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Saturday, December 8, 2018

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.

“Tommies.”

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.

“Well?”

“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.

“Right?”

“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:
NIELSON.
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:
Lamprey.
A brief pause. Soon the letters began scrolling across the window.
IT’S LATE.
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.
Cute.
It’s not about you. It’s about the tommies. What do you know?
AUTOS? THIS AND THAT.
The digital readout blinked green.
What’s with the countdown?
TRACE TIMER.
I’m not tracing you, Lamprey.
I’VE HEARD THAT ONE. YOU SAID YOU HAD QUESTIONS. ASK.
Nielson brushed her hands through her hair and considered.
Are they dangerous?
ALL TECHNOLOGY IS DANGEROUS IN THE RIGHT HANDS.
Don’t you mean the wrong hands?
RIGHT. WRONG. WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
I’m asking the questions. Stay focused.
GO ON. ASK.
Can they be used as a weapon?
NOT IN THEIR PROGRAMMING.
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.
AUTO IS COMPUTER. DO COMPUTERS KILL MEN? NO. COMPUTERS DO NOT KNOW “KILL” OR “MAN.” COMPUTER KNOWS ZEROES AND ONES. YES AND NO. THIS OR THAT.
What the hell is that supposed to mean?
KILLERS HAVE MOTIVE. MOTIVE REQUIRES DUALITY. YOU HAVE WHAT I WANT; I TAKE IT. YOU THREATEN ME; I REMOVE THE THREAT. THIS REQUIRES “I” AND “YOU” UNDERSTANDING. AUTOS ARE COMPUTERS. COMPUTERS DO NOT KNOW “SELF.”
So you’re saying that an Auto couldn’t make up its own mind to kill someone?
CORRECT. NO “OWN MIND.” NO SENSE OF SELF.
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?
YES. AUTOS WORK AUTONOMOUSLY. THEY MAKE CHOICES ABOUT ACTIONS TO TAKE.
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?
NOT THINKING. CHOOSING. BETWEEN COLUMN A AND COLUMN B. TELL AUTO TO SCAN CRIME SCENE. AUTO DECIDES WHETHER TO SCAN FOR BLOOD OR HAIR. FINDS BLOOD, ANALYZES. NO BLOOD, LOOKS FOR SOMETHING ELSE. YOU COME TO THE FORK IN THE ROAD. GO LEFT OR RIGHT. SOON YOU REACH ANOTHER FORK.
That doesn’t sound like much of a choice.
The countdown passed the two-minute mark.
STRICTLY SPEAKING, NO. NOT A CHOICE.
How does the tommy decide what’s in column A or column B?
BASIC PROGRAMMING PROTOCOLS.
And who programs the protocols?
PROGRAMMERS.
Nielson snorted. Typed:
Could you put murder in column A?
There was a pause.
MAYBE IN COLUMN B.
Nielson frowned.
Cute. So a tommy could kill a man.
THEORETICALLY, YES. BUT THE PROGRAM WOULD BE DIFFICULT.
Why?
BECAUSE THE PROGRAM IS NOT JUST MURDER. IT IS ALSO COVER-UP.
Nielson’s frown deepened.
Why do you say that?
BECAUSE, DETECTIVE NIELSON. SOUNDS LIKE YOU HAVEN’T CAUGHT YOUR KILLER YET. HAVE YOU EVEN GOT A SUSPECT?
There was no response to that. Nielson sat rigid. The countdown ticked off the seconds.
TIME TO GO. 
YOU WERE GOING TO ASK ME SOMETHING ELSE?
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.
ACCURATE.
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.
THERE IS ONE OTHER. A NEW MODEL-B.
Model what? Where is it? she typed frantically.
FOLLOW THE MONEY. 
GREENWICH AND WALL.
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.

1 comment:

Guy said...

Fascinating. Sort of "I, ROBOT" meets "Criminal Minds".

I am enjoying it!