The Mysterious Case of Betty Blue.
Scott was drunk.
The booze wasn’t helping. It was like his skin just wanted to crawl off of him and run away and hide somewhere.
He knew the sensation.
Here it was again—and that thought alone was enough to rekindle the turmoil. Because he knew exactly what it could do to him.
It was just fear, and fear alone won’t kill you—or at least it shouldn’t. Simply knowing that didn’t seem to be of much help right then.
There was nowhere to run because they were already running.
There was nowhere to go because there was nowhere to go.
What was shocking was that Betty must have known that.
The realization was too much for him.
Scott hadn’t had a serious anxiety attack in twelve or thirteen years. The thing was not to let it revolve around in your head.
But he was awfully close to having one now.
He felt sick to his stomach all of a sudden. His heart and respiration surged.
“Oh, God. Oh, Baby. How in the fucking hell are we ever going to get out of this?”
“I don’t know, Scott.”
In spite of all odds, they were still at large. Betty had the feeling the noose was closing tighter, and yet she would be hard-pressed to explain why. Scott expected a hard hand to clamp onto his neck at any second.
It was just a feeling they had. They’d been too lucky so far.
They had simply stolen car after car and driven clear across Middle America with nary a hitch.
It could not be that easy. It just couldn’t.
“We really ought to do this more often.” Even the joke sounded sick.
She smiled absently and went over to the window. They were on the nineteenth floor of a major hotel-casino in Las Vegas.
Scott sat in an upholstered chair, listening to the TV news. It was the usual litany of house fires, traffic incidents and unarmed peaceniks going postal, becoming unruly, or losing control of their demeanor and having to be shot at their workplace, or in a school, sometimes a mall or a theatre somewhere. It’s a good thing the Volunteers and their fanatical counterparts the Vigilantes, were everywhere.
The next piece was about a landing on Mars, which seemed imminent but still hadn’t happened.
At one time, Scott would have been enthralled. Right now he had bigger fish to fry.
“They always say the same thing.” Her voice was pensive, far away.
“Huh. Yeah. He was polite, kept to himself and never gave anybody any trouble.” Scott laughed. “Until now!”
“No. I meant Mars. This is a giant leap for humankind…” She understood Scott’s point well enough. “But really just a lot of hoopla about a money-pit that will never bring any benefits to the poor, tired, huddled masses.”
But the fact was; that it was always a similar kind of profile. If he wasn’t blind, Scott might have fit that profile a little too well himself, and so he never really joined into the conversation.
What was he supposed to do?
Condemning them seemed superfluous, and if they really were mentally ill, why was it so hard to spot the syndrome? Some guy goes into the departmental office, spends half his weekly income on the penalties for not buying guns, someone should be asking a few questions.
In his experience it was just too easy to slip through or be hammered through the cracks in the system.
A forgotten man himself, he had to be careful not to extend too much sympathy, at least in conversation with other people…besides, all that had changed now.
His life meant something now.
The news was all about the landing on Mars, which seemed imminent but still hadn’t happened. It was the longest segment so far, he noticed, but then it was all hot and positive news, a bit of a rarity these days in spite of persistent spin and creative editing.
He had bigger fish to fry.
“Will you marry me?”
Her laugh tinkled out and cut through his gloomy mood in a way that only she had.
It was something special that they shared.
Scott flushed. A tired smile crept over his face.
“I’m sorry, dear. It’s just that you caught me by surprise—of course I’ll marry you.” She heaved a sigh and came over and sat on the arm of his chair. “But we need some kind of resolution here. We need to get out of this bloody predicament, the good old U.S. of A.”
“When?” He didn’t want to say that would be never. “Let’s do it now—while we’re right here.”
In Nevada, they took on all comers, and just over the border in California, people could marry in threesomes and multi-role relationships, which Scott had heard of but didn’t pretend to understand. But a man could marry two women, or two men would marry three women. One of those women could be married to another man, and one of the men, or more, might have outside attachments. Each of their roles was clearly defined before going into it, with some rather wordy prenuptial agreements in place.
“What? Are you serious?”
“Yes. Come on, Betty. Look. If that doesn’t throw a fuck into their minds, I don’t know what will—”
Her jaw dropped.
“Scott. My mad lover…my man. My boyfriend! My real, live boyfriend. You, sir, are a genius.” She leaned in close and began kissing his neck and his ear.
She couldn’t believe she just said that. He wasn’t putting up much of a struggle…
“All right, all right.” His arm slid up and he pulled her down onto him. “But don’t think you’re going to distract me, not for a minute…”
The attitude didn’t last long, but he didn’t feel too hard done by it.
“What?” Olympia Cartier was incredulous.
“I’m afraid it’s true, Madame.” Mister Carlson acted unsurprised.
When he discovered the discrepancy, he’d been quite shocked. Arithmetic was such a simple little thing, and it just seemed so unlikely.
It was only upon deeper inquiry that he found the problem was quite extensive. He mentally reviewed the pages, something not difficult for one of his job description. It didn’t take long to get a few answers, none of which eased his mind or settled his worries. Somehow the entries had been blocked, but sooner or later the system had to balance.
In the end, there was only one conclusion to be drawn. Betty Blue had been cooking the books.
Olympia was in her chair, with Mister Carlson looking over her shoulder, a shaky and slender finger pointing out each and every entry. This room was austerity itself, with none of the gilt and rococo of the rest of the house. This room was strictly business. Personal, household business, but business nevertheless.
“Here’s one. Here…here…here.” He was thoroughly nonplussed by it.
There was no rational explanation. None of their system intruder alerts had gone off, and the series seemed to go back a couple of months.
“Oh, my God.” Olympia was shocked.
Her colour rose. She’d sent Betty off on some of these errands herself.
While each entry didn’t seem to be for all that much money, it was never in round figures. It was one-thousand-ninety-four-dollars here and eight-thousand-forty-four-sixty-one somewhere else. Betty must have been sneaking out on her own; making unauthorized purchases, and keeping the change. There were just too many of them, and at all different times of day.
Mr. Carlson pointed at an unfamiliar symbol.
“She’s done some online transfers.” He swallowed, standing upright now and looking over her head into a kind of infinity.
Her fingers flew across the keys.
“What…is the one common element in each and every one of these discrepancies?” Mister Carlson, his voice rising in a kind of triumph, paused, and looked at his employer.
She was not only dumbfounded, but deeply hurt by this revelation.
Her eyes bored into the screen, and then came up and she searched his face.
“Betty. Betty Blue.”
Betty Blue, whom she had loved and trusted and taken into her own household as if she was her very own daughter. Betty Blue had been systematically ripping off the household accounts, and for all they knew, this might be just the tip of the iceberg.
“It’s a good thing I spotted it.” Mister Carlson couldn’t keep a note of smugness out of his voice and his demeanour.
Looking back, he had to admit that there had always been something just a little bit different about that one.
They had made allowances. They had made her feel welcome, a valued member of the household. It wasn’t just her obvious and latent sexual qualities. As a professional, he could rise above all of that. He’d had one or two qualms, after all, young girls had crushes and all that sort of thing. In the end, nothing had come of it, and he had come to terms with her to some extent.
She had her independent streak, and yet deferred to him in a respectful fashion when it was appropriate, not least of which was in front of junior staff.
No, it was just her sheer intelligence, the competence…her coolness, and her poise. There was always that mysterious something, call it humour, call it a sense or spirit, in behind those crystalline eyes. He’d sensed a certain kind of trouble there, and if the trouble that came wasn’t exactly the same as the trouble you expected, it still goes to show you…
It seemed as if his instincts had been pretty good, right from the start.
Olympia’s jaw worked back and forth.
Her hand stabbed forth and she shut down that page.
She gave Mister Carlson an angry look.
“Get me that insurance broker on the phone.”
“Yes, Missus Cartier.”
No wonder they were so eager to settle the claim—there was no telling how much damage an out-of-control robot might cause. She was still seething, a little too angry after that last little incident, to show any mercy this time around.
Her mind raced. She knew all about business from listening to Doyle, of course, and she was not entirely without experience on her own.
Betty Blue hadn’t been recovered. She was still out there, somewhere—Olympia's gut instinct was pretty adamant about that. If she had simply failed or malfunctioned, she would have been found by now.
It’s what she honestly believed. That Betty was out there, somewhere, all on her own. And that she could be found, and brought home, and things could get back to normal.
Olympia was determined to get to the bottom of this if it frickin’ killed her.
She slumped back in the seat, heart pounding.
And if they weren’t careful, they would be liable for whatever damage Betty did…
“Hold on. Belay that order…”
Her mouth was a firm line, lips closed and working back and forth against each other.
“No. We’d better talk to Doyle about this. And maybe our lawyer.”
“Yes, that’s a good idea. Would you like me to call the police?”
Standard Operating Procedure, as Doyle called it.
She really couldn’t think of what else to do. But somebody over there was going to get a blast.
Betty had done her homework. With her extensive database, and her quick mimicry of what she saw around her, she took extra pains with Scott’s appearance.
She had dandified her man. Scott had no idea of what he looked like these days, small consolation for his worries.
Scott smelled wonderful, something he never would have said about himself. Everything from the mousse in his hair, to the silky-smooth shave, to the powder on his neck from her trim and styling, everything augured for success.
“Okay. Let’s get this little escapade on the road.”
As usual, he was taking her word for a lot of things. If Betty said it was three o’clock in the morning, then it was. If Betty said this particular funeral director, justice of the peace and minister of this particular roadside wedding chapel wasn’t too particular on details, and that all he really cared about was getting paid, cash up front was best, well, then, he wasn’t inclined to ask too many questions.
On Scott’s insistence, they had faked up another identity, only in this instance there was a twist. He was listed as Scott Nettles, of Scottsdale Arizona. There actually was such a person, only three years older than himself. To their good fortune, according to Betty the gentleman bore a passing resemblance to Scott.
With Betty’s built-in scanning feature, and her innate ability to hack in and around almost anything, because after all it mirrored her own inner self, they could change the image, the code, the ID scan and pix to anything or anyone they wanted.
It was another good omen, but that other Scott Nettles was unmarried. It voided one possible pitfall.
According to Betty, the state had never really achieved the promise of full integration of all network resources. For one thing, it would have made the delivery of social services a little too efficient. Also according to Betty, it would have prevented corruption. Since any crime that was not committed by private individuals but government employees and their contractors was by definition corruption, it was easy to see why that failure to fully integrate must never happen.
It would have made things a little too difficult for them. And of course, they were the ones most familiar with the systems—and the most access to them and the vast cash flow that sustained this fermenting nation through good times and dark.
“So. Are you sticking with Betty Blue?”
“Yes. Scott. I am.”
His guts churned but he had to trust to something. Pure luck, or God, or something.
She took his elbow, closing the hotel room door behind them. He bent and found a suitcase. Scott was getting really good at acting as if he was sighted. With her fussing nervously and tapping along on her usual high-heels, it wasn’t as hard as it looked—another one of those damned sight puns, he thought.
There were altogether too many of those in the world already.
Why don’t people come up with some deaf puns, or dumb puns, or fucking lost my penis in an unfortunate smelting incident sort of puns—anything, really.
Almost anything would do.
“Well. I’ll be damned.”
“You said that already.” Francine looked over Parsons’ shoulder.
He had just gotten off the phone with Olympia Cartier, hopping mad and demanding some sort of precipitate action.
To watch Parsons fawn and ingratiate and supplicate with the old bitch was an inspiration.
She had new respect for him with each passing moment.
Gene was expected momentarily, held up for forty minutes so far by a high-speed monorail accident. Due to a spate of such suicide incidents, trains were equipped with what amounted to a cow-catcher on the front.
Unfortunately, the crowd of hopeful suicides was a bit bigger this morning than the makers had anticipated, nor the government oversight committee for that matter.
One of the fortunates had gone in through the windshield, which, even at three inches thick, could not withstand the weight of a human body striking it at an effective two-hundred-forty-five kilometres an hour.
Suicide was of course a criminal act when the state needed all hands to feed the gaping maw of the economy.
As someone once said, every crime is a political statement.
Gene came in just then. He slung his coat at the rack and sauntered over.
Francine knew instantly he’d gotten laid last night. They’d given him a birthday cake just the day before.
‘Best we can do for you,’ nudge-nudge, wink-wink. It was always an occasion.
“Hey. So. We have a breakthrough.”
Parsons and Francine nodded.
Gene looked intrigued.
They looked at each other and grinned, but Parsons took it as a matter of course.
Francine already liked the guy and thought he might do well in the unit.
His weird accents, occasionally thrown in, and out of decade slang terms brought a certain spontaneous charm to working with him in the field.
“Your hot and sexy, three-point-eight million dollar robot girl, uh, Gene…has embezzled herself a tidy little dowry. Out of the household accounts.”
Francine nodded sagely.
Olympia had been reluctant to send the data, but on advice of her lawyer, she had no choice. The insurance company was insisting…she was trapped.
“And if you look at the time-line, it all fits nicely. Not only that, but it looks as if our girl Betty bugged out at a convenient time. See, she’s given herself a few days head start. But she knew, knowing their accounting system as well as she did, that the year-end balance would catch all of this…”
“And the Cartiers have to do their income taxes.” Gene nodded.
“True. But they do that separately. No, it’s just a quarterly thing, and since they moved into that residence during the month of June, that is when their year-end balance would strike.”
“Ah. Okay. I get you.”
“Here’s where it gets a little sick. Betty also had access—possibly still has, access to all sorts of other information. Financial information—”
Gene gaped a bit.
“What…kind of financial information?”
“It’s not just the household, but anyone who dealt with the household. Suppliers, bank account numbers, with her capabilities. She has partials on all of them. She might not be able to hack PIN numbers. But she might be able to figure it out, just by studying the problem.”
They all knew what a sieve the internet was in terms of prohibited information, not to mention under-the radar private networks…Gene’s mind boggled.
He wondered about Betty Blue.
It was a good question, really.
But he wondered just exactly how much she knew.
Even more so, he wondered just exactly what she thought of all this.
Seriously, robots (or to be more technically accurate, cyborgs) were supposed to be incapable of insanity.
They were supposed to be incapable of irrationality.
She must have something going on in her head. Some little thing that her manufacturers had just plain missed or something.
Francine sat up straight.
Parsons went back to their time-line.
“Connect the dots.”
A series of car-thefts, exactly as predicted once the vector settled down into a straight line.
Gene reached to his belt pouch and pulled out his device.
A short squirt of something very cold shot through his gizzard.
“Holy crap.” He looked up at them. “But, I have to call the chief.”
They nodded encouragingly.
Make the call, Gene.