Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Demolished Man part 2: Party Games

Last week we met Ben Reich, a man who has everything except peace of mind; a man tormented by dreams of a Faceless Man and bedeviled by a business rival, Craye D'Courtney. Reich has come to the conclusion that his rival must die. But how can he kill his enemy in a world where telepaths are present in every level of society and where there hasn't been a successful murder in nearly a century?

Reich has persuaded another esper, a 1st Class named Gus Tate, to act as his accomplice, gathering information and running interference against other mind-readers. The Esper Guild has a very strict ethical code, and if Tate's role in the crime is discovered, it will ruin him; but Tate is also very, very greedy. Tate has picked up information about D'Courtney at a cocktail party hosted by Lincoln Powell, another prominent 1st Class who is a high-ranking police detective.

D'Courtney is on his way from Mars and will be arriving on Earth in a couple days. He will be staying secretly for one night at the townhouse of Maria Beaumont, a high society type known for her lavish and lascivious parties. Tate doesn't know D'Courtney's plans, other than that he seems to be planning some drastic action.

"Against me!" Reich growls. He has already sent a coded peace offering, suggesting a merger between the two companies, but the offer was rejected.

So Reich works on plans of his own. He recalls seeing an antique old-fashioned book, the kind with pages that they used to read in the old days, of party games in a fancy shop. He goes to the shop in order to purchase a gift "for a friend I've neglected." He pretends to come across the book he wants by chance and purchases it.

He then takes it home and systematically vandalizes each and every page except one, with burns, stains, scissors, etc.; so that only one game in the entire book is completely readable: the game that fits with his plan. As he mutilates the book, he fantasizes about doing the same to D'Courtney. Yes, he is one sick puppy. He has the book gift-wrapped and sent to Maria. The plan is that Maria will then play the legible party game at one of her soirees, and Reich will use that as cover for his murder. Which always seemed to me like a rather improbable plan, but as it turns out, it works.

Her reply comes quickly:
"Darling! Darling! I thot you'd forgotten little ol sexy me. How 2 divine. Come to Beaumont House tonite. We're having a party. We'll play games from your sweet gifft."
Yes, Bester also predicted netspeak, although I suppose a version of it was current in the advertising of his day. Reich begs off on tonight, but says he can come on Wednesday, the day he knows D'Courtney will be there.

He picks up a useful gadget from his company's R&D department, a Rhodopsin Ionizer, "visual knockout capsules" which flash a frequency of light which not only blinds the subject but abolishes the subject's sense of time and space, rendering him unconscious.

Next Reich visits Duffy Wyg&, a girl he knows who works as a songwriter and who had written some effective propaganda jingles to help break a strike at his company some time back. (That was not a typo; several of the characters have typographic puns in their names; just pronounce it "Duffy Wygand." She's a clever girl, and Reich considers her "the epitome of the modern career girl -- the virgin seductress. She flirts with Reich relentlessly as he commissions another behavior-modifying jingle before he casually shifts the subject to the real purpose of his visit. He asks her what was the most persistent song she's ever written, the kind of song you just can't get out of your head.
"Oh. Pepsis, we call 'em." 
"Dunno. They say the first one was written centuries ago by a character named Pepsi."
She tells him about a theme song she wrote for a flop sitcom about a wacky mathematician. (Gee, sounds like comedy gold to me!). The song was so annoying, that the show was cancelled just because of the crazy theme. The song is titled "Tenser said the Tensor" and at his urging and despite her warning, she plays it for him. She's right; it's a stupid, monotonous little earworm, "Guaranteed to obsess you for a month. It haunted me for a year."

Last of all, Reich needs a weapon; and for that he goes to a pawn shop run by Jerry Church, a 2nd Class Esper who once worked for him and whom Riech once talked into helping with a shady deal. Church was caught breaking the Esper Code and booted out of the Esper Guild. Now he is an exile, ostracized by his own kind and forced to interact with other humans solely through spoken words and unable to share another esper's thoughts. He is a bitter and broken man, and he hates Reich. But he sells Reich a gun. Firearms are practically unknown in this society. Since espers have made murder all but impossible, guns have ceased to be an effective means of violence. (You may argue whether this is believable or not; the story establishes it as a given). Reich buys a small pistol from Church, a collapsible gadget, easily concealable and with a built-in stiletto. He tells Church that he wants it as a gift for Gus Tate. The mental static from the jingle running through Reich's brain ("Tenser, said the tensor...") prevents Church from reading exactly what his true intentions are.

Madame Maria Beaumont lives in a lavish mansion modeled after the old Pennsylvania Station in New York City. Her "thousand most intimate enemies" know her as "the Gilt Corpse." That's how Reich thinks of her: "...the painted figurehead of a pornographic ship." This hedonistic hostess is known for her sybaritic parties and for the nude portraits of herself that she gives to friends.

Reich comes to the Wednesday night party, accompanied by Tate. As a rule, Maria does not invited espers to her parties, but Reich's invitation is for himself and a guest. I suspect that this lack of espers is the reason why D'Courtney is staying at her place; for the privacy. Maria does employ a couple esper secretaries, who are welcoming and screening the guests. "Your murder's showing," Tate warns Reich as they approach. Reich had been letting his thoughts wander to his plans. He switches to thinking about the jingle: ("Eight, sir; seven sir...").

He schmoozes a bit with Maria under the ever-changing lights of the hall. Many of the guests are wearing clothing with ultraviolet panels which turn transparent under UV light. Reich isn't. He doesn't seem to have a huge interest in sex and a certain disdain for those who do; as with Miss Wyg&, he keeps his relationship with Maria strictly on the level of insincere banter.

One of the secretaries informs Maria of a gate-crasher: a young man named Chervil who has snuck in on a bet. He's cute, and Maria considers letting him stay and having some fun with him.

Tate is worried. Chervil is a 2nd Class esper and their plan depends on no one being able to read Reich's mind. "Reich, I can block the social secretaries. They're only 3rds. But I can't guarantee to handle them and a 2nd too ... even if he is only a kid. He's young. He may be too nervous to do any clever peeping. But I can't promise."

Reich refuses to back down. This may be his only chance to kill D'Courtney. He trusts to the principles outlined by his ancestor's murder file: "Be audacious; be brave; be confident." Reich goes directly to Chervil; he tells the boy he's been discovered and warns that he'd better leave right away. Preoccupied by his own illicit activities and distracted by the damn pepsi running through Reich's head, ("Tension, apprehension...") Chervil gratefully follows Reich's advice. Maria is miffed with him when she discovers Reich has frightened off her new chew toy, but the plan can proceed.

Tate has located where in the mansion D'Courtney is hiding and identified the security: two bodyguards. "@kins was right. He's dangerously sick." But Reich remains undeterred. The games are starting, and as promised, Maria has announced the game he maneuvered her into selecting: "Sardine", a type of hide-and-seek played in the dark. (Of course, Maria has to include a kinky twist of her own; she strips as the lights go out and she tells her guests to get naked). The only thing that matters to Reich is that for the next half hour or so the entire house will be dark and he'll be able to slip out of the party without being seen.

Following Tate's directions, he finds the suite where D'Courtney is spending the night. He uses the Rodopsin Ionizer to incapacitate the bodyguards and enters the room.

He has never seen D'Courtney before. The man is old. He is withered and decrepit. For a moment Reich has the horrible suspicion that the man might already be dead and that he has been cheated of his murder. D'Courtney can barely speak, but incredibly he seems happy to see Reich and even attempts to hug him. He seems genuinely bewildered by Reich's hostile reaction.
"You know why I'm here. What are you trying to do? Make love to me?" Reich laughed. "You crafty old pimp. Am I supposed to turn soft for your chewing?" His hand lashed out. The old man reeled back from the slap into an orchid chair that looked like a wound. 
"... Last week I gave you one last chance to wash in decency. Me. Ben Reich. I asked for armistice. Begged for peace. Merger. I begged like a screaming woman. My father would spit on me if he were alive. Every fighting Reich would blacken my face with contempt. But I asked for peace, didn't I? Eh? Didn't I" Reich prodded D'Courtney savagely. "Answer me." 
D'Cournety's face was blanched and staring. Finally he whispered: "Yes. You asked ... I accepted."
Bester suckered us. When Reich sent the merger offer to D'Courtney back in chapter one, we got to see a page from the code book he used; and like most readers, I'm sure, when I first read that part I skimmed over the code. Later on, Reich received the coded reply, WWHG and took Reich's word that it meant "Offer rejected." Riech was wrong; D'Courtney had accepted the offer and had come to Earth to cement the peace negotiations.

Reich won't believe it. "Liar. Clumsy old liar." He pulls out the weapon and shoves it into the old man's mouth to kill him.

And that's when the girl comes in.

Reich thought D'Courtney would be alone. Even Tate thought he'd be alone. Neither one suspected that the old man was travelling with his daughter. She struggles with him. He shoots and kills D'Courtney, but the girl manages to grab his weapon and runs off with it.

He doesn't have time to chase her. Reich returns to the party in time to catch the end of the game. The lights come back on and Reich, as the only one not "tagged" in the game, is the loser. He's a good sport about it, because he wasn't playing the stupid game anyway; (although Maria scolds him for not stripping naked like everyone else). Then Maria notices the blood on his sleeve, and screams.

Lincoln Powell, Prefect of the Psychotic Crimes Division and 1st Class Esper is summoned to the Beaumont mansion. The regular police are already there and they've quickly realized that they're dealing with a Triple-A Felony, a crime which hasn't been successfully committed in nearly a century. The police inspector on the scene, a 2nd Class esper named Jackson Beck, mentally fills him in, and they agree to do a Good Cop/Bad Cop routine on the assembled guests.

He meets a late arrival: a 2nd Class esper attorney named Jo 1/4maine (geddit? Quarter-maine? Sheesh, you guys are squares.). 1/4maine has been summoned by his client, Ben Reich. Powell finds this suspicious, but there's nothing illegal about it. Under the law, evidence obtained through mind-reading is inadmissible in court unless the subject agrees to be read. 1/4maine is here to protect his client and make sure the police espers don't overstep their authority. Powell questions Reich under 1/4maine's supervision and finds he likes the guy. Reich has a natural charisma and charm. It doesn't stop him from suspecting Reich, though.

Powell sets up a little psycho-drama for the benefit of the assembled suspects. He tries to persuade the innocent guests to volunteer to be peeped in order to identify the not-so-innocent by elimination. Unfortunately, if they were innocent, they wouldn't be attending parties thrown by Maria Beaumont; they all have secrets to hide and all refuse to be scanned. But the farce does distract people enough to allow Powell to peep a few unguarded thoughts from Reich. It's not evidence he can use in court, but he is morally certain now that Reich is his killer.

Powell has another conversation with Reich; this one private without his lawyer. Without either of them admitting anything, the two men lay their cards on the table.
"You're two men, Reich. One of them's fine; and the other's rotten. If you were all killer, it wouldn't be so bad. But there's half louse and half saint in you and that makes it worse." 
"I knew it was going to be bad when you winked," Riech grinned. "You're really tricky, Powell. You really scare me. I never can tell when the punch is coming or which way to duck." 
"Then for God's sake stop ducking and get it over with," Powell said. His voice burned. His eyes burned. Once again he terrified Reich with his intensity. "I'm going to lick you on this one, Ben. I'm going to strangle the lousy killer in you, because I admire the saint. This is the beginning of the end, for you. You know it. Why don't you make it easier for yourself?" 
For an instant, Reich wavered on the verge of surrender. Then he mustered himself to meet the attack. "And give up the best fight of my life? No. Never in a million years, Linc. We're going to slug this out straight down to the finish."
The two men shake hands grimly.
"I lost a great partner in you," Riech said. 
"You lost a great man in yourself, Ben." 
It was the beginning of Demolition.

NEXT: The game of cat and mouse begins. Powell knows Reich is guilty, but can he prove it? Can Reich stay one step ahead of the combined forces of the police and the Espers Guild? And what happened to D'Courtney's daughter?

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