A cyberpunk detective story.
She looked at me in a soon-to-be-emotional way that meant I should get to the point as quickly as possible.
“Those are my fees,” I said. “I’m not flexible regarding them and I expect to be paid on time.”
She nodded and inhaled through her nose, a wet, stuffy sound made more pathetic by the tears. I didn’t have a Kleenex to give her.
I continued, “Mrs. Wynett, I’m aware this is difficult for you.”
“You don’t know anything,” she said.
I looked at her without speaking. She wore an outfit out of the latest fashion feed: ribbons of bioluminescent fabric hung from a plastic ring around her neck, covering nothing and pulsing colors in a caricature of chromed reflections. Her skirt was barely opaque and pale green, veined with darker shades. She looked like a flower gone to seed.
I nodded. “You might be right. But this is my job and I deal with situations like this every day. So while I may lack your subjective awareness, I certainly have a keen objective grasp of the in’s and out’s.”
“I’m beginning to not like you, Detective Pegg.”
“You don’t have to like me,” I said. “You’re hiring me to find your husband, not replace him.”
I think she would’ve slapped me if she’d been close enough. Instead, she sat up straighter and crossed her arms, grabbing her elbows. “You must find it difficult to keep clients if you say things like that to all of them.”
“I don’t,” I said. “I’m sorry.” I mean it. I added, “That was out of line.”
“It was.” She hugged herself tighter. “I’m willing to put it behind me, though. I need to find my husband, Detective.”
“I’ll do my best. It’s a big city. I can’t make any promises but — ”
“Is there some sort of refund if you don’t find him?”
Normally I’d say no, but I still felt bad and didn’t want to lose the client. “Fifteen percent. But that’s only if I decide to call it quits, not if you just think I’m taking too long.”
She reached for her purse. “I assume you don’t make a habit of dragging out investigations?”
“No. I’m honest, Mrs. Wynett.”
“I do hope so.” She pulled out her credit card and handed it to me. “Please take the retainer. I’d appreciate it if you’d begin immediately.”
I took my card out of my wallet, pressed it against hers, and thumbed the amount. “Of course,” I said. “My client list’s thin right now. I’ll start some digging tonight.”
“Thank you.” She smiled. I liked it and said so.
“You’re here to find my husband,” she reminded me. Mrs. Wynett stood, turned around, and left my office, the door banging shut behind her.
I leaned back in my chair and looked at the ceiling. A moth flew from the top of a shelf and got caught in the currents of the fan mounted at the center of the room. It moved in tight circles for a dozen revolutions and then broke free, fluttering down a helix path. It immediately returned to the fan.
I opened a window, waved my arms, and after much trial and error, guided the moth out.
I looked at the clock. 3:30. I palmed my desk into phone mode and rang up Wendell Nest at the police department. His smooth, baled, brown face — like an old boxer’s — appeared in an eight-by-eight square next to my coffee mug.
“Pegg. Good to see you.”
“Hey, Wendell. I need access to the citizen DB.”
“Is this for a case?”
I nodded. “Of course.”
“Good. I had to ask. Procedure.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll send you a temporary access code.”
“Thanks.” I reached over to hang up.
“It was good to hear from you, Ian.”
“Yeah,” I said.
Nest said, “Good luck,” and hung up before my hand hit the button.
I finished my coffee while I waited for the code. The desk beeped its arrival a couple of minutes later. I loaded up the DB, fed in the sequence of numbers Nest had sent me, and entered Robert Wynett’s name.
His picture loaded in the upper left corner and text began to fill in the space around it. I told myself to remember to renew my speech synth subscription soon.
Robert Wynett was a thin man in his mid-thirties. His Past Grievances Amendment registration photo was a couple of years old and showed him with wavy brown hair of the sort that can only come naturally and the sharp features of health and low body fat. He looked like someone I’d probably like.
His CV said he was currently employed by Accelerated Conduction, Inc. at a fifty-eighth story research park nine miles from the coast. The salary listed was higher than I’d expected but made sense in light of the clothes his wife had been wearing. Her name was listed under the heading “Spouse” and next to it was “unemployed.”
Wynett’s criminal record was short and boring. He’d been busted a decade ago for sex with a minor just before it had been made legal. It said he had begun the process of getting registered as an offender, but his lawyer had argued him out of it.
There was nothing to explain his sudden disappearance.
I pushed my chair back from the desk and stood. Then I quickly sat back down, looked for, and keyed Wynett’s mobile number. It rang eight times before someone picked up. In the background I could hear club music, a polyrhythmic thumping and the hiss of synthesized exhaust.
“Hello?” I said.
I got nothing for several seconds, just the music and, once, people shouting. Then: “And you are?” The voice had the strange modulations of heavy drug use.
“My name’s Ian Pegg. Is this Robert Wynett?”
Another few seconds went by before he responded, “Not anymore.”
“Mr. Wynett, I’m a detective. I was hired by your wife — ”
“She’s dead to me,” Wynett said.
“That may well be, sir, but she’d like me to find you. And I guess I sort of have. And, frankly, that has me a little confused.”
Wynett coughed. I heard him take a drink. He said, “I’m tired, Ian. I’m going to hang up.”
“Wait! Just one phone call, Mr. Wynett, that’s all I had to do. Why couldn’t she have done that?”
Robert Wynett killed the connection and I stood up for the second time, grabbed my coat, and left the office.
Outside the humidity was spiking. The beach just east of my building was covered with people holding what looked like a body mod festival, and the monolithic shadows of the cell generators half-a-mile out to sea cut the crowd into bands of light and dark.
I hailed a cab and gave the Native American woman behind the wheel Rebecca Wynett’s home address. As we drove, I thought about what I’d say. I couldn’t spook her; that was important. I couldn’t show her the same confusion I’d expressed to her husband. The more I thought about it, the less I was sure exactly why I was on the way to her apartment.
I hadn’t made any progress by the time the cab stopped. I got out and dug in my pocket for my card to tip. The woman pointed at the union policies sticker on the windshield and shook her head. I shrugged and put the card away.
The Wynetts were in the third-mile middle class: rich enough to avoid the worst of the humidity but not yet able to afford a lawn. I was as jealous as I usually get in these neighborhoods.
Their building rose a hundred stories, the windows tinted, the plastic between black and greasily reflective. I stretched my neck, looking up. The last quarter of the floors faded into the low clouds. Against the soft haze, the shadows of dehumidifier ports looked like bicycle tires.
I was buzzed in and rode up in the elevator. The Wynetts’ door was the forth along the hall. I rang the bell. A red light flashed on at eye level, switched to green, and the door opened.
Rebecca Wynett had changed her clothes to a more modest corset that rose just high enough to horizontally bisect her nipples, leaving red half circles on pale skin over the jade satin, like the bizarre double negative of an ocean sunset.
I accepted the drink she offered and sat down on the couch after draping my coat over a large, grey cushion. Mrs. Wynett sat on the floor in front of me, her legs crossed, and looked up at me.
“You haven’t decided to drop my case already, have you?”
I shook my head. “No. In fact, I’ve had a break. A big one.”
She crinkled her brow, confused. “I only spoke with you an hour ago. That seems quite fast.”
“I called him.”
“I looked up your husband’s record in the citizens database to see if maybe there was anything that might help. There wasn’t, but as a ‘what the hell?’ I called the personal number listed. And your husband picked up.” I leaned back to wait for a reaction. I didn’t get much of one.
“You’re wondering why I didn’t try that? I did. Of course I did. I’ve called him constantly since he went missing. He hasn’t picked up for me.” Her voice got quieter. “Perhaps he doesn’t wish to speak to me.”
“Actually, Mrs. Wynett, I was just passing on information. There wasn’t any question implied.”
She sighed. “I’m sorry. I’m on edge.”
“I imagine,” I said.
“What did he say?”
“Not much. He sounded high and he was drinking.”
“Where was he?”
“I can’t be sure. I think he was in a club. Or some other place with lots of people and loud music.”
“Robert doesn’t go to clubs,” she told me.
“Mrs. Wynett, I think it’s a good bet he didn’t know where he was.”
“I find that difficult to believe.”
I raised an eyebrow and continued, “He said he was tired and when I asked if this was Robert Wynett, he said ‘Not anymore.’”
That startled her.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she said, her voice rising.
“Means he was high. As a kite or a trans. That’s my guess.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“Mission hasn’t changed. But the circumstances have. A little. In light of recent events,” I said and sipped my drink for effect, “I’m thinking he doesn’t want or need to be found.”
She stood up and shuddered. “That is not acceptable.”
“How long has he been missing?” I asked.
“Right. A week. We know he’s alive. Why don’t you just wait this out? Wait another week. See if he comes home. Give him some time. He probably just needs to sulk for a while.”
“I’m paying you.”
“And I’ll give you a refund. Don’t waste your money on an investigation that it looks like you don’t need.”
“I’ll double it.”
This time I was startled.
“I’ll pay you twice your asking price,” she said, “and all I ask is that you find him. You don’t even need to bring him home if he doesn’t want that.”
“I couldn’t do that anyway,” I said. “But, Mrs. Wynett, are you sure you want to do this? I mean, the money’d be nice and I’m loath to turn it down, but why don’t you just call him again yourself? Maybe he’ll pick up. If he doesn’t, call him from a public terminal. Hell, you can call him from my phone, you want.”
“No,” she said, walking over to the table by the door and picking up her purse, “No, I’d rather that you do it. I feel more comfortable that way.”
I shrugged. “Okay. It’s your tab.” I set down my drink and got up. “I’ll track him down. You want an image or just my word that I found him and talked to him?”
She hand me her card. “You can record it if it’s not too much trouble, but your word will suffice.”
I charged her my usual deposit for the second time and gave the card back. She took it and made brief eye contact, her face flashing some expression I couldn’t make. I smiled and somehow tried to nod and shrug at the same time. I probably looked like an idiot.
“I’ll call you if I find out anything more,” I said.
Rebecca Wynett thanked me and walked me to the door, her hand pressed lightly between my shoulder blades.
In the hall on the way to the elevator, I passed a short man — a gaudy sculpt — standing with his back to a ficus. He was engaged in a telepresence meeting, his hands gesturing and occasionally typing. As I got close, he stopped talking and looked at me, grinning with teeth like a ferret. Before I could say anything, he plunged back into his long distance conversation.
I slid my glasses down from the top of my head, indexed the guy, and set a spider to find out more about him. It was bound to be a waste but the CPU cycles were just sitting there.
The elevator ride down was quiet, twenty-six floors going by with only the calming blink of the progress indicator. The rent in the place must’ve been high to be so conspicuously spam-free.
My phone rang as I stepped out into the lobby.
“Ian, it’s Wendell.” He sounded borderline upset.
“You didn’t mess with anything while you were in the database, did you?”
I was almost to the doors. I stopped. “No. What do you mean?”
“I mean, the data you looked up, the logs show you accessed it, checked it out for a little while, and then deleted it.”
“I can’t delete it.” The elevator behind me dinged. I turned around and saw the gaudy sculpt step out. He smiled again, with just as many teeth.
Nest was saying, “I know. At least, you shouldn’t be able to delete anything.” He paused. “You can’t, can you?”
“I said I couldn’t.” The guy walked by me, close. I could smell disinfectant. I pulled down my glasses again.
“You haven’t paid anyone to up your access? Dicks do that — ”
“Hey, Wendell, I send you a shot of a guy, can you look it up for me real quick?”
“Yeah, sure. But we gotta talk about this, Ian.”
“We will. Just do this for me.” I sent him the index flag I’d already made and did another one as the guy went out the doors. Sometimes a rear view could bring up something a front shot missed.
“Huh,” Nest said after a half-minute pause. “System shows he’s a standard. There’re thousands just like him out there.”
“A standard? It’s kinda ugly for that.”
“No accounting for taste. But — Can you do a remote print on him?”
“No, I don’t have the equipment with me.”
“Okay. With a stock genome, visual’s not going to give us much. But I’ll run it anyway.” Nest paused. “Ian, seriously, you didn’t delete Robert Wynett’s information?”
I sighed loud enough for him to hear. “I’m gonna keep saying ‘no’ and you’re only gonna like it less and less the more you ask.”
“I know. Sorry. I trust you but this type of thing the department has to look into. If it turns out you were involved, I’m the one who gets fined, demoted, or fired.”
“I wasn’t. But I’ll look into it. Don’t worry.”
“Great. Keep your phone on. I’ll get a hold of you if the department starts getting pushy.” He hung up.
I pushed open the doors and left Rebecca Wynett’s apartment building. I put on my hat and thought about food.
The neighborhood was too upscale to support the sort of thriving street vendor economy that kept everyone with a couple of bucks well fed on my block. After some looking, I found a little Cantonese dive and told the remote waiter I wanted something with noodles in it. When the food showed up, I ate slowly, doing research on Wynett and Accelerated Conduction between each spoonful.
The studying didn’t net me much. Back in my office at a little after six o’clock, I decided to go with another approach.
My search through the ad feed backlogs yielded two results. The song I’d heard in the background had been used in an ad-synchronized feed bought by a club in the north end at the same time I’d been talking to Wynett. Another place, this one only a mile or so up the coast, had bought the same feed.
I went with the closer one first.
It was a small joint, more a bar than a club, and they didn’t charge me cover when I pushed through the heavy red door. The walls in the little entrance hummed. I felt a tickling, the hairs on my arms shifting around, like I had walked under high power cables. The weapons scan finished, a speaker over my head beeped twice, and the child-sized gate in front of me slid to one side.
The red of the door continued inside. The walls were padded and dimpled in a two foot grid where the fabric was attached to the concrete behind it. The ceiling was low and pulsed in a hellish chessboard pattern. I walked past the small and nearly empty dance floor and over to the bar. Behind it stood a short man with orange skin and grey stripes tattooed down his cheeks. “Yeah?” he said.
“I’m looking for a guy.” I held up Wynett’s picture.
The bartender looked at it, rubbed his chin, said: “I ain’t see him.”
“This afternoon, maybe?”
“Lot of people come in here. Post-lunch rush. Most of ’em don’t stand out like you.”
I laughed. “It’s obvious?”
He shrugged. “You police? Or private?”
“Private,” I said. “This guy, he would’ve been in around three, three-thirty.” I looked around. “He was at a place playing some band called ‘Shapelessness and the Thick.’ He got cut off but he sounded in bad shape. So I’m trying to find him, make sure there isn’t any trouble.”
“Haven’t seen him.”
“Okay, sure.” I put the picture of Robert Wynett back in my pocket. “Sorry to take up your time.”
The bartender waved his hand at the empty bar and said, “I got nothing but time. Still, you’re sorry, maybe you could buy a drink?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I can do that.” I sat down. “I’ll take a light beer. Whatever you have on tap.”
I drank my beer quietly. When I’d finished, I thanked the bartender and went outside to hail a cab.
The inside of the second club was like the skin of a frog; deep greens and browns waved across the smooth surfaces and blended into each other or were lost in the high gloss reflections from the bioluminescent tapestries that hung as gauzy divides. I guessed there were a couple hundred people dancing, drinking, or flirting and a lot of them, in that warm light, could’ve been Robert Wynett.
Wynett’s lack of prior felonies meant he wasn’t tagged, so even if I had access to the tracking system, I wouldn’t have been able to find him that way.
A large man was standing by a gate in the steel cage that separated the entrance from the club proper. He looked bored, yawning twice in the time it took me to cross the distance from the door to his station. It was still early enough that there wasn’t much of a line.
When I got up to him, he pointed a meaty finger at the card scanner on a pedestal next to his leg and looked at me with complete detachment. I pulled out my ID and scrolled through it to my licensed investigator badge. The bouncer wasn’t impressed.
“You gotta pay if you wanna get in,” he said.
His voice had clearly been augmented to carry over the music.
I leaned in close to respond. “I’m looking for someone.”
He nodded, his blue hair staying in place like the top of a moving spring. “Customers only.”
I took my cash card out of my pocket, scanned it, and walked past him through the metal gate.
This place was much classier than the first, the clientele dressed in the latest fashions, the sort that put more emphasis on the flow of clean lines than the covering of skin. It was a good thing it rarely got cold; most of them would freeze before they could flag a taxi home.
I found the bar: a huge, a sweeping curve of creamy, transparent plastic with lights moving like fish along its surface.
I waved down one of the dozen bartenders and showed him Wynett’s picture. He didn’t know, but called over a couple of his coworkers to give a second and third opinion. One of them nodded, said, “I think he’s here, back through there in one of the private rooms,” pointing off to my left, and then asked if I wanted a drink. I said no, thanked him, and wandered through the crowd.
The third room, behind a glowing curtain, held what I was looking for.
Robert Wynett was thinner than his picture had shown. If he was lucky, he was a hundred-and-fifteen pounds and most of the weight seemed to be exhaustion. He had his back to me as he sat alone at a table for two and he rocked smoothly from side to side, shrugging his shoulders in the middle of each cycle.
“I ain’t goin’ home,” he said and I thought maybe he knew I was there. But it turned out to just be the first line of a chorus as he continued, “No, I AIN’T goin’ home! Not EH-ver!” He clapped his hands together and, as I came around the side of his chair, reached forward for a drink with both palms touching at the wrists, like he was grabbing a hot mug of cocoa.
“Mr. Wynett?” I said and he started, dropping the heavy tumbler, sloshing a few drops of something clear and probably cheap and probably strong.
Wynett looked at me. He said, “I said, on the phone — ” His right eye blinked with each syllable.
“I’m not here to take you home.” I sat down in the chair opposite him. “I just want to talk.”
He took a drink and shrugged out of sequence. Out in the hall, I could hear some trans I’d passed arguing about sapience. “You, you’re a detective. You said so on the phone.”
“What you detectin’, Mr. Detective?”
I pulled the chair in close to the table. “That you’re drunk. And that you can’t sing.”
“Ha!” He put the glass down and pushed it away towards me. “It’s a ruse. Like the Trojans and their horse.” He rubbed his head. “It’s big and wooden and it hides a world of little men.”
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked. “What have you been taking?”
“I’ve been taken,” he said. “But you’re not going to take me.”
“Mr. Wynett, your wife is very worried. If you could just call her — ”
“No!” He drank again, looking nervously around the room. “No, I won’t talk to her,” he continued. “I can’t do that. I can’t hurt her. She mustn’t let the horse through the gates.” He scratched behind his ear. “Have you ever seen a horse, detective?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Beautiful animals. So pure and majestic. If you ignore what’s hiding in their belly.”
“Yeah, I get it. The Trojans. The horse. The Greeks sacking Troy. It’s called a leitmotif and you’re dragging it out a bit too far.”
“What do you know?” he asked.
I wasn’t sure exactly what he was asking. “That you worked for Accelerated Conduction. That you ran off a week ago.”
“Not that,” he said. “That’s not important.”
“Okay. What is?”
“Right. Okay, Mr. Wynett, that’s enough of that I guess. You want to stay here and drink, that’s fine by me. I’d recommend you go through a toxic rebuild before you go home to your wife, but I’ve got what I need to earn my fee.”
As I stood up, he did the same. He came around the table and grabbed my arm. “You can’t leave.” His voice was sharp.
“It’s not safe. Rebecca, she’s — ”
I shrugged out of his grip. “Goodbye, Mr. Wynett.”
He grabbed me again and I pushed him away, hard. I shouldn’t have but I did and when I turned around, there was a young transient couple standing in the doorway, the curtain pushed aside. They looked at me startled and scared and rushed back out into the club’s main room.
I put my chair back and walked out.
I went home, put a little food in my stomach, watched the news, and went to sleep. My girlfriend came home a few hours later and woke me up briefly, but only briefly. I was exhausted and didn’t feel much like hearing about her day.
It was early morning and my phone was beeping. I rolled over in the wrong direction at first, bumped into Eve, sighed, and reached back over my shoulder to grab the thing. The clock on Eve’s little table read 4:21.
It was Nest.
“Ian?” he said, his voice sounding more like forced air than anything else. “Ian, did I get you?”
“It’s early, Wendell,” I said. As I spoke, I got up and walked across the small room to the door and closed it behind me, putting the couple of inches of wood between me and Eve to muffle the conversation.
“I have to ask you a question.” Nest was calmer now. His tone was artificial. “When was the last time you saw Robert Wynett?”
I thought for a moment, counting back the hours. “Would’ve been around nine-thirty last night. Ten, maybe. I can check my logs if you want it exact.”
“And he was — Was everything fine when you left him?”
I leaned against the door. “How?”
“Shot. From a distance. We don’t know much more than that.”
“An hour ago. Maybe less. It’s hard to tell for sure in places like that.”
“I’ll get out there,” I said and opened to door to the bedroom.
“I wouldn’t, Ian.”
“From what the boys are telling me, you’re a suspect. I wouldn’t be too surprised if you get a visit from them soon.”
I stepped back out into the hall. “They think I did it?”
“They have witnesses who placed you with the victim.”
“But that was last night.”
“And it sounds like they saw you hit him.”
“Not hard and I left right after — ”
“I don’t think you did it, Ian. They probably don’t for sure, either. But they’re still gonna want to talk to you.”
“Okay. Should I go down to headquarters?”
“You don’t need to now. I think I can buy you some time. You’re white, the victim’s white, I think I can tie it up a bit in Equal Opportunity procedures for maybe a day before they move forward with it or pass it off on someone private.”
“What am I going to do in a day?”
Nest said, “Find out something. You’re the brilliant detective. Crack the case.”
I crammed a quick breakfast and headed to the office. When I got in, my desk was beeping softly with the results of the spider I’d set on the ferret guy outside of the Wynetts’ apartment. I made myself some coffee, sat down, and read through what it had to say.
The ferret guy, like Nest had told me, was a stock job, a body type and feature set picked from a catalog for rapid genome reconstruction. But his teeth were custom. The spider had dug through all the photographs the search system had indexed and returned three results with teeth like that. Two of them were women. The last was my man.
I scanned through the associated articles. He was a member of a group called the Human Ascension League. They were a pretty standard AI rights group, their mission statement to advance humanity through the field of artificial sapience. I’d run into some of them before, handing out literature at the airport.
The pictures came from events they’d sponsored. The best one was of the ferret smiling wide for the camera and holding an oversized check HAL had won from some private charity.
I ran another search. I told the spider to find me, within three degrees of separation, links between Robert Wynett — or Rebecca Wynett — and HAL. I killed the hour it took by paying bills and cleaning the office. Eve was supposed to drop by for lunch tomorrow and I didn’t want her complaining about the dust.
I got one result and it was better than I’d hoped for. A year ago, Robert Wynett had written an article about an advancement in computer sapience he’d been working on. I skimmed the article but most of it was way over my head. It did, however, contain a quote from a coworker, Sebastian Sable, who worked at Accelerated Conduction as a ghost shrink. Sable was listed as having a Gold Level membership with HAL.
A hunch struck me and I called Nest.
“Wendell Nest, PD,” he said.
“You sound like a vid show.”
“Ian! I’ve been talking to an EOC attorney. They’re making the case private, so you’ve got a couple of days before anyone hauls you in.”
“I don’t think I’ll need that much.”
“But I need you to do me a favor.” I told him what I’d discovered and asked if he could have the medical examiner check if Robert Wynett had been fixed up with a rider AI. Nest said he’d call me back.
A half hour later, he did.
“Yeah, Ian, Wynett had a rider. Company installed. The ME said something was broken about it, though. Some shorts and other problems that wouldn’t have been caused just by Wynett being shot.”
“Great,” I said. “That’s what I was hoping for. I’ll call you back when I’m sure, but this is falling together.”
“One of those detective epiphanies?”
“Uh huh. I hope so.”
It all made sense in a sad and sick way. A less-than-legal check of Rebecca Wynett’s phone records and an hour of additional research confirmed it. I put on my coat, left the office, and hailed a cab to my client’s apartment.
After she opened the door, Rebecca Wynett moved cautiously away from me, her eyes on the floor and her shoulders sagging. I stepped into the room and said, “I wish this’d all turned out better.”
She lifted her head up and looked at me. “I shouldn’t have involved you.”
I walked around her, down the short hall, and into the kitchen to look for glasses. She needed something. “You didn’t have a choice,” I said over my shoulder. “You didn’t know what they’d do to Robert.”
She came up behind me and leaned against the door jam. “I still don’t know what they did to him. Not really.”
I pulled two crystal tumblers off a shelf. Rebecca pointed over my head at another cabinet. I found several bottles including a large one of scotch that seemed to fit the mood. As I poured, I said, “I can tell you all of it, from the beginning, if you think it’d help.”
She nodded and took the drink I held out to her. We stayed in the kitchen as I began:
“Straight up, it was corporate espionage. No real moral complexity or political agenda. What little there was was all a cover. Do you know what your husband was working on?”
“Computers. Computer sapience — or sentience; I don’t remember.”
“Sapience. I don’t have all the details. They’re hard to get or else none of this would’ve happened. Anyway, that’s what these guys were after. The details of your husband’s work. They went after him by what should’ve been an easy route: Robert’s rider AI.” I paused. “You knew he had one, right?”
Rebecca shook her head.
“I guess it was standard at Accelerated Conduction. The whole R&D staff had them to aid memory, cross-checking, that sort of thing. Usually a rider’s pretty stable. It sits there in your brain, waits for instructions, and helps out when it’s programmed to. No reason you ever would’ve noticed he had one.” I drank and shifted so I was propped against the counter. “Problem was, these guys — ”
“You don’t know who they are?”
“No. Well, I mean, there’s the doc — the ghost shrink — who set it up and the group HAL — Human Ascension League — that he was working for, but they’re only sellers. I don’t know who commissioned the job, but there must’ve been a buyer.”
She blinked and I saw fear flash into her eyes.
“You’re safe, Rebecca. This was pro. They’ve got no reason to bother you.”
She jerked her head and sipped nervously.
“Again,” I added quickly.
Rebecca sighed. “No, it’s okay. I trust you. Though,” she paused, “you obviously don’t have any reason to trust me.”
“You did what you had to do. You didn’t know what they were planning.”
“Just go back to the story,” she said without looking at me.
I did. “Riders need check-ups. As I said, they’re pretty stable — there aren’t many records of them going bad — but it’s usual policy to have them looked at occasionally. Monthly, bimonthly, sometimes annually. Riders are great recording devices. They have huge amounts of memory, they’re always on, and they have access to everything the host sees, hears, touches, that sort of thing. If you’re going to conduct industrial espionage, they’re a nice way to do it. Problem usually is, the encryption schemes buffering the riders are strong as hell and brute force attacks don’t work because you’re dealing with a living host. You can’t just plug him in to a cracking box for six to eight weeks. Not that that would really work anyway. The encryption keys are too big.”
Rebecca had stopped paying attention and was staring into her drink. I picked up the pace of the explanation.
“They hit Robert through his rider. To do it, they used a man on the inside, the doctor who did the semi-annual examination. Robert was put under and they snuck in an update to the software, installing a data tap. I think the way it was supposed to work, the system would override him at regular intervals and report in. That would seem to make the most sense but it didn’t work out. Best I can figure, Robert was put through a routine scan at some point after the placing of the tap and the rider went into passive mode to avoid the detection of — ”
“I’m sorry,” Rebecca cut in, “but this — I guess can you just give me a little less detail?”
“Sure,” I said. “Yeah, I can trim it down. The software they installed broke. It messed with Robert’s head. It looks like he knew it, that he recognized something was wrong, but couldn’t seem to make that known. He freaked out and ran. Whether it was to seek help or to protect you, I can’t be sure.”
Her eyes closed for a couple of heartbeats. Then she opened them and said, “And they used me — and used you — to find him. So they could kill him.”
“That’s what it looks like. They probably figured they could more easily hide their own responsibility if they got me involved and tried to make it look like I took him out at your request. I’d have had to keep my mouth shut because of privilege and if I did say anything on your behalf, it would’ve only look like I was protecting my interests and yours.”
“They told me they were from the company.”
“That they were trying to help him. They said he’d be spooked if he thought someone from AC was looking for him and said I should get a detective to do it. It’d put Robert more at ease.”
Her drink was almost empty. I reached behind me for the bottle and held it up to her but she shook her head, putting her glass down on the counter.
I said, “This wasn’t your fault.”
Rebecca shook her head.
“It wasn’t,” I said again. “When you came into my office, you were concerned about your husband. You wanted him found. That was genuine. You were doing what you thought was best for Robert.”
“If I’d left him alone, if I’d just — If I hadn’t come to you and had just told those men to go to hell, he’d be hiding out somewhere. Safe. He’d be alive.” She picked up the glass and gestured with it at the scotch. I poured. Her eyes were shiny and she looked away from me to hide it.
“Rebecca, I am sorry. I don’t know what else to say. This is hard, I understand that, and no matter what the motives behind it or who’s at fault, you’ve still lost your husband.” I felt like I was spinning my wheels. I’d gone past the point of helping her but everything felt so uncomfortable and silence would only make it worse.
“He loved you,” I said.
She looked up at me quickly, then back down at the glass, and drank a large swallow.
“He told me, when I saw him in the club the night he was killed. He was pretty incoherent — he’d been taking drugs and drinking to get away from the pain in his head — but he was clear on this. He said he loved you, he wanted me to tell you.”
Rebecca put down her drink and turned, walking out along the hall and into the living room.
I waited a moment before following her.
She turned to look at me. A tear hung from the corner of her mouth.
I reached over the back of the couch, grabbed my coat, and before putting it on, pulled a card out of the pocket. I walked past her and put the card down on the table by the door. Then I looked back, paused, and took a couple of steps so I was close enough to put my hand on her shoulder.
“You call me, you need anything,” I said.
Rebecca Wynett nodded and went slowly back down the hall and into the kitchen. I let myself out, rode down the elevator, and left the lobby, taking off my coat and draping it over my arm in the damp heat.