(The Cassie Tam Files 5)
Genre: Lesfic / Crime Noir / Sci-Fi
Release Date: 28 February 2020
Publisher: NineStar Press
Length: 48,300 words approx
Sex Content: N/A
Content Warnings: violence, guns, and mentions of past executions of women and children.
Keywords: lesbian, yuri, near future, mystery, thriller, animal roleplay/pet play, cyberpunk
With Angel Tanner, the android that runs California’s criminal underworld, pulling the strings, PI Cassie Tam finds herself thrust into a conflict with New Hopeland’s biggest and baddest. But working with the murderous AI may be the only way that Cassie can get to the bottom of her home’s greatest mystery: What is New Hopeland City?
As she struggles to balance her dealings with allies and enemies alike, Cassie is left with a difficult choice. She has always straddled the line between light and dark. Now, the time to decide which side she’s on is drawing close…if she can figure out which is which.
Matt Doyle © 2020
All Rights Reserved
I look to my right and find a free space to pull the car into. I have a couple of different ringtones on my cell phone, each assigned to give me a clear idea of whether I need—or want—to answer it. This generic-but-far-too-loud melody marks this call as coming from one particular number. Given what day it is, I’ve been expecting to hear from them. The last few days have been spent playing a game that’s essentially the adult equivalent of passing notes in class. I leave a note somewhere, I get another at home, I respond somewhere else. It’s been a pain, and it’s all been leading up to this. “It’s where it leads next I’m worried about.”
I steel myself and tap the screen to answer the call. A female voice comes through, dripping with an overacted panic. “Is…is that Cassandra Tam?”
I recognise the voice instantly. “It is. Cassie or Caz is fine.”
“My name is Anna Welch. I need help, Miss Tam.”
I sigh. “Well, that’s what I’m here for. Do you want to discuss this over the phone, or would you rather meet in person?”
“In person,” she replies, and I can hear the smile in her voice. “Somewhere neutral would be best. I’m rather paranoid, you see.”
“Okay, that’s fine. Where?”
“I’ll text you the location.”
She hangs up, and the text comes through almost immediately. Once I’ve finished reading it, I can’t help but smile. She wants to meet at an old abandoned warehouse. It’s one I’m familiar with. A few months back, I broke up a dog fight in the same building. During the case, I discovered there’s a secret entrance to the building via an underground network of hallways. That gives me a way to monitor her if I need to. Or a convenient escape route.
I hit the speed dial for Lori, and it goes straight to her answering service. After the beep, I say, “Hey, it’s Cassie. I guess you’re driving. Listen, I’ve just had a call from a potential client, and I’m gonna have to go meet with them. I’m still coming, but it may be worth checking what later times there are for the film, just in case this runs long. Anyway. Be with you soon.”
I throw my phone onto the passenger seat next to me and pull out into the light traffic of the New Hopeland afternoon.
By the time I reach the warehouse, I’ve already run through a number of different scenarios in my head. None of them ended well, so I’m putting my faith in reality right now. “No fear, Tam, this was a voluntary trip,” I remind myself, and push the main door open. Inside looks the same as it did the last time I was here, minus the boxed area. And people.
Frowning, I make my way towards the back of the building and start checking doors. Finally, I spot a far-too-tight black ponytail, illuminated by the screen of a computer. “Welch. Real cute using the surname of the woman you murdered,” I say, just loud enough to make sure she heard it.
Angel Tanner spins in her chair towards me and laughs, casually turning her monitor off as she does so. “Now, detective, you know full well Harold did that.”
“The way I understand it, it amounts to much the same thing, eh?” I walk into the room and she rises to meet me. When she offers a handshake, I take it on instinct.
“Actually, no. The core result is the same, but the point is it wasn’t me. That makes it a very different thing, at least in the eyes of the law. Still, I’m happy you reached out.”
“I almost didn’t,” I say and then shake my head. “No, that’s not true. I considered looking for a different way to contact you after I found out our mutual acquaintance was Gary Locke. You could have got in touch any time you wanted.”
“Yes, I could have. But I knew talking to Mister Locke would be hard for you after that whole unfortunate incident with your girlfriend and her brother.”
“Unfortunate incident?” I reply, my words dripping with a mix of anger and shock. “He tried to kill both of us. And he convinced her brother to take his own life for a cause that wasn’t even real.”
“Which is why I did it this way. I needed to know you were serious in your intention. Oh, and the cause was real, I’m certain of that. Or the part Locke cared about was anyway.”
I grunt and shake my head. “I didn’t come here to talk about conspiracy theories. You said I wanted to know what’s happening in New Hopeland, and you’re right. You want help to find out the same thing, so I came. Can we please get on with this? I have plans.”
She smiles her creepy smile and nods. “You and me both, detective. But that’s fine. Today was more about checking you’re on board than anything. So, this will be our base of operations for the time being. It’s out of the way, and it’s neither used nor monitored, so it’s fit for purpose.”
I shrug. “Seems okay. It’s easy enough to get to.”
“I should hope so. You’ll be spending a good amount of time here. Now, to business. What I said on the phone wasn’t entirely false; I really do need your help. As you can imagine, I can’t move freely right now, and my links in the city aren’t particularly well suited for certain jobs. Like the one I have for you to do tomorrow.”
She pulls an envelope out of her pocket and hands it to me. “This contains a couple of photographs relating to Anna Welch’s case. You’re going to visit Mister Locke at the prison tomorrow morning and question him about them. They contain some gifts for him, a mild drug on one, and a special communicator on the other. You’ll find a corresponding communicator in there, too, along with instructions as to what to do with it. Make sure you read them somewhere cameras can’t see them clearly.”
“Great. You know, he wasn’t happy to see me the last time.”
“I don’t doubt it. Harold will make sure he plays nice though. I trust you can do the same?”
“Good enough.” She waves me away and heads back to her computer. “Now, go enjoy yourself. We’ll talk more soon.”
Play nicely. Follow orders until you know more. I leave without another word.
I put the knife down on the chopping board and giggle as Lori nervously glances towards a sound outside. “I’m sorry, but it’s normally me who gets scared. You’re the one who’s supposed to be protecting me from the monsters on screen.”
“I can’t help it,” Lori says, her tone almost indignant. “Goats…really freak me out.”
I lean back against the counter and tilt my head, showing her a playful frown. “Then why go to a film about the Maryland Goatman?”
“Because you wanted to see it.”
“Nuh-uh, you don’t get to shift that one to me. You were definitely into seeing it too.”
“I didn’t think it would be so scary. He’s part man, I thought that would counteract the goat bit. Plus, we didn’t really see him in the trailer, so I wasn’t expecting…that,” she replies, waving her hand in a vaguely Goatman shape.
“He did look good,” I say and return to chopping a carrot.
“Effective, not good,” Lori says and fires up the hob. She throws a couple of steaks into a pan, and the oil immediately starts to sizzle noisily.
“So, what is it with goats?” I ask.
“That’s my gran’s fault. I had this stuffed troll when I was little. It used to come with me on sleepovers. Eddie and I were staying at our grandparents’ place one weekend, and when she saw it, she said she knew a bedtime story about a troll.”
I smile. It’s good Lori is able to mention her brother’s name without the clear pain now. Plus, I like hearing about her childhood. She had far fewer scuffles than I did. Wait. Trolls. Goats. “She told you the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff?”
Lori shivers. “Exactly.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“Those goats were bullies. They wanted to trespass on the troll’s field, and when he quite rightly said no, one of them pushed him into the river and killed him.”
“I’m not sure that’s how most kids take the story, you know.”
“I really loved trolls as a kid. And my one, he used to keep the nightmares away. So, the thought of these terrifying monsters who could kill a troll, just like that…Urgh.”
I giggle again because I can’t help it, and Lori taps me on the head with the fork she’s using to keep the meat moving. “Don’t you laugh at me, Miss Hides-from-everything-other-than-goats. They scream like people, too, you know. That’s just plain creepy.”
I scrape the carrots into a steamer and make a start on the tomatoes, struggling to keep from laughing again. “Well, what about that guy at the TS meets? Jerry? He’s a goat.”
“No, he’s Jerry. Even in his gear, you can see him in there. Besides, Ink isn’t afraid of goats.”
“What about gargoyles?”
Lori smiles and adds some spice to the pan. “Isn’t it more of an issue if he’s scared of me?”
“True. Still, I do think Bert knows you well enough to recognise you. Plus, he didn’t react badly to Donal O’Brien in his TS gear.”
“Bert’s sweet; I trust him not to go nuts on me. I still think it’s a good idea to not introduce us at a meet though. So many unfamiliar Tech Shifters in the same place? It could spook him. Especially with how far into their headspace some of them go.”
“Yeah, I think you’re right. Maybe we could give it a try early next week?”
“Sure. How do you want yours, by the way?”
I glance over and she nods into the pan. “Well done. What else should I cut up for the salad? I don’t want to leave you foodless.”
“I’ve got plenty in. If you check the fridge, there should be some mushrooms and peppers. Maybe some lettuce too?”
“I’m on it. You ever cook onions in with the steaks? They really soak up the juices.”
“Sounds good. There’s a bag of prechopped onion in there. If you could grab it, I’ll throw a handful in.”
I hand over the bag and return to my chopping board. This time, I take two plates and start serving up the food as I go. “Wine or coffee?”
“Coffee, I think. It’ll stave off the nightmares a bit longer. You know, it’s a shame the restaurant was closed. Just our luck to finally get a reservation for the day they flood, right? Cooking together is fun though.”
“I could really get used to this.” The moment the words leave my mouth, I automatically hit panic mode and start babbling in an effort to stall on saying what I want to but am too scared to. “Cooking together, I mean. It’s fun, you’re right. Hey, wanna find something on TV in a minute? To take your mind off the Goatman?”
Lori smiles gently and gives me an even gentler kiss on the forehead before sliding a steak onto each plate. “Sounds good. And for the record, I could get used to it too.”