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“I would like you to arrest me.”
“Arrest you?” Officer Cisneros asked without turning from her screen. “What for?”
“I killed the president,” the man in front of her said calmly. “And several others, actually. But we can get to that. The president was the most important.”
“Mm-hmm,” Officer Cisneros replied.
There was no computer in Cubicle 4. Any part of the special glass walls could be turned into a touchscreen, which Officer Cisneros demonstrated by sliding a finger under her display. Immediately, the light angled away from her visitor so he couldn’t see what she was doing.
“You know the president is still alive, right?”
“Not the current president,” the man in the trucker cap explained. He held an oddly colorful backpack in his lap. “The president in 1963.”
Shirley Cisneros glanced over him quickly before resuming her typing. An optical keyboard projected from the ceiling onto the bare desk in front of her, and her long fingernails click-clacked on the vinyl.
“Your name Lee Harvey Oswald?”
“No, of course not. It’s Jones. Edgar Jones.”
“You know what year it is, right?” Shirley asked with a sigh. She had been on the job for 14 hours and was beyond ready to go home. After glancing at the crowd on the far side of the glass walls that separated them, she supposed that wasn’t going to happen soon.
“You look pretty good for a centenarian.”
“I can prove it.”
The man unzipped his backpack and set a clear plastic disc on the desk. What looked like a tiny piece of chewed gum, no larger than a printed period, was sealed inside. He leaned the backpack against the legs of his chair.
Shirley looked at it skeptically. “What’s this?”
“It’s a piece of the president’s brain. Preserved in epoxy.”
Shirley stared. “His brain?”
“Yes. They had me take the whole thing, but not until 1966, after everything had calmed down. I suspect it would’ve eventually revealed something incriminating. In the future, I mean. But I can’t be sure.”
“And you saved a piece?”
“Yes, well, that’s sort of their fault, isn’t it? If they had done things right the first time, there would’ve been no need to send me back. It occurred to me then that that was the first time I had touched anything that could be authenticated. It’s not like if you come back with a newspaper anyone will believe you. I thought I might benefit from a bit of insurance. Just in case.”
“In case of what?”
“In case I needed it.”
“And what exactly are we supposed to do with part of someone’s brain?”
“It’s easy enough for your scientists to determine if it’s human. That would be your first clue that I’m telling the truth. After that, I’d suggest a genetic analysis. The National Archives has a number of the president’s belongings you can use for comparison.”
“Do they now?”
“And how do you know that?”
“That’s where I got the brain.”
“No.” The man smiled patiently, as if he knew he was being tested. “In 1966.”
“Why not ’63?”
“Because at the time it was still attached to the president. It wasn’t removed until autopsy. We picked the day in ’66 based on an article in the Post. There was a mild brouhaha at the Archives that made a nice cover. You can check that, too.”
“A brouhaha?” Shirley studied him.
“Yes. Like the one on your front steps.”
A crowd had gathered in front of the building that morning, holding protest signs and chanting with bullhorns. Shirley had arrived early and missed most of the excitement, but her coworkers had been getting accosted. Several had to clean raw eggs off their vehicles.
Shirley swiped her screen closed and the optical keyboard disappeared. “Stay here.”
“Of course,” the man said calmly.
After walking several steps, Officer Shirley Cisneros stopped.
There was no way Agent Quinn would believe her. She wouldn’t, if she were him. But she also wasn’t sure what to do. It was, after all, only her third week on the job. But in her former role at the Transportation Security Administration, Shirley had interviewed thousands of people, and there was something extremely uncanny about the man sitting calmly at her desk. Perhaps it was the way he had his heavy flannel shirt tucked neatly into his jeans without a belt. Or maybe it was how he appeared to have a manicure. Or maybe it was his eyes, which barely blinked. All Shirley knew was that she felt very deeply then that they should not let that man leave the building. But as yet, they had no reason to hold him.
She turned and swiped the disc from the desk.
“Just a moment,” she said, walking away.
“Of course. Take your time.”
Shirley walked around the grid of glass cubicles to the back, where a pair of overweight men guarded a heavy door under a wide circular seal. The words SCIENCE CONTROL AGENCY curved in block chrome around the martial icon at the center. Shirley’s biometrics and electronic key card granted her access to the hall on the other side, which ended at a T-shaped junction, where she turned left and then right again before entering an elevator. She swiped her key card a second time and pressed the button for Basement Level 2. After exiting the elevator, she found her way to a long, high-ceilinged hall that seemed to go on forever. The click of her footsteps echoed off the slab walls, which were empty and nearly featureless until a lone set of heavy, fire-proofed double doors appeared as if from nowhere. Painted vertically on the wall were the words:
The raucous rectangular room on the other side was part office, part laboratory, and part mechanic’s garage. The high ceiling was exposed, revealing the light fixtures and the array of pipes and nozzles of the fire suppression system. Eight curved desks on an open plan ran in two rows. Spaced regularly between the rows was a line of imposing square pillars that obscured the view of the rooms at the back. It was said Crimes Division had holding cells down there, along with a pair of interview rooms, a separate locker room, and a hyper-secure evidence vault, but Shirley hadn’t seen any of it. What she could see was paper. Stacks of files and filing cabinet were everywhere. Odd equipment as well. Lots of it. Steel cabinets, boxy machines (some not yet out of their boxes), and piles of old computers lined all four walls. None of it seemed to match, except that it all smelled faintly of fresh paint.
All of the people in the room were engaged, either on the phone or with each other, and took no note of Shirley, who headed straight for the tall and handsome Orlando Quinn.
“It’s my toaster,” an older woman on a tall video screen explained. She was speaking to the nearest Crimes Division agent, a short, stocky woman with thick glasses that Shirley hadn’t met. “It’s become sentient. Or intelligent. I’m not sure which. Perhaps you could explain that,” she suggested earnestly.
“And how do you know that, Mrs. Schnelle?” the agent replied with more than a little disinterest.
“Because it’s an artist.” The elderly woman lifted a large Ziploc bag full of toast onto which various renditions of Western art had been crudely burned.
Agent Quinn was talking on the phone two desks down.
“Need to talk to you, hoss,” Shirley said to his back.
“Just a sec,” he told her, momentarily covering the receiver. “That’s right,” he continued. Just until tomorrow. We can collect it then.”
On the screen, the earnest Mrs. Schnelle was explaining each piece of toast to the stocky agent one at a time. “And you see, this one is the Mona Lisa. And this one is that famous part of the Sistine Chapel where the fingers almost touch. Can you see?”
“Do you have to call me that?” Quinn said as he hung up the phone.
“Call you what?”
“Hey!” the short-haired French officer called from the back. “I got a guy on the line in Albuquerque who says his neighbor was killed by a shape-shifting cyborg who then assumed his identity.”
She had a strong but clear French accent and was dressed, as usual, in a man’s dark suit with the sleeves rolled to her elbows.
“Which one is that?” Quinn called back. “Six Billion Dollar Man?”
“Terminator,” a elderly, bespectacled man corrected from another desk. His hairline had deeply receded, and what was left of his thin, gray hair was wildly unkempt. He was missing large parts of several fingers on his left hand. “Specifically, Terminator 2. 1991. A classic.”
The French officer rose to add Terminator to the handwritten list on a wheeled white board. She had high cheekbones and light blue eyes that didn’t match her dark hair.
“Anybody got a bingo?” she asked.
“How many are we up to?” Quinn asked her.
“Calls? I don’t even know. If you mean reports, hundreds.”
“Where did they come from all of a sudden?” the elderly man asked. The lenses of his wire-frame glasses were extremely thick, and they magnified his unfocused eyes. They were also heavy and caused the glasses to slip, and he kept adjusting them. “Three days ago, this place was dead.”
“I think some members of law enforcement have joined segments of the public in their skepticism of our mission,” Quinn explained.
“They’re seizing on the public moment created by the protests to send us anyone and everything they can, relevant or not.”
“In other words,” Shirley interjected dryly, “they’re trolling you.”
“I think they would call it hazing,” Quinn corrected.
“Is there a difference?”
“I don’t get it,” the elderly man said. Unlike all the others, there was no computer on his desk, just a box of pencils, pads of lined paper, and a corded white device, like an overly thick tablet. At the corner was a sign: B. KRIPKE, PHD. “Why are we bothering to process them if it’s just a joke?”
“We don’t know for sure that all of them are,” Quinn replied.
The elderly man glanced toward the door. “You think the toaster woman is real?”
“Please just process them all. Log the leads. Anyone who’s confessed to a crime needs to see a judge.”
Shirley held out the clear plastic disc before they were interrupted again.
“What’s this?” Quinn asked.
“President Kennedy’s brain. Part of it, anyway.”
“Oh yeah?” Quinn took it with a smile. “What’s this guy’s story?”
“Says he was sent back in time to steal it. Says he’s also the guy who shot Kennedy, but something went wrong and he had to go back for the brain.”
“What you want me to tell him?”
Quinn opened his mouth to reply but scowled instead.
“What?” Shirley asked.
“Doc,” Quinn called.
The elderly man turned again.
“Blown all over the grassy knoll.”
“Yeah, but didn’t it go missing or something? I remember reading about it when I was at the Bureau.”
“I believe so. But that was some years later. If I remember correctly, there was a theory that his brother Robert took it while he was Attorney General. To hide an illness or family secret or something.”
Shirley shrugged at Quinn as if none of that mattered. “So? Man’s done his homework.”
“What does he want?” Quinn asked.
“He wants us to arrest him.”
“Tell him we don’t have any evidence, but that we’ll—”
“He says that’s the evidence.” She pointed to the disc in Quinn’s hand. “He said you guys could confirm that it was human and do a genetic analysis based off Kennedy’s possessions in the National Archives.”
Quinn paused. “He said that?”
“What’s your take on him?”
“That man is all kinds of strange. He has a manicure.”
Shirley nodded solemnly. “Mm-hmm.”
“You want me to arrest him for having a manicure?”
She sighed. “You wanna bring him down or not?”
“Me? Is there some reason you can’t do it?” Quinn’s desk phone rang and he reached for it. “Tell him to come back—”
“I’m not telling him anything. He freaks me out, with those beady eyes and everything. You want him to come back later, you tell him.”
“No!” Mrs. Schnelle shouted. “I will not! You’re not taking me seriously. I’m telling you—”
“Trade?” Quinn asked, letting go of the phone.
“Are you suggesting I take the crazy woman because of my gender?”
Quinn thought for a moment. “Yes.”
“Why can’t she handle it?” Shirley asked, motioning to the stocky agent with the thick glasses and wrist braces doing a terrible job of calming the woman down.
“That’s right,” Quinn said dryly, “you haven’t met Thalia yet.”
Shirley saw the look on his face and sighed, pretending to be annoyed. The truth was, Orlando Quinn was six-foot-and-God-knew-how-many-inches of gorgeous hunk of man, with smiling eyes and flawless dark almond skin. More than that, he was nice, which was more than she could say of most of the people at her new job. Shirley found it difficult to say no.
But she couldn’t let him know that.
“Fine,” she said dismissively. “But you do the paperwork for both.”
“Hold on. That’s not fair.”
But she was already interjecting herself expertly into the argument between the two women. Quinn’s desk phone, which had stopped ringing, started again, but he ignored it and made his way down the hall and up to Section 06, where three minutes later he stood before Shirley’s empty cubicle. The man in the cap was gone. His colorful backpack sat on the floor, leaning against the chair, just where he left it. Quinn looked around, but seeing nothing, grabbed the bag and walked to the security station.
“Can you bring up the footage of the last person in Cubicle 4?”
The guard nodded silently and rewound the security footage. Quinn watched on the screen as the man with the oddly colorful backpack crossed the building’s wide, open veranda and patiently held a door for a young PhD candidate and her friends, who stepped out laughing at her newly minted science license. The man answered a series of questions at an automated kiosk and pulled a slip of paper from the side. The guards, one eye on the crowd outside, barely registered his face as they put both man and backpack through separate scanners. When the smaller machine glitched momentarily, they asked him to move to one side, which he did without objection while his colorful pack was sent through again. When the light turned green, the man collected his belongings and took a seat in the waiting area. After several minutes, a loud beep preceded a calm automated voice, which told all those present that number A36 was now being served at cubicle number 4. The man checked the slip of paper to make sure he remembered his number correctly, then rose and made his way at an even pace to a painted walkway that branched into different numbered paths, each leading to one of several glass-walled cubicles. The interview with Shirley Cisneros was short. Quinn watched her get up and swipe the disc. The man in the ball cap waited alone without moving. He didn’t turn his head or glance at passers by. He simply sat motionless for five minutes and 36 seconds, then he got up without warning and calmly walked out.
“Shouldn’t that have triggered an alarm or something?” Quinn asked the young guard, pointing to the backpack the man left.
“Not inside the barrier, no. He passed the security check, so the machines aren’t worried. If they watched for that kind of thing, none of the Officers would be able to leave a handbag or their lunch when they went to the bathroom. We’d get warnings all day.”
“Yeah,” Quinn said, unconvinced.
He took the backpack down the hall to a private examination room, where he unzipped it and dumped the contents on the desk. A banana, a mechanical pencil, and a spiral-bound notebook bounced out. Quinn shook the bag, then patted it, but there didn’t seem to be anything else. He lifted the notebook and flipped the pages from the back. Except for the first few, it was empty. Someone had written, or perhaps copied, a grid of numbers, none more than two digits long, in uneven pencil lines. He replaced everything in the bag, checked the waiting area one more time, and walked back toward Section 08.
He met Shirley in the hall, and she handed him color printouts of individual pieces of toast, each of which sat next to a different numbered card.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“Sentient toaster art. Crazy lady wanted to speak to ‘the manager.’ I said you were busy solving the murder of JFK but promised she’d be next.”
Quinn tossed the backpack over his shoulder and flipped through the pages. He saw a fuzzy Mona Lisa, the Birth of Venus, and what appeared to be a burnt Picasso. But then, who could tell?
“Since when am I the manager?” he asked.
“Don’t ask stupid questions. But that reminds me. That call you didn’t answer was from the Director’s office. You’re wanted. Now, apparently.”
Quinn scowled as Shirley walked back to the front. Quinn swiped his key card at a nearby door and stepped into a long, stark room that was almost completely empty. Every sound echoed. In the corner near the far door stood a single server rack. Dark wires ran across the floor and disappeared. A skinny-legged Hispanic man with a pot belly appeared from behind the rack. He wore baggy khakis and sported the traces of a mustache across his upper lip that stubbornly refused to grow.
“Hey, Manny.” Quinn waved.
“Agent Quinn, you know you’re not supposed to be in here.”
“Just passing through,” Quinn explained cordially with the backpack over his shoulder.
“But this isn’t a shortcut. This is the server room. It’s going to house some very sensitive data and equipment. Only authorized persons—”
“Then why does my key card work?”
It shouldn’t have, and Manny struggled with a response as Quinn dumped the toast art into a chrome trash bin near the far door.
“Thanks, Manny,” he called as the door shut behind him.
The Director’s office was three levels up on the second floor. The receptionist was AWOL, probably at the hospital with their boss. Quinn opened the door and saw a suited and bespectacled chimpanzee sitting behind the director’s oak desk.
Dr. Hamilton Chang lowered his thick-rimmed glasses. He had more gray stubble under his chin than Quinn remembered from his job interview. “A mere formality” the ape had told him since Quinn had come recommended by a mutual friend.
“Commissioner,” Quinn said, walking in. “To what do we owe the surprise?”
“Nothing nefarious,” the chimp explained in a gravelly voice. “Just checking up on things while Director Ogada is in the hospital. Officer Galois explained on the phone just now that our colleagues in law enforcement have been giving us a warm welcome.”
Quinn made a face and sat down. He set the backpack on the floor. “New agency bullshit. It’ll pass. I wish I could say the same for the demonstrations.”
“Yes,” Dr. Chang nodded. “They are persistent.”
“I thought they might let up after your last tour of the new. Very well said, by the way, sir.”
“Thank you. But I think everyone is tired of hearing from me. Even myself.”
Quinn smiled at the joke, not because it was funny, but because it came from such a serious and erudite mind.
“I’d rather hear about Section 08,” Chang said.
“Were we in the news again?”
“No. At least, not for anything new. I assume you’re still short-staffed.”
Quinn nodded. “Making progress. Thalia started last week. We got the kid from Stanford now, too. He’s downstairs getting a badge.”
“I apologize, Agent Quinn. Please remind me.”
“No need to apologize, sir. I don’t think anyone expects you to remember every name in the agency.”
“I am trying.”
“Thalia Reeves. Former LAPD. Cybercrime.”
“And ‘the kid from Stanford?’”
“Ezra . . . Chr— . . . something. Computer science. Or ‘robotic systems,’ I guess.”
“Ah. That’s right. Supposed to be very talented.”
“No law enforcement experience,” Quinn said flatly. “In fact, no experience of any kind.” He said it like he wasn’t particularly pleased with the hire.
“I take it Director Ogada hired him?”
“And you disagreed?”
“I’d prefer to share my opinion through the appro—”
“Work doesn’t stop because the director is in the hospital. Please. I will treat it as confidential.”
As Chair of the Science Regulatory Commission, Dr. Chang was Quinn’s boss’s boss. Once a Section Chief was hired, he would be Quinn’s boss’s boss’s boss.
“I don’t want to be accused of being a perfectionist,” Quinn said frankly. “I understand there are limitations. But we can only train so many at a time, and there were other qualified candidates.”
“Sonrisa Cortines. An ex-colleague at the FBI. Pursuit specialist.”
Dr. Chang leaned back. “Agent Quinn, this department was always going to be a bit of a hybrid.”
“Is that why you won’t give us guns?”
“We’re breaking new ground here. The people we’re trying to find—”
“Yes, sir. Forgive me for interrupting, but I get that. Right now, we’re not trying to find anybody. They’re coming to us. We don’t need young robotics gurus with no work experience who aren’t going to be happy filling out paperwork all day and who are just going to quit in a couple months. We need people with regulatory and law enforcement experience who can lay the foundation for the heavy hitters to come in later.”
“And Director Ogada disagrees?”
“He said the kid was something special. Didn’t want to lose him to another opportunity. I get he’s playing the long game, but in the meantime—”
“What about Dr. Kripke? How is he working out?”
“You mean Trotsky?” Quinn joked.
Chang looked confused.
“It’s nothing. There’s a resemblance. He’s fine. He’s a handful, but he’s not going anywhere. From what I understand, he’s already alienated most of the physics community.”
“Well.” The genius ape sighed. “Do the best you can, Agent Quinn.”
There was a moment of silence.
“We need her, sir,” Quinn said flatly.
“Yes.” Dr. Chang glanced out the window at the protests. “But she has made her position clear.”
“You don’t think we can change her mind?”
“That is a matter for another day.” He handed Quinn a file. “This request came half an hour ago.”
“For help. From the FBI.”
“The Bureau?” Quinn was shocked. His old employers had made it clear they thought Crimes Division was unnecessary and took its mere existence as an affront to theirs.
Quinn read the file for a moment in silence.
“What do they mean, a radioactive blob?”