Death By Device
[Note: Enjoy this work of short fiction that riffs on the latest in digital and voice technology. This post is a departure from my usual non-fiction look at tech trends and artificial intelligence.]
Lea Swan parks her Audi just outside the yellow tape. Lights atop emergency vehicles are flashing. There’s a crowd of reporters, and the smell of exhaust from the idling cars and trucks lingers in the air. Lea flips open her creds for the uniform guarding the perimeter, ducks under the tape, and wades through the cops and medics, moving towards her partner. Anwar Hamed is taking notes in an old-fashioned notepad, one leg up on the bumper of the ambulance.
“What have you got, partner?” Lea asks.
“Took you long enough to get here. What gives?” Anwar says.
“I had a hot date with Johnny Walker, but I’m here now. So spew.”
Anwar smirks, closes his notebook, and turns to her. “You and Johnny need to take a little time out . . . Looks like another suicide. Chen is over there doing his ME schtick. No sign of foul play. The Vic left a note on his computer. Pretty depressing.”
“I don’t get it, third one this week. Something’s going on. This is not normal. Oh, and me and Johnny go way back. With a job like ours, Johnny and I won’t be breaking up anytime soon. Let’s go inside. I wanna see that note.”
Gary staggers to the dining room table, sits and fires up his laptop.
I apologize for the length of this note, but I couldn’t sleep. I’ll have plenty of time for that later. Besides, I’m a writer, and when writers can’t sleep, they write. OK, seems like things were going well in my life and then suddenly it all turns to crap. Has that ever happened to you? In my case, it started with something simple. Everyday kind of thing really. I had this brand new Moonbeam Toaster, four slices. The right side two slices stopped working, couldn’t get the toast to stay down, and the LED screen on the damn thing kept saying Error. Pissed me off. Toasters are about as simple as tech gets. I have my mother’s old two-slice from forty years ago, works fine. So I take the dead thing out to my garage and throw it in the trash bin, curse and slam the garbage can lid. I was feeling better already.
That’s when the trouble really started. I returned to my kitchen where I began to make myself a midnight snack but had lost my appetite. So, I pulled out my bottle of Jack and poured a shot. After gulping down a good belt, I turn to my hockey puck sized digital assistant. Living alone, she sometimes makes good company. The sound of another human voice, or maybe human-like voice, usually calms me. “Lexis, what’s the weather forecast for tomorrow?”
“I’m sorry. I cannot answer that question,” Lexis says.
What? That’s weird. I try again. “Lexis, what’s tomorrow’s weather?”
She answers, “I’m sorry. There will be no weather tomorrow.”
“Fuck you!” I said. I know, I know, it’s just a machine.
“I’m sorry. I have not learned how to do that yet,” she said.
Yikes. I was suddenly reminded of that great bit Woody Allen used to do about when all the appliances conspire against him. They even all get together in the living room to have a meeting about it. The memory makes me smile briefly. But what if this is more like HAL from 2001? I need some sleep. It’s already One AM. I throw back the last of my bourbon, feeling the sweet burn in my throat when the lights in the kitchen go out.
Ugh. “Lexis, turn on the lights,” I shouted back towards the kitchen.
“I’m sorry. Something went wrong,” Lexis said.
“I’ll say. Dumb idea hooking up my lights to you in the first place.” I fumbled around and grabbed a flashlight from the counter. At least that worked. Every other kitchen appliance has broken in the last month. Get this. My digital double-oven has all its electronics, control panel, and circuit board right above the ovens. Guess what? When the oven gets hot, it melts the components. Brilliant design. Then my four-burner stove, the premium flat-top design I paid extra for, only heats on high or off. Nothing in between. Don’t get me started. My fancy-dancy built-in combo microwave-exhaust-stove-light-fan no longer cooks anything, but the light, fan and timer work. Yippee, two out of three. The company that made all these wonderful devices also makes jet engines. God help you if you fly in one of those planes. I’m sorry. I’m rambling. I’m tired and more than a little tipsy. My nerves are on edge. I’m in the dark, and it feels like my whole house is ganging up against me. Writing this all down like this helps.
OK, OK. I’ll go outside, get away from this digital crap. Some cool night air might help, I thought.
I turned the door handle, but the deadbolts were locked. “Lexis, unlock the doors.”
“I’m sorry. Something went wrong,” she says again.
“Lexis, open the fucking door,” I said.
“I’m sorry. I don’t appreciate your tone,” she said.
“What? Are you fucking kidding me?” I said.
“Would you like to hear a joke?” She says.
“You’re a joke. A bad joke. Now let me out of here,” I said.
“Here’s a bad joke . . . “ she said.
At this point, I don’t even remember the joke I was so upset. On my back door, there are two panes of glass on the top half of the door. I have a key. I thought maybe I can unlock the door from the outside. To do that, I had to break the glass. So I rammed my fist through the pane nearest the door lock. Shit, the glass cut my wrist. By reflex, I pulled my hand back, and the glass cut deeper. Blood was running down my arm and dripping onto the floor. I still had the flashlight and navigated to the towel closet, grabbed a towel and wrapped it tightly around my wrist. Should I go to the hospital, call 911? I thought. No, the bleeding seems to have stopped. I’ll be OK.
Gary returns to the laptop in the dining room and drops into his chair.
I’m not sure what it is. I just know that writing helps me deal with the anxiety I’ve had all my life. I can only write it all out and usually, that makes me feel better, for a little while at least. So that’s why I’m doing this now.
I mean, in general, I like technology. The Internet has made my life as a writer infinitely better. What would we do without Google? I can even edit my work on my smartphone on the run. But some things just shouldn’t be digital, like ovens, refrigerators, and toasters. The old analog devices lasted much longer, less to break. They were even easier to operate. You didn’t need any help from an eleven-year-old genius to figure them out. OK, I’m doing it again. I’m sorry. No, I”m not. Lexis is sorry. I’m just going to throw all those fucking devices out, starting with her. I can’t take this anymore.
Uh, I feel a pain in my chest. Trouble breathing. Maybe I should call 91___.
Cause Of Death?
Swan and Hamed are in the dining room now. All the lights are on. Swan looks down at the body, still slumped in the chair, blood dripping from his right wrist onto the soaking towel on the floor. A crime scene photographer is flashing pictures. “Chen, cause of death?” Lea asks.
“Well, he bled out for sure. The cut wrist. He also has a pacemaker that may have malfunctioned. You know those things are connected to the Internet these days.” Chen says.
“Yeah, I know. That’s scary shit right there.” Lea says.
“But I don’t get it. Why would he break the glass in the door? When the cops arrived, all the doors were unlocked.” Anwar says.
“Look at the note he typed on his laptop, right here in front of him,” Chen says.
Lea presses the power button, activating the laptop’s screen. She reads,
I apologize to my family for the mess. I just can’t take this anymore. Better to end it now. Cutting my wrist just seemed like the simplest way. I’m sorry.
Lea scratches her head. “That’s it. That’s all he wrote?”
“That’s all they found,” Anwar says.
Chen lights up a Marlboro and exhales a plume of pungent, blue smoke. “Suicide,“ he says, starting to fill out the report on his clipboard.
“I want to check one thing. Gary has one of those digital assistant thingies.” Lea returns to the kitchen. “Lexis, what’s the last thing I asked you?”
“You said,” Lexis says and then switches to a recording of Gary’s voice. “Lexis, turn on the lights.”
Lea just stares silently at the black hockey puck.
Anwar breaks the silence. “OK, what’s that tell you? The lights are on.”
Lea scratches her head again. “Yeah, but did you hear the tone in his voice. He sounds really stressed.”
“Of course he’s stressed. He’s about to commit suicide. How else would he sound?” He says.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” she says.
“You bet I’m right. Open and shut. Case closed, right?” He says.
She sighs, “OK, case closed.”
Anwar smiles, “You can go back to Johnny now. He’s waiting for you.”
If you enjoyed this story, check out the collection in which it is included with 29 others written by Charles Levin.
It’s called The Last Appointment: 30 Collected Short Stories
© Copyright Charles Levin 2018. All Rights Reserved.