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Kibbon’s system had spit out the name Bryson Hendricks. He, for whatever reason, was also looking for Baastian van Dijk. For all Lorne knew, the man might’ve been hired by an ex-wife or a debt collector, but if the Mannishians had hired him, it would mean that one of them, either Hendricks or himself, was a hedge against the failure of the other. Hendricks was at least a day ahead of Lorne, so he figured either way he could piggyback off the man’s work.
Lorne waited until 9 AM to call his sister. She was on the east coast so it was 6 AM for her, but she was awake. He asked her to look up a name on one of her Industry screens for him. “Is this a new case, or are you still looking for BVD?”
“BVD.” Lorne answered. He gave her the name Bryson Hendricks and waited.
“Hmm.” She said. “There is a man using that name in the Los Angeles metroplex, but we don’t have a file on him. I don’t know why that would be…” She entered another set of queries and scanned the results. “Yeah, we have nothing on this guy.”
“It’s probably a fake name.” Lorne said.
Lula sighed. “That shouldn’t matter. We’ve got his face, his gait, and his voice, but for some reason we don’t have a file on him.”
“I thought you guys had files on everyone.”
“Not everyone.” She said. “There are a couple of possibilities. He might be from one of those Restilian compounds in Canada. If he’d been raised up there, he wouldn’t be in our system, although his age is estimated to be 46, so that seems unlikely. Or he might be a high level Industrial agent, or…” She trailed off, thinking.
“Or he’s some kind of softbot.”
“You think people wouldn’t be able to tell?” Lorne asked.
“If you’re sitting face to face, having an open-ended conversation, sure.” She said. “But most day-to-day interactions are short and people aren’t very observant.”
“But those things are all owned by the Industry aren’t they? I mean the ones that are really convincing…”
“That’s true.” She said.
“Can’t you just make a call and find out if this guy’s an agent or a bot?” Lorne asked. “These are your people.”
“To be honest, your little investigation might get me in trouble with ‘my people.’” Lula said. “Any inquiries I make will raise red flags.”
“Oh.” Lorne said. “I had no idea…”
“Don’t worry about it.” Lula said. “It’s a calculated risk.”
“So where is the guy?”
“He’s at the Kushner Grand Hotel in Santa Monica. He’s been there for six nights, room 2743. Are we speaking on a secure line?”
“I’ll Flash you his picture and stats and set them to expire in 30 seconds. Be ready.”
By 10:30 AM Lorne was in the lobby of the Kushner with a big cup of coffee and a clear view of the elevators for floors 16-32. He sat on a cushioned bench outside the casino and listened to the clashing jangle of a thousand video slots. He’d been there over an hour and the security guard had started giving him the side-eye, so he was glad when Bryson Hendricks got off the elevator. He was a generic-looking, pudgily handsome Caucasian man, and he moved with no apparent urgency. If he was an artificial human, he was constructed to blend into a crowd. There was nothing particularly remarkable about him.
Lorne followed him out of the hotel to a line of public cars. Hendricks got into one, and Lorne got into another a few cars back. He woke the car’s control screen and tried to set it to manual drive, but a female voice firmly told him that he lacked the necessary clearance. He put it in caravan mode instead, and clicked on Hendricks’ car in the video feed as it pulled away from the curb. Lorne’s car jerked out of its spot and raced up to within a millimeter of the other car’s bumper. Lorne ducked down, hoping that if Hendricks noticed he was leading a caravan, he would think that the second car was malfunctioning.
“Sir,” the voice said, “it’s illegal to ride in a public car if you are inebriated. Any bodily fluid that is expelled in this vehicle will result in a $10,000 fine.”
“I’m not inebriated.” Lorne said.
“Your posture would suggest otherwise.” The voice said. “Would you like to go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or crisis support center?”
“No,” Lorne said. “I just want to keep my head down, is that okay with you?”
“It will be logged as suspicious behavior, but will not result in your expulsion from the vehicle.”
“Well thanks.” Lorne said.
When the car stopped in Venice Beach, close to the boardwalk, Lorne risked a look out the side window. Hendricks got out, oblivious to the second public car idling close behind his own. Lorne got out on the other side and crossed the street, using a parked van for cover. It was an evasive move that wasn’t necessary because Bryson Hendricks was already up the block. He was headed toward an old mansion.
Lorne crossed the street and walked toward the place, pretending to look at his s-screen. The house had been turned into an attraction called The Kreepazodiak Adult Funhouse. There was a big front window and he could see Hendricks talking to the man behind the counter who had a shaved head and tattoos all over his face. When Hendricks turned to leave, Lorne blended in with a group of tourists going the other way and walked with them down the block. He looked back and saw Hendricks go out of sight down an alley. Lorne went back to the funhouse.
A sign above the front door read:
By entering the Kreepazodiak Adult Funhouse, you are certifying that you are over the age of eighteen, agree to be immersed in highly sexual situations, and to have your image and biological responses recorded, mapped, and archived.
“We’re having problems with one of our 3D projectors, so you’re going to have to wait awhile.” Tattoo-face said.
“That guy that was just in here,” Lorne said, “I think he’s looking for my friend. He’s some kind of cop.”
“Really? He did seem pretty shady.”
“Was he asking about someone? I want to warn my friend if that guy’s after him.”
He shook his head. “Nah, you’re fine. He was asking if I knew about a VR parlor around here.”
“Oh? What did you tell him?”
“I told him about Rabbits Galore.” He said. “There’s always El Portál, but Rabbits Galore has 6th gen systems.”
“6th gen? I haven’t been in one of those yet.”
“You might not be ready for it.” He said.
Lorne left the funhouse and wandered toward the boardwalk. He was thinking about Rabbits Galore, and how Will Kibbon had told him about a place in Venice that had 6th gen systems. Maybe it was a coincidence but Lorne doubted it. He knew where the guy was going so he was in no hurry to chase the agent/softbot/shamus.
There was a massive throng of tourists, nudists, weekend warriors, and full-time freaks on the boardwalk and Lorne let himself enjoy the riot of sights, sounds, and smells. He had just entered the beachy mob when he was shoved forward. He stumbled and looked back at the woman who’d pushed him. She was in a bikini, and she’d been pushed by a kid who was holding a long skateboard like a shield. He pushed Lorne and the woman sideways. There was another kid doing the same, coming from the other direction, and a third, pushing people up behind Lorne. The kids had a group of 8 or 9 people, including Lorne, penned together against a wall.
Something above him caught Lorne’s eye and he looked up at a balcony above the group. A kid was leaning out holding a black trash bag that was blown up like a balloon. Lorne closed his eyes and held his breath, ready to be showered with something disgusting. But when he opened his eyes he saw that he was in a thick cloud of smoke. He was trapped and couldn’t hold his breathe anymore, so he inhaled the dank, pungent marijuana smoke. “Wake up slaves!” One of the kids yelled. In an instant, they’d all skated off and were gone.
Lorne waved the smoke away from his face as a woman in a tank top cursed the kids, saying something about her sobriety. He went over to a bench and sat down. Whatever additive the skate kids had put in the weed made his arms feel like they belonged to someone else. He looked up at the clouds and wondered if he was in a virtual reality. He thought about Rabbits Galore, and what Will Kibbon had said about it. He remembered the old man had winked at him…
He shut his eyes and listened to the crowd noise. What had Kibbon said when he’d winked? It took Lorne a minute to remember. ‘A friend of mine told me about it.’ He’d said.
Lorne decided it was time to go to Rabbits Galore. He looked up the address on his s-screen. It was over a mile away, but he didn’t mind walking. It was a beautiful day.
The freak came home early from Rabbits Galore on the day the fossil died. She’d finally fixed a bio-feedback response that hadn’t been progressing the way it was supposed to with return visitors. She wanted Escape Womb 2 to be slightly different every time a user went in, and she wanted the changes to be based on their previous experience. She’d been working on the problem with the RG technicians and the fossil’s virtual coders for two weeks, and she’d been afraid they’d have to postpone the launch, but they’d cracked it with half a day to spare. The release would go ahead as planned and the freak was ready to celebrate. She was going to jostle the fossil, shake him up and force him to have some fun.
But when she got to the apartment, there was a police car and an ambulance out front. She immediately felt that some catastrophe had occurred. When the elevator door opened on her apartment, there was a police officer and two paramedics, already wheeling a body bag out of the bedroom on a gurney. They stopped and looked at her.
The cop asked the freak her name and she answered. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Karl Huber died this afternoon.” The cop said. ‘Karl Huber’ was the alias that the fossil had used to buy the apartment. “He called an ambulance at 1:15. The paramedics were let in by the building manager and they found Mr. Huber’s body.”
“What happened? What did he die of?” She asked.
“There’s no apparent cause of death. Nothing violent or anything like that. Of course, there will have to be an autopsy. Were you and Mr. Huber married?”
“No.” She said.
“I understand this is difficult, but as a formality, I have to ask you to identify the body. Can you do that for me?”
“Yes.” The freak said. She suddenly thought the whole thing might be a mistake. That’s why the cop wanted her to identify the body, because there was a possibility that it was not the fossil.
One of the paramedics unzipped the body bag and used a rubber-gloved hand to peel back the edge and reveal the fossil’s face. He doesn’t look bad, the freak thought, like he’s sleeping or something. She’d seen him looking worse when he’d been up all night. She wanted to ask the paramedics if they were absolutely sure he was dead, but she knew it was a stupid question.
“It’s him.” She said.
They zipped up the bag and rolled the body onto the elevator. The cop handed her a crisis management card with phone numbers for various help-lines and then he left too.
And just like that, she was alone.
The freak stood there dazed. It was as if the last year of her life had been a dream: she’d met this man, started working with him, started sleeping with him, moved in with him, and now he was dead and she was all alone again. There was no way to step back through the portal, her life was completely different now. She looked different, felt different, and probably walked, talked, and acted differently than when she’d met him. She’d been a wannabe writer with mental health problems, living in a halfway house. Now what was she? Her life had something it hadn’t had back then, and as she stood there alone in the entryway of the giant apartment, she realized what it was: a future.
Did she still have a future?
She wandered into the bedroom and looked at the unmade bed where the fossil had died. The room still smelled like him. She sat on the edge of the bed and cried, not for him, but for herself. She was jealous of him. He gets to be nothing, she thought, and I have to go on being a human being.
She tried to remember if there had been any sign that he hadn’t been feeling well. They’d been down in Venice that morning, tweaking the if-then language that sent return visitors down different branches of their Reality. It had been a pretty typical day. A user was pulled out of one of the systems by cops, but the fossil had been gone by then. Or was that when he’d been talking with that guy? Someone had come to the office asking for Charlie Reid, the alias that the fossil used for anything to do with Collected Time business.
The fossil had left shortly after that meeting, saying he had to take care of some stuff on his system at home. The freak had assumed it was more of his Mannish madness. As she sat there, she became convinced that the Mannishians had killed him. But her conviction didn’t change the situation in any way.
She sat there completely still and slowly transformed herself into nothing. It was a trick she’d mastered as an adolescent. With a little concentration, she could make herself into a blob of unconscious flesh that didn’t hear, feel, or think. She stayed in that state for a long time. At some point she must’ve fallen asleep on the bed but she didn’t remember making a decision to put her head down.
A noise woke her. It took a moment for her to recognize the sound of people entering the apartment from the elevator. She came out of the bedroom and Manuel, the building manager, was there with a group of men who looked like movers. “I’m sorry,” Manuel said when he saw her, “they’ve got a court order.”
“Who are they?”
“Feds.” Manuel said.
A man she hadn’t seen before stepped forward. He was in an expensive suit. “We’ve been looking for Bastiaan van Dijk for a long time.” He said.
“Never heard of him.”
“Don’t play dumb.” He said. He told her about tax evasion charges that the fossil had been dodging, and how all of his assets would be seized now that he was dead. “And I’m sorry, but that means you’ll have to leave.” He said finally.
“When?” She asked.
“Now.” He said. “You can, of course, pack some clothes and toiletries in a small bag.”
“But this is my apartment.” She said. “It’s every bit as much mine as his.”
“It was bought under one of Bastiaan van Dijk’s aliases.” The man said. “If you have a rightful claim to anything in here, you can go through the proper channels at some later date, but as of now, it all belongs to the federal government.”
The freak felt like stabbing the man, or shooting him, and she might’ve done it if she’d had a weapon handy, but instead she just stood there and stared at him.
“If you’d like to pack your bag now, I’ll escort you.”
“I can do it on my own.” She said.
“I’m afraid I can’t let you out of my sight, we don’t want any assets to disappear from the residence.”
The freak was keenly aware of the fact that she had nothing. The day before, she’d had a 50% stake in a Reality that could be worth billions of dollars, but it was all in doubt now that the fossil was dead. If he owed money, surely they would keep the release date –the profit could help pay off his debts. It wouldn’t make sense to just sit on a potentially lucrative asset like that. And when they did release it, she would get half the proceeds. She had a contract, signed by the fossil, and they would have to honor it…wouldn’t they?
But future riches aside, at the moment she had a serious cash-flow problem.
She thought about the fossil’s bug-out bag. She’d teased him about it. It was cash in a variety of different currencies, U.S. and foreign, some false IDs, and an old handgun. She could use that cash now, but she didn’t know where he’d hid the bag. She could probably find it if she had time to search, but it was too late. The man in the expensive suit was right behind her as she went into the bedroom and started to pack her bag. She could feel his eyes on her, watching for a false move. “I’m going to get dressed now, if you’ll excuse me.” She said to the man.
“Do it in the bathroom.” He said.
She wanted to argue, but she realized it was no use. She took some clothes into the bathroom and shut the door behind her. There’s got to be something you can take from this apartment that will help your situation, she thought. She did a mental inventory of the assets that the fossil kept handy: a big wad of cash in one of his safes, a Rembrandt etching that hung in the guest bathroom, a laptop with keys to five different blockchain currency accounts –but she couldn’t get any of that stuff past her government minder.
Then she remembered the frozen fish.
About a month earlier, she’d noticed a Ziploc bag of frozen fish cutlets in the freezer, and she’d taken the bag out and left them on a plate on the counter to thaw. When the fossil saw the bag, he’d objected strenuously. It had struck her as odd, both that he would buy a bunch of fish cutlets in the first place, and that he would then object to her wanting to cook them. The freak noticed, when she returned the bag to the freezer, that it seemed too heavy. It had been a vague suspicion then, but now she clung to it as if it were an incontrovertible fact: he’d hidden something valuable in that bag of frozen fish.
The freak got dressed and left the bathroom. She set her bag down in the hall and marched into the kitchen. “What are you doing?” Her minder asked from the doorway.
“Do you consider food to be a valuable asset?”
“No.” He said.
“All this food in here will go to waste if I leave it.” She said. “I’m going to save as much as I can carry.”
The man seemed annoyed but raised no objections. He watched as the freak got one of her canvas grocery bags and put a jar of almond butter next to a box of crackers in the bag. She took a container of yogurt and a half-drank quart of oatmilk out of the fridge and put them next to the crackers. Then, as if to keep the yogurt and milk cold, she put a bag of frozen spinach and the frozen fish on either side of the perishables. She threw an unopened pack of soy chips on top of everything and picked up the bag. The man in the suit blocked her way. He took the bag of food from her, set it down, and pulled out the crackers. He opened the box and looked at each sleeve of crackers as if expecting them to contain cash, drugs, or jewelry. When he was satisfied, the freak snatched the bag from him, and pushed past him to the entryway.
The elevator came and she got on without a word. She stared at the federal agent blankly as the elevator door closed. Once she was out on the busy Koreatown street, she stood mute and blinked up at the California sun. She didn’t know what to do or where to go.
Copyright Benjamin Broke – All rights reserved