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Conflict of Interest

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“And this is…”  

Grabbing another file from a growing list of them, Ruby flicked it onto the screen and sighed at what she found.  

“Another tracking problem.  Awesome.”

Shaking her head, she skimmed the case notes and copied the relevant details into a search function.  Once done, the computer did the rest - sending inquiries to millions of data feeds around the city before bouncing back with a response.  While waiting for those results, she turned towards another screen and double-checked her numbers and exhibits for later today.

Everything had a process by now.  Incoming case requests, outgoing information, witness preparation - no matter what the patrol officers and detectives brought her, she was prepared for it.  Sometimes, a little too prepared.

Hearing two knocks on the door to her lab, she glanced over her shoulder and smiled while waving one of her favorite people inside.

“Hey Yang!”

“Hey Ruby.”  

With the same easygoing smile Ruby remembered from when they were kids, Yang crossed the room and leaned against the corner of the desk.  Her street clothes and loose, blonde ponytail suggested a lowkey day on the job, but Ruby knew better than to believe the mirage.  Behind that relaxed demeanor was one of the most competent members of the police force.

“How’s it going in here?” Yang asked while crossing her arms over her chest.

“Oh, you know...”  

Rather than provide a full explanation, Ruby waved at the computer screens covering one wall of her office - ten in total, but she was thinking about adding at least two more soon.

“Hard at work, as usual,” Yang filled in.

“If you’d stop bringing me things to do, I wouldn’t have to work so hard.”

“If people would stop breaking the law, I could stop bringing you things to do,” Yang teased while waving her prosthetic arm over one of Ruby’s many scanners.  A small light embedded in the metal near Yang’s thumb blinked as the two devices briefly connected, and several files showed up on Ruby’s computer moments later.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think that’ll ever happen.”

“Which is why you brought me more work,” Ruby joked before using her gloved hand to grab the files and open them on one of the screens.  

“Be honest though - I’m your favorite detective.”

After pondering that comment long enough to make Yang pout, Ruby smiled and shook her head.  One of the best parts about her job, besides helping people, was working with her sister.  With Yang being one of the police department’s detectives and Ruby in charge of the technology lab, they collaborated on any of Yang’s cases that involved tech-related questions.  Considering how integral technology was in their lives these days, that happened often.

“But you’re only my favorite because everyone else is so demanding,” Ruby teased, earning a chuckle from Yang before focusing her attention on the bits of data on the screen.  “What’re you looking for?”

“Anything suggesting our vic wasn’t the angel everyone says she was.”  When Ruby’s brow rose, Yang shook her head and sighed.  “That’s the only thing I have to go on right now.  Either she was up to no good or her very-distraught boyfriend did this.”

“How many times have we seen this before?” Ruby mused while searching through Yang’s data.

“I know...and I know everything points to him, but I just can’t help believing him.”  

Even though Yang looked somewhat distressed that she believed a man accused of killing his girlfriend, Ruby smiled at the screen.  

Everyone teased Yang about being a bleeding heart, but she believed because her intuition told her to believe.  By now, Ruby knew better than most that Yang’s intuition was almost always right.  So, where other detectives would give up and build a case around locking the jealous boyfriend away, Yang searched every nook and cranny for a way to acquit him.

“So you brought me everything you know about her,” Ruby surmised after speedreading the file.  The information in front of her built out the victim’s life in as much detail as Yang could manage, including everything from work reviews to names of best friends in elementary school.  

“Everything I’ve got so far, yeah.”

“Ok, I’ll run it through a few programs and see if anything pops up.”  After thinking through the course of action, Ruby nodded and turned back to Yang.  “It might take a couple days, but I can do it.  No problem.”

“Thank you.”  

Yang looked so grateful, Ruby felt guilty for considering it such a trivial request.  To her, it was the same old work she’d done thousands of times before.  To Yang, it was a possible lead in an important case - Ruby needed to remember that.

“Anything to help,” she replied with a smile this time.  “Maybe this angel is actually an angel.”

“That’s the hope.”  

While Yang chuckled at the thought, Ruby pushed the case documents into a new file to be analyzed later.  Digging through people’s lives got mundane after a while, but the department only employed a few people capable of creating the search functions to do the job.  As one of those ‘few people,’ most of the requests came to her.

“What’s wrong?” 

Blinking away from that thought, Ruby gave Yang a curious look.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean what’s wrong?” Yang repeated before tapping Ruby’s shoulder - a kind, patient gesture she’d used since they were kids.  “I know when something’s up with you, and something’s up with you.”

By now, Ruby knew lying to Yang was pointless - she was a detective; she could spot a lie a mile away.  The problem was that Ruby didn’t know what was wrong.  Why did she feel so restless or unsatisfied lately?  Work was the same, life was the same.  Nothing had changed.  

Maybe that was the problem?

“I’m not sure,” she answered honestly.  “Sometimes, I just feel...I don’t know.  Bored or something.”

“I literally just asked you to track down every bit of info on a girl who, for all we know, was a drug kingpin.  How is that boring?”

“It’s the same old stuff,” Ruby explained with a wave at her computers.  “Search for this, debug that, fix this - it doesn’t feel like a challenge anymore.  The only challenge is finding enough time to do it all.”

Was her problem overconfidence?  Because she knew she could accomplish whatever she set her mind to if only she had infinite time.  Where was the challenge?  Where was something that stumped her and forced her to learn?

“Don’t you have a case today?” 

Knowing where Yang was going with that, Ruby sighed and said, “Yeah...” 

“And didn’t you invent something for it?” 

“But that wasn’t hard!” she argued before Yang made her point.  “Just because something’s never been done doesn’t mean it’s impossible.  It just means that...no one’s had time to figure it out.”

When Yang smiled and shook her head, Ruby puffed out her cheeks rather than argue any further.  Her dad and Yang raised her to believe that anything was possible, so she believed anything was possible.  If given enough time, she could do whatever was asked of her.  But what should she set her mind to?  Work had been the answer for so long that she didn’t know what excited her outside of that.

“You and Blake are geniuses,” Yang replied with a shake of her head.  “How are the two most important people in my life so smart?”

“Blake’s the genius.”  When Yang just chuckled, Ruby nodded.  “She is!  I don’t know how she does half the stuff she does.”

“You’re both incredibly smart, gifted people.  I’m lucky to have you in my life.”  

From the look in Yang’s eyes and the way she ducked down to meet Ruby’s gaze, Ruby knew she just lost that argument.  She always lost when Yang pulled the sentimental card.

“We’re lucky to have you in our lives too…” she grumbled, much to Yang’s delight.

“That’s what I like to hear.  But if you’re really bored, do I need to find something more challenging for you?”

“I dunno...I guess I’m just a little restless and...questioning things.”  

At the moment, Ruby couldn’t describe how she felt any better than that.  Thankfully, she didn’t have to, as Yang set a hand on her shoulder and gave her a comforting smile.

“You do great work here,” Yang said, her eyes willing Ruby to believe her.  “I’m so proud of you, Dad’s proud of you, and Mom would be too.  But if you need a break, even just a few days, maybe that’d be good.  Help clear your head and find some...perspective.”

“Maybe...” 

Perspective was something Ruby alternatively thought she did and didn’t have.  Through her near-constant connection to the internet, she had a good grasp of what was going on around her.  But her life?  Her life felt the same from one day to the next, with the only deviations being the functions typed into her computer or the names and faces taking up her screens.

“Maybe,” she repeated with a little more certainty.  

Maybe this was just a phase.  Maybe it was a momentary bout of boredom.  Maybe work would get busy and she would forget all about it.

“Let me know if I can help, ok?”

As usual, Yang offered to help.  And, as usual, Ruby felt better just hearing the words.  That restless feeling might not have magically disappeared, but she knew that she had her sister’s support through anything.  If she ever figured out how to deal with this...whatever this was...she could talk to Yang about it.

“I will,” she promised.  “But I should probably get ready for that case...”  

Understanding the unspoken words, Yang nodded and pulled Ruby into a warm, reassuring hug.  “You’re a rockstar,” she whispered before squeezing Ruby’s shoulders and backing towards the door.  

“Don’t forget it!” she added before waving and heading to her own office near the front of the station.  

After Yang disappeared around the corner, Ruby sighed and let her shoulders slouch.  She didn’t let herself dwell on the feeling for long though.  Instead, she turned back to her computer and formulated a plan to organize the information Yang left her.

Normally, she started with the victim’s last-known appearance and worked backward from there.  Once she had a couple years of data, she built a web of relationships and set up searches for every connection, seemingly-important or otherwise.  

Realistically, the victim could have been nothing more than a typical twenty-something about to finish college and move on to her career.  But if Yang suspected this case didn’t have a typical answer, Ruby needed a nontypical approach.  The easiest way to do that was by assuming the victim was a criminal mastermind covering all of her tracks; now, Ruby’s job was to uncover them.

If she stayed late tonight, she could hopefully get Yang answers sooner rather than later.  Before that though, she had to go over the results from a previous search and, most importantly, prepare for her upcoming testimony.

She was actually excited for this testimony, mostly because she created a program to confirm some important evidence.  Now she could discuss her findings in front of a judge, remote jurors, and the defense.  Even though her work was only a small part of a much larger case, her answers could go a long way in putting a criminal behind bars.

Pulling up a copy of what she sent the prosecutor last week, she browsed the numbers one last time before locking her computer.  After spending so long working on this particular case, she had most of the data memorized by now, which should go a long way in making her look credible on the stand.

She still remembered how nervous she’d been for the first case she presented in front of a judge.  Fortunately, Yang had spent the better part of three weekends coaching her on what to expect, and she filled the rest of her free time watching replays of other trials.  That first testimony resulted in a successful conviction - an incredible feeling that proved this was what she wanted to do with her life.  

Today, unfortunately, she intimately understood the phrase ‘you win some, you lose some.’  Not every trial went according to plan, and not every case could be won.  Over time, she’d accepted the failures as learning opportunities, and testimonies as a routine part of her job.  As such, she felt very few nerves while leaving her office and heading to the courthouse.

The downtown police department was just one part of the Justice Center - a sprawling collection of buildings that included the police station, detention center, and courthouse.  To reach the detention center or courthouse, one had to pass through the station.  

Whenever visitors questioned the layout, Yang explained that officers acted as both servants to the public and gatekeepers of Vale’s justice system.  As such, didn’t it make sense for the police station to be the first building someone entered and the last they left?

A more logical explanation probably existed, but Ruby liked the thought of serving the public and the law at the same time.  Plus, the proximity of the courthouse and detention center kept their processes running smoothly and allowed expert witnesses, like herself, to participate more regularly in cases.  If she had to leave the station and catch a ride across town whenever she appeared in court, she’d never have time to finish her cases.

The shift between the police department and the courthouse still felt too sudden to her, but that was what happened when one building was built decades after the first.  The detention center was even newer, which was nice for patrol officers marching entry-level criminals back and forth.  It must be a hassle to stop at the security checkpoints every single time though...

“Hey Ruby,” one of the security guards greeted her as she reached one such checkpoint.  “Got another case?”

“They never end,” she said while waving her bracelet over the scanner, transferring her police credentials to the screen in front of him.  Once her information cleared the protocols she’d personally written, he waved her through the body scanner and nodded when it didn’t make a sound.  It never made a sound, so she didn’t know why she always expected it to go off.

“Good luck.”

“Thanks!” 

After sending him a quick wave, she crossed the courthouse atrium just beyond the checkpoint.  Attorneys, family members, and friends filled the cavernous room, but the atmosphere remained hushed, as if no one wanted their conversation overheard.

Every inch of the room was monitored, so everything they said was recorded anyway.  The hidden microphones picked up the softest of voices, so these whisperers were only hiding their words from each other, not the police.  Most people knew not to divulge confidential information within the walls of the Justice Center, but Ruby was still surprised by some of the conversations she discovered.

Making it to the right courtroom and finding the trial already underway, she slipped into the small seating area reserved for witnesses and scanned the room to get her bearings.  The judge sat up front, as usual.  The cameras were on and broadcasting to the jurors.  The lead prosecutor, an experienced attorney named Noah, stood near a desk on the left side of the room.  The defendant and his attorney sat at the desk on the right while waiting for the next part of the case to begin.

The reason why Ruby had prepared so much for this particular case sat at that desk - the defense attorney, Weiss Schnee.  

Known by a variety of names around the department, none of them very nice, Weiss was every officer’s worst nightmare.  With her striking, ice-blue eyes and long, pristinely-white hair, which she sometimes pulled into a tight ponytail and sometimes pleated in a perfect braid, she was equal parts beautiful and unforgettable.

But beauty alone didn’t explain how she built a career of making the police look incompetent.  Her razor-sharp intellect set her in a class of her own, putting most of Vale’s defense attorneys and the department’s prosecutors to shame.

If you were arrested, you wanted her representing you - if you could afford it.  If you were doing the arresting, she was the last person you wanted to see listed as the defense attorney.  

Noah needed to be on his A-game today.  Otherwise, Weiss would tear this case apart.

Since Ruby was only brought in to talk tech, she had no idea how it was going so far.  For all she knew, they were already losing.  In that case, it was up to her to bring the odds in their favor.  Alternatively, maybe the department was already winning, and her testimony was more of a formality.  

Considering Weiss’ presence, Ruby doubted the police were winning, so she had to be as convincing as possible.  Thankfully, she loved talking about technology with anyone willing to listen.

“Councilor,” the judge said after several minutes of recordkeeping.  “Please call your next witness.”

When Judge Brown waved to the side, Noah turned around and caught Ruby’s attention.

“Your Honor, I’d like to call Ruby Rose, chief of technology for the Vale Police Department.”

With her turn on the stand having arrived, she stood and walked to the front of the room.  Everyone’s gazes followed her to the witness stand, but she didn’t look their way.  Instead, she saved a small smile for Judge Brown before making herself as comfortable as possible in the uncomfortable wooden chair designated for her. 

From there, she looked straight at Weiss and the defendant - a well-heeled man wearing an expensive suit and polished shoes.  Considering she knew his life inside and out by now, he wasn’t her primary concern.  No, her concern right now was Weiss.  Mainly, what would Weiss say or do to discredit everything she was about to say?

“Ruby, please state your qualifications,” Noah asked while motioning towards the camera broadcasting to the jurors.  

This was the first part of every testimony, but she still hadn’t gotten used to bragging about herself.  The jurors, however, needed to believe she was credible.

“I’ve been the lead technology analyst of Vale PD for the past three and a half years,” she replied, same as always.  “I graduated from Vale University’s Technology Innovation Program.  I’m CIMA, FLO, and PIR certified, which...basically means I can talk to any computer.”

While Noah nodded at Ruby’s spiel, Weiss regarded her with an unflinching, unintimidated gaze.  But she could probably claim to be an all-powerful deity and Weiss would still imply that she didn’t know what she was talking about.

“Miss Rose,” Noah addressed her in the business-like tone he always used.  “You searched public databases for evidence of Mr. Donahue’s actions on the night of November first - can you explain what you found?”

“Yes.”  Leaning forward, Ruby kept her eyes on Noah and prepared her explanation.  “Because he used Jace Face -”

“Objection,” Weiss interrupted.  “Conjecture.”

When Judge Brown nodded, Ruby shook her head and started over.  

“Because we think he used Jace Face,” she corrected.  “A general search was inconclusive - there were over three thousand hits in a four-block radius.  Fortunately, not many people can afford his shoes.”

“By that you mean…?”

“His shoes are expensive,” she stated matter-of-factly before pulling up one of the visuals she’d created.  “Per the manufacturer, only three hundred pairs of his particular size and style have been made, and only two hundred and sixty-four of those were sold.”

“So very few people in Vale own those shoes.” 

“Exactly.”  

Getting into the best part of her explanation, Ruby started to get excited.  

“Searching holomasks didn’t work, but I found a shoe print.”  With a wave of her hand, an image of the shoe print projected on the screen beside her.  “This was left on a small patch of dirt within three feet of where the crime occurred.”  

A map displayed next, showing exactly where the print was found.

“Does that shoe print belong to him?” Noah asked.

“In my opinion, yes, absolutely.”  Moving to the next screen, which showed her results, she took a deep breath and explained.  “He surrendered his shoes at intake, and we scanned them.  I uploaded that scan and created a program mimicking the prints someone his size and weight would make with that particular shoe.  It was a perfect match.”

Her last exhibit was the shoe print generated by her new program compared to the shoe print left behind by the culprit.  Every piece of data matched perfectly.

“So that’s his shoe print located at the scene of the crime,” Noah prodded her.

“Yes.  And since it had rained the night before, it couldn’t be more than a day old.”

“Interesting,” Noah replied while turning towards the jurors.  “So you found his shoe print, from the day of the crime, near the scene of the crime, when he claims to have never set foot in that area.  To me, it sounds like he had motive, and he was there when everything happened.”

The words weren’t meant for her, but she nodded anyway.

“Thank you, Ruby,” he added before walking back to his desk and sitting down.  “No further questions.”

“Councilor Schnee,” the judge said a few seconds later.  “Your witness.”

When Weiss stood up, Ruby took a deep breath and straightened her posture.  The easy part was over - now she had to defend everything she just said.

“Just to make sure we’re clear,” Weiss began, her icy-blue eyes never leaving Ruby’s.  “You didn’t positively match a holomask with my client.”

“No, but -”

“What you did match was a shoe that could’ve been worn by any of two hundred and sixty-three other people?”

“I matched the shoe print to him,” Ruby corrected.  If she didn’t hold her ground, Weiss would steamroll her in a heartbeat.  “That’s what my new program does.  It measures the wear patterns on the bottom of a shoe then incorporates personal details such as weight, height, and gait.  It doesn’t just match prints - it matches the depth, density, and impression pattern of that specific print and the person who made it.”

“When you say this is a ‘new’ program...just how new is it?  Did you create it specifically for this case?”

The way Weiss posed the question made that sound like a bad thing, but Ruby couldn’t exactly refute the answer.

“I did.”

“So you invented a brand new program...and we’re just supposed to trust that it’s accurate?” 

“It might be ‘new’ as in not available to the general public, but that doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate.”  Turning back to the screen, Ruby motioned to the test results she showed before.  “I ran a million samples using thousands of different shoes and test subjects - it created a perfect match one hundred percent of the time.”

“A million samples…” Weiss mused.  “Tell me - how many tests did a program like Match Hunter do before it was widely accepted by the market?”

“They only did three hundred thousand,” Ruby answered, recalling the number from a technology summary she’d read.  “That’s the baseline for DTA approval as long as you have no failures.  If you have under ten, you still only need to do six hundred thousand.  I did a million.”

Weiss briefly paused while working through that information and, for a split second, Ruby’s heart froze in anticipation of a swift-yet-brutal rebuttal.  Instead, Weiss spun on her heel and returned to her desk with a curt, “That’ll be all.”

“Thank you, Miss Rose,” Judge Brown directed Ruby’s way before nodding that she could leave.  Testimony complete, she gladly hurried out of the courtroom and made her way back to the police station.  

She felt alive right now, as anyone should after surviving Weiss’ onslaught of questions.  And, surprisingly, that went better than expected.  Hopefully, the jurors agreed that a million successful tests were more than enough evidence that her new methodology worked.  

As for Weiss, it was obvious that she’d smelled blood in the water as soon as she heard the word ‘new.’  Fortunately, Ruby had learned from past mistakes - and past beratings from the sharp-tongued attorney -  and recalibrated her work.  These days, she didn’t tackle any case with the intention of only convincing the jury - she had to convince Weiss to back down too.  

Easier said than done.  Today, however, she’d succeeded, and that felt pretty damn great.

“How’d it go?” the guard at the security checkpoint asked while she repeated the process from earlier, this time to re-enter the police station.

“Went awesome!”  

With a big smile and wave, she walked through familiar halls with wings on her feet.  Even though she wasn’t excited about her other cases at the moment, she would ride this wave of triumph for as long as possible.  When Yang walked into the hall in front of her, her smile only grew.

“Hey Yang!” she called out to get her sister’s attention.  After just one look, Yang laughed and fell into step by her side.  

“Wow, you look chipper.” 

“Because I just schooled Weiss Schnee.”  When Yang’s brow shot up, Ruby nodded.  “She thought I didn’t do enough testing, but I did three times the required amount.”

“Why’d you do three times the required amount?”

“Because I knew she’d fry me if I didn’t.”  

While Ruby grinned at the successful strategy, which Weiss had apparently never seen coming, Yang chuckled and shook her head.

“So she makes you better at your job?  Never thought there’d be anything good about her.”  

After patting Ruby’s shoulder, Yang motioned that she was heading out of the station before walking that way.  Ruby, however, thought about that statement long after Yang left.

That was true, wasn’t it?  Everyone knew Weiss was a great attorney, so they had to be better; otherwise, their work was ripped to shreds in front of the jurors.  No one knew what made her so good - although Ruby overheard some crass speculation around the department - but she had an uncanny ability to find and exploit weaknesses.  Even the most ironclad arguments weren’t safe, as she’d dismantled more than a few ‘open-and-shut’ cases before.

Responding to her questions without jeopardizing the prosecutor’s strategy was almost impossible.  Listening to her unravel an argument was horrifying and mesmerizing at the same time.  And being strung along a line of questioning with no idea what trap it led to would stir apprehension in even the more sure-minded people.

It was a challenge, but that only made finding ways to succeed feel like a greater victory.

After thinking about that for another moment, Ruby smiled and headed back to her office.  The items on her to-do list weren’t nearly as exciting, but she felt rejuvenated enough to get through everything.

Maybe there was one good thing about Weiss Schnee, after all.