Chapter 16

Shauna met me on the ground floor of a high-rise at 462 Park Avenue in Manhattan.

"Come on," she said without preamble. "I have something to show you upstairs."

I checked my watch. A little under two hours until the Bat Street message came in. We entered an elevator. Shauna hit the button for the twenty-third floor. The lights climbed and the blind-person-counter beeped.

"Hester got me thinking," Shauna said.

"What about?"

"She said the feds would be desperate. That they'd do anything to get you."


The elevator sounded its final ding.

"Hang on, you'll see."

The door slid open on a massive cubicle-divided floor. The norm in the city nowadays. Rip off the ceiling and view from above and you'd have a very hard time telling the difference between this floor and a rat maze. From down here too, when you thought about it.

Shauna marched between countless cloth-lined dividers. I trailed in her wake. Halfway down she turned left and then right and then left again.

"Maybe I should drop bread crumbs," I said.

Her voice was flat. "Good one."

"Thank you, I'm here all week."

She wasn't laughing.

"What is this place anyway?" I asked.

"A company called DigiCom. The agency works with them sometimes."

"Doing what?"

"You'll see."

We made a final turn into a cluttered cubbyhole occupied by a young man with a long head and the slender fingers of a concert pianist.

"This is Farrell Lynch. Farrell, this is David Beck."

I shook the slender hand briefly. Farrell said, "Hi."

I nodded.

"Okay," Shauna said. "Key it up."

Farrell Lynch swiveled his chair so that he was facing the computer. Shauna and I watched over his shoulders. He started typing with those slender fingers.

"Keyed up," he said.

"Run it."

He hit the return button. The screen went black and then Humphrey Bogart appeared. He wore a fedora and a trench coat. I recognized the scene right away. The fog, the plane in the background. The finale of Casablanca.

I looked at Shauna.

"Wait," she said.

The camera was on Bogie. He was telling Ingrid Bergman that she was getting on that plane with Laszlo and that the problems of three little people didn't amount to a hill of beans in this world. And then, when the camera went back to Ingrid Bergman... wasn't Ingrid Bergman.

I blinked. There, beneath the famed hat, gazing up at Bogie and bathed in the gray glow, was Shauna.

"I can't go with you, Rick," the computer Shauna said dramatically, "because I'm madly in love with Ava Gardner."

I turned to Shauna. My eyes asked the question. She nodded yes. I said it anyway.

"You think..." I stammered. "You think I was fooled by trick photography?"

Farrell took that one. "Digital photography," he corrected me. "Far simpler to manipulate." He spun his chair toward me. "See, computer images aren't film. They're really just pixels in files. Not unlike your word processing document. You know how easy it is to change a word processing document, right? To alter content or fonts or spacing?"

I nodded.

"Well, for someone with even a rudimentary understanding of digital imaging, that's how easy it is to manipulate a computer's streaming images. These aren't pictures, nor are they films or tapes. Computer video streams are simply a bunch of pixels. Anyone can manipulate them. Simply cut and paste and then you run a blend program."

I looked at Shauna. "But she looked older in the video," I insisted. "Different."

Shauna said, "Farrell?"

He hit another button. Bogie returned. When they went to Ingrid Bergman this time, Shauna looked seventy years old.

"Age progression software," Farrell explained. "It's mostly used to age missing children, but nowadays they sell a home version at any software store. I can also change any part of Shauna's image  -  her hairstyle, her eye color, the size of her nose. I can make her lips thinner or thicker, give her a tattoo, whatever."

"Thank you, Farrell," Shauna said.

She gave him a look of dismissal a blind man could read. "Excuse me," Farrell said before making himself scarce.

I couldn't think.

When Farrell was out of earshot, Shauna said, "I remembered a photo shoot I did last month. One picture came out perfectly  -  the sponsor loved it  -  except my earring had slipped down. We brought the image over here. Farrell did a quick cut-and-paste and voila, my earring was back in the right place."

I shook my head.

"Think about it, Beck. The feds think you killed Elizabeth, but they have no way to prove it. Hester explained how desperate they've become. I started thinking: Maybe they'd play mind games with you. What better mind game than sending you these emails?"

"But kiss time...?"

"What about it?"

"How would they know about kiss time?"

"I know about it. Linda knows about it. I bet Rebecca knows too, maybe Elizabeth's parents. They could have found out."

I felt tears rush up to the surface. I tried to work my voice and managed to croak out, "It's a hoax?"

"I don't know, Beck. I really don't. But let's be rational here. If Elizabeth was alive, where has she been for eight years? Why choose now of all times to come back from the grave  -  the same time, by coincidence, that the FBI starts suspecting you of killing her? And come on, do you really believe she's still alive? I know you want to. Hell, I want to. But let's try to look at this rationally. When you really think about it, which scenario makes more sense?"

I stumbled back and fell into a chair. My heart started crumbling. I felt the hope start to shrivel up.

A hoax. Has this all been nothing but a hoax?