Authors: Lisa Brunette
“Do you ever advise them on art? Or handle their acquisitions?”
“Oh, no,” he quickly denied. “Not at all. Only boring financial transactions.”
Grace sensed that Ernesto was lying. But why would he want to downplay any art dealings he’d had involving the Langholms? His secrecy on that point seemed suspicious, and she felt a cold chill down her spine as she realized that Ernesto had been there all along, asking questions about the case, nosing around in a manner that was more than merely polite or supportive.
The red energy pulsed at the corners of her vision, enough to make her head ache. She steered Ernesto back inside as the horrid song ended.
Cat found herself standing on the Golden Gate Bridge with the wind whipping her man’s shirt and trousers against her skin. Wait, man’s shirt and trousers? She looked down at her hands and recognized them as Jacob’s. Cursing herself inwardly, she realized she’d slipped into his dream, against her better judgment.
As Cat and Jacob leaned over the edge of the bridge in a manner that felt too precarious, the latter thought about what had got her into this predicament with the former. The Christmas party, she remembered. They’d stayed up very late dancing and drinking and having too good a time. It seemed cruel to send Jacob home, so she’d let him stay.
Jacob hoisted himself up onto the bridge railing and then jumped.
Cat reacted instinctively, but she was trapped in Jacob’s mind and body, so all she could do was ride along as they plummeted into the water below. But then Jacob’s body began to slow down till it was practically floating in the air. The impact in the water felt like a jump into a swimming pool. It was as if she were in a Disney cartoon, with fish swimming by jauntily and a happy, soaring soundtrack playing. What was this? she wondered. Then the fish flattened out and with a curious cartoon pop, they became paintings. She was standing in an art gallery.
A man with an enormous fish face but sporting a suit and cane sidled up to her and said, “Journalism’s dead, don’t you think, my boy?”
At that, Jacob woke up, popping Cat out of his dream and unsettling her sleep as he turned over in the bed they were sharing.
“Jacob,” she whispered. “You awake?”
“Umpf, yeah,” he said groggily.
“I had the weirdest dream.”
“Yeah? What was it.”
He cuddled into her. “I think it was about my uncle.”
“He wants me to move to San Francisco.”
Cat realized this must be the thing she sensed Jacob needed to figure out down there in Miami, away from New York and his magazine job.
“What would you do there?”
“Work in his gallery. Take it over someday.”
She didn’t know how to respond. She didn’t want to make this about her, not at all, but if he moved to San Francisco, he’d be in the same time zone and a couple hours away by plane from her in Seattle. The thought made her feel simultaneously excited and apprehensive.
“Could you leave the magazine?”
“I don’t know. There’s more money for me working with my uncle.”
“And more future, too?”
“Yeah. I mean, journalism… Not exactly software development. Or health care.”
“But your life in New York…”
“I know. I thought I’d never leave it.”
She braced herself for him to say something about the two of them, about the proximity thing, but he didn’t. Soon, he fell back to sleep.
She was awake, though, and reflecting on the evening. Ernesto had not spent the night, Cat noted, and her grandmother had claimed a migraine. Cat had never known Granny Grace to suffer from them.
Cat got up quietly, careful not to wake Jacob, grabbed her laptop, and set herself up on the chaise lounge. As much as she’d enjoyed the break for the party, she was eager to do whatever she could to help Alvarez and the Miami PD find out where Pennington got that material.
Cat knew something about the darknet from her criminal-justice courses. It was a parallel Internet to the obvious one, but with a great deal more encryption and security to protect anonymity. This was a good thing when it came to whistleblowers, political activists, or anyone else trying to remain anonymous for legitimate reasons. Anyone with a private account online was part of the so-called “darknet,” as it was loosely defined as any content not searchable by a public browser. But these otherwise inaccessible, untraceable portions of the Internet were also a safe haven for illegal activity. Drugs, weapons, prostitution, even human organs—one could find anything through the darknet. It was notoriously difficult to catch lawbreakers using it, though.
Deeply involved in her research, Cat didn’t hear Granny Grace until her grandmother was standing beside the chaise lounge.
“You’re looking into the dark corners of the Web, aren’t you?”
Up on Cat’s screen at that moment was a video game she’d downloaded from a darknet site after consulting with a hacker friend of hers back in St. Louis, who verified that it didn’t have any viruses.
“You’ve got to see this, Gran,” Cat said. “It’s called ‘Sad Satan.’ Here, listen.” She offered Granny Grace her earbuds so the dissonant sound wouldn’t wake Jacob, who was still sleeping behind the partition.
Cat let her walk through the first few scenes, which took about ten minutes. Having already played through it, she watched her grandmother’s face as she made her way down the long, dark hallway. Cat knew the ominous sound of what was supposed to be her grandmother’s footsteps were replaced by distorted music and then a growl.
Grace yanked out the earbuds. “Cat, this is really disturbing. Does it ever end?”
“Wait, you’re just about to the part where it really gets weird.”
“This isn’t it already?”
“Just keep going.”
And there it was. For a couple of seconds, a man wearing antlers appeared at the top of a long flight of stairs, the walls lined with the same antlers.
“Shut it off,” said Grace.
“But it’s almost over.”
“I don’t like this.”
Her grandmother seemed upset, her forehead creased in worry.
“Sorry, Gran. It’s kind of a darknet mystery. As far as anyone knows, this is the only game of its kind, and it’s free. No one knows who uploaded it. It contains references to child abuse, but not in an exploitative way. Like whoever made the game is trying to caution or warn people. But then there’s also this vague Satanic imagery, like that guy with the antlers—creepy, huh?”
“I really didn’t like that,” Grace said. Her grandmother pressed her hand to her chest.
“Are you okay?”
“Cat, are we alone?”
“No. Jacob’s still here. Sleeping.”
“After he leaves, I want to talk to you.”
“Don’t mind me,” said Jacob, who appeared from behind the partition around Cat’s side of the room. “I know when I’ve overstayed my welcome.”
Cat watched her grandmother shake off whatever was eating her and brighten as Jacob appeared around the partition wearing rumpled shorts and a T-shirt, his hair standing out in crazy angles.
“You’re not going anywhere till you’ve had something to eat,” Grace insisted.
Cat, surveying the disheveled room and, feeling her own stomach growl, said, “I think we need to go out for breakfast.”
They agreed, and after a subdued but friendly breakfast at a café nearby, Cat kissed Jacob goodbye. She wanted to ask him more about the dream but felt she already knew too much.
Cat expected Granny Grace to quiz her about Jacob after he left, or at least to have picked up on the dreamslipping, but her grandmother was focused on whatever was bothering her.
“I hate to say this, Cat, but I think Ernesto knows something.”
It was as if she’d scratched her fingernails across a chalkboard. “What?”
“I don’t know, maybe I’m mistaken. I hope I am. But I think he lied to me last night about representing the Langholms in their art dealings. And it occurs to me that he’s been overly curious about this case from the beginning, as if he’s been monitoring our progress to make sure we stay away from something.”
Cat couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She didn’t like feeling suddenly as if she’d missed something about him.
“Are you sure, Gran?”
“No, but my feeling on this is too strong to ignore.”
“Whoa. Okay. So what do you want to do?”
“I need your help getting a picture of what exactly he does for the Langholms.”
Cat’s pulse quickened. “The Langholms?”
“Okay,” Cat said, “I’ve got this.” She picked up her laptop and went to work. The Internet was like a gigantic haystack, but if you knew how to look for things, you could start to pull out the clues, straw by straw. After about an hour or so of digging, she found that Ernesto Ruíz had been the trader of record for a number of his clients who invested in stock. Her own grandmother’s name was there, Cat was interested to find out, for stock purchases and sales he made on Granny Grace’s behalf back in 2007, before the crash.
And there they were: the Langholms. They had been his clients for quite some time, in an on-and-off manner, and he wasn’t the only financial advisor they engaged. There were many, it seemed. The Langholms had a complex financial life.
Cat presented her grandmother with the information, which was hardly surprising, as they knew that Ernesto counted both them and Serena Jones as clients.
“What about art-related transactions?”
“Nothing came up, but I can keep looking. There isn’t much of a financial trail in the art world.”
After more searching produced a blank for Cat, they decided to go down to the station and talk to Alvarez.
The sergeant greeted them eagerly. “I was about to call you in myself.”
“Oh?” asked Granny Grace.
“We’re not having any luck linking Pennington James to the arson.”
Cat had known this was coming. She nodded.
“Mick will be disappointed not to have Donnie’s murder solved,” said her grandmother.
“That goes for all of us,” Alvarez said, with a hardness to her voice. “The other matter is that the Feds are now involved.”
Cat should have seen this coming, too, but she’d missed it. The darknet, Pennington’s stash… It was only a matter of time.
“They’ll want you to stay out of the case,” Alvarez said. “But of course I can’t stop you.”
“Someone else torched the studio because they were afraid Mick saw something.” Cat felt the case crystalizing before her. She cast a glance at Granny Grace and then at Alvarez. “We think Ernesto Ruíz might be involved, at least financially.”
“Ernesto!” Alvarez said. “You’re kidding.”
Cat handed her a few printouts showing the stock transactions. “He advises Kristoff and Carrie Langholm. We think he’s also managed their art dealings, but he felt it necessary to lie about that last night when my grandmother questioned him.”
“Oh, the party…” Alvarez said. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I just…well, maybe I wanted a break from you all. Please don’t take offense.”
“None taken,” said Granny Grace. “We’ve been your cross to bear for weeks now.”
Alvarez returned to the case. “So we’ve got Ernesto Ruíz, who’s involved in art brokering. Was he at the party that night?”
“Yes. And there’s more. There’s a maid who works for Serena Jones. We showed her the image of Mick’s painting, and she recognized the girl.”
“When was this?”
“Before Mick went rogue and caught Pennington,” Granny Grace explained. “We were following up on something I’d found out about Serena Jones, about her past. It’s not connected to the case, but it gave me an excuse to show the image to her maid. I didn’t think anything would come of showing her, but she acted as if she’d seen her image before. Undeniably.”
“But then she clamped down,” Cat added. “We couldn’t get anything out of her.”
“Let’s get her in here before the Feds take over,” said Alvarez. “I’ll impress upon her what an important case this is.”
It took some time, but that afternoon, Mariana Medina was brought in for questioning, followed by Serena Jones and a lawyer who looked as if he charged a hundred dollars a second.
They successfully barred Serena from the room, but the lawyer of course had to be present. Alvarez insisted Cat and Granny Grace join in as expert consultants.
“I’m sure you can appreciate the seriousness of a case involving murder and arson…” Alvarez began.
“Of which absolutely nothing links to my client,” said the lawyer. “We’re happy to help if there is anything relevant for Ms. Medina to contribute, but you’ll have to prove that.”
Alvarez held up her hand. “There’s more if you’ll allow me to finish.” She gazed not at the lawyer but directly at Mariana. “The case now includes charges for possession of child-abuse materials.”