Her partner, Steven Summers, peered inside with his hand on his hip beside his pistol.
“Mr. Benner. San Jose police. Are you home?”
Mercer turned over her right shoulder to the building supervisor - an older man in his sixties who was standing unnecessarily close to her.
“You can go now, thanks,” she said. “We’ll lock the door when we leave.”
“You need the key to lock it,” he said.
Mercer turned and took the key from the super’s hand - seeming to surprise him with her aggressiveness.
“Thanks. We’ll bring it by when we’re done here. You can go.”
Her hardened look - practiced since graduating from the city’s police academy fifteen years earlier - told the super it was non-negotiable. He nodded uneasily and slunk away down the hall.
“Mr. Benner,” she said again, stepping inside the apartment. “Are you home?”
Summers followed her inside, keeping his hand by his hip. The apartment was still, quiet, and clean.
“How long did you say he was missing?” Mercer asked.
“A week.” Summers replied.
Mercer pulled her phone out of her pocket and looked at a bookmarked page on the apartment’s app. “It’s only one bedroom and one bath,” she said, nodding toward the closed door that was closest to Summers. He stepped toward it and pushed it open.
A spotless bathroom.
“You don’t think he’s dead in there, do you?” Summers asked.
“If he were, we’d have smelled him out here.”
She pushed the bedroom door open. The bedroom was empty, and the huge, made bed stood in the middle of the room. The side closest to them had the sheets and comforter rumpled and tossed to one side, while the other was empty. He was definitely living alone, Mercer thought.
“And, nothing.” Summers said.
“Closet,” said Mercer.
Mercer turned as her young partner opened the closet door. Inside was a life-sized mannequin - a trim blond woman dressed in a maid’s outfit.
“Welcome home, Robert,” a female voice said huskily. “Tell me what you want me to do.”
Summers slammed the closet door. Mercer smirked.
“As far as sex dolls go, that’s one of the better ones I’ve seen,” she said. “Probably the most valuable thing the guy owns.”
“Should we interrogate it?” Summers asked.
She just stared at him. “No.”
Summers changed the subject. “Well, uh, this backs up what the people at his office said. He lived alone. Didn’t have a partner.”
“What else did they say about him?” she asked, looking at some of the assorted items on Mr. Benner’s dresser.
“Quiet. Hard worker. Favored the Mexican place across the street. Got to work at 8:00 on the dot every day and left at 5:15 every night.”
“Well most of the cars there are on the D-Hive system, so they leave the office in shifts to try to mitigate traffic. It doesn’t really work, but that’s what it is.”
“What is D-Hive?” she asked, thankful her younger partner was at least more plugged in to the Silicon Valley tech scene than herself.
“It’s mostly for self-driving car parking,” Summers said. “It helps put as many cars into one place as possible. The car would drop you off at a certain time, and then the empty car scoots over to a parking space, and it would get blocked in by every car that came in after it. Then the cars would leave the packed garage in shifts and pick each person up. That would allow -”
“Wait a minute,” Mercer asked, holding her hand up. “That programmer guy, he said he’d leave the office each day at 5:15?”
“How long does it take to drive from Menlo Park to San Jose? In rush hour traffic?”
“An hour, usually. Why?”
Mercer looked at her watch. It was ten minutes past six.
She led Summers from the apartment and closed the door behind her. The super was still in the hall about twenty feet away, watching them.
Mercer walked toward him with loud steps. “Hey, where’s tenant parking?”
“In the garage in the basement.”
“Do the tenants have assigned spaces?”
“Yeah, but his car wasn’t there. I told you his car wasn’t…”
“Take us to the garage, now.” She said, striding down the hall with Summers in tow.
A moment later the three were in an elevator. The super’s thumbprint unlocked the floor with the parking garage, and in a few seconds they were in the dimly lit garage that was packed with cars.
“Mr. Benner’s space is over here,” the super said. “He paid extra for an automatic charging station.”
“604. Same number as his apartment. But like I told you, he’s not here.”
The three moved through the garage as Mercer looked at the cars. All were parked within just a few inches of each other.
“Are you on the D-Hive system or whatever its called?”
“Of course. Our tenants expect it.”
Before long they made it to the far wall of the garage. Sleek electric cars - all attached to a charging cord - were parked in a perfect row save for a missing space with ‘604’ stenciled in flaking paint on the asphalt.
“I told you, he isn’t here,” the super said, while Mercer stood in the parking space to look around. A Porsche stood on one side and a beat-up Tesla sat on the other. It didn’t seem possible another car would fit between them.
“What kind of car does Mr. Bennet own?”
The super turned his eyes up as if searching a memory. “Uh...I think its a Series 5 Sybertruck. It’s…”
“Dark silver?” Mercer asked.
“Yeah. How did you know?”
Mercer pointed as she stepped out of the parking space. A large truck was rolling toward them with headlights illuminating the garage. It was a dark silver Sybertruck, moving in complete silence.
Standing back, the super, Summers and Mercer watched as the pickup glided by them. In the glare of the side windows they could make out someone sitting in the driver’s seat. Standing further from the space, in a group, they watched the truck turn, stop, and slowly back up into the tiny parking space - missing the Porsche and the old Tesla by inches - before the headlights snapped off.
A gentle whirring sound was heard as the motorized charging cable snaked out of a port on the wall and plugged automatically into the electric pickup. A pulsing blue light on the vehicle’s dashboard showed the truck was ‘asleep’ while it was charging.
Mercer approached the truck and pointed a tiny but bright flashlight at the windshield. The beam cut across a bloated, rotting face belonging to the body that was sitting in the driver’s seat.
“Ah, jeez!” moaned Summers as the super put a hand over his mouth.
Mercer got closer and leaned her tall frame over the hood as much as she could. The body was an adult male, wearing a maroon dress shirt and dark slacks. He was wearing a seatbelt. Beside him, on the passenger seat, was a black briefcase and a white bag.
“Summers,” Mercer said. “Where did Benner’s co-workers say they had catered for lunch that day?”
“Mo-le,” Summers said. “There was too much food so everyone was asked to, uh, take some home.”
The beam of Mercer’s flashlight found the logo for Mo-le on the white paper bag. “Alright.”
An electronic voice from the car rang out. Mercer looked down.
“Get back. You are too close.”
A mild electric shock hit her shin through her pantleg.
“The hell?” She backed away.
“Must have a sentry mode,” Summers said.
“Well, that’s Mr. Benner,” Mercer said. “No blood, no signs of trauma, no visible weapons and no sign of the vehicle being hit by a bullet . Probably died of natural causes on the way home from work.”
Summers nodded uncomfortably. He had noticed death by natural causes had a strange way of striking people in their forties and thirties quite a lot over the last few years.
“We need to get him out of there,” said Mercer to the super. “Do you have the key to the truck?”
“No. We have a parking compliance policy tied with eviction. People know better than to break any of the rules or risk losing their place.”
Mercer tightened her jaw. “Alright. “I’m going to have to get a tow truck down here and move that thing.”
“You can’t do that,” the super said. “There isn’t enough room for a tow truck to manuever in here.”
“Sir, this man died on the way back home from work last Thursday. Looks like a heart attack. The truck doesn’t know he’s dead, so it has been driving to and from an office in Menlo Park for eight days. Eight days with a rotting corpse in the driver’s seat. Eight days of people in their own cars sharing the road with a dead man and not noticing. We need to get him out of there. I suggest you contact all of the tenants whose cars are parked in this row and tell them to move them. Now.”
She used the same tone with him that she had in the hall of the apartment. Looking as though he was trying to hold back on using the word “harumph!” the super walked away from Summers and Mercer, pointing a green laser at the row of cars from his cell phone. As it passed each one, contact and profile info of every vehicle’s owner came to his screen
Summers stared. “Has he really been sitting there, dead, for eight days? And the truck has been driving him to work and driving him back, every day for a week and nobody has noticed?”
“Mmm-hmm. It happens. Self driving cars aren’t programmed to do anything if the occupants have any distress,” she said. “Once, I had a kid from Stanford punch his parent’s address in the car - they live in Portland, Oregon - and he blew his brains out on the way out of the parking lot. It was caught on the security camera. Twelve hours later, his autonomous car is in his parent’s driveway. He was getting back at them for something, it seemed. Also the big Marin Fire last year had these things drive through a cloud of toxic gas. When the fire department arrived, they found a fleet electric cars with dead bodies in them trying to drive on melted tires. Nothing to do but wait for the batteries to die.”
The super returned. “Sorry, but six of the car owners aren’t going to give up their spaces.”
“Come again?” Mercer asked, incredulously.
“Well, we let some of the tenants rent out their parking spaces on SpaseNow, that app that helps you find parking?” the super said, “they got no place to move them to, so they’re stuck, I’m afraid.”
“A man has died, contact them again and make it happen.”
The super again attempted to use his phone as Mercer turned to Summer. “You have one of these things,” she said, referring to the autonomous vehicle. “How do we get it out of here?”
“It’s not easy,” Summers said. “Most of the manufacturers make electric cars as safe as possible for the people who ride in them, and it’s nearly impossible to get an AV to open without permission from the driver. And since the driver is, well, dead…”
“...the driver can’t give permission,” Mercer finished.
“That’s right, but that’s not what I was going to say,” said Summers. “The newer cars, when they think the driver is inside, basically turn into cages to keep anyone from breaking in. So because the owner is in it, and the truck thinks you want to break in, it will keep you or anyone from getting to it. Hence, the sentry mode.”
“The super returned a second time. “No can do. They won’t move them.”
“Can you unplug the truck so it won’t take a charge at least?”
“No, it’ll throw off the whole building.”
“No, it’ll throw off the whole building.”
Mercer’s phone chirped. She recognized the tone and looked intently at the screen.
“Look, we have to get him out of there. Do you know a locksmith?”
“You’re kidding, right?”
Mercer pocketed her phone. “Summers, we’re going. We have a triple homicide in Evergreen. Fresh case.”
“What? We’re just going to let this guy sit there?”
“We were brought in on missing persons,” she said. “We found the missing person. Beyond that, we have nothing to discuss. We’ll call the coroner and explain. Hopefully, he’ll have time to figure out how to get the body out of the truck, but as far as I’m concerned the guy can just stay there.”
Summers was incredulous as he followed his partner out of the garage - not bothering to say goodbye to the super. “Look, at least let me call the manufacturer. They can find…”
“That truck probably will drive that guy back and forth from work for several more days. Maybe even weeks or months. And I don’t care. Autonomous vehicles aren’t a crime. Three murdered people are. Let’s go.”