Read Psych:Mind-Altering Murder Online

Authors: William Rabkin

Psych:Mind-Altering Murder (3 page)

"What, that people shouldn't be allowed to have fun?" Shawn said.

Gus put the two helmets into their slots on a low shelf that ran along one side of the handball court-sized room. As soon as they were back in place, there was an electronic click and the door set into one wall sprang open.

"Now look what you've done," Shawn said. "I hope this game saves itself automatically, or we're going to have to start all over again. And I don't know about you, but I don't feel like hijacking another bus full of schoolkids."

"You didn't have to hijack the first one," Gus said. "You didn't get anything out of it."

"I got major street cred," Shawn said. "Especially after I threw the driver off the bridge, then landed the bus on top of him."

"Listen to yourself," Gus said. "You sound like a maniac."

"Desperate times call for desperate measures," Shawn said.

"Your measures aren't desperate. They're stupid," Gus said.

"The whole point of the game is to take over Morton's crime syndicate, and you can't do that unless you can win his trust and get close to him," Shawn said. "So first thing, you've got to establish yourself as the new face of crime in Darksyde City so he'll invite you to join his organization. And you call that stupid?"

"It is when we have a job in the real world," Gus said. "Gaining street cred with a fictional mobster in a computer game isn't bringing us any closer to finding Macklin Tanner."

That was one thing the events of the game had in common with those of the real world. Nothing they had done before entering the virtual world had offered a clue to the whereabouts of the man they'd been hired to find.

Macklin Tanner, founder and CEO of VirtuActive Software--one of the biggest computer-game companies in the country--had disappeared mysteriously a week before. The police had done some investigating and found no traces of foul play; in fact, they'd found a note on his computer saying he was going on vacation for a few weeks. That closed their investigation.

But when the company's president, Brenda Varda, came to the Psych offices, it was clear she didn't believe a word of it. Although her manner was cool and professional, they could tell she was seriously troubled. She had the seemingly effortless beauty that often came with a multimillion-dollar salary, but there was a haunted look in her eyes as she explained the problem.

"We've been working on this new game for years," she said as she stared across the desk, pleading for help from Shawn and Gus. "It's Mack's dream, a completely interactive three-D action game with an entirely new interface. It's going to change the world of gaming. It may even change the rest of the world. And there's no way he'd leave just before the launch."

"Unless the stress got to him," Gus suggested. "People do strange things when they're under that much pressure."

Brenda sighed and picked her purse up off the floor. Before she could get up, Shawn jumped to his feet.

"Excellent work, Gus," Shawn said. "You knew exactly what the police told her and you were able to repeat it word for word."

Brenda turned her cool green eyes on Gus. "Is that what you were doing?"

"Sure," Gus said. "It couldn't possibly be true."

Shawn took one of Brenda's hands in his own and looked at her. And he
saw
. Saw the sheen under her eyes where she'd put on cream to reduce tear-induced swelling. Saw the faint pale shadow on her ring finger.

Shawn closed his eyes and put his fingers to his temples. "I see him," Shawn said.

"You do?" she said. "Is he all right?"

"He's on an altar," Shawn said. "It's some kind of bizarre ritual."

"Oh, my God," Brenda said. "Are they going to sacrifice him?"

"No, wait," Shawn said. "He's not
on
an altar. He's in front of it. And you're there next to him."

Brenda let out a gasp. "No one knows about that," she said. "We were only married for days back in college. Then we realized we were made to be best friends, not lovers, and we had it annulled."

"I'm sensing a greater love than that," Shawn said. "At least from you."

She blushed. "He's still the only man I've loved completely," she said. "And I guess he likes me, too. We still go on vacations together twice a year as man and wife. Which is the other reason I know he didn't just wander off on his own without telling me."

That might actually be another reason why he did, Gus realized. Maybe he'd met someone and didn't want to hurt her feelings.

But if that thought occurred to Shawn, he didn't share it with Brenda Varda. Instead he promised they would find Tanner.

The only trouble was that there were no clues. Or, worse, there were clues, but they all pointed to the same conclusion the police had already reached. A couple of Tanner's suitcases were missing, his favorite of his eight cars--a restored candy apple red 1964 Impala--was gone from his garage, and his closets had gaps where a couple weeks' worth of resort wear might have hung.

With no physical evidence to follow and no real reason to believe anything had happened to Tanner, Gus suggested they check air-and cruise-line manifests to see which exotic vacation he'd chosen. Shawn had a different idea: They should hunt for Tanner in the game itself.

"Maybe we should start our search in 1995," Gus had said. "That's the last time anyone thought the idea of a guy being sucked into a computer game was halfway interesting. And that was only because no one knew enough about Russell Crowe to be annoyed by him yet."

"No one got sucked into a game in
Virtuosity
," Shawn said. "In fact, it was just the opposite. The killer escaped from the game to stalk the mean streets of reality. Which would be an interesting twist if we could prove it happened here."

"Yes, searching for a character from a computer game set loose in real-life Santa Barbara sounds like a much better use of our time than trying to figure out where Tanner actually went," Gus said.

"I'm not the one who brought up the idea," Shawn said. "I said I thought we should look for clues inside the game."

"Why would there be clues inside the game?" Gus said.

"It's called
Criminal Genius
," Shawn said.

"So?"

"Whoever planned Tanner's disappearance is clearly intelligent," Shawn said. "Can we agree on that much?"

"Since I'm working on the assumption that Tanner did it himself, yes, we can," Gus said.

"The crime was perfect. There wasn't a single clue left behind," Shawn said. "No one could pull off that kind of job and not want to boast about it somewhere. And having that game sitting out there, the irony would be too great to resist."

"What if the guy who did it doesn't think he's a criminal genius?" Gus said. "What if someone killed Tanner in a moment of panic or passion, and then threw some clothes in a suitcase to cover it up?"

"It doesn't matter what the intent was," Shawn said. "The loser who sticks up a 7-Eleven considers himself an evil mastermind if he gets away with it. All crooks do."

"And you know this how?" Gus said.

"The same way I know there isn't a man on Earth who thinks he's a bad father, or a woman who believes she's a lousy driver," Shawn said. "Every crook needs to boast about how smart he is, and the smarter the crook, the bigger the boast. He left a clue in that game."

"What if he didn't work on the game?" Gus said.

For the next twenty-five minutes, Shawn refused to acknowledge Gus' existence. That was fine with Gus. He used the time to discover that Tanner's name wasn't listed on any flights, trains, or ships within three days of his disappearance. Of course, since his car was also missing, that wasn't tremendously helpful, except as a way of ruling out various avenues to investigate. Finally Gus agreed to take an exploratory trip through the game, if only because he couldn't think of any other place to start and a dumb idea seemed better than no idea.

At least that's what he'd told Shawn. As he said the words he could hear their falseness so clearly he began to suspect his voice and lip movements might have fallen out of synch. He couldn't believe that Shawn would fall for his obvious untruth.

But Shawn did. And that disturbed Gus more than anything else. He tried to look at the situation generously: They'd been best friends for so long Shawn had no reason to doubt anything Gus told him.

That wouldn't stop the nagging feeling in the back of Gus' mind that Shawn accepted what Gus had to say only because it matched up with what he wanted to hear. That he was incapable of listening to anything that contradicted his prejudices.

That was why Gus wouldn't tell Shawn what he was really thinking. Not only about this case, but about the agency and about their profession. About his future.

Gus knew he had some serious decisions to make in the next couple of days. And whichever choice he made, it was going to change his life forever.

Chapter Four

O
h, to be flying again, legs bare in the warm breeze, blond hair streaming against the blue, crowd noise Dopplering to a pulsing beat. To cast off the shackles of gravity and soar, higher each time before the Earth's gentle hand reached up to pull her softly down to that tender embrace of skin and bone and sweat.

This was Juliet O'Hara's dream, the one that recurred too rarely and left her humming all day when it did. The memories of her days on the squad remained with her always, part of her pool of experiences. But the sensation of it, the joyous floating freedom, she could regain only in her sleep.

This was something she never talked about. It was hardly a secret that she'd been a cheerleader in college, and those who didn't know assumed it based on her looks. If anyone ever asked what those days had been like, she made a joke about dating the quarterback or chanted a halfhearted victory call.

It wasn't that she was ashamed of her cheering days. Although the trajectory from pep leader to cop inevitably led to Buffy the Homicide Detective jokes, she'd been making them longer than anyone. And if the stereotype of the cheerleader was round-heeled and airheaded, she was secure enough in her self-knowledge that she never let other people's prejudices bother her. Let them think she was dumb--she'd find a way to use that to her own advantage.

It wasn't even the difficulty of persuading a noncheerleader that there was a spiritual aspect to the art. She'd never been shy about standing up for anything she believed in, no matter how obscure or unpopular.

But that sensation, that moment of floating--that was private. It belonged to her alone, and she wouldn't share it if she knew how. Every once in a while she'd catch the eye of another former flyer and an understanding would pass silently between them. They were a sisterhood of the flight, and they had something the rest of the world lacked--a memory of peace, a sense that there was always the possibility of transcendence in the world.

Which was why the tableau into which she had stepped made so little sense.

She and her partner, Head Detective Carlton Lassiter, had picked up the call as they'd returned to their unmarked car after a fruitless morning searching for witnesses in the previous night's hit-and-run death of a wino on State Street. Possible 187 on Lasuen Road.

Lasuen Road was one of Santa Barbara's most beautiful streets, a curving line of ocean-view houses leading up to the El Encanto Hotel. But no neighborhood was safe from crime, not as long as there were people in it. And if she'd had any doubt about that the flashing lights of the three police cruisers outside the rambling Spanish house would have put them to rest.

As Lassiter pulled the sedan into the long driveway, O'Hara gave the scene a quick once-over. The house looked small from the front, but she knew that like many of its neighbors it was built down the steep hillside, and might have as many as three stories below the ones visible from the street. There was a tiled walkway cutting through a lush lawn toward the heavy oak front door.

A woman was standing in front of that door, staring into space as if she were trying to figure out how she'd gotten here. She was sheathed in a gray St. John Knits suit that brought out the blue in her striking eyes even from this distance. Long blond hair framed a face that might have looked thirty just moments ago. Shock and grief had undone in a second all the work of Santa Barbara's top plastic surgeons, and there was no hiding the fifty-five years she'd been on the Earth.

O'Hara waited for Lassiter to meet her on the passenger's side of the car, and they fell into lockstep as they walked toward the woman. Before they'd made it halfway across the grass, a uniformed officer stepped between them and the woman.

"DB's down this way," the officer said, attempting to steer them toward a concrete path that ran from the driveway down the hill along the side of the house.

"That's funny," Lassiter said, whipping off his sunglasses so he could aim his most terrifying glare at the officer. "I don't remember asking for directions. Do you, Detective O'Hara?"

The officer, who looked like he might have graduated from the academy that morning, turned pale. "I didn't mean to--"

"To tell us how to investigate a crime scene?" Lassiter finished for him. "To determine the order in which we collect our information? Maybe you could save us all a lot of time and just let us know who killed the victim."

The rookie's throat muscles throbbed as if he were fighting to keep his lunch from coming up. He'd seriously overstepped and he knew it. O'Hara might have joined Lassiter in torturing the kid, until she noticed the dark, wet patch on his uniform shirt just above his badge, and a small beige smudge next to it. Then she understood.

"Tears don't stain unless you let them, Officer Randall," she said, reading his nameplate. "But foundation is a bitch to get out of blues. That's the mother?"

The officer's face went from white to red like litmus paper dunked in lemon juice. "She asked me," the officer started. "That is, she's upset. Understandably upset, since it was her daughter and--"

"Unless she was understandably upset because she killed her daughter," Lassiter snapped.

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