Sunday, June 19, 2011

Excerpt: Still Life by DC Petterson

Chapter One
A Plea

Date: Wednesday, Sept 28 08:00:00.0000 AM
Subject: MY MURDER!

Dear Detective Conner,

Someone is trying to kill me! I’m scared, and I’m getting desperate. I’m in the philosophy department at the University of Chicago. Someone in the administration says I’m not worth my upkeep. Please, Detective Conner, I beg you to take this seriously. I need your help. Talk to Nohl Dhen, a graduate student in psychology. She can explain everything. There isn’t much time, and I’m very afraid. Please hurry!

- Dylan

Chapter Two
A Hoax?

Maxwell Conner didn’t let himself fidget as he waited for the professor to read the printed email for the third time. The man looked to have maybe twice Max’s twenty-nine years, and probably an extra hundred pounds, though he stood at least a full head shorter than Max’s own muscular six foot three. Still, he had an air of imposing presence, which he used at the moment simply to make Max wait.

At least it gave Max a chance to study him. It was, after all, Max’s job to be observant. Frank Glade gave the impression of being a comfortable man, one who certainly liked his pleasures—which, from the look of it, ran mostly to an excess of his favorite foods. Even so, his pressed suit contrasted with Max’s rumpled one, his Spartan and uncluttered desk indicated a man of some fastidiousness. The professor’s hair showed quite a lot of gray sprinkled among the remaining strands of deep brown.

I’ll age much more respectably, Max promised himself. His thoughts wandered to his own dad, about Glade’s age, whose hair still was a deep red. Max had inherited the hair color; he’d be unlikely to gray like Glade, and his job as a police detective would be sure to help keep him in far better shape. Much more respectably.

The professor finally looked up and harrumphed. Max guessed Glade had decided the words on the page weren’t likely to differ upon the fourth or fifth reading.

Glade tossed the paper onto his desk. “Detective Conner,” he said. “I’m afraid you’re the victim of a practical joke.”

“My lieutenant had the same reaction,” Max acknowledged. “But you understand, we had to check it out. Parents don’t like hearing their kids are being threatened by the college faculty.”
Professor Glade leaned forward, motioned Max to bend close as if about to reveal a secret, and tapped the printed email with his forefinger. “It says ‘the administration,’ not ‘the faculty,’” Glade said. “Probably meant ‘the board.’ Damn bureaucrats are murder on us all.” And he laughed in a mirthless sort of way, a laugh that struck Max as rather uncaring, given the circumstances.

Max raised his eyebrows and did his best to be patient. “I’m afraid I still don’t get the joke.”
“Of course you don’t,” Glade snorted, and it seemed that his odd laugh tried to break out again.

“Of course not!” He stabbed his finger once more at the email hardcopy. “Nohl Dhen is one of my grad students. She’s got a project with a few of her friends from other departments. I just heard their grant money is running out, and won’t be renewed next quarter. They must have gotten wind, and thought they could make some kind of point.” He shook his head, still smiling, and heaved himself out of his chair. He trundled around the desk. “Come with me, Detective. I’ll introduce you to her.”

They walked down the hall and found a classroom on the far end. Glade opened the door, and Max heard a young voice, a woman’s voice. It reminded Max somehow of his childhood—a breath of moonlight on a misty evening in the woods—an image quite out of keeping with the technological jargon the voice recited. “Decision-Yielding Large-scale Autonomous Network,” she said. “DYLAN. My team and I designed and built him—”

“Detective,” Glade interrupted. “This is Nohl Dhen. Miss Dhen, you’ll have to start back at the beginning.”

The young woman looked up at them, and Max’s awareness suddenly held nothing but her eyes. Those eyes drank up the fluorescent light, yet seemed to have a deep glow of their own, black and smoldering coals nestled above Himalayan cheekbones. He’d seen eyes like that before, somewhere, but the memory eluded him, ran from him as he reached for it. Lost for a moment, his breath caught, his throat constricted. He finally blinked and the spell passed.

A youthful face of darkened bronze framed those eyes, a small nose above heart-shaped lips, the whole surrounded by a fall of hair like shimmering silk. She wore an oversized Cubs sweatshirt and a pair of baggy blue jeans. She had to be in her mid twenties, twenty-five Max guessed, maybe a couple years older. Her feet dangled far from the floor, and she swung them back and forth in a way that reminded him of the innocent energy of a child, holding a vibrant enthusiasm.

She couldn’t have been more than five feet tall, on tiptoes.

Max guessed her clearly Asian features put her ancestry in Vietnam, or maybe Cambodia, as her name also suggested. Nohl Dhen. But something else lay hidden in the deep shade of her skin, and her dark, fascinating eyes…

Max had to force himself to look somewhere else. This is a potential suspect in a hoax, he thought, not a prospect for a date. He hoped his stare, if anyone noticed it, would be interpreted as no more than necessary professional interest. He pulled out of the moment, his tunneled awareness opening to his surroundings.

They stood in a classroom that had been given over to Miss Dhen’s project. And she wasn’t the only one in the room. On a chair in front of Nohl sat a blonde woman in her mid-thirties, dressed in a conservative and rather expensive-looking dark tailored suit. Her almost mathematically perfect hairstyle and makeup presented the mask of a professional, or an executive, precise and tasteful without being flashy. Someone who uses her femininity to put people off their guard, Max thought, while not being obvious about it.

The older woman held a small electronic recorder. As Glade spoke, she quickly shut it off and turned to face him.

“Professor,” Nohl said in greeting, and yes, there again was the breath of moonlight Max had heard, “I was just explaining to Miss Aronsen—”

“Lynn Aronsen,” the blonde woman broke in, “of Justin, Blake, and Tortel.” She held out her hand without standing up. Her voice held unusually deep undertones for a woman’s. She spoke crisply and efficiently. “And the two of you are...?”

Glade covered annoyance with his seemingly usual laugh. “Professor Frank Glade. This is Detective Max Conner, of the Chicago Police.” Glade stepped forward, briefly took Lynn’s hand, and then dropped it unceremoniously. “Nohl, is this a lawyer?” he asked.

“I guess,” Nohl began.

“I am,” Lynn clarified.

Max raised his eyebrows. “Does someone here need one?”

“That’s what I was about to discover,” Lynn answered.

Max took the proffered hand she lifted toward him. Her grip, he noted, was strong and firm—no retiring female, this one.

“I was asked to be present as counsel,” Lynn went on, and she looked at Nohl, “but I’m not quite certain by whom.” She turned back toward the others. “Won’t you be seated?” she invited them.

Glade gave his nervous laugh again. He clearly wasn’t used to someone else taking charge. For his part, Max was willing to play along in order to learn the lawyer’s angle. He glanced at his surroundings as he pulled up two more chairs, suddenly aware his earlier fixation on Nohl had distracted him from making needed observations.

Tables surrounded the room, the whiteboards on the walls behind them covered in diagrams and symbols he didn’t understand. The tables supported perhaps a dozen computer monitors and keyboards, with at least as many PCs and laptops sprinkled among them. In one corner stood a large cabinet with glass doors through which Max could see row upon row of electronics, circuit boards, and wiring. Various other devices crowded every surface, items he couldn’t identify, and everything seemed to be connected to everything else by a tangled web of cables.

He noted other, unrelated detritus amid the chaos: the inevitable college-standard pizza boxes and half-full cartons of pop littered the corners, an incongruous department-store mannequin of a boy about ten sat on a table behind him, a chess set and another board game with a myriad of little round pieces occupied a far corner, a deck of playing cards scattered randomly around one monitor. Max smiled to himself. Geeks and their toys, he thought. What else would I expect on a college campus?

“I don’t know what your little stunt was supposed to prove,” Glade said, waving the printout of Max’s email at Nohl.

If he can’t get control of what’s going on, Max thought, at least he’ll intimidate his grad student.

Nohl looked confused for a moment, but her eyes grew more focused and sure. She turned to Max. “You got one, too? An email, I mean. That’s why Ms. Aronsen’s here—”

“I’ll take a look at that,” Lynn said, and snatched the paper from the professor’s hand before anyone could react.

Max made his voice as calm as he could. “College students like pranks,” he said to Nohl, and he eased himself into one of the chairs. “But falsely reporting a crime is against the law. You could be fined, or worse—”

Nohl blinked, and scowled. “I didn’t send those emails to you and Ms. Aronsen,” she rushed. “I don’t even know what’s in them.”

“There’s no crime reported here,” Lynn noted, flicking a painted fingernail against the paper.

Her voice sounded cool and efficient, emotionless and unflinching. “If it had claimed someone had already been harmed, yes, but it doesn’t say that.”

“No,” Max returned, a little taken aback, “but even threatening murder is a crime. This email does imply such a threat has been made.”

Nohl’s eyes widened. But before she could speak, the lawyer did, shaking her head. “Does it imply that? Tell me, do you know who is supposedly being threatened? Is it—well, who?” Lynn’s tone held an intimation of hidden knowledge.

“Whoever this Dylan is,” Max answered, confused. “And it says Miss Dhen here knows about it.”

“I didn’t send the emails,” Nohl repeated, louder. Annoyance crept into her voice, or perhaps a little fear. She reached for the paper, but the lawyer held up her hand, motioning Nohl to wait.

Someone sent them,” Professor Glade countered. “This project was your idea, Miss Dhen. Everyone knows that.”

“Nohl,” Lynn said, and she patted the student on her knee to calm her. “You’d better tell the detective about Dylan. Don’t say anything more, but tell him who—I mean what—” For an instant, a flash of confusion seemed to line the lawyer’s face. “No, I really do mean who—who Dylan is.”

Max leaned back in his chair, folding his arms. The lengths to which the lawyer went to seem cool and efficient and precise meant her struggle with words must have been intentional. Lawyers, Max knew, had to be good actors. “You have my attention, Miss Dhen. Who is Dylan?”

Nohl took a deep breath. She looked directly at Detective Conner. But then her gaze shifted, focusing past him, over his shoulder. “Dylan,” she said, speaking very deliberately, “say hello.”

“Good afternoon, everyone,” said a voice from somewhere behind.

Max twisted around. He knew no one else had joined them. He would have heard footsteps. And he saw no one else when he turned, only that strange little department-store mannequin he’d noted before. It was the size and appearance of a ten-year-old boy, dressed in a young boy’s jeans and a flannel shirt, with a face of impassive and immobile plaster.

Still motionless, the mannequin spoke again, in a youthful voice gushing with excitement. A speaker must have been mounted somewhere within it. “I’m really happy to meet you, Detective Conner!”

* * * *

Buy Still Life here: (including the cool video trailer) and the Amazon page is here:
DC Petterson has been writing since he was six; science fiction, fantasy, songs, poetry, historical and philosophical essays, and the occasional email. He lives near Minneapolis with his wife, a dog, and a lizard. He has two kids, two grandkids, and a late-model Kia. He enjoys video games, expensive cigars, and single-malt scotch. He works as a software consultant (which has nothing to do with his novel, Still Life), plays guitar and piano, and hasn't the first clue how to write a short bio.

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