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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Past Life - Chapter 2, scene 3

(Latest installment. To read the story in order, go to the Writing - Past Life (story) category)

Wednesday 1st November, 12:30 pm

Katherine left early and took a leisurely ride across town in the midday sun. River Terrace ran along the left bank of the Ashton River; a shallow, twenty meter wide watercourse that meandered through the centre of the city. Number fifteen occupied a corner section overlooking the road and the river with its willow lined banks. Katherine took stock of the house: it was an old, two-story, weather board house with grey and maroon paint that was well past its use by date. Katherine thought that its most curious feature was an octagonal turret built into the front right corner. It rose for two stories and was topped by a shingle covered spire, as tall as the main roof. The whole thing gave the house a somewhat foreboding, Transylvanian look; not an attractive house at all. Outside, a police car was already parked in the side street: Inspector Peyton must already be here.

Katherine wheeled her kick-bike up the garden path, lifted it up the steps, and parked it on the veranda. Inspector Peyton opened the door before Katherine had time to knock.

"Good afternoon Katherine", she said in an almost cheery voice.

"Good afternoon Inspector."

"I think you had better call me Jean", said the Inspector. "We can't maintain the formality forever."

"I hope this won't take quite that long." It was an attempt at a joke that didn't seem to register with the Inspector. "I'm sorry; joke. What would you like me to look at then ... Jean."

Jean led Katherine into the hallway. In keeping with the external appearance, the hallway was a dark, wood panelled space, with a row of coat hooks along the left wall. A single, green, anorak style jacket hung on one of the hooks. She recognised it as the jacket that Jeff wore to work every day.

Katherine suspected that the house was built in the nineteen-thirties and, although the chandelier hanging from the ceiling was obviously more recent, it was styled in keeping with the period. The house reminded her of everything that she disliked about houses of this age; small windows and dark interiors; all seemingly designed to keep out the daylight. She gave an involuntary shiver.

Jean walked through a door on the opposite side of the hallway - it entered onto a short passage with doors leading off left and right. Jean turned right into one of the rooms. Katherine followed her and then stopped abruptly.

At one time, the room might have been a study but now, where bookshelves would once have been, were rows and rows of computers. Not the beige boxes to be found in most offices, but racks and racks of bare mother boards, mounted vertically row upon row from floor to ceiling. The whole array was encased behind a wall of what Katherine assumed to be toughened glass or perspex.

"What on earth is this?" Katherine asked.

"We were rather hoping that you might be able to tell us." Jean said. "Over here seems to be the main terminal." Jean motioned to a desk on the other side of the room.

On the desk sat a standard computer keyboard, a large thirty inch LCD display, and a mouse. Katherine waggled the mouse and the screen came to life. It was text; a log file by all appearances. It showed date and time and a cryptic list of events, the meaning of which was not immediately obvious.

"It was like this when we arrived Monday night", Jean said. "We didn't need to log in."

Katherine didn't answer; she was already thinking about various methods of controlling multiple computers from one terminal. She struck one of the function keys and watched a second window open on the monitor. She stuck it again and the window closed. Soon she had windows opening and closing at will, though it would take a little longer to work out which key combinations linked to which PCs, and what the content of the log files meant.

"Well", said Katherine, returning her attention to Jean, "It's obviously the master control panel and various combinations of function keys with "shift", "control" and "alternate" keys link to different PCs."

"We had figured that much out", Jean said with just a touch of scorn in her voice. Katherine pretended not to notice.

Katherine looked again at the wall of computer motherboards, "This is fascinating", she commented, almost to herself, "I'd love to know what this is all for."

"Oh you haven't seen any thing yet", Jean smirked, "follow me".

Jean led Katherine back into the hall-way and took a door to the left. As Katherine suspected, this led into the ground floor of the corner turret. The room was totally empty of furniture. Long drapes hung at the windows that occupied each of the five external walls and the floors were polished wood; a little worse for wear.

Immediately to the left of the door was a spiral staircase and, while Katherine had been looking at the room, Jean had started climbing. Katherine followed; neither of the women said a word.

In the centre of the first floor room, Katherine could see a raised floor about two metres square. On three sides of the raised floor ran a steel handrail. On the forth side there was a tall swivel chair. Set up high, opposite the seat, was an array of LCD screens; Katherine counted eight, in two rows of four. The last notable item was a keyboard set on a long armed swivel stand so that it could be positioned for either sitting or standing. Katherine walked around the contraption and starred at it, trying to take it all in.

"I've never seen anything like it." she said partly to Jean, partly to herself. "Do you know what it is?"

"No. We can make obvious guesses from what we can see, but without being able to access the system we are at a bit of a loss to be specific. Try standing on it and see what you think."

Katherine gingerly approached the chair and, moving around it, stepped up onto the platform. The floor seemed to be made of a rubbery material and, as she stood on it, the screens in front of her came to life and words swam into focus.

"Welcome to Past Life. Please enter your user name and password."

Obviously the floor was touch sensitive; like a large laptop computer touch-pad. "Past Life?" said Katherine, "Haven't I heard of that somewhere?"

"It's a computer world", answered Jean, "one of those online role playing games. You know, like 'Second Life' or Entropiaa Universe'."

"Yes, of course, I remember now. But wasn't there some scandal about Past Life?"

"Yes. There were a number of complaints about players being stalked by other players in the game. The operators were very lax at policing their users. They had under-age kids in there and it became a hunting ground for paedophiles. After numerous warnings, the court issued an injunction and the thing was closed down."

"You mean that Professor Bollinger was running Past Life! I can't believe that, it sounds so unlike him."

"No, Past Life was built and operated by a syndicate of businessmen; though I use that term loosely. What seems to have happened, according to the Companies Office, is that after Past Life was closed down, the syndicate disbanded, Professor Bollinger purchased Past Life, and the company that ran it was wound up."

"So why would he purchase a computer game with no future?" Katherine asked, mainly to herself.

"That is part of the mystery. It was closed down about nine months ago. Presumably, that's when the Professor must have moved the servers here to River Terrace. It was here, in this room, that the professor was killed. We have cleaned up now but just behind you on the floor was where we found him."

Katherine looked behind the chair and noticed some dark stains on the wooden floor. She shuddered momentarily; seeing evidence of Jeff's death suddenly made it real rather than an unproven theory.

"Strangled, you said" commented Katherine.

"Yes, and beaten: beaten and strangled. Bruises all over his torso, internal bleeding. Not sure yet what actually killed him; the internal injuries or the strangulation."

Katherine shuddered again. Jeff had been a slightly built man, certainly not muscular and not one she would have thought able to have put up much of a fight. So how did he get beaten to death and here in his home?

"Do you know who killed him?"

"We are following a few leads. Does the name Martin Crawford mean anything to you?"

"No, I don't think it does. Is he the person you suspect of this?"

"Just one of the leads we are following."

It wasn't true of course; Martin Crawford was a criminal, out of jail for the last twelve months and had been living with Jeff at his house: at least that is what the parole records said. And Martin was missing. Jean's team had found his belongings at the house but, as for Martin himself, he was nowhere to be found. Martin was definitely Jean's prime suspect.

"So", said Katherine thoughtfully, "Past Life was closed down, but the Professor carried on running it without you knowing?"

"That's the weird thing. These games need a large bandwidth connection to the Internet. The only link here to the Internet is a standard ADSL connection - that wouldn't support anything like the traffic needed to keep Past Life working."

"So, you are telling me that we have an on-line, roll playing, game that's been here for nine months in full working order but with no Internet connection?" She ladled on the disbelief especially for Jean's benefit.

"We don't know that its been here in full working order for nine months", Jean countered. "The Professor may have been making it ready to go back on line again."

"But even so, why would a university Professor want to run an on-line computer game. It doesn't make any sense."

"We don't know and at the moment we can't get into the system to find out. If we shut it down, we could destroy evidence and if we mount a brute force attack against the security system we might do the same thing. But it seems quite possible that this is all tied in to the professor's murder. I was rather hoping that, because you are familiar with the professor's work, you might have more success at finding out what all this is about than we will."

"This isn't the sort of thing we were doing at the university and I really don't know what help I can be", Katherine countered.

"I understand that, but we really do need some help here. Although you don't think you know much, you are in fact the person who has spent the most time with the Professor over the last three years. Over there," Jean waved to a small table under one of the windows, "Is a laptop which belonged to the Professor. We managed to get into that easily enough - it wasn't very secure. It seems to contain a lot of notes that we don't understand as well as some personal material. It may provide an insight into the rest of this and I suspect that you would be able to find out much quicker than we would."

"What makes you think I would have any more luck than you? I've been researching artificial intelligence, not roll playing games."

"Just take a look for us please. Either the professor was very fond of you or he wanted you to see the contents of that laptop - the password is 'katherine'".

Katherine blinked. Why would Jeff use her name? People used their partners names, pet names, place names, plant names; any name you can think of, but she didn't know of anyone who used their work colleagues names as passwords. And there was something else rising up inside; she was feeling used. This Past Life thing had nothing to do with her, but somehow Jeff had gone and made her part of it by stealing her name for a password. Her name. How dare he!

"He probably just wanted an easy to remember password", she said lamely.

"That's what I thought initially. But there is more. This morning I went to see the Professor's lawyers." Jean held out a business card to Katherine. "You need to get in touch with them if they haven't already called you."

Katherine shook her head.

"I'm talking a bit out of turn now", Jean continued, "but, apparently, all this", Jean waved her arms around expressively, "will shortly be yours."

"But I don't want it." She said, what would I do with it all? It's hardly going to fit into a one bed flat!"

"No, I mean everything. The house included. It seems that it is all going to be yours. You will need to speak to the Professor's lawyers for the details, but apparently you were one of the main beneficiaries in his will."

Katherine was struck dumb. None of this made any sense. Why would Jeff leave her any of his stuff; let alone a house and an on-line computer game? It all seemed so unlikely.

"Are you sure this isn't a mistake?" Katherine managed to get out. "I just can't see why he would leave all this to me. And, quite frankly, I haven't a clue what I would do with it. I certainly don't have any interest in on-line Internet gaming."

Jean smiled, "Then we share an interest. I too would like to know why the Professor left all of this to you. As for what you decide to do with it all, I am afraid that has to be your decision. But you can help; the Professor was probably playing this game when he was killed. If you can find out what, if anything, this game has to do with the Professor's death, then that will help me enormously. It will almost certainly help to answer your question too. Will you do that?"

Katherine was beginning to have second thoughts. Her impulsiveness about not wanting anything to do with the game was being tempered by recalling that there might be something here that could help her salvage her career. "Ok, I'll see what I can do. I have some days off of work before the Vice Chancellor returns. I'll try to see what I can make of all this and let you know."

Jean held out a key, "This is one of the keys to the house. You will need it to get in and out. I have the other key at the moment as this is still formally a crime scene. However, we have finished our forensic examination so there is no evidence here that you can damage - except of course anything that might be in this equipment."

Katherine gingerly took the key, "Thank you", she said. Somehow it felt as though she was accepting something weighty, something she might regret later. It was not an entirely welcome transaction.

Jean looked toward the business card in Katherine's other hand. I suggest that you get in touch with them soon; they will fill you in on all the details.

"Unless there is anything else you need, I'll leave you to start work, but don't forget the lawyer. I'll call you later."

With that Jean started down the stairs and Katherine followed.

For the second time that day, Katherine saw Jean out. This time, she stood in the doorway to a house that was supposed to be hers but, aside from the hall way and the quick tour of three of the rooms, she had no idea what the rest of the house was like. Katherine was beginning to feel like a stranger in her own life.

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Categories: Writing - Past Life (story)   Entry: PermaLink