AT FIRST, everyone assumed it was a burglary.
The postman was the first on the scene. He’d arrived early in the morning to make a delivery to the house in question and found the front door wedged open. No one answered when he rang the bell, so he called the police. The two constables arrived to investigate, and they were the ones who found the body.
It escalated after that.
Not even noon, Jacob thought grimly. Hell of a way to start a Monday.
His autopod shuttled along, arcing off from the main highway. As much as he missed manual controls of old-fashioned cars and early autocars, he appreciated the driverless function of the pod because it gave him the time to skim through the images from the crime scene en route.
He wouldn’t get a feel for the scene until he got there, but the images let him know what he was about to walk into. There were signs of a struggle in the room where the body was found, and plenty of blood, but the rest of the house seemed undisturbed.
“Control to Delta Seven. ETA to destination?”
He leaned forward and cleared the images from the display on the windscreen, bringing up his location on the map. Beyond it, he could see the country roads through the glass.
“ETA fifteen minutes, Control,” he replied, then muttered under his breath, “Into the backside of nowhere.”
It was half an hour beyond the miles of sprawling suburbs of the city, in the middle of green fields and close to a forest. The nearest amenities had to be at least four miles from the building. He shook his head. What kind of person chose to live all the way out there anymore? It wasn’t as if there was a shortage of housing in the city.
A chime indicated another image had been received.
Jacob opened it up and leaned forward, frowning.
It was a door, but it was barely visible, blended into the pattern of the wall. There was no handle, no visible hinges.
“You seeing this, sir?” Constable Foley’s voice rang through the speaker.
“I am indeed, Foley,” he said, lifting his hand to widen the image. “Is that a safe room?”
“Looks that way, sir,” the constable replied. “The dust in front of it suggests a box was moved, and recently. Looks like someone might be in there.”
Smart girl, Jacob thought with approval.
“Not yet, sir, but if they were attacked—”
“They might not be capable of replying,” Jacob finished. “Keep trying.” He minimized the image and looked out through the windscreen. “I have visual on you, Foley. Be with you shortly.”
Ahead of him, the house was visible between the trees. It was a redbrick structure that had to be at least two centuries old, but even from a distance, he could see the modern touches. The windows were thick and secure. The roof had been replaced with faux slate.
The autopod purred to a halt beside the four other vehicles lining the gravel courtyard, and the door slid aside. Jacob stepped out and glanced at the other vehicles. He recognized the coroner’s transport pod, and the standard blue-and-white-patterned squad pod, but the other two were probably the homeowner’s.
Foley opened the front door to greet him.
Half his age, she hadn’t been with the force long enough to be as jaded as him yet. She smiled in greeting. “Morning, sir.”
He winced. “Say afternoon. It makes it a little more bearable.”
She laughed. “You want a summary, sir?”
“I read up on it on the way over,” he said. “Any word on the owner?”
“Thomas Sanders,” Foley said, leading him into the house. “Forty-eight. Widower with one young son. He’s a well-reputed scientist and engineer. High up in some kind of historical and scientific research program in the city, the Temporal Research Institution.”
“Have you been able to make contact with him?”
Foley shook her head, her sandy ponytail bobbing. She offered him overalls to cover his suit. “We’ve tried his business and private numbers. His colleagues said he has been on a leave of absence for health reasons for several weeks. Our best bet is the safe room.”
“Any sign of the son?”
Foley shook her head. “We assume he’s with his father.”
“Do we have an ID for the body yet?”
She hesitated in the hallway. “That’s the strange thing, sir,” she said. “We can’t find anything on him. His prints aren’t in the system. No DNA trace either. We still need to run facial recognition, but so far, we’ve got nothing.”
“That’s not unusual.”
Foley looked at him. “There’s something off about it all,” she said. “I’ll show you.”
The house was surprisingly large inside. The lower level was split into four rooms, all branching off from a wide, sunlit hall. Foley led him down the hall and to one of the rooms at the back, her covered boots thumping on the wooden floors.
Jacob stopped in the doorway, taking a moment, then stepped across the threshold. The crime scene team was still at work.
The room appeared to be some kind of laboratory with workbenches running along one wall. Another wall was covered in old-fashioned whiteboards with all kinds of incomprehensible text and codes marked on them in half a dozen colors. Jacob studied it for a moment, but whatever Sanders was working on, it was far beyond Jacob’s barely adequate physics A-level.
There were little machines here and there, suspended from the boards by wires. Spools of wire and gears were scattered across the floor. Several boxes had been upended from shelves and lay on their sides.
In the middle of it all, the body was lying facedown on the floor, a bloodied hammer conveniently close at hand.
Danni Michaels was working on the body, and glanced up with a nod. “Sir.”
“Cause of death?” Jacob said, keeping his eyes off the dead man’s face.
“Looks like blunt-force trauma,” Danni replied, nudging her magnifying glasses up her nose with her knuckles. “I don’t think it’s a wild guess to say the weapon was probably that hammer. It was a single blow, landed here.”
Jacob gritted his teeth and looked. The left side of the man’s forehead was ruptured. His eyes were open, and he had a look of surprise on his rigid, bloody face. He was young. Maybe thirties. Dark haired. His eyes were dark, the pupils flared wide open, but death sometimes did that. Blood had spread in a wide, sticky pool around his body. Jacob swallowed down the familiar rising acid.
Christ, he hated the messy ones.
He glanced around the room.
A pair of slippers was several steps away from the blood pool, leaving bloody prints on the polished floor. The owner must have kicked them off, leaving them at least three feet from each other. Not good shoes for running, slippers. If he—men’s slippers, size nine approximately—had already knocked down the man on the floor, then there had to be another assailant whom he was running from.
“Any sign of this man’s accomplice?”
“Accomplice?” Foley asked.
Jacob gestured to the slippers. It was easier than looking at the body. “You don’t try and run from an unconscious, nearly dead man. There was someone else here.”
“We haven’t seen any sign of anyone else,” Foley replied. “Sorry, sir. I didn’t even notice that.”
He offered her a brief smile. “That’s why I’m a DI, Foley.” He motioned back to the body. “You said there was something off?”
Foley nodded, crouching down by the body. “Take a look at his right eye.”
Jacob went down beside her, propping his forearms on his knees, and looked. It took him a moment, but then he saw what she was pointing out: the pupil wasn’t just blown. There was no iris at all.
“What the hell….” He leaned closer. “Michaels, can I borrow your magnifiers?”
She handed them over and obligingly shone the torch over the man’s eyes. “Clever, isn’t it?”
Jacob stared at the man’s eye, then looked up. “A completely synthetic bionic eyeball? Is that even possible?”
Michaels shook her head. “I’ve heard of people developing them, but I’ve never heard of any successful trials.” She looked back down at the body and grinned. “I’m looking forward to getting it out and seeing what it’s made of.”
“And there’s one of those images I just didn’t need,” Jacob murmured, peering through the magnifier again. The pupil was a focusing lens, from the looks of it. High-quality, high-end technology. “Foley, have you looked up anywhere that might carry tech this advanced?”
“We’re putting together a list,” she said, “but from what we’re hearing back, this is off the charts, sir. No one has heard of technology like this before, or if they have, they’re not telling us about it.”
He straightened up. “You said this Sanders was a scientist?”
“Doctor in physics and engineering,” she confirmed.
“Could he have made something like this?”
She hesitated. “From all accounts, he didn’t deal in human biology or bio-artificing.”
“Doesn’t mean he couldn’t.” Jacob ran a hand over his face. “Well, if we can’t find this man by standard identification, maybe we can find him by the eye he doesn’t have. Danni, we need all the information you can get us as soon as possible.”
“Sir,” Danni said at once.
Jacob glanced at Foley. “Where’s Singh?”
“Still trying to get into the safe room,” Foley replied. She jerked her head. “This way.”
The safe room was up the stairs, in what appeared to be a playroom. One wall was all windows; another was covered in posters and drawings. There were a kid’s toys and games scattered all over the place. Singh was working his way along the only blank wall with a scanner.
Jacob glanced around. “You said Sanders has a son?”
“Ben,” Foley confirmed.
Foley looked at him in surprise. “Seven and a half. Is this another one of those detective things?”
Jacob chuckled. “This time, it’s one of those dad things.”
Singh looked over his shoulder at them, sighing in frustration. “Foley, I know you said to scan for a high intensity of fingerprints on the wall, but this whole wall is fingerprints.” He nodded at Jacob. “Afternoon, sir.”
“Singh.” Jacob approached, looking the wall up and down. “It’s very smoothly done, isn’t it?” He rubbed his short beard thoughtfully with his fingertips. “No visible buttons or latches anywhere?”
“None we could find,” Foley said. “I thought it might be a pressure-point system, but seems not. We requested an expert, but they’ve been delayed.”
“I think we need to un-delay them,” Jacob said, touching his earbud to activate it. “If Sanders is wounded and inside there, we need to get him out. If not, we need confirmation, because this could be an abduction.”
It was almost an hour before the doorsmith arrived. By the time he did, the body had been removed. The crime scene unit was working their way out from the house across the grounds, searching for trace evidence of the intruders.
Jacob had gone down to the laboratory while they waited, to take another look at the whiteboards. He didn’t see what it had to do with Sanders’s work at the Temporal Research Institution. A quick search suggested the institution specialized in identifying historical discrepancies and confirming historical events. It could be something to do with locating old records and creating algorithms, he supposed. You would need a specialized engineer to do that.
Jacob turned. “Foley?”
“The smith is here. I thought you might want to be present if he can open the door.”
They headed back up the stairs to the playroom. The doorsmith was already working on the wall with a scanning device.
“Apparently,” Singh said, joining them, “all safe room doors come installed with a registration chip, in case the mechanism needs to be deactivated in an emergency.”
“Not unlike this,” Jacob observed. “Useful.”
The doorsmith glanced over. “It’s a recent make,” he said. “Give me two minutes.”
In the end, he took less than thirty seconds, and the door swung outward.
Inside, there was a room big enough for a family, but there was only one person there. A small tawny-haired boy shrank back into the corner of the room, his arms wrapped around his legs, his face bone white.
Jacob motioned for the smith and the two constables to back off, and crouched down a couple of feet away from the door.
“Hey,” he said softly.
The boy was shivering and tears were rolling down his face from swollen, red-rimmed eyes.
Jacob took out his badge and laid it on the floor, sliding it across to the boy. “It’s okay. I’m a policeman. My name’s Jacob.” He watched as the boy tentatively leaned forward and looked at the badge. “Are you Ben?”
The boy nodded. “Where’s my dad?” His voice was shaking as much as he was.
“We’re trying to find him just now.” Jacob offered a hand. “Do you want to come out? You don’t need to stay in there.”
“Dad told me to stay here.” Ben wrapped his arms tighter around his legs. “He told me to, until he came to get me.”
“I know.” Jacob knelt down and sat back on his heels. “We want him to come and get you too, Ben, but right now, I think he’d want you to be safe, don’t you? How about we keep you safe?”
Jacob nodded. “Promise.”
Ben got unsteadily to his feet. His trousers were sodden, and there was vomit on the front of his shirt. The poor kid must have been terrified. Jacob knelt forward slowly, offering both his hands, and Ben’s icy fingers wrapped around his.
“There you go,” he said as gently as he could, drawing Ben back out. “You’re safe now.”
The little boy gave a sob and stumbled forward and wrapped his arms around Jacob’s neck, clinging to him. Jacob gently scooped him up, rising to his feet with the boy in his arms. He rubbed his hand in circles on Ben’s back.
“You’re okay,” he murmured. “You’re okay.”