HSS: Perfectly Invisible Chapter One
(Perfectly Invisible is the first of the stories I’ll tell in the Homeland Security Services universe. In this world, the 1993 attack on the Twin Towers succeeded, killing over 60,000 people. It resulted in the passage of the 28th Amendment—something we’d recognize as The Patriot Act on steroids. It included the establishment of classes of American Citizenship, acknowledging in law the class stratification that already exists. A second terrorist strike in 1996 wiped out the Liberal Wing of the American political landscape and by 2011, an entire generation has grown up in a conservative nation.
These HSS stories will not be liberal nightmares, nor will they be Randian paeans to the blessings of an objectivist paradise. They’re a look at a universe so terribly close to ours, and yet removed from it by enough for us to wonder “what if?”)
Miracle Dunn paused outside the open doorway to apartment 6A. The silver Homeland Security Services badge clipped to her belt had gotten her past the Metro uniforms down in the apartment house’s lobby. She’d kept her dark aviator sunglasses on which, along with her dark suit jacket, slacks and double-breasted vest over a regulation white shirt and dark tie, marked her as government issued. She wore her blond hair pulled back into a ponytail and had secured it with an elastic band that matched her suit.
The uniforms in the lobby were meant to be impressed with her cool anonymity, but the Metro homicide detectives would be anything but. Not only not impressed, but resentful at HSS interference forcing them to surrender a case. As she entered the apartment, walking down a short corridor leading past the bathroom and a galley-sized kitchen, she removed her sunglasses, but set her face in as neutral an expression as she could manage. She modeled it on those her instructors at Quantico had worn every single day. Firm nonchalance.
Phil Quinn went and ruined it. He’d always been preternaturally observant, but she could tell from his grin that he’d been expecting her. The middle-aged man in a rumpled trench-coat swiped the back of his hand over his forehead. “It’s okay, boys, the day is saved. The Snakes have sent their best.”
Two other detectives and a Metro crime tech laughed. The forensic pathologist, who wore an HSS windbreaker, didn’t even turn from the corpse to see who had walked in.
“Inspector Quinn, so nice to see you again.”
“So formal, Agent Dunn.” Phil pulled a take-away cup of coffee from a cardboard tray and extended it to her. “I’m just yanking your chain. When I called, I was glad to hear you were catching.”
She accepted the coffee and her expression cracked. “It’s good to see a friendly face, and great to be back to work after six months in a class room.”
“I wanted to come down to Quantico for your graduation, but JR had the flu, so Dee swapped weekends with me and I got to nurse him.”
“I got the flowers, Phil, thanks.” She popped the plastic top off the coffee and sipped. Light cream, two sweeteners and a touch of cinnamon. Phil never forgets anything. “What do we have?”
“Always liked that you were business first.” Quinn led her toward the apartment’s far wall. Blood spatter centered around a bullet-hole which had seen sealed beneath a sheet of plastic. The lower half of the splatter had been smeared by the victim’s slow slide to the ground. Brown-haired woman, late-twenties, slender, naked, lay slumped at the base of the wall with a gunshot wound to her chest, just above her left breast.
“What we have is the vic, through and through GSW.”
Miracle frowned. When she’d been with Metro homicide, she’d worked dozens of simple homicides like this, and never had HSS been called in. “What makes this special?”
The forensic pathologist looked up from where she knelt beside the body. A petite woman of Asian ancestry, she pushed glasses up on her nose with the back of a blue latex glove. “GSW, yes, likely cause of death but…” She reached down and opened one of the woman’s brown eyes. Blood stained the eyeball. “Petechial hemorrhaging. Bruising around her neck. She was strangled before she died. Given the nature of the bruising, two to three hours would be accurate. I will know after I get her back to the lab and do a full examination.”
Miracle dropped to a knee to take a better look. “Okay, the strangulation complicates things, Phil, but I still don’t see why this is HSS.”
Phil pointed at the hole in the wall. “Bullet went all the way through. I went along to the next apartment to see if anyone had been hurt. I get in, look, no bullet hole, which is impossible.”
He held a hand out to the lab-tech. “Barber, need your light again.”
The man flipped it to Phil, who exchanged it for Miracle’s coffee.
“Be careful, Agent Dunn, don’t mess up my crime scene.” The pathologist held her arms out, proscribing a path. “And I expect you in my lab as soon as possible so I can get swabs and samples for elimination purposes.”
Miracle frowned. “All of that information is in my files. Metro’s had it for ever.”
The Asian woman snorted. “Metro. Uh huh.”
Phil laughed. “Since HSS is to the Department of Justice what the Green Berets are to the Army, Metro is strictly Neighborhood Watch by comparison. Of course Dr. Reynolds will need to take her own samples. I got that lecture down right, Doc?”
Reynolds gave the Metro detective a withering stare, then returned her attention to the body.
Miracle worked her way around the corpse. She pulled on a pair of latex gloves and hunched down. She flicked the flashlight on, peeled back the plastic seal over the hole, and shined the light through. Given the hole’s size, Miracle figured the bullet had been at least a .45, which would have sounded like a cannon in the small apartment and should have awakened the neighbors in the wee hours of the morning.
The beam played over a dusty narrow room. It caught a lot of cobwebs, which acted like fog. Furniture and appliances appeared in all the right places and looked upscale if a little dated. More important than that, however, was the mummified corpse stretched out in a recliner, facing the dead television.
Miracle flicked the light off and turned. “That’s a big old TV in there. Makes time of death, what, twelve years ago?”
Phil tapped his nose with a finger. “That’s why you got tapped for HSS, Agent Dunn, and why this whole messy case lands squarely in your lap.”
Miracle stepped away from the hole, resealed it and handed the tech his light back. “What have you got on the here-and-now?”
Phil handed her the coffee cup, then flipped open his iPad. “The vic’s name is Nancy Pelham. She’s a Legacy. She’s been in here for four months of a two year lease. Records are vanilla; she works as a creative marketing consultant. She’s working for United Pharma, Limited. That’s what I’ve got so far. I’ll email it to you.”
“I know the formula, Miracle.” The Metro detective closed the tablet. “Barber, what have you covered?”
The tech sighed. “The body, immediate area. I was going to hit the bedroom area next and work clockwise.”
Phil smiled. “He’s yours until Doctor Reynolds’ team can get up here, but he’s good.”
Miracle smiled. “Gonna walk me through, for old time sake?”
“I never thought HSS agents needed help.”
“Truth is, Phil, I wanted to see if you still have it.”
“I see you aced the Tact Extraction Course.” Phil chucked easily. “Tell you what, kid, for old time’s sake, you toss the place, tell me what you see, and we can debate.”
“You want to see if I’ve still got it?”
“I want to see if the Fed’s taught you any Sherlock Holmes tricks I can steal.”
They started in the bathroom. White tile dominated. The tub faucet leaked, leaving a rusty stain on the porcelain. Shampoo and conditioner were high end, but not salon brands; and were purchased in large enough sizes to have come from a warehouse club. The razor in the shower was nearing the end of its life based on the wear on the lubrication strip. Toilet paper and tissue were name brands and known for comfort. Whitening toothpaste, tube squeezed from the bottom, cap attached. One toothbrush, fairly new. The soap in the shower and at the sink were small bars with all the decorations worn off them, neutral scents, nothing exotic.
The medicine cabinet had no prescription drugs, just the normal, run of the mill mix of pain killers and creams. Cosmetics were limited to the basics: lipstick, eyeshadow, mascara and a foundation. A brush and comb had been squeezed onto the lower shelf. Nothing outrageous.
Miracle glanced at Phil’s reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror as she closed it. “Trace might show hairs from a man, but nothing indicates she had a live-in or frequent visitor.”
“Her getting strangled while naked in the middle of the night suggests she had at least one.” Phil shrugged. “But, I agree with your assessment mostly, except for one thing.”
Miracle cocked her head. “What did I miss?”
“Everything is laid out neatly. Everything is clean, but the faucet is leaking and that stain is nasty. She’s been her four months. Why wouldn’t she have had it cleaned or fixed?”
“Good question.” Generally speaking, people fit into a slot on the neat-freak or slob continuum and stick there, except when outside pressure overwhelms them. stressed folks just collapse into a state where clutter abounds and little areas of neatness remain where they can eat or sleep—and their neatness is relative to everything else. On the rare occasion, a person retreats and becomes hyper neat; since that is the only area where they can successfully exert control—establishing order amid chaos. Pelham, it appeared, tended toward the neat-freak end of things, which made the rust stain something that should have been done away with.
Bearing all that in mind, Miracle moved to the kitchen. More white tile. The pantry shelves held a few staples, again bought in warehouse club quantities. The dishes had been washed and placed in a drying rack beside the sink. The dish towels had been folded. The stovetop showed little sign of cooking; the freezer had a number of frozen, low-cal meals, and the refrigerator had a few take-out cartons, each labeled with a date. Condiments had been exiled to the fridge door, cheeses, meats and veggies had been segregated into their bins, but there were few enough of each that the fridge looked largely empty.
She turned to Phil. “You said this was a two-year lease, right? Was the apartment furnished?”
The detective gave her a smile and a nod. “Nailed it. Kind of has the feel of an executive apartment, doesn’t it? Homier than a hotel, but not by much.”
Miracle pulled out her iPhone and made a note to check on whether or not Pelham had a cleaning service, or if the building offered the same. “How did the call come in? Did you already take a witness back to the precinct?”
“Anonymous 911, burner phone, 6 AM. I did a quick canvas, no one heard anything, but the walls here are pretty well insulated. Everyone commented on that.”
Easy way for them to duck involvement. “You tell them HSS would be taking over the case?”
“I wanted information, Miracle, not to terrorize them.”
“I just started. I don’t get to terrorize until my probation is up.”
She continued through the apartment, where the color scheme shifted from white to golds and browns. The furniture was all blond Scandinavian do-it-yourself modern which looked to be anywhere from new to five years old. Tasteful and clean. Pelham had a few books stacked up, but had a Nook recharging on a table. No gaming console, but a decent flat-screen and stereo—new and warehouse store available. iPhone in the docking station which was clipped into a laptop. An iPad a generation newer than the one Quinn had sucked a charge from the laptop’s other USB port. A cable snaked from the laptop into the stereo. None of the cables had tangled.
Aside from the dead body, the only oddness in the apartment’s great room was a trio of long-limbed dolls that had an anime look about them. They sat, all three, on the couch and were faced toward the television, but Miracle didn’t get the sense that they had been arranged to study it. “It seems as if they were put there so they’d not be looking at something else.”
Phil nodded. “Two of them in the corners of the couch normally, one in the recliner? The two on the couch would have seen the bedroom area. The third was moved from the chair, and all three arranged to look away from both the chair and the bedroom?”
“Not a surprise.”
“Yeah, they’re creepy looking—beautiful, but creepy.” Phil shook his head. “I hope my daughter never wants them.”
“Better her than your son.”
Miracle turned and studied the sight lines into the bedroom, where the colors got a bit darker, moving to chocolate and bronze. The square apartment’s layout was such that a wall ran into the room, to the midpoint, from the hall side of things. It divided the entryway, closet, bathroom and kitchen from the bedroom. The bedroom itself had a raised floor with two steps to get up into it. Two wardrobes and a dresser took the place of a closet. The bed’s head rested against the wall through which the bullet had passed. The bed had been made and was flanked by two nightstands with lamps, again all some-assembly-required.
Quinn laughed. “A Snake could dress out of that closet, save for the scarves. Blues and greens, mostly solids, a few patterns. A few suits are still in the dry cleaning bags, from right across the street next to the Coffee Break franchise.”
Miracle looked at Phil, then at the others in the room. “Phil, this case is just too easy. Strangled, naked, shot; it’s a love triangle of some sort. Track down her lovers, or her lovers’ lovers, and we have our man. Is this some sort of a set-up?”
“You don’t think I’m passing you an easy one, do you?”
“You couldn’t have known I’d catch it.”
“Right.” Phil shrugged. “Look, you might be right that this case is an easy one, but it’s the ones you figure are easy that always turn out to be weird. If you’re right, you get a quick close and look good with your team. If not, you’ll still close it and look good. But it isn’t Pelham or her weird dolls or the stain in the bathroom that makes this an HSS case. It’s that the bullet passed through a wall and into a place that, as nearly as anyone can tell, hasn’t existed for over a dozen years. Now I know two things. First, making a place that has a corpse in it disappear requires the sort of juice that is way above my pay grade. Second, if anyone is going to figure out what happened in there, it’s going to be a Snake. And, since it’s you, my friend, just this once, I’ll cheer for the Snakes.”
Perfect Invisible ©2011 Michael A. Stackpole
(You can continue to Chapter Two by hitting the link.)
Thanks for taking the time to read through the sample chapter of Perfectly Invisible. I had a lot of fun writing it, and am looking forward to more adventures with Miracle, Fyn and the rest of Team Krait.
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