At the moment when Constable Hiller and Sergeant Gaskins were fishing the body of the murdered girl out of the Thames, ten miles on the other side of London, Detective Max Hornung was entering the gray-and-white marble lobby of New Scotland Yard. Just walking through the storied portals gave him a sense of pride. They were all part of the same great fraternity. He enjoyed the fact that the Yard's cable address was HANDCUFFS. Max was very fond of the English. His only problem concerned their ability to communicate with him. The English spoke their native language so strangely.
The policeman behind the reception desk asked, "Can I help you, sir?"
Max turned. "I have an appointment with Inspector Davidson."
Max said, slowly and distinctly, "Inspector Davidson."
The guard looked at him with interest. "Your name is Inspector Davidson?"
"My name is not Inspector Davidson. My name is Max Hornung."
The policeman behind the desk said apologetically,"Excuse me, sir, but do you speak any English?"
Five minutes later Max was seated in the office of Inspector Davidson, a large, middle-aged man with a florid face and uneven yellow teeth. Typically British-looking, Max thought happily.
"Over the phone you said you were interested in information on Sir Alec Nichols as a possible suspect in a murder case."
"He's one of half a dozen."
Inspector Davidson stared at him. "His wanted toes are frozen?"
Max sighed. He repeated what he had just said, slowly and carefully.
"Ah." The Inspector thought for a moment. "Tell you what I'll do. I'll turn you over to C-Four Criminal Records Department. If they have nothing on him, we'll try C-Eleven and C-Thirteen - Criminal Intelligence."
Sir Alec Nichols' name was not listed in any of the files. But Max knew where he could get the information he wanted.
Earlier that morning Max had phoned a number of executives who worked in the City, the financial center of London.
Their reactions were identical. When Max announced his name, they were filled with trepidation, for everyone doing business in the City had something to hide, and Max Hornung's reputation as a financial avenging angel was international. The moment that Max informed them that he was seeking information about somone else, they fell over themselves to cooperate with him.
Max spent two days visiting banks and finance companies, credit rating organizations and vital statistics offices. He was not interested in talking to the people at those places: he was interested in talking to their computers.
Max was a genius with computers. He would sit before the console board and play the machines like a virtuoso. It did not matter what language the computer had been taught, for Max spoke all of them. He talked to digital computers and low-level and high-level language computers. He was at ease with FORTRAN and FORTRAN IV, the giant IBM 370's and the PDP 10's and 11's and ALGOL 68.
He was at home with COBAL, programmed for business, and BASIC, used by the police, and the high speed APL, which conversed solely in charts and graphs. Max talked to LISP and APT, and PL-1. He held conversations in the binary code, and questioned the arithmetic units and the CPV units, and the high-speed printer answered his questions at the rate of eleven hundred lines a minute. The giant computers had spent their lives sucking up information like insatiable pumps, storing it, analyzing it, remembering it, and now they were spewing it out in Max's ear, whispering their secrets to him in their secluded air-conditioned crypts.
Nothing was sacred, nothing was safe. Privacy in today's civilization was a delusion, a myth. Every citizen was exposed, his deepest secrets laid bare, waiting to be read. People were on record if they had a Social Security number, an insurance policy, a driver's license or a bank account. They were listed if they had paid taxes or drawn unemployment insurance or welfare funds. Their names were stored in computers if they were covered by a medical plan, had made mortgage payments on a home, owned an automobile or bicycle or had a savings or checking account. The computers knew their names if they had been in a hospital, or in the military service, had a fishing or hunting license, had applied for a passport, or telephone, or electricity, or if they had been married or divorced or born.
If one knew where to look, and if one was patient, all the facts were available.
Max Hornung and the computers had a wonderful rapport. They did not laugh at Max's accent, or the way he looked, or acted or dressed. To the computers Max was a giant. They respected his intelligence, admired him, loved him. They happily gave up their secrets to him, sharing their delicious gossip about the fools that mortals made of themselves. It was like old friends chatting.
"Let's talk about Sir Alec Nichols," Max said.
The computers began. They gave Max a mathematical sketch of Sir Alec, drawn in digits and binary codes and charts. In two hours Max had a composite picture of the man, a financial identi-kit.
Copies of bank receipts and canceled checks and bills were all laid out before him. The first puzzling item that caught Max's eye was a series of checks for large amounts, all made out to "Bearer," cashed by Sir Alec Nichols. Where had the money gone? Max looked to see if it had been reported as a business or personal expense, or as a tax deduction. Negative. He went back over the lists of expenditures again: a check to White's Club, a meat-market bill, unpaid...an evening gown from John Bates...the Guinea...a dentist's bill, unpaid...Annabelle's...one challis robe from Saint Laurent in Paris...a bill from the White Elephant, unpaid...a rates bill...John Wyndham, the hairdresser, unpaid...four dresses from Yves Saint Laurent, Rive Gauche...household salaries...
Max asked a question of the computer at the Vehicle Licensing Center.
Affirmative. Sir Alec owns a Bentley and a Morris.
Something was missing. There was no mechanic's bill.
Max had the computers search their memories. In seven years no such bill existed.
Did we forget something? the computers asked.
No, Max replied, you didn't forget.
Sir Alec did not use a mechanic. He repaired his own cars. A man with that mechanical ability would have no trouble causing an elevator, or a Jeep, to crash. Max Hornung pored over the arcane figures that his friends set before him, with the eagerness of an Egyptologist translating a set of newly discovered hieroglyphics. He found further mysteries. Sir Alec was spending a great deal more than his income.
Another loose thread.
Max's friends in the City had connections in many quarters. Within two days Max learned that Sir Alec had been borrowing money from Tod Michaels, the owner of a club in Soho.
Max turned to the police computers and asked questions. They listened, and they replied. Yes, we have Tod Michaels for you. Has been charged with several crimes, but never convicted. Suspected of being involved in blackmail, dope, prostitution and loan-sharking.
Max went down to Soho and asked more questions. He found out that Sir Alec Nichols did not gamble. But his wife did.
When Max was finished, there was no doubt in his mind that Sir Alec Nichols was being blackmailed. He had unpaid bills, he needed money fast. He had stock that would be worth millions, if he could sell it. Sam Roffe had stood in his way, and now Elizabeth Roffe.
Sir Alec Nichols had a motive for murder.
Max checked out Rhys Williams. The machines tried, but the information proved too sketchy.
The computers informed Max that Rhys Williams was male, born in Wales, thirty-four years of age, unmarried. An executive of Roffe and Sons. Salary eighty thousand dollars a year, plus bonuses. A London savings account with a balance of twenty-five thousand pounds, a checking account with an average balance of eight hundred pounds. A safety-deposit box in Zurich, contents unknown. All major charge accounts and credit cards. Many of the items purchased with them were for women. Rhys Williams had no criminal record. He had been employed at Roffe and Sons for nine years.
Not enough, Max thought. Not nearly enough. It was as though Rhys Williams was hiding behind the computers. Max remembered how protective the man had been when Max had questioned Elizabeth, after Kate Erling's funeral. Whom had he been protecting Elizabeth Roffe? Or himself?
At six o'clock that evening Max booked himself on an Alitalia economy flight to Rome.