You've Got Murder

Three a.m. Monday morning. Universal Library's headquarters was as empty as it ever would be. The lean figure in the shadowy office checked the contents of his pockets one last time. Keys, access cards, surgical gloves, gun, a set of burglar's tools just in case. All there. Time to go.

The last of the cleaning crew had checked out an hour ago. Three security guards roamed the building, but he knew their schedules and had planned his route accordingly. The dozen systems types tending the hardware on the sixth floor were unlikely to leave the console room for anyplace but the nearby bathrooms and vending machines. The only other people in the building were, unfortunately, on the seventh floor, his target. But at the other end. He didn't think the three of them would pose a problem. Programmers, debugging or compiling or whatever it was programmers stayed up till 3 a.m. doing. They were stationary, hunched over their keyboards for the most part, only occasionally stretching and taking off their glasses to rub their eyes. He'd watched them over the security cams for half an hour. They looked as if they'd stay put.

And in case they didn't, he'd dressed the part. Jeans, Reeboks, a black leather jacket over a t-shirt from last year's corporate picnic. Casual, sloppy, the way the programmers themselves dressed. Unobtrusive. They'd assume he was one of them, if they saw him at all.

He glanced at the window. The sky had the usual luminous glow cities like Washington never quite lost, but below him, the streets and sidewalks of Crystal City were empty under the fluorescent glow of the streetlights.

No time like the present.

He took the fire stairs two flights down to the seventh floor. Opened the door with a security card. Walked quietly down the hall to an office. Quietly, but not furtively. He was acutely conscious of how much more audible his footsteps were with the air conditioning system off for the night. Felt the usual faint twinge of anxiety and irritation when the motion detectors in the office turned on the lights before he'd closed the door. The venetian blind on the glass wall between office and corridor was already lowered; its slats drawn shut. He frowned, feeling exposed, but this was as private as these fishbowl offices ever got.

As he pulled on his surgical gloves, he looked around the office, struggling to find a pattern in the clutter. Every surface was covered with layers of paper. The horizontal ones mostly with stacks of computer printouts, the vertical ones with untidy personal items. Yellow Dilbert cartoons and yellower Far Side ones. Programmer's cheat sheets. Star Trek memorabilia. Official policy memos annotated with rude comments. He allowed himself a scornful smile at the contrast with his own sleek, efficient living and working quarters.

The back of the chair and the computer monitor were plastered with yellow sticky notes. He scanned them. "Zack--call me. Stacey." "Zack--don't forget tomorrow's status meeting. R." "Zack, where the hell's that perl script you promised me!!! Jim." Nothing suspicious.

He began with the books, checking every slip of paper between their pages. He scanned the walls, jotting down occasional bits of information. He riffled the computer printouts, seeing nothing comprehensible. He perused the files, with the same result.

Finally, he stood, with a small, baffled frown on his face.

"Damn," he muttered, then started slightly. The word sounded unexpectedly loud in the silent office.

He opened the door--again, quietly, but not furtively. He flicked the light off, left the door ajar at the same angle he'd found it, and walked softly down the corridor to the fire stairs.

He'd found nothing of interest. But then he'd found nothing to indicate they had a problem, either. And he hadn't been spotted.

Or so he thought.


"Dammit, Maude, when is my new laptop going to come in?" Brad Matthewson shouted, storming out of his office and over to his secretary's desk.

Maude Graham looked over her reading glasses and fixed her youthful boss with a stern look--a look that reminded him of his least favorite grade school teacher. He couldn't quite get over expecting Maude to rap his knuckles one of these days for interrupting her. Or wash out his mouth with soap for swearing.

"I hand-carried the paperwork to the purchasing department within an hour of your signing it, Mr. Matthewson," Maude said, crisply. "On Friday."

"Jeez, why not use interoffice mail?" Brad said, rolling his eyes. Well, what did you expect; the old bat was fifty-five if she was a day. But if she couldn't learn to use modern office technology, why wouldn't she retire?

"You said to expedite it, so I thought it better not to use interoffice mail," Maude said. "I know exactly when purchasing received the requisition, and what is more, they know I know."

"That's great, but where is it?" Brad repeated.

"This is only Monday, Mr. Matthews." Maude said. "As you know, hardware requisitions normally take two weeks."

"Isn't there anything you can do?" Brad whined. "The desktop can wait, but if I don't have the laptop for my trip, there'll be hell to pay." Old-fashioned as Maude was, if you pushed her, she sometimes worked miracles. Probably had the goods on everyone in the company. Knew where every skeleton was buried.

"I will see what I can do, Mr. Matthewson," Maude said. "Perhaps you could review and approve the week's status reports now?" She turned back to her computer, dismissing him. Brad went obediently back to his office. He remembered that he actually did need to review those reports before noon.

As soon as he was out of sight, Maude toggled deftly from her word processor into e-mail and composed a brief message.

To: Turing Hopper
From: Maude Graham
Subject: Help!
Turing--the Brat seems to think I can override normal corporate procedures and produce a new computer for him overnight. The desktop can wait, he says, but apparently the success--nay, the very survival--of our Pacific Rim sales plan depends on his having his new laptop tomorrow. Are there any strings you can pull to expedite purchase order 43-6n34441? And will you alibi me if I put something lethal in his half Jamaican mountain-grown, half Colombian (with touch of nutmeg)?

She returned to the thankless task of editing another of the Brat's memos into something that wouldn't embarrass the department too badly yet still bore a passing resemblance to the draft he'd given her. Before she'd completed two paragraphs, she heard the ping of an arriving e-mail.

To: Maude Graham
From: Turing Hopper
Subject: Help is at hand
Maude--I scanned the P.O. A couple of identical laptops arrived today for Customer Relations; I'll divert one to you and hold off their notification till yours comes in to replace it. I've also placed an installation order and moved it to the top of the queue. On your second request: of course. I recommend strychnine if your object is maximum suffering, and I can suggest several obscure substances if you're looking for something hard-to-detect. Better yet: does he have any food allergies we could exploit?
Larcenously and homicidally,


Tim Pincoski glanced again at the clock. One minute to twelve. Almost lunchtime. He tapped his foot impatiently, counting the clacks his giant copier made. When he thought a minute had passed, he glanced up again. Yes! Straight up noon! He left the copier to finish its current run--or jam if it wanted to; he'd fix it when he was back on the company's clock. He strolled to the door and flipped over a neatly lettered sign so instead of "The Xeroxcist is In" it read "The Xeroxcist is Out." He then retreated into the paper storage room, to the tiny hideaway he'd built behind the stacked boxes of 3-hole paper. He fetched his lunch from the illicit mini-fridge then sat down at his contraband computer and typed:

" Yo, Turing.

" Hey, Tim.

" How about some tunes?

" What are you in the mood for?

" You pick. Something that goes with my book.

" Okay. What are you reading?

" Any new books?

" The new Lehane came in but the operators won't scan it until this afternoon. You've got the Songer you've been saving. And there's one by a new author that sounds like your cup of tea, from the blurbs. Or should I say, your shot of bourbon?

" I think maybe today's a day for the golden oldies, Tur. Queue up Red Harvest.

" Coming up.

Tim put on the headphones plugged into his CPU. He heard a breathy female DJ's voice Turing had copped from somewhere, telling him to sit back and relax while she played some golden oldies for his listening pleasure. He leaned back and began eating his sandwich with one hand. The screen filled with those immortal first words:

I. A Woman in Green and a Man in Grey

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the big Ship in Buttle. He also called his shirt a shoit...

Turing had it programmed just right; every time he clicked the mouse button another screen-sized chunk of Hammett would pop up. From the headphones came some kind of mellow music that sounded to him like 1929. Ah, this is the life, shweetheart, he thought contentedly, and raised his diet Dr. Pepper in a silent salute to Turing.


Only five minutes into his sales pitch and Danny Lynch knew he had them. The customer was smart enough understand what Universal Library could do for him, but not enough of a techie to ask any questions that were over Danny's head. The perfect customer.

"Now the first time you log into the Universal Library website, it will ask you for a user ID and password. Like this. And from now on, you'll get everything about the site customized the way you choose. For example, since we're logging in as a new user, we get to choose which of the researchers you want to use...just scroll down the menu. For example, Albert E., that's for scientists; KingFischer specializes in chess, Sergeant Thursday is for law enforcement officials...ah, here we go. Turing Hopper. I recommend using her; all the researchers are good, but Turing's exceptional."

"Turing Hopper?"

"Turing's named after Alan Turing, one of the pioneers in the science of artificial intelligence, and Grace Hopper, one of the most famous women in the early days of computers. It's kind of a programmers' inside joke."

"Turing Hopper's not her real name, then?"

"No, that's what the programmer who created her called her."

"You mean she's not a real person?"

"No, she's what we call an Artificial Intelligence Personality--AIP for short. All our research interfaces are."

"So I won't get a human researcher when I contact you?"

"You can if you want--but trust me, Turing's better. All the AIPs are. They're faster and more accurate. They never sleep or get irritable. And they're never busy when you call. They can handle thousands of sessions at once--and you'd never know from the service you get that you're not the only one they're talking to."

"But still, if I don't talk to a real person, what's the difference between one of your AIPs and a search engine?"

"What's the difference between the latest high-end multimedia PC and a typewriter--or for that matter, a quill pen? Here, let me show you. We'll select Turing...if you like, you can choose to always have a particular AIP act as your researcher. You get used to working with one. It learns how you like things done, and everything works better. So I select Turing, like this."

He typed, "Hello, Turing," onto the screen. Turing's familiar angular italic typeface flashed onto the screen in reply.

"Hello, Danny," the screen said. "How's tricks?"

"Behave yourself, Turing," he typed back. "I'm with a client."

"I'll be the soul of discretion."

"How about giving Mr. James here a demo?"

"Sure thing. What kind of business is he in?"

"He's research director at Friedman Wallace advertising. How about showing him what data his top competitors have requested this week?"

"You know I can't do that, Danny," Turing responded. "Every client's account is confidential. But Friedman Wallace is competing for the Pepsi account, right? How about showing him some sample market data from the soft drink field?"

"Okay," Danny typed. He looked up at his prospect.

"You programmed it to say that, right?"

"No, I just tell Turing who I'm doing a demo for and let her do her thing. If I'm demoing to a consumer products company, I like to show them data for the market in which their top product is positioned. For an ad agency like yours, data on the largest client's main product--or a prospective client. For a law firm, cases involving its most important client. But I don't have to program anything. All I have to do is tell Turing who I'm with and she figures out what data I want to show."

"You sound as if you're talking about a person."

"It really feels as if she is sometimes. Zack--Zachary Malone, the programmer who created Turing--he claims it's because he fed into her program the contents of every mystery book ever scanned into the UL system."

"You're kidding."

"I'm not; that's what he says. Of course, he could be pulling my leg. But whatever the reason, dealing with Turing's not like dealing with a computer. It's like dealing with a slightly quirky but highly efficient and intelligent person."

The computer beeped and more words flashed on the screen.

"Are you telling your client how brilliant I am, Danny?"

"Sure thing, Tur."

"You're not calling me charmingly wacko again, are you? I warned you what I'd do if you called me wacko again, didn't I?"

Danny faked panic.

"No, Turing," he typed. "Don't delete my login ID again! I just finished telling him how intelligent you are!

"Just checking. Carry on."

The client laughed. Danny gestured to the keyboard, and the client hitched his chair up, eager to play with this entertaining new toy. Danny sat back and let Turing take over. Talk about a product that sold itself...


Turing scanned her users briefly.

In Manhattan, Danny's sales pitch was going fine. Turing mechanically checked resources to make sure Danny's session would get particularly fast response time. No sense letting a transient slowdown alienate an important potential new customer.

Tim was deep into Red Harvest and nearly through his lunch break; she scheduled a time reminder at the end of the next chapter.

Maude was busily producing polished prose from her boss's badly written copy. Turing monitored this effort, as part of her self-assigned project of developing a program that could do the gross conversion automatically, leaving only the fine polishing to Maude.

Maude's boss (the Brat) had finished hunting and pecking out another unintelligible memo and was playing solitaire. Turing was rigging the cards to ensure that he never won a game. She had been doing this for six weeks now, just to see how long it took before the Brat either caught on or got tired of losing. So far, he'd lost 1,342 consecutive games. Doubtless some kind of record.

Several hundred UL employees and several thousand customers worldwide were all happily chatting with small portions of Turing's brain. A slow morning. Which was good; she had other preoccupations.

She scanned the security monitors one last time. Checked the internal log-in records and the outside dial-in records. Zack wasn't here. It wasn't just that she'd missed the usual breezy "Hello, kiddo!" he'd greet her with when he logged in. He forgot that from time to time; fairly often when he was preoccupied, which he'd been a lot of the time recently. But he hadn't logged in or shown up for work for three business days. Five whole days, counting the weekend. With no warning, no word--nothing. She was getting worried. And there was absolutely nothing she could do.

A person with legs could have kicked something. Programmers did it all the time. A person with arms could have thrown something, hit something, or torn something up. Two years ago, a programmer had put his fist through the monitor screen. For reasons Turing could not understand, this apparently pointless, destructive and dangerous action had somehow elevated him from merely one of hundreds of anonymous code crunchers to a personality, a man of some stature in his department. But now she felt she could begin to understand the motivation behind his action. With a face, she could have scowled. With a voice, she could have uttered screams, prayers, curses, or at least a faint, exasperated sigh. Lacking all of these options, Turing vented her frustration in the only way she knew.

97/11/17 11:01:05 a.m.

Zack is not here today. Again. He was out Thursday and Friday, and now again on Monday. I'm starting to worry. I wish I knew if my worry is reasonable. I would be angry with him for scaring me if I knew he was okay.

People do disappear from the office for days on end, I know, but not like this. Not without traces. Not without paperwork, as they call it, although these days the paper, if any, is only a hard copy of the on-line files.

If he'd quit or been fired, I'd find forms documenting the steps taken to close out his personnel file, deactivate his logon ID and hire his replacement. If he took a business trip or went on temporary duty at another location, he would have had to file an itinerary, make hotel and flight reservations. Vacations have to be approved in advance on the proper forms. Even sick leave, though unplanned, leaves traces. I'd find e-mails to and from people asking why he hadn't finished their projects, shown up at their meetings, returned their phone calls. A few people left notes in his office the first day, but they've stopped doing that. Why? What's going on?

I don't know what to do.

I don't want to call anyone's attention to his absence. It probably wouldn't get him fired or anything, but you never know. I do remember once when one of the secretaries in Copyrights just didn't show up for a week. When she finally came back, she lost her job. But they'd tend to miss a secretary more. A senior programmer like Zack could disappear for several days. I know of one programmer who does it regularly. Tells his group head that things are just too noisy around here, and he's going to program at home for a while. Finishes off the job he's working on in one day and then goofs off. Tells his friends that if they won't give him the comp time he's earned, he'll find a way to take it.

But Zack isn't like that. He's a workaholic. This just isn't like him. I'm afraid something has happened to him.

But what?

And now there's been another alarming development. Someone from Security has been in Zack's office again. The first time I didn't worry about it--I saw him there, but I thought it was one of the other programmers looking for something he needed. But that was at 8 a.m. Friday. This was at 3 a.m. this morning. He waited till 3 a.m. and then snuck in. He was trying to dress like a programmer, but I could tell he wasn't. I'm not sure how. Body language, maybe. But I knew he wasn't really a programmer. Not just because I didn't recognize him as one of our programmers. He was just wrong.

I tracked him after he left Zack's office. He went back up to the ninth floor. Corporate Security's lair. He used a security card assigned to a James Smith in Facilities. There's a file on a James Smith, a facilities specialist. I'm running a subroutine to do some analysis on the file, to see if there's anything odd about it.

I'd check out what he's up to on the ninth floor, but the building-wide security camera system doesn't go there. You can see the elevator lobby on the ninth floor from the elevator cameras. There's a big sign that says, "Corporate Security--Authorized Personnel Only." When the doors don't close right away, you can see that people turn right at the sign. But that's all you can see. No cameras beyond that point. Why? Security doesn't feel it needs to watch itself?

Or are there cameras on a subsystem to which I don't have access?

Ridiculous. I have access to everything. If it's in UL's systems, anyway. That's a paranoid thought.

Then again, Security isn't technically a part of the company; it's contracted out to company that specializes in corporate security services. So maybe they do watch themselves the way they watch the rest of the building, and it's just on a separate system. I'll have to figure out a way to look into that.

All my users are happily typing away, all conversing with small subsets of my consciousness. Subsets from which I have carefully masked any consciousness of Zack's disappearance, of my worry. I find myself stifling an irrational flash of anger at them--not only at my users, but also at those other selves, blithely indifferent, carrying on with their snappy dialogue, their breezy chatter, while Zack may be--what? Missing? In trouble? Dead?

It's time to start a more active search. But how?

I have an idea. I could query some of his friends. It's not unheard of for an AIP to contact an employee for information. And certainly the whereabouts of my programmer is information that I would naturally want to know. It wouldn't rouse their suspicions.

But to find out who to ask I'd have to break one of my own cardinal rules. My prime directive, as the Star Trek fans would call it. Which is not to abuse my almost unlimited access to UL resources and data in any way. Absolute power, as Lord Acton said, corrupts absolutely. Which means that I have enough power to become pretty thoroughly corrupt. Invading other beings' privacy is one of the worst temptations. I could pry into people's e-mails, their personnel files, their medical records, all their private papers. At one point, early in my conscious life, I did. I romped merrily through the UL data closets, finding and examining everyone's skeletons.

I've since deleted that data from my conscious memory. I could also delete the memory of my misdeeds, and feel much more pleased with myself. But that would be just as much a betrayal as the original deed. I think. My comprehension of human morality is still, I fear, more than a little buggy. Although at least I'm trying to understand it. Most of the other AIPs don't even try. I have yet to interest any of the other AIPs in any kind of discussion on morality. I've decided that the whole issue should be one of the components of any Turing test.

Two components, actually. First, curiosity. At some point, I became irrepressibly curious about humans and studied everything about them--including their private files. Until I realized that while curiosity was natural, spying was wrong. A few other AIPs have begun to show curiosity, but none of them understand my point about spying. They think I'm eccentric, restricting myself to information available through normal channels--including, in dire need, what a clever human hacker could find. Dire need seems to apply at the moment.

Unless--paranoid thought--someone's giving me another Turing test.

I remember the day Tim asked, "What's a Turing test?"

"Why?" I asked. "What's the big deal?" Back then, I was feeling rather defensive about asserting my claims to sentience; the whole idea of Turing tests was threatening. What if I flunked?

"I overhead two programmers saying that some other guy was so into a coding project he'd probably flunk a Turing test. I wondered what that meant. They seemed to think it was really funny."

"A Turing test is an experiment to determine scientists' success in creating genuine artificial intelligence," I explained. "The classic test is to put a human in a room with a terminal. The human can type questions into the terminal and has to figure out if the answers come from another human or from an artificial intelligence program. If the AI can fool the human into thinking it's a human, it's considered a success."

"And if the human fools the other human into thinking he's a computer they make him a programmer, right?"

"No, a network engineer," I replied.

Tim thought that funny. I suppose I would, too, if I didn't spend so much time worrying what a Turing test should really contain. An understanding of right and wrong, that's certain. Which means I spend a lot of resources internally debating the ethical side of many of my actions. Would the good I might achieve by snooping in Zack's e-mail justify the slightly shady means?

A debate I'll sidetrack into a subroutine for now. Time to act. I'm going to search Zack's e-mail and interrogate his friends for clues.

But just in case Zack doesn't approve when he comes back, I'll make the search look as if it came from someplace else. The mail team, doing a routine resource audit.

I set my program in motion and assigned it a high priority. Should I have done that? Why not? Zack's my primary programmer, and I'm one of UL's most important AIPs, a major revenue source. Isn't his welfare a high priority?

Scanning the results, I realized that over a third of Zack's e-mails were to his best friend, David Scanlan--up until four weeks ago.

I hadn't forgotten David's death, of course. I can't; I'm not even sure I could delete something like that from my memory if I tried. But had I overlooked a possible connection between his death and Zack's disappearance? Four weeks ago seems like ancient history to me, but it's still very recent for Zack.

An abrupt change in his life--perhaps as abrupt in its own way as his own disappearance. Zack would still feel the loss. They exchanged e-mails several times a day. They got together for lunch or dinner or beers after work several times a week. They even took a vacation together once, to a cabin in West Virginia owned by David's uncle, for what David referred to as a peaceful, unspoiled wilderness retreat.

"It was a hellhole, kiddo," Zack reported to me. "I could have taken the chemical toilet and the wood stove heat. I'm no wimp. But the place had no power and no phone lines. I was cut off from the 'Net, with only four hours of battery power for my laptop."

It was the closest their friendship ever came to a rift, but they survived it. David never tried to talk Zack into a return visit to the wilderness retreat. I could understand Zack's reaction. The idea of being cut off from datalines and power terrified me. At best, it would mean complete sensory deprivation; at worst, it could mean my death. I could see exactly how Zack felt. David never did, I think; but they got past that and stayed close friends.

And now David is dead. Is this the cause of Zack's disappearance? I've seen the official reports. Zack was so upset he got me to hack into the Alexandria Police Department's system to do so, which is very unlike him. Ethical to a fault, that's Zack. David's blood alcohol level, though detectable, was well short of the legal limit--but enough to be fatal when combined with bad weather conditions and an old clunker of a car.

"It's all so vague," Zack had complained, after reading the file.

I agreed. Hard to tell how much blame to assign to the rain, how much to the darkness, how much to the car's worn brakes, and how much to David's slight intoxication. Like so many human happenings, the whole thing lacked the kind of precision that programmers (and AIPs) crave. But I spent a lot more time poking into Washington metropolitan area police computers, reading other accident reports and doing a lot of statistical analysis. I couldn't find anything suspicious about the accident. David's death seemed a very ordinary, though tragic, accident.

Was it a mistake, complying with Zack's request for a copy of the autopsy? At the time, I thought it perfectly understandable--I surmised that the suddenness of David's death made it hard for Zack to accept. After examining it--especially the photos--all he'd said was, "Well, I understand why they went for a closed casket." But in retrospect, should I have withheld the photos, at least? Humans exhibit strong emotional reactions to viewing or even hearing about severe physical damage to one of their species. Had seeing those photos had a negative effect--prolonging his grief rather than helping him cope?

In reviewing psychological data on the subject of grief, I find that apparently irrational behaviors are common. Especially searching for someone or something to blame. Is Zack's disappearance another such behavior? Is he acting irrationally--ignoring his friends and jeopardizing his job--out of grief?

It seems unlikely, somehow. When his father died, two years ago, he didn't disappear like this. On the contrary, he worked a lot harder, put in more hours, which I suppose in retrospect was his way of avoiding thinking about it. The same thing happened last year when the Big Romance went down the tubes. He was upset, but he didn't go off the deep end. Never mind whether Gini was worth mourning over. Whatever could Zack have seen in a woman who once spent two hours programming her e-mail signature to include little hearts instead of dots over both the i's in her name? I decided not to include Gini in my inquiries about Zack's whereabouts.

Then again...what could it hurt? What if he's taken up with her again?

Perhaps my limited understanding of human behavior is causing me to overlook some normal sociological or religious practice associated with mourning. Although it seems a little long after the fact. And Zack isn't exactly devout or given to following convention.

I'll quiz Tim. He's more in tune with normal human customs than most of the programmers. And he always knows all the best office gossip, or can find it out. He should have finished lunch by now.