“Do you understand?” The question resonated in his mind. The voice, strange and electronically altered.
He remembers feeling himself nod in the affirmative; detached mentally, yet physically unhesitant as a silent scream of emotional defiance rose from deep within.
“I’d like you to verbalize your understanding for the record,” the synthesized voice commanded, reverberant in his head.
He felt his lips part as an involuntary response swelled in his throat and then fell out of his mouth, entirely beyond his physical control.
“I will retire all active players present at the meeting,” He said. “Upon completion of this, I will immediately remove the component from operational status.”
As he spoke the words, the sound of his own voice horrified him-familiar, yet alien-chilling his blood. Another wave of fearful reluctance swept up from the depths of his soul, then faded-a final smoldering ember of self-control.
What he was is now completely detached and isolated from what he has become, both physically and conceptually. His mind has lost ground to the invading presence in his head and his body is now a mere shell-an organic vehicle.
He remembers, even though They insist that memories are impossible in this state. They are extremely intelligent, perhaps even geniuses, and he certainly gives Them credit where credit is due. But in this, They are wrong.
They are seemingly much more than the electrochemical etchings imprinted upon the fleshy folds of the physical brain. There is substance and energy within them, and on some quantum level he instinctively senses this as a universal truth, as naturally as he experiences his own effortless heartbeat.
He would’ve liked to share this with Them as it might aid in the advancement of Their theories, correct Their misconceptions.
But he is unable. He has no control over his physical manifestation. His body had ceased being his soon after he awoke.
Now, he sits and stares in reticent awe upon the fresh corpses, retired by his own hand in a flash of lightning quick precision. The remaining extracorporeal segment of his awareness wails in moral agony at the sight of the carnage, heavy with regret and suffocating in guilt.
Yet, his physical self simply sits, methodically preparing for the next step in the completion of the ordered task.
He has become a tool-an unwilling, albeit effective and reliable instrument.
Upon completion of this you will remove the component from operational status.
That directive echoes from the deeper levels of his memory and though he realizes the implications of this single act; he simply can’t accept his inability to stop it.
Completely free from conscious control, he watches his hand as it deftly spins the ancient revolver, inverts it and raises it to his eye for a quick inspection of the cylinder. Light wisps of acrid smoke curl from the breach. Each of the six chambers holds a round-shiny brass casings-half of which are dimpled in the middle from the impact of the fallen hammer on the firing pin. The blued steel of the muzzle is still warm from the previous firings.
As he brings the weapon to bear upon its final target, the echo of his terminal directive lingers in the shadows of his fading memory:
. . .you will remove the component from operational status.
His physical body prepares to execute as he entertains one last cogent thought that could be considered wholly, and independently, his own:
Though, indeed, I still am; where will I go from here?
“Alea iacta est.” (The die has been cast)-Julius Caesar, upon crossing the Rubicon
Chapter One: Corpus Delicti
“Damn it!” He mumbled to himself as he reached for the thin vibrating object tucked tightly into his fabric belt. Jon Webb shook his head, exhausted, as he strode past the reception kiosk of Corporate Campus security; oblivious to the curious glances he received as he read the incoming text page on his Penguin Personal Digital Device. The luminous screen of the PDD cast his face in eerie green phosphorescence. As he scanned the scrolling message his eyes widened, the moist curves of each globe reflecting the electric green glow from the flat LCD screen.
He sighed and let the PDD fall away from his hand. An invisible magnetic tether snared the small device in free fall, automatically pulled it back toward Jon’s waist and re-secured it firmly to his belt.
He turned and strode back toward the main bank of OmniVators. His thick fingers absently tapped the lightweight cover of the PDD affixed to his magnetic belt next to the plasma Fasor and the sleek, well concealed 15mm Heston automag. He nonchalantly adjusted the crease in his vest and smoothed his dark uniform mock turtleneck while speaking in clipped phrases to the voice command module embedded in the smooth steel of the ‘vator’s twin control panels.
“Webb, Jon. Security. Novus Mordi 156. Outbound request.”
“Jonathan Webb”, responded a pleasant, mechanical female voice. “Security director. Confirmed. Destination, please?”
“Delta Wing, fourth floor. Development and Engineering. Main Conference and Briefing.”
Paul MacDonald had now triple paged him, and for a man as measured and precise as MacDonald, that was twice too many. One did not ascend the bio-tech corporate ladder as rapidly as he by overreacting. Paul MacDonald had earned his rightful place beside Barrett Lacombe as Phoenix-Lamneth’s second in charge through meticulous study, ruthless politics, and a detail-oriented execution of action plans. He did not need to repeat himself.
As he waited for the ‘vators arrival, Jon allowed his gaze to wander over the cavernous mezzanine of the Phoenix-Lamneth campus.
Barrett Lacombe’s kingdom was adorned in rich dark hardwoods and glittering steel. The smoked glass walls curved gently upward to merge with the grand four-story high ceilings that were draped in a plethora of synthetically fortified flora. Thick ropes of flowering ivy, heavily veined palm fronds, and vibrant ferns swayed and undulated in the high currents of re-circulated air. Throughout the spacious atrium, majestic stone and wooden pillars rose out of the polished marble floor, topped with glittering golden orbs.
“Hey, Jonno! Man, I thought I missed you. What’s up?” A breathless voice approached from behind. The man exaggerated his exertion as if he had just run miles to get there.
“You’re late,” Jon snapped, looking at the LCD screen mounted in front of him. His name, ID number and destination were displayed in cool blue against soft vanilla white.
He spoke sharply to the ‘vators controls as he amended his request. “Add Donovan, Maxwell. Security. Novus Agus 233. Override authority. Accompany by proximity”.
“Maxwell Donovan. Security agent. Probationary. Confirmed. Please maintain 100 percent proximity,” responded the female command.
“Gotta keep the new guy on a short leash, huh?” Max quipped, referring to the computer’s request for him to be chaperoned.
Jon gave the younger man a short, impatient glare then stepped through the smooth alloy portal when it silently snapped open. Max followed hesitantly, taking up a position close to Jon’s side despite the spacious interior of the cab.
Jon abruptly glanced at Max as the younger man sidled up close to him.
“What?” Max exclaimed defensively. “She wanted you to keep proximity. I’m just playing by the rules.”
Jon simply glared, narrowing his sharp dark eyes. Max got the hint and took two steps to his left as the portal whispered sharply close, shaking his head as he mumbled, “Jesus-.”
“Destination, Delta wing, fourth floor,” instructed the soft and hidden female voice. “Confirm and execute”.
“Execute.” Jon sighed.
“Look, Jonny. I just want to try and get-”.
“It’s Jon. Not Jonny or Jonno, or Jock or any of those other fraternity buddy handles. Okay?” Jon snapped. “While we are on duty, I am not your best friend. I am your boss. I’m responsible for all of the security issues within this 135 acre campus. You are only one of 208 employees that I need to keep tabs on.” Jon asserted.
His tone softened a bit when he realized his quick temper had once again flared.
“Look, I’m trying to do the job without allowing too much physical or emotional harm to come to either of us,” he continued. “I choose to keep my professional distance while exercising my authority. It will work better that way. That being said, I’ll be candid with you,” he sighed.
“I’m impressed by your progress and believe you’re evolving into one hell of a fine security officer. You need to work on your management skills, stop being a buddy to your subordinates and start making more on-the-spot corrections. Being well-liked does not garner respect. Lead by example and you’ll go far.”
Jon turned slightly to catch and hold Max’s eyes with his own hard gaze. “You do your job well and ensure that you don’t make either one of us regret that I gave you this opportunity. Are we clear?”
“Christ, Jon. I just wanted to apologize for being late and try and clear the air between us. Look, I’m not going to stop trying to talk to you like a human. You choose to be the stoic, uptight asshole perfectionist and silent genius if you want. I ain’t buying it.” He paused.
“At least not the genius part.” Max smiled.
The OmniVator shifted ever so slightly as it traversed the horizontal plane of its vertical ascent and began moving laterally. The LCD on the wall in front of them displayed their position relative to rest of the sprawling Phoenix-Lamneth campus along with the elapsed time of their journey.
Jon’s rigid face finally cracked ever so slightly, the corner of his mouth turned up into a smirk.
“Apology accepted.” He said casually.
Max shook his head again and sighed. “So, what’s the deal? I’m supposed to be heading home to a shot and a shower.”
“Don’t know. Just got a triple page from Paul MacDonald. A Priority Black, which means that only he knows. And, of course, Lacombe. Your presence as last night’s supervisor was specifically requested.”
“By name?” Max asked, surprised.
Jon frowned at the younger man and his wild unkempt dark hair that was all the style. Max looked much younger than his actual thirty-five years. Untested confidence flashed under every wry smile, sparks of wit and innocent mischief etched the surface of his deep blue eyes. Max was a handsome, confident young man, but at this moment he appeared fragile and weak in the dim light of the ‘vator. He looked spooked and concerned, a look, frankly, Jon hadn’t seen from the man in many years. It worried him.
“Do you believe that the office of the CEO actually knows you even exist?” Jon asked him, honestly.
“God, I hope to hell not.” Max smiled wanly.
Jon felt a sudden twinge of compassion for his longtime friend. He had only been on the job three months, brought in by Jon himself after assisting the younger man in wrestling some personal demons back into their closet. Max’s fall from grace came on the heels of Jon’s own dance with personal turmoil, and throughout their fifteen year history, the two men had always been there for one another.
“Hey, relax. I’m sure this is just about that big brief coming up. If anything were truly amiss, with you or your performance, P-Mac would just let me handle it. And I haven’t heard anything detrimental.” Jon eyed Max carefully. “Is there any reason I should be concerned, Max?”
“Absolutely not,” Max blurted out, trying not to sound too defensive.
“Now is the time. Be smart and tell me if there is.”
Max looked directly into Jon’s eyes, all the young confidence flooding back into his smooth face. Max seemed to know that his old friend was asking an unspoken question: Are you still clean?
“Nothing to tell, boss. Last night was slow and quiet.”
“Then you have nothing to worry about.” Jon eased his hands into the pockets of his crisp dark cargo pants and sighed as he stared through the brushed steel of the ‘vators interior walls. Max remained silent next to him.
The OmniVator hummed to its programmed stop and engaged the arrival station with a soft click. The portal slid silently open as the soft feminine voice welcomed them to their destination.
* * *
They walked together down the curving hallway, past granite and marble-cased doorways, brushed silver doors and small alcoves of mahogany and oak sitting benches, occasional flat screen LCD displays and simple solitary prints of landscapes, seascapes and skylines.
The hallway eventually opened gracefully into a reception area with a modest streamlined wrap-around work station. It was presently deserted. Jon moved to the inside of the reception desk and keyed up the slim computer display. It routinely asked for a password and codon. Jon attempted his verbal identification cue and standard security override codon without success. The screen remained locked.
“Well, at least all the reconfigs are in order. I re-juiced this sector myself yesterday in prep for the brief. MacDonald has claimed an official Priority Black. It’s all locked down.” Jon explained.
“Gentleman,” a distant, tinny voice emanated from a hidden speaker. “If you could please join us in the lounge, down Apple Hall.”
The corridors in the Development and Engineering wing were all named after historical pioneers in the technology game, a kind of homage to the ground breakers and risk takers of the past. Gates Hall, Yuegisto Hall, Mendel Hall, Sakamoto Hall and twenty others spiraled off from the main hub of the D and E reception area like great spokes in a wheel. Each corridor led to labs, offices and information vaults, all unique to the various technological disciplines that grew out of the fertile soil that is Phoenix-Lamneth Corporation.
Jon and Max approached the threshold of Apple Hall, sealed by a heavy steel reinforced oak door securely locked with four independently automated sliding bolts, each about two feet in length and nearly three inches in diameter. The bolts firmly engaged the stone and steel jamb of the doorway. A small octagonal panel embedded to the right of the door one and a half meters off the floor contained the whole of the security measures.
Jon activated the panel by pressing a pressure sensitive strip just below the frame. A small drawer rotated outward and angled slightly down, revealing a smooth number pad containing all ten digits in random fashion. The holographically projected positions of the numbered touch pads changed randomly with each user. Jon entered his personal code and waited. Seconds later a thin, clear flat plate slid horizontally out of the lower half of the panel and a small drawer popped open to the right. Jon withdrew a small clear mouthpiece from the drawer and placed it in his mouth, leaving a small clear tube dangling from the front. He inserted the tube into a small oval opening in the upper portion of the panel, placed his hands palms down on the flat clear plate, took a deep breath in and exhaled gently and evenly. Condensation formed in the tube and the glass plate glowed brilliantly, illuminating his hands from below.
Jon held this position for a few seconds as a final thin slot opened in the panel at approximately eye level. A narrow arc of shiny metal rotated out toward Jon’s forehead, which he leaned into until the strip of metal wrapped snugly across his brow. He looked directly into the open slot as a dim orange laser traced a thin vertical line across his face. A second or two of humming and two distinct clicks reverberated through the machinery.
Two of the four bolts in the door rotated evenly one complete revolution; there was a pause and then the remaining two bolts rotated as well. They did not retract, but remained engaged in the thick wall.
“What, it didn’t like you?” Max asked, awed equally by the complexity and the paranoia.
“No, it was programmed for two entrants, not just one. They’re expecting us both. You need to be scanned. You’re not cleared for this area. No one is, in fact, unless I juice them in. Of course, MacDonald, Lacombe and the D&E guys have their own access,” Jon explained.
“So, step to the plate and blow some DNA into the brain box.” Jon gestured with his hand for Max to do just that.
Max grabbed a second disposable mouthpiece, raised his eyebrows at Jon and shrugged. He placed the plastic in his mouth, secured the tube with his teeth and pushed the free end into the hole as Jon did. He then cautiously laid his hands palms down on the flat glass. He began to take a deep breath when Jon stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
“Wait a sec. It needs to not recognize you. It will then ask for a one-time authorization which I can input.”
The LCD screen glowed dull white and then queued up an inquiry in five different languages. The same phrase appeared in sharp green-blue font, written in English, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic and French: Unknown subject. Request authority override and verification. Enter codon for initialization.
Jon reached for the numbered keypad and began typing numbers. As each number was entered, a slight flicker flashed across the smooth holographic touch pad and the numbers randomly scrambled.
“Keeps unauthorized entrants like yourself from memorizing the pattern of the inputted numbers,” Jon explained.
Max quickly looked down and realized that from this angle he couldn’t even see the actual digits displayed; they were a translucent blur no matter how hard he strained to get a glimpse. No chance to memorize the numbers themselves, either. Max nodded, clearly impressed.
“Okay, you’re ready. Just exhale slow and even and keep your palms flat. The plate gets real warm, real quick,” Jon advised.
“These new multifactorial biometric scanners have revolutionized access security,” Jon said. “Core DNA and enzymatic samples from exhaled moisture, bilateral palmar printing, body temperature validation, and of course, retinal scan.” The orange laser stroked across Max’s face.
“Gone are the days of faking prints from latex peals or trying to pass off sampled saliva. With the simultaneous scan and thermal verification, it’s nearly impossible to fake it. If all the data doesn’t come from the same living source, it’s over. 100 joules of plasma at 30 hertz zaps you into helpless Jell-O, you fall to the floor and we come and scoop you up,” Jon explained.
The LCD flashed clear and then in multiple languages: Expressed entry granted for subject Donovan, Maxwell; in proximity with Webb, Jonathan. Period of approval, two hours. The security panel closed silently and a small square tray and opening presented itself at the base of the wall to the right of the door. Jon dropped his plastic mouthpiece onto the tray, as did Max. A soft whirring sound emanated from the opening as the tray retracted.
“Incinerator,” Jon indicated with a wave of his hand. “Door won’t open until we’ve destroyed the mouthpieces.”
On cue, the steel bolts smoothly slid from their receptacle in the jamb and the door silently swung open.
“After you, sergeant.” Jon followed Max through the door.
* * *
The two men walked down the wide carpeted corridor toward a large tinted glass wall. As they drew within a few feet, the smooth surface of the glass creased and swung open toward them. A man in a dark gray suit stepped out from behind.
Paul MacDonald stood over six feet, with the athletic build of a lean wide receiver, his face a stern and chiseled bust of confidence and success, framed by perfectly sculpted raven black hair. He seemed to hover purposefully rather than stand, poised to strike with deliberate deadliness.
He gracefully scooped his right hand out and then back toward his broad chest, a gesture meant to summon the two security men forward without delay. His two middle fingers were adorned with large, masculine gold rings that glimmered with prismatic and ornate gems. His metallic gray eyes bore into Jon and Max simultaneously, never once blinking or wavering.
The men approached and MacDonald smoothly tossed the glass door the rest of the way open with a strong and sure flick of his wrist as he edged slightly out the way. They passed the silent centurion as his eyes followed their every step. Max held his hand out to MacDonald.
“Max Donovan,” he introduced himself.
MacDonald simply stared at the younger man’s smiling face. His steely eyes flicked down at the extended hand for just a fraction of a moment, then returned to Max’s puzzled eyes. MacDonald shook his square head once to the side, almost imperceptibly, and never made a move to shake the offered hand.
“Mr. Webb, would you please accompany Mr. Donovan to the table and take up positions on either side of the recorder while facing the detective,” MacDonald commanded in a deep and stern voice.
Max and Jon briefly glanced at one another and then cautiously moved toward the long, smoked glass table. They each took a black metal swivel chair flanking either side of a flat silver box situated in the middle of the table. Opposite them sat a quiet, yet watchful man. He allowed a soft and welcoming smile to cross his narrow and angular face. His eyes were mellow and sleepy, set closely astride a straight and cutting nose. He ran thin fingers through his long, dark hair, smoothly feathering the wavy strands from his brow.
“Gentlemen,” the man leaned across the table, greeting them each with a sweeping handshake. “I’m Detective Gionetti, Western Federal Homicide, LA County division.”
His eyes softened sympathetically, almost sadly, as he embraced each of the men’s hands in a firm and commanding shake. He held each of their gazes an equal amount of time, then glanced up and over toward MacDonald, yet still directed his comment to the two seated men.
“By the looks on your faces, I’d say this is probably the first time you gentlemen have been made aware that there exists a situation that requires my services?” Gionetti let his gaze linger disapprovingly on the stalking figure of MacDonald.
MacDonald returned Gionetti’s barbed comment and stare with a stern, forceful tilt of his chiseled head and a slight sneer as he replied defensively.
“This has been a Priority Black situation that requires the most severe and stringent discretion. Mr. Webb is our interim Chief of Security and Mr. Donovan there,” he nodded toward the man, “was the security house supervisor on last evening’s shift. They’re the only Security personnel who need to be involved at this juncture and were to be notified at the appropriate time, only after the discovery had been contained-”
“And that time is now, Detective,” a stern voice interrupted MacDonald from the open doorway.
A small, soft, tired man shuffled into the room from behind MacDonald and leaned against the mirrored wall directly opposite the men seated at the table.
“So if you would please begin your inquiries and get me some damned answers.” Barrett Lacombe’s already thin voice trailed off as he let his gaze drift up to the ceiling.
The chief executive sighed deeply and then leveled his tiny black eyes at Gionetti, arching his eyebrows to pose either a question or administer a threat. Detective Gionetti had turned around in his chair, his arm resting on the curved back, and he now met Lacombe’s gaze with wide and curious eyes.
He paused a moment, on the verge of saying something in recovery, thought better of it and swiveled back toward the seated security agents.
“Of course,” Gionetti said. “We should begin.”
He noted the puzzled looks on the faces of the men before him. He dug into the deep pocket of his long leather overcoat draped over the chair to his right and withdrew a thin silver remote control.
“Gentlemen, I am here to investigate the violent slayings of four Phoenix-Lamneth employees”.
He pointed the remote at the flat, steel box lying in the center of the table. It softly whirred to life as the top wound up and out like fabric accordion springs, thinning as it grew to eye-level with the seated men. A bluish-orange plane of coherent light emitted from the top of the alloy cone in a sharp snap. The thin fan of light swept in the horizontal plane 360 degrees before locating and then oscillating between the two security officers.
The sliver-thin vector of light thrummed with near audible harmonics as it recorded visual and audio data, detected micro changes in surface temperature of the skin as capillaries either flushed or drained, sensed nano-unit changes in intraocular pressure within the globe of the eye and evaluated heart rate and respiratory quality for subtle alterations, all in an effort to ascertain the truthfulness of responses from interviewees.
Successful results with the PALM, or Physiologic Analytical Logic Matrix, required the skillful employment of carefully crafted questions and the utilization of psychological nuances by a masterful interviewer.
Most of the primary uses for the device and its methodology came about in criminal and corporate court proceedings where the extraction of crucial and often incriminating testimony could be drawn out over days and weeks by working through elaborate scripts and lines of inquiry that consumed volumes of digital space.
Detective Salvatore Gionetti had chosen to go with a straight, undiluted approach with the two security officers and it was clear that his blunt delivery of the news of the murders and the intimidating presence of the PALM recorder had the desired effect on the two security officers.
At first, Jon and Max just stared at one another; then scanned the room for confirmation from the other men. MacDonald stood with his feet shoulder width apart and arms tightly crossed. His unblinking eyes darted between Jon and Max. He said nothing.
Lacombe remained leaning against the glass wall, his arms loosely draped behind his back, his face tilted upward with his eyes closed. He also said nothing.
“Who-how-” was all that Max could manage before Gionetti continued.
“Sometime last evening. We’ll have a narrower window after the post-mortem is complete, but it looks to be sometime just before midnight. Four Phoenix Lamneth employees were executed within these walls.”
Jon immediately looked around, wide eyed and disbelieving.
“Oh no, not this exact room,” Gionetti explained, reading the man’s surprise. “But within this wing of the building. Well within the ironclad security around us. We’ll take a walk down to the scene shortly. I really wanted to establish some ground work, get a foundation established and kind of ease into this with you.”
Gionetti paused a moment to let the initial shock pass and the dust to settle. He glanced over his shoulder briefly to see Barrett Lacombe slowly massaging the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. The man’s eyes were clenched and he seemed to be holding his breath. He looked as if he had slept in his $8,000 suit.
It was only then that Gionetti noticed the man's shoes. The most powerful man in the Western half of the continent and the grandfather of 21st century biomedical technological innovations was wearing leather moccasin-style slippers, well worn and untied.
Gionetti felt immediate pity and sympathy for the man. Despite Lacombe’s lofty perch atop the corporate universe, he was globally well-liked by the public, and if not envied, at least respected by his peers and competitors, of which there were few. This tragedy was exhausting him.
Gionetti turned back to the seated men. They stared back hungry for explanation. Their eyes searched for understanding and clarification.
He forged on.
“I gotta tell you, though, with all of this high-speed technology and wizardry around us…” He swept both arms back with dramatic flair. “I’m a little baffled as to how anyone could enter this facility with any sort of weapon, especially an obsolete firearm, access what is essentially a vault--undetected-and kill four highly regarded scientists at point blank range with head shots in close quarters and then slip out. Again, undetected.” He raised a questioning eyebrow at the security men.
At the mention of the four victims, Lacombe caught his breath and moaned ever so slightly, shifting his weight from shoulder to hip as he remained leaning against the wall.
Jon looked blankly at his hands, idle and folded loosely on the table. He wished for a glass of something to drink-water, or even better, the smoky sourness of a tight bourbon. He felt as if he should say something, anything. He fought the urge.
Gionetti was skillfully playing the interview game, waiting for information to be freely volunteered, leaving silent, open spaces between shocking bits of facts, baiting the interviewee to nip at the hook and roll over to reveal a weakness. Jon was familiar with the tactic and held his ground. This was a huge revelation and he was sure there was more to come.
Max, however, was less experienced and squirmed next to him, restless and wanting to speak, to act. Jon sensed that he was going to give in to the urge to do something, and before he could intervene, Max began stammering, “How could this be? I mean, it’s impossible. Last night was quiet. I would’ve been alerted to any breach. This is crazy. I-”
“Enough, you ****ing asshole!” MacDonald erupted. “This had to be an inside job and if you’re not directly responsible then you’re somehow involved!” Paul MacDonald glared at the stunned man, defying him to defend himself.
Gionetti cringed at the verbal explosion, immediately swung toward the enraged executive and stifled him with a single look. MacDonald blinked and cocked his head to the side as if to say What? What did you expect from him, a confession?
Gionetti had clearly lost the advantage and was about to work out a recovery strategy when MacDonald suddenly flared back up and began to berate the two seated men.
“And you, Webb. Do you have anything to add? This **** bag is your responsibility! And now you-No, we-have four ****ing bodies on our hands. Just what in the-”.
“Paul,” Barrett Lacombe calmly asserted. “Paul, that’s quite enough.” He glanced over at his assistant with the impatient yet sympathetic look of a master remorseful over his dog’s behavior but realizing that it’s much too late to retrain.
“Detective Gionetti, please continue,” Lacombe said calmly. Then he addressed the Webb and Donovan, “Gentlemen, no one has been formally charged with anything, and though the circumstances are bizarre and, to be brutally honest, suspicions are understandably high, we all want to do the right thing and get to the bottom of this tragedy.” Lacombe glanced tiredly at Gionetti. The detective took his cue and immediately regained control of the situation.
“Look,” he began, “I need to establish a timeline for last evening’s security personnel-essentially where was everyone and how did this go undetected. We have a serious and delicate situation here.” Gionetti glanced around at the two executives standing just behind him.
“I thought that we might as well go down to the scene and begin there,” Gionetti suggested.
Against Lacombe and MacDonald’s wishes, Gionetti was going to show the murder scene to the men. Usual protocol required strict isolation of any murder scene, to facilitate collection of uncontaminated evidence and complete examination of the bodies. However, this situation was other than usual.
The executives of Phoenix-Lamneth were convinced of inside involvement, and in light of the high security measures necessary to access the areas within the corporation, the suspect pool dramatically narrowed to those with immediate access.
Gionetti was inclined to agree with the head executives and was assuming a huge risk in potentially contaminating the crime scene but his instincts told him there could be some beneficial gain from their visceral reactions to the carnage down the hall.
Gionetti rose to his feet and clasped his hands together, gazing first behind at Barrett Lacombe, then MacDonald. Lacombe glanced at the floor and audibly sighed while MacDonald continued to glare at the seated security officers. Gionetti addressed Webb and Donovan as he turned to the glass door.
“Gentlemen, if would please join us.” He paused and allowed Paul MacDonald to lead the way.
Webb and Donovan had risen and walked somberly out of the conference room behind the VP, followed closely by Lacombe with Gionetti bringing up the rear.
The hall was carpeted in light tan and green Berber, splashed with interlacing patterns of swirls and spirals. The firm surface muffled their footfalls as the group stepped down the corridor, past evenly spaced mirrored doors and handsomely crafted dark wood walls. Twenty meters ahead at the intersection of a second corridor, two thick, frosted glass double doors lay waiting, partially open. Bright fluorescent light spilled out from the interior of the room, casting a slanted angle of pearly whiteness across the patterned carpet.
MacDonald stopped short of the threshold, stepping aside and reluctantly deferring control of the situation to the detective. Gionetti stepped to the front, casually inserting himself between MacDonald and the two security officers. He turned toward the group and caught Lacombe rubbing the palms of his hands into his eyes, attempting to massage away the exhaustion and tension. Gionetti passed out thin, non-latex gloves to the men.
The inspector back-stepped into the room as he absently pulled on his own pair of gloves, signaling for the men to follow. He studied Webb and Donovan as they entered. The detective spoke as the two men took in the scene before them.
“As you can see, we have four dead bodies. Shot at point blank range. What you see now is exactly how the scene was discovered by Mr. MacDonald at 5:45 this morning.” The detective allowed the scene to speak for itself. His eyes never left the faces of the two security men.
At the center of the room, four steel-framed, leather upholstered chairs were situated evenly about a large square glass and steel table. Each chair was occupied by a body, three of which appeared to have placed their heads down on the cool thick glass surface of the table for a quick nap, the peaceful suggestion of which was betrayed by the congealed puddles of blood that all but completely covered the surface of the table.
Thick, irregular clots of hair, bone and grayish-white brain matter lay embedded throughout the blood-slick. The surface of the coagulated blood had actually become wrinkled, as if a large quantity of scarlet pudding was left to mature on a counter top, its fibrous skin growing thick over the hours. A quantity of the dark fluid had dripped over one edge of the table and collected in a thick, sticky puddle soaking the carpet a rich burgundy. Small tendrils of the bloody gel had clotted in mid drip, like bitter black frosting on a macabre cake.
A fourth body was also seated, facing the doorway; however, the chair was away from the table. The slumped form did not rest on the surface of the table, but instead hung with its head drooped low, chin against chest. Precious blood from this head wound had pumped not onto the glass surface of the table to mingle with that of his colleagues, but rather had flowed freely down his torso, pooling in his lap and spilling across his thighs, soaking the leather seat and the carpet beneath.
The arms hung limply at the sides, the cuffs of his suit jacket filled with clotted purple fluid. The wall behind him was flecked and streaked with fan sprays of blood, as if some winged creature, perhaps a fallen, angry angel, had left its photographic shadow emblazoned on the smooth cream-colored plastic surface.
All four of the bodies were dressed in fine professional attire. The three men wore charcoal or gray suits with sensible though attractive shoes, while the female was in a sheer blouse, modest navy skirt and low heels. Their carefully chosen wardrobes now forever stained with liters of thick, spoiling blood.
Only three of the four bodies around the table wore thin white lab coats over their clothes, unbuttoned and spread open beneath their slumped forms. A small plastic rectangular badge hung clipped to each of the exposed lapels of the white clinical jackets. Upon each badge, the holographic logo of Phoenix-Lamneth Corporation glinted and wavered in the fluorescent lighting: a golden, gothic bird ascending through a blazing inferno of flames that engulfed a green and blue sphere; superimposed over a silhouette of a nondescript man and woman reaching earnestly toward an elaborate streaming fountain. The laser inscribed holographic images alternated in clarity and detail as the angle of view changed.
A pair of thin wire framed eyeglasses laid to the side of the female’s head, frozen in the gelled glop, the lenses smeared and dark.
Each of the victims sported a dark, depressed hole at the back of their heads-an unblinking, dead eye opening into the dark, cavernous gourd of their skulls.
The scene was violent and complete. The air held the tang of rich, acidic copper that overpowered a hint of something almost sweet, but not quite.
Max Donovan remained frozen at the entrance to the board room, his hand slowly working at his lips, twisting and pulling as he took in the grisly scene. Paul MacDonald silently eased up behind him and whispered in his ear, causing him to jump.
“Think we’ll find any prints in all that mess? Or DNA?” Max flinched, but never took his eyes off the bodies. Paul pulled back and softly clicked his tongue a few times, drawing a quick and scolding glance from Lacombe.
Jon Webb had carefully moved into the room and was slowly circling the table, watching his footing to ensure he avoided the spilled pools of gore. His face remained unbroken with reaction, almost stoic. His eyes darted over the horror as he appeared to file and categorize each detail. Gionetti noticed the man’s approach and tact as one of experience and design.
Sal Gionetti pulled his Personal Digital Data device from his belt and began tapping out instructions, and after a few seconds began to read from the small screen’s display.
“According to the security entry logs, each of the victims clocked through the main threshold here in D and E between 2345 and 2355. It would appear that they were having some sort of late night meeting.” Sal glanced over at Lacombe and MacDonald. “Perhaps we’ll know more once the ID’s are finalized,” he continued.
“I guess I’d like to know a little bit about the status of the security at that time.” The detective directed his gaze directly at Max Donovan, who was still wide-eyed from the scene before him.
Jon Webb continued his quite perusal of the room.
“Mr. Donovan,” Gionetti repeated, “As the security officer on duty last night, could you enlighten us? Where were you at that time?”
Max blinked twice, as if to clear his vision and cocked his head to the side. He glanced toward Webb for guidance, but Jon was inspecting the wall behind the fourth victim-the man who was seated away from the table. The body without a lab coat.
MacDonald jabbed Max in the small of the back and snarled between clenched teeth, “Answer the man, asshole!” Then he spoke louder as he noticed Webb crouching behind the fourth body.
“Hey! Webb! What the **** are you doing? Get away from there! Get your ass back over here!” Then, to detective Gionetti, he said, “Should he be back there? I mean, this is a crime scene, for Christ’s sake. What if something gets ****ed up? Contaminated?”
Then Paul turned to Lacombe. “****, I knew this was a bad idea. I mean-”
“Mr. Webb, please, he’s right,” Gionetti expressed. “Would you please come away from there? I think we’ve seen enough here.”
Jon rose slowly, still intently studying the lower half of the wall behind the coatless victim. As he turned to leave, his gaze fell on the body itself, inspecting, almost searching. Reluctantly, he joined the men at the door.
The detective turned to Lacombe, ignoring MacDonald for the moment.
“Sir, we should probably return to the conference room and record our formal statements. I have what I had hoped for from here. The Forensics team will finish processing the scene and remove the materials accordingly. I see no need for your continued presence at this time. Unless, of course, you would prefer to stay.”
Lacombe nodded softly and looked at MacDonald. “No, detective. We’ll leave you to complete the interviews. Paul, I’ll need you. After you escort these gentlemen back to the conference room.”
With that, Barrett Lacombe turned on his heels and strode rapidly down the hall, hands deep in the pockets of his baggy trousers.
MacDonald turned to allow the men to exit the room and followed as they marched slowly back to the interview room.
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