Mind Fuck, Manna Francis; Chapter Sixteen
Remember when Toreth set up that nifty little plan to see if anyone close to him within I&I was tipping off the possible killer/saboteur, and it looked like nothing had happened?
Looks like something did happen.
The call for Toreth to go in to I&I came just after four on Monday morning. When he arrived, he found Sara already there. She stood up when she saw him, her eyes wide with excitement.
“Is it really Pearl Nissim?” he asked her, and she nodded. “Legislator Pearl Nissim?”
“One and the same,” she said.
Oh… fuck. While we don’t yet know huge amounts about the Administration yet, I don’t think it would take many calculations to realise that killing someone that high up the food chain is Pretty Fucking Serious Business.
Worse yet, Pearl was a fan of the technology: she was a fan with a lot of pull, too. And like the others, as Sara says, she’s been found dead in her sim machine.
Given the seriousness of the whole situation, Toreth decides to head over to Strasbourg himself—and now, getting Sara to make the necessary arrangements. Tillotson has already decided that his best paid team need to be onto it and over there, so at least he’s got full authority.
The murder of an Administration higher-up—damn near highest-up, in fact—wasn’t something a para got a chance at solving every day. Even less frequently when it was their fault. When he’d thrown out his bait, he’d expected another death at the AERC. Another student, or maybe one of the more senior staff. Legislator fucking Nissim? Better hope Tillotson never found out about this one.
I love his attitude; it’s so casual but quite clearly demonstrates—so subtly—that there is something very different about the way Toreth looks at the world. He doesn’t even notice the lack of guilt he feels about his involvement in things; yet he acknowledges his part in things—just not the severity of the outcome. To him, people are chess pieces, and, well, to win this particular game, too, sacrifices have to be made.
Pretty risky when you accidentally lose your queen when you thought you’d maybe lose a pawn or two though.
Heading over to Strasbourg with B-C, Toreth reads over Nissim’s file, once again detecting nothing out of the ordinary. Like Jarvis and Teffera, Nissim seems to be a likeable person with no enemies, and no shady background and no suspicious connections, despite her powerful position. She’s in her sixties, she’s worked her way up to her position over the years, and looks thoroughly clean.
And that’s the only thing—other than using the sim—that all of the deceased have in common.
Everything about deaths screamed either natural causes or technical fault. It screamed it so loudly, in fact, that it only strengthened Toreth’s belief to the contrary.
I love Toreth’s scepticism about it all being so benign. Most people, I can imagine, wouldn’t look any deeper than that, and you can see how in his field—especially since the whole case seems to be so frustratingly devoid of evidence—it would be tempting to move on and do something else instead. And Toreth has been bored enough to want that. But… he doesn’t want it to be easy.
They head to Nissim’s place of residence to find an unfortunately contaminated crime scene: Nissim’s body has been moved to the hospital, and the forensics people have already been through the place. Toreth sends his people out to get the evidence, at least, and looks through the security-heavy house. Given Nissim’s high profile, she’s living with security people keeping an eye out for her, though obviously they weren’t able to stop what happened to her.
Toreth recognised the first man they met inside—Clemens Keilholtz.
First time I read this, I knew I recognised the name though I had to skip back and find out who he was, though I like his inclusion here and found myself quite liking him.
The legislator’s death had hit him hard. However, while shock and grief tended to dull people’s expressions, in Keilholtz’s case they had supplied some character to his previously non-descript face.
I think that’s where you realise the gravity of what’s happened to him: it’s a beautiful description and it perfectly illustrates what sort of person he is: everything can be hidden beneath a cool professional grey, yet something as shocking and sad is a different matter.
Once again, he looked pleased—or perhaps this time, relieved—to see Toreth, and Toreth had the impression that the man had been waiting for him. Keilholtz’s first words confirmed the guess. “I heard you were coming.”
Oh, ouch. I want to imagine Toreth squirming like all hell because clearly this guy is upset and it’s kind of his fault, but of course Toreth is Toreth and he’s all don’t-give-a-fuck business about things and he just goes into his professional information-gathering mode.
“When did you find out about the legislator’s death?”
“I was there when it happened.” He said it with the unconscious ease of someone who hasn’t thought through what that might mean.
Oh gawd. I know I’m probably being weird here, but to me, that was just sad. You already know what he’s going to say, and why he was there, and he’s half just blown away by what’s happened and some part of him seems eager to hang onto what’s familiar—like Toreth—and being professional. But it’s still so fucking sad. And accurate. I completely get that sense of not 100% comprehending a huge reality like that: when my grandmother died, I remembered seeing a statuette of a horse (she loved horses) in the window of a gift shop about a week later, and automatically thinking “I’ll get it for her for Christm—Oh. Wait.” After grandfather died, even as we were leaving the wake thing held for him, I remember thinking about how surreal it was and how in my mind he could be back in the old people’s home where he’d been only a few days before. Death is an enormous thing to think about… moreso when you’re close to someone, and when it’s sudden, you have to get your head around a hell of a lot that you have more time with, if, say, it’s kind of impending.
“You were in the room?”
“No. Or rather, yes. Next door. We’d both been in the sim—“ And now he hesitated. It couldn’t have been more obvious if Keilholtz had worn an advertising screen.
Oh, man. Dunno if it took Toreth a bit longer than me to get that one or if he’s just dragging it out to make sure he’s got the story 100% straight.
“Ah, there isn’t an easy way of explaining this, Para-Investigator.”
Easy enough: you were fucking her.
Toreth realises that Forensics have managed to miss that and gets B-C to secure the area and move on everyone else hanging around, and he and Keilholtz go back to Keilholtz’s flat so they can talk about things more privately. They sit down to discuss things, and Keilholtz explains that for the last four years, he and Pearl Nissim have been in a relationship and that barring a few close people, they kept it private.
“How old are you, Mr. Keilholtz?”
Keilholtz clearly expected the question, even if he didn’t welcome it. “Thirty one,” he said tonelessly. “Exactly half Pearl’s age.”
Keilholtz then explains that yes, that’s why Pearl liked the sim, but then elaborates:
“I should say– I want to say that I had no problems at all with the situation. I much preferred sex in the real world, to tell you the truth. If you haven’t been with someone in the sim, it’s difficult to explain it. It lacks intimacy. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’m always aware that my body is elsewhere, and alone. But outside the sim, Peal was, well, self-conscious. It spoiled things for her, and I hated that. So we compromised: we alternated between the two.”
Can I say here that I really kind of ship Keilholtz/Nissim in a huge way now? They just seemed like such a sweet couple. And it’s nice seeing a less conventional pairing just pop up in a story without there being any sense of weirdness about it, and Keilholtz just being so… nice.
I totally see Pearl as Helen Mirren, by the way. And let’s face it, Helen Mirren is kinda hot.
Of course, this is something of a reminder for Toreth, who gets his mind back on task and starts asking questions about what happened.
The house was empty barring the two of them– and security, but as Keilholtz points out, if they’ve done anything untoward, it’ll be caught on the video surveillance. Toreth doesn’t think that he’s a potential suspect, but still asks about what they got up to in the sim; he explains that had “a slushily romantic evening,” (in Toreth’s view) and then Pearl stayed a little later to tend the “garden” in the sim room.
“[…] I unfastened my own straps, stood up, I went over and–” He stopped, swallowing hard. Toreth waited. “I went over and loosened Pearl’s straps, so she’d be able to get out easily. Then I went through to the bedroom. I started running a bath for her. Then I sat on the bed for a few minutes. I felt a little sick, from the sim; I often do. When then bath was full, I turned the sheets down, put the lights on by the bed and–” He was crying now, making no attempt to hide it or wipe away the tears.
Come on, folks, this is fucking sad. Seriously, what a sweet bloke. Tell me you’re not even slightly sad for him.
Anyway, he expected her to come through… and she didn’t, so he went back, found her not moving, and then realised what had happened. Afterwards, he’d called security, or the medics (he can’t remember because he was in shock) and Toreth points out that he’d noted that her eyes were open– so her visor was up.
Nicely spotted, Toreth.
Keilholtz also points out that her left arm was, too.
So similar to Kelly. This was stretching the realms of coincidence too far, and the sim room here was secure as the one at SimTech.
When Toreth asks about it. Keilholtz says that no one else could have come and gone in the time that he was running Pearl a bath and that the room was locked only to them and that he had to let security in, too.
Then, before Toreth could speak again, Keilholtz said, “Do you know what was in the legislator’s will, Para-Investigator?” Toreth, who had been considering asking Keilholtz something very similar, blinked, then shook his head.
“I do.” Keilholtz’s voice was cold. “Pearl had three children, a daughter and two sons, by her estranged husband. Everything goes to them.”
Aw. You get the impression that poor Keilholtz feels like he’s trying to make a case not for himself as innocent of killing Pearl, but innocent of being a gold-digger. He explains that he gets the gifts she’d given him, and their letters to one another, and that he’ll even be leaving their apartment once the I&I people have finished investigating. He even explains that he gets along with Pearl’s children, and that they had no problems with the relationship.
“But I always wanted to make it clear why I was with Pearl, to her more than to anyone else. I couldn’t prove it wasn’t career ambition– although it wasn’t– but I could very definitely prove it had nothing to do with money. I never took a cent from her and I won’t start now that she’s gone.”
“No, but you were about to.” Keilholtz smiled slightly. “I spend a lot of time in meetings, Para-Investigator, watching people think. […]”
*sniffle* So people are still suss about age differences in relationships in The Administration’s time, too? I suppose money still has power, possibly even moreso than it does in today’s world, so it’s understandable. But it’s sad for someone like Keilholtz who seemed so sweetly devoted to Pearl, yet is smart enough to realise that people assumed ulterior motives of him.
Toreth decides that he believes him, though will run the usual financial checks on him and see if the story with the will matches up.
“Does SimTech have any other champions in the Legislature?” he asked before putting the camera away.
So we’re back to that old idea about the victim being the sim– and by extension, SimTech– rather than the end user.
And frighteningly, Keilholtz comes out with this.
“Not that I know of. And certainly not right now. Para-Investigator, Pearl Nissim had a great many friends there. If the sim had anything at all to do with her death, I can promise you that SimTech is finished.”
We get a nice little cut to what’s going on at SimTech; what happened to Pearl has become news around the workplace, and they’re in a crisis meeting amongst the directors and the senior staff.
Warrick opened the meeting with a blunt question. “Do you think that we ought to suspend work in the sim?”
You can see why he’s doing it, but at the same time you can also appreciate how awful it must be for him to say that.
He expected a rush of responses, but the room stayed silent except for the low hum of the airconditoning, switching itself on to deal with the heat of so many bodies. Warrick looked around the table, finding all eyes on him. Almost all– Lew was staring down at the table, frowning.
Again, one of those moments where I sit here gnashing my teeth, going “DAAAAAMN,” because it’s so easy to see this all happening, and how much of a fucking epic series would this make? Yeah, I know. There’s not much of a chance of the BBC making a series that would cost this much and which features explicit gay sex with a fairly hefty side-serving of kink, where the cops are essentially the really bad guys (and does anyone want to imagine what the conservatives in the States would do if it happened? LOL) but damn it would be awesome.
Also, the first time I read this, my initial thought was, “Oh fuck. What the fuck is Lew Marcus up to now?”
“Three people have died,” Warrick continued. “Personally, I do not believe that the sim had anything at all to do with their deaths directly. I say that not because of my pride in my work, or because we can’t afford a delay in the program, but because I think it’s safe. I know it’s safe.”
He explains that he thinks that they’re under attack from people trying to sabotage them, and that in his opinion, closing the sim is giving the attackers what they want.
Asher agrees, pointing out that the sponsors would start to get even nervier, and that she’s been assuring them that nothing’s wrong with the technology.
Lew explains that they’ve taken all the sims outside the AERC offline and now everything in the workplace is heavily guarded; precautions have been taken, though Warrick’s wondering how the students and less senior staff are going to feel about working with it.
Since their resident psychologist is in the room, Warrick asks for Marian’s opinion on things, finding it understandably strange that such a vocal critic of the sim hasn’t already spoken up.
“Overall, I would recommend re-emphasising that sim work is voluntary. Forcing people to work with it would be damaging. From a commercial point of view,” she added, placing the words with precision, “continuing on a voluntary basis is the best option. If all work is suspended and staff believe that SimTech is going to fold, they’ll start looking for other jobs.” She shrugged. “Nothing you didn’t already know.”
Warrick agrees with this plan, and puts it to everyone that SimTech will go with it and let the rest of the people working there know about it.
Then he raises something else: someone’s been accessing test data.
Evidence he’d found while examining the supposedly closed files himself.
“As you know, I&I has sealed all the data for the duration of the investigation. I do very much appreciate the efforts everyone is making for SimTech, but I don’t want anyone to end up in I&I answering unfriendly questions.”
And hearing him say things like that almost makes the company feel like one big warm happy family, doesn’t it? You can’t help but like the way he treats his fellow staff members; even though he’s at heart a pragmatist, he’s also actually a decent bloke.
But he’s not stupid, and he’s watching everyone’s reactions as he says it, and he tells them they’re to pass it onto their staff, too.
Meeting completed, everyone starts leaving, except Yang, who admits that he’s hesitant to work in the sim at the moment and asks Warrick for some time off. Warrick is nice about it, of course, but inwardly worrying: what if they don’t manage to fix up the whole mess and other people join Yang?
The directors discuss it amongst themselves: after about two months, they’re going to have run out of money. Sponsors are withdrawing. Even P-Leisure are getting a bit toey and they’re ‘still reviewing their options‘ according to Asher.
She’s tired. They’re all tired, and they’re all worried. When Warrick notices Asher looks tired, ever the optimist about his company, he suggests that maybe after some sleep, things will look different in the morning.
Lew rose. “Well they’d better look different soon or it will be too damned late.”
Talk about ending that on an ominous note.