Thursday, 23 July 2009

BINARY CODE-Chapter 14 Sleuths

Return to Table of Contents I remember once coming down a ski slope in a white-out. When I got to the bottom, the fog suddenly lifted, and I looked back in horror at the sheer cliff I had just blindly come down. We all make decisions based on obstacles only a few feet in front of our noses, rarely looking beyond to see what lies ahead. From my vantage point now, I wonder what made me take this discovery and push it to the limit. The thrill of the chase? Greed? Lust for power? A selfish desire to see myself as a crusader against the corporate behemoth, a result of my newfound self-righteous cynicism? These are all obvious reasons, and although partially true they do not really tell the whole story. I was at a low point in my life then, a castaway floundering around in deep waters looking for a lifeline, any lifeline. My body had mended, but my mind and spirit were still wounded and I hurt inside. This piece of paper was a diversion, an explanation, and a solution. In my mind I saw it as a way off the unlucky path I had suddenly found myself on. It explained a sequence of events which began long ago, leading me to Lydia, the discovery of the safe deposit box, the serendipitous visit to UBI and the coincidences of the birthdays on the documents. Somehow it was just meant to be. It also seemed a solution, not just to the direction of my life but to the discord which was ripping apart my best friend's family. It could at a stroke solve the problem of succession, making Valhalla a minor point of contention instead of the major point. Then there was Tess herself. Seeing her again was a signal to me to move in a different direction, and to follow the moment. All of these things things alone would not have been enough, but together they were more than plenty to make me drop my life and pick up a new one, an acquisition which would lead me eventually to this cell and an uncertain future, for better or worse. That night in Helmut's study remains vivid in my mind though. Tess's first reaction was a combination of shock and skepticism. "What do you mean?" she said. I told her what I had been thinking about ever since I saw the other agreement in the exhibit. "My working life is about the value of ownership, Tess," I began. " It's what our society is about. This agreement is the same as a will. If it's genuine, it's the last word on who owned UBI back then. Of course you can't argue that UBI today is the same company, but for sure that document would give your family some sort of rights. It's worth something." "Maybe we should tell my parents," she offered. I shook my head. "I don't think that's such a good idea. Besides, we don't even know the story behind this, or whether it's really legitimate. We would just stir up a wasp's nest. Can you imagine the reaction of Johann and Ilsa if they knew?" I was adamant. "No, I think we investigate on our own, and if it pans out, then we tell them. In any case, I think the first person we should tell is Stokely." I was persuasive enough. Tess nodded her head. The two of us looked at each other awkwardly. We had just made a discovery and a decision, but now like two people planning a trip around the world, we had to decide where we would head first. "So now what?" she asked. "Well, tonight we can't do anything. We're in the right town though. Tomorrow we'll go to the Library of Congress and do a little research. There's got to be an explanation for this." Retiring to separate bedrooms, a long night went by slowly, as spinning thoughts slowed down the passage of time. I had been to the Library of Congress several times during my summer in Washington. Back then doing research was an arduous and time consuming task--searching through card catalogues, noting facts on index cards, and putting in requests to have books brought up from the stacks. The computer age had changed all that, marrying together paper and electronic bits to make the whole process relatively painless. All that was required was to tap a few computer keys which were linked into vast databases. Dedicated PCs neatly arranged by subject matter made it even simpler. We had to wait ten minutes in the Technology section before a machine freed up. Even at nine o'clock on a Saturday morning, the machines were jampacked. April was the beginning of the big push for most university students, and there were many bleary eyed faces staring intently at the screens. Finally a bearded graduate student type shifted away from his post and indicated that his seat was now free. I sat down at the keyboard and after following the menu, started searching for three things: all articles and books about Helmut, about Thomas MacKenzie, and about UBI. The search for the first two yielded a fairly rich trove, including one biography on Helmut and five on MacKenzie. There were also lots of newspaper and magazine clippings, scanned into the computer in their original form or with their texts transcribed. I was somewhat shocked at how easy it was. My memories of squinting to read microfiche in the bowels of the Duke library were reminiscences of an antedeluvian past. We didn't have to even jot anything down, just printing off the screens. I then did a search for articles on or about UBI. Printing these off would not be possible. There were hundreds of entries, ranging from technical articles to the records of the antitrust case that the government waged against the huge monolith for twenty years before it was finally dropped by the Reagan administration. Clearly we had to narrow our range, and sorted this information by two categories, date and history. We then got a manageable list, and printed off a few pages of books and articles. We began to review what we had and decide what to look for. As an author, Tess was like a perennial student, and was a professional at organising research. "We'll start at the end, and then work our way back to the beginning," she announced. "That's the way I always do it." "The end?" I asked. "Which end?" "The end of Helmut's life," she replied. "He died in 1916." "He did?" I asked incredulously. "When?" "I think it was September or October," she answered. This made my eyebrows rise. I had always assumed he had lived much longer beyond the May signing of the contract. No wonder nobody had found the safe deposit box. We searched the newspaper articles for the news of his death. Helmut was a well known businessman, and his obituary appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. There was also an article from the Richmond Leader, dated October 6, 1916. The headlines were at the top of the business page. PROMINENT BUSINESSMAN DIES ON BOAT TRIP FROM WASHINGTON Matthews, Va.- Helmut Hoeflinger,58, of Georgetown and Matthews, died Sunday while sailing on his yacht the Eric en route from Washington. He was brought ashore at Haynes Point in the early hours of the morning and rushed to Gloucester Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival. The cause of death was cardiac arrest, according to Doctor Malcolm Riley, the examining physician. Mr. Hoeflinger was accompanied on his trip by his business partner Thomas MacEnzie and friend Henry Ford. He is survived by his wife and his four children. A memorial service will be held in Georgetown on Thursday, October 9th at the Church of the Holy Cross. A well known businessman and inventor, Hoeflinger founded Universal Business Implements, a company providing calculating machines to business and government. The article went on to describe his life, detailing his early years as a mathematics student in Heidelberg and his steady progression after his invention of the Census Tabulating Machine. The articles in the other three papers, dated one day later, were of a similar bent. DATA PROCESSING GIANT DIES OF HEART ATTACK, said the Wall Street Journal. TITAN OF INDUSTRY FELLED IN PRIME, blared the New York Times. PROMINENT INVENTOR DIES SUDDENLY, echoed the Washington Post. All three articles were long on biographical content and short on details of his death. The was another article which caught my eye in the Wall Street Journal, located just below the one about Helmut's death. LOSS OF INVENTOR WON'T HARM COMPANY PROSPECTS SAYS CO-FOUNDER The article was datelined October 6 from New York City. It was an interview with Thomas MacEnzie at his company headquarters. He mourned his colleague's death and then went on to say how Universal Business Implements was on a solid foundation and would be able to withstand the loss of the inventor originally behind its major product. There was no mention in any of the three big papers of MacEnzie being with Helmut at the time of his death, nor of Henry Ford, who even then was a well-known national figure. Given the fact that the media back then was not the intrusive force it is today, the omission was plausible. Yet something didn't ring true. I was taken back to Stokely's description of the logic gates inside a computer. In this case there were two conflicting bits of information as inputs: the Richmond paper, which had his two friends with him at the time of his death, and the big city papers, who either neglected to mention this fact, or in the case of the Wall Street Journal, had an interview with his partner at his headquarters in New York the same day. In Stokely's explanation, to return an output of a binary digit 1 or a true condition, there were three alternatives. Through the AND gate, both articles must be true. Through the OR gate, either of the two articles could be true. Finally, they were both NOT true, the result of journalistic inaccuracies or omissions which obscured the true story. I explained this to a befuddled Tess, who obviously had never been the recipient of this particular lecture by her brother. "In those days, surely it wouldn't have been possible for MacEnzie to be in his office in New York the day after the murder would it?" I asked her. "From Matthews to Washington was at least a half a day, I would have thought. Would he have left his friend so quickly? It just doesn't make sense." Tess picked up the Richmond newspaper article again and started to look through it. Suddenly she stopped. "Wait a minute. Do you know what you just said?" I looked at her, puzzled. "Yeah, Matthews is too far from New York to..." She cut me off. "No, I mean when you said the day after the murder. What makes you think there was a murder?" The human brain is like a series of logic gates which will involuntarily spew out answers if left to its own devices. Often, though not always, these uninhibited reactions are closer to the truth. Anyone who has changed a correct exam answer which has seemingly come out of nowhere for one which is derived consciously can attest to this. I was unaware of my mistake. "I did?" I asked. "You did," she replied. "Why did you say that?" "I don't know," I stammered. "It just came out." I paused. I have lived my whole life based on the premise that things just happen, that behind every insignificant act there is some sort of order or purpose. I have never questioned why things happen, but have just accepted each event as it comes along, good or bad, and done what seemed natural. "It's possible, isn't it?" I said. "Don't you think it strange that the national newspapers didn't mention the fact that two well-known people are with someone at his death, especially someone as famous as Henry Ford?" "Well, yes, but.." she began, before I cut her off. "I think you're right." I announced. "Right about what?" She was wrongfooted by my firm intervention. I pointed to the material before us on the table. "That we should start at the end. We need to find out about the actual circumstances of his death." I suddenly recalled the trip we had made to Haynes Point that October weekend long ago when Tess first mentioned that Helmut's body had been brought ashore there. I tried to picture in my mind the Eric, the steam yacht with its teak deck and single smokestack, out of place at the small dock by the lighthouse. In the morning mist, the deck looked like a magician's top hat from which sprang shadowy figures hurrying off into the dawn. The images of Henry Ford and McKenzie from the photo in the UBI archive suddenly came to life in my mind, barking orders and directing rescue efforts from the beach to the island housing the lighthouse, as people crashed knee deep in the surf to carry the inert body of Helmut to the waiting ambulance, one of Ford's own machines. Tess interrupted my thoughts. "What do you suggest we do?" she asked. "These are no good," I said, pointing to the articles before us. "These didn't inform anyone back then and it's unlikely they'll start now. Who is still alive that might have been there on that day?" I said, before adding unnecessarily "...except Aunt Lillian, that is." The mention of her name suddenly seemed to make what had been an abstract thought suddenly very real. These were real people we were talking about, not cardboard figures out of some historical novel. Tess frowned. "Everyone would be dead now..."she said, suddenly catching herself, "except Mary." "Who's Mary?" I asked. "Jake's mother. You know, Jake the handyman at Valhalla. His family has been around Valhalla their whole lives. Mary was born there and worked for the family since her early teens. She's in her mid-nineties now." "Where does she live?" I asked. "Near Matthews. She still lives with Jake, has done since here husband died. Mary is a cantankerous old coot with blowtorch tongue that can peel paint. We used to be afraid of her as kids. My mother used to say she was the only person who could ever tell Aunt Lillian what to do. I think she's mellowed a bit, but she's still a tough old bird." "Let's go see her," I suggested abruptly as I stood up from the table, the bit between my teeth. "When? Now?" "No. On Monday. We were going to Valhalla anyway, weren't we?" I said. "Now we have a real reason to go. We're detectives now, you and I." What had started out as seeds of skepticism were now tiny sprouts of belief. Tess's face said as much. The two of us had suddenly become silent partners in some crazy scheme. For the rest of the weekend our secret little quest was confirmed in knowing glances across the solemn dinner table of the Hoeflinger mansion as we impatiently awaited our return visit to Valhalla and an old black curmudgeon. Return to Table of Contents

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