III

 

The young hitcher walked with his thumb held out, weaving a crooked line along the roadside, and was passed by seven white cars, one black and three red before a dusty pickup pulled over, fifty yards ahead of him on the gravel.  The driver of the pick-up, wearing a prematurely greying beard over the burns that covered much of his face, looked much older than the drifter, who broke into a jog.  In truth they were much the same age, and the driver, watching through the rear view mirror with both hands clenched on the wheel, was stunned by sudden recognition.  He almost peeled away in a frenzy of gravel and squealing tyres; almost, but instead waited as the young man opened the passenger door.

“Thanks man!  How far you going?” the hitcher asked.  The driver was quiet a moment, tilting his head to make sure the hitcher saw him clearly.  Two-Face, Freddy Kruger, they none of them got nothing on me.  He waited, but the hitcher failed to recoil in disgust, failed to grab for his pack and back away embarrassed and apologetic but mostly just horrified—when this didn’t happen, the driver answered.  “Ain’t the proper question how far you’re goin’?”  The hitcher, thin to the point of gauntness, stared at him for a minute then pitched his pack into the tray and climbed into the cabin with an exhausted smile.  “I’ll go as far as you’ll take me. I haven’t got no money though.”

The driver granted.  “Didn’t ask for any, did I?”  He turned them back on the road, indicator working then snapping back as he gained the middle of the lane.  There were no other cars coming either way, not for as far as the eye could see, but he waited a bit anyhow before asking, “So do I know you?”  The hitcher turned his head, regarded the driver for a long moment then put his head to one side against the glass.  “Nup.  Thought you remind me of someone I used to know maybe.”

The driver held his breath, waiting for more, but there was nothing.  A sleepy shrug maybe.  He shook his head, “So you’re not from around these parts?”  The boy jerked his thumb back in the direction they were escaping.  “Chicago-born and bred.  But not for much longer.  I have an aunt in Portland that might loan me a couch until I get settled.”  The driver nodded, lifted the front of his cap to scratch his forehead, returned his hand to the wheel.  He glanced at the young man, who was drifting off in the warm cabin.  The mop of hair, the slightly too-thick glasses, the faded Charter jersey.

Unmistakable.

“You’re callin’ Chicago a shithole and you want to settle in Maine?”  Scratched his head again.  “What do your folks think about it.  Back in Chicago, I mean.  Aren’t they goin’ to miss you?”

“No,” came the quiet reply, eyelids drooping as dusk purpled the horizon.  “No, they won’t, because I don’t have any.”  But he pressed anyway, the driver, because he had to know.  “So how’d you come to be all the way out here?  You been hitching for long?”

“Couple days,” his passenger mumbled, wrapped up in his own arms.  His head slid slowly down the window pane.  “Walking mostly.”  He was going, his breath deepening as his eyes rolled up into his head.  The driver nodded, but he had one more question.  “Last one buddy then I let you alone.  What’s your name?”  He was almost gone, the hitcher, but with a conscious effort twisted his lips into the shape of a name.

“Call me TK.  Tom Kane.”

The driver nodded, satisfied, and acknowledged the odd hammering of his heart.  He took a deep breath and it stilled like an obedient hound.  Don’t remember me, do you, TK?  He waited awhile until he was sure the boy was asleep, then reached a slow hand into the back of the cab.  Right then, the hitcher half-opened one lazy brown orb.  “How’d your face get so fucked-up anyway?” he mumbled, and his eyes fell shut.  The driver pulled out a lambswool jacket and draped over the hitcher.  It covered the thin body like a blanket.  He regarded the figure for a moment and wondered at this unexpected turn, the machinations of a cold and callous god that should put this boy into such hands as his own.  Wth a shrug and a barely voiced “God’s will” he turned off the highway onto a back road that would take them by and by to a cabin by a lake in the deep woods.

“I got burned in a fire, boy.  But you already knowed that.  What you don’t know is we’re going to be friends, Tom.  Very special friends.”


 

IV

 

“You told the Chief about our numbers theory yet?”

Branch had dropped that on him as they were exiting the car, walking up to a squat building of red brick and white with faux Doric columns on the outskirts of town.  It made Hansaker grit his teeth and ball his fists in his coat pockets, out of sight so as not to give her the satisfaction.

We’ll see, spy girl, we’ll just see.

Crime Labs spread out over the better part of an acre, more of it underground than above, like a iceberg of brick and concrete marooned in the earth. It had the outward appearance of a decommissioned hospital because that’s what it had been — a forensic institute for the criminally insane — built in the late 1800’s, it served as a state hospital until in 1970’s, when the courts began warehousing the mad but also the bad.   For the next thirty years it become Sycamore House, an asylum retrofitted to house those deemed to be unfit for trial and those not guilty by verdict of insanity.  The Village of the Damned, in the vernacular of Chicago PD.  Closed in a hurry after the Kremmer incident in 2002, it only recently re-opened its doors, and now served as the Illinois forensic crime laboratories under the new moniker of the Hull Institute.

“I hate this place” he said to no-one in particular, maybe himself.  Bleach, paint and elbow grease had cleaned it up, but the walls still transmitted a palpable aura of violence, the stink of incarceration and desperation like a bloodstain shadow beneath the cheap paint.  Several of Ransacker’s fellow officers lost their jobs in 2002, when a serial sex-offender named James Kremmer claimed to have been assaulted by police in one of the many off-camera blackspots, dead ground, because he spat in his breakfast.  Riots broke out, leaving three patients dead including Krmmer, and two officers seriously injured.  Then, as if that wasn’t enough, at the height of all the confusion out walked the state’s most dangerous man never to be seen again.

William Boyd Bavadra, the self-titled ‘Triple B Murderer’, bound, beat and butchered no less than seventeen young women between 1968 and his arrest in ’99.  Proponents had long argued that ‘Triple B’ simply stood for Billy Boyd Bavaria’s initials, but law enforcement always maintained it was a reference to his preferred modus operandi.  With multiple life-sentences hanging over his head, the state’s most notorious serial killer since John Wayne Gacy had somehow dodged imprisonment when a soft judge found him insane.  Mad not bad, Bavadra took up residency at Sycamore House, pending the slow-turning wheel of a prosecution appeal that would almost certainly succeed.  But in the nature of these things, the appeal date dragged out to one then two years, and the baddest of the mad had seized his moment on that day in 2002, stripped the uniform from an unconscious policeman, and simply walked out the front door.

“Left here, down the stairs.”

Branch took the lead, descending the steps two at a time.  Hansaker grunted and followed more slowly, as if I haven’t been here a hundred fucking times, pausing at the bottom where the corridor split three ways.  Left would take them to the air-conditioned offices of the forensic pathologist and his team.  Ahead were the labs themselves, cold rooms with stainless steel slabs and racks of sharp cutting equipment, white-tiled floors, industrial quality ventilation and high pressure hoses on wall-mounted spools, an abattoir of clean rooms and dirty, where the bloated and corrupt specimens they fished out of the lake were stored ahead of autopsy.  Lastly, to their right was a corridor blocked by bollards and a chain, a corridor that would lead you around a corner to a steel door welded shut with a sign screwed across what once had been a viewing port: a sign that read “Secure Treatment Area—Permanently Closed”.

The Pit

“God I hate this place.”

“You already said that.”

“I was being rhetorical.”

Hansaker didn’t turn right, and sure as shit didn’t want to go straight ahead unless he had to, instead he lead Branch left to a desk where a cute girl in whites gave him a bright ‘hiya!” and paged Senior Forensic Officer Gerta Hasse to reception.  Sixty seconds later, he was introducing the shaven-headed woman to Branch, discomforted by the the older woman’s brazen appreciation of Branch, checking her out from head to toe before extending a hand and smiling broadly.  They shook.  Helpless, Hansaker looked for some reaction, positive or negative, but he got nothing.

“Tell us you got something?”

Ignoring him, The SFO gave Branch the come-hither finger and led them both down a carpeted hall to a conference room, where she’d filled the whiteboards with charts, photos and diagrams.  On the long table were more than fifty photographs lined up in a row.  Beside each was a post-it note with a corresponding number.  Seated at the head of the table was a young Asian male typing furiously into a laptop.  He didn’t look up when they walked in.  “Close the door” he instructed.  Hansaker, eyebrows arching, complied. “Sit or stand, I don’t care, but be quiet while I finish this.”

Gerta pulled out a chair and sat next to Branch, who had positioned herself where she could see everything displayed on the table and boards.  Hansaker, feeling left out and oddly claustrophobic, walked the length of the table examining each photograph, then turned to the whiteboards and stopped beside a large map where the location of each exhibit was marked with a magnetic pin.  DamnDead straight.  He didn’t have to check the key to know the scale.  Almost four hundred metres from the first marker to last.

Our killer was carrying a fucking compass?

“What does it mean?” he spoke aloud, not meaning to.  He turned to the young man with the computer.  Branch was fixed on him too.  Gerta was oscillating between the young man and Branch, stealing looks at her every few seconds.  Hanker continued, “The numbers, I mean.  That’s why you’re here, am I right?  You’re a cryptologist.”

“Martin O’Hara.  Associate Professor, U of C.  But call me Marty, please, and it’s cryptanalyst actually,”  The young man smirked, and Hanker found he had to grip the edge of the table to stop himself from punching that look off O’Hara’s face.

Then, to his surprise, he was beaten to it.

“You have the remains of somebody’s daughter in front of you, Professor.  Can we dispense with the schoolboy semantics.”  Branch, eyes flashing, had half-risen from her chair.  Beside her, Gerta squirmed as if she’d experienced an unexpected but nonetheless very satisfying orgasm.  Her eyes had even gone a little glassy.  O’Hara returned his rimless spectacles to the bridge of his nose and eyeballed everybody defensively, then, leaning forward in his chair, he continued.  “Of course.  Sorry.  Us math profs you know—abstract thinkers—don’t mix so well with humans.  So anyway you came to me with a numbers problem and a short time-frame.  Shall I tell you what I think?”

“It is vy ve are here, Herr Professor.” Gerta, recovering, throwing him a lifeline and a smile.  He was here at her invitation after all, and in his own time.  “Zer numerals, what do zey mean?”

“If you are right,” O’Hara said, looking at them over his glasses, “and I do mean if, then you’re not looking at any type of conventional numeric identifier that I can distinguish.  That’s to say this isn’t the killer’s social security number, or his bank account or driver’s license—they’re not the grid co-ordinates to his evil underground lair, either!”  O’Hara smirked again, but something about Hansaker’s face killed it off.   “Anyway, I’ve run some rudimentary diagnostics on the numbers to see what, if any, significance can be derived from the length of the string.  The number of numbers.  In short, there’s nothing, so I think we can safely deduce that this is a ciphertext, or if you prefer, a code.  And if it is a code, then certain inferences arise, none of which are good.”

O’Hara looked up as if they might guess, but when no-one did he sighed again and steepled his fingers.  “Firstly, it suggests the killer is of above-average intelligence, at least — mind you, this is Illinois so that’s not saying much — what I’m saying is, if this is code then it’s good code.  I know this because I’m also of above-average intelligence, and I have run a surface frequency analysis to rule out all the classical ciphers.  Just in case he just ripped this out of Wikipedia.  I’m sorry to say he did not.  So, and assuming this isn’t a one-time pad, which would be grossly unfair, the next thing to do was step-up the scale decryption.  After all, ninety-nine percent of human-created ciphers just use varyingly complex polyalphabetic substitutions.  So I ran a Kasiski exam to look for repeating strings, but that came up blank as well.  Now I’m at an impasse.  From here, only size matters.  It’s all about who has the biggest processor.  The quickest result would involve a brute-force attack, but you don’t have the flops for it here.  Optimally, and if time is of the essence, I could possibly book a priority job on the Titan at the university.  But they would bill you.”

Hansaker blinked slowly and turned his head to Gerta.  “How much of that was in English?”

To his disbelief, sitting cross-legged opposite him, Branch was nodding. “You mean Blue Waters.  So how long would you need and how much would it cost the department?”

O’Hara shrugged, waved a hand at the line of photos and accompanying digits. “Fifty-three character string?  If we apply Landauer’s Limit, that’s only halfway impossible.  It’s technically doable, but it would be a very big crunch.  Conservatively, I believe we could brute a 53-bit cipher in five, or maybe six days?”

Six days?”

Branch had grown pale, Hansaker noticed, which had to be bad.  He shifted uncomfortably, realising he had nothing to contribute to the conversation even though he was supposed to be the lead investigator. “Six days on a Cray Titan?” she repeated slowly. O’Hara smiled apologetically, “And that’s if Big Blue does nothing else and doesn’t catch fire from overheating!  I’m kidding about the last part.  The university would obviously be happy to assist the authorities, but it means putting a great deal of important revenue-generating work aside for almost a week.”

“And what about the cost, Professor?” Branch continued. “Our financial delegation is limited, and I have a feeling you’re about to quote a number that exceeds our limit, so we’ll need approval.  Give me a number.”

O’Hara adjusted his glasses, then removed them and cleaned them on his shirt-tail before putting them back on.  He seemed embarrassed.  “Oh, well, I can’t speak for university administration, you understand, but from experience I expect it would be reasonable; you know, heavily discounted for the public good and all that, so a special rate of perhaps say a thousand per hour?”

Branch blanched white.  “A thousand dollars an hour.  For six days.  That’s one hundred and forty-four thousand dollars.”

Hansaker glared at Branch, who glared at Gerta, who looked away, embarrassed. The SFO stood up briskly and moved to shake hands with O’Hara, herding him up out of his seat and towards the door.  “Danke, Herr Professor!  We will be in touch, ja?  Danke, danke!”

Alarmed, O’Hara hurried to gather together his equipment, closing down his computer and gathering up leads.  As Gerta lead him out of the room, Hansaker finally recovered his voice.  “Before you go,” he said, and the professor stopped.  “You said, if this is code then it says some things about our killer.  Some things, not just that he’s intelligent.  What else does it tell us about him?”

O’Hara pushed his glasses further up his nose and sniffed.  “Isn’t the rest obvious, detective?  You don’t need a cryptanalyst for this:  the coder is not just smart, he’s arrogant too—he’s toying with you—I don’t know why, but he wants to communicate with law enforcement.  It’s as if he’s laying out a challenge.  Catch me if you can, sort of thing.  Otherwise, why bother with all of this?”  He was bustled out by Gerta, and in the silence that followed Hansaker was aware of Branch’s close scrutiny, as if by just staring at him she could perceive his mental cogs moving, or, in this case, not moving at all.

“We have to tell the Chief,” he conceded.

“Wrong,” she corrected, getting up to leave.  “I’m just running with the big dogs, remember?  You have to tell the Chief.”