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The Black Swan Killer Sample



A woman stood on the edge of a roof, ready to jump, and I stood beside her.

“My husband hired you?” she asked. Her name was Eileen. She was in her forties with ash-blond hair and tear streaks running down her face.

“He did,” I said. “He was worried you might try to hurt yourself. Given where we’re standing, I’m thinking maybe he had a point.”

“And you’re what, some kind of counsellor?”

Bright morning sun glinted off the steel and glass structures around us, and the wind whipped Eileen’s hair past her face. I reminded myself that looking down would probably be a bad idea. Then I did it anyway, and confirmed that it was, in fact, a bad idea.

“No, not a counsellor,” I said. “I’d be very happy to tell you all about my credentials, but do you mind if we step back a bit first? It’s awfully windy up here.”

“So you can tackle me? Pack me off to the crazy house? I’m not an idiot.”

“I’m not really the tackling sort,” I said. “And I don’t have any plans to pack you off anywhere. I’d just like to have a conversation. If you decide you still want to jump after that, I’m not going to stop you.”

“We can talk just fine from here.”

We were high up enough that the gathered crowd looked like little more than ants, and I really didn’t relish the idea of having a chat anywhere where one slip could lead to a long fall followed by a sudden stop. But I wasn’t there to convince her to have conversations further away from sheer drops; I was there to convince her not to jump off of them. So, I focused my eyes on her and my mind on the conversation, ignoring how high up we were.

“Okay,” I said after a moment. “Are you aware that if you jump off the roof, you’ll die?”

“Yes! I’m not delusional!”

“Sorry, had to check. So, why do you want to kill yourself?”

“I’m not depressed either. Nothing like that.”

“I never said you were. I just want to know what’s got you wanting to step off this roof.”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me. I’m pretty clever.”

“Look,” she said. “No offense, I’m sure you’re a great negotiator or whatever, but I just don’t think this problem is in your area of expertise.”

“Well,” I said with a smile. “It’s not like you’ve got much to lose. If I bollocks up the conversation too much, you’ve got a pretty effective way out.”

Eileen choked out a laugh at that. “Hard to argue with that. Okay, where do I begin? Do you know what determinism is?”

“The position that the universe, or at least the universe on a scale large enough to concern us, is governed by deterministic forces that are in principle predictable.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“We learn that day one of negotiator training.”


“No. I’m not a negotiator. Your husband hired me because he thought I could help. So, you were saying?”

“Right. Yeah, well I’m a neuroscientist. I’ve been working on a project mapping decision-making in human brains. It was all so fascinating. But the more we understood, the more there didn’t seem to be any room for free will.”

I nodded. “I assume you looked into compatibilism?”

“I did. Those people said that even if everything we do is predetermined, it doesn’t matter because we are still doing it. But that seemed so hollow. That’s not free will. That’s being a cog in a machine and congratulating yourself because at least you can move.”

“That’s a nice analogy. I might use that. So, you found the world meaningless without free will? Figured you might as well kill yourself because it’s no better or worse than anything else?”

“Yes. That’s it exactly! Now do you see why this isn’t something you can help me with?”

She looked down then, preparing herself to jump.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa. I can help,” I said. “It just so happens I’m an incompatibilist myself. I don’t think we can have free will if the universe is deterministic, but I’m still walking around. Wanna know how I do it?”

“Let me guess,” she said, acid in her tone. “It doesn’t matter if we have free will so long as we have love and happiness, right? That’s what my husband said. But he doesn’t get it. Without choice, real choice, everything is just empty.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything of the sort. I wasn’t even going to point out all the various problems with determinism. I was simply going to explain to you why you’re rationally justified in believing in free will, despite the lack of evidence for it.”

She looked at me like I had just sprouted wings. “Really, how?”

I smiled. “You would agree that, with regard to free will, we are in one of two possible situations? One where free will exists and at least some of us have it, and one where it doesn’t? These are mutually exclusive possibilities, yes?”

“I suppose so.”

“And you want to believe the truth about free will, right?”

“Of course.”

“Well then, you have two choices. Either you can believe that we have free will, or you can believe the inverse. I suppose technically you can suspend belief on the issue, but that doesn’t really come into it, so we’ll ignore that for now. The important thing is that you have the power to believe in free will if you choose to.”

“Not necessarily,” she said. “We can’t just believe anything we want, free will or no.”

“That’s true, but this shouldn’t be too much of a stretch. A belief in free will is very appealing to human psychology, and I’m about to explain why it’s rationally justified after all. So, you can believe if you choose to, yes?”

“Probably, I guess. But I’m not just going to believe something because it’s easier on me.”

“I’m not asking you to. Now, there are two possibilities, and you have two options on what to believe. It’s time to match them up. Right now, you believe that we don’t have free will. If you’re right, then you have believed something correct, but it’s not like you could have been wrong anyway. But if you’re wrong, then you’ve believed something incorrect when you could have believed something correct instead. You have been in a position to believe the truth and chosen not to do it.”

Eileen was looking at me strangely, but I pressed ahead.

“Likewise, if you believe that you have free will and you’re wrong, then you have believed something incorrect, but you couldn’t have done otherwise. The whole world conspired against you, from the initial conditions of the universe to me coming to talk to you today, and there was never a chance that you would believe the truth. But, if you’re right, then you have had the choice between truth and falsity and chosen truth. You have been right when you could have been wrong.”

Eileen was crying again.

“So,” I said. “Which would you rather do?”

“It seems too easy. Like some kind of trick.”

“If you find a flaw in my logic, you can always find another roof. Hell, tell me what I’ve gotten wrong and maybe next time I’ll join you.”

“Who are you?”

“John Consequent, philosophical detective. Nice to meet you.”

Eileen smiled. “O—”

My phone rang.

It wasn’t terribly loud, it was just a phone, but it was startling enough in that moment that Eileen flinched and started to topple backward.

I lurched forward, grabbing for her hand. My fingertips touched hers, but that was it. She fell.

I grabbed awkwardly at her legs, getting a good grip on one a fraction of a second before her full weight came down on it, and I felt like my arms were going to come out of their sockets.

Eileen screamed and flailed around, making it a lot harder to hold on to her.

“Stay still!” I snapped. “Just stay calm, and I’ll try to pull you up.”

“Try?” Eileen shrieked.

She was right. I probably shouldn’t have said that, even if it was entirely accurate. Word choice can be so important.

I hauled with everything I had, knowing that my strength could give out at any moment, and I managed to lift her enough that she could get her hands onto the roof and help haul herself up the rest of the way.

We both collapsed onto the roof, sucking in oxygen. That was way more excitement than I needed on my jobs.

My stupid phone was still going off in my jacket pocket. I took it out and answered it.

“What?” I demanded.

I listened to the person on the other end of the line for a moment.

“Oh. Well why didn’t you say so? I’ll be there soon; I just gotta get off this roof.”

“Who was that?” Eileen asked, practically hugging the roof.

“The police. They need my help with a case. Are you okay to get yourself down without, you know, taking the short way?”

Eileen nodded, looking like she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “Yeah. I’ll be fine.”

“Cool. Your husband has my bank details, so we should be fine here. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have another job to do. Hopefully, it won’t be quite as dramatic as this one.”





Chapter one


I entered the office of Captain Matthew Martin, of the Republic City Police Force. Matthew sat behind his desk sorting through a stack of folders that looked in danger of toppling over at any moment. He was a shortish man in his fifties with salt-and-pepper hair, weathered skin, and a rakish look about him that suggested he probably would have gotten a lot of looks twenty or so years earlier. He also had a ridiculous moustache, which meant he probably got a lot of looks now too, but for reasons that have little to do with attraction and much to do with wondering if that guy notices the big furry caterpillar hanging out on his face.

“John,” Matthew said, gesturing at a chair opposite him. “Come in. Sit.”

“What can I do ya for?” I asked, sitting down. It wasn’t often I got called in by the police. It happened occasionally, but the kinds of things they investigate are usually a bit too . . . empirical for my particular skill set.

“We’ve got a serial killer. Dropped three bodies already. No DNA at the scenes, but he left a note with the most recent body. Read like your kind of thing, so I’d like you to look at it and go through the files. See if you can get anything that might tell us who this guy is and who he’s going after next.”

I nodded. “I can do that.”

“Good. You’ll be working with the detective in charge of the case.” He pushed a button on his desk phone. “Could you send her in please?”

Detective Maria Salazar entered the room. Lean and tall, with dark eyes and dark hair. She wore a white shirt and slacks that covered a body made of taut muscle and sinew. She was the youngest woman to ever make detective in Republic City, and she had numerous commendations for exemplary service. She was also my wife’s ex-girlfriend.

“What’s he doing here?” she asked, jerking her thumb at me.

I felt my face scrunch up like I had just bitten into a lemon. Determining the motives of a serial killer was all in a day’s work. Working with Maria was a real challenge.

“Is there someone else I could work with?” I asked.

“You two have history?”

Maria nodded. “Yes, sir. Also, he’s an asshole.”

“Another detective?” I continued. “A uniformed officer? A feral cat with mange and a predilection for clawing at testicles?”

“Well, I can’t make you work the case,” Matthew said, ignoring the feral cat comment. We had a history of working together, and he knew my tendency for occasional hyperbole (though in this case it wasn’t much of one). “But it’s Detective Salazar’s case. If you work it, you work it with her.”

I sighed. I couldn’t really let a serial killer keep on serial-killing if I could do something about it. Besides, how much of Maria would I really have to put up with just reading a note and some files?

“Fine,” I said. “I’m in.”

“Excellent. Salazar, show him the files.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, ice in her tone. She motioned for me to follow, so I hopped out of my chair and got out of the office door first, just to annoy her.

“I don’t like this any more than you do,” Maria said as I followed her to her desk.

“Well that’s something at least,” I muttered.

Maria’s mouth formed a thin line. “Let’s just talk about the case, okay?”

“Fine by me. What do I need to know?”

She handed me three files. “Three victims. Shot. No apparent connection. We think the killer is a man based on what the angle of the gunshot tells us about his height, and the fact he used a gun. Other than that, we have nothing we can use to ID the guy. The note the captain wanted you to read is in that file there.”

A uniformed officer came over to us. Maria turned to him, clearly expecting a report or something, but he was looking at me.

“John Consequent?” he asked, looking a little starstruck.

The man looked like Cop Number Three in a bad movie. Solidly built, symmetrical, but forgettable.

“That’s me,” I said with a grin.

He stuck out his hand. “I just wanted to shake the hand of the man who caught the Cartesian Strangler.”

I shook his hand and chuckled. That had been an interesting case. “I didn’t catch him so much as convince him he existed, but thanks.”

“We’re working here, Perkins,” Maria said, annoyed.

“Oh. Of course. Sorry.” Perkins left in a hurry.

I grinned, sat myself down opposite Maria, and turned back to the files. I prepped myself to open one by conceptualizing them as hypothetical information, rather than real people who had died horribly. Peter Singer might be all about expanding our empathetic circle, but I’ve found that too much empathy can be dangerous to one’s health. Best to find a nice dark room in your head with some noise-cancelling headphones that you can hide it away in when you need to process the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man.

The files contained pictures of the victims, two men and a woman, which were gruesome and made me glad that they were, as far as I was concerned, just hypothetical. They also contained all sorts of information, only some of it interesting. I’ll summarize.

William Reynolds was the first victim. Twenty-seven-year-old builder. Last seen on 1st August at roughly 8:00 p.m. leaving a bar where he had been drinking with friends from work. Missed work the next day. Body discovered by a jogger in the park on 3rd August at 10:30 a.m. Cause of death was a single gunshot wound to the head from a pistol. Coroner estimates he was dead for between ten and fourteen hours before he was found. No useful evidence on the body or at the victim’s home, and no witnesses.

Amelia Hart died second. Thirty-one-year-old hairdresser. Last seen on 14th August when she left work around 6:30 p.m. Found the next night at around 11:00 p.m. dumped on the side of the road. Single gunshot wound to the head again. The killer had used the same caliber bullet and had the same estimated height as with the first victim, which was what put the police onto the serial-killer theory in the first place. Probably dead for four to five hours.

The most recent victim was Doctor Kevin Keen. Twenty-nine-year-old resident at Republic General Hospital. Last seen on 18th August at 6:00 a.m. leaving the hospital after a night shift. Found on 20th August at around 2:00 p.m. in his own apartment by a neighbor looking to steal food from Kevin’s fridge. Single gunshot. Dead for at least a day and with a note left on the body.

The note read: If humanity only acts out of self-interest, then we are left with but two options. One, the only good is excellence in the pursuit of that interest. Or, two, there can be no good whatsoever. This must be so, for no man can be asked to do what he cannot. As you can see, my interests are in murder. Therefore, I shall continue to kill

“No full stop,” I said, staring down at the note. “That’s weird.”

“Never mind the punctuation. What do you make of his philosophy?”

“Hmm? Oh. He’s a psychological egoist.”

“Was your first clue the murders or the taunting of the police on that one?” Maria said.

“It doesn’t mean what it sounds like. Psychological egoism is the theory that people only ever act out of self-interest. Our killer thinks it’s true, and that means he isn’t obliged to do anything else, so he can go around killing people and it’s okay, morally speaking.”

“That’s insane.”

“No, it makes sense. ‘Ought’ implies ‘can’ after all. Morality can’t demand of us what we can’t do. So, if we can only act out of our own self-interest, then doing whatever is in those interests, even if that’s murdering a bunch of people, can’t be wrong. It might be a sensible position if psychological egoism wasn’t a complete load.”

“You don’t think people are selfish?”

“Of course I do. I just think we aren’t only selfish. Besides, it’s totally unfalsifiable.”

Maria arched an eyebrow at me. “You do this on purpose.”

She was right, I did do that on purpose, but I rolled my eyes anyway. “Psychological egoism is a descriptive, empirical theory. That means it’s a theory about how the world actually is and looks at observable evidence. Basically, it wants to be science. The problem is that proper science makes interesting predictions that can be proved wrong. Psychological egoism can’t be proved wrong because it doesn’t really predict anything. The people who believe in it just make whatever facts they find fit their theory. It’s crap.”

“Okay,” Maria said. “But what does that tell us about the killer?”

I shrugged. “That’s he’s an idiot? I don’t know. Something’s not right about this note. I need to think about it more.”

“Well that’s a lot of help,” Maria said, the sarcasm so thick you could spread it on toast. “Thanks.”

I grunted and left without saying another word, the contents of the note still nagging at the back of my mind. Something about it was wrong; I just couldn’t put my finger on what.

I needed a good long think. I decided to go back to my office and figure it out. I had all the tools I needed for proper philosophy there. Which is to say, I had a very comfortable armchair. As a philosopher, I didn’t have much need for an office really. It was where I had first set up shop when I moved to Republic City, and part of the reason I kept it was nostalgia. It was also nice to keep work separate from my home life. But mostly, I kept it because I was a detective, dammit, and a detective needed an office. So, I got in my beat-up old clunker of a car, all filled with junk, and puttered my way back across town.

My office was just opposite a busy shopping mall. I could tell you the location was to make some kind of satirical point, but to be honest it was mostly down to the proximity of a food court. I stopped by there and got myself some tacos. I went back to my office, ate my tacos, sat in my chair, and made with the philosophy.

I tried imagining myself talking with the killer, putting the arguments he had implied in his mouth, trying to figure out what was bothering me about the note.

“Why are you killing these people?” I imagined myself asking.

“Because I want to, and there’s no reason for me not to,” the hypothetical killer responded.

“There’s pragmatism. You’re likely to be caught.”

“I clearly don’t think so. I think myself very clever. And why shouldn’t I? The police have no idea who I am.”

“That’s true. So that leaves the moral reason.”

“Exactly. Which doesn’t apply.”

“Because you’re a psychological egoist.”

“That’s right, I am. I said so in my note.”

“But psychological egoism is moronic.”

“Yes, it is.”

“So, what am I missing?”

“I don’t know. I’m just a figment of your imagination.”

Ugh. Something wasn’t right, I just couldn’t figure out what. I went to get myself a drink from my office fridge, not a necessity for philosophizing but certainly a nice bonus, and my phone went off. I had a text from Eamon, a rather large nihilist I had found the meaning of life for the previous week. The preview said: Thanks again for helping me . . .

I smiled at that and picked out an orange juice from the fridge. I went back to my chair, took a drink, and opened the text. It read:

Thanks again for helping me . . . but some of my old nihilist buddies weren’t too happy about it. They said they were going to find you and kill you. Just a heads-up.

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