The edge of the world is a blue wall painted with clouds. Painted? Maybe it’s something more sophisticated. I couldn’t be sure, but the clouds might have been moving.
“Mayor Burbank,” a booming voice from nowhere addressed me. This was new.
I was spending too much time thinking over things that were not helping me decide whether to walk through the dark and mysterious door in the wall.
I imagined a probability – flying unseen around my head – of whether I should step through the door. Orbiting that, I perceived a second probability: that I would be brave enough to step through the door if it was the right choice. This second probability was shrinking, even though the first one was growing. I had to decide before I lost my nerve.
The voice continued. I stepped into the dark and shut the door behind me.
When I was eighteen, I solved a murder. The next year, I solved another. Over the course of four years, four people were murdered. Four neighbors, killed in unrelated ways by four unrelated persons, also my neighbors.
I solved every murder.
Seahaven Island is home to 3,560 people. The population sign that greets you as you drive over the bridge never changes, and it’s more or less correct all the time. Babies are born. People move in. People die. People leave and are quickly forgotten. The population stays constant.
Four murders out of 3,560 people is a high rate. Each one is about the same as New York City’s record high murder rate in 1980, the last year listed in Seahaven Island Library’s dusty World Book Encyclopedia. Four in a row makes it a trend even though there are high error bars on any single murder-year.
I was waiting tables in the clubhouse at McDermot Green, one of the town’s two golf resorts, while I counted down the last days of my senior year at Seahaven Island High School.
“Thank you, Truman, you always make Saturday brunch so fun,” said one of the ladies in the bridge club that was bustling out into the sunlight as a single mass of floral print fabric.
“Well, hey, thank you, Beverly. Have a good morning. And in case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening, and good night!”
I was ready to take my break on the bubblegum bench behind the clubhouse. They say bubblegum is a bad habit. I couldn’t see the harm in it, and all the servers went back there to chew it. It’s satisfying to stick your bubblegum to the phone pole, in among the hundreds of gum wads left there by years of high schoolers figuring out their futures.
Before I could get away, I heard Mr. McDermot shout, “And another thing Partridge. If I ever see your lumpy haggis hole in here again, I’ll call the police and report a vagrant!”
I turned to see Bertrand Partridge, a polo shirt interrupting his leather-tanned arms and neck, replying, “If you do see my face in here again you’ll wish you’d stayed in Scotland with your potatoes and your stone hedge, you low down cat thief!”
Mr. McDermot shouted, “It’s Stonehenge, you heated leather Camry seat!” as Mr. Partridge peeled out of the parking lot.
The other server, Rebecca, whispered, “What’s going on?” She was new and nervous, but she was right that this was unusual. I rushed over to the boss.
“Gee, Mr. McDermot, is everything alright? You and Mr. Partridge were pretty steamed,” I said.
“That low down ingrate, Bertrand Partridge. Do you know he’s been cheating me for years? YEARS!” said Mr. McDermot.
“Wow, what a jerk!” I performed an angry hop. The goof.
“I don’t… I will never… Not a finger!” Mr. McDermot shouted, meaning nothing at all.
“Not a finger!” I repeated to show him I was on board with whatever he was mad at. By this age I had learned to goof and agree.
People expected something from me.
I did not realize the extent to which this was true; I only knew that people who wanted to talk to me would work at it until something happened. If I acted like a goof, they always eased up.
After that, came the agree. If I disagreed with whatever they were saying, they derailed again and started over with their prodding. So I didn’t disagree if I could help it.
After the goof and the agree, it was time for the follow through. The dance of life.
“How did he keep his secret cheating from you all these years?” I probed. This was an excellent follow through because it reiterated Mr. McDermot’s assertion and served as another agree.
“Well, Truman, you know Vera Rossakoff, the new CFO. She figured it out. The scoundrel has been double-billing us for years. YEARS! And now he thinks I stole his cat.”
Mr. McDermot barged past Rebecca and left the room shouting “YEARS!”.
That was the last time I saw Mr. McDermot alive.
My life wasn’t all drama. Right after that I had a perfectly ordinary conversation when the new chief financial officer called me into her office.
“Mr. Burbank,” Vera Rossakoff drawled through an east-European accent, “Take a seat. Is nice to meet you. I’m becoming acquainted with each staff here. I am sorry I take so long to talk to you.”
“No trouble, ma’am. Hey, did you see Mr. McDermot arguing with Bertrand Partridge?” I asked.
“Yes, but I’m afraid I do not know well this Bertrand Partridge,” she said.
“Oh, he’s a big deal in town. Say, where are you from?” This is a traditional Florida greeting no matter who you meet.
“I am from Russia, darling. After my husband died, I am come to Seahaven Island to help my cousin, Charlie McDermot, run this resort.”
“Wow, McDermot to Rossakoff. I’d like to see that family tree,” I said. She laughed, even though it wasn’t funny.
“Yes, well, tree would be written in Russian alphabet, you see.” This wasn’t funny either, but I laughed.
“How do you like Seahaven Island?”
“Oh I love. I love is I can see the sunrise over the ocean when I go run the beach in the morning, and the sunset in evening.”
Usually, it was like that. Just ordinary conversation, laughing at nothing and talking about nothing.
A terrified scream cut through a whitewashed world as I approached the clubhouse for my opening shift the next Saturday. A cloudfront had rolled in the night before and it still sat there casting its pale hue on everything.
Frantic, Rebecca burst out the front door, horror plastered on her face, and ran across the gravel parking lot to me.
“Truman! Oh my god, it’s Mr. McDermot!” she shouted.
I froze. Was this a time for a goof and agree?
“He’s dead! He’s been murdered!” she went on shouting.
I settled on what felt natural.
“Oh my god!” I shouted right back into her face.
She was petrified.
“Oh my GOD!” I shouted again right at her, grabbing her outstretched arms, staring at her wide open eyes.
“Oh my GOD!” I repeated one last time for good measure. Then I looked away at nothing and started to shake. I may have laughed a little.
I’d like to say that after eight years of practicing rationality, I had learned to control my emotions. I could think of several reasons why I hadn’t made progress. One was that I wasn’t actually allowed to practice emotional regulation. I was always surrounded by people insisting that I should react to them, not accepting “let’s calm down and think about this” as a response. I felt guilty about not trying harder.
Besides that, emotionlessness is not the goal of rationality. The Sequences often refers to an esoteric book character named Spock. Spock attempted to be rational by rejecting emotions. I gathered that it never worked out for him. Emotions matter. Well-regulated emotions.
There were several other factors affecting my ability to regulate my emotions, but the most pertinent, in this case specifically, is that murder is very weird.
“Truman!” shouted Rebecca, “We have to pull ourselves together!” This was shouting, too.
“We’ve gotta call the police!” I said.
I rushed toward the clubhouse door, but I found myself on the ground looking up into Rebecca’s face. I had slipped on the gravel because she was still holding my arm. She leaned over and insisted, “We can’t go in there…”
“Good god, you’re right.” I sat up, finally not shouting. “We could mess up the whole crime scene.”
I got up and approached cautiously. Through the window by the door I could see the unmistakable form of Mr. McDermot lying face down with a knife in his back.
I called 911 on the payphone.
“They’re on the way.” I said when I hung up.
We could already hear the sirens. Police always arrive quickly. Precious few moments to think.
But what thought would I have anyway? Actually, that was the right question, what thought should I have? I could only think about how I couldn’t think of what to think.
Time’s up. The police cruiser pulled up, followed by a van marked “Forensics”. Officer Linda Groupon stepped out with the rough jaw line I’d seen on her many times and some junior officer I had never seen before. No time to think. I was guaranteed to act out of habit, now.
There was fresh shouting and commotion, until the moment the officers burst into the building, guns drawn. Then everything went deadly quiet.
Silver light from the blanket of clouds outside pierced the room. The noise of crashing pots and pans rang out and we all jumped back as a group.
“Who’s there?” shouted Officer Groupon. “Come out, scumbag, ‘cause I got a M&P 2-point-oh with a full-length steel chassis, a rough textured grip for easy handling, and an improved trigger system available now from Smith & Wesson!”
A cat wandered up to her from the open kitchen door. Officer Groupon cracked a smile and then laughed. Everyone laughed along until her face went suddenly stern and everyone stopped.
“Somebody take this cat and everybody clear out until the mortuary fellas get the body,” she said, holstering her gun.
I fell over myself to catch the cat and shouted “Yes, sir, ma’am!” before I hurried for the exit.
My foot kicked something that went skidding out the door ahead of me.
“Out of the way!” someone commanded.
When the forensics officers had hustled inside with their gurney, I picked up the thing, still holding the cat in one arm. It was a gold pen.
I turned it over to see engraved letters: BP.
Someone inside said the time of death was “probably an hour ago around dawn”.
I shot my hand up in the air, calling out “Officeeer!” The pen slipped from that hand and described an arc through the air, finally thudding on the dining room carpet at her feet.
“What are you doing, Truman?!”
“Officer, I think I found a clue. Last week, Bertrand Partridge threatened Mr. McDermot’s life and now I’m sure this is his cat and that pen has his initials!”
The officer picked up the pen with a handkerchief and peered at it closely.
“Well you ruined any fingerprints we could have gotten from this pen… And how can we be sure this wasn’t here before the murder?”
“Oh, it wasn’t,” Rebecca said, “I closed the clubhouse last night and the floor was spotless. And I was the last one here.”
“Well then, it’s evidence. Good job, Truman.” Officer Groupon got a thoughtful look in her eye. “Truman, how well do you know Bertrand Parker?”
“That’s his name. Partridge,” I articulated with my arms to emphasize. I had to wave the cat around to do this. It almost jumped away. I caught it again. The goof.
“That’s what I said.”
“Yes, ma’am.” A weak agree.
“Do you know this fella or not, Truman?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ve waited on him dozens of times. He likes the impression I do of Mayor Cabot.” I leaned and grinned. I almost made the impression, but I’d already done the goof. It was just habit. Snap out of it, Truman. Be smart. Time for the follow through.
“Oh!” I said, “Maybe I could go and talk to him. You know, say I found his cat and then see what else I can get out of him.”
It was a terrible follow through. Why did I offer myself up to confront a murderer? Surely, Officer Linda Groupon, sworn to protect the people of Seahaven Island, would not let me do anything like that.
“That’s a good plan, Truman. You’re a brave citizen.”
Officer Groupon let me out of her cruiser a block from Partridge’s house so I could walk the rest of the way without arousing suspicion.
Rebecca said, “Good luck, Truman.” I don’t know why she came along.
I swung my non-cat-holding arm extra far so I’d look natural. Natural for me, I hoped. A chill spring wind blew from the gray sky and gray ocean beyond the house to send shivers through me.
Mr. McDermot had one of the bigger houses in town. The roof had all sorts of twists and turns. All the windows were arches. There were two chimneys, which is a lot for Florida.
I gave Mr. Whiskers a pat. I didn’t know his name, but I called him that. I rang the doorbell, and then there was no turning back. While I waited, I thought about the day Bertrand Partridge called Mr. McDermot a low down cat thief.
If Partridge killed Mr. McDermot for stealing his cat, why did he leave the cat behind? That’s not what I would anticipate. Of all the mistakes he could make–
“Well, hello, Truman.”
“Ah ha!” I said.
“Ah ha?” said Bertrand Partridge, holding open the door.
I hadn’t meant to say ah ha. I quickly held out the cat.
“Ah ha! Hatchimal!” said Bertrand Partridge, putting away an unlit pipe and reaching out with both hands to cradle the cat.
“You don’t know what this means to me, Truman. Where did you find her?” Then he looked at me askance. “Did you get her from that kilt-slinging bilge rat Charles McDermot?”
“Uh… not exactly,” I said, squirming. I tried to read his eyes, but I had trouble even meeting them.
“Uh huh,” he paused in the doorway, waiting for me to go on. If he was a murderer he played dumb really well.
When no words would come from my brain, Mr. Partridge said “Come in, Truman. Have a drink?” He was already walking toward the kitchen. As I came in, I felt sweat around the place where Officer Groupon had taped a wire.
“Sure thing, Mr. Partridge. Pepsi if you’ve got it.”
“Ha, everybody in town has Pepsi. Live For Now!” Partridge called out the Pepsi slogan from the kitchen.
Time to make my beliefs pay rent. Eight years earlier I swore to my dad that I would never breathe a word about The Sequences. For a long time I was so paranoid about letting it slip, that I didn’t even practice what I learned.
When I did, some of it became habitual, but a lot of good thinking must be done deliberately. That required time. I had a trick for that. This was my moment.
I pictured a probability orbiting my head. I named this Partridge Killed McDermot.
If I believe Mr. Partridge killed Mr. McDermot, what do I anticipate? I thought. Meanwhile I made interested faces at the pictures on the wall.
He will not admit it. No killer admits things.
He will have an excuse for where he was at dawn when the murder happened.
He will be missing his pen.
He might have cat hair on him even though his cat has been missing for a week.
He will act like his cat is worth killing over.
And add to that He will not leave his cat behind after killing someone over it. Again, I noticed that I was confused. Partridge shouldn’t have left his cat. The probability orbiting my head shrank.
“You like that?”
“What?!” I said.
“That’s my prize-winning yacht!”
“Oh this!” I had been feigning interest in a picture of Partridge posing on a yacht. I wasn’t thinking about the picture. People give me more time to think when I look at things closely. If I stare into space, they show up from nowhere to interrupt me faster. I’ve run several experiments. So I buy myself time to think by looking interested in something.
Partridge pushed a Pepsi into my hand and put an arm around my shoulders.
“Of course, I didn’t win the prize on my prize-winning yacht. Someone else handled that. I just bought the yacht from her after that!” This was hilarious to Partridge so it was hilarious to me, too. The agree. But he had caught me off guard. I hadn’t goofed. He would probably expect a goof.
While we were laughing, I took a look at Partridge’s golf shirt.
He might have cat hair on him even though his cat has been missing for a week. I didn’t notice any. In any case, he had just been holding Mr. Hatchimal Whiskers, so that evidence would be worthless. My orbiting probability remained constant.
I noticed we had finished laughing. He will have an excuse for where he was at dawn…
“So Mr. Partridge, have you gone to see your yacht this morning.” I didn’t think he had, but I had to segue somehow to ask where he was at dawn. Then, in case I was tipping my hand, I quickly slipped on the step as I walked to have a seat in the sunken living room. The goof. Better late than never.
“Watch that first step, it’s a doozy,” he said, taking the chair next to me. “No, I’ve been alone in the den for hours reading the latest Dan Brown novel, Chamber Trench, available at book sellers everywhere. It’s a riveting story about a young man working in a symbology factory that explodes.”
That was not a good excuse. A savvy killer should have a better excuse. My orbiting probability shrank, marginally.
“And speaking of work, shouldn’t you be working at McDermot Green this morning?”
“Uh… I’m not so sure what’s gonna happen with that job after some…” I took a gulp of Pepsi, “uh, recent events.” Yeah, play it cool, Truman.
“Oh, is that right? Well if there’s anything I can do… I might be able to find a position at P&P for you.”
“Actually, maybe…” He will be missing his pen. Follow through… “Could you write down your phone number for me? Uh, so I could call you about that position.”
“Sure thing, Truman. I’ve seen you. You’re a hard worker and a real cut up. Very popular with the over-sixty crowd. Now where’s my pen?”
“Ah ha?” he asked, pulling a pen from his end table drawer and handing it to me. It was black plastic inscribed with “Seahaven Island Humane Society”.
“Uh… Ah ha! There’s your pen. Um…” something to distract him, “Don’t you have a better pen? These cheap pens never write well.”
“As a matter of fact, I only ever use pens from the Humane Society. It’s a very important cause not just here on Seahaven Island, but all over the nation. You can keep this one.”
I wrote down his phone number as he dictated. The pen wrote well. My fingers were sweating though.
I couldn’t decide how the missing-not-missing pen counted as evidence.
I excused myself without asking any more questions about my hypothesis. My Partridge Killed McDermot probability had shrunk a few times, and a few of my anticipations were meaningless. I noticed I was confused, and I figured the police could ask him more questions without my help.
As I stepped out on the porch Partridge said, “Thanks again, Truman, for bringing Hatchimal back to me. I’ve just been so upset since McDermot stole her.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Partridge.” Then I stopped and said, “Say, what makes you think he took her anyway?”
He lifted the cat to look in her eyes, “Well, the last time I saw Hatchimal, she was sniffing around the offices in the clubhouse. I turned my back for a second, then I went to find her. I found McDermot, but Miss Hatchimal was gone. Yes she was. Yes she was. But she wouldn’t leave me, would she? Would you?” All his attention was on the cat now.
I clicked the door closed without another word.
A belief is a tenant and it must pay rent for living in your head or else be evicted. It pays that rent in anticipated experiences. The anticipations my belief had paid me were worthless.
At least the sun had come out.
Officer Groupon dropped off Rebecca and me at work. At work! She didn’t need me to report back because she had heard my whole conversation with Partridge over the microphone I wore.
And now we had to go do work at the scene of the murder. Work doesn’t stop just because the owner dies, I guess.
When we arrived, Mrs. Rossakoff was leading a staff meeting.
“… And that is why I know that this team – and I have meet all of you – this team can carry on. Today is tragic for us. A tragic day for whole town. But is ‘Another Beautiful Day Out On McDermot Green’.”
Nobody seemed enthusiastic.
Rebecca shot me a nervous look and then went to the kitchen to get ready for opening.
I followed Vera Rossakoff into her office.
“Mrs. Rossakoff, Rebecca can’t be here. She discovered the body,” I said.
Then I noticed Mrs. Rossakoff was putting her desk things in a cardboard Sysco box. “Good things come from Sysco” was prominently printed on every side in full color.
“You’re not leaving are you? Oh god, of course. He was your cousin. You must be a wreck. He wasn’t married and so you have to take care of his estate.”
“Truman,” she broke in, “Don’t be silly. I’m not leaving. I am moving to Charlie’s office. I’m the boss now.”
I gaped. She was the boss now. How could I turn this into a goof…
“Well, let me take that box for you then! A boss can’t go carrying her own boxes.”
I tripped on nothing and everything fell out of the box onto the floor in the hallway. I’d done this before, so nothing broke. I started picking things up.
“Oh I’m so sorry, Mrs. Rossakoff. I’ll get it all. You know this plant looks great and it’ll love all the windows in your new office.”
“Thank you, Truman.” She did not think my goof was funny, and my agreement with her choice of flora was not engaging her. She was busy checking her box.
“Truman, did you seen my good pen when you dropped… everything?” She was not happy. I misjudged her. You’d think that nobody would like to have their stuff dropped, but I’d seen plenty of people laugh at it before. Not this time.
Maybe I could goof now. I half-scrambled half-stumbled back to the hallway.
“You’ve got to have your good pen,” I agreed. “What does it look like, Mrs. Rossakoff?”
I stopped. I thought. But that gold pen at the murder scene had Bertrand Partridge’s initials on it. It couldn’t be…
A new probability started orbiting my head.
I straightened up and stepped into the office. She had her back to me while she was taking things out of the Sysco box. The plant, a souvenir coffee mug with an alligator in a bikini, a leather bound journal with gold Cyrillic letters embossed on it… Вера Россакофф.
If I believed Rossakoff killed Mr. McDermot, what would I anticipate?
She will not admit it. No killer admits things.
She will have an excuse for where she was at dawn when the murder happened.
She will be missing her pen with her initials on it. The initials BP in the Cyrillic alphabet.
She might frame someone else by leaving their cat with the body.
She would have incentive.
Anticipation after the fact isn’t optimal. So I focused on the two items I didn’t know already.
She will have an excuse for where she was at dawn…
“Did you enjoy the sunrise this morning, Mrs. Rossakoff?”
She paused while taking a stapler out of the box.
“What? Oh yes, I always enjoy on my run. Was beautiful today.”
My probability grew larger. Why was she lying…? She put the stapler down and picked a copy of Microsoft® Excel® Dashboards & Reports for Dummies out of the box.
She would have incentive.
“So how is it that you’re the boss now, Mrs. Rossakoff?”
“Truman. You are very silly. As Charlie’s only living relative, I own McDermot Green now.”
The orbiting probability grew again. I was rich with valuable anticipated experiences.
There had been no sunrise to be seen through the clouds that morning. A few minutes after I placed the call, we all watched as Officer Groupon led Vera Rossakoff away in handcuffs.
The papers would later say it was an open and shut case. Rossakoff had attempted to frame Bertrand Partridge for the murder of Charles McDermot, but her lost pen had been the clue that unravelled everything.
Her office plant was the catnip she used to lure Hatchimal to her office. She had lied about where she was at dawn, the time of the murder. I was surprised the police took Bayesian evidence so seriously. I thought they’d call it all circumstantial. For years afterward, I would remember the first murder I solved and ponder if it was normal. Even after I found out what a joke the government is on Seahaven Island, I wanted to believe that when it really mattered somebody knew what they were doing.
Anyway, she confessed.
I was behind the clubhouse on the bubblegum bench when Rebecca found me. I hadn’t stopped moving for a moment during my shift. I was afraid to. But in the end I ran out of steam and I had nowhere to be. I had already spat out my gum. It was not helping.
“Truman, are you okay?” Rebecca seemed more nervous than usual.
“I’m still thinking about it, Rebecca. We saw him there. Just lying there. Dead.” I didn’t have it in me to goof.
Rebecca sat down next to me.
“I guess They didn’t– I mean, I guess you took it harder than I thought.” She seemed really unprepared for a conversation.
“I don’t know how people get over this. We just worked a four hour shift and now… We’re supposed to just walk around in the world. Where people die sometimes. And other people find them dead.”
A gentle breeze blew our hair.
“And it was all for money. Just to own some stupid grass. And I thought it was Bertrand Partridge, Jesus,” I said.
“You feel guilty about Mr. Partridge?” Rebecca asked.
“I… guess not. At least he didn’t actually go to jail,” I said.
“I feel guilty,” she said.
“Oh. Wait, why?” I looked over at her now. She looked made up, not like she had just worked the morning shift after finding a body.
Rebecca got a determined look in her eye and then turned away for a moment. Thinking back, I’m sure she was deciding whether or not to help me. It would cost her.
She took a deep breath and when she turned back the look of determination was replaced by her usual demur new-girl nervousness. The change in attitude was jarring.
“Isn’t it weird that they both had the initials BP?” she said in an innocent voice.
“Yeah,” I said. “That was a helpful surprise. We can assume Mrs. Rossakoff chose Mr. Partridge to frame on purpose.”
“Maybe. But isn’t it very weird?” she asked.
How weird was it that they had the same initials?
The cat was a fake clue, a frame up. Rossakoff wanted us to find it because it pointed to Bertrand Partridge. But the cat had nothing to do with the initials BP.
The pen was a real clue. Rossakoff did not plant that on purpose. If she had known about it, she would not have asked me where it was. She would have pretended not to have a gold pen.
But what a weird coincidence that the initials on the pen still pointed to Bertrand Partridge. It was an accident that fit just right with her plan. That was too convenient.
I wish I’d had the stroke of genius to realize I was being tested. They must have worried that I would figure it out – figure out that I lived in a fake world – but I wasn’t there yet.
Instead, a new probability went into orbit around my head. It was called Something Is Wrong, and it started vague and small.
A car honked twice in the parking lot. It was Rebecca’s usual ride home.
Rebecca didn’t move.
“Truman…” she screwed up her eyebrows and her dad honked again. “Nevermind. I gotta go. I hope I see… I mean. Goodbye, Truman.” She hugged me – which was unusual – and started to rush away.
She turned to look at me. The honks were becoming frantic.
“In case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening, and goodnight.”
I did not see her again. She moved away, and no one knew where.
I don’t think about the other murders much. After the first one, the only thing that made the rest weird was that I kept solving them and they kept happening. Up until the year when I’d had enough – of murders and of everything – and I started to break the system.
With apologies to Agatha Christie who devised the mystery in her short story “The Double Clue”. And to the writers of “Murder, She Wrote”, who cribbed it before me in an episode called “An Egg to Die For”. Thumbs up to both for hiding the fatal flaw very well.
1. The Discrete Conspiracy
Truman Burbank doesn't know he lives in a TV show. Can his father's secret book set him free?
2. Making Beliefs Pay Rent
A murder in town exposes a crack in 18 year-old Truman's world. Can he use what he has learned to find the killer?
3. The Map is Not The Territory
10 year-old Truman’s mother gets rid of his book. Can he save the last link he has to his father?
4. Inferential Distances
21-year-old Truman is sick of the chaos. But does that justify a life of crime?
5. Loss Aversion
11-year-old Truman seeks the meaning of his father’s last words. Will his obsession ruin his friendships?
6. Politics Is The Mind-Killer
21-year-old Truman takes his grievances to the mayor. Can he fight City Hall?