I graduate today with my PhD from Bolton University and, by the time this goes live, I should be dressed in similar robes to the ones in the photograph on the right. I’m very excited and proud and going through a range of other emotions that I can’t describe at the moment. So, as a way to say thank you to everyone who has helped, or listened to me, or if you’ve let me bounce ideas off you, or simply supported me by saying you think my writing is OK*, I wanted to share this free short story with you.
If you enjoy the story, please let me know and feel free to tell others about it. If you want to read more of my work, my horror novel Raven and Skull is available on Amazon and I have another novel coming out shortly. Meanwhile, please enjoy the read…
*NB – my writing is way better than OK.
by Ashley Lister
“Try the app?” Steve repeated. His tone sat somewhere between disgust and disbelief. “Try the app? Are you serious?”
Thea Butler scowled. “Don’t take that sanctimonious tone with me,” she cautioned. “We have a perfect opportunity here to work out if the app is viable. We have a locked room murder mystery. We can see if this app is a serviceable piece of software without worrying about the influence of the observer’s paradox.” She fixed her withering glare on him and said again, “Try the app.”
Steve’s voice trailed off as he tried to catalogue his thoughts and think how to best voice his objections. It was a struggle to know where to begin. It was early Monday morning and they had just discovered Victor Davies’s corpse. Victor had been one of Steve’s two bosses and the company’s co-founder. Victor had been Thea’s business partner and her occasional lover. Victor sat slumped back in his chair, his sightless gaze fixed on the suspended ceiling tiles above. A trail of unpleasant yellow drool trickled from the corner of his mouth. Steve’s objections to Thea’s heartlessness remained unspoken as he shook his head in dismay. Instead of showing any signs of grief, compassion or upset, the woman’s first thought was for them to try the app.
“Try the app,” Thea said again. She snapped her fingers in front of Steve’s face and added, “If you’re too squeamish to use the app, give me that pen and I’ll do it for you. I can beta-test as well as anyone else.”
Grudgingly, Steve pulled the pen from his pocket and opened the i-Dunit app.
The i-Dunit app was a triumph of software engineering that fitted beautifully into the body of an über-bling pen that was fashioned to look like an 18ct gold, diamond encrusted, Caran d’Ache 1010. Whereas most companies were happy manufacturing apps for use on mobile phones and tablets, Butler and Davies crafted their microelectronics so they could be housed in the body of a pen. Images could be displayed on any convenient white surface from a small projector housed near the clip. Input was achieved either through voice control or, as an alternative, a projected infra-red keyboard could be shone onto any flat surface. According to the late Victor Davies, it was a combination of hardware and software that was going to save the company’s fortunes and make Butler and Davies a blue-chip investment who could be of potential interest to Microsoft or Google or some other obscenely rich dot-com-glomerate desperate to buy everyone else’s e-ingenuity. More importantly, according to all the promotional literature Victor and Thea had written, the i-Dunit app was going to change the face of crime-fighting forever. Police forces throughout the country – possibly throughout the world – were going to want to invest in this game-changing technology.
“What’s it saying?” asked Thea.
He shook his head. “It’s slow to load. Give it a minute.”
Whilst the pen was in his hand, because it was fitted with a SIM card, he considered using it to call the police and notify them of Victor’s suspicious death. Common sense told him it would be the right thing to do. But he refrained from making the call because he knew such an action would slow the loading of the i-Dunit app. If the app performed poorly, that was likely to provoke Thea’s wrath and everyone at Butler and Davies tried to avoid provoking Thea’s wrath. She was already scowling at the idea of the programme having a slow load time. He didn’t want her to think the i-Dunit app had any further end-user issues other than those that had been listed on the most recent bug report. Prudently, he decided the call to the police would wait until after they’d conducted their short test.
He took a moment to glance around the office and tried not to think about his boss’s death. Victor’s office was usually a chaotic state of disarray and unmanageable clutter. The walls were hidden by dusty book shelves and framed certificates of achievement. Half the paperbacks from the shelves of Victor’s office were invariably scattered in piles along his desk and on the floor. Today was no exception. Victor even had one paperback clutched in his lap.
Light came from the fluttering overhead fluorescents. It shone onto Victor’s dilated pupils and glistened from the string of yellow drool. Steve wished the room had a window he could open to rid the room of the scent of death. He didn’t like the idea that he was tasting Victor’s last breath.
“Thank you for using i-Dunit, the premier investigating app.”
The app’s voice was a well-spoken female tone. It had a sufficiently clipped British accent to make her sound educated, professional and uncompromisingly authoritative. The only reported issue with the voice was that occasionally, usually on headwords and proper nouns, it would slip from sounding like a well-educated British woman and go back to the first voice the programmers had installed: a hard-boiled American male.
“Initiating,” the app growled. It shifted to its feminine voice to continue. “As this is the first stage of your investigation, it’s important that you thoroughly photograph the crime scene, starting with the victim or victims and going on to catalogue every other detail in the immediate vicinity.”
When this introductory text had been programmed into the app, Steve thought it had sounded like a somewhat vague instruction. He had argued against the message at the most recent development meeting and explained that typical users would know little about the practicalities of forensic photography. Becky from engineering and Katy from production had both railed against him and insisted the instruction wasn’t vague. When Victor had taken Steve’s side, shouting and threatening unemployment to anyone who disagreed with him, they’d eventually acquiesced and conceded that additional clarity might be useful.
From a miniature projector on the side, the app now shone illustrative diagrams onto a white wall. The diagrams showed the best way to record triangulated scene-of-crime images. The compromise wasn’t the hi-tech development that Steve had wanted for the app. But he realised it was all he had to work with for the moment. He chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip as he started to obey the app’s instructions and used the pen’s camera to take a series of high-res crime scene photographs. Determinedly, he tried to convince himself that he was doing no harm by interfering with the scene of Victor’s death.
He understood Thea’s points about this being a golden opportunity to test the app. To date, software testing for the i-Dunit had involved setting up scenarios from murder mystery novels and seeing if the app could replicate the same solutions identified by the likes of Holmes, Marple and Poirot.
On those first trials the i-Dunit app had crashed a lot during the initiation phase. The engineers thought it was a memory issue because the programme was having to process a lot of visual information. Once the crashing was resolved the app developed an unfortunate habit of blaming any suspect who belonged to an ethnic minority. That had been down to the input of a single racist data input clerk and, once he was fired, and his input had been deleted, the issue had been resolved. Now it did look like the i-Dunit was ready to be applied to a real murder mystery. But Steve felt sure his actions were violating several laws that dealt with compromising crime scenes. He thought it would be more appropriate for real investigating officers to go over the crime scene, rather than have him clumsily compromise the investigation. He also thought Thea was being cold and unfeeling with regards to Victor’s plight.
“This is what Victor would have wanted.” Thea said the words as though she’d read Steve’s thoughts.
Steve nodded and flashed a smile of false agreement. He felt sure Victor would never have wanted to be dead in his office whilst a beta version of his company’s problematic app was used to investigate his death.
He didn’t bother to say as much to Thea.
The photography was unpleasant work.
Steve didn’t know how long Victor had been dead but the man was already smelling like spoiled meat. It was a sour, gamey stench that reminded Steve of the time his fridge had stopped working whilst he’d been away one summer’s weekend. He’d returned home to find half a carton of milk turning to lumpy cheese, and two packs of processed sandwich ham cultivating a new and rather pungent breed of penicillin.
The smell of that incident had lingered in his nostrils for days. He suspected this stench would stain the inside of his nose for just as long. He was thankful when the app’s guide allowed him to stop taking pictures of the dead man’s face.
He took a couple of snaps of the paperback in Victor’s hands: a battered old copy of The Door by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Then he took photographs of the desk, which housed a keyboard, a box of paperclips, an empty ring-binder and a half-drunk mug of coffee next to the monitor.
The monitor’s screen was stuck on a reboot menu, as though there had been an interruption to its power supply. Steve took a picture. His next photograph captured three numbered yellow post-it notes on the side of the monitor. The numbered post-it notes read: 1. Get the handle for this office door fixed. 2. Steve did IT. 3. Mr Brightside = Thea Butler.
“Photographic evidence acquired,” the app declared in its gruff, Mike Hammer drawl. Shifting back to female British English it added, “It appears as though there has been a murder. You have taken pictures of Victor Davies, aged thirty-five years old.”It pronounced Victor’s name in the man’s voice, reminding Steve that some aspects of the app’s software still needed tweaking. “Victor Davies was the co-founder of Butler and Davies,” the app explained. “Is this correct?”
The infrared projector was offering him YES or NO options. He only hesitated for a moment before selecting YES.
There was a thoughtful pause before the app asked, “Should I deactivate his FaceBook account?”
Steve pressed NO. He didn’t trust the app not to leave a farewell message as Victor’s final status update.
“This is unreal,” Thea said. “How did it recognise him?”
“The app has various permissions that include access to the internet,” Steve explained. “It can see and read social media pages, including Instagram, Twitter and FaceBook pages. From there it simply uses facial recognition software. It has the ability to identify a substantial proportion of the planet’s population.”
Thea nodded, trying to disguise a thin smile.
Steve could understand her excitement. Butler and Davies had tried to write a comprehensive app for crime detection. The previous versions had been uninspiring failures with laughable limitations. But this latest version seemed to exceed all their previous expectations. His gaze met hers and they nodded together as though sharing the same thoughts. This app could likely win them an Apple design award. Munford and Sheaffer, their main competitors in the market for creating a crime-solving app, were never going to match the quality of product they had created with the i-Dunit. This product could seriously be the one that Microsoft or Google bought for a billion or more.
“Deduction,” the app announced. “Judging by skin lividity and the condition of the corpse it looks as though poisoning is the most likely cause of death.” The app paused as though allowing this information to be digested. “Estimated time of death was around early Friday evening although a coroner’s report will be needed to confirm this figure.”
Thea cast a sharp gaze in Steve’s direction. “How the hell does the app know that?”
He grinned. “The app studies the photographs I’ve taken. It uses a series of fairly sophisticated artificial intelligence programmes to render each image. I suspect it’s noted the absence of blood. There are no signs of physical trauma. And so it’s probably picked up on that nasty yellow drool coming out of Victor’s mouth. From there it will likely have deduced poisoning.” He smiled at the Caran d’Ache and said, “There’s some clever stuff going on in the internal mechanics of this app. Hobbs, Michael and Kinky Jo will be blown away when they see what it can do.”
“Yes,” Thea sniffed testily. “You boys have created a great piece of kit. But it hasn’t told us yet who killed Victor. It’s not that good, is it?”
“Information needed,” the app broke in. “I’ll need a list of suspects.”
Thea glared at the phone.
“How intelligent is that app? Did it just respond to what I was saying?”
Steve ignored her questions. He wasn’t sure if it was coincidence that the app had spoken at that point, or if someone on the team had programmed a broad level of sophisticated responses into its interface.
“Suspects,” he said thoughtfully. “I suppose our corporate rivals, Munford and Sheaffer would be at the top of the list.”
“Munford and Sheaffer,” the app repeated.
The projected image displayed a pair of photographs with brief biographies of the managing directors of Munford and Sheaffer. A list of numbers and figures began to scroll up the makeshift screen and Steve realised that the app was illicitly scouring through Munford and Sheaffer’s accounts. He blinked, unnerved that the programme was so efficient and capable.
Thea stepped to Steve’s side. She was studying the images over his shoulder and standing so close he could smell the coffee on her breath that she’d had for breakfast. It was not a particularly pleasant scent. He suspected the coffee might have been an Irish one. But he thought the smell was better than the all-pervading stink of Victor’s death.
“That really is impressive,” Thea said.
Steve nodded agreement. “Becky and Katy are also suspects.”
Thea scowled at him. “Becky and Katy work for Butler and Davies. Why would they want to see Victor dead?”
“You worked with Victor. I worked for Victor,” Steve countered. “Weren’t there times when you wanted him dead? I know there were times when I’d have happily poisoned him and locked him in his office. He could be callous and cold when the mood took him. I’m sorry that he’s gone. But I’m also honest enough to admit it wasn’t always rainbows and happiness in his company and I expect Becky and Katy will have harboured some antagonism toward him.”
Thea’s scowl deepened when the app repeated Steve’s name and then her own. Her anger showed no sign of abating when Steve gave the names of the other Butler and Davies employees: Hobbs, Michael and Kinky Jo. A list of items and numbers began to scroll down the displayed images as the app accessed the accounting records of Butler and Davies.
“I can’t believe you fed our names into that damned app,” Thea complained. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“We’re suspects, aren’t we?” Steve shot back. “And we want to test this properly, don’t we?”
“Why would we be suspects?”
He rolled his eyes. “I’ve been working for Victor for the last five years, so I’ve got five years’ worth of reasons to want him dead. He was a horrible employer. He was a very unpleasant man who enjoyed bullying his subordinates. You’ve been sleeping with him and working with him for the same length of time so it’s likely that you’re equally motivated to see him dead. And, if the rumours about you and Kinky Jo have any truth, then I’d have thought you’d want to use the app to clear your name.”
Her cheeks turned scarlet. The frown lines furrowing Thea’s brow suggested that she didn’t like the idea of being considered a suspect, or having rumours about her and Kinky Jo being made public. But she let the matter pass.
“Information needed. When was Victor Davieslast seen alive?”
Steve shrugged and glanced at Thea.
“I saw him on Friday afternoon at about half two,” Thea admitted. “He’d suggested we should hook up over the weekend but he never called me. Now I think I know why.”
“Confirmation needed. Two thirty pm?”
“Yes,” Thea replied. “The office closes at three on a Friday afternoon. I brought Victor a coffee in this office just as I was leaving for the weekend.”
“Deductions complete. I can now confirm the identity of the murderer.”
Thea laughed. She glanced uncertainly at Steve and said, “That sounds a little hasty. How the hell did it work things out so quickly?”
“Perhaps it’s a faster processor chip than we thought?” Steve guessed. “Or maybe this wasn’t the most challenging mystery it’s ever had to face.”
Thea looked like she was going to say something but the app spoke first.
“Revelation.On Friday afternoon Victor Davieswas locked in the office where he died. This is evidenced by the discovery of his body and the post-mortem condition of his corpse.”
Steve and Thea exchanged a glance.
“Victor Davies’s drink had been poisoned. The electricity had been cut to his office. But he managed to leave clues-”
“What makes you think his drink had been poisoned?” Thea broke in.
“Why do you say the power had been cut?” Steve asked sharply.
The app fell silent for a moment and then began again. This time the polished British voice spoke with a slow delivery to her words that suggested an undercurrent of impatience. “Explanation. The electricity had clearly been interrupted because the computer is hanging on a reboot screen.”
Steve was ready to argue that point.
Thea waved him silent before he could speak. “And what makes you think the drink had been poisoned?” Her voice was stiff with derision. “You’re a dumb computer app that’s seen a dozen rubbish amateur pics. What makes you think that Victor’s drink had been poisoned?”
“Explanation.Victor Davies’s image shows post-mortem conditions consistent with symptoms of atropine poisoning. Clearly he has been perspiring profusely. His pupils still remain dilated. There has been a shedding of skin from his face, neck and upper trunk. All these signs suggest the ingestion of atropine or a similar toxic substance.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Steve said. “No one on that suspect list would know how to get hold of atropine.”
“Explanation.Atropine is also known as hyoscine, hyoscyamine or scopolamine. Hyoscine is a principal component of the large quantities of eye-drops that were delivered to Butler and Davies offices one week ago.”
“I thought those eye-drops were to help prevent eye-strain,” Steve mumbled.
“Revelation.The drops were ordered by Thea Butler. Payment was authorised by Victor Davies. Delivery was signed for by Kinky Jo.”
“This proves nothing,” Thea said stiffly.
“Informed speculation mode,” the app declared. “If Victor Davies was locked in the office, and aware he had been poisoned, he would have wanted to leave a clue to reveal the identity of his killer or killers.”
“Why didn’t he phone for help?” Steve asked.
“That is a non sequitur. Images show no telephone line within the room. Images show no mobile handset. Victor Davieshad no phone to use to call for help.”
Thea sniffed. “Why didn’t he just write a note?”
“That is a non sequitur,” the app replied. “Victor Davies was most probably aware that the murderer could be one of the first people to discover his body. In such a scenario any compromising or incriminating evidence identifying the culprit would almost certainly be removed before it could be seen by a third party.”
“So who did it?” Thea asked.
“Informed speculation mode,” the app insisted. “Suspect lists suggest Munford and Sheaffer would benefit most if Victor Davies’s death stopped the progress of the i-Dunit application and its innovative hardware. The potential profits from a crime-solving app are substantial and make corporate theft a conceivable motive.”
“Munford and Sheaffer did it?” Steve asked doubtfully.
“No. Munford and Sheaffer had no access to the building. Browsing histories and credit card authorisations provide both partners of Munford and Sheafferwith alibis.”
“Then who did it?”
“Informed speculation mode,” the app chimed again. “Several members of staff disliked Victor Davies. Having accessed Twitter and FaceBook accounts for Becky, Katy and Kinky Jo, I have found seventy-three separate messages making claims like, ‘my boss is an ass’, and ‘Victor Davies is a moron’, and ‘Who the hell does Victor Davies think he is?’”
“Are you saying one of those three did it?” Thea asked.
“No,” the app said flatly. “Revelation. Victor Davies left specific clues to the identity of his killer. Victor Davies left clues that he didn’t think would be interpreted by the killer, even if the killer was amongst the first on the scene of the crime.”
“Is this about that post-it note?” Steve asked. He tried not to let his voice shake as he scrolled through the photographs he had taken to find the image of the second post-it note. His fingers were trembling as he enlarged the displayed image to show the words, ‘Steve did IT.’
“That is a non sequitur,” the app told him. “The post-it note says Steve did IT.” Once again, a gruff American man’s voice pronounced the words that were being stressed. “The IT in this case is not a pronoun, it’s an acronym for Information Technology. This has been Steve’s role on the i-Dunit project. This note is not a clue. It is a red herring.”
Steve breathed a sigh of relief.
“So what clues had Victor left?” Thea asked.
Steve could hear steel in the woman’s voice. Her face was darkened with menace. Her patience looked as though it had evaporated a long time earlier.
“Revelation.The first clue Victor Davies left came with the third post-it note: Mr Brightside = Thea Butler.”
Thea shrugged. “I don’t know what that means.”
“Mr Brightside, according to Spotify, was a 2003 release for The Killers. The equation in Victor Davies’s note would seem to suggest that Thea Butler is the killer. Victor Davies’s killer is Thea Butler.”
She sniffed. “That’s it? That’s all the evidence you have? Some shitty note where I’d asked Victor to rip me a track to my i-Phone?”
“Supplementary information,” the app announced. “Victor Davies was clutching a copy of The Door by Mary Roberts Rinehart. This is the confirming clue.”
Steve glanced at Thea.
Thea held up her open palms and shook her head. It was clear that she had no idea what the comment meant. “The pen must be faulty,” she said. “That book title means nothing. I’ve never heard of it.”
“Revelation. Mary Roberts Rinehart was a popular mystery writer from the 1930s. Her stories were successful although somewhat clichéd. The Door was a title that made her notorious for inspiring a familiar cliché in mystery fiction.”
“Is this where the app leaves a dramatic pause?” Thea asked. “Because I think that’s always unnecessary. It reminds me of the X-Factor. It’s kind of irritating. If that’s a feature you’ve written into the app, I’d suggest it gets added to the next bug report.”
“What’s the cliché associated with The Door?” Steve asked.
“Revelation,” announced the app. “Mary RobertsRinehart’s cliché is: the butler did it.” There was a pause before the app repeated the words in the female voice. “The butler did it. Thea Butler did it.”
Steve stared at Thea.
Thea laughed softly. “I guess the pen needs a lot more testing before we try it again on a live case,” she said lightly. “Do you want to switch it off now and call the police?” She tugged the post-it notes from the monitor and took the book from Victor’s hands. “The app looks like it’s still a long way from solving crimes but I’m sure you’ll be able to get it there eventually.” Picking up the half-drunk mug of coffee and starting out of the office she said, “I’ll just tidy some of these things away from Victor’s desk before the real police officers get here.” Her smile was tight as she added, “We don’t want them jumping to the same erroneous conclusions as the i-Dunit app, do we?”