No one on the street noticed the man with the backpack as he strolled up the steps to the government building. No one turned as he held the door for a young PhD candidate and her friends, who stumbled out laughing and joking derisively at her newly minted license. No one moving through the foyer glanced at him as he answered a brief series of questions at an automated kiosk and pulled a slip of paper from the side. No one stopped him as he passed to the waiting area, visible just beyond a glass barrier. The guards barely registered his face as they checked his ID and asked him to step through a scanner. When it glitched momentarily, they asked him to move aside, which he did without objection while his backpack was sent through a second, smaller device. When the light at the top turned green, the man collected his bag and took a seat under the circular seal that hung on the wall. The words SCIENCE CONTROL AGENCY curved in block chrome letters around the matching icon at the center.
After several minutes, a loud beep preceded a calm automated voice, which spoke the words “A36. Now serving A36 at cubicle number 4.” The man checked the number printed on the slip of paper to make sure he had remembered it correctly. Then he rose and made his way at an even pace to a painted walkway that branched into colored paths, each marked by a different number. Each path led to a glass-walled cubicle, from which the whole of the hall was openly visible. Everything smelled new.
Cubicle 4 held two chairs, one each on either side of a plank-desk that jutted from the wall. There was no computer. Any part of the glass could be turned into a touchscreen, as the officer behind the desk was demonstrating. She typed on the desk, where an optical keyboard was projected, and greeted the man without turning from the multiple displays in the otherwise clear wall next to her.
“Have a seat, sir.”
The man sat down and set his backpack next to the chair.
“What can I do for you?” The woman’s name tag said SHIRLEY.
“I want you to arrest me.”
“Arrest you?” she asked, completely unperturbed. “What for?”
“I killed the president. And several others, actually. But that’s the most important.”
“Mm-hmm,” she replied without turning from her report. “And when did you do that?”
“I shot the president a couple years ago,” he explained. “But it was in 1963.”
She glanced him over quickly before resuming her typing. Her nails clack-clacked on the desk. “You know what year it is, right?”
“Yes, of course I do.”
“You look pretty good for a hundred-and-some-year-old man.”
“I’m no older than I look.”
“So you went back in time, is that it? Your name Lee Harvey Oswald?”
“No, it’s Jones. And yes, I did. I can prove it.”
The man reached into 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.
She looked at it skeptically. “What’s this?”
“It’s a piece of the president’s brain. Preserved in epoxy.”
Shirley stared. “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 and that 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 tricked. “In ’66.”
“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. She swiped her screen closed. “Stay here.”
“Of course,” he said calmly.
After walking a step, she stopped. No way Agent Quinn would believe her. She wouldn’t, if she was him. But she also wasn’t sure what he’d want her to do. It was, after all, only her second week on the job. But Officer Shirley Cisneros, formerly of the Transportation Security Administration, had interviewed hundreds (if not thousands) of people over the course of her career, and there was something about the man sitting calmly at her desk.
She turned and swiped the disc.
“Just a moment,” she said, walking away.
“Of course. Take your time.”
She walked around the glass cubicles to the back, where her biometrics and electronic key card granted her access to a heavy door with guards on both sides. At the end of the T-shaped hall, she turned left and entered the stairwell. One floor down, in the first basement, a set of fire-proofed double doors were painted in two words: CRIMES DIVISION, and she pushed them open.
The raucous rectangular room on the other side was part office, part laboratory, and part mechanic’s garage. Eight desks on an open plan were evenly spaced in two rows, completely circled by the steel cabinets and electronic equipment that lined all four walls. There seemed to be very little organization, and nothing seemed to match, not even the desks. The ceiling was exposed, including the light fixtures and the array of pipes and nozzles that made the fire suppression system. All of the people in the room were engaged, either on the phone or with each other, and no one took any note of Shirley, who began scanning the room for the handsome Orlando Quinn.
“It’s my toaster,” an older woman explained to the nearest Crimes Division agent, a short, stocky woman 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 pulled a large Ziplock bag from her purse. It was full of toast onto which various images 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.”
Back toward the door, 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 to Shirley as he hung up the phone.
“Call you what?”
“Hoss. My grandpa was Mexican, you know.”
“You wanna prize or something?”
“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 took his place.” She had a strong but clear accent and was dressed, as usual, in a man’s suit with the sleeves rolled.
“Which one is that?” Quinn called back. “Six Billion Dollar Man?”
“Terminator,” a gaunt, bespectacled man corrected from another desk. “Specifically, Terminator 2. 1991. A classic.”
The gaunt man rose to add Terminator to a list on a rolling white board.
“Anybody got a bingo?” he asked. “Clo?”
The French woman at the back checked her card. “Nah. I still need either Alien or The Remnants.”
“How many are we up to?” Quinn asked her.
“Calls? I don’t even know. If you mean warm bodies, eighteen. We’re running out of places to put them.”
“Have you called the county?”
“They already took seven. They’re not taking any more.”
“Where did they come from all of a sudden?” the gaunt man asked. “That’s what I wanna know. 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.
“Precise rules haven’t been established yet detailing our mandate, so they’re seizing on the moment’s confusion to send us anything and everything that might be remotely related.”
“In other words,” Shirley interjected dryly, “they’re trolling you.”
“I think they would call it hazing,” Quinn corrected.
“What’s the difference?”
“I don’t get it.” The gaunt man walked back to his desk, which bore a sign at the corner: B. KRIPKE, PHD. “Why are we processing them, then, if it’s just a joke?”
“We don’t know that all of them are,” Quinn replied. “Can’t take any chances.”
Dr. Kripke looked toward the door and lowered his voice. “You think toaster lady is serious?”
“Please just process them all correctly. 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.
“Kripke!” Quinn called.
“Missing since 1966. There’s a theory that his brother Robert took it to hide an illness or something, but I don’t believe it.”
Shirley shrugged at Quinn. “So. Man’s done his homework.”
“What does he want?”
“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 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. You wanna bring him down or not?”
Quinn sighed as the phone on his desk rang again. “Tell him to come back—”
“I’m not telling him anything that might upset him. Man freaks me out. You want him to come back later, you tell him.”
“No!” Mrs. Schnelle shouted. She stood. “I will not! You’re not taking me seriously. I’m telling you—”
“Trade?” Quinn asked.
“Are you suggesting that because of my gender?”
Quinn thought for a moment. “Yes.”
“Why can’t she handle it?” Shirley asked, motioning to the stocky agent doing a terrible job of calming the elderly woman down.
“That’s right,” Quinn said dryly, “you haven’t met Thalia yet.”
Shirley saw the look on his face. She sighed. Orlando Quinn was a six-foot-and-God-knew-how-many-inches gorgeous hunk of man. “Fine. But you do the paperwork for both.”
“Hold on. That’s not fair.”
But Shirley was already interjecting herself into the argument between the other women. Quinn sneaked around her and walked up the stairs to Receiving. But when he got to Shirley’s desk, the man was gone. His backpack sat on the floor, leaning against the chair. Quinn looked around, but seeing nothing, he took the bag to a nearby private examination room, where he unzipped it and emptied it on the desk. Inside was a banana, a mechanical pencil, and a spiral-bound notebook. He shook the bag, then patted it, but there didn’t seem to be anything else. He lifted the notebook and flipped from the back. Except for the first few pages, 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 SCD.
He met Shirley in the hall, who handed him the bag of toast.
“Sentient toaster art. She wanted to speak to the manager. I said you were busy solving the murder of JFK but promised she’d be next.”
Quinn lifted the bag. He saw a fuzzy Mona Lisa, the Birth of Venus, and what appeared to be a burnt Picasso.
“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 pot-bellied man in loose fitting khakis appeared from behind the rack. The traces of a mustache ran across his upper lip.
“Hey, Manny.” Quinn waved.
“Agent Quinn, you know you’re not supposed to be in here.”
“Just passing through,” Quinn explained cordially.
“But this isn’t a shortcut. This is the server room. It’s going to house some very sensitive equipment. You’re not authorized—”
“Then why does my key card work?”
It shouldn’t have, and Manny struggled with a response as Quinn dumped the bag of 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 on the second floor. The receptionist was AWOL, probably at the hospital. Quinn opened the door and saw a suited chimpanzee sitting behind the Director’s oak desk.
Dr. Hamilton Chang lowered his 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 he had come recommended by a person of their acquaintance.
“Commissioner,” Quinn said, walking in. “To what do we owe the surprise?”
“Nothing nefarious,” the chimp explained. “Just checking up on things while Director Ogada is in the hospital. Officer Galois explained on the phone that our colleagues in law enforcement are giving us a warm welcome.”
Quinn made a face and sat down. “New agency bullshit. It’ll pass.”
“But you’re still short-staffed.”
Quinn nodded. “But 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.”
“Thalia Reeves. Former LAPD. Cybercrime. Some homicide training.”
“And ‘the kid from Stanford?’”
“Ezra. Computer science. Or robotics, 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 not to talk about—”
“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, a division of the Department of Education, Dr. Chang was Quinn’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.”
“Agent Cortines. An ex-colleague at the FBI. Pursuit specialist.”
Dr. Chang leaned back. “Agent Quinn, this department is always going to be a bit of a hybrid. 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 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 bureaucratic 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. 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.
“That’s what the others call him. He’s fine. He’s a handful, but he’s not going anywhere. I’m not sure anyone else would have him.”
“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. “But in the meantime . . .” He handed Quinn a file. “The 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 SCD was unnecessary and took its existence as an affront.
Quinn read for a moment in silence.
“What do they mean, a slime?”
Selection from Science Crimes Division #2, presently untitled. The first in the series, The Zero Signal, is available free by request.