Sunday, August 30, 2009

the sixteenth letter, part 17

for previous episode, click here

to begin at the beginning click here

the day, or maybe it was the night, wore on. a few of the prisoners on the benches were summoned for interrogation, but no new ones took their place, so gradually the benches thinned out.

the girl with the shifting translucent skin, sitting across from larry, was taken away, not by the regular attendant robot, but by a human officer and a robot who came especially for her. larry avoided looking at either her or them as they took her away.and he was left with only the surly blonde woman in his vicinity. he kept his eyes straight ahead or to his left to keep from making eye contact with her.

it got even quieter. the regular robot came down the aisle every so often, but varied the intervals.
"excuse me," larry finally said to him.
"yes," the robot turned politely.
"can i have something to read?"

"to read?" the robot spread his hands in mock astonishment. "don't you want to consider your situation? don't you want to prepare your defense?"
"no, i want something to read. i don't have any defense."
the blonde woman laughed at this.

"i see." said the robot. "anything in particular you would like?"
"i don't know, anything."
"you want a romance novel?" the blonde woman asked.
larry looked at the robot, not at her. "sure, a romance novel, anything, i don't care."

"but romance novels are not allowed," the robot told him. "they are frowned upon."
larry flushed. "whatever," he mumbled. "i thought some of them were still legal. i thought madame defarge and madame de stael wrote some."

"those aren't romance novels, birdbrain," the blonde woman told him.
larry finally glanced at her but continued speaking to the robot. "look, anything you can bring me i'd appreciate. what's your name, by the way?"
"my name is casey. my number is -"
"i don't need your number, casey. i'm pleased to meet you. my name is larry."

the robot nodded. "i'm pleased to meet you too," he answered good humoredly."
"you are both so nice and polite. i think i am going to be violently ill," the blonde announced.

"you know, casey," larry went on. "besides bringing me something to read, maybe you can do something else for me."
"drinks will be distributed in another half hour. is yours getting warm?"

"no. the drink is ok. but this person is bothering me. i was wondering if i could make a charge against her - or if you could just move her?"
casey laughed incredulously. "a charge? do you know where you are? the last complication you need is to be bringing charges against other persons."

"about nothing," the blonde woman added. the whole holding area had grown silent. those who remained on the benches seemed to be listening.
"why don't you just move yourself? if she is bothering you." casey asked larry.
larry shrugged. "i just don't see why i should. i was just sitting here, not bothering anybody. she was the one being unfriendly."

"unfriendly!" casey and the blonde both laughed. "in your situation,'" casey shook his head, " the last thing you need is a friend."
"you know what i mean," larry looked up at the robot. "maybe my choice of words wasn't the best. you see i'm not very bright."
"friends are bad," the robot replied in a voice loud enough to be heard down the length of the benches.

"yes i know that," larry persisted. "but among police officers there can be a certain amount of - um, professional rapport. you know?"
"but you are no longer a police officer. you are an accused felon, on the brink of conviction."
"that's right. you're right. what was i thinking?"
"i think you should move," casey said. "just go down to the end by the sandwiches and i will bring you some good uplifting literature from madame de stael. all right?"
"it's a deal."

a little man with bushy gray hair, wearing a very old fashioned gray suit, sat alone in a small office watching larry on a screen. there was a soft knock on the door,
"come in."
the young woman with the shifting skin opened the door and walked in, followed by the human and robot officers who had accompanied her from the holding area. she took a seat - the only seat - in front of the little man and the two officers left the office by a side door.

"what a waste of time,'" she announced, when they were alone.
"quite. quite. you were right. i was wrong. i'm afraid you were useless, quite useless in the whole situation."
"wasn't i, though? these people may not be very bright, but they are cautious. except russell - she's not cautious, but she's bright."
"the fault was all mine," the little man went on. "i will try to make it up to you. but, since you are here, what did you think of ex-detective lyndon?"

"even more of a dullard than you indicated. i can't believe you have any interest in him."
"obviously it is not he i am interested in."

she held up her hand. "i don't want to hear anything political."
"of course. well, again, i apologize. i know you have a long trip ahead of you. would you care to dine before you go? i have a shipment of excellent oranges from - from wherever the excellent oranges come from. or some pomegranates, perhaps?"

"thank you, mr hopkins, that's very kind of you. i can't stay, but i will take some with me for my trip." she stood up. "au revoir."
"au revoir." the little man remained seated as she left by the side door. he turned his attention back to the screen.

larry had moved down to the end of the benches. the thin woman who had been there before and snapped at him was gone.
casey came back with a little cart with cold drinks for the remaining prisoners.

when he gave larry his fresh drink he also gave him a well thumbed copy of
'the breakthrough on the outskirts" by madame de stael.
"thanks, sib."
"you're welcome. enjoy."
now the blonde woman had also moved down a little so that she was within hearing distance of larry. "maybe you don't want to be reading that," she called. "i hear madame de stael isn't all that these days."

"what!" casey almost hopped into the air. "that is most improper! for anyone, but especially an accused felon to make such speculations is inexcusable!"
"i'm like this guy - no defense anyway." she looked up at casey. "do i get to keep my cold pineapple and guava drink?"
"of course. i am sorry if i overreacted. but you do yourself no favors with such talk."
"it was just something i heard. i didn't mean to upset you."
casey nodded and, having completed handing out the drinks, moved up the aisle and out.

the blonde moved further down the bench. "hey i'm sorry if i was such a grump. you know you were right - we should have more - professional rapport. especially here."
"um." larry kept his eyes on the pages of madame de stael's book.

"my name is lillian - lillian russell."
"oh yeah. i think i've heard of you."
"you think? you've heard of me, sib. everybody's heard of me."

the sixteenth letter, part 18

Friday, August 28, 2009

the sixteenth letter, part 16

for previous episode, click here

to begin at the beginning click here

"there has been sufficient time since ferdinand's untimely demise. a memorial is no longer appropriate."
roberta and samantha looked up. a little black flower was hanging over roberta's workspace and had caught the eye of irena, the new model robot supervisor.

"i'm sorry," roberta told her unconcernedly. " i forgot all about it." she looked back down at the moving line of sandwiches she was spot checking.

"in that case." said irena. "i will take it and dispose of it. do you have any objection?"
roberta shrugged. "i will put it in my pocket at next break."

"very well. just don't forget." irena smiled pleasantly and turned her attention to samantha. "can i see you for a minute at my desk, samantha?"
"sure." samantha turned her table off and the her line of sandwiches stopped. she followed irena to her desk at the back wall of the factory floor. the desk was about twenty-five feet from the machines, just far enough that conversations could not be overheard over the mild hum.

irena seated herself at her desk. samantha stood in front of the desk with her hands clasped in front of her, smiling slightly. like all the human workers at the universal northern and southern hemisphere soybean sandwich company, she welcomed any break in the routine.

"is this about the petition?" samantha asked.
"the petition?" irena repeated.
"the petition i gave to george ming about ferdinand."
"oh, you won't hear anything about that for a while yet. i would have thought you understood that."
"i do." samantha shrugged. "but i just thought - " she shrugged again, and smiled at irena.
"no, this is about something else entirely."
"whatever. what?"

irena looked down at a small piece of paper on her desk. "i have a memo from the preliminary investigation unit of the possible crimes department. an anonymous informant reported a young man following a woman several nights ago. the location synchronizes with your confirmed whereabouts. therefore an investigator might want to interview you. do you have any information or comment on this?" she looked up at samantha.

"no. if someone wants to talk to me, fine. but i didn't see anything."
irena looked down at the piece of paper. "i must say i don't understand you, samantha. first you go running to the police with a petition, now when they come to you you don't show any enthusiasm to help them at all."
"i didn't see anybody following me. what do you want me to do, make something up?"

"no,no, of course not."
"anything else? i don't want to get backed up."
"no, you can get back. and by the way, your work lately has been excellent, most excellent. i put that in my report."
"thank you." samantha went back to her table and switched it back on.

"what was that about?" roberta asked.
"somebody reported somebody following me." the packs of clearly wrapped sandwiches starting flowing past samantha. her job, and roberta's, was to watch them for any apparent imperfections, and if there were none, to grab a few at random and check them out. "if it was me, they're not sure. it must have been the night i took the petition over to george."

"following you? you think it was somebody from here?" roberta grabbed a sandwich in her clear-gloved hand, dexterously unwrapped it and flipped the bread back to show a perfectly synchronized pattern of pressed watercress and soybean spread. she rewrapped it with a flick of her wrist and put it back on the smoothly flowing conveyor belt.

"not likely. it probably wasn't even me. it was just my - my whereabouts," samantha grabbed a sandwich, unwrapped, inspected and rewrapped it even more quickly and gracefully than roberta had.
"sounds like too much coincidence to me. i bet somebody was following you from here."
"no, i don't think so. maybe i'm wrong, but i just don't think so."
the sandwiches didn't slow down. they lapsed into silence.

because of the number of anonymous tips, uniformed patrols, instead of the overworked detectives, were sometimes dispatched to take first statements on low priority or unconfirmed cases. tammy lee and the torque man were on their way back to the area where they had lost edwin and let crispus go, when a couple of such requests began coming in on their dashboard. the torque man waited until they were finished and printed them off.

"preliminary statements?" tammy lee asked him.
"yes, and they look like a whole lot of nothing. they are over seventy-two hours old, both of them." he looked at the printout disgustedly.
"i don't want to try to blow them off," tammy lee said. "not on my first week as corporal."
"oh, i wasn't suggesting that. it just throws our timing off a little, that's all."
"want to look for our guy first, then come back and do these?"
"no. these are only a little off our route. let's get them over with."
"roger that. what's the directions?"

the torque man read them off. tammy lee took the next left and sped up a long clear industrial boulevard, resisting the urge to turn on the siren.
"a billion reports in the big universe," the torque man intoned.
"every day."

"i hope we are not inconveniencing you," the torque man told irena.
"not at all, officer. the young woman is right over there. i asked her about the report myself, she says she knows nothing. but perhaps you can get more - "
"that sounds good to us," the torque man interrupted her.
"yes," tammy lee added. "we are looking for a clear resolution of this matter."

"i understand. i will get samantha now." irena scurried off onto the floor.
tammy lee looked around the premises of the universal northern and southern hemisphere soybean sandwich company and shuddered. she resolved to apply herself even more diligently to advancing her career in the police.

"cold in here?" the torque man asked.
"a little."
irena came back with samantha.
tammy lee took a pencil and a very small notebook out of her pocket. "your supervisor tells us you saw nothing on the night in question - is that correct?"

"good." tammy made a check mark in the notebook and started to put it away.
"and you haven't had any other contact with law enforcement lately?" the torque man asked. this was a standard question.
samantha hesitated.
"well?" tammy lee asked her. "have you?"
"um - not with the police directly. but i did help with a petition to the police - from a lot of us here at work - and i was bringing it to the human resources director."

"on the night of this reported incident?" the torque man asked.
"yes," said samantha. "i think so. i'm not sure."
"you're not sure? i'm not following this," said tammy lee.

the torque man looked at tammy and spread his hands apologetically. "let's just get a complete statement. we're not detectives," he explained to samantha and irena. "all we can do is take a statement. we would like it to be as clear as possible."
tammy put the little notebook away and took out a voice recorder. she glanced at a clock on the wall.

the sixteenth letter, part 17

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

the sixteenth letter, part 15

for previous episode, click here

to begin at the beginning click here

jango suddenly interrupted his story of the thuggee and the black hand. he looked over at the naples train which was ready to pull out of the zurich station.
" a thousand pardons, sir, but i think the train is about to leave."
"why so it is," colonel mccutcheon replied, with a glance at the station clock. "your story held me so spellbound that i lost all track of time."

there was still no sign of miss gertrude gainsworth. the colonel and jango took their seats in the train. it moved out. jango resumed his tale.

a slight breeze fluttered the torches in the cave of the thugs. the mother of jemadar gumm wrung her hands ." i am afraid my son shows all the signs of final madness. the more sudden the madness, the more hopeless. and this creature - this creature! from what, or where?"

nothing ever happened in the valley. the inhabitants called it "the valley". not the happy valley, not the beautiful valley, just "the valley". for as long as anyone could remember, it had been ignored by kings and armies, who found neither beautiful maidens nor stalwart warriors in its rutted lanes and muddy fields.

the elders of the valley were more than happy to have it remain so, and were alert to signs of alluringness in young girls and valiant spirit in young men. those evincing these qualities were marked for banishment from the valley, but in practice the valley's sleepy ways made the enforcement of the exile somewhat arbitrary.

so it was that when the elders heard of a young girl being referred to as "the star" because of her beauty, they took notice but yielded at first to the entreaties of the girls mother, a simple hardworking (and plain) woman whose husband had been killed by a tiger shortly after the girls birth.

"but she is strong, sirs, strong in spite of her beauty, which will fade only too quickly in any case. she can do the work of two in the fields! i implore you, do not deprive a poor widow of this help she so desperately needs!?"

so the elders stroked their chins, and the eldest of them nodded, and "the star" was left to the sun and the wind. which, however, had no visible effect as she retained a translucent complexion no pampered favorite of a prince could even dream of.

and then the drums of war shook the land, penetrating the valley. a goatherd, tending his flock at the peak of the valley , saw a scouting party - from the emperor? - from the invader? - riding up the trail in the morning mist.

leaving the slower goats behind, and driving the swifter ones before him, he hastened down the trail to the village, shouting warnings to those in the fields.

few even looked up. if the soldiers came, they came. they would take what they wanted and hopefully move on.
the goatherd passed the "star" and her mother pulling weeds in their field.
"run, mother va, run! the soldiers are coming! and by all that is sacred under the sun and stars, hide that daughter of yours!"

"bah! she has not finished pulling her weeds yet! the soldiers will come and go, the weeds will remain."
the goatherd shrugged. "as you see it, i have warned you." he moved on, following his goats.
an hour later a party of three soldiers rode up. they wore the blue feather of the invader. the leader was an ambitious young sub-jemadar named hal, who was none too happy about leading a small scouting party instead of preparing a full troop for the coming battle against the emperor.

hal barely glanced at the two women stooped over their weeds. but he stopped his horse to give it a breather. at that moment the "star" stood up straight and hal's glance fell on her."
"aha! here is a prize indeed for the captain!"
the two privates behind him glanced at each other. they were a pair of atrocious villains who had survived the wars by seeing and doing things too terrible to relate.

"for the captain?" the older and gaunter of the pair, named sal, drawled.
the other, named mal, laughed, as he always did at sal's comments.
but the "star" was already halfway across the field. hal took off after her, but his horse stumbled in a patch of mud.
there was a ravine at the edge of the field, almost as steep as a well, with a trickle of water running down it. the 'star" scrambled down it, soaking herself.

she looked up to see hal, sal, and mal all looking down at her from horseback. hal shouted some instructions at sal and mal but they seemed in no hurry to obey and sat staring down at her.
she raced across another rocky field. a shepherd was sleeping at the far side of it, with his head on his shepherd's crook.

a few scrawny sheep wandered listlessly around him, nibbling the almost nonexistent grass.
"wake up!" the "star" shouted at him. she ran right up to him. "wake up!"

larry woke up. he was stiff from sleeping on the bench. the young woman with the shifting skin and the rose in her hair was still sitting across from him and to his right.

"was i sleeping long?" larry asked her.
"you think i was watching you?"
larry touched the can of strawberry and guava drink he had brought with him from the interrogation room. it was still a little cool.

"guess i wasn't asleep that long," he said. "but i feel like i was."
"who exactly do you think cares?" asked his adversary, the blonde woman further down the bench.
larry didn't answer. he faced straight ahead. it seemed even quieter than when he had gone to sleep, with only a few low murmurs of conversation from the far end of the benches. the conversation seemed to be about american football.

in charlotte's office, charlotte and jeanne istened without comment as tania told her story. she told them everything.
when she had finished, jeanne looked at charlotte. "what are we going to do about this?"
charlotte just laughed. "nothing. we have things to do - lots of things to do. i don't have time to play games with this idiot. if he wants to waste his time with this stuff, that's his problem. "
"so you are going to let him get away with all this?" jeanne asked.

"for now."
tania spoke up. "and if his assistant contacts me, what do i do?"
"tell her you told me everything and then forget about it. i guarantee they won't pursue it."
"all right. what about larry?"
"what about him?"
"can we get him back?"

"it might be a good idea," said jeanne, "it would really send a message to the duc d'otrante that we know what he did and don't care - even if he doesn't contact tania for a while."
"yes," charlotte laughed. "that sounds good. i'll get him back."
"so everything will be back to normal," tania said. "like nothing ever happened."
"i don't know about that."

the sixteenth letter, part 16