“Where in the wide world is she?” Max demanded.
“She said she needed to get something,” said Venus. “She said she’d explain when she got here.”
Max gave an exasperated sigh. “All right, well, let’s get this show on the road.”
“I hope you will start by explaining why you’ve brought that man here!” Mrs. Lurge was seated once more in the Pallindrone Agency office. This time, however, the opposite guest seat was occupied by Mr. McIntyre. His secretary was there, as well; she hovered nervously behind McIntyre.
“Yes—why have you brought me here?” McIntyre growled.
“Max has his reasons,” replied one of the policemen who stood guard by the door.
“He always does—and usually, he’s got another lady with him to run these things.” said the other.
“Guess he traded up for a new model,” the first one whispered in reply.
“Sandra will join us shortly,” Max said, in a tone of rebuke. “Now, Mrs. Lurge what I am about bring up will be painful for you, but I’m afraid I need to ask these questions. First of all, were you aware of your husband’s relationship with Miss Ritter?”
Mrs. Lurge’s face, previously flushed with anger, now turned very pale. “Yes,” she croaked after a pause. “Yes, I was.”
“And his payments to her?”
She lowered her gaze, away from the table on which Max’s comm. base station was located.
“Yes… that too.”
“Why did you not tell us this pertinent information before?”
“Well, you can see, surely, it’s very embarrassing to…”
“Yes, of course,” said Max, “And yet you know that we were being sent in pursuit of truth, and to find truth, we must have all the facts. Which leads me to another point: why didn’t you tell us that you had been made sole head of Lurge robotics prior to your husband’s death?”
“Well, it… didn’t seem important.”
“Not important! And why not?”
“Surely all the details of my client’s divorce are not pertinent, and I object…” began the attorney.
“Objection overruled,” said Max blithely, and went on. “And why were you so named?”
“The fact is,” the widow said, and now tears were beginning to form in her eyes. “It was Lothar’s idea. He said I’d always been more passionate about the factory than he was.”
“I can affirm that it was at Mr. Lurge’s insistence that the change was made,” the lawyer added.
“Thank you. Now then, Mr. McIntyre,” Max said, causing the aforementioned to twitch in his seat, “You acknowledge that you were at the Lurge robotics factory on the night in question?”
“I, uh, well,” he said, glancing around for Suzanne. “Yes, I was. At Lurge’s invitation, I should note.”
“So you claim, although we have no proof of this. But you never entered the factory?”
“No—I stopped outside, about halfway, and turned around.”
McIntyre paused. “Well, to tell you the truth, I didn’t like the look of it. Weird noises, you know, coming from the place. It felt odd to me, I couldn’t imagine what Lurge needed to tell me, and I got cold feet.”
“Mm hmm,” Max said. “Understandable, and in light of subsequent events, a good decision. All indications are, the robots were running amok in the factory, and yet,” here Max paused significantly, “The robots could only be activated from Mr. Lurge’s office, and only deactivated by a voice command from factory employees.”
“Well, they obviously malfunctioned!” Mrs. Lurge exclaimed. “After what this woman,” she gestured somewhat frantically Venus, “told us about last night, it’s obvious they weren’t working properly.”
“Which would lead us to believe that Mr. Lurge’s death was an accident, yes. And yet you, Mrs. Lurge, have gone to some trouble to tell us that it was Mr. McIntyre who killed him.”
McIntyre’s eyes bulged, and he rose from his seat with an expression of fury. “What!” he snapped, “How dare you! How dare you—”
“Calm down, Mr. McIntyre,” Max said coolly. “Getting agitated will only drag this out.”
Mrs. Lurge was sobbing now. “All I know,” she gasped between anguished moans, “Is Lothar was convinced you were up to no good. He was always on about it.”
McIntyre’s expression of rage only deepened. “Listen here, you—”
“Sorry I’m late!” Sandra called out, breezing into the room, “We had to make a quick stop!”
Trailing behind her, looking a little pale but with the remnants of his familiar smirk, was Charlie.
Venus gasped. Mrs. Lurge, unaccountably, seemed comforted by Charlie’s arrival.Mr. McIntyre exchanged a puzzled glance with Suzanne. Lurge’s lawyer looked bewildered. The policemen merely waved subdued “hellos” to her.
Finally, Max spoke. “What took you, Sandy? We’re just about coming to the end of the line here.”
“Sorry I didn’t have time to explain, but I think there’s a fork in the road, Max. Where are we at?” she asked, pulling her desk chair over to join the group. She frowned when she noticed the chair was heaped with paperwork.
“Well, Mrs. Lurge is unable to account for why she didn’t give us the pertinent facts when we were hired to perform this investigation. I was just asking her to explain her reasons for repeatedly accusing Mr. McIntyre, and again, she is unable to explain. The circumstantial evidence, meanwhile—“
“I didn’t kill him!” the woman burst out. “Oh, we fought, sure, but I would never, never…”
“Mrs. Lurge,” said Sandra, resting a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Calm down, please. You’re still our client, and we are here to help you, as long as doing so does not interfere with the course of justice. Now, I need you to watch something.”
Through her tears, Mrs. Lurge nodded, and Sandra held up her cell. Venus walked behind the sofa and looked over her shoulder.
“Why, it’s that ghost video…” said Venus in confusion, her eyes flitting to Charlie, who was sidling over towards McIntyre’s secretary.
Again, they watched as the ghost hunter deployed his ectoplasmic aural spectrometer, and played back the weird noises it recorded.
Mrs. Lurge looked at Sandra, baffled. “Yes—those ghost hunts were one of our biggest money-makers. Great publicity, too. Lothar was always happy to have them come in, any hour of the day or night.”
Sandra nodded and smiled. “Helped keep the company afloat, and then some, right?”
“Right…” Mrs. Lurge said uncomprehendingly.
“Sandra, where are you going with this?” Max asked.
“All that ghost stuff—that was really what was keeping ya’ll’s bread buttered, wasn’t it?” Sandra continued. “But, did you ever really know how, Mrs. Lurge?”
Mrs. Lurge shook her head in bewilderment. “All I know is, it became a popular thing, especially in the last couple years or so.”
“Sandra… are you okay?” Venus asked hesitantly. “You look a little tired.”
Sandra shot her a devilish grin. She began to pace, taking a small tube of lip balm from her pocket and applying it liberally.
“Well, yes,” she admitted. “Something came to me as I was going home last night, right after I dropped you off, Venus. And I was lying awake into the wee small hours, thinking it over. And then I had to be up early to get Charlie here and check out my little idea.”
“What idea, Sandy?” Max asked, a touch of impatience creeping into his voice.
“Let me back up a little,” Sandra said, pacing back and forth. “Mr. Lurge was making a pretty penny off of the Haunt-omaton tours. Except it’s not so pretty, once you factor in he’s making payments to keep his Miss Ritter up in style. So, he had to up the game a bit—needed to bring in even more revenue.”
“Now, we must also remember that Mr. Lurge is trying to…” she caught herself. “That the Lurges are divorcing. But he’s got to keep his Miss Ritter up in style, and giving the Missus half of the robot factory money doesn’t sit too well with him.”
“So, what does he do? Well, a couple things. First, he enters negotiations to strike a deal with the state to turn the place into a ‘historical site,’ knowing that deal will go through right as Mrs. Lurge is taking over the factory.”
Every eye in the room was on Sandra; even Charlie’s.
“Now, that’s all well and good. He’s got enough socked away he can high-tail it outta town. And that’s where it it turns into a really black-hearted, mean-spirited, vile kind of a scheme.”
Sandra shook her head, and looked out the window thoughtfully. “Crazy. Imagine all the work; all the plotting—and to have it all undone by one simple little oversight.”
“Sandra…” said Max.
She turned back to face her audience. “Here’s what Mr. Lurge did: he’s put his wife in charge of the company and he’s made arrangements to let the state run their operations. And what’s more he’s gone to some pains to ensure that if any fault is found with the product or the location, the blame will be on the owner.”
She raised an eyebrow at the lawyer. “Isn’t that so?”
“Erm, that is correct, yes.”
Sandra nodded. “And so he decides there will indeed be a fault with the product, in the sense that the robots will suddenly and inexplicably malfunction—and when they do, they will kill Mr. McIntyre—whom our Mr. Lurge invited over for a chat that night. One stone, two birds—Mrs. Lurge ruined, and Mr. McIntyre dead.”
Venus whistled under her breath as she followed Sandra’s explanation.
Sandra nodded. “And so, Mr. Lurge goes to the factory, leaving the back door unlocked so McIntyre will enter that way. He waits in his office until late that night, and then, at the critical point, he’ll go down and activate the robots, and order them to cut Mr. McIntyre to pieces. Then he’ll flee the scene, with his rival dead, and the company in shambles!”
She paused for breath. Every jaw in the room was hanging open. McIntyre looked at Mrs. Lurge. The policemen looked at each other. Venus looked at Sandra. Charlie looked at Venus.
“Okay, Sandy,” Max said finally. “I’ll admit that what you’re saying does fit the observable facts, but here’s the thing: if you’re right, then all this just takes us back to what the police said from the beginning—nothing more than an accident. Unless you’re going to tell me Mr. Lurge decided to kill himself.”
Sandra gave a little chuckle. “Well, yes and no, Max. You’re right, it was an accident. But it wasn’t really a problem of faulty technology. More of an, ah, operator error. And that’s where all this ghost business comes in. Charlie!” she called, causing the young man to pull his eyes away from Suzanne.
“Tell us, if you would, how the Lurge infantry assault bots identify friend or foe.” Sandra prompted.
“What? Uh, well, they use a sonic sensor that detects voice patterns to recognize Lurge personnel.”
“And, if there’s some sort of interference?”
“Well, if there’s a strong signal that overwhelms them—yeah, then they go into attack mode. They think they’re being hit with sonic disruptors, like the enemy bots used in the war.”
“And, just to clarify for everybody,” Sandra added. “Those ‘sonic disruptors’ could emit noises that people wouldn’t hear. Just bots, right?”
“Thank you very much,” Sandra said with a nod, and then reached into her purse. She extracted a small, silver disk which she set on the table. “All right, Chief of Security, now tell everyone what this is.”
Charlie assumed his smuggest manner. “That is a Lurge security device. Mr. Lurge told me he had ’em made special. Right now, it’s on battery backup, of course.” He glanced around the room, happy to be the center of attention. “Normally, there’s twenty or so like this, all wired into the Lurge factory power system—”
“Which, I should point out, causes the lights outside to flicker when the system is active.” Sandra interjected.
She then set her phone next to it, and pressed the button at the center. There was no immediate result, and the rest of the occupants of the room waited. She held out her phone, and pointed out that its signal strength was at zero.
“Max?” She said. “What do you think?”
There was silence.
“Max?” Venus asked.
Sandra released the button. “How about now, Max?”
“Ah, sorry, Sandy—I lost audio there for a minute. What did you say?”
Sandra was grinning widely now. “See, that’s the key: Mr. Lurge’s ‘security system’ was no such thing. It was actually a broadcasting signal, meant to lure in the spook huntin’ crowd. If we had an ‘ectoplasmic aural spectrometer,’ I have no doubt I’d have recorded a few ghostly voices just now. That’s why I was held up this morning—I grabbed Charlie and we dropped by the old factory again this morning to check it out. Sure enough, when the ‘security system’ and the robots come on at the same time—the bots go bananas.”
“Sandra, that’s… amazing,” said Venus. She ran through what she had just learned for a moment. “So Mr. Lurge found a way to capitalize on the ghost stories about the place.”
Sandra nodded. “No offense to our friend here,” she said with a nod to Charlie, “But I think that’s why he wanted a guard who was, ah, inclined to believe in the paranormal. He knew he wouldn’t look into it too closely.”
“But, if what you’re saying is true, wouldn’t the bots have freaked out before now?”
Sandra shook her head. “See, those things are only powered up for demos, during the daytime or the scheduled Haunt-omaton tours. And the security system —the ‘ghost’ noise system, in other words—only comes on at night, when nobody but ghost hunters is coming near the place. Isn’t that so, Charlie?”
He nodded. “Yeah… that was what Old M… Mr. Lurge always told me. He said that as night guard, it was my number one job to keep the security system up and running.”
“Mm hmm,” said Sandra. “But what it was really securing was the factory’s reputation for being haunted. When these ghost hunters drop by, they’d get all kinds of weird noises. And so, the factory made a name for itself, and all the tourist money that came along with it. That, by the way, is why Lurge had to cut expenses on things like lights and heating and cooling—it takes a lot of juice to run something to broadcast a signal like that from one of these things.”
Sandra set aside the little silver device, and then applied a bit more balm to her lip before she continued: “So, there really was no malfunction—Mr. Lurge’s robots performed like you’d expect them to, once they’re being hit from all around by a powerful signal. And so, his plan to ruin his wife, murder his rival, and run off with his mistress all blew up in his face. When he went down there to give his robots orders to take out Mr. McIntyre, they were already going haywire—and all because of a little parlor trick to rake in some extra cash.”
“Well… I suppose that makes sense,” said Max slowly. “But if that’s the case, I would have thought Venus would–ah, that is to say–I mean…” he trailed off, not wanting to say more in front of the others.
Sandra grinned again. “You think Venus would have heard the signal? Yeah, I thought about that too. But for all her outstanding abilities, she’s only human, Max. You can’t expect her to behave like a robot, for goodness’ sakes!”
Venus looked appreciatively at Sandra. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lurge and Mr. McIntyre were both blinking and looking dumbfounded.
“But…” Mrs. Lurge said at last, “I just can’t imagine Lothar would do that.”
Venus looked her sympathetically and gave her a gentle pat on the shoulder. “Am I right in thinking he did a lot of things you didn’t think he’d do? It can be tough to imagine what… other folks… can get up to.”
Mrs. Lurge nodded slowly.
“Well, personally, I don’t find it a bit weird that the old so-and-so would pull something like this,” McIntyre said. “What I don’t get is how he could have made such a mistake! I mean, really; how could he not have thought of that?”
Sandra spread her hands and shrugged. “Well, I can only hazard a guess, but Charlie over there said that one time Lurge told him, ‘there’s stuff in there I don’t understand.’ I think he was trying to scare the kid a bit, but truth be told, I don’t think our Mr. Lurge was all that savvy about robotics. He took over the company because he had a head for business, not technology. I think he thought the big money was to be made in other ways. After all,” she added, aiming her sweetest smile at McIntyre, “Doesn’t every businessman have to find creative ways to stay afloat?”
McIntyre swallowed and made no reply.
“So ultimately…” said Max slowly, as if summing the case, “Lurge’s greed foiled his vindictiveness.”
Sandra gave another little chuckle. “In some sense, I guess, two wrongs made a right.”