Mira: D minus 571h : 09m : 44s and counting

r | graphic violence

Her heels made a pleasant clicking sound as she went down the courthouse steps. She checked her watch; she was running late and it threatened to wreck her entire evening.

What was more troublesome was that the man with the blonde hair and the turquoise eyes was sitting on a bench on the edge of the parking lot.

Mira had seen him yesterday, while shoe shopping, and the day before, in the courtroom. Once was happenstance, twice was coincidence. Three times was enemy action.

She weighed her options. She could proceed to her car like nothing was out of the ordinary. If he was simply a stalker, he would keep his distance until he had worked up the courage to approach her. If he was a rapist or murderer, he wasn't a very good one. The store and the courthouse both had cameras, as did the parking lot. If he tried to attack her, the police would have plenty of evidence of him following her.

The only problem she might have in that case would be in making it appear that she was only defending herself - and not enjoying herself - when she killed him, so as to fool law enforcement.

The other possibility, of course, was that he was law enforcement.

Either way, if he followed her, she couldn't go ahead with her plans for tonight. She wouldn't have another opportunity until next Thursday and it had already been a month.

She could be patient. One had to be, in this business. However, it would be disappointing. She didn't believe she actually experienced the emotion of disappointment, but her brain probably did release neurotransmitters when she took a heart, and when she went too long without a good one, she probably went into chemical withdrawal.

"Ms. Weich?"

Unlikely to be a murderer, then. At least, unlikely to be a successful one. If he wanted to kill her, it would have been wiser to wait until she had passed by him before calling out her name. It would have been wiser still if he had not made himself known, but all professions have their idiots.

If he was law enforcement, it seemed unlikely he would choose to confront her alone. Unless they were exceptionally well-hidden, she didn't see any backup.

Stalker, then, perhaps.

"May I help you?"

As a court employee, her purse had been searched more than once. No one ever bothered to question why she carried two hairbrushes. While greeting the strange man, she pulled out the one that contained a concealed blade. It wasn't sturdy enough for her work, but a couple carefully placed blows would take down even a strong, muscular man, so this scrawny thing should be no problem.

And if this was a misunderstanding, or if he was harmless, she could pretend she was just planning to brush her hair.

He stood up and reached into his shirt pocket - too small to hold most weapons - and retrieved a photograph, handing it to her wordlessly.

Nothing inherently incriminating. The photograph was taken from some distance, so without enhancement, it wasn't obvious that it was her and her victim from last month. Even if they could be identified, it simply looked like one person helping an ill person to her car. If it came to that, she could argue she had left the woman in her car and someone must have come along, kidnapped her, and killed her afterwards.

"What's this supposed to be?"

"Let's not play games, Mira."

'Puzzled' involved eyebrows brought down and together. She did her best approximation.

"I have more photos. The expression you make when you rip out their hearts is quite fascinating."

"What do you want?"

Noncommittal. Not admitting any guilt. Done with a small 'scared' face - like 'puzzled' but with wider eyes and a slightly open mouth - and it could be easily explained in court. If it came to that. She could go for the jugular or the femoral. She knew where the cameras were and if she got him just a couple feet to the left, a large tree would obstruct the view. Maybe she could even drag him into the - no, taking his heart would be unwise. Best to make it look like a mugging gone wrong.

"We have a proposition for you."

A car pulled through the parking lot and stopped right in front of them. Small limousine. She couldn't imagine law enforcement springing for it. They were usually some cheap bastards. They could have confiscated it and took it out of impound, though.

'Suspicion' would be normal. Maybe 'fear', too. This was ... 'curiosity', she thought. She put her hand over her chest, where she knew her heart was, but no matter how hard she pushed against the skin, she still couldn't feel it beat. A normal person would have a 'pounding' heart or a 'racing' heart.

She got in the car. The seats were remarkably comfortable. The cameras would have caught her getting into the strange man's car, so if he ended up dead, she could argue she was kidnapped and just killed him in self-defense. It might be difficult to sell. She would have to kill him in a manner that appeared to be defensive, not offensive. Getting at his heart was out of the question.

"My name is Mr. Linke, by the way. L-I-N-K-E. Do you understand the significance?"

"German, I suppose. Maybe Dutch. I'm not a linguist."

"No." He took a bottle of wine - no, champagne - out of a fridge and held up two glasses. She declined, so he only filled one, downing the entire glass quickly. "You're a court reporter. That's an odd profession for a serial killer, isn't it?"

Was there a point in denying it anymore? If this was being recorded, she could argue later that she was playing along, trying to plan an escape.

"I have talented hands. Omaha may not be crime central, but it has enough to keep me interested."

She missed New York. Sick bastards were a dime a dozen there.

"Have you heard of Dcom? Dwelling for the cohabitation of Mars?" He filled his glass again and drained it just as quickly as the last.

She shook her head and in response, he handed her a pamphlet. The paper looked old and dirty; it took her a moment to realize it was supposed to look like the surface of Mars. Except it was brown. Mars was red, wasn't it? Regardless, the entire 'Dcom' thing sounded horribly dull. Locked in a box with eight other people, given psychological tests and having blood drawn - the only appealing aspect was the $500,000 bonus for completion of the project. Not that it was an option for her.

"The date for accepting applications has long since passed."

Linke waved his hand dismissively. "The application process was a sham. Our participants have been carefully chosen. Four of them are going to force their way in. Two of them have signed up thanks to the well-meaning suggestions of caring coworkers who were carefully fed information about the experiment. Those two think it's the answer to their prayers. One of them has ... complex motives for participating. And then there's you."

"Four plus two plus one plus one is eight. This says there are nine participants."

"Your boyfriend -"

"Eric is not my boyfriend." It wasn't emotion in her voice, just annoyance. Irritation was like an allergic reaction.

"Whoever he is. Whatever he is. He's needed. Here," Linke said, handing her a letter from the same folder that held the pamphlet. "This is from my boss. It'll explain everything."

She doubted that. Nothing explained everything. Before she opened it, she asked for a glass of the champagne, although she only feigned taking a sip. It smelled real, but she knew cops in New York who had done drugs during sting operations. Being able to experience fear would make things easier. It was probably like pain, in a way. Pain was what told you to move away from a blade or take your hand off the stove. She didn't know fear, so she still wasn't sure how dangerous the situation was.

But he seemed drunk and definitely had a boner as he stared at her legs.

She opened the letter.

Mira -

Mr. Linke is my first present to you. He is deeply flawed, corrupted. You may do with him as you wish. The driver of the car can be trusted implicitly. He will dispose of the body upon your request. The cameras at your place of work have been disabled so there will be no evidence to link you to his murder. If you want to remove his heart, you may.

My second present to you - when you join the Dcom experiment, I promise you will be able to murder any of the participants. Now, you will have to wait until I give you a signal. It is imperative that you not immediately start murdering people right away. Once you have been given this signal, no one will be off-limits. I trust you realize that killing all of them would be unwise. You will have access to various weapons. You can choose to take their hearts or decide to be creative. You have been trying to figure out how to best rid yourself of Eric without casting suspicion on yourself. This will give you the opportunity you desire.

You are probably wondering who I am and how I know about you.

I knew your first victim. Probably better than you knew her. As obsessively as you research your victims today, you knew nothing about your first. You didn't even bother to learn her name, did you? If you had, you might not be in the situation you are now. I used to see her every day. I would take a walk past her shop every evening, just as she was closing up. The day you met her, I saw her as I was visiting an old friend. She was out for a morning run, but it was not her usual path. Do you know why she was on that path? Why she was fated to run into you?

Because of a snail.

None of this will make sense to you now. It may not even make sense to you later.

All you need to understand is that I am offering you a gift. I do this not for selfless reasons. You and I, we are kindred spirits in a way, Mira.

There is an urban legend that all you need to keep koi alive during transport is to place a piranha in the tank. The validity of this particular scenario has been disproven, easily, but the study of non-lethal effects of predators on prey is an actual area of interest to ecologists. Let us say that I wish to test this theory with human subjects.

I hope to see you soon.

Yours -

Herod Bartlet

She glanced up at Linke, gave him her best approximation of 'aroused'. He licked his lips. She tossed the letter aside and grabbed her purse, moving over to his side of the car. As she straddled his legs, watching as he eagerly began to unbutton his shirt, she took out her lipstick. If he had been thinking with the head on his shoulders instead of the one between his legs, he might have noticed she wasn't wearing lipstick.

As it was, when she took off the cover and jabbed him with the concealed mini-taser, he was clearly shocked.

She groaned inwardly at the unintentional mental pun. Lowest form of humor, indeed.

A normal person would demand the driver stop the car and let her out. A normal person would go home. Or maybe call the police. A normal person wouldn't search the vehicle for what she knew was there - a nice, sharp knife perfect for slicing human flesh.

When she tore the aorta, squished the lung, and ripped the heart from his body, she felt nothing.

When she did this to Eric, it would be different. She was certain.