May 8, 2018: for ’Nathan Burgoine’s monthly Flash Fiction Draw Challenge. This month’s prompts; a science fiction story involving a dog whistle set “above the clouds.” This put me in mind of a sci-fi riff on “Burke’s Law” I dreamed up a few years ago. As good a time as any to pull the idea out of mothballs to tell the tale of…
The Murder of Cumulo Nimbus
By Jeff Baker
Cumulo Nimbus was one of the richest men in the solar system. But he was as dead as anybody I’d ever seen, despite the elegant surroundings. The place had cost a fortune, the bullets that killed him probably cost a lot less. I stared at the body; silk bathrobe, silk pajamas, tassled slippers. Seeming out of place on a floating platform designed to look like a cloud, several hundred feet off the Earth’s surface.
“No sign of the gun yet?” said Captain Aimes, Chief of Detectives of the Air Police, and my boss.
“No sir,” I said. “Little hard to find anything with the ground covered by this fake cloud stuff.” It wasn’t like dry ice but it did look like cloud covering the edges of the platform. The whole thing was the size of a huge yard, with the 18-room mansion at the center completing the image of a grand estate. Green grass and a fence around most of the property.
“Fence is a good idea,” Captain Aimes said. “Keeps somebody from sleepwalking off the edge. Didn’t help Nimbus much.”
Cumulo Nimbus wasn’t his real name, but he’d had the clout to keep his biography off the regular channels, but now that he was dead, the barriers were being taken down and details were being snapped up by newshawks.
“Ah, here they come,” Aimes said. “Right on time.” He pointed to the pad opposite the mansion where three small coupes were landing. “The grieving relatives and the lawyer. I called the lawyer as soon as I got here.”
“You called the lawyer?” I asked.
“The better to get the magpies up here,” Aimes said. “As soon as they found out Nimbus was dead and somebody was going to inherit his vast fortune.”
“Took them all of an hour to get here.” I said.
“Yes,” Aimes said. “And one of them was here before. Nimbus’ killer.”
The survivors of Cumulo Nimbus, nee Jake Hanlon, gathered in his palatial living room, watched over by the framed portrait of the deceased. We were quick to explain our presence and that nobody was supposed to leave until we were through. Tellingly, nobody asked to see the deceased. They were already arguing; Price Hanlon saying that his cousin Allen Boyd had almost run them out of the sky in his coupe with tinted windows.
“Who found the body?” asked an aging woman in vermillion. This was “Peaches” Melba Hanlon, Nimbus’ estranged wife.
“Nobody,” Aimes explained. “When his vital signs ceased, his saver automatically signaled the authorities.” I’d been using my saver to get a rundown on the suspects, but the screen kept flickering.
“Speaking of savers, mine’s not working.”
“They don’t, at least not in the house,” said Price Hanlon. “Uncle Jake, uh, I mean, Uncle Cumulo had a baffler put in. Awfully hard to get a signal in here, and sometimes on the, uh, grounds. He was kind of paranoid.”
“It would seem he had a reason to be,” Aimes said. “But he still carried one around?”
“Had to,” said Melba. “His I.D., his credit. All those stories about Cumulo carrying around old-fashioned cards were baloney. He was an eccentric nut but he wasn’t that nuts.”
That was when one of the uniformed officers walked up to Captain Aimes, whispered something and placed a small object in his hand. Aimes looked at the object, whispered something else and nodded. And I thought he smiled. And then he asked everyone to step outside.
“When he struck it rich, Jake Hanlon took the name Cumulo Nimbus and decided to live above everybody else,” Captain Aimes said. “He added the cloud effects out of ego but it does lend atmosphere.”
“The only way he’d ever lend anybody anything,” Price said. The others laughed and so did I.
“As his only surviving family, you are all considerably richer upon his death. And one of you hastened that death,” Aimes said. “Jake Hanlon’s saver registered his death at 1100 hours. It didn’t take us long to get here and we had a clear view. No other cruisers or coupes in the area, according to the scans. But that didn’t make sense. Somebody had to get here today, kill Nimbus/Hanlon and, most importantly, leave undetected. The only conclusion is that someone got here much earlier and never left. Ms Hanlon, could you activate your coupe from here. Just to demonstrate something, please?”
Puzzled and dismayed, “Peaches” Melba Hanlon clicked on her saver and keyed in her code for her coupe. No response.
“You see, thanks to the baffler, remote activators don’t work. You would have to operate a coupe manually to arrive and to leave, unless you had an accomplice, to make it look like our killer had only just arrived and was not hiding here. And our killer, you will agree, had a perfect accomplice.”
Captain Aimes put the small object he had been handed to his lips and puffed his cheeks. Three things happened at once: One of the three heirs made a panicked run for the house, only to be tackled by a uniformed officer. Captain Aimes began telling how in the 21st Century home connection systems could be tapped into by sonics inaudible to human ears, “like this dog whistle,” simple enough to program a coupe to leave and then fly back here at an ultrasonic signal. Thirdly, the sight of Allen Boyle’s coupe rising into the air, tinted windows hiding the fact that it was driverless.
“You know,” Aimes said when Boyle had been taken away, “I remember watching those ancient movies from, what, two hundred years ago, where someone would step out of a hotel, whistle loudly and get one of those old cabs right off. And you know, I never believed it until now!”
We walked across the yard to where the police cruiser was parked, clouds from the ground curling around our feet.