6:22 PM, April 8, 2019 / Location: Value Convenience, Downtown Cincinnati
The store was absolutely gutted by the fire. The fire department would have to do a forensic investigation to confirm, but it was already clear to them that an accelerant had been used. The fire had burned too hot and too fast. Someone wanted this store to burn, and quickly. While, obviously, they had to wait for confirmation; whoever torched this convenience store wanted to make damned sure the fire did as much damage as possible—even at the expense of it being evident it was arson. The expensive camera mounted on the outside of the store had been reduced to a melted plastic slag. The exterior of the building, while still standing, was as black as the recently-paved road it sat in front of. A vivid change of color from the red brick Quinn remembered from their first visit. The adjacent commercial properties had gotten quite a lot of damage as well, but had not burned as quickly as the charred husk of Value Convenience. Blackened water oozed out of the building's orifices, pooling on the sidewalk and the road and running into a nearby drainage ditch.
To make matters worse, the fire department was confident that the store clerk—one Vincent Mak, the same one Quinn and Roy had interviewed previously—had been trapped inside at the time of the fire.
He was now officially victim number two.
The senior FBI agent and his trainee stood outside of the fire department's protective perimiter. The fire had been extinguised, and they were waiting on the fire department's battalion chief to declare the scene safe to enter. They would also have local law enforcement to deal with, who were busy milling about attempting to keep the massive crowd at bay. The two had already spoken with the ranking officer and fire department personnel on scene, filling them in on what their interest here. Quinn was anxious to get inside and find out what happened. She had no doubts her older mentor felt the same sense of urgency.
A large crowd of concerned people had encircled the scene; the cool downtown street had become a bustling center of attention as the massive group of people excitedly exchanged what they'd seen, what they think they'd seen, and all other manners of speculation. It was the scene of a specacle; something the average person only got to see once or twice in their lives. For them, this was the highlight of their month. Stories to tell for years to come.
For Quinn, it was a gaping hole in her first case. A massive rift that had formed, threatening to swallow their investigation whole.
A cool spring breeze picked up and cooled down her face; it was then that she realized she could feel radiant heat from the destroyed building. For her, it really nailed home how powerful the fire was. It had taken the firefighters three trucks and almost an hour to put out the fire in the comparatively tiny little convenience store.
"This isn't good," Roy stated matter-of-factly. Quinn turned to her older mentor. He had a serious look of concern on his face, all traces of the buddy-buddy atmosphere from the ride over gone completely.
"Do you feel it?" Roy asked vaguely. He looked away from the fire scene to his young trainee. "Has the weight of this set in yet?"
She didn't say anything; Quinn simply nodded, looking back towards the new crime scene. The implications of this presumed arson were huge. Their case was quickly exploding from a simple open-and-shut guy-shoots-other-guy type case, to something more vast and far-reaching. She had the distinct impression this wasn't the type of case that new FBI trainees regularly got assigned. She wondered briefly if her and Roy would be pulled off the case and assigned something else.
The storefront, and any clues that could be found surrounding their lead with the camera, had both literally and figuratively gone up in smoke. How convenient.
The fire was obviously meant to destroy any residual evidence the perpetrator didn't want being found, regarding the original dead guy getting a new hole in his face. What didn't they want the FBI to find? Who was behind this? Clearly, if the case was as it appeared on the surface—douchebag conspiracy theorist catches bullet for pissing off the wrong thug—what was the reason to torch the building? Quinn had a nagging suspicion that her idea of focusing on the camera as their first lead was the correct move. Otherwise, whoever was behind this would not have pre-emptively foreseen her move and blocked her play. She hadn't been at this FBI game for long, and it stung that her opening move was met with such a powerful reversal.
Quinn turned away from the scene to study the mass of people that had gathered. The fire department's courdon had effectively been split into two layers: The inner perimeter, where her, her partner, and various fire department and law enforcement personnel had set up camp to deal with the situation; and the outer layer, where the crowd of civilians threatened to push inward were it not for the local police force and a few errant firefighters staving them off. She studied the people at the forefront that were visible through the sparse wall of personnel holding down the perimeter. Some jumping around to get a better view, some covering their mouths in horror, and yet others still had their cellphones out and recording the whole affair with zero sense of shame. A loud homogenous buzz of shouting and commands swallowed up even the loudest of the city's background noise.
One particular young woman caught her attention; a woman about Quinn's age happened to be looking in her direction through a gap in the crowd herders. She was cute. This girl seemed to be Quinn's type: Long brown hair, a kind face, light colored trendy spring coat, blue jeans. Stunning. Under different circumstances, she might have considered waltzing up and asking her for her number.
The girl made eye contact with Quinn. The young FBI trainee smiled weakly at her, trying to convey a sense of 'we got this.' The girl smiled back, winked, and turned away. Shared attraction maybe?
Quinn parked the thought and recentered focus on the scene at hand. Distractions were bad for investigations. She mentally slapped herself and willed a new train of thought into being.
What would be the next step? When the all-clear inevitably got called, she and Roy would have to share the walk-through with the fire department and the police. Her training on arson scenes had taught her that hot and fast fires like this would likely leave little evidence behind. Everything that wasn't flammable in any way would either be molten slag, or warped beyond recognition. The body would barely be able to be picked out against the rest of the damage. She figured there wouldn't be any worthwhile clues in there, and the look on Roy's face seemed to agree with that thesis.
Still, they would have to walk around and make sure. Take a look at what little rmeains of the body there were. Due diligence and all that. Leave no stone unturned.
Quinn chanced a glance back over at the pretty girl she had spotted. Sadly, the woman must have been swallowed up by the crowd and was no longer visible. Shame.
Out of her peripheral vision, she noticed a sooty and tired-looking firefighter approach her and Roy from the storefront's entrance.
"Scene is clear," the sturdy voice announced, muffled through the heavy-duty oxygen mask. "Building's stable, no risk of collapse. No hotspots or risk of re-ignition. Single body, towards the rear exit. Not much left in there though, I'm not sure if you'll find what you're looking for."
Me either, Quinn thought to herself as she and Roy lifted the hastily erected caution tape separating them from the storefront. They were the first two heading in; the local law enforcement didn't seem too eager to join them—likely wanted to leave the two FBI agents to do all the heavy lifting as much as possible. How nice of them. A couple of them trailed in behind them, letting Quinn and Roy get first access.
Or at least, that's what she thought; when they got inside, they had been beaten in by a sole detective. The guy seemed surprised at their arrival, but quickly rushed over to introduce himself.
"Detective Gregorian," the apparent detective said quickly, extending his hand for a handshake. The guy was scrawny; Quinn sincerely doubted the guy could handle himself in a fight in any capacity. Buzz-cut red hair, gold-rimmed glasses, looked like he frequently hadn't slept in days—he was probably younger than his appearance made him out to be. He had a suit jacket sloppily worn over top of a plain white teeshirt, and beige work pants that had seen better days. Not exaclty how Quinn envisioned a detective; but after shaking his hand, he produced his ID.
"Greg for short?" Roy asked, taking his turn to shake detective Gregorian's hand.
'Greg' gave a half-nod. "Sounds a lot better. More normal." Quinn stifled a laugh. 'Normal' was not one of the first few words that came to mind for this fellow. "What brings you two agents here?" Greg asked. Quinn kept her mouth shut, as she knew it was the duty of her mentor to do all the scene politics wrangling.
"We had a lead here, in a case we're investigating," Roy replied. Quinn noticed the lack of specifics in his response. "Unfortunately I don't think we're going to find what we're looking for in this mess." He held up his hands defensively. "We're not staking claim in this one. Just want to look around if that's all right, and stay in the loop of anything you find."
"Sure thing," the detective agreed, glancing outside to do a quick scan of the inner perimeter outside. "Doesn't seem like any of my associates want to join me in here. Probably for the better, as it's easy to get crowded in here."
Greg wasn't wrong; the inside of the burned-out store was small to begin with, and they were keeping to a very specific path through the store as to not damage potential evidence or risk interacting with anything dangerous. Aside from the three of them, only a couple of firefighters seemed to come and go at any one time. Some tanked up in full gear, others in more stripped down garb. The latter of which were presumably fire investigators.
"So, what are you looking for? Anything specific?" the detective asked.
Roy stayed quiet for a moment, likely fighting with himself as to how much to tell the local police. As with the car discussion, he seemed to come down on the side of 'sharing is caring.' "There was a camera mounted outside the building, that caught a crime we're investigating on video. That camera is—er, was—our lead, and it's now a pile of melted shit outside. Was hoping we could track down any info about it." He gestured to the completely black and smoky room around him. "Unlikely at this point."
Detective Greg slightly cocked his head. "Well, feel free to take a look around. Fire department gentlemen say there's human remains in the back. Looks like they were trying to escape out the back, but the door was locked with a padlock." He paused for a moment. "I'm not one for crime scene politics. You can have first crack. Leave me with your business card, and I'll fill you in if we find anything else later down the line." Roy accepted, and passed over one from his wallet to the grungy detective. Quinn followed suit, making a mental note that this was the first one she'd handed out in the name of her FBI job. She felt a bit of pride about that.
Greg studied them for a second and then wandered away, leaving the two standing there.
"Guy's a bit odd," Roy muttered to Quinn under his breath, voicing her own thoughts. He kept his gaze on the departing detective.
"Right?" she affirmed. Her eyebrows contorted into a minor look of disbelief. "Not how I picture them. Detectives, I mean."
"Yeah..." Roy replied, maintaining his gaze on Greg as he disappeared around a corner. "My gut is saying not to trust that guy."
"Any particular reason?" Quinn asked, alarmed at the sudden idea that Greg was suspect in her older mentor's eyes. A brief idea occurred to her; if Roy didn't trust the guy, could he be.. the guy? The one responsible?
"Not that I can put into words." Roy turned to her, and noticed her look of worry. "Hey, before you think it, I don't think he's our guy." He picked his next words out in a very specific way. "I think... I think he knows more than he's letting on, but I don't think he's involved with what happened here. Can't say for sure. But doing this job for all these years, you start to get intuition about people. Probably has a suspect in mind, and playing that card particularly close to his chest."
Quinn felt stupid. Greg was an accredited detective, there was no way around that. Still, she couldn't shake the feeling that something was off about him. She couldn't quite place her finger on it. For now, she was willing to accept that maybe her beginner-level intuation wasn't the most reliable. After all, Roy had a lot more experience, and it was her job to trust his judgement. He seemed to be quite competent in the month or so she'd spent with him, no reason to start doubting him now. She set the feeling of suspicion aside.
To the surprise of neither of them, the crime scene was a bust exactly as they had anticipated. The body was unidentifiable. Hell, it wasn't even a body at this point; the skull was the only thing that survived enough to retain form. If they were lucky, the jaw would be relatively intact and they could match the victim with dental records to confirm it was the clerk they had interviewed prior.
Nothing in the back office had survived. If there had been a computer or file cabinet in there with records they could check for the security camera's bill of sale, they couldn't have guessed from the devastation. The key evidence piece—the camera itself—was a pile of molten plastic. Some of the internal metal parts had survived, so they might get lucky by matching unique parts to a specific model, but that would be the result of a late night or two spent digging through hundreds of security camera schematics to possibly find a match.
As they picked their way around the scene, playing tango with the various CSI and fire department officials, it was clear to both of them that they had nothing to offer them on-site. This particular scene was a job solely for the forensic and fire teams.
So, Roy again tested Quinn as to where they should go next. She suggested revisiting the first victim's home, to which the older FBI agent agreed. It had already gotten dark out at this point, and their usual buddy-buddy small talk routine was not present on the drive over. She hadn't known her older mentor for very long, but this was the first time the drive had been filled with a serious silence. The new developments were getting to the man, and even Quinn knew that something dangerous was brewing. This was the first time she'd be working this late.
The first victim's home, the residence of Rufus Milan, was calm. Nice and quiet. A healthy change of pace from the chaotic scene of the convenience store fire. It was a relatively nice suburban neighborhood. Middle-class cars were parked up and down the street—some new, some a few years old in make and model; all kept relatively clean and tidy but not overly polished or showy. Cars of people who wanted to be nice and presentable, but not overstepping into the bounds of bling and narcissism.
The kind of neighborhood Quinn grew up in, only not on a military base.
She and Roy ducked under the caution tape over the door at Milan's residence. The older agent produced the copied key and let the two of them in. A dark quiet awaited them, but nothing sinister. The quiet of a house left unattended for days.
Quinn flipped on the light switch in the main hallway, bathing everything in a yellowish light. Everything was exactly as she remembered it being when they had been there a few days prior. Neither her nor Roy knew what they were looking for exactly, but they figured the new case context might lead to finding something interesting that had previously flown under their radar. The only thing that had been particularly of interest the last time around, was Milan's corkboard wall of conpsiracy theory hooey in the basement.
After listening for a minute to await any potential disturbed suspect, Quinn turned to Roy once they were sure the home was still empty. "Remember the wall of fun? I think I might take another look at it. If that's okay," she offered.
"Sounds good," Roy replied. "I'll check out the bedrooms and stuff, in the mean time. Maybe I missed something last time around."
"I doubt I'll find anything useful on the conspiracy wall." Quinn shrugged. "There's never anything worth reading with that stuff. But, maybe there's a clue as to places he's been or people he's met."
"Sounds like you have some experience on the matter," Roy poked at her. She didn't answer, opting to ignore the probing query. She simply left to the basement.
The basement at this place was relatively nice. It had been furnished with wood panelling, and wooden floorboards. It was a home office, complete with computer, filing cabinets, desk, and chair. If it weren't for the large corkboard wall of conspiracy nuttery, the basement could have easily been attributed to a well-to-do writer or basement entrepeneur.
The corkboard wall was intense. It was easily the biggest draw in the room. It was absolutely plastered with a chaotic array of screen prints, grainy photos, newspaper clippings, and internet articles from those dingy back-room conspiracy theory sites.
The focus was centered around government projects. Most of them she'd never heard of, and it was a flip of the coin if any given project had any connection with reality whatsoever. The only one she did recognize was 'MK ULTRA', a real government secret project that had existed back in the day. However, the reality—while still bizarre in it's own right—was much more mundane than the twisted fantastical stories that had grown from it. Something about using drugs to experiment with mind control. The cold war had definitely produced some off-the-wall stuff in the dark cellars of the government's black projects.
None of the postings had anything substantial for potential past whereabouts or dealings of Mr. Milan. Quinn searched the entire wall. She started from the top left, and went from left to right, top to bottom. Going over each photo and document for the second time. As she reached the bottom right corner of the corkboard wall, she absent-mindedly stared at it as she remembered dealing with these sorts of conspiracies with her father. If she was being honest, it struck a chord with her. She wondered if she and Roy had been intentionally stuck on this case because the higher-ups had been aware of her father's history. She doubted it would have been some sort of joke; her guess was that it was some sort of test to see how she would handle something that struck so close to home.
The wood panelling wall.
She snapped out of her memory and focused on the wood panel directly to the right of the cork board wall. Something about it seemed out of place, something she had not noticed the first time around. Something that didn't catch her eye until she had briefly fazed out while staring at the corner of the corkboard. That particular panel was not sitting perfectly flush with the rest of the wall panelling; the bottom of it stuck out from it's nearest neighbor by a few millimeters. Not that much, but enough to be suspicious.
Quinn approached the panel and gave it a few quick knocks with her knuckle.
She tested the surrounding panel strips. They all had a bit more rigidity to them.
The first panel must have empty space behind it. She retrieved her pocket knife from her pocket and flipped it open. A souvenir from her father—simple brass and wood finish, solid and simple drop point blade. The perfect tool to insert into the thin space between panels and pry the hollow panel away from the wall.
It came off the wall with no effort. It was light, so it just softly flopped over onto the floor with a dull thud as it landed on the similarly wooden floor. As suspected, there was a hollow space behind the panel. It stretched far back enough to comfortably house a single manilla folder.
Written across the folder was the word 'Nameless.'
As in, the known hacker group Nameless. The same hacker group that Milan was known to be tied to.
It was at this point that Quinn decided it would be wise to bring in her older mentor to see this. The turned her head and shouted in the direction of the stairs. "Agent Roy! Basement! Found something."
"Coming!" Roy replied curtly from somewhere upstairs. While she waited for him, she read the label. It contained a single word: 'Storyteller.' Whatever was in this folder, she was immediately somewhat sure of two things: The first, this folder must have contained information sent to Milan by the Nameless group; and the second, whatever was in the folder was of a different level of importance than the stuff plastered all over the corkboard wall. By a large margin, it seemed. Milan appeared perfectly happy to paste his paranoia all over his basement wall and regurgitate it to anyone who would listen in the street, but this folder had been hidden. Concealed. Not meant for others to discover. A clear difference in perceived value of the information.
She decided to wait until her older compatriot joined her in the basement before opening the folder. After a few seconds, Roy came gently maneuvering down the staircase. Still holding her pocket knife, she gestured to the now-vacant space in the wall next to the corkboard. "Found a hollow panel. Had this folder in it," Quinn explained as he approached her.
"Nice. Good find," Roy congratulated her, eyeing the empty space in the wall. He turned to the folder, and his face lit up with understanding when he saw the hacker group's name stenciled across the front. "Nameless? The hacker group? Oh boy. You taken a look inside yet?"
"No," Quinn answered. "Was just about to. Looks like we might have some hacked files in here."
Roy rubbed his hands together. "This is promising. Seriously, good find, kid."
Quinn stifled the surge of pride that came from the comment. The time to celebrate and feel accomplished could wait until later. She cracked open the folder. Roy squeezed in beside her to get a good look at what was inside.
The first page inside of the folder appeared to be a government report titled 'The Storyteller Initiative." The first paragraph detailed the formation of some secretive Army unit. Specifically, it seemed to be a unit of bodyguards built out to protect a central asset: A young woman. Possibly even late teens—the page didn't specify, but it did have a grainy photograph of this mysterious young woman, and it was clear that she was quite young. Had to be barely old enough for military service.
The woman in the photo looked eerily familiar. Brown hair, and a caring face. Whoever she was, Quinn felt sure she had seen her somewhere before. Maybe recently. Where?
And then it hit her. The hair was different—pulled up into a regulations-comnpliant bun—and she was younger, but Quinn solved where she had seen her. It had been very recent.
She turned to Roy, who had paled slightly. Before she could speak, Roy beat her to the punch. "Oh no," the older Agent said in an alarmed hushed tone. "I think I know what this is. Have you ever heard of the Storyteller?"Quinn shook her head, but again, Roy spoke up again before she could intervene. "I've heard ghost stories about the Storyteller over the last few years. Scary shit, man. But I thought it was just stories. I think what you're holding might prove that they're not just stories."
Finally, Quinn had a chance to interject. "I've got one better for you." She pointed at the younger woman in the photo. "I've seen her before. She winked at me from the crowd at the crime scene."