TLRFA-5They rode in silence out of Gelunbu and onto the outer beltway. The sun was sinking low in the sky, and the clouds gathering on the horizon were deep blue against the blazing orange of the autumn light. As the towers of the city receded into the distance, they found themselves racing into a multicolored world of the splendid autumn leaves, punctuated at intervals by signs indicating off ramps, and occasional neon advertars—huge, semi-transparent three-dimensional figures, drawing glowing letters in the air with messages like, “Hughes’s Groovy House of Hovercars: Lease A New Myra With No Money Down”  and “A New Age Dawns: Buy From Katie’s Acrylics Now!”

Finally, Venus broke the silence: “You know, I told you my background, but I didn’t ask yours. How did you come to be here?”

Sandra kept her eyes on the road. “I was a cop. Then I quit and started doing this.”

There was a pause, until Venus realized she wasn’t going to continue. “So… any family?”

“I have a brother lives outta state. Haven’t seen him in years. He’s some kind of manager at a rocket lab, I think.”

“No boyfriend? Girlfriend? Cat? Dog?”

“Look,” said Sandra, finally jerking her head around to look at Venus. “I’m not lookin’ to be buddies, okay? For some reason, Max brought you aboard. I don’t know why, he didn’t ask me, and I don’t like it. I’ll work with you, ‘cause that’s what he pays me for, but—”

Venus interrupted. “Look—it’s a long story; we probably don’t have time for it right now. But I’m not replacing you, not at all. Max had to hire me for a very specific reason, and it’s not about you. Well, I guess it is kind of about you, in that Max won’t shut up about how awesome you are, and that I could learn a lot from you.”

Sandra was more than a little taken aback by this, and was tempted to ask her to say more, but at that moment, the Exit sign for “Lurge Robotics” appeared, and the car veered onto the off-ramp, and the huge exhaust towers of the factory loomed up over the trees like a battery of cannons, surrounding a huge cooling tower with the single word “LURGE” across it in fifteen-foot-tall letters.

The two women wound their way down the narrow road that ran behind the sprawling complex, gazing across the open field that separated the road from the chain-link fence at the edge of the factory yard. In the light of the setting sun, the orange glint in the windows of the long, rusty-red buildings made the old plant seem as though it had sprung into action again, once more forging armies like those that had waged the Great Robot War of ’57. 

But only for a moment. Then the angle changed and the reflection vanished, and the sprawling industrial campus appeared once more as it really was—dead and desolate.

The hatchback pulled up to the front gate, which lifted automatically and allowed them to enter.

“This certainly looks inviting,” Sandra muttered as they pulled to a stop and the car settled to the ground. They climbed out of the vehicle and walked across the eerily empty asphalt of the parking lot, the chilly breeze whooshing against them as they went. Sandra pulled her red leather blazer tighter, her hand brushing the strap of her shoulder holster as she did so. She stopped abruptly and turned to Venus, who was clad only in a dress slacks and a thin grey sweater.

“You got a gun?” Sandra asked.

“No, I don’t.” 

Sandra sighed impatiently. “Ugh; well, you better get one soon. Get yourself a JEK-17; there’s nothin’ else like it. It’s heavy, but it packs a punch.” She patted the holster under her jacket.

“I’m sure you can cover me if it comes to that,” said Venus, her mouth twitching a bit. “Besides, are you really expecting to get in a shoot-out here?”

Sandra shook her head. “I dunno what kinda training they gave you in the FES, but I don’t want to argue about it now; it’s freezing out here.” 

They walked briskly to the nearest building, the only one that was lit. An electric glow illuminated a sign that read “Visitor Check-In” There was a wheezy chime as the door slid open, and they entered a dimly-lit waiting room. At the desk was seated a skinny young man of about twenty, wearing an ill-fitting uniform, with a police-style hat perched backwards on his head. He had been engrossed in something on  a small tablet device, but glanced up and set it aside on hearing them enter. 

“Geez!” he said, standing up and straightening his dark green tie. “I mean—whoa!” He stared at them wide-eyed, mouth curving into a smirk.

“Hello,” said Venus, extending a hand. 

There was a pause of a few seconds before the dazed guard reciprocated the gesture. 

“I’m Venus Miles, and this is Sandra Darcy. We’re private investigators.”

“And our eyes are up here,” Sandra said sharply, keeping her own hands at her sides.

“Sure thing,” the young man said, blinking and re-focusing his gaze slowly, “Charlie Bradler, chief of overnight security for Lurge Robotics.” He paused as if to divulge something significant.  “Keepin’ it going all night long.”

Sandra fought the urge to roll her eyes.  She continued evenly, “You were on duty the night of October 1 of this year?”

 “Uh, yeah; I was. Manning ‘Control Central’ as usual.”

“You discovered Mr. Lurge’s remains?”

“Sure did.”

“Walk us through your exact routine, please.”

“Well, um, I came in 7PM, checked out everything, activated the security system, and then took up my position.”

“How does the security system work?”

Bradler shrugged. “Dunno  exactly; she’s a state-of-the-art, proprietary system.” He jerked his head in the direction of a rather old-fashioned panel on the wall behind his desk. “I just enter codes into that panel to turn it on every night. Mr. Lurge said activating those motion sensors was the most important part of the job; he had the whole thing installed special, and he told me it was my responsibility to keep it running.”

“Do you ever patrol the premises? Check things out?”

He smirked. “Oh, yeah; I check things out, that’s for sure.”

Sandra rolled her eyes again. “Just answer the question.”

“Every couple of hours yeah; I go on my rounds, sure. That’s what I was doing when I found him.”

“But you had no idea he was in the factory prior to finding his remains?”

The young man fidgeted with his clip-on tie. “Right… I… um… heard noises… but I didn’t… I figured I should keep monitoring from The Bridge.”

Sandra’s gaze hardened.

“You’re the night watchman. You heard strange noises, and you didn’t investigate?”

He looked down furtively for an instant, then tried to resume his previous cocky manner.

“Old Man Lurge told me about some stuff that might go down here.  Gave me a real good handle on what needs to be looked into, and what needs to be let alone.”

Sandra continued to stare him down. “What kind of a guard are you?”

“You don’t understand!” He blurted out. “The factory is haunted! There have always been weird noises at night, and it’s not from anything alive or natural. It freaks me out, and I keep away.”

Sandra shook her head. “Seriously, kid?” 

“It’s true!” he insisted. “You must have heard the stories—you know, they play it up like it’s all fun and games for the little kids, but this place is weird! Old Man Lurge knew; he told me about it, too. When he hired me, he said ‘Son, there’s stuff in there I don’t understand. You’ll hear it late at night sometimes. You just leave it alone.’ And that’s what I was doing,” he finished in a rush.

Sandra’s eyes darted to Venus, who was trying to suppress a smile.

“Okay,” Sandra said after a moment. “But you did eventually go onto the factory floor, right?”

“Sure, I’m supposed to poke my head in the door of the factory and shine a light around. So that night, around 3AM, I did that. And…”

Sandra cut him off.  “You made your first rounds eight hours after your shift started?’

Bradler shrugged.  “I was busy.”

After a moment or two, when no further explanation was offered, Sandra sighed. “Can you show us the exact place?” Sandra asked, “We need to inspect the scene of the incident.”

He gulped, then recovered some of his earlier bravado.  “Definitely!  But you know, I probably shouldn’t leave the Main Entrance unguarded for that long. You ladies are professionals,” he smirked, “and I’m sure I can trust you on your own.  I can monitor your movements from here.” He gestured grandly towards a row of security camera displays, only one of which seemed to be functional.

“But, Charlie, we need you to show us the exact spot.  We’d never find it on our own,” insisted Venus.

“What—now?” 

“‘He who hesitates is lost.’”

“Look,” he said, glancing nervously towards the long corridor behind him, barely lit by a single bulb hanging by a wire from the high ceiling. “It’s super freaky back there. Can’t we go some other time—when it’s sunny?”

“No,” said Sandra, walking past him and starting down the hall. “Unlock this door and take us back there.  You don’t want us telling Mrs. Lurge you’re holding up our investigation.”

The young man looked around wildly, first at Venus, then back at Sandra, then down at his desk, then back to Venus again, as if hoping some solution would become apparent. But he soon realized nothing would dissuade Sandra and scurried down the hall after her, till finally they reached the huge metal door at the back. He approached a small console beside the door and with trembling fingers, swiped a card and entered a passcode while Sandra watched, arms folded, foot tapping the floor impatiently.

“There you go,” he said, after finally managing to enter the code correctly. Within seconds, the thick walls, gears growled and groaned with motion, and the metal slab began to slowly rise.

“Thank you,” said Sandra. “That wasn’t so bad was it? Now how’s about you show us just where you found Mr. Lurge?”

Even in the gloom of the dark hallway, it was clear that the color was draining from his face. “You want me to go in there?”

“You ask too many questions,” Sandra said. “Yes, come in and show us where you found him. It can’t be that bad in here; after all, you came in the night you found him.”

“That was… different,” he muttered.

“How so?” asked Venus, who had come down the hall behind him, and whose sudden arrival beside him caused him to whirl about. 

“Oh, it’s only you,” he said, clutching his chest in relief. “Titan, was it?”

“Venus,” she corrected primly.

“Oops… wrong heavenly body.” This line he accompanied with a feeble attempt at his swaggering manner, though it looked more like the grimace of someone shivering in the cold. Sandra snorted theatrically, but Venus acted as though she hadn’t heard him at all.

“Now, come on, tell us what was different that night that made you go into the factory.” 

Bradler seized this opportunity to both delay and explain himself, and began:

“Here’s the lowdown: there are different ghosts around here, and you get to know which ones are acting up on a certain night. Some nights, you’ve got Samuel in the factory. He was an old line manager back in the day. They say he pitched over the side onto the factory floor one day when they were in full production. The emergency breaker kicked in too late, and he… he was crushed by one of the bots. And ever since, his ghost comes round here, rattlin’ the equipment and crying out in anger.”

Sandra said nothing—it was clear that Charlie was one of those witnesses that you had to let tell a story their own way—but she rubbed her temples and began to rifle through her purse for some aspirin.

“…there’s a couple other minor ghosts, too; like the woman in white who lives in the accounting department. She’s the widow of a line-worker who died during Mr. Lurge Sr.’s time. But,” he added, sensing he should come to the point. “The worst of all is the thing we call. . . ‘the Eidolon.’”

He said this peculiar word  with an air of great self-importance, and looked at them, clearly expecting a reaction.

“What’s that?” Venus asked.

”The Eidolon,” Charlie repeated, glancing furtively around, “Is the most horrible, dreadful, scariest, most absolutely evil thing in the whole world.”

A low, ominous rumble from somewhere above them lent weight to the young man’s words.

TLRFA-4

 

The McIntyre building’s lobby featured a polished faux-marble floor and glossy orange-gold walls ornamented by large, brightly-colored abstract paintings. But while the designs were loud, the lobby itself was quiet, the reception desk empty save for a lone lava lamp. The absence of a chair suggested the vacancy was permanent. The only sounds was the unnerving click of the two detectives’ heels as they walked towards the doors of the magnetic multivator.

“I expected it would be busier,” Venus muttered as the polished door slid open and they entered.

Sandra said nothing. She was mulling over what she would say to McIntyre. One by one, she watched as the numbered lights blinked on and off as they ascended. Finally, they reached the 17th floor and stepped out into a long hallway of deep purplish red. There were no decorative art pieces here, only a series of oil paintings of the McIntyres of yesteryear. Stern men in dark suits, glaring darkly at all who passed by en route to the office of their descendant at the end of the hall. 

The door was open, and Mr. Tobias McIntyre was seated at a large wooden desk, his hands folded neatly in front of him. He was a tall, aristocratic-looking man, with short salt-and-pepper hair and a darker goatee. He wore a pale yellow suit, with a burgundy dress shirt and matching tie. In a chair beside his desk was seated a young woman with short, dark hair, and a pleasant smile, dressed in a teal blouse and skirt.

“Ah, you must be the reporters,” said McIntyre, rising to shake hands. “What a pleasure, what a pleasure.”

After introductions, during which they learned the young woman was Suzanne, his administrative assistant and operations manager, Sandra started off with her questions while Venus took notes.

“What is the number one challenge facing McIntyre’s Mechanicals today?”

“Well, I don’t think of it as a challenge; I think of it as an opportunity, but it’s the same thing it’s been for the last few decades: how to re-position ourselves to continue thriving in a world where military mechanicals are no longer produced. There are lots of opportunities, in fact—civilian uses for mechanicals are being considered at all times, and I’m confident that with our resources, we’re set up well to take advantage.”

“I see. Is there a lot of investment in that area?”

“Ah, there’s a fine question! Well, now, that’s true—getting the necessary capital to start up robot factories has proven a trifle difficult. That said, I’m quite certain we can. After all, unlike some competitors, we are not carnival barkers turning our facilities into venues for dog-and-pony shows. I won’t name any names,” he said with a sly smile.

“Speaking of others in the robotics business… I’m sure you heard about the tragedy at Lurge Robotics.”

“Terrible, yes. My condolences to the family. A great loss for the robot manufacturing, ah, community,” he said, the smile not leaving his face.

“Did you know Mr. Lurge well”

“Only from business connections.  In fact, I bumped into him at a ChamComm meeting just last week; he was more talkative than he had been in quite some time.” He made a strange, guttural noise.  “Come to think of it, he told me he was looking forward to ‘the best October in years”.” McIntyre tried, and failed, to keep the slight twist of a smile from his lips as he said soberly, “Ironic, in light of the subsequent tragedy.”

“Is safety a particular challenge for a de-commissioned facility?”

McIntyre leaned back in his chair, eyebrows raised in surprise. “Well now, really, ma’am; surely that’s a question better put to the Lurge company. All I can say is that such an accident would be unthinkable at a McIntyre property. We have not a single accident to our name in a long time—not since the Great Robot War of ’57 was at its peak! I can’t speak to the track record of any of our competitors, but. . .” he grinned again. “Can I tell you something off the record?”

Sandra and Venus exchanged a glance. “Sure,” said Sandra.

“This doesn’t leave this room, understand? Good. Then let me just say, any company that tries to profit off of ghost stories on its grounds must not have a very strong track record with safety, you take?”

He chuckled, as did Suzanne. Sandra and Venus nodded politely.

“You mentioned civilian applications of your technology—can you elaborate on that?” Sandra asked.

“The government’s restrictions on the use of robotics technology are very strict,” Venus put in, and then immediately looked abashed at the gaze Sandra shot in her direction.

“Uh, well, yes—of course. That’s-that’s definitely something we consider. I, uh, probably shouldn’t say too much more, actually, other than that there are a lot of exciting things in the pipeline.”

“I see,” Sandra nodded. “So, would you say our readers can look forward to big things from McIntyre’s Mechanicals in the near future?”

“Absolutely! That’s just what I’d tell ‘em. You got it.” He said, with an encouraging fist pump. “Now, uh, I’d love to continue this but I have another appointment coming up. Remind me, Suzanne—what is it again?”

“You have a conference call with prospective clients about bulk orders at 3:30,” she said smartly. 

“Ah, yes, that’s it. Well, it’s been lovely talking to you ladies—do come by again sometime.”

“Actually, I had one more question, Mr. McIntyre. It’s quick,” said Sandra, smiling prettily.

“Oh, well; if it’s quick, how can I say no?”

“I just was wondering how many workers McIntyre’s Mechanicals employs?”

“Um—” he said, biting his lip, but Suzanne quickly interjected, “We employ so many seasonal and temporary workers that it’s hard to give an exact figure. It can depend on the day. However, I can assure you that recent estimates show we contribute millions annually to Gelunbu’s GDP.” She smiled pleasantly, but in a way that said not to ask any more questions.

“Perfect!” said Sandra brightly. “Again, thank you for your time.” She and Venus bade both farewell and returned to the multivator. Once inside, Sandra pressed the button for the lobby level — and for four or five floors in between.

Venus arched her brows quizzically. Sandra just smiled, took some lip gloss from her purse and lightly applied it to her mouth, and waited for the doors to open to floor 14. When they did, the two women looked out at row upon row of empty cubicles. 

At last, after checking a few more floors, each with similar results, they exited the building and walked back towards Sandra’s orange hatchback. 

Sandra laughed, and Venus shook her head. “I don’t think they have any other employees at that company. They have Mr. McIntyre as founder and CEO, and Suzanne is his secretary. They probably make money solely by filing copyright lawsuits on various designs and technologies.”

“ I’ll bet you’re right.  And it was a stroke of genius to check that out. But that still doesn’t help us with the whole did-they-kill-Mr.-Lurge question,” said Venus.

“Indeed it doesn’t,” Max concurred over the speaker in the dashboard.

“Do you have to do that?” Sandra grumbled.

“Don’t you relish hearing my dulcet tones, Sandy?”

Sandy ignored this and powered up the hatchback.

“So, what’s our next stop, Boss?,” Sandra asked.  “The factory, right?” 

“Bingo!” said Max. “I knew you’d feel that way, so I called ahead. The place is closed down of course, but the night watchman on duty the night of Mr. Lurge’s demise will be there. Talk to him.  Check out his alibi. Get an little details that might not have made their way to the police report.  You know — work your magic, Sandra.”

 Venus shook her head.  “You two work so much faster than we did at the FES!”

Sandra answered at once. “Too much for ya? Want me to drop you off and take care of this on my own?”

“No, no; not at all. I love it. Beats all the paperwork and approvals I’m used to.”

“Oh,” said Sandra, feeling rather put out. 

“You see?” Max intoned cheerfully. “You two make a great team!”

TLRFA-3

Max cleared his throat. “Well, I suppose this is as good an opportunity as any for turning it over to you, Mrs. Lurge. Can you tell us why you’re so sure  Mr. McIntyre had a hand in your husband’s death?”

“Why, the McIntyres have been rivals with the Lurges since the beginning! You know—everyone knows. This city has been the home of the robotics industry ever since the war. The Lurge family was first of course,” she said firmly.

“Of course,” said Max.

“—but the McIntyres have always been nipping at our heels. You know, they say that even at the height of the war in ’57, the McIntyres were sending spies in to steal our designs.”

“Surely all that’s behind you now,” said Max hastily. “The Robot Wars are history—military robotics have been banned.”

“Oh, sure,” said the widow sarcastically, “but, well… R&D doesn’t just stop.  Prototypes don’t just disappear. The government may have outlawed military robotics research officially, but we’re still a key part of industry, and the McIntyres are just green with envy about it.”

There was a long pause. Venus glanced at Sandra, hoping for a cue as to how to reply.

“As I understand it, most of the Lurge revenue these days comes from tourists and historians interested in the old family plant,” said Max finally.

She gave a most un-lady-like snort. “Only because the McIntyres hired out-of-state lawyers who could find them ways to leech up IRRP funding, forcing us to do something to stay in the game,” she spat. She paused a moment, trying to restore her demure manner.  “But yes, it so happens that we have been able to carve a very lucrative niche for ourselves as a number one attraction for visitors to Gelunbu.”

“It certainly is,” Venus jumped in seeming eager for the diversion, “Uh,  I saw a fascinating piece on it from the ChamCom just the other day.  It’s hard to miss the holoverts on the bypass, especially this time of year.”

Mrs. Lurge gave a small but warm smile towards Venus. “Thank you, dear. Our Haunt-omaton tour gets more popular every year. We’re very proud of it, and what it means to the community.”

“Hold on,” said Sandra. “What is this now?”

Mrs. Lurge turned to her with an air of disapproval. “The annual Lurge factory Haunt-omaton tour and Robo-ghost Factory attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year,” she said coldly, “Not to mention all the paranormal historians who come to investigate.”

“Oh… well, good,” said Sandra.

“It’s been an excellent source of revenue for the company since the government outlawed their original raison d’être after the war,” said Max, and, as if sensing Mrs. Lurge’s icy glare, added hastily, “And the tour provides a wonderful night of thrills and chills for young and old alike.”

He sounds like he’s reading off a brochure, Sandra smirked inwardly. Still, she marveled at Max’s ability to be so fast on his feet and to come up with these tidbits of trivia . 

Mrs. Lurge seemed as though she might continue on this tangent, so Sandra gently nudged her back on topic.

“And the McIntyre outfit… they’ve got nothing like this tour, I take it?”

“No,” the older woman sniffed. “They lack our vision.  As does the state bureaucracy. Don’t get me started on the government. They’ve been trying to buy out the factory from us every other day. But that’s not the key issue here.”

Mrs. Lurge leaned in closer, almost conspiratorially: “Do you know, Lothar has been convinced that McIntyre and his goons have been sabotaging our factory for years? It started as simple vandalism, or stolen goods. But lately it’s been escalating—missing components from the displays, pipes breaking, electricity flickering on and off at random times.”

“Why would McIntyre do that? Seems like a good way to get his keister charged with corporate espionage,” asked Sandra.

Mrs. Lurge pursed her lips. “There are many reasons: first and foremost, jealousy. But more than that, as I said, the state wants to buy us out. Don’t you see: McIntyre would love nothing more than to see us crushed by those do-nothing bureaucrats. So he was trying to make it impossible for us to operate.”

“Do you have any, ah, hard evidence of this, Mrs. Lurge?” asked Max.

She shot a stern look at the base station. “I have Lothar’s word.”

“Yes, well… I’m afraid that wouldn’t hold up in a court of law.”

“That’s why I’m hiring you people,” she snapped, rising from her seat abruptly. “Do some digging! McIntyre’s been working every angle he can since he took over from his father.  I’m sure you’ll find out plenty about what he’s been doing—and I’m sure you’ll find it includes complicity in the murder of my husband. She narrowed her gaze in the direction of the comm unit.  “As we discussed, I’m prepared to pay whatever it takes to make this happen.”

“We’ll do everything we can, Mrs. Lurge,” Venus assured her.

“Good. I suggest you start by questioning McIntyre. I’m sure that snake will crack under the pressure.” she picked up her bag and turned towards the door. “I will let you get to work. Good day.”

And with that, she strode out of the office.

Venus and Sandra exchanged surprised looks. 

“She sure is hung up on the McIntyre angle, isn’t she?” said Venus.

“She is indeed,” Max agreed. “Probably unreasonably, if I do say so myself. Still, there may be something to it.  There’s obviously no love lost between the families. I’ll be interested in your impressions of the man.”

“What can you tell us about him? If we’re going to talk to him, we’ll need a plan of attack.”

“Well, my sources indicate he’s always eager to do press pieces in order to keep his company’s name in the news, he’s on the point of concluding a very lucrative deal with the Department of Defense, his office is on the 20th floor of the McIntyre building, and you ladies have an appointment scheduled with him at 3PM tomorrow, your cover story being that you’re reporters for Gelunbu Business Magazine.”

Venus looked at Sandra in amazement. Sandra responded with a knowing smile. “He does that. You’ll get used to it.”

“How…?” Venus asked.

Max added with a wry, false-modest chuckle, “I have to wear a lot of hats at once, but I try cover all the angles. Consider that the compensation for my not being able to join in person. Although many women would say seeing my chiseled visage would be well worth sacrificing my many other talents.”

“Well, thank you very much,” said Venus, while Sandra rolled her eyes. 

TLRFA-2

Sandra blinked several times. There was something downright intimidating about this woman. Although she was very attractive, Sandra immediately rethought her guess about why she had been hired— she just didn’t seem like the type to have used a physical relationship with Max to get a job. 

“Uh, hi,” said Sandra, shaking the stranger’s firm, well-manicured hand.

An awkward silence stretched between them.

“So,” Venus said, her smile tightening as she sensed the tension, “Where do we start?”

“What did Max tell you?”

“That you would fill me in.”

Great; I’m training my replacement. Aloud, she said, “Okay, first how about you fill me in on who you are?”

Venus shrugged. “Well, sure, but there’s not much to tell. I was an officer in the Federal Espionage Service for the past seven years—handled various projects; breaking up arms dealers, smugglers; stuff like that.”

Yeah, boring stuff like that. “Why’d you leave FES?”

Venus bit her lip slightly before answering. “I just felt like I needed a change—needed to spread my wings a bit, y’know?”

“RIF’d in the big defense draw-down, huh?” Sandra said, an edge to her voice.

“Uh… yeah,” Venus replied softly.

“Well, look; I dunno how they did business in the Service, but here, we don’t have big budgets and lots of support staff to throw at a problem. We use our wits, and we do everything we can to help the clients. Because the client is the bottom line, okay? The way we stay afloat is by providing the best service we can to everyone who hires us. The client comes first, last, and in the middle, got it?”

Before Venus could respond, Max’s voice crackled over the comm cube on the desk. “Wonderful!” he said, “Now that you two ladies have gotten acquainted, let’s get started. We’ve only got a few moments before Mrs. Lurge should arrive.”

Venus took a chair at the conference table, while Sandra hastily swept the bulk of the detritus on the spare desk into one of its empty drawers and perched atop the desk.

“Here’s what we know.  On the morning of October the 1st, at about 4AM, an emergency call was received from the Lurge Robotics Factory. The night watchman reported that he’d found the body of Mr. Lothar Lurge on the old factory floor, cut to pieces by a laser grater.” Both of the women grimaced.

“To the watchman’s knowledge, there was no one else inside the factory that night. He said he had remained in his office throughout the night, except for checking on the assembly lines and floor area only every three hours, as outlined in his schedule. This puts the time of death for Mr. Lurge at some time between 1 and 4 AM. The record of the watchman’s keycard swipes corroborates his story.”

“Did the watchman say why Mr. Lurge was there so late?”

“No, he did not. He says he was not notified of his presence there. Which brings us to another important point: Mr. Lurge entered the factory through a little-used back door, rather than via the main entrance, which all personnel are required to use. There is no record of him swiping at the front door, and this maintenance door was left ajar.”

“Hold on a sec, Max,” said Sandra.

Venus had been hesitantly raising her hand while Max had been speaking, and she now pointed over Sandra’s shoulder. “Now what?” she said with more annoyance to Venus.

“Is that lady at the door our client?”

Sandra whirled around, and saw a woman in a black dress and jacket standing outside the office door, staring at them with some confusion.

“Oh, uh, yeah, maybe,” she said, scurrying across the room and opening the door. “Sorry about that, ma’am.” 

The petite middle-aged woman walked in and took the chair Venus offered her. Her demeanor was haughty and reserved, but her face was drawn, and her eyes were tired and a little puffy.

 “Mrs. Lurge, so sorry to meet you under these sad circumstances. I’m Sandra Darcy, this is Venus Miles.”

 Venus added, “Mr. Lurge was so important to the community,”

“Thank you, I appreciate that.”

“My condolences as well, Mrs. Lurge,” Max’s voice crackled over the comm. base station on the desk, causing the older woman to jump slightly, while Sandra only folded her arms in annoyance at Max’s love of joining unexpectedly. 

 “My apologies for not appearing in person. When you’re spread as thin as I am, you have no choice but to try to be in multiple places at once. My team and I have just finished reviewing the basic facts surrounding your late husband’s demise. Perhaps you can shed some light on certain points in the police report. To begin with, did your husband tell you why he was going to the factory in the middle of the night? ”

“He did not.” replied the stone-faced widow.

“Do you know why he would have used the back entrance?” Sandra tried again.

“No! He wouldn’t have,” the older woman snapped. “And even if he did, you can be damn sure he’d lock the door behind him! That’s why I know it was no accident! That’s how I know he was—was…”

She trailed off, choking back a sob.

Max coughed softly and resumed. “Curiously, the police made a thorough search of the area, and about 300 yards out from the factory, they found a trail of footprints leading down from a back road a mile or so behind the complex.”

All three women leaned forward on hearing this.

“Were they Lurge’s footprints?” Sandra asked.

Max paused portentously. “Definitely not. They were a size smaller and did not match the dress shoes Mr. Lurge was wearing when he was discovered. They appear to have been a man’s work-boots.”

“Now, you say they were about 300 yards out,” said Venus, a little hesitantly. “So what, these prints just stop 300 yards away?”

“Well, yes—they stop, turn around, and go back the way they came. The police’s working theory is that someone parked on the road, approached the factory, and left.”

“Well, hell; Max that’s suspicious as all get out,” exclaimed Sandra. 

“Yes, it is. But at the same time, there’s no obvious connection between that and the death of Mr. Lurge. It’s an odd coincidence, to be sure, but—”

“McIntyre,” said Mrs. Lurge. She spat out the name like an obscenity. “It had to be that bastard McIntyre!”

TLRFA-1

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.

“Howdy, Max.”

“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.

“Password?”

“Disco.” 

“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.”

Some facts about me: first, for well over a decade, I’ve wanted to write a story involving an abandoned factory. I didn’t know anything more specific than that, but I’ve long known I wanted to use that setting.

Second: I enjoy watching reruns of cheesy 1970s TV shows. Unfortunately, they quit airing most of my favorites on over-the-air TV, and I am never paying a monthly bill for TV.

So, during the lockdown, which lasted approximately from mid-March through mid-May in Ohio, I amused myself by combining these two elements and writing a story set in an abandoned factory and heavily influenced by 1970s television classics like Charlie’s Angels and Wonder Woman. And, because I just gotta be me, of course it had to have retro-futuristic sci-fi elements and Halloween references, too.

The result is an approximately 16,000 word story that is rather silly, but was extremely fun to write. Instead of publishing it as a book, I decided I’d post one chapter a week over the summer. Each chapter is roughly 1,000-1,500 words long. The first one will be posted here next Saturday.

Oh, and here is what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call the “cover” art:

TLRFA-notitle