The girl stared nervously into the cavernous black depths of the alley in front of her. It was lit only by the flickering light above a doorway about half-way along that looked like it must be the kitchen or storeroom entrance for the adjoining Chinese restaurant, a cheap-looking place that reeked of monosodium glutamate. The light illuminated only a narrow half-circle immediately in front of the door, which somehow just made the plentiful shadows everywhere else even darker. She noted the dumpster just next to the door, a perfect hiding place for anyone bent on violence, the piles of rubbish scattered elsewhere, the faint smell of piss carried on the cold autumn breeze.
She turned to the boy next to her and said:
"Are you sure this is safe?"
"Sure," he said, cheerfully, "I've been down there like a million times. It cuts off the corner of this block and saves you five minutes walking. We'll be fine."
"OK," she said, a little dubiously. She had only been in New York City a few weeks, and she realised that Brooklyn wasn't much like Nebraska, understood that you had to be careful with guys you'd met in a bar a couple of hours ago…but still, he seemed OK. Didn't he?
"Come on," said the boy, and strode into the shadows. The girl followed him. For a minute or so, the street was quiet but for the footsteps of the odd passer by heading for the nearby convenience store and noise seeping out from the restaurant. Then, from deep inside the alley, came an ear-piercing scream.
"The victim was dumped right in the middle of the alleyway," said Detective Lennie Briscoe, lifting the police tape with one hand to let his partner in under it. "It's so badly lit, the couple who called it in practically fell on top of him."
"Must have made their evening," replied Detective Ed Green, stooping under the tape.
"Oh, she's fine. The guy's pretty shaken up though. Apparently, his screaming woke half the neighbourhood."
Briscoe and Green strode down the alleyway, where the City budget was now providing, through the intense blaze of the police arc-lights, the lighting that it seemingly couldn't stretch to a few hours ago. Green halted when he saw where the dead man lay.
"Man, you weren't exaggerating, Lennie. The killer hardly made any effort to hide the body – not under the piles of rubbish, not under these crates. They didn't even take a few moments to throw it in the dumpster, which is like Murder 101. They must have been in a helluva hurry. Maybe panicking."
"Or they wanted someone to find him," said Briscoe.
Whoever the murderer was, he hadn't bothered to take the victim's cash or, for that matter, anything else from his wallet. Credit cards and driving licence revealed him to be Eric Finesilver, of 2385 Delgardo Boulevard, Queens. He was 35 years old. "Well, looks like this perp didn't even try to make our job harder for us, " commented Green, as Briscoe hastily arranged by phone for officers to be dispatched to the Finesilver residence, to secure the place and perhaps make contact with any family there might be there. "Nothing about this says planning and preparation to me."
Briscoe finished his phone call, knelt down, lifted the sheet over the body and pointed to the bruised and battered face of the man under it, and the dark hair thickly clotted with blood. "He looks like he's taken a major beatdown before being killed, though. Someone was definitely mad at him, whether they planned to kill him or not. We'll see what the ME has to say about it, but it looks to me like he was beaten to death."
The crime scene investigators were eager to get in and do their stuff, so Briscoe and Green decided to let them, and see if they could find anything from a canvass of the immediate neighbourhood, taking the bagged-up driving licence with them for a photo. The victim clearly wasn't from the area, so someone might have noticed him as he came into it to meet his end – or was brought into it afterwards. And it was just about morning enough that you could justify turning up on people's doorsteps.
As ever, knocking on doors yielded some…mixed results. A lot of people had heard the screaming, and were eager to complain about "crazies and drug addicts hanging around that alley", but they were shorter on actual detail about anything that might have happened. The local bar owner thought the guy looked "too sane and clean to be one of my customers", the guy at the Laundromat thought the government was monitoring his e-mails, one woman living above the Chinese restaurant thought the restaurant owner was running an illegal bookmaking operation from his basement and another just opposite thought her ex-husband was harassing her.
"If you like," said Briscoe, "I'll introduce him to my ex-wife. They sound like a good match."
There was one lead to go on, though - one of the neighbours did recognise the photo on the driving licence and was sure he'd seen the guy go into a nearby office building at 345 Green Street on a number of occasions. Briscoe and Green were about to head over there to see what they might find when Briscoe's mobile phone rang.
"Hello, Detective Briscoe. Yeah? OK, right, I'll get over there as soon as I can. Where did you say this place was exactly? Right, got you."
He turned off the phone. "That was DeSouza from the 78th Precinct. He's over at Finesilver's house, and it turns out the guy's wife and two-year old son live there with him. She's reacting about how you'd expect, but I need to get over there and talk to her anyway."
"OK," said Green. "I'll look into that office building myself."
2385 Delgardo Boulevard proved to be a slightly scruffy-looking duplex that looked like it had been churned out of the developer's sausage machine at some point in the late 80s housing boom. In the kitchen, a tearful Sarah Finesilver, mid-thirties with a bewildered toddler in her lap, gazed at Briscoe uncomprehendingly. That a battered, fifty-something man in a raincoat who looked like everything you'd expect Philip Marlowe to age into would turn up in her own house one morning and ask her questions about the violent death of her young and healthy husband had not been any part of her life plan.
Briscoe was just glad the kid hadn't cottoned on to Daddy's absence quite yet. Crying adults were difficult enough to deal with, emotionally; crying children on top of that was something that, even after decades of police work, he still struggled with.
"I'm sorry about your husband, Mrs Finesilver," he said. "Can you think of anyone who might have wanted to do something like this to him?"
She sniffed loudly, and dabbed at her nose with a hanky. "If you took them seriously, there are dozens of people who might have wanted to do this to Eric. They openly admitted it to him."
"What? How come?"
"Well…have you heard of Terrible , Detective?"
"I'm afraid not, Mrs Finesilver. Perhaps you could fill me in."
"It's an internet review site that Eric helped found. He's one of the leading contributors to it, too. Actually, it's not just about terrible movies – they do TV shows, cartoons, video games, even comic books. Anything so long as they can make funny reviews out of them, which usually means they have to be bad. Eric's job is making videos riffing on bad media and posting them on the internet, and a lot of people don't like him criticising things they like. He and his colleagues used to get threatened by angry fans all the time, not to mention all the trolls who'd just say horrible things to him for the sake of it. Of course, we thought it was all talk, we never thought anyone would actually…" Her voice trailed off.
Jesus Christ, Briscoe thought to himself. A few hours into this case, and already the problem was not too few suspects, but too many. He could foresee an awful lot of overtime being expended on reading an awful lot of enraged, badly spelled internet posts, 99% of them by milquetoast introverts who'd struggle having a conversation with a store clerk, let alone murdering anyone.
Out loud, he said – "Had Eric mentioned any particular threats recently?"
Mrs Finesilver shrugged. "Not that I can remember. John MacNamara might be able to help you with that. He co-founded the site with Eric. I think they did keep records of banned accounts and so on – that might help you find the most recent, most nasty posts. John's contact details are on the stack of business cards in Eric's study."
"Thanks, I'll pick those up on the way out," said Briscoe. "Can you tell me when you last saw Eric?"
"Yesterday morning, when he went off to work. He called me sometime around mid-afternoon to say that he was probably not going to make it in until late that evening because he was up against a deadline editing his latest video and it was a pain in the ass doing it. I went to bed as usual, and I was so exhausted from running around after Eric Junior all day that I slept right through to when your guys banged on the door."
"Did he often work late like that?"
"Yeah, sometimes, when they really had to get something ready to be posted on the site." Her bottom lip began to quiver markedly. "He…he was going to take a day off to make it up…" The sentence petered out into fresh tears. Briscoe comforted Mrs Finesilver as best as he could (which wasn't much), then handed her over to the Victim Support worker who had fortuitously turned up. As much as he always felt a heel for walking out of those situations, he knew that all he could ever do for these people, good or bad, was to solve the case. Briscoe wasn't much of a grief counsellor.
He ran into Officer DeSouza in the narrow hallway.
"We've done a search of the house, Detective," DeSouza said. "There's nothing to suggest anything out of the ordinary happened here."
"I didn't think you'd find anything, but take her prints and swab her anyway. They were a married couple, she's got no alibi and, for all we know, she's great at faking distress. Did you find the vic's study?"
"Yeah, upstairs, second door on the left."
"Son of a bitch," said Briscoe, a few moments later, staring at the card in his hand. He reached for his cellphone and dialled Green.
"Ed? It's Lennie."
"Finesilver's business card confirms that is based at 345 Green Street…"
"Well, I could have told you that, Sherlock," said Green. "I'm already in there, I'm about to see the guy's partner…"
"John MacNamara," cut in Briscoe.
"…and I think I may have made an impression on the receptionist too." She was covertly glancing over from behind her semi-circular desk at the suave, middle-aged detective, thinking that whilst she'd never really gone for older guys, cops or, truth be told, black guys, before, this detective did have a definite way about him.
"Well, what a surprise! OK, Ed, I'll see you back there later and you can fill me in on what he has to say. The wife says they all used to cop a lot of abuse for their reviews – see what you can find out about that."
MacNamara turned out to be a tall, skinny, awkward-looking guy with a prominent Adam's apple that telegraphed every gulp to the tri-county area. He had just got off the phone from talking to Sarah Finesilver by the time he came out of his office to see Green, and he was still shaken by the news she had called to pass on.
"I can't believe it," he said, shaking his head. "Eric had been a buddy of mine since high school. We spent the last eight years building this place up together."
"And now it all goes to you, right?" asked Green. MacNamara shook his head.
"We each had a fifty percent holding in the corporation that owns the website, so I guess Eric's stock goes to whoever he left it to in his will, if he made one. Probably Sarah. I doubt I'll see anything more out of this than I have already. Besides, Detective, we're not exactly Google here. We riff on shitty movies and sell advertising on our site based on the hits that gets us. So do a billion other sites. It's a living, but…put it this way, the only people drawing a salary here until last night were me, Eric, Molly, who you just met, and Mikey, who sells advertising space for us. All the other contributors are unpaid."
"Can I see who they are?"
MacNamara led Green to his tiny office, most of which was taken up with a baroque array of computer equipment and piles of paperwork, and ran him through the site, on which the discerning viewer could choose between watching videos by The Rabid Reviewer, The Video Game Hipster, Trixie the Cinematic Dominatrix ("Excuse me?" "Well, if she doesn't like the movie enough she flogs her "slave". Actually, sometimes if she does like it, to be honest. He's a nice guy, from Boston – I met them both at a convention once."), Legendary Louie, the Metacritic ("comics, mostly") and Undercover Critic ("lots of gossip about the up-and-coming stuff"). Eric Finesilver had been The Nineties Ninja.
"They do have real names and addresses, right?" said Green.
"I can put together a list for you. But they live all over the country, some of them abroad, even."
"Well, anyone can get on a plane to New York, if they've got the motivation. How about your trolls? I'm told you got a lot of them."
MacNamara sighed. "Oh, Christ, yes. Plenty of flaming, up to and including death threats sometimes, mostly people who were way too emotionally committed to some of the things our contributors mocked. Nerds can be pretty bad for lacking a sense of proportion. I never thought it would come to this, though. Those guys sometimes talk tough, but a lot of them never get out of their bedrooms long enough to hurt anyone in real life."
"I'd still like to see any records you have, Mr MacNamara," said Green.
"There's a file of posters we handed IP bans to on my system somewhere. The worst troublemakers – I'll put that on a memory stick for you. It says what they were banned for too, which should help."
"Thank you," said Green. "Oh, and when did you last see Mr Finesilver yourself?"
"Yesterday. He was here until at least six p.m., when I left, working on a video in that suite over there." He pointed at what looked like a cupboard, opposite the open door of his office. "He told me he'd be a few hours yet before it was in shape. I went straight home. Ask my wife, if you want."
Green met up with Briscoe a few hours later, after lunch, at their desks in the offices of the Homicide Squad. He brought the various computer and paper files he had collected. Briscoe was back from Queens, via the ME, who had been able to confirm that Eric Finesilver had indeed died from blunt force trauma to the head, some point between midnight and 4 am.
"The ME thinks the weapon was probably something like a bat or club of some kind. There certainly wasn't anything like that at the scene, but I have a few guys looking through dumpsters and so on in the area. I doubt the perp would have wanted to carry it far on the streets with all the blood and hair on it. Not to mention it being a frigging baseball bat."
"That's bullshit, man, I've played in a bunch of games that ended in the small hours," deadpanned Green.
At intervals over the next couple of days, Briscoe, Green and a forensic IT technician, worked through the various computer materials they had been provided with and worked on compiling a list of the most promising looking enraged posters on 's forum. Briscoe couldn't help thinking that a guy's opinions on Braddock: Missing in Action 3 or The Care Bears Movie seemed a weak motive for beating him to death, but some of the attacks were every bit as crazily vitriolic as promised, and he'd known guys get shot over $5 or a pair of trainers, so who knew?
It was Sam, the IT technician, who eventually dug up a string of posts from a poster calling themselves Electric Boogaloo that seemed like they might be what they were looking for. They were from about three months ago, they were angry and threatening, and they weren't anything to do with Finesilver's failure to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of Pacific Rim.
"This person, Electric Boogaloo, went for the vic on a personal level, and for some reason that didn't seem at all connected to his reviews," explained Green to Lieutenant Anita Van Buren, as he and Briscoe sat in her office. "They were suggesting that Finesilver was a real jerk and that if everyone knew the truth about how he had behaved, everyone else wouldn't be sitting around blowing smoke up his ass and the ass of his website. If websites had an ass, but anyway, that's beside the point. It was real poison pen letter stuff – "you think you're so great, but I know you're not, you're an asshole, watch your back," all that kind of thing. That stood out as unusual."
Van Buren sat back in her chair. "Did Electric Boogaloo give any details in the posts of what exactly they claimed Finesilver had done?"
"No," said Briscoe. "There was the predictable torrent of abuse from other people – "Fuck you, troll", "you're making this up", and so on and so on. Before too long that thread had been closed and this poster and several others banned from the site."
"OK," said Van Buren, "do we know anything about who and where Electric Boogaloo is?"
"Only that he was using an internet connection in the Miami area," said Green. "We can probably persuade a judge to order his service provider to come up with more, but of course, it's beyond our boundaries."
"Oh, I knew there had to be a reason this was in my office," Van Buren said. "You want me to speak to Miami-Dade PD about getting someone to talk to this guy, once we know who he is?"
"If you don't mind, Lieutenant," said Briscoe. "Oh, and one more request – would you mind not getting Lieutenant Horatio Caine involved here? Cause the last time I worked on an investigation with a Miami connection, he was running it, and I think the guy's nuts. He acts like he's Batman or something. If Caine goes to see the suspect, there's an even chance he'll be dead before he can tell us anything."
"Hold on," said Green. "I thought Caine ran the Miami Crime Lab? What's he doing running a homicide investigation?"
"You tell me. As far as I could make out, he runs that whole damn Department."
Van Buren held up her hands. "OK, OK, I'll try to avoid getting Caine involved. I'm sure Miami-Dade employs other detectives beside him. You guys just concentrate on getting your court order, and we'll sort the rest out once we have the suspect's name and address."