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I stared at my sidekick, willing it to chirp. I'd already tried watching the door, but no one had even breathed on it. I could’ve been writing up the Rashmi Jones case, but then I could’ve been dusting the office. It needed dusting. Or having a consult with Johnnie Walker, who had just that morning opened an office in the bottom drawer of my desk. Instead, I decided to open the window. Maybe a new case would arrive by carrier pigeon. Or wrapped around a brick.
Three stories below me, Market Street was as empty as the rest of the city. Just a couple of plain janes in walking shoes and a granny in a blanket and sandals. She was sitting on the curb in front of a dead Starbucks, strumming street guitar for pocket change, hoping to find a philanthropist in hell. Her singing was faint but sweet as peach ice cream. My guy, talking ‘bout my guy. Poor old bitch, I thought. There are no guys -- not yours, not anyone's. She stopped singing as a devil flapped over us, swooping for a landing on the next block. It had been a beautiful June morning until then, the moist promise of spring not yet broken by summer in our withered city. The granny struggled up, leaning on her guitar. She wrapped the blanket tight around her and trudged downtown.
My sidekick did chirp then, but it was Sharifa, my about-to-be ex-lover. She must have been calling from the hospital; she was wearing her light blue scrubs. Even on the little screen, I could see that she had been crying. "Hi Fay."
I bit my lip.
"Come home tonight," she said. "Please."
"I don’t know where home is."
"I'm sorry about what I said." She folded her arms tight across her chest. "It's your body. Your life."
I loved her. I was sick about being seeded, the abortion, everything that had happened between us in the last week. I said nothing.
Her voice was sandpaper on glass. "Have you had it done yet?" That made me angry all over again. She was wound so tight she couldn't even say the word.
"Let me guess, Doctor," I said, '"Are we talking about me getting scrubbed?"
Her face twisted. "Don't."
"If you want the dirt," I said, "you could always hire me to shadow myself. I need the work."
"Make it a joke, why don't you?"
"Okey-doke, Doc," I said and clicked off.
So my life was cocked -- not exactly main menu news. Still, even with the window open, Sharifa’s call had sucked all the air out of my office. I told myself that all I needed was coffee, although what I really wanted was a rich aunt, a vacation in Fiji and a new girlfriend. I locked the door behind me, slogged down the hall and was about to press the down button when the elevator chimed. The doors slid open to reveal George, the bot in charge of our building, and a devil -- no doubt the same one that had just flown by. I told myself this had nothing to do with me. The devil was probably seeing crazy Martha down the hall about a tax rebate or taking piano lessons from Abby upstairs. Sure, and drunks go to bars for the peanuts.
"Hello, Fay," said George. "This one had true hopes of finding you in your office."
I goggled, slack-jawed and stupefied, at the devil. Of course, I’d seen them on vids and in the sky and once I watched one waddle into City Hall but I'd never been close enough to slap one before. I hated the devils. The elevator doors shivered and began to close. George stuck an arm out to stop them.
"May this one borrow some of your time?" George said.
The devil was just over a meter tall. Its face was the color of an old bloodstain and its maw seemed to kiss the air as it breathed with a wet, sucking sound. The wings were wrapped tight around it; the membranes had a rusty translucence that only hinted at the sleek bullet of a body beneath. I could see my reflection in its flat compound eyes. I looked like I had just been hit in the head with a lighthouse.
"Something is regrettable, Fay?" said George.
That was my cue for a wisecrack to show them that no invincible mass-murdering alien was going to intimidate Fay Hardaway.
"No," I said. "This way."
If they could’ve sat in chairs, there would’ve been plenty of room for us in my office. But George announced that the devil needed to make itself comfortable before we began. I nodded as I settled behind my desk, grateful to have something between the two of them and me. George dragged both chairs out into the little reception room. The devil spread its wings and swooped up onto my file cabinet, ruffling the hardcopy on my desk. It filled the back wall of my office as it perched there, a span of almost twenty feet. George wedged himself into a corner and absorbed his legs and arms until he was just a head and a slab of gleaming blue bot stuff. The devil gazed at me as if it were wondering what kind of rug I would make. I brought up three new icons on my desktop. New Case. Searchlet. Panic button.
"Indulge this one to speak for Seeren?" said George. "Seeren has a bright desire to task you to an investigation."
The devils never spoke to us, never explained what they were doing. No one knew exactly how they communicated with the army of bots they had built to prop us up.
I opened the New Case folder and the green light blinked. "I'm recording this. If I decide to accept your case, I will record my entire investigation."
"A thoughtful gesture, Fay. This one needs to remark on your client Rashmi Jones."
"She's not my client." It took everything I had not to fall off my chair. "What about her?"
"Seeren conveys vast regret. All deaths diminish all."
I didn't like it that this devil knew anything at all about Rashmi, but especially that she was dead. I'd found the body in Room 103 of the Comfort Inn just twelve hours ago. "The cops already have the case." I didn't mind that there was a snarl in my voice. "Or what's left of it. There's nothing I can do for you."
"A permission, Fay?"
The icon was already flashing on my desktop. I opened it and saw a pix of Rashmi in the sleeveless taupe dress that she had died in. She had the blue ribbon in her hair. She was smiling, as carefree as a kid on the last day of school. The last thing she was thinking about was sucking on an inhaler filled with hydrogen cyanide. Holding her hand was some brunette dressed in a mannish chalk-stripe suit and a matching pillbox hat with a veil as fine as smoke. The couple preened under a garden arch that dripped with pink roses. They faced right, in the direction of the hand of some third party standing just off camera. It was an elegant hand, a hand that had never been in dishwater or changed a diaper. There was a wide silver ring on the fourth finger, engraved with a pattern or maybe some kind of fancy writing. I zoomed on the ring and briefly tormented pixels but couldn't get the pattern resolved.
I looked up at the devil and then at George. "So?"
"This one notices especially the digimark," said George. "Date-stamped June 12, 2:52."
"You're saying it wa s taken yesterday afternoon?"
That didn't fit -- except that it did. I had Rashmi downtown shopping for shoes late yesterday morning. At 11:46 she bought a $13 pair of this season's Donya Durands, now missing. At 1:23 she charged 89¢ for a Waldorf salad and an iced tea at Maison Diana. She checked into the Comfort Inn at 6:40. She didn't have a reservation, so maybe this was a spur of the moment decision. The desk clerk remembered her as distraught. That was the word she used. A precise word, although a bit highbrow for the Comfort Inn. Who buys expensive shoes the day before she intends to kill herself? Somebody who is distraught. I glanced again at my desktop. Distraught was precisely what Rashmi Jones was not in this pix. Then I noticed the shoes: ice and taupe Donya Durands.
"Where did you get this?" I said to the devil.
It stared through me like I was a dirty window.
I tried the bot. I wouldn't say that I liked George exactly, but he'd always been straight with me. "What's this about, George? Finding the tommy?"
"The woman holding Rashmi's hand."
"Seeren has made this one well aware of Kate Vermeil," said George. "Such Kate Vermeil takes work at 44 East Washington Avenue and takes home at 465 12th Avenue, Second Floor Left."
I liked that, I liked it a lot. Rashmi's mom had told me that her daughter had a Christer friend called Kate, but I didn't even have a last name, much less an address. I turned to the devil again. "You know this how?"
All that got me was another empty stare.
"Seeren," I said, pushing back out of my chair, "I'm afraid George has led you astray. I'm the private investigator." I stood to show them out. "The mind reader's office is across the street."
This time George didn't ask permission. My desktop chirped. I waved open a new icon. A certified bank transfer in the amount of a thousand dollars dragged me back onto my chair.
"A cordial inducement," said George. "With a like amount offered after the success of your investigation."
I thought of a thousand dinners in restaurants with linen tablecloths. "Tell me already." A thousand bottles of smoky scotch.
"This one draws attention to the hand of the unseen person," said the bot. "Seeren has the brightest desire to meeting such person for fruitful business discussions."
The job smelled like the dumpster at Fran's Fish Fry. Precious little money changed hands in the pretend economy. The bots kept everything running, but they did nothing to create wealth. That was supposed to be up to us, I guess, only we'd been sort of discouraged. In some parts of town, that kind of change could hire a Felony 1, with a handful of Misdemeanors thrown in for good luck.
"That's more than I'm worth," I said. "A hundred times more. If Seeren expects me to break the arm attached to that hand, it's talking to the wrong jane."
"Violence is to be deplored," said George. "However, Seeren tasks Fay to discretion throughout. Never police, never news, never even rumor if possible."
"Oh, discretion." I accepted the transfer. "For two large, I can be as discreet as the Queen's butler."