Saturday, April 02, 2005

Chapter 5

“That theory only makes sense if you are correct that Brad is the overlord,” Schwartz said. It was just before dinner and just after a lot of begging on my part to get him to view the tape. I had given him the whole spiel about the theater incident and my supposed overreaction. He hadn’t bought it, but he had agreed to accommodate me when Devaki had said that he was curious to hear my theory. We were now watching the muted television as the previews from the next episode played, and I explained my theory about Brad.

“Yes,” I said in explanation to Schwartz’s comment, “and this bears that out.”

“Unfortunately, my dear,” Devaki said, “I don’t think it does. Brad can’t be the overlord because he...”

“It doesn’t matter,” Schwartz said. “The only relevant point is whether or not this was a murder. I am prepared to proceed on the premise that it was.”

“You are?” I asked. “Based on what?”

“Based on something on that video tape we just viewed.”


I suppose I was uncharacteristically quiet at dinner that night. Of course I enjoyed the prime rib and the broiled sweet potatoes, but I was preoccupied with mentally rerunning the egg-hunt game in my mind trying to determine what Schwartz had seen that convinced him that it was a murder. I could tell that he hadn’t exactly adopted my Brad-is-the-overlord-and-the-killer theory, but something he had seen had made him decide that it had indeed been murder-most-foul. It was during one of my reveries that Rabbi Devaki had asked if I agreed with his position on an issue that I’m sure I would have found fascinating had I been paying actual attention.

“I’m sorry?” I said.

“Hell,” Devaki said, “Do you believe in it?”

I paused a moment to consider how best to answer. “I think there should be such a place if there isn’t one,” I said. “All evil actions deserve their consequences. Unfortunately, all too often, they go unpunished in this life.”

“A fascinating opinion,” Devaki said. “But do you believe it exists?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Your opinion on the need for Hell,” Schwartz said, “is the consequence of a Christian upbringing. Buddhists and Hindus, who choose to believe in reincarnation, have no need for Hell to punish evil. Karma and karmic justice take up that function.”

“But the point is that there is no need for Hell in Judaism either,” Devaki said, “and we have no karmic consequences in our doctrine. So if Jews and atheists can agree that there is no need for hell, why must Christians and other religions rely on the threat of punishment to assure good from their people?”

“It’s the nature of people to require incentives,” I said. “It’s why communism failed and capitalism works.”

“No,” Beverly said shaking her head and smiling knowingly. “Communism failed because it was corrupted with the wrong kinds of incentives.”

“Beverly is probably right about that,” Devaki said. “Growing up with Lupa in the Balkans, we both saw first hand the disparity in the Marxist promise and the reality of Stalin’s legacy. But the bigger point is that true morality isn’t based on a what’s-in-it-for-me attitude. If the only reason that you can act morally is that you fear retribution, then your behavior isn’t actually moral at all.”

“Agreed,” Schwartz said. “Absent the threat of damnation or a return to life as a lesser beast, one’s behavior is free of intimidation, and a true morality is free to emerge. This is why I think that even though I may do things that another would consider immoral, such as carnally experiencing numerous women, since that is not immoral in my personal code and since I neither believe in gods, devils or reincarnation, my behavior is actually more virtuous than an adulterer who believes in damnation and asks God’s forgiveness for a self-perceived sin they intend to commit again. And in fact, I will go further. I believe that my so-called philandering is more moral than one who restrains himself from philandering only because he fears damnation.”

“I don’t understand,” Beverly said. “If someone thinks extra-marital sex is a sin in the eyes of God, and if he resists the temptation, isn’t that laudable enough?”

Schwartz was shaking his head. Devaki stepped in. “It’s laudable, yes,” Devaki said, “if he understands that it’s wrong, and if he avoids it because it’s wrong. However,” Devaki raised a finger, “if the only thing keeping him from doing the wrong thing is the belief that he will be punished, then he is willing to do wrong if he can get away with it.”

“But,” Beverly added facing Schwartz, “isn’t your excuse that you don’t consider your promiscuousness to be wrong just a rationalization?”

“It would be a rationalization only if somewhere in my mind I considered it sinful, or if I actually thought that it was doing somebody harm. Most murderers,” Schwartz said, “believe that there is a God and that they will be punished. Still they feel a compulsion to kill, and they do it despite the threat of punishment. They often rationalize their action to allow them to believe that God will excuse them their transgression. When they can’t, the guilt over their sin causes them to make mistakes exposing their crime. In my opinion, this is because they want their punishment sooner rather than later.”

“How did all of this come up anyway?” I asked realizing that the conversation seemed totally irrelevant and disjointed.

All eyes on me, the room went suddenly quiet. “You brought it up, dear,” Beverly said. “Don’t you remember? You asked how Lupa was going to expose the murder. Were you not paying attention to the answer?”

Embarrassed, I had to admit that I had not. “I don’t even remember asking the question. I must have been thinking out loud.”


So now I was back in the den watching the video tape all over again looking for signs of sociopathology or manifestations of guilt. There was Seth correctly guessing the scales, Martin clarifying the rules, Charles taking his guess, and on it went. None of it seemed to indicate a murder to me. There was the discussion of the poison ivy. There was the scene of Trish in the confessional which had been edited into the program after the fact. She certainly seemed contrite, but she hadn’t been around to poison Myron when the time came. And so on until Peter found the stopper ending the game, and still I had seen nothing that I would consider a clue to anyone’s personal demons.

As the video for the game ran out and the previews began, I muted the screen and tried to remember the conversational blips I had picked up from the table talk as my mind had wandered. Internally, I cursed my obsession with figuring out Schwartz’s M.O. since it had caused me to miss the conversation as it had happened before me, and I cursed it even as I was indulging that obsession now.

I vaguely remembered muttering under my breath (or at least I thought I was muttering) that I wondered how Schwartz was so certain that it was murder. I had an indistinct recollection of something Schwartz had said about tells. Schwartz believed that everyone had subconscious ticks that could expose them when they were feeling guilty or anxious about something. Schwartz had a tell of his own. He excitedly pulled his lip when he was figuring something out. I don’t remember seeing him pull at his lip when we watched the video tape. Whatever had clued him to the murder had been blatantly obvious and mundane to his eye. This mystery was an overly easy puzzle to him. He was probably already bored with it; but the $100,000 prize and the notoriety had an irresistible appeal to him.

The conversation had then drifted to the reasons for tells and the fear of being caught, exposed and punished. That was when Beverly had brought up the idea of damnation, and that had inspired the rabbi to ask me my theory of Hell.

None of which gave me any clue as to why Schwartz had determined that Myron had been murdered.


“Miss Hoskin, may I join you?” Rabbi Devaki asked. I shrugged as the door slid wider and the graying and distinguished looking member of Schwartz’s cabal entered the den. “Earlier I was about to explain why Brad can’t be the overlord when Lupa interrupted. I was wondering if you might be interested in hearing my reasoning?”

“Sure,” I said, “but frankly, I’d be more interested in knowing why a Jewish cleric knows so much about a network reality program? Especially one who is also a member of Schwartz’s deep-thinkers group.”

Devaki broke a wide grin accentuating the dimple on his right cheek. “I’ve known Lupa since we were both small boys. He’s the deep thinker. And yet, his favorite pastime is to watch Abbot and Costello movies while drinking dark beers.”

“I thought his cars were his favorite pastime,” I said coyly.

“That’s his avocation,” Rabbi Ulric said, his Baltic accent coloring the phrase. “Mine is collecting national flags both current and obscure. My father got me into it through his collection of Atlases and cartographs.”

“Maps,” I corrected.

“Sorry?” Devaki said.

“The science is cartography, but they are called maps.”

“Thank you,” Ulric said. “I see life with Lupa is rubbing off on you.” I knew that I had just been subtly insulted for having corrected his use of vocabulary, but the charming smile on his lips made it okay. “Do you care to hear my theory about the overlord now?”

This was one of the strangest encounters of my young life. This man was at least a decade-and-a-half my senior, and he was a rabbi in the Jewish faith, but here he was blatantly flirting with me, a shiksa from Ohio, by offering up water-cooler talk about a prime-time TV game.

“Sure,” I said. “Tell me why my theory is all wet.”

Ulric sat on the edge of the easy chair and leaned forward. “If you will remember back in week two,” he said, “Brad correctly named all of the previous overlords in the memory contest, and that action won the entire pot for the players’ kitty leaving nothing added to the overlord’s total.”

“But the overlords always throw a game here and there to shift suspicion,” I interjected.

“Yes, they do,” Ulric acknowledged, “and sometimes the actual players will sabotage a game to attract suspicion to themselves, but it’s a fine art. If you are too obvious in either performance it actually can have the opposite effect. Which is how I know that Brad’s performance in the memory game was genuine. Afterward, he was kicking himself for not taking advantage of the opportunity to shift some suspicion onto himself; but he’s a natural competitor who couldn’t pass the opportunity to win the game.”

“You mean because he said that in the confessional? How do you know that wasn’t part of the script? If he is the overlord, anything he says in the confessional is just staged for the benefit of the home audience.”

“That’s true,” Devaki agreed, “but he just isn’t that good an actor. Remember when he had to keep quiet about the plot to convince Trish that Myron was the overlord because he and Gwen had overheard him talking with the producers in the confessional, and he couldn’t pull it off?” He was referencing an episode from a few weeks back. This guy really knew his Overlord minutia.

“Maybe that bad acting was the best acting he’s ever done,” I said. “The fact is that on this show, you can never know what’s real. Even though the program is on the Internet twenty-four/seven, they still manage to give us only what they want us to see in the editing. That’s what makes it so great. But the contestants themselves have different insight. Each of them knows whether or not they are the overlord, and each of them knows how they vote on the test and can guess how the ejected players voted. That gives them an advantage over us. And that advantage extends to the murder investigation as well. In all likelihood, they know who the killer is. They have the benefit of having been there with the killer. They have a different and better perspective. We home viewers only know what we saw on TV. But if they expose the killer, it will end the game, so they won’t tell. But Schwartz saw something on that video-tape that told him who the killer is.”

I stopped talking. I’d had a revelation. “Something he saw on the video told him who the killer is,” I repeated. “He saw something that let him know that it wasn’t an accident. Something that told him that Myron had been intentionally poisoned and that someone involved in the show had been responsible even though this was all taped before the murder. But the only contestant who could have known in advance is the killer. Somebody’s bad acting was their tell.”

Ulric had a curious expression on his face. “What are you saying?” he asked.

“Sorry to have to bring this all to an end,” I said referring to our flirtation. “I have to try to figure this out. Will you excuse me?”

Continue to Chapter 6