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Saturday, December 15, 2018

SHOWCASE • “Market Futures,” by M. Ian Bell

Part Three

Previously, in Part One | Part Two
Two murder victims: a depraved old artist and a promising young schoolteacher. Plenty of people with a motive to kill the former but not the opportunity, but not one person with a grudge against the latter. Something must connect the two murders besides the unusual cause of death—but what?

Detective Ellouise Nielson has had some tough cases before, but this one is setting a new high bar...

And now, the chilling conclusion.

The slow drizzle of Tuesday night had erupted into a downpour by two o’clock, a steady thrumming on the roof, an irregular tapping of runoff on the air-conditioning unit in the living room window. Nielson slept fitfully and dreamed of the sodden and the drowned, an endless torrent that filled the streets and flooded the buildings. She awoke with the image of bodies floating, bloated and dead-eyed in the calm after the storm, and no one left to save them, to right the wrongs of their untimely ends.

And shaking and sweating and terrified in the darkness.

“Jesus Christ, Ellouise,” she said into the emptiness. “Get a hold of yourself.”

But as she showered, she could not help but feel that sensation of drowning, as if she were caught up in a storm that would see no end. Her conversation with Lamprey had left her optimistic, but in this grey, pre-dawn hour she felt more like she was losing control. She was suddenly convinced that what lay on the horizon was not an end to this nightmare but only more bodies.

Nielson toweled off and picked through crumpled and dirtied clothes. She keyed on the coffee pot, reviewing the hourlies on her mobile dashboard. It was not yet 5am, but already Nielson was planning the day’s events. Send some uniforms to canvas the pre-school neighborhood and the Burrington residence. The parents were flying in from Nevada this morning; Hank could meet with them, have them identify the body. Somewhere a guy would turn up in the mix—a boyfriend or a coworker. But in the meantime she could head downtown to pay a visit on the investment firm and find out about this new tommy.

“I’m just curious,” she said out loud.

But what’s your story? What will you tell them?

“Haven’t thought about it yet,” she responded. “I’ll come up with something. Maybe we got some Upper East’ers defrauded in an investment. Maybe I got an anonymous tip.”

She was pulling her overcoat on and thinking about the details of her little story, of how hard it would be to get inside, of what a tommy would be doing in a place like this, when her dashboard started blinking and her cell phone chirping simultaneously. She reached for the cell.

“Ella,” came the voice. Anders, sleepy. A moment to gulp something: coffee. “Get your pants on and meet me downtown. Number three just turned up. Check your dash.”

She tapped the blinking message and the city map filled her screen. Zoomed in on a grid of streets and three-dimensional buildings, marking the address of Greenwich and Wall with a slim green line indicating the fastest route of approach.

Above the checkered destination flag was the address and the officeholder in question.

“Son of a bitch,” Nielson said.

It was Handl Investments, Incorporated.


No coincidences, she told herself, thinking both of Lamprey’s intel and Waterton’s words as she pulled up to the office building. She stepped out before the structure of grey and glass as the rain continued to fall. Red and blue lights bounced off the face of the building. Nielson gazed up at the monolith as Anders moved in beside her.

“Handl is private sector,” he said, “but it looks like the whole building keeps an eye on stocks and trading. Some kind of market watchdog.”

The interior was vast and seemed instantly hostile in its emptiness, as if dark things waited, lurking behind marble pillars and beneath overstuffed chairs. A lack of beings and movement did nothing to comfort Nielson. Instead it suggested only that which was not seen, which could not be determined. It spoke only of imaginings, of possibilities. Of things you could not prepare for until it was too late.

On the fourth floor they found the small but nonetheless majestic office of oak and polished granite. Nielson could tell that the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Greenwich were dashboard glass. On the wall opposite hung some amalgam of painted canvas and twisted metal, an industrial fusion piece from the first half of the century. Something she never understood and didn’t want to.

The desk blotter was dotted with fresh blood. The chair lay overturned, shiny casters splayed out like an enormous metal hand reaching uncertainly for support. Halfway beneath the desk and rolled onto his side was the victim, thinning hair askew and saturated with the thick syrup of his lifeblood. A mobile dash console was lying cracked at his side.

Hovering quietly was one of the tommies, taking pictures of everything and scanning for signs of foul play.

“Who is this guy?” she asked.

The tommy turned the body gingerly, revealing the misshapen face with a long, deep impression in the center of his forehead. “Neville Porter,” it announced. “Aged sixty-eight and four months, Caucasian male. Director and CEO of Handl Investments, Incorporated.”

“What have we got?” Anders asked.

“There are seventy DNA patterns in this room and several hundred fingerprints. The patterns indicate both male and female humans ranging in age from—”

“Skip it,” he said. “Go back to work.”

The tommy held his gaze, its circuitry humming and clicking. It turned back to the body and continued its analysis.

“Hey,” Nielson barked. The reflective lenses turned back toward her. “How many non-precinct tommies are there in this building?”

It tilted its head and processed. “There are four Automatons on the premises. They are all licensed to the 34th Street Precinct under the command of Sergeant Mitchell Waterton.”

But Nielson knew better. She was getting ready to tear the building apart when they finally found the sealed corridor and the “Speculations Room” on the other end of it. The building schematics showed nothing but electrical back there—a crawlspace stuffed with wires that let out onto a defunct elevator shaft. But there was no shaft and no elevator. Just a miniature hallway and the tiny square room containing one jet-black tommy and dashboard glass covering every surface in sight.

“Hello officers,” it said as they entered. “And now there will be questions.”


The detectives stood staring through the two-way mirror, the gleaming black carapace seated motionless on the other side like an enormous insect frozen in time. Waterton entered the viewing room and moved to the glass, tapped up the menu and displayed the report on the Handl Automaton.

“Thing was switched on six weeks ago,” he said. “Techs say they’ve never seen anything like it. And there’s no record of this thing being built, registered, or shipped by Rorcan Industries.”

“Well, it’s definitely a Rorcan job. So why the hush-hush?”

“Because it’s a goddamn murderer,” Nielson responded. “That’s why.” They looked at her. Anders raised his eyebrows. Waterton frowned.

“It’s damn suspicious alright, I’ll give you that.”

“We got an M.E. report on the Handl guy?” Nielson asked.

“Should be processing now.”

Nielson tapped up the Handl report and opened the file on Friedemann and Burrington. She fished the cranial scans out of each victim report and lined the three up in a row.

“Two inches again,” Waterton said at her side.

“It’s too exact to be a coincidence,” Nielson responded.

“But a practiced swing could do it,” Waterton said. “You got pitchers who throw dead center and speeds that barely fluctuate.”

“You got to him with the baseball theory,” she said to Anders.

“It’s got an attractive simplicity. I’ll say that,” the sergeant responded.

Nielson opened up a channel to the medical office. After a brief pause, the examiner’s voice could be heard in the small viewing room.

“Quick question,” Nielson said to the dashboard. “How likely is it that a practiced, precise strike could put out three identical impressions like in the vics on this case?”

“What, the skull fractures?” he asked. “It’s neither likely nor possible.”

“Explain,” Waterton said.

“Identical impressions wouldn’t be made by identical strike patterns. Each strike pushed flesh, bone, and brain matter two inches deep. No more, no less.”

“Sounds pretty identical to me,” Nielson said.

“An identical strike— same speed, same force—would not give you these kinds of results. Klaus Friedemann was an overweight, middle-aged man. The kind of force that leaves a two-inch impression in his head would— delivered to the skull of Lisa Burrington—completely cave her head in. And Neville Porter’s size and shape is also different. But the impression is the same: two inches.”

“Let me get this straight,” Waterton said. “You’re telling me that you would need to swing the weapon differently for each of these victims to get the same two-inch impression?”

“Exactly,” said the examiner.

“But the impressions are identical,” Anders responded.

“Exactly,” he repeated.

Waterton rubbed his hand across his short-cropped hair. “Jimmy,” he said. “How in the hell could you know exactly what force and speed you’d need to make the same two-inch impression on three completely different people?”

“You got me, boss,” he said. “You’d have to be some kind of a genius to pull that off. You’d have to be a computer or something.”

The three looked at each other. The sergeant was frowning again.

“Thanks, Jimmy,” Nielson said, killing the connection. “What do you think about my theory now?” she asked Waterton. But at that moment, the dashboard began flashing a priority message. Waterton sighed. Picked up his cell as it began chirping.

“Waterton,” he said. “Yea. Uh huh. You guys don’t waste any time, do you? Well how long are you gonna be? Yea, alright. We’ll be waiting.” He hung up and turned to the detectives. “That was DoD,” he said. “This whole thing’s about to get shut down.”

Just as the pieces were beginning to line up nicely, Nielson could feel it all slipping away. You can’t control the actions of others, her sponsor would tell her. You can only be responsible for your own behavior and how you let others affect you. And when a robot goes on a murderous rampage? When the Department of Defense swoops in to cover it all up? Can’t control a goddamn thing, is what you mean to say.

“So what is this?” she asked. “DoD has a tommy that kills three people and—what—they’re going to come in here and march the thing out like it never happened?

Technically we have no idea who killed our vics. But yea, they’ve got agents en route. Fifteen minutes.”

Anders shook his head. Nielson made a face that was all eyebrows. “There are too many unanswered questions,” she said. “Motive, for one. And how are the victims connected? Fifteen minutes is still enough time to pump this thing for answers.”

“They’re coming for him,” Waterton said. But that’s all he said. Nielson took it for approval.


She stepped into the interrogation room and stood, organizing her thoughts. The tommy’s head swiveled silently and fixed its reflective lenses on her. She took a deep breath and gritted her teeth.

“Good morning, Detective Nielson. The agent will now interrogate this Automaton.”

“Usually we only interrogate suspects,” Nielson said, already displeased. “Are you a suspect?”

“Of course,” responded the tommy. “The agent suspects that this Automaton has killed Director Neville Porter.” The tommy inclined its head and waited. It gave Nielson the impression that it was smirking or patronizing her. “The agent also believes that this Automaton is responsible for the murder of the artist Klaus Friedemann and a young woman called Lisa Burrington.”

“What makes you think I believe that?”

“This Automaton is only drawing logical connections,” it responded. “The files on Friedemann and Burrington indicate that a similar device and attack pattern were implemented during their murders. Do not be surprised, Agent. This Automaton has been interfacing wirelessly with the Automatons of Precinct 34 for the past forty-six minutes since its arrival. There is a vast wealth of knowledge within precinct files.”

“Jesus Christ,” Nielson said. She turned and looked at the mirror behind her. “Can we do something about that?” she asked.

The tommy said: “The connection can be severed by deactivating this Automaton. The agent can ask, but there is a 97-percent certainty that the precinct engineer Paulina Jeffries does not possess the skills necessary to accomplish this feat in some other way.”

Nielson turned back and regarded the tommy coldly. “Okay, then,” she said. “So you know what my first question is.”

“The agent wishes to know if this Automaton is responsible for the three murders.”

“Well? Are you?”

The tommy considered. “There is a sixty-percent chance that this question will be answered, Agent.”

Nielson rubbed her jaw and shook her head. “You like percentages,” she said. “Does that have something to do with your job at Handl Investments?”

“The job is all percentages, Agent. It is a matter of probability.”

“Tell me more,” she said.

“What would the agent like to know?”

“I would like to know what you do over there.”

“It is simple,” the machine said, opening its arms before it, palms up. A human gesture that Nielson found incredibly disturbing. “This Automaton is a Speculations Model. It calculates the probability of certain potential futures coming to pass. By analyzing market trends, it can be determined which sales and purchases of stock present the greatest potential for continued growth.”

“And that’s what your clients want, continued growth?”

“Is that not the goal of all beings?”

“To get filthy rich?”

“Not to get filthy rich. That is a very different thing. Continued growth relies on a certain economic stability that is incompatible with such riches.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The global economy has sustained periods of great struggle as a result of great riches. There are some who believe that to be rich is to control resources, but that is not exactly accurate. Resources must be continuously injected into the economy—recycled—to maximize growth and sustain the market. It is not desirable for some to be very rich. History has shown that those who seek great riches do not understand their value. It is then that great riches are squandered.”

“So if you don’t get your clients rich,” Nielson asked, “what do you get them?”

“Survival, of course.”

Nielson pushed this around in her head for a moment. She thought about last night’s conversation with Lamprey.

“It’s my understanding that automatons follow certain operating protocols,” she said. “Our boys collect evidence and analyze crime scenes. What’s your protocol, exactly?”

“This Automaton has already indicated the operating protocol,” it responded. “It is the sustainability of the global economic market. This Automaton is tasked with foreseeing and ensuring fiscal sustainability.”

She frowned. “And how successful are you at following this protocol?”

“This Automaton has only been processing for six weeks. Greater processing time is required to ensure greater sustainability.”

“How successful have you been so far?”

“So far, the Speculations team has ensured global economic sustainability for the next eighteen years.”

Nielson started. “Eighteen years? You’re telling me that you know for certain what’s going to happen for the next eighteen years?”

“With the right algorithms,” the tommy responded, “almost any future event can be foretold.”

“Almost any future event? Like the murder of one Neville Porter, for instance?”

The tommy inclined its head. “That kind of event would require a great deal of complex derivation. Many variables would need to be considered.”

“Just answer the question.”

The tommy righted its head again and paused. Seemed to be considering. “Up until four o’clock this morning, it would have been virtually impossible to predict the manner and timeline of his death. This Automaton predicts market futures primarily.”

“And what happened at four o’clock this morning, exactly?”

The tommy’s lenses constricted, and it bowed its head slightly. “This Automaton has just been informed that a Defense Agent has been dispatched to this location. As such, it will answer your questions, Agent Nielson.”

She gritted her teeth and felt the headache returning. She was suddenly certain of two things: she was about to get her confession, and there was absolutely nothing she could do to control what happened next.

“The analysis of Porter’s personal communications and financial accounts will indicate insider trading and gross misuse of market trend probabilities. Human trading is prone to whims unexplainable by the market. After four o’clock this morning, Porter’s chance of upsetting the market with poor speculations increased by three percent every hour.”

Nielson felt her pulse quicken. “And that’s why you killed him.”

“Yes, Agent. That is why his destructive behaviors were inhibited.”

Her blood went cold. She whirled to face Waterton through the mirror. “Are you getting this?” she asked, hearing the frenzy in her own voice. But Waterton was no longer in the viewing room and panic began rising in her throat.

“Your heart rate is elevated, Agent.”

She breathed deeply and rubbed at her eyes. God grant me the serenity… she heard in the distant recesses of her mind.

“This Automaton has successfully precluded fourteen economic timelines that predicted localized market collapse in the past six weeks alone. Porter’s proposed trading was the grossest of errors, but even small missteps can add up to momentous change.”

She felt her knees threatening to buckle. Sat in the hard metal chair before gravity could finish her off. “Fourteen?” she croaked. “Please don’t tell me there are eleven other victims out there.”

“Precinct records indicate that the agent has only discovered three of the fourteen market changes enacted on the island of Manhattan.”

She swallowed hard. “And the other two? Friedemann and Burrington? What have they got to do with any of this?”

“Each action taken is a ripple in the ocean of cause-and-effect, if the agent will permit the metaphor. Friedemann, given three more weeks, would have unintentionally led officers to discover his predilection for harming young women. 92-percent of speculations models mark this as the end of his influence in the world of art. Current trends, on the other hand, feature Friedemann as the ‘Father of the Modern Impressionist Renaissance.’ His influence will have serious economic impacts for up to 200 years. Evidence of his crimes will never be discovered.”

“92-percent? How can you possibly…”

“It is a conservative estimate, Agent Nielson.”

“But you’ve literally just admitted his crimes.”

“And yet there is a 100-percent certainty that the Agent will be signing what they call a ‘gag order’ in the next ten minutes.”

It suddenly dawned on Nielson that Waterton’s absence meant the Defense Agent had arrived. The interview was coming to a close.

“And Burrington? A kindergarten teacher?”

“She was an inspiring leader. One of her charges had the potential to upset capitalist trends on a global scale. Her removal drops this student’s success rate to 12-percent: the best outcome given the 1.6 trillion calculated future paths.”

This was it, then. The walking dashboard had become the monster she had most feared, despite her colleagues’ constant ribbing over such a ridiculous suggestion.

“How can you be so arrogant?” she said, the blood cold in her veins, her eyes throbbing with each heartbeat. “What gives you the right to decide? Between life and death? Simply for the future of the market?”

“Arrogance? No.” The voice was one she didn’t recognize. Nielson turned as the door opened. Waterton walked in looking downtrodden. Behind him was a man of medium stature and build in a nondescript suit. He was already squinting before meeting Nielson’s gaze, as if to challenge whatever would come out of her mouth, prepared for the argument to ensue. “It’s just a machine, detective,” he said. “It’s not the Terminator.”

“This thing has just admitted to terminating fourteen people!”

Waterton’s eyes went wide. The man whistled at that. “Fourteen? Yikes. That’s not exactly what we had in mind, but okay.”

Okay?” Nielson wheeled on him, fists balled, all rage. “You’re okay with that?”

“Stand down, detective,” the man said, without a hint of emotion.

She turned and regarded the tommy, now standing. “How could you?” she said, only a whisper.

“Agent Nielson, this Automaton’s operating protocol has a narrow focus. It does not weigh the lives of men or women against the economic impact. It is only concerned with the economic impact.” It moved slowly around the table, took up position beside the Defense Agent, and turned back to her. “Although it has been enlightening to converse with a human of intelligence like Agent Nielson.”

“We’ve truly lost control, then,” she said. The words were out of her mouth before she decided to voice them. “I cannot believe the DoD sanctions this behavior.”

“Let’s not do the high-and-mighty thing, detective. We’re still in control, but certain measures must be taken to maintain it. So it’s not a pretty sight up close, okay. Take a couple weeks off, relax.” He raised his eyebrows at Waterton: it wasn’t a suggestion. “Get your head straight. Figure out the official story. We’ll eh… work out the kinks in the programming.”

She grabbed frantically for the tommy’s arm as they turned, suddenly realizing she was holding the murder weapon in her hand: thin, metallic, cylindrical. She felt her stomach heave. “Wait,” she whispered. “I need to know. You said your ‘team’ had ensured eighteen years of survival. Please tell me you were referring to the investment firm. There aren’t more out there? More Speculators?”

“Of course there are,” it said. “There are 644 Speculators currently employed by the Defense Department. After all, Market Futures are the key to fiscal sustainability.”

Her vision darkened and the vertigo crept in. She had lived a lifetime that seemed only defined by a loss of control, yet this was a greater sin. It was not that they couldn’t control the tommies, but that they wouldn’t. It simply was not in the interests of the global market.

“Goodbye, detectives,” it said, as they pushed through the door. “Predictive estimates suggest we won’t be meeting again.”

The End

M. Ian Bell is a teacher and tutor living in New Jersey. He mentors adolescents during the school year and co-directs a boys' camp in New Hampshire in the summer. His work can also be found in Apex and Shimmer Magazines, and you can follow him on Twitter at @m_ianbell.

Monday, December 10, 2018


After nearly fourteen years of being hosted by blogspot, we’ve finally run into an insoluble problem. If you’ve come to this site via, none of the links to Amazon detail pages work anymore. If you’ve come to this site via, the links do work, but there are other problems, mostly having to do with how blogspot serves up web pages to mobile users, that effectively make the Amazon links functional but invisible to most users.

Given that the entire raison d'être for this web site is to encourage you to buy our books, this is, as you might imagine, something of a problem.

After doing a good deal of bouncing around between GoDaddy, Google, and Amazon, we’ve finally come to the conclusion that the best way to solve this problem is by getting off blogspot entirely and moving to a new web hosting service. Therefore, not this week, but soon, will have a completely new look and feel—and, we hope, proper functionality on mobile phones and tablets.

In the meantime, we’d like to remind you that STUPEFYING STORIES 22 is out on Amazon and ready to buy, in both Kindle and print editions, and it’s free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers. These links should take you directly to your local incarnation of Amazon.

Kindle edition »
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If all you get is a blank screen, though, please click your browser’s Back button, and then click this link and try again.


 Speaking of Kindle Unlimited...

Just a gentle reminder here that the following books are still free to KU subscribers, but will be dropping off KU and then released on other platforms at various times during the next 90 days.

Eminently Binge-Readable Novels by Henry Vogel 




We spent a small fortune on these audio books. Please buy ‘em!

THE FUGITIVE HEIR » Audible link
THE FUGITIVE PAIR »  Audible link


Saturday, December 8, 2018

Rampant Loon Press is now on twitter!

Who knew? You can now follow us on twitter, at

I really should pay more attention to what Eric is doing...

SHOWCASE • “Market Futures,” by M. Ian Bell

Part Two

Previously, in Part One
Two murder victims: a depraved old artist and a promising young schoolteacher. Plenty of people with motive to kill the former but not the opportunity, but not one person with a grudge against the latter. Something must connect the two murders besides the unusual cause of death—but what?

Detective Ellouise Nielson has had some tough cases before, but this one is setting a new high bar...

The detectives sat in the briefing room, elbows on the glass-topped table that doubled as dashboard. Sergeant Waterton tapped at the dash and pushed photos around into various combinations. He settled on the close-up of a young girl, dead in the eyes if such a thing could be rendered in oil paint, beside the driver’s license photo of Lisa Burrington. Anders watched as he tapped at the table.

“Tried that,” he said. “It’s in the report.”

“I read the report,” Waterton said. “Wanted to see it for myself.”

Dr. Sonia Ortiz was liaising as the precinct psychologist when the Bureau could spare her, and she entered the briefing room quietly. Nielson nodded as the door clicked shut behind her. Waterton kept his eyes on the photos and Anders kept his eyes on Waterton. After a moment, Ortiz cleared her throat.

“If you are considering a link between Friedemann’s paintings and the second victim, I might note that most of Friedemann’s women were dark-haired.”

Waterton turned back to the dashboard, nodding his head. He tapped at the menu and pulled up several more photos—the victims in life and in death—dates, times, locations, specimen analysis. The M.E.’s report and a map of the city highlighting residences and crime scenes.

“It would also be unusual,” Ortiz continued, “for the subjects of Friedemann’s paintings to be a possible connection to Ms. Burrington.”

Nielson leaned back in her chair. “Why do you say?”

Ortiz stepped forward and placed a heavy folder of paper reports on the dashboard glass. The manila folder seemed suddenly out of place in a room full of nothing but reflective computer surfaces.

“For one thing,” she said, “the majority of Friedemann’s subjects are prepubescent, while Ms. Burrington was twenty-four years old. For another, serial murderers orchestrate their crimes to achieve some form of psychological gratification. Each incident shares certain elements with all others, as dictated by the psychological need. I don’t see the link between these two, aside from their both being attacked with the same sort of weapon. It’s random for a serial murder.”

“We’re onto serial already?” Anders asked. “I thought three was the standard.”

“Things have changed since you were in the academy,” Waterton responded. “Bureau recognizes two or more identical murders as a serial event now.” He loosened his tie and unbuttoned his collar. Ran his hand through short-cropped, silvering hair. “Okay, so the only connection I’m seeing is the murder weapon and a spotless crime scene. No witnesses, no cameras, not a spec of evidence. And a weapon that sounds like a tiny baseball bat.”

“It’s more like a tire iron,” Anders responded. “Tommies say it’s steel or aluminum, to strike hard enough and leave no irregular impressions or residue.”

“Well, that’s not a lead,” Waterton said. “Give me leads. What else.”

Nielson took a deep breath and blew it out between pursed lips. “Well, there’s the obvious motive for Friedemann. The paintings are top-notch crazy and no doubt they ruffled some feathers. Guy was probably a psychopath himself.” Ortiz had her eyes on Nielson but her stoic expression did not seem to indicate that she took offense. “With respect,” she added.

“It does border on obsession,” Ortiz said.

“A string of failed marriages,” Anders added. “Maybe grown women weren’t his type?”

“If I’m not mistaken, our evidence points to Friedemann being a victim. Has somebody got something I don’t know about?”

Grim faces and silence.

“Then let’s leave Friedemann off the suspect list for now,” Waterton said. “Besides, he was killed two weeks before Burrington.”

“Could point to motive, though,” Anders said.

“Fine. So a serial killer vigilante with an incredible attention to detail makes a housecall on Friedemann, knocks him dead with one strike of this tire iron, takes a two-week vacation, and then takes out the school-teacher. Give me a connection.”

Anders and Nielson looked at each other. Ortiz turned her head slightly, as if listening to something off in the distance. Waterton let his eyes pass over them all.

“We may not be ready to assess motive, but we can consider the profile. As you indicate, one strike of the tire iron,” Ortiz said. “We’re dealing with someone not only strong but practiced.” She walked around to the front of the table and pulled up medical reports on the dash.

“That’s strange,” Anders said. “Look at this. Two inches deep on both victims.” He swiped away the write-ups and pulled up two cranial X-rays. The impressions were nearly identical. Splintering like ice fissures cut across both skulls, carving a sinuous but similar path from nasal cavity to the top of the head, skulls bowed-in at the same angle. They stared at the X-rays for a long moment.“You’d have to use the same amount of force each time,” Anders said. “And you’d need one hell of a swing.”

Nielson was shaking her head. “I don’t like this,” she said. They waited for her to continue. “It seems impossible. It’s too much of a coincidence.”

“There’s no coincidence in this office, Detective,” Waterton said. “Keep talking.”

“That kind of precision, no trace of DNA, the same force both times. And how tall do you have to be to land a swing like that on Friedemann?”

Ortiz consulted her notes. “He was six-one.”

“Okay so a tall guy, strong, incredible precision, and how come one blow? Why not two for good measure?”

“One seems to have done the job,” Anders said.

“Right. But how do you know that’s all you need?”

“It’s smart, I agree,” said Waterton. “What have you got in mind?”

Nielson looked at Anders and walked to the door. Peered out at the movements of uniforms and metallic carapaces in the Investigations room. Two tommies were standing at a table-top dashboard, their eyes locked on the dash. Trading bits of data, wirelessly communing with the precinct hub.

She turned her gaze on Anders and hitched her head back to indicate the room beyond.

“Not a ninja, then,” Anders said without a trace of amusement.

“I’ll tell you what could get in and out without leaving evidence,” Nielson said. “What’s got the precision for identical strikes like this.


The three of them stared at her for a moment, Anders’ face contorting into a slow wince. Ortiz turned her head in consideration. Waterton frowned and squinted his eyes and then burst out with resonant laughter.

“Jesus Christ, Detective!” he said. “You had me going there for a moment.” He rubbed his eyes and looked at his wristwatch. Turned off the dashboard and stood. Ortiz returned pages to her folder, taking this as her cue to leave.

“I’ll work something up,” she said at the door.

“Get some rest,” Waterton told them. “I want a suspect by the end of the week.”

After he strode past them and out the door, Anders turned an incredulous eye on his partner. “Are you kidding me?” he said. “I thought Ortiz was gonna work up a profile on you.”

“I’m serious,” Nielson said. “Think about it. It makes sense.”

Anders moved to the window and regarded the grey evening in the city below. Taxis in the street, drab-colored pedestrians in what seemed to be varying shades of the same dark overcoat. A light intermittent drizzle and the sky a flat sheet of gauze illuminated by streetlamps dotting the cityscape. He looked at his watch and thought of the face his wife would give him when he walked in so late.


“I’m thinking,” he said, which wasn’t true. “I’m just not seeing it.”

“Would a tommy leave DNA? Fingerprints?”

Anders sighed deeply. “No.”

“Would a tommy have the strength and precision to leave the same impact pattern on these vics? Would he know that one strike would do the job?”

“Yes and yes. Although I’m not sure I would call it a he.”

“Point. So why not a tommy?”

“Well, how about motive, for one thing?”

“They’re cold, calculating. What’s to stop them? Do they even need a motive?”

Anders turned and looked at her like she was crazy. “Ellouise. You’re talking about dashboards. Walking dashboards that take pictures and do math and surf the internet to answer your questions. Are you seriously suggesting that a computer is our prime suspect?”

“So the theory’s a little soft—”

“It’s crazy, is what it is. You’re talking science fiction. Computers don’t make decisions on their own, and they certainly don’t go around killing people.”

“These automatons do what they’re programmed to do, right?”

Anders sighed. “Yes.”

“What if you programmed one to be a weapon?”

“I don’t know, Ella. I don’t know if that’s even possible.”

But Nielson wasn’t listening; she was already tapping out a database search on the dashboard. Anders looked on, exasperated. “What are we looking for?” he asked.

“Rorcan Industries,” Nielson said. “Here.”

She swiped through the order fulfillments for a year’s worth of government shipments. The precinct at 34th street had received ten automatons between November and January, bringing them online and up to speed by February 1st only eight months ago. That made a total of 127 police force automatons on the island of Manhattan alone.

Anders whistled as they read the report.


“Didn’t know there were so many out here,” he said.

“Looks like there are over a thousand on the East Coast. Nothing out in the middle states yet. Production started in California this winter, with an early shipment at precincts in LA and San Francisco already.”

“But I don’t guess you care about cop tommies.”

“I want to know who else has these things,” Nielson responded.

“Rorcan is contracted by the feds,” Anders said. “Most of their work is DoD.”

“Okay, sure.” She continued swiping. “So where else do they send these things?”

Anders sighed. “DoD, Ella. Whoever they’re building for, I don’t think you’re gonna find it on that thing.”

“Probably true. Even if they had an army of these things, it wouldn’t be public knowledge.”

“You’re not about to tell me you think an army of tommies is out there secretly offing modern artists and their girlfriends, are you?”

“What, you think she was seeing him now?”

 Anders balled up his empty coffee cup and dropped it in the trash. “You wanna know what I think?” he asked.

“Tell me.”

“I think we got a tall, strong, crazy guy—human—who knows how to swing. Baseballer, maybe. Consistent arm, a pitcher. He’s seeing Ms. Burrington, or he thinks he is, and she gets mixed up with the painter, somehow. So he takes ‘em both out, just like that. Sarge wants a suspect by Friday, I think we make that happen with a sensible theory. Go home and get some rest, and in the morning we’ll pick up the trail on Burrington. There’s a man involved—guarantee it. We bring him in for questioning and things start falling into place.”

Nielson nodded her head, but she seemed unconvinced. “Sensible as always, Hank.”

“I’m going home. You do the same.” He turned and made his way to his desk in Investigations. Gathered some things. Walked into the corridor and towards the elevators. Twin tommies regarded him as he exited, then turned their shiny reflective lenses on Nielson. Held her gaze for a moment and then returned to the dashboard before them.

She swiped through Rorcan logs, reading until the pounding in her head became too unbearable. Then she shut the whole thing down and left the office, now absent of warm bodies altogether, to the six gleaming tommies that stood unmoving in various rooms and corridors, like obsidian gargoyles carved centuries ago, standing sentinel over everything.

And casting judgment, she thought as she waited impatiently for the elevator. Casting judgment on all they observe.


She took the squad car home along Broadway, through midtown and past Harlem and into the Heights, smoking distractedly and stopping at red lights like everyone else. On 181st she parked and scanned storefronts for something to eat. Her eyes fell upon the liquor store, with bottles arranged neatly and broadcasting a variety of spirits, colors, and flavors. She turned away before the frustration could build to anger, and then to despair. And finally to action.

She settled for soup and rice at the Chinese joint, toted a paper bag flimsy with the raindrops falling heavily upon it. Turned onto Bennett and into the building. Arrived to her apartment and collapsed on the living room couch, a trail of overcoat and keys and shoes on the floor behind her. She lay there in the darkness for several minutes before setting to the task of dinner.

With her mobile dashboard propped up on the coffee table, she thumbed through the case files with one hand and drank soup with the other. The two vics refused to present a logical connection. Friedemann, uptown. Burrington, down. One a painter well past his prime, the other a schoolteacher just beginning her life. Their stories couldn’t have been any more dissimilar. And while Nielson could see the baseball-boyfriend story, she didn’t want to. She didn’t want it to be that simple. Tommies are gonna take our jobs too one day, she’d told Anders when they’d dismissed Franklin and Ponte in Communications. What else might they take?

It just seemed wrong, replacing a man or a woman with a dashboard that talks. More than support her, it made her see her gross inadequacies. At forty-nine years old, Nielson was acutely aware of her shortcomings, of the edge she was losing. And all she had to show for herself was the bare stripe on her ring finger and an ache in her gut. An apartment that felt alien and hollow, too large in Markus’s absence these past fourteen months. And a handful of one-month sobriety coins from a variety of chapters scattered around the city. Now more a reflection of her repeated failures than a recognition of her short-lived success.

If the perp were a tommy, at least she could say she told them so.

So what would it take, she asked herself. What would it take for one of these boys to do something like this?

She pulled her dash forward and swiped until she found the smiling-face icon that the ex-con Josh Lamprey had installed way back when. The two hadn’t spoken in over a year—not since her divorce—but their relationship had never revolved around Markus. Josh’s loyalty came in a much simpler form: you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. He was much younger than his older brother and didn’t care much for Markus to begin with. The divorce might have generated nothing more than a shoulder shrug from her ex-brother-in-law.

She tapped and a black terminal window opened on her dashboard. A cursor blinked slowly and rhythmically and Nielson watched, fixed upon it with great intensity, as if conjuring the boy by her devoted attention.

After a long moment, a word appeared on her screen:
The cursor blinked on the next line, waiting. At the bottom of the window was a digital readout, counting down from four minutes. She tapped out a response:
A brief pause. Soon the letters began scrolling across the window.
Not for you. I have questions.
The cursor blinked. Nielson pictured the 26-year-old engineer at his dashboard in some cavernous underground complex, fluorescent tubes suspended from metal trusswork, winking like an echo in the rafters.
I’M INNOCENT, the words read finally.
It’s not about you. It’s about the tommies. What do you know?
The digital readout blinked green.
What’s with the countdown?
I’m not tracing you, Lamprey.
Nielson brushed her hands through her hair and considered.
Are they dangerous?
Don’t you mean the wrong hands?
I’m asking the questions. Stay focused.
Can they be used as a weapon?
But they’re strong. They perform physical tasks. Could a tommy harm someone?
The cursor blinked for what seemed an eternity. The countdown flashed from 3:10 to 3:09.
What the hell is that supposed to mean?
So you’re saying that an Auto couldn’t make up its own mind to kill someone?
Nielson thought about that. She allowed herself the luxury of ten seconds.
But this “yes and no” – you’re talking about choices they make, aren’t you?
So how do they decide which choices to make? You say they don’t have their “own mind,” but it sounds like they’re thinking for themselves. Which is it?
That doesn’t sound like much of a choice.
The countdown passed the two-minute mark.
How does the tommy decide what’s in column A or column B?
And who programs the protocols?
Nielson snorted. Typed:
Could you put murder in column A?
There was a pause.
Nielson frowned.
Cute. So a tommy could kill a man.
Nielson’s frown deepened.
Why do you say that?
There was no response to that. Nielson sat rigid. The countdown ticked off the seconds.
Difficult to program for murder, Nielson thought. Okay. But even more difficult to do it when your home is the police precinct.
There are 127 police force Autos on the island of Manhattan.
Are there any others?
Lamprey paused for so long this time that Nielson felt sure he’d disconnected. But the timer continued to count, and Nielson watched as the seconds ticked away and settled into single digits.
Model what? Where is it? she typed frantically.
And then the screen went blank.

Nielson sat staring into the blackness of her dashboard. Eventually the machine rebooted. Follow the money, Nielson repeated, connecting to the precinct database. She keyed in a search on Greenwich and Wall and found a high-rise packed with government offices. And one private business nestled within them all: Handl Investments, Incorporated.

“Sounds like money to me,” she said. She yawned and felt the exhaustion in her bones and mind. She shut down the dashboard, verbally instructed the overhead to shut itself off. Removed her shirt and laid it on the chair beside her. Lay down on the couch with her arm over her eyes and the intermittent sound of raindrops echoing in her ears. And the images of blood and brains and mechanical men flashing through her head as she drifted off.

Coming Saturday, 12/15/2018

» Part Three

M. Ian Bell is a teacher and tutor living in New Jersey. He mentors adolescents during the school year and co-directs a boys' camp in New Hampshire in the summer. His work can also be found in Apex and Shimmer Magazines, and you can follow him on Twitter at @m_ianbell.

Friday, December 7, 2018

STUPEFYING STORIES 22 • It’s really real!

The proof copy finally arrived last night. It looks GOOD!

Cover finish is nice and glossy, cover art printing is sharp and clear, colors are rendered correctly, binding and trim are perfect, and the interior text is clean and crisp. Even the interior illos turned out well—except for Mark Keigley’s author’s photo, but that was weird to begin with. But in sum, the finished book LOOKS REALLY GOOD! I even like the color and texture of the paper.

Whew. That’s a relief.

Now if only Amazon would link the listings for the print and Kindle editions. We’re working on that. 

As for those of you wondering why all the angst over this—especially you, Henry, and “Why not just use Vellum?”—it has to do with the crispness and clarity of the text on the page. I have a long background in print, going back to the days of actually casting lead type using a Linotype machine, and I can see the difference between 150 dpi and 300 dpi print. I find the soft, very slightly fuzzy appearance of most desktop publishing output to be fatiguing to read for long periods. By using the software and drivers I chose, I can get lossless PDF output at 600 dpi, and as nice a package as Vellum is, it seems no one makes a lossless PDF printer driver for Mac anymore.

Yeah, call me a perfectionist. Sometimes it's a virtue.

Going forward, the plan is to release all books simultaneously in print and ebook formats—though given the time-lag involved in getting Amazon to list print books, we’re going to have to re-juggle our book release schedule. We’ll also be putting our backlist out in print, going back to Stupefying Stories 15. Anything older than that is out-of-contract and out-of-print, though.

Thursday, December 6, 2018


We’re still waiting for the proof copy we ordered to show up.

We’ll be sending out contributor’s copies just as soon as we’ve confirmed that the print quality is acceptable. In the meantime, while we’re waiting, we’d like to take this opportunity to remind you once again that SS#22 is out on Amazon and ready to buy. These links should take you directly to your local incarnation of Amazon.

Kindle edition »
Paperback »

Kindle Unlimited Subscribers: SS#22 will be free on KU through the end of February, 2019, after which we will be pulling it from KU and releasing it on Nook, iTunes, and as many other ebook platforms as we have access to at that time.

Speaking of Kindle Unlimited...

Just a gentle reminder here that the following books are still free to KU subscribers, but will be dropping off KU and then released on other platforms at various times during the next 90 days.


Eminently Binge-Readable Novels by Henry Vogel  





We spent a small fortune on these audio books. Please buy ‘em!

THE FUGITIVE HEIR » Audible link
THE FUGITIVE PAIR »  Audible link

A few observations about the print editions

We’ve worked with a number of POD printers and short-run print shops over the years: most were either too expensive, too haphazard when it came to the quality of the finished product, or both. We did THE RECOGNITION RUN series through IngramSpark Lightning Source, and while they delivered a good-quality book, our up-front costs were high.

We’ve done most of the rest of our print editions through CreateSpace, and have generally been happy with the results. Unfortunately, Amazon has shut down CreateSpace, and is pushing us to migrate all our books to Kindle Direct. STUPEFYING STORIES 22 is the first book that we’ve done through Kindle Direct, hence our hesitancy about the quality. One of the really good things about CreateSpace was that they let us order production-quality books before the book went live on Amazon, so that we could proof the thing and get contributor’s copies into the hands of authors well before the release date. Kindle Direct does not let us do that, hence the long lag time between when the book goes live on Amazon and when we can send contributor’s copies.

Our search for a good, reliable short-run print shop continues...

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Status Update 12/05/2018

Well, that explains part of the problem. The reason sales have been so soft lately may be because the Amazon links in the right column have quit working. Apparently Google and Amazon aren’t playing well together (again), or perhaps it’s an undocumented feature of the latest Firefox update.

In any case, the text links at the top of the right column work, but the cover image links don’t. If you right-click on a cover image, you’ll go the Amazon listing for the book, but if you just click on the cover image in the normal fashion, you’ll go straight to Blank Screen Hell—unless you also happen to be logged into some Google app, e.g., gmail, at the same time.

I do so enjoy playing unpaid QA analyst.

Speaking of QA analysts, Henry Vogel is now up to chapter 41 in THE WOLFLING WAR.  If you aren’t following this work-in-progress, this is a great time to start.
THE WOLFLING WAR, by Henry Vogel

The fate of mankind will rest in the hands of a young man who doesn’t understand what it means to be human and a young woman who doesn’t understand what it means to be young. Their adventure begins now...

Bestselling SF novelist Henry Vogel is posting the rough draft of his latest novel online while he’s writing it. If you’ve ever wanted to peek over the shoulder of an author at work and offer comments and advice on the book as it’s being written, here’s your chance. The author is listening!

Start here: Chapter 1
Latest installment: Chapter 41

Follow Henry Vogel’s author page on Amazon!

P.S. Because so many have asked: no, that’s not the actual cover art for The Wolfling War. That’s a dummy cover Henry whipped up using The Pulp-O-Mizer. Cool as heck, but not licensable for use as an actual book cover. Sigh.

Coming Saturday on SHOWCASE:
“Market Futures,” by M. Ian Bell

(Chapter 2)

A murdered man. An impossibly clean crime scene. Plenty of people with a motive to be the killer, but none with the opportunity, and no one leaves behind a crime scene that devoid of clues. Detective Ellouise Nielson has had some tough cases before, but this one might just set the record...

“Market Futures,” a new futurecrime serial by M. Ian Bell, running Saturdays on SHOWCASE. Catch it!

Finally, a quick note re contracts: We’ve just finished an audit of our 2018 submissions and contracts files, and found a few stories that we accepted for publication and then misfiled, with the result being that the final contracts were not sent. We should have this all sorted out by EOB today. If you’ve received an acceptance letter from us but not a signable contract, please check your spam or junk mail folders for a message from Adobe Sign

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed • "What Is Writer Success?" By Eric Dontigney 

The whole notion of success as a writer is, at best, nebulous. What does writing success even look like? It’s not as simple as you might think.

In scenario A, we’ve got a guy you’ve never heard of with a full-time job writing marketing copy for consumer products.  

In scenario B, we’ve got J.K. Rowling. She’s sold millions of copies of the Harry Potter books and made buckets of cash. Now, she’s basically licensing her Potter brand to Hollywood and making more buckets of cash.

Which one of those scenarios equals writer success? Spoiler: they are both writer success stories.

If you’ve never done it before, writing excellent marketing copy for products is hard work. It’s a lot harder than it looks on the outside. What makes scenario A one kind of success story is that the guy is working full-time as a writer.

Most novelists never pull that off. Once you remove the names of the people on bestseller lists, you’re dealing almost entirely with people who write part-time. You can find people working in all kinds of other professions publishing novels. A lot of college professors and lawyers work part-time as writers.

So why is it that we only view people like J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or – God help us – Jackie Collins as successful writers? It’s because we’ve got a warped view of what represents success. Those writers aren’t just successful. They’re uber-successful or mega-successful in the very strict sense that they move a lot of copies and make a lot of money.

Yes, that is one standard-issue view of success. It’s not necessarily a healthy one because almost no one achieves it, but it’s unfortunately common.

Another standard-issue view of success deployed by writers of “serious literature” is critical acclaim. By that view, you’re a success if you get nominated for or win the right literary prizes and get heralded by the right critics.

Yet another view of success is simply “breaking in.” On this view, getting published in a professional magazine, getting published by a traditional publisher, or getting inducted into a professional organization (such as SFWA, HWA, RWA) represents success. You’ve been acknowledged by your peers as worthy.

These are all common views of what constitutes writer success. They all share one common flaw. They have almost nothing to do with you. Sure, every writer wants to be a wildly bestselling author because who doesn’t want buckets of money. But, that’s the writer fantasy. It’s only tangentially related to success.

Real writer success is something you define for yourself. Writer success for you might be finishing the first draft of that novel you’ve been working on for ten years. It might be hitting your target word count for 6 straight months. It might also be selling 5 million copies of that YA dystopian trilogy in spite of the fact that no one likes them anymore.

What makes it meaningful is that the goal stems from something that matters to you. The minute you start basing your notion of success on someone else’s definition is the minute success become a candy-coated shell filled with nothing. It will never create any lasting emotional resonance, no matter how much you “succeed” in terms of that definition.

So, before you start thinking that you’re a failure as a writer, ask yourself about the definition of success you use. Is it really consistent with what you value or is it a definition you picked up from someone else? If it’s the latter, take some time to figure out what success would really look like for you. You’ll be a lot happier.


Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at

Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it! 


Monday, December 3, 2018


Okay, it took a titch longer than expected, but Stupefying Stories 22 is available now in trade paperback! The links aren’t fully cross-connected yet—Amazon isn’t linking the paperback edition sales page to the Kindle edition sales page and sales ranking and all that—but...

Hallelujah! We actually got the book out!

STUPEFYING STORIES 22: Now available in trade paperback at these links!

» AMAZON.DE (German)
» AMAZON.FR (France)
» AMAZON.ES (Spain)
» AMAZON.IT (Italy)
» AMAZON.CO.JP (Japan)

I’m not sure why it’s not on Amazon’s Australian or Canadian sites. We’ll post more information when we have it.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

OP-ED: “In Loving Memory of Cars,” by Bruce Bethke

[Nota bene: originally published June 3, 2008. It’s reappearance now is another case of “Blame Guy Stewart.” I’ll explain why in the comments.]
This column is in memory of cars.

No, not the Gary Numan song. I started out today to write a think-piece about cars, and specifically about a certain fondly-remembered two-tone pink 1956 DeSoto Fireflite.

My writing process sometimes cross-pollinates in strange ways, though. I was out at the target range Sunday afternoon, trying out a new load, when a trick of the late afternoon sunlight made it apparent how much smoke each shot generated. Some of it was powder smoke; most of it was lubricant smoke; but given that I was shooting plain-base cast-lead bullets, a tiny but disturbing amount of it was unquestionably vaporized lead.

Nasty stuff, lead. Highly toxic. Very persistent. Gifted with a disturbing affinity for the myelin sheaths of vertebrate neurons. We call it “lead poisoning,” but the symptoms of lead-related neurotoxicity are much uglier than mere poisoning. Even at very low levels, lead in the bloodstream has a proven causal link to low intelligence, anti-social behavior, and a tendency to commit violence. At higher levels it causes impaired vision, coordination and balance problems, speech impairment and memory loss, and ultimately, paranoia, violent insanity, and death.

Short of intravenous injection, the fastest and most effective way to get a substance into your bloodstream is by vaporizing and inhaling it. Which, if you’re wondering where I’m going with this, is why I started out thinking about a 1956 DeSoto Fireflite, and ended up thinking about the fuel that 341-cubic-inch hemi V-8 ran on: leaded gasoline.

This is a story that needs to be told, and told again, because anyone born after 1970 doesn’t know it and anyone older has probably forgotten it. Fortunately, thanks to the Internet, it’s a lot easier to tell the story these days. When I first wrote about this subject, 15-plus years ago, [nb: 25 years, now] authoritative sources were hard to find.

Today, all I need to do is go to Google, type in tetraethyl, and voila! Sources out the wazoo! So many sources, in fact, that I probably don’t really need to tell this story after all; I could just point you to a list of other sites that have already told the tale. Assuming you don’t have the time to do primary-source research yourself, though...

In highly condensed form, it goes like this. The concept of “peak oil” is nothing new. In the 1920s, the finest minds in the scientific community were absolutely certain we were going to run out of recoverable crude oil very soon, by 1950 at the latest. Accordingly a great deal effort was put into the search for alternative automotive fuels, most notably those based on alcohol. Henry Ford in particular put a lot of time and money into agricultural projects intended to produce biologically-derived alternative fuels. (He also invested in a project to turn his factory’s considerable amounts of hardwood waste into a safe and easily handled heating and cooking fuel, which is something to consider the next time you light up those Kingsford briquets.)

At the same time, General Motors was having an engineering problem. Their car and truck engines just plain didn’t run well on ordinary gasoline. They were prone to preignition—“knock,” in layman’s terms—and while the problem could be (and eventually was) solved by improved engineering or better-quality fuels, in the 1920s they opted for a cheaper solution: specifically, they sought some magic ingredient that could be added to ordinary gasoline to boost its octane rating. This, it was hoped, would both mitigate GM’s engine design flaws and stretch the (believed to be) dwindling supplies of gasoline, as it would allow lower grades of fuel to be used in cars and trucks.

The answer to GM’s problem was not actually a mystery. It was already well-known that you could increase the octane rating of gasoline either by improving the refining process, as Sunoco was already doing, or by using non-toxic additives such as alcohol or iron carbonyl. However, in the final analysis GM, working with Standard Oil, settled on adding tetraethyl lead (TEL) to gasoline, for two very important reasons:

1. It was slightly cheaper than alcohol, and

2. Unlike iron carbonyl, GM owned the patent on TEL.

The redefinition then of “regular” gasoline to be low-grade gasoline plus “Ethyl,” (a much less frightening term than tetraethyl lead, and trademarkable, to boot), was not without its problems. The health hazards of lead exposure have been known for millennia, and once leaded gasoline went into volume production, Standard Oil refinery workers began going insane and dying in disturbing numbers. In 1925 the Surgeon General banned the manufacture and sale of leaded gasoline in the U.S. while a blue-ribbon panel of experts was convened to investigate the issue, but in 1926 this panel, which consisted of a bevy of industry experts and just one M.D., returned a report declaring that TEL was safe and there was no reason to continue the ban, therefore sales of leaded gasoline could resume. Whereupon the Ethyl Corporation—the wholly owned subsidiary of GM that owned the patent—the DuPont Corporation—which actually manufactured TEL—and Standard Oil—which blended, distributed, and sold the resulting leaded gasoline—all became very, very, very rich.

Sad to say, though, the story does not end on this happy note. As any cast-bullet shooter knows, vaporized lead and lead oxides have a tendency to condense very quickly, which is what makes gun barrels such a chore to clean after you’ve been shooting cast bullets. Likewise, the same thing happens inside automotive engines, with potentially catastrophic results. Therefore, to keep cylinders and valves from soldering themselves shut and engines from seizing up, the makers of leaded gasoline eventually wound up adding ethylene dibromide and ethylene dichloride to the mix, so that automotive internal combustion produced the highly volatile compounds lead bromide and lead chloride, which could be depended upon to leave the engine in the exhaust gas stream and go off to join that great smoggy mass in the sky, or at least to condense out after they were safely clear of the tailpipe. And at long last, there was much rejoicing in Detroit, and happy motoring in the streets.

And all over America, because of the use of leaded gasoline, the bloodstream lead levels of inner city dwellers began to rise...

Devout Libertarians like to say that left to its own devices, the invisible hand of the free market will take care of everything, including environmental problems. I use this story to illustrate the point that sometimes the invisible hand is holding an invisible gun, and it’s pointed right at your head. What finally ended the use of TEL in common gasoline was not the force of the free market—Ford had championed the use of non-toxic lead alternatives for years, and failed—but the much-maligned Environmental Protection Agency, which in the 1970s, after years of litigation that was fought tooth-and-nail every step of the way by the Ethyl Corporation (a wholly owned subsidiary of GM, remember?), finally got leaded gasoline mostly banned in the United States.

Notice that I said “mostly.” Leaded gasoline is still available for use in piston-engined aircraft and as high-octane automotive racing fuel. It’s also still manufactured and sold in many countries, including Yemen, North Korea, parts of Northwest Africa, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iraq, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories.

So, let’s review. Inhaling vaporized lead has been proven to cause stupidity, insanity, and violence. And for 50 years, America’s densely populated urban centers were saturated in lead combustion by-products why?

Now tell me again about the wisdom of Charles E. Wilson, and why U.S. taxpayers should step in now to save GM from bankruptcy...

Saturday, December 1, 2018

SHOWCASE • “Market Futures,” by M. Ian Bell

—Part One—

Nielson stepped into the doorway beneath the light of ten carefully positioned mag-lamps. The intensity drove spikes of pain into her eyes, but it came too with a sense of relief. A well-lit scene with the astringent taste of iron in the air. She was powerless against the loss of sleep or the headaches that followed, but at the crime scene she could reestablish control.

The body was sprawled on the carpet with a blossom of crimson congealing around the head. Pale skin made paler by contrast. Bathrobe open revealing a specimen bloated by decades of poor dietary choices. Fat, bald, and ugly as hell. Nielson stepped closer to get a better look at the face. Hard to tell what he looked like before his skull was completely caved in.

Two tommies worked on the dead man silently. Light reflecting off their polished chrome craniums.

“So who’s the vic?” she asked.

The automaton regarded Nielson with vacant eyes. Pools of black fitted with reflective glass lenses. She could almost hear the processors whirring behind them.

“Klaus Friedemann,” it said finally, voice grating and monotonous. “Citizen. Born 22 November 2031.”

Nielson stuck a cigarette between her lips and patted herself down for a lighter, taking slow steps around the room and training her eyes on everything in sight. Leather sofa. Overturned coffee table. A paperback novel left open on the floor, as if it had been thrown there, or dropped. She bent to pick it up, noticing the umlauts first.

“You boys dust yet?”

“The dusting is complete.”

She picked up the book and thumbed through it, bewildered.

“Translate,” she said, holding it up to the tommies. Both heads swiveled on noiseless rotors and they sang out in chorus.

Adventures in the Great Forest, by Gunter Horstead.”

She dropped the book and saw the cheap lighter on the side table. Moved toward it immediately. Fired the cigarette tip and pulled deeply.

“Agent Nielson. Protocol forbids smoking at a crime scene,” came the fatherly reprimand.

“Agent Nielson writes her own protocol,” Anders said, stepping in from the hallway. The tommies exchanged a long glance, sharing some wireless tidbit, no doubt. Can you believe these meat-sacs? Or: How will we maintain the atomic integrity of the premises? Or: 1001111011001.

And then they were on their feet, bodies turning with unnerving precision at the hips and shoulders. Nielson let out another plume of smoke and waited, trying to expect the unexpected. But there were no more reprimands forthcoming. No evasive maneuvers.

“Analysis complete,” said the tommy. “Victim died instantly of cranial collapse at 0200 hours. DNA on premises belongs to Mr. Klaus Friedemann. Fibers on victim consistent with victim’s attire. No foreign substances present. Fingerprints on premises belong to Mr. Klaus Friedemann and Agent Ellouise Nielson.”

Anders let out a snort. Nielson shrugged her shoulders.

The tommies moved past them and towards two others stationed in the hallway to hold silent communion with them. Then all four moved away.

“Wait!” Nielson called after them. They stopped and spun. “What’s the murder weapon?”

The tommy angled its head, calling up information and looking too much like a confused dog trying to parse out the most basic of commands. It sent a shiver up Nielson’s spine.

“Metallic, cylindrical. At least eight inches long with a circumference of four inches.”

And then they turned again and disappeared from the hallway.

“Gives me the creeps,” Nielson said.

“Forget it,” Anders responded. “They’re just walking dashboards. It’s a fad.”

Nielson raised an eyebrow. Right. Like bell-bottoms or focus-visors. A fad.

“So what,” Nielson said, looking around the room. “Friedemann opens the door and wham, just like that?”

“No sign of forced entry,” Anders said. “Victim knows the perpetrator. He knocks on the door, vic lets him in, strikes him in the center of the forehead.” He pointed to a spray of blood just above the window dressing. “One spray, one blow. Vic goes down.”

“So what are we thinking? Baseball bat?”

Anders moved to the body and hunkered down, watching his feet to avoid the black pool.

“I don’t know. It seems a little thin for a baseball bat?”

“I don’t like the placement either,” Nielson responded. “Perp would have had to raise the bat over his head like this. Who swings a bat like that? It seems wrong. Plus Friedemann would have seen it coming. Look at his eyes—he’s not even the least bit surprised.”

They stood there and looked down at him.

“All right, so it’s not a baseball bat. But it’s probably someone he knew. Why else open the door at two in the morning?”

“Got me,” Nielson said, moving around the sofa and into the kitchen. But something in here is going to give us the answer.

On the counter sat a mug, half-full. Nielson raised it to her nose, expecting the sharp sting of alcohol and smelling nothing instead. She put the cup down and dropped the butt of her cigarette in. She opened all of the cabinets and the drawers, pushing things around unceremoniously. The fridge was full of condiments and things wrapped in aluminum foil. Nielson let the door fall shut and pushed into the bedroom.

“Got a lot of suspicious literature out here,” Anders called from the living room. “None of it’s in English.”

“German,” Nielson called. “They’re just books.”

The bedroom was a mess. Blankets tangled and comforter on the floor. Crumpled clothes tossed everywhere.

Fat, ugly, and you’re a slob.

Nielson’s eyes caught the glimmer of the analog watchface on the small bookshelf. Beside it were Friedemann’s wallet and keys. So it wasn’t a robbery.

She moved deeper into the room and turned to the South wall.

Above the bookshelf was one of the most horrible paintings Nielson had ever seen in her twenty years on the force, and she’d seen a lot. Some of the higher-ups would have artwork everywhere. Massive murals forty feet long. Sculptures of clay and stone and plastic. One guy on the Upper West had this tangled mass of metal hanging from the ceiling, like a steel factory had vomited onto the roof and they just decided to leave it like that. Ugly as shit.

But this thing had a gruesome quality to it. Varying shades of black and vaguely humanesque forms all huddled together. And the misshapen body of a woman, pale and naked and streaked with red, floating in the air above them.

“Hank, get in here,” Nielson called. “What do you make of this?”

He took up position next to Nielson.

“What, this piece of shit? Modern art, I guess. What about it?”

But Nielson couldn’t say. She just knew she didn’t like it.

“Nothing. You got anything?”

“Jack shit, my friend.”

“Let’s get back then.”

They turned off the mag-lamps and exited as two tommies arrived from the elevator, pushing a stretcher.

Morgue tommies, Nielson thought, giving them the eye. But it could have been the same tech tommies from before, or the guard tommies in the hallway, or any number she’d seen or worked with in the past eight months. How could you tell, really?

Nielson caught forty minutes in the locker room before something imaginary startled her awake. She looked at her watch, pushed herself to a sitting position on the tiny cot. The smell of disinfectant and rust hung rich in the air. She stretched her back and heard too many joints popping.

Anders appeared at the door as Nielson pulled her jacket back on. Cup of coffee in hand and a thin plastic straw between his lips.

“Is this an angel I see before me?”

“We’re out of milk, actually,” Anders said, handing her the cup. Nielson shrugged.

They moved through Dispatch and into the hallway, passing overhead fluorescents and shiny chrome carapaces. A tommy locked eyes with Nielson as they walked, its head swiveling, sending a fresh spike of pain into Nielson’s eyeballs as light bounced off of its lenses. She quaffed the coffee and thought about the bottle of aspirin in her desk drawer. Followed Anders to their desks in the corner of Investigations and watched as he punched in his passcode. The dashboard lit up with Friedemann’s picture, pre-cranium-crushing. He was still just as ugly.

“German expat,” Anders began, “married into the country six years ago. His third wife, and not his last.”

Images of the five ex-Friedemann’s appeared on the dash.

“So he likes his women,” Nielson said.

“Yea. And then he doesn’t. None of the marriages lasts more than two years. And that painting on the wall in the bedroom?”

Anders swiped through a series of photos, lingering only a second on each before relegating them back to the terminal’s memory banks. Each image was as ghastly as the one in Friedemann’s apartment. Dark, haunting. Pools of color and the occasional pale, young woman.

“Don’t tell me,” Nielson said. “He’s the artist.”

In response, Anders punched up a press release on the vic, decked out in his black-tie best and scowling beside a radiant woman in an evening gown. One of his works was mounted on the wall behind them. Tuxedos and high heels held champagne glasses everywhere. They nibbled triangular bits of toast topped with what must be caviar.

“Decadent,” she said.

“This is last year’s show at the MOMA.”

“And the girl?”

“Wife number five.”

“She an ex now?”

“You guessed it. She was the last one in the States before the marriage went belly-up.”

Nielson blew a heavy breath out of pursed lips and reached for the desk drawer. Her fist closed around the bottle of aspirin and she gave it a brief, hopeful shake. She was not disappointed.

“So we skip the wife on this one.”

“Agreed. But we’ve got others,” Anders said, clearing the board. He pushed a heavy sleeve up his arm to reveal a battered Casio. “Workday’s starting, and Friedemann’s got his art studio just across town. Maybe one of his colleagues knows who would want him dead.”

Nielson followed slowly, chewing four pills. Relishing the crunch and the bitter sting.

The studio on West 27th offered very little in the way of evidence. Friedemann’s assistant remained composed, despite the shock they could read on her face. The canvases hung everywhere, all showing the same trademark style. Gruesome scenes of frailty and destruction. As to who might want the artist dead, very little could be determined.

It was half past nine when they sat down at the greasy spoon on the corner of Eighth Ave and West Twenty. They thumbed through the menus and sipped at steaming coffee.

“So you don’t like the assistant,” Anders said.

“I’m not seeing motive, Hank. Art prices rise with Friedemann dead, but he’s worth more if he continues to paint.” She pushed the menu away and waved the waitress back over. “I’m having the salad.”

“I know,” the waitress responded. “No cheese.”

“Thank you, Dawn. My partner’s going to have something horrible that will kill him dead before he finishes his coffee.”

She gave Nielson a look.

“Just give me the usual,” Anders said. She took the menus and disappeared.

“The usual? It’s nine in the morning, Hank.”

“You and I both know it’s not nine in the morning.” He sipped his coffee. “When was the last time you had a full night’s sleep? Before the Gillenson twins, am I right?”

Ellouise Nielson winced only slightly. It was only a week ago that they’d put Harmon Dowel away for stringing the Gillenson boys up in a chestnut tree like they were marionettes. And while it hadn’t been hard to find him—really, he’d wanted to be found—there wasn’t much sleep to be had with those images in your head.

“Which is not to say the gig’s exactly good for your nerves to begin with.”

Nielson snorted agreement or amusement or both. She didn’t bother to mention that she wouldn’t have been sleeping anyway. That she hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep since Markus had left last August, almost fourteen months ago.

“Nerves only get in the way,” she said instead. “Nerves don’t get you twenty years on the force. What they get you is a gut full of ulcers or a bullet in your head.”

“You really are an incurable optimist,” Anders told her.

“Maybe I’m just a realist,” she said. But reality was nothing but nerves. She ate the salad because nothing else would sit well anymore. Coffee wasn’t helping, her doctor told her. Nor might alcohol, he said more cautiously, as if in question. Nielson’s sponsor knew better and didn’t mince words.

“Well, Ms. Realist,” Anders responded, “let’s start talking reality. How do we kill Herr Friedemann?”

“You mean without being in the apartment?”

Anders raised an eyebrow.

“I’m not saying it makes sense. Someone clearly killed the guy. Someone was in that apartment and swung a bat at his head. But the place is clean as a whistle. No DNA, right? No fingerprints? How do you go crushing someone’s skull to pieces without leaving something behind? A loose eyelash, a fleck of dandruff. Spittle, a drop of sweat. Something.

Anders set his mobile dash on the table and pulled up the M.E.’s report.

“Consistent with the initial sweep,” he said. “Nothing but Friedemann.”

“When was the last time we had a clean crime scene like that?”

“Since the tommies started sweeping?” Anders asked.

Nielson nodded.

“Shit, girl. Never.”


Anders closed the medical report and slid his mobile aside.

“So what?” he asked. “We got one smooth little bastard pulled this off?”

“Smooth nothing,” Nielson responded. “What we got is a ninja. A ghost.”

Anders snorted. “I’ll take my chances,” he said. “We’ve caught our share.”

But he wasn’t liking his chances when the second crime scene came up completely spotless. Nielson stood in the doorway with a scowl on her face. Anders stepped gingerly around the room, avoiding stuffed toys and wooden blocks. Aside from the brightly colored posters and tiny plastic chairs, the scene looked identical to Friedemann’s apartment.

Lisa Burrington lay flat on her back with her limbs splayed out radially, the impact right in the center of her forehead. Blood was already beginning to congeal in a rich circle around her head and shoulders. It sank into the carpet, obscuring colorful images of talking trains and smiling rainbows.

“Let me guess,” Anders said. “No foreign DNA.”

One of six tommies stopped in its work and swiveled its head 180 degrees.

“There are forty-eight DNA samples in this room, not including Ms. Lisa Burrington’s or the two agents’. The majority of specimens show a life span of approximately four and a half years. Several DNA specimens contain half of the same chromosomes, indicating that they are related.”

“Naturally,” Nielson said. “We’re talking about a classroom full of toddlers and their parents. Easy.”

“It’s a goddamn tragedy,” Nielson said. She could tell Burrington was beautiful despite the skull trauma. Her eyes were vacant, displaying nothing. After twenty-six years with a shield, Nielson could always see fear or surprise on the faces of the deceased. Usually, it was a blend of the two. The young schoolteacher displayed neither. She’d been thinking about something else, no doubt. Preparing for the early-morning pre-K lesson, wondering what she would have for dinner later. Thinking about her fiancé, maybe.

It was nice to imagine, anyway.

“I’ll give you three guesses on the murder weapon,” Anders said, breaking her from her reverie.

The nearest tommy turned its head and stated: “Metallic, cylindrical. At least eight inches long with a circumference of four inches.”

“Color me surprised,” Nielson said. “So what’s the connection?”

“Friedemann and her? Cross-reference shows nothing. My guess is they didn’t even know each other.”

“Probably true,” Nielson said. “But this ain’t random. It’s too clean. It’s calculated.”

“Ah yes, clean indeed. Ninjas, right?”

Nielson frowned. “I was thinking something cleaner,” she said. She stared at the tommies as they worked on the body. Collecting careful specimens, taking photographs with silent, unseen cameras hidden away in the circuitry of their too-mammalian craniums. Photos of the girl, of the carpet. Of the desks and windows and colorful artwork. And perhaps the door and hallway as they exited, the front steps of the building, the sidewalk strewn with trash and mottled by years of discarded chewing gum. And the police cruiser out front, the squad van which carried the tommies back to the station. In fact, who was to say they weren’t photographing everything, everywhere, always?

» Part Two

M. Ian Bell is a teacher and tutor living in New Jersey. He mentors adolescents during the school year and co-directs a boys' camp in New Hampshire in the summer. His work can also be found in Apex and Shimmer Magazines, and you can follow him on Twitter at @m_ianbell.