What I Played for Love

The GPS signal was lost. I parked and walked in the dark, searching for house numbers. The house was small, wood-shingle-painted-white with dark framed windows, a covered porch, manicured yard, and wrought iron gate—not what I expected for an audition with a major studio.

The gate felt cool in my hand. I heard no street sounds, no cars, dogs, or music drifting out from windows. A night breeze stirred the flowers in the yard and rustled leaves on the poplar trees. The girl who invited me was at least two decades younger than I was and very pretty. She said she’d done some acting—I should try out. Based on my online profile, she said my life experiences would make my acting believable. She liked my smile, asked me to stand and turn around. I played along—I thought she was flirting. Now I doubted it. Acting? Really? The idea sounded foolish—now I felt foolish. All I’d wanted was an opportunity to be with a pretty young girl.

I suddenly envisioned meeting the girl’s parents and being asked to explain my intentions. A cold sweat shot up my back. This was an embarrassing mistake. A foolish old man acting as such pretty much summed up my acting talents. What would I say? That I’d come to their house to try out for an acting role? Pathetic. I lifted my hand quietly off the iron gate and turned to leave.

A sound caught my attention: whispers or birds chirping, coming from the dark porch, behind the hedge. Was someone laughing? I peered hard into the dark. Two figures stood and faced one another engaged in conversation. Were they in on this little joke?

plThe porch light switched on. Both figures were small, one cloaked and hooded the other bald and barely clothed with spidery limbs. They looked like characters from a fantasy sketch. Now I felt foolish for doubting. The acting invitation must be legit.

Pushing through the gate, I walked four steps up to the porch. The hooded figure dropped the hood back onto her shoulders. She was the pretty girl I’d met that morning.

“Mr. Johnson,” the girl said in her musical, accented voice. “So happy to see you. I thought you might not come.” She cocked her head and smiled slyly. “This is Redir Radnoub. She’s with our company. We were discussing the shortage of acting talent in the company, and I was telling her about our meeting this morning.

Redir Radnoub could have played a gnome in one of the Icelandic sagas, dark brown and craggy, completely hairless with a sleeveless, forest green jerkin and buff knee breeches. The odd weapon and device on her belt, however, might have been better suited to a space ranger.

The girl caught me staring. “Redir is a Clothelik.”

“Oh, very good,” I said, flushing at my misstep. “I’m sorry, I’ve never known any stage personalities.” Redir chirped to the pretty girl. The girl chirped back then turned to me.

“Redir understands and wishes you well on your recording trials.”

“Huh, oh, of course,” I gave a head bow and smiled. “Thank you, Redir. I forget that some actors need to stay in character between scenes.”

The girl chirped to the bald figure who bowed and smiled back, revealing double rows of triangular teeth before she left. I fought my reflex to jerk away. The extent some actors went to in their performances astounded me.

“Mr. Johnson,” the girl said, her hand sweeping back her cloak closure as it went to her hip. She was wearing a blue, star-spangled costume reminiscent of Wonder Woman. The hooded cloak was black and wizardly. The girl’s figure and winsome tone rekindled my ambition.

“Before we record, I need you to sign our agreement.”

“Certainly,” I said. “That is why I came.”

She led me inside to a roll-top desk where the document was ready for signing. Beside it lay a jade, Frawley, ballpoint pen. The room was quaint and feminine with cornflower blue curtains framing the windows, polished oak floors and arabesque, Turkish carpets. Slender-legged, wooden tables and chairs were grouped for reading and conversation, and flower-styled shades glowed softly from table and floor lamps.

I sat and read the short contract then signed. “When will I hear if I’ve been accepted?”

“I will be able to tell you before you leave tonight,” the girl said. “And of course, you will be paid for your time here, whether you are accepted or not. That is Clothelik law.”

“Of course,” I said, nodding as if I had any idea what Clothelik meant.

“The recording should not take long. If things do not go well, it may be very short, longer if your performance is excellent. You will be paid accordingly.” With that she led me to an elevator and motioned me to enter. She remained outside and pushed the down button.

The elevator opened to a red-carpeted hallway lined with recessed doors and gas lamps on ornate wall sconces. It reminded me of nineteenth-century hotels in old movies. I heard a muffled groan coming from up the hall. Something banged against a wall. A thin strip of light spilled out across the red carpet from a door slightly ajar. I walked quickly to the door and peered in, prepared to leap back if the sound came from a couple in the throes of passion.

The room was elegantly appointed with Italian-tiled floors and natural fur carpets: lion, tiger, zebra, and polar bear. A fire roared in the stone-sculpted fireplace. Centered on the ornately carved mantel was a glass and silver clock flanked by massive cut-glass candleholders mounting tall, flaming tapers. Heavy, blood-red drapes were drawn across two large windows. Opposite the fireplace, a beautiful young woman was bound and gagged in a dark mahogany, four-poster bed, each wrist and ankle stretched on a leather thong out to one of the posts.

The woman’s clothing was torn away, exposing her breasts and body down to her stomach and hips. Wide with fear, her dark eyes pleaded for me to help. Her twisting struggles seemed intentionally erotic. I felt my belt unbuckle and the front of my pants open. As I went to her, her twisting became desperate, her chest heaving. She shook her head. No. Her eyes shifted to something behind me, something coming through the door. Everything went dark.

I awoke unable to move, my eyes tightly closed against the wincing pain. Opening my eyes, I found myself tied to a massive poster bed. Blood red curtains were pulled across the windows. Large, bare breasts obstructed my view of a fire roaring in the fireplace. I twisted to lift my head and see myself. My rocking banged the bedposts against the wall. I had a woman’s body, fully exposed with her clothing torn open. I tried to yell around the gag. All that came out was a muffled groan. The leather thong tore the sides of my mouth. I tasted blood.

A hand slid around the door, a man’s hand. He was tall, dark, and rugged, dressed like he’d come off safari. He approached slowly, his dark eyes drinking in my naked, helpless, womanly body before dwelling to my heaving breasts. The man smiled wickedly, unbuckling and unzipping his pants as he approached me. I tried again to scream. Another hand slid inside the door, this one larger with claws like long tines on old thrashing machines. I twisted, trying to warn the man. No. Unable to use my hand, I pointed a shoulder, but only succeeded in drawing his eyes to my upraised nipple.

The monster took the man’s head with one stroke. Blood gushed like a torn fire hose. Then the grotesque monster reached for me, and everything went dark.

I suddenly found myself back in the red-carpeted hallway lined with gas lamps. Protesting groans came from an open doorway. I bounded toward it, prepared to leap in and kill whatever I found. My hand came up, no longer a hand. Scythe-like claws made it useless for anything but ripping flesh.

A fire roared in the fireplace. A dark-haired man stood over a naked woman bound to the bed and trembling in fear. As the man was working his pants down off his hips, I slashed out, separating his head, right shoulder, and arm from his torso. The scent of fresh blood roused my carnal instinct. The girl on the bed struggled to pull back from me. Her soft, quivering, tender body promised well-marbled meat.

I next entered the hotel room as the cleaning lady discovering the bodies, then as the police investigator, then the beautiful girl’s shocked boyfriend then the sobbing, frightened mother. Then I found other victims: a young schoolgirl in her bedroom, her boyfriend sneaking in through the window, many more. I played every role until the scene changed.

A storm-tossed sea viewed from the rolling deck of a pirate ship. Mountainous waves towered, carrying the ship up and up then down, down into valleys of foaming water before rising again. White-capped waves crashed and washed over the deck, pulling at lashed cannons, barrels, and boxes. I braced but was thrust back against the taffrail. I looked up at the reefed courses and topsails. Only the main and foremast staysails held the ship’s position against the high wind.

“Cap’m,” shouted the scar-faced shipmaster against the wind, his half-haired head pouring like a waterfall. He was a scurvy old salt with several missing teeth and the rest black-pitted. “They got us, Cap’m.” He pointed to the frigate riding our wake, gun ports open, and flying a red British banner. “She’s closin’ fast, Cap’m. Soon as this gale blows over, they’ll be on us. Less we toss them guns and lose weight, these seas ‘ave seen the last of the Shaggin’ Pirate.

Soon the hull and gunwales exploded in splinters, grappling hooks flew, hooking the shattered gunwale and rigging, cutlasses slashed, halberds thrust and tore, and flintlock guns flashed, blowing gaping holes in heads and bodies.

I next saw the pirate ship as the shipmaster at the helm of the British frigate then as the frigate’s commander then as the chief gunner then as the boy who fell from the yardarm as the ship rolled and drowned in the sea.

The scene changed. Da-ga-dum, da-ga-dum, da-ga-dum. My horse was tiring. I knew she’d soon go down. An arrow protruded from my shoulder, too far back for me to snap it off. I’d already broken one off my arm. My buckskin shirt was half red and dripping blood. The war-whoops were getting closer. I knew Shawnee war parties always brought extra horses, and they carried less weight.

I topped the rise and looked down. Our cabin was a black, smoldering shell, so was the corncrib. The corral was empty. No fresh horses. Two bodies lay spread-eagle in pools of their own blood, Helen and one very small—Tommy.

A Shawnee brave topped the rise just behind me and sent up a loud whooping cry. The scene was short, but staking me out on an anthill made it feel longer. I didn’t want to go through what my wife and boy did, desperately defending our cabin before the raiding party cut them up, but I had no choice. Then as a young Shawnee warrior, I felt the thrill of vengeance and returning home to my very young bride and coupling with her on deerskin floors.

Others scenes followed: battles, adventures, disasters—one after another without any break, each different, on and on.

Then suddenly things quieted. I was back in the red-carpeted hallway, looking like myself. I took a long, shaky breath, barely able to stand. All the recessed doors were closed. Ding, the elevator door opened. I stumbled through and collapsed. Sitting, I watched the door close and felt the lift. I leaned back against the wall. The elevator dinged and opened. I used the handrail to haul myself onto my wobbling legs and stepped out.

The room was quaint and feminine with polished oak floors and Turkish carpets, cornflower blue curtains, and slender-legged, wooden furniture.

“Mr. Johnson,” a musical voice called. The pretty girl sat on a loveseat upholstered with maroon velvet embroidered with flowers. Beside her on a low Chippendale table were a silver tray and coffee carafe with blue China cups and saucers and the legal document we’d signed.

“You are amazing, Mr. Johnson. The Clothelik are quite impressed with your work. You have had the most amazing career.” She invited me to sit and offered to pour me some coffee. I take it black. My trembling hand rattled the China cup and saucer. I steadied them with both hands.

“Huh? My career?” I said, barely aware. “What career might that be?”

The pretty girl nodded. Her hood remained down around her shoulders, but the dark cloak was discreetly closed in the front. “Indeed. Your acting career spanned twelve complete series, each with twelve episodes, and with you playing every character. That’s one hundred forty-four episodes and several times that many characters. No one ever … I mean not anyone in the entire galaxy … has had such a glorious career. You have been my finest recruit, Mr. Johnson. And you are a very, very, VERY rich man. And I am much richer too for having signed you.”

“What is this Ms.— I’m sorry. I can’t even recall your name.”

“That is not important, Mr. Johnson,” the girl said, her eyes smiling and hair tossing on her beautiful, bobbing head. “I’m leaving Earth very soon and never returning. That is Clothelik law. We were authorized to record sensations for a hundred forty-four episodes. Your experiences alone have filled our allowance.”

“What are Clothelik?” I asked weakly.

“We are the ascendant species on Epsilon Eridani. You met two of us, me and my sister, Redir Radnoub. She’s not a recruiter so she isn’t authorized to wear a human soma or translator. They are quite expensive, you know.”

I raised my eyebrows and rocked my head then paused a beat and asked, “You say I am a rich man?”

“One of the richest in the galaxy, Mr. Johnson, perhaps the richest. And once your series begins to be felt, you’ll also be the most famous and popular. The violence, adventure, and passion of primitive species are in high demand across the galaxy. Unfortunately, those qualities have also held you back. We cannot interfere with Earth’s direction or pace of progress, so you’ll have to wait to collect your treasure. Come any time to Epsilon Eridani or to any of the subsidiary Rigelian or Canopian banks. The contract you signed empowers the Clothelik to manage your money until you or someone you designate comes to collect. The total sum will likely exceed the net value of this entire star system.”

She tilted her head and smiled like a small girl might. Then in a bell-like voice she said, “Thank you for your wonderful sensations. Is there anything else I can do before you leave?”

“I suppose you and your sister, r-r-r Rider Redrum—”

“Exactly alike. Eighteen of us from the same litter.”

I nodded, disappointed. “What day is it?” I felt I’d aged twenty years.

“Why Friday night of course. The same night you arrived. Your session only took,” she looked at the grandfather clock, “two hours and twenty-three minutes. Compression algorithms help us keep down recording costs.”

She walked me out the front door. “Oh, one thing I forgot to mention—your fan club. If your fans knew your real name and where you were from, they’d descend on this planet in the millions, billions in your case, and destroy it in their fan frenzy. Don’t worry, we never release actors’ real names or locations.”

With that she closed the door and turned off the porch light.

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Protocol Requires We Not Offend

The salon at La Rochelle was set for high tea. Light streamed in through the greenhouse windows and double doors that opened to the garden. Despite all the occupied tables, the atmosphere remained subdued. Couples conversed, ice clinked in glasses, and birdsong drifted in from the garden. The exception was a petulant robot, a two-year-old child-bot in a highchair, tended by a pair of slim young men.

Gabriella rolled her eyes. “Why bother?” she thought and checked her timer. The image of a blazing Big Ben popped into her mental display. She dismissed it. Roger was habitually tardy. She’d known that for thirty years, but he was her best source of gossip for her weekly “Insider” column.

A French-styled waiter robot rolled up on its uni-ball and served her second cup of Lacadamont tea. Gabriella dusted a pinch of cinnamon over it without tasting and stirred it with a miniature spoon. La Rochelle never got the flavor just right, but she knew her tastes were more refined than most. Gabriella also thought the robot waiter’s pencil-thin black mustache made its lipless mouth appear too severe.

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Ah, there was Roger. She spied him craning his neck over the Columbine-weaved, white lattice partition, and waved. His eyebrows rose as his mouth parted and his hand waved back. Roger looked himself: heavily rouged with ancient Egyptian, kohl-line eyes; glossy, cherry red lipstick; and raven-black hair gathered in a flowing topknot. He wore a full-length, black, satin-lapelled coat and clasped it tightly about himself, exposing only his bare calves and short-heeled, black booties.

“Wonderful to see you Gabriella … you look lovely … one week feels like forever.” They kissed past each other’s cheeks. “Is that Lacadamont … smells delish … oh, Garçons’il vous plait, can you bring me some of this … merci.”

“I warn you, Roger, La Rochelle does a decent Lacadamont, but you’ll have to add cinnamon.” She pointed to the spice bowl. “So, tell me, Roger dear, what is the latest news. I see you’re brimming.” She noticed he hadn’t removed his satin-lapelled coat. “First tell me, are you wearing something special?”

Roger looked sheepish. “I couldn’t find anything to fit, not after my surgery.”

“Surgery? Whatever for? You have such a fine svelte figure.”

“Well, you do know I’m trans-species. Since I meet with all incoming aliens, I want them to know I’m available for their attention.” When Gabriella looked confused, he discreetly opened then closed his coat.

“Is that what I think it is?” She blushed then elevated her tone. “How very fashionable. Of course, being avant-garde means taking a risk. Still alien genitalia are rather outré.”

“Oh, Gabriella. You are my best friend. I just knew you’d approve. Anyway,” he waved his hand, “I felt so inspired, I decided to make the change for each new species: first the Goorm, then the Boija, now the Chiri.

“A Goorm trader told me that aliens had misread the Fermi Paradox, taking it for a ‘Keep Out’ sign. Now that that’s cleared up, more aliens will be coming. So I signed up for my surgeon’s monthly plan.”

Gabriella said, “I heard more Chiri were coming. They’re replacing their scouting team with a regular full embassy. Weren’t you going to be on the reception committee?”

Oh my.” Roger pressed a splayed-fingered hand to his chest. “Oh my starsYes, I was there.” He smacked his lips. “And I was sooo embarrassed.”

The French uni-ball waiter rolled up with menus. Gabriella set them aside, asked for Lacadamont refills, and gave Roger the don’t-hold-anything-back hand curl gesture.

“Well,” Roger continued, “you remember how everyone talked about the Chiri being so modern and open minded? Sure their Scout Leader was a male, but all the executives, all the flight crew, all the scientists and engineers were females, all twenty-six of them … and many were pregnant.” Gabriella nodded and accepted the Lacadamont for both of them.

“Well … the big day came last week. The Chiri ambassador’s limousine landed on the green at Tivoli. We rolled out the red carpet, very proper, very formal. Of course, our Sublime Director was there with the Grand Scientists and the Chief of the Senate. The Chiri Scouts were all lined up in uniform with their Scout Leader out front.” Roger paused, shuddering. Gabriella nodded for him to continue. He took a long breath.

“Well … the new Ambassador ran out … well … naked … down the ramp, full speed on all fours … and … well he … he spun around and kicked the Scout Leader with both rear hooves. Then he proceeded to kick him to death.”

Oh my Lord,” Gabriella protested. “Didn’t the other Chiri stop him? How about the security detail? What did the Director do?”

“Nobody did anything. We all just stood and watched. There’s nothing in the protocol manual.” Roger paused to sip his Lacadamont then waved for Gabriella to slide over the cinnamon. “When the new Ambassador had finished kicking the Scout Leader, the other Chiri turned their backs to him.”

“Shunning him,” Gabriella said with a knowing nod.

One might think, but no. The Ambassador sniffed them all then kicked the pregnant ones, ending their pregnancy. Then he mounted and impregnated all the Chiri Scouts, all twenty-six of them.”

“Oh poor Roger. Whatever did you do?”

“What could I do? … I applauded. The Chiri Scouts applauded. Protocol requires we not offend our guests. I just wish my Goorm friend had told me that all that kicking was standard Chiri change-of-command procedure. Anyway, you can see why I’m going to be wearing this,” he pulled on his coat lapel, “at least until my tailor finishes my new wardrobe. I don’t want to be confused with a Chiri. If I smell like a male, I’m afraid I’ll be kicked to death. Of course, I don’t want to be a Chiri female either. They didn’t even get kissed.”

“Poor dear Roger, how awful for you,” Gabriella sighed then handed him a menu. “Shall we order now? I think I’ll start with the vichyssoise then go with a Caesar.”

“Oh, that does sound lovely.”

The Tale of Lady Evangeline

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 like back-broken snakes half-buried in the swampy forest floor.

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.” A bent figure 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 after all, and this old woman was under his care.

stoopcrone

The musty 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 one 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.” Evangeline nodded agreement, and the crone filled two tea-stained, wooden cups.

“How nice of you to visit me. I was told you might come by.” Evangeline knew her handmaids had often visited this cottage. “Tell me, my Lady, what might this old woman do for a beautiful young girl?”

Evangeline broke into bitter tears. “I think I shall never love again,” she said. Her voice shook too much to say more. Evangeline brushed her black silken hair behind her shoulder then brought her sensitive milk-white hands to her lap.

“A broken heart is it?” the crone said, unable to conceal the curl at the corner of her 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 buried her face in her quivering hands. Tears slipped through her fingers and flowed down her wrists. The crone reached a jagged claw to Evangeline’s hand then touched the top of her head. “Now, now, my dear, I know it hurts. What is it you wish from me?”

“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 cleared her throat and brushed the last tear from her cheek. “Last night Reginald told me he must return to Andalusia to 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 this dung-colored, stick figure as a young girl.

“I was given the choice,” the old crone said, “to be loved without 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 make you forget ever having 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 young 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 lips, your breasts, 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, brave, and proud, but had ideas contrary to hers, and so she had sent him away.

Seeing Sir Geoffrey again angered Evangeline, but before she could protest, he rushed to kneel before the crone. “My Lady, you are the fairest, most desirable woman I have ever seen. Please might I hear a kind word, perhaps savor your delicate flower once more? I curse myself for whatever I did to lose your favor.”

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 or a wild pig for the roasting spit. Would you do that for your beloved?”

“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. She sipped her tea then smiled and rested her chin on her delicately 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.”

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?”