Friday, August 21, 2015

Part I: "Those Punk Kids"

        “Alright kid, it’s a simple grab and go.  You get in, get the access code to the Fabian family fortune, and get out.  Got it?” the gruff voice bellowed into Alex’s mind.
“How many times have we done this Fife?” Alex replied sarcastically.  “You don’t need to worry about me getting it, bro.  I got it.  I was born with it,” Alex heard himself think…literally.  HIs voice echoed off the walls of his mind.  With each word the walls pulsed, flashing a white light.  It was what Alex thought a heart might look like when it beat.  Except for the white light, that is.
“Don’t get cocky Masters,” Captain Fife snapped.  “I know some of the higher-ups think you’re God’s gift when it comes to mind thievery.  But to me, you’ll always be a worthless, fifteen year old punk.”
“Figures,” Alex said under his mind breath as he raked a neural hand through his spiky, flowing neural red hair.  “Show me the target.”
A huge head was suddenly projected into Alex’s mind.  His neural self stood there, looking up at the floating, revolving head of a kid who couldn’t have been much older than him.  The looming face looked worn and tired, with bags under listless green eyes and stringy blonde hair that looked like it hadn’t been washed in a long time.
“This is Michael Fabian.  His father, William, disappeared in a helicopter headed for Beliz yesterday.  Big into processors, the Fabians.  That’s how they made their money.  Before Fabian senior disappeared, he entrusted the access code to the family’s wealth in the safest place he could think of - his son’s brain.  You see, Michael is a very special boy.  Smart.  Probably smarter than you, Masters,” the voice of Fife scoffed.
“I don’t care how smart he is Fife,” Alex shot back.  “I don’t need brains to do this job.  I just need to understand him.”
“Please, all you teens are the same: big balls of angst.  Of course you’ll understand him,” Fife sneered.
“We’re not all the same,” Alex retorted.
“Yes you are.  News flash Masters, none of you are special.  But some of you are rich.  And that’s why we need you,” Fife said.  “Are you ready?”
“I told you before, old man…I was born ready,” Alex replied as the lights in the walls of his mind flashed faster with his rising excitement at the start of a new mission.
The large, looming head of Michael Fabian turned to face the neural projection of Alex Masters.  The mouth of the giant head opened wide, and its tongue extended out.  It should have stopped just past the bottom the lip, but it kept going: getting longer and longer until the tip reached the white space level with Alex’s neural feet.  The digital tongue sectioned off then, forming a staircase up into the open mouth of Michael Fabian.
“Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘open wide’ am I right?” Alex heard the voice of Fife chuckle.
Masters walked up the staircase slowly and methodically: taking in every detail of the huge face of the boy he was about to infiltrate.  He was leaving his own mind now.  In the waking world, he was strapped to a gurney with a thin cord plugged into his ear.  The other end was inside Michael Fabian, allowing Alex to travel between both brains.  Overseeing all of this was Captain Fife, who communicated with Alex by speaking through a microphone that fed into a receiver in Alex’s other ear.  That way, Michael Fabian couldn’t hear anything Fife had to say.
Masters reached the top of the tongue stair case and turned back to face the white, pulsing walls of his mind.
“Hey Fife,” Alex called out.
“What?” The captain replied.
        “Your jokes are lame,” Alex said with a swish of his hair as he turned into the open mouth of Michael Fabian and took a running leap down the digital head’s digital throat.  He fell for less then a second before he was stopped: as though by some invisible hand that caught him.  Then, Alex Masters started flying upwards.  There was no wind pushing him; there was no hand pulling him.  He just launched straight up: flying high, deep into the mind of Michael Fabian.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Nobody's First Choice
            “I’m close to solving it!”
            The four living members of the Nathanson family did not even acknowledge the detective’s pronouncement.  They had heard these same words countless times over the last two days; for they had been forced to sit in the drawing room of their mansion overlooking a bleak English countryside enduring a barrage of questions from the man whose job it was to give them answers. 
            Not only that, but they had to do it while enduring the putrid smell of death, which had become so potent they were beginning to taste it.  At least four of the many windows had been opened to combat this, but to no avail.
            Helen, the matriarch, sat motionless in the same ornate arm chair she placed herself in at the start of this ridiculous, two day investigation.  Mary, Helen’s eldest daughter, sat across from her mother fighting off sleep.  Being the most squeamish of the bunch, she had elected to turn her chair away from the crime scene.  Mathias, eldest son of the Nathanson clan, kept stoking a small fire in an effort to combat the cold February air.  Little Cordelia, youngest of the Nathanson brood, was where she had been since the beginning of the investigation: standing over a dead body, looking down on it sadly.
            And Geoffrey Nathanson did as one would expect, lay motionless on the floor.  He was dead, after all.
            Abel Price, detective on the scene, stood up from his lengthy examination of the body.
            “How wonderful,” a beleaguered Helen Nathanson said through pursed lips.  “A detective is close to solving a murder.  Mary, be a dear and phone the paper would you?”
            “I only have a few more clarifying questions.  For safety!” Price exclaimed with a smile, either ignoring, or ignorant, of Helen Nathanson’s sarcasm.
            A frustrated, breathy sigh escaped the lips of everyone else in the room, save Cordelia.
            “Mr. Nathanson?” Abel Price called.
            “Yes?” Mathias replied in exasperation.
            “You are a hunter, are you not?”
            “I already told you that I am,” Mathias said.
            “Are you also a fisherman?” Price continued.
            “I beg your pardon?” Mathias asked angrily.
            “Do you fish, Mr. Nathanson?  It’s a simple question,” the detective asked in a less than patient manner himself.
            “Not often, but every now and then,” Mathias replied.
            “Have you ever gutted a fish?” Abel asked.
            “Once or twice,” a visibly angry Mathias replied. 
            “Very good.  What is your hunting weapon of choice?” Price pressed on.
            “There is no such thing as a hunting weapon of choice,” Mathias raced to answer in a tone on the verge of fury.  “In the wild, a hunter’s aim is to kill by any means necessary.  I use whatever weapon is available.”
            “What do you rely on most then?” the detective asked quickly.
            “My rifle and long knife,” Mathias said.
            “Excellent.  Thank you Mr. Nathanson.  Ms. Mary?” Price moved on.
            “What?  Yes?  Was I called?” Mary answered, clearly being roused out of a shallow nap.  She tipped her head out from the side of her chair.
            “You were indeed.  You hired me to investigate this case.  Can you tell me why?” Abel asked.
            “Have I not already?” an exhausted Mary whimpered.  “I was told by my father’s lawyer that, because daddy’s death seemed unnatural, the family needed to hire a detective to investigate.  You were on a list of three approved names that my father put in his will.”
            “Your father’s lawyer?” Price held a hand to his chin.  “But don’t you have a family lawyer for this sort of thing?”
            “Yes, but the family lawyer is not the executor of daddy’s will.  Only his business lawyer can dispense his fortune,” Mary blurted out.
            Helen Nathanson’s lips pursed even more than they already had been.  Abel Price turned to her.
            “My husband was a businessman Mr. Price,” Helen said, as though answering the question in the detective’s mind.  “Having different lawyers attend to different affairs is, sadly, a necessary evil.”
            “But not, I would think, when it comes to providing for one’s beloved family after their death,” Abel Price smiled at the old woman.  “Thank you Mary.”
            “Mr. Price!” Helen Nathanson’s voice was firm.  “I have had enough of this.  Geoffrey was the father of my children, and we all loved him.  We want to know how he died; the job for which you were hired.  Yet all you have done is spectacularly bungle this entire investigation.  It is true that BOTH the family attorney and my husband’s private lawyer need an assessment from you as to the cause and culprit of his death.  That is simply the politics of being a wealthy family.  But more than anything, my little Cordelia needs closure.  Now if you please!”
            “Forgive me madam,” Abel Price said with a bow.  “I am very close to being able to give little Cordelia the answer she is seeking.  I have only a few more questions…”
            “You keep saying that!” Mathias shouted from his post at the fireplace.  “How long does it usually take you to crack a case?”
            “As long as it takes, sir,” Price answered jovially.  “I never give up on solving a mystery.  Even if it takes years.”
            “Well, I don’t have years Mr. Price,” Helen snapped.  “As it is, in this frigid room, I feel my age upon me as I never have before.  Continue your questions so we may end this farce.”
            “Very well,” Abel said.  “Mrs. Nathanson, you are a doctor correct?”
            “Yes,” Helen replied in rote.
            “But you have retired?” Abel continued.
            “Yes,” Helen said.
            “Is it safe to assume then, that you have an intimate knowledge of the human body?”
            “I would rather not discuss my intimate knowledge in front of my children, if you don’t mind,” Helen answered with a glare.
            “But can I assume that, being a doctor, you know about different medicines?  Drugs?  Poisons?”
            “How dare you?!” Helen raged with a tempered fury.
            “You are over fond of accusing the innocent of my father’s murder,” Mathias roared as he stepped in between his mother and Abel Price.  “But I will suffer no more insults to my family.  Make your assessment and get out of our house!”
            “I am just asking questions,” Price said, standing his ground.  “I meant no insults.”
            “Your questions are insulting,” Mathias said.
            Price quickly backed away from the furious heir apparent who seemed ready to cock his fist at any moment. 
            “Forgive my probing,” the detective began.  “But this is my method.  I realize other detectives, especially Wallace Bentham, have a reputation for their brilliance…and their showmanship.  They can simply stand at a crime scene and the answers they need just come to them.  I am not one of those detectives.”
            “You have made that perfectly clear,” Helen agreed.
            “I have to work for my answers.  So I choose to focus on where those answers can give me the most informationL: namely, on the stories that lead to a crime.  For instance, there are four or five scenarios that could have led to the murder of Geoffrey Nathanson.  Granted, each of those tales will have a wealth of details I will never know.  But the truth does not require all the details.  So, armed with these pre-death schemes that lead a living man to being poisoned and stabbed in his own home, I begin asking questions.  Eventually, one answer discounts the first story.  Another answer discounts the fourth.  Until finally, I am left with the most likely scenario that led to the crime,” Price finished.
            “That is the most inconclusive method of investigation I have ever heard,” Mathias said.  “Why my father named you with the likes of Wallace Bentham or Professor Podrick, I will never know.”
            “What I do may seem inconclusive, but asking questions leads to answers Mr. Nathanson,” Abel Price explained.  “And mystery breeds many questions.  Answer enough of them, and eventually you get the truth.”
            “Are you quite finished then, Mr. Price?” Helen asked.
            “Forgive me madam, but I still have one last question,” Price said as he held a hand out in supplication.
            “Oh my,” Helen exhaled in weariness.  “Very well.  Ask away.”
            “Actually, it is for your youngest daughter,” Abel said.
            Mathias vaulted forward, grabbing the lapels of Abel Price’s waistcoat and shoving him back toward the drawing room entrance.  “You are a fraud and a coward, and now…”
            “MATHIAS!” the voice of Helen Nathanson rang like a gong. 
            The only son of the Nathanson clan stopped.  Through gritted teeth, he let his hands fall from Abel’s lapels.  Then, after a moment of seething, he turned to one of the open windows.
            “Mr. Price!” Helen Nathanson said fiercely.  “You would do well to remember that you are speaking to a seven year old girl who just lost her father.  You will not ask my daughter anything crass, cruel, or worst of all, meandering.  Get to your point and get to it quickly.  Do you understand?”
            “Yes madam.  It’s a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question.  And I promise, it takes Cordelia’s emotional state very much into account,” Abel said.
            Helen stared hard at the detective for a few moments.  She said nothing, but her eyes scanned over him as though she were trying to read the truth from his face.  “Very well,” she finally conceded.
            Price walked slowly to the body of the dead Geoffrey Nathanson.  The corpse lay face down and was fully clothed.  Aside from the awful stench of decay, there was nothing gruesome or grizzly about the scene.
            Cordelia had, for the entire forty eight hours, stayed beside the body of her father.  Mostly, she stood over it staring down.  When she was tired, she knelt next to it.  There were a few times she fell asleep, at which point she would lie beside it.  But now, the little girl was on her feet.
            Abel Price knelt on one knee beside her.  Cordelia did not move.
            “Cordelia, I am very sorry about your father,” Price said to her in the gentlest voice he could produce.
            Tears began to form in her eyes.  She had cried a few times over the last two days, but always small and to herself.  It was just as well.  In the wake of arguing adults, no one paid much attention to a little girl’s tears.
            “I have a question I’d like to ask,” Abel said.  “But would you mind looking at me first?”
            The young girl turned then.  Her face was tear stained and her lips quivered; but her eyes were focused and intent on the detective.
            “Thank you,” Abel said as he put a hand gently on her shoulder.  “Cordelia, did you love your father?”
            She did not look to any of the adults for approval.  She kept unblinking eye contact with Abel Price as she answered simply.  Surely.  “Yes.”
            Then the little girl turned back to her fallen father.  Abel Price stood up.
            “Well?” Helen asked from her chair.  “Are you satisfied Mr. Price?”
            “Yes madam,” the detective answered.
            “Did that obvious question lead you to the truth of who killed my husband?” Helen probed.
            “Yes madam.”
            All eyes turned to him.  He did not return any of their stares.  Instead, he turned his head slightly and looked down at the little girl looking up at him: the little girl who wanted answers more than anyone in that room: and he gave her a small, sad smile.
            “Not a one of you killed Geoffrey Nathanson,” Price said as evenly as he could.  “All of you did.”
            There were no gasps: no pleas of reason.  Just three pairs of eyes glaring at Abel Price, and each glare carried with it the demand for proof.
            “After inspecting the body I found three things that piqued my curiosity.  First, Geoffrey is currently wearing a pristine white shirt.  There are no stains on it.  Second, underneath that white shirt are two stab wounds, meaning the assailant changed Geoffrey out of his blood soaked shirt and carried the body down here to be discovered in the drawing room.  Third, around the two stab wounds are traces of gelatinous, congealed blood,” the detective listed.
            The remaining members of the Nathanson family were all leaning forward in anticipation of what he would say next.
            “The idea of a random killer taking the time to change the shirt of a man he did not know is, of course, preposterous.  The notion of a strange killer moving the body to be discovered in a different room of the house is even more ludicrous.  It leads to the idea that the assailant, then, must have been someone Geoffrey knew.  Someone the old man trusted. Someone strong with a good back.  Someone, quite likely, who had access to long hunting knives and lived with the old tycoon in his own home,” Price said as he leveled a gaze at Mathias Nathanson.
            Mathias said nothing, but he stood near the window gripping the curtain with a clenched fist.  His teeth were gritted again, and his eyes were filled with rage.
            “However, it was not the stabbing that killed Geoffrey Nathanson,” Price continued.  “The syrupy, congealed blood around the wounds is abnormal.  The only way for blood to coagulate that way is with the aid of a foreign substance introduced into the bloodstream.  A medicine, for example, or a poison,” Price finished looking directly at Helen Nathanson.
            “The venom from the Russell’s viper causes such coagulation,” Price went on.  “And it acts quickly once it’s in the blood stream.  So mother and son, it seems, had the same idea to kill Geoffrey Nathanson within, oh, a half an hour of each other.  But still the big question remains: why?” 
            “Mother?” Mathias called out.
            “Easy Mathias,” Helen replied with a small smile.  “Let the fool spin his yarn.  He has no hard evidence of anything.”
            “Perhaps not,” Price smiled back at his hostess.  “But the soft evidence is very telling.  Mary kindly let slip that the family fortune is not already assigned to you.  Which leads me to guess; well, ‘guessing’ implies I am flying blind, so maybe theorize is more the appropriate word; that Mr. Geoffrey Nathanson’s lawyer requires my assessment before he will dispense your husband’s fortune.  On top of that, I’ll theorize, that if any of you are found to be his killer, well, I don’t suppose there are instructions to reward you with an inheritance.”
            “That is not true,” Mary said shakily.
            “Oh no?  Ms. Nathanson, you were the only player whose role I could not figure out in this whole affair.  Then I remembered; you hired me.  I do not know if you approached the other two detectives listed in your father’s will.  But I am sure that you looked into all three of us.  And given my reputation for being nobody’s first choice…” Abel Price simply stopped talking and smiled.
            Mary whimpered in her chair.  Tears were falling fast from her eyes.  She quickly turned away to look at the fire.  Abel Price stood above her for a moment and said nothing.  Her whimpers echoed in the silent room.  None of the other Nathanson’s made so much as a move.
            Abel Price finally stepped away from Mary and stood in front of Helen.
            “I will deliver my assessment to Mr. Nathanson’s private attorney and to the police.  They can carry out a more in-depth forensic investigation to secure the hard evidence,” the detective said.
            He turned then and walked purposefully to the drawing room entrance.  He took his coat from the hanger and turned back to the family as he put it on.
            “Of course, I am certain you will all try to cover up your crimes.  It’s very likely you’ll succeed too, given your resources and my reputation.  But I am a fast runner, so you’d better hurry.  Good luck,” he finished as he turned to the door and put his hand on the knob.
            “Mr. Price?”
            Abel turned back.  Cordelia was walking toward him.
            “You said we all killed my father,” the little girl said.  “What did I do?”
            Abel knelt down to look her directly in the eye.  “You loved him, my dear.  If I can guess: and that’s all I can do: you are named as the sole beneficiary of your father’s will.  He wanted to leave everything to you because he knew what your mother, sister and brother were planning.”
            “Really?” she asked him earnestly.
            “I can’t know for sure,” Abel said.  “It’s just a guess, but I think it’s a very good one.”
            Cordelia nodded that she understood.  Her face belied no anger or confusion.  She simply turned and walked back toward her family.
            Price suddenly had an image flash in his mind: a courageous little boar walking defiantly toward a pack of hungry hyenas.  He felt guilty.  In a way, he had just sacrificed this child to the three people who proved they would kill if it meant they could stay wealthy.  But would they hurt a little girl?  Or worse, would they turn her into one of them?
            But then Cordelia Nathanson stopped short.  She was only a few steps from her mother.  Helen Nathanson held out her hands, beckoning the child to come into the fold of the matriarch’s arms. 
            Cordelia did not go.  Instead, the little girl turned to the body of her father and knelt back down beside it.  She put her little hand on the back of the corpse’s head, and then bowed her head as though she were about to pray over the body.  But there was no praying; only crying.  Loud racking sobs filled the room, and grief had finally come for Geoffrey Nathanson.
            Abel Price smiled.  It was not a mirthful or joyous smile.  But it was thankful; hopeful even.  He stood and confidently turned his back on this final, tender image to leave the broken home of the Nathanson family.  He would race as fast as he could to the police station first and deliver his honest assessment.  An assessment, he hoped, that would bring justice to all living members of the Nathanson family.