by daily life and the hazard that life brings. They appeared untouched by Mans’ corruption. Most things do.
He slowly focused on the dome and then lowered his gaze to the floor where the dead man lay. How much investigating has been done here, he thought? Do we have proof the man is dead? Looking toward a group of policemen he called “Sergeant Price. Price, are you here?”
Price stepped away from the small group and headed for Cort. “I’m Price” he answered.
“Has a medical examiner been here yet? Have we legally pronounced the man as dead?”
“Look around you, sir” Price said sarcastically. “Do you see anyone who hasn’t thrown up? Take a good deep breath. ‘What is that distinct odor?’ you ask? It’s Death, sir, and that man on the floor over there owns it. It’s all his and he’s all dead!”
Cort noticed that he had been holding his breath during Prices’ tirade and slowly let it out. He was preparing to launch into a critique of Prices professionalism, conduct, education, attitude, lack of character, and perhaps even his questionable heritage, when his previous thoughts about the stars flashed through his mind. Cooling his own anger, he calmly asked, “Has the coroner been called?”
The soft response took the fire out of Price. He sighed and said, “Yeah. We knew he was dead when we saw him, but neither of us was able to prove it. Have you been to his home yet?” When Cort shook his head, Price said, “We really had enough to call the coroner when we saw that,” he pointed toward the motionless body 113 floors below the blood-bath the man used to call home. “And…well, sir, you’ll have to see it for yourself.”
“Yeah. I think so, too, just from what I’ve seen down here. I’m just trying to get the answers for the question my boss is going to ask me.” Cort replied. “I’ve checked the body. Have the coroner follow the same path I took. I want to damage as little evidence as possible. Oh, by the way, do you have an ID on him?”
Price didn’t have to refer to notes to give the answer to Cort, another bad sign. “You won’t like this one. The condo upstairs, 113th floor, #4E, is owned by Tom ‘Strings’ Schaller.”
Cort’s face fell and his blood pressure rose. Schaller was the most connected individual in the Western Hemisphere. He was said to have arranged presidential winners in Central America, cut trade deals in North America/Asian markets, and guided candidates to winning senatorial seats. There were also some rumors concerning some deep lying connections with a worldwide power. A hidden but controlling partner in world affairs. Cort was not going to get any rest until this case was solved. ‘Lord, let it be a suicide’, he prayed silently. No fuss, just routine fact checking and form filing.
If it was a murder, Tom could count on constant harassment from his boss. This night’s events would be felt worldwide even if they weren’t plastered in the media (small chance). Schallers’ death left a big void in the power broker field, and the struggle to fill it could be violent.
Cort gave directions to Price on crime scene security and specifically to keep the press away. If Cort could keep this grotesque scene from the world, he would certainly spare them an offense. But then, he mused, the world seems to thrive on this sort of thing.
He turned as a scuffle began at the massive entry doors of the Tower. The police stationed at the entrance were holding a man who was trying to free himself and work open an image capture unit at the same time.
Cort and Price crossed the polished floor in long, sure strides. Cort got the man’s attention by standing directly in front of him. He spoke quietly as he asked the man “What is your name?”
The man appeared not to hear since he kept struggling with the two policemen who had, by this time, pinned his arms painfully behind his back. Striving to see around Cort, the man pulled against his restrained arms and winced with pain.
Cort moved closer. When he was literally nose-to-nose with the man, he asked quietly, “What is your name?”
The man quit struggling against the two officers and looked at Cort. There was very little else to see at this point. He paused, seemed to come to some conclusion and answered, “I’m, uh, the police imager”.
Cort took a small step back. Yeah, sure, Cort thought. And I’m the bluebird of happiness. “What’s your badge number?” he asked.
The man looked at the officers on either side of him and asked, “Would you mind if they let go? After all, I’m not the criminal here. What was it, techno-drug OD? Ax murder? Suicide? Satanic ritual killing? Touch screamer? Where’s the body?”
“Your badge number?” Cort reminded him.
“Oh, yeah, uh, look…I left it at home. I’m the one on call tonight and like, I just forgot it. You know how it is. It’s on my dresser at home. Look, I’m your imager, let’s get on with it!”
Cort asked another question while the two policemen continued to firmly pin the mans arms. “Did you know that impersonating a police officer can get you serious jail time? Crossing the police crime scene barrier will do it too!” Cort continued, his voice quiet but forceful. “I am the type of individual who enjoys being thorough. So, I will consider you to be a part of this investigation. That is, I now consider you worthy of investigation in light of my current project. You see, you are not a police imager. Even a police officer asleep on his feet knows his badge number. So perhaps you are a criminal here.”
The man shrunk back and was shaking his head. “Hey, man, what ever is going on here is newsworthy and all I want is a picture. I’m not involved here at all! I just heard the news on the scanner.”
“You are indeed involved, mister. You have illegally entered a scene that is under investigation. My naturally suspicious mind has asked hundreds of questions. One of them is ‘Is this guy involved?’ Another one is ‘What would push some one to commit two offenses to get in to this particular investigation?’ So, in order to get the answers to those questions and the many others that I did not ask, you will be taken downtown and given the opportunity to clear up your role in tonight’s activities.
Cort nodded to the officers who abruptly ‘about faced’ the man and made certain that he was secure in a squad car and on his way to the station.
Even before the car had pulled away, Cort had made arrangements for a long session for the man with some investigators who would certainly find out more than the man’s name without revealing a single detail about the death at the Tower.
Several minutes later, another man with a camera came into the courtyard. “Sorry I took so long, Tom” the police crime scene imager said. Tom looked at his friend of eight years and noticed the dark circles under his bloodshot eyes. He took him by the arm and led him behind a bank of plastic vegetation.
“Jack, have you been at it again? You’ve got to quit. You know your body can’t handle what you’re putting it through. You’ve got to admit to yourself that it controls you and then get some help. It’ll kill you if you don’t quit. I’d hate to lose a friend like you.”
“Tom”, Jack pleaded, “it’s not that at all. You’ve got it wrong this time. I gave up that garbage for good! I couldn’t stand up against the forces of a loving wife combined with the concern of a good friend.”
Tom looked into Jack’s eyes and saw the same half-mast droop to the eyelid and the red lines radiating out from the cornea. The physical signs were there, Tom thought, but something is different. It came to him then, the desperation is gone.
“If I’ve got it wrong, then set me straight, Jack.”
“It’s my son, Carl. He’s going through the same tough times that I just got out of. You see, I’m staying up with him during the day and working at night. The lack of sleep is giving me this hung-over look.” Jack paused and looked directly at his friend. “But I earned this look honestly. I haven’t done ‘Touch’. My son is digging out of his trouble, but he can’t do it alone. He knows that now. Tonight has not been a good one, but we talked after I got the call to come in and he said he would be able to control himself while I was gone. My wife is there too.”
Tom nodded to Jack, emotion choking his ability to speak, and put his arm around the shoulder of is friend as they walked toward the dead body of Thomas J. Schaller. Tom couldn’t keep the smile from his face as his heart yelled ‘Jack’s off Touch!’ in thanksgiving for answered prayer.
Jack took five shots of the courtyard to establish proximity and then approached the body using the same path Tom took earlier. He took some close-ups of the blood splatter pattern at different distances from the corpse.
When he got to the body, he took several shots of the back of the head and neck, back and legs. He received permission to walk around to the other side of the body and did so after imaging the area he would be disturbing.
Jack concentrated his efforts to keep his mind on the mechanics of his job and away from the subject. He usually didn’t ‘see’ the subject of his work until he uploaded the shots to his computer. He learned early in his career that it didn’t pay to see the death on the other side of the lens until he had completed his task. Looking at victims and the horrible treatment they had received at the hands of fellow ‘humans’ had helped push him to the escape that Touch had offered.
By the time Tom Cort made his way to the 113th floor, he had been at the scene for nearly two hours. He had been busy interviewing different tenants and friends of the deceased. The friends were few, and they knew little about the man, but any information he could get now had to help. As he walked, he felt the slight weight of the cards as they bumped him from the security of an inside pocket of his jacket.
The neighbors just to the east of the deceased’s condo, Cort referred to his notes, the Isaacsons, Jacob and Sara, invited him in to talk. They had little information on the man even though they had lived beside him for four years. They had teleconned a couple of visits but had never really met and talked face to face outside of the couple of chance meetings in the hallway.
Tom pleaded ignorance of the Towers’ communication package and Jacob explained the teleconferencing capabilities of the computers and video link. “Eef yu vant to vizit vid anodder perzon een zis bildink” he said in almost incomprehensible English, “yu zimply call dem from dis compooter und engage zis veedeeo progrom. Eez zimple, yes?”
Tom saw after a short demonstration that, yes, it was ‘zimple’. “How do you know that the camera is working?” Tom asked.
Sarah fielded this one. “Ees alzo zimple. Ze camera, eet haz a red dot zat gloz ven eet is vorkink.”
What if someone bypassed the circuit that controlled the ‘red dot’, Tom asked himself. Couldn’t someone watch what was going on without being noticed? ‘Tom, you are too suspicious’ he thought to himself. ‘Just let it go and concentrate on the investigation’.
Tom felt sufficiently enlightened in computer tech to move the interview in a different direction. “Did you notice anything different about him lately?”
“No, nauting deefrent. But, az I zaid, ve don’ zee eem mauch.” Jacob glanced at the computer as he finished talking. “Hm..Dat eez onusuul! Zarah! Ven deed zis vile get heer?”
Sarah looked at the screen, and after glancing at the various icons saw what Jacob was referring to. “I don’ know. Eet eez een a vormat zat eez much deeferent zan ours.”
Tom looked over their shoulders to see the file. The format was different than any he had seen. He watched as Jacob pulled the file and translated it. For several seconds nothing happened. The three just stared at the screen. When it finally loaded, they continued to stare as weird symbols and signs flashed across the screen at different angles and speeds. Several at once and then singly.
“What is it?” Tom asked.
“Eet eez not right. Eet eez corrupt or zomting. I veel remove eet.”
“Wait. Could you download to a D3 medium and let me take it back to the lab? Our staff may know something about this. They are always looking for new viruses to vaccinate.” Tom waited as Jacob slid a card into the machine and loaded the file onto it. As the seconds passed, Tom recalled the symbols that had flashed on the screen. They reminded him of something he had just recently seen. What was it? What was it? Yes! Now he had it. A report had just come to the department about an increase in killings and the common points that each held. The symbols on the screen looked a lot like the ones on that report.
Jacob watched the counter approach zero. “Almoz done…almoz done.” He muttered to himself.
Deep within the earth, surrounded by computers, a technician nervously made a report to his superior. ‘I’ve lost a file.’ He stammered. ‘It was queued and supported by query. The transfer must have jangled. All indicators say it went, but nothing at the target indicates it was received.’
The superior drew a deep breath and held it. A minute passed before he answered. ‘Find the file. Find it before anyone else does. Retrieve the file and remove all telltales. Re-Que and send.’ The superior looked at the tech and add, ‘This time, send it to the correct target. I needn’t tell you what happens to you if that file is intercepted, need I?’
‘No, sir.’ The technician lost no time in scurrying back to his terminal. He immediately began running the several tracking and logging programs he had available on his unit and started the search for the file.
‘I sent it to the right place’ he muttered under his breath, ‘well, almost the right place. It just went next door to the original target address. What does he know about anything. And besides, the code key was not sent. The file is useless without it. Management is such a waste of money.’
The young technician took care of the mis-sent file and re-qued and entered the code that would release information from the AI in the Hub. He looked at the picture of the design of the computer located deep beneath Death Valley and dreamed of one day hacking it. He couldn’t wait for his shift to end so he could go to his club and ‘phrack’. His club was a Touch funded hacker’s paradise. He teamed up with a couple of his friends several nights a week and did some precision hacking. The term ‘phrack’ was a combination of ‘Phrenzy’, a recent addition to the hacking genre’s vocabulary, and the old school term ‘Hacking’. Phrenzy indicates a teamwork effort intent on breaking down security barriers and setting elaborate disguises and mis-directions to confuse the targets’ security forces. Hacking had come to mean working on the inside of a supposedly ‘secure’ environment and doing as little as looking at and as much as destroying the environment and it’s backups.
Phrackers were incredibly talented ‘hit and run’ artists who chose a target and teamed up to break into it, send the security duds off on false information and then look around or steal anything they wanted.
It was an intense rush. Somewhat similar, if not as addicting, as some of the Touch derivatives.
‘What does that moron know?’ the tech thought as he looked at the closing door of his supervisor’s office. ‘I never make critical mistakes!’
Sarah was standing behind Jacob looking at the count down when she pointed at the screen. “Look. Look. Eet eez eating ze screen!” she shouted.
Jacob saw what was happening and quickly snatched the disk out of the computer.
Tom looked at the image on the screen. It appeared to be an earthworm with teeth, and it was eating the strange file on the Isaacsons’ computer. “Let me get that to the lab right away,” he said as he took the card from Jacob. “It may not be the complete file, but it should be enough to get started. And, by the way, you should have this machine debugged. By a professional.”
Tom let Jacob walk him to the door. “That was weird” Tom said. “Make sure it gets cleaned out before you palm into your computer.”
“Yah. Yah. Zis I veel do. Eet vas not a good thing that came in to our houze today.”
Tom left the Isaacsons and turned down the hall toward the dead mans’ home. He reached in his coat pocket and pulled out his comcard. The device, the size of the old credit cards, was used by all of the public service departments and operated by badge number. Tom pushed the combination for Jack and then pushed the ‘locate me’ button and replaced the unit. The officers standing on either side of the door were somber. The usual banter and joking wasn’t present at this crime scene.
“Sir,” said the one on the right, “are you ready to go in there? It is the worst I’ve ever seen.”
“Almost, sergeant. I’m going to wait till the imager is here. I paged him just a minute ago, so he should be here shortly.” Tom thought about the sergeants’ statement. Tom asked him, “What do you mean it’s the worst you’ve ever seen?”
“The abuse that much carnage requires is phenomenal, and I heard from someone that the guy didn’t die till after he fell. He was alive for it all. Some maniac is walking around free right now with enough hatred in him to kill the entire complex.” The man looked across the door at his partner then continued. “I’ve seen violent crime, or what was classified as violent crime, but the sheer magnitude of this crime scene is as bad as all the rapes, assaults and murders I’ve seen combined.”
The mans’ white face and barely controlled voice reminded Tom that the department Shrink may be needed. He added that thought to the notes in his book.
Tom turned and looked over the railing to the floor below. The death below contrasted sharply with the peace and clarity of the stars he saw as he raised his eyes to the skies. The stars looked closed enough to touch. Their steadfastness was always a comfort to Tom.
A bell sounded around a corner down the hall followed by the smooth slide of doors. Tom correctly surmised the elevator had arrived and turned just as Jack rounded the corner. Though he was a veteran, Jack looked worn out. His face was drawn.
“Hey, Tom,” he said, “this is some crazy stuff. Kinda makes you wonder, doesn’t it?” Jack paused as he looked upward through the clear dome. “Maybe this is the wrong time and all, but I wanted to know if your invitation to church is still good. I’d like to have the peace you have, and, well, you might as well go to the source.”
Tom turned to Jack and said, “You are always welcome to come to church, but you don’t need to go to a specific building to have peace.”
“What do you mean? Isn’t there a ceremony or something?” Jack asked.
“Look up there, Jack. See those stars? God made them. He made the earth, the planets, everything. And yet He pays attention to us and is ready and willing to give us peace. That God does not reside in just a church building. He can be accessed at any time, from any place. You can talk to Him right now, right here.”
Jack looked back to the stars and said “I don’t understand it, but it must be real. And I sure need something.”
Jack looked back to Tom. “Is it really that simple?”
“Yes. It is simple. But it is not always easy. The devil will not be pleased that you are a child of God. He will be on your case with a vengeance. If you thought that Touch was calling you before, you are going to find that it is screaming for you now. You need to learn about God by reading His Word, the Bible, and talking with Him. That will prepare you to battle the urge to sin. Other believers can help as well. That is one reason to go to church.”
“Well, Jack, let’s get this part over with. Later on, we’ll talk more about what just happened.” Tom paused and looked his friend in the eye. “This is going to be bad. Are you ready?”
“I think I’m all set. But, you know I feel different. Like there is more to me now than before. It feels good! Weird, different at least, but good.”
O.K., then, let’s go.” They turned toward the door and motioned for the officers to open it. Jack began capturing shots almost immediately. He had taken about twenty when he slowly lowered the camera and just stared. Tom was a couple of steps farther into the entry room of Schallers’ condo and had also stopped. His eyes took in the horror of the room. His mind could not comprehend what he was seeing. Tom looked at Jack, and seeing a terror come over his friend, moved to him and said a prayer of peace and strength for them both.