Gilton looked up briefly as McKinney entered the apartment. "'Lo, Tim."
"'Lo, Marv. It's an oven out there." He stopped short as he entered the living room. "What the hell happened to this guy?"
The guy in question was sitting in a comfy-looking armchair, next to an end table with phone on it. The phone was off the hook, sitting on the floor telling everyone in earshot that it had been left off the hook for some time. The guy himself was quite obviously dead, but had gone through great pain to get there. His eyes and mouth were wide open, and his limbs stiffly outstretched. There was no blood, but he looked bruised all over.
"The coroners are supposed to be here soon to take a look at him, and once the crime scene people take all their pictures, maybe we'll find out. Looks to me like he died of fright, but what the hell do I know."
"Any sign of an intruder?"
"Door was locked when we came, no sign of forced entry, no sign of entry at all. All we know for sure was that the guy was on the phone."
Gilton shrugged. "The phone company isn't sure. Some kinda glitch, or maybe he didn't finish dialing. He's got one of those fancy phones, though. Take a look."
McKinney gingerly leaned past the corpse's left arm and examined the phone. Buttons galore, some of them labeled, some with handwritten names. And a display that looked like it could fit four lines of text, easy. There was a sequence of digits there. "Anybody written down this number?"
"Which number? Oh, that one. Yeah, I got it somewhere. The phone company are checking that one too. Say it doesn't come up on their records, but they'll take a look."
"So we got one stiff, no cause of death, no killer, no reason. Any sign it was a burglary?"
Gilton shook his head. "This guy's got all sort of high-tech electronics, and none of it was taken. Or the money in the box in the fridge, or the credit cards in his wallet."
"We got a name?"
"Oh, yeah, they didn't tell you? Let's see, where is it...Ken Middleton. A couple of speeding tickets on his record, and that's it."
The next day the coroner called. "Very interesting case, this Ken Middleton. Haven't seen anything like it. Severe tissue damage, to nearly every cell. Every single one I looked at, anyway. Skin, blood, kidney, bone, brain..."
"Uh-huh. So what did it to him?" McKinney asked.
There was a long silence at the other end of the line. "I couldn't say, really. The only thing I could even think of would be severe cold. Freezing the water in all the cells could cause this kind of rupture."
"Cold? Were you outside at all yesterday? It was an oven. This guy's apartment had air-conditioning, but it wasn't Antarctica in there by any means. You got anything else?"
"I'll check the literature. Maybe some kind of drug, or poison, could have that effect. But that's definitely how he died. The brain damage, mostly, but all the other systems failed at the same time."
"Great, doc. You let us know if we should be on the lookout for anything besides a killer deep-freeze." He hung up. "Hey, Marv, you got anything on that phone number yet?"
"Not yet," Gilton said, not looking up from the forms he was laboriously filling out on his computer screen. "Cut down on paperwork, my ass," he muttered. "Call Ray yourself if you're curious."
What Ray hadn't turned up was more interesting than what he had. "Nobody had that number. It was a valid local number, even before the area code split, but nobody has it now, and nobody has had it for at least twenty years."
"Get out of here. This some phone company exec's private phone sex line or something?"
"Yeah, but check this out. I thought this guy might have been zonked on something, the way he died, so he might have been trying to call some other area code. And you know what? Nobody had that number in any code. Anywhere in North America."
McKinney had no idea how to respond to that. Finally he said, "So this guy dialed a wrong number. Check to see if that's a near-miss to anyone in his little black book or anything."
"Oh, yeah, did that. One of his buddies, works at the same company."
The buddy did not know anything about Ken Middleton being involved in any kind of drugs, or even taking them. Not conclusive, but it turned up the same everywhere. Ken had been a bit of a computer geek, and spent too much money on his electronic toys, but he didn't do anything like that. They hadn't found anything harder than beer and aspirin in his apartment anyway.
Eventually they had to close the case and write it off. But something about that phone number still bothered McKinney. One day he went down to the phone company archives and looked through some of their old reverse-phone-book listings, sorted by phone number. And the number never turned up, and never turned up...until he got back to 1965. And then it was there as far back as he checked.
So what the hell happened in 1965? He copied the name from the last listing, a Mark Ames, and the address for good measure.
Mark Ames turned up in the police file. He had died under mysterious circumstances in 1965, but his wife Shelly had had a solid alibi and was cleared of any charges. The coroner had been mystified by the cause of death, and his best guess had been "died of fright".
He had been working late at his office, and when he died had apparently been phoning his wife. On a new touch-tone phone, someone had thought to note.
The phone company had investigated the phone, and claimed nothing wrong, but it ended up disappearing before anyone else could take a look at it.
The next day McKinney called an old friend of his, George Tanner, just retired after forty years with the phone company. They met for drinks that night, neither of them having anyone at home anymore to complain if they stayed out late. After a couple of beers, McKinney broached the subject. "You ever hear about some guy named Mark Ames? Died in '65?"
Tanner peered narrowly at his friend. "Ain't that kind of thing your job?"
"I heard the phone company was involved," McKinney said neutrally. "Some phone might have been evidence in the case, but it disappeared. Oh, and some phone number got retired. Nobody's gotten it since then."
"Oh, geez, that." Tanner looked around. "I guess I can tell you. I don't think anybody who's involved with that is around anymore.
"I remember some guys in the computer department coming out with some fancy program to assign new phone numbers. They did a presentation, and the VP in charge just nodded and smiled. And at the end he had one question: Could you mark some number so that nobody ever got it? They
looked baffled, but eventually said they could make it do that. So he said, do it, and they did it. At the time I thought it was just they wanted to be able to reserve phone numbers, maybe ones that spelled out rude words or something.
"Then I heard one of the guys in that VP's department talk about this Ames story, and how they'd done a few tests after that. He said he'd seen one of these tests. They had this soundproof booth, and they had just the speaker for a touch-tone phone in there. They pressed a
button, and the whole thing just melted and warped. He said he'd seen something in the room, but just for a split-second."
Tanner drank a long gulp from his beer bottle and motioned the waitress for another one. "Weird stuff, huh?"
McKinney sat in his empty apartment staring at the phone for long hours that evening. Then, slowly, he picked it up and dialed a number.