Translucent is an original work of fiction that I was working on between 2000 and 2001. It became the basis for my senior project, originally envisioned as a multimedia, choose-your-own-adventure-style video game that got downscaled to a film and shockwave cd-rom. The actual novel was never finished, though it was (and still is) plotted in my head, along with a long plot arc that covers both the history and future of the world in which it is set. The short summary is that it is a hard boiled detective story that crosses over into sci-fi and horror.
I really only took the case for the money. I’d been out of it for several weeks. The whole being penniless bullshit was getting old. It’s not like I wouldn’t survive if I was destitute for a while—I had a few friends…well, few meaning one—but I don’t like living on other people’s charity. So, in between the THUNKs of my head hitting my desk, I contemplated. Rent was due. The refrigerator was empty. The telescreen stopped showing free movies.
“You’ve got mail!” my computer suddenly told me.
I stopped pounding my head, massaging it as I looked at the latest bit of spam that had just plopped in my mailbox. “THIS IS NOT ANOTHER PYRAMID SCHEME! Just pass this on to 25 of your friends, and you can be instantly rich!!!” the subject line screamed. Right. With all the rest of the world up in arms about porn and spam and all that crap, what is AOL doing about it? America’s favorite service provider for more than 40 years? Not a damn thing.
Yes, I was an AOHell user. I used it because it was cheap and easy, like the prostitutes on 37th street downtown. Like those prostitutes, it was always trying to offer me things I didn’t want. Like those prostitutes, it was pretty on the outside, but fucked-up underneath. Still, I’m not a “power user.” I have a fast computer for five years ago, which, in this industry, is like the ice age. I don’t need anything more. I use AOL because I don’t need anything else. Similarly, I don’t have cybernetic implants, I don’t have modified visual receptors, I don’t have neural implants. From the outside looking in, all that body modification stuff is all a children’s game: who has the most toys. The side effect often being that the most toys makes them look the least human.
Jingle-jingle. Eh?! I checked my watch. 11:25. I never got clients before noon. Walking, no striding across the office was some ancient goddess. Sumerian, or something equally as fucked-up. She had this whole Powerful Woman vibe following her like a bride’s dress. In the way she moved. In the way she held her eyes focussed directly in front of her. She had lips that could smile, but probably wouldn’t. Behind them I could almost hear a scream. By the time she reached my desk, I had forgotten my own name.
“Sign outside says ‘Private Investigations.’ That true?” she asked. My eyes went from her dark, almost pure black orbs to her nose. It wasn’t what Cosmo would call an attractive nose. It was long and pointed, with a sudden sharp angle a bit higher than the level of her cheekbone. In fact, she, in most respects, failed to live up to the kind of idealized, supermodel beauty that Cosmopolitan and like magazines say all women should conform to, or if not, at least make a gallant attempt to do so. She, obviously, hadn’t given in to the cosmetic surgery epidemic. There was nothing plastic about her. That is, I think, what drew me to her. She was so real, abnormally natural. In every failed relationship I’d been in since 2025, every single woman I saw had some artificial something about her. I stopped noticing, blinding myself to a serialized low self-image. What made this woman alluring was that she didn’t try to be beautiful. It didn’t seem like she cared one way or the other. I tried to shoo away the thoughts of her and her nose and re-focus myself on business. She was asking me a question.
“Um. Yeah, yeah, that’s me. Steven J. Wossack, Private Investigations.” For a minute, I couldn’t help but feel like Magnum PI. Why any telestation would want to show reruns of Tom Sellick running around with white jeans and a Hawaiian shirt and a stuffy British cohort is way beyond me. Like remnants of an American past as distant as the Cold War. Still, it had the unfortunate effect of completely shaping how I saw the world at a very early age. For example, I expect all deaf people to be able to read lips and speak a slurred, nasal English because of an episode I once saw. And I expect it to be because they were taught, not because they have a neural implant.
“I’ve got a job for you, Mr. Wossack.” I blinked. Her eyebrows were the sort that united in the middle. The dreaded Unibrow that most women try to eliminate at all costs, preferring to shave it off entirely and paint new ones on. I stared at it with perverse fascination. Like admiring the armpit hair of those feminists who are opposed to shaving because it’s another way Women in Our Society are oppressed by men.
“A job. Simple surveillance job. I know you do them. I know how much it will cost. $500 a day, yes?”
My mind fumbled trying to hold on to numbers and figures. Rates I came up with five years ago and didn’t bother to change. $500 per day? Is that what it was? I ignored the fact that it was slightly odd that she knew exactly how much I charged. It’s not like I advertise it or anything. I ignored the fact that I couldn’t fight fabricating the idea that her chest was heaving ever-so-slightly. Had I ever made love to a woman who didn’t have saline breast implants? Who didn’t have a facelift? A shrunken nose? Who didn’t have painted retinas? When was the last time I saw a woman who looked human? Did they look the same naked as the Barbie-doll-like mannequins crowding the sidewalks, the magazines, the brothels, the porn channels? Sure, my name is Steve Wossack. I’m a Detective. I do simple surveillance jobs. I know it will cost $500 per day to unbutton your tight black jeans, to slide your black lace panties down your legs. I know it will cost $500 per day to stroke your—
Superego kicked in. I put the thought away.
“Yes, that sounds right. Can I have some details of the case?”
Undressing a client with your eyes on the first day is very unprofessional. At least wait until the second day. And did I want this case because of the money in my pocket or the woman in my bed? I tried convincing myself that money’s more important than sex. Even though I couldn’t remember the last time I had the latter. And then I kicked myself. Sleeping with an attractive female client? How very cliché…
“No?” She said nothing. Didn’t even twitch. “No…Well, I need to at least know what I’m looking for…Some general premise…a picture, maybe…”
“No, actually you don’t need to know anything. You will watch the individual whose name and address I will give you upon accepting the case. You will record the individual’s actions. You will divulge your information to me on a weekly basis until otherwise notified. Any information you learn during your surveillance will be more than you need or even would want to know.”
“Okay, okay, Miss, er—I’m sorry, I never caught your name…”
“That’s because I never gave you my name.”
She was playing hard-to-get. That was fairly obvious. However, I wasn’t sure if she was being so hard because this was a professional environment, a meeting, or because she was, in fact, a cold-hearted bitch.
“Well, can I have it? I’ll need it for paperwork and such…”
“Are you taking the job then?”
“Of your own free will?” The question sounded strangely ritualistic. Then I realized why. A memory from childhood. There was some myth I read once about vampires that they couldn’t enter a house unless invited of the resident’s “own free will.” After that, they could come and go as they pleased. I chuckled to myself at the thought and shrugged it off.
“Of my own free will,” I replied, adopting her serious implications, and trying not to be sarcastic about it. “$500 a day for a surveillance job, Miss–?” She paused. As if trying to find the right answer. Like old computers that took a minute to scan their data registers, searching for the appropriate combination of 1’s and 0’s.
“You can call me Ophelia Harrison. Here is my address and phone number.” She handed me a slip of paper with arcane drawings along the side. Long, curvy lines, sharp corners, with knotwork that looked slightly Celtic, slightly tribal. In the middle, in a tall, elegant inscription an address, phone number, e-mail.
“Okay, Miss Harrison, I’ll be in touch.”
A week later, with a Mondo Burger in one hand and a Mondo Shake in the other, I sat in my car outside 432 Rose Street, apartment ‘C.’ It was windy as all hell. Wind that you read about in suspense novels and in scary movies. Wind that had a voice. I shuddered. After sitting there for a good four or five hours, 432 Rose Street, apartment ‘C’ was still empty.
“Nine forty-five,” I told my vox-recorder. “Four-three-two Rose Street, apartment ‘C’ is still empty.”
I was sitting across the street from the Rose Street Apartments. Behind apartment ‘C’. It was on the second floor. The tattered drapes were open. Through them nothing. Well, probably not nothing, in an existential sense, but nothing in a more phenomenological sense. I couldn’t perceive anything beyond the window, and therefore the existence of phenomena beyond the window didn’t exist in my reality. Maybe if someone would come home and turn on the fucking light, something might exist. I checked my watch.
“Nine fifty-two. Suddenly got philosophical. Question: do all things that exist have names? If so, if something doesn’t have a name, does it not exist? If so, why the fuck am I sitting here if I don’t know anything about this guy—specifically, his name?” Even that was assuming too much. I didn’t know if this guy was, in fact, a guy. Still, I did what I was told. I watched the fucking apartment. I tried to decide which was more boring, this or watching paint peel. Or golfing.
It was in a dismal part of town. Dismal in the way that all of Detroit was dismal. Buildings that look like charcoal bricks which, combined, made up the lower east side. Gray slate walls blackened by thirty-year old soot. Blackened doors that weren’t quite pure black. The color of a weekend bonfire days later.
Across the street were the Ivy Apartments. This complex had matching ashen walls as their neighbor, but had gaudily colored doors. Each door a different color. Burnt Cherry Red. Shriveled Lime Green. Urine Sun Yellow. Royal Smog Blue. If the landlords bothered to clean the buildings, it would still look horrible. Omitting the fact that decades worth of dirt, grime, and grease painted the walls. Forgetting that even a good wash would only make the crap coagulate in long drips and dry. All that aside, the walls would still be the gray of the sky overhead. And the doors would still be gaudy. A failed attempt at livening up the neighborhood.
Once upon a time, Detroit was a thriving, industrial city. Way back in the early days of automobiles, when they were built on an assembly line manned with workers. Workers who knew cars. Workers who were big, wide, and had permanent grease stains painting the calluses on their hands. My father had hoped to be one of those workers, once upon a time. But by then, all those workers were replaced by machines. Machines that didn’t go on strike. Machines that didn’t call in sick or take paid vacations. Machines that built machines that my dad built. After that, the unemployment rate skyrocketed. This progressive city got frozen in time. The economy of Michigan had depended on the mass production of cars. Now the car companies continued to make money, while Detroit pulled the rest of the state into a hole that it would never be able to escape. Detroit wasn’t needed anymore, not in the way it was once needed. Car manufacturing plants could be built anywhere, with brand new, shiny machines doing the work. Now men in gray suits came to the car companies and had them ship out x cars to n dealership. Real people couldn’t afford these new cars. Instead, they rebuilt, resold and regurgitated the same old cars, and lived in charcoal apartments with garish doors.
I knew little about the lower east side. I lived in the upper east side. The difference between the upper east side was not the appearance of the apartments—my complex was just as drab, and just as brick-like—but rather that my apartment was a number, and the apartments here were letters. Numbers tended to be different than letters, slightly bigger, slightly cleaner, slightly fewer roaches. At least, that was the urban myth I was led to believe.
For a moment, I closed my eyes and could almost see the inside of these apartments. Specifically the one I was supposed to watch. One bedroom, one bath, kitchen/dining room. Brown-orange carpet pounded into submission by a hundred different feet of a hundred previous residents. The occasional unidentified stain. The walls would try to be white, but would actually be yellow. The color of a smoker’s teeth. There would be strange yellow stains dripping down the wall from the ceiling. The bathroom would have a pink tiled floor. Yellow walls. A broken towel rack and shower/bath with tattered curtains instead of a door. The bedroom would be cramped no matter how much or how little you put in. The sliding closet doors would have a rosewood stain, now peeling. They would habitually and unexplainably fall off their tracks. Sounds like home.
I imagined this was the layout of the apartment I was staking out. Now, the question was, what would Mr./Ms. Nameless, or rather, Mr./Ms. Name-Which-Would-Come-In-Its-Own-Due-Time furnish the apartment with? It would be sparse. As little furniture as possible. He/She probably wouldn’t spend much time there. Wouldn’t bother paying for heating, maybe. Telephone shut off. A broken mattress on the bedroom floor, no sheets. Refrigerator would contain—what? Beer? No. A carton of milk and maybe some leftover something. Most items in the room would have been second hand or stolen from the side of the road. I checked myself. How do I know that? I don’t know anything about this guy. He could even be the wrong person. To my knowledge, he hasn’t even done anything. Yet. Then again, theoretically, a lot can be said about a guy who lived in this side of town and had an exotic-looking woman hiring a Private Dick to stake him out.
I was stuffing the last bit of burger into my mouth, noticing nothing more appearing in apartment ‘C’ than anything that had happened throughout the five hours I had been waiting, and assumed that this guy wasn’t coming home tonight.
“Ten-oh-three,” I said into the vox-recorder. “No sign of life. I’m outta here.” I started the engine, turning around to back out. It was after this ordinary motion that I noticed something slightly odd I hadn’t noticed before. There was a car parked behind mine, man in suit sitting in the drivers’ seat, his actions—or inaction—mirroring mine. There was a white styrofoam cup of coffee on the dashboard, fogging up the window in a conical stream. He was eating a doughnut. It was a large, monstrous vehicle. An American car in all respects. Huge, hulking, and ugly. I paused a split-second, and our eyes locked. He jumped, spilling his coffee on his lap. I took that as my cue to leave. I pulled out calmly. Focussing on the turning of the wheel. Applying pressure to the gas pedal. I turned right on Rose Street. I made the turn slowly, and then sped up on Rose Street, putting distance between me and him just in case. At the stoplight I remembered to breathe.
“Couldn’t be anything. Just some guy eating a doughnut in his car. Mind’s playing tricks on me. The job’s making me paranoid.” But I checked my rearview just as the light turned green, and the car was still behind me. I turned at the corner. I lost myself in a maze of streets, hoping to lose him in the process. Each time I thought he was gone, I’d check behind me, and see him at the end of the street. The idea of the watcher being watched freaked me out. I decided that leading this guy to my apartment would be a bad idea, so I headed towards a gas station.
When I got there I started walking towards the cashier, but instead dashed for the restrooms. I pushed the door open. Instantly I was overcome by the stench. Well, that was the first thing anyway. The second thing was the tile floor, wet with piss. The inside of the toilet with its own skid marks from a recent shit that didn’t quite go down. The flecks of browning green and greening brown around the back of the toilet from where the gas station attendants didn’t bother to clean up the puke from that night’s unlucky bar-hopper.
I splashed water on my hands and face, finding, as expected, the soap dispenser empty. I buried my face in a paper towel, and stepped out of the bathroom. I checked to make sure my car was still where I left it. It was. I entered the mini-convenience store. The air conditioning felt like walking into a freezer. I went to the cooler and pulled out a Pepsi. I stepped up to the cashier with my soda, and told him to add ten dollars on number twelve.
“I’m sorry, sir, that pump’s already taken.”
“Excuse me?” I said, unsure if I heard him right.
“Someone already got that pump. They used the ATM over there,” he said, and pointed to the box that said “Pay Quick! Use Your ATM or Credit Cards Here!” My eyes moved to pump number twelve. Sure enough, on the opposite side of the pump as my car, was an ugly, familiar green Cadillac.
“Shit,” I whispered.
“Sir?” The attendant wanted my attention.
“Oh, right, ten bucks on eleven, then.” He punched it up. I gave him the cash.
“Oh, and can I have a pack of Lucky’s unfiltered, please?” He gave me a look that said “You actually smoke that shit?!” but reached up and came back with the white box with a red circle in the middle. Yes, I actually smoke that shit. I figure, if you’re going to smoke, and fuck up your lungs anyway, you might as well smoke the most rank cigarettes there are. That way, you’re constantly reminded of what you’re doing to your body.
“Thanks,” I said, handing over the money for the cigarettes. I pocketed them, and grabbed my Pepsi, walking out of the store. I put the soda on the roof of my car, opened the flap to the gas tank, and unscrewed the gas cap. I wanted to be totally cool, and have one of those “oh, what an interesting coincidence” attitudes with this guy. I grabbed the pump. Our eyes met. I smiled.
“It looks like you have a really nasty stain there. Hope it didn’t hurt too much,” I said. He scowled. He didn’t actually look so tough. In fact, he looked like he spent too much time behind a desk. Not out of shape, just out of practice. He turned away, then thought again about it.
“Look, were you staking out Theodore Scott?” he asked. Hmm…Theodore Scott, I thought, and stored that name for later.
“I honestly don’t know the name of the person I was staking out. I was told to watch an apartment.”
“Well, don’t,” he said. “Don’t bother. Don’t get involved. First of all, I figure he’s moved on, anyway. Second of all, this case could be bad for your health. I say drop it. However much you’re getting paid for this isn’t enough.”
“I honestly don’t think I should be taking occupational advice from someone who I don’t even know. Let alone someone who was mysteriously following me.”
“Look, I just wanted to talk to you, civilized like.” I nodded, and mouthed Right.
“Awful weird way of being civilized. Following someone around town. Is this how you pick up women, too?” I returned the pump, grabbing my Pepsi, and got in my car. Before I had time to start the engine, he came up to my window, knocking on it. He reached into his pocket and brought back a small wallet. He flipped it open with the same smooth motion every other FBI agent uses in all the movies and telescreen shows. “FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION” it said. “Alexander Timothy Hecox,” it said. There was a picture of a stoned-looking man with a small moustache that fit snugly around his small lips. A long face that looked aged by stress and life as opposed to years. It matched the image of the man holding it. He, apparently, didn’t take good pictures either.
“What I’m telling you is honestly for your own good. We’ve been watching this guy for a while. You don’t want to get involved.” I nodded, unsure. “Oh, and by the way…You forgot your gas cap,” he said, and walked away.
Damn. He managed to out-Cool me.
* * *
I didn’t think he’d still be following me, but I wasn’t about to take any chances. I still didn’t know who this guy was, but he was not something I wanted to fuck with at any rate. So I drove to Devi’s house.
She lived in a Nice part of town. Large house. As in more than one floor. More than one bathroom. No roaches. The house was this white Victorian thing, full of pomp and pretension. Exactly the image she wanted to exude. Her real name wasn’t Devi, of course, it was Dianne. Devi is Hindi for goddess, and anyway, Mistress Dianne doesn’t sound nearly as impressive.
I met her doing another simple surveillance job. This time following the Governor of Massachusetts into a BDSM sex club. Massachusetts is a weird place for that scene. They’ve got strict laws that are handmedowns from the Revolution. Back at the turn of the millennia a guy was arrested for assault and battery with a wooden spoon. Despite the fact that the battered individual was quite literally asking for it. Apparently in Massachusetts a vibrator is a form of “self-abuse.” I’d hate to see what they think of masturbation.
The Governor apparently knew his way around. I didn’t. I ended up losing him very quickly, and coming back to my client saying that, yes, he was there, and yes, he was a hideously depraved individual, now gimme my money. But what I actually saw in the club wasn’t a bunch of depraved individuals doing depraved things to each other. There was that, too, but that wasn’t the main of it. More, I saw people being very loving towards each other, very trusting. The scene there wasn’t without its own pomp, of course. There were just as many fashion fetishists as there were players, and even the “scenes” I watched often had an element of ritual. But it wasn’t at all what I expected. Pervert men begging women to hit them because they’ve been bad, sexually abused women not knowing how else they should be treated and being abused physically, sexually and emotionally. Instead there was a lot of it that, at the time, went way over my head because it was so deeply psychological.
For instance, I walked into a room nicknamed the “King Arthur Room.” All sorts of $2 medieval props scattered about, amongst the actual, more expensive equipment—an odd mix of cheese and “real” stuff. There was a fairly solid-looking wooden table with benches by the entrance, and a velvet rope in front of it, separating the “play space” from the voyeurs, and vice versa. In the center of the room was a wooden structure that I was later informed to be a St. Andrew’s cross. It was basically two wooden X’s back to back, with rings for clips and locks. To the right of this was a rickety-looking rack, there more for decoration than for use. To the left, a bed, clad in black PVC sheets. Obviously not made for sleeping. At the far wall was a pair of regal-looking chairs, meant, I supposed, to be the King and Queen’s thrones. That’s where I saw her. Sitting there, legs crossed, complacent look on her face peering down at a man on all fours, black leather hood over his head with zips for his eyes and mouth. He had a collar around his neck with a leach attached, the end of which was held in Mistress Devi’s hand. The only clothes he wore was a diaper. He was, apparently, being very affectionate to her thigh-high PVC boot.
“Boot worship,” she told me later when I asked what that was.
“Yeah, so what’s the big deal? It’s a boot.” She looked me up and down and smiled. I was wearing black Doc Martins, blue jeans, white T-shirt and a leather jacket. I could’ve been The Fonz.
She shrugged. “Different strokes for different folks. Different people are into different things. Don’t you have any fetishes?” She peered at me playfully, grinning like a predator. Intellectually, I stumbled. I wanted to say “Of course not, you people are pervs!” but that wasn’t what I was thinking at all.
“Uh, well…Gee, I dunno,” I said. “I’m really new to all this. In fact this is the first time I’ve been to one of these…things. I was with a…friend of mine, and he kind of ditched me. Why…do you want to teach me?” I peered back, smiling.
And that was pretty much that. We communicated via email for a few months before we actually did anything. She told me that she worked nights as a professional Dominatrix, told me she makes $200 an hour with most of her clients. She had enough clients to support her expensive tastes, and give her the ability to really do whatever the hell she likes. I was jealous. Think about it, that’s the best job in the fucking world. People pay you to get on their knees and worship you, doing whatever you tell them. They want desperately to fuck you, and you punish them for it! Beats prying into people’s private lives with a Mondo Burger in your hand.
I pulled into her driveway. It was one of those driveways rich people have, the ones that curve around so three or four cars can pull in. I walked up to the door and rang the bell. The sound echoed against the high ceilings inside. Her live-in slave, dressed in a mock-tuxedo that had no sleeves, answered the door. He wore a bondage collar around his neck that locked in the back instead of buckling.
“Mistress is in her room watching television,” he told me, without looking up to meet my eyes. It was how he was trained. Still, it was fucking unnerving. I hate it when people don’t look at me when they talk to me anyway. In this case, he was going out of his way to not look at me.
“Thanks,” I said, and nodded, resisting the urge to make faces at him as I passed. I climbed up the spiral staircase, which was clothed with a plush red carpet. At the top of the stairs was her room, dark except for the flashing light of the pictures on the telescreen. I stopped at the doorway.
“Steven! I didn’t expect you.” In the darkness I could see her slight smile.
“Eh. Work was particularly stressful tonight.” She stopped me before I could go into it.
“I can be your shrink or I can be your Mistress, Steven, I can’t be both. Which would you like me to be?”
“Yes, Mistress,” I replied, bowing my head.
“That’s better. Come in. Sit next to me.” I approached the bed, but before I could get onto it she stopped me again.
“Ah! Shoes?” I nodded, and removed them, then lied next to her on her bed. She put her arm around me and cradled my head. She knew about my job, what I did. She knew enough to know that she really didn’t want to get into it. She had told me once that she’d always be there for me when I just needed to escape from stuff, but she didn’t want me to rant and rave about the shitty day at work I had. She said she could go on and on about how her submissives and slaves were mistreating her or acting up or whatever, but she didn’t. She expected the same courtesy from others. I suppose it works out.
Still, it was far from what I needed, and even farther from what I wanted.
Though she didn’t consider me a client, she didn’t consider me a lover either. She had one of those, she said she really didn’t need another. He was a Dominant, too. Master Lawrence. He’d generally come over with one of his recently-acquired submissives, told to wait for him at the bottom of the stairs. He’d come into her room, nod hello to me, and I’d make my way out. The giggling and laughing would start before I closed the door behind me, the moans before I was halfway down the stairs, and likely the first orgasm before I reached the ground floor again. It would be there that I would see Master Lawrence’s young sub. She’d look up at me from her chair, her knees bent towards each other, body bent forward with her elbows resting on her knees. She’d look up to me with these pitiful puppy dog eyes, and smile self-consciously, and I’d smile back. Though a different girl every week, it was always the same. She was always the same. There was a time when I wondered what he, a 44 year old who looked it, did with them, never older than 21, usually new to the scene. I wondered if they enacted some teacher-student school girl fantasy. I wondered where the inspiration for such role play came from. It made me stop wondering.
Though I had no real reason for it, and never really even talked to him, I didn’t like him much. I felt too much like he was on my territory—which, of course he was. Though it wasn’t really my territory. And yes, it was jealousy. Jealousy that he could do things I wanted, that he could have things I wanted, and that I couldn’t perceive him actually appreciating that. I couldn’t imagine him loving. I couldn’t imagine him in any other way than when I would see him walk in, cocky smug grin on his face, or when I caught him as he was sternly commanding the submissive to sit and stay like an obedient dog
He wasn’t here tonight, and I didn’t ask if he was coming. I was too much enjoying the arm around my neck, being allowed to leave my hand on Devi’s silk, pajama-clad leg, underneath which, I knew, was nothing. We were watching some live cop show, another COPS spin-off, but that hit a bit too close to home. Instead, she switched it to some tremendously bad, British, ultra-soft porn flick that was apparently titled The Spanking Detective, and was good at least for a laugh. Barely. It starred this horrid, big breasted, African American—though I suppose if she was British, that would imply distinctly that she wasn’t American. (How do you say that, and still remain politically correct?) The basic rundown of the plot—what little there was of it—was that Buffy or Biffy or whatever the blond damsel-in-distress with the bad 80s hair was named had been kidnapped by the evil Dominatrix for some reason that we must’ve missed, and anyway, probably wasn’t all that important. The evil Dominatrix was said to be torturing the poor, innocent leather underwear model, but the most extreme punishment we saw was the dreaded whipped cream treatment! Somehow, with a straight face, the Dominatrix managed to scoop a fingerful of whipped cream off of her captive’s breast and force feed it to her, while she shook her head “no” as if eating whipped cream was some kind of horrible punishment. The climax of the film came when the Spanking Detective herself showed up, baring her teeth, and the two Dominatrices whipped the ground at each other, growling and snarling.
Devi looked at me, and I realized that my hand had unconsciously moved its way higher on her leg, stroking a tender part of her inner thigh. I blushed, she looked terribly amused. I leaned up and we kissed. One hand holding my weight, my other rising higher, cupping itself around her genitals. She pulled my hair hard, brought my ear to her lips, and whispered: “You’ll stain my pajamas.” I was sliding my hand under the soft pants when we heard a door close downstairs. Fuck! I thought, as it was sure to be Lawrence, and removed my hand as we heard footsteps on the stairs. I got up and started putting my boots on again.
“You can spend the night here if you like,” she called from behind me.
“No. No, that’s okay. I’m fine. I should get home anyway.” I felt her nod. For what I needed to get home, I didn’t know. What would I do? Watch more telescreen, jerk off, go to sleep. Terribly exciting. Still, it was better than listening to them having sex for hours on end.
I finished lacing up my Docs and turned around as Lawrence reached the doorway, and was lurking in the doorframe. I took her hand and kissed it. “Good night, Mistress.”
“Goodnight, Steven,” she said, and smiled fondly. As I walked passed Master Lawrence, he nodded and smiled his big, shiteaters grin. At the bottom of the stairs, another girl. I left, getting in my car and turning the music and the heater on full, and driving very fast.
It’s funny sometimes how laughing can sound so much like crying. I’m in my college dorm, in the bathroom, taking a dump. I get this odd sense of déjà vu as I hear a girl upstairs laughing. At least I think she’s laughing. Pretty sure anyway. At any rate, it distracts me from the magazine I’m reading. Must not’ve been a very interesting magazine anyway, because I can’t, for the life of me, remember what the fuck I am reading, and I can’t concentrate on the page anymore. All the letters blur together. All I can see is: “Blah blah blah fuck blah blah blah” and I still can’t tell if she’s laughing or crying.
As if in a dream, I have this future-memory vision thing. It goes with the feeling of déjà vu, like an expanded edition. It isn’t much, though. I just remember that a few hours from now, I heard sirens. Police and ambulance sirens. It was one or two hours after I stopped trying to decide if it was laughing or crying. I remembered seeing a female Emergency Medical Technician (Technician? Sounds so fucking sterile. Like a human is a tool or a machine.) going up the stairs. She looked me straight in the eyes, disgusted, as if I was a vile animal, simultaneously raping and devouring my own mother. Her lips pursed, she frowned, and broke the eye contact, proceeding up the stairs. All the other EMTs just kept going, looking at the ground or in front of them. That look she gave me stays with me.
I get up from the toilet, wipe. Still hearing the laughs/sobs. I go to my room and close the door. I sit down and picked up a book. It’s a textbook. Modern European History. But all it says is: “Blah blah blah fuck blah blah blah.” I throw the book on my bed, and walk into the hallway, not bothering to lock the door behind me. Jumping as it slams shut. Her sounds have stopped, or maybe they’re muffled. At any rate I head for the staircase. Twenty-seven steps to the top, I count them as I go up. A leftover habit from childhood that kicks in every once in a while for no apparent reason. Thirteen steps, and then a flat bit where you have to turn around and climb the remaining fourteen. I wonder why the number’s odd. I wonder if all the floors have twenty-seven steps, or if the other ones have twenty-six, or twenty-eight.
I step into the hallway. The carpet on the floor is decaying orange. It reminds me of the carpet of the Overlook hotel in The Shining. The hallway is lit by dim, yellow-tinted lights. A few doors down there’s one that’s open, with deep, male voices muttering from inside of it. It strikes me slightly as odd, as this is a girls floor, but it’s not unknown for guys to be up here in the least. The room with the open door is roughly above and across from the john downstairs. I decide I’m just going to walk past, peek in and make sure she’s okay, and then go back to my room. Simple. No problem. I start walking towards the door. She starts again. With each step a slight, slow giggle/sob. It seems like forever before I actually reach the door. But upon finally getting there, I am unable to continue with my plan. My feet stop at the doorway. Mainly, I assume, because I still can’t tell if she’s laughing or crying.
The orange light from the hallway continues in this room, almost amplified. I see my own shadow on the wall surrounded by an orange glow. In front of it stands a man I’ve never seen before. He’s just standing there, watching the action in front of him. Namely, a large bed. The room, I notice, seems much bigger than mine. About twice the size. The bed is against the wall perpendicular to me, so I get a sidelong glance at it. On the bed, two bodies. One male, one female. A voice, rising in pitch, intensity, and fervor with each second. And I still can’t tell if it’s a laugh or a sob.
The male body is muscular. An athlete’s body. His ass muscles are taut as he’s fucking her. His body is angled so he can put the weight of his upper body on her wrists, pinning them down. I don’t see her face. She’s writhing against him. It’s still hard to tell if she’s fighting it or enjoying it. Her voice. The sound seems to come from everywhere now. I get that feeling of being outside your body. I look on from outside myself, watch my stunned, motionless body watching the scene before me.
She turns her head. All I see at first is her mouth. It could be a grin, it could be a grimace. And it’s letting out a peal of sound ringing in my ears. My eyes move up slightly to her nose. I recognize that nose! It’s Ophelia! I look up, into her eyes, and see a totally blank expression. My view moves even farther away from my body, subconsciously shutting out everything other than her eyes. She could be dead for all those eyes tell me. She’s staring right at me, and the sound continues. The man on top of her doesn’t pay any attention to me at all.
I look back to the other guy looking on. He’s got his dick in his hand, and he’s jerking off. The sight wouldn’t normally shock me, as I’ve seen much worse in some of the sex clubs I’ve been to, but my stomach turns over anyway. The elastic on his white briefs says Calvin Klein, same thing I used to wear in college. I move my gaze up. He’s staring at them, licking his lips. He turns to look at me. Suddenly, I’m staring into my own eyes. Now, my out-of-body view moves into him. I feel my cock in my hand, fully erect, about to cum. I’m staring at myself staring at myself. And the sound. I hear her voice, screaming now, completely hysterical. And I still can’t fucking tell if she’s laughing or fucking crying!
I snapped awake from the dream, bolt upright.
“Fuck.” I was shivering, though I wasn’t at all cold. I looked at the clock which told me it was 5:24am. I rubbed my eyes, and rested my face in my hands. I wasn’t going to be able to get back to sleep tonight, so I threw on some clothes and put on some obnoxiously happy trance music as loud as I thought I could without waking the neighbors. I turned on the coffeemaker.
It was Friday. Almost a week since the incident with the cop or whatever he was. I wasn’t able to tell Ophelia about the incident, because she didn’t show up that Friday like she was supposed to. I did some homework, however, on Theodore Scott, but what I found was less than satisfying. Theodore Scott didn’t actually exist but for a few unpaid hotel bills. So, I took the liberty to return to his abandoned apartment. I was able to get access to the room by telling the landlady that I was a concerned friend of his, and remain there by adding that I might be interested in the room. When I got half a minute outside of her supervision, I slipped on a pair of leather gloves I brought for the occasion, and grabbed some random items that I figured would have some fingerprints on them. Small, travel alarm clock. Telephone receiver. External mouse for a laptop. I slipped them into the large pockets of the trenchcoat I was wearing, and returned to the living room (where the only thing living in the room, outside of us, were the few roaches scuttling along the floor in the corner).
“So,” the landlady said, “what’d’ya think?”
“Oh, I dunno. It depends on if my new job actually goes through. I might not be able to afford something this nice, y’know?” She nodded, and glanced at my gloves. I followed her gaze, remembered that I didn’t have them on when I came in.
“Cold in here, isn’t it?” I said, and clasped my arms in an “I’m cold” motion. She looked at me a bit funny, but didn’t pry any further, and I made off with my scavenged treasures. I’ve worked before with the local police department, and knew a few people there. I headed off to see if they could do some fingerprint checks on the items I picked up. While I was there, I asked about the guy who’d been staking me out.
“Oh yeah,” said Toby, “he was in here last week, too. Dunno what he came in about, he was talkin’ to Joe.” He nodded and pointed in the direction of a 50-year-old, Irishman who always made me think of the old Batman series. Toby was one of those classic, TV-show cops. One who’s been in the force for 20 years, and now has a cushy desk job because they don’t want him working in the field anymore.
“So he’s not one of yours?” I asked.
“Oh, no. I overheard them a bit, and appar’ntly he’d been following this guy for a while. Crossed state lines. Figured ‘e was either an out-of-state detective, or one of you.”
“A private dick? No, I don’t think so. Didn’t have that kinda feel,” I said. Toby shrugged.
“Anyway, I’ll pass these along, the results’ll be ready for you in a few days.” I nodded. “I’ll give you a call.”
“Great. Thanks, Toby.” I waved and headed off.
“No problem, Steve. You take care of yourself.” I nodded and walked out.
The results were odd, too. Much more so than Theodore Scott’s non-existence. They were totally conclusive, though. However, they pointed directly to one Jerome Taylor, a corpse. Died in a car crash. The fact that I had fingerprints that were fairly recent sent a buzz around the police station. He died twelve years ago. I asked where he was from before I left the station not to return for a while, to let the murmurs die down a bit. Dixon, Illinois. Store that into memory files under Theodore Scott. A file that was got more unusual as it grew.
I unbolted the wrought-iron gate in front of the glass door to my office, and unlocked the door. Open for business, I thought to myself as I flipped the sign from “CLOSED” to “OPEN.” I threw my jacket on my desk.
“Any calls for me?” I asked the empty room, and checked the answering machine. 5 hang-ups. One sobbing female saying her husband left her for a prostitute, could I get him back? I erased all of them. I powered up my computer. The silver and black Cirius Continuum 6.5 logo greeted me. “Now loading your Virtual Desktop,” it said. As it loaded, it gave me a brief summary of the system components.
Plug-and-Play BIOS developed by the Cirius Corporation, 2034.
72Ghz Intel-AMD Olympian processor.
4.5 GB RAM.
MASTER 310GB Hard Disk…FOUND!
SLAVE 620GB Hard Disk…FOUND!
MASTER Bootable Removable Hard Drive…FOUND!
SLAVE Bootable MultiMedia LaserDisk…FOUND!
NetSys Tele-LAN Metanet Card…FOUND!
…now loading system preferences. Please wait.
A few seconds later I was greeted by another Cirius splash screen with a note to please visit their netsite at http://w3.cirius.corp. That disappeared and was replaced by an image I snatched from the net that was either from, or inspired by Orwell’s 1984. An eye that took up the entire screen, and the text “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.” I opened my netbrowser, and filled the screen with it. I wasn’t in the mood to want to deal with Big Brother this morning.
I made the unconscious decision to avoid all the “real” netsites, and instead link to all of those personal homepage sites. Well, obviously not all of them, but I was suddenly made curious by them. I mean, what inspires people to put up a netpage about themselves? There’s this whole culture of exhibitionists and what do they get out of it? I don’t suppose it’s often that they get real, live emails from people who visit their page. They all have those guestbooks, and in every one of them, all the entries include links to that person’s personal homepage. All of them have the obligatory bio page, and a lot of them include an online journal that likely no one actually reads. And if they do? What would these people do if someone, say, me for instance, read about how they tried to commit suicide—because all these pages belong to unhappy teens—and were in the hospital due to poisoning from trying to OD on sleeping pills. What would they do if I wrote an email saying “cheer up, it can’t be that bad,” or “yeah, I did that, too.” How would they respond to a direct reaction to something they put in their journal and uploaded to the net from some total stranger?
I was at a site called “DarkKyttn’s World of Gothy Fun,” pondering this as I read about her terrible breakup with her boyfriend, when I heard the jingle of the bells on the door. I looked up from the computer and saw a pair of bare legs striding at me. At the bottom of those legs were shiny black boots to the calves. My eyes traveled up the legs, watching them stop at my desk, and seeing the short, black leather miniskirt. The effect was mind-numbing—black against pale white. I wondered briefly how she was able to remain so pale. The owner cleared her throat.
Without looking up, I said: “Hello Ophelia.” My eyes met hers. She gave a quick, artificial smile.
“Glad to know your mind’s always on business, Mr. Wossack.”
“Only when you’re around,” I replied smugly. “Besides, you’re about a week late.” She looked down nervously.
“Yes, well, things came up.”
“I’m sure they did. I have some info about the person you had me stake out.” Her eyes raised and lit up. “He’s dead.” She cocked her head, confused.
“What? What do you mean?” she said.
“I mean dead. As in dead. Pushing up daisies. Rung the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-person.” The absurdity of the situation seemed to deem necessary absurd comedy. “He died twelve years ago, in fact. Wrapped himself around a tree. But that’s not the interesting part.”
“—do I know this? Well…” I told her about the guy who had been staking me out. I told her about how he let the name Theodore Scott slip, and advised me to leave the case. I told her about how the fingerprints led to a corpse named Jerry Taylor in Dixon.
“Now,” I said after I had finished all this. “Is there something you want to tell me? Or should I continue my research on my own, and dig up all the dirt myself?” She avoided eye contact. Her hands were doing some kind of twitch thing. Her nostrils were flared. She was thinking.
“Look,” she said, changing the subject, “I found this.” She pulled out a wrinkled and aged newspaper article. It was dated 17 June, 2033. The headline read “BRUTAL MURDER OF SMALL-TOWN GAS STATION ATTENDANT.” It was printed in the Las Vegas Village Voice, the local paper, apparently.
“So? This is three years old. Even if it was our guy, he’s moved on.”
“Just read it. You want information? You want to know what you’re chasing. Fucking read this.” I did. It was the first time I heard her lose her cool. First time I heard her swear. I liked it. Suddenly she became more human, less robotic. Suddenly she became even more sexy.
The article talked about some local-yokel gas station guy. More importantly, it talked about how he was found dead. Very, very dead. The cause of death wasn’t the large chunk of flesh taken out of his left forearm. Nor was it the slight skull fracture retained, it is supposed, by the butt of his own shotgun. Nor even the shotgun blast directly to his spine. Though the autopsy report wasn’t sure, it was supposed that from the angle of the entrance wound, the bullet missed his heart entirely, instead piercing his lungs, and mucking things up more by the bone fragments that would be scattered everywhere.
No, actually, the cause of death was more likely the fact that he was eviscerated, with no sign of his internal organs. Everything was removed, and taken as a trophy? the reporter, obviously in over his head, could only guess. I shuddered. According to the autopsy report, the victim was still alive, at least to begin with, when all this was happening to him. So, this guy was a psychopath. That explained a few things. Though it still didn’t explain why he was dead, or at least why he had a dead man’s fingerprints.
“That’s him?” I said when I finished the article.
“So, you mean to tell me you had me staking out a MANIAC?!” I began to lose grip on my sanity. Yes, this case very well could be bad for my health. I wanted a drink.
“You said yourself that he wasn’t there,” she said. Cool and collected.
“Fuck me! What if he was?!” She didn’t answer.
“I told you any information you found would be more than what you would want to know. You’ve stumbled on things you shouldn’t know, so I’ve disclosed what I found. You accepted this case of your own free will. There’s no backing out now.” I felt claustrophobic. Even though I was terrified of meeting this guy and then looking down and seeing my guts missing, I was curious to see what the fuck was going on. This case may’ve been a death wish, but I didn’t really have much going for me anyway. At least I would never be bored. Terrified, maybe; bored, no.
“Yes, I took the fucking case. You have anything more recent?” She smiled slightly, and pulled out another article. This one from last year. This one from the Detroit Sun Times. Same style murder. The reporter didn’t go into as much detail himself. Instead he quoted the autopsy report a lot. No gunshot wound this time. Full evacuation of all internal organs. A lot of random pierced flesh, it seemed, like the attacker had a vast array of needles and knives of every shape and style. It had looked like something that would take hours to fully complete. The attacker seemed to approach his victim like an artist approaching a canvas. But the autopsy said it actually only took a few minutes. Plus, it took place in a dark club. Loud music playing to drown out the screams, but it would still be very necessary for the assailant to be quick.
My mind, in moving into analytical, criminologist mode, had a brief hiccup. Wait. We were talking about Theodore Scott, right? The descriptions of the murders made him seem superhuman, almost godlike. Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive. His real name was Kal-El and his only weakness was Kryptonite, right? This shit couldn’t be real. Ophelia must’ve seen the wheels in my head turning.
“Oh it’s real alright. Though I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting this guy, I can assure you he exists.”
“You sure it’s not a couple people? Like a gang thing or something?” Ophelia shook her head.
“No, although…” Her voice trailed off. She knew something she wasn’t telling me. What else is new? Her eyes looked off in the distance. The way the light from the window hit them, they seemed to sparkle. Her whole body seemed to glow. Her hair, long, black, was kept up in some kind of bun today. When I looked into her eyes this time, underneath the hard, professional shell, I saw something that caught me off guard. Her eyes became glassy, and I swore I saw the lost look of an orphaned child in those eyes.
“Hey,” I said. “I’ve got an idea. All this morbidity and talk of disemboweled cadavers has put a bit of a downer on the morning. Why don’t we go out for coffee? I’m not expecting anyone else, and I think we both need to get our minds off this for a little bit.” She looked at me, startled, and smiled nervously.
“I—I don’t know. Shouldn’t we—?”
“Aw, c’mon. There’s no rule that a Private Dick can’t have coffee with his clients. If it’ll make you feel better, we can talk only about the case. But anyway, I don’t really know of anything we can do until we get more info at this point.” I lied. I had a very distinct idea of what I wanted to do. But I also knew that I wasn’t going to tell her straight off. Maybe if I found anything out as a result of this impulse.
She eventually relented. She offered to drive, but I told her it’s not that far, it’d be much better, and do us good, to walk. The day was surprisingly nice. The sky was only slightly brown from the smog, the sun shining through with a brilliant red glow. We went to a coffeehouse down the street called Coffee Buzzz. One of those trendy places that the newly-yuppified programmers that make more money than they know what to do with hang out. Every time I ever went before, it was crawling with twentysomethings, though today it was sparsely occupied. A few students reading. A pair of computer geeks at a table talking Geekish. I ordered a double mochacino and a double chocolate chip muffin. Ophelia ordered a latte and a roast beef sandwich.
We ate and talked. Mostly idle chit chat. Ophelia never said much about herself, so I tried to make up for it, talking about myself, with the odd notion that if I opened up, she would, too. She honestly looked like she wanted to a few times. I could see her struggling with things on the tip of her tongue. But she stayed silent.
We talked about likes and dislikes, about movies—though she admitted she doesn’t get a chance to see many. So I ran out of the coffeehouse to buy a paper, and came back in, opening to the movie showing times.
“What do you want to see?” I asked.
“Oh, I didn’t mean we should go to a movie now…”
“Why not? Besides, you’re not going to say that I bought this paper for nothing, are you? C’mon my treat—or, actually yours, since it’s your money anyway…” I smiled. She smiled back. She let me choose the movie. There was a double feature playing at the only non-corporate-owned theatre in town of independent movies made towards the end of the 20th century. Not recognizing the titles, I suggested that anyway, because the theatre, called The Matrix, generally played good films.
About five hours later, we were walking out of the theatre. People around us squinted in the fading light. We walked down the street side-by-side, looking into all the shops that were slowly kicking their customers out and closing down for the night. I let my hand fall next to hers and, when she didn’t pull away, intertwined it with her hand. She squeezed it. I felt my face flush, my heart skip. I looked at her and she smiled. I smiled. Somewhere, far in the back of my mind, a tiny voice was screaming at me about getting involved with my clients.
“You hungry?” I asked.
“Wanna come over to my place and I could cook you dinner?” I tried my hardest not to make that sound like a pickup line. I think I probably failed. Still, she thought about it a minute, and said: “Sure. But bear in mind, I’m a voracious meat eater.” I tried my hardest not to take that as a pickup line.
“Steak it is, then.” I walked her to her car, a beautiful, black Gerrardi Nightbird. Most people drove cars that were at least 20, 30, even 40 years old because buying new cars was insane. Only terribly rich people could afford the multimillion dollar price tag attached to most new cars today. Still, I wasn’t that surprised when I saw it. Generally only rich people pay someone to stalk their husband or wife or lover or whatever. Poorer people would rather do it themselves than hire someone to do it for money. It was then when something clicked.
Why is she following this guy anyway? What does she want with a deranged psychopath? And why not just leave it to the local authorities? And where the fuck does all her money come from?
But I shut those thoughts out. I didn’t want to spoil the moment. I told her, as she got in her car, to wait here, and I’d bring mine around, and she could follow me. But the moment was already spoiled. I couldn’t help but repeating those doubts and fears as I walked to my shitty Subaru. And as I passed her car in mine, honking to get her attention, the thought occurred to me again: Where the fuck does all that money come from? And I realized, I still didn’t know a thing about her. And yet, and yet, I felt like I was falling—
But I couldn’t let myself finish that thought. I don’t know her, I reminded myself. I think she’s interesting, cute, smart, yes. But I still don’t know her. And she’s a client. (Who’s chasing around a lunatic, and putting me in the middle of it…)
But that really didn’t change a damn thing.
So I made dinner. I can actually be a fairly good cook when I cook. It’s just that I haven’t been motivated to really cook in several years. Much easier to just buy some frozen shit and throw it in the microwave. But I cooked. Two steaks, bloody. I tried not to think of the roasting flesh too much in conjunction with the case. Failed again. Is this Theodore Scott guy some kind of cannibal? Fuck trophies, what if he eats his victims? I shuddered, and lost my appetite as the steaks roasted.
“What’s wrong?” I heard Ophelia’s voice call from behind me.
“Nuthin.” I started mashing the potatoes I was boiling. “This’ll be ready in a little bit,” I said, turning around. “What’d’ya want to drink?” She shrugged.
“Beer, wine, soda, liquor, milk, water…”
“Wine’s fine,” she said.
I pulled down a bottle of California red, to go with the steak. It was a Merlot. Outside it being from California, and the vague idea that Merlot is sweet, I knew nothing about wine. Didn’t drink it much. Not since I was married really…
“What’cha thinking about?” she asked in that annoyingly childish way people ask that.
“Nothing. Look, dinner’s going to be ready in a few. Why don’t you set the table.” I was trying not to be sharp with her. On one hand, I didn’t want to fuck things up with her, on the other, there were too many unknowns in the situation. Suddenly all of my sexual fantasies of her and me were replaced by a myriad of questions primarily relating to who the fuck she really is, and what she’s doing and where I come into it. For all I know, she’s a rich widow, and this guy killed her husband. Or she’s the wife of a rock star on some kind of vendetta. Hell, there was no way of knowing. No way, even, of guessing. It made me uncomfortable. And the smell of burning flesh made me nauseous.
I didn’t feel like That Guy. The Steak-and-Potatoes Guy. Still, here I was, serving it up like this is what I did every Friday night. I didn’t know any more about the wine I served than where it was from, and yet here I was, pouring it into a pair of glasses that haven’t been used in at least five years, like nothing at all. I didn’t know anything of the person I was having dinner with other than the fact that it was her I thought about at night when I jerked off, and here I was having dinner with her like we were dating. Or married. But in the fading glow of the cheap ceiling light in the dining room, I could see another person in her eyes. Someone much younger, and very confused. And I thought again of my dream. The dead eyes. The voice. I dropped my fork.
“You okay?” she said. “You don’t look so hot.”
“I’m fine. I just remembered I don’t eat meat.” It was then that I noticed that she wasn’t kidding about having a voracious inclination for meat—she was already half done.
“Oh, I’ll have it!” she said. I bet you will, I thought, but stayed quiet.
“Go for it, I’ll nuke something.” I went to the fridge and pulled out a box of two chicken Kiev patties, and threw one in the microwave.
“I’m thinking of taking a break,” I said, still watching the microwave.
“Oh?” she said, gulping a mouthful of beef.
“Yeah. Wanna get away for a few days. I’ll be back by Friday. Wanna clean up some loose ends.” The microwave beeped. I saw her reflection in the dark plastic. She was nodding. I opened the door.
“When are you leaving?”
“I have to get tickets still,” I said. “Probably Sunday at the latest.”
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Chicago,” I lied, pulling my plate-o’-chicken-y goodness out of the microwave. I sat back down at the table, looking at my food.
“Why there?” Was waiting for that.
“My family’s from Chicago, actually. None of them are alive, of course, but it’s as good a place as any. Haven’t been to their graves either.” Again I felt her nod. I stuck my fork in the meat in front of me and cut off a piece. It exploded in a rush of buttery garlic sauce. I felt like shit. I felt like I was pushing her away for no good reason. I felt like I was pushing away something that could be so good. Fuck. I just wanted to know why she was doing this. I didn’t need to know who she was, not now. I couldn’t fucking take it anymore.
“Look, why are you after this guy?” I asked, finally looking up. She put her silverware down, wiped her mouth, and looked at her hands in her lap. Shit! She was silent.
“I—I can’t. I just can’t. I should go. Thanks for dinner. Really. I appreciate it. I have to go. I’ll see you Friday.” She never gave me time to speak. She just got up and headed toward the door.
“I’ll walk you out?”
“That’s okay,” she said. “I remember where the door is.” And then she left. GodfuckingDAMMIT! I picked up her empty dish and threw it against the wall. It shattered, sending shards of porcelain everywhere. From downstairs I heard the fat, drunken, wifebeating bastard neighbor of mine hitting the ceiling with his broom and shouting “hey! Shut the fuck up, up there!” I wanted to feed the bits of plate fragments to him, but instead I brought over the garbage can from the kitchen and went about cleaning my mess.
The next day I went into the office. I avoided the answering machine. I didn’t flip the sign. I went straight to the computer, and did a search on the earliest flight I could find to Chicago-O’Hare, and reserving a metrolink ride from there to Dixon. The whole thing took about twenty minutes, and I would leave that night. Cost of the trip, less than $300. Since I took this case, I wasn’t in as much dire financial straits. Five hundred bucks a day for every day I’m working on the case, and I’d been working on it pretty much entirely. I left the office, locked up and went back home.
The phone was ringing. I left it. My plane was in five hours. I packed a quick bag, and headed to the airport. When I got there it was 4:28pm. Plane left at 7:45pm. I wasn’t thinking. I had forgotten to book a hotel. I was just trying to get away. I checked in early and asked about hotels in Dixon. The check-in girl stared at me blankly. Said that would be something I should take up when I get to Chicago-O’Hare, or maybe the Travel Services Office could help me. My mind was torn in two. At least with Devi, I always knew where I stood. I knew what she was, what she did. I could expect certain things of her. From her. Now, my mind was spinning. I didn’t know what I was feeling. And on top of it, I was still on what I was beginning to think was The Ultimate Case From Hell.
So I went to the fucking Travel Services Office. The woman there beamed a huge plastic smile. “How may I help you?” she said sweetly. I resisted the urge to quote an old Steve Martin movie I remembered from childhood: You can start by wiping that fucking dumbass smile from your rosy fucking cheeks…
“I need to book a hotel in Dixon, Illinois,” I said instead.
“Well, have a seat, and we’ll see what we can do for you.” She referred to herself as we, as if she was either the Queen or a schizophrenic. I sat. My knee bobbed incessantly. I tapped my fingers on my knee. I sat.
“When did you need the room again?” Again. I didn’t tell you before, how could I tell you again?
“Tonight,” I said. She tapped keys into her computer.
“Well, for tonight, there’s a Motel 6 that has vacancy. It’s right near the metrolink stop. It’s only two stars, but it’s the best I can do on short notice.”
“I’ll take it.” She smiled sweetly again.
“How will you be paying?” Hmm. Another thing I hadn’t thought of before.
“Um, credit card I guess.” I checked my wallet to make sure I had my credit cards. I did. I gave her the shiny blue one without looking at what it was. She tapped more keys.
“Alrighty! That’ll be $58.56 for the night.”
“Oh, I’ll be there for more than one night…”
“Oh! Oh yes. Of course you will. How long will you be staying then?” I thought. Today was Saturday. I needed to be back by Friday. That meant I’d leave on Thursday. That would mean I’d be staying through Wednesday. How many days was that?
“Through Wednesday,” I said, not bothering to do the math. She tapped more keys. Hit the backspace a lot. Tapped more keys.
“Alright then. Five day stay, brings it to $207.93. I was able to get you a special Traveler’s Discount.”
“Thanks,” I said. She looked at the shiny blue card and her hand danced across the num pad. Then the buzz of the printer. She gave me the glossy receipt and a pen.
“If you could just give me your John Hancock, we’ll be all set!” I signed. She took the paper and pen, and compared the signature on the paper to the credit card. It was the first time I’d actually seen someone do that. I knew in theory that’s what people were supposed to do, but I’d never actually seen it practiced. I wondered how different my signature was today. I wondered what they would do if it was too different. I wondered how they would distinguish too different. Apparently I passed the test, however, and she handed me my credit card and my receipt.
As I got up and put the card in my wallet, she said: “Thank you for using CirCom Travel Services. Bye-bye now!” She beamed her plastic smile again. CirCom Travel Services. CirCom meaning Cirius Communications. A division of the Cirius Corporation. Did they fucking own everything?
With that being settled, I needed to find a way to kill the remaining two and a half hours before my plane took off. I went to the Duty Free Shopping book store. I stared at the covers uninterestedly. Fuck. I left. Found a seat at my gate. It was no use. I wasn’t going to be able to escape my racing thoughts. I focused on what I was going to do in Illinois. Land in Chicago. Hop on the metrolink to Dixon. Check in to the Motel 6. Once all that’s settled, try to find as much info as possible on Jerome Taylor. Namely, where his body is now. I had heard of procedures of removing your fingerprints from the tips of your fingers—supposedly hurt like hell. What they actually did, according to legend, was burn off several layers of skin, and make sure that when the skin grows back, it grows smoothly. Never, however, had I heard of people swapping fingerprints. Wasn’t ruling that out just yet though. It was definitely a better option to think about than a corpse who didn’t die. Then again, maybe the car accident was a set-up. Kill that identity, make a new one. Gangsters did it all the time. In the movies, anyway.
So there’s that. Check the police records. Check the autopsy report. Possibly the hospital he was checked in to? Wasn’t sure how helpful that would be, but probably worth a shot. Where his body was was the big deal. And in what condition it was would be another.
A few hours later I was waiting at the Chicago-O’Hare MetroLink station. Basically, once upon a time, some guy at Disney had this great idea to put what was then called a monorail at Disneyland. There was no real reason for it, just one of those random exhibitions of modern technology that Disney liked doing so much. They claimed it was the fastest form of land transportation. That it would revolutionize the way people got around. Unfortunately, it never really caught on.
However, about twenty-five years ago, many of the industrial and metropolitan cities in America started getting massive complaints about transportation. There were too many cars on the roads. Building huge underground networks would be costly and would disrupt the busiest parts of cities. Something had to be done. And so someone came up with the wild idea of building subways that were above ground. They used the old monorails as a model. Eventually the idea caught on, and the things were added to just about every major city. The beauty of the metrolink system is that, unlike highways, train tracks, or underground systems, more paths can always be added. It’s aboveground, and, barring tall buildings, literally, the sky’s the limit. So the metrolink eventually outmoded bus and rail as a form of transportation, putting millions of bus drivers and train conductors out of jobs. The other beauty of metrolinks is that there is no driver. It’s all automated. In fact, it’s driven by an AI, or artificial intelligence program, designed by, of course the Cirius Corporation, the first company to build a home computer with onboard AI. Of course, said computer is only used by cyberpunks, multimillionaires and technophiles. Still, it’s a nice idea. Scary, but nice.
I never got into those, though. A computer that talks and can carry on an intelligent conversation with me is just a very disturbing thought. Most people will say I’m behind the times. That I’m old fashioned. Well, fuck them. No one asked their opinion anyway.
The link arrived, and hissed to a stop. The other thing about these puppies is that they’re steam powered. Most critics found this highly inefficient, but it’s actually much more ecologically sound than diesel, gas, or even electricity. And just to make them even more environmentally aware, their backup generators were solar powered. It’s like the designers looked at it and said, okay, what’s going to make the eco-freaks happy? Well, there’s this and this and this, and let’s just throw in this as an added feature…
I stepped in. Obviously this was one of the few clean links. It looked virtually immaculate. The white curved walls were bleached. There wasn’t even any (visible) graffiti. Suppose they have to keep the ones that go to and from the airport clean. Wouldn’t want to lose tourists. I found a seat. Since this was a long distance direct link to Dixon, it was built to look more like the old fashioned trains, as opposed to the old fashioned subways. Actual, cushy seats, two to a row on each side with an aisle down the middle. I sat. No one sat next to me. The AI came on over the speaker system.
“Welcome to the Chicago-O’Hare-to-Dixon Direct MetroLink. I’m HAL and I’ll be your conductor. If you’ll notice, each seat in front of you has a fold-out computer panel. If you have any questions, comments, or complaints, feel free to use the Response Form on the mini-computers. In addition, these can be used to check email, surf the metanet, or for basic word processing—see the README documents for more information. Be sure and swipe your credit card in the slit above the screen, or any of the aforementioned transactions cannot go through. As an alternative, those of you with portable computers or Personal MetaLink Ports can plug in to the metanet, free of charge, using the existing ports next to the computer panels. A ticket-taker will come by to check your tickets, and from him you can purchase the personal network cable and adapter needed to plug in. Be aware that to remove these articles from the metrolink is a Federal Crime. Instead, if you’ll leave them in the pocket in front of you. Thank you, and have a good trip. Current local time is 9:48. Estimated time of arrival is 10:48. Thank you for choosing the MetroLink as your way to travel.”
A door opened at the front of the car that looked like it led to a closet. Out of it came a robot that looked like something straight out of an old sci-fi flick. Bulky, boxy, with lots of exposed wires—that likely served no other purpose than aesthetics; the Cirius Corp. loved making their ‘bots look like a 1980’s vision of hi-tech. “Eyes” that were actually lights. No plating. Most modern ‘bot manufacturers will call that bad design. Most modern aestheticists will call it fashion. In addition, these ‘bots didn’t have a well developed AI. They were old-fashioned ‘bots, in that they were designed to serve a function. This was a ticket-taker ‘bot. He had a badly approximated “voice,” which said one of two things: “May I see your ticket?” and then “Would you like to ‘jack in’?”
“May I see your ticket,” it said to me. Its light-eyes glowing at me. It made me want to break them.
“Here,” I said, handing my ticket to its’ claw. There was a UPC code on the back of the ticket that it held to a scanner on its chest. It beeped when it scanned successfully. It made that happy beep noise. The perky, high-pitched one. It handed my ticket back.
“Would you like to jack in?”
“No.” It moved on to the guy across from me. A cyberpunk with a bleached-blonde mohawk, shortly cropped. He was wearing dark wrap-around goggles, and a dirty silver leather jacket.
“May I see your ticket?” the bot asked him. Without removing his stare from outside the window, he handed over his ticket. I suspected the goggles were actually running some kind of visual hallucinatory program or something. He looked kind of dazed. He left his hand where it was until the ‘bot gave the ticket back. He raised the goggles to the top of his head.
“Would you like to jack in?” the bot asked him.
“Yes.” A panel opened behind the bot’s scanner in which was stored the network cables. It grabbed one, and the panel door shut and locked itself.
“That will be $5.” The punk gave it a note. The bot scanned this, and stored it in a till that popped out of what would otherwise be its stomach. I saw his eyes light up at the sight of all the cash. I saw him lick his lips. The bot didn’t. The till closed, and the bot moved on. He pushed the cable into the port in the seat in front of him with a click. Then, he reached up to the back of his neck, lifted a flap of skin to reveal a similar port at the base of his skull. He plugged in. I realized why he had such dark goggles when he went online. Apparently he had modified visual receptors. Basically hacked eyeballs. The side effect of those was that everything you saw when you were jacked in displayed on your pupils. Depending on the version of the hack, it could potentially act almost like a flashlight. His was that model. A beam of yellow light flashed from his eyes as the connection was being made. He turned to me, and smiled a mouthful of metal, eyes yellow and glowing. I looked away. The light from his side of the train dimmed as I assumed he lowered his goggles again.
That was another sign that I was behind the times. The whole Personal MetaLink Port thing. Basically, they plug a metanet panel directly into your brain, reroute some synapses, and voila, instant connection to the net, anywhere you go. You can even get radio wave linkups so that you don’t have to jack into a static port, like a wall port or a computer. Instead, you can be wandering the streets and be jacked in. Which could be potentially dangerous, seeing as how you can’t actually see anything when you’re jacked in, other than what you’re viewing on the metanet. Which is the reason for the modified visual receptors. They remove your eyes, and replace them with silicon and lucite. The optic nerves are removed entirely, and replaced by direct cables to the metanet panel, and more synapses are rerouted. Visual receptor tech was still very experimental, though they’d been doing it for about ten years. What I’ve been told the effect is when you’re jacked in, is you get this little window that shows what’s going on in the real world, and your full view is the metanet. Depending on which version of the software you’re running, you’re supposed to be able to switch back and forth between the metanet and the real world being the full view, though older versions only have the small window available. The older drivers aren’t able to handle the fullscreen view, apparently. Least that’s what I heard.
I never went in for all that. I almost feel like I’m too old for it now. It’s kind of a kids game. Racing to keep up with the latest biotechnology, it’s just not worth it. Next year they’ve said they’re going to release a gelatinous goo as a replacement for your hard drive. Basically, the goo can hold millions and millions of gigabytes of data, you never have to worry about storage ever again. Currently, it’s still very unstable, though. Has a tendency to explode if too much is stored at once, or if the computer gets too hot. It’s only a matter of time before some cyberpunks decide to implant those things somewhere in their bodies, and reroute them as a backup storage space for their brains. That way, they can do all the drugs, and not have to worry about whether or not they’re frying their brain cells.
I looked out the window. The link was probably hitting something like 80 miles per hour at this point. The city below me raced in silver and gray streaks. The sky was a gradient of purple to blue to black. There were no stars. No moon. Just blackness. And just underneath the blackness, patches of gray that wasn’t gray. The smoke clouds. You can’t be in a city and not have smog. And you can’t be in America and not be in a city. Several years ago it was decided that the technology industry was making much more money than the rural farming industry. So, the Government put out an official message to all the country’s leading farming corporations, suggesting that they move their business to Canada. A few months later, the American government bought Canada. Canada is now an official subsidiary of the US Government. Sure, they’re still their own nation, they make their own decisions, but they also take orders from above. Namely the President. So food prices skyrocketed. Many smaller companies went out of business. The larger ones stayed of course. What would this country be without McDonalds, right? All the land that used to be used for farming purposes, have been paved—many are still waiting for development to be put on them. Most already have established huge cybercompanies. All this free space means that companies can literally own entire cities. Their workers never need to leave. All entertainment is provided for them. Good for the economy, I suppose.
Oh sure, the National Parks have remained. Those are a legacy. The eco-freaks would’ve started a revolt if Yellowstone was torn down. However, many of the smaller ones have added amusements to them, to attract more business. Roller coasters and the like. Go to Yosemite, climb up Half Dome Mountain, and then go on the Half Dome Adventure Slide. You almost couldn’t have expected anything less from a country that’s entire economy is based on consumerism. It’s a wonder that the National Parks stayed untouched for as long as they did. No one really cares about the worlds largest redwood tree. No one cares about the miraculous nature of how mountains and canyons are formed. All we care about, all we’ve ever cared about is ourselves. We’ll care about trees and saving the rainforests when we have no oxygen left in the air and it’s too late. And that, I suppose, is just human nature.
I shut my eyes but I could still see the buzzing of the city lights—the traces burned onto my retinas. I could still feel the motion of the metrolink. I could still hear the whirring, buzzing noise the train made as it slid across the ‘rail. Though my head spun, I somehow fell asleep to fragmented and troubled dreams.
In my dream I was on some sort of mountain. But there were cars and stuff, a parking lot. And a highway nearby. Me and a bunch of other people were basically wandering around. We were informed, then, that some children had been missing, and they were last seen on the mountain. So we were looking for them. Calling their names, running around with flashlights. Then, someone found one. Or rather, found part of one. All it there was was a small torso, wearing a yellow and black, collared shirt. The ground was muddy. It was hard to tell if the moisture was because of good, fertile soil, a recent rain, or superfluous amounts of blood.
Someone else found more chunks. I had to look away. I couldn’t take this. I was getting light-headed. I put my hand on a pole, leaning against it, trying to get my breath. But it wasn’t a pole, it was a thin tree, and my hand came back covered in blood. I bent double, dry heaving. Soon, a crowd of people gathered around me, pointing at me.
“What’s the big deal?” they said. “It’s not even your own blood.” They came closer and closer, crowding me in. A small boy squeezed through the crowd to me. He was wearing a yellow and black, collared shirt, blue jeans, white tennis shoes. He had short, brown hair, cut in that bowl shape that almost all kids wear. He was holding his hands out, offering something to me.
“Mister? You dropped these,” he said. I looked in his hands. They were red and dripping. There were tubes and pipes and veins, bleeding, organic. Masses of red globs of flesh. I couldn’t quite identify what I was looking at. I looked down, and saw a huge cavity where my stomach should be. I could see my spinal column. I looked back to his hands, and realized that what he was holding was all the internal organs I was missing. There were my lungs, with slight punctures from the shotgun blast. He dropped the pile to the ground in front of me, and I scrambled to put them all back in their place, like some stupid cartoon character. He was still holding one piece, though. I noticed that when I looked up. My heart, still pumping, and still spitting out blood even though there was no conceivable way it should be, was held in his hands. He lifted it to his mouth and took a bite out of it, saying:
“Welcome to Dixon, Illinois MetroLink station. This is this train’s final stop. Please exit to your left, and enjoy your stay in Dixon. Again you are reminded that if you purchased the use of the network cables, to please leave those in the pocket in front of you, as removing them from this vehicle is a Federal Crime. Violators will be Prosecuted. Thank you for choosing Chicago-O’Hare MetroLink as your way to travel.”
Instinctively, my hand went to my chest, to make sure everything was where it should be. The cyberpunk was looking at me from behind his goggles, his eyes no longer glowing. I got up and grabbed my bag from the overhead compartment. The travelers in the car filed towards the exit, blocking me in. I waited. Put on my imaginary, psychic signal light meaning that I intended to cut in. Somehow I wound up behind the cyberpunk again. He turned around and smiled his metallic smile. Then I noticed that his teeth weren’t actually metal, but additional mod chips. What each one did, I could only guess.
“Oi, d’you wanna score some VisMods, mate?” he asked me. His accent was vaguely English.
“Naw, I’m not jacked up,” I replied.
“I got a friend that can fix you up with that, too. Real cheap. Good shit.” I shook my head, no.
“Really, it’s not a problem. He’s right in town. Good shit. Real cheap,” he repeated.
“No. Not interested.” He gave me that look like I was missing out on a significant aspect to human existance.
“Your loss then, mate. I can’t be bothered if your intent to go ahead and be roadkill on the info superhighway,” he said, and then turned and got off the link. I stepped out into the cool air. Was it Chicago or someplace else that was supposed to be the Windy City? I thought it was Chicago. And, whether it was or not, it was pretty windy in Dixon. Cool, thick air bit my face and ears. I looked quickly for a Motel 6 sign, and saw it flickering dimly to my right. I headed that way, and walked into the check-in office.
“Can I help you?” said a fat, bald man wearing a stained white tank top.
“Yeah, I have reservations…” He peered at me suspiciously.
“Steve Wossack.” He searched for it on the computer hidden behind the counter.
“Oh yeah, Mr. Wossack. Got you right here. We were about to let your room out to someone else.”
“But I made reservations today,” I said.
“Check-in time’s 6:30.”
“But my plane left at 7:45.”
“Not my problem,” he said with finality. “Look, do you want the room or not?”
“Right. Then sign here.” He handed over a clipboard with the regulations of the motel printed on it. If I agreed to the above statements I was to sign at the dotted line. I signed. I heard traces of some kind of eastern music drift into the room. As I looked up, I realized it was coming from the unlit room behind the manager, the telescreen that was showing what looked to be an Indian version of MTV. The drone of a sitar resonated in my ears. I could actually feel it pulling against my chest as strong as any heavy bass beat. It at once calmed and thrilled me. The manager, seeing the direction of my gaze, stepped in front of the telescreen, self-consciously.
“Great,” he said. “Looks like we’re all set then.” He reached under the counter. I heard jingling plastic. His hand came back with a cream-colored swipecard, with “Motel 6, Room 19” written in big letters on one side, and “#807 Dixon MetroLink” on the reverse side with the magnetic strip.
By the time I got to the room, I was tired. Tired of the case, tired of being dicked with, tired of being led around by various parts of my anatomy, tired of assholes in greasy wife-beaters thinking they’re clever, tired of fucking script kiddies thinking they’re eleet hackers and telling me I need to upgrade my visual fucking receptors. For this reason, my first actions upon entering the room were collapsing on the bed and reaching out for the telescreen remote. The last channel viewed on the telescreen is one of five porn channels. Figures. I’m watching the same British soft-porn I saw at Devi’s house. As I spend about five minutes flipping through the channels I find that it’s the only thing remotely interesting playing.
My ears popped from the sudden realization of altitude change. I switched off the telescreen and turn to the phone. I realized that this was one of those cheap motels that puts a lock on the phone only after I tried to pick it up. Fuckers, I think to myself, and started looking for some kind of “How to use your phone” manual or something lying around. I find nothing. I go back to the office. The bhangra music on the telescreen is turned to a lower volume so Greaseman actually hears the door open and meets me at the counter. A big greasy smile on his face. He smells like chicken. “Can I help you?” I’m hearing him say to me. I’m fighting the urge to try to wipe down any skin exposed to the same air as him.
“Yeah,” I said instead. “How do you get the phone unlocked.”
“I unlock it.”
“I figured that.” We look at each other. Pause.
“Well can you unlock it?” I said.
“Who are you going to call?”
“Is that any of your business? I’m a very private man,” I said.
“It’s my motel, it’s my business. I don’t want you to be making no drug deals while you’re staying at my place is all. You from out of town. I don’t know that you’re not a criminal.” The fucker had a point.
“Right. Well, look. I’m a private investigator. The only call I plan on making is to the police department. I just need to get in touch with them to see if they can help me with the case I’m working on. After that, I might call the local general hospital, and maybe the morgue. You’ll have the phone numbers I dial. If a single one of those is out of line, you can disconnect me. Fair enough?” He peered at me out of one eye, trying to decide whether or not I was full of crap. Then, he just shook his head and walked into the doorway behind him where the room was still lit only by the flashing images on the telescreen.
“Rajeet!” he called into the room. “Turn that fucking shit off for a second and get me the phone key.” A woman’s shape rose from the chair, crossed in front of the telescreen, and disappeared as she turned it off. A few seconds later a light came on in another room and went out. Then she appeared in the doorway. Eyes to the floor. Hand outstretched holding a large set of keys. She wore a blood red sari with gold etchings, which complimented her brown skin. Her hair was blacker than the sky, her features flawless. She never said a word to what I assumed was her husband. Never looked at him. In fact, she seemed to cower from him slightly, as when he reached out and took the keys. Inside, my mind raged. I knew almost for certain that she was very probably a mail order bride or the like. And part of me knew—at least intellectually—that however she was being treated here was a million times better than she would be treated in her home country. But the way she flinched from him gave me the impression that she wasn’t being treated that much better.
As I walked with the hotel manager back to the room, I chastised myself for getting so wound up about his wife. I can’t save every fucking person, I told myself. I’m not a fucking knight in shining armor. I’m just one man, and there’s only so much I can do.
But her face haunted me. She was beautiful.
Then again, there’s every possibility that I was thinking as much due to my newfound humanity fetish. In India, no one has enough money for fucking vis mods or whatever. Still…
When we were inside the room he fumbled for several minutes looking for the right key. When he found it, it took him a few more minutes to get it to turn the lock right. I stood impatiently staring over his shoulder. Checked my watch. 11:12pm. I wondered if the local PD would be upset about a random PI phoning them up and digging around for info at this time of night. Generally this is an area to tread lightly. I made a decision to wait until morning. I fell back on the bed as the manager was opening the lock. He looked over at me at the sound of the squeak, shook his head, and took his keys back.
“There ya go. No funny business. I’ll be checking on you.” I nodded, humoring him.
“If there’s any private residences on the list, you can disconnect me.” He gave me a look. He didn’t trust that I wouldn’t be making private calls. Whatever. As long as I got to use the phone. After he left the room, I closed my eyes, and a few minutes later, I was asleep.
It is the same. No, not the same. It’s hot in the room this time. Heat and humidity. Feels like the inside of my mouth. The light is still orange, but this time the window is open. The orange light comes from the orange sun sitting over the orange city—a city I recognize only from photographs; it looks like India. Across from me is me, staring at the bed, dumbstruck. No vagaries this time, the sounds the woman is making aren’t at all laughs. She is being raped. She is screaming, crying. I hear the dull thud sounds of her fists against her oppressor’s chest before a sharper slap against what I assume is her face. I’m not looking at the bed. Not yet.
There’s a closet parallel to the bed. One of the doors is half open. Inside it are women’s clothes. This is her room. On closer inspection, they look like saris and various other articles of clothing a traditional Indian woman might wear. Again, I recognize them only intuitively from pictures I may or may not have seen. The bed next to me squeaks. If I listen to the squeaks, I can almost ignore the woman’s cries, her pleas for help. I want to help, but my body doesn’t move. I want to be a superhero, a samurai, anything more than I am. I will it to happen, I will my body to move, I will a katana into my hand and slicing through the back of the rapist next to me, the hunched form I can’t see. But in my hand is only my own prick, hard as the handle of a katana and ready to cum. I turn desperately to the scene on the bed. The room has changed to the room at the hotel, the hunched form, the manager, and the emotionless eyes, those of Rajeet. But they weren’t totally emotionless this time, either. They contained in them an expression of loss, of giving up, that look you see—again in pictures—of people who literally have nothing to live for, nothing better to expect of life. It’s a look that reminds me of a photograph I once saw. A person—hard to tell if it’s male or female—barely more than a living skeleton, hands on either side of his/her face, looking off in the distance. That look, that lost look, and she looks into my eyes, and I hear my name.
I woke. The light was still on, the drapes still open. I looked across to the manager’s office/bungalow, but couldn’t see anything because the lights are off. My instinct was telling me my dream couldn’t be far off, that right this minute he was abusing her in some way, but I wouldn’t be able to prove it. And it wasn’t enough to want to risk losing crash space the first night I was here. The little fucker was already suspicious.
I turned on the telescreen. News. I was about to turn it off when the reporter said the magic words: brutal slaying. The place, San Francisco. Because it was ultra-late night news, they showed the body, or the remains anyway. It matched what I expected the other corpses looked like. Mysterious puncture wounds around the outer chest area, huge gaping cavity where the rib cage used to be, no heart or other vital organs. The eyes, a look of utter shock. On closer inspection of the puncture wounds, I noticed that they were circular, not the traditional stab wound. Stakes or something. It almost looked as if someone stuck their fingers through this person—assuming they had fucking sharp nails on about fifty fingers. The reporter claimed it was some kind of death cult sweeping the nation. He’s already made it to San Fran, I told myself. Fuck. We gotta work fast now…
The next day I made phone calls. Police: No record on Jerome Taylor other than a birth and death certificate. He was a fine upstanding young man. DMV: I had to talk my way around them a bit, but because I wasn’t looking for anything terribly detailed, the operator was able to release the fact that he had once owned a Ford Capri, that it had been impounded after being found wrapped around a tree a twelve years ago, and that he had an organ donor sticker on his driver’s license. Hospital: Yep, he died there. No record—at least none they would tell me—of abnormal surgery (removing fingerprints via lasers, for example). He was a critical case when they got him, but was released that night before obtaining a death certificate. Which was odd and caught my attention.
“You mean he was released that night?”
“Well, sorta,” the girl said. She had that every-statement-a-question intonation in all her words that made me think she was obviously a college intern—and therefore not entirely sure that she wasn’t supposed to be releasing this kind of information to a random caller. “He—er, the deceased, was released to a third party.”
“Third party? What third party? Where’s the body?”
“The third party is classified, we don’t have the buyer’s name on file. As to the body—”
“Buyer?!” On the other end of the phone, a whispered Shit.
“Look, I know I’m not supposed to be telling you this. Not this much anyway…”
“Oh, you’ve already opened the can of worms. And anyway the guy’s dead, what does it matter to you?”
“What does it matter to you?!”
“I’m a PI. I’m on a case, that’s what it matters to me. You don’t have the buyer’s name on file?”
She sighed. “No, I don’t. Apparently, though, it was released to a company for experimentation. A company we’d been doing business like this with for several years, so it didn’t really turn any heads when it happened. We get hopeless cases like this all the time. Then, they walk in and take over. They never told us what they did with the bodies. Probably in a jar somewhere, if not incinerated.” The splot thickens.
“And you can’t tell me anything else about the actual company? Rumors? Fairy tales? Outright lies?” I knew I was pushing my luck, but word on the street is often better than documented truth.
“Well, okay. I have heard from the people who were around when it happened that they had never seen such red tape except when dealing with the government. It was so hush hush it made everyone super-curious and suspicious. I wasn’t here then, of course, so I can’t speak from anything but what I’ve heard every once in a while.” Possible government link then. That’s usually where I draw the line. They’ve got shit up to their neck, and I don’t like wading through it. They generally don’t take to kindly to it.
As soon as I put down the phone from talking to the hospital, it rang. I figured it’d be the manager, asking what took that last call so long, or something lame like that. It wasn’t.
“What do you think you’re doing,” a dead voice said.
“Uhm. Excuse me?”
“I asked you what you thought you were doing, Mr. Wossack.”
“Who is this?”
“You’re out of your league. You should listen to people when they tell you that. It’s for your own good. We’ve got this under control. Go home.”
“Is this the FBI guy?” I asked.
“Go home, Mr. Wossack. Stop looking for connections that don’t exist. And forget you ever took this case. We’re on it.” Click.
I hate getting warnings that things are “for my own good.” It never worked when I was a child, and it wasn’t going to magically start as an adult. But random phone calls from people who know who I am and what I’m doing creeps me the fuck out. I put the receiver down, then thought better of it. I called Ophelia. I wasn’t going to stay in this place another night.
“Yeah,” I heard a digitized version of her voice say.
“Get a plane ticket to San Francisco.”
“So you’ve been paying attention to the news this time…”
“Yeah. Hey, does the name Jerome Taylor mean anything to you?” Pause.
“Not a thing.”
“Just checking.” I put the phone down. Put my shit in my bags and took off. Paid the manager on the way out. Left before he could ask questions. Left before I could see Rajeet again. Left, but not before noticing the bruises on her arms as she walked into the light of the office. Left, hearing him tell her, without turning around, to get back in the room. Can’t save them all, I told myself again. I became a private investigator because I thought I’d be helping people. Wrong occupation for that. I didn’t know what the hell I was getting into anymore. It seemed like an easy fucking gig at the start. When did it get so complicated?
On the MetroLink back to Detroit, I called Ophelia again, and the airline. Figured out how we’d meet up in San Francisco. She was going to meet me at the terminal when my plane landed. We’d rent a car at the airport. Then we’d start digging for needles in haystacks.
So by the time I got back to Detroit, I was on autopilot. I wasn’t thinking. Which is probably why I didn’t notice Mr. Hecox—the FBI guy—waiting for me at the ‘Link terminal. In fact, I would have walked right past him had he not stepped in front of me.
“What’s the hurry, Mr. Wossack?” he asked. I start, turn, and see his smirk a foot and a half away from me. I take a step back.
“Ever heard of personal space? You’re in mine.” He smiled a shiteaters grin, raised his hands in an “I submit” pose, and stepped back.
“So what’s the hurry?” he repeated.
“Why the fuck should I tell you?”
“Because this is my case, too” he said, getting serious. “Look, I’ve done this shit before. Two different parties working on the same case only get in each other’s way. So all I’m saying is stay out of my way.” I laughed bitterly.
“I’m supposed to stay out of your way? What, just because you have a fucking FBI badge means you’re some hot shit? You think you’re special? I think if you got your head out of your ass you’d be getting somewhere and wouldn’t have to follow my ass and listen in to my conversations.” His eyes looked confused for a second. Something I said didn’t register with his perception of reality.
“Listen to your conversations?”
“Yes, listen to my fucking conversations. Are you trying to tell me that wasn’t you last night?”
“What happened last night?”
“You should know, you bugged my phone…”
“What happened last night?”
I humored him. “I was making some phone calls. As soon as I’m done, I get a call in my hotel from someone telling me to go home and drop the case. I just assumed it was you or one of your underlings.”
“I don’t have any underlings. You didn’t check with the manager to see who the call was from?”
“No. You’re saying it wasn’t you?”
“No, it wasn’t me!”
“Shit. So there’s a third party now?”
“I dunno,” he said, sighing. “But I’ve been getting those calls for a while. Every time I feel like I’m getting close to something I get a call. And then all my evidence or leads fall through my fingertips. I’ve been following this guy for a long fucking time. Most people in my department have given it up as a lost cause, let someone else deal with it. I used to have a staff, I used to have underlings. But I lost my funding one day for no real reason I can discern. Anyway, if you think you can get a hold of that phone number, do so. It’d be a big help. I don’t like people watching me.” I gave him a look. Tell me about it, asshole, it said.
“Alex—do you mind if I call you that?”
“Go ahead,” he said, tired.
“Alex, have you been paying attention to the news?”
“Of course I have. I know he’s in San Francisco, and I know that’s where you’re going. But I don’t expect either of us to find anything.”
“There was a witness this time,” I said, “Jacob Fitt, or something. Mentioned him on the news. Anyway, I was going to check out the clubs that this guy seems to be frequenting. You could talk to the kid, and see what you can find out.”
“The kid’s going to be traumatized as hell. Did you see what happened? Plus, I’m not ruling him out as a suspect. I think this guy might pick up followers where he goes, and if the kid was there, then he could be one of ‘em.”
“Whatever, you can find that out. This way we don’t get in each other’s way, and we can maybe share information. The more stuff we can do together, the faster we work, and the faster we work, the better chance we have at finding this guy.” He couldn’t deny that I had a point.
“I’ll see you in San Francisco, Alex,” I said. “I gotta run and catch a plane.”
“Hey Wossack!” he called after me. I turned. “I lied. I do have a problem with you calling me Alex.”
San Francisco is an interesting place. Over the last few years, and by few I mean aeons in computer-years, the place has become a hub for geeks and pirates, hackers and punks. San Francisco historically has been the Social Change Capital of the World, until its own society changed dramatically. See, the whole Silicon Valley thing came along. And with it came dweebs and their machines. And with that came the hackers and phreaks.
Fast forward to the cyber-body-mod revolution, this is the place where the black marked exists for that shit. Surgeons that are half surgeon, half computer techie are a dime a dozen. The drugs you get here are strong, and designed specifically to correspond with bodymods. The theory behind the really strong ancient drugs—hallucinogens, opiates and the like—are that they bring you close to death and stop you, and this results in hallucinations, your feelings of euphoria, etc. Native Americans used to be all about this shit. Torturing your body to the point where you have a “spiritual awakening”—that awakening being a high that is directly resultant from pushing your body to the edge. You get high because you’re almost dead.
Well, these new drugs—neodrugs, body hacks, virii, wet-runs, and a hundred other names—work on that theory as well. In addition to the standard combination of the old drugs, LSD, opium, cocaine, methamphetamines, ritalin, vivarin, fucking Tylenol PM and Robitussin DM, are specially programmed computer virii. The virus designed to fuck with your wetware. The more wetware you have, the more dependant your body is upon this wetware to function, the better and more powerful the high, and the more shit the virus can do to you.
Silicon Valley is no longer the TechnoEmpire it once was, built of offwhite-colored plastic and green boards. Silicon Valley is the new, undefeated drug capital of the world. Specializing in hardcore hacks, cracks and cyber-mind-rapes. San Francisco, on the other hand, is where they all go to have fun. Always the leader in openness towards “sexual deviancy,” San Francisco has evolved into part brothel and part pseudo-hippie commune, divided right down the middle along Market Street. South of Market, SoMa, the “bad” part of town, is where all the scary shit happens, and, coincidentally, where a lot of the best clubs are found. Whereas north of Market, you have North Beach (Little Italy), Chinatown, Japantown, Haight-Asbury, and other longstanding communities that, in the wake of this cyber-revolution, have become more tight knit, and much more technophobic. There is, quite literally, a battle zone along Market, a line that separates the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
So, of course it was in SoMa where Ophelia and I were in a dark dance club named Re:Wired. The space was a modified warehouse. Large dancefloor. Lights flashing blue, violet, red. Enough stroboscopic effects to make an epileptic swallow and digest his tongue. A lounge, almost resturaunt-like section above the bar. In front of the bar, various vendors of music, bodymods, piercing jewelry, and general spooky clothing accessories had booths set up. Around the dancefloor, where Ophelia and I stood on the edges, there was an area that was raised, accessible by stairs, the level of the stage across from us. Behind us and to our right were cages, apparently intended for dancing, though no one was using them. Above and behind the stage was an upper level with another bar, leading to a small room with a pool table, and directly to our left, a large DJ booth. Yellow tungsten light lit DJ XORSHIT’s face from below. He had long, painfully straight black hair, no makeup, and what looked like sunglasses with no frames. The music he was playing was vaguely middle-eastern styled industrial. A woman’s ethereal voice floated and reverberated—seemed to exist in a separate reality. I realized that I didn’t know what this guy looked like.
“Hey Ophelia,” I shouted over the music, “do we have a picture of this guy?” She nodded. I wasn’t surprised in the least. Withholding information seemed to be what she was good at. She reached into a small black purse and pulled out a black and white photograph. I walked out of the dancefloor area towards the lounge area for better light, and she followed. What he saw looked not altogether different than anyone else in the club. Long black hair. Pale. Deep-set eyes. Thin lips. Thin nose. Gaunt, skeletal face. Eyebrows a bit too thick, making him look feral, wolflike.
“Fuck me, O. We’re not going to fucking find this guy. He could be anyone, anywhere.” Ophelia looked at me, nodded.
“I thought maybe I’d be able to pick him out, but there’s so many people here. Too much sound. Confusing everything.” I got the feeling she wasn’t just talking about visually picking him out. Therefore, confusing was the fucking truth—I had no real definitive clue of what the fuck she was talking about.
“Maybe this was the wrong way to go about this.” She nodded solemnly.
“I just have a really bad feeling,” she said.
“Yeah, I do, too.” I said. And with a shudder, I followed her out of the building. Our rent-a-car was parked several blocks away. San Francisco and parking are generally mutually exclusive terms. There were a few small bands of cyberpunks outside the club talking and being generally punklike. But as we turned off Harrison onto 3rd street, there was one I spotted, obviously strung out in five different directions wobbling and staggering in an almost robotic fashion in front of us. In the darkness, I could see reflections of the light bouncing against his sunglasses, little fragments of colored lightning underneath the onramp to the Oakland/Alameda Bay Bridge. We caught up to him, which wasn’t hard—he eventually stopped walking, or attempting to walk anyway, and put his hand against the wall next to him. We were maybe five feet away from him when Ophelia stopped dead in her tracks, her eyes distant.
He started shaking, and as he did so, he clutched at his head pulling out his hair. His glasses fell, and two blinding beams of light fell solidly on the sidewalk in front of him. The twitching stopped, or rather, altered. His legs locked, but his upper half continued to shake. He dropped to his knees with a fleshy thud. His hands fell behind him, and he began to “buzz.” Buzzing was a slang term for a side effect of technodrugs. The wetware works so fast that your head vibrates, and you start unconsciously humming. He squeezed his eyes closed.
I was standing over this kid now. His face turned toward me, but he didn’t seem to know I existed. The only sound was the faint thuds of the bass from the club a block and a half away, the muffled sound of the ocean, the cars on the freeway above us, and his buzzing, quickly gaining volume. Behind the buzzing, very subtly, I could hear a mechanical whirring. Then, a plastic snap, followed by squicks and squelches and sounds of tearing flesh. His shaking became more erratic, and he opened his mouth. The buzz gave off a sort of mechanized vocal pattern, a lowered, digital version of a real voice. This moan stopped abruptly, along with the light from his eyes, and was replaced by frantic wheezing. The next thing I heard was a loud, fleshy crunch, immediately followed by an explosion of light from every orifice. He screamed. I looked up at Ophelia, and her expression mirrored the expression of the overdosed punk at my feet. I ran toward her, put my arm around her, and hurried her away, back towards the car.
When we got back to the hotel, Ophelia crashed, exhausted, into a deep, albeit troubled sleep. I couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t stop thinking about that kid’s head virtually exploding from the inside. Another reason I never went for that shit. Turned on the news again. I almost shit my pants.
There was a live report from right outside Re:Wired. I shook Ophelia a couple times and called her name, trying to wake her up, but no go. So I listened to the report. And it was an obvious “fuck you” from Mr. Theodore Scott. Because there was another slaying. The word this reporter used a couple times was “evisceration.” I turned off the telescreen. The story was the same, all I needed to know was that it happened. This would be his last hit in San Francisco. He knew we were onto him, and following the trail of corpses would never get us anywhere. The only way to catch him was to make a leap of faith. I had no idea what his motives were or where he was coming from, so I wouldn’t be able to make this leap on my own. But I knew a couple people who did.
I didn’t want to wake Ophelia, so I called Alex. The phone rang about five times before it was transferred to another ringing phone. Two more rings and a groggy voice answered.
“You better be dead or dying,” he said.
“Hey Hecox. Turn on the news.”
“What’d you do this time, dick?”
“Turn on the fucking news, he’s leaving San Fran. He knows we’re onto us.” I could hear the telescreen turn on. He flipped a couple channels before he stopped at one. It was too quiet to actually hear what they were saying, but I could get the idea.
“Hey. That’s funny. Weren’t you going to go to some club tonight?”
“Yeah,” I said. “We were at that one. I figure it happened just a few minutes after we left. He knew we were there. He knows we’re following him. And he’s not going to make an appearance like that in a long time.”
Silence. Then: “Fuck!”
I continued. “So it’s time to make some intuitive leaps. You’ve been following this guy longer than I have. Maybe you know where he’s going to go, ‘cause I sure as hell don’t.”
“Fuck, fuck. I wasn’t fucking done here yet. Do you know that someone that matches his description molested a little boy?”
“Really? That doesn’t sound like his style…sure it’s him?”
“No,” he said. “I’m not fucking sure. I’m not sure of anything right now.”
“Well, any ideas?” He sighed.
“That other weird guy. You get a number for him yet?” Shit. I forgot.
“No, but I can give you the number of the hotel, and you can get it from manager, I’m sure.”
“Yeah, well that might help. I got another call from him…”
“Yeah,” Hecox said. “He said—and I quote—‘You’ll find what you’re looking for in Devil’s Canyon, Nevada.’”
“Hey, isn’t that roughly the neighborhood of Area 51? In theory anyway…”
“No no no. Don’t even pull that spooks and space aliens bullshit on me. Don’t you see what he’s doing? He’s laying out a lead that we’ll jump on, and get led totally astray. He’s afraid because we’re getting somewhere.”
“Hecox, we aren’t getting anywhere. That’s the whole fucking problem, isn’t it? I don’t know how much I trust this anonymous phone guy if he hasn’t proven himself worthy of trusting this lead, but, man, it’s the only fucking thing I can think of.”
“Fine,” he said. “Whatever. No skin off my ass. I’m not going to argue with you if you want to jump at the first mention of a wild fucking goose chase. You’ll be out of my way, anyway. I’ll send a search party if you’re missing for more than five days.”
“Thanks for the thought.”
“Don’t mention it.” Click; dial tone.
This case wasn’t going to be good for my health. I knew that by now. What I still didn’t know was why. Why was I on the case, why is this guy Scott doing these things? Why was Ophelia so different from any woman I’ve ever met and why is she involved in this case? Why does everything about this case seem to begin and end with Nevada? Devil’s Canyon was roughly fifteen miles from the site of the first murder—I wasn’t sure if Hecox caught on to that. Sure, I was playing conspiracy theorist with my delusions of a hidden military base called Area 51, that much I knew. But legends don’t come out of a vacuum. Things exist for a reason. I knew there was some kind of base out there, and that’s where I was planning on going.
I packed a small backpack of essentials: vox recorder, police issue handgun, notepad, deodorant, my favorite pen, t-shirt. I wrote a note for Ophelia. “I found a lead…I think. It’s in the Nevada desert. I want to check it out. I should be back by tomorrow night, if all goes well. Not really expecting this to be anything. –Steve” Before I got in the car and took off, I went to the 7-11 on the corner to get some essentials. Bottle of caffeine pills to keep me awake. Bottle of Guarana pills to keep me active. Bottle of Ginko pills to keep my brain functioning. And most importantly, a bottle of Bacardi Rum to keep me calm. Then I jumped on the freeway and drove east. A lot. And I didn’t look back.
It was a twelve hour drive, roughly, and even the pulsing drum & bass coming from the stereo couldn’t distract my thoughts from one thing; Ophelia. Besides me not knowing anything about her, and coincidentally trying to find out stuff and her running away, I was greatly frustrated by the idea that kept buzzing through my head—I fucked something up. The last conversation we had that didn’t have to do with the case directly, was when I asked her about her motives, her connection to the case. That was a mistake, apparently, but part of me still felt like it was the right thing. I felt like we connected, there was some sort of chemistry between us, I didn’t think I was imagining this. But for any relationship to work, even a business relationship, there has to be a strong element of communication involved. And she was pretty closed off.
I changed the channel on the radio—not enough guitars. My foot pushed harder on the gas pedal. Why did I feel like I did something? Intuitively I knew that I didn’t. Intuitively I knew the reason I felt this way had to do with self-consciousness projecting itself into daily life. But we had fun didn’t we? I felt like I could relate to this person, be with this person. And maybe that’s just it. I know I fall in love easily, and know it’s fifteen times as hard to fall out of it again. And when I smelled her on my shirt thanks to a convenient gust of wind I knew that was what was making this so frustrating. Why I was so angry right now. Because I lost something before I even got a chance to experience it. I fucked it up before I knew what it was. Just a taste of the possibilities, and then it’s gone. Erased.
The empty road opened up before me after I got out of urban California like an unclogged vein. On either side of me, a wasteland of dirt and dust. Dry heat. The air conditioning on full and not doing a hell of a lot. Racing over poorly kept highways. And it reminded me of my childhood. The first and last time I was in Nevada.
It was a horrible day. It was Las Vegas, which is a rancid place to begin with. It was unbearably hot, as the desert often gets. I had just eaten junk food from McDonald’s. I was being happily annoying about how hot it was, but my parents were too busy to notice. It was their ten year anniversary, and they spent the whole of it gazing into each other’s eyes when they weren’t popping coins into slot machines. I was brought along because they couldn’t afford a babysitter. So I was told to watch and wait as I saw the babysitter money go into the machines, never to be seen again.
I always thought how weird it was that outside it could be so hot, and inside it could be so cold. The casinos made it a point to keep the temperature just one level above freezing, it seemed. And it was stepping back into the heat of the Strip when I felt a wave of dizziness. I clutched at my mother’s hand. She looked down, irritated. With pitiful eyes, I said simply: “Mommy, I don’t feel so good.” But they paid no mind, and bought me an Icee. I sucked down the red, cherry-flavored slush.
We, or rather, my parents, decided to go to a special casino that was well outside of the main part of Las Vegas. Apparently, the win ratios get higher the farther away from the Strip you get. So, we’re in the car, my tummy feeling icky, with sickeningly sweet, frozen red goop on top of poorly packaged, frozen Chicken McNuggets and orange soda. We went fast, breaking and destroying any speed limit there may be, over uneven and badly paved roads. The only thing outside the window was dirt. On both sides, dirt. Everywhere, dirt. Dirt for miles and miles, and off in the distance mountains that shimmered from the heat pounding against the dirt. My mother fanned herself with a newspaper despite the fact that the A/C was trying desperately to cool the car; my father, on the other hand, seemed determined to completely ignore the heat by sheer force of will. His eyes were set on the road, determined. About five miles out, my mother just getting out the map, we had to stop. The engine was quickly overheating from the stress.
I was busy in the back seat. There was a saying my mother had to describe what I was
doing at times like these. She used to say I was “coloring up a storm.” So, armed with my crayons and paper, that’s just what I did to get my mind off of my funny-feeling tummy. I drew a picture of a vast ocean, of a pirate ship, and pirate treasure at the bottom of the ocean. I drew wind with gray swirls, a cloud with a face that was blowing cold, arctic air.
But as we sat and waited for the car to cool down, the temperature inside the car kept rising faster than a speeding bullet, it seemed, amplified by the glass. My parents stepped out into the sweltering heat of the desert, with the map laid out over the trunk of the car. I kept coloring, beads of sweat forming and dripping down my face. The car slowly turned into an oven. My stomach was busy remembering the bumpy ride. My head was spinning. I felt like I was in the storm I was drawing.
And then my Happy Meal found itself regurgitated on my shoes.
I suppose my parents heard me retch because they came around quickly and stared on in disgust.
“Aw hell,” my dad said.
“You’re going to have to clean that out, Ralph, imagine the smell. In this heat? Phew!” my mother said, and made a disgusted face. I stared out at them like a caged and captive animal, tears welling up in my eyes.
“Come on, Stevie, it’s okay,” my mother said, opening her arms to me. My dad was busy trying to find some kind of napkin or towel or something to clean the seat and my shoes with. Not finding anything he was willing to use, my dad chose my coloring book and what I had spent the past half hour drawing instead of the oil-covered towel in the trunk—something he, apparently, only used for the car. That’s when the tears came.
My parents never took me back to Las Vegas.