It was my own voice that stopped me before I entered the building to survey the crime scene.
“You didn’t wait for me,” my Shadow chided.
I smirked as the crowd of townies hovering near the door to the All-Natural-Foods-And-Stuff gawked, shifting fleshy faces from me, to Shadow, and back again. Probably the first time they’d ever seen a robot duplicate.
“Stop whining,” I said, “you made the next train, didn’t you?” I had tried losing the robot in the crowd back at Central. Annoyance flickered across Shadow’s face (my face, to be entirely accurate, though it seemed the eggheads who built this robot had added too many wrinkles and not enough hair).
“I do not whine.”
Yeah, this petulance, that was new too. Which meant my latest partner was more advanced than the last. I grinned, remembering its predecessor’s fate; that robot had fallen off a balcony from the top of that new sky needle, where the drug baron had-
“Double homicides amuse you?” Shadow asked, as we stepped inside the dimly lit greenhouse/grocery store. The robot gestured to the far corner, to the bodies.
“Hold this wouldya,” I said, handing him the candy-striped cloth sack I carried. A gift for my kid and I hadn’t had time to drop it off this morning (I had made promises to my wife: not only would I remember to buy Daniel a gift, I would actually arrive to his party on time).
Shadow bristled but took the sack. “I am not your-”
“It is a cat,” I said, kneeling beside the corpses, “a robotic cat. Marianne told me to buy Daniel a ball, but who the heck plays with those anymore? This cat does whatever the owner says.” The store clerk had even shown me how to train it to respond to my voice; tonight I’d set it up for Daniel.
“I don’t think-”
“Quiet down, would ya? We have a case to solve. I need to be back in the city by evening, for the birthday party.”
The local law had not touched the crime scene so I knew it hadn’t been they that had shoved the head of this dead woman into a translucent, skin-like sack (the head was still attached to the body, just for the record). A second victim was beside the first.
“Their website says these two owned the store,” Shadow said. We were an hour by commuter rail from Toronto and about ten minutes via the same rail from the nearest small town; a community that did not seem overly concerned that it was lagging a half century behind civilization.
Rows and rows of genetically pure crops — corn, wheat, soy — wavered in the unnatural breeze of a hundred quiet fans, underneath the transparent roof.
“Not so much,” Shadow said. It was right, of course. Both women’s skin had faded into a shade somewhere between ancient ivory and silvery blue. Drained of blood.
“What’s this?” I asked, using my index finger to touch the strange membrane encasing the younger woman’s head. It was as cold as dead flesh.
“A bloodball; for mosquitoes. Has been emptied like the bodies,” Shadow said, and then, pursing its lips like I never do, it shook its hand and a layer of falseflesh fell free, like a snake shedding skin. Shadow did this to avoid contaminating the crime scene. It examined the older woman, finding, and revealing to me, small puncture wounds on her neck.
“Sucked dry,” I muttered.
“But by whom?”
I didn’t answer. No sign of trauma to the corpses. No robbery. No damage to the building or the crops or the equipment.
Shadow finished documenting the crime scene, taking photos and collecting evidence. No witnesses, no video surveillance and no worker robots to interrogate. Which was odd too, considering; every robot was missing. Of course every light bulb was missing too, so that probably meant nothing at all.
It seemed we’d have to head into town and do some actual investigation. Still I was confident we would be finished before lunch.
“I’ve figured it out,” I said as our train rumbled into the town’s lone train stop.
The woman whose legs I had been admiring for the past ten minutes (not my fault; she sat right across from me) glanced up. She was an attractive, if somewhat mousy, brunette with clay brown hair piled high, old-fashioned glasses, and an admirable lack of makeup.
I gave her my warmest smile. After all she had led me to the clue I was searching for, specifically the newspaper she had been reading on her digital tablet.
Taking her cue I had done the same. I showed Shadow the screen, the front page. What I had discovered.
“They were lovers, the two women.” The feature article was about how their love for the environment had brought them here, away from the big bad city, to grow their own food.
“I do believe we are about a century past that kind of discrimination,” Shadow said, scowling at me as if I had disturbed it somehow. Now I generally appreciated having a Shadow. After all it was around to protect me. Any bullet sent my way would be just as likely to hit it as me. But I hated the robots too because they always questioned my intuition. Having none of their own and all that.
“And this town is about a century still in the past,” I said. I proved my point by gesturing to the train car we sat in. Rail was the only way out here, not something more convenient, more modern.
I’m fairly sure Shadow tsk-tsked me as the train completed its stop. The woman stood first but I stopped her before she stepped into the aisle.
“Hey,” I said, “do you know where the nearest bar is?”
She rattled off an address quicker than Shadow could have. Didn’t even accuse me of hitting on her, which I suppose could be taken a couple different ways.
“Sure are well informed,” Shadow said.
“I should be,” she said, “I’m Nora… Nora Turner. I write for the Sensation.”
“A reporter,” I said, my appreciation for this woman dwindling despite her looks. The Sensation never had much nice to say about anything. They’d done a bit of a slander piece on me a few years ago, after I had saved the world.
“Did my research, before coming out here,” she said.
“Research,” Shadow muttered, “imagine that.”
Shut up now, please and thank you, I thought but robots can’t read minds. Not yet.
I introduced myself and she nodded, smiled, and departed, heading into the wide and empty streets of small town Nowhere. I did not mind the view, though it was mostly obscured by her neon red long coat.
“Your wife would-”
“Strange isn’t it,” I said, interrupting the robot. Nora had disappeared now, veering left whereas we were heading right, towards the bar.
“When I introduced myself she didn’t care. About who I was.”
“You were expecting her to throw herself at you, maybe?”
No. Well… maybe…
“I thought maybe she’d ask me a question or two, about the moon thing-”
At that point I swallowed a swarm of mosquitoes and stopped talking, gagging and sputtering instead, trying to rid my mouth of the buzzing bastards. Distracted, I almost walked into the bloodball.
Unlike the other, from the crime scene, this bloodball was full. It dangled from a lamppost as if it were a flowering plant decorating the town. And not a sac full of blood; a glistening, beach ball sized plum-red tomato. Mosquitoes covered it like moss covered… well, I’m not sure what moss covers. Toes, maybe?
“What do you know about these?” I asked.
Shadow made a bit of a show for me, hand on his hip, head tilted, the master detective on the job. Of course I knew he was simply logging onto the Web over his wireless.
“It is a ball. Full of blood.”
Ah, another reminder of why I work better alone. My jokes are funnier.
“And the mosquitoes?”
“Instead of spraying chemicals to kill the bugs, rural areas started hanging these bloodballs.”
“So the bugs drink blood from that, instead of us,” I said, realizing that despite the intense swarming I hadn’t been bitten yet.
“Not quite,” Shadow said, “it is an evolution trap.”
“An evolution trap?” Sometimes I swear these robots make shit up.
“The bloodballs have a specialized skin, tough enough to weather the elements but easily penetrated by a mosquito. Much easier than animal or human skin. Over the decades the mosquitoes have adapted for that, growing weaker and weaker proboscis. Current generations are incapable of penetrating human skin.”
I pressed my finger into the bloodball; it seemed pretty firm to me.
“So why don’t we take away the bloodballs now? Wouldn’t the mosquitoes die off?”
“And eradicate an entire species?”
I shrugged. It wasn’t like mosquitoes were useful for anything but I didn’t argue the point because we had reached the bar.
“A cop and his robot walk into a bar,” I muttered, sure there was a joke in there somewhere.