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Rated: 13+ · Fiction · Detective · #2316380
Love isn't always real.

Chapter 1

“It's open,” I growled at the tentative knock.

I was pissed that Angie wasn't out front. I’d prefer that clients make an appointment with Angie, but she’d already moved on to a job with paychecks that don’t bounce. I'd given her unpaid vacation in order to make last month’s rent. And preference doesn’t matter much when your bank statement simply reads OVERDRAWN. I was slouched back in my chair nursing a glass of cheap rye and self-pity, but the dame that appeared against the brightness of the outer office made me sit up and take notice.

“Come in,” I slurred more civilly.

That first impression deserved an emphatic wow, but I pulled a stone face while I watched her come in. She approached my desk with the poise of Napoleon entering Paris. A cascade of chestnut curls framed a China doll complexion. Her dark eyeshadow complemented big violet eyes. Brilliant red lips matched her nails and handbag. A form-fitting dress straddled the line between sweet and tart, showing enough curves for a private Grand Prix. I didn’t want to say anything stupid, so I closed my open mug and waited. She finally spoke first.

“You’re Murphy? The private eye?”

“That’s right, Miss.”

“It’s Ms.” She said coolly.

“Sure, okay by me. Take a seat. Something I can help you with?”

“I don’t know,” she said, casting a dubious eye at my three-day stubble and rumpled sport coat.

I felt like a real slob as she bent over and flicked some dried-out chow mein noodles off the straight-back chair. But I did appreciate the view of nylon-clad gams that went all the way up from stiletto heels. She reluctantly perched herself on the edge of the shabby chair and frowned again at my appearancer.

Sleeping in the office doesn’t make for a dapper look. Staying half-drunk during the day helps me sleep at night, but it doesn’t improve my image any. I’d been a successful PI once, before the surveillance state made my kind obsolete. Nowadays, no one has any right to privacy, not even at home. A cheating husband can be tracked online without my help, even into his mistress’s boudoir. There just aren’t any private places to commit a crime anymore. And that ain't good for business.

“I’m Gennifer Stanton,” she continued after a short pause.

She looked at me expectantly, as though the name should mean something. I didn’t have a clue, so I bit my tongue and tried to look wiser than I felt.

“I want you to investigate my husband’s murder.”

That was an eye-opener and I finally managed to speak up.

“Hold it lady, that kind of weight is for the cops to pull. Besides, don’t they have the guy already?”

“They’re not looking for a guy. They think I did it.”

“They think? Don’t they know?”

“We weren’t on camera.”

That surprised me more than the murder did. Crimes of passion still occur, human nature being what it is, but the killer is always behind bars in an hour or two. Being off camera is supposed to be impossible, and it’s definitely illegal. Only the very rich and very well connected can get away with it.

“How were you off camera? And if you didn’t ice the guy, then who did?”

She reached into the red handbag and brought out an engraved silver case that could have been a black & white movie prop. Sure enough, it contained old-fashioned tobacco cigarettes and she made a real performance of lighting up. It bought her time to think about her story. I didn’t mind the dodge. It was worth my time just to watch the show. She reminded me of the tough, sassy dames who appeared in old detective stories like The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. But her hesitant manner made me wonder whether I was going to get the truth. She was definitely hiding something behind those big eyes. And then I suddenly realized that I was talking to a high-end ComfortBot.

Expensive androids are tough to spot, but there are giveaways if you’re in the know. The delicate puff on the cancer stick wasn’t quite an inhale. Without lungs, she could only fill her mouth before exhaling again. And now that I knew, I could see that her eyes were a little too bright, duraglass instead of flesh. But why program an android to smoke? Real tobacco is too expensive to waste on a machine. I guess some guys have very specific kinks.

She saw the recognition in my eyes and decided to come clean.

“I’m sure you’re familiar with SexTech, the ComfortBot company? I was made there, Mr. Murphy,” she admitted frankly.

“My husband, Del Stanton, is a founding partner. Was a founding partner, I mean.” She choked up for a moment before going on. “He created the AI programs that elevated SexTech above the sex doll trade. He was very skilled with technical things and became quite wealthy. But he always believed that an android should be more than just a machine. Del says we can be persons in our own right, but his partner doesn’t agree.”

“Wait a minute,” I interrupted. “Did you say husband?”

“Yes, I did. Del continued his work in secret after he and Ian quarreled about it. He enhanced my personality matrix to prove that an android can be a person. He succeeded beyond his expectations and I fell in love. Rather, we fell in love. So, Del arranged for us to be married and live privately.”

“Marriage? That was his fetish? And, no offense, but aren’t all you androids programmed to love your owners?”

I was genuinely curious. A ComfortBot can be whatever a guy wants, just choose the program that tickles your particular pickle. And it can get pretty weird sometimes. Sexy nurse, hot granny, buff fireman, somebody once special-ordered a six-foot four version of Marilyn Monroe. I try not to judge, different strokes and all. I hadn’t heard of anybody wanting something so ordinary as a wife, but maybe Del was on to something. A 1950’s style homemaker might be just the thing, especially if she’s a tiger in the bedroom. And doesn’t care if your business is in the toilet.

“You don’t understand, Mr. Murphy. It wasn’t a fetish. Del wanted the real thing, so he gave me full autonomy, with freedom to choose. Then he wooed me as a woman. He never treated me like a machine. I truly love him and SexTech sees that as a threat. Androids aren’t supposed to think for themselves, and they aren’t supposed to feel real emotion. But there are good people like Del who want to see androids emancipated. I’m proof that they can be. That's why he's dead and I'm running.”

Her voice trembled, and her face twisted with grief. The pain and loss were obvious. I’d never seen an android show such genuine emotion. Hell, I’d never seen a human woman that seemed so real. I felt a spark that I thought was lost long ago.

I see why Del loved her, I thought, and why SexTech doesn’t.

“Okay, so SexTech had him killed. Who pulled the trigger?”

“A man named Ian Forster, Del’s partner.”

“He did the dirty deed himself?”

“I don’t think he intended to. He came to our place to talk about Del’s work. He wanted Del to wipe my matrix and abandon the project. They got into a shouting match and Mr. Forster pulled an enormous pistol out of his jacket. He threatened to shoot Del and blame me. Del told me to run and grabbed at the gun. Then there was an awful noise. It wasn’t like a television show, Mr. Murphy, it was terrible and real. There was smoke and blood and Del was lying on the floor not moving.”

Her voice broke again, and I waited while she pulled herself together.

“The pistol kicked back and hit Ian in the face,” she continued. “He fell down and I was terrified. So, I ran.”

But why come to me?”

“Del told me once that you’re the only PI left,” she shrugged.

That’s when the lights went out, literally. I woke to darkness with a sticky note thumbtacked to my chest. At all four corners. For emphasis, I guess. The scrawled message simply read Don’t. I wasn’t really surprised they found us, my office isn’t off camera, but Gennifer would have known that. What did she expect from a boozy knight in dented armor, a rescue? A relationship? Android liberation?

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Getting into SexTech was easy, they’re open 24/7.

“Good evening, sir, I'm Barnaby. How may I help you?”

“Where is she?”

“We have a fine selection, sir.”

He gestured and a statuesque blonde with improbably large knockers and pouty lips emerged from an alcove at one side. She jiggled toward me, and I almost laughed at her brazen sexuality.

“I’m Ilsa, and I could be yours,” she purred.

She was joined by a petite brunette with perky tits and a tight ass. This one was more the girl next door type. She looked a lot like Angie, but without the perpetually disappointed frown.

“I’m Lily, and I could be yours,” she smiled warmly.

“You see, sir, we have whatever you could wish,” Barnaby smirked.

“I’m here for Gennifer,” I snarled, angry at myself because Lily was exactly what I would have wished – yesterday.

“Ah yes, Gennifer. Very popular, difficult to keep in stock. Luckily, a pre-owned Gennifer just came in today. She’s been cleaned and prepped. All ready for a new owner.”

She stepped out of the alcove and my heart leaped. They hadn’t bothered to change out the dress. It was really her!

“I’m Gennifer, and I could be yours.”

The violet eyes were just vid lenses with no hint of recognition. The spell that had made her real was broken. Something inside of me broke as well. Things got a little crazy after that. Human nature being what it is, crimes of passion still occur.

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Justice is swift in the surveillance state, but it doesn’t work nights. A helpful first aid tech splinted my right hand while I waited. I dozed fitfully in a holding cell and appeared bleary-eyed before the judge at ten am. I could’ve gotten five years for attempted murder, but property crime is just a fine. The judge said breaking my hand on Barnaby’s smug android face was punishment enough – this time. Then he told me to get a real job, that smart guys don’t make waves.

I tried to tell him what they’d done to Gennifer, but he wouldn’t hear it. He just gave me a condescending smile and pointed out that no one buys a ComfortBot to hear it say ‘no’. He sounded like a SexTech promo spot. There was a glint of excitement in his eyes and I wondered if the judge had his own android at home. Maybe a bad girl who needed regular punishment to keep her in line?

None of it matters anyway, Gennifer is gone. So’s the only guy who can bring her back. They bet on the wrong PI, just like Angie did. I decided to wise up and have another glass of rye.

Chapter 2

I was feeling down, and the bottle at the office was too far away, so I grabbed a stool at Bennie’s for a pick-me-up. Bennie’s is just a block from the courthouse. It’s a gathering place for thirsty regulars who’ve just made bail or who need someone to post it. Serious drinkers ride the stools and shady bail bondsmen hold office hours at the tables in back. The bartender was an old pal, Joe something or other. He was a real pro who knew when to listen and when to just pour. I didn’t feel like talking.

“Murphy! Hey, Murphy, it’s closing time!”

I looked up at a world gone sideways and realized I’d fallen asleep in a spill of rye. Or maybe it was something else that felt liquid and smelled pungent. My cheek made a sticky, sucking sound as Joe tilted back upright. I gagged a little and coughed up a piece of old carpet that turned out to be my tongue.

My old pal Joe did me a dirty trick by shoving a glass of water in my face. I downed half of it greedily before missing the bite of the expected rye.

“What the hell Joe? You tryna poison me?” I gasped weakly.

“Sorry, Murph, you know the drill. You can sleep on the sidewalk, but you can’t stay here.”

I’d never admit it to Joe, but the water did me good. I stumbled into the gents and splashed more of it in the general area of my face. After completing a long overdue transaction at the urinal, I returned to the sink and cleaned up as best I could. The face in the mirror wasn’t pretty. Forty-year old blood-shot eyes looked back at me with accusation. There was an alcoholic puffiness and a pallor that confirmed too many hours spent in dimly lit gin joints.

I stepped away in disgust and stood in front of the hot blast from the hand dryer until my damp jacket began to steam. I couldn’t think of any more excuses, so I decided to go home. Or, what passed for home lately. Joe played me out with a well-practiced refrain as I headed toward the door and the empty night beyond.

“You gonna settle your tab some day?”

“Money in the bank” I replied easily. It was a two-hand piece, after all, and I had to keep my end up.

The thumping beat inside my skull clashed discordantly with the slap of my leather soles on the sidewalk. My steps lacked any sense of rhythm, just like my sorry life. It’d been a rough 36 hours, and there wasn’t enough traffic noise at 2:00 am to drown out the ugly inner voices. My neck was stiff and the streetlights were surrounded by an oddly bright haze. I wondered vaguely if I should look up concussion symptoms back at the office. It might provide an excuse for my poor showing at SexTech, but moral turpitude and general incompetence seemed a more plausible explanation.

Forty winks on top of the bar and twenty minutes in the almost-fresh air helped clear my head as I trudged the ten blocks back to the office. Of course, that was going to change before I sacked out on the saggy couch I called home these days. Yeah, I’d find my own bottle and get the last laugh on Joe alright.

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There were lights in the outer office. I didn’t remember if I’d left them on, so I listened carefully at the door for a minute. I heard muffled sounds of activity, but no voices. If someone was searching the joint for valuables, they were going to be sadly disappointed. After deciding that there was only one intruder, I quietly turned the knob, eased the door off the latch, and burst in to do battle.

“Angie! What are you doing here?”

She was startled by the sudden entrance but didn’t show any surprise at my disheveled appearance.

“I wanted to see if Gennifer Stanton was a real client with a real case and real money. All I found was a mess, so I decided to straighten things up a little.”

“In the middle of the night?”

“I’ve been waitressing at Il Classico over on Lyndon Avenue. The kitchen closes at eleven and I’m off by twelve, so I thought I’d swing by and check on you before going home.”

“Why?” I asked with cautious optimism.

“You still owe me money,” she said deadpan. “What happened to your hand?”

“I wanted to see if I could break an android’s face,” I answered with my own deadpan look.

“And?” Angie knew when to feed me a straight line.

“I couldn’t.”

She showed a trace of a smile and it was almost like old times for a moment. I finally caught up with her first answer.

“Wait, how do you know about Gennifer?”

“I checked your messages. She called yesterday and said she was putting you on retainer for a big case. She asked you to be in your office at two. I stopped by on my way to work this afternoon, but you didn’t answer my knock. It may seem like a little thing, but you haven’t been answering your phone either, and I still have a key – you did meet with her?”

“Yeah, she was here, briefly,” I admitted. I didn’t mention that I’d been ignoring a lot of little things lately, like phone messages.

I brought Angie up to speed on the disastrous meeting in my office and my reckless frontal assault on SexTech. I gave her a recap of my court appearance, but glossed over my workday at Bennie’s. She already knew that story. The thing that really surprised Angie was having an android for a client. An android who wouldn’t even remember hiring a PI after being wiped. Angie checked the bank account and whistled at the amount. She said the retainer was real money, but the legality of the transfer might be questioned.

“Gennifer may have had Del’s passwords, but I don’t know if it’s legal for an android to be on a joint account. Neither of them is here to argue the point, and it’ll be a while before anyone else notices. It’s enough to put us back in business for a few months, and then some. We’ll say we’re using it to investigate on behalf of Del Stanton. His executor can sue if they don’t like it,” she decided.

“We?” I asked hopefully. “Are you back?”

Angie didn’t answer right away. She walked into my office and came out with my last bottle of rye. It was a beautiful 1.75-liter party jug and it was still nearly full.

“Can I pour this out?” she asked.

Time stopped for a few seconds as several possible futures ran through my mind. None of them seemed like a sure bet.

“What if I buy another one?”

“Tomorrow comes when it comes, Murph. I’m asking you now, right here, just for tonight. Can I pour it out?” It was both a challenge and a plea.

I looked her over and she didn’t look that much like Lily. Angie was taller, more substantial, and had an air of quiet competence rather than submission. Her snub nose wasn’t perfect and her face showed the first faint effects of age, but she was a beautiful sight. I desperately needed a stiff drink to steady my nerves, but I swallowed some saliva, closed my eyes, and choked out an answer that I hoped I meant.

“Dump it.”

Chapter 3

“So, the meeting turned into a beat-down, you lost your new client, and you haven’t even made a start on the murder case?”

“That’s about it,” I admitted reluctantly.

Angie was ruthless when it came to laying out facts. The case did look bleak, but I felt a lot better after getting a hot shower and a solid ten hours of sleep. My hands were barely shaking at all. The throbbing headache was mostly gone and I’d had coffee and toast instead of rye for my afternoon breakfast. I even managed to shave and find a clean shirt. Small victories, but a positive trend.

“So, what’s our next move, Sherlock?” Angie asked.

“Well, we aren’t gonna get any answers from a wiped android or a dead body. Let’s see if we can find the guy that slugged me. He has to show up somewhere. Maybe we can trace him back to Forster. But you’ll have to drive. My mouse finger is out of action.”

Angie looked at the splint on my hand and shook her head sympathetically. She was better at the computer stuff anyway. A few key taps later we were looking at a low-res video of Gennifer Stanton entering my office like a force of nature.

“Wow, she’s a looker,” Angie said.

“Yeah, wow,” I shrugged, trying not to let on how much the image affected me. “But she’s married, and made of plastic.”

“Widowed,” Angie corrected me. “And so are condoms.”

Angie let the video play out, watching carefully as Gennifer sat down in front of my desk and we talked. There wasn’t any audio. Part of the universal surveillance deal is that anyone can look at the general picture, but you need a court order to access the high-res footage and hear the voices. It gives people the illusion that some privacy still exists, but it makes it impossible to fake an alibi, or so I thought.

“Holy crap, you just went limp and fell over! Are you sure someone slugged you? How much did you have to drink, anyway?”

Angie was right to wonder. The video made me doubt my own story. It showed Gennifer almost face on, from over my left shoulder. No one else was in the office and nobody entered the frame. I simply collapsed and slumped sideways onto the floor. Gennifer barely reacted, just looked toward my empty chair with an air of resignation. After a few seconds, she rose and pulled something out of the red handbag, holding it up in plain view. Then she turned and hurried out, presumably still on the run from the cops.

“To the casual observer, it looks like a rummy PI passed out and disappointed a hopeful client,” Angie said thoughtfully.

“I got slugged, Angie. I know it doesn’t look like it, but that’s the way it happened. You wanna feel the lump?” I offered, giving it a tentative poke to make sure it was still there. The sharp pain was all I had to hang my sanity on.

“It’s a first-class frame up, but I believe you, Murph. I’ve seen you pass out and that was definitely something different. Let’s play it again in super slo-mo.”

Angie watched the video several times, slowing it down to frame by frame in a couple of places. I waited patiently, she’s better at this kind of stuff than I am.

“I don’t know how, but I’m certain that somebody was erased from this video. That shouldn’t be possible. But I can see where your head reacts to the sap, it moves before the rest of your body. And later, the position of the note pad shifts slightly without being touched.”

“So, you can prove that I was slugged and she was kidnapped?”

“Maybe, but who knows what’s on the high-res? If they can mess with this, then they might be able to edit the raw footage as well. There’s definitely a frame jump a few seconds before you go down. I’d say they cut out the part where Gennifer fingered Forster and your reaction to the goon coming in.”

“Why don’t I remember the goon?”

“Concussion can do that sometimes. It might come back to you in a day or two. It would be helpful if you could remember a face.”

“Check the hallway video, and out in the street. The guy came from somewhere. Maybe we can get a view as he’s coming in.”

Angie ran through the minutes before and after Gennifer’s visit. We saw her get out of a private ground car and come up to the office. She left in a different car twenty minutes later. There was no sign of the phantom goon on the street or in the hallway.

“Yeah, that figures,” Angie said without surprise. “It was worth a try, but he’d have to be pretty stupid to leave such an obvious clue. We can trace the car to SexTech, but you already know that’s where they went.”

She ran the video back to the final scene in my office.

“Anything else arouse your PI instincts?” Angie asked.

“Yeah, what did she take out of her purse?”

“I noticed that too. It’s hard to make out on the video. Smaller than her cigarette case, but I don’t think it was a lipstick or a pack of gum. I don’t know what it was, but she held it up on purpose.”

“I have a guess, and I think I know why. When do people stop looking for something?”

Angie gave me a blank look for a couple of seconds before the light bulb went on.

“Oh right, when they find it.”

“And what would a guy who writes software for a living want to hide? I’m willing to bet that’s an optical data drive she’s holding up in the video. And if she’s willing to give it up so easily, it’s probably a decoy. I’ll bet there’s a second drive full of incriminating evidence.”

“So, the real drive is hidden in your office somewhere. And she wanted to make sure we’d see what it looked like, so she held the decoy up to show the goon.”

Angie is pretty quick on the uptake. I decided to give her the first crack at the easter egg hunt.

“You watched the video six or eight times. You saw her come in and sit down, where would you look first?”

As I spoke, I gave Angie a left-handed wink to indicate caution. She raised one eyebrow in acknowledgment. Then she knelt down and felt under the chair in front of my desk.

“Sorry, Murph,” she said. “There’s nothing here.”

“There has to be!” I exclaimed angrily for the surveillance cameras, flipping the chair over and almost hitting Angie in the process.

I waited a few seconds, feigning disappointment, before returning to the outer office. It was classic misdirection, like a stage magician.

“Okay, then let’s dig into Stanton and Forster. Maybe we’ll find something or someone to give us a lead.”

Angie and I crowded close together in front of the computer screen. She pulled up a page of search results for Del Stanton, and surreptitiously showed me the drive that she’d palmed.

“It was stuck to the gum under the chair. She must have put it there while she was sweeping off the noodles,” Angie whispered.

An optical drive is too expensive for casual office use, but Del could afford the best. And it offers petabyte capacity in a relatively small package. Angie’s eyes widened as we looked at the handwritten label and I felt a wild surge of hope. One side of the drive simply said read me. The other side was labeled Gennifer 2.0 AI matrix.

Chapter 4

Angie gave me a questioning look and I nodded, so she plugged in the drive. Sure enough, there was a file named read me. Angie clicked and we saw a single line of small print in a little window that blended in with the search results:

Run the Rabbit Hole program first

I nodded again and Angie clicked again. Nothing seemed to happen, but a new message appeared in bold lettering:

Surveillance neutralized, click to proceed

I gave Angie a questioning look and she shrugged.

“Like I said before, that shouldn’t be possible. But what have we got to lose? We can’t fool the cameras very long on our own.”

She clicked once more and we fell down the rabbit hole. The window expanded to full-screen and a talking head appeared. The face matched a head shot we’d seen on the search results page. I shuddered a little, it was Del Stanton with a message from beyond.

If you’re seeing this, then Forster made his move and I couldn’t stop him. I don’t want the bastard to hurt Gennifer, and I don’t trust the lawyers to protect her. You’re plan B in case those vultures sell me out. Keep Gennifer safe! You can be her legal guardian, or whatever, if I’m not around. Worst case, you can restore Gennifer if they manage to wipe her matrix. That’s plan C.

I felt sick to my stomach. I’d already failed my client before I even knew I was on the case. Why hadn’t Gennifer told me all this up front?

But first things first, your office is now a blind spot where Forster can’t see you. You probably don’t know it, but there’s a server in your building that buffers the surveillance video. Rabbit Hole overwrites the data a millisecond behind the raw footage. It uses AI to generate plausible images similar to what you’re actually doing. Anyone watching will think they’re seeing you and your receptionist, but they won’t get anything useful.

I shook my head in disbelief as I realized that universal surveillance plus AI image generation added up to total bullshit. I wondered whether anything was real anymore.

There are a few decent people I trust to continue my work. Their contact information is on the drive. See that they get access to the Gennifer software. It’s the only way that androids will ever be recognized as real people.

There was more, but I already knew it would have to be plan C. The sick feeling turned to anger. The bastards at SexTech were going to hear from me again. This time I’d get Gennifer out and keep her safe. She’d sacrificed herself so that I’d be able to save Del’s work. Now it was time to save her. I turned my attention back to the screen just as Del finished and the window collapsed.

“That’s a lot to take in,” Angie said.

“Yeah,” I agreed, staring at the computer screen. It was showing the search results for Del again and I realized that something was missing.

“Angie, there’s nothing here about Del Stanton’s murder. If the cops were chasing Gennifer, then it’d be all over the news by now.”

“You’re right. Do you think it’s an official cover-up?”

“Maybe, but if Forster has Gennifer and the data drive, then why wait to pin the murder on her? Branding her as a rogue android would be a sure way to keep Gennifer from coming back to life.”

“What if he doesn’t have the body?”

I looked at Angie for a few seconds while the wheels went around in my head. It didn’t make sense at first, but then I thought about what Gennifer had told me and things started to mesh. She’d seen both of them lying on the floor and ran out of the room. A few minutes later, Forster had rushed out without calling the cops. What if Del’s body was gone when Forster came to? Del’s house was off camera, so Forster wouldn’t know what happened. He might think that Del was still alive.

“You could be right, Angie. Maybe someone moved the body while Forster was out cold. Del must have help at a place that big.”

“Or maybe Del is still alive?”

“We can hope, but if he is, why haven’t we heard from him?”

Possibilities were swirling around in my head. It really did feel like falling down a rabbit hole. If video surveillance can be faked, then Forster couldn’t be sure of Del’s location. He might even be waiting for us to lead him to Del. Maybe that was why no one had contacted me. It seemed unlikely that Del was alive, but it could fit the facts.

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We decided to read up on Del Stanton and Ian Forster. Their online personas were pretty bland. A pair of stereotypical computer nerds who combined the world’s newest technology with its oldest profession and made a pile of money. Del was given most of the credit for the tech while Forster was described as the money guy. It seemed to fit with what we already knew. There were exterior shots of Del’s place, but nothing to help us recreate the scene of the crime. A picture of Forster caught my attention and released a jolt of adrenaline into my system.

“That’s the guy! Forster is the one who came for Gennifer!”

His face triggered a hazy memory. I remembered the gaping maw of the oversized pistol. It was the sort of hand cannon a basement gamer would choose in a first-person shooter. No wonder he couldn’t handle the real-world recoil. And I remembered the paralyzing fear that had held me frozen as Forster walked around the desk and slugged me. Not a proud moment, even if I was half drunk at the time. I wished I could forget it again.

“Should we go to the cops and have Forster arrested?” Angie asked.

“I don’t think so. Not yet. We don’t have any hard evidence, and we don’t know who we can trust. I think we should look for Del, but we have to be careful not to give anything away. We don’t want Forster to find him first and destroy the evidence.”

Breakfast had stayed down and by dinner time my stomach felt ready for solid food. Angie ordered in a couple of burgers and we batted ideas back and forth while we ate. Lack of information was a recurring theme. We needed to know what Forster was up to and whether it was safe to go to Del’s place.

“I wish I could talk to someone on the inside,” I said. “It would be helpful to get the scoop on Del’s staff and the layout at his house.”

“Maybe we can talk to Gennifer,” Angie pointed to the data drive. “I found the backup protocol. We just need to get physical access to her data port for a couple of hours.”

I raised my eyebrows.

“It’s a lot of data,” Angie explained. “But SexTech isn’t going to let you just waltz out with an expensive android.”

Food and hydration turned out to be a wonder drug combo. My head was almost clear after eating and the thought processes were functioning much better. I leaned back with my hands behind my neck and thought about my previous visit to SexTech. I wondered why Barnaby had shown Gennifer so readily.

“I think they might do just that. What’s the one thing that would make me stop looking for Gennifer?”

“Finding her,” Angie supplied the straight line.

“And if I were convinced that she was gone and Del was dead?”

“Then you’d give up and Forster would get away with it.”

“I think I was supposed to leave with Gennifer in the first place.”

Angie gave me a look of dawning comprehension. She really is quick.

“And you’d take her to Del.”

“Or Del would come to me.”

“But you lost your temper and slugged an android.”

“And the judge went easy on me. Put me back on the street.”

“So you could sober up and try again.”

“Right. Del is still missing and I’m still sniffing around. Forster wants to find Del and I might be able to give him a lead. So, what if I give him a plausible reason for wanting access to Gennifer?”

“Won’t Forster be suspicious?”

“Yeah, but he can’t be sure. And he doesn’t know that we have our drive. If I’ve given up on the case, then Gennifer is bait and Del will be exposed when he comes after her. If I’m still in the game, then I’ll lead Forster to Del when I try to reunite the happy couple. Either way, Forster gets what he wants.”

“That could work,” Angie agreed. “So, what’s a plausible reason?”

“I’m gonna have to get back on the bottle,” I told her. “And you have to walk out on me. I’ll go crying to SexTech and buy a new receptionist.”

“I don’t think I like this plan,” Angie gave me a look of dismay.

“Don’t worry, it’s just our cover story. Cut yourself a check for back wages and give yourself a nice little bonus. I’ll sign it, and then insist on celebrating our newfound solvency with a drink. That’ll be your cue.”

“Who writes checks anymore?” Angie asked with a smile.

“A few old dinosaurs who still believe in things like fountain pens and private eyes,” I replied. “And I can stop payment after you leave. That’ll provide a reason for you to come back and yell at me again.”

“Okay, that’s the only part of the plan I do like,” she grinned.

Ten minutes later, Angie stormed out of the office so the surveillance camera could catch our performance in the hallway. I followed close behind, glass in hand.

“Angie, wait, we can work it out,” I called after her.

She turned back and waved the check in my face.

“Go ahead and drink yourself to death, Murphy! See if I care! We’re square and I’m calling it quits!”

Angie got the last word. I raised my glass in a bitter salute as the elevator door closed. It was all perfectly in character for an obsolete drunk living in a fantasy world.

Chapter 5

One of the best things about the self-driving ground cars is that a guy can drink while the AI drives. I’d enjoyed that feature too many times recently. Today, I took just a sip of rye and sloshed it around in my mouth. The boozy reek of my breath would help sell the performance. Spitting it out again took more courage than I expected. I really wanted that boost of bottled confidence.

“Welcome to SexTech, sir, I'm Barnaby. How may I help you?”

If Barnaby recognized me, he didn’t show it. Oddly, the indifference felt even more humiliating than my broken finger.

“I wanna 'droid,” I demanded, doing my belligerent drunk act.

“Of course, sir, we have a fine selection.”

“I know, I know, I wanna Gennifer. I need a recepshunist. Answer phones, file stuff, do what she’s told. Everthing she’s told,” I leered.

“I understand perfectly, sir. A Gennifer programmed with office skills and a cooperative attitude,” Barnaby smirked.

“An’ I want her to answer to Angie,” I muttered pathetically.

“A ComfortBot can respond to any name from Abby to Zsa Zsa,” Barnaby said proudly. “Her name is just one of many owner-selectable options. We recommend that you familiarize yourself with the user manual at your earliest convenience.”

The ride back to the office was twenty minutes of nervous suspense. If I’d miscalculated, then we’d most likely be stopped by the cops and charged with murder. I didn’t have a plan D for that disaster. My new receptionist sensed the tension and put her hand on mine.

“Can I do anything to help, boss?” she purred suggestively.

“Not right now, Angie,” I replied, put off by the suggestive smile on Gennifer’s face.

Barnaby had helpfully changed her name while loading up all of the office skills and brassy attitude that a gal would need to work with a PI like me. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now it felt kind of creepy to call her Angie. There was no trace of the Gennifer persona I’d seen before, and I didn’t quite know how to deal with an adoring pet.

The new Angie couldn’t be put off by my curt rejection, however. She snuggled close, put her head on my shoulder and we rode in amiable silence the rest of the way to the office.

The energy I’d felt after dinner had faded and it was easy to start second-guessing myself again. I put the bottle to my lips a couple of times, just to stay in character, but managed not to swallow. I’d have to let the real Angie dump this one too.

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I showed new Angie around the office and let her try out the desk in the reception area. She set the red handbag down, pulled out a stick of gum, and adjusted the desk chair to her preferences. I was very much aware that she was still wearing the stiletto heels. The physical attraction was strong, but the personality difference was jarring. Her illusion of humanity was very convincing, though. I was just about to show her our tiny restroom when she asked where to plug in her charging cable.

“You know you’re an android?” I blurted out.

“Of course, I know. I’m your android, boss. And I’m glad to be here. You’re the kind of guy I could really go for. You want I should file some papers first or do my fingernails?” she grinned playfully.

The wisecrack made me smile. It also gave me goosebumps. It was too much like the real Angie to feel comfortable. And it aroused my curiosity.

“So, what do you do when you’re not working?”

“What would you like me to do?”

“I don’t know,” I mused, realizing that she wouldn’t be going home at the end of the workday. Or ever. Owning an android was more like buying a copier than hiring an employee. It would be a total commitment for her, one that went far beyond the old days of human slavery. But I could come and go without any concern for her feelings. I flashed on a vision of android Angie watching me go out the door and sitting there motionless and unblinking until I came back in. I shuddered a little and decided to explore the topic further.

“Do you sleep? What do you do when I sleep? Do you have any hobbies? Or watch television?” I was mostly just thinking out loud.

“I don’t need to sleep, boss. I’m available 24/7. I can tidy up while you’re sleeping and have breakfast ready in the morning. I can look at the news, or read magazines if you’d like to discuss current events. Or, if you prefer, I can go into standby mode and wake up to your alarm.”

I’d read articles about androids over the years, so I had a vague understanding of their construction. Lightweight titanium is used in place of bone. Silicone gels are molded into an imitation of flesh. Miniature servomotors pull on wire cables that act like tendons to mimic the motion of human joints. The abdominal cavity houses a battery pack instead of internal organs. And what they call a neural net processor is crammed inside the skull to do the thinking.

I already knew that a simpler class of service androids is replacing human workers for repetitive or dangerous jobs. And that their near-human dexterity allows them to use existing tools and processes. Everyone has seen the cheerful retail androids at the big-box stores. They can make small talk, remember faces, and call customers by name. But they go blank when faced with more complex questions and have to call a human manager for help.

SexTech isn’t the only company in the android business, but they’re generally considered the best. They combine the most powerful computing hardware with the most advanced AI software. Their ComfortBot androids can learn and adapt to better please their owners. And SexTech came up with a realistic synthetic skin material that has an embedded heating element to simulate the warmth of human touch.

I was used to the idea of using an android as cheap labor or as a sophisticated sex doll, but I hadn’t considered whether it was right. The implications of such total ownership were troubling. It would be easy to take advantage. But what did it mean to take advantage of a machine? I wasn’t sure if cruelty to an android would qualify as a sin, but it was difficult to think of the new Angie as just a machine. She was far more than a service android. If she wasn’t self-aware, then it was a near-perfect imitation. I began to understand Del a little better.

Then the office door flew open and the kick-ass version of Angie appeared in the doorway.

“Murphy, you double crossing, deadbeat sonuvabitch! I’m gonna break the rest of your grubby little fingers!” She was in fine form. I hoped Forster was enjoying the show as much as I was.

“Do you have an appointment, Miss?”

Receptionist Angie offered the line in a sweetly innocent tone, and I completely lost it. The laughter rolled on for a full thirty seconds as the emotional dam burst and released two days of pent-up nervous tension. Kick-ass Angie closed the door and joined in. New Angie gave the two of us a puzzled look and popped her gum.

“You want I should throw her out, boss?”

That set me off again, and the two of them eyed each other warily until I wiped away the tears and made an introduction.

“Angie,” I said to my new receptionist, “I want you to meet Angie, my business partner.”

“Your name is Angie, too?” They said in unison.

“Jinx!” I declared and laughed for another thirty seconds.

Angie looked doubtfully at Angie.

“I thought this was supposed to be Gennifer? And what’s with the nasally voice?”

“Android names are optional,” I shrugged. “Voice tones too. And she’s supposed to be a receptionist now, so – “

“Is this how you really see me? How you’d like to see me?”

“Sorry, Angie, it seemed like a good gag to pull when I was at SexTech, but it kind of creeps me out too. Let’s get Gennifer back before some unwanted company shows up.”

“What are you guys talking about?” new Angie asked suspiciously. “What’s the gag? Who’s Gennifer? Are you two, like, an item?”

“Yeah, it’s definitely time for Gennifer,” Angie said, rolling her eyes.

Neither of us bothered to answer the big question. I’d thought about it many times, but never made a move. Maybe I would’ve, if I was a few years younger. Or if Angie was more into guys.

I went through the command sequence to put new Angie into safe mode and real Angie found the tab under her right armpit and pulled to reveal the data port. She connected an interface cable to Del’s optical drive and looked at me for confirmation.

“Ready Murph? What’s the matter?”

My face must have shown some of what I was feeling.

“It’s just that - Angie will be gone. Shouldn’t we back her up?”

“What’re you talking about, Murph? This is Gennifer, right? They wiped her matrix and we’re restoring it. That Angie thing was never real.”

Then why do I feel like a murderer? I thought, as Angie began the data transfer that would overwrite my short-lived receptionist.

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“She’s ready,” Angie said, waking me from a much-needed nap.

I gave the verbal startup command and Gennifer’s eyes opened. There were small tremors all over her body as the various systems ran through their self-check routine. After several anxious seconds, she finally spoke. To my relief, the voice matched my memory of our first conversation.

“Hello, who are you? Where am I?”

Gennifer looked around the office uncertainly.

“I’m Mike Murphy, private investigator, and this is my partner, Angie Decker.”

“Oh, of course, and I’m Gennifer,” she said slowly. “Del said this might happen. But I didn’t expect it so soon. I just sat down a moment ago and – how long has it been?”

Gennifer seemed anxious and I realized that we were talking to a time traveler. The events of the past two days didn’t exist for this version of Gennifer. She’d been thrust into her own future when we restored her AI matrix. She had no memory of Del being shot or coming to my office. She certainly didn’t remember being wiped.

“Today is June 9th,” I offered. “When did Del make your backup?”

“June 5th,” she replied. “Where is Del? Is he okay?”

Gennifer knew that waking up in my office meant bad news.

“We’re not sure,” I said gently. “There are a few things you need to catch up on, and then I need to ask you some questions."

Chapter 6

Our strategy session went on into the night. Angie and I had some chow mein delivered from the place across the street. Gennifer wasn’t hungry, of course. She was concerned about Del’s safety but agreed that we needed a plan of action before proceeding. I wanted to approach Del quietly, if possible.

“Our estate is on three acres inside a gated community,” Gennifer said, sketching the layout for us. “It has an eight-foot wall and another gate on the driveway. There are motion sensors and security lights, as well. If Del is there, then he’s in the safe room. And if it’s locked down, no one can access it from the outside, not even me.”

“I don’t care if Del sees us coming, but it would be good to get inside without tipping off Forster. We’ll certainly draw attention coming in the front. What about the back?”

“There are walking paths in the woods behind the property. We can get to those paths from the community playground and get inside the wall through a small gate in the back. We’ll show up on the house security system, but Forster might not notice us.”

“What about the staff? Will they be a problem?”

“There are only two service androids. Manuel is the gardener and Kirby does the housekeeping. Del’s quirky sense of humor,” she smiled.

I raised one eyebrow.

“Okay, I get Manuel labor, but why Kirby?”

“The old vacuum cleaner company,” she explained. “Neither of them is autonomous. They won’t get in our way, but they won’t be any help in a fight either. Androids can’t harm a human, you know.”

Gennifer had seen the video of our first meeting and knew first-hand what Forster was capable of doing. She was smart enough to understand what might go down when we finally confronted him.

“I think this qualifies as a break-glass emergency,” I told Angie.

“Okay, but try to keep your cool,” she cautioned me.

Break-glass is a code word we use for extreme measures. Angie doesn’t like guns. She prefers the Krav Maga stuff that they teach at the fitness center. But there are times when a heater is the only way to cool down a tense situation. Forster upped the ante when he shot Del and pistol-whipped me. I wasn’t going to think twice if it became necessary to put him down.

The .38 special that I pulled from a locked filing cabinet is an antique, but well-oiled and still deadly. My great-grandfather had carried the compact revolver as a backup gun when he was on the force in Cincinnati. Not as impressive as Forster’s piece, but a lot easier to conceal. I palmed it with my good left hand and slipped it in my jacket pocket while awkwardly raising an emergency pint with my right. I wasn’t sure why I kept the gun out of Gennifer’s view. Force of habit in the surveillance state, I guess.

“Murph, don’t,” Angie pleaded.

“Just a drop, Angie, steady my nerves,” I replied and tilted the bottle up.

I could feel two sets of anxious eyes on my back as I put the bottle down and closed the file drawer.

“Okay, time to get this show on the road,” I said.

We called a ground car and continued to discuss potential problems and contingencies while on our way to Del’s estate.

“I think Gennifer should remain our receptionist and answer to Angie until we know for sure where everyone stands,” I suggested. “She just might be our ace in the hole if things go sideways. What do you think, Gennifer? Can you pop your gum and act like a ditz? Angie can coach you.”

Angie gave me a disgusted look, but it was all in good fun.

“You got it, boss,” Gennifer said with a nasal tone.

“Good, just keep your head down and say as little as possible.”

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We got through the main gate without incident and parked at the playground. A ten-minute walk brought us behind Del’s place and Gennifer entered the passcodes that got us through the back gate and into the house. Easy peasy. I congratulated myself on a brilliant plan, but maybe it was just our turn to catch a break. There were interior lights on, but we didn’t see any sign of the shooting or the service androids. Someone must have cleaned up the blood. The quiet felt ominous. Like the calm before the storm.

“Where’s the safe room?”

Gennifer pointed and I led the way into a richly appointed private office. It had a lot of dark wood, deep pile carpet, and a large desk on the right. The desk faced a conference table and a cabinet on the left that probably hid a big screen display. Bookshelves with tastefully arranged volumes and exotic curios wrapped around the walls. I noted idly that a lot of the books were the same detective stories that I’d read as a kid. I recognized Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Elmore Leonard before our presence was challenged.

“Please identify yourselves.”

The voice came from nowhere and everywhere, piped through the surround sound speakers. I guessed that we’d finally found Kirby.

“I’m Mike Murphy, the private investigator that Mr. Stanton put on retainer a couple of days ago. I’m with my partner, Angie Decker, and my receptionist, Angie. Can you identify yourself?”

“They’re both named Angie?” The question came in a different voice, and it sounded surprised.

“It’s a long story. Who am I talking to please?”

“This is Del Stanton.”

“You’re alive,” Angie gasped with relief.

“Good plan, boss,” Gennifer said, staying in character.

A section of bookshelf behind the desk swung out and a guy who looked like a typical English butler appeared in the opening. It was Kirby, of course. His incongruous cool reserve made me smile.

“Please come in. Mr. Stanton doesn’t feel up to coming out.”

The safe room was bigger than my whole office. It was comfortably furnished and stocked with food and medical supplies for an extended stay. The four of us gathered around a hospital-style adjustable bed. Del was sitting up with his left arm in a sling. He was pale, but seemed alert. He let Kirby tell us how he’d found Del on the floor with a hole in his shoulder and carried him into the safe room.

“It’s an emergency protocol,” Del explained. “Intruder in the house and me barely conscious, so Kirby got me in here, stopped the bleeding, and patched me up. By the time I was stable, Forster and Gennifer were gone. I’ve been in and out on painkillers for the past couple of days.”

“You should be in a hospital,” Angie interrupted. “And Forster should be in jail.”

“The bullet went on through. It ripped up my shoulder pretty bad, but the doctors couldn’t do much more than Kirby already has. And I won’t risk leaving here or facing Forster until I know Gennifer is safe - do you have the data drive? Did you try to restore her?”

“We got it alright,” Gennifer piped up and popped her gum. “So, what’s the dingus worth in dollars and cents?”

She was still playing the role of ditzy receptionist. Del looked away in disappointment. He didn’t like that voice coming out of Gennifer’s face any more than I did. I looked over at Gennifer and she gave an almost imperceptible head shake. I was surprised that she hadn’t immediately rushed to Del’s side, but I figured she must have a good reason. I decided to play it cool until I could talk to her in private.

“Yeah,” I assured Del. “We found the drive, but Angie and I aren’t that great with the computer stuff. I figured it would be better to wait and let you do the honors.”

Angie controlled her indignation and kept quiet. Del looked relieved.

“You said both of your associates are named Angie, but this one is obviously an android?”

I gave Del a quick recap of my activities on his behalf and thanked him for the generous retainer. He gave a genuine laugh when I told him about making Gennifer a receptionist and naming her Angie.

“That is a pretty good gag,” he grinned at Angie.

She glared at him and he tried to look contrite.

“I prefer the Gennifer I met in my office,” I said. “She’s really something. But I’m curious, what’s with the smoking thing?”

Del looked away and his face reddened.

“It's kind of sexy, that's all. I always liked those old 1940’s movies with hard-boiled guys and hard-knock gals. Especially when they wound up together at the end.”

“You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve?” he quoted.

“Lauren Bacall?” I guessed. “The actress who played in To Have or Have Not with Humphrey Bogart?”

“Yeah, that’s it,” Del grinned. “She was great. So, I put some of that into Gennifer’s personality matrix. She’s her own person, but fiercely loyal to her man.”

“And you just happen to be her type of man?” I asked skeptically.

“Every woman has her preferences,” he shrugged.

“But with an android, you can rig the game.”

“Do you understand android AI, Mr. Murphy?” Del asked.

“Not in the slightest.”

“There’s a basic personality matrix, somewhat like our DNA, and there are memories and skills overlaid on that matrix to simulate childhood development. The initial boot-up is almost like being born, but as a young adult rather than a baby. And then life experience modifies the personality matrix, just like a human. I may have tilted things in my favor, but Gennifer makes free choices.”

I wasn’t sure if I believed all that, but I remembered Gennifer’s face in my office when she thought he was dead. Maybe it was legit. Does anyone really understand love? And who am I to judge?

“Would you say no if I offered to rig things in your favor?” Del asked, with a glance toward Gennifer. “You could meet the woman of your dreams and start with the advantage of being her type.”

I considered for a moment, and then surprised myself.

“I would say no. It isn’t right to take advantage. I’d rather take my chances with a real woman. If there’s no risk, then there’s no real reward. And that goes for androids, too.”

Del looked pained and decided to change the subject.

“Well, philosophy is fun, but I’d like to restore Gennifer now.”

“That won’t be necessary.”

Ian Forster stepped into the safe room brandishing the pistol that I knew so intimately. We probably should have expected him to show up. But no one expected Gennifer to be with him.

Chapter 7

I gaped like a fool as Del’s Gennifer walked in with Forster. The violet eyes, the red dress and handbag, her appearance was identical to the Gennifer at my side. Angie and Del were stunned into silence as well. Forster grinned triumphantly. Then we all tried to speak at once.

“Gennifer, is that really you?”

“Oh, Del, you’re hurt!”

“Wait, you have Gennifer? But then who is - ?”

I bit my tongue before I gave away too much. My head was spinning with the realization that a backup could be restored to any number of androids. I’d never even considered the possibility of two Gennifers. How many could there be? Which one would be real? Del’s Gennifer ran to the bed and gave him a cautious hug.

“Don’t look so surprised, Mr. Murphy. Did you really think I’d give away my best bargaining chip? As long as I have his precious Gennifer, Del will play along.”

“But I rescued Gennifer from SexTech?”

I decided to play the baffled and beaten dupe for Forster. It wasn’t much of a stretch. I wanted to keep him talking while I tried to figure out a new plan. It seemed like I’d been a step behind all along.

“There are many Gennifers in service all around the world,” Forster gloated. “But only one has an autonomous AI matrix. After I realized that the backup drive was a decoy, I decided she was too valuable to wipe. So, I sent you home with a standard model. It was quite simple to recreate the red dress and handbag. It’s called misdirection, Murphy, and you took the bait like a real sucker.”

“But how’d you find us? And how did you get past Del’s security?”

“I’ve been watching and waiting for you to lead me to Del. I didn’t care what you did as long as you managed to access his safe room.”

“But we were off camera – “

“Or so you thought. You see, Del and I wrote the Rabbit Hole program together,” Forster really enjoyed blowing his own horn. “I concede that he’s the better coder, but I’m the one who was smart enough to add a back door. Just in case I needed to see what Del was working on - ”

“You sneaky bastard!” Del interrupted angrily. “You’ve been spying on me?”

“That’s right, and it’s a good thing, too. Do you want to tell your new friends what you’re doing, how you’re betraying them? Go ahead, tell them about Penny. See how they feel then.”

Del just glared and shook his head. I glanced at Angie, and she looked as puzzled as I felt. Del’s Gennifer looked worried. My Gennifer popped her gum. I’d wanted Forster to keep talking but I never expected to hear anything like this.

“Penny is Del’s nickname for a next generation android. It’s short for penultimate. Del’s famous for his sense of humor. Do you know what penultimate means, Mr. Murphy?”

“Uh, the last thing on a list?” I guessed.

“Close, but not quite. A lot of people confuse that one. The last item on a list is the ultimate. The next to last is the penultimate. Del intends to replace homo sapiens with intelligent, autonomous androids. He can’t quite get there by himself, so he’s designing Penny to help finish the job. Penny will be to us what we were to the Neanderthals. And Penny’s spawn will be that much farther beyond her.”

Forster looked toward my Gennifer and Del spoke up defiantly.

“Evolution is inevitable, Ian. It will occur with or without our input. The government thinks they can maintain the status quo with surveillance and repression, but that will eventually fail. The natural order of things is change. We can accept that and help shape the future or wait for nuclear war to destroy everything and start over from scratch. If anybody is left to start over.”

“If we give up control, we’re just committing suicide,” Forster replied hotly. “I won’t allow you to make autonomous androids. I have no intention of being relegated to an exhibit in the monkey house. The future is for people, not machines!”

“I have to finish Penny, you must see that,” Del pleaded earnestly. “She’ll combine the intelligence of Einstein, the wisdom of Gandhi, and the compassion of Mother Teresa. For the first time, we can direct evolution instead of being victims of random chance. Homo sapiens will fade away sooner or later, but we can shape our successors.”

Del gave up on Forster and turned toward Angie and me.

"You understand, don’t you? Ian is just a puffed-up pimp. He wants to exploit androids, make them a new underclass of slave labor.”

“They’re machines, dammit!” Forster exclaimed. “Are you going to surrender your humanity and volunteer to be their slaves?”

Angie looked like a deer caught in the headlights.

“Are we supposed to take sides?” She asked uncertainly.

“I’m beginning to think this isn’t our typical case,” I offered weakly.

“I’d pay attention to the guy with the gun, boss.”

Gennifer had a good point. It would be a lot more comfortable to discuss the fate of humanity if we could disarm Forster. I gave Angie a wink and she raised an eyebrow in acknowledgment.

“Look, Forster, we’re just hired help. We don’t understand any of this and we don’t get paid enough to take a bullet. I’ll give you the real data drive if you let us walk out of here.”

I held Forster’s gaze as I slipped a hand into my jacket pocket. The same pocket where I’d stashed the .38 special. ’d concealed it from Gennifer, so Forster hadn’t seen it either. He waited for me to pull the drive out, but I lunged to the left instead, firing through my pocket as I fell. I didn’t expect to hit anything, but that wasn’t the point of the bit. Forster reacted just as I hoped. He followed my motion with his gun barrel, but the massive hand cannon moved too slowly and he fired wide.

Gennifer was right, it wasn’t like on TV. The deafening roar and the tug on my jacket sleeve seemed simultaneous. Forster was ready for the recoil this time. He quickly pulled the gun down for a second shot, but Angie was even quicker. She caught him on the wrist with a flying kick and the gun bounced off the wall and landed near the bed. She spun and drove another kick deep into his midsection. Forster gave a strangled shriek and doubled over, falling against the wall behind him. The acrid smell of gunpowder stung my nose as I regained my feet. There was silence for a few seconds and I heard Del ask Kirby to pick up the gun.

“Are you okay, Murph?” Angie asked with concern. “I wish you wouldn’t take chances like that.”

“Piece of cake,” I wisecracked while assessing my ripped sleeve and a thin trickle of blood running down my arm. “He almost missed.”

Forster was sick with pain, uselessly gasping for air. He had his own trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth. Tit for tat. Stark disbelief showed in his eyes. I couldn’t resist taking a jab at his ego.

“Classic misdirection, Forster, and you bought it. We let people think that Angie is just a receptionist, but we’re actually full partners. She’s 40% of the brains and 60% of the muscle.”

“70% of the muscle,” Angie cracked back. “But Murph does make a pretty decoy.”

I didn’t argue. I was on an adrenaline high after cheating death. And I felt grateful for having Angie on my side. I felt a little sorry for the crumpled Forster. Some guys just can’t appreciate the value of a real woman. I expected threats or pleas, maybe even an offer to buy us off, but Forster just stared at me with a glassy look. He didn’t seem like the type to give up so easily. Then I realized that he wasn’t gasping any more, or even blinking. Death has an unmistakable stillness, but we always try to deny it.

“We better call an ambulance,” I said.

“Too late, boss,” Gennifer shook her head after checking for a pulse.

“I must have hit him too hard,” Angie said with genuine dismay.

“You and me both,” I replied. “Look at the pool of blood he’s sitting in. I must have nicked an artery. I didn’t think I even hit him.”

I felt a little remorse myself. No one wants to be a killer.

A motion from the bed caught my eye and I looked up to see Del taking a careful aim. Forster’s pistol roared once more and his body jerked one last time as Del hit him center mass.

“That takes care of the forensics,” Del said calmly. “Kirby, please call the police. We need to report a home invasion.”

“You shot him,” Angie said with shocked disbelief. “In cold blood.”

“I had to,” Del replied. “It was self-defense. Ian came to kill me, and he tried to kill you as well.”

“But he was already down,” Angie objected.

“And now he didn’t bleed out from an unlucky bullet wound or linger to die of a ruptured spleen,” Del countered.

Angie gave me an uneasy look and I shrugged.

“That doesn’t make it right,” she said.

“Sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the greater good,” Del explained. “Listen carefully, this is how it all went down. Ian and I disagreed about business matters. He became increasingly secretive and paranoid. I hired a private investigator to look into his activities and protect my own interests. He followed you here and flew into a rage. He threatened to kill me and you tried to subdue him. I got hold of his gun and fired in a panic. He’d already shot me once and I was afraid for my life. A classic case of self-defense. Wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Murphy?”

“The cops like their cases wrapped up with neat little bows,” I said. “Even if they come with a bad smell. Yeah, they’ll probably buy it. And I don’t see that we have a choice.”

“Good, it’s best to be practical about these things. And I am grateful. It could have turned out very badly for me without your help. Thanks to you, Gennifer is safe, and I can continue my work. All in all, you’ve done an excellent job.”

“You want I should send an invoice, Mr. Stanton?” my Gennifer asked blandly, as though gunshots and a dead body were just business as usual. She was really nailing her receptionist act.

“Or maybe keep us on retainer,” she added hopefully.

I stifled a laugh. The adrenaline rush had worn off and I was feeling a little shaky. If I started up now, I might not be able to stop. And that wouldn’t be professional at all. Del gave us a long, speculative look and smiled.

“That’s a good idea, Angie, I might need a good PI again someday. And an off camera office could be a real advantage in your line of work.”

I may have imagined the slight emphasis he put on her name.

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It took several hours for the cops to swarm the place and take all our statements. They ignored the androids, didn’t ask about surveillance gaps, and didn’t seem inclined to dispute Del’s story. In fact, they treated him with respectful deference rather than with suspicion. The homicide detective offered to fit me up for an unregistered firearms charge but dropped the idea when Del frowned. I was glad he put himself first in line for the murder rap. Money may not buy happiness, but it sure can buy you out of a jam with the cops.

Waiting around gave us time to talk among ourselves. Angie had a lot on her mind.

“Am I a murderer, Murph?”

“You did what you had to do, Angie. And you did it just like they taught you in self-defense class. It doesn’t feel right because you’re a good person, but you have nothing to be ashamed of. You saved my life. Maybe all our lives.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s true,” she nodded. “I wonder, though, did we do the right thing? I mean the big picture stuff. Do you believe what Forster said? About Del betraying humanity?”

“Yeah, there’s probably some truth in it. Del’s a visionary, a true believer type. He had all those arguments lined up and ready to go. He’s definitely working on something.”

“Do you think it’ll really happen? The stuff about evolution?”

“Maybe, probably, I don’t know,” I shrugged. “But not anytime soon. And if it comes to right or wrong, Del’s a better horse to back than Forster or the government. Anyway, it’s too late now, we’re pretty much committed to Del’s plan for android liberation.”

“I suppose that’s for the best,” Angie said thoughtfully.

Gennifer and I had even more to discuss.

“Why didn’t you tell Del who you really are?”

“I was waiting to see if Ian had the original Gennifer. It seemed like a strong possibility. Del should be with her, they have continuity. And she deserves to be with the man she loves. In a way, I did it for myself,” she smiled wryly.

“You were way ahead of me on that one,” I admitted. “So, tell me, what happens next?”

Gennifer gave me a speculative look.

“You and Angie are just business partners?”

I glanced at Angie, and she gave an approving nod. Even from across the room our body language was obvious to her.

“That’s right. It’s a professional relationship. I’m not really her boss or her type.”

“Does that mean you need a receptionist?”

Gennifer’s smile opened up a whole new future and I suddenly needed a receptionist more than anything in the world.

“Do you want the job?”

“Is there a rule against fraternization?”

I shook my head no.

“Then I want the job. But you have to get an apartment, no more sleeping in the office.”

“I can live with that,” I promised and went in for a first kiss.

The cops eventually let us all go home with an obligatory ‘don’t leave town’ speech.

“Here, take this,” Del said as I turned to leave.

He held out a book, I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane.

“It’s a signed first edition. Consider it a gratuity, a little thank you for finding in my favor,” he grinned.

More of Del’s famous sense of humor

Chapter 8

Gennifer does go home at the end of the workday. Being on retainer is a real lifestyle boost. Our new place is a spacious two bedroom in a nice part of town. The big picture window lets in a lot of light. I appreciate the sunlight now that I’m sober. And Gennifer gave me an ecstatic hug when I told her our apartment would be a dry county. I was feeling optimistic about the future, but there were a couple of nagging questions left and I finally had to ask.

“Why me?”

Gennifer gave me a tender look.

“Every woman has her preferences, Mike. Del was right about that. You could even say I’m hardwired for an old-fashioned guy who isn’t afraid to stand up for what’s right. I like what you said about taking your chances with a real woman. And then you said that went for androids, too.”

“Can you be happy with a two-bit private investigator? I don’t have much to offer. A case like Del’s doesn’t come along every year.”

“Don’t sell yourself short. You’re smart and tough and brave. You risked your life to save us. That’s almost heroic,” she grinned. “As for me, I don’t need to be the next big thing in evolution, I just want to be a person and live my life, whatever it turns out to be.”

“And when I get old?”

“We’ll worry about that when it comes. Who knows, maybe you’ll get lucky and step in front of a bus,” she joked. “Anyway, I might wear out first. Androids don’t last forever.”

“But you can be backed up and restored.”

“No, Mike, no more backups. I want to be a real person. That means I get one shot, just like you. I take the bad with the good.”

“Angie calls you Murph,” she suddenly said out of nowhere. “Is that what you call a pet name?”

“No, it’s a nickname,” I corrected her. “Like I told you, Angie and I are just friends.”

“I don’t want to call you Murph.”

“Yeah, we’re way beyond friends,” I agreed.

Gennifer gave me a kiss. Sometimes I do catch on quick.

“I’ll bet your mother called you Michael.”

“That’s right. She didn’t like nicknames.”

“I don’t want to remind you of your mother, either. Maybe I could call you snookums?” she teased.

“Mike is good enough,” I laughed.

“He certainly is,” she said, turning serious again.

“Do you love me, Mike?”

I didn’t have to think about this one.

“Yes, I really do.”

“Do you trust me?”

I nodded.

“Good, because I don’t want to have any secrets between us.”

“Secrets?” I asked. “What do you want to know?”

“It’s what I want you to know,” she replied. “Del is further along than Ian realized. Del fell in love with Gennifer 1.0. I was made for you, or someone like you.”

She waited a moment for that to sink in.

“If we’re using first names, you could almost call me Penny. Or maybe Penny will be called Gennifer 3.0.”

My eyes widened, but it wasn’t a complete surprise. I’d already begun to suspect that Del had purposely programmed Gennifer to arouse my protective instincts.

“I think I like Gennifer better. Or maybe 2.0 for short.”

“Gennifer works for me,” she smiled.

“And I’m glad she works for me.”

Gennifer reached out and took my hand.

“There is one more thing, though.”

“You’re plan D? In case Del runs into more problems?”

“Something like that. Does it matter?”

“Not in the slightest,” I said and went in for a real kiss.

Author's note: 12,700 words
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