Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Demolished Man part 3: Girl Hunt

Continuing our look at Alfred Bester's SF crime novel, The Demolished Man.

He's done it. The die is cast. Mega-millionaire Ben Reich has murdered his arch-rival, Craye D'Courtney; theoretically an impossible crime in a world where telepaths exist in most levels of society. The police have set their best detective on the case, Lincoln Powell, a 1st Class esper. Powell knows that Reich is guilty, but he will have a hard time proving it. Reich has covered all his bases. There's only one loose end. There was this girl...

Lincoln Powell meets with his staff. He is certain that Reich is guilty of D'Courtney's murder, but he needs to prove it. Esper testimony is inadmissible in court without the subject's consent. He needs to build a case that will satisfy the Mosaic Multiplex Prosecution Computer ("Old Man Mose" as Powell and his staff call it, or "that confounded adding machine" as the Police Commissioner prefers), the computer that serves as grand jury.

The Commissioner is a little leery of going after someone as powerful as Reich. He's rich and he has connections. He also once contributed to the Commissioner's campaign for District Attorney once. Powell wants to go all out to nail Reich and wants to know if the Commissioner will back him. When pressed, he says he will; but Powell notes: "But with strong reservations... He's scared to death of Reich... so am I."

Powell plans a full scale blitz on two levels:
"...we're going to pull the Rough & Smooth on Reich. You know the method. We'll assign a clumsy operative and a slick one to every subject. The cluck won't know the smoothie is on the job. Neither will the subject. After he's shaken the Rough Tail he'll imagine he's clear."
He outlines several lines of investigation: the party game that gave Reich the opportunity; the annoying jingle that kept low-level espers from sensing his murderous intent; the "Visual Purple Ionizer" which knocked out the guards; the business relationship between Reich and D'Courtney...

Then there's the girl. Craye D'Courtney's daughter, Barbara, was also at the Beaumont mansion that night and fled. She undoubtedly witnessed the murder. Powell needs to find that girl and promises a promotion of five grades in rank to the officer who finds her. Normally regulations forbid elevation of more than three ranks at a time; "To hell with Regulations... I've got to get that girl."

Powell also visits the Esper Guild Institute, headquarters of the Esper Guild where young and recently-identified Espers are trained to develop their telepathic talents. We get a couple glimpses of the screening process for potential espers, a classroom full of beginners ("Think, class. Think. Words are not necessary. Think. Remember to break the speech relfex. Repeat the first rule after me..."), and another classroom where more advanced students are practicing weaving threads of thought into simple patterns. Powell pauses to read the Esper Pledge, engraved on a golden plaque on the wall: a formal oath, modeled after the Hippocratic Oath. Powell, we have seen, takes this oath very seriously. Some other espers we have seen, not so much.

Powell's purpose is to speak with the T'Sung H'sai, President of the Guild, who is in the process of dictating an angry letter to the League of Esper Patriots, a splinter group within the Guild which seeks to reduce the Guild's taxes and eliminate its education programs in order to maintain their own power and position in society. You might call them the "One Percent." T'sung calls them "a gang of selfish, self-seeking reactionaries."

As he shouts at his secretary, T'sung engages in telepathic small talk with Powell, ("...have you found the peeper of your dreams yet?" "Not yet, sir.") before referring him to another staff member. Powell wants to send a message through the esper grapevine. He gives her a photo and official police description of Barbara D'Courtney and promises that the esper who locates her will have his Guild taxes remitted for a year. Since the Esper Guild levys a 90% tax on its members, (one reason why the League of Esper Patriots makes such a big stink about it), this is a big deal. Powell is important enough in the Guild that he thinks he can persuade the Guild Council to approve the reward.

Meanwhile, Ben Reich has been working on his own plans. He contacts Jerry Church, the disgraced esper who was booted out of the Guild for participating in an underhanded scheme with Reich some years before, and who gave Reich the weapon he used to kill D'Courtney. Now Reich promises to get Jerry reinstated in the Guild in return for his services. For some time now, Reich has been bankrolling the League of Esper Patriots and believes they'll do what he wants. He also tells Jerry to set up a meeting with Keno Quizzard.
Earlier I have described the world of The Demolished Man as "a crime-free society." That of course is an overstatement. Premeditated murder is virtually unknown, but there are all sorts of crime and vice. Keno Quizzard, the blind croupier of Quizzard's Casino deals in many of them. Reich hires Quizzard to find Barbara D'Courtney.
"Check every bawdy house, bagnio, Blind Tiger, and frab-joint in the city. Pass the word down the grapevine. I'm willing to pay. I don't want any fuss. I just want the girl Understand?"
Here's another place where Bester excels. Slang drips from his characters' dialogue in musical cascades; sometimes incomprehensible, and yet the sense comes through. I think he does a better job at imagining a future dialect than Heinlein does in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The slang, the jargon, the idioms and catchphrases in Bester's work just flow better and each one carries with it a glimpse of one facet of the culture. At his best, Heinlein does this too; but here Bester immerses us in his world.

The next week becomes a chess game between Powell and Reich. We witness it through the memos Gus Tate, Reich's esper accomplice, sends to him, and the memos Powell sends to his staff. The police seem to be following blind alleys, but Reich isn't taking any chances.

Reich sets up a couple more schemes to find the D'Courtney girl. He tells the advertising staff promoting a new Jumper his company is selling he wants a girl to be the product's spokesmodel. He describes the type girl that would make the idea model -- coincidentally just like the D'Courtney girl -- and tells his staff to find her. Elsewhere he announces the funding of a new string of homeless shelters. Ostensibly a public relations gimmick, these shelters are the type of place where the girl might turn up. And so he also instructs his director of corporate espionage to have photos taken of everyone who comes to the shelter.

He also arranges for Wilson Jordan, the technician who developed the Rhodopsin Ionizer Reich used to knock out the guards, to "inherit" an estate on Callisto. When the police come to interview him, he is already gone.

Move and counter-move; step and counter-step; Reich and Powell play their game of cat and mouse. All the while, both men are furiously trying to find the girl who witnessed the crime.

She turns up in the establishment of Chooka Frood, the landlady of a labyrinthine warehouse catering to all manners of vice, who runs a fortune-telling racket on the side. A low-rent con artist staying at Chooka's place spots the girl and doesn't think anything of it; but the information in his mind is peeped, first by Jerry Church, when the guy comes to his pawn shop begging for cash, and then by an esper security man at the bank where he tries to pull an unsuccessful con. Both Reich and Powell receive the information at nearly the same time. Now it becomes a race to get the girl.

Chooka's Rainbow House was at one time a ceramics factory before it was bombed during a war the previous century. The bombing caused the various glazes, metals, glasses and plastics in the factory to become fused to the basement walls, resulting in a psychedelic riot of color. This is where Chooka stages her fortune-telling act, and this is where Powell goes first.

He is unimpressed by Chooka's act, until he realizes that she is also a peeper; an untrained one who never joined the Guild. That any esper would deliberately avoid joining the Esper Community frankly boggles Powell, but he doesn't have time to chat about it. Peeping her mind and those of her customers, he sees that Chooka has been using the D'Courtney girl in her act; and that the girl is presently upstairs.

Reich is just entering the building. Quizzard was supposed to meet him. He hears Chooka screaming "Get out of here, you goddam cop!" from downstairs and realizes he has to hurry. Audacity, Bravery and Confidence. He has a head start on Powell and gets to the upper level of the building first, the labyrinth of rooms Chooka lets out and where she has her own residence. He finds the room where the D'Courtney girl was staying, but the girl is not there. He does find the murder weapon she ran off with the night of the fatal party.

He finds a small chamber with a crystal floor overlooking the lower level, the level between the cellar and the labyrinth, occupied by Chooka's other business, the bordello. This is a Voyeur Chamber, and though the transparent floor, Reich can see a boudoir beneath where Quizzard sits fondling the D'Courtney girl on his lap. But the girl stares blankly, seemingly oblivious to what is going on.
Reich is carrying a scrambler, a neural weapon he seized from Chooka's bodyguard on the way in. He now aims it at Quizzard.

Which is when Powell bursts on the scene. Powell knocks out Quizzard and the other woman in the room with a psychic blast.
There was no doubt that Powell had accomplished this on a TP level, and for the first time in their war, Reich was afraid of Powell ... physically afraid. Again he aimed the scrambler, this time at Powell's head as the peeper walked to the chair.
Then something unexpected happens. Powell asks if the girl needs any help. At the word "help", the girl seems to come awake. She darts around, and then starts screaming, "Father! ... For God's sake! Father!"
Reich realizes that the girl is reliving -- and re-enacting -- the night of her father's murder. She collapses in a heap and Powell picks her up. There they are, the cop who wants to catch him and the witness who can incriminate him, beneath him like sitting ducks. They can't see him; they don't know 'there. He has the scrambler at its most lethal setting. All he has to do is pull the trigger...

Powell looks up. "Go ahead," Powell called. "Here we are. An easy shot. One for the both of us. Go ahead!"

Reich doesn't. And Powell takes the docile girl out of the building.

Reich is halfway to Demolition.

NEXT:  Powell has his witness, but can she testify? The @kins Method; Powell needs a chaperone, and sets a trap. Like Yogi Berra said, it's Déjà Èprouvé all over again!

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