Braeburn had worked many odd cases as a crime scene investigator. The clown that was set on fire and thrown off a building (eventually ruled self-defense). The time it was determined that the real killer was society. And the case of the health-conscious cannibal who only ate vegans.
But this case had the potential to be something he'd never worked before--something no one had ever worked before.
He stood before a place of death. Old death. The university's Department of Paleontology. Its exterior was cracked and the whole building was draped in shadows. Everything about it was ominous and foreboding, except for the poster of a cartoon stegosaurus welcoming visitors.
Devereux stood beside him, looking blonde and confused (that was sort of her thing). "If we're here to investigate a killing, it's probably from a really, really long time ago."
"There is no statute of limitations on murder," Braeburn said firmly.
"So...any idea why your dino friend wants a CSI?"
"No, but I owe him a favor." Technically, Braeburn was off duty, so he wore his casual clothes--the exact same suit as his work clothes. He ran a hand through his short-cropped hair, which he cut every two weeks to keep from looking like a hippie. "You didn't have to come."
"I'm curious what this is about. It would be kind of neat to solve a dino-murder...though I'm going to guess a tyrannosaurus did it. Motive: hungry." She giggled but then turned serious. "But if he has, like, an actual human body here, we should probably call that in."
"Of course. I always do things by the book," Braeburn said. "Except where the book says you have some discretion on following the book. Then sometimes I don't do things by the book. But I usually do."
Devereux furrowed her brow. "What book are you talking about?"
Braeburn didn't respond and headed into the building.
"Does the book say anything about being courteous to your partner?" Devereux griped as she followed him in.
The building was as still and quiet as the bones of the creatures inside. They walked down a hallway until they found the office of Dr. Graham Smith. Braeburn knocked.
A bearded, nervous-looking man answered the door. The bags under his eyes indicated he had missed a few nights' sleep. "Good, it's you."
He let the two investigators in and quickly closed the door. The cramped office was filled with boxes of files, and the desk was covered with photos and scribbled-on notepaper.
"This is my partner, Devereux," Braeburn said, pointing at his partner, who was playing with a small, petrified skull, trying to get the jaw to move.
"That's not a puppet," Graham told her.
Devereux put the skull down. "Anything can be a puppet if you attach a stick to it."
Graham just nodded and turned to Braeburn. "I didn't know you were bringing anyone else," Graham said, walking over to his desk. Braeburn followed. Graham leaned over and whispered, "She's kind of attractive."
Braeburn glanced at Devereux, who was making faces at the skull as if trying to provoke a reaction. She was dressed in a neat pantsuit and wearing just enough makeup and showing just enough cleavage to keep anyone from taking her too seriously. Braeburn shrugged. "Yeah, I guess so. What do you want us to look at?"
Graham gathered some files, set them on his desk and pulled out some photos, which he laid before Braeburn and Devereux. "We found a dig site about the same age as the meteor that is theorized to have killed the non-avian dinosaurs."
Braeburn looked over the photos of bones embedded in rock. Typical paleontology stuff. "They look long dead."
"Well...yeah," Graham said. "Anyway, this find was remarkable, actually. We're talking hundreds of dinosaur fossils--those most directly killed by the meteor that made their kind extinct such as triceratops and tyrannosaurus rex. These should be the ones that starved to death because of the meteor."
"Sounds like quite a find. Perhaps one that someone..." Braeburn paused dramatically, "...would commit murder over."
Graham looked taken aback. "Huh? No, not really. That's not where this is going. Everyone in paleontology is friends. We don't murder each other."
"CSIs are supposed to be friends, too," Devereux said. "But then one of them secretly replaces the bullet from a murder scene I'm investigating with a bullet from my gun. I'm running to my car to drive to the lake to dump the evidence when I see them all laughing at me."
Graham raised an eyebrow. "Huh?"
"The point is," Braeburn said, "friends murder each other all the time."
"I didn't murder them," Devereux added. "I thought about it--but I didn't do it. Still, it's pretty easy to see how 'friends' could kill each other." Her eyes narrowed. "Really easy."
Graham stared at her for a few moments. "So, once again, no one in paleontology is dead. That's not why I asked you here." He chuckled nervously. "In fact, the simple murder of a colleague would be much less disturbing." He set down another picture, this one of colorful rock strata.
"As I said, the evidence we found was consistent with these dinosaurs dying at the same time as the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event. In fact, the rocks encasing the bones contain dust from the meteor throughout. Too much dust. I ran the scenario over and over trying to figure out how you'd end up with this kind of pattern and could come to one conclusion: it could only happen if the bones of already dead dinosaurs were buried in the dust of the meteor impact."
Braeburn stroked his chin. He could tell the twist was coming. The twist was always his favorite part of each case. "So these dinosaurs didn't die out due to the meteor; they died beforehand."
"Exactly. We always assumed the non-avian dinosaurs died out in the extinction event, but because of the margin of error in radiometric dating, all we really knew was that they died out around the same time as the meteor. This evidence is telling us that their dying-off is unrelated to the mass extinction. This could blow away our current understanding of the extinction of dinosaurs."
"And what was our current understanding?" Devereux asked. "They went off the gold standard?"
Graham stared at her. "No. A meteor."
"So you're sure these dinosaurs aren't just an isolated few who died from other natural causes?" Braeburn asked.
"It's hard to be sure," Graham said, "but there are a lot of bodies in the dig...and there were other oddities as well. For instance, we have fossils of triceratops and tyrannosaurus rexes that look like they died at the same time--yet there are no marks on the bones to indicate they died fighting each other. It's like something else came along and quickly killed them."
"That's quite a finding," Braeburn said. "What do your colleagues think?"
"Well, this would be an extraordinary claim, so I wanted to make sure I had some extraordinary evidence before I made it. Which leads me to this." Graham opened a desk drawer. His hands were shaking as he pulled out a piece of petrified amber. In the center of the amber--known among paleontologists as "yellow gold"--was a dark object.
Braeburn took a closer look. It was hard to see the details, but it looked almost like a bullet. "This is from the dig?"
"Yes. And it doesn't look natural, does it."
Devereux squinted at the amber. "You think someone shot the dinosaurs?"
"Here's what I think." Graham shifted in his chair. "I think maybe the dinosaurs didn't go extinct from natural causes. Maybe they were...murdered."
Braeburn didn't change his expression. It was the only one he had. "That's quite a claim, doc. But why bring this to us and not other paleontologists?"
"Because he's afraid they'll make fun of him," Devereux said. "For good reason, too, because this seems pretty crazy."
"I'm not worried about other paleontologists making fun of me," Graham said. "Well, sure I am, a little. That's why I haven't presented it yet. I thought you could help figure out if there is anything to this theory before I go public."
Braeburn paused thoughtfully. "Solve a sixty-five million-year-old murder... That's quite a cold case."
"I know this probably isn't as dangerous and exciting as the things you usually investigate," Graham said.
"I don't know what you think we do," Braeburn said, "but CSIs are most at home in a lab."
"TV gets our job all wrong," Devereux added. "For instance, when we come upon a murder scene, we don't just say a quip and walk off. I mean, we often say a quip...but then we have to stick around and process the scene. And if your quip goes over poorly, that can be really awkward."
"Stick to puns," Braeburn advised. "Like when that body was missing a hand, and I said, 'I guess he lent someone a hand...and the question is who.' But stay away from political humor--that can be divisive."
"The way that guy's face was smashed just really reminded me of what Obama did to the economy," Devereux said defensively. She looked at Graham. "Anyway, I write down the best quips in a little book I always carry with me."
"And the job isn't dangerous," Braeburn continued. "We very rarely have to draw our guns." He looked at Devereux. "When was the last time I drew my gun?"
"Yesterday," she answered. "That's why you had to take a leave of absence."
"I mean before then."
"Three days ago."
Braeburn paused for a second. "Oh. Well, it's been a bad week."
Graham stared at the amber. It was so tiny and innocent looking, yet it concealed deadly secrets, like a kitten that had swallowed a thermo-nuclear device. "Anyway, I really could use another set of eyes on this," Graham said. "I'm kind of hoping I just missed something and this is all crazy."
"Perhaps," Braeburn said. "So what equipment do we have to work with?"
"We have a new mass spectrometer and a really advanced tomography scanner."
"Okay, then." Braeburn picked up the piece of petrified tree sap. It was hard, unyielding, and mysterious--much like him. "Let's take a look at the alleged murder weapon."
The work of a CSI involved a lot of sitting around and waiting for results. Devereux usually spent this time on her smartphone while Braeburn sat in quiet contemplation, going over the facts of the case in his head. It was actually quite a sight to behold. People would stop and stare at Braeburn's statue-like visage. Others would see if they could get away with drawing on his face.
Graham had drilled into the amber to extract a sample of the 'bullet' for the mass spectrometer, and now it was being scanned so they could see a 3D image of the object.
Devereux waved her hand in front of Braeburn's face. "So are we really looking for someone who murdered the dinosaurs? This is kind of stupid-crazy."
"We'll go where the evidence takes us," Braeburn said. "I owe Graham. Back in college, I had a situation where things got pretty harried. To make a long story short, it was his quick thinking to use liquid nitrogen to slow the triggering mechanism on a bomb, giving me time to get the drop on the well-funded European terrorists who'd taken over the campus, and thereby save the vice president's daughter."
Devereux stared at him. "You never told me that story."
Braeburn shrugged. "I don't like stories."
Devereux looked at him. "So...are you okay with everything? The shooting yesterday was clean; there's no way the investigators will come to any other conclusion."
Braeburn shook his head. "No. It's not that. It's just that things feel...unresolved."
Devereux patted him on the shoulder. "The body will turn up floating in the river two towns over. Then we'll know once and for all that the threat Lancaster posed to all of us is over."
Graham came in with some drinks. "Here's your coffee," he said, handing the cup to Braeburn. He turned to Devereux. "And your Diet Coke."
"Eww. I hate diet."
Graham appeared confused. "But...you asked for it."
"And I hate it." She opened the can and took a drink.
"Anyway, the mass spectrometer is done with our sample," Graham said.
"You two look at that," Devereux said. "I'll see if the scanner is ready to give me a good look at the 'murder weapon.'"
Braeburn headed over to the spectrometer with Graham. The chromatogram was displayed on a nearby monitor--all the matter of the object reduced to a couple of lines on a chart. "No idea exactly what it is, but it's organic," Braeburn said.
Graham studied the data for a few minutes. "It's not a shell or anything similar."
"No. It looks like something that would have degraded quicker if it hadn't ended up preserved in tree sap."
"Could just be some weird biological thing, then. There are plenty of things we don't know about the species from millions of years ago."
"Nope!" Devereux declared as she stood by the tomography scanner. "Come look at this."
"What do you have?" Braeburn asked.
Devereux pointed to part of the 3D model. It was rounded like a bullet but pointier at the front. "See here at the tip." She zoomed in. "It's very fine, but this was machine-tooled."
Graham raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure?"
Devereux went cross-eyed. "Duh, I don't know. I'm just a girl. What do I know about science and math and stuff?" She scowled at Graham. "Yeah, I'm sure. There are very small repeated markings on the tip, as if it were sharpened. The markings are so small they couldn't have been made by hand. So I'm thinking machine tooled--and with pretty advanced equipment."
Graham looked shaky and went to find a chair.
"But that's not all!" Devereux exclaimed. She zoomed in so they were looking closely at the side of the object. "Look at these marks." She pointed to some curved, parallel lines. "Striations. This was fired out of a rifled barrel."
Graham sat down and held his head in his hands. His simple world of long dead giant monsters was falling apart. "65 million years ago?"
"I don't know the timeline. But I look at bullets all day and I know what I'm talking about. And there's one more thing: It's hollow."
Braeburn stroked his chin. "The bullet itself wasn't meant to kill; it was a poison delivery system." He walked back to the mass spectrometer. "There were a number of elements that seemed odd here, but put them together, and we could have a toxin. I'll need to get this to an expert to confirm."
Graham was silent for a few seconds. "So someone poisoned the dinosaurs...coincidentally, just before a meteor hit?"
"When you work murder cases, you learn not to believe in coincidence," Braeburn said. "For instance, once we had a murder victim who had on the exact kind of shoes I had just bought. I spent hours looking into that connection. Nothing came of that. Probably not a good example. Anyway, let's put all the evidence together: The bullet is made of a material that should have quickly degraded and left no evidence. It killed the dinosaurs with poison that would normally leave no trace over time. And this was done at about the same time as a meteor strike."
"They were framing the meteor for the death of the dinosaurs!" Devereux exclaimed.
Braeburn nodded. "Exactly. Someone knew a meteor was coming and killed the dinosaurs, timing it so the meteor would cover their tracks and take the blame."
Graham went white. "Do you know what you're saying?"
"These are hefty charges," Braeburn said, "but they'll be hard to prove. Lawyers will probably argue that any evidence that has been petrified for 65 million years is contaminated and should be inadmissible."
"Grah! Lawyers!" Devereux yelled.
"Who cares about the court?!" Graham got up from his chair. "We're saying that 65 million years ago there was something on Earth that had the intelligence to specifically wipe out the dinosaurs and conceal its tracks. If this is true, this is one of the greatest--if not the greatest--scientific discoveries ever made." He took a couple of deep breaths. "Maybe it's time to bring some other scientists in on this."
"No," Braeburn said firmly. "That would be a bad idea. Think for a moment: Who would kill the dinosaurs?"
Devereux pondered that. "It could be advanced space aliens or something."
Braeburn shook his head. "Space aliens would have no reason to conceal the evidence, as they would be long gone before anyone could react to what they'd done. The only ones who would want to conceal evidence for millions of years would be creatures who live on this planet."
Graham ran his hand through his hair. "It has to be another animal that lived around the time of the dinosaurs...one that covered up the evidence so that if another intelligent species evolved, it wouldn't know about it."
"And what happens when the killers--or their descendants--find out we're on to them?"
"Then whoever killed the dinosaurs may kill us as well!" Devereux exclaimed.
Graham had to brace himself against a table. "This is a lot to deal with. Now I wish we hadn't found this at all."
Braeburn pulled Graham to his feet. "Get yourself together. We have a killer to catch. Let's put together a list of suspects."
"Um...what's this about?" Dr. Carl Stayman sat in front of a computer in a lab in the biology department; a large, awkward-looking man, he turned his chair and looked at them with confusion.
Braeburn glanced around the room. There were numerous cages containing live animals scattered around the lab. The most suspicious was a boa constrictor that rested in a coil, staring at him. There were also some small monkeys--and no man with any sense trusted monkeys. Then there were a few different types of rodents, all looking as shifty as ever. An iguana sat on a branch in its cage, silently observing the room. There was a large aquarium with some tropical fish and an octopus nestled under an outcropping of fake coral, who almost looked as though they were trying too hard to appear disinterested. In another cage a brightly-colored parrot seemed about to say something, but then thought better of it.
Braeburn turned to the biologist. "We need to talk alone."
Carl raised an eyebrow. "Um...there's no one else here."
"I don't like talking in front of animals," Braeburn said. "They make me nervous. And when I get nervous, I sometimes lash out violently."
"Uh...okay." Carl glanced questioningly at Graham and then got up and led them to his office. It was much neater than Graham's, with a number of file cabinets and lockers and a desk with nothing on it but a computer and a cupful of pens.
Braeburn glanced suspiciously back at the animals and closed the door. "What I said before was a lie; I never lash out violently. I only use violence methodically, when it serves a particular purpose. I simply needed to come up with an excuse, because I can't trust the animals out there. I'll come straight to the point. We have discovered evidence that the dinosaurs did not die out from natural causes but were in fact murdered by a contemporary, who then concealed the evidence so that future intelligent species would assume the extinction was caused by a meteor. We need your help in coming up with a list of suspects."
Carl was quiet a few seconds and then turned to Devereux. "Hi, I'm Doctor Carl Stayman."
She smiled. "I'm Devereux."
"And this is Braeburn," Graham said, "the CSI friend I told you about. I brought them in because the evidence we found was so weird that I just wanted an outside perspective." He handed Carl the amber containing the bullet. "Someone made this 65 million years ago, filled it with poison, and used it to kill dinosaurs, timing the murders so they would all be covered up by the dust from a meteor strike. We're trying to figure out who could have made this weapon."
Carl stared for a while at the amber and then set it down on his desk. "So CSIs are real and not a TV thing?"
"We can be real and a TV thing," Devereux said.
"We suspect there is an animal out there hiding its advanced intelligence from humans," Graham continued. "We're a little worried, because if that's true and it finds out that we know about it, well..."
Carl nodded. "This is really stupid."
"Murder doesn't usually make rational sense," Braeburn said.
"That's not what I meant. But okay, I'll play along."
"So do you know of any animal that might be concealing its high level of intelligence?" Braeburn asked. "One that would have something to gain from the demise of the dinosaurs?"
Carl chuckled. "Well, all living animals today evolved from some animal from back then, so I guess we're all suspects. I have an alibi, though."
Graham looked lost in thought. "If the animal is quite intelligent, it's probably like us and adapted by using its brain rather than through evolution. So you probably want to look at animals that haven't evolved much since the time of the dinosaurs."
"Like sharks?" Carl suggested.
"Now there is an animal I'd suspect of murder," Devereux said.
Braeburn shook his head. "How would a shark manufacture and manipulate the murder weapon? And how would it kill on land? We'd be talking about some sort of 'land shark,' an almost comical notion."
"Crocodiles could go on land," Graham said. "And they'd have motive: being the biggest reptiles, the elimination of the dinosaurs made them the biggest predators for a while."
"Plus they have this knowing smile like they got away with something," Carl laughed.
Braeburn thought for a moment. "We encounter the same problem as with sharks, though. It seems unlikely that crocodiles could manipulate the equipment. We need an animal with fine motor skills."
"Was there some sort of monkey back then?" Devereux asked.
"Oh, mammals, now there is someone who gained from the extinction of the dinosaurs," Carl said with a big smile. "With them out of the way, mammals soon became large and dominant. They'd certainly be on my suspect list. Of course, the mammals back then were mainly little shrew things and monotremes." He turned to Devereux. "Egg-laying mammals, that is."
"Why would you assume I didn't know that?" she demanded.
His smile faded. "Sorry. Anyway, extant monotremes would probably be your closest links to the mammals from back then, so maybe you should go to Australia and rough up a platypus until he talks. Careful, though--the males have venomous spurs."
Braeburn thought about that. "Probably easier to go to a zoo. We can see if the local one has a platypus. But we'll want more evidence before we pursue a particular suspect."
Carl nodded. "Yeah. Otherwise, you'll look like an idiot beating up a platypus."
"I don't like punching animals," Devereux said. "Except maybe pigeons."
"So are you guys actually serious about this?" Carl asked. "I mean, you really think an animal killed the dinosaurs and then hid its intelligence for millions of years? If scientists detect any amount of thought from an animal, we're all over it. Like when we saw what appeared to be tool usage in cephalopods."
"Maybe it's some animal that's usually ignored and not generally thought to be intelligent," Devereux suggested. "Like people don't think I'm smart because I'm pretty and say a lot of stupid things."
"Good point," Braeburn said. "Perhaps it's some animal that we consider boring and don't study very carefully."
"I guess amphibians aren't that popular," Carl said. "They were the big land animals until about 250 million years ago and have just been kind of 'meh' ever since."
Braeburn nodded. "Worth checking into."
"Oh, and we haven't considered insects," Carl added. "They've been around forever. Hive insects demonstrate at least some communication ability."
Graham mulled that over. "Insects working together could accomplish a lot."
"Yeah, but do they care who the big land animal is?" Devereux asked. "They've always lived in the margins. Why would they murder the dinosaurs? Unless too many of them were being stepped on."
"You make a good point," Braeburn said, "but they're still worth considering." He thought for a few seconds. "Maybe just listing animals isn't the best way to go about this. Murder isn't often committed by a stranger--it's done by someone the victim knows. So who is the dinosaurs' closest living relative?"
Carl snorted. "Other dinosaurs."
Devereux raised an eyebrow. "I thought all dinosaurs were extinct."
"Colloquially, we say the dinosaurs are extinct," Graham explained, "but that's not technically true. The term 'dinosaur' is treated as a clade; that means it applies to any descendants of the original dinosaurs. And while non-avian dinosaurs are dead, avian dinosaurs are alive and thriving."
"So what are these 'avian dinosaurs'?" Devereux asked.
"Birds," Braeburn answered. He looked deep in thought.
Devereux grimaced. "What? So like a pigeon is descended from a pterodactyl?"
"No," Graham explained. "A pterodactyl isn't a dinosaur. It's a flying reptile."
"So a pterodactyl isn't a dinosaur, but a hummingbird is? That doesn't make any sense."
"Science doesn't have to make sense," Graham said. "It just has to follow the data."
Braeburn continued to think. "Birds make sense as suspects. They did rise to their own sort of dominance after the fall of the other dinosaurs."
Carl nodded. "Yep. They'd be my number one suspect. The only problem is getting any of them to talk. I'd start by questioning the penguins--they have to be pretty bitter about not being able to fly. Maybe you can bring along someone they trust--like Morgan Freeman."
Braeburn began to pace. "But there are some problems with birds. It's hard to believe they'd have the capability to manufacture guns and bullets."
"If you're looking for intelligence, though, birds have plenty," Carl said. "Magpies show self-awareness in a mirror test. And of course, some birds can even talk."
"And since they can fly, they can get to places difficult for other animals to reach," Devereux added. "Makes it easier to hide what they're doing. And they have these little, black, beady eyes that make them look suspicious, like they're up to something."
Braeburn shook his head. "We're just speculating now. We need more data."
Graham nodded. "Maybe I should spend a bit more time looking over what we found in the dig and see if anything else jumps out."
"I'll give the data on the murder weapon to Cortland, one of our crime lab technicians," Braeburn said. "He might be able to make sense of it."
"And I'm going to go back to my lab to do some work related to the real world," Carl said. "If you guys find out an animal is secretly planning to murder all the humans, send me an email." He headed for the office door. "A text if it's urgent."
Graham walked over to a locker and opened it. "I was looking for a place to lock this up." He put the amber inside and put a padlock on the door.
"Hey!" Carl protested. "I've got stuff in there, too."
Graham handed a strip of paper to Braeburn. "Here's the combination, just in case. Do you really think we might be in danger?"
"There's always danger when a killer is on the loose."