Issue #39, Honorable Mention #3

Liam Hogan is an award winning short story writer, with stories in Best of British Science Fiction and in Best of British Fantasy (NewCon Press). He’s been published by Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and Flame Tree Press, among others. He helps host Liars’ League London, volunteers at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, and lives and avoids work in London. More details at http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk.


A Baker Street Dozen

by Liam Hogan

I was annoyed to find Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Morse, and Poirot already at the crime scene. More fictional sleuths arrived over the half-hour, until there were ten or so hanging around. All avatars, all pixels and light. They might not be fouling the evidence, but it was an unwanted distraction. And there wasn’t a blessed thing I could do about it.

It’s rare to see that many Great Detectives in one place. Your average household has one, maybe two, holo-projectors, but the victim, Alfred Ghent, had gone the onliner, no-privacy route, allowing every moment of his life to be shared. And that, regardless of my or the department’s views on the matter, included his death, natural or otherwise.

At least the case would be wrapped up quickly. Every projector also doubled as a high-definition, always-on camera; rather more useful than the clunky kit with the obscenely long zoom that Jessica Jones was one-handedly touting between virtual swigs from a virtual bottle. I was surprised I’d been sent for.

The Super probably thought it’d be good experience for young Sergeant Anders, hovering by my side, gawking at the World’s Greatest Consulting Detective instead of watching where she put her size-whatever feet. Sherlock Holmes sneered at her.

“Alright, what do we have?” I asked the forensics team as they were packing up. Columbo sidled over, looking as rumpled as I felt. I considered engaging a privacy scrambler, but whatever our guys had found, the virtual detectives had already seen it. I was the one playing catch-up, which just irritated me all the more.

“Bit of a head-scratcher, Inspector Clonbrock,” Jonie said and then did exactly that. Being on camera (and we’re always on camera) makes people self-conscious, and overly formal. Especially when flustered. “Despite 24/7 coverage, and despite the messy end—blunt trauma, multiple blows, no murder weapon—nothing useful was captured.”

I grunted. In a world with constant coverage—between security cams, augmented reality advertising systems, and those extroverts (such as the late Alfred) who wore glasses that streamed everything they saw to their subscribers—most crimes were solved within twenty-four hours, and it only took that long because of the ocean of footage you had to wade through.

“Network glitch?”

“Not with the cameras, no. No missing or deleted footage, but the house lights went out at 8:43. It stayed dark for just under nine minutes. When they came back on…”

“No more Mr. Ghent.”

“First responders—a squad car and an ambulance—arrived at 8:59, and used emergency protocols to gain entry.”

“Well, who called that in?”

Jonie shrugged. “We got two dozen reports from live-stream watchers, a couple of minutes after the lights returned. Long enough to see it wasn’t some elaborate prank. No one else was in the house at the time.”

“Except the murderer.” I shook my head at the wicked ways of the world. Alfred had done alright for himself, until he hadn’t. Of the rooms I’d passed through to get to where the sheet protected what was left of his modesty, this was the smallest, and also the one I’d spend my time in. The walls were covered with an eclectic range of books, spines speckled with blue tape to indicate blood splatter. There was an e-paper projector that made me suspect most of the actual reading had been done that way. The books were decorative then; overly thick, noise deadening wallpaper. I glanced back the way I’d come. “If you told me the library doors were also locked, I wouldn’t be any less surprised.”

Jonie blinked owlishly at me, sporting red marks from the goggles she’d just removed. “There are no locks on any internal doors,” she replied, after careful deliberation. “But no external doors were forced, not according to the security logs, until emergency services arrived. So I guess it’s a locked house mystery?”

A youthful voice interrupted my next question. “What the hell? Get those kids…”

One of them peered back at me, mock quizzical, and I saw straight through him and his wing-tipped shirt and primary coloured pullover combo. Christ. Even the Hardy Boys had shown up. If the Famous Five arrived, with or without their dog, I was handing in my badge.

Was it the sniff of an actual mystery that attracted them? Word of mouth—online chatter as the first voyeurs passed on the news—and then before you knew it, every cyber-sleuth not engaged on some other case would be dialling in to investigate.

The only saving grace was that no more than thirteen Great Detectives could play any one game. A Baker Street Dozen, the app called it, in one of its more egregious puns. Everyone else was along for the ride, invisible, ghoulish spectators, eager to scratch their morbid curiosity. But a dozen projections, plus or minus one, was plenty annoying enough. What was even more annoying was that, with so many amateurs involved, they’d undoubtedly beat us to the punch.

Not because they were smarter, but because there was no real penalty for reaching a hasty decision and logging their “discovery”, to be compared when the case finally broke. Like an early, lucky guess in Cluedo—Alfred Ghent, in the Library, with a lead pipe—one of them was bound to guess right and claim undeserved credit, making us plods look slow and stupid to boot. Unlike the fiendish fictional mysteries that so entertained their original counterparts, most actual murders were banal. The prime suspect was frequently the only suspect, and just as frequently, the perpetrator. Hardly a stern test for any sleuth worth their salt.

But Alfred Ghent was the victim, not the murderer. As yet, we didn’t have any suspects. Or motive. Or…

Ah hell. I wasn’t learning anything, and even the holograms were blinking out, seeking excitement elsewhere. As I was leaving, Jim Rockford burst energetically onto the scene, houndstooth jacket flapping behind him as he plaintively asked: “Am I late?”

*

Two hours of report filing followed. And that, as much as anything else, is why I hate The Great Detectives. The players don’t have to do paperwork. It didn’t help that on the street outside my apartment, leaching off a traffic camera, a plume of CGI smoke curled from beneath a brimmed hat—a Borsalino, no less.

“I was wondering when you’d show,” I growled. Only twelve player-detectives had turned up at Ghent’s residence. I’d naively assumed one must have already seen all they’d wanted to before I arrived.

Philip Marlowe glanced at me, crooked a lazy smile. “I was busy. A dame.”

Marlowe had always been my favourite fictional detective—he’s who I’d play, if I wasn’t doing this as an actual job, and had the time and money to waste. I nodded. If you were going to pretend to be a Great Detective, at least play the role, and not just dress the part. Laconic is hard to fake.

Then again, the software offered a choice of potential replies if the user wasn’t fully engaged, and even allowed the sophisticated AI to take over if they took too long to pick one. I might have just nodded at an algorithm. I sighed.

“What are you after?”

A cigarette stub blazed through the air, vanishing before it hit the pavement. “Ever wonder why some crimes have so many Great Detectives there, almost before the murder is reported?”

I jerked my head, peered into and through the projection. “Who’s playing you?” In theory, the IP address should lead to a user account, to credit card details, to an IRL person. But I’d need a warrant to go digging, and it was all too easily anonymized anyway. Which was why I asked. Some people are eager to claim future credit for solving a crime.

“A friend,” Marlowe drawled, amused. “Just a friend.” He faded into the night, into smog that wasn’t any more real than he was. As if I didn’t have enough to worry about.

*

As soon as I got through my door, I brought up The Great Detectives’ public forum. Lots of theories already, most of them as stupid as you’d expect. The Ghent case was front and center on the main page, having already garnered the most followers.

After a moment’s thought—a moment in which I poured a large glass of wine, wondering which cliché I was becoming—I started looking at other highly rated homicides over the last twelve months.

A surprising number of them involved onliners like Alfred. Maybe that just meant it helped to have an active following before you got waxed. But the top five were all onliners, and all unsolved. Again, that would explain their continued popularity, but it still shocked me. You got a few off-grid murders a year, tops. Bodies found long after they’d gone missing, the trail cold, hard to solve because they were crimes committed at random, the victims desperately unlucky.

These weren’t that kind. I thought about what Marlowe had said and switched to Alfred’s viewing figures. Popular guy. His numbers, even for a Wednesday evening at home, were solid. They dropped a little during the nine minute blackout. I topped up my glass. I’d expect to see a rise, if Marlowe’s cryptic hint was anything to go by.

I flicked the screen off, annoyed again—this time, with myself. I’d been distracted by some amateur whose only credentials was a shared love of detective noir. That was, assuming Marlowe was his—or her—first choice, and Miss Marple hadn’t already been taken.

I sat in the gloom until the glass was empty. Reached for my phone instead of the bottle. It was time to bring my daughter into the investigation.

Ever since she’d left home, she’d started to get over the embarrassment of having a policeman as a father. Presumably, her dating life had come on in leaps and bounds. I shuddered. But wasn’t that what University was for?

“Hi Dad,” she said, ghosting onto my screen. “What’s up?”

“Can’t a father—”

“Not at 2am, no.”

I blinked at the time in the corner of the screen. “Sorry, kiddo. Need your geeky expertise.”

“Thanks. I think.”

“You wouldn’t happen to have a Great Detectives account, would you?”

Her lips thinned. “Actually, yes, I do.”

“Which detective do you follow?”

“Sorry Dad, but you’re not an option.”

“I’m serious.”

“So was I. Kind of.” She stared at me via the camera and the screens and the infinite miles separating us. “If you must know, Adam Dalgliesh.”

I couldn’t think of anyone less like me. Ah well. “Can I ask you to follow Marlowe instead? And can you share access?”

“What? Why? Can’t you afford your own account?”

“Hun, I need it now, not in forty-eight hours or however long it takes. And I’d prefer it not to be traceable to me.”

She shook her head. “He won’t solve your case for you, y’know?”

I didn’t say anything. After a minute-long stare-off, she relented. “Anything so I can go back to sleep. I’ll change my password in the morning. And, Dad?”

“Yes, kiddo?”

“You do anything, anything at all, to embarrass me, and I’ll be coming after you. No court in the land—”

“Got it. ‘Night.”

The screen went dark. A moment later there was a bleep as her credentials landed in my wallet.

*

There was no record of my meeting with Marlowe. Normally, every avatar was fully streamed, so others can see and hear everything they did, read every note they made. Thirteen Great Detectives, a full compliment, were registered in the Ghent case, but no one was following Marlowe. His account appeared frozen. Had he been suspended? Or had someone decided to play him, but failed to give further instruction?

But if Marlowe was in play, and whoever was driving him left no tracks…

Something weird was going on, but until I knew what, there wasn’t much I could do except play the cards in front of me, and keep my eyes and ears open.

*

After I’d read the case notes of the unsolved murders, deliberated and decided against talking to the other inspectors, and mused over whether I’d only got this homicide because everyone else was already busy, I called the pathologist.

“Morning, Inspector.” Jack’s face loomed before me, half a pastry disappearing beneath his unruly beard. “What can I do you for?”

“The Ghent case?”

“You’ve read my report? All crystal clear from my side. Cause of death, time in agreement with other evidence, tox clean, no DNA or other material to go on… what are you fishing for?”

“You say the first blow did the job?”

“I said any of the blows would have, but, yes. Whoever did it had a decent swing.”

“Could you give me anything on the victim? Was Alfred Ghent in good health?”

Jack sucked in his breath, I heard it whistle between the gap in his front teeth. “As it happens, and this isn’t official unless you can prove relevance, no.

“How long?”

He cocked an eye. “Sharp, Clonbrock. I’ll buy you a pint if you tell me how you knew that?”

“I’ll buy you one back, if you can tell me why everyone doesn’t know it already?”

He looked put out, as if I was accusing him of being loose-lipped. “Like I said, medical records are—oh, I see, the guy was online. But it’s a doctor-patient confidentiality thing. Like priests. No public coverage inside surgeries or confessionals.”

“They’re not recorded?”

“Well, GPs are, I’m not sure about priests… But those recordings are block-chained and only opened in cases of malpractice or under warrant. So, while an onliner is supposedly online all the time, in certain interactions with others, their professional privacy takes precedence, hence, blind spots.”

“Interesting. I did not know that.”

“You should; it applies to police inquiries as well, to prevent lynch mobs. Not that you’ll be interviewing Ghent, poor sod. In answer to your question, he had between three and six months. It wouldn’t have been a fun ride.” Jack’s eyebrows met in the middle. “You’re not…? No suicide could self-inflict those blows, or hide the murder weapon after. Though it might explain one curious thing.”

“Do tell?”

“I didn’t mention it in my report, and haven’t yet sent it down to evidence, but it’s what got me thinking about priests. Ghent went to see one recently.”

When? And where? And how the hell do you know?”

“I guess you could confirm, by reviewing his feed and looking for recent outages? Ditto where, I suppose. As to the how…”

He held up a clear evidence bag, inside was a small slip of paper. It moved around too much to stay in focus, so he read it for me. “Penance: Three Hail Marys.”

“A relatively minor transgression, then. Thanks, Jack. I owe you one.”

*

Sometimes it’s handy having a subordinate. “Anders? Check Ghent’s onliner log for offline periods, within the last two weeks. Work backwards; time, duration, and location. It should lead you to a church, to a priest’s confessional. Ping me as you find them.”

Anders nodded, puppy-dog eager, having just returned from a fruitless door-to-door. Ghent’s neighbors weren’t particularly observant. Maybe that’s what happens when you can afford detached houses and tranquillisers. “On it, guv. And then we pull the priest for questioning?”

“You should know better than that, Sergeant. Confessional confidentiality. I just need the when and where. And—” I was thinking on the fly, “See if you can find out if this was a regular thing, or a one-off. Yes?”

“Yes, guv. Where are you headed?”

“The doctors.”

“Everything alright?” A flash of concern crinkled her eyes.

“I don’t know yet,” I admitted. “I’ll tell you when I get back.”

*

Ghent’s GP surgery was one of those practices with a half-dozen doctors. In the waiting room a poster kept catching my eye, and every time it did, it rattled off personalized lifestyle tips. Stats for men my age, my weight, and who live alone, were shocking. Who knew getting divorced would knock ten years off my life expectancy, and add three to hers? (Who knew it was so dangerous being so much of a stereotype?)

After being shown in by the robo-receptionist, I flashed my ID and explained why I was there to Doctor Pollock, a tall, dapper guy with expensive glasses. He lifted his fingers from the keypad on the desk and leaned back in his chair.

“I’m confused, Inspector. I was under the impression Mr. Ghent had been murdered—”

“Yes.”

“—Brutally?”

“Again, yes.”

“Then, if I may, what does his state of mind, or indeed, health, have to do with anything?”

I gave him my sweetest smile. It wasn’t easy. There’s something about a professional unwilling to help another that rankles. A lack of common courtesy. It didn’t help when I mentioned I knew Ghent was terminal.

He winced. “You didn’t hear that from me—”

“Of course not.”

“And I can’t give you specifics, but yes. Though I had rather held out hopes for an experimental drug trial…” A cloud sped across the good Doctor’s brow.

“Would that explain your visit to Mr. Ghent’s house, a week before his demise?”

The scowl returned. “I’m not at liberty—”

“Are you in the habit of making house calls, Doctor?”

“When the circumstances dictate, Inspector.

“And what circumstances were those?”

The scowl intensified. “I find that discussing end of life care takes more than a quarter hour, Inspector, and is best done in the comfort of the patient’s own home. Will that be all?”

I agreed it would be—for now, despite the temptation to slip in a Columbo-esque “one more thing…” Problem was, I didn’t have one ready to ask.

*

Marlowe was waiting for me again, under the same lamppost. “What do you know?” I demanded.

He took his time. “What do you know?”

“I know you’re suggesting there’s a half-dozen connected cases—” I ignored his raised eyebrow “—but that’s ridiculous. There hasn’t been a serial killer in… forever.”

Ever since the transparency laws came in, to make sure there weren’t any rocks for a killer to hide under. Laws that allowed apps like The Great Detective. Laws that meant no one escaped justice for long enough to kill again, at the cost of virtually all claims to privacy.

And yet here we had a half-dozen unsolved murders, each by a different method: one a poisoning, in a public bar. No one knew how the poison was administered. In others, like Ghent’s, the murder weapon was conspicuously absent. There was even a break-the-doors-down, genuine locked room mystery. All in our fair city, all far more public and documented than the usual unsolved cases. All onliners, and a number of them with recent, terminal diagnoses. But those illnesses, along with the doctors involved, were different. It was at best a glimpse of a possible connection; little wonder the department was treating them as separate cases.

“What’s your part in this?” I asked.

“You could picture some public spirited Joe hiding behind my avatar, dropping hints? If that helps.”

“Or?”

Marlowe shrugged, immune to my scorn. “You’re the detective; you join the dots.”

I sure as hell didn’t like the feel of my strings being yanked. And if I didn’t trust Marlowe’s motives, could I trust his information? What choice did I have? If this crime was anything like the others, solving it head on wasn’t likely to happen.

“Fine, whatever. So drop me a hint, already?”

He laughed. “One thing you haven’t considered: all the victims were keen fans of The Great Detective.”

That figured, I supposed. But it didn’t narrow things down, not unless it was connected to their onliner status, to their shortened lifespans… my brain ached.

“That’s it?”

“For now.” Marlowe repeated his vanishing trick, which was damned easy, if you were never there in the first place.

*

I sat in the gloom once again, trying to think. The Great Detective was a money spinner. Maybe it was a reaction to having so much of modern life under the spotlight; the seedy side, as long as it wasn’t too pitiful, had a vicarious attraction to some. Correction, to a lot. But how would a murderer make money from an unsolvable case?

I called my daughter. At least it wasn’t past midnight, this time. I sketched out—in the vaguest terms—what I knew.

She was unexpectedly excited. “I should have been following these cases,” she moaned, “rather than tragic crime passionnels, the scorned lover standing over the body, bloody knife in hand.”

I paused. “That happens a lot?”

She shrugged. “Cameras discourage premeditated murders, mostly. But this… this is a puzzle, more than that, it’s shaped like a puzzle.”

“Come again?”

“It’s almost an irrelevance who, or why they did it, you just want to know, intellectually, how they did it.”

Things clicked into place. “The murderer is playing a dangerous game,” I mused. “The how-dunnit, and the who-dunnit, are always going to be entwined. If you solve one…”

“You solve the other? He’s not expecting you to solve either?”

“So it would seem.”

Which stung my professional pride. Someone thought they were cleverer than we were. Someone was playing god.

*

Another night, another encounter with Marlowe. This time I was ready for him. “How far are you willing to go, to help?”

The same drawl, the same tilt of the head. “Meaning?”

“All you’ve given me are sphinx-like hints. Not exactly helping to crack the case.”

Marlowe sniffed, stuck his hands in his pockets. “No? Well, whatd’ya want, tough guy?”

“More to the point, what do you want?”

He gazed at me, a moth flickering around then through his face. “An end, to this.”

“So give me something. That will end it?”

*

Two nights later I found myself stood in a park, the lights of the back of a house peeking over a tall, but not unscaleable fence.

“Are you sure about this, Inspector?” Marlowe asked. “Once you’re in there, you’re on your own. No calling for backup. No recording to protect you if it goes wrong.”

“I’m sure,” I said, though my hand was trembling and I couldn’t stop thinking of my daughter. “There’s one thing you might do for me, though.”

“Oh?”

“Raise hell at the front door, while I go over the back?”

He chuckled. “I can do that. Good luck, Clonbrock.”

*

Doctor Pollock was dead, tangled in a web of ropes and pulleys, a Heath-Robinson murder contraption that took two to operate, one of whom was the intended victim. For all that, as I sat on the curb outside surrounded by flashing blue lights, it was the bullet from my gun that had ended it. And it’ll be the almost-victim’s tearful testimony (the shock of an assisted suicide gone wrong) that will crack the other cases, explain how they were recruited, (a network of Doctors, referring terminal patients to one another?), and which Great Detective forum they hatched their convoluted plans in.

I’d catch hell, later, maybe even a suspension, for going it alone, even if there would have been another murder if I hadn’t. For now I was the hero, the Super praising my instincts. I didn’t tell her they’re born of a lifetime of thinking the worst of people.

And I couldn’t help but stare into every shadow behind every light, expecting to see a tall man with a brimmed hat, tipping me a wink.

Anders took the empty coffee cup and watched as I clambered stiffly into the car. “Back to the station, guv, to file your report?”

“Not quite yet, Anders,” I said, waving away the inevitable protest. “If the Super asks, I gave you the slip. There’s a loose-end I need to pull. It’s probably nothing—I’ll see you in an hour.”

I didn’t bother waiting for her response.

*

The moment I closed the door my signal dropped to zero. It might look as ancient as the rest of St. Marys, but the confessional was retrofitted with a fancy faraday cage and a privacy scrambler. Which explained why the penance printer was mounted on the outside of the box.

A panel was pulled back with a clatter. “Yes, son?”

“Father McIntyre,” I said. “Or would you prefer Marlowe?”

I glimpsed the light from his eyes, watching me warily through the ornate grill. “Inspector Clonbrock, an unexpected surprise. I assume you’re not here to confess your sins?”

“No. Are you?”

“I see the Great Detectives site has been taken down?”

“Temporarily. I suspect it will be back up, probably no later than tomorrow.”

“So it was Doctor Pollock?”

“So it seems.”

“Odd that he thought he’d get away with it—”

“He might have,” I interrupted. “If he’d merely claimed assisted suicide, and not obfuscated the matter.”

There was a sigh. “Suicide?”

“Assisted. The poisoning, the locked room, the convenient timings of Ghent’s blackout… all made much easier if the victims helped out, if they bought into the idea of fabricating a mystery.”

“But why?” There was a plea in his voice.

“People do all sorts of crazy things for fame. Pollock thought he could control the narrative, could direct the play from beginning to end. He was a Great Detectives fan, of course. How galling it must be, when reality so rarely matches fiction.”

I heard a sigh, a rustle of vestments. “Did you have to shoot him, Inspector?”

“He was armed, Father. It was dark. And there was another’s life at risk. A Doctor who strays into killing his own, or others’ patients—even those who beg him to—is a dangerous animal. It might not have taken much more than a slump in ratings before he decided to give someone a false, terminal diagnosis.”

The priest’s shudder rattled the woodwork.

“Others might agree with you, but it grieves me that it should end this way.”

“Isn’t that what you wanted? Why you led me on?”

The silence stretched. “Inspector, my part in this is smaller than you assume. In truth, what Alfred Ghent told me was rather vague. And what I picked up on, the hints of a deception, the murmurs of suicide, wasn’t even near the top of his list of sins. He wasn’t a regular confessor, there was somewhat of a backlog. All rather tedious, and I wouldn’t have thought any more of it, if—”

“If you hadn’t been a Great Detectives user yourself?”

Yes. Even then I only jotted down a few initial thoughts, triggered by the things he’d hinted at—what if it was more about the method, the theatre, than the murder itself? And then, when I logged in to see which players were investigating, I was surprised to find one slot available.

“You can check my account, if you haven’t done so already. I’ve never been a player before. I wouldn’t have this time, except it was as if the game was waiting for me to join.” His laugh caught, turned into a delicate cough. “We men of faith must sometimes exercise it.”

I let him stew. “What you did, Father, with the Marlowe avatar, should not have been possible. I’ve done my digging. You’re no hacker, no secret geek.”

“If it was secret—”

No. I cut through his flippant response. “If you don’t mind, I need two things from you. The first is a promise you won’t be logging into your Great Detectives account, ever again.”

There was a lengthy exhale from the other side, a disappointed: “I suppose not.”

“And the other—just how did you do it? How did you control the app, the projectors, so that nothing you told me was recorded?”

His pause was a lengthy one. “Those half-baked theories I mentioned jotting down, Inspector? I never shared them. No one should have been able to read them.

“If I told you that God isn’t the only one who moves in mysterious ways, I doubt you’d thank me. All that you give me credit for, someone else, or something else, did. I was frozen out of the account almost as soon as it was activated. I never told you anything.”

It was my turn for a lengthy pause. “That’s what I feared. Ah hell—sorry Father. I’m just an old fashioned copper, one messed up case from being forced into early retirement. But it doesn’t matter half as much as people think, how a murder is done. Technology, methods, the science used to pick them apart, all these things change. But the reason people kill—I don’t think that changes, ever, whether they claim it was for money, or fame, or love. It’s mankind’s ability to stop seeing the humanity in others. I’ve had a lifetime of being exposed to it, and I wonder where I am on that spectrum.

“Though I don’t suppose I need to tell you about human nature?”

The laugh returned, with a little more warmth. “I’m only thirty, Inspector. I hope I have a long way to go before I’m unsurprised by the things people do.”

“Well, if there’s some altruistic, secretive cabal out there, or even an AI that knows right from wrong… It’s above my pay grade to do much about it. I just hope it knows what it is doing.”

“So do I, Inspector.” The priest’s voice sounded as weary as I felt. “So do I.”

There was a freshly printed slip waiting for me as I exited. It read: “Though shalt not kill. Penance: Thirty Hail Marys.”

I figured I got off lightly.

Copyright 2022 by Liam Hogan