I left the dreaming corpse of Gary Lester, and walking up the stairs from his dark little hovel I wondered if I could really afford to go all the way back up to the penthouse floors to meet with Ms. Prescott. By the time I got some food in my stomach and made it back to the elevators, it would be nearly sundown. I didn’t want to set up an interview with her in virtual because my head was still throbbing from the meeting with Lester so I had to make a holo-call. A basic audio call wouldn’t be personal enough and at least the holo-call would be somewhat face-to-face.
After a few minutes of walking, I made it to a diner. My pad had told me that it was closer than any of the other options, and I wasn’t feeling picky. The flickering cyan sign on the front of the building read The Burger Factory in big blocky letters. The place was all cold brushed steel, inside and out. As I took a seat at the bar and got comfortable, a touchscreen set into the top of counter flared to life and displayed the menu. After a few minutes, a voice blared out of the speaker above me, talking with the characteristic monotone of an AI. It asked me for my order, and I peeked through the window into the kitchen where I spied a set of robotic arms hanging above the cooktop.
I hadn’t noticed that the place was an AI-diner from outside. If I had, I probably would have kept looking despite my hunger. For a while, Omega was replacing food workers with AIs and robots. People stopped going to those places because word got out that a customer had been killed because of a grill malfunction that had sent a spatula through the guy’s head. And besides, no one liked trying to place a special order with a dumb machine.
My server was an old bot with a busted tread and it looked like it was taking a while delivering orders to the few other customers, so I took the time to go through Banks’ pad. I was worried that might prove difficult but as it turned out, the thing wasn’t even locked. Andrew Banks was a trusting man.
It contained mostly uninteresting text messages, financial newsfeeds, and a calendar filled with business meetings. But there were a couple of things that caught my eye. The first was a series of recent texts from an anonymous contact confirming Lester’s story of blackmail. Whoever it was wanted more money from Banks than I could even conceive of. Unfortunately, the blackmailer was careful not to directly mention what it was that they had on him in any of the text messages. The second was a password-protected folder labeled 03-15. March 15th, the day before Banks’ death. I was sure there would be something relevant inside.
I pulled out my pad, thinking that I could break through a simple password with the LPD-provided hacking software. When I connected the two devices, my pad sparked violently just before the screen went black. I’m not too proud to admit that I nearly jumped off of my stool. Lester would have mentioned setting up this kind of security for Banks, so to me, it looked like the killer was covering their tracks. I was out of my depth with this one, so I made a mental note to make a detour to visit a friend after meeting with Ms. Prescott.
The food, when it finally arrived at my section of the bar, was obviously made by something that had possessed no sense of taste whatsoever. The burger was dry and overcooked. Its temperature had been managed and regulated with machine precision to kill any and all dangerous bacteria, along with any and all flavor. The fries were also made with machine precision, but they were lacking in soul.
Everything was bland and manufactured, but it was all real. With none of the bitter aftertaste of food made by a nanofabricator. Real meat, probably vat-grown. Real lettuce and tomato on the burger, and real potatoes for the fries. It probably took days to ship all of this up here from the farmfloors. But, I suppose that was one of the perks of living just above the clouds.
I finished my meal and got up from the bar. I paid my bill and the AI thanked me for my business. I didn’t bother with a response, but it’s not like you can offend a toaster. I left the diner and headed to the main elevators once again. I had decided that instead of going up to the penthouse floors, I would head back down towards my apartment. The friend that I needed to visit was in that direction, and I could find a holo-booth to make a call from on the way. If I still thought that she was the killer after our conversation I could always call and have Sec detain her for a day or two.
Thankfully, the counter-intrusion attack on my pad turned out to be only a temporary lockout, and once I was back on the elevators it had worn off. I counted my blessings and did some digging on my new suspect while I waited for my stop. According to the LPD’s files, Doroteya Prescott was an executive who was known for her vicious adherence to deadlines and quotas. Several branches had been shut down and their employees reassigned after she had decided that they weren’t meeting her, and Omega’s, expectations. Apparently, she had briefly filled in for one of Banks’ department supervisors several years ago. That was the only public connection I could find between her and the vic, so I figured that was how they had first met.
I let the elevator pass my floor by a couple of stops before I smashed the brakes and stepped out into familiar surroundings again. Haphazardly stacked micro-dwellings and throngs of packed together bodies. The air was thick and humid, carrying all of the diverse sounds and smells that I was used to, good as well as bad. I was finally back in my own territory. There was quite a walk ahead of me, since my destination lay farther out towards the outer wall of The Tower, away from the main elevators again. I was getting tired of walking back and forth from the elevators and considered renting a bicycle. But, the silver lining was that it left me with more than enough time to call up Ms. Prescott.
It rang several times before a shimmering image appeared, floating ahead of me like a specter. The muted colors and poor resolution of the hologram being projected from my pad certainly didn’t do her the proper justice that she deserved. Doroteya Prescott was all dangerous curves sleeved in the sharp angles of dark corporate business wear. The picture faded away at the hip, but I assumed she could afford to buy a pair of shapely legs as well. Her platinum blonde hair had a single severe black stripe dyed into it, offset from the center, and it was all pulled back into a tight bun. Icy grey eyes glared at me from behind a pair of slender hexagonal glasses resting lightly on a small, pointed nose.
“Who the hell are you and how in the hell did you get my personal number?” Her accent had the rolling R’s and softened consonants of a Slavic upbringing. As if her name wasn’t a big enough clue to that.
“LPD, Ms. Prescott. I am calling to ask you some questions about Andrew Banks.”
“Oh. Him. Fine. What are your questions then?” Her eyes narrowed, and her lips pulled back into a sneer.
“I understand that the two of you were in a relationship, is that correct?”
“Yes. That is correct. But that was years ago so if he did something I certainly don’t know anything about it.”
“So the two of you haven’t had any sort of contact since the breakup?”
Far overhead, alarms began to blare and I ducked under the tiny awning of a walk-thru window just in time to miss the rain. The Tower contained a massive water system, and occasionally that system would spring a leak. Most people ran for cover when the alarms went off because you could never know if the “rain” was coming from a reservoir filled with drinking water, or from a burst pipe filled with wastewater. And no one wanted to take a chance on it being the latter.
“No. None whatsoever.” I thought I saw a quick movement of her eyes, but it was hard to be sure with the rather fuzzy image of the hologram.
“How did the relationship end? Was it mutual?” Heavy rain began to beat down on the awning above me.
“No. I ended it.” She was tense and spoke through clenched teeth.
“Because I found out that mat’ grebanaya mudak was cheating on me with those slum whores, that’s why!” She threw up her arms and as if in response to her anger, the hologram began to flicker in the rain.
“So, you were angry, maybe still are?”
“Of course I am!” Her arms lowered and she clenched her fists at her side.
“Angry enough to kill him?”
Doroteya gave a small gasp, seemingly surprised by my question, but she quickly recovered her composure. Almost too quickly. She wasn’t telling me everything.
“Of course not. Why would I do such a thing? I had no idea he was even dead.” She looked away from me and settled back into a closed stance, with her arms folded.
“Well, how about angry enough to blackmail him, then?”
She snapped her head back over toward me and hit me with a glare so cold it would freeze vodka.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She hissed. But I knew I’d rattled her with that one.
“You know what, I think you do have an idea of what I’m talking about. I think you were pissed at him for everything he did. All the money he wasted. And the insult, oh the insult, how could he not be satisfied with you? So you started blackmailing him, after the breakup. Then when the combination of blackmail and frequent visits to the working girls bleeds him dry he can’t keep paying you. So you kill him, or hire someone else to kill him, in order to keep his mouth shut.”
“I didn’t kill him, I swear! And besides, you can’t prove any of this wild story” Her eyes started darting rapidly from side to side. The anger in her voice was beginning to be replaced with a nervous anxiety.
“Well, I do have Banks’ pad right here with me.” I pulled it out and waved it in front of her flickering image. “And when I send the contents to the LPD I’m sure they will be able to trace them to the account used by the blackmailer. He saved the texts, ‘Teya.”
There were several long minutes of silence as she stared contemplatively at the floor until finally, her shoulders sagged and she took a long, deep breath and released it in a shuddering sigh. She started slowly shaking her head from side to side as she answered.
“I didn’t kill him…I didn’t kill him…I…I just wanted to ruin him, to make him suffer.”
“So you were just blackmailing him, then?”
“Da….I…I wanted him to feel the shame I felt when I learned of what he did. How…How he had betrayed me.”
The puddles that had begun to form around us lacked the awful stench of wastewater, so I thought I would risk it and not lose time waiting under the awning. I upturned the collar of my coat and stomped out into the rain.
“Why though? Couldn’t you ruin his life without needing blackmail? You probably have lunch with his bosses boss.”
“Because…I found out I could hurt him worse. There was something else…Some…one else.” Her fists clenched again and she looked up. One lock from her stripe of pitch-black hair had escaped the prison of her bun during her outburst and was hanging limply down in her pale face.
“What are you talking about?” The rain was cold but luckily seemed to be clean.
“He had a family down there! I found out a week ago when I hired someone to follow him for a while. It took them some time, but eventually, they brought pictures of him visiting them.” She started shaking with the rebuilding anger.
“He had a family?”
“Da. With…with one of those sluts from down there… And he left me for her. That was his real reason. He…he couldn’t even be honest with me.”
That explained how a man of his considerable wealth lost all of his money. Supporting a family while also keeping it all a secret was an expensive proposition, even for someone like Banks. But, Omega wouldn’t have been kind to the father or the family if they found out. The company outlawed prostitution in the real, it’s too hard to monetize, and they frequently sent down security teams to break up the brothels in the lowest depths of The Tower.
“So that’s when you started the blackmail. But you don’t know anything about his death?”
“No. All I know is that he told me that he could not pay. I swear to god I didn’t kill him.”
“Why did you wait so long to blackmail him? Two years is a long time to hold a grudge.”
She took several deep breaths.
“I did not know about the…family…until recently. Andrew was quite careful to keep them a secret. The investigator that I hired told me of money moving between shell accounts over and over before disappearing entirely, and purchases of illegal face-blur programs to prevent the security cameras from tracking him on the rare visit. I wanted to ruin him once I saw those pictures.” She had calmed now and settled into a sort of melancholy disgust. She began to wrangle the few strands of hair that had freed themselves from their confinement.
“Alright Ms. Prescott, I think that is enough. This has been a very interesting conversation. The LPD will likely be visiting you for follow up questions. Don’t take a vacation to the lower levels or anything.”
Her nose wrinkled heavily as she twisted her face into a look of pure abhorrence at my suggestion.
“Do svidaniya, detective. I wish I could say this has been pleasant.”
With that, her flickering ghost vanished and I was left alone on the street, with the rain drumming out a solemn rhythm around me.