Frank Tripp was not having a good day. It was close, muggy and sticky, with the mercury hitting 90, a lot higher than you'd expect for November in Miami. Tripp's usual staunch climate change scepticism was starting to waver in the face of some of the wacky shit the Florida weather had been pulling lately. More to the point, the gang war between the Mala Noches and the Pollo Locos was hotting up too, with a bloody shootout between the two near the courthouse leaving ten gangbangers dead, dozens of bystanders injured and a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig potentially traumatised for life.
Tripp had spent his morning trying to bring some kind of order to that chaotic scene, Lieutenant Caine having taken three weeks leave and disappeared to South America with his Glock, two katanas and a spare pair of shades. He'd said only that he "had some personal business to sort out", but Tripp knew that was bullshit. He was probably off to try and assassinate some cartel boss again. Either that, or the President of Venezuela.
So, all in all, Tripp wasn't terribly motivated to go out and do Lennie Briscoe's work for him by finding some internet nerd who'd said nasty things about a dead guy. He couldn't believe that old-timer hadn't disappeared into a retirement community years ago, but clearly the NYPD had sidelined him well away from the real action by giving him half-ass cases like this one to work. Still, Tripp was a professional. He'd find the geek, and see what he could get out of him.
The geek's name was Brett DePhage, and he lived in a particularly scruffy looking condo in the West Side where, Tripp thought as he parked nearby, he must have been about the only non-Latino. You had to give him credit for making it out of Mom and Dad's basement, but it wasn't much of a step up in life.
Tripp walked into the condo, sensing hostile glances and hearing muttered Spanish obscenities from several of the inhabitants as they sat outside their front doors on the walkways. No doubt he had arrested one or two of them at some point for something. Ignoring the bad vibes, he walked up to DePhage's apartment and banged on the door.
"Police!" he shouted. "MDPD! Mr DePhage?"
The spy-hole in the door flicked open briefly, then it swung open and there stood DePhage, a skinny twentysomething white guy with a straggly beard that needed a proper trim. Trip held up his badge.
"Are you Brett DePhage?"
"Yeah. What is it, Officer?"
"Detective Sergeant Frank Tripp, MDPD. Can I come in and talk with you, please, Mr DePhage?"
DePhage reluctantly let Tripp through the door, and led him into a sparsely furnished living room dominated by posters of what Tripp sort of recognised as video game characters and of weird-looking underage cartoon girls that he didn't recognise at all. DePhage plonked himself down on a beanbag.
"Look, Sergeant, if it's my neighbours complaining about the last Anime Club meeting I had over here, all I can say is that it's rich coming from some of them given the racket they make – domestic arguments, screaming drunks, people high on weed…"
"It's not your neighbours, Mr DePhage," cut in Tripp. "A man called Eric Finesilver's been murdered up in New York City, and my friends on the NYPD tell me you had some history. You posted some smack-talk on his website – "You're not what everyone thinks you are and I can prove it. Watch your back." That sound familiar, sport?"
DePhage looked shocked. "The Nineties Ninja – he's dead? Oh my God…I…you can't think that's me?"
Tripp shrugged. "I don't know, but it certainly sounds like you had a beef with the guy. Want to start by telling me where you were on Tuesday night between midnight and 4 a.m.?"
DePhage shrank back into the beanbag, almost as if he were trying to dig his way into it and away from Tripp. The detective was bald and burly, with the air of a high school quarterback gone to seed, and but for the lack of a row of lockers with "Loser" spray-painted on the one door, DePhage might have been re-enacting a familiar scene from his teenage years.
"I was in bed, here," he replied. "On my own. But that was the evening of the Anime Club meeting I mentioned, so there were a bunch of people here until maybe 11pm. I certainly wasn't anywhere near New York. I was watching Puella Magi Madoka Magica."
For several reasons, Tripp decided against the old trick of asking his suspect what actually happened in this Paella show he was supposed to have been watching. He did take the names and addresses of the people who had supposedly been at this meeting and warned DePhage that he'd be speaking to them too. "And, if we have to, we'll check whether your name shows up on the passenger lists for any flights to New York that day. Or on the airport security cameras."
"Hey, man, I'm telling you the truth!" said DePhage, vehemently. "Look, I hated the Nineties Ninja…or Finesilver, whatever, but I'm not a murderer."
"So what was your problem with him? Did he call some anime you liked a bunch of bullshit or something? That's a real dumb reason for turning a two year old into an orphan."
DePhage was staring at his shoes now. "No, it was personal. Years ago, Finesilver was at Central Florida U with my sister, Summer. They took classes together, and she kind of liked him. Then one evening, she went to some fratboy keg party he was at, got too loaded to walk properly, and Mr Nice Guy volunteered to take her back to her room. He raped her there. The cops said it was his word against hers, and they believed him over her. It totally fucked her up, man, she never really recovered. She ended up taking an overdose a couple of years ago."
There was a brief, uncomfortable silence, then DePhage added. "Trolling that son of a bitch was the least I could do, Sergeant. And I could care less that he's dead. His family's better off without him."
"Son, I really hope those friends of yours back you up about where you were that evening," said Tripp. "I really do, for your family's sake."
DePhage shrugged. "Look, there were plenty of crazy people around . Why don't the NYPD investigate them? You should tell them to look at the videos about the site's Myth Arc."
"The what?" asked Tripp.
A day or so later, Briscoe and Green sat in front of a computer screen…well, not quite open-mouthed, since they had been police officers too long to be easily shocked, but certainly with eyebrows raised. The video they were watching featured Finesilver, in his Nineties Ninja guise, Undercover Critic (female) and The Video Game Hipster (male). It was called "Bizarre Love Triangle" and featured the three internet reviewers acting out, well, a bizarre love triangle between them. It seemed that Undercover Critic was very much attracted by the Ninja, but pretty much repulsed by the nonetheless persistent Hipster.
"No, Critic, I love you. Don't have anything to do with Ninja. Not only is he a smiling assassin, he's twenty years' out of date too!"
"Sorry, Hipster – I can't possibly go out with a man who likes bands I've never heard of. What would we talk about?"
"I won't give up, Critic – I'll hang around until you realise he's no good for you."
"What the hell are they doing here?" said Green. "I thought they were supposed to be making fun of bad pop culture – what's with this soap opera?"
Briscoe shrugged. "I guess it's supposed to be funny. Apparently they used it to hook viewers into carrying on watching by creating a "story" for the website too, mostly of these characters having romantic sagas with each other. And, if you read the forums, there were people who took it pretty nearly as seriously as they did the non-fiction parts."
Green exhaled loudly, and shook his head. "So where does that leave us? Tripp says the kid in Miami has a water-tight alibi and his story about his sister checks out. The local Sheriff's Department a.k.a. the Cahoya County Gun Club decided not to press charges against Finesilver. It's not the brother, but maybe Summer DePhage had another friend or relative who wanted some payback?"
"Or maybe Sarah Finesilver or John MacNamara found out," said Briscoe. "After all, even if they didn't give a damn about the morality of it, or believed he was innocent, the co-founder being accused of rape could really hurt the business. They both had a financial interest in avoiding that. I say we interview them again."
"Yeah, maybe. Remember, though, MacNamara's alibi has checked out."
"It's his wife, though, Ed. She might not be unshakeable. And now we've found yet another reason for crazy fans to act crazy. We could end up chasing down people all over the country and get no further with this one."
"Forget motives, we need some solid forensic evidence. Where the hell's that murder weapon?"
In the end, they decided to attack on two fronts. Briscoe would speak to Mrs Finesilver and MacNamara again in the light of the latest revelations; Green would go back to the scene to check on the search for the weapon. In the event, MacNamara, summoned to the Homicide Squad's bare-walled, windowless interview room, had little to add to what he had already said. He claimed to have been unaware of the rape allegation and, if he was lying, his stunned, deer-in-the-headlights look when Briscoe told him suggested a master of the art. He knew about the "Myth Arc" videos, of course, but held stoutly to the position that those were "just comedy" and only taken seriously by "a couple of nutjobs on our forum." As for himself, he had gone home that evening just as he had already said and been at home with his wife all evening.
Sarah Finesilver was somewhat different. She came dressed in black, directly from her husband's funeral, bringing with her Eric Junior, who she would not let out of her sight as she insisted the shock of recent events was making him clingy. The boy sat under the interview room table, pushing around some of the Squad's small supply of battered toy cars and trucks on the linoleum floor. His mother's face was set and hard, as though she had to constantly make a conscious effort to stop it dissolving into tears.
Briscoe asked whether she knew about Summer DePhage.
"Oh, yes, Detective Briscoe," she replied. "I knew all about that. You see, I first met Eric at college, although we didn't start dating until our senior year, so we knew each other when all of that happened. I was in a few classes with Summer too. I didn't think much of her, to be honest. I thought she was a melodramatic attention seeker, always trying to get herself noticed by the cool crowd."
"None of that "speak no ill of the dead" for you, then, Mrs Finesilver," said Briscoe. She gave him an angry look.
"Hey, that was uncalled for! It was only the truth, which you guys say you always want. Look, there was quite a bit of sexual harassment on that campus, and nine times out of ten I'd believe a woman student who said she'd been raped. This just happened to be the tenth time. I thought Eric was telling the truth, that she'd agreed to sex, and that Summer was making it up. Eric wasn't a rapist. If I'd thought that, I'd never have married him."
"I guess we'll never know the truth now, will we?" said Briscoe. "OK, so all this was no secret to you, so you must have been aware of how an accusation like that could derail your husband's business, a business which you stood to inherit, partly, when he died."
"Well, who was making the accusation? I didn't even know Summer had a brother until you mentioned him to me, still less that he'd been trolling Eric's forum. But if he didn't even have the balls to make his claims openly there, what's the reason for believing he'd ever have done anything effective with them?"
Eric Junior looked up from his toy cars to his mother and murmured something in incomprehensible toddler-talk. She bent down to him and grasped his shoulders.
"Hush, sweetie. We can go later but Mommy is busy right now."
Briscoe coughed. "OK, Mrs Finesilver, I hear what you're saying. But you still have no alibi for that evening, and you're still the person with the second most obvious reason for killing Mr Finesilver. And the man with the most obvious motive has an alibi."
"Are you telling me I need a lawyer?"
"That's your decision. For the moment I only have one more question to ask you anyway. What did you think of all those videos your husband made where he pretended to be having romances with some of the women who contributed to his website?"
"I didn't think much of them, to be honest. Look, Detective Briscoe, I got that my husband and the others on the site were playing characters in those videos, and that those videos were a way of giving the characters a story. But I thought it was a bad idea. When your job, or your hobby, is playing a character, you need to be able to set boundaries between your real life and the character you play. I thought having these soap opera storylines, even as a kind of joke, made that more difficult for everyone. I told Eric that. But if you think I'm a crazy jealous woman who murdered her husband because he was pretending to be in love with some other woman, you're wrong. And if you think I'd leave my son on his own to beat anyone to death, you don't know me at all."
Briscoe let her go. She had a point on that last one, he thought. The most obvious candidates for last-minute babysitting were usually grandparents. Sarah's parents were in Tampa, and although Eric Finesilver's lived not far from the couple in Queens, they certainly hadn't admitted to having Eric Junior that evening. Of course, she might have just taken him in her car or something. Maybe Eric Junior would eventually rat out Mom, although Briscoe would probably be retired by the time he was old enough for that.
Meanwhile, Ed Green, having established within about five minutes of arriving in Brooklyn that the search for the murder weapon had still not succeeded, decided to go through with the other part of his plan. No-one knew better what was going on in any office than the secretary or secretaries, and in the case of , the nearest he had to that was that receptionist.
They met at Bean and Gone, a coffee place that looked like the tip of the spear for gentrification in this particular part of town. The low wooden tables were surrounded by old leather chairs and sofas, in which sprawled skinny young guys wearing skinny old jeans with packs of American Spirit cigarettes poking out of their jacket pockets. They were all either hammering away on laptops at their masterpieces, whether literary or of business planning, or conducting their social lives on wifi-enabled phones.
A plaid-clad barista explained the coffee shop's policy of sourcing beans only from one particular village in Ecuador where they were grown with little paper hats on to protect them from the sun and a coffee bush was accorded the reverence expected by an aristocrat in pre-Revolutionary France. Or maybe he did – Green tuned out after a couple of words and ordered his usual double espresso, whilst Molly, the receptionist, bought a Superberry Smoothie.
"I'm on a diet right now," she explained. "One of these bad boys, and I don't even think about lunch!"
Green said politely that she certainly didn't look like she needed to diet, and led them to a table in a quiet corner. It didn't take long, or much prompting, for Molly to start rolling out the office gossip.
"Honestly, Detective Green…"
"Please, call me Ed!"
"Well, OK, Ed – anyway, you wouldn't believe how difficult some of these contributors can be to deal with. Real prima donnas! That Trixie the Cinematic Dominatrix once got so mad that Eric edited ten seconds out of one of her videos that she phoned up screaming that she would turn up with her bullwhip and flog him senseless!"
"Really?" Green's eyebrows rose. "Was he worried about that?"
"Oh, not really. He knew her well enough to know it was just talk. Besides, she lives in Newfoundland I think, so she'd have to get on a plane and sneak her bullwhip past Customs first. There's a lot of posturing like that, but it was water off a duck's back for Eric. Nothing fazed him. Well, not much."
Her voice trailed off slightly at the end. Green sipped his coffee.
"So what did faze him, then?"
There was a silence. "Look," said Molly, "you have to understand, I really liked Eric. And I never had any proof of this, but…"
"I used to open our post in the morning," she went on. "Mostly it would just be routine stuff, invoices and junk mail, and so on. Sometimes one or other of us would get something that looked obviously personal, so I didn't open it. About a year ago, I noticed Eric was starting to get what looked like a regular letter from American Express. I thought he was just having his regular credit card statements delivered to the office for some reason. Then, last month, I was opening the post in kind of a hurry, and, without meaning to, I opening it."
"And?" asked Green.
"It was a credit card statement all right, but the entries were all hotels, flower shops, restaurants. I'm not naïve, Ed – I know what men spend money on when they have affairs. And I knew Eric certainly wasn't buying Sarah flowers every week or taking her to fancy restaurants regularly. He always said money was tight for them."
"So what did you do with the statement?"
"I stuffed it back into the envelope as best as I could and gave it to Eric as usual. He didn't say anything, but the expression on his face – that was when he looked fazed. I wondered if anything would happen afterwards, but nothing did."
Well, nothing that you know about, anyway, thought Green. He started thinking about the fastest, most polite way to get out of this coffee shop and get this information to Briscoe.