The Baltimore Chief Medical Examiner’s Office was a red brick building on West Baltimore Street. Anthony thought at once that it had the air of a college building with its large blue glass windows, and modern design. He would later learn that it was actually part of the University of Maryland and was the second-largest medical examiner’s office in the nation. Having opened just six years earlier, it was one of the leading sources of accredited training for forensic pathology in the country.
There was a nine-story parking garage across the side-street from the office building, but Driscoll pulled around to the rear. Then, she pulled right up onto the sidewalk and put the car in park.
“Wasn’t that huge building we passed a parking garage?” Anthony asked with a smirk.
“You have a problem with my selection of parking spaces?” She asked, giving him a look.
He held his hands up. “I’m just saying… I’m not sure this is a parking space.” He was grinning now.
She smiled. “Well, keep saying and you can drive yourself next time.”
They got out of the car and made their way around the building to a side entrance. Driscoll pressed a buzzer and looked up at a security camera that was above the door. A moment later, there was a buzz, and the door’s electronic strike plate clicked.
“Guess they know you pretty well here,” Anthony said.
She nodded as they entered. They walked down a corridor and into a small waiting area. “Afternoon Christine,” she said. “Can you get a hold of Charlie for me?”
A woman with fiery red hair smiled at Driscoll then at Williams. “Who’s the new guy?” She asked.
“Special Agent Williams of the FBI,” Driscoll said. “Meet Christine Thompson.”
Anthony reached a hand over the desk and shook Christine’s hand. “Nice to meet you, handsome,” she said.
“That’s sexual harassment,” Driscoll said. “You were paging Charlie?”
Christine gave Anthony another look up and down, then sat, sliding her chair in. She picked up the phone and pressed a couple of buttons, then held the receiver to her ear.
“Hi, Doctor Hill,” she said brightly. “I have Captain Driscoll here with a Special Agent Williams from the FBI,” she paused as Hill spoke. “Yeah, I think they’re here about the delivery from this morning… I’ll send them down.” She hung up the phone and looked up at Driscoll. “He’ll meet you downstairs at the elevator,” she said.
“Thanks,” Driscoll said.
They turned and headed around the corner and into a large foyer. Anthony reasoned they were now at the front of the building. Driscoll pushed the button to call the elevator, and the door opened at once.
“I take it you two have a history?” Anthony asked.
“Ha,” Driscoll scoffed as she pressed the button for B1. “You could say that.”
“Do I wanna know?”
“Well, now I do wanna know,” Anthony said with a laugh.
“She used to work for the department,” Driscoll said. “We’ve had words more than once.”
“Ah,” Anthony said. He let it pass. He was happy that Driscoll seemed to be warming up to him, and he didn’t want to press his luck.
The doors opened, and a man presumably Dr. Hill was waiting.
“Hi Charlie,” Driscoll said, with a smile. She shook the man’s hand.
Dr. Charlie Hill was about five-foot-eight, and Anthony thought he might weigh a hundred and forty pounds after a big meal. He wore scrubs under a white lab coat and thick glasses. Even with his surgeon’s cap on, his thinning hair was noticeable. Anthony guessed he was probably in his mid-fifties.
“Always a pleasure Captain Driscoll,” Dr. Hill said. “And you must be Special Agent Williams – I was told I could expect your visit.”
“Anthony is fine,” Anthony said as he shook the doctor’s hand.
“Anthony then,” the man said with a smile. “I’m a pathologist here at the ME’s office – I’ve just finished up, and I have some interesting things to show you,” he said, turning and leading the way down the hallway.
“He’s also a university professor who teaches people how to be pathologists,” Driscoll said. “Dr. Hill is one of the leading pathologists in the nation.”
“Yes, yes,” Dr. Hill said, waving her statements away.
“I have been off work the last six months,” he said, “so I haven’t been here for the majority of the autopsies for the Turquoise victims.”
“Were you ill?” Anthony asked.
“Recovering from surgery,” he said.
“Oh,” Anthony said. “Well, I’m glad you’re back with us then.”
“I asked Dr. Hill to review this case personally,” Driscoll said.
Hill smiled as he turned and pulled a door open, leading them into the morgue. A huge collection of stainless-steel drawers lined the far wall, and exam tables were located around the room. One of the tables held a body that was covered with a white sheet, and beside it, suspended from the ceiling by a large metal arm, was a large monitor that showed a photo of a man’s back.
“This is Mr. Ballard here,” Hill said solemnly. He pulled the sheet down gently, revealing the face. Its bright turquoise colour was disconcerting. “You can see the body is in rigor. You can also see here the skin is irritated ever-so-slightly around the nose and mouth.”
Anthony looked closely and could see the skin looked a little scaly. “What caused that?” He asked.
“Mild irritation of the epidermis likely from dermal contact with chloroform,” Hill said simply.
“Turquoise knocked him out,” he said.
“But that wasn’t present on all of the victims,” Anthony said.
“Most, but not all,” Hill agreed.
“And none seem to have suffered any physical trauma,” Driscoll said.
“No,” Hill said. “It’s impossible to tell how close to the time of death the chloroform was administered. The damage isn’t severe, so there was likely only a single application in each case.”
“Interesting,” Anthony said.
“What else can you tell me?”
The doctor directed their attention to the monitor.
“What’s this pattern here?” Anthony asked, pointing to a series of vertical lines up and down the victim’s back on the photo.
“Ahh,” Hill said with a smile. “Interesting, isn’t it? And do you see in the feet?” He looked at Anthony expectantly as he cycled through a few photos by clicking a button on the screen.
Anthony looked at the pictures, noting the striped colouration on the back and the dark colouration of the lower legs and feet. He frowned at the screen, thinking for a moment, then it clicked. “There’s a dual lividity,” Anthony said
“Yes!” Hill said like a professor whose pupil has just passed a test.
Lividity was the discolouration that happened after a person died. As the membranes of blood vessels began to break down soon after death, blood would pool into the tissues in the lowest part of the body. If a victim was stored laying flat on their back, there would be a darkening that would appear like a bruise along the body’s lower half. If the body was placed on its right side, there would be discolouration on the right side. The discolouration would not occur in parts of the body that were in contact with the ground as the pressure from the ground would not allow blood cells to move to the surface of the skin. A dual lividity meant that the body had been on one position for a time, to create one impression, then placed in a new position. The striped pattern meant that the body was stored for some time on its back on an irregular surface that had raised and lowered stripes. The shape of the surface had created the lines. They were fainter than the lower legs and feet, which were quite a bit darker.
“So, the victim spent some time on his back on some irregular surface, then was positioned on the bleachers – staged on them after the fact.”
“Yes, that’s exactly it,” Hill said, smiling. “I think that’s the source of the dual lividity. The victim was killed, and then very soon afterwards was placed on his back as you say. He was on an odd surface with ridges, which created these lines. There were ridges of some kind that created contact pressure on the skin. Later, he was placed in the park in the seated position from the crime scene photos.”
Driscoll ran a finger along the lines on the screen. “What would cause these lines in this pattern?”
“Floor of a van,” Anthony said.
Dr. Hill tilted his head. “Interesting possibility, Anthony,” he said, nodding. “I’ll have to note that in my report.”
“How soon will your report be ready?” Anthony asked.
“Tomorrow afternoon, I would say.”
“Is there any chance you could get a preliminary report to me in the morning?”
Hill frowned, then nodded. “I suppose I could do something. What do you need it to say?”
Anthony smiled. He liked the man’s candour. “I need notes on the lividity and photos. Maybe something on the presumed cause of death…”
“You need pictures of the lividity, and you need me to confirm for you that this was the same killer,” Dr. Hill said.
“Yes, exactly – as long as you believe that it is.”
“Most definitely,” Hill said. “I have a few tests I’ll be waiting on the results for – I want to test the sample of the dye to make sure it’s the same, but the method of killing is exactly the same.”
“Drowned,” Anthony said.
“Drowned and inverted,” Hill corrected.
“Inverted?” Anthony said.
“Yes – the victims are inverted – suspended upside down somehow and lowered into the dye. They inhale it and drown, then they are lifted again, and most of the dye drains out. If they were forced face-first into the dye, the lungs and trachea would retain more of the fluid. They are mostly empty – only the alveoli retain the dye because they’re so small they don’t drain.”
“That’s quite a mechanical process,” Driscoll said. “There’s never been any sign of the victims being bound with rope or anything like that. How would he invert them?” She asked no one in particular.
“Anti-gravity table,” Anthony said. “Something like that?”
“Ahh, an inversion machine,” Hill said, nodding. “That could be it.”
They spoke some more about the body, and Anthony asked if Hill would review the other reports and see if anything jumped out at him.
“Samantha has already them sent to me for review,” Hill said, nodding.
“Perfect. Well, I won’t keep you from your work anymore,” Anthony said. “We’ll leave you to it, and I’ll look forward to reading your report.”
Hill nodded again. “You’ll have it in your inbox tomorrow morning,” he said with a smile.
He walked them back to the elevator and shook hands before they parted. When the elevator opened on the main floor, Driscoll led the way past Christine, who was still seated at her desk. She shot Anthony a wink, and he nodded to her as they passed, moving down the corridor again and out the side door.
“So, you think the body was transported in a van?” Driscoll asked. She turned off East Baltimore Street onto Central Ave.
“Well,” Anthony said. “I’m not a gambling man, but I’d be willing to bet that we’re looking for a Dodge Ram Van, from the mid-to-late nineties.”
Driscoll’s look was more than a little skeptical. “How could you possibly know that?”
Anthony was staring into space as though he could see something there. “In college, I worked for two summers as a painter. The company had three cargo vans – one a Dodge, another a Ford, and the other GMC. There were always three or four of us to a crew, and I usually opted to sit in the back where there was no real seating – you would just pop down on a bucket of paint and balance yourself for the ride. None of the vans had floor liners in them, at least the first year – the second year they put a liner in the Ford – it was a bit newer. The pattern from his back matches the Dodge,” Anthony said then looked up to meet Driscoll’s eyes. She was frowning. “The floor of a van has a pattern of lines with breaks in it,” he said. “It’s just a hunch, I suppose, but I remember patterns and recognize them, and I’m fairly certain.”
She looked as though she wasn’t sure whether to believe him or not. “What about a pickup truck?”
“No chance our guy transported a body in the open bed of pickup truck, and I doubt he had a truck with a tonneau cover or a cap with no bed liner.”
She nodded. They arrived at the hotel, and Driscoll pulled a U-turn, bringing the car to a stop in front of the main entrance. They sat in silence for a moment, as Anthony was lost in thought. He stared ahead through the windshield, his expression blank – distant. Driscoll didn’t like to interrupt but cleared her throat. Anthony blinked, and looked around, realizing where he was, and he looked at Driscoll and smiled.
“Thank you for being my wheels this afternoon,” Anthony said.
Driscoll returned his smile. “This felt like a good day,” she said.
“It did,” Anthony agreed.
They sat in silence for a moment. It was Driscoll who spoke first. “So if all of the bets pan out, we’ve figured out that our killer might use an inversion table to drown his victims, then leaves them inverted to ‘drain’ the dye, and if your recollections are correct, that he moved Charles Ballard in a Dodge Ram van.”
“I’m pretty sure,” Anthony said with a half-smile.
“Not a bad day at all,” she said. “You’ll have to take me out on a second date sometime.”
They both chuckled. Anthony opened his door, then paused. “I’m glad you’re a part of this Captain Driscoll,” Anthony said.
She looked at him a moment, then nodded. “I think I am too,” she said. “And as long as we’re away from everyone else, it’s Sandra.”
Anthony grinned at that. He got out of the car and closed the door before crouching down outside of the window. She pressed the button, rolling it down. “I’ll see you tomorrow at the office.”
“Yeah,” she said.
He stood then, and tapped on the roof of the car, as he turned and headed for the entrance to the hotel. She waited as he crossed the sidewalk and returned his little wave as he went inside.
“What the hell am I doing?” She asked the empty car as she rolled the window up. “Better get your shit together, girl.” She put the car in gear.
From inside the hotel, Anthony smiled as he watched her drive away. It had been a productive day.
It was 6:30, and Anthony was hungry. He supposed having just left the morgue, most peoples’ appetites might have been limited, but his stomach growled. He turned and headed towards the front desk and saw that Nathan, who had checked him in, was working.
“Heya Nathan, how’s the afternoon?” He asked.
Nathan’s face brightened. “It’s been busy,” he said, “but better that than bored!”
Anthony smiled. “That’s a good way to look at it,” he said, and Nathan nodded. “It’s been a long day, and I’m hungry,” Anthony said.
“There’s Puri Puri at Nando’s,” Nathan said with a grin.
Anthony laughed. “I don’t want to become known only for my love of chicken,” he said. “Is there anywhere else nearby that you recommend?”
Nathan paused, thinking, then he snapped his fingers. “Oh! Clark Burger,” he said excitedly. “They have a thing called poutine, that’s amazing.”
“A Poutine?” Anthony repeated.
“Fries, gravy, and cheese curds,” Nathan said. “It sounds a little gross, but you need to try it at least once.”
“You know what? I’ll give it a shot. Where’s Clark Burger?” Anthony asked.
“Yay!” Nathan said. “It’s literally across the street. Turn right out the door, and cross Eastern Avenue, and it’s right there on this side of Central.”
“Oh wow, really close,” Anthony said. “Perfect.”
“Hey, have any of my people come back here yet?” Anthony asked.
“I’m actually not sure,” he said. “I just got back from a break, but I haven’t seen any of them.”
“Ah,” Anthony said. He could call them – see if anyone wanted to join, but the truth was that he didn’t want to. He didn’t want to talk about the case, which is where any conversation would invariably drift. He didn’t want to talk about how the setup went. He would see it tomorrow, and he would read reports tomorrow. It had been a long day, and the weight of the investigation hit him in an instant.
During every operation, there was always a process of planning and negotiating. There was usually a real effort on Anthony’s part to move things forward and get started. Responsibility was usually released to him over a week or two, during which he acclimated to his role. This had been a kind of whirlwind, taking less than twenty-four hours from his initial call to his arrival on the scene. Baltimore wanted to rescind responsibility and had pushed things forward at a crazy pace. The timing had been perfect – he had only arrived back in D.C. from Chicago a little over a week before. The progression that usually took a couple of weeks, in this case, had taken less than 48 hours. A week earlier, Anthony had barely been aware of Turquoise’s existence. Now, he was in charge of catching a man responsible for at least eight murders. The responsibility had a weight to it. The weight was hitting him all at once now, and there was added pressure from the fact that Turquoise was a fast killer.
Serial killers are said to have a kind of cooling-off period between their kills. For the psychotic killer, the act of murdering another human being brought a kind of release, and for most killers, that release was enough for them for a time. Some could go a few months between kills. Some, like Dennis Raider, the famed BTK killer, could even go many years without killing. Others – the scariest ones – killed on a much tighter schedule. Their cooling-off happened much more rapidly, and they found themselves compelled to kill again much sooner. Most of these killers were the disorganized types. Their kills took little planning and were usually impulsive. They were sloppy, and though their body counts increased rapidly, the evidence they left behind tended to mean they were caught quickly. Turquoise was troubling because his pace was fast – repeating in as little as two weeks – but he was also extremely organized. The sheer lack of evidence was astonishing. Victims disappeared from their lives as though they went with him willingly, and they turned up the next day, forensically clean. There was always an urgency to catch a killer, but this was a special case. That made Anthony uneasy.
“I feel unprepared,” he thought to himself. “That’s what it is – I just haven’t had time to adjust to the role.” It also had been a speedy turnaround from one case to the next, like A.D. Scott had said. Anthony blinked hard and looked back up at Nathan.
“I’m going to try that poutine thing,” Anthony said.
Nathan, who had been looking at Anthony with a hint of worry, brightened. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” Anthony smiled. “Thanks, Nathan.”
“You’re quite welcome,” Nathan said.
Anthony walked with his eyes down. He was a little amused as he realized his stride was a little uneven as he was placing his feet to avoid the cracks in the sidewalk. He looked up and could see Clark Burger ahead. He passed Enterprise Rent-a-Car, noting that he could, in fact, pick up some wheels for himself if he chose, and he crossed the street. An A-frame street sign read:
Baltimore’s Best Burgers & Brews.
Canadian Inspired Food in Baltimore.
Anthony smiled at the large maple leaf on the door as he went inside. The smell hit him at once – burgers and fries. Not just burgers, though. These were real burgers, not the things you get at fast-food restaurants. Clark Burger was one of those first-rate burger places that exist in that space between fast-food and casual dining, often called fast-casual. High-quality without the wait.
Anthony moved to the counter and looked up at the menu. A girl who looked to be about eighteen stood behind the bar, and she smiled at him expectantly. Anthony returned the smile.
“What can I get for you?” She asked.
Anthony looked from her back up to the menu. “I’m not quite sure,” he answered honestly. “I was told I needed to come here for a poutine, but those burgers smell amazing.”
Her smile broadened. “They’re really good.”
“What do you recommend?”
“For poutine, I prefer the Loaded,” she said. “Fries and gravy with cheese curds, topped with chopped bacon, grated cheddar, sour cream, and green onions. If you want a burger, they’re all good.”
Anthony looked at the menu again. “I’ll take a loaded poutine, and… I’ll go for the namesake and try a Clark Burger.”
“Good choice,” she said. “I will warn you it’s gonna be a lot of food.”
Anthony smiled. “I can always take the leftovers home with me.”
“Anything to drink?” She asked.
“I’ll just take some ice water,” Anthony said.
She entered his order, and he slid into a seat at the bar. He was tempted to take out his phone and start making calls or checking emails, but he resisted. He was here to get a little space from the work. His people were capable, and he would trust them to call if there was a problem. He looked up at the TV where a sports show was playing basketball highlights. He zoned out as he waited for his food, which came fairly quickly. The Clark Burger featured white cheddar, smoked bacon, a slice of red onion, lettuce, pickles. It looked good enough to be used in an advertisement in a magazine, and his salivary glands kicked into hyperdrive. The first bite told him he’d come to the right place. He turned his eyes to the poutine then, which he hadn’t been sure about, but when he raised a forkful of it to his mouth, he smiled. He sat, vocalizing a series of mmm’s as he ate the whole poutine with abandon. When he went back to the burger, he only finished about half, and the waitress was kind enough to supply a box for the remainder, which he took with him as he headed back to the hotel.
When he entered the lobby, Nathan called over. “How was it?”
“Dude!” Anthony replied with a smile.
Nathan returned the smile, and Anthony headed for the elevator and rode to his floor. Once in his room, he put his burger in the mini-fridge and kicked his shoes off. Anthony stood for a few moments looking out of the room-length window at the Baltimore skyline, working to center himself. Then he lay down on the bed. Loosening his tie and slipping off his jacket, he searched through the TV programming, settling on Nat. Geo. A show on deep-sea life narrated by Sir David Attenborough was on, and the man’s characteristic voice lulled him, and he soon fell into a dreamless sleep.
The shuttle bus ride to the station the following morning was quiet. Anthony had eaten his cold burger for breakfast rather than going to the buffet and had joined his staff just as it was time to depart. They were quiet, and Anthony could sense their anticipation. They were like a group of high school kids on a field trip, and Anthony was happy to see their spirits high. His own were better after a good night’s sleep, and he felt more focused, though he still had an uncharacteristic hint of the jitters.
The shuttle bus let the group out on the corner of East Fayette Street, having circled the block, and they entered through the Police Administration Building. Once they passed through security, Walsh led them through the corridors towards the gymnasium. His excitement was evident, and Anthony realized from the keen looks of the others that he was the only one who hadn’t yet seen the end results of their efforts.
They entered the gym, and Anthony was struck at once by the size of the tent. The gymnasium housed a high-school sized basketball court, being the standard fifty-feet by eighty-four-feet with a bordering apron of about six feet on one side and eight on the other. The tent spanned most of the fifty-feet in width and stopped just shy of the baseline – almost the entire space.
“Now I know it looks a little bit big,” Walsh said. “But we’ll use the space well, I think.” He led Anthony to a door near the corner of the tent. It wasn’t a flap to be pulled back nor rolled up, but an actual double-door entrance with metal doors and glass windowpanes. “Welcome home,” he said.
The door led into a corridor about eleven feet long that ran between two inner-walls in the tent. Anthony actually took a breath as he saw it.
“What the hell?” he asked.
“It’s a modular field office,” Walsh said with a wide grin. Everyone was smiling.
“AD Scott called yesterday,” Walsh said. “Davidson and Russell were trying to source a tent we could use – got ahold of someone at Quantico.”
“Agent Turner,” Davidson nodded. “I guess he must have reached out to Scott, who made a call.”
“When Scott called me, I told him about the space we were in upstairs in homicide and that you were trying to relocate us to the gymnasium, he told me to wait on doing anything – that he would send equipment to us. Two hours later, that truck showed up, and men started pulling everything out and assembling it.”
“There were electricians who showed up too and HVAC people. We helped them unload everything, and they had it all assembled in a few hours.”
“The electricians finished up this morning. They said it was lucky the electrical room was beside the gymnasium. I guess it made their work easier. Anyway, it all worked out well,” Walsh said.
Anthony was standing in what looked like a legitimate office. He counted twenty-four desks in an L-shaped bull-pen in the center of the room, organized into sections divided by half walls. Along Anthony’s right were doors to three offices, with what looked like a break room in the corner. There was another door, then a bend in the wall followed by three more doors. Along the ceiling ran a grid of what Anthony guessed was an electrical conduit, and canvas duct-work that moved air around the space.
“Along this wall, there are three executive offices,” Walsh said. “Not the biggest offices, but they’ll do. In the corner there is the break room – it’s got running water and tv. That room there is your office, and those three doors are the interview rooms.”
“Interview rooms,” Anthony repeated, shaking his head as they moved through the space.
“In the far corner there is the briefing room – again not huge, but pretty good, and this,” he gestured to a glass wall with a large double door, “is the control room.”
They had to climb two steps to enter what Walsh called the control room. What it really amounted to was a communications hub or situation room that could be used to communicate with and coordinate multiple assets in the field simultaneously.
After the Boston Marathon bombing in April of 2013, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security had acknowledged the danger posed by a terror strike somewhere in the heartland. During the hunt for the bombers, The FBI had taken the lead in the investigation assisted by the ATF, the DEA, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Boston was a major metropolitan area, and all five participating agencies maintained field offices in the Boston area. Resources were readily available, but what would have happened in a smaller, more remote community?
DHS had put out a tender for a mobile option. The winning presentation had come from a multi-national security conglomerate called Carter-Wallace, who had formed a partnership with Isaac McDonnell International, a construction company based in Houston, and Thompson Brock, an engineering firm out of Palo Alto. They had proposed a Modular Command Center or MCC. It was designed to be a moveable field office that was assembled inside of a massive weather-proof tent. Different sizes and models could be planned to suit different needs of any situation. The MCC solutions were designed to be able to be assembled almost anywhere that had a flat surface and power supply in less than twenty-four hours. It was like a FEMA mobile command center on steroids, and the FBI, along with other agencies, had ordered units and stored them at various facilities around the country.
Most of the MCC’s sat dormant in shipping containers that could be loaded on a train or flatbed truck and delivered. This one had come from Quantico, Virginia, where it had been prepared for demonstration by personnel from Carter-Wallace. Scott had pulled some strings, and instead of heading to a demonstration in Texas, it had been brought to Baltimore.
Anthony entered the situation room, a sleek, dimly-lit room that was around twenty-feet by thirty-feet. Inside the doors was a long curved table with several chairs spaced along it. On a lower level in front of the table was a second curved table, this one with three multi-display workstations.
“This is incredible,” Anthony said.
“Best setup we’ve had yet,” Timberman grinned. “I don’t think I can ever go back to using empty rooms in a field office after this. From now on, we find a parking lot nearby and plop one of these babies down and get to work.”
“How much does all this cost?” Anthony asked.
Walsh shrugged. “City of Baltimore’s hydro bill went up a touch, but they’ll figure it out. This has been sitting in mothballs since 2014. We’re the first ones to field test it.”
Along the far wall were four eighty-inch monitors. One showed a satellite map of the city of Baltimore. There were red dots at different points on the map, and Anthony guessed they were the locations where bodies had been found since a few of them were to the west in a green strip he thought was probably Leakin Park.
Anthony looked around at his team and smiled. “This is great,” he said.
“We didn’t want you to be bothered with the details of the setup,” Davidson said. “The assembly crew finished this stuff around eleven last night, and the electricians worked through the night.
“My impression from the assistant director,” Walsh said carefully, “was that if we found this arrangement to be beneficial in assisting us with apprehending this Turquoise guy, a facility like this might be ours, in the near future, for all of our investigations.”
Anthony nodded, looking around the room again. “Well, let’s make sure we make good use of this then, shall we?”
Twenty minutes later, Captain Driscoll led the contingent from the Baltimore Police Department and the two detectives from Langley PD through the door. Anthony had decided not to press the issue of integration by assigning seating, instead of allowing the detectives to choose their own desks. Driscoll was given one of the three executive offices, with Agent Michael Davidson receiving the second. The third was kept empty for the time being as Anthony expected there could be times when someone needed an empty office to speak privately. Anthony’s office was the largest. It looked out on the bullpen and even had a small couch in the one corner.
Anthony was seated at his desk when Driscoll knocked on the door. He waved to her, and she entered. “I’m not usually a fan of camping, but you FBI folks sure know how to do it,” she said with a smile.
“My last case we worked out of the Chicago field office. This is my first time in a tent,” he said.
She smiled. “Well, I can tell you that your group – SOAT?”
She nodded. “SOAT is going to be the talk of Baltimore.”
Anthony sat back in his chair. “I usually prefer to keep a low profile.”
“March a few witnesses through those doors and show them what is here, and word will get out pretty quickly,” she said. “Oh, Mrs. Ballard called. She said she had some things to show you and asked about coming in this afternoon. You good with that?”
Anthony nodded. “I’ll make it work,” he said.
Anthony’s phone rang, and he answered. “Williams,” he said.
“Hey, it’s Walsh – we’re all set up in here and ready to go.” Sandra could hear Walsh’s excited voice.
“Okay, I’ll be right in,” Anthony said. He looked at Driscoll. “Showtime,” he said and got up from his desk and gestured for Driscoll to follow him, and he headed to the situation room.
Sandra Driscoll followed him out of this office and bumped into Davidson, who smiled and said, “you’re gonna want to see this.”
“Oh?” She asked.
“Oh yeah. Might even want to call Major Ross.”
She didn’t want to call Major Ross, but she followed Davidson. Several other BPD detectives followed as well, and the situation room [or control room] became fairly crowded pretty quickly as everyone tried to squeeze in to see what was going on.
Anthony was standing just behind the three members of the IT team on the lower level of the room, leaning the back of the middle chair.
“Timberman, do you have us patched into the Virginia Department of Transportation network?” He asked.
“Yes sir, we just finished patching it in. We now have access to VDOT’s live cameras as well as to all of their recorded footage,” Timberman answered.
“Perfect. Can you pull up that map you showed me on Monday onto the number three monitor?”
Timberman nodded, and some furious typing and a few mouse-clicks later, the third eighty-inch monitor from the left changed, displaying a large satellite image centred on Langley Fork Park. Timberman clicked a couple of times, and the image zoomed out. He clicked again and image changed into a street map and then the map became populated by a pattern of small blue dots, that at first glance seemed to be arranged in a web. “These are all of the traffic cameras in the area. We’ve got VDOT and MDOT tied in.”
“You got Maryland added in?” Anthony asked with a smile.
Timberman tilted his head and shrugged. Charles Timberman was one of Anthony’s key personnel; he, along with Dylan Walsh and Samantha Porter, the other specialists, were three of the most brilliant IT professionals the Bureau had to offer. Anthony had worked with both men while hunting for his second serial killer, a strangler who murdered seven young women in and around Orange County, California. Their technical know-how had led to the arrest of the killer in just over three weeks, as they were able to track the man via his internet usage despite his use of multiple VPNs and public Wi-Fi hotspots. They had managed to find the locations the killer frequented and then used security cameras and facial recognition to determine the common thread. It had been the key to bringing the investigation to a speedy end, and Anthony had instantly seen the value in having the ability to use such an approach. They had joined him through the next five investigations, and they had really been the two of the first permanent fixtures to SOAT, or what Anthony lovingly referred to as his travelling circus.
Timberman’s expertise was in networking and communications. He could integrate the FBI’s systems with local computer systems, setting up networked access to just about anything, and he could trace anyone to just about anywhere. He had spent the previous seven years working in counterterrorism and digital surveillance, tracking the [digital] footprints of groups like al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, and ISIL. He had requested a transfer when the task had grown too daunting. “It was like playing whack-a-mole every day. I lost thirty pounds, and it was time to move on,” he had told Anthony when they first began working together.
Walsh’s background was in software development, and whenever Timberman ran into a snag, Walsh would write some new software to create bridges where they didn’t exist. Walsh had worked in the Cyber Division or CD, where he had been vital in writing algorithms to parse and sort data, and he still regularly did what he called “freelancing,” working with CD on projects when he wasn’t needed on Anthony’s task force.
The third member of the IT team was Samantha Porter. She was a data analytics specialist whose forte was in recognizing patterns in numbers. She was exceptionally well versed in database architecture, but more, she had a keen sense for conceiving of new ways to link data sets across multiple sources to extrapolate information. Walsh often joked that he could build a program that could do her job, but Sam, who was like a little sister to the other two – and Anthony for that matter – was the glue that held their unit together.
“Porter, can you get me any reports on stolen cargo vans in the last…” He turned, looking at the others in the room. Anthony’s eyes found who he was looking for. “Jake, when was the last murder – the one before Mr. Ballard?” Anthony asked the room.
“Stewart Clark – March 26th,” Jake said without hesitating. He stepped down onto the lower level, standing beside Sam Porter’s chair.
This, more than even their friendship, had been why Anthony had insisted that Jake Holt remain a part of the newly assembled task force. He turned back to Sam Porter. “Yesterday was the eleventh – so let’s go back twenty days, and let’s look at Maryland, Virginia, and DC.
“Special Agent Williams,” one of the detectives said. “We had 13,000 stolen vehicles last year in Maryland alone. That could be hundreds of–”
Anthony held a hand up. “We’re going to want white vans and trucks only. I’d limit the search to Dodge vans, but we’ll keep it broad for now. If any have been recovered in the last twenty-four hours, especially if destroyed, give that priority…”
“There was a ‘97 Dodge Ram Van found near Beltsville, Maryland. It was stolen Sunday and found torched in a field on Monday.”
“Send the plate to Walsh,” Anthony said, then glanced at Driscoll, whose eyebrows were trying to climb on top of her head. “Where’s Beltsville?”
“Southwest between here and DC,” she said.
“Chuck, load that plate number into VICCI – have it scan those video feeds from 1am-5am on Monday morning to be safe.”
“Um, who is VICCI?” someone asked.
“Who is Chuck?” Jake asked.
“He’s Chuck,” Porter said, pointing a thumb at Timberman.
“I prefer Charles,” Timberman said, without looking away from his screen.
Jake leaned down as if to look at Sam’s screen and spoke quietly. “Why does he call him Chuck?”
Sam whispered, “Anthony says Timberman has too many syllables, and that he prefers Chuck to Charles.”
Jake nodded, stifling the urge to laugh. He recalled Anthony’s insistence in calling a fellow soldier Bobby even though his name had been William. When Jake had asked him why Anthony had said that, William looked like a Bobby, not Billy. He turned his attention back to the group.
It was Walsh who answered the original question. “VICCI’s an artificially intelligent visual searching bot that I developed a couple of years ago. Wrote her in Python. She’s not a true AI, more just a single function – really good at Optical Character Recognition, though I could add more functionality, we’ve never really needed it-”
“Walsh built VICCI in that computer over there,” Anthony said, pointing to a black box. “VICCI does OCR on video that we supply. Her specialty is in finding things like license plate numbers, even on a feed that has low contrast.”
“I’m working on faces,” Walsh added. “Facebook has a program that…”
“Yes,” Anthony agreed to interrupt. “Although the video needs to be really good.”
“She’s getting better with grainy video. She learns, so the more we let her work, the better she gets at certain tasks.”
“The point is, VICCI can run through video at high speed and scan for a plate, or for multiple plates from a list, creating a kind of visual dragnet that tells us if a vehicle went through a certain point.”
“She can run at about one-thousand frames per second. It isn’t exact because video with less contrast or that isn’t clear takes a bit longer. She can also multitask so she can actually run through up to five feeds at that speed at the same time, giving a maximum capacity of five-thousand frames per second.”
Jake whistled. “That’s insane.” He tried to do the math.
Most videos ran at 30 frames per second or FPS, though some now ran at 60, and security footage was sometimes recorded at a lower rate to save on storage space. That was what gave the security camera video from crimes committed in places like convenience stores and banks the kind of jumpy appearance. Jake was pretty sure the VDOT and MDOT video would be higher-end than that, at least close to 30. If VICCI could scan one-thousand frames in a second, that meant the computer could review a little over 33 seconds of video per second, going frame by frame, searching for a license plate from five camera feeds at once. It meant that VICCI could examine the four hours of video from a single camera in just over four minutes.
“Wait, wait, wait.” Ross moved through the assembled detectives, standing at the front of the group. “How do you know Turquoise used a van?”
Anthony turned. “Good morning Major Ross,” he said, smiling.
“Good morning,” Ross said.
“I didn’t know you were here, or I would have brought you upfront and explained,” Anthony said. Ross’ face registered a hint of satisfaction at Anthony’s [deference]. “I forwarded everyone the preliminary autopsy report,” Anthony began. Walsh’s screen changed, and then a duplicate image popped up on the first monitor. “I met with Dr. Hill last night, and he pointed out the unique pattern on the back of Mr. Ballard. It is part of a pattern of dual lividity. The report says that Mr. Ballard was on his back post-mortem for a time. I’m theorizing this was during transit from his place of death to the park in Virginia. The finding tells us that the victim was murdered someplace other than the park – likely here in Baltimore. Turquoise placed Mr. Ballard’s body face up while washing him and then re-dressed him. The striped pattern on his back tells me that he was placed in the back of a van for transport.”
“Sorry, but how do you know it was a van?” Ross asked. A few of the other detectives nodded, agreeing with the question.
“The pattern on Ballard’s back is the same as the pattern of raised lines you find on the metal floor of a van. Often vans come with some kind of plastic or rubber mat that covers it, but if you remove that cover, there are these shallow corrugations in the metal to make it stronger and keep it from warping,” Anthony explained.
More than a few faces registered looks of surprise and thoughtful expressions, but Ross wasn’t convinced.
“I know vans have a floor pattern – how do you know that the pattern on Ballard’s back matches the pattern from a van and that he wasn’t placed on some other surface?” He asked. “How do you know this isn’t a wild goose chase?”
“I recognize the pattern,” Anthony said simply.
“You recognize the pattern?” Ross repeated with a laugh. “What are you, Rain Man?”
“Pretty sure that’s offensive,” Walsh muttered.
“I’m going to ask you to hold your comments and questions for now,” Anthony said simply. “The killer drove to Langley and sat Mr. Ballard on the bench, which created the second pattern of lividity with the left hand and feet being affected by gravity.”
Ross looked skeptical, but Anthony turned back to the monitors. There were more than a few raised eyebrows in the situation room, but no one spoke.
“Which camera do we start with?” Walsh asked.
Anthony looked at the map. Then he walked around in front of the computer table, so he was standing beside the monitor. He paused, frowning at the series of blue dots for a moment as his eyes traced the system of highways. “This one,” he said, pointing to one on the I-495 just south of the exit for the George Washington Memorial Parkway. “Pull up the view from this camera.”
“Why that camera?” Someone asked.
“The most logical route from anywhere in Baltimore to Langley Fork Park comes down the I-495 and exits onto the Old Georgetown Pike. You can come the other way, but he’d have to drive through D.C., and I’m guessing with a dead body in the back, he probably opted for the more rural route. We’re looking for a good camera angle along that path.”
The mouse cursor moved on the screen to the camera’s icon, and Walsh clicked it. On the second monitor, a video feed of the camera’s field of view flashed up onto the screen. It was a high angle of the highway angled northeast towards the traffic coming from Maryland.
“Not the best angle,” Walsh said. “It’s workable.”
“No, let’s check that the next one moving southwest,” Anthony said.
Walsh clicked on the camera labelled ‘43.01’ and the video changed to a view of the highway taken from a camera positioned in the median.
“This one’s better,” Walsh said, nodding.
“Run it,” Anthony said. Walsh turned his head to another monitor in front of him and started typing. He ended by dramatically hitting the return key and leaned back in his chair. Monitor four turned on, showing the same view but at night. The image was frozen, a few cars visible going in either direction. Dotted lines began to appear on the screen, sketching out the lanes of the road as VICCI calibrated her search area. The video started to move forward, slowly at first, frame by frame, then the footage accelerated rapidly. Cars didn’t move on the screen; instead, their headlights appeared and disappeared in flashes that could barely be registered as anything other than noise on the image.
“How will it see the license plate number at night? With the headlights, you can’t even register the plate.”
Walsh turned his seat. “It’s complicated, but we know that we’re searching for a van, not a sedan, transport truck, or SUV, so VICCI starts by isolating vans from anything else. A van is actually easier than a sedan or other vehicle because there are fewer of them on the road at 1am. We could have her return every van, or just vans that match the colour description. Even the make and model could be isolated.”
The detective who had asked, a man named Jacobs, was visibly impressed, nodding, the corners of his mouth pulled down in a look of appreciation.
“VICCI scans those images, running through the video of each van. In most cases, the cameras capture visual data best at some position on the roadway. She remembers where those positions are – the best places to capture the visual data she needs if you will, and prioritizes the scans of those points over the others,” Walsh continued. “She can also use several images to build a composite of the plate and put together a match. It isn’t always a hundred percent, especially with video from the nighttime. If the camera faced the other direction, it would actually be a lot easier, but if the vehicle we’re looking for is present on the video, she will usually find it.”
“That’s insane,” Jacobs said, smiling.
Several others murmured their agreement.
“We were calling it the video dragnet for a while, but Walsh got cute with the name,” Anthony said with a laugh.
Then suddenly, the screen changed. It showed the highway with light traffic, and then a van appeared, moving in slow motion towards the camera. It was driving in the second lane, and a rectangle was drawn over the front license plate. In the rectangle with each passing frame, the image of the plate was enhanced until it showed the match. “HVV 475,” it read. The image was so good it even showed the little shield between the two sets of characters. Maryland plates. The video paused then.
“Percent match… 99.7%” flashed up on the lower right side of the screen.
“That’s the stolen van,” Walsh said.
“Have VICCI extrapolate the rest of the route – full backtrace,” Anthony said.
Walsh was typing again, and then he hit return and leaned back again.
“What’s happening now?” Jacobs asked, apparently comfortable at being the speaker for the group. Even Ross looked interested, the skeptical expression having departed for the time being.
“VICCI is going through traffic cameras back towards Baltimore and towards Langley Fork Park, looking for the van. In theory, we can trace our guy from close to where he jumped on the Interstate system to where he leaves it at the Georgetown Pike in Langley.”
“Is it finding anything?” Someone asked.
“Yeah, she’s still working,” Walsh said. “I didn’t program her to have a ‘please wait’ graphic or anything. Usually, it’s just me doing this alone, so it’s not quite as dramatic, and I just turn over a report when I’m done.”
“How does it work?” One of them asked.
“VICCI grabs navigational data from Google, which presents multiple possible routes from Baltimore. I used the precinct here as the default starting point.”
“Why the precinct?” Jacobs asked, his face scrunched.
“It’s the first address in Baltimore that I knew off the top of my head,” Walsh shrugged. “Anyway, VICCI scans cameras along the path bridging out forwards and backwards from the starting point she just found and tries to trace a path to and from. When she hits a camera that doesn’t show the van, she can check alternative routes on available cameras and continues if she finds the van, or stops if she fails. It’s faster than the original search too because she knows the distances travelled and average speed at which the vehicle travels. Hence, she knows around when to start and stop searching the camera feeds, and because she can search multiple feeds at once, the whole thing happens at a pretty fast pace all-things-considered.”
Jake shook his head. No wonder these guys caught bad guys. This kind of technology was ground-breaking.
“I’m sorry – how did you build this?” One of the officers asked.
“I didn’t really build it,” Walsh said. “I created an AI, and taught her to play with video, then we started to teach her to understand what maps meant – that the camera feeds on the map were the video she was looking at. I got the idea while watching that old Will Smith movie “Enemy of the State.” The NSA people in the movie sat in a room and followed Will’s every move. They were doing it manually, but I wondered if it would be possible to use archived videos and have a computer do it automatically. I didn’t really think it would work, but then VICCI happened.”
Monitor two changed, turning black, then a map flashed up showing a blue line that snaked its way from Langley Virginia, and stopped west of Baltimore near Catonsville, MD. Screen three showed an image of a highway labelled “I-695 at MD 144 Frederick Rd.” The van was plainly visible on the display, highlighted by a red box the enclosed it. The same kind of white rectangle was positioned over the license plate – the rear one this time – and showed the same plate number. There were video controls along the bottom of the screen, and Walsh clicked play. A series of clips began to play in the sequence of various camera views, each depicting the white van as it travelled from the I-695 to the I-95, then onto the I-495 before ending with an eastbound view of the Georgetown Pike. It halted as the white van drove east away from the camera and towards the park where Charles Ballard’s body had been found.
There was a hush in the room as everyone looked on. A rectangle appeared in the top-right corner of the screen that read:
Recorded Travel Time: 37 min.
Distance Travelled: 41.5 miles.
First Contact Made: 2:34am @ I-695 at Frederick Rd., Catonsville, MD.
Probable Highway Access: I-695 at Edmondson Ave., Catonsville, MD.
Last Located: 3:11am @ Georgetown Pike at Balls Hill Rd., Langley, VA.
Then monitor four changed, an image of the van popping up onto the screen. Through the windshield, a pair of hands grasped the steering wheel. It appeared the driver was wearing a dark sweatshirt with the hood pulled up. Glare from a source of light blurred the features of the face, and the image was grainy, but the driver was still visible. A label on the picture read “best image of vehicle operator.”
“That’s our guy,” Anthony said. “That’s Turquoise.”
The room was silent, save for the sound of the HVAC vents humming quietly. Jake smiled. It was him. It was like seeing a ghost. The features of the man on the screen couldn’t be seen, but this was the closest they had been to Turquoise in seven months. This was the first time they had a real look at him.
And Jake smiled. “We’re gonna catch this fuckin’ guy,” he said.