“The Predict-O-Ma-Tron!” by Chris Nelson

Apr 20th, 2012 | By | Category: Fiction, Prose

The Setup:

“Why, how deliciously morbid!” said heavyset dowager Belinda Buxingham as she peered through lorgnette eyeglasses at the stout black box in front of her: The Predict-O-Ma-Tron! A thrill of exquisite, almost sensuous pleasure ran through her plump body and caused a single, elegant peacock-feather sticking out from her ornate headband to tremble rapturously.

“And you say it’s never been wrong?” Belinda looked up through the aforementioned eyeglasses at Montgomery R. Whistlingcox-Falsborough, their host for this evening.

Montgomery R. Whistlingcox-Falsborough was an absolute walrus of a man: large, wrinkled, mustachioed, and rather ungainly when moving about on dry land. Indeed, if you were to imagine what it would be like for a walrus to dress up in a waistcoat and wear a monocle and invite some of his friends over to his Victorian-style mansion to have their deaths predicted, you’d have a pretty fair idea of what was going on this night.

“Never has been, never will be,” said Montgomery proudly. “The leading experts all agree!”

“And just who might these ‘leading experts’ be, exactly?” asked Professor Simon Dunn skeptically. Dunn was a professor’s professor—thin, bespectacled, and be-elbow-patched—indeed, the very incarnation of dry, pseudo-British sophistry. Nor was he lacking the iconic pipe, so there was no need to worry about that.

“Oh, noted scholars,” Montgomery assured him. “From some of the country’s top schools.”

“I see,” said the Professor, unconvinced. “And if you’d be so kind as to refresh my memory—how, exactly, does the device work, did you say, hmm?”

Montgomery stared blankly at Dunn for a moment, blinking. He had not the slightest idea how the machine worked. He knew that one had to have a blood-sample taken with a hypodermic needle affixed to one side of the machine, and that this sample was then submitted to the machine on a little glass plate, but as to what exactly went on within the machine—well, that might as well have been magic. All he knew was that, after making a small mechanical fuss, the machine would spit out a little slip of paper that would tell you exactly how you were going to die. Not where, not when, just how. It was as simple as that.

“Oh, various cogs and gaskets… fulcra, matrices, and what-have-you, I suppose,” said Montgomery with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Steam-powered, I’m sure, or electro-mechanical hydraulics or some-such.”

The Professor looked at Montgomery as though he had just explained that tomatoes were in fact very small, very red sheep.

“I see,” the Professor said again.

At this point another guest spoke up: Colonel Hiram J. McGraff, a man needlessly clad in a pith-helmet, a khaki cargo shirt, and mustard-yellow jodhpurs in the middle of somebody’s sitting-room.

“Is that an elephant-gun?” asked Professor Dunn with a measure of concern.

Colonel McGraff had recently accrued to himself quite a bit of notoriety after having discovered a lost valley of pygmies nestled deep within the steaming jungles of equatorial Africa. The discovery and subsequent Civilizing Efforts of McGraff’s expedition had been met with what was being charitably called “Mixed Results!” in the news-papers, and the Colonel had, judging from his appearance, evidently suffered the tragic loss of his left eyebrow during one of the subsequent skirmishes with the natives.

“Bother how the machine works,” said a potentially drunk McGraff, rising from his seat wobblingly and striking what he thought of as a rather valiant-looking pose. “What’s important is that it works!” McGraff hoisted up a booted foot and landed it squarely atop an ottoman as though it were some huge lump of vanquished quarry.

Robert Waverly, a prissily-dressed and fastidiously-manicured man with slick black hair and a moustache as thin as his pretext of being happily married to a woman, happened to be sitting immediately next to the ottoman which McGraff’s foot had just claimed in the name of the British Crown. The elephant-gun dangling precariously from a strap on McGraff’s back swung alarmingly close to Robert’s head as the Colonel gestured expansively.

Professor Dunn leaned in towards Robert and observed that it was fortunate that this was Real Life and not a play.

“…Otherwise,” the Professor whispered to him, “convention would dictate that the gun ‘go off’ at some point during the evening, and that would be in poor taste—not to mention a perfect cliché.”

Robert Waverly’s lacily-dressed wife, Amelia, whose greatest assets were not intellectual in nature, said, “But if this were a play…” (here she put a single, extended index-finger to her lower-lip and looked about the room with an awe-stricken expression) “…then this theater would be a metaphor for life.”

“Man,” slurred the Colonel, “has already conquered the Invisible World of the Microscopic with his ingenious ‘Penicillin’; he has already conquered the skies with his cunning ‘Dirigibles’; now, with the advent of the Predict-O-Ma-Tron!, Man has conquered what little remained of the Future!”

For a moment McGraff waited for a round of polite clapping that never came. The lack of response did little to deter the stalwart Colonel, however, and he quickly resumed:

“…What’s next?” McGraff asked rhetorically, with a flourish, and then answered his own question: “I’ll tell you what’s next: The British Empire’s conquest of the luminiferous ether!

Amelia gasped. Robert steadied his delicate, easily-flustered wife with a touch of his gentle hand.

“You don’t mean… outer-space?” asked Belinda, agog.

“And just how is it, if you don’t mind my asking,” said Professor Dunn dryly, “that man will be able to brave the frigid, unrelenting vacuum of space, hmm?”

McGraff whirled on the professor and slurred: “Two words: Space-Faring Dirigible.”

“That’s three words,” retorted the professor.

“Perhaps ‘dirigible’ is hyphenated?” suggested Amelia in an attempt to be helpful. She was gifted in neither Language Arts nor in Mathematics, and as the present matter involved both words and counting them, she was hopelessly out of her league.

“Hyphenated or not,” said Robert, “such a dirigible would surely lie outside the bounds of What Man Was Meant To Trifle With, would it not? Much like that box over there…” Robert eyed the Predict-O-Ma-Tron! suspiciously.

Hiram McGraff, who had been nursing a gin-and-tonic since he had first arrived (“for the quinine,” he had claimed; “After all, Malarial Affect isn’t going to prevent itself!”), no longer harbored any qualms about observing appropriate “speaking-volume” or “interpersonal-space.”

“No sense in a man pussyfooting around his destiny, Waverly!” McGraff all but shouted directly into Robert Waverly’s ear.

“Well then,” Robert said, annoyed, “I suppose you’d like to be the first to volunteer to have a go at it?”

Cast of Characters (Roughly In Order):

1.) Colonel Hiram J. McGraff:

“Why, how absolutely macabre…” Belinda whispered to herself, feasting greedily upon the spectacle of McGraff’s blood being submitted to the machine with bulging, porcine eyes.

The whole party waited in hushed expectation as the little black box whirred, churned, clanked, and, ultimately, produced a small, unassuming slip of paper.

McGraff thought it was probably even chances that he’d get either “EATEN BY SAVAGES” or “GORED BY RHINO,” but in his heart of hearts he was secretly hoping to get “HURLED INTO VOLCANO BY PREHISTORIC BEAST.” He didn’t think this was an especially probable outcome, but what harm was there in permitting oneself to indulge in fanciful speculation every now and again?

McGraff plucked the slip of paper from its slot. For a long moment he stood there, saying nothing. His face was inscrutable.

“Well?” said Belinda eagerly. “What does it say?”

Slowly, McGraff held out the card for all to see. Everyone leaned in to peer at the portentous little card.

There, written on the slip of high-quality card-stock in simple but neat Copperplate Gothic, were the words: “THE BUTLER DID IT.”

No one made a sound, but it was clear from the look on Belinda’s face that this party had just gone up considerably in her estimation. Then, slowly, all eyes floated over to where Spencer, the butler, stood, a tray of hors d’oeuvre still balanced gingerly on his fingertips. Spencer had gone ghost-white.

“Spencer!” Montgomery reproached. “Is that any way to treat a guest?”

Spencer could not have seemed more surprised. “But—but I assure you, Mr. McGraff,” he gibbered, “I—I have no idea what this is all about—there must be some kind of mistake!”

Professor Dunn bit his pipe thoughtfully. He still had his doubts about the reliability of the machine, but this turn of events would provide a most interesting case-study in human interpersonal dynamics.

“I thought the machine didn’t make mistakes?” the professor said innocently in an attempt to “get things rolling.”

McGraff could not have responded with more alacrity to the novel stimulus Professor Dunn had just exposed him to. Leaping to his feet and pointing accusingly at Spencer, the Colonel boomed: “He’s taking it next!”

“Me?! But—but I’m—I’m merely the butler!” said the butler.

“And that is precisely why you are taking the test next—butler.” McGraff held up his slip and pointed to the damning word. “I may not be able to evade your treacherous death-blow, but if I’m going to be avenged I damn well want to know about it!”

The Colonel then hiccoughed.

2.) The Butler:


Montgomery Whistlingcox-Falsborough considered this newest turn of events, stroking his wide, brush-like moustache thoughtfully. He had heard that the machine’s predictions had a tendency to be ambiguous, to mislead without ever actually telling a falsehood. A person might receive, say, “KILLED BY A HEART-ATTACK.” That person would then begin a brisk exercise regimen, swear off red meat and begin to drink one glass of red wine at dinner every night only to be stabbed in the heart by a maniac one day while trying on ascots and waist-breeches at the local haberdasher’s. In this case, in contrast, it seemed that the machine was doing everything in its power to make things as explicitly clear as possible.

“Well,” said Professor Dunn, “it doesn’t leave much to the imagination, does it?”

“And after all your kind hospitality!” Robert said plaintively to Spencer. “I must say, this makes me feel just dreadful.”

The Colonel peered at Robert suspiciously. He wasn’t too keen on the idea of this slim-waisted woman-man carrying out vengeance for his murder. But at the end of the day a dead butler was a dead butler, so there was no sense in complaining about things.

3.) Robert Waverly:


“I say,” said Montgomery, quite pleased with himself for having made such a shrewd business investment, “this must surely be the most thorough, the most accurate—in short, the very finest Predict-O-Ma-Tron! yet produced!”

“Then it’s true!” squealed Belinda, who was glad that—so far, at least—no one had killed her, for this meant she would be alive to spread this latest juicy little nibblet of gossip. “Why, Montgomery, you scoundrel,” she teased, and batted her long, bovine eyelashes at him coyly.

“Well, I’ll be a cuckolded ninny-britches!” said Robert vexedly, placing his hands on his hips. “You little trollop!” The idea of another man being with his wife… well, it did not particularly faze him one way or the other, but this bit of news was irksome nevertheless—it was the principle of the matter!

“Oh, Robert,” Amelia wailed, the heart-wrench dripping from her every word, “I—I didn’t mean for you to find out like this!”

“Really?” said Professor Dunn sarcastically. “Then what kind of machine did you intend him to find out from?”

The good Professor was by now really rather enjoying himself.

4.) Amelia Waverly:


“I say,” said Amelia thoughtfully, “do you suppose foreknowledge of one’s own death would cause a person to cherish the days that were still left to them all the more?”

Amelia was promptly ignored.

5.) Montgomery R. Whistlingcox-Falsborough:


Belinda gasped in almost equal parts horror and elation. All eyes shot to where she sat. Then, realizing that she had attracted unnecessary attention to herself, she attempted to conceal herself behind a tiny, intricately-laced Chinese fan which she strategically positioned just in front of her face. Thinking quickly, she decided that she just might be able to throw the rest of them off her trail… not that she herself had any idea why she was going to stab their host right in the face with a knife.

“Why, I wonder who on Earth that could be referring to!” Belinda said loudly, adding a shrug in order to complete the caricature of An Innocent Woman. The only person whom this succeeded in fooling was Amelia, who said: “But that means…” (here Amelia scrunched up her delicate little face in an expression of intense concentration) “…the fat lady could be any one of us.

“Hah! Who are you kidding, Belinda?” McGraff barked. “I’ve seen bison with less meat on them!”

Belinda harrumphed! “Why, of all the impertinence!” she said indignantly. She snapped her fan closed and raised her waddle in an expression of self-righteous offence. “Just for that snide little quip, I’m giving Spencer a special tip for killing you. Come here, Spencer!” Belinda got out her chequebook from her purse.

Spencer eyed the man he was destined to kill nervously. “I, er, that’s—that’s really not necessary, Ma’am,” said the poor butler, who was not keen on reminding the burly huntsman of the role he played in the circumstances of his demise.

“Nonsense!” declared Belinda. “One good turn deserves another. Now: how do you spell your surname?” She wrote a number on a check, thought for a moment, then proceeded to augment that number with a trio of zeros.

Spencer knew better than to accept checks from guests like this (why, it was positively not-in-keeping with decorum!), but when he saw the quartet of digits representing the tip she was planning to offer him, a wide-eyed Spencer suddenly forgot all his manners.

“Er, ahem, that would be S-P-E-N…”

“Don’t you take money from that murderous wildebeest!” said Montgomery, whose sense of loyalty was wounded by his longtime butler’s sudden turning-of-coat. But then he paused, looking puzzled. “Hold on a moment—I was under the impression that Spencer was your first name.”

“It is my first name, sir,” said Spencer, then he turned back to Belinda. “Now, that’s S-P-E…”

“Fine!” said McGraff. “Give the snivelling sycophant his bribe. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be the one to kill you, Belinda, for tipping Spencer for killing me.”

Belinda suddenly became very sober. “Why, I hadn’t thought of that,” she said.

McGraff folded his arms across his chest. “Yes,” he said coolly, “I thought you mightn’t have.”

Dunn, a relatively intelligent fish in a pond full of blithering imbeciles, was two steps ahead of the group. He realize that, if he could get Belinda to kill McGraff before McGraff had a chance to kill him, then Dunn himself would be free to live to the ripe-old age of 50 before succumbing to dysentery like any other upstanding Englishman.

It was simply too good an opportunity to pass up.

“…You know, as long as we’re on the subject,” said Professor Dunn casually, alluding to a topic which none of them had been discussing, “I believe—if I’m not mistaken—that Colonel McGraff drew a somewhat unflattering comparison between you, Miss Buxingham, and the recently-extinct Hydrodamalis gigas—the, um, the Steller’s sea-cow, I’m afraid—in an article he wrote for… oh, let us say… ‘Natural History Periodical Quarterly’ last month.” Professor Dunn then reclined in his chair and shook his head sadly as if to say, Oh, how numerous and sundry are the plights of Man!

“I did?” asked McGraff, who, to the best of his own knowledge, had never heard of—much less submitted any article to—the obviously made-up journal.

This was the straw that broke the hippo’s back. Belinda Buxingham was, admittedly, no stranger to being likened to various aquatic megafauna—but the effect of being insulted repeatedly is cumulative, and by now Belinda had had enough.

She whirled around to face the Colonel. “Why, you loathsome, filth-mongering brute!” she shrieked. Then, remembering the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words,” Belinda decided to add a visual component to her insult by grabbing the first object available within her left arm’s rather short radius. This object, as chance would have it, was a large vase full of orange and yellow mums which had been sitting on a side-table next to her, and this she flung with surprising force and accuracy at the head of Colonel Hiram J. McGraff.

The Colonel himself, possessed of reflexes honed over many long years of Serengeti adventuring, was mere milliseconds in aiming and firing the trusty elephant gun he kept always by his side. A loud ker-BLAAM! echoed through the room as the bullet first shattered the airborne vase and then proceeded to hit the “eye” of the single, elegant peacock feather that stood out from Belinda’s ornate headband. The feather was obliterated, and the bullet lodged itself soundly on the other side of the room in a Complete Map of the Known World, which featured all of the world’s most important countries and even alluded to a few of the less-significant ones.

Belinda’s eyebrows raised slowly. Her mouth formed into a perfect, silent “O” of surprise.

Smoke, mum petals and peacock-feather shrapnel hung in the air for a protracted moment before eventually settling to the ground.

“Damn!” said Dunn, irritated by the not-quite-successful implementation of his plan. Then, noticing suspicious eyes on him, he added, “—GOOD! —er, damn good shot, McGraff! I say, bra-vo.” Here the Professor clapped McGraff amicably on the back, hoping that this display would pass for chummy camaraderie.

For the first time Montgomery questioned the wisdom of his having allowed Colonel McGraff into his home wielding a loaded elephant-gun.

“Well, that’s not how Belinda dies,” said Robert off-handedly. “I suppose we may as well test her next.”

Belinda’s surprised “O” turned slowly into a “U” of delight as she realized that she was next to face her grizzly demise. “Oh, but I do hope it’s something marvelous like ‘THROTTLED VIGOROUSLY’ or ‘BLUDGEONED’!”

6.) Belinda Buxingham:


“With a billiards-cue!” exclaimed McGraff, winking at Dunn conspiratorially. “Why, Professor, I didn’t know you had it in you.” Dunn himself appeared mildly surprised but not all that worried about the fact that the evisceration which he was inevitably going to perform on Miss Buxingham (with a billiards-cue) was, it seemed, going to be a gory one.

Oh,” Belinda wailed, throwing her hands in the air in an absolute paroxysm of joy, “how extraordinarily gruesome! Why, I might even be in the papers!” She began to weep, overcome by emotion. Fat, wet tears of joy splattered down from her large eyeballs.

Spencer, now indebted to Belinda to the tune of four figures and thus favorably inclined towards her, leaned forward solicitously. “Hand-kerchief, Madam?” Belinda accepted the pretty little thing and blew her giant schnauzer noisily into it. As she handed back the full, dripping cloth to him, their eyes met and a small but unmistakable thrill coursed between them like electricity.

“Why, Mr. Spencer…” Belinda said softly, realizing for the first time what kind-looking eyes, what high cheekbones the butler had.

“Please,” Spencer said, taking her hand in his, “call me ‘Spencer’.”

Admittedly, this was going to involve more fat than Spencer would ideally have liked—but then again, so did Bedfordshire pudding-tarts, and he ate those all the time.

7.) Professor Simon Dunn:


Professor Dunn looked down at a sheet of paper he had been scribbling notes onto and drew a line connecting a stick-figure labelled “McGraff” to another labelled “Dunn.” Dunn realized that this line completed a circle which connected seven different stick-figures together in a big loop.

“Oh my,” he said.


“…And then I kill you, and you kill me…” said Amelia excitedly, pointing first to herself, then to her husband, then to her lover, and finally to herself again.

She was really getting into the spirit of things—they all were. A warm fire burned jovially in the fireplace, two more bottles of champagne had been opened and passed around, and the host, his butler, and all five guests now huddled eagerly around a small table over which had been strewn with papers, pencils, and half-eaten hors d’oeuvre.

Dunn furrowed his brow and stared, perplexed, at a schema of stick-figures which had ballooned to include everyone from ex-headmasters to current hairdressers. “But that means…” (here the Professor bit his pipe pensively) “…that Belinda should then be murdering Montgomery next.”

“But Spencer is in Montgomery’s will,” said McGraff, leafing through a stack of papers on which had been jotted down summaries of everyone’s living-wills and lists of next-of-kin. “She would have no motivation for murdering Montgomery—”

Robert sprang to his feet: “—unless Belinda wanted to kill Montgomery and then marry Spencer for the money he would inherit!

The room erupted in a jubilation of cheers, clapping hands, and clinking glasses.

“Oh, Robert!” cried the adulterous Amelia, and threw her arms around his neck. “I’ve never been more proud to be your wife!” She kissed him on the cheek, and he blushed as was appropriate for a gentleman.

Hiram McGraff pumped a fist vigorously in the air. “Good show, m’boy!” he said, and punched Robert playfully in the shoulder. This had the unintended consequence of toppling the frail little man over.

Amelia leaned over towards Belinda to congratulate her on the wedding which (apparently) she was going to be having with Spencer. Belinda reciprocated by insisting that Amelia be one of her bride’s-maids.

“I wonder when this is all going to happen,” Montgomery mused aloud.

“Well,” said Professor Dunn, refilling his pipe for a well-deserved smoke after all their hard work, “the machine doesn’t tell us any specifics, so we don’t know the where and the when of the murders. I suppose all we really know is that, whenever this happens, it’ll be some time when we’re all gathered together. You see, according to the machine, each of us is going to kill one other person in this room. That means that, for the circle to be completed, we’re all going to have to murder each other more or less simultaneously.”

A silence hung over the room for a moment.

It then occurred to Montgomery that right now was an instance of the seven of them being gathered together.

Belinda Buxingham’s sausage-like fingers toyed restlessly with the many strands of pearls looped around her thick, fat-laden neck.

She chuckled darkly.

She could hardly wait for the carnage to begin.



Chris Nelson is 26 years old and lives in Allston, Massachusetts. As a Clydesdale, he is the first of his family (and indeed, species) to go to college, which he did at Washington University in St. Louis in order to fulfill a so-called “Quadruped-Quota” which they’d been having hells of trouble with. Chris would like to thank his steadfast companion Brian D. Stone, who tirelessly transcribes his stories from Hoof-Clop into Standard English. Chris’s parents are conservative Southern Baptists, but to their credit they are gradually coming to terms with his being a Clydesdale. Chris loves them!

Tags: , , , ,

Comments are closed.