Battery life is always going to be a problem.
I sidled through the early-evening crowd patronising Café Casablanca in search of the owner, Sully Baker. He was sitting alone in a side booth, an untouched beer on the table in front of him. I tipped my hat. "I'm Rudi Hess. I understand you wanted to see me, Mister Baker?"
Baker was a big guy; bald, heavy across the shoulders, like a boxer gone to fat. He gestured to the seat opposite. "Call me Sully."
I sat down, conscious of his two thick-necked bodyguards regarding me in a very unfriendly manner. Sully had a lot of enemies and no friends worth a damn; not exactly a career criminal but someone with a direct approach to problem solving, as the saying goes.
He cracked his knuckles. "So you got my message. The question being, Mister Private Detective, can you help me?"
I frowned. "Well, the idea of someone spiriting away a dozen animatronic hostess dolls only to return them before dawn the next morning sounds a bit, ah, convoluted."
"Dolls? No, not dolls. These are Uber-Leiben synthetics. Series Four, I grant you, but good enough to pass muster."
"Androids? You moving into the escort business, Sully?"
"Around here? He shrugged, "There's too much competition from cut-price organic. No, what I need them for is more, ah, cultural. I need them to form a choir."
I blinked. "A choir? As in singing?"
"It's for my daughter, Grace. She has this High School talent contest coming up and wants to wow them with a retro homage to 'Sister Act'. But for that she needs a gospel choir as backing."
"So hire one. That has to be a damn sight less expensive than shelling out for twelve synthetics, even from an obsolete line."
Sully shook his head. "The students aren't allowed any adult assistance on stage, but I've checked the fine-print and it says nothing about androids. They can carry a tune and I've hired a choreographer to teach them the basics."
"OK, so what's gone wrong?"
"Every morning, despite being left on charge overnight, their power packs are zapped - and before you ask, the hardware checks out fine. As it stands we're only getting a few hours' use out of them each day."
I stroked my chin, mentally chewing things over. "Uh-huh, so where did these problem children hail from?"
My proto-client looked slightly embarrassed. "A lap-dancing bar in Foundry. I got a good price on them." He sounded defensive.
I sighed. "Oh, I just bet you did. The Series Four have organic brains, Sully, so when the new Man Act comes into force you won't be able to own them at all. Offer them a job, maybe, but they could just as easy walk away. Face it, you got sold a pup."
Sully shrugged. "The contest takes place well before this misguided emancipation hits the statute books. Look, I'll pay two thousand if you can figure out what's going on and put a stop to it. Interested?"
"Oh, yeah, I'll take the case, and you can throw in a pair of tickets for this talent contest as well - I wouldn't miss it for the world. Now, I suppose you tried keeping your divas under surveillance? Left someone to watch over them?"
"The warehouse is run by my son, Victor, but, yeah, he tried that."
"And nothing. CCTV went on the fritz for no good reason and the night watchman woke up the next morning unable to remember a damn thing."
I frowned. "Drugged?"
"Tested clean as a whistle. Same thing happened with two guys there to keep each other awake."
"OK, so you put in cameras across the street covering the doors, you install motion detectors, you tag the girls with locator beacons. This isn't rocket science, Sully, I really don't see the problem."
Again he sounded defensive. "The problem is Victor. If truth be told, he's not the sharpest tool in the box and I can't step in with any new ideas without making him look incompetent." Sully sighed. "Kids, eh? Look, my daughter steps up on that stage in five days and we haven't even had a full dress rehearsal yet. What you gonna' do?"
I spread my hands. "Just call me Banquo."
"The ghost at the feast, Sully, the ghost at the feast."
Cutting-edge stealth technology tends to be quirky. For me that meant a mimetic camouflage jumpsuit with a serious heat exchange problem, doubling as my personal sauna. I may have been well-nigh invisible, squatting in a corner of the partitioned warehouse, but it was a race between solving the case and stewing in my own sweat. Sully rode shotgun, in a manner of speaking, via the suit's integral webcam.
Actually calling it a 'warehouse' was a misnomer. Where I was hiding had been kitted out like back-stage at the Moulin Rouge, complete with wardrobes, dressing tables and illuminated mirrors. Out front was a full-sized replica of the stage to be used during the talent contest, to ensure accurate choreography. Sully Baker was pulling out all the stops for his little girl.
The door opened and the 'choir' filed in, shepherded by an effete, middle-aged guy with bouffant hair. He clapped his hands. "Girls, girls, settle down. Now, that was fine as far as it goes but if anything we need a little less bump-and-grind. Yvette, Brandi, you know who I'm talking about. Now, try and get a good night's rest and we'll try again first-thing " He crossed himself, " God willing."
The choreographer flounced out past two of Victor's goons on guard in the corridor. The door closed and the girls settled down at their individual dressing tables, talking amongst themselves. I tried to tune out the chatter as it was uniformly superficial - the Series Four came with an intellect inhibitor that pretty much guaranteed an 'air-head' outlook on life. Each chair was fitted with an induction charger so all the girls had to do was sit on their collective asses for eight hours and everything would be just peachy.
An hour passed, then two. I learned a lot about the latest fashions and celebrities. I tried not to fidget. My butt got sore.
A mobile phone began to ring, the sound coming from a waste bin in the corner. The girls looked confused. Louise, the only red-head in the group and the one who seemed to have the most smarts, lifted it out and answered. "Hello?...Yes, yes, I remember How much?...I'll ask the others." She addressed the other girls. "It's Tony-G, who used to own us. He wants us to work for him tonight and he'll pay the going rate, plus tips."
This provoked a burst of chatter.
"Pay us? What do we need money for?"
"We're gonna' be people soon, dumb-ass. We'll need money while we find jobs."
"I don't like Tony-G. He was mean to me."
"If we work tonight we'll be tired tomorrow. Mister Locarno shouts at us if we're tired."
"Hush!" Louise glared at them. "It's a one-off and, like Tiffany said, we're going to need money soon. Do we do this or not?" There were murmurs of agreement. She nodded and raised the phone. "Tony-G?...Yes, we'll do it OK." She hung up. "He'll pick us up out back, straight away."
Well, so far, so obvious - but they were acting like this was their first time playing hooky, which didn't sit right. I watched as everyone lifted their purses and Louise opened the door. Instead of being unconscious the two heavies were on-hand to usher the girls towards the rear loading bay - as was son and heir Victor himself.
Despite what his father thought, Victor was evidently sharp enough to cut a deal with Tony-G, leasing the girls back to their old owner for a percentage. So much for supporting his kid sister in her musical debut.
The head-up display on the inside of my facepiece registered Sully was no longer viewing proceedings. This really didn't bode well for Victor and his crew and I had no wish to face a homicide beef as an accessory before the fact - or become an inconvenient witness. Although I'd already earned my fee I decided keeping a lid on things was was the best way of living long enough to enjoy it. I followed the girls out into the corridor and through the warehouse, past crates of gin and tins of beans, piled high. Louise was at the rear of the little procession, shooing them along like a self-appointed mother hen.
Keeping pace pushed my mimetic camouflage to the limit against a background of patchwork plaster and dilapidated brickwork. I started casting a flickering shadow which nipped her heels, making Louise glance over her shoulder - and forcing me to freeze in place like a schoolyard game of 'Statues'. She was obviously suspicious, but luckily for me didn't have the time to check things out, and kept moving. I have to admit that watching the sway of her hips almost made my discomfort worthwhile - I may be shallow but I know what I like.
We reached the loading bay to find Tony-G and one of his pals standing beside a former school bus, now fitted out as 'a unique mobile lap-dancing experience'. It said so, right there on the side.
Floodlights turned the loading bay bright as day.
Victor and his two heavies went for their guns - then thought better of it as they saw who was standing over by the far wall; Sully Baker and four of his men - two of whom carried shotguns.
The girls squealed and crowded together. Victor looked sick to his stomach. Tony-G went white in the face, obvious even under the harsh lighting. I unzipped my jumpsuit with a sigh of relief and a small cloud of steam.
Sully stepped forward, jabbing a finger at his errant offspring. "Not one word! Not one, you understand? I got a garbage scow out of Miramar with a pressing need for a new deckhand, and be thankful you're getting off so lightly." He turned on Tony-G. "And you, you little-"
Tony-G held up his hands. "Victor came to me, Sully, honest! OK, so I short-changed the girls, but a little mind-wipe never hurt anyone, right? I mean, it's not like they're real people, when you get down to it."
I winced. He was talking about a synaptic manipulator - designed to selectively remove memories in trauma victims, so they could get on with their lives. Using it for a blanket 'mind-wipe' each morning was way beyond dangerous. It was a miracle none of the girls had been reduced to gibbering idiocy.
Sully cracked his knuckles. "I want the takings from those nights you borrowed my property, right? And if any of them have been damaged so that they can't sing for my Grace, well, you best find a deep, dark hole to hide in, Tony. A really deep, dark hole."
Tony-G and his pal stumbled over each other in their haste to get aboard. The bus pulled away.
The big man turned to me. He sniffed. "You looking for a job? As in permanent work."
I arched an eyebrow. "Like what?"
"Like I need someone to run Victor's end of the operation while he's cooling his heels on the high seas. A monthly salary and no 'private enterprise' on the side. You interested?"
"Maybe, maybe. One condition though." I pointed at Louise, "I get her, when she's done singing."
Sully laughed. "Yeah, sure, come see me in the morning." My new boss and his business associates faded into the night, taking Victor with them.
The rest of the girls scurried into the warehouse but Louise hung back. She looked me straight in the eye. "Why me? Or do you get off on the idea of owning someone?"
I grinned. "Why you? Well, you got the looks, the figure and I bet - once we yank that intellect inhibitor - the smarts as well. I'm looking for a personal assistant, not a lap-dancer. An employee, not a piece of property."
"I'll be a free person soon. Free to make my own way in the world." There was a defiant tilt to her chin I found real fetching.
I took her arm and smiled. "Louise, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
© Martin Clark 2015 All Rights Reserved
Date and time of last update 18:27 Fri 31 Jul 2015
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