It was a very cold, clear morning, though clouds against the distant mountain range threatened to bring snow by afternoon. I hoped to get back to my hotel before that weather reached here. On a bench off the trail, overlooking a peaceful valley, Inspector O was reading. He laughed out loud occasionally, drank from a thermos beside him, and then went back to reading.
“What ho, Inspector!” I put on my best game face. There was something about the setting and the thin air that made me wary.
As he turned toward me, he slipped the book under his coat. “You brought what I asked?”
“I hike all the up this mountain lugging these bags of felt pens, and I don’t even get a hello?”
I saw him move the book from under his coat into what looked like a heavy bag. “Reading something humorous?” This drew a frown. “That bag looks lead-lined,” I said to be funny, and then realized that’s exactly what it was. There may even have been an asbestos covering.
“Sometimes you’re too precise for your own good, Church. What makes you think I was reading. And if I was, what makes you think I found it funny?”
A warning flag went up in my brain. “No, nothing. I saw nothing. I heard nothing.”
O motioned for me to sit on the bench. “This is a fine view,” he said and moved his arm expansively over the scene. “Of course, if one lost one’s footing, one could fall a thousand feet, and no one would know.”
I leaned to look over the edge. He was right. “Do I ask the obvious question?” There was no sense waiting for him to circle around before getting to the point.
“Question? We are watching a glorious dawn. What need of questions? And what question would that be?”
“Why am I here, Inspector? Does it have something to do with that book you are hiding?”
Inspector O pursed his lips, a signal he was ahead of me in the game. “If I were reading a book, what makes you think it has anything to do with why I asked you here?”
“A hunch, Inspector, just a hunch.”
“All right, no sense in beating up the bush.”
“First, let me ask you a question. Do I look like the most dangerous man in the world?”
Even in the thin air, I could sense a freight train coming toward me. “No, why?”
“Take a closer look. Is my posture not flawlessly erect?” He looked out in the distance. “Is my chin not up, my gaze not still, and now…” he gave the approximation of a tight smile, “…is it not purposeful?”
“What is this about, Inspector?”
“According to some,” he raised an eyebrow, “these are the hallmarks of a most dangerous person.” He shrugged. “Either that or the Mona Lisa.” At that, he pulled the book from the bag. “Ever read this?”
I must have goggled as I caught my breath. “Er, yes, I looked at it.”
“I have an open mind, Inspector; I read widely.”
“So, you didn’t like it.” He paused. “Tell me the truth, Church, is this the first book written by AI?”
“What makes you think so?”
“It’s hilarious. I’ve never seen anything with so many mistakes, historical and otherwise. Shallow understanding of events. Total ignorance of diplomacy. Everyone is entitled to their view, isn’t that what you people say? But this is unbelievable. To be honest, I never imagined a book published by your much-vaunted publishing industry to so resemble a combination of Hedda Whopper…”
“…Walter Winchell, the Hollywood Reporter and the National Enquirer.”
“You’ve read the National Enquirer?”
“Religiously, in a manner of speaking. This book must have been written by the same people.
So much gossip and titillating tidbits that have nothing to do with what the book is, at least what the cover says,” he tapped the cover, “supposed to be about. I suppose all the people who wrote burps…”
“…didn’t actually read it?”
“I couldn’t say.”
“Well, if I’d been asked, I would have said it was in large part a dog’s breakfast that has been forced through a second meat grinder after seasoning with poison. What does snarky mean?”
“It means,” I thought carefully to avoid falling into the trap I sensed I was being led to, “sarcastic, though it is usually more of a putdown.”
“Yes, well, for a book that says someone else is snarky, it is pretty snarky. Pot calling the kettle.”
“Are you really being allowed to read that?” I figured I might as well ask.
“Actually, I was instructed to read it and then find out what you thought.”
“Me? What difference would that make?”
He pointed toward the sky and lowered his voice. “Curious, I guess.” He opened a notebook he took from his jacket. “Let me go through the list.”
“Just answer the questions, would you? I give you a word, you respond. Simple, no? Would you say it is incisive?”
I hesitated. “No, not actually.”
“Not the word I would use.”
“Let’s just say I wasn’t surprised.”
“You are a coward, Church. It’s a free country, you can say what you like, or am I wrong?”
I smiled at that. “Sometimes it’s better to let well enough alone.”
O shook his head and began to pack up. The book went back into the bag, the notebook into his pocket, and the thermos under his arm. “I’m off, got to catch a train. Not an armored one,” he grinned. “But I’m looking forward to it.” He patted my shoulder as he walked away. “I hear it will be 15 cars and 15 restless riders, three conductors, 25 sacks of mail.”
“That’s just a song,” I said. I turned, but he was already out of sight.