by Casey Callaghan
My name is Schoeman. Johan Schoeman. I always wanted to study, to further the cause of human knowledge, and that's how I ended up in my current position -- a respectable professor at the University of Pretoria.
Officially, my field is physics; and, in fact, I have published a few notable papers on varying subjects, and I am trying to publish a book entitled "A Beginner's Guide to Special Relativity"; so far I've successfully resisted the temptation to call it "What We Find If We Assume The Speed Of Light Is Constant In All Inertial Reference Frames". But my interests are wide, and any field of science that I cannot at least talk knowledgeably about, I know where on campus to find someone who can.
And that is why my brother, Alfred, often approaches me with little problems. Alfred, you see, is a policeman; a police inspector, to be more precise. Like Sherlock Holmes and Mycroft, he has the energy and I have the brains. Which is not to say that he's any slouch himself, of course, but he doesn't keep up with the literature and occasionally needs someone who does.
Which is why, when he arrived at my office in a state of some agitation last Tuesday, I knew that he had something interesting to ask. I put aside the paper I'd been reading (on the side-effects of an attempt to cure cocaine addiction in rats -- not my normal reading matter, but this one had some interesting features, the main one of which was that it made any male rats who swallowed it incredibly attractive to female rats) and listened to his story.
It was, Alfred told me, a death. To be specific, a murder. But the victim and the perpetrator had never met before. There were, in fact, several perpetrators; the poor man had been quite literally mobbed to death outside a restaurant. The whole incident, moreover, had been caught on camera.
I leaned back in my chair and closed my eyes. "Last Friday," I said. "Samuel Bartholomew Jones. Right?"
He nodded. "You read about it in the newspaper?"
"Heard it on the radio. I thought it was straightforward enough; guy gets attacked by mob, he dies. Arrest the mob, and the agitators that started it, and leave the rest to the lawyers to sort out, right?"
Alfred sighed. "There are two problems with that. Firstly, there weren't any agitators. Secondly, well, we have reason to believe that one of his co-workers wanted him dead. Apparently Jones had just found out that the co-worker -- one Gerald Thompson -- was embezzling from the accounting firm they both worked for, and was planning blackmail."
I nodded. "And this Thompson fellow has an alibi for that time?"
"The very best of alibis. He had a bit too much to drink in the morning -- apparently not unusual for accountants these days. But his behavior while drunk was atypical for anyone, let alone an accountant. You see, he came to the station and punched me in the face. At the time that the mob formed, he was in cell 42."
"And you think he did that on purpose."
"Yes. I mean, he was practically laughing at me."
"And there have been suggestions at the station that your surety is based on a personal revenge?"
"Yes, but --"
"It isn't," I finished off. "And so where do I fit in?"
Alfred sighed. "I want to know how he could possibly have done it. I brought a copy of the security camera footage for you to look through." He passed me a USB drive, and continued talking as I plugged it in and found the relevant files. "It turns out that Jones been eating lunch there every day for the past thirteen years..."
Sam eased himself into one of the seats in the restaurant, and placed his order. Junk food for lunch every day for thirteen years had left him with the sort of figure that could be politely described as "rotund" but was more accurately described as "obese". Today, though, he had reason to celebrate. What he'd found out about how old Thompson was cooking the books would provide enough money to retire comfortably on, if used carefully. Thompson could certainly cook a few more thousands out of the books, after all. He raised a hand, and attracted the waiter's attention. "Same as always." he said, from force of habit, as the waiter came from behind. The waiter, surprisingly, said "Um..."
Sam turned, and beheld a stranger's face. "New here?" he asked, sympathetically.
"Um, yes, sir. See, my cousin --"
Sam waved the explanation away with one pudgy hand. "Well, then. One hamburger, one banana milkshake. I've been having the same order every day for lunch for -- oh, must be close on ten years now. It's probably already ready in the kitchen."
"Yes, sir. Be right back." said the waiter, hurrying off to the kitchen. As he opened the door, there was a brief waft of frying and a sizzling noise from the room beyond.
Sam looked around the restaurant. Quite a crowd here today. He tried to catch the eye of the young lady at the till, but, in an art she had perfected since she'd started to work here three years previously, she refused to look in the direction of his table. With a sigh, he resigned himself to waiting for his order. Stupid new waiter, he thought. Did he get lost in the kitchen?
Just then, though, the waiter reappeared, carrying the promised meal.
Twenty seconds later, the young lady at the till had smiled at him for the first time that he wasn't handing her the money to pay for his meal. Then a young lady entering the restaurant ignored all the empty tables to sit across from him. This seemed to be some kind of a signal; across the restaurant, one by one, every female customer -- and waitress, for that matter -- in the non-smoking section headed for his table.
Within ten minutes, Sam was trying to run for his life, but unfortunately his top speed wasn't all that high. He'd lost his jacket, his shirt was ripped to shreds, and a fifty-year-old woman was grimly hanging onto his tie from behind, with dozens more in hot pursuit. And behind them came boyfriends, husbands, fathers, some worried, some jealous, and some really, really angry. It was either a really angry boyfriend or his own tie that finally strangled Samuel Bartholomew Jones.
"I see," I said, staring at the screen.
"See what?" asked Alfred.
"Take a look at the order in which the girls approached his table. See, it starts here, and moves move quickly in this direction through the restaurant. It looks rather like the diffusion of some kind of gas. And you'll notice that no-one in the smoking section was affected --"
"-- Because the smoking section is separately ventilated," finished Alfred, nodding. "I see what you're getting at, but I already looked for any traces of any sort of pheromone bomb that that first lady could have dropped, and --"
I shook my head. "She didn't drop it. Whatever gas was used got her, too. Based on the speed at which it spread through the rest of the restaurant, it must have been released a moment or two before she got there. She was probably headed for an empty table beyond his when she came across the gas front."
"But no-one else came -- no, wait. The waiter must have set it up."
"Perhaps not. It could have been something on a timer."
"No -- he went there every day, but his choice of table varied from day to day."
I nodded. "The waiter's the best bet, then."
"But how could he have done it, and how can we prove he did it?" asked Alfred, dreading the prospect of convincing a court that a waiter made all the girls flock to Mr. Jones' table. "I've looked over that tape a million times, and all he does is bring the man his order. And I've had the forensics people at the station look over both of them, and they've found nothing dangerous in either."
"Of course they wouldn't." I snapped, slightly irritated. "This isn't a poison that kills by itself, it's a poison that makes others kill for it. Do you still have samples left?"
"Yep. Milkshake and hamburger."
"In that case, we're going to talk to Professor Tsweti in the biology lab. With any luck, he'll have a few spare rats. And if we're even luckier, this stuff will have the same effect on rats as it does on humans."
To make a long story short, it did have the same effect on rats as on humans. Henry the rat is now, for his own safety, not allowed to be put in the same cage as any female rats. If it is possible for a rodent to look both wistful and terrified, Henry seems to do so any time his cage is placed too close to those containing other specimen.
With the Professor and other expert witnesses to support his case, Alfred and the prosecutor had no trouble convicting Gerald Thompson of murder in the first degree.
© 2008 Casey Callaghan
Bio: Casey Callaghan is a computer programmer living in Cape Town. He's previously had one work published in Aphelion -- the poem Echolocation, in the May 2008 edition.
E-mail: Casey Callaghan
Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum
Return to Aphelion's Index page.