(The Cassie Tam Files 1)
Genre: Lesfic / Crime Noir / Sci-Fi
Release Date: 8 May 2017
Publisher: NineStar Press
Length: 56,000 words approx
Sex Content: N/A
Content Warnings: Some violence, some swearing
Keywords: lesbian, yuri, near future, virtual reality addiction, mystery, thriller, animal roleplay/pet play, cyberpunk
Awards: Honourable Mention in the 2017 Rainbow Awards in the Lesbian Sci-Fi category.
When PI Cassie Tam is hired to investigate the death of a local virtual reality junkie, she thinks it will be easy money. In New Hopeland, VR junkies die every day, and the local PD already declared it an accidental overdose on synthetic stimulants. But the more she digs, the more that things don’t add up.
To make things even more complicated, her client, the deceased’s sister Lori, is a Tech Shifter – someone who uses a metal exoskeleton to roleplay as an animal – and Cassie has always been wary of that community. That wouldn’t be a problem if Lori wasn’t fast becoming the first person she’s been genuinely attracted to since splitting with her ex.
Easy money, huh? Yeah, right.
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.”