Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Demolished Man part 4: In Search of a Motive

Continuing our look at Alfred Bester's Space Opera Noir, The Demolished Man.

In a society where telepaths exist in every profession, you'd think it would be easy to catch a murderer; but so far, wealthy industrialist Ben Reich has managed to avoid capture. Police Prefect Lincoln Powell, 1st Class Esper, knows that Reich killed his business rival, Craye D'Courtney; but he needs proof that will stand up to the rigorous standards of "Ol' Man Mose", the Prosecuting Computer which acts as Grand Jury in his legal system. Finally, Powell has caught a break. He has located D'Courtney's daughter, Barbara; the only witness to the crime who fled the party where it occurred and who has been missing for a week. But the experience of seeing her father killed has shattered her mind.
"She's in a state of Hysterical Recall," Dr. Jeems of the Kingston Hospital explained to Powell and Mary Noyes in the living room of Powell's house. "She responds to the key word 'help' and relives one terrifying experience..." 
"The death of her father," Powell said. 
"...Outside of that ... Catatonia."
The doctor explains that Barbara can be treated, but that it will take time. The treatment is called "Déjà Èprouvé", after a 19th Century psychiatric term, and it creates a comforting, false reality for the conscious mind to give the traumatized unconscious time to heal. "We dissociate the mind from the lower levels, send it back to the womb, and let it pretend it's being born to a new life all over again... On the surface of the mind ... in the conscious level ... the patient goes through development all over again at an accelerated rate. Infancy, childhood, adolescence, and finally maturity."

The process will take about three weeks. "By the time she catches up with herself, she'll be ready to accept the reality she's trying to escape." We're going to come across this idea of stripping away and re-building of reality and identity again.

Dr. Jeems tells Powell that he can still try reading Barbara's subconscious mind, but warns that "she must be pretty scared down there" and that it might be hard to find what he wants. "Of course, that's your specialty. You'll know what to do." Jeems is not himself a "peeper" and defers to Powell's area of expertise.
Powell has decided to keep Barbara at his place rather than have her stay at Kingston, the famous psychiatric clinic that Jeems works for, and has asked his friend, Mary Noyes, to help take care of her. He wants to be able to question Barbara, to get the murder out of her piece by piece, something that would be difficult to do in the hospital. Mary catches a glimpse in his mind of another reason why he might want a chaperone, but it's an ulterior motive of which Powell himself seems unaware.

His first attempt to descend into Barbara's mind is a fight. She wants to be left alone. He triggers the memory and forces her to relive it, but in the chaos of her mind Powell can only catch fragments of what she knows. It confirms that Reich was indeed present; but Powell still doesn't have a clear picture of how the crime was committed.

Powell also receives a startling piece of information. D'Courtney wanted to die. So did Reich actually kill him, or did D'Courtney commit suicide in his presence?

To find the answer, Powell travels to Venus to visit D'Courtney's doctor, Sam @kins; a prominent 1st Class Esper who has been mentioned previously and whose name is another of the typographic puns Bester drops into the story from time to time. @kins is a strong supporter of the Esper Guild's policy of identifying and cultivating new espers. He believes that all humans have a latent psionic talent and so he does a lot of charity work, inviting poor patients to his clinic on Venus so that he can try to develop their psychic abilities. He seems to do this chiefly by yelling at them, both audibly and telepathically.
One of @kins' flock unaccountably flinched and Sam turned on the man excitedly. "You heard that, didn't you?" 
"No sir. I didn't hear nothing." 
"Yes you did. You picked up a TP broadcast." 
"No, Dr. @kins." 
"Then why did you jump?" 
"A bug bit me." 
"It did not," @kins roared. "There are no bugs in my garden You heard me yell to my wife." And then he began a frightful racket. "YOU CAN ALL HEAR ME. DON'T SAY YOU CAN'T. DON'T YOU WANT TO BE HELPED? ANSWER ME. GO AHEAD. ANSWER ME!"
Privately, in a conversation with Powell, @kins confirms that D'Courtney was suicidal. "He was crumbling. His adaptation pattern was shattering. He was regressing under emotional exhaustion and on the verge of self-destruction." That was why @kins had come to Earth to try to meet him; to prevent him from acting rashly. D'Courtney was suffering from deep feelings of guilt regarding his child. Sam hadn't been able to divine the exact causes of these feelings, but they involved irrational symbols of abandonment, desertion and shame. He never had the chance to pursue the problem further.

But @kins doesn't think D'Courtney would have blown his brains out. The man was suicidal, yes, but his suicidal thoughts centered on taking poison. "You know suicides, Linc. Once they've fixed on a particular form of death, they never change it."

@kins gives Powell an important clue. The suggestion that Reich might have had expert help leads to @kins memory of the cocktail party at Powell's place the week before the murder, when Gus Tate had asked @kins so many questions about D'Courtney. The pieces fit together. Gus Tate was Reich's accomplice, providing inside information and running psychic interference for him.

Powell is immediately summoned back to earth. Jordan, the Monarch Industries technician who had gone off to Callisto, has returned. He has come into an unexpected inheritance and is just tidying up his affairs before leaving Earth for good. The estate he inherited belonged to Ben Reich, but apparently there was some question as to the title and Reich withdrew his claim in Jordan's favor.

Jordan isn't about to testify against his former boss and benefactor, so Powell doesn't question him directly; instead he sets up a situation where Jordan will feel comfortable enough to tell him exactly what he needs to know. So Jordan tells Powell all about the "Visual Purple Ionizer" he'd been working on for Monarch, the means Reich used to knock out D'Courtney's bodyguards.

Barbara mental state is advancing through infancy. She's crawling on all fours now and starting to babble. Powell is sure she called him "Dada"; Mary tells him it sounded more like "Haja". Barbara's inner mind is a bit calmer now; when Powell enters it he can actually converse with her. He makes her replay the murder again. The mental trauma of experiencing it through her mind knocks him out for nearly half an hour, but this time he clearly sees the crime committed and the weapon used: an old 20th Century gun.

He plays a hunch. Jerry Church, the exiled esper, worked for Reich before; and he now runs a pawn shop near a museum. Church is just the sort of person who might supply such an archaic weapon and whom Reich might go to. But Powell plays it cagey. When he calls Church, he doesn't mention Reich at all; he asks if Gus Tate had bought a gun from him, and says he'll be over in half an hour to show him a picture of the murder weapon.

This is deliberate. He he guesses that Church will probably call Gus, and wants to set up a situation where he can play the two men against each other. "We've failed on the Objective Level all the way down the line," he tells Mary. "From here on in it's got to be peeper tricks or I'm through."

As expected, when Powell arrives at the pawn shop, both Church and Tate are there. "I didn't come to peep anybody. I'm sticking to straight talk. You two peepers may consider it an insult to have words addressed to you. I consider it evidence of good faith. While I'm talking, I'm not peeping." He accuses Jerry of selling Reich the gun that killed D'Courtney. Powell reminds him of the previous instance when Reich persuaded him to use his esper talents to conduct some insider trading, a swindle that made Reich a million and got Church booted out of the Esper Guild.

Jerry refuses to talk. "I sold no gun, peeper, and I don't know how any gun was used. That's my objective evidence for the court."

Unruffled, Powell turns to pressure Tate. He tells Tate he knows all about how he helped Reich gain information about D'Courtney, and acted as accomplice in the murder. "All I want to know is whether I've guessed Reich's bribe correctly."

Gus panics, but Powell maintains the pressure. And the fact that Powell is speaking verbally rather than telepathically rattles him all the more.
"You'll never prove anything. You'll--" 
"Prove? What?" 
"Your word against mine. I--" 
"You little tool. Haven't you ever been at a peeper trial? We don't run 'em like a court of law, where you swear and then I swear and then a jury tries to figure who's lying. No, little Gus. You stand up there before the board and all the 1sts start probing. You're a 1st, Gus. Maybe you could block two ... Possibly three ... But not all. I tell you, you're dead."
Tate breaks. He's willing to confess everything. "It was an aberration. I'm sane now. Tell the Guild. When you get mixed up with a damned psychotic like Reich, you fall into his pattern. You identify yourself with it. But I'm out of it."

He starts to tell Powell about the Man With No Face from Reich's nightmares, but Powell stops him. "He was a patient?"

This changes things. Much as Powell wants to nail Reich, he won't do it at the cost of violating doctor/patient confidentiality. Earlier Jerry called him "Preacher Powell" for his sanctimonious attitude towards esper ethics, but Powell really does take the Esper Pledge very seriously and refuses to violate it.

Or is he being ethical? He may be "Preacher Powell", upright pillar of the Espers Guild, but he's also "Dishonest Abe", the joker with a talent for lying with a straight face. Maybe he is being sincere in rejecting Tate's confession; but his little psychodrama with Gus is also for Jerry's benefit, to persuade him to give evidence after all. Jerry wavers...

...And that's when the goons attack. One of Quizzard's hired thugs hits the place with a harmonics gun, a sonic weapon that literally vibrates everything it hits to pieces. Powell manages to save Church, but Gus Tate is unable to get to safety. The attempted hit convinces Jerry that he can't trust Reich. He agrees to talk.
Barbara has matured to the toddler stage now. She speaks with an adorable lisp and scribbles on Powell's walls with crayon. Her subconscious is a different matter. When he attempts to probe it, Powell gets hit but a wave of passion so intense that he immediately backs out and calls for Mary to help him. "She's made contact with her Id. Down on the lowest level. Almost had my brains burned out."

"What do you want? A chaperone?" Mary teases. "Someone to protect the secrets of her sweet girlish passions?"

"Are you comic? I'm the one who needs protection."

Barbara's subconscious is a raging maelstrom of anger, hatred and lust. Mary warns him that he needs to get out. "You can't find anything there except raw love and raw death." But Powell presses on, stepping carefully through the furnace of Barbara's emotions, " an electrician gingerly touching the ends of exposed wires to discover which of them did not carry a knock-out charge."

He discovers a puzzling image in her mind: Barbara and Ben Reich, conjoined as if they were Siamese twins. He discovers something even more disturbing. Barbara D'Courtney is in love with him. As he tries to make sense of the confusing imagery and raw emotions in Barbara's mind, he senses Mary calling to him. He's been submerged in Barbara's Id for three hours now and Mary has been desperately trying to pull him out.
He tells Mary what he's found. "My God, Mary, I think the poor kid's in love with me."

"And what about you?" she asks.
"Why do you think you refused to send her to Kingston Hospital?" she said. "Why do you think you've been peeping her twice a day since you brought her here? Why did you have to have a chaperone? I'll tell you, Mr. Powell..." 
"Tell me what?" 
"You're in love with her. You've been in love with her since you food her at Chooka Frood's."
This was what Mary had glimpsed in his mind the day he brought Barbara home, the secret that was obvious to everybody except Powell himself. Mary also loves Powell and can't help being bitterly jealous. "Never mind me. To hell with me," she says. "You're in love with her, and the girl isn't a peeper. She isn't even sane." Under the rules of the Esper Guild, Powell is required to marry another esper before he turns forty in order to propagate the species. "Damn you! I wish I'd let you stay inside her mind until you rotted!"

There's not time to sort this out. Powell has been called off on yet another emergency. One of his leads, a man named Hassop who is a high-ranking administrator in Reich's company, has disappeared in Spacetown. Spacetown is an enormous combination theme park and health resort and retirement community built on a large asteroid near Jupiter. Reich sent Hassop out to Spacetown ("on vacation") with a spool of film in his luggage containing Monarch's secret books.

Powell has figured out the Means Reich used to kill D'Courtney and his Opportunity, but unless he can prove Motive, Old Mose, the prosecuting computer won't approve filing charges. (Means, Motive and Opportunity, the tripod of investigation familiar to any mystery fan). Hassop is Reich's Code Chief, and Powell believes he has the information which will verify the Motive.

But about the same time as the Rough Tail following Hassop lost him, Reich turns up in Spacetown, following an accident in which his space yacht crashed. A couple of the crew of his yacht were injured and one man killed. That man is Quizzard. Powell guesses that Quizzard had become a liability, and that Reich killed him to keep him quiet, faking the accident to cover it up. Now both Hassop and Reich have dropped off the radar, and Powell realizes that Hassop is likely next of Reich's list.

So Powell wanders through Spacetown, trying to pick up a lead. He finds one at "Ye Wee Kirk O' The Glen", a faithful reproduction of the Notre Dame Cathedral where tourists are able to see animatronic recreations of some of the great events from the history of pretty much every religion you can imagine. "ATTENTION ALL WORSHIPERS. NO LOUD TALKING OR LAUGHING." There he runs into Duffy Wyg&, the cute li'l number who gave Reich the "Tenser/Tensor" jingle, and who also happened to distract Hassop's Tail. She says she didn't know the guy was a cop; Reich just told her to do him a favor. "Go ahead and peep me. If Reich wasn't in the Reservation you could peep that double-crossing --"

That's what Powell needs. Reich is in the Reservation; a domed region on the other side of the asteroid about fifty miles in diameter which has been made into a wildlife preserve. No mechanical devices other than cameras are permitted in the Reservation.
"You hike on your own feet. You carry your own food. You take one Defensive Barrier Screen with you so's the bears don't eat you. If you want a fire you got to build it. If you want to hunt animals, you got to make your own weapons. ... You versus nature. And they make you sign a release in case nature wins."
It's a perfect place for Reich to stage another "accident" for his last loose end. And the only way for Powell to stop him is to search hundreds of square miles on foot. He does this by sending a message through the psychic grapevine and recruiting every esper in Spaceland. Like a living net, Powell's myrmidons spread out through the wilderness until one of the finds Reich and Hassop.

Reich hasn't killed Hassop yet; he's setting up a situation that will look like a hunting accident, when Powell arrives on the scene. (As Reich prepares, he hums "Tenser, said the Tensor" to himself; the jingle has become like a mantra). But Powell wants to try to snatch Hassop without Reich realizing what's happening. To do this, Powell begins telepathically broadcasting on a purely emotional level feelings of terror and fear. He stirs up a stampede of the local wildlife and sends them all thundering at Reich and Hassop's camp, just as Reich is trying to shoot an arrow through his buddy's wishbone. In the confusion, the two hunters are separated, and Powell is able to spirit Hassop away.

Powell finally has all the pieces he needs for his case: Means, Opportunity, and the coded message Hassop has provided him that Reich originally sent to D'Courtney and the victim's response will provide the Motive, as soon as his own staff get through with it. He's even figured out how Reich could shoot D'Courtney in the head without leaving a bullet. He had removed the bullets from the cartridge shells in Church's pawn shop when he bought the gun, and then replaced them with gel capsules containing water. The concussive force of the gun fired in D'Courtney's mouth blew the back of his head out, leaving only small bits of gel as a residue. He has one of the "Visual Purple" knockout devices used to take out the guards. The technicians in the District Attorney's department feed all the data into "Old Mose" for his verdict.


"Passion Motive? ... Is Mose crazy? It's a profit motive," Powell says. His partner explains that sometimes the computer gets "kittenish." They re-run the data, making sure to emphasize that the motive in this case is profit; but still the computer says "INSUFFICIENTLY DOCUMENTED."

Ah, but that's because the coded message hasn't been verified yet. The codebreakers are still working on the message. "Assuming that our merger evidnece is unassailable (which it is) what does Mose think of the case?"

This time the Mosaic Multiplex Computer likes it better. "ACCEPTING ASSUMPTION, PROBABILITY OF SUCCESSFUL PROSECUTION 97.0099%"

Then the codebreakers come in with the bad news.

Reich sent a message to D'Courtney requesting a merger of their companies. D'Courtney's refusal of that merger was Reich's motive for killing him. Except that D'Courtney didn't refuse. His reply was "WWHG." "That reads: ACCEPT OFFER."

"We busted it," the codebreakers tell him, "and now you're busted, Powell. The whole case is busted."

NEXT:  Reich has won! He has beaten the rap! But who then is trying to kill him? Could it be The Man With No Face?

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