The Lurge Robot Factory Adventure

Table of Contents

  • Chapter 1
  • Chapter 2
  • Chapter 3
  • Chapter 4
  • Chapter 5
  • Chapter 6
  • Chapter 7
  • Chapter 8
  • Chapter 9
  • Chapter 10
  • Chapter 11
  • Epilogue
  • Chapter 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’llbe 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 3rdfloor.

    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.”

    Chapter 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!”

    Chapter 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. 

    Chapter 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 verystrict,” 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!”

    Chapter 5

    They 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.

    Chapter 6

    “Big ol’ storm’s rollin’ in,” Sandra noted after the thunder subsided. “Anyway, you were tellin’ us about this Eidolon thing.”

    Charlie nodded importantly. “No one knows what it is. It’s invisible, but you can feel it coming, because it knocks out the power when it does. Old Doyle, the weekend guard, swears it’s a failed experiment with nanobots. He figures the nanites were given the programming of a hush-hush prototype network-distributed crime-fighting artificial intelligence they’d been working on in R&D, and they went nuts. Now they roam the factory in a swarm, killing anyone they find.”

    “Uh huh. So what’s this got to do with the night you found Mr. Lurge?”

    “Well, I was at my station up front, just doing my usual. I thought I heard noises back here and but figured it was just Samuel. I was looking at some, uh, pictures—security footage, that was it—when I looked up and out the window.  That’s when I saw the parking lot lights going out—first they’d flicker, and then they’d pop out. When my desk lamp started doing the same thing. I knew it had to be the Eidolon coming.”  He nodded with great seriousness.

    “And you realized since it was coming across the parking lot, your best bet was to retreat into the factory,” Venus finished.

    Charlie blinked a few times. “Yeah… that’s right. How’d you know?”

    “We’re detectives,” said Venus.

    “Oh, yeah…”

    “So, Charlie, let’s all go into the factory. Ms. Darcy and I will go first, make sure the coast is clear, then you can show us where you found Mr. Lurge, and we’ll clear out, okay?”

    “You’ll go first?” he said, his cocky manner starting to return. “I’ll keep watch on the rear.”

    Sandra again fought the urge to roll her eyes. Some security guard, she thought to herself.

    “Let’s get going,” Venus said blandly.

    “Well, okay. But I’ve gotta warn you: there’s no telling what’ll show up in there. You know, there have been teams of pro ghost hunters that come to investigate this place, and you know what?”

    “They were all killed by ghosts, providing hard evidence of a spirit world which somehow has still received no attention from the media?” Sandra snapped.

    “Uh, no… not that.”

    “Didn’t think so, actually.”

    “But they recorded these freaky noises! Here,” he pulled his phone from his pocket and tapped a few times, then held the device up for Sandra and Venus to see.

    On the screen was displayed green-tinted night vision footage of a bearded man standing in the beam of a strong light, throwing an eerie halo around him as he walked through what appeared to be an endless black abyss.

    “They say this is where the old floor manager was burned alive by the robot’s cannons,” the man on the screen was saying. “It’s pretty spooky, I can tell you. It feels like there’s something here. We’re lucky our equipment works down here, the energies in this place can disrupt electronic devices. Our cell phones have been on the fritz since we got here.”

    From his pocket, the bearded man took a small rectangular device and held it up to the air.  “Let’s see what our proprietary ectoplasmic aural spectrometer can detect.” After a few moments, he lowered the device and pressed a button on the side. It began to playback a weird series of noises which resembled badly-garbled speech, as if spoken on a radio frequency full of interference.

    “Do you hear that?” He said. “It’s saying ‘get away,” isn’t it?”

    He played the noise back several times: “Get away! Get away! Get away!” it said, and though still garbled, each time it seemed clearer and clearer.

    “The human ear can’t detect the cries of lost souls,” the man concluded, “But our devices detect the frequencies from the planes beyond, of spirits stuck between this world and the next.”

    The clip ended there, and Charlie gave a firm nod towards his phone, as if to say, “I told you so.”

    “That was recorded on the factory floor just about a year ago,” he said. 

    “Okay, good,” said Sandra. “Come on, enough stalling; let’s get this over with. How do you turn the lights on in here?” She stepped through the huge doorway and into the cavernous room beyond. Although in the darkness she could see only a few feet ahead, the echoing of her footsteps told her the room was vast indeed. 

    “You don’t,” said Charlie.

    “What?” 

    “You don’t turn the lights on. The old man took out the wiring years ago; he said he didn’t want to waste the money. During the day, enough light comes in that you can see pretty good.”

    “And at night?”

    “No one’s supposed to go in here at night; except for ghost hunts, and those happen in the dark anyway.”

    “It’s okay,” Venus said, “Sandra; I think my eyes’ll adjust pretty well, if you want to hang back, I’ll go with him—”

    Oh, so you can take the credit? Sandra thought. “I’ve got a flashlight; I’ll be fine, c’mon, let’s go.”

    Sandra flicked on the beam of light and the three walked into the room. More muffled rumbling from outside indicated the storm was drawing near. Sandra flicked the beam of her light from left to right; inspecting the surroundings. Dilapidated conveyer belts and welding arms sat on the left; on the right, massive rust-covered hooks, designed for loading the finished products into government trucks, hung ominously from chains that disappeared into the blackness above. At irregularly-spaced intervals were pyramidal stacks of cardboard boxes, all labeled “Fragile” and some “Top Secret.” Every few yards, mounted about nine feet up the grey, featureless wall, were inoperative, bulb-less light fixtures, and just below these, small silver disks resembling smoke detectors. The room was cold—clearly, Lurge had not been any more willing to pay for heat than he had for light—and the total absence of the reassuring white noise found in almost all buildings made it feel even more remote and empty. 

    Eventually, the narrow cone of Sandra’s flashlight fell upon something that made all three stop at once, and Charlie yelped with a noise halfway between terror and excitement as he crashed into Venus’ back. She pushed him away, and all three stared at the thing before them.

    It was huge, at least 7 feet in height, and in the general build of its frame, resembled a massive ape. This was by design; it was meant to instill fear by conjuring the genetic memories of great menacing beasts. But where an ape would have had curved muscle, soft flesh, and fur, this figure was outfitted with sharp, angular points of metal—one arm terminating in a long cylinder pockmarked with holes, and the opposite limb in a serrated blade nearly two feet long. Its blocky legs were bent as if it were poised to spring upon its prey, and on its shoulders sat what, by analogy to organic bipeds, might be called its head; a silvery metal cube, covered with thin wire mesh. This appendage was small in comparison to the rest of the armored monster, and if the rest of the figure were not so manifestly intimidating, might have appeared comical.

    “Wow, a genuine combat infantry bot,” Venus whispered. 

    “More like fifty genuine combat infantry bots,” Sandra said, shining her light behind the figure, revealing more identical forms assembled behind it, in a long, perfectly-spaced line; soldiers standing eternal guard at their posts.

    “Technically, these are assault bots,” Charlie with some self-importance. “The way you can tell is that they have more armor in the chest and shoulder areas than a standard infantry bot. These are for storming fortified positions, whereas the typical infantry bot—”

    Venus and Sandra simultaneously glared at Charlie in a way that clearly communicated to him that further details regarding the different attributes and uses of war robots were not required at this time.

    “Is this where you found Lurge?” 

    “Er, yeah; just about. He was…” Charlie looked at the floor and held up his hands as if to measure, pointing to a spot some three yards from the clawed feet of the first robot in line. “…right about here. Well, mostly. Part of him was here. And there.” He indicated an open area a few yards away. “And some more over there.”

    “So, you’re quite sure the robots did it, then?” Venus asked.

    Charlie shook his head. “Well, maybe the robots pulled the trigger. But there’s no way they shoulda been on! These things are deactivated—they’re just here for tourists to see.”

    “Do they have an energy source?” Venus asked.

    “Well, yeah; I mean, there’s a power core in ‘em for demos. But they should never open fire. At most they’d just stomp around a little and look threatening. But that’s only if someone went to the main office and manually activated ‘em.” Charlie could tell he had their attention, and he intended to keep it as long as he could. “There’s this whole security protocol the bots have to go through—they have a voice-controlled activation system. There’s a series of questions the bots ask whoever activated ‘em.”

    “So, they have voice recognition capability?” Venus asked.

    Charlie nodded. “Yup. Voice samples of all key Lurge personnel on file.” There was a very long pause, and Sandra and Venus exchanged a glance. Then both of them looked at Charlie.

    “Chief of Security would be key personnel, huh?” said Sandra quietly.

    Chapter 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.

    Chapter 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.

    Chapter 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!”

    Chapter 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.

    Chapter 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.”

    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