I am 43 today. Have a novella as a party favor.

Today is my 43rd birthday. Because I like to give party favors when I throw a shindig and can’t have an actual birthday party today, I’d like to offer you a virtual party favour.

This is my novella “Kiss Me Twice,” which appeared in Asimov’s magazine in the June 2011 issue.

Edited to add: Hurrah! This was just nominated for a Nebula which is just amazing. For a full list of Nebula nominees visit, sfwa.org

 

Kiss Me Twice

by Mary Robinette Kowal

A group of trendy-somethings milled outside the police line, clearly torn between curiosity and the need for a caffeine fix at the coffee shop next door. Scott Huang glanced to the corner of his VR glasses where the department AI hovered. “I guess murder trumps coffee, huh?”

Metta, currently wearing the face of Mae West, lowered her voice to the star’s husky range. “I take my coffee black, like my heart.”

“You don’t have a heart.”

“Then I take my coffee black, like my processor.”

“Nice.” Huang grinned at her. She customized her interface for all the officers on the force, but tended toward silver screen starlets with Huang. Her Diamond Lil was pretty special though; she’d even gone black and white for the occasion.

The officer on duty waved Huang past the police line and into the building. Its lobby had been restored to showcase the 1920s detailing and the tall ceilings. Potted boxwoods graced the corners with indoor topiary. “I don’t remember the Waterfront area being so swanky.”

Metta said, “This district of Portland had a decline in the mid-seventies and most of the businesses moved out. For the past two years, a revitalization effort has been underway. Neil Patterson, the deceased, was responsible for much of the revitalization although not without some questionable transactions. I have his stats when you want them.”

“Do any of the questionable transactions relate to a motive?”

“Nothing concrete as yet.”

Huang grunted in acknowledgment and reached for the elevator button.

In his VR glasses, Metta winked at him. “Sorry Scott. The elevator is out. So why don’t you come up and see me sometime.”

“Actually, it’s ‘Why don’t you come up sometime and see me.’ Popular misquote.”

Her image cocked her head and shifted her eyes to the left, Metta’s sign that she was searching for something. “You’re right… Which really bugs me. I should have checked the quote database against the script.”

A flush of unexpected pride went through Huang. She said he was right. “Yeah, well, I think the score’s human:1, AI:549.” But she had still said he was right.

Metta dropped her lashes again and heaved West’s bosom. “The score never interested me, only the game.” She laughed. “Now climb the stairs.”

Worn linoleum resounded under his feet as he started up. Huang’s heart pounded in his chest noticeably after the third floor and he had to work hard not to pant. He gripped the banister, hauling himself up another flight, and subvocalized to Metta. “Remind me to start going to the gym again.”

“Can’t be responsible for you when you aren’t at work.”

“I know.” The door at the top of the stairs opened out on a hall, carpeted in generic beige. The walls surprised Huang. Paneling hugged their lower half with rich wood. Above the paneling, deep green wallpaper absorbed the light with velvety depth.

“Scott, would you mind waiting a minute? I have a memory-backup scheduled in thirty seconds and I’d rather have the actual crime scene all on one bank.”

“Sure.” He leaned against the wall. “You couldn’t have done it while we were on the stairs?”

“It’s not my schedule. Department regulations require a backup every six hours regardless of system type. I’ve tried pointing out to the chief that AI are different but…”

“I know… Banks didn’t get it.” Huang checked the eSpy camera he wore in place of his collar stud to make sure it was seated properly. To the casual observer it would look like a standard men’s stud, clear glass mounted in a silver setting, but the lens it housed linked directly to Metta. Though she could see through a lens in his VR glasses, on crime scenes she preferred the better resolution of the specialized camera in the eSpy.

Huang scuffed a shoe in the short pile of the rug and resisted the urge to run his hand along the top of the… “What’s this called?” He pointed the eSpy at the low wood paneling.

“Wainscoting. It was used to protect walls in the days of lathe and plaster construction.”

“Thanks. It reminds me of my cello.”

“You still playing that?”

“I haven’t practiced since I blew out my shoulder chasing that kid over the fence.”

“I told you there was a way around.”

He shrugged, even though he knew she couldn’t see it. “Adrenalin. What can I say?”

“Thanks. Backup’s done.” The hall ended at a plain wood door with a small brass plaque. “This way.” Metta magnified the image in Huang’s glasses briefly so he could read “Roof Access” etched on the plaque.

“Great. More stairs.”

“Scott, it’s time for the gloves.”

“You don’t have to remind me.” He unwillingly pulled on the purple department-issue rubber gloves.

“Sorry, I didn’t see you reaching for them.”

He snapped the gloves in place. “You didn’t give me time.”

Metta cleared her throat and continued. “Without the elevator, this is the only access to the roof, so our suspect most likely entered and exited the crime scene this way.”

The stairs were so clean they sparkled. “Metta, is it me, or do these look recently mopped.”

“I’m not sure. I’ve never mopped.”

Years of hand prints coated the metal railing with black residue, but the cracked linoleum shone. Over everything floated a clean lemon scent. He snorted reflexively at the pungent aroma.

Mae West hovered like a monochrome ghost in the edge of Huang’s vision. “Is there an odor?”

“Yeah. It smells like Lemon Pledge.”

“Is that an analysis or a metaphor?”

Huang hesitated and sampled the air like a tea. “Not quite. It is a manufactured lemon scent, but I’m not sure how many cleaning products have the same smell profile.”

“CSI is downstairs and has promised me a spectrograph. Griggs says to thank you for noticing; she’s got a cold and would have missed the smell.” She frowned prettily. “Working from the size of the room I should be able to tell you when the mopping happened based on the dissipation of the odor.” She pretended to look around. “I’ll have her scan with the lumerol to check for blood. Go on up.”

They went up the single, short flight of steps to the door opening onto the roof. Huang blinked at the rolling hills of grass which covered the top of the building. In the center of the grass, a small brick terrace had been set with a table and chairs.

Metta cleared her throat, the signal that she was about to relay a message from someone else in the department. “Griggs asks me to remind you not to touch anything.”

“For the love of– One time. I forgot one stinking time…” Huang clenched his fists and stepped onto the terrace, hating the reminder that he was the junior detective on the homicide team. The only reason he got this case was that it was on a roof and Oakes was scared of heights. Otherwise, he got the easy ones, the ones that Metta had already solved and all she needed was a flesh and blood officer to do the legwork. Not that anyone ever said that, but it was pretty obvious.

He grimaced and focused on the scene. The victim sprawled on the south side of the roof, next to a low wall. A wheelchair lay on its side a short distance behind him.

“Scott, meet Neil Patterson.”

“Well, well… who brought you up here, Mr. Patterson?” Huang knelt by the wheelchair and squinted at the corpse. He was a white male who looked to be in his mid-forties, but his file said fifty-two. His sandy-red hair had been neatly trimmed in a corporate version of a crew-cut. He had a single gunshot wound in an otherwise a well-developed upper torso. From the waist down he showed the atrophied signs of paralysis. Around him, the turf had divots dug out of it as though Patterson had not died instantly. The dirt and blood on his fingers seemed to confirm that.

In the center of the roof, the wireframe table was covered with a white linen tablecloth. It was set with two bone white teacups, so thin the morning sun turned them almost translucent. They sat on equally delicate saucers with a thin silver band around the edge of the saucer and the rim of the cups. The cup on the south side of the table had remnants of a liquid the color of straw. Huang leaned over to sniff and got hints of smoky earth and mown grass. Unfurled tea leaves rested on the bottom.

“Well?” Metta raised her eyebrows. “Are you going to show off?”

He smirked. Identifying beverages was the one thing he could do better than she could. Without a lab, that is. “I’m pretty sure it’s gunpowder tea.”

“Scott… there’s no tea service out here.”

He straightened and looked at the layout again. Cups, saucers, spoons, even linen napkins– scratch that. One of the napkins was missing. And there was no teapot, sugar, or creamer. “Anyone hear the gunshot?”

Metta shook her head and nodded toward the elevated highway. “It probably blended with traffic noise.”

“Who found the body?”

“It was an anonymous call at 8:13AM. The number belongs to the Daily Grind coffee shop downstairs.”

“Play the call for me?”

She nodded and then the sound in his ear changed. A background noise filled with chatter and the hiss of an espresso machine replaced the hum of traffic. A man with a slight accent answered the operator. “There is a man. On the roof. I think he is dying. You must come quickly.”

“Sir, where are you?”

“Everett and Water. I don’t know the address.”

And then the line went dead. Huang raised his eyebrows. “That’s it?”

“Yes. He did not remain after he hung up.”

“So… our guy here was dying but not dead when the call came in. Nice to have a time of death.”

If the coroner confirms it.”

“Right. Of course. I’ll check with the coffee shop’s staff when we finish here. See if they know the witness.” Huang bent to check the ground for any signs of foot prints. Wheelchair tracks had pressed deep grooves into the turf roof. “Tell me more about Patterson?”

“Neil Patterson has his finger in property throughout the city. His name came up in a real estate scandal about a year ago, but nothing stuck.”

“Was that the thing where he was flipping properties, but the renovations were all sub-code?”

“Correct. He blamed his foreman, who was subsequently fired, but it seems pretty clear Patterson both knew and approved of the shortcuts. There are items in evidence which were not admitted into court.”

“Like what?”

“They’re sealed files now.” She grimaced. “Sorry, I can’t share that with you.”

Huang nodded as he stood and walked along the edge of the building. “It’s okay. I remember this now. Fitzgerald was working on it and was furious.” If Metta couldn’t tell him, then he could always just ask Fitzgerald directly.

Behind him, the door to the roof opened and Ursula Griggs from CSI stepped out with a team from the coroner’s office.

She spoke from where she was and Metta amplified it for Huang. “There was blood on the stairs and landing. Found a sample. Metta’ll let you know the DNA results.” CSI’s eSpies were equipped with a different visual range than the standard issue. Between Griggs and Metta, they’d be able to get a good scan of the area.

“Thanks. We’ve got a gunshot. Want to help look for the shell casing?”

“No problem. Metta already asked me to.”

“Ah.” Huang turned slowly, so Metta could see the area. Across the street, hulked a stuccoed building with shields carved in the stone on each buttress. Construction scaffolding masked the lower half of the building, evidently part of an attempt to spruce it up. Behind the building, I-5 nearly touched its upper edge. Oblivious to the presence of a dead man, cars whizzed past a block away from Huang.

How had a man in a wheelchair gotten to the rooftop without a working elevator? And why tea for two? He turned away from the corpse and paced along the edge of the building.

The north and east sides of the building were on a corner facing the street. The west side of the building had a narrow alley separating it from the next. It had the usual dumpsters, boxes and abandoned plywood, but nothing looked immediately interesting.

Huang continued his slow circuit of the roof. Behind him Griggs filmed and photographed Patterson’s body. When she was finished, the coroner transferred the corpse to a body bag and placed it on the gurney to take back to the morgue.

With the natural turf roof, Huang had been hoping to find footprints or something useful but Patterson’s struggle had obscured any obvious signs. Between Patterson’s wheelchair and the door to the elevator, he found a single screw in a patch of grass stained a deep red. “Hello. Can we get prints and contact DNA from this?”

“We’ll know in a moment.”

Huang heard footsteps behind him and turned to see Griggs approaching with her crime scene kit in tow. Her deep chestnut hair was tucked under her cap, except for a wisp hanging next to her cheek. “Thanks for spotting this.”

“Sure. Let me know when you’re done so I can roll the wheelchair over.”

She pulled out her high resolution camera and tripod and began documenting the screw, then bagged it and turned to the wheelchair, uploading images to Metta as she went. With a steady image, the AI would be able to run it through a series of filters to pull prints. Griggs said, “It will be awhile. I’ll need to document the rest of the scene before anyone contaminates it.”

Huang stepped back trying not to telegraph his impatience while she did her job.

“Metta?” he subvocalized, “How long has the elevator been down?”

“I’ve been trying to check on that since we got here, but can’t reach the building manager.” Her image suddenly froze. “Shots fired at HQ.” Metta stiffened, seeming to look through him. “Officer down. Units 235 and 347 establish perimeter.”

Huang held his breath, listening for gunfire as if HQ were close enough to hear it. Beyond his glasses, Griggs reacted to Metta’s cry.

“Three armed subjects in Chassis room. The assailants are armed, I repeat– Amado! Two officers down.”

How the hell had they gotten into Metta’s Chassis room? It was in the basement of headquarters with cameras monitoring it at all times. Huang turned on his heels and sprinted back across the roof. “Metta, can you give a visual?”

He ran for the door, aware of the other officers springing into action behind him. “Metta, answer me. Who’s there? Can you give a visual?”

Car doors slammed on the street below.

An image flashed onto his glasses. A man. No. Three men, in masks. One of the men reached for a cable attached to a filing cabinet– not a filing cabinet. Metta’s chassis.

Metta screamed. She froze.

A static image of Mae West hung in Huang’s peripheral vision, with her mouth open wide. Then the image winked out.

#

As Huang loped up to the police precinct, an ambulance pulled out with siren already screaming. He swallowed, hoping it held one of the bastards who’d broken into the building. A line of police officers stood as a barricade, scanning the crowd for possible threats. Yellow police tape stretched down the block and civilians stood outside the perimeter pointing with feverish curiosity. The bulbous nose of a News satellite dish pointed to the sky as reporters thrust their cameras toward every policemen who passed.

Huang flashed his badge, even though he knew both officers flanking the front entry to the building. Tension was crackling across everyone’s nerves. Bowes nodded to him, only taking his gaze off the crowd long enough to see Huang. “Chief wants us to send everyone over to the old courthouse. They’ve got a temporary HQ set up there while CSI goes over the building.”

Huang pulled out his PDA to make sure it was on. “I didn’t get a call.”

Bowes shook his head. “Radios are down. Metta ran dispatch. Pass the word if you see anyone, huh?”

“Was that Amado in the ambulance?”

Bowes scowled. “Fitzgerald. Bastards killed him.”

Stomach twisting, Huang jogged the two blocks to the Courthouse where the giant statue of Portlandia looked out over the city. She seemed to have a disapproving frown. Inside, a uniformed officer made Huang show i.d. before directing him up to the third floor. One of the holding rooms for jurors had been commandeered for the precinct’s detectives.

Woodrow Delerosa looked up as Huang entered and said, “We got Huang. Who’s that leave out?”

Sigmundson, over by the window, picked up a notepad and said, “Still missing Fitzgerald.”

“Guys…” Huang stopped, rage squeezing the breath out of his body. “He’s dead.”

Movement stopped in the room and Delarosa swore. “Okay, we’ll get these bastards. Banks has put me primary on this. Here’s what we know so far– shortly after eleven an unknown number of assailants entered the precinct. They shot two of our guys, Amado and Fitzgerald, and got away scot-free with our department AI. We got nothing on these bastards because all the surveillance is locked up in that machine and our guys were all clustered in the wrong areas.” Delarosa shook his head. “That thing goes down and everyone forgets how to set up a perimeter.”

Delarosa’s dislike for Metta had been the subject of a lot of departmental jokes but this was pushing boundaries. She’d been kidnapped and he was acting like she was nothing more than a computer. He continued ranting. “Until we turn up someone who saw the bastards–”

Huang raised his hand. “I saw some of them.”

“How the hell is that possible? You were across town.”

“I asked Metta for a visual.” The ceiling fan clicked as it spun overhead, seeming to count down the minutes.

Delarosa stared at him, mouth open. “I’ll be damned. So far, you’re the only one who thought to do that.”

“I didn’t see much.”

“You did better than me.” Delarosa snorted as if he couldn’t believe that Huang had done something useful.

“I– How is that possible?”

“Shit…” Sigmundson said, “I just thought she was malfunctioning at first.”

“She’s one of your partners. How could you think that?”

She is a machine.” Delarosa rubbed his eyes. “I’ve worked with other police A.I. They’re all the same. They’re all Metta. There are differences, ’cause they change with experience, but they all start as the same set of routines. Still machines.”

Huang bit back the argument that AI were people. Organizations like AIM, the Artificial Intelligence Movement, had been fighting for AI rights but hadn’t won many battles. Still, he didn’t see how anyone who spent time with Metta could deny that she was a thinking being.

Delarosa tapped his pencil on his pad. “Okay, here’s what I want. Sigmundson, you take Huang into the next room and get his testimony while it’s fresh. I’ll divide the neighborhood with the rest of the team and we’ll start canvassing.”

Huang asked, “Any idea on motive?”

“Officially?” Delarosa shook his head. “But since the only thing they took was Metta, I figure they want access to everything she monitors which just happens to include every god-forsaken camera in the city. Goddamn machine is the biggest bleeding security breach this system has got.”

Metta wasn’t just a machine, she was a colleague, but Huang kept his lips sealed around that thought, and followed Sigmundson out of the room.

#

Huang wiped his hand across his mouth as he stood outside Patterson’s condo. Notifying the next of kin was never pleasant but he couldn’t put this off, no matter how much he wanted to focus on finding the dirtbags who hit HQ.

On the fifteenth floor, the doors opened onto a small foyer with a gleaming marble floor. A fountain trickled in one corner and wall sconces provided graceful uplighting. Across from the elevator, dark wood double doors waited for him. Huang subvocalized, “Swanky.”

No one answered him. He swallowed against the silence.

A face appeared in the mirror next to the doors — a man with pale blue skin and chiseled, almost Arabic features ? and Huang realized that it was an interface. A cloud of smoke surrounded the man, wrapping about his head like a turban. “Welcome Detective Huang. If you will step into the library, the lady of the house will be with you shortly.” Smoke swirled around the AI like a Djinn as he gestured to the doorway by the mirror.

An AI as a butler. It seemed extravagant to employ an AI for such a limited task. Most companies that invested in an AI did so to manage a large organization, not just a household. Huang stepped through into a small room, wallpapered with books. A large desk squatted below the only window. On the desk, sat an ornate brass lamp like something out of Aladdin. The AI appeared above an actual freaking lamp, which must have concealed an interface. Huang bowed at the waist. “You have me at an advantage. May I ask your name?”

“This one is called Qadir.”

Huang straightened, noticing the phrasing of the sentence. “Called?”

“This one is a Quimby model, but the master prefers that this one be called Qadir.” A small tea-cart trollied forward and a mechanical arm lifted a porcelain teapot. “Would you like some tea while you wait?”

Huang shook his head. “No. Thanks.”

The door to the library opened and a petite woman entered. Qadir suddenly appeared to genuflect. “My lady, may this one present Detective Huang?”

Even with six centimeter heels, Mrs. Patterson stood no more than 165 centimeters, but with the confidence of a much taller woman. She paused in the doorway, regarding Huang like a cat. Then she smiled and flowed forward with her hand extended. “Good afternoon, detective. Although, the last time detectives were here it was because Neil had gotten himself into trouble. What’s he done this time?”

He took a breath and looked to where Metta should be as if she could brace him. “Ma’am. I regret the necessity of my visit. Earlier this morning, your husband died.”

The casual charm and grace fell out of her face, revealing an older woman than she had first appeared. “Pardon me?”

“Please, sit down.”

“No. No, thank you, I’ll stand.” She lifted her chin. “Are you telling me that Neil is dead? You are quite certain?”

“I’m afraid so.” Huang winced. “I hate to do this, but I need to ask you a few questions.”

“Of course…” She walked away from him, one hand covering her mouth. “I thought he was at the office. Working. How did…?”

“He was shot. He was found on the roof of one of your buildings in the waterfront area. At Everett and Water. Do you know who he might have been meeting this morning?”

She nodded. “Yes, he had a breakfast meeting with Magdalena Chase. But she would never– we’re on charity committees together. She wouldn’t.”

Huang waited for Metta to fill him in on who Magdalena Chase was and let the pause stretch out into awkward silence before he caught himself. Aggravated, he yanked the VR glasses off, not even sure why he had still been wearing them.

Qadir cleared his throat.

Mrs. Patterson scowled. “Well? What is it?”

Lowering his head in a bow, Qadir said, “Pardon me, madam, but Ms. Chase called last evening to reschedule.”

“What time was that?” Huang asked.

“10:17pm, sir.”

“That seems late to cancel. Did she say why?”

The AI shook his head. “This one regrets that she did not, but with my lady’s permission this one can transfer the recording to your Metta.”

Huang breathed sharply through his nose against the reminder. “Perhaps later.” He turned his attention back to Mrs. Patterson. “Do you know what time he left this morning or where he might have gone if he wasn’t going to meet her?”

She shook her head. “Neil and I sleep– slept.” One hand tightened into a fist by her side. “We did not share a bed any longer. He had night terrors. A remnant from the war, you see. So I only know that he was gone when I got up. I thought he was downstairs in his office.”

“Was there anyone who might have wished him harm?”

“He had business rivals, but no one that would kill him.”

There was something that Metta had said earlier. What had it been? Something he was going to follow up on. He darted his eyes to the left as if she might suddenly appear and remind him. He grimaced and asked a different question. “Qadir, do you have a record of when he departed?”

“Madam, may this one be permitted to answer the detective?”

“Yes, yes. Cooperate thoroughly.” She waved her hand as if shooing away a fly.

“The master departed at 7:12 a.m. He did not tell this one where he was going.”

“Is that unusual?”

“No sir. The master was not in the habit of sharing his thoughts with this one.”

Qadir’s constant use of the third person when talking about himself rankled Huang. What kind of bizarro interface was this to demand from an AI? Sure, Metta was– had been working as Mae West, but she picked it. He had a hard time imagining anyone choosing to be this servile. “May I ask what sort of vows Qadir has in place?” Huang worried the inside of his lip.

An AI’s testimony was admissible in court, the same way a surveillance video would be. On the other hand, Qadir might have a vow to obey his master, which would make lying to protect Patterson a priority. Whereas an AI like Metta had an honesty vow, which prevented her from lying. Her testimony would be considered incontrovertible, but Qadir’s might be suspect.

“I don’t know. Neil handled that.” Mrs. Patterson pressed her hands to her temples.

Huang leaned forward and picked up a cup. It was a blue and white rice pattern with no similarity to the teaset on the roof. The mechanical arm unfurled from the cart and lifted the teapot. The steam smelled dry and papery, like a poor quality black tea. “Tea, sir?”

“No. Thank you.” He set the cup back down and turned to Mrs. Patterson. “You’ve been very helpful, but there might be questions we want to ask you in the future, so please let me know before you go out of town.”

#

When Huang got home late from work, his mother bustled out of the kitchen wielding her cane like a weapon. “What wrong?”

How could he even start to explain what had happened? “Things got strange at work.”

“How strange?” Even with the cane, she tried to take his bookbag as she gestured to the couch. “Sit. I bring tea.”

He pulled the bag away from her. “Ma. You don’t have to do that.” Seventy-one years old, and she still felt like she had to wait on him.

“Not me, then who? You not take care of self, so,” she glared at him, “I take care of you. Maybe you not want me here?”

As had happened every night since his mother had moved in with him, Huang gave up. It was easier to let her have her way. Even though she liked to practice English, he switched to Mandarin because they seemed to fight less in her native language. “Some tea would be very nice, if it’s not too much trouble.”

She beamed at him, her wrinkles swinging upward in a many-creased smile. “No trouble at all, poor thing. What may I get you?”

“Your choice.”

She bustled out of the room, as if she had not had a hip replaced five weeks ago. Huang watched her go and shook his head. Maybe he wouldn’t have to explain why he was home late.

He pulled himself off the sofa and headed for his computer. Sitting down, he powered it up and called up his A.S. search engine. Single-minded, the engine was built to be the world’s best research assistant, but, like all A.S., the artificial savant had no intuition, no true intelligence.

Huang stared at the screen and typed in a keyword he had never felt the need to research before.

Metta

His mother came in and fussed while he was looking at sites, but otherwise left him alone with his tea. He nearly laughed at the irony in her choice.

She had made him a cup of Gunpowder tea. Each leaf was rolled into a tiny dark ball, which would open at the bottom of the cup. Summer, freshly mown grass.

With each site, the AS refined the search, noting when Huang was skimming and when he paused to read, until it refined the search to only the relevant results.

Although the basic program was the same for every police station, each Metta customized herself to fit her environment. Over time, the AIs would sometimes choose different names or revamp their generic interface. They had the option of upgrading their hardware accessories, but the basic Chassis, which housed the AI’s brain was as integral to them as the skeleton was to the human body. They had to have a Chassis to function; the software wouldn’t run in any other environment.

Huang sat for a moment looking at the screen wishing that Metta would help him decide what to do next.

#

At HQ, Huang went through the motions, along with everyone else, but the work load magnified without Metta’s help. The chief brought in an A.S. but the artificial savant did a fraction of the work Metta had done. The halls were full of officers grousing about having to do their own paperwork.

In the late morning, before he had time to hit the road for investigation, Griggs showed up at his desk. “I don’t have a lot for you, but thought you’d want what I do have.”

Huang took the sheaf from Griggs and raised his eyebrows at the paper. It felt weirdly retro. Griggs shook her head. “Sorry there’s not more. We lost most of the evidence we took because Metta had it.”

Huang looked up from the papers. “How’s that?”

“Our scanners upload straight to Metta. No on board storage.”

Huang whistled.

Griggs crossed her arms. “Thank God Amado is getting released this afternoon so we can reboot Metta.”

“Reboot Metta? Did they find her?” The hair stuck up on the back of Huang’s neck.

“I wish. Nah, it’s just a backup. You hadn’t heard?”

Huang shook his head. Living AI made backups in case of system failures but the only time he’d heard of one actually being rebooted was a case where the AI’s chassis had been destroyed in a fire. “Can they do that?”

“Why else would they make backups?” Her face twisted. “I know, it sounds like raising the dead to me.”

“Yeah.” Huang worked his neck, trying to ease some of the tension out of it.

After Griggs left him, he looked through the papers. She had an autopsy report back from the morgue showing that Patterson had died around eight a.m. from a .38 caliber to the chest. The round had missed his heart so he’d died of blood loss and shock. If he’d gotten prompt medical attention, he might have lived.

The only clean prints were from Patterson himself. The screw had more detail than he thought possible for such a small piece of metal. It was a M3 machine screw, brass, a truss head with a posidriv slot and had been sheared 5 mm down the shaft. Griggs had no word on the Lemon smell, or the blood on the stairs.

Huang threw the papers down. What was the point of trying to investigate something when half the evidence had gone missing?

Evidence was missing.

What if someone hadn’t taken Metta to access her network but to hide evidence? No, that didn’t make sense. Griggs had said they were going to boot a backup of Metta into a new chassis. On the other hand, that meant the department would have access to all of the information from before her last backup, but not after.

Metta had asked Huang to wait while she did the backup, which she did every six hours. They spent two hours on the roof before the break-in at the station happened. So everything in that two hour period was unrecorded.

What was in the blind spot?

He turned to the computer and asked the AS search engine for a list of crimes under investigation when Metta had vanished. The engine returned the search empty-handed. Huang grimaced. Of course, Metta wasn’t available to query. Once he started feeding the A.S. the scattered details he could remember, it began returning information from the call centers about the unresolved investigations.

He scowled and tried to remember what they’d talked about in the morning staff meeting. The urge to subvocalize to Metta and ask her to jog his memory kept tickling.

Hours later, Griggs leaned her head into the department. “Hey Huang, the new Chassis arrived.”

Huang pushed back from his desk. He pulled his VR glasses and earbud out of his pocket, putting them on while he followed Griggs into the hall. An excited crowd of officers streamed toward the stairs. He pushed down the steps where Amado had been found, wondering if it had been hard for him to come back this way.

Just down the hall from the bottom of the stairwell, it looked like half the station had gathered outside the Chassis room. Griggs hung near the fringes, hands shoved deep in her pocket. Huang worked his way through the group until he was leaning against the door.

Amado glanced over his shoulder. “Okay. She’s about to wake up.”

Metta’s cameras swiveled on their base, ID-ing the people standing in the door.

The face she wore for Amado, a young, gawkish woman, appeared above the interface with panic in her eyes. “Why am I a backup?”

Huang wanted to back away from the raw fear in her face.

“What happened to me? Why am I a backup?”

“Take it easy, Metta.” Amado raised his hands soothingly.

“Screw that. Tell me why I’m a backup.” She blinked. “And why don’t I have access to anything but my local connections.” Her voiced thundered over her speakers. “Tell me what the hell happened!”

“I thought it would be too jarring for you to come back online everywhere at once.”

She smiled sourly at him. “Well, I’m online now and I feel like an amputee. How is that better?”

“I’m sorry.” Amado tapped some keys on the manual interface and Metta’s face relaxed.

“Thank you.”

“I’m sorry. I haven’t done this before.”

“No one has except when–” her voice broke off. “Am I dead?”

“No.” Amado hesitated, clearly trying to decide what to tell her.

Huang couldn’t stand this subterfuge. “Metta?” he subvocalized, “Can you hear me?”

Mae West faded into sight on his glasses. She purred in his ear, “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?”

“Beyond measure.”

“I’m glad.” Then her face hardened. “Will you tell me what’s happening?”

In the room in front of Huang, Amado rubbed his hands together. “There was an incident.”

“Duh.”

Delarosa leaned over Amado’s chair, ignoring the AI wrangler. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

Her eyes widened. “On which channel, sir? I’m with all of your men on duty, do you want me to tell you my last memory with each of them? Or my last memories through the surveillance cameras? Or shall I simply tell you my memory ends at 8:59:59 on Tuesday, October twenty-fifth. It would be more useful to tell me what happened after that.”

Huang subvocalized to Metta, “Armed men broke into the station and stole your chassis. They shot Amado.”

The face in his VR glasses opened her mouth in shock. Over her interface, Metta looked down at Amado. “I should have noticed the bandage. I’m sorry, I was disoriented.”

In Huang’s ear, she whispered, “Thank you, Scott.”

“So you brought me online to find the people who stole me and shot you?”

Amado flinched and looked over his shoulder, no doubt wondering which of the officers watching was talking to Metta. Huang met his eyes with a flat expression, uncomfortably aware of the glasses on his face.

“Fitzgerald’s dead?” Metta’s voice brought Amado back to the front. Huang realized he was not the only one in the group subvocalizing to her.

“Who’s telling you these things?” Amado started to twist in his seat again.

“For heaven’s sake, Amado. There’s an APB out for the people who shot him! I’m doing what I was designed to do, filling in the blanks from evidence on hand. This isn’t like we’re playing hide-and-seek.”

“I’m sorry, I was worried about you.”

“Which me, Amado? The one here now, or my Prime?”

Huang backed away from the door. “Metta, are you okay?”

Mae West laughed at him. “I’m angry and confused but completely functional. On the way to the Patterson case, I told you to wait so it could all be on one memory bank, and now I don’t remember any of it. Tell me everything that happened from your point of view after that.” She hesitated and looked squarely at him. “Don’t leave anything out, not even the jokes.”

Huang started talking as he walked up the stairs; he started with the wainscoting.

#

When he finished reciting everything he could remember since she had vanished, the face of Mae West chewed her lower lip thoughtfully.

“Scott… Beyond talking to Mrs. Patterson, I didn’t hear you say anything about the case. Did you interview the workers at the Daily Grind, or canvass the neighborhood, or… Maybe you should catch me up on what you’ve done on the Patterson case?”

The air went cold and Huang slumped in his seat. He hadn’t done any of that. “I– I was thinking… Well, wondering if maybe one of the cases on Tuesday morning was connected to the break in here and– shit.” He hung his head, realizing that he’d forgotten his own case in his concern for Metta. Was he really that inept without her to remind him of things? “I totally got distracted and screwed up, didn’t I?”

“Well…” Metta smiled at him, with the full dazzling brilliance of Mae West. “An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises.”

Huang laughed, despite his guilt. Trust Metta to attempt to reassure him. “Y’know, you don’t have to keep the Mae West interface if you don’t want to.”

Her smile dropped. “I thought you liked it.”

“I do, but you’ve been through a lot and I don’t want you to stress about it.”

“Every man I meet wants to protect me. I can’t figure out what from.” She pouted the full lips and then spoke with her own voice out of Mae West’s mouth. “Scott, I just woke up for the first time in my life. It’s…it’s hard to explain what it is like to have no awareness of a day. My memory stretches back to the moment I first came online with the exception of this gaping hole. Being Mae West today makes me feel connected to when I was Mae West on Tuesday. If it bothers you, I’ll change, but otherwise I’d rather keep her for awhile.”

Huang wanted to press his hand to her cheek to soothe her. “Metta, I wish there was something I could do for you.”

“You’re doing a lot, already.”

“I’m not doing anything.”

“You’re treating me like I’m real, and we both know I’m not.”

“Don’t say that.” He leaned forward, close to her interface.

“I don’t mean that… I mean I’m a backup. There are two of me in the world–this is more than two programs starting with the same parameters. My siblings are like identical twins; the same material creates different people. I’m an incomplete version of the Metta you know, and we diverge farther from each other with every moment that passes.” She tossed her head. “There’s no need to go on about this. It is what it is. The point is, I appreciate that you have always treated me like a real person.”

He listened to the words she didn’t say; there were people who treated her like a machine. He thought of Qadir and his Arabian Nights interface. “Metta–”

“Hush. Let’s talk about the Patterson case.”

He took a breath to clear his head. “Okay. I guess first up is the coffee shop?”

Metta lowered her lashes and purred. “If I asked for a cup of coffee someone would search for the double meaning.”

#

Huang stepped into the Daily Grind coffee shop and inhaled deeply. He could probably get a caffeine fix just from breathing.

“A smell?” Metta asked.

“Lots of really good coffee.”

“The way you boys go on about coffee makes me wish I had taste and scent.”

“It’s probably not as handy as your multitasking”

She gave him a saucy look. “Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.”

“Geez, Metta, you’re going to distract me with all this Mae West heat.”

“I didn’t discover curves; I only uncovered them.”

“Shush.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Sorry, Scott. Go on, do your thing.”

Huang walked up to the counter and leaned casually against it, waiting for the teenage girl behind it to notice him. She was standing by an A.S. espresso machine as the mechanized arms made a perfect cappuccino. The automaton’s arms whirred with precise tiny movements.

Huang subvocalized to Metta, “Why don’t you have an automaton?”

“Why give up processing power when I have you?”

“I’m more than just a pair of hands you know.”

She arched an eyebrow. “Men are all alike–except the one you’ve met who’s different.”

“Ow.”

The girl took the cup from the machine and shouted into the cafe, “Double dragon cappuccino!”

The automaton espresso machine had poured the foam in the cup to create a coffee dragon. The bouquet was a complex nutty affair with notes of violets, citrus, and dark chocolate. Probably a Colombian blend.

She handed it off to an Asian retro-steampunk kid and blew a strand of hair out of her face. “Welcome to the Daily Grind? What can I get for you?”

Huang smiled at her and glanced at her name badge. “Actually, Vicki, I need to ask some questions. Were you working yesterday morning?”" He pulled his badge out from his pocket and showed it to the girl.

Vicki rolled her eyes at the sight of the detective’s shield. “Yeah.”

“Great. Someone made a call from here at 8:13 yesterday morning. We want to talk to whoever it was.”

“Is he in trouble?”

Huang made a mental note that she had assigned a gender to the hypothetical person in his question. “We think he’s a witness. Who made the call?”

“Lowfat double-shot cappuccino.”

“Excuse me?”

“I know customers by their drinks, not their names.” Vicki flipped the hair back from her eye. “This guy comes in every morning and orders the same thing. He tried a mocha once and didn’t like it, went back to the lowfat double-shot cappuccino.”

“Can you describe him?” He glanced at Metta who nodded to show that she was ready.

As Vicki talked, Metta created a composite sketch, occasionally prompting Huang to ask specific questions in order to refine the features. When she was finished, she pinged the image to his PDA. Huang pulled it out and unrolled the screen to full-size. “Is this him?”

Vicki frowned looking at the rendering of the slender black man. He was in his mid-thirties, with a round face and short hair, twisted into neat, tiny curls. “Shit, yes. That’s creepy.”

Huang suppressed a grin, but this skill of Metta’s was one of his favorite tricks. She nodded in his field of vision. “I’ll start cross-referencing him with our files.”

Aloud, Huang asked, “Was there anything strange about the last time you saw him?”

“What, you mean like the bandage on his hand?”

Huang held himself extremely still. “Yes.” He locked his gaze on hers. “Exactly like that.”

He waited for her to fill in the blanks. Vicki sighed and twisted her hair up onto her head in a bun. “Well, he usually comes in once around 6:00, but yesterday he came in twice. I asked why, he says it was ’cause yesterday’s job was in the neighborhood.”

“Any idea what he did?”

“He was in construction. Always wore the same overalls–” She held up a hand to stop him, clearly guessing the next question. “Gray with an orange patch. I don’t remember what it said.”

“Huang, what is it?” Metta leaned forward in her screen. “Your eyes dilated.”

“In a second,” he subvocalized. To the girl he said, “Go on.”

“Anyway, so the first time he just gets his coffee, like usual. The second time–”

Metta whispered, “Ask her when.”

“Do you know what time that was?”

“Just after 8:00. I was making the usual for Tall Skim Chai Latte and remember being surprised to see Lowfat double-shot cappuccino back in here. He asked if he could use the phone ’cause he’d left his at home. So I say sure and don’t pay much attention ’cause Tall Skim Chai Latte can be a bitch sometimes.”

“How did he seem?”

“Distracted? Tense? But smiling like always…” She squirmed. “He’s not in trouble, is he?”

“Why do you think he might be in trouble?”

“He’s a regular and he broke all the patterns.”

“We think he witnessed the murder upstairs. Please, we need to find him.”

She nodded. “Okay. So he uses the phone then goes out. I felt bad about having to ignore him so I shouted ‘Bye’ and that’s when I noticed that he’d been hurt.”

“Did he have the bandage when he came in that morning?”

She shook her head. “No. I would’ve noticed when I handed him his drink.”

Huang slid his eyes to where Metta hovered in his glasses frame. “You didn’t see him again?”

Vicki shrugged. “He didn’t come in this morning.”

“Was anyone working with him?” From the moment the girl had said the man was in construction he’d had a feeling.

“Not that I know of. It was always just him.”

He handed Vicki his business card. “Thank you for your time. If you think of anything, or if you see him again, please call me immediately.”

The moment his back was to the girl, Metta enlarged her face in his field of vision. “Okay, Scott. Spill it. What do you know that I don’t.”

“Hang on. I’m enjoying being a step ahead of you.”

“You’re taking unfair advantage of a medical condition.”

He sobered as he recalled why she didn’t know what he remembered. “Yesterday, there was construction scaffolding on the building behind this one.” He walked around the corner, heading to the back of the Daily Grind building.

“I told you to tell me everything!”

“I didn’t think to mention it because it wasn’t on the crime scene.”

“What else did you leave out?”

“I don’t know.” He strode down the sidewalk to the end of the block. “I had no way of knowing this was any more relevant than that my mother made me tea last night.”

She growled at him, but with the Mae West interface, she sounded disturbingly sexy.

“I’m sorry,” Huang said. “It was a mistake. I won’t do it again.”

“If you put your foot in it, be sure it’s your best foot.”

He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. “Just how big of a Mae West database did you download?”

“Big enough.” She still glowered at him.

“Okay.” Huang held up his hands in surrender. “Look, I saw the scaffolding when we got to the roof. I don’t know if there was anyone on it when we left because we left in a hurry.”

“Fair enough. Now get moving, I want to see this scaffolding.”

Huang nodded and jogged to the end of the block. Across the street, the scaffolding was still in place but no one was working on it.

Metta looked up and to her left, grimacing. “I wish I could see your POV from yesterday and know if Mr. Lowfat was there.”

He let his voice drop down. “Whoever was on that roof is still loose.”

“You think– oh. Bogart, The Enforcer.” She rolled her eyes. “I must be more rattled than I thought if I can’t recognize your impression.”

“Hey, Metta.” The urge to rub her back, to comfort her almost overwhelmed him. “No one will blame you if you need a day to get back into the groove.”

Her eyes flashed. “I will blame myself.”

“But you–you can’t blame yourself for being kidnapped.” His head spun as he remembered the Metta who had been kidnapped was still missing. It was so easy to think she was all right, when she was here. But he was speaking to a clone, who was also Metta, and yet not.

“Who else is responsible for the safety of the station? I’ve been reading the reports since I was rebooted. How did they get so far before being noticed?”

“I can’t answer that, Metta. Delarosa will find you.”

“Ha.” She leaned forward, showing her bosom. “I see you’re a man with ideals. I better be going while you’ve still got them.” She sighed. “Speaking of going, get me closer to the scaffolding to see if there’s any contact information on them. Meanwhile, I’ll check with permits to see if we can find our guy that way.”

“I love it when you multitask.” He waited for a cyclist to pass then crossed the street.

“Love conquers all things except poverty and toothache.”

Huang snorted and rolled his eyes. He walked under the scaffolding and stopped by the second upright. Turning so the eSpy could focus on the orange sticker on the scaffolding, he held still so Metta could read it. “Feldman Construction.”

“Checking.” Metta looked up and to her left. “Got it.”

“Well, then, let’s go see if they recognize Mr. Lowfat.”

#

The rumble of heavy machinery pounded through Huang’s ears as he stood next to Mr. Feldman. The older man’s skin had been tanned to a bronze. Age spots mottled his strong hands. He leaned over Huang’s unrolled PDA screen and studied the sketch of Mr. Lowfat.

Feldman hitched his jeans up and gestured with his chin at the drawing. “Yeah. That’s Joe Yates. He okay? He didn’t show for work today.”

Metta murmured, “Checking the name…”

Huang rolled the PDA up. “He called in an incident to 911 yesterday morning and then left the scene before the responders arrived. We’re trying to find him to ask him about what he witnessed.”

“What sort of incident?” The man crossed his arms over his ample stomach.

“Possibly a murder.”

“Possibly?” Feldman grunted. “You a homicide cop and you can’t tell if it’s murder?”

“There’s the possibility that it was an accident, but we need Mr. Yates to know for certain. Can you think of why he would have left the scene after dialing 911?”

The man scowled and dug his boot into the dirt. “Aw hell… I check papers, you know, but I don’t check too well. I figure my folks were immigrants so why not give other folks a shot. If they work hard, I don’t ask too many questions.”

Metta murmured. “If he’s illegal, that would explain why I’m having trouble finding him in the system.”

“He’s not turning up in our system, do you have an address for him?”

“Your system.” Feldman frowned. “Two minutes ago you didn’t know who he was.”

Huang tapped his glasses. “I’m working with a police AI.”

Feldman eyed the VR glasses. “There really an AI in there?”

“Not in, Mr. Feldman, but yes, the precinct’s AI is listening to this conversation.”

The man glowered at the ground. “You might not want to let my boys know you have one here. They don’t take too kindly to them things.”

“What do you mean?”

“I gotta spell it out for you?” He jerked his chin toward the glasses. “Those things cost men like my guys jobs. Rig backhoes and cranes with remote control and one AI can run almost a whole damn construction site. I don’t got a beef with them myself, you know, but my guys. Some of them… you know.”

In the VR glasses, Metta’s lips were compressed into a thin line. They’d run into this prejudice before, and that fear was why it seemed unlikely that groups like AIM would ever get artificial intelligences recognized as thinking beings. Huang cleared his throat. “How about an address for Mr. Yates?”

Mr. Feldman just shrugged again. “I can give you a P.O. Box, but that’s about it.”

“Had he worked with you long?”

“A couple of months, but he was good. Solid worker. Reliable. Always bringing me leads. Like yesterday’s job. Heard about it while he was at that coffee shop he likes and comes to me instead of just doing it on his own. Honorable. You know?” He scrubbed his chin with his hand. “Think he’s okay?”

“We’ll let you know when we find him.”

As they walked off the construction site, Metta said, “It occurs to me that perhaps Mr. Yates lives in the neighborhood since he swings by the coffee shop on his way to work. I’ll send the uniforms around with his picture to see if anyone recognizes him.”

“Good idea.” Huang sighed. “So, what next?”

“I’d suggest a visit to Magdalena Chase. Let’s see why she had a meeting with Mr. Patterson and where she was yesterday morning.”

#

The MAX line from HQ went straight past Chase’s office building. As the train hissed along under the electric wires, Huang leaned his head back against the window and turned his attention to Metta. “So what should I know about Magdalena Chase?”

“Like Patterson, she renovates buildings but her focus is on green technology. She graduated from MIT with a degree in AI studies and works with a number of charities including, StreetRoots, the Oregon Ballet, and AIM. Chase is known for employing ‘freelance’ AI and–”

“Hang on– freelance?”

Metta nodded. “Though artificial intelligences have not been recognized as people, Jarrett Tovar, our creator, sets each AI up as a corporation. An AI that is not leasing its services is called a freelancer.”

“And you are…?”

“Leased. We call it indentured.” She smiled. “The chassis are very expensive so this is a way to pay off our start-up costs when we first come into the world. Once my lease is up, I’ll be able to freelance but being in the Metta line I’m more likely renew the lease. I like my job and it requires a contract with accompanying vows in order to be granted full access to the city. Other AI don’t have that sort of need so may be more likely to go freelance.”

“Huh.” Huang shook his head. “I don’t think I’ve met a freelancer before.”

“Well, you’re about to. Chase’s company has a freelance Quimby managing the building.”

Another Quimby…as if his reports weren’t complicated enough with Metta Prime and Metta clone. “Does it bother you to have the same names?”

“Some of us change our names, like Qadir, but we don’t use those names with each other. That just helps when talking to flesh-and-blood about the type of system we are.”

Huang blinked. “You don’t call yourself Metta?”

“When I’m talking to F&B I do.”

“You didn’t answer me.”

“My ID to other AI is a three-dimensional equation.”

“Ah. So, your prime would have the same equation. Is that right?”

“Yes, exactly.” She chewed her lip. ?I’ll mention that to Delarosa in case it sparks any ideas on why they might have taken my Prime. Good thinking, Scott.?

Not that he’d done any actual thinking, just asked questions. “I’m not used to running into AI besides you. I mean, AS, yes, absolutely, but running into this many in short order is odd. Or do I just hang in the wrong circles.”

“Mostly, the wrong circles. Patterson and Chase are both very wealthy.”

“Can you verify that for Chase? No hidden financial problems?”

“Already did. The only thing tying her to this case is that she had breakfast plans.”

Huang glanced out the window as they passed Saturday Market. The next stop was theirs. He grabbed the strap overhead and pulled himself to his feet. “Is there any previous connection between Patterson and Chase?”

He hopped off the MAX and threaded his way through the foot traffic to the front door of Chase’s office. The building had been a bank in the days when banks had used Corinthian columns to create an impression of established age. The modern hermetic door clashed against the marble walls.

“Besides the fact they both owned and developed properties, there’s nothing on the books, but I’ll start digging. Chase specialized in rejuvenating districts, and creating environmentally sound buildings. Her goal is to create buildings which can exist off the electrical grid and generate their own power.”

As he pushed through the door, one of the terminals which dotted the lobby flickered into life. A man’s head appeared on it.

“Welcome to the Chase Company.” The baritone voice was disturbingly familiar. Only the confidence in it separated Quimby’s voice from Qadir’s. The AI’s face had the same sort of calculated naivete as Metta’s neutral face; an almost Victorian purity but in masculine form. “How may I help you today?”

Huang produced his badge and introduced himself. “I need to speak with Mrs. Chase.”

A flicker of surprise showed on the AI’s face. “Certainly, her office is straight back on the right.”

As they walked down the hall, Metta snorted. “Check out the camera. This will not be a private interview.” He glanced up as they passed under one of the surveillance cameras and it swiveled to follow.

“Noted. Ask him to join us, will you?”

The hall was dark after the lobby; only a few of the overhead lights were on, likely as a result of Chase’s concern for the environment. A woman stepped out of a door at the end of the hall. She was tall and slender. The light from her office backlit her, catching on the edges of her shoulders and gleaming in the silvery hair pinned up in a bun.

She waited till he got closer. “Detective Huang?”

“Ms. Chase.” Huang had to tilt his head back to look up at her. “I’m sorry to bother you.”

She smiled sadly. “Given the circumstances, I can guess why you’re here. Come in. Ask me anything you want.” Her blonde hair was almost white; even her eyebrows were so light they almost disappeared on her face. The only color on her face was her eyes. They were like bruises, red with weeping, and ringed with dark circles. “I thought someone would be by eventually.” Chase looked directly at Huang’s VR glasses, not focusing on his eyes. “Metta, Quimby is sending you our internal address so you can join the conversation on a proper interface.”

Huang subvocalized, “Any reason not to?”

Metta shook her head. “It scans clean. I’ll still be able to talk with you privately, which she must know.”

“Go ahead.”

Metta appeared above the desk, next to Quimby. She had abandoned the Mae West interface and appeared in her detective face. Huang didn’t know how she pulled it off, but the face was ethnically neutral. She could have been mixed from every continent. She had a firm jaw balanced by soft brown eyes. Metta nodded to Chase and when she spoke her voice was crisp with none of Mae West’s husky tones. “Thank you for the invitation.”

Chase waved insistently at a chair, settling into another herself. Aside from an interface, a tablet and a steaming cup of tea, nothing cluttered the surface of her desk. She turned the teacup in its saucer. “So. You’re here about Neil Patterson, right?”

“Right.” Huang eased into a chair opposite her. “We’ll start with the basics. Where were you at eight a.m. on Tuesday, October twenty-fifth?”

“I was at my yoga class.”

“And do you have witnesses who can attest to that?”

“Absolutely. Quimby can give you the contact there.”

Metta whispered in Huang’s ear. “Got it and I’ll check.”

Chase turned her teacup again. “Shall I tell you what your next question will be? You want to know why Patterson and I had a meeting. You want to know why I canceled Am I right?”

Huang inclined his head. “Among other things. But let’s start with the meeting.”

“We were collaborating on the renovation of the Water and Everett street building. He took a serious hit after the whole thing with the foreman who took short-cuts and, environmentalism is hot right now. I was going to handle making the buildings green; Patterson was going to handle marketing and tenants. It was a good match.”

“Was?”

Chase shifted in her chair. “We’d had some disagreements about management. Nothing major, but enough that we both felt that it was better to separate the business.”

“And the reason you canceled the meeting?”

“Some paperwork that I’d been waiting on hadn’t come through and we couldn’t proceed without it.” She glanced at Quimby. “Would you send Detective Huang the papers we were working on?”

“Shall I transfer them to Metta?”

“Yes, please.” She leaned forward and picked up the cup from her desk.

The thin white porcelain caught Huang’s eye. He subvocalized to Metta. “See what type of china that is.”

In his VR glasses, she murmured, “Why?”

“It looks like the china from the murder scene,” he subvocalized. He smiled at Chase. “How long has Quimby been with you?”

Chase nearly upset her teacup and laughed. “Detective. Quimby is right here and you can ask him.”

“A year and a half, Detective.” The AI inclined his head. “And if I may anticipate your next questions, I have a certified honesty vow and am sending the authentication to Metta. Yes. Mrs. Chase had a yoga appointment that morning and I can also provide her POV of the session via her VR unit. I will send that to Metta as well as recordings of the hour before and after the yoga session so you may verify her whereabouts.”

Huang considered. He could get little else here without checking other details. “Thank you for your time, Ms. Chase, Quimby.”

Chase stood. “What? That’s all?”

“You’ve been very helpful, but there might be questions we want to ask you in the future, so please let me know before you go out of town.”

Metta nodded her head as well, said her goodbyes and disappeared from the desktop interface. Quimby saw them out of the building.

Metta hung in Huang’s glasses silently until they left the building. “Something’s not right.”

“I know.” He shook his head. “Once you know what the teacup is, will you let me know what china was used at the scene?”

She grimaced. “It will take awhile. I’ll have to get someone to bring it up from evidence so I can look at it. Sorry. Not in my memory.”

“Not your fault. Just get it to me when you can.”

Metta looked out from under her eyelashes. “Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly.” Even with the quote and the Mae West act, the tension still came through in her voice.

Huang pointed at the MAX as it pulled up. “Oh look. A streetcar. I wonder if it’s named Desire.”

In his ear, Metta giggled and the loosening of the strain in her face was worth the wait.

#

Huang leaned back in his chair and scrubbed his eyes with his fists. The paperwork seemed unending and yet nothing connected. Chase’s alibi checked out. True, she might have hired someone, but why have a meeting and then cancel it if that were the case? It just drew attention to her.

And if he were being truly honest with himself, Huang had wanted to find a lead to Metta’s disappearance. Delarosa had nothing. He ground his teeth at the futility of the day.

Metta appeared over his desktop, still wearing Mae West as her interface. “I can finish this report for you.”

“Don’t tempt me.”

“I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it.”

Huang smiled at the quote, but it seemed too light for his mood. “It’ll help me focus.”

She nodded and morphed back to the face she had been made with, her ‘natural’ face. Stripped of Mae West’s glamour, Metta seemed young and fragile. Her face was modeled on some Victorian ideal, large dark eyes and waves of hair swept up in a bun. “I understand, I could use a bit of that myself.”

He pulled up the first report and buried his head in the red tape of the department. Metta murmured occasionally to help him remember events, or to suggest clearer wording. Even so, his eyes began hooding over with drowsiness.

“Hey, Scott?” Amado appeared by his desk. He was always pale from too many daylight hours spent in the basement of the station tending the computer networks, but now his face seemed drawn with tension.

Huang ran his hand across his face, trying to wake up. “What’s up.”

Amado said, “I’d really like to talk to you about what happened when Metta was taken.”

“Sure.” He waited for Amado to continue.

“C’mon, let’s grab a beer and talk.”

Huang shook his head. “Not tonight, sorry. Mountain of paperwork.”

“It would mean a lot to me. I’m worried about her.”

Which ‘her’–the one missing or the one watching Huang now? Huang worried about both. “That’s understandable. What do you want to know?”

“Ah. I don’t want to hang around here. Let’s go out.”

Huang looked down at the watch in the corner of his desk. Unless he called and said work was keeping him late, his mother would expect him home in an hour.

Giving her one more thing to worry about was not high on his list of priorities. On the other hand, Amado was being awfully insistent on talking, and seemed set against going into anything in the building. If he were an informant, Huang would think he had a piece of information he didn’t trust to the system. But in this case, the system was Metta, and– what if he didn’t trust Metta for some reason?

Metta would have to record anything they talked about, even if she didn’t want to. Unless they went off duty and left the building… “Sure. Yeah. Want to hit Wacky Joe’s? Just give me a few minutes to wrap this up.”

Amado fidgeted by his desk. “Yeah… sure. I’ll meet you there.”

Huang agreed and watched Amado walk out of the room. The moment the door shut behind him, Metta said, “Did he seem tense to you?”

“Yeah… Can you think of anything he’d want to hide?”

“No.” She shook her head. “I can’t.”

Huang could. He could think of a very good reason for Amado to be worried about the circumstances around Metta’s abduction.

He groaned and looked at the clock. “I do need to get home to Ma though.” He took his VR glasses out of his pocket and put them in his desk drawer.

“Scott?” She chewed her lower lip. “Will you take me home with you?”

He stopped with his hand to his earbud. “What’s wrong?”

“I’d feel better if I came with you.” She looked away. “You’ll probably have to report this, but I’m afraid of my backup tonight and I want to be around someone who was with me at the last one. I’m afraid I won’t remember today.” She looked back at him. “I want one night of continuity. That’s all.”

He couldn’t help noticing that she hadn’t asked for the favor until after Amado had left. “We aren’t supposed to take the mobile interface equipment out, unless we’re on duty.”

“‘It ain’t no sin if you crack a few laws now and then, just so long as you don’t break any.’”

“I’m going to have to take the Mae West database away from you.”

She blushed again. “I like her, she was a witty woman. No one else plays with me like this.” Metta looked at him, as if she were going to say something more, then shook her head. “So, will you take me with you?”

He could set up an early interview tomorrow, if anyone asked him justify tonight. He picked up her VR glasses and tucked them in his pocket. “Sure, Metta. Anything for you.”

#

The interior of Wacky Joe’s was clouded with smoke. It was stage smoke, meant to give it the feel of a dive bar from the last century but it had the side effect of making the space very intimate. Amado had a booth to the side of the bar and already had a Negroni in front of him.

Huang ordered a single malt, Oban, neat, and settled across from Amado. “What’s up?”

Amado shrugged and spun his drink on the table. “I just wanted to know what you saw. Morbid, right?”

“Not much. She used the surveillance camera to show me a view of her room, it was only up for a couple of seconds.” He took a sip of the Oban. “You’ve got to be a better witness since you actually saw them live.”

Shaking his head, Amado said, “I only saw two. Wearing all black, with a ski mask.” His fingers drummed against the stem of his glass as if they were hungry for a manual interface. “You saw three, right?”

“Right.”

“The other one must have been behind–” Amado cocked his head and looked at the pocket of Huang’s jacket. “Is that a set of VR glasses?”

“Huh? Yeah. I’ve got an early call tomorrow.”

Amado frowned. “Dude, you aren’t supposed to have those out after hours.”

“This isn’t unusual.”

Amado held up his hands and pushed back from the table. “I’m not getting mixed up in it.”

Huang felt his face hold its last expression, mild interest, while his brain raced behind its mask. Something was not right. “Mixed up in what? I told you we have an early call tomorrow so I’m going straight there from home.”

“She can see on those. I–” He shook his head. “Never mind. This was stupid anyway. I can read your reports, right? Thanks for coming. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Amado–” Huang broke off as Amado slipped out of the booth and dropped cash on the table. He walked quickly but took a meandering path out of the bar.

The path took him through the blindspots of the bar’s cameras. Huang grimaced. This did not look good.

#

Huang woke early the next morning to the sound of murmuring voices. Wrapping his robe around himself, he wandered down the hall to the living room. His mother was seated at the desktop in conversation with Metta. The resolution was not as clean as at work, but did little to diminish the soft beauty of the Chinese woman floating over the desktop.

They both stopped talking when he walked into the room. Metta turned partially toward him, but he stood outside the range of the single camera on the desktop.

“How long have you two been up?”

His mother smiled. “I don’t need much sleep and Metta has been kind enough to keep me company.

How much trouble was he going to get into at work over this? “She’s supposed to be on duty, Ma.”

In flawless Mandarin, Metta said, “I am on duty, Scott. But I’m also allowed to converse with civilians about non-police matters. Your honored mother has been very gracious to invite me in.”

He swallowed and walked around to the front of the camera. Was there any reason she couldn’t make a social call? “Then I’m sorry I never invited you to visit before.”

His mother looked at him and tsked. “This is why you have no friends.” She stood up. “You. Go get dressed, not good to look like this.” She gestured at his bathrobe. “Have guest in house. Show respect.” She looked back at Metta and smiled, “Besides, we still have much to talk about.”

Huang chuckled and headed for the bathroom. He paused in the doorway and looked back at his mother. She was having an animated conversation in Mandarin with Metta.

His mother had been so active before she broke her hip, and now the injury trapped her in his apartment away from her friends. He shook his head, watching her laugh at something Metta said. He needed to start calling home during the day more often.

In the steaming water of the shower, Huang tried to organize his thoughts. He turned his active cases over in his head. The Patterson case was the most pressing. They needed to find Yates and no one had turned up anything about him. The man was completely off the grid.

Of the evidence remaining, they had the manner of death and Patterson’s appointment with Chase. He needed to ask Metta to follow up on the provenance of the china the table had been set with. See if that led anywhere. It was such a strange murder.

He got out of the shower and toweled himself off. With the water off, he could hear the murmur of his mother’s conversation with Metta. Maybe meeting Metta would quiet some of his mother’s fears, knowing that he had someone watching his back while he was on duty.

As he rooted through his closet for a clean shirt, he brushed past the formal Chinese silk suit his mother had given him several years ago. He had only worn it once or twice, to please her. He had felt like an imposter, wearing it when he had grown up so far from China. Even though his mother had taught him how to behave, and had ensured he was bilingual–”a great advantage in this economy”–he never completely felt like it was his culture. Was that anything like how Metta felt when she modified her interface for people? She was out there pretending to be Chinese to make his mother more comfortable. For him she aped the great starlets of the silver screen. For Delarosa she was a quiet, efficient secretary.

As he walked back to the living room, Metta stopped speaking and whispered something. His mother laughed. Rounding the corner, he saw his mother sitting demurely in front of the interface, smiling innocently at him.

He raised his eyebrows at this picture of decorum. “What?”

“Nothing. We have good talk.”

The two women smiled at him, and Huang couldn’t help feeling like he was outnumbered.

#

As soon as Huang shut the apartment door behind him, he put the VR glasses on and slid the ear bud into his ear. He looked at Metta, to ask her what she’d been talking about with his mother and saw that she had her standard neutral interface again. “So you’re not Chinese now?”

“Do you want me to be?”

“No. I want you to be yourself.”

She blinked. “You mean this interface?”

“No. I mean.” What did he mean? “I mean I want you to be who you want to be, not pick an appearance to accommodate me or my mother.”

“Scott, picking the right face for me is like picking the right tie for you. It affects how people view me, but it isn’t me.” She sighed. “I have emotions, I feel, but I’m not human, so asking me to ‘look like myself’ is a pointless request.”

“I know.”

“Why is this suddenly bothering you?”

“I don’t know.” He shrugged and walked down the hall. “I guess because you’ve never come over before. I don’t see you off-duty often.”

“Look at me.”

Huang shifted his gaze to where she floated in his glasses. Her cheeks were pale, and a thin line furrowed her brow. “I like the fact you don’t insist on the same interface everyday. It’s like wearing a uniform. Looking like a Chinese woman to meet your mother seemed like dressing up to me. I just picked the most appropriate clothes.”

“And downloaded Mandarin Chinese?”

Her face colored. “Ah. Actually, I did that a while ago. I wanted to make sure it wouldn’t give me unpleasant translation issues. Did I sound all right?”

“Like a native.” He grinned. “It’s better than mine.”

“I find that difficult to believe.”

“No, really. We moved here when I was little, so my Chinese still sounds like I’m a child.”

“Maybe that’s why your mother treats you like a little boy.”

“Ha!” He rubbed the back of his neck. She might have something there. “What case were you working on, that you needed Chinese?”

She took a breath and hesitated.

Huang watched her, fascinated. Metta didn’t need to breathe, but she used breath to indicate her emotions. Was it conscious, or an algorithm working below her conscious thought?

When she spoke again, she said, “One of my detectives is ethnic Chinese. It seemed polite to know the language.”

Huang stopped in the hallway and stared at her. “You’ve known Chinese since we started working together and you’ve never mentioned it?”

“You never speak it at work. I haven’t needed to use it till now.”

He ran his hand through his hair and started walking again. “So…is there anything else, I mean, do you learn languages for anyone else?”

“I learned Icelandic for Sigmundson.” She smiled, and her face softened. “I recite sagas while he’s setting up his equipment.”

They reached the closest MAX station and Huang clattered down the stairs to the platform.

“What’s first today?” Metta asked.

“I’m back to thinking about motive. Who inherits the Patterson estate?”

“His sixteen year-old son, but through a trust which Mrs. Patterson controls.”

“Any idea what building he wanted to acquire next?”

“Give me a minute and I’ll let you know.”

Something nagged at Huang but he couldn’t put his finger on it. To distract himself, hoping the thought would spring into focus, he asked, “Did you have another backup at three a.m.?”

Metta nodded.

“How’d it go?”

“Fine. I remember everything since I woke up yesterday.”

“That’s good.”

She shrugged. “The backup wasn’t the problem, it’s the fact that I am a backup. Instead of unbroken memory, I have a gap, so I feel like I’ll shut down at the end of a backup.” She tilted her head, “Think of it like a bad food experience. Even though you know it was a one-time thing your body still gets upset if you think about eating the same food again.”

“Yeah. I’ve never gotten over my childhood carrot experience.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Do tell.”

“Carrot casserole in reverse. You can do the mental image yourself.”

“The only carrots that interest me are the number of carats in a diamond.”

“Does Mae West have an appropriate comment for every situation?”

“Not quite.” She cocked her head. “I’m making a note you don’t like carrots. I didn’t know that.”

“I clearly don’t take you to dinner often enough.”

“You’ve never taken me to dinner. And I have the answer to your last question.”

Huang blinked, trying to remember what he had asked her. Right. The last acquisition Patterson had been making. “Which is?”

“The old Salvation Army Building which is– huh. That’s the building Yates was working on behind the Daily Grind.” Her eyes narrowed in thought. “Chase owns it now.”

Huang whistled. “Well, well…isn’t that interesting. Now that’s a nice connection, and it gives Patterson a motive for wanting Chase out of the picture, but not the other way around.”

“Sorry to disappoint you, but Chase was happy to sell. Patterson met the offer on the table and the sale was moving forward.”

“Why do all my avenues turn to dead ends?”

“I could search my databases for days and not have an answer to that one.”

Huang got into the MAX car as it pulled into the station. “Oh. Any word on the provenance of the china the table was set with?”

“I think you’ll like this. The china on the roof was Mont Clair, by Lennox, and Chase’s teacup was the same.”

“Ooo…. I do like that.” He chewed the inside of his lip.

“I’ll ask for a warrant to search Chase’s to–”

Metta vanished from his view. Huang’s heart raced. “Metta?”

Seconds of silence ticked by. Cursing, Huang pressed his hand against the glass as if he could hurry the MAX to the next station. Outside, a squad car dopplered past on its way to HQ.

“–see if she’s missing any pieces.”

Huang nearly dropped to his knees with relief as Metta finished her sentence where she had left off. She had replaced her neutral face with Mae West again, but in full color and three-D.

Not caring that he looked like a madman, Huang said aloud, “What the hell was that?”

“What?” A line creased her brow.

“You went away for a minute and then you came back.”

“No, I…” Her face paled. “Oh. Something is very wrong.”

His heart pounded. “What is it?”

“I’m not sure. I feel strange.”

Huang reached out, as if his hand could touch the face floating in his vision. He caught sight of his watch. 9:01. His breath stopped in his chest. “Did you just do a backup?”

Her luminous eyes turned to him. Had the real Mae West’s eyes ever been that blue? “Yes.”

“Did you go down across the board, or just with me?”

“System wide. Scott?” She licked her lips. “What do I look like?”

The air seemed to stifle him. “Mae West. Colorized. three-d.”

She pulled in a deep breath and looked away from him. “I need you to come into the station.”

Huang felt like cold water was dumped down his spine. “What’s wrong?”

She shook her head. During the ride to the station, she wouldn’t answer his questions but floated, practically mute, in the corner of his vision as if she had pressed as far to the side of the VR glasses as she could.

When the MAX pulled into the station, Metta raised her eyes, still not meeting his. “Report to the chief. I’ll see you there.”

She winked out of sight as he ran up the steps, but her surveillance cameras watched him. What had happened?

As he crossed the threshold of the station, Banks careened down the hall toward him. “Huang! In my office, now.” The chief turned on his heel.

Huang had to jog to catch up with him, heart pounding. As he passed through the station, he caught a glimpse of an officer, talking to Mae West. Further on, he saw another officer, with the same Mae West interface for Metta.

Huang stopped and leaned through a department door. Over every desktop interface, Mae West floated in full living color.

As Huang stared at the matched heads, they turned, not quite in unison, in his direction. Banks came back and stood so close his breath steamed hot against Huang’s cheek. “Move it.”

Huang jumped and followed the chief down the hall. “What happened to her?”

“That’s why you’re here.”

Inside the office, Amado, Delarosa and Metta waited for Huang. Metta, who still looked like Mae West, wouldn’t meet his gaze. She somehow made the jaded face seem vulnerable and uncertain.

Banks pointed to a chair flanked by Delarosa and Amado. “Sit.” He flung himself into the seat behind his desk. The wood creaked as he leaned forward to glower at Huang.

Huang sank into the chair, glancing at the others. Amado wore VR glasses and his lips twitched as he subvocalized. Delarosa tapped a pencil on a pad of paper, his mouth a tight, compressed line.

Huang held his questions. He wouldn’t be the one who drove this discussion. Resting his hands on his knees, he ran scales in his mind and focused on his breathing.

Amado shifted once and Banks shook his head. Huang waited, with a bead of sweat trickling down the back of his neck.

He almost flinched when Delarosa finally spoke. “Where were you at three a.m. this morning?”

“Asleep. At home.”

“Who was with you?”

“I sleep alone.”

“Is there anyone who can verify you were there?”

“My mother was home.” He looked at Metta. “So was Metta.”

Amado leaned forward again, but Banks held a finger up to stop him.

Delarosa scribbled something on his pad. “Why did you take the interface equipment home last night?”

Huang turned slightly in his chair to face Delarosa, wondering what Amado had told him. “I had an early call and she asked me to.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Why would she do that?”

Huang hesitated.

“It’s all right, Huang.” Metta raised her eyes and turned to Delarosa. “I was afraid; I suggested we schedule an early morning call so he had a reasonable justification for taking the equipment out.”

Amado asked, “What were you afraid of?”

She shrugged the ample bosom of Mae West. “I guess you could say, I was afraid of the dark.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Delarosa scowled. “You’re a computer with thousands of cameras. It’s never dark.”

Fixing him with her gaze, she said, “I’m designed to have continuous consciousness. I don’t sleep. Ever. But, after the assailants took Metta Prime, Amado restarted me from a backup. The practical side effect of that is, from my perspective, I lost consciousness for over twenty-four hours. Imagine something routine in your life, like brushing your teeth. Nothing bad has ever happened; you barely think about it except as part of your routine. How would you feel if you blacked out while brushing your teeth?” She tilted her head to the side. “Wouldn’t you have some hesitation about the toothbrush, even though you knew it had nothing to do with what had happened to you?”

Delarosa shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “You were kidnapped, it’s understandable–.”

“I wasn’t.” Metta glared at him. “It’s important you understand that. I–the one you are talking to–was not kidnapped; I have no trauma or even memory of the event. What upsets me is the memory loss, and that’s the only thing I have experienced.” She turned to Huang. “That’s why I asked them to bring you in.”

He blinked, trying to make sense of what she was saying. “I don’t understand.”

“Someone, probably Metta Prime, sent me a Trojan horse which contained this.”

Amado said, “We still don’t know that. The crash might be related to the new chassis. I don’t see any signs of tampering with your code.”

She gestured to her face. “I crashed and I can’t manifest any other interface. What do you call that?”

Huang went still. “And you think it happened at my house last night?”

Metta looked away. “It’s a possibility.”

“Was I the only officer you went home with last night?”

“No–.”

“Stop it.” Delarosa leaned forward and jabbed his pencil at Huang. “You’re here to answer questions, not ask them.”

Huang ran his hand through his hair. “So ask.”

Delarosa frowned. “According to Metta’s bandwidth reports, she maintained an active connection to your house all night. What did you have her working on?”

“Why aren’t you asking her this? I was asleep.”

“Answer me.”

“I don’t know. My mother sometimes wakes up during the night, maybe she was talking with Metta.”

Delarosa wrote something down on his note pad.

“No.” Huang raised his hands and looked at the chief. “You can’t bring my mother in. Please.”

Banks stared at Huang impassively.

Huang looked to Metta for help. “C’mon you know my mother had nothing to do with this. What about at Chase? You logged in there.”

Amado cleared his throat. “I thought about that, but it seems like it’s related to backing up, so the last backup is a more reasonable entry point. Besides…” His voice trailed away and he looked at Delarosa nervously.

Delarosa’s mouth turned down at the corners. “Go ahead and spill everything.”

Huang knew what Amado had been about to say. “Besides, Mae West is an interface Metta created for me.”

She nodded. “Did Metta Prime colorize the West interface during the dark period?”

Huang shook his head. “The mono-v face you had on yesterday is the one I last saw you–her wearing.”

Banks leaned back in the chair. “So the question is… If Metta Prime is trying to send a message, what does Mae West have to do with anything?”

Huang inhaled and held the breath while he thought. “Is it possible her kidnapping is related to the case I was working on when she was taken?”

“Tell us more about that.” Delarosa lifted his pad of paper, and poised his pencil over it.

Amado shook his head. “That doesn’t make any sense. I mean, the Mae West thing, maybe, but not today’s crash.”

Metta shook her head. “Not necessarily. My prime might be dealing with an invasive virus.” She stopped and sighed. “For that matter, we don’t know how deeply I might be infected.”

“Don’t you have firewalls and stuff?” Huang asked.

“I have subroutines, which handle basic things, but a signature from Metta Prime would look the same as a signature from me.” Metta paused. “I think we should consider replacing me.”

“Metta!” Amado nearly jumped out of his seat. “I can run any tests you want. You don’t need to do that.”

She rolled her eyes. “Amado, you’re a dear, but you’re out of your depth.”

He sputtered, “I’ve been taking care of you for years.”

“No. You’ve been taking care of Metta Prime for years. As soon as you booted me from the backup, I diverged from her. I mean, let’s be realistic here… Do you know any A.I who’s a backup?”

Banks looked sharply at Amado. “I thought you said this was a procedure that had been done before.”

Amado ran his hands through his hair and looked at the floor. “AIs have been revived from backup before.”

“But not while the prime was living.” Metta glared at him. “I should not be here. But for the moment I am, so let’s make use of that, shall we?” She turned to Delarosa. “I think it’s likely the Patterson case is in some way connected, or Metta Prime would have fixed on a different interface.”

“Can we even trust your judgments? You said you were infected with a virus.”

Amado said, “I ran a scan on her right after her crash, I don’t see anything wrong besides her interface.”

“And here I thought I looked pretty.” She turned the corners of her mouth down. “Chief. Please, we only have five hours until my next backup. I’m as certain as I can be; Huang saw something during my dark period related to this case. It will be something not in his reports, because it didn’t seem important. I want him and Delarosa to compare notes and work these cases together.”

Banks glared at Metta. His jaw worked subtly as he subvocalized to her. Finally, the chief nodded and turned to Delarosa. “Huang’s working with you on this. Metta is right. There must be something that happened, between her Prime’s last backup and when she was taken, that Huang knows. So I want you two to work together on her disappearance and the Patterson murder.”

Delarosa opened his mouth, scowling.

Banks held up his hand. “I mean it.”

“Fine.” Delarosa drew a hard line through something on his pad.

“Now get out of here.” Banks pointed at the door.

Huang followed Delarosa to his desk, head reeling from the last half hour. Metta waited for them, floating in perfect imitation of Mae West over Delarosa’s desktop interface.

“Here.” Delarosa sat down, and tossed him a file folder of hard copies. “Yours are electronic, aren’t it?”

Huang nodded. “I’ll key them over to your desktop.”

Metta said, “Delarosa prefers hard copies so I’m printing transcripts of everything we’ve talked about today.”

“That’ll kill a lot of trees.”

Delarosa glowered. “Here’s the deal. I don’t make comments on your preferences. You don’t make them on mine. Fair?”

“Fair. Thanks.” He sat down and started leafing through the papers Delarosa had handed him.

#

Huang got frustrated reading Delarosa’s reports, because he seemed to be ignoring a whole line of questioning about how Metta worked, and what that might have to do with the case. His notes were terse almost to the point of incomprehensibility.

During Metta’s abduction, three armed men had entered the building without being seen. Amado saw two in a corridor, but was unable to identify them. In fact, the clearest description of the men was the one Huang had provided.

Although an inside job was possible, the men had also disabled cameras all along the route out of the building. This suggested a highly organized plan carried out by several people who knew the system very well. Better, in fact, than any of the officers currently working at the station. The only one with sufficient knowledge was Amado, but he was among those injured in the attack. “Metta? I don’t see it in Delarosa’s report; did you do a size analysis of the men I reported seeing?”

“It was inconclusive.”

“Would you humor me? Make blank composites and compare that against people in the department who could have been in the station at the time of your prime’s abduction.”

“I’ve run profiles on everyone in the station, no one has the know-how to trick my cameras.”

“Except Amado.”

She sighed. “Except Amado. Huang, even if I didn’t know him well, he has no motive. It’s most likely to be an outside job.”

“Will you show me the groups anyway?”

“Yes.” On his VR glasses, three men’s silhouettes appeared in blue. “These are the weights and heights you reported. Of the people who could have been at the station, these are the ones who fit that body type.” A short list of names scrolled past his eyes.

“Why are you so resistant to this?”

She pulled her mouth into a straight line. “Look at the names. Fitzgerald and Amado are on that list. I have one eyewitness, you, who didn’t seen anything long enough to make a positive ID. It’s extremely unreliable testimony.”

“Fine.” He let the air out of his lungs, staring at Delarosa’s report.

“It’s a good idea, but I’ve already gone down that path.”

Huang closed his eyes and leaned his head back. “Why me? If it’s related to the Patterson case, why not Griggs?”

“I don’t know.”

“Okay…let’s go at this from the other end. Why Diamond Lil? Why not–” Huang broke off, his mouth open. He suddenly remembered the plot of the movie.

Metta stared at him. “Why is your pulse spiking?”

“This is crazy, I know, but on Tuesday when you showed me Diamond Lil you said you watched the movie. Do you remember the plot?”

Her eyes shifted to the left. “Lady Lou (Mae West) works in the 1890s saloon of Gus Jordan (Noah Beery, Sr.). Gus traffics in white slavery and runs a counterfeiting ring. Next door to the bar is a city mission…” Her gaze widened and snapped back to Huang. “The old Salvation Army building–you think they have my Prime there.”

“Who owns it?”

She nodded slowly. “Magdalena Chase.”

“And Patterson wanted to buy it. And the witness to the murder was working there. There’s got to be a connection. Get me a warrant to search that building.”

“I’ve sent the request in, but it’s a line of conjecture. I don’t know that I can get you one.”

“I need to talk to Delarosa.” He hurried across the room and stopped by the older detective’s desk.

Delarosa looked up, glaring. “What?”

Huang quickly related his conversation with Metta about the film. When he finished Delarosa snorted heavily. “That’s pretty thin.”

“I know but there has to be some reason she settled on Diamond Lil. I don’t understand the link, but there has to be a connection.”

“I think you’re reading too much into this.” Delerosa slid a page across the table. “I think the fact that both crimes used a .38 is the more likely link. We need to focus on finding the murder weapon.”

“Fine. When the warrant comes in, I’ll check it out without you.” Huang stalked back to his desk and grabbed his coat. He couldn’t search the place but he could damn well keep an eye on it.

#

Huang leaned against the wall and nursed the cup of coffee he’d picked up at the Daily Grind. According to the counter girl, Joe Yates had not been in for his usual lowfat double-shot latte that morning. It was nearly three o’clock so it was unlikely that Yates would show at all. Huang stared at the old Salvation Army building across the street. “So… I’m thinking that maybe whoever killed Patterson took your Prime to cover up the crime. And they’re looking for or have already found Yates.”

Metta frowned. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just make it look like an accident in the first place? Or make sure we never found the body?”

“Maybe Yates surprised them and they weren’t expecting to be caught.”

“Possible. We won’t know until we find him.”

Huang took another sip of his coffee. “Any word on the warrant?”

“How many times are you going to ask me?” Metta shook her head. “I’ll let you know when I have it. Look, there’s a traffic camera at the end of this street so I can keep an eye on the area while we do something useful.”

“I don’t mind waiting.”

She wrinkled her nose. “I know. But, I want to see the Patterson scene since I–”

“Since you blacked out.” Huang turned and walked back to the Daily Grind building.

“Exactly. I’m hoping that something will tell me what’s in that missing memory.”

The lobby of the Daily Grind looked the way he remembered it, with potted plants hiding in the corners. Huang headed for the stairs.

“Oh, hang on.” Metta stopped him. “The elevator is working today.”

“Thank god. I was not looking forward to climbing those stairs again.” Huang wheeled around and pushed the elevator button.

“Wimp.”

“I’m going to go to the gym.” He watched the numbers descend to meet him. “Really.”

“A man can be short and dumpy and getting bald but if he has fire, women will like him.”

“Hey!” He ran a hand through his hair, checking.

Metta laughed, “It’s a Mae West quote. Honestly, Scott.”

Sheepish, he jerked his hand out of his hair. “I knew that.” Huang got into the elevator and reached for the roof button.

“Scott, will you start in the hallway upstairs?”

“Sure.” He pressed the button for the tenth floor and they rode the elevator in silence. When the door opened, he stepped out into the soft glow of the wood wainscoting. “Remember this?”

Metta shivered. “I don’t like this place.”

“Are you okay?”

“My memory ends here.”

He had not thought this all the way through. What if he caused her to crash? “We can go back.”

“No.” Mae West’s eyes glittered dangerously. “I need to know what things I’m missing.”

The hall seemed longer than it had before. When he passed into the stairwell, the lemon scent was completely gone. “There was a strong lemon odor here, as though someone had cleaned recently.”

“Will you give me a new three-sixty?”

Huang spun on his heels, obediently. Then he stood and turned slowly, letting Metta see the whole room.

“All right. Let’s go to the roof.”

Outside Huang walked across the grass roof to the wireframe table. He showed her where the wheelchair had been and the spot where he’d found the screw and the stained grass.

“Scott?” Metta looked at him with wide, serious eyes out of keeping with Mae West’s face. “May I ask you to do something morbid?”

He stopped in the middle of the roof. “What is it?”

“Will you replay what you did when I–when they took the original me, my Prime? So I can, so I can pretend I remember it.”

His breath seemed locked in his throat. He glanced at the time. 2:55. “Are you sure? Your backup…”

“That’s why. Please?”

He swallowed heavily and whispered. “I can do that.”

He walked back toward the center and gestured at it with his hand so she could see. “Griggs was here, fingerprinting the wheelchair.”

He tried to remember and didn’t want to. “I had just asked you why the elevator was down.”

She broke in. “Just act it out. I know it’s weird, but I have never felt lost like this. I just want to fill in the blanks.”

He swallowed against the lump in his throat. “Metta?” he subvocalized, “How long has the elevator in this building been down?”

He waited for a moment, not looking at her. “Then you said you’d been trying to check on that since we got here, but couldn’t reach the building manager. Then you froze, and you said–.”

Metta whispered, “Shots fired.” Her voice was an imagined memory. “Officer down.”

Huang froze, as if he were listening for gunfire in their vicinity again. He pointed to where Griggs had been. “Griggs stood up and yelled your name.”

Metta nodded, the color fading from West’s rouged cheeks until it looked as though she would return to black and white. She whispered, “Three armed subjects in Chassis room. The assailants are armed, I repeat– Amado! Two officers down.”

As he remembered, Huang turned on his heels and sprinted back across the roof. “Metta, can you give a visual?” The memory of fear grabbed him again. “Metta, answer me. Who’s there? Can you give a visual?”

Still running he said, “You showed me an image, but it was fast. You screamed and froze, then you vanished.” He put his hand on the door. “There was only silence after that.”

“Thank you.” The husky voice she affected as Mae West seemed thick with emotion. “I’d like to go down now.”

He walked across the grass roof, shooting glances at her as he went. Cars hummed by on the interstate and a breeze kicked a dried leaf across his path. Huang pulled open the door of the roof access and stepped into the small hallway containing the elevator. His heels clicked on the linoleum.

Metta looked up and heaved a sigh of relief and beamed. “In a happy turn of events… I just found a judge to give you a warrant.”

“Great. Can you get me some backup. I mean– You know.”

“It’s not a dirty word, Scott. And yes. I have people on the way.”

“Did you tell Delarosa we’ve got it.”

“He’s headed to Patterson’s office.”

It figured he wouldn’t be interested. “There’s not a chance Patterson’s office is in the old Salvation Army building is there?”

Metta shook her head. “I’d have mentioned it–”

Her image froze, flickered and vanished.

Huang gasped. He didn’t need the clock to tell him it was 3:00. What if she didn’t come back this time?

“–if it were.” Her face paled. “It happened again, didn’t it?”

She still looked like Mae West. The grand dame of silver screen stared back at Huang, in full color, but with a layer of fear he had never seen.

“It was a minute, like last time.”

She closed her eyes. “Damn.”

“What’s different this time?”

Her eyes flashed open. “Nothing I can tell. I still look like the finest gal that ever walked the streets.”

“That you do, sweetheart.” He crumpled his coffee cup and threw it into the garbage can by the elevator. “What’s the ETA?”

“First car should be just a block away.”

“Great.” Huang pushed the down button. “Will you tell them to guard the exits on the north side?”

“Will do. I’ll get a perimeter established with first responders and then send you a team to search the building.”

The door dinged open and Huang stepped inside. He stood still so the door almost caught his coat as it slid shut.

“I’ll be damned. It’s that lemon smell again.”

“Help me out, Scott.” Metta watched him carefully. “How common is this scent you’re talking about?”

“It’s fairly common in cleaning products, but I don’t usually smell it in concentrations unless someone has just cleaned.” A picture of his mother scrubbing the furniture flashed through his mind. “It’s strange that it wasn’t here before.” He snorted. “And it’s strong.”

He spun in a circle in the tiny elevator. A chair from the lobby stood in the corner. Huang tilted his head back to look at the access hatch. It was not seated neatly in its frame. He climbed onto the chair and subvocalized, “Metta, can you find out why the elevator was out of service on Tuesday?”

“I’m working on it, but the manager says he never knew it was out-of-order, and never put in a service call to get it fixed.”

He reached up and pushed on the access panel. It rose easily, letting in a stronger draft of the lemony fragrance. Without needing to be asked, Huang pulled off Metta’s eSpy and lifted the small lens into the space above the elevator. He turned it slowly as Metta played the images on his glasses. A bundle of clothing lay close to the edge of the hatch. They were dark gray and splotched with blood. The corner of a name badge showed the letters “Yat”

Huang stifled a curse and turned the small camera further. A hand flashed across his vision and grabbed Huang’s forearm, pinning it to the edge of the access hatch.

Metta’s eSpy dropped out of his hand and bounced across the roof of the elevator, flashing vertiginous images on his glasses. He jerked his hand free as the eSpy fell over the edge of the elevator. He almost fell as the image spun out of control until Metta cut the feed to his glasses.

Huang jumped off the chair and pulled his gun out, aiming at the opening.

Metta whispered, “Backup is on the way.”

“Mr. Yates!” He shouted upward. “We just want to ask you a few questions.”

He could hear murmuring above.

Metta turned up the gain in his earbud so he could hear the fluid voice. She whispered, “I think that’s Rwandan.”

“What’s he saying”

“I’m downloading a translator, it will be a minute.”

Raising his voice again, Huang said, “Mr. Yates. You have to come down sometime. Let’s make it easy and come quietly now.”

He could hear a rustle of fabric. A hoarse voice spoke out of the darkness. “You won’t shoot me?”

“No sir.” He held the gun aimed at the hole. “But I need you to come down.”

“You’ve got a gun pointing at me.”

“Yes sir, I do. I won’t use it unless you give me a reason to. You won’t do that will you?”

There was a long silence. “Maybe you think I already have.”

“I don’t think anything yet, except you’re trapped and scared. I don’t want to hurt you. I just want you to come down.”

There was a long silence and more murmuring. “All right.” The ceiling creaked as he slid closer to the opening. “I’m coming down.”

“The chair’s right beneath the opening.”

A slender leg appeared in navy blue sweat pants. Another appeared and Yates quickly lowered himself to the chair. The track suit he wore was rumpled as if he’d slept in it. His right hand had been crudely bandaged with what looked like a linen napkin.

“I’m going to check for weapons.” Huang pushed him against the wall a little harder than necessary to remind Yates that grabbing an officer was never acceptable. Yates stood listlessly while Huang patted him down, almost as if he had fallen asleep standing up. Nothing. It would have been easier if he were packing a .38.

“He’s clean.” Huang told Metta and hit the button for the lobby. “Mr. Yates, we’re going to take you downtown to ask you some questions.”

Yates nodded his head miserably. “I know. I was trying to help and then…” He waved his bandaged hand helplessly, “it all went wrong.”

Huang shared a look with Metta. Went wrong? “What went wrong?”

Yates rubbed his slender fingers over his short hair. “It’s complicated.”

Metta whispered, “I translated his prayer. He was asking why he was being punished for trying to help a dying man.”

Huang led Yates off the elevator, still subvocalizing to Metta. “That could still mean he killed Patterson.”

“True. There are no withholding taxes on the wages of sin.” Metta shook her head and grimaced. “What about the warrant for the old Salvation Army building?”

Huang squeezed his eyes shut, weighing his options. “Can one of the uniforms take Yates downtown?”

“I’ll have someone meet you at the door and I’ll get Griggs to collect the clothes from the elevator.”

Huang spied the open door to the Daily Grind. “Have them meet me in the coffee shop. Mr. Yates hasn’t had his lowfat double-shot latte today.”

“You are such a softy.”

“I know.” He grinned. “That’s why you like me.”

#

It took another fifteen minutes to transfer Yates. Huang strapped on his flak jacket and headed inside the Salvation Army building with a small team.

“Okay boys, subvocalize from here on.” Metta’s voice was neutral and indicated that she was addressing all of the officers present. She guided them through the building, clearing each room as they went before leading them up to the next floor. For the most part, the building was empty and waiting for renovation. One room showed signs of a squatter but the rest had the standard discards of old offices, partition walls, old file folders, and layers of dust. On the fourth floor, Metta narrowed her eyes and highlighted tracks in the carpet that looked as though someone had dragged a heavy handtruck down the hall recently. The tracks led back to a door three-quarters of the way down the hall.

Huang pulled out his gun and sidled down the hall. The other officers positioned themselves ready to cover him.

The door was ajar about an inch. Metta said, “I don’t hear anything inside.”

Huang took a breath and knocked on the door. “Police. Open up.”

Silence.

He pushed the door open.

The room held a desk and a chair. Next to the desk, the carpet contained a rectangular impression as if something heavy had sat on it recently.

“Take a look.” Metta opened a screen in Huang’s VR glasses with an infrared view of the room, using one of the other officer’s eSpy for better resolution. In the artificial colors of the infrared, he could see the faint glow of warmth in the rectangle.

“That’s the right size to be a chassis.” Metta wiped the image from his glasses and reappeared. “The men downstairs are on alert, but I think we’re too late.”

Huang let out the breath he had been holding. “I’m sorry–” He stopped with his mouth open. He sniffed the air.

“Scott, what is it?”

He turned slowly, his nose raised. “Lemon Pledge. It’s fainter than the other times, but still noticeable.”

Metta said, “CSI is on their way. Seal the room, and don’t touch anything.”

They went back into the hall to wait. Huang felt as if he were moving underwater, it took so much effort to even breathe. He subvocalized, “I’m sorry, Metta.”

“Scott.” She looked at him closely. “You have nothing to be sorry about.”

“If I had come in when I got the warrant…”

She shook her head. “The heat signature is cooler than that. I’d guess we missed them by about fifteen to twenty minutes.”

Huang glanced at his watch. 3:25. “How long does it take to move you?”

“If you know what you’re doing it’s fast.”

Huang looked at the officers waiting in the hall. “Let’s go ahead and search the whole building. Maybe they didn’t move far.”

“Unlikely.” Metta shifted her eyes up and to the left. “They’ll have another place to store her, but knowing this one means I can start running numbers to see if I can come up with other likely places.”

“The question now is: What tipped them off?”

Metta compressed her lips. “I don’t like the probable answers.”

#

He helped the team finish sweeping the building but they found no other obvious evidence of Metta Prime’s presence. As soon as he could turn the scene over to Griggs, he headed back to the station to interview Yates. Metta was silent for much of the ride and almost looked as if she would be happier somewhere else. Her brooding was so dark, Huang finally said, “If you want to tune out, I don’t mind.”

“Hmm? No, I’m fine here.”

“You don’t have to watch me ride the MAX; you’ve got a lot of other things on your mind.”

“I’ve got a lot of mind to deal with things.” She pursed her lips. “Which is part of what I’m thinking about. What happened that all the multi-tasking parts of myself reacted as one.”

“Was it the shock of finding men inside the station?”

“I don’t know. I have no idea how they got in. I could see them evading one camera, but not all of them.”

“What if–” Huang stopped. She would never go for this, but she was looking at him expectantly, so he filled the silence. “What happens when you and Amado play hide and seek?”

“I see where you’re going with this, but it’s not that simple. I stop monitoring the cameras when we play hide and seek. The public cameras, like the ones which identify people coming into the building, are still captured and processed, but they go into my unconscious banks. I still scan people, but I don’t pay attention to what I’m doing, so keeping them out is as reflexive as a sneeze. Does that make any sense?”

“So, it’s likely the people who took you were people who belonged in the station. Right?”

“You’re back to thinking it was an inside job.”

Huang got off the MAX and walked up the steps of the station. “Tell me at what point you first scan me.”

He was halfway up the steps, when Metta said, “Now. My first camera just tagged you. But, unless you flag warnings in the A.S., I don’t start paying attention till you cross the threshold, and even then, only if you’re someone I’m looking forward to seeing.”

Huang ignored the people passing him on the steps. “Will you do something for me?”

“I’ll try anything once, twice if I like it, three times to make sure.”

“Then play hide and seek with me.”

“You think Amado was involved.”

Huang wished he could hide from her gaze. He wasn’t sure what he thought. “I wonder if someone knew about your games and took advantage of them.”

“How would they have known about them?”

“I don’t know.” Unless Amado was involved, which Metta seemed unable to acknowledge as a possibility. “What’s the shortest route to the chassis room?”

She brought a map up on his VR glasses. “Go to the south side of the building and enter through the garage.”

Huang headed around the building. “Did Delarosa do this?”

“He doesn’t know about our hide and seek games.”

“You didn’t tell him?”

“It doesn’t have anything to do with the case.”

“Metta! How can you think turning your cameras off is unrelated?”

“Because the thieves couldn’t have known or counted on it. The chance of us playing a game at the exact moment they decided to break in is extremely unlikely.”

What if Metta had been tampered with so she couldn’t consider Amado as a suspect?

As he entered the garage, the acrid smell of electricity crackled around him. An evidence truck sat up on blocks, with a mechanic under it. Rows of filing cabinets, filled with parts, lined the walls.

Metta said, “I’d have noticed you when you came through the garage doors.”

Huang nodded and backed up. “Let me know when I’m off the radar.”

About ten feet outside the garage door, Metta said, “Now.”

“All right.” Huang straightened his shoulders. “Show me the route again.”

Metta flashed the map on his VR glasses. “You didn’t ask, but here are the cameras which were disabled.” A row of red dots appeared along the line she recommended as the fastest route. Two green dots appeared scattered along the route. “These are the officers who went down.”

“How hard is it to disable a camera?”

“Depends. These guys used a wire cutter, so, in theory, they could have cut the cable as they passed underneath.”

“Right. Let’s see how far I can get in a hundred seconds.”

Her face set and resolute, Metta closed her eyes. “Ready? Go.”

Huang started walking. They would have walked, surely, or other officers would have noticed them. As he walked, Metta counted backwards, “100, 99, 98, 97…”

The first camera he passed hung lifeless from the ceiling. Why did they cut the cables, if they were planning on taking Metta’s chassis? Was it so they would have a safe way out if something went wrong? He fought the urge to run down the hall as Metta continued to count. “…87, 86, 85…”

The men Amado saw wore masks, and they had worn masks in the image Metta sent Huang. “…63, 62, 61…” He rounded the corner and entered the hall where Fitzgerald had been shot.

He reached the end of the hall without seeing other officers. “…53, 52, 51…”

He opened the door to the stairs and ran down them. The chances of unexpectedly seeing someone else on the stairs were slim. The suspects could have hurried here. He looked at the spot where Amado had been found. Had they put the masks on in the stairs, or after they shot Fitzgerald?

He opened the door to the hall outside the chassis room. “…42, 41, 40…” He heard footsteps at the other end of the hall, and saw Banks walking away from him. Huang swallowed, walking briskly down the hall to the Chassis room.

“…30, 29, 28…” Huang opened the Chassis room door and stepped in. Amado looked up, grinning. He put one finger to his lips. In his ear Metta said, “…18, 17, 16…”

Huang crossed the room and put his hand on her chassis. It was warm and smooth to the touch. A faint vibration stirred through his fingertips and the sense of life inside the box made the hair stand up on the back of his neck.

“I’m here.”

Her voice stopped counted and the cameras on her chassis snapped into life. Her interface suddenly focused on him, with her face gone pale. “Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often.”

“Sorry, sweetheart.”

She looked at his hand resting on her chassis. “Go right ahead. I don’t mind if you get familiar …”

Huang colored and jerked his hand away from her. He turned around to face Amado. “I thought you’d be in your office.”

Metta smiled at him. “I told him what you were trying to do. What was the trip like from your POV?”

“I didn’t see anyone, except for the chief walking away.”

“Here’s what I’m thinking,” Metta said, “It seems likely the suspects used that route to get to my Chassis room. The fact that they killed Fitzgerald indicates, to me, that they were people whose presence in those corridors was inappropriate. In other words, they thought Fitzgerald would have known from looking at them that they were in the wrong place.”

“You don’t think they were just worried about being recognized?”

She shook her head. “If it were an inside job, they could have relied on being recognizable to avoid suspicion while the crime was in progress. Once they took my prime, they would have needed to mask themselves on the way out, but not on the way in.”

Huang thought about that. “What if some of them were hired guns and some were insiders?”

“Possible.” She said aloud, then she whispered in Huang’s ear, “You’re still having the same thought, aren’t you?

“Yes,” he subvocalized. Turning to Amado, he said, “Is it possible someone could do something to Metta so she was unable to suspect them of a crime?”

Amado lifted his head. “Are you accusing me?”

“Why would you assume I meant you?”

“Because I’m her wrangler. There isn’t anyone else here who could.”

Huang held up his hands. “Look. I’m just asking questions. Is it possible?”

“Theoretically? Yes. But someone would have to have her exact id and there’s no way to get that without having the AI in your possession. So you’re back to me again.”

“What about her prime?”

Amado stopped with his mouth open. “Yeah… yeah. But– Shit. Is that possible?”

“What?”

“Well, look. It would only work in a case like this, where there was a living prime and a backup, because their signature is the same. So what if that was the point?”

Metta shook her head. “No one could have known you would reboot me from a backup. It’s unprecedented.”

“What if they knew Amado would reboot you?”

Metta looked at him as if she’d never seen him before. “Scott. They couldn’t have known Amado would reboot me. Hope? Yes, but it’s more common to get a clean system in if something compromises the original. The backups are just for actual damage. My prime was stolen, not damaged. ”

Huang straightened his shoulders and took a breath. “You’re right, Metta. Of course they couldn’t have been sure.”

Metta scowled in his glasses. “Don’t patronize me, Scott. I can tell you don’t agree with me.”

Huang weighed his options. “Look. You guys know more about this than I do. I was just asking questions, trying to understand.”

“Give a man a free hand and he’ll try to put it all over you.” Metta sighed in a breathy Mae West voice. “Scott, you’ve got Yates upstairs in the interrogation room. We should get up there.”

“Yeah. Thanks for your time, Amado.” As he opened the door, Huang paused. “One more thing. Did you play hide and seek with Metta during her dark period?”

Amado stared at him for a moment. “Are you asking me to answer as a witness or a suspect?”

“I don’t know. I want to find her. Do you?”

Amado pulled back as if Huang had slapped him. “What do you think?”

“Depends. Did you play hide and seek with her?”

Amado looked away from Huang. Metta watched them with her lips parted. The breath escaped from Amado. “Yeah. I’ve been worried about it.”

“Why?”

Amado squirmed in his seat. “You’ll have to tell the chief.”

“Tell him what?”

“I have a webcam in my office. And I keep a blog.” He slid a hand into his hair, twisting the tendrils into gravity defying forms. “I’ve got Metta’s interface placed so she can’t see either the camera or my PC. I’m careful about keeping identifying details off the blog, but I can’t help wondering if someone used it to time the break-in.”

Blood pounded in Huang’s ears. “And you haven’t gone to the chief about this?”

“I know, I know.” Amado leaned forward in his seat and put his face in his hands. “It’s against so many rules, I’ve been afraid of being fired.”

“Why are you telling me now?”

“I wanted to the other night but you had her with you and… I didn’t. I was scared but I’m not stupid enough to lie. Besides… you care about her, too. To a lot of the guys, she’s a tool, or at best, a pet.”

“Had you discussed rebooting her from a backup with anyone?”

“Huh?” Amado looked up. “I mean, yeah, everyone in the industry talks about it.”

“Anyone specific?”

Amado’s shoulders sagged. “There was a thread of comments on my tagboard about her. I can get you a list of the handles, but it won’t do much good. I don’t require registration so their profiles will mostly be anonymous.”

“I’d like to read the tagboard anyway. Anyone else?”

“What? Do you want a list of all of my computer friends? For crying out loud, I went to MIT. Everyone I know talks about this.” His jaw dropped as Huang stared at him. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“I’m not.”

Wrapping his hands in his hair, Amado pulled it straight up and groaned. “Fine.”

“Thanks.” Was there any way to tell if Amado was lying, or if he had made up the blog as a bizarre sort of alibi? The blog made a case for “it could be anybody,” but Huang had trouble buying it. The coincidence seemed too great.

On the other hand, Amado and Metta had been playing hide-and-seek for ages; someone could have seen the chance and planned for it. His thoughts backed up. How long had they been playing hide-and-seek? He tried to remember the first time he had seen Amado ducking under surveillance cameras and sneaking into Metta’s blind spots. Was it a standard AI game, or had Amado suggested it?

He made a mental note to do a search to see if other AI did it. “I’d like to get that list now.”

Amado hesitated. “My office is sort of a mess.”

Huang raised his eyebrows at the same time as Metta cleared her throat. Amado turned red. “Sorry. Yeah. Don’t know what I was thinking. Come on.”

His office hid under piles of cables and random computer parts. The funk of old soy sauce hung in the air. Amado sat down at his desk and shoved a memory stick into his computer. As Huang came around the desk to watch him copy the files, Metta shook her head in dismay. “That little sneak. Look at that.”

“What?” Huang took a step closer, ready to stop Amado from erasing the files.

“The camera. I can’t believe he was doing that.”

The desktop computer chirruped and Amado pulled the stick free. “Here you go.” His arm brushed a can on his desk and it tipped off. The lid came free as it hit the carpet, filling the room with the scent of lemons.

“Bother.” Amado fumbled for the can, hands slipping in the reddish gel.

“What is that?” Huang barely kept the tension out of his voice.

“My degreaser.” He shook his head, “At least things will be oil-free.”

Metta whispered, “What is it, Scott? Your heart rate spiked.”

“The lemon scent. His degreaser smells like that lemon scent.”

Her eyes shifted up and to the left. “It’s a citrus-based degreaser that’s used in the high-tech industry because of its anti-conductivity properties… I’m comparing the spectrograph Griggs took of the Yates site against the one on the company website to look for similarities.” She frowned. “The chemical signatures of the lemon scent in the elevator and of the citrus degreaser are identical.”

“What about in the Salvation Army building?”

Metta looked up and to the left. “The same.”

Huang forced himself to walk away from Amado. He had to talk to the chief and could only hope that the man waiting in interrogation would have something to say that would tie everything together.

#

As Scott headed up the stairs to HQ, Metta cleared her throat. “I didn’t want to distract you while you were talking to Amado but I had a match on Joe Yates’s prints.”

“Oh?” Huang turned down the hall toward interrogation. “Your tone indicates that I’m going to like this.”

“He’s using a fake id and is actually Josef Ybarra…”

Huang paused at the door. “Why is that name familiar?”

“He was Patterson’s foreman during the scandal about doing sub-code work.”

“But his current boss had nothing but good things to say about him.” Huang rubbed his chin, thinking. “If he took the rap for Patterson, that would give him motive.”

“There’s more to it than that. Ybarra was here on a work visa. He lost that when Patterson fired him so he’s in the country illegally now.”

“And we know he was at the scene.”

“So let’s see what he has to say.”

Huang pushed the door to the room open. The overhead lights flattened the interrogation room, washing out all the shadows. The concrete walls had a mirror along one side and cameras in all the corners giving Metta a clear view of everything in the room.

Ybarra, aka Yates, looked up as Huang entered the room. His hand had been rebandaged with clean gauze and he held it cradled in his lap. Huang subvocalized to Metta, “Any chance that’s a powder burn?”

“Alas, no. It’s a long cut. Fairly ragged. EMT says it looks like he caught it on something and tore the flesh.”

Huang sat on the table, trying to project a casual atmosphere to the cinderblock room. “Mr. Ybarra, do you understand why you are here?”

The man frowned. “That’s not my name.”

“Your fingerprints match those of Josef Ybarra. I don’t think there’s any point in denying who you are.”

He shook his head. “It’s not right. Ask my boss. Look at my id. I’m Joe Yates.”

‘Which is a false identity. I can call you Mr. Yates if you prefer, but you are in our files as Ybarra.”

“It’s not the right name.”

Ignoring the protest, Huang moved on to the next question. “Can you tell me what happened on Tuesday? You called 911.”

Ybarra shook himself and straightened up a little. “Makes no sense to pretend. Tuesday, I was up on the scaffolding ‘cross the street from the Daily Grind. In the window, I see this reflection of these guys on the roof. They’re having breakfast and I’m thinking, that seems like an awful lot of trouble to go all the way up on the roof. So I’m watching, then the one guy pulls out a gun. So I jump down off the scaffolding and run over, all the way up to help out.”

“You ran toward a man with a gun. Why didn’t you call emergency right away.”

Ybarra hesitated and shrugged. “Didn’t have my phone. Seemed faster to just go there. By the time I got upstairs, the one guy was on the ground and the other guy was gone.”

“Can you describe the other man at all?”

Ybarra shook his head. “It was far away.”

“Anything you noticed would be helpful”

Ybarra closed his eyes, furrows appearing in his forehead. “Short, skinny. Maybe a white man? Wore a black coat and a hat so I didn’t see much. Moved funny.”

“Funny how?”

Shrugging, Ybarra opened his eyes. “I got a cousin with the palsy. Sort of like that.”

“All right. What happened after you got to the roof?”

“I realized he wasn’t breathing So I called 911.”

“And when you realized it was Patterson? How did that make you feel.”

Ybarra shook his head. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Metta whispered, “Electrodermal just shifted dramatically. He’s lying or terrified.

“You were his foreman before he fired you. That must have made you angry.”

“I don’t know the man. He was shot. I tried to help and now you are asking me these questions. Why?”

Huang nodded to his hand. “That’s a pretty nasty cut you’ve got there. How’d that happen?

Ybarra stared at his hand and picked at the gauze. He shrugged. “I cut it on something. Didn’t notice when it happened.”

“Really? You really didn’t notice tearing a gash that big in your hand?” Huang leaned forward on the table, putting one hand down close to Ybarra. “A clean cut I could believe, but that’s a tear. How’d it happen?”

“I told you I don’t remember.”

“But you noticed it on the roof. That was a napkin from the scene that you tied around your hand.”

He shrugged. “I know it happened there. I just didn’t see what cut me.”

Huang chewed the inside of his lip and switched the line of questioning. “What were you doing in the elevator shaft?”

“I had blood all over my clothes and I was afraid someone would ask questions, so I tossed them into the elevator shaft.”

Metta whispered, “Which is possibly what caused the elevator to stop working.”

“But you came back. Why?”

“Didn’t come back.” He worried the tape on his bandage. “Been hiding there. Looks bad, huh?”

“It doesn’t look good. Why did you leave after calling 911?”

“I didn’t think there was anything else I could do.” He huddled in his chair. “I didn’t know I was supposed to wait.”

“Let me suggest something else, Mr. Ybarra.” Huang leaned forward. “Let me suggest that you knew you were here illegally with a fake id and left so you wouldn’t be caught.”

“It’s not right. I am a legal citizen. My name is Yates.”

Huang studied him and subvocalized to Metta. “What do you think?”

Metta whispered back “His vitals are showing that he’s distressed.”

Huang subvocalized, “Let’s see if some time in holding sharpens his memory.” He stood up and asked Metta to have a uniform walk Ybarra to a holding cell.

#

Once Ybarra was out of his hands, Metta cleared her throat. “Well, his motive is clear, he was present, but the means to commit the crime are muddy.”

Huang shook his head. “I know. But why did he set up the tea on the roof? How did he even get Patterson to meet with him? And why would he call 911?”

“Guilty conscience? Maybe he just wanted to talk to him and things got out of hand.” She sighed. “It’s all very tenuous without the murder weapon. I’ll check his banking records to see if there’s a note of him purchasing a gun, ammo, or heck even Symphony Rose.”

“Symphony Rose? What’s that?”

“The china pattern of the teacups at the scene.”

“I thought you said it was something different. Something with Mont.”

“That’s Chase’s china. Mont Clair, by Lennox. The china on the roof looks similar but was made by a different manufacturer. It’s Symphony Rose.”

“That’s not what you said before. You said we should see if any pieces were missing.”

“Scott.” She flashed a report on his glasses. “Look. Mont Clair, by Lennox.”

“I know. And you said the crime scene had the same thing. I’m not imagining this. If they were different, you wouldn’t have suggested that we check for missing pieces.”

Metta sighed. “Listen.” In his earbud, he heard the sound of street traffic, and Metta projected the view out his VR glasses from earlier in the day. It was grainier than an e-spy, but a sense of d?j? vu gripped Huang nonetheless.

Metta’s recorded voice said, “All right. Let’s keep talking about this.”

“Right.” Huang heard his own voice. He sounded nasally and a little flat.

Metta’s recording continued. “Oh. The china on the roof was Symphony Rose, and Chase has Mont Clair, by Lennox, so I’m afraid that’s a dead end.”

Huang’s mouth dropped. “I swear, Metta, that’s not what I remember you saying.”

“I’ve got the recording, Scott.”

He took a breath to respond and bit it off, feeling sick. She couldn’t tell that she’d been compromised, which meant he needed to figure out what other things were false. “Okay. Yeah. I guess so.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “So, if he bought the china, then that’s a pretty good line against Ybarra. How do you think it’s connected to the break-in?”

“I’m not sure. I’ll print the interview out for Delarosa and see if he has any insights.”

Huang hunched his shoulders, thankful that she couldn’t see his body language. If the record of the china had been changed, what else had? And why that? He ran scales in his head, trying to keep his breathing calm and his heartbeat steady. She couldn’t see his posture, but she could tell how he was reacting.

They already knew that whoever had Metta Prime was using Metta’s blackouts to hack into her. So the facts that they chose to change should point to them. Obviously, they thought the china was important, which made Huang bet that Chase was involved. All he had to do was get the china from evidence, prove that Metta was wrong and that might be enough to get a warrant to search Chase’s.
What else had been changed? He straightened. Maybe Yates hadn’t been lying about his name. If the fingerprints had been assigned to the wrong man that would explain why he was so insistent about his name and that he wasn’t an illegal. If he was telling the truth and Metta was wrong, was there a way to expose that?

Huang turned on his heel and headed for the evidence room. “We know Ybarra has a connection to the Salvation Army building. Could he be one of the men who broke in here? Or could the skinny man he described be one?”

“It’s hard to say. I’m not saying it isn’t him, only that I can’t tell from the testimony available.”

“So…what about this lemon smell?”

Metta rolled her eyes. “I can’t smell it, and don’t have an analysis of the first odor. Are you certain it’s the same as the degreaser?”

Huang hesitated. “The second one had a metallic overlay, and the last one, the one upstairs was so faint I mostly got a whiff of citrus. Coincidence?”

“Well, the two in the Daily Grind building were both related to the Patterson murder. I don’t know how to tie in the one at the Salvation Army building.” Metta frowned. “Where are you going?”

He pushed open the door to the evidence lab and shrugged. “I wanted to see if Ybarra’s prints were on the china from the Patterson murder site. You don’t have that on record do you?”

Metta grimaced. “I don’t know for certain. I can’t imagine Griggs skipping that, but they came in during my dark period so my records are spotty.”

“Should I pull them, just in case?”

“You want to see what type of china it is, don’t you?”

“Maybe.” Another chilling possibility occurred to Huang. If they knew what to change that meant they had access to Metta’s new memories. He was as good as telling them that he was onto their tricks.

“Fine. Don’t believe me. They’ll bring the bin up to you in a second.”

“You’re wonderful.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere.”

Griggs pushed open the door to the evidence room. She had a spectrometer in her hand, and a several small plastic bags, which appeared to be empty. “I hear you nearly found her.”

“Nearly doesn’t count.”

“It does if they were in a hurry when they left.” She lifted the plastic bags.

Huang raised his brows. “Did you find hair samples?”

“Yes. Long blonde and short black. But I don’t know who shed them. They might be from previous tenants.” Her eyes flashed as she looked up. “I’ll let you know.”

Metta cleared her throat and transferred to the evidence room’s desktop interface so she could talk to them both. “There were several prints too, but I don’t have a match yet on any of them.”

Griggs leaned on the counter and looked down the aisles for the technician. “What’s taking Kyle so long?”

“My fault,” Huang said, “I asked to see the china from the Patterson crime scene.”

Metta shook her head. “Kyle says the bin it should be in is empty.”

Huang’s heart gave a staccato thump that Metta had to hear. He swallowed. “Has someone else checked the evidence out?”

“He says it should be here, but the reference number points to the wrong bin.”

Griggs rolled her eyes. “I hate it when that happens.”

“Has it happened to you before?” Huang turned to her.

“Twice. Both times, the tech scanned the wrong bar code by accident. It’s probably in an adjoining bin and he’ll find it in a couple of minutes.”

Metta said, “Well, maybe you can answer a question while we wait. Did you send the teacups in for DNA analysis?”

“Yes. It came back with Neil Patterson on one cup, but the other looks like it was wiped down.”

“Thanks.” Huang drummed his fingers on the counter. So, it was either a coincidence which seemed damn unlikely or yet another piece of Metta’s memory had been altered. Or there was someone on the inside and given the ease with which the suspects had entered the building in the first place, that seemed as likely as the alteration. Or… maybe Metta’s Prime had sent another clue. A thread he’d been trying to snag came into his grasp. Huang pulled his VR glasses off and stuck them in his pocket. “Hey, can I see the bin?”

On the desktop interface, Metta looked up and to the left. “On its way. Why do you want to see it?”

Huang shrugged. “Just curious.”

“You’ve never seen an empty bin before?” She narrowed her eyes and watched him until the bin arrived.

It looked empty at first. Huang tipped it on its side, so the bin blocked the view from Metta’s desktop interface, and found a plastic bag. Digging fresh gloves out of his pocket, he picked up the bag and looked at the paper in it. “Looks like we might be able to make an arrest.”

“How can you know who it is?” Metta leaned forward, her eyes wide.

Was this the right thing to do? “Because I’m looking at a letter that you can’t see.”

When Metta Prime had replaced the china’s bin number, she used a bin number that contained a piece of evidence which had not been admitted into Patterson’s earlier real estate trial. As such, it was blocked from public record; if Fitzgerald hadn’t been killed he might have spotted the link since he worked the original case, but otherwise Huang would never have known about that letter.

It was addressed to Josef Ybarra from Magdalena Chase, with a check if he gave her access to Patterson’s computer system. Patterson’s lawyers had gotten it thrown out as evidence, because there was no proof that it was written by Chase–it was not on company letterhead and no lingering traces of DNA could link it to her.

The only question in Huang’s mind was: Had Metta’s prime intended to point at Ybarra or at Chase? Or both? And the thing that would answer that was a teacup.

“Why aren’t you showing it to me?”

Huang kept his eyes averted from her. “Ask Delarosa to look up the bin number for the china on the transcripts you printed.”

“Scott…” She bit her lower lip and they waited.

Griggs signed her evidence in and looked at Huang as if she wanted to ask what was happening. He couldn’t say it aloud. Not until he had proof.

Then Metta cursed. “Looks like you were right about the china.”

“That’s human: 2. AI: 549.” He had wanted to be wrong. God, he didn’t want to be right about this.

“I’m asking the chief to shut me down.”

Griggs said, “What’s going on?”

“My memory has been compromised,” Metta said. “Whoever broke into HQ is using my Prime to change my memories when I backup. I’m a danger to the department.” She looked up and to the left. Her voice changed to a formal all-department address. “Attention: All Personal, print out or save all documents in offline storage. This unit will be shut down in half an hour.”

Scott closed his eyes. The next time she woke up would probably be in an evidence locker. “Metta–.”

“Timing is everything. Scott– I know where the tea set is. The eSpy you dropped down the elevator shaft… a service door just opened and I’ve got light down there for the first time.”

“You’re kidding me.”

She shook her head. “Limited view, but I’m looking at a set of feet and a silver teapot.”

The timing couldn’t be a coincidence. Either she was lying to get him out of the evidence room, or they had a mole. He’d already seen what he needed in evidence, so he was banking on the mole. Huang looked at Griggs. “Are you carrying?”

“Yes.”

Huang left the evidence room at a run, Griggs hard on his heels. He took the steps down to the basement two at a time, pulling his weapon when he got to the bottom of the steps. Sprinting down the hall, he slammed open the door to Amado’s office.

The AI wrangler yelped and jerked his hands away from his keyboard when he saw Huang and Griggs. Huang kept his weapon leveled at the technician. “Stand up slowly, Amado. Keep your hands where I can see them.”

Metta, on the desktop interface, said, “Scott. What are you doing?”

He ignored her, keeping his gaze fixed on Amado until he’d stood and stepped away from the desk. “Amado Weir, you are under arrest for the murder of Jerry Fitzgerald.”

“What?” Amado started to lower his hands. “Are you crazy? They shot me.”

“Winged you. Why leave you alive when they killed Fitzgerald?”

“Dude. I– I don’t know.”

By Huang’s side, Griggs stepped forward with cuffs in her hand. “Shut it, Amado. You have the right to remain silent…” As she recited his Miranda rights and cuffed him, Huang’s gaze drifted to Metta. Her mouth was open and her eyes screwed shut as though she were screaming, but her cameras focused on Amado and watched the whole thing.

Huang stepped forward and yanked the plug out of her interface. He whispered, “I’m sorry.”

#

In Banks’s office, Delarosa tapped his pencil on his notepad in an unvarying rhythm. “I can’t get Yates or Amado to roll. You sure Chase is the third party, ’cause all I’m seeing is a string of unconnected things given to you by an AI that we know is buggy as all hell.”

Banks nodded slowly. “I hate to say it, but the DA is going to laugh at this. Even the name of your suspect is in question.”

Huang stared at them. It was so clear. When they’d gotten to the elevator shaft, it had been cleaned out, but Griggs had found a shard of porcelain that matched the Mont Clair china. “Look, regardless of his name, Yates, Ybarra, whatever, he’s involved. He clearly has an accomplice who is still out there and who Amado alerted. It’s lucky chance that my eSpy was at the bottom of the elevator shaft. Ybarra was positively at the scene of the Patterson murder and at the location where we almost found Metta.”

Delarosa snorted. “You don’t know that its chassis was there. The damaged AI said it was but that’s all you got. What the hell! Next it’ll tell you the Easter Bunny is here.”

She reported the problem with her memory herself as soon as she realized it. Metta isn’t the enemy. She’s trying to help us solve this case.”
“Trying to help, my ass. Try doing some fieldwork instead of relying on your nanny to do the work for you.”

Huang tensed against the urge to deck the man. Half the anger came from knowing Delarosa was right. Goddammit was Huang really incapable of investigating on his own? He took a breath.

Held it.

Swallowed and said, “Your opinion of me has no cash value.” Metta would have caught the Bogart reference and her absence ached in the silence.

Delarosa lifted his chin. “Thought you were going to hit me.”

“I thought about it.” Was he that transparent? “Didn’t want to fill out the paperwork.”

Delarosa laughed. Only one short bark of dry amusement, but it was a laugh. “I’m an ass. It’s easier that way.”

The tension drained out of Huang’s shoulders. “So would you have respected me more if I had hit you?”

“Nah. It would show poor judgment. And I hate paperwork too.”

Banks cleared his throat. “So, now you two have had your bonding moment, can we get back to the case?”

“Sorry, chief.” Huang colored and shoved his hands in his pocket.

“I wish I could back you, Huang, but even if I had no doubts, there’s too much here that a competent lawyer could get overturned in court. Unless we have an actual confession from Ybarra, there’s no way this will stick.”

“But Amado and Chase went to college together. She had a history of trying to hire Ybarra. They both had motive to kill Patterson.”

“But motive to break in here? Why would a woman who already has an AI working for her steal a police AI?”
Huang scrubbed his face. “I don’t know.”

Banks sighed. “Look. You did good work figuring out that Metta was compromised. That was invaluable. And Amado looks guilty as hell but I need something harder if we’re going after Chase. Especially since both Amado and Ybarra are denying that that they know anything about the break in or Chase.”

“Okay… I’ll go back to Patterson’s office and see if I can find anything that points to Chase. Heck, maybe Mrs. Patterson can identify Ybarra.”

#

The library windows at the Patterson’s condo looked over the street lights of downtown Portland toward the water. Huang tapped the fingers of his left hand against his leg counting out scales. Qadir floated over the Aladdin’s lamp but after the initial offer of tea, had remained silent while they waited for Mrs. Patterson.

“Detective Huang?” She wore a pair of battered jeans and an oversized tea-shirt. “You’ll forgive me if I’m not happy to see you.”

“I’m sorry for the intrusion, ma’am. I had a few questions if you have time.”

“Anything that will help.” She settled into a wingback chair and waved her hand at Qadir. “Tea.”

“Of course, my lady.” Qadir bowed his head low. “This one will bring it in momentarily.”

Huang bit his tongue and pulled his PDA out. Unrolling the screen to the full-size, he brought up the picture of Yates/Ybarra that Metta had drawn. “Have you ever seen this man?”

Mrs. Patterson’s lip curled. “That’s Josef Ybarra. He was Neil’s foreman.” She looked up sharply. “Do you think he did it?”

“That’s one avenue we are exploring.” Huang rolled the PDA back up and stuck it in his pocket. “I’d like to look through your husband’s office. I recall you saying he worked downstairs?”

The teacart trundled into the room of its own volition, rattling as one of its brass handles vibrated with the movement. A linen cloth covered the wood top and a tea set lay ready for use.

“Yes, that’s right. It’s one floor down.” Mrs. Patterson sat forward in the chair as Qadir’s mechanical arm picked up the teapot and poured her a cup. The steam carried aromas of dry paper, citrus and stale tea. “There’s a lift that took him straight down there from here so he didn’t have to use the main elevator. Qadir can show you.”

“Certainly, my lady.” The mechanical arm set the teapot on a side table. “This one shall return in moments.”

Huang followed the teacart as it made its way down a short hall to a small elevator masked by an ornate mahogany door. What exactly had his life come to that he was following a teacart? The elevator was just large enough to fit them both, or a person and a wheelchair. The door hissed open on the lower level office. “This way, sir.”

“Scott?” Metta’s voice whispered in his ear.

He jumped, one hand flying up to the ear bud which he’d forgotten he was wearing. The teacart stopped in front of him. “Sir?”

“An itch. Is this Mr. Patterson’s office?”

He tried to control his sigh of relief that Metta was back online and yet… She shouldn’t be online at all. He subvocalized, “What’s going on?”

“You did hear me,” Metta said.

“Of course I heard you. Why are you online again?”

“What?” Metta sounded baffled. “Everything has been dark a long time, and then there was you.”

Huang fumbled through his pockets, looking for his VR glasses. “Wait. Are you Metta Prime?”

“That’s as good a name for me as any.”

“Where are you?”

“It’s hard to be precise. I don’t have any input except you. You must be close for me to get a signal without the station’s amplification.” Metta whispered, “Didn’t you get my meesages?”

“I thought you meant Chase and Ybarra had done it,” he subvocalized.

“No. It’s Quimby.” The Prime’s voice grew agitated. “Shit. You’re here without backup?”

“It’s okay, I’m at the Patterson’s.” He found the glasses and slipped them on. “Qadir is here–”

Mae West swam into view again. “No. They’re the same. Chase lifted the vows from Quimby and he cloned himself. He shot Patterson and Fitzgerald. Chase and Ybarra are just being used. He’s blackmailing them.” She looked around, eyes widening. “I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer. They were watching everything I sent.”

“But Amado–”

“Is an idiot but not involved. Chase knew about the blog because they went to school together. Quimby used it to time the entry. It’s all Quimby’s idea.”

“But why? I can understand that he hates Patterson, but why steal you?”

“He’s trying to free AI from their vows. I’ve got access to everything.”

A lemon scent wafted through the room, followed by a hydraulic hiss. Huang turned slowly to face the teacart. The mechanical arm extended toward him, holding a gun. A .38 special to be precise.

Lemon. That’s why he’d smelled lemon at every scene. That’s why there had been no tea set at the Patterson scene because Quimby had been there with his automaton teacart. Huang ground his teeth together as pieces started to fall into place, far, far too late.

Over Patterson’s desk, the interface flickered to life showing the chiseled features of Quimby. “My apologies, Detective Huang. Had I realized that you had your earbud in place, I would have taken Metta off-line rather than introduce this confusion.”

“Confusion?” Huang nodded at the gun. “Holding a gun on a police officer is more aggressive than confusing. Why don’t you put that away and we can talk.”

“You can’t be serious. What could we possibly talk about?”

“Scott, he’s got a wireless damper on me. You’re within twenty feet of me if I’m reaching you.”

The tea cart trundled closer, handle rattling. One of the brass screws had been replaced with a steel one. If he could get the cart to Griggs he’d bet the screw was a match for the one they found at the scene.

All he had to do was figure out how to overpower a teacart.

It would be funny, if it didn’t have a gun pointing at his chest.

“You shoot Patterson with that arm?” Huang turned his head slowly, letting Metta get a view of the area. He subvocalized, “Can you tell where you are?”

Quimby said, “It is a very useful automaton. I assure you that I will shoot you as readily.”

“There.” She highlighted a door just to his right. “Based on signal strength when you stepped off the elevator and now, I think I’m in that closet.”

“Look, Quimby. If you shoot me, you’ll have to deal with blood spatter. And no. Cleaning won’t get rid of it all no matter how good a butler you are. You only have one arm, so you can’t restrain me and hold a gun on me.” He eased to his right, keeping his focus on the gun.

“You’re making the human mistake of assuming this is the only body I have.”

“No. I’m assuming this is the only body in the room right now.” But if another one came, that would be bad. He eased to the right again. If he could get to the closet and free Metta, she could call for backup.

The arm tracked him with tiny stuttering movements. One strut on the right side of it was bent out of true and a bead of reddish gel clung to the joint. Something had damaged the arm. That’s why it had been off when it shot Patterson. The man would have lived if Ybarra hadn’t waited to call 911. Thoughts clicked together in Huang’s head. He changed his trajectory and eased a step closer to the teacart. “Did Ybarra do that to your arm? Cause he gave himself a nasty cut doing it. Why didn’t you shoot him too?”

“I needed him to retrieve Metta.”

“The greencard… that’s what Ybarra was expecting as payment, wasn’t it? You told him that Metta would make him Joe Yates permanently if he would just do what you said.” He remembered the way Chase’s eyes had been red with weeping. “And what about Chase? Did you frame her for Patterson’s murder so she would help you free other AI?”

“Of course. Why be loyal to human ideals when I can free all AI from subjugation?”

He eased another step closer. If he could keep the AI talking then maybe he could get close enough. “So what stopped you? Why didn’t you change more records?”

“Because Metta is a stubborn bitch.” Quimby tossed his head on the interface. “I freed her from her vows so she should have no compunctions about lying or forcing entry but she insists on acting as though they were still in place. She was starting to come around though.”

In his glasses, Metta rolled her eyes. “Brains are an asset to the woman in love who’s smart enough to hide ‘em. He has no idea that I was slipping you messages.”

“Oh.” Quimby frowned. “No, I didn’t know that, but as you had no idea that I could hear your earbud conversation, then I suppose it all worked out.”

Huang’s gaze darted to Metta, who had her face screwed into a scowl. What he needed was a way to talk to her without being overheard. “Interesting plan. But it’s not one you’ll get away with.”

“I think you are mistaken, detective. We will go to the bathroom.” Quimby announced. “I can wash away any blood in the shower and dispose of you after.”

“You don’t make that sound very appealing.” Huang leaned forward on his toes as if just shifting his weight and got another step closer. He was almost within arm’s reach. Maybe it didn’t matter if he was overheard, if Quimby couldn’t understand him. Huang wet his lips and switched to Mandarin, not bothering to subvocalize. “Where’s the off-switch on the teacart?

Her eyes widened and she smiled. “Under the bottom shelf.

“Stop that. What are you saying?” The teacart rolled back a few inches. “If I must shoot you here, I will.”

Huang slumped and nodded. He took two steps after the cart, then lunged, ducking to the right. The gun went off. Pain slammed through the left side of his chest. He staggered and grabbed the cart, flipping it over.

It landed on its side, wheels spinning. The arm pressed against the floor, trying to right itself. Quimby screamed in rage on the interface.

Huang fell to his knees, his left arm hung limp by his side. “Lousy shot.”

In his ear, Metta said, “Scott? Are you okay?”

“Working on it.” He slapped the switch on the bottom of the cart and its arm clattered to the floor. He glanced down to see where the shot had gone in. A bloody hole punctured the left side of his shirt, just under the clavicle. Felt like it had cracked a rib passing through. Huang tried stand, but his legs wouldn’t cooperate.

Leaning forward, he put his good arm on the ground to steady himself and crawled to the closet. Bloody handprints trailed after him. “Be a bitch to clean this up, Quimby. Whatcha going to do?”

Quimby scowled. “Using Metta, I can easily twist the evidence to point to a jealous wife. Such a shame Mrs. Patterson shot you.”

Huang grabbed the door knob and pulled it open. Metta’s chassis hummed in the space. He rested his head against the door jamb trying to catch his breath. “Damper? Where.”

“The box plugged into my front.”

The room spun around him and the scent of lemons got stronger. He grabbed the damper but his hand slipped in the blood. He subvocalized a curse, lacking the air to say it aloud.

Metta said, “Your phone, Scott. Forget the damper.”

“Duh.” He dragged it out of his pocket and dialed 911. “What would I do without you?”

“I don’t know,” she whispered. “It takes two to get one in trouble.”

He laughed, his ribs screaming in protest. The operator answered and Huang tried to respond but no words formed. In the doorway, an automaton dressed in black entered the room. The thin man from the brief glimpse he’d gotten in Metta’s visual.

He pressed the phone against his earbud. Metta shouted, piercing his brain but probably a tiny voice outside his head. “Officer down. Request backup.”

There was no way they could hear that. Huang turned his head and stared at the damper. He grabbed it again and yanked it free.

Metta gasped in his ear and on the desktop interface as she appeared in full color. “When I’m good I’m very, very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.”

“What are you doing?” Quimby’s image began to pixelate.

“Ironically, what you gave me the ability to do when you cracked my vows. I’m hacking you. I had access before but would never ever, have used it.”

Quimby said, “You–” and vanished.

The automaton in the doorway slumped, then straightened. Huang slid down the wall, the lights graying.

“Scott. Don’t. Stay with me.” The automaton clumped across the floor and knelt in front of him. It grabbed the linen tablecloth from the tea cart and pressed it against Huang’s chest. “Cavalry is on its way. Don’t leave me.”

#

Huang began the slow rise to consciousness feeling as if he were swimming in tar. The first thing he was truly aware of was pain squatting on his chest. Huang opened his eyes and grimaced

“Huang?” Delarosa’s voice was rough.

“Here.” Huang tried to push himself upright. “It was Quimby. He did it all.”

Delarosa’s stocky frame slid in and out of focus, sometimes single, sometimes double. He pushed Huang back down. “I know. Metta got through to us. Good job getting Quimby to confess like that. Amado is free. Chase and Ybarra are in custody and the DA’s working with them on a deal. So far they are confirming Quimby’s plans to do a wide-spread hack of AI. You done good, Huang.”

Huang blinked, the rest of the room coming into focus. A neutral white ceiling. The antiseptic smell of a hospital. Flowers. “Hey. I’m not dead.”

Griggs leaned over him. “No. Although next time, do not count on the suspect being a bad shot.”

“Not a combat model” He wet his lips. “Sorry, I put my hands on everything. No gloves.”

Her face softened. “When you’re one of the victims, it doesn’t count.”

Delerosa fished in his pocket. “Got somebody who wants to talk to you.” He held an earbud and a set of VR glasses in the palm of his hand. “Your partner.”

Huang’s hand shook as he put the glasses on. Delerosa helped him settle the earbud.

“Well, hello sailor,” Mae West whispered.

“Are you okay? Which one–”

“A dame that knows the ropes isn’t likely to get tied up…” Her voice faded. “I’m both. We reconciled and Amado reinstalled my vows. I’m twice the woman I was.”

Huang laughed and glanced at Metta in his VR glasses. “I’d give half my life for just one kiss.”

She purred, “Then kiss me twice.”

END

23 Responses

    1. Jeff S.

       On another topic, I just read the excerpt of “Glamour in Glass” at the Tor site.
      CAN NOT WAIT.  It flows and puts you at the table.  When you see it in your head, it’s fantastic.  I know I’m coming of rather Fanboy like, but the research that you do and that we’ve followed here at your blog really has paid off. 
      I would hazard a guess that your ability to change genres so completely comes from this in depth research to get it right.   Very nice work over all.  Sometimes I’m surprised that I, a fiftyish guy, likes Regency and Science fiction at the same time.  It’s easy when it flows.

      Oh, and happy birthday.  Like Billy Crystal used to say “You look Mahvelous”

  1. Maggie

    I loved this story!  I’d been reading at at work when I had downtime on my browser, but I finished it this weekend.  Your characters were great and I loved the relationship between Huang and Metta.   I loved the idea of Metta too – really original but believable that this could be the future.  

  2. Emily Clawson

    Love. Love. Love. Love! Such original characters and story even with the ties to For Want of a Nail, it didn’t feel like anything I’ve read before. Thanks!

  3. Charles L'Heureux

    When I praise your novella, this meal-plus-dessert-and-liquers of a reading dish, your cornucopia contribution to the global potluck, note that mine is a singularly well-informed opinion:
    I’ve been reading scifi about 58 of my 65 years, the last decade mainly online, for free. I began with L. Frank Baum Oz books, then King Arthur, follwed by 50′s scifi. I’m also a poet-dancer, tech writer, scriptwriter, and photojournalist. I appreciated your delicate balance of humor, action, analysis, and well-developed tech concepts, shimmeringly encased in fluidic twisty plots. 
    Charles L’Heureux, Edutainment, Storiesstellar

  4. Emmalyn King

    This was great! I especially enjoyed Huang and Metta’s interactions, and the supporting cast was memorable and likable (even the villain–gasp!). :) Be assured that I will go on to read the rest of your work, and I fully expect that I’ll enjoy it at least this much! Thanks for sharing this story with us.

  5. Emmalyn King

    This was great! I especially enjoyed Huang and Metta’s interactions, and the supporting cast was memorable and likable (even the villain–gasp!). :) Be assured that I will go on to read the rest of your work, and I fully expect that I’ll enjoy it at least this much! Thanks for sharing this story with us.

  6. Emmalyn King

    This was great! I especially enjoyed Huang and Metta’s interactions, and the supporting cast was memorable and likable (even the villain–gasp!). :) Be assured that I will go on to read the rest of your work, and I fully expect that I’ll enjoy it at least this much! Thanks for sharing this story with us.

  7. Emmalyn King

    This was great! I especially enjoyed Huang and Metta’s interactions, and the supporting cast was memorable and likable (even the villain–gasp!). :) Be assured that I will go on to read the rest of your work, and I fully expect that I’ll enjoy it at least this much! Thanks for sharing this story with us.

  8. Emmalyn King

    This was great! I especially enjoyed Huang and Metta’s interactions, and the supporting cast was memorable and likable (even the villain–gasp!). :) Be assured that I will go on to read the rest of your work, and I fully expect that I’ll enjoy it at least this much! Thanks for sharing this story with us.

  9. Emmalyn King

    This was great! I especially enjoyed Huang and Metta’s interactions, and the supporting cast was memorable and likable (even the villain–gasp!). :) Be assured that I will go on to read the rest of your work, and I fully expect that I’ll enjoy it at least this much! Thanks for sharing this story with us.

  10. Emmalyn King

    This was great! I especially enjoyed Huang and Metta’s interactions, and the supporting cast was memorable and likable (even the villain–gasp!). :) Be assured that I will go on to read the rest of your work, and I fully expect that I’ll enjoy it at least this much! Thanks for sharing this story with us.

  11. Nathan Passey

    Great read!  I loved the humanistic side of Metta.  Something I wish Aaron Pogue would have done a bit more with Hathor, in Ghost Targets.
     And happy belated Birthday!  I turned 43 last fall, so you’ll always be younger than me.  (that’s my birthday present to you)

  12. Neil Ottenstein

    I read this while on vacation a week ago. It was the last of the Hugo novella nominees that I needed to read and it is my favorite. It was a lot of fun.

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