Richard G. Epstein
THE FINAL CHAPTER
LT. PALUMBO MURDER MYSTERY:
THE MANY HANDS MURDER
C 1996, Chris Agatha, All Rights Reserved
This is the final chapter of Chris Agatha's novel, The Many Hands Murder. Mr. Agatha explained that his novel was more of a meditation upon the killer robot episode than a serious attempt to portray actual events. Consequently, from the very start of the novel, Sally Matthews is portrayed as her husband's murderer, something that has not been suggested even in the most sordid National Squealer articles. As is the case in all Lt. Palumbo mysteries, the interest lies in finding out how the Lieutenant is going to prove his suspicion that the one that the reader knows actually did it actually did it.
Chris Agatha, like the writers of the Wattluck television drama, assumes that the killer robot had the ability to recognize Bart Matthews using the "visual profiling" software that Dr. John Erstwhile brought to the public's attention. We reiterate that Dr. Erstwhile stated emphatically that his software did not have the ability to recognize individuals. Thus, Chris Agatha, as is often the case in his writing, takes liberties with historical truth in order to produce an entertaining murder mystery that is rooted in history but is not historically accurate. I would like to alert the reader to the fact that Chris Agatha's depiction of Silicon Techchronics employees are entirely accurate and factual. It is only when he discusses Sally Matthews, the murder of her husband and her torrid love affair with Hank Alterman that his murder mystery deviates from the truth.
EVERYTHING GETS RESOLVED
AT THE GOTHIC MANSION
---Lt. Palumbo asked us1 to meet him at the Granger Mansion on the north side of Silicon Valley. It was not the sort of place where one would expect a murder mystery to be solved. The building was made of huge granite stones that were green and wet with moss. There were several towers arching skyward. The windows were dusty and a yellowish light peered out from the living quarters on the third floor.
This is where Palumbo asked us to meet him: myself, Randy Samuels, George Cuzzins, Zelda Riddle-Davis, Rita Rankle, Cindy Yardley, John Erstwhile, Sally Matthews, Max Worthington and Ray Johnson. It was rainy, stormy and windy, as is typical in California in late June.
A tremendous clap of thunder exploded across the landscape just as I grasped a huge brass ring that was part of an ornate door knocker. I smelled something fetid and then realized it was a cigar. "They're predicting plenty of clichés tonight."
In the darkness of the archway I could see Palumbo's face faintly illuminated by the glow of his cigar. "The weather bureau, is predicting lots of clichés tonight."
When the butler opened the door I knew what Palumbo had meant by his remark. The butler's face was white as if someone had just powdered flour all over it. A cold chill ran down my spine as I waited for him to say the inevitable words.
"Walk this way", he said, limping into the foyer.
We were led into an enormous living room. A huge fireplace, with its long dead embers and cold, rough stonework, added to the pervasive feeling of coldness in the air. As the various parties arrived, Palumbo had them sit in a circle. I was part of the circle, but I knew that I was not one of the suspects. Randy Samuels was the last of the suspects to arrive. I noticed how nervous he was. He was still facing trial for manslaughter and the strain was showing in his face. Randy exploded in rage in the hallway outside the courtroom after the session in which the entire defense case was shot to pieces by Prosecuting Attorney Jane McMurdock. He threatened Ben Wattluck with bodily harm and had to be constrained. Neither Randy nor his attorney exchanged any words in public since that humiliating debacle.
I looked at Randy Samuels' boyish face. After so many months of covering this case I was still amazed at how young Randy Samuels looked.
Prosecuting Attorney McMurdock and Sergeant Williams of the Silicon Valley police arrived shortly after Randy Samuels. McMurdock and Samuels exchanged an icy stare. When the Sergeant entered the living room he had four hand-cuffs attached to several of the belt loops of his pants. Palumbo yelled at him, "Don't give everything away!"
As we sat around waiting for Palumbo to begin, several people wearing blue trousers and white serving jackets came in and set up a huge glass punch bowl with glass serving cups and a glass ladle. They poured at least five gallons of a reddish liquid into the punch bowl. Palumbo identified the beverage as non-alcoholic fruit punch. As they left, another gentlemen entered from the foyer. Short and stocky, he had a full beard but a bald head. He wore wire rimmed glasses and a stethoscope protruded from his jacket pocket.
Palumbo introduced our latest guest: "This is my personal physician, Dr. Allan Tross. His purpose in being here will be made clear in a few minutes."
Some police officers wheeled in a computer terminal, which they then proceeded to set up in a corner of the room, on the other side of the huge fireplace. Soon everything was set up to Palumbo's satisfaction.
Palumbo was wearing his trademark gray, dirty rain coat and he was smoking his trademark cigar. "Now, you all know who I represent, I hope. I mean this other Lieutenant, the guy on t-v, he has all these big time lawyers and copyrights and I'm not going to mess with those big network guys. I respect intellectual property, so I do not want to be a rip-off." As Palumbo spoke light from the chandelier caught his glass eye.
"I'll tell you, this case, this case, it really had me going for a while," Palumbo said, shaking his head and rubbing his hands.
"I mean until this thing about the AI business came along, I wasn't even involved. It was an accident. Then, we find out that the robot KNEW its victim. That's when the Police Commissioner gets on the phone and he says, 'Palumbo, I want you to work on the killer robot case'".
" 'But, I'm already working on this murder case involving the movie actor', I told him, but he insisted that I drop that and get working on the killer robot." Palumbo drew a short puff from his cigar and then looked off into a darkened corner of the room that didn't hold any particular interest for him as far I could tell.
"And this computer business! What do I know about computers? And I have to interview all of these bright people. Carnegie-Mellon, Stanford, MIT. I never saw so many diplomas on so many walls. And I have to solve this murder!"
Palumbo looked around at his captive audience. Then, suddenly, he shouted, "Bring in the pillows! We forgot the pillows!"
Two officers came in carrying four large pillows and a chair. They placed the chair in our circle and put the pillows in a stack on the seat of the chair. "This represents John Cramer", Palumbo explained. "I thought he should be here, at least in spirit. This pillow business interrupted my train of thought. Oh, yes! Murder!"
"And what a murder! We're not just talking ordinary murder here, but a robot who decapitates - sorry, ladies - its operator! This is gruesome stuff." Palumbo shook his head, but it wasn't clear whether this was in sympathy for the victim or for the "ladies" whose sensibilities he feared he had offended.
"Get to the point, Lieutenant!", Ray Johnson shouted. Johnson blanched as he came to the belated realization that it might be safer to keep a low profile.
"The point is - ", Palumbo spun around like a top, " - you, Mr. Erstwhile! - the point is that you knew and hated Bart Matthews. Isn't that the point?"
John Erstwhile was impassive. "I admit that I knew him, but not well enough to either like him or hate him."
"Well, of course, you knew him! Why else would you devote so much time to developing a computer program that would recognize him? We know and you admitted on international television that you developed the Target class that allowed the robot to recognize Bart Matthews. Listen to me! Now I'm beginning to sound like one of you computer people!"
Erstwhile swallowed and then answered, "I used him as an example. I was asked by Ray Johnson over there to investigate the possibility of developing a robot that would recognize people generally and particular people potentially."
"Particular people potentially," Palumbo repeated quietly, as if playing with the sound of the words. "Is that so, Mr. Johnson?"
"Yes, we thought that this capability could lead, perhaps as early as the CX40, to a safer robot. But it was only peripheral to the main action on the Robbie CX30 project. I was barely aware of what Erstwhile was up to." Johnson slouched in his chair, trying to appear as insignificant as possible.
"But, you knew that there would never be a CX40. Isn't that right, Mr. Johnson?" Palumbo asked.
"Don't believe everything you read in the papers," Johnson replied. "I did not know as much as they say I knew."
Palumbo drew deeply on his cigar, and his face seemed to want to follow the burning tobacco vapors down his bronchial tubes. "No one ever does."
Palumbo turned towards John Erstwhile. Joining his hands in front of him, he gestured in Erstwhile's direction. "But why Bart Matthews? Why use that particular person in your experiment? Why not John Smith or Jane Smith?"
Erstwhile replied hesitantly. "As I told the reporters at the news conference, Bart Matthews meant nothing to me. I was given a photograph of a man and I was asked to create a demo system that would be able to recognize the man in the photo. It is just a matter of chance that Bart Matthews was the man whose photograph I was given. It could have been any of the robot operators."
Palumbo asked Erstwhile whether he knew about Randy Samuels' swinging arm function.
"No, Lieutenant. I knew next to nothing about the robot project. My software would eventually be tied into a robot, but I didn't need to know a lot about the robot in order to do my research", Erstwhile replied.
Palumbo continued on this track. "So, you didn't know about Randy Samuels. Did you know about Cindy Yardley? Did you know about the poor user interface designed by Ms. Riddle-Davis? Did you know about any of these things?"
Erstwhile shook his head. "No, Lieutenant. Silicon Techchronics is a big company."
Palumbo asked one of the men in the white service jackets to push the table bearing the fruit punch closer to the center of the living room where the suspects and I were seated.
"This is fruit punch. I think I already told you that. It's really good", Palumbo explained.
Palumbo stirred the punch with the glass ladle and poured some into a cup. He took a sip and smirked to indicate that it was really excellent.
Palumbo reached into his trench coat pocket. "I have so much stuff in here. My wife, she always says I should buy a brief case. She also told me to get a new raincoat, and I told her, 'Whoa! One thing at a time!' Ah! Here it is!"
Palumbo took out a clear glass vial that contained white tablets. "Now these tablets are a deadly poison. If you take a lethal dose, your heart will go into cardiac arrest and it will happen so fast that there's not much that can be done for you except to arrange for a nice funeral. That's why Dr. Tross is here. Not to arrange a funeral, but to monitor how much of this stuff I take so I don't take a lethal dose by accident. You see, right up to the point where you take a lethal dose, it's pretty harmless."
Palumbo opened the vial and took a white tablet between his thumb and his index finger. "Now this is Randy Samuels and his swing_arm function." Palumbo dropped the pill into the punch and stirred it with the ladle. "We don't have a lethal concentration yet, do we doc?"
Dr. Tross was holding a clipboard and a calculator, apparently trying to keep track of the concentration of poison in the punch. "You're okay, Lieutenant. Not even close to a danger level."
Palumbo dropped another poison tablet into the punch. "This is Erstwhile and his Bart Matthews recognition software which he accidentally introduced into the robot software. A bit of a version management problem, is that it, Mr. Erstwhile?"
John Erstwhile did not buy Palumbo's explanation. "Palumbo, what happened was that I gave Rita Rankle all of the software that I wrote that had any relevance whatsoever to the robot project. That included the Person class and the Target class and lots of other stuff."
Palumbo took the ladle and poured some punch into a cup. He looked at the light that was reflected in the crystal. He then turned to Dr. Tross. "Are you sure you took everything into consideration? The temperature of the room and the humidity? If it's too warm or too dry, the punch will evaporate more quickly. The draft running through the room? That can cause more evaporation."
Dr. Tross was quick to respond. "We're okay."
Palumbo drank the punch and then seemed to stare at people through the crystal cup which he held in front of his face at arm's length. "You see, each of you contributed a little poison to the killer robot. Randy contributed his swing_arm function, John contributed his Target class that allowed the robot to recognize Bart Matthews. What did you contribute Ms. Riddle-Davis?"
Zelda Riddle-Davis was a demure woman who had not yet fully recovered from the shock of having her identity as a "lousy programmer" revealed on national radio. She had long, shiny, straight black hair that seemed to flow onto her shoulders. Her skin was unusually pale. She was sitting in a chair that seemed to be in the process of swallowing her. Her face was incredibly peaceful, considering the situation. She looked like the portrait of a saint, if the Adams family could have saints.
Zelda spoke with remarkable serenity. "I didn't contribute any poison, if that's what you mean."
Palumbo leaned forward, revealing a slightly rounded back, and he poked his cigar in Zelda's direction in order to punctuate his skepticism. "But you, Ms. Riddle-Davis, you designed the user interface. That was almost entirely your work, and it was a very poor user interface." Palumbo turned around and dropped another tablet into the punch.
Zelda politely disagreed with Palumbo's assessment. If one looked carefully, her saintly demeanor seemed almost sinister.
Palumbo stirred the punch, glanced at Dr. Tross, who nodded his consent absent-mindedly, as he jotted something down on a pad held in the grip of his clipboard. Palumbo drank the punch. He then sang the word "no" so that it was stretched out to four or five syllables. "No-o-o-o, we don't have a lethal mixture yet."
Randy Samuels was in his usual state: tottering on the brink between two emotions. Palumbo asked him whether he knew John Erstwhile or Bart Matthews. Samuels replied with a nervous voice: "No, I never met John Erstwhile, except for passing in the hall at work. This is the first time I've actually seen him for more than a few seconds. I did not know Bart Matthews."
"We don't have a lethal mixture as yet", Palumbo said, stirring the punch. "John Cramer! What did you contribute to the lethal brew?" Palumbo took another poison tablet from the vial. "You threw the entire project off course with your incompetent management. You tried to profit by promoting an untested CASE tool. You tried to move your company into object-oriented programming more quickly than was appropriate. You were an out of control alcoholic. This one's for you."
Palumbo clanged his cup against the edge of the punch bowl, as if in salute to the late John Cramer. He then dropped the tablet into the punch and took another cup of punch. "Doc, I think my heart just skipped a beat!"
Dr. Tross shook his head. "We're not even close to a lethal concentration, Lieutenant."
Palumbo looked a little worried and then he looked at his cigar. "Could there be any kind of interaction, I mean between the cigar and the poison? I had coffee earlier. Did we take everything into consideration?"
A worried look flashed across Dr. Tross' face. "I think we are okay. A cigar by itself could cause the heart to skip a beat, couldn't it?"
Palumbo looked a bit worried. "Hey, doc! You're supposed to be the doctor!"
Palumbo's dedication to police work became evident as he took yet another poison tablet from the vial. "George Cuzzins, this is the poison that you contributed. You were not really qualified to lead this project, but you accepted the position anyway. The new technologies of real-time systems were totally foreign to you. You nixed alternative process models in favor of the waterfall model and you nixed the idea of developing a prototype in order to explore user needs. You were not an effective team leader. You sat by quietly while clashing personalities dominated the team meetings. So, that's another bit of poison for our brew." Another tablet fell into the fruit punch. Palumbo stirred the punch, but he did not drink another cup.
Palumbo asked for a police officer to roll in a metal cart with a television set and a video tape player. Pointing in the direction of Rita Rankle, he said, "Now, listen to this. This is a part of Professor Dodd's press conference relating to the vision recognition software."
Palumbo shouted, "Pause!" He again pointed in the direction of Rita Rankle.
"Is it not true, Ms. Rankle, that you wrote this critical function that is called is_orientable_object.?" Palumbo asked.
"Yes, but I have an alibi. I didn't understand the code that I was writing. So, how could I be the murderer?" Rita's steely cold eyes scanned the circle of suspects and assorted others. You could see in her face the dawning certitude that she had made a brilliant point.
After a brief pause she continued with her explanation. "I didn't fully understand all of the functions that were called by is_orientable_object." Rita Rankle was sitting on a sofa. She was a portly woman with light brown hair, a pronounced brown mole on her chin. Her face was dominated by her eyes that seemed to bestow a frosty chill upon everything that they gazed upon.
Pressed by Palumbo, Rita volunteered some additional information: "Look, I was working under a lot of stress. I got all of this vision recognition software from John Erstwhile, and I'm supposed to understand what it does based upon his sketchy notes. His documentation never mentioned the Person class or the Target class, just the relevant classes, such as Object, Widget, Conveyance and so forth. So, how was I supposed to know that these person recognition classes were operating there behind the scenes. What happened was I thought I was calling a widget recognizer, but through some object-oriented mechanism I don't fully understand, my function became a special purpose Bart Matthews murderer. I didn't even know Bart Matthews. Well, I met him once at the Angry Ostrich, but that was it. He was obnoxious."
Palumbo seemed to ignore all of these new details. He took out another tablet of poison as he shouted, "Play some more of that tape! We edited out some of it." Professor Dodd's face, which had been frozen on the screen, came back to life on the screen.
Palumbo turned to Rita Rankle. "Now what did you think is_orientable_object was doing?"
Rita spoke forthrightly. "I thought it was looking for a widget on a conveyance mechanism, like a conveyor belt."
Palumbo pursued this a bit further. "But what did the function actually do?"
Rita replied quietly. "On May 3rd, instead of looking for a widget, it was programmed to look for Bart Matthews."
"And you do not know how that change occurred?"
"Did you write the documentation that Professor Dodd just alluded to, Ms. Rankle?" Palumbo asked.
Rita Rankle's hands were folded in her lap and she was looking down at her hands. Her hands looked cold, like ice.
"Ms. Rankle, either tell us here or tell us in court." Palumbo cupped his hand under his cigar and looked around for an ashtray. A large white ash was precariously balanced on the end of his cigar.
"No, I did not write that documentation", Rita Rankle said.
"Who wrote it?" Palumbo asked.
Palumbo stared at Rita Rankle in amazement. Before he could say a word, however, burning tobacco and spent ashes fell into his cupped hand. He spun around in pain, the ashes flying all over, and he knocked into the table holding the punch. An appreciable amount of punch spilled over the rim of punch bowl out onto the table and onto the floor. Palumbo shook the ashes from the front of his rain coat and he stamped his feet on several burning embers on the expensive oriental rug.
Palumbo turned to Samuels whose face betrayed a mixture of amusement and fear. Fear won over.
"I was just trying to be helpful", Samuels explained. "Rita is a good friend of mine and she was way behind in her work, so I wrote a lot of her documentation."
"But you hate writing documentation!" Palumbo countered.
"I hate doing my own documentation. But, when it's someone else's I don't mind. I just don't like doing it if I have to do it," Samuels replied.
"Were you trying to hide something, Mr. Samuels, like the fact that you changed the software so that the robot would murder Bart Matthews as an act of revenge against your employer?" Palumbo's accusation came matter-of-factly.
Samuels' face flushed hot with anger. "That's a lie! I didn't know anything about the vision processing software. I just wrote the documentation based upon conversations with Rita."
Palumbo dropped another poison tablet into the brew. "This is for Ms. Rankle." He stirred the brew and took another cup of punch. "Doc, there's a definite racing effect in my heart. Are you sure you are taking everything into account? What about time? Isn't the concentration going to increase over time because of evaporation?"
Dr. Tross was visibly worried, but his voice did not betray any emotion. "Lieutenant, everything is under control. We are far from a lethal level." Once again, he was jotting down data as he spoke.
Palumbo took a handkerchief from a pocket of his rain coat and dabbed his brow. "It sure is warm in here", he said, as the rest of us bundled against the clammy chill of the mammoth mansion.
Palumbo had a few more questions for Rita Rankle. "Ms. Rankle, you apparently know Mr. Samuels, but do you know Mr. Erstwhile?"
Rita's reply came quickly and firmly: "No!"
Rita took off her glasses and put them into her purse. "Lieutenant. I know I am not always up to my job, but believe me, I did not know what my function was doing. Someone changed the implementation of the function that my function was calling, changing it into a function that would look out for Bart Matthews. It's all been in the news. Just about everything I know about what happened comes from what I read in the news."
Palumbo took another poison tablet from the vial and gently placed it in the punch. He stirred the punch gently without saying a word. He seemed to be thinking about the next step. Staring into the punch as he stirred it, he started to speak quietly. "This is for you, Max Worthington. This is the poison that you contributed to the brew."
Max Worthington was a big, stocky fellow, with black hair that crept down the middle of his forehead. His chunky face seems to have aged considerably since he quit Silicon Techchronics several months ago amid a storm of controversy. "Look, Palumbo, don't play games with me, I know all about police procedure."
"Ye-a-a-h, I bet you do," Palumbo said with obvious sarcasm. "KGB? Oh, now, don't get angry, Mr. Worthington. I was just trying to make a little joke. Everyone seems so sullen around here. Also, I want to set the record straight. You contributed the following to this lethal brew. First of all, you were part of Mr. Waterson's spying apparatus, in which employee e-mail was monitored without their consent. Now, that's not a violation of the law, but it should be. You cooperated in the unethical repetitive stress injury experiment that was conducted using human subjects. You were part of the atmosphere that Waterson created at Silicon Techchronics. Beyond that, as chief security officer, you were responsible for computer systems security, but you never pushed the systems administrators to clean house and to make their systems secure. Thus, our murderer, could get into the system, study the Robbie CX30 software like an open book and then discover its critical weaknesses. This murder could not have happened if it weren't for you, Mr. Worthington."
Suddenly, without apparent provocation, Palumbo's voice rose to a thunderous level. "But, you, YOU, Ms. Yardley, you knew everything. You were the software tester. We know you faked the software tests. If it weren't for you, and for YOU Mr. Johnson, that robot would never have gotten onto the shop floor."
Palumbo took two poison tablets out of the vial and stirred them into the punch. "These are for Cindy Yardley and Ray Johnson".
Palumbo took a deep breath. He examined the burnt out stub of his cigar and discretely placed the cigar stub in one of his trench coat pockets. "Oh, yes, bring in some more pillows and a chair. Mr. Waterson is away at the French Riviera for a business meeting, but he should be here also. Set up another chair with pillows for Mr. Waterson." Two officers came in and set up a place for Mr. Waterson.
Cindy Yardley had grown harder, almost impervious to pain, since the fraudulent software tests had been exposed. Her jaw was tightly clenched and her voice had taken on a meek and strained quality. "I knew about Samuels code, I admit that, but I didn't know about the AI code. I was not testing that part of the software. No one to my knowledge ever tested the complete, integrated software package before the delivery of the robot to CyberWidgets and the other companies."
George Cuzzins spoke up in that modest manner of his. "Lieutenant, don't you think you are being hard on these young people? None of these people even knew Mr. Matthews, so I think it was clearly an accident."
Palumbo seemed to ignore Reynold's comment. "Mr. Cuzzins, are you aware of the situation that Ms. Yardley just alluded to? Isn't it scandalous?"
George Cuzzins replied softly. "We estimated the chance of a catastrophic software failure as being minuscule. A given robot was expected to run thirty thousand years before the first serious mishap. By that time we would expect the robot to be obsolete anyway."
Palumbo did not appreciate the attempt at humor. "Where does this figure of thirty thousand years come from?"
Cuzzins replied: "I don't remember. It's just an estimate based upon the expectation that the software was nearly flawless."
"But where did that expectation come from?" Palumbo did not wait for an answer. Suddenly, he demanded, "What about testing?"
"The robot was best tested on the shop floor where it was actually doing what it was supposed to do. In our view, the first six months of operation for Robbie CX30 was the test period for the robot. I mean, we did some unit testing, as you've read in the papers." Cuzzins suddenly looked exhausted.
Palumbo shook his head in amazement. "A fine state of affairs!" he exclaimed.
Palumbo turned his attention to Ray Johson. "You asked Cindy Yardley to fake the software tests. You insisted that defects were acceptable in life-critical software without any realistic analysis of the likelihood of software errors and without any hardware safety back-ups. You relied too heavily on the user interface for operator safety."
Ray Johnson sat impassively. He had the appearance of one who was determined to reach the very top of the corporate hierarchy. The less said the better for someone waiting to replace Jim Wilson as a Silicon Techchronics vice president in a year or two. In fact, Ray Johnson had just lapsed into one of his frequest fantasies about Jim Wilson's untimely departure, when Palumbo interrupted his dream.
"Now, Mr. Johnson, weren't you the person who arranged for Bart Matthews to be the experimental subject for the Target class?" Palumbo asked. He looked at Johnson studiously.
"Mr. Matthews volunteered," Ray Johnson explained. "I asked CyberWidgets to send over a volunteer and they sent Bart Matthews. Bart told me that he volunteered."
"Bart? You two were on a first name basis?" Palumbo asked.
"No. It's just that he's talked about so much in the press and all that you get to feel like you know them."
"Did Bart Matthews tell you why he volunteered?"
Johnson sighed. "He told me that his wife urged him to volunteer. It would be good for his career."
"So, if it weren't for Mrs. Matthews urging her husband to volunteer, this murder would never have occurred?" Palumbo seemed to be thinking out loud.
"Palumbo, you had better watch your step!" Sally Matthews jumped from her chair. "I am not going to allow myself to be the subject of any witch hunt."
"I'm not hunting for a witch", Palumbo replied. "I'm hunting for a murderer. Now, please sit down and cooperate."
Palumbo took another poison tablet and tossed it into the punch. It made a plunking sound as it splashed into the liquid. Palumbo said: "This is for Mr. Waterson, who could not be here tonight. He created a corporate environment that encouraged unethical behavior. He intended to cut out the robotics division like so much fat being flicked away. He promoted surveillance of employees by monitoring their electronic mail. All he cares about are his own profits and not the larger picture of people and families impacted by lay-offs."
Palumbo stirred the punch. He drew another cup and drank from it. This time he stumbled back and knocked into the table containing the punch once again. "Doc!"
Dr. Tross ran over to the lieutenant and took his pulse. "Your heart is racing. I suggest that you stop drinking this punch. You've made your point."
Palumbo was sweating profusely. He fumbled around in his various rain coat pockets for a cigar and matches. As he lit his cigar, the light of the flame was reflected in the beads of sweat running down his face. He seemed to draw comfort from the reddish glow at the end of his cigar.
Palumbo turned to Sally Matthews. His face changed dramatically, and it was suffused with sweetness and concern. "I hate to drag you through this, Mrs. Matthews, but it does involve the death of your husband, and I think you can see that many people contributed to it. Back at the office we are calling this 'the Many Hands Murder'."
Those words sent a shock through the room. I tried to read the minds of the primary suspects. My best guess as to the content of their thoughts ran somewhat like this: "Four sets of handcuffs! The 'Many Hands Murder'. Just how many of us is Palumbo going to arrest?"
George Cuzzins spoke up with uncharacteristic passion. "Look, Palumbo! We all contributed a little poison to the brew, but it was unintentional. It's not a murder. No one intended any harm to Mr. Matthews. It was all a great tragedy. Some of these people are just young folks and they shouldn't be treated like common criminals."
Ray Johnson decided to speak up. "Lieutenant, we have the right to know if we are suspects in this case. If we are then we should be allowed to contact our lawyers. I have just about lost all patience with this stupid game of yours."
Palumbo acted as if he had heard neither Cuzzins nor Johnson. He turned towards one of the policemen and glanced at his watch. "Where is that Alterman fellow that was supposed to be here?"
Palumbo took out two more tablets of poison from the vial. "The truth is we still don't know who altered the Robbie CX30 code to produce the killer robot. By the way, Mrs. Matthews, do you know this fellow know Frank Alterman? He used to work with your husband."
Sally Matthews' face bespoke boredom. "Never heard of him."
Palumbo drew deeply on the cigar, giving his face a studied look of skepticism. "Oh, really? Well, it seems that Mr. Alterman knows you VERY well, I mean, REALLY, REALLY well, if you get the implication."
Sally Matthews rose from the sofa. "Palumbo, I am also getting tired of your games."
Palumbo stared at Sally Matthews and he insisted that she sit down. He then did a sweep of the circle of suspects. "Anyone here who thinks that I am playing a game is a fool. I am doing my work. This is my work."
Palumbo raised his right arm to his forehead and began to shake his head. "There's something wrong. There's something wrong. I'm forgetting something. Wait a minute."
Palumbo pulled a small cassette recorder from his coat pocket, rewound the tape and then played it: "Why 10:22 AM on May 3rd? Why that time?"
Holding his chin between his thumb and forefinger, Palumbo turned to Sally Matthews and repeated the question that was on the tape. "Okay, why May 3rd? Why 10:22AM?" Palumbo asked. He seemed to be talking to himself rather than addressing his question to any particular person.
In a surprisingly gentle voice the Lieutenant asked Rita Rankle if that day and time meant anything to her.
"No, Lieutenant. Not at all. It means nothing to me", she replied.
"Mr. Erstwhile?" Palumbo asked.
"Just another day, just another time, insofar as I am concerned", John Erstwhile replied.
"Cindy? Randy? Zelda? George? Ray? Max? Can anyone help me?", Palumbo asked in a pleading voice, but all of the people Palumbo called upon indicated that they did not see any special significance in that date or that time of the day.
"And what about you, Mrs. Matthews?" Palumbo asked.
"I don't know what you're talking about", Sally Matthews replied with cool detachment.
Palumbo smiled sheepishly. "Finally, we're making some progress! When they say they don't know what I am talking about, they know what I am talking about!"
Then, angrily and forcefully, Palumbo pressed his point. Holding a sheet covered with computer code and holding it in front of Sally Matthews' face, he shouted: "This is YOUR code, this is YOUR logic, YOU wrote this and didn't utilize a consistent indenting scheme, but we could still figure it out. Here, what does this do?"
Sally Matthews folded her arms across her chest, staring straight ahead.
"Here, this! This! What does it do?"
"How should I know? There is no innocent blood on these hands", Sally Matthews replied icily, showing Palumbo the palms of her hands.
Palumbo looked around for an ashtray, cupping his hand beneath his cigar once again. "They never have ashtrays in these fancy houses. They always have things that look like ashtrays, but they're never .... ". His voice trailed away and several of us leaned forward so as not to miss a word.
Palumbo looked up and saw us straining to hear him. "Oh, don't worry. You didn't miss anything. I was just talking to myself. Mrs. Matthews, you seem to be hanging on my every word!"
Suddenly, a young woman, apparently not with the police force, stood up and yelled for Palumbo. She had been seated at the computer terminal that had been set up when we first arrived. "Lieutenant! t's Miasma!" she shouted.
Palumbo told the young woman to sit at the terminal and he asked the rest of us to stand in a circle around the computer terminal. Palumbo then explained that Miasma had agreed to contact us because he had important information about that case. However, since he is afraid of a trace, he will be very brief.
"We're logged into the university computer system", the young woman explained. "Miasma is communicating through one of his mysterious pathways over the network."
Palumbo gestured at the young woman with his cigar. "Do you know how to use this thing?"
"Sure, Lieutenant. Look, we started a talk session. He wants to talk to us. Half of the screen is what he is saying, and the other half is my response, or your response."
"Okay, type what I say." Palumbo said.
Sally Matthews was the first to react. "This is nonsense! How do you know that you are actually communicating with Miasma? It could be some whacko from who knows where! And how far are you going to get in a court of law if your evidence comes from Miasma, a common criminal? They'll laugh you right out of court, won't they, Jane?"
Jane McMurdock did not respond. Finally, her eyes looked down. Perhaps she was thinking about the Samuels' case that she was still prosecuting.
Sally Matthews began to scream: "It's nothing! It's meaningless. Palumbo, you will be the laughing stock of the entire Silicon Valley, of the world!"
Palumbo has a wonderful ability to ignore people who are screaming at him. Even while Sally Matthews was screaming, he headed back to the sofas and chairs and he motioned for us to follow him. "Could we all sit around like before? I would like to show you another video. Run it, Tully."
Palumbo offered a narration. "Now this video has no sound, but does anyone recognize it?"
Randy Samuels volunteered a vacuous guess: "It's an empty room, with a computer."
Palumbo sat in a swivel chair that an officer had provided for him. Palumbo continued his narration: "Well, this is the actual Bart Matthews' workstation on the shop floor at CyberWidgets. Now, what's amazing about this is that this video comes from the murderer. Oh, I don't mean the human murderer, I mean the robot murderer. This is video from one of Robbie's three cameras. So, you see, Robbie saw the murderer and her accomplice at work just hours before the murder. Robbie the robot cracked this case. Well, actually, it was my wife. You see, she kept on asking me if there were any witnesses and I kept on saying 'No! Get off my case!', but she insisted and I finally discovered these tapes in a filing cabinet at CyberWidgets. I'm always telling my wife to get off my case. It's a joke in our family."
Sally Matthews leapt to her feet. "Palumbo, I have had enough of this!"
Palumbo spun around, a furious look in his face. "Pause the tape! Now, you listen to me, Mrs. Matthews. I know that you deliberately murdered your husband in cold-blood by adding that one last bit of poison that I've been trying to come up with. It was a cold-blooded murder as cold-blooded as any murder could be." Palumbo spun around again. "Resume the tape."
Palumbo resumed his narration: "Okay, now it's a routine evening but who is this? A man. A young man. A very handsome young man. Frank Alterman. He says he knows Sally Matthews REAL well. Re-e-e-e-a-a-l well, if you get my drift! He's carrying a mop and a pail. He is responsible for cleaning the shop floor where Bart Matthews used to work. As I mentioned before, this is the actual robot operator console where Bart Matthews worked. Now, look, he is putting down the mop and the pail and he is approaching the computer. Note how the camera orients towards the person. This camera is programmed to orient towards any large, moving object. Now, he looks worried and he's turning around towards that darkened door frame off to the right. He is consulting with someone in the dark, the two of them spend some time together, and now he's coming back and he's doing something with the computer keyboard. Do you see it? Tully, FREEZE!"
We were breathless. We could see plainly what Alterman was doing.
Palumbo then asked for some zoom action on the television monitor. "Okay, do you see what he is doing? He is disabling the Num Lock light on the keyboard. Note the date and the time. May 3, 12:10 AM. Just ten hours before the murder. Now, why would Frank Alterman, a janitor, intentionally sabotage the Num Lock light on Bart Matthews keyboard?"
Palumbo gave instructions to the officer who was helping him with the video system: "Officer Tully, go back to the doorway scene and give us incremental enhancements on those."
The screen showed Frank Alterman with a shadowy figure in the darkness. Palumbo continued the narration. "Now look at that second figure, the one Alterman is consulting with. We are enhancing the information using techniques made available to us by Eyeball AI Techniques. It's a woman. Look, they are embracing, a passionate embrace in the hallway. Look at where her hand is. She's trying to convince him to do something that he is hesitant about. She is now talking to him - look at the determination on her face. A little closer, Tully. Now, we see who it is: It's Sally Matthews! Okay. Enough of the tape!"
Palumbo shouted towards the foyer. "Bring in Alterman!"
A tall, muscular man with a square jaw and handsome features was brought into the living room. His mammoth arms were shackled behind his back. Behind his apparent masculinity was the frightened and angry look of a man who had just discovered yet another harsh reality.
Palumbo turned to Sally Matthews. "Mr. Alterman is your accomplice in the murder of your husband. He is willing to testify that you and he were having a passionate love affair in the year before your husband's death. He is willing to testify that you told him openly about your plans to murder your husband using the Robbie CX30 robot. He is willing to testify that you spoke repeatedly of the poor security at Silicon Techchronics and the immature software processes. He didn't understand what you were talking about, but he heard you say those things. He is willing to testify that you coerced him into disabling the Num Lock key on the computer keyboard as we just saw in the video tape and that you knew that the murder would occur sometime the next day. He is willing to testify that you planned to make millions of dollars off of the unfortunate death of your husband by bringing law suits against various parties, including Randy Samuels and Silicon Techchronics. He is willing to testify against you because he found out about your cheating behind his back and this finally showed him what kind of human being you really are."
"Officer Williams. Place Mrs. Matthews under arrest for the premeditated murder of her husband. Don't forget to read her her rights."
As Sally Matthews and Frank Alterman were led away separately, Palumbo reached into his pocket and retrieved the poison vial. He brought out two more tablets. "These two were needed to make the lethal brew: Sally Matthews and Frank Alterman. He dropped the tablets into the punch and stirred the punch with the ladle. Now, don't anybody drink this. This punch is lethal."
Dr. Tross spoke apologetically: "Palumbo, we forgot to take into account the fact that the volume of liquid kept on decreasing every time you took some punch and the two times you bumped into the table."
Palumbo looked at Dr. Tross compassionately. "Well, doc, it's hard to think of everything. Even a bowl of punch is hard to figure out."
Jane McMurdock turned to Randy Samuels and motioned for Palumbo to join them. "I am dropping all charges against Randy Samuels first thing tomorrow morning. But, I wonder, Palumbo, whether I can use this Miasma stuff or whether it will blow up in our faces."
Palumbo looked surprised. "Miasma! I forgot all about Miasma!" He ran over to the computer which still had the young woman sitting in front of it.
The "talk" session resumed.
Palumbo escorted me outside. The fierce rain had relented, giving way to a warm fog. Palumbo lit another cigar.
"You know it gives me great satisfaction to solve a case in which the murder weapon was the only eye witness," Palumbo said.
I could only speak admiringly of his skill. "You were wonderful, Palumbo, as usual.
Palumbo spoke earnestly: "Now, when you write this up, don't exaggerate. Just stick to the facts."
I told Palumbo that I would do my best. I asked him about the Miasma ploy and whether this was an ethical procedure.
"Police work often involves deception", he told me. "Is it fair for a policeman in an unmarked car to pull you over for speeding? That's deception. Deception is not proper if it amounts to entrapment. There was nothing of that nature here. We were just trying to create a situation that would force Mrs. Matthews to admit what we suspected - that she was not only the murderer, something which we knew with certitude, but that she was also Miasma, the hacker."
I pursued this point with the Lieutenant. "So, the Miasma ploy was more about catching Miasma. It did not have so much to do with getting Mrs. Matthews to confess?"
"Right. We already had the video tape, telephone records and Mr. Alterman. But, we really were hoping to prove that Mrs. Matthews was Miasma. Now I know that she is not Miasma. Miasma is someone else."
"How do you know that?" I aksed.
"The way she reacted to the phony Miasma made it clear that she was not the real Miasma", Palumbo answered. "I studied her face closely during that computer conversation, and there was a look of fear and consternation on her face, not anger or amusement. She seemed intimidated by the apparent fact that Miasma knew so much about her exploits. As it turns out, she is not Miasma, but our demonstration will help us to get information out of her down at headquarters. She won't have time to figure out that the Miasma thing was a hoax. She'll think, 'Miasma and Fred both know all about me. I better level with the cops.' She'll only figure out the truth about Miasma after we get her confession and when she lies down for her first night's sleep in jail." Palumbo breathed deeply and smiled a self-satisfied smile, as if relishing his victory over evil.
As we stood together in the misty air, Palumbo reached into one of his rain coat pockets and pulled out the vial of poison tablets. He opened the vial and then offered me some. "Tic Tac?", he asked, completely dead pan.
"No thanks," I replied.
"My wife says these are better than having cinnamon sticky buns for a snack. Well, you know, sometimes, in the interest of peace, you have to go along." Palumbo tossed a few Tic Tacs into his mouth.
Palumbo looked at me as if he were reading my thoughts. "Oh, Dr. Tross? That was my cousin? He's a mechanic."
"You know there are only two things in this world that I really hate: murderers and dogs," Palumbo said.
"But, I thought you loved dogs," I exclaimed.
"That's the t-v guy you're thinking of, the guy with the big-time lawyers and intellectual property experts and all that. I hate dogs. I hate dogs with a passion." A big puff of smoke arose in the foggy air.
"I do all I can to keep the perceived distance between myself and that other lieutenant". At that point, Palumbo offered me a ride in his gleaming new red Corvette. I accepted gladly.
As we drove along the main highway back into town I felt a wet and cold nose rubbing against my left elbow. This was followed by a sharp whelp coming from the back of the car.
Palumbo looked embarrassed. Looking into the rear view mirror he said: "Now you be a good doggie and stay under that blanket until we get home or daddy's going to get into really big trouble!"
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