Matt Doyle © 2017
All Rights Reserved
I ALWAYS DID like Venetian blinds. There’s something quaint about them in a retro-tacky kinda way. Plus, they’re pretty useful for sneaking a peek out the front of the building if I feel the need. That’s something that you just can’t do with the solid, immovable metal slats that come as a standard in buildings these days. That said, a thick sheet of steel is gonna offer you a damn sight more security than thin, bendable vinyl, so I keep mine installed. Just in case.
Another round of knocking rattles the front door, louder this time than the one that woke me.
The clock says 23:47, and the unfamiliar low-end car out front screams “Don’t notice me, I’m not worth your time,” which makes for the perfect combo to stir up the paranoia that the evening’s beer and horror-film session left behind. This is my own fault. My adverts are pretty descriptive in terms of telling what I do: lost pets, cheating partners, theft, protection, retrieval of people and items, other odds and sods that the city’s finest won’t touch…I’ve got ways to deal with it all. That’s right, I’m a real odd-job gal. The one thing that I don’t put in there are business hours. The way I see it, even the missing pet cases usually leave me wandering the streets at half-past reasonable, so what’s the point in asking people to call between certain hours?
More knocking, followed this time by the squeak of my letter box and a voice. “Hello? Cassandra Tam?”
It’s funny, really. For all the tech advances that the world has made, no one has been able to improve upon the simple open-and-shut letter box. I stumble my way through the dark and wave dismissively at the frosted glass. The light switch and the keypad for the door lock are conveniently placed right next to each other on the wall to the right of the door, so welcoming my apparent guest is a nice, easy affair. The lock clicks a moment after the lights flood the room, and I pull the door open.
“Cassie,” I say, turning and skulking my way back into the room. “Or Caz. Drop the Tam.”
I hear a sniff behind me, and the lady from the letter box asks, “Are you drunk?”
“If I pass out in the next five minutes, then yes,” I reply, turning the kettle on. I’d left it full, ready for the morning, but I guess this is close enough. “Take a seat at the table. Would you prefer tea or coffee? I’d offer beer, but since I reek of it, I guess I must’ve finished it.”
Footsteps creep unapologetically across the room, and a chair squeaks on the floor. Good. If you can’t deal with a snarky response to something, don’t say it all, and if you can deal with it, then as far as I’m concerned you don’t need to apologise.
“Coffee,” the lady says. “So, do you always see potential clients in your underwear, or is it just my lucky day?” Her voice has a slightly playful edge to it, but with a sarcastic kick to round it off.
The business portion of my apartment comprises entirely of a small open-plan room separating my kitchen from my living room. And by open plan, I mean an allotted space that encroaches on both territories but is conveniently large enough to house what I need. Or, in other words, a table, four chairs, and nothing else. Since filing went near entirely digital, filing cabinets have pretty much become obsolete, so the two that I found dumped outside the building when I bought the place currently live in my bedroom, and contain a mix of quick access work stuff and personal files I’d rather not have floating on the net. Most things, though, I store electronically, the same as everything else.
I rarely use the business table to eat, read, or any of that junk, so until this evening it’s been entirely empty for a good few weeks. The lady sitting there now is studying me, I can see, and probably wondering if this was a mistake. Whatever she may have expected, a Chinese-Canadian gal of average height in a cami top and a loose pair of sleep shorts most likely wasn’t it. For what it’s worth, though, I’m studying her just the same. She’s a lithe-looking thing, dressed in a casual pair of jeans and a plain black fitted top under a leather jacket. If the metal plugs running down her shaven head like a shiny, rubber-tipped Mohawk weren’t a giveaway for what she is, the light scarring punctuating the outer edges of her pale blue eyes certainly would be. She’s a Tech Shifter, and like most of her ilk, she looks like a punk rocker gone cyborg.
“Only when people come calling near midnight,” I say, crossing my arms. “And what about you? Do you have to work to rile people up, or is it just a talent?” I spot her wince and can’t quite contain the smile that fights its way up to my lips. I can’t really afford to lose another client, though, so I throw in another dismissive wave and add, “Don’t worry
about it. It’s late, and I’m grumpy. Milk and sugar?”
She nods. “Two sugars, lots of milk, thanks.”
I finish making the drinks and plonk myself into the chair opposite my guest. “So how about we start with a name?”
“Lori. Lori Redwood. And I’m sorry about calling so late, it’s just that I didn’t really know when would be best, and I figured that you probably wouldn’t be busy this time of night.”
“And whatever problem you have has been eating away at you, so you wanted to sort it as soon, eh?”
Lori nods and takes a gulp of her coffee. “Something like that.”
I tilt my head, and rest my elbows on the table, letting my chin fall into my clasped hands. “I’m guessing this isn’t a missing pet case?”
“No. Do you read the morning news sites?”
“I browse. Why?”
“Did you see any of the articles about Edward Redwood? They would have been late last week.”
I close my eyes and cast my mind back to the things I’d read over the last couple of days. The name is familiar, and not just because of the articles, but I can’t place where from.
“Virtual Junkie, died of an accidental overdose of synthesised stimulants?” I try.
Lori nods again. “He was my brother. It wasn’t an accidental OD, though.”
I sigh. “I’m sorry for your loss, but he was an Addict, right? That’s what the press said. He wouldn’t be the first VJ Addict to OD, and he won’t be the last.”
“You don’t understand. Yes, Eddie was an Addict, but he couldn’t have overdosed himself, because he never used stimulants. He used to make a really big deal out of how he preferred the experience pure, because he didn’t want to mess up his chances of becoming a Pro.”
I shake my head sadly. “Miss Redwood…”
“Lori, please,” she cuts in.
“Lori, then. Let me give you a history lesson. Many years ago, some bright spark realised society had become so reliant on electronic tools that most jobs carried out by big businesses could be done virtually. As things advanced, they built a whole virtual world
where people could work, and gradually, the staff who pulled the long shifts became reliant on the feel of being in the place. Meanwhile, out in the real world, regular people accessed the virtual world to communicate with the staff, and to play games, and they too became reliant on the feel of the place. And so, two types of Junkie were born; the Pros, supported by their bosses, and the Addicts, who were no different to the drug users of the twentieth century. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not judging anyone here, but Addicts don’t become Pros. Both types of VJ get unhealthily hooked, but the Addicts don’t have the support to keep it in check. They all end up on the stimulants eventually.”
“Not Eddie,” she insists. “He had a contract lined up. All he had to do was pass the entrance test, and he’d transition to Pro.”
“Now that’s a first. Who with?”
“I don’t know. That’s part of the problem.”
I narrow my eyes. “Lori, why exactly did you come to me?”
“Because the police won’t reopen the case. They said there’s no evidence that anyone else was in the room at all when he died. If I can just figure out who he was negotiating with, then that would be something.”
“So, what? You want me to find out who your brother was supposedly going to be hired by?”
“And then what?”
“I find out how he ended up OD-ing on something that he wouldn’t touch, and why.”
I down my coffee and lean back in my chair, crossing my arms again. “You think that he was murdered, don’t you? By someone in whatever company he was supposedly talking to.”
“Yes,” she replies vehemently, then shrinks back a little and adds, “I don’t know. Maybe. It’s the only thing that makes sense, right?”
“No, it’s not. What makes the most sense is that your brother was no different from any other VJ Addict, and he just hid his usage from you. Let’s say for one moment we can even entertain the idea that a Pro company were willing to hire an Addict. That isn’t even close to a strong enough link to start crying murder. Honestly, Lori, I get it, but you’re reaching here. You’re trying to grasp onto anything that can make this all easier for you, and that’s fine. But trust me on this. No amount of grasping at nothing ever changes
Lori has clearly been fighting back the tears, and my little speech just pushed her over the edge. She wipes her eyes on her sleeve and gets to her feet, keeping her head hung low.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” she says, and turns back towards the door. “I’ll see myself out.”
“Where are you going?” I ask.
“To look up some more names. You’ve made your position quite clear.”
“I never said that I wouldn’t take the case. I just wanted you to understand how unlikely your scenario is.”
Lori stops in her tracks and looks back at me. “You’ll do it?” she asks, her voice a conflicted mess of desperation and disbelief.
“If there’s something to be found, then I’ll find it.”
“I…thank you. Thank you.”
“Yeah, well, don’t thank me yet,” I reply, getting to my feet. I walk back to the kitchen, slide open one of the drawers, and pull out a small metal disc about one inch thick, and five inches in diameter. I throw it to Lori, and she whips her arm out, snatching it from the air. She turns it over in her hand, studying the glass top. “You seen one of those before?”
Lori shakes her head.
“It’s a standard Case Tool, at least for me. Take it with you, and when you get home, tap the screen three times quickly. It’ll load a bunch of files for you to complete. Don’t worry, it comes with a holo-keypad, so you won’t need to hook it up to anything. I prefer to keep things connected to my server, and mine alone when I can help it. Take your time, answer the questions with as much detail as possible, and tap to send them back to me. Before it’ll send ’em, it’ll ask you to enter your details to transfer the deposit for the case.”
“Okay,” she nods. “How much am I looking at?”
“Aside from being a potential murder case, this is gonna prevent me from taking on any other work for the duration, so I’m not gonna be working cheap. The deposit’s five thou. If I find nothing, that’ll be it, but if something turns up, I’ll expect the same again
on completion. That cool?”
“Yes. Absolutely. Thank you.”
“Not a problem. Now get yourself home so that I can get some sleep.”
MY ALARM KICKS in at 06:30, pulling me out of what I’m pretty sure is too little sleep for my line of work. I’m not in the least bit surprised to see the red light flashing silently on the metal disc by the clock, signalling that it’s received the files from its sister piece. There’s no way to tell what time they were sent without opening the files, but given Lori’s resolution that her brother didn’t OD, I’d guess a couple of hours after our meeting is a safe bet.
I sit up with a yawn and stretch my arms high behind my head, working out the shoulder kinks that I develop most nights. I guess it’s nearing time to change the mattress again. Shame, that. This one’s seen me through more than its fair share of lonely nights, cowering from the imaginary monsters on the TV screen. All things considered, I’ve gotten myself into enough life-or-death situations that crappy gore fests and jump scares shouldn’t really affect me, but somehow, they do. Every time. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I was at the start of a nightmare when Lori woke me up last night.
In a way, I’m surprised that the nightmares didn’t come again after speaking with her. That happens sometimes when I’ve been talking with Tech Shifters. I think they just remind me how close we are to creating our own monsters like the ones that we see in the movies. Tech Shifters have only really been around for about five years now, and when the call went out for volunteers to test the prototypes, it was initially answered by the three Fs: Furries, Fetishists, and Freaks.
The Furs were harmless enough. For the most part, they were just an internet fandom that, thanks to modern advancements, got to live out their dream of shifting into whatever animal they felt close to. Very few of the group were interested, or so I heard, but those that were, were happy enough to be identified by their social clique. The Fetishists never caused any trouble either. For them, metal exo-suits just became an alternative to leather and PVC. It was the Freaks that caused the problems. They were the unstable ones who had enough sense to hide their demons. Within a month of the project going live, we had modern-day werewolves running around tearing people’s throats out and howling at the moon. It was a good time for business. I got to moonlight with the city’s finest for a few
cases, and that meant a flat rate of pay for the duration, but the messes that we had to wade through, sometimes literally, were more than enough to make me distrusting of the Tech Shifter community for a few years after.
These days, things are better controlled. You want the plugs, you gotta pass a full pre-op psych test first. Even the law enforcement industry is getting in on it now that the tech’s bedded in better. Hell, the local PD has its own TS Division with five full-time operatives; three hybrid shifters and two full animals. And the national army? Well, they’ve got a whole lot more than that.
People still remember those early nights of being afraid to walk the streets during the full moon, though, and their memories don’t often differentiate between the F types, let alone the ever-growing legion of Cs—the Curious and the Casual. Why anyone would take body-modding that far without a serious affinity for what they’re doing is beyond me, but that’s humans for you. I wonder which grouping Lori fits into? Here’s hoping she’s not a Third F that slipped the net.
Looking at the dressing gown hanging limply from the end of the bed, I’m beginning to wonder why I didn’t grab it before answering the door last night. Beer is probably the answer to that. In my experience, it’s the answer to most things. Even then, though, I would have probably gone back to get it if Lori hadn’t mentioned what I was barely wearing. Challenge me and woe betide you if you think I’m changing a damn thing. Stubbornness is my oldest friend, and if he thinks that you’re trying to pick a fight, he’ll come out to play every time. There aren’t any challengers around now, though, so I grab the gown and slip it on, then chuck the disc into one of the pockets and head to the kitchen.
The kettle boils nice and quickly, and I fill a mug with black coffee. I screw my face up and make a disgusted grunt after the first mouthful. Black coffee sucks, but unfortunately, it’s needed if I’m to survive the morning without passing out.
“Let’s see what we’ve got,” I grunt, and slip the disc onto the business table.
AND SO I came to snort and grumble my way through the written ramblings of my first paying client in over a month. To her credit, Lori has clearly given me as much as she can in terms of details. Unfortunately, word count does not equal actual content, so that doesn’t equate to much more than she gave me last night. It sounds cold, but the fact that
she was the one who found his body makes no difference in the grand scheme of things. The description of the room will give me something to get started with, but without knowledge of whether anything she’s described is out of the ordinary, I don’t have the context to make much out of it. What I really need was the name of his dealer. Of course, she wouldn’t know that, though. She doesn’t have the jittery eyes of a user herself, and she honestly believes that the dearly departed Eddie Redwood was the one exception to the rule of VJ Addict behaviour.
I pick up my elderly tablet and hold the power button until it starts to join me in the waking word. “Good…morning, Cassandra,” it says, failing again to connect to the network at the speed it used to when I bought it. I tap the voice command button and it asks, “How may I be of assistance?”
“Local web search,” I say, speaking slowly. “Search term, Edward Redwood. Timeframe, last two weeks. Sort newest first.”
After an excruciating seven seconds, the screen flickers and I get my first run of results. The articles are pretty short, with the most recent ones reciting the official decision by the investigating officer, Corporal Devereux. That it was assigned to a corporal rather than a specialist division speaks volumes about how seriously the police took the case. What that means is there weren’t any immediate signs that it was anything other than what they said it was: an accidental OD.
The local PD get progressively more corrupt the higher you go, but the lower ranks are still the good guys here. Mostly. The reports say that Eddie’s body contained traces of Flash7, enough to suggest he took a three hundred milligram dose. The level’s high, but the drug isn’t unusual. So far, so ordinary.
The next chunk of reports deal with the discovery of the body. There’s nothing really there that Lori hasn’t told me in her files. I note that all the reports use the same photo of the body, all of which are copyrighted to…Lori Redwood. She must be a freelance photographer. Either she drew the short straw in having to photo the scene for the press, or she wanted to do it herself rather than let someone else in to something so close to home.
The other hits relate to a different Eddie Redwood, a botanist who was touring through town to demonstrate some sort of synthetic solar-powered earth.
Okay then, let’s change tack. Time to see if I can figure out where I know his name
from. I’m pretty sure that it’s from an old case file, but I couldn’t say which one. I swipe the internet away and tap the voice command button again.
“How may I be of assistance?” the tablet asks.
“Document content search, target, case files. Search term Edward Redwood or Eddie Redwood.”
A big green circle starts spinning on the screen, and I chuck the tablet onto the table and head back to the kitchen. Cup of coffee number two, milky this time, comes with some stale bread and jam. By the time I’ve finished the drink, the circle is still swirling merrily around, and the completion percentage has barely hit 20 percent. I sigh and swipe down the top bar, then tap the local system icon.
Within moments, a voice cuts through the room speakers. “Synch to local system complete. Please state your desired settings.”
“Single room audio. Tracking mode target, Cassandra Tam.”
A beep, then, “Settings active.”
I nod in thanks, knowing full well that my internal system isn’t even close to being an AI, and take myself off to the bathroom.