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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Past Life - Chapter 1, scene 1

As promissed - the first (short) installment of Past Life ...

PAST LIFE

Wednesday 1st November, 2:30 am

Katherine Shuuman shut the door to her flat; turned and leant backwards against the solid wood, closing her eyes as she took a deep breath. She listened to the footsteps on the stairs, to the thud ... thud of car doors, to the engine start, pull away and, finally, fade into the distance. Only then, did she release the withheld breath and allow her body to slide down the door, until she was sitting on the floor.

"Stupid old fool", she muttered, "why did you have to go and get yourself killed?" It was an awful thing to say; how could she be so callous as to think of herself just after being told that Jeff had died - and in such a horrible way? Even so, she could see her career swirling down the toilet pan, and it was no trifling thing.

Katherine had been Professor Bollinger's Research Assistant for three years. It had been three years of hard slog but her PhD was now in sight - or had been up until a couple of hours ago. There was no one else in the country working in the Professor's field, and there was no way that the university was going to allow Katherine to continue his work; she was, after all, only his Research Assistant. It was Jeff's reputation that brought in the funding and without that the lab would be closed. Somehow she would have to start over on some other project and that would mean the last three years would be wasted.

Katherine pounded her fists on the floor in frustration.

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Past Life - Chapter 1, scene 2

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

Two hours earlier, at 12:30 am., Katherine had been woken by an insistent banging on the door to her flat. Eyes blurry from two hours of sleep, she looked at the bed side clock, gradually forcing the glowing digits into focus.

Groaning, she wondered who it could be at this hour of night and dragged herself out of bed, pulling her pink towelling wrap around her as she headed toward the door.

"Oh!" she said, taking in the two police uniforms on her doorstep. The senior one, a woman in her early forties, wore large gold framed glasses with a fringe of brown hair protruding from under her hat. She was about the same height as Katherine but with a heavier frame and a stony, uncommunicative, expression on her face.

"Katherine Shuuman?" she asked.

Katherine didn't like hearing her name used as a question any more than she liked being called "Kath" or "Kate".

"Yes."

"May we come in?" - another question.

"I suppose ... " Her words were not complete before she found herself watching the two uniforms walk past her. "Door on the right", she said to their backs, directing them into the lounge of her one bedroom flat. Apparently a police uniform trumped a queen in her own castle.

Katherine noted that the second policeman was much younger - early twenties perhaps, certainly younger than Katherine - but quite tall with short blonde hair that had previously been hidden under the cap; now tucked under his arm.

Katherine followed them into the lounge and motioned toward the sofa. The woman sat, but the young man remained standing and drew a notebook from his uniform pocket. Katherine sat in the easy chair and, as if it was a cue, the policewoman spoke.

"Can we ask were you were Monday evening from about 6:00 pm.?" So, Katherine thought, now it was questions about questions. Katherine felt detached from the situation, an observer noting its details rather than a participant in it.; perhaps it had to do with being woken from sleep.

"Yes, but what is this all about?"

"We will get to that in a minute" the woman said; obviously not prepared to give any ground.

Katherine obliged with a run down of her movements from the time she had left the university Monday evening. She had cycled back home to the flat by 6:00 pm.; called her friend, Jenny, and arranged to meet for a meal at "Le Cafe". She had changed clothes and got a cab there arriving about 7:00 pm.. They ate until 9 or 9:30, not really sure of the exact time, then came home by cab and went to bed at 10:30. She was sure of that time because "Night Sounds" had just started on the radio when she turned it off.

"And Jenny's full name and address?" the policewoman asked.

"Jenny Crawford. seventeen Somerfield Place. Her phone number is 027 442 074." It was a small thing, but somehow providing the phone number that hadn't been requested restored a little of Katherine's sense of being in control in her own home.

While she had been talking, the younger policeman had been scribbling notes. Now the policewoman glanced at him and nodded, which seemed to be some sort of signal because he immediately folded his notebook and left the room.

The policewoman looked at Katherine and, for the first time, something vaguely resembling a smile crossed her face.

"My name is Jean Peyton; Inspector Jean Peyton", the woman said. For the first time she held out her identity card for Katherine to see.

Katherine detected a note of pride in the way the woman used her rank to qualify her name and at the same time mentally reprimanded herself for not asking for identification at the door: people had been robbed and killed through such oversights.

"I apologise for the late intrusion and the questions. But there are things we have to check in cases like these."

"Cases like what?" Katherine asked.

"Cases of suspicious death. I am afraid that Professor Bollinger was found dead on Monday evening."

Katherine knew that something bad was coming, the police seldom called in the middle of the night with good news, but this was not what Katherine had expected. For some reason her mind was already wondering whether something had happened to Jen after they had left Le Cafe, or Katherine's parents perhaps, but Jeff? No, that was definitely not on her mind - nothing ever happened to Jeff, he was too careful too conservative. Everything was weighed and calculated; accidents were not part of Jeff's life nor, she was sure, part of his death.

"He was fine when I left the University Monday", Katherine said, immediately realising that it sounded like a dumb and defencive statement, but it was out before she could stop it.

"I am sure he was. He was found dead at his home ... murdered." The Inspector paused, studying Katherine's face which was now looking very much like the proverbial stunned mullet.

"You hadn't heard about this yesterday?" Inspector Peyton asked.

"No. I called in sick early yesterday. Stomach bug. May have been something to do with the sea food I ate on Monday night; though Jen was all right."

"Can you tell me a little bit more about Professor Bollinger? I need to understand his habits, what he has been like lately, your relationship with him, things like that."

Now Katherine began to feel at a disadvantage again. "I'm not sure I can help much. The professor and I only worked together. He never mentioned his private life and everything we talked about revolved around our work." Katherine looked up, as if seeking inspiration before continuing; "I don't think he was married. At least he never mentioned a wife ... and ... there was something about the way he dressed - sort of careless, slightly scruffy, not the sort of thing a wife would have let pass. I don't think there was anything especially different about him Monday night, he just seemed his usual preoccupied self."

"How was he preoccupied?" asked the Inspector.

"With his work. It comes with the job I'm afraid; we are both very focussed. When we are working, nothing else matters. It's an occupational necessity, we live and breathe whatever problem we are working on. That's all.

"Anyway, how did he die?" Katherine asked, wanting to retake some initiative.

"He was found beaten and strangled in his home - not a very nice way to die."

A silence stood between the two women for a few seconds, while the Inspector studied Katherine's reactions and Katherine wondered how the Inspector could be so 'matter of fact' about death and whether there was any 'nice' way to die.

"What about your relationship with him; Did you get on well together?"

Katherine wanted to lie, to say they got on well but it wasn't true. "We only related at work. The Professor was ... well ... The Professor, and I was his assistant. It was as cut and dried as that."

"It sounds as if you didn't have a very good relationship", the Inspector observed.

"It was a working relationship. The Professor expected a lot and sometimes felt that I didn't deliver. He was a hard task master."

"An unfair task master?"

"Sometimes ... I guess."

"But not unfair enough to kill him?"

It was an unexpectedly blunt question that caught Katherine off guard as, indeed, it was intended to do.

"No. Absolutely not. I've worked for the Professor for three years and we had funding for our work for another two years. I have nearly completed my PhD and have a lot invested in completing this research. Without the Professor all that goes down the pan. I need him alive, not dead."

Katherine flushed with emotion and a satisfied smile lit up the Inspector's face.

"What exactly were you and the Professor working on?"

This was a question Katherine always dreaded. Whether it was a social occasion, or a formal request for information like now, she had never found the middle ground between a quick, flippant, answer and a thirty minute lecture. Flippant was definitely out on this occasion, so she would have to try for a shorter lecture.

"Do you know what Artificial Intelligence is?" Katherine asked, hoping to shortcut the lecture.

"Vaguely", the Inspector answered. "I think we use it in our computer systems for things like finger print matching, facial recognition and document analysis. Is that what you mean?"

"Close", said Katherine. "Except those examples are what we classify as 'weak A.I.' - basically nothing more than sets of rules applied by expert systems. What the professor was working on would be termed 'strong A.I.' Strong A.I. systems are capable not only of applying sets of predetermined rules, but of generating new rules of their own. Essentially, they are systems that can learn by themselves. The Professor was working on developing computer programs to drive thinking machines."

"I see," said the Inspector. Which made Katherine wonder whether the Inspector was particularly bright, or she had finally found the right formulae to describe her job in thirty seconds rather than thirty minutes.

"You said that you had funding for this research. Where did that funding come from?"

"I don't have the details of that. But I believe there were a number of sources. I am pretty sure that the finance industry were interested: Banks and insurance companies have been using various forms of AI for years to detect transactional behaviours that indicate fraud. Every time you make a transaction on your account over a certain value, it is analysed by a computer program to see whether it is suspicious. Visual identification is also an issue for large institutions, there are systems that can monitor the feeds from surveillance cameras, track individuals and raise alarms when suspicious behaviour is detected."

"Where there any other interested parties?"

"Well, of course, governments are very interested and also the military. I would be surprised if there wasn't funding from those sources."

Katherine hoped the Inspector would not press further on this topic. She had feigned ignorance and been evasive with generalities but, murder or no, the Official Secrets Act was beginning to loom large in her thinking.

Fortunately, the Inspector was interrupted by the constable returning. He handed her a piece of note paper which she read quickly, nodding as she did so. When she spoke again her tone was slightly softer, almost friendly.

"Miss Shuuman, I think we are almost done here. But I have one last question: do you know what the Professor would have been working on at home?"

"Well the same thing as we were doing at the university; the Professor often took work home. We both did."

"No, I don't mean paper work. I am wondering why the Professor would have a large computer installation at his house; the place is crammed from floor to ceiling. Have you any idea what he would have been using that equipment for?"

"No, I had no idea that the Professor had equipment at home."

"Then I wonder if, later today, let's say around one o'clock, you would oblige me by taking a look at the Professor's home. Our technical people have had an initial look but we don't want to damage anything by blundering around in something we don't understand."

Now Katherine was curious. Had the professor been holding out on her? What had he been up to at home?

"Yes I can manage that. What is the professor's address?"

"You don't know where he lives?"

"No, never been there and the closest he got to saying was that he lived over on the east side of the city."

"That's right, number fifteen, River Terrace. Can you find your way there?"

"Yes. That's not a problem. fifteen River Terrace, at one tomorrow afternoon then."

The inspector rose.

"I am sorry to have disturbed you so late at night. So, thank you for your time and assistance."

Katherine followed them both to the door and watched as they started down the stairs.

"Until tomorrow then", she said to their backs and closed the door.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Past Life - Chapter 1, scene 3

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

Now, as she sat with her back against the door, Katherine's mind was awash with a confusion of emotions. There was shock at the news and the disruption that it brought, anger at Jeff for having gone and got himself killed. Then there was fear over her uncertain future, and curiosity as to what Jeff had been up to at his home.

For a few minutes she sat, cycling through the quartet of emotions. Too confused for tears, her forehead furrowed, her eyes screwed up and her breath came in short, shuddering gasps as she replayed the conversation with the Inspector, creating her own thoughts and images to fill in the blanks. Already she could see herself in a courtroom giving evidence against Jeff's murderer. With a certainty that was more like a memory she could visualise the conversation with the Vice Chancellor, in which she lost her job. But the one picture she had difficulty with was Jeff's house and the computer equipment. Unless it was something like the University laboratory where they worked, but then that wouldn't look like a house crammed from floor to ceiling as the Inspector had said. It was a misty image for which she had no reference point.

Among all her emotions it was this fugitive image of Jeff's house that intrigued her the most. It piqued her professional curiosity and it was where her mind had come to rest when she finally opened her eyes and glanced in the hallway mirror. For the first time she could see the grey bags that hung under her eyes and her mousy hair dishevelled from the interrupted sleep. Her pink towelling wrap was tied none to securely around her waist, and her bare feet looked grotesque, magnified by their proximity to the mirror.

Staring at her huge feet, she realised that they were starting to get numb from the draft slipping silently beneath the door to her flat. She also realised that she had just entertained two strangers looking like a drunk that they could have picked up off the street.

"Oh, shit!" She muttered, struggling to her feet and heading for the kitchen; a strong coffee was in order: she certainly wasn't going to get much sleep during what was left of tonight.

(23/12/2008 - edited following reader comment - thanks HH.)

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Past Life - Chapter 1, scene 4

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

Wednesday 1st November, 7:30 am.

Through the early morning hours Katherine turned her thoughts into hypotheses; subjected them to critical analysis, ran mental simulations to see how they might stand up in the real world, and rejected those with sub-optimal outcomes. That was the way her logical left brain worked. But tonight it was fighting for a hearing with something less ordered, more subversive; an emotional flood tide that kept interrupting and undermining her careful logic.

She lost count of the number of cups of coffee she had made or the minutes she had stared, unseeing, at some late night TV show, while the waters of emotion had overwhelmed her thoughts. But, sometime around dawn, Katherine had mastered her unruly emotions and arrived at the makings of a plan.

She would go to the university early and retrieve her own research papers. She wouldn't be able to complete the work without the university's research program, but she might be able to recycle some of the material if she could get onto another computer related program elsewhere. That might at least provide some basis for keeping her career alive. After that she would make an appointment to see the Vice Chancellor to discuss her future. Maybe, the university would be keen to replace Jeff so that they could retain his research funding. If she were lucky, she might get a recommendation to be research assistant to a new Professor.

Once she had done that, she would go to Jeff's place. Not that she particularly wanted to visit a murder scene, but there was the tantalising thought of all that computer equipment that Inspector Peyton had mentioned. That too might provide some leverage with the university.

Heading to the shower, Katherine shrugged off the pink wrap, letting it fall to the ground as her slim frame slid gracefully behind the frosted glass; looking for all the world like a scene from a TV advertisement for beauty soap. At twenty-eight, Katherine was an attractive woman. Anyone could see that; anyone except Katherine herself, who seemed totally unaware of the magnetic effect she had on the few men who got close to her. Whenever Katherine looked in a mirror, she saw a nerdy geek with glasses and front teeth that seemed a touch too large. In her own eyes, Katherine was a computer scientist; a good computer scientist for whom IQ was a more vital statistic than dress size.

An hour later, dressed in a brown suit atop a beige, roll-neck jumper and wearing a backpack, she carried her kick-bike down the stairs of her flat and scooted toward the university.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

Past Life - Chapter 2, scene 1

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

The morning ride to work took Katherine through some of the better kept parts of town. She scooted along leafy avenues and through a large, well maintained, park where the Chestnut trees arched over the pathways like benevolent elders, ready to pat the heads of the morning joggers. Normally she would have taken it all in, relishing the pleasure of living and working in such an attractive city. This morning though, Katherine's thoughts were elsewhere - mentally cataloguing the items she needed to collect from the computer lab.

Entering the university campus, an unease began to close around her: an unease that gained substance when she saw the two police cars in the car park next to the laboratory block.

Katherine dismounted and chained her bike to the rack, all the while keeping her eyes on the door to the block. The police cars only hinted at what might be going on inside and she was already wondering whether there might have been another death. She approached the block with some trepidation.

Stepping inside, out of the morning sun, it took her eyes a moment or two to adjust enough to see a police officer standing at the far end of the corridor - right outside the door to the lab. She walked briskly and authoritatively down the corridor, deliberately bolstering her nerves with a sense of indignation that someone was invading her work place.

"I'm sorry Miss, you can't go in there." The large sized policeman said.

There was yellow and black tape across the doorway and inside two or three men in white coats were packing equipment and files into plastic crates.

"What's going on?" Katherine asked.

"I can't tell you, I am afraid. I'm just here to make sure no one gets in."

Katherine detected a sense of resentment in his tone, as if the job were beneath him.

"But I work here. This is our lab. What are they doing with all our equipment?"

The officer looked at her carefully. "Just a minute", he said, turning toward the open door. "Mr. Anderson, there's someone here to see you."

One of the white coated men looked toward the doorway, stared questioningly at Katherine and came across the room. His white coat was undone revealing neatly pressed dark trousers, a white shirt and tie. His garb would have looked better with a suit jacket than a lab coat, though his balding head and wire framed glasses went with the coat quite well.

"Katherine Shuuman?" It was the second time that day she had become a question: weird. Weird that it had happened twice. Weird that she should be keeping count.

"Yes, I work here. What are you doing with all our equipment?"

"All the equipment is being packed and transported elsewhere. I can't tell you any more than that. It's been approved by the university and, if you need to, you should speak to the Vice Chancellor. We have his full authorisation to remove the equipment."

Anderson smiled. His tone wasn't brusk, but it was business like and firm. The smile was just a sweetener to the bad news. Katherine knew bureaucracy when she met it - there was enough at the university - and she knew there was little chance of getting past this bureaucratic white coat, but it was worth a try.

"I have some of my personal research papers in there for my PhD, can I retrieve those please?"

"I am sorry that won't be possible. My orders are to pack and ship everything." He laid special emphasis on "everything".

The exchange had been short but already Katherine was getting impatient at the brick wall being erected in front of her.

"How did you know who I was?" she asked.

White coat paused momentarily then, looking her straight in the eye, said "I was expecting you. Good morning Miss Shuuman, we will contact you if we need anything." With that, he turned and walked away.

Contact me, Katherine thought; who do I contact?

Clearly it was time for a visit to the Vice Chancellor's office.

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Monday, February 09, 2009

Past Life - Chapter 2, scene 2

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

The Vice Chancellor's office was on the second floor of the adjacent block. It looked out across the sports fields and beyond them to the park that Katherine rode through just thirty minutes ago. She took the stairs; preferring movement to a wait for the lift.

"I am afraid he isn't here right now." The secretary said. If you would like to make an appointment, I can book you in for next week. The Vice Chancellor will be away until then."

"But this is important." Katherine said. "All my research papers are being packed up and taken away. I need to get them back to complete my PhD thesis."

The secretary paused for a moment, "You're Katherine Shuuman?"

"Yes." Katherine said, wondering how so many people she had never met suddenly knew her by sight.

The secretary reached into a draw and pulled out an envelope. "The Vice Chancellor left this for you", she said, holding out the cream envelope with the university's crest in the corner.

Another bureaucratic dead end, thought Katherine as she took the proffered envelope. "Thank you" she said. Somewhere deep down and from a long way back, there was a little girl bursting to throw a tantrum, dying to scream out that it wasn't fair and that no one cared about her. But instead she mustered all her self control and asked pleasantly when the Vice Chancellor was due back.

The secretary pulled a diary toward her and leafed through the pages. "He is due back next Tuesday: first thing."

"Well, I would like to make an appointment to see him next Tuesday, please."

The secretary looked at the diary again. "He is free at 11:30 for half an hour. Will that suit?"

"Yes, that will be fine", Katherine said. "Thank you" and she turned and left the office, pleased that she had managed to control the potential outburst.

The day was getting worse. She was starting to feel as though her life was becoming a nightmare in which policemen, men in white coats and secretaries had taken charge. She found a seat in the quad and opened the envelope.

"Dear Miss Shuuman", the Vice Chancellor had written.

"I would have preferred to speak to you personally about this matter, but yesterday my secretary informed me that you were not at work and, as I will be away for a few days, I reluctantly have to write you this letter.

"I regret to inform you that, in the light of Professor Bollinger's sudden death, the university have reluctantly had to close down the research project that you were both working on.

"As you know, the research was funded from outside the university and, under the terms of the funding contract, the sponsors have an exclusive right to the results of that research. In the unique circumstances of this case, they have decided to exercise that right by removing all equipment and documentation produced during the research.

"Obviously this will have a significant impact on your own studies and I am keen to discuss the options with you when I return to the university next week. Please be assured that the university will not allow your career to be unduly impacted by this unfortunate turn of events. In the meantime please take a few days off from your work and I will see you when I return."

"Blah, blah, sincerely, blah." thought Katherine as she skipped over the last few words. She wondered how her career could not be 'unduly impacted', but at least the Vice Chancellor had seemed to be offering some sort of hope for the future. Still, she was no nearer to understanding what had happened than she was when she arrived. And, who the hell were these people who had an "exclusive right" to her work?

Katherine sat for several minutes holding the letter in her hand while she stared vacantly. Finally she seemed to reach a decision, folded the letter and replaced it in the envelope. She made her way back to where she had parked her bicycle, unlocked it and headed back toward her flat. After lunch she had another meeting with the Inspector to look forward to. Maybe something interesting might come of that.

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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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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Past Life - Chapter 3, scene 1

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

Katherine stood on the veranda for some time; it was pleasantly warm, the willows by the river swayed gently in the breeze and a pair of ducks swooped down to land on the water: it was a very agreeable location. But at her back was a dark house full of intrigue and a room where a man had been killed. It was a house full of foreboding and, apparently, it was going to belong to her.

Foreboding or not, her curiosity only allowed her to linger in the fresh air for a few moments before she reentered the house leaving the front door open; not wanting to sever the link with the light airiness of the world outside.

Katherine opened the door on the left of the hallway - opposite the one that led to the turret. It was the house's formal lounge, though clearly Jeff had never used it as such. It had an old three piece lounge suite, a couple of standard lamps and an old fashioned, tiled, fire place. But every spare space in the room seemed to be filled with stacks of cardboard boxes and packaging materials. Clearly Jeff had never used this room for entertaining.

Leaving the lounge, Katherine returned to the hallway and from there through to the passage and the door opposite the study that she had been in earlier with Jean. It was the dinning room; empty except for a table, four chairs and a rug on the polished wood floor. On the table was a mixture of newspapers, junk mail and a few opened letters, along with a couple of coffee mugs presumably from the last time the room was used.

Katherine was already imagining what she would find in the kitchen and, passing through the adjoining door, was not disappointed. It could have been worse she supposed, but the dishes from the last meal had not been washed and there was still a pot on the stove which, she discovered, contained the remnants of a stew. Fortunately it was not more than a day or two old.

The only other room downstairs was a utilitarian laundry with a tub and washing machine. This was decidedly a man's house; a paractical device to be lived in and used, not a proxy statement for social position or status.

Katherine made her way back down the passage and entered again into the study to look at the rows of computers sitting silently behind their glass enclosure, winking their orange LEDs at her. She wondered what the room might look like in the dark with all those winking lights? She didn't expect to find the answers to her questions in this room but, right now, she wasn't ready to go back upstairs to the scene of the murder.

She lingered in the study looking at the computers. At first sight they all seemed to be identical but gradually she began to detect subtle differences in models of motherboard, processors and other components. This collection of computers had been built up over a period of time: The motherboards themselves, though the same make, had different model numbers and there were a variety of different processors on the boards. Even the types of RAM used were different. It was hard to be certain, but if these were current models when they were purchased, then it looked as though the oldest was about two years old and the latest quite recent.

As she came to these conclusions, the analytical side of Katherine's personality began to overcome the feelings of darkness and foreboding that was keeping her on the ground floor and she turned and left the study.

There were two routes to the upper floor; one was via the spiral staircase in the turret, the other was through a more traditional staircase that started in the hallway. It was this staircase that Katherine now took and found herself on a landing with doors leading off to bedrooms and one which must lead to the upper story of the turret. She tried this door but it wouldn't budge. Perhaps it was locked? But then she recalled the inside of the turret room and couldn't remember there being a doorway in the upper room at all. Jeff must have blocked this door off when making his modifications to the turret.

She turned down the landing - at the far end, over the kitchen was the bathroom. The other three doors led to large double bedrooms. One was reasonably clean, but clothes were either hanging in open cupboards, or were stacked on top of the dressing table and the chests of draws. Katherine recognised some of the jumpers and concluded that this was Jeff's room. She backed out closing the door, feeling that somehow she was invading the privacy of her boss of the last three years.

It was bloody silly, she didn't even like the man and yet here she was standing outside his bedroom. His bedroom in a house that was apparently hers; none of this made any sense.

The second bedroom was undoubtedly Martin's. One wall was covered with posters from a number of well known films. Most of the women in the posters were pretty scantily clad - at least that didn't suggest any unusual relationship between Martin and Jeff. She wasn't quite sure why she found that comforting, but she did.

The final bedroom, over the front lounge room, was probably the tidiest room in the house. There was a large double bed made up ready for use with two towels neatly folded on the bed. It was a guest room, clean, tidy, and ready for a visitor. Somehow it seemed so out of place amongst the drabness and untidiness of the rest of the house.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Past Life - Chapter 3, scene 2

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

Her tour of the house over, Katherine retraced her steps to the hallway and then entered the lower floor of the turret room. Climbing the spiral stairs she made a direct line for the desk with the laptop, not caring to look at the centre of the room and the place where Jeff had died.

She picked up the laptop and carried it back down the stairs. What should she do, put it in her backpack and take it back to her flat or have a look at it here? She tossed up the options for a moment and then pulled the lawyer's business card from her jacket pocket.

"Anderson, Jenkins and Swain, 37 Princess Street."

The address was almost on her route back home, perhaps she should give them a call and stop there on the way back to the flat. Katherine took out her mobile and dialled the number on the card.

"Anderson, Jenkins and Swain, can I help you?"

It was a woman's voice with a lilting Irish accent that sounded as if she were singing. A singing lawyer. Katherine smiled to herself, imagining the incongruity of a lawyer singing Jeff's last will and testament.

"Yes, my name is Katherine Shuuman ... "

"Oh yes, Ms. Shuuman, Mr Jenkins has been expecting your call. I'll just put you through. Hold on please."

Muzak. Click.

"Ms. Shuuman?"

She was getting used to conversations starting this way, "Yes."

"My name is Robert Jenkins. we are representing the estate of Jeffrey Bollinger. I am glad you called. May I offer you my condolences, you must have been very close to Mr. Bollinger."

Katherine decided not to disabuse the man, "Thank you", she said. "It was a big shock", which, indeed, it had been.

"Well, as I said, our company represents the estate of Mr. Bollinger and now, with his passing ..."

"I understand he was murdered, strangled in fact", corrected Katherine.

"Yes ... yes indeed ... very unfortunate."

Katherine hadn't intended to be rude, but she despised dressing hard truths in the antiseptic language of euphemisms.

Robert Jenkins continued, "Anyway Ms. Shuuman, we do need to speak to you as soon as possible to tidy up some of the details of Mr. Bollinger's estate. You do realise that he has left some property to you?"

"Yes, Inspector Peyton had suggested that might be the case. When can I come in to see you?"

"Is today too soon? I have appointments until about 4:30, but I should be free by then."

Katherine looked at her watch, it was 2:45 pm, "Yes, that should be fine. I'll come by at 4:30."

"Good, I'll look forward to seeing you then. Thank you."

Katherine closed her phone. It would take about fifteen minutes to get to Princess Street which gave her about an hour and a half to have a look at the laptop. She headed for the dinning room and began clearing a space on the table.

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Past Life - Chapter 3, scene 3

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

Katherine sat down with the laptop. She had stacked the papers and letters neatly in a pile at one end of the table and placed the used coffee mugs on the bench by the sink. If this had been her house she would have been tidying and doing dishes by now. But to clean up here would imply some sort of ownership and despite, or perhaps because, of what Jean had said, Katherine was not ready to assume that role. Maybe she did not want to be ready.

Katherine opened the laptop, located and pressed the power button and watched the screen come to life. The system presented Jeff's login and, after a couple of attempts at getting the capitalisation of her name correct for the password, the system started to load Jeff's profile.

For someone who's house was so messy, Jeff maintained a very clean desktop; only the few default icons were visible. Being methodical, Katherine searched the computer for the most recently opened files and quickly realised that the police had already examined the laptop and the files she was seeing were those that they had opened. She thought back; assuming that Jeff had been killed by 10:00 pm the previous evening, she entered a search for the last week in October, that would exclude the period the police had been logged in.

A list of files scrolled onto the screen, many of them system files. She refined the search again to show only user documents. The list was quite small; email, a couple of text documents and a video file with a raunchy sounding title. Thirty seconds of the video was enough; a graphic confirmation of the files title. Katherine felt nauseated. Not because of the content of the video; she was sufficiently worldly wise to know that such material existed and had seen softer material when she was an undergraduate. But knowing that the man she had worked with during the last three years kept videos like this on his laptop, shocked her. He just didn't seem to be the type.

Katherine turned her attention to the text documents. One was a critique of a paper written by a Professor from the University of Cologne. It was on artificial intelligence, in a different but related area to that which Jeff and Katherine had been working. Without reading the other paper she couldn't understand everything in the document, but it hardly seemed relevant to Jeff's death. Katherine opened the other text document.

It was headed "Lab Notes" and contained a list of dated entries. She had expected to read about what Jeff had been doing with Past Life, but the notes seemed related to the work they had been doing at the University. Though Katherine found it hard to relate the notes to what she could recall them doing over the last month. Katherine quickly scanned down the list to the last entry.

"The aberrant behaviour of some entities is perplexing" she read. "I am reluctant to alter the underlying parameters to correct this aberration as it will invalidate any results. Assuming that the assessment algorithm is correct, then this behaviour can be adjusted by providing additional learning. If this is done through the interface, then the integrity of the algorithm will be maintained and the experiment will continue to plan. Additional learning will be initiated Tuesday 31 October."

Katherine was now as confused as ever. This note didn't seem to be related to anything they were doing at the university, nor was it related to the running of Past Life. None of it made any sense. If only she could compare these notes with the lab notes they had kept at the university, then she might be able to see the relationship but, of course, that was no longer possible.

Giving up on the lab notes, Katherine turned her attention to the email. The majority of the email was correspondence with the university and other professional colleagues. She browsed through quickly flipping from one message to another, but nothing seemed interesting in the context of Jeff's death.

There was a bunch of email in a folder called "Past Life" and Katherine spent more time looking through this. Most of it was historical and the last entries were with Jeff's lawyers about drawing up an agreement with the Crown Prosecutor about the closure of Past life. The last email was over six months old and, although the correspondence was interesting, none of it seemed to obviously relate to Jeff's death.

There was a lot more material to read but it would have to wait for now. It was 4:15 pm and she would need to leave for the lawyer's office.

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Past Life - Chapter 3, scene 4

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

Crispin had run out of options. It didn't seem to matter how many times he ran through the variables he always came to the same conclusion. Either he should continue coming to the Portal Gardens in the hope of meeting Jeff again, or there was some piece of information that he was missing. But how do you know what you don't know?

Once again, Crispin walked around the walled gardens; They were peaceful, set high on a hill in one corner of the mesa; a mesa on a mesa. He walked between the olive trees casting their dappled shadows on the grass. The stone seats, where once people would come to meet, were empty as, indeed, they were every day. Few people came to the Portal Gardens anymore.

At the far end of the garden, opposite the garden gates, stood the Portal building its self. It was a tall, slim, octagonal structure with a pointed roof. It's windowless walls were covered with a shiny cladding that glistened in the afternoon sunlight.

Not for the first time that day, Crispin considered entering the building. Perhaps Jeff was inside. Perhaps something had happened to him. But the Portal building was taboo; only on special occasions was anyone allowed to enter. It was part of the old law. Jeff had often invited him in, to the room where he worked on the upper floor. Crispin recalled the large wooden desk where Jeff sat to write and the red, leather bound book in which he wrote. That was before; before Jeff had vanished.

Now, with the gardens deserted, no one would know if Crispin were to enter the building. There could be no repercussions and, in any case, a breach unobserved was hardly a breach. Indeed, he had already ascertained that Jeff was not in the building on one of his many prior visits.

Crispin's mind returned again to the red, leather bound, book. Jeff's instructions had seemed strange: One day someone would come looking for this book. He showed Crispin where it was kept, in a carefully concealed compartment of the desk. This, Jeff had explained, was secret knowledge known only to himself and Crispin. It was not to be shared with any one else except when Jeff had died. Crispin found it hard to imagine Jeff dead.

Jeff had explained that many people would come looking for the book, but there was only one person that Crispin should allow to know about the book. That wasn't a difficult instruction except that Jeff could not tell Crispin who that person was.

"You will know them when you meet them", was all that Jeff would say.

Jeff had not turned up at their regular meeting place for nearly three months and Crispin did not know why.

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