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The Burning of the Abominable House

In a few hours' time Skiller, the insurance agent, will be coming to ask me for the computer results, and I still haven't keyed in the orders to the electronic circuits which will have to grind to a fine dust of bits both Widow Roessler's secrets and her hardly to be recommended boarding house. Where the house once stood, between railway lines and iron stockyards, on one of those humps of wasteland our city's suburbs leave behind like heaps of dirt that have escaped the broom, nothing is left but charred rubble now. It could have been a smart villa originally, or it may have looked no better than a ghostly hovel: insurance company reports have nothing to say on the matter; and now it has burnt down, from eaves to cellar, and the incinerated corpses of its four inhabitants have left no clue that might serve to reconstruct the events that led up to this secluded slaughter.

Rather than the bodies, what does offer a clue is a copybook found in the ruins, entirely burnt except for its cover which was protected by a plastic folder. On the front it says: An Account of the Abominable Deeds Committed in this House and on the back there is an index with twelve entries in alphabetical order: Blackmail, Drugging, Incitement to Suicide, Knifing, Prostitution, Threatening with a Gun, Tying and Gagging, Rape, Seduction, Slander, Snooping, Strangling.

It isn't known which of the house's inhabitants penned this sinister summary, nor to what end: to report the matter to the police, to confess, to defend themselves, to gratify their fascinated contemplation of evil. All we have is this index which doesn't tell us the names of the perpetrators or the victims of the twelve deeds -- criminal or merely immoral as they may be -- nor does it explain the order in which they were committed, something that would offer a good start for reconstructing a story: the entries in alphabetical order refer us to page numbers obliterated by a black streak. To complete the list would require one additional word, Arson, doubtless the final deed in this grim chain of events. But who did it? In order to hide, or to destroy?

Even if we accept that each of the twelve deeds was committed by just one person and inflicted upon just one other person, reconstruction would still be a tall order: given that there are four characters to be considered, then taken two by two we have twelve possible relationships for each of the twelve kinds of relationship listed. The number of possible combinations is thus twelve to the twelfth, meaning that we shall have to choose from a total of eight thousand eight hundred and seventy-four billion, two hundred and ninety-six million, six hundred and seventy-two thousand, two hundred and fifty-six potential solutions. It is hardly surprising that our already overworked police force has chosen not to pursue its enquiries, on the good grounds that, however many crimes may have been committed, the perpetrators doubtless died together with their victims.

Only the insurance company is eager to know the truth: mainly on account of a fire insurance policy taken out by the owner of the house. The fact that the young Inigo, the policy holder, likewise perished in the flames only serves to make the matter more problematic: his powerful family, despite having ejected and disinherited this degenerate son, is notoriously disinclined to give up anything owed to them. Then one can level the worst possible charges (whether or not included in the abominable index) against a young man who, as a hereditary member of the British House of Lords, dragged an illustrious title down to the steps of those public squares that serve as beds to a nomadic, introspective generation, a man who was wont to soap his long hair under the water of municipal fountains. The small house he rented to the old landlady was the last property left to him, and he had taken a room there subletting from his own tenant in return for a reduction in the already low rent he charged. If he, Inigo, was the arsonist, perpetrator and victim of a criminal plan executed with the carelessness and imprecision that appear to have been typical of his way of behaving, and if the insurance company could demonstrate as much, then they wouldn't have to pay the damages.

But this is not the only claim the company is obliged to honour as a result of the calamity: every year Widow Roessler would renew a policy insuring her own life in favour of her adopted daughter, a fashion model familiar to anyone in the habit of leafing through the pages of the more stylish magazines. Of course Ogiva herself is likewise dead, incinerated together with the collection of wigs that would transform her features with their terrifying charm (how else describe a beautiful and delicate young woman with a completely bald skull) into those of hundreds of different and exquisitely asymmetrical faces. But it turns out that the model had a three-year-old child, entrusted to relatives in South Africa, who will waste no time in claiming the rewards of the policy, unless it can be demonstrated that it was she, Ogiva, who killed (Knifing? Strangling?) Widow Roessler. Or again, given that Ogiva had taken the trouble to insure her wig collection, the child's guardians could claim on this policy too, unless it can be demonstrated that she was responsible for their destruction.

Of the fourth person who died in the fire, the gigantic Uzbek wrestler, Belindo Kid, we know that in Widow Roessler he had found not only a zealous landlady (he was the only paying occupant of the boarding house) but also an agent with a keen eye for business. Indeed the old lady had recently agreed to finance the ex-middleweight champion's seasonal tour, covering herself by insuring against the eventuality that illness, incapacity or injury might prevent him from honouring his contracts. A consortium of wrestling match organizers are now claiming damages against this policy; but had the old woman induced Belindo to suicide, perhaps by slandering him or blackmailing him or drugging him (the giant was renowned on the international scene for his impressionable character), then the company could easily have them desist.

I can't prevent the slow tentacles of my mind from advancing one hypothesis at a time, exploring labyrinths of consequence that magnetic memories would run through in a nanosecond. It is from my computer that Skiller is expecting a solution, not from me.

Of course each of the four catastrophic characters appears better suited to be perpetrator of some of the abominable deeds and victim of others. But who can rule out the notion that the most improbable alternative might be the only one possible? Take what you would suppose to be the most innocent of the twelve relationships, that implied by seduction. Who seduced whom? I have to work hard to concentrate on my permutations here: a flow of images swirls unceasingly in my mind, breaking up and re-forming as though in a kaleidoscope. I see the long fingers of the fashion model with their green and purple varnished nails skimming the listless chin, the grassy stubble of the slummy young aristocrat, or tickling the solid predatory nape of the Uzbek champion who, aware of a remote and pleasant sensation, arches his deltoids like a purring cat. But immediately afterwards I also see the volatile Ogiva allowing herself to be seduced, captivated by the taurine flattery of the middleweight or the consuming introversion of the feckless youth. And I can also see the old widow, haunted by appetites that age may discourage but not extinguish, painting her face and dolling herself up to lure one or the other of her male prey (or both), and overcoming opposition very different in terms of weight but equally feeble in terms of character. Or I see her herself as the object of a seduction whose perversity might be due to youthful lust's readiness to confuse life's seasons, or alternatively to sinister calculation. Until finally, to complete the picture, the shadow of Sodom and Gomorrah unleashes the whirligig of loves between the same sex.

Does the range of possibilities shrink a little for the more criminal deeds? Not necessarily: anybody can knife anybody else. Already I can imagine Belindo Kid being treacherously skewered in the back of the neck by a switchblade that slices through his spinal cord the way the toreador's sword dispatches the bull. Behind the perfectly aimed blow we might find the slender, bracelet-tinkling wrist of an Ogiva seized by cold and bloody frenzy, or Inigo's playful fingers, rocking the dagger to and fro by the blade, then flinging it through the air with inspired abandon along a trajectory that strikes its target almost by chance; or we might find LandLady Macbeth's claw, shifting the curtains of the bedrooms at night as she imposes her presence on the sleepers' breathing. Nor are these the only images that throng my mind: Ogiva or Widow Roessler slaughter Inigo like a lamb, knifing through his windpipe; Inigo or Ogiva grab the big knife the widow is using to slice the bacon and hack her to bits in the kitchen; the widow or Inigo dissect Ogiva's nude body like surgeons while she struggles (tied up and gagged?) to escape. Then if Belindo had found the knife in his hand, at a moment of exasperation perhaps, or perhaps when someone had stirred him up against someone else, he could have had all the others in pieces in no time. But why should he, Belindo Kid, go for a knifing, when both the copybook index and his own motor sensory circuits offer the possibility of strangling, something far more congenial to his physical tendencies and technical training? And furthermore, this would be an action of which he could only be the subject and not the object: I'd like to see the other three trying to strangle the middleweight wrestler; their puny fingers wouldn't even go round his tree-trunk neck!

So this is a piece of data the programme will have to take into account: Belindo doesn't knife but prefers to strangle; and he can't be strangled; only if threatened with a gun can he be tied up and gagged; once tied up and gagged anything can happen to him, he can even be raped, by the ruttish widow, or the impassive model, or the eccentric youth.

Let's start laying down exclusions and orders of precedence. Someone may first threaten someone with a gun, then tie them up and gag them; it would be to say the least superfluous to tie up someone first then threaten them afterwards. On the other hand someone knifing or strangling who at the same time threatened with a gun, would be engaging in a gesture at once awkward and unnecessary, unforgivable. Someone who wins over the object of his or her desires by seduction has no need to rape that person; and vice versa. Someone inciting someone else to prostitution may have previously seduced or raped them; doing so afterwards would be a pointless waste of time and energy. One may snoop on someone in order to blackmail them, but if you have already slandered them then further scandalous revelations can frighten them no more; hence the person slandering is not interested in snooping, nor has any further reasons for blackmail. Someone knifing one victim may well strangle another, or incite them to suicide, but it is unlikely that the three deadly deeds could be committed at the expense of the same person.

Following this method allows me to rewrite my flow-chart: to establish a system of exclusions that will enable the computer to discard billions of incongruous combinations, to reduce the number of plausible concatenations, to approach a selection of that solution which will present itself as true.

But will we ever get to that? Half I'm concentrating on constructing algebraic models where factors and functions are anonymous and interchangeable, thus dismissing the faces and gestures of those four phantoms from my thoughts; and half I am identifying with the characters, evoking the scenes in a mental film packed with fades and metamorphoses. Maybe it's around the word drugging that the cog that drives all the others turns: at once my mind associates the word with the pasty face of the last Inigo of an illustrious stock; if drugging meant the reflexive drugging oneself, there would be no problem here: it's highly likely that the boy took drugs, something that does not concern me; but the transitive sense of drugging implies a drugger and a person drugged, the latter consenting, unknowing or compelled.

It is equally likely that Inigo gets himself so high on drugs that he tries to preach stupefaction to others; I imagine spindly cigarettes being passed from his hand to Ogiva's or old Widow Roessler's. Is it the young nobleman who transforms the lonely boarding house into a smoke-filled den of kaleidoscopic hallucinations? Or is it the landlady who lures him there in order to exploit his inclination toward states of ecstasy? Perhaps it is Ogiva who procures the drug for the old opium addict, Roessler, and Inigo who, while snooping on her, discovers where she hides it and bursts in on her threatening her with a gun or blackmailing her; Widow Roessler shouts to Belindo for help, then slanders Inigo accusing him of having seduced and prostituted Ogiva, the Uzbek's chaste passion, at which the wrestler takes his revenge by strangling the boy; to get out of trouble the landlady now has no alternative but to incite the wrestler to suicide, not a problem since the insurance company will pay the damages, but Belindo, in for a penny in for a pound, rapes Ogiva, ties and gags her and sets fire to the obliterating pyre.

Slowly does it: no point in imagining I can beat the electronic brain to it. The drug might just as well have to do with Belindo: old and over the hill he can't climb into the ring these days without stuffing himself full of stimulants. It's Widow Roessler who doles them out, slipping them in his mouth with a soup spoon. Snooping through the keyhole, Inigo, a glutton for psychodrugs, interrupts and demands a dose for himself. When they refuse, he blackmails the wrestler threatening to have him banned from the championship; Belindo ties and gags him, then prostitutes him for a few guineas to Ogiva who has for some time been infatuated with the elusive aristocrat; impervious to eros, Inigo can only achieve an amorous state if on the point of being strangled; Ogiva presses on his carotid artery with her slim fingertips; perhaps Belindo lends a hand; just two of his fingers and the little lord rolls his eyes and gives up the ghost; what to do with the corpse? To simulate a suicide they knife him . . . Stop! Have to rewrite the whole programme: have to cancel the instruction now stored in the central memory that someone strangled cannot be knifed. The ferrite rings are demagnetized and remagnetized; I'm sweating.

Let's start again from scratch. What is the job my client expects of me? To arrange a certain amount of data in a logical order. It is information I am dealing with, not human lives, with their good and evil sides. For reasons that need not concern me the data available to me only has to do with the evil side, and the computer must put it in order. Not the evil, which cannot perhaps be put in order, but the information relative to the evil. On the basis of this data, contained in the alphabetical index of the Abominable Deeds, I must reconstruct the lost Account, true or false as that may be.

The Account presupposes the existence of a writer. Only by reconstructing it will we know who that was: certain data, however, can already be placed on his or her file. The author of the Account couldn't have been killed by knifing or strangling, because he wouldn't have been able to include his or her own death in the report; as far as suicide is concerned, the writer could have decided on it before writing out the copybook-testament, and carried it out later; but someone who believes they have been incited to suicide by the force of someone else's will does not commit suicide; every exclusion of the author of the copybook from the role of victim automatically increases the likelihood of our being able to attribute to him or her the role of perpetrator: hence this person could be both the originator of the evil and of the information regarding that evil. This presents no problems for my work: evil and information regarding evil are coincident, both in the burnt book and in the electronic files.

The memory has also been fed another series of data to be compared with the first: the four insurance policies taken out with Skiller, one by Inigo, one by Ogiva and two by the Widow (one for herself and one for Belindo). An obscure thread may link the policies to the Abominable Deeds and the photoelectric cells must follow that thread in a bewildering blind man's bluff, seeking it out amongst the tiny holes of the punch cards. Even the policy data, now translated into binary code, is capable of evoking images in my mind: it's evening, there's fog; Skiller rings at the door of the house on the hump of wasteland; the landlady imagines he's a new tenant and greets him accordingly; he gets his insurance brochures out of his bag; he's sitting in the lounge; he accepts a cup of tea; clearly he can't get the four contracts signed in just one visit; he makes sure he is thoroughly familiar with the house and its four inhabitants. I imagine Skiller helping Ogiva to brush out the wigs in her collection (and in so doing his lips brush the model's bald scalp); I imagine him as, with a touch as sure as a doctor's and as thoughtful as a son's, he measures the widow's blood pressure, enclosing her soft white arm in the sphygmomanometer; or again I see him trying to get Inigo interested in home maintenance, pointing out problems with the plumbing, subsidence in the loadbearing beams, while in a fatherly voice telling him not to bite his nails; I see him reading the sports papers with Belindo, complimenting him with a slap on the back when he has guessed a winner.

I must admit, I don't really like this Skiller. A web of complicity stretches out wherever he ties his threads; if he really did have so much power over Widow Roessler's boarding house, if he was the factotum, the deus ex machina, if nothing happened between those walls but that he knew about it, then why did he come to me for a solution to the mystery? Why did he bring me the charred copybook? Was it he who found the copybook in the ruins? Or did he put it there? Was it he who brought this mass of negative information, of irreversible entropy, he who introduced it into the house, as now into the circuits of the computer?

The Roessler boarding-house massacre doesn't have four characters: it has five. I translate the data of insurance agent Skiller into holes on punchcards and add it to the other information. The abominable deeds could be his doing as much as any of the others: he could have Blackmailed, Drugged, Induced to Suicide, etc., or better still he could have made somebody prostitute themselves or strangle someone and all the rest. The billions of combinations multiply, but perhaps a shape is beginning to emerge. Merely for the purposes of a hypothesis I could construct a model in which all the evil stems from Skiller, before whose entrance on the scene the boarding house basked in Arcadian innocence: old Widow Roessler plays a Lied on her Bechstein which the gentle giant Belindo humps from room to room for the sake of the tenants' enjoyment, Ogiva waters the petunias, Inigo paints petunias on Ogiva's head. The bell rings: it's Skiller. Is he looking for a bed and breakfast? No, but he has some useful insurance policies to offer: life, accident, fire, house and contents. The conditions are good; Skiller invites them to think it over; they think it over; they think of things they never thought of before; they are tempted; temptation starts its trail of electronic impulses through the channels of the brain . . . I'm aware that I am undermining the objectivity of the operation with these subjective dislikes. In the end, what do I know about this Skiller? Perhaps his soul is without stain, perhaps he is the only innocent person in the story, while all the data depict Widow Roessler as a sordid miser, Ogiva as a ruthless narcissist, Inigo as lost in his dreamy introversion, Belindo as condemned to muscular brutality for lack of alternative role models . . . It is they who called Skiller, each with a sinister plan against the other three and the insurance company. Skiller is the dove in a nest of serpents.

The computer stops. There's an error, and the central memory has picked it up; it cancels everything. There are no innocents to be saved, in this story. Start again.

No, it wasn't Skiller who rang at the door. Outside it's drizzling, there's fog, no one can make out the visitor's face. He comes into the passage, takes off his wet hat, unwraps his woollen scarf. It's me. I introduce myself. Waldemar, computer programmer and systems analyst. You're looking well, you know, Signora Roessler? No, we've never met, but I remember the data on the analogical-digital convertor and I recognize all four of you perfectly. Don't hide, Signor Inigo! You're looking good, Belindo Kid! Is that purple hair I see peeping over the stairs Signorina Ogiva? Here you are all together; good: let me explain why I've come. I need you, yes, you, just as you are, for a project that's kept me nailed to my programming console for years. During office hours I work freelance for clients, but at night, shut up in my laboratory, I spend my time researching a system that will transform individual passions -- aggression, private interest, selfishness, various vices -- into elements necessary for the universal good. The accidental, the negative, the abnormal, in a word the human, will be able to develop without provoking general destruction, by being integrated into a harmonious plan . . . This house is the ideal terrain for determining if I am on the right track. Hence I am asking you to accept me here as a tenant, a friend . . .

The house is burnt down, everybody is dead, but in the computer I can arrange the facts according to a different logic, get into the computer myself, insert a Waldemar programme, bring the number of characters to six, introduce new galaxies of combinations and permutations. The house rises from the ashes, all its inhabitants are alive again, I turn up at the door with my collapsible suitcase and golf clubs, and ask for a room to rent . . .

Signora Roessler and the others listen in silence. They don't trust me. They suspect I'm working for the insurance company, that I've been sent by Skiller . . .

One can hardly deny that their suspicions are well founded. It's Skiller I'm working for of course. It would have been he who asked me to gain their confidence, to study their behaviour, to forecast the consequences of their evil intentions, to classify stimuli, tendencies, gratifications, quantify them, store them in the computer . . .

But if this Waldemar programme is nothing but a duplicate of the Skiller programme, then it is pointless keying it in. Skiller and Waldemar must be enemies, the mystery will be sorted out in the struggle between us.

In the drizzly evening two shadows brush against each other on the rusty overpass that leads to what must once have been a residential suburb, though there's nothing left now but a crooked house on a hump of ground surrounded by derelict car dumps; the lighted windows of the Roessler boarding house emerge from the fog as though on a short-sighted retina. Skiller and Waldemar don't know each other as yet. Each unaware of the other, they stalk around the house. Who will make the first move? Indisputably the insurance agent takes precedence.

Skiller rings the doorbell. 'Please excuse me, on behalf of my company I am carrying out some research into the role played by household factors in disasters. This house has been chosen for our representative sample. With your permission, I would like to keep your behaviour under observation. I hope this won't put you to too much trouble: it's just a question of filling in some forms from time to time. In return the company is offering the chance to enjoy special discounts on insurance policies of various kinds: life, property . . .'

The four listen in silence; already each of them is thinking how they can get something from the situation, each is concocting a plan . . .

But Skiller is lying. His programme has already forecast what each member of the household will do. Skiller has a copybook listing a series of violent or dishonest acts whose probability he merely has to establish. He already knows there will be a series of maliciously provoked injuries, but that the company won't have to pay any damages, because all the beneficiaries will have killed each other. All these forecasts were given him by a computer: not my own, so I am bound to imagine the existence of another programmer, Skiller's accomplice in a criminal plot. The plot goes like this: a databank brings together the names of those fellow citizens of ours driven by fraudulent and destructive impulses; there are several hundred thousand of them; a system of persuasion and follow-ups leads them to become clients of the company, to insure everything insurable, to produce fraudulent accidents and to kill each other off. The company will have taken care to record evidence to its own advantage, and since those committing crimes always tend to overdo it, the amount of information will include a considerable percentage of useless data that will function as a smokescreen to cover up the company's involvement. Indeed this coefficient of entropy has already been programmed: not all the Abominable Deeds of the index have a role in the story; some just create a 'noise' effect. The Roessler boarding-house operation is the first practical experiment the diabolical insurance agent has attempted. Once the disaster has taken place, Skiller will go to another computer, whose programmer is ignorant of all the facts, to check if it is possible to trace consequence back to cause. Skiller will give this second programmer all the necessary data together with a certain amount of 'noise' such as to produce circuit overload and debase the information: the evil intent of those insured will be sufficientiy demonstrated, but not that of the insurer.

I am the second programmer. Skiller has set it up well. Everything fits. The programme was set up beforehand, and the house, the copybook, my own flowchart and my computer were to do nothing more than carry it out. I'm stuck here inputting and outputting the data of a story I can't change. There's no point in my putting myself in the computer: Waldemar will not go up to the house on the hump of wasteland, nor will he meet the four mysterious inhabitants, nor will he be (as he had hoped) the perpetrator of a seduction (victim: Ogiva). Perhaps even Skiller only has an input-output function: the real computer is elsewhere.

But a game between two computers is not won by the one that plays better than the other, but by the one that understands how its opponent is managing to play better than itself. My computer has now been fed its opponent's winning game: so has it won?

Someone rings at the door. Before going to open it, I must quickly work out how Skiller will react when he finds out his plan has been discovered. I too was persuaded by Skiller to sign a fire insurance policy. Skiller has already provided for killing me and setting fire to the laboratory: he will destroy the punchcards that accuse him and demonstrate that I lost my life attempting arson. I hear the fire brigade's siren approaching: I called them in time. I click off the safety catch on my gun. Now I can open the door.