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,
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.
"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."