In all of his years working at the Bureau, Dominic had never seen anything like it. Less than 24 hours after the United States Congress narrowly passed the American Health Care Act, all 217 Republican legislators in favor of the bill were found dead. After the initial chaos had subsided, doctors on the scene determined the cause of death to be a heart attack...for every last one of them. It might not have been a huge surprise for some of the older members given the stress involved before the vote, but there were plenty of younger men (and a smattering of women) who were in otherwise perfect health and seemingly in no danger of cardiac arrest. It defied explanation but there was more to come.
A few hours after the news broke out, one of his fellow agents had reminded everyone of a letter forwarded to them by The New York Times. It had been sent via the postal service a few days earlier by someone who had declared his(or her) intention to kill anyone who voted for the AHCA. Nobody thought much of it at first - these sort of rants were common, especially in these acrimonious times, and this one seemed too outlandish to be a credible threat. The Times had printed it two days after the mass heart attacks and started another round of hysteria. It was now clear to the public that this was done on purpose, somehow. The mainstream news outlets condemned the act and were at a complete loss to explain how it happened. Internet commentators were less careful and openly rejoiced at the death of over 200 politicians who had just voted to strip thousands, if not millions of people of their health coverage. Impromptu block parties had broken out all over the country to celebrate, a strange moment in the history of representative democracy. Each state had its own procedures for replacing a Congressperson who died in office and a flurry of special elections and appointments were causing their own sort of chaos.
Congress would eventually be full again, but the FBI was no closer to figuring out just what the hell had happened in the first place. Agents had combed the Capitol building from top to bottom and come back with nothing. A few reports of suspicious characters, but they turned out to be just eccentric protesters who were as bewildered as everyone else. What had they expected to find in the first place? How could anyone trigger 217 spontaneous heart attacks? Most agents he spoke to suspected poison, but nothing yet corroborated that theory. At the moment, Dominic was on his way to a briefing room to hear from John Quail, one of the Bureau's best criminal profilers. If anyone could figure out a method to this madness, it was him. He and Quail had attended training programs together and Dominic recalled glancing over several times to see him doodling wacky symbols and stick figures in his notepad. He was one of those people who had just been born brilliant while guys like Dominic worked their asses off to get ahead. Quail didn't have a shred of arrogance, however, and the two of them always got along well. He had been absent from the office for months following the birth of his first child. A daughter, Dominic remembered. This was quite a case to come across his desk just as he was getting back into the swing of things.
Everyone found their seats while Quail got his laptop computer set up for a power point presentation. As he checked the connections, the chatter in the room subsided.
"Thanks for coming, everyone."
"Tell us you've got something, Quail," a voice said from the back. "We look like a bunch of Dipsy Doodles right now."
Quail smiled awkwardly. "Well, I might. I've been going over this letter non-stop and I do have a theory that would explain a lot. Still, you're going to have a hard time believing it. Let's start by reading over what was sent to the Times."
I will get right to the point. If the American Health Care Act passes Congress, I will kill everyone who votes for it.
I understand you may want to report this threat to the authorities. Do whatever you feel is ethical. It won't help.
I can kill anyone without leaving my home. I've known of this ability for some time now. I've never really wanted to use it, but the continuing violence enacted by this government against its own people has gone too far. I hope the deaths of these representatives will be enough to get them to change course. If not, more will die. As many as necessary until our leaders stop behaving like sociopaths.
After the moment comes, you may get many letters claiming responsibility. None of them will be from me. I will not use email or social media. You will know a letter is from me when it has this insignia drawn at the bottom. I hope the bill is defeated and you are able to discard this letter. But I fear the worst. Perhaps I will contact you again.
The newspaper had obviously declined to show the actual insignia, since its entire purpose was to separate the true killer from imitators. This was Dominic's first time seeing it. There was something familiar about it. He almost raised his hand, but couldn't piece together where he might have seen that shape before. Quail noticed him briefly and continued on.
"I believe that this 'Reaper' has the Death Note."
He was ready for this and advanced the slide show. What looked like a DVD cover was now on the screen.
"Death Note is a popular Japanese cartoon about an enchanted notebook that will kill anyone whose name is written inside it. There's actually an American movie coming out later this year based on it."
Several people in the room burst out laughing.
"Listen to more about how it works before you laugh," Quail continued. "The writer can specify the cause of death but if they do not, the default cause is a heart attack. Just like the letter says, all someone has to do is enter a full name in the book while imagining the person they intend to kill. It can be done from their home and is untraceable."
That got everyone quiet.
"The show is not especially political. The main character, a guy named Light Yagami, mostly targets petty criminals. There are lots of twists and turns and eventually, Light's hubris gets the better of him and he goes down. But this guy, this Reaper, is different. Light wanted people to worship him as some kind of god and dared anyone to try and unmask him. The Reaper is cautious and has a distinct political agenda. You could almost say he's learning from Light's mistakes."
"What is this, Quail?" an older agent asked. "You're trying to tell us that this cartoon is nonfiction? What's next? Is the Reaper going to turn out to be Mickey Mouse?"
"I'm far from the first to speculate about this," he continued. "Not long after the public learned of the deaths, even before the Reaper's letter became public, there were already dozens of memes going around about Light Yagami and the Death Note. I contacted someone at Netflix who told me there had been massive recent interest in the show...as well as a 1970s grindhouse movie called I Spit On Your Grave, but that's neither here nor there."
"That's certainly an...interesting theory," someone else said. "But we need suspects. Do we have any suspects?"
Quail sighed. "That's where it gets really hard. If I'm right, whoever did this doesn't have to be anywhere near Washington, DC. This bill pissed off a lot of people, particularly the threat to people with pre-existing medical conditions. At this point, it may be easier to round up people who don't have a motive."
The moon and stars were on full display by the time Dominic finally got to his car that night. Everyone at the Bureau had been extremely busy since this whole thing started, but today was even harder. He had a terrible time focusing on his work after the briefing. All he could think about was that drawing on the New York Times letter. He started the car but hesitated to put it in drive. Instead, he grabbed his notebook and furiously drew the symbol with a black pen sitting in the cup holder. In this rushed form, it looked even more familiar. Suddenly, everything fit together. He started the car and headed for the Potomac.
He would have to drive across the river to find what he was looking for, a condo complex in Arlington that he had only been to once before for an engagement party. Despite the late hour, the demonstrators were still in full swing, with most appearing to be in favor of the mass deaths in Congress. There were a few signs reflecting the other point of view, including one blaming the billionaire George Soros for the whole incident, but most of them had slogans like "Thank God for the Reaper" and "Karma's A Bitch."
As the crow flies, it wasn't a particularly long trip to the condos, but the traffic made for almost a half-hour drive. Finally, Dominic reached the address he had searched for within his archived emails, the invitation to that party that he had received years ago. Hopefully the couple still lived here. As he approached Unit 45, he questioned what exactly he was looking for. It wasn't the time to report any of his suspicions, there wasn't any way to substantiate this hunch. Looking through a window, Dominic saw that all the lights were off except for one lamp. Hopefully the baby was asleep.
"Come on in, Dom. I've been expecting you."
Dominic considered running away, but if everything he had heard today was true, that wouldn't do him a bit of good. He tentatively pushed the door open. John Quail was sitting at a desk in front of a laptop with his back to the door. Upon hearing the door open, he swiveled his chair around to face his guest. A small bassinet was situated next to the desk.
"It was the insignia, wasn't it?" Quail asked. "I hadn't even considered that someone might remember seeing it in my notebook all those years ago...until I saw your face during the briefing. Why didn't you ever tell me you had such a good memory, Dom?"
"So you have this...notebook of death or whatever it is?"
"Death Note," he corrected with a smile. "Would you like to see it?"
As Quail's hand reached for a drawer, Dominic swiftly pulled his gun from his holster and trained it on his colleague. "You keep your hands right where they are! I'll check it out myself later."
"Whatever you say," Quail said with a shrug. "Just try to keep it down, okay? I sent Jennifer to bed cause she was just so tired and I finally got Daisy to go to sleep. I suspect that you have questions."
He hesitated, but curiosity quickly got the better of him. "Where did that thing come from?"
"I just found it in the parking lot one day," Quail answered. "This was the end of April in 2011. I had already seen the show, so I figured it was just some merchandise. You know, like something you might get at Hot Topic. But I took it inside and decided to write down the name of Jen's boss just for fun. He was one of those old bastards who misses the days when you could hit on your employees and nobody would complain. She went to human resources but they didn't do shit. Finally, we put a stop to it when I told him where I worked and threatened to sic the Bureau on him. But the point is I thought I was just messing around. Imagine my shock when she called to tell me the guy had just dropped dead of a heart attack."
"That's six years ago," Dominic said. "What have you been doing with it all this time?"
"Well, being the patriotic civil servant that I am, I decided to use it on Public Enemy Number One."
He was almost speechless. "Osama Bin Laden?"
"Yep," Quail continued, with a slight chuckle. "What I didn't know was that the Navy Seals were just about to raid his compound. They must have stormed in there the next day and been pretty surprised to find him already dead. So of course the story we got was something a little more dramatic. I must have been the only one laughing in the theater during Zero Dark Thirty, looking like a goddamn lunatic."
The baby started to whine softly. "Can I pick her up?" he asked.
Dominic nodded and Quail gently picked up the infant. He rocked her gently back and forth and kept talking. "After that, I decided to rewatch Death Note. It freaked me out to see how corrupted Light Yagami became by the end of the series. I started to think it wasn't right to have this kind of power, so I put it away and didn't touch it for five years, although I came real close to using it on George Zimmerman."
"And then what?" Dominic asked. "The health care thing happened and you couldn't hold back anymore?"
"Almost," Quail said. "Actually, I used it once last year. When I found out Jen was pregnant, a bunch of my friends took me out for drinks. I didn't pay for a single drink that night and I lost count of how many I threw back. We got into talking politics and how the Supreme Court had been screwing us over. I made a joke that someone should take one of the conservative ones out while Obama was still President and then I realized I actually could do it. So I went home, still piss drunk, and wrote Scalia's name in the book cause he seemed like the biggest asshole of the bunch. Holy shit, did that backfire. I didn't think the friggin' Republicans would just leave the seat empty for a whole year."
Dominic felt exasperated. "This is ridiculous. You're like a...murdering Forrest Gump, just accidentally changing the course of history? I suppose you took out Fred Phelps, too?"
He shook his head. "No, after Scalia I took another break. I realized I only had so much control over the consequences of this. I agonized over whether or not to take out Trump, but I kept getting worried that it would throw the election to the Republicans. I never thought that idiot would actually win. I mean for God's sake, he's out there talking about molesting women. That would have destroyed anyone else. The thing is, I still want to believe in America. I keep hoping that our society is strong enough to deal with times like the ones we're living in. But now I realize that even if that's true, it may not be worth the lives that my inaction could cost."
Quail laid the baby back down into the bassinet. "Daisy's nice and healthy, but she might not always be that way. If she ever gets sick, our insurance will probably cover it. But if it's a pre-existing condition and that law passes, who knows? I get paid pretty well at the Bureau and I'm still not sure we'd have enough money if something come up and she wasn't covered. You see where I'm going with this? It's not just the health care either, it's all the guns out there, it's the climate change stuff, it's people getting paid almost nothing, it's drinking water getting poisoned, it's all the police violence. All these problems the government just keeps making worse regardless of who dies. They keep throwing people out to dry like this and pretty soon nobody will need the Death Note to cause death and destruction. In the long run, it's better to try and change things now."
Dominic was done. "Thanks for the story, but now you're coming with me. Get up and head towards the car." Once Quail was inside, he would handcuff him to the steering wheel and go back for the Death Note. He couldn't imagine what the others at the Bureau would think of all this. How would they test the notebook's authenticity without using it?
He meant to keep the gun pointed at Quail, but something was off. His hands fell to his sides although he maintained his hold on the pistol. He couldn't move them again. He opened his mouth to speak to no avail.
"Ah, it must be working," Quail said. "You see, what I didn't mention in the briefing is that you can specify not just the cause of death, but also the time. I wrote your name down as soon as your car pulled in but I wanted to give us some time to talk."
Dominic felt his body turning around and slowly heading towards the door. He strained as hard as he could to fight the impulses, but all it did was slow his movements down.
"You're suddenly having an uncontrollable urge to drive to a secluded area and put a bullet in your mouth. It's supposedly an immediate death with no pain. I'm sorry about this, Dom. You're a good guy and a good agent. But I can't afford to be exposed now. It's a critical time."
Despite using all of his willpower, Dominic was now back outside and still marching stiffly towards the car. Quail followed him.
"You know, any other animal on Earth would kill to protect its young. We may have an advanced society, but we're still animals. I'm no different."
The following morning, police investigating a suspicious vehicle found the corpse of an FBI agent inside. The cause of death was a self-inflicted gunshot wound. On the passenger seat rested a notebook with a scribbled symbol. Maybe one of his colleagues at the FBI would know what it was.