Another side effect of the nukes had to do with spatial frequencies shifting on Earth that created the doorway the Vellans used to pass from their universe to ours. Apparently, there are an infinite number of these parallel dimensions, too.
Yeah, I don’t get it, either.
Anyway, they’d also suffered from wars that had devastated their world. To avoid extinction, the Vellans came here. Our Earth was chosen because they’d discovered our reactivated Nexus nodes. Turns out their tech runs on the same energy, tapping into the Nexus nodes and converting the magical energy into recyclable fuel. The Vellans provided to all the enclaves the blueprints to build these machines, in exchange for peaceful asylum on our world. They also taught us how to fabricate spell-forged steel, a blended compound infused with magic to create an alloy far stronger and more durable than any man-made metal.
Once everyone overcame the initial shock of meeting interdimensional aliens, we stowed the guns—within easy reach—and it was business as usual. Relations with the newcomers improved to the cautious friendship of this particular meeting. Unfortunately, bigotry and ignorance remained two of humanity’s least favorable traits. Difference, be it skin, color, religion, or pointed ears still scared stupid people, and there were a few enclaves who wouldn’t allow the Vellans inside their borders without an armed escort. One guess which of the American enclaves fell into that category.
In a short amount of time, the Vellans learned all of our languages, and spent decades acclimating to our world. Although geneticists determined early on the two races couldn’t reproduce, that didn’t stop us from getting better acquainted. I’m told sex with a Vellan is quite the sensory experience, if you can stay conscious for it.
However, none of that explained why there was one at my crime scene.
She towered over me. Almond-shaped, gray eyes, wider than a human’s, framed an oval face with delicate features and a thin mouth. A colorful bandana clung to her head from the constant rain. She wore an unbuttoned black longshoreman’s coat over a blue peasant top and ruffled patterned skirt that reached her ankles. Open-toed sandals covered feet whose toes were adorned with small silver and gold rings. Her toenails and fingernails alternated between red and orange polish.
I was hard-pressed to call the Vellan attractive, but she wasn’t ugly either. And then there was the makeup. Her face was covered in it, as if caked on by some stoned bricklayer. It sloughed off her face in viscous, colored rivulets. Even her hair was dyed a dark color, the ink staining a ring around her scalp where the bandana ended.
Now that was interesting. Every cop studied Vellan culture back at the Academy to better understand our interdimensional friends. It helped with any disputes involving them, although I’d never heard of a Vellan breaking any of our laws.
Theirs was a caste system, a hereditary lifestyle that included occupation, social status, economic wealth, you name it. Hair color was one key component of determining societal rank, and they were forbidden to alter its natural pigmentation.
Was she trying to hide the fact that she was Vellan?
Oh, no, that wasn’t weird.
“Detective Holliday.” She approached me, extending her hand in greeting. It was a very human expression. “I am Besim Saranda. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
Despite a thick accent, her voice was musical, every word trembling with elements of tone and rhythm.
I gripped her larger hand in response. The handshake was firm, and I was surprised at her strength. She examined me dispassionately as if I were one of Stentstrom’s tissue samples. I shot a furtive glance at Deacon. He squatted beneath the large canopy ECPD had set up last night to study the ground.
“Doctor Saranda,” I acknowledged.
“Please, call me Besim.” She offered me a demure smile, the ghastly expression resembling melted wax. “Rarely do I employ the title.”
I eyed her disheveled appearance and offered her my umbrella.
“No thank you, Detective,” she replied, gesturing with a smile. “I enjoy the water. It cleanses both body and mind.”
Deacon chuckled. He stepped around the crime scene as if it were a mine field.
“I have already examined the ground, and the walls to either side,” the Vellan said with mild reproach, joining Deacon beneath the canopy. “Their policemen are correct. There is no trace of blood.”
“Yeah,” Deacon grunted. “But you ain’t got the first fucking clue what you’re looking for.”
The Vellan frowned but didn’t respond. Instead, she produced a thick handkerchief from one of the heavy coat’s inner pockets. She wiped at her neck, cheeks and brow with fastidious care, the movements precise and economical. The wreckage of her made-up face transformed into something less freakish and more, well, alien. Her face bore no wrinkles, almost piquant, like a fox. Across her forehead, down her cheeks, and along the sides of her neck were elegant markings, her familial tattoos, reverent inscriptions denoting her lineage and standing among Vellan society. It was their version of a fingerprint, a kind of artistic genetic code.
It was bad juju to cover them up too.
First the hair, and now the tattoos.
Curiouser and curiouser, eh, Alice?
“The wound described in the report, as well as the images provided, indicate a blood spray of a certain volume, angle and distance,” the Vellan said, her tone cool. “I find it remarkable that no such spray occurred, nor any presence of blood on the ground.”
“That’s why they call it a ‘mystery’,” Deacon replied easily. “If everything in life were that simple, y’all wouldn’t need cops.”
“Such is my point. I do not believe—” she began.
“Whoa, people.” I held up both hands. “This is my crime scene, and, no disrespect ma’am, you aren’t ECPD. So, before I let you contaminate things any further, I need to see your credentials.”
Besim held my gaze but didn’t blink. She folded the handkerchief into a neat square and returned it to the coat’s inner pocket. Then she produced a silver shield akin to the one I had on my belt, offering it to me. I stared at it hard.
“Will this suffice, Detective?” she asked mildly, one sculpted eyebrow quirking higher than the other.
Well, of course she has a fucking badge.
“I am assisting William with this investigation,” she continued, unperturbed. “He felt my knowledge would be of use to you. It was my understanding he made you aware of this arrangement at your meeting earlier today.”
“Well, William neglected to mention a few things.” I glared at Deacon, who ignored me.
“Then I must apologize to you, Detective Holliday.” She stiffened, a troubled frown creasing her face. “It was not my intent to insult or intrude. If I have caused—”
“Are you two done yet?” Deacon demanded. He peered up one wall. “This fucking rain is really pissing me off.”
Stepping under the canopy, I knelt near the holo-outline. I opened my bulky metal case to remove a larger version of the p-scanner. Dropping the umbrella, I waved the business end of the scanner over the ground in a slow arc, noting the readout. I spent several minutes maneuvering the device in wider arcs from the outline, outside of the canopy, along both walls for several feet, and then further along the alleyway in both directions. The alleyway extended the length of the two buildings, spilling out onto another street across from which was a Metro station.
I returned to find the others at the opposite end of the alleyway admiring a small security camera attached to one wall.
“The scanner is no replacement for CSI, but for what it’s worth, it confirmed no trace of blood,” I said. “And the rain obliterated any quality footprints.”
Something else occurred to me.
“An anonymous caller alerted ECPD. But with weather like we’ve had the past few days, how could anyone see anything? Uniforms arrived in time and almost nabbed our killer. I know our response time is fast, but that’s impressive even for the guys downtown.”
“Somebody must’ve heard something,” Deacon said, frowning at the camera. “Bill’s got officers canvassing the tenants of the bank and apartments. Maybe it was one of them.”
“Maybe,” I answered, unconvinced.
I surveyed the walls, noting the presence of the closest windows with the best vantage point. Then I glanced at the camera. There was scoring around its housing, but I couldn’t tell if it was rust, or something else.
“I’m going to check the other end to see if there’s a twin to this one,” I said.
I trotted back and found another with the same discoloration. That couldn’t be a coincidence.
“It’s the same,” I said as I walked up to them, and pointed at the device. “See that? It looks fresh, like a lightning strike. It didn’t storm last night. Something fried the circuits in both boxes. I need to see the bank’s security footage.”
We walked around the corner to find Grissom with a cup in hand, drenched and more miserable than before. We exchanged a few words, then made our way to the bank’s entrance. I felt bad for the kid. The rain wasn’t letting up. Hopefully, someone would relieve him soon.
The three of us were quite the sight strolling into Empire City Savings and Loan. Several customers gawked openly, and a few gave us a wide berth as they exited the building. I didn’t blame them. Bedraggled as we were, I expected the bank’s security to escort us out before I could show them my badge.
We were midway across the lobby when Besim was manhandled by a short, middle-aged woman in a dark business suit. The two embraced, somehow managing it without looking too awkward. As they disengaged, the woman fawned over the Vellan.
“Doctor Saranda!” she gushed. “What a delightful surprise!”
Besim smiled, her face transforming from cold and aloof to beatific in the blink of an eye. Color appeared in her cheeks, and her economical mannerisms became languid and relaxed. Even her mismatched clothing somehow seemed to match, as if her fashion sense was in tune with her sudden mood change.
“Darlene!” Besim crooned. “It has been too long. You look fantastic! How is Edward?”
The two wandered away, chattering happily with their arms linked.
I stood there blinking several times.
“What just happened?” I asked.
The two settled into Darlene’s office, carrying on like old sorority sisters. Their laughter flittered out in tinkling bursts. The banker stood up to close her door.
“Saranda’s got a lot of friends,” Deacon replied, amused by my reaction. “She don’t look it, but between her music and other business interests, she’s loaded.”
We tracked down the bank’s head of security, a portly man in a cheap suit named Bines. After questioning him and several of his technicians, they confirmed that something had overloaded the exterior cameras, including the one in the parking garage they shared with the apartments above the bank. Bines handed me a microdrive with last night’s footage, we said our goodbyes, and returned to the main banking floor.
We rescued Besim from the tearful clutches of the banker. After several embraces, a blubbery farewell (on the part of Darlene), and vague promises for get-togethers in the future (also by Darlene), we exited the bank.
“I trust your meeting with the security director went well?” she asked politely. Gone was the lively and ebullient musician, replaced by the demure, analytical doctor.
“It’s a start,” I replied, but didn’t elaborate.
I was annoyed and had no interest in answering any questions from our “consultant.”
On the walk back to the pod, a quick check with EVI confirmed Besim’s authorization to be on board. I tossed the umbrella onto the floor with a scowl and crashed in a command chair. Rubbing my face a few times with both hands, I turned to Deacon. He gave me the microdrive, then lit up another smoke. Besim sat next to me, hands folded in her lap. Ignoring her, I plugged the drive into the control console.
“Detective, while I process the data, I have completed collating the decedent’s pertinent information,” EVI informed me.
An instant later, Vanessa Mallery’s online history appeared in my eye.
I reviewed it, but nothing leapt out. Vanessa was an active participant within the online community. I presumed her position as an analyst at Hughes Advertising required a high level of social immersion as well. But none of the interest groups were unusual, nor did it appear she was involved in anything controversial.
Vanessa owned a modest savings account, student loans, small amount of credit debt, no liens or criminal record. She paid her taxes, owned a brownstone, but no car. She wasn’t outwardly religious or political, nor did she follow any e-Sports. Vanessa enjoyed live acoustical music, followed several artists, and hosted a website devoted to her paintings. Her work consisted of seascapes, and to my untrained eye, she was talented.
There were no excessive purchases or deposits, although she owned a cat. I found several receipts from Pet Depot and Butters Animal Hospital in Bay Ridge. And then there was Armin’s Coffee House. Six receipts from there in the past three weeks. Perhaps a connection between the killer and one of those places? My money was on Armin’s, because, well, coffee, and the fact the coffee shop was located a couple of Metro stops from the crime scene.
“Anything useful?” Deacon asked. A thick haze shrouded him.
I instructed EVI to increase the pod’s air filtration and halted the information stream.
“Vanessa was a boring girl,” I said, then recounted what I’d seen. “We’ll go to Armin’s after we interview the eyewitnesses.” I turned my full attention on my unwanted consultant. “And as for you, let’s get a few things straight.”
She met my hostile stare with a placid one of her own.
“Of course, Detective,” Besim said in a matter-of-fact tone before I could continue. “You wish for me to remain out of the way. I am not to handle, or otherwise jeopardize the investigation because of my inexperience. You expect me to maintain a low profile, as much as someone of my…distinctiveness…is able. You will listen to my opinion, but only when asked, and solely out of respect for William, your commanding officer. Have I omitted anything?”
“Yeah.” My smile was unpleasant. “Try not to get killed.”
Besim inclined her head.
“Review complete,” EVI announced.
“Patch it through here, please,” I ordered aloud.
The front windshield turned opaque, then lit up with the bank’s recorded security feed.
“The images produced insufficient data,” EVI said over the pod’s speakers as we watched the black-and-white footage. “I did not detect any obfuscation or alteration. Sunday, at 9:58 PM, the cameras in the alleyway were disabled. At 10:23 PM, the cameras in the parking garage were disabled in the same manner. There is a shadow depicted in the parking garage footage. It is of indeterminate size and shape. The flash which followed its appearance before the camera was disabled is a result of an overload to the internal wiring systems of the camera. The cause of the overload is unknown. Do you require anything further?”
I heaved a heavy sigh.
“No, EVI, we’re good for now. Thanks.”
The windshield became translucent once more.
“Looks like our vampire has spooky powers over technology,” I remarked dryly.
Deacon’s smile was grim. Somehow, that didn’t make me feel any better.