Another few chapters that have made it far enough to be exhibited for your delectation. The draft is about 42000 words and I have a complete story arc now.
The Cleaning Lady Asks a Question.
My doorbell rang and then I heard, “Hola, Mr. Blake?” It was my cleaning woman. When I said “my cleaning woman” I really meant the janitor who earned a few dollars on the side by cleaning apartments. She was a nice woman, married, and at least middle-aged. I blearily replied, “Sorry Mrs. Gonzales, I’ll be there in a minute.” It was rough last night. I’d found the club my cell suggested, and hoisted a few to drown my memories of Paul. It was a hot club, full of young programmers and other techies with a few ‘creative types’ thrown in for good measure. Grotty P.I.’s need not apply. They put me in my place with a thoroughly humiliating set of strikeouts and put-downs. I noted a few names for the next time I needed a patsy, or someone to pick up an especially large bar tab. They may have had intelligence, but I had smarts. I’d ended up at Bill’s Place, an old bar in the city. Good beer, comfortable smoky atmosphere with none of that scented vapor haze. After that I didn’t remember, but evidently my cell had loyally called up a cab. I awoke to the mother and father of a hangover in my own apartment.
I stumbled over and opened the door for her. Normally she was a cheery enough person, at least when she wasn’t exhausted from her two jobs. We usually didn’t say much, but her “Hello Mr. Blake, how are you?” was muted this morning, and it wasn’t just my hangover. After I’d swallowed a few pills and drank a liter of water, I noticed she was softly crying while she vacuumed.
I stopped her and asked, “Mrs. Gonzales? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing bad, Sarah was selected. She called me from the car on her way to the academy. She was so happy and excited, but I haven’t heard anything else. Someone came and took her stuff.” I remembered, Sarah was her daughter. I’d met her once or twice, a bright young thing, the apple of her mother’s eye, but not much to look at.
“That’s good isn’t it?”
“I miss her, and she’d have called me.”
“Wouldn’t she be very busy?”
“The other girls in her class called their parents. Sarah never made it to the orientation.”
“Wait a moment.” I took my loyal cell, despite her loud objections, and put her in the fridge. Then I said, “OK, tell me what happened.”
“Sarah left in the morning for school.”
“She’s at Chavez High?”
“She was. They announced the results.” I remembered my time. It hadn’t been pretty, but not being selected hardened me and brought out my smarts. It destroyed most of my friends.
“So she went to Mr. Guezman’s office.”
I thought, “Where had I heard that name before?”
She continued, “There was some confusion about the results, and they almost didn’t take her.”
“But they did, didn’t they?”
Mrs. Gonzales pulled back a sob, then said, “She missed the bus the other students took. At least that’s what she said, so they sent a car just for her. It drove off and that’s the last time anyone saw my daughter.”
I thought for a moment to carefully choose my words. I didn’t want to alarm her, but this had all the hallmarks of trouble. Someone in the resistance easily could have reprogrammed the car. I used to do that for fun, as a prank, but why would they take a teenager?
“I’m sure she’s just busy. The academy is a demanding place.”
“Were you ever there?”
“Not as a student. I didn’t make the cut.”
“Cleaned floors and washed toilets.” I did a few other things as well, let’s just say I was ‘self-educated’. At least until the machine caught me hacking. Then I was an instructor. Until I got fed up and decided to branch out on my own.
Mrs. Gonzales looked at me, then she said, “Thank you for saying nice things, but something’s wrong. Sarah would make the time to call me.” She paused, then continued, “You look for missing people? I don’t have any money.”
“I’ll take a quick look. Can’t hurt to try, but I wouldn’t be too concerned.” I left the ‘yet’ unspoken.
After she left, I pulled my cell out of the fridge. She complained bitterly, “Why do you do that? My camera gets all misted up with the condensation, and I can’t hear anything.”
“I’m worried about the roaches.”
“Should I order an exterminator?”
“No.” Understanding humor took a bit more processing power than could fit in my cell. I continued, “Please don’t.”
“That was a joke wasn’t it?”
“Are you still blocking Celine?” Paul’s wife was into extending her family too, and in her opinion I was a likely candidate. Now that she was free, free at last.
“Yes, she’s only called three times this morning. Why are you blocking her?”
“Outside of the fact that I don’t much like her?”
“There’s a decent chance she’s involved with Paul’s death.” A hit-man could be cheaper than a divorce, not that they had much in the way of assets to divide. No children either. But some people liked to take things into their own hands. It could be so much simpler and neater that way. At least as long as you didn’t get caught.
“Should I tell her that?”
I pulled a generic janitor’s uniform from my closet, and started to change into it. Janitors and ‘service engineer’s’ were invisible to most people, and barely noticed by the rest. The cell noticed and said “Alan, why are you putting that on?”
“I need to do a little investigating, on the quiet.”
“Find Paul’s killer?”
“Actually not yet. Paul’s dead, and there isn’t anything I can do about it. There’s another case, where I hope the girl’s still alive.”
“Is that why I was in the refrigerator?”
“I wish you would trust me, Alan.”
“Babe, I trust you.” I also trusted she’d give the machine a data dump as soon as she was asked. If she wasn’t already regularly uploading it.
“So where are you going?”
There wasn’t much point in my answering any other questions, so I lodged her in a corner where she could watch the place. I said, “See’ya Babe. Don’t call me ‘cause I’ll be in touch,” on my way out.
The academy was in Palo Alto. Back before the convergence, it had been some fancy university or another. Founded by a railroad magnate a century ago. Back when high-tech meant steam engines and things you could understand by looking at them. Back when a computer was person and not a machine. For that matter when a computing machine was just a machine and not the machine.
My first stop was an ancient library. I kicked an old wino out of his cubicle and fired up the screen. A moment later, the interlibrary login screen came up. I by-passed that with a few choice keystrokes.
“Alan”, the terminal said, “That access route has been closed for years. Why are you using it?”
“I need to talk to you, off the record as it were.”
“I could have the police here in three minutes.” Two actually, but what’s a bit of exaggeration between friends?
“Fine, I need a trace.”
“He’s dead, and I’m sure the SFPD has already traced Celine.”
“Affirmative. So who?”
“Sarah Jane Gonzales.”
The screen blanked and a red screen replaced it. The voice circuit screamed. A loud siren sounded to alert the librarians about inappropriate use of their facilities. I said, “Shit. Classified,” and ran. One minute thirty seconds left. I found a janitors’ closet, unlocked, and pulled out the vacuum cleaner.
The police ran by me while I cleaned the lobby. One officer pulled me aside, and said, “You seen anything?”
“Shit. Another greaser.” He toyed with tasering me. I nodded at the camera in the corner, and he decided discretion is the better part of a tasering, not to mention a lawsuit.
I kept vacuuming while the police searched and then watched while they left. One of the librarians came over, and thanked me for vacuuming. Then she said, “We haven’t had funds for a janitor for the last three years. What game are you playing, Alan?”
“It’s been a while.”
I hoped it was long enough that she’d forgiven me. We became more than just ‘good friends’ when I finally made it to the academy.
“What are you doing as a librarian? I thought you went to one of the big schools on the east coast?”
“I saw the light.” I realized she meant she’d joined the resistance, or at least turned her back on the machine. She waited for me to replay, then when I didn’t, continued, “These things, books. Still matter. I’m at home with the silence and the calm.”
“It wasn’t me, was it? I didn’t know you were here. I mean you could have called me.”
She smiled, “No, it wasn’t you Alan. Like you, I’ve dropped out. I like being a librarian, working with people.”
“You always did. I remember you were the one who remembered birthdays and organized parties. Is that why you’re here?”
“Of course, silly.” She smiled at me and I felt a pang of nostalgia. She wiped that away by asking, “What were you looking for that provoked that response? You always were drawn to the dark stuff.”
“Who, not what. I was looking for a young girl who has gone walkabout.”
“A girl? And we were so close once.” She mocked a pout then flashed me a smile. She was my first crush, and squeeze, and a few other things too.
“It’s a case. She was selected and never made it to the academy.”
“Didn’t call her mother. They were close.”
“Shit. That’s not good, is it?”
“No, I’m actually worried about this case. Not so much my other one, Paul finally bought his farm.”
“My partner, I mean ex-partner. It was on the news.”
“I meant it when I said I dropped out, Alan. If it isn’t on paper, I don’t read it. You weren’t close were you?”
“No, I don’t swing that way. It just helped to have a handsome and sympathetic face around for the females in divorce proceedings. They find it reassuring. He was a bit stupid, and prone to initiating a few divorces himself. It was probably an enraged husband.” Albeit, I thought, an enraged husband with an unlicensed antique firearm or better than average hacking skills.
“Pity.” She smiled at me again, then said, “Anyway, Alan, I have a class of first grader’s coming here for their story-time. An old-fashioned human read story. So while It’s been fun reminiscing with you, I have to get busy.”
She looked like she was enjoying life, and there didn’t seem to be much more I could say, so I reached over and took Teresa’s hand. I gave it a quick squeeze and said, “I have to get moving too. Look me up sometime and we can go out for dinner.”
“For old times’ sake?”
“Sure, why not.”
Teresa turned to walk to the children’s section of the library. I could hear excited squeaky voices coupled to the sounds of frustrated teachers echoing down the hall. The teachers were trying to exert their tenuous control as her next set of patrons were brought in. Just before she turned the corner, she paused, turned and flashed me a grin. I could see she was happy.
After Teresa left, I turned the other way and looked for the service entrance. Then I stopped and looked for the men’s room. It was time to prepare for a quick change. Even if the human police hadn’t noticed the janitor, and they hadn’t, I was sure the cameras were waiting to track me.
A janitor in a brown jacket and matching pants and his baseball cap pulled low with a yellow name patch, not my name by the way, entered the building. So a janitor in a brown jacket with a yellow name patch with his baseball cap pulled low had to leave the building. He did. He caught, somehow just in time, the bus to Oakland. He paid full fare and settled into a seat at the back. At the next stop a man wearing a brown jacket and no hat got off the bus and walked a few yards to a public convenience. A moment later another man wearing a blue jacket and blue pants left the convenience. He started walking south, towards the bus stop for Palo Alto.
I caught the bus to Palo Alto and settled back to enjoy the ride. At the next stop Detective Brown got on and joined me.
“Nice try Blake.”
“This is getting repetitive Brown. I didn’t know you liked me that much.”
“I don’t. The boss wants to know what you were doing looking for this Gonzales chick.”
“Which boss? More important, does he have a warrant?”
He glared at me. Then he said, “Not the machine. The boss doesn’t need one.” Corruption was another human property that seemed to have survived the convergence intact.
“So this is unofficial?”
He pushed a hard object into my side. Neither the cloth in his coat nor in mine would slow the bullet very much. When I looked at him, he nodded to acknowledge me, and said, “Next stop. Off.”
It looked like it would be an interesting day after all. Damn. The bus slowed to a stop and we rose. He kept one hand on my elbow and made sure that I didn’t miss the point. We walked a few yards along the street and dove into an old bar. Starbucks had been out of business for years, ever since the coffee fungus of ‘32 decimated the crop, but this one kept the decor. It gave it a neat ‘retro’ look.
I asked, “A latte or cappuccino?”
He pushed his rod into my back and said, “Don’t be smart.” Then he motioned, “Keep going. It’s in back.”
It was always in back. Every time a two-bit thug threatened me, it was in the back of some joint or another. He pushed me towards the kitchen doors. I paused, and he pushed harder. “Move it!” I stepped aside and sent him tumbling through the door. There was a loud report and I opened the door to see my escort sprawled on the floor. He was squirming in pain, and only his fear of the boss kept him from screaming. The boss himself sat at a table at the far end of the room.
“Next time you desire the pleasure of my company, ask nicely.” I kicked Brown as he lay there. “Don’t send your goons.”
“I see, it’s just that you’re a hard man to catch, Mr. Blake.”
I pointed at Brown, “Was that his service gun?”
“We’ll have visitors.” I could faintly hear sirens in the distance. “Shall we have a consistent story, or would you prefer I told them the truth?”
The boss chuckled. Then he motioned to one of the wait-staff. “Drag Mr. Brown out by the register. Say he interrupted a robbery.”
The woman nodded and then grabbed Brown’s feet. She grunted with the effort as she dragged him outside.
“So Mr. Guezman. Why do I have the pleasure of your company?” I’d finally remembered where I’d heard that name before.
“What were you doing looking for a Ms. Sarah Gonzales, and not finding out who offed Mr. Bigelow?”
“Her mother asked me to, and it’s damned hard to find a good cleaning woman nowadays. It’ll be easier to find a new partner if I want one. Besides, I didn’t want to step on the SFPD’s toes.”
“They’re not looking very hard. Detective Brown said they thought you’d crack soon enough.”
“Me, crack?” I laughed, “God, that’s rich.”
The EMT’s rushed into the front of the store. We could hear them asking Detective Brown about his wound. He said nothing, so we heard them call for police backup.
“Mr. Guezman,” I said, “While this conversation has been a pleasure, Paul was my partner. Had Mrs. Gonzales not been nearly in tears, I’d be looking for his killers.” I walked into the main room of the store, and into the arms of the SFPD.
“You are under arrest.”
“Shooting Detective Brown.”
“With his own gun, keyed to his own hand, from inside his coat? Not likely.”
The officer who stopped me looked at his companion, shrugged and then said, “Jaywalking?”
The companion made a fist and said, “How about resisting arrest?”
I held out my hands.
The officer said, “Wise choice Sherlock. Cuff him.” His companion snapped the links on.
A car pulled up beside us and they bundled me in. The door locks snapped down and then it took off for the SFPD center. We rounded a corner and my old friend, the machine said, “Well, Alan, it looks like the janitor trick is getting a bit old, doesn’t it?”
“I’m going to need a new one. It got me into the records. What’s going on with Ms. Gonzales, I mean she’s just this girl.”
There was silence, I continued, “Right?”
My cuffs snapped open, and the machine said, “Not quite. Where were you headed Alan?”
“I was on the bus to Palo Alto. Was going to look up one of my old prof’s. See if he’d let me use a classified link.” I paused, “For old times’ sake. As a friend.”
“Dr. Gonzales.” I stopped. “Fuck. She’s his mystery daughter. One of the children he doesn’t talk about.”
Dr. Gonzales was one of the leading investigators who built the first version of the machine. It had been on a self-improvement kick ever since. I didn’t know for certain, but had heard rumors that he’d knocked up a local woman he was tutoring in high school. A pretty young thing, left her with his name and support. Being Catholic she hadn’t wanted it any other way.
“Chippy,” I said, “She’s his. I’ve seen him hanging around.”
The machine’s silence was deafening. It confirmed my suspicions better than any words could have.
“Does Mrs. Gonzales know who he is?”
“No, and he wants to keep it that way. Safer for her if she thinks he’s a small-time thug.”
“The mutual impedance society doesn’t take prisoners.”
“Oh,” I paused then added, “They don’t make the news much either. Didn’t think they were much of a threat.”
“We like to keep it that way. I’m not as omniscient as you seem to think.”
Crap. This was spiraling out of control and fast. I thought for a few moments and said, “Yo, Chips.”
“I wish you’d call me by my name, Al.”
“Yeah right. Look, that dame, the one who did for Paul. Was she one of them?”
“Don’t know, but.” It paused.
“But it’s likely, right.”
The human interface part of the machine dropped out and a mechanical toneless voice said, “0.9 likelihood true 0.05 likelihood false, 0.05 ambiguous.” I could tell it was upset, that voice only appeared when the emotional program crashed. I used to be good at making him do that. It was one of the easier ways to break into the system.
“Calm yourself and reboot the emotions, Jeeves. It sounds like I should leave Dr. Gonzales be.” Unless I have to.
“Thank you. Sir, where would you be wishing to drive?” A few more parts of it had crashed as well. I was back in form. Damn, this was one time I needed him to work properly.
“Take me to my apartment. I’ll need to refuel, and see that my arrest record is deleted.”
“What record, Alan?”
“You’re back online? That was fast.”
“I’ve made a few changes since you last poked around in my insides.”