August 17th, 1:54 p.m.
The lie nagged at him so much the most he could do was stare out the windshield at the flash and glare of passing vehicles. Why hadn’t he just told her the truth?
They think he’s a serial killer, for Christ’s sake!
And Nora was making love to him.
“Where are we going?” he asked numbly.
“Back into the city. To the Field Office.”
“Things will be crazy, I imagine,” he said lamely.
She cocked her head. “Crazy?”
“You know, with the Chiropractor and all.” In these days of broadband it was rare for anything nonpolitical to rise above the disjointed din of millions pursuing millions of different interests. The niche had become all-powerful. The Chiropractor story was a throwback in a sense, a flashback to the day when sitcoms or murders could provide people a common frame of reference, or at least something to talk about when polite questions gave out.
“Actually, things will be quiet,” Sam replied. “The NYPD’s hosting the Chiropractor Task Force.”
Thomas said nothing, stared at two kids in SUNY sweatshirts waiting at a bus stop.
Tell her the truth! Neil’s gone off his fucking rocker! You sensed it last night. You just knew something was wrong. He could see them, Neil and Nora making love. He thought of her little “yoga trick,” the one they would laugh about on Sunday mornings. She had always been so hot, so frank with her lust. He could almost hear her whisper in his ear…
So goooood… So good, Neil…
His hands were shaking. He took a deep breath.
Sam was turning right on a street he didn’t recognize. “Are you sure you’re okay, Professor?”
“Call me Tom,” he replied, ignoring her question. “Someone, either you or Agent Atta, said you were certain that Neil was responsible for what we saw on that BD. How? How do you know?”
His tone had been sharper than he’d intended.
Agent Logan glanced at him apprehensively. “Ten weeks ago the NSA informed us that a low-level researcher of theirs, a neurologist, had gone AWOL. They gave us his name, his biometric data, and just asked us to keep an eye out, which we did as best we could.”
“You thought he worked at Bethesda.” Sam shook her head. Thomas had been about to say that Neil was far more than a low-level researcher. “Bethesda was just his cover?”
“Bingo. So anyway, since the matter had been pitched as a potential espionage problem—and a low-priority one at that, the case was given to the Counterintelligence Division. A week afterward, the Criminal Investigative Division caught a break in the Theodoros Gyges abduction… Did you ever hear about that?”
“Not much.” Thomas did know about Gyges—everyone did. In his short-lived activist days, Thomas had actually organized a boycott of one of the guy’s New Jersey Target stores. “Just the Post headline,” he said. “ ‘Brain-damaged Billionaire,’ or something like that.”
“Exactly. Missing for two weeks, then he just pops up in Jersey, his head wrapped in bandages. Aside from some disorientation, he seems perfectly fine, until, that is, he’s re united with his wife.”
“He doesn’t recognize her. He remembers her, and everything else, perfectly, but he can’t recognize her. According to the report, he demands that she stop impersonating his wife’s voice, and when she continues pleading—she is his wife, after all—he freaks out and hospitalizes her. Big mess. The media would have loved it if their plates weren’t already so full.
“So they run some tests, and it turns out that Gyges can’t recognize any faces, not even his own. Creepy stuff.”
“Sounds like some kind of prosopagnosia,” Thomas said. Face blindness had been known since antiquity, but it wasn’t until the nineties that damage to the fusiform face area in the visual cortex was identified as the culprit. In his classes, Thomas regularly used it as an example of how the brain was a grab bag of special-purpose devices, not the monolithic soul machine that so many undergraduates assumed it to be. “I’d like to see the file.”
She flashed him a triumphant grin. “Welcome to the good guys, Professor.” As though unable to repress herself, she reached out to bop her fist against his.
“Anyway,” Sam continued, “a couple of weeks ago someone in the Counterintelligence Division—I have no idea who—reads about this in the New York Times and immediately draws the connection to their missing neurologist, Neil Cassidy. They send someone up from Washington with Cassidy’s picture—”
“Which was useless, of course.”
Sam smiled and wagged a finger. “Not at all. Like everyone else, the Bureau’s up to its elbows in the Great Wetware Revolution. Haven’t you read Time magazine? It’s revolutionized forensics.”
Thomas nodded. “Lemme guess. You showed Gyges Neil’s picture while scanning him with a low-field MRI. The neuronal circuits dealing with facial recognition lit up.”
“Exactly. Gyges’s brain recognized Cassidy just fine, and in a manner consistent with a traumatic encounter. Just the circuitry relaying this information to his consciousness had been damaged. It turns out that Cassidy isn’t quite so clever after all.”
Thomas said nothing. They had no idea whom they were dealing with, he realized.
It is you, isn’t it, Neil?
“And that,” Sam continued, “was when the gears started turning. The Chiropractor investigation was gobbling up resources at every jurisdictional level, so the NYPD brass were only too happy to turn over their ongoing investigation to the Bureau—especially now that it carried a National Security stigma. Shelley, who was the NCAVC coordinator for the ongoing NYPD circus, was made investigator in charge of our meager task force. As it stands now, everything is pretty much ad hoc. Our Department of Justice and state’s attorney advisers are little more than interns, and as far as I know, our public affairs officer is a moonlighter from the Chiropractor Task Force. Our organization al flowchart looks like tossed spaghetti.”
She paused, as though troubled by her own cynicism. “But we have a suspect, a known subject. Things tend to straighten themselves out when you have a sub.”
Thomas listened to the hum-hum-ker-chunk of wheels over pavement, wondering how it could sound so ancient, so this-is-the-way-it’s-always-been. The world beyond the tinted windshields seemed like autumn, sunny and surreal. Oblivious.
None of this could be happening.
“It’s him, Professor,” Sam said softly. “Neil Cassidy is our man.”