Clack. The venetian blind settled against the window frame and waited, trembling, for the soft breeze to lift it again. When it did, shadows bunched and rippled along Simone’s legs, lingered at the hem of her skirt, and fell back to her ankles. A tide, rushing up a beach and retreating. She was stretched out on the office couch, fanning herself with the brim of my hat. I was sitting with my feet on the desk, tie loosened, collar unbuttoned, watching her through half closed eyes. Reading people is something I do well, and I sensed that she was resisting the urge to smile.
“What’s funny?” I asked.
“This hat, it makes you look like a movie detective from two hundred years ago,” she teased. The fedora was brand new. Twelve credits, it cost me. An extravagance, considering the state of our finances.
“That’s the idea, sweetheart,” I told her. I was being Bogart that day. “Gotta give the clients what they want.” This is true. Image is important in our business. If cigarettes were legal, I’d have one dangling from my lip.
“Speaking of clients…” Simone’s gaze shifted inward, and she dropped the hat onto the coffee table. “Looks like we’ve finally got one.”
“An email?” I asked.
“Yep. Here, take a look,” she said, and flicked her wrist in my direction. The message appeared in my mind’s eye.
I read the important bits out loud. “… blah blah … require your assistance in locating our employee Elinor MacKenzie … yada yada … last heard from two days ago … etcetera, etcetera …”
“Did you miss the good part?” asked Simone. “The letterhead.”
I had missed it. “Oh yeah. How do you like that? Fujimura.”
Even a dolt like me knows Fujimura Biomedical. There are forty million souls buzzing around this beehive of a city, every one of us with a Fujimura memory chip and comm-link buried in the base of the skull.
“A missing person,” Simone mused. Her distant tone told me that a part of her was no longer in the room.
“You’re checking the software upgrade schedule?” I asked.
She nodded. See, that’s why Simone and I complement each other so well. She’s the tech whiz, whereas I’m more of a people person. Simone always starts a search by looking for a technical problem, or a technical solution. If Elinor MacKenzie’s memory implant had bugged out, then she could be wandering around some dank corner of the city with whatever random memories happened to be stored in her organic brain. Fujimura and the city council, which are one and the same thing these days, say that it doesn’t happen, but we’ve seen it often enough to know different. Just last month, we found a fifty-year-old banker in a jail cell. The cops had picked him up for vagrancy and begging. He’d been sitting on the street outside his childhood home, with no memory of his adult life. He hadn’t eaten for three days and he was asking passers-by for food, or if they knew where his mother was.
In the case of Elinor MacKenzie, the first thing I needed to know was, how much could we charge? That meant knowing something about Elinor. I closed my eyes and accessed her social media accounts. She had lots of online activity. Her history flashed through my vision. I picked out the highlights, as best I could. She was an only child, born when her parents were in their sixties. Not as common forty years ago as it is now. Good student. Well qualified. Senior engineer with Fujimura. No significant relationships. Parents dead from natural causes before their hundred and tenth birthdays.
“There was a software release yesterday,” said Simone. “The problem could be a bad patch. She has no cloud backup last night. No GPS trace. She’s offline.”
“Alright, let’s take the case. Treble the fee. Fujimura can afford it.”
The search kept us busy for weeks. We tried all the usual places. I put on my detective hat and went to talk to Elinor’s neighbours in one of those gleaming sky towers in district fifty. Some of them knew her to see, but none of them had known her name or that she was missing. I persuaded the landlord to let me into her apartment. He was reluctant at first but I found the right lever to move him to action. It was the suggestion of her lying dead on a wet bathroom floor and the risk of a lawsuit from her next of kin that had him reaching for his key-cards. I neglected to tell him that she had no next of kin.
The apartment was sparsely furnished and lit with the same white light as the empty refrigerator in her kitchen. I looked through the presses and the drawers while the landlord made noises from the doorway. The presses were stocked with ready meals. There wasn’t much in the way of crockery or cutlery. I could only find one fork, for example. It didn’t look like she had company very often. There was a bottle of wine on the counter, unopened, and a single glass.
I slid open the balcony doors and stepped onto what turned out to be a large patio. I was nearly high enough to read the licence plates on the hover-traffic that streamed overhead. I walked to the corner of the patio and looked down. It took me a moment to orient myself. I was at the north-west corner of the building. On the north side, traffic and pedestrians moved in two directions on an eight-lane roadway. They were so far below that no noise reached me. It was strange to see the neon advertisements from this angle and this height. On my income, the highest I’ve ever lived is the fifteenth floor. On the west side of the building, the river flowed wide and slow, sunlight glittering on its surface. A white wake of froth showed me where a ferry had just pulled out from the dock and disappeared under the bridge. I watched for a minute until the wake broke apart and was gone.
When an implant is offline, there’s always a chance that the user is face down in the river. Nothing knocks out a chip like a belly-flop from a bridge or a balcony. By the time I finished in the apartment, and took the elevator to the ground floor, Simone had checked the databases of the morgues, hospitals and psych wards. She found a few dozen possibles, and I followed up in person.
The hospital wards were bright and busy. The morgues were cool and peaceful. I won’t describe in detail that sleepless week I spent doing the rounds, bribing and wheedling my way into places I didn’t have authority to be, peering into lost faces, living and dead, and not finding the face I was looking for. Only one of the possibles was in the psych wards. I eventually persuaded an attendant to grant me entry and guide me through the maze of white corridors and into the many silent rooms where patients sat on chairs and couches. Finally, we reached the last room, one of the largest, and we threaded our way through the placid white-robed figures to the far corner of the room, to the woman who might have been Elinor. She was sitting on the floor, head bent low over a dog-eared deck of cards. Her hair hung down over one shoulder, exposing a Fujimura chip on the back of her neck that was different to any chip I’d seen before. It was much bigger than usual, and it had a small red light that blinked steadily. She carefully studied the Jack of Diamonds, tracing the face with one chewed fingernail, and then passed it to the bottom of the deck.
“Elinor?” I asked.
She looked up at us blankly and then down at her cards again. “I’ll just be a minute. I’m looking for the sevens.”
I figured that at least a third of the deck was missing. I watched for a while as she studied each card, one by one, none of them sevens, and placed them at the bottom of the deck, until inevitably the Jack of Diamonds rose to the top again. She repeated her close inspection of the card, as if she’d never seen it before, and then placed it on the bottom of the deck and continued. I looked at the attendant. He shrugged.
“It keeps her occupied. Is she the one you’re after?” I could see the speculation in his eyes, the hope of the payment I had promised.
“No.” I turned to leave. “It’s not her.”
As we walked out of the room, I noticed that all of the patients’ chips were the strange oversized models, with red lights blinking in unison.
Over the following days, Simone hacked a few thousand CCTV networks and worked her facial recognition voodoo. Not exactly legit, but she knows how to cover her tracks. We had a few hits from the days before Elinor disappeared, but nothing from after. Of course, most of the other data we needed was available legally, so we bought it and billed it to the client. Every purchase Elinor made, the transport she used, and all of her movements were laid bare right up until the evening she was last seen. We pored over every scrap of information until we knew her better than we knew ourselves.
We ran out of places to check, but for some reason, I couldn’t let it go. I started to see her on the street, and in the crowd at the Metro station, but it was never her. At night I closed my eyes and trawled through everything we had, which was a lot. She had spent more time online than she did in the real world. She had no friends, just acquaintances. There was no Elinor-shaped hole in anyone’s life because there was nobody to notice she was gone. She was invisible in life and now she had vanished for real. The injustice of it bothered me.
We eventually moved on to other cases that were more quickly resolved. One of these concerned Michael Romero. He was a low-paid drone mechanic for some of the bigger drug dealers. You’ve seen their advertisements. Pills, glass, smoke, tobacco, whatever you want, delivered to your door in fifteen minutes. On a dark December afternoon, his wife arrived at our door. He had been missing for six days, and his wife couldn’t afford the fee for the police to keep searching. I doubted that they had done anything more than log the report, but I kept my suspicion to myself. The cops aren’t known for investigating crimes against drug dealers, or their employees, or their customers for that matter. She had just enough credits to hire us for two or three days, if that. She told us that we were her last hope.
I interviewed her. She sat on the edge of the couch and answered my questions with matter-of-fact calmness, but her fingers gripped tightly the forgotten mug of coffee that I had poured for her. I could sense her grief and panic, barely contained, threatening to overflow at any moment. I probed and prodded and made noises of sympathy in the appropriate places.
Simone sat behind the desk with her hands folded in her lap, listening silently. I knew from her posture that she was already online, searching and sorting the digital life of the city, hunting for any sign of the man. Simone can surf deeper and faster than anyone I’ve ever met, while still being aware of her surroundings. Me, on the other hand, I’m not much of a multi-tasker. I close my eyes and move my lips when I’m reading a simple text message. Soon enough, Simone pinged me with a location.
“Mrs. Romero,” I asked, “Would Michael have any reason to be outside the city, in Oldtown?”
“No, I don’t think so,” she said, her brow furrowing. “I’ve never heard of the old town.” Tears welled in her eyes. I sensed that the unexpectedness of the question had loosened the control she was struggling to maintain. All of my previous questions, she had asked herself already, or the police had, but this was a new one. Now she was confused.
I reached out and cupped my hands around hers. “Alright, go home and wait for our call.” I took her mug, now cold, and placed it on the coffee table. I rose, and guided her to her feet, and picked up her coat from the arm of the couch and handed it to her. “I’m going out to look for him. We’ll have an update by morning.”
She seemed startled by the suddenness of my leaving, but I left the details for Simone to explain. I grabbed my hat and trench coat and went downstairs and outside and turned my collar against the sleet. I took a surface taxi, a battered old rickshaw with an actual human driver, to the edge of the new city. I crossed my fingers that there would be enough charge in the battery to complete the journey. There was, just about. He wouldn’t go beyond the place where the streetlights ended, so I paid him and got out. As soon as I did, I had second thoughts, but his tail lights were already disappearing into the rain.
I stood on the crest of a hill, between the tracks of a long-abandoned tram-line, and looked down on the rooftops of Oldtown. I hadn’t been here before. Not even when I was on the force. It was all three-storey and four-storey buildings, like they used to build when space wasn’t such a luxury. Flickering light spilled from windows, and I could smell the fires that were burning in oil drums at the intersections. Silhouettes moved around the flames. I pushed my hands deep into my coat pockets and gripped my old police cosh in one fist. Simone opened a voice channel. She must have been tracking my movements.
“Straight ahead, one klick,” she said. “Michael’s GPS is working intermittently.”
My eagerness for the hunt overcame my doubts. I walked down the hill and past the first of the ruined buildings. There were no vehicles here, so I could have walked down the centre of the cracked roadway, but I stayed close to the shadows of the houses. Cooking smells and conversation drifted out through a broken window. I widened the comms channel so that Simone could see through my eyes.
“Have you ever seen anything like this?” she asked. “This is off the grid. Off the data grid, off the electricity grid, everything.”
“Feast your eyes, angel-face,” I replied. “It’s real.”
“This place is supposed to be abandoned.” She was ignoring my Sam Spade act. “It will be under water in thirty years.”
I walked on. After a few minutes of oppressive darkness, I wanted to hear her voice again.
“How far now, sweet-lips?” I asked.
“Ninety meters. The red building on the right.”
Two large men walked around a corner and stopped in front of me. Simone gasped. Shadows flickered on their faces from the burning torches they held aloft. I adjusted my hat with one hand so that I could see them better from under the brim. My other hand gripped the cosh tighter.
“Say, fellas, what gives?” I sounded more relaxed than I felt.
“Are you lost, brother?” asked one of them. I looked into his brown eyes, weighing my impressions. I detected no threat from him. Just genuine concern, and curiosity. I relaxed my grip on the cosh.
“No, brother, I know where I’m going.” I gestured towards the red building.
“You’re looking for Joanna? You’re new?” he smiled. “Here, take this, the road is wet.” He handed me his torch and then the two of them said goodnight and walked on, talking quietly to each other.
I heard Simone breathe easier. I moved towards the red building. To say that the road was wet was an understatement. A stream ran down the centre. I used an abandoned truck tyre as a stepping stone to jump across, but cold water still sloshed into my shoe. The building was an old library. I looked in through the double doors. The empty bookshelves had been moved around to create spaces and alcoves. One person was sleeping. A few others were sitting around a steaming pot of food, with blankets over their shoulders. I pushed open the doors and they turned to look at me.
“Michael Romero is on your left,” said Simone. “He’s the one lying down.”
A smiling woman rose from the seated group and approached me. She was offering a bowl of what looked like carrot soup. “Hello, I’m Joanna. Are you lost?” she asked.
“No, that’s ok. I’ve just come to find this man here. His wife is looking for him.”
“Ah, I see. Can you help him? He’s injured.” She walked with me to the sleeping figure. It was Michael Romero alright. His expression was pained. I crouched and examined the back of his head. A wound, recently bandaged. It was very close to the location of his implant.
“Are you seeing this, Simone?” I asked quietly. “He took a knock to the head.”
I fished the portable diagnostic kit from my pocket and attached the leads to his inputs, trying not to wake him. The machine uplinked to Simone. It would take a few minutes for her to run some tests. A young man joined us and put an arm around Joanna. He bore a strong resemblance to one of the two men I had met on the street. The one who hadn’t spoken. A brother, I guessed. Joanna smiled and offered me the soup again. This time, the smell stirred something in me, something half-remembered from childhood, and my mouth watered. I accepted the bowl and nodded my thanks.
“Michael has been missing for six days,” I told them. “If his chip is undamaged, I’ll restore his last backup from the cloud.”
“Is that his name?” Joanna looked down at the sleeping figure. “He couldn’t remember. He thought he had a wife, but he couldn’t find her.”
“He was lucky,” whispered the young man. “They normally wander for a long time before they get here.”
“What about you?” I asked. “Where did you come from?”
He grinned and bent forward and tapped the back of his neck. It was unmarked. No data ports. “Some of us were born here in Freetown, brother.”
“And you?” I asked Joanna. Hers was the answer that I really wanted to hear.
“I remember … a view from a balcony on a tall building.” Her brow wrinkled as she spoke. “Everyone else was far below. I remember being unhappy, and alone.” She looked at her companion then, and her frown disappeared.
Simone’s voice broke in. “Michael’s chip is intact. It just needed a reset. You can restore his backup.”
I attached another data lead to his implant, and started the process of making him whole again, and sat back on my heels.
“You did a good job of looking after him,” I said to the couple. “We’ll have him home in no time.”
They said nothing to this, but the woman smiled again. It was a smile I hadn’t seen in any of the photographs or footage that we’d studied. Her hair was longer as well, and she looked different in some other subtle ways that I couldn’t identify. I finished the soup in silence, thinking. Of course, I knew her real name, even if she didn’t. Simone knew it too, I was sure. You can’t spend weeks poring over every detail of somebody’s life, and then not know them when you meet them. The payment from Fujimura would have been useful, but we could manage without it. I knew Simone would agree.
Thank you for reading! Please consider sharing by clicking one of the social media buttons below.