Hugo Calibri had not planned to die so soon. He pulled up the shade on his living room window a crack, just enough to glimpse the front yard.
He had a sleepless night. Still in his pajamas, he raised the shade to get a better look at the driveway, while rubbing the stubble on his chin. A bright yellow plastic bag lay in the middle of the grey macadam. Extending from its open end was a rolled up copy of the Magnolia Times. A smile flitted across his face as he realized the newsboy must have driven by on his bike.
Normally, Hugo would be in his business suit before the sun rose, finishing off his coffee and topping off Tucker’s bowl of dry food. The Russian Grey was his sole companion since his wife passed away several years ago. About now, he would be checking his watch and waiting for the newspaper to be dropped off before setting out to work. It was Wednesday, and the office staff at Wendel Manufacturing would soon wonder where he had gotten to.
This was not a normal day. Two weeks ago he made a decision which made sure of that. Hugo now realized that he had made a major blunder. He had paid for a prediction. Fifty thousand dollars guaranteed he would know how long he had to live. At the time, it seemed like a great idea. He was reasonably fit, a middle-aged accountant living an uncomplicated life. Planning was central to his worldview, and the chaos of living irked him to no end. He had been convinced that it would be so much better if he could chart the course of his remaining years, insuring that he organized each day, preparing for his last.
Several friends had introduced him to a representative of Endings, a company which had developed a singular machine which used a combination of biochemical tests and statistical analysis to make accurate predictions of longevity. He didn’t believe it at first, but when he was presented with the machine’s performance criteria gathered over the past ten years, he was sold. Every prediction the machine had made was accurate to within a day; at least this was true for the clients who had been predicted to die during the last ten years.
The machine was a showcase of late twenty-first century technology. The scientists at Endings explained that they started with the actuarial data of more than a billion people, all now deceased. Working backwards, they sought to correlate the time of death of each person to a variety of indicator variables such as age, health, living and working environment, and interaction with friends and colleagues. In short, these and thousands of other data points were obtained during the machine’s development. It was not until DNA sequence information was added to the mix that the machine was able to produce accurate predictions, not only of time of death, but manner as well. The researchers found that people generally died by two basic mechanisms: biological or physical, and DNA coding not only contained a likely biological outcome, but also encoded behavior, in particular, the proclivity for an individual to engage in an activity or enter a situation likely to lead to death.
He recalled the visit to Endings.
“Mr. Calibri, there’s nothing to fear. Your investment will be well worthwhile, especially in planning the rest of your life,” said Gotham Freeberg, an executive manager at Endings. He read Hugo’s face with the expertise of a carnival barker.
“Please sit down. The machine won’t bite.”
Hugo shuffled toward the black box, a half-meter cube sitting on a small table of its own. It was hard to get over its ominous feel, especially as the sterile white of Freeberg’s office made it look like an alien artifact – no wires, no sound, just a perfect cube.
“Relax, Mr. Calibri. Your Ident card … we’ll need it to begin the process.”
Hugo reached into his back pocket and handed over a plastic sliver. Freeberg slipped it into the back panel.
“Now that we have provided the system with your personal information, all related variables will be gathered by the machine. It’s quite automatic.”
Freeberg handed back the plastic to Hugo. “All that’s left is for you to provide a sample of your blood.”
Hugo felt his forehead grow cold. Freeberg patted him on the back as he seated Hugo in front of the machine. He pointed to the small opening in the box’s front panel.
“Indeed, Mr. Calibri. Not to worry, the sampling is painless.”
In it went.
A few days later a secure email arrived from Endings. His eyes tore across the screen. It was a single page document. Thursday, June 19, 2081. The most likely date of death was only a couple of weeks away. The cause was accidental. A statement appeared in bold lettering at the bottom which emphasized the accuracy of an Endings prediction – that once it was made, it was impossible to reverse the forecasted outcome. To Hugo, the guarantee sounded a lot like a death sentence.
It was such a short time. Hugo started to think that maybe the machine had erred. He called Endings and talked to Freeberg, who assured him that there was no mistake. In fact, there was a money back guarantee if he should remain alive after that date. He did say that the machine pointed to evolving circumstances which would lead to a deadly accident. No, Freeberg could not elaborate; it was against company policy. He went on to advise Hugo to get all his important documents in order and prepare for the inevitable. He ended the call by thanking Hugo for his business.
The day before his predicted end, Hugo turned off the electricity to his house. The water was off as well. He placed all sharp objects in drawers. As a precaution against falling down the stairs, he slept, or tried to sleep, on the living room couch. Now that death was at his doorstep, his opinion had undergone an unfortunate reversal. It was coming entirely too soon. Rather than welcome the end with open arms, he was hiding from it, trying to deceive it, to foil its plans. He would stay indoors, safely ensconced in his suburban castle. The doors and windows were locked and shaded. He just needed to get through the day, and then Endings would return his money and he could put the whole miserable episode behind him.
The sun cleared the surrounding rooftops. The street was quiet. Most folks had trundled off to work. A jogger loped by. Two women sauntered past, one guiding a stroller, while the other went on about something non-stop. Hugo shook his head, pleased the oratory was too distant to understand. A dog yelped from far off, probably the cocker spaniel across the way waiting to be fed. A blue jay landed on a rhododendron bloom just below his window, and at once flew off, dislodging a petal. The yellow plastic bag in the driveway fluttered.
After mewling for attention to no effect, his cat curled up in a ball on a leather easy chair. Hugo walked over to him and scratched Tucker’s chin, triggering an appreciative purring. He shrugged and stepped over to the front door, released the security latch, and twisted open the deadbolt. The door swung in and he paused for a moment as the drone of a plane flying toward a commuter airport jangled his nerves. Craning his head through the opening, he checked the street left and right. Satisfied that no danger lurked nearby, he glided over the brick stoop in his stocking feet and gingerly stepped down to the walkway leading to the drive.
When he reached the newspaper in good health, he shook his head and let out an exaggerated sigh, which also turned out to be his last breath.
“Blue ice, they said.”
“Jeez…how unlucky can you get?”
Roland folded up the paper, sipped at his brew, and looked up at his wife.
“Mag, luck ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.
“I heard about this thing happenin’ years ago. Leaky waste tanks. I can’t believe the airlines still have a problem with that.”
“Neither can I.”
“You got that look.”
Roland Mathers chuckled. “Yeah, I got that look alright.”
He chugged the rest of his coffee and stood. “I think I’m gonna make me a visit downtown. Gotta see a man about some business.”
Mag shrugged. “Just you be sure you don’t get stuck down there workin’ late, and you know what I mean.”
“Yeah, yeah. This is strictly business.”
Roland blew her a kiss and angled through the front door. He felt for the sidearm tucked inside his cardigan. The badge hung loosely at his belt. Public transport took the form of underground trains. They were fast, reliable and dirty.
The death of Hugo Calibri would have been chalked up as one of those weird, unfortunate accidents that life offered up on a grand scale every day, except for one thing — Roland was his friend. He lived next door and they both worked at Wendel Manufacturing. Hugo counted numbers while Roland ran security. When their shifts overlapped, they often ate lunch together downstairs in the basement. It was a quiet place, a sanctuary, and Hugo saw it as a kind of therapy, a chance to wind down and relax with a neighbor and a friend. And that’s how Roland came to know about Endings and Hugo’s decision to buy a prediction.
Hugo hadn’t shared the date, but after he got word from Endings, his glum demeanor suggested it would be soon. Hugo talked about the machine, and Mr. Gotham Freeberg. Fifty-thousand dollars was a lot to spend. Now Hugo was dead. That was just days ago.
The underground escalator deposited Roland at street level. He blinked at the transition to daylight, pausing to gaze down Seventh Avenue. Hard shadows fell across concrete and street, casting undulating stripes atop the milling crowds and sputtering traffic. Ephemeral columns of steam passed through sidewalk gratings. Roland breathed in the scent of the city. His old beat had not changed. He stepped off the curb and winced at the arthritis in his knees. Not everything stayed the same.
A block later, he stopped at the entrance of a 10-story all-glass structure sporting the Endings logo — a holographic image of a red-yellow sun setting over a moving ocean scene hovered in the recessed courtyard. The transparent façade showcased an unbroken array of white offices from the third floor up. The ceiling of the grand lobby on the ground floor reached into the second. He walked in and greeted the guard.
“Abe. Long time no see.”
Abe was tall, dark and grey-haired. He gave Roland a stare, which was followed by a mile-wide smile.
“My, oh my. Well, would you look at this.”
“Yeah, yeah. If you don’t keep a lock on the door…”
“Roland Mathers. I thought you was dead.”
“Ain’t dead. Least ways, not yet.”
“I can’t believe it’s really you. Why, the last time I saw you was at your retirement party. As I recall, you wasn’t feelin’ no pain”
“I bet the precinct wasn’t the same after I left.”
“Wouldn’t know about that. I retired the next month.”
Roland laughed. “Smart move.”
Abe’s smile faded. “You didn’t come here on business, did you?”
“You mean, am I here to get a reading? Find out what my due date is?”
The crease lines on Abe’s face seemed to deepen.
Roland added, “Hell no, old man. I’m here to see someone – a gentleman by the name of Gotham Freeberg. You know where I can find him?”
“He’s one of the case managers. Up on ten, I think. You’ll need to make an appointment.”
Abe pointed to the receptionist desk across the lobby.
“No problem, Abe. Good seein’ you again.”
Roland waved back as he approached the receptionist desk, which was surrounded by several suits, all waiting to sign in. He wedged himself through a pair of visitors and extended his badge to the seated brunette.
Her eyes bulged as she caught its flash. He leaned over the counter. “I’m supposed to check up on security on the tenth floor.” Roland waved at Abe, who returned the salutation.
She slid a pad across the counter. “You’ll have to sign in. Use the elevator on the far end of the lobby. Here, you’ll need this to get through the turnstile.”
Roland signed in and accepted the generic visitor’s badge. The receptionist seemed eager to steer him away from the counter and potential clients.
Minutes later, the elevator doors parted. The scent of the street was chased out by a pungent pine tree. Placards with arrows on the facing wall led him to Freeberg’s office door.
“Can I help you?” asked the blonde executive assistant. She was seated at a mahogany desk in a room with but two chairs and no magazines.
“Security, ma’am,” announced Roland, once again flashing his badge.
“Is there a problem?”
“No, no, ma’am. No problem. New company policy … need to check out each office area. Just be a minute.”
Roland proceeded to make a show of examining the walls, duct gratings, and light switch, leaving the assistant at a loss for words. He stopped outside the inner door.
“Yes, there is. Wait a moment, I’ll see if it’s okay for you to go in.”
“Won’t be but a minute.”
Roland knocked, opened the door, and slipped in before the assistant could object.
“Who are you?” asked Freeberg, propping himself up in his chair. He reached for the intercom switch. “And what do you want?”
Roland waved his revolver at Freeberg’s head. “No need to get excited, Mr. Freeberg. Please let your assistant know you’ll be tied up for a few minutes.”
Freeberg followed orders well. After the call, his hand dropped to the desktop and he slumped back into his seat. In a lower tone of voice he asked, “What exactly is this all about?”
“Damn nice office. Great view.”
Roland moved a step closer, sidling up to the black box. “Is this the machine … you know, the one that makes predictions?”
“If you’re thinking of stealing it, forget it. It’s integrated into our internal wireless systems and won’t work anywhere else.”
“Relax, Mr. Freeberg. You can keep the machine.”
Roland sat in the chair by the machine. “You remember Hugo Calibri?”
“Why, yes. He was one of our recent clients.”
“Clients. Is that what you call them? That’s a laugh.”
“I don’t see what’s so funny. He was here a few weeks ago.”
“And he died last week.”
“Yes. It was an accident, if I recall.”
“What else do you recall?”
Freeberg’s forehead was starting to glaze.
“He was killed by a freak accident … something to do with ice falling from a plane.”
Roland laughed again. “Yeah. Blue ice. A freak accident.”
“What’s that got to do with you? The machine predicted the accident. There was nothing anyone could do. I felt bad for Mr. Calibri.”
“I’m sure you did. Too bad it wasn’t really an accident.”
Droplets ran along Freeberg’s creased forehead. His cheeks darkened.
“The thing is, I live next door to Mr. Calibri. I got to the scene before the police arrived. And I took a sample.”
Freeberg averted Roland’s eyes, bowing his head slightly. His breathing was labored.
“You guys are good. But, you made a slight mistake.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yeah. You might not know. Well, it’s true that sometimes a plane springs a leak in its waste container. The leak becomes a slug of ice, and when the plane descends through warmer air, the slug can fall off. It’s a dangerous thing.”
“That’s what happened. It’s just an accident.”
Roland went on, ignoring Freeberg. “I know some people at the precinct crime lab. So when I had them analyze a sample of the melted ice, I was kind of surprised. You see the ice contained a blue dye.”
“Isn’t that normal? I think the blue dye is used as a disinfectant.”
“Sure is. But it was something that was missing that gave you away.”
Freeberg’s eyes drifted upward as he feigned thinking what it could be.
“You’d think that an institution as clever as Endings would have been more thorough.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The one thing that blue ice should contain is urine. There wasn’t any in the ice that killed Mr. Calibri.”
Freeberg’s eyes focused on Roland. Beads of moisture began leaping over his brows and landing on his desk. His fingers gripped the arm rests.
“What is it you want from me?”
Roland hadn’t been sure until now. The implied admission crystallized his plan. He chuckled once more. “Give me your Ident card.”
“Why? What do you intend to do with it? You know you can’t use it.”
“I’m well aware of all the safeguards. Hand it over.”
With card in hand, Roland explained, “I have to say this scam takes the cake. Clients get a death prediction that’s surprisingly accurate. And they pay you for it. Nobody suspects, nobody complains. How can they?”
Roland stood up and moved to the rear of the machine. “Ah, this slot must take in the card.”
“Wait. What are you doing?”
“Not a problem, Mr. Freeberg. This one’s on me.”
Roland inserted the card. At once, a small window in the panel flicked open, revealing a digital calendar. He fingered the toggle beneath,which had the effect of scanning through the days of the week.
“So, what’s this?”
Freeberg jumped out of his seat and bounded over the desk, wrapping both arms around Roland. The move caught him by surprise. The gun fell from his hand and they rolled to the floor. Although Freeberg was much younger, Roland was quick to break the arm lock. Freeberg lunged for the gun, but Roland was a step ahead. He pointed it and fired.
Freeberg twitched for several seconds as the charge dissipated through his body into the floor. He lay still with his eyes full open.
“So, let me guess. Instead of predicting, the machine uses the date as in input. You basically set up the date for the kill, don’t you?”
Roland slipped the gun back into his sweater. “Here, let me help you.”
He lifted Freeberg and positioned his body on the chair like a store manikin. He folded the arms and legs, and seated Freeberg as if he was a prospective client listening with anticipation to the marvels of the services provided by Endings. A closer look would have given away the sham, as Freeberg’s face was a frozen study in terror. A thin stream of spittle began its wayward journey down his chin.
“Okay, so the machine gets your identification, and you set a date. Very clever – a killing made to look natural or accidental, decided by the machine. My guess is that Endings keeps itself disconnected from the actual killing. You guys probably have no knowledge of who carries out the contract, do you?”
Roland smiled down at Freeberg. “Clients pay you to assassinate them. What a great idea.”
Freeberg could only wheeze.
“And there must be a confirmation, a sort of signing of the contract that actually sets things into motion. An irreversible step, I would think. The agency doing the killing would prefer anonymity. So, no one here can communicate with it, except one-way by using this machine.”
Roland walked over to the front panel. “Ah, here we go. The finger hole. A blood sample for a DNA analysis which provides a real time authentication – matching the person with the date.”
Roland brought up Freeberg’s right hand, separated the forefinger from the rest and inserted it. Freeberg’s eyes bulged and his blue lips opened into a narrow slit. Roland stared at the emerging bubble of saliva. “Don’t worry, you won’t feel a thing,”
He walked to the door and added, “Don’t forget to check your email.”
There was just enough time for a drink or two at Mulrooney’s.