Episode 1: Puppeted (Part 3)



As the autocar’s headlights swept across Sheila Fisher’s light gray house, CID Detective Jeb Forrester felt like he was coming home. The Fisher residence — an antiquated structure ripped from the early 40’s — reminded him of his grandmother’s house. The slanted roof had red clay tiles instead of solar, and a two-car garage sprouted from the house’s rectangular body. The garage even had a classic segmented door.

The house was double the size of the stack home in which Jeb grew up. Even Palmdale real estate was pricey in today’s housing markets, so if Sheila’s parents weren’t rich, they had likely inherited the house from ancestors. For a family of closed circuits, they lived well. A thin green cypress tree shot skyward in the yard — cloned, no doubt, since the natural variety had been eaten by invasive beetles fifty years ago — and the lawn was freshly combed, smooth dirt marked by swirling patterns of colored pebbles.

This wasn’t the house of a teenager who wore grimy cargo pants and combat boots laced with barbed wire.

As the autocar cruised to a stop, its gullwing doors folded open. Jeb stepped out and watched his trainee do the same. Even this late, California nights felt hot and humid.

“CID records list Sheila’s parents as Andrew and Pamela Fisher,” Jeb said. “Andrew’s a desalination engineer for Palmdale’s city office, and Pamela chairs the local chapter of Natural Bodies.” Jeb remembered Cowan’s outburst at the fence. “I’ll do the talking.”

“Understood.” Cowan ran his hands through his short black hair reflexively, fixing it, even though it was already basically fixed. “Mouth shut, eyes open.” He seemed nervous.

Jeb smiled, but only on the inside. Cowan had the type of face that seemed both trusting and trustworthy, with a strong chin and ears that were just a tad too big. With hardened suspects, his fresh-faced appearance might hurt him, but with younger or single folks, it might actually help. He had an eye for details and listened to feedback instead of fighting it. He had potential, which was more than Jeb could say for most rookies.

What bothered Jeb at the moment was Cowan’s “training exercise”. Jeb never directly questioned his orders — he’d been a cog in the machine too long to be that stupid — but it made absolutely no sense for the CID to give him a first day trainee on a puppeting case. Guns had been illegal for decades now, and a puppeted shooting like this should have attracted the CID’s top resources. Yet all they’d sent to investigate Ventura Visions was Jeb and a rookie rounding out his first day. Nothing about that smelled right.

Still, one mystery at a time.

Jeb led, loafers crunching pebbles on the path to the front door. His black duster drifted out behind him like a curtain, a graphene and Kevlar weave capable of stopping even metal bullets. This didn’t look like the house of militant Natural Body nuts, but you never knew what to expect on a reservation. Some of them still smuggled in guns.

He pressed the doorbell. A chime sounded inside, and Jeb didn’t miss it when Cowan blinked like the door had yelled at him. Today’s doorbells were PBA pings, so the kid must think he’d traveled back in time. The amplifiers imbedded deep inside Jeb’s ears picked up footsteps beyond the door, unhurried and even, and that was reassuring.

“One moment!” A woman cracked the door and peered out. “Can I help you, officers?” If she was surprised to see two cops standing on her porch past dark, she didn’t look it.

Jeb engaged his most comforting rumble. “Good evening, ma’am. Is this the Fisher residence?”

Pamela Fisher stepped onto her front porch, back straight and eyes narrow. Even this late, she wore a pink blouse and a gray skirt with black flats. Her dirty-blond hair matched her daughter’s, and she looked to be in her late forties.

Her shoulders sagged. “What has Sheila done now?”

“If you don’t mind, ma’am, I’d prefer to talk inside.” Jeb kept his prosthetic hand at his side, because cyberization often made Natural Body folks uncomfortable. “My name is Detective Forrester. This is my partner, Detective Soto. We’d like to ask you some questions about your daughter.”

A man yelled from inside the house. “Just tell the cops we’ll pay the fine! Is she spending the night in jail?”

“Missus Fisher,” Jeb said, “I must insist.”

“Yes, all right.” Pamela smoothed her blouse and turned. “Follow me, please. We’ll talk in the parlor.”

This couple had a parlor. Had Sheila been rebelling against her perfect home by jumping into counterculture? Or had she simply wanted to experience the pleasureboxes her clear circuit friends raved about? Jeb activated his archiver and entered the home.

He could see a huge kitchen down the hall, with a clay tile floor and an array of black appliances. A real oven? A microwave? He felt more unexpected nostalgia. Everything he saw was being recorded, of course — the CID mandated that — but he’d delete it after seventy-two hours, if it turned out the Fishers had nothing to do with Sheila’s murder.

Jeb’s grandmother, like many born before the creation of PBAs, had been obsessed with the Internet Age. When seen through the lens of decades, with the hard edges of entrenched racism and political strife filed off, it seemed like quite the time to be alive. There was something alluring about art, culture, and decisions made without the aid of scripts or archives. The creations of those decades simply screamed individuality.

Despite his mother’s best efforts, Gram’s passion for pre-PBA culture had infected Jeb. He loved manually driven cars, old detective movies, vampires and spaceships. A hundred years ago, people had willingly filled the Internet with cat pictures. There was something seductively extravagant about that.

Pamela Fisher led them into a room with light green walls and big glass windows. An ornate chandelier lit the space. The parlor held a plush white couch and two green armchairs, with a real fireplace built into the wall. There wasn’t a simport in sight.

“Please, sit wherever you like.” Pamela’s features were the very definition of polite frustration. “We’re appropriately appalled by Sheila’s actions. We’ll pay whatever fees she’s incurred. May I ask where my daughter is now?”

“Have a seat, Missus Fisher,” Jeb said. “I have a few questions about Sheila.”

Closed circuits lacked the ability to firewall emotions or answer questions when overwhelmed with emotion, and telling the Fishers their daughter was dead would absolutely overwhelm. Jeb couldn’t tell them Sheila was gone until he questioned them. This was the official CID procedure, and today, Jeb hated official CID procedures.

He imagined the many questions gnawing at the inside of Pamela’s mind. Is my daughter hurt? Is my daughter dead? Why are you asking all these questions about her?

Yet what if one of the Fishers had bought that black market PBA for their daughter? What if one had gone behind the other’s back? Jeb had to get a feel for their involvement and knowledge before Sheila’s death destroyed them.

He had to decide if one of them already knew.

Jeb pointed Cowan to one chair, then sat in another one. “Do you know where Sheila planned to travel tonight?” He blinked, twice, to activate his facial analyzer.

A floating AR panel popped up beside Pamela Fisher, displaying heart rate, breathing rate, and other vital statistics. Using real-time facial scanning to detect lies always felt like cheating, but a young girl was dead. The routines in his PBA weren’t perfect, and Jeb had learned not to rely on AR when his gut said otherwise, but, again. Procedure.

Pamela settled herself on one edge of the couch. “She told us she was going to an outdoor concert with friends.” True (90%) displayed on the panel beside her face.

Andrew Fisher stalked into the parlor. “I’m sorry, but is this really necessary?” He was a tall man with an athletic build and graying hair. “It’s past curfew.” True (97%)

“I’m sorry as well,” Jeb said, “but we have procedures.” A desalination engineer would understand procedures. “As soon as you answer our questions, we can answer yours.”

Andrew stalked past his wife and sat on the opposite end of the couch. He didn’t touch her, and he didn’t sit beside her. A recent argument, or a longstanding problem?

“Fine,” Andrew said. “What do you want to know?”

“What concert was Sheila attending, ma’am?” Jeb directed the question at Pamela Fisher.

“Some chiptune group popular in her social circle,” Pamela said. “I’m afraid I don’t keep up with historical music.” True (96%).

“You don’t recall the group’s name?” Jeb knew it must be difficult to have to write down the names of places, people, and things, instead of archiving them on your headdesk.

Andrew leaned forward. “Did Sheila get into another fight? Have they already decided to sue?”

So the Fishers had been slapped with a lawsuit recently. “How often does your daughter get into fights, Mister Fisher?”

“The last one wasn’t her fault,” Pamela said. False (30%) “Another girl got very aggressive with Sheila’s partner. She was standing up for her.” True (80%)

Jeb nodded to show that was important. “Did she and the other participant know each other before the fight occurred? Have they been in contact since?”

Andrew threw up his hands. “How should we know? Sheila does as she pleases, when she pleases, and never cares to inform us. Just tell us what she did and go away.”

“Sir.” Jeb raised his Helping Hand, and the gleaming metal caught Andrew’s attention. “I need you to answer my questions, first. Answer my questions and I’ll answer yours.”

Andrew clenched a fist. He had a temper. Closed circuits had no conditioning, and they could still abuse their families. Another horror Jeb had seen in all those old movies.

Andrew relaxed his hand. “Very well.”

Pamela hadn’t flinched when Andrew clenched his fist, nor did she seemed alarmed by his raised voice. So Andrew Fisher probably didn’t beat his family. One small mercy.

Jeb re-engaged. “Do you have the names of those who attended the concert with your daughter?”

Pamela looked to the hall. “They’re in the kitchen, on my notepad. I make sure Sheila leaves us contact numbers for everyone before she leaves the reservation.” True (92%)

“Thank you. Now, I’m going to ask you something delicate, and I need you to be honest with me.”

“What the hell did Sheila do?” Andrew demanded.

“Did either of you purchase a Personal Brain Assistant for your daughter?”

The blood drained from Pamela’s face. “What?”

Andrew’s face flushed bright red. “Did you catch her with some uncertified grayDoc? Who did her installation procedure?” Then his eyes went wide, and he stiffened like someone had slapped him. “Is … is my daughter all right?”

In both real and augmented reality, their shock and fear seemed genuine. The parents weren’t involved, for what meager comfort that offered. Jeb would deliver the approved story, retrieve the list of Sheila’s friends from Pamela’s notepad, and let the Fishers grieve.

It was time to bring in Sarisa.

Jeb checked his headdesk. OMH counselor Sarisa Bassa had arrived a minute ago, right on time. She was the best grief counselor Jeb knew, even if she did work for the Office of Mental Health. “You’re on,” he said, over the wireless connection shared by their PBAs.

“On my way.” Sarisa’s voice sounded just as comforting over the wireless. “I’m sending the approved cause of death.”

Sarisa up’d him the acceptable story the OMH had fabricated. The Fishers couldn’t be trusted to keep a mass shooting secret. For that reason, they wouldn’t be told.

“Is Sheila in the hospital?” Pamela asked. Her voice trembled.

The doorbell rang. Andrew jumped. Pamela did too. Neither seemed to understand where they were now.

“Cowan,” Jeb said quietly. “Get the door.”

Cowan hopped up like something had bit him. He strode quickly into the hallway. Neither Fisher watched him go.

“I’m afraid Sheila Fisher was struck by an autotruck while walking on the side of CA-14,” Jeb said calmly, and firmly, and without any quaver in his tone. “Our medical examiner concluded she died instantly, upon impact. She didn’t feel any pain.” One kind lie among the cruel. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Andrew Fisher stood. “No, Sheila wouldn’t do that. It must be someone else.” He wet his lips with his tongue. “Where is my daughter now? Do you need a DNA sample?”

Jeb stood as a slim woman in a gray pantsuit and a form-fitting navy jacket strode into the parlor. Sarisa had dark eyes, dark hair to her shoulders, and a black bindi in the center of her light brown forehead. She offered a shallow bow.

“Mister and Missus Fisher,” Jeb said, “this is Counselor Sarisa Bassa, from the Office of Mental Health. She’ll guide you through this development and help you adjust to your new circumstances.”

Adjustment. Circumstances. Those words weren’t how you described losing your only child. Those were procedures.

“Do you might if I sit?” Sarisa asked. Quietly. Calmly. In a way that made you want to say yes.

Andrew Fisher’s hands shook. Pamela Fisher put one hand to her lips. Jeb walked out as she started sobbing. He found Cowan, waiting in the hallway, and snapped his fingers.

Jeb led Cowan into the immaculate kitchen. He archived each page of Pamela’s notepad on his PBA. His heart ached, even through his emotional firewalls, as he imagined what the Fishers must be feeling right now. No one deserved this pain. No one deserved to bury their child, which was why he had to make sure this didn’t happen again.

Notepad archived, Jeb led Cowan past the Fishers. Sarisa would help them as best she could. A barrage of Cowan questions filled the wireless as Jeb gripped the door handle.

“Why did you spend so much time stringing them along? Why did we lie to the Fishers about an autotruck? Who’s the Indian lady in the navy jacket?”

Jeb sighed and opened the door. The man beside their autocar started shooting at them.

* * *

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