All those victims, all those files, all those plastic bags,
Fellow officers working long into the night, year after year.
If they only knew that it was me all along.
She was waiting for him, sitting on the marble edge of the fountain: strawberry blonde hair, powder-blue dress, just like she had said to look for. She was checking her makeup in a compact, didn't see him approaching. He waited for her to close it before saying, "Anne?"
"My friends call me Whistler."
"Why do they call you 'Whistler'?"
"It's my middle name, was my mother's maiden name."
She looked relieved that a man of his age wasn't still walking around with some frat-house nickname. "I actually like 'Herbert'. Distinctive. You don't meet many Herberts."
"I don't meet many Annes." It was a corny line, but it made her smile. He asked, "Where are you from?"
"Autotech? or ORS?"
"Sorry?" Her body language shifted; she was suddenly guarded, expression set.
"No, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have been so blunt. I've just been on a lot of these lately."
"…of this particular kind."
Her eyebrows scrunched up and her head tilted. She wasn't angry or offended, she was confused. "I don't understand what you're saying. What kind of blind date is this, I mean, as opposed to any other?"
"Listen, I have a certain amount of money. I've done all right. The service, they know that because of the questionnaire and the background checks. Then users can search by income bracket. A lot of them do." He shrugged. "I'm not judging, I'm just saying it happens. But then the big robotics companies, they figured out that they could use that for direct marketing."
"Direct marketing. Robotics companies."
"…Autotech. O… what was it?"
"ORS. Oakland Robotic Systems, Inc. Those are the two 'bigs' based in California, anyway. There's others. So they trawl the listings, find alpha consumers, people who can afford their robots. They configure one to match that consumer's preferences and boom, some shmuck gets a blind date with his ideal match."
"But then how does that result in money for them? You'd still have to end up buying the robot, right? They'd have to pull back the curtain at some point."
"Sure. But by then you're… three, four dates in, and you're in love. You're already in a changing-your-life frame of mind, and those plans for the vacation home or the yacht suddenly don't seem so pressing. It's happened to me twice now."
"They're really doing that?" She shook her head in apparent incredulity and dismay. "And you think I'm number three." It wasn't a question.
"You're perfect. Not just physically either, I looked through your whole profile. They did a fantastic job. You're everything I've ever wanted in a woman, except you're not real.'"
She stared at him, then asked, "So why'd you come, Herbert?"
He didn't answer; he didn't have an answer.
"Thinking of buying me?"
He just stared at her face. "I don't know. Maybe I just want those three or four dates. To believe it for a week."
"…But what if I turn out to be real?"
"It'll go down there, in the sub-basement. We'll clamp it down with welded rebar, and then set the whole thing in concrete. Put up the building on top of it. It's ours now."
There was a low hum coming from it: a deep, disturbing sound that seeped into him through his ears. "What if the workers—"
"We'll cover it up, board it over, something, I dunno. Everything else is done down there, shouldn't be anybody getting close enough to get curious. If they do, well then, we deal with them."
He stopped walking, suddenly, without warning; they almost dropped it. "What does that mean?"
"What do you mean, 'we deal with them'? Are we going to start murdering day laborers now? What if it's a foreman? A contractor?"
"Relax, nobody's getting murdered. Fired, maybe. Anyhow, who'd believe them if they talked?"
They started slowly down the concrete steps.
There is a knock at the hotel room door, a soft knock that a living person would not have heard, made by the tip of an index finger tapping on the molding around the door-frame. Coral. The click of the lock before I open the door is a gunshot by comparison.
Coral stares at me for a moment, and then her eyebrows raise. "And can I come in?"
No sense in pretending I don't have company. I step to the side. "Sure."
She walks in, casual, not at all like an inspecting drill sergeant. The girl on the bed is unmoving and naked and mostly covered by a haphazardly positioned bedsheet. "Is she a problem?"
Are we going to have to dispose of that? It's an odd question, since I'm as careful as she is, and she knows that. "No. Sleeping. Probably for a while."
Coral sits in a chair in the corner, clearly working up to something. When she finally speaks, it's deflection: "Who is she?"
"Diner waitress." I shrug, and then add, "I had a craving for a chocolate shake."
"I haven't had a shake in forever." Coral gets a far-away look in her eyes. "Used to be a place in Chicago, in the fifties, just down the street from my place. Roller skates and window trays. I'd go all the time. Always full of teenagers. Greasy combs and letter jackets and poodle skirts."
"What's up, Coral?"
She looks at the girl, then at me. "Rocky's gone. Actually left while it was still light out. Don't know where he went, but he dropped off his key at the desk. Wen's on the net buying a ticket to Hong Kong."
"She's been talking about it. But Rocky?"
"He doesn't trust me anymore."
Because of Gunnar? Other stuff? What have I missed? "Oh."
"What about you?"
I sit on the edge of the bed, lightly so as not to jostle the sleeping waitress. "I have no plans to go anywhere."
"You like Santa Fe?"
"Not what I mean."
Coral nods. "Right. Okay." Coral is lost in thought for a while. She closes her eyes, her head drifts to one side: it's a thing she does, when there's a problem, when she's mulling, when she's unsure or unready or unconvinced. I start packing.
I am in the bathroom collecting toiletries when Coral appears at the door, her expression and demeanor normal, as if she's worked out whatever it was she had to work out. "The car, ten minutes. Is that enough time to take care of…?" She nods back towards the bed.
Coral doesn't say anything else, just lets herself silently out; Coral would make a good ghost if she wasn't already a vampire.
I dress the waitress without waking her. Her nametag reads, 'Maisie'. The two small wounds on the back of Maisie's thigh are already mostly healed, and it's likely she will never notice them. She'll eventually wake up alone and just figure her out-of-town one-night stand checked out early and decided to let her sleep in, which will be true. I am still someone disturbed that Coral entertained the possibility that I'd killed Maisie, enough to ask, even. What the hell happened with Rocky?
I grab my suitcases, drop off the key at the desk and head out to the car, Coral's car, the Lincoln with the tinted windows. The sun isn't up yet but it's already hot. There's a sports bag on the driver's seat stuffed with twenty grand in cash and the keys to the ignition and the trunk, and no Coral. And that's that.
She knew he was coming before he did: before he'd bought the gloves, before he'd scoped the place, before he'd even moved up from disturbing the peace to petty shoplifting. He'd always been coming here, ultimately, like it was a scripted thing in a movie she'd seen in her youth.
She waited until he was inside — until he'd eased the door shut behind him, until he'd stopped to wait silently for his eyes to adjust — and then placed her hand gently against his chest. "You have something I need."
He stood frozen as his soul began draining out of him.
"I don't like this one."
"What?" It was three girls in identical bathing caps, wrapped in identical towels, going into a nondescript changing enclosure. "Why?"
"They're not happy."
"What makes you think they're not happy?"
"Well, look at them." Exasperation crept into her voice. "Look at the expression on the youngest one's face. She's not happy. And there's no door on the changing room. People will see."
"I don't think—"
"And where's the ocean? They're supposed to be at the beach but you can't see it. What if there's no beach, and no ocean? What if that's why they're mad?"