"Overtoasted" Write-up

It’s the 1930s in the United States. The Great Depression and confusing times continue. Through this, one man has perfect vision: Aaron Maglue. Aaron, a professional detective, inhabits a city rife with crime, mysteries abound. On a slow day, however, a woman comes into his office, claiming her appliances are trying to kill her. Seconds later, a phone electrocutes her, and she dies instantly. Aaron and his trusty assistant, Watson James, follow the trail, finding leads and meeting characters. Our amazing detective is understandably skeptical, but the further he goes, everything seems to point to the appliances. Is this it for Aaron? Are these appliances truly behind this crime?
“Overtoasted” is a classic detective short story, with my poor sense of humor added. Aaron meets representations of people from our texts; Raoul is Rene Descartes who wrote Treatise of Man, Julian is Julien Offray de la Mettrie who wrote Machine Man, and Lizzy is Eliza Dolittle from My Fair Lady. Raoul and Julian intrigue Aaron with the idea of intelligent machines and argue for their capabilities in crime, yet ultimately, Aaron must decide whether he can truly blame a machine for the crime.
Raoul, the helpful neighbor of Rachel (the murder victim), appears first, and he presents the idea of the electricity linking the appliances and providing the impetus for the system. This, like Descartes’ animal spirits, both binds the parts of the larger machine together and seems ridiculous today. If the appliances could behave like a human, it would assumingly need a motive as well to murder Rachel, and therefore emotions to have a motive. Descartes states that emotions can rise out of the spirits as a reaction to surroundings and conditions (Descartes 73). People today often attribute emotions to higher functions as a purely human characteristic, such as in Blade Runner. By embedding the emotions in the machine, not the rational soul, Descartes suggests that a non-human machine could also have emotions. Aaron never discovers any motives for the appliances to strike, but in the story, that is not his main challenge. Typically, a detective faces a list of suspects and determines guilt through motive, method, and opportunity. The appliances are unique, however, as he wonders not whether they collectively are the guilty suspect, but whether they are a worthy suspect at all. From the Raoul/Descartes perspective, the appliances lack even consciousness. However, he would argue that an entity does not require consciousness, which is seated in the rational soul, to perform actions—such as murder—like a human (Descartes 96). This creates a moral quandary for Aaron, as it is entirely legal in the United States to accuse a human for his or her actions; accusing a cake mixer is another issue. He moves on to the next person with this issue unresolved, allowing it to grow and soon consume him.
Julian is the next target of Aaron, and he presents himself largely how I conceived La Mettrie: intelligent yet arrogant, talented yet eccentric. He initially appears only to perform an autopsy and explain how Rachel died. Aaron, however, asks for his opinion on the sentience of the appliances. Julian also accepts the idea of the appliances being a suspect, but advances it further. He echoes La Mettrie’s belief that the organization of matter alone creates emergent intelligence (La Mettrie 26). The appliances individually still remain less than aware; together, they could form a single being with similar mental capabilities to humans. Through their grouping and complexity by association—perhaps as tools in Rachel’s culinary experience—“they” would become a collective intelligence. Not only could it feel, it could think, and would therefore be no different than a human in guilt for a murder.
Lizzy is the last person Aaron meets, and is an unusual savior for an intelligent and wholly capable man. She is a victim of the Depression, thrown to the streets and apparently without any formal education. By this point, Aaron’s perspective has sufficiently narrowed that his only suspect is the machine, and he is stuck wondering how to deal with this unexpected criminal. Lizzy, however, speaks from her own experience of deception. As Professor Lowood explained, in My Fair Lady, Eliza manages to deceive the people at the ball because they want to accept her. They see a cultivated, beautiful, impeccable woman and believe that only royalty could behave like her. Zoltan Karpathy is immediately impressed by her, and in his arrogance, never lets his opinion waver. Her presentation affects his pride, and he proclaims her Hungarian. He knows her English is artificially clean, yet twists this fact into his own belief. Similarly, Lizzy relates how she arrogantly assumed she could accurately determine the rich from the poor. In her pride, she never considered that she might be mistaken and effectively deceives herself.
Aaron falls into the same trap as many people who speak with chatterbots. He, perhaps unconsciously, accepts it as a human and treats it as such. Suddenly, a collection of circuits or lines of code turn into a human. The question of guilt for Aaron then surrounds not what it is, but what it is seen to be. Aaron becomes locked in this paradox of dealing with his perception while trying to develop a concrete case to close. Fortunately for our detective, however, Lizzy breaks him out of the ideas of Raoul and Julian and the misdirection of James to solve the case.
Aaron escapes the primary controversy because the true culprit is human, but he ultimately reaches an important conclusion: a machine is as human as one wants it to be. Julian and Raoul make convincing arguments, yet he ultimately rejects both. The appliances would be as guilty, as human, as people would accept, regardless of how they truly, physically manifested themselves.

"Overtoasted" Part 7

“I trusted you,” I said to James. He sat across from me, head hung, sitting in a small room coming to a plea bargain. Lawyers waited outside for us to finish our personal business.

“I thought you were my man, my assistant, my James. You were the one person who I knew could go through an investigation for me, but you were just as bad as any who tried anything. Just as bad as the others behind bars.”

“No, it’s not like that,” he pleaded. “I did it for—“

“No, I know why you did it,” I quickly exclaimed. “Milkman losing business to machines, anxious to frame them. You knew if I went into court and said the appliances did it, it would be fact to everyone. People would toss their fancy refrigerators and go back to the milkman.

“And the perfect opportunity. On the days she wasn’t there, you could do whatever you wanted to her appliances, setting them up to attack her. You blew that toaster, and then set the piece for her to have it fixed at the appliance store across the street from my office. And she went for it; two birds with one stone. Dead in my office.

“And then at every step, you pointed me back to the machines, leading witnesses back to the machines. And you almost got away with it.”

He continued to look down, away from my eyes. I knew he had nothing to say, and I was done. Calling for the lawyers, I stormed out of the room.

I almost wish I hadn’t solved that case. It hurt, I’ll admit, but it was good for me. I don’t trust anymore, but I guess that makes me more fair.

And that’s the story. Greatest challenge I ever faced in my career. Actually that’s not true. Maybe next time.

(Well, that’s it! Please comment; was it worth the read? Did I do a good job making the ending feasible and surprising?
Because I had to do a write-up for this for class, I’ll post that along with my next normal blog post. It’s not particularly interesting, but if you’re curious about how this tied in my “Humans & Machines” class, that’s where I explore the basis for this.
Thanks for reading if you made it this far!)

"Overtoasted" Part 6

Several days later, and things had changed. James was gone, back to work. I had no leads, no human suspects, no idea what would happen next. All I had was the yellow liquid before me, and in my stomach and blood.

“’ey, Aaron, ‘ows it goin’?”

Lizzy stood before me, with her basket of apples as always. I frequented the Turning Tables Bar on busy nights, usually on a trip to dig up information and kick back one or two. Currently, I was sitting on the curb outside the Bar, tossed out for having too much in one afternoon. I had my last drink in hand. I say last because the count didn’t matter. As if I could remember, anyways.

“You’ve star’ed owfully early,” she said. “Maybe you want to talk to ol’ Lizzy ‘bout it?”

“It doesn’t matter. Or something,” I muttered back, imbibing more comfort. “It stopped mattering awhile ago. I’ve already deen befeated…”

“Okay, boy, ease up.” She pulled the mug away from me, succeeding in stretching my body and torso outward until I let go, and my head fell to the knees. I heard it go down the gutter before she spoke again. “Lizzy ‘as nothing to do right now. You’re the only person who thought that a Tuesday afternoon would be ‘appy ‘our. Wha’s your problem?”

I told her everything. Actually, there wasn’t a whole lot to say, but it took me an awful long time to tell it.

“Oh dear,” she said sadly after a long, thoughtful pause. “Whenever the best is bea’en, it’s got to be tough.”

“What do you think?” How far had I fallen? Five o’clock shadow, two days without a shower, and asking a street vendor for help.

“Well, you seem to be dwellin’ on this idea of it bein’ a machine who did the deed. For a man who’s supposed to see all parts of the mystery, you canna stop talking about it.” She smiled at me, then put her hand on mine. “I think I can help you more than you think.

“It’s my job to sell them apples to the folk most able to pay for ‘em. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell. They’re always trying to fool me, pretendin’ to be poor, but I have to see through that. It’s just a trick.

“It used to be easy. I thought I could tell; I would look at ‘im, and I would know ‘e ‘ad the money, and I would pester ‘im. I then realized though that the trickery was on my end too. If I thought ‘e was rich and was foolin’, I assumed ‘e was lying to me.” She paused, as though he were coming to his great conclusion. That was good enough to get me to sit up.

“But then I got complaints that I was nuisance, guiltin’ men who only had the dime they gave to me. I treated ‘em like they were something else, and never bothered to see past that.” At that moment, a man turned the corner into view. Lizzy’s eyes glanced over, then back to me. She patted my hand, smiled, then went running down the street after the man.

"Overtoasted" Part 5

“No doubt about it, it was the shock that killed her,” he cackled.

Julian was a good friend of mine—and by good friend, I mean I thought he was positively loony. He once told me that it had been his dream since elementary school to be a mortician. But it’s a good fit. He’s very good, and there are always people around him to talk to, and they never interrupt him.

“Look along here,” he said, pointing to a scorch mark. “Any decent physician could tell that the current went through her left shoe and left hand. It hits her heart and BANG (accompanied with a pounding fist), she’s dead.”

“Well, that doesn’t make any sense; at least, half of it. She died when she picked up the phone, and she did that with her right hand.” I’m usually a step ahead of others, but Julian could be one ahead of me. Smart man, and coupled with a knowledge of biology that I lacked, he could even beat me.

He scoffed at this comment. “Well, who am I, as a physician, to be mistaken about where the current went and how she died?” I hated it became indignant. “What did she have in her left hand, then?”

Right hand, phone. Left hand, purse. Purse, toaster part.

I shuffled in my pocket and pulled it out. Julian laughed triumphantly.

“It’s simple, then. The toaster part was triggered by the frequency of the dial tone. It had a latent current, and it looked for a way out. Currents naturally seek grounding, which was quickest through her left foot, and straight through her heart.” He clapped in glee. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen someone so happy about the way someone else died. He suddenly stopped, and gazed at me. I knew I had it coming. “But of cooourse… I’m just a physician. What would I know?” He roughly pulled the sheet back over her body and began to roll the cart away. I knew I would regret what would happen next. I knew I would never hear the end of it.

“Wait!” I called out. “I need your help on this case!” I heard James mutter a prayer under his breath.

Julian stopped, and I bet he smiled, too. Without turning around, he began, “Why, I’m only a physician. I’m no detective. That is clearly out of my knowledge to help you with the case.” Even so, he didn’t move, and waited for me to catch up to him.

I quickly briefed him on everything I had learned so far.

“What do you think?” James interjected as soon as I finished. “About the machines taking over, that is, about them being alive?”

“Why, it’s perfectly plausible,” he enthusiastically responded. “I think your friend may have even understated it. I believe that they could be fully sentient, not just some poor actors.” He looked as though he were thinking about it, rubbing his bald spot. Well, actually it was less of a spot and more of an all-over thing. Kind of lightbulb-like, actually, with the shine and smoothness.

“But of course, I wouldn’t expect you to understand, without the training of a physician.”

“Oh no, please,” James begged. He seemed awfully ready to listen to Julian. For the best. I could get whole story without degrading myself. “Please make us understand.”

“Well, I’ll only say it once,” he said over a chuckle. “See, if you were to look at the human body, it’s all machinery, of a sort. Your muscles? Opposing levers. Your heart? A pump. Your brain and soul? Just the same. No reason to believe otherwise.

“Now think about it the other way. If the human body is complex machinery, complex machinery could basically be human. A union of appliances? It’s possible. Each one is a part of the giant intelligence that suddenly springs from all of them. Now isn’t that an entertaining thought?” He smiled smugly to himself again, then turned and pushed the cart. “Now, I’ve wasted enough of my time and intelligence on you. Good luck, of course.”

“Wait!” I called out. Julian had a way of leaving me wanting more. I guess that’s how he keeps his business. “If it could be sentient, could I really convict it?”

And he was good at it. He just kept pushing his cart, whistling, reveling in my desperation.

"Overtoasted" Part 4

He brought a plate of pastries into the room where we sat, and I eagerly helped myself to one while he began his discourse.

“My name ees Raoul, and I knew Rachel very well. I should have known zees would happen.

“Rachel came to me several deys ago, telling me hair toaster was trying to keel hair. I zought zee same zing you probably did, and told hair to calm down, but she was very eensistent.

“She was sitting just where yoo are now, telling me about everyzing zat had happened to hair, and I just kept reassuring hair zat eet would be okay. Pairhaps I shood have paid more attaintion.”

He paused, and I immediately jumped in. I didn’t have time to waste.

“So did you ever notice anything suspicious going on? As of right now, the only suspect that I have is, well, the appliances, and you would have to be crazy to think those would be capable of actually attacking her.”

“Actually, now zat you mention eet, eet ees very possible.” Geez, is it too much to ask for a witness who isn’t off the deep end? “See, togezer, zee machines could act like a human.”

“That’s outrageous!” I wasn’t willing to listen to this. “A machine can’t think. I’ve seen the insides of a blender, and there is nothing there that could possibly bring about the spark of life.” I began to stand, but James motioned for me to stay. He always was my calmer side, so I gave Raoul another chance.

“I never said zey would zink. I said zey would act like a human. Clearly, zey would need a soul to be alive, but as zey are, zey could behave in a life-like manner. Maybe zee electricity gives zem life. Appliances could become a system capable of something like zought.”

“That makes sense!” James cried out. I knew where he was going, though I still thought it was hokey. “The toaster was blown by a surge, and if the electricity is the ‘life’ of the machine, it could easily do that.” He looked awfully proud of that, and Raoul nodded in approval.

“Elementary, my deal James. But alright. I’ll bite.” I concede that if nothing else, I was curious where he was coming from. “Tell me how appliances could plot to kill someone.”

Raoul stared at me some before he answered. “Well, eet’s somewhat more complicated zen zat. Everyzing depends on zee electricity. Zat might inspire zee machines, like zee blood in your veins. Zey may only be programmed to do sertain zings, but together, it becomes one. And that one may be big enough to zink and feel.”

“You know, he has a point,” James said. “Maybe there are spirits or such in the electricity that could bring them together. It’s awfully scary to think of what they might do if they could join like that.”

“What do you want?” I was incredulous. James was supposed to be steady. “Do you expect me testify against a can opener?”

“Of course not.” Raoul seemed very tolerant of my skepticism. “Not a can openair. All of eet. Together.”

“Well,” I said, rising from my chair. “You’ve been more than kind, and I value your input in this case. I’m assuming if I need any more help, I can find you? Good. I will trouble you no more, then.”

He led us back to the doorway, and we left, with me perhaps more puzzled than before I had arrived. I expected answers, a narrowing of possibilities, but Raoul had planted the idea of living machines of sorts. Unbelievable.

“James, I think it would be fair to put Raoul on the suspect list. He’s awfully close to her, and that was quite some excuse he was spinning. Now, I believe our ‘favorite’ physician has a dead body waiting for us.”

"Overtoasted" Part 3

“Aaron, you didn’t tell me it was Rachel!” James exclaimed as he stopped the truck. “She was always such a dear. I delivered her milk every other day. On the days she was here to receive it, she always had a smile for me.” He hung his head in despair as we walked up to her door. I pulled out the key I had poached from her purse and inserted it into the lock.

I cracked open her door, where only the light of the setting sun lit the entry hallway. With nary a sound of protest, I proceeded to swing the door open and step in.

“I’m assuming you’ll want to look at her appliances,” James hurriedly said. He pointed to the right and began walking. “Her kitchen is this way.”

I silently followed him into her kitchen, and after lifting a set of blinds, I had a clear look at everything.

Nothing out of the ordinary at first glance. Those are the situations where you know there’s trouble about. She had, from where I stood, an upside-down U-shaped counter, with the oven and stove to the right, sink in front of me, and toaster, blender, and other appliances to my left.

“Let’s unplug these devices while we still can. Don’t know when they’ll start acting up and try to kill us, too.” James reached for the blender plug, but I lunged to stop him.
“Be still. Everything here is still evidence. Touch only with your eyes, my friend, and we might see something helpful.” He nodded to me, and began to walk around. I saw the plug for her toaster, blown, just as she had said. I looked closely and waved James over. “Perhaps you know more about machines than I do? She mentioned that the plug for her toaster had blown. Does this look tampered with?”

He walked over, kneeled down to look at it at eye-level, and squinted. After several seconds, he said, “Plugs sometimes blow when the insulation has been worn away sufficiently, and that might be something someone might have done. It’s hard to say since any evidence is now obviously destroyed, but I would guess not. The pattern suggests that it was just a surge.”

“I see,” I responded, rubbing my chin. I took another gaze around the room. “I doubt we’ll find more here right now. Let’s see what the Joneses have to say.”

“May I help yoo?” A somewhat dated man stood in the doorway before us. Long, curly brown hair, cultivated moustache, eyes like a pairing knife through Kleenex.

“Hello, my name is Aaron Maglue, and this is my associate, Watson James.” I politely extended my hand, though only my confidence was shaken as his glare intensified. “Ah yes, well. I regret to inform you that Ms. Reshirt died earlier today. She was electrocuted by a phone after claiming that her appliances were trying to kill her. Very unfortunate, and I’m looking to get to the bottom of this. Noticed any creepy fellows, strange sounds, vicious-looking furniture?”

His blank stare continued, and I could tell he was thinking whether I was worth his time.

“Yoo bettair come een.”

"Overtoasted" Part 2

A secretary dashed into the doorway, took one look at the body, and screamed.

“Yes,” I responded, feeling around for a non-existent pulse. “The burning smell is going to linger for days.” The secretary continued to look in horror. “Well don’t just stand there.” I gestured down the hall. “Go find some help. And an air freshener.”
I played the situation over and over in my head. I never even found out what her name was. Lifting her veil, she was beautiful. What a waste. But there was a job to do. I opened her purse to check for money to pay for the clean up. And identification, of course.

Rachel Reshirt. Her name was Rachel Reshirt. I scribbled down her name and address, then shuffled through the rest of her belongings. Nothing unusual, unless you consider a toaster piece unusual.

“Dear Ms. Secretary,” I called out. “Get this body over to Julian. I need a full autopsy as soon as possible.” I could have done it myself, of course, but I had bigger things to deal with.

Watson James was a milkman by day, assistant private-eye by request. He was a good match for me. I was tall, he was short. I had brown hair, he had black hair. I had the eyes of a raptor, he had the eyes of a bat. I played basketball, he played baseball. I was thin, I went to sleep early, I was intelligent, you get the idea.

“You’re ahead of schedule,” I said as I walked up behind him on his route. He paused, then shook his head.

“People just don’t need milkmen anymore. Those refrigerators are driving me out of business. Imagine that.” A heavy sigh, and he got back into his truck, with me riding shotgun. “I’m guessing you need my help on another assignment? I’d die for one. Please tell me this is a good one.”

“Of course it’s a good one. I wouldn’t need you for any other. I had a woman come into my office today, claiming her appliances were trying to kill her. I thought she was crazy, but when she picked up my phone, it electrocuted her. She died instantly.” I looked over at him and laughed. “Why, you look just as shocked as she was!”

His eyes widened even more. “A woman died in your office and all you can do is joke?” I dignified his anger with only a smile. “At least you have the heart to follow through with this. I guess you won’t chalk this up to a bloody coincidence, will you. Of course she was murdered,” he said with disgust. “Of course her toaster tried to kill her.”

“Funny you should say that, James, as I found this toaster part in her purse. In the meantime, I expect you to call in your replacement to finish your route while we check her house for the root of this mystery.”

"Overtoasted" Part 1

It was a slow day. Like most days. Slow and sweaty. I had read the news many times. “Roosevelt’s Health Deteriorates.” “Hitler increases pressure on Neighbors.” “Vodka-powered Russian Army to Defend.” Nothing new. I looked out my window at the stores. Matt’s Laundromat. Kent’s Electronics. The Finer Diner. Same view as for the last fifteen years.

I followed the path of my shoelaces again, feet propped up on my desk before me. They say patience is a virtue. I bet they were detectives, too.

I heard a rap at the door. “Come in,” I shouted as I hastily put my feet down, picking up the papers on my desk. I could tell from the silhouette that this was going to be a good assignment. The door squeaked open. She was beautiful. She had a veil over her face, but with a body like that, I couldn’t imagine being disappointed.

“Are you Aaron Maglue?”

I gave a good snort and responded, “That’s what it says on the door, isn’t it?” As interested as I was, I tried not to let it on. She came to me, and every step I take in her direction is a dollar out of my pay.

“I desperately need your help. I heard you’re the best.” It’s the truth. My word in the courthouse is as good as a personal confession, a photograph, or even the whole city as witnesses. I dare say even God would have more difficulty presenting evidence than I have.

“What possible problem could you have that would interest me? I’m a very busy man.” I put my grocery list down and looked at her straight through her veil. “I only take the best of cases. My time is diamond-encrusted gold.”

“Well, this is actually a little odd. Might I sit?” I waved my hand indifferently, and picked up a cookie left-over from lunch as she dragged the wooden chair under her body. “Everyone laughs at me when I say this, but you have to believe me. I think my life depends on it.” She paused. I knew this would be a good assignment. “I think my appliances are trying to kill me.”

I choked on the cookie. You can’t get a batch of chocolate chip cookies anymore without finding any nuts in it.

“Dear, we all think our appliances are killing us. Just the other day, my toaster sprung my toast straight into my face. It’s a tragedy, to be sure, but one that we must all live with.”

She slid forward in her seat and leaned in, and I could almost imagine the panic spread across her pretty face.

“No, it’s worse than that. I feel like they’re watching me, planning in the night. Just the other day, the plug for my toaster blew, sending sparks into my cooking oil. I don’t know what I would’ve done if it had caught fire.”

She looked like she was in need of comforting. I stood up, walked around my desk and put my hand on her shoulder.

“Look, we all worry about those devilish devices, but it’s crazy to think that they’re alive and plotting against you. Now, why don’t you just pick up the phone, call a cab, and go out to a nice restaurant. Food always helps to calm the nerves.

“She looked up at me through her veil, nodded, and reached for the phone. I patted her, then walked back around the desk.

She didn’t hear a ringtone. I didn’t hear a ringtone. I did hear a current run through her entire body. And her scream. I smelled something burning. I could taste it, too. I saw her body go limp.

This was bad news.

"Overtoasted" Part 1

So I realize I haven’t stuck much to my weekly plan for updating my blog. I could write a real post, but I think I’m going to punt until after finals finish in 2 days.

For my “Humans & Machines” final, I had to create some creative product and do a write-up on how it relates to class themes. For mine, I wrote a detective story, in the same style as the one I wrote before (and would like to forget). I’m decently proud about it, because unlike any blog writing, I determined the ending and plot ahead of time, so it actually makes sense and goes somewhere.

And so it will appear on the internet for all of you to read as well. I’ll be posting it to my dead story blog and linking it to here. For all future parts of it, that’ll happen as well at the end of a normal blog entry here, so don’t bother checking the other blog for updates unless you see it here first.

And so I bring you, “Overtoasted”, beginning here.

(Comments always appreciated!)