“Do you know how often your face is captured on camera in a given day? Think about it. Every time you walk into a bank, a convenience store, pass through an airport or government building. Not to mention all those CCTV cameras cropping up on nearly every street corner. With the latest facial recognition software, they’re able to process up to eighty different features on a human face to create a unique identification code that can be used to distinguish a person just like a thumbprint.”
I close my eyes as the cab driver rattles on about privacy encroachment when the sudden squeal of brakes sends me hurtling toward the cab shield. My head smacks against the Plexiglas. A nodule rises just above the hairline. I dab at it, checking for blood. The skin is unbroken, but a painful throbbing mounts.
“What happened there?” the cabbie asks.
The veins in my temples restrict, “I’d say you broke too soon.”
After digging a handful of bills out of my wallet, I pay the charge on the meter and step out of the taxi. Naked cherry blossom trees line the street of a neighborhood that sits at the far end of the city’s French Quarter. Overhead, I watch as the clouds close ranks across the sky. The address of the building in front of me matches the one I’d lifted from the dead guy’s driver’s license, the one I’d gave to Cassie only a few hours earlier before I was escorted to the police precinct where every detail of my statement had been picked apart, scrutinized, and written out by hand.
The street is empty.
By using his full name, Cassie was able to navigate a handful of investigative databases to discover that the victim, James Vance, had spent most of his career as a bounty hunter. Though, most recently, he’d broadened his services to include locating missing people.
On my way up the stoop, I catch an old woman coming out of the building’s front entrance. My P.I. badge is mistaken for a police shield and after a short, but pleasant conversation about her Pomeranian, I thank her for holding the door for me. On that rare occasion when I need to enter a locked door, I keep a lock pick set amongst my collection of surveillance gear, which wasn’t necessary since I’d lifted Vance’s keys along with his ID while rummaging through his pockets. But as I go to test the knob, the door falls open.
Stepping across the threshold, I call out to see if there’s anyone inside. When no one answers, I enter. Looking around, the trappings are fairly typical. The living room features a couch, a coffee table, and a flat screen television. Ceiling-high bookshelves line the walls. Beside one of them, there’s a small table with a wooden chess set where white, having surrendered two pawns, a rook, a bishop, and the queen, while only collecting three pawns, has somehow maneuvered the black into a checkmate.
The rear window of Vance’s apartment overlooks the Parc du Paradis with its 19th century cobblestoned bridges and budding apricot trees. Below the window, sits a desk with a laptop computer, a book, a telephone blot pad, a pair of scissors, half a dozen printouts, and a couple of manila folders stuffed with papers. I pick up the book entitled The Black Spectacles, by a guy named John Dickson Carr. Turning it over, I read the jacket. A classic locked room mystery challenging the reliability of eyewitness testimony as three people, reporting the same crime, can’t seem to agree on exactly what happened or who the perpetrator is. The story’s intrigue apparently lies in Carr’s ability to stage the ideal conditions for getting away with a public murder where both the crime and the criminal are presented in full view of witnesses. I return the book, shuffle through several computer printouts downloaded from the same investigative databases Cassie uses. The printouts include a handful of missing persons files dating as far back as six years. Other folders contain assorted medical records and transcripts of personal interview reports conducted with the family members of missing persons. The guy was a professional.
I detail everything with the camera in my phone. When I’ve seen all there is to see I turn toward the door where, in a blinding flash, I feel before I see a porcelain vase crash hard against the side of my skull. Knees buckle. Pain fills my head for the second time in less than ten minutes as light-flares—blinding white light—fill my vision. The floor tilts before it comes rushing at my face.
From the floor, I watch as a pair of blurry legs and a red dress escape out of the door. I’d been so absorbed in my own thoughts that I’d failed to hear the sound of stealthy footsteps creeping up behind me. Palsied, it’s a struggle to put my feet beneath me and even more so to keep them there as the room sways back and forth. Hard, bitter pain racks the whole side of my head. The staircase steps appear slanted at a forty-five-degree angle as I hump my arms over the guardrail before stumble down the three flights of stairs. By the time I reach the first-floor landing, the swaying has stopped, replaced by the thump of each heartbeat against the lump on the side of my head. As I come staggering out of the building and into the streets, I’m just in time to watch as a blue Subaru Legacy tears off down the road.
The vehicle, it turns out, is registered to Natalie LaChance, a thirty-six-year-old software engineer with Google Corps whose last name mirrors Vance’s dying words. Despite seeing everything in a competing blur, I somehow managed to pull the license plate number of her car as she’d sped away. But as the cabbie circles the block outside her apartment, there’s no sign of the car anywhere on the street. I take that to mean she’s not home and have the driver drop me at the back of the complex where someone’s careless error in not shutting the entry gate allows me to walk right into her building. On the numbered mailboxes, I find the name LaChance and, using the lock pick set, manage to roll back the tumblers on the door.
The living room is ornamented in a sleek, black and grey design, punctuated by several red trim furnishings positioned around the fifty-inch, plasma display television in the living room. A number of grey scale photos with red accents showcase the same beautiful woman in several highly stylized poses. Some portray an equally beautiful woman beside her. In the adjacent dining room, a thin-necked vase, featuring a single red rose, sits atop a small glass table with only two chairs and red place settings.
The bedroom is at the end of the corridor on the left. Modified to serve as a sort of home office, the room includes a desk with two flat-screen computer monitors and an open laptop. All of them are password protected and locked. A hasty search of the dresser drawers, the bathroom, and under the bed turns up nothing more than a penchant for computers and red accents.
A curse escapes my lips just as the teeth of a ridged key is raked over the lock in the front door.
I scour the room for somewhere to hide. There’s a window but no fire escape. The space between the bed and the floor is too small. To my right, there’s a closet with folding doors. I leap, pulling them shut just as the front door closes. Footsteps shuffle. A whoosh of wind follows her into the bedroom, lifting a stack of loose papers on her desk and sending them wafting into the air. She ignores them, not bothering to pick them up as she drops a grey purse on the bed.
Buried behind a wall of dresses, I squat low, back flat against the wall. Cramped knees flare with pain. I want to scream. Instead, I focus on my breathing, slow and restrained. Wooden slats and a well-placed mirror offer a view of the entire room.
It’s her. She’s wearing the same red dress from earlier. The mirror’s reflection provides my first good look at her face, soft and round with creamy smooth skin. Pinned back, medium length dark hair gives focus to expressive, liquid blue eyes. A charged expression lights her face. She moves quickly. At the window, she pulls the curtains shut.
To quiet the screaming pain in my knee, I bite down hard on the corner of my lip. It’s not enough. I need to reposition. The maneuver won’t be easy. To steady myself, I place one hand on the wall and another on the stack of boxes beside me. But the boxes are empty and shift out of place.
The sound might as well have been filtered through a set of Rock concert speakers.
She whips around.
I still my breathing.
There’s a moment’s silence as she studies the closet.
The muscles in my stomach grip tight.
From across the room, she moves slowly, calculatedly.
The pounding in my chest grows louder. So loud, I worry it might be audible.
Within a foot of the door she stops, casting a dark shadow over the slatted-doors. From my crouched position, I watch as a pair of cautious hands reaches out. The doors shake in the wheeled track as she wraps her fingers around the tiny silver knobs. I’m poised to explode out of there when an unexpected sound rips a hole right through the silence.
She turns her head. On the other side of the room, the phone comes alive. The closet doors rattle a little as she releases the handles to go and collect the phone.
I listen as she places the phone to her ear. Her half of the conversation consists primarily of a series of affirmative ‘uh-huhs’ followed by a request for an address, which she scribbles on a small notepad bedside the table. As the phone slides off her ear, she tears away the paper. Afterwards, she turns and walks straight to the closet. The doors peel back and a soft white hand reaches into the darkness. Every muscle in my body contracts. Concealed by several long dresses, I try not to move, not even to breathe. A pair of red shoes is lifted off the floor. The doors skate back across the roller track, leaving me alone again in the darkness.
When the front door closes behind a twisting key in the lock, I spring to my feet. Bursting from the closet, I race to the bedside table and, with the same pen she’d used to copy down the address, scratch a series of sweeping lines over the top page of the notepad. Unable to penetrate the thinly etched grooves left by the now absent top sheet impression, the pen’s ink reveals the negative of a message in thin, white lines. There’s an address and closing time listed just below the words: County Medical Examiner.
She’s on her way to the morgue.