“Jamie! Where on Earth has he gone now?”
The not-quite-a-teenage boy subsequently materialised out of nowhere, panting. “They have a million games in the Nintendo booth!” To Jamie Silicon, anything over ten was “a million”. His older sister (by two years!) Sarah glowered at him. “This is no place to be running off. Father will be quite upset with me if I lose you.”
“Nah, you can’t lose me, Sis,” the boy grinned. “You’re stuck with me!”
“Potty!” demanded Pippin, the three-year-old’s face beginning to contort with discomfort. Sarah scowled at Jamie as if to say “you wait right here”, and then took Pippin’s hand and began to lead her youngest sibling to the washroom. Jamie, of course, did not comply, and was gone as quickly as he had appeared.
Who could blame him? The 1988 Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas had everything a young boy could ever want to play with. There were a variety of video game consoles, home computers, electronic toys, TVs, stereos, gadgets, robots… the list went on and on. He was soon fiddling about with an Atari ST, poking about in the files on its twenty megabyte hard disk, when he opened one that quickly soured his jolly mood.
“Someone at this event is going to die,” the text file read. “Clues are hidden inside various devices exhibited here. If you can find them, you can decipher who my target is and stop me. It’s only sporting I give you, whoever you are, a chance. But I don’t think you can. So I am not worried.”
“The file deleted itself after I read it!” Jamie added, after reciting the message to his sister. No matter, Sarah concluded, the Sliced Salami Society was on the case again.
Their father, Steven, ran a computer store in their hometown of Schenectady, New York. He changed his last name to Silicon as a marketing gimmick before he met the children’s mother. Now, if you have a name like Sarah Silicon, and your father’s TV commercials air several times each day on several channels, you can be certain people are going to ask you about computers. And they did, a lot.
There was old Mrs. Hendrikson who wanted to know if a computer could help her manage feeding, medication and veterinary check-up schedules for her thirteen ageing cats (it could.) And Mr. Humphries, the local mechanic, who wondered if he could check his parts supplier’s inventory without having to talk to Joe the Sales Guy who drove Humphries crazy (he could.)
Where other children babysat and mowed lawns, Sarah had made a business out of solving people’s problems with computers, and called it the “Silicon Siblings” (even though Jamie mainly carried things and Pippin mostly sat and played with his imagination.) But sometimes, people had deeper issues that needed answers. Criminal issues.
Their first “case” involved the caper of the missing salami. The owner of the local deli was perplexed by the increasing loss of his prized luncheon-meat, and contracted the Silicon Siblings to finger the perpetrator. Sarah wrote a computer program that compared the amount of loss over time with the number of hours worked by each employee, and was able to identify the salami-stealing culprit.
Afterward, Jamie got the idea of creating a detective agency that solved local mysteries using his talent for getting into trouble… er… investigative prowess, and Sarah’s skills with computers. But Jamie thought it needed a more intriguing name, and the Sliced Salami Society was born.
“Should we tell somebody?” asked Jamie, beginning to worry their father might be the target.
“Not just yet. There’s no evidence and just your word for it, which let’s be honest…”
“Hungry!” Pippin declared, tugging on Sarah’s shirt and pulling in the direction of a hot-dog vendor.
“Not now, Pip,” Sarah growled, an uncommon occurrence which silenced Pippin’s stomach for the moment. “I need to start looking for clues.”
“And I’ll go see who looks suspicious,” Jamie said, vanishing into thin air again. Sarah and Pippin began their search, moving from one exhibitor’s booth to another, poring over their computers, consoles, watches, calculators – anything that could embed a message in it. Sarah searched their memory and storage, looking for anything unusual.
At first she couldn’t find anything, only what seemed to be gibberish, and the only curious thing was that almost all the calculators on display at Texas Instrument’s booth had been left displaying the number 15. Could that be the time of the assassination? 3 pm? (It was just after midday at this point.). That seemed a little too obvious. Sarah acquired Pippin a hot dog, and sat contemplating the possibilities. The computers held nonsense bits of data that didn’t belong there, so they had to mean something. Maybe the number 15 was a simple cipher?
Text characters in a computer correspond with 8-bit numbers (from 0 to 255). This system is known as ASCII, an acronym for “American Standard Code for Information Interchange”, a common way of associating characters with letters so that two computers made by different manufactures can exchange data, for example over a modem or a network. Sarah wondered, if she added or subtracted 15 from the ASCII values of the garbage characters, would they make sense?
They did. Adding 15 to the characters in the first message, discovered on a Commodore 128, yielded, “He can run, but he can’t hide.” The second message, found on a Tandy Color Computer 3, read, “Made in Japan” which was strange, since the computer was made in Korea. Finally, a third message, on an IBM PC firmly dedicated to business applications, declared “A Computer for the Whole Family!”
A security guard appeared, holding Jamie by the collar of his jacket. “Is this your brother?”
“I’m serious, mister,” Jamie protested, “someone’s going to get knocked off. I saw it on the computer. On the computer!”
“Sure, sure, kid. But the message vanished! Good prank. Not like we haven’t seen it before. You troublemakers are all the same.” He turned to the boy’s sister, “Look, uh…”
“Yeah, look Sarah, if your brother tries any of this stuff again I’ll have to ask you all to leave. I can’t have bored children causing panic, you know?”
“I completely understand, uhm, officer? He won’t bother you again.”
The security guard sighed and let Jamie down. He made the I’m-watching-you sign and then wandered off. “Did you find anything?” Jamie asked, nervously. “I’m really worried about Dad.”
“I told you not to tell anyone. This is going to make getting any help much harder, once we have a suspect.”
“So, no suspect yet then.” Jamie looked despondent. “We should try to convince Dad to leave. Before it’s too late.”
“No. He won’t believe you either. Besides, he needs to make that deal with Commodore. We can figure it out. I’ve found some clues.” Sarah laid them out for Jamie.
“‘He can run, but he can’t hide’, ‘Made in Japan’, and ‘A Computer for the Whole Family’” Jamie recited quietly in contemplation.
“‘A Computer for the Whole Family’”, Sarah repeated, “hey, wait. Isn’t the Nintendo called the Family Computer in Japan?”
“The Famicom,” Jamie corrected her. “Yes! So the victim has something to do with Nintendo?”
“We need more. ‘Made in Japan.’ Well, Nintendo is a Japanese company, but there’s no reason for the killer to leave a duplicate clue, is there? So it must mean something more.”
“Maybe the victim is from Japan?” Jamie offered.
“A Japanese person connected to Nintendo. ‘He can run, but he can’t hide.’ So, a Japanese man, then. I wonder what they mean by ‘he can run’…”
“There’s this new thing for the Nintendo where you can play a game by running on this pad you put on the floor,” Jamie interrupted with visible excitement. “I’ll be right back!”
“You’re not supposed to go off on your own…” But Sarah was too late. It wasn’t long before the security guard returned with her brother.
“Look, Sarah was it? I told you that you needed to keep a leash on him…”
“I found it!” Jamie interrupted. “It’s called ‘Family Fun Fitness’ and it’s by Bandai…”
“I don’t know what you’re up to, but I don’t have the patience for…”
Sarah looked hurriedly through the CES schedule. “The founder of Bandai, Naoharu Yamashina, is speaking at….” She couldn’t believe it: “3 pm!”
“Look, Mister Security Guard… what’s your name?”
“Look, John,” Sarah implored him, “we’re private investigators. Here’s our card.” She handed John a Sliced Salami Society card, which he glanced over (“The Little Shop at the rear of Thirteen Thistle Street”, “Algorithmic Solutions For Every Occasion”) and promptly threw on the floor, shaking his head and trying not to laugh.
“Look, I know you think you’re trying to help, but I’m telling you, you kids just have overactive imaginations. Now, I’m not going to kick you out, but I am going to take this boy here, and lock him in a small, windowless room with no Nintendo until your father comes and gets him. I’d lock you all up, but that little one looks like a crier.” The guard gestured towards Pippin. “Hope you have a good time with the rest of your day. And no more conspiracies!”
John the security guard hauled Jamie off to his windowless prison, and left Sarah and Pippin (or at least Sarah) to try to stop the assassination of an elderly Japanese toymaker that was certain to occur in just under one hour’s time. But how?
“I do not fear,” Naoharu declared, dismissing Sarah’s concerns. “These men, they are cowards. They, what is that phrase you Americans say, ’talk a big talk’, but never follow through.” Sarah went to interject, but Naoharu placed his hand on her shoulder, “I appreciate your concern. But it is nothing, you will see. I must go, now.” Sarah nodded, accepting that he would not be convinced, turned and walked away. It was over. There was nothing she could do.
“Introducing the founder and President of Bandai, Naoharu Yamashina!” an announcer cheered through the loudspeakers. “Let’s give him a big Las Vegas welcome!”
“That’s your cue, Mister Yamashina.” The stage director pointed through the curtain. “Wait, what?” she said into her headset microphone, “I’ll be right there.” She walked off, leaving Naoharu to contemplate his fate. What if the American girl was right? What if going through that curtain meant accepting an invitation to his doom? But cancelling his appearance could be seen as a sign of weakness back in Japan. The wolves on his board of directors were already howling for him to step down. No, he must go.
“Potty,” came the voice from beneath him. “Now. Potty!”
Naoharu looked down to see a small child. “I cannot…” He looked around, and there was no one to help him.
“Potty!” Pippin started to cry. “POTTY!”
“Yes, yes,” Naoharu repeated, attempting to calm the child. “Be quiet, please. I will take you.” Pippin reached up and took the elderly Japanese executive’s hand, and they walked slowly towards the nearest washroom. He would be fine, Naoharu thought. This was a strong decision. After all, who could question his desire to help a child?
“There you are, Pippin!” Sarah exclaimed with relief as she ran around a corner in the washroom corridor and encountered the unlikely pair.
“This belongs to you?” Naoharu asked, his face erupting in a smile, stifling a laugh. “Of course.” He looked down at the recently-relieved child, “Pippin, is it? What an interesting name. I might name a product after you…” He gently pushed Pippin toward Sarah, shook his head, and chuckled to himself quietly as he walked away. “Pippin…”
“So Pippin saved Naoharu’s life?” The now-free Jamie could scarcely believe it when Sarah told him in the back of their father’s sedan. “And you didn’t set it up? Wow!” Jamie looked at Pippin with genuine admiration. “I didn’t know you had it in you.” Pippin laughed at him, and returned to his daydreaming.
“You kids and your fantasies!” Steven, the sunshine he had basked in after concluding his deal with Commodore having promptly turned to rain upon discovering his children’s antics, chastised them from the driver’s seat, “Can’t you knock it off for one day? ‘Stopped an assassination’… what will you come up with next, I wonder? Actually, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know! All I do know is that you didn’t get this craziness from me… your mother on the other hand…”
The Sliced Salami Society didn’t bother paying any further attention to their father’s ranting, instead reflecting upon their glorious victory during the long drive back to New York. They had won the day, and that was all that mattered. Naoharu Yamashina was safe. And so were they. It’s not like the assassin knew who they were, did they?
Had a certain card of theirs been collected by the janitorial staff that evening from the floor of the convention centre housing the Consumer Electronics Show, that might have been true. However, it was not, for it had already been obtained by someone else, someone who had been outsmarted despite their superiority, someone who would want to have another chance to defeat the Sliced Salami Society, someday.