“Mr. Dillon, isn’t it?” The man I’d come to see was sitting in a darkened alcove just a few yards down from the nurse’s station. He was good-looking in the way that only young people are able to pull off. He wore a pair of tan slacks and a silk shirt. All of his clothing was expensive and custom tailored. His clothing would have been immaculate except for the blood stains smeared across the right knee of his trousers… and the way his left shirt hung off his arm in tattered shreds. Suddenly, I felt better about my ten year old suit.
The young man raised his head at my question. That’s when I saw how shaken he really was. I’d fought in the Gulf War— the original one— for Daddy Bush. This kid had the same look I’d seen on some of the prisoners we’d rescued from Saddam. It was a harrowed expression. No doubt about it. He’d walked through Hell. Now, I needed to get him to tell me about the experience.
“Alex?” His voice was full of fear. “Is that you?” I think he would have ran if I hadn’t been standing in the only doorway. Instead, he reached into a pocket, grabbed something, fumbled it, and finally managed to pull out a pair of white glasses. He raised them to his face. Anyway, he stared at me from behind those glasses for a moment and then put them away again. It was such an odd thing to do.
I realized that he probably couldn’t see me very well. The fluorescent lights behind me had hidden my features in shadow. I took a sip of my coffee and stepped into the room.
“Are you a doctor?” the man asked. He was still nervous, but apparently, he’d realized I wasn’t this Alex character. “Of course you’re a doctor.” He half-jumped, half-fell out of his chair. “Who else would come find me in a waiting room at…” He looked at his watch. “At 3:18 in the morning? Can you tell me about Kavita? Is she okay? Is she still in surgery?”
His fear seemed to have diminished. It had been replaced by an eagerness and hope. He hoped for news. Ideally good news, but he’d reached the point where any update would be welcome.
I’d been there myself. Anyone who does this job long enough ends up spending a fair amount of time in places like these. Updates and information become a form of currency. My experience had taught me that sometimes doctors can be stingy when it comes to sharing the coin of the realm.
I closed my eyes for just a moment and then slowly shook my head. “No, Mr. Dillon. I’m not a doctor. My name is Barnes.” I held up a badge. “Detective Danny Barnes.”
As soon as he’d heard that I was a detective, he got that look in his eye. It was a look inspired by a hundred crime dramas. More recently networks devoted to true crime shows had taught entire generations to shut up when law enforcement came around.
It was the look that just screamed, ‘Lawyer!’ He wasn’t going to say a word until he had an advocate sitting next to him. His choice made, the young man eased himself back into his vinyl chair.
I walked further into the room and took a seat across from him in a chair of my own. This must have been the children’s side of the room. The chair felt like it had been made for a nine year old. Somehow, I managed to wedge my bulk into place and continued the interview.
“Mr. Dillon?” I waited for him to look up. He didn’t have to talk, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t listen. “I was hoping I could ask you a few questions.”
He didn’t reply.
I gave him a few moments. Silence. That’s normally the thing that breaks people. It makes them uncomfortable. I don’t know what it is, but there’s this almost sense of duty to talk. It gnaws at people when they feel like they aren’t living up to their obligations. This is especially true if the person is someone who hasn’t been in a lot of police interviews. This guy was like that. I could tell he’d never spoken to a detective.
When I started to get that vibe from him that the silence was getting under his skin, I continued, “Mr. Dillon…” I paused. “Eh, do you mind if I call you Tommy?” Easy question to get him talking.
“Would that be all right?” I flashed him a hint of a smile. See, Tommy, you’ve got all the power, I thought. I’m even asking your permission to call you by your first name.
“You can call me Tommy. I suppose that would be fine, Mr. Barnes,” Tommy said.
“Please,” I interrupted. “Call me Danny. Or Detective. Even call me Barnes if you want. Save that Mister stuff for someone else.” I’m just a regular Joe like you, buddy.
“I… I just don’t know that I should be talking to a police officer. Not right now.” His voice trailed off.
“I get it, kid.” I slapped a hand to one of his knees. I hoped that the difference in our ages would make this seem like a fatherly gesture. “You’re worried that I’m here to jam you up in some way. It’s not like that. I’m just a guy doing his job. Today, my job is to figure out what happened. That’s the only thing I’m doing.” I pulled a small note pad from my pocket. I wanted to be able to document anything he said that might have value. More than that though, I wanted to create the impression that I was expecting him to start talking.
“I’m not sure how I could help…”
“Well,” I took a sip of my coffee. Hospital coffee is the worst. “It’s like this, Tommy” I consulted my note pad. “I’ve got three dead people who were breathing yesterday. Another person is in a coma and another one, eh… that’d be your friend, Kavita, is in surgery. Then, there’s one more…” I flipped through some pages until I found the information. “Here it is. There’s a Meghan Leigh. She’s missing. No one has heard from her since yesterday.”
I sat my coffee on an end table next to the chair that was torturing my lower back. “And, then we’ve got you.” I let the sentence hang in the air like an indictment. I wanted to make him uncomfortable and a nervous. “You have a few scrapes and a couple of scratches. Your clothes are torn up.” I made a show of looking him up and down. “But all in all, you seem to be doing all right. In fact, you’re the only person I’ve found still vertical enough to help me understand what happened at the Sonoma Regency Center earlier today.”
I heard the vinyl creak under him as Tommy shifted how he sat in the chair. The way he kept fidgeting made him look guilty. Maybe my initial read of him had been wrong? Maybe there was more to him than the innocent victim routine.
“Am I under arrest?” Tommy asked.
“No.” I guffawed the word as if I was shocked he’d even suggest the idea. “We’re just talking here.” Whether or not he’d be under arrest before I sat down for breakfast was a good question, but right now he was only a witness. Just some poor guy who’d stumbled into the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I’d like to help you, detective. Really, I would, but I can’t.”
“Why’s that, Tommy?” I leaned forward in my chair and worried that the whole thing was going to collapse under me. “You were there. You saw these things happen. From where I sit, it looks like you’re the only person who can help me.”
“It’s not that,” he began. “It’s just that… well, it’s too strange. The story is weird. You wouldn’t believe me even if I took time to tell it.”
“Why don’t you let me decide what I will or will not believe? How about that?”
“I’m sorry,” Tommy said. Then, he went back to looking at the floor again.
“Tommy, I’m not going to lie to you. The brass is really leaning on me to get this solved. Three murders, a coma patient, a missing person, and your friend Kavita in surgery.” I stood up and walked to the window. From this floor, I had a view of much of the valley. A sleepy world hesitant to face a new day. “This is Marin, Tommy. This stuff doesn’t happen in Marin. Maybe San Francisco or Oakland. East San Jose, sure; but not Marin. This is supposed to be the quiet little community where people go to get away from the city. Murder doesn’t happen here.”
“It’s just that it’s all so crazy. I lived through it and I barely believe it. Besides, it would take too long to tell.”
“I’ve got time, Tommy” I smiled again. Genuinely this time because that was the moment when I knew I had him. “When I checked at the nurse’s station, they told me they expect Kavita’s surgery will last at least another six hours. So, you see, we’ve got plenty of time.”
That got his attention. And, I could tell by the way he glared at me that he understood what I was doing. That was fine. He had information that I wanted. I knew a few things he wanted. Nothing better than a nice trade.
“None of the nurses would tell me anything because I’m not a family member. Did they say how she’s doing?”
“She’s as stable as can be expected given the type of injuries she sustained. A lot hinges on this surgery though. The stuff they are doing right now will determine if she lives or dies. It’s an important procedure.” I tried to look nonchalant as I said, “I’d be happy to pass along any updates I get in exchange for what help you can give me with this case.”
I saw the exact moment he decided to cooperate. He didn’t want to, but I was the only way he’d find out about his friends condition and I would only share that information if there was a quid pro quo. I smiled and thought, Gotcha.
“All right, Detective,” Tommy said. “You win. I’ll tell you my story. Before I do though, I need to ask you one question.”
“Shoot,” I replied.
“Do you like video games?”
“Video games?” I gave the kid a confused look. “What do video games have to do with…”
“Trust me,” Tommy interrupted. “That question has everything to do with the story. Not just any game though. Have you ever played Galaxy Ranger?”
The name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it. That didn’t surprise me. I’d played video games when I was a kid; but, everyone did back then. They were brand new. Back then, if you had the money, you could feed your habit one quarter at a time. Now, a good system would set you back the equivalent of a mortgage payment. “Never heard of it. What’s your point?”
Tommy exhaled a frustrated sigh. “I’ll explain it for you, detective.” He said the words in a slow and patronizing manner that grated on my sunny disposition. “Galaxy Ranger is an augmented reality game. It comes with a visor. If you’re wearing the visor, you can see a battlefield and the digital assets that you control.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “When you say digital assets are you talking about little 3D holograms? Guys that are like four inches tall? They run around the room and fight each other? Jumping off couches and stuff like that?”
“Yes!” His eyes lit up like a junior high kid who’d just stolen that first kiss. “The visor maps your room and factors real world geometry into the game space. It overlays your couch or whatever with graphics to make your living room look like the rocky world of some alien planet…”
“Hang on, I have a feeling I’m going to need a coffee for this, black. Can we continue this next door in the break room?”
We made our way next door. The break room was small. Little more than a mini fridge, a microwave, and an aging coffee pot. Cabinets lined the walls. I dug through the drawers until I found the coffee filters and went about making a new pot. It was bad. The last time this machine had been cleaned was probably sometime during the second week of the Iran-Contra hearings, but it was all I had.
“I think I know the game you’re talking about. My nephew plays that stuff. Never caught the name. What about it? More to the point, what’s any of this have to do with the events at the Regency Center?”
Tommy shook his head. I could tell he felt like he was talking to some clueless grandpa. I’m not gonna lie. There was part of me that really got a kick out of driving the kid nuts. “Maybe I should just start at the beginning.”
I barked out a short laugh. “That’s what I’ve been asking you to do since I walked in the door.”
“All right. Let’s get into it, then. The whole thing was Gabe’s fault.”
Now, we’re getting somewhere. “That would be Gabe Phillips?”
“Eh, yeah,” Tommy muttered.
I scribbled the words ‘GABE=KILLER’ into my notepad. Then, waited for the kid to elaborate, but he’d gone silent on me again. “And, you’re saying that Mr. Phillips killed those people and wounded the others?”
“No!” There was more than surprise in his voice. There was a note of shock there. He gave me an incredulous look. “Gabe didn’t kill any of them.”
“Look, kid, you tell me it’s Gabe’s fault and act shocked when I ask if he was the murderer. I mean, you get why we’re having this conversation, right? You understand what I’m doing? You know why I’m here?”
“No… eh, yes. I know why you’re here.” A slight tremor followed and I knew he was thinking about the actual killer, almost without emotion, he muttered, “Gabe didn’t kill any of them.”
“Then, what are you saying?”
“Look, just let me tell my story, okay?” Tommy asked. “This back and forth questioning is getting me flustered.”
I raised my hands feeling a bit of my own frustration. “Fine, kid. Go ahead. Tell your story.” I kept my voice flat because I didn’t want to give away how much he’d ruined my equanimity. Fortunately, the coffee machine started to fill the carafe at that moment. I busied myself making a cup.
“The reason all of us were at the Regency Center was Gabe’s fault. The man thought we needed another team building exercise. He’d been dragging us there every weekend. You ever been out there?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know it well. Conventions and restaurants that serve liquor. Lotta DUI collars came outta that place back when I worked patrol.”
“I bet,” the kid said. “Gabe got a deal on the room we were using because the place has been under construction forever.”
“Yeah, the old man that owns that place has been dumping truckloads of money into it. Kind of a waste if you ask me.” I took a sip of the coffee. It was terrible. I took another sip.
“Nah, the stuff they’re doing out there is really cool. They have the entire place networked. Everything’s automated too. The first weekend we were out there, we ate in their dining room. Never saw a human the entire time. These little carts roll up to your table to take your order and then deliver your food. It’s like being in a sci-fi movie.”
“Eh, you’re really not convincing me here. I want a pretty waitress that I can ogle while she walks away.”
“Yeah, but with the carts, you don’t have to worry about the pretty waitress spitting in your food because she thinks you’re a creep.” I shrugged.
The kid had a point. “Anyway, they’ve really worked to make everything convenient and easy to use. Most amenities are voice activated: climate controls, audio/visual equipment, reserving rooms, check-ins and checkouts.”
“Did they show you the robots?”
“Robots?” Tommy asked. He thought for a moment and then his eyes went cold.
“You okay, kid? You look like you’re gonna be sick.”
“No…” he began. “I’m fine. It’s just that I realized you were talking about the maintenance drones.”
“Yeah, that might be what they call ‘em. I don’t know the term. They had a big write up in the local paper about those things. It talked about how these little robots were gonna handle cleaning and stuff like that. They said the things could even change a lightbulb.”
Tommy shivered. Clearly, he didn’t like this topic for some reason. He cleared his throat and said, “Yeah, I saw those things. They’re… eh, they’re part of the story.”
“All right, then.” I found myself wondering exactly what he’d been through. I tried to give him a reassuring smile. The last thing I needed was for my only witness to lose it before he’d had a chance to talk. “You go on and tell it how you need to tell it. I’m listening.” That reassurance was a small thing, but it did seem to calm him somewhat.
“Yesterday, was supposed to be our third team building exercise. This was because our sales manager, Gabe, was nervous about our quarterly numbers. He presented it like we were being given these training sessions to improve our skillsets, but really it was smoke and mirrors. He was trying to save his skin because the man was horrible at his job. He forecast impossible numbers…”
His voice trailed off as an alarm sounded overhead. We both looked over to the doorway that offered a view into the hall. Several nurses rushed past. One of them wheeled a cart in front of her as she ran down the hall.
I looked away from the door and over at the kid to see how he was doing. His face had gone pale. He thinks the alarm is about his friend. “Don’t worry. It’s not Kavita. Surgery takes place in a different part of the hospital.”
“Oh.” He began, but didn’t have a chance to finish his thought because a young woman burst into the room. She was around five feet tall and as young as the kid. She was a brunette with tan skin that was too perfect to be anything other than her natural coloring. I noticed her complexion because the white frames of her glasses were completely wrong for that skin type. She took half a step into the room and said, “Come on. That alarm won’t distract them for long. We’ve gotta go.”
Then, she noticed me. “Who are you?” It was more demand than question.
She was too close to the door for me to show my cards. “I’m gonna take a guess and say that you’re Meaghan. Is that right?” I glanced at Tommy and his expression confirmed my suspicions. “Meaghan, I’m here to help.”
As I said the words, I slipped the ring of a handcuff over Tommy’s wrist. The other half had already been closed around my own wrist. I couldn’t stop her from running, but I could stop him from being able to join her. Maybe that would be enough to slow her down or stop her entirely. I was hoping for the latter.
“What are you doing? You can’t cuff me! Am I under arrest?”
The girl gave me an exasperated look. Then, she stuck her head out into the hallway to look down the corridor. There was anger on her face when she turned back to us. “You brought the cops in on this, Tommy? Are you an idiot?”
“It’s not like that…” Tommy began.
“Meaghan, listen to me.” I had to calm her down or she was going to bolt. “I’m a detective. You keep looking out the door. Are you in danger? If you tell me what’s going on, I can help you.”
“Cops can’t help with this. Lettem go.” She’d started to move her hands in odd ways. She splayed the fingers of one hand while making a gesture through the air with the other. I felt Tommy squirming next to me.
When I looked over at him, I saw that he’d pulled out his own glasses. That’s when I noticed that they were a matched pair to the ones Meaghan wore. He’d no sooner put them on his face than his eyes went wide with terror. “Meaghan, no!”
“We don’t have time for this, Tommy. We have to leave.” As she said those words, she closed her left hand into a fist. I thought I heard her knuckles crack and then the world around me flashed blue and then white. The microwave next to me exploded. Electricity arced and fire filled the small box. Black smoke came out of the closed door.
“I don’t want to hurt you, mister, but you need to remove that handcuff or the next thing that pops will be your head.”
“Meaghan…” Tommy said.
“Shut up, Tommy!” Her eyes never left mine.
I knew when I’d been beat. I pulled out the key and undid Tommy’s cuff. “But, how?” I asked.
Tommy rubbed his wrist, looked up at me, and with a shrug of his shoulders said, “I told you, man. Video games.”