Friday, April 11, 2014

The Mysterious Case of Betty Blue. Pt. 5.

Eight million stories in the naked city. This is just one of them.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4


Louis Shalako

Olympia Cartier reminded herself that frowning gave one age lines.


The servant inclined its head.

“Yes, Madame?”

“Get that policeman on the phone.”

“Inspector MacBride?”

She nodded.

“That’s the one.”

“One moment please.”

Olympia stood uncertainly in front of the panoramic view, the entire floor ringed by glass. It was one of the better views in Manhattan.

“Hello. Gene MacBride here.”


“Yes, Mrs. Cartier?” The fellow was desperately trying not to sound impatient, she understood that.

She was desperately trying not to appear impatient with him and the police in general.

If only someone could tell her, for sure, what happened.

“I was just wondering if we had any new information. On Betty.”

“Ah, no, not really, Mrs. Cartier. These things have a way of resolving themselves, one way or another.” He paused. “If the thing fell in the river or something like that, it would float. It has a transponder and emergency beacons. But the opinions we’re getting from the company and other experts is that it looks like some kind of malfunction.”

They had told her, and her husband, the same thing. This was all based on her statements. What she knew—all she knew, really; was that Betty had been there a few minutes before, and then when next she thought of it, Betty was gone.

But why?

And how?

The hallway cameras showed her opening up the door and walking out as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Which it was, and their servants came and went on a routine basis. 

The only problem was that Betty didn't come back.

“The insurance company is going to be a problem.”

“Ah, yes. Why do you say that?” The Inspector was sympathetic, and the Cartiers were important people. “All you can do is to file the report, I mean the claim, and if necessary, get a lawyer. But they’re just looking to cover their—ah, you know, backsides, Ma’am.”

It struck him just what the problem really was.

“It’s okay, Olympia. I understand. You’re worried about her, of course. They're very human in appearance, and it’s no wonder people take a shine to them…am I right?” The caller was very quiet, and her eyes were on the floor between them. “You’re sort of worrying rather needlessly about Betty, don’t you think? And of course there’s all this pressure, right?”

Pressure to settle with the insurance company, pressure to prove a warranty issue with the manufacturer, pressure to sue, pressure to make a complaint, provide information, talk it over with the husband, pick out the new model, maybe with a few upgrades or a new colour or hair-do or something. He understood the situation well enough.

She felt violated.

She didn't know what to do about it, but time healed all wounds.

Put a little spit on there and walk it off, lady.

“Uh-huh.” Inspector MacBride had seen a few little old ladies and their lost-doggy issues, she realized.

There was the hint of humour in her voice when she responded.

“Well, Inspector. It really is kind of a mystery.” Olympia took a deep breath and then made up her mind as to whether to say it or not.

He would think her quite mad.

“But...I mean, why? Why in the blue blazes would she just up and walk off like that?”

“Well. That really is the question, isn’t it?”

And the manufacturers would be asking themselves the same set of questions, and probably not liking the answers too much. Too much at stake—too much market share, too much liability, too much that could go wrong in a hyper-paranoid world that was nevertheless addicted to what people called tech as if they knew how it worked or could actually grind out the smallest and simplest component in their backyard machine shop.

There were millions of lesser robots out there, and there had been recalls in the past. There were the inevitable horror stories making the rounds.

The Inspector’s calm visage nodded thoughtfully in her big screen, as other detectives milled around in the background of the shot.

“That’s definitely one of the questions we’re asking, Olympia. But we’re, ah, you know, a little bit out of our depth, and that’s why we’re talking to all the experts.” When we get a minute, it would be better not to say.

Hopefully she got it in the diplomatic sense.

“I keep wondering if it was something I said…” There was a tone of wonder there.

He suppressed any quick changes in expression as best he could.

Lord, love a duck—and that time, he was afraid he wasn’t quite fast enough in the controlling of his demeanour.


“Call from Mister Cartier.”

Olympia looked up from the settee, overstuffed and upholstered in lush red velvet. It carefully replicated a piece that could have graced Versailles at the time of Marie Antoinette.

“Thank you, Darryl.”

“I’m Stephen.”

“Ah. Sorry.”

“That’s quite all right, Madame.”

The screen flickered and lit up again.

Her husband, looking long and lean and all of his fifty-seven years at that moment in time, was in the back of his car. It looked to be somewhere on the Turnpike. Any turnpike. In any city of the world, and it probably was.

Quite frankly, she had forgotten where he was today.

“How are you, dearest?”

“Oh, fine. And how are you, lover?”

“Shit. The usual, honey. Gump’s flying in from Rio. He says he has to see me straight away and that it’s, and I quote: important and confidential.”

“I wonder what that means.”

“I wish he wouldn’t call it a loan—it grates on me, that’s all I’m saying. Charity I can understand. Gump just pisses me off with all of his gyrations. So how was your day?”

“It’s still early here. But so-so.” Olympia waved over a servant, pausing theatrically at the archway, the luncheon trolley poised to strike.

“It’s still early there? In other words one of them kind of days. Okay, listen up, Honey. I doubt very much if we’ll get back tonight.” Her husband was on a trade delegation to Sumatra or something, she recalled.

Somewhere like that, but she had her own interests and so she never had to be bored if she didn't want to.

“Yes, not unexpected. We’ll just have to do without you.” Her favourite dwarf, Sylphie, crawled into her lap.

The child had a fetal-alcohol syndrome look about the eyes and forehead, and Olympia stroked her hair as the child looked up in a kind of cheerful worship.

Olympia was allergic to dogs and cats, and for some reason the artificial ones had never appealed to her.

The robotic boys and girls were different, so much more satisfying.

They were like dolls that could talk. And you could switch them off if they became insufferable.


Danvers was on the line again. He was pressing them to accept a replacement for Betty and sign off on the claim.

Robots and other chattels were covered under the household policy unless otherwise specified. The Cartiers had top-of-the-line coverage, as he kept reminding her.

“Well, then. Why can’t we let the police have a little more time?” Olympia had always liked Betty Blue.

She was one of her favourites, if not the favourite, among her household servants. That one had always had a kind of personality, not like some of the others. Admittedly, the kitchen and maid staff were less expensive models. They weren’t designed to interact in anything other than the simplest ways. But Betty was a companion, designed and programmed as such.

And she really had been special, Olympia had to admit. Darryl, Stephen, Missy, they were all well enough in their own way. It was true they were very much individuals. Olympia wondered if any of them had ever thought of walking off, but she doubted it very much.

There was that ineffable something about Betty.

Night or day meant nothing to Scott.
Betty asked a question once in a while, and while the others did that too, Betty’s seemed a little deeper.

Betty was looking for meaning sometimes, while the others were just looking for answers and instructions, acknowledgement. It was a kind of artificial neediness. The robots were looking for feedback of an infantile nature.

They were looking for reassurance, so that they would be better able to anticipate—and to serve.

Poor Betty Blue.

Was it something I said?


Devon entered the room with a bright and cheerful look on his face.

“Devon! Have you seen James?”

“Ah, yes, Auntie. James is on the kitchen level, polishing silverware.” He stopped there, looking puzzled. “Oh, yes. Scissors.”


“He should be all right on his own for a while, Ma'am.” Devon went to a side-table and pulled out a drawer.



“It’s funny how you can never find things when you need them.”

“Ask one of the servants, dear.” Devon was a nephew, and a perennial visitor to the lair, especially when he wasn’t in good odor a the Ivy-League school he had attended off and off over the last eight years.

Some day her nephew was going to be a doctor.


Night or day meant nothing to Scott of course, and yet it was ironic.

All that technology. They could give a robot eyes and sell them to anyone with the price of admission.

But you could not teach a blind man to see, and there were none so blind as those who refused to look.

“Well. I really got to hand it to you, Buddy.” The security guy was apologetic. "I admire you, I really do."

What a fantastic sense of humour. The guy really was priceless.

Fucking unbelievable.

The station closed at two a.m. and the man had been sitting there patiently waiting for his girl. It hadn’t escaped his notice that the man had a white cane and a rather forlorn look on his face.

“Well, what are you going to do, anyways?” There was a catch in Scott’s voice, when he realized that this meant the station was closed and they were kicking him out.

Betty had specified this exact place. Hours had gone by. She wasn’t there. Sooner or later, he had to move on.

It was a simple equation, just a few symbols, all in a row inside of your head, a language that anyone could understand..

“I’m real sorry, man. There’s a park just across the street. You can sit and watch the entrance and maybe she’ll show up…” The guard’s voice trailed off. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay. I’ll be fine. At least it’s not raining.”

The guard had his doubts, as he’d just been out there and the fine pricks of wet coldness were unmistakable. 

Rain was in the forecast, and rain was on the way. He could smell it.

“The street-light is down to the right about fifty yards.” With an arm in the guard’s careful possession, Scott had little choice but to allow himself to be led off into yet another unknown. “I’m really sorry about this, Mister. If you cross at the light and come back down the other side, you’ll find there’s a park bench right across the street.”

For obvious reasons, the guard would be risking his employment for such a simple courtesy as taking Scott directly over there. That would be all of forty-eight feet.

It's a big world.

Scott tapped his way along, killing time and avoiding the dreadful thought that Betty would desert him. The alternatives weren’t much better. She might have been caught, she might have given herself up in spite of her statements. She might have simply gotten lost, or detained, or fallen off a roof or something…anything, really.

It was just as the man had said. He found the intersection, listened to the signals, and the cars.

There were few voices about, but the vehicles were idling tamely enough and he set across on the familiar pong-pong, pong.

Fifty yards north, and fifty yards south. He counted his steps. His questioning stick, held in the right hand and then the left, followed the gutter on his left and then hit something on his right.

He stopped, and slowly explored it. It was indeed a park bench. Across the street, he could almost sense the security guard’s benevolent but ultimately impotent watch.

Scott sat down.

Why didn’t Betty show up?

Think in the proper terms.

What I don’t know I can’t reveal under torture.

Scott smiled, for the first time in hours.

It was a bitter smile.

The realization that he could just get on a bus and go home held its own insidious logic.

The trouble was that he wanted to know what happened. And what happens next?

Good question, he admitted.

There was a peculiar whistle from the park behind him, cutting through the noise of cars, trucks, delivery vehicles and always that persistent hum of voices from somewhere.

The whistle came again.

He’d heard that one a million times.

It started off at a certain pitch, and then it went up, and then it went down.

It was like a bosun’s pipe, only electronic.

Scott was being hailed, from somewhere in the darkness.

His heart thudded. It was closer, more insistent now.

Aw, fucking Jesus, what do I do?

How do I know that’s even her?

And yet it did make a weird kind of sense—she’d been watching the area for hours, most likely.

That had to be it. She'd been waiting.

For fuck’s sakes

Ah, fuck it.

I need to fucking pee anyways.

Scott needed to pee anyways.
I might as well get this over with—whatever happens.

He had the sudden urge to cross himself or something, in spite of a strong overall atheism.

Scott clambered awkwardly to his feet, taking his time about it. There were certain to be bushes and trees and arbitrarily-placed bedding plants and herbaceous borders.

Standing there, he sighed deeply.

The whistle came again, twice.

He felt his way into the unknown.


Scott disappeared into the forbidding gloom.

The guard tore his eyes off the street and went back to his regular duty of checking all the rest-rooms for stragglers, and then making sure there were no other drunks or druggies hiding away.

He had the coffee-pot and his tablet. What more did he need?

In another few hours, his relief would show up and then he could go home.


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