By Mel Goldberg
Frederick sat at his computer and wrote what he thought was an intriguing sentence to start his story. “Yesterday Peter Green got angry. He bought a Russian-made Kalashnikov AK-47 and a magazine of thirty rounds of 30 caliber bullets.” Then he thought about Checkov’s gun. If you mention a rifle at the beginning of a story then that rifle has to be used.
He wondered why his character would buy a semi-automatic rifle? Is he going to shoot people?
The doorbell rang and Frederick got up from his computer and opened the door. Two uniformed police officers stood on his doorstep.
The female officer looked at her electronic tablet. “Frederick Pie-on-tou-ski?
“Yes, ma’am,” Frederick said, smiling. He wondered why he called her ma’am since she looked thirty years younger than he and her face was as unlined as a teenager’s. “The name’s pronounced Peon-tof-ski.”
“Oh. Sorry, Mr. Peon-tof-ski. I am Officer Sue Norris, Community Policing and Outreach. This is Officer Joe Slattery. May we have a few moments of your time?”
Frederick hated interruptions when he was writing but he agreed. “Sure. Come in.”
A bit embarrassed over the mess of the house, he explained that Susan, his wife, worked long hours at the library and the once-a-week housekeeper was not due for another two days. There were dusty shelves filled with books and envelopes of junk mail on the coffee table. Officer Slattery walked to the bookcase and ran his finger along the spines of the books on the shelf, moving his lips as he read the titles.
Officer Norris sat on the sofa and removed her electronic tablet from her shoulder bag. “Mr. Peontofski, have you ever heard of predictive analytics?”
Frederick shook his head. “No. I don’t think I have.”
“There was a special on 60 Minutes last month.” Then she launched into her recitation with memorized formality. “Our police department has instituted a pilot program of predictive analytics with the aid of federal monies. The mission of this program is to diagnose violent crime and prevent it. Using data gathered through algorithms, we locate citizens in danger, either as perpetrators or victims of violent crime.”
“Really? What’s an algorithm?”
Slattery turned and interjected a memorized speech, using a tone of an adult lecturing a five-year-old. “An algorithm is a self-contained step-by-step set of operations performed within a finite amount of space and time for calculating an output. In this case the output is a list of citizens either as perpetrators or victims of violent crime.”
Frederick grimaced and thought, It sounds like bad science fiction but they actually believe what they’re saying.
Norris looked at her tablet again. Sounding like a sales pitch, she read the words on the screen. “We have been asked to talk to you and the others on our list about your activities and any difficulties you may have experienced in your neighborhood. We also want to inform you about our mentoring program, which is a key component.” She looked up at Frederick. “You might be interested in the mentoring program.”
Frederick flashed her a puzzled look. “Why am I on your list?”
She gripped her tablet as if it were going to fly away. “You are Frederick Peon-tof-ski of 2384 Telegraph Street?”
“I am,” Frederick said, his brow wrinkled. “Just how many names are on that list?”
She looked at Slattery, a questioning look on her face. He nodded and continued examining the books on a shelf.
“Five hundred,” she said.
So I’m one of five hundred people in danger? thought Frederick. Then he said, “Well, there’s been some kind of mistake.”
“Our computer doesn’t make mistakes,” Slattery said arrogantly. “You seem to have a lot of books on murder and different types of weapons and poisons.”
“Well, I write murder mysteries.”
He looked at Frederick. “Do you, now.”
“Do you own a gun?” Norris asked.
“Yes, I do.” Frederick felt conflicted: He wanted to be truthful, but he didn’t want trouble with authorities. “I keep it on a shelf in my closet. It’s not loaded.”
“Any gang affiliations?” Norris asked.
“Gang affiliations? I belong to a writers’ group. I write murder mysteries about people who are violent.”
Slattery took out his cell phone and poked it several times with the tip of his index finger. Norris sat on the sofa and continued tapping her tablet.
Frederick stood up and faced Slattery. “I think we’re through here. This analytics stuff is all futuristic bullshit, isn’t it?”
Slattery slid his cell phone in the case at his waist, his eyes half closed and his voice clearly irritated. “Don’t sell yourself short. You might be a killer and not even know it.” He touched Norris on the shoulder. She turned off her tablet and stood.
“We want to thank you for your time,” she said. “Please be careful and think about what we have said. Here’s my card in case you ever feel the need to talk.”
Frederick took the card and put it in his shirt pocket. After they left, he went back to his computer stared at the sentence, “Yesterday Peter Green bought a Russian-made Kalashnikov AK-47 and a magazine of thirty rounds of 30 caliber bullets.” Frederick knew Peter was going to kill someone, maybe even go to a school and kill a group of students.
When no second sentence was forthcoming, Frederick sat staring at the screen.
But what if this predictive analytics is real, Frederick thought. I am angry that no agent has picked up my novel. Life is unfair. There are books that get published because the author is a well-known celebrity. There are people who are angry enough to kill someone. And maybe I’m one of them.”
He decided to try to think like Peter and take his fantasy AK-47 with him to WalMart. That was a good place to fantasize about whom Peter might want to kill. As he entered the store, he encountered the overweight elderly greeter with the obsequious demeanor. Peter could kill him, or the woman who chatted with a friend and blocked the aisle with her cart. Does she think no one else wants anything in that aisle? Or the gay couple with matching sweaters trying reading the tiny print on the labels in the organic section. Was Peter homophobic? How about the guy in the red and white checked shorts and blue striped shirt. He should be killed just for appearing in public like that.
Frederick wandered around with his fantasy AK-47 strapped to his back, putting random items in his shopping cart. As he walked up and down the aisles, he thought about whipping the rifle from his back and spraying bullets, killing everyone he saw, even a pregnant woman. How easy it is to slip into Peter’s mind, he thought. The violence lurks just below the surface.
The rifle in his imagination made him realize how easily he could be Peter, how easily his anger could erupt into violence.
He entered the checkout line and laid his groceries on the conveyor, holding the imaginary assault rifle in his hand. When the checker smiled at him he thought, she knows. She knows. I will have to kill her, too.
When he walked out of the store, he understood the momentary power of anger, of having the God-like potential of death. As he entered his car he felt panic. His hands started to shake. He took Norris’s card out of his pocket and dialed her number on his cell phone.
When she answered, he said, “I think I might need that mentor.”
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