row2k Features
Body of Water - Chapter Twelve: Mind Games
November 3, 2020
Dan Boyne

"FINLEY WAS INTO A LOT OF THINGS," BRANT STILLMAN EXPLAINED. "Apps, cryptocurrency, video games - you name it. If it involved high tech and big money, he had his fingers in it."

Kyle Higgins, standing next to him, nodded. "He basically wanted to be the next Mark Zuckerberg."

Delaney, who stood six feet tall in his standard issue boots, had to look up to meet the eyes of the two ex-Harvard oarsmen, who were 6' 8" and 6' 6," respectively. Stillman and Higgins were former teammates of Finley Sparks, and they'd agreed to meet him in Kendall Square, at the non-descript looking warehouse where they ran their video game company, Odyssey Rowing.

"So Finley was also one of your business partners?" Delaney asked.

"He was," Stillman said, glancing over at Higgins. "But then we bought him out."

"More like pushed him out," Higgins grumbled, shaking his head. Despite a stylish man bun and a closely cropped beard, he didn't seem like a mellow guy. Minutes earlier, when they'd shaken hands, Delaney couldn't help but notice the power of younger man's grip and his sharp, judgmental gaze. Stillman was more of a salesman.

"Why the buy out?" Delaney pressed.

"He wasn't pulling his weight," Higgins said. "I mean, he had great ideas, but he'd quickly get bored and pass off the grunt work to others."

"In other words, the two of you," Delaney clarified.

"Typical coxswain behavior," Higgins scoffed. "Totally annoying."

Delaney nodded, then took a quick glance around the inside of the warehouse. It didn't look like much, outside of a few desks and unpacked boxes. In the center of the room sat a high-tech rowing machine, much fancier than the one he'd seen at the Sparks' residence.

Bored with the preliminaries, Marsh McDonald had already wandered over to the machine and began to inspect the large video monitor attached to it. Please, don't sit on that thing, Delaney thought to himself.

"So do you know what Finley was interested in recently?" Delaney said, then coughed a bit in the direction of his partner.

Stillman and Higgins looked at each other for a second, as if deciding which one of them would answer the question first.

"Well, this may sound kind of paranoid," Stillman offered, "but we think he was trying to pirate our virtual rowing game."

"How so?" Marsh asked, having mistaken Delaney's cough as a sign for him to join the conversation.

"We think he was trying to imbed some spyware into our system and gain access to the camera, as well as any user's personal information."

Delaney shrugged. "Sorry, but you'll have to break all of that down for me. Maybe you can start by telling me how your product works."

"It looks like a combination of a video game and a piece of exercise machinery," Marsh ventured.

"Correct," Higgins said. "Go ahead and sit down. I'll show you how it works."

Before Delaney could object, Marsh plopped himself down on the machine and slid his feet into the foot straps, acting as if he already knew how to row. Higgins began to demonstrate the various elements of the game to him.

"Someone who uses our Odyssey Rowing console basically enters an alternate reality," Stillman said. "They see themselves rowing through ancient vistas, facing challenges and battles, like warriors of old."

"Sometimes you'll row; sometimes you'll fight," Higgins explained to Marsh, showing him the alternate use of the oar handle as a weapon.

"You mean like Odysseus after the Trojan War?" Delaney asked, trying not to smirk.

"We started with that narrative," Higgins said, "but we've expanded our repertoire. Now we also offer a Viking Pillage program, and a New World Conquest option."

"Kyle was a classics major at Harvard," Stillman explained. "That, and computer science, naturally."

"Naturally," Delaney said. He wasn't taken in by the sales pitch or the Harvard pedigree.

Marsh, on the other hand, was completely sold. He launched into a few tentative strokes, and the video screen showed him rowing on a Greek galley, trying to outrun a malicious whirlpool.

"Very cool," he exclaimed. "It's like Guitar Hero, only with oars!"

"Sure. Close enough," Higgins said.

"We believe that Odyssey Rowing will revolutionize the sport, and the fitness industry in general," Stillman boasted.

"But I still don't understand," Delaney said. "What exactly is there to steal here?"

"Well, first off, if someone like Finley could hack into our system, they would gain access to all of the personal information our subscribers need to input before they play the game."

"So your machine gathers and holds information, like Facebook, or a cellphone?"

Stillman nodded. "And if you can hack into someone's account, you can lure them into all sorts of scams."

"Or even worse," Higgins added. "If you can gain access to the built-in camera, you can literally spy on people."

"How so?" Delaney asked.

Marsh stopped rowing, short of breath. A sea monster with several snakelike heads appeared on the screen, and he started battling it, using the oar handle as a spear. Delaney glared at him, but it was of no use; his partner was completely engrossed in the fantasy world.

"Well, a user thinks that they are just watching themselves row..." Higgins said, typing some commands into keyboard attached to the back of the video screen.

"... but in reality, someone else can see them, too. And record them," Stillman concluded.

Higgins hit a button and suddenly they were all watching a playback of Marsh rowing, looking more idiotic than heroic.

"Very entertaining," Delaney said. "But what can you do with a video of someone?"

"Oh, all sorts of things," Higgins said. "You'd be surprised."

Marsh quietly got off the machine and tried to resume a professional demeanor. Too late, Delaney thought.

"Typically, any personal information would be sold to third parties who are interested in tracking what clothes people buy, what care products they use, and other consumer-based behavior," Stillman elaborated. "Then they can suggest their own products."

"Okay, I get it, but there are federal wire-tapping laws that specifically prohibit the recording of people without their consent."

Higgins shrugged. "Technically, I suppose. Then again, some scientists over at Northeastern just uncovered the fact that smartphones do exactly this sort of thing, whenever someone uses their own video camera."

"I read about that," Marsh said.

Delaney was silent for a moment, taking it all in.

"So if Finley did manage to hack into your system, I guess you guys would have been pretty angry with him."

"Sure, but not enough to kill him, if that's what you are suggesting," Higgins said.

"I'm not suggesting anything," Delaney said. "In fact, I don't believe either one of us even mentioned that Finley had been murdered."

Delaney glanced over at Marsh, who nodded his head in agreement. Both oarsmen were silent for a moment, suddenly looking less comfortable.

"We must've heard it through the rowing grapevine," Stillman offered.

"Uh-huh," Delaney intoned, with a trace of skepticism. "So other than you two, would anyone else on the team hold a grudge, or have any reason to do him any serious harm?"

"Well, our old coach lost his job because of him," Brant Stillman said.

"And then he lost his fiancée," Higgins added.

"Ed Masterson?" Delaney asked. "I knew that he lost his job after a frostbite incident, but how did he lose his fiancée?"

"Finley's father seduced her," Stillman said.

"Wife number three," Higgins jibed.

"Maya Sparks?"

They both nodded.

"Do you still have any contact with Masterson?" Delaney asked.

The two oarsmen looked at each other, then shrugged and nodded.

"Sure, we keep in touch," Brant Stillman said.

"Didn't he find Finley's body in the Charles?" Higgins asked.

Delaney nodded, noting that the tone of their responses had become more and more obliging. He guessed that it was Masterson who had told them about the suspicious death line of inquiry.

"When I spoke to him a few days ago, he seemed to imply that Finley was doing this sort of thing back in college, ferreting out other people's personal information as a way to manipulate them," Delaney said.

"Yeah, he definitely did," Brant Stillman admitted.

"It's called cyber-bullying," Marsh offered.

"So he was a chip off the old block," Delaney said, ignoring his partner.

"Probably, but he also learned some of that behavior from our coaches," Higgins said.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, crew coaches know how to harass you in their own special way."

"How so?" Delaney asked.

Higgins shrugged. "There are various methods. They can tear apart your technique if they think you are being sloppy, or seat race you against another guy on your team."

"Seat race?"

"It's an inter-boat scrimmage," Higgins explained.

"Masterson loved to play mind games," Stillman said. "Of course, our head coach, Bill Burkholt, had perfected this sadistic behavior to an art form."

Higgins nodded in agreement, then smiled nostalgically.

"It almost sounds like you guys kind of miss it," Delaney said.

"Well, we definitely miss winning races," Stillman said.

"At Harvard, you learn how to win," Higgins emphasized. "It's addictive."

"Like video games?"

"Rowing is different. It's real," Stillman said, still basking in memories of his college rowing days.

"It's also totally non-violent," Higgins pointed out, adjusting his manbun.

"Sounds idyllic," Delaney said, wondering how much time Higgins spent fixing his hair every morning. "So just out of curiosity, why did you guys come up with a game that seems to contradict the very essence of the sport you just described?"

Stillman answered. "The Odyssey is really designed for non-rowers; the game aspect is simply a way to get people who wouldn't normally row to give it a try."

"We also want to make money," Higgins said. "And regular oarsmen are notorious cheapskates."

"Let's get back to Finley," Delaney said. "What you are accusing him of is pretty malicious, and done for his own personal gain. Do you have any proof that he was trying to hack into your system?"

"Not really," Stillman admitted. "But about a month ago, we started to lose a lot of subscribers, who told us they were no longer interested in the game."

"Then we did some digging and discovered a similar version of the game out there, offered on the dark web."

"It's an illicit part of the internet," Marsh explained.

Delaney knew a little bit about the dark web, which many criminals used as a kind of black market. All sorts of stolen goods and services could be found there, including credit card numbers, cryptocurrency, and even cheap Netflix subscriptions.

"So you think Finley was having his cake and eating it too?" Delaney said. "Taking your buyout offer and then pirating your product afterwards?"

"It fits his character, and this sort of thing would've been child's play for him," Higgins said.

"The gaming world is totally cut-throat," Stillman added.

"But not enough for someone to bump him off?"

Stillman shrugged. "Not us. We're oarsmen."

"Rowing is a gentleman's sport," Higgins explained.

Delaney smiled. It was good to see that the myth of social class and criminality was still alive and well.

"Well, whoever killed him obviously didn't play by those rules." Delaney nodded to Marsh and then toward the door. "We'll be in touch if we have any further questions - gentlemen."

He took one last look around the warehouse on his way out.

"By the way, do you have any security cameras in here?" he asked.

"No," Stillman said. "But Finley could have planted that software in our system before he left."

"Good point," Delaney said.

Outside, the winter air was dry and biting, and they could smell the faint but distinct peppermint odor of the Necco candy factory over in Revere.

"Well, what do you think?" Marsh said.

"Those two don't seem like killers," he said. "They certainly have motive, and they're arrogant as hell, but I don't think they did it."

"Do you think they know who did?" Marsh asked.

"Maybe," Delaney said. "One thing is certain. This rowing fraternity is a tight-knit group, with some incestuous behavior going on."

"So what's our next move?"

"I think I'll have another conversation with Coach Masterson and ask him why he didn't tell us everything about Maya Sparks."

"Shouldn't we talk to Maya Sparks as well?" Marsh said. "Maybe ask why her hair was on Finley's pillow?"

Delaney smiled. "I'll let you pursue that one, Marsh. I know you have a thing for her, but I'm not sure that's enough to treat her as a suspect."

"Well, she seems to be the only common thread in this case."

"And you figure if you pull on the thread, something might unravel?"

"Sure, boss. Something like that."

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