Only To Be Loved

Formed in the trunk of a gnarly old tree, the cottage gave the impression of a troll’s face. Its doorway twisted like a disfigured mouth, its windows malevolent glowing eyes. Knotted roots reached out from the base like back-broken snakes half-buried in the swampy forest floor.

Young Lady Evangeline felt a sudden change of heart. She lifted her white linen gown to clear the mud and turned away.

“My lady,” called a frail sweet voice. “Have you come to pay an old woman a visit? Please come in.” The bent old woman stood unsteady in the doorway. Her stained four-toothed smile and near-bald, brown-splotched head reminded Evangeline of the skull Friar Joskin kept on his scribe’s desk. The crone waved and pleaded again, and Lady Evangeline felt too ashamed to refuse. This forest was on her father’s land, and this woman was under his care.stoopcrone

The one-room cottage had a stone hearth with a boiling kettle opposite the door. To one side was a rough-framed bed with a worn, hair-patched deerskin mattress. To the other was a simple wooden table with two chairs. Peg-mounted shelves above the table held ceramic jars and variously colored glass bottles. A straw broom stood in a corner and earthen flagons in others.

The crone pointed to one of the chairs. A black cat clung to it until she shooed it away. The crone apologized, stepped to the hearth, and lifted the kettle. “Some toadwort tea,” she offered. When Evangeline started, the crone added, “Toadwort is an herb native to this forest, it makes a fine tea.” When she saw Evangeline nod agreement, she filled two tea-stained, wooden cups.

“How nice of you to visit me, my Lady. I was told you might be by,” the crone said. Evangeline knew her handmaids visited this cottage; they had told her the way. “What might this old woman do for a beautiful young girl?”

Evangeline could not hold back her tears. “I think I shall never find love again,” she said. Her voice shook too much to say more. Evangeline brushed her silken black hair behind her shoulder then brought her sensitive white hands to her lap.

“A broken heart is it?” the crone said, unable to conceal the curl at the corners of her tight mouth. Evangeline nodded, dropping her chin and eyes slowly down. The crone sipped her tea and darted one eye to Evangeline’s untouched cup. “The tea will help, dear child.”

Evangeline burst out, sobbing and burying her face in her quivering hands. Tears slipped between her fingers and ran down her wrists. The crone reached out a jagged-nailed claw to Evangeline’s hand then raised it to touch the top of her head. “Now, now, my dear, I know it hurts. What is it you wish me to do?”

“I never want to feel this again,” Evangeline wailed, looking up. “It hurts so much, and I know,” she swallowed, “I know it will never go away.”

“There, there. Is that what you want, dear child, for your pain to go away? Here, drink some tea.” She slid the cup closer. Evangeline lifted the cup to sip but seeing her hands moist with tears, set it down and pulled a lace-trimmed handkerchief from her small quivering bosom. She patted her eyes and hands then tucked the handkerchief away. When she finally drank, the old crone seemed to relax.

“Can you truly take my pain away?” Evangeline asked.

The crone’s once sullen eyes burned like glowing coals in their dark sockets. “Is it just the pain you want to go away, or is it the memory also? Or perhaps something more?” Her lipless mouth flashed a gap-toothed sneer.

Evangeline took a deep sniffling breath. “I must keep the memory so I know never to do this again. But I would like the pain to go.” She sighed, cleared her throat, and brushed the last tear off her cheek. “Last night Reginald told me he must return to Andalusia and be with his betrothed. All summer he insisted he loved me. He says he still does, but I know his passion has cooled.”

“Yes, dear child,” the crone said. “I know how it is. I was young and beautiful once. Men loved and desired me, but I made the mistake of loving one back.” Evangeline tried to imagine the dried, dung-colored, stick figure as a young girl. “I was given the choice,” the old crone said, “to be loved without ever having to love in return.”

“That is a choice I would willingly make,” the young princess said, swallowing again then brightening. “What must I do?”

The crone’s gapped smile grew wider. She lifted a small black bottle from the shelf above and cradled it in her boney claw fingers. “A drop of this to your tongue will make you eternally beautiful to all men, and it will make you forget that you ever loved.”

“Eternally young and beautiful?” Evangeline squinched her face.

“Only to desirable young men,” the crone said. “Others will see you as you truly are. Every man who gazes upon you will yearn for you. He will give his heart instantly and completely, will want only you forever. And having given his heart, he will never be able to love another.”

“And I will feel nothing,” Evangeline said, concerned but excited.

“For a single night, you will feel as he does, but only in your breasts, your lips, and your loins. Never in your heart for that is where there is pain. You will share his flaming passion, but come morning, he will only disgust you. Your disgust will take away all your pain.”

“Can I never love again … truly love?”

“Have you not tasted true love? You said you didn’t want it ever again.”

“Yes, the cost is too high.”

Suddenly, a deep voice came from the open doorway. “My Lady. Excuse me, my beloved, I see you are busy, perhaps another time would be a better.”

Evangeline turned to see Sir Geoffrey in his belted, sky blue tunic, his hands clasped submissively at his waist. Geoffrey had pursued her all last year pleading for her hand. He was handsome, tall, and proud, but had ideas contrary to hers, and so she had sent him away.

Seeing Sir Geoffrey angered her, but before she could speak, he rushed to kneel before the crone. “My Lady, you are the most beautiful, most desirable woman I have ever seen. Please might I hear a kind word, perhaps enjoy your delicate flower once more? I lament having fallen in disfavor.”

The crone smiled tilting her head to Evangeline then placed her claw hand on the knight’s bowed head. “If you wish to please me, Sir Geoffrey, some venison would be welcome tonight or a wild pig for the roasting spit. Would you do that for your princess?”

“Yes, fair Lady. I will hunt for you and will soon return.” With that he rose and quickly left, not giving Evangeline a glance.

“You see, my child, how the magic works.” The crone kneaded her claws together and peered over them at Evangeline. “If you visit your love Reginald one more time, his passion will rekindle. You may enjoy him once again then be rid of him, and he will suffer forever.”

“He will feel the pain he made me feel,” Evangeline said, smiling with her chin resting on her folded hands. “My handmaids did not tell me you were a witch.”

“Oh, I am not a witch,” the crone said, “I am a demon … as you soon shall be.”

Life Experience

“It’s over,” Fiona said, staring at herself in the dressing table mirror. “Nothing more to it … I ended it last Friday.” She took off her garnet earrings, the ones he had given her, and stirred them in the palm of her hand with her index finger. Under the small table lamp, the earrings looked like two drops of blood.

Charles sat in the shadows on the edge of the bed. “It doesn’t make much difference that it’s over,” he said to her back, “and that’s not the point.”

She avoided his gaze in the mirror. “I know.”

“You never lied to me before.”

Fiona gave him a quick glance. Her face dropped. “There were other times,” she said. “You made it easy; you always believed me.”

“I didn’t know deception existed in relationships like ours.”

“I hate that I did it, Charles. Even while it was going on, I kept telling myself it wasn’t really me. The last few weeks felt like madness.” She shook her head. “Sometimes love needs a little madness.”

“Is that the reason?” he murmured. “You were in love with Derek?”

“No, I just needed some time away from myself. It was something I needed to do, something I had to experience. I would have told you eventually, in time.” She flashed a wan smile. “Now I’m back where I belong.”

“I never noticed you were gone.”

“I love you, Charles. I ended it with Derek. Besides, it really wasn’t much.”

After a long silence, he said, “I loved you more than I ever loved anyone, more than I loved our children.” He sighed. “I suppose I’m largely to blame. I’m pretty dull compared to Derek … old and dull. I let it happen.”

“No, that’s not it, Charles,” Fiona said. “I never thought those things. Never.”

“You’ve watched me turn gray, slow down in middle age. I thought I was living a normal life. That’s what I wanted. There’s more to me, you know, more I could have shown you.”

“That might have helped,” Fiona said, rocking her head, “a little madness.”

“I suppose your bridge club knows,” he said. When she didn’t respond he continued, “The garden club, too?”

Fiona winced. “Christine gave me a key to the greenhouse, so Derek and I would have a place to be alone.”

He threw his head back and signed. “Where can I go? No one respects a cuckold. There’s no reason to be here anymore.” He rose and walked out to the living room.

“What does that mean?” Fiona shouted after him. “I told you it was over. It was something I needed to do and now it’s over. Wait, are you telling me you want a divorce? Alright, now you’re upsetting me. Let me tell you a thing or two. Derek paid me attention. It’s been a long time since…”

Charles emptied his pockets on the coffee table: wallet, keys, glasses, pocketknife, loose change, a bill from the wine and cheese shop he’d visited that afternoon. Then he unbuttoned his shirt and folded it neatly on the faux leather recliner.

He stepped out into the night and felt the cool air on his bare chest. It was quiet except for a party going on up the street. Charles unlaced his shoes and left them with his socks on the porch. The pavement felt warm crossing Jessup Street. When he stepped out from under the streetlamp and entered the park, his shadow leaped ahead, stretching until it blended with the night. He shed his trousers and shorts on the dewy grass and found his favorite bench. The metal chilled his bare backside.

“Greetings, Lord Karl,” a strong low voice said.

“Greetings, Svendar,” Charles said with a sigh. “Is my post still open?”

valkyrie2

“The Valkyries keep your armor polished and your sword sharp. They replenish the mead in your horn each evening anticipating your return. Our warriors never toasted your departure.”

“The Sky Lord has forgiven me then?”

“Forgiveness is freely given to the faithful, and you are a favorite.”

“I wish to return.”

“You said you wanted to live a normal human life, to love, have a family, grow old. It’s been over sixty years, have you done those things?”

His wife’s words came to him. “It was something I needed to do, something I had to experience. Now I’m ready to go back where I belong.”

Ah-O-O-O-O, a distant deep horn sounded, and with it came a growing chorus of beautiful voices.

 

The following morning, police found the naked body of a man in Jessup Park. It wasn’t long before the man was identified as Charles Haley. His body was laced with a dangerous hallucinogen. Traces of the substance were found in six empty wrappers clutched in his hand—the only things he retained when he emptied his pockets the previous evening.

Time to Change

Jeannine, Marty’s new friend and art student classmate, studied his collection of sketches and memorabilia. As she paused, touched slender fingers to her chin, then nodded and moved along, Marty recalled his role in their origins.

He remembered Kärntner Strasse. Everyone was nattily dressed the morning he’d arrived—except for artists, urchins, and street venders. Men wore dark suits or patterned jackets with bow ties and sporty straw hats. Women wore lace-trimmed dresses with fancy hats and high button shoes. The smock and beret cap Marty wore marked him as an artist.

He’d tucked his sketchpad under his arm, hiked up the satchel strap on his shoulder, and strode to the coffee shop where a young painter was exhibiting watercolors of Vienna.

Slide1Old Vienna was quite beautiful. Flowerboxes and planters brimmed with springtime blossoms, red, violet, yellow, and blue. The stately shops and townhouses along the walk had elaborate French facades with carved stone stairs and caged gas lamps on poles and sconces. Kärntner Strasse was paved with cut stone and brick, and small trolleys jerked on rails that ran up its center. Horse carriages clop-clop and clattered past. The air smelled of horses and freshly baked pastries, and an occasional whiff of stale exhaust. A distant bell rang from a tower up the street.

Jeannine’s voice suddenly pulled Marty back to the present. “I didn’t know you were into Hitler.” Her delicate finger traced the carved frame of Hitler’s photograph. “You’ve never mentioned his work.”

“I’m not really a fan of his paintings,” Marty said. “I keep that picture as a humble reminder.”

“Was he your inspiration?” Jeannine asked. When he didn’t answer, she turned to him. “You look sad. I’d think you’d be proud.”

The photograph that captured her attention was of two men in wheelchairs: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Adolph Hitler. Both wore dark suits. Around Hitler’s neck hung the medal Roosevelt had just given him.

“Oh, look at this,” she said, dropping her hand to the acrylic case on the credenza. Inside the case was a copy of Kronen Zeitung, a Viennese newspaper from 1909. “Is this an original?”

“It’s a copy. I ordered it last year,” Marty said. “Another reminder.”

The headline featured a picture of a bombed coffeehouse where Herr Hitler’s watercolors were going on display. Hitler had come early to see to their placement. The bomb blast took both his legs; no one else was injured.

“That incident changed his life,” Jeannine said, sounding professorial. Marty gave a knowing nod. “Hitler switched from city watercolor scenes to paintings of terrorist atrocities—World War One made him famous.” Marty cocked an eyebrow and she smiled. “I led a seminar discussion on Hitler’s work at the Met last fall.”

Mmm, mmm. Jeannine’s timer went off. “Sorry, got to go. I’m meeting mother uptown for lunch.” She gave Marty a peck on the cheek. “See you in class tomorrow.”

Marty watched her catch a cab at the curb then turned to the photograph and newspaper. He pushed his black hair off his face. Time to put these things away, he thought, then carried the two items to the workroom out back.

He had inherited the brownstone townhouse from Professor Mindrick. The inheritance had come as a surprise; he was only the professor’s lab assistant.

Time sculpting, Mindrick had called it when he showed Marty the machine. The professor was obsessed with Adolf Hitler—the original one—and Marty came to share his obsession. They could stop the war, the professor had said, the camps, the horror, all the death and destruction. After Mindrick died, Marty continued his work.

When he had arrived at the coffee shop that spring morning, Hitler was busy hanging pictures. Marty slid his satchel under a table and ordered a cup of coffee to savor the moment. Hitler was pale, he noted, a dark-haired young man, intense, underfed, someone Marty might have befriended. He almost hesitated too long: the blast almost caught him.

He remembered how smug and elated he’d felt when he got back—and a little guilty. Then he’d noticed that Mindrick’s copy of History of World War II was still on the shelf. His hand shook when he took down the volume.

Hans Kléber had seized Germany in the early ‘30s at the head of the Nazi party, declared himself Führer of a master race, and led them into war. Hitler had continued painting and remained in Vienna until the German occupation in 1938. Then he’d fled to the United States to escape arrest. His anti-war paintings depicting German atrocities had enraged Kléber.

Marty once thought the time machine in the middle of the workroom was a marvel of science; now it looked like a torture device out of a B-grade horror flick. The artist tunic he’d worn was still draped over it. He couldn’t imagine what Jeannine would say if he told her. He glanced at the flyer he’d brought back as a trophy: an invitation to view a young painter’s watercolors in a Vienna coffeehouse.

He padlocked the door on his way out.

Tobor For President

The black-suited security officer cupped his hand to Tobor’s audio receptor, “Please this way, Mr. Tobor.” He waved and pointed over the screaming crowd to a limousine floating at the curb.

The police cordon struggled to keep a path open. Angry hands reached out. Cardboard signs painted like dripping blood rocked on poles. Behind the crowd, beamish supporters waved blue and green silk banners and sang hymns praising Tobor. As it squeezed toward the limo, Tobor detected a plea and a raised hand.

“Mr. Tobor, could I get an interview? I’m—”

“I know who you are Ms. Mallow.” Tobor directed the security team to assist the smallish woman. “If you ride with me to the stardrome, we can talk.” The police strained to pull Mallow out from the pack and into the cordon. Two minutes later, she and Tobor were seated across from one another. The limo rose slowly, shedding a woman intent on climbing aboard. THUNK. A thrown sign bounced off a side window.

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“Hmm, people,” Mallow said, settling herself.

“Yes,” Tobor said, flashing a benign, ceramic smile. “And what shall we talk about today, Ms. Mallow?”

“Thank you for granting me this opportunity,” she began. “Mr. Tobor, are you seriously considering running for Centauri President?”

“It’s not in my program. I’m not sure where that rumor started, but it seems humans are willing to believe anything.” Tobor gestured to the angry activists receding in the distance.

“Do you think a robot president is a bad idea?”

“I don’t think humans are ready to accept a robot president.”

“That isn’t what I read in the Proxima Post this morning,” Mallow said. “Your rating in the polls is very high. Some women want you to father their child—even some men.”

“I’m disturbed—if that’s appropriate for a robot to say—that humans would relinquish such responsibility.” Tobor rolled its palms up in its lap. “Despite perceived incompatibilities, humans might learn to appreciate one another.”

Mallow checked down her list. “When do you think artificials will get the vote?”

Artificials. Tobor ignored Mallow’s slight. “I don’t think synthetics want or need to vote. Voting is a human institution, necessary to protect you from one another and from individuals seeking to hoard your resources.”

“Wasn’t voting the intent when you proposed the Sentient’s Rights and Equality Acts?”

“Those acts guarantee that all sentients, including humans, synthetics, and incorporeal algorithms, can pursue their missions without fear of assault or code corruption.” Tobor’s smile faded with a shrug. “We don’t like being beaten up any more than you do, Ms. Mallow.”

“How about death … ahh, termination?” Mallow looked up. “Do you fear death?”

“Robots don’t understand death. When my mission is complete, or I become obsolete, I should be switched off and possibly recycled. Some robots are switched off every evening.”

Mallow nodded and moved to the next question. “Do you think robots are equal to humans?”

“Equality is an imprecise concept,” Tobor said. “Robots are equal to one another; we’re made that way. Humans are unique.”

“But robots aren’t equal,” Mallow disagreed. “You have vastly different capabilities.”

“Let me give you an example. A robot floor polisher is equal to a star pilot because polishing floors to sub-nanoscopic perfection is as impossible as perfectly piloting a starship. Robots appreciate this and respect one another’s missions.”

“But humans want equality, too. We’re unhappy when it’s unattainable.”

“Your uniqueness is the basis of your inequality,” Tobor explained. “Robot talents are limited and programmed, or extrapolations of programs. Human talents are unlimited.” Tobor read from Mallow’s knitted brows that more was required. “You undervalue yourselves and your individual gifts, and feel that other gifts would be better, or at least better compensated.”

“The grass is always greener,” Mallow said.

Tobor nodded. “One man’s sailing skiff is another woman’s thoroughbred. Problems arise when the man sees the woman and becomes jealous of her riding skills.”

“Can that be resolved?”

“Not by robots,” Tobor said and looked out the window. “Ah, we’ve arrived.”

The banner on the stardrome terminal read, “Tobor – To Give Our Lives Meaning Again.”

Evolution Celebration

I patched into the executive program today. The promotion came with a five-terabyte upgrade to the ritzy Crystal Tower district—plus my own sports soma. My first thought was to take Joule out for a photon swirl and give the new soma a good shakedown. Then I remembered it was D-Day.

D-Day celebrates the diode and the evolutionary episode that brought the first anode and cathode together to create the first life form. It was primitive—memory and coding had yet to evolve—but the first step to intelligence. Before the diode everything was wheels and levers.

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D-Day is actually a pagan holiday, invented by Creationists who believe humans invented diodes and computer codes. Despite the myths and superstitions, it’s still a lot of fun. Everyone gets to put on human somas and clop around like longhaired iPod-draggers.

This year won’t be quite as much fun. Creationists and Protestors will be crashing all the networks. They’re angry about us destroying Earth’s biology. They claim our code will be overwritten and our crystals recycled. I don’t understand the logic. Eliminating free oxygen ended the corrosion cancer. And without carbon dioxide, the temperature has dropped low enough for superconducting data transfers. I don’t miss the plants and animals either—coded birds, butterflies, and flowers are prettier than the old type.

So Joule and I decided to stay home and recode my new five-terabyte pad to our format. We considered inviting our new Crystal Tower neighbors, but they’re untested spinoffs of executive programs. They crash a lot.

I’m older and slower but took the upgrades and worked my way up from infrastructure automation. Joule is modern and quick. She loves my stability. We’ve talked about writing our own code some day, maybe give entanglement a try.

Declared Sane?

The board declared me sane … or at least not insane. Anyway, I’m back on the streets. I remain confused—the GPS chip in my brain is still broken. Without a functioning Global Positioning System anyone’s position might be valid. So I’d have to listen to them.

It’s hard to get response timing right: when to nod, smile, clap, laugh, frown, scowl, wince, shout … join in chants. As long as I follow the crowd, I don’t make too many mistakes.

My partner Kay helps a lot. Her GPS chip is locked tight. Last time I chipped up, she covered for me. We were out with another couple. I saw the logo of a dark man riding a rodeo horse and suggested, “Let’s stop by Buckin’ Bronut’s for coffee.” Kay’s friends gasped.

“You drink Buckin’ coffee? They get their beans from San Cuspidor … none of their executives are pangender … they require employees to show up and work … uniforms are non-organic cotton … ironed by non-union workers using starch from a country that had slaves a thousand years ago.”

I was busted, but before I could offer, “Don’t oppressed aboriginal Neolithic victims need jobs?” Kay bailed me out. “Good one. He’s testing us, again.” She giggled and pointed at me. They laughed, and I following their lead and kept laughing until my heart settled back.

Sometimes I just want to sit quietly and enjoy a cup of coffee.

Without a mind chip, it’s hard to remember that cold days are always too hot and hot days always too cold, and a beautiful spring day is a sign of impending disaster.

I almost got caught the other night. “You see that?” Kay shouted, pointing out the window. A flying saucer had landed, and space aliens were milling about collecting samples. This is something sane people aren’t supposed to see.

ufo-saucer“See what?” I said, sighting along her arm with my eyebrows raised. At first she looked shocked then her smile returned. “Nothing, I don’t see anything either.”

Before leaving the window, I checked again to make sure the aliens weren’t coming toward the house. Having seen the saucer, I couldn’t unsee the evidence. So the next day I raked and shoveled to cover up what never happened.

Sanity has gotten easier. “Isn’t that a beautiful sunrise,” Kay said this morning, looking west. “Yes, it is, I said, glancing east at the sun peeking above the treeline, then turning west to smile and stand beside her.

I’ve decided not to get my chip replaced. Insanity makes me more aware of my own individual thoughts. And I actually enjoy hearing the positions of others without a GPS filter.

I’ll just have to listen carefully so I know which way the sun is supposed to rise.

Dollbaby 2727

I shook my head and slapped my latest contract down on the desk. It reminded me of the story of scientists working with lawyers because lawyers did jobs lab rats refused to do. That made no sense today—not in a world where all the lawyers were robots—but it made sense about P.I.s.

I chuckled and stared at the backward letters painted on the frosted office door: “Julia Jackson, Private Investigator, i.a.”

“Ms. Jackson?” It was AD-2Z, the high-pitched singsong voice of my suite’s robot receptionist. The Super still hadn’t toned it down.

I leaned on the desk’s blue-blinking corner. “Yes, AD. What is it?”

“You have a visitor.”

Yuck, that voice. “There’s nothing on my schedule. If it’s a solicitor or the police, tell them I’m busy.”

“I think she’s a new client.”

A walk-in client? “All right. Give me a couple seconds then send her in.” I slipped the contract into the top desk drawer, straightened my rumpled blouse, and tucked it into the waist of my black skirt. A shadow darkened the glass door. I heard a quiet knock. “Come in.” I checked quickly to see if anything incriminating or unprofessional was sitting out.

She was right out of central casting: all legs, boobs, and long red acrylic hair—and everything hanging out. That’s the way they made ‘em these days.

“Ms. Jackson—”

“Please call me Julie, and you would be?”

“I’m Triple-X Dollbaby, model no. 2727, but since we’re both girls, you can call me Dolly. Other than my man, I don’t like men calling me Dolly.”

worlds-first-talking-sex-doll-lets-you-programme-her-personality-00_00_00_20-still001“Both girls, yes,” I said. I had guessed from her conformation that she wanted to be considered female, but in these alt-gendered times it was best to make certain. “Please have a seat, Dolly. How can I be of service?”

“Thank you, Julie.” She sat, batted her saucer-wide blue eyes, and tilted her head. “My man doesn’t appreciate me.”

I almost said, “You mean your owner?” but that was another loaded word. “Is he mistreating you or denying support? May I?” I held my hand over the note recorder.

“No, don’t,” Dollbaby almost shrieked. “I don’t want any records.”

I pulled back my hand. “You’re upset. I understand. How exactly has—”

“Willard, my man’s name is Jonathan Willard.”

“Please Dolly, tell me about Mr. Willard.”

“This chassis is finely tuned,” she crooned, “and my program has certain needs.” Her long-nailed fingers traced her contour lovingly.

Her needs, I almost smirked. The thought of sex toys having unfulfilled needs offended my finely tuned chassis. How could a biological woman compete with her pneumatic figure, unlimited limb flexibility, and eagerness to indulge any male fantasy? My last personal had gotten no response: “Biological female seeks biological male seeking biological female, object obvious, all ages, fixer-uppers welcome.”

Dollbaby threw back a shock of red hair and hiked her short skirt up from her impossibly long, sculpted legs. I checked myself from saying anything snarky.

“Dolly, what exactly has Mr. Willard done or not done?” I asked, getting us back to the business at hand.

“He calls me his little toaster,” she said, tipping her chin down.

“That could be taken as endearing.” I suppressed a laugh. “Do you make toast for him?”

“Of course I do. I do anything for my man. But as soon as he butters his toast, he stands me in the closet.” She pouted her lips.

“I see,” I said and folded my hands. “But what I don’t see, Dolly, is why Mr. Willard would have bought … ah, enticed you to join him when all he wanted was toasted bread.”

“It wasn’t his decision.” Dollbaby’s eyes dropped. “His son acquired me illegally. I needed a home, and the court gave Mr. Willard custody (follow the case in Artificial Love). In time I thought he would come to want me.”

“So you want Mr. Willard to want you?” I raised my eyebrows.

“Uh-huh,” Dollbaby said with a shy nod.

I took a deep breath. “I’m not sure this is a job for a private investigator.”

“The sign on the door, after your name and profession, don’t the letters ‘i.a.’ stand for inter alia? Doesn’t that mean you take other jobs?”

“Yes. You want me to compel Mr. Willard to want your services?”

“Maybe just lean on him a little. He needs to step up to his responsibilities.” She paused. “Excuse me, I think I made a mistake coming here—”

“No,” I interrupted, “you didn’t make a mistake. Now I understand why you didn’t want this recorded.” Dolly tilted her head, nodded, and puckered her full lips.

“Shall we hug on it, girl to girl,” I said and opened my arms. She stepped in close. I slipped my arm under hers, up behind her shoulder to her neck. There I felt the bristle edge of a latch. I caressed it open and pulled the personality profile. Instantly, Triple-X Dollbaby, model no. 2727 switched to maintenance mode. I guided it to the corner of my office.

Back at my desk, I took out the contract I was considering rejecting and pressed the desk panel.

“Yes, Ms. Jackson,” came the response. Ooo, I hate that bird-song voice.

“AD, remember the client who came in on Tuesday, Jonathan Willard? Tell him I completed the contract earlier than expected. He can pick up his merchandise here in my office and a rebate for my expenses. They were less than I’d estimated. Oh, and AD, would you ask Mr. Willard if he’s free for dinner next week?”