Sandra Darcy was lounging on her back porch, savoring the smell of coffee wafting from her mug and the golden-orange leaves rustling in the October breeze, when her phone emitted a familiar synth riff. It was the ringtone reserved for her boss, Maximillian Pallindrone.
“Good morning, Sandy,” came the gravelly-yet-melodic voice of her employer. “I do hate to disturb you on this fine Sunday, but we have a client who is most insistent about meeting.”
She groaned theatrically. “Really, Max? Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”
“I’m afraid not. This is a big enough case I can promise that it will be worth our while, and it hits close to home. It’s Widow Lurge.”
Sandra nearly spit out her first swig of coffee. “Lurge? The robot factory Lurge?”
“The very same.”
“I assume it’s about her late husband?”
“Your assumption is correct, as usual. I’ll fill you in on the details on your way over to the agency. She will meet us at 12:30.”
“And let me guess: even though I’m supposed to be there in person, you’ll be joining us by remote conference call?”
“But of course.”
Sandra glanced at her phone. 10:37. Barely enough time for her to grab a shower and dress. She glanced mournfully at the nearly full pot of coffee sitting on her counter top.
“Awright. Talk to you then.” she said, walking in through the sliding glass door and ending the call. She set her mug down in the dishwasher and scurried to the bathroom, shrugged off her robe, and stepped into the shower, activating it with the curt command: “Quick rinse. I’m in a hurry.”
After showering and doing her hair, she slid into her grey bell-bottom slacks and a purple and grey paisley blouse. She tossed her JEK-17 pistol into her purse and slung it over shoulder. The hefty, boxy weapon felt awkward jostling against her ribs, but she’d left her holster at the office. She made a mental note to grab it when she got there. The automated kitchen assistant had transferred her coffee to the colorful geometric-patterned thermos waiting for her by the stove. She grabbed the thermos and trotted out the door and down the covered walkway that led to the resident garage and her bright orange hatchback, parked on the 3rd floor.
Even in the gloomy lighting of the garage, the vehicle stood out, like a burst of sunlight breaking through a gap in the clouds. Compared with the surrounding cars, it was smaller, sleeker, and more stylish. It had a singularly elegant shape, with its sharply downward-sloping backdoor arch flowing into a long, low front, like a big cat about to pounce. Sandra had it detailed every two weeks, and on the stipend Max paid her, could afford all the best for it—ceramic coatings, chrome spoilers, and, as she would say, “all the fixin’s.”
She hopped into the pilot’s seat, flung her purse on the passenger chair, and keyed her code in to activate the onboard assistant.
“Voice Authentication?” the machine prompted.
“Sandra Darcy,” she affirmed crisply.
“Welcome, Captain Darcy. Where to today?”
“Work,” she said with a slight grin. The computer’s default mode of address was simply “operator,” but she had selected “Captain” instead. It seemed altogether more appropriate.
The microbotic cushion flared out beneath the car, and it rose up over the pavement and zipped off. Sandra sipped her coffee as the hatchback wound its way down the garage ramps and out into the bright autumn day, while the pleasantly cool sensation of the Personal Pilot’s Cosmetic Assistant she’d recently installed applied foundation and lipstick to her face.
There wasn’t much traffic; being a Sunday morning most were still inside, and so the AI easily navigated into the invisible lane leading to the city of Gelunbu. Sandra watched lazily as the skyline grew closer. In the cluster of curved, asymmetrical spires at the heart of the city was a cylindrical tower, its tinted green windows glistening in the morning sunlight. The McIntyre Building, Gelunbu’s signature landmark, dominated the cityscape. It’s like a giant middle finger, and the other buildings are knuckles, she thought.
The crackling of Max’s voice in her earpiece distracted her from her architectural musings.
“So, you know all about the circumstances of Mr. Lurge’s demise, right, Sandy?”
“Just that he was found dead at that old factory a couple weeks ago. Is there more to it?”
“Yes—the night watchman said Lurge didn’t enter by the front door, and he didn’t sign in as protocols require.”
“Well, it was his family’s factory, wasn’t it? If anybody could wander in after hours—”
“True, but Mr. Lurge was a very careful and security-conscious man. He wasn’t one to disregard procedures lightly; especially not those of his own design.”
“What else did the guard have to say?”
“Well, you’ll have to follow up on that. But first, you need to hear what Mrs. Lurge has to say.”
“I guess since she’s coming to us, it’s pretty clear she thinks it was foul play, huh?”
“You know it. But there’s something else I want you to do before you meet with Mrs. Lurge.”
“Oh? What’s that?”
There was a pause, as if Max was trying to figure out how to word something. “Well, it’s like this… you’re not going to be working this case alone.”
Sandra nearly spit out her last swig of coffee. “WHAT? Are you saying—”
“Now, calm down. It’s no reflection on your performance,” Max said hurriedly, his low voice warming into his most paternal tone. “You know I have the very highest opinion of your abilities. It’s just… well, I received an applicant whose talents I just couldn’t say no to. Once you meet her, you’ll see what I mean.”
She’s a her, huh? Sandra thought. She suspected she knew why Max had hired her already.
“Ya coulda at least asked my ‘pinion first!”
“I knew you’d be upset.”
“I’m not upset.”
“You always lapse into your accent when you get upset or excited.”
“Don’t ya’ll change the subject! Have I ever failed to crack a case? Ever?”
“Never, Sandy. Like I said; it’s not about you. I think you and Venus will make a great team.”
Sandy disconnected. She was almost at the agency anyway; she had nothing else to say. The car drifted to a stop in front and gently lowered itself onto the pavement. Sandy climbed out, threw her aviator glasses onto the dashboard, and stormed up the stairs.
She marched through the lobby’s sliding glass doors and into the first floor suite that housed the agency. She was about to angrily throw her purse down in a chair when what she saw before her made her stop dead.
There stood a tall, slender woman—easily five feet ten, dressed in a tailored red pantsuit, and wearing a matching wide-brimmed hat. Everything about her radiated strength; her relatively broad shoulders tapered to a narrow waist and long legs. She was standing at the office’s till-then unoccupied second desk, which Sandra had long used for piling files, bills, scarves, shoes, and other knickknacks, and she felt suddenly self-conscious about this stranger observing her messiness.
The stranger had been studying a tablet, but on hearing Sandra enter, looked up with a brilliant smile that lit up her perfectly sculpted oval face and said, “Oh, hello. You must be Sandra. I’m Venus Miles. Delighted.”