|Chapter 8: The Genie
"What are you doing here?" asked the pimply-faced teenager, in the voice of Aarons 33-year-old son-in-law, Ken Campbell.
Aaron laughed. "You oughtta see yourself."
Ken frowned. Then he remembered. "Oh shit!" he mumbled, "Im sorry." After a moments reflection, he smiled and then began to laugh at himself.
Aaron noted that the color of Kens Virtual Reality Persona had returned to normal and its features were relaxed.
"You must know your way around this classroom pretty well," said Ken.
"I should," replied Aaron, resting his helmet on the first row, first desk of a flat-chested, mousy-haired girl in sequined, cat-eye glasses and a fuzzy pink blouse, "I designed it."
Kens VR eyes bucked, his VR skin reddened.
"Ive got the master key, so to speak to a dozen variations of classes like this. How did you think I was able to get in?"
Kens VRP hunched its shoulders and shook its head violently from side to side.
"I see you havent quite got the hang of how to do things in here."
"I understand the principle," said Ken without changing color, "but I can see that it takes practice."
"Thats one of the reason I wanted you to come here, to get used to it so we can have a place to meet where we can both be comfortable and we wont be monitored by the police."
"Great idea," said Ken. "Theres no telling whos involved in these last two brown belt killings. Could be somebody in the department or somebody higher than that; I dont know. I do know that ever since you phoned me about this Shields character, all interdepartmental cooperation has stopped. You wouldnt believe the shit were getting from the Melvindale police. Its like they know hes the Strangler and theyre trying to keep us from finding out. Thats obstruction of justice any way you look at itand they gotta know theyll get caught unless they can count on somebody way up there to block the time scans well need to prove it."
"There may be another way," said Aaron, who pulled a long, lit cigar out of the air and put it in his mouth.
Kin blinked. For a moment he though he was watching a sleight-of-hand act. Then he remembered where he was. Hed always been curious about smoking tobacco but had never known anyone outside of a Disposal Zone with access to the deadly, illegal drug.
"May I have one of those?" he asked, expectantly, all thoughts of the Strangler cover-up now lost in the far recesses of his mind.
"Sure," said Aaron, pulling another lit cigar from the air and somehow, with a few words uttered too softly for Ken to hear, getting it to glide in Kens direction like a slow moving dart.
Ken smiled, enjoying the sight of the virtual reality cigar in leisurely flight with the white smoke curling from the trailing end, and the challenge of catching it between his virtual reality thumb and forefingers. Easing himself into position, he asked, "If I touch the part thats lit, will it burn?"
Aaron laughed. "Like the devil," he said.
The aroma of expensive tobacco flowing from the white smoke of the burning rolled leaf ends tugged pleasantly at Kens nostrils. Even if virtual reality could not produce the intoxicating effects of the drug, the experience itself was releasing enough of the brains own chemicals to produce their own intoxicating effects. It occurred to Ken that an environment could be created to produce whatever effect was desired. It also occurred to him that repeated exposure could be highly addictive.
Ken shifted the heavy history book from his right hand to his left with relative ease then pictured himself catching the cigar moving toward him the way he wanted to. Almost like magic, his arm, his hand, his fingers and his rolled-leaf objective moved in perfect co-ordination until the very last fraction of a second when he almost waited too long to close his thumb and forefingers. When he did close them, his trailing finger was close enough to the burning end to feel the heatand the sublime pleasure of coming so close to feeling the pain.
"Very good," extolled Aaron, taking a pull on his cigar, watching his son-in-law take two stabs at following suit before getting his between his teeth.
The pleasant anticipation of tasting his first tobacco smoke was well-rewarded with Kens initial draw on the virtual reality cigar. It wasnt bitter or sweet or sour or analogous to anything he had ever tasted. He decided that it tasted the way it smelled. He liked it. He enjoyed the feeling that he was actually taking the smoke deep into his lungs and the sight of blowing it out in a swirling cloud of infinite abstract patterns.
On a whim, he turned halfway around and blew smoke into the teachers face.
"I knew you would do that," said Aaron with a smile.
"Sure you did," scoffed Ken.
"Youre forgetting my line of work, Son. An action is either predictable or it isnt. If it is, it has precursors that make it inevitable. Anybody in your situation who would have asked for a cigar and smoked it, would have blown smoke in the teachers face. At that point, you had no choice."
Ken paused to consider his father-in-laws words. "Is that what this cigar-smoking exercises was about?"
"Oh," said Ken. He took another pull on his cigar, his brows furrowed.
If he looks up, thought Aaron, carefully gauging the exaggerated tint of red in Kens face, hell ask me if I can tell him what hell do next.
Ken looked up.
"How am I supposed to know what youre going to do next," smiled Aaron, as if Ken had already asked the question.
"WhaHow the hell did you do that?"
Aaron flipped his cigar into the air where it vanished a short distance away from the ceiling. "It was easy. I began with a hand-full of scenarios, and worked my way through a diminishing series of possibilities for the future until I arrived at one inevitable past."
"Hold it," said Ken, pausing to take another long pull on his cigar. "Whadaya mean, inevitable past?" The notion struck him as being so odd that it couldnt be right. How could a past event be inevitable? Surly the man had meant to say "immutable."
"You can remember the past and imagine the future but, if you think about it, you cant move forward in time. Every move you make toward the future takes you backward until you reach the past. At some point, everything that can happen does happen. Before then it becomes inevitable. Before it becomes inevitable, it may look like a possibility. But if you understand the outermost boundaries of the situation well enough and the characters who have to move within those boundaries, you begin to see that the range of possibilities was never really as big as it might have looked."
Ill be damned, thought Ken, hes right. It also occurred to him that he would have gotten the message right away if Aaron McPhail had been white. He was so shaken by the realization of how his ability to think had been compromised by his attitudes about race that he felt the need to sit down and regroupuntil he remembered that he was already sitting down. He felt nauseous.
Aaron smiled. "I see," he said.
"You were saying you had an idea for proving a cover-up," said Ken.
"Un-huh. We may already have enough on P.J. and the circumstances surrounding the killings to rule out anybody else. You wont need any physical evidence or a time scan if the circumstantial evidence is an air-tight fit around a single suspect. As a matter of fact, these last two killings are the only things I can think of that could garbage up the results unless you factor in a cover-up. Itll take a couple of days to write the program we need to nail all of this down."
"Sounds good to me," said Ken, catching out of the corner of his eye what he thought was movement in the back of the class. He hesitated, then turned his head and stared.
Aarons eyes followed his. No, he thought, seeing in the last seat of the first row the equivalent of a flesh-colored statue in a lime green sweater coming to life. A boy with dark, curly locks and an uncanny resemblance to Michelangelos Davidonly betterrose beside his seat to his full, 6 2" frame. Its not possible! There is no way anybody else could have gotten in here without my permission!
"Who the hell are you?" demanded Aaron.
"Some people call me The Genie," said the boy in a mans voice as he strolled confidently to the front of the classroom. "You can call me Joshua. Dont be alarmed. Im on your side."
He stopped within easy reach of Aaron and extended his virtual realty hand. Aaron refused to take it, eyeing the intruder warily."
"Suit yourself," said the stranger in the teen idol persona, dropping his hand to his side.
Ken didnt know what to say.
Aaron didnt know what to think. "How did you get past my lock?"
"Oh," said Joshuaor whoever he was, "Dont worry about that. Im probably the only programmer in the world who could have done it."
Ken looked him over carefully, seeing none of the imperfections in his Virtual Reality Persona that one would expect to see in a real human being. Whoever this guy was in the real world, Kens gut feeling told him that his actual appearance was radically different. Heor she, obviously had the technical expertise to pull it off and just as obviously lacked the judiciousness to restrain himself...or herself. Male or female, friend or foe, Ken was sure that he could ID the mysterious interloper in no time.
The person calling himself Joshua smiled, a warm, even smile that would have made girls like the ones in this classroom swoon had they been living, breathing females. Even the teacher would have found it irresistible. "You can use my help," he said. "I know who killed those other two women."
Contact the author: Jasper Garrison