Friday, June 6, 2014

The Mysterious Case of Betty Blue, Pt. 13.

Detectives at work. (Mike Reyher.)
Here are the previous episodes of The Mysterious Case of Betty Blue.

Part 1
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 12

The Mysterious Case of Betty Blue. Pt. 13.

Louis Shalako

Something in Gene’s peripheral vision darkened the doorway.

Dave Parsons was in plain clothes and looked a bit overawed by his present surroundings. There was nothing hard to knock on, with the soft-sided cubicles in this modern, open-plan office. MacBride shared this space with several others.

“Ah, Dave. Come on in.” Gene MacBride stood. “I’ll introduce you around a bit later. Most of the team is out—which is usually the case.”

Gene gave Acting Detective Sergeant Parsons a friendly grin. He indicated a chair by Detective Subiyachi’s desk in the far corner.

“Grab that one. We’ll find you a desk shortly.”

The wheels squeaked as Parsons dragged it over. Gene had been doing some thinking about a desk for Dave, and it wasn’t as easy as it sounded. This area held four detectives, and squashing Parsons in there was going to be problematic. Yet it was better to have him right there, rather than at the far end of the building in some obscure cubicle that lacked all the plug-ins and services. If they shoved the outer partition outwards, it would free up some space, but make the passageway a little too narrow for comfort. Still, it was his crew and upper management probably wouldn’t say much. There were the fire codes to consider.

MacBride sat down carefully as his butt had taken on a kind of a red, raw, turkey-skin effect right in the vicinity of the tailbone. While normally not a vain man, and it was only slightly painful at times, for some reason he saw it as a sign of age.

It was incipient armchair warrior status.

And it bugged him. The notion that he might go in and explain aforesaid problem to a pharmacist, most likely an attractive twenty-two year-old female one, might have had something to do with his minor mental irritation.

It was such a small thing. Gene actually blushed. Parsons appeared aware of how gingerly he lowered himself down. The guy had to look at something. Dave was looking shy and chewing on the bottom of his lip as he watched Gene carefully from his baby-blues. It was oddly charming in a forty-something year-old man. He seemed fit enough, with no big belly flapping down over his belt, and there was something of the tiger in his stance coming in.

“Thank you, Gene.”

Dave had lavished on the aftershave. His shoes were shined and he was squeaky clean behind the ears. 

Gene smiled again.

Parsons had pulled up his chair at a proper distance and on a good angle. Averting his eyes, he looked at the big screen on Gene’s desk. There wasn’t much there to look at except his plotting board, a slathering of light rectangles on his habitual dark background, and a few small notes. They had several murder investigations ongoing, possibly related going by geographical factors and modus operandi, and while the perp had been profiled to some degree, MacBride was wondering about the timeline. There were no conflicts, and that was good, as no one could be in two places at the same time. There were no close correlations between phases of the moon, weekends, statutory or known world-wide religious holidays…school was in for some of the incidents and out for some others. This one was still a slasher. If the crimes were related. The religious angle, the sanctimony, the tendency to communicate, was missing. The crimes were still being described as unrelated. They were all girls and young women of a certain age, the Nordic type. What the hell that meant, he had no idea. He had no hunches either way. The killings were all linked by being committed off-camera and without biometric correlations to anyone proven to be in the immediate areas. Going by known attributes, there were only so many people in the area at the time, and all others could be accounted for. All of their stories had been checked out and they were all clean. It had to be someone else. Someone was being very clever indeed…maybe.

It was a pretty puzzle.

But if they were all related, this one was good.

Really good.

Let Parsons stew for a moment. It would do him good to be humbled just a bit, and he needn’t overdo it.

The trouble was that someone must have done it in each and every one of the cases, or possibly someone or two or three someones had done all of them...

He reached over and closed the file.

He leaned back in his chair, exchanging a look with the guy.

MacBride picked up his coffee cup and had a quick sip. He looked at his watch, an anniversary gift from his wife Irene.

“Okay. This is only a temporary assignment, but you’ve been very helpful so far.” He cleared his throat. “If we have any success, naturally that would be good, and in any case, I’ve already put a good word in for you…”

Parsons nodded. Otherwise, he wouldn’t even be here.

Off in the far distance, the sound of a kettle whistling rose above the hum of the lights and the whir of computer cooling fans. Someone coughed. There was the muffled hum of a few scattered folks working in their cubicles. The phone in a nearby cubicle beeped persistently, but there was nobody home and it wasn’t all that loud. Francine’s voice came from behind him then and soft footfalls turned the corner. She whisked into the room with a coat over one arm and a cardboard cup in the other hand.

“Ah.” Dropping his feet abruptly, Gene stood up, and Parsons stood up.

Gene made introductions as Francine pulled her heavily-padded work chair out of her space, which she had arranged in what she called a cockpit. It was very much like that, with everything adjustable and ergonomically-designed for long spells in the saddle. She hung up her coat.

More than anything, crimes were solved by information, its gathering, its analysis, and its cohesion. Run it through the machine, tabulate, and if a charge was justified, one would shortly be forthcoming.

“So.” Francine seemed bright-eyed and bushy-tailed this morning. “We have some new leads.”

“Yes, Francine.”

Parsons nodded, licking his lips slightly.

He had brought his own coffee, a large one from a popular chain operation, which saved time and dicking around. Gene allowed him time to struggle with the plastic tab.

Those things could be a bastard at times.

“First one.”        

Gene manipulated his screen, bringing up another file, with another plotting board. This one was looking better now with a few entries.

Their new friend pointed at the most recent one.


Dave Parsons spoke up.

“This is an odd-ball. For some obvious reasons it struck the computer that whoever stole this car had done it before. But the capability to jack this kind of security system is pretty rare—this guy’s a real pro, right? There was even the bonus prize of a shit-load of Filter Kings in the back end.”

The vehicle belonged to a salesman.

One of the problems was that there were a few hundred suspects, and many of them had been off the radar and unaccounted-for, for some time. Mostly pros, but a few talented amateurs on that list. The amateurs were mostly dopers with a little patience and some skills in the hacking department. There were always people rotating off to incarceration, and always new people coming up. The newest were unknown quantities, and often anonymous, without even a handle or a street-name to go by.

A cargo aboard was a double score, as far as a thief was concerned.

Parson’s touched the rectangle and all the details, the make, the model, location, time of day, and the details on the property inside were revealed.

Francine nodded.

“Ah. They’re expensive as hell. Some high-pressure sales tactics, too.”

Their frickin’ robots came to your door and told you that you had won a free vacuuming job, any three rooms in the house. This was normally a five-hundred-dollar value, as inflation had been running a bit high these last few years.

They did a good job, too. She could attest to that herself, only problem was getting them to leave.

It wasn’t easy to push them around, and she’d practically had to shoot the really forceful one just to get him to shut up. Intrigued, Francine had looked it up. It was all legal and everything. All you had to do was not let them in.

All you had to do was stand your ground, but of course no one wanted to appear rude.

Parsons seemed very intelligent.

“That’s right. But here’s the weird part. The car was abandoned, hundreds of kilometres away. And the vacuum cleaners were still in the back.”

“Not chopped?” Gene could see the point well enough.

That vehicle should have disappeared, forever, within twenty minutes or a half an hour at most, going by past event profiles. All the little identifying tags, radio and passive markers, tended to end up in the nearest sewer-drain, or maybe under a bridge somewhere. The whole process took remarkably little time. With manpower always a problem, the cops would usually show up to an empty warehouse somewhere and find the crooks long gone.

The more ordinary thieves, simple loners or gangstas, wouldn’t steal a car just to get vacuum cleaners. 

They’d smash some glass, grab a few and run, ripping the boxes apart to get at the stock tracking devices inside the packaging of everything they made these days.

Nowadays, buying hot items ‘still in the box’ was strictly a no-no and everybody knew it.                     

“No—and you would think a guy that could steal a car like that would know better. We’ve gotten some swabs, and hopefully we can identify him and find him.”

Francine looked thoughtful.

"You keep saying him."

"Yeah--because if it's the robot, it's her first time. It's also a real leap of behaviour. And yet we know or believe she's capable of violence, maybe even proactive violence...I guess that's my thinking there."

Gene and Francine exchanged glances. They chewed on that one for a while.

“What’s your main point?”

“Assuming a thief. Why didn’t he take the car to a chop-shop? Why leave a signature? Whoever did this beat the latest in smart key and voice-recognition…and then just abandoned it?”

Parsons looked at Francine.

“Just taking the car took real skills. Joyrides are almost always in a parent’s car, or one of the older models.”

There were still a few of those around, in fact some of the suburban gangs loved to rip off old muscle cars and trash them. Owners confronted by a ’69 Cuda wrapped around a telephone pole, or a Hemi with a blown engine, tended to cry when informed of the car’s fate. The law prevented further restorations just to get them off the road. In that sense, the government had finally recognized what was euphemistically called ‘historic climate flux in the Biblical sense,’ as borne out by stuff every kid learned in school.

“If he’s still alive.” Francine thought. “Or she.”

Parsons nodded.

“There are no bodies unaccounted-for in the immediate vicinity. But—we might get some DNA from Nettles. That would be nice. Also, robots have taggants embedded in the skin, which follows a limited number of DNA patterns. The lab boys have found one or two.” In his own opinion, not really enough to be conclusive.

Gene’s mouth opened. There were a limited number of options for robot skin makers. Their repertoire was nothing like the population at large in terms of sample size, and there were only a small number of subcontractors. He’d read all about it, just trying to get some kind of handle on what the hell they were dealing with. He was familiar with all kinds of human perps. But if robots were all new; criminal robots were unheard-of.

Up until now.

Francine gave Gene a look.

“I’m not suggesting anything. Not yet. But that robot looked damned strong.”

Gene considered it. He sipped his coffee.

Parsons spoke.

“She’s very resourceful. She didn’t kill the muggers in the park.”

Francine inclined her head.

Hardly conclusive, but it was an indicator.

Gene’s mind rolled it around and around.

"If she surprised a thief in the act, and took the car off him...there's no incentive for him to report it." Parsons pointed at the screen, needing to do something with his nervous hands. "If he's alive, he can be found, possibly, he might talk, to somebody...he might get picked up somewhere along the way."

Filed for future reference, in other words. Parsons had a thorough mind.

She’d certainly had the opportunity to kill. Nettles wasn’t holding anything back either in that little shindig. Nettles was almost lucky he hadn’t killed anyone. Self-defense, yes. But even so—he was in possession of stolen property. The commission of a crime vitiated self-defense to a certain degree. His mind went over it quickly, and not being a legal specialist, he’d have to inquire a little more deeply. A long list of old cases went through Gene's mind. It wasn’t unprecedented, but in his line of work that was somebody else’s problem.

The general principles were clear enough.

Parsons settled into his chair a little deeper. Now that he was on the scene, actually working, he could relax some. He’d been a bit nervy since getting the call. He went on.

“Also. The car was stolen about four kilometres due west of the rave party.” That part of town was still within borough limits.

Gene nodded. The computer had picked it up as anomalous, a set of indicators that didn’t add up.

“Okay.” It was certainly interesting.

“Connect the dots.” Parsons reached over and activated a map onscreen. “They’ve escaped the city. They abandoned the car upstate.”

Francine cleared her throat.

“Okay. Not going south, then.” There were better ways to travel if they were going south, they would maybe use the highways, or they could hop a freight train…or simply ditch the vehicle and walk south.

With proper ID, they could fly, but so far no signs of that.

Parsons smiled.

“Ah. But we have another stolen car.” And his hand went to his pocket and he pulled a data-stick from his side jacket pocket. “It was stolen a good twenty kilometres away from where the station wagon was abandoned, but.”

Rising, he looked at Gene.

“May I?”

Gene nodded and looked at Francine.

“Be my guest.” His eyes came back.

Parsons located the socket on the side of the screen as Gene touched the virtual buttons to bring it up and open the file.

There came the ‘poing’ sound. Gene touched the screen, here, here…here.

A new box appeared on their time-line.

He quickly read off the details.


This time it was a family vehicle, a six-wheel drive all-terrain monster that must have been eight feet tall to the the light rack on top. Gene saw it as a passing phase, but people were really nuts these days and the advertising even madder. Here was a family man, who honestly believed that it might be someday necessary to winch his vehicle (with the wife and kids in it?) up a six-hundred metre cliff judging by the highly-chromed front bumper accessory.

Francine got up, stepped in close and read it.

“So they ended up in Pennsylvania. That’s where the car was dumped, anyways.”

Parsons nodded.

“And not chopped, not flogged off anywhere. It’s a long way from the point of origin for a joy-ride.”

She looked at Parsons, sinking back into her seat.

“So where do you think they’re going?”

He pursed up his lips to speak but Gene beat him to it.

“Canada—the only question is where. How do they plan on doing it?”

He met Parsons’ eyes.

Parsons gave him an intensely earnest look.

“It’s either that, or west. The top tier states are still pretty sparsely inhabited. If they try that, they will have to change their appearance and identity. All the roads up there do have cameras, and they have a better record of keeping them operating. But Canada is so much closer. There are places where they could cross by land—New Brunswick, southern Quebec...lots of hills and forests. The prairies are less likely. It’s all open country out there. They’re going the wrong way for anything east. But a river crossing, at night. Maybe.”

“Not the Niagara River?” Francine had seen it. “Or the St. Lawrence?”

Parsons looked thoughtful.

“No. There are much better places. More remote, with maybe less of a current…” Parsons pointed. “Walpole Island. Shit, that’s a couple of hundred metres in a rubber boat. Or the Detroit River. Ah. Farther upstream, maybe.”

"A couple hundred metres in a rubber boat."
Other than that; there was Mackinac, but Lake Michigan and Lake Superior seemed to offer some pretty big hurdles, not least of which was getting there undetected. Going around Chicago involved a long detour.
Dystroit. And why not? They might even go to ground there. There was all kinds of liberal underground activity up in that neck of the woods.

“Hmn.” Gene considered.

He looked at the time of the theft, and when the discovery had been reported in the local police records. It was barely a day ago, and Parsons had been using his contacts well.

“Okay.” His lips pursed. “It’s still a small area. I’ll call the Pennsylvania State Troopers, and the feds.”

It was like a breath of fresh air.

“Let’s see how many drones and other passive systems we can get on that…”

Parsons pointed at Ohio, Indiana, northern Kentucky, and upstate New York as Gene nodded in comprehension. He nodded again when Parsons pointed at Vermont and the fellow’s hand dropped to his lap. 

Parsons sat up straighter, leaning forward to study the screen.

“All righty, then.”

Gene spun around, leaned back, and his chair was angled perfectly to put his feet up on the end. Francine shifted away and Parsons rolled his chair to the left to give himself more room. Not unexpectedly, Parsons pulled out his own device and began flipping through pages and contacts.

He seemed like a pretty useful guy.

Gene’s left hand reached for his desk-top multi-phone and after few seconds with the list, he was dialing his first number.


(Alan Levine.)
Letitia’s personal hatchet man and a few trusted souls had built a replica classroom in a very short period of time. A dozen of their newest employees sat straight, fresh-faced and optimistic. They had their hands in their lap, knees close together, and their feet flat on the floor.

She bit back any sign of approval.

“All right. Today’s session involves the simulation of an unknown threat. Suffice it to say that we are cooperating with authorities, and we are on nationwide lookout for a small number of unidentified persons, working with minimal inputs so far.”

Each student, still in their probationary period of a full year here at SimTech, had been cleared on moral grounds, although some of them were a bit skimpy on their technical qualifications.

Sometimes this was a good thing.

All of them had talent, and all of them were the cheerful, optimistic sort that had no trouble seeing the good in everyone.

More than anything, they had a foot in the door at SimTech, and must have had high hopes for the future. 

They were looking for jobs for life and that was good.

They might even succeed.

Across the front of the room, behind a rollaway three-metre blackboard, the big screen took up the entire upper half of the front wall, and each student had a console of three screens. On the sides were a half dozen more screens on the left, while the right wall was blackboard near the front, and corkboard back to the rear corner and the doorway. Closets and a small coffee nook completed the layout. In this part of the SimTech campus, the ceiling was an impressive honeycomb of reinforced concrete, ducts, tubes and light fixtures which emitted a pleasant and reassuring buzz.

Boyd came in with long rolls of cable dangling from one hand and a tool belt on his waist.

“Can it wait until later?”

“Uh, I suppose. But it’s just the TV, the news feed. I’ll keep it quiet…”

Letitia nodded. It was part of the act as much as anything. Everything was all very new here.

Twenty-four eyes followed her every move as she picked up chalk and a long maple pointer.

If the universe really was a hologram, then life was just a game-space and nothing really mattered anymore.

It was a kind of justification.

She smiled brightly and then let it drop.

“Okay. Our job here is to filter data. There’s a lot of it, as you can imagine. We’re taking inputs, 
theoretically, from the entire United States, as well as a broad swath of our neighbours’ surveillance uptake, both in Canada and in Mexico.”

There was a collective squirm and some muttering when the implications of this set in.


“Call me Chief. Yes?”

“That’s a lot of data.”

“Ah, yes, in fact it’s very consumptive of machine-time, which is why this is only a simulation. All of our data is, in fact; simply generated, and it merely provides us with the environment in which to conduct our exercise. Even so, we are sucking up to one-third of system resources during this exercise, so pay attention.’

This was greeted by a nervous chuckle from the young man in question. His name tag read Ned.

The end of her pointer touched the blackboard and her first images popped up.

“Subject one. Caucasian male, approximately thirty-eight years old, quite tall, thinning brown hair, brown eyes. He’s also blind.”

She engaged their eyes for a second.

Boyd was down on hands and knees, working inside the rear closet which took up two-thirds of the back wall.

“Subject two. Female robot—”

There were gasps and giggles.

“Don’t laugh. It could happen. They are traveling together. We’re looking for anomalies, as they have disappeared right off the radar.”

A young woman in the front row nodded sagely.

“Marnie. What sort of anomalies are we looking for?”

Marnie sat up.

“Well, we could look for anomalous hits. That would be IDs with no point of origin, in the case of newly-created citizen profiles.”

Letitia nodded, beaming at the girl. She had this one all picked out for some nascent leadership qualities.

“We can measure sightings over a time-line. Too big a jump, and it’s a giveaway.”

“What do you mean?”

Some guy named Rick’s hand shot up.

“They couldn’t have gotten from point A to point B in the time allotted using available means.”

She pointed at Rick.

He stood, taking a quick glance down at his screen. He was a surreptitious reader, probably not realizing she could monitor all the screens in the room from her own big desk, sloping there, and up off the ground a good ways, like a big drawing table. All of them were educated.

She put the chalk down and went to her desk.

“Well. Chief. There could be a new ID but with no prior activity. A ghost citizen. The same could be said for vehicles—a new fake number and yet no backup history to go along with it.”

“Very good. Go on.”

“Kids have been chipped for years now. A kid, a bit too young, one with a new chip, one out of sequence, might be an illegal immigrant, or it must have a proper data trail to account for it…”

He looked uncertainly around at a classmate.                       

“…I’m saying he’d have to have a visa and some kind of status listed with other agencies to account for the discrepancy.”

Letitia nodded, encouraging them with a sweeping glance.

Without rising, the red-haired girl spoke up.

“There would be obvious frauds, those who had simply stolen ID. They would not match the biometrics on the card, but in some circumstances the card is enough to do a certain job…”

She was on thin ice and she knew it, but she had the idea. The kid went on to talk about drones, street-level surveillance, store-front cameras, Neighbourhood Watch cameras...the kid knew her stuff to some degree.

Letitia picked another face, another name tag.

(Matthew  WMF.)

“On an older vehicle, the card might get you in and the motor started. What you do after that is pretty chancy.” This young man, bearded and beaded and tattooed, had the air of experience, like someone who knew what he was talking about.

He blushed at the first sign of approval.

It struck Letitia that she might be a kind of mother-figure, at least to some of them.

“Very good. Next.”

She pointed at the guy with the ring in his nose.

At SimTech, employees were trained in complementary pairs. They were ones and twos, rights and lefts. She'd have them put the buds in and head-jack each other next, and then they would go full immersion.


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