I ended my review of the previous book in this series with the words, “Martuneac is a promising author. I’ll definitely be reading more of his work.” Zombie apocalypse books aren’t a genre I normally read, but the characters and writing in His Name Was Zach were strong enough to hold my attention and make me pick up the sequel.

And what a sequel it is! The foundation Martuneac laid in the first book really pays off in a number of ways in this sprawling epic. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you all the details, lest I spoil both books. But, I’ll do my best to give you the flavor of it.

Our protagonist is, naturally, Abby, the teenaged girl from the first book, who is struggling to survive in the harsh wilds of the Midwest, infested by zombies and small gangs of people struggling for self-preservation with varying degrees of brutality.

For reasons which I can’t say without spoiling the previous installment, but which will be obvious if you have read it, Abby can no longer rely on Zach, the man who raised her, and has to fend for herself. Her Name Was Abby picks up right where the first book left off, with an unrelenting post-apocalyptic world, full of violence, betrayal, and in general a reversion to the anarchic condition of life that Thomas Hobbes described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

This nightmarish world, in which no one can be fully trusted and the worst survive while the best perish, takes a major psychological toll on Abby, whose own hands are far from clean at the end of the first part of the book.

But then, she finds her way to something approaching civilization. And this is where the book takes a turn. For a long time, I’ve wondered why this series is categorized as “dystopian.” Maybe it’s me, but I don’t consider zombie apocalypse books dystopian. (I’m not really sure why. They’re certainly not utopian!) But once Abby reaches the West, she finds an area where the government remains in control.

And when I say “in control,” I mean police-state level control. This is where the book starts to resemble what I think of as a dystopia, as the reconstituted government under President Cyrus Arthur uses patrols of an elite military unit, the DAS, to terrorize the civilian population.

In fairness, we are talking about an outbreak of zombies here. You can see it would take a firm hand to reassert control in a situation like that. As other apologists for other tyrants have said, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” In the case of President Arthur, “breaking eggs” includes a naval bombardment of San Diego. (This incident is only referenced a few times in passing, but somehow I found it one of the most haunting bits of world-building lore in the entire book.)

Abby quickly joins a resistance movement, where she meets a young man close to her own age named Hiamovi, the grandson of the movement’s leader. Abby is, understandably, slow to trust, but eventually she and Hiamovi fall in love.

Unfortunately, nothing good ever seems to last for Abby, and she soon finds herself infiltrating the DAS on an undercover mission that takes her into the very highest levels of the government, and into a relationship with President Arthur’s own son, Derrick.

And that’s about as far as I can go without spoiling things. It’s too bad, because what I’ve summarized so far is just the setup for a thrilling final act, full of suspense, action, and even a remarkable love triangle. It’s really well-done, and pieces that have been hinted at going back to the first book start to fall satisfyingly into place.

For instance: if, like me, you were wondering how the government was managing to keep firm control of the Western half of the country while the East collapses into zombie-barbarism; that question is answered quite clearly in the later parts of this book.

To recap: the first quarter of the book is pure survival-horror, brimming with relentless violence and a constant sense that Abby is living on a razor’s edge, kept alive by a combination of sheer luck and an ever-increasing willingness to betray her own moral code for the chance to see another sunrise.

Then the book transforms, fairly smoothly, from a zombie-horror book to more of a spy thriller. Spy thrillers are more my usual fare, so for me, this was a pleasant surprise.

So, would I say the book is a zombie book with some spy thriller elements, or a spy thriller with some zombie elements?

Answer: it’s neither.

Her Name Was Abby has another facet to it beyond the zombies and the cool high-tech espionage. It’s actually a surprisingly deep psychological portrait of Abby. More specifically, of how Abby tries to cope with all the horrific trauma she’s experienced from a young age.

Now, I get it: almost all thrillers have a Protagonist With A Dark Past™. Many, many books have a flawed anti-hero who is running from some kind of horrible event that has left a scar on their psyche. And it almost always feels forced and fake to me.

But Abby’s feels genuine. I can’t really explain it. Somehow, though, Martuneac conveys her mental state in a way that seems real. Her PTSD flashbacks are vivid, and the way she struggles with feelings of depression, rage, doubt, and guilt are all viscerally powerful.

Abby’s journey is a moving one, and whereas in the previous book she relied heavily on Zach to save her, in this one, she has no one else to turn to. As one character, one of my favorites in the book, says, “If your life is going to be saved, it must be you who does the saving.”

The book has many good lines, but I can’t quote most of them because they would also spoil important plot developments. In general, let me just say that Martuneac’s style of writing is very interesting to me. I do think most modern fiction critics would argue it relies too much on “telling” rather than “showing” and we all know the standard rule about that.

However, I’ve never been completely onboard with this rule. (Yeah, yeah; if you watch the Writers Supporting Writers videos, I’m sure you’re just shocked by this.) I know what people mean when they say it, but at best, it’s badly phrased. Because all fiction is actually telling, never showing. The art is in making people feel like you’re showing them something.

Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying Martuneac tends to use what I think of as an older style of narration that is often detached from the immediate thoughts of the characters. Some people might not like this approach, but personally, I found it kind of refreshing. There is such a thing as too much immediacy, and I feel like a lot of modern fiction has it. Probably because most writers have had the “show, don’t tell” rule drilled into them.

This is a really good story, and one that should have broad appeal. While I do think it’s better to read the series in order, I will say that if you like thrillers but are positively allergic to the zombie genre, you could start by reading this book without reading His Name Was Zach. That’s what H.R.R. Gorman did, and if it’s good enough for Gorman, it’s good enough for me.

And one more thing about Zach. Despite the fact he’s not in this one, his presence still can be felt throughout this book. Like Abby, I often found myself wondering what Zach would think of this or that. I’m always impressed when a character looms large even when not actually “in” the story as such.

I’d like to say a lot more about this book, but I don’t want to spoil anything. Hopefully I’ve piqued your interest enough that you’ll want to check it out, and after you’ve read it, you can come back here and discuss it in detail.

[Audio version of this post available below]

Jane Got a Gun premiered on January 29, 2016. I had been looking forward to it since I learned of its existence, and with the film finally, finally hitting the big screen, of course I had to see it on opening day. It was a bright, unseasonably warm day for winter in Ohio, and I went to the nearby AMC for an afternoon show in a nearly-deserted theater.

I enjoyed the film from the start. It was not just good, it was surprisingly good. Then, at a certain point, about halfway through the film, the drama reached a critical point, and I can distinctly remember thinking, “Oh, no–I certainly hope they’re not going to…”

But hold up a minute. I’m getting ahead of myself, diving right in to the memories and not putting things in the right order. Like the film’s heroine Jane Ballard (Natalie Portman) says at one point, “It’s hard to remember how things seemed… when you know how they actually turned out.”

Jane silhouette

***

The behind-the-scenes story of Jane Got a Gun begins in 2012, with a script by Brian Duffield, to be distributed by Relativity Media, directed by Lynne Ramsay and starring Natalie Portman. Michael Fassbender was cast in the role of Dan Frost, Jane’s former fiancé. However, Fassbender soon left the part, and was replaced by Joel Edgerton, who had originally been cast as the villain, John Bishop. Jude Law and Bradley Cooper were both briefly on board, before finally Ewan McGregor was cast as Bishop. In the middle of all this, Ramsay left the production less than amicably, causing more turmoil that was resolved in part thanks to the timely intercession of lawyer David Boies.

Ramsay was replaced by Gavin O’Connor. O’Connor, Edgerton and screenwriter Anthony Tambakis then re-wrote Duffield’s script, and filming finally took place in 2013. The filming itself seems to have gone smoothly–in the words of Edgerton, “We’re winning out there.”

Relativity Media had initially scheduled the film for a February 2015 release. But it was delayed, and Relativity filed for bankruptcy in mid-2015. Fortunately, there was another studio that had agreed to distribute the film, and the rights to Jane Got a Gun were released from Relativity and secured by the Weinstein Company, which scheduled the film for distribution.

The Paris premiere was scheduled for November 15, 2015, but was canceled due to the November 13 terrorist attacks. The film finally premiered in Germany in late December 2015, and in France and the United States in January 2016.

Of course, I can’t talk about a Weinstein Company film without also talking about the infamous film producer, who was then about a year away from being publicly disgraced. One of the many unsavory aspects of Harvey Weinstein’s personality that came to light after his downfall was that he would occasionally sabotage his own company’s films. I have no idea if anything like that happened with Jane Got a Gun, but the decision not to screen the film for critics can’t have helped its chances, and undoubtedly contributed to its poor showing at the box office.

It was a film dogged at every step by negativity, with only cursory promotional efforts, in a relatively unpopular genre, and hamstrung by a misleading title that makes it sound more like a fast-paced action picture than what it really is.

And after all that, it was gone as soon as it had come. It was only in theaters for about three weeks and grossed about $3 million against a $25 million budget.

As anyone who followed my blog at the time knows, I loved the movie. I wrote a glowing review. Two glowing reviews, actually, because I wrote about it again in more detail when it came out on home media. And owing, I suspect, to the scarcity of other reviews, these were some of my most-viewed posts ever.

Which speaks to the fact that a major reason it wasn’t more successful is that not many movie-goers ever knew it existed. And I’d argue that the reasons not many movie-goers knew it existed can tell us a lot about the movie business, the entertainment industry as a whole, and American culture generally.

That sounds like quite a leap, I know. (Or, as Dan Frost would say, a “very big jump, my friend.”) To begin with, let’s talk about why Jane Got a Gun is significant to me.

***

Jane
Jane Ballard (Natalie Portman)

Natalie Portman is probably my favorite actress, and part of the reason for that, as I’ve discussed before, is her willingness to experiment. She doesn’t let herself be typecast, but is willing to play all sorts of different roles in different kinds of movies. I respect this risk-taking. Portman films aren’t always good, but they are almost always interesting.

I also like movies that take place in remote, bleak desert settings, and the New Mexico landscapes of Jane Got a Gun are just gorgeous to my eye. While I could do without the washed-out lens filter, the sweeping vistas and extraordinary rock formations make the setting instantly compelling.

I went into Jane Got a Gun hoping to see Natalie Portman in a good old-fashioned western adventure, and as a bonus, see the always-entertaining Ewan McGregor as a villain I loved to hate. And I got all that–but the movie surprised me at the same time, even while delivering on all fronts. How is that possible?

Time for one of my Socratic movie quizzes: what’s Jane Got a Gun about?

Okay, since many of you haven’t seen it, I’ll give you the cliffs-notes summary answer. It’s not the real answer, of course, but you know what I’m like. And anyway, a little plot synopsis will be handy to have as you read this.

Jane Got a Gun is about Jane Ballard, a woman who was kidnapped by a gang of criminals, escaped with the help of a man whom she married and built a new life with, only to find herself once again pursued by the gang, and forced to seek help from her ex-fiancé, Dan Frost, whom she had until recently believed died in the Civil War.

Dan on Ridge
Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) gazes forlornly down from a ridge.

Ah, Dan Frost. He’s as good a place as any to start with where this movie surprised me. Previously, I knew Joel Edgerton as young Uncle Owen in the Star Wars prequels, where he has about two minutes of screen time and does nothing but stand around and hold a dirty rag.

After you watch Jane Got a Gun, it’s impossible to watch the scenes with Owen in Attack of the Clones the same way. In the scene from Star Wars, Portman and Edgerton are both unremarkable, standing vacantly with no lines or “stage business” to do. In Jane Got a Gun, every scene between the two is filled with tension–Edgerton can convey so much emotion with simply an expression, or a grunt, or a small gesture. And as Edgerton said of his co-star’s talents, “We’ve actually coined the phrase ‘The Portman’ to describe how she can say a line without saying a word, just with a look.”

This illustrates one way in which Jane Got a Gun runs contrary to modern sensibilities. Characters–especially the good characters–do not wear their hearts on their sleeves, but for the most part behave with reserve and restraint. We only see Jane and Dan kiss in flashbacks–circumstances dictate they must keep their feelings controlled, and the few glimpses we see of their emotions bubbling close to the surface are moments of intense drama. Even as they prepare to fight for their lives, the couple is reminded constantly of their past.

One good example of this is the transition from Jane’s memory of a carefree afternoon with her fiancé back in Missouri to the grim present, as the sweaty, tired figure of her former lover takes a break from digging a defensive trench to check the vast desolation for any sign of the Bishop gang. Without a word being spoken, Portman’s face and the soundtrack convey the bittersweetness of remembering happier times.

Jane and Dan
Jane and Dan, in a flashback

***

I’ve lent my copy of Jane Got a Gun to a great many friends, at first just out of a sense of wanting to share something I enjoyed, and over time out of an interest in the different reactions they would have to it. Some of them have loved it as much as I do. Others thought it was just middling, still others have called it boring and bad.  One friend told me he thought it was dull, but that perhaps that was an intentional choice, to capture the slower pace of life in the 1870s. Another friend of mine, who generally hates any movie made after 1965, complained about the lens filter but said his wife called the character of Jane Ballard “just about perfect.”

I’ve seen the movie enough times that it gallops by, but at the same time I guess I can understand how some would find it slow… sort of. Well, maybe. No, not really.

Here’s the thing: if you’re used to loud, fast, big, action-packed spectacles of movies, then I guess this would seem slow. And yeah, the title does imply that’s what this film is going to be. A pulse-pounding Wild West shoot-’em-up with a female gunslinger, kind of like the 2006 film Bandidas. Maybe that’s the kind of movie Duffield’s script originally called for. And there’s nothing wrong with that kind of movie. I like Bandidas.

But Jane Got a Gun isn’t that kind of movie. It’s mostly quiet, punctuated by a few moments of intense action. There are no over-the-top special effects or stunt-work. Because it’s not about the action scenes; not really. That’s why the title is so misleading. To say nothing of some of the posters…

(If you’ve ever wondered if people who make movie posters have to watch the movie beforehand, the answer is pretty clearly “no.”)

Jane Got a Gun is not about guns, even though there are guns in it. It’s not about Jane avenging the wrong that was done to her, although that does happen. It’s not about a frontierswoman proving herself just as adept a sharpshooter as the men, although that also happens.

Jane Got a Gun is actually about listening to other people.

***

I think 2016 will be remembered as a very significant year in history. I mean, every year is significant to a historian, since they are all part of a linked causal chain of events, but 2016 is going to be one of those dates that everyone will know, like 1776, 1865, 1939, and 1968.

2016 was the year when the American political system and the unending noise machine of modern communication combined to produce systemic shocks right to the heart of our centuries-old system of government. In 2016, all the fissures and divides across the nation were laid bare, and the repercussions are still being felt, and will be for decades; perhaps centuries to come.

2016 was the year that people shouting at each other through mass media finally, irrevocably, unforgettably, changed the landscape of American politics.

What does this have to do with Jane Got a Gun?

You know how sometimes you’ll hear about how a movie perfectly evokes the “mood” of a certain time? What pretentious critics, like me, call the “zeitgeist?” For example, how Taxi Driver supposedly captured the rebellious alienation of the 1970s.

Jane Got a Gun does the opposite of that. Jane Got a Gun is like if you captured the essential spirit of 2016, and then made something that was in every way the antithesis of it.

Jane and Dan’s relationship changes when they stop arguing and start listening. Dan’s relationship with Jane’s husband, Bill Hammond, changes when he stops making assumptions and listens to what Jane says about him. Even at the climax of the film, when Jane finally confronts John Bishop, she waits to hear what he says before bringing him to justice–and is rewarded for doing so.

It’s a quiet, old-fashioned movie, about the importance of understanding and reconciling with other people. There are villains, yes; but the real drama of Jane Got a Gun is in the relationship between Jane and Dan. It’s more of a romance than an action film, but a romance set against the backdrop of bleak and desolate frontier; a society being built in the shadow of a nation ravaged by war.

Bishop
John Bishop (Ewan McGregor)

It’s not a Civil War movie, but the recent war has clearly left its mark on the characters, in all sorts of ways, as when the aristocratic John Bishop (who clearly avoided serving on either side) jovially shows off his war souvenirs to Frost. He casually tells the former soldier, while regarding an officer’s pistol used at the battle of Shiloh: “Shiloh means ‘place of peace’ in Hebrew.” Frost, having become all too familiar with the horrors of war, grimly replies, “Ain’t nothin’ peaceful about Shiloh.”

Much of the film is about coming to terms with the after-effects of something horrible, whether it’s Jane overcoming what Bishop and his gang did to her, or Dan overcoming his suffering in a prison camp. And that’s why it’s set in the post-war West, when the country was struggling to build anew, after enduring trauma.

Jane Got a Gun is a film about healing. It’s hard to imagine a film more out of sync with the atmosphere of 2016.

***

In an interview promoting the film, Portman described it as “very American.” Indeed, I’d argue that Jane Got a Gun is possibly one of the most quintessentially American movies made since the turn of the century. It’s a Western, which is the stereotypically American genre. It’s about a pivotal period in the nation’s history–essentially, a re-founding period when the modern United States was being created.

And to quote from the production notes:

Jane Got a Gun was created by an international grouping of cast and filmmakers including Australians Joel Edgerton and director of photography Mandy Walker, Scottish actor Ewan McGregor, Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, and Irish dialect coach Gerry Grinnell-all bringing to new perspectives to the classic American Western.

Portman offers, “It’s always wonderful when people make art in unfamiliar surroundings. Tolstoy’s theory is about how art is about making things strange, and with an Australian and a Brazilian on board it’s already strange and so it’s immediately art. That’s why Sergio Leone made such great Westerns – to have that completely different, non-American vision of the West.”

Put all this together with the production difficulties, and you have a behind-the-scenes narrative that’s nearly as much of a romanticized vision of America as the classic Western genre itself. In my second blog post about the film, I wrote:

Jane Got a Gun evokes the best of the American frontier mythology: hope and triumph in the face of harsh and unforgiving circumstances. That it has such a diverse international cast and crew only adds to this feeling, as people of different nations coming together is very much the story of America itself.

There have been times when I think about these kinds of assertions and wonder, “Am I overstating this? Reading too much into it; seeing things that aren’t there?” I’ve been known to do that sometimes, so it’s certainly possible.

But then there’s this behind-the-scenes photo:

Jane Flag
Left to right: Edgerton, Portman and Tambakis. Source

***

Does Jane Got a Gun still matter? Maybe that’s the wrong question. With the exceptions of the people who made it and me, it’s not clear that Jane Got a Gun mattered much to anybody in January 2016.

Does it matter to anyone else now, five years later?

This is the part where I’m supposed to say something like, ‘I’d argue that it does, because…’ or something of the sort. Certainly, it would be pretty rotten of me to lead you all the way down this particularly winding memory lane only to tell you no, it doesn’t matter.

But I can’t answer the question. It’s your call to make, dear reader; not mine. Pretentious critics–again, like me–think we can persuade people, that we can shape tastes, that we can, in some sense, tell people what to think of a film, or a book, or a painting. But we can’t. All we can really do is describe the complex, personal reactions that we have to art.

***

The really key scene in Jane Got a Gun; the one that I think is the emotional heart of it, is the one I mentioned at the start of this post, where for a moment, I was concerned the plot would go in a really stupid direction. It’s the scene where Jane walks out to Dan as he’s digging a defensive trench. Seeing him again has brought back a lot of memories for Jane, and she wants to try to smooth things over with him, on what could be their last day alive. So she says, “Why’d you change your mind to help me?”

Jane knows the answer, of course; and so does Dan: he loves her, even though he thinks she left him for another man, even though he’s probably going to die because of her–he loves her. But Dan is still furious at her, and besides which, she’s married. So he can’t say it, instead grumbling, “I dunno.”

This escalates to a tense discussion in which the two former lovers rehash their past, and all the choices that led them here, each one increasingly blaming the other, until finally Jane says, “You know what, Dan…”

I thought she was going to tell him to leave. I foresaw the most hackneyed Hollywood story imaginable: Jane tells him to get lost, Dan rides off in a huff, only to ride back in at the 11th hour and save the day.

But that didn’t happen. What happened instead is what sets Jane Got a Gun apart.

***

In an interview with Elle magazine in 2013–shortly after filming wrapped on Jane Got a GunPortman said:

The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a “feminist” story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.

One of the contemporary criticisms of Jane Got a Gun was exactly this–that Jane doesn’t single-handedly go in guns-blazing and wipe out Bishop and his gang. Jane Ballard isn’t a one-woman army, and if she were, the film would be worse for it. She fights back, but she does so in a way that makes her relatable.

She is, in other words, “a real person that we can empathize with.”

The film works, or doesn’t, to the extent that the audience is prepared to empathize with the characters. That might be true of most films, although I’d hesitate to say “all films”–there are some that pretty clearly rely solely on spectacle or nostalgia or fan service to sell themselves. That’s one reason Hollywood loves their sequels and franchises so much: it’s easier to expect audiences to continue following characters they already know.

Jane Got a Gun is a throwback to another era of filmmaking. That much is obvious just by virtue of it being a Western. Westerns used to be a staple of Hollywood in the 1950s and ’60s, but have since become increasingly rare. It’s also a throwback in its self-contained nature. Even if it had been a financial success, it’s hard to imagine it spawning a “Jane Ballard” franchise.

It’s a good match for me, because I am a throwback to a different era of filmgoer. I follow movie stars more than franchises, much as audiences did at the height of classic cinema. I saw Jane Got a Gun because it had Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor in it. (And after seeing it, I watched a bunch of Joel Edgerton films.)

I love the film for the cast’s expressive performances, that communicate so much in so few words. I love the haunting, melancholy soundtrack.  I love the vast, sprawling desert setting that is both harsh and beautiful. I love the tight, spare script, that takes us on a journey that is at times very dark, but ultimately uplifting. I’m not ashamed to say I think I could recite the entire film from memory, but I’ll end this retrospective by quoting just two more lines.

The first is the one that I’ve been teasing you with throughout this review. The one that encapsulates the film’s theme–the empathetic optimism that enables Jane to triumph over all the darkness in her life. The line she says after, “You know what, Dan…” The script might have gone any number of directions just then, and maybe in previous iterations, it did.

But what Jane says next is the insight that makes me come back to it again and again, that makes it a film so blatantly out of step with the cultural mood of its epoch, and so wonderfully timeless. After everything she’s suffered, all the misery she’s had to endure, Jane takes a deep breath to collect herself and says to her former lover:

You might want to see a day where the sun don’t just shine on your story. Because there is a whole world out there of other people’s tales, if you just care and listen.

To which, dear reader, I will append only these words, that Dan says to Bill Hammond at a particularly tense moment:

…and I want you to think about that with the shank of time that you’ve got left.

***

Spellbound SpindleThis fantasy novel begins with a group of magical beings known as “gem elves,” who are betrayed by one of their own, Marlis, who has become a servant of a dark goddess named Gadreena. 

Marlis slays one of the elves, and flees into the mortal world. There, she curses a child. The curse mandates that the child will fall into an endless sleep once they turn 16 years of age and touch an accursed spindle. 

The gem elves provide help to the family that raises the child, but they are unable to track down Marlis, whom they cannot sense in the mortal world. Eventually, sixteen years later, the gem elves and the mortal families are again drawn into conflict with Marlis, who has been hiding in another kingdom, and seducing their king with her dark magic.

I don’t read a lot of fantasy, partly because so often it’s very slow-going. Refreshingly, this book, like Spicer’s other novels, moves at a brisk pace and doesn’t bog down. There are perhaps some elements that could have been more fleshed-out, and there is a rather large cast of characters. As Lydia Schoch noted in her review, it’s helpful to make notes of all the characters to keep track.

As with Spicer’s other books, I appreciate the sparse descriptions that allow the reader to imagine the world for themselves. 

My favorite parts were the chapters about Marlis who, though undeniably evil, isn’t simply a cardboard villain, but shows flashes of real emotion that make her understandable, if not exactly sympathetic.

This is a fun read, filled with references to mythology and legend, as well as some good old-fashioned sword and sorcery in the climactic showdown. A good book for anyone who enjoys fantasy.

Thank you so much for reading The Lurge Robot Factory Adventure. It was a ton of fun to write, and posting it in this chapter-a-week format seemed to work out well.

This is the first time I’ve written a detective story, and I’ll level with you: it was nerve-wracking for me posting it piecemeal. Every week, especially towards the end, I was thinking, “Oh no, what if people hate this next bit?” On the plus side, there was a plot hole that I thought of in early August, which I was able to address before the last chapter went up. In mysteries, especially, one  mistake by the author can ruin the whole thing.

To my great relief, people seem to have enjoyed how the story ended up. I posted the whole thing on one page, with a hyperlinked table of contents, here. There was an issue with the chapter menu I’d created with the blog posts–it didn’t sort the chapters properly, because apparently the algorithm puts “Chapter 10” between “Chapter 1” and “Chapter 2”. It looked silly, so I figured I’d better come up with a more convenient way to read it. I will also look into publishing it on KDP and/or Smashwords at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Once again, thank you all for reading and sharing the story on social media. You are, as always, the best!

TLRFA-Epilogue

“You know, Venus,” Sandra, sipping chablis from her coffee mug, her feet propped on the couch. “I owe you an apology.”

After wrapping things up with Mrs. Lurge and McIntyre—both of whom had exchanged apologies for assuming the worst about the other—the two detectives had been lounging around the office chatting and making a impromptu toast with a bottle of wine they discovered in the back of the office fridge. 

“How do you figure?” said Venus, swishing her wine around in her glass. “You cracked the case, and saved me and Max from ten different kinds of embarrassment.”

“She has a knack for that,” Max added. “Sandra, I know I always say it, but you never fail to dazzle me.”

“Do you always say it? You could say it a bit more and I wouldn’t mind,” she said with a grin, but her expression turned serious again as she looked back at Venus. “No, it’s true; I should have figured it out much sooner than I did. The only reason I didn’t was because of the fact I was so paranoid and so jealous—I saw you as a threat, you know that?”

“A threat? Me?”

“I did. I thought, ‘well, great, Max has brought in this babe to replace me,’ when I should’ve just taken you at your word. And you know, I think it distracted me-I let myself get off my game.”

“Well, you more than made up for it,” said Venus.

“Thank you. Now, you know what would hit the spot right about now?”

“Hmm?”

“Pizza. I seem to recall you mentioning something about cheese pizza.”

Venus practically jumped out of her chair. “Yes! Great idea!”

 “Well, how’s about it, Max?” Sandra asked. “Can you put in the order?”

“What, with company money?” he asked reproachfully. “I don’t know, ladies—I’m already letting you drink on company time.”

“Oh, come on; we’ve earned ourselves a treat after last night!” said Venus.

“Well, yes, but you know I can’t be too much of a spendthrift.”

Sandra winked at Venus. “Well, all right then, let’s just talk about somethin’ that’s been on my mind lately. Somethin’ you said the other day, Max, about this case—it was ‘close to home’ I believe you said.”

“I believe I did.”

“Well, y’know, I been thinking: you’re always doing a million different things, wearing all these hats at once, seems like you know everybody who’s anybody.”

“And you’re wondering just where I am—where does a suave, sophisticated fellow set up a base of operations to juggle all these things at once, right?”

“Well, sorta, yeah,” she said. “But actually—well, no sense beatin’ around the bush: I was wondering if you, uh, let’s say, know anything about a network-distributed crime-fighting artificial intelligence. Charlie said they’d been working on something like that at the Lurge place back in the day. Before that kind of thing was outlawed, of course. That sounds like something you would maybe have, uh, heard about. I mean, an AI like that would be in a predicament similar to Venus’, and would probably feel a heap of sympathy for her. So I was just curious.”

There was a long pause, during which Venus and Sandra exchanged knowing grins and raised their eyebrows expectantly.

“What kind of pizza did you say you want?” Max said at last.

THE END

TLRFA-11

“Where in the wide world is she?” Max demanded.

“She said she needed to get something,” said Venus. “She said she’d explain when she got here.”

Max gave an exasperated sigh. “All right, well, let’s get this show on the road.”

“I hope you will start by explaining why you’ve brought that man here!” Mrs. Lurge was seated once more in the Pallindrone Agency office. This time, however, the opposite guest seat was occupied by Mr. McIntyre. His secretary was there, as well; she hovered nervously behind McIntyre.

“Yes—why have you brought me here?” McIntyre growled. 

“Max has his reasons,” replied one of the policemen who stood guard by the door. 

“He always does—and usually, he’s got another lady with him to run these things.” said the other.

“Guess he traded up for a new model,” the first one whispered in reply.

“Sandra will join us shortly,” Max said, in a tone of rebuke. “Now, Mrs. Lurge what I am about bring up will be painful for you, but I’m afraid I need to ask these questions. First of all, were you aware of your husband’s relationship with Miss Ritter?”

Mrs. Lurge’s face, previously flushed with anger, now turned very pale. “Yes,” she croaked after a pause. “Yes, I was.”

“And his payments to her?”

She lowered her gaze, away from the table on which Max’s comm. base station was located. 

“Yes… that too.”

“Why did you not tell us this pertinent information before?”

“Well, you can see, surely, it’s very embarrassing to…”

“Yes, of course,” said Max, “And yet you know that we were being sent in pursuit of truth, and to find truth, we must have all the facts. Which leads me to another point: why didn’t you tell us that you had been made sole head of Lurge robotics prior to your husband’s death?”

“Well, it… didn’t seem important.”

“Not important! And why not?”

“Surely all the details of my client’s divorce are not pertinent, and I object…” began the attorney.

“Objection overruled,” said Max blithely, and went on. “And why were you so named?”

“The fact is,” the widow said, and now tears were beginning to form in her eyes. “It was Lothar’s idea. He said I’d always been more passionate about the factory than he was.”

“I can affirm that it was at Mr. Lurge’s insistence that the change was made,” the lawyer added. 

“Thank you. Now then, Mr. McIntyre,” Max said, causing the aforementioned to twitch in his seat, “You acknowledge that you were at the Lurge robotics factory on the night in question?”

“I, uh, well,” he said, glancing around for Suzanne. “Yes, I was. At Lurge’s invitation, I should note.”

“So you claim, although we have no proof of this. But you never entered the factory?”

“No—I stopped outside, about halfway, and turned around.”

“Why?”

McIntyre paused. “Well, to tell you the truth, I didn’t like the look of it. Weird noises, you know, coming from the place. It felt odd to me, I couldn’t imagine what Lurge needed to tell me, and I got cold feet.”

“Mm hmm,” Max said. “Understandable, and in light of subsequent events, a good decision. All indications are, the robots were running amok in the factory, and yet,” here Max paused significantly, “The robots could only be activated from Mr. Lurge’s office, and only deactivated by a voice command from factory employees.”

“Well,  they obviously malfunctioned!” Mrs. Lurge exclaimed. “After what this woman,” she gestured somewhat frantically Venus, “told us about last night, it’s obvious they weren’t working properly.”

“Which would lead us to believe that Mr. Lurge’s death was an accident, yes. And yet you, Mrs. Lurge, have gone to some trouble to tell us that it was Mr. McIntyre who killed him.”

McIntyre’s eyes bulged, and he rose from his seat with an expression of fury. “What!” he snapped, “How dare you! How dare you—”

“Calm down, Mr. McIntyre,” Max said coolly. “Getting agitated will only drag this out.”

Mrs. Lurge was sobbing now. “All I know,” she gasped between anguished moans, “Is Lothar was convinced you were up to no good. He was always on about it.”

McIntyre’s expression of rage only deepened. “Listen here, you—” 

“Sorry I’m late!” Sandra called out, breezing into the room, “We had to make a quick stop!”

Trailing behind her, looking a little pale but with the remnants of his familiar smirk, was Charlie. 

Venus gasped. Mrs. Lurge, unaccountably, seemed comforted by Charlie’s arrival.Mr. McIntyre exchanged a puzzled glance with Suzanne. Lurge’s lawyer looked bewildered. The policemen merely waved subdued “hellos” to her. 

Finally, Max spoke. “What took you, Sandy? We’re just about coming to the end of the line here.”

“Sorry I didn’t have time to explain, but I think there’s a fork in the road, Max. Where are we at?” she asked, pulling her desk chair over to join the group. She frowned when she noticed the chair was heaped with paperwork. 

“Well, Mrs. Lurge is unable to account for why she didn’t give us the pertinent facts when we were hired to perform this investigation. I was just asking her to explain her reasons for repeatedly accusing Mr. McIntyre, and again, she is unable to explain. The circumstantial evidence, meanwhile—“

“I didn’t kill him!” the woman burst out. “Oh, we fought, sure, but I would never, never…”

“Mrs. Lurge,” said Sandra, resting a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Calm down, please. You’re still our client, and we are here to help you, as long as doing so does not interfere with the course of justice. Now, I need you to watch something.”

Through her tears, Mrs. Lurge nodded, and Sandra held up her cell. Venus walked behind the sofa and looked over her shoulder. 

“Why, it’s that ghost video…” said Venus in confusion, her eyes flitting to Charlie, who was sidling over towards McIntyre’s secretary.

Again, they watched as the ghost hunter deployed his ectoplasmic aural spectrometer, and played back the weird noises it recorded. 

Mrs. Lurge looked at Sandra, baffled. “Yes—those ghost hunts were one of our biggest money-makers. Great publicity, too. Lothar was always happy to have them come in, any hour of the day or night.”

Sandra nodded and smiled. “Helped keep the company afloat, and then some, right?”

“Right…” Mrs. Lurge said uncomprehendingly.

“Sandra, where are you going with this?” Max asked. 

“All that ghost stuff—that was really what was keeping ya’ll’s bread buttered, wasn’t it?” Sandra continued. “But, did you ever really know how, Mrs. Lurge?”

Mrs. Lurge shook her head in bewilderment. “All I know is, it became a popular thing, especially in the last couple years or so.”

“Sandra… are you okay?” Venus asked hesitantly. “You look a little tired.”

Sandra shot her a devilish grin. She began to pace, taking a small tube of lip balm from her pocket and applying it liberally.

“Well, yes,” she admitted. “Something came to me as I was going home last night, right after I dropped you off, Venus. And I was lying awake into the wee small hours, thinking it over. And then I had to be up early to get Charlie here and check out my little idea.”

What idea, Sandy?” Max asked, a touch of impatience creeping into his voice.

“Let me back up a little,” Sandra said, pacing back and forth. “Mr. Lurge was making a pretty penny off of the Haunt-omaton tours. Except it’s not so pretty, once you factor in he’s making payments to keep his Miss Ritter up in style. So, he had to up the game a bit—needed to bring in even more revenue.”

 “Now, we must also remember that Mr. Lurge is trying to…” she caught herself. “That the Lurges are divorcing.  But he’s got to keep his Miss Ritter up in style, and giving the Missus half of the robot factory money doesn’t sit too well with him.” 

“So, what does he do? Well, a couple things. First, he enters negotiations to strike a deal with the state to turn the place into a ‘historical site,’ knowing that deal will go through right as Mrs. Lurge is taking over the factory.”

Every eye in the room was on Sandra; even Charlie’s.

“Now, that’s all well and good. He’s got enough socked away he can high-tail it outta town. And that’s where it it turns into a really black-hearted, mean-spirited, vile kind of a scheme.”

Sandra shook her head, and looked out the window thoughtfully. “Crazy. Imagine all the work; all the plotting—and to have it all undone by one simple little oversight.”

“Sandra…” said Max.

She turned back to face her audience.  “Here’s what Mr. Lurge did: he’s put his wife in charge of the company and he’s made arrangements to let the state run their operations. And what’s more he’s gone to some pains to ensure that if any fault is found with the product or the location, the blame will be on the owner.”

She raised an eyebrow at the lawyer. “Isn’t that so?”

“Erm, that is correct, yes.”

Sandra nodded. “And so he decides there will indeed be a fault with the product, in the sense that the robots will suddenly and inexplicably malfunction—and when they do, they will kill Mr. McIntyre—whom our Mr. Lurge invited over for a chat that night. One stone, two birds—Mrs. Lurge ruined, and Mr. McIntyre dead.”

Venus whistled under her breath as she followed Sandra’s explanation.

 Sandra nodded. “And so, Mr. Lurge goes to the factory, leaving the back door unlocked so McIntyre will enter that way. He waits in his office until late that night, and then, at the critical point, he’ll go down and activate the robots, and order them to cut Mr. McIntyre to pieces. Then he’ll flee the scene, with his rival dead, and the company in shambles!”

She paused for breath. Every jaw in the room was hanging open. McIntyre looked at Mrs. Lurge. The policemen looked at each other. Venus looked at Sandra. Charlie looked at Venus. 

“Okay, Sandy,” Max said finally. “I’ll admit that what you’re saying does fit the observable facts, but here’s the thing: if you’re right, then all this just takes us back to what the police said from the beginning—nothing more than an accident. Unless you’re going to tell me Mr. Lurge decided to kill himself.”

Sandra gave a little chuckle. “Well, yes and no, Max. You’re right, it was an accident. But it wasn’t really a problem of faulty technology. More of an, ah, operator error. And that’s where all this ghost business comes in. Charlie!” she called, causing the young man to pull his eyes away from Suzanne.

“Tell us, if you would, how the Lurge infantry assault bots identify friend or foe.” Sandra prompted.

“What? Uh, well, they use a sonic sensor that detects voice patterns to recognize Lurge personnel.”

“And, if there’s some sort of interference?”

“Well, if there’s a strong signal that overwhelms them—yeah, then they go into attack mode. They think they’re being hit with sonic disruptors, like the enemy bots used in the war.”

“And, just to clarify for everybody,” Sandra added. “Those ‘sonic disruptors’ could emit noises that people wouldn’t hear. Just bots, right?”

“Uh… yeah.”

“Thank you very much,” Sandra said with a nod, and then reached into her purse. She extracted a small, silver disk which she set on the table. “All right, Chief of Security, now tell everyone what this is.”

Charlie assumed his smuggest manner. “That is a Lurge security device. Mr. Lurge told me he had ’em made special. Right now, it’s on battery backup, of course.” He glanced around the room, happy to be the center of attention. “Normally, there’s twenty or so like this, all wired into the Lurge factory power system—”

“Which, I should point out, causes the lights outside to flicker when the system is active.” Sandra interjected.

She then set her phone next to it, and pressed the button at the center. There was no immediate result, and the rest of the occupants of the room waited. She held out her phone, and pointed out that its signal strength was at zero.

“Max?” She said. “What do you think?”

There was silence.

“Max?” Venus asked.

Sandra released the button. “How about now, Max?”

“Ah, sorry, Sandy—I lost audio there for a minute. What did you say?”

Sandra was grinning widely now. “See, that’s the key: Mr. Lurge’s ‘security system’ was no such thing. It was actually a broadcasting signal, meant to lure in the spook huntin’ crowd. If we had an ‘ectoplasmic aural spectrometer,’ I have no doubt I’d have recorded a few ghostly voices just now. That’s why I was held up this morning—I grabbed Charlie and we dropped by the old factory again this morning to check it out. Sure enough, when the ‘security system’ and the robots come on at the same time—the bots go bananas.”

“Sandra, that’s… amazing,” said Venus. She ran through what she had just learned for a moment. “So Mr. Lurge found a way to capitalize on the ghost stories about the place.”

Sandra nodded. “No offense to our friend here,” she said with a nod to Charlie, “But I think that’s  why he wanted a guard who was, ah, inclined to believe in the paranormal. He knew he wouldn’t look into it too closely.”

“But, if what you’re saying is true, wouldn’t the bots have freaked out before now?”

Sandra shook her head. “See, those things are only powered up for demos, during the daytime or the scheduled Haunt-omaton tours. And the security system —the ‘ghost’ noise system, in other words—only comes on at night, when nobody but ghost hunters is coming near the place. Isn’t that so, Charlie?”

He nodded. “Yeah… that was what Old M… Mr. Lurge always told me. He said that as night guard, it was my number one job to keep the security system up and running.”

“Mm hmm,” said Sandra. “But what it was really securing was the factory’s reputation for being haunted. When these ghost hunters drop by, they’d get all kinds of weird noises. And so, the factory made a name for itself, and all the tourist money that came along with it. That, by the way, is why Lurge had to cut expenses on things like lights and heating and cooling—it takes a lot of juice to run something to broadcast a signal like that from one of these things.” 

Sandra set aside the little silver device, and then applied a bit more balm to her lip before she continued: “So, there really was no malfunction—Mr. Lurge’s robots performed like you’d expect them to, once they’re being hit from all around by a powerful signal. And so, his plan to ruin his wife, murder his rival, and run off with his mistress all blew up in his face. When he went down there to give his robots orders to take out Mr. McIntyre, they were already going haywire—and all because of a little parlor trick to rake in some extra cash.”

“Well… I suppose that makes sense,” said Max slowly. “But if that’s the case, I would have thought Venus would–ah, that is to say–I mean…” he trailed off, not wanting to say more in front of the others.

Sandra grinned again. “You think Venus would have heard the signal? Yeah, I thought about that too. But for all her outstanding abilities, she’s only human, Max. You can’t expect her to behave like a robot, for goodness’ sakes!”

Venus looked appreciatively at Sandra. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lurge and Mr. McIntyre were both blinking and looking dumbfounded. 

“But…” Mrs. Lurge said at last, “I just can’t imagine Lothar would do that.”

Venus looked her sympathetically and gave her a gentle pat on the shoulder. “Am I right in thinking he did a lot of things you didn’t think he’d do? It can be tough to imagine what… other folks… can get up to.”

Mrs. Lurge nodded slowly.

“Well, personally, I don’t find it a bit weird that the old so-and-so would pull something like this,” McIntyre said. “What I don’t get is how he could have made such a mistake! I mean, really; how could he not have thought of that?”

Sandra spread her hands and shrugged. “Well, I can only hazard a guess, but Charlie over there said that one time Lurge told him, ‘there’s stuff in there I don’t understand.’ I think he was trying to scare the kid a bit, but truth be told, I don’t think our Mr. Lurge was all that savvy about robotics. He took over the company because he had a head for business, not technology. I think he thought the big money was to be made in other ways. After all,” she added, aiming her sweetest smile at McIntyre, “Doesn’t every businessman have to find creative ways to stay afloat?”

McIntyre swallowed and made no reply.

“So ultimately…” said Max slowly, as if summing the case, “Lurge’s greed foiled his vindictiveness.”

Sandra gave another little chuckle. “In some sense, I guess, two wrongs made a right.”

TLRFA-10

Sandra fought to control her churning stomach. Charlie meanwhile was forced to surrender in his theater of the war on nausea, and ejected a foul-smelling pool on to his shirt front. Sandra staggered to her feet and approached the door, but it refused to budge.

“Why the hell won’t this open?”

“Why the hell should it?” Charlie gasped back. “You want that thing to come in here and kill us faster?”

“Kid, I’ll take my chances with some ghost any day,” she said. “Listen.”

Charlie did. At the closed factory door could be heard the metallic pounding of the assault bots battering the door. 

“How do I open the damn door?” Sandra growled through gritted teeth. 

“You have to… deactivate the motion security system,” he said finally. “The whole joint is locked down when the system is on.”

“Great. How do I do that?”

Charlie’s eyes darted from the increasingly-darkening parking lot outside, to the door behind him, which was beginning to creak and bend under the pressure of repeated blows from the assault bots.

“Tell her, kid!” Venus barked, attempting to struggled to her feet.

“Enter 123 on the keypad by my desk,” he blurted. 

“Oh, my God,” Sandra said. Despite everything else, she formed the thought What on earth did Lurge see in this kid? Shakily, she stepped to the desk and began to punch in the code. 

Her finger had just hit the “3” when the door to the factory gave with an ear-splitting shriek of metal wrenching from metal, and the assault bots began to surge into the breach, weapons raised.

Venus tried to stand, but collapsed to the ground. Charlie yelled “No!” in terror and threw up again. Sandra gripped the edge of the desk for support.

The infantry bots stood still, frozen for a moment. Sandra wondered if time was slowing, as it sometimes does during moments of life-threatening catastrophe. But then she realized the machines had in fact stopped, and were now lowering their weapons, and beginning to return whence they had come.

“Well, this is a break,” said Venus blandly, as the hulking machines marched away.

“I don’t get it,” Sandra said. “But I’ll take it.”

Charlie, who was still a shuddering mass on the ground, gurgled something about the Eidolon.

“Doesn’t look like it’s a problem to me,” said Sandra, jerking her head in the direction of the parking lot, where the lights were now blazing at full power, their reflections glinting off of the asphalt, still wet from the recent downpour.

Charlie looked around suspiciously.

“What in the name of all that’s holy happened in there, ladies?” Max’s voice asked. “Last I heard you where leaving Lurge’s office; after that it was all garbled.”

“Long story,” Venus said. “We’ll tell you on the way out of here.”

She had recovered enough to stand, and together she and Sandra advanced out of the door—which slid open as soon as they approached—and into the cool night air, Charlie following nervously behind them, glancing around as though expecting to be attacked at any moment. The two investigators were on edge as well, though they feared attack from physical entities rather than any phantoms. But nothing waylaid them as they crossed the wet pavement, and they reached Sandra’s orange hatchback without incident.

Sandra slid into the pilot’s seat, and Venus entered beside her. 

“Should we give the kid a ride?” Venus asked.

Sandra glanced at him dubiously, but jerked her head in the direction of the rear cargo area, indicating he could ride if he wanted.

“Wait a sec. There’s got to be a towel back there. Clean yourself up a little and throw the towel in the trunk.” 

“Thanks,” he said softly, squeezing himself in between the shopping bags, camping gear, beach supplies, and other objects that Sandra preferred to store in the car rather than carry into her home. “I didn’t want to wait alone for the shuttle tonight.”

After riding in near-silence to drop Charlie off at his apartment, Max began leading the discussion, planning their next moves.

“I’m going to set up a meeting with Mrs. Lurge at the office tomorrow,” he said. “We’re going to confront her with everything we’ve got, and ask her to give us a more thorough account of things. In particular, I want to know why she omitted telling us about the change in ownership.”

“She should probably have the family lawyer there as well,” said Venus.

“I have invited him, Venus. And I’m also going to bring a police escort there. I fear our Mrs. Lurge may be a, uh, flight risk.”

“Anything else we should know?”

“Yes—I think it’s appropriate to invite Mr.McIntyre as well. I want to give him a chance to hear Mrs. Lurge’s allegations against him.”

“How about Mr. Lurge’s gal pal, Miss Ritter? Have you tracked her down too?”

 “I’d like to, Venus, but unfortunately my sources indicate she’s skipped town. Apparently, she has a second home in the Bahamas.”

“Nice!”

“Oh, yes—my sources also discovered a series of fund transfers made from Mr. Lurge’s account to hers over the past year. Those can’t have gone over well with the Missus.”

Venus shook her head, then turned to Sandra, who throughout this exchange had been leaning against the window, her head propped on her hand, wearing a forlorn expression as she gazed vacantly at the empty road speeding along in front of them.

“Sandra? You’ve been awfully quiet.”

“Mm? Oh, well; you, uh… you seem to have things pretty well in hand.”

“You see,” Max chirped. “I told you she’d be a fine addition to our team, didn’t I?”

Sandra said nothing, opting instead to continue staring and idly biting a nail on her right hand.

They pulled to a stop, and the car descended to a landing outside the agency building, directly behind the sleek, red vehicle Venus indicated as hers. She opened the door to get out, and then said, “Hey, Sandra—can you come out here a sec?”

Sandra languidly stepped out as well.

“Max,” Venus said crisply. “We’re going to take our earpieces out. This is on personal time; girl talk, okay?”

“Understood, ladies. I’ll talk to you in the office tomorrow, 10AM sharp!” he said crisply.

 “What is it?” Sandra asked after they had both tossed their earpieces into the car.

Venus took a deep breath, and then began: “I just wanted to say thank you. Like I said, nobody’s wanted to hire me, what with the whole cyborg thing. So I try to keep it a secret, but of course a simple drug test gives the game away. It’s been years since I’ve been able to just… partner with somebody. Y’know, as an equal.”

Sandra laughed. “An equal? You did everything! You got the files, you were able to see what was what in that factory while I was stumbling around in the dark, and you saved my life. Without you, the whole thing woulda been a disaster.”

Venus smiled. “Like I said, glad to be part of a team.”

Sandra stared at her. Did she really mean that? Did this woman, who, in addition to being attractive, friendly, and intelligent, also happened to posses superhuman strength, really find it so strange she was wanted?

“This might sound weird,” Venus pushed on. “But once people find out about me, they treat me like I’m an alien or something. It was even that way in the Service, after the procedures. They didn’t look at me and see good old Venus, the chick who likes hats and rock & roll and cheese pizza—they saw a frickin’ battle robot like those things back there. So,” she said, becoming self-conscious. “I’m just saying, I know it’s been awkward for you, but, thank you.”

They stood for a moment, regarding each other. Venus bit her lip.

“Oh, uh, sure.” Sandra said at last.

“Well; see you tomorrow,” said Venus, smiling and walking to her car.

Sandra watched her go. What on earth was that about? She thought. I was totally useless. Some ‘team.’ I’ll be lucky to have a job for another month if this keeps up. 

Shaking her head, Sandra finally climbed back into her hatchback and stared ahead blankly.

“Voice Authentication,” the machine prompted. 

“Sandra Darcy.”

“Password?”

“Disco,” she said softly, and the car rose from the ground and zoomed off into the night.

TLRFA-9

Sandra’s police training kicked in, and she immediately dropped prone to the floor, as the sizzling hot beam of light singed the air above. She arched her head upward, and beheld, stomping towards her, the silhouettes of three Lurge assault bots, the barrels of their cannon-arms glowing orange and already charging up for another barrage. Sandra glanced around wildly for cover. There was a stack of crates some yards off to her left, and she began to scramble for them, though she knew she was unlikely to cover the distance before the volley hit, and instinctively closed her eyes, bracing for painful annihilation.

At that instant, she felt a powerful force seize her by the back of her jacket, lift her off of the ground, and, with a speed that felt as though she were being hurled through the air, deposit her safely behind a stack of metal boxes. The next thing she was aware of was a hand sweeping across her torso and seizing her pistol from its holster.

Falling on her hands and knees, gasping, Sandra looked up to see, silhouetted in the nearly-blinding blaze of the laser beams, the figure of Venus, in a perfect combat stance, and returning fire with her pistol. At first, it seemed suicidal; surely she would be cut to ribbons by the deadly beams. But then, a translucent mist shimmered into view around Venus, deflecting the energy away from her, and she stood her ground, firing again and again with calm control. Sandra could not see over the boxes, but she could hear the rounds hit home with repeated metallic thuds. Shortly, the clanking of the assault bots ceased, as did their cannon fire. Venus lowered the weapon, turning to look at Sandra.

The two stared at each other for a moment, breathing heavily.

“Military cyborg enhancements,” Venus said finally. “They gave them to me when I was in the Service. Experimental; top secret thing. ‘Operative of the future,’ they said. Then, a couple years later; new government, new priorities. They RIF’d me, and outlawed all weaponized robotics. So I couldn’t get work anywhere—nobody was willing to hire me and risk all the lawsuits. So,” she said furtively. “That’s my deal. Sorry I didn’t tell you. I just didn’t know if I could…”

“Don’t apologize. Ya’ll just saved my bacon. Thank you.” said Sandra. She paused. “And. . . that was awesome.”

“Anytime. You hurt?” Venus by now kneeling beside her and gently prodding her torso for injuries.

“Whoa, this is so hot,” came the voice of Charlie, who was standing in the doorway of the stairwell, peeking out at them.

Venus rose, turned, briskly crossed the yards between them, picked the young man up by the waist, twirled him around over her head blindingly quickly, and plunked him down unceremoniously where he had stood.

“Thank you again,” said Sandra. “Now we need to figure out what the hell is going on with these robots. Didn’t chucklehead say,” Sandra nodded at Charlie, “that these things had to be activated from the main office—where he just was?”

Venus leveled the pistol at Charlie. 

“I swear, I didn’t do it!” he protested. He had been shaking his head to try to clear it, and now raised both hands in the air. “I didn’t touch a thing! Maybe it activated automatically when you logged in as Mr. Lurge!”

“Why on Earth should that be?” 

Charlie made a motion halfway between a shrug and a twitch. “How should I know? All I’m saying is, I didn’t do it, okay?”

Venus glanced at Sandra, but kept the weapon aimed at Charlie’s chest.

“Tell ya what, Chuck,” Sandra said, a slight smile curving one side of her mouth. “As I recall, you said something to the effect that, even when the robots are activated, they respond to the voice of Lurge personnel, isn’t that so?”

“Uh, yeah… yeah, I guess so.” 

“Well, then, I reckon you can lead the way , and talk down any more of these things that we run across.”

Charlie swallowed hard. 

“She’s right,” Venus added. “I can hold my own against these things, but I can’t cover the both of you at the same time. If we run into a bunch of them, we’re in trouble.”

“But…”

“It’s our best bet for getting out of here. C’mon, let’s go find that back door that Lurge used.”

Reluctantly, and still shaking his head, Charlie followed as they walked towards the rear of the factory. They stayed close together, with Venus in the lead, pistol drawn. The distant percussion of more infantry bots patrolling echoed all around them, making it difficult to tell from which direction the sound came. They kept close to the walls, creeping between different points of cover.

“Okay, we’re coming up on the door,” Venus hissed at last. “And there’s seven, no, eight of the damn things guarding it.”

“How—?” Sandra began, squinting into what appeared to her to be complete blackness. “Oh. Retinal enhancements, right. Dumb question.” she muttered.

“Okay, Charlie,” Venus said as they moved closer to the door, concealing themselves behind a stack of scrap metal. “Do your bit.”

Charlie took one glance at the pistol in Venus’ hand and swallowed hard. He peered hesitantly over the pile of metal, and called out to the lumbering machines, “Attention! Um, attention! This is Charlie Bradler, ID number 410-D.”

The machines all turned as one, the red cores of light that glowed within their metal-mesh skulls pulsating ominously. 

“Um, that’s right. Charlie Bradler. 410-D. Please stand down and assume passive stance for human inspection, please,” he said, trying his best to strike a tone of authority.

The machines did not obey the command however, instead raising their arm-mounted cannons and firing. Venus leapt in front of Charlie as he dove behind the metal pile, raising her arm to again create a barrier.

“This won’t hold up long,” she said. “Start running!”

Together, the three retreated back into the factory, dodging stray lasers as the infantry bots mounted a pursuit. 

“What the hell, kid?” Sandra shouted at Charlie as they clambered and scrambled across ancient manufacturing equipment.

“I don’t know!” he cried, “It should have worked!”

 Venus continued to fight a delaying action as best she could, but soon the pistol ran out of ammunition. 

“You got any more ammo?” she called to Sandra, blocking a laser blast with a flick of her free hand.

“In the car,” Sandra replied grimly.

“Damn. Okay, let’s make a break for it,” Venus ordered. Quickly, she closed the gap between herself and Sandra, striding across the floor with incredible speed. She raised her arms as if holding an invisible shield behind the three of them, and then gripped both by their collars. Lifting them off the ground, she accelerated, hurtling through the maze of boxes, machinery and roaming assault bots. The gargantuan machines tried to draw a bead on them as they sped by, but Venus’ moved much too quickly for the powerful but lumbering battle platforms to deploy their weapons accurately. Errant lasers struck walls, stacks of boxes, and even other robots, but none hit the three fleeing people.

At last, they came in view of the door by which they had entered, and Venus was beginning to slow down. Her grip on the other two slackened, and they stumbled on their own feet the last few yards—Sandra managing to slap the control panel as they slipped through to shut the door behind them. All three collapsed to the floor beside Charlie’s desk, Venus from exhaustion, Sandra and Charlie from motion sickness.

“Must… recharge…” Venus panted. 

“We can’t stop here,” Sandra said, gasping for air herself, and trying to desperately to keep the contents of her stomach down. “Those things will get through the door eventually. We need to get to the car.”

“We can’t!” Charlie groaned. 

Sandra shot him a look. “What do you mean?”

“Look!” He gasped the word, pointing a shaking finger towards the glass doors and into the parking lot beyond.

At first, there seemed nothing noteworthy about the scene. But as they watched, they perceived the light of the lamps seemed very weak. Only about half were lit at all, and soon, these too began to flicker and die out. 

“It’s the Eidolon!” Charlie whispered. “It’s coming!”

TLRFA-8

“What?” Venus exclaimed, looking around wildly.

“He’s talking on our comm sets,” Sandra said, tapping her ear piece. Her momentary surprise had given way to annoyance. “It’s his favorite trick; you’ll get used to it eventually.”

“Really, Sandy; so cynical!” Max clucked in his velvety baritone. “The fact of the matter is, I wasn’t able to get through to you for quite some time.”

“The factory floor must have blocked service,” Venus mused.

“Quite possibly. I have some news for you. I’ve been ‘following the money,’ as they say, and I’ve found a bit of a bombshell. It took a surprising amount of digging, but I’ve learned that Lothar Lurge was no longer the owner of the Lurge family robotics factory, effective September 30.”

“What? Then who was?” Venus asked.

“Mrs. Lurge, of course. The company transferred to her sole ownership on that date. And that’s not all I found, either. Are you ready for this one? The Lurges’ divorce was finalized on that same date!”

Venus and Sandra exchanged a look.

“Well, I guess that isn’t too surprising, uh, given what we just read.”

“No, indeed. But you can see this casts Mrs. Lurge in quite a different light.”

Venus nodded, and then remembered Max couldn’t see her, and added, “Sure does. Find out anything else?”

“I did! Before he, ah, ‘passed away,’ Mr. Lurge had wrapped up a deal with the state to let them take over running day-to-day operations and receiving revenues from events on the grounds.”

“What!”

‘That’s right—you remember, Mrs. Lurge said the state had been trying to buy them out for years.”

“So what about the whole thing with McIntyre?” Venus asked.

“Most likely a red herring,” Max finished, “Thrown in to put us off the trail.”

“You mean… Mrs. Lurge was lying to us?”

“Let me posit a hypothetical series of events,” said Max. “See if you don’t agree that it has at least a better than 50/50 chance: Mrs. Lurge finds out about her husband’s infidelity, and she is outraged. She further finds that he intends to effectively abandon the family business by turning the proceeds over to the state. That’s the last straw. So she seizes control of the family firm, and brings old Lothar here, unsuspecting, and has him murdered in the night by his own machines!”

There was a long pause, broken only by the rumbling of the thunder. 

“But then why would Mrs. Lurge hire us? She’d already committed the crime and gotten away with it.” said Venus.

“Why, to assist in the final masterstroke: the framing of Mr. McIntyre for the crime! She wanted to settle the old score with the McIntyres along with everything else. So, she contrived things, told us stories of the McIntyre’s interference with operations, to plant the suspicion in our minds. She wanted us to come here, find what we were supposed to find, and point the finger at McIntyre.”

Another pause.

“What do you think, Sandy?” Max asked at last.

“I dunno… maybe.” She murmured. “I just feel like… feel like…”

She whirled around suddenly.

“Like somebody’s staring at our asses instead of standing guard like I told him to,” she barked at Charlie, who had advanced into the room and had been hovering behind the two women.

He yelped and leapt backwards. “No, no,” he insisted, “I heard a man’s voice in here and wondered what was going on.”

Venus shook her head. “C’mon, let’s see what else we can find on this machine.”

Sandra locked eyes with Charlie and pointed firmly to the door, and he grudgingly retreated.

“Hey, look; here’s a message with the kid’s personnel file,” Venus said loudly enough to be heard in the hall as she scrolled through the menus.

“What!” Charlie huffed.

“No worries,” she said cheerfully. “Looks like your performance reviews are all strong… let’s see… ‘perfect for the job,’ ‘sensitive to company’s needs,’ a note from Mr. Lurge saying ‘hire this boy at once—he’s perfect.’ Wow, all that, and not a harassment complaint in sight, who’d have thought?”

Sandra chuckled. “What else you got in there?”

Venus continued scrolling through with incredible speed. “Well, there’s a long email exchange here with Mr. Lurge’s lawyers.”

“What’s it about?”

“Arguing over the terms and conditions of his agreement with the state… ‘the party of the first part agrees…’ ‘herewith the party referred to as the ‘operator’ shall agree to…,’ ‘if, after a period of less than 60 days, the goods are found to be faulty, the party referred to as owner shall recompense…,’ blah blah blah…”

Sandra nodded. 

“And then there’s this,” Venus continued triumphantly, continuing to read at an incredible speed. “Some emails between Lurge and McIntyre. It’s a thread that goes back quite a ways, but the last message is from the day of Mr. Lurge’s death. It’s from McIntyre—it says:

‘I’m confirming what we discussed this morning at the Chamber meeting. As we agreed, I’ll meet you on your premises this evening. I’m not sure what you believe will come of this, but you have my word, I’ll be there, as planned.’”

The two investigators exchanged a glance. 

“That’s a bit of a—I mean, why would Lurge have invited him?” Sandra asked.

“Maybe he didn’t. Maybe McIntyre just sent that message to make it look like he had.”

“Could be, I guess. Still, something doesn’t add up.”

“There’s still one more angle we need to investigate,” Max chimed in. “Mrs. Lurge said that her late husband had entered by a back door. Have you been able to find that?”

“No, not yet,” Sandra answered. “Charlie!” she barked.

“Still here, guarding the rear.”

“Where’s the door that Mr. Lurge came in the night of his death?”

“Oh, um, it’s back down in the factory. At the very back, near where they keep the scrap metal.”

“Right, got it.” Sandra turned to Venus. “Can you download those emails? I have a data stick in my purse—”

“Don’t worry, got one right here,” Venus interjected. “You go ahead; I’ll catch up.”

Sandra shrugged, and made her exit. She and Charlie began to retrace their steps back down to the factory floor.

As she descended the steps, she fancied she heard a distant clanking noise echoing from a distance. Probably hail on the metal roof. As she exited the staircase, it seemed to become more pronounced, as if it were all around her. She felt slightly unnerved by it, but shook her head. It’s that stupid kid’s ghost stories, getting to me. Grow up, girl! she thought to herself.

With that thought, she turned on her heel and walked deeper into the darkness. But when the clanking persisted, she stopped and spun around just in time to see an eerie red glow looming out of the blackness, follow by a high-pitched whine and a sudden blaze of light roaring at her head.

TLRFA-7

Charlie’s eyes widened as the implication dawned on him. “Wait… you mean… me?”

“I didn’t say that,” Sandra replied. “But at the same time… You were the only one here that night.”

“No… absolutely not!” Charlie protested. “I didn’t—like I said, I was holed up at the front.”

“Until your alleged ghostly entity forced you to come back this way, according to your story.”

“What? No; look, that’s what happened, I swear. I came back here, and I found Mr. Lurge. It was the first I saw him or knew he was here! I would never have done anything to him, anyway—he was a good boss! He gave me this gig and he was always nice to me.” 

“Calm down,” said Venus. “We’re not accusing you.”

Charlie seemed not to have heard. “I’ll tell you what happened—it was the ghosts! Samuel, I guess. Maybe something else. But that’s the only way it makes sense—they must have brought the robots online and had them kill Mr. Lurge. Probably to get revenge on the family, I guess.”

He paused to catch his breath, and Sandra seized her opportunity:

“This ghost business has got to stop, okay? I’m not saying you’re implicated, but spouting nonsense won’t help your case, understand? Just be cool, kid.”

Charlie nodded, still looking quite frantic.

“You said the bots have to be activated in the main office—where’s that?”

“It’s in the center of this building. We’ll have to go further into the factory and then go up a couple floors. But it’s—“ he paused abruptly, seeming not to know what to say.

“It’s what?” 

“Uh, well, I don’t know how to… that is…”

“It’s something else about ghosts, isn’t it?” said Venus.

“Uh, yeah.”

“Look, we can handle any ghosts, okay?” Sandra said firmly. “Take us to this office.”

Charlie swallowed hard and then pointed the way. Together, the three continued past the long, silent line of mechanical warriors, which were sporadically illuminated by the blue glow of lightning flashes. The storm outside was drawing near, and the narrow window slits where the wall met the ceiling rattled in the increasingly violent wind.

At last, they reached a sort of central pillar made of huge concrete blocks, inside of which was molded a stairwell leading up into blackness. The three went inside and up the winding stairs, advancing slowly, sweeping the beam of Sandra’s light before them. Once, Venus abruptly held out a hand, pressing it into Sandra’s chest to bring her to a halt.

“What are you doing?” Sandra demanded.

Venus nodded upward, and Sandra raised the beam of her light in the direction indicated, till it fell upon a huge, hairy spider scurrying into a crack in the wall. 

“Whoa, thanks. How did you know that was there?”

Venus shrugged. “Sixth sense, I guess.”

They began to move forward again when a muffled noise from behind made them turn around. Charlie remained on the landing, staring at the wall. 

“I hate spiders, okay?” he said. “Can’t we just blow this haunted pop stand and come back in the daytime?”

“We’re going to the office,” Sandra said. “You wanna stay down, be my guest.”

Considering this, Charlie reluctantly followed. “Sure, you two probably feel safer with me.”

 At last, they came to the top of the last flight, and a battered red door that opened into a long hallway. This hall was more luxurious than the industrial, unpainted metal-and-concrete of the lower levels. It was carpeted with avocado-green shag and the walls featured vintage Lurge adverts depicting bots in alien landscapes or space stations. There were doorways every few yards, leading to vacant offices.

“These are the executive suites,” Charlie said. “I’ve only been up here once, for my interview. That’s when Lurge told me about the control panel in his office. It’s at the end of this hall, on the right.”

And indeed, as they reached the end of the corridor, they saw to their right a large wooden door, with a brass nameplate bearing the words, “Lothar Lurge, President and CEO”

Charlie stepped forward and inserted his key into the lock. He turned it hesitantly, and the door creaked open.

“Look at you, with a key to the boss’s office,” Sandra remarked.

“Naturally,” he said, some of his old bravado returning. “Old Man Lurge knew I’d need a master key since I kept the whole joint secure at night.”

Lurge’s office was fairly spacious.  An area at the front, separated from the main space by avocado-colored dividers, had a desk and filing cabinets, was presumably for a secretary — Miss Ritter, according to the nameplate.  The larger, executive desk sat at the rear of the room, in front of a massive bank of windows against which the rain continued pounding. 

“So, where are the controls you were talking about?” 

“I think they’re at Mr. Lurge’s desk, but I don’t know exactly”

“Okay. Stay just outside in the hallway and  guard the door,” Sandra commanded, as she and Venus hurried to the desk, and started looking at the panels of monitors, buttons and switches arrayed there. 

“It wants a password,” said Sandra, opening a window on the largest terminal. “Do you know it?” she called to Charlie, who shook his head.

“Hey, I’m pretty good at guessing passwords,” said Venus, resting her fingers on the keypad and closing her eyes, as if concentrating for a moment. Then her fingers flew, and immediately, the words “Access Granted” flashed on the screen.

“How’d you do that?” Sandra asked in amazement.

“Something I picked up in the FES,” the other woman replied with a shrug. “Here, let’s do some digging.”

Together, they read through the messages on the mail client, which was automatically displayed on the screen. Most were uninteresting reminders, alluding to meetings and deals they had no knowledge of. 

“What’s this here?” Sandra said, pointing at one message, from Mr. Lurge to Miss Ritter. Venus opened the message and read aloud:

Babe —

I need to expedite matters. She’s been looking daggers at me every morning, and it gives me the creeps. I think I’ve got a plan.  I’ll give you the details — and a whole lot more — when you get back.

–L.

“Ewww!” said Sandra and Venus in unison as they exchanged shocked looks. “Well, I don’t like the sound of that!” said Venus, with a scandalized expression.

“Neither do I,” said Sandra.

“Me neither, ladies,” the voice of Max concurred, causing both of them to start.