The video conference device droned.
Quinn hit the button and the screen split into six boxes. The first was the conference room at the FBI office in New York. Seven agents, including Special Agent Erving, sat around a table. A pair of agents in Minneapolis sat next to each other awkwardly in the next feed. The third was a lone agent in a sparse room. The label said “Dallas.” The fourth was Nio’s motel room. The fifth was a conference room at Quantico labeled “Behavioral Analysis.” The last was Dr. Chang, who sat at a large mahogany desk. Behind him was a cabinet full of hardbound legal texts.
“Let’s get started,” Erving said.
“You’re audio’s a bit weak, sir,” Quinn noted.
The agents in the room moved the microphone closer.
“How was your family leave?” Erving asked Quinn.
“It was good, sir. Thank you.”
“You sure you don’t need more time?”
“If it’s all the same to you, sir, let’s catch this guy.”
“Ms. Tesla,” Erving said, “I trust you are relaxed and ready to go.”
“As much as I’ll ever be.”
“I’m sure all of you know Dr. Hamilton Chang, the president’s science adviser. He’s asked to be updated on this case. He’s joining from his office in DC. I suppose we should start with the bad news. We have another victim.”
Nio shot up. “What?”
A female agent sitting next to Erving took over the briefing. “82-year-old Harold Sands and his wife were found by Fort Worth PD this morning.”
She lifted a small remote from the table and pressed it. The screen changed to a static picture of an elderly white man with sparse but wild white hair. Bloody bandages were taped over his forehead. His eyes were crazy.
“Mr. Sands apparently removed part of his own forebrain and . . . fed it to his wife of 37 years, who is suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s.”
“Jesus . . .” someone said.
“It gets worse,” Erving warned.
Nio and Quinn looked for each other’s reaction as the screen changed.
“This is the crime scene as it was found this morning.”
An elderly woman in a nightgown was chained to an old bed. Her lips were stained red-brown and frozen in a wail. A pair of symmetrical burn marks adorned both sides of her forehead. There was a cluster of ruptured cysts on her neck. Nio leaned forward when she saw them.
“Mr. Sands was led to believe that the brain tissue, in conjunction with transcranial stimulation, would abate his wife’s symptoms. Or so he informed police when they took him into custody.”
“Agent Jindal,” Erving said to the microphone, “have you had a chance to interview the suspect?”
The video changed to the officer in Dallas. “Not yet, sir. He’s still in surgery.”
“What’s the word?”
“Touch and go. Even if he survives, he has virtually no chance of a normal life. The part of the brain he removed is the . . .” Agent Jindal started skimming through his notes.
Nio said “ventral prefrontal cortex” at the same time Dr. Chang said “orbitofrontal cortex.”
“Yeah,” Agent Jindal confirmed. “That. Docs said it’s involved in decision-making.”
Dr. Chang was reviewing papers while he listened. He looked up. “Don’t wait for me, Ms. Tesla. Please.”
“It’s the part of the brain involved in response inhibition,” she explained. “Damaging or removing it would make him less likely to stop what he was doing. It’s also one of the few parts of the brain you could remove by yourself with a mirror.”
“So, with that part missing or damaged, Mr. Sands would be more likely to stick with the plan even if his wife resisted,” Erving clarified.
“Basically. Her reaction, no matter how extreme, would be much less likely to deter him. It was a way of making sure he’d go through with it.”
“Where did the burns come from?” one of the agents in Minneapolis asked.
“That’s the transcranial stimulation,” Agent Jindal said. “Someone sent him an antique electroshock device. Damn thing is made of brass.”
“That’s good,” someone off-camera suggested. “Antique like that might be traceable.”
“Please tell me you found the box it came in,” Erving added.
“Local PD are going through his trash. There’s a lot of it, sir. The couple were basically hoarders. House is something else. And—” He stopped.
There was an awkward pause. Erving was about to speak when Nio blurted “What are you not telling me?”
There was another pause. Dr. Chang looked up from his papers, suddenly very interested.
Special Agent Erving leaned over the mic. “Excuse me?”
“He wouldn’t pick a mentally ill elderly couple. It’s no challenge for him. He targets fully competent people, smart ones even. Tricking them into hurting each other is how he proves he’s better than everyone. A couple of elderly hoarders would be no challenge.”
“Are you saying this isn’t our guy?”
“No, it’s definitely him. Everything fits. Those cysts are identical. Which means there’s some reason he broke the pattern. Everyone on this call has ties to the bureau. Except me. So what is it I’m not supposed to hear?”
Erving sat back, clearly frustrated. He sighed. “Tell her.”
The agent to his right, a stocky, muscular man in a gray suit, took the remote control and pressed it.
“We pulled the household internet history. These videos had been watched repeatedly over the last several days.”
The screen switched to footage of Dr. Quest, a charismatic TV physician, on the set of his show. He was describing, with a smile on his face, how to use the electroshock machine.
“Deep fake,” Nio said.
“Yes,” the agent answered. “We think Mr. Sands thought he was communicating with Dr. Q. This is the part.” The agent turned the volume up.
This particular process was developed by Nikola Tesla himself and stimulates immediate regeneration of nerve tissue. The reason no one knows about it is because Edison’s men kept it secret and destroyed most of the working prototypes. Because your wife qualifies for our study, we’re providing this device free of—
The video stopped.
Quinn filled the silence. “He’s calling her out.”
“We believe so, yes.”
“There’s more,” Erving said. “The couple had a live-in caretaker. He is presently missing. Preliminary forensics indicates a struggle. Wherever he went, it wasn’t voluntarily.”
Dr. Chang removed his glasses and sat back. Everyone was looking at Nio, who sat on the edge of the bed staring at the floor, barely keeping it in.
“You have to let me find him,” she breathed.
“You are,” Special Agent Erving countered. “We’re all in agreement that your guidance here is invaluable. You’ve been chasing this guy longer than any of us. You’re on the team, Ms. Tesla.”
“You know what I mean,” she said. “Not from here. Not by teleconference.”
Erving didn’t answer.
Nio swallowed. “What else?” she asked without looking at the screen.
“He recorded the whole thing,” Agent Jindal said. “Through the home’s digital assistant, which was looping a song when local PD arrived.”
“So we’d be sure to find it,” Quinn said.
“What song?” Nio asked.
“Umm . . .” Agent Jindal looked through his notes again. “It was an old song. Indian Love Call? By Slim Whitman.”
“Have you listened to the recording?” Quinn asked.
“I started. I—” Agent Jindal stopped. He cleared his throat. “I apologize, sir.” He was talking to Erving. “I’m having a little trouble making it to the end. The wife . . .” Agent Jindal’s voice broke.
Everyone was quiet.
“It’s just that his wife is begging for him to stop. It’s really hard to listen to, sir.”
“It’s all right,” Erving said. “I’d be worried about you if you wasn’t. Take your time, Prasad.”
Agent Jindal nodded. “Thank you, sir. I’ll upload it tonight with the rest.”
“I want to hear it,” Nio said.
“Nio . . .” Dr. Chang began. He sighed. He didn’t finish. He seemed to understand the futility.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Erving said.
“That poor man lobotomized himself and fed it to his wife before shocking her to death—as a message to me. I want to fucking hear it.”
Erving nodded to the screen.
“I’ll forward it to Agent Quinn,” Agent Jindal said.
“Thanks,” Quinn told him.
Nio stared at the floor.
“Quantico,” Erving said, “what the hell are we dealing with here?”
“Data suggests he’s probably male. 30s or 40s. It would be hard for someone younger to amass the knowledge he’s demonstrated. He’s very intelligent. Normal work wouldn’t be fulfilling for him. You’re probably looking for a scientist or other—”
Nio burst into a single laugh.
“You have something to add, Ms. Tesla?”
“He’s not an effing scientist. Not any more than I am.”
The team in Quantico clearly didn’t enjoy being contradicted. “Then what is he?” the lead agent asked.
“His need to be better didn’t come out of nowhere. He’s a narcissist and an overachiever. He’ll flaunt his superiority in all the socially acceptable ways: big house, fancy car. He has the resources to pull all this off, which suggests wealth, which ties to his narcissism. But setting this stuff up takes a lot of time. People like Maureen and Mr. Sands need to be groomed. I’d guess he’s an insomniac. If he shuts his eyes, he re-experiences whatever trauma drives him. Somebody told this guy over and over that he was inferior, the worst kind of human excrement. In his mind, the rest of society reinforced that, which is why he has no problems taking his frustrations out on strangers. He’ll have a high status job, one that rewards him financially for his intellectual gifts. He might be university trained but he’s not a bench scientist. He’s a senior executive at a tech company or maybe an investment bank.”
“Why a bank?” Quinn asked.
“Investment banks use cutting edge math. Both jobs skew heavy with psychopaths.”
“Quantico?” Erving asked.
“That’s not exactly our finding.” She paused. “But it’s close.”
“Share your report with the team.” Erving raised a finger in warning. “I expect everyone to read it. No exceptions. What about updates on the other victims?”
A woman in the New York conference room spoke. “Lab guys finally got back to us on the sequence recovered from Beckham Carter.”
“They said it was a kind of cytoplasm, a protein matrix wrapped around sequences of mRNA. They think the proteins were just there to keep the RNA from degrading, but they have no idea what it’s for. It’s apparently very complex, thousands of times longer than normal.”
Quinn looked to Nio, but she only shook her head. His laptop dinged then and she got up without a word and took it outside.