Pay the Piper – Chapter Eight

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California State Police found the body in a car wrecked by the road on the northern end of the state. It was a testament to how quickly the FBI wanted me there that they sent a helicopter to pick me up at a local TV station landing pad and flew me out directly. It was a testament to how important I thought the case was that I went. I hate flying and my standard contract actually includes a clause that says I’ll only fly to get to the location of my job and back, not as part of my actual responsibilities. But the contract also states I will fly in emergencies – and this was close enough to count.

Psychometric residuals do fade over time, and they fade at an exponential rate. The strongest details vanish in minutes, about half of the initial information is gone in three hours. Later I found out that I got out of the helicopter exactly two hours and forty three minutes after the man’s death. Assuming the time his watch stopped was the same time he died.

Now I know what you’re thinking, because it was the same thing I was thinking as they hustled me from the chopper to the accident site.

“How do they know this guy is one of ours?”

“It wasn’t the driver, it was the car,” the FBI man on site told us as he escorted us past the police line. “Same make and model as the one used in the attack, and running the plates tells us it was stolen from the same part of L.A. two days before that one.”

“That was enough to send a helicopter for us?” Natalie asked, smoothing down her windswept hair and clothes.

“We sent for you just in case but we were ready to cancel the request if a couple of things didn’t play out.” The man’s name tag said he was Agent O’Malley. “One of the first things we looked for once we knew about the connection was a self-driving system.”

Unusually smart thinking from a government agent. “I take it you found one?”

He nodded in answer to my question and showed us, through the open passenger door, the place where they’d pulled off the dashboard and found the added hardware. “It doesn’t seem to have been in use when the car crashed – given that it crashed – but we wanted you to look it over anyway.”

I carefully pulled off one glove and gave Natalie a look. She murmured a few quick questions to the agent then nodded an affirmative. With the okay thus given I reached out and touched the side of the door, braced for whatever I might find.

I got nothing.

“Well, it’s entirely possible this car was running in self-driving mode before it crashed. It’s been EMPed.” I shook my head and pulled back from the car. “Awful messy way of disposing of it.”

“It’s possible they were hoping to get rid of the passenger instead of the car,” Natalie pointed out. “Who was he?”

“We’re not sure,” O’Malley said. “ID’s are pretty weak fakes. We’re getting prints into the system but given the weird way these guys have gone about things I’m not betting they’re in there. Want a look at the body?”

No. “Yeah, sure.”

Natalie gave me a skeptical look but didn’t say anything. O’Malley led us around to the other side of the vehicle where the medics had a body laid out under a tarp. An unsettling feeling crept up my back as I looked at it, an old and familiar sensation that persued me from one case to the next. The presence of death.

When people die it leaves a terrible hole. You don’t have to be a psychometric to sense it – people who have sat with the dying in hospitals sense it all the time. The force that animates our bodies and gives them direction just vanishes and no one can say for sure where it goes. Just because I know more about this world than others doesn’t mean I can answer those deep, frightening kinds of questions. Being around death is like standing on the edge of a bottomless pit but for the normal person there’s a high wall, preventing them from seeing over the edge. For psychometrics the wall is gone – we can’t see the bottom any better than anyone else but we do run the risk of vertigo. If it gets ahold of us we wind up like the guy at Newell High.

I’d like to tell you how I stay away from it. But if I could maybe I’d do like Mix and Aurora want me to, and teach it to people. I just know that the dead deserve answers as much as the living. So I do my best to find them.

“It’s odd that the car got wiped by an EMP,” O’Malley was saying, oblivious to the dizzying specter of the reaper. “He had a phone and a laptop with him and the phone, at least, still worked.”

“Really?” Natalie stepped over to a number of items in evidence bags. Sure enough one of them was a phone that lit up to the unlocking screen when she poked at the home button. “Very interesting. Maybe it was a highly localized event?”

My fingers twitched slightly. “Or maybe not. Let me look it over?”

She opened the bag and removed the phone, then held one edge of it out to me so I could carefully touch the phone with a single finger. That kind of ginger handling probably won’t make a bit of difference to the forensics people but it will slow down the shock of touching something a person was holding when they died.

Except there wasn’t much of an impression left by the victim’s death. The phone had been psychometrically blanked by the EMP, or at least the phone’s case had. But the innards of the phone had an extra layer of insulation added, some kind of pseudo-Faraday cage that had to be intended as EMP hardening. I hadn’t worked on any of Archon’s forays into that sphere – it doesn’t require a psychometric be involved – so I’m not sure what that might actually look like. But that was clearly the purpose.

I was tempted to just break open the phone at that point and look inside but a basic psychometric scan already pushes what traditional forensics is comfortable with. I settled for a quick mental glance through the hard drive. In most cases when a sketchy person dies during a crime with a phone on their body that phone is a burner, a standard phone with no frills, bought with cash and impossible to trace back to anyone important. They aren’t used for very long and thus no one bothers with many extras. They don’t add apps, especially not financial, travel or social media apps. Which is why I was so surprised to find that the one app beyond the basics was what looked like a social media app called Backboard. I’d never heard of the platform before so I wasn’t sure how it worked or why someone might put it on their supposedly untraceable criminal underbelly phone. There were better times and places to worry about that than in the middle of a crime scene so I pulled my hand back and let Natalie seal up the evidence bag.

“There was a laptop too,” O’Malley said, and found another evidence bag for us. Unfortunately, that one wasn’t hardened and the EMP had wiped it. I wondered why the phone would be the piece of hardware they shielded, given that it was the smaller of the two. Maybe the trick they were using was hard to scale up.

However the real revelation came as I started to shift the laptop back into its carrying case. It was a typical cheap nylon thing like you might find in any office supply store or electronics outlet. Since it was a nonconductive material it hadn’t been blanked by the EMP and I could still pick up the barest impression of flying high and watching the world below me. It made me a bit nauseous. I yanked my hand away and shook myself. Natalie gave me a sympathetic look and said, “What was that?”

“I think I know who this guy was now.”

“Oh?” O’Malley gave me a skeptical look. “Who’s that?”

“He’s the guy who flew the drone we found at yesterday’s attack.”

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