Vera did as he had done for so many Tuesday nights before: she made her cup of tea, got her little biscuits from the tin above the sink, and headed for her living room, sitting down on her tidy green sofa and clicking on the television and her Telecaption closed-captioning box for her weekly dose of Murder, She Wrote.
She turned to acknowledge her husband Joseph, sitting beside her on the couch in spirit, and settled in for an hour of intrigue and (for a 78 year-old) excitement. But, while Jessica Fletcher was interrogating suspects in her charming, Cabot Cove way, a ghostly image appeared on the screen, superimposed over Vera’s favourite program. She strained to make it out – it appeared to be a message of some kind, written in block letters, but different from those made by her Telecaption box.
It gradually said, “I’m going to kill you.” Then it faded out, and Murder, She Wrote returned to full strength. It was 8:30pm.
Vera was stunned. Her Telecaption box must be acting up, she thought. But after Jessica Fletcher had apprehended the murderer and the credits began to roll, the ghostly message came back. “I mean it, Vera Weinerburger, I’m going to kill you!” It vanished as quickly as it appeared.
Poor Vera almost joined her husband right there and then! She clicked off her TV in fright, and rushed to her TDD, a teletypewriter for those who, like Vera, were severely hearing impaired, then dialing the police. The TDD operator was empathetic but said there wasn’t anything he could do for her. He implied she imagined it! “I’ve lost my hearing, not my mind,” Vera wrote back, disconnecting in a huff.
Who could help her with this? If Murder, She Wrote had taught Vera anything, it was that you had to get them before they got you. She struggled to think. She needed someone technical – oh, she knew the perfect person, her nephew Stephen. He ran a shop in Vera’s town of Schenectady – a computer shop. If anyone could help her find her prospective killer, it was Stephen!
Steven didn’t have a TDD, so Vera wrote a note for her postman, Sam, to get to Stephen. He was good that way, but it was snowing heavily outside, and Vera prayed he would be able to deliver it. She needed this case solved quickly – before the killer could make good on his threat.
There was a knock on the door. “I got it,” twelve year-old Jamie Silicon called out, more flying down the staircase than running. “Oh, hey Sam”, Jamie said to the imposing postman standing in front of him, covered in snow. “School’s closed today. Snow day, but you already know that, obviously. What’s up?”
“Er, hello Jamie.” The big man shifted nervously. “Um, is your Dad also ‘Stephen Weinerburger?’” Sam wasn’t sure he was at the right house, but given the content of the message this was his best guess. Jamie laughed.
“Yup, that’s him, the old Weinerburger.” Jamie grinned. “Why d’ya think we changed our name? What’d he do?”
Sam tried his best to keep a straight face and be professional. “I’ve got a message for him. This nice old deaf lady named Vera a few streets over thinks there’s a man in her television that wants to kill her?”
“Sarah!” Jamie shouted. “Do we know an old lady named Vera?”
“That’s great-auntie Vee,” Jamie’s slightly older sister shouted from the offices of her detective agency, located in the walled-in back porch of their two-and-a-half story Victorian. “With the tin of biscuits.”
“Oh yeah, great-auntie Vee.” Jamie looked back up at Sam. “Looks like you found the right place. We’ll take it from here.”
Sarah appeared from the back. “What’s going on?”
“Great-auntie Vee thinks her television is trying to kill her”
“No, she said someone in her television is trying to… look, here’s her note. I have a lot of mail to deliver still and it’s cold out here!” Sam tossed Vera’s note down at Jamie, turned and trudged off down from the front verandah. “Make sure you give it to your Dad!”
“Dad’s away on business until… oh never mind. Sam could really stand to work on his demeanour,” Jamie deadpanned, turning and handing the note to Sarah. “Here, you know how to read good…”
Sarah scanned over the note. “Great-auntie Vee says that a ghostly message on her TV appeared last night threatening to kill her, personally. Tonight. This sounds like a job for the Sliced Salami Society. We should go over there.”
“Well, I better bundle up the squirt then,” Jamie said, referring to their younger sibling Pippin. “Can we take the sled out?”
Vera was surprised to find three children she only vaguely recognised standing on her porch. She beckoned them inside and led them over to her TDD. She didn’t like to talk, apparently she shouted and Vera didn’t like to shout. “Who are you again?” she typed.
“Your nephew Stephen’s children,” Sarah typed back. “We’re here about your note.”
“Oh. What can you do?”
“We investigate things like this.”
Vera wasn’t terribly confident three children could help her out of her predicament, but given there currently wasn’t anyone else, she thought she may as well let them try. “It happened while I was watching Murder, She Wrote last night.” she typed. “There was some strange words on the screen from a man who said he was going to kill me. Vera. Tonight. He knew my name.” She began to feel panicked again.
“Can you think of anyone who would want to kill you?”
“Heavens no!” Vera was insistent on that point. “Let me show you my TV”. Vera led them into the living room and switched it on.
“We watched Murder, She Wrote last night and there wasn’t any words,” Jamie noted lackadaisically, lingering in front of the fire burning in a fireplace in the opposite wall. The picture tube warmed up and a soap opera appeared on the screen, along with closed captioning scrolling at the bottom. Jamie thought he’d solved it already. “Oh! You mean these words?”
“That’s the closed captioning, Jamie,” Sarah said, “For people who are hard of hearing.”
“But are these the words great-auntie Vee saw? Maybe it was just a glitch in the, uh, closed…?”
“Closed captioning.” Sarah looked questioning at Vera, who had grasped enough of the conversation to shake her head no. “No. I don’t think it was. But one thing I do notice is this TV is on channel 4, when this station is actually channel 8. The closed captioning box must also act as a tuner for the TV.” Sarah’s forehead scrunched in thought while Pippin gurgled a muted cheer at a colourful cereal commercial. “That would explain why we didn’t see it. Nobody would have seen it, there’s nothing on channel 4.”
Jamie’s attention had wandered to pictures on the mantle over the fireplace, particularly a black-and-white one that looked like a younger Vera in fancy 1920s garb. He turned to Vera and pointed to it. She went over to a desk, opened the big drawer at the top and rummaged through some papers, pulling out a slightly yellowed and tattered old magazine. She opened it and flipped through the pages carefully, landing on her destination and beckoning Jamie over.
“‘The Queen’s Messenger’,” Jamie read, slowly. “‘The first television drama’…hey, that’s you again,” he said, pointing at the corner of the page. “‘Local Schenectady stage actress, young Vera Weinerburger had a small part in the program…’ Hey, you’re famous!”
Vera smiled, thinking back to the hot lights, and the noise of the flying-spot cameras. “Impressive,” Sarah interjected, still fiddling with the television, “but not the ‘I want to kill you’ kind of famous. I think that’s a ‘red herring’ as Holmes would say. We should canvas the neighbourhood. I have a suspicion…”
The children began knocking on doors. Because of the snow, everyone was home. “Do you have a computer?”, Sarah asked the woman, Sandra, at the first house, and to everyone at every house afterwards. Some did, most did not. Those who did invited the children in to show it off. There was an Apple II, a Commodore 64, an Atari ST and others. Jamie and Pippin had to play-test all of them, and Sarah had to drag her siblings away every time.
There was also plenty of hot chocolate, so much Pippin began to noticeably vibrate. But, according to their owners, none of the computers had been on the previous evening – and none of those owners appeared the type to threaten an old woman.
If the ghostly words on Vera’s TV hadn’t called her by name, Sarah would’ve chalked all of this up to accidental radio-frequency noise from a text adventure or someone writing a novel. But the fact there apparently weren’t any computers on – that anyone was willing to admit to, anyway – and Vera’s name was used (Sarah had no reason to doubt the word of her great-aunt) made it all seem a little too sinister for Sarah’s liking.
“Someone has to have lied to us”, Sarah declared, in earshot of the kind-looking older widower, George, who was preparing their ninth cups of hot chocolate in the last house that Sarah estimated could conceivably leak RF interference as far as Vera’s.
“Well, it wasn’t me,” George said. “I was watching Murder, She Wrote, not using the computer. Besides, it’s broken anyways. I have an idea for you, however.” George was an old television engineer, and he proposed that they attempt to “triangulate” the signal. “I have some old signal meters you could use. If the message appears again, I’ll measure the signal from here, Jamie can measure it at your great aunt’s, and Sarah at another house on the other side of your great aunt’s from mine. Then maybe you could narrow down the location of your phantom.”
Sarah agreed with George’s plan, and later that evening, with Pippin stowed safely back at home, she and Jamie snuck out, the boy heading to Vera’s, and Sarah to the house of Wendy Chalmers, a real-estate agent living equidistant from George. At 8:30pm the messages re-appeared. “There’s not much time left, Vera. I’m going to enjoy ending your pathetic life.”
Sarah didn’t recognise the type as belonging to any computer she had ever seen before. Luckily Vera didn’t see it. She had gone to bed early, thinking that ignorance in this case was probably bliss.
The signal was weaker at Wendy’s house, but George reported no signal strength at all. Based on the evidence, the perpetrator had to be living somewhere between Wendy’s and Vera’s. But Sarah potentially had other leads to chase up tomorrow. She didn’t elaborate and thanked George on the telephone, wishing him a good night.
Her tone was distinctly different, however, when she turned up next morning on his doorstep. “You lied to me,” Sarah growled, holding a stack of papers in her hand. “I delivered surveys yesterday afternoon to the whole area, including all of your neighbours, and asked them to watch last night too. They saw it. Your neighbours all saw it. Clear as day. Do I need to call the police?”
“Ho–hold on a minute. You don’t need to go and do that.” the sleepless George sighed – his worst fears confirmed – pondering his options, and settling on telling Sarah the truth.
“Okay, you’ve got me. I’ve been writing a murder mystery centred around the Queen’s Messenger broadcast. Your great aunt Vera figures in it: the murderer is a Vaudeville theatre fanatic and tries to persuade her to not participate in the broadcast by sending her threatening notes hidden in bouquets of flowers. He then plots to kill everyone involved in the broadcast in an attempt to stop it, thinking the television will eventually destroy his beloved Vaudeville. He was right, of course…”
“Why didn’t you just tell us that? It would’ve saved us all a lot of trouble!”
“I’m not writing it for myself, I’m ’ghost writing’ it for another author. Yes, I understand the irony. It’s someone you’ve probably heard of. Someone who ‘writes’ a lot of books. Obviously it can’t get out that I’m writing a book with an extremely similar yet very niche premise. I also didn’t want your great aunt to find out in case she tried to stop it from being published. Bloody Coleco Adam! I wrapped tin foil around it last night, but obviously it didn’t help. Why do I keep using that old piece of junk? Serves me right for buying a computer from the Connecticut Leather Company.”
“Coleco Adam!” Sarah wrinkled her nose. “That explains why I didn’t recognise text. You should have just taken the night off. Why didn’t you? Why take the risk?”
“Pardon the pun, but I’m on a tight deadline. Also, doesn’t the murderer always want to get caught? At least in silly murder mysteries, in any case.”
“A murder mystery? About me? Of course I don’t mind, I’m flattered.” Vera finished typing and smiled at George, the widower having been marched over to her house by Vera’s annoyingly insistent great-neice.
“Sorry for frightening you,” George
replied. “It wasn’t my intention. It was just a book. I write them because I’m lonely. Because I’m alone.”
“Not at all. I completely understand. All of it.” She paused before continuing. “You can make it up to me by coming over for dinner some night…” Vera didn’t think Joseph would mind. After all, how often in life does your own ‘killer’ come for supper?
“So that’s what you get up to when I’m away,” Stephen Silicon shook his head in a confused mixture of disbelief and amazement. “I should hire a nanny.”
“We can take care of ourselves, Dad,” Sarah retorted. “Maybe you should stop leaving, if it bothers you that much…”
“Shush!” Jamie interrupted. “Macgyver’s back on!”
Cheesy 1980’s action resumed. But just as Macgyver was about to save the day with a bent paperclip, RF interference began to distort the screen and ghostly words appeared.
“Congratulations on solving the case, SSS. I’m looking forward to meeting you. It’s been a long trip. I’ll be seeing you very soon. Konichiwa!” Then, they were gone.
“That’s odd. What’s that about? SSS?” Stephen stood up to play with the TV’s rabbit ears.
“Never mind, Dad,” Jamie sang cheerfully, recovering from a momentary sense of dread. “It’s nothing. Right, Sarah? It’s nothing, right?”
“Right,” Sarah said, tentatively, a bit nervously, before taking a breath and renewing her rapidly waning confidence. “Nothing we can’t handle.” It appeared the Sliced Salami Society already had another case.
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